"a charge to keep"

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
October 26, 2008

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
Matthew 22:34-46

About nine hours ago, I returned from Washington DC from our fall meeting of the General Board of Church and Society, of the United Methodist Church. Have you heard of the work and witness of this part of our church? I invite you—Google it. Ask me about it. Talk to the members of this community who have been to annual conference, or who know about it. I have served on this board for four years, and was re-elected to continue this work and ministry for the coming four years. Don’t worry, they cover all the financial costs! A great privilege, a great responsibility. Being on this board is exhilarating. Exhausting. Essential in my life and my faith and my ministry.

In this morning’s gospel text from Matthew, one of the followers approaches Jesus: Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Let us pray: O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable and pleasing to you, our strength and our redeemer.

The stated purpose of the General Board of Church and Society is to relate the gospel of Jesus Christ to the members of the Church and to the persons and structures of the communities and world in which they live. A mouthful, I know. Or, to connect the good news of the love and justice of Jesus our Christ in our daily lives. To help us know better how to love our neighbors, even those we have never met. Or, to discern how the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to live in our local community, local church. AND, how the gospel calls us to connect within our global community, because as United Methodists, we are a global church, we worship a God of all the nations, we are citizens, first, of the kingdom of God. Our charter states, “This board shall seek to bring the whole of human life, activities, possessions, use of resources, and community and world relationships into conformity with the will of God.” Quite a charge to keep! All of who we are, what we have, what we do, what we believe…all our hearts, our minds, our souls, our strength…all opportunities to more fully conform ourselves and our lives to the will of God.

We are a connectional church. We are called to connect with each other. We learn in the sacred scriptures that how we connect with each other reflects and enables how we connect with God.

On these two commandments, teaches Jesus, hang all the law and the prophets—Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. On this, our Lord was crystal clear. Together, this is the great commandment. Love God. How do we do this? By loving our neighbor. Not just with what is left over, what is easily given, what we won’t miss anyway, what we can easily do without. With all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, all our strength. All of who we are, and all of what we have. This is the plumbline of our faith, and should be the plumbline of ordering our lives.

After all is said and done, teaches Jesus, our very salvation hangs on this, the state of our very souls depends on this. Love the Lord our God. And love our neighbors. With this commandment, Christ calls us to build the kingdom of God here on earth. Our sacred calling, our holy tasking, to be kingdom builders, prophets of justice, love and hope. What God requires of us—doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

Exhilarating! Exhausting… Essential to our shared faith and faithfulness.

From John Wesley, the founder of Methodism—Three simple rules for faithful living. First, Do No Harm. Second, Do Good. Third, Stay in Love With God. Wesley charged this denomination, Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the people you can, in all the places you can, by all the means you can, for as long as you can. Love God. Love your neighbor. And by doing this, bring the whole of our human lives, activities, possessions, use of resources, and community and world relationships into conformity with the will of God.

Jesus embodied, Wesley remembered, we are taught: By loving and serving our neighbors, far and near, we love and serve God.

I will not try to share all the stories I heard from fellow board members and staff these past four days. From United Methodist Bishops in Angola and Liberia, Pennsylvania and North Dakota, from pastors serving United Methodist Churches in the Philippines and New York, Texas and Sweden, California and Congo, from delegates, lay members in churches, just like you, from Zimbabwe and Switzerland and Kenya and North Carolina and Puerto Rico and Nebraska. We sat at table together, and ate. We visited congressional offices. We laughed together. We cried together. We worshiped together, oh did we worship together. We shared our personal stories of faith, shared our deep need for God’s love and justice and hope in our communities, shared ways we might be prophets of this love and justice and hope.

In my work area alone, we are tasked by the people of the United Methodist Church through General Conference to be kingdom builders around issues of immigration, torture, the death penalty, HIV and AIDS, domestic violence, family planning and reproductive health, child marriage and human trafficking, human sexuality, bioethics, and more. A steep learning curve for us all…To bring the whole of human life, activities, possessions, use of resources, and community and world relationships into conformity with the will of God. Love. Justice. Hope. Looking at and learning about the world around us through new eyes. This is the practice of incarnation!

In the last 36 hours or so, I was invited to face very difficult realities which call for faithful, for faith filled response:

Did you know—over 70% of the chocolate we will hand out this Halloween is made with coco harvested under slave conditions, often by children?

Did you know—Equal Exchange works with the United Methodist Church to provide Fair Trade chocolate, available to you, so that we might enjoy pleasure without causing others to suffer?

Did you know—over 10,000 non combatant people every year are killed or maimed by landmines, and that the US is one of a small group of countries, along with Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Burma, China, and Saudi Arabia, who has refused to ratify the Mine Ban Treaty?

Do you know where your elected officials stand on this ban? Do you know whether the presidential candidate you will vote for in 9 days is willing to save lives and sign this treaty?

Did you know—1 in 4 women experience domestic violence, and 1 in 5 young women will experience sexual assault between the ages of 18-24 years old?

Did you know—far too many people, sometimes batterers, sometimes pastors, use the Bible to justify or excuse this violence?

Did you know—in a comprehensive poll in 2006, 37% of men in the US admitted to committing one or more acts of physical or sexual violence in the past 12 months?

Did you know—states which practice the death penalty have a 40% higher murder rate than states which do not?

Did you know—about 930,000 people in the US are currently living with AIDS?

Did you know—worldwide, almost 40 million are living with AIDS, and that 600,000 children are infected each year?

Did you know, that study after study after study and story after story after story has shown that abstinence only sex education is ineffective in addressing this global health crisis?

Did you know—the United Methodist Church is working, through our connectional system and apportionment giving, on educating and advocating and ministering to the real people and lives behind these statistics?

Did you know—part of being a United Methodist church is participating in ministries of love and justice for our neighbors through our apportioned giving, and through our prayers, presence and service?

Did you know that this church, 1st United Methodist Church of Osage, has only paid 44% of our apportioned giving, 44% of our connectional commitment to these ministries we cannot possibly do on our own, these ministries which also impact people within this church, within this community?

All in 36 hours, or so. I left DC utterly exhausted. This work is overwhelming. These statistics are overwhelming. The need is wide. Our call runs deep. But. And. I left renewed. Because, God’s grace is wide, and Jesus’ love runs deep, too. Our connection with each other is sacred, and carries us through. We are called. As Christians, we are commanded. To be prophets of God’s love and justice and hope. To bring the good news of Jesus Christ to a world desperately needing good news. To be disciples and to make disciples for the transformation of the world.

And, because we are human, we do grow weary in this work of faith, cry out with the suffering we see when we dare to look in our lives, or the lives of our neighbors. Hear this reminder from the psalmist. “How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prepare for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!”

As deeply as we are afflicted, so deep can be our joy. As pervasive the forces of evil, so pervasive can be our just and loving response. Hear again the words we sung together this morning written in the 9th century, over a thousand years ago: where charity and love prevail, there God is ever found; brought here together by Christ’s love, by love we are thus bound.
In a few moments, from Together We Serve: Together we serve in Spirit and truth, remembering love is the strength of our song.

From our closing hymn, our benediction to each other: We share each other’s woes, our mutual burdens bear.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets, all the faithful work and witness and service our faith charges us to keep: Love the Lord our God with all our hearts and all our lives and all our souls and all our minds and all our strength. Love our neighbors. This is our charge to keep. May it be so. Amen, and amen.

out of the chaos...

... an apology for the mixed up dating of the sermon order.

"who let the riffraff in?" by anna blaedel

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Matthew 21:23-32
September 28, 2008

I need to begin this morning’s sermon with a confession. You know the age-old adage, “Do as I say, not as I do?” This past Friday, my day off, I started my morning meditating on the 46th Psalm, “Be still, and know that I am God.” I prayed that God might slow me down, might help me place prayer and prayerful work at the center of my day, and slip slide the stacked schedule away. Slow down. Be still. Breathe. See the people and world and beauty and brokenness around me, rather than rush forward, frenzied, to the next to do list task. This was, about, 8am. By 2pm, I was rushing down 218 towards Iowa City, late to pick up my sister, late for our planned and eagerly anticipated afternoon together picking apples at Wilson’s orchard, late to sit together and ask, “How is it with your soul?” I am sorry to say it was the flashing lights of the State Trooper behind me, not my morning prayer that managed to slow me down. So, before you read it in the newspaper, hear it from me. Sometimes words are not enough.

As a religious leader, an elder in the church, a pastor commissioned to preach the Word of God and help lead the people of God, I mess up. I forget what grounds me. I fail to find ways in my daily life to live God’s welcome, to witness to God’s love. I forget who I am, and whose I am. Oh, how I wish I could hide behind the disclaimer, “Do as I say, not as I do.” In this morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew, Jesus reminds us, reminds me, why this doesn’t cut it. Sometimes words are just not enough. Faith that doesn’t result in faithful action is just talk. Faith that doesn’t result in faithful action is just talk.

This is a terrifying truth for a preacher. This was a terrifying truth for those to whom Jesus directed this morning’s gospel parable. It is important, when reading this story, to remember that it follows right after Jesus has stormed into the Temple, and, so disgusted by the greed and hypocrisy he finds in this house of worship, throws over the money changer’s tables. Now he dares to show his face again. It is also important to remember that John the Baptist has just been beheaded. Jesus is treading through dangerous political territory. Community tensions are high. Perhaps even higher than in an election season, in a church where Republicans and Democrats worship side by side. The Jesus we meet in this story is not what those in power might call a respectable person, not a nice, Midwestern, people-pleasing sort of guy who goes out of his way not to offend anyone or make waves or cause a ruckus. Jesus confronts them. And it ain’t pretty.

The respectable characters in the story are, without doubt, the chief priests and elders. They are the religious leaders, those who have invested in the community, those who preserve order and smooth over disagreements and minimize disturbances in the status quo. Respectable, we are about to learn, does not always equal faithful.

“Just who do you think you are?” they ask Jesus. “By whose authority do you say such things?” So, in typical Jesus fashion, Jesus responds with a parable. Refuses to offer an easy answer, and instead makes them, makes us, work a little, wrestle a bit, to figure out a faithful response.

A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not;” but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir;” but did not go. “Which one is obedient? Which one responds faithfully?” asks Jesus. The one who says the right thing and fails to follow through, or the one who messes up the initial response, but then shows up in body and spirit to do God’s work? The one who speaks the language of faith, who can quote scripture and never misses a Sunday, but is caught up in pretence and power and prestige, or the one who fumbles through the Lord’s prayer, maybe doesn’t even know one gospel story from another, but works in the world to build the kingdom of God on earth, to do daily what the Lord requires, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God?

Whew. The chief priests and elders know they are in trouble now. Perhaps felt a bit like I did when the flashing lights pulled up behind me. Caught.

And Jesus doesn’t stop there. “Truly I tell you, “ says Jesus, “The tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.” Jesus doesn’t even have the decency to say the repentant tax collectors and prostitutes, those who have cleaned their act, put themselves together a bit, smoothed off the rough edges? Nor does Jesus stop at saying the riffraff have a place in the Kingdom of God. The first shall be last, and the last first.

Scathing. Scandalous. Jesus speaks an unpopular truth to power and places the riffraff closer to God than religious and political leaders of Holy Jerusalem. Jesus not only lets the riffraff in, he welcomes them.

He says that we can only build the Kingdom of God, only be the Kingdom of God, to the extent that we welcome the riffraff. This is in direct conflict with religious law and political policy and social standards. The riffraff. Those who are unclean, unworthy, unaccepted and unacceptable. The outsiders. The poor. The undocumented workers, the single mothers, the non-Christians, the gays and lesbians, those in prison…Who else are the riffraff of our time? And then Jesus goes even further. Claims it is God who ordains such behavior. God who welcomes the riffraff. God who makes a special place for “those people.” The chief priests’ response no longer seems so outlandish, does it? “Just who do you think you are? By what authority do you say such things?”

My mind was still stuck on this perplexing story, my soul trembling at the thought of preaching on it, as I watched Friday’s presidential debate. Both McCain and Obama have hinged their campaigns upon change. Given our current economic crisis, or our environmental crisis, or our educational crisis, to say nothing of foreign policy, it really should come as no surprise that “change” is a necessary hallmark of this election season, on both sides of the aisle. Before and during and after the debate, words flew, some of them eloquent and convincing and even convicting. But, sometimes words are not enough. One commentator concluded, after Obama and McCain finished, that the debate had been little more than an exchange of banalities. “Politicians can come together,” he remarked, “to borrow almost a trillion dollars we don’t have to help people who don’t need it for reasons we don’t quite know.” What are we saying, what are we doing, when we cut government assistance for the poor, but allow for billions of dollars of corporate bailout? What are we saying, when we arrest Postville workers but give amnesty to wall street billionaires? What are we saying, when we commit to worshipping and serving a Savior born a Palestinian Jew, but believe higher walls and tougher borders offer us security? What are we saying when we call ourselves Christians, but wonder who on earth, who in heaven, let the riffraff in?

This is a hard story for us religious leaders to hear. It is a hard story for people in the pews to hear. It was hard for the chief priests and the elders to hear. This is why, Jesus told it. This radical, startling Kingdom of God is the central theme of Jesus’ preaching, the central theme of God’s Good News. And building it, living into it, becoming it, is the central theme of our task as Christian community.

As we move into the final stretches of this election season, you will not hear me preach partisan from this pulpit. I do hope, however, that we might wrestle together, talk with each other, about what kind of changes we want to see, what kind of changes we need to be a part of, to help order our lives and communities around the gospel of Jesus Christ. What does it mean, to respond faithfully? What kind of changes do we need, as a community of faith within these walls, and as citizens of this nation, in order to practice what we preach? Faith that does not result in faithful action is just talk. And, sometimes words just aren’t enough. Amen.

"have we grown tired of God?" by anna blaedel

Exodus 33:12-33
Matthew 22:15-22
October 19, 2008

Last Wednesday, the youth in this community chose to make another trip to Mason City to hear John Bul Dau, one of the almost 30,000 Lost Boys of Sudan, share and speak to the violence, struggle, and hope woven into his life’s story. The week before, we viewed the film "God Grew Tired of Us," featuring John Bul Dau and other Lost Boys. Torn from his home and family by the civil war and atrocity in Sudan, John spoke of his life as a living story, a living testimony. His story, he said, and our stories, are living because they come from others, from humans we will never meet, are brought into our lives and then flow from us to others through our own living stories. His life is shadowed by a depth of inhumanity, and also shines with the power of God and power of people who are doing God’s work of love and justice in the world. Depth of suffering, depth of connection. Both, and, together in complex relationship. In the midst of violence I cannot begin to comprehend, hunger and poverty I can only imagine, John Bul Dau found his faith, his theology pushed to the brink, crying out, “Surely God has grown tired of us!” A tricky question born of deep despair, and because cried out to God in prayer, deep hope. Both, and.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God our Strength and our Redeemer.

The officers of the temple and officers of the Roman Empire came to Jesus in this morning’s gospel story, and tried to trip him with their own tricky question. A no-win, only-lose question. Either his religious leadership is discredited. Or he is caught advocating breaking the Roman law. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Either faithful, or lawful. Either, or. Yes, or… (thanks to Rev. Odette Lockwood Stewart for this original insight and idea she preached at Epworth UMC, in Berkeley)

Jesus found, Jesus offered, another way. Yes, and. Both, and. He asked them for a Roman coin they used to pay taxes. He pointed to the emperor’s image on it. And he said, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, but then, he added, AND give to God the things that are God’s. Essentially, you decide. Jesus turns the tricky question, the dilemma of ethics and morality and faith back onto the people.

What belongs to empire? What belongs to God?

He invites these tricksters, or hypocrites as he calls them, invites his followers, invites us, to enter into this living story, to reach deep into our moral compass, to remember who we are and remember whose we are. If you recall, not rules, but relationships, guide our life of faith.

Who belongs to empire? Who belongs to God?

This story invites us, each day invites us, to remember that we belong to God. All of us. That all we are and all we have, all we do and all we imagine, belongs to God. Is given by God. To be returned to God.

On our way back from Mason City last Wednesday night, the youth riding with me shared songs from their iPod play lists, music which speaks to them, and the stories of their lives. Now, I admit I had to listen carefully to “scream rock” ??? I believe it’s called genre of the band 10 Years, to hear the message. One of the refrains they especially wanted me to hear, especially wanted to share, is a message I needed to hear. These are the lyrics of the refrain: “Brace yourselves and give into the moment, you’ve got nothing to lose so what is your excuse?” From another song by the same band, these words, “I pray to be inspired.”

This morning’s text from Exodus reveals the mystery of God, the nature and being of this God to whom we belong. Moses asks, “Who are you?” Or, “Who shall I say sent me?” God replies, “Tell Pharaoh that “I AM” sent you.” Or, perhaps a better translation of the Hebrew, “I AM WHO I WILL BE.” God, revealing God’s self as a Future Tense Verb. God, becoming in relation to and with our becoming. God, a living story woven together with our living stories. The glory of this mysterious unfolding far too great for us to behold or believe fully in any one moment. Revealed in glimpses, offered in invitations.

As I have sat with the living story of John Bul Dau, connected his story with my story, prayed about how I might respond in my life, how we might respond through the life of this community, I have wondered if a more appropriate question, more accurate one for me is less, “Has God grown tired of me?” and more, “Have I grown tired of God?” “Have we grown tired of God?” Have we forgotten to pray to be inspired?

Howard Ikemoto, an artist and art teacher who grew up in a Japanese internment camp in California during WWII shares this story: When my daughter was seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college—that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, “You mean they forgot?”
We forget. We learn to forget we are creative. We forget we are called to create beauty and peace and love in our lives and communities. We learn to forget we are beautiful, beloved, created and claimed by God. We forget others are beloved, too, created and claimed by God in all God’s mystery and glory. And, we forget to return to God what is God’s, our creativity, our love, our lives.

Each of us stands with Moses, needing to see God’s face, only to discover that God will remain a mystery. Each of us stands with Jesus, torn by this world, needing more time, more energy, more money, only to discover that God has already given us what we need to do the work God calls us to do. Tricky and complex to figure out how to rebalance, perhaps. Have we grown tired of God? I look out at you, you who are teaching children how to pray and how to love, you who are organizing collections for the women’s shelter, you who are birthing ideas for new growth in this community, you who are mowing my lawn and tending my flowers, you who coordinate roast beef dinners, you who visit the nursing homes, you who share music on Wednesdays and on Sundays, you who play BINGO at the Community Care Facility, you who donate your time and your money and yourselves to the work and witness of the living story of this community…When I see these parts of our living story, it is clear to me that you have not grown tired of God, and have not forgotten God. And God has not grown tired of us. How might we give to God what is God’s?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

"remember who you are" by anna blaedel

Mark 9:38-50
First UMC, Osage

I want to share something I read in this month’s Upper Room, something my mom read, and called to remind me, “Perhaps we think the spiritual life would be easier if there were clear rules about behavior in every situation. But Jesus tells us always that the spiritual life is not about rules; it is about relationship.”

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God, our strength and our redeemer.

When I was 15, my pastor Scott Grotewold preached a sermon that, try as I might, I have never been able to escape. Nor have I been able to forget. I admit that the details of the sermon have faded, as sermons tend to do. My pastor told of his grandma, her deep care and concern for him, their shared relationship. Her efforts to protect him, and his efforts to escape her constant attention. Now, he was a good kid. Not prone to getting into trouble, not one to push the limits too far. It’s not that he needed more rules, or even needed to follow more closely the rules already laid out. I believe every parent probably knows, deep down, that rules aren’t a fail safe against trouble, let alone hurt or heartbreak. So, every time he opened the door to leave, no matter how he tip toed, he would hear his grandma call out, “Remember who you are!” Half warning, half blessing. No attempt at an endless listing of prohibitions or commands. “Remember who you are.” Safety and sanctuary and safekeeping and security in relationship, not rules.

And, after that sermon, every time I opened the door to leave, every time I tried to tip toe around or silently slide past my own mom’s protective attention, I too heard this half warning, half blessing. “Remember who you are.” My pastor’s grandmother knew, my own mother knew, that mere restrictions rarely ensure our safety, let alone our happiness. Remember who you are. Remember whose you are. Responsibility to relationships, not to rules.

This morning’s gospel reading calls us to remember who we are. Mark writes, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Or, in Matthew’s perhaps more familiar version, “You are salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can it be restored?” Or, in Eugene Pederson’s translation, The Message, “You are to be the salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness?”

Remember, in the 1st century, salt was a precious commodity, serving a crucial purpose. It added flavor and zest, yes. But in the arid climate of Palestine, salt was indispensible for the preservation of food. Salt losing its saltiness meant the people would go hungry. The phrase “Worth your salt” comes from this context. The Romans gave salt out to their soldiers and civil servants as salary. “Not worth your salt” meant that you weren’t worth your wages. Didn’t measure up, didn’t meet expectations, weren’t of value. If salt has lost its saltiness, how can it be restored?

Remember who you are. You are the salt of the earth. Precious. Valuable. Or, as the congregation responds to every baptism at a colleague’s church, “Beloved, Precious Child of God, Beautiful to Behold.”

Remember, too, that Jesus is not saying this to a select few, the pre-screened favorites, those who are well dressed, well behaved, easy to like and fun to be around. Following relationship, not rules. Just a couple of verses before this morning’s story, the disciples have been fighting mightily amongst themselves, shouting and arguing and making a spectacle. They are vying for the title of “Greatest,” vying for power and prestige. Jesus tells a parable about the many stumbling blocks to living faithfully in community. Stop worrying about who is better than whom. Stop fighting about who is in and who is out. Stop clamoring to prove yourselves. Why? Because God already sees you as precious. So precious. Invaluable. Of sacred worth. Each and every one of you! Salt of the earth! Don’t forget your saltiness! Remember who you are! Beloved, Precious Child of God, Beautiful to Behold.

Or, as the stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote, “You bear God within you, poor wretch, and know it not.”
Remember who you are. Remember whose you are.

World Communion Sunday. A day when Christians around the world remember the relationships binding us together. When love is easy. When hate is easier. When it is clear we are cut from the same cloth. When we can find nothing but difference. When we respond to the other with kindness and compassion. When we respond to the other with suspicion and distrust. When we are at war with each other. When we are at peace with each other.

Remember who you are. And remember that this identity is shared. Each and every one of us here, and each and every one throughout this world. Beloved, Precious Children of God, Beautiful to Behold.

Do this, invites Jesus, in remembrance of me.

Do this, invites Jesus, each of you, all of you, all of us, in remembrance of me.

When we forget, what good are we? You bear God within you, poor wretch, and know it not!

Be in union with God, and in communion with each other. Beloved, Precious Children of God, Beautiful to behold. Not some of us, or even most of us. Not just the Americans or United Methodists. All of us.

At the heart of the spiritual life, teaches Jesus, is the call to relationship. With each other and with God. Because we are all created by God, and God calls it good.

Remember who you are. Thanks be to God! Amen.