Food

IMG_1165There’s just something about food, that brings us together. Food never stops being part of our church life.

Women United had another cooking class Monday night, and it always manages to do far more than just teach nutrition and kitchen skills. When people are side by side in the kitchen, a special kind of community happens. Nobody gets left out, and there’s something everyone can do. And then we sit down and eat together.

Bruce Chilton proposed that the really distinctive thing about Jesus’ ministry was that he would eat with people in their homes. He took the chance of a meal to give a special blessing. Gathered together, they discovered the community harmony that makes God smile. To the little man up the tree, Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, I’m eating at your house today!” It turned into a life-changing time for Zacchaeus, and Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to this house!” He told stories about wedding feasts and dinners where everyone is invited. His first recorded miracle was to keep the party going when the wine ran out! Repeatedly he feeds large crowds of people, and he also gathers with his disciples around food: in the upper room for a Last Supper, on the shore of the lake for grilled fish, and in the homes of those who invited him in. Clearly, Jesus just loved to have people get together and eat! Why else would our most frequent sacrament be to reenact a meal?

Maybe that’s a lot of freight to put on a potluck, but there it is. We’re having one about every month, and Sunday lunchtime is our next one. We usually start a little before noon, because we’re out of worship around 11:20. Show up and feel the joy of getting together. Make God smile.

Move-in weekend

The traffic light is back on across from Wesley Hall. The parking lots are full again. As soon as their rooms are put together, students will be crossing Hannah Street to Baldwin, running in packs past the park, and, of course, desperately trying to find the right group of friends, to last four years. And classes, of course.

We get a pretty good view of this from the church. We’re practically across the street from Wesley, in the great big brick building attached to the college’s own Goodrich Chapel.

Like you, we’d like to make some new friends among all the new folks coming to town this weekend! It’s really not just that we want you to come and worship with us at 10 a.m. on Sundays, though that’d be great. It’s really that we want to be there for you, as you make some big steps in your life. We’ve got people who’ve been there, who’ve seen other students come and go over the years, who know a lot of what you’re going through. We’ve got open-minded people who welcome everyone, who’ll take you out to lunch, who’ll take the time to talk, to be friends and extra family for you. We have acoustic worship, thoughtful discussions, Bible studies, and potlucks (there’s one coming up next Sunday, the 28th, after worship).

You might have left your home town behind for the semester, but this is our home town, and we want to welcome you.

Taking sides?

Oh yeah, everyone’s doing it! Politics is in its full swing for the next eighty days, and we skid toward the end of another presidential election. You’ve probably heard pundits analyzing every play, counting the insults and tactics. What details you’ve heard depends, of course, on where you get your news.

The advantage of politics, like sports, is that now and then we get to call a winner. That event gives everyone a chance to go back in their locker rooms for a day, and wonder what to do differently next time. But most of us will still be on the same sides after the game is over. Most of us had already decided what side we were on before the candidates lined up, before the primaries. Most of us have been on our various sides for a long time. The reason is not that we are persistently foolish. It is that we believe our values matter, and most of our values were established sometime in high school or earlier. And our values differ.

It would be interesting to see how we would vote if we could simply choose between abstract values, instead of dealing with messy personality and stories. How would you choose between education and national security? Between jobs and the environment? This particular election, like the last few, have asked us to choose between two different views of America: it’s getting better, or it’s getting worse. The past was better, or the future is better. Diversity is a path to peace, or a path to destruction. We need to be tough, or we need to be prudent. These differences are profound, reaching into our deep experience and personality. We can’t possibly make rational decisions about such sweeping choices, because our souls resonate with one or the other, and that’s all there is to it.

Starting this week, we start a new series of messages about arguments–six profound, soul-stirring arguments that got to the heart of people long ago, and still haven’t left us alone. We’ll be kicking back into our sermon discussion time following worship, in the conference room. We’ll be taking sides, and identifying where our souls come down among so many choices. Come for the conversation!

Jeremy

Assumptions

There is a small extremist minority group within Islam, called the Wahabi, that is condemned by the vast majority of Muslims. I want to tell you a little story about them, because it can tell us something about Christians in the world.

Recently I watched a YouTube video from England. A British woman was checking out a protest by a group of Wahabi (very conservative) Muslims, working at engaging them in conversation, and trying to understand what they were about. As in America, there had been a couple of episodes of police conflict with Muslims, and the community was understandably upset.

As she engaged a few people in conversation, this woman was shocked to hear things said directly to her by the people with whom she struck up conversations. A fully veiled woman asked what man she was trying to seduce, since she was dressed in a red dress with no head-covering. She was told, “You look naked to me.” She heard the crowd chanting, “Police go to hell!” and asking about it, she was told that British law is wrong, and the only right thing would be for the country to follow Sharia law. She also was told repeatedly, and by a cleric, that everyone besides true believers were going to hell.

The woman who was asking questions was entirely taken aback by these messages. She couldn’t understand how anyone could think that their own way of thinking was the only possible right way. She couldn’t understand a mindset that no place for tolerance, acceptance, or respect for one another’s beliefs.

Please understand: this is a minority group among Muslims, condemned by most Muslims. The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful, tolerant, and respectful of the societies in which they live. Wahhabism is the official religious approach in Saudi Arabia.

I was also recently reminded that people who are not Christian have perceptions of us that are not entirely different from this woman’s perceptions of Wahhabis. They are offended that Christians claim to know something about God. Even to talk about God in very general terms seems offensive. And to assume that our culture is Christian is an insult. Why do people feel this way? How can I express greater tolerance, and how can I soften the hurt that Christians have perpetrated over the years?

The first step might be to acknowledge where Christians have gone wrong. There are some Christians who are a lot like the Wahhabis. They claim to have absolute answers to almost every question, they condemn everyone who disagrees with them–sometimes with soft earnest voices, and sometimes with loud hateful protests. They have tried to take political power and overturn the separation of church and state. And they believe that the rest of us are going to hell. I have spent plenty of years trying to counter the negative stereotype of Christians that comes from these extremists.

But it is not only the extremists who give Christians a bad name. We do it ourselves when we blithely assume that everyone else does, or should, think the way I do. We weaken the reputation of Christians when we paper over the problems of society and community with vague prayers and platitudes, and then don’t do anything about mending the hurts of the world. We turn people against God when we take the disagreements between Christians, and make them into gossip and public whining.

I am proud and pleased to serve a congregation that is trying to do better all the time. It is our constant task to spread so much love and service, that the worst people can say of us is that we are too kind, and foolishly generous for Christ.

Worship through August and September

 

Hospitality

Beginning July 31, we start preparing ourselves to welcome back college students and others, with a three-week series on Hospitality.

 

July 31: Prepare (Mark 6:30-44)

Jesus put his followers on the spot when he told them to get dinner for a crowd of thousands. They had the usual complaints: we’re not prepared; we can’t afford it; can’t they just go home? Churches use the same sorts of complaints when people arrive looking for either spiritual or physical sustenance. But if we’re not prepared, maybe we should change that, and change the whole conversation with Jesus.

August 7: Welcome (Matthew 25:31-40)

Jesus paints a picture of a final judgment, and in the middle of the story is perhaps the most difficult demand: welcome the stranger. This is harder than we think precisely because we have a hard time putting ourselves in the head and heart of a person who’s not just like us. The demand to welcome is a requirement to stretch our imagination. Ready?

August 14: Walking Together (Luke 14:12-24)

OK, so you’re pretty good and walking up to a stranger and making conversation–maybe. Well, how are you at inviting that person into a longer faith relationship? Where are people going to find the invitation to walk in a shared path of discipleship, if not from you? Are you ready to change a life, and be changed in the process?

 

Arguments in the Bible

The Bible is not simply a group of texts that share the same truths and points of view. The Bible is intentionally a collection of disagreements and arguments about the very foundations of faith, life, and community. Beginning August 21, Jeremy begins a six-week series on some of the most profound arguments that the Bible has handed on to us. We’re invited to join the conversation–and maybe take sides!

August 21: North and South

From Jacob (Genesis 35:1-10) to Jesus and the Samaritans (John 4:9-11, 21-24), the history of people in Palestine was divided between two group of people, who were usually two nations, and sometimes despised each other. The roots of the story (2 Kings 17:4-6; 17-24) shape a thousand sensitivities and perceptions over the years, including our own.

August 28:Prophet and Priest

This one never goes away: it’s the struggle between maintaining order and purity (a priest’s job) and crying for justice (a prophet’s job). Readings from Amos 4 and 5, Isaiah 56:10-12, Jeremiah 7 and 26. Is there a way to keep these two things in tension?

September 4: Purity and Power

When it came time to restore the Temple and Jerusalem, the question was whether we should start including everyone in worship, or only some people. As usual, it depends who you ask, and what their motives are. Readings from Ezra 10, Nehemiah 10, and Jesus’ hard saying about religious teachers in Matthew 23:28.

September 11: Jew and Greek

Right at the beginning, Christians were arguing about who can be included, and what they have to do to fit in. Breaking down boundaries is the story of Acts. But can’t these Christians get along? Acts 7:51-53; 13:44-52.

September 18: Law and Grace

The other great big early Christian argument was this one: how do I get to heaven? Is it what I do, or what I believe? Oh, and is heaven the big goal? Readings from James 1:22-27, Mark 10:17-27, and John 3:14-18.

September 25: Knowledge and Wisdom

Jesus had a lot to say about wisdom, and he wasn’t the only one. Some people think of Jesus mostly as a teacher of wisdom, but others say that we are supposed to be innocent and foolish. How does this work exactly? Readings from Luke 11-12, Philippians 3, Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 1-2.

 

Hospitality time

August is an important month in the life of our church. We expect to welcome another huge crowd for vacation Bible School on August 8-11. Throughout the month, we welcome back our friends who have spent their summer traveling. All the school programs start to ramp up, with sports and band camps. First-year college students move in on the 19th, followed the next two days by everyone else, and classes start on Monday, the 22nd. So we might see a student or two on the 21st for worship, and a few more on the 28th (except those who make a trip home for all the things they forgot).

All of these August happenings are hospitality opportunities for the church, which probably explains why I’m preaching specifically about hospitality on July 31, and August 7 and 14. I want to make sure we’re ready.

The rest of this message was originally written for folks who are already “church people.” So if you’re just checking us out at the moment, I hope you’ll understand… and maybe you’ll think about becoming one of those crazy church people sometime!

Preaching is all good and well, but sooner or later we have to do a few things! We’re going to start by practicing on college students, and then hopefully grow this to include anyone who comes to the church for the first time. So, here are the things for which I need volunteers between now and then:

  • Make a strong commitment to befriend one college student. This means:
    1. providing them a Sunday lunch, perhaps at your home, at least once a month while they’re here at school.
    2. knowing their name, and using it, and inviting (not obliging) them to sit with you.
    3. knowing their birthday, and what’s important to them.
    4. contacting them if they’re not at church, saying you missed them (but not guilting them!)
    5. For everyone’s wellbeing, make sure you’re not alone with a student at home or in your car. Invite someone else as well!
  • Keep those monthly potlucks coming! Encourage students and all our guests to invite friends on days with potlucks!
  • As we did last year, I hope that the college will share with us a list of students to whom we can send a welcome card. So we’ll need writers!

As Lois Fennimore has done a good job of telling us: hospitality is everyone’s job! One of the things we’ll talk about this month is the skill of having a better conversation with someone you’re meeting for the first time. That’s not an easy thing to do, and it doesn’t come naturally to me, even after twenty-one years as a pastor! But it’s good for God and for the community if we can work on it a bit.

God bless you!

Jeremy

Community Vacation Bible School

cave-quest-vbs-logo

August 8-11, 5:30-8 p.m. each day.

At First United Methodist Church.

A shared ministry of First UMC, Lewis Chapel AME Church, and several other congregations.

We’ll be following the Cave Quest VBS plan this year, and as always, kids begin the evening with a meal. VBS is always free, and tons of fun.

If you’re interested in helping, please stay tuned for an organizational meeting coming soon. We’re sorry for the short notice on dates: summer has a lot of unexpected responsibilities and activities to work around for everyone involved. But we still hope to beat last year’s record for attendance, with a total number over 200! We have service as well as learning opportunities for every age, from 4 to senior citizens.

Please be there. It’ll be awesome!

I’ve Got People

I’ve got people. When I have a question about church money, I ask Sally. When I want someone to start a visitation ministry, I mention it to Lois. When there’s ice building up on the sidewalk, I mention it to Larry. When I want someone to update an event on the calendar, or redraft a policy, I ask Cindi. When I need to understand a budget question, Rick is on it. When we need part of the building to look better and be more welcoming, Barb is all over it. And when it comes to food for a funeral or anything else, it’s another Barb. If we need to put music together for Easter or Christmas, we can depend on Jan (and Drew, Ken, Ken, Phil, and Torrey). This isn’t a catalog of all the people I depend on—just a hint about how deeply we depend on one another all the time. Being me, I also have people to call on when I want to play some music!

It seems especially important to point out our interdependence as our western world continues to pursue its ideal of individualism to absurd levels. Read this from psychologist Martin Seligman: “In the past quarter-century, events occurred that so weakened our commitment to larger entities as to leave us almost naked before the ordinary assaults of life … Where can one now turn for identity, for purpose, and for hope? When we need spiritual furniture, we look around and see that all the comfortable leather sofas and stuffed chairs have been removed and all that’s left to sit on is a small, frail folding chair: the self.”

Seligman is clear that if we want to recover our optimism, our positive outlook on the world and our future, we need to be fully engaged in a network of people. Depression and isolation are two beasts feeding on one another. I can see the truth in this from my own life. I have usually been pretty good at finding a few friends to connect with—people who will notice when I look down-in-the-mouth, who will listen to what’s going on, and invite me over to their house on a whim. At those times when I haven’t had those supports at the ready, I’ve slipped pretty close to depression a few times. In Sligman’s words, they are the “comfortable leather sofas and stuffed chairs” that make up the furniture of my internal home.

Where’s God in all this? Everywhere! God is the glue holding so many of these relationships together. God is the maker who made us to live in community. God is the one who rejoices when we live together in harmony, creating villages of relationships. And God is the first and final friend, from the beginning to the end of our lives. The relationship modeling faithfulness for every other relationship is the holy relationship we have with God. Now let’s go and make it real!

 

Pastor Jeremy

That Time Again

Hang out with United Methodists long enough, and you’ll eventually hear about Annual Conference. Not General Conference–the thing that ended a little while ago in Portland, Oregon–but Annual Conference. You probably figured out how often this one meets. It includes (in theory) an equal number of clergy and non-clergy (laity). What’s not obvious from the name is that it has to do with all the pastors and lay church representatives from a geographical area, which we, never tired of the word, call the annual conference. Go figure. Here in Albion, we’re part of the West Michigan Annual Conference. The other half of the state is called the Detroit Annual Conference, and it includes the U.P. Because once upon a time, that made sense to someone. In a couple of years, this information won’t matter, because we’re in the process of becoming one conference for all of Michigan.

This year, we’re meeting at the Breslin Center in Lansing. We chose such a big place because both conferences are meeting in the same place, and overlapping our times. We’re hoping this makes us friendly, but it’s possible we’ll all just be cranky from not knowing where anything is. Next year, we’ll be meeting up near Traverse City, where they know what to do with tourists.

Apart from the new conference thing, we have to discuss and vote on a few things–fewer than usual, because General Conference just ended, and there’s no point sending them new resolutions for a few more years. We have to discuss and vote on whether to affirm a sort of promise that we’ll keep loving each other and working together even though we disagree about sexuality, and immigrants, and some other things. And we’ll set a budget and change a few small rules.

Because we like the word so much, we (OK, not I) call the process “holy conferencing.” To be honest, the original verb was “confer,” so the gerund should be “conferring.” Instead we took the original verb, turned it into a noun by adding “-ence,” and then added “-ing,” as if we wanted to make doubly sure that no verbs got into the room.

My favorite part of Annual Conference is not the abuse of the English language, but the people. It is an extrovert’s paradise, which leaves the rest of us rather exhausted by the end. But it is a place for catching up and sharing with old friends, and now and then encouraging someone who is preparing to begin a life of ministry.

We’ll also worship and hear bishops preach, and we’ll eat lots of food. The worship will be well thought-out and of high quality. I know because my son is involved with that.

After I get back home, I promise to tell you about it.

Conflicting Loyalties

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church is over for another four years. It left unresolved the question of what to do about sexuality in the denomination. The conference voted instead to appoint a committee to look at solutions. It’s not clear that we’ll agree at the end of another two years of conversation.

Despite its importance as an issue in America, sexuality is not the most urgent problem faced by United Methodists around the world, who are subject to mass tribal violence in parts of Africa, and religious persecution in some Asian countries. Unfortunately, even a worldwide Christian denomination can do little more than raise awareness and make statements.

So our denomination still cannot affirm the call of a gay man to be a pastor, of two women to marry one another, and we haven’t even begun with gender identity. You may wonder why I stay United Methodist. Apart from pension, insurance, and salary, there’s the covenant I entered, to receive the appointments I was given, to be under orders rather than to work for my own interest. Within the denomination, I can continue to be one of the people who continue to stand up and speak for full inclusion. I have a loyalty to work within this denomination, my community.

Against all that, consider my loyalty to the many good and faithful people who are excluded from ordination, and even from public church marriage, by the position of my denomination. Does my remaining a United Methodist betray them? Am I insulting or lessening them if I continue to represent the United Methodist Church?

Conflicting loyalties tear at all of us who love our church and also love people of all kinds. How can I give a full commitment to love all people, and remain committed to the Church that does not? These are the questions that tear us apart, that divide Christians from one another.

Christians have always been good at finding things to fight about. The Orthodox and Catholic split over when Easter should be. The earliest Church split over whether non-Jews had to follow the Jewish law when they became Christians. The list could easily go on. I don’t intend to follow the age-old habit of drawing lines that separate people according to whether we agree. We need to practice what all people are bad at: getting along, and seeing the beauty in one another. Who knows: if we get good at this, we may eventually learn to accept all people into full participation in the life of the Church.

Pastor Jeremy