6. Pentecost: Eyes to See

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

8 July 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

Eyes to See

Based on St. Mark 6: 1-6

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            My late grandfather, James Douglas Darnell, went to school with Dick Van Dyke. They both grew up in Danville, Illinois, along with future actors Gene Hackman and Donald O’Connor. While my grandfather grew up poor with a large family on a farm, the Van Dykes were more middle class. Both would move away for a different kind of life than Danville offered – my grandfather to the larger city of Peoria, Van Dyke to New York and Hollywood. Years later, when Van Dyke gained success in film and television and on Broadway, my grandfather did not revel in the story of the local boy who made good for himself but remembered the kid he grew up with, derogatorily referring to him as a “pretty boy.”

            I think some of the folks in Nazareth may have thought about Jesus in a similar way. I’ve had the privilege of visiting Nazareth a few years ago. Today it is a bustling city, in fact the largest predominately-Arab city in Israel. But in Jesus’ time it was a backwater compared to Jerusalem, composed, some speculate, of maybe only 500 people. Like many small communities it likely had its own established order and social system, of which Jesus has already stepped out. He’s been off, even farther in the hinterlands of Galilee and even to the big city of Jerusalem preaching his radical message of God’s kingdom and engaging in powerful healings. The news has surely traveled back home to Nazareth – maybe Mary has told the other village women at the well when they gather their morning water, or perhaps his brothers James and Jude have shared it with their friends. What must the townspeople think? Perhaps they ask, “Really, Jesus? Mary’s boy? What does he think he’s doing running all over? Who does that gadabout think he is?”

            Jesus goes back home to Nazareth, and it does not go over nearly as well as one might hope. Rev. David Ewart, a United Church of Canada minister writes that, “Simply stepping forward to teach in his hometown synagogue would literally be stepping out of his – and his families – assigned place in the village pecking order. Doing so would immediately demand public, critical evaluation by those in charge of keeping people in their place. Anyone who has ever lived in a small town will appreciate that maintaining one’s social standing is fiercely protected – protecting one’s own honour from being devalued; and preventing anyone else’s honour from being increased.”[1]

            Notice how the townspeople talk about Jesus. They say, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” Both parts of this statement are intended by them to put Jesus in his place. A carpenter in Jesus’ time and culture had to travel wherever there was work, often being away from home and family. Carpenters were thought to be a questionable choice for a husband because of this, suspect of whatever they might be doing while not under a watchful eye. It is odd to refer to Jesus here as the son of Mary rather than Joseph as it was certainly a patriarchal society. What referring to Jesus by his mother’s name does is reinforce the rumors and gossip that probably plagued the family – that  Jesus was an illegitimate child conceived before Mary wed Joseph. Who would have believed her if and when she had told them who Jesus’ real father was. To suggest all of this the townspeople attempt to discredit Jesus. They probably think, “Who does he think he is? We know his real story! This illegitimate carpenter has gotten too big for his britches, thinking he can stand up in our synagogue and interpret the words of God for us!” The gospel tells us “they took offense at him.” They were offended that Jesus had stepped outside of his prescribed role in the community and dared to speak with power and authority. They thought they knew who Jesus was – and certainly knew who he was supposed to be, at least in their minds. They thought they had Jesus’ number. They thought they had him pegged.

            But they didn’t know him, not really. They were so blinded by who they thought Jesus was supposed to be – blinded by their own preconceived notions of where he belonged in the community, because they thought he was born out of wedlock, because they thought he was just simple carpenter, nothing more than a local boy who ran out of town and forgot his place. But you see, they were blinded by all of these things. They couldn’t see beyond the limits they had decided were on his life. They couldn’t see beyond the limits they had put on their lives. So much so that when Jesus speaks in the synagogue, whatever Good News he offered to them that day, they couldn’t hear it – so stuck were they in their old notions.

            Does that ever happen to us? Has anyone ever pre-judged who you are or are supposed to be? Of course it happens to all of us – expectations to take up the family trade, to be like our namesake, to remember our place in society and not try to move out of it. From Australia, Anglican priest Brian McGowan says “What goes on where you are when someone comes back  – into home & family, society, church, & so on? Or you yourself make that pilgrimage ‘back’ somewhere? Or maybe we have to live all the time with those who grew up with us, knew us when we were ‘young & silly’, wild, immature… Think they still know us only too well!”[2] I think most of us can identify with those boundaries or expectations put on us by others, blinded by their notions. We know  the pain and frustration of not being seen as we see and know ourselves.

            What is the cure for this ill – for blinding ourselves to others, because we are certainly guilty of it too? I have a hunch that it is seeing things through God’s eyes, through remembering that God’s love has no boundaries. When Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t look for perfect people who had it all together – he called together a ragtag team of fishermen and tax collectors and rabble rousers who were crude and sometimes a bit dense. In the three years he spent with them they were slow to catch on and weren’t refined overnight. Yet Jesus called them, seeing in them, not the social status they were born into, or the limitations society put on them, but he saw their God-given potential. This is the way we ought to strive to see each other. It is only in that way of seeing that we can acknowledge the presence of Christ in and among us.

            The people in Nazareth sought to limit the way God could act among them. But the boundaries of society, the barriers put up to divide class, gender, sexual orientation, age, and race are not God-ordained – but the product of being blinded by our own preconceived notions. We need to challenge ourselves to see without boundaries as God does.

            In 1853, Congregationalist hymn writer George Rawson wrote the song “We Limit Not the Truth of God.” It says:

We limit not the truth of God
To our poor reach of mind,
By notions of our day and sect,
Crude, partial, and confined.
No, let a new and better hope
Within our hearts be stirred:

The Lord hath yet more light and truth

To break forth from the Word.

He ends the hymn with this stanza:

O Father, Son, and Spirit, send
Us increase from above;
Enlarge, expand all Christian souls
To comprehend Thy love,
And make us to go on, to know
With nobler powers conferred:

The Lord hath yet more light and truth

To break forth from the Word.[3]

            So we ought not to limit the truth of God by placing limitations on each other – but to pray that our souls may be expanded to “comprehend thy love” of God, to broaden our vision to see our God-given potential. But it is not only about our relationship to each other, but also to Christ. We ought not to limit our understanding of who Christ is by our own desires of who God should be – but to open our eyes to whatever expansive vision God has for us and for all of creation, that is far beyond our wildest dreams and imaginations.

            Too often we want to put Jesus in the same box we put each other in. I am reminded of something Dan Patrick used to say, “You can’t hold me, you can only hope to contain me.”  We often want a buddy Jesus who will make everything right and not shake up anything else. But the friend we have in Jesus is the same one who befriended prostitutes and lepers and chased the money lenders out of the temple with a whip. Having God loose in our world is dangerous, and if we’re willing to see him as he is and follow him, he will shake up our lives and our very world.

            Jesus isn’t just a carpenter and Mary’s son. He’s much more than that – he’s our savior, redeemer, beginning and end – but we have to have eyes to see. Eyes that will reveal the very Christ of God, the same who breaks down all barriers, erases all boundaries and frees us to be who God created us to be.

 

To God be the Glory. Amen.

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5. Pentecost: Excellent Generosity

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

1 July 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

Excellent Generosity

Based on 2 Corinthians 8: 1-15

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            Whether we are ready or not to talk about money in church, the Apostle Paul was – and sends his message to us across the centuries. Writing to the Church at Corinth, in Greece, he reminds the congregation gathered there of the offering they began collecting for the Church in Jerusalem a year prior. St. Paul urges the Corinthians, “Now finish doing it.” In urging the Corinthians to complete the offering he goads them a bit, by commenting on how generous another congregation in Macedonia has been, that surely they can match the gifts of their poorer neighbors.

            St. Paul was one of the three primary leaders of the early Christian Church. It is believed that he had an agreement with St. James, the brother of Jesus, and St. Peter, chief of the disciples, that Paul would minister with Gentiles (non-Jewish believers), while James and Peter would work among the Jewish Christians. Peter would take charge of the Church in Antioch and Rome, while James would be the bishop of the Church in Jerusalem. Paul would minister across the Gentile churches in the Mediterranean and Near East. It was St. James’ community in Jerusalem for which the offering was being received. Many early Christian congregations lived together in community, holding all their property, goods, and money in common. The Jerusalem Church particularly lived by this precept. Like many urban congregations yet today, they found themselves in poverty and in great need of assistance from their brothers and sisters in Christ.

            The churches across the Mediterranean and Near East would gather an offering in support for the Jerusalem Church, a center of Jewish Christian life. Not only would it show support of a congregation with fewer resources, but a sign of unity among the burgeoning Christian community. There was often tension between Peter and Paul, and those Christians who continued to follow Jewish practices such as circumcision and ritual cleansing, and those Christians of pagan origin who did not. Paul’s offering for James’ church showed a gesture of unity and love across different modes of Christian practice. Even in the first century of Christianity there was diversity in the way the Christian life was lived out, but in that diversity, their leaders managed to support each other and find unity.

            It’s important to note here that since the very beginning of the Church, congregations have needed to provide support and encouragement to one another. In quite similar ways, when our congregation contributes funds to the wider United Church of Christ, it not only supports national and conference staff, evangelism, outreach, and justice work – but also provides funds for new churches like Nu Vizion UCC in Toledo, Ohio – an inner-city congregation that rehabbed a  formerly closed UCC church, and has a special ministry helping ex-convicts reintegrate into their community. I am reminded of the ways in which we have been supported by other congregations, especially following the softball debacle – of several churches reaching out to us to play with their softball teams, of Pilgrim UCC and St. Paul’s UCC in St. Louis, which sent us letters of support, and of course Grace United Methodist Church from Sullivan which sent a wonderful delegation of nearly 20 people to worship with us several weeks ago. Since the very beginning the Church’s local communities of faith have needed to stand with each other and support one another.

            St. Paul told the Corinthians, “Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” The apostle commends the Corinthians for their faith and knowledge, saying they excel in everything, and urges them to demonstrate their love and faith in a concrete way – by being generous in giving of their financial gifts. He reminds them that “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” For Paul giving generously of one’s wages and labor is necessary  not merely because it is good to share with those who have little, but centrally because of what Jesus Christ has done for us. Here he speaks of poverty and wealth not in a literal sense, though as an unemployed carpenter Jesus was likely poor. Rather, as the Son of God, Jesus gave up his seat at the right hand of the Creator to live among us on earth, born in a trough in a barn and crucified as a common criminal. For our sake, Christ endured the worst of humanity in order that we all might be redeemed. It is because Jesus had the humility and love to do this for us, that we should also share sacrificially of ourselves.

            St. Paul asks the Corinthians to complete the offering, to support their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem “according to your means. 12For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have.” He is essentially saying ‘Give what you can.’ He isn’t asking them to place themselves in the same poverty as those in Jerusalem, but to share what they can out of their own wealth. He reminds them “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.” Because Corinth and Jerusalem were bound together as Christians, and because today we are bound to those both inside and outside our denominational fellowship we are called to share our resources when we have an abundance, so that we may also receive assistance when we are in need. Rev. Douglass Key, a Presbyterian pastor in South Carolina, writes that “For Paul and for us, generosity is not a choice we make, not a calculation in which we weight  what we are giving up against what we gain in order make ourselves available to the work of God’s kingdom. It is a  mark of our identity in Christ. When we are baptized into the one who is self emptying we take on that self emptying genereosity for ourselves. It becomes who we are, not what we do. The people of this God, known to us in this self emptying Christ are self emptying people. It is a mark of our union to Christ, who himself laid down his divine glory and became poor for us t so that we might know God’s love and grace and redemption.”[1]

            Several times a week I receive calls from people in our community seeking assistance for food, rent, gas, and other bills from the church. Sadly, all too often I have to turn away those seeking help because we simply don’t have the funds available. We are not a wealthy congregation, but to be fair we do have substantial resources, particularly when we consider that worldwide over 1 billion people live on $1 a day or less. St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians echo to us. We each can give what we can out of our own abundance. Some of us have more abundance than others and therefore can afford to give more. Sometimes we are in a time of need rather than abundance and need to receive the gift. But as St. Paul reminds us, we are to give according to what one has. When the Church, when our church is able to assist those in need of food, help keeping a roof over their heads or transportation to their jobs, we make an impact on our community. Not only that, but more importantly, we live out what we believe. We put our faith and love in action. We show that we believe Jesus Christ came for all of us, rich and poor. We continue Christ’s ministry to the least of these. If the only interaction such persons ever have with the Church is that they were offered food and shelter in their time of need – at least they can say that the Church was there for them. We can begin to counter all the alienating and harmful experiences people have had with exclusionary churches by offering warm compassion and love in tangible ways.

            With all the messages of consumerism and materialism around us, bombarded at us from advertising and commercials and billboards, the message of generosity is countercultural. It seems that we are told to hoard all the money we can so we can attain more stuff, and that the more stuff we have the happier we will be. As much as we might know intellectually that this is wrong, it can be difficult to act against it. But try we must, because our things won’t save us, but Christ who gave up everything for our sake, does save us. In the Christian community, we are our brother and sister’s keeper. We do have responsibility to care for one another. When we are baptized we are forever knit into the Body of Christ, and we are to aid all the parts of the Body that the Church might be a healthy, transforming, loving force for justice and peace in the world. Out of our abundance, no matter how large or small, we can tangibly demonstrate that connection, that relationship Christ forms between each of us. We are each called to share in the work of building up God’s kingdom on earth.

We must make this work and we must make the Church a priority in our lives. We have to take the needs of our community and those beyond it throughout the world seriously. It takes a sacrifice, but any monetary gifts we make pale in comparison to what Jesus Christ has done for us. Let us give out of gratitude for the abundant life that has been given us.

To God be the Glory. Amen.

 


[1] Key, Douglass. Christian Century, June 27, 2012.

3. Pentecost: Seedy Faith

17 June 2012

Third Sunday after Pentecost

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

“Seedy Faith”

Based on St. Mark 4: 26-34

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

                        For those of us who prefer direct answers, to deal with a situation head on, to lay it all out on the table, Jesus sometimes has a frustrating habit. When  asked a question, he would often ask a question in response  – or, as in the instance of this morning’s gospel reading, he would answer with a parable. Later in the gospel, St. Mark even tells us that “He did not say anything to them without using a parable.” We don’t often use parables today, and they’re often confused with fables. But, Rev. Anthony Robinson, a UCC leader, explains that parables “aren’t little moral stories or object lessons. Rather they are stories about the way God’s kingdom and logic turn the world’s logic and kingdom upside down.”[1] That is certainly the way the parables Jesus tells today work.

            We hear that “a man scatters seed on the ground” but that “the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.” What? What kind of farmer is this guy? Any farmer or gardener with any sense, certainly all the farmers or even gardeners in our congregation would understand how their plants sprout and grow, and not just leave it to dumb luck, but tend carefully to them. Yet, here we are told that this is what God’s kingdom is like. Both inside and outside of the Church we often plant metaphorical seeds, often without noticing it. Sometimes they produce grain for harvest, sometimes they don’t. But often times a plant sprouts forth when we least expect it. Teachers impact students they never thought they could reach and hear about it years later. A simple act of kindness turns a person’s life around. We never know when we might be planting a seed. God’s kingdom is as mysterious as that. I am reminded of an incident in my home congregation. I never met Hannelore Mass. But she had been a member of the congregation while living in the U.S. She later returned to her home in Germany, where she passed away a few years ago. Lo and behold, in her will she left the congregation in DC her entire estate, which was completely unexpected. Somehow, somewhere, a seed had been planted and her life had been impacted, and she responded with a gift of gratitude. That is what God’s kingdom is like – unexpected and surprising and mysterious.

            In the second, more familiar, parable Jesus tells, he compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed which grows into a shrub. Really? Is God’s kingdom like a shrub or a tiny seed? Well, Jesus says so.  Now I’m no expert on wild mustard, but those who are say that Jesus likely referred to wild black mustard, with a seed the size of  1 or 2mm, and can grow into a plant up to 9 feet tall. So a remarkably small seed can grow into a sizeable plant. This is comforting for those perhaps with a weak faith or those just beginning to believe – that they can grow into strong stalwarts of faith. Or it is good news for our own community of faith that we might be enlargened and strengthened and emboldened. But the size of the mustard seed and its ensuing plant is not the whole point, although illuminating. Mustard has been called a “malignant weed with dangerous takeover properties.”[2] Dr. David Lose helps us to understand why this is so, saying:

The thing about mustard seeds, you see, is that while some varieties were used as spice and others medicinally, in general they were considered at the very least pesky and often somewhat dangerous. Why? Because wild mustard is incredibly hard to control, and once  it takes root it can take over a whole planting area. That’s why mustard would only occasionally be found in a garden in the ancient world; more likely you would look for it overtaking the side of an open hill or abandoned field. So pick your favorite garden-variety weed – crabgrass, dandelion, wild onion – that’s pretty much what Jesus was comparing the kingdom of God to.[3]

           

So God’s kingdom is like an annoying shrub? I don’t think that’s entirely what Jesus was getting at, but yes! I think the message Jesus was trying to convey in this parable was about the nature of the kingdom and work of God.  Mustard is difficult to control once it takes root, and can potentially take over an entire field. Things may happen with the mustard plant that were unplanned, unexpected, and unanticipated. It may spread to areas you didn’t want it to go. The kingdom of God is like that. Like the mustard seed, once the seed of God’s work and kingdom are planted, it cannot be controlled afterward.

            It’s a bit disconcerting to not be able to control the outcome, but after all, how often do we control the outcomes in our lives? We are reminded that it is God’s kingdom, not ours. The ability of the mustard seed to take over even a whole field demonstrates that once God’s work takes root – it can spread rapidly, even into those areas, we really wish it would stay out of. The mustard seed reminds us not only that out of something very small can come a pretty large shrub, but that powerful faith can be the result of a small seed planted, that a mighty church movement can be born out of one little congregation, that God’s kingdom will take charge not just of a small garden but of the whole world.

            Often times we try to compartmentalize our faith. It’s like the old adage that says politics and religion aren’t polite dinner conversation (though they often make for the best dinner conversation – in the biased opinion of this lover of politics and religion). Too often we want to limit God to our prayer life or devotion, or worse, one hour on Sundays only. But when Jesus preached about the kingdom of God he didn’t talk about one small corner of our lives – he spoke of our entire lives being completely different, like the mustard plant that has taken over a whole field.

            Jesus never intended for us to hide our faith in the walls of a sanctuary. He warned his followers not to boast of their faithfulness, but also not to hide their light under a bushel. In fact, Jesus broke that dinner conversation rule all the time, as it was often around the dinner table, sharing bread and wine with rich and poor alike, that he often engaged in his most powerful ministry. The mustard seed reminds us that God wants to unleash the kingdom in all parts of our lives, in all parts of our world – and that we cannot contain or hold God’s kingdom in one small area of our lives or world.

            An Indian proverb says “To the work you are entitled, but not the fruit thereof.” Even if we do like the sower in the first parable, sow a seed, or even in the second parable, plant mustard seeds – even hoping for its wild, expansive growth – we may or may not get what we expected. Who knows if we will see the fruits of our work –the mustard plant coming up across the field, of people coming to faith, lives being renewed and restored. More often than not the seeds we plant will take a long time to germinate. When we least expect it, and many times, after we have taken our leave, God’s kingdom starts sprouting out the ground – and before you know it has taken over. We may not see the fruits or the plants coming up, but in the end the task of faith is not about us – it’s about helping each other and the world live into being God’s kingdom on earth. God will take what we do, and produce wild and revolutionary results. We may not always understand what God is doing with that pesky mustard, but have faith – God is doing new and glorious things, each and every day.

+To God be the Glory. Amen.

 


[2]Wikipedia, “Parable of the Mustard Seed,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_Mustard_Seed

2. Pentecost: Are You Crazy?

10 June 2012

Second Sunday after Pentecost

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

“Are You Crazy?”

Based on St. Mark 3: 20-35

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            When I was in college, I served on the leadership team of the Student Ecumenical Partnership, or STEP for short. STEP is a national ministry of college students that provides resources and leadership for the colleges, universities, and campus ministries of the United Church of Christ, and its sister denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). At some point in my service on the leadership team, we began wearing t-shirts that said on the front “R U Crazy?” On the back was the scripture reference behind our catchphrase, from 2 Corinthians 5:13, “If it seems we are crazy, it is to bring glory to God. And if we are in our right minds, it is for your benefit.” (New Living Translation). We were a bunch of college students looking for an eye-catching way to capture our passion for Jesus and justice. It certainly was eye-catching and we got a variety of responses to that simple question, “R U Crazy?”

            It seems that Jesus’ family asked the same question. They thought he had fallen off his proverbial rocker. The very beginning of our gospel text says, “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” Jesus’ own family thought he was out of his mind – with all of his passionate preaching of the Kingdom of God and casting out demons. So much so, that they attempted to restrain him. They are convinced that things are getting out of control, Jesus has lost his mind and they are determined to do something about it.

            The scribes who came down from Jerusalem to investigate just what it was that was happening, took an even lower view. They accused Jesus himself of being demon-possessed. They charge him saying “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” They charge him with evil, and suggests that he acts not with the power of God, but the power of Satan. But Jesus thwarts their illogic by responding, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” Jesus is saying that when he cast out demons, he was casting out evil or Satan, so how could what Jesus did be evil itself.

            Some today might even suggest that to believe in Jesus is crazy. One apologist has suggested that either Jesus is the messiah or was merely a madman. But a skeptic might say to Christians, “The virgin birth, cousin John the Baptist eating locusts and honey, making disciples of fishermen and tax collectors, casting out demons, healing the blind and lame, rising from the dead? How can you believe all that stuff – it’s crazy!” Dr. David Lose, a Lutheran seminary professor says that “think about it – week in and week out we confess that the God who created everything not only knows about us but loves us, loves us enough to send his Son to demonstrate that love by word and deed even if it meant being killed. You’d have to be a little crazy to believe that message, maybe even possessed.”[1] When you step back and look at it that way, I think it does take a bit of craziness to believe in the package of Christianity. Now I don’t mean verifiable mental illness – which is a very serious matter not to be taken lightly, and many of God’s faithful, including some of the most sainted members of the Church, have struggled with mental health – rather I’d like to suggest it takes the craziness that is able to see the world beyond what is just on the surface and look for the meaning behind, above, and below it all.

            Jesus was crazy after all – crazy enough to call people beyond their current state, crazy enough to envision the world not as Caesar or any other ruler’s kingdom, but as God’s kingdom. Dr. Willie Jennings once taught that, “Imagination is a gift and the freedom to use it can be dangerous, for it opens the mind to possibilities beyond what appears possible. The danger is that usually others bound in the illusions of normalcy will find such freedom “to imagine” a threat. That is why for centuries much of the church has taught that using your imagination could lead to sin – or worse “Satan!” Dr. Jennings went on to say, “You see I am confident in this gift, for in Jesus I believe in the imagination of a madman.”[2]

            Jesus had the imagination of a madman – in the very best sense of the world. People thought he was crazy, though he was a madman for imagining that people could be made whole, that the poor would be lifted up and the rich brought low, that the meek and the mourning will be call blessed. For people stuck in a world in which they think only those things which pass their test of being reasonable could possibly happen, of course this is crazy. It is the talk of a madman. But Jesus stands in good company – nearly all the prophets who had enough imagination to call the people around them to a different way of living – nearly all of those prophets were thought to be madmen. And yet they offered a vision in which people turned back to God and lived justly. Jesus comes from their long line of crazy imagining, and is the ultimate madman.

            But the world needs people crazy enough to imagine – crazy enough to believe that God has something better in store for us. What passes as normal in much of the world around us – greed and lust for power, hatred and fear, discrimination and prejudice, violence and poverty – ought not to be. We hear all kinds of false messages that masquerade as normal – wait until the time is right, people don’t change, live like you’re dying. But a crazy person, someone crazy enough to be the messiah says that now is the time, the Kingdom is come now, says that people can be transformed before your eyes and he makes it happen, and says live like there’s a resurrection. It takes a larger vision – one imaginative and crazy enough to see beyond the way things are now, to the way things could be, to the way God would have us act. We must be partners with our savior in that craziness.

            Nearly a decade ago, UCC leader, Rev. Dr. Bernice Powell Jackson said, , “I ask us to imagine a world. A world with no war. A world with no violence. A world with no pain. A world where all God’s children have food and clean water and housing. A world where all of God’s children have access to quality health care and education. A world of limitless possibilities for all God’s children, a world with no discrimination because of race or class or gender or age or language or religion or abilities or sexual orientation.” It’s a crazy vision – to imagine another world, in which we do justice in Jesus’ name rather than start wars in the name of religion. Are we crazy enough, to stand up against injustice when all the voices around us and even those inside us say to sit down, be quiet, and wait for it to get better? Are we crazy enough to not only feed the hungry but to ask what it is about our society that makes them hungry in the first place? Are we crazy enough to fight for the rights of those who don’t look, speak, act or believe like us? Are we crazy enough to think that death does not have the last word, and to not only believe it, but live it as well? Are we crazy enough to believe that a man from Nazareth can not only cast out demons and restore sight to the blind, but transforms and heals the entire world?

I sure hope so.

 

+To God be the glory. Amen.

 

 

 

 

2. Pentecost: Are You Crazy?

10 June 2012

Second Sunday after Pentecost

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

“Are You Crazy?”

Based on St. Mark 3: 20-35

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            When I was in college, I served on the leadership team of the Student Ecumenical Partnership, or STEP for short. STEP is a national ministry of college students that provides resources and leadership for the colleges, universities, and campus ministries of the United Church of Christ, and its sister denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). At some point in my service on the leadership team, we began wearing t-shirts that said on the front “R U Crazy?” On the back was the scripture reference behind our catchphrase, from 2 Corinthians 5:13, “If it seems we are crazy, it is to bring glory to God. And if we are in our right minds, it is for your benefit.” (New Living Translation). We were a bunch of college students looking for an eye-catching way to capture our passion for Jesus and justice. It certainly was eye-catching and we got a variety of responses to that simple question, “R U Crazy?”

            It seems that Jesus’ family asked the same question. They thought he had fallen off his proverbial rocker. The very beginning of our gospel text says, “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” Jesus’ own family thought he was out of his mind – with all of his passionate preaching of the Kingdom of God and casting out demons. So much so, that they attempted to restrain him. They are convinced that things are getting out of control, Jesus has lost his mind and they are determined to do something about it.

            The scribes who came down from Jerusalem to investigate just what it was that was happening, took an even lower view. They accused Jesus himself of being demon-possessed. They charge him saying “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” They charge him with evil, and suggests that he acts not with the power of God, but the power of Satan. But Jesus thwarts their illogic by responding, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” Jesus is saying that when he cast out demons, he was casting out evil or Satan, so how could what Jesus did be evil itself.

            Some today might even suggest that to believe in Jesus is crazy. One apologist has suggested that either Jesus is the messiah or was merely a madman. But a skeptic might say to Christians, “The virgin birth, cousin John the Baptist eating locusts and honey, making disciples of fishermen and tax collectors, casting out demons, healing the blind and lame, rising from the dead? How can you believe all that stuff – it’s crazy!” Dr. David Lose, a Lutheran seminary professor says that “think about it – week in and week out we confess that the God who created everything not only knows about us but loves us, loves us enough to send his Son to demonstrate that love by word and deed even if it meant being killed. You’d have to be a little crazy to believe that message, maybe even possessed.”[1] When you step back and look at it that way, I think it does take a bit of craziness to believe in the package of Christianity. Now I don’t mean verifiable mental illness – which is a very serious matter not to be taken lightly, and many of God’s faithful, including some of the most sainted members of the Church, have struggled with mental health – rather I’d like to suggest it takes the craziness that is able to see the world beyond what is just on the surface and look for the meaning behind, above, and below it all.

            Jesus was crazy after all – crazy enough to call people beyond their current state, crazy enough to envision the world not as Caesar or any other ruler’s kingdom, but as God’s kingdom. Dr. Willie Jennings once taught that, “Imagination is a gift and the freedom to use it can be dangerous, for it opens the mind to possibilities beyond what appears possible. The danger is that usually others bound in the illusions of normalcy will find such freedom “to imagine” a threat. That is why for centuries much of the church has taught that using your imagination could lead to sin – or worse “Satan!” Dr. Jennings went on to say, “You see I am confident in this gift, for in Jesus I believe in the imagination of a madman.”[2]

            Jesus had the imagination of a madman – in the very best sense of the world. People thought he was crazy, though he was a madman for imagining that people could be made whole, that the poor would be lifted up and the rich brought low, that the meek and the mourning will be call blessed. For people stuck in a world in which they think only those things which pass their test of being reasonable could possibly happen, of course this is crazy. It is the talk of a madman. But Jesus stands in good company – nearly all the prophets who had enough imagination to call the people around them to a different way of living – nearly all of those prophets were thought to be madmen. And yet they offered a vision in which people turned back to God and lived justly. Jesus comes from their long line of crazy imagining, and is the ultimate madman.

            But the world needs people crazy enough to imagine – crazy enough to believe that God has something better in store for us. What passes as normal in much of the world around us – greed and lust for power, hatred and fear, discrimination and prejudice, violence and poverty – ought not to be. We hear all kinds of false messages that masquerade as normal – wait until the time is right, people don’t change, live like you’re dying. But a crazy person, someone crazy enough to be the messiah says that now is the time, the Kingdom is come now, says that people can be transformed before your eyes and he makes it happen, and says live like there’s a resurrection. It takes a larger vision – one imaginative and crazy enough to see beyond the way things are now, to the way things could be, to the way God would have us act. We must be partners with our savior in that craziness.

            Nearly a decade ago, UCC leader, Rev. Dr. Bernice Powell Jackson said, , “I ask us to imagine a world. A world with no war. A world with no violence. A world with no pain. A world where all God’s children have food and clean water and housing. A world where all of God’s children have access to quality health care and education. A world of limitless possibilities for all God’s children, a world with no discrimination because of race or class or gender or age or language or religion or abilities or sexual orientation.” It’s a crazy vision – to imagine another world, in which we do justice in Jesus’ name rather than start wars in the name of religion. Are we crazy enough, to stand up against injustice when all the voices around us and even those inside us say to sit down, be quiet, and wait for it to get better? Are we crazy enough to not only feed the hungry but to ask what it is about our society that makes them hungry in the first place? Are we crazy enough to fight for the rights of those who don’t look, speak, act or believe like us? Are we crazy enough to think that death does not have the last word, and to not only believe it, but live it as well? Are we crazy enough to believe that a man from Nazareth can not only cast out demons and restore sight to the blind, but transforms and heals the entire world?

I sure hope so.

 

+To God be the glory. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Trinity: 3-D God

Trinity Sunday

3 June 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

3-D God

Based on St. Matthew 28: 16-20

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

 

            A blessed Trinity Sunday! Today we celebrate and honor the Holy Trinity, and hopefully learn a bit about what the Trinity is. This morning I want to address what it means to be Trinitarian disciples.  

First, if it’s Trinity Sunday, why are we hearing a text, the Great Commission as it is known, typically reserved for when we talk about mission or evangelism? Our text this morning is actually a resurrection story. While we most often focus on Jesus commissioning the 11 remaining disciples to make disciples and baptize themselves, this is Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples in St. Matthew’s gospel. He has already appeared to the women, and now he appears to the men. And here on that resurrection day, he appears to them and tells them to make disciples. While the word Trinity is never found in the Bible, its concept and formula are. Jesus commands the apostles to make disciples of all nations and baptize them—in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the Trinity. Jesus never explicitly referred to himself as part of a triune god. However, here places himself right into what we have come to describe as the Triune God or the Trinity. St. Matthew and the other New Testament writers likely didn’t have a word for it. It really was not until almost 300 years later that the bishops of the historic church, declared against heresies about the nature of God, that God indeed was composed of three separate but inexplicably linked persons or identities, and we began to call this the Holy Trinity. Yet, this triune nature of God has always been present, and we find Christ revealing it in the midst of his resurrection appearance. This is why we find ourselves with this text today—because our mission as disciples, according to Jesus, is a Trinitarian one.

This leads to my second question, what does the Trinity have to do with discipleship? Don’t we usually just refer to being disciples of Jesus Christ? We do indeed, and sometimes this is to the neglect of the full expression of God, the Trinity. The United Methodist Church, has as its mission statement “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This is concise, clear, and to the point. It’s a good mission statement. But it neglects the other two members of the Trinity. When Jesus, tells his disciples to go and make disciples , he doesn’t say “Make disciples of me.” Rather, he says make disciples of all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Jesus Christ is equal with the Creator and Holy Spirit, that each are equally important. However it is true, that the disciples were disciples of Jesus Christ. They chose to follow him rather than John the Baptist, or another religious leader. But in following Jesus the disciples also followed the Creator, the Father from which Jesus came and whose ways he sought to teach. Further the disciples were led by the Holy Spirit to leave everything they had previously known to follow Jesus. So it must be for us who believe in the Trinity. When we say we are disciples of Jesus Christ, we know that in order to follow him we must follow God the Creator and Spirit as well. We attach ourselves to Jesus specifically because he was incarnate among us and taught us how to live as the entire Trinity would have us live.

We must not lose sight of the whole of the Trinity lest we lose sight of who God is. With just the Father-Mother we see a creating God, with just the Christ we see a teaching, saving, and redeeming God, with just the Spirit we see a guiding, advocating, moving God. It is as if Jesus is on a movie screen. Him we can see fairly well. His teachings, parts of his life story, the stories of his followers tell us much about him and what he wants for us. But Jesus Christ is not all of God. Perhaps God the Creator and Holy Spirit are like the red and blue colors of the 3-D glasses. We put the 3-D glasses on and see that God is more than just Jesus, but this mysterious Trinity, which creates, redeems, and saves us as One. We cannot of course fully understand God, because we are not God—but the Trinity, which has existed and exists eternally, has been revealed to us throughout history and offers us a glimpse into God. Our God is three-dimensional, and our discipleship must be also. In both of our faith traditions, in baptism we ask those to be baptized or their guardians separately if they believe in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is the first step in our discipleship, before following in their ways. A Roman Catholic author states that, “When believers are baptized in the name of the Trinity, they become intimate with all that God is: God above them (Father), God beside them (Son), and God within them (Holy Spirit). With God so close to the faithful, they become God’s instruments.”[1] So, just as we baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we live into the life God has created us for as who our Creator created and called us to be, following where Jesus will lead us, guided and sustained by the Spirit.   

So having just briefly explored what the Trinity has to do with discipleship, how might the Trinity itself (himself and herself) serve as a model for our life as disciples in the community of faith? I believe we must first start with the relationship of the Trinity. The three persons of the Trinity are in relationship with one another, each complementing the other, forming an expansive community of God. They, while each is separate with its own characteristics, have their own “mystic sweet communion” together. Both Thomas Scirghi, an American Jesuit and Jürgen Moltmann, a German Evangelical, argue that the Trinity is a community unto itself. Scirghi, a professor at Fordham University, writes that:

The Trinity is a community…Community emerges through communion and mutual self-surrender…The Trinity depicts a relationship of mutual self-giving: the Father gives himself completely to the Son and the Son gives himself completely to the Father. The Spirit, proceeding from both, is the bond of the love between them: “God is the lover, the beloved, and the love between them.” Thus God is not a person, that is, one entity of the relationship, but the fullness of relatedness.[2]

 

For Scirghi, the community of the Trinity is marked by mutual self-giving and love. It is a tri-unity based on self-giving, responsive love. So too for Moltmann. He once preached that, “It is only from the perspective of the trinitarian God that we can claim that “God is Love,” because love is never alone.”[3] It is a loving community of the three equal and distinct members of the Trinity. The Trinity beckons and invites us to be in intimate conversation with it. The Triune God offers to us relationship in a communion of love. 

            The community of the Trinity offers to us the model for our discipleship to the Trinity. Just as God must be in a community of tri-unity in order to love, so must we. In order to grow in a faith in which God attempts to teach us how to love, we must be in community ourselves. We can not be disciples without the community of faith. This is why, our first step on the journey to discipleship, in baptism we are baptized in the midst of a faith community, both ourselves making vows and the community taking vows to support us. It is in the community of faith that we wrestle with our own faith, in which we hammer out what we believe, in which we discern what that belief calls us to do. It is also a place in which we can celebrate life’s joys and mourn life’s pains, and acknowledge and honor everything in between. The community of faith is a sacred place—and if we follow the model of the Trinity, it should be bound together by self-giving love. Just as the members of the Trinity lovingly give of themselves to the other members, so it should be in our Christian community. We are called together as disciples in a community so that we may grow as disciples together. We are not in the same places in our discipleship journey, but we are to give of ourselves to each other, help each other grow in the place in which we find ourselves. Those who are mature in their own discipleship can assist and inspire those who are just beginning, and those who are just beginning ask new questions that freshen the mature in faith in their discipleship. As a community of discipleship, we give of ourselves to each other in loving, mutual support. But this self-giving does not solely focus inward. Like the Trinity, it also looks outward and is expansive. We are to open ourselves and invite others into our Trinitarian community of discipleship.

            The Holy Trinity calls us beyond ourselves, beyond who we are on our own. When we exist just for ourselves, we alienate ourselves from the world, and we serve no one but ourselves. Our individuality is a precious gift from God and indeed each of the members of the Trinity has its own characteristic. But individualism, the focus solely on ourselves is dangerous, and it can lead to turning our very selves into an idol to be worshiped. The Holy Trinity calls us to be in community as it is in community, to become fuller persons in relationship with others. Jesus calls us to discipleship in the name of the Trinity, so that we follow the model of the Trinity—acknowledging that we have been created, redeemed, and sustained, and grow into our relationship with the Trinity together. We cease to be lone rangers, struggling to find the answers on our own. We become something larger than ourselves and begin to experience the Triune God in a communal way. It is in this community where we are called to live, with disciples of all nations.

            Our God will not let us be alone. Even when we think we are alone, there God is, Three-in-One, calling us into relationship, calling us to be part of our own Trinitarian circle to sit at the table with angels, to grow in our faith with others, bound in love, celebrating, mourning, living together. And God will be with us until the end of the age.

                        +To God be the Glory

 

Pentecost: Unity in Diversity

27 May 2012

Festival of Pentecost

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

Unity in Diversity

Based on Acts of the Apostles 2: 1-21

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            Happy Birthday Church! By Church I mean not just our congregation here, or even our denomination – but the whole Church throughout the world in all its various permutations. A great teacher once said, “The Church is broken, but the Church is one.” It is for the life of the whole Church throughout creation that we celebrate today. Pentecost is the day on which we believe that the life of the Church began. Jesus had told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit descended. We hear in our passage that the disciples were all gathered in a house together. Now it wasn’t just the 12 apostles – but all the primary followers of Jesus, including his mother and Mary Magdalene. Tradition tells us that 120 persons all were present that morning. Scripture says that, “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting…All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” This Spirit that gave them this ability to speak other languages, is the very same Spirit of God that at the beginning hovered over the face of the deep and molded creation out of a formless void. The same Spirit that descended on Jesus in his baptism now descends on his disciples and empowers them to go out into the world with the Good News. In this moment, with this rush of the wind-like Spirit, the Church is created.

            And what is the first act of the newborn Church? They go out into the marketplace where people from many nations are gathered. The disciples speak, and amazingly each of the people gathered in the crowd heard and understood in their own language. We don’t know what the disciples said, but we know that the crowd gathered from many places understood. Those in the crowd said, ““Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” These are places and cultures that represent what would have been the entire known world for the disciples – not just people of Israel and its neighbors, but from all over the world. And yet somehow, by the power of the Holy Spirit the disciples, most of whom by all accounts are not educated, speak and the others understand in their own language. God certainly could have enabled all to understand one language, and yet the Church is born in the midst of the diversity of languages, cultures and experiences. When God could have made us all uniform, instead God chose to show us unity in diversity.

            Dr. Eric Bareto, professor at Luther Seminary writes that, “The story of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-21 helps us understand how God sees human diversity: one of God’s greatest gifts to the world. At Pentecost, God through the Spirit does not erase our differences but embraces the fact that God has made us all so wonderfully different… God meets us in the messiness of different languages and does not ask us to speak God’s language. Instead, God chooses to speak our many languages. God does not speak in a divine language beyond our comprehension. At Pentecost, God speaks in Aramaic and Greek and other ancient languages. Today, God continues to speak in Spanish, Greek, Hindi, and Chinese alike. At Pentecost, God makes God’s choice clear. God joins us in the midst of the messiness and the difficulties of speaking different languages, eating different foods, and living in different cultures. That is good news indeed.”[1]

            Too often we want to erase or differences, or worse marginalize them. Difference makes us uncomfortable – it makes things harder understand. It is usually with good intentions that we say “We’re really all the same.” But that’s not even true of those who speak the same language, worship the same God, and have the same skin color. We all have different life experiences and learnings that impact who we are – and we are all different, regardless of what it may look like in the mirror. While the temptation for us may be to wash away all difference, to try to grasp what makes us the same – in the life of the Church, in this very first act of its life there is a diversity of voices and languages. It is as if God has already ordained that there be a vast variety of expressions of the Christian life throughout the world.

Of course today there are innumerable ways to be a Christian in our world. Even in our own United Church of Christ on any given Sunday, 21 different languages are spoken in worship throughout our 4,500 congregations. They include Native American congregations of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Ho-Chunk tribes; Samoan, Micronesian, and Marshallese congregations from the South Pacific, Japanese, Chinese and Indian congregations from Asia, historic Hungarian and German congregations for European immigrants, Spanish-speaking congregations for Latinos, including Iglesia Cristiana El Dios ViViente in St. Louis, multicultural congregations like Pilgrim UCC in St. Louis, and many more varieties. There are churches from the Congregational, Christian, Evangelical or Reformed tradition that merged into the UCC, churches planted by the UCC, churches that have left Pentecostal, Baptist, and charismatic traditions for a home in the UCC. There are a broad variety of worship styles – from congregations that have incense, chanting, and kneeling to ones that have ecstatic experiences with praise bands, dancing, and sometimes even speak in tongues. Three of our newest congregations show this broad range of God’s diversity: West Hollywood UCC in California, a formerly Presbyterian congregation; Vision Church of Houston, TX, a Korean-speaking congregation; and Community Church UCC in Washington, DC, a predominately African-American church. These are all wonderful examples of our own denomination living into Pentecost diversity. The point here is not diversity for diversity’s sake, but recognizing the myriad ways in which the Holy Spirit equips different people to be the Church. These are just examples of our own little denomination, among hundreds of other denominations, among thousands of churches – that show forth God’s presence in a multitude of ways.

David Bartlett reminds us that “The miracle of Pentecost is that even though there are still many languages and diverse words people are able to understand each other. It is a misreading of the story to think that God’s promise for the church is a kind of ecclesiastical Esperanto—a universal language we all can speak and understand. The apostles speak a variety of languages so that a variety of people can hear. God’s promise for the church is that in our diversity, through our diversity, the Spirit still leads us forward in understanding.”[2]

We have so many modes of expressions in the UCC and beyond, in the way we speak of God and worship God, precisely so that people from all walks of life can hear and participate in God’s saving work, in ways that we each can understand. God calls us out of the temptation to erase our difference, to acknowledge the gift of all the unique ways God has created us – inviting the Church to speak to each one in their own language, so that all can understand.

In the United Church of Christ statement of faith we proclaim each week that God “bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages tongues and races.” Of many tongues and races we are united in our faith in Jesus Christ. As most of you know, I come from one of the last 3 remaining German-speaking churches left in the denomination. I’m reminded of watching people lining up there to kneel before the altar rail for communion – it was a marvelous rainbow of people – immigrants from Germany, Ukraine, and Ethiopia, college students from Korea and the US, African-American and European American, homeless people, academics with PhDs, young and old, gay and straight – all people seeking Christ, seeking to be fed by his body and blood, each one called into the Church by the Holy Spirit. It was a beautiful moment of experiencing a glimpse of Pentecost.

Today as we celebrate Pentecost, we remember that the Holy Spirit doesn’t disperse our differences, but we understand and see Christ through each of our differences, cultures, languages and experiences – and help each other see how broad and expansive the Church really is. So today we celebrate the life of the Church in all the wonderful, different and unique ways it makes Christ known in our world.

 

+To God be the Glory. Amen.

 


[2] David Bartlett, workingpreacher.org