What God Has Joined Together

A message given
Sunday October 8, 2006
By Rev. Scott Summerville
Genesis 2:18-24
Mark 10:2-16

BAPTISMAL VOWS (addressed to parents and/or sponsors):

Beloved, do you in presenting this child for holy Baptism confess your faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to all people? Response: I DO.

Pastor: According to the power given to you by God, will you teach this child to recognize and resist evil, injustice, and oppression, and to love the things that make for peace? Response: I WILL.

Pastor: Will you nurture this child in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example (she/he) may be guided to accept God’s grace, for (herself/himself), to profess (her/his) faith openly, and to lead a Christian life? Response: I WILL.

Pastor: Members of the household of faith, I commend to your love and care this child, whom we this day recognize as a member of the family of God. Will you endeavor so to live that this child may grow in the knowledge and love of God, through our Savior Jesus Christ?

People: With God’s help we will so order our lives after the example of Christ, that this child, surrounded by steadfast love, may be established in the faith, and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal.

(Communion )
PRAYER AFTER RECEIVING

Leader: Fed by this sacrament and nourished by the Spirit, go forth to serve God and your neighbor
in all that you do. People: We are sent in Christ’s name. Thanks be to God. Amen.

VOWS OF MEMBERSHIP
As members of Christ’s universal Church, will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries? I will.

And the people say: (Congregational pledge):

With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround you with a community of love and forgiveness, that you may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in your service to others. We will pray for you, that you may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.

(To those joining) As a member of this congregation, Asbury UMC, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service? I will.

And the people say: We rejoice to recognize you as members of Christ’s holy church, and bid you welcome to this congregation of The United Methodist Church. With you we renew our vows to uphold it by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. With God’s help we will so order our lives after the example of Christ that, surrounded by steadfast love, you may be established in the faith, and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal.

Wedding vows:
______ will you have this woman to be your wife, to live together in a holy marriage? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her in sickness and in health, and forsaking all other be faithful to her as long as you both shall live? (“I will”.)

______, will you have this man to be your husband, to live together in a holy marriage? Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him in sickness and in health, and forsaking all other be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?

Husband) In the name of God, I,_______, take you, _______, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.

(Wife) In the name of God, I, _______, take you, ________, to be my husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.
_______________________________________

This is a place where covenants are made. This is a place where covenants are spoken and acted out with ritual and sign. Covenants are joyful and solemn commitments that we make to one another before God. Without covenants, life is simply chaos. Without covenants, we do not know what we can expect from one another tomorrow and the next day.

In the book of Genesis, in the first chapter, the story is told of the creation of human beings, women and men created together. In the second chapter of the book of Genesis a second and different story is told in which the male human is created first, and the female human is created out of the flesh of the male. For a long time that story was interpreted to mean that the female is subordinate to the male, secondary to the male, derivative of the male. That is one way to read the story.

Another way to read the story is to see it as a radical declaration of covenant, a covenant between two human beings so profound; it is as though the two were of one body, one flesh. Not one superior to the other, but instead the two becoming one in the most profound and equal partnership.

This sanctuary is a place where covenants are made and where covenants are celebrated and where we remind ourselves and challenge ourselves to live out the covenants we have made and to seek forgiveness and new direction where covenants have been strained or broken. This is a month in which many churches observe Children’s Sabbath. It is a time of remembering the needs of children and celebrating the gift that children bring. So it is fitting today that we hear Jesus’ words, some of the sweetest words he ever spoke:

“Let the children come to me. Do not hinder them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I say, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, shall never enter it.” And he gathered the children up in his arms, and he blessed them.

These beautiful gentle words from the Gospel of Mark are found immediately after words that are not gentle, words that to our ears may sound severe and harsh. They are Jesus’ words about the marriage covenant:

10:2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 10:3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 10:4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 10:5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.10:6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 10:7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 10:8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.10:9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 10:10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 10:11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 10:12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Here is what our United Methodist Church says about divorce: (this is a paragraph from the Social Principles of our denomination.)

God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. The church must be on the forefront of premarital and postmarital counseling in order to create and preserve strong marriages. However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. We grieve over the devastating emotional, spiritual, and economic consequences of divorce for all involved and are concerned about high divorce rates.
It is recommended that methods of mediation be used to minimize the adversarial nature and fault-finding that are often part of our current judicial processes.
Although divorce publicly declares that a marriage no longer exists, other covenantal relationships resulting from the marriage remain, such as the nurture and support of children and extended family ties. We urge respectful negotiations in deciding the custody of minor children and support the consideration of either or both parents for this responsibility in that custody not be reduced to financial support, control, or manipulation and retaliation.
The welfare of each child is the most important consideration.
Divorce does not preclude a new marriage. We encourage an intentional commitment of the Church and society to minister compassionately to those in the process of divorce, as well as members of divorced and remarried families, in a community of faith where God’s grace is shared by all.

Why doesn’t United Methodist Church simply stick to the words of the Bible and say, “No divorce. Divorce and remarriage equals adultery – period.” Because it is our tradition to seek to be guided by the core spirit of the Gospel, Christ’s message of forgiving love and healing mercy, even if that means not always following the literal words of the Scripture.

I have performed hundreds of weddings in my lifetime, interviewed hundreds of couples on their way toward holy matrimony. The majority of these people were Catholic. They were coming for counseling and marriage with a Protestant clergyman for obvious reasons. The Catholic Church has policies that are much more restrictive when it comes to divorce and remarriage. Many Catholics find these policies so burdensome that they step out of their home church in order to find blessings for their marriages.

Covenants are not easy. Marriage is not easy. Interpreting the will of God is not easy. Interpreting the meaning of Scripture in specific life situations that easy. This is the month of Children’s Sabbath, and the truth is that the most important thing for the welfare children is the way adults maintain covenants. This is in some ways a delicate subject. Even in the life of a small congregation, at any given time, there are marriages in deep distress. There are families that have recently experienced marital separation or divorce. There are empty seats in the worship service, because families have split up and moved on.

We respect the privacy of individuals in their most intimate relationships. We do not expect someone to stand up at sharing and prayer time and say, “I am afraid my marriage is dying, I’m worried about what that means for me and my children.”

In the church there is often shame and secrecy that surrounds marriage and family conflict. There are fears that others may judge us in the church, if our marriage is publicly seen to be failing.

With full respect the privacy of individuals, we must allow greater space in the church for acknowledging and bringing healing where relationships are deeply injured or broken.

You may have noticed that in the statement I read about divorce from United Methodist Social Principles there is a reference to premarital counseling, and to postmarital counseling. This is an important acknowledgment that the church extends not judgment but pastoral care to individuals before marriage, during marriage, and also when marriage is in crisis or has ended.

I wonder whether the congregation is aware that the United Methodist Book of Worship now contains a liturgy for persons going through divorce.

This liturgy extends concern and compassion to women and men going through divorce; it extends concern and compassion to the children of families going through divorce and to the wider circle of the family and friends of individuals going through divorce. If you’re not aware of that, I want to make you aware of it.

And I want to encourage people in troubled relationships not to retreat into silence and shame. Do not think that you are alone. Do not think that you are not as special to God, because you have had troubles in marriage and relationship. Do not think that others have perfect relationships. No one has perfect relationships. Don’t feel obligated to share with others anything that is truly private and that is your business. That is your right. But do not be so private that you do not allow others to support you, to love you, and where appropriate to counsel you.

There is also a point of history that I want you to be aware of in relation to the severe statements of the Scripture about divorce. When Jesus was asked about a man’s right to put away his wife by divorce, he was addressing a culture in which women were totally vulnerable, where by a simple flick of the pen the man could disavow wives, divorce them, cast them out, leave them destitute and abandoned. Jesus knew that the Law of Moses allowed for this.

One aspect of Jesus’ teaching about divorce is that it was intended as a protection for women, against the hardness of heart of men who had the power so easily to destroy them.

As the church, we make and celebrate covenants. We believe in covenants. We live by covenants. We hold up our lives to the standards of the covenants that we have made, and we know that we are never perfect in fulfilling them; sometimes we fail disastrously in fulfilling our covenants. But as long as we have breath, and as long as the Spirit of Christ moves among us, we can look for healing and new beginnings, because the covenants we make are infused with the forgiving mercy of God.

I conclude today by reading from the book of worship of the United Methodist Church, a prayer offered for persons going through divorce. The words have a message that is broader than simply the issue of divorce; the words speak to us all:
God of infinite love and understanding,
pour out your healing Spirit upon ________________,
as he/she reflects upon the failure of his/her marriage and makes a new beginning.
Where there is hurt or bitterness,
grant healing of memories
and the ability to put behind
the things that are past.
Where feelings of despair or worthlessness flood in,
nurture the spirit of hope and confidence .
that by your grace tomorrow can be
better than yesterday.
Where he/she looks within and discovers faults
that have contributed to the destruction
of the marriage and have hurt other people,
grant forgiveness for what is past
and growth in all that makes for new life.

[Heal ________(children’s names,) and help us minister your healing to them.]

We pray for [other] family and friends,
for the healing of their hurts and
the acceptance of new realities.
All this we ask in the name of the One
who sets us free from slavery to the past and makes all things new,
even Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Who Do They Say That I Am?

Who Do They Say that I Am?

A message given Sunday, September 17, 2006

Rev. Scott Summerville

Asbury United Methodist Church

__________________________

Mark 8:27: Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

What do people say that I am?  This is a very interesting question. What are people saying about me, how do other people see me?  Do I like the way other people see me? Do other people see me as I really am?  Do people misunderstand me?  Do I want people to see me as I see myself, or not?

In the past week I was twice mistaken for someone else.  I went to a gathering of the United Methodist pastors in our area.  As the event was about to begin a woman approached me and said, “ Scott, would you play the piano for our opening worship service; you play so beautifully.”  I said, “I would be delighted to play the piano in the opening worship service.  I have never played the piano before, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn express last night.”    (I meant to take piano lessons, really I did; I just never got around to it.)

Another day this week I was in downtown Tuckahoe waiting for my wife in front of the Chinese take-out restaurant.  I was dressed in a business suit,  having come from a formal occasion, and I was listening to my new iPod. I waited for about twenty minutes, noticing that there was a group of high school students gathered at one of the tables nearby chatting and hanging out, and to my chagrin, smoking.

After a while, and much to my surprise, one of the young people approached me.  He was a boy of 16 or 17 years of age with a baseball cap on turned around backwards and a music player wired to his ears and he seemed like a very cool guy.  He walked right up to me.  I wondered, “Why is a teenager wanting to talk to me?”  I thought I became invisible to the younger generation decades ago.  I thought, Hmmm…. Maybe I’m a cool guy after all.”  The young man was very respectful and polite as he introduced himself. He said, “I apologize for interrupting you, and I hope I’m not intruding, but I notice that you’re here, and you are wearing a suit, and you’re also listening to music, so I thought maybe you were in the music business, and I’m trying to get into the music business, and I just thought what the heck, why not ask.”

We had a very nice conversation about his music, and his plans, and his hopes and dreams for making it in the music world.  I took his name and I said if I ever came across anybody in the business I would be sure to let him know.  I’ll take your name, too, if any of you are wishing to break into show business.

We go through life with people seeing us in all kinds of ways.  Most of the time we don’t know how other people are seeing us or what they make of us or how they judge us.

When Jesus poses the question is disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” he is raising a very profound question, not only about himself, but about each of us.

It is interesting that Jesus even asks this question, “Who do people say that I am?”  since Jesus generally doesn’t seem to care what people are saying about him or thinking about him.  He seems totally focused on his mission and his ministry.  He is not about to alter what he does or says, based upon what people are saying about him.

“Who do people say that I am?”

Jesus does not ask this question out of insecurity, but very often we do.  We can become so absorbed in how others see us and speak of us that we lose our inner bearings.  One of the reasons that it is so important that churches be in ministry with the young is that there is a time in our lives when we are young when the way we are seen by others can be so significant to us, so all important — our hunger to be seen and admired by others so great — that we can adapt ourselves exclusively to the impressions of others.  Adolescence is perhaps the most crucial time in life, a time when a person needs people who will love them unselfishly, appreciate them for who they are, and affirm them for the gifts that lie within them, rather than for the superficial impressions they make.

There are times in our lives – it may be during our adolescent years, or it may be at any time of life — when we can become so confused about who we are that we surrender to others the power to tell us who we are.

When we visit the Gospels, we see Jesus encounter this person and then the next person, then the next and the next, addressing each one with the word of compassion, the word healing.

Faith in Jesus is in part placing ourselves in that gospel story and hearing the word of healing and compassion spoken to me, and to see myself through Jesus’ eyes,  seeing myself as one who is a beloved child, worthy of respect, worthy of love, gifted by God.  So that no matter how others are seeing me, and no matter how harshly  I judge myself, in faith I experience myself being seen by one who both knows me and loves me.

“Who do people say that I am?”  This is a question we all wrestle with, because we all have insecurities about who we are and how we are seen by others.  We are also not sure how much of ourselves we want others to see, so we struggle with, “Who am I on the inside, and how do I wish to be seen from the outside?”

We wrestle with the dilemma: “If other people actually know me, they will not love me, so I must be seen as something other than who I am, in order that I may be loved, but if it is not me they love, then I cannot feel loved.”  Round and round and round we go in this desperate circle, until we can be loved for who we are, and be set free.

When we are able to grow in our acceptance of self, in our healthy love of self, then the person we are on the outside of the person we are the inside can come into harmony, and we are not struggling to be something we are not; we are simply able to be who we are.

The goal of every Christian community should be to be such a place, a place where people can grow in a healthy love of self, rooted in God’s love for each being, in an atmosphere where people experience the freedom to be themselves.

It would be easy enough to stand in the pulpit and to say, “It doesn’t matter what people think of you.”  But it does matter to all of us how we are seen by others, so it is very important that we surround ourselves with people whose judgments are compassionate and who love us and seek for us what is best.

In abusive relationships people get emotionally hooked and emotionally tangled in trying to be what someone else wants them to be, but that someone else does not love them, at least not in a healthy way.

There are probably a few people, a very few people, who have arrived at such a state of psychological and spiritual maturity and wisdom that they can truly say, “It does not matter to me what others say or what others think.”  But those people are very rare.

Because we do care what others see in us, it is so important to surround ourselves with people who see the best in us and want the best for us.

The church that is described in the Scriptures is a place where that is so, where there is acceptance of people in all their variety, where each is one is challenged to grow in love, and where people of every condition of life are part of the same body of Christ.

I return then to Jesus, and to the question he asked about himself, “Who do people say that I am?”

In his book Tomorrow’s Faith, a New Framework of Christian Belief,   Adrian Smith sets out thirty propositions.  In each case he states what he feels is a familiar and traditional understanding of a Christian doctrine.  He says “a” familiar doctrine, not “the” familiar doctrine, because he recognizes that there has always been a lot of diversity in Christian teaching.

Alongside each of these familiar or traditional understandings he gives a contemporary understanding.  Again, he does not say it is the true understanding or the only understanding – just that it is a different and more contemporary way of expressing a traditional and familiar doctrine.  The book is set out in such a way that there can be a discussion about each of these traditional and contemporary ways of looking at Christian teaching.

In a chapter entitled Jesus and His Message, he writes this:

A FAMILIAR, TRADITIONAL UNDERSTANDING

Jesus is God-made-man who came down from Heaven to save us.

A CONTEMPORARY UNDERSTANDING

Jesus is a manifestation of God who lived among us to show and empower us to live by higher values, which he called the ‘Kingdom of God’.

He then gives some historical and biblical background to encourage discussion about how we see Jesus —

Who do I say Jesus is?  Who do you say that he is?  When you tell me who Jesus is for you, what do you base it upon?  Does he whisper in your ear? Did you get your Jesus from a Sunday school teacher, a pastor, a parent, a grandparent, a preacher?  Do you get your Jesus from regular deep reading of the Scriptures?  Do you get your Jesus when the communion bread and wine are given to you?  Who is your Jesus, and how did you come to know him?  Does a traditional conception of Jesus as one who was in a place we call heaven and came down to earth to save us and went back up again conform to your understanding of Jesus?  Does the contemporary statement found in the book  I mentioned make any sense to you?  Jesus is a manifestation of God, who lived among us to show and empower us to live by higher values, which he called the kingdom of God?

Our Methodist heritage, our roots in the teaching of John Wesley, convey to us a Jesus who is both deeply personal and deeply social.

In our time there is tremendous fascination with the personal Jesus.  For many Christians the only Jesus they know is the private Jesus, the personal Jesus.  “I come to the garden alone, while the dew on the roses… and he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.”  Just me and Jesus – all alone — surrounded by sweet smelling flowers.

According to our founder John Wesley, “We know no gospel that is not a social gospel.”  Personal faith cannot be separated from the world we live in.  The personal Jesus, the one we meet in the Scriptures, who speaks to us the personal word of truth, healing and forgiving love, that personal Jesus cannot be separated from the world we inhabit today and the challenges and pains suffering of this world.

The personal Jesus without the social gospel is religious fantasy and escapism.

The only occasion we know of that Jesus spent time in a garden was the night he spent in the deepest turmoil of his soul, because the next day he was to have the full violent force of the empire of Rome coming down upon his head.

There is more to Jesus than we can find privately.  There is a Jesus greater than the purely private Jesus. abuse contacts . The greater Jesus is the one who is alive in the world as mediator, as peacemaker, as reconciler, and as force for justice.  In our Methodist tradition we encounter Jesus in the depths of private prayer and in the struggle for human dignity and equality.  We encounter Jesus in the joy of songs sung here, and in the works of justice and mercy in the world.

We encounter Jesus is the breaking of the communion bread, and we encounter Jesus in the brokenness of the earth, the hurts of people, the struggles we undertake with others to bring about change.

Who do people say that I am?  Who do people say that you are? Does it matter?  Maybe as we grow wiser and stronger it will matter less and less.

Who do we say he is – this Jesus of long ago and today?   Prophet, Son of God, Savior, Rabbi, Healer, friend of sinners, friend of the poor,  preacher of the Kingdom of God….?

We will never be able to say completely or perfectly who he is, but Christians need to contend with this question actively over the course of their lifetimes – otherwise Jesus becomes a faded image in our brains, instead of the living word that feeds us and sends us out to live and serve in his name.

Grace and peace to you.

A Big Story

A message given September 10, 2006

by Rev. Scott Summerville

Asbury UMC

______________________

Mark 7:31-35

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

________________________________

This is a festive time for our church. The Sunday after Labor Day is traditionally the time we have a picnic and have fun. Since 9/11 there has been in the background of these festive times the awareness and the remembrance of great sorrows. During the year that followed the horror of 9/11 this church hosted a support group for relatives of the victims of 9/11.

I will always remember those times, in the evenings when the business of the daytime was done, with the nursery school children gone home, often I would be alone in the church as the families of the victims came and went. The children did not give much outward sign of the trauma that had fallen upon them. Children can slide things in and out of their minds, and particularly when there are other children around, they run and they jump and bounce around. Seeing the children, you would not have known necessarily that anything unusual was going on. But the adults moved more slowly, more quietly. They came in the evenings to tell their stories and to hear each other’s stories.

There is something about the human being, deeply rooted in the physiology and soul of the human being, that connects speaking and listening and healing. When people are able to tell their stories and feel that they have been heard there is a healing of the heart.

The capacity to speak – to tell our stories — is an awesome thing.

In the Gospel today Jesus does something peculiar. Depending on your sensibilities, you may find what he does is disgusting:

Mark 7:32] They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 7:33] He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue….

The phrasing of these verses is interesting. “They” brought to him — it doesn’t say who “they” were. We may assume that these were his dear friends, perhaps his family. They were people who cared enough about him to bring him to Jesus and to beg — to beg — Jesus to lay his hand on him… “Just place a hand on him — just a hand!..” Then we notice that Jesus did not lay his hand on him as they asked — no quick, “Bless you my son,” for this person. Instead He took him away in private, stuck his fingers into his ears, and then spat and wiped the spittle on the man’s tongue.

They brought the man to Jesus for the usual treatment, but Jesus seemed to think that this case called for something more than a simple word or a simple gesture. So this person got the full treatment: his earwax is cleaned out and Christ the Lord spit on his tongue.

Jesus gave him the capacity both to speak and to listen.

To speak and to listen.

He gave him the capacity to tell his own story and to hear the stories of others.

Christians tend to think that Jesus did everything effortlessly, but this story suggests otherwise. There is a fierce intention in what Jesus does. He and the man together contend with the forces that control speech and hearing. This is not something Jesus does casually.

It is an awesome thing to speak. It is an awesome thing to listen to the telling of another life.

We who take speech and hearing for granted forget how awesome these faculties are. We who pass by one another so casually, even here in the house of prayer, forget what an awesome thing every life is.

Every human life is a big story. That may be the most important thing a pastor learns: every human life is a big story. Each of the lives lost in 9/11 was and is a big story. Each of the lives affected directly — family members and friends — is and was a big story.

Each of the responders during and after the event each of them — the dead and the living — is a big story.

Now we come to learn how much many of the responders and site workers will suffer permanently for the service they gave.

In the wars that have come in the wake of 9/11 so many have died; each of them is a big story.

Every human life is a big story.

In the spring of this year as my father was dying the question arose as to who would speak of his life at his funeral service. Who from the family would tell his story? I had at first expected not be to be the one to tell his story. I decided to be alongside my family, in the congregation, on the day of my father’s funeral. But as that day approached and when my father died it became quite clear that there was no one else prepared to tell his story, and it was the wish of my mother and brothers that I do so. I also had come around to a different way of feeling about the occasion, to a desire to stand before the congregation and tell the story of my father.

In February while my father was still able to go out we had arranged a special dinner in his honor and in honor of my mother and my parents church. At that time lots of people told lots of stories about my father. My father was able to listen and to enjoy that affirmation. On that occasion many people said, ” I’m so glad we got to tell the stories about your dad, and I’m so glad that he got to hear them.”

At his funeral service I found that it was not an easy thing to be in the role of speaking publicly at such a moment, but I was glad to be doing it. It was challenging because of the complexity of his life and personality. It was challenging also because, for all that was known about him, there was much that was not; he was not given to the sharing of his inner being. There was much that had to be inferred.

It is a momentous thing — a thing which I always take very seriously and with sacred appreciation — to tell the story of another human life. It is particularly momentous when it is your own parent.

At the reception following my father’s funeral service, many people spoke to me with deep emotion. Many of them mentioned the fact that it was so good that at the earlier gathering my father had heard people tell stories about him while he was alive. I was very touched by all of this. But the thing that touched me most were the comment of one person who looked me in the eye with sadness and longing and said, “I wish I had someone to tell my story.”

Every human life is a big story. I was reminded of this very strongly just two days ago when I received a phone call about a funeral service. Some of you may remember seventeen years ago, 1989, in New Rochelle, there was a series of random shootings. The killer was never found. Some of the victims survived, profoundly injured. One of them was a plumber named Sheldon Williams. His friends knew him as “Chip.” In a single terrible moment he went from living a normal life as a husband and father and workingman to being a paraplegic.

He was married to Bonnie, sister of a member of this church. When I met the family on Friday they told me the story of his life. At Tuesday’s funeral service it will be my privilege to tell the story once more. I always considered the privilege and honor to tell the story.

In this case the story has the outward form of tragedy. This dreadful act of violence, these seventeen years without use his legs, and then a multitude of illnesses. But that is just the outward shell of the story. The story was not told to me as a tragedy. Chip did not see or live his life as a tragedy; he did not live out the remainder of his of his life as a tragedy, and so perhaps it was not.

There is something awesome in that. I feel humbled to be speaking Tuesday at the culmination of such a story, and to look into the faces of those who lived this story firsthand, and who will always carry this story in the depths of their hearts.

I have found that it takes about an hour for a family to tell the story of a life. That has been my experience in hundreds of cases: when a family sits down to tell the pastor the story of a loved one it takes about an hour. It doesn’t matter how old they were or what they did for a living; it takes about an hour. That may not seem like much, but of course it isn’t a whole life we are telling; it is the heart of a life as loved ones have experienced it.

So when the person looks in my face and says, “I wish I had someone to tell my story,” I ask myself, “Isn’t a spiritual community, the church, a place where we should be able to find the hour here and there to tell our story and to hear each other’s stories and so to carry one another in our hearts, so that no one would feel “There is no one to tell my story?”

It is an awesome thing to speak.

It is an awesome thing to listen to the telling of another life.

We who take speech and hearing for granted forget how amazing it is to speak and to hear.

And we who pass by one another so casually, even here in the house of prayer; we forget what an awesome thing every life is. Every human life is a big story. Yours is, too. And the person’s sitting next to you as well.

Grace and peace to you.

Seek This First

Sunday, August 27, 2006
Rev. Scott Summerville, Asbury UMC

Matthew 6:24-34
“No one can serve two masters; for either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. [25] “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? [26] Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? [27] And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his or her span of life? [28] And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; [29] yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. [30] But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? [31] Therefore do not be anxious, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ [32] For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. [33] But seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. [34] Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.
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In the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7 we find the Sermon on the Mount. This is Jesus most famous sermon. Even though he gave this sermon a long time ago, it seems that the things people worried about back then were not all that different from the things people worry about today. who is And it seems that, just like today, people tended to worry a lot.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Don’t worry about your life. Don’t worry about what you eat, don’t worry about what you do drink, or about your body.” Hmmm… don’t worry about your body… that seems to be a national pastime these days… how many pounds should I lose… how can I make myself look younger…I should be more beautiful…

And don’t worry about how long you’re you are going to live, he says — you can’t add to your span of life by worrying.

Don’t worry about what you wear. Here he gives this somewhat impractical advice: Look at the flowers; they’re doing just fine, and they don’t wear anything. I’m not sure how we apply that message, but in any case, he tells us to stop worrying about what covers our bodies.

Finally, he says, “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself” That’s an odd way to end his teaching about worrying. He seems to think we will keep right on worrying tomorrow and tomorrow and the next day, which is probably true.

We need to listen carefully to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. His basic message is not to stop worrying, even though that is part of his advice. His deeper message is to tell us to start looking for something — something he calls the Kingdom of God.

“Seek first the Kingdom of God and the righteousness of God and all of these things shall be yours as well.” Seek the kingdom of God and you won’t have to worry about anything else. A fascinating possibility; all we have to do is find the Kingdom of God, and we unlock the secret of everything.

I’ll tell you a little secret. It’s not exactly a secret, but it’s something that you don’t often hear preachers talk about. It has to do with Jesus and his message. Students of the Bible have realized for a long time that the heart of Jesus teaching was what he called the “Kingdom of God. “

There it is right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount: he says this is the most important thing to look for, the first thing to search for — it is the key to everything: Seek first the Kingdom of God.

But here’s the strange thing: no one really knows what the Kingdom of God is. Jesus never spelled it out. He used parables to talk about it. He said it is like a person finding a lost coin and then having a celebration.

He said the Kingdom of God is like someone taking a tiny lump of yeast, sticking it into a big batch of dough, making the whole thing rise up and double in size.

He said the Kingdom of God is like planting seeds and waking in the morning and finding a field of full grown grain.

He taught us to pray daily to the Father, “Your Kingdom come.”

He said those who receive the kingdom must receive it as a little child.

He never provided a direct explanation of what the Kingdom of God is. He taught us — he teased us — with his parables, but he never said in ordinary words: this is what it is. He always said it is like this… it is like that. But just what is it?

Conventional thinking would say: the Kingdom of God is a happy place you go when you die, if you are right with God. That is one theory. But Jesus did not generally speak of death in connection with the Kingdom of God. Rather, in Jesus’ parables the Kingdom of God has something to do with the joy of discovery, the thrill of finding something that is lost, joyfully entering a new dimension of reality.

You may wish to wait until you die to go looking for it, but I wouldn’t recommend that. Don’t wait until you die to start living — that would be a shame. Jesus said, look for the Kingdom of God today, instead of what you are doing, which is worrying about tomorrow.

I’ve been preaching for a long time. I think I’ve preach more sermons and Jesus did. Even so, I can’t tell you exactly what the Kingdom of God is. I can’t even tell you exactly how you should go about finding it.

Can you imagine a TV evangelist preaching to one of those crowds of 10,000 souls, saying, “The heart of the message of Jesus Christ is the Kingdom of God, but he wasn’t real clear with us about what the Kingdom of God is, and I’m not so sure I know either.” There is not a lot of humility and religion these days. One group outdoes the other in declaring that it knows it all.

“… Do not be anxious, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles [that’s us] seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. ”

The only way I can talk about the Kingdom of God is the way Jesus did, with parables of my own. I invite you to look for the parables in your life; they are right there before your eyes.

Almost exactly seven years ago, a homeless couple wandered the streets of a city somewhere in China. That day, almost exactly seven years ago, the woman gave birth to a daughter. The daughter was born not only homeless but with a cleft palate. No one will ever know the names of the parents or the name they gave this child, because when their child was a month old they abandoned her at hospital. It was the coloration of the child’s skin, characteristic of exposure to the elements, that was the sign of the humble origins of her parents. Basic surgery was performed on the child’s palette, but complete restoration by plastic surgery was not attempted.

So another life came to be among the billions of lives that have come to be on the surface of a small planet circling a small sun in an average sized galaxy somewhere in the middle of everywhere.

In the current edition of the church newsletter, I have placed an article written by a scientist, V. V. Raman. It is a brief article, simple and profound. It is one scientist’s attempt to speak of the relationship between science and religion. He says this about science:

“Science assumes that the external matter and energy aspect of the world — from which the human brain is formed …….is primary. From the scientific perspective, we are inconsequential glitches in the stretch of cosmic history. We emerged through random processes and we will disappear through astral fading, if not through colossal blunders of our own.”

Yes, indeed, we are inconsequential glitches in the stretch of cosmic history… from the standpoint of scientific observation.

A little girl deposited in a hospital by her homeless parents somewhere in China – a human being could hardly be a more inconsequential glitch in that. The child was adopted by an American woman a year ago; now she lives in New Jersey. She goes in the summer to Ocean Grove and attends the summer program put on by the Methodists. She had never met Methodists before.

When she was adopted her new mother took her to a hotel swimming pool. She had never seen a hotel or a swimming pool. Fortunately her mother spoke Chinese. Her mom asked her in Chinese, “Can you swim?” The little girl answered, in Chinese, “Yes!” Her mom got into the pool in chest deep water and held her arms open. The little girl immediately jumped into the water where her mother stood. She went straight to the bottom like a rock. She came up spurting and gasping. She did not know how to swim. She had never been swimming before, but she had been willing to surrendered herself to the moment in total trust of the woman who had come to be her mother, after five years waiting in an orphanage. Total trust. Total trust of one being for another.

The same scientist, V. V. Raman, tells us that science is not the only perspective for seeing the world. He goes on to say:

“From the religious perspective, consciousness is primary, because all the light and color, beauty and magnificence of the world are only in human heads. The symmetry and fragrance, sweetness and melody are part of the universe only because of us. Without consciousness there can be no poetry or mathematics, no art or science. We are the ones who light up the universe and detect or infuse meaning and majesty in the world. Without us, planets and stars, waves and vibrations would be cast in one dark, dismal abyss, unnoticed and unsung for all of eternity.”

An intriguing thought: “ We are the ones who light up the universe and detect or infuse meaning and majesty in the world….”

Are we a bunch of inconsequential glitches in the universe, or are we the very beings who notice and light up the universe with our awareness and our wonder?

Two weeks ago, I was walking along the sidewalk with a friend of mine, heading toward the beach at the Jersey shore. Walking between us was a skinny little girl, seven years old with straight black hair. Every now and then she would say, “Swing me! Swing me!” She would grab my left hand and my friend’s right hand, and pull hard as we raised our arms and lifted her high off the ground, her legs kicking, as she cried out, “Higher! Higher!” From time to time, she would try to hitch a ride. “Pick me up! Pick me up!” she would say.

I would lift her up and she would smile a big smile — this happy child. Her face was radiant, beautiful; signs of a cleft palate still visible, but that does not seem to bother this little girl.

How strange it seemed and wonderful: this little being, this meaningless glitch in the universe, an anonymous package left on the counter in a hospital on the other side of the planet, now says to me, “Pick me up!” and gives joy to my life.

In her eyes, and in her joy, and in the strange improbability of our coming to know one another, I think I see it: the Kingdom of God. But I couldn’t prove that.

Scientist will never discover the Kingdom of God. Science looks upon the external matter and energy aspect of the world. The Kingdom of God is not an external thing of matter and energy.

From the scientific perspective, we are inconsequential glitches in the stretch of cosmic history. From the scientific perspective we can probe the outer limits of the universe and never find a place called the Kingdom of God.

From the Jesus perspective, we are perpetually anxious, and we can choose to remain perpetually anxious, or we can choose to be seekers of something mysterious and knowable only to the human heart: the Kingdom of God.

Those who seek first the Kingdom of God in the inconsequential things of everyday life are those who will come to know what the wise scientist meant who said:

“ We are the ones who light up the universe and detect or infuse meaning and majesty in the world. Without us, planets and stars, waves and vibrations would be cast in one dark, dismal abyss, unnoticed and unsung for all of eternity.”

I wish I could tell you exactly what the Kingdom of God is… if I knew exactly what it is….

but then you would not need to look for it yourself.

So keep looking.

Peace to you.

Holy Ground, God and Cod, Part II

A message given Sunday, September 3, 2006

Psalm 15
A Psalm of David.
[1] O LORD, who shall sojourn in thy tent?
Who shall dwell on thy holy hill?
[2] He who walks blamelessly, and does what is right,
and speaks truth from his heart…

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We will hear a song this morning, sung by one of my favorite vocalists, Manny Meli. We heard another beautiful song this morning, a portion of a long poem called the Song of Songs or The Song of Solomon.

Religious scholars used to debate the meaning of this poem: What does this mean…. “The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.”

Is this a parable about God’s power; is the lover who looks in the window meant to represent Christ? Is the bride meant to represent Israel or the Church? That debate is pretty much settled. It is generally accepted that the lover looking in the window is just that, a young man looking in the window, beckoning to his beloved to come out and enjoy the spring:

2:10 My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; 2:11 for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
2:12 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. 2:13 The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

Why should there not be a love song in the Bible, a song of human love, a song celebrating the beauty of creation, a pretty racy song at that, even though most translations smooth over the sexy parts? It is a celebration of romantic love and the pleasures of earth. After all, it’s is the Song of Solomon, and he did have seven hundred wives!

But my message today is not about romance. My text today is from the Psalms:

15:1 O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? 15:2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart…

I say today that God’s tent is earth and earth is God’s holy hill. All worship, all reverence for God that is not rooted in love for God’s tent, has no roots at all.

This is going to be my second annual Newfoundland message. You may wonder how many annual Newfoundland messages there will be; that all depends on how many times we go back to Newfoundland. We went last year, and we went this year, and we may just go again.

Going to Newfoundland is not just a vacation. You may think, “Aha! He goes places, and then writes sermons about them, and then deducts his vacation expenses as business deductions.” No, I claim no such deductions, but I do claim that a visit to Newfoundland is a religious experience laden with theological meaning, and I shall tell you why.

Newfoundland is a large island, about the size of the state of Pennsylvania, only a lot more uneven and spread out. It is where the arctic currents flowing down past Labrador meet the Jet Stream coming up from the south and produce one of the most fertile marine life regions in the world.

It is the place of cod, great whales, and massive flocks of sea birds, caribou herds, and now great numbers of moose – not native to Newfoundland, but presently exceeding 100,000 in number.

It is the Eastern most part of North America.

It contains one of the most unusual rock formations on the planet. Many millions of years ago, the North American tectonic plate collided with the African tectonic plate. Part of the African plate got pushed up on top of the North American plate and got stuck there.

It is now an area called the Table Land, designated as a special UNESCO world site. When you fly over western Newfoundland you see the coast and the green hills and mountains, and then you see this yellow or orangish plateau, looking most out of place.

When you are on land and get closer to it, it still looks out of place: there are green mountains on one side of the road, and on the other it looks like mars – (see photo) no vegetation, orange-yellow rubble everywhere. You look one direction; you’re on earth. You turn around, and you think you’ve gone to Mars.

This is because part of the mantle of the earth, the stuff that is down there under the earth’s crust, is sitting on top of the surface of the earth’s crust. It is a manifestation of great events shaping the earth millions of years ago.

Continents move with the same speed that our fingernails grow. It takes along time for them to collide and make mountains and rifts and occasionally deposits of mantle such as are found in Newfoundland. Newfoundland makes you aware of time.

Deep deep time.

That’s the first theological importance of Newfoundland – it makes you realize how old earth is and how young — very young — we are. It is humbling to ponder the great age of its stones.

Newfoundland also makes you very aware of the relationship between the human species and the earth. It is a place where an ecological disaster has changed the very fabric of the life and the traditions of the people. I am speaking of the destruction in the cod fishery of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, an event that occurred in my lifetime, culminating in 1992 when the Canadian government shut down cod fishing in off the Eastern Provinces of Canada. Cod was lifeblood of Newfoundlanders for centuries.

The moratorium on cod fishing for Newfoundland was like the Mayor of New York issuing a moratorium on banking, shipping, and the exchange stocks or bonds in the greater New York region.

In Newfoundland there is an artist, Ben Ploughman. In his work he has been evoking the pain of Newfoundland, the dislocation of it people. Ben Ploughman is not a trained artist – he is a natural artist, born in a fishing family in Newfoundland. He says when he was little, he would sneak behind the wood pile and nail boards together. Now he nails boards together and paints them.

In his art there is usually a blue background — the sea — and a dock, and the backs of fisherman; you sense them gazing stunned and bewildered and angry at the sea.

Ben Ploughman made one particularly controversial work of art, the Crucifixion of the Cod. (Photo above.)

He meant it to convey the agony of a lost way of life; the pain of a people cut off from its roots, and the senseless destruction of species, the cod, that gave life to millions of human beings, and would have kept on giving life to millions forever, if the huge mechanized fleets of bottom dragging fishing factories had not destroyed the ecosystem upon which the cod depended.

It’s fourteen years later, and the moratorium is still on, though some very reduced fishing for cod is allowed. Nobody knows yet whether the cod will have a resurrection or whether the crucifixion of the cod is permanent.

Ben Ploughman was criticized for using the crucifixion to represent the destruction of the cod, but I think the criticism was misplaced. The dried cod — those triangular shapes on the three crosses — speak deeply of the wound done to people, to an animal species, to God’s earth.
I do not think the artist is profaning the cross; I think he is reminding us of the meaning of the cross.

From the psalms we hear the words today:

15:1 O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? 15:2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart…

I think that this is art that is speaking the truth about the holy hill – the holy hill is all the earth, God’s creation, and we humans may be just a small footnote on its long history, but we do have the power to shape the earth in ways that he heal or ways that can destroy.

When you go to Newfoundland you come to feel something about the earth. If ecology seems like an abstract subject; it is not abstract up there. The people live up against the sea, and everything about their lives is affected by the sea, by the temperature of the waters, by the life of the creatures that inhabit it.

And the ancient mountains and geological formations stand witness to powers far greater than our human powers. Newfoundland could be earth itself, coming to terms with finite resources and the need for conservation, reverence, and humility in relation to earth and life – otherwise the systems of life our species requires can collapse just like the greatest fishery in the world collapsed less than twenty years ago.

I do not mean to suggest that Newfoundland is a depressing place. It is not. It is incredibly beautiful. God’s splendid tent, this earth, is glorious there in the coastline, the forests, the rivers, the wildlife, the masses of birds.

Its people are resilient — those who are still there — many have left, especially the young. And they are a singing and storytelling and joke telling people.

I cannot resist telling you two typical Newfoundland stories:

A fellow named Jack spends his whole life on a very remote Newfoundland island in a tiny fishing village. He grew old and by the time he was ninety, his heart was not so good. The local doctor says, “You better go to the mainland and get looked at.” So they take him to town on the mainland. The doctor there says, “You re not a well man at all, better get you to the big city to the hospital, so they send him off to St. John’s, the biggest city in Newfoundland.

He gets to the hospital and the doctor says, “You’re not well, man; not much we can do for you,” and sure enough the next day he dies. They ship his body back to the little village he came from in. They lay him out at the funeral parlor. Three of the oldest women on the island come to pay their respects – they’ve known Jack all his life; they’re not in much better shape than he is.
They look in the casket.
One of ‘em says,”Jack is lookin’ good.”
The other says, “Yes, that’s a good lookin’ corpse.”
The third says, “I believe the trip to St. John’s did him good.”

And this story:

A fella comes up to another fella and says, “Was that you or your brother who went overseas and drowned?” He says, “It, couldn’t have been my brother; he’s never been abroad.”

Newfoundland, finally, is a place you can reflect on what it means to be a human being. A most interesting thing occurred in Newfoundland one thousand years ago; a remarkable milestone in the history of the human species.

It is now fairly well established that our species, homo Sapiens, evolved in Africa and spread out from there to populate Asia, Europe, and eventually crossing the Bearing Straight traveled down and across the North and South American continents.

At some point the people moving east met the people going west. It took over a million years, and historians now suspect that the meeting place of East and West, the linking of the human species across the whole planet occurred in Newfoundland about the year 1000.

In 1961 the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad completed decades of intense study and exploration with the discovery of a 1,000 year old Viking settlement in Newfoundland. The site was excavated and authenticated by his archeologist wife, Anne Stine Ingstad.

They proved that it was a Viking site, and correlated it with Leif Eriksson chronicle, making it very likely a place where he and his ship stayed for at least several months around the year 1000.

I stood in the foundation of Leif Eriksson’s house. My wife will now stand up and say, “You don’t know that it was Leif Eriksson’s house.” But I’m certain that it was, after all, he surely would have had the biggest house in this settlement.

It was there that the great event took place – East met West. Near a remote fishing village, accessible only by sea, a place called L’Anse aux Meadow. The local people had carefully protected the site for many years, believing it to be an ancient burial site.

The journey begun in Africa millions of years before, the circling of the globe by our species, was completed, when stone age hunters and fishing people from Labrador met up with the Vikings.

The Vikings gave them milk; they got sick, they got mad. A bull brought by the Vikings came running out of the forest; the native people’s were terrified.
Words were exchanges, blows were exchanged, the native people’s went off and brought their friends; they had lots of friends. Leif realized there was no way they could survive, a few Europeans, in a place they were not welcome.

It was not a happy first encounter, and many unhappy encounters of Europeans and native people would follow, but it was historic.

A dramatic sculpture marks the spot, where the peoples of the east and the peoples of the west first laid eyes upon each other. (photo above)
One of the sculptors was an Inuit, part of the human species that arrived in eastern Canada from the west. The other was a Canadian of European ancestry, whose forbears arrived from the East.

At a tiny fishing village at the northern tip of Newfoundland, the human species met itself.

All of this is humbling.

The ancient rocks,
the lives of a people wedded to the sea and the fish that inhabit it,
the great sea itself,
the rocks and the cliffs,
the history, the humor,
the tragedy of this land;
in all of this God speaks.

O LORD, who shall sojourn in thy tent? Who shall dwell on thy holy hill?

You do not need to go to the Holy Land in order to walk on sacred ground. All the earth is sacred ground.

All the earth is the Lord’s tent.

Shalom

Grace and peace to you.