Last Sermon Mt. Pleasant

This is the last Sunday that Debbie and I will join this community for worship. For the last three years and eight months, Mount Pleasant United Methodist church has been an important part of our lives. As with all journeys, this part of our lives must now come to an end. While goodbyes have a certain element of sadness, let us also remember that every end is the beginning of something new; something new in your lives and something new in Debbie’s and my lives.

That being understood, last week I discovered that of ALL the messages that I had the privilege to bring to this community, this one was the most difficult to write. I cannot help but feel that a huge part of my heart and soul will be left behind on Vinegar Hill, while the rest of me is moving on to face the new and different joys and challenges of itinerant ministry.
Another factor that made today’s message so difficult to write is the question of what to say? How do I say what needs to be said as we — you and I — the community of Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church face this juncture and transition in our lives? How do I summarize all the thoughts, emotions, hope and sadness as Debbie and I leave this community that we have served and the people that we have come to love so dearly?

From the moment that Debbie and I saw this sanctuary for the first time in late June 2007, I felt something that I could not explain. Since that time I have come to realize that what I felt was “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). I am talking about the same “cloud of witnesses” that Paul wrote about in Hebrews 12:1. I am talking about the same “cloud of witnesses” from whom we inherited this community, our traditions, our mission and this church building. I understood that if we took the time to feel and to listen, we could feel their presence and their voices; we could sense their presence in prayer, in worship, in sacraments, in mission, and in our interactions with each other.

God put those who came before us to “to work … and take care of” (Gen 2:15) this garden that today we call Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church on Vinegar Hill, and God put all of us here today to continue this mission and to carry on that tradition. This is what is important. Going forward our task is to explore new horizons in ministry, to continually reinvent ourselves as a community and to seek new ways to serve God by being God’s partners in ministry and mission!
This is truly a Holy Ground; this is truly a consecrated space; this is truly a house of the living God, and I thank God for that. “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place…” (UMH 328). From those who came before us we received a church that “cannot be shaken” (Heb 12:28) which was built on the solid rock of Christ (Matt 7:24). Part of our mission is to pass that community, that conviction, that tradition, that spirit, and that church to future generations.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). This community knows how to seek and how to knock on doors. This community knows how to reinvent itself as the world in which we live changes. This community knows how to reinvent itself as our circumstances change; look at what has happened here in the last four years. This community knows how to discern what God is doing in the world and how to partner with God in mission to the world around us.
{Ill: think about Heifer project, think about school boxes, think about the Ray of Hope.}
Because of all that, we know that someday in the future we will join those who came before us and we will still be the Church of Jesus Christ, praising and worshiping God in our new bodies in Heaven, working and taking care of God’s Heavenly garden.
Each community is different. Each community has its strengths and each community has its own gifts for ministry. Each community bears different fruit of the Spirit.
Let us talk about the strengths of this community:

Relationship with God. “Living God” is not just a phrase to this community. We’ve seen Jesus show up time after time in our midst; we know how it feels to be in God’s presence and we know how to draw strength from God’s presence.

Spirit of cooperation. THIS IS HUGE. As a church we are willing to be gracious and loving because we have experienced God’s grace and love in our own lives. This helps us to appreciate each other’s gifts and talents, and that makes it easy for this community to work together to accomplish our goals. This congregation is willing to put {“} “me” aside and to think of {“} “we” and “us.”

Willingness to be adaptable, flexible and patient in seeking God’s will and listening to his direction. THIS IS ALSO HUGE. When we are with God, all things are possible.

Vision. You heard me right. This community has a vision. It may not be written on a piece of paper, but I’ve heard this vision verbalized time and time again in meetings and in conversations. As I get ready to leave, I want to encourage you to get together a few times and verbalize it so that you can write it down. Memorize it, unite behind it, get energized by that vision and you will move mountains. Hint: vision should not be longer than 20-25 words. Another hint: it is verbalized in this message.

Unity, liberty and charity. Founder of Methodism, John Wesley is often quoted as saying “In essential, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

This community is united in the essentials of our faith; I saw you being respectful of each other’s opinions and we know a thing or two about charity. That unity, liberty and charity helps us to keep first things first and bear plentiful fruit (Matt 7:18) of the Spirit as we serve God and the world in which we live. I hope that this will never change.

The community of Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church is a church that God rules not only in Heaven but also here on earth. The community of Mt. Pleasant United Methodist church is a church that is on earth as it is in heaven. The community of Mt. Pleasant United Methodist church is a church that is making disciples for Jesus who are willing to take risks, roll up their sleeves and step out on faith while we are here on earth.

In conclusion, Debbie and I want to thank you for accepting us and loving us and for all we learned from you. We saw God in your eyes and God’s grace in your lives. Thank you for your love and for your prayers when we had our surgeries. Thank you for teaching me how to pronounce the “TH” sound. Cooked turkeys will never look the same to me and no one will ever make a sub like our youth group. We will always cherish our memories of you and our time together.
We accepted your love, and you accepted ours, and now we trust that our time together and our parting are in God’s will. We trust that God calls us to a different mission and we trust that God calls you as well. It is time for all of us to step out on faith and trust that someday it will all become clear. We trust that it is time for you to stop turning to me for pastoral leadership, and to welcome your new pastor into your midst. Pray for Pastor Will, pray for his wife Deborah, and continue to serve God here on earth, as you will eventually serve God in Heaven. Be God’s voice, be God’s hands, may God be your conscience as God lives in your hearts.
Thank you for being part of our lives and allowing us to be a part of yours.
Philos
Asher And Debbie

Notes for the message based on Matthew 5:21-37; “A” -E6

This week’s readings are: Deut 30:15-20; Psalm 119: 1-8 or UMH 840; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

You can read these Scriptures here:  NIV  // ESV // NRSV // The Message

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Human beings are notoriously resistant to change. Christians are especially resistant to change because we believe that God is with us and therefore we expect God to take care of us. We expect God to be there at a moment’s notice, bailing us out of all kinds of mayhem.

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That is why the image of Jesus as a gentle shepherd is so popular in our culture. We, as Jesus’ sheep, graze peacefully on a gentle slope of the hill (preferably with a large screen TV somewhere nearby) while Jesus watches over our safety and security day and night and prepares a picnic lunch to delight our senses by a gently flowing stream.

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The truth is that Jesus did not come to protect the world; Jesus came to redeem the world. Jesus came to empower us to live in the world, to serve the world, to tend and take care of the world and to transform the world. Jesus came to empower his church to infuse the world with joy and zest for life: “you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world” (Matt 5:13,16) and “I’ve come so that you have life and live it abundantly” (John 10:10).

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We are created in the image of God; that means that all of us have reasoning abilities and we are able to construct norms and follow rules by which our society operates. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus deals with several portions of the law. Before we begin I want to make it clear; RULES AND LAWS ARE GOOD!  Rules are the foundation of a civilized society. We can get into our cars and drive to Florida or to California and be fairly certain that other drivers will follow rules and that we will get to our destination. We know that if everybody follows the agreed upon rules of conduct, we will enjoy fulfilling and productive lives to the glory of God.

On the other hand we are God’s creations, and being created in the image of God means that we have an ability to love and to experience emotions and feelings.

These abilities: {1} to reason and {2} to love and feel, are two complementing aspects of our lives. We need both.

If we live relying only on rules, we open ourselves to lives of self-justifying righteousness. No murder today; check!  Did not cheat on my wife today; check!  Did not steal anything today; another check! My mom and dad are dead and buried, therefore I do not need to do anything to honor them; another check! WOW! I am a righteous dude!

That is a checklist spirituality; it invites us to follow the letter of the law without giving any consideration to the spirit of the law. Jesus that I know wants more for us.

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“You’ve heard… But I tell you…” With these words Jesus is calling us to look beyond the rules and legalism of religion. With these words Jesus is challenging us to consider our Christian identity to be MORE than just a membership in a group of likeminded people. Jesus is calling us to be changed and transformed by loving each other, and taking care of each other and the world in which we live.

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So today I want to leave you with couple of thoughts:

  • What kind of community do you want to live in? What kind of community do you want to build? What can we do to build and to create such a community?

  •  In what ways do you minimize your involvement and hide behind the rules? Think of all the times when you said, “we’ve never done it that way” or “nobody would want that.”

These are tough questions and I know such questions are difficult to think about. But if we take the time to think, and then gather together to respectfully and lovingly discuss our opinions and ideas we will be inviting the kingdom of God into our homes, into our community. Our actions (the way we live our lives) will follow and will impact the world that we live in.

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“You’ve heard… But I tell you…” Jesus makes the point that religion is a foundation of a good thing. Religion reminds us who we are and whose we are. Jesus challenges us to live “abundant lives” by living the promise of our faith in God, not because it will change others, but because our faith in God can bring positive changes, healing and emotional maturity in ourselves and help us to build a better tomorrow for each other.

To God Be The Glory!

Response to the Statement from the Thirty-Three Retired Bishops By our Bishop Peggy Johnson

 

Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

Bishop Johnson’s Statement

Recently 33 retired United Methodist Bishops issued a statement that calls the church to reconsider Paragraph 304.3 from The Book of Discipline (2008)

            “…the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.  Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

In the statement they raise a number of issues such as the gifts and graces for ministry that God has given all people, the loss of members due to this position (including many of the younger generation), the closeting of gay and lesbian pastors who are already in our system, the draining of the energy of bishops who disagree with the paragraph and are required to live in a way that is contrary to their convictions, the conflict between upholding the Book of Discipline and caring for effective gay or lesbian pastors, the call for greater flexibility from the some seminary leaders, and  the stress it places upon gay and lesbian pastors who feel called to seek ministry in the UMC but have to choose between leaving, staying and praying or challenging the BOD and accepting punitive actions.

This statement has raised many questions in the minds of United Methodists across the globe.  This is a time for the church to enter into dialog, seek understanding, examine our priorities and renew our efforts to pray for Christian unity.  For the full text of my response read my blog for this week.

You can see an article about the Statement from the “33” at this link. The full statement can be read here.

Bishop Johnson’s Response (her complete  response can be found at this link)

 

  1. Thanksgiving for freedom of speech.

    I am grateful that the United Methodist Church practices tolerance and allows all parts of the body, be they bishops, pastors or church members, to state the official beliefs of the church and then they are free to give their opinion and share their convictions. We are a people of Holy Conferencing and dialog. God’s revelation is ongoing and it happens best through civil conversations, prayer and the expression of differences of opinion. Think about the early church when Gentiles were first “allowed” to be Christians or when our annual conferences became desegregated or when women were first ordained. In each case a change was happening as people listened to each other, prayed and discerned.

    Some of our social issues, though already enacted into church law, are still in the process of debate. Since I became a bishop I have not had an appointment season yet that I haven’t heard from a church informing me that “you can’t send us a woman pastor.” We continue to have conversation and work together. But we work with each other in love and gentleness. The issue of homosexuality is an important dialog for the church in the 21st century. There would not be so much energy and polarization if it were not vitally necessary not only for to the church but for our souls as well. Social justice concerns are never easy as people of good will stand on both sides on this issue. Nonetheless, I believe we need to be in this dialog.

  2. Compatibility Mode” sentences.

    The Social Principles which state that the UMC does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching also states: “all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.” It goes on to say “We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” (Paragraph 161f).

    On my computer I have several versions of Microsoft Word. When I send files out on a newer version I hear back from people with computers using different operating systems who say they cannot open my attachments. I send it again in “Compatibility Mode” and it can be read by everyone, no matter what kind of computer they have. I consider the statements I just quoted about welcoming, forgiving, loving and not to reject or condemn are our United Methodist “Compatibility Mode” rules for living. Can we try that? Is God glorified when we go to General Conference and groups from opposing views stand on either side of the street protesting against the other? Aren’t Christians supposed to be the models for the world on how to get along with each other? It is easy to pick a side and say “my side is right and your side is wrong.” Instead let’s do the hard work of compatibility and peacemaking.

  3. Truth embraces the whole.

    Homosexuality and the church is a difficult issue because each “side” of this debate has a piece of the truth that the other needs. It is not “either/or” but “both/and.” The scriptures are full of these polarities of truth: faith and works, grace and law, predestination and free will, “today you will be with me in Paradise” and “on the last day the dead in Christ shall rise first.” Holiness and hospitality don’t have to be in conflict with one another. In the amazing world of God’s truth they complement one another. Paul reminds us “the eye cannot say to the hand ‘I don’t need you.” (I Corinthians 12: 21a) My prayer is that we stop “othering” the side we don’t agree with out of love for Christ and out of a deep desire for the full truth. May we humbly acknowledge that this “other” side has something to offer us personally in our spiritual walk with the Lord and seek to dialog about it.
    I like the 3rd verse of that great hymn of the church “The Church’s One Foundation.” It states “though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed, yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, ‘How long?’ And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.” (BOH 545) May we sing on that morning when the heresy of “my side is the only way” ends and schisms give way to true Christian unity.
  4. Keep the main thing the main thing.

    The ‘main thing” of course, is “making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We need to agree on a main purpose for our church and seek unity that allows us to do this in the most effective way. The practice of constant fighting one another destroys our witness and slows down the central mission. Reaching all people for Christ is the goal, not just some people, not just the ones we agree with, who look like us, act like us, and live like us.
    John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement, had such a spirit. According to the Oxford Diaries he came to the aid of a prisoner by the name of Thomas Blair who was charged with a homosexual offence. Out of Wesley’s concern for the eternal soul of this man, he ministered to him spiritually and proactively. He read to him, contacted his attorney, and did some legal writing. This ministry drew a good bit of criticism from the church but Wesley continued to help Blair anyway because of his passion for the gospel and for social justice. When the gospel is the main goal we preach and teach the gospel and we don’t need to choose who is deserving or worthy of our ministry. God will sort it all out.

  5. Call to confession and prayer.

    Ask God to call to mind the times when we have harmed a brother or a sister by our judgmental words and deeds. I remember being told by a well-meaning and concerned Christian that I was an “abomination” because I was a woman pastor. I understood his theology and his interpretation of scripture but it hurt anyway. I can think of times when I have judged those who disagree with my position on a particular issue and I ask God to forgive me. God is the judge, not us, and when we judge others we stand in line to be judged by a God who sees all. Pray for illumination on this issue and seek guidance on how God wants you to personally respond as we prepare for another General Conference in 2012. Pray with thanksgiving for the gifts that all parts of the Body of Christ bring to the table. Don’t pray that this struggle goes away. Pray that the struggle will bring us to a better day of inclusiveness and understanding for all.

Notes for the message based on Matthew 5:13-20; “A”–Epiphany 5

This week’s readings: Isaiah 58:1-9a ; Psalm 112:1-10 or UMH 833; 1 Cor 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20

You can read these scriptures here:   NIV  //  ESV  // NRSV  // The Message

 

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When we think about the Sermon on the Mount, in our imagination we see Jesus standing in front of the crowd of people and preaching for a long-long-long time. In reality I think that the Scriptures that we call The Sermon on the Mount represent a period of days and maybe even weeks, during which time Jesus preached many messages rather than one long sermon. Over time, prior to Jesus’ words being written down, these messages were passed from generation to generation using oral tradition. In that process, as these messages were told and retold over many generations they were compressed and the resulting portion of the Gospel of Matthew — what we know today to be chapters 5, 6 and 7 — became collectively known as The Sermon on the Mount.

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We know what Jesus preached about during that revival; all we have to do is read those three chapters in Matthew. The question is, why did Jesus preached what he preached, why did he chose these topics? Matthew gives us a hint in the verses directly preceding the Sermon on the Mount (Chapter 4:23-25):

NIV Matthew 4:23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.

Before preaching at the revival, Jesus "went throughout Galilee," and healed "every disease and sickness." Matthew tells us that "large crowds" from nearby areas followed him. Jesus spent time with the people who followed him; he took the time to listen to their stories; he heard what was bothering them, what they thought was missing in their lives, and what they thought would help them to live better lives.

 

Jesus was preaching to men and women who were struggling with the reality of brutal oppression by Roman garrisons. Their land, their cities, even their religion was controlled by the Romans. To give you an example, the Jews of first century Palestine did not eat pork, yet from elsewhere in the Bible we know that there were herds of pigs in Israel ((Matthew 8:28-33; Mark 5:6-13; Luke 8:27-34)); presumably they were used to feed the Roman conquerors. From secular resources we know that there were heated arguments and debates about what the children of Israel could do to live productive lives that would honor their faith in God, their traditions and their history.

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The men and women whom Jesus addressed during that revival were struggling with questions as to how they could preserve their cultural and religious identity as a people called and set apart by God. That is why in that revival, Jesus spoke about such topics as how to forgive, how to create a healthy and productive environment in the home, how to be persistent in the face of adversity, how to make judgment calls without being judgmental, how to deal with anxiety, how to be a better person in trying circumstances. During that revival, Jesus taught his congregation how to be a follower of God, how to pray, how to live out their faith and devotion in the time and place where they lived. During that revival Jesus taught his congregation how to act justly, how to extend mercy and how to walk humbly with the God of Israel, enabling them to live better lives during their time in history and in their geographical place. During that revival, Jesus gave his congregation practical ways to learn more about their God, to grow in their love and devotion to their God, and to be in tune with God’s guidance on their lives. Today we would say that during the revival that we commonly call the The Sermon On The Mount, Jesus gave his followers practical guidance on how to be better men and women, how to translate their relationship and devotion to God into practice, and although the word "Christian" was not invented yet, he taught them how to be better "Christians."

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Although we live two thousand years after Jesus, we face our share of problems. Every generation does. Just like the men and women in first century Palestine, we struggle with what it means to be faithful followers of God, and what we can do to respond to the challenges that we face in our lives.

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Although we may not hear the boots of occupying garrisons on our streets, we struggle with the issue of control. Many families across our land live in anxiety because of an  "occupying force" in their lives called "credit." We may not think of it as "brutal oppression" but what would you call it when parents have to work two or three jobs to pay interest on their maxed-out credit cards and/or to pay the mortgage on their house while their children are left to fend for themselves and to raise each other? Debt is a form of slavery and oppression for our generation.

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In first century Palestine, there were heated arguments and debates about what the children of Israel could do to live dignified lives that honored their faith in God, their traditions and their history. If you wonder what those debates sound like today, just turn on CNN or FOX-NEWS during election time. We hear heated debates about the ways we could honor the "American Way of Life," or whether we should print "In God We Trust" on our money. We hear very different opinions as to what our country needs. Usually after the elections there is a stalemate in Congress and the House, “Red People” and “Blue People” blame each other for everything that is wrong in the universe. Meanwhile our health system is the most expensive in the world, a large number of children in this country graduate from high schools without learning how to read or write and without basic math skills, our national debt is rising, unemployment is ten percent, our young men and women serving in the armed forces risk their very lives in wars fought in faraway lands and you don’t want to get me started on energy costs and dependency on foreign oil.

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I don’t say all of this to depress you. The point I am making is that there is hope. There was hope for men and women who took the time to listen to Jesus 2000 years ago, and there is hope for men and women who take the time to listen to Jesus today.

The Sermon On The Mount is just as relevant to us today as it was to the men and women in first century Galilee. During that revival 2000 years ago, Jesus taught his followers the skills they needed to meet the challenges of their day, and He challenged them to transform their lives through their relationship with God. God does the same with us today by examples from Jesus’ life and ministry and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

So what’s in it for us? What can we take from today’s Scriptures and how can we apply it to our lives?

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If you look at the Sermon On The Mount in your Bibles, you will discover that today’s reading is located between the Beatitudes that we explored last week, and teachings that look in depth at various pieces of the Law. Even a cursory look will reveal the rough equivalence of Jesus’ individual messages to the Ten Commandments. In today’s Gospel reading we heard Jesus tell to his congregation:

NIV Matthew 5:13 "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

14 "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.

16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

The truth is that we need to reclaim our "saltiness" and to re-light our light just as much as the men and women who lived in ancient Galilee. We need to rediscover what it means to grow in our love and devotion to God and how we can be in tune with God’s guidance on our lives. We need to learn those same practical lessons that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Men and women who listened to Jesus 2000 years ago changed the world, because they were with God. When we listen to God and work with each other and with God, all things are possible for us as well.

In the next few weeks we will explore the Sermon on the Mount in greater detail, and we will discover that Jesus was giving his hearers then, and as well as us today, practical advice on how to rediscover our "saltiness," how to re-light our light, how to meet the challenges of our day, and He challenges us to transform our lives through our relationship with God.

{Transition to the Holy Communion}