Travis Park United Methodist Church
Friday, May 24, 2013
Unconditional Love and Justice in Action
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Acts 11:1-18
SERMON TITLE: Gifts Beyond the Boundaries
PREACHER: Rev. Monte Marshall
Back a few years ago, a TV talk show featured an appearance by several neo-Nazis and their children. During the first half of the program, the host allowed these people to spew their venom at Jews, blacks, homosexuals, Arabs, and foreigners. They defended many of their views with quotes from the Bible, suggesting God’s people had always been called to purify the world. When the host asked them about love, they quoted scriptures about hating evildoers. They said they must hate those whom God hated—and it seemed God hated everyone who wasn’t like them.
After a commercial break, those in the audience had their turn. Unfortunately, the venom directed at the neo-Nazis was just as poisonous. Many women stood and tearfully berated them for raising their children to hate. Others suggested they should be imprisoned or killed. Some said they were wicked and evil. One man stood and said, “God hates you!” Do you know what the neo-Nazi spokesman did? He smiled and then he said, “So we agree that God hates. We just disagree about who he hates.”
When it comes to hatred and prejudice, the boundary-lines get drawn pretty clearly, don’t they? And the boundary-lines obscure our vision so that we only see in ourselves and others, those things that seem to confirm our prejudices. It becomes us against them. We’re right, they’re wrong. You’re either for us or against us. You’re either an insider or an outsider.
And the boundaries are hardened when God is drawn into the equation to justify our hatreds and prejudices. The formula is simple: God looks with favor upon those who are like us while God hates those who are unlike us.
And when it comes to our religious traditions, don’t we tend to gravitate toward those aspects of our religious heritage that mirror and reinforce our prejudices, while conveniently ignoring other aspects of our heritage that may lead us in another direction? One author has said it well: “For many, religion is how we decide who to love and who to hate.”
And don’t we use the traditions that feed our hatreds to enforce conformity on future generations so that our children and grand-children and great grand-children are raised to hate what we hate, and love what we love?
I’m reminded of the words Oscar Hammerstein wrote for a song about racial bigotry that’s featured in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, South Pacific.
You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!
Well, when someone dares to cross such well-defined and in-grained boundaries of hatred and prejudice, there is usually a price to pay. For example, on September 23, 2001, an interfaith event was held in New York City at Yankee Stadium to remember the victims of 9/11. One of the religious leaders offering a prayer that day was Rev. David Benke, the pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, and the elected president of the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
On a PBS program that aired in 2002 about 9/11, Rev. Benke spoke of what happened to him after he prayed his prayer on a stage with representatives of other faiths: “’The very next day,’ he said, ‘I began to get messages filled with hate…from people…within my tradition….They just said, ‘You were wrong to be there. You never should have gone to Yankee Stadium….You have dishonored your faith.’ One man said genuine terrorism was me. He said, planes crash and people die, nothing big about that. Genuine terrorism was me giving that prayer.
“Within two months, a number of those people put together a petition and filed charges of heresy, saying that I am not part of the Christian Church because of what I did on that day….People who brought the charges against me are clergymen from my denomination.”
Did you notice? In this morning’s scripture reading, Peter faced criticism for crossing a boundary. He was visiting First Church, Jerusalem. Some powerful leaders of the early church were there.
These were Jewish Christians, many of whom had been raised to despise Gentiles—or non-Jews, if you will. They believed that for one to be a Christian, one also had to be an observant Jew—which meant, for example, that the followers of Jesus had to avoid eating non-kosher foods, and refrain from eating with Gentiles.
When these Jewish Christians got word that Gentiles had accepted the word of God—they were skeptical, to say the least. And when they heard that Peter had crossed a boundary by eating non-kosher food with Gentiles, they took issue with him. Their knee-jerk response was to defend the boundary. They said to him, “So you have been visiting the Gentiles and eating with them, have you?”
I find Peter’s response fascinating. He didn’t argue scripture. He didn’t appeal to tradition. Instead, he told a story about his own experience of transformation. He told them about being in Joppa and falling into a trance while in prayer and having a vision—a vision that was repeated three times.
Peter described the vision to them. I like Dr. John Holbert’s paraphrase: Peter saw “all sorts of creepy, crawly critters….wriggling around on a giant sheet, falling out of the sky.”
Peter told them about hearing a voice telling him to make his sacrifice and eat. He told them how he had responded as an observant Jew—in exactly the way he had been taught: “I can’t, my God. Nothing profane or unclean has ever entered by mouth!”
But then, Peter said, the voice shot back: “Don’t call profane what God has made clean.”
Peter next explained how he went on to Caesarea with the three couriers and six other Jewish Christians believers.
And it was here in Caesarea that the boundary was crossed. Peter admitted that he had entered the house of a Gentile named Cornelius. They apparently shared a meal together.
Peter then reported what Cornelius had said about an angel appearing to him to deliver a message of inclusion in which this Gentile and his household would experience salvation. As Peter began to speak, he saw the Holy Spirit come down on Cornelius and all within his household—and the light bulb went on for Peter. Peter said: “I realized then that God was giving them the same gift that had been given to us when we came to believe in our Savior Jesus Christ. And who am I to stand in God’s way?”
With this, Peter’s critics were satisfied and they glorified God that salvation had reached even the Gentiles!
For me, this story challenges my own boundary-making in a very fundamental way. This story teaches me to break through the boundaries of hatred and prejudice that have grown up around me and that cause me to call profane that which God has made clean. This story teaches me to pay attention to what God is doing and to notice the gifts that God gives to those beyond the boundaries of my own bigotry.
Let me give you an example of how this has worked in my own life. I went to seminary with an amazing woman named Jenny Bull. It was a United Methodist seminary, but Jenny wasn’t a United Methodist. She belonged to the Metropolitan Community Church and was already serving as a pastor.
During an unforgettable chapel service, I heard Jenny deliver one of the most powerful and moving sermons I have ever heard. She preached on the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s gospel. I was amazed at how artfully Jenny connected the biblical story to her own story.
As I got to know Jenny, I discovered that she was a loving and caring pastor. And as I recall, she graduated from seminary at the top of her class, summa cum laude. God’s Spirit was plainly and obviously at work in her life.
God used Jenny Bull to break down some barriers in my own life because you see, Jenny was a lesbian, and I had grown up in a culture, in a church, and in family where homosexuality was seen as a mark of uncleanness. I was caught up in this bigotry.
But Jenny opened my eyes. I could see that she the Spirit at work in her life. She had been called and gifted to be a pastor—and she was pursuing this calling and using these gifts without having to deny who she was.
Given what I knew to be true about Jenny, I had to face the questions raised by this morning’s text: Was I going to call profane what God had made clean? Was I going to stand in God’s way?
I thank God for the change that I’ve experienced in my own life because of Jenny Bull. And I thank God that TPUMC is a Reconciling Congregation working to move the church and the world toward greater inclusiveness for all of God’s beloved children regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
And there’s still so much work to do! The truth is, if Jenny Bull, as a self-professed, practicing homosexual, had sought ordination in The United Methodist Church, she might well have been denied—in spite of the powerful presence of God’s Spirit in her life. And so many others are in this same bind simply because of who they are. My brothers and sisters, it’s time for a change!
Well, I pray God that we don’t learn theology from neo-Nazis, or from revved up crowds on TV talk shows! God is not about hate. God is about love. And a loving God is not bound by our prejudices and our traditions steeped in exclusion. A loving God is free to give gifts beyond our boundaries—including the gift of the Spirit. If we want to be aligned with God’s purposes, then why not look past our hatred and bigotry to see clearly what God is doing in the world? And once we’ve caught this vision, why not break some boundaries ourselves—and risk opposition—and risk criticism—and see what God can do with us to transform our world? Thanks be to God!
 Gulley, Philip, and James Mulholland. If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004. 60. Print.
 Rodgers, Richard, and Oscar Hammerstein. South Pacific the New Broadway Cast Recording. Masterworks Broadway, 2008. CD.
 St. Peter's Lutheran Church-Brooklyn, NY. Web. 20 Apr. 2010.
 Holbert, John C. "A Redefinition of Our World: Reflections on Acts 11:1-18." Patheos.com. N.p., 21 Apr. 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2013.
SCRIPTURE TEXT: John 10:22-30 Travis Park United Methodist Church
SERMON TITLE: What Does It Take to Believe? April 21, 2013
PREACHER: Rev. Monte Marshall
As we gather this morning for worship, my heart aches. It’s been that kind of week! Associated Press reporter Jesse Washington wrote of these past seven days: “Moment after nail-biting moment, the events shoved us through a week that felt like an unremitting series of tragedies: Deadly bombs. Poison letters. A town shattered by a colossal explosion. A violent manhunt that paralyzed a major city, emptying streets of people and filling them with heavily armed police and piercing sirens.”
On Friday night, President Obama said: "All in all it's been a tough week." And so it has!
Of all the haunting images to emerge from the events of these past seven days, the one that I can’t quite shake is a Facebook photo of eight year old Martin Richard. Martin was one of the three people killed in the Boston marathon bombings last Monday.
The photo shows this adorable, dark-eyed, smiling boy with a missing front tooth—holding a poster he had made last April following a classroom discussion of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The poster was decorated with two hearts and a peace symbol. The words on the poster simply read: “No more hurting people…Peace.”
But the hurting continues, doesn’t it? Peace is illusive. And my heart aches because of these new manifestations of violence in our land.
But the yearning won’t go away. Martin’s dead, but the longing he expressed so powerfully in that poster, lives on. And it lives on in the good news of Jesus Christ.
So I’m looking to the scriptures this morning, and paying close attention to the reading from John’s good news. And I’m noticing that underneath John’s narrative, there is an undercurrent of violence that resonates with the week just past.
First of all, John sets his story during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. The festival recalls a humiliating period in Jewish history when Judea was controlled by the Syrian ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes. During this oppressive occupation, the Syrians desecrated the temple by erecting a statue of Zeus on the altar.
Liberation from Syrian control came to the Jewish people through violence. A man named Judas Maccabeus led a Jewish revolt that defeated the Syrians and produced 100 years of Jewish independence. Hanukkah celebrates the cleansing and rededication of the temple in 165 B.C.E.
John places Jesus at this festival, and “Messiah-talk” is in the air. Given the expectations of some that the Messiah would appear to liberate God’s people from oppression once and for all, Jesus could have taken the hint and become “radicalized;” he could have taken advantage of the festival to unite the memories of Maccabean liberation with powerful messianic hopes to take up the banner of violent revolt against the Romans—the new occupying force.
But is this what Jesus did? No! In fact, the only mention of violence in this portion of John’s gospel is violence directed against Jesus by his enemies. In fact, in the verse immediately following this morning’s reading, John tells us that the temple authorities actually reached down to pick up rocks to stone Jesus.
But Jesus’ rejected violence. In his appearance before Pilate later in John’s gospel, Jesus said it plainly: “My realm is not of this world; if it belonged to this world, my people would have fought to keep me out of the hands of the Temple authorities.” So instead of meeting violence with violence, Jesus went to the cross! That’s the way of love!
So on this morning when my heart aches over these new manifestations of violence in our land, I’m thankful to be here with you—with the flock—among those who follow Jesus.
And I’m listening this morning. I’m listening even more intently than before. And yes, I hear the voices justifying violence vying for my attention—trying to snatch me away from the flock. But the only voice I long to hear this morning is the voice of the good shepherd whose way is life and peace.
The truth is: I’m here this morning because I believe. Now please don’t misunderstand me. I still have doubts and questions; I’m not given to absolute certainty about anything, but I am trying to trust—I’m trying to keep faith in my doubts—especially after the week we’ve just been through. So this morning, let me just say it plainly: I believe.
I’ve heard the witness to Jesus—and I believe. I’m trusting the word about him—especially the word that says: “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.”
I’m trusting that this love advocated and demonstrated by Jesus, has its source in God. This, for me, is at least part of the meaning behind the words of Jesus in the text: “Abba and I are One.”
And I’m trusting that God is greater anyone or anything, and that God’s care will keep me from being lost—snatched away—stolen.
So Jesus is, for me, the Messiah—the Christ—God’s anointed one—not because I give assent to some creedal statement or doctrinal formulation, but because I trust God’s work in him to bring peace—peace in my own life—and peace to the world. I believe that this kind of peace is only possible when I live out of the gift of God’s life—God’s eternal life—that is already present and at work within me—within all of us.
And I choose to believe because I know that other people believe. Their stories of what the Spirit of Christ has done in their own lives through works of love done in God’s name, keep me going, and keep me trusting.
Let me tell you a story from the Civil Rights Movement: “One evening, during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama, was the focal point of the civil rights struggle, a large crowd of black and white activists standing outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church was electrified by the sudden arrival of a black funeral home operator from Montgomery. He reported that police on horseback had just that afternoon ordered a group of black students demonstrating near the capitol to disperse, and then surrounded them and beat them at will. Ambulances had been prevented from reaching the injured for two hours.
“The crowd outside the church seethed with rage. Cries went up, ‘Let’s march!’ Behind us, across the street, stood, rank on rank, the Alabama state troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark.
“A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, ‘It’s time we sang a song.’ He opened with a line: ‘Do you love Martin King?’ to which those who knew the song responded, ‘Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”’ Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song, ‘Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!’
“Without warning he sang out, ‘Do you love Jim Clark?’—the sheriff! ‘Cer…certainly, Lord,’ came the stunned, halting reply. ‘Do you love Jim Clark?’ ‘Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord,’—it was stronger this time. ‘Do you love Jim Clark?’ Now the point had sunk in: ‘Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!’
“The Reverend James Bevel then took the mike. We are not just fighting for our rights, he said, but for the good of the whole society. ‘It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark—do you hear me, Jim?—we want you converted.’” And eventually, he was!
Do you see what I mean? These people believed!
So what would it take for us to believe like this—to live like this—to love like this—to become radicalized practitioners of non-violence—to become evangelists of peace? Three words come to mind: decision, commitment and trust. The question is: Will we believe so that the yearnings of an eight-year-old little boy name Martin, come to pass: “No more hurting people…peace?”
 Washington, Jesse. "Across America, a Week of Chaos, Horror--and Hope." Msnbc.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.
 "Martin Richard, 8-year-old Killed in Boston Marathon, Made Demand for 'peace' after Trayvon Martin Shooting ." NY Daily News. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.
 McKenzie, Alyce M. "Hands Up, Hands Down: Reflections on John 10:22-30." Patheos.com. N.p., 15 Apr. 2013. Web. 16 Apr. 2013.
 John 18:36, The Inclusive Bible.
 John 15:12, The Inclusive Bible.
 Wink, Walter. "My Enemy, My Destiny: The Transforming Power of Nonviolence." Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life XXI.2 (2006): 14-15. Print.
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Ezekiel 34:1-6, 11 Travis Park United Methodist Church
SERMON TITLE: Issue: Health Care April 14, 2013
PREACHER: Rev. Monte Marshall
Well folks, this is our second Issues Sunday. The first topic we tackled was capital punishment, and that was back last fall. The focus today is on health care. LET US PRAY.
As some of you know, in February of last year, at the same time I found out that I would be coming to Travis Park as the senior pastor of this congregation, I was also diagnosed with prostate cancer. Today however—thank you, God—I am prostate cancer free because in my case, the American health care system worked pretty well for my health and healing.
The system worked well when I took personal initiative to get annual physical exams that included checks for the presence of prostate cancer. The system worked well to provide trained, knowledgeable and skilled physicians, nurses and technicians, and a phenomenal hospital like the M D Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, to care for me. The system worked well to provide the technology necessary for an accurate diagnosis, a successful surgery, and ongoing follow-up care to monitor my health. The system well worked to provide a means for me to buy health insurance to cover most of the staggering cost of this care, which to date has exceeded $100,000.
But it’s here that the system almost failed me. Three days before the scheduled surgery to remove my prostate, I received a call from M D Anderson’s business office informing me that the hospital was not accepting my insurance. Given this fact, I was told that the only way the surgery could be done as scheduled was if I agreed to cover all of the costs out of my own pocket.
Needless to say, I was in a panic. Before that phone call, I was focused on my health, and getting through the surgery, and dealing with the anxiety about what life would be like when the surgery was over. But after that phone call, I was beside myself with worry about money—and lots of money!
And then the truth hit me: My health care was dependent upon money because health care in our country is a commodity to be bought and sold. Fortunately for me, my health insurance company finally came up with a plan that M D Anderson could accept so that my surgery was done on schedule. But the system almost failed me.
And unfortunately, the system fails far too many people. For example, in July, 2007, Wendell Potter was the senior public relations executive for a giant US healthcare company named Cigna. During a trip to visit relatives in the poverty-stricken mountain areas of northeast Tennessee, he noticed an advertisement in a local newspaper for a touring medical clinic that would be offering free care at a fairgrounds just across the state border in Wise County, Virginia. He decided to check it out.
What Wendell Potter saw appalled him. Hundreds of desperate people, most of them without health insurance, came down out of the hills to seek free medical care. The lines were long. Some people had driven more than 200 miles from Georgia. Many were treated in the open air in less than ideal conditions.
Potter described this experience as “overpowering.” It caused him to realize that health care in America had failed millions of poor, sick people—and that he, and the industry he worked for, were major contributors to the problem because they had put profits before people.
Consequently, Wendell Potter resigned from his position at Cigna. He became a whistle-blower and a tireless advocate for fundamental health care reform in America. In the words of reporter Paul Harris, Potter was “one of the few industry executives to admit that…healthcare insurance firms push up costs, buy politicians and refuse to pay out when many patients actually get sick.”
By the way, if any of us care to see a version of what Wendell Potter saw at that free medical clinic in Wise County, Virginia, take a look downstairs at Travis Park United Methodist Church on Sunday mornings. We offer a free medical clinic every week—and it is well used.
So there we have it: Several snapshots of the health care system in America: The system works well enough for many of us, but it doesn’t work so well for others of us—and this is a tragedy because we have the most scientifically and technologically advanced health care system in the world. Many lives are saved as a result.
But not everyone can access the system—they can’t afford it—because we also have the most expensive health care system in the world. According to Dr. Atul Gawande of the Harvard Medical School, we spend one of every six dollars we earn on health care—“on doctors, hospitals, drugs, and the like.” This financial burden not only damages the global competiveness of American businesses and devours the resources of our government—it also bankrupts millions of families, even those with health insurance.
Meanwhile, high costs and limited access push the poorest among us even farther to the margins as they are left to rely on free health clinics, visits to hospital emergency rooms, or no care at all. This leaves children and people of color to suffer disproportionately in comparison to the rest of the population. This leaves uncounted millions to struggle daily with living healthy lifestyles and with no access to preventive health care, And even Medicaid doesn’t reach everyone in need.
So where is God in all of this? Well, we heard from the prophet Ezekiel this morning. In another time and place, with God’s people in exile, Ezekiel dared to speak a word from Yahweh to the shepherds of Israel—the political leaders of the people. These shepherd-leaders were called to account for their self-serving and unjust actions that had produced bad public policy, harsh enforcement, and dire consequences for the people: no food for the hungry; no strength for the weak; no healing for the sick; no care for the wounds of the injured.
According to Ezekiel, the ones who benefited the most from this system of injustice, were the shepherd-rulers themselves. Their greed shattered the communal bonds that held the nation together until finally, the whole system collapsed. Conquering armies carried God’s people into exile—scattering them among the nations so that they were lost to one another. They were left as little more than prey, to be consumed by other “wild animals”—namely, the unscrupulous leaders of other nations.
But in spite of these failures, God promised to be at work to shepherd the flock in ways that were compassionate and just. Even when the shepherd-leaders proved unreliable, and the system left too many people without relief, God promised to change the system for justice, while also working around the system for the health and wholeness of all people.
But then we knew that already, didn’t we? We’re the followers of Jesus and we’re in the health care business because Jesus was a healer. Jesus cared about people and their health—their bodies, their minds, their spirits, their relationships. In John’s gospel, Jesus even said of himself: “I am the good shepherd.”
And we’re also United Methodists. Our founder, John Wesley, was a man who created ways to offer free medical care to the poor of London in 18th century England.
So now I’m wondering: What is God’s word to the shepherd-leaders of our nation in this day and time—the ones who have the political power to set health care policy for our entire nation?
Shepherd-leaders of America, don’t rest on your laurels. As the Affordable Care Act takes effect in 2014, remain vigilant; don’t lose sight of those who will surely fall through the cracks; and keep an eye out for the special interests who will surely game the system to benefit the few.
And keep working—keep working to make health care in America the best that it can be, while also insuring that it’s affordable and accessible—not just for some, but for all. In fact, give us a health care system that puts people before profits. And why not treat health care as a basic human right—which is, by the way, the position taken by The United Methodist Church in our statement of Social Principles?
And let’s be clear: A health care system should never be about political leaders feeding themselves off the fat campaign contributions of vested health care interests, or clothing themselves in the deceptive PR practices of health insurance companies.
And a health care system should never “scatter the flock” by cutting people off from community and leaving them to fend for themselves, in frequent fear of being consumed by the “wild animals” of the marketplace that are more interested in profits than people.
My brothers and sisters, we’re the heirs of Ezekiel; we’re the followers of Jesus; we’re United Methodists; and we’re in the health care business. This is who we are—and we’ve got work to do to make sure that the health care system in America feeds the hungry, strengthens the weak, heals the sick, and binds up the wounds of the injured. We’ve got work to do for justice! Thanks be to God!
 Harris, Paul. "Whistleblower Tells of America's Hidden Nightmare for Its Sick Poor." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 25 July 2009. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.
 Gawande, Atul. "The Cost Conundrum: What a Texas Town Can Teach Us about Health Care." The New Yorker. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2013.
 "Health Care." General Board of Church & Society. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.
SCRIPTURE LESSON: Luke 19:28-40
SERMON TITLE: Disturbing Praise
PREACHER: Rev. Monte Marshall
March 24, 2013
Well, our Lenten journey is approaching its climax. We’re headed toward Easter Sunday, one week from today. But we’re not there yet! First, there’s Holy Week which begins today with Palm Sunday, and continues through Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
Our theme for the season is Following Jesus. This morning’s focus is Disturbing Praise.
Let us pray.
So I can’t help but wonder: How many of us would describe our Palm Sunday processional around the sanctuary this morning as a subversive event? How many of us found our Palm Sunday processional to be filled with disturbing praise that disrupts the status quo of the world as we know it for the sake of God’s reign?
Well folks, I’ve got news for us! A Palm Sunday processional is supposed to be subversive, disturbing, and disruptive of the status quo. If it’s not, then we’re missing something that diminishes our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ!
One thing’s for sure, that first Palm Sunday processional was all of these things! In fact, one commentator has called the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem a well-orchestrated piece of “street theater”—designed to mock the imperial power of Rome and to challenge a religious establishment gone astray.
Biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan help us understand the subversive quality of Jesus’ street theater in their book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem. They imagine the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem. They write: Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year.
Arriving from Caesarea-on-the-Sea and entering the city from the west was Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria. His procession was a spectacular display of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.
Pilate and his troops were on a mission to reinforce the Roman garrison in the Fortress Antonia overlooking the Jewish Temple and its grounds. This was a common practice for the Romans at the beginning of major Jewish Festivals because they were always concerned about potential uprisings. With the great crowds gathering in Jerusalem to remember the Passover liberation of the Jewish people from an earlier oppressive empire, Pilate wanted boots on the ground. His show of force was not only a reminder to the Jews of Rome’s dominance militarily, politically and economically; but also a statement about the superiority of Rome’s religion in which Caesar was the “Son of God;” Caesar was “Lord;” Caesar was “Savior;” and Caesar was the one to secure “peace on earth” by force of arms.
At the same time that Pilate and his entourage entered Jerusalem from the west, a procession of a radically different kind approached Jerusalem from the east—from the direction of Bethpage and Bethany and the Mount of Olives—the place from which, according to Jewish tradition, the Messiah would come.
This procession was led by a peasant rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus. Absent were the
trappings of imperial power. Instead, Jesus rode a colt never ridden before, secured by two of his disciples in a bit of political intrigue that involved a pre-arranged code. The colt stirred up memories of Zechariah’s prophecy pointing Israel to the coming of a new ruler who would enter Jerusalem humbly, mounted on a just such an animal, with a simple purpose: to destroy the weapons of war, and to establish peace among the nations.
When the two disciples laid their cloaks upon the colt for Jesus to sit upon as he rode toward Jerusalem, their actions proclaimed him as royalty. When the “people spread their cloaks on the roadway as Jesus rode along,” his messianic identity was affirmed.
And when the crowd of Jesus’ disciples raised their voices and proclaimed for all to hear—“Blessed is the One who comes in the name of Our God! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”—their joyful words of praise interpreted their symbolic actions. These disciples rejoiced—not because of the military power and might of Rome—but because of the displays of God’s power they had seen for themselves in the ministry of Jesus.
These disciples knew what Jesus represented. They had heard him preach and teach. They had watched him act. They knew that Jesus proclaimed a radical, counter-cultural vision of God’s reign intended to change the world. Listen again to what Jesus taught:
Jesus on economics: Sell what you own and give the money to poorer people (Luke 12:33)….Give to all who beg from you. When someone takes what is yours, don’t demand it back (Luke 6:30)….Lend without expecting repayment (Luke 6:35)….Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying….Instead, strive for [God’s reign], and these things will be given to you as well (Luke 12:29, 31).
Jesus on defense: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also (Luke 6:27-28)….If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily, and follow me. (Luke 9:23)
Jesus on family values: From now on a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three, father against son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law (Luke 12:52-53)….If any of you come to me without turning your back on your mother and your father, your loved ones, your sisters and brothers, indeed your very own self, you can’t be my follower (Luke 14:26).
Jesus on social policy: When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind (Luke 14:12-13)….For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 14:11).
No wonder some in the crowd found the disciples’ praise disturbing! Some of the Pharisees in the crowd complained. They were so heavily invested in the status quo that they told Jesus to shut his disciples up. “Jesus replied, ‘I tell you, if they were to keep silent, the very stones would cry out!’”
So there we have it: Two processions; two perspectives on reality; two representatives of rival reigns; one representing Caesar and a whole system built upon domination, control and violence; another representing an alternative vision of God’s rule on earth. Both were entering Jerusalem—both moving inexorably toward a confrontation that resulted in a crucified Jesus on Good Friday, thanks to the power of Rome—and a risen Christ on Easter Sunday, thanks to the power of God!
But here’s what I’m wondering: If we no longer experience Palm Sunday as a subversive piece of street theater filled with disturbing praise, what’s happened to us? Could it be that we have we been co-opted by the empire’s seductive displays of military and economic power?
Author and pastor Jim Wallis has made this observation: Establishment Christianity has made its peace with the established order. It no longer feels itself to be in conflict with the pretensions of the state, with the designs of economic and political power, or with the values and style of life enshrined in the national culture. Establishment Christianity is a religion of accommodation and conformity, which values realism and success more than faithfulness and obedience. It is heavily invested in the political order, the social consensus, and the ideology of the economic system. Its leaders are more comfortable as chaplains than as prophets; its proclamation has been rendered harmless and inoffensive to the wealthy and powerful; and its churchly life has become a mere ecclesiastical reproduction of the values and assumptions of the surrounding environment.
Now it seems to me that Travis Park United Methodist Church has made some progress in addressing Wallis’ critique—at least when compared to other congregations that I have served. But we’re not done yet! God is not done with us yet!
If our Palm Sunday processional actually means something—if Jesus is the Christ, God’s anointed one come to reign on God’s behalf—then why shouldn’t we go farther in embracing the subversive way of Jesus? Why shouldn’t we go farther in offering up disturbing praise? Why shouldn’t we go farther so that the church might be renewed and the world change? Why shouldn’t we go farther? Come to think of it, why shouldn’t we go all the way? Or is it time for the stones to cry out?
Jim Wallis puts it this way: The renewal of the church will come not through…innovative projects or evangelism or social action, nor in creative techniques of liturgical worship,…nor in new budgets, new buildings, and new members. The renewal of the church in our time will come about through the work of the Spirit in restoring and reconstituting the church as a local community whose common life bears the marks of radical obedience to…Jesus Christ.
My brothers and sisters, it’s when our common life bears these marks of radical discipleship that our Palm Sunday processional becomes what it’s intended to be—subversive, disturbing, and disruptive of the status quo! So in the name of God, let’s make it happen! Amen.
 Myers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988. 294. Print.
 Borg, Marcus J., and John Dominic. Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem. [San Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007. Print.
 Ibid, 2.
 Zechariah 9:9-10
 Wallis, Jim. Agenda for Biblical People: [a New Focus for Developing a Life-style of Discipleship]. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. 1. Print.
 Ibid, 100-101.
SCRIPTURE LESSON: Luke 19:1-10
SERMON TITLE: Following Jesus: Seeing
DATE: March 17, 2013
PREACHER: Rev. Monte Marshall
Our Lenten journey toward Easter continues this morning. Our theme is Following Jesus. Our focus today is on Seeing. Let us pray.
Well, some of you have heard me say that it’s time for me to get my vision checked. It’s been a long time since I’ve had an eye exam. And I know for a fact that I’m not seeing as well as I should. The lenses on my glasses are showing some wear. The imperfections are obscuring my sight. My prescription needs to be changed so that I can see more clearly.
Come to think of it, this morning’s story from Luke’s gospel is about an eye exam of a different kind. The story is about Zacchaeus, a Jewish man who got rich serving as the chief tax collector for the Roman government in the city of Jericho.
His position made Zacchaeus a powerful man, yet a hated man. He was a despised outcast among his own people. Many considered him a traitor because he collaborated with the Roman occupiers. Many considered him a cheat because he made his wealth by jacking up the tax assessments, giving the appropriate amount to Rome, and then pocketing the difference.
But when Jesus “passed through”Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, this wealthy Jewish tax collector decided to run out ahead of the crowd and climb up a sycamore tree because otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to see Jesus. The crowd would have kept him from seeing—either because he was too short, or Jesus was too short. The text can be read either way.
But Zacchaeus didn’t just want to see Jesus; the text says that he “was trying to see who Jesus was.” In other words, he wanted to know something of Jesus’ identity, his character, his essence.
And it wasn’t long before Zacchaeus saw everything he needed to see. “When Jesus came to the spot” where that Sycamore tree was, Zacchaeus looked down from his perch among the branches, and saw Jesus looking up at him!
Jesus responded: “Zacchaeus, hurry up and come on down. I’m going to stay at your house today.” Imagine that! Jesus invited himself to stay at the house of Zacchaeus—the chief tax collector! It was scandalous, but it was grace! It was disruptive to the status quo, but it was in keeping with the Promised One’s mission “to search out and save” that which was lost. So Zacchaeus hurried down from the tree and did what hospitality required—he “welcomed Jesus with delight.”
But the crowd wasn’t so thrilled. When they saw who Jesus was, they didn’t like it one bit. They began to grumble: “Jesus has gone to a sinner’s house as a guest.” The text says: “Zacchaeus stood his ground.”
And then Zacchaeus said to Jesus: “Here and now I give half of my belongings to poor people. If I’ve defrauded anyone in the least, I’ll pay them back fourfold.”
And how did Jesus respond? Jesus said: “Today salvation has come to this house.” And what does salvation mean? Salvation means life. Salvation means healing. Salvation means freedom. Salvation means mercy. And salvation always means the concrete practice of justice.
For Zacchaeus, justice meant a voluntary redistribution of half of his wealth to the poor, and a fourfold restitution to those he had defrauded. The restitution was more than the Torah required under the circumstances. It’s this concrete practice of justice that marked Zacchaeus as a true “descendant of Sarah and Abraham.”
In stark contrast, in chapter 18, beginning with verse 18, Luke tells the story of the rich ruler who had kept all of the commandments regarding adultery, murder, stealing, false witness and honoring father and mother. But then Jesus’ invited him to do the one thing that he lacked: “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Luke says that when the ruler “heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.”
Do we get the contrast? A faithful religious leader in the community who was rich, balked at the demands of justice, while a despised outcast who was also rich did all that justice required.
So here’s the deal: When Zacchaeus passed his eye exam and saw clearly who Jesus was, the story says that justice became the focus—and when it did, a despised tax collector experienced salvation.
So where is our focus? Is it on justice? If it’s not, then maybe we’re not seeing clearly enough who Jesus is.
Let me be honest here: When it comes to justice, I feel more lost than found. I talk more about justice than I actually practice justice. I advocate for justice in our public policies more than I actually practice justice in my own life.
What’s more, I’ve been taught how to define salvation without reference to economic justice. I’ve been taught that salvation is all about making a decision for Jesus, and not about redistributing wealth to the poor. I’ve been taught that salvation is about spending eternity in heaven, and not about making life more just on earth.
Now I’ve put these teachings behind me, but I’m still resistant to the actual practice of justice. I’ve been following Jesus all my life, but whatever it is that I see about who Jesus is, has not been compelling enough for me to alter my own lifestyle—a lifestyle that is blatantly unjust given the huge and growing inequality gap between the rich and the poor in which the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
I’m resistant to justice even though I believe that restitution is required for the injustices that I’ve perpetrated. I confess to you that the affluence I enjoy is cheating the poor out of the resources they need to prosper, just as surely as Zacchaeus cheated folks when he collected their taxes and lined his pockets.
I think Jim Wallis is uncomfortably correct when he writes: “Throughout history, the rich have had a difficult time seeing that their prosperity is based on other people’s poverty. Basil, the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea, expressed his frustration on this point, saying to the rich, ‘How can I make you realize the misery of the poor? How can I make you understand that your wealth comes from their weeping?’
“We don’t make the connection either,” Wallis says. “We don’t understand that we have much more than we need because the poor have less than they need. We consume the resources of the earth far out of proportion to our numbers, while others go hungry and die for lack of life’s basic necessities. In other words, our standard of living is rooted in injustice. Our hope is others’ despair; our good life perpetuates their misery.”
Believe me, folks. I know how lost I am. I know that I’m not seeing as well as I should. But given my resistance, I’ve resolved to preach faith until I have it, and to proclaim justice until I do it!
In the meantime, I take encouragement from the folks around today that see Jesus as Zacchaeus saw Jesus—and then respond by practicing justice in some amazing ways. For example, Shane Claiborne and the Simple Way community in Philadelphia were given an anonymous gift of $10,000 which had been invested in the stock market, but was now to be redistributed to the poor.
The community decided to gather on Wall Street in New York City, declare a modern-day version of the Jubilee recalling a radical demand for justice in Leviticus 25, and then distribute the $10,000 dollars in coins.
Shane Claiborne writes: “At 8:15 we started trickling into the public square in front of the main entrance to the New York Stock Exchange….At 8:20, Sister Margaret and I stepped forward to proclaim the Jubilee:
“’Some of us have worked on Wall Street and some of us have slept on Wall Street…. Some of us are rich people trying to escape our loneliness. Some of us are poor folks trying to escape the cold. Some of us are addicted to drugs and others are addicted to money…..
“‘Now we are working together to give birth to a new society within the shell of the old. Another world is possible. Another world is necessary….Over $10,000 has been set free….This money belongs to the poor, the workers, the refugees, the homeless…to all those who have suffered most from the wreckage of the current system. May we return it with joy, with our heads bowed in repentance, and with our hearts lifted in Jubilee.’
“Then sister Margaret blew the ram’s horn…and we announced: ‘Let the celebration begin!’
“The streets turned silver…Joy was contagious….People started sharing their winter clothes….Another guy hugged someone and said, “Now I can get my prescription filled.
“It worked. We had no idea what would happen. We knew it was dangerous….But this is precisely what we have committed our lives to. It is risky, and yet we are a people of faith.”
My brothers and sisters, during this season of Lent, it’s time for an eye exam. The question is: Do we see clearly enough who Jesus is to motivate our practice of justice so that it may be said of us: “Today, salvation has come to this house?” Amen!
 Wallis, Jim. The Call to Conversion: Why Faith Is Always Personal but Never Private. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. 43. Print.
 Claiborne, Shane. "Mark 2: Sharing Economic Resources with Fellow Community Members and the Needy Among Us." School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2005. 36-38. Print.
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
SERMON TITLE: Following Jesus: Celebration
PREACHER: Rev. Monte Marshall
March 10, 2013
We’re on a journey together through the season of Lent. We’re following Jesus to Jerusalem—to encounter once again the events of Jesus’ passion and death, and the promise of new life that awaits us on Easter Sunday.
The journey invites us to a season of probing self-reflection intended to expose the points of resistance deep within us that keep us alienated from God, one another and ourselves—and that hinder us from fully embracing God’s transforming and reconciling grace in our lives.
Our Lenten theme is Following Jesus and this morning’s focus is Celebration. Let us pray.
Sociologist and author, Dr. Tony Campolo, tells this story about a trip he once made to Honolulu, Hawaii: “At three in the morning, I wandered into a diner. The only other customers were a group of prostitutes who had finished for the night, one of whom (Agnes) mentioned that tomorrow was her birthday, and that she had never in her life had a birthday party.
“After they left, I found out from Harry, the guy behind the counter, that they came each night to this diner. I asked if I could come back the next night and throw a party. Harry said okay.
“At 2:30 the next morning, I was back at the diner. I had picked up some crepe-paper decorations at the store and had made a sign that read, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” By 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. It was wall-to-wall prostitutes…and me!
“At 3:30 the door of the diner swung open, in came Agnes, and we all screamed “Happy Birthday!” Never have I seen a person so flabbergasted. When we finished singing, her eyes moistened; when the cake was carried out, she started crying.
“Harry gruffly mumbled, ‘Cut the cake, Agnes. We all want some cake.’
“’Look, Harry, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while?’
“’Sure. Take the cake home if you want.’
“She carried that cake out the door like it was the Holy Grail. We stood there motionless, a stunned silence in the place. Not knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying, ‘what do you say we pray?’
Looking back on it now, it seems more than strange for a sociologist to be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in diner in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning. But then it just felt like the right thing to do. I prayed for Agnes...that her life would be changed. That God would be good to her.
“When I finished, Harry said: ‘Hey, you never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?’
“I answered, ‘I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.’
“Harry waited a moment, and answered, ‘No, you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it.’”
Now I don’t know how it strikes you, but it seems to me that a church that throws parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning is a church that’s learned to take this morning’s parable from Luke’s gospel seriously.
Remember the parable’s context: Jesus was catching flak from the Pharisees and religious scholars because he was breaking the rules—he was partying with the wrong people. He was showing hospitality to “sinners”—Campolo calls them, “the left out and the used-up and the put-down.” And horror of horrors, Jesus was actually breaking bread with these folks!
Jesus responded to the criticism with a series of parables about the rejoicing that results when a lost sheep and a lost coin are found. He then told the story of a man with two sons.
The story begins with the younger son flagrantly violating social custom by demanding his share of the inheritance before his father is even dead. This demand dishonors his father. But surprisingly, the father divides up the property between the two boys. The Greek literally says that the father “divided to them the life.” At that point, as one commentator notes, “the father metaphorically drops dead.” 
And what did the younger son do? He converted his inherited property into cash, he left his home, his family and his community, he traveled to a “distant land” in Gentile territory, and he squandered his wealth in “loose living.”
But then, a devastating famine hit. The young man was in need, so he further alienated himself from his family and his religious tradition by hiring himself out to tend a landowner’s pigs. He became so hungry that he ate the pigs’ food. And in this foreign land, there was no one to help him out.
But finally, hitting rock bottom, the younger son came to his senses. He figured that there was plenty of food back home so he decided to return to his father, complete with a confession: “I’ve sinned against God and against you. I no longer deserve to be called one of your children. Treat me like one of your hired hands.”
Well, the father must have been waiting and watching for his boy to return home because when he finally saw him off in the distance, the father was so moved with compassion that he did what fathers in that day and time were not supposed to do—he ran to him—he threw his arms around him and kissed him.
Before the son could even finish his prepared speech, the father called the servants to dress his son in the best robe, and to put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. He then ordered the fatted calf to be butchered and a party to be thrown with enough food for the whole community. The father said, “Let’s eat and celebrate! This son of mine was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and now he’s found.”
Now my brothers and sisters, isn’t this how God loves? No matter the pain and shame of the past, God welcomes each and every beloved child back home from the far country with extravagant generosity—with celebration—that invites transformation, reconciliation and restored relationships with family, friends and neighbors.
Isn’t this is why Jesus welcomed “sinners”—“the left out…the used-up and the put-down” and broke bread with them? This is a love thing—a heart thing—not so much a head thing! This is why the church that takes this parable seriously throws parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning! And this is why Travis Park United Methodist Church strives to be the kind of church that we are!
But now let’s be honest. There is another side to the coin. There’s an elder brother in the story who was not celebrating—he refused to participate in the party—and his stubborn refusal also dishonored his father.
But the father wanted his son at the party. In fact, the father once again threw dignity to the wind for the sake of love as he left the party to beg for his older son to join the celebration, but to no avail.
The son was too angry—too full of righteous indignation: “Look! For years now I’ve done every single thing you asked me to do. I never disobeyed even one of your orders, yet you never gave me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends. But then this son of yours comes home after going through your money with prostitutes, and you kill the fatted calf for him!”
This raises questions for those of us who may be uncomfortable making such a fuss over long-lost brothers and sisters who have squandered their lives in a far country, but finally come back home—like to church: Are we lingering outside the party—harboring resentments—feeling like the church is bending over backwards to accommodate people who make us uncomfortable, and who are not as deserving of honor and recognition as we think we are? Are we afraid to celebrate with those who identify with the younger brother? Are we afraid to reconcile? Are we afraid to embrace? Are we afraid to love?
I know for a fact that there are those who choose not to participate in the life of Travis Park UMC because we throw parties for “the wrong kinds of folks.” And even within our congregation, I still sense some distance—some separation—some division—some discomfort—with the diversity of our community. I don’t see many of us here this morning downstairs at breakfast on Sunday mornings, or at the Wednesday Prayer Circle, or actively engaging one-on-one with our homeless brothers and sisters.
We may all be at the same party, but are all of us giving ourselves completely to the celebration? Could it be that some of us are holding back? Perhaps it is that we haven’t quite found our way into the joy of brothers and sisters coming home, being found, and coming again to life!
If this is who we are, then a God who loves us deeply and passionately is begging us to overcome our resistance—to join the party—to share in the celebration—not half-heartedly, but whole-heartedly! The Christ that we follow is inviting us to take a seat at the table and experience the joy of breaking bread with “the left out…the used-up and the put-down.” And who knows, once we yield to this spirit, we may even find ourselves “throwing parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning”—and rejoicing in it! Thanks be to God.
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Luke 13:1-9
SERMON TITLE: Following Jesus: Change PREACHER: Rev. Monte Marshall
March 3, 2013
We’re in the season of Lent and it’s a time to consider change—change that turns us from all that is barren, self-destructive and counter-productive in our lives—while renewing us in the life that God dreams for us in all of its fullness and fruitfulness.
The theme for our Lenten journey this year is Following Jesus. This morning, we’re focusing specifically on change. Let us pray.
Many of you will surely remember an infamous conversation between by Rev. Jerry Falwell and Rev. Pat Robertson on the 700 Club back in 2001. They were discussing the horrific events of 9/11 that had occurred only days before. Rev. Falwell said: “The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this [referring to the 9/11 attacks] because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point a finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’” Rev. Robertson responded: “Well, I totally concur.”
Speaking of Pat Robertson, back in 2010 while he was reporting on the most powerful earthquake to hit Haiti in a century—an earthquake that produced incredible destruction and took tens of thousands of lives including the life of my friend, Rev. Clint Rabb—Rev. Robertson told a story about how the Haitians had been “cursed by one thing after another” because they had made “a pact with the devil” at some point between 1791 and 1804, to gain their independence from France. He called this a “true story.” He said that the Haitians needed to have a “great turning to God.”
So what do you think? Is this how God works? Well, given this morning’s text, isn’t it pretty obvious that this is NOT how God works?
Consider Luke’s story: As Jesus was told about Pilate’s brutality in killing some Galileans while they offered their sacrifices in Jerusalem, Jesus raised the question: “Do you think these Galileans were the greatest sinners in Galilee just because they suffered this?” And what did Jesus say, “Not at all!
Jesus then brought up the eighteen who were killed by a falling tower in Siloam. He raised the question: Do you think they were more guilty than anyone else who has lived in Jerusalem? And what did Jesus say? Certainly not!
Is the point clear? In spite of biblical traditions to the contrary, Jesus teaches that God is not some Great Disciplinarian in the sky, sending disaster upon the wicked in punishment for their sins, while sparing others whose sins are not as great. Jesus makes the point that the ones murdered by Pilate and those killed when the tower of Siloam collapsed—were no better or no worse than anyone else—and they were not victims of God’s wrath unleashed upon them.
This means that the death and destruction wrought on 9/11 had nothing to do with the moral failings of the victims, and absolutely nothing to do with God’s judgment upon pagans, abortionists, feminists, gay and lesbians, the ACLU, or the People for the American Way. This means that the devastating earthquake in Haiti was not the result of God’s curse upon Haiti because of some “pact with the devil.” This is not how God works!
Apparently bad things simply happen! Bad things happen to us all, for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with God’s punishment upon us for our sins!
But now we come to the hard part! Jesus challenges us to stop fixating on the sins of others and look instead to ourselves. Jesus said it twice in Luke’s story: “I tell you, you’ll all come to the same end unless you change your ways.” Another translation puts it this way: “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
So now I’m wondering: If I don’t change my ways—if I refuse to repent—in what ways will I “perish”? Well, given what we’ve just said, perishing has nothing to do with divine punishment. Jesus has taken that matter off the table. Instead, a loving God has created space for us to live every moment of life as a gift of grace with the potential for growth and change and fruitfulness.
But then again, I do know what it is to “perish”—to live in ways that are barren, self-destructive and counter-productive. I know what it is to live in deathly ways that keep me from producing the fruit that God has created me to bear.
I can relate to Jesus’ parable in this regard. In the vineyard of my life, there have been fig trees that have resisted every nurturing effort—every second, third and fourth chance—to produce fruit. And I know that for my own health and well-being, there comes a time for change when the fig tree must go so that it no longer takes up so much emotional space in my life.
For example, whenever I find myself starting to think like Rev. Falwell and Rev. Robertson, I know it’s time to change my ways. I know it’s time to change because that kind of thinking—that view of God as a punishing God—has been used in the past to justify and rationalize death in so many forms—as one write puts it: “a thousand years of Crusades, hundreds of years of the slave trade, the marching of Jews into furnaces, and the crashing of airplanes into buildings…If God can smite the rebellious, a husband can hit his wife—a parent can justify abusing a child.”
I know that it’s time to change my ways each and every time I align myself with death—when I say “yes” to violence and “no” to peace—“yes” to greed and “no” to generosity—“yes” to hatred and “no” to love—“yes” to bigotry and “no” to inclusiveness—“yes” to bitterness and “no” to forgiveness—“yes” to self-centeredness and “no” to self-giving service.
But then—in response to my every “yes” to death and “no” to life—there’s grace. Let me say it again: A loving God has created space for us to live every moment of life as a gift of grace with potential for growth and change and fruitfulness. Instead of asking, as some traditions do, “If you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?—perhaps the more grace-filled question is to ask: “If you were to live tomorrow, what kind of life would it be?”
Author Philip Yancey knows what it is to change his ways for the sake of living a graceful life. One of the chapters in his book Soul Survivor is entitled, Recovering from Church Abuse.
Philip spent a portion of his early life in Georgia attending a church that he describes as having “a corner on the truth, God’s truth, and everyone who disagreed with us was surely teetering on the edge of hell.”
Yancey’s pastor “preached blatant racism from the pulpit. Dark races were cursed by God,” the pastor said, “citing an obscure passage in Genesis.”
Yancey admits that he heard the message, “God is love,” but that “the dominant image of God that stuck with him resembled an angry, vengeful tyrant.”
“I became a writer,” he continues, “to sort out words used and misused by the church of my youth….I have been on a quest to unearth the good news, to scour the original words of the gospel and discover what the Bible must mean by using words like love, grace, and compassion to describe God’s own character.
“Why am I still a Christian?” Yancey asks of himself. “What keeps me pursuing a gospel that has come to me amid so much distortion and static that often sounds more like bad news than good?”
This is his answer: “Every writer has one main theme…he or she keeps sniffing around, tracking, following to its source. If I had to define my own theme, it would be that of a person who absorbed some of the worst that church has to offer, yet still landed in the loving arms of God.”
So my brothers and sisters, during this season of Lent, how will we use this space created for us by a loving God, to change our ways for the sake of growth, fruitfulness and life? I give you a moment of silence to ponder the question. Amen.
 Tobias, Andrew. "It Was My Fault." It Was My Fault. N.p., 17 Sept. 2001. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.
 Smith, Ryan. "Pat Robertson: Haiti "Cursed" After "Pact to the Devil"" CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 13 Jan. 2010. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.
 Tobias, Andrew. "It Was My Fault." It Was My Fault. N.p., 17 Sept. 2001. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.
SERMON: FOLLOWING JESUS—DANGER
February 24, 2013
Rev. Taylor Boone
Travis Park United Methodist Church
I. INTRODUCTION. Did you know there has been a typo in our Travis Park News for several weeks? I did not notice it until I began preparation for this message, a message about danger.
The Lectionary passage that was to be the basis for this message are verses 31-35 of Luke 13, but for weeks we have been printing Luke 13:21-35. Upon examination of the passages, I knew something was wrong because verse 21 is the conclusion of another passage of Luke and not applicable to verses 21-30.
The message of Danger was obvious to me in regard to verses 31-35, but I wrestled to find what was the message about Danger in verses 22-30 of Luke 13. What I found after prayer and reading much deeper between the lines, was to find two very different and very important messages about Danger:
· Danger Jesus understood and accepted
· Danger we face for taking grace for granted
WOULD YOU PRAY WITH ME? We give you thanks Gracious God for you unconditional love and grace. May we hear again this morning your call to us and give us the strength to listen, the wisdom to understand, and the courage to follow.
II. VERSES 31-35.
Let’s start with verses 31-35. Some Pharisees tell Jesus he is in danger and to get away? Do you think Jesus recognized the danger? Of course Jesus did. He had already told the disciples that he would be betrayed into human hands.
So, why didn’t Jesus escape when he could? Well, we could say Jesus was just being obedient to God. But that is not enough—at least for me. It begs the question of why Jesus was obedient. Why was Jesus obedient?
Was God being cruel? Was God demanding the second person of the Trinity, the incarnate God, to be crucified to somehow right the wrong of humanity? Was God demanding a human sacrifice? The theological term for why Jesus had to be crucified and die is known as the Theories of Atonement. Yes, there is more than one theory about why Jesus had to die. Atonement and death on the cross have to do with the reestablishment of the relationship between God and humanity.
I know some of you may say you don’t care about theories. You may already have made the leap of faith and don’t need to spend time pondering a question only God can answer.
BUT, there are many people who do ask this question, especially people new to Christianity or even people who have grown up in the Church but still wrestle with what they believe. In fact, this is one of the most asked questions, and therefore every person seeking to be ordained in the United Methodist Church must be able to give an answer when the question is asked. The UMC does not demand adherence to any one theory of atonement.
My theory of atonement is one of love. God, by, in, and through Jesus Christ, loved and loves us so much to chose to suffer—to do everything possible—to reconnect us to God.
Do you really think God did not love Jesus?
It was God who told Jesus he was God’s Beloved, with whom God was well pleased, as Jesus arose from the waters of Baptism.
It was God who again said Jesus was his Beloved after the disciples watched Jesus be transfigured, as God told the disciples and us to listen to Jesus. I think God sent Moses and Elijah to reassure the humanity of Jesus of God’s love!
It was Jesus himself in verses 34-35 who told of his love for many of the very people who would deny him as he says “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” These are words of love and heart-break, as Jesus also ends saying “and you were not willing to be gathered.”
Yes, I believe it was out of love that Jesus died to reunite us to God.
So, is there danger for people to seek Jesus Christ?
Ask some of the people in the underground churches in China and Pakistan. Ask the Coptic Christians in Egypt who are persecuted and degraded simply because they seek Christ.
Ask someone about the danger of being rejected and ridiculed if she or he comes out in her or his church that she or he is GLBT or has been convicted previously of a felony.
Ask some of my brothers in white what it means to leave a gang to accept and follow Christ. Before seminary I was Active in Kairos ministries, spending a fair amount of time at the Torres Unit outside Hondo. If a brother in white decided to attend the four day Kairos session, he was put on a watch list—not because of the possibility of escape but the possibility his life might be in danger. I have witnessed a brother in white who was a gang member commit to following Christ in a closing worship service, knowing that he would not be returning to his cell but instead would be reassigned to a unit where only Christian brothers in white were assigned. Yes, there is danger in following Christ.
What about the rest of us. Is Jesus calling us; are we not willing to be gathered? It is this question that haunts me and it is this question that takes me back to verses: 22-30.
Let me start with a story:
III. VERSES 22-30
A. STORY: There once was a young woman who was born into a family of musicians, all of whom were so gifted. Sure enough, she too was gifted. She had an ear for music and at the age of three could already play the piano merely from listening to others. By the age of four, she could read music and was already beginning to play the violin and even attempted to play the cello although she was still too small in stature. As she matured, she took her talent for granted as she entered contest after contest and always won. By the time she was in high school, she no longer even practiced but continued to excel in competitions. When she entered college, she expected to immediately win a seat in the student symphony. Instead, in the try-outs, she placed last in violin and cell and was not asked to join the orchestra at all.
IV. UNDERSTANDING THE TEXT
A. Let me summarize these 9 verses.
B. Here was Jesus going from town to town heading to Jerusalem, where he knew he MUST go—where he knew the danger he faced.
1. Do you remember what someone asked Jesus?
“Lord, will only a few be saved?”
2. Jesus replies, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many will not be able.”
3. Jesus continues “Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, 'Sir, open the door for us.' "But he will answer, 'I don't know you or where you come from.'”
C. Doesn’t it sound to you like Jesus is saying that very few people will enter the kingdom of God?
1. But Jesus continues saying people from all over the world will come and enter the kingdom of God.
2. In fact, Jesus says that some of the last shall be first and some who are first will be last!
3. Confusing isn’t it?
4. Didn’t Jesus say in Chapter 11 of Luke: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
5. Isn’t grace offered to everyone?
6. Why then, would so few enter the kingdom of God?
7. Is that the danger of following Jesus—so few of us will make it?
D. No, absolutely NOT.
1. What I had to do to understand this passage from Luke was to listen as if I were one of the Israelites—like the young musician who took her gift for granted
2. What I hear from this passage is that Jesus was telling them that they would reject him and therefore the offer of grace.
a. Weren’t these the same people who heard Jesus teaching in their synagogues and other places?
b. Weren’t these some of the same people who were fed by and ate with Jesus?
3. Didn’t the Israelites believe that a militaristic Messiah would free them the Romans because they were the chosen people who expected to live in the kingdom of God, which for many was Jerusalem?
4. I think Jesus was telling them what he already knew—that many would not understand and follow him.
E. Do you think it was distressing to Jesus that some/most of the Jewish people at that time would be excluded?
1. Of course it was!
2. Jesus says “How often have I desired to gather your children (Jerusalem) together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
3. But Jesus knew their response: “You were not willing!”
F. Many of the people of Israel were in Danger for assuming they had a right relationship with God just because they were Israelites.
V.RELEVANCE OF THE TEXT TO US—ARE WE IN DANGER FOR FOLLOWING JESUS?
A. I see a parallel between the Jewish community at the time of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the Christian community today.
B. Are we taking for granted the grace of God given to us unconditionally? Is Jesus still saying “Oh people of San Antonio how often have I desired to gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings?
C. There is a danger in following Jesus Christ, and that danger is not striving for perfection! Repeat
1. Once we realize our separation from God and reestablish that relationship through Christ, do we begin to take God’s grace for granted?
2. The danger is thinking once justified or saved I do not need to continue my journey with God through Christ.
a. The brother in white who ends up back in prison once returned to society because he ceased striving to follow Jesus because the free world was so hard, so condescending and so unwelcoming. He couldn’t find a church like TPUMC where all people are welcomed.
b. The person recovering from an addiction after finding a higher power & who ceases striving and returns to her addiction. Following Jesus is hard and dangerous!
3. Jesus sets us free—free to be the very best God created us to be.
a. God’s grace may be free, but we are not called to make it cheap!
b. John Wesley called all of us to strive for perfection.
c. He called that journey sanctifying grace, when we draw ever closer to God through Christ and where we also learn who we are and quit lying to ourselves.
d. Yes, at times our zeal for perfection will wane, but God’s prevenient grace is always calling us back into relationship.
D. LENT is a time for us to respond again to God’s prevenient grace and return to striving for perfection.
1. I ask myself am I striving?
2. Do I attend worship regularly; do I take time for prayer, meditation, and listening; am I dong anything to develop spiritually like fasting or attending bible studies?
3. Do I really serve my sisters and brothers or only applaud those who do?
4. Do I really harbor prejudices that keep me from establishing relationships with people who are different from me?
5. Am I willing to live dangerously; to at least get outside my comfort zone?
6. Are my actions self-serving or Christ-serving?
E. By the way, the young musician subsequently realized through the love of her family that she had taken her gift for granted. She began to practice regularly, returned to taking lessons, made the student orchestra, and today plays with a major symphony. She no longer took her gift for granted?
F. How about US? Are WE in danger of taking God’s gift of grace for granted?
G. Hear again what Jesus is still saying:
HOW OFTEN I CALL MY CHILDREN TO COME TO ME, BUT THEY ARE NOT WILLING!
ARE WE WILLING?
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Luke 4:1-11
SERMON TITLE: “Following Jesus: Wilderness”
PREACHER: Rev. Monte Marshall
February 17, 2013
This past Wednesday, we began a journey together. We’re headed toward Easter and the new life that God promises to bring forth out of every circumstance of death. But first, to prepare us to receive the full potential of Easter new life, there are the forty days of Lent, excluding Sundays—a period for probing self-reflection intended to expose the points of resistance to God in our lives that keep us from being the people God dreams for us to be. It’s a time to realign and reorient our lives toward God, one another, and the creation.
The theme for our Lenten journey this year is Following Jesus. This morning, we’re following Jesus into the wilderness. Let us pray.
How odd is this? In one moment, Luke’s narrative has us at the Jordan River with Jesus baptized and praying. Heaven opens up, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, and a voice says from heaven: “You are my Own, my Beloved. On you my favor rests.” Sounds to me like an occasion for throwing a party, don’t you think?
But instead, the next thing we know, Jesus, the one full of the Holy Spirit, is led by the Spirit into the wilderness—into the desert, of all places! For the first century followers of Jesus familiar with Palestine, Luke’s story would have conjured up images of the Judean wilderness that lies between the central plateau of Southern Palestine and the Dead Sea. This environment was so inhospitable that it was called Jeshimmon—which literally means “The Devastation.”
Imagine the scene: hills like dust heaps, limestone blistered and peeling, rocks bare and jagged, heat radiating up in shimmering waves from the hot, dry ground during the day, and a cold wind howling during the night.
The wilderness is a lonely place—it’s an empty place—a threatening place—a place of extreme vulnerability. Jesus intensified the vulnerability by fasting in the desert to the point of becoming “famished.” Mary Gordon writes: “Famished: you can feel it in the cave behind your ribs, in the midriff’s empty drum. Jesus was in a state of depletion, an almost dangerous, desperate state.” 
Luke situates Jesus in Jeshimmon for 40 days. The number is significant. Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Moses spent 40 days fasting while writing the covenant. As one commentator notes: In Luke’s wilderness story, “Jesus is recapitulating the history of Israel.”
For Jesus and for Israel, the wilderness was a time of testing—or temptation. In fact, Barbara Brown Taylor calls Luke’s story, The Wilderness Exam.
And this “wilderness exam” was no accident—it was intentional. Luke’s story doesn’t say that Jesus took a wrong turn at the Jordan River and wound up lost in the desert. No, Luke says that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit so that Jesus could sort out what it meant for him to be Jesus—God’s Own—God’s Beloved—God’s favored one.
But this sorting out was a struggle. The text says that says that Jesus “was tempted by the Devil.” Now I think there’s a danger in imagining the Devil as a visible, external being in conversation with Jesus. This image of the devil can distract us from the real struggle portrayed in Luke’s story—which is an inward struggle in Jesus’ own heart and soul. In the words of Kate Huey, this test comes “from deep within Jesus himself.” She says that “it might be closer toimagine a seductive voice offering very ‘good’ things to Jesus, an attractive strategic plan for his ministry,” if you will—a strategic plan complete with scriptural justifications.
The devil is a personification of that “seductive voice” from deep within that offered Jesus bread, power, and protection. In other words—and I’m borrowing a phrase here from the book of James—Jesus was “lured and enticed by his own desires” to follow the path of bread, power, and protection rather than God’s path that would eventually lead him to the cross.
But notice how Jesus responded to that “seductive voice.” He said “no” each and every time: “no to the bread, no to the kingdoms, no to the angelic body guards.” Jesus passed his “wilderness exam”by saying “yes”to God and to God alone.
And at the end of the wilderness exam, the text says that the Devil left Jesus alone only to await “another opportunity.” In Luke’s narrative, the Devil doesn’t appear again until near the end of the gospel. Luke writes that the Devil entered into Judas, the betrayer, thus setting into motion the chain of events that led to the crucifixion of Jesus.
So given all of this, I can’t help but wonder: When was the last time the Spirit led us into the wilderness—either literally or metaphorically? When was the last time we journeyed in a place of devastation with no comfort except for the Spirit—to wrestle with what it means for us to be baptized—to be God’s own—God beloved—the followers of Jesus Christ—the bearers of the Holy Spirit? Over these 40 days of Lent, we’re invited to make the journey and engage the struggle.
To be honest with you, I’ve been wandering in the wilderness for some 35 years now—and I’ve been sorely tested. What I call my “wrestling match” with God began as far back as the late 1970s. I had just started to work professionally in the church when I began to discern a distinct calling from God to pursue a deeper and more costly discipleship in my personal life, and to provide leadership within the church toward that end.
God stirred my soul with a vision of discipleship that made Jesus’ teachings come alive for me as they never had before. I sensed that when Jesus said to the rich young man: “Go, sell your possessions, give the money to the poor and come, follow me,” he was talking to me. God was calling me to deal with my attachment to money so that I could learn to live on less in order to give more, especially to the poor.
But that wasn’t all. God stirred a longing within me to love the enemy more perfectly, to serve the poor, the broken, and the outcasts more selflessly, to live in Christian community more faithfully, and to draw nearer to God in prayer. I understood from the start that living in this way would move me beyond the status quo in my personal life--and beyond the status quo of the church as I had known it.
So over the course of 17 years or so, I prayed about this vision; I asked God for the power to live this vision; I wrote about this vision; I preached about this vision; I taught about this vision; and I even became ordained to pursue my calling to leadership within the church. But what I didn’t do was act on the vision to make it real in my life.
And believe me, I had a list of rationalizations to justify my failure to act. I said to myself: “Well, maybe this is not the best time to act,” or, “Maybe I should wait until I can find some other people who want to do this thing with me.” My excuses were legion!
But all of the excuses hid one very simple fact: I was scared to death of following Jesus that far. I was afraid of the harm this radical calling might do to my family. But most of all, I was afraid of failing. So I didn’t act. Instead, I continued to live life on my own terms.
All of this reached a climax in 1993 while we were living in Austin. I’ll never forget that Friday morning when I finally got up enough courage to ask my wife, Laura Jean, what she thought about moving the family to Americus, GA to become a part of the Koinonia community.
You’ve heard me speak of Koinonia before. These brothers and sisters in Christ hold their goods in common, they practice non-violence, the stand for racial equality, and they minister among the poor. In fact, Habitat for Humanity emerged out of the Koinonia community.
Well, Laura Jean said, “I don’t think I can do it.” I said, “I’m not going to do it without you.” In that moment, I made a clear choice. I said “no” to God and “yes” to my resistance to God—the exact opposite of the choice Jesus made in the wilderness.
With this clarity, I knew that my leadership role in the church would have to change. If I wasn’t going to pursue this calling to live a deeper discipleship—if I couldn’t do a better job at “practicing what I preach”—then I needed to lay the mantle of leadership down in the church—at least until I could find a new purpose for serving as an ordained minister. Consequently, as you’ve heard me say before, I took a leave of absence from my pastoral responsibilities that lasted for three years.
Since then, I’ve discovered how God’s grace sustains me even in the wilderness—even with my ongoing resistance. I’ve obviously found my way back into the ordained ministry, but only because the Spirit helped me see the good that I can do within the boundary set by my resistance.
The vision however is still with me. It burns in my bones. I still believe that God wants me to change. Until I do, I expect the Spirit will keep me in the wilderness—and that’s okay with me—because I’ve decided to preach faith until I have it--and even if faith never comes to the extent I desire--that’s okay too, because I’m learning that God can be trusted in the wilderness, even with my “no.”
So now let me ask you: In what wilderness will you journey this Lent? Into what desolate place is the Spirit leading you for a time testing? How will you continue to sort through what it means to be baptized—to be God’s own—God beloved—a follower of Jesus Christ—a bearer of the Holy Spirit? How will you be vulnerable? And most importantly, what kind of transformation does God have in store for you in the desert? I give you a moment of silence to ponder the questions….
Loving God, in our weakness, grant us the courage to turn every “no” into a “yes.” Amen.
 Barclay, William. "The Gospel of Luke." The Gospel of Luke. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975. 43. Print
 Quoted in Huey, Kate. "Sermon Seeds." United Church of Christ. 21 Feb. 2010. Web. 16 Mar. 2010. <http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/>.
 Petty, John. "Progressive Involvement." 'progressive Involvement' N.p., 11 Feb. 2013. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.
 "The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor - The Wilderness Exam - Lent 1 - Day1.org." Sermons, Preaching and Christian Community | Welcome to Day1. Web. 16 Mar. 2010. <http://day1.org/1756-the_wilderness_exam>.
  Huey, Kate. "Sermon Seeds." United Church of Christ. 21 Feb. 2010. Web. 16 Mar. 2010. <http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/>.
 James 1:14, RSV.
 "The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor - The Wilderness Exam - Lent 1 - Day1.org." Sermons, Preaching and Christian Community | Welcome to Day1. Web. 16 Mar. 2010. <http://day1.org/1756-the_wilderness_exam>.
Ash Wednesday Devotional, 2013
Rev. Dr. Dale G. Tremper
Based on Psalm 51:1-17
A Clean Heart
We probably don’t use psalms in worship around here as much as we should. This psalm is an ancient and precious depository of a human response to the common human condition, that we are sinners who have broken relationship with God, with others and with our better selves. Guilt and shame cling to us like filth and make us stink. How do we get clean so that we can live with ourselves, with others and with God?
Psalm 51 is traditionally attributed to David, that most foundational figure in Israel’s national history. We have no idea whether David actually wrote it, but it is attributed to him because the story of his sin with Bathsheba and his attempted cover-up is so graphic and memorable. As described in I and II Samuel, David is a beautiful, charming young boy, a skilled killer, a gifted poet and musician, a brilliant guerilla strategist, a loyal friend, a charming, endearing politician, a ladies’ man, a murderer and a tragic figure whom absolute power corrupts absolutely in his later years. All of that and more…
With shocking honesty, I and II Samuel detail David’s rise and fall and the dreadful consequences to the nation that follow. It all starts to go downhill with David relaxing on the high palace roof when he should be out leading his troops. Spying a beautiful woman bathing on the roof of her nearby home, David orders his henchmen to bring her to the palace, he ravishes her and sends her away. When she later tells him that she is pregnant, he orders her soldier husband, Uriah, to come in from the battlefield for a little R & R, thinking that the timing is close enough that her husband will think that he is the father of the child. But Uriah is so loyal to his fellow warriors that he refuses to sleep with his wife while his buddies suffer out in the elements. So, David sends him back to the front with sealed orders to his general to be certain that during the siege of the next city, the troops will be ordered to pull back so that Uriah can be slaughtered there alone. Nobody will be the wiser. But God knows that David has committed murder and God’s prophet Nathan knows. The cover-up collapses. (The chances are that Nathan knows the secret because some of the palace servants have told the story. You know, “upstairs, downstairs”.) When confronted, David finally admits his sin and takes the consequences. Later, as his newborn child is dying, David pours ashes on his head and cries out to God.
It has bothered me for years that some people only remember the verse that calls David, “A man after God’s own heart”. Yes, at his lowest point, when caught, he finally admits that he has sinned royally. But after that, he continues to sin in new and creative ways, planting the seed of the destruction of the kingdom.
Aside from the back-story, Psalm 51 is a great model for a sinner coming clean before God. But there are words here that are jarring to our ears. If David did write them, what does he mean when he says “Against God, only against God, have I sinned.”? How about Bathsheba, Uriah and all of the people of Israel? The best we can figure, the psalmist is saying that whomever else we have injured, God is the first one to whom we must turn for ultimate forgiveness. But beyond God’s forgiveness, we know that we must seek to repair the damage we have caused, do acts of contrition and restitution and do our best to be reconciled with those we have injured. The cleansing we need is lifelong. And the words, “I have been sinful since my mother conceived me” surely cannot mean that our sins are our mothers’ fault or that the act of sex that leads to our conception is itself sinful. Let’s just agree that as long as any of us has been around, we are part of a fallen, sinful human condition. However, when we break relationships, we must seek out forgiveness and ask for cleansing from our guilt.
Guilt and shame are not the same thing. Guilt is the remnant that clings to us from our own sins. Forgiveness and reconciliation wash guilt away, as we reach out for a new beginning. That is what God does and how God works. We are responsible for the follow-through to complete the process. Honest confession that we have done wrong begins the process of cleansing from sin and guilt.
Shame is the horrible conviction that we are wrong. Shame is the wrongful conviction that clings to us because somebody else has told us that we are “no good”. When a person believes that lie, that person is condemned and the condemnation leads to continuing destruction and wasted lives until the shame is released in a powerful act of liberation. Theologian Paul Tillich cries out, “Accept the fact that you are accepted”. Those words are addressed to shame, at the deepest level of our being.
At this point, I would have shown you the decisive scene from the movie, “Good Will Hunting”, except that we have no way of bleeping out all of the naughty words. So I will do the substitutions for you. Matt Damon plays an unnaturally brilliant young man, whose life is crippled by shame. He was repeatedly, brutally beaten as a boy by a cruel, drunken stepfather. His therapist, Sean, played by Robin Williams, lifts up a thick file of Will’s self-destructive behavior and says, “Will, you see this, all this ‘stuff’? It’s not your fault.” Will responds softly, “I know…” The therapist responds, “No, you don’t. It’s not your fault.” Will shouts, “I know that”. The therapist quietly insists, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault”. Will says, “Don’t screw with me, Sean. Not you.” Again, Sean insists, “It’s not your fault”. Will shoves his therapist away and then buries his face in his hands and sobs. Sean puts his hands on his shoulders and Will grabs him hard and holds him close, crying, “O my God! I’m so sorry, Sean!” And Will continues to sob…
God’s grace is sufficient to offer us forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, atoning for our guilt through Christ. In a different, more complex way, God also frees us from our debilitating shame, with the assistance and intervention of caring people who help us reclaim our essential human value. Accept this day the grace of God and leave this place with a clean heartand a dirty forehead to begin this Lenten season, ready for spiritual growth.
Scripture: Luke 9:28-36
Sermon Title: Listen to Him
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Dale G. Tremper
February 10, 2013, Transfiguration Sunday
By now, you have noticed that preaching is not a competitive sport. Nevertheless, I must tell you that I can’t help feeling at least a little bit intimidated about standing before you this Sunday, just one week after Pastor Monte’s blockbuster message from last Sunday. If you think I am exaggerating, just look up his sermon on our church website… So, please pray with me now…
Here we are on the Mountain with Jesus and his closest friends: Peter, John and James. Luke tells us in the verse immediately before this account that Jesus had just said, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” Where is this Mountain? Nobody knows! Tour guides in Israel will tell you that it is this mountain or that tall hill, but nobody knows. We do know that after Peter has told him that he is the Messiah, Jesus changes the subject and calls himself “the Human One” (traditionally, “The Son of Man”).
There are all kinds of mystery here. Jesus goes uphill to pray. His fisherman friends, not accustomed to mountain climbing, fall asleep upon arrival. Through sleepy eyes, they see him talking with Moses and Elijah. How do they recognize Moses and Elijah? Maybe it’s the stone tablet under Moses’ arm or the desert dust all over old Elijah. Do they recognize their faces from stained glass windows? I don’t think so! Here is their friend with the Founder of the Jewish story and with the Prophet who holds the powerful accountable. Peter wants to do something. He wants to build three shrines, maybe to make it more real, maybe to collect tourist dollars. And then they hear the Voice, “This is my Child, whom I have chosen. Listen to him.” No wonder they don’t tell anybody about what they have seen and heard. The story is just too weird for anyone to believe. And more important than that, Jesus keeps talking about suffering and dying, just as they think that he is going to be somebody powerful, somebody to make history. Nobody makes history by dying… or do they?
Who is this Jesus and how do we know him? How do we follow him? How do we hear him? About 15 years ago, United Methodist Bishop William Grove had an appointment to visit a pastor in Germany. Usually when bishops are visiting pastors, they are used to being treated as VIPs at the moment of their arrival. But this day in Germany, the bishop was kept waiting. When the pastor finally finished what he had been doing, he explained to the bishop that he had been talking with a group of 20-something young adults who he had met earlier in the week. The young adults had been sitting on the church steps as the pastor walked up. They asked him, “What is this place?” He replied, “This is a church.” “What’s a church?”, they wanted to know. The pastor did his best to respond, saying, “A church is a place where we meet. More importantly, a Church is the group of all of us who are devoted to following Jesus.” (Not a bad answer, right?) The young adults had one more serious question: “Who is Jesus?”, they asked with straight faces. The pastor answered them, “Jesus is a person we believe was sent from God. We believe he was God himself. We believe that God raised him from the dead.”*
Now whatever you may think of that pastor’s answer to those young adults, the point is that there are many out there around us who don’t have any idea why we are here on a Sunday morning, why we believe the things we believe or do the things we do. (Yes, there are more of them in Europe than here in San Antonio, but the numbers of people who don’t have a clue about what a church is are growing rapidly these days.) I wonder how much the churches contribute to people’s ignorance about what goes on in these old buildings… I remember an inmate in an adult confirmation class, who described going to church as a young girl with her grandmother. As a middle schooler, she heard the preacher condemn people who drink, use drugs, steal, have random sexual encounters, tell lies, etc. He said that those kinds of people were going to go to hell. She told herself, “As long as I am going to hell, I might as well enjoy the journey”. And believing that there was no hope for her, she plunged herself into those behaviors that the preacher and her grandmother most strongly condemned. It was like she couldn’t help herself. Years of pain cling to people who have no hope.
Condemnation or hope? The message of Jesus becomes clearer as we listen to him and follow him. We don’t get it all at once. During the past week, our city has been grieving the loss of the facilities of the Childress Memorial Church of God in Christ. At the same time, the community has been seeing what a powerful and consistent witness they have offered, including hospitality, teaching and countless meals to the needy in our community. Sounds a lot like a place that we know well. Childress Church will rise again. Of that I am certain. Yes, the way of following Jesus contains its own kind of pain. Just ask Peter, John or James, when they were able to talk about it later. But the pain of discipleship in Jerusalem or San Antonio also comes with a deep joy and a fulfillment that the world cannot deliver. The fires and the floods and the crosses of life do not have the last word. They never do.
On Wednesday night, a young man and a slightly older man were released from the Bexar County jail at about the same time. Having no money, they went to the Greyhound station, where a compassionate security guard let them spend the night. On Thursday morning, naturally, they showed up at our church office. The younger man needed to report in to the police in Corpus Christi within 24 hours and be reunited with his wife and children there. The older man needed to get to McAllen. Neither had any money; each needed about $40 for his ticket. Contrary to what you may think, I can be tough with strangers begging for money from the church. I told them that they would have to each raise ½ of the cost of their ticket. They said that their families couldn’t help. I had two important meetings to get to. I told them to call whoever they knew, telling their family members that a preacher they had never met before and would never see again offered to pay ½ of the cost to get them home if they could raise the rest. They could use the church phone. After my first meeting, the older gentleman reported that his sister was sending him the cost of his ticket. He asked that since his was now taken care of, would I pay for the other ticket? So, after our Thursday Bible study, I walked to the Station with David. On the way, he showed me his chips for his first day of sobriety with God’s help through NA and for his first month. He had his job as a mechanic, his wife and 4 children waiting for him. He asked me for the church address so he could repay the $37.50 that the church paid for his ticket. You know, this time I actually think he will do it.
Some things we aren’t supposed to talk about. Some things we don’t know how to talk about, at least not yet. Things like falling in love, forgiveness, celebrating life with our children, facing death, recovering from addiction. Sometimes, we just need to listen, to take it all in, to remember, to pay attention. Sometimes we just need to open our eyes to see Jesus glowing and to hear the voice of God, calling out from the fog. I have never known a church that offers, week after week, such a rich feast of spiritual nurture, teaching and group support. Sunday morning worship is just the beginning. Take the next step and listen to Jesus. You will keep on seeing him, getting to know him better and better as you grow in your discipleship. Remember what he said about seeing the Kingdom of God? We celebrate the central Feast of God’s Kingdom right here every Sunday. Taste and see. Listen, too. Then speak.
*Christianity Today, 6/16/1997.
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Luke 4:21-30
SERMON TITLE: Stirring Up Trouble
PREACHER: Rev. Monte Marshall
February 3, 2013
Travis Park United Methodist Church
On Sunday, August 13, 1950, the congregation of the all-white Rehoboth Baptist in Americus, GA, adopted a resolution from its board of deacons that removed six of its members from the fellowship of the church. All of the six had joined the church in the early 1940s. One of the six, Dr. Clarence Jordan, was a licensed Baptist preacher with a PhD in New Testament Greek. He had often led the singing and played his trumpet in church. He had even preached on occasion.
The six members of Rehoboth Baptist Church were removed from the church roll because they stirred up trouble. They were all members of Koinonia Farm. The resolution described the farm as “an organization actively engaged in advocating views and practices contrary to those of other members of the Rehoboth Church.”
The resolution specified the particulars. The “views and practices” that stirred up so much trouble for these six people included bringing “people of other races into the services of Rehoboth Baptist Church;” visiting African-American churches in the community; and holding services in which people of different races worshipped together. The six were accused of causing “serious friction” in the church and disrupting “the Christian unity and spirit which had previously prevailed.” Two-thirds of the congregation voted that Sunday to boot the six out of the church.
Later on, one of the deacons of the church showed up at Koinonia Farm. He “confessed to Clarence that he had been haunted by his own participation in the Rehoboth purge.” He tearfully asked Clarence to forgive him. Clarence said that he already had. The deacon then said that he was going to resign from the church, but Clarence advised against it. Clarence told him “to stay in the church and live in such a way “as to be kicked out.” And that’s exactly what the man did until the day he died.
Well did you notice? In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus got kicked out of his hometown church. The folks in the synagogue at Nazareth were so enraged by what Jesus said that they not only kicked him out of the church, they ran him out of town, and even tried to kill him by hurling him off a cliff. But that didn’t work. Jesus slipped through their fingers only to face a cross a little farther down the line.
But this was not how this incident in Nazareth began. At the start of Luke’s story, the hometown boy got to read the scripture. He read a modified version of a text from Isaiah:“God’s Spirit is on me; the Holy One has chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free to announce, ‘This is God’s year to act!’”
When Jesus sat down to teach, the folks couldn’t wait to hear what he said. Their eyes were fixed on him and his sermon was short and to the point: “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”
Well, the people loved it! Everyone was amazed at his gracious words. They all spoke well of him. “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy?” they said.
But there was a problem. These folks expected special favors from the hometown boy. As one commentator has noted, “In terms of middle-eastern mores of the first century, a person had an obligation first to [the] family, and then to [the] hometown.” Since Jesus was proclaiming that God’s year to act was now, the Nazareth crowd wanted their piece of the action. They had it coming.
Jesus knew what was going on. He knew what they were thinking: “Doctor, cure yourself” was the proverb he quoted—and by extension your kinfolks, and your neighbors. The folks were thinking: “Do for us what you did in Capernaum. We’re your people! We’re your kind of people! We’re God’s people. You owe it to us!”
But Jesus—unlike most every other pastor I know, myself included—wasn’t content with the accolades and with meeting the social expectations of others. He knew that the hometown folks didn’t get it—so he intentionally stirred up trouble. He spoke up in such a way “as to be kicked out.”
Jesus said to the congregation, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown”—and he set about to prove it. Do you remember what he did? He told a couple of Bible stories—but they were Bible stories that the congregation in Nazareth didn’t want to hear.
He reminded them that God had sent the prophet Elijah to feed a non-Jewish woman in a time of famine. Apparently, she was receptive to what God was doing! And in the time of Elisha, it was Naaman—the Syrian commander—the non-Jew—who was cleansed of leprosy. Apparently, he too was receptive to what God was doing.
So what’s the point? Inclusiveness! Jesus—God’s prophet—was not going to be bound by “in-group loyalties.” His mission included outsiders—Gentiles—and Gentiles from widely differing backgrounds—including even an enemy.
And this is what set the people off. I like the way Alyce McKenzie puts it: “Nobody else had the guts to tell them what Jesus told them and us: ‘You won’t be able to claim God’s blessings for your life unless you claim them for other people’s lives at the same time. ‘” No doubt about it, this kind of talk will stir up trouble—and it may even get you kicked out of the church.
All of this brings back memories for me of a prophetic trouble-maker named Gene Leggett. Gene was born in Edinburg, TX. He graduated from Pan American College in 1956. He was raised in the church, called to ministry, graduated from Perkins School of Theology with honors in 1959, and was ordained a Methodist pastor in the Southwest Texas Annual Conference in 1961. After doing doctoral work in biblical studies at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University in New York City, Gene returned to Texas and served congregations in this annual conference including time on the staff of Travis Park Methodist Church.
Gene was married with children, but for years Gene had been in anguish over his sexual orientation. Eventually, Gene told his wife that he was gay. They divorced amicably. In the spring of 1971, Gene wrote a letter to friends and family members that stated: “I am a homosexual. This is not some new and frightening facet in my personality. I am still the same Gene Leggett you have always known.”
When the church hierarchy became aware of Gene’s sexual orientation, they concluded that he was “unacceptable” as a United Methodist pastor so they kicked him out of the ordained ministry of our church.
But that didn’t stop Gene Leggett. He continued to make a bold witness for the inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the church and the larger society. He stirred up trouble. I know because I attended several annual conference sessions and saw for myself the trouble Gene stirred up. He made the news—even the national news.
In fact, Gene stirred up trouble right here in this sanctuary on the night I was consecrated a diaconal minister in 1983. At the appropriate point in the service, I knelt on the kneeler you see against the wall this morning, right about here in the place where I’m now standing. As the bishop and others laid hands on my head, Gene Leggett was kneeling at the chancel rail off to the side, right about here. He had a liturgical stole tied as a gag around his mouth and head.
As folks were consecrated or ordained, Gene made a silent witness to his exclusion from full participation in the life and ministry of the church. Some people were offended—they thought that Gene was desecrating a holy ritual of the church—but I didn’t mind because I knew that his cause was just. He was forcing us to take a look at ourselves. He was stirring up trouble in the same way that Jesus stirred up trouble for the sake of inclusiveness.
I thank God this morning that people like the Koinionia six and Gene Leggett and others, followed Jesus and stirred up trouble because their witness has made a difference in the church and in the world. Today, Travis Park United Methodist Church stands with them for inclusiveness. We’ve repented of the racism in our past—and we’re not turning back. And we are a Reconciling Congregation, committed to embracing all of God’s people—including gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered persons—with unconditional love and justice.
And we too will follow Jesus in stirring up trouble—and living so as to be kicked out—until God’s will is done on earth and in the church, as it is in heaven. And may God give us strength to carry on, in the name of Jesus! Amen.
 Lee, Dallas. The Cotton Patch Evidence. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 76-81. Print.
 Petty, John. "Lectionary Blogging: Luke 4:21-30." Progressive Involvement. N.p., 25 Jan. 2010. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.
 McKenzie, Alyce M. "The Mount of Jumpification: Reflections on Luke 4:21-30." Patheos.com. N.p., 27 Jan. 2013. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.
 "Profile: Gene Leggett." The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Religious Archives Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Luke 4:14-21
SERMON TITLE: When Scripture is Fulfilled
PREACHER: Rev. Monte Marshall, Travis Park United Methodist Church
January 27, 2013
Last Monday in our nation’s capital, at a public ceremony marking the beginning of his second term in office, President Barack Obama delivered an inaugural address that set the stage for the next four years. He sounded the repeated refrain, “We, the people.” He rooted his remarks in two foundational texts for our nation: the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. He pointed to the self-evident truth “that all of us are created equal,” and declared it “the star that guides us still.” He affirmed that “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.” He concluded his speech with a call to action: “Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”
Now it remains to be seen how seriously President Obama’s inaugural address will be taken, especially my members of the United States Congress. But isn’t it interesting that six days later, here we are, gathered in worship at Travis Park UMC in San Antonio, TX, remembering an inaugural address of a different kind—delivered not by a president but by a prophet named Jesus—one bathed in the waters of baptism, beloved of God, “powerful in the Spirit,” and yet tested in the wilderness?
Jesus’ inaugural address that set the stage for his ministry then, and our ministry now, was delivered in his hometown of Nazareth on the Sabbath in the synagogue. At the appropriate time in the service, Jesus stood up to read the scripture. He was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage that he wanted to read.
The text he chose was a modified version of Isaiah 61:1-2: “God’s Spirit is on me; the Holy One has chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free to announce, ‘This is God’s year to act!’”
When he had finished reading, he rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down to teach. Every eye in the place was on him.
Jesus then delivered what must surely be the shortest inaugural address on record—even when we count the two verses of scripture that he read. Jesus said: “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.” This translation is from The Message. The NRSV simply says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
That’s it! It took President Obama a little over nineteen minutes to deliver his second inaugural address, but Jesus didn’t take that long. His remarks were short and to the point. But make no mistake about it, each word he uttered was packed with power.
Isaiah’s words kindled hopes for a Messiah—an anointed one chosen and sent by God—with a mission of liberation and justice for the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the burdened and the battered. And Jesus embraced these hopes: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Much of Isaiah’s language—and especially that last phrase, “This is God’s year to act”—is rooted in God’s covenant with Israel and its vision of a Jubilee year found in the Holiness Code of the Torah. Every 50th year, in the year of Jubilee, all Hebrew slaves were to be set free. In the year of Jubilee, all debts were to be forgiven. In the year of Jubilee, all land was to be returned to its original owners or their heirs, without compensation. One commentator has called this a regularly scheduled revolution to redistribute the community’s assets to overcome poverty and avoid a system of perpetual slavery like the Hebrews had endured in Egypt. And Jesus embraced this vision: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
What an amazing thing! In his inaugural address, this hometown boy “powerful in the Spirit,” claimed for himself the mantle of Messiah, and embraced the words of Isaiah to define his mission. Everything that follows in Luke’s gospel is a working out of this mission.
But that’s not all, Jesus’ inaugural address in the synagogue at Nazareth had implications not only for him, but for his disciples as well. As it turned out, the Spirit that empowered Jesus also empowered his disciples. His mission became their mission. Their task was to be so faithful to that mission that the scripture was fulfilled in their lives. Luke tells their story in the book of Acts.
But it didn’t stop there. God’s powerful Spirit is still at work in us. We’ve been anointed with the waters of baptism, we’ve been chosen, and we’ve been sent to accomplish the mission so faithfully that the scripture is fulfilled in our lives.
And I want you to know brothers and sisters, that of all the churches I have served, Travis Park United Methodist Church is doing more to take Jesus’ inaugural address seriously than any other congregation I have ever served. Scripture is being fulfilled today through Corazon Ministries, the Wednesday Recovery Circle, Deborah’s House, Reconciling Ministries, and on and on it goes. And I thank God for the work that we’re doing together.
But it’s also the case that most of our members and other connected to our church are not involved in these ministries, except through their giving. Now I certainly don’t want to shortchange the importance of our gifts, but I do want us go deeper.
Did you notice how personal and individual the text from Isaiah is? “God’s Spirit is on ME…the Holy One has chosen ME…the Holy one has…sent ME. Now to be sure, Isaiah’s vision of liberation and justice is for the whole community—and the mission is directed to the community—but it takes individuals to respond to accomplish the mission.
And this makes sense, because for communities to change, individual have to change. In fact, individuals have to act as change agents to affect the larger society. This is why God calls forth prophets personally and individually to act as change agents. This is why Jesus embraced Isaiah’s mission personally and individually.
So do we see what this means for us? It’s not enough to ask what our congregation is doing to take Jesus’ inaugural address seriously; we have to ask ourselves individually and personally: What am I doing to take Jesus’ inaugural address seriously? How does my life proclaim good news to the poor? How does my life announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind? How does my life set the burdened and battered free? How does my life announce that “This is God’s year to act?” How is Jesus’ mission, my mission? How is scripture being fulfilled in me?
Now when Jesus’ inaugural address gets this personal and this individual, amazing things can happen. Jeff was a businessman. His career has been a complete whirlwind. He’d achieved more success than he’d ever dreamed of. He was paying more in taxes than he ever expected to make in a full year! He and his wife purchased their dream home in the exact neighborhood where they had always wanted to live. He purchased the BMW; the big beach house; and they went on great vacations. On top of all of this, his business was growing, which made him even richer.
But there was something missing in his life. He had been a Christian since he was seven years old. He knew that it was a good thing to “help” the poor, but he had never paid much attention to Jesus’ inaugural address or to the idea that his life might be used by the Spirit to fulfill the scripture. And he certainly had never thought that the disparity between his affluence and the poverty of others was a matter of justice. He was just taking care of himself and his family.
But then something happened to change his life. As he stood in a city dump in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, he saw men, women, and children who were living in the dump where they scoured for food and shelter. He saw parents raising their kids in this dump. He reached a breaking point when he saw a woman eight months pregnant walk by, looking for food. This broke his heart. And then, in the middle of this depressing scene, God started messing with him: What are you going to do with what I have given you? How are you going to use your influence, your leadership, and your resources in the world around you?
Jeff realized in that moment that God had a purpose for his life that was far beyond anything he had imagined before. So Jeff decided to walk away from the American dream. He still runs his business and makes a lot of money, but he redistributes most of his wealth to others as a matter of justice and as an act of liberation that frees him from the affluence that held him in bondage. Part of his wealth goes to support a ministry he and a couple of other folks from his church began that works with local congregations around the world to provide clean water in communities where thousands are dying every day of preventable waterborne diseases. It sounds to me like Jesus’ mission had finally become Jeff’s mission so that scripture was being fulfilled in his life.
So my brothers and sisters, the questions are before individually and personally: What am I doing to take Jesus’ inaugural address seriously? How does my life proclaim good news to the poor? How does my life announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind? How does my life set the burdened and battered free? How does my life announce that “This is God’s year to act?” How is Jesus’ mission, my mission? How is scripture being fulfilled in me? May God help us fulfill the mission. Amen.
 "POLITICO." POLITICO. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2013.
Claiborne, Shane, and Chris Haw. Jesus for President Politics for Ordinary Radicals. Grand Rapids:Zondervan, 2008, 59. Print.
 Platt, David. Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2010. 80-81. Print.
Travis Park United Methodist Church
January 20, 2013
SCRIPTURE TEXT: John 2:1-11
SERMON TITLE: When the Wine Runs Out
PREACHER: Rev. Monte Marshall
A question: Do we know what life is like when the wine runs out? A man named Jack knows. Jack had once been the pastor of a successful church in Scotland. He had been a well-known speaker in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. He had once been filled with excitement and vision. But then the wine ran out—and when it did, Jack quit the ministry.
Pastor Malcolm Smith describes a conversation he had with his friend Jack: “We sat in a café in the Mayfair area of London. Outside, the fog was settling in on the late November afternoon. The gloom outside matched the dark despair that registered on the face of my friend across the table.
“In the last two hours, he had injected his negative outlook into every subject we had discussed. Anything I shared, concerning God’s work and the ministry, only drew sarcastic remarks.
“The previous evening I had spoken in a local church on the love command of Jesus. Jack had obviously been thinking about it all day.
“‘I mean it, Malcolm. You preach love, but you know that no one will ever do what you say! I watched them last night. They agree with you, nod their heads and shout praises to the Lord; they line up to shake your hand and say how they were blessed. And before they get home, they are gossiping, fighting and betraying their friends.’
“He looked down for a moment and when he looked up, I saw a tired man, weary with life and at present in deep despair. Quietly he said, ‘This is why I quit, Malcolm….it doesn’t work. Does it, Malcolm? It’s all talk and going through the religious motions, but no one is changed!’
“’There were times when I felt like a drug pusher. The congregation paid me to give them their regular injections to convince them they ought to keep trying to be good Christians for another week! And they went on their way believing that, this time, things would be better. But we know nothing will change because it doesn’t work!’
“’That is what I had to face up to last year: I was a minister and I preached the Gospel, but most of the New Testament, when it came to living it, was out of my reach. I just kept preaching and hoped no one would notice that my life was as empty as theirs.’”
Do we know what life is like when the wine runs out—when we feel empty inside—when it just doesn’t work anymore—when we go through all the religious motions but nothing changes? I certainly do.
Well, the rabbis of old had a saying: “Without wine there is no joy.” Wine symbolized joy. Drunkenness was unacceptable, but wine taken in celebration gave life to the party. Wine also symbolized hope and vitality and life.
So the question for Jack and for us is simple: What do we do when the wine runs out, when the joy is gone, when the party’s over? It seems to me that John’s story of the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee speaks to this question.
Now in the ancient Near East, a wedding party went on for days and the wine flowed freely. The bridegroom was to make sure of this. But in John’s story, the wine ran out, creating a crisis for the host of the party. What should have been a joyous wedding celebration was in danger of becoming an embarrassing and shameful fiasco for the bride and groom.
But as it turned out, Jesus was at the party, along with his mother and his disciples. When his mother heard of the problem with the wine, her first reaction was to turn to her son. She told him: “They have no wine.”
And at first, Jesus showed no interest in the problem. He was focused on his future destiny, not on the present crisis. He said: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” But his mother seemed to know that Jesus wouldn’t just stand by and do nothing so she said to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”
And sure enough, Jesus told the servants to take the six stone jars used for the Jewish purification rites and fill them with water. He then told them to draw some of the water and take it to the head caterer—and lo and behold, when the head caterer tasted the water, it had become wine—and the very best wine that should have been served at the beginning of the party rather than at the end. Imagine that, 120 gallons of water transformed into 120 gallons of wine. Not a bad way to keep a party going!
So how does John conclude the story? “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
So what are we to do when the wine runs out? Given John’s story, the answer seems clear: Seek Christ. When we feel empty inside—seek Christ. When the old way of doing things doesn’t seem to work anymore—seek Christ. When we go through all the religious motions but nothing changes—seek Christ.
Seek Christ inwardly in the depths of who we are. Seek Christ in the other. Seek Christ in our praying. Seek Christ in our worship. Seek Christ at the table. Seek Christ in the scriptures. Seek Christ in the everyday events of life. Seek Christ in acts of humble service. Seek Christ in acts of mercy. Seek Christ in acts of love, justice and peace. Seek Christ.
For you see, the presence of his Spirit reveals the glory of God in the midst of everyday life and kindles hope. His word transforms the ordinary into the extra-ordinary and infuses life with new meaning and vitality.
Christ is the one who meets us in our discouragement and despair and brings joy. Christ is the one who takes a party on its last legs, and gives it new energy.
The man whose life and work we celebrate tomorrow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., knew something about all of this. He knew what life is like when the wine runs out. Dr. King said, “I get weary every now and then. The future looks difficult and dim.” Dr. King said, “Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticisms, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my life’s work’s in vain.”
Dr. King once prayed to God: “But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”
Dr. King was deeply disappointed with the church—especially the white churches of the South. He wrote in a Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”
My brothers and sisters, Dr. King knew what life is like when the wine runs out. But time and time again, when Dr. King’s cup was nearly empty—drained of the last drop of wine—he sought Christ and found new wine that gave him life and kept him going in the struggle for justice.
When the wine had run out, Dr. King heard an inner voice saying to him: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” 
Dr. King said, “I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I felt sin-breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
Dr. King said, “And when you get this faith, you can walk with your feet on solid ground and your head to the air, and you fear no man. And you fear nothing that comes before you.” This, my brothers and sisters, is what life is like when we drink the new wine of Jesus Christ.
So do we know what life is like when the wine runs out? Do we know what it’s like to be discouraged? Do we know what it’s like to despair? Do we know what’s it like when nothing seems to work anymore? Do we know what it’s like to go through the religious motions while nothing changes? Well, I do. I think we all do. So what are we to do about it? Seek Christ. Thanks be to God! Amen.
 Smith, Malcolm. Spiritual Burnout: When Doing All You Can Isn't Enough. [S.l.]: Honor, 1977. Print.
 "What Do You Do When The Wine Runs Out?" Http://www.sermoncentral.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2013.
 King, Jr., Martin Luther, Dr. "Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool." King Papers. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2013. <http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/article/why_jesus_called_a_man_a_fool/>.
 King, Jr., Martin Luther, Dr. "Letter From Birmingham Jail." Letter From Birmingham Jail. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2013. <http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/annotated_letter_from_birmingham/>.
 King, Jr., Martin Luther, Dr. "Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool." King Papers. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2013. <http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/article/why_jesus_called_a_man_a_fool/>.
Travis Park United Methodist Church
January 13, 2013
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
SERMON TITLE: We are Somebody
PREACHER: Rev. Monte Marshall
In a book on baptism, Bishop Will Willimon tells this story: “Back in high school, every Friday and Saturday night, as I was leaving home to go on a date, I remember my mother bidding me farewell at the front door with these weighty words, ‘Will, don’t forget who you are.’
Now Will Willimon wasn’t in danger of forgetting his name. That wasn’t the issue. His mother’s concern was that while he was out on a date, or in the midst of a party, or in the presence of some strangers, he might lose sight of the values with which he had been raised, that he might answer to some alien name, that he might engage in some unaccustomed behavior. The noted psychologist Carl Jung once said: “The world will ask you who you are; if you don’t know, it will tell you.” So on his way out the door, Will’s mother reminded him: “Will, don’t forget who you are.”
Well, this morning, we’re going to remember who we are. How many of you remember the TV show All in the Family? One of my favorite episodes was when Archie Bunker told his wife Edith that a spot had opened up on a championship bowling team called the Cannonballers. Archie said that he wanted to be on that team so badly he could almost taste it. He especially liked the bowling shirts that the team wore. The shirts were made of yellow silk with bright red piping on the collar and the sleeves. And then, on the back of the shirt, was a picture of a cannon firing a bowling ball at a set of pins. Archie said to Edith: “When you got something like that on your back, Edith, you know you’re somebody.”
Now believe it or not, what that bowling shirt was to Archie Bunker, baptism is to the followers of Jesus. When we’ve been through the waters of baptism, we know that we’re somebody—even when others try to denigrate who we are so that they can tell us who we are—we know that we’re somebody.
In Luke’s presentation of the gospel, this happened to Jesus. By the time we get through the stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood in the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel—complete with the angels and the heavenly choir and all the rest—we know that Jesus is someone special. But there’s more to the story.
At the beginning of chapter 3, Luke moves the story forward a few years. He continues to give his narrative a political slant by naming the powers: the Roman emperor, Tiberius; Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea; Herod, the ruler of Galilee; Philip the ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis; Lysanias, ruler of Abilene; and Annas and Caiaphus the high priests.
Unfortunately, with rulers like these, God’s people were in a political and spiritual “wilderness”—and many of them had forgotten who they were. They had become collaborators with the Empire like tax collectors and soldiers, while many others simply put up with living on the margins—with being the nobodies of the Empire.
In these circumstances, the people were desperate for deliverance; they longed for a Messiah to set them free; so they sought out John the Baptist. He offered them God’s mercy. And he challenged them to change.
The people were full of anticipation and they wondered if John might be God’s chosen one. But John pointed to another—one who would baptize the people in the Holy Spirit and in a purifying fire.
When it came to the people in power, John was nothing but a troublemaker. Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, reacted to John’s critique against of his “wickedness” by having him thrown into jail. This story is told in the verses omitted from this morning’s reading.
According to Luke, it’s when John is in prison that Jesus appears—and he’s all grown up. The text simply says that “When all the people were baptized, Jesus also came to be baptized.” That’s it.
But did you notice? Jesus stood with the people. He stood in solidarity with them—with everyone who had sold out to the Empire, and yet was desperate for a new life—with everyone broken and devalued by the Empire—with everyone weighed down with guilt and shame. Jesus stood with them—and he even stood with them at the end of the line.
And did you notice that in Luke’s gospel, John doesn’t baptized Jesus? John was in jail. But Jesus was baptized. By whom, Luke doesn’t say.
Luke does tell us that after the baptism, Jesus prayed—he opened himself to God—and when he did, he came to know for himself just how special he really was. Luke says,“the skies opened and the Holy Spirit descended on the Anointed One in visible form, like a dove. A voice from heaven said, ‘You are my Own, my Beloved. On you my favor rests.” All of this was Luke’s way of saying that in God’s eyes, Jesus was a beloved somebody.
Now I’m pretty sure that to Emperor Tiberius, Jesus was a nobody. To Pilate and Herod and Philip and Lysanias and Annas and Caiaphus, Jesus was a nobody. When some of these powerful people finally had the chance, they threw this nobody into jail, they had him tortured, and they crucified him. They thought that they had finally dealt with this nobody once and for all. But it didn’t work that way because in God’s eyes, Jesus was God’s beloved somebody.
And so are we. When we go through the waters of baptism with the same openness to God as Jesus had when he prayed, it is possible to discern the truth about who we are. We are God’s own; we are God’s beloved; and on us, God’s favor rests. In other words, we are God’s beloved somebodies.
And to know this can change our lives, especially when there are people who want to put us down and treat us as if we’re nobodies. Sometimes these people are the powerful ones who seek to rule over us and to define us so that they can control us, and sometimes the folks who put us down are members of our own families. Either way, it’s important to remember who we are.
Pastor Billy Strayhorn tells this story: “I’ll never forget my baptism,” he writes. “It wasn’t one of those knock you off your feet experiences….There was no visible manifestation of the Holy Spirit. And the heavens didn’t open. But for this kid with the checkered past, it was a life changing event. You see, this kid’s father was a drunk who left when he was less than a year old and never came back. This kid grew up in a home that was both normal and abnormal. It was a typical blue collar home. And for the most part, this kid lived a normal blue collar life.
“Except, at times, my stepfather made it very clear that I wasn’t his real son. And I didn’t really fit in. The words, ‘I love you’ were rarely, if ever, spoken. I felt like a nobody. I was the unwanted stepson who just wanted to be loved, accepted and respected. There was a hole in my life that I kept trying to fill. Consequently, I did a lot of dangerous and foolish things trying to gain that acceptance from others.
“Luckily, God intervened with the love of a beautiful woman [named Mary] whose quiet faith and faithfulness had a big impact upon my life. Through her love and acceptance of me and her gentle witness, I became curious about this guy Jesus. I began reading the Bible. I even started going to church.
“And then one day it struck me that the message the preacher was preaching wasn’t just for all those other people there. It was for me. It was real. And it made a difference…. I stood up the day I was baptized and knew that I belonged. I was somebody. I was a child of God. I was loved. It didn’t make any difference what others might think. That little bit of water on my head marked me and sealed me as one of God’s beloved children. And no one could ever take that from me.”
My brothers and sisters, it’s important to remember who we are. So this morning we have the opportunity to renew our baptisms, to open ourselves to God in prayer, and to discern once again the truth about ourselves: We are God’s beloved somebodies.
 Quoted in Zingale, Tim, Rev. "Remember Who You Are." Http://www.sermoncentral.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2013.
"The Kingdom Is Near,” The Latest." The Kingdom Is Near. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2013.
 "All in the Family." Archie and the Bowling Team. CBS. New York, New York, 16 Dec. 1972. Television.
 Strayhorn, Billy D., Rev. "This Is My Son." Epulpit.net. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Jan. 2002. <http://www.epulpit.net/billy48.htm>.
Travis Park United Methodist Church
Rev. Monte Marshall
January 6, 2013
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Matthew 2:1-12
SERMON TITLE: Subversive Worship
UCC pastor, Robin Meyers, wrote a book that I know some of you have read entitled: The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus. He writes: “I have given my life to the church, but my gathering conviction after three decades of parish ministry is that Christians now blend in so well with the dominant culture that we have effectively disappeared. The community that used to give the Empire fits now fits right in with the Empire.”
I think he’s got a point. Consider what we’ve done to Matthew’s story of the “astrologers from the East.” We’ve taken a story that’s intended to “give the Empire fits,” and we’ve tamed it—we’ve domesticated it—we’ve cloaked it in a syrupy sentimentality—so that the Empire is no longer offended—and neither are we. In fact, the Empire has co-opted our story and used it against us to seduce us into compliance, to sell us more stuff at Christmas time, to keep us feeling warm and fuzzy in the face of continuing violence and injustice, and to perpetuate the myth that we are a “Christian” nation.
But this morning on Epiphany Sunday, I propose that we take our story back and we reclaim its power to “give the Empire fits.” But for this to happen, we have to make a decision. In fact, it’s the same decision we have to make every Sunday and every day of lives: To whom shall we pay homage? To whom shall we offer our gifts? The text frames our choices.
Is Herod worthy of our worship—the one who represents the Empire—the system—the status quo—and every ruler past and present who relies on violence, deceit and all of the trappings of power to maintain control?
Did you notice how Herod and the entire Jerusalem power structure “became greatly disturbed” when they heard about the possibility of a new ruler on the scene? They obviously weren’t ready to follow a rival ruler!
And they didn't have a clue as to what was going on. They should have been the first to know—especially the chief priests and religious scholars—but they were clueless. They didn’t know their own scriptures. They were too busy dancing to Herod’s tune. It took the foreign astrologers and their disturbing news to finally get their attention!
And did you notice how Herod used his power? He was so concerned about the appearance of a potential rival that he lied to the astrologers about his desire to pay homage to the new ruler. The truth is, Herod didn’t want to worship the child—Herod was plotting to kill the child—and he was trying to use the astrologers as his unsuspecting spies. So are we ready to bow down in worship before the likes of Herod and the Empire?
Or will we join the “astrologers from the East” in an act of subversive worship? These foreigners got caught up in God’s efforts to overthrow the Empire from below—which is literally what it means to be subversive. They bypassed Rome, they didn’t stay long in Jerusalem, and they didn’t pay homage to Herod—the “official” ruler of the Jews, according to the Empire.
These astrologers followed the stars and paid attention to their dreams rather the royal dictates of Herod. In the end, they engaged in subversive worship as they offered their devotion and their gifts to Jesus—to a child—to God’s chosen one—the Messiah—the one born not in the holy city of Jerusalem, but in the backwater village of Bethlehem. And make no mistake about it, their actions undermined the authority of the Empire. That’s subversive worship!
At its best, our worship is always subversive of the Empire. Following Jesus Christ is intended “to give the Empire fits”—that’s why we can expect trouble from the Empire—that’s why we can expect a cross. It’s when our worship loses its subversive character and “fits in with the Empire” that we become invisible and irrelevelent to the transformation of the world.
We’ve already acknowledged our own difficulties in this regard. But consider what happened to many German Christians in the 1930s.
On the cover a book entitled Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust, there is a disturbing photograph. On the steps of a church stands Pastor Ludwig Mueller, draped in ecclesiastical robes, a crucifix dangling from his neck. He is surrounded by a group of Nazi storm troopers, and like them, he has his right arm raised in salute to the Fuehrer.
During worship on Sunday mornings, it was not unusual to find a swastika on the altar of that church, right next to the cross. In the congregation were storm-troopers and Hitler Youth dressed in full uniform. They would often march to church together and sit in the front pews.
They joined the congregation in saying their prayers; they recited the creeds; they shared in the liturgy. They lifted their voices in singing the hymns of the church: A Mighty Fortress is our God; Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bonds; Savior of the Nations, Come.
But alongside the Christ, they paid homage to Adolf Hitler, Germany’s Messiah. For them, Hitler was a gift from God. Therefore, it was the church’s role not to subvert the Empire, but to bless it.
And we all know the consequences for the world, and especially for the Jews. In an address to the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in January, 2000, Professor Yehuda Bauer made this comment: “Nineteen hundred years after the appearance of the Christian Messiah, who came from the Jews, his people were murdered by baptized heathen.”
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Robert McAfee Brown shares this story: “June 16, 1985, started out like any other Sunday. Children were scrubbed and prepared for Sunday school, choirs got together early to practice the morning anthem, ministers looked over their manuscripts, wishing they had devoted more time to sermon preparation. And in many churches that day, when eleven o’clock finally rolled around, the pastors read a statement that had been circulated to the churches throughout the nation, entitled ‘A Theological Rationale and a Call to Prayer….’
“The pious could be pleased that the church was once again attending to its ‘real job.’ Church officials could breathe more easily, now that the churches were ‘looking inward’ once again, rather than messing around with politics and social action.
“But it didn’t work out that way. All the expectations were dashed. The pious were greatly agitated, upset that prayer had been used for partisan political ends. Church officials were deeply divided…. And government officials were apoplectic, furiously charging that the church had intruded into area where it didn’t belong, engaging in what amounted to acts of treason….
“All this furor simply over a call to prayer?
“But the furor was real. For the country was South Africa; the date was the anniversary of the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976, when government troops had entered the black township of Johannesburg and opened fire on black children; and the full title of ‘A Theological Rationale and a Call to Prayer...’ was ‘A Theological Rationale and Call to Prayer for the End to Unjust Rule.” Here are some excerpts:
We now pray that God will replace the present unjust structures of oppression with ones that are just, and remove from power those who persist in defying [God’s] laws, installing in their places leaders who will govern with justice and mercy….
The present regime, together with its structures of domination, stands in contradiction to the Christian gospel to which the churches of the land seek to remain faithful….
We pray that God…may remove from [God’s] people the tyrannical structures of oppression and the present rulers in our country who persistently refuse to hear the cry for justice….
We pledge ourselves to work for that day.
This, my brothers and sisters, is what can happen when we join “the astrologers from the East” in subversive worship. It gives the Empire fits to be sure! But it keeps the church from fitting right in with the Empire.
But here’s the deal: For our worship to be subversive worship, we have a decision to make: To whom shall we pay homage? To whom shall we offer our gifts? Herod and the Empire, or Jesus, the Christ? The choice is ours.
 Meyers, Robin R. The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012. 192. Print.
 Ericksen, Robert P., and Susannah Heschel. Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999. Print.
 Bauer, Yehuda. Rethinking the Holocaust. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001. 269. Print.
 Brown, Robert McAfee. Spirituality and Liberation: Overcoming the Great Fallacy. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1988. 13-15. Print.
Travis Park United Methodist Church
January 6, 2013
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Colossians 3:12-17
SERMON TITLE: “New Clothes”
Rev. Monte Marshall
Back in 2000 in the wake of the presidential campaign between Al Gore and George W. Bush, the Indianapolis Star newspaper made this observation: “The political divisions in America are deep and at times bitter. Partisan antics, aimed more at stirring up trouble than solving problems, are rampant in Washington.”
So here we are today at the end of 2012, standing on the edge of the so-called “fiscal cliff,” with Congress straining to overcome political gridlock, and if anything, the divisions have become deeper and are still bitter. The Pew Research Center has concluded that “Americans…are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years.” Pundits have characterized this polarization as “extreme,” “poisonous,” “dysfunctional,” and “dangerous.” A headline on the New York Times Opinion Pages back in September read: “Look How Far We’ve Come Apart.”
But did you notice? In the midst of the political turmoil, we are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ—God’s peace in the flesh. On Christmas Eve, we joined in singing a familiar song: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace among those whom God favors.” And this morning, on the Sunday after Christmas, we’re encouraged to let the peace of Christ reign in our hearts.
My brothers and sisters, we’ve been chosen by God for this purpose. We are God’s beloved and God has set us apart for this purpose. And we’ve been given a magnificent gift that helps us be a people of peace: new clothes!
Listen again to the text: “clothe yourselves with heartfelt compassion, with kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another; forgive whatever grievances you have against one another—forgive in the same way God has forgiven you. Above all else, put on love, which binds the rest together and makes them perfect.”
These are the clothes that make for peace. The old garments that produce bitterness and partisan antics and poisonous polarization are simply unfit to wear if indeed the peace of Christ reigns in our hearts.
Now I know it’s a stretch, but can you imagine how our nation’s political debate would change if our politicians and all the rest of us—were clothed in these garments that make for peace? What a dream! Actually, it’s God’s dream—it’s God’s dream for us. And God offers us these new clothes so that God’s dream for us may become reality in the concrete here and now of life.
And those of us in the church should be leading the way. In fact, baptism has already re-clothed us—we’ve taken off the old and put on the new. The challenge is to dress ourselves in these new clothes each and every day. So in a world like ours—in the midst of conflict, division, and strife—we should be modeling for the entire world to see—how to live together in peace with one another.
And we’ve had our moments. According to one leader in the early church, people looked at Christians in those days and said: “See how they love another!” One modern scholar has noted that those first Christians “made the grace of God credible by a society of love and mutual care which astonished the pagans and was recognized as something entirely new. It lent persuasiveness to their claim that the New Age had dawned in Christ.”
Now this is not to say that there were no conflicts in the early church. The conflicts were many. All we have to do is read through the pages of Paul’s letters to get a feel for the intense debates over theology and ethics that raged among those early followers of Jesus. The controversies were often heated. Paul sometimes grew angry and frustrated. But the church managed to stay together—and the new clothes that they wore, helped them to stay together.
But now let’s be honest. Through the history of the church, we haven’t always been comfortable with our new clothes so we’ve pulled out the old garments from the discard pile and put them on again. We’ve tossed love out the window, left all of those other virtues in the dust, and made a mockery of the peace of Christ. We’ve resorted instead to knock-down-drag-out church fights that have sometimes been incredibly violent, and we’ve produced a church that’s splintered into a multitude of denominations and para-church groups that says to the world—“Despite what these people say, they don’t know the first thing about peace. They can’t even get along with one another!”
Now we United Methodists know something about church fights. We’ve had a few ourselves. We became a church in America in 1784. We were called The Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1816, Black Methodists split from the church because of the injustices they endured in a predominately white church. They formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church. For similar reasons, in 1821, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion was formed. In 1830, about 5,000 preachers and laypersons left the Methodist Episcopal Church because the church would not permit the laity to participate in its governing structures. These dissidents formed the Methodist Protestant Church. And then, in 1845, the Methodist Episcopal Church was torn in two between north and south. The issue was slavery. This rupture in the church pre-dated the start of the American Civil War by some fifteen years. It was a preview of things to come. And the breech wasn’t finally healed until 1939 when the northern Methodists and the southern Methodists finally came back together again.
Today, controversies continue in The United Methodist Church and in other denominations amid some signs of hope. In this area of the country, for example, the predominately Hispanic United Methodists of the Rio Grande Conference, and the predominately Anglo United Methodists of the Southwest Texas Conference are finally coming together after years of separation.
But when the General Conference of The United Methodist Church met this year in Tampa, FL—it was obvious to everyone that we continue to contend one another over important issues like homosexuality. The stakes are high. The tensions are real. Passions run deep. The issues won’t go away, and they shouldn’t go away.
What grieves me deeply are not just the injustices that persist in our church—and there are many—but the talk that’s once again surfaced about the United Methodist Church splitting apart over the issues that divide us. All of this reminds me that sometimes the ways of the world are the ways of the church—and to the extent that this is true, the church may be contributing more the problems of our divided nation than we are to its healing.
But somehow or another, we have to learn. We’ve not been chosen to break apart; we’ve been chosen to hold together. There are great differences among us to be sure. There always have been. But we are the church of Jesus Christ. God has provided for us a new wardrobe that makes for peace. We are God’s beloved, and we exist to let the peace of Christ reign in our hearts as a witness to God’s dream for the whole world.
And make no mistake about it, when people change their clothes, and put on the garments that make for peace, it’s a powerful thing to behold. For example, in the late 60s and early 70s, there was a humanitarian crisis in the African country of Biafra. War was raging between Biafra and Nigeria. People were starving to death and suffering in countless ways.
In response, the American Red Cross was gathering supplies of food and medicine and clothing to aid the Biafran people. Inside one of the boxes that showed up at the collecting depot was a letter. The letter read: “We have recently been converted [to Christ] and as an act of repentance we want to try to help. We won’t ever need these again. Can you use them for something?”
Inside the box were several Ku Klux Klan sheets that had been worn by racists to persecute people of color in the United States. The sheets were cut down into strips and eventually used to bandage the wounds of black people in Africa.
My brothers and sisters, it makes a difference what clothes we wear. Isn’t it time to put on our new clothes—to be who we are—God’s chosen people—holy and beloved? Isn’t it time for us to practice what we preach—to let the peace of Christ reign in our hearts? Isn’t it time for us to set the pace and point the way toward peace for the sake of Christ—our divided world—and our divided nation? I, for one, long for the day when those outside the church will once again look upon us and say, “See how they love another!” May it be so for us! Amen.
 Editorial, Indianapolis Star, November 9, 2000.
 "2012 American Values Survey." Pew Research Center for the People and the Press RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Jan. 2013.
 "THE POLARIZATION PARADOX." The Breakthrough Institute -. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Jan. 2013.
 Avlon, John, and The Opinions Expressed in This Commentary Are Solely Those of John Avlon. "Hyper-partisanship Dragging down Nation." CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 02 Jan. 2013.
 "The Big Picture - Macro Perspective on the Capital Markets, Economy, Technology, and Digital Media." USA: Dysfunctional Polarization. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Jan. 2013.
 "Dangerous Convictions." Oxford University Press: : Tom Allen. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Jan. 2013.
 "Look How Far We've Come Apart." Campaign Stops Look How Far Weve Come Apart Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Jan. 2013.
 "Tertullian : Some Quoted Passages." Tertullian : Some Quoted Passages. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Jan. 2013.
 Wallis, Jim. The Call to Conversion. New York: Harper & Row, 1981. Print.
 The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2008. Nashville, TN: United Methodist Pub. House, 2008. 13-18. Print.
Travis Park United Methodist Church
Rev. Monte Marshall
December 24, 2012 Christmas Eve
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Luke 2:1-20
SERMON TITLE: What Are We Looking For? Glory
So it’s Christmas Eve. What are we looking for tonight? When we lit the Christ candle at the beginning of our service, we said that we are looking for glory. Specifically, we’re looking for “God’s glory piercing the darkness; revealing the Savior’s birth; bringing peace on earth; and bursting forth as praise.”
In the scriptures, the word glory is often associated with a manifestation of God to human beings. In those moments when we’re perceptive enough to recognize God’s presence with us, glory is one of the words we use to name what we see—we see God’s glory.
The Bible also uses powerful metaphors—derived from our human experience—to describe God’s glory in ways that we can understand and imagine. God’s glory appears in the scriptures, for example, as an intensely burning fire or a brilliant light. These images convey to us that the glory of God shines into the world and into our experience—it radiates—it illuminates! And when we find ourselves in the darkness, it penetrates to dispel the darkness!
Now it’s fascinating to me that in Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus, the glory of God—this brilliant light—does not shine upon the stable, or the manger, or the baby, or the baby’s mother and father. There’s not even an angel in sight!
And this may be disconcerting to us as we’ve come to associate the baby Jesus with light. There’s a story, for example, about a school putting on a Christmas pageant. The advertising said that the cast was made up of members of the eighth grade, except for the baby Jesus whose part would be played by a concealed forty-watt light bulb.
But in Luke’s gospel, there’s no light shining down upon the baby Jesus. In this sense, the birth of Jesus remains hidden—hidden from Emperor Augustus and the governor of Syria. They didn’t have a clue what’s going on. They were too wrapped up in running the Empire to pay attention to what was happening to a poor family in a backwater village of the Empire like Bethlehem.
And this birth was hidden from almost everyone else except for a rag-tag bunch of shepherds living in the fields and working the night shift, tending their sheep near Bethlehem. In Luke’s story, the brilliant spotlight of God’s glory that was not visible at the stable in Bethlehem, shone upon them—these poor and lowly shepherds!
And what a scandal! In first century Palestine, shepherds occupied the bottom rung of the social ladder. Society stereotyped them as liars, degenerates, and thieves. Religious leaders labeled them “sinners” and classified them with tax collectors and prostitutes. They were written off and shunned by the so-called “respectable” people.
And yet, God’s glory shone upon them. And it scared them, but they paid attention. They listened to God’s messenger and when they did, they heard good news of a great joy that lifted them up from the degradation of their daily lives. They heard about the birth of a savior—and they yearned for a savior other than Caesar. They heard about the birth of the Christ—and they yearned for God’s Messiah to deliver them. They heard about a sign disguised in vulnerability and weakness—an infant wrapped in a simple cloth and lying in a manger—and they were ready for God to go to work again from the bottom up rather than the top down.
And then, after a multitude of the heavenly hosts showed up and a celebration broke out, those good-for-nothing shepherds heard acclamations of praise—“Glory to God in high heaven!” And they heard a song being sung that was music to their ears: “On earth, peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.” Can you imagine it? Peace from God for no-count shepherds working the night shift in a dead end job—and not the peace secured by Roman legions at the point of a sword.
Now apparently, all of this glory stuff was contagious, because after the shepherds made their visit to the stable, they followed the example of the heavenly hosts. They left, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. In other words, the glory they had experienced in God’s presence was glory they returned to God and shared with others, as praise!
So my brothers and sisters, if we’re looking for glory tonight, what does all of this mean for us? Well, let me be clear. I would not recommend that we all move to Israel, become shepherds, and take care of sheep in the fields outside of Bethlehem until God decides to repeat the experience. There are so many other ways to experience God’s glory shining brightly in the world around us.
Let me tell you a story that comes from a young man named Shane Claiborne. Some of you know Shane. He’s spoken here at Travis Park in the past. Shane is a founding member of a small community of Christians called the Simple Way. All the members of this community live among the poor in inner city Philadelphia
This is Shane’s story: “In the early days of our community, Michelle, a founding partner of the Simple Way, and I headed out to get a loaf of bread. We walked underneath the El tracks just a block from our house, a strip notorious for its prostitution and drug trafficking, where the air is thick with tears and struggle.
We walked past an alley, and tucked inside was a woman, tattered, cold, and on crutches. She approached me, asking if I wanted her services.
Our hearts sank, but we scurried on to get our bread. Then we headed quickly home, nodding at the woman as we passed.
When we got home and opened the bread, we noticed that the bag had a large gash in the side and the bread had gone bad. We would have to go back, and we both knew what that meant. We would have to walk by that woman again.
We walked by the alley and saw her in there crying, shivering. We got our bread, and as we saw her yet again, we could not just pass by.
We stopped and told her we cared for her, that she was precious, worth more than a few bucks for tricks on the avenue. We explained that we had a home that was a safe place to get warm and have a snack. So she stumbled onto her crutches and came home with us.
As soon as we entered the house, she started weeping hysterically. Michelle held her as she wept. When she had gained her composure, she said, “You all are Christians aren’t you? I know that you are Christians because you shine. I used to be in love with Jesus like that, and when I was, I shined like diamonds in the sky, like the stars. But it’s a cold dark world, and I lost my shine a little bit back. I lost my shine on those streets.”
At that point, we were all weeping. She asked us to pray with her that she might shine again. We did; we prayed that this dark world would not take away our shine.
Days, weeks went by, and we did not see her. One day, there was a knock at the door, and I opened it.
On the steps there was a lovely lady with a contagious ear-to-ear smile. We stared at each other. [She said], “Of course you don’t recognize me, because I’m shining again. I’m shining.’ Then I knew. She went on to explain how deeply she had fallen in love with God again.”
So if we’re looking for glory tonight, look around. The glory of God that shone so brightly upon the shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem is visible in the faces of those sitting around us. There’s glory to be seen in each face, in each life, because God is present within us, if we but have the eyes to see.
And then, look inside into our own souls. The glory of God shines there, if we but have the eyes to see for the presence of God dwells within us. And if we’ve lost our shine, there’s an opportunity for us to shine again tonight—to fall in love with God again—as we reclaim the glory that is within us.
If we’ve seen the glory of God shining around us, within us, and through us into the world—if we’ve heard the good news of a great joy that proclaims the meaning of the birth in Bethlehem—and if we’ve experienced for ourselves what God is doing in Jesus, the Christ—then why not leave this place tonight glorifying and praising God for all that we have heard and seen?
 Achtemeier, Paul J., and Roger S. Boraas. "Glory." The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996. 379-80. Print.
 "Treasures A-E." Treasures A-E. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Dec. 2012.
 Claiborne, Shane. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. 258-59. Print.
December 23, 2o12, Fourth Sunday of Advent
TEXT: Micah 5:2-5a
TITLE: What Are We Looking For? Thin Places
Rev. Monte Marshall
Travis Park United Methodist Church
This is the fourth Sunday Advent. It’s the last Sunday before Christmas. And the question is: What are we looking for? The answer we gave as we lit the Advent candle is a phrase that may unfamiliar to some of us: “Thin Places.” The metaphor has its roots in Celtic Christianity that developed on the frontiers of Britain, in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, beginning in the fifth century.
We experience thin places in those moments when we become acutely aware of God’s presence with us and of God’s work among us. In a thin place, our eyes are opened to see more clearly how God connects with us through our everyday experiences of life in the world.
Sometimes thin places are experienced in particular geographical locations. The experience of Moses on Mt. Sinai is a good example of this kind of thin place. The temple in Jerusalem was a thin place. This sanctuary may be for many of us, a thin place. For me, a thin place has been a Roman Catholic house of prayer in South Texas called Lebh Shomea.
Many of us experience thin places when we encounter the beauty of creation, or connect with God through the arts. People can be thin places as we see God in others. Even difficult times of illness, suffering and grief can be thin places.
In fact, every moment holds the potential of being a thin place because, as Thomas Merton once said: “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.” There’s just one problem—we don’t see so well.
Just a few moments ago, we acknowledged our blindness: “We look for God in “holy” places; but not in “unholy” places; in posh high-rises, but not on the streets, among the “exceptional,” but not in the “ordinary”; among the rich, but not the poor; among the housed, but not the homeless; among the educated, but not the uneducated; among the privileged, but not the marginalized; among the people who are like us, but not the people who are unlike us.”
To look for God in these limited ways is to put blinders on so that we only see what we want to see of God and God’s work in the world. The only thin places then become the usual places, the comfortable places, the familiar places, the safe places.
But this morning’s text from Micah provides a corrective lens that helps us see the thin places that we might otherwise overlook, neglect or ignore. Micah was a prophet from a small village in the southern kingdom of Judah. He decried the social injustices and failed leadership that had brought God’s people to a point of extreme distress. A power struggle engulfed the Near East as the Neo-Assyrian Empire sought to dominate the region. The Assyrians had defeated the northern kingdom of Israel and deported many of its citizens, and then launched an invasion of Judah. Jerusalem was under siege.
In those dire circumstances, Micah offered a word of hope from God. The prophet pointed the people to a thin place—an unexpected place that was not Jerusalem, or the Temple, or the royal palace, or even a prominent city. This thin place, as one commentator puts it, was “a remote, out of the way place…populated with only a few shepherd families and a lot of sheep.” The place was Bethlehem.
The prophet spoke for God: “As for you, Bethlehem in Ephrathah,…small as you are among Judah’s clans, from you will come a ruler for me over Israel, one whose goings out are from times long past, from ancient days.”
This small place—this unexpected place—this remote, out of the way place—had been a thin place before. In Bethlehem, Samuel had experienced a surprising thin place as he perceived God’s choice of Jesse’s youngest son, the shepherd-boy David, to reign over Israel. And David did become king.
According to Micah—two hundred years later—Bethlehem became a thin place again as God honored the Davidic covenant and promised to bring forth from a restored remnant of the people another child of Bethlehem, a shepherd-ruler, governing with Yahweh’s strength, providing security and a longed-for peace, with influence extending to the ends of the earth. And of course, we Christians have reinterpreted this prophecy to help us understand the coming of Jesus.
Now I, for one, thank God for Micah’s word of hope because it teaches me something about thin places. It helps me with Christmas and that other Bethlehem story about a stable, a manger, and a baby named Jesus—a savior who is the Christ—Immanuel—God with us. The Christmas story, as one writer puts it, points us to “the thinnest place the world has ever seen.”
And tomorrow, I will join many of you here in this sanctuary to celebrate this Christmas thin place. But let me be honest. I’m still working to overcome my blindness. I’ve had a lot of practice seeing God at work in the Christmas story—in that thin place of Bethlehem—but I still struggle to discern the thin places in the here and now of my own life—in the “unholy” places—on the streets—among the ordinary—the poor—the homeless—the uneducated—the marginalized—the people who are unlike me.
But God has been working on me and I’m learning. For example, several years ago while I was serving First United Methodist Church in Pflugerville, I had to confess that I was stuck looking for God in all the usual places—the places that were comfortable, familiar, and safe for me. I decided to look elsewhere for the thin places.
So with fear and trembling, I signed up to participate with about ten other people in a 72-hour retreat on the streets of Austin sponsored by Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Alan Graham, the Executive Director of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, was our leader. He’s been doing retreats like this for over 15 years.
Now all of this was way beyond my comfort zone. During the retreat, we’d be living on the streets. We couldn’t take money. We couldn’t take a cell phone. All I could carry with me was a back-pack and a sleeping roll. Talk about fear and trembling! But I went!
And believe it or not, on the first night of the retreat, I experienced a thin place. Four or five of us, including Alan, were walking the streets. Just off one of the side streets, I noticed a homeless man sitting on the curb eating food from a Styrofoam take out box. I was walking past him until I noticed that Alan had stopped to engage the man in conversation. The guy’s name was Walt. Over the next few minutes, I experienced the presence of God on the streets of Austin, TX. I saw God at work in Alan, and God at work in Walt.
Alan engaged this stranger with a tenderness and vulnerability that could only have come from God. From time to time as Walt spoke, he would get agitated and start rambling on about the end of the world and various conspiracies of one sort or another. Every time Walt became agitated, Alan would put out his arms and say, “Come here, bro’, let me give you a hug.” When Alan took Walt in his arms, you could see Walt calm down. It was an amazing thing!
At one point, Alan reached into his pocket and pulled out a small pocket mirror. He gave it to Walt and said him, “Look into the mirror. The Bible says that each of us is created in the image of God. That includes you, Walt. When you look at yourself in that mirror, can you see the image of God?”
Walt said, “Yes.”
Alan asked him, “Do you know how much God loves you?”
Walt nodded his head and said, “Yes.”
Walt then asked us if he could walk with us for awhile. We said yes. As we walked, I talked with Walt and heard some of his story and my eyes were opened to see God in him even more powerfully. It was thin place. By the time the street retreat was over, I too was embracing people on the street like Walt.
During the closing meditation at the end of the retreat, I asked several homeless men who had joined us to forgive me for the distance I had kept between myself and the other homeless folks I had encountered through my life. And guess what, they showed me mercy—and I experienced another thin place on the streets of Austin, Texas.
So on this, the fourth Sunday Advent and the last Sunday before Christmas, what are we looking for? We’re looking for thin places. So may your Christmas be thin!
Travis Park United Methodist Church
Rev. Monte Marshall
TEXT: Luke 3:1-6
TITLE: What Are We Looking For? Challenge
December 16, 2012 Third Sunday of Advent
So, my brothers and sisters, on this the third Sunday of Advent, what are we looking for? The word is “challenge.” Given the tragic events of this past week is there any doubt that we are living in wilderness times, and that we stand in need of a challenging word from God that seeks to change us?
On Tuesday, a gunman opened fire in a shopping mall outside of Portland, Oregon. Three people were killed including the shooter. And then the news came on Friday of another shooting, this time in Newtown, Connecticut at the Sandy Brooke Elementary School. Twenty-eight died, including twenty children. I don’t know about you, but I’m grieving. And President Obama was right: “We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years.”
But the full truth is even more disturbing. Violence is a daily fact of life in America. Columnist Walter Shapiro notes that as 21st century Americans, we live with a “Faustian bargain.” “We are a nation of stubborn individualism and lethal gun violence. These two characteristics are entwined in our national psyche.” “The result,” he adds, “is an America that no sane person of any political persuasion could have possibly wished for. Who in his right mind wants to live in a country where maybe twice a year a crazed individual guns down dozens of people in schools and theaters?”
So sisters and brothers, listen up! That wild man prophet in the wilderness named John is crying out to us once again. He’s challenging us to change us. He echoes the words of Isaiah: “Make ready the way of our God; clear a straight path.”
John is God’s bulldozer. He shows up in the wilderness to prepare a way for the coming of God’s messiah. He comes to do some road construction in our lives—to straighten out the twisted paths—to level the roads—to smooth out the rough places—so that all may see without obstruction or hindrance—the salvation that God brings in Jesus, the Christ.
My brothers and sisters, there is a reason that Jesus did not come among us armed with a sword—or, for that matter, with a Glock, a Sig Sauer, and a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle. The way of salvation in Jesus Christ makes no room for violence; in fact, violence is the antithesis of salvation. Salvation is shalom—salvation is wholeness—salvation is well-being—salvation is peace!
The way for us out of this wilderness of violence is through what Luke calls “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” A baptism of repentance immerses us in change. In Hebrew, the word for repentance means to turn around. In Greek, the word means to change one’s mind. With either meaning, the idea calls for a radical reorientation of our lives. In the context of this week’s news, we’re challenged to change our minds and move away from violence and toward God’s peace.
And while we immerse ourselves in change, God’s forgiveness washes over us like the waters of baptism. My brothers and sisters, God does not hold the transgressions of the past against us—even our violent transgressions. In God’s mercy, we’re free to let go of the guilt and anger of the past so that we can move forward into God’s peace, which is our salvation.
So do we hear the word of challenge coming from God’s bulldozer? I hope that we do. I especially hope that our political leaders get the message! After all, Luke put the powerful rulers of every age on notice when he introduced John’s work by naming the names of political and religious leaders in John’s own time.
I pray God that the movers and shakers of 21st century America will pay attention to what God is doing and increase their efforts to enact public policies that contribute to a culture of peace rather than a culture of violence. Do we really believe that the price we have to pay for preserving our liberties is guns, guns and more guns, while we continue to live with daily violence in our communities, punctuated by what Walter Shapiro calls, these “periodic massacres of the innocents”?
But now we come to the harder task—the challenge to change the violence that lurks within us—one person at a time. Let me tell you the story of Nicky Cruz. Nicky was one of 18 children born in Puerto Rico. His parents tormented him with severe physical and mental abuse. As a result, Nicky was an uncontrollable child filled with rage.
At 15, Nicky’s father sent him to live with his brother in New York City. He made the trip, but chose to live on the streets. He finally found “a family,” the violent gang called the Mau Maus. Within six months, Nicky had become their leader. He ruled the streets. He was feared by rival gangs and by the police. His life was consumed by an endless cycle of drugs, alcohol and brutal violence. He was arrested countless times. A court-ordered psychiatrist declared that Nicky was “headed to prison, the electric chair, and hell.”
But one day, Nicky met a skinny street preacher named David who challenged Nicky to change. He challenged him with the gospel. David showed Nicky what Jesus Christ could accomplish in a human life.
Nicky resisted at first. He spit on David, he beat him up and on one occasion, actually threatened David’s life. But David kept on loving him and challenging him.
Finally, Nicky relented. He embraced Christ and he went to work on his own life, to straighten the paths, level the roads, and smooth out the rough places. He took the plunge, immersed himself in change and experienced the cleansing waters of forgiveness pouring over him. Salvation came to Nicky Cruz as God changed his life, freed him from addiction and violence, and brought peace to his troubled soul.
Since those days, Nicky Cruz has become another herald in the desert inviting others to prepare a way so that all humankind might see the salvation of God. He has ministered to people around the world. He speaks out of his own experience—his own past—and he’s been able to reach hurting people in all walks of life—including thousands of inner city gang members.
So, my brothers and sisters, on this the third Sunday of Advent, what are we looking for? The word is “challenge.” Listen then for a herald’s voice crying in the desert of our grief: “Make ready the way of our God; clear a straight path” so that “all humankind will see the salvation of God”that is peace!
 "The White House Blog." President Obama Speaks on the Shooting in Connecticut. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Dec. 2012.
 "The Longest War: The Shooting at a Connecticut School Shows, Once Again, That There's No End in Sight to Our Lethal Way of Life." Yahoo! News. Yahoo!, 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 26 Dec. 2012.
 "Nicky's Story." Nicky Cruz Outreach. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Dec. 2012.
Travis Park United Methodist Church
Rev. Monte Marshall
Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2012
TEXT: Luke 1:46-55
TITLE: What Are We Looking For? Reversal
So on this the second Sunday of Advent, what are we looking for? When the Advent candle was lit a moment ago, we said that we we’re looking for a reversal—and specifically, the kind of reversal envisioned in Mary’s song. But did we mean it? Well, let’s see.
Mary is the human actor in this morning’s text. She was an obscure Galilean girl and an unwed mother singing soul music to God her Savior. Mary’s spirit rejoiced in the reversal that God had wrought in choosing her to bear the Christ. God had looked with favor upon her—and done great things for her—revealing to her the timeless reach of God’s mercy from age to age. The child in her womb was the sign.
Mary could see through her own circumstances that God was acting to scatter the proud, depose the mighty, and lift up the lowly. Mary knew that God was at work to fill the hungry with good things while sending the rich away empty.
And Mary could see what God was doing for Israel. God was showing mercy to Israel and keeping ancient promises by coming to the aid of God’s servant people as they suffered under oppressive Roman rule.
Mary could see what God was doing. Reversal was happening and she was beside herself with joy. The world was being turned upside down—and Mary rejoiced! Is it any wonder that some have described Mary’s song as revolutionary, subversive, and even terrifying?
And Mary must have taught her boy well. When Jesus proclaimed the reign of God, he taught reversal: In the sermon on the plain, Jesus lifted up the lowly: “Blessed are you poor…blessed are you that hunger…blessed are you that weep now…blessed are you when people hate you, and exclude you, and revile you…and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Human One.” Blessed are you, Jesus said. Blessed are you!
Jesus then pulled down the high and the mighty: “Woe to you that are rich… Woe to you that are full now…Woe to you that laugh now……Woe to you when people speak well of you.” Isn’t it clear? Jesus used the rhetoric of reversal in his preaching and teaching.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Beyond the rhetoric, Jesus became the change that he sought. He practiced reversal. He lifted up the lowly: sinners, tax collectors, zealots, prostitutes, lepers, demoniacs, paralytics, blind people, deaf people, beggars, Samaritans and Gentiles.
And then he pulled down the high and mighty: Jesus called a rich man to go, sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him. When the man refused, Jesus watched him walk away. Jesus deposed the mighty from their thrones every time he held fast to God’s purposes in the face of stiff and even deadly resistance from religious and political opponents.
Jesus learned to sing his mother’s song so well, that one biblical scholar has concluded that “the entire story of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Luke is nothing but a commentary on Mary’s song.”
So back to the question: Did we mean it when we said that we’re looking for a reversal of the kind envisioned in Mary’s song? Well, let’s be honest. If we’re content with the status quo in which a small percentage of people at the top grow wealthier and more powerful by the day, while the people at the bottom continue to lose ground, then maybe we’re not too keen on singing Mary’s song.
But if we believe that the world shouldn’t be the way it is because, as one writer puts it, “there’s too much misery, too much exploitation, too many children with bloated stomachs, too many wretched slums, too many parents unable to provide for their children, too many poor whose lives and deaths are determined by too few rich”—then maybe we are looking to sing Mary’s song—and to keep on singing it—and keep living it—until justice is done and all the world is right side up as God intends.
And thanks be to God, Mary’s song of reversal is still being sung. A massage therapist named Shelly is singing the song. She could be making a $100 an hour giving massages to rich folks. But instead, she lives near the poor and the homeless. She knows plenty of people whose feet are their transportation, and she’s friends with women involved in prostitution who walk the red-light district all night long. These people have tired, sore feet and no message therapist to offer them services—until now. Every week, Shelly opens her home to them; she washes their feet with the most delicate and deliberate touch; and she gives them the best foot massages money can buy.
A farmer named Howard Buffet is singing Mary’s song. You may have read about him in last Sunday’s edition of Parade magazine. Howard is a wealthy man, the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffet. He works 1,400 acres of corn, soybeans, and wheat in Decatur, Illinois.
Howard’s goal in life is to use his wealth and the power that comes with it, to “put hunger out of business in America.” Howard believes that it is simply unacceptable that in this land of plenty, more than 50 million Americans, including one in five children, don’t always know where their next meal is coming from. And Howard understands why. He says that “People are hungry not because there aren’t enough farmers or food, but because they don’t have access to it or can’t afford it. “
Now Howard has been supporting hunger relief globally for years. But it took a while for his eyes to be opened to hunger in America. “Before,” Howard says, “I never understood how difficult things were in this country, and how they were getting worse. In America, hunger is hidden; people are ashamed of it. I was in Tucson at a food distribution [center] and noticed a woman walk in with three kids. She looked around and then walked back out. I later found out it was the first time she had ever asked for help, and she was embarrassed.”
“Last year,”Howard says, “I attended a Thanksgiving dinner at Harris Elementary School right here in Decatur, where I learned that 92 percent of the kids are on free or reduced-cost lunches. I spoke with some parents who told me that school lunch is the best meal their kids get all day. That shocked me because the school sits in a community that has the largest food-processing facility in the world for corn and the second largest for soybeans; 1,500 to 2,000 train cars roll out of those plants and through these kids’ neighborhoods every day. The irony of that is unbelievable. In this country, the number of people living on the edge, who exist paycheck to paycheck, who have been foreclosed on, has exploded. If you’re choosing between medicine or food, between school supplies for your kids or food, between paying the electric bill or food, those are tough choices—and they happen every day.” “Yet,”Howard says, “I have hope. There’s no reason we can’t put hunger out of business in America.”
Howard Buffet is not only singing Mary’s song of reversal—he’s living it. He’s not about pride or conceit. He’s not about enhancing his own power through corporate connections or political influence. He’s a farmer who uses his wealth, his power, his skill, and his labor to fill the hungry with good things.
My brothers and sisters, on this the second Sunday of Advent, what are we looking for? We said that we’re looking for reversal. Well if we mean it—and I think we do around here— then let’s sing Mary’s song boldly enough and loudly enough for the whole world to hear!
 Citation unavailable.
 Citation unavailable.
 Claiborne, Shane, and Chris Haw. Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. 242. Print.
 Kita, Joe, . ""There's No Reason We Can't Put Hunger out of Business in America"" Parade 2 Dec. 2012: 8-10. Print.
December 2, 2012
First Sunday of Advent
What Are We Looking For? Hope
Rev. Monte Marshall
Well, happy New Year everyone! And no, I am not calendar-challenged! I realize that this is December 2, 2012 and not January 1, 2013. But this is the first Sunday of Advent and, according to the Christian calendar, this is the beginning of a New Year—so happy New Year everyone--and now to the business at hand.
Just moments ago, we began this New Year by acknowledging an unsettling reality: These are days of struggle for people at home and around our world. Economies teeter on the brink, governments struggle to respond, poverty persists, injustices remain, health challenges abound, war rages, and the earth suffers from long abuse. Do we know the struggle?
We then said: Anxiety is a constant companion; cynicism and despair lie close at hand. My brothers and sisters, I’ve got news for us, some of us have already given up—or are very close to doing so. A woman named Stacy wrote this poem:
thought all there is to be thought
done all there is to be done
lived all I could possibly live
through it all I’ve never won
try to smile through the hard times
laugh through all the tears
but I’ve barely been existing
it’s been an act all these years
everything seems hopeless
nothing left to feel
constant aching numbness
reality’s no longer real
i’m sick of holding on
tired of all the lies
no strength to keep me going
so please just let me die
Can we imagine what Stacy’s life is like? An author has written: There are people who have curled up and died in a corner for no reason other than they lost hope. When there is no hope, there is no life. Without hope we give up—we lose our will to fight, to trust, to live?
So: What then are we looking for? And we responded: We are looking for hope.
A preacher says this about hope: Hope is reaching past today. It’s dreaming of tomorrow. It’s trying a new way. It’s pushing past impossible. It’s pounding on the door. It’s questioning the answers. It’s always seeking more. It rumors of a breakthrough. It whispers of a cure, a rollercoaster ride of remedies, unsure. Hope is candy for the soul. It’s perfume for the spirit. To share it, makes you whole.
And thanks be to God: Hope is Advent’s offer. And the offer comes to us as we remember God’s ancient promises in prior days of struggle. In the book of the prophet Jeremiah, a story is told. God’s people had been conquered; their land plundered; Jerusalem destroyed; the temple reduced to rubble and smoking ruins. Thousands had died in battle or from starvation and disease. Many survivors had already been deported to Babylon. Many more were awaiting deportation. The people were stunned, disoriented, lost, afraid, and courting despair. Everything looked bleak.
But then came the prophet and God’s energizing word of promise: The days are surely coming—the days are SURELY coming—says Yahweh. Blessings once again for Israel and Judah—a new ruler in the line of David—justice and integrity restored—safety for Judah—security for Jerusalem—and a new name—Yahweh is our Justice. Here was something for a desperate people to hold on to—a word from God—giving hope—giving life—giving strength.
And apparently—as the story goes—God’s people did hold on. Against all the odds, they put their trust in God and held fast to hope, and in the end, they survived their ordeal. They maintained their identity. They didn’t lose their will to fight, to trust, to live. In fact, their faith endured to take root once again in the land of promise.
But this was not the end of the story. In another time of struggle when the people once again courted despair, God sent Jesus the Christ—the bearer of ancient and present promises—the word made flesh—hope embodied.
As the followers of Jesus Christ, haven’t we learned to hope against all the odds? Haven’t we learned to gather in a stable around a feeding trough bearing a child, and dream of peace? Haven’t we learned to hear an itinerant rabbi’s call to “follow me,” and imagine the possibilities of a radically new life shaped by God’s purposes? Haven’t we learned to cast our lot with the outcast, the homeless, the immigrant, the poor, and the marginalized, and expect justice? Haven’t we learned to kneel before a cross on a dump heap called The Skull and yearn for the triumph of mercy and love over violence and hate? And haven’t we learned to stand in a graveyard at an empty tomb and dare to hope that life is indeed more powerful than death? My brothers and sisters, as followers of Jesus Christ, haven’t we learned to hope like this?
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping this morning. I’m hoping for the day that is surely coming when in God’s future the poor are not sent to shelters or forced to sleep on the streets. I’m hoping for the day that is surely coming when God’s future has no space for violence, when body bags are a thing of the past because there’ll be no more dead soldiers to fill them. I’m hoping for the day that is surely coming when in God’s future the earth is no longer abused, but nurtured and cherished in witness to God’s loving care in creation. I’m hoping for the day that is surely coming when God’s future affords no room for rancor, a day when our world is no longer ripped apart by racism and sexism and homophobia.
My brothers and sisters, hope is Advent’s offer. And isn’t it amazing what God can do when we take hold of hope and hold it fast? During the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s in America, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was vilified, beaten, imprisoned, and threatened with death. His house was firebombed and in 1968, he was assassinated.
At one point in his ministry, having received a phone call laced with racial hatred and threats to kill him and his family, Dr. King reached his breaking point. He prayed an anguished prayer: Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. At that moment, Dr. King said that he heard an inner voice saying to him: Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world. So in a time of struggle when life was hard, God’s word of promise came to Dr. King and gave him hope that kept him going.
And who among us can forget Dr. King’s rousing words of indefatigable hope uttered on the night before his death in Memphis, TN, to supporters of a sanitation workers’ strike? Dr. King said: Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.
And I don't mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I'm happy, tonight.
I'm not worried about anything.
I'm not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
Isn’t it an amazing what God can do in days of struggle against all the odds when we take hold of hope and hold it fast?
Economies teeter on the brink, governments struggle to respond, poverty persists, injustices remain, health challenges about, war rages, and the earth suffers from long abuse. Anxiety is a constant companion; cynicism and despair lie close at hand.
What then are we looking for? We are looking for hope. Here’s to hope in the New Year!
 From Devon Huss, www.SermonCentral.com
 "Full Text of "The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr."" Full Text of "The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr." N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2012. <http://www26.us.archive.org/stream/TheTheologyOfMartinLutherKingJr/TheTheologyOfMartinLutherKingJr.ByJ.Cone_djvu.txt>.
 American Rhetoric: Martin Luther King, Jr. -- I've Been to the Mountaintop (April 3 1968). N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2012. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm.
Sunday, November 25, 2012
Economics When Christ Reigns
Rev. Monte Marshall
In the Christian liturgical calendar, this is Reign of Christ Sunday. It’s a day to examine our lives and ask a basic question: Who’s in charge? Or more precisely: Does Christ reign in our lives or do our allegiances end up elsewhere?
This morning’s text from Matthew’s gospel reframes these questions around economics: Who’s in charge when it comes to economic matters? Does Christ reign in our economic lives, or do our allegiances end up elsewhere?
From Matthew’s perspective, economics when Christ reigns looks like this: Instead of living with economic schizophrenia in which we try to serve both God and money—we give ourselves to God first. We seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice. When we do, we not only recover from our economic schizophrenia, but we replace an economics of anxiety with an economics of trust. In fact, the text draws a contrast between an economics based on trust in God, and an all-to-familiar economics for “those without faith.”
An alternative economics of trust in God means that we stop our frantic quest for stuff—even important stuff like food, drink and clothing—and relax. It means we give up the notion that stuff is really what life is all about. It means that we focus more on just and loving relationships and less on Money. It means we take a cue from the birds of the sky and the wildflowers of the field, and simply trust God’s provision.
So is this how we live? Does Christ reign in our economic lives, or do our allegiances end up elsewhere—perhaps with an economic system guided more by the “invisible hand” of the marketplace than by God? Well, let me speak for myself. I realize that when it comes to economics, there are choices to be made between God and money. Pastor William Carter puts it this way, using the word “mammon” instead of “money:”
Mammon says, “Keep busy, work harder, earn your own way.”
God says, “Come, all who are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”
Mammon says, “Worry about your wealth, hover over the investment portfolio, act prudently.”
God says, “Loosen your grip, let go of it all, and get in step with Jesus.”
Mammon says, “Stash some money for a rainy day.”
God says, “Who do you think sends the rain?”
Mammon says, “Keep what you can to maintain your life. Grip it tight and don’t let go.”
God says, “I will keep you.”
Mammon says, “Do not rest a minute. Keep looking over your shoulder.”
God says, “I brought you out of slavery. I have set you free.”
Mammon says, “There is no such thing as a free lunch. You have to pay as you go.”
God says, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Come, eat and drink! Be satisfies by a table you did not set. 
The difficulty I face is that all too often, I choose money over God. And I know exactly what this means. This makes money a rival god in my life. I look to money for security and happiness and power. When my sense of economic well-being is threatened—as it has been from time to time—I also begin to question who I am and my own sense of self-worth. This is a sure sign that my identity has become grounded too much in my economic status rather than in my relationship with God. When I start feeling a little depressed, one of my first reactions is to go buy something with the hope that it’ll make me feel better! I’m afraid of giving too much away. I worry that the more I give, the less I’ll have for me and my family. And when I get anxious about the future, I figure that the answer to my anxiety is to make more money, or to hold on more tightly to the money I already have.
In living this way, I resist the alternative economics of Christ’s reign that puts God first, and instead, I allow my life to be shaped by the values and practices of the current economic system as if this system is the best that God intends. But I know better!
So why do I resist? I resist because I’m afraid! I’m afraid that the promises of the gospel are really just empty promises and that in the end, God is not trustworthy. In other words, I qualify as one of those “who have so little faith.” How about you?
But here’s the deal: God hasn’t given up on us. God’s vision of an alternative economics is ever before us. It’s a vision that I’ve tried to run away from repeatedly in my life, but without success. It’s a vision that burns within my soul and gives me hope even though I’ve resisted it. It’s a vision that has been entrusted to the church. And believe it or not, there are actually people alive today who are cooperating with the reign of Christ—moving beyond the status quo—and actually acting upon the vision of an alternative economics in a variety of creative ways.
For example, Shane Claiborne, a young man who has spoken at Travis Park UMC in the past, is a member of the Simple Way community in Philadelphia. The members of the Simple Way live as an intentional Christian community in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. They’ve made a commitment to live out an alternative economics based on trust of God and justice toward their neighbors. Consequently, they share their economic resources with one another and with their poor neighbors, in ways that build and sustain community.
Shane gives an example of how this alternative economics works in his neighborhood. He writes: A family very dear to our hearts owns the Josefina minimart across the street from our house. Over the years, we have become inseparable. Their kids come over for homework, to do our theater camp, and to beat us at Uno….We helped rehab their house, and they helped teach us Spanish. Oftentimes they need transportation to restock the store or pick up the kids. We found that we could insure them (and actually at no extra cost) under our policy. So we share cars, and they never take our money for groceries….We are family with them, and money has lost its relevance. Not long ago, we had to take our car in to a mechanic, and after it was repaired, it was returned without a bill. When I asked about it, our mechanic told me we were taking care of a family he cared deeply for, so the repairs were a gift to us, since we all have to take care of each other.
Claiborne then writes: Funny how money loses its power. As one of those early Christians said, “Starve Mammon with our love.” I hope Mammon goes hungry around here.
Claiborne also points to other examples of Jesus-followers practicing an alternative economics. He tells the story of a group of jewelers in the United Kingdom. Many of them, he writes, had been business folks in the world’s market economy. The jewelry industry is notoriously wicked, often called the ‘blood diamond’ market, and is responsible for significant human suffering around the world as workers shed blood, tears, and their very lives working to mine the gems and precious metals that they can’t afford to buy. But these business folks in the UK experienced a collision of their faith with the industry, the ole “can’t serve God and Mammon” thing. Rather than just altogether abandon the industry, they decided to try transforming it….They traveled to Bolivia, Columbia, and across Africa, finding the people who work in the diamond industry. They built personal relationships with them and now are pioneering an incredible jewelry business called Cred. As we met in their store in England, one of the founders said to me, “Can you imagine the feeling of satisfaction when you put your wedding band on and know that from the moment that diamond was mined until the ring goes on your finger, every worker was treated with dignity and respect?” Claiborne concludes: “Having encountered the sacredness of Jesus and of their global neighbors, these people are a different breed of jeweler now.”
So what are we to do with all of this? Well, it seems to me that David Watson poses an interesting question in his book Forming Christian Disciples. He asks: Must the call of Jesus to discipleship…remain impossibly radical—consigned to pulpit or Sunday school class or Bible study as an ideal which is always worth considering, but not really within our reach?
I propose to you this morning, that from here on out, we proceed as if the vision of an alternative economics is indeed within reach. In fact, I think it’s essential to our growth as followers of Jesus Christ, to keep the vision alive, to take it seriously, and to encourage one another to risk, to act, and to experiment—even though all of us may not be ready to move at the same pace. Part of the vision I have for our church is that small communities of our folks will form around a commitment to pursue this vision, flesh out its practical implications, and then work together on living it out.
So my brothers and sisters, on this Reign of Christ Sunday, let me ask again: When it comes to economic matters, who’s in charge? Does Christ reign in our economic lives, or do our allegiances end up elsewhere?
 Carter, William G. "Marvelous Mammon." Speaking of Stewardship : Model Sermons on Money and Possessions. By William G. Carter. New York: Geneva P, 1998. 85.
 Claiborne, Shane. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. 181. Print.
 Ibid, 183-184.
 Watson, David Lowes. Forming Christian Disciples: The Role of Covenant Discipleship and Class Leaders in the Congregation. Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources, 1991. Print.
November 18, 2012
Travis Park United Methodist Church
Issue: The Death Penalty
Rev. Monte Marshall
Folks, we’re doing things a little differently this Sunday. Instead of beginning as we usually do with a biblical text that we then explore to discern its meaning and relevance for our lives today, we’re reversing the process. This morning we’re beginning with a contemporary issue and then using the resources of our faith to inform and shape how we address this issue in the concrete here-and-now of life. We’ll take this approach once-a-quarter and call each of these Sundays an Issues Sunday. My hope is not only that we’ll learn about the issues that challenge us, but also generate opportunities for action. The issue before us today is the death penalty.
How many of us even noticed? Last week, the State of Texas executed two convicted murderers. On November 14, Ramon Hernandez was put to death for the 2001 rape and murder of Rosa Rosado in San Antonio. A day later on November 15, Preston Hughes, III was put to death for the 1988 murders of 15 year old Shandra Charles, and 3 year old Marcell Taylor, both from Houston. This brings to 15 the total number of executions in Texas for 2012. Since 1976 Texas has executed 492 human beings, more than any other state in the union.
When it comes to our nation as a whole, there have been more than 1,300 executions in the United States since 1976. There are approximately 3,260 awaiting execution on death row. In 2008, 93% of all known executions took place in five countries: China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
But there are hopeful signs of change. More than 130 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. In our own nation, more and more states are abandoning the death penalty. Even Texas is moving away from capital punishment as evidenced by the 70% drop in new death sentences since 2003.
Speaking personally, I rejoice that change is coming. A variety of faith traditions—Christian and otherwise—have been advocating and working for the abolition of the death penalty for a long time—including The United Methodist Church. But the change is just not coming fast enough.
My brothers and sisters, the death penalty is just not working. The evidence continues to mount that the application of the death penalty is arbitrary and unfair, that it is racially biased, that it claims innocent lives, that it’s not a deterrent to crime, that it costs more than other alternative sentences, and that it diverts resources away from more productive means of crime control.
The late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun—an appointee of President Richard Nixon—voted early in his tenure to uphold the death penalty. But in 1994, he changed his mind. He wrote: From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death—I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed.
I find these practical points against the death penalty to be convincing—but the gospel of Jesus Christ I find compelling. Consider this: Jesus, the one anointed by God to embody God’s reign in human history, could have imposed upon law-breakers the violent penalties contained in the Torah—but he did not. He could have shed the blood of murderers—but he did not! He could have executed Torah justice by demanding the death penalty for such crimes as adultery, sexual activity before marriage, dishonoring parents, careless handling of animals, and work on the Sabbath—but he did not!
In fact, the New Testament witness is absolutely clear on this point: Jesus killed no one! Jesus honored the sacred worth of every human life by killing no one. He respected human beings created in the image of God by killing no one.
Jesus knew from the scriptures that each and every murder mocks God and sends a shutter throughout the creation as the families of victims suffer—the families of murderers suffer—and whole communities grieve. And yet, Jesus refused retaliation; he refused retribution; he refused revenge. Jesus killed no one!
Instead, Jesus was himself the victim of capital punishment. This morning’s text from Luke’s gospel reminds us: Jesus was sentenced to death by the Roman governor of Judea, led through the streets of Jerusalem along a 1st century version of the green mile, and crucified on a Roman cross with two other criminals on a hill outside the city walls called The Skull.
Consider the circumstances of his execution. The crucifixion of Jesus was a political act inflicted upon him as a member of an oppressed minority. The sign placed over his head read King of the Jews. And yes, Jesus was a Jew who shared the suffering of his people. Jews in Palestine were an oppressed minority population within the Roman Empire, living in occupied territory under Roman control. And yes, Jesus was proclaimed messiah by those who followed him, but he was not the violent revolutionary that Rome usually executed on a cross.
The crucifixion of Jesus was an injustice. Pilate himself declared Jesus innocent three times before finally sentencing Jesus to death. One of the criminals crucified with Jesus also proclaimed Jesus innocent. And yet, Jesus was executed anyway.
So what are we to learn from Jesus that informs and shapes our perspective on the death penalty? This is what I’ve learned: Violence used in response to violence is no solution to violence. It only perpetuates violence. This is as true with capital punishment as it is with war.
The appropriate gospel-response to violence is the kind of long-suffering, steadfast love and mercy that Jesus displayed upon the cross to those who were doing violence to him. Do you remember his prayer? Abba, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.
When we catch this spirit and follow Christ in this way, transformation happens in our own lives, the pace of change to abolition the death penalty quickens, and the day the death penalty is no more draws just a little bit closer.
Let me give you an idea of what this transformation looks like. On July 15, 1993, a 20-year old college student named Clay Peterson was stabbed to death during the robbery of a convenience store in Corpus Christi where he worked as a clerk. The assailant had entered the store earlier in the evening. He used the restroom, shoplifted several items, and noticed that Clay was the only other person in the store. The assailant left the store, waited in his car with a friend for 20 minutes, and then reentered the convenience store. He pulled a knife, held it to Clay’s throat and demanded the money from the cash register. Clay gave him the money—a total of $25.65. The man then stabbed Clay eight times and fled the scene. Clay survived long enough to call 911. He died soon afterward.
The man who killed Clay Peterson was named Johnny Joe Martinez. He had no prior criminal record. Earlier that night, he’d been drinking and smoking pot. Several minutes after the crime, Martinez called the police and turned himself in. In 1994, Martinez was convicted of murder and sentenced to die by lethal injection.
The news of Clay Peterson’s death struck me personally because I had known this young man all of his life. His grandparents were members of my home church in Beeville. His father Paul and I had grown up together. I had gone to high school with his mother, Lana. So I grieved Clay’s death, and was utterly shocked to see the grainy, black-and-white convenience store video tape of his murder broadcast on ABC’s news magazine show 20/20.
But here’s the amazing part: As you can imagine, the pain of Clay’s mother, Lana, was intense. Her suffering was so great that she even contemplated suicide, but her faith in God saw her through.
In fact, Lana trusted God so much that she was able to forgive the man who had killed her son. She wrote him a letter expressing her forgiveness. She visited Martinez on death row. She sat across a table from him. She actually reached out, grabbed his hands and prayed for this man—the murderer of her baby boy. Lana then petitioned the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute his death sentence to life in prison. Her appeal was denied and Johnny Joe Martinez was executed by the State of Texas on May 22, 2002.
Lana said that one of things that helped her on this profound spiritual journey was her son Clay’s personal belief that opposed the old law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. He believed, Lana said, in forgiveness.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included. Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God. I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
O God, use us to hasten the day when the death penalty will be abolished once and for all. Amen.
 "TCADP." TCADP. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://tcadp.org/2012/11/15/state-of-texas-executes-ramon-hernandez/>.
 "TCADP." TCADP. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://tcadp.org/2012/11/16/state-of-texas-executes-preston-hughes-iii/>.
 "State by State Database." Death Penalty Information Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/state_by_state>.
 "Searchable Execution Database." Death Penalty Information Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/views-executions?exec_name_1=>.
 "Statistics." Statistics. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://www.antideathpenalty.org/statistics.html>.
 "Death Sentences and Executions in 2008." Amnesty International, 2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2012. <http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ACT50/003/2009/en/0b789cb1-baa8-4c1b-bc35-58b606309836/act500032009en.pdf>.
 "Death Penalty Basics: Key Terms, Quick Facts." Tcadp.org. Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2012. <http://tcadp.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Death_Penalty_Basics1-111.pdf>.
 Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. TCADP: Working to End the Death Penalty through Outreach, Education, and Advocacy. Austin: Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, 2012. Print.
 "Death Penalty Basics: Key Terms, Quick Facts." Tcadp.org. Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2012. <http://tcadp.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Death_Penalty_Basics1-111.pdf>.
 "Death Penalty Facts." Amnesty International USA. Amnesty International USA, May 2012. Web. 17 Nov. 2012. <http://www.amnestyusa.org/pdfs/DeathPenaltyFactsMay2012.pdf>.
 "The Challenge of Holiness: A Sermon on the Death Penalty." Death Penalty Information Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/challenge-holiness-sermon-death-penalty>.
 Sietstra, Marcia M. "Is the Death Penalty Ethical?" Spiritofpeacesf.org. Crestwood UCC, 27 Aug. 2006. Web. 17 Nov. 2012. <http://www.spiritofpeacesf.org/Sermons/06_is%20the%20death%20penalty%20ethical.htm>.
 "Texas Execution Information - Report: Johnny Martinez." Texas Execution Information - Report: Johnny Martinez. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://txexecutions.org/reports/269.asp>.
 Moreno, Mary. "Pardons Board Refuses to Spare Convicted Killer." Caller.com. N.p., 21 May 2002. Web. 1 June 2002. <.http://www.1.caller.com/cr/cda/article_print/1,1250,CCCT_811_1159028,00.html>.
 Gonzales, J. R. "Victim's Mom Opposes Killer's Execution." Caller.com. N.p., 15 May 2002. Web. 1 June 2002. <http://www1.caller.com/cr/cda/article_print/1,1250,CCCT_811_1147768,00.html>.
 Moreno, Mary. "Murderer Thankful for Help of Victim's Mom." Caller.com. N.p., 16 May 2002. Web. 1 June 2002. <http://www.1.caller.com/cr/cda/article_print/1,1250,CCCT_811_1149969,00.html>.
 Moreno, Mary. "He Thanks Mother of Victim in 1993 Murder for Trying to save His Life." Caller.com. N.p., 23 May 2002. Web. 1 June 2002. <.http://www.1.caller.com/cr/cda/article_print/1,1250,CCCT_811_1163664,00.html>.
 Gonzales, J. R. "Victim's Mom Opposes Killer's Execution." Caller.com. N.p., 15 May 2002. Web. 1 June 2002. <http://www1.caller.com/cr/cda/article_print/1,1250,CCCT_811_1147768,00.html>.
 Love, David A. "Dr. King's Stance Against the Death Penalty." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 16 Jan. 2012. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-a-love/martin-luther-king-death-penalty_b_1205500.html>.
November 11, 2012
Travis Park United Methodist Church
“Giving It All”
Rev. Monte Marshall
In this morning’s text, Jesus is teaching in the temple. And he does two things: First, he denounces the actions of the scribes. These were the educated professionals in the temple system that functioned as record-keepers, or lawyers, or judges, or even financiers. And second, he comments on a widow’s offering.
The two incidents are related. And Mark has put them together to underscore two issues that are as challenging for us today as they were in the early church—generosity and justice.
Speaking of generosity, back in September of 1997, a wealthy American businessman made international headlines by announcing that he was going to give one billion dollars in stocks over the next ten years to the United Nations. Do you remember who the man was? It was Ted Turner, the founder of CNN and former vice chairman of Time Warner Inc.
More recently, Forbes magazine identified Bill Gates as the richest person in America with a net worth of $66 billion. Forbes also called Gates “the planet's most generous person.” To date, he's given away $28 billion that has accomplished great good in the world.
Bill Gates and his good friend Warren Buffet—the second richest person in America—are also recruiting new members to their Giving Pledge, which is a promise made by very wealthy people to give away at least half of their net worth during their lifetimes or after they die.
Generosity like this gets our attention, doesn’t it? The media loves this stuff! And generosity like this is a good thing. Large gifts from wealthy people are making a huge difference in people’s lives all around the world.
But there’s something more to consider. Ted Turner made an interesting observation about his gift. He said: “It’s not a big deal. I’m only giving up nine months’ earnings. . . . I’m no poorer than I was nine months ago and the world is a lot better off. I’ve still got two billion left.”
Now isn’t that interesting? At the end of the day, when the large gifts are given, the wealthy folks still remain wealthy. They give away billions, but they have billions left over to take care of themselves.
But this was not the case for the poor widow in this morning’s story. Her gift to the temple treasury in Jerusalem was puny in comparison to the large sums deposited by wealthy givers. Her contribution amounted to two small copper coins worth a penny—but it was all that she had to live on! She gave it all. She held nothing back. Her generosity was radical and extravagant—and it must have come from her heart.
But no one noticed this poor widow’s gift, except Jesus—and Jesus was impressed. He said to his disciples: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
And believe it or not, there are people today who still practice this sort of generosity. Pastor Susan Andrews tells the story about a husband and wife who were traveling around the world. They made a stop in Korea, and while they were out sightseeing with a missionary as their interpreter and guide, they saw a strange sight—a boy was pulling a crude plow in a field, while an old man held the plow handles to guide the blade through the rice paddy. The husband was amused so he took a snapshot of the scene.
He said to the missionary: “That’s very curious. I suppose they’re poor.”
“Yes,” said the missionary. “That’s the family of Chi Noui. When their church was built they were eager to give something to it, but they had no money, so they sold the only ox they had and gave the money to the church. This spring they are pulling the plow themselves.”
The husband and wife were silent. The wife then said, “That was a real sacrifice.”
“No,” the missionary said, “they did not call it that. They thought it was fortunate that they had an ox to sell.”
Now it would be so easy to criticize this sort of radical generosity—to call it foolhardy, or reckless, or irresponsible—but I can’t do it. I can’t do it because Jesus didn’t do it. Jesus was not critical of this kind of generosity. On the contrary, when it came to the poor widow who gave all that she had to the temple treasury, Jesus honored her and her gift. That’s why we’re talking about her here this morning!
And I’ll be honest with you, when it comes to generosity like this, I’m in awe of it—I long for it—I pray for it—even if it’s just to grow into it a little bit at a time. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to trust God with such radical and extravagant generosity!
But now to the rest of the story: justice. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann defines justice in this way: “Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them.” Justice, according to Brueggemann, has to do with the “right distribution of goods” and an equitable “access to the sources of life.” He says that, “There are certain entitlements which cannot be mocked.” And yet he acknowledges that as history unfolds, people “come to have access to or control of what belongs to others.” “The work of liberation, redemption, salvation,” he says, “is the work of giving things back.”
So the poor widow in this morning’s story gave all that she had to the temple treasury—and yet she got absolutely nothing back. Generosity was a one way street that led from her coin purse right into the temple treasury.
And again, Jesus noticed. He knew what was going on. He didn’t criticize the poor widow for her extravagant generosity, but he did criticize the scribes—the functionaries of the temple system—for devouring “widows’ houses.” In other words, the scribes were ripping off the widows!
But it shouldn’t have been this way. The Torah is clear: God executes justice for widows. Widows and others, who are vulnerable like orphans and the poor, are to be protected, defended and cared for—but not exploited. The resources of the temple should have been available to help this woman.
But instead, the wealth of the temple was used to buy the nice, long robes the scribes wore as they sat in their places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets, and moved through the temple and the marketplaces making a show their piety, and being greeted with respect by their friends. And the resources of the temple went to maintain the large stone structures that comprised the temple complex.
This situation of injustice was so intolerable, that in the verses immediately following this morning’s text, Mark has Jesus utter words of judgment against the temple itself. Jesus said to his disciples: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Are we paying attention to this morning? I hope that we. Our church currently has a budget of over $850,000. We’ll be budgeting for 2013 very soon. The question that we should be asking this year and every year in the budgeting process concerns justice: How are we using the resources made available to us through the generosity of our people—some of whom are every bit as poor as the widow in this morning’s story—to care for the most vulnerable among us?
Let me tell you the story of a church that wrestled seriously with this question. The Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Rochester, New York, once worshipped about 5,000 people each Sunday morning. But over the years, church attendance declined to about 200. The parishioners were anxious and afraid. The diocese was actually talking about closing the parish.
The parish priest, Father James Callan, wrote about the church’s predicament: “What do you do when your church is dying? You would think that the answer would be to preserve it, to hang on to it, to protect it. No! Just the opposite. Let it go. Share what little you have. Reach out to the poor. Give it away before you get it. Take a chance.”
This is what the church did: First of all, they gave away 10 percent of every offering to the poor. Again the pastor writes: “To the poor? Weren’t we the poor? In some ways we were. That January, the gas and electric bill for one month was over $10,000. The collection each week was $450.00.
“Some quick math tells you we were in trouble. [But} other people in the world were worse off than we were…[and] we thought that Jesus would feel more at home in a church that was generous with the needy.
“The second radical step we took was to eliminate all of our investments. We decided to sell our stocks and bonds, to empty our portfolio, and to give the money to the poor. This way we would have nothing to depend on except God and the generosity of the parishioners.”
Father Callan reports these results: “The Sunday attendance went from 200 to 2,200. We’re alive again! . . . We discovered that faith meant leaving something behind and reaching out for something not yet tangible.”
So there we have it. Two issues to consider—generosity and justice. How will we respond?
 "Ted Turner's $1 Billion Offer Lauded by U.N." Supernews. Reuters Limited, 1997. Web. 11 Oct. 2000.
 "Giving Pledge." FORTUNE Features RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2012. <http://features.blogs.fortune.cnn.com/tag/giving-pledge/>.
 "Ted Turner's $1 Billion Offer Lauded by U.N." Supernews. Reuters Limited, 1997. Web. 11 Oct. 2000.
 Andrews, Susan R. “Where Is Your Sadness?" Speaking of stewardship model sermons on money and possessions. Edited by Carter, William G. Louisville, Ky: Geneva, 1998. 80. Print.
 Brueggemann, Walter; Parks, Sharon; and Groome, Thomas H. To Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly: An
Agenda for Ministers. New York: Paulist Press, 1986, 5.
"Let Go and Step out in Faith." Let Go and Step out in Faith. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2012. <http://salt.claretianpubs.org/issues/prmin/faith.html>.
Travis Park United Methodist Church
November 4, 2012, All Saints Sunday
Rev. Monte Marshall
We Are Lazarus
My brothers and sisters, if you’ve come here this morning to hear the good news of what God is doing in the world, then say “amen”! That’s great! I promise you that we won’t be disappointed.
But here’s the deal: To be in a position to hear the good news this morning, it’s important that we first enter the graveyard and confront the reality of death. To do this, I invite us to see ourselves as Lazarus—the lifeless one in John’s story—the dead one—the one sealed up in a cave-tomb, shrouded in darkness, reeking with the odor of death, and bound up in grave clothes—constricted, tied up, dressed not for life, but for death. So imagine it this morning: We are Lazarus, dead and buried.
Death is all around us. Check the obituaries. Check out the news:
· “The death toll in the United States from Superstorm Sandy rose to 109 victims on Friday….Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned; ‘There could be more.’”
· “Activists estimate that more than 32,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011 when the uprising against [President] Assad’s regime began.”
· In the eleven years of war in Afghanistan, more than 3,000 NATO troops have lost their lives including over 2,000 Americans. There are no accurate numbers for civilian deaths in Afghanistan, but the estimates are well into the tens of thousands.
Death is all around us, and I’m not just talking about physical death. Death is present among us in a million different ways: violence, deceit, greed, injustice, bigotry, hatred, oppression, addiction, abuse, rape, broken relationships, and more. Death in this sense, means living as if we’re cut-off from God—the very source of life. In other words, we don’t have to be dead, to be dead! We are Lazarus!
But death is not just around us, death is also in us. Let me speak for myself here. I know that in my own life, there are places as cold as the tomb where compassion is absent and love seems far away. There are dead spots in my life where I resist Christ; where I refuse the life he offers; where I nurture unbelief and disobedience. I am Lazarus.
Death is around us, death is in us, and death awaits us. In spite of all the spectacular advances in medical science, the death rate remains exactly what it has always been--a flat 100%. We’re all going to die. We are Lazarus.
But wait a minute! Jesus has come in to the graveyard! He’s got tears in his eyes. He’s troubled in spirit. He’s moved by the deepest of emotions. And this is what he says: “Lazarus, come out!” Listen to him: Monte, come out!....
Can you believe it? When the life-giver is in the graveyard extraordinary things happen: tombs open up; grave clothes come off, and we’re free! We are alive! We are Lazarus--resurrected, not just in the sweet-by-and-by, but in the concrete here-and-now, in this moment, in our present circumstances. The tomb cannot hold us. Death gives way to life. So why not live—and live now!
Now since this is All Saints Sunday, I want to tell you about a man who has taught me something about how to live in the midst of a world that in so many ways is bound up by death. His name was Clarence Jordan and I never met him. He died in 1969 while I was still in high school. But his witness to life lived in the way of Jesus, continues to call me to life and I thank God for him today.
Clarence was born on July 29, 1912, in Talbotton, Georgia. He was born into a racist culture steeped in the ways of death. Jim Crowe laws were in effect. Schools were segregated. Public facilities were segregated. Rest rooms and water fountains were segregated. And yes, even churches were segregated.
The right to vote was curtailed for African-Americans in those days. The economic system perpetuated injustice by blocking the pathways to prosperity for poor black folks. War was glorified in that culture, and violence was used to protect the racist status quo.
The segregated Baptist church in which Clarence was raised, blessed the whole thing--this entire culture of death—as did most of the white churches in the South during those years.
As he was growing up, there was intense pressure upon Clarence to conform to this way of life. But Clarence was a follower of Jesus Christ. He knew better than to be content with life in the graveyard. He heard Christ calling him to life: “Clarence, come out!” And out Clarence came!
This is what he did: He earned an undergraduate degree in agriculture and a Phd. in New Testament Greek. But instead of being a prosperous farmer, or a big-steeple preacher, or a seminary professor, Clarence and his wife Florence joined with one other couple and formed a community called Koinonia near Americus, Georgia. The year was 1942.
Their intent was to engage the culture of death around them, but by living differently. They welcomed African-Americans into their homes. They taught agricultural skills to black share-croppers to liberate them from their bondage to unscrupulous land owners. They practiced an ethic of non-violence. They followed the New Testament example of holding their goods in common and giving to help those in need. Over the years, others came to participate in the life of this holy experiment. Habit for Humanity emerged from out of this community.
And make no mistake about it, the culture of death struck back. The KKK threatened them. Violence was directed against them. Their children were persecuted in the schools. But the people of Koinonia did not yield to the power of death—they did up give up or give in. They embraced life; they followed Jesus Christ; and the Koinonia community survives to this very day in Americus, Georgia. So I thank God today for Clarence Jordan.
Someone else also comes to mind—another person that I never met, but only read about. His name was Angus McGillivray. His story is told in a book by Ernest Gordon called To End All Wars. During World War II, the Japanese ran an infamous POW camp in the valley of the river Kwai in Southeast Asia. Ernest Gordon and Angus McGillivray were both prisoners in that camp.
As Gordon tells it, the conditions of their captivity were horrendous. They suffered from forced labor, disease, starvation and naked brutality. Gordon writes: Existence had become so miserable, that nothing mattered except to survive. It was a case of I look for myself and to hell with everyone else. The weak were trampled underfoot, the sick ignored or resented, the dead forgotten. Hate, for some, was the only motivation for living and in time, even hate died, giving way to numb, bleak despair.
But then, something changed. An American soldier named Angus McGillivray risked his life in countless ways to nurse a buddy back to health. Finally, Angus died of malnutrition because he shared his own meager food rations with his friend.
And the other prisoners took notice. They were moved by his self-sacrifice. It’s as though Christ had entered their death camp in the guise of Angus McGillivray and called them to life! Some of the prisoners began to recall passages from the Bible they had learned as children—passages about laying down one’s life for one’s friends, and loving one another as Christ has loved us.
Life began to take hold and that prison camp began to change! The weak were no longer trampled underfoot. The sick were no longer ignored. The dead were no longer forgotten.
When the Japanese were defeated and the allies came to liberate the camp, the allied soldiers were so appalled by the treatment the Japanese had given these prisoners that the soldiers were ready to slaughter the guards. But they didn’t. Do you know why? The prisoners stopped them! The prisoners stopped them because they had been set free from the ways death. They had transformed that death camp into a place of spiritual triumph! So I thank God today for Angus McGillivray.
My brothers and sisters, we are Lazarus. We know all about life in the graveyard. Death is around us. Death is within us. And death awaits us. But when Jesus Christ comes into the graveyard, extraordinary things happen! He calls us out—and when we come forth, we are Lazarus resurrected! We are set free to transform this culture of death by living as an alternative community alive in Jesus Christ! This, my brothers and sisters, is the good news for us today! Now the question is: What are we going to do about it? Amen.
 "Sandy Death Toll in US Rises to 109; 'there Could Be More,' Bloomberg Warns." U.S. News. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2012. <http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/02/14884300-sandy-death-toll-in-us-rises-to-109-there-could-be-more-bloomberg-warns?lite>.
 "NATO: Military Plans Ready to Defend Turkey If Shelling Continues along Syrian Border." Thestar.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2012. <http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/1268353--nato-ready-to-defend-turkey-if-shelling-continues-along-syrian-border>.
 "Was It worth It? Afghanistan 11 Years Later." Yahoo! News Maktoob. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2012. <http://en-maktoob.news.yahoo.com/worth-afghanistan-11-years-later-000000719.html>.
 "Clarence Jordan." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 25 Aug. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarence_Jordan>.
 Lee, Dallas. The Cotton Patch Evidence the Story of Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Farm Experiment. Americus, GA: Koinonia Partners, Inc., 1971.
 Gordon, Ernest. To End All Wars. Great Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002. Print.
October 28, 2012, Consecration Sunday
SCRIPTURE TEXT: 2 Corinthians 9:10-15
SERMON TITLE: Thanksgiving
Rev. Monte Marshall
Good morning, Travis Park! Well, the day is here! On the first Sunday of October, I promised that this day would come—and now it’s here—Commitment Sunday—the day we offer to God our financial commitments for 2013 that will support the mission and ministry of our church in the coming year. There’ll be an opportunity later in today’s service for us to lay these commitments before God as an act of worship.
I also said on that Sunday that there were other matters to consider of a higher priority—matters that have to do with living faithfully within God’s economy as a first priority. I then acknowledged my bias: I believe that the financial needs of our church will be met as a by-product of this more fundamental economic transformation in our lives.
Toward this end, we’ve spent the month exploring the theme: Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. We’ve looked at living with enough, living simply, and we’ve explored several important motivations for giving generously. We’ll continue with a more in-depth consideration of these issues in a five week Sunday School class that I’ll be leading beginning next week entitled Economy of Love.
But today, the issue is our generosity in responding to the work that God has in store for us in 2013. And I’ll be honest with you, the challenges we face in putting together a balanced budget for 2013 are considerable. And I tend to get anxious about such things.
But I’m not worried today about the church’s finances. We’re in God’s hands and God will provide enough. Consequently, this is not only a day for commitment; this is a day for thanksgiving!
And so on this Commitment Sunday, I take inspiration from Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthian Christians concerning their giving to help the church in Jerusalem. And so I say:
“Thank you, God,” for providing seed to the sower and bread for food in abundance, and for sustaining our lives with enough to this very day.
“Thank you, God,” for multiplying the seed for sowing so that there’s enough food to share with hungry people on the streets of San Antonio and around the world, and an abundance of love to share with those who are love-starved.
“Thank you, God,” for the bountiful harvest that you’ve promised as your justice and righteousness are practiced among your people—as the rights of the poor and the vulnerable are protected; as the oppressed are set free; as the marginalized are restored to community, as the excluded are included, and as outsiders become insiders.
“Thank you, God,” for a church that cares not only about those in need “in our own backyard,” but about people in need all around the world.
“Thank you, God,” for the indescribable and all-surpassing gift of grace that continues to bring all of us together within the Body of Christ and especially, within this community of Travis Park United Methodist Church—for we are rich and poor, young and old, housed and homeless, gay and straight, black and brown and white, secular and sacred, PhDs and GEDs.
“Thank you, God,” for Corazon Ministries, Deborah’s House, the Wednesday night Recovery Circle, a variety of worship opportunities, a place to worship, Bible studies, Sunday School classes, other study and fellowship groups, a phenomenal church staff, gifted artists and musicians, audio-visual technicians, teachers, ushers, communion stewards, so many dedicated volunteers, and on and on it goes.
And I say, “Thank you, God,” for the generosity that makes so much of this possible. As Paul wrote: We are truly enriched in every way.
And now let me ask you: Doesn’t it feel good to give God thanks? It’s a great way to live! In fact, did you know that giving thanks daily for the blessings of life—especially the blessings that come to us through someone else’s generosity—increases feelings of satisfaction and well-being? It’s a scientific fact! Research shows that taking time each day to express appreciation for the good things of life increases positive emotions, decreases negative emotions, and actually causes people to sleep better. In short, we are more satisfied with our lives when we give thanks.
So my brothers and sisters, are you with me in giving thanks to God this day? If you are, then say, “Thank you, God!”
Now I knew that you were with me even before we uttered the words, “Thank you, God.” I knew that you were with me in giving thanks because the gifts that we give week in and week out, and the commitments that we make today for next year, are expressions of our gratitude to God. Through our generosity, we glorify God and embody the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let me tell you a story that illustrates the point. It’s a story from Pastor Andy Langford about a woman named Edith who was a member of his first congregation. He writes: “Edith was born in a family of tenant farmers and worked at a textile mill all her life. She never owned a car. At her retirement, Edith’s wealth consisted of a four-room mill home, plus her Social Security check. Each month when she received her check, Edith cashed it and walked from store to store paying her bills. Each month, Edith also gave me ten percent ($40) of her Social Security check ($400) in cash to place in the offering plate at worship. One month, I took Edith’s gift back to her saying, ‘Edith, you need this money more than our congregation.’ Edith then told me. ‘If you won’t take the cash, I’ll just send it straight to the church treasurer.’ She continued, ‘I’m not giving this money for our church, or for you, or for me, but for God. It’s my way of saying thank you to God. Don’t take away my chance to give.’” Pastor Andy concluded: “’I was wrong; Edith was right.’”
My brothers and sisters, I’m not worried today about our church finances. We’re in God’s hands and God will provide enough. So this is not only a day for commitment; this is a day for thanksgiving! A line from Psalm 118 says it well: “This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” And so we say: “Thank you, God, thank you!”
 "Join Day1.org to Listen!" The Rev. Dr. Scott Weimer. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2012. <http://day1.org/1555-what_god_values_in_stewardship>.
 Langford, Andy, Mark Ralls, and Rob Weber. Beginnings: the Spiritual Life : Habits of the Heart : a Participant's
Companion. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2006. 106. Print.
October 21, 2012
Message: “Generosity: Motivations for Giving”
II Corinthians 8:8-15
The Rev. Dr. Dale G. Tremper
Click for pdf of Personal Goals and Commitment Card.
Sherron and I saved up our money for a long time and took off for a dream vacation on September 26, just getting back to San Antonio on October 12. First we flew to Los Angeles, then left on a 15 night cruise, visiting 4 ports in Mexico, Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala, a port in Costa Rica, through the Panama Canal, Cartegena, Columbia, then sailing to Miami. Even considering that we are focused on generous, grateful giving this month, there is still something to be said for doing something special for yourself once in a while, right? And this was very special. We were pampered every day, had a wonderful time, filled with relaxation and adventures.
Every night we were gently rocked to sleep by the motion of the waves on the ship. On the cruise, I often awoke remembering my dreams, which I normally don’t do at home. In my most vivid dream from the cruise, I was standing here before you on a Sunday morning, giving the “Call for the Offering”, which took the form of a six stanza poem. I promise I won’t do that to you today, but in my dream it was brilliant and you loved it. So, you see, even while I was experiencing all of that beauty and pampering, in my subconscious I was looking forward to being back with you.
Let us pray: “Gracious God, we rejoice in all that you have given us. Help us to be truly thankful. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.”
Some say we should “give until it hurts”. I say and the Gospel says, “Give until it helps”. We are called to make a difference. What motivation do we have for the generosity that makes a difference?
First, there is the genuineness of love. Paul is writing to the young church in Corinth. Those who have been studying with me for the past several months know that the Corinthian church was messed up. They were often immature, petty and selfish. Nevertheless, they knew that Paul loved them. He had cared for them, suffered for them and stayed in touch with them. They knew that his love was for real. So, he was not ashamed to remind them that he had acted out of love as he was asking them to give generously.
We live in a world that is overloaded with silliness. Many of you are from my generation and remember the bumper sticker that was popular 25 or 30 years ago. It said, “Honk If You Love Jesus”. Given the fact that I lived in urban areas, where there was no shortage of honking, often accompanied by expressive gestures, I never used one of those bumper stickers. However, at about that time I also saw a few times a message that I liked better. It read: “Tithe If You Love Jesus; Any Fool Can Honk”.
Now, we are not specifically emphasizing tithing this month, although it is a solid, biblical concept and standard for Christian giving. Tithing is all about making the giving of 10% of our income for God’s work in the world as an expression of our love. We can live up to that standard, celebrate it, grow into it and even grow beyond it. The point is our generosity, motivated by love. Words are meaningless, if they are not backed up by deeds. We all know that often people say to one another, “I love you” when their only desire is to get something from each other. What use is it to say, “I love you” and not do anything?
Once upon a time there was a gardener, who grew an amazing, gorgeous, enormous carrot. She was so excited that she decided to give it as a gift to the king. She appeared before him with it, saying, “Your majesty, this is the greatest carrot I have ever seen. I decided to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.”
The king felt the sincerity of her heart and was moved. As she was turning to leave, he called out to her, “Wait! You have been a good steward of the earth, have produced something beautiful and you have graciously given it to me. I have something to give to you. I own a plot of land next to your garden that I will give to you as a gift so that you can garden it all and continue your beautiful work.” And he did.
There was a nobleman, hanging out in the palace, who overheard what the king had said and done. He said to himself, “Wow! If that is what the king would do for a mere carrot from this peasant woman, what would he do for me if I gave him something more impressive?” So the nobleman fetched a beautiful black stallion that he had trained and brought it to the king, saying, “Your majesty, this is the greatest horse I have ever had. I present it to you as a token of my esteem.”
The king received the horse, but sent the nobleman away. The nobleman protested, “But, your majesty, I saw what you did for that peasant. Isn’t there some reward for me?” The king, knowing the selfishness in the nobleman’s heart, responded, “The gardener gave the carrot for me, but you gave me the horse for yourself.”
Our motivations make a difference. Generous, true giving is motivated by honest love.
Second, our generosity is motivated by the generosity of Christ. There is no higher act of love than the self-giving love of God that we see in Jesus Christ. God pours out God’s very life for us in Christ.
Over the last 25 years or so, I have often asked groups to think what might be the single most important word in United Methodist theology, as given to us from John Wesley. Think about that question for a moment… What would that word be?... It is grace. Wesley had a whole lot of teach us about grace. He emphasized the different types of grace that God gives, freely pouring out all good things upon us. There is the grace that goes before us, even before we see it or are ready to acknowledge it. Then there is the grace that transforms us, here and now, through forgiveness of the past. Finally, there is the grace that completes us and makes us whole. Don’t be intimidated that he calls that the “sanctifying grace” that makes us “perfect” or holy. By “perfect”, Wesley is really saying “whole”, complete, mature. As we wake up to and respond to God’s grace, we find our lives energized and directed by God’s purposes in our lives.
The mission of this church is “Unconditional love and justice in action”. We see that mission fulfilled in all kinds of ways every Sunday, every day, every week. This church is a powerful witness to God’s grace and generosity. However, it is important to understand our mission here as a part of God’s whole mission in the world. The mission of the United Methodist Church is, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. What a comprehensive mission! Making disciples, teaching one another what Jesus taught and learning to do what Jesus did, through the Spirit of God in us. The words, “…for the transformation of the world” put the mission in perspective. It is so big, so much beyond our strength.
Who would deny that the world is desperately in need of transformation? Whether we look at education, health care, world hunger, energy issues, global climate change, addictions, you name it, the world is in a mess. When we look around us, we sometimes want to excuse ourselves, shrug our shoulders and hide from the responsibility, saying, “What can I do? How can I make any difference? How can my little gifts matter when the problems are so big and so complex?” When we think like that, we make ourselves small and minimize God.
I love what Paul says, “The gift is acceptable according to what one has – not what one doesn’t have”. That is, what we have to give is enough. We have enough to make a difference! Peter Marshall was a great preacher of another generation. He could sometimes be outspoken, even blunt, in a way that most preachers would hesitate to do. Once a very wealthy man came to him. The man was struggling with the idea of sharing his wealth. He said to his pastor, “I have a problem. I used to give a tithe of my income years ago. But now that I am earning $500,000 per year, there’s no way I can give $50,000 per year to the church. Peter Marshall thought for a moment, then said, “I see your problem. Let’s pray about it.” He prayed, “Heavenly Father, I pray that you would reduce this man’s salary back to the place that he can afford to tithe.”
Because of the generosity of God, as seen in Jesus Christ, we discover that giving is at the very heart of God’s nature. Giving is what sets us free and sets others free to live and to thrive, to know joy and freedom.
Finally, we see Paul arguing that the Corinthians should be generous because of the needs of the Jerusalem church. In the verses just before the verses we have read here and in the book of Acts, we learn that Paul is raising a special offering for the needs of the poor in the “mother church” in Jerusalem. Now, most of the believers in the church in Corinth had never been to Jerusalem. Most of them weren’t Jews in the first place. They really didn’t care much about the fact that the people in Jerusalem.
“Why should I care about anybody else? I have problems of my own. I see the needs of those around me, and that’s all I care about. There’s so much that I have to do here. Don’t bother me with someplace else. It’s hard enough to respond here.”
We do so much as a church that is impressive and real, but God is always calling us to stretch. God is always calling us to see beyond and go beyond whatever kind of contentment we might have now. God is always calling us to see the bigger picture. Beyond the free meals, beyond the bus tickets, beyond the place to hang out (and isn’t this a nice place?), people are getting the idea that God loves them. Once people grasp that they are not alone, that God cares about them, that they are welcome and accepted, then they begin to get the idea that all are welcome. Spiritual depths begin to be opened in their lives, meaning is explored, with help and community; life purposes are revealed and acted upon. Our “Jerusalem church” here is full of differentness and complexity. We keep discovering new aspects in our own faith as we link up with one another.
Charles Stallcup and Joseph Enderle are going to share a “witness to joy” about the importance of generous giving in their lives. (8:45 and 11:00 services. No transcript available.) You have in your bulletin a card that is called, “My Personal Goals and Commitment for 2013”. Take that card and fill in the blanks as an important spiritual exercise today. Do it today, before you lose it, and place it in an important place, maybe your Bible, where you will see it again. Identifying these goals will make a difference in your life. Later this week, you will receive commitment cards in the mail; the commitment cards are for you to look forward to what your gi
There is no emotion that steals life from us more effectively than fear. We do not and cannot control the future. But with God’s help, we can face the future, embrace all of life as it will come to us, unpredictably, trusting and knowing that we are not alone.
I want to share with you a vision of what generosity does. (Slide projected on screen.) This is a picture of the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Every other year, I got to be in this building as the Oklahoma Annual Conference met here on alternate years. You can’t tell from this one image, but this building is one of the finest examples in America of a style of architecture called “art deco”. Architects come from all over the country to study this place. But it is not only a beautiful building; it is a beautiful and exciting, living church. The money was raised to build this building during the 1920s, when Tulsa was a boom town, floating in oil money. The church was thriving and needed a big, beautiful and significant place to do ministry. Construction happened 1927-29. While the building was being completed, the stock market crash of 1929 happened. The man who had given the most money toward this church lost everything in the crash. From then on until the church was completed, he spent every day outside, walking back and forth as a “sidewalk superintendent”. As a face who had been familiar in town, some people recognized him. A reporter from the Tulsa World came by and observed, “You must regret that you gave so much of your money away to build this church and now you have nothing left.” He responded, “No, you don’t understand. I have lost everything else. This church is all I have. Isn’t it wonderful?”
All of us are here in this wonderful church. What a joy and a privilege it is for us to respond to God’s call to give from what we have been given and to move this great church forward into even more fulfilling ministries. We are a generous, grace-filled people. We have only begun to see what God will do next through us. Amen.
October 14, 2012
Rev. Monte Marshall
Simplicity: Spending and Debt
Scroll down for
Six Key Financial Practices, My Life and Financial Goals Worksheet, and Basic Budget Worksheet
Our emphasis in worship over the four Sundays in October is Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. Last week we asked the question: When is enough, enough? This morning, the theme is simplicity.
Now it seems to me that even though the word “simplicity” doesn’t appear in this morning’s text, it is a word that captures so much of what Jesus is teaching in the text. Simplicity is a style of life that guards against greed in all of its forms. Simplicity embraces the notion that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Simplicity is a life rich toward God that involves generously sharing our wealth with others in need. Understood in this way, simplicity is a mark of discipleship and a sign of living faithfully within the reign of God.
But did you notice? Simplicity is not where Luke’s story begins. On the contrary, Luke’s story begins with greed. A person in the crowd pressed Jesus to take his side in a dispute over the family inheritance. This guy wanted his cut. But Jesus refused because Jesus understood that this demand wasn’t about justice, it was about greed.
Jesus said to the crowd: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” In Greek, the word for “greed” refers to an excessive longing or craving for such things as food, drink, wealth or possessions. It’s a craving beyond reason that reveals a crass sort of selfishness.
Jesus then told them a parable about a rich farmer who had his own problems with simplicity. This farmer “produced abundantly.” He was successful, but he was greedy. In his prosperity, he thought only of himself. He responded to his rising level of affluence by building bigger barns to store more stuff so that he could “relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” He figured that his material abundance was the key to life.
But God set the farmer straight: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Jesus then drove the point home: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” This last phrase had a particular meaning for first century Jews. They would have understood that to be “rich toward God” meant giving to others in need, especially to the poor. And this the rich farmer selfishly did not do.
So what does this have to do with us in 21st century America? Well, it seems to me that the dominant values of our culture have more to do with greed and increasing levels of accumulation and consumption than with simplicity. Isn’t it true that all of us who have grown up in this incredibly affluent society—whether rich or poor or somewhere in between—have been trained from an early age to be good consumers—to go after more, and bigger, and better?
And there’s evidence that the conditioning has worked: With 5% of the world’s population, we consume 24% of the world’s fossil fuel resources. In total, we eat roughly 200 billion more calories a day than we need—which is enough to feed 80 million hungry people. We then throw out 200,000 tons of edible food daily.
And what happens if we want something that we can’t afford at the moment? Many of us put it on the credit card. The average American household with at least one credit card has nearly $15,950 in credit card debt.
And get this: In a survey taken not long ago, people were asked how much money it would take to make them happy. In every income group, the answer was exactly the same: only 20% more. According to Jesus, this is greed.
Speaking of happiness, the statistics tell us that “the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “happy” has not increased since the early 1950s, but reported incidences of depression keep rising.”
So here’s the question: Are we ready for simplicity? If we are, then it’s time to do some practical, nitty-gritty work to simplify our lives. And this morning we’re doing more than just talking the talk, we’re providing some tools to help us walk the walk.
First, in this morning’s bulletin we’ll find listed “Six Key Financial Practices” that put the focus first on God, and then on issues such as spending and debt that reveal so much about our inclinations toward either simplicity, or an anxious quest for more.
These are the six practices:
1. Put God first in our living and giving.
2. Prepare a budget and track all expenses monthly.
3. Simplify our lifestyles by living on less.
4. Save for emergencies.
5. Pay off credit card debt and use cash/debit cards when possible.
6. Save and invest responsibly to meet long-term goals.
A second document we’ve provided is a piece entitled “My Life and Financial Goals Worksheet.” If we’re interested in simplicity, then it’s important to clarify how simplicity shapes our life’s purpose. From there, we can set goals to fulfill that purpose. This document guides us through the process.
Third, once we’ve established financial goals that are consistent with a lifestyle of simplicity, it’s important to specify how we intend to meet these goals. This is what a budget is for and this is why we’ve distributed a “Basic Budget Worksheet” this morning. Pastor Adam Hamilton says that a budget is simply a plan that tells our money what we want it to do.
So are we ready for simplicity? A couple named Charles and Terri were ready. They both were involved in professional careers and earned high incomes. But through their involvement in the church and their exposure to the gospel, they began to look at their lives differently. After hearing a sermon on possessions one Sunday morning, they went home and had a long and difficult conversation. Terri poured out her heart about her unhappiness with the way they were living, and Charles agreed. “We couldn’t breathe,” Terri said. “We were living a lie. We had a big house, two cars, a boat, and everyone thought we were so happy. But underneath we were stressed out, arguing all the time about money, in debt over our heads, and we felt miserable. We were strangling.”
But there was also fear of change. Terri said, “We were afraid of what others would think if we downsized our house or traded in our cars or stopped doing the things everyone else was doing. We were afraid of the bills, the debts, the banks. We were scared of what would happen if one of us became sick. We were afraid of the shame of bankruptcy. We were afraid our teenagers would find out how precarious our situation was.”
Finally, Terri just blurted it out: “What kind of life does God really want us to have?”She then answered her own question: “Not this kind!”
They decided there and then to begin the practical, nitty-gritty process of simplifying their lives. They read books, took a course, and consulted a professional. They spoke with their children and included them in a plan to turn their lives around. Some decisions were major. They moved to a more modest neighborhood. They sold a high-payment car in order to buy a used one. They cancelled credit cards. They cut expenses. They ate at home. They paid off debt, saved money and gave more.
After a year on this journey, Charles said this: “A year ago, we never imagined that we would feel the peace we feel today. It seemed totally beyond reach.” For Charles and Terri, the journey continues.
So I pose the question again: Are we ready for simplicity? If we are, then let’s get to work and make it happen. And may God help us! Amen.
Six Key Financial Practices
Today in worship we will address the theme of Simplicity: Spending and Debt. We will look to the parable of the rich farmer in Luke 12:13-21 for insight into how to “guard against greed” and be “rich toward God,” and also provide practical helps designed to move us toward simplicity by managing our spending and debt. The Six Key Financial Practices below are available for this purpose. (Hint: This useful tool, which is designed for all of us, can be especially helpful in training youth and young adults as they begin to develop lifelong habits in personal finance.) We hope you will take time this week to reflect upon and discuss the biblical text for this Sunday’s sermon, and to consider the six practices. They will make a great table devotional for you and your family. We are invited to use this opportunity to discover joy through simplicity and generosity.
Six Key Financial Practices
1. Put God first in your living and giving.
2. Prepare a budget and track all expenses monthly.
3. Simplify your lifestyle by living on less.
4. Save for emergencies.
5. Pay off credit card debt and use cash/debit cards when possible.
6. Save and invest responsibly to meet long-term goals.
My Life and Financial Goals Worksheet
How would you define or describe your life purpose?
What are three goals that can help you to achieve this life purpose?
What are some financial goals that can help to support your life goals and purpose?
Short-term financial goals (next 12 months):
Mid-range financial goals (2–5 years):
Long-term financial goals (5 years to retirement):
Basic Budget Worksheet
Item Actual % Suggested %* Plan for next 12 months
Housing 25–35% ____________________
Transportation 10–15% ____________________
Charitable Gifts 10–12% ____________________
Food 5–15% ____________________
Saving 5–10% ____________________
Utilities 5–10% ____________________
Medical/Health 5–10% ____________________
Debt 5–10% ____________________
Clothing 2–7% ____________________
Miscellaneous 12–23% ____________________
*These percentages are adapted from Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover (Thomas Nelson, 2007).
 Buttrick, George Arthur. "Greed." The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. Nashville: Abingdon, 1962. 479. Print.
 "Consumption by the United States: Americans Constitute 5% of the World'spopulation but Consume 24% of the World's Energy." Consumption by the United States: Americans Constitute 5% of the World'spopulation but Consume 24% of the World's Energy. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2012. <http://www.mindfully.org/Sustainability/Americans-Consume-24percent.htm>.
 "Controlling Your Personal Debt." CNNMoney. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2012. <http://money.cnn.com/magazines/moneymag/money101/lesson9/index.htm>.
 Schnase, Robert C. Five Practices of Fruitful Living. Nashville: Abingdon, 2010. 121. Print.
 Quoted in Langford, Andy, Mark Ralls, and Rob Weber. Beginnings: the Spiritual Life : Habits of the Heart : a Participant's Companion. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2006. 78. Print.
 Hamilton, Adam. Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2009. 43. Print.
 Schnase, Robert C. Five Practices of Fruitful Living. Nashville: Abingdon, 2010. 115-16. Print.
October 7, 2012
Travis Park United Methodist Church
TEXT: Exodus 16:1-5, 13-21
TITLE: When Is Enough, Enough?
I want to begin this morning by looking ahead. When we gather for worship on October 28, we’ll have the opportunity to offer up to God our commitments for financial giving to support the ministries of our church in 2013. This will be an important act of worship for us that will help the leaders of our church make some important budgetary decisions that include salaries for our church staff, funding levels for church ministries, spending for building maintenance, utility costs, and a host of other needs that have to be addressed as we move forward into the future that God has in store for us.
But before we arrive at that point, there are other matters to consider of a higher priority: How are we, as the followers of Jesus Christ, to handle the stress, anxiety and fear that are so much a part of our current economic circumstances? What does it look like for us to live more fully into the reign of God in the midst of an economic system that thrives on increasing levels of material consumption beyond what we truly need, and that can easily result in greater debt and increasing alienation from the poor among us?
Now here’s my bias: I believe that as we deal with these issues faithfully in our own lives by seeking the reign of God as a first priority—then the financial needs of the church will be met as a by-product of this more fundamental economic transformation in our lives.
The theme over these next four weeks gets to the heart of the issue: Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. The focus for today is on a basic question: When is enough, enough?
This morning’s scripture text helps us engage the question. God’s people were in the wilderness learning how to trust God. They were free from Pharaoh, but hungry, anxious and afraid. They complained to Moses and Aaron.
And we can identify with them. Haven’t many of us been in the “wilderness”—worrying about not having enough—especially in the throes of the Great Recession that began in the fall of 2008? Do we remember what happened? The stock market crashed, retirement savings evaporated, home values plummeted, the economy contracted, and unemployment soared.
In the wilderness of Sin between Elim and Sinai, God’s people were so hungry, anxious and afraid that they actually began missing the way of life they had known in Egypt where they at least had their fill of bread. But the price they had paid for their full stomachs was slavery and oppression in a system controlled by Pharaoh. The Israelites told Moses and Aaron: “Better to die in Egypt with our bellies full, than in the wilderness with our bellies empty.”
So I wonder: How many of us in the “wilderness” of the Great Recession, are hoping for an economic recovery that will once again enable us to pursue the American Dream unrestrained by recession or concerns over debt—an American Dream that involves consuming more, and acquiring more of what we want above and beyond what we need? And we know the difference between the two, right? Will Davis puts it this way: “I need food, but I want pizza.”
Author Jim Wallis finds oppressiveness in this way of life. He was watching television one night in the days just before Christmas. He writes: “In one night I saw advertised an array of gadgets and comforts beyond the wildest dreams of any previous generation. Products and experiences beyond a king’s reach in former times were now offered as Christmas gifts among America’s affluent….
“All these consumer ‘goods’ were far beyond what any of us could ever need, especially in a world where millions of people find themselves locked in a daily battle for mere survival.”
Wallis then concluded: “What was happening through the television that night…was spiritual formation. Far more effective than crude totalitarianism, this continual electronic suasion is forming the values, the mind, and the spirit of each of us in our all-consuming society.”
I know what Wallis is talking about. I fantasize about having a lot of money so that I can buy whatever my heart desires, even though I already have way too much stuff and I spend too much on myself. Laura Jean and I have been in debt most of our married lives. And I know all too well, the spiritual price that I’ve paid for this cooperation with the system. I depend on myself and the system more than I trust God—and this only increases my anxiety.
Thankfully, the Exodus text points us in a radically different direction. The Exodus text suggests that God has something better in store for us than an oppressive economic system that thrives on the constant pursuit of more, that seduces us to live beyond our means, and that persistently alienates us from the poor.
God promised Israel, and God promises us, enough to meet our needs. God provides in abundance so that there is enough to meet everyone’s needs, but not necessarily enough to supply all of our wants. An economy of enough means that we each gather as much as we can, but then, because some gather more and some gather less, we engage in re-distribution so that everyone has enough to meet their basic needs. For the Israelites, one omer of manna per day per person was enough. For a rich young man with too much in Jesus’ day, “enough”—according to Jesus—was “Go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor…then come, and follow me” and learn how to live in God’s economy (I added this last part!).
What constitutes enough for us today? Let’s check the list: How much house is enough for us? How many square feet? How many bedrooms and bathrooms? Do we need a breakfast nook, exercise room, entertainment center, workroom, and a study?
How much car is enough for us? New or used; lease or own; cloth, vinyl or leather interior; single- or multi-CD player; V-6 or V-8 engine; GPS, speaker phone, TV, DVD player; sun roof and/or moon roof?
How much money is enough for us? Five figures? Six figures? Seven figures?
How much other stuff is enough for us? And the list goes on.
Well, these are matters for each of us to figure out for ourselves and our families if we want to learn to live within God’s economy. We need to help one another figure these things out because we’re all in this together. We have a responsibility as God’s people to make a hard-nosed determination of what constitutes our basic needs in this day and time, so that we have a base line to help us measure when enough is enough. And what do we do with any surplus? We give it away, especially to the poor.
This is how St. Augustine put it: “Find out how much God has given you, and from it take what you need. The remainder which you do not need is needed by others. The superfluities of the rich are the necessaries of the poor. He who retains what is superfluous possesses the goods of others.”
John Wesley practiced this kind of economics throughout his life. Wesley, for those of you don’t know, was the founder of Methodist movement in 18th century England. As a young man, Wesley calculated that he could meet his own basic needs for food, clothing and shelter for 28 pounds, or about $65 a year. Since prices remained about the same, Wesley was able to maintain this level of expenditure throughout his lifetime. But while his expenses remained constant, his income rose. Sales of his books, for example, often earned Wesley about 1,400 pounds a year. So what did he do? He continued to live on 28 pounds to provide the basic necessities of life. He lived frugally. He fasted several times a week. He wore inexpensive clothing. He dined on simple food.
And do you know what he did with the surplus beyond what he needed for the basics? He gave it away, especially to the poor. Wesley once wrote: “If I leave behind me ten pounds, you and all [people] bear witness against me that I lived and died a thief and a robber.” Now who would Wesley have been stealing from? The poor.
Now I don’t mean to suggest that we follow Wesley’s example slavishly, but it does seem to me that Wesley’s example points us in the right direction toward learning to trust God while we live with enough.
So my brothers and sisters, before we ever get around to talking about the church budget, and while many of us are experiencing an economic wilderness filled with stress, anxiety and fear, the question is before us: When is enough, enough? May God help us. Amen.
 Davis, Will. Enough: Finding More by Living with Less. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2012. 23. Print.
 The Call to Conversion: Why Faith Is Always Personal But Never Private. Revised ed. San Francisco: Harper, 2005. xiv-xv. Print.
Adapted from Davis, Will. Enough: Finding More by Living with Less. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2012. 20. Print.
 Gibson, William E. A Covenant Group for Lifestyle Assessment. New York: United Presbyterian Program Agency, 1978, 60. Print.
Sider, Ronald J. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: A Biblical Study. Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984, 264. Print.
September 30, 2012
SCRIPTURE TEXT: John 4:46-54
SERMON TITLE: Who Will Beg for the Children? (Children’s Sabbath)
Rev. Monte Marshall
I will never forget the two week period that began on Sunday, April 5, 1981. Laura Jean and I were in Washington, D. C. I was a seminary student and Laura Jean was pregnant with our first child. On that Sunday, our oldest son, Brian Scott Marshall, was born. Aside from the great joy of Brian’s birth, the day was actually a long series of misadventures and near-misses that we can laugh about now, but that weren’t nearly so funny back then—at least for me.
For example: We had to make two trips to the hospital that day because Brian wanted to come into this world much more quickly that any of us, including the hospital staff, anticipated.
On the way back home in the rain after our first visit to the hospital, we narrowly-avoided—literally by inches—a collision with a woman who lost control of her car while making a turn onto a slick street.
On the second trip to the hospital with things progressing quickly—if you get my drift—we got caught having to wait for a long string of buses to exit the parking lot of a Roy Rogers’ fast food restaurant. It took forever! And while we’re waiting, Laura Jean said, “I’ve got to push,” and I said, “Don’t push! Don’t push!”
When we arrived at the hospital, I dropped Laura Jean off at the hospital entrance and they whisked her off to Labor and Delivery. I went and parked the car, but in my haste, I locked the keys in the car—a fact that I didn’t discover until later that night when I was ready to go home.
After parking the car, I hurried back into the hospital and some woman wanted to talk with me about how were going to pay for all of this hospital care. While I was visiting with her, she got a call from Labor and Delivery telling her to tell me that if I wanted to be there for the birth of our child, I’d better get up there up there quickly!
Now we had taken a tour of the hospital several days earlier so that we would know exactly where to go. But when I got on the elevator that day, I got off on the wrong floor. I frantically tried to find my way to the place that I was supposed to be when I finally figured out what I’d done. So I got back on the elevator, got off on the right floor, found the dressing room, put on the scrubs, and arrived in the delivery room just in time to witness the birth of our first son.
But then the story took another turn. Within a day or so of Brian’s birth, problems developed. He wouldn’t eat. He became jaundiced. His bilirubin count soared. They put him in the Intensive Care Nursery in one of those plastic boxes underneath the bilirubin lights. They put this little hospital-made cap on his head (show cap).
It was during one of our visits that we discovered that Brian had passed blood in his urine. Later that night, the hospital called and told us that a doctor had examined Brian and concluded that he had a blood clot in his right kidney.
Needless to say, we were scared to death. I had been praying all along, but on that night, my prayers turned to a plea. I begged God for the health and life of my son. As it turned out, he lost the function of his right kidney and later had to have it removed, but today, he is healthy and happy and living in New York City with his wife Kara. Thanks be to God!
So my brothers and sisters, I know what’s like to beg God for the health and life of a son. And I identify with the royal official in this morning’s gospel story who begged Jesus for the health and life of his son.
Jesus had been in Judea. He had spent time in Jerusalem and he was headed back to Galilee through Samaria. He ended up in the Galilean village of Cana where he had performed his first sign by turning water into wine at a wedding feast.
The royal official traveled to Cana from Capernaum, a journey of about 20 miles uphill. He made this grueling trip because somehow he knew that Jesus could heal his son, so when he found Jesus, he begged him to come to Capernaum and heal his boy.
Jesus seemed to put the man off. Jesus said, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” But the official persisted, “Sir [or Lord] come down before my little boy dies.” Jesus then said, “Go, your son will live.” In Greek, the word for “live” can mean either to recover from illness or to return to life from death. The man believed the word that Jesus spoke. His son lived. The father and the whole household believed. In answering the father’s desperate plea, Jesus revealed his will for life and health. He spoke the word and light shined in the darkness.
But here’s the tragic reality: There are still children sick, suffering and dying today. There are still children at risk around the world and even in the United States of America—the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. And yes, there are still children at risk in our own State of Texas—and in this very community! So here’s the question: Who will beg for these children?
Consider the statistics: Globally, in 2011, 6.9 million children died before reaching the age of five—that’s 19,000 children dying each and every day. One-third of these deaths are attributable to malnutrition. More than 2,500 children die each day from diseases caused by poor drinking water, a lack of sanitation, and poor hygiene. In 2010, 3.4 million children under the age of 15 live with HIV. Millions of children worldwide are victims of violence, child labor, trafficking, sexual exploitation, female mutilation, and child marriage.
In America, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, a child is born into poverty every 29 seconds. Every 47 seconds a child is abused or neglected. Every 67 seconds a child is born without health insurance coverage. Every two minutes a child is born at low birth weight. Every 21 minutes a baby dies before his or her first birthday. Every 5-and-a-half hours a child is killed by abuse or neglect. Every 8 hours a child commits suicide.
In Texas, a child is abused or neglected every 8 minutes. A child dies before his or her first birthday every 3 hours. Among the fifty states, Texas ranks 35th in the percentage of babies born at low birth weight; 22nd in infant mortality; and 42nd in per pupil expenditures. 
Now here’s the deal: I know that all of here this morning would beg for the health and life of our own children. But the question is: Will we beg for the health and life of all the children as if they were our own?
I urge us all to action. I urge us to pray for the health and life of all the children of the world. I urge us find concrete and specific ways to beg the leaders and institutions of this world to protect the health and life of all children everywhere. I urge us to become personally involved in efforts that benefit our own children and the children of the world.
Let me make one concrete suggestion. As the United States Congress struggles over deficit reduction and the federal budget, consider writing our Senators and Representatives in Washington D. C. to encourage them to protect the children of our nation by maintaining an adequate social safety net and investing in their health and well-being. Check out the Children’s Defense Fund website for more information. And if you don’t like this suggestion, come up with one of your own so that you take action to help the children.
Now let me tell you about Roman Catholic Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Uganda begged for the children. He became the archbishop of Gulu in northern Uganda in 1999. At the point of his installation, a group calling themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army had waging war against the Ugandan government for 23 years, but it had also terrorized the civilian population, burning villages, killing and maiming civilians, and abducting children as a means of recruitment into their fighting ranks. Over 23,000 children had been kidnapped in this way.
During his installation ceremony, Archbishop Odama took in his arms and asked the child, “Do you like war?” The child turned his head from side to side to signify “no.” He then asked the child, “Do you like peace?” The child nods enthusiastically with a “yes.”
Then, still holding the child in his arms, he turned to the audience and said, “This child has defined for us our pastoral ministry. I commit myself to work for the future that child has defined, to eliminate war, build peace for the sake of this child, …so that the full humanity of this might grow and flourish.”
It is this commitment that has led Odama to beg for the children by leading a life of activism and intense advocacy for peace—always speaking on behalf of, and for the sake of, children.
My brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ acts for children to heal and to save. Doesn’t it make sense that those of us who follow Jesus have the same responsibility to stand for health and life for all of the children of the world? So who will beg for the children of the world as if they are our own?
 "Childinfo.org: Statistics by Area - Child Mortality - Overview." Childinfo.org: Statistics by Area - Child Mortality - Overview. UNICEF, Sept. 2012. Web. 02 Oct. 2012. <http://www.childinfo.org/mortality.html>.
 "Childinfo.org: Statistics by Area - Water - The Challenge." Childinfo.org: Statistics by Area - Water - The Challenge. UNICEF, Sept. 2012. Web. 02 Oct. 2012. <http://www.childinfo.org/water.html>.
 "Childinfo.org: Statistics by Area - HIV/AIDS - Global and Regional Trends." Childinfo.org: Statistics by Area - HIV/AIDS - Global and Regional Trends. UNICEF, Aug. 2012. Web. 02 Oct. 2012. <http://www.childinfo.org/hiv_aids.html>.
 "Childinfo.org: Statistics by Area - Child Protection - Child Protection Introduction." Childinfo.org: Statistics by Area - Child Protection - Child Protection Introduction. UNICEF, Jan. 2012. Web. 02 Oct. 2012. <http://www.childinfo.org/protection.html>.
 "Children's Defense Fund." Moments in America for Children. N.p., July 2012. Web. 02 Oct. 2012. <http://www.childrensdefense.org/child-research-data-publications/moments-in-america-for-children.html>.
 "Children in Texas." Children's Defense Fund. N.p., Jan. 2012. Web. <http://www.childrensdefense.org/child-research-data-publications/data/state-data-repository/cits/2012/2012-texas-children-in-the-states.pdf>.
 "Last Month the House Voted for Billionaires over Babies. Tell Them to Get Their Priorities Straight." Be Careful What You Cut. Children's Defense Fund, 2012. Web. 02 Oct. 2012. <http://www.childrensdefense.org/be-careful-what-you-cut/>.
 Katongole, Emmanuel. "Emmanuel Katongole: Receiving Such a One as This | Faith & Leadership." Faith & Leadership. 2012 Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, 5 June 2012. Web. 02 Oct. 2012. <http://www.faithandleadership.com/sermons/emmanuel-katongole-receiving-such-one>.
September 23, 2012
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Mark 9:30-37
SERMON TITLE: “To Get High, Go Low”
Rev. Monte Marshall
Back a few years ago, I heard an interview on NPR with the late Millard Fuller, the founder and former director of Habitat for Humanity. He told of an occasion when he was invited to speak at Yale University. He accepted the invitation, but with Yale being such a prestigious institution, Millard was a little bit intimidated and nervous about what he would say. One afternoon as Millard was visiting one of his neighbors in Americus, GA, who happened to be a poor, African-American woman, he mentioned his upcoming speaking engagement and his nervousness. She smiled at him and said to him, “Honey, you tell ‘em if you want to get high, go low.”
Jesus had a similar message for his disciples. The occasion was not an address at a prestigious university, but an interaction with his disciples. They were in a house in Capernaum. Jesus had noticed that they had been arguing with one another on their trip through Galilee, so he asked them: “What were you arguing about during the journey?” No one said a word because they had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest. Jesus sat down, called the twelve over, and said to them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and the servant of all.”
Jesus then illustrated the point by shifting his attention from the adults in the room to a little child—the smallest one in the room—the vulnerable one—the one without power or prestige—the one with the least social value. Jesus reached for the child on the social margins, brought the child into the center of the community, and held her in his arms. “Then he said, “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me.”
So there we have it: “If you want to get high, go low.” “If you want to be first, be the last of all and the servant of all.” Welcome little children. Now how do you suppose this message would go over at Yale University? How does it go over here this morning?
Well, I can imagine the objections. “Now, preacher, these are nice religious sentiments, but they get us nowhere in the ‘real’ world. In the ‘real’ world—in places like Yale University—you get high by aiming high. You raise your sights. You strive with all your might to be first, to be number one. You cultivate relationships with the movers and the shakers who can help you move up. You fight your way to the top.”
Now I don’t know about you, but I learned how to get along in the “real world” at a pretty early age. When I was a kid, we used to play a game called King of the Hill—a game obviously designed to teach boys how to get along in the “real world.”
Now to play this game, you needed a group of kids and a good dirt pile. To win the game, you had to push and pull and shove all the other kids down to the bottom hill so that you were the only one left standing at the top of the hill.
And if you were the one left standing at the end of the game, you were the King of the Hill, the best, the greatest, number one--and it felt great. You felt powerful. But, if you ended up at the bottom of the dirt pile, you felt lousy. You were a loser. Someone else was better than you. Someone else was more powerful than you.
Now you would think that adults would outgrow these childhood games, right? But we don’t. In our adult world, we play the game over and over again.
Jesus’ disciples played the game as they argued about who was the greatest. They engaged in this debate even though Jesus had, for the second time, identified himself as The Human One who would be killed and then rise again. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were arguing over who would take Jesus’ place once he was gone! I wouldn’t be surprised because I’ve seen arguments like this take place within families when a parent is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Even before the parent dies, the other family members begin jockeying for position to gain the advantage in settling the estate. We keep playing the game.
We keep playing the game in the church. Have you ever noticed how many Protestant churches name themselves “first” church? There’s a reason for that! There’s a certain degree of status and prestige that comes with being a “first” church. I know! I’ve served two congregations named First United Methodist Church—but I have never heard of a congregation taking the name, the Last United Methodist Church. That’s not how the game works in the “real world.”
So we keep playing the game in our families, at school, on the job, in sports, in our churches, and even in the relationships between nations. We keep playing the game because we like the feeling of being on top—of being number one! We like the recognition, the power, and the prestige. We keep playing the game because it’s not enough for us to be the best that we can be, we have to be better than someone else. And we keep playing the game no matter how many people end up at the bottom of the hill.
But Jesus will have none of it! For Jesus, the highest place is the lowest place, the first place is the last place. We won’t find Jesus at the top of hill taunting us with his superiority. We’ll find Jesus at the bottom of the hill, taking care of the losers—the little ones—the ones on the margins of life.
And frankly, he’s calling those of us who follow him to quit the game, to stop the pushing and shoving, to come down from the top hill, and turn our considerable ambitions toward self-giving service that seeks greatness at the bottom of hill where Jesus himself is among us as a servant. This is what the “real world” looks like when God’s in charge!
My brothers and sisters, the church is crying out for people who will live like this--who will serve like this--who will give of themselves like this to the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. And when we do live like this, amazing things happen.
Let me tell you about Bud Finley. Bud grew up in Little Rock, AK during the 1950s. He was a white kid in the segregated South. He was taught to give unquestioned devotion to the Rebel Flag and the song “Dixie.” He was defiant when it came to the integration of Little Rock’s school system. As a white kid in that racist culture, he was on the top of the heap.
As he got older, Bud set his sights high. He applied his considerable ambition to business—and he succeeded. He became a millionaire, and he believed that he had shed much of his racist past, but he hadn’t. When he became a Christian, he knew that he shouldn’t hate anyone, but hate was still there. There was an uneasiness and disquiet in his soul.
But all of that was about to change. Bud’s pastor, Robert Lewis, describes what happened: “Bud agreed to be a part of a “Helping Hands” community service project with our church. Bud was assigned to help at an inner-city housing project named Eastgate. He could live with that. Rake a few leaves. Tell a few jokes. Pick up some trash. And go home at five. It might even make him feel good, make him sleep well for a night or two. Convince him that he wasn’t a racist.”
Bud then met a seven-year-old poor black kid named Michael who lived in the Eastgate housing project. On the day they met, they started just horsing around with one another, telling jokes, and throwing fake punches like a boxer. When the day was over Michael asked if Bud could come visit him once in a while. Bud agreed. Within a week, the two were devoted to one another.
As Bud welcomed Michael into his life, he learned what it’s like to be young, black and poor. Bud saw “Michael’s squalid apartment, where as many as eleven people lived at any one time. He befriended Michael’s mother.” She had her children by three absent fathers, and yet she cared and nurtured her young ones with a deep love. He saw with his own eyes the desperation that surrounded Michael each and every day in the neighborhood where Michael lived.
“After spending three years with Michael, Bud came to a deeper understanding of the oppressive cycle of hopelessness and disconnected charity. In Michael’s world, the future did not exist, and the past often had to be blocked out.”
With his eyes opened and his heart changed, Bud could no longer ignore the reality of Michael’s world. In 1997, Bud sold his consulting business. While he continued to work, he used $2 million dollars from the sale to establish a foundation for urban ministry through his church. The foundation seeks to help poor, inner-city kids like Michael deal with the oppressive realities of their lives. On May 5, 1999, Bud Finley left his job altogether to become the executive director of the foundation he had begun.
Do we see what happened to Bud Finley? When he welcomed Michael into his life—this seven-year-old boy—he also received Christ and the God who’s on a mission to transform the world. Through it all, Bud Finley learned to use his considerable ambition to help others at the bottom of the hill. He learned to be a servant.
This, my brothers and sisters, is how Jesus measures greatness. It’s not about being the King of the Hill. No. “If you want to get high, go low.” “If you want to be first, be the last of all and the servant of all.” Welcome little children. And make no mistake about it, the church is crying out for people who will live just like this. May God’s will be done. Amen.
 Lewis, Robert, and Rob Wilkins. The Church of Irresistible Influence. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 2001. 142-150. Print.
September 9, 2012, Travis Park United Methodist Church
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Mark 7:24-37
SERMON: “A Changed Mind, A Changed Mission”, Rev. Monte Marshall
Pastor Ed Bowen tells the story of a rather famous preacher who was scheduled to speak at a small country church. On the day of the preacher’s visit, the 100-seat sanctuary was packed to capacity, every seat was filled, and people were literally standing at the open windows outside the church to hear the sermon. Now in this small church, there was no PA system so just before the preacher was about to begin his sermon, one of the ushers went up to him and said, “Speak up, preacher! Remember the people on the outside.”
“Remember the people on the outside.” Actually, that’s what this morning’s gospel lesson is all about. Jesus was in the Gentile region of Tyre. He wasn’t there on a preaching mission. He was taking a vacation. He was trying to get away from the crowds by going to a place where he thought no one would notice him.
But it wasn’t to be. A woman came to him, bowed at his feet, and begged him to cast out an unclean spirit from her daughter. Now from the perspective of first century Judaism, this woman was an outsider--a Syrophoenician woman--a Gentile--a non-Jew.
Jesus responded to her with a put down: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “The children” were Jesus’ own people, the children of Israel, the chosen people of God. “The dogs” were Gentiles. The words were an insult—an ethnic slur. And there we have it, two images that clearly distinguish between privileged insiders and despised outsiders.
And Jesus was very clear. His mission was to the insiders first. Whatever “food” he had to offer was to be given first to his own kind. In effect, Jesus was saying to this woman, “Look, my hands are full just taking care of my own people. I can’t be bothered with you and your problems right now. You’ll just have to wait.”
Now this is pretty shocking stuff, isn’t it? This doesn’t sound like the “nice guy” Jesus that we’ve come to know and love. In fact, in this story, Jesus sounds like a hard-hearted bigot whose primary interest is looking out for those of his own kind. In fact, he sounds uncomfortably like us!
We know something about bigotry, don‘t we? We know something about derogatory put-downs, don’t we? And we know something about giving the brush-off to people we view as outsiders and unworthy of our time and energy, don’t we?
For example, we hear appeals all the time to help the suffering people of Africa or Asia or Latin America or some other far off part of the world. But we say to ourselves, “I can’t be worrying about those people over there; we have enough problems right here in our own country.” But then, the more we think about it, we say to ourselves, “Well, when it comes right down to it, I can’t even get worked up over the troubles people are having right here in this country with poverty and homelessness, and all the rest. It’s just too much to deal with. Besides, there are enough troubles right here in my own city to deal with.” But then, the more we think about it, we say to ourselves: “Hey, you know what, I really don’t know most of the people who are suffering right here in my own community. How can I help them? And besides, it’s still too much to deal with. Maybe I should just take care of myself and my own family.” Now isn’t it interesting how we shrink down the number of people that we care about—and we label those who don’t make the cut as “outsiders”--and then--all of a sudden--we have a ready-made excuse for ignoring them?
But thanks be to God, the Gentile woman begging for her daughter’s deliverance, would not be ignored—she wouldn’t be brushed-off—not even by Jesus. She came right back at him: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Well, Jesus must have been impressed with this woman’s chutzpah because Jesus changed his mind! He said to her: “For saying that, you may go--the demon has left your daughter. So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.”
Imagine that! Jesus changed his mind. It sounds to me as if Jesus was learning how to be faithful just as you and I have to learn to be faithful. He was learning that God is the God of all people—insiders and outsiders alike; just as you and I have to learn the same lesson. So it’s okay to change our minds--especially when it means putting an end to bigotry and our propensity for taking care of ourselves and our own, while brushing off the so-called “outsiders.”
And notice this: When Jesus changed his mind, it changed his mission. In Mark’s gospel, this story represents the pivot point between Jesus ministry to his own people and his ministry to the Gentiles--and we’re the beneficiaries! If Jesus hadn‘t changed his mind and changed his mission, most of us wouldn’t be here this morning because most of us are Gentiles. We are the outsiders that Jesus decided to make insiders, all because a Gentile woman would not be denied.
And now, the mission of Jesus is our mission--and yes, this may mean that some of us have to change our minds to fully embrace the mission. Is this hard to do? It is for me, but this is what it takes to follow Jesus Christ.
Let me tell you the story about an encounter between Jim Cymbala, the pastor of a church in Brooklyn, NY, and an “outsider” named David. Pastor Cymbala writes: “I shall never forget Easter Sunday 1992. A homeless man was standing in the back of the church, listening intently [to a red-haired woman give a dramatic testimony of how Christ had freed her from an addiction to crack-cocaine.]
“At the end of the evening meeting I sat down on the edge of the platform, exhausted…. I wanted to relax. I was just starting to unwind when I looked up to see this man…standing in the center aisle about four rows back and waiting for permission to approach me.
“I nodded and have him a weak little wave of my hand. ‘Look at how this Easter Sunday is going to end,’ I thought to myself. ‘He’s going to hit me up for money.’ That happens often in this church.
“When he came close, I saw that his two front teeth were missing. But more striking was his odor—the mixture of alcohol, sweat, urine, and garbage took my breath away.
“I asked his name.
‘David,” he said softly.’
‘How long have you been homeless, David?’
‘Where did you sleep last night?’
‘In an abandoned truck.’
“I had heard enough and wanted to get this over quickly. I reached for the money clip in my back pocket.
“At that moment David put his finger in front of my face and said, ‘No, you don’t understand—I don’t want your money. I’m going to die out there. I want the Jesus that red-haired girl talked about.’
“I hesitated, then closed my eyes. ‘God, forgive me.’ I begged….I had wanted simply to get rid of him, when he was crying out for the help of Christ I had just preached about. I swallowed hard as God’s love flooded my soul.
“David sensed the change in me. He moved toward me and fell on my chest, burying his grimy head against my white shirt and tie. Holding him close, I talked to him about Jesus’ love.
“David surrendered to the Christ he had heard about that night. We got him into a hospital detoxification unit for a week. We got his teeth fixed. He joined the Prayer Band right away. He spent the next Thanksgiving Day in our home. We invited him back for Christmas as well.
“Today, David heads up the maintenance department at the church, overseeing ten other employees. He is now married and a father.”
Do you see how a changed mind led to a changed mission in relation to David as Pastor Cymbala’s focus shifted from brushing him aside with pocket change, to paying attention to him and offering him that which he desired the most—the very the love of Christ that’s available to all—insiders and outsiders alike?
Now my brothers and sisters, in my estimation, Travis Park UMC has done a better job of breaking down barriers between insiders and outsiders than any church I have ever served. And I know the history of how minds had to be changed to produce this changed mission of bringing insiders and outsiders together as an embodiment of God’s unconditional love and justice. I know how painful and challenging this process has been.
But I also know that there are still barriers to overcome, so the questions are still worth asking: Who’s missing from our midst this morning? Whose desperate pleas for deliverance are we ignoring? Who are the ones that we’ve written-off or brushed aside? Who are the ones we have left on the outside? And if we’ve been guilty of treating others as dogs, what would it take to change our minds and change our mission for the sake of Jesus Christ, so that no one is denied the soul-nourishing food of the gospel? May God’s will be done. Amen.
September 2, 2012, Travis Park United Methodist Church
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Mark 7:1-8
SERMON TITLE: From the Heart, Rev. Monte Marshall
Folks, don’t look now, but in a few minutes we’re going to be doing the very thing that got Jesus and his disciples into trouble in this morning’s text. We’re going to come to the table and receive a meal without first washing our hands in the manner prescribed by the tradition of the elders. The closest we’re going to get to that tradition this morning is the hand sanitizer that our servers will be using before they handle the bread and the cup—which is to say that ritual cleansing is no longer an issue for us—even though it certainly was a contentious issue between the followers of Jesus and the leaders of Judaism in Mark’s day.
So if this tradition of ritual cleansing is not our tradition, this mean we’re off the hook, right? Well, not so for me. I’m not off the hook. It seems to me that when Jesus cites the prophet Isaiah in this morning’s text, the prophetic critique applies to so much more than the tradition of ritual cleansing. This text has me thinking about how we human beings deal with the commandments of God—how we tend to fashion traditions that are more to our liking, but that hinder God’s work in the world and in our lives. This text has me thinking about my own hypocrisy—about what it means to pay lip service to God—and worship in vain—while my heart is far from God.
Speaking of hypocrisy, let me share with you a story told by Jim Wallis in his book, The Call to Conversion. He writes: “Several years ago I attended a conference in New York City. The topic was social justice. Assembled for the meeting were theologians, pastors, priests, nuns and lay church leaders. At one point a Native American stood up, looked out over the mostly white audience, and said, ‘Regardless of what the New Testament says, most Christians are individualists with no real experience of community.’ He paused for a moment and then continued: ‘Let’s pretend that you were all Christians. If you were Christians, you would no longer accumulate. You would share everything you had. You would actually love one another. And you would treat each other as if you were family.’ His eyes were piercing as he asked, ‘Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you live that way?’”
Wallis then notes that: “There was more sophisticated theological and political analysis per square foot in that room than most places. Yet no one could give an answer to the man’s questions. He had placed his finger on the central problem we face in the church today. . . . People can read what our Scriptures say, and they can see how Christians live. The gulf between the two has created an enormous credibility gap.”
This gulf between what we say and what we do has even been reflected in polling. Back a few years ago, a Gallup poll showed that 61% of Americans said that religion was very important in their lives, 68% were members of a church or synagogue, and 60% attended religious services on a regular basis.
But, while this poll showed a high level of religious involvement, there was unmistakable evidence of what Gallup called an “ethics gap.” Gallup concluded that: “While religion is very popular in this country, survey evidence suggests that it does not change people’s lives to the degree one would expect from the level of professed faith.”
Now it seems to me that this qualifies as hypocrisy: We fail to practice what we preach. We honor God with our lips, while our hearts are far away from God.
I know something about this because the truth is, I’m a hypocrite. I readily confess to you that there are times when I preach what I believe to be God’s word, while knowing full well that I don’t practice what I preach because in far too many ways, my heart is still far from God.
For example, when I read the scriptures, I encounter a vision for life that I know I am far from practicing--which means that I have not embraced that vision totally in my heart. Let me show you what I mean with several citations from the gospels: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors. . . . But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
Sell your belongings and give the money to the poor.”
Now I could go on with this, but I think you get the point. I believe that all of these biblical teachings reflect God’s will for me and I profess these truths with my lips, but in my heart I still resist.
In fact, I vividly recall an experience back in 1984 that illustrates the point. I was a pilgrim on the Walk to Emmaus. In case you don’t know, the Walk to Emmaus is a 72-hour short course in Christianity.
It was on a Friday night in the chapel at the Mt. Wesley Retreat Center in Kerrville. After reading Luke’s story of the two disciples who encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, the clergy director of the Walk led us in a guided meditation. He said: “Visualize Jesus walking into your situation. Sense what he would do and what he would say. How would Jesus react to your fears?”
Well, as those words were read, I felt the resistance building within me. I wanted Christ to stay away from me. I felt myself closed off to him. I feared that if I let him come in, he would call me to put an end to my hypocrisy—he would want me to pursue a deeper and more costly discipleship on God’s terms and not my own—he would expect me to respond to his love by bringing my words and my deeds into greater alignment.
But in the chapel that night at Mt. Wesley, I was unwilling and unyielding. My attachments to the status quo were too great. The risks seemed unacceptable. My soul cried out to God: “Leave me alone! I don’t want this! Leave me alone!”
But God hasn’t left me alone. God loves me too much to leave me alone—even though I still fail to practice what I preach. And when I fail to practice what I preach, I’m following the gospel according to Monte Marshall and not the gospel according to Jesus Christ. This is a tradition of my own making and this qualifies me as a hypocrite. Frankly, the only reason I dare to stand before you week after week and preach the gospel is because I’ve resolved, as John Wesley once did, to preach faith until I have it.
In the meantime, I try to be brutally honest with myself and with you about my hypocrisy. I’ve heard it said that we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge. Well, I think that’s true. St. Augustine put it another way: “Before God can deliver us from ourselves, we must first undeceive ourselves.”
So you see, I’m not off the hook. Ritual cleansing is not an issue for me, but hypocrisy is. The greatest ongoing faith struggle in my life is to practice what preach, to bring my heart and my life into alignment with the words that I speak to honor God—because frankly, I don’t want to abandon the commandments of God for a religion of my own making. How about you?
 Wallis, Jim. The Call to Conversion: Why Faith Is Always Personal but Never Private. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. Print.
 "Saint Aurelius Augustine Quotations Compiled by GIGA (Pg. 1)." Saint Aurelius Augustine Quotations Compiled by GIGA (Pg. 1). N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Sept. 2012. <http://www.giga usa.com/gigaweb1/quotes2/quautaugustineaureliusx001.htm>.
Travis Park United Methodist Church
August 26, 2012
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Ephesians 6:10-20
SERMON TITLE: “The Real Struggle”
Someone once calculated that over the last 4,000 years there have been only 268 years of peace—which means that we have been at war for 3,732 years—or 93.3% of the time.
Now how many human beings do you suppose, have died as a result of 3,372 years of war? No one knows for certain—but the deaths surely number in the hundreds of millions, at least. World War II alone cost the lives of an estimated 75 million people—soldiers and civilians alike—making it the costliest conflict in human history.
Now you would think that with these kinds of losses and all the other horrors of war—we human beings would have put a stop to this warring madness a long time ago—but we haven’t. World War I was supposed to be “the war to end all wars”—but it wasn’t. The violence continues. In fact, we’ve become so intent on destroying our enemies that we’ve created weapons that will not only obliterate them, but pretty much destroy life as we know it on the planet. And lest we forget, at this very moment, our own nation is at war—and we’ve been at war for over 10 ten years now.
So I pose a question: Could it be that this cycle of violence is so pervasive in human history because we persist in using the weapons of war to kill our flesh and blood enemies while the real struggle is avoided or ignored? Listen again to the text from Ephesians: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God.”
Now it’s not my intention this morning to get us bogged down in the language of an ancient cosmology that speaks of “authorities,” “cosmic powers,” “the present darkness,” and “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” I especially don’t want us to get distracted by images of forked-tailed demons flying around in the air and swooping down to “possess” unwary individuals.
But I do want to talk about violence as a spiritual reality. According to Ephesians, our real struggle is not with human enemies at all, but with spiritual forces that are demonic and evil in character—which is simply a way of saying that these forces are opposed to God and God’s work in the world.
Those who have experienced the horrors of combat know this reality far better than the rest of us. They’re the ones who describe war as hell. The fact that our brothers and sisters in the military endure this hell for us, gains them my undying respect and gratitude.
But according to Ephesians, our real struggle can’t be resolved by the weapons of war, but only by taking up the whole armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes that make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, and prayer.
This suggests to me that when it comes to war, our real struggle is against the spirit of violence itself—a spirit of violence that seems to have a life of its own apart from the flesh and blood enemies that we kill.
For example, Shane Claiborne tells the story of a 20-year old veteran of the Iraq War who called him one night after reading Shane’s book, The Irresistible Revolution. The young man was having a hard time sleeping. He had killed a man in Iraq, but that wasn’t what was disturbing his sleep. It was the face of the man’s son, a twelve-year-old boy, who had run out of the house, grabbed his dead father’s gun, and started shooting at the US soldiers. So the soldiers shot the boy too.
Killing the father didn’t kill the spirit of violence; it only perpetuated it so that it infected the dead father’s son and escalated the violence even more. The 20-year old American soldier told Shane that after that experience, when he and his buddies pointed a weapon in some young kids face, they felt like they were only creating another terrorist.
This is what I mean by a spirit of violence that seems to have a life of its own to the point where no matter how many enemies we kill, the violence continues. And this spirit of violence is so infectious and so pernicious that it gives rise to a self-perpetuating culture of violence that justifies, rationalizes and glorifies war.
I know what this is like because I’ve experienced it. I was born into a culture of violence whose very aim it seemed was to prepare me for war. I played war as a child. When I was growing up in the 1950s there was a lot of WWII surplus available, so I equipped myself with a helmet and web gear and fatigues. I practiced killing with toy weapons. I watched war movies in theaters and on television. I read comic books about war. And in a whole lot of ways, I was taught to obey the state—to refrain from violence when the state says that it’s illegal, but then to embrace violence when the state goes to war. All of this was spiritual formation in a deep and profound way.
But the day came in the fall of 1975, when my eyes were opened and I saw the truth: the way of Jesus is not the way of violence. The Spirit that shaped the life of Jesus was the Spirit of a loving and merciful God, and not the spirit of violence. I simply could not picture Jesus doing to his enemies what his enemies did to him. I couldn’t imagine Jesus crucifying Pilate. I couldn’t picture Jesus as a military leader or a soldier. I couldn’t picture him taking up the armor of a warrior and then striking down his flesh and blood enemies with the sword.
And then the revelation came: Jesus killed no one. The New Testament is absolutely clear on this point: Jesus killed no one. In the face of all the arguments to justify war offered by brilliant Christian thinkers through the centuries, I couldn’t get past that one simple fact: Jesus killed no one. This insight set me free and changed my life.
But then came the challenge: How do I find the boldness and the courage to put on the whole armor of God, to resist the spirit of violence, and live in a world of warring madness in the strength and power of Jesus Christ alone?
I was encouraged by a story I read in a little book by Leslie Weatherhead called The Transforming Friendship. It’s a story from one of the truly tragic and violent periods over these last 4,000 years that occurred in the early part of the 20th century when the Turks committed heinous atrocities against the Armenian people.
In one particular village, a Turkish officer took part in the looting and pillaging of an Armenian home. The elderly Armenian father and mother, along with the sons of the family, were taken out and shot in cold blood. The daughters were raped by the Turkish soldiers with the officer keeping the oldest daughter for himself. He raped her and made her his slave.
One day, after careful planning, the young Armenian woman managed to escape her tormentor. She found safety in an Armenian refugee camp being run by the British.
It was during her stay at this camp that the woman’s life took a turn for the better. She was given training as a nurse so that she could care for the needs of the other Armenians.
The woman excelled in her work and it wasn’t long before she was assigned to a hospital where Turkish prisoners were being cared for.
On the first night of her new assignment, she passed through the ward with a shaded lantern in her hand. As she moved among the patients, a glint of light from the lantern fell on one of the sickly faces. She stopped dead in her tracks. A look of terror spread across her face as she moved the lantern closer to the man’s face. She gasped. There in the light of that lantern was the Turkish officer--her tormentor--the man who had destroyed her home--killed her loved ones--and shamelessly violated her body. The man was bedridden and on the verge of death. In fact, it would have required no violence at all, but only inattention, to ensure his death that very night.
As the woman later confessed, a bitter struggle raged in her mind. What would she do? She finally decided. She began caring for that man. She nursed him back to health. The doctors marveled at the quality and determination of her efforts.
Later, after the officer had recovered, the doctor brought the nurse up to the officer’s bed. The doctor said, “But for this girl’s devotion, you would be dead.”
The officer’s face turned pale. He looked at the nurse. “I think we have met before,” he said.
“Yes, we have met before,” she answered.
When the doctor was out of hearing, the officer almost hissed the words at her, “Why didn’t you kill me?”
With a firm voice, this is what she said, “Because cruelty cannot be righted by cruelty nor violence by violence. I am a follower of the one who said, ‘Love your enemies.’ That is my religion.”
The man lay in stunned silence. He pondered the words he had just heard. Finally, he spoke: “I never knew there was such a religion. If that is your religion, tell me more about it, for I want it.”
Night after night the young nurse spent time at the officer’s bedside, speaking to him about the strength and the mighty power that comes from Jesus Christ. 
To me, this is the real struggle: to live like this Armenian woman, to put on the whole armor of God, to stand firm and to hold fast in the non-violent way of Jesus even when the spirit of violence lies threatening, so very close at hand.
So the struggle continues and questions remain: In a world of war, will we break the cycle of violence, or perpetuate it? Will we draw our strength from Christ, or seek power in weapons of violence designed to kill our flesh and blood enemies? Will we put on the whole armor of God, stand firm and hold our ground in the way of non-violence, or will we surrender to the spirit of violence that produces only more war? The choices are ours to make. May God help us. Amen.
 "Sermon Illustrations." Sermon Illustrations. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Aug. 2012. <http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/p/peace.htm>.
 Claiborne, Shane, and Chris Haw. Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. 213. Print.
 Weatherhead, Leslie Dixon. The Transforming Friendship; a Book about Jesus and Ourselves,. New York: Abingdon, 1929. 109-110. Print.
Sunday, August 19, 2012
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Ephesians 5:15-20
SERMON: At All Times and For Everything
Rev. Monte Marshall preaching
Several weeks ago, I shared with you a story about Fr. Martin Jenco that came from his time as a hostage in Lebanon in the 1980s. This morning I want to tell you about another hostage who spent time in captivity with Fr. Jenco. The hostage was Rev. Benjamin Weir, a Presbyterian pastor and missionary to Lebanon.
Rev. Weir was kidnapped off the streets of Beirut by the Islamic Jihad on Tuesday, May 8, 1984. He was taken to a building outside of the city and placed alone in a bare, cold and dirty room. He was blindfolded and his left arm was chained and padlocked to a nearby radiator.
After waking up from a nap during those first terrible hours of captivity, Rev. Weir lifted up his blindfold and began examining his room. He first noticed an electric wire hanging from the ceiling where a light fixture had once been. The wire ended in an arc with three wires exposed. To Rev. Weir, the wires looked like fingers. He imagined a hand and an arm reaching downward. He thought of Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel of God’s hand and finger reaching down to create Adam. Weir said, “Here God was reaching toward me, reminding me, saying: ‘You’re alive. You are mine; I’ve made you and called you into being for a divine purpose….This insight,” he said, “startled me.” “It was a bolt of inspiration out of heaven.”
From that point, Weir’s imagination came alive to fill that desolate room with signs of God’s presence. Weir counted the horizontal slats of the French doors that were a part of his prison room. “There were so many of them,” he said, “like a crowd.” And then the thought came to him: “a crowd of witnesses--a crowd of witnesses from past and present who have known God’s faithfulness in times of crisis and trial.”
Weir next noticed two white plastic covers for electrical connections on the wall near the ceiling. He said to himself, “What can they be for me?” And then he thought: ”Ears. The ears of God that hear the groaning of the saints.”
He then saw a hook of reinforcing rod that had been bent out of the concrete form before pouring. It formed a closed ellipse. He asked himself, “What could that elevated ellipse be for me?” And then he thought: “An eye! The eye of God.” That steel eye caused Weir to remember that God’s wisdom and sovereignty are never thwarted.
As night fell on Ben Weir’s first day of captivity, this was his prayer: “Show me your gifts and enable me to recognize them as coming from you. Thank you for your encouraging presence. Praise be to you.”
Did you get that? On the first night of his captivity—as he began a hellish nightmare that would last 16 months—Benjamin Weir prayed to God and said: “Thank you!” How is this possible? And where does this kind of gratitude come from?
Well, apparently, it is possible. Benjamin Weir did it. But it’s not easy—at least for me. I remember, for example, how diligent my parents were in teaching me how to say “thank you.” When I was growing up and someone would give me something, my parents would inevitably ask me: “And what do you say? “ And of course, I was supposed to say “thank you”—which is a reminder that gratitude doesn’t come naturally but is a learned response.
My parents even taught me how to say “thank you”to God, especially when life is good and everything seems to be going my way. So, for example, when the doctor at MD Anderson recently told me that the cancer surgery I had back in May to remove my prostate was successful and that I was prostate cancer free, I said, “Thank you, God.”
But on the other hand, when I received the diagnosis of prostate cancer back in February, I didn’t follow Benjamin Weir’s example. I didn’t say “thank you, God for your encouraging presence.” I said: “God, what in the world are you doing? I’m moving to a new church in July and now I’ve got to deal with cancer? Where are you in the midst of all of this?”
Speaking personally, when times get hard it is so easy for me to lose focus and to get distracted by the stuff I’m feeling—by the fear and the anxiety, the hurt, the pain, the disappointment, the discouragement. I’m even tempted from time to time just to give up on God altogether.
So I want to know this morning: How is it possible to say “thank you, God” when the days are evil—when the darkness descends—when life turns hard? And where does this kind of gratitude come from?
Well, I think Ephesians gives us a clue. The epistle encourages us to keep careful watch over ourselves because when life turns hard—it is so easy to give up on God—to spiral downward—to yield to despair—to act foolishly as if we’re ignorant of God. We may even try to escape our troubles and our pain by self-medicating. For those early Christians in Ephesus, that meant getting drunk on wine. In our day, we’d add to the list getting wasted on drugs.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to be wise instead of foolish because in Jesus Christ we know that God is with us even when the days are evil and life is hard. We know that God’s love encompasses every time and circumstance of our lives.
Ephesians points us to the Spirit—to God’s presence with us. Ephesians encourages us to be filled with the Spirit. And when we are—no matter how difficult life’s circumstances may be—our eyes are opened to see the signs of God’s presence all around us—even in such unusual things as electric wires, the slats on French doors, plastic covers for electrical connections, and a piece of reinforcing rod sticking out of the concrete.
The important thing is to keep focused—to stay connected to the Spirit—regardless of our circumstances. Getting drunk or getting high is a distraction that will gain us nothing—in fact, either one will destroy us. But when we discipline ourselves to stay open to the Spirit by cultivating an inner attitude of worship that includes, in the words of Ephesians, “meditating on psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, while singing and making music to God in[our] hearts,”then the door is opened to gratitude that lifts us up and keeps us going no matter how evil the days become.
This was not only Benjamin Weir’s experience, but it was also the experience of Corrie Ten Boom during World War II. Corrie and her family were Christians living in Holland during the Nazi occupation of that country. The Ten Boom’s defied the Germans by hiding Jews in their home. When they were finally caught, Corrie and her sister Betsie ended up in the concentration camp called Ravensbruck. Corrie wrote about their ordeal in the book The Hiding Place.
When Corrie and Betsie arrived at Ravensbruck, they were escorted to their living quarters. The barracks building was filthy. Windows were broken out. The plumbing had backed up. The stench was nauseating.
There were no individual beds, just great square piers stacked three high and wedged side by side, end to end, with only an occasional narrow aisle slicing through. The bedding was soiled and rancid. The straw reeked.
When Corrie and Betsie found their sleeping spaces, they noticed that the straw on which they were to sleep appeared to be moving. To their horror, they discovered that the bedding was completely infested with fleas.
Corrie cried out: “Betsie, how can we live in such a place?”
Betsie uttered a prayer: “Show us. Show us how.”
And then, as Betsie recalled the scriptures, the answer came: “Give thanks.”
So there in the squalor of the living quarters at Ravensbruck, Betsie and Corrie began to give God thanks. They thanked God for being together. They thanked God for the Bible they had smuggled into the camp. They thanked God for the women being packed so closely together in the barracks that more of them would be able to share in the conversations around the scriptures. And yes, they even thanked God for the fleas.
Now as it turned out, Betsie and Corrie were able to use the Bible that they had smuggled into the camp with the other women because the guards wouldn’t set foot in the barracks. Do you know why? The fleas. The guards stayed out of the barracks because of the fleas!
Now my brothers and sisters, if Corrie and Betsy Ten Boom can give thanks to God amidst the fleas and the other unspeakable horrors of a place like Ravensbruck—then maybe there’s hope for me and for you. If Benjamin Weir can give thanks to God from his bare, cold and dirty room while blindfolded and chained to a radiator as a hostage of the Islamic Jihad, then maybe there’s hope for me and for you.
So I ask you: Is it possible to give God thanks in all times and for everything no matter how evil the days may be—no matter how hard life may become? Yes. And where does this kind of gratitude come from? It comes from the Spirit, and from our disciplined and determined efforts to stay connected to the Spirit—to God’s presence with us—that will see us through no matter what evil life may bring. And to all of this we say, in the name of Jesus our Messiah, thanks be to God! Amen.
August 5, 2012
Rev Monte Marshall, preaching
SCRIPTURE TEXT: John 6:24-35
SERMON TITLE: “The Bread of Life”
Question: What are we hungry for today? There’s food provided for us this morning—bread is on the table—and I love bread! I love the way it smells—the way it looks—the way it feels—and best of all—the way it tastes. I love restaurants that bring bread to the table before the meal comes—and then keep bringing bread to the table as long as I want to eat it!
Unfortunately, that’s not the way it is here this morning. When we come to the communion table, we’re only given a pinch of the bread to eat—and given how much I love bread—I’m a little disappointed by that. Why aren’t we served at least a slice of the bread? Or better yet—why aren’t we each given a whole loaf of bread at communion? That would do a whole lot more to satisfy my physical hunger than a miserly little pinch off the loaf.
But come to think of it, that would only be a temporary fix. Even if we got a whole loaf of bread at communion and ate every last crumb of it, we’d get hungry again, wouldn’t we? This is the way God has made us—and it’s a good thing because hunger pains remind us that our bodies need food to survive. If we don’t eat—we die. So it’s no accident that bread is a symbol of life. Bread is even called “the staff of life.”
Well, in the 6th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus deals with bread. At the beginning of chapter 6, John tells the story of Jesus using a little boy’s five barley loaves of bread and two fish to feed five thousand people near the Sea of Galilee. The crowd was so impressed that they were ready to take Jesus by force and make him king.
But Jesus would have none of it. He slipped away to a mountain to be by himself. The disciples slipped away as well. They crossed the sea in a boat—got caught in a storm—and encountered Jesus walking on the water.
When the crowd figured out that Jesus was gone, they went looking for him. They crossed the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum and kept looking for him until they finally found him. In the dialogue that ensued, Jesus kept pushing them to look beyond the perishable to the imperishable—beyond the bread that satisfies physical hunger to the bread that satisfies a hunger for life. He pushed them to look beyond Moses and the manna eaten by the Hebrews in the wilderness to the God who supplied the manna in the first place. He pushed them to look beyond signs and kings to himself—God’s Chosen One—the very bread of life! He pushed them to believe in him so that they might never be hungry again!
So my brothers and sisters: What are we hungry for today? Are we hungry for belly-filling food? Well, if we are, John’s gospel wants us to know that the food that fills the belly may keep us alive—but it won’t give us life. And if this is the food we seek, then we need more than a pinch of the loaf to satisfy our hunger.
But if we’re hungry for soul-filling food—if we’re hungry for life—then maybe a pinch of the loaf is all that we need to remind us that Jesus Christ is the bread of life whose presence satisfies the deepest hunger of our lives—especially in those times when our lives are hard and at risk, and we’re desperate for an inner nourishment to sustain us.
Let me tell about Martin Jenco. Martin was a Roman Catholic priest and one of the godliest people I have ever met. I got to know him in 1989 when he was the featured speaker at a conference on terrorism that was sponsored by the church I served in Corpus Christi.
Back in 1984, Fr. Jenco traveled to Beirut, Lebanon to minister to the poorest of the poor. On January 8, 1985, he was kidnapped by the Islamic Jihad and held hostage for 564 days. During this time of captivity, Fr. Jenco’s life was a living hell. He endured imprisonment, beatings, illnesses and heartbreaking periods of sorrow and loneliness.
But in these horrendous circumstances, Fr. Jenco was sustained not just by the food his captors brought him to eat, but by the bread of life that nourished his soul. During a period when Martin was confined in a two-foot by six-foot closet, he snatched a small piece of bread from the meager food he was provided. In the darkness of that closet—not knowing from one moment to the next whether he would live or die—Marin clutched this morsel of bread in his hand and said to himself over and over again, “This is the body of Christ. This is the body of Christ.” For the rest of his captivity, Fr. Jenco would save a piece of bread from the morning meal and use it as reminder of Christ’s presence with him. He referred to this bread as Jesus being nearby. For him, Jesus was the bread of life that nourished his soul when all else around him was a living hell—and all it took to remind him was a tiny piece of bread.
Now I’ve never experienced anything close to Fr. Jenco’s ordeal in Lebanon, but I do know what it’s like to be spiritually hungry. Back in the late 1970s I sensed God’s call to a deeper discipleship. I knew that God wanted me to move beyond the status quo in my life: to live a simpler lifestyle--to change my relationship with money and possessions--to love the enemy more fully--to minister among the poor--and to learn how to live as a servant--but I resisted these changes.
Jesus said: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry;” but in my case, I wasn’t moving toward Jesus—I was moving away from Jesus—I was trying desperately to make my own way—to live life on my own terms—and consequently, I was starving to death. I experienced this gnawing emptiness inside and nothing seemed to fill the void.
All of this came to a head during the four years I was at University UMC in Austin. During most of that time, I kept a daily journal to reflect on my experiences while in prayer. This is what I wrote on January 18, 1993, in a meditation on Psalm 22, the psalm that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”: “I have cried desperately for help, but still it does not come. Have I not cried persistently enough, O God? Have I not been desperate enough? Help me! Have I discerned your will for me correctly? Help me! Is it my fearful disobedience that’s in the way? Help me! I am sad, discouraged, indifferent, angry, empty. Help me! So much of what I do in my life is because I have too, not because I want to. I’m tired of this. . . . The passion has dissipated. . . . In so many ways, I’ve given up and given in. Help me!”
I hope you can see how hungry I was for life. In fact, the emptiness was so intense that I made a deliberate decision in November, 1993, to step out of my leadership role in the church until I could once again find the bread of life that would satisfy this hunger of my soul. So in June of 1994, I began a three year leave of absence from my pastoral responsibilities.
But here’s the good news, even though I left my pastoral responsibilities behind, I knew where to look for the bread of life. I stayed connected to the church—I continued to participate in worship—I kept praying—I kept serving—I kept coming to the table—and slowly but surely, by the grace of God, my soul was fed by the bread of life until I once again found a reason to be doing this work. And it’s only because of this life-giving nourishment that I am here with you this morning as one of your pastors.
And interestingly enough, I discovered during this difficult period of my life that when I came to the table with a hungry soul, a pinch of the loaf was enough to remind me of God and of God’s Chosen One, Jesus Christ, the bread of life.
Now for one last question to ponder as we come to communion this morning: What hunger does the Bread of Life satisfy in you?
Sunday, July 22, 2012
Rev. Monte Marshall, preaching
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Ephesians 2:11-22
SERMON: Something There Is That Doesn’t Love a Wall, Rev. Monte Marshall
We know about walls, don’t we?
This is a wall built in November, 1940 by the Nazis in Warsaw, Poland to separate hundreds of thousands of Jews from the rest of the city.
This is a wall built in August, 1961 by the East German government to separate non-Communist WestBerlin from Communist East Berlin.
This is a wall in Belfast, Northern Ireland to separate Protestants and Catholics.
This is a wall constructed by the government of Israel to separate West Bank Palestinians from Israelis.
This is a wall built by the U. S. government to separate the citizens of the United States from the citizens of Mexico and other nations to our south.
We know about walls, don’t we?
Listen to what Beth Richardson says about walls: The walls with which I have the most experience are walls made of fear, anger, misunderstanding, hatred. I build them to protect me from being hurt or being changed or being vulnerable.
She continues: Walls feed on themselves. My encounters with the walls of others encourage me to build mine a little higher and little thicker. Others learn not to be trusting and vulnerable when they run into the walls which I have built around me. She then concludes that Walls are part of human existence.
We know about walls, don’t we?
Poet Robert Frost wrote a poem entitled, Mending Wall. It tells the story of two New England neighbors separated by a stone wall. On one side of the wall is a neighbor who believes in an old proverb taught him by his father that goes like this: Good fences make good neighbors.
But the other neighbor is not so sure. He questions the necessity of the wall. He concludes: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants is down.
Well, you may have noticed. This morning’s text speaks of a barrier—or a wall—that separated Jews and Gentiles. It was a wall ofhatred that divided the two groups. It was a wall built on distinctions: circumcised and uncircumcised, righteous and unrighteous, clean and unclean, insider and outsider.
Now as we look at the language of the text, we can see this hostility dramatically illustrated, at least from the point of view of a Jewish Christian addressing Gentile Christians: So remember that once YOU were Gentiles…YOU were without Christ….YOU were aliens rather than citizens of Israel….YOU were strangers to the covenants of God’s promise….YOU had no hope…YOU had no God….YOU were far away from God. Do you hear the hostility in these words?
This division between Jews and Gentiles was given concrete expression in a wall that existed outside the temple in Jerusalem to keep Gentiles from the holy places within the temple. The wall was marked with signs in both Greek and Latin warning Gentiles that they would be killed if they violated the barrier.
But Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down--so Jesus Christ came among us to bring down the walls of hatred that divide us. And those walls were decisively breached when the hatred that crucified Jesuswas met with blessing instead of curse, mercy instead of condemnation, and love instead of hate—from the very one crucified—the very one infused with God’s Spirit.
Therefore, there is good news: Christ Jesus is the cornerstone that holds the building together. Christ is the builder constructing a dwelling place for God among human beings. In Christ is peace. In Christ, the many become one—the YOU become WE. In Christ those who are far away are brought near. In Christ those who are alienated are reconciled. In Christ those who are aliens and strangers are welcomed as brothers and sisters in the household of God. So let me say it again: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down.
But now let’s be honest. In so many ways, those of us in the church--still act as if Good fences make good neighbors. Isn’t it true that while Christ tears walls down, we tend to build them right back again? Hasn’t this been the track record of the church for centuries? When we’ve disagreed with another over issues great and small, our tendency has been to split into factions, build walls, hunker down with those who agree with us—and then throw stones at our adversaries across the divide—while dreaming of the day when our side finally wins. But is this what the peace of Christ looks like? I don’t think so.
When I ponder my own experience within my family, I catch a glimpse of what the peace of Christ looks like. Now for the most part, my family and I differ on many issues: I’m more progressive, they’re pretty conservative. We have theological differences. We have political differences. We vote for different people. We support different policies. We see things differently. We see people differently. And we’ve had some pretty intense debates through the years.
But our differences, as real as they are, have not driven us apart. We have not built walls to keep us apart. We still love one another. We still connect with one another. We still talk with one another. We still hug one another. We still eat together. We still worship together.
I’m convinced that this kind of connectedness goes far beyond flesh and blood. I’m convinced that God is the source of this kind of connectedness; God’s Spirit produces this kind of connectedness in spite of our differences and disagreements.
Don’t you think the peace of Christ looks at least a little bit like this? So why can’t it be this way in the church?
Let’s go a step farther: It seems to me that since Christ tears down dividing walls, our stance toward other religious faiths should be affected. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel writes: Once upon a time, religion separated people. A Jew considered himself only a Jew; a Christian only a Christian…Today, fortunately, after paying a price that could never be measured in history, we have learned that religion must no longer be a separation, but a door; no longer a wall, but a window; and no longer a back turned to one person or another, quite the opposite, an open hand. Isn’t this what the peace of Christ looks like when the walls that divide us are breached?
One more story: Several years ago, a friend invited Beth Richardson to attend church with her. Richardson writes: I put her off for several weeks, because the members of her church and I resided on opposite ends of theological and political scales. I finally agreed to go, partly out of duty to the friendship, partly out of curiosity.
As I prepared to attend the service, I put on an armor of judgment and defense. I hardened the crust on my outsides and tensed my body for the heresies that I would surely hear.
As we arrived, I looked around the auditorium and imagined the things that people would say about me if they knew who I was. The walls around me were thick chunks of fear, distrust, anger.
The service began with a time of singing. The songs were new to me, but not to the congregation. Each person knew all the words to the songs and sang with uplifted heads and joy-filled faces.
As I listened to the beautiful music and looked at those faces, something started to crumble within me. How could I feel anything but love for those people? I realized in an instant that the same God who cared for me also cared for them. I knew that we were one in God.
A warmth like burning embers filled my heart. I cried in despair, ‘My God, how can I be one with these people!’ But it was too late; my wall had a permanent hole in it.
I live now with the responsibility of that experience. I cannot build permanent walls of fear, distrust, hatred between myself and another person. As soon as I begin to separate myself from others, the memory of that experience of oneness breaks through my walls, fires the Spirit’s embers within my heart, and reminds me that Christ transcends our human divisions.
So now I ask you: What dividing walls has Christ broken down for you? What walls remain unbroken?
 Beth A. Richardson, Alive Now!, September/October 1987, 4-5.
 Elie Weisel, “No Make-Believe,” Alive Now!, September/October 1987, 50.
 Beth A. Richardson, Alive Now!, September/October 1987, 4-5.
Sunday, July 15, 2012
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Mark 6:14-29
SERMON TITLE: Power Called to Account, Rev. Monte Marshall
It was Lord Acton who once said, in a line often misquoted: Power tends to corrupt. In this morning’s gospel reading, the tendency of power to corrupt is gruesomely illustrated by the story of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea—a puppet ruler under the authority of Rome—and a ruler of tenuous Jewish roots with a track record of corruption that included trampling upon the Torah traditions of justice and righteousness.
Now contrary to Mark’s attribution, Antipas was not a king like his father, Herod the Great. Rome denied him that honor. But Antipas wielded considerable power nonetheless—and corruption was the result.
John the baptizer knew this all too well. John was God’s messenger and he called Antipas to account for violating the Torah by stealing his brother’s wife, Herodias, and marrying her himself. In response, Antipas had John the baptizer arrested, bound up, and thrown in jail.
But this was a complicated matter. Even though Antipas had thrown John into jail, Antipas protected him. Antipas liked to listen to John preach even though he didn’t like what he heard. Antipas feared John. Antipas considered John a righteous and holy man. Antipas was deeply grieved when his wife used their daughter—a little girl the text says—to deliver John’s head on a platter. Given all of this, Antipas must have sensed that John was close to God.
But in the moment of decision with John’s life in the balance, God didn’t matter. Torah didn’t matter. John’s righteousness and holiness didn’t matter. All that mattered to Antipas was saving face, avoiding the appearance of weakness, and preserving his power. So Antipas ordered John’s execution.
But Antipas was still afraid. He was so afraid that when the news of Jesus reached his ears, he assumed that John had been raised from the dead and was even more powerful than before. For Antipas, Jesus wasn’t Elijah or just any prophet past or present, Jesus was his old nemesis, John the baptizer, resurrected to keep calling Antipas to account for his self-serving, faithless, corrupt and brutal exercise of power.
But here’s the irony: Even though Antipas may have sensed God’s work in John’s life, Antipas couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge the whole truth. His problem wasn’t ultimately with the messengers—his problem was ultimately with God. It was God using John to call Antipas to account. And it was God—not a resurrected John—working in Jesus to call Antipas and every other ruler to account for the corrupt exercise of power that produces injustice and violence, and that makes a mockery of the reign of God in human history.
But my brothers and sisters, God will not be mocked—and God will not be thwarted! People of power can threaten God’s messengers—throw them in jail—behead them—and even crucify them—but God will not be thwarted! God will raise up new messengers to call those in power to account—just as surely as God raised Jesus Christ from the dead!
In fact, we stand today in a long line of God’s messengers who have called the powerful to account. The line includes a follower of Jesus named Fannie Lou Hamer. She’s the woman who was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Fannie Lou was born October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She was the granddaughter of slaves; her family worked as sharecroppers; and she was the youngest of 19 children.
In 1962, when Ms. Hamer was 44 years old, volunteers from a civil rights organization called the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee came to town and held a voter registration meeting. She was surprised to learn that African-Americans actually had a constitutional right to vote. When the SNCC members asked for volunteers to go to the courthouse to register to vote, Ms. Hamer was the first to raise her hand.
But it was a dangerous decision. Ms. Hamer later reflected: The only thing they could do to me was to kill me, and it seemed like they'd been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.
When Fannie Lou and others went to the courthouse, they were jailed and beaten by the police. Ms. Hamer's courageous action got her thrown off the plantation where she was a sharecropper. She also began to receive death threats and was even shot at. Still, Fannie Lou would not be discouraged. She became a SNCC Field Secretary and traveled around the country speaking and registering people to vote.
In fact, she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. This organization challenged the all-white Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Ms. Hamer spoke in front of the Credentials Committee in a televised proceeding that reached millions of viewers. She told the committee how African-Americans in many states across the country were prevented from voting through illegal tests, taxes and intimidation. As a result of her speech, two delegates of her organization were given speaking rights at the convention and the other members were seated as honorable guests. Fannie Lou Hamer died in 1977, after taking a stand in the long line of God’s messengers who have called the powerful to account.
The Nikolai Evangelical Church of Leipzig, Germany also stands with her in this line. In 1989, during the days when East Germany was still an oppressive Communist state, the Nikolai Evangelical Church held a prayer meeting on Monday nights. The congregation consisted of about 70 people, most of whom were angry and bitter dissidents who wanted to leave their country.
Now the East German authorities knew of these Monday nights gatherings so they sent the police to keep an eye on things and to photograph those who attended. But it didn’t take long for the police to start harassing the worshippers as they left the service by shoving them from one side of the street to the other.
Two weeks later, at the Monday night prayer service, the pastor of the Nikolai Church called for non-violent resistance to the power of the state. By the time the service ended, the police had formed a chain around the church.
Meanwhile, a crowd of people who had not attended the service had gathered outside the police lines, waiting to join those coming out of the church. The police roughed up some the demonstrators.
This sparked the formation of an opposition group on September 19. Within days, thousands of people had joined, signing their names and giving addresses. The following Monday evening, September 25, 5,000 to 6,000 people gathered at the Nikolai Church for the prayer service. The police did nothing to prevent them from marching through the city.
The next week, 20,000 people met a Nikolai. Again they marched in the streets. The next day, the Communist Party decided that the resistance movement had to be crushed.
On October 9, the date of the next Monday evening prayer service, all were braced for a showdown. The Lutheran bishops warned of a bloodbath. By mid-afternoon, the Communist Party occupied Nikolai Church with 2,000 party members. In response, the church opened its usually closed balcony for members of the resistance. All through the afternoon, thousands of people streamed into the city to join the protest against the government. At the conclusion of the service, there were 50,000 people in the streets. By the end of the evening, the numbers had swelled to 150,000.
Eric Honecker, the head of the East German state, gave orders for his soldiers to open fire on the civilian protesters, but a renegade Communist leader named Egon Krentz flew to Leipzig and countermanded the order. Shortly thereafter, Eric Honecker was forced to resign and East Germany was one step closer to freedom.
Several weeks later, a banner hung across a Leipzig street. The banner read: Wir Danken Dir, Kirche, WE THANK YOU, CHURCH.
My brothers and sisters of Travis Park UMC, I’ve got news for you: WE’RE IN THE LINE. WE’RE IN LINE with the prophets of old, with John the baptizer and Jesus the Christ—WE’RE IN LINE with Fannie Lou Hamer and the Nikolai Evangelical Church of Leipzig. WE’RE IN LINE to call power to account no matter what the costs. WE’RE IN LINE because the God we serve will not be mocked and will not be thwarted. WE’RE IN LINE and it’s time to stand up.
It’s time to stand up because power still tends to corrupt even today. It’s time to stand up because violence still plagues the earth in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria, and in the cities, and on the streets, and in the homes of this nation, the United States of America. It’s time to stand up because 1.3 billion people around the world live in absolute poverty while 20 percent of the world’s people command 82 percent of the world’s income. It’s time to stand up because the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. It’s time to stand up because powerful interests are pouring money into American politics like never before to tilt the balance of power even more in their direction. It’s time to stand up to ensure that people’s human rights are not denied because of their gender, skin-color, or sexual orientation, and that people’s voting rights are not denied because they don’t have the appropriate photo ID. It’s time to stand up because our planet faces unprecedented environmental challenges. My brothers and sisters—it’s time to step up because we’re in the line of God’s messengers and the God we serve will not be mocked and will not be thwarted! Hallelujah! Thanks be to God!
 "Power Tends to Corrupt and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely." Power Tends to Corrupt and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 July 2012. <http://www.englishclub.com/ref/esl/Quotes/Politics/Power_tends_to_corrupt_and_absolute_power_corrupts_absolutely._2652.htm>.
 "Fannie Lou Hamer." Fannie Lou Hamer. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 July 2012. <http://m.browsebiography.com/bio-fannie_lou_hamer.html>.
 Sermon by Dr. Kim Cape.
July 8, 2012
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Mark 6:1-13
SERMON TITLE: A Tough Crowd
Rev. Monte Marshall, preaching
Jesus said: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” To put it another way: Hometown folks and family members are a tough crowd! And I know this from personal experience. As I mentioned last Sunday, I was born and raised in Beeville, TX, a county seat town south of here about 90 miles. I was baptized and confirmed in First Methodist Church of Beeville. I participated in the life of that congregation for eighteen years until I journeyed to the far country of Lubbock, TX, to attend Texas Tech University.
Now the good people of that church grounded me in the Christian faith. They taught me something of what it means to follow Jesus Christ. And I looked up to these folks as mentors and I continue to thank God for the gifts they gave me, and most of all, for the love they shared with me.
Now given this history, I think you can imagine my trepidation when my home church hired me to serve on the church staff. That was in 1976 after I had graduated from Texas Tech. I was all of 23 years old—and all of a sudden, I was in a position of leadership among the people who had always been the leaders to me. I was even teaching some of the same folks who had taught me.
And for the most part, this worked out just fine—but there were several rough spots. As I mentioned last week, I was troubled by the racism that I found within my home church—so I began questioning the status quo of the church as I had known it. I began questioning not only our racism, but our neglect of the poor, our uncritical embrace of affluence, and our easy justifications of war and violence. With these questions came awareness that my discipleship was headed in a more radical direction beyond the norm for my hometown congregation!
I expressed my feelings on these matters during my report to our church’s annual charge conference in 1979. Many hometown folks were there and I could tell that they were taken aback by what I said. This was not what people expected of me—little Monte Paul—Toots and Nell Marshall’s oldest boy.
Several days later, one of the pillars of the church called me down to his office. In a very gentle but firm way, he told me that I had overstepped my bounds—that some people had taken offense at what I said. He was giving me a slap on the wrist and trying to put me in my place.
And this was hard to take, but not nearly as hard to take as the resistance I got from my dad. Several years later as this vision of a more radical discipleship took hold, I had a conversation with my dad about the changes I was contemplating making in my life. I longed to participate in a prophetic community that acted for equality and inclusiveness for all people, served the poor, advocated for justice, witnessed for peace, and cared for the environment. I was ready to consume less in order to give more, especially to the poor; share resources with others more freely in community, deepen my prayer life, practice non-violence, and be a better steward of God’s creation.
But my dad—God bless him—tried his best to talk me out of it. This was not the vision he had for my life and he feared that if I moved in the direction of deepening discipleship, it would only get me in trouble and lead to disillusionment and disappointment.
Now I had spent a lifetime trying to please my dad. And I knew how proud he was of me. I cherished loving him and being loved by him. And the last thing I wanted to do was disappoint my dad. So after my conversation with my dad was over, I said to Laura Jean: “Well, I guess I’m going to have to wait until my dad dies before I do anything about deepening my discipleship.”
Hometown folks and family members are a tough crowd. And I must admit that in both of these instances of resistance, I was intimidated. Consequently, I’ve had to deal with this nagging fear that playing the prophet for the sake of the gospel might indeed alienate me from the people who mean the most to me in my life—and that’s the last thing I want. I don’t want to offend anyone—I want everyone to like me—so I weigh my words and my actions carefully—perhaps too carefully at times. I wrestle constantly with the temptation to stay in my place—to go along in order to get along. I have to guard against the inclination to be more concerned with people liking me than with my own faithfulness to the gospel.
And that’s what’s at stake, you know—our faithfulness to the gospel. If we follow Jesus, we have a prophetic role to play that will both astound and offend. God intends that our words and deeds be so infused with God’s power that people are astounded when they experience this power being released into the world through us. And we know what God’s power is capable of producing: healing for the sick, food for the hungry, companionship for the lonely, sobriety for the addict, hope for the hopeless, justice for the oppressed, inclusion for the outcast, and shalom for the whole of creation!
And yes, there will those who take offense. And yes, some of these will be our hometown folks and our loved ones. They will defend the status quo—resist healing—ignore the hungry—avoid the lonely—write-off addicts—perpetuate hopelessness—sustain injustice—exclude the outcast—and do violence instead of practice shalom.
But my sisters and brothers, I pray God that we’re not intimated by their rejection—that we’re not paralyzed by fear—that we don’t stay in our places—that we don’t go along to get along—that we’re not more concerned with others liking us than we are with our faithfulness to the gospel. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Jesus Christ to be amazed by our unbelief. I would much prefer that we serve as instruments of God’s power to transform the world.
So why not pay the price that Jesus paid? Why not go with him all the way and become so immersed in the word of God that we take up the prophets’ task in our own day and time—even if we go without honor among our hometown folks, among our relatives, and even in our own households? Why not?
Let me give you an example of the astounding things that can happen when Christ is followed no matter the cost. It was September 20, 1989—the day that F. W. de Klerk was inaugurated as President of South Africa. The legal segregation of the races called apartheid was the law of the land. de Klerk was a Christian who attended church regularly, so he had invited his favorite pastor, a white man named Peter Bingle, to lead a worship service as part of the inaugural events.
During his sermon, Pastor Bingle played the prophet and addressed the new president directly: “Mr. de Klerk, as our new President, God is calling you to do his will. Today God calls you to serve as the President of South Africa. God’s commission is not to serve as the President of some people, but as the President of all the people of South Africa.”
By the benediction, de Klerk was weeping. He called his family and friends together and said, “Pray for me. God has told me what I must do. And if I do it, I will be rejected by my own people. Pray for me, that I might do the will of God.”Soon thereafter, de Klerk took steps to release Nelson Mandela from prison. He then began negotiations with the African National Congress to dismantle the system of apartheid. And today, in South Africa, apartheid is no more.
Now imagine with me the transformation that God is seeking in the world of today—the world that we live in: personal practices and government policies that relieve the suffering of the homeless rather than add to their burdens; that provide a just distribution of wealth between the rich and the poor, and a living wage for all who work; that finally end discrimination against all people including women, people of color, and Gays, Lesbians, Trans-gendered and Bi-sexual persons; that extend hospitality to immigrants; that increasingly beat swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks and learns war no more; that heal the environment rather than degrade it.
Now my brothers and sisters, hometown folks and family members are a tough crowd. They will take offense when we follow Jesus Christ and take up the prophets’ task. But if we hold fast to the work God has given us to do, we will also astound people as God’s power is released in us and through us to transform the world—and that should be enough to keep us going no matter what the cost. And let God’s people say, amen!
July 1, 2012
Rev. Monte Marshall, preaching
SCRIPTURE TEXT: Galatians 3:26-29
SERMON TITLE: Diversity without Division
Good morning Travis Park! Laura Jean and I are so thrilled to be here. And we are so grateful for all that you, the SPRC, and the church staff have done to welcome us and to make this transition a smooth one. And speaking of transitions, I know that you join Laura Jean and me in praying God’s blessings upon the Rohlfs as Pastor Claus begins his new appointment as the senior pastor of First UMC in Sterling City.
Now may I share with you why I’m excited to be here? I’m excited to be here because of all of you. Take a look around this place. We are a diverse bunch. Now granted, we share a common humanity. All of us are enough alike to qualify as homo sapiens. But beyond this, we are as diverse as we can be. We are each individually unique human beings. We are a diverse lot—and this is how God created us to be.
So I thank God that at Travis Park UMC, diversity is welcomed! I read the statement in the bulletin and on the church’s website. We truly do come from all walks of life: “rich and poor, housed and homeless, gay and straight, black and brown and white, secular and sacred, PhD and GED.” I know that this congregation is committed to breaking down walls of prejudice. I can see with my own eyes how hard you are working to live and love as God does, to embrace one another, to serve side by side, and to learn from one another as brothers and sisters loved passionately and unconditionally by God. It sounds to me as if this congregation not only welcomes diversity but is seeking unity in love.
I can’t tell you how much this thrills me because I’ve experienced what the church is like when diversity is not welcomed—when the differences among us produce division and bigotry and hatred instead of unity! For example, I grew up in Beeville, TX about 99 miles south of here. In 1970, the year I graduated from high school, Bishop Eugene Slater appointed an African-American man as the associate pastor of First United Methodist Church in Beeville—my home church—and an all-white congregation. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first cross-racial appointment made in the Southwest Texas Annual Conference.
So what do you think happened? Was diversity welcomed? No. When the appointment was made, many people that I had known and loved all of my life left the church because they could not tolerate a black man as their pastor. It breaks my heart to this very day. And yet I realize that growing up in this culture, the poison of racism seeped into my own soul and all of these years later, I still have to guard against its toxicity in my life.
Now I’m going to tell you something you already know: Staying connected with one another and finding unity in the midst of diversity is not an easy task. In fact, it’s hard work—it’s hard work because prejudices run so deep. And perhaps it is that in our uniqueness—in our individuality—with so many differences among us—we try to protect ourselves by building walls—but when we do, we fall victim to loneliness, isolation and alienation. With diversity comes vulnerability—especially when we see those who are different from us as threats to us. And this vulnerability breeds fear—and fear drives us to division.
And ironically, it’s when we’re afraid that we seek safety among those who are like us in our fears. We divide up, take sides, build walls, reinforce our prejudices, and begin to hate—and exclude—and seek advantage by trying either to dominate those we fear, or to destroy them altogether.
But it doesn’t have to be this way! In this morning’s text, Paul is writing to a church struggling with diversity. In the culture of his day, differences were acknowledged between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, males and females. But along with those differences came destructive divisions that fragmented the larger society, and hindered the unity of the church in Galatia and elsewhere.
These divisions were perpetuated by structures of domination and control that alienated people from one another, and that were often sustained by violence. Here’s an example of how diversity produced division and domination in ancient times: A scholar notes that “The Babylonian Talmud includes a morning blessing to be recited by every Jewish man, thanking God for not creating him a gentile, a slave, or a woman.” Now Paul may not have been aware of this prayer, but its very existence demonstrates the power these three categories held in the ancient world—and not just among Jewish men, but non-Jewish men as well.
But Paul saw things differently. In Christ Jesus, he discerned a vision of diversity without division. He proclaimed that in Christ we know ourselves to be brothers and sisters, beloved children of God. Baptized into Christ—and clothed with Christ—we’re incorporated into a new community—Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female—incredibly diverse but free of division—and all one in Christ Jesus. This is Paul’s way of saying that God loves us “passionately and unconditionally”—that we are to “live and love as God does”—and that “God calls us on a journey forward, to break down the walls of prejudice and to embrace all our brothers and sisters.” That language sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Now here’s the deal: In a world and a culture where diversity often results in division, this congregation is a demonstration plot for the reign of God. I know that it’s hard work, but it’s God’s work, born of God’s dream for us—a dream for the whole creation—of all people coming together in uniqueness—in individuality—in diversity—to experience—not division, but unity, justice and peace. This is the work that God has given us to do at Travis Park UMC until all people everywhere, from every walk of life—come to know God’s passionate and unconditional love for them—and then extend that love to others no matter how different they others may be. My brothers and sisters, I am thrilled to join you in this work. And may God help us.
 Johnson, Elisabeth. "Preaching This Week." WorkingPreacher.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Aug. 2012. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/20/2010>.