Monday, July 31, 2017

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 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."

John Wesley believed you should be perfect, or at least, that you should try. He founded our movement with his little brother... probably like all great college start-ups in a dorm room with the 18th century English equivalent of pizza. And when we look at him as that graduate student... he seems a wee bit full of himself, and this whole perfection business feels over the top coming from a self-righteous, know-it-all graduate student.

Of course, when we think of perfection, we might think of a perfect score. We live in a world of scores. We earn a GPA, we know what it means to get a + next to the A. We grade our bodies sometimes with dress size, sometimes with lab results, and sometimes with BMI. We grade our finances... we can get a credit report complete with score and see where we are on the bell curve of life. We even grade babies. Babies come into the world, and we grade them on a scale up to 10. So for us, perfection looks like 100%, and well, the quest after that measure is not always healthy.

It might have looked like that for Wesley too... at least when he was young and hadn’t made any big mistakes. John Wesley was a young man with promise, and probably if we met him in college... that whole perfection comment would fall pretty flat. He was the son of a Priest. He came from a place of study and experience and probably even a little bit of an advantage as he joins in on the family business. His dad, Samuel Wesley, was so principled that he would go to debtor’s prison before compromising with a powerful parishioner. If that wasn’t enough to raise the perfect preacher - his mother, the smart Susanna Wesley, took the work a step further. She invested in her tender children with time devoted around the question, “How is it with your soul?” She was the educated daughter of a popular Puritan minister, and at her kitchen table, she urges her family to reflect deeply on where they are growing in faith and where they are struggling. She invites study and reflection, and her kitchen table pulpit became the place everyone in the parish wanted to meet when a less than thrilling Associate Pastor took her husband’s place for a time. (A fact, that did not go unnoticed; and when her husband asked her to stop... well, nevertheless, she persisted and kept her Sunday study going.)

Samuel and Susanna Wesley sent their thoughtful, earnest-thinking son, John, into the world of study and faith. He attended Oxford, met success, and was yet honest about his deep longings and his struggle to feel an assurance of God’s presence. His younger brother, Charles, entered the University while John served as an Oxford Fellow. Charles and his friends, along with John, saw something more. They were devoted to their faith, but they were longing and unsure and looked perhaps for some passion or something they didn’t quite feel they were finding. And in a move that seems totally counter to aspects of our modern culture, where we might just complain about organized religion or say, “I’m spiritual” and go on a hike... they took a path of diving into the deep end; they attended worship together, took communion, fasted, prayed, read theology and studied scripture. They were so intense that folks started to take note of this group - and not always in a good way. They started mocking those Methodical folks. William Morgan, an Irish student, began pushing this heady thinking and reflective group in new directions. They connected with children and eventually found a caretaker. They went to the Castle prison and visited the debtors and the felons. That enlivened their faith, and Morgan pushed them to visit another prison. This is how they grew, one new experience at a time. They pushed the faith journey from the head to the hands. They got into this place of experience, where the right and wrong answers of an academic faith perhaps didn’t matter so much. They got out of the comfortable places, university libraries and stately pulpits, and this changed their theology. The power of experience began taking root and not everyone at Oxford was impressed. They were mocked... the bible moths methodical... so Methodist! Wesley took that insult as a badge of honor. He began to defend their work and said “YES. We are Methodist.” Wesley started a campus ministry, something that seems really impossible these days. He was going places with the seeds of this small group moment.

And this is when he set sail, literally, to the new world. Prepared to take it by storm, confident in his training and in his new experiences. But his trip was rough. The storms tossed the ship, and while he and the English folks on board feared certain death at sea, Wesley saw the German Moravians singing Psalms from a stand point of deep peace. Wesley wanted that kind of peace and joy... even in the storms of life. His dream of changing lives didn’t really take root in the Native American communities he encountered and he did a terrible job with the folks in his white parish. He found a little success in connecting with enslaved Africans... which probably didn’t help the whole situation with the white folks. This is obviously before clergy attended strict boundaries training seminars and Wesley, who is noted as being easy on the eyes, fell in love, or at least in like, with a local woman. There is support for this courtship but Wesley, the earnest, unsure, and ever thinking man of faith, seems unsure about marriage. The 17 or 18 year old Sophia, likely on the brink of becoming an old spinster, accepted the proposal of another man and Wesley started acting out. He banned her from communion. All the grievances of the parish come to a head and the list is long. Angry people are often great at keeping lists, and Wesley’s intensity about faith practices didn’t win him any friends - at least not any who spoke up. He leaves, and he leaves quickly. He returns to England, shaken and unsure. He, the guy who was written up in the paper as bound for success, returned early and with bad reviews.

Thank God he failed. It was in this failure that his faith got tested and his theology of grace grew. This guy, with a terrible first job evaluation that looks like this “I like nothing you do... Indeed there is neither man nor woman in the town who minds a word you say. And so you may preach long enough; but nobody will come to hear you.” This is a guy that I think could talk with us about perfection. He came back from Georgia a wreck. Unsure of his calling and vocation. Unsure that he can preach and teach a faith he doesn't quite have. He sought new teachers and humbled himself in learning. He traveled to Germany to learn from the Moravians. He longed after an experience of assurance of God’s presence... something beyond all of his working and methods. His mentors urged him to preach faith until he has it, and so he did. This grace he was seeking shaped his world. As his theology matured, he named three graces, Prevenient Grace, already there, a gift of God seeded with in us and all creation. Justifying grace is this grace of awaking, of turning toward God; and Sanctifying grace is a grace of practice, the work of the Spirit... helping us grow every step along the way. Wesley got his justifying experience, but unfortunately it came after his little brother already had his own. But that one heartwarming, awaking moment, as powerful as it might be... was still not the sign of perfection.

Sanctifying grace, the grace of practice, fuels the quest to perfection. And the gift is we don’t have to go it alone... in fact, that doesn’t really work. It is a team sport with individual and communal practice. Wesley named the Means of Grace as the keys to this work. Those are reading scripture, praying, fasting, being in a small group, taking communion, and being in worship. They require showing up and being brave. See earlier, in our scripture, Paul named speaking the truth in love and growing into the body of Christ. And doing that requires real love of self and real self-awareness. This work cannot be born out of unworthiness, but out of value, and the faith that we are created in the image of a Loving God. That sense that we can be perfect because we are loved, rather than we should be perfect or we will get in trouble may make a huge difference in our journey. But the work is still hard.

This is where Wesley’s small groups became so powerful. It was a group of people that could really and earnestly say where you had made a mistake or a misstep. They were venerable and there is power in vulnerability. They could ask you where you felt connected or disconnected from God and hold you accountable to changing. It is constant evaluation, reflection, trial and error... which is obviously something everyone loves... right? This is why Wesley could set his sights on perfection; because he believed the work along the way transformed him and the world. This is also why when people told him they reached perfection... he invited them to keep working, refining, praying, and seeking God.

Thank God he failed and grew and got interesting. Thank God he struggled with his faith and invited us to really struggle in ours too. Amen.

Discussion Questions:
1. When have you failed?

2. What does it mean to “speak truth in love?” How can you listen and how can you speak it?

3. When have you experienced grace?

4. Who can share honestly with you about your growing edges?

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Oldest Sister: Exodus 15: 20-21 (Sermon & Discussion Questions)

In this scripture we meet the dancing prophet and oldest sister... which, if you have seen any of the posts in my newsfeed on Facebook, the oldest child is the smartest and best-looking. She sets the stage for her little brothers to live up to... and those brothers just happen to be Moses and Arron. The more I think about how powerful an older sister is... Well, I just don’t think Miriam gets enough credit for liberating the people of Israel.

Moses just finished a long celebratory hymn, and Miriam picks up a tambourine and organizes a dance. She is named as a prophet in Exodus, and she is named as a prophet with equal billing to her brothers in Numbers 12:2 (when she names her own title) and Micah 6:4 (when a later prophet honors the family trio responsible for liberating the people of Israel). This dance is a ritual associated with military victory and often sung to returning warriors to celebrate victory. But here, the dance is not a celebration of success in battle as much as it a celebration of liberation from slavery and a victory for which they didn’t have to raise one sword. This is the moment when the people of Israel are coming out of Egypt, leaving slavery behind... when all of a sudden this moving mass of humanity see Pharaoh’s army in the distance. The King of Egypt has a change of heart and sends his army to invite them back. There they stand between one of the world’s largest empires and a sea. God steps in, and Moses, with staff in hand, parts the waters. The quest of liberation is so powerful, even the sea moves out of the way. The people of Israel pass through the sea, and behind them the fighting force is washed into the waves. In celebration, Miriam starts the dance. I wonder if this gives us some insight into her person and her leadership. The stories of Israel may have elevated the voices of her bothers, but her voice and her work is mostly whispered in the text.

Perhaps her leadership looks more like a dancer, like a choreographer. Someone with vision and heart. Someone who can see the gifts of others and put them in the right moment with the right move to make something bigger than any one dancer can offer alone. Maybe we see this in her earliest presence, as a child. We first greet her as perhaps a 7 or 8 year old. Maybe she was the helper who played and nurtured and bounced her little brother. She has watched her mother hide her pregnancy and her baby brother, and at last, when the family is out of choices, she has watched her mother prepare a basket and place the infant in the waters of the Nile. Maybe she prayed as she stood watch over the vulnerable little Moses. Maybe she sang one of the songs that her mother taught... a song that steadied her nerves as she watched. Then it happened: the princess of Egypt, bathing in the water, pulled Moses from the basket. Miriam leaps in, at the right spot and the perfect moment and takes charge. She asks the Princess, “Shall I find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby?” Seriously, this little elementary school adoption agent has just found the perfect entry and she secures Moses’ life and gets her mother a job nursing her own child. Moses is safe, and their family connection secured.

Perhaps Miriam’s gumption and courage didn’t stop there. Perhaps she had been leading the dance of revolution for years, waiting for the right moment and the right teammates, like Moses and Arron. Perhaps we don’t see her leadership as much because we tend to have a pretty narrow view of leadership. The stories we write about events or happenings tend to highlight folks that are out front, speaking, directing, and perhaps taking the credit. When people say we have a leadership problem, I think sometimes it means we have a leadership vision problem - like leadership mostly looks like General Patton barking orders. The thing is, the Hebrew people are not an army. They don’t just do what they are told. They are prone to complaining and whining.

They have literally watched God part a sea and destroy an army bent on their destruction and yet they are rarely “all in.” When they were hungry, God provided manna... bread from heaven - and they wished they had some meat (like if God can provide bread, doesn’t She know steak would be nice!). They are prone to grumbling, and at every turn there is the “go back to Egypt committee.” Most churches have one of these yet today... the team that says, “You know what was better? Slavery and genocide.” Moses, Arron and Miriam do a dance of leadership. Encouraging, challenging, reminding and envisioning the future of God’s promise with these people.

Miriam sounds perfect, right? Amazing... like an early version of Wonder Woman. But there is more to the story. In Numbers 12, the grumbling and complaining catches up with her and we meet her as a human.

While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Arron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); and they said, ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?’ And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. Suddenly the Lord said to Moses, Arron, and Miriam, ‘Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.’ So the three of them came out. Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called Arron and Miriam; and they both came forward.

That is being called to the principal’s office... big time. Miriam and Arron complain to Moses and end up in a meeting with God. The Bible names Moses as so humble that God has to intervene... but maybe Moses was just tired of dealing with conflict. Miriam’s complaint is about the Cushite woman Moses married. This is a big problem. It could be a complaint about Zipporah, the woman Moses married in Midian who comes from a region with a city bearing that name. It could be a woman from Cush or Ethiopia, a new wife. And if that is the case, then things get more difficult for us to love Miriam. Is she objecting to Moses marrying a woman from outside the tribe of Israel? Possibly. There have commentators that lament this moment and probably some pleased to find a bit of the Bible as racists as they were. Other writers and rabbis share that in the context, a Cushite woman is thought to be beautiful and valuable and unique... so our worries about her racism can be put at ease. Those writers sometimes suggest something else, a sister and a sister-in-law not getting along. They propose Miriam is bumped from role of first lady and the family conflict is obvious. And sure, family systems are complicated today and we should not assume we are the first to struggle with welcoming new family members and adjusting to life in community. However, why do we have to assume that women must be in conflict and competition? Some Madrash and Miriam apologists go a step further to suggest Miriam and Arron had maintained families, while Moses was not always present to his spouse or spouses and that Miriam’s complaint urges Moses to balance his prophetic call and his family life. To be honest, this feels like a bit of a stretch on the educated guessing that we modern people do when we examine ancient texts.

Regardless of what you see or want to explore in this point of Miriam’s story, the outcome has a lot to teach us. God punishes Miriam for elevating conflict with Moses and her skin turns white and sick. Her death seems likely until Moses intervenes and asks God to save his sister’s life. Miriam is healed and her punishment is seven days of banishment. The camp does not move. They do not forge ahead. The people do not leave without Miriam. M.T. Winter proposes this a sign of the community’s high value on Miriam’s leadership. She is imperfect, and she is their leader, but they do not abandon her. She returns to work and presumably keeps dancing. This is a story of real leaders, imperfect and powerful. Miriam shows us grace and reconciliation are a part of the liberation story.

May we have the courage to dance with her. May we honor the Miriam’s who create something beautiful with us and for us. May we look for our ways of leading in the dance of life and may we celebrate in all seasons.

Discussion Questions
1. What has been your experience of Miriam? Who taught you about her and what did you learn?

2. What do you think of leadership as choreography?

3. Where does Miriam’s story resonate with you? Where are you challenged? Have you ever had to seek reconciliation with a family member or an organization for a mistake or misstep?

Esther 4: 9-17 (Sermon and Discussion Questions)

Esther’s story looms large; she and Ruth are the only women to have their own books. While there isn’t extra-biblical literature to verify her story as history, her story lives in an annual festival called Purim. It is a celebration with food to share and costumes to wear... for us outsiders, it might help us to think of it as the best parts of Thanksgiving and Halloween in one day. With the festive celebration, there is a tradition of reading this book as comedy. There are extremes and extravagances like foolish kings and a year of spa treatments for a first date. Which sure, might have been comedy, but for my ears, if it is a comedy... it is a dark one. Purim is a celebration, but it is a celebration of a time when the Jewish people lived through an edict that allowed people to kill them and take their possessions. Adding to the ugliness of this story, the whole genocidal plot emerges because one assistant to the King had his feelings hurt. One bruised ego almost led to the destruction of a whole people. So if it is a comedy, perhaps it has the edge of something like the Daily Show or Stephen Colbert - comedy that outs absurdity and dysfunctional folks in power.

The other space that makes this a bit challenging is the gender dynamics. First, this is a story about a woman who leads her people, risks her life and takes charge. Which is something I want to celebrate... no joke.1 Additionally, it is hard for me to read the story and not hear how it resonates with narratives of human trafficking today. Esther is taken into custody, she is groomed for a year, and being Queen may be a great deal, but it is still pretty transactional and not much of a partnership. So there are spaces in the book of Esther that require us to look at how we are different. Today, we don’t understand Kings to be quite so all-powerful or view women as property (most of us). And as we read this text, if we are honest, there are many ways we are not as different as we would like to be (which is perhaps the best reason of all to read it).

The book of Esther actually begins with another Queen, Vashti. Vashti was queen of the Persian Empire, and she is throwing a great banquet for all the ladies of the realm. Her husband, the King, is throwing a party for all of the men. These men, powerful underlings of the King, are partying, and normally the only women at this party are ‘dancers.’ The king seems to be having a great time, everyone is drinking, admiring his wealth, and he gets an idea of the only other thing he needs to show off. He sends for Queen Vashti to appear in only her royal signet (her crown alone). He wants her to appear naked, and Vashti... well, she declines. A few scholars, even women scholars, have suggested she was trying to protect the King from his own poor judgment. But I really like thinking of her as a powerhouse woman, taking a stand and dropping the mic. You can choose how you feel about her.

The King decided he felt ANGER. With the blow to his ego fresh... his aides step in, and they were worried too.

1 Jeanne Porter names Esther as model of intercessory leadership in her book Leading Ladies: Transformative Biblical Images for Women’s Leadership. 

‘Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus.17 For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, “King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.”18 This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath! (Esther 1: 17-18)

So the officials devise a plan to keep Vashti from smashing the patriarchy in one act of defiance. An edict goes out to all the land that Vashti is not permitted in the presence of the King and all women are reminded that they have to listen to their husbands. Then the King’s servants come up with another idea sure to make his day.

‘Then the king’s servants who attended him said, ‘Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king.3 And let the king appoint commissioners in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in the citadel of Susa under the custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; let their cosmetic treatments be given them.4 And let the girl who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.’ (Esther 2: 1-3)

And the really shocking point is the sentence to follow. “The King thought this was a very good idea.”

This is where Esther enters the story. She is one of the young beautiful women “brought into custody.” It was not like American Idol and women are lining up to audition, the scripture names this as taken into custody. Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, the man who adopted and raised her, suggests she might keep her Jewish roots a secret, and she is taken to the citadel to compete for the king’s heart. She is groomed for a year, and during that time we can only assume she is as lovely on the inside as she is on the outside. She wins the hearts of the folks in charge of the harem, and in the end she wins the heart of the King. He chooses her to be queen and holds a banquet in her honor. As they celebrate her new royal role, Mordecai uncovers a plan to assassinate the King... and he and Queen Esther prove their worth.

Things are going great until a new guy is promoted. His name is Haman, and he is so excited about his promotion that he believes everyone should bow down to him... and everyone does... except Mordecai. This is where things take a bad turn. Haman needs something to fix his bruised ego, and dealing with Mordecai directly doesn’t seem to be an option. So he requests the total destruction of all the Jewish people, and he wants it so bad he will reimburse the King’s treasury the lost taxes. The King could have responded, “really, that sounds extreme," but instead he seems to responds... “Sure.”

The king’s secretaries were summoned on the 13th day of the first month, and an edict, according to all that Haman commanded, was written to the king’s satraps and to the governors over all the provinces and to the officials of all the peoples, to every province in its own script and every people in its own language; it was written in the name of King.

Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s ring.13 Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces, giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the 13th day of the 12th month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.14 A copy of the document was to be issued as a decree in every province by proclamation, calling on all the peoples to be ready for that day.15 The couriers went quickly by order of the king, and the decree was issued in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion. (Esther 3:12-15)

Mordecai tears his clothing, dawns sack cloth and ashes, and grieves publicly in the city of Susa. Esther’s servants share the news of Mordecai’s public grief and she reaches out to learn what is happening... apparently the news is not well reported in the haram. Mordecai urges Esther to intercede and save her people.

Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said.10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying,11 ‘All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for 30 days.’12 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said,13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, ‘Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal position for just such a time as this.’15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai,16 ‘go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.’17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him. (Esther 4: 9 -17)

“For such a time as this.” This is where Esther goes from passive to active... at least in the story that is before us. It is where she takes charge and commits to the risk. She asks Mordecai to gather all of the Jewish people and to pray and fast with her for three days. She pauses when others might have jumped right in. She stops to listen to and for God. At the end of the three days, she goes before the King, dressed in full regalia and he does not deal a death sentence... he invites her to ask her petition. Once again, she is patient. She invites the King and Haman to a banquet.

Her leadership saves her people. After feasting, when the moment is right, she names her fear of the King’s edict that may end her life and kill her people. And her well placed intersession works. Haman is brought low, killed with the very instrument he planned for Mordecai, and Esther is lifted up. The King does not reverse his edict (apparently when you are infallible that is a problem). But he does grant Esther authority to draft a new edict that allows the Jewish community to gather and to defend themselves.

Esther’s intersession works. Her role as leader is clarified and she carries the weight of the King’s authority in this work. She listened to her people, she understood the systems at work, and she risked it all. We might be reading this story and thinking, “Wow, well good story... good story for Esther to risk her life and save the Jewish people from genocide... but not for me.” It is a pretty big ask and most of us live with enough privilege that that level of risk is pretty distant. Maybe we are asked to make little steps of intersession and without that practice how could we even prepare for a request as big as Mordecai’s?

Perhaps for us this looks like standing with someone vulnerable at work, someone with little authority or voice needing us to listen to their voice and use ours. And that can be risky. Maybe outside of the work place it looks like training to be a CASA volunteer, standing with children as an advocate in court. Maybe it looks like learning and listening with OTOC and speaking up against laws that keep some people in poverty. Esther modeled a leadership of listening and praying and preparing and her story urges us to explore our own call. Or maybe there are spaces we are asked to Mordecai, to care for a leader, particularly a young leader, to see his/her potential and promise and to call it out of them. To be the people that encourage, challenge and hold them in prayer.

Discussion Questions:
1. What is your experience with the story of Esther? Have you read/heard it before and in what context? 

2. What do you see in Esther or Mordecai that you see in yourself? What do you see in them that you wish to see more of in yourself? 

3. What are the places where you stand with someone vulnerable and intercede? What do you need to do that work in our world? 

4. Would you try praying this week for another person in your group? (if you need help thinking about this kind of prayer... see below). 

Intercessory Prayer 

“Praying for friends and enemies is intercessory prayer. In intercessory prayer, we pray on behalf of others. We ask not for ourselves but for them,” says Jane Vennard in the opening of her book, Praying for Friends and Enemies. For me, intercessory prayer is about relationship—relation with God and with those for whom I care and am concerned—whether it's a brother-in-law undergoing cancer treatment or the folks of the Middle East amidst their fear, violence, and hopes.

I have discovered that one of the most healing and wholeness moments for me is the experience of the sun warming my back—it creates such a sense of well-being and the presence of the Divine. So when I want to pray for others, I find myself holding them in the presence of sacred sunlight—warming, healing, infusing them with the Divine—not speaking, not requesting, just holding—letting God do the rest.”

—Rev. Susan Davies, Retired UMC Clergy