Money Matter – 01/30/2022

2 Corinthians 9

Now it is not necessary for me to write you about the ministry to the saints, for I know your eagerness, which is the subject of my boasting about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year; and your zeal has stirred up most of them. But I am sending the brothers in order that our boasting about you may not prove to have been empty in this case, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be; otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated—to say nothing of you—in this undertaking. So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion.

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written,

“He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

Sermon Text

            So, how about money? I know that there is no topic more beloved in all the Church. Money is the sort of thing that we all get very touchy about. Ecclesiastes tells us that “money meets every need,” and I struggle to argue against that. At least in terms of our survival, we are able to eat and drink and find shelter because of the money which we have. That money may come from work, it may come from social security, it may come from a retirement fund that we have set aside. No matter the source, it is money that sustains our physical well-being in life. We all need it, we all use it, and to a certain extent most of us wouldn’t mind a little bit more of it.

There are people in this room of course who remember a time when money was not the end all and be all for subsistence. Doctors used to take payment in produce as often as they would take it in cash. I know ministers who can remember getting chickens as an honorarium for doing a person’s wedding. For some of us, life was not always about dollars and cents. There have always been a need to have money of some kind, but it seems at least anecdotally that our current total dependence upon income for survival is a product of modernity – a natural consequence of labor being tied so specifically to capital. The money we make is the food we eat and it can be hard to scare up either.

We live in a partial food desert here in Clarksburg. While Price Cutters and a few dollar stores remain open in parts of downtown, the larger grocery stores are in Nutter Fort and on Emily Drive. This means that, if you do not have a car, you cannot reliably get food from the store. Access to food is one of the primary ways a person can find any security in life, and it is access to security that allows a person to move on and flourish beyond mere survival. For many in our community, it is impossible to imagine finding consistent housing or jobs that allow for upward mobility because day to day you have to struggle even to get somewhere to buy food for your family.

Jobs are another difficult thing to track down right now. All of us have seen signs all over advertising positions available, so it might be strange to hear me say that work is hard to find. Firstly, we return to the problem that without consistent transportation, it can be hard to keep a job. No car? Then you cannot work anywhere but downtown. No clothes appropriate for the work? Better hope a clothing closet has the right clothes in the right size. Even if you can find a way to work and the uniform or outfit you need to work at that job, not every sign is truthful in the wages and conditions they are offering. Many people have applied in recent months only to find that the offers of full benefits and a living wage are contingent on a contract of several years, and that they will only be given it if they struggle through a prohibitively lower wage,

In a time where costs are going up constantly – largely from a refusal by companies to hire workers for anything other than decades old wages, from international oil cabals refusing to release from their reserves, and from a boom of post-2020 consumption where demand is higher than ever even as supply stagnates – money is more precious than ever. Everyone eyeballs each other with suspicion these days. Every action is seen as an attack on livelihood or on the supply chain. In the midst of an abundant life, we all find ourselves tightening the hold on our purse strings. We are all of us worried about being able to afford what we need, but also, I think, concerned of losing a standard of living which we are accustomed to.

With rare exception, I think most of us in this room have more than we need to survive. We are blessed with the ability to have comforts, to have opportunities for leisure, for hobbies, for entertainment for its own sake. We are blessed with more than we could ever need and cursed with a desire for more than we could ever truly possess. We plan out our lives based on our consumption. We are always looking at out accounts to see when things go in and go out, saving for big expenditures and trips and purchases – some of the more exhaustively detailed of us doing so on spreadsheets. Yet, for many of us the various costs of life do not actually infringe on those core and necessary expenses – we do not have to worry about food on the table, clothes on our back, or heat in our houses.

The money that we have is only ours insomuch as it provides for our essential needs. Every dollar beyond what we need to survive becomes increasingly dangerous for us to hold onto. Scripture is clear that attachment to money ultimately destroys a person. Christ went so far to say that money was one of the chief “Gods” that competed for people’s attention. (Matt. 6:24) You can serve God, or money, but never both. While I do not think that it is wrong for people to make money, or for people to set aside money to be comfortable or to invest in things they enjoy, I do think that we need to think of our money in terms of what it can be best used for, and not simply what we would like it to go to.

When we receive our money, the first person to have any hand in it is usually the tax man. Some money is withheld before it crosses our hands, thrown into the pot to be paid out to current social security recipients and to other government programs. Then once a year, or quarterly depending on how you pay, we send still more money off to the IRS. With all that money gone, we must subtract from our income our food, our utilities, our clothing, and all other necessary expenditures. Then with what is left, any number of things can happen. What we must always be intentional about is giving our money to those who need it and prioritizing helping people even above and beyond prioritizing our own pet comforts and entertainment.

If you think that here is where I’m going to pitch giving to the Church, think again! Obviously, we need contributions from our members to keep moving forward as a congregation. We do not receive money from anyone but the members of this church and the occasional grant to fund our operations. The return of our egg fundraiser this year will fill a gap or two, but the expenses of this church are paid primarily through the generosity of this congregation. I will speak more to that before our time together is done.

No, outside of funding the operations of the Church, I encourage people to discern how they give their money based on their own individual calling. I stive to give about 15% of my income to charity in a normal year. I confess that this past year, due to one of my previous appointments bungling my tax documents, I have been unable to do that as I paid two and a half years of taxes in a single year (I do not recommend this.) However, that is something that I am very intentional about normally. Every month I choose a charity I would like to give to, or if I know someone with a Go-fund-me I might give to that. I lift this up, not to say that I am some saint for having this model of giving, but just to say that giving works best when we are intentional about doing it. We need to plan to give, not just waiting for a whim to lead us to it.

I’ve seen the generosity of this congregation in action. We have given Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners to people in need, we have provided breakfast to the warming shelter, we have raised money from love offerings to help people in need – we are a people who are unafraid to give to a cause when it presents itself. The charge laid upon us then is not that we should become givers, no one here is not already giving to worthy causes, but that we grow better at giving through intentional steps to give more regularly and more liberally. Open Heart Ministries, the United Way of Harrison County, Homes for Harrison, and many more are in need of financial help to keep their work going and to expand it further than it has ever been. Our community dinner, funded by the congregation but also often by generosity of its organizer, would benefit I think from regular contributions, and I know our pantry would.

I am equally, if not more concerned with giving beyond the walls of this church as I am with anyone’s tithe. We need support, as I said it is what keeps the lights on, it is what pays me, and it is what allows us to fix our building up and expand our ministries above and beyond what they have been, even in the past. We passed out our budget with our Newsletter last month, and anyone who read that will know that we are not doing anything reckless or extravagant with the funds we receive. With the egg sale later this year, we hope to get a little more income than we might otherwise. However, I believe in planning our budget based on giving, and planning fundraisers as things that allow us to expand our ministries beyond our current projections,

For us to meet our budget, something we have not done since the pandemic began, we need to increase giving. Let me be perfectly frank about that. We’ve managed to keep the lights on the past two years, but beyond that we cannot expect any growth in programs as long as we are only able to survive. Add into that the need to put a new roof on this building, to repoint the outside bricks, to finish all our interior work. It is going to be an expensive year. Last year we would have required $3,098.36 a week to meet our budget, this year with the cuts we were able to make that number drops to $2,792.42.

Thirty people giving one hundred dollars a week, would cover our budget completely. Is it realistic to imagine that is possible? Maybe. What I encourage us all to do is to take a moment as we begin compiling our documents for taxes and calculate out what a tithe would look like for your household, do it before or after taxes I do not feel strongly either way. Then calculate what that looks like weekly or monthly. That is the aspiration we all should have, to give that money. Some months it might not work, because life happens and unexpected expenses creep in. However, those of us who are able to give more, by giving that full amount, will make up for those who are unable to. If only we commit to that regular act of giving.

I am someone who usually says, “We,” in preaching because if I have something to say to you all I probably need to hear it myself. My salary is public knowledge to you all, and so the math I’m about to do is something you could do yourself, but I want to be perfectly transparent as I do it. My salary is $40,000, when you subtract the amount that goes to pension and that goes to health insurance that leaves me with $35,568.84 of income that physically crosses my hand. Move the decimal one place to get my tithe amount and that would be $3,556.88, divide that by twelve and my monthly contribution to this congregation becomes $296.41, but we’ll round that up to an even $300.

Today I have that amount here but going forward I am going to do this giving through our online platform. By using tithe.ly, I can give a monthly amount that will be taken out automatically from my bank account – that will make sure that I don’t forget, something I’m liable to do. I recommend that those who want to be more consistent with their giving think about using tithe.ly, it makes life a lot easier. I’ll help anyone set up their giving through it that wants to. We are in this together, and now that I am square with Mr. Tax-man, I’m going to be giving alongside you all to make sure that we make our goals to fund this church’s operations and its ministries.

The goal, as Paul lays out in his letter to the Corinthians, is not that we force people to give, but that we all are willing to invest in one another. We invest in our community, the people in need all around us. We invest in our Church, the place we organize our ministries and recharge the faithful to go out and work. We invest in all aspects of our life, cutting away the fat from our life to make sure that those in need can live in the same comfort we have accepted as the default for our own life. Maybe it means we have one less trip, or that I buy one less new release for the Switch, but if it means this church keeps running and the hungry are fed, I think that might just be worth it. – Amen.

The Household of God – 01/23/22

Acts 2: 43-47

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Sermon Text

This week and next week we resolve to do something that is essential, but extremely difficult. That is, we are going to talk about what the Church could be and how we can help to take that potential and make it a reality. In the modern parlance of organizational planning and leadership this first step that we are taking this week is called “Casting Vision,” and it is integral to any initiative that wants to exist beyond the immediate present into the future. When we fail to project what we would like to be, we sometimes fail to meet even our present expectations for ourself, and so we must keep the banner high in front of us of what we could become.

In my mind, few images of the Church are more powerful than the one given in the scripture we read a moment ago. The apostles, full of the Holy Spirit, are at work among the people – healing, preaching, and bringing people out of all manner of oppression. The people gather together and meet one another’s needs, selling their possessions in order to make sure no one goes hungry within their community. The people go beyond providing food and shelter for one another, they meet together in the Temple, in their private homes, they sit at the table and talk and pray and learn. They add more people to the community of the faith with every passing day, they make the Kingdom of God visible to anyone who is willing to look for it.

The Church can see its duty on the earth in those general categories which are expressed in this scripture. We are people who speak to and demonstrate God’s glory. We do this in testimony, we do this in prayer ministries, and we do this through attending to the sacraments. We are people who care for one another – we do this through feeding ministries, through clothing those in need, through caring for the material needs of anyone and everyone who we meet. We are people who meet together and who share our lives. We are people who grow the community of the faith beyond those presently with us to include all we possibly can.

There was a movement in the United Methodist Church to define these ministries in the general terms of Nurture, Outreach, and Witness. N.O.W. While we often joke about the many committees which we as Methodists form, there is some sense to appointing people who spend all their time envisioning and reviewing how we meet expectations, or fail to meet expectations, in these fields. We need to reflect on our conduct frequently, not just as individuals, but as a corporate body. The individual Christian must work toward perfection and alongside them the community of the faithful must strive to be more perfect together. We can only truly flourish as a congregation when we work with one accord, so that even when we fuss and fight, we do so in service of the same goal – the glory and mission of Jesus Christ.

Even beyond individual congregations, the wider Church is beholden to coming together to achieve its vision for the world. Just this past year we have seen ourselves reaching out to the Methodist Parish, one of our members serves as the president of that group. I am a member of the Homeless Collaborative. Our congregation is connected to many others through formal and informal means. Saint James, Emmanuel Baptist, Duff Street and Stealey, St Mark’s, and all others who gather under the banner of Christ’s salvific work are all part of the same body we are. We gather in this building, we cast a vision for what God is calling us to do. We then gather with the wider bodies of the Church, in the UMC or otherwise, to see how God is calling us all to come together in service to the Gospel.

In our own Wesleyan circles we call this, “Connectionalism,” but I prefer to think of it in Biblical terms. We are all of us striving for κοινωνια (Koinonia,) or “Communion.” It means a gathering of people on one level and it also means to share on another. Specifically, it is often used in the context of the Church to describe the complete unity of God’s people. The people of God held all things in common, giving to each according to their need, they lived as one body with many members.

The unity of the Church is a precious thing, and it has been at risk since those first 120 disciples gathered in the upper room of a house in Jerusalem. There have always been those who want to put themselves first or those who get tangled up with one idea over and above the general call which is on us all. For many reasons, legitimate and illegitimate, the Church can find itself faced with fracture and schism. However, one of the best ways to maintain a sense of community to be frank in our conversation with one another, and to be constantly taking stock of where we are and where we are going. Transparency and clarity allow us to keep moving without misunderstandings causing unnecessary friction.

When I came here in July of last year, I saw immediately that this was a Church that was determined to do work. The ministries that already existed were vibrant and there was a steady undercurrent from those I spoke to that desired to keep expanding the work we were doing in new directions. There were and are substantial obstacles, there is much to build back up and much to build from the ground, but there is a desire to do, and where there is such a desire the Spirit can and will lead us to the actions we have to undertake to see them done. This Church is alive and well, and while I have heard stories of a golden age in the past that outshone our present reality, I personally see much more potential in what is to come than in what was.

You see, the general pattern of the Church right now is in contraction. Congregations are shrinking as people move to larger cities and as older generations go on to glory. There are less young people staying in the Church and fewer still being raised in the Church. The Church as the default social structure a person is part of is a thing of the past. The Church therefore must seek to chase after that essential spark it had in its earliest days – when it was an innovative and welcoming place, born out of nothing but the Spirit working among people who wanted to see God’s will done in the world.

We are at an advantage too. We have the entire history of the Church behind us to learn from even as we pave the way into the future. We can see the dangers that came from getting too buddy buddy with power. We can see the way that schism begets schism, one denomination splintering again and again until it is a small sliver of people with overly-specific doctrine and prohibitively stringent membership criterion. We have seen the rise and fall of ministries and movements and stand with that entire heritage at our disposal. We have all the past to learn from and all of eternity to look forward to when we plan out the ministries of the Church.

I want to share with you now what I see this Church doing in the next few years. I see us becoming more connected to one another, more intentional about the way we relate information and conduct business. We will have committee meetings at minimum once a quarter. Those committees will draft minutes and reports which will be published for the larger church to see the ways that the ministries of this church are being conducted. We will join closer to our neighboring churches and their ministries. Regardless of denomination or locality, we will see each other as siblings and co-laborers seeking the same good – the salvation in physical and spiritual terms of all people in Clarksburg.

We as a congregation will expand the ways we care for one another. We will be more intentional in offering times to gather to pray and study scripture. We will celebrate the highs of our lives and mourn the lows. We will welcome children into our pews and we will find ways to engage people of all ages in meaningful ways. We will become a community that attests to the glory of God, that serves the needs of all who pass through our doors, and that makes people feel like they have found a true family in the people of this congregation. We will become a community, a Koinonia, led by the Spirit wherever we need to go.

Now, none of what I have said is going to be simple. We are going to have to take my pastoral vision and see how it builds off of existing vision here in the congregation. The reality of our Methodist system is that I could disappear at any time, moved to another congregation as the Spirit guides the cabinet to decide. The initiatives and the vision of this Church cannot just be the things that I see or want, it must begin and end with the vision of you all gathered here. You will be in these pews long after I am gone, and you will carry on the work of the Spirit for generations to come here in North View.

We are going to be spending the next few months digging in deep, we will be devoting ourselves to really understanding what our community needs and how we have been called to meet those needs. With the full support of one another, our Parish, our Conference, and all the body of Christ, we will go on to achieve God’s will here in Clarksburg, in West Virginia, wherever we are able to reach out and act. I hope that you all will be willing to embark on this journey, because it is not always going to be simple or easy. Sometimes we’ll probably quite honestly get well and truly upset with one another if we do it right. Still, it will be worth it to take the trip forward.

Next week, we are going to go beyond vision to talk the hard and fast numbers behind our operations. That is right, we’re going to be talking about money and the ways its spent. I know that that is always a favorite in churches, but we gotta talk about it at some point. We’ll be honest and direct as we delve into the nuts and bolts. Till then, join me in letting God write the dreams of this congregation, and trust that God will give us the means to get there. – Amen.

A Worthy Sacrifice – 01/16/2022

Amos 5: 18-24

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them, and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Sermon Text

Tomorrow we mark, on our secular calendars, the work of a man who was committed to justice for all people. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister like his father before him. His father had changed his own name, and that of his son from Michael to Martin Luther in honor of the reformer who, to him, reflected resistance to the evils of the world no matter the cost. The Kings were both ministers, tending to their flocks, but they also cast their eye beyond the needs of the local church to the needs of the culture in which their flock lived. It was not enough to offer pastoral care to people grieving under the weight of oppression, it was necessary to work to remove that oppression from their life. King was a diligent participant in the Civil Rights Movement, an advocate for the abolition of people of color from the tyranny of the Jim Crow South, and from any and all discrimination.

Growing up, we learned about Rev. Dr. King in school. Some of you here might remember the news covering his marches and speeches as they happened. Yet, most people who cover his work do so as though he was merely a secular thinker, an offshoot of the enlightenment that was bringing social change through political action. But Rev. King was not just that, his political advocacy was a ministry in itself. His fight for the rights of all people was rooted in his Biblical convictions about human dignity, and his overwhelming desire was to see God’s glory reflected in the conduct that one person showed another, regardless of appearance, circumstances of birth, or country of origin.

            This mission worked against centuries of human conflict, but especially in the United States. It would be hard to deny that there has always been a tendency for people to fight amongst themselves and against those they write off as members of out-groups. The first thing humanity did outside of the Garden was to kill – Cain slaying Abel out of jealousy.

            Despite what we may think, our modern conflicts are different from the forms of conflict which were experienced in antiquity. While it would not be fair to say there were never ideological conflicts in the ancient world, far more battles were fought of resources than they were for ideas. As empires developed more distinct cultures and exclusionary ideas of in and out groups, conflicts rooted in issues outside of the need to survive became more common. I admit this simplifies human history a great deal, but I am willing to make this sort of statement generally if not specifically.

            The key moment that shaped our modern world in terms of how we formulate ideas like “race” and “ethnicity,” those key places where we choose to favor or discriminate against others, or worse yet to plot violence, was the expansion of European powers into the Americas and into the African Continent. The discovery of the “New World,” led to the enslavement of local populations by Spanish colonizers. Christopher Columbus, governor of Barbados was so cruel in his governing of the colony that a monk reported him to the Spanish Throne and he was repatriated to Spain to stand trial for “tyranny.”[1]

            At the same time, German activity in Africa and on the European continent began to form the first concepts of “race,” as an essential quality of a person. While there had always been general categories of people, usually based on ethnic and cultural groups, the Dutch were the first to make a science of racism.[2] They began to rank the races, the Nordic peoples were the top of the great chain of creation, and as skin got darker and culture became less Germanic, the dignity of people eroded along with it. The Dutch influence would spread to other imperial powers and before too long, a concept of racial superiority undergirded much of European activity in the world.

            Again, I am simplifying the story a little bit, drawing from writers and historians who are infinitely better versed in the subject than I am. However, when we look at the current conflicts in the United States, indeed in any former colonial power, we have to understand that there was a very particular mishmash of philosophic ideas that led to where we are. Slavery existed throughout human history, but chattel slavery and the triangle trade were the first to enslave people exclusively by the criteria of race and to regard the enslaved as having no rights except which were given to them by their “owners.” The abolition of enslaved people in the United States after the Civil War did not cease the problems we had inherited from this mindset, shifting the problem over to segregation, Jim Crow laws, and civilian violence against people of color –  more properly described as lynchings.

            The Church, sadly, through all of this was a supporter of the popular perspective that the enslaved, and more generally people of color, were lesser than white free persons. John Wesley was an outspoken critic of this perspective in the Church, arguing that all people – regardless of race or nation – had equal dignity under God and demanded the end of slavery wherever it was practiced. American Methodists, after the Revolutionary War, buckled to the demands of influential slaveholders, allowing the practice among its members. It was only after a Bishop refused to manumit his slaves that the American Methodist Episcopal Church stood up in any capacity for the enslaved as an institution. The Methodist Episcopal Church split, the North rejecting slavery in all forms, the South insisting it was a right. This happened only a few years before a war would be waged over the same principles.

            The Northern Methodists were not much better than the Southern ones. They joined in with the opinions of people like then President Abraham Lincoln, arguing that people of color could never live among whites as equals. They were some of the staunchest advocates for Liberia, seeking to remove people of color from their midst rather than seeking true peace. It is because of this failure to see all people as equal that prominent figures like Frederick Douglass left the Methodist Church, and that Bishop Richard Allen separated from the Church to form his own denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

            Even after the Northern and Southern Methodist communions came together again in the 1920s they did so as a segregated body. Black Methodists were part of their own conference, the “Central Conference,” distinct yet connected to the wider Methodist General Conference. This term, it should be said, is still used for any Methodist Conference outside the United States. It was only in the merger of 1968, when the Evangelical United Brethren joined the Methodist Church, that the Church formerly integrated – and only then because the wider culture was now accepting of the idea. The Church, the champion of God’s justice, has often failed to uphold its high calling.

            I could talk about a dozen more denomination who faced similar troubles. I could also point to the persistent drum beat underneath the “civilized” veneer which the Church had put on in its tolerance and support of oppression. The constant beat of the drum of justice. There were always the abolitionists, always those fighting for integration in every aspect of life, always those rejecting any definition of a people that denied them being made in the image of God. These people were the ones who defied the Spirit of the Time, who prove that those who lived before us were not above reproach, that showed that morality is more timeless than we might think.

            It is in that tradition of justice workers that our opening subject comes into view. Rev. King was one of those people who fought for Justice no matter the cost. He was imprisoned multiple times, he was written off as a rabble rouser, accused of starting riots, and would ultimately go on to be murdered for the work he did. In fact, it is one of the letters he wrote from jail which makes the above deluge of history necessary. In King’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail, he lays out the framework he uses to plan his political actions. More than that though, he names the most dangerous force working against his ministry. It is not in the racist mobs, not in the Klu Klux Klan, but in the white moderate Christian, that King sees the most danger for America.

            As I mentioned a moment ago, King was often accused of causing unnecessary trouble. His methods disrupted public transportation, they prevented people from going about daily life, they forced people to see and hear the cries of those in need around them. These disruptions are at the root of protest – a protest that does not inconvenience people has no teeth, it does nothing other than make the people protesting feel good about themselves without actually causing any changes in the world around them. Yet, people insisted King was wrong to disrupt, wrong to rock the boat, wrong to speak up because everything would get better if they only waited.

            Yet, as King pointed out, there was never a time that people of color would get their fair share unless they made a fuss. To quotes him directly, and I use his exact words so excuse the antiquated language:

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.”[3]

            The United States is a place of untold potential, it is a place of abundance, and it is a place that we are all here proud to be a part of. Yet, we cannot deny the legacy which we all carry with us. While we are not responsible for the sins of our ancestors or for the sins that led to the unfair systems that live on into today, we are responsible to do are part to help break every chain that keeps people from living a full life. There is still prevalent racism in this country. There are still people discriminated against, bullied, and killed because of the color of their skin. Until such a day where we erase any image of humanity that denies the image of God from our hearts and minds, we will always find ourselves guilty – not of the sins of our fathers, but of our own inaction.

            Our scripture today is one of my favorites because it opens with a powerful warning to God’s people. “Woe to you who seek the Day of the Lord!” The day that God is coming to set everything right, the day when all wickedness is cast down and the righteous uplifted. “Woe to you!” Because we are unrepentant in our wanderings away from God, unrepentant in our support of injustice, unrepentant in our stopping up our ears to our neighbors. “Woe to you!” because we cannot see that God does not want prim and proper people respecting the status quo, but a community that is willing to stand up for the least of these, even when they look nothing like us.

            The sacrifice we offer to God, in faith and in prayer and in ministry, is a sacrifice of our own feelings of superiority and apathy. Superiority that makes us doubt the intentions of anyone outside ourselves, and apathy that makes us unwilling to help anyone who is not directly tied to our own interests. God forgive us of our inaction and God free us from the brokenness which has plagued this nation from its inception. Let every person be as a sibling to us, let every barrier we erect between one another be cast down, and let love be the banner we are willing to fight for the rights of all people under. Let us see justice roll like water, and righteous flow like a stream. – Amen.


[1] Giles Tremlett. “Lost Document Reveals Columbus as Tyrant of the Caribbean.” In Madrid. Reprinted in The Guardian.7 Aug. 2005.  Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/aug/07/books.spain

[2] Again, this is a simplification of a very complex dynamic, but more information on this can be found in.
Josiah Young. Dogged Resistance in the Veil. (Norcross, Georgia: Trinity Press International. 2003)

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail. August 1963. Available at: https://www.csuchico.edu/iege/_assets/documents/susi-letter-from-birmingham-jail.pdf

Adoration – Epiphany 2022

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Sermon Text

Epiphany is one of my favorite holidays of the Church. We celebrate the moment when people outside of the immediate path of Jesus’s entry into the world come to acknowledge the incarnation of God on earth. The magi make their long journey from the East and come into Judea. The brief portrait we are given of that journey is that they followed a star, came to the Herodian palace, and from there found their way to Bethlehem. It was in Bethlehem that they found the Christ. This was not immediately after Jesus was born, as we often depict it, but probably a few years later. Jesus was not an infant, but a toddler, perhaps even walking, by the time these strange wanderers arrived.

The title given to these visitors is “Magi,” or singularly, each one was a “Magus.” This term is where we derive our modern word “Magician.” While this term could indicate any number of people, from court wizards to street entertainers, it is generally understood that these Magi were likely tied to Persia and its mystical traditions. This would not be idle sorcery but was an official position similar to that of a priest. These would be doctors and astronomers, soothsayers, and miracle workers. The people, far removed from Judea and its ancient Israelite religion, were among the first to discern that a savior was coming into the world.

The fact that these travelers were not Jewish revealed a truth about Jesus that even his followers would not understand until some time after Jesus’s resurrection. This truth was that God was not coming to save one people alone but was beginning work that would eventually bring the entire world into the Kingdom of Heaven. The first to proclaim the gospel were a few shepherds in Bethlehem, but the first Gentiles to be welcomed in were these travelers from far outside the Judea’s boundaries. We never get the full story of their life, what this visit ultimately meant to them, but it cannot be denied that they left an impression that we celebrate to this day.

The exact number of people who came to give Jesus gifts is not given in the Gospel. Not only do we not know the number of Magi present, but we do not know who they brought with them. A group of officials like this would probably have a full entourage trailing behind them. Retainers, servants, armed guards, you name it, they would have brought it. This huge group would have snaked their way across the ancient highways of the world, leaving Persia and coming into the Levant. When they arrived in Jerusalem it would have been the talk of the town for weeks. “Remember when those dignitaries came through! They were following some star apparently! Who’d have thought?!”

Their arrival was not announced ahead of actually entering the city, and so it did not take long for the King to hear what was going on in the city. Herod the Great, the ruling monarch, had stayed on the throne through a delicate dance of placating Roman power and appealing to his Jewish subjects. He himself was Idumean, or to put in Old Testament terms, he was an Edomite. This group had a consistent rivalry with Judea before the Babylonian Exile, and so many would have been suspicious of him when he took to the throne. He tried to secure some favor with the people by rebuilding the Temple, but to fund it he pillaged the tombs of King David and Solomon. He was a ruthless man, and he had several family members killed to maintain his power.

So, when these foreign dignitaries arrive telling him that a new King has been born in Judea, Herod would instantly see this as a threat. A foreign power was acknowledging someone other than himself as the legitimate power in his Kingdom. Herod spoke sweetly to the visiting Magi, but he was already plotting murder the moment he heard a threat was brewing just a little south of his capital city. He sent them off with a few kind words and the promise that, if they found the child, he would follow behind and worship him also.

It is this visceral political drama that sets the stage for the Magi to give their gifts to Jesus. This small child receives gold and frankincense and myrrh. While these are sometimes written off as symbolic gestures – Gold for a king, incense for a God, and myrrh for a burial – it is more likely that these were purely practical gifts. Gold allowed the family to survive the uncertain times ahead, the incense would be used in the home and for worship, and myrrh could be used both religiously and medicinally for any number of purposes. The three gifts given were not meant to be symbolic portents of Jesus’s future, but a present provision for his life in the moment.

When the Magi left, they were warned not to go back to Herod. It would not have taken the King long to realize that they had caught wise to his plans. Not long after the Magi are warned, Joseph and Mary would also be warned of Herod’s plans. The family would suddenly become refugees, fleeing into Egypt like Abraham and countless others before them. Herod would follow behind, killing many innocents in the name of his own claims to power. A hollow action for a seventy-year-old man who would die only a year or so later.

The epiphany captures such highs and lows of humanity. The pure expression of adoration from the Magi is contrasted by the darkness of Herod’s murderous rage. When we look at these three statues over here, we should see the weight they carry. They are the first to acknowledge the divinity of Christ outside Judea, but they unwittingly bring death to Bethlehem in their visitation. The Kingdom of God is breaking out in the most unexpected places, and the powers that be are unhappy to see that they are not included in that estimation. God is shaking things up and whenever there is a shake up, those with everything to lose are usually the first ones to start fussing over what comes next.

In our own lives we are constantly given the choice between responding to Jesus like the Magi or like Herod. If we act like Magi, then we see Jesus appearing among the unlikely people of the world and rejoice. We seek out God in the places we do not expect to find God – the poor, the oppressed, those with no money or power in the world. Jesus is not hiding in the halls of congress or the throne rooms of Kings, Jesus is in the presence of all the poor and powerless of the earth.

We could also respond to Jesus like Herod did, seeing Jesus as a threat. To do this is to define the Kingdom of God in our own terms. Jesus is found among those who act the way we would like them to. Those with money and power and influence that we can benefit from are welcomed in, while the poor are left out in the cold. We define neighbor as those, not who share the world with us, but who offer opportunity to us. The Kingdom of God, as we imagine it in this vision of the world, would be a continuation of the World we currently live in. The rich get richer, the poor keep pulling on bootstraps that just get longer and longer, and no justice ever manifests but the cold indifference of a fallen world.

The Magi teach us what it is to adore Jesus. To come before the throne and truly offer up all that we are to a power beyond ourselves. These men who had everything in the world were willing to make an expensive journey, to cover hundreds of miles with hundreds of people, all so that they could worship the God they had known was being born into the world. As difficult as it was to make the journey, the duty they held toward God was enough to keep them pushing forward. The gifts they gave were what saw Jesus and his family through their time in Egypt, they were a provision for the needy family as they fled over borders to avoid the dangerous of their homeland.

The Kingdom of God is still bursting into life all around us. For all of us here there are opportunities for us to join in the adoration of Christ or to join in the glorification and continuation of our own sinful ways. Do we want the world in its present broken form, or in the form that Jesus promises to us? I for one put my money on the King of Kings leading better than any leader that comes or goes in this world. Herod fought long and hard to take the throne, selling out his people to an oppressive empire whenever he could to stay there. Jesus gave up everything to live among his people, and even when they repaid his love with murder, he did not cease in advocating for them, rising up to prove even death could be overcome.

Epiphany is the day that the powerful laid down all they had to glorify the lowly child that had come to save them. Once a year, as Christmas fades away and we count the days till Lent, we take a moment to realize the stakes that were laid out for us at Christmas. This was not just a day to celebrate a birth or to welcome in Winter, Christmas is a season to count the cost of our salvation. The cost to the people of Bethlehem, to the Magi, to the Holy Couple, and most of all to God in Christ. We are saved for a terrible price, and that price needs to be lifted up and remembered.

Today, we adore the author of our salvation. Today we count up all that was given to see us freed from our sin. We all see in the revelation of God on earth something profound, and we see in this appearance of perfect holiness on earth the beginning of something we cannot even understand. The world of God, perfect and new, breaking out in the furthest corner of our world. God is bringing Heaven to Earth, let us come and worship the one who brings us into this new existence. – Amen.

All the Ordinances of God – 01/02/2022

Deuteronomy 31:9 –13

Then Moses wrote down this law, and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. Moses commanded them: “Every seventh year, in the scheduled year of remission, during the festival of booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people—men, women, and children, as well as the aliens residing in your towns—so that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God and to observe diligently all the words of this law, and so that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.”

Sermon Text

 Today our service centers mainly around prayer. We commit ourselves on this first Sunday of the year to remember what it means to be a Christian. While it is our faith alone that saves us, we accept a great deal of responsibility in accepting the divine calling we have been offered. Regularly it helps for us to take time to intentionally remember all that God has set before us. Like the Israelites at Sinai, like those who celebrate Sukkot into today, we must recount the covenant we are part of and re-affirm our desire to be part of God’s kingdom.

Normally I would take ten or fifteen minutes for us to review our scripture and engage with it on a deeper level. Today, I want our covenant prayer to speak for itself. Written by John Wesley long ago, this service has been performed since then by many in the Wesleyan tradition. It is not scripture, and so is not essential to salvation. Yet, it is dripping with the truth of the Gospel, and our recitation today will cover a great deal of what God has done to set us on our path of righteousness.

If you have ever been a part of a service like this, rejoice in being able to once again recall all that God has done for us. If you have not been a part of this sort of service before, listen carefully and weigh carefully the burden of the faith which we all take on every day. Though far lighter than the burden of sin and death, it is not something to be taken lightly, and we should not commit today to something we will be unwilling to do tomorrow. Today, we reconfirm our love of God through the rejoining of our Covenant with God. Let us approach in joy and solemnity the altar of God which welcomes us all home. – Amen.

The Covenant Service Can be Found Here:
https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/book-of-worship/covenant-renewal-service