“I Believe in Jesus Christ” 8/21/16

I BELIEVE IN JESUS CHRIST

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

HOLY REAL ESTATE

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.

Click this link or read version below:  http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/part-time-pastors-claiming-more-pulpits

 

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Home / News & Media / Special Coverage / Part-time pastors claiming more pulpits
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 newsdesk@umcom.org
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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.

“Then he told them a parable..”July 31, 2016

Then he told them a parable…”

Luke 12:13-21

Chilmark Community Church

July 31, 2016 Rev. Vicky Hanjian

 

This is the time of year in the lectionary cycle when we are on the road with Jesus as he moves about in Galilee – dining with friends, spending time with his inner circle of disciples, and teaching the ever expanding multitudes who gather around him wherever he goes.

In the verses just before the point where we pick up the story this morning, Jesus was teaching his disciples about what they might expect in the near future if they stay the course with him. He has just told them “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11) It is a pretty succinct lesson about where they are to put their trust as they venture out into the countryside on their own.

Another version of Jesus’ instructions about how the disciples are to conduct themselves appears in the 6th chapter of Mark where Jesus sends them out with instructions to take nothing for your journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts – wearing only sandals and a tunic – no change of underwear! In both instances, Jesus teaches his followers that they need to let go of their dependency on external resources. The disciples are sent out with only the strength of the message they bear and their confidence in the God whom their master serves. They are to find their sustenance in the hospitality of those whom they meet along the way.

We kind of have to picture Jesus trying to get these challenging and fundamental ideas across to his disciples while surrounded by a crowd of thousands so great that they trample one another. (12:12) Sort of like trying to have an important, intimate conversation in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

In the midst of this conversation with his disciples, a voice from the surrounding crowd shouts out “Rabbi! Tell my brother to share the family inheritance with me!” And Jesus’ attention shifts to responding to the question from the midst of the multitude. It seems as though the conversation with his disciples gets pushed to the back burner temporarily – – but maybe not really.

The man’s request was not an unusual one and the man was not terribly out of line in asking Jesus to intervene in his family situation. From many of the gospel stories, we know that Jesus was viewed as a rabbi. A rabbi was educated in the Torah, the law of God, and one of the functions of a rabbi was to interpret Jewish law and adjudicate disputes between people based on the law.

What is, perhaps, a little unusual, is Jesus response: “Who set me to be judge or arbitrator over you?” Jesus seems to resist the role of judge in response to the man’s request and gives a parable instead.

As we consider the parable, it is good to keep in mind who the listeners are. There is the man who asks the question – he has a personal vested interest in what Jesus has to say. There are the disciples – – the inner circle, who are learning what they need to know to carry out Jesus’ ministry – learning how to be in the world in the same manner as Jesus. And there is the multitude of thousands, trampling one another to get a closer spot to the teacher.

Keeping the whole audience in mind helps to take some of the pressure off the man who asks for Jesus’ intervention. We know nothing about this man except for what is revealed in his demand of Jesus. Is he grieving the loss of his parents. Does he feel left out of the will? Is he in pain – wondering if there is any blessing left for him? Is he feeling anguish, wondering if he is loved and valued? These are the kinds of issues that come up for surviving children as the will is being read. Traditionally, the eldest son received the inheritance – or at the least, received the bulk of it. If this younger son is the only intended audience for Jesus’ response then Jesus’ answer might come off as really insensitive to the complexity of the man’s request. So why give a parable that seems to be about greed?

The multitudes that crowd around Jesus are mostly are poor, uneducated, hungry and oppressed. Many of them are sick and in need of healing and they look to Jesus for a word of hope. They hunger and jostle for position closer to Jesus as the source of compassion, healing, and unconditional love. So – how does a parable that seems to be about greed help them?

And there are the disciples – – always on the road with Jesus; always learning lessons about self sacrifice and faithfulness; learning the intricacies of the life of service and compassion. What do they need to learn from the parable?

On first reading, the parable does indeed seem to be a teaching about greed. Greed is a strange thing and it is something none of us would wish to be accused of. It does terrible things to people. We are all subject to it to some degree in our modern culture.

Theologian Walter Brueggeman, says greed is born out of the idea of scarcity, and scarcity is born out of anxiety – and all three are acted upon in an abundant world.  Abundance is denied, not trusted, forgotten in our culture. 

Greed comes in all shapes and sizes. A really contemporary form is the greed for more “gigs” – – more access to everything the Internet can supply – – more storage space for all that information – – more apps so that more information is readily available – – leading to more need for greater storage space on our devices so that the information will be right at our finger tips when we need it.

I read recently that our ability to simply wonder about things is seriously hampered because we don’t have to wonder anymore – – we can go directly to our devices and find out about absolutely everything – – and our wondering imaginations and our curiosity do not have to be engaged or exercised at all. In many ways, this is a tremendous loss. We have almost literally become attached to our devices.

I am both amused and disturbed as I drive up Circuit Ave in OB and notice how few people in any age category are walking empty handed – – without their “stuff” as comedian George Carlin once so humorously described it. It seems as though almost everyone has a phone in their hand – – many with their phones in use while navigating their way through crowds of people and across moving traffic. Even two year olds in strollers have electronic devices to keep them amused as their parents continually consult their own smart phones while moving through the crowds. The attachment to their devices cuts them off from connection with the human beings around them – sometime putting them in actual physical danger of walking in front of a moving car.

I think it is important to notice that Jesus doesn’t say that wealth is inherently bad. The man in the parable was being a good steward of the abundance with which his crops blessed him. The practical thing was to build bigger barns in which to store and protect the grain. For a farmer to do any less would be foolish and irresponsible.

The parable illustrates Jesus’ primary concern – and that is for the state of the man’s relationship with God and therefore with his relationship with his fellow human beings. It is in the man’s dialogue with himself that we get to the crux of the parable. The farmer has fallen out of relationship. Listen again: The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘what should I do, I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said [to himself]:’I will pull down my barns and build larger ones…’ And I will say to my self: Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat , drink, be merry.’ There is no one else in the room. The farmer relates only to himself as he contemplates how to manage his wealth. The voice of God butts in on his inner dialogue and warns: “Fool, this very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared – – whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.

So – therein lies the danger. The our attachment to the abundance of all that we have available to us may be the thing that keeps us furthest away from deep and meaningful relationship with the Holy One – – and with each other.

My grandson and I have been going off island each week for a variety of reasons. I love the trips because they give me a chance to be with him one to one. On each occasion, just as we have been dropped off at the boat, he has gone through a slight bit of panic as he realized he had forgotten his cell phone – – and Grandma doesn’t carry one, much less know how to use one.

This has provided a few “teachable moments” – and it has been fun to be able to say: “not to worry – if we need a phone we will ask for help – It’s the way we did it in the old days.” Being without the technology has allowed for us to find our way together – – to solve problems together by exploring what options are available to us – – to encounter a friendly stranger – – sometimes even an accommodating steamship authority employee more than willing to assist us by letting us use her phones. Momentarily stepping away from attachment to the abundance of convenience and the sense of security that the presence of a mobile phone might afford us, we discovered that talking with each other, engaging in people watching, interacting with the occasional stranger we encounter, enlisting the assistance of others, is all a lot more exciting and fun.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus sends his disciples out with only the clothes on their backs, their walking sticks, and the sandals on their feet. It’s kind of the equivalent of sending them out without their cell phones. They are forced to encounter strangers and in the process, perhaps, encounter the face of God.

They are made vulnerable to the kindness and hospitality of others as they take their Master’s message of lovingkindness and peace and justice into the countryside. Jesus sends them out with minimal equipment so that they are not attached to guarding or protecting anything that might get in the way of a close encounter with another. Jesus asks them to leave their “stuff” behind.

Now – this is not a sermon on the evils of cell phones any more than Jesus’ parable is a sermon on the evils of wealth. The abundance of technology we enjoy often helps to make our lives safer and easier in a lot of ways. Jesus is simply asking us to hear him more clearly – – and to understand that the more attachment we have to this abundance, however it manifests itself – money, land, technology – – even our abundance of talent and creativity and good works, the more we are tempted to place it at the center of our lives. When this happens, the holiness of life in relationship with God and with one another is in danger of becoming impoverished.

The farmer in the story stands to lose his soul in his attachment to his barns and his grain. His inner dialogue with himself is pretty barren. He has lost his connection to what is holy – the intimate relationship with the God and with the human community around him where the Presence of God may so often be met. That is a huge loss.

Perhaps we can hear the parable as a call to mindfulness – a mindfulness that insists that we pay attention to where our attachments lie – – a mindfulness that alerts us to when we are choosing a life that insulates us from “God encounters” with other human beings in favor of protecting what is ours – – a mindfulness that guides us to choose richness toward the Holy One and toward one another. It might just be as simple as that.

We live abundant lives. May we be blessed in our abundance to see the face of God in all the places where God chooses to meet us. May we hold our abundance loosely so that we can dance freely and unencumbered with the Holy One. AMEN

 

The Mind of Christ 7/24/16

THE MIND OF CHRIST

PHIL. 2:1-11

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Armen Hanjian

July 24, 2016

Some once asked John Wesley, “Do you think God will save this world with your intelligence?”  Wesley sad, “ He won’t save it with your ignorance!”   Some put little effort toward it, but I believe it is imperative that we should have sharp minds.

We know United Methodists stress this aspect of Christianity for we have over 100 Church related colleges and universities in the U.S.A as well as 13 theological schools.  We believe our faith is a reasonable one, that is, that it rings true in our ears when it is brought to bear with the facts of life.  We do not fear truth in any area life; we only fear ignorance. 

Think of the gospel writers telling us how Jesus, at age 12,   sat in the Temple and astonished the teachers with his wisdom and understanding, how they described Jesus’ life between 12 and 30 with this one sentence: “And Jesus increased in wisdom, and in stature and in favor with God and man.”  We cannot escape the fact that Jesus commanded his disciple, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

It is important that the followers of Jesus have sharp minds – minds with a growing edge.  Most adults have little willingness to learn something new.  Oh, we like to learn this little fact or that side light, trivia, but deep down we have hardened opinions.  The waves of new knowledge and even old truths lap at our minds, but we allow them little or no inner hearing or testing.

Two Chinese  coolies on a street in Shanghai were shouting at each other, their noses but two inches apart.  They were surrounded by excited spectators.  “What is the matter?” asked an American bystander of a Chinese next to him.  “There is a Chinese fight going on,” answered the Oriental, smiling.  “But I’ve been here five minutes and nobody has hit anybody yet.”  “You don’t understand, in a Chinese fight, the man who strikes first shows he has run out of ideas.”  How often people strike when we should be contributing ideas gleaned from a searching mind.  We strike or go off in a huff.

The beloved Yale Prof. William Lyon Phelps once said, “ I thoroughly believe in a university education for both men and women, but I believe a knowledge of the Bible without a college course is more valuable than a college course without the Bible.”  I think this teacher was telling us that the Bible offers us a point where a person can set his or her life course, just as a navigator might set his course by some fixed point such as the North Star.  The essence of this sermon can now be seen as we read today’s text: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,…”

All of us set our minds on some fixed goals we work toward.  What I am suggesting is that we consciously, intentionally set our course, our mind by the same thinking of our Lord.  These days we feel we are in style by claiming to be open minded.  We have a distaste for setting our minds on just one course.  Our mental steering gear is all loose.  We are like ships that have no connections with the rudder.  And what happens?  We chart no course for our lives and find we go off in all directions.  We are blown about by the prevailing winds of opinion, but as Halford E. Luccock reminds us, “The purpose of an open mind is to close it on something.”  He goes on to say, “If we are to be saved from the big squeeze to mold us in the world’s image, the mind and the heart must be renewed – a fresh coming of the life God in the soul.  Specifically this demands nothing more mysterious than prayer, which is, of course, the most mysterious thing in the world.”  It means such things as Bible study, discussion groups and any other methods we can devise to saturate our thinking with the mind and thinking of Christ Jesus.

St. Paul tried to hammer this point home in several places.

In Rom. 8 he writes, “To set the mind on the flesh (i.e. to be oriented by the world) is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

In Rom. 12 he writes, “”Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your minds, so that you may prove (that you may surely know) what is the will of God, what is good, and acceptable and perfect.”

In Phil. 2 he writes, Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,…”  In other words, reach for the point in our lives where we are so much a part of his way of thinking we need not turn to the Bible for most of our decisions and ask ourselves what would Jesus do in this situation.  We can’t follow his steps exactly, for our situation is different than his.  But we can, by having the mind of Christ, make intelligent and Christ-like decisions in our daily living.

This is especially pertinent when we must make quick decisions.

When I was serving rural church in NJ, similar to this one, a friend of mine flew me over it.  We came so low the pigeons flew out of the belfry.  And the thought came to me as I looked down on the setting, “We must get into the habit of seeing everything from God’s point of view.”  That is seen and known best in the person of Jesus Christ.

Thus far, I have said it is important that we have sharp mind, growing minds.  And, I have tried to show that all of us are directed by some guiding principles and as Christians our North Star is the mind of Christ.  Let me now suggest some inevitable responses of those who have the mind of Christ.

One attitude which is clearly dominant in Jesus’ mind is that each person is of tremendous worth.  Jesus called himself the Son of man as if it were infinitely significant to be a human being.  He saw in the sick, the sinner, the criminal, the hypocrite the capability of worthiness.  Jesus made his appeal to the best that was in them confident that the good in any person can be evoked by love.  Jesus would have us love each person as a child of God.  I know he knew that some will not immediately respond positively.  Yet, ultimately persons would be affected by it. (ideas from Social Institutions of the Bible by Soares)

A teacher named Dr. Arnold governed a difficult school of boys by trusting them.  It was commonly said by the boys, “It’s a shame to lie to Arnold because he believes you.  That is the attitude we must develop if we are to have the mind of Christ -to trust people we interact with and to love them.  In the short run,  it may seem impractical, but from God’s point of view , it is the essence of life.

We all have things which mean much to us – we cherish them dearly.  Jesus is modeling for us that we treat every person as one that is tremendously precious to God.

Another thing about the mind of Christ is described in Pierre van Passen’s book The Days of our Years.  He tells of a Protestant who, during the early days of the Reformation, was burned at the stake in his home town.  That night when the crowds had gone home, his wife brought their little son to the place where the husband and father had died that day for the right to worship God as his conscious dictated.  As she knelt beside the charred body of her husband, the wife gathered a few ashes from his breast, placed them in a little bag, and hung them around her little son’s neck.  As she did so, she said, “Son, whenever you see injustice, intolerance, ignorance prevailing, these ashes will burn your heart unless you speak out.”

Just as Jesus spoke out courageously when the money changers profited by the devotion of the poor peasants, so we should speak  out whenever we see exploitation, prejudice or any of the host of evils which surround us.  From the practical point of view it’s best to keep your mouth shut; but what about from God’s point of view?

One other attitude I would suggest to you: knowing we are children of god we should be different from the world about us.  Bertrand Russell offers us a good example of immaturity  of the mind in speaking of George Santayana.  “A few days before the battle of the Marne when the capture of Paris seemed imminent, he remarked to me ‘I think I must go to Paris because my winter underclothes are all there, and I should not like the Germans to get them. I have also left there the manuscript of a book on which I have been working for the last ten years, but I don’t mind so much about that’”(Luccock,  Vol.2:196)

The world about him was crashing to disaster and one sweet thought came crowding out all the others – winter underclothes!

It is tremendously important that we learn to weigh our values.

There is a Church in London called The King’s Weigh House.  The ones who devised the name saw that the church was a place where persons can weigh the things of life on the King’s scales and find their proper weight.  And when we weigh our values by the standard of the mind of Christ we will find we must be different from the world about us.  Jesus attracted people not because he conformed to the world, but because he was different.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians and asked a question which could well be asked of us: “Are you not behaving like ordinary men?”

There you have it;  Three ways we can reflect the mind of Christ in our lives:

to see each individual as of tremendous value to God, as a precious child of God

to speak out when right and truth are at stake

     3.  to be different from the world about us

A RECOLLECTION OF JESUS

Let us remember Jesus:

Who, although he was rich, became poor and dwelt among us;

Who was content to be subject to his parents, the child of a poor family’s home;

Who lived the common life for nearly thirty years doing humble work with his hands;

Whom the common people heard gladly, for he understood their ways.

MAY THE SAME MIND BE IN US THAT WAS IN JESUS.

Let us remember Jesus:

Who  healed the sick and the disordered, using for others the power he would not invoke for himself;

Who refused to force a person’s faithfulness;

Who was Master to his disciples, yet was among them as their companion and as one who served;

Whose meat was to do the will of God.

MAY THE SAME MIND BE IN US THAT WAS IN JESUS.

Let us remember Jesus:

Who loved people, yet retired from them to pray.  Who prayed for the forgiveness of those who rejected him, and for the perfecting of those who received him;

Who observed Jewish law, but defied conventions which did not serve the purposes of God;

Who hated sin because he knew the cost of pride and selfishness, of violence and cruelty, to both humanity and to God. 

MAY THE SAME MIND BE IN US THAT WAS IN JESUS.

Let us remember Jesus:

Who believed in human beings and never despaired of them;

Who through all disappointment never lost heart;

Who disregarded his own comfort, and thought of others first, who was always kind, even in the midst of suffering;

Who, when he was reviled, did not revile others;

Who emptied himself on the cross, and showed the way to life eternal.

MAY THE SAME MIND BE IN US THAT WAS IN JESUS.

JESUS, SOURCE, GUIDE, AND GOAL OF OUR LIVES, COME TO DWELL IN US THAT WE MAY GO FORWARD AS YOU DID, WITH  HOPE AND FAITH AND LOVE IN OUR MINDS AND HEARTS.  AMEN

TWO SISTERS July 17,2017

Two Sisters

Luke 10:38-42

Chilmark Community Church

July 19, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

  

I wonder what is going on in the story of Martha and Mary and Jesus?  The two sisters are dearly beloved friends of Jesus.  Along with their brother, Lazarus, they live together about a half hour’s walk from Jerusalem in a little town called Bethany.  Except for the fact that today you would have to navigate a 4 lane highway,  you can still walk to Bethany from Jerusalem and find a small village that appears not to have changed all that much over the centuries.  A home built of Jerusalem stone that shines golden – white in the hot sun.  A packed dirt floor that is swept smooth every day.  Bedding for the household stacked against a wall to be pulled out into the main room or up to the roof when night falls. 

This home is familiar to Jesus.  It is a place where he could find peace and quiet and rest. It is a home of deeply profound spiritual friendship -a home where great crises have happened -where tragedy and anguish have been turned to joy.   John’s gospel tells of a time when Lazarus was sick.  The sisters sent for Jesus. He arrived too late.  By the time he got to Bethany, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.  In John’s story, Martha is the one who runs out to meet Jesus before he even gets to the house.  She is upset with him. She calls him to task.  “If you had been here, my brother would still be alive.”  A conversation about  resurrection ensues between them..  Martha acknowledges Jesus as the Anointed One – -the Son of God, coming into the world.  Martha runs back to the house to call for Mary who is sitting, being comforted by other mourners.  Deeply disturbed and moved by their grief, Jesus asks where they have laid their brother’s body.  In spite of warnings about the stench, Jesus goes to the tomb and calls Lazarus forth into life.

Two sisters.  So different.  In John’s story, Mary kneels at Jesus feet and weeps – touching him deeply with her grief.  Martha runs to meet him, challenges him, recognizes him as the Expected One.  In Luke’s story, Martha waits on the guests, offers hospitality, does the dishes.  Mary is again seated at the feet of Jesus – listening – devoted to him.

Volumes have been written about the two sisters.  Frequently, the roles of the sisters are somewhat polarized.  Mary is the passive sister who sits at the feet of Jesus.  Martha is the active sister who keeps moving to see that meals are ready on time and served properly.  During my growing up years in the Methodist Church in Franklin Lakes, NJ,  there were enough women in the congregation

to organize into circles of women, 10 or 12 in each circle.  There was the Ruth Circle, the Naomi Circle, the Esther Circle, and, of course there was  the Martha Circle and the Mary Circle.  As I recall, true to form, the Martha Circle ran church suppers while the Mary Circle was a Bible study group.  Mary and Martha have been used to teach about the relationship between good works and faith, about active social justice and the contemplative life, about the traditional role of women in the home versus women in the work place.  The story has lent itself well to a variety of interpretations over the generations – sometimes creating stereotypes of women – but just as often challenging them.  Luke’s treatment of women throughout his gospel invites us to look again at how life might have been for women who traveled in the company of Jesus.

Martha was, in all likelihood, a woman of means. Under both Jewish  law, women were permitted to have their own money and to own property. Martha owned the house in which she and her sister and brother lived.  She had independent resources.  Luke uses the Greek word diakon when he refers to Martha. The term was used to describe women who used their own financial resources to provide for the material needs of others.  We get the term “deacon” from that word and it is still used to describe a level of service in the church today.  In her essay titled “The Gospel of Luke” Turid Karlsen Seim writes By serving from their own resources in order to cover the needs of others, the women of Galilee are portrayed as prototypes of an ethos that is to be valid universally among the people of God.  Models like Martha are frequent in Paul’s writing as he addresses and commends women like Priscilla and Phoebe and Chloe and Junia and Syntyche and others – all women of means who provided hospitality, financial support and leadership in the earliest years of the Christian fellowship.

In her life, Martha models a kind of redistribution of wealth through using her property and her own money to meet the needs of others for food, clothing, and a place to sleep.  This is what she was doing when she hosted Jesus and his friends.   So – Martha is referred to as  deacon.

In the story, Mary’s role is passive. In contrast to her sister, she listens in silence. But Mary also defies the stereotype of women of the time.  She sits at the feet of Jesus and listens – absorbing what he has to teach.  Women did not do this.  To sit at the feet of a master was to assume the role of a disciple – – a role traditionally reserved for males. To listen – to hear – the words of a rabbi – was a privilege reserved for males in Jewish tradition. Traditionally, Jewish women unless they were in the company of the husbands their husbands. Yet Mary,  unmarried, appears in the company of Jesus and in the company of the disciples as an equal. 

So – two sisters.  One who assumes a leadership role as a deacon in the community by providing housing and food and rest for a traveling teacher – who happens to be Jesus – – one who assumes the role of a disciple and sits at the feet of the teacher and listens.

Together, they represent a wholeness that is a model for the life of the people of God.  Too often the interpretation of the story leaves us with a polarization of the active life versus the contemplative life, righteousness by works versus righteousness by faith. The story has even been used to demonstrate a  polarization between Judaism and Christianity where the fulfillment of the mitzvot or commandments is contrasted with the necessity of right belief and faith.

What would it be like, I wonder, to see these two sisters locked in a loving embrace where each sister nourishes and completes the other?

We are living in an era when we are called upon more and more to demonstrate by our lives and by what we do and by where we send our money that we are fulfilling the commands of the scriptures to love our neighbors – with all that this entails.  We are called to be Martha in the world.   I receive at least a half dozen requests for funds everyday in the email.  Some of them can just be consigned to junk mail and ignored, but many are legitimate requests.  There are so many places where we might direct our energy toward making the world a more hospitable place for humanity.  Sometimes it is so hard to choose that we do nothing.  We can’t be Martha to everyone everywhere.

We need Mary.  We need to be able to sit at the feet of the master to be able to hear clearly what the direction is – even if it is only for today. 

Jesus did not criticize the actual work that Martha was doing. She was doing all the right stuff – attending to the needs of her guests. He cautioned her about her distractedness – her irritability.  It is as though Jesus knew that this is what happens to the over-committed.  We do get irritable.  There are not enough hours in the day – – there are not enough people to help with the work of healing and repairing the world – sometimes we might be tempted to think we are the only ones with the world’s needs on our agenda.  This is the point at which Jesus chides us about our distractibility – – and says “come and sit awhile with me – – listen to what I have to say – – get your bearings – – don’t worry so much about  so many things.”   The truth of the matter is that when we step back from the work we are called to do -whatever it is – and spend time in quiet reflection, listening, praying, reading something that nourishes us, even singing a few hymns in the shower, the Mary side of our nature nourishes the Martha -helps to ease the irritability – makes it possible to re-engage in our tasks with renewed energy.

   

On the other hand, when we would rather simply immerse ourselves in peace and prayer and study and learning, the Martha side of our nature may well prompt us to take our prayer and contemplation, and insight and revelation into the streets, in one form or another, to participate in the Holy work of healing the world wherever we encounter its brokenness.

It is a delicate balance – the business of keeping the two sisters in close relationship.  Jesus’ disciples wrestled with it.  In Matthew’s story of Jesus and Peter and James and John on the Mount of the Transfiguration -that glorious time when Jesus’ is in conversation with Moses and Elijah -where all is in transcendent light and holiness – the epitome of spiritual experience for  the three disciples,  Peter’s first inclination is to build a permanent dwelling in the heights of spiritual awareness and connectedness – to stay there and enjoy the bliss.  But Jesus, in perfect harmony, takes his friends back into the valley where there is work to do. (Matthew 17:1-10)

The early church wrestled with the balance as well as we read in the Letter of James where he writes: “Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham made right by his works when he offered his son Isaac, [in faith,] on the altar?  You see that faith was active with his works and faith was brought to completion by his works.” (James 2:20-22).  There was genuine disagreement in the early church as to which was the effective path – faith or good works. 

As we are impacted by current events – by movements that demand that we discern how we are going to respond to tragedy and violence here and abroad, the pull between social activism and quiet contemplation increases.  The reality is that in times of social upheaval and stress, times of political unrest and protest, the movements for social change that are fueled only by righteous anger and a sense of injustice cannot sustain themselves.  The rate of burnout is high among social activists  who are not deeply grounded in a sustaining faith tradition.

It is the movements that arise out of the fundamental teachings about lovingkindness, patience, forbearance, respect and mutual caring – the lessons of Jesus – – the lessons of our sacred texts – – these are the movements that have a chance to heal and repair the world.

The witness of the scriptures is that the two sisters must never be polarized or parted.  The beautiful, active, concerned nature of Martha must never be divorced from the quiet contemplative nature of Mary.  As in all loving relationships, the sisters feed and nurture each other in the service of The Living One to the benefit of all who come into their sphere of caring.

This has always been the call to the church over the centuries – to stay deeply connected with Jesus – both on the mountain top of clear seeing and holiness and in the valley where the work of healing and reconciling the world needs to happen. May we all rest more easily as we walk in harmony and balance with Jesus and the two sisters into a world that needs all the goodness we have to offer.  AMEN

A Prophet, A Priest, and a King… July 10,2016

“A  Prophet, A Priest, and a King….”

Amos 7: 7-15

Chilmark Community Church

July 10, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

  On this past Tuesday morning I made a delightful acquaintance  with a clergy blogger who writes under the name of “Preaching in Pumps.”   Her logo is a black, stiletto heeled shoe.  She is a 4th generation preacher in her family.  She, too, was struggling with the prophet Amos this week  when she recalled her mother preacher’s advice: “Tell a joke, make a point, sit down!”

She noted that a sermon that starts off with “A prophet, a priest and a king,,,,” only needs the addition of a bar and a good punch line and she would be on her way to sitting down.  But, alas, try as I might, I could not find a punch line – – so all you get is the sermon.

The prophet, of course is Amos – – “a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees”

He lived in the southern kingdom of Judah  but he preached in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  This fact, all by itself, was enough to make him unpopular with the people in the north.  Imagine a prophet from the deep south of this country presuming to tell New Englanders what is wrong with the way we live! 

The king  is Jeroboam.  Nissan Mindel, in an article called THE PROPHET AMOS (PUBLISHED AND COPYRIGHTED BY KEHOT PUBLICATION SOCIETY)NOTES THAT: By all accounts, Jereboam was a pretty good king. He managed to establish a working relationship of mutual help and friendship between the two Jewish kingdoms and repaired the damage his father had done to the relationship between the north and the south.  Under Jeroboam there was a reasonably good political situation and with that came economic prosperity.  Many  people in the Northern Kingdom became very wealthy and were able to lead a luxurious life.  The problem was that along with the wealth and security came a decline of morality and justice in the society.  The high social ideals of the Sinai Covenant, the great commandments, were ignored.  Notions of the practice of justice and loving kindness fell by the wayside. The wealthy oppressed the poor – – might was right – -corruption was on the rise – and with all of this – – idolatry increased.  The Golden Calves that caused so much trouble way back in the book of Exodus were pulled out of mothballs and the people began to adopt again the religious practices reserved for the Canaanite gods.

King Jeroboam had his hands full.  Good king or not, the covenantal relationship between God and the people was slipping away from him.

The priest is Amaziah.  Amaziah has the king’s ear. He warns Jereboam about this prophet Amos and then tells Amos to get out of town and go back to the south with his prophecies.  Amaziah may well represent the religious status quo – not wanting things to be shaken up too much or his job will be at stake.

Not surprisingly, Amos gets a little defensive.  He reminds Amaziah that he isn’t a run-of -the-mill prophet like those who were active at the time.  Rather, God had singled him out, pulled him away from his quiet peaceful life, to speak in God’s behalf to the king and to the people of the Northern Kingdom.   Real prophets, the genuine thing, are always reluctant to answer the call.

Dennis Bratcher is the driving force behind Christian Resources Institute.  He writes: ….. the prophets’ primary task was to call the people as a community to accountability and responsibility in their relationship with God……. This was the work of Amos.   His prophetic ministry was directly related to the need to keep the king and the ruling elite in line with God’s covenantal relationship with Israel – to call the people into responsible relationship with God.  We do not hear the same strident prophetic voices again after Israel goes into political exile.   There is a haunting question for our time.  Are there any prophets today?  Is there anyone out there fulfilling the role of the biblical prophets to speak the truth of God to the complex economic, religious and political structures we confront every day?

Bratcher answers: Well, no. And yes.  If you mean, “Are there prophets like Israel had in the Old Testament?”, then no. If you mean, “Do people speak with prophetic voices today?”, yes. …… the prophets stood as a counter voice to those who would allow the allure of power, ambition, and self-serving self-righteousness to blind them to the things of God: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. They were, in the best sense of the term, “counter-culture” Israelites.

Abraham Heschel wrote: “the prophets always sang one octave too high”. They were empowered by a vision of how things could be, a future in which the people and their leaders would live out their calling to be the people of God as a channel of blessing to the world. And the prophets had the courage to call into question any preoccupation with the status quo on any level that interfered with that [god-envisioned] future. As a result, they were often in trouble with those who stood to lose the most if the status quo were changed….. .

If these are the marks of a prophetic voice, then where do we hear it today?  Certainly not in the halls of power.  It is almost as though the words of the prophet Nahum have come true: the voice of your messengers shall be heard no more. (Nahum 3:13) Perhaps the last publically recognizable prophetic voice for our time was silenced with the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

So, in the sense of the classical biblical prophets it is safe to say that no, there are no prophets in our time.  BUT – – and this is a big BUT – – there are prophetic voices whispering and shouting for our attention.  Indeed – some of our own voices may be among them.

Bratcher describes a truly prophetic voice as one who has the courage, perhaps even, in some sense, the calling of God, to look around at the community of faith in its status quo and say, “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” A prophetic voice is one who calls God’s people to return to their calling as God’s people. A prophetic voice is one that will not settle for the status quo, not for the sake of stability, or security, or comfort, or even for the sake of conserving the tradition. A truly prophetic voice is a radical voice, a liberal voice that calls for change…

This voice is in danger of being silenced – or ignored – or resisted in the larger church in the service of avoiding conflict or schism.  The resistance and fear of the prophetic voice is nowhere more apparent in the United Methodist Church than in its slowness to recognize that its official policies regarding the full humanity and the full inclusion of the LGBTU community need to change in order for the church to truly reflect its calling as the people of God.

The prophetic voice is surely silenced and mocked and ridiculed and demeaned in the halls of power when that voice speaks out against  policies that contribute to what is an epidemic of gun violence in this country.  Again, the country is reeling in shock and grief as we mourn the deaths of seven more precious souls. The prophetic voices that decry excessive and deadly force by police fall on ears deaf to the  immensity of need for systemic change – even as the country mourns the loss of two more black citizens this week.  The cycle of violence escalated again with the sniper shooting of 5 police officers in Dallas – – a city that has been working to respond to the voices that call for change.  The prophetic voice cries “How Long, O Lord?”

Bratcher continues: A prophetic voice will not gloss over injustice or oppression, will not be silent in the face of bigotry or prejudice or false pride, and will not compromise faithfulness for practical ends no matter how noble those ends may be in themselves.

A truly prophetic voice is one that will sweep away all the trappings of religion [and politics] and simply ask, “What does God require?”, and answer simply, “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.”…..” A prophetic voice is one that will settle for nothing less than holiness of heart and life as the result of faithful obedience to the voice of God.

Jesus has been placed in the company of the classical prophets – nowhere more clearly than when he reads from the portion of Isaiah that says  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor.  He sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:16-21) Luke’s gospel says he then rolled up the scroll and sat down in the midst of a stunned group of listeners and stated unequivocally that the scriptures were indeed being fulfilled right in front of them.

We are surrounded with a cacophony of  “prophetic” voices promising that if we will just adhere to this diet, or buy this miracle vitamin to lose weight, or follow this or that financial guru that life will indeed be transformed for us if we do what they say. We will be slimmer, have more vitality, live longer, be wealthier.  I suspect the ancient kings of Israel had to sort out the same kinds of claims they were hearing from the “rubber-stamp” court prophets around them – flatterers who would tell the king what he wanted to hear.  Royal courts did not like it when a true prophet emerged and told them that deep spiritual and political and economic change was required in order for life to be in harmony with the Divine will.

In Jesus’ time Herod feared the new voice enough to try to search him out and kill him before he was even old enough to walk. Rome hated his voice enough to crucify him.  A truly prophetic voice is not popular – it makes us uncomfortable -it is risky – a truly prophetic voice may pay a huge sacrifice.  Jesus as prophet should make us all uncomfortable if we are comfortable with the status quo – whether in our church community or in the community beyond these walls or in the way we come to terms with national politics. 

A prophet, a priest and a king walk into a bar……..the prophet takes a big risk.   She asks the priest and the king “What does the Lord require of you?”

The anticipated answer is “to do justice -to love mercy and kindness – to walk humbly with God – or it may be even simpler – love God and your neighbor.  Or it may be a lot more complex.  The real life response to the prophetic call is to shout for the release of those imprisoned unjustly;  work with the community to see to it that those without homes are housed;  agitate to dismantle the violence that pervades our society; Influence policies to insure that all people have access to adequate health care;  make good education available to everyone who wants it and on and on.  These and more are the things that modern day prophetic voices harp on.  When we begin to find our voices – when we begin to join with others who seek to align themselves with the prophetic relationship with God – – when we live from a center of justice, mercy and kindness – – then we too may become the much resisted prophetic voice.  Solitary prophetic voices are few and far between – – too easily silenced.  But the voice of the people of God  can make a mighty and irresistible sound for the good of the children of God.  When we cry for  justice and mercy and lovingkindness together – things can and will change.

I guess the big question is, do the prophet and the priest and the king listen to each other and leave the bar with a common commitment to a world aligned with the law of God? A world where clear seeing and compassion and justice reign?  Or does a bar brawl ensue between them and effectively silence the prophetic voice once again?

It’s really hard to come up with a funny punch line.  But I hope somewhere in this you will find the point.

QUIRKY STORIES , July 3, 2016

Quirky Stories”

2 Kings 5:1-15

Luke 4:14-30

Chilmark Community Church

July 3, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Jesus loved a good story. And he didn’t hesitate to use a good story to make a point. It is curious that he used the story of Namaan the Leper as a reference point in one of his first public encounters after he came out of the wilderness following his immersion in the Jordan. One has to wonder why. Perhaps Jesus had an affinity for quirky stories.

Namaan was a chief commander in the Aramean army. Aram was one of the ancient names for Syria – mortal enemy of Israel. Namaan was the Syian general responsible for the death of the Israelite king, Ahab, whom we met briefly as one of the antagonists in the story of Elijah and his muddy run for the mountains a couple of weeks ago. Once that bit of tribal warfare was over, Namaan came home with military honors and a lot of booty, including “a young girl captive from the land of Israel” (5:2 NRSV). He also came home with leprosy. The first of the quirks – – a powerful general, honored and respected, brought low by, perhaps, the most stigmatizing disease of all – a very visible skin affliction called leprosy.

The second quirk – – a nameless, young, female slave, essentially invisible and voiceless in her slave status, an Israelite, puts forth the possibility of healing for her master – maybe he could go to see Elisha, the great prophet of the Israelite God – the prophet who inherited a double portion of divine power from Elijah, his predecessor.

Quirk number 3 – Namaan actually listens to her! – and acts on her recommendation! He goes to the king of Aram and gets a letter of introduction to the king of Israel – the sworn enemy of Aram. A letter asking a personal favor -please see to the healing of my general, Namaan. How quirky is that?

The request causes a bit of a freak-out for the king of Israel because he is sure he is being set up for another battle with Aram because he has no way of personally healing Namaan. But Elisha emerges from the background and says he will attend to Namaan’s search for healing

It is rather fun to imagine this mighty general, Namaan, riding up to the hut of a rather wild and wooly prophet – – dressed in his military might and finery – -carrying all kinds of gold and silver, expecting a dramatic healing ritual – lots of hand waving and incense and prayers etcetera, etcetera – – and all Elisha says is “go wash yourself in the Jordan river 7 times -and you’ll be healed.” Bathing in the Jordan to be cleansed is a quirk all by itself. For all its significance in the biblical narrative, the Jordan is a frequently shallow, very muddy, often slow moving river. I once heard an Israeli tour director say that people would never ask to be baptized in it if they knew how many water-borne parasites made their home in the river. – Perhaps another quirk in the story. The rivers back home in Syria were much cleaner and made more sense.

At any rate – Namaan overcomes his indignity at the behest – again – of his servants – who point out that this is such a simple solution. If Elisha had asked him to do something very difficult to be healed he surely would have acquiesced.

All he is asked to do is to immerse himself in the river 7 times in order to be healed of the leprosy.

Namaan bathes in the Jordan, and his skin is restored to wholeness “like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” (5:14)

The climax of the story happens when Namaan comes and stands before Elisha, the man of God, and declares that “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” (5:15).

So we have a quirky story of a powerful Syrian general struck with a humiliating skin condition that separates him from the rest of society, advised by a slave girl, sent to an enemy king for healing, passed along to the quintessential man of God, encouraged by his servants, healed by immersing in a muddy river, returning to exclaim his awareness of the God of Israel.

In an article in The Christian Century (June 20-27, 2001, p. 12) Peter Hawkins wrote: Why do I love this story? Servants telling their master what to do. Enemy kings doing one another’s bidding. Elisha’s moxie. Namaan’s injured pride overcome by his desire to be made whole. The backstairs conversations between servant and mistress, the official missive from one king to another, the “dis-ing” of the River Jordan.

It is full of quirkiness – – It’s the stuff of TV drama! But beyond that it is a rich and useful story about the quirky places where we find God at work in the world. A voiceless, anonymous slave affects the direction of the story. Enemies collaborate in the movement toward healing. Pride of place is subverted in the service of healing. A grudging trust replaces skepticism. The least likely place becomes a place of healing. The uniqueness of God is affirmed. Perhaps, as quirky as anything, is the story teller’s skillful play with the politics involved in the whole situation – – somehow, the thing that transcends is the power of God to heal -in spite of the political enmity between Israelites and gentiles, in spite of the low status of the servant actors -in spite of the resistance of kings and generals. God hides in the quirky details.

Peter Hawkins writes further: In his first sermon in Nazareth, Jesus caught some of this extraordinary richness. In fact, he used Namaan’s healing by Elisha as the ancient Hebrew warrant for his own ministry to the gentiles – the outsiders: “There were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Namaan the Syrian” (Luke 4:27) Jesus plays with the politics implicit in the story, making good use of the perennial tensions between Jew and gentile, us and them. He exploits the essential edginess of the tale, and as a result, pays a price in that Nazareth congregation: “when they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so they might hurl him off the cliff.” (4:28-29).

Quirky stories can get you into trouble. Funny that these stories are ones that often reveal the movement of the Holy One. The divine message that gets transmitted is that God will be what God will be – – and our human resistance to the great unfolding of the Holy cannot thwart it. Jesus trusted all the power that was poured out on him when he went through his own immersion in the muddy Jordan. He heard and trusted and internalized and lived out the words he heard when he came up out of the water: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)

As I was sorting through some files this week, I came across a quote from the late Alan Rickman, perhaps best known for his portrayal of Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movies. I have cited him before, but his words seem quite appropriate again this morning: “It is a human need to be told stories. The more we are governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible.”

Our stories connect us with where we come from, for sure. Jesus seemed to know that. He drew upon one of the most intriguing stories from his own past to make a point to his audience in Nazareth. He wanted to remind them of their own heritage – – of how God works in, not only mysterious, but occasionally in mischievous ways, to keep the great story of God’s people moving. Lepers and kings and slaves and prophets and muddy waters are the stuff of God’s story. Jesus used stories to create newness and hope and transformation. Sometimes his stories were subversive – – they undermined the status quo and made people uncomfortable. Jesus’ stories almost got him thrown off a cliff and eventually got him crucified. But his story goes on.

As we come together once again to share in communion, we are called to remember the stories – – all of them – – stories about the way the Holy One flows and weaves throughout our holy history – sometimes hidden -sometimes revealed – but always in motion. We are called to remember that the love and power of God is a love that seeks wholeness, a love that embraces and celebrates diversity, a love that transcends ancient enmities, a love that reverses social classes, a love that permeates all the quirkiness of our lives. All of that is present as we share in the bread and the cup. May we feel our connectedness with our deep roots in the story of God as we break bread together. AMEN