Posts tagged Jesus

The Power to Overcome – 6/24/12

Jesus calms a storm

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Riverside United Methodist Church

Pastor Douglas Asbury

1 Samuel 17.1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49:  The shepherd, David, uses the tools of his trade and the power of the Lord to defeat the giant warrior, Goliath.  “The Lord does not save by sword and spear” (verse 47).

Psalm 9.11-20:  The psalm celebrates God’s defense of those who are afflicted by catching the offenders in the traps they have made.

2 Corinthians 6.1-13:  Tension abounds.  Paul argues that his suffering for the sake of the gospel provides all the credentials he needs for the Corinthians to listen to him.  The ball is in their court now.

Mark 4.35-41:  Jesus treats a storm the same way he treats demons.  He rebukes it, and tells it to shut up.  Then Jesus rebukes the disciples for their fear — not just of the storm, but of what Jesus did to end it.

David and Goliath: The Law of Tooth and Claw
The Israelis and Arabs realized that, if they continued fighting, they would someday end up destroying the whole world. So they decided to settle their dispute with an ancient practice: a duel of two, like David and Goliath. This “duel” would be a dog fight. The negotiators agreed each side would take five years to develop the best fighting dog they could. The dog that won the fight would earn its people the right to rule the disputed areas. The losing side would have to lay down its arms for good.

The Arabs found the biggest, meanest Dobermans and Rottweilers in the world. They bred them together and then crossed their offspring with the meanest Siberian wolves. They selected only the biggest, strongest puppy of each litter, fed it the best food and killed all the other puppies. They used steroids and trainers in their quest for the perfect killing machine. After the five years were up, they had a dog that needed steel prison bars on its cage. Only expert trainers could handle this incredibly nasty and ferocious beast.

When the day of the big dog-fight finally arrived, the Israelis showed up with a very strange-looking animal, a Dachshund that was ten feet long! Everyone at the dogfight arena felt sorry for the Israelis. No one there seriously thought this weird, odd-looking animal stood any chance against the growling beast over in the Arab camp. All the bookies took one look and predicted that the Arab dog would win in less than a minute.

As the cages were opened, the Dachshund slowly waddled toward the center of the ring. The Arab dog leaped from its cage and charged the giant wiener-dog. As he got to within an inch of the Israeli dog, the Dachshund opened its jaws and swallowed the Arab beast whole in one bite. There was nothing left but a small puff of fur from the Arab killer dog’s tail floating to the ground.

The stunned crowd of international observers, bookies and media personnel let out a collective gasp of disbelief and surprise.

The Arabs approached the Israelis, muttering and shaking their heads in disbelief. “We do not understand,” said their leader, “Our top scientists and breeders worked for five long years with the meanest, biggest Dobermans, Rottweilers and Siberian wolves and they developed an incredible killing machine of a dog!”

The Israelis replied. “Well, for five years, we have had a team of Jewish plastic surgeons from Boca Raton working to make an alligator look like a Dachshund.”

This story, along with the story of David and Goliath, the story of Jesus calming the raging storm, and the Apostle Paul justifying his ministry in the apparent face of criticism by some Corinthians due to his background and things that had happened to him on account of his ministry, speaks of two different ways of addressing a challenge. On the one hand are those who believe that a challenge is best avoided, especially if it is judged that there is no way to win; and on the other hand are those who believe that one must answer force with force; but in the case of these stories, the “force” used by those who employ the power of God looks differently from that used by their opponents. The wily Jews modify an animal that no dog, however ferocious and powerful, could likely overcome. Little David with his stones faces gigantic, armored Goliath. The very human Jesus faces the full force of the storm and of the disciples disbelief and fears. And Paul challenges the many who think him less a representative of the living God and Christ the Savior than many others with better credentials.

One of the major points of these stories is something that Paul, in discussing God’s using the cross – an instrument of Roman oppression and reign of terror – as a means of salvation for all humanity, refers to as the “foolishness of God” that is “wiser than human wisdom” and the “weakness of God” that is “stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1.25). Those who rely on human perceptions and power, we are told, will forever be at the mercy of their own limitations; but those who trust God both for the divine vision of how God desires things to be and for the wherewithal to bring that vision into reality will always succeed, even in the face of what some may believe to be overwhelming odds.

David, Jesus and Paul had figured out that their taking responsibility for doing their divinely ordained part in bringing God’s purposes to fruition was essential to the accomplishment of the task at hand. Had they reneged, the Philistines would have won, Jesus never would have been born, nor would Paul, and history would have taken a completely different course. None of us would even be here, let alone be Christian or worshiping in this place at this time, had these men not done what God was calling them to do.

What will people a hundred or a thousand years in the future be doing on account of how we respond – or don’t respond – to God’s call to us to be a light pointing the way to Christ in our community, to be salt that preserves what is good and enhances the goodness that life brings by adding its own goodness to what exists?

It is a good thing that we are taking care of neglected maintenance on and around the church, that people are making the church and grounds attractive, that we are doing what we can to fund the church’s ministries. At the same time, we need continually to ask ourselves: what challenges are we fearful of facing, because our minds are earthbound, and, like the disciples, we believe someone else must step in to rebuke the wind and waves, to slay the goliaths, to spread God’s word, because we are inadequate to do so? God has called us to be faithful Davids and Pauls and disciples of Jesus the Christ, to step out in faith to address those challenges without fear, trusting that God will provide the wherewithal to overcome them.

May we not be pre-Pentecost disciples who fearfully cling to the tossing boat but, through the Spirit of Christ given at Pentecost, command the wind and the waves to cease and accomplish God’s purpose in our midst.

Uncovering the Truth – 6/10/12

Revelation by Walfrido Garcia

Sermon for Second Sunday after Pentecost

Riverside United Methodist Church

Pastor Douglas Asbury

1 Samuel 8.4-11:  The elders of the people ask Samuel to appoint a king over them so they will be like the other nations.

Psalm 138:  The psalm praises God as source of life and protection for the people.

2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1:  We pick up in the middle of Paul’s extended argument for the validity of his claim to authority among the Christians in Corinth. Here, Paul notes that the kind of suffering and physical challenges he faces are signs precisely of the death of Christ at work in him, that the life of Christ may be made known to them.

Mark 3.20-35:  Jesus’ power has become so great (and wild!) that some begin to accuse him of casting out demons by the power of Satan. Even his family comes to try to restrain him. Jesus names blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the only unforgivable sin, and those who do the will of the Father as his mother, brothers, and sisters.

Missing the Obvious
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were going camping. They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes woke Watson up and said: ‘Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you see.’
Watson replied: ‘I see millions and millions of stars.’
Holmes said: ‘And what do you deduce from that?’
Watson replied: ‘Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like earth out there. And if there are a few planets like earth out there, there might also be life.’
And Holmes said: ‘Watson, you idiot, it means that somebody stole our tent.’

The story reminds us that what we see depends on that on which we focus.

Though Watson knew that Holmes was not one to make idle conversation, especially not conversation that would call on Watson to suggest things Holmes himself could deduce, he nevertheless responded to Holmes’ question as though being given the opportunity to show his erudition. In doing so, he missed the obviousness of the crime that had been committed, prompting Holmes’ rebuke and his labeling Watson as an “idiot.”

I think the term “idiot” could have been in at least the backs of Samuel’s and Paul’s and Jesus’ minds when they were in the situations to which today’s scriptures refer. In conveying to the Israelites what would be the consequences of their having a king, Samuel might have said, “You idiots! Don’t you know that a king will only oppress you and not give you commensurate benefits in return?” Paul might have said, “You idiots in Corinth! Do you think because I have experienced such resistance and abuse at the hands of my opponents that such rejection marks my mission as a failure and my message as a falsehood?” And Jesus might have said, “You idiot scribes – and even some of my own blood relations! Do you think what I am doing demonstrates a mental derangement or that I am in league with God’s enemies?”

Clearly, doing God’s work is not always a matter of showing unconditional love to others and getting an invariably positive response. Sometimes being faithful to God brings rejection from those whose power or prestige is threatened by it, and they do their best to thwart the purposes of the faithful, even to the point of suggesting that their opponents are in league with Satan, as Jesus opponents do in today’s gospel reading.

During the past four days the nearly 400 churches of our Northern Illinois Conference have met for our annual meeting in St. Charles, Illinois, to discuss the business of our Conference, to worship, to fellowship, and to consider the budget we need collectively to do what we believe God is calling us to do as a group in concert with what God is calling each of our churches to do in our own locales.

Because I had attended a Unity Banquet in May that was sponsored by our Conference in concert with the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago at a mosque in Villa Park, and had sought after that to find ways in which we United Methodists could openly provide support and encouragement to our Muslim sisters and brothers, I had decided to wear a kufi cap – which I am wearing now – which is a prayer cap worn by many Muslim men. It roughly corresponds to the hijab worn by many Muslim women as well as to the yarmulke worn by many Jewish men at the time of religious festivals of the Jewish faith.

A number of people approached me to ask why I was wearing the cap, and I was happy to explain it to them. On the last day at Conference, in response to my request, Bishop Jung allowed me to explain my wearing of the kufi cap to the entire body gathered there. In doing so, I said the following:

“Thus, by my wearing this kufi cap, I wanted to bear witness during these sessions to the support many United Methodists in our Northern Illinois Conference have shown our Muslim sisters and brothers over the years, and to encourage others to find occasions on which to do so in either this or other ways.”

And then I added, “There is too much ignorance of Islam and there are too many unfounded fears of Muslims in our country to take lightly the ongoing efforts of some – including fellow Christians – to stereotype and malign those in our nation who practice Islam. If we do not take responsibility to address the bearing of false witness against our Muslim neighbors, then we are no better than those who are actively seeking to erect barriers to their full and joyful inclusion in this grand social experiment called the United States of America. Not only that, but we are failing to bear witness to our Lord Jesus Christ, who says to us, ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”

Now, fortunately, I was not subjected to ridicule or rejection by my fellow United Methodists – at least, not to my face or within my hearing. Those who attend Annual Conference are typically accustomed at least to showing tolerance for differences, if not support for the difference shown. However, were I to continue routinely to wear this kufi cap in public around Riverside and environs – as I go to Tony’s and Ultra Foods and Riverside Foods to shop, or into the First American Bank to deposit our receipts, or interacting with Village officials or neighbors or visitors to our church, I wonder if the reactions of others to me and to our church would be similarly positive? Something tells me they wouldn’t. Those who hold prejudice against Muslims might label me – and our church – as troublemakers, even, perhaps, like the scribes about Jesus, saying I or we are in league with Satan.

And yet, we cannot let the opinions of others who, like Watson, miss the obvious wrongdoing, shape our behavior. Like Samuel, and Paul, and Jesus, and the faithful through the ages, we must follow the call of God to make God’s reign more evident in the world. Our lives, inevitably limited, are of the greatest value only when we are using them to God’s glory and for God’s purposes. Anything less is a waste of a good life.

As Christ gives himself to us once more in the act of Holy Communion, let us rededicate ourselves to showing the faithfulness to God that these three heroes of the faith showed when they were among us in the flesh.

Supporting our Muslim sisters and brothers

I just returned from a four-day session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference, during which I wore a kufi cap, which is a prayer cap worn by Muslim men. Several people asked me why I was wearing it, and I decided to ask Bishop Jung for a few minutes of “personal privilege” so I could share my reasons with all the delegates who were present. The following is the text of what I said. I would welcome any comment you might have.

Thank you, Bishop Jung, for giving me the chance to share a witness.

I am Douglas Asbury, pastor of Riverside United Methodist Church.

A month ago tomorrow I was blessed, along with Bishop Jung and other of our fellow United Methodists, to attend the Seventh Interfaith Unity Banquet cosponsored by our Annual Conference and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago that was held at the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park.

Our theme for the evening was “Freedom of Religion(s) in a Pluralistic Society: Religion and moral debate in the public square: Sharia, Church, and State.” Our excellent after-dinner speakers were Dr. Barry Bryant, Associate Professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, and Azam Nizamuddin, Esquire, Attorney and principal in The Law Office of Azam Nizamuddin, P.C., and an Adjunct Professor of Islamic Law at Loyola University in Chicago.

At the conclusion of the dinner and talks, I sought a way we United Methodist Christians could affirm our bonds with our Muslim sisters and brothers. After checking with some of those Muslims there, I concluded that one way would be to choose some select occasions on which to wear clothing associated in our culture with those who practice Islam – the hijab, the beautiful scarf-like head and shoulder covering many Muslim women wear – or the kufi or kufi cap, such as I am wearing, which are prayer caps worn by Muslim men. I was assured that no offense would be taken, were we to do such a thing.

Thus, by my wearing this kufi cap, I wanted to bear witness during these sessions to the support many United Methodists in our Northern Illinois Conference have shown our Muslim sisters and brothers over the years, and to encourage others to find occasions on which to do so in either this or other ways.

There is too much ignorance of Islam and there are too many unfounded fears of Muslims in our country to take lightly the ongoing efforts of some – including some of our fellow Christians – to stereotype and malign those in our nation who practice Islam. If we do not take responsibility to address the bearing of false witness against our Muslim neighbors, then we are no better than those who are actively seeking to erect barriers to their full and joyful inclusion in this grand social experiment called the United States of America. Not only that, but we are failing to bear witness to our Lord Jesus Christ, who says to us, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

One book I recommend to you to become knowledgeable about the history, beliefs and practices of Islam is “No god but God:  The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam” by Reza Aslan, which you can order through Cokesbury.

Thank you.

When the Light Finally Comes On – 2/19/2012

Sermon for Sunday, 19 February 2012, Transfiguration Sunday
Riverside United Methodist Church
Pastor Douglas Asbury

2 Kings 2.1-12:  A story of discipleship and transition of leadership.  Elisha dutifully stays with and follows his master, Elijah, knowing that Elijah is about to die.  He seeks one final blessing from his master — a double portion of his spirit. A chariot of fire receives Elijah into the sky.

Psalm 50.1-6:  God calls the covenant people to assemble for a word of judgment and redemption.

2 Corinthians 4.3-6:  Paul reminds the Christians at Corinth that his message was never about eloquent delivery, but always about “Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” Just as the “god of this world” blinds those who do not receive the gospel, the true God of all opens the eyes of those who do.

Mark 9.2-9:  Six days after explaining that he would be executed in Jerusalem, Jesus leads three of his disciples up a mountain where “he was transfigured before them.” These disciples saw Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah and did not know how to respond. A voice from the cloud instructed them to listen to Jesus.

Mississippi Student Absentees
These are real notes written from parents in a Mississippi school district. (Spellings have been left intact.)
My son is under a doctor’s care and should not take P.E. today. Please execute him.
Please excuse Lisa for being absent. She was sick and I had her shot.
Dear School: Please ekscuse John Henry being absent on Jan. 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, and also 33
Please excuse Roland from P.E. for a few days. Yesterday he fell out of a tree and misplaced his hip.
John has been absent because he had two teeth taken out of his face.
Please excuse Jimmy for being. It was his father’s fault.
Please excuse Jennifer for missing school yesterday. We forgot to get the Sunday paper off the porch, and when we found it Monday, we thought it was Sunday.
Sally won’t be in school a weak from Friday. We have to attend her funeral.

Each of these excuses is a serious attempt on the part of a parent to let the school know a valid reason for their child to be excused from school or from taking part in some aspect of the school program or not to be penalized for being late. They are funny to us because, though we either know or can figure out what the parents meant, the way they phrased it sets up a somewhat different picture of reality; and it is the difference between the picture conveyed by the words and the reality they sought to convey that makes the statements humorous.

When we first hear the statement, we think, “They can’t mean that!” Then, when our minds try to make sense of the odd statement, and we realize the context of the message and add or change a word or two, and we come up with what was meant, we laugh. The light comes on, and all is clear. We realize that Jimmy’s mother isn’t asking for Jimmy to be excused for “being” – but for “being late.” She’s not blaming Jimmy’s father for siring him; she’s blaming him for making him late to school.

In the process of figuring this out, we say we are “in the dark” at first about what is meant, and then “the light comes on,” and we understand the reality in a way that at first we didn’t because the phraseology didn’t make sense – or it made sense, but it was unbelievable. We needed the “aha! moment” in order to come to a knowledge of the truth of the matter. Without that “aha! moment,” we would have remained clueless.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “aha! experience” as “a moment of sudden insight or discovery; the sudden finding of a solution to a problem; also, aha moment, reaction, etc.”

Oprah Winfrey, who has talked about such “aha moments” with many of her guests, defines them as “flashes of understanding.” More extensively, she has described them as “unforgettable, connect-the-dots moments, when everything suddenly, somehow changed.”

As we heard the gospel story this morning about the experience of the disciples on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured in their presence, and they saw Elijah and Moses with him, we heard that, at first, they didn’t know what to make of it all. Peter piped up and proposed that he and the others set up tents, so the three great men in front of them could have places to stay. But then, a cloud came over them, and a voice emerged from the cloud telling them to listen to what Jesus had to say. After the cloud lifted, Jesus looked again as he had before the transfiguration, and Elijah and Moses were gone. At that point Jesus told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after “the Son of Man” – by which Jesus was referring to himself – had been raised from the dead – an event that was still quite far in the future and not yet anticipated nor comprehended by the disciples.

The time of viewing the transfiguration of Jesus wasn’t an “aha! moment” for the disciples; but it was an essential element of the aha! moment the disciples were to have following the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  The changes in Jesus witnessed by Peter, James and John on that mountain, including his encounters with Elijah and Moses, made little sense to the three disciples when they occurred; but they made all the sense in the world to them after they had also become witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. It was after that event that they could tell what had happened on that mountain and would then have a basis upon which to interpret it rightly. They could tell the other disciples, as well as all who would listen to them and might become disciples, that Jesus was a lawgiver comparable to Moses for the Jewish people, and that he was the prophet of God who signified the return of Elijah that heralded the time when God would make everything right in the world for God’s people. What resulted from these two moments in the disciples’ lives – the transfiguration and the resurrection of Jesus – was what we know as Pentecost – the day on which the disciples were filled with God’s Spirit and began bringing good news to the world of God’s salvation from sin and want through the power that had been revealed in Jesus the Christ and that was now present in them and available to all who would come to put their faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord.

Now, not all “aha! moments” have the import that this dual experience of the disciples. Most, in fact, have much less impact; and yet they are not necessarily to be dismissed as unimportant or lacking in value. Take a look at the insert, on which I’ve printed ten aha! moments of an Australian woman named Mia. Some of them have specifically religious content (6, 8); the others don’t, though the last one is a quote from Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California.

On the other side of the insert I’ve given space for you to put your own name and to list ten aha! moments of your own. I want to encourage you to look back over your life and to jot down messages that have come to you in times of challenge or struggle or confusion or darkness that have resulted in something like a light coming on in your life, so that you knew what your next step needed to be; or so that a concern was relieved; or so that an answer was given to a question that had perplexed you. You may be able to think of fewer than ten, or you may have many more. Use the sheet however you find it appropriate for you.

What I want to claim today is that God is always speaking to us; but there are times when we are more open to listening to God, and those are often the more difficult times in our lives. When things are going in ways with which we are comfortable, or at times when we feel in control, though God may be speaking to us, we often are not in a mood to listen. It is often only at times when things have gotten out of control, or we’re thrown into a situation with which we don’t know how to deal, that we become open to that voice of God that conveys some necessary wisdom to us that we otherwise would have missed.

We might still miss the wisdom of God. We might just turn back to some other prejudice or take a route we remember seeing someone else take in a similar situation and apply it to our own, and in the process ignore the light of divine wisdom God is making available to us. But if, like the disciples, we understand that God is continually revealing divine wisdom to us to be applied at the right time in our lives to enable us to do what God has placed us on earth to accomplish, then the likelihood that we fulfill our divine purpose with the aid of God’s aha! moments is increased; and we can trust that God is with us always as guide and friend.

Next week we begin our Lenten soup lunch and book study. The little books by Bishop Rueben Job that we will be using for the study are collections of Bishop Job’s aha! moments in terms of how to live the Christian life with faithfulness and joy. I hope you’ll join us as a part of your Lenten discipline and thereby open yourself to the possibility that you’ll increase your own aha! moments to the glory of God and your own growth in the experience of the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.


1. I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. – Maya Angelou
2. Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I’ll try again tomorrow.” – Mary Anne Radmacher
3. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. – Nelson Mandela
4. The most influential person who will talk to you all day, is you. So, you should be very careful what you say to you. – Zig Ziglar
5. Wisdom is knowing what to do next; skill is knowing how to do it; and virtue is doing it. – David Starr Jordan
6. Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be snapped. Change is inevitable; don’t get too rigid. Flow with what God is doing today. – Christine Caine
7. It is wise to direct your anger towards problems, not people; to focus your energies on solutions, not excuses. – William A. Ward
8. Hope is not when you compare your suffering to someone who suffers worse than you. Hope is when you compare your suffering to the infinite, immeasurable love and grace of God. – Nick Vujicic
9. In character building, you will not find justice and fairness being upheld for your own convenience. If you focus on gaining them for yourself, you’ll be frustrated in your pursuit. On the other hand, if you strive to do the right thing with the right attitude, you’ll find yourself grow amidst the injustice. – KP
10. When you die, you won’t regret your unfulfilled dreams, just your unattempted ones. The first is reality; the second is tragedy. – Rick Warren

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To Be Always under Instruction – 3/11/2012

Sermon for Sunday, 11 March 2012
Riverside United Methodist Church

Pastor Douglas Asbury

Exodus 20.1-17: God speaks the “Ten Words” (as they are known in Judaism), beginning with an important identity statement: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Psalm 19: A psalm declaring Creation’s praise of God and our praise of God’s instruction (“Torah”).

1 Corinthians 1.18-25: Paul notes what must have been obvious — proclaiming a crucified man as Messiah and Savior can be a stretch for all people, Jewish or Gentile. But for those who “get it,” it is a powerful, life-changing message that opens up a new understanding of God and the world.

John 2.13-22: Jesus makes Temple worship impossible at the busiest time of the year — the Passover sacrifice. He confronts those who had turned the Temple courtyard into a marketplace, and they ask him what sign of authority he has for doing this. He tells them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Phases of Teachability
An alumnus from a certain school tells this story: When I first started college, the Dean came in and said “Good Morning” to all of us. When we echoed the words back to him, he responded “Ah, you’re Freshmen.”
He explained. “When you walk in and say good morning, and they say good morning back, it’s Freshmen. When they put their newspapers down and open their books, it’s Sophomores. When they look up so they can see the instructor over the tops of the newspapers, it’s Juniors. When they put their feet up on the desks and keep reading, it’s Seniors.”

“When you walk in and say ‘good morning,’ and they write it down, it’s graduate students.”


Obviously this story has some truth to it, and it is also a gross generalization. Not all college students start out being obediently respectful of authority figures and move through various stages of realism and cynicism to the point of flauting authority, let alone becoming automatons when they seek a graduate degree. Some students actually like the educational process and involve themselves in it fully; and others never do, so they would continue reading their newspapers, even as freshmen.
But let’s look beyond the story, because some people these days go to graduate school in an attempt to get a better job or to prepare for a more specialized career than would be available to them with only a bachelor’s degree. Some of those even go on to get a Ph.D., M.D., D.D.S., or other professional degree in order to become knowledgeable in an even more limited field.

But among all these students of whatever level of study or achievement, only a relative handful fall in love with their field and study for love’s sake rather than for the sake of the expertise or the achievement or the prestige or the influence or whatever else they decide they want to “do with” the things they’re learning.

As any good teacher knows – and many others who aren’t teachers but who have had many – the teacher who is in love with her or his subject can be both a frustrating and an inspiring person under whom to study. A teacher who has fallen in love with the subject wants, obviously, to have students learn about the subject in great detail. And yet, the teacher who loves the subject wants more than that; such a teacher wants the students, too, to fall in love with the subject, just as the teacher has.

Of course, that doesn’t always happen. In fact, it might be said that most of any subject-loving teacher’s students fail to fall in love with that teacher’s subject. I suppose this is to be expected. There have to be some sympathetic vibrations between student and subject for love to emerge in the studying, and not every student will be on the wavelength of every subject studied.

But the second thing a good teacher wants for the students is that he or she knows as much about the object of the teacher’s love as possible so as to live responsibly in the world in relation to that subject. And beyond that, the teacher wants each student to know that it is possible to fall in love with learning, and particularly, learning about something that touches one’s heart and calls forth the best efforts one can muster.

This comes across in the scriptures for today. Though Moses gave the Ten Commandments as a set of directives, the psalmist celebrated the commandments of God as things that “revived the soul,” that “make wise the simple,” that “rejoice the heart,” and that “enlighten the eyes.” Can you hear in such images the love the psalmist had for what many learned simply as a set of teachings or rules that some followed but to which many gave only lip service – like the juniors and seniors in the opening story?
The Apostle Paul goes beyond the psalmist, even, by directing his hearers’ attention not to a set of teachings but to an act of sacrifice – to the cross of Christ. This reality, he noted, was a stumbling block to those who wanted signs of power and foolishness to those who sought sensible wisdom. And yet, Paul writes, “to those who are called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

How, then, are we to understand a crucified God as power and wisdom? This is the challenge before us. The Church through the centuries has had conversations and conflicts over this very thing that have tossed it about and split it from time to time; and no one can truly be said to have the one right answer as to how a crucified human at one point in history can be all the divine power and wisdom people need, whoever and wherever they are.

But those who fall in love with seeking the answer to this question are those who have the greatest chance of coming to live in the way we were meant to live. Those who allow this act of Jesus giving himself over to death for the sake of the sins of the world to challenge them and to draw them into a love relationship with the God whom Jesus presented and presents to us will find that the power and wisdom of God are not the things after which we must quest through study, but they are the gifts of God to those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.

As we receive Holy Communion today and continue to do so in the coming weeks, I invite you to consider that it is a feast celebrating God’s love for us and inviting us more deeply into that love relationship offered in Jesus Christ.

Initiated into the Promise – 3/4/2012

Sermon for Sunday, March 4, 2012

Riverside United Methodist Church

Pastor Douglas Asbury

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16: El Shaddai (God of the Mountains/God of Compassion) calls Abram to be exclusively loyal and offers to covenant with him to make him (to be renamed Abraham) the father and Sarai (to be renamed Sarah) the mother of many nations.

Psalm 22.23-31: The Lord’s acts of deliverance for one people in one age will lead to generations of praise to the Lord worldwide.

Romans 4.13-25: Paul reminds the Jewish-Christian congregations in Rome that the founding stories of Judaism point to a God who graciously offers to include people in covenant on the basis of faith, not perfect obedience to the law.

Mark 8.31-38: Following Jesus means following him to his death, and possibly our own. Jesus tells the disciples that he will suffer and die at the hands of the religious authorities. After exchanging rebukes with Peter, Jesus then turns to the crowds to declare that all who want to be his followers must take up their cross and follow him. If you’re in this for yourself, you will lose everything. But if you’re in this to follow Jesus and see the gospel lived, even if you die, you’ve gained it all.

Different Initiations
A cathedral was located opposite a synagogue in a well-to-do neighborhood. Both the Jewish and the Catholic congregations were driving nice cars and living well. Only the clergy was in poor condition. In fact, the priest was driving a car so old that the floor had rusted through, and he could see the street under him as he drove. The rabbi had so old a car that he had to hold the doors together with ropes.

One day the Catholic congregation decided to do something for their priest. They collected $50,000 to buy the priest a new Lincoln Town Car. The next Sunday after mass, when the priest came to the door of the church to greet his parishioners, the chair of the collecting committee showed the priest the new car and handed him the keys.

Just then, Sunday school was ending across the street, and the Jewish congregants joined their Christian friends to see the new car. The priest just stood there dumbfounded. “Aren’t you going to say something or do something to accept the new car?” called one his parishioners. “Well, of course,” said the priest. “Just wait one minute.” So he walked into the church while the crowd waited. Shortly he reappeared with some holy water and sprinkled it on the new car and even said something in Latin. He thanked one and all and accepted the new car.

Well, the Jewish folks were ashamed that the rabbi was still driving such an old jalopy, so they, too, collected over $50,000 and bought the rabbi a new Cadillac, which they parked outside the synagogue the next Saturday. So when the rabbi came to the door of the synagogue after services, he was presented with the keys to the new car. Just then, members of the Catholic congregation came to join their Jewish friends across the street to look over the new car. The rabbi was so dumbfounded he didn’t say a word. So someone called out, “Rabbi, aren’t you going to get some holy water and accept the new car?” “We don’t have any holy water,” said the Rabbi, “but I will do something else.” With that he walked across the sidewalk into the basement of the synagogue while the crowed waited and wondered what he was doing in the basement. Shortly, the Rabbi reappeared with a pair of metal shears and clipped a piece off the tailpipe.

One of the things that makes this story funny is that each clergyperson uses a ritual that is meant to initiate persons into their respective communities as a means to give thanks for and bless a gift given to them by their parishioners who had compassion on them in their need. And for us as Christians, isn’t that what baptism is all about as well? Whether we have been baptized as infants or as older children or adults, it is someone other than ourselves who has shown us grace in our condition of need, and has sought to meet that need spiritually as signified by the ritual that symbolizes the action of the actor towards us. God has created us, as God also created Adam and Eve; God breathed into us the breath of life after we exited our mother’s wombs; and, through baptism, God has infused us with the Holy Spirit that directs and empowers us to live the life God intends for us to live, each of us in a unique and unduplicatable way, but all of us in a way that ultimately brings glory to God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

The question before us is, have we given ourselves over completely – in faith – to the life that brings God the glory God deserves; or is something still holding us back from doing so? For Abraham and Sarah, what was holding them back could have been – and was, for a brief time – their skepticism that God could use their 99 and 90 year old bodies to produce an infant after so many barren years had gone by. For Jesus’ disciples, what was holding them back was the idea that Jesus and they had to remain alive, above all things, so as to restore the reign of God in the world through a restoration of the Davidic realm in a particular piece of geography; when Jesus was making clear that neither his nor his disciples’ lives needed to be protected for the reign of God in the world to be accomplished; but that reign might be established in a way that involved their true devotion, even if it also brought about their deaths. This was to affirm the idea that they trusted that God had power that was stronger than death, and that God could use even the limited efforts of fallible but devoted human beings to accomplish God’s purpose of bringing salvation to the whole of creation.

Whatever we do as a church, the degree to which we are concerned about the ongoing existence of this church will be the degree to which we will actually fail to do the work God is calling us to do. On the other hand, the degree to which our major concern is to do God’s will, to fulfill God’s unique and unduplicatable purpose for us as a church in this place at this time in history, is the degree to which God will be glorified by what we do, even if it leads to the elimination of this church as a unique entity. The work itself will live on, and the church will live on through that work.

This is the promise into which we have been initiated through our baptisms, and into which this church was initiated through its consecration. Let us commit and recommit ourselves to fulfilling our purpose as baptized Christians and as the Church of Jesus Christ, making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and being ourselves transformed in the process.

Faith and Change – 2/26/2012

Sermon for Sunday, 26 Feb 2012

Riverside United Methodist Church

Pastor Douglas Asbury

Genesis 9.8-17: God makes a covenant with the earth, signified by the rainbow, not to destroy the earth by flood again.

Psalm 25.1-10: Israel seeks God’s deliverance from enemies. Unlike the people destroyed in the flood, Israel claims it has sought to follow God’s way and wishes to learn it still better.

1 Peter 3.18-22: Peter links the death and resurrection of Jesus with the story of Noah’s flood and the sacrament of baptism.

Mark 1.9-15: Immediately after his baptism, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the desert for a period of testing surrounded by wild animals, Satan, and ministering angels — all to prepare him to spend his life declaring the good news of the kingdom of God.

Searching for Different Things

After a fruitless search, a teenager told his mother that his iPod Nano was lost.
So his mother went upstairs, and in a few minutes she returned with the iPod in hand.
“Mom!” exclaimed the teen, “How did you manage to find it?”
“Son, we weren’t looking for the same thing. You were looking for a little machine with a lot of music on it. I was looking for $129.”

This little story illustrates not only the difference between two people with different interests, but it also talks about two people who place their faith differently.

The son put his faith in his parents, that they would have the means to buy him another iPod Nano, so that he could just download his favorite music onto that – at an additional expense, of course – and he wouldn’t have to be without his favorite music or the status symbol that such a thing is among kids his age. The mother put her faith in the fact that the iPod was a physical object that was in a specific location and that it was locatable.

The son’s faith was moving the situation towards the change that required an additional expenditure from the parents and nothing from him other than the effort involved with choosing what music to download and doing it. The mother’s faith moved the situation towards her acting in such a way as to find that which was findable and restoring it to her son at no cost to her other than her time and effort, even saving him the time and effort it would have taken him to shop for one and to choose and download the music to fill it again.

When Noah heard from God that a catastrophe was coming and that he was required to do something about it that would involve a great deal of work, but that would have great significance for him and his family, he believed God and committed himself to doing the necessary work that would bring the desired result. Because the outcome was as God had foretold, Noah also had no difficulty relying on God’s promise signified by the rainbow that destruction by a world-inundating flood would never again occur. So, he committed himself to planting a vineyard and making his home again in the restored world.

After hearing the affirming words, “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased,” immediately following his baptism by John, Jesus had confidence that God was with him as he followed the leading of God’s Spirit to spend 40 days in the wilderness, during which time he was cared for by wild animals and angels in addition to being tested by Satan, the same one who had tested Job many years before, to see if he would remain faithful to God regardless of what happened to him in his earthly situation. Both Job and Jesus passed the test and remained faithful to God, receiving a divine reward that went beyond anything of which the human mind could conceive.

Such faith is what we ourselves are called to have. In this time of Lent we are called to reassess where our faith lies. Does it lie in the economic and political and social realities surrounding us? Does it lie in our own command of our resources and our ability to defend them against those who might wish or seek to take them away or to harm us? Or does it lie in the goodness of God and God’s purpose in the fulfillment of which we are called to take part?

Where we place our faith provides the foundation for how we live our lives. In the Gospel story today we hear of Jesus raising Simon Peter’s mother up from her sickbed and healing her, so that she was able to provide hospitality for him and the disciples who were with him. He went on to proclaim the message in the synagogues in the area that people should change their ways – “repent” is the way the Greek word “metanoia” is translated in our scriptures, meaning to “turn around, change direction” in one’s life. At the same time, he was casting demons out of people who were possessed by them, and he did other kinds of healings as well – in a sense, turning people’s lives around from serving a force that worked against God’s purpose for them to the wholeness that was God’s plan for their lives and that would enable them to fulfill God’s unique and unduplicatable purpose for their specific lives.

Most of the people who received these healings failed to catch on to the fact that the healing was meant as the first step in a complete metanoia – turning around – of their lives; and they simply went back to living as they had been living before having fallen ill or having become possessed by the demonic spirit. But some who were healed became Jesus’ disciples, and followed him, learning more from him, and truly experiencing a change of life that ran deeper within them than the outward change that had occurred; it caused them to orient themselves to faithfulness to him and his purposes, so that, when he left them in the flesh, they continued in his Spirit to do, as he had said, not only the works he had done, but even greater works besides.

As we receive Holy Communion today and in the coming Sundays of Lent, let us consider where we place our faith. In Communion the Lord Jesus Christ gives himself to us, so that we might be empowered through our receiving his life within to do what he would have us do. Therefore, where we see that our faith is placed in other than Jesus and the God who raised him from death, let us ask God to work a metanoia in our hearts and minds, so that, placing our faith fully in Christ and in the power he gives us, we might become more faithful disciples, with a clearer idea of what work he has for us to do, and a stronger will to do it.

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