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“What A Difference a Word Makes”

“What a Difference A Word Makes”
Luke 18:9-14
Chilmark Community Church
October 23, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian

A young monk, fresh out of seminary was appointed to a monastery where for hundreds of years, the monks had worked faithfully at making beautiful copies of the ancient sacred texts and scriptures. As the aging Father Abbot was giving the young man an orientation to the work the monks were doing, the young monk noticed that the good brothers were painstakingly making new copies from earlier
copies from the previous generation of monks. He wondered about this for awhile and finally asked the Father Abbot about it. The Abbot patiently explained that the order has always done it this way – each new generation of monks faithfully copying the texts passed on by the previous generation. But the younger monk wasn’t quite comfortable with this system. “What if someone, somewhere along the line doesn’t copy accurately?” The Father Abbot answered patiently “My son, the copying of the Holy Texts is a sacred trust. For hundreds of years the brothers have been doing it just this way, with great care not to make mistakes.”

The new young brother went on about his task of getting acquainted with the monastery. But the Father Abbot was a little disturbed by the novice’s question.
So he went down into the great vault in the basement of the monastery to look at the original ancient manuscripts that were stored there.

The time for evening prayer came and went and there was no sign of the Abbot. Finally, after missing him for about 6 hours, the monks decided to find out what was keeping him so long. They made their way down to the vault and as they approached the heavy door, they could hear the Father Abbot moaning and crying in the most anguished way. When they opened the door they saw that he had been pulling out his hair and tearing his garments. They ran to him shouting “Father Abbot, Father Abbot – – what is wrong?” – – expecting that some great damage had been done to the ancient, original sacred texts. And Father Abbot turned to them and in a voice hoarse from crying and moaning said to them “The original texts says CELEBRATE! – – not CELIBATE!”

Sometimes it is a good idea to revisit the texts that shape our beliefs and actions and understanding – – to see what is actually written there. We are in a teaching situation with Jesus and the disciples this morning. We are reminded of this back in the 22nd verse of chapter 17. Luke tends to move between public and private teachings and this is one of the private ones. Amy Jill Levine, Vanderbilt Professor of New Testament, notes that by the 18th chapter of Luke we have already “met numerous unlikeable Pharisees and a number of quite darling tax collectors. When we read the Gospel, our sympathies are with the tax collector, not at all with the Pharisee. This is exactly the opposite stance from which a 1st century Jewish audience would have heard the parable.” 1

Levine points out that in actuality, the presence of a tax collector in the temple would have been quite unexpected. He would have been viewed as an enemy of his people. He was not, as some commentators insist, living in the margins of society. His problem is not that he was without power, wealth or status…sinned against, oppressed, and marginalized; his problem is that he is a sinner, probably rich, an agent of Rome, and as a tax collector, has likely shown no mercy to others.2
“Our tax collector is in the temple, praying. Jesus has given his listeners an image that unsettles.”3

Levine notes that Luke’s portrayal of the Pharisees is often ambivalent and ultimately negative, but that there are some positive descriptions too. Some Pharisees invite Jesus to dinner, others ask Jesus searching questions that are not necessarily hostile. In Luke 13:31, it was Pharisees who warned Jesus to leave town because Herod wanted to kill him. She continues that for the majority of those who listened to Jesus, the Pharisees would have been viewed with respect as people who “walked the talk as well as talked the talk.” They were generally righteous people who tried to live faithful lives according to Jewish law.

So we have a truly righteous man praying in his corner of the temple, thanking God for the richness of life that he enjoys – – and a scoundrel hiding in the shadows – – abjectedly confessing that he is a sinner.

There are two problematic lines in the parable. The words that are used to translate them from the ancient, original Greek affect our understanding of the story. The first one is “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying to God thus….” and the second one is “I tell you, this man (referring to the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other…..” These lines invite us to wrestle with the parable.

Was the Pharisee standing off by himself because he wanted privacy for his prayers? Was he an elitist who needed a lot of space? Was he simply wanting to commune with God? Was he seeking to shame the tax collector?

The KJV translates the first problem from the Greek this way: The Pharisee, in a self absorbed way, “stood and prayed thus with himself”. The NAB makes the same line idolatrous translating it as: “he took up his position and prayed to himself….” Levine suggests that “how we assess the Pharisee may well tell us more about ourselves (and the translator) than about him”. The words of the translation we use make a difference.

Levine argues that “the Pharisee’s prayer does set up distinctions. However, it should be seen not as about self importance, but about gratitude. It is God who has provided the supplicant with the opportunity to study rather than to have to work to earn money. It is God who allows the supplicant to see what is truly important or perhaps to have his ‘pearl of great price.’” 4
The second problematic line in the story has to do with how God deals with the two men. In every translation I looked at – 7 at least, verse 18 is translated the same way: “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other.” There is something in Luke that wants us to identify with the sinner redeemed by God rather than with a Pharisee who seems to live a most righteous life. Throughout the full range of translations, our texts affirm that only one man, the tax collector, was justified – – in right relationship with God – -and the other one wasn’t. Virtually none of the translations varies from this interpretation.

But, Levine, being the scholar that she is, descends into the vault beneath the basement of our inherited texts. Uncomfortable with the questions this verse raises she digs around a little further and discovers a paradox. The original Greek word para ekeinon that is almost universally translated as “rather than”
also means “along side that one.” It can can also mean “because of.” Can you hear the Father Abbot moaning and groaning?

How might our understanding of the nature of God and what it means to have God’s law written in our hearts be changed if we read Jesus’ words this way: “To you I say, descending to his house, this (the tax collector) is justified alongside that Pharisee……” or even more challenging: “this tax collector is justified because of that Pharisee…..”

Read this way, the parable might suggest that the life and prayer of the righteous Pharisee play a role in the salvation of the sinful tax collector – – without there necessarily being a personal connection between the two men at all.

Reading Levine, I was reminded of project I had to complete in a previous life when I was attending nursing school. The class was divided into groups of four students. Each group was to study a particular disease, its symptoms, treatments, medications and so on. We were then to do a comprehensive case study of a patient with the particular disease. It was a massive, time consuming assignment As often happens with group projects, three of us worked seriously on the project. The 4th member rarely showed up prepared when we met and made little contribution to the project. The group started to fracture with resentment about the unfair division of labor and the possibility that our grade would not be good because of the slacker in the group. As the deadline drew near we realized that we were simply going to have to take up the slack if we wanted the grade. We did – – we got the much coveted “A” – – all of us – – even the slacker. As the workers, we were able to celebrate and be thankful that our work had paid off.

Our fellow student received a gift of grace along side of us because of our commitment to doing a good job. It was tempting to get caught in the swamp of resentment about the unfairness – – but that is how it all worked out.

Jesus’ parables are always designed to make us think. Is it true that one person’s merit can be applied to another person? Can people who live straight forward faithful lives make up for the shortcomings of others? How does the transfer of merit happen? What about the apparent unfairness?

Levine suggests that we can “see” ideas in the parable that we already know about but would rather not acknowledge. “We see that Divine grace cannot be limited, for this would be to limit the Divine. This unlimited generosity is something we may find problematic. We are quite happy to know our salvation is assured, but less happy when the same salvation is extended to other people we do not like, especially when our dislike is bolstered by seemingly very good reasons such as “He is a sinner.” 5

For some reason, over the centuries of translation, our tradition has chosen to pit the Pharisee and the tax collector against each other as though there were not enough room in God’s embrace for both to loved and accepted. The more ancient way indicates that there is great possibility for both/and thinking rather than either/or. The good that we do affects those around us who are less capable and engaged. In the realm of grace, like the rising tide that lifts all boats, goodness and faithfulness play a role in the saving of the entire world – not just the good parts. Both men, different as they are, walk into God’s presence and are both extravagantly loved.

Amy Jill Levine completes her exploration of this parable this way: We have seen that the Pharisee has more good deeds, a greater store of protection, than he could need. First century Jews might then conclude that the tax collector has tapped into the merit of the Pharisee …….Just as one person’s sin can create a stain on the entire community, so one person’s righteousness can save it. It is precisely by this transfer of good deeds that, in one way of understanding Jesus’ death, the cross works for salvation: Jesus’ faithfulness is what allows others to be justified.”6

The parable set me to thinking about the “righteous Pharisees” in my life – the ones who by the way they have lived their lives actually make my life more whole; people like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin who founded the Catholic Worker Movement; Thich Nhat Han who lives his Buddhist commitment to compassion and nonviolence; Rev. Carl Kline who works tirelessly to bring about nonviolent social change; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose devotion to Torah and the mystical closeness of God brought him to walk side by side with Martin Luther King; Dr. Catherine Keller who continues to educate another generation of clergy in their closer walk with the Holy. It may surprise you to know that each of you slip into the role too as you inspire my faith. So there are just a few of my righteous Pharisees – people who pay close attention to faithful living under the commands of God. By their goodness, my own life is elevated. At times, I am the righteous Pharisee for others as well – – doing for others what has been done for me. I trust in the more ancient translation of Jesus words. Living in the Grace of the Holy One, there is no either/or. It is a both/and proposition. In God’s sight we go down to our respective homes justified, made right in our relationship with God alongside one another – – even because of one another. This is a description of the work of discipleship that Jesus puts in front of us.
Another enigmatic parable from a controversial rabbi! Jesus said, “Those who have hears to hear, let them hear.”

“If not Now–When” October 16, 2016

“If Not Now – – When?”
Deuteronomy 21:10 – 14
Isaiah 60: 1- 3
Luke 17:20-21
Chilmark Community Church
October 16, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian

It is a powerful and liberating tradition in this country that we observe the separation of church and state. We do not preach from the pulpit in favor or against any particular candidate for election. The pulpit is not to be used to sway opinion one way or another. That being said, though, as people of faith, we do have the responsibility for allowing our sacred texts to inform and guide us as we seek to bring into balance what we hear and see. And if we read the Bible with attention to its historical context, we soon discover that it is one of the most political books ever compiled. It holds at its center the witness to an Unseen God who demands justice for the oppressed, mercy and compassion for the poor, kindness and hospitality to the stranger, and equal treatment under the law for all people and consummate respect for one another as persons created in the image of God. These principles are stated repeatedly in the first 5 books of the bible which form the blueprint for all that follows. The prophets, the Psalmist, and the Jesus of the gospels all keep repeating the same great themes. We belong to an ancient and much larger tradition than our current electoral process. So it is worth taking a closer look at how the ancient texts speak to our contemporary situation.

In our political forums today there are a couple of major and fundamental ways in which political promises differ. There is the politics of change and there is the politics of incremental, step by step, progress over time. While these ways of approaching the social and political changes that are needed are often seen as oppositional, both have their merits and their place in our political process. In the best of all possible worlds, these two ways of looking at how to bring about a transformed society would be complimentary and would work hand in hand – each informing the other.

In the verses we read from Deuteronomy, we find a description of how a desirable female captive, taken in war, is to be treated if the winning general decides to make her his wife. She is to be allowed a month’s time to mourn the family she has lost in the battle. She is to cut her hair and trim her nails as a sign, perhaps of that mourning. She is to remove her captive’s garments in favor of clean clothes. When these requirements have been met, then the general may take her as a wife. If the general decides at some point that he no longer wants her as a wife, he must set her free – he may not sell her and he may not enslave her.

To our minds, all of this is difficult to accept. The woman has no rights and no say in the matter. She is a captive of war, a piece of property. She ends up the wife of a stranger. She has no assurance that her life will be whole and happy.

A closer look, though, reveals that this is one of those places in scripture where incremental reforms have taken place. In other places in the scripture, in accordance with the laws concerning the victims of war, the woman could have been slaughtered outright with the rest of the captives or she could have been abused and enslaved by her captor. Over the course of passing generations, the laws and customs of earlier years were modified and gradually moved toward being more humane – – even though there was still little freedom for women to exercise the power of choice over their lives.

A little further on, we read about inheritance rights. There are two wives in a family sharing the same husband, one wife, beloved, and the other not so well loved. The not-so-well-loved wife gives birth to the first born son of the shared husband. A little later, the beloved wife also gives birth to a son who is her firstborn – but not the firstborn to the husband. The law in Deuteronomy states that due consideration must be given to the firstborn son of the unloved wife because he is the older son. The father cannot play favorites or ignore the birth order. There is no mention here of the pros and cons and injustices of polygamy as this was the accepted norm. If you will recall from the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Sarah gave her slave, Hagar, to Abraham so that Hagar could conceive a child with Abraham since Sarah seemed to be barren in her old age.

Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, making Ishmael Abraham’s first born and eldest son. But Sarah was the beloved wife and eventually she did become pregnant and gave birth to Isaac. In this story, the family inheritance and blessing went to Isaac – the son of the beloved wife – – leaving Ishmael, the first born son of Abraham and the unloved wife, Hagar, without the benefit of a blessing and inheritance from Abraham.

The law that we just read from Deuteronomy is part of the incremental changes that happened where family inheritance laws were at issue. They moved gradually toward a more just system.

The incremental changes that we see in the laws of inheritance in Deuteronomy move toward greater justice even though the bigger picture still seems fraught with problems to our modern eyes. Incremental change takes time and patience. It happens, sometimes over generations and we can’t always see a satisfying progress.

On the other hand, there is the kind of change that looks for dramatic transformation that is quickly measurable – – that satisfies the human yearning for something better – – something visible that assures a positive step ahead. Our political rhetoric is often filled with promises for rapid change that will satisfy the hopes of so many people for a better future.

There are voices in our ancestral lineage who give utterance to the politics of change. The great prophets were often the voice of transformative vision. They were able to stand outside their respective cultures and societies and notice what was wrong. They could see clearly where change needed to happen in order for the Divine vision of holiness for all of God’s people to become a reality. They gave voice to the Divine longing for God’s people to pay attention to issues of justice and compassion. Unlike our contemporary politics of change, however, the prophets stridently called for changed behavior on the part of the people. They called for repentance – – for the people to return to greater faithfulness to the Ultimate Concerns of God for God’s people. The biblical politics of change was not magical – – and social change did not come simply because someone decreed that it would. It required a change of heart of the people – first and foremost.

The overall witness of the Bible attests to the fact that both perspectives are required in order for humankind to continue to move toward a more just and humane and compassionate society.

Listen to a few verses of the transformative vision of the prophet Isaiah preached to a people yearning with hope for what life might be like after their exile ended:

Raise your eyes and look about:
They have all gathered and come to you.
Your sons shall be brought from afar,
Your daughters like babes on shoulders.
And behold, you shall glow;
Your heart will throb and thrill –
For the wealth of the sea shall pass on to you,
Dust clouds of camels shall cover you,
Dromedaries of Midian and Ephah.
They shall all come from Sheba;
They shall bear gold and frankincense,
and shall herald the glories of the Lord.
Bowing before you shall come
the children of those who tormented you;
prostrate at the soles of your feet
shall be those who reviled you;
I the mighty one of Jacob am your redeemer.
Instead of copper I will bring gold,
instead of iron, I will bring silver;
Instead of wood, copper;
instead of stone, iron,
and I will appoint Well-being as your government
Prosperity as your officials.
The cry “Violence” shall no more be heard in your land,
nor “wrack and ruin!” within your borders.
And you shall name your walls “Victory”
and your gates “Renown.”

This is a transformative vision for change. If Isaiah had been running for public office around 500 BCE, he would have won hands down. He preached God’s promise that Israel would be restored to greatness, that her wealth would be returned to her, that her scattered children would return home, that violence would no longer reign in the land – – that well-being and prosperity would reign. He brought the people great hope and vision.

2500 years later, we live in a world still waiting for that great transformative vision to come in all its fullness. We still wait, often in anguish, at the slowness of its coming.

While thousands of people continue to suffer and die, the UN has interminable discussions about how to re-settle refugees from Aleppo. Nations around the world struggle with developing policies that will lead to the resettlement of immigrants in a safe and just way. The lumbering slowness of response is maddening.

Our country continues to wrestle with the legacy of slavery and the resulting civil rights issues and racial inequality that continue to plague us.

Unimaginable wealth and unspeakable poverty exist side by side and we are slow to find ways to bring economic justice into reality.

Our young and sometimes not so young people suffer and die from opiate addiction in increasing numbers.
Our tradition has always embraced the paradoxical vision of the ” just about to happen” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God. One of Jesus’ most enigmatic sayings is in the gospel of Luke when he was asked by a Pharisee when the kingdom of God was coming? Jesus answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say “Look here it is!” or “There it is! For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20 – 21)
John the Baptist preached “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The literal translation is the kingdom “has come near.” He and Jesus both proclaimed the nearness of God’s kingdom.
Just consider for a moment what the response would have been like if Jesus and John had preached, “The kingdom of God is 2,000 years away.” This would not have been news, nor would it have been perceived as all that good. The message would have been almost irrelevant, and public response would have been disappointment.
However, John and Jesus preached a kingdom that was near in time to their audiences. The message said something about what people should do now; it had immediate relevance and urgency. It aroused interest. The message challenged the status quo and implied that changes were needed in civil government, in religious understanding, and in personal behavior – and they were needed now – -even though, in real time, a long, arduous process would be needed to bring about the social change that the Kingdom of God implies.
The fact that our scriptures seem to be able to hold together the great vision of a transformed society and the need for small incremental steps toward fulfilling the vision may help us to live with the ambiguity of the loud and strident arguments circling around us today.
The Bible helps us to understand that while the urgent vision – the promise of change and a sense of immediacy are necessary for us in order to sustain our hope and energy for the future – – we also have to be prepared for the long haul of working toward that envisioned future in sometimes agonizingly slow and laborious increments.
It is in the day by day working toward the vision that we, as people of God, are able to harmonize the paradox when Jesus says “The kingdom of God is coming and is now among you.” It is in the day by day work that we do together that the kingdom becomes real now.
So – as we move forward – as we listen and try to make sense of what we hear, perhaps we can let the scriptures guide us – – and even reassure us. Perhaps, we may find a bit of rest in knowing that for centuries the divine promise of a holy future is within our grasp – – if we are willing to patiently do our part to make it real now by how we create harmony and compassion and justice and well-being right where we are – -and to know that what we do NOW affects the future in ways that are not apparent to us as we labor on. May we be blessed with the urgency of the vision and with the patience we need for the long haul. AMEN

“A Certain Royal Dignity” 9/25/16

A Certain Royal Dignity”

Chilmark Community Church

September 25, 2016

Esther 4:11-14; 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

Luke 14:25-34

We’re looking at a rather fun story from the Hebrew scriptures this morning. The Book of Esther reads like a short novel. It has all the elements of drama, intrigue, struggles with ethics and morality – – and of course, ultimately, a happy ending. Out of context, the verses we have read demand closer examination. I had an Old Testament professor in seminary who used to say that when we are using a text from the Hebrew scriptures for Christian preaching, we must continually ask “Where is the good news in this text?” So – with the story of Esther, a delightful treasure hunt begins. A lot of the Book of Esther is concerned with a royal court machine, power politics, the threat of ethnic cleansing, the oppression of women and the politics of revenge. Not a lot of good news there – – and, like so many parts of the Bible, the issues sound all too contemporary.

We work our way into the plot of the story as the Persian king, Ahasuerus, is planning a big bash to show off his magnificent palace to some of the other nobility in the region. As the party wears on, and the wine flows, and the men get more and more drunk, the king gets the idea that he not only wants to show off the building and grounds, he also wants to show off his beautiful queen, Vashti, as well. So he sends off a messenger to the harem to summon her so he can exhibit her to his guests. Vashti is as feisty as she is beautiful and she says “No way am I going to be paraded in front of all those drunken men!” Literally taking her life in her own hands, she refuses the kings command. It might be attributed to his lack of sobriety that the king, instead of sentencing her to death immediately, goes into a huddle with his advisors who tell him “King – you have to get a grip on your wife. If you don’t make her obey you, all the women in the kingdom will follow her example and there will be chaos. None of them will obey their husbands.”

The only solution is to get rid of Vashti. But killing off a popular queen is really tacky – so, instead, the king banishes her from court to spend the rest of her life secluded in a harem of women. Of course, this poses a problem for King Ahasuerus. Now he has no beautiful queen. How to find one to replace Vashti? Enter the advisors again. “How about a beauty contest – – Persian style!” So the search begins for the most beautiful women in the kingdom. Over a period of a year, the loveliest maidens of the land are prepared to come before the king, one at a time. Each one would spend the night with the king. If he liked her, she would become the next queen. If not – – back to the harem.

At about this time, Esther enters the drama – orphaned at an early age, raised by her uncle, Mordecai, very beautiful – – – and very Jewish – – something that was not widely known. Esther was of the second generation of Israel to live in Persian exile. Because of her great beauty she ended up in the king’s harem rather than suffering a fate of slavery or worse. Her Uncle Mordecai kept watch over her and saw to her well being. But the fact that she was a Jew had been kept a secret. Esther wins the beauty contest and becomes the queen – – which, as we have seen, is only fun if you do everything the kings says.

One day, quite by chance, Uncle Mordecai overhears a plot to assassinate the king. Mordecai tells Esther who passes the word along to Ahasuerus. The would be assassins are hung on the gallows. (A bit of political capital in the bank for Mordecai).

As the drama unfolds, it seems that Mordecai attracts the unwanted attention of Haman, the king’s right hand man. Haman has a bit of an ego problem and expects that people will bow down to him when he walks by. Mordecai, being a faithful Jew, bows to no one but God. This doesn’t set well with Haman so, of course, he plots to have Mordecai eliminated – – but Mordecai is not the only target of his wrath. Haman goes to the king and tells him that “certain people” (namely the Jews) do not keep all the king’s laws and therefore the king should not tolerate them. So the king issues the order that on a certain day, all the people in question (the Jews) are to be exterminated – young and old – men, women and children – – and the right to plunder the property of the Jews is given to those who will carry out the king’s command.

Mordecai gets the word of the order for his people to be annihilated. By a trusted third party, he passes the information along to Queen Esther. In his best authoritative uncle’s voice, he prevails upon Esther to speak to the king in her people’s behalf.

Now – -sticky wicket here – – it seems that there is a rule that no one gets to appear before the king unless the king calls a person to appear before the throne. AND, no one gets to actually speak to the king unless the king extends his golden scepter toward the person. Since there was no one lobbying for 1st amendment rights, i this was a very efficient way to silence any critical voices in the royal court. So – -of course, Esther is reluctant to follow her uncle’s bidding. She sends a message back to him saying she hasn’t been summoned before the king for a full 30 days. If she attempts to appear and speak to the king on her own, she is a candidate for the death sentence.

But old Mordecai will not be put off and he sends another message to Esther in these words: Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief will arise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your family will perish. And then he adds: Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.

And so, Esther does indeed make an appearance before the king. She petitions the king on behalf of her people – – appealing to his sense of economics (more likely his royal greed!) She greets him with humility : If I have won your favor, O King, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given to me – that is my petition – – and the lives of my people – -that is my request. We have been sold to be annihilated. If we had been sold to be slaves, I would have held my peace. But no one can compensate for the economic damage that the death of my people would do to the king.

Long story short, Esther points her finger at Haman, the king’s right hand man, who has plotted the extermination of the Jews and the king orders that Haman be strung up on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai. Subsequently, the Jews rise up and take revenge. The 10 sons of Haman are hanged and thousands of the enemies of the Jews are slaughtered in the outlying provinces. To this day, the Feast of Purim is celebrated in February or March as an observance of the deliverance of the Jews from annihilation.

Well – – where is the good news? How are we to appropriate this story for our thinking as followers of Jesus more than 2500 years later? These are the kinds of questions that can make sermon writing a nightmare!

But – – another thing I learned from the same professor is that often, scripture interprets scripture. Enter the gospel reading for this morning. Jesus is talking with his friends about the conditions and the cost of discipleship. He asks “who goes about building a tower without first figuring out how much it will cost to complete it?” Or “who decides to go into battle without first figuring out if there are enough soldiers to win the battle against the enemy? If it seems that winning is out of the question with the resources at hand, the wise general sends a delegation to seek terms of peace.” And then , in a seemingly unrelated statement, Jesus says “therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” It is a strange juxtaposition of words, jumping from estimating building costs to developing military strategy to giving up all that one possesses in the service of becoming a disciple.

The clue resides in the last verse of this section: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its flavor, how can its saltiness be restored? It is neither fit for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone who has ears to hear listen!” Mark’s gospel renders the teaching this way: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” (Mark 9:49) Have salt in yourselves and be at peace.

The substance that Jesus knew as salt was not the same as the kind of salt we use today. Our modern salt -made up of sodium and chloride -is a very stable substance. If you dissolve some in water, it still retains its saltiness. If the water evaporates, the salt that remains still tastes salty. The salt that Jesus talked about was much less stable. If it was exposed to sunlight or too much moisture, or stored in a damp place, it was apt to lose its taste and become useless. There was no way it could be made salty again.

So Jesus teaches that being a disciple of his definitely will cost us something. There may be a lot of things we need to let go of in the way of pride or uncertainty, of fear and anxiety about how to rise to the occasion of discipleship.

Jesus teaches that discipleship is not a hit or miss kind of thing. It requires thinking and not a little inward preparation for the task.

Discipleship – that is – being a disciplined follower of the teachings, requires that we be wise in the ways of the world. It sometimes requires that we stand back and look at how we are going to complete a task before we get going on it. Do we have the energy? Do we have the resources? Are we willing to make some sacrifices? Going out into the world unprepared is not a requirement of discipleship. We are to use our minds as well as our hearts and our spirits. But Jesus also reminds us that we have indeed been “salted” – we have been given gifts that can be used in God’s service – and if we choose not to use those gifts -we may, indeed, lose our saltiness and become rather lackluster in our daily lives.

I think we can build a bridge in both directions between the words of Jesus and the words of Mordecai to Esther – – and then maybe we can see how these words can have meaning for us today. Jesus spoke for his time. Mordecai spoke for his time. They both speak for our time.

Esther was in a position to act in a saving way for her people. She was scared. To follow through on Mordecai’s request might have meant her death. She was essentially powerless in a culture and a location where power was everything and it belonged to only a few who were strong enough or wealthy enough or deceitful enough to grasp it for themselves. Esther was a foreign born captive – an alien – an object of beauty to be used and displayed at the king’s pleasure. She had no political or financial or moral agency – – at least as far as she thought. But, as push came to shove – as it often does in life – she became the only hope for her people. Uncle Mordecai’s words resound in her ears: “If you keep silent – the Jews may find help elsewhere, but you will die.” Jesus might have said “ If you don’t act, you will lose your saltiness.” Mordecai in his wise question asks “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity – – maybe you came to be queen of this arbitrary and powerful man – for just such a time as this?”

Being a powerless queen in the court of a king who has absolute power over everything – – being a follower of Jesus in a world that seems just a godless as the world of the Persian court – – being a follower of Jesus in 2016 – the situations are different only in degree. I can almost hear Jesus reaching back over the centuries to Esther – “Esther – – everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good – but if you lose it, you will die -you will wither inside – you will lose everything that makes you beautiful and strong and courageous. Have salt in yourself. Be the active ingredient that works in behalf of the preservation of your people.

And perhaps we can hear the words of Mordecai reaching forward to the disciples over the centuries too – – “if you guys keep silent in times that call for clear thinking and truth speaking, the people around you may survive and go on, but you will perish. Think about it. Perhaps you are right here in this moment to

serve a particular purpose in the preservation of the world.

The trick is, of course, to hear the challenge of the story for us in our time. Heaven knows there is a fair amount of risk these days. Every bit of the political intrigue and anxiety and oppression that permeated the court of King Ahasuerus permeates the political scene today. People are imprisoned without just cause because they are aliens in a strange land. Their properties are plundered, their families left unprotected and un-provided for. Nations grasp for power and wield it irresponsibly without regard for what it means for the next generation. The health and education and wellbeing of the people is secondary to the need for ever more political and military and financial power. Sometimes our inner questions arise: “Where will it all end?” “Where is our hope?” “What can we depend on?”

It’s curious. The Book of Esther never once mentions the name of God. There is absolutely no reference to a greater power. None of the laws and rituals of Judaism are mentioned. The Book of Esther is not a religious book. It is thoroughly political from start to finish. And yet, the words of Mordecai evoke a subtle awareness that there is a power at work in the wings, so to speak. A power that calls human beings to something higher, something greater than the terrible, dangerous pettiness of the politics of Esther’s time.

We are in the countdown of one of the most difficult and demoralizing election campaigns of our lifetime. In the weeks ahead, we can only expect it to intensify. There will be innumerable opportunities for us to listen, to ponder and then to discern the truth. It is incumbent upon us as followers of The Way to sift and sort and interpret all the sound and fury in the light of the teachings of Jesus – – and then to speak the truth as the opportunities present themselves.

In Uncle Mordecai’s words, there is a call to life in the midst of horrendous danger. He calls forth in Esther the willingness to use what ever

whatever power she does have in behalf of her people. Jesus calls us to do the same thing. He pleads with us: Just be the salt you are called to be. Be your highest and best self, fully informed by the life and teaching of Jesus. Let the power of the Spirit that enlivens you empower you to see the truth and then speak the truth that needs to be spoken when you feel it pulsing its way forth.

Trust that you are called by that greater and often unnamed power that works always and in all things to being a disorderly and chaotic world around right.

Jesus uses salt figuratively to challenge his followers to be true disciples – -people who by their own lives raise the moral tone of the society in which they live. He asks us to believe that how we conduct our lives makes a difference, no matter how large or small our spheres of influence. Perhaps, as we go out from this time in the sanctuary, we might hear Jesus and Mordecai whispering in our ears: “Have salt in yourselves – – – who knows, perhaps you have come to a certain royal dignity for just such a time as this?”

Lia and Friends Sept.11,2016

2016-lkf-photoWhat a fabulous concert!  Pictured in front of the church, left to right, Armen Hanjian (musical saw), Lia Kahler (mezzo- soprano),  Phil Dietterich (organ) and Richard  Gordon  (piano).  Photo by Lynn Cristoffers

The concert and silent auction before it raised almost $10,000 for the Food Pantry and the All Island Clergy winter homeless shelter program.

When Worlds Collide 9/11/16

“When Worlds Collide”

1 Kings 21:1-21

Luke 7:36 – 8:3

Chilmark Community Church

September 11, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Naboth is a Vineyarder!  He owns a lovely vineyard that has been handed down from generation to generation in his family.  His world is one in which he is responsible for caring for his land. But even more important, he is responsible for passing it along, intact, to the next generation in his family.  In Naboth’s world, stewardship of the land entrusted to him is a sacred act of covenant with God.

King Ahab’s world is full of political intrigue and suspicion, of political alliances that shift with the wind.  He lives in a world of inter-tribal politics and he ends up marrying Jezebel, a Phoenician princess who worships a foreign god.  Ahab is a pretty relaxed guy when it comes to pleasing his wife – – and like King Solomon before him, Ahab built altars and temples to the gods of his wife’s religion.  In Ahab’s world, decisions are made based on political expediency to keep his world afloat.

As Ahab’s queen, Jezebel pretty much got her own way.  Her world was colorful with the religion she brought to Ahab’s court.  She was not the shy, retiring type and before long she installed hundreds of ba’al priestesses and prophets in the royal household – a the expense of the public treasury.   No separation of church and state in Ahab’s  court!   Where Ahab was fairly tolerant, Jezebel was a fanatical evangelist for her Phoenician religion.  As was inevitable, her world collided with the religious world of the prophets of Israel’s God.  Jezebel’s heart’s desire was to destroy all those prophets.  In her world, the ends justified the means.  Jezebel tore down the altars of  Israel’s God, killed off God’s prophets and drove any remaining faithful people underground.

The great prophet Elijah arrived on the scene and his world collided with the world of Jezebel – big time!   Elijah’s world is filled with “zeal for the Lord!”  The entire focus of his world is his job of speaking the word of God to Ahab – trying to get Israel back on track as God’s people.

In the story we just heard, worlds collide.  The world of faithful covenant keeping, the world of haphazard attention to God’s claim on Israel’s loyalty, the world of religious fanaticism and greed, the world of the prophet who delivers God’s word.

It’s colorful reading!  There aren’t too many good guys in the story.  Greed and religious fanaticism rule the day.  Naboth, an honest man who refuses to cooperate with the king’s desires ends up being sacrificed to the machinery of Ahab’s and Jezebel’s religious zeal.

The worlds of power and greed and fanaticism collide with the worlds of faithfulness and integrity and honor – – and then as now, it appears as though power and greed and fanaticism win the day.  Naboth, an innocent man, dies and this part of the story ends with terrible threats of disaster and revenge.  We might well ask what possible good is intended by the inclusion of this bloody and violent story in our scriptures?

But, other worlds collide in the scriptures too.  Simon, the Pharisee’s world is one of loyal stewardship of the word of God.  It is a thoughtful world where the primary goal of life is to pay attention to Torah – – to live as closely as possible a life that is faithful to the covenant between God and Israel.  Simon’s life work was to keep asking questions of the sacred texts, to draw attention to the discrepancies between the Torah’s demands and the way the people of God lived their lives.

An anonymous woman, about whom we know virtually nothing, lives in an invisible world.  Tradition would have us believe that she is a “woman of the streets” – a prostitute – an adulteress – – but the story says none of that.  Her world is largely hidden from us – – as the world of women often was at the time of Jesus.  At Simon’s dinner party her invisible world collided with the world of the Pharisee.

But the woman’s world also collided with the world of Jesus: a world dominated by compassion;  a world fueled by lovingkindness and forgiveness; a world illuminated by Jesus’ heightened consciousness of the Holy One.

What happens when worlds collide?

Disaster, perhaps.  Surely this was so in the collision of the worlds of Ahab and Jezebel and Naboth and Elijah.  Greed, abuse of power and privilege, the brutal death of an innocent man, further threats of violence and revenge…… sounds all too familiar and all too contemporary.  This story is, perhaps, a metaphor, for the kinds of worlds that collided  15 years ago today when the World Trade Center towers fell.

But sometimes when worlds collide something different happens.  Sometimes creation gives birth to something new out of anger and violent conflict.  Sometimes energy is generated when conflicting values surface in the presence of understanding and compassion.  Operative prejudices are challenged.  There is a new spin on things.  Simon the Pharisee had to re-examine his assumptions about a woman he didn’t really know.  Party guests had to create space for the intruder.  The status quo got shaken up.  Even the woman had to expand her own self-understanding in response to the gracious attitude extended to her by Jesus.  Sometimes, when worlds collide, something new is created.

More than a few years ago now, Armen and I went back to NJ to celebrate with my younger sister as she graduated from Essex County College in the city of Newark, NJ.  We were deeply impressed by the scenario of that graduation.  There were some 4000 people in attendance.  We estimated that about 300 of that number were white.  In a graduating class of 800, there were perhaps 85 white students.  The class and the families celebrating with them were predominantly African American and Latin American students.

In the 60s and 70s the city of Newark was the scene of prolonged and violent racial conflict and protest. A once vibrant city became the locale of civil strife reflected in every major city across the country to some extent.  I recall driving south on the Garden State Parkway to visit Armen’s mother and seeing the exits to Newark cordoned off by National Guardsmen in order to contain the violence and conflict.  The world of white privilege and the world of the oppression and poverty of urban African Americans had collided.  For a time the results were chaotic and ugly.  But then, gradually, the landscape and geography of the city of Newark changed.  High end department stores that had serviced predominantly white, middle class suburbanites closed and were replaced by companies that were more in touch with the needs of the community.  Populations shifted dramatically as white folks left the city and were replaced by people of Hispanic background.  A Black mayor was elected.  The police force shifted from being predominantly white to predominantly Black.

Essex County College was founded to serve the community by providing accessible, affordable college education  for the city of Newark and the immediately surrounding communities.

All of that history was in the collective memory of the people who celebrated the Class of 2004.  Worlds had collided in the 60s and 70s – and this particular graduation day some 30 odd years later was a joyful day all around.  Have all the inequities been addressed?  No.  Has poverty been erased? No.  Has the sin of racism been expunged?  No.  But what emerged out of the terrible collision of worlds in those years was a determination on the part of many of the folks who lived through it to build something better out of the agony and the suffering of Newark – – and Essex County College was born.

The possibility of something creative being birthed out of colliding worlds is an idea that intrigues me.  Maybe this is why the bloody stories are there in our scriptures.  But sometimes we have to read an awfully long way before we come to the truth that the power of God is working even in the worst of it.  So often, the rise and fall of the truth seems to rest on the loyalty and faithfulness of one frail person.

In today’s story, that person is Elijah – a strange man who appears and disappears and re-appears in the narratives of the 1st and 2nd Books of Kings.  His discouragement and sense of failure surface time and time again – -and yet his faithfulness as the worlds of his time are colliding is a faithfulness that in the larger picture contributes to the survival of the tribes who eventually become the Jewish people.  Where would we be today if Elijah had simply disappeared back into the wilderness?

Worlds are colliding all the time.  Certainly war represents the collision of multiple worlds. Religion and politics are worlds that collide ever more frequently. We are witnessing now the collision of the world that is shaped by our collective need for safety with the world of our personal and civil rights and the right to privacy. The world of political expediency and the world of moral outrage collide in the headlines on a daily basis.

One thing is for sure: when there is a collision, every thing is jostled and things have to loosen up.  Collisions sometimes create space where there was none before.  And in that space, the Holy One gets a chance to move – -to create something that did not exist before.

Sometimes, a lot of confusion and anxiety and discomfort is the only thing we know for a long time.  As with the Elijah stories, we have to read and experience an awful lot before we get to the  good news that eventually arises out of the story.  And even then, other collisions are taking place that continue the shaping process.  It is extremely uncomfortable to live with colliding worlds.

The collision of the worlds of Simon the Pharisee and the uninvited guest and Jesus creates a new possibility.  Simon didn’t like it one bit that a strange woman from off the street crashed his party.  But because Simon was a reasonable person, he did pause and listen to Jesus when Jesus said, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”  Simon listened to Jesus’ parable of forgiveness.  Simon witnessed the interaction between Jesus and the woman.  The three way interaction becomes a metaphor for what is needed when worlds collide.  At the beginning, Simon wasn’t paying attention to Jesus.  it was as simple as that.  As respectful, and respectable, and intelligent and faithful as he was, he wasn’t paying attention to Jesus.  The woman, however, whatever her world was like outside of Simon’s house, never took her attention away from Jesus from the time she crashed the party.

So – therein lies the secret when worlds collide – -whatever those worlds may be: the presence of Jesus calls for our undivided attention – – a single-mindedness – a centeredness in which we become likeminded with him.  We have heard so frequently from  Paul’s words encouraging us to “have this mind in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  Paul writes about residing in a kind of “Christ consciousness” so that we can say it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

We can’t escape the collision of the many worlds in which we live.  Even in a relatively small community like the Vineyard, the world of unimaginable wealth collides with the world of inadequate housing.  The world of abundance of food and possessions collides with the world of hunger and lack.  The world of those who belong collides with the world of the outsider.  The world of private and personal comfort collides with the world of public need.  The world of invisible suffering collides with the world of the status quo.

It is easy to forget that we are called to live vibrantly at the point of impact where worlds collide.  It is easy to forget where our worlds collide with the world of Jesus.  It is easy to forget that we are called to pay attention.  The dinner party is so comfortable.  But worlds will continue to collide and life is in constant flux.  The one thing we can depend on is that Jesus stands in our  midst and says “People….I have something to say to you.”  In the midst of the noise and confusion and uncertainty as we live at the point of impact – – at the heart of colliding worlds – – Jesus simply calls us to listen.   May we receive the grace to slow down and be quiet enough to hear the wisdom and the challenge that the Christ will speak to us as worlds collide.

HOW CRAZY WAS HE? August 28,2016

“How Crazy Was He?”

1 Samuel 16: 14-23

Mark 3:20-35

August 28, 2016

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Not long after Armen and I moved here from NJ, a young friend and colleague in ministry came to visit the island for the first time.  He and his wife were members of the New Jersey Korean congregation with whom my Anglo congregation shared their building and facilities.  KunSam was describing his experience of taking his youth group to Henderson Settlement in Kentucky for a work camp at the United Methodist mission site there.  Being Korean, he was both delighted and mystified by the colorful language and euphemisms in the rural Kentucky mountain speech patterns.  He laughed uproariously as he described how the high school kids at the settlement were talking very solemnly about a neighbor who had almost “bought the farm” when he made a sharp turn on his tractor and the machine tipped over, pinning him beneath.

KunSam, on hearing the phrase “he almost bought the farm” wondered why people were so serious.  Wouldn’t buying a farm be a reason to celebrate?  He laughed even harder as he told us about the amusement of the Kentucky kids at his expense.  He didn’t know that to say “He almost bought the farm” was a way of saying the man almost died.  Then he began asking us about other euphemisms in the English language that he had heard and not quite understood.  “What does it mean when you say ‘the lights are on but nobody is home?’”  And that question evoked a string of colloquialisms – – about being “one brick short of a load”  – – or “being half a bubble off plumb” – – or “not being wrapped too tight” – – “or “having a screw loose somewhere.”  KunSam was delighted with the colorful ways Americans have of describing peculiar or unstable mental and emotional behavior.

In our gospel story this morning, a crowd has gathered.  Once again, there was such a crush of people trying to get close to the place where Jesus was staying that there was neither space nor time for him and Peter and James and John to get a bite to eat.  This seems to be a popular way for the gospel writers to get the point across that Jesus was often overwhelmed and besieged with the needs of the people who sought him out.

I wonder if the folks around Jesus had their own language challenges  – -trying to describe Jesus’ behavior.  The rumors were flying.   “He’s gone mad!”  “He is beside himself!”  “He has gone out of his mind!”

Some folks had come down from Jerusalem to where Jesus was staying. They had even stronger language for what they observed in Jesus: “He has Beelzebul!”  “By the ruler of demons he casts out demons!”   In the minds of Jesus adversaries, he was not only crazy – –  he was possessed by demons – – and furthermore, he used his demonic powers to exorcise demons from other people.

Well – – – how crazy was he??  What had led to the rumors and accusations that are being hurled at Jesus in this story?  We can never accurately understand a particular verse or story if it is taken out of its context. So we have to go backwards in Mark’s story – just a bit.

Near the beginning of Mark’s first chapter, Jesus emerges out of Nazereth, a small town, perhaps 50 – 60 miles north of Jerusalem.  One of his first acts is to align himself with his cousin, John the Baptizer – – a strange, powerful and charismatic preacher.  Jesus receives John’s baptism and then disappears into the  barren Judean wilderness for more than a month – – 40 days as the story goes.  In the wild places, he confronts the satan – the adversary –  he is ministered to by wild beasts and attended by angels.

Back in civilization, he heads for Galilee, his home territory, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near.  Almost immediately, he calls 12 people to follow him.  He is charismatic enough himself that they leave their livelihoods and their families to go – – apparently without question.

Before we even get to the end of Chapter 1 in Mark, Jesus is already teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, healing his friend’s sick mother-in-law.  He touches a person with leprosy and heals him.  He heals another person with a paralyzing condition – – he forgives sins – – He eats with tax collectors and prostitutes.  He defends his companions when they pick grain on the Sabbath.  He angers some of his fellow religious Jews.   All this by the end of Chapter 2.  By the end of Chapter 3 Jesus is engaged in discussions about the meaning of the Sabbath and is exercising his authority over demons.

And then, all of a sudden he is in small house so crowded with people who want to hear him and touch him and be touched by him that he doesn’t have time even for a coffee break.  HIs family is afraid that the rumors of madness are true and they come to try to take him home with them.  “Maybe he really is crazy.  Let’s get him out of here before he hurts someone – -or before someone hurts him – – or before he hurts himself.”

The story gives us characters that are divided into two main groups – those who are inside the house and those who are outside.  We might ask ourselves where we would be – – insiders or outsiders?

Would we be among Jesus’ relatives, his mother and brothers and sisters?  The people who had watched him grow up – had witnessed him leave his carpentry shop and disappear for hours and days at a time? Would we be among those who worried about him when he didn’t come home from his trip to the south where the baptizer was doing his thing? – – Maybe.  If I were his mother, I would be worried, wondering what had happened to my normal, responsible eldest son.  Maybe I’d want to take him home, feed him some chicken soup, and get him back on track.

Maybe we would be among Jesus’ adversaries with whom he argued about the nature of the Sabbath – or about who has the power to forgive sins – or who think he might be possessed by demons – – one brick short of a load!

We might well be standing outside the house.  I think, at times, we might entertain notions about Jesus, about what he expects of us – – the demands he makes of us.  After all – where does he get the nerve??  Telling me to love my neighbor – I don’t even like my neighbor!  Return good to someone who has done evil to you?  The man’s gone round the bend!  Forgive 70 times 7??  That doesn’t make sense.  It’s not even practical.  The man’s got a screw missing somewhere!

The curious thing about being in the crowd outside the house is that we are always right!  What Jesus asks of us doesn’t make sense.  What he proposes for life is simply not rational.

But, we might also place ourselves inside the house in the crush of the people who have crowded in to be near him.  On the inside doesn’t much matter to us whether what Jesus asks makes sense.  He pays attention to us.  He listens to our pain.  He heals our brokenness with his touch.  He doesn’t cringe or turn away because we are scarred, or wounded, or sick, or old, or arthritic, or cantankerous.  To us, Jesus is not crazy.  He is love.  He offers a spacious hospitality to each one of us.  When we sit in his presence we feel his interest, his warmth, his laughter.  We feel our own warmth returning.  We feel more whole.  Our scars begin to soften.  Our spirits start to hum, maybe even sing.  If Jesus is out of his mind – – perhaps that is where we want to be.  Maybe this is how we feel, sitting in the crush inside the house.

There is one more group in the story that doesn’t get much press in this scenario – – but we might be in this small inner circle that watches Jesus intently – the group that Jesus called to be his companions, to be with him on his way.  We might be sitting there in awe.  He has invited us to go with him – – he has told us we will do even greater works than he is doing.  He has invited us to leave the old ways behind – no more tedious mending of nets; no more watching the sky and the water for just the right weather for fishing.  But on the other hand, we don’t always know what to expect.  We’re not always sure what to do when we see someone suffering.  We aren’t all that good at healing people the way he does.  Sometime we aren’t really sure of the whole enterprise.  But, there is that charismatic attraction – – and we draw closer and let his love permeate us. We become his disciples.

On any given day, we might be a part of all three groups.  That is the nature of being human.   One moment we are feeling very righteous and clear about our lives and our choices and decision making – and the next we are sitting at the feet of Jesus needing healing of the demons that haunt us.  We go so easily from knowing peace and harmony and joy in our lives to feeling stressed, suspicious and alienated and so on.  The days when we feel up to the challenge of keeping close company with Jesus are sometimes few and far between.  How can we be the ones to exorcise demons and evil spirits when we are so broken ourselves. How can we be the ones who help bring in the Kingdom of God when we have trouble even glimpsing the vision in a world that is so tormented and angry and frightened and tired?

Indeed, the crowd – – the outsiders and insiders – – and the inner circle – -is us.  And no matter where we stand at any given moment, we are called to make a judgment about the craziness of Jesus.   But his invitation to us is always clear.

Those who would become as family to Jesus are those who attempt to discern and follow the will of God.  The mothers and brothers and sisters of Jesus will carry a family tendency toward a Christ-like craziness.  They will behave in ways that defy conventional wisdom about the way things should be done. They will be loving when resentment might seem more reasonable.  They will welcome the stranger into their midst when fear and suspicion might be more natural.  They will offer tears of healing when a stiff upper lip might be more socially acceptable.

You see – – it is the madness of Jesus that  encourages the world to give up its weapons.  It is a crazy Jesus who invites us to consider peace instead of war.  It is a Jesus “gone round the bend” who invites us to counter aggression with lovingkindness. It is a Jesus “not wrapped to tight” who teaches us to return good for evil. It is a Jesus “one brick short of a load” who prays on the cross “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they are doing.” 

Yesterday, we attended a memorial lunch for a friend who died suddenly last spring while he was traveling in Southeast Asia.  We were all shocked beyond belief when we heard the news of his death.  He was a much loved human being. His death left a huge hole in the fabric of the community he left behind.   In an articulate testimony to Andrew’s goodness,  one man told the story of Andrew’s comments after one of the more atrocious terrorist attacks in Europe that had occurred barely two weeks before his intended departure for Southeast Asia.  We were all concerned for him, traveling alone in an often dangerous part of the world.  But – Andrew was crazy.  He often housed strangers who had no place to sleep at night. He brought people home and fed them when they looked hungry. He helped young people find jobs. He trusted human beings.   Andrew told us that he had faith that wherever he went he would meet kind and compassionate people. He would have shelter and that strangers would care for him and insure his safety.  He loved people and even the most unlikely strangers loved him back.  He died in Bangkok surrounded by strangers who cared for him as one of their own.  We could see in Andrew the kind of fearless joy and love and generosity and hospitality that Jesus showed to all the circles of people around him.  Crazy.

Jesus invites us, every one, into the inner circle of discipleship where we become his kin because we decide to embrace and live out his craziness in a world that doesn’t understand.  The God of our ancestors has never been a rational god.  Why would the Son of God be any different?  The non-rational journey of discipleship is one of learning to love without reservation, to exercise compassion, to offer reconciliation and the possibility of healing wherever we find ourselves.  We don’t come perfectly equipped for the job – but Jesus calls us anyway.  How crazy was he? – – – – –  How crazy are we????

“I Believe in Jesus Christ” 8/21/16


PHIL. 2:1-11

August 21, 2016

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Armen Hanjian

Who is Jesus? What we know of him can be summarized in short order. He was born 67 generations ago – 6 B.C. as the calendars have been corrected. He was born in Bethlehem, about 5 miles South of Jerusalem; born of devout Jewish parents. He was reared in Nazareth of Galilee together with James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers and at least two sisters. His father , Joseph, was a carpenter and Jesus probably learned the same trade. Because we find no evidence of Joseph’s presence in the later part of Jesus ‘ life, it is assumed Jesus, being the oldest son, took upon himself the support of his family.

Of his youth we only know of the incident in the Temple when Jesus astounded the scholars with his understanding of God. Of his early years, we only have the testimony that he “….grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of God was upon him.”

When Jesus was about 30 years old he left his trade, journeyed South to the banks of the Jordan river, and was baptized by his cousin John the Baptist. Jesus spent two more years teaching, preaching and healing; in that time he gathered a small band of followers including some women.

In the period of another year he was put through the mockery of a trail and was unjustly executed by crucifixion – the form of punishment used by the Roman government to do away with criminals. His disciples then and to this day have always believed that Jesus still lives.

Basically, that’s all we know; details of these facts can be read in the four Gospels – writings which amount to far less than the length of a Sunday paper. We know little concerning Jesus life, though we know almost nothing of Pilate the Governor; we know very little about Caesar the ruler of the world in those days and we know nothing about the richest men of the day or the socially prominent.

From the gospels we can form a picture of what Jesus was like. First, let me point out that Jesus was a real human being. If he were not truly a man, he would not have a complete sympathy for our human situation. I remind you of this because too often we put Jesus up on a wall as a picture of God and forget that he was born, ate, laughed, hurt himself, was hurt by others, felt happiness and loneliness; he sweated in toil, knew temptation, and cringed with pain when nails were driven into his body. We must add that he was either the highest of idiots or the highest expresser of love when he walked towards Jerusalem with the full knowledge that those who would put an end to him would see him on a cross. We know that Jesus in offering his life was expressing love and not acting the fool, for he had opportunity before Pilate to have himself released. If I were in his shoes, I would have escaped death somehow and rationalized by saying God needs me here on earth to do his work. Our Lord knew full well the desire of God when he offered his life that would end in crucifixion.

Let me also remind you Jesus was not a woman. Surely he had gentleness and tenderness in him, and many artists have used women to model for the face of Jesus in order to portray these loving qualities.

But don’t be fooled, no man who works day after day as a carpenter all his life to support at least 8 family members would in his last few years have lily white hands – rather his hands would be calloused and his body strong with muscles. Whatever his appearance, he attracted men, women and children to his side; and he still does.

Above all, Jesus was in love with all people. Each person he met was a child of God. To put it bluntly, he was saying God loves you no more than he loves Assad or Hitler or Hanjian. His ministry was for others – for people. He lived and died for people; he out lived people because he out loved them. As it is so well put in John13:1, “….having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Or in his own words, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” As Nevin Harner put it, Our Lord would be much easier to follow, if he only loved others a little less.” (I Believe, p.191)

From beginning to end, Jesus’ life revolved around the love and the will of God. Surely, the disciples who lived and walked with him would have doubted him when he said, “I and the Father are one.” But after the Resurrection, they knew that fact to be as true as anything can be true.

Paul said this way, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”

The good news that God loved the world and that there was hope for even the gentiles was so hot, that the disciples dropped everything and spread the word like gossip.

For the disciples, there was little worry as to whether Jesus was born of a virgin or that his miracles were sound. Many good Christians believe in the Resurrection, yet not in the virgin birth. The virgin birth is referred to in only two brief places – in Matt. and Luke. Many hold to it for it sets Jesus apart from all other humans; other Christians hold that if Jesus were truly a man, he must have been born like other men. It was common in in our Lord’s time to attribute to all great men a god as their father. The important thing is that all Christians affirm that Jesus in some sense came from God. As Harner put it, “If you can believe in a virgin birth, well and good. You have a firm basis for your conviction that Jesus came from God. If you cannot believe it, do not worry about it, but in your own way hold fast to this same conviction. In either case try to view with understanding those who differ with you.” (p.22)

In regard to the miracles, there is little doubt, for they are too interwoven into the fabric of the gospels. Yet even here good Christians differ as to whether Jesus healed with the natural powers and laws of God – powers and laws we do not yet understand or whether he used a special unique power From God. Again, if you put your faith in the supernatural miracles of Jesus, well and good. If you cannot, don’t say you can not be a Christian. The important thing about Jesus was not the marvelous acts reported about him, for he himself refused to be known as a wonder worker. He even said to his disciples, the things I do you will do and greater things.

The important question about Jesus is: Who is he? In answering this question, we must distinguish between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Jesus of history is that carpenter who 2000 years ago lived a good life and was unjustly killed. The Christ of faith is that eternal and divine spirit which made Jesus the Christ. These two phrases express the earliest Christian doctrine that our Lord was both truly human and truly divine. It is difficult to find anyone who holds that Jesus never lived; only the Christian affirms that this Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ. We have called him Emmanuel, God with us, for he lives today as he has thru the years.

Who is Jesus? Who is Jesus to you? is the real question here. If you are more than a Christian in name only, then Jesus is your Lord. He is your master and you are his servant in glad obedience. You follow him when he calls, you attempt to fulfill his commandments and you seek to do what he did and be like him. In short, you put your who trust in him.

In the mountains of Europe, there are many Summer resorts at which acrobats walk the tight rope from one peak to another, crossing ravines of 1,000 feet with only a balancing pole to help. A visitor at one such resort said, “If you can do that with such skill, I trust you could do anything.” “Do you think I could take this wheel barrow across?”, he asked. “Oh yes,” you can do anything.” He went across and back with the wheel barrow. Then he said to her, “Madam, if you trust me, get in the wheel barrow this time.” That is how we must come to put our complete trust in Jesus. Either he is our Lord or he is not.

Thru the years we have affirmed a variety of creeds. The earliest creed was this: “Jesus is Lord. “ You see, after the emperor Trajan, not only was the citizen to give honor to the emperor, but also to worship him as god. So Christians were forced to say the emperor was the only lord of their lives by saying publicly: “Cursed be Jesus.” To refuse to say it meant death in times of persecution. Many a Christian died with the words “Jesus is Lord” on their lips.

Who is Jesus? Yes, he is our yardstick, making us aware of our shortcomings. He is always loving; we are not. He is always forgiving; we are not. He is self giving; we are hoarding. He is the way to abundant life; following our own wills leads often to sickness and dead ends. The life Jesus so perfectly lived, makes us aware of our feeble lives; but Jesus doesn’t leave us hopeless. That is why he is more than judge, he is one who saves. Not only has he given us the perfect example for living, he has enabled us to be at one with God. Jesus came into the world to draw all people to God, to bridge the gap, to fill the emptiness which separates us from the love of God. To experience this is to participate in eternal life even now, in this life.

Who then is Jesus? As the scriptures say he was the one who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, ( If Shakespeare came in we would all stand.) that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Are you willing to get into that wheel barrow?

“Holy Real Estate” 8-14-16


Chilmark Community Church

August 14, 2016

II Samuel 7:1-14

Mark 6:30-32; 53-56

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Being the king of the Israelites had its perks, not the least of which was the real estate that came along with job. King David lived in a sumptuous house of cedar – a commodity highly valued by royalty back in the day. But while he enjoyed his luxurious home, he felt guilty about having such a neat place to live in while the Presence of God was housed in a tent near-by. So – David had an idea. He looked at his own royal dwelling – – he looked at the tent that housed the ark of the covenant that represented God’s presence among the Israelites – – and decided that the tent was not good enough. God should have a house at least as nice as the one in which David lived. At first, getting through the permitting process seemed easy. David went to his prophet, Nathan, and mentioned his idea about building a temple for God to live in. Nathan, being a good supportive prophet to the king said “Great Idea! Go for it!” David gets the permit in hand.

But God had a different idea. A true prophet doesn’t get to use his/or her own words. Nathan hadn’t consulted with God first. Nathan had to retract his “go ahead” to David and he had to go back to David with God’s better idea – hoping that the king wouldn’t shoot the messenger – – because God was not particularly pleased with David’s grand real estate scheme. God withdrew the building permit. Sounds a little like local politics going awry!

Imagine David appearing before a heavenly zoning board of appeals: God says: Who are you to build a house for me??? I have never lived in a house!! I have been with my people since I brought them out of Egypt and I have never lived in a house – I have always moved about with them in a tent! When did I ever ask them to build me a house of cedar??? David’s plans for a dream house for God begin to wither. God reminds David of all the ways that God has moved in David’s life: I brought you in from the pastures where you tended sheep. I made you a king over Israel. I traveled with you into battle. I protected you and my people, Israel. I led them to a land where they could live and prosper. God is the actor – not David. God is a self described God–on-the-move. Permit denied.

There is some deep background background to the story. Israel was gradually shifting from being a wandering group of tribes to being a more settled community. As a royal city, Jerusalem was becoming the center of Israelite culture. Other religions in the surrounding lands all had their temples. The authority of their rulers was legitimated by their various priesthoods and religious practices. Socially and politically, Israel was undergoing changes. Israel had already won the argument with God about having a king. First there was Saul – and then David. Now the king wants a temple – a permanent place for the worship of God – a religious center that will legitimate the power of the king as God’s servant. David is all for it. God has other ideas.

The ark that traveled with the Israelites throughout their 40 years in the wilderness was a powerful symbol of God’s continual movement with them – no matter where they were. It was a paradoxical symbol that represented God’s presence and availability, but also God’s fearsome, unapproachable power. Most fundamentally, the moveable ark symbolized the un-compromised freedom of God to be God in God’s own way – free to go and come – uncontrolled by the limits that a fixed location in a temple might imply. Indeed, when God spoke to Moses at the beginning of Israel’s story, God said “Tell the people I am Who I Am – – I Will Be Who I Will Be.” It seems as though God has had no change of mind about exercising the unfettered freedom to be who God chooses to be.

And so – a play of words appears in our story. God says to David: So you want to build me a house I do not need and don’t particularly want. Let me tell you about the house I want to build for you.

The Hebrew word beit is used in a variety of ways in the story. The most common translation of beit is “house.” But when it is referring to David’ s home it is translated as” palace.” A few verses later, the word “beit” means “temple.” The meaning of the word shifts again to something entirely different when God uses it. After God reminds David of the Divine preference for freedom, God tells David about the kind of house that God will build – – that house will be a human one – – it will be a people – – a living community of people who will be faithful to God – In God’s story, the beit or house that God will build will be a dynasty that will grow forth from King David and his offspring. God took a huge risk by making a commitment to build a house for David – a human temple in the form of a dynasty to carry the Israelites into the future. Unlike the fixed rigidity of wood and mortar and stone, a human house or dynasty is malleable, and fluid and often unruly and unpredictable -sometimes downright messy. David never does get to build a temple for God. Eventually, a grand and glorious temple does happen, but it is David’s son, Solomon who is known for that accomplishment – – and that is another story.

Walter Brueggeman argues that this story of God and David’s disagreement about the building of a temple is at the dramatic and theological center of all the writings of Samuel. He argues that, indeed, it is one of the most crucial texts in the Hebrew scriptures for our faith and ministry today. Brueggemann further suggests that is really David who needs a temple for God in order to legitimate his own political power as king and warrior.1

It is interesting to note how, in many cultures, kings and emperors devoted massive amounts of money and human resources to build temples to their gods. Armen and I traveled in China a number of years ago. The great distinguishing mark of all the temples we visited was their incredible size – sometimes covering multiple acres of land – and their lavish ornamentation. In ancient Chinese religion, the emperor was the direct link with the gods. Even today, political leaders, at least in this country, look to religious institutions to legitimate their claims and promises and platforms. A photo op on the steps of a cathedral or a small town church, an appearance at a synagogue or mosque lend a politician a certain credibility and legitimacy, even though this often turns out to be an illusion. Whether the issue is abortion rights or gay marriage or war or peacemaking or the economy or immigration policies, the religious institutions in the land are often sought after to serve a legitimating function as various political issues are debated in the public realm. This will be an interesting process to observe as November approaches and candidates pull out all the stops in their efforts to convince voters of the legitimacy of their positions.

Now, God does indeed legitimate David’s rule –but not by wanting a temple in the way that David expects. God gives David legitimacy through a few reminders: David remember – – I took you from your shepherding and made you a prince. I have been with you wherever you went. I have removed all your enemies from your path. I have given you safety and triumph. In all the history of this relationship, David gets no credit at all. David’s power and his rise to kingship are all God’s doing. David is the creation of God’s powerful, relentless graciousness.2 David’s kingship is the product of God’s freedom to move at will in order for God to create the witness that God wants in the world. And God’s freedom resists the confines of real estate.

I couldn’t help linking this story of God’s insistence upon the freedom to come and go as God pleases to the story of Jesus in Mark’s gospel.

In verses 30-32 of Chapter 6, Jesus and his friends have just re-grouped after the trauma of the death of John the Baptist. They are in shock and grief. Jesus sees that his friends are tired and hungry. So many people have been besieging them for healing and wisdom that they haven’t even had time to stop for a sandwich. So Jesus invites them to come away to a quiet place and rest. They get into a boat to head for a deserted place for awhile. It is interesting to note that neither Jesus nor his friends had to check to be sure all the lights in the house were turned off, that there was no water left running or that all the doors were locked. They didn’t make arrangements for the lawn to be watered or for the newspapers to be collected each day. There was no real estate. Jesus gave the invitation – and the group moved.

A story of the feeding of the multitudes is inserted here. It stands independent of the verses that we have read and the verses that follow. But if we go right to verse 53, Jesus and the disciples, presumably having had a brief respite on the boat, have crossed over the Sea of Galilee – they land and are immediately plunged again into the work of healing the sick who are brought to them from every corner of the region. Again – there is no mention of office hours or clinic space or zoning requirements or adequate off-street parking – – Jesus and his friends are on the move – – and once again we are confronted with the freedom of God to be God where and when God chooses – – and great power is unleashed by Jesus for the healing of God’s people.

God chose David and empowered him for divine purposes. God established a dynastic house that brought God’s people forward. God became real again in Jesus – always moving in unexpected and uncontrollable ways – – free and unpredictable – – undomesticated as it were.

Human beings will perhaps always need sacred space in the form of temples and churches, synagogues and mosques. It is, indeed, often in sacred space that we receive spiritual inspiration and direction for our lives. It is often in context of worship in the sanctuary that we do, indeed receive both legitimation and direction for the work we are called to do, the power we are called to exercise. Indeed, God seems to be more patient with that these days. But God also needs real estate of another kind. God needs a house, a dynamic dynasty of the faithful. God needs a people who will know that God cannot be confined within sacred space – but must always be on the move. God needs a living temple – – a people who can easily move at the Spirit’s direction to meet the needs of God’s people. The Spirit of Jesus stands always in our midst ready to move. Always ready to pull or push or prod us into the work of listening and caring, of loving and attending, of feeding, healing, clothing and liberating all who stand in need of what the Holy One will offer through each one of us. Today we need to add the work of sheltering, providing adequate affordable housing for our fellow islanders, to the ancient biblical injunction to care for the children of God. God requires a mobile temple – – preferably one with arms and legs and a brain and a heart. God’s holiness resides in the very human temple that each one of is. Are we the people God needs? A few years back, there was an affordable housing advocacy group on the island called “Houses On The Move.” Might that name describe us as the people of God? Are we willing to be holy houses on the move with this ever moving God? Are we willing to become Holy Real Estate? The Divine Lure to each one of us is to freely move at the invitation and guidance of the Spirit – to be a Holy House on the Move with an ever-moving God.

1 Walter Brueggemann in INTERPRETATION in INTERPRETATION A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching: I and II Samuel John Knox Press Louisville 1990 p. 255.

2 Walter Brueggemann p. 255

Trend in part time pastors.

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Part-time pastors claiming more pulpits
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Third in a 10-part series
By Sam Hodges
Sept. 28, 2015 | UMNS

The Rev. Mark Windley (right) prays with parishioner Jada Roarx at Amazing Grace Community of Faith in Louisville, Ky. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

The Rev. Mark Windley (right) prays with parishioner Jada Roarx at Amazing Grace Community of Faith in Louisville, Ky. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

The Rev. Mark Windley works full time and more as sales manager for an industrial supply and services company. When not working, he’s leading Amazing Grace Community of Faith, an African-American United Methodist church plant in Louisville, Kentucky.

Windley preaches. He also sets up chairs and checks the sound system.

The church has grown in worship attendance, but what it’s able to pay Windley doesn’t cover his mortgage payments.

Meanwhile, his workweek, with both jobs, can run to 70 hours.

“My wife would tell you I’m not sane,” Windley said, quickly adding that he feels peace and purpose in ministry.

More and more, The United Methodist Church is turning to part-time licensed local pastors like Windley to lead small churches in the United States.
Trending Local

Read profile of the Rev. Michael Funkhouser, a part-time local pastor and West Virginia’s 2013 Teacher of the Year.
Read the full series about growth of local pastors in The United Methodist Church

Many balance a full-time secular job with church work, and most don’t have a seminary degree. But they often bring workplace skills and a high level of commitment — and they work for less than full-time pastors.

So in a denomination that’s shrinking in the United States, part-time pastors represent a growing category.

“I’m not sure the denomination as a whole has opened their eyes to this,” said retired Bishop Alfred Gwinn, who chaired the 2008-2012 Ministry Study Commission. “We’re very dependent on part-time pastors.”

In Bisbee, Arizona, one of those part-time pastors is the Rev. Michele Kelley, a retiree from investment banking and private investigating who felt a call to ministry and now leads First United Methodist Church in Bisbee and Grace United Methodist Church in nearby Douglas.

“If First Bisbee closed, who would feed the people?” she asked, referring to a food bank she helped the church start in this impoverished area by the Mexico border.

In New Vienna, Ohio, the Rev. Sarah Chapman’s day job is doing social media for Charmin and Puffs, two Procter & Gamble products. For the last five years, she also has been part-time local pastor of New Vienna United Methodist Church.

She’s sure her business skills have helped her as she leads the 150-member rural church.

“I’m a really passionate advocate for bivocationality. I think there needs to be a ton more tentmakers,” Chapman said, referring to the occupation attributed to the Apostle Paul.

The Rev. Mark Windley, pastor of Amazing Grace Community of Faith in Louisville, Ky., is a sales executive and a licensed local pastor in The United Methodist Church.

*Click on the i in the upper left-hand corner above the slideshow to display caption information. To turn captions off, simply click on the caption.
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Feeling the crunch

Most lead pastors continue to be full-time ordained elders who have earned a master of divinity degree at a United Methodist-approved seminary and passed through a provisional member elder phase. They are guaranteed a minimum salary, as well as health insurance, housing, utilities and retirement benefits.

Conferences vary in their minimum salaries, with most around $40,000. But the total package swells with benefits.

“In (the) Western Pennsylvania (Conference), it takes $90,000 to $95,000 for a local church to afford an elder,” said Bishop Thomas Bickerton, who leads the conference. “That becomes a pretty expensive item for a local church.”

Meanwhile, The United Methodist Church in the United States has seen a gradual decline overall in membership and attendance. About 78 percent of U.S. churches averaged fewer than 100 in worship in 2013, up from 74 percent a decade earlier, according to the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration.

Many churches that small struggle to afford an elder, even one they might share with another small church, said the Rev. Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at United Methodist Wesley Theological Seminary.

Increasingly, those churches get appointed a part-time licensed local pastor, who is trained first in a licensing school, and then begins ministry while pursuing the Course of Study education program that the denomination requires such pastors to complete over 12 years.

Bickerton has seen the trend play out in his conference.

“It becomes inevitable that (small churches) are going to approach us and request a less-than-full-time position,” he said. “Over the last 10 years we have seen a doubling in the number of part-time local pastors.”

Denominational statistics show that from 2010 to 2015 the number of ordained elders and provisional member elders appointed to churches dropped from 15,806 to 14,614.

In that same period, the number of part-time local pastors grew from 4,261 to 5,178. Supply pastors — who typically serve small churches on a fill-in basis and include lay speakers and clergy from other denominations — grew from 1,163 to 1,849.

One factor in declining elder numbers is that retirements have outpaced newcomers. Another relevant statistic is that the overall number of United Methodist churches in the United States has declined, with closings running ahead of church starts.

But Bishop Kenneth Carter of the Florida Conference is among the denominational leaders who have witnessed a shift within the clergy ranks.

“The Florida Conference has historically been a region of larger churches,” Carter said. “And yet in many contexts, the resources of the local church cannot sustain salary and benefit structures of full-time elders.”

The Rev. Bill Masciangelo (right) prepares for a baptism at New Moyock United Methodist Church in Moyock, N.C. As a part-time local pastor, he’s led the church to growth and financial stability. Photo courtesy New Moyock United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Bill Masciangelo (right) prepares for a baptism at New Moyock United Methodist Church in Moyock, N.C. As a part-time local pastor, he’s led the church to growth and financial stability. Photo courtesy New Moyock United Methodist Church.

Cost savings and more

The changing reality can be seen with the Rev. Scott Masters and Asbury United Methodist Church in Chesterfield, New Hampshire.

Masters, an economist for an automotive manufacturer, is the first part-time licensed local pastor to serve Asbury. The church, which averages about 40 in worship, had long shared an elder with one or more other congregations. Asbury pays Masters $14,400 a year, and covers some of his expenses.

“I carry my own insurance, I pay for my own mortgage, and the church walks away in a better position,” he said.

Masters calls balancing two jobs and family life a “mega-challenge,” and notes that he uses a tape recorder to collect sermon ideas while commuting 45 minutes to his secular office.

He believes his church has become more self-reliant, knowing his time is limited; and he believes the savings on his salary has helped Asbury do more outreach ministry.

“We serve close to 10,000 people a year in food ministries,” Masters said. “It’s a small but incredibly busy place.”
The ‘local elder’ option

Currently, local pastors are licensed, not ordained. But some church leaders favor ordaining them as “local elders,” a term that has precedent within Methodism.

Read more»

New Moyock United Methodist Church in Moyock, North Carolina, is another church that’s led by a part-time local pastor after having long had ordained elders.

The church had been down in attendance and teetering financially, to the point that it considered selling its building. But under the Rev. Bill Masciangelo — who became a local pastor after careers in the U.S. Marines and the hospitality industry — regular attendance has doubled to about 110 and finances have stabilized.

“I’m just delighted with the way God’s worked,” Masciangelo said.

Masciangelo estimates he spends five to six hours a day on church work. He gets paid about $35,000, and doesn’t need the church’s help for housing or health insurance. At 70, he’s full of energy, to the point that he teaches kettlebell exercise routines at the YMCA.

The Rev. Gil Wise oversees Masciangelo as superintendent of the North Carolina Conference’s Beacon District, and confirms that the pastor is a bargain for New Moyock United Methodist. But he prefers to emphasize Masciangelo’s accomplishments.

“It’s a totally different church than when he arrived,” Wise said. “It’s grown on every front, including community involvement.”

Wise has other part-time pastors who he says have been an “incredible benefit” to churches. Fellow district superintendents agree that the case for such clergy goes beyond economics.

“This is probably a strong statement, but I would more quickly lose my elders than I would my local pastors,” said the Rev. Michael Estep, superintendent of the West Virginia Conference’s Potomac Highlands District.

Estep’s largely rural district last year had 152 churches but only 24 elders. It makes sense that he would be grateful for part-time local pastors and supply pastors.

But it’s more than that.

“Local pastors may not have a seminary education but many of them come to the ministry as a second career, and they may bring other educational experiences, and certainly their other work experiences,” he said. “They’re also familiar with the communities and the culture that is here.”
Both part-time licensed local pastors and supply pastors are growing categories in The United Methodist Church in the U.S., while elders have been declining in number. Source: GCFA

Both part-time licensed local pastors and supply pastors are growing categories in The United Methodist Church in the U.S., while elders have been declining in number. Data source: GCFA
Concerns about the clergy shift

But the Rev. William Lawrence, dean of Perkins School of Theology, worries about the growing dependence on part-time clergy.

He appreciates their commitment and acknowledges they are needed in many contexts. The United Methodist seminary he leads is a Course of Study site, with Perkins professors teaching classes.

But Lawrence believes Course of Study doesn’t come close to substituting for a master of divinity degree, and notes that many supply pastors don’t get much training at all.

“How are you going to be a serious contributor to discussions about end-of-life or beginning-of-life issues, matters of peace and war, economic and social justice, if you don’t have the educational background?” Lawrence said. “What we’re actually saying is that the people in that local church aren’t that important. … It concerns me enormously.”

The Rev. Jeremy Smith, an elder and blogger on United Methodist issues, is a fan of part-time pastors but notes that they tend not to be involved in conference committee work. As they have grown in number, that has led, in his view, to an erosion of “connectionalism” and less democratic decision-making.

And because they don’t enjoy security of appointment, as elders do, Smith sees them as less likely to be prophetic voices.

“I’m able to speak on issues of controversy,” Smith said. “I don’t worry about losing my job because of that. I think a local pastor may.”

The Rev. Debbie Williams is an X-ray technician and a licensed local pastor in The United Methodist Church.

*Click on the i in the upper left-hand corner above the slideshow to display caption information. To turn captions off, simply click on the caption.
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Per diem pastor

But the Rev. Sky McCracken, superintendent of the Memphis Conference’s Purchase District, is a full-throated defender of part-time pastors, including on the question of depth.

“Some of the best sermons I’ve heard on Wesleyan theology have come from these guys and gals that are part-time clergy,” he said.

McCracken speaks with emotion of the part-time pastors he supervises, including the Rev. John Smithmier, who leads two small churches while working full time as a logistics manager for a company, or the Rev. Debbie Williams, who works nearly full time as a medical X-ray technician, and leads two small churches.

One of McCracken’s favorites is Laura Vincent, a county nurse in rural western Kentucky. She’s a certified lay servant, not a licensed local pastor. But she serves as part-time pastor of Oakton United Methodist Church and Shiloh United Methodist Church — combined membership of about 50 — for $180 a week total.

She’s preaching at both churches nearly every Sunday, driving 80 miles round trip. One of the churches is holding on, but the other has seen growth.

Both “absolutely love her,” McCracken said.

Vincent reciprocates.

“They’ve been so welcoming … The longer I’m there, the more I’m like, `OK, God. This is what you want me to do. Gotcha,'” she said.

Pastor Laura Vincent reads Scripture during worship at Shiloh United Methodist Church near Clinton, Ky. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

Pastor Laura Vincent reads Scripture during worship at Shiloh United Methodist Church near Clinton, Ky. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

The Wesleyan way

Church leaders may disagree about whether increasing dependence on part-time pastors is good, but there’s little doubt the trend will intensify.

Weems, of the Lewis Center, notes that baby-boomer elders are continuing to retire at high rates and many more will retire soon, given that 55 percent of active elders are 55 years or older, the highest in denominational history. That, combined with more churches struggling to afford an elder, he thinks will boost part-time pastor numbers further.

The Oklahoma Conference leadership foresees that happening and has created a Bi-vocational Pastors Academy to groom 150 such clergy for small churches. Nearly 250 of the conference’s churches have budgets under $80,000 and can’t afford an elder even if one is available.

Nurse Laura Vincent serves two churches in rural western Kentucky, earning the love and trust of some 50 parishioners between the two congregations.

*Click on the i in the upper left-hand corner above the slideshow to display caption information. To turn captions off, simply click on the caption.
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“We’re trying to find committed, trustworthy laity who are indigenous to the area, who do not see the church as a ‘career,’ but who follow Jesus and have a heart to help others know, love and follow him too,” said the Rev. B. Craig Stinson, director of connectional ministries.

The Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank, a Desert Southwest Conference superintendent and co-author of a book about church leadership, points out that John Wesley made pastors of lay people to spread the Methodist movement in the 18th century.

She thinks that Methodism, going forward, will need many such pastors again.

“It’s our past and our future both,” Escobedo-Frank said.

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or
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“What’s the Good Word?” August 7,2016

What’s The Good Word?”

Matthew 5:1-16

2 Corinthians 12:14-21

Chilmark Community Church

August 7, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Have you heard the latest?” “Did you hear what happened to so and so…?” “Did you know that thus and such is going on?” When I watch myself respond to conversation starters like this, I have to admit, I feel my ears opening up with amazing speed to hear whatever bit of information is about to be imparted to me. I seldom ask myself “do I need to hear this?” “Do I want to hear this?” And before I even know it, I have become part of a grapevine! It doesn’t matter how often I commit myself to not listening – – or not repeating – -there is something about the enticement of knowing this or that little piece of information that is very seductive.

You know, probably even better than I do, that we live in a cultural milieu that has an amazing grapevine. It kind of goes with living in a place called “The Vineyard.” News travels around the island quicker than the speed of light. Gossip is a way of life in small communities. Sometimes this is really beneficial. When someone is in need, the word gets out quickly and all kinds of compassionate help is available. That’s one of the things that makes life in a relatively small community so special. But on the shadow side of the grapevine, negative, incomplete and damaging information is passed on as well – -and no one benefits from that.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the definition of gossip. I was amused to find that the word comes from an old English word “godsibb” which was formed from the word “god” and the word “sibb” – -which means kinsman or relative. It is the word from which we derive the word “godparent.” Somehow, the meaning of the word has changed over the generations. It now refers to someone who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts, or reports rumors of an intimate nature. What these definitions fail to tell us is that gossip rarely conveys the whole truth about anything and, indeed, the juicier the tidbit is, the less likely it is to be accurate.

Gossip of this type is harmful. It has an insidious way of undermining life in community.

No less a person than the Apostle Paul felt the sting of gossip and slander which was spread about him in the city of Corinth. Apparently the relationship between Paul and the church at Corinth had deteriorated during the period between the writing of the 1st letter to the Corinthians and the writing of the 2nd letter. For some reason, Paul had not been able to make a third visit to Corinth as he had planned. A crisis in confidence developed between Paul and the church there. He was accused of vacillating in his responsibility toward that church.

There is a fine thread running through 2 Corinthians alluding to the fact that Paul has suffered in some way at the hands of at least one person in the Corinthian Church community. Much of the tone of 2nd Corinthians is very defensive as Paul repeatedly states his love for the church while repeatedly explaining himself and his ministry. Paul fears that when he does finally get back to visiting that congregation he may find quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, gossip, conceit and disorder.

We have no other letters or documents from that congregation or from the people that might have wounded Paul in some way. All we have is Paul’s persistent defense of himself and his ministry in response to whatever has happened. The wounding must have been deep. And gossip was a part of what was undermining both Paul’s ministry in Corinth and the quality of the life of the church there.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has written a book called THE BOOK OF WORDS – TALKING THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, LIVING SPIRITUAL TALK. There is a brief section on what is called in Hebrew l’shon hara – which literally means “the evil tongue.” Kushner translates it as “gossip.” L’shon hara may also be translated as “garbage.” Kushner grounds the prohibition against gossip in the scriptures so clearly that we can’t avoid understanding that we, as the people of God, are to be aware and very careful of our words and of our participation in the dynamics of gossip.

At the beginning of his reflection, Kushner cites these words from Exodus 22:30: You must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs. You must not carry false rumors. Also these words from Leviticus 19:16: You shall not go about as a tale bearer among your people. These texts are embedded in what is called “the holiness codes” – – the scriptural “plan” for God’s people to live as a holy community. Interesting that the scriptures equate carrying rumors with eating the flesh of dead animals in the fields – – that is – with consuming fly ridden garbage. Kushner writes “Like eating carrion, hearing derogatory information about another person can make you ill. Would you eat garbage off the street? Then why tolerate auditory filth in your ears?”

Gossip damages human beings. It damages those who are the subject of the gossip. It damages those who speak it. And it damages those who hear it.

Near the end of my seminary career, I had to take a course in United Methodist Polity and Doctrine. The professors who taught it rotated every semester. It was just my luck to have to take it with Dr. Tom Oden who was probably the consummate authority on the subject at the time. I had heard about how conservative he had become. I had heard that he didn’t much like women and if you were anything even remotely resembling a feminist you could be sure you wouldn’t do well in his class. I opted to take my final exam with him as an oral exam because I just couldn’t face sitting through another 2 hour written test. My mouth was as dry as cotton as I climbed the stairs to his office. It was pure torture for me to sit on the bench outside his office door, waiting for my turn on the rack of that final oral exam. I was shaking and really uncertain why I had ever decided to come to seminary in the first place.

Then, all of a sudden the office door opened. Another student came out laughing. Tom Oden was right behind him. Tom signaled me to come in and I followed him down a tight, narrow hallway lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling on both sides. The hallway opened out into a fairly large room that looked more like a library than an office. In one corner there was a heap of rubble that turned out to be a desk buried in articles and paperwork. Tom invited me to sit down – – and offered me a cup of tea. He asked me how I was feeling and told me to relax. 30 minutes later the exam was over. It had seemed more like a friendly conversation, and suddenly I was being escorted to the door, laughing over some comic observation about John Wesley – – catching a glimpse over my shoulder of the next student sweating it out on the bench in the hallway.

Gossip had given me an unattractive image of Tom Oden. It was not accurate. It gave me an upset stomach for sure. It shaped his reputation as a human being in an unkind and harmful way. Sure – his theology was much more conservative than mine, but I really felt quite respected by him.

Why such a big deal about gossip? Why talk about l’shon hara – the evil tongue? Because words shape and create our reality. In our faith tradition we are known as People of the Word. God created the world by uttering words – – “…and God said “let there be……” and all things came into being. “In the beginning there was the Word – – – and nothing was made without it…” We celebrate Jesus as “the Living Word.”

We need listen to only a few minutes at the top of every news hour to hear how words are used carelessly and destructively to bend our opinions and attitudes in this embarrassing and debasing election year. We are caught in a kind of meat grinder – if you will pardon the allusion – for the carrion of the fields. There is abundant garbage for our consumption at every click of the TV remote. It is making us sick as a nation – – and hardly any of us are free of it. It has been said that the most impossible of the 10 Commandments to keep is the one that says “Do not bear false witness….”

We heard from the Beatitudes this morning – – the wisdom Jesus gave his followers to help them to understand how to live holy lives in difficult times. Jesus did not give them gossip or hearsay – he gave them the truth. He ended that discourse with two incredible teachings about the responsibilities of people who would follow him:

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it be restored?

You are the light of the world – let your light shine before others so they may see your good works and thank God.

While I was looking up “gossip” in the dictionary, I also noticed that about 5 entries above it was the word “gospel.” Again, it comes from an old English combination of two words: god – meaning “good” and “spell” – – meaning a tale or story. So the word “godespel” – meant a “good story” – -and we receive it into modern English as “gospel.” A person who tells a good story is a “gospeler.”

The nature of gossip is that it undermines our collective ability to tell and to live a “good story.” We have a vibrantly living example of this in front of us every day as we move toward the November elections. It is hard to see if there is, indeed, a “good story” anywhere. To be a disciple means to be “disciplined.” Lawrence Kushner puts a challenging discipline before us: He suggests trying to go for three hours sometime in the coming week without saying one thing about another person. Even more challenging – – try going for three hours without hearing something about another person. When you begin to hear something coming at you, try pushing it away with the palm of your hand and say “Let’s talk about something else.” Makes me a little queasy to even think about trying something like that. I don’t think I could do it successfully – – but there is the challenge.

Given the nature of our culture and our political climate, if we all chose the same three hours to practice simultaneously the challenge to neither speak nor receive information about another, I think the silence could be deafening!

This morning we will gather at the table to which we are invited by Jesus. Part of the tradition is that before we eat and drink, we confess that we have missed the mark – – that we have, perhaps done more to conceal God than to reveal the Holy One in our weekly paths. Joining together at the table is our opportunity to covenant together again to support one another in a life of wholeness and holiness, assured of God’s grace and compassion as we continue the journey of return to our high calling to be salt for the earth and light for the world. We are called to bring a good word to the world. What is the good word that you will bring to those whom you touch this week?

I’ll close with the 1st stanza of a prayer hymn we often sing at the end of worship:

Savior, again to thy dear name we raise

with one accord our parting hymn of praise;

guard thou the lips from sin, the hearts from shame,

that in this house have called upon thy name.