Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Blessing of Uncertainty

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached on the Fifth Birthday of Urban Abbey
November 13, 2016

Psalm 1 They are like trees planted by the water and they bear fruit in due season, and in all they do, they give life. 

This has been my prayer and I found it because things were not going so well. I prayed it because this adventure of starting a new church and a new coffee shop was harder than I had ever imagined. I prayed it, I drew it, I wrote it over and over, I carried it in a note in my pocket. I prayed this prayer because I was so uncertain, not unsure but uncertain. I have prayed this prayer hoping to be that tree planted by the water. I have prayed that prayer waiting for the “due season.” I have prayed that prayer and looked at the branches and thought “where is the fruit?” And sometimes that prayer has an expletive right before fruit.

This is a new church start, and it is important to know that while every church job has its share of uncertain space, new church starts are statistically likely to fail. New things are fragile….think about babies and how new parents check on them and worry when they sleep too much or too little. Really, most new church starts fail. And then we added this element of a coffee shop… also pretty likely to fail and then a year ago we added campus ministry…which as you can guess, is not something people do because it is so easy. This is a new church start and in addition to a high likelihood of failure, there is something else unique about our church start which has nothing to do with coffee. Most new churches (regardless of denomination) are started by cute, youngish, white guys with a tattoo or a piercing…but not both…that would be too much, and they play a guitar. I don’t play guitar, and I often think they just ran out of boys to ask. All of this is to say, I am often shocked that we are here and that the Annual Conference not only said yes but said yes with a huge gift of support.
When we started, we had a plan. I wrote a plan and got feedback on the plan and edited the plan and met with people about the plan and changed the plan and took classes about how to make a plan work. It was a great plan. It was 20 pages single spaced front and back. It was such a good plan that our conference staff person shared it with everyone everywhere…even people in Texas. And I can tell you nothing….ABSOLUTELY NOTHING has gone according to this plan…and I couldn’t be more grateful.

It has given me real uncertainty. In an early discussion with our Bishop, She said, “Debra, I know you are not used to failing.” And she was right. I was not thinking about failure, as much as I was thinking about my career and the path to being a Senior Pastor of a large church. I had to get comfortable with failure. I had to get comfortable with risk. I had to get comfortable with uncertainty, and I had to ask new questions about my life and my future and what I might be letting go of and what was really important to me.

I needed this uncertainty. It has been a gift for me. It has required me to pray, really pray, an earnest prayer. It has required me to let go of the notion that if I worked harder I could make this go on my own power. It has required me to reach out and ask for help. It has required me to name that failure isn’t really the worst thing that can happen, but fearing it might be the worst motivation. I imagine if you look into your own lives you can find those uncertain places. Those moments when the choices were heavy and hard to make. Those moments when you had to reach out for help or care or support. Those moments when the future seemed fuzzy and the next step unclear. The dictionary says certainty is about confidence in an outcome and links it to a sense of clarity, which implies some things about uncertainty. When speaking of faith, it is not uncommon to hear people name absolutes, clear steps that trump doubt. But I think uncertainty is faithful. I think it has a spirituality and might be received as a gift.

I would argue that uncertainty doesn’t mean we lack confidence or clarity. It means we can be real and vulnerable and honest about needing other folks along the way. Uncertainty is not new to faith. Every story in our Biblical Narrative from one end to the other, engages this great uncertainty. The stories of the most interesting people are not easy; they do not follow a predictable pattern, and they keep you guessing. Jesus struggles, his disciples struggle to the point that we doubt them ever getting it right. Paul struggles, and the churches he starts struggle with what it means to be church so that he must write them over and over about love and faithfulness and letting go of their petty ego garbage. Uncertainty is woven through our story. David is most interesting when he is struggling, and Abraham and Sarah dwell in epic uncertainty…wondering where and when their faithfulness will bear fruit.

It is Jacob’s story that connects me into this spirituality of uncertainty. I want to go to the place in Genesis where he is wrestling with God. It comes at this key point where he can’t go forward and can’t go back, at least not very easily. Behind him is an angry father-in-law and in front of him is an angry brother. His life, his wellbeing, his family’s wellbeing…all of it hangs in the balance, and so he spends the night wrestling with God. Though we get the sense he has done it before. He is born holding his twin brother’s heel, implying that wrestling starts at conception. He is always wrestling, always hustling, always striving and struggling. He is a trickster, Mama’s boy, not a man’s man like his brother. And there are times it seems like she might be the only one that loves him. He hustles his brother’s blessing by cooking a good soup. I guess Home Economics really paid off for him. He tricks his brother and his father out of a blessing, and even with a blessing he ends up sleeping on stones and traveling to his Uncle’s where he meets his match, his Uncle. He marries, and even his wives wrestle and struggle and hustle. He wrestles away from his father-in-law with sheep and goats, and his wives hide some gods. And now he is stuck: this life of struggle and wrestling culminates in this night where his life hangs in the balance. Perhaps we have had these moments, these moments of wrestling, of wondering, of worry all night long. Perhaps we have had these spaces of doubt and grief and depression and struggle that we would name as so powerful we must wrestle with them. So here, all night long, Jacob wrestles. In the morning, he will not let go. He holds on and asks for a blessing. And the blessing comes. He is transformed from Jacob to Israel. He hangs on in the uncertainty. He holds on and wrestles with what is real all night long.

Jacob wrestles, and it changes him. I think that is the essence of uncertainty. It is a willingness to wrestle: to hold on for the blessing, to face the future regardless of what it might bring. Now this may seem ok here and now while we are together and about to eat cupcakes. But I bet if we really look at it we will have to remember that the world does not like uncertainty. We make plans, and they don’t happen. We make plans for families and for marriages, we make plans for careers and communities and elections and businesses, and they don’t happen. We make plans, and they don’t work out. And God is with us anyway. Guarantees are hard to come by. And faith, I believe, is too complicated for easy absolutes or five step plans. Faith is about wrestling. Jacob’s life names a spirituality of uncertainty. I know, for me, the most uncertain times have been the places of the most growth, the deepest sense of God and the widest reach to friends and allies along the way. When I am uncertain…I am most faithful. Perhaps you are too… perhaps we can value uncertainty, questions and wonder and worry and hope in the midst of everything.

I pray for us five more years of blessed uncertainty. Five more years of getting comfortable with failing, making mistakes and taking chances. Five more years of wondering who might show up when we need them most. Five more years of hearing hard stories and wondering if the world will ever be changed, and how we can be a part of that. Five more years of wresting reminding us, each of us, you and I, in our corporate life together and in our individual journeys, that we need help and can’t do it alone. Five more years of real and honest and vulnerable and uncertain. Five more years of waiting for fruit and for our due season. So we are going to wrestle and hold on and ask for a blessing. We will be relentless in the uncertainty. Because, I swear that is where we meet God. I swear that is where we really start to care about each other, when we know we need each other, and that is a blessing.

Questions for reflection:
Where have you experienced uncertainty? 
What was it like and what did it mean? 
What did you learn from it and where are you looking for more? 
What does Psalm 1 mean for you? What season are you in? 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Relics for Real Life

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Urban Abbey
November 6, 2016

1 Samuel 7:12
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’ 

When I lived in Germany, every church or Cathedral visited seemed to host some kind of relic…or at least it seemed that way.  Golden cases complete with precious stones held sacred remains, sometimes they looked like hands or feet or heads… just to let you know what kind of relic they held.  In Aachen, Germany, at the Cathedral and palace of Charlemagne, you can see his sarcophagus and just beyond it you can see a gold, bejeweled bust that sports his actual skull cap.  You can look around and find a golden arm and hand bedazzled by precious stones and there is this window of thick, thick medieval glass where you can ‘see’ the bones of the once great king’s forearm.  And in this moment you realize that this guy is everywhere but his original resting place in the Aachen Cathedral.  A few hundred years after his death, he was declared a saint and this tomb opened for the taking.  Prince ‘so and so’ took his knee caps to southern France and his great-great-great grandson took his clavicle to eastern Germany and his teeth landed in Italy (none of this is accurate..but true in spirit…he is everywhere).  He is everywhere because his grandsons and great grandsons and those who wished they had a bit of his skill and good fortune to rule all of Europe thought having a little piece of Charlemagne would make all the difference.  Like a little bit of Charlemagne would some how bring their leadership to new levels.

Charlemagne isn’t the only one picked apart in Europe.  You can see the very tunic that Jesus himself might have worn in Trier, a gift from Emperor Constantine’s mother to the new Roman center of government and the church she built.  You can see heads and feet and everything else in between in temples and churches and centers of pilgrimage.  In fact, at the Museum of the Mileages in Paris, you can see a gold statue of Mother Mary holding Baby Jesus…but this baby Jesus has an enlarged glass belly button so you too can see the umbilical cord of Christ himself.  I encountered these relics with skepticism akin to seeing a rabbit’s foot at Wall Drug in South Dakota.

I saw relics through the eyes of my protestant upbringing and my modern sensibilities about needing proof on something that was probably not very provable.  I judged them and I judged them to be ridiculous.  The Protestant tradition and the sometimes anti-Catholic sentiment that goes along with it gives us pause when we look at something like Relics.  This season of all souls and all saints marks a key anniversary where we acknowledge how Martin Luther drafted his 95 talking points that outlined the change he longed to see.  Next year marks the 500th anniversary of him nailing it to the university Church door in Wittenberg.  Luther asked for change and he was not the first or the only one, but his voice marked the start of something new.  He was heard and he survived.   Luther questioned the system of indulgences, a pay to play spirituality that made the poor vulnerable and the rich able to buy their faithfulness.  Relics and pilgrimage had a place in this conversation but it was not where they started out.

Relics were a part of the early Christian experience.  Following Christ was risky.  One risked death…gruesome torturous death.   And at their death, their burial place became a source of transformative grief, a place where people could gather to remember and take courage, the way the saint who went before them did.  These burial spaces were on the edges of Roman communities until Christianity became not only legal but also an integral part of the Roman empire.  This transformed the religious landscape and created touchstones for those exploring their faith.  The martyrs were brought into the city and the relics crated a new spiritual geography across Europe.  The relics invited people to connect their faith, to see their lives through the lives of others, to take courage or let go of fear, to be challenged to live into their faith the way the saints who had gone before them did.  Relics were mirrors and invitations to living the life you are called to live.

And if we pause and think about relics like this, then we probably have to admit we have our own relics.  I can think of dozens of relics..none of them are enshrined in gold but all of them matter to me.  Whenever I move to a new home, the first thing I have to do is put my Great Grandma McKnight’s plates on the wall.  They are not particularly fancy, they are knock-off Fiesta wear that my Grandma purchased by saving stamps from the grocery store.  Some of them don’t really match and there are more than 23 place settings.  I hang them on the wall because they are colorful and the glaze may be too toxic for dinner….I heard.  Anyway, her plates remind me of her table.  Every Sunday she gathered people to her table, where she made a feast from scratch…not one Kitchen Aid mixer or food processor.  She made everyone’s favorite and when she needed more room, she was a master of adding a card table or two or perhaps three until the whole table extended into the living room.  It was a huge table, like the painting of ‘The Last Supper’ but there were people on both sides.  So when I look at her plates they remind me of her hospitality.  It challenges me to think about living into her legacy of extending the table and feasting.  It makes me want to do better, to make my home ready for other people..which is not something I am always so good at doing.

I have another relic from my Great Grandma Barta…well I think it is from her.  It is a watch from a box of things that may have belonged to her.  The proof of her ownership doesn’t really matter because when I look at it, I think of this disciplined woman.  This woman who lied about being married so she could keep teaching school and then did it again when she lied about being pregnant so she could keep teaching school.  She had a master’s degree in education from the early 1900’s when most people didn’t have a bachelor’s.  She served as a school administrator during WWII when the men were away and she taught journalism and Latin.  She wrote the president every week after his radio address to share her thoughts and to correct his grammar.  She did all of this and still made suger cookies and raised her twin daughters with her sweet husband.  When I look at this little relic, I think of her urging me to be disciplined.  To be studious, to be rigorous about my work and my life.  When I look at this watch, I want to experience the fruitfulness that she did.  I look at this watch and I think of how I can lean into that part of me that is and was a part of her too.

Perhaps, as I have shared, you have been thinking of those relics in your life.  Maybe there is a tool from your father’s tool shed or a ring from a Great Aunt or a quilt stitched with love that makes you feel warm in a way that has nothing to do with temperature.  Perhaps you have a recipe or a photo or a locket or a coin that reminds you of that sacred soul that urges and challenges and loves you into your best, most whole self.  Maybe that is a relic, that connects us to the past and transforms us.  Perhaps the value of a relic transcends our time and faith.

Our scripture from 1 Samuel 7:12 reflects a moment of uncertainty in the story of the Hebrew people.  They are about to have a king…but its not quite yet and they are in conflict with the Philistines.  They fought and lost, and in their loss, they lost the Arc of the Covenant.  Now this might sound like a Dan Brown novel or an Indiana Jones movie to us, but to them the Arc of the Covenant what a touchstone of their faith.  It was sign and symbol of Israel's relationship with the one God, it called them to account, it gave them courage and urged them to be the kind of people God called them to be.  And then they lost it.  Now the next part of the story is, well, a challenge theologically and it really is a whole other sermon.  To make a long story short, the Arc was not really a blessing to the Philistines it brought hardship to it’s captors and they decides to create a new cart, found two cows that have never been yoked and then they send the Arc away with a guilt offering.  They expected the cows to look for their young but instead the unlikely duo took the most direct path to the people of Israel.  Which was a sure sign to everyone that God was involved and the people and their Arc were reunited.  And so they pause.  The people marked the space and time.  Samuel placed stone upon stone and named this place Eebenezer,” which means God has helped us this far.  It was a touchstone, a point of remembrance and gratitude.  It transformed the heartbreak into hope for the future.  It was a touchstone that called the people to be faithful to God’s call on their lives.  And it is a touchstone that continues to call people to God.

All Saints offers us this yearly touchstone, and as we think of the past and present we cannot neglect the future.  We are called to look at our lives and imagine what we leave behind.  All Saints asks, “What echo of love or courage or gratitude do we offer to someone in the future?”  We do this individually and as a community and we do it because we overcome our fears.  It is not an accident that in this season where hours of darkness creep into the daylight that we pause to celebrate All Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls.  Here in this season of harvest and darkness and preparation for winter, we humans name our fears.  We get them right out in front of us.  We dress as skeletons, ghosts, witches and goblins and maybe even masks of some presidential candidate.  We name our biggest fears in a big way.  Our fear of loss, our fear of grief, our fear of our own mortality and we do that together so we don’t have to do it alone.  We do it now so they don’t sneak up on us later…like at the office holiday party.  We name our fears so we can live our lives better.  All Saints Sunday asks, “What do you leave for others?”  What will a great-grandson find that reminds him of your strength?  What will that great-grand niece find that reminds her of your generosity?  What will they find that empowers them and inspires them so deeply…that when they need it most some little coin or watch will remind them they are filled with possibilities.  What ordinary object will become a relic… a campaign button, a family Bible or a note?  Each week we have this touchstone, this sacred space and time, where we can draw close into the image of God and the gift of one another from this community and so we must wonder what is our legacy?  Will someone find a coffee mug with a Wesley quote and think of our work in a way that mattered?  Will someone find safe space here and believe it mattered, that it brought them closer to God and to their best selves. That is up to us and how we live and what we live for those that follow.  How can we live so we leave a relic that matters?

What are some of the most special people and relics in your life?  What do they teach you?  Why do they empower or inspire you?

What is the relic you want to leave behind and what do you want it to mean to other people?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Getting Angry...for Good

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached October 30, 2016
at Urban Abbey

And a leper came to him begging on his knees and said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.”  Moved with anger, he stretched out his hand and said to him, “I do will; be clean.”  And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.  And, snorting with anger, he sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony against them.”  
Mark 1:40-45, Hendrick’s personal translation

Snorting….You might be looking at this scripture and saying to yourself, “I don’t remember snorting in the Bible.”  And you would be right.  You might also be looking at this translation and finding the phrase “moved by anger” strange…though perhaps not as strange as “snorting with anger.” This is not a typical translation of the Bible; it is a translation by Professor Obrey Hendricks.  It is not the work of a team of poets and scholars in deep deliberation but I share it because it raises the inescapable reality that our language is lacking.  The typical translation is “moved by or with compassion” rather than anger.  The Hendricks translation forces us to get in touch with anger and that, well, doesn’t seem very Christian.  We never see stained glass windows of a big angry Jesus.  And if we weren’t quite sure about the using the word anger in the place of compassion,….it a gets little more intense just a line later.  You see the phrase “snorting with anger”…well that is more typically translated into the moment where Jesus charges sternly…Jesus gives this man instructions make the offering their tradition commands.  When we read it we get the sense that Jesus uses a really strong voice there and points a finger…but the Greek manuscripts point us to a word that was also used to describe a horse snorting.  And sternly charging really seems different from snorting like a horse.  You can imagine this strong, powerful, beautiful animal snorting.  And if we were not sure about Jesus being angry… I don’t think snorting makes anyone more comfortable.

So now is the time where we have to pause and ask the question, “Why does Jesus being angry seem so strange?”  One explanation offered by scholars is a history where as Christianity ages it also becomes less comfortable with Jesus as human, with emotions, and I guess with the ability to snort..and not the kind of snorting that comes when someone tells a joke.  Language is powerful and we are part of a living tradition that seems to me to have this power of mutual shaping.  We shape and rediscover our tradition and our tradition shapes us, hopefully through a spirit of love and grace and courage and compassion and perhaps even anger.  So let’s pause and imagine that anger is not just ok but sacred.  Let’s pause and look at this compassion that can also have an edge that we name as anger.  

Compassion is nice - - nothing is wrong with compassion.  But compassion alone may not have the same energy or drivenness or edge that the word ‘anger’ invites.  If we were making a flyer about compassion, we might have a really pleasant photo of a person serving at a soup kitchen and we could point out how good everyone feels that people are being fed, particularly young people.  I imagine if we add this edge and energy that the word ‘anger’ suggests it would look more like a person serving at a soup kitchen and angry that the soup kitchen has to exist.  It might look like a relentless person; present, dependable, loving and kind…and perhaps so driven and passionate that they call every member of the city council, show up to every meeting, lobby every elected official from city and county to state and national government.  Maybe that is what moved by compassion/anger looks like.

When we look at why Jesus is angry here, we can probably assume that he is not angry at the man labeled ‘Leper.’  That seems pretty unreasonable.  And perhaps it helps us to understand this by putting it firmly in its context.  I think anytime we look at miracle stories, it becomes easy to say, “Wow, that seems crazy…I am pretty much done with this story and the whole Bible.”  Which, you might expect, I have a bias here, but I just don’t think that is a workable solution.  You see, where we read about Jesus helping people walk that couldn’t or see when they couldn’t or stand upright or stop hemorrhaging…he is not the only one in town doing this work.  This work of healing is the work that belongs to the Temple.  It is a part of the religious leaders role.  Borg and Crossan point to primary sources where people have offered testimony about their healing.  It would be like an ancient YELP review…“I can see again thanks to the great priest at the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem.”  Or “I walked again thanks to the great priests working for Minerva” or “the people at Zeus’s temple really rocked my world and cured my leprosy.”  Healing is happening in the Bible and in the world that surrounds it and just because we don’t understand the body or science or most anything in the same way does not mean we should assume ancient people are stupid or foolish.  People are naming lived experiences and I imagine one thing that may not have changed…good reviews are probably hard to come by.  People cannot run around proclaiming that they have been healed when their skin looks like they rolled in a bed of poison ivy or shout how they can see when they can’t..people are going to notice.  So here we have Jesus bringing the healing out of the Temple and into the streets.   He didn’t ask for an insurance card or a check for a co-pay; no paperwork has been filled out and the HIPA statement has not been signed;  he has just gone and done it.  And then he sends the man with leprosy into the hospital to pay a bill that does not exist.  He sends him to make the offering according to custom.

The Temple had the responsibility for healing and it had the responsibility for public health.  A label of Leper was no small matter; it could be assigned to someone with a contagious disease…and while this seems hard we could liken it to the containment of ebola patients in our recent past.  The thing is this label could be easily misplaced and attached to someone without a communicable skin disease…like eczema.  The reality of this label is hard.   It required a total exit from the community; it meant declaring yourself as you walked in public as someone unclean, wearing torn clothes and being treated pretty terribly by the fearful public.  This is where Jesus gets angry - a man can be healed and brought back into relationship and the religious leaders charged with this task have failed.  Jesus could have perhaps healed and left everything on the down low but no, he sends the man back to prove a point.

When Jesus gets angry, it is for this man suffering on the outside, labeled and limited.  Jesus does not get angry when people don't know how important he is, he never says, “Bow down” or “Confess me as your Lord and Savor.”  He does not get hurt or bruised by insults.  He has some intense moments and he doesn’t snort once when questioned by Pilate or when his childhood community  is trying to run him off a cliff.  He saves his anger for the mistreatment of others.  He loves so much he snorts.

Marge Piercy offers us poetry about a Just Anger.

A good anger acted upon
is beautiful as lightning
and swift with power.

A good anger swallowed,
a good anger swallowed
clots the blood to slime.

So what makes us angry?  What gets you mad enough to snort?  What gets your heart racing?  Perhaps we don’t use the label of Leper too much anymore but we do have other labels that hold power and keep people boxed in.  We can see this in the difference between the use of labels like ‘illegal alien’ or ‘undocumented worker.’  We can see it when we use the word ‘entitlements’ to talk about government support for people living in poverty but not when we talk about government support of big corporations.   We can see it in race and class and gender.  When people step out of their boxes or the boxes that we like them to stay in, we have plenty of words to help put people back in place.  If a man is too feminine we might say, “You throw like a girl.”  We might call him Nancy or fairy or wimp or some other words…one of which a Presidential Candidate has been caught tossing around.  We have words for women like ‘chick’ or ‘doll’ that reinforce a small place and not much brain power.  When a woman steps out of the box we might put her in her place by saying she is too aggressive or nasty or a word that rhymes with ‘Witch.’  These words are complicated to unravel and change.  They require constant, deliberate intention when we hear them.  It requires us to look at who we are and ask why people use the labels they use and the impact words have on how we see one another.

These labels make me angry.  In 2002 and 2003 I worked on a graduate research project about “Heterosexist Language in the Secondary School Climate”.  A lot, thank God, has changed in the years since.  At the time an anti-LGBTQ slur or insult was so common some researchers estimated it could be heard in a school every five seconds. When I interviewed young LGBTQ people (most of whom would not have been comfortable with the word for the time and place you can imagine the Q as questioning) about the school environment, they seemed to forgive this language.  They often used it and named gratitude for a few safe people along the way.  Listening I was always struck by the notion that these young people expected so little of their school and their teachers and their classmates.  The phrase “That’s so GAY” was peppered through the vernacular; students and even teachers often said it without even thinking about it.  When I asked about teacher intervention, one young person said, “At least I knew I wasn’t hated by everybody.”  So I tired an experiment in the classroom (of course I was only a substitute teacher… heading to seminary in the fall so I didn’t have much to lose).  The first time I heard the phrase, “That’s so Gay!”  I asked questions, invited brief conversation about the phrase and then I named my new expectation for our hour of class…I expected we could come up with more creative expressions that didn’t use a whole group of people as an insult.  I gave them a three strikes and you are out policy….like out to the office.  The first time I sent a student to the office for repeated use…well, it didn’t go well.  The Principal wondered why I had sent the student…in front of the student.  And while that wasn’t the first response I had dreamed of it was the later responses from curious administrators that mattered.  I even had a chance to share my research, which certainly impressed me, since it would have been easy for the school to just hire a different sub.  It was a small moment, among many that were bubbling up in our culture and raising questions and opening doors for new trainings about how a school climate could and should be safe for and empower every student.

This was a good anger.  I have had my share of not so good anger…anger that was for me or about me….anger about someone else’s advancement or success…anger at a person cutting in line or interrupting during a meeting.  Anger at the mistreatment of my ego rather than the mistreatment of others.  It can be hard to harness this driver, this passion, this hurt in ways that make something beautiful and powerful.  It is easier to get caught up in Perhaps that is the miracle we should be looking toward and seeking out.  Perhaps we can listen when we get angry and find what pushes us to make something good with our edgy compassion.  Perhaps we need to snort a little when people in power don’t do what they need to do to make the world a place that cares for everyone.   What makes you angry?  What makes that good?  Let’s get angry for good.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Pigs, Demons and Jesus

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached October 16, 2016
at Urban Abbey

Scripture: Mark 5

This text is perfect for the season of Halloween.  It references everything I believe makes up an amazingly scary movie, complete with demon possession and an exorcism.  It represents the kind of movie I never watch, primarily because I like to sleep at night.  Demon possession and exorcism are things that seem very far away from us culturally, at least for me, and are two pretty solid reasons to skip right over this little passage.  The truth is, in eight years of full time ministry, I have never preached on this passage…mostly because I am a chicken and it is scary.

Some folks encounter this passage and say, “Aha! It is about being clean or unclean, it is about purity…not casting out demons.”  Jesus is casting out a multitude of unclean spirits and then, even more proof it is about cleanliness,  he is sending them into a drove of pigs….an animal we all know Jesus would have thought unclean.  Then the unclean spirit and the unclean pigs run off into the sea in some sort of dramatic, chaotic, cleansing pig-astrophic event.   This leads to a host of conversations around getting rid of what is unclean in us and in our culture, which I think is often less then helpful because Christianity has done such a good job at making some people feel bad for who they are.  A further disservice is this perspective never asks the question, “Why are there pigs in Palestine?  Why is everyone in the town afraid once the man is well but not afraid when he is howling and naked and bloody?”  So we are going to look a little bit and ask some questions and wonder if there is another reason why this text is so scary.

The first thing we have to do when we explore this text is to name and honor that it is written by occupied people, people living under tremendous oppression.  The Gospel of Mark is written to and for a community of people that are not sure what their identity is beyond the Jewish culture and it, like the other new testament writings, is the work of people that have to worry their very act of claiming this identity could condemn them to death.  The Bible is filled with the stories and poems of people who have experienced occupation, whether, it was the Babylonians or the Assyrians or the Romans.  This is a work of an oppressed people.  And oppressed people don’t come right out and say what they think about their oppressor…most of the time.  When we look at the Bible we might be wise to imagine it like the spirituals born out of the violence of slavery and the hope of the Gospel.  Spirituals were songs that could remind people of their humanity when the whip and words worked to dehumanize.  Spirituals gave a message of hope in a hopeless space and they gave a way to communicate plans and dreams of liberation, actual liberation.  Because an enslaved person, “Cant say hey we have a plan to get on up out of here tonight and head north,” spirituals offered language that could.  ‘God’s gonna trouble the water’ means stay close to the river, the dogs will lose your scent in the water and the river will give you a path north.

Jesus sees this naked, bloody, howling man run toward him and he asks his name.  “His name is Legion, for we are many.”  Legion is a powerful name.  There are probably zero boys running around Palestine with the name, it is not like Kevin or Josh.  A legion is a unit of the Roman military.  It is a force of troops that would have entered the country, subdued it and continued to occupy it.  The legion is the face and name of Roman oppression.  Historians point out the deep psychological and physical violence that comes with occupation.  People living under constant threat to their bodies, their families and their well-being are likely to experience a high level stress that impacts both their physical and mental health.  Perhaps it is not an accident that the possessed man howls, beats himself and lives naked in the tombs, struggling with mental and physical well-being while possessed by a demon named Legion.  The Gospel of Mark is pointing to the violence of the earthy kingdom and the healing hope of God’s kingdom which is perhaps what makes this passage scary for us.  Because if we are honest, most of us wouldn’t really have an experience of oppression like this, particularly if we are white, middle or upper middle class folks born in this country.  The military base just south of this coffee shop church is our own.  When we hear a plane flying over head we don’t really have to wonder if it is filled with destructive firepower or families returning from a vacation at Disney.  We have an expectation of due process under the law and avenues of accountability if a member of the military mistreated one of our loved ones.  That is not the experience of everyone in the world.  This past summer the Methodist clergy and laity of the Great Plains Annual Conference gathered to hear from a Christian Palestinian leader who lives in occupation.  There are limits to drinking water. There are limits to electricity.  His father was taken for a time and they had no idea if he was alive, dead or coming home.  People’s access to their farms and their livelihood is disrupted without recourse and building permits are hard to get.  It took Reagan’s Secretary of State calling the Prime Minister for this Priest to get a building permit for construction of a school for the children in his community.  People are building lives and they can be taken in a moment and there is no hope of due process.  This is an experience that I don’t have and pausing to recognize that privilege can be as hard as grappling with demon possession and exorcism.

Perhaps this passage is so hard because we can see it.  Rev. Dr. Ottis Moss III of Chicago looks at this passage and is reminded that he sees this man in his community.  He reads about this naked, howling man and he sees people without health care.  He sees people without support systems or mental health care.  He sees addiction and homelessness.  And, if we are honest we can see it too.  In fact, our coffee shop church sees it up close and personal all the time.  And perhaps the challenge is to see it and respond like Jesus.  Jesus sees a man.  What do we know about him?  We know he is strong; strong enough to break the chains of his bondage.  Jesus sees this man, bloody, naked, howling and strong, running toward him and he does not turn away. This is brave.  Most of us I think would have run the other way.  Mark doesn’t say this but I imagine the disciples  running the other way.  Given their behavior in the rest of Mark, I imagine half of them jumping back in the boat, one falling asleep and Peter drawing his sword to cut off an ear.

Jesus doesn’t run. He asks for the man’s name.  The demon responds, “I am Legion, for we are many,” and then the demon tries to make a deal with Jesus. “Don’t send us out of the country.”  Instead, Jesus sends the demon into a drove of pigs and when they catch all the heaviness, all the pain, all the intensity, they run off a cliff.  Moss raises the question of why are these pigs in Palestine and asks is this part of an illicit economy, an economy that doesn’t belong in the community, an economy that exploits.  Jesus disrupts the economy and the caretakers of the pigs run to tell everyone what they have witnessed.  Then the most remarkable part of the story happens. “They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the Legion; and they were afraid.”  Now they are afraid?  They were not afraid when he was howling, naked, bloody and living in the cemetery but now they are afraid.  What does this mean that people are afraid when a man is healed, when he comes from a place of death into a place of life?  Perhaps this is one of the hardest parts of the story-to look at ourselves and ask if we have similar fears when people from the margins are brought to the center.   Perhaps we are afraid when one person’s healing changes our economy.  Perhaps we are afraid when change means more people will have a voice or a vote because we fear a loss of our own voice’s value.  People are afraid and they ask Jesus to leave.  As he is getting into the boat, “the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him.  But Jesus refused.”  This man who has lived through hell in the tombs asks Jesus if he can go along and Jesus says, “No.”  Seems harsh, right?  Jesus continues, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and what mercy he has shown.”  Go home.  If he doesn’t go home, everything can go back to how it was.  The demon doesn’t really leave if the man leaves.

May we have the courage to call demons by name, whether they are shame or fear.  May we have to courage to call the demons of sexism or racism or any other form of oppression by name.  That is the way to cast it out.  That tis the way to heal.  That one of the hardest and most beautiful parts of this scripture.  That is why it is so scary but we don’t have to be afraid….we just have to be brave.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Kingdom Ain't Like That

by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached at Urban Abbey
October 9, 2016

Matthew 5:38-41
 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile."

So. This is a hard scripture. Can I just admit that I like last week's scripture better? I’m not sure if you’ve met me. But if you have, you know that I am often up for a good rant. Especially after some…um…revelations about certain political figures this weekend. I have issued many a rant in my life about sexism and patriarchy, including about three yesterday.

This stuff really makes me angry. So I really wish I was preaching on last week’s scripture. I find it pretty satisfying to hear about table-flipping Jesus--the Jesus who gets all pissed and tells off the religious and political authorities who are exploiting the people. I like that scripture so much better in fact, that I spent some time studying it this week because I was genuinely trying to work out: what in the world does table-flipping Jesus have to do with this cheek-turning Jesus?

So I got out my trusty bible commentary, and the first thing it told me was that Jesus’ table flipping didn’t actually do anything to stop the injustice happening in the vast Temple complex. The temple was a gigantic structure and included among other things, a barn large enough to house thousands of sacrificial animals, an entire slaughter house, living quarters for the animals’ caretakers, as well as the area where pilgrims were exchanging their foreign currency and buying doves. And our commentator writes: “Jesus, even with the aid of his small band of disciples…could not have closed down or even disrupted the Temple business” [1].  So, at best, Jesus makes a scene, but the table-flipping doesn’t actually change things. But it is perhaps the most dramatic is a series of incidents that gets him crucified.

But let’s hold on that and talk about this week’s scripture. It is part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ first major teaching opportunity in the Gospel of Matthew. In this section, Jesus is giving instruction on how to live in the kingdom of God. Here, Jesus warns those listening against retaliation. He advises them that when struck, they should turn the other cheek. But first he says, “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Now, Jesus is not rejecting this law of his Jewish tradition. This law opposed unlimited revenge. It would be illegal, for example, to kill someone because they had stolen a chicken. It might be akin to present day limits on the death penalty. Someone might receive the death penalty for murder in the first degree, but they would not receive it for anything less than that. As a society, we have for many years, made this eye-for-an-eye part of our judicial system.

And Jesus is affirming that yes, this is good. It’s good to set limits on revenge. But. (That’s classic Jesus. “But I say…”) It’s even better to receive a blow, to receive an offense, and not retaliate at all. That’s what living in the kingdom of God looks like. Jesus’ instructions are about responding to offense in a different and somewhat shocking way. In his culture, someone has a legal right to sue you for your coat. And Jesus says, then give them your cloak as well (which would in ancient times render you naked). Another example: a Roman soldier can force you to walk a mile with him, to help carry his pack. And Jesus says, walk two miles with him instead. Help him out.

Now these responses are unexpected. Rather than concerning yourself about the fact that your rights were violated, that your well-being was compromised, Jesus says to genuinely respond with compassion and generosity to the other - even to those who have hurt us.

I do not like this.

I do not like this at all. I do not want to forgive or be compassionate when I’m offended. I want to lash out and put down, and honestly sometimes inflict pain on those who have hurt me or hurt the people I love…especially then. That’s why I love table-flipping Jesus.

But this turn-the-other-cheek Jesus.

And yet, I am a Christian. It means I have to take our Christian story seriously. Both the table flipping Jesus. And turn-the-other-cheek Jesus. Because there’s this. We know that in the temple story, Jesus doesn't drive out every last money changer and victoriously reclaim the temple for God's glory. Jesus doesn't turn out to be the new King David who militarily ousts the Roman Empire. Instead, Jesus dies on a cross. Jesus' radical turning of the cheek doesn't miraculously foil the empire and force a new Christian empire on the world. If you've looked around lately, you know that Jesus’ death did not instantaneously oust the powers of darkness and evil. Because we still seem to be operating mostly under empire values.

See, the empire teaches us that one must exercise power, often through violence, over one's enemies in order to create peace and justice…that enemies are to be destroyed, killed, ousted, or at the very least disregarded or silenced, so that we can take what is rightfully ours. These are the empire values of domination and retribution. And they have infected our nation, ourselves, possibly our families, and even our church - but Jesus teaches us that empire values have no part in the kingdom of God. Jesus' death on the cross did not establish a new domination structure with his followers on top. His death on the cross created a movement of people who believe that the kingdom of God is both here and coming to fullness - not through violence and domination and retribution - but through world-changing acts of compassion and forgiveness and God-empowered restoration.
And I will be the first to admit that Christianity often doesn't look that way. But sometimes it does.

This October 2nd marked ten years since the West Nickel Mines shooting in an Amish one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A man named Charles Roberts shot 10 girls that day, ages 6–13, and killed five of them before killing himself. [2]

And the Amish community – the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and grandparents of those girls – they forgave him.

Part of me hates this. I have an eleven-year-old daughter, and I cannot possibly imagine forgiving a grown man who would do any harm to her. I am almost sure I could not do that.

And yet. And yet, there is something that happens in me when I hear this story--when I heard that the Amish families of the girls who were killed responded in such a shockingly different way. Terri Roberts is the mother of the man who committed this atrocity. Here is how she described what happened at her son’s funeral:

“That week, we had a very private funeral for our son. But as we went to the gravesite, we saw 30-40 Amish start coming out from around the side of the graveyard. And they surrounded us like a crescent. And love just emanated from them.”

And Roberts tells other stories of the community’s response: the relative of one of the girls showing up at their house soon after the shooting, offering forgiveness and comforting her husband. The story of how the community continues to support her as she battles cancer.
Roberts continues, saying:

“I will never forget the devastation caused by my son. I mean, especially in the situation with Rosanna. Rosanna’s the most injured of the survivors. Her injuries were to her head. She is now 15, still tube-fed and in a wheelchair…and that’s certainly not the life that this little girl should have lived. So I asked if it would be possible that I might come and help with Rosanna once a week. So I read to her, I bathe her, dry her hair…” [3]

I am overwhelmed when I hear about the compassion offered – in the name of Christ – by the Amish community of Nickel Mines to the Roberts family. I am in awe when I hear about the compassion that flows out of Terri Roberts in response.

And I also feel terribly inadequate. I can't even react with compassion to small offenses: harsh words exchanged with my partner, my daughter not cooperating when I am tired at the end of a busy day. Some guy I don’t even know saying something irritating on Facebook. It’s so easy to be angry… And I know I cannot possibly embody this transformative spirit of compassion through my own sheer willpower.

But when I look at the Amish Community of Nickel Mines, I sense that God can do it through me. And God can do that through you. And maybe it’s possible for us to be that kind of Christian community that embodies God’s compassion in shocking and world-transforming ways.

And if God can do that through all of us, then a radically different world is coming.

May it be so.


[1] Boring, M. Eugene. Gospel of Matthew. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 8. Page 405.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Bearing One Another’s Burdens

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached at Urban Abbey
August 14, 2016

Galatians 5:26 - 6:1-2

"Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."

Today as we gather to bless teachers and remember and give thanks for all the educators and mentors who have walked with us in our journey, we encounter this scripture that is about a hard but crucial part of teaching: correcting someone when they have gone off course. The scripture encourages us to do this correcting gently. And it is sort of ironic to be hearing this from the author of our scripture Paul.

See, in this Letter to the Galatians, Paul is having a good long rant about some Missionaries that have visited the Galatian community and taught them things that Paul deeply disagrees with. Specifically, the Missionaries have told the Galatians – a Gentile community - that in order to saved, they must be circumcised. Paul disagrees. He is fine with Jews being circumcised, but he is convinced that Christ has made this step unnecessary for Gentiles. So, if Paul were to take his own advice here, he might gently invite the Missionaries into conversation to consider their mistake. But this is not what Paul does. Rather, in one of the more shocking things I’ve read in the bible lately, he writes about these Missionaries: “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12). This does not sound like a spirit of gentleness to me.

This call to gently correct each other is hard, even for Paul, especially when emotions are high. In Paul’s case, he appears to be particularly provoked because the Missionaries are trying to undermine his authority. And feeling attacked, he goes on the defensive…and moves into the offensive!

I think this might be why, in our scripture today, Paul warns the Galatians not to compete with our envy one another. He knows it’s hard to correct someone in love when you feel the need to prove you are better than them. He writes in our scripture, “Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.”  Take care that you are not tempted to harshly correct someone out of a place of conceit or judgment. And Paul goes even further. It’s not enough to just correct someone and get them on the right path. He writes: “Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ."

What is this Law of Christ? Biblical commentator Richard B. Hays tells us that, according to Jesus, love of neighbor was the central tenet of the Law. And this Law of Love was fulfilled when Jesus embodied it totally in his willingness to die for his community and indeed all the world when he was crucified. But unlike theologies that claim that some sort of miracle happened with Jesus dying on the cross that makes us automatically saved, in this section, Paul brings the Galatians right into this saving work.

I think this is rather breathtaking. Paul says to the Galatians, by bearing one another's burdens, "YOU" will fulfill the Law of Christ. The fulfillment of the law of Christ, the law of selfless love, was not simply something that happened one time on a cross 2,000 years ago. It is something that happens every time we bear one another's burdens in community. [1]

But one of the things that makes this difficult, as we see revealed in Paul’s harshness to the Missionaries, is feeling like life is a competition. Hays writes that Paul’s warning here might reflect a sort of spiritual competitiveness in the Galatian community. Perhaps we and the Galatians before us need that warning: that competition and envy is what keeps us from gently bearing each other’s burdens.

But we love competition. I’m not sure if any of you know that this thing called the Olympics has been going on. And if you are like me, you tuned in night after night to see who was going to be number one. Who was going to get the gold? We love the excitement of winning by proxy as the American athletes crush the competition. And this is all fine and good, I guess, when it comes to sports.

Of course it’s not just sports. As a society, we value people for what they achieve or how well they conform so some standard. We wonder, Who has the best job? The best car? The most beautiful and successful family? And we often turn this lens on ourselves. We judge ourselves and maybe think things like: I’ll be worthy and happy when I get that promotion, when I raise a child who goes to college, when I lose 25 pounds, when I prove that I’m competent and caring and succeed at my work. And I’m not sure about you, but I am not very loving and gentle when I am judging myself and others, as a way to prove that I’m okay.

I think one of the greatest gifts of our Christian faith is that it insists this: We do not have to be successful to be worthy. We are sacred and beloved just as we are...and this is true of every one of us. We can start from a place of knowing we are worthy and loved. And we start from a place of knowing that it is true of every human being. And when we really believe that, we are freed to go through life not competing with one another, but bearing each other’s burdens.

I think we all know this in our heart of hearts. Debra and I were talking about the Olympics this week, and she told me that she cries more at the commercials during the Olympics than during an episode of Oprah Winfrey. Because these marketers get this, as do the people who sprinkle all the sports of the Olympics with the human stories behind them. We are drawn to this truth of honoring people’s full humanity. We know that life’s true fulfillment is not about being number one, but it is about supporting one another.

The most profound example of this I can imagine is the story of 18-year-old Yusra (Ees-ruh) Mardini. You probably have heard it if you’ve been following the Olympics at all. Mardini is a Syrian refugee who swam in the Olympics this year and who, like many refugees, had a harrowing journey to safety.

A British newspaper reports her story like this:

"In their desperation to escape conflict in Syria, Mardini and her sister climbed on board a dinghy built to carry six but carrying 20…Their motor failed 30 minutes into their journey and, being one of only four people on board who could swim, Mardini, her sister and two others jumped into the water. They swam for three hours, pushing and pulling the boat until it reached the shore, saving the lives of everyone on board." - from The Independent [2]

We know Mardini’s name because she's an Olympian. But there are so many other people in this story bearing each other’s burden, including Mardini’s sister and the two other unnamed swimmers. And in the midst of this immense refugee crisis, there are so many bearing each other’s burdens in countless boats like it: fathers holding onto children for dear life while the water rises, young people holding one another for support, volunteers waiting on the shoreline with an outstretched hand and solar blankets and medical equipment. Swirling around the horror of the Syrian refugee crisis is an endless stream of people bearing each other's burdens, reminding us that life is not about winning. Life is about supporting each other.

In our lives, in vastly less dramatic circumstances, we have opportunities to devote ourselves to supporting each other every day. I have seen this kind of burden-sharing happen at our partner school, the school my daughter attends, Liberty Elementary. There I have seen teachers treating each student as if she or he was worthy and beloved no matter what his or her reading level or immigration status or family situation.

I have seen children leaving school with bags of bread donated by a local restaurant. I have seen little ones waiting to be cared for in the community health center on site that helps those who don’t have a car to drive to a remote doctor’s office. I have seen teachers and administrators and parents and interpreters gathered, with all of our different races and languages and religions, together committing to bear the burdens of our whole community so that every child is educated and healthy and safe.

And in these transcendent moments, I have truly understood that each person is sacred and has one job: to bear each other's burdens. To incarnate the Law of love.

May we be freed to do this again and again.

May it be so.


[1] Richard B. Hays. Galatians. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 11. P. 333.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Catholic Spirit

A Sermon by Rev Debra McKnight
Preached at Urban Abbey on August 7, 2016

“Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike?
May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?
Without a doubt, we may.”
-Wesley Catholic Spirit

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
             -1 Cor 13 4-13

This scripture seems like something that belongs in a wedding…but I thought it would be a good change of pace in this political season of divisive words, parties, posts, comments and commercials.  Perhaps these divisions of liberal and conservative or progressive and fundamentalist are always under the surface, but in an election season they are hard to ignore.  Perhaps you have shown up to a family reunion in your “I’m with HER” shirt as everyone else is watching Fox news.  Perhaps you have had hard conversations at the dinner table or a Christmas ruined over debates around virtues or lack of virtues that are presented in a ‘Jesus Fish American Flag’ image.  Perhaps an cousin has stopped speaking to you over healthcare reform, your new church or marching in Pride Parade.  Perhaps you have had to remove friends from your Facebook feed or demand that your Grandma stop forwarding you emails.  Perhaps you have considered getting your baby a bib that says, “My diaper is full of Republican/Democratic talking points.”  When babies are involved in debates, you know unity is hard to come by.

In Wesley’s sermon, “Catholic Spirit,” Wesley names a hope for deep connection, even when we all have different preferences and practices.  Catholic spirit is not about the Roman Catholic tradition; rather it is a way of naming Christian unity and broad connection, it is a way of saying universal.  When looking at political or theological difference, rather than limiting us, Wesley urges us to love.

Wesley calls for unity and love…because he understood conflict. It would be a mistake to underestimate the conflicts of the past or somehow imagine our present discourse is of greater weight.  Wesley knew conflict in a different time.  If he wasn't an expert at managing conflict he became better through experience.  He was as the center of conflict, with people that challenged his faith, the Methodist movement and his theological claims.  Some people argued that his care for moving to perfection and practicing faith with works of mercy was a little too Roman Catholic…some argued that he lacked something in his disagreement with Calvinist theologies like Predestination or Double Predestination, where God chooses some people to win and some to lose.  Wesley understood conflict, not only from his own ministry but also from the standpoint of a pastor’s kid watching his Dad manage or not-manage conflict in his parish.

Samuel Wesley seems to have been a man of conviction.  He was so clear and honest and direct…and perhaps as clear about the authority of his office, that the community he served often responded in ways that are less then graceful.  The Wesley family visited their Dad is in debtor’s prison when a parishioner called in a debt he could not pay.  The family’s parsonage went up in flames, the origin of this fire was a mystery, and the community…rumor has it was slow to respond to the fire.  These things did not deter Samuel Wesley.  He was clear about who he was, and this helped John understand conflict in the community.

Wesley understood conflict in his own family. His Grandparents were Puritans.  They were dissenters, non-conformists, living at odds with the crown and yet these two men raise children who choose a different party and a different path.  John’s mother, Susanna, and his father, Samuel, are conformists.  They love the Church of England.  They uphold the Book of Common Prayer, they support the monarchy.  If there was a rally they might have held up a huge sign that said, “We love the Articles of Religion”….ok that’s not catchy but it gets the point across.  These are all things that must have seemed unimaginable to their dissenter, Puritan parents.  If Wesley was looking at our political system today, he would have seen his mother’s story in Hillary Clinton, a woman raised by two Republican parents that joined the Democrats in college.  If Wesley was watching 80’s tv, he would have totally gotten the hilarity of Alex P. Keaton spouting Reagan era conservative ideology to the surprise of his hippy parents on Family Ties.  Wesley might have felt the tension at the Christmas party or the family table.  But he must have seen how in some amazing way his parents and his grandparents had so much in common, particularly in the way they were clear about their convictions and in how they raised children to do this crazy thing…think.

In 1689 the Act of Toleration offered nonconformists space in England but “toleration” only goes so far.  Wesley’s grandparents would have been a part of this structure that required non-conforming preachers to be licensed and limited meeting places to those public houses registered with the government.  Of course the Act of Toleration, did not tolerate Unitarians or Roman Catholics, but for 1689, it might have seemed quite progressive.  Or at least compared to the history that preceded the Act where non-conformists were non-survivors …it seems like an improvement to me.

See, Wesley’s family gives an intimate look at the longer history of religious difference and even violence.  This of course started when King Henry VIII needed the full authority to marry…and occasionally un-marry via beheading.  Henry’s reform of the church was perhaps less theological and more political.  But this action unleashes the debates within England.  Those that long for a church more deeply resembling the Protestant identity of Calvin or Luther saw an opportunity.  As the Protestant voices pushed against those loyal to Rome, power shifted back and forth under Henry’s children.  Dissenters, on both sides, were punished by death or exile.  Monarchs like Queen Mary earned nick names like Bloody Mary, and it was not because she loved brunch.  Monarchs bring the full brunt of their power to the religious conversation, and it was ugly.  Queen Elizabeth established a middle way, valuing the Roman ethic of tradition, the Protestant ethic of scripture and adding reason as a distinctly Church of England ethic (see Richard Hooker’s 1595 Laws of Ecclesial Policy).  Her middle way pleased very few, and the dissent simmered.  This theologically charged debate grew into a revolution that killed King Charles the First, established a commonwealth which was so successful that at Cromwell’s death, the people of England will said…”Hey we want that Prince to come back from exile.”  Charles II returns and among many new efforts he established the Act of Toleration.  Wesley’s politics and theology embody these differences and realities. His family was touched personally and professionally by these social debates that raged for generations and were occasionally intensely violent.

It is out of this experience that Wesley offers a few key suggestions to staying in relationship with people that hold different beliefs or opinions.  Wesley, I think, urges us to know ourselves.  He was opposed to the notion of “latitudinarianism” both speculative and practical.  This was a method that approached difference with indifference.  Think and let think.  But disregarding difference is another way of saying, it doesn’t really matter.  In part, Wesley, felt some of his fellow priests and leaders espoused this strategy because they were muddy in their own understanding of their faith.  You can’t really have strong convictions if you don’t have much clarity or deep understanding.  Secondly, he felt people should be rooted enough to believe in how they worship, that they should sense the way they understand communion or baptism is rooted in their understanding of scripture and tradition. It should hold up to the test of their reason, and it should be a moment that experiencing matters.  Wesley knew why he believed as he did and practiced as he did, and he believed others should as well.  It was not indifference but deep conviction that would permit him to be in relationship regardless of others options or convictions.  Wesley invited his communities to practice self-reflection in small groups, and he urged people to understand the limits of their knowledge.  His convictions allowed him to be in relationship with people of other perspectives without feeling insecure or unsure.  Perhaps being rooted, giving the time and study to really know why, allows us to be more widely open to difference and less intimidated or threatened by it.

In addition to knowing ourselves, we can take a note from Wesley on the nature of love.  Love is active and not easy.  This is not a sentimental love or a love of people that think like we do or act in a way we like.  It is loving, sometimes someone that if we would really be honest, we would deem as unloveable.  So I will leave you with this from Wesley’s sermon and invite you to imagine speaking it to someone you struggle with or hearing it from someone that you would rather avoid.

Love me with a love that is  ‘long suffering and kind’; that is patient if I am ignorant or out of the way, bearing and not increasing my burden; and is tender, soft, and compassionate still; that ‘envieth not’ if at any time it pleases God to prosper me in his work even more than thee.  Love me with the love that ‘is not provoked’ either at my follies or infirmities, or even at my acting (if it should sometimes so appear to thee) not according to the will of God.  Love me so as to ‘think no evil’ of me, to put away all jealousy….Love me with a love that ‘covereth all things’, that never reveals either my faults or infirmities; that ‘believeth all things’, is always willing to think the best, to put the first construction on my words an actions….commend me to God in all thy prayers; wrestle with God on my behalf that God would supply… what is wanting in me.  I mean, Lastly, Love me not in word only, but in deed and in truth.
 -John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, Catholic Spirit, 306-307

May we have the courage.  Amen.

Questions to Consider:
Do you have any struggles or debates with people?
How do you feel when you are in a conversation where you disagree?
How can you approach disagreements with love?

Monday, August 1, 2016

Earn. Save. Give. All you can.

by Rev. Debra McKnight
July 31, 2016

You see the nature and extent of truly Christian prudence so far as it relates to the use of that great talent-money.  Gain all you can, without hurting either yourself or your neighbor, in soul or body, by applying hereto with unintermitted diligence, and with all the understanding which God has given you.  Save all you can, by and with cutting off every expense which serves only to indulge foolish desire, to gratify either the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life.  Waste nothing, living or dying, on sin or folly, whether for yourself or your children.  And then, Give all you can, or in other words give all you have to God.  Do not stint yourself, to this or that proportion.  ‘Render unto God’, not a tenth, not a third, not half, but ‘all that is God’s be it more or less, by employing all on yourself, your household, the household of faith, and all mankind, in such a manner that you may give a good account of your stewardship when ye can be no longer stewards….Then why delay?  Why should we confer any longer with flesh and blood, or men of this world?  Our kingdom, our wisdom ‘is not of this world’.  Heathen custom is nothing to us.  We follow no men any farther than they are followers of Christ.
-John Wesley Sermons: The Use of Money

A few years ago, well like a few more than 10, I attended this amazing liberal Baptist church in Dallas.  You might be thinking, “Bless your heart, you must be confused.”  But I assure you this was not just my imagination.  It was a small new church start that met in an art gallery and attracted professors from Perkins, artists, musicians and just about everybody else.  One season they began to talk about money and they played this theme song where voices sing, “Money, Money, Money, Money!”  It was strange to hear that song in church, you see the song was associated with this new and popular reality television show and as I heard the song in church I could see luxury abound topped off with private helicopters and buildings with your name on it…if you have enough money of course.  The show, The Apprentice, featured this two teams that were made to do tests and projects, some silly, some impossible, some humiliating all with the hope of winning a job working with Donald Trump.  And at the end of the day no matter how hard you worked, you could still be fired.  I guess we will all have to wonder what happened to that guy in charge of it all.  Anyway, if you listen to the song, it names the power of money, the way we desire it, the way it can inspire good things and bad things, the way people can cheat their brother for it or sell their bodies to get it.

Money is serious.  It is a part of the fabric of our community, it is essential for our participation and it can blind us to wanting more for so many reasons.  We knew that before Donald Trump; he just helped clarify the choices before us.  Perhaps that is why Jesus preached on it so often and the Hebrew Prophets urged Israel to value God’s call over wealth, particularly when it came at the expense of others.  Talking about money is so important that it makes us uncomfortable, or it can.  We don’t think it is very polite to ask what some one else makes, we don’t think it is nice to ask how much something like a home or a car costs, we would sometimes like to down play how much of it we have or how much of it we really need.  It is not very nice, and we are in a place where Nebraska nice makes talking about money a challenge.  John Wesley had three rules for how we could relate to money, three rules that might allow even our nice sensibilities some room for talking about money.

First, Gain all you can or earn all you can.  This does not sound particularly revolutionary.  He urged the early Methodists to work hard without delay and to avoid being idle.  But he had some clear parameters on what work should look like.  Work should not forfeit your body or soul.  He named some working conditions that were dangerous, like those that work with toxic chemicals such as arsenic or melted lead.  He even named folks that sit and write for most of their day as people that need to get up and move in an act of self-care.  Working should not steal your wellbeing.  His second rule is that working should not steal your neighbors wellbeing.  Gain all you can, but don’t steel it from the people around you.  Wesley names those industries like distillation that produced a high percent per volume “fire water” which took a lot of a man’s paycheck and impacted a family.  He named pawn-brokers and even medical professionals that could stretch out the cure to make more money in the process.  Gain all you can, work hard but gain all you can in a way that gives life.

Wesley’s second rule was save all you can.  He is not talking about saving plans, 401K’s or anything else that might come to mind for us.  He is talking about stepping towards careful use of money.  He is talking about a deep mindfulness about what you really need to buy…or don’t need to buy.  He is talking about not waisting money on a bunch of stuff.  Guilded art, books, fine furniture, decadent meals, fine clothing and jewelry…etc that are not truly needed and push us on a cycle of wanting more things.  Personally, I have long found this a challenge.  It is so easy to be at Target and think oh that would be great to have.  It is easy to mindlessly consume and I have often been really good at it, and it is easy to see how much stuff we gain when we have to move and start packing all of it up.  I would like to say in recent years that I have slowed down and that it has been an act of faithfulness.  But I cannot.  I can say I have been more mindful because of my partnership with a frugal accountant, that poses the question of do we really need that? Usually, we do not.  I recently learned about a woman who took a break from buying and when she saw something she wanted, she went home and drew a picture instead.  This inspired her to pause and be mindful about her spending, her consumption and her most authentic needs.

As the early Methodists started gaining and saving, they became people with some means.  They were a movement largely of poor people and through their personal transformation and through their work together, sometimes giving or receiving micro-loans, sometimes teaching people to read, sometimes offering health care or shared meals, they moved up the socio-economic latter.  They did not mind Wesley’s comments about earn all you can or save all you can but when Wesley said give all you can…that turned into a challenge they did not appreciate.  Why should they give when they just started to gain?  Wesley asked people to give it all, and some people left the movement.  Wesley desired each of us to experience the power of generosity just like he asked people to take communion, read scripture, visit prisons or pray.  Giving is, I think, the most challenging spiritual practice.  It is a challenge to everything every other voice says we should do.  I remember thinking it was something my Dad did or people with lots of money….but not really something I could do.

The first gift I made was to an Interfaith Peace Chapel in Dallas.  It was 370 dollars.  While I was in Dallas, I was entering a new phase of life and as a newly single person who had just lost 46 pounds, I spent a fair amount of money on shoes and new outfits.  I am sure that 370 dollars was the most memorable about of money I spent during my time in graduate school.  I made the pledge in a worship service and then I got home and I thought, “Oh my what did I do.”  I followed through.  It opened my eyes to what giving means.  It challenged me to look at my credit card statements and my bank account and to read them from the outside in, what would they say about me?  I valued stuff over my faith community.  I valued stuff over my friends and family.  I began a slow process of making change, and that process has taught me to give more.  It has taught me that I have enough.  It has taught me that if I care about something I need to put my time and money into it.  It has taught me to share with other non-profits and campaigns and causes, and it has taught me to share my stuff and my space.  To share my car and my home when it mattered to someone else.

You see, I have learned that while giving matters to places like the Abbey, it is a practice that matters to me.  Perhaps this is why Wesley relentlessly challenged the Methodists, rich and poor alike, to give.  Perhaps he grieved that they had learned gain all you can and save all you can, but could not see or feel the real freedom of giving.  Wesley asked people to give, not just 10% or a third or half but all.  To really give all you can in all the ways you can.

Questions to consider:

What does earn all you can mean to you?  How does your work measure against Wesley’s expectations for work?

What does save all you can mean to you?  Do you find this a challenge?  Do you have ways of thinking through your purchases?

What does give all you can mean to you?  What kind of practice have you had with giving?  Do you give occasionally, regularly, pledge a percentage or income or give sacrificially? What would be the next step to try in your life?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Submit to Be More Vile

by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
at Urban Abbey on the road - at Curb Appeal Salon & Spa
July 24, 2016

Well, friends, I think John Wesley would be pretty proud of us today. We’re not letting some small problem like having no air conditioning in our usual worship space stop us from gathering and singing and praying together. And especially I think he’d be happy about me preaching in a beauty salon – and not just because he had fabulous hair.

But early on in his career, he might not have been quite so encouraging of this. Or of worshipping in a coffee shop for that matter. As Debra has been telling you these last couple of weeks, Wesley is known for starting this Methodist movement – so named by its critics because they found Wesley and his followers pretty hilariously uptight about how they pursued holiness. And I have to admit I laughed out loud when I read about John’s instructions for daily prayerful self-examination for the members of his “Holy Club” at Oxford University. Methodist historian Richard Heitzenrater, who wrote “the” biography on Wesley that everyone seems to read in seminary, wrote that Wesley insisted that one should evaluate themselves regarding certain virtues on certain days of the week. And I quote:

“love of God (Sunday), love of neighbor (Monday), humility (Tuesday), mortification and self-denial (Wednesday and Friday), resignation and meekness (Thursday), and Thanksgiving (Saturday)” (Heitzenrater, Loc. 994)

 I like how we get to think about mortification and self-denial twice.

Wesley was a man who loved order. After his time at Oxford, he traveled to the American colony of Georgia, and he wrote in his journal that he was practically distraught about disorderly settlers who dared not publish their marriages as instructed. He laments: “O discipline! Where art thou to be found? Not in England, or (as yet), in America” (Heitzenrater, Loc. 1351). Notice the “as yet” in that sentence. Wesley was going to whip those Georgians into shape.

But, as Debra told you last week, in America, Wesley pretty much fails at his mission. And he’s at a very low point when he gets mixed up with the Moravians and their heart-centered, faith-focused religion. He becomes convinced that salvation happens through an intense experience of God’s love and mercy, and so when he returns to England, he starts preaching this idea in pulpits he has visited before. This was an enthusiastic kind of preaching that challenged the orderly middle-way of the Church of England. And it caused him to be barred from preaching in some churches. Heitzenrater reports that even his brother Charles and his old Oxford friends tried to intervene: He writes, when “the list of barred pulpits began to grow more rapidly…[they] tried to convince Wesley that he needed to control his zeal, leave off [extemporaneous] preaching, curb his ‘vehement emphasis,’ and even cut his hair” (Heitzenrater, Loc. 1518).

But Wesley with his long hair was now on a mission. He believed the Church of England desperately needed a revival that could only happen through the Methodist movement in which religiosity no longer meant the same families sitting properly in the same pew each week. It meant bringing in more and more new people for the sake of the gospel. Another Methodist preacher of the time, George Whitefield, was having grand success with field preaching, that is, preaching outside the church. Wesley’s first response to this was predictable. On March 29, 1739, he wrote this in his journal:

“I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields…I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.”

But just a couple of days later, he noted that when you look at the scriptures, well, Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount was a pretty fine example of field preaching and by Monday, April 2, he wrote this:

 “At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people.”

Wesley was all in for the field preaching because it was effective. That congregation of 3,000 was about average for the crowds he drew. He preached wherever he could be heard – whether it meant standing on the stairs of a building in a town square, or even standing on a raised grave in a church yard. If he wasn’t allowed in the churches, he was going to preach in the streets.

Just like Paul describes becoming all things to all people in our scripture today, Wesley met people where they were at. And his field preaching was a gateway for them to join the Methodist bands, classes, and societies where people found their hearts turned toward God and their lives transformed. Even Charles Wesley, also at first dubious, got in on the field preaching when he saw how well it worked.

Of course, not everybody was happy about it. Heitzenrater writes, “local clergy, quite naturally, looked upon these activities of the visiting clergy as unwarranted if not illegal incursions into the parish life of the city” (Heitzenrater, Loc. 1939) John didn’t care. He saw that the churches were not trying to reach those outside their doors, and he was certain God had called him to do something about it.

No, he didn’t care about making authorities angry – in the church or in the university. Besides these field preaching incursions, a few years later, John also paid one last visit to Oxford University to preach at St. Mary’s chapel in 1744. In his sermon, he blasted the university for its lack of true Christianity. About this, Heitzenrater writes:

“He found not one real Christian among the heads of colleges, he felt the general character of the fellows ranged from ‘peevishness’ to ‘proverbial uselessness,’ and he described the younger students, for the most part, ‘a generation of triflers.’ He summarized with one of his most memorable aphorisms: ‘Without love, all learning is but splendid ignorance.’” (Loc. 2827).

And after that scathing sermon, John knew that he was not going to be invited back to speak again. Perhaps not unlike Ted Cruz at the Republican National Convention. But John didn’t care. He wrote in his journal, “I preached, I suppose for the last time, at St. Mary’s. Be it so. I am now clear of the blood of these men. I have fully delivered my own soul.” (Journals, August 24, 1744).

And with that, John had fully closed the door on the possibility of him being an academic or a parish priest. He was all in with the Methodist revival. The extensive rules that he outlined for his preachers and for his societies show that he still held on to his own methodical personality, but he was willing to stretch himself, challenge authorities, and buck convention if it meant more people would know the love and grace of God.

Like John Wesley, I believe that God is calling all of us out of our comfort zones so that we too might share the good news of God’s saving and renewing grace with the world. Like Wesley, we are called to meet people where they are for the sake of showing them this: that there is a God beyond themselves who created them all of creation and called it good. That although we humans are bent toward all sorts of self-destruction, and we judge and exclude each other at every turn, God declares us beloved and forgiven, and that this same God is in us and with us and we can grow more and more in Her likeness in every moment. And when we backslide and fall short, as Wesley knows we are all likely to do, God empowers us to try again. And in this knowledge, we are free to risk everything to love others in boundless and world-transforming ways.

Maybe you will share the gospel in words. Maybe you will share it in actions. And you might feel a little bit vile sharing a gospel of love in a world that values power and teaches us to fear our neighbor and our enemies, instead of love our neighbor and our enemies.

It might be hard. It might be embarrassing. But it just might mean everything to that one person whose heart is opened to God’s presence because of your witness. And it might mean everything when you find your heart is opened as well.

May we have the courage to be bold and vulnerable.

May it be so.


Source: Heitzenrater, R. P. (2013). Wesley and the people called Methodists [Kindle Edition]. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Monday, July 18, 2016

No Holiness but Social Holiness

Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached at Urban Abbey July 17, 2016


John Wesley’s Preface to the text: Hymns and Sacred Poems published in 1739

Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ.  Solitary religion is not to be found there. “Holy solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness. “Faith working by love” is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection. “This commandment have we from Christ, that he who loveth God love his brother also;” and that we manifest our love“ by doing good unto all men, especially to them that are of the household of faith.” And in truth, whosoever loveth his brethren not in word only, but as Christ loved him, cannot but be “zealous of good works.” He feels in his soul a burning, restless desire, of spending and being spent for them.

John Wesley’s The Character of a Methodist

A Methodist is a Christian, not in name only, but in heart and in life.  A Methodist is inwardly and outwardly conformed to the will of God as revealed in the written Word.  They think, speak, and live according to the method laid down in the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Their soul is renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and in all true holiness.  And having the mind that was in Christ they so walk as Christ also walked.

Ephesians 2:8-10
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Ephesians 4: 15-16
But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.


When you look at our United Methodist hymnal, there are standard sections and titles that you would find in any hymnal…like Communion, Thanksgiving, Praise, Easter, Lent, Advent or Christmas.  But in our hymnal there is this very particular section called Social Holiness.  It follows personal holiness.  It is a phrase right out of the heart of our tradition.  John Wesley is quoted again and again by Methodist nerds the world over, “there is no holiness but social holiness.”  This quote comes from the preface to a hymnal the Methodist Societies published in 1739, which I think puts it in a particular context, the context of worship and spiritual practices.   Wesley names this social holiness and highlights Paul’s writings to the Ephesians, saying we are part of a larger body.  Paul again and again names the connectivity of our faithfulness.  We are parts of a body, we are different and we are all needed for the whole to function.  Faith doesn’t make room for solo artists.  A solo Christian, no matter how self-actualized, humble, smart, gifted and compassionate does not stand much of a chance in the face of the brokenness of the world.  A solo Christian is like a finger without a hand, or a leg without a body.  Faith is connective, not solitary or isolated.  There are no solo artists in faith, we are a band (you decide if we are a marching band or a rock band or what ever kind of band).  

In this section of social holiness you will find hymns that lament the broken world, hymns that name how some go to bed hungry or cry out homeless in the streets, hymns that honor the prophets voices and call us to be instruments of peace, hymns that can or should make those of us with privilege, be it born out of our race, class, religion, gender, nationality or any other elements of our social fabric that can set a limit or offer unmerited authority.  Charles Wesley wrote hymns that name the violence of his day and we can look around in our day and see their application in our own streets.  It would be easy to look at this section of the hymnal and conclude that social holiness is the same as saying social justice.  It would be easy to look at Wesley’s own life and see the work of his faith through the lens of the words ‘social justice’ as we apply them widely in our own culture.

John Wesley and his family knew about poverty.  His own father spent time in a debtors prison.  Wesley’s government estimated that more than half of the general population lived in poverty (Kimbrough).  This means more than half of the people were treated as expendable, often targeted for prison and execution.  While there were ‘Relief Acts’ passed through the British government, the Wesley brothers and their Methodist Societies were connected to systems of injustice and confronted by the violence of poverty in every facet of life.  And they respond.  When in ministry in Bristol, John sees the violence and money of slavery first hand and he becomes an advocate for change.  He sees the mistreatment of laborers, young and old.  The Wesley brothers and the Methodist societies create schools for children, they preach at the coal mines, they set up what we would call microloans for people to develop new ways of supporting themselves and their families.  They set up medical clinics and write guides for physical self-care that give the best medical knowledge of the day to the people that could not have afforded it otherwise.  John and Charles carried the stories and struggles of the poor with them.

They preached sermons that seemed harsh because they were not afraid to offend the rich.  When preaching to the wealthy, they offer scriptures like “You brood of vipers” that were pointed and direct.  You can imagine this didn’t go over well.  One English Gentleman suggested Wesley should have preached that kind of sermon to people in the poor house… you know where they need it.  Wesley responded, he would have preached ‘behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,’ to the poor.   Wesley believed the rich and their greed created poverty.  He was not afraid to tell them that.  While some might have blamed the idleness of the ‘have not’s’ Wesley saw three things as the cause of poverty in England… distilling, taxes and luxury.  He urged for personal and legal restraints to keep thousands of people from starving (Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist, 253).  Wesley asked everyone for money to make an immediate impact in the lives of people.  Everyone in his societies were expected to contribute a penny a week (which may now be about $1.66 a week depending on the “accuracy” of various online calculators).  Rich or poor — everyone gave.  One Methodist left remarking that Wesley was “charitable to an extreme.”  Ironically, this man had been one of the recipients of a microloan from the Methodist Societies and as he experienced success by the worlds standards he began questioning Wesley’s generosity and departed.

Wesley’s social holiness called for justice but social justice may not give the fullness of its meaning.   Working for justice is sacred work and a means of grace. But this is only one of the various means of grace.  Reading scripture, praying, fasting, being in a small group and taking communion, and being in worship…these are all means of grace.  They are part of a personal transformation that doesn’t happen in solitude or isolation.  Wesley’s faith is social and communal just as our Trinitarian God.

God is communal in God’s own nature.  God, the source, parent, father, mother is rather linked to the Prevenient Grace Wesley saw as present all around….grace is seeded within.  It is the spark that longs for the spark of God around us.  Justifying grace, the kind of grace where hearts are strangely warmed or people feel so transformed they can only describe it as being born again.  This is an awaking, an experience.  Richard Rohr describes it as a moment when you feel big and small at once.  This grace comes out of the Lutheran voices that urged Wesley to see grace as a gift that can not be earned.  It is like the Son, the incarnate God found in Christ, that lives and breathes, laughs and struggles so we can open our eyes to a way of living and dying.  But Wesley will not stop here.  He brings all of his experience to the table in Sanctifying Grace, the work of the Holy Spirit that keeps working within us and around us and through us.  This is the grace that comes with practice.  The grace that moves us from our tendencies of selfishness and destruction into the image of God.  This is where the means of grace come to life and move us to perfection.  That is right…Wesley believed we should strive for perfection.   If  we don’t have this big goal then what is the purpose.  Social justice is fueled by a social faith rooted in a social God.  That’s social holiness.

This theology, the fine balance of what might have been conflicting theologies woven together often got Wesley into arguments.  He believed too much in works…like the church of Rome, which didn’t go over well with a lot of folks, folks like his grandparents that might have been more Puritan in their theology.  Some questioned his belief in justification experience.  Some thought he was an enthusiast which was a label no one was enthusiastic about, at least not any of the good thinking people.  Some argued he was disrupting the Church of England.  Some felt he was charitable to an extreme or perhaps his directness confronted them and they just were unable to deal with it.  He argued perfection and grace, not predestination where God picks some winners and some losers.  Some thought they had reached perfection and Wesley had to tell them, “try again.”  Wesley was in constant discussion with people that differed from him and he stayed as connected as he could in all these disagreements, agreements, struggles, differences and hopes.

At the end of the day, salvation was not one moment of justification.  It was a life shaped by the communal God in a communal faith by the means of grace.  Salvation, right here, right now fueled his work.  Perhaps it can continue to fuel and re-fuel ours.  See - we can join Wesley in uncomfortable places.  We can read the old hymns and see the violence of war.  We can read the old prayers and see the misuse of power, privilege, money and might.  We have a social faith, a social holiness and a social God.  We gather in small groups to check in with our souls and to ask hard questions.  Brokenness looks different than the slave ships in Bristol’s harbor or children in need of schools in Kingswood or laborers without rights.  Maybe.  We look out on our world and we are painfully aware of brokenness.    We look out and see the victims of gun violence, some children, some civilians in other countries, some in military uniforms, some in service, some teachers, some spouses, some law enforcement; all sacred and tragically killed.  We look at the brokenness and we see people in power and authority abuse their work.  Church leaders preaching hate and crucifying LGBTQIA people with their words.  We see the news of healthcare professionals, law enforcement officers, and political leaders abuse their power when they are called to heal, protect and serve.  We look at our world and we see refugees rejected and immigrant families broken in two.  It is so overwhelming that the easy solution is to complain about those people or just check out.  But the gift is we are part of a social faith.  Holy is communal and we don’t carry it alone.  Sometimes when we have a little more to give; we give a little more.  Sometimes when we need a little support, courage and resilience; we have folks that can support us.  This is social holiness, we are not alone.  Thanks be to God.


Other articles to read
John A. Newton from Methodist History, 42:1 (October 2003)

Kimbrough, s. T., Jr. Radical Grace: Justice for the Poor and Marginal- ized—Charles Wesleys Views for the Twenty-First Century. Eugene, OR Cascade Books,2 0 5 4 ل .3ل pages. ISBN-13: 978-1-62032-143-0.