Saturday, April 28, 2012

Canoe or Lifeboat

(sorry for all the caps and underlines, this is a copy of my presentation version.)
In the early church, as is true now, nothing is more important than what Jesus taught.
Yet, The Church of the Brethren patterns our faith practices after the early church.  There is a reason: We not only want to do what Jesus did and follow his teaching; we take the simple style of the early church as our own.

         You heard Sue read a modern interpretation of today’s scripture from Acts 2. It was from Eugene Peterson’s The Message, and It tells the story of church life in the early days. Peter is speaking to the people who will be known as Christianity’s first converts: Their practices of meeting in homes, sharing meals, and teaching & remembering Jesus’ last supper, form the traditions we follow today.

 Listen again to a few verses from, the new translation called the Common English Bible.

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community - those who were being saved.

Living together, really together is the primary definition of the early church.  They lived so connected to each other that they held things in common, and distributed food and items as each had need. And they spent regular time praising God.
         This may sound like an idealistic “faith community”. Yet, I suggest that it IS the community we live in today, however close we come to the ideal, and it is a way of living which we are challenged to offer others.

Everyone wants to be part of an energizing and vibrant community.  We want to find one and join “one.” Yet we can’t always make one.
We carefully tend the dynamics of church groups to encourage growth and health. And yet, as you know if you have ever been part of a group that just couldn’t stay together, TRUE ‘community’ can be elusive.  So elusive that we have no clue what went wrong when it does NOT form, in spite of valiant efforts.
Community has an interesting organic quality that lives or dies depending on the strength of the relationships within.

The early church had no trouble creating community. 
·      They were vibrant and dynamic people, and very alive, even when individuals were being killed by the government.
·      They grew from a small band of disciples to a movement that spread the ‘good news’ around their part of the world.
·      They practiced their faith by teaching, praying and regular worship and when they did, amazing things happened.
The infusion of the Holy Spirit gave them power to speak boldly about their experience and to enact signs and wonders.

 I believe they had the one-sure-fire dynamic that is known to foster community.  - A - LIFE-BOAT.

You’ve heard the expression “a life-boat experience” which refers to a group that goes thru a trial or crisis of some sort.  I think this describes the early church.

Often the crisis is a life-threatening.  If you are in a life-boat,  rations are limited,
 water is scarce, and
 rescue is uncertain.

Some Christian commentators say today’s church is in a life-threatening situation, now.  With the declining numbers in ALL churches, (Mainline AND Evangelical) some writers say we are in NEED of a lifeboat. 

Perhaps they are right yet I am sure that God is not finished with us yet. 
We already have strong relationships that support community, right here here, available to anyone who will
grab a paddle and get in the water. (Paddle)

Now I’ve not been in a life-boat, but I’ve been in many a CANOE. And on canoe trips, I’ve been part of a dynamic community.  I saw groups of strangers develop into vibrant Christian community every summer and it all began on the Shenandoah River.

         When I was in Outdoor Ministry, I had several roles to play in staff training at the beginning of each summer.  Weeks of training concluded with a two-day trip to the valley for a long and beautiful float down the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.

Teaching:  Before even thinking about a River Canoe trip we –  (the staff of summer camp, including =counselors, nurse/medics, and directors) would get out on the lake and practice paddling.  
This first attempt on the lake was usually hysterical.  To watch 30 people standing on land with paddles practicing a J-stroke and a C-stroke is funny enough.  When we anxiously climbed into canoes, and pushed out into the water, it got even funnier. 
The days were hot and no one minded the ‘accidental’ splashes or even an ‘accidental’ “Man-Overboard.” Splashing turned into frayed tempers when we tried to paddle out of the cove into the larger lake and instead kept going in circles. 

Energetic paddling without having mastered steering skills creates – havoc.
         But the experienced canoeists patiently taught us. They taught us how to steer. AND We learned:
how to wear a life-jacket AT ALL TIMES,
that gloves can help minimize blisters and
that paddles hurt when you get smacked in the back of the head.
Some of these things we had to learn by experience.

Eventually we learned that communication between front and back of the canoe is vital and that the person in the rear- really does command the boat. 

We learned a lot in those lessons on the lake and we became FIRM believers -  - - in sunscreen and bug repellent!

As we packed for the river trip the night before departure, we constantly reminded each other of ALL we had been TAUGHT. Can you imagine the first Christians encouraging each other in the same way? 

Fellowship:  Paddling together in a canoe with someone makes you instant friends, or instant enemies.  In our cases, partnerships formed during the lake practice that we wanted to continue on the river.  But the director was a wise woman and created new pairings which intentionally placed strong paddlers with weaker ones so that “no canoe would be left behind”.

Canoe trips are designed with some smooth water at the start.  So we had another chance to practice our paddling skills as the leaders took us under low-hanging branches and around a sunken tree.  We learned to steer for the V in the river, which indicates the narrow path between rocks that lie hidden just under the water’s surface.
         Fortunately, much of the Shenandoah River is relatively shallow so as we practiced Dealing with CRISeS such as releasing a canoe that was wedged between two rocks or RIGHTING a totally capsized canoe, we were not in deep water.

         Soon it became obvious who the strong paddlers were, AND IT also became obvious who should be at the head of the group as natural leaders emerged from each mini-crisis we faced. 

         We learned how to rest together by pulling our canoes alongside each other and laying paddles across the neighboring canoe.  We formed a giant float in calm water in order to rest, drink water, and reapply sunscreen. 

In this giant floating community, “all things were held in common”. Sunscreen was a shared commodity, as was chapstick, water, bandanas, and gum.  “We distributed what we had as any had need.” -In the hot summer sun, with a long day still ahead, a single tube of sunscreen that has not yet fallen to the bottom of the river - is precious!  - AND so is extra water. 
   Already, early in the day, deep caring relationships were forming as we learned to watch out for each other.

Breaking Bread:  This community also broke bread together. A high point of River Trip is the stop for lunch.  There were no fancy picnic grounds for us.  Sometimes it was a small island, more likely just a very narrow shoreline where canoes were beached and coolers retrieved.  Out came the simple lunch of
bread, peanut butter, apples and GORP.  (Granola, O-Cheerios, Raisins, and peanuts, sometimes with some chocolate chips thrown in.) 
The bread was blessed, with a loud and favorite camp grace that was sung with gratitude and reverence while we stood together by the side of the river.  As the ‘amen’ echoed downstream, the bread would be broken and shared.
         There was enough lunch for everyone, yet, like the later church, we needed reminding to take turns to insure that EVERYONE got a fair share – especially of GORP.

         The most exciting part of each trip is the run thru Compton Rapids.  The Class 2 Rapids are great fun but it takes careful navigating and preparation to get the whole group thru safely.

We stationed a certified lifeguard on the bank below the rapids with a rope throw and each canoe would in turn negotiate around a rock hazard, most of which is deceptively hidden just below the river surface. Then we would enter the chute for a fast and exciting ride down to sharp turn into the safety of calm water around the bend. 
The ride is a thrill -while being accomplishable for almost anyone who has had some basic TEACHING.

         By the end of the day, we had seen nature at her best, a mother bear and cubs on the side of the river, the beauty of Golden Rock Cliff just after Compton’s rapids, and blue herons waiting patiently for canoers to pass so they could catch their breakfast.
An occasional snake swam alongside when we came near the bank, and turtles, with only their head above water, floated along until they found the perfect sun-bathing rock.
The crystal clear water of the Shenandoah is amazing. We could glimpse the bottom of the river any time we chose to look over the side of the canoe.

         We were formed as a community on that trip. – a Christian Community. 
Following this annual event, the camp staff is a cohesive UNIT, ready for the give and take of summer camping. 

The canoe trip was a life-boat experience. The concentrated time and shared purpose formed a community that relied on each other.
Thru-out the summer EVERY camper reaped the benefits of joining such a faith community. 
As long as the counselors SHARED THEIR experience of community and didn’t become an ultra exclusive group. New communities of faith formed each week as campers imitated the example they saw in their counselors. 

You need not go to camp to experience life the way Jesus intended.  It is found right here.  Like the early church,
we are people devoted to Christ’s teaching,
who meet regularly for worship and prayer,
and who seek to share as any has need. . .

And when we share OUR experience of Community, we, like the early church, will have an IMPACT on THOSE AROUND US.
Did you notice that the Acts community DEMONSTRATED love? Or as the NRSV puts it they had “the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” . . saved in THEIR LIFE BOAT.

1.   The early Christians were closely Watched and people saw that they shared meals equally without class distinction. 
2.   Regular worship in the temple was a priority. Everyone saw them ‘at church.’
3.   & They shared their good AND the ‘good news’ of their lives with others—

Early Christians were known by the ‘manner of their living’. It’s a phrase we like to use in Brethren circles to remind us to live the words we speak.

Christian Community is not isolated from the world. Our behavior, demonstrates our beliefs, and impacts our community by calling us into relationship  - with real people.

…When parents come to pick up campers they are astonished at the children’s changed behavior at the end of the week.   Friendships form across social divides. Caring attitudes and patterns of sacrifice become part of campers’ ‘manner of living.’
Christian community has such a powerful effect because it is fueled by Christ’s spirit and lives in Jesus’ WAY. It is different than any other kind of life-boat experience because God is guiding the boat.
 . . .

The truth is we DO need a LIFEBOAT, but not because we are about to drown. We need a place to bring on-board the people God sends. A place where relationships can form.
God still adds numbers to Christian Community, but not by merely putting people with checkbooks in the pews.
The life-boat fills with those who NEED caring Christian community - and there are always more (out there) waiting to climb in.

So, Grab a paddle and take the hand of. . .opportunity.

As we paddle - TOGETHER towards The Goal of sharing Christ’s Love in the world.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Weary or Wary?

Some days it is just harder to get started than others. Have you noticed this? It is usually a Monday that is tough. After the build up to Sunday, I crash (when possible) in the afternoon or evening and am not quite ready to get back to work on Monday. Martin Luther said preaching is like carrying a baby to full term, giving birth on Sunday and waking up pregnant on Monday morning! (I love what I do, never fear and I do take Tuesdays off and begin my week anew on Wednesday.)   Today is one of those days. I reserve time on several mornings for reading and writing. This morning I came across this, ​“We believe that spiritual action is the hardest of all – to praise and worship God, to thank God, to petition God for our brothers, and sisters, to repent of our sin and that of others. This is action, just as the taking of cities is action, as revolution is action, as the Corporal Works of Mercy are action. And just to lie in the sun and let God work on you is to be sitting in the light of the Sun of Justice, and the growth will be there, and joy will grow and spread from us to others. That is why I like to use so often the saying of St. Catherine of Siena: ‘All the Way to heaven is Heaven, because Jesus said I am the Way.’” ​Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement wrote the above. I wonder if she was having one of ‘these days’? If find her words encouraging in a way that lifts my weariness and eliminates my wariness. It is easy to get weary even when we are doing good work. We love our jobs, we find fulfillment in helping others, we know we are called to help the poor, homeless, and weak. But in all truth we get tired and it can make us wary of new requests for help. My ‘inbox’ is full of them.   ​Each day we make decisions of where to put our time, resources and money. We get wary of requests that bombard us asking for more. How do you decide where to help, how much to give, and what you will do?   This week the Outreach Idea Committee will wrestle with those choices and seek to discern how we will communicate our requests for participation in the Monthly Service Project. This month the Worship Team will meet and make plans worship. They will seek to engage you and those you invite, that you may be reinvigorated by the experience of coming to worship rather than feeling that it is just one more request on your time. Our Commissions; Witness, Stewards, Nurture, all do work that can be ‘weary’ yet rewarding IF people choose to participate in the education, worship, and service of the congregation. Still we realize that that the ‘work we continue’ is a request that enter our ‘wary’ minds for evaluation. How do you view your part of “Continuing the work of Jesus. . .peacefully, simply, together”? What choices will you make this month? I trust as we sit in “the light of the Sun of Justice” God will grant us growth and “joy will grow and spread from us to others.”​

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I've been doing 'something different' since Easter so have no sermon to post. On Easter IIB I invited 'doubting Thomas questions' and had them collected. Then I answered them from my week's study of scripture (expecting certain typical questions) and just from experience. I had hoped to create more of a conversation but made the mistake of trying to answer them myself so I could get through more of them.  It worked, but the conversation didn't really happen (my fault) until lunch. Then I heard from others and really enjoyed it.

Last Sunday we did "Earth Day" and had two reflections. I used for pictures and some text and gave our "report to Jesus" on the earth. My daughter read The Lorax (and I projected pictures for all to see.) and a great guy, Jonathan Stauffer, currently a BVSr serving at our Washington Advocacy and Peace Witness office, gave the final reflection on Earth's Season of Doubt. (Which I will shortly publish at

This week, well a return to something more normal, but as one congregant said, "What's normal?" I took that as a great complement!

Meanwhile, I continue to struggle to understand how to reach out. Attendance was great on Easter and down since then, especially during Sunday's heavy cold rain. I discovered an article on Church Planting at Christian Century that addresses my enthusiasm for our Monthly Service Project as out reach. Then read a comment that addresses my concerns. Here's my reply to Bob Francis, Alexandria, VA comment:

I serve at a small mainline church (church of the Brethren) and I agree that there is something missing in the church-planting movements that capture small aspects of the local population. I am starting to think it is in the initial connection itself. Perhaps it takes the spirit of an evangelical "missionary" to get these things/churches started. We (ACoB) are trying to reach out by offering a monthly service project which connects to established community ministries AND is ecumenical in sponsorship. We get a small mixed response. When our connection is individual and personal, people respond positively. What we can't seem to do is get through the "din" of packed email boxes, and a multitude of requests for people's time.
The traditional response of the church has been to say worshiping God should be a priority, we make time for what is important. I'm not sure that holds anymore. Many people have trouble prioritizing and other than demanded deadlines (work, kids' school) they respond to what catches their attention in the moment they are making the decision. How can we 'be there'?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter Taxidermy

John 20:1-18 Easter B – Easter Taxidermy 4/8/12
(The underlining is just to help me preach it.)

How would you feel if I put the stuffed bunny on the altar? - Maybe peaking out from behind the cross…?
It just feels wrong to have the bunny in Easter Sunday worship, doesn’t it?
It seems Sacrilegious because a ‘stuffed bunny’ is as much like the characters in our Easter story as this ‘Jesus action figure’ is like the real Jesus.
Just as this stuffed Lion is NOTHING like the real thing. (Children’s comments:      )
Certainly we wouldn’t leave our children with a real Lion, but we’d gladly give this one away to make someone happy.
(In fact, I got this LION out of our nursery.)

The stuffed version of anything can’t compare to the original
And we are usually quite glad they do not equal their ferocious equivalents. We can turn our backs on a stuffed Lion and then put him up on the shelf when we are done.
Just like a toy Jesus can be put away to play with another day . . . Unlike the real Jesus, who demands our attention . . .
Yet, often it is the "stuffed Jesus" that we prefer – because he is safer, much safer – and easier to deal with.
-   you know what I mean, don’t you?
-   We love the Jesus that stares at us from the wall with those big brown eyes. He always listens and never makes demands on our time.
-   Sometimes we feel a little guilty and attend another church service or set aside a little more for the offering or a special emphasis like disaster relief.
-   But the ‘safe’ Jesus is easy to walk away from when life gets too busy to think.

But I can’t remember any gospels stories about the ‘safe Jesus’. I don’t recall any times when he gathered his disciples together, gave them a hi-five, and went down to the corner to just hang out with the guys.  (Perhaps those stories just didn’t make the final cut of any of the gospels.)

Actually, I’m pretty sure that there was nothing safe about hanging with Jesus.
Maybe we should call the real Jesus, the ‘ferocious Jesus’ or the ‘dangerous Jesus’ to make the distinction between the one up on the shelf who gets set out on Sundays and the real thing,
because the ‘real Jesus’ IS dangerous.

It is easy to tell them apart. The Real Jesus is the one who got in trouble and was executed by the state. The ‘dangerous Jesus’ seems to want US to get in trouble too.
This Jesus won’t stay up on the shelf. He is the one who was raised on the 3rd day and began a WORLD of trouble – it’s the Dangerous Jesus’ Resurrection that we celebrate today.
            (The real Jesus is alive and loose in the world. )

It never was safe to be part of the Jesus’ Way. Maybe that is why so many sinners applied for the role. His followers were often confused by his outrageous behavior and confusion continued to the 3rd morning after he was crucified. Did you notice that the first friends to arrive at the empty tomb get the explanation all wrong?

Mary Magdalene, is out in the dark before dawn (when only troublemakers are around) and gets close enough to see the stone has been removed from the tomb. She runs off and tells other disciples, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb and we do not know where they’ve put him.” - "She was wrong, she couldn’t see the radical truth."
But she knew the dangerous Jesus. She loved and trusted him.

Mary's story in John is not a historical report, it tells of relationship and of dawning faith.[i]
Like many of John's stories, Mary's is a story following and later seeing clearly. Even tho she understood so much about Jesus before his death, she still had to learn to see the new Jesus on that morning - for he wasn’t brought BACK to the life she knew, he was raised (by God) to a new order of being.[ii]
And resurrection brought a new kind of danger to the world.

. . But for Mary, everything came together when Jesus called her name . . .
It’s not the imagined voice of a stuffed person on a shelf she hears, but a real person whom she knows and has risked loving . .

Mary's meeting with Jesus is just what we need to replace our stuffed, safe Jesus with the real thing.
She even helps our rational minds from making Christianity into an intellectual endeavor[iii] that dissolves into arguments about what doctrines to believe.

In order to SEE the ‘real Jesus’
·      We - like Mary, need to hear the sound of his voice.
Truly, We long to be known by God - as scary as it can be.  "We want to be seen for who we are in the most intimate, far-reaching corners of our interior lives.."[iv]
·      When we listen THRU our experiences, we can hear Jesus call our names because he really does know each of his ‘sheep’ by name.
·      We need to hold onto the experiences where we see & walk with him because holding onto a ‘stuffed Jesus’ just won’t do.

Mary’s experience in the garden was enough to keep Jesus alive long after he ascended and she was no longer able walk beside him in the garden.
To know the REAL Jesus, we need the personal experiences that come when we risk living the dangerous life he demanded of his followers.
We need the Easter morning surprise to stay with us so we don’t replace him with a stuffed version or fall back into the despair of Saturday, before he was raised.

Story –from The Orthodox Heretic
I read a story about a group of unknown disciples of Jesus who packed their belongings on the day after Jesus was crucified and left for a distant shore. They couldn’t bear to stay another moment in the place where their Messiah had just been executed.
            “Weighed down with sorrow, they left that place, never to return. Instead they traveled a great distance in search of a land that they could call home.
After months of difficult travel, they finally happened upon an isolated area that was ideal for setting up a new community. Here they found fertile ground, clean water, and a nearby forest from which to harvest material to build shelters. So they settled and founded a community far from Jerusalem, a community where they vowed to keep the memory of Christ ALIVE. They would live in simplicity, love, and forgiveness, just as he had taught them.
            The members of this community lived in great solitude for over a hundred years, reflecting on the [very real] life of Jesus and attempting to remain faithful to his ways. And they did all this despite the overwhelming sorrow that remained at their core.”

            “But their isolation was broken when, a small band of missionaries reached the settlement. These missionaries were amazed at the community they found. What was most startling to them was that these people had no knowledge of the resurrection of Christ, for their founders had left Jerusalem before he was raised by God on the third day.
            Without hesitation, the missionaries gathered all the community members and recounted what had occurred after the crucifixion of their Lord.
            (as you can imagine) That evening there was a great festival in the settlement as people celebrated the good news the missionaries brought.
Yet, as the night progressed, one of the missionaries noticed that the leader of the community was absent. This bothered the young woman, so she set out to look for this respected elder.
            She found him crouched low in a hut - praying and weeping.             “Why are you in such sorrow?” she asked in amazement. “Today is a time to celebrate the resurrection!”
            “It may indeed be a day for great celebration, but this is also a day of sorrow,” replied the elder.
“Since the founding of this community
1.   we have followed the ways taught to us by Christ.
2.   We have been faithful even though it cost us dearly, and
3.   we remained resolute despite the belief that death had defeated Jesus and would one day defeat us also.”

            The elder slowly got to his feet and looked the young woman in the eye.
“Each day we have forsaken our very lives for him because we judged him wholly worthy of the sacrifice, wholly worthy of our being.            
But now, following your news, I am concerned that my children and my children’s children may follow him, not because of his radical life and supreme sacrifice, but selfishly, because his sacrifice will ensure their personal salvation and eternal life.”
            (The elder turned and left the hut to go to the celebration  and left the young missionary stayed crouched on the floor of the hut in tears. . .)[v]

Community Keeps Jesus Alive
These solitary Jesus’ followers knew the ‘dangerous Jesus’ and they kept his ways in spite of the cost.
They never domesticated him into the safe-stuffed Jesus who, with non-threatening smiles, offers US eternal life.
For too many people today, Easter’s resurrection story is simply a guarantee of eternal life – without the dangerous personal relationship that challenges our day to day living.

We need the REAL experience of the Living Lord and our world needs his resurrected presence, not a stuffed replica.

In order for the world to MEET and truly ENCOUNTER the Living Lord, the Dangerous Jesus, WE HAVE TO BE THE TESTIMONY TO HIS PRESENCE.
  • It is IN OUR LIVES, that the “resurrection is made manifest.” 

The thing is - we need encouragement too.
We need to be reminded of the personal relationship we have so we can risk living the way Jesus requires.
Encouragement is why we come here, to today to hear the story again.

"We do not come to church simply to remind our conscious minds that Jesus lives."[vi]
We come to be prodded to take ‘safe Jesus’ off the shelf.
We come for the courage to go with ‘dangerous Jesus’ into the world and to BE HIS LIVING PRESENCE TODAY.
(put away stuffed animals)
We do not worship a stuffed Jesus & we don’t need stuffed reminders him.
We worship the Risen Lord, raised to a new order of being and who gives us new life; life to be lived right now with all its danger and risk.

‘Dangerous Jesus’ is alive and loose in the world!
We proclaim him when we say,
the Lord is risen...he is risen indeed.

[i] Boring and Craddock New Testament Commentary  (Louisville: WJK 2004?)356
[ii] ibid
[iii] Serene Jones, feasting on the Word –theo (Louisville:WJK 2008) 376
[iv] ibid serene jones p. 378
[v] Peter Rollins The Orthodox Heretic (Brewster, MA:Paraclete Press 2009) ch.12
[vi] (s.Jones 380)
Wow, it has been weeks since iIve posted, not even a sermon - sigh. I guess that's how busy it has been. Plus the pollen has my eyes burning so I prefer my iPad to the computer. I need to get back to editing the Easter sermon now, which might get posted - eventually.
It has been a full week I'm sure for everyone. I just know how tired I am. which also means I'm easily distracted - like now.
ah well, life is good when it is so full!