An Easter Message

by Rev. Scott Summerville

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

Mark 16:1-8

Some of you may be surprised to see me here today. Last year I took Easter Sunday off. That is an unconventional thing for a pastor to do. But I did have a good excuse: my daughter got married on Easter weekend, and I promised her that no matter what, I would definitely be with her on her wedding day. You were very understanding last year, but I thought it best not to test your forbearance by taking Easter off two years in a row, so here I am.

I want to add my personal welcome to the welcome that our lay leader has extended to you today on behalf of the congregation. In that spirit of welcome I want to read aloud the formal welcoming statement of this congregation:

All are Welcome Here

Asbury United Methodist Church in Yonkers, New York, established in 1771, has long been a welcoming community. We strive to follow the example of Christ, grow in love and welcome into full fellowship persons of every race, gender, culture, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity, economic circumstance, age, physical and mental ability, family and marital status. We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth.

Whether you are brand-new here, or have been here for seventy years, whether you are dropping by for Easter or looking for a long-term relationship as part of a spiritual community, whoever you are and wherever you have been, you are welcome here on this Easter day. I know this is a long worship service for the children – I promise not to be too long-winded with my message.

Easter is a strange day. It is not every day that the dead come back to life. We have no analogy for this in our life experience, so Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, will always be an amazing and puzzling thing. The Gospel stories do not make it any less puzzling.

The way the resurrection story is told in the Gospel of Mark is the most curious of all. Mark tells us that certain women went to the tomb where Jesus had been buried; they saw that he was no longer there, instead there was a young man in the tomb who announced to them:

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Mark ends the story this way:

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid!”

So – according to this Gospel the first witnesses to the resurrection were several women who decided not to tell anybody. How’s that for strange?

The Gospel of Luke will give us this story in a rather different fashion. According to Luke the women visiting the tomb were told of the resurrection by two men, but the women did not keep this news a secret. According to Luke the women went from the tomb and “they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.” However, Luke adds that when the women reported to the disciples that Jesus was risen, the men scoffed at them – the women’s words “seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” “Ah – crazy women – what do they know?”

These women were the first witnesses to the resurrection, whether anyone believed them or not. [By the way, certain Catholic scholars have argued for years that the restriction of priesthood to men only cannot be supported Biblically, and they cite the fact that women were the first proclaimers of the Risen Christ.]

The Easter stories in the Gospels are indeed quite confusing. To this day there is probably no subject among Christians where we find so many different concepts and opinions. Some people hold a very physical notion of the resurrection. The physical body of Jesus is revived and in physical form Jesus is present for a time with his disciples and then departs from this planet.

Other people cannot square that physical notion of the resurrection with their understanding of the universe, and they expres their understanding of the resurrection in terms that are more spiritual and psychological, rather than physical. This makes for very interesting discussion and debate. In the United Methodist Church, we are given great latitude to use our hearts and intellects together to interpret the Scriptures and the doctrines of the faith. You can be as literal as you wish to be in your theology or as imaginative as you wish to be – each person is granted wide freedom to be an interpreter of the Gospel and of the faith.

However Christians interpret the resurrection, we share the Easter faith, that the living Christ is among us and that the power of God shall prevail over every power of death.
When I was a boy of ten or eleven a retired Methodist minister lived in our neighborhood. To me he was as ancient as a person could be, ninety years old. He lived with his daughter, who cared for him, and my parents were friends with his daughter. One day my mother sent me to their place to pull up weeds and to mow their lawn. I said, “Do I have to?” She said, “I think it would be a nice thing for you to do, and they said they would pay you.”

I did not like mowing lawns, and I hated, hated, hated digging up weeds, but I did it. And I did get paid, I got 75 cents for three hours work, 25 cents an hour. I complained to my mother, but she said, “Darling, the money doesn’t matter. It was a good thing you did for them.” And she said, “Rev. Larson is going to die soon. But he told me the other day that he is not afraid of dying, and he is ready now to die.”

I could not wrap my ten year old brain around that. I did not want to think about dying at all. All I could think of was that dying meant no more baseball, no more fishing, no more going camping in the summer, no more making snow forts, no more vanilla- chocolate ice cream cones. My mind raced away with all the things that dying meant you could not have anymore. At the time I had not yet discovered girls, so I did not know that there was even more to life than I imagined – what I did know is that dying was something I was not ready to think about, even though I couldn’t help myself from thinking about it from time to time and worrying about it, the way a child worries about things sometimes and does not tell anybody.

It was scary to think that Rev Larson was dying. But the words my mother spoke made a deep impression on me, as you can see from the fact that they mean something to me even to this day: “Rev. Larson is going to die soon. But he told me the other day that he is not afraid of dying, and he is ready now to die.”

He was my first witness to the resurrection. I am sure that I had heard sermons about eternal life and resurrection, but this was different, because the person who was speaking was actually dying.

We try sometimes with our human words and human brains to explain great matters such as life and death, resurrection and eternal life, even though these things can never be expressed intellectually.
What matters most, day in and day out, is whether we experience the power of life over death, whether we live with faith in God’s ultimate power over all things, even death.

Since those days long ago when I tried to take in the words of that aged dying man, I have been blessed with countless witnesses to the power of life over death. I watched and listened as a teenage girl on an Easter Sunday morning walked up to the pulpit and read the Gospel lesson, even though she had only a few months to live, before her leukemia ran its final course. What a witness she was.

And this past week it was brought to my attention that one of the pledge cards that was mailed out to the congregation was returned, filled out and with a check to pay that pledge in full for the coming year, even though the person making this pledge is a hospice patient. It was an unusual gift carrying a profound message for all of us.

This pledge and this gift signify what we proclaim in our creed: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.”

We may never know how it was that the first followers of Jesus experienced his living presence after his death on a cross. But in whatever form he came to them, it was with such power that it transformed their lives and made them witnesses to power of God in the face of suffering and death.

That is the faith that has been passed on to us. Generation by generation people have proclaimed that faith in words, and they have given witness to this faith in the way they have lived and in the way they have died.

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Christ is risen! In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.


Nine Words

by Rev. Scott Summerville

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
John 12:32-33

Last week Mary Ellen I traveled to New Orleans to visit with our daughter and son-in-law. It happened to be their first wedding anniversary last Sunday. You might think we spent the whole time down there in the Big Easy sipping mint juleps and sightseeing, but actually that was not the case. I spent a fair amount of time in New Orleans working on their car. Is there something in the genetic code of fathers and children such that, no matter how old the kids are, the father ends up working on the car? It makes fathers feel that they have a purpose in life.

New Orleans is a very complicated place: a mixture of grandeur and wealth and desperate poverty, vitality and decay. We spent half the day on Tuesday at the charter school where Ben, our son-in-law, is the principal.

It is an experimental school, like many of the schools set up in New Orleans after Katrina. This school is not like any school I have ever seen. At the beginning of the school day the teachers gather in a circle in the hallway to review the day’s plans and inspire one another, complete with clapping and singing.

The students, ninety ninth graders, gather outside in the morning. The principal comes out, and the students enter the school single file. The principal greets each one by name. The students greet the principal, then, before he lets go of each student’s hand to let them in the door for the day, the principal, asks them, “Why are you here?” The student answers, “To learn.” The principal says, “And how will you learn?” The student answers, “Achievement, respect, responsibility, perseverance, teamwork, and enthusiasm.” Watching those students enter the building shaking the principal’s hand reminded me of church, except the handshaking takes place on the way in rather than the way out.

Each time the students enter a classroom, the teacher stands at the door, shakes each student’s hand and greets them by name. And if anyone wishes to enter a classroom, even if it’s the principal, they must knock on the door, and when they do that, a student opens the door, steps out of the hallway, shakes your hand and says, “Hello, my name is ____; this is Mr. / Ms. ____ class, today we are learning _________; would you like to come in?”

The atmosphere was very personal and at the same time very formal. And there are all kinds of rituals are woven into the teaching at the school. For example, if someone is speaking in class and they are struggling to express something or to remember something, everyone in the class wiggles their fingers to signify that they are there giving that person who is struggling their attention and their moral support.

I told Ben that I was very inspired by the experience of being in his school. I was especially struck by some of the rituals that express personal affirmation: the principal and the teachers affirming the young people and the young people affirming the school and affirming each other.

Ben made an interesting comment. He said that one of the things that he had observed before he became the principal of the school was that it is common for young people to behave terribly in school, yet on a Sunday morning they may be found at church dressed up, shoes polished, behaving like angels. He asked himself, “Why are some of the worst behaving students able to be so different at church on Sunday morning?” The answer he got was that when those “bad kids” go to church, they enter a place where there is structure, ritual, a community of people who hold them to high standards, and there is a clear sacred purpose.

So he wanted to have a school where there would be structure, ritual, a community of people who hold one another to high standards of behavior and accomplishment, and where there is a clear and sacred purpose. In the case of his school, that sacred purpose is to learn well so that in the future one can serve and lead in one’s family and community. It was very inspiring to see the students and their young teachers and young principal throwing themselves into this sacred task. For these young people the stakes are very high – very high indeed.

It was also interesting to hear my son-in- law talk about the church – how the church offered a model for thinking about identifying a sacred purpose in other areas of life. When we think about church, we naturally think about the obvious things- what the place looks like, how the choir sounds, whether sermon spoke to us, whether the coffee was too strong, and so forth.

Another way of thinking about church is to ask ourselves, “Is my experience on Sunday morning making me more conscious of the sacred in everything else I am doing?” When we acquire real spiritual wisdom, we are able to find the sacred in everything, in everyone, in every circumstance and moment of life. So take that question with you, “Is my experience on Sunday morning helping me to be in touch with the sacred in every other place and time?”

We are now approaching the most sacred days of the Christian calendar: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter. In the story of Jesus in his final days there is cruelty, unspeakable cruelty, and there is amazing love. There is fear and grief, and there is great joy.

At the center of all these events and emotions there is a cross – a dreadful thing – an implement of torture. In these holy days we remember in a special way how suffering and joy, pain and wisdom, are woven together. When we grasp this, then we are able to find hope and meaning in every moment of life – no matter what the immediate circumstances of our lives may be.

Yesterday when I spoke with Rev. Clayton Miller, he said something important which I pass on to you with his permission. The last two months for Clayton have been about as miserable as anything I can imagine. It has been a time of suffering and uncertainty.

He said yesterday that this ordeal has been for him a time of deep and useful reflection and clarification about life. Just to be able to say that – to be able to say of one’s suffering, “I have made good use of this,” means that one has been able to draw from this suffering something of value, so this time, however terrible, has not been wasted. And he said that out of this time of deep reflection three words have emerged to form a core of meaning and strength. These words are: joy, gratitude, and generosity.

Joy at the sense of life’s abundance and goodness he has experienced in a new way even in this miserable experience;

gratitude for many things, especially for the flood of prayers and love and compassion he has experienced from so many people;

and generosity – the importance of generosity in life – generosity with material things but even more, the way people can be generous in their presence with others – offering that gift of presence.

It is through the contemplation of Jesus, his love, his suffering, his triumph, and through the witness of others who have drawn deep wisdom from their own suffering, that we learn what it means to grasp the sacred in every moment of life.

My son in law distilled all his passion for teaching young people into six words:
achievement, respect, responsibility, perseverance, teamwork, and enthusiasm.

Clayton distilled all his life wisdom and the fruits of his suffering into three words: joy, gratitude, and generosity.

Nine good words for us all.

Grace and peace to each of you.

Many Blessings

A message from Mark Sponseller
on behalf of the Stewardship Team of Asbury UMC

March 29, 2009

For those of you who do not know me, my name is Mark Sponseller and my wife Christy and my son Trevor joined Asbury United Methodist last fall. Since joining the church, I have also become involved in the finance and stewardship committees, which brings me here today, this third Sunday of our Stewardship campaign, to talk to you about my views of what faithful giving means to me. I feel it necessary to warn you up front that I am an accountant and CPA by trade, so there is a chance some of this could get a bit dry. I’ll do my best, but wanted to issue this disclaimer just to be safe. I thought about also handing out pillows and blankets to make you more comfortable in those instances, but my wife talked me out of it. This is one of the many examples of why I married her.

I want to discuss two broader topics today. One, I want to give you an overview and perspective of some of the costs of running Asbury and perhaps shed some insights on the financial picture as I feel many of you might find this interesting. If you’re like me, you probably don’t have a good sense of this. Prior to joining the finance committee, I certainly did not. Yes…this may be the “drier” stuff for some of you, but I will try to keep it interesting. Two, I plan on discussing some of my thoughts on why we give – specifically, what motivates me and my family towards giving and much more broadly, why we as a congregation give. My hopes are that this part of my discussion will be a bit less dry, but again would refer to the CPA caveat previously mentioned. I’ll do my best.

Part I

Using some very round numbers for simplicity, I wanted to paint a picture of the costs of running Asbury United Methodist. Roughly speaking, we spend about $400,000 a year, give or take, operating the church and related programs. This covers salaries, heating, electricity, office supplies, church outreach, real estate taxes, scheduled and unscheduled maintenance, grounds maintenance, etc. To give some more illustrative examples, it costs about $900 each time we have the snow removed, $650 for a spring clean up of the leaves, etc., $3,500 a month for fuel oil, $800 a month for electricity, $5,200 for drainage repair, $3,100 for new oil tank installation – these are just a few examples. To break things down further, week in and week out it takes approximately $7,500 to keep things moving here. Some weeks are higher some weeks are lower, but that’s the average. How do we do it?

Your weekly and special giving are a large piece of the puzzle. The remaining ways we make ends meet come from the Asbury nursery school, the Asbury foundation, “leasing” our location to outside parties and also programs such as Musical Munchkins, etc. Nevertheless, the largest of any of the pieces which fund our needs comes from you (accounting for about 45% of the total operating needs of Asbury). You are critical to making it happen each year and given the wonderful thing we have here at Asbury United Methodist, I believe this is something we all should be proud of.

If you consider we have about 100 “giving units” or families, on average we need about $138 per member per month or $30 per week. That’s not to say that is what each of you should give or will give – that is a decision that is a function of many things, including your own personal situation. At least for me, when I break the numbers down this way, it further supports in my mind that we have set up a very achievable goal when taken as a whole. We think about tackling our contributions goal as if we were trying to eat an elephant… doing that you wouldn’t try to do it in one giant gulp but instead you would take a bunch of small bites. I would ask you to think about your giving in the same way.

Part II

I think I will start off the second part of my discussion by talking a bit about the spiritual aspects and also the struggles we encounter with stewardship and giving. I want start off on the spiritual side of things by talking a bit on Paul’s letter to the Galatians and then relate that to the motivations for giving. His letter was an attempt to refocus the message back towards the true gospel – to get the Galatians “back on track” – something we all need from time to time. In Paul’s letter, he emphasizes some of the most basic principles of the Christian faith, such as:

• Justification by grace through faith;

• Our adoption and inheritance as God’s children;

• The equality of Jew and Gentile in the new covenant

• The call to remember the poor

I reference Paul’s letter to the Galatians to expand on the spiritual drivers and motivations behind why we should give. In Galatians one of the main themes is that we, the body of Christ, find our salvation through Christ, not through acts, deeds, giving, etc. Thus, our connection with God transcends these things and is not a result of our generosity or the good things that we do; rather, his love for us comes without strings attached; pretty amazing, huh? So I guess what this means to me is that God’s love is not a result of our generosity, however, our generosity should be a result of the love God has for us and the tremendous gift he gave us; namely, Jesus Christ.

However, now comes the trickier part. With all of this said, I, like I imagine many of you, struggle with the topic of giving. Not the act of giving, but the amount. How much is enough? How much is too little? I’m not going to stand up here and say otherwise as that would be disingenuous (particularly with the economy as it is currently). But what I will say it is ok to struggle. Christianity is complex. The bible is full of complexity. I remember losing myself in I and II Samuel and I and II Kings for a semester back in college. You want complexity; just follow the stories in those books; particularly that of David and you’ll realize that even someone with a direct bloodline to Christ and who knew and spoke directly with God, still struggled in living in faith consistently. Job is another good (and maybe obvious) example and of course, the New Testament is full of stories and parables regarding the everyday application of faith in life and the related struggles with the world at large. Even Christ asked for the cup to be taken from him.

Essentially, giving is just another area where we struggle with our faith. Kind of like when I used to hear the NPR pledge drive come on the radio every six months or so and I would kind of turn down the volume during their requests for pledges – to avoid the calling for help and support. It took some time, but they finally got me this year, so I guess you can’t run forever. I guess what I would ask is that you not let the struggle with giving cause you to “turn down the radio” when the call to giving comes. Much like NPR, God continues to catch up with me in my life on giving and other areas of faith.

I still continue work towards getting to tithing and I continue to feel God’s presence in my life and that of my family. My struggle with giving and other aspects of Christian life is a happy one and not one that shuts me off from God, but actually brings me closer to him. I am pleased to say I find myself in a good and growing place with both my faith and my giving.

So in summary I will leave you three final thoughts as you contemplate giving during this year’s Stewardship campaign.

1. Don’t let the struggle with the decision on what to give, how to give, how much to give; get in the way of giving. Make a commitment during the process, even if only a small amount and symbolic. Get into the game and sign up and support the Church. We are striving for 100% participation.

2. Think of the many blessings you have received and allow those to motivate your giving. Near the beginning of his gospel, John makes a wonderful statement about Jesus regarding Christ’s gifts to us: “From the fullness of his grace we have received one blessing after another” (John 1:16). God’s capacity for giving knows no boundaries. Challenge yourself to return God’s gifts by not only meeting your commitment, but to also to offer above that level as your economic situation allows for it and as the spirit moves you to do so.

3. Giving can take many forms. To quote Ephesians 2:10 “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” It’s more than about giving money – your talents hold value as well. Think broadly of giving and challenge yourself in supporting the congregation in many ways. “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8). OK, I will concede those are a little tough to deliver; however, I can recommend a number of less lofty goals which are still very meaningful to supporting the congregation – Sing the songs, Cook the food, Visit the sick and shut ins, Mentor the young, Rake the leaves, Paint the walls, etc. Keep your heart and mind open as to where your talents can help the church. It is not by mistake that I became involved in the finance committee being someone who likes to work with numbers.

I close with this – we give because Jesus first gave to us. We love because Jesus first loved us. Each person should give what he / she has decided in their heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7). I would leave you with that.

The Privilege of Giving

A message from Jeanette Duncan-Williams
on behalf of the Stewardship Team of Asbury UMC

March 22, 2009

In this second week of Asbury’s 2009 Stewardship campaign, I wanted to share some thoughts about stewardship. First I’ll start by telling you what stewardship isn’t. It is not a program simply about raising funds for the church at a particular event or time of year. Stewardship is faithful discipleship and recognizing that all that we have belongs to God and we are to use these gifts to his glory. Remember God’s gifts include our financial resources as well as our talents and time.

This year the committee’s goal is 100% participation in the pledge drive. As a part of the Asbury Church family we ask for your support. Every one in this congregation is important as a member of Christ’s family and we need the entire family’s support. Perhaps you think you are only one person and your pledge can’t possibly make a difference, but a puzzle missing a single piece no matter how small is incomplete.

2 Corinthians chapter 8: versus 1-12 clearly illustrates what we know our church can accomplish through stewardship.

1And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. 5And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will. 6So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us [a]—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
8 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 9For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

10And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. 11Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. 12For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.

So in spite of the recession we trust that everyone (young and old) that is a part of the Asbury family will make a pledge according to his or her resources.

During these difficult economic times individuals may need to scale back the dollar amount of their pledge. But, we ask you to stretch out on faith and trust in God’s words and make pledges of any amount you are comfortable with at this time. If we recall the children’s story of Stone Soup, it is when we all give something that there will be enough for everyone. So let’s celebrate that we have something to give and have the ability to share with so many that are less fortunate.

The Lord promises that when we give, that our giving will be multiplied and we will have more left than what we started with. Giving is an act of Christian worship. In addition a generous giver truly experiences the joy of giving; which is not associated with a specific dollar amount but the capacity and attitude of the giver. So we challenge you to pledge no matter the size of the pledge. Yet, for those with the ability to increase the amount of our pledges let us follow John Wesley’s trilateral and give all that we can. For it is only by the grace of God we have the resources to increase the level of our pledges.

As we grow spiritually we understand the significance and joy associated with giving. We realize that we are truly blessed to be a part of this church family and that it is a privilege to give. Moreover, all that we have belongs to the Lord and if we trust in his word he will keep us.

In the past, I was a passive member of my church, I attended service weekly and listened to the pastor’s sermon and I wrote a check, prayed and went home. I felt that giving was my duty as a member of the church. However, as I matured in Christian discipleship I realized how very blessed and honored I should be to give. The act of giving helped me to be more aware of my blessings from God, it strengthened my faith and spirituality. Charitable acts became a response to my thankfulness to God for all the benefits he has bestowed on me. The scriptures are filled with words encouraging us to give to the church and those in need.

Acts 20:35b
“[T]he Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give then receive.’

Romans 12:13
“Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”

Growing up in the Baptist Church I learned the tradition of praising God during the offering. The pastor would say that it is time to give and the refrain from members of the church was, “Praise the Lord,” generally accompanied by applause. The offering was a time of joy and a celebration of blessings. Individuals would carry their offerings to the altar accompanied by uplifting hymns. It was a truly a privilege to give.

2 Corinthians 9:6-11
6Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9As it is written:
“He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”[a] 10Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

So we ask you to bring your pledge cards to the altar with joy and songs of praise on Easter Sunday, April 12th. Easter is the Holiest and most joyful day for Christians and it is most appropriate that we follow Christ’s example of generosity and abundant love on the day we celebrate his resurrection with gifts to his church. It is our privilege to give to God who first gave to us the gift of love.

Thanks be to God.


You’re Never Too Old

by Rev. Scott Summerville

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34

In the Bible there is tragedy and there is comedy. If you were a man 99 years old, as in the case of Abraham, or if you were a woman 90 years old as in the case of Sarah and you got the word from the Lord that you were going to begin procreating, I suppose, depending on your perspective, that might be a comedy or tragedy. Personally, I would consider it to be a tragedy.

God’s surprise announcement to Sarah and Abraham and their willingness to leave their security and their homeland in their old age is the event of supreme importance in Jewish history and therefore in Christian history. The apostle Paul argues that the most important moment in Jewish history was not when Moses received the law on Mt. Sinai; it was the moment that Abraham and Sarah in their old age believe God that they would have a child in their old age and were bound to God in an everlasting covenant.

At first Sarah thought this whole thing was a joke. Sarah laughed at the idea that she would bear a child, and she also laughed at the idea that the old man was still up for his part of the job (Genesis 18) :

11] Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. [12] So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” [13] The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ [14] Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.” [15] But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

Yes, it was a bit of a comedy. Abraham actually falls down laughing:
(Genesis 17: 17) Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

So this momentous event in the history of Israel and the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faith, was at the same time a comedy. Sarah was very skeptical about the getting pregnant part, but she seems quite ready to have a good time with old Abraham. “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure? -why not?” Sarah does of course eventually give birth to Isaac and through Isaac and Rebekah shall come Jacob, and through Jacob and his wives shall come the twelve tribes of Israel.

This strange and curious pregnancy of Sarah in her old age is the linchpin, it is the essential beginning point of the whole story that follows, including the Gospels and the later faith of those who follow Jesus. Long after Abraham and Sarah there will come Moses and the kings and prophets of Israel, but at first there were these two, in their old age, becoming parents.

A historical footnote: in the Bible we are often told about great men and how old they were at their death. Sarah is the only woman whose age at her death is stated in the Bible, where we are told that she lived to the ripe old age of 127.

I had the pleasure of seeing the youngest member of our church family. When I saw her she was just two weeks old, she was sleeping when I visited. She was serene. She was in that placid godlike sleep that infants sleep when they are sleeping. There was the infant lying on her back in her little swinging sleeper, radiating all the stuff that infants radiate: wonder, unspeakable beauty, mystery…. all those things and more.

It’s a shame that the one time of life when you are truly and purely adored, when you have no faults that anyone can see, when you are the center of the universe, when you are the object that fierce and passionate love of your parents, and the adoring love of everyone else – it is a shame that you’re not really conscious of it. What’s more, when you have grown up, you will not be able to remember it.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic – you’re having a bad day at the office – or your teacher scolded you – you feel unappreciated – you just close you eyes and you remember exactly what it was like to be your infant self, at the center of the universe, bathed in unconditional adoration and love. Unfortunately none of us can remember that part of life, except somewhere in our bones and deep in our flesh we carry the memory of being held and soothed and loved and adored.

The reading today from the book of Genesis, the announcement of the child to be born to Sarah and Abraham, is joined with the gospel reading taken from the middle of the gospel of Mark. The reading comes halfway into Mark’s gospel, and it is the crux of the narrative of Mark’s gospel. It marks the point at which Jesus turns his attention to the journey to Jerusalem and begins to teach his disciples that in Jerusalem he will meet death on that Roman implement of torture, humiliation, and punishment: the cross.

The disciples are not at all happy with this teaching. He tells them that there is more, more than just his own suffering:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

What a difficult teaching that is.
Whoever heard of taking up a cross?
A cross is a place you end up on if you are the most unfortunate person.
It is not the sort of thing you would want to take around with you.

Jesus had this way of playing with metaphors and images – this one is the most challenging. Take up your cross: I don’t think he meant a lapel pin cross
or one hung around the neck with a little diamond in it.

Suffering can be useless – the world is full of tragically useless suffering – but there can also be meaningful suffering; there can be suffering that we choose to endure for a greater purpose than our own personal pleasure.

On the way to Jerusalem and to the cross Jesus will encounter children. Mark’s gospel tells it this way:

(Mark, chapter 10) [13] And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. [14] But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. [15] Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Now isn’t this a fascinating thing: on the one hand Jesus teaches us tha those who follow him must be willing to pick up their cross. Whatever this means exactly for each individual follower, it cannot mean something easy or painless. It sounds like a supreme challenge.

At the same time those who follow him must – must – become like a child. What an interesting set of requirements Jesus sets before those who would follow him:

“Take up your cross and become like a child.”

I believe it is useful to hold these two things together. Our greatest teachers – our greatest saints – those whose lives inspire us most – are those who have great compassion – “compassion” is derived from the Greek words, com = with and pasxo = suffer, thus compassion is to suffer with another being. Our greatest teachers and saints have an extraordinary willingness to share in the sufferings of others. At the same time they have a childlike quality, a delight in life – a capacity for joy that does not make logical sense in terms of what they have endured.

Old Sarah an old Abraham are going to have a baby. The sounds of romance will be heard coming from their tent. They will know the fierce passionate love of parents for their children. And they will have a whole world of new troubles before their long lives are over.

Sarah and Abraham are going to have a baby – so anything at any age is possible.

That is the faith with which history of the Jews and the Christians begins – and the Muslims too.

And Jesus is going to the cross – that is a hard and heavy thing to know. Why is suffering so woven into everything in this world?

Jesus is still gathering followers, inviting people of any age to pick up their crosses, not to shy away from the pain that must come when one lives with purpose. At the same time he invites us to take up our cross, he invites us to become like children.

I suspect that Jesus himself was one who could bear enormous suffering and at the same time he could be a child – spontaneous and passionate, creative and curious, like a child.

So take up your cross and become like a child and follow him on the journey of liberation.

Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.

Gain All You Can, Save All You Can, Give All You Can

A Stewardship Message by Robbin Clarke
Sunday, March 15, 2009

This week we begin the 2009 stewardship campaign, and we also are mindful of being in the time of the church calendar called Lent. Therefore, it is quite natural that we turn our attentions to one of the Fathers of Methodism, John Wesley, to glean his thoughts on the matters of money and the church. During his lifetime, he preached and wrote extensively on Bible topics that dealt with money and materialism (Psalm 62:10; I Timothy 6:9; Matthew 6:19-23 Sermon on the Mount, Luke 16:9) It is the latter scripture, however, that he highlighted, when in 1872, he wrote his famous sermon (often referred to as “Sermon 50” entitled: The Use of Money.” During his lifetime, Wesley was not shy about his Biblically based views on matters economic, and what he has to say, especially in these Recession-omic times, is particularly relevant. He offered considerable advice to people on just how they should use their acquired means, and boldly spoke about the eternal consequences of materialism.

As a United Methodist, you’ve probably heard of Wesley’s Quadrilateral. Briefly, it is his proposal of how we, as Christians, can decide if something is right or wrong. It’s rather simple, and that simplicity is exactly the beauty of it! The four points (“quad”) to consider before making a Christian decision are based on The Bible, Tradition, reason, and experience. Wesley Quadrilateral suggests we ask ourselves: 1.) What does the Bible say about the matter at hand? 2.) What has the church through two thousand years had to say? 3.) Does this make reasonable sense? 4.) Is it proven to work out in human experience? Try this the next time you have a weighty matter to decide upon, it works rather nicely…

However, this morning’s conversation has to do with yet another weighty, or shall we say in this day in the USA, anemic matter. Today we’ll talk about Wesley’s Trilateral: his three points to consider when making a specific decision about “The Use of Money.” Again, John being the organized, Methodological Methodist that he was, he focuses on three points, based on the passage from Luke 16:8-13.

Specifically: 1.) GAIN all you can. 2.) SAVE all you can. 3.) GIVE all you can.

GAIN all you can: “The love of money, we know, is the root of evil; but not the thing itself. The fault does not lie in the money, but in them that use (abuse) it…” Wesley suggests that money can be used for good or evil and as Christians, we should Biblically consider our every decision on how we will gain it, as well as spend it.

We ought to gain all we can, but without paying more for something than it is truly worth. Wesley invites us to be THRIFTY.

He also points out that we should not endanger our health, or the health and well being of others to gain all we can. This means we have a responsibility to work hard, but to eat right, get our eight hours sleep, spend time with our precious families, and the biggie: Wesley wants us to be mindful of the killer stress in our work to gain all we can.

Wesley urged that we should not gain money through any occupation which “lying, cheating, stealing, or avoiding taxes was the norm.” We all know someone in the news of late that swindled a lot of persons out of their entire savings.

He points out that we have a duty to not expose ourselves to danger or harm at the work we do to gain all we can. Back in his day, folks worked the factories of industry and “…were exposed to dealing much with arsenic, or other equally hurtful minerals, or the breathing of air tainted with steams of melting lead, which must, at length, destroy the firmest of constitutions, or perform jobs writing, especially if a person is sitting for hours in an uneasy posture…” Kinda makes you feel a lot better about asking your boss for that Ergonomic chair for your computer workstation! “Life is more valuable than meat, and the body than raiment.”

2.) SAVE all you can: “Having GAINED all you can, by honest wisdom and unwearied diligence, the second rule of Christian prudence is to SAVE all you can.”

Wesley again invites us to be THRIFTY and FRUGAL, by using every bit of everything we have GAINED. He would have been proud of RECYCLING, and certainly would be, if alive today, in the crowd of marchers on April 21st of each year on Earth Day. Throwing something away that still has use to it is akin to ‘making yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness” [Luke 16:9]. It also means that we should, perhaps, use the four steps of the Quadrilateral whenever making decisions of the use of what we own. If the radio is still working, just a bit beat up and ugly from too many trips to the beach, and we DO decide to purchase another: RECYCLE the old one: Donate to the thrift store, or give it to someone who could use it. Saving finds a wealth of righteousness in sharing.

Wesley urged Christians should be wary of extravagant spending on taste: expensive food which he felt was an “epicurism” which led to gluttony in other area of life as well. He urged people to eat only “simple foods,” and I’m sure he would be proud to partake of our “Comfort Food” Pot luck luncheon in Weyand Hall, today.

3.) GIVE all you can:

Wesley stated: “Having first GAINED all you can, and then SAVED all you can, then it is time to GIVE all you can. The Possessor of heaven and earth brought you into being, and placed you in this world, NOT as a proprietor, but a steward. As such He entrusted you, for a season, with goods [also talents and abilities] of various kinds; but the sole property of these still rests in Him. Such is your soul and body not your own, but God’s.
Thus, we’ve heard the saying:
“All that you have is a gift from God.
All that you give is your gift, to God.”

GIVING is the motivation on Wesley’s entire view on money, and the basis on which the Wesleyan Trilateral stands. The question remains, even today: To whom and how much? Wesley again proposes FOUR levels of giving: “ 1.) First, give to yourself all you need for the basics. 2.) Then give to your family and your employees their fair share, or you are worse than an infidel. 3.) Third, give to the ‘household of faith’, the organized work of the Lord in churches. 4.) Finally, give to all those in need and the poor, even if they are not believers.”

Today we begin the first Sunday of our Stewardship Campaign. We ask you to prayerfully consider one hundred percent participation in this Christian event. Every person in our congregation is important, as is every part of the body of Christ. As part of the family, each person makes a commitment to support the family to the best of one’s ability. By making a pledge of whatever amount you can, you are making a powerful statement to your brothers and sisters in Christ, to God, and most importantly, to yourself, about the value of Asbury Church in your life.

Give generously, but only according to your ability and resources.
Celebrate the fact that you CAN give, that you have been blessed by God
with riches you are ABLE to share with others less fortunate.
Although we are currently in the Lenten Season of the church year, be mindful that
the act of giving is not a penance, it is not a sacrifice. It is a JOYFUL PRIVILEGE!

When you make a pledge, be it five dollars a week, or five hundred dollars a week, you are saying:
“I belong here. I am part of this, my family, at Asbury Church…”

And, considering the words of Wesley: GAIN, SAVE, and GIVE all you can:

“For this is, in no small part, the Wisdom of the Just. Give all ye have, as well as all ye are, a spiritual sacrifice to Him, who withheld not from you, His Son, His only Son: So laying up in store for yourselves a good foundation against the time to come, that ye may attain eternal life.”

Sacred Priorities

By Rev. Scott Summerville

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” John 2:13-16


Friday evening Mary Ellen and I went to Brooklyn to the wake of a member of the Bay Ridge church where we served for many years. At the wake we encountered people we have not seen in years. We saw some children we baptized twenty-five years ago, all grown up and out of college. We met a young woman who used to be a playmate of our son when they were in grade school. She now has two children of her own. A couple came up to me and said: “You married us twenty-four years ago!” They are still together, and they seem very happy to be together, so I guess I did a good job of marrying them, even though I have no recollection of the event.

I have mentioned to you before that Bay Ridge United Methodist Church was torn down last year. For more than a century it had been one of the most beautiful churches in the city. But it would have required millions of dollars to repair its stonework, so the congregation made the decision to tear it down and redevelop the property and build a new church.

The church member who died this week had been a trustee of the church for many years; he was a handy guy with tools, and he had worked on the church property for many years. For more than fifty years he lived only a block from the church. His wife said to us, “My buddy is gone, and where my church was there is a vacant lot; it seems so much has been taken away.” The funeral was held yesterday in one of the other churches in the neighborhood, but of course that was not the same as having the funeral service in the church where he and his family worshiped and served and formed deep friendships over many years.

With funds from the sale of part of the property the Bay Ridge congregation will build a new energy efficient church and parsonage on the remaining property. It will be heated with geothermal technology. It will have solar energy generation, with the capacity to sell excess energy to Con Ed. Two years from now they will have a new church with multi-use space for worship, for education and fellowship, and for community service.

Human beings grow up so fast, they change so fast, they move away from home, and in time they all die. Buildings can give us a feeling of permanence. We are fragile and mortal; part of the comfort of a sanctuary is that it feels more permanent than we are. But buildings of course are not permanent either.

The tearing down of that church was a creative and faithful act on the part of that congregation. It was also a courageous decision, because that beautiful building was also a reassuring sign for the neighborhood. It was a sign of permanence and stability for the people of the community. The community thought of that building as its church. You can imagine the kind of anger from the community that was directed at the church. The pastor and the churches leaders and eventually the entire congregation was vilified in the local press. But after facing all that opposition the church prevailed, and the deed was done. Friday was the first time I ventured back to see the empty space.

When you mess with sacred places and sacred spaces you will stir up the deepest of feelings.

When Jesus messed with the temple in Jerusalem, he touched off a storm, and he sealed his own fate. In the gospel lesson today Jesus ventured into the most sacred space in Judaism. He entered the Temple in Jerusalem. It is difficult to reconstruct exactly what his purpose was that day, but what is clear is that he caused a great commotion, in fact whatever he did in the temple that day was probably directly related to the decision to have him executed.

Each of the four Gospels tells the story in a slightly different fashion. According to the Gospel of John the commotion in the temple occurred at the beginning of Jesus ministry. According the other Gospels the incident occurred at the end of his ministry, which seems more likely historically, but no one can say for sure.

John’s Gospel tells it this way:

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

What was Jesus trying to accomplish that day?

One interpretation is that Jesus was taking the radical step of challenging the whole structure of Temple Judaism. That is, according to this interpretation, Jesus was attacking the whole system of priesthood and sacrifice and temple ceremony that was at the heart of official Jewish society and religion at that time.

If you can’t have animals for sacrifice in the Temple, if you can’t buy and sell those animals, and if foreign pilgrims cannot exchange their money for local coin to purchase them; then the whole system breaks down.

If that were to happen, then the Temple, that monumental and majestic Temple, would no longer serve a function, and the economic structure of Jerusalem society and particularly the interest of the religious and social elites would be devastated.

Another interpretation is that Jesus was not a radical out to challenge Jewish Temple observance and all that went with it, rather he was a reformer who wanted the temple to serve its proper function. In support of this interpretation it is pointed out that in all of the accounts of Jesus creating a ruckus in the Temple, there is a focus on money changers and those who sold birds.

Birds would have been sold to the poor. They were the sacrifice of choice for those who could afford no other creature to sacrifice. If there were abuses in the changing of money, if the money changers and bird sellers were squeezing their customers, if they were adjusting the exchange rates in their favor – bumping up the price a little here, a little there – it would be the poor who would suffer the most. And we must remember that the vast majority of the people were poor.

I am reminded of a story told to me by someone who grew up in a very poor country that was beset with corruption at every level. He described a person who was desperately sick who had traveled for days to reach a medical clinic. At the clinic door they were met by a man who controlled access to the clinic. When the sick man asked to be admitted to the clinic, the man at clinic door said to him, “It is quite hot today; I’m feeling quite thirsty, quite thirsty indeed.” The poor man understood what this meant. It meant that he would have to go into the town to purchase a large bottle of Coca-Cola – a trivial thing to you or to me – but to the poor man it meant spending a week’s wages to bribe his way into the clinic after spending many times that amount just to reach the clinic door.

So, one theory is that Jesus was fundamentally concerned with the abuses of the temple system and the impact that those injustices that on the poor who were coming to fulfill their ritual obligations as Jews.
Was Jesus a radical out to challenge the very foundations of Jewish society and power, or was he a reformer who wanted the Temple to be what the Lord declared it to be to the prophet Isaiah, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations.”

It is impossible to say for sure – I certainly cannot claim to know exactly what Jesus meant to meant to signify when he drove the money changers and the animals out of the Temple. Whatever he meant to signify, he succeeded in threatening those who were in power.

By the time our Gospels came to be written, a half-century or so after Jesus’ ministry, the issue no longer mattered, because the Temple no longer existed. When our Gospels were written, the Temple had already been destroyed – leveled to the ground – by the Army of Rome in the year 70, in the terrible and bloody destruction of the city of Jerusalem.

Churches today are wrestling with what it means to be a community of faith centered in invisible things – centered in the love and mercy and justice of God – centered and compassion and forgiveness – while at the same time we find ourselves in large and expensive buildings, coping with challenging financial and economic realities.

How can a church be faithful to the Gospel, so that if Jesus walks in the door, he will say, “Peace be upon you,” instead of, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations;’ but you have made it a house of trade” ?

Starting next week the stewardship team will be telling us about the plans that have been made for raising the funds needed to support the ministries of this congregation. As the members of the stewardship team speak to us, they will surely feel this challenge: how do we challenge and inspire our congregation in its stewardship without conveying the message that we can measure our Christian commitment in dollars or that we can measure the faithfulness of our congregation by how well we are doing financially?

This is not easy. On behalf of the whole congregation I want to say that we are grateful for those of you who are willing to wrestle with this difficult issue, especially in times of economic crisis when some people may find talking about money to be very uncomfortable thing to do in the church.

Our Community Outreach Team is engaged in research in our community, primarily in central Yonkers, learning about extent of poverty and hunger in our community and trying to bring our congregation into a more direct role of service to the poor. The offerings today, both the food collection boxes and our financial contributions to the ecumenical food pantry, are a part of this effort. It may be difficult for us to interpret what Jesus was doing when he chased the money changers out of the temple, but it is real clear where Jesus stood in relation to poverty and the needs of the poor. That was at the center of his ministry. It is a crucial challenge to middle-class congregations to figure out how to be faithful Jesus in a world of inequality and massive poverty.

The early Methodist didn’t have fancy buildings and didn’t attach importance to fancy buildings. They attach great importance to the life-changing love of God at work in individual lives and in society. The Christian movement began without buildings. Our trustees are working our behalf to utilize the gift of this sanctuary and the rest of the church physical structure in a way that fulfills the spirit of the Gospel and the spirit of our Methodist tradition. The trustees are working on behalf of the congregation to see that this physical place we occupy is as a place of healing and hope. We worship in this sanctuary one day each week; seven days a week this church is a place of refuge and healing for hundreds of people wrestling with addiction.

Our trustees work along with the board of our nursery school so that this church can be a safe place of learning and nurture for the children and adults of our congregation, and for the nearly two hundred children who come here nursery school during the week.

The trustees and the nursery school board and other leaders of the church are managing the visible things, so that the invisible things can happen here.

It is very challenging work, and we are grateful for these leaders and their commitment.

The other day I was at my desk doing some Bible study in preparation for preaching today. At one point I stepped away from my desk, and when I returned I noticed that the Bible was lying on top of one of the church financial reports – the balance sheet. So there was the Bible in front of me and sticking out from above it were these columns of numbers. Most of you know that I am like a Japanese tourist with a camera – I need images!- so of course I took the photograph my Bible with the Asbury United Methodist Church balance sheet sticking out above it.

The photograph invites the question:
Is the balance sheet above the Bible or is the Bible on top of the balance sheet?

That’s the challenge.

We don’t live in ancient Israel. We don’t live in Galilee or Jerusalem of the first century. We live here and now, with all the challenges and problems and crises of our time. We have to work out our relationship with God as people of our own time; we can’t ignore balance sheets and leaking roofs.

If we put the balance sheet above the Bible, then we are just an institution like any other that is primarily concerned with self-preservation.

But if we put the Bible on top of the balance sheet, then whenever we look at the balance sheet we will also be looking at the Word of God, and we always be challenged to examine our priorities and to ask: are we serving God? Are we embodying the healing and forgiving love of Christ? Are we putting service to people about self-preservation? Are we serving the poor?

It is not comfortable always to be faced with these questions, but they are the questions the Gospel is asking us in all we do.

Grace and peace to you.

Metanoia or Paranoia?

Rev. Scott Summerville

Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

At the beginning of Lent we turn back to the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. We go back to that moment when he was setting his course on a journey that would end at the cross. His ministry began with his baptism at the River Jordan by John the Baptizer. Immediately after his baptism he spent forty days in the wilderness enduring temptation and hunger. After passing through that ordeal he emerged onto the scene in the region of Galilee preaching a message of good news, announcing the kingdom of God, and calling upon the people to repent.

That word “repent” is a bit tricky. Sometimes we confuse the word “repent” with the word “confess.” To confess is to acknowledge before God and before our neighbor that we have fallen short in some way. We have done things that have cause injury to ourselves or others, or we have failed to act when we should have acted, and our failure to act caused injury to ourselves or others. When we confess, we are taking the painful but liberating step of laying it all out there, coming clean, and committing ourselves to change.

The word “repent” in our Gospels has a broader meaning. The word in the original Greek of the New Testament is “metanoiete” – from which we get the word metanoia. It means to turn around. So when we say someone has had a metanoia, we mean they have had some life changing experience – an experience so significant as to change the direction of her life for his life.

I heard two people recently describe experiences that I would call metanoia. One was a patient in a nursing home who has been wondering what the purpose of her life is now that she is so dependent upon other people and so restricted in what she could do. She said, “An unusual thing happened. One of the nurses who has been caring for me told me the other day that she had been thinking of giving up nursing and that she had become very discouraged and unhappy in her vocation. She told me that something strange happened to her while she was caring for me. She said she had a change of heart, and she thanked me, and she said that she is now once again wholly committed to her work as a nurse. And she said it had something to do with her being with me. I was so surprised to hear her say this. I guess I do have a purpose, even now.”

How strange and wonderful. The healer became the healed. Caregiver became care receiver. A person went from discouragement and a sense of lost vocation to a sense of clarity, purpose, and commitment.

There was a turning point – an important life change – for the nurse. There was a metanoia.

Someone else describe a metanoia recently. A middle-aged person described how they had come to a moment of profound insight about one of their parents. This parent is still living. The parent had been harsh and critical and hurtful to their children. All their lifetime, this person now middle-age has carried wounds and burdens caused by the harsh behavior of the parent. But recently they were prompted to call that parent and say, “I love you; I didn’t always think I loved you, but I do now, and I’m letting go of the pain of all the hurt you caused me.” And in this act this person found great release and relief. Another metanoia. A moment of insight and action that transformed a life and ofere3d healing to another person.

Metanoia can occur at any age and in any season of life. So when we hear the gospel message, “Repent, kingdom of heaven is at hand, believe the good news,” we should remember that repentance is not the same thing as confessing our sins.

For some people a metanoia requires confession. Some of us will never experience healing transformation until there is a reckoning with our past action.

For other people a metanoia cannot take place until they can forgive another- until they have reckoned with the injury others have caused to them. (If you missed Rev. Mary Ellen Summerville’s lenten class on forgiveness, I highly recommend it to all when she offers it again. Her teaching helped to make clear that forgiveness is a process that allows us to regain control over our lives; – we may lose a sense of control over our own lives when we are holding in unresolved anger and grievance.)

A metanoia usually involves a person confronting directly something that they have been afraid to confront – confronting something she or he has tried hard to avoid. The moment of transformation comes when we seize the power to face the things we are most afraid to face.

Sometimes the circumstances of life push us into a metanoia; a life-changing shift comes at a time when we simply had to change. What is exciting about living in times of crisis is that we may have to have a metanoia whether we want one or not.

It is a fact that in times of crisis some people will regress. They will become overwhelmed with anxiety. They will be unable to cope with stress. They will be consumed by paranoia. But while crisis drives some people into paranoia, it prompts other people to metanoia. When we give in to fear, we suffer from paranoia. When a major life challenge provokes us to grow, prompts us to explore new things, and stirs us to creative action, then a crisis can be an opportunity for growth – even an opportunity for positive transformation.

Any economist was being interviewed recently concerning the current economic crisis. The interviewer wanted to know how this economist thinks that economy will recover. The economist said, [paraphrasing to the best of my memory],

“The federal government’s intervention will be one factor in an eventual recovery, but the federal government cannot bring about the recovery; in fact no one knows just how the recovery will come about. But,” she said, – and this is where it gets interesting- “the recovery will come about because millions of individual people will come up with their own recovery plans. As they struggle to survive millions of individual people will discover new ways of employing themselves, and they will discover new ways of cooperation and sharing resources.”

Isn’t that fascinating? The economist thinks that this terrible economic situation is going to create the conditions in which millions of people are going to have metanoias – millions of people are going to discover things about themselves; they are going to have to be more creative than they were before, and they are going to have to create new social arrangements – new patterns of cooperation and sharing.

This is not the way economists normally talk. But these are not normal times.

I don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish – “Whoopdeedoo! Isn’t it great to have a huge economic crisis!” I do say that it is life’s challenges that force us to change, and the gospel we proclaim challenge and invites us all to metanoia.

Most of us, unless we are pushed and challenged, will settle into ruts and be content with safety and familiarity, but the Christian thing – the path that Jesus embarks upon and invites others to follow him on – is not the path of the safe and familiar.

As you come to partake of communion today, remember the invitation Jesus gave:

Do this in remembrance of me; take this cup in remembrance of me; eat this bread in remembrance of me,” and remember those other invitations that Jesus gave:

“Repent – get turned around – open your life to transforming love,”

and, “Follow me. I do not promise you safety and security, rather, I offer you the power to face the things you are afraid; I offer you companionship and deep sharing of life; I offer you love and I offer you a purpose for your life.”

That’s the deal.

Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.

A brief reflection

Transfiguration Sunday
Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

My message today will be brief, so that there will be time for Joseph Ewoodsie, Mission Coordinator of the New York Annual Conference, to bring us up to date on the Dorcas clinic Project.

It is Transfiguration Sunday. This is a day we remember an odd event that comes in the middle of the Gospel story. Jesus takes Peter and James and John aside from their busy work together and leads them up a high mountain.

On that mountain, in a dazzling moment, they see him in a vision, his clothes blazing white – beside him they see the ancient ones: Elijah and Moses, the great prophets of early Israel. Then they heard the voice of God, “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him.” The disciple think that they will be staying on this mountain for a long while. They make plans to build shelter. But before they can settle into this glorious scene, the vision disappears, and they are on their way down the mountain.

One moment they are seized by a vision of glory, and the next moment they are once again surrounded by desperate people demanding help – “Jesus! my child ! Help my child! “Teacher! My wife! Help my wife!” “My friend! Please stop, my friend is paralyzed – help us!” The Transfiguration is a brief moment of spiritual ecstasy – a glimpse of glory – and then it’s back down to earth, back to everyday reality.

A question: what goes on inside you during the worship service on Sunday mornings? In worship we listen to the spoken word. We speak the words of the liturgy and sing the songs. We drink in the music. At the same time, our minds are sifting through the recent events of our lives, especially the things we are anxious about. And as we are doing these two things, contemplating our own lives and participating in this event of worshiping together, we open our lives to some surprise. Somewhere in the interplay of our lives and the Act of worshiping together we open our lives to some new thing.

In every time of worship there is an opportunity for new insight, a new excitement about life, the chance of a burst of hope. These things are sometimes subtle and fragile, so we come back again, Sunday after Sunday, to open our lives to the whatever surprises the Holy Spirit may have in store for us.

The Holy Spirit may speak to us in prayer, in a song, in the rumble of the pipe organ in our bones, in a word of Scripture, in a moment in a pastor’s message , or in the taking of communion. However it comes to us, we receive something that we take away with us as we cope with the challenges of the week ahead.

Today we have heard splendid and soulful music. We have heard the ancient words of Scripture. We have shared signs of peace with one another. We will soon hear Joseph’s report and see the images he has brought of a place and of people far away living in circumstances vastly different than ours – yet people are joined with us in a particular ministry of healing and compassion.

It is a privilege to be able to share these things. And in sharing them we never know when the Holy Spirit may speak to our hearts, release some pain locked in our hearts, inspire our compassion, or give us some fresh excitement for the journey of life ahead.

May the Holy Spirit surprise you, even this day.

Grace and peace to you.

Moved with Pity

By Rev. Scott Summerville
Mark 1: 40-45

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him…

The city of Karbala al-Muqaddasah, one of the holiest cities of Islam, lies approximately sixty miles south of Baghdad. At this time of year Shiite Muslim pilgrims make pilgrimage along the roads to this ancient city, to the tomb of Husayn ibn ‘Ali, grandson of the Prophet . Tents are set up along the way for the pilgrims, where they can rest and be refreshed. It is the custom that there are tents for men and separate tents for women and children. On Thursday along the road to Karbala al-Muqaddasah, a woman of suspicious appearance was seen moving among the tents. When she was approached to be questioned, she stepped into one of the tents filled with women and children, and an instant later there was a dreadful explosion, and one hundred people were killed or maimed.

For several days this story has haunted my thoughts. How can such things be? What level of hatred must exist in human hearts to do such a thing? This was not an act of sudden rage. It was carefully and systematically planned, and there was no pity in the hearts of the planners – no pity for the victims – no pity for the woman chosen to do this dreadful thing. How can human beings descend to such a level of pitiless cruelty? Such calculated evil?

How can we human beings be capable of extraordinary acts of love and also capable of such extraordinary acts of hatred?

In a world where there is great cruelty and great suffering, how will we live our lives?

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

A leper experiences a double tragedy: physical deformities that result from a lack of nerve sensation and psychological trauma as a result of being ostracized from one’s family and society. In the Gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with a particular individual with leprosy, we see Jesus’ hands and we see Jesus’ heart.

Last week I gave a speech. As a matter of fact, they called it a keynote address. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I do know that was the first time in my life I’ve ever been asked to give a keynote address. I addressed the United Methodist New York Connecticut district leadership training up in Ridgefield Connecticut. I was asked to talk about the challenge of leadership in anxious times. In my address I shared something that I learned from Tom Porter, co-director of JustPeace, which is a United Methodist organization that works for peaceful and thoughtful resolution of conflict.

Tom Porter teaches that Jesus, when he was faced with the greatest challenge of his lifetime, when he was in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover and the authorities were out to get him, had three choices: he could do the thing which sensible people did at that time and still do; he could have run away to the hills to hide until danger subsided. He did not elect to do that.

He could have taken up the sword. That was what many Jews chose to do when they could tolerate Roman oppression no longer. The Zealots were a fraction among the Jews who took up the sword against the Romans. Jesus did not choose the sword, the path of violence.

He went not to the hills and not to the sword; he went to the table of the Lord’s Supper, where he broke bread with friend and enemy. There he prepared himself and he prepared his followers for his death.

When we are confronted with suffering, we have a range of choices. We can look away and deny or ignore the suffering of the world. Or we can convince ourselves that only some massive global change which is totally out of our control could bring about a remedy to human suffering. And so we excuse ourselves from any direct action, because of course what can one person do to change the world?

Or we can take a third way, as Jesus took a third way:
He did not hide from suffering or deny it. He did not say the suffering people he encountered, “Just wait – wait until the day of the Lord – wait for your reward in heaven….”

Again he took the middle way. He was affected by suffering. The suffering he encountered pained him. Pity is a form of inward pain. Out of that inward pain he did what he could do to respond to the suffering that came his way, to help the hurting people who reached out to him. To be realistic – even Jesus – with all the power of his words and the power of his touch – he scarcely made a dent in the suffering of humanity. But he left us a powerful witness and a model for what it is to be human in a world of suffering.

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

In January of 2004 a group of seminary students from Drew Theological School, Madison, New Jersey along with two professors went to Ghana on an educational trip. They visited a number of villages in rural northern Ghana.

One of the students, later said, ” This visit profoundly affected us as we observed living conditions which were at best minimal for survival. We felt driven and compelled to do something to bring Christ”s helping hands in the midst of this scenario of human oversight. Out of our discussions with some villagers we learnt that the nearest health facility to the Dagomba village and the adjacent communities was 350 miles away. Both the distance and the costs rendered it inaccessible and prohibitive to them. Once we returned home, we did a study on the health conditions in Northern Ghana, which led to some disturbing findings. We found that the high levels of diseases which so readily disabled and eradicated their people could easily be eliminated with proper education and basic health care. These include cerebra-spinal meningitis, measles, river blindness and diarrhea among others. Most of the children under five years suffer from malnutrition, which has a negative impact on their growth and development process. Approximately half of all deaths to children under five occur during the first year of life. We found that while the outlook in urban Ghana is improving, not so for the Northern rural section in Ghana where the under five-mortality rate is three times as high as in the capital region. These studies reinforced the notion that a health facility is the conduit through which we could best make a difference in the lives of these villagers for the better; hence the founding of Project Dorcas Ministries”.

These individuals embarked on a campaign to raise funds for a clinic. The chiefs of the Yippala village donated to this purpose 10 acres of land. The building of the clinic started in September 2007. This congregation made a significant contribution to the construction the clinic. Next week we will hear from Joseph Ewoodzie, who has been deeply involved in this project, and who is going to invite us and challenge us to take additional steps to help this dream come to full reality.

I have a friend who just returned from a trip to Ghana, where there has been a peaceful transfer of power through elections from one political party to another. This is a singular event in the history of Africa. He said that everywhere he went there was such extraordinary pride and joy in this accomplishment.

It is important to point out that the Dorcas Project is being done in partnership with the Government of Ghana. Because of the shortage of funds and personnel the government looks for partnerships with other organizations to bring services to underserved people. Once the Dorcas clinic is set up the government will be responsible for the personnel and equipment for its operation.

This is an example of how committed people, moved with pity by human suffering, working in collaboration with communities and governments, can magnify their personal compassion and participate in social change.

There are times when we are moved to pity and compassion and we must act as individuals in response to individuals whose needs have come before us. And there are times when we need to work as citizens to change the policies of governments, so that we as a society are doing all we can to alleviate the suffering of our fellow citizens. And there are some things we do together is a church that go beyond what any of us can do individually to express the love of Christ for humanity.

I want to share with you a letter that I received on February 1. This letter is written to me, but when you hear it, I think you really should hear this as being addressed to Asbury Church, to this congregation, because in my relationship with the person writing this letter I am simply your representative. The letter comes from a middle-age woman who has been homeless and unemployed. Through your contributions to the pastor’s discretionary fund she was able at a critical time this winter to have food and a roof over her head as she looked for work.

Dear Pastor Scott,

Thank you so very much for your help and understanding. As I write this I share some good news! I have two job offers, in writing or if I start work on Monday!!

I could not have done this without your kind help, allowing me to continue the “process,” having a warm, safe, appropriate place to work and eat. I am so grateful.

I will keep in touch.

Thank you.

In our time compassion is personal. It is how you and I interact with human beings as we go about our lives. And it is collective. It is how we as a church through the sharing of our resources and gifts and our institutional influence can address human suffering. And it is political. It is bearing witness in our society on behalf of those who are least able to raise their voices, out of compassion for the least of these our sisters and brothers, who have the least influence and power, and to have the greatest need.

In the Gospel today we see into Jesus’ heart. We see what lies in his heart. And we see his hands. We see and imagine this touch, even upon us. It is this heart and these hands that show us how we are to live.

Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.