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?