Messages/Blog

Take Your Invitations Seriously

Reverend David R. Melville

Francis Asbury United Methodist Church

Baton Rouge, LA

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Wow!  Two weeks ago I preached about equal pay for unequal work, in a country which is still debating equal pay for equal work. I preached on that topic because of Jesus’ parable about the late-arriving workers getting paid the same as those who had worked hard all day.  Even Snoopy couldn’t understand fully that parable, but he accepted it.

Then last week Bernie told us through another parable by Jesus that prostitutes may enter the kingdom ahead of preachers, and I kind of took offense to that.  Well, Bernie, I hate to brag, but I’ve got this parable today that puts yours to shame in the confusion department.  It is so violent, with such a surprise ending, that you’re going to have “parable envy.”

Matthew 22:1-14

            “Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.  He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

Then he sent some more servants and said, “Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner:  My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready.  Come to the wedding banquet.”

But they paid no attention and went off – – one to his field, another to his business.  The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.  The king was enraged.  He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

Then he said to his servants, “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.  Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.”  So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes.  “Friend,” he asked, “how did you get in here without wedding clothes?”  The man was speechless.

Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

For many are invited, but few are chosen.’”

 

You all have the advantage of a “mature,” “seasoned” preacher who is not afraid to sometimes share some secrets of the trade.  One such secret is that sometimes I want to apologize for scripture. Sometimes I am embarrassed by scripture.  Sometimes preachers are no different than lawyers in really reaching for a rationalization and spin on the story at hand.

Sometimes you understand why for fifteen hundred years after the Bible was canonized, laity were not allowed to read it.  It was spoon-fed to them by the priests.  The learned priests and elders didn’t think the common folk could handle what God was saying, and sometimes maybe they were right. Maybe today, even after five hundred years of study time, the Bible is still too hot for you and me to handle.  I bet you wouldn’t be hearing this from a newbie preacher this morning.

For a while during the debate over rating movies, c.d.’s, and books for content, some countered that the Bible ought to be labeled with an “X”, or at least an “R” rating.

I’m not exaggerating or setting you up for a happy ending today.  How can I sugarcoat or explain away the invited guests murdering the wedding planner?  And how does the parent – the king – respond?  Trumpian:  “Well, those I invited did not deserve to come.  I withdraw my invitation and will invite others.”  To President Trump’s credit, all he lobs are burning words.  In today’s biblical story the king (does the king represent God?)  torched the city of the ungrateful.

Then to add insult to injury, the spurned parent/king/God looks at one of the people who did have the courtesy to show up, does not like the way he’s dressed, and not only has the bouncer quietly escort the guest out of the palace; no, this guy winds up in the “darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  That location was normally reserved for much worse offenses.  Thank goodness most churches have ended their dress code for worship.

And then the final zinger:  verse 14 warns, “Many are invited but few are chosen.”  What the heaven does that mean?  An invitation withdrawn at the last minute for even those who accepted the invitation?  “Few are chosen?”  Does that smack of Calvinism, in which our salvation is predestined, predetermined, and beyond our control?

I read one scholarly explanation of today’s tough scripture which suggests that it was written to teach us what God is not like.  In other words, God is just the opposite of the king.   God is inviting, always welcoming and gracious to the bitter end.  If that is so, why didn’t Jesus just say that straight up?

But you don’t pay me the big bucks to give up on parables.  So I’m going to hang in there and offer one indisputable and relevant take-away from today’s parable:  we are to take the Lord’s invitations seriously … certainly as seriously as we do other invitations … to weddings, birthday parties, to social events, to join a fraternity or sorority or club.  We endure hazing, initiation, stiff dues and work detail when we accept certain invitations; we need to commit the same dedication and passion when the Lord invites us to “Come, follow me.”  We should appreciate His invitation.  We disregard it at our peril.

A lot of church work boils down to inviting others to join us.   We dropped off fifty of these invitations to staff and teachers at River Oaks Elementary to a “River Oaks Celebration Sunday” in September, but as when the king invited many to his son’s wedding, no one from River Oaks came.  We distributed five hundred of these door hangers to our Old Hammond Highway neighbors for a special “Starting Over” Sunday this summer, but as with the second round of servants in today’s parable, nada. At least we weren’t murdered, as were the door knockers in Jesus’ parable!  We have invited other small churches to combine service projects – there’s “strength in numbers,” right?  No sale.  We haven’t had many visitors since the flood, but those few we did have did not accept our invitation to return.  Maybe we came across as too inviting … too desperate.  It can get downright depressing.  Think how God must feel.

Whether it be a long-time pastor, or one delivering his or her first sermon, our task is not to judge others.  Rather, our task is to examine ourselves and consider which invitations we are accepting.  In our free country, in which after age 18 we are free from anything forced upon us, including religion, it is up to us to choose which invitations we accept, and which ones we decline.  From the bright neon lights of 24-7 retail establishments to the nativity lights of Christmas, America is a land of inviting, alluring, tempting, teasing opportunities.  Which invitations will you accept?  Which invitations – opportunities — will you take seriously?

Just think about this Fall at Francis Asbury.  Of course, you are invited to Sunday School and church each week.  You are invited to United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men meetings.  On December 3 you will be invited, for the first time in a while, to sign the dotted line on a financial commitment form.  It will represent your definition of tithing in 2018.

You will be invited to the Lord’s Table for the sacrament of Holy Communion more than once.  You will be invited to food and fellowship and fun at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Who knows; we might be invited to a funeral or memorial service for one of our own.    We are kind of over-due.  Addicts are invited to any number of recovery group meetings in the parish every day.  We host one here at the church each Wednesday evening.

And oh, how many invitations are on our plate right now for helping others?  Hurricane relief, earthquake relief, refugees, veterans, rescue dogs and cats, hunger pangs from Baton Rouge to the Sudan. You were asked to donate school supplies; you have been asked and urged to help Kevin and Amber here at the church.

The United Methodist Church asks, but does not require us to promote six special offerings, with posters and envelopes and collections for really good causes. These special offerings are on top of our required apportionments.  I don’t know how Odell handled them, but I confess I  have been very derelict at each church I’ve served, including this one, in issuing and following up on those six worthy invitations.

Today I’m going to give each of you an invitation as you leave to learn more about, and to support in various ways:  Bread for the World, a well-respected world-wide organization which daily pricks our consciences with the hunger that exists in the world, and what we can do about it legislatively and charitably.  You can R.S.V.P. to Bread for the World’s invitation or not.

You’ll probably be invited to more than one Halloween party, pumpkin patch, fair and festival.  Mardi Gras Ball invitations are being mailed out now.  For some reason, Americans are really into masks!  Winter ski trips are being booked now. Some invitations have to be mailed well in advance of the actual event.

So maybe that’s part of the lesson in Matthew 22: 1-14 … We will be faced with no shortage of invitations in the next few months, and your R.S.V.P. to attend or decline will have consequences.  Hopefully not as dire as the man who didn’t dress properly … who didn’t accept the invitation correctly and properly … but consequences nonetheless.   Your R.S.V.P.’s reflect your priorities and your faith.  Your R.S.V.P.’s are up to you.  It’s a free country.

As for verse 14, “Many are invited, but few are chosen” (sounds like a recruitment pitch for the U.S. Marines), I’ll leave that up to God to explain.    I’m just going to worry about showing up at the right time and the right place where I believe Jesus will be.

I also will give some more thought to the premise of  one scholar I read this week … a Jesuit priest … who suggests that today’s parable may be saying that belief is not enough; as Bernie said last week, talk is not enough; what does the Lord require of us?  Action.

Despite our emphasis upon justification by faith and not works, perhaps we ought to still read and re-read the Book of James, which warns that faith without works is dead.  It’s not enough to just show up.  We must show up ready to work for the kingdom.  We must show up ready to work in the vineyard.  It’s not enough to piously and publicly pray and to cry out “Lord, Lord,” without doing anything more.  Otherwise why does Jesus say in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven?”

So good luck with picking through your invitations this Fall.  They are never-ending, are they?  You are constantly being tugged and pulled for your time and your money.  You can’t do it all, you can’t attend everything.  So do take your invitations seriously. One definition of a lifetime is the sum total of how we used our time and how we used our resources.  Another definition of a lifetime is the sum total of those invitations we accepted, and those we respectfully declined.

I close this morning with the most important invitation of all:  to accept Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life; to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.  I should not assume everyone has, and if you have not accepted Jesus’ invitation to “Come, follow me,” and if you have not accepted Jesus’ invitation to “Take up your cross and follow me,” I invite you to do so today.  I guess the deadline for doing so is your death, but why not go ahead and R.S.V.P. early?  The host always appreciates our responding on time!

                      Closing Hymn: “Where He Leads Me I Will Follow”  (#338)

An Update from the McCormick’s – Missionaries in Africa

From the newsletter: August 19th marked our 1-year anniversary in Mozambique.  It was a time of reflection and gratitude for our journey this far. On our website (www.McCormicksinAfrica.com) we listed 12 lessons learned, one for each month. Read the newsletter to see the lessons.

Click here to read the full newsletter

Here is their website: http://www.mccormicksinafrica.com/

ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN

Francis Asbury United Methodist Church

Baton Rouge, LA

September 24, 2017

Reverend David Melville

 

 

MATTHEW 20: 1-16

Jesus speaking:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard.  He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing.  About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around.  He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more.  But each one of them also received a denarius.  When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.  ‘These man who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go.  I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?’

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

           

           

This lectionary reading is being read and preached all over the world today, and I don’t presume to have the only explanation.  All I can do is try.  With some of the parables of Jesus, preachers feel like Snoopy did after Charlie Brown read Ecclesiastes 9:4 … “A living dog is better than a dead lion.” Snoopy replied, “I don’t know what it means, but I agree with it.”

Perhaps the only explanation for this parable about wages in the vineyard, and other weird parables (weird to us) – and there are a lot of weird parables (to us) in the New Testament – is that it discusses desired behavior in God’s kingdom, which we too often limit to Heaven. But what if that which we recited earlier, and the choir just sang – the Lord’s Prayer – is correct in suggesting that we ought to pray for God’s kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in Heaven?  Then Snoopy and we have even more to digest and explain.

So often we say that one faith’s world cannot be placed on top of the secular world, particularly in a nation which shed blood for freedom from religion.  We are not a theocracy like Iran.  Praise God!  But that does not mean we as individual Christians cannot apply the gospel to everyday living as we interact with others.  And with our strength in numbers, we could be the tail that wags the dog, instead of the other way around.  O.K., that’s my final reference to Snoopy this morning!

Take our parable for today, which begins with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like .…”  If God through Jesus revealed to us what heaven is like, and then if, again through Jesus,  God gave us the words of the Lord’s Prayer, which asks for God’s kingdom of heaven to reign down on earth, we are given permission … nay, we are admonished to live as generously and as graciously as our God in heaven.  We are the landowner.

Today’s parable is not about labor relations in the marketplace; it is about generosity and graciousness.  Today’s parable is not about laws and earnings; rather, it is about God and His kingdom of grace, inclusion and acceptance.  It is about unconditional love.  And after reading and studying the parable, and after reciting the Lord’s Prayer, our task is to ask ourselves how we can replicate God’s kingdom here on earth, because evidently God wants us to.

Grace is not about you, other workers, or about “The Man.”  Grace has always been, and will always be about God.  God can be gracious to whomever, whenever, and wherever God wants.  And so can we.  Amazing!  Many a person – even Christians – go to their grave withholding grace that had been theirs to give.  Don’t be a penny-pincher when it’s within your power to give grace; give a whole denarius.

If we fail to do that we may miss out on heaven, just as the elder brother missed out on a party after begrudging his father’s generosity to a wayward, prodigal son.   If we begrudge our heavenly Father’s generosity to others, we may miss out on the generosity available to us.

Living heavenly is hard.  It is sometimes too difficult even when we – let alone others — benefit from a little heaven on earth.  Why?  Because we realize that if we are treated graciously, if we are forgiven, and if we are loved, well,  the next step is for us to be more gracious, forgiving and more loving toward others. Now God has gone to meddling. The challenge to give as well as to receive scares us.  As the great southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, observed, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us, and the change is painful.”

Using just the facts from today’s parable, what must we do to bring the best of God on earth as it is in heaven?

First, do not fault the later workers for not being there sooner.  It seems they had been looking for work all day, but were unable to find it. There are many, many people sincerely looking for work today who cannot find it.

Secondly, recognize our common needs.  Perhaps the landowner recognized that all workers’ basic life needs are the same, regardless of what time they start to work.  They need the same amount of food and the same sort of shelter; they have the same need to provide for their families.  In paying the later workers the same amount – the rate for a day’s labor – the landowner in today’s scripture affirms the late workers’  needs.  We see here God’s affirmation of the dignity and worth of all whom God loves and invites to be part of the kingdom. [Thanks to Chris Dorsey, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).] In God’s eyes we are all equal in dignity and worth.  We are just not all treated equally here on earth.  We are not treated on earth as we will be in heaven.

Third, do not resent others’ good fortune or success, particularly when others’ success does not take away from yours.  We are quick to complain when others receive a second chance, receive a mulligan, or are given something they allegedly don’t deserve.  But when grace’s shoe is on the other foot – ours —  we wear it well.  Don’t have a short memory of the times when you were allowed to jump from the back of the line to the front.  And don’t forget who helped you.

The workers who worked hard all day received what they were promised and had agreed to.  Now I guess if the landowner had increased the pool of workers but kept the wage pool the same, with each worker getting a smaller slice of the pie, then God would have some ‘splaining to do.  But as so often in real life, those of us in the middle and upper classes receive our full share, regardless of what day laborers, hourly workers and minimum wage workers are paid … regardless of what the last hired are paid. Heavenly economics is like a mother’s love:  total love demonstrated for one child does not deplete the amount of love available for the other children.  Mothers just make more love! There is enough for everyone.

I remember my first “letter to the editor.”  It was as a teenager, when at the East Gate movie theater in Shreveport there was a bright orange sign apologizing to the public for a ticket price increase,  and blaming it entirely on a recently enacted increase in the minimum wage.  How would you like a big sign on the front door of your workplace blaming product pricing on your wages?  Not too much heavenly dignity there.

I hope most movie goers could calculate that increases in ticket prices at any given point in time are also influenced by increases in building rent, increases in what Hollywood charges for the film, increases in what the already-millionaire actors get paid, and even the increases in costs of Coca-Cola syrup, electricity, insurance and all costs of doing business.   Owners and investors were getting increases all along the chain of prices and dividends, and the minimum wage workers were probably the last to receive their increase. Even then, minimum wage increases usually lag behind increases in the cost of living.  Yet the minimum wage workers were the ones grumbled about … not Hollywood, not corporations,  not regulations.  Capitalism can be real complex, but it can also be real simple. It’s usually not fair or accurate to single out and blame one group … particularly when that group is the weakest link in the chain.

Yet another lesson to glean from today’s vineyard is to acknowledge that both heaven and good earthly economies are characterized by community.  I don’t believe we will see the divisions in heaven that we see here on earth.  God doesn’t divide us; we are quite competent at dividing ourselves.  Conservatives and liberals alike say “Amen” to President John F. Kennedy’s quote, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”  I think that’s what the landowner did with his “kingdom economics:” he lifted people up, without dragging others down.  It may have been unfair in some workers’ eyes, but I believe the land owner’s generosity  was approved by God.

As economic fortunes rise, we don’t want to risk all parties along the economic spectrum rising too.   We feel threatened instead of invigorated.  We still too often play a zero-sum game, fearing that an increase in one worker’s  share will mean a reduction in my share.  We’d rather stay safe in stagnation – but at least keeping what we have—rather than risk sharing the economic pie.  Will more workers earning decent wages mean smaller slices for everyone, or could it mean that more pies are baked?

It appears that because of the landowner’s diligence and generosity his vineyard was very productive.  He needed more workers, he needed them quickly, he recruited them, and he treated them well.  It was a win-win-win, even for those who had worked longer and who felt they had been cheated.  In order for our nation to thrive, and in order for the institutional church to thrive … expanding the beloved community … we need all the help on board we can get. For both  the nation and the church,  the more help we get, the more we should rejoice and celebrate the ways God is blessing  those who join in our collective work. It’s a blessing for them; it’s a blessing for us.

Sadly, some Christians still want the church to be a small, exclusive club, and don’t want to believe that those with worse sins than themselves, or those just different than themselves, or those who come to Christ late in life, or literally at the end of life …  some Christians aren’t rejoicing when the different and the latecomers surrender to Christ.  In heaven, everyone will be welcomed, and everyone will be treated equally.  And besides, it won’t be about us:  heaven will be all about God.  And if God answers us when we pray The Lord’s Prayer, it can be at least a little like that on earth.  Why do we wait?  Why wait for “as it is in heaven?” Let God’s kingdom come to us, as well as us going to the kingdom.

As I said, the landowner’s management of his vineyard was very productive.  And that productivity spilled over on to neighboring land, as happens today in 2017: when one part or group in a community succeeds, there is a positive spillover effect. Most of us probably agree that there is a direct correlation between economic peace and well-being, and lower crime rates, quality schools, and neighborhood infrastructure.  What was exciting in today’s parable is that the largest group of persons were given their daily bread, and the entire village was better because they did.  We are better together!

Heaven is going to be pretty spacious, and the earth is pretty spacious.  Nonetheless, in both kingdoms there is no room for resentment, self-righteousness and selfishness.  Those attitudes crowd out the good real fast.

Our nation continues to be characterized by many individuals, many companies, and many areas of each state doing exceedingly well financially.  The cream of the crop represents the potential of capitalism to produce such outcomes.  But like a schizophrenic, there is another side of our nation and capitalism characterized by stagnation, poverty, crime and uneasiness. Sometimes a single arrest or the simplest of incidents spark a protest that propel pent-up frustrations and emotions.  You know what I’m talking about.  We’re seeing more violent and destructive protests now than we have since the ‘60’s.

George W. Bush said he was a “uniter, not a divider,” but after eight years as President, we were divided.  Barack Obama said he wanted “not a blue America, or a red America, not a black America or a white America, but a United States of America.” Many thought and hoped that a black man had the best chance to bring us together.  But after eight years in office, Obama left a divided nation.  I’ll let you decide about the state of affairs in the early days of the Trump administration.   Maybe history is telling us something. We need a little more heaven on earth, not politics. Heavenly economics is different than and superior to secular economics.

I close by singling out one key phrase in today’s parable that is said by the landowner to the second round of workers: “I will pay you whatever is right.” [verse 4].  That has to be one of the promises you’d most likely expect to come out of heaven.  I believe that is another takeaway from this weird report (weird to us) of workers receiving equal pay for unequal work.  On this particular day the landowner believed equal pay for unequal work was the right thing to do.  In our lives usually the right thing to do will be to err on the side of excessive generosity, excessive hospitality, excessive forgiveness, excessive justice, mercy and compassion, and excessive love.  Praise God that we don’t have to wait until we reach heaven to be treated so heavenly. To be treated right.  

CLOSING HYMN:  Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God, #405

 

LEFT BEHIND

Francis Asbury United Methodist Church

Baton Rouge, LA

September 17, 2017

Reverend David Melville

Have you ever felt or been left behind?   Have you in the past, or are you today leaving anyone behind?  I’m afraid each of us has felt left behind at some time, and I bet each of us is guilty of leaving someone behind … perhaps in the past, perhaps today.

In his gospel, Dr. Luke told us about some people left behind in Jesus’ day: lepers.  In Chapter 17 it is reported that ten lepers “stood at a distance, and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us.’” [Luke 17:13]  Why were the lepers shouting for help from a distance?  Because lepers and other sick people were kept at a distance lest they touch or breathe on and contaminate someone.   But the lepers knew Jesus represented a new way of thinking.  He would not leave them behind.  He would not walk on by.

The gospel of Mark gave us “Blind Bartimaeus,” who was sitting on the road of life, begging.  That’s all he could do each day:  sit and beg.  He had to initiate conversation and cry out to others, because others did not initiate a conversation with him.   Others walked on by, with tunnel vision, eyes straight ahead.  Mark 10:48 observes, “Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet.”  Boy,  was the blind man excited when Jesus acknowledged him!  Bartimaeus  no longer felt left behind.

In his gospel St. Matthew specifically remembered two demon-possessed men  – – so different, so dangerous looking and sounding that “no one could pass that way.”  [Matthew 8:28]   Back in first century A.D., the description “demon-possessed” could mean any number of conditions and diseases, to which we ascribe much milder diagnoses today.  But let’s assume these two men were, in President Trump’s words, “bad dudes,” and they were indeed dangerous to themselves and to others.  For good or for bad, right or wrong, they were left behind.  No one could or would pass their way and stop; but Jesus did.

It’s not fun being left behind.  Joseph’s jealous brothers left him behind instead of taking him back with them to their father, Jacob.  Though not as dramatic or history-making as Joseph’s plight, Melanie has a childhood memory of accidentally being left behind after her family had visited another family’s home.  The host family discovered the sleeping Melanie, and drove her home.    Honey, it was accidentally, right?

What are some modern-day feelings and experiences of being left behind?  Anyone:     __________________________    ______________________

 

Many feel left behind in the current computing revolution.  It hasn’t always been the case when your “smart phone” is indeed smarter than you.  No doubt there’s usually a foreboding sense or feeling of being left behind as we get older.  It’s just a natural feeling that comes with the territory.  We don’t lead or keep up like we used to.  Younger people – even family – may pass us by.

Because of freedom, because of human nature, and because of caring, involved parents, we have created a hodge-podge system of education options in this country.  We have a well-intentioned system in which those who can afford it, and those who have access, can place their child in a variety of education settings, from kindergarten to home schooling to higher ed … i.e., college.  We have public schools, private schools, parochial schools, charter schools, and as I noted earlier, home schooling.

What has happened in this process is that a certain percentage of the student population is  potentially being left behind in one school system … the public school system.  The public school system seems to become the school system of last resort.  And sometimes the public school system can feel left behind in terms of funding, attention and priority.

This morning we thank all staff and faculty at our public schools – including our neighbor, Riveroaks Elementary – for caring for and tending to their sheep.  Because of you, your students will have just as much of a fighting chance in the world as those students in other settings. You and your students may have more to overcome in your setting, but you all are trying.  If it weren’t for you, thousands of students would be left behind.  Thank you!

Jesus came for those left behind, as well as those leading the parade.  He made His point in the parable of the lost sheep. [Matthew 18: 10-14] Today,  even though we can be self-satisfied that ninety-nine out of one hundred citizens in our community are progressing quite nicely, it is important that somebody goes back and looks for the one lost soul.  If in Jesus’ story the shepherd had not gone back – perhaps even at some risk or cost to the ninety-nine, the sheep left behind would wind up farther and farther behind, and eventually lost forever.

21st Century America is,  in general, showing signs of division in which many are progressing quite nicely, while others are falling farther and farther behind.  It’s a by-product of freedom, genetics, discrimination, and yes, sometimes an inability or lack of desire on the part of those left behind to overcome their obstacles and to better themselves.  Not only have they forgotten how; they have forgotten why.

For whatever reasons … and I realize the debate between nature and nurture is complex … the poor — and now even the middle class — is feeling left behind.  As a preacher I can raise the issue without casting blame, while at the same time, suggest that we cannot ignore reality, and that we can and should do more to keep America a land of equal opportunity, in which no child or adult is left behind if he or she is doing their part and doing their best.

Each of us can do our part.  Even such a simple gesture as donating school supplies can help bridge the gap.  Serving as a tutor can help even more.  Let us at Francis Asbury pledge to support Riveroaks Elementary, in addition to the schools where we have our children and grandchildren – where it is easier, and where we are more motivated to serve.

Just as Jesus went out of His way to help those not in the mainstream by not going out of His way to avoid them, we can be a friend to those who would otherwise be left to fend for themselves.

Do you remember the story in Mark 2: 1-4 about the paralytic who had to be lowered through the roof by his friends in order to meet Jesus?  If his friends had not been so bold and helpful, Jesus may never have seen the man, and he would have remained on the outside, unseen and unchanged.  This morning I thank all such friends who keep others from falling farther and farther behind.  Sometimes you make all the difference. You help people see Jesus.

While serving on staff of First United Methodist church, Shreveport,  back in the 90’s I directed our social services.  One day we drove some poor children over the Red River to visit Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City … Shreveport’s sister city.  I could sense excitement and the usual chatter when kids get to do something different or for the first time.  I presumed they were behaving like all children who get to see the big planes and missiles for the first time at Barksdale.  But I learned that for those students, the more exciting part of the field trip was leaving their neighborhood and crossing a big, concrete bridge into new territory. They didn’t know what was waiting for them on the other side of that bridge.   For many it was the first time they would get to leave from where they were … in a way, left behind by those who moved to the suburbs to get away from downtown.

Again, thank any of you who have in the past, or who are today,  escorting children over bridges in life.  Barbara, Violet, Chris and Jimeka come to mind; perhaps others.   In the case of the man lowered through the roof on his mat, without friends to step up and step in, the paralytic would not have left his space … would not have left his very small world.   Thanks to those who teach, coach, mentor and otherwise befriend those left behind.

There can be good outcomes for those left behind.  Each of those I have mentioned this morning – the lepers, Blind Bartimaeus, the two demon-possessed men, and the man lowered through the roof on his mat – had good outcomes. They met, talked with, and were helped by Jesus.   Likewise there was much cause for celebration when the lost sheep was found, and when his brothers discovered that Joseph had become the Pharoah’s right hand man in Egypt, in charge of grain supplies for the hungry.  No, Joseph didn’t do badly.  But even he would hopefully admit that he had received help along the way.

To honor those who work on behalf of children as a professional or as a volunteer, or perhaps you are no longer able to do so now, but did so in the past, I want to close by sharing a true story about how the help you render now may pay off in the future.  The following was shared by Craig Barnes in the April 26, 2017, issue of Christian Century magazine:

“My father was a preacher who believed it was important to memorize verses of the Bible.  On Mondays he’d give my older brother and me a verse written out on a little white card.  We were expected to recite it from memory by dinner at the end of the week,  when our father would point to one of us and say something like, ‘Romans 8:28.’  If we didn’t start chirping away with  ‘For all things work together for good for those who love God,’ we’d have to leave the table.

By the time I was a teenager I had memorized a lot of the Bible, not out of love for the sacred text, but because I didn’t want to be dismissed from Saturday evening dinner.  I never paid attention to the words, but they were still in me.

When I was not quite 17, my parents’ marriage broke apart.  My mother left our home on Long Island and went to live with her sister in Dallas.  My father left the church he had started and just disappeared.  My big brother dropped out of college, got a construction job, and helped me finish high school.  I got an after-school job at a gas station.  Together we got by.

Since we had lived in the church’s parsonage, it fell to us boys to move the family’s stuff out of the house.  I don’t remember what happed to most of it; I just remember boxing up our family’s life.

Oddly, my brother and I didn’t talk about how our world had crumbled.  This wasn’t just because we weren’t good at sharing our feelings.  Mostly it was because we couldn’t afford emotion.  We were too worried about the next meal and a place to stay.

The following Christmas my brother and I decided we would go to Dallas to visit my mothers.  We didn’t have the money for a plane or bus ticket, so we did what young people sometimes do when they’re not thinking clearly: we decided to hitchhike from Long Island to Dallas.

By the end of the first day we were somewhere in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia on Interstate 81.  It was snowing hard, the sun was long gone, and we stood on the entrance ramp with our thumbs sticking out.  As the snow got heavier, there were fewer and fewer cars.  After two hours we finally saw a pair of headlights pull over in front of us.  It was a Virginia state trooper.  We were expecting a lecture about how dangerous, not to mention illegal,  it was to hitchhike.  Instead, he told us that the highway had been closed for two hours and that after attending to an accident up the road he would come back for us and take us to a diner that was still open.

We stayed put on the side of the dark highway in the blizzard.  After months of hustling out way through the immediate issues of making life work, my brother and I were finally forced to talk to each other.  We took a stab at describing our situation, but it didn’t go very well after I mentioned that we were basically disposable to the people who were supposed to love us.  We tried to pass the time by quizzing each other on sports statistics.  Neither of us had ever been very good at that.

Then my brother pointed to me and said, ‘Romans 8:28.’  We spent much of that night asking each other to recite the verses of the Bible we had memorized but never truly heard.  At one point I found myself saying the precious lines of Isaiah 4: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you … because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.’  By the time I finished reciting those words, I was crying. That night, when a passage about the sustaining love of God cast out fear that was too deep for me to even acknowledge, became the turning point in my life.”

As noted above, these words are from Craig Barnes, now President of Princeton Theological Seminary.  He’s come a long way from that snowy interstate. Those left behind can catch up, and even get ahead, with the help of Jesus.  Jesus, Himself, said, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.”  [Mark 10:31]  That’s mighty good news for anyone whoever feels left behind.

 

 

 

SHOW UP!

A special message for all those who “showed up” for the sacrament of Holy Communion today, September 10, 2017,  Francis Asbury United Methodist Church

Baton Rouge, LA

Reverend David R. Melville

There are a lot of sayings which suggest that we are responsible for outcomes.  We shouldn’t be surprised by the consequences of our part in the equation.  For every action, there is a reaction.

Sayings that come to mind include “We reap what we sow;” “We are what we eat;” “Lie with dogs, and you will get fleas;” “Garbage in, garbage, out;”  “Practice makes perfect;” “No pain, no gain;” “Nothing ventured, nothing gained;” “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree;” “You get what you pay for;” “What goes around comes around.”

Maybe Matthew 18:18 includes this sentiment:  “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

And finally, one of my favorites, by Homer Simpson’s daughter, Lisa: “Poor Dad.  He is always so unlucky when he’s drunk.”

This morning,  Holy Communion Sunday, I offer another saying:  “When we are at one with Christ, Christ is at one with us.”  The whole purpose of the sacrament of Holy Communion is to meet the risen Christ at the Table.                                                                                                                                                                                                I humbly suggest that we see Jesus if Jesus sees us first.  Christ becomes real to us if we become real to Christ.

There are no guarantees at communion.  The risen Lord doesn’t show up just because the pastor or priest says so.  The risen Lord does not appear by us waving a magic wand or by saying mumbo jumbo.  No, Christ does his part when we do our part.  Christ shows up when we show up.  Show up for Communion this morning!

How many times have you left the Table empty, disappointed, unchanged? We are supposed to feel, and even look different when we leave the Table.  Why?  Because we have met Christ at the Table, just as the scared disciples met Christ in the Upper Room shortly after the crucifixion.

Be honest … when was the last time you felt Jesus’ presence at the Communion Table?  When was the last time you felt Jesus’ presence at the dinner table?  We’re supposed the feel his presence every time two or three come together in His name [Matthew 18:20]   And we do say His name at the dinner table, right? The sacrament of Holy Communion shows us how and gives us yet another opportunity to meet Christ.  But we must set the Table properly first.

Sometimes we blame the surroundings for Christ not showing up, don’t we?  It’s not our fault; it’s others’ fault.  We act as if Jesus is only going to be present if the altar table is beautiful … with the right colors and elements and candles and paraments.  God forbid if I had forgotten and left the white paraments at home this morning, and  we had to use the green we are still using in the church season of the year called “Ordinary Time.”

God forbid if I serve communion in a Superman costume, as I did in one church to wake communicants up (and also to tie in with my message that morning about comic book superheroes and Jesus); God forbid if I permit a beautiful Irish Setter named Ginger to join the rest of us at Sunrise Assisted Living Center for a communion service I offer each Sunday following lunch there.   Ginger is one of the staff pets at Sunrise, and she — like a few of you have told me – just loves the Hawaiian bread I serve.  The residents adore Ginger, so I allow her to come to the table after we have completed the sacrament.  Is that wrong?  Is that blasphemous? Does that demean or distract from our meeting Christ?  I believe there are other distractions at play than just Ginger.

Of course, the communion service at Sunrise may not be legal because we use all forms of altar tables:  sometimes a folding card table, sometimes a piano bench; I’ve even used a wheel chair.  But regardless of the type table, I can always tell when one of these 80 – plus – year – olds … sometimes feeling poorly, sometimes lonely … sometimes homesick … sometimes having a hard time adjusting … I can tell when one or more of them have shown up for communion.   They’re more at peace, they walk or roll with more purpose, and I swear, they are going to have a better week getting along with their fellow residents.  It’s not easy living in a group home, in a dormitory, or perhaps even in your household of two or more.  We know how hard it’s going to be for months to come for thousands to live together in cramped or unfamiliar spaces because of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Do the elements matter?  When Methodists changed from wine to Methodist member Charles Welch’s grape juice out of respect for alcoholics, I’m afraid the door was cracked for other beverages to barge into the party.   Speaking of … is it possible to have a meaningful communion service on a party barge?  Yes!

Some of the most meaningful experiences of Holy Communion since the Last Supper have occurred on a battlefield, and at a hospital bed, and at a mental health facility, where the communion must always be served with plastic rather than glass, and where the Bibles must be soft, rather than hardbound.  I suggest the services can be most meaningful on the battlefield, at the hospital bed, or at the mental health facility not just because they fit nicely into Jesus’  schedule that particular day, but because probably that’s where Jesus is most likely to be needed. And perhaps because in each of those scenarios … the battlefield, hospital and rehab center, the persons receiving communion are hungry and thirsty for it, prepared for it, expecting it, and changed by it.  Christ is more likely to show up because the communicants are more likely to show up.

Of course, the reality is, all of the problems and challenges and fears faced by soldiers in war, by the sick and dying in a hospital, and by those facing mental or medication demons,  may be facing us in the church pews on any given Sunday morning. A church can be a battlefield; a church can be a sick bay. So we, too, should be hungry, thirsty, prepared, expectant and changed by the sacrament.  Sometimes all of the elements are in place … all of the elements except for us.  We fail to show up.  We miss the meal; we miss the party.

In the ritual I will guide us through in a few moments, I will issue two invitations:  Fist, I will invite each of you to the Table.  I will also invite the presence of the Holy Spirit.  It takes both parties R.S.V.P.’ing.  The Holy Spirit must show up, and we must show up.

Who will show up at the Francis Asbury communion table today – which, by the way, looks and feels a lot different than the Francis Asbury communion table of old?  We are invited to the Table if certain conditions are met:  First if we love God and seek to love God more.  Do you love God?  Our spouse, our children, and God are not impressed when we simply we say we love them; we have to show it.

Also invited to the Table are all those who “earnestly repent of their sin.”  Can we name a sin we have committed since our last communion?  Can we name it, admit and acknowledge it, own it, and then ask forgiveness for it?  I believe that is one area that sincere Roman Catholics who go to Confession do better than we Methodists.  I’m not proposing that you necessarily say the words to me, but this week, have you – between yourself and God — identified, articulated, or verbalized a single sin to God?  Aliens from another planet looking in on and listening to Methodists might get the impression that we are sinless.  Methodists are increasingly having a hard time defining sin, admitting sin, and most importantly, repenting of our sin.  Repentance means not just accepting sin as a part of who I am, and being truly sorry and ashamed of it.   We’re sorry, we’re apologetic.  But we keep on doing the deed.  Repentance means turning around, turning away from our sin and going in a totally new direction. Find a new sin!

The Good News of communion is that we are forgiven of our sins and shortcomings, but we will not be forgiven if we do not see Christ at the Table and ask Him to forgive us.

Another part of meeting Christ at the Communion table is loving our neighbors and hearing the cry of the needy.  We mumble those words – they are right there on page 12 of the United Methodist Hymnal section on communion– but do we demonstrate it?

Demonstrating love for our neighbor and for the needy this week may mean purchasing materials for two flood buckets instead of one, even though a full flood bucket is not cheap.  Unfortunately, we just endured two catastrophic storms, not just one.

Proving our love to the needy this week may be getting down and dirty in politics—writing your Representative – attending a meeting —  and supporting those measures which simply ensure others have what you have – nothing more – nothing less.  If we are blessed,  why wouldn’t we as Christians want others to enjoy those blessings?  The last time I asked that question in a church I got a little blow-back.    We may disagree with the details – and I know the Devil is in the details – but as Christians let us at least start with the same premises of justice, equality, and human decency, and let us include Jesus Christ in the details … the same Jesus Christ waiting for us at this Table.

It seems to me that the sacrament of Holy Communion is just as much about others as it is about God and me.  Indeed, communion connotes receiving the elements together, in community … not at home alone.   We are invited to the Table, and will see Jesus at the Table only if we see others, and seek to live in peace with one another.  We can’t see others if we’re thinking only about ourselves and our own welfare … if we focus only on feeding ourselves.

Do you remember in scripture where St. Paul criticizes the church members in Corinth for abusing the sacrament of Holy Communion? [I Corinthians 11:20-21] Many were getting drunk and eating so greedily that the food ran out before everyone could participate.  This was when Holy Communion was a large, sumptuous meal, as was the Passover observance.  Because Christ’s followers were not behaving like Christ at the Table, the sacrament became the more stripped down version that we have today. Less room for error and excess.

We can’t see others if we’re judgmental.  Jesus asked, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” [Matthew 7:4]   Jesus also asked us to forgive others if we want to be forgiven. [Matthew 6:14-15]  Is there anyone in your life you need to forgive this morning?  Until you do, you won’t see The Savior at the communion table, because the person you’re holding hostage, the pain and hurt you’re holding hostage – and which is holding you hostage —  is standing in the way.  It is blocking the view of Jesus.

Finally, I believe that in order for us to see and sense the risen Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion, we must approach the table with gratitude and thanksgiving.  The word Eucharist means thanksgiving.  But we should not limit our thanksgiving to material things, or freedom, or a strong nation, or even good health.  How does that make those without material possessions, those living under a repressive, paranoid government, and those with deteriorating health feel?  Should they feel God is not present?  No!  God in Christ is alive and well at the communion altar, communion table, communion rail or communion piano bench if we come to the altar, table, rail or bench giving thanks and praise for God’s suffering, death, and resurrection, praise for God’s giving us the church, praise for delivering us from slavery to sin and death, and praise for leaving us a new mysterious advocate and ally … the Holy Spirit. Let us be thankful for those blessings rather than material and physical blessings, which many do not have, and which we ourselves can lose in the blink of an eye.

If you take that spirit of thanksgiving with you, blessings in the eyes of the world will just be a bonus … frosting on the cake.  But we don’t have to have them as long as we have met and introduced ourselves to Jesus Christ,  and have thanked Him for all He has been doing, is doing,  and will be doing for us.  We don’t say “thank you” enough anymore. Saying “thank you” to God or to someone – in whatever form we do it … card, text, words, prayer – brings us closer to God and to that someone. We can’t help but see and feel closer to someone we are appreciating and thanking.

Find out where Jesus is, and show up!  One place He definitely can be found is the communion table; show up!  But you can’t find Him if you keep yourself at a distance from the table, and you are not as likely to find Him if you show up only every once-in-a-while.   Show up often, regularly, and show up practicing some of the hardest acts known to humans:  humbleness, penitence, servanthood and gratitude and love.

I’ve given us a lot to chew on at the communion table this morning. I’ve probably given you more “conditions” for Holy Communion than you’ve been given in a long time … perhaps ever.    If you’re like me, sometimes it’s hard to walk and chew gum at the same time, let alone doing anything more complicated.  Therefore, I’m going to give you the opportunity before approaching the Table to prayerfully reflect on what increases your odds of meeting Christ in this place this morning. If you answer the following questions truthfully, you will show up at the sacrament:

Will you please bow your heads and prayerfully respond:

Name one particular sin in your lie, and ask forgiveness for it.

Will you sacrifice for someone in need this week?

Please fill in this blank:  “I forgive   ______________________.”

Is there anything about God that you are taking for granted, and for which you have not said: “Thank you, God”?

 

            THE SACRAMENT OF HOLY COMMUNION

 

WHO DO OTHERS SAY YOU ARE?

a question presented at Francis Asbury United Methodist Church, Baton Rouge, LA

Sunday, August 20, 2017

by

Reverend David Melville

  

SCRIPTURE:   MATTHEW 16:  13-16

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” He asked.  “Who do you say I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the living God.”

 

Jesus was – is – not an easy fellow to know. Jesus was – is – many things to many people.  We teach our children that He is a rabbi, teacher, friend, physician, Prince of Peace, miracle worker, prophet, priest and king.  He’s  a counselor, a “Son of Man,” and the “Son of God.”  You’ve seen some of the posters attempting to name all the titles; they look almost as busy as a “Where’s Waldo?” poster.  Jesus’ closest friends were still debating the exact nature of Jesus all the way through their last supper together, and afterword.

Evidently Peter got it right by simply calling Jesus “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” [verse 16]  Even though at one time or another Jesus has fulfilled all of the diverse roles I described earlier, I don’t recall any other scripture showing Jesus as excited and animated and pleased with an explanation of why He was put on this earth.

This morning I want to ask you not only “Who do say Jesus is?” but also “Who do others say you are?”  I believe both questions are related, and both questions are  important, and  hopefully the answers are correct to both questions. You see, for both Jesus and each of us, the answer has eternal consequences.  Because Jesus accepted the good and the bad about being the Son of God, Jesus returned home to God.  If we are accurately known as a child of God, we will one day return home to God.

I ask these questions because the question Jesus asked about Himself is in three of the four gospels, and we’re supposed to study scripture each Sunday in our time together; and I was prompted to ask the question about what others say about us because a good friend of Melanie’s and mine died this week in Amite, and I have been asked as a friend and as his former pastor to say something this coming Wednesday about the deceased.  Of course I have been asked many times since I entered ministry in 2001 to “say something about the deceased.” You hope you are being accurate in in what you say, but you never know.

Our friend’s name is Chuck, and I am honored to be asked. This week final comments, assessments, observations and conclusions about Chuck Edwards will be said – at least publicly — at his funeral service.  Next week someone may be asked to perform the same function for you or me.  Who will they say Jesus is to you?  Who will they say you are?

My favorite shirt with words on the back is this one. It says, “Live your life so the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.”  I have received more comments and acknowledgements and “amen’s” about this shirt than any other I have ever worn.  People love it and resonate with it from my grandchildren to United States Senator Bill Cassidy, who saw it from a distance at the grocery store and made a point of seeking me out and applauding it.

Some of you know my call to ministry at age 47 began in earnest when I joined with a dozen others in a Bible Study led by our Senior Pastor, Dr. Pat Day, at First United Methodist Church, Shreveport.    When Dr. Day asked each of the group to share why we had signed up for a thirty-six week study of the Bible, you heard the usual goals and reasons.  Mine was kind of different:  it wasn’t to help discern my call for ministry … that would come later; it was to learn more about references to the Bible I saw in literature and plays and popular music. [Who was the woman in the hit song Jezebel?;  what is Johnny Cash meaning in When the Man Comes Around?; John Steinbeck in East of Eden, William Faulkner in Absalom,  Absalom! etc.   And Lordy, Lordy, all the Biblical gems mined in Jesus Christ, Superstar!  So I wanted to start playing catch-up on the stories, even though I had been in church every Sunday for decades.

I remember Mrs. Katherine Caruthers was very direct and honest when it came her turn to say what she hoped to get out of the class:  She explained, “I want the pastor to know me before he preaches my funeral service.”  At a big church with thousands of members that is not always the case.  I can assure you that after those thirty-six weeks, Pat and Katherine were on a first-name basis!  And that was a good thing.  Dr. Day came to know Katherine for the wonderful lady she is.

What will the pastor who officiates at your funeral service know about you?  What does your family, friends, fellow church members know about you?  This coming week speak and act in ways which clearly show your priorities, your passions and your legacy.  Hopefully, all three will reflect your love of Jesus.  Loving Jesus first does not dilute or take away from your love of family, work or hobbies … in fact, loving Jesus first helps you to love yourself, love others and to love life more.  Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” [John 10:10]

When Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters.  You cannot serve both God and money (mammon)” [Matthew 6:24],  He was not saying one could not have God and money; He was just saying one had to be the priority … the master … and hopefully the master would be God.  Those of you who have been faithful tithers through the years will probably testify that when you make God the priority – write the check to the church first — there will still be enough money left over … perhaps even more money than you would have had if you had not tithed.  Call it new math, funny math, call it what you will … mathematically it just seems to work out that way. Go figure.

Do others know you?  What will people –especially those closest to you – remember about you when there is no more opportunity for rebuttal, and when it is too late to change or to explain.  And what will God say about you? We can’t hide from God.

Some people prefer to be enigmatic.  Don’t be enigmatic.  The world is enigmatic enough already with its fifty shades of gray.  We need a few people to stand out loud and clear as baptized believers of this Messiah named Jesus.  That’s what I’m going to say about Chuck Edwards on Wednesday:  he was a baptized believer. I know it because I had the privilege of baptizing him when he almost 80 years old.

But we can know that someone has been baptized, and still not know them.  Just as with Jesus, we can express with confidence who someone is only by looking at the way he or she lived, the way he or she loved, and the way he or she died. This Wednesday I’m going to say that about Chuck as well.  We have to live a certain way if we want to be remembered a certain way; we have to live a certain way if we want to die a certain way.  Preacher, what do you mean, die a certain way?  You’re talking like a doctor, or the Coroner.  No, as the preacher I mean die at peace, die prepared to meet Jesus.  And the leap from here to the arms of Jesus won’t be that far if you’ve been with Him all along. Thank goodness that with the physical deterioration that a tall, strapping Chuck Edwards had experienced, he didn’t have to leap far to be with Jesus; he was already with Him.

We don’t have time just to know Jesus or for others to know us superficially. At death, hopefully we will know exactly who we are saying good-bye to (our friends and family and co-workers and fellow travelers), and hopefully we will know exactly who we are saying hello to:  Jesus … the Messiah who came to earth to save us.  Among all the titles and names for Jesus, that is the title and name that we need to know.

On the surface a great test of how much we know about our spouse is to participate in one of those “Newly Wed” type shows.  Maybe we should have one of those here at Francis Asbury for fun.  But I have to warn you … players may be disappointed and hurt when your partner doesn’t know you after all, and chooses the wrong answer.

At Fellowship United Methodist Church in Bossier City Melanie and I were good sports and were two of the contestants in their version of  The Newly Wed Game.  At that time we had been married for 33 years; we ought to blow the others away, right? Well, I think we came in last … I think there were some trick questions.

Even though we lost, did that mean that I did not know Melanie?  I don’t think so. After knowing her since elementary school, and after living with her for 33 years,  I knew and know her as one of the most intelligent, loving, strong, compassionate, forgiving and Godly women you’ll ever meet.  I had, and have her pegged in the ways that count the most.  I may not score well on a test about a book I’ve read, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know that it is a great book … a best seller.  And Melanie is a best seller!  No offense, Bob Eubanks, but if God is the host of the show, Melanie and whomever she’s playing with win every time, because they know who she really is.  She is a baptized child of God.

I hope this week you will know God up close and personal through His Son, Jesus Christ.  I hope you will know Jesus Christ not only as He was, but as He is.  And I hope you will be known this week not only by your family name, or your job or your political party; not even by your good looks or your church membership. I hope people say about you, “He or she is a child of God.”  If that is how you are known and understood, then see how all those other names and labels shine!

WHAT’S IN YOUR REAR VIEW MIRROR?

Reverend David Melville

Francis Asbury United Methodist Church, Baton Rouge, LA

Sunday, August 13, 2017

             It is said that hindsight is 20-20.  It is said that hindsight is an advantage.  But is it always?  On this particular Sunday we can’t help but reflect and look back upon  the year since flood waters swept through our community, our businesses, homes, and our church.  And when we look back, what do we see?  With the advantage of time and hindsight, do we have an advantage?  Is what we see clear as a bell, 20-20, or is what we see still muddy because of the residue remaining from the rising waters?

Sometimes in the immediate aftermath of personal or community tragedy we can’t see the forest for the trees.  It’s all too much.  Did you feel that way on September 11, 2001?  Didn’t you feel that way on August 14, 2016 … the first Sunday you did not sit in your pews to worship in a long, long time?  And then you learned that you would never sit in those pews again.

But over time surely there is much we should have seen and learned and absorbed … maybe even changed … about ourselves following events which seem particularly devastating, particularly unfair, and particularly untimely, as if any storms by Mother Nature or storms in our personal lives could ever be timely or fair.

Singer-songwriter Mac Davis … not exactly a household name … has given us more songs than most realize: Memories, Don’t Cry Daddy, In the Ghetto, and A Little Less Conversation for Elvis, Watching Scotty Grow for Bobby Goldsboro, and an uplifting, forever hummable tune covered by many:  I Believe in Music.

One of my favorite songs by Mac, and one which I have highlighted before talking about the sin of pride, is a little witty ditty called Oh, Lord, It’s Hard To Be Humble:

Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.  I can’t wait to look in the mirror ‘cause I get better looking each day. To know me is to love me, I must be a hell of a man.  Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, but I’m doing the best that I can. And after a rousing chorus, Mac  proceeds even less humbly …

Another of Mac’s witty and yet poignant songs is Texas In My Rear View Mirror, which describes what countless individuals have experienced leaving their hometown, after feeling trapped and stifled in that home town.

Mac sang “I thought happiness was Lubbock, Texas, in my rear view mirror.”  Buddy Holly had left his hometown of Lubbock, Texas, and made it, so why couldn’t Mac?  As the song concludes, Mac recounts what he learned about himself and about Lubbock by looking in the rear view mirror. And based upon that self-knowledge, he wants, when it’s all over, to be buried back in Lubbock, Texas, in his jeans.  And I bet he will be.

What do we see in our rear view mirror when it comes to looking back on the Great Flood of 2016?  What have we learned about ourselves and about our community because of that tumultuous event? What have we still been able to see through our public and private tears?

The “I’s” have it this morning.   Each of the lessons I believe we should have learned since last August 12 begins with the letter “I.”

 

            OUR INADEQUACIES

 

If there’s anything we should have learned from looking into our rear view mirror is that we have our inadequacies.  We can’t do everything, accomplish everything, fix everything, control everything by ourselves, even though often times we slip into a comfort zone concluding we can.  When we wind up at the mercy of something greater than us, it surprises us.  I think that is why some of these tragedies shake us so:  they disrupt our priorities, they occur in spite of us; they upset our apple cart.

When we get to the point of controlling or thinking we’re completely controlling our lives, others’ lives and institutions, we can easily become prideful, selfish and blind to reality.  When we convince ourselves that we are totally in control, we begin to convince ourselves that we are indispensable.  But none of us are.  You may have heard about the boss who notified her employee, “I don’t know how in the world we could get along without you, but beginning Monday we’re going to try.”

Controlling people assume they have all the answers.  It’s O.K. to know and to admit when we don’t.  I don’t know if you were a regular reader of “the answer lady,” Ann Landers, but if you were, you may remember this surprising column one day.   Ann wrote:   “How did it happen that something so good (my marriage) didn’t last forever? The lady with all the answers does not know the answer to this one.”

Have you ever done a little soul searching, and you couldn’t find your soul?  It’s O.K. to lose control for a while, as long as we are still trusting the One with ultimate control.  It’s O.K. to admit and then deal with our inadequacies.  If there is anything the rising waters from a year ago should have taught us, it is that we are not in complete control of our destiny.  Some of you had to leave home.  Governor John Bel Edwards had to leave the Governor’s Mansion and wait months for repairs. One of the communication centers of a giant banking institution, Whitney Bank, just reopened.  Wealthy, talented, creative John Schneider, “Bo” on the Dukes of Hazzard television show, who chose to construct a big media studio in the Hammond area, just re-opened a year later.   None of these folks … a governor, bank C.E.O., superstar actor … with all their money and contacts … could wave a magic wand.  So don’t take it personally!

 

OUR INTERRELATIONSHIPS

 

Closely related to, in hindsight, seeing clearly our inadequacies is seeing how interrelated and interdependent we are.  We’re all players on the team of humanity, and we’ve structured society so that none of us are self-sufficient.  We no longer – if we ever did – lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps, nor do we trip on our own bootstraps.  We may very well trip on the actions, inactions, or mistakes of others.  We are all hurt by the worst that reveals itself in every emergency, and we are all helped by the best that reveals itself in every emergency.

There is a saying in the Orthodox church:  “Those who go to hell, go to hell alone.  Those who go to heaven, go together.”   With whom are you going to heaven?

 

OUR INEQUALITIES

 

One image that always emerges from looking back at a tragedy is the inequalities within American communities before as well as after a storm.  The inequalities were there all along, but not in full view, and often overlooked until they creep in like murky water.  When we take time to look at ourselves in the mirror, a 20-20 vision shows that, for whatever the reasons, Americans are not equal in good times, as well as in bad times. And I believe the Jesus I see in the gospels would want us to be more equal.

We are not equal in terms of savings, resources, access to help, and family support.  When one is resigned to weathering a storm literally alone, or by necessity being completely dependent upon institutional agencies and emergency relief – i.e., the government — our vulnerabilities and inequalities of independence are exposed for all to see.  And so often these vulnerabilities and inequalities are passed down to the children born into inequality.  And so the cycle continues.

I don’t have all the answers to the persistent problem of inequality of opportunity and independence in America.  And if it takes tragedy to acknowledge and make adjustments, so be it.  But surely the most abundant, most democratic and most Christian nation on earth should look ahead by looking carefully at what we see in our rear view mirror.

Some of you have met Keisha White and her son, Ezekiel, who also thought happiness was Lubbock, Texas,  in their rear view mirror … like Mac Davis, and like Buddy Holly.  I don’t want to be too presumptive or stereotypical, but I would wager anything that the Lubbock a young African American mother like Keisha was leaving was quite different than the Lubbock in the rear view mirror of two while males like Mac and Buddy. I’m just sayin’ ….  I’m not blaming the citizens of Lubbock for this, nor am I blaming you all or myself for the inequalities that emerged from the waters last August in Baton Rouge.  But I am suggesting that it is going to take all of us acknowledging the problem, not liking the problem, and then doing something about the problem, lest we keep on seeing the same inequalities in our rear view mirrors.

 

OUR INCORRECT ACTIONS

 

New Orleanians were rightfully disappointed and discouraged last weekend when excessive rains once again defeated storm drains and pumps which supposedly were in ship-shape condition and readiness.  Untold millions of FEMA dollars went to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina for just such repairs and upgrades.  But a week ago the system was not ready for a flash flood, let alone a hurricane.  Some department heads rolled immediately, and it is now up to new eyes to plan for the future, but always with an eye on the past, looking through the rear view mirror to avoid the mistakes and incorrect actions of the past.   Shame on us when bad history repeats itself, and people are hurt needlessly.

Many Americans are seeing us making the same mistakes and hearing the same wrong information coming from Afghanistan and Iraq,  as we heard from  Viet Nam.  No, we haven’t lost anywhere near 60,000 American lives as we did in Viet Nam, but isn’t in God’s eyes each person precious? Sadly, it looks like we will always have to fight wars.  But that doesn’t mean we have to fight them in the same way, and with the same incorrect actions, particularly when we can see those actions right there in our rear view mirror.

 

OUR INVITATION

 

The final “I” word we should see reflected in our rear view mirror as we leave the Great Flood of August 2016, is an ever-present invitation that God first extended to the Israelites, then to the gentiles, and on down to you and me … an invitation to covenant with God the Father.  As we drive away from bad times, if God becomes more and more distant until we are eventually driving without Him, we have forfeited our baptism, we have forfeited God’s covenant with Abraham, and we have forfeited the new covenant Jesus talked about at the  Last Supper.   As you drive away from bad times, always look for God.  He’s there; He never left us. But it takes focus. Do everything you can to keep God in your rear view mirror.

THERE’S NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN … OR IS THERE?

A MESSAGE OF HOPE
From
FRANCIS ASBURY UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
BATON ROUGE, LA
Reverend David Melville, Pastor
August 6, 2017

From most anyone’s perspective, the first chapter of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes is downright depressing.  I don’t know when to suggest is a good time to read it … not necessarily first thing in the morning, or before you close your eyes at night.  It’s not something to help you in bad times, and it will sure be a conversation stopper at a social gathering. Listen to this uplifting passage, which, for some reason, is included in the Bible:

   [ECCLESIASTES, CHAPTER 1]

“The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:  ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless.’

What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?  Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.  The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full.   To the place the streams come from, there they return again.

All things are wearisome, more than one can say.  The eye never has enough of seeing, or the ear its fill of hearing.  What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look!  This is something new?’  It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.   There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.

I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.  I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven.  What a heavy burden God has laid on men!  I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

What is twisted cannot be straightened, what is lacking cannot be counted.

I thought to myself, ‘Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.’  Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” 

In these hot, mostly sun-burnt “dog days” of August, I particularly noticed this week Chapter 1, verse 9:  “There is nothing new under the sun.”  Now that’s a great message for Deanna Luneau and her fellow graduates of the Class of 2017.  [Not!]  I hope they don’t buy into that.  I hope even the most senior members among you … the Ruedells and Bufords and Barbaras and Als and Myrts, etc., don’t buy into that, even though you’ve seen many sunrises and many sunsets, and you have to admit that Chapter 1, verse 9 … “There is nothing new under the sun”… is partially true.  History does tend to repeat itself.  But maybe that’s humans’ fault, not God’s.  Maybe that’s something that doesn’t have to be.

This morning I suggest that there is something new under every sun if we look for it.  And we need to look for it, or we’re just wasting daylight.  Regardless of your age or circumstances, there just might be something new for you and for your family every day this coming week.  But it may require being more open to, and  more observant  and more appreciative of the new.

The Hebrews of the Old Testament lived pretty depressing lives, especially compared to ours.  But through Moses, God gave them new freedom – figuratively and literally.   God gave them love, and gave them an instruction manual on how to live.  He protected them from their enemies.

God gave the Hebrews leaders, prophets, and then He gave them a particular observance — The Passover – that provided  the chosen people a way out of depression and thinking, “nothing’s going to ever change around here; there’s nothing new under the sun.  Been there, done that.”  That’s what I should have titled today’s message:  “Been There; Done That!”

The psalmists and the prophets talked about singing a new song, but not everyone heard that new song.  We know that wine was very important in Mediterranean culture from the beginning of time.  So when prophets such as Joel [Joel 3:18] and Amos [Amos 9:13] talked about a new wine, some tasted it.  But I bet most didn’t, because they were listening to the writer of Ecclesiastes instead of the new voice … the new wine.

And my goodness, we know that Jesus brought with Him a new covenant, new treasures, new teaching, a new instruction manual, new life, new birth.  And if the people didn’t understand any of those new blessings, Jesus said something  He knew they would understand.  He told them He represented new wineskins, because everyone could understand and relate to the reality that you can’t pour new wine into old wineskins.

Finally, Jesus left his new, expanded group of followers, which now included gentiles, a new form of remembrance.  The Passover Meal was designed to remember God’s deliverance of His people out of bondage, and now the sacrament, ordinance, ritual – whatever you choose to call it – of Holy Communion would remember Jesus’ sacrifice of body and blood.  So I’m sorry,  Ecclesiastes, whoever you were, and whatever your issues were, our Jehovah God has always been giving us something new under the sun.  Our God has always been offering something to believe in, hope for, and prepare for.  We’re not stuck in a time warp; we’re always moving forward toward a new earth and a new Jerusalem.

I’m glad that my visiting grandchildren, Ava and Leo, as baptized children of God, are not stuck in or limited to my world.  And let me tell you, they are in a different world!  I was reminded within a few hours of their arrival.  On Thursday night it was announced to Leo that on Friday his sister and cousins were going to Area 51, a great indoor facility of gymnastics, trampoline, jumping, bouncing, etc.   You get the picture. Leo did not have a similar business in his home town.

Early Friday morning I was of course working on today’s message when Leo walks in, holding his smart phone.  He had Googled Area 51, and not trusting us completely, I guess, had now decided it was going to be a great adventure.  He knew the hours of operation, the distance from our house, the cost of admission, and all that this fun place had to offer. All from a few touches on his phone. I was impressed.

            The Lord has told every generation, first through the prophet Isaiah:  Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing! [Isaiah 43:18-19]  Ava and Leo, and all of you, there is something new under the sun for your generation.  Bust, Ecclesiastes!

We are also told by St. Paul  in scripture, No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him. [1 Corinthians 2:9]  Sounds to me like God still has a few surprises up His sleeve.  That means there will be some new things under the sun along the way. Snap, Ecclesiastes!

So as we prepare for the sacrament of Holy Communion, I invite you to approach the Lord’s Table a little differently than you  may have approached it hundreds of times.  Look for new peace, new feelings, and a new closeness to God.  Feel a new forgiveness you have never accepted for yourself or reciprocated to another.  Perhaps for the first time in a while, truly thank God for His Son.  If you’ve never put the word Hosanna in the same sentence as Holy Communion, do so today, and see what new wonders and signs God has in store for you today.

Let me close by giving an example of seeing a new thing.  I discovered it this week while reading the New Testament account of the “Feeding of the Five Thousand.”  This great story is one of the few recorded and repeated fairly consistently in all four gospels.

Julia is going to read St. Matthew’s remembrance:  [Matthew 14: 13-21]

“When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.  Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.  When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late.  Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.’

Jesus replied, ‘They do not need to go away.  You give them something to eat.’

‘We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,’ they answered.

‘Bring them here to me,’ he said.  And he directed the people to sit down on the grass.  Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.  Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.  They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.  The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.”

            Maybe you’ve noticed the symbolism of communion clearly each time you have read this story.  But I admit that it jumped out at me this week:  Verse 19  reports that Jesus, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, He gave thanks and broke the loaves.  Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 

What new words will jump out at you as you read God’s word this week? What new opportunities for faithfulness will you recognize for yourself this week? What new love or expression of kindness will you express this week? This past week I was the beneficiary of one of those “random acts of kindness” you’ve probably heard about, and hopefully, even benefitted from.  I was in the drive-through getting coffee, made it to the window to pay, when the attendant said, “Sir (now that was the first random act of kindness … calling me ‘Sir’), the driver in front of you paid for your coffee.”  I was rattled.  What should I do?  Should I speed up and try to catch the person and thank him or her?  Should I pay for the car in line behind me? I decided not to be that random or that kind that day.

What person will you thank this week? This week the reality of how new gratitude may sound to someone’s ears because we don’t say “thank you” enough anymore.  I had to take one of our dogs to the vet for something relatively minor, and while there decided to do what I had had the best intentions of doing for weeks, but had failed:  I sincerely thanked the doctor for saving our other dog’s life in July.  We thought our schnauzer, Raider, was down for the count, but this particular doctor patiently examined, tested and doctored on Raider until he was as good as new.  I particularly recall this doctor’s love, care and compassion for this pet he had just met.  After I expressed my (and Raider’s) deep appreciation, you would have thought I had just told him he had passed his final veterinary school exam.  With a big, broad smile, he said, “Why you made my Friday!”  I sensed getting thanked was a new thing.

And most importantly, what new meaning will you find in the sacrament of Holy Communion today?  I promise you, if you will look for something new at the Table, it will be there.  There is always something new in the sacrament of Holy Communion.  There is always something new under God’s sun.

 

SACRAMENT OF HOLY COMMUNION