I recently preached a 5-week series, at First Church Coral Springs, on the biblical concept of Shalom, and particularly how it relates to disagreements in the United Methodist Church regarding the LGBTQ community.  It is too large for a blog post.  So, I am sharing it as a separate page, in hopes that it might be helpful or informative for others working to build peace in our fractured Church and society.  

 

Sermon 1 – Peace Works (Isaiah 2:1-5)

Broken peaces…

I grow bonsai trees.  During a recent storm, one of them fell over and the pot it was planted in broke.  It happens.  This isn’t the first time.  But, this was one of my favorite pots.  It was beautiful and expensive.  I’ve not seen another one like it.  I don’t know how to replace it.  So, while I easily put the tree in a different pot, the pot I liked is broken beyond repair.

There is a lot broken stuff in this world.  Much of it seems broken beyond repair.

Romans 8:22 says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”

And, yet, as Christians, we believe in a God of redemption, restoration, recreation.  We believe in a God who makes all things new.  We believe in a God who forgives and heals.  We believe in a God that binds up broken things.  We believe in the hope of new creation.

This is core to Christian faith.  Even though we live in a world where beautiful things get broken, we believe in the power of God to fix the most important things, no matter how broken they may seem.
Shalom
The biblical word for this is Shalom.

Often, shalom is translated as peace – as in the absence of violence or war.  Isaiah 2:4 says, “The Lord will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes.  They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore.”

Isaiah describes a day when wars will cease forever.  When disputes arise, nations will not resort to violence – to armies, and bombs, and missiles.  Instead, the nations will turn to the Lord for guidance.  Rather than turning away from each other, the Lord will bring opposing sides together for peaceful resolution.  This is shalom.

But, shalom is bigger than just a peaceful end to violence, as important as that is.  The deeper meaning of shalom is the flourishing of all aspects of human life and existence.  When there is war, crops aren’t planted and harvested.  When there is war, there’s not beauty.  When there’s war, there’s no education.  When there’s war, there’s no discovery and progress.  When there’s war, there’s disease, death and destruction.  When there’s war, there’s no collaboration.  When there’s war, valuable resources become stretched to support the war effort.  And, when there’s war, the innocent always suffer.

I once heard about a ministry working in Mozambique, Africa, teaching people how to farm. Ironically, the people of Mozambique had been farmers since the beginning of time.  But, during a time of war, crops had not been planted or harvested, and the younger generations had not been taught how to farm.  Ancestral seed, and lands, and tradition was lost.  The aftermath of war was not only the human casualties, but also the loss of humanity; a loss of ancestral knowledge; a loss of human flourishing; a loss of shalom.

Peace, shalom, creates the safe space where people can be trusted; where relationships can be restored; where new friendships can be made; where there is sufficiency for everyone’s needs; where work can be dedicated to make the world better, rather than tearing it apart; where all life can flourish.

Dr. Martin Luther King said, “In a real sense, all life is interrelated.  All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one affects all indirectly.  I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the interrelated structure of reality.”  Dr. King is describing the potential of Shalom.

Thankfully, while there are still wars raging around the world, and always the threat of new ones, most of us in the United States live in relative safety from war.  Even while we send our troops to far-away places, we continue to live in relative peace.

And, yet, do we feel at peace?  Do we have shalom?

I was recently told the main thing psychologists and counselors are dealing with these days is families or friend-groups in conflict, often over politics.  Families and friends are being torn apart by differing opinions and ideologies.

During the holidays, I listened to a number of radio broadcasts about families that were staying apart for Thanksgiving and Christmas, in order to avoid arguments over politics.

And, it’s not just politics.  Conflicts come in many forms for many reasons.  We may not make war with guns, or swords, or spears, but many of us are at war with the people around us – at work, at home, and sometimes even at church.  Our weapons are our words, our avoidance, our gossip, our anger, our cold shoulders.

Let me ask you – who are you at war with?  Maybe it isn’t a hostile, confrontational war.  Maybe it’s a cold war – where distances are kept, as well as hard feelings.

Who is your enemy?  Who considers you an enemy?  Who are you not at peace with?

How much damage has been done?  How much more damage will be done before there is peace?

 

Blessed are the peacemakers…

Romans 12:18 says, “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.”  (Romans 12:18)

Hebrews 12:14-15 says, “Work at living in peace with everyone…. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.”

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  (Matthew 5:9)

We could add the Bible’s teachings on patiently enduring one another, not judging each other, not gossiping, about forgiving one another, about tearing down walls between us, and most importantly, about loving our neighbors – even if your neighbor is your enemy.

Desmond Tutu has said, “If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends.   You talk to your enemies.”

 

Unity, not unanimity…

We could also talk about unity.  The Bible talks a lot about the importance of unity among Christians.  In fact, on the night before his death, the unity of his followers – including us – seems to have been the main thing on his mind.  Jesus prayed, “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.”  (John 17:21)

But, there is a big difference between unity and uniformity.  Uniformity is the expectation for sameness and explicit agreement.  Unity, however, means there’s an unbreakable bond between us, that is greater than anything that might attempt to come between us.

As it says in Ephesians 4:3-6, “Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future.  There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all.”

That means, the unity we share in Christ is far greater than our differences and our disagreements; greater than our political and theological differences; greater than our denominational differences; greater than our ethnic or cultural differences; greater than our gender differences; greater than our generational differences.  The most important things for followers of Jesus is not our differences, but our similarities – the things we hold in common.  If we stay focused on our unity, there becomes greater room and respect for diversity of perspective, opinion, style, taste, etc.  In fact, we might even develop a deeper appreciation and respect for perspectives different than our own.

I once worked for a pastor who compared the Church to a diamond.  A diamond is made more brilliant by the number of facets, or cuts, made into the stone.  Each facet increases the beauty and the sparkle.  He said each facet of a brilliant diamond is like the different voices, perspectives, and denominations in the Church.  Each has something to add to the beauty.  In fact, he would often point out that a diamond with only a single facet, wouldn’t be much to look at.

Author, Deidra Riggs, writes, “All kinds of differences contribute to the beautiful fabric of God’s creation.”

But, maintaining unity is hard, even for Christians.  Maintaining peace is hard, even for people called to be peacemakers.  I think that might be why the Bible talks about it so much – to keep reminding us to work for it, and not give up!

 

The United Methodist Church

For decades – since the early 1970s – the United Methodist Church has been wrestling with how open our churches will be to “Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, and Questioning” persons.  One distinctive of the United Methodist Church is that we value the sacred worth of every human being – no exceptions.  At the same time, the United Methodist Church has taught homosexuality is “incompatible” with traditional Christian teaching, thus we have not allowed the ordination of LGBTQ pastors or for our pastors to perform same-gender marriages.

Like I said, we have wrestled with this.  Many United Methodists believe our historic position is correct, and shouldn’t be changed.  Many others believe we should be a fully open church, and we should change to allow the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ persons.  This struggle has strained our unity, and both sides have blamed the other for that strain.  It should also be said there are many United Methodists in the middle, who don’t have a strong opinion either way, but also feel the strain of the ongoing debate.

About the time I became the pastor of First Church, in the summer of 2016, the United Methodist Church almost split. To preserve our unity, at least temporarily, a commission was formed, called “The Commission on a Way Forward.”  The Commission was tasked with the duty of coming up with possible solutions for this disagreement, without the denomination splitting apart.

The Commission is currently finishing its work.  A report will be presented in May, and will then be shared publically in July 2018.  In February 2019, a special meeting – called a General Conference – has already been planned to receive the proposal.  At that time, the proposal might be approved, might be defeated, might be amended, etc., etc.  Changes may come – and they might not.  At this time, we have no idea.

Please listen to what I am about to say.  No one, but God, knows the future of the United Methodist Church.  No one can say how any of this will, or won’t, affect First Church.  But, I strongly suspect, whatever happens, we will need to have conversations about it.  And, I believe those conversations need to be grounded in unity, love, respect, and commitment to shalom.  I believe, if we will commit to it, we are capable of having strong, passionate convictions without meanness, name calling, accusation, disrespect, or ugliness.

And, by the way, I believe we are capable of that in all of our interactions.  But, frankly, I think we need to do some work.
Let peace begin with me.  Let this be the moment now…
Most of us are familiar with the old song, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”  There is another line that says, “Let peace begin with me.  Let this be the moment now…”
Let peace begin with me.

I can’t control your beliefs.  I can’t make you be nice.  I can’t control what you post on Facebook.  I can’t control what words come out of your mouth, and at what volume.  I can’t control what the United Methodist Church does or does not do.  All I can do is control me, to the best of my ability.  And, I am suggesting that Jesus is calling us to be peace makers, especially now, and to treat each other civilly, and to work for shalom.

I’ve called this series, “Peace Works,” because it does.  Peace works.  We don’t have to resort to war – on a global scale or in our personal relationships.  But, peace is work.  Peace making requires something of me.  Peace requires commitment and effort, and the help of the Holy Spirit.  Peace is work.  Over the next several weeks, we will be talking about how to do the work of peace making.

Beyond what happens in the United Methodist Church, or at First Church, I believe these will be applicable lessons in every sphere of your life.  I hope you will be here, and I hope you will join me in the work of peace making.

 

Sermon 2 – Hearts of Peace (Luke 7:36-50)

Rev. John Watson, a Scottish pastor and author, is credited with the saying, “Be kind.  Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.”

I’ll confess, as much as I like that advice, I’m not very good at it.  Often, unconsciously, I make judgements about people – how they look, how they dress, where they live, what they do for a living, why they’re unemployed, why they aren’t healthy, etc.  Maybe you do that too.

The truth is, there’s often an untold story that, if we knew it, might make us less judgmental, and far more kind and compassionate.

Ephesians 4:31-32, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

As you know, there’s been a tidal wave of allegations of sexual misconduct against many prominent men – in politics, the arts, the news, sports, etc.  A shocking number of women have endured terribly inappropriate behavior from men in power.

I was discussing this recently with a group of friends, when one of them confessed a struggle.  He said, “I know of a woman, who uses sex to get ahead in the business world.  She openly acknowledges what she does to be successful.”  My friend was confessing he was skeptical about the reported abuses of women, when he knows some who seem complicit.

I’m certainly no expert on this subject.  But, having been a campus minister for 11 years, I’ve heard too many stories of women who’ve been abused, assaulted, or raped by men they’ve known and trusted.  So, I said to my friend, “Maybe this woman is using her sexuality in ways to get ahead. But, here’s my question – what happened to her, to make her believe her body is just an object to be used for financial gain?  What caused her to believe her career and financial gain is worth so much, but her body, dignity, and reputation is worth so little?  I bet there’s a story behind the behavior you don’t know.”  My friend readily acknowledged he had never consider that.

 

Jeff

It was my second Sunday as a brand-new pastor.  I was the new Associate Pastor at First UMC, Winter Park.  And, I was preaching.  I was assigned the story of the sick woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe, and was healed.

Back then, I preached my sermons, word by word, from a manuscript.  As I was inexperienced, and never preached to that congregation before, I wanted to be careful about what I said, and how I said it.

I explained that this woman’s disease made her “unclean” in Jewish society, and excluded her from social, family, and religious events.  She wasn’t welcome anywhere, even among people she knew and loved.  And, she’d been “unclean” for twelve years.  As I was preaching, I remember feeling how harsh that sounded – and maybe confusing.  How could anyone exclude someone, just for being sick?

So, unplanned, I looked up, and said something like, “I know this sounds harsh – excluding someone for their sickness.  Most of us would never do that.  But, I wonder if it’s like the way we treat people with mental illnesses, the elderly, and people with AIDS.” By the way, this was June of 1994, when AIDS was prominently in the national news.

I said what I said, then looked down, and finished my sermon.

After worship, greeting people at the door, a man walked up to me – blonde, mid-30s, thin, tears in his eyes.  His name was Jeff.  He said he needed to talk.

We met that week. He told me he was gay, and asked what I thought of that.  I don’t know what I said, though I know was extremely uncomfortable and homophobic.  He told me he had AIDS, and asked me what I knew about AIDS.  I told him I knew what I’d seen on the news – how you get it, and that it’s deadly.  He told me he was in the final stages, and would die soon.  He asked if I had ever helped someone die.  I told him “no.”  I was new.

Jeff said, “You’re the first pastor to say “AIDS” from the pulpit. I think God sent you here to help me die.”  He didn’t give me a choice.

Over the next 6 months, I spent a lot of time with Jeff.  At first, that was uncomfortable.  I hadn’t known a gay man before – or, more accurately, I didn’t know I knew anyone gay before.  We went to lunch a few times, and I wondered if people knew he was gay, or had AIDS, and what they might be thinking of me.  I was with him in the hospital, and wondered what the doctors and nurses assumed about our relationship.  I visited his home, alone, and was very uncomfortable being alone with a gay man.  And, I still feared there might be ways to catch AIDS, that we didn’t know about yet.

Don’t get me wrong.  I liked Jeff.  We become good friends.  But, I judged him for being gay.  I judged him for having AIDS, and how he got it.  And, I feared others might judge me

One day, we were chatting.  Out of the blue, Jeff said, “You know I didn’t choose this, right?”  I asked, “Choose what?”  “Being gay.  I didn’t choose to be gay.  I tried to not be gay.  I dated women.  I wish I wasn’t gay.  Life would have been easier.  Maybe I wouldn’t have made the same mistakes.  But, I am gay.  I didn’t choose it, but it is who I am.”

Something about that conversation changed my heart toward Jeff.  Though I still had a long way to go in my own beliefs about homosexuality, I felt more compassion toward Jeff.  My homophobia was gone.  Jeff was just my friend who was suffering and dying, and needed my love and support.

In the coming months, I held Jeff’s hand at his bedside.  I picked him up, out of bed, and took him for walks in his wheel chair.  I sat with him, as he become increasingly delusional.  I was with him on Christmas day, 1994, just a couple of days before he died.  A week later, I officiated his memorial service – me, his parents, 2 female friends, and about 50 gay men – honoring the life of a friend, who tragically died too young.

 

Jesus, Simon, and the “Sinful” Woman

Jesus was invited to the home of Simon, a Pharisee, for a meal.  Meals like this were typically held in open areas, like a courtyard – open to the road, visible to people passing by.

Also, normally at an occasion like this, someone would have washed Jesus feet, or at least offered water for Jesus to wash them himself.  That’s basic hospitality.  But, it wasn’t offered.  Jesus was fully aware he was less than an honored guest.

During the meal, a woman – with a bad reputation – entered the house, knelt at Jesus’ feet, kissing his feet, washing them with her tears, drying them with her hair, and anointing them with expensive perfume – probably attained through her work.

Simon judged the woman for her reputation, and judged Jesus for not judging her.  He silently thought, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

Jesus, fully grasping the situation, and fully at peace, asked Simon, “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

Jesus said, “You have judged correctly….  “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair…  I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

 

Hearts of Peace

Simon’s heart was at war, not peace.  He witnessed a woman doing something beautiful for Jesus. All he could see was a sinner.  He was hosting the savior of the world.  All he could see was a false prophet.  His prejudice and judgement blinded him.

In a sense, Simon dehumanized both Jesus and the woman.  In Simon’s eyes, Jesus was a false prophet and the woman was a sinner – nothing more, nothing less.  He couldn’t see beyond his prejudices and biases.  He was blind to beauty and truth.

Jesus, on the other hand, was caught between a prideful enemy and a repentant worshipper.  He was a guest where he wasn’t welcome or wanted.  And, he received extraordinary attention from this “sinful” woman.  And, his heart was at peace.  There’s no sign of fear, worry, or anxiety.  He doesn’t push the woman aside, nor does he attack Simon.  He simply receives the gift, and speaks the truth.  Jesus is at peace.

The book, The Anatomy of Peace, says, “Lumping everyone of a particular race or culture or faith into a single stereotype is a way of failing to see them as people.”

Jesus demonstrates rising above the situation, looking past the surface, and seeing the heart of the matter.  More importantly, he demonstrates how to treat someone with kindness and compassion, looking beyond their past, and seeing their potential and possibility.

 

Portraits of Reconciliation

Some of you may remember the brutal Rwandan genocide, in 1994, when nearly a million Tutsi Rwandans were slaughtered by Hutu Rwandans.  Countless others were injured, assaulted, or raped, not to mention the massive psychological trauma.

The long conflict between the Tutsis and Hutus is too complicated to explain now.  Suffice it to say, Hutus and Tutsis share more common heritage and language than difference.  The biggest source of the animosity originated with the Germans, who colonized Rwanda in the 1880s, and determined the Tutsis were more “Caucasian” than the Tutsi – which wasn’t true – and thus superior, granting more opportunities and privileges to Tutsis than Hutus, establishing deep resentment and hostility that exploded for 100 days in 1994.

Hatred, war, and genocide was rooted in an arbitrary lie that some people are better than others.

In the aftermath of the violence, the Rwandan nation had to be rebuilt.  In addition to the existing conflict between the two groups were the added horror, injuries, and trauma of the genocide.  Many who were responsible for the violence were brought the trial.  But, that still left thousands of people who had done terrible things to their neighbors.

The goal for moving forward had to be more than hate and punishment.  Somehow, Hutus had to be held responsible for what they’d done, and Tutsis had to forgive.  The goal was reconciliation, not retribution.  A process was developed.  The guilty could publically admit and confess their crimes, taking responsibility for their actions, and commit to serve the communities and people they’d harmed.  In exchange, they would be forgiven and restored, without retribution.   Millions of cases were tried in this way.  It worked.

In 2014, The New York Times ran a story about the reconciliation efforts, telling the stories and showing the pictures of numerous Hutus and Tutsis who have found peace. One picture portrays a Hutu man and a Tutsi woman.  During the genocide, the man killed the woman’s children.  After a time in jail, the man approached the woman, seeking pardon.  The woman said, “It took time, but in the end we realized that we are all Rwandans. The genocide was due to bad governance that set neighbors, brothers and sisters against one another. Now you accept and you forgive. The person you have forgiven becomes a good neighbor. One feels peaceful and thinks well of the future.”

Romans 12:18 says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Who are you at war with? Jesus demonstrates for us the possibility of peace.  We are capable of rising above our pain, our past, our wounds, our prejudices, our biases; to forgive, to be kind, to show compassion. We are capable of peace.

 

Sermon 3 – Hearts at War (Acts 10 – selected verses)

The Slippery Slope of Self-Justification

I was away, last week, serving on the Board of Ordained Ministry for the United Methodist Church in Florida.  We work with men and women who are becoming ordained United Methodist pastors.

Before ever meeting a person for a face-to-face interview, we receive a big file of forms, references, transcripts, psych evaluations, sermon videos, and pages of written work.  The challenge, I find, is not becoming overly biased by the material, before actually meeting the person.  But, it happens.  We make judgements and assumptions about their education, the churches they’ve served, their writing skills, by how like-able they seem.

Very often, I discover, during the interview, the person is very different than I had presumed.

 

The Problem with Boxes

Imagine this scenario.  You’re at a red light, and you see a homeless person asking for money. This person is going to walk up to your car, with an open hand, look you in the eye, hoping you’ll give them some money.

You have a number of options, but most of them fall into two categories.  Option 1:  You can roll down your window and give them something.  Option 2:  You don’t.  I’ll confess, I’m an “Option 2” person most of the time.  There are reasons for that, I won’t get into now.

Here’s what happens.  As soon as I decide not to help, a war starts in my heart.  My brain starts thinking of reasons to support that choice.  “Giving money is a bad idea.  He’ll just use it to buy drugs or alcohol.  Giving is enabling bad life choices.  He should get a job.  How dare he ask ME for MY hard-earned money!”  By the time the light turns green, I have a list of reasons why Option 2 was right.  Without even rolling down the window, I’ve turned the homeless person into a demon, and I feel SO self-righteous in my in-action.

We all do this, in lots of situations.  We make judgments or assumptions, based on something superficial, and then create justifications to support our assumptions.  It’s as though we shove people into pre-defined boxes, and choose not to know anything more about them – boxes like gender, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, political affiliation, age, attractiveness, social status, education, profession, etc.  Whatever box I assign to a person inevitably determines the way I think about, talk about, and interact with that person.

I’m a white, southern North-American Male.  I’m politically independent.  I’m socially progressive.  I’m heterosexual, monogamous, and happily married.  I am theologically traditional and Biblically orthodox.  I’m born again and evangelical.  I’m a mystic.  I’m a United Methodist pastor, who attended both a progressive and a conservative seminary.  I’m a vegetarian.  I ride a Harley.  I listen to Bob Marley.

Those are just a few of my boxes, and the way I labelled myself implies different things to different people – possibly because of your boxes.  And, none of them, or all of them, say everything about me, or you.

 

Clean and Unclean

In the Bible, Jews functioned with two categories, or boxes – clean and unclean.  Certain behaviors, foods, professions, and people were clean, and others were unclean. To “good” Jews, Jews were clean, and non-Jewish gentiles, were unclean, just for not being Jewish.

Contact with unclean people, or unclean actions, could make a Jew unclean.  And, there were rules about staying clean, including restrictions about associating with unclean people.  One of the rules, forbid a Jew to eat in the home of an unclean Gentile.

In Acts 10, the Apostle Peter had a dream.  He saw a large sheet, lowered from heaven, containing all kinds of animals – including both clean and unclean animals.  A voice said, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

Peter replied, “Surely not, Lord!  I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”  Three times, Peter had to be told, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

The point had nothing to do with food.  The point had to do with boxes.  Just as Peter considered some food unclean, he also considered some people – people Jesus came and died for – as unclean.

As Peter pondered his vision, messengers arrived, inviting Peter to the home of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion – an “unclean” gentile.  Peter realized the dream related to this encounter – which he would have been closed to, and would have justified avoiding spiritually.  After the dream, Peter said, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”

We don’t typically use the language of clean and unclean.  But, we all have our boxes.  I wonder, who do you consider impure or unclean?

 

Typical Boxes

We don’t only put other people into boxes, or categories.  We also tend to function out of our own boxes – boxes we might be blind to.  The book, The Anatomy of Peace, specifically names four kinds of boxes, we commonly find ourselves in, as we interact with people.

“Better Than”:  When I’m in the “Better Than” box, I view myself as more important, or virtuous.  I view others as inferior, or wrong.  Clearly, Peter was in a “Better Than” box when he thought of gentiles.

If I believe I’m better than another person, then I’ll likely think I’m superior – intellectually, or morally, or socio-economically, or professionally.  Rather than engaging the other person from a place of mutuality, I’m likely to treat the person according to my box.  I might even put them in a “Worse Than” box.

My example of how I might view a homeless person, falls into this category.

“I Deserve”:  When I’m in the “I Deserve” box, I view myself as entitled, deserving, and a victim if I don’t get what I think I deserve.  I’ll view others as taking me for granted, or mistreating me.  I may feel neglected.  I’ll likely feel disregarded or disrespected.  I’ll likely think the world owes me, and resent when I don’t get what I feel entitled to.

If you are an obstacle to me getting what I deserve, I’ll likely resent you and hold you responsible.

“Must Be Seen As”:  When I am in the “Must Be Seen As” box, I need others to have a certain impression of me – which may or may not be true.  It’s all about impressions and appearances.  When I’m in the “Must Be Seen As” box, I need to be well-thought-of, respected, admired, popular, intelligent, virtuous, powerful, holy.  The list could go on and on.  What’s important is not the actual character trait.  The only thing that matters is what others believe to be true.

I think this box can be particularly dangerous for pastors, who may like being put on pedestals.  I’ll never forget when my seminary ethics professor said, “Every pastor’s greatest fear is that they’ll be discovered for not being as spiritual or as good as people think they are.”

When I am in the “Must Be Seen As” box, I’m always wondering and worrying about what others think of me.  I think people are watching me, judging me, evaluating me.  I fear others will discover the truth about me.

“Worse Than”:  The “Worse Than” box is about insecurity.  When I’m in the “Worse Than” box, I fear I’m not as good as others, that I’m somehow deficient, that I’m less.  It’s about a feeling of inferiority.

When I’m in the “Worse Than” box, I might become jealous or bitter toward others I perceive to be better than me, and feel like less than an equal when I’m with them.  I might put others in the “Better Than” box.

The point is, boxes – whatever box you find yourself in, or attempt to force others into –  limit and impact your interactions with people.   If I’m a liberal, in a “Better Than” box, I will likely jump to conclusions about someone I perceive to be conservative.  If I’m poor, and in the “I Deserve” box, I’ll quickly have negative feelings about anyone I perceive to be wealthy.  If I have certain convictions, but live in the “Worse Than” box, I may become insecure anytime someone says I’m wrong.

When we enter into conflict situations, we often carry these boxes with us.  We also carry boxes full of our past-history with a person.  If we’ve had conflict, or broken trust, or been let down, or any other negative “history” with a person, we’re likely to carry that box into all future interactions, unless we’re very intentional about not doing so.

Have you ever heard the expression, “thinking outside of the box?”  This story about Peter, and his clean and unclean boxes, is teaching us how to see people, and ourselves, “outside of the box.”  Just as Peter had to confront his boxes, in order to open his heart to gentiles, we have to do the same with ours.  We have to learn to get out of our boxes.

Lately, I’ve been sharing about the conflict in the United Methodist Church regarding the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ persons, and the possibility of future changes to our policies and practices.  Whatever happens in the future, or doesn’t happen, it’s vital for the sake of peace and unity that we learn how to get out of our boxes, and not judge or treat others by the boxes we assign to them.  Whether a person is conservative or progressive, gay or straight, open to change or closed to change, they are more than the label or category we assign to them.  They are more than a box.

As I’ve said, every person deserves to be treated with dignity, honor and respect, no matter how vehemently you disagree with them.

Author, Diedra Riggs, writes, “If our holy convictions require us to make enemies of others, malign others, dehumanize others, or otherwise minimize another person’s humanity, it’s time to check in and see if we’re truly serving the Jesus of the Bible.  A faith that uses Jesus to justify any type of division, prejudice, injustice, or superiority needs to be examined and brought back into alignment with the truth of the Christ’s message of Good News.”

 

Getting out of the Box

The Anatomy of Peace says, “The foundational problem in our homes, our work places, and our battlefields is that our hearts are too often at war – that is, we too often insist on seeing people as objects… in order to find peace, we must first understand how we and others have foregone peace and chosen war.”

One way to choose peace is to honestly assess and acknowledge our boxes – when we’re in them, and when we assign others to them.  We have to name them, be aware of them, and strive to get rid of them.

Another is to look for the good in people – even our enemies.  Many of the people we villainize, many of the people we’ve had conflict with, may have many fine qualities, that we’re blind to because of our boxes.  We can’t see past the labels.  Often times, people who think they’re so different, find they share more in common than they previously ever would have guessed.

Look for the good, even when the good is hard to see.  And, honor it, when you see it.

You may be opposed to homosexuality, for instance.  But, when it exists, you can honor someone’s faith, their commitment, their Christ-like virtues.  You may not understand someone who is more theologically conservative and traditional.  But, when it exists, you can honor their love for God and Scripture, and their deep desire to be faithful to it.  That’s what it means to be a peace maker.

I leave you with these words from Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

 

Sermon 4 – Eyes of Peace (2 Corinthians 5:11-21)

God saw…

Jesus asked his disciples, “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” (Mark 8:18)

Jesus wasn’t questioning the disciple’s ocular function.  He was questioning why they were so often blind to the spiritual realities he was showing them.

I wonder if Jesus might ever ask the same question to us – “Do you have eyes, but fail to see?”

In the first chapter of the Bible, we read, “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness… So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them… God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”  (Genesis 1:26-27, 31) That’s who we are meant to be – created in God’s image!

A core conviction of the United Methodist Church is, “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.”

Genesis 1 tells us how things are supposed to be.  Genesis 2&3 tells how things are, and how sin entered the human condition.  There’s no question, humanity has fallen from the blessed state God intended.  Because of sin, and separation from God, humanity is broken, beaten and bruised.  Scripture is clear, all of us fall short of who we were created to be.  All are sinners.  All are broken.  There’s no denying that the image of God in many of us, is deeply hidden behind our sin and brokenness.

No matter how deeply any human is covered in the filth of their sin, no one ever loses this fundamental truth – everyone, without exception, is created in the image and likeness of God, and every human – without exception –  is a person of sacred worth.

And, Jesus asks, “Do you have eyes, but fail to see?”  Are you blind to the image of God in yourself, in your neighbor; in your enemy?  Or, can we see, in every human, no matter who they are, the possibility of redemption, and the potential of holiness?  Can we see the image of God in both saints and sinners, heroes and villains, friends and enemies?

Or, do we have eyes, but cannot see?

Lisa Sharon Harper says, “When we crush or diminish any people or people group, we crush and diminish the image of God on the earth.”

Desmond Tutu writes, “We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders…. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.”

 

What do you see?

The truth is, our surface level evaluations of people, often blind us….

·      If you are from a particular place, you must be…

·      If you voted for a particular candidate, you must be…

·      If you get your news from this source, or that source, you must be…

·      If you do “that” for a living, you must be…

·      If you root for that team, you must be…

·      If you’ve done that, you must be…

·      If you dress like that, you must be…

·      If you support that cause, or have that belief, you must be…

·      If you go to that church, you must be…

·      If you don’t go to Church, you must be…

·      If your skin is a particular shade, you must be…

·      If you speak with an accent, you must be…

We don’t necessarily make negative judgements – quite the contrary.  We might think well of some people for equally superficial reasons.

The question is, rather than our viewing people according to human categories, perceptions, and prejudices, do we ever ask God to show us what he sees?  1 Samuel 16:7 says, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  (1 Samuel 16:7)

2 Corinthians 5:16-19 says, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.”

Paul’s saying, there was a time, when Jesus walked among us, we only saw him as a man.  Some believed he was an extraordinary man – the son of God.  Others saw him as a threat.  Others saw him as a fraud.  Others saw him as a criminal.  Very few saw him as more than a man – even if he was extraordinary.

But, Jesus, unlike any other human, was also fully God in human flesh.  Jesus was/is the visible image of the invisible God.

And, virtually no one understood what he was accomplishing for us on the cross.  To Jesus’ followers, it was a heart-wrenching, mind-blowing, tragic end to all of their hopes and dreams, and the death of their friend and leader – or at least, that’s what they thought.  To Jesus’ enemies, it looked like victory – the end of a trouble-maker and threat.

But, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 says, “We are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.  And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

Paul’s point?  Everyone was spiritually blind to who Christ, and to what he came to do.  Now, we see and understand differently.  The implication is not just insight into Jesus.  The implication is that we have eyes to see reality differently, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

In Galatians 3:26-29, Paul writes, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Here’s the point, if someone is “in Christ,” by faith and baptism, then that becomes their primary identity.  They are a child of God – first and foremost.  They may also be…

·      Democrat or Republican

·      Native or immigrant

·      Conservative or progressive

·      Gay or straight

·      Light-skinned or dark-skinned

·      Young or old

·      Educated or uneducated

·      Blue collar or white collar

·      “perfect” or imperfect

·      Saint or sinner

None of that matters above a person’s core identity.  Anyone in Christ is a new creation.  The old sinful self is gone, and the image of God has been restored.  That’s true for you.  That’s true for me.  That’s true for anyone “in Christ.”

When we view, categorize, evaluate, admire or judge people, primarily by earthly categories, we have eyes to see, but do not see.  But, when we see people as God sees them, we are living with eyes of peace.  We are living with our eyes wide-opened.

 

Ministry of Reconciliation

Not only that.  Just as we’ve been reconciled in Christ, he’s given us the ministry of reconciliation.  2 Corinthians 5:19 says, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

The word reconciliation, in this context means, to have a changed status – from enemy to friend, from old creation to new creation, from an earthly point of view to a Godly point of view.  It also suggests the removal of whatever has separated us from God, or each other.

It should be obvious – it’s virtually impossible to do the ministry of reconciliation, reconciling people with God, if I am not reconciled with them first.  And, I can’t be reconciled with someone if I am judging them – if I’m failing to see them as a new creation, and as person of sacred worth.

So, you might be thinking, “I can’t see “that” kind of person – a sinner – as a new creation.”  Maybe you’re right.  Maybe you’re wrong.  Either way, if you are “in Christ,” you’ve been given the ministry of reconciliation, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”  That means reconciling with sinners!

We don’t get to dismiss people because we don’t like “them,” or are offended by “them,” or don’t approve of “them,” or don’t want to know “them,” or don’t want to go to church with “them.”  God doesn’t let us off the hook so easily.

Reconciliation implies working through existing conflicts. But, reconciliation also includes people I don’t have relationships with, due to some kind of prejudice or bias.  There are people I’m not in open conflict with.  I just don’t have anything to do with them!  God calls us to tear down those walls too!  We don’t necessarily need to become best friends.  But, we can’t be enemies.  We can’t view them as enemies.

That’s what it means to be a peace-maker.  That’s what it means to be an agent of reconciliation.  Where walls separate us, we have to tear them down.  We have to learn how to see each other as brothers and sisters, even when we’re in conflict.  And, it’s only when I can see the image of God in you – valuing your sacred worth – that I have any chance, whatsoever, of helping you be reconciled to God.

Diedra Riggs writes, “As God’s ambassadors, we are called to raise the level of discourse and bring healing to those who are hurting and who draw deep lines of division or build tall walls of separation.”

 

my neighbor is not my friend – reconciliation has a vertical AND horizontal dimension.  I can’t be fully reconciled with God, when I refuse to be reconciled with people.  The two go hand in hand.

So, I think Jesus is still asking us, “Do you have eyes but fail to see.”  Being a peace-making agent of reconciliation means learning how to see as God sees.

 

Sermon 5 – A Banquet for Misfits (Luke 14:15-24)

Peace Works

Our theme for the last 5 weeks has been “Peace Works.”  Peace is not only a hope or aspiration for Christians.  Peace is what we are called to work for!  We are called to be “Peace Makers,” “Bridge-builders,” “Agents of Reconciliation.”  Peace comes from our efforts to seek and offer forgiveness, reconciliation, tearing down walls, building-up unity, respectful listening, seeking understanding, and sacrificial loving – even with our enemies.  Peace-making is to be one of the defining marks following Jesus, and the result of our work in the world

As James 3:17-18 says, “The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”

Whether we’re dealing with petty jealousies or squabbles, or major theological differences, our primary stance toward one another is to build, maintain, and when necessary, rebuild peace.  Peace-making, among Christians, is not optional.

 

Jesus’ tips for throwing parties…

As we come to the end of this series, I want to share a parable that’s been increasingly influential in my thinking about what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be the Church.

Jesus attended a dinner at the home of a Pharisee, which always led to some awkward situations.  In the midst of an already-tense conversation, Jesus offered the following advice, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” (Luke 14:12-14)

For most of us, that’s exactly the opposite of what we do.  When, or if, we invite people to our homes for a meal, we tend to invite family, and friends, or the people we hope to be friends with.  Perhaps we even hope the invitation will be reciprocated at some point.  In my experience, it’s a rare person who invites “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” into their home, unless, perhaps, a relationship is already established.  But, I’m assuming, Jesus is assuming “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” would be unwelcomed-strangers in the home of a Pharisee, and possibly us too.

 

The Parable of the Great Banquet

Jesus goes on to tell a story about a man who planned and prepared a great banquet.  Jesus doesn’t say so, but I’m assuming anyone who can afford to host a “great” banquet must be a man of wealth, stature, influence, and standing in the community.

Invitations have been sent to all of the “important” people in town – I’m sure a “Who’s Who” list of the ancient world.  The menu is planned.  Decorations are hung.  A band is hired.  Food and drink are purchased and prepared.  Waiters, bartenders, and valets have been contracted.

When all is ready, the host sends out his people to announce that it’s time for the party to start.  The band is warmed up, the food is fresh, and drinks are cold.  The time for the “great” banquet has come.

But, everyone on the invite list has some excuse not to come…

·      “I just bought some land, and need to go inspect it.”

·      “I just bought several teams of oxen, and need to look them over.”

·      “I just got married, and need to go home to my wife.”

The lame excuses from the guests might suggest that the host is wealthy, but not necessarily respected or liked.  Perhaps he’s a tax collector, who can afford to impress, but is universally hated.

When the messengers returned with the guest’s regrets, the party-host was outraged, hurt, insulted, disappointed.  Everything was in place for this incredible event, and no-one was coming.  So, he tells his messengers, “Quickly, get out into the city streets and alleys. Collect all who look like they need a square meal, all the misfits and homeless and wretched you can lay your hands on, and bring them here.” (Luke 14:21, The Message)

The messengers do as their told, and come back with a few misfits.  But, the host isn’t satisfied, saying, “Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.”  (Luke 14:23)

“I want my house to be full!  And, if the ‘Who’s Who’ doesn’t want to come, I’ll fill my house with ANYONE who wants to come.”

This is a parable describing the Kingdom of God.  We can rightly assume Jesus is the host, inviting everyone to join the party.  But, the “expected” guests reject the invitation, just as the powerful and religious people rejected Jesus – and thus rejected his Kingdom.  Just as Jesus was surrounded by society’s rejects and misfits, the party host fills his house with outcasts – the misfits, the controversial, the wretched, the rejected, the unimportant, the unwelcome.

The parable of the Great Banquet tells us a lot about the heart of God.  God’s heart has a warm spot for the world’s rejects.  God always seems to side with the weak, the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed, the suffering.

The theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “The love of God is universal.  Nobody is outside of it; nobody is a nobody.  As we see in the Bible, this love is directed in the first place to the most abandoned and mistreated.”

 

A banquet for drunks, racists, polygamists, liars, cheaters, rapists, adulterers, murderers, whiners, eunuchs, failures and assorted misfits…

In fact, when you think about the people and the stories throughout the Bible, you find a pretty shocking assortment of drunks, racists, polygamists, liars, cheaters, rapists, adulterers, murderers, whiners, eunuchs, failures and assorted misfits…

·      Noah, the ark builder, was a drunk.

·      Sarah laughed at God.

·      Jacob, one the fathers of Israel, was a polygamist, a swindler, a liar, and a terrible father.

·      Joseph got increasingly greedy with age.

·      Moses was a murderer.

·      The Israelites, God chosen people, whined, complained and turned to other gods.

·      Samson was a womanizer, irresponsible and unfaithful.

·      King David was a polygamist, adulterer, rapist and murderer.

·      King Solomon was a greedy polygamist and idol worshipper.

·      Jeremiah and Elijah were whiners.

·      Jonah was disobedient and a racist.

·      Jesus’ own lineage includes Tamar, who pretended to be a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law; Rahab, a prostitute; Ruth, a foreign Moabite; and Bathsheba, the victim of King David’s lust and power.

·      The disciples were an odd-ball assortment of tax-collectors, fishermen, and zealots.

·      Jesus said a Roman centurion had the greatest faith in Israel, a Samaritan was “good,” and a “sinful” woman, who anointed his feet, would be remembered wherever the Gospel is preached.

·      The first Gentile Christian was an unclean Ethiopian eunuch.

·      Paul, was a former Christian persecutor.

These are the folks that God chooses to use and welcome to his banquet table.  Yes, some of their lives were radically transformed.  Some repented of their sins.  But, others not.  The Bible is full of story after story, character after character, of flawed, broken, losers, that God somehow uses to save this broken world.

If there’s a great banquet table in heaven, like it says Book of Revelation, it will be surrounded by a shocking assortment of misfits.  “Quickly, get out into the city streets and alleys. Collect all who look like they need a square meal, all the misfits and homeless and wretched you can lay your hands on, and bring them here – I WANT MY HOUSE TO BE FULL!”

Throughout this series, I’ve referenced the debate in the United Methodist Church regarding our stance on homosexuality, and LGBTQ inclusion.  My purpose has NOT been to change anyone’s theological convictions – either to the left or to the right.  Rather, my goal has been to challenge us to respect different beliefs and perspectives.

A comment I’ve heard several times during this series is, “The Bible says that God detests homosexuality,” based, I suspect on Leviticus 20:13, “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.”

There’s no denying that passage exists, or what it says.  We can’t just dismiss it because it seems out-dated.  And, yet, we also can’t quote it indiscriminately.  The Bible also says a lot of other things are “detestable” too, like…

·      Eating pork, shrimp or lobster

·      Any form of idolatry

·      Unfair business practices

·      The use of mediums and fortune tellers

·      Not listening to the Lord’s instructions

·      Deviousness, lying

·      Pride, arrogance

·      Greed

·      Cursing your father or mother

·      Gossiping

·      Not caring for the poor and needy

·      Robbing from the poor and needy

·      Lending with interest

·      Lust

·      Drunkenness

Proverbs 13:16-19 says, “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.”

If detestable is the standard that excludes people from the Kingdom, or a place at the banquet table, I’m out for several reasons!

My point?  Let’s be cautious how we judge and condemn others.  Let’s be cautious how we exclude people from God’s banquet table.  Let’s be careful setting standards that we, ourselves, can’t live up to.  “Detestable” casts a wide shadow over most of us.

Yes, God has very high standards of holiness – that none of us live up to.  None of us are invited to God’s banquet if not for grace and his invitation. “Quickly, get out into the city streets and alleys. Collect all the misfits and wretched you can lay your hands on, and bring them here – I WANT MY HOUSE TO BE FULL!”

Oscar Romero writes, “I don’t want to be an anti, against anybody. I simply want to be the builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God, who loves us and who wants to save us.”

Desmond Tutu writes, “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.”

Friends, I have no idea what will happen in the United Methodist Church regarding this debate, or any other.  I have no idea how, or if, any of this will affect First Church.

Here’s what I do know.  Among us are good Christians with differing politics, philosophies, perspectives on a broad range of issues, including homosexuality.  Among us are good Christians who believe homosexuality, gay marriage, and ordaining gay pastors is wrong, who are faithful, valued, contributing members of this church.  Among us are members of the LGBTQ community, who are also faithful, valued, contributing members.  Also among us are the parents, siblings, friends, and children of LGBTQ persons, who often sit in painful silence, as they hear other’s condemn their loved one as “detestable.”

Regardless of what the United Methodist Church does or does not do in the future, as long as I’m your pastor I’ll insist on two things.  One:  all people, who want to know and serve Jesus – ALL PEOPLE – no matter who they are, will be fully welcome to worship, serve, participate and use their gifts at First Church.  ALL PEOPLE!  And, two:  we will treat each other with the highest possible respect, care, and dignity, no matter how much we may disagree.

John Wesley asked, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

Friends, the kingdom of Heaven is among us.  The banquet is ready, and there are still open seats. “Quickly, get out into the city streets and alleys. Collect all the misfits and wretched you can lay your hands on, and bring them here – God WANTS THIS HOUSE TO BE FULL!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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