Transitions: Protect Them in Your Name

trowelReveille United Methodist Church

Ascension Sunday/Aldersgate Day – May 24, 2020

John 17:1-11

I remember that it was one Saturday last November. Specifically, it was the day of the University of Virginia/Virginia Tech football game, which I listened to on AM radio while it happened. The irony was that I remember thinking, no saying aloud that it was going to be easy, that despite having no experience whatsoever, I knew what I was doing, and everything was going to turn out fine.

I rehearsed these assurances in my mind so that they might sound plausible when I shared them with my wife, who I knew in this little one-act play would inhabit the role of the skeptic, and as I expected, she did not disappoint. She knew better than to believe me; she had simply seen too much evidence and had been disappointed far too many times.

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Why Your Pastor Cannot Come Back

 

SYCAMORE-UMC2It was only my second day in the parsonage of my rural, three-point circuit of churches when the phone rang and a voice on the other end of the line informed me that John Ben Varga had died. John Ben was, in many ways, a patriarch of that small community, and his death in the middle of the week meant that my first sermon in my new pastoral appointment would be a funeral sermon for someone known across the county, just not by me.

Almost immediately after I received the phone call regarding John Ben, I received another call from the pastor who was my predecessor in that appointment, offering to return and help in any way I needed, or to allow me to handle things myself. I told him I appreciated his generous offer but felt comfortable handling things myself.

So, I drove up the long, dirt road to the old farmhouse that had been John Ben’s, where his widow and children awaited, and the process I have known a hundred times began: experiencing the life of a saint of God through the eyes and stories of those who loved him the best as together we began the sacred work of planning worship to glorify the God who had given and redeemed this life so well lived.

It is difficult to overstate how important experiences like the one I just described are in forming the critically important relationship between pastor and parish. As time passed in that appointment, I was able to witness those three congregations accomplish frightening yet heroic tasks, ministries I am to this day proud to have experienced with them, humbled by the trust they placed in me, trust which began to be cultivated on a cloudy summer evening in an old farmhouse with sisters and brothers in Christ on the worst day of their lives.

As time has passed, I have only grown in my appreciation for the space provided to me by my colleague and predecessor in that appointment; space to begin forming the relationships that enabled those frightening and heroic tasks to come to fruition. Had he not, everything could, and likely would have been different. He humbly and graciously enabled me to begin my ministry in that context in the best way possible.

This is why, in our United Methodist tradition and practice, your pastor cannot come back.

So much of the relationship between clergy and the people we are charged to serve is forged in exactly the kind of settings for which we hope former pastors will return, settings which include baptisms, weddings, and funerals. And yet, allowing your new pastor to walk these sacred paths with you is in so many ways the means by which they truly become your pastor, not in title alone, but in reality.

When that rural appointment ended, one of the people I felt closest to was Jon Ben’s widow. In so many ways, the pastoral care I was able to offer when that pastorate was in its infancy set the trajectory for everything that followed, as did the hours I spent in hospital rooms, funeral parlors, living rooms, and my study, hours God used to bind our hearts together in Christian love.

As someone who has lived half of his life under the obligations of our United Methodist itinerant system, I can attest that this is not easy. Not long after I became Reveille’s pastor, I returned to my study after Sunday worship to find the voicemail light blinking on my phone. The message was from a member of my former pastorate immediately prior, a woman who was one of three generations of a family in that church. In her message, she told me that her father, also a member of that church, was dying and was calling out my name, asking for me. “Could you please come to the hospital and pray with him? Please?”

And I confess to you that it took every dutiful bone in my body to call her and assure her that her new pastor would gladly come and minister to her and her mother and father in their time of need, and that he would do so with great love and grace. I truly wanted to go.

That is, until my mind went back to a dusty road on a summer evening that led to an old farmhouse where the Varga family awaited the arrival of a young pastor who they did not know but who they would graciously allow to walk with them through all that was to come.

I say all of this to tell you that when I am gone, I am not creating space for its own sake, and I am certainly not doing so because I have stopped caring for you. Instead, I am doing so because I am making space that the Rev. Dr. Peter M. Moon will ably and lovingly fill as he walks with you through all that is to come. When the end of June rolls around, he, along with the Revs. Stephen Coleman and Kelley Lane will be your pastor, your prophet, and your priest. As you come to know one another, I invite you to give him the grace to inhabit that space in your life created by the joy and heartbreak of this life, for it is in that sacred space that he will become your shepherd, your guide, and a caretaker of your soul.

Grace and peace,

Doug

 

Surprised by Joy: The Empty Tomb

jobsEaster Sunday – April 12, 2020

John 20:1-18

Video is here.

I believe that one of the most gifted presenters of our time had to be Steve Jobs, the co-founder and CEO of Apple, Inc. For over a decade, he gave keynote addresses at various annual or semi-annual trade shows in which, he unveiled Apple’s new products. These keynote addresses were eagerly anticipated by the tech world. People would line up for hours to enter the auditorium where the presentation was to be made. Websites would post in real time each and every little announcement that Steve Jobs made. Those presentations were broadcast over the internet, and then made available for download, which people did thousands of times.  Jobs’ abilities in those presentations have been described as a “reality distortion field.” An associate of his once remarked that Jobs could convince people to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bluster, exaggeration, and marketing. If that associate only added perspiration, a top hat, and butterscotch ripple, Jobs would be a real life Willy Wonka. Each time he spoke, he affected the stock price of his company.

A trademark of his presentations for over a decade came at the very end, when it appeared that everything had been said and everything had been done, all of the good news had been shared, all of the stories had been told, all of the new products have been announced, all the guests have been thanked for their attendance, and all of the good-byes have been said, almost as an afterthought, Jobs would would say, “Wait: there is one more thing.”

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Surprised by Joy: The Cruelest Month

Palm-Sunday-Call-to-Worship-Website-Block-bPalm Sunday – April 5, 2020

Matthew 21:1-11

Video is here.

It was dusk; the sun had disappeared behind the rooftops of the homes across the wide street from the west-facing house in which I was raised. The neighbors in Ednam Forest had, for the most part, lived in that subdivision since it was constructed on land part of which, in the early 1970s, used to be a plant nursery. Most people knew one another – their children played together, the adults were guests at the occasional neighborhood party or cookout. We trick-or-treated at each other’s houses.

Each Halloween, there was an older man who thought it was funny to answer the door, reach into our bag of treats, grab a handful, and say “Thank you!” before abruptly closing the door. He would pause for a beat that seemed like an eternity, before reopening the door, giving us back our candy, and then asking “Who wants a Mary Jane? Everybody loves a Mary Jane!”

This was always the highlight of Halloween for me.

On this particular night, however, as the horizon darkened and the clouds stood like silhouettes against the sky, my mother called me into the kitchen to tell me that the Mary Jane Man had died. “His adult son is there,” she told me, “You should go over and check on him.”

And just like that, I began one of the most significant parts of my life’s vocation: visiting, gathering with the grieving, listening. Crossing the street, I had no idea what I was going to say. I was probably fourteen years old.

The English professor, novelist, and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis did not marry until he was fifty-eight years old when he was wed in a civil ceremony to Joy Davidman Gresham in April of 1956. The following march, they would be wed in a religious service but not before Joy discovered she was suffering from terminal bone cancer, which went into remission until July 13, 1960, when she died. (1)

After her death, originally under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk, Lewis published excerpts from the diary he kept after her death in a book called A Grief Observed, a book in which he explores his own suffering at this loss in the context of the struggles it created with his Christian faith.

In chapter one, he writes, “An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t. Some [pass] it altogether. R. has been avoiding me for a week. I like best the well brought-up young men, almost boys, who walk up to me as if I were a dentist, turn very red, get it over, and then edge away to the bar as quickly as they decently can. Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.” (2)

In this morning’s text, Jesus “crosses the street,” as it were, bouncing on the back of a donkey as he enters the holy city of Jerusalem, where he has come to die. Jesus enters to the adulation of the crowd who we know from years of Palm Sunday sermons is only cheering because they misunderstand exactly why he has arrived. Jesus arrives, not on a colt as a king awaiting his coronation would ride, but humble, on a donkey, a mere beast of burden. As Bishop William H. Wilimon reminds us, Jesus arrives on Palm Sunday as the royal one who comes to rule, yet as one who conquers through obedient, self-emptying love. (3)

Palm Sunday flies in the face of our modern notions of a distant, disconnected God who seldom, if ever gets involved in specific ways in our lives. A month or so ago, I was attending an ecumenical gathering of clergy when we were talking about prayer, and one of us was actually willing to admit how when he enters situations with his congregants, and especially where there is illness involved, he always finds himself praying in a way that, in his words, “gives God an out.” What he meant was that he prayed aloud in such a way that if the prayer was not answered in the way that was hoped for, God would somehow be protected, not made to “look bad:” “Lord we just pray unto you in the name of Jesus that if it be your will for this healing to take place…”

The rest of us knew he was describing us as well.

The fact of the matter is that generally, we are rather comfortable with a vague notion of God, a God of whom we have few expectations and who we believe has even fewer expectations of us, and of our lives; a God we find unconcerned with how we live and the choices we make. This, in many ways, is the difference in being “spiritual” and being “religious.” Spiritual people can roll with the idea of the existence of a deity. Religious people, on the other hand, tilt towards a deity who seeks our attention, craves connection, gets involved, identifies with our pain, holds us to account for our sin, a deity who enters into our own, personal Jerusalems, even to our misguided acclaim, to intrude upon our comfort and ease with our notions of a far-off god.

It is the reason that our scriptures and our creeds are intentionally so specific. Today’s text speaks about our God doing a specific thing (riding a donkey) on a specific day (Sunday) in a specific time in history. It is why in the Apostles’ Creed, we confess that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” This is not to place blame, for the blame is truly on sinful humanity. We instead utter the name of the one who condemned Jesus to remind ourselves that Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death actually occurred at a specific time in history.

What today’s reading does not include is the first thing that Jesus does in Matthew’s gospel after entering Jerusalem. He enters the Temple and overturns the tables of the money changers, and when he does, Matthew tells us, it was only the children who continued the shouts of “Hosanna!” The adults had other ideas. It is one thing to shout “Hosanna” to a god we believe exists on a plane well above lives. It is quite another when Jesus enters my neighborhood and your neighborhood, and when the tables he overturns are ours.

In the passage I quoted earlier from C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, Lewis concludes his paragraph on how he was treated while grieving the death of his wife by saying “Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.” Bishop Wilimon writes “I remember the mother who, in noting how few church people had made contact with her after her daughter’s death, said, ‘I don’t blame them. It takes huge courage to enter somebody’s pain. Better to say nothing than to be exposed to such pain as mine.’” He goes on to remark, “Besides, sometimes hurting people unconsciously conspire to keep their would-be saviors at a distance. ‘You can’t know what I’m going through,’ they sometimes say. No wonder we hold back.” (4)

And yet, this holding back is not what Jesus does. It is not who Jesus is. Perhaps more than we would care to admit, we enjoy the distance between ourselves and God. A god who does not intervene in human history, who does not get involved in the entanglements that are our lives is a safe god, a mere granter of wishes, a god behind glass with the small, red hammer hanging alongside the all capital letters IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS. As in the closing lines of William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus,” we proudly declare “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” or as Don Draper says in Mad Men, “I am living like there is no tomorrow, because there isn’t.”

And into our insular little milquetoast “theocracies” comes the Messiah. The Jesus who bounces atop a donkey into the city where he has come to die is not a distant, uninvolved clockmaker who has abandoned us to our own devices. The Jesus who was nailed to a cross is not some projection of our deepest, unfulfilled desires. The Jesus we encounter in scripture, and especially during Holy Week is the God who is involved, who is invested, who is connected to our lives, at all costs, come what may. And this is why we Christians call it Holy Week: it shows us the kind of God we have and what that holiness looks like for Jesus: unconditional, obedient, self-giving love, self-giving death before rising again and making us whole.

All of which brings us to now, and the situation in our own personal and communal Jerusalems in which we find ourselves today.

T.S. Eliot opens his poem “The Waste Land” saying “April is the cruelest month” and as we begin this April of 2020, unable to even share Holy Communion with one another, the times feel especially cruel. Disease and death surround us. Economic fears refuse to abate. We even find ourselves unable to make plans for the future, for the future is so uncertain. Even leaving the house is subversive anymore. We feel as though we live at the threshold of Dante’s Inferno, abandoning even our hope.

But to our present cruelty, I offer this: the hope of the one who endured cruelty to redeem us, to save our lives, to save our souls. When the waiting seems unbearable, when the fear seems too great to bear, when what we once took for granted has fled or denied or turned against us, when we have built into our present culture a fearful distrust of even our neighbors such that we fear touch, a handshake, a conversation less than six feet apart in the midst of fewer than ten people, we live in a time when there are no easy answers, even from our faith.

And yet, we look towards the horizon and we see an itinerant rabbi, a carpenter’s son, a man born under questionable circumstances into a poor family in an occupied land, riding towards us on a lowly beast of burden, entering into our pain, entering into our sadness, entering into our fear, entering into even our sin, crossing the street to meet us where we are. For the one who rides into Jerusalem on this Palm Sunday, even to the misguided adulation of the crowds is undeterred by our pain, undaunted by our fear, unafraid of our sadness, unafraid of our sin, even when it would cost him his own life. Amidst the palms, we encounter the one who reminds us that God is here, God is involved, God is invested, God is committed, committed to us, to his church, to this world, even amidst the fear and doubt that surrounds us.

We can hole up in our houses, we can watch the markets rise and fall, but we cannot shake this persistent savior who enters Jerusalem in full awareness of what awaits him, in self-emptying, sacrificial love, for you, for me, for us, for the church, for the world. Thanks be to God.

Gloria In Excelsis Deo.

 

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._S._Lewis
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Grief_Observed
  3. William H. Wilimon in Pulpit Resource, April 5, 2020, “Help is on the Way,” Matthew 21:1-11;
  4. Ibid.

Surprised by Joy: The Next Right Thing

pabbieVideo here.

Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 22, 2020

Psalm 46

One thing that I did not count on when we decided to have our children almost seven years apart is the fact that doing so would mean that I would watch so many animated movies for so long – nearly a decade and a half. Just as one daughter started to grow out of them, the other daughter began to grow into them.

Being a dutiful father, I have watched a great many animated films.

My problem with so many of these movies is not the animation. Instead, it is the recycled plot line where the ever-present plucky underdog always seems to overcome the odds and save the day, all while getting the girl.

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Surprised by Joy: Come and Die

pickupSecond Sunday in Lent – March 8, 2020

John 3:1-17

This is a true story of a colleague of mine.

Years ago, a young pastor was serving in a local church appointment not long after graduating from seminary in a United Methodist church in a small town in the deep south. While serving there, he found himself one night at a meeting of the Church Council when one of the items on the agenda was the fact that they had to find a new volunteer church treasurer, as their current treasurer had decided to step down. The office of church treasurer is not easy in any size church, so that congregation’s leadership would have to give a good deal of thought to determining who the new church treasurer would be.

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Shrove Tuesday People in A Mardi Gras World

Screen ShotReveille United Methodist Church

Ash Wednesday – February 26, 2020

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

I would like to begin by sharing with you a reading from Nick Hornby’s 2002 novel About A Boy, which tells the story of a middle-schooler named Marcus. Marcus’s parents are divorced, and his father is largely out of the picture. His mother, who suffers from severe depression, has just moved the two of them from Cambridge to London, and Marcus is having a terrible time, both fitting in with his classmates and bearing the burden of his mother’s mental health. Marcus is eventually befriended and mentored by Will, who begins the story as a shallow, materialistic man who has never worked a day in his life thanks to a trust fund he has inherited. The following reading is found in chapter one.

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Called: Hearing the Voice of God – Samuel

Called5th Sunday After the Epiphany – February 9, 2020

1 Samuel 3:1-18

There is a situation in which I would like for you imagine yourself this morning: corruption is rampant, and everything seems to be falling apart. Your leader is an ever-weakening, failure of a man with two astonishingly sinful and repugnant sons who always seem to do whatever they please, regardless of how abhorrent it is, and they never suffer any consequences for it. Also, no one is hearing from God anymore, and when God finally does speak, God speaks to you and informs you that God’s punishment will rain down upon this leader and his morally bereft household. You quickly learn that it is your responsibility to deliver this difficult news directly to the leader, who while not your father, happens to be the man who raised you. And by the way, you are eleven years old, a fifth grader.

And this is where we find ourselves in this morning’s text. Let us listen now to the word of God as recorded in the third chapter of the book of 1 Samuel, beginning with the eighteenth verse:

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Called: Hearing the Voice of God – Mary Magdalene

CalledFourth Sunday After the Epiphany – February 2, 2020

John 20:11-18

Just to be clear from the outset of this sermon, I did not make a unilateral decision to skip Lent. We are not celebrating Easter in February, although I suppose one could make a compelling argument that we are, since for Christians, each and every Sunday is Easter, since each time we gather on this day of the week, we do so to proclaim the glory of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and that is good news for the church and for the world.

The bad news is that we are still going to observe Lent. No one is getting out of that.

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