One of the many questions I presented in the sermon yesterday was, “How do we live with others who let us down?” That’s the dilemma of each character in yesterday’s parable (Luke 15:11-32). The younger son let the father and the older son down with his departure and wastefulness. The older son let the father and younger son down with his refusal to forgive the younger son’s decisions and celebrate his return. The father let the older son down by being quick to forgive or by being overly generous or by giving the younger son what he hadn’t given the older one (or some combination thereof).
It should come as no surprise that repentance was the theme of the day in worship yesterday. It is Lent after all. There’s never a wrong time to be invited to repent (John the Baptizer didn’t wait until Advent or Lent to do so – he didn’t know there would be such seasons), but repentance is certainly a part of this time of year.
I’m writing this special edition of Words from Will before the conclusion of General Conference or the close of voting on the school referendum. By the time you read it, we will likely know the results (www.umc.org can fill you in on the UMC’s vote).
Yesterday’s youth-led worship services were the perfect antidote to the unrest in our community and denomination. For all the alarming vitriol that has tainted the public discussion over the school referendum, we experienced the gift of talented and wise and joyful youth worship leaders. It was a visible reminder that they are giving us their best and deserve our best in return. For all the angst about what will come out of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference when it concludes tomorrow, we were reminded that the heart of it all is following Jesus who, as we were reminded by their challenging gospel lesson (Luke 6:27-38), commands us to love our enemies, to give and forgive generously, to not judge or condemn, acts that Jesus both demanded and demonstrated.
Beginning tomorrow, 864 voting delegates of the worldwide United Methodist Church will gather in St. Louis for worship, prayer, and deliberation. It’s what our denomination calls “General Conference” (GC) and is the only official decision-making body for the UMC. Normally GC meets every four years. In the last meeting (2016), it was determined to have an additional GC for the express purpose of addressing the United Methodist Church’s policies regarding human sexuality.
This Sunday’s gospel lesson, Luke 6:17-26, is one that should give people like me pause. Compared with nearly everyone in the world, I am rich. I can’t tell you the last time I was truly hungry and there has never been a time when I had to wonder about having a sufficient meal. I laugh more than I weep. And, for the most part, people seem to speak well of me. What am I to make of Jesus’ list of woes for people like me? People like us. Should we aspire to be poor, hungry, mournful, and hated? Do we just dismiss Jesus’ strong language as hyperbole?
The old saying “Hindsight is 20/20” is only true if you take the time to look back. Without reflection, hindsight is blind. Sometimes it takes years for clarity to come, but if we are willing to reflect, we will almost always see some good that came out of something we didn’t understand at the time.
Sunday’s scriptures can easily fall under the heading of “Call Stories.” Isaiah 6:1-8 presents an other-worldly scene with flying creatures and the reverberation of “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” Overwhelmed by God’s glory and by his own unworthiness, Isaiah responds to the wild scene and God’s open question, “Whom shall I send,” with “Send me!”
A prophet announces things. Sometimes those things are about what is to come, often based on what has already occurred. (It didn’t take a crystal ball for Old Testament prophets to predict that Israel would drift away from God – there was a well-established cycle of drawing near and fading away across the centuries.) Too much emphasis has been placed on the prophets’ reputation for announcing messages about the future. A primary job is to announce what is the current reality – that’s the form of Jesus’ prophecy in Sunday’s gospel reading (Luke 4:21-30).
Some of us scoffed Sunday at the very idea of being in worship for 6 hours (as was the crowd in Nehemiah 8:1-12). Only later did it occur to many of us that we were at Central for 6+ hours that day doing the Lord’s work. No one stood in the same place for hours on end. No one continually read and interpreted scripture like a holy filibuster, but the church leaders were together aiming to get the year off to a good start.
Jesus initiated exactly one act in Luke’s gospel prior to the Father proclaiming, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). That one act was not a pleasing act to Mary and Joseph. He cost them three days of worry by remaining at the temple while they began their return to Nazareth (Luke 2:41-52).
I asked our fifth grader this morning if she knew why December 7 is a day “which will live in infamy.” She asked, “What is ‘infamy.’” I said, “Something remembered for a very bad thing that happened.” She said, “Well, I don’t want to have a bad day.” I told her that not every December 7 is a bad day, but it’s a day to remember because it’s the day that the Japanese shocked the world by attacking Pearl Harbor.
We’re thinking of military veterans these days. We’re remembering the end of World War I. No soldier carried every single fallen soldier off the battlefield, but plenty of soldiers carried one or two. Only Jesus can carry the weight of the world, but his people can carry the weight of a child or a few of God’s children. Be refreshed by his Spirit and by the invitation to do for one what you wish you could do for everyone.
Yesterday was All Saints Day. Sunday is All Saints Sunday. Reminiscent of Holy Saturday (the day between Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday and his victory over the grave on Easter), today we’re in between.
Of course, we’re always in between, especially those in the midst of grief. We’re in between the joys and difficulties of lives shared, the sadness of lives ended, and the hope of the life to come.
What a difference a week makes. I didn’t have to write this Words from Will early because there is no threat to our church or home right now. Skies are blue, wind is calm, even the rising waters won’t directly impact most of our homes. They are impacting our lives, however. Our hearts ache for the lives lost and disrupted because of the flooding. Our spirits are encouraged by the courageous and generous service others provide.
I trust you’re doing okay today. Florence, for the most part, was spared devastation. If you need some assistance, however, please let us know. If you don’t, you know others do. The worst of the flooding is yet to come. Continue to pray, but also consider giving financially. Maybe a good way to look at it is the think about the money you might have spent evacuating this storm, but didn’t have to. Could you give a portion of that to assist those who will be dealing with the storm’s aftermath for some time? If you want to give through Central, note the gift is for UMCOR and we’ll contribute the money to their efforts to help. They have already awarded our Annual Conference a $10,000 emergency grant to get relief support in motion.