June 2024 Connection

“AUDACITY TO LOVE”

Toward the end of April, United Methodist delegates from our Michigan Annual Conference, as well as hundreds of other United Methodist delegates from around the world gathered in Charlotte, North Carolina for our United Methodist General Conference. This gathering takes place every four years, and is the body which helps to guide our denomination in the work of ministry for near future. It is a prayerful time, full of worship, prayer, as well as the hard and meaningful work of holy conferencing. This is has been part of our United Methodist DNA for centuries, and we continue this work today. Following it’s adjournment, Bishop David A. Bard, bishop to the Michigan Annual Conference shared his reflection in an article titled, “May We Not Love Alike?”
 
“I was first a delegate to General Conference in 2000 and have been at every one since, though this was my first regular General Conference as a bishop. This General Conference was like many I have attended before, though I no longer have a vote as a bishop. There was wonderful worship. There was joy and delight in greeting friends I have met over the years at General Conference. It was a pleasure to be there with the wonderful delegation from the Michigan Conference. The plenary included some tedious debates, and we managed to tie ourselves in a few procedural knots.
 
Yet this General Conference was unlike any other I have attended. In 1972, language was inserted into The Book of Discipline’s Social Principles that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” At that time, homosexuality was still classified in the psychiatric community as a disorder, and biblical scholarship on the subject was developing. Our denomination has been embroiled in debates about this matter since. Attempts to acknowledge differing scripturally and theologically grounded viewpoints were consistently defeated at General Conference, and more language restricting ministry and limiting participation in the church continued to be added.
 
All that changed at this General Conference, and it changed with a remarkably good spirit. Restrictive and exclusionary language has been taken out. Pastors will now be able to officiate at the weddings of parishioners without worrying that if those parishioners are in a same-sex relationship, they could face ecclesial charges. Persons can respond to the call of God on their lives, and boards of ordained ministry can discern those calls, regardless of the sexual orientation of the person being called. We now genuinely agree to disagree without fear of church penalties and punitive processes. Disagreements have not disappeared, but the table has been expanded. We can be a church with people who are more traditional and more progressive without the threat of church disciplinary processes over these matters.
 
Another way we have moved to change our worldwide denomination is by approving a more regional governance structure. When all the relevant constitutional amendments are ratified, different parts of The United Methodist Church will be allowed to make regional decisions about a wide range of matters, while our fundamental doctrines and structures remain intact. We have not changed our doctrinal standards, remaining rooted in Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Yet future General Conferences will be able to focus on worship, celebration, and basic governance without forcing delegates from outside the United States to listen to lengthy debates about issues pertinent only to the United States, such as the pension plan for U.S. clergy or matters of U.S. law.
 
Many other legislative actions passed, including a new set of Social Principles. We will be digesting all this over the coming weeks. Significant changes were made with enthusiastic debate, but the overall spirit in the room was remarkably amicable and respectful. On the final day of General Conference, when a worship hymn moved into the R&B song “Love Train” by the O’Jays, the entire plenary hall broke into joyous singing and dancing.
 
While many celebrate the changes made at this General Conference, I recognize not all do. The church has always had disagreements, as reflected in many of Paul’s letters. What this General Conference did was to acknowledge that some issues over which we have been fighting for many years are, in some respects, issues over which there might be genuine disagreement, and we are, in the words of Paul, letting “all be fully convinced in their own minds” (Romans 14:5, NRSVUE). We are finding new ways to live in the Wesleyan spirit: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences” (“Catholic Spirit,” a sermon by John Wesley).
 
As I ended my time presiding over one plenary session at General Conference, I offered the following reflection: “As I close, I want to remind us of the audaciousness of what we are doing — working to build God’s beloved community in the name of the risen Christ, a community that breaks down dividing walls of nation, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, language, and opinion, and doing so in a world where every difference is quickly magnified into a chasm and where we rapidly retreat into enclaves of homogeneity. If this beloved community work were simple and easy, most of Paul’s letters in the New Testament either would never have been written or would have been much shorter. And this is the work of Christ, the work of the Spirit.”
 
The gospel is audacious, offering God’s wide and wild love in Jesus to the world. Knowing such love changes us profoundly or is intended to do so. And God’s beloved community is always a missional community. We break down dividing walls, not simply to enjoy one another’s company but to witness to a divided world where all persons are created in the image of God and loved by God in Jesus Christ. We have good news to share and to live out. Being part of the beloved community in the church, we seek to extend it into the world, offering healing to the broken, food to the hungry, justice to the oppressed, and peace and reconciliation to the divided. God’s beloved community in Jesus is a missional community.
 
Our joyful journey continues, and I am delighted to share it with you.”
 
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May 2024

“Confessions of A Bad Gardener”

In my life, I have been described as many things, many of which I am comfortable with. Some have been troubling, though likely at least a bit true. Some are, well…you know…not true. But one thing no one has ever described me as is a green thumb. Not even in the ballpark. The closest I come to being a green thumb is the ability to shovel and spread mulch in a garden, and wheel the squeaky cart through the aisles of Bordine’s when Stephanie wants to pick out some hanging pots in the Spring. Beyond that, I am not a green thumb.
 
This is why I was shocked this morning to hear Jane proclaim as she was walking out the front door, “Mommy! Daddy! Look at the pretty flowers!” Her innocent joy was matched by my surprise that there were, in fact, wild flowers growing in my very nicely mulched bed. I hadn’t planted them (I know better than to try), and Stephanie hadn’t planted them, but there they were. Flourishing without our having caused them in the first place.
 
As I’m reflecting on these wildflowers and their persistence to grow despite my severe lack of a green thumb, I am reminded of the power and mystery of God’s grace. Grace is our way of understanding God’s love and compassion for us. God’s grace does not depend on us. God’s grace is formed by God alone, felt by God alone, and is freely shared by God, alone! God’s grace rises up to meet us even when we feel as though there is nothing we’ve done to tend the soil in our lives. God’s grace just comes. It just grows. It just…is.
 
One of my greatest privileges as your pastor is to be able to share in the Sacrament of Holy Communion with you. In breaking the bread and lifting the cup, we are reminded that God’s presence is present, and yet it remains a mystery. It’s a mystery, not because we can’t theologically define grace, but because, no matter how hard we might try, we can’t fully comprehend the “why” of it all. Why is God so deeply in love with us? Why is God so deeply committed to a relationship with us? Why, when we consider all we do that must simply disappoint God, does God still invite us to the table? The answers are ultimately a mystery – one that we have to be okay with. And so, I find myself giving the same deeply theological answer to the question of “why does God love us?”
 
My answer: I don’t know, but He does.
 
I don’t know how long those wild flowers were blooming, but I do know that they didn’t need my permission or my effort. They simply grew. Maybe they were there for some time, and I just never noticed them. For me to notice them, it took my 3 ¾ year old daughter to see them, accept them as a beautiful mystery, and simply experience joy through them.

 

“Then he called a little child over to sit among the disciples, and said, “I assure you that if you don’t turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Those who humble themselves like this little child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” –Matthew 18:2-4 (CEB)

Peace,

Pastor Brian
 

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March 2024 Connection

“Condition and Desire”

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself.  And the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore, will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.  I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. -Thomas Merton
 
As we’ve been journeying through this season of Lent, we have been reflecting.  Our reflection began with the wearing of ashes on Ash Wednesday, reminding us of our mortality and our shared human condition – sin.  As I shared in a sermon only a few weeks ago, I like to define “sin” as anything that puts distance between us and God, us and others, and even us and…us.  And so, you see, the human condition of sin that we share means that at any given time, we find ourselves moving closer to God, and moving away from God.  Closer, away, closer, away, closer away.  You get the idea.
 
As we wear the ashes (or maybe simply remember them now that it’s March), we might be tempted to think that the ashes are a bleak symbol for our hopelessness – that we could never measure up to what God wants of us, and so we ought to just throw in the proverbial towel.  But I deeply disagree with that!  God’s command to us, articulated by Christ, is to love God with our whole being, to love others, and to love ourselves.  When we live into that, we defy sin that so often seems to have a hold on us.  When we fail to live into that command, we are met with a grace that reconciles us to the love of God.  In other words, God has absolutely no intention of letting sin have the last word.  
 
So, if there is grace, why did we bother with the ashes.  If God has no intention of letting sin have the last word, why did we devote a whole day – heck, a whole season – to it?  I believe it’s because we must name the condition in order to recognize the beauty of the grace which delivers us from it.  
 
In the prayer by Thomas Merton, he offers these words: “But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”  I’m drawn to these words because I believe they reflect the desired outcome of this season of Lent: recognizing that we suffer from the human condition of sin, and yet our desire not to let sin rule our lives means that we are reaching out and grabbing the gift of grace that Christ so graciously gives to us.  It is that reach that so pleases God!
 
As we draw closer to Holy Week, remember that Jesus ate with disciples who wrestled with sin, forgave the soldiers who were nailing his hands and feet, and offered grace to another man upon a cross.  Remember that it was at the empty tomb where the resurrected Christ drew closer to Mary and called her by name.
Lent is about recognizing the reality of sin and desiring to close the gap.  And it is in that desire that we discover the grace that has always been there.  The miracle is that we can now see it.
 
Your sibling in Christ,
Pastor Brian
 
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February 2024 Connection

“Stable Churches”

I recently read an article about churches that said “the era of the stable church is gone.” At first, I assumed it was going to articulate something about the Bethlehem stable and some sort of decline in Christmas nativity scenes on church lawns, or something of the sort. But it didn’t. Instead, it offered an insight that I simply haven’t considered. It pointed out that churches are either thriving or declining – growing or deteriorating. The idea of having a church that just remains “stable,” unchanging, and steadfast in a community without growing or dying is a thing of the past.
 
Now, let me be clear: I don’t write this with a sense of doom and gloom. This is not intended to be read with dread or anxiety. Instead, my hope is that you’ll read it with joy, possibility, and the impulse to dream, act, and be a part of something amazing. What I want to do is share with you some really important observations about Grand Blanc UMC and how we are not merely existing as a stable church, but thriving as a growing, serving, and hope-filled church.
 
1. Sometimes we find ourselves perhaps a bit too analytical, to our own detriment. We measure growth in the church by a sum number of active members, and in doing so we forget some fundamental principles of our faith. For instance, I have a good friend who shared with me that his church welcomed 11 new members in the same year that they held funeral services for 12 of their long-time members. On their year end report, the analytics calculated a year of decline. But those numbers ultimately lie to us. We forget that those 12 members who have joined the saints of God had contributed to years of ministry and, despite their having died, continue to be a part of the church as they join the “great cloud of witnesses.” The new members the church added simply (though wonderfully) became part of the church on earth as in heaven. Through the witness of that church in that particular community, the church grew!
 
Here at GBUMC, we have said goodbye to beloved saints of the church who now rest from their labors with God. And yet, this past year, we have welcomed new members, welcomed guests, and have been a part of growing the church. In other words, GBUMC is a growing church!
 
2. Churches that are missional, thriving, and growing, happen to find themselves financially strong. And there is a very real correlation between the two! I was once acquainted with a small congregation that had a beautiful history of serving their community. It was never a big church, but it loved its community. Over time, the community changed, as communities tend to do, and it began to “circle the wagons,” so to speak. Missions and generosity took a back seat to balancing a budget. Sunday mornings became more about maintaining tradition than it was about worship. Even ideas for jump starting some new vitality were ignored for fear that it might be too hard and too different. The giving in the church continued to dwindle to the point that the biggest giver was a local community member who was not a member, but whose parents had attended the church years prior.

That particular congregation lost its missional identity.  It traded growth and the possibility for the certainty of what seemed like stability.  Ultimately, the excitement to be generous dwindled to next to nothing for a church that was no longer thriving.

In my time at GBUMC, I have seen the opposite happening.  I have seen ministry that is resilient and exciting.  I have seen generosity that defies the challenges many churches have faced.  I have witnessed dreaming that is daring, bold, and full of vitality!  In 2023, we closed the year with giving that surpassed our expected income, more than met our budget, and sets us up for a wonderful start of 2024.  By all accounts (pun intended), Grand Blanc UMC is thriving, and your generosity is just one sign of that. 

  1. Grand Blanc UMC has, as part of its DNA, a welcoming and hospitable spirit. I will share with you, and probably not for the first time, that I am regularly told by guests, especially on Sunday mornings, how much they appreciate the warm and authentic welcome they feel while here at church.  Hospitality is, believe it or not (though, I hope you will) a very big part of the Gospel message.  Making space for others in our lives is central to what it means to be a Christian.  And this responsibility belongs not just to the ushers, the greeters, the Coffee Hour volunteers, the staff, or me, the pastor.  Rather, it belongs to each us!  Growing, thriving, missional, Gospel-centered churches, make space for others and demonstrate an authentic welcoming spirit!

 

Grand Blanc UMC is not a stable church.  We are growing.  We are thriving.  We are living out what it means to be the church!  It is my privilege to be a part of it alongside each of you, and I truly look forward to all this year will bring!

Peace,

Pastor Brian
 

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January 2024 Connection

Muddy Footprints in Jesus’ Church 

And Other Reasons It’s Not Really About Us

 
A number of years ago, a church I served, after about 10 years of hosting a very popular Trunk-or-Treat on Halloween night, finally had to move things indoors on a particularly rainy Halloween night. Rain became mud, and not a soul wanted to be outside unless it was to move from one candy source to another. The night was still a great success, but, as you can imagine, the church’s carpets we pretty well muddied
and in need of cleaning. The next day, as I listened to a church member complain about the community’s disrespect of her church, I offered a not-so-subtle reminder of an important truth: “This church is not yours or mine. This church belongs to those who don’t yet have a church family.” The conversation ended, but I do hope that my point was taken. Sometimes, in the busyness of being the church, it’s easy to forget
what our purpose is.
 
In John 21:15, responding to Jesus’ question as to whether Simon Peter truly loved Jesus, Simon Peter’s reply was, “Yes. Lord…you know that I love you.” It was at that moment that Jesus gave the first of three nearly identical instructions: “Feed my lambs.”
 
In Mark 1:17, after calling his disciples, Jesus tells the two fishermen, Andrew and Simon, “Come, follow me…and I will send you out to fish for people.”
 
In Matthew 28:19, we discover the resurrected Jesus giving the disciples what has become known as the “Great Commission:” All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
 
Time and time again, Jesus invites his disciples (and we are his disciples, too), that the notion of the church – the “Body of Christ” – is only about us up to the point that we are fed. Once we are fed, it is no longer really about us. We become the church for someone else! It becomes our obligation to become fishers of people, lamb feeders, and into-the-world goers!
 
The problem is, over time, the Church as institution (note the capital “C”) has done an amazing job of convincing Christians that church is all about “us.” We’ve been taught that Christianity’s goal is getting to heaven and getting as many people to go with us as possible. We’ve been taught that good people “go to church” and that Sundays are the most important thing we do.
 
Now, don’t get me wrong! I absolutely love the Church! I love being a Christian and I love being a follower of Jesus. That said, the Christian Church (notice that capital “C” again) needs to reexamine its role. We need deeply to see that the goal of Christianity is and has always really been about caring for and seeing the image of God in our neighbor, loving those who struggle to love us back, and praying for those we’d otherwise call our enemy. We deeply need to see that there are many, even in our community – our own backyard – who have been hurt by Churches and have walked away because Christians haven’t always been the best reflections of God’s immense and limitless love. We deeply need to begin to understand that worship attendance, while immensely important to our spiritual health and relationship with God, is not the marker of one’s “goodness” or their Christian faith, for that matter. Worship is, at its core an expression of gratitude and love for a God who has loved us before we could ever comprehend it (we call that prevenient grace).
 
Does this mean that we ignore one another and only focus on those not in relationship with this church or another church? Absolutely not! Jesus’ commission was never to forget one another. In the early church, we see countless examples of seeing and caring for one another, praying, encouraging one another, and growing deeper in faith! Just read Paul’s letter and you’ll discover it immediately. But you’ll also discover that the goal for all of that was singular – that others might come to discover through the church (little “c” means “Body of Christ) the good news of Jesus Christ.
 
In other words, its time for the Church to embody the church, and to see the muddy footprints on the
carpet as evidence of grace, goodness, and good news. It’s not my Church and it’s not your Church. We
exist as a church for those who have yet to discover the real gospel!
 
Are we ready – are you ready – to do what it takes to fish for people, feed sheep, and go into all the
world?
 
Today is a new day.
Pastor Brian
 
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December 2023 Connection

“Sing”

In 2005, I joined the Mount Union College Concert Choir as a freshman tenor. In our first week of rehearsal I learned an expectation of our choir that I grew to become most grateful for. Initially, however, I was shocked and terrified. By the end of our semester, in preparation for concerts and our annual January tour, all of our music had to be memorized. On the one hand, it felt about as possible as memorizing the phonebook. On the other hand, it made our sound as a choir, our trust in one another, and our confidence in ourselves all the greater!
 
Today, I happened upon a recording of a piece we sang for our 2005 winter concert. I hadn’t heard it in nearly 20 years and yet, as it played, I began to sing along with the 2nd tenors as if I’d memorized it yesterday. It’s remarkable what our memories are capable of, isn’t it?! And even as we age, and our memories struggle more and more to remember as they used to, the capacity and ability of our minds is astounding.
 
Looking back, I owe this experience to the expectation that our repertoire be entirely memorized. To do that required studying the scores again and again, attending sectional practices, preparing for weekly memory checks (nothing says, “Happy Friday!” like weekly tests), and pure determination. In other words, it took rehearsing the same thing over and over until it became muscle (or rather, voice) memory.
 
As you’re reading this, I suspect you’ve heard the nativity story before – you know, those passages from Matthew and Luke that tell us about Jesus’ birth in the town of Bethlehem. You’ve probably sang, or at least have heard the hymns “Away In A Manger” and “Silent Night.” Odds are also good that, if asked to draw a nativity scene, you’d probably be able to capture at least half of it correctly! And if all of this provides echoes of Luke chapter 2 being read by Linus and the rest of the Peanuts crew, reminding everyone about the true meaning of Christmas, well, there’s a reason for that. It’s been rehearsed in
your mind – in your faith – for a long time.
 
We sing the hymns, we tell the stories, we build the nativity scenes, we light the candles, and so much more, not simply because it’s all pretty and nostalgic. We do it because that’s how we rehearse it! And because we rehearse it, as if by osmosis, the story of God’s incarnated love in the form of a
child becomes part of our heart-language.
 
But we’re not done yet. Because knowing the story – knowing the song – only helps if we have the occasion to tell that story – sing the song. This Christmas, I want to encourage you to leave the rehearsal studio and find an occasion to sing the song. Find a moment – perhaps even with an unexpecting
shepherd – and share the story. And in doing so, may we discover Christmas.
 
With Peace, Hope, Joy & Love,
Pastor Brian
 
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p.s. For anyone wondering, the piece of choral music I wrote about is titled “Almighty and Most Merciful Father.” The arrangement that we sang was composed by William Henry Harris. If you’d like to hear a recording, please click on the link here.

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November 2023 Connection

“Thud”

After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was filled with light because of his glory. He called out with a loud voice, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! -Revelation 18:1-2 (CEB)
 
I often find that people get nervous around the Book of Revelation. It’s almost as if just the mention of the title puts people on edge. It’s often associated with doom-and-gloom, “end times,” “rapture” (we’ll get to this one in a minute) and other such things. The Book of Revelation is like the dishes on Thanksgiving.
Everyone knows it’s coming, but no one wants to deal with it.
 
Did I mention its one of my favorite books of the Bible?! It actually is! I love the Book of Revelation, and not at all because of the things it’s so often associated with (see above).
 
Let’s start with doom-and-gloom. The style of literature with which the Book of Revelation is written is called “Apocalyptic Literature.” While I know that name, too, sounds scary, it’s just a style, much like poetry or allegory are styles of writing. Apocalyptic literature is most known for being dramatic, written in
narrative form (reads like a story), and presents present circumstances as doom-and-gloom, and then presents a final day as an outcome. This is a style used pretty broadly in ancient literature, not just in Revelation. Also, none of this is intended to say that apocalyptic literature is intended to be understood
literally. Similarly, consider the Tortoise and the Hare. It’s intended to be understood as a fable (another style of writing), and not a factual account of a rabbit and turtle running cross country. So, don’t be scared by the doom-and gloom! It’s just the style of writing. It’s not meant to freak anyone out.
 
How about the “end times” stuff, though? Again, it’s all part of the style. It’s not intended to predict a day on the calendar when some cosmic or geopolitical events will bring the world to an end. Those images and descriptions are just part of the doom-and-gloom style that is apocalyptic literature! The Book of Revelation was never intended to be a user’s manual for predicting the end of the world or anything like that. Its intent is actually far more intriguing.
 
But before I get to that (I know! Cliffhanger, right?!), let me address that thing called the “rapture.” If you’ve heard of it before – either from a book series that I don’t really recommend, from a social media post, or from your neighbor with a lot of ideas to share – you know that it’s a theory that teaches that one day, evil (Satan) will get its ultimate grasp on the world and all its people, and that God will take all true Christian believers to heaven, leaving behind everyone else, not to mention the clothes of those who have seemingly vanished, to experience the days of tribulation that are to follow. (deep breath.)
 
Sounds scary, eh? Well, let me put you at ease. Rapture theory is NOT a theory that United Methodists hold to, nor is it sound theology. And before you get worried that I’m denouncing core Christian beliefs, let me reassure you that “rapture” theory has only been around since the early 1800’s, and was espoused with the hopes of converting non-Christians into believers. You know, “if we scare them, they might convert!” While it may have worked to some degree, it did a great disservice to the Book of Revelation and the reputation of apocalyptic literature (and Christianity, while we’re at it).
 
So, what is the Book of Revelation really about, then? This is the intriguing part! It’s the story,
written in the apocalyptic style, of John receiving a revelation from the risen Christ that reminds him
of what the present world is like (difficult circumstances, to say the least), and assures him that, that
which is not of God and Love (referred to as Babylon) does not win in the end! God wins in the end!
It’s in that moment of the narrative that we hear the words you read at the beginning: “Fallen, fallen
is Babylon the great!”
 
Now, this might be the most simplistic one-paragraph description of the Book of Revelation (it really
deserves it’s own sermon series…hmmm). But, why do I like the book so much? It’s because the
pages are alive with proclamations of resurrection, new possibilities, new life, restoration, and
goodness! It’s a reminder to me that, no matter what we face in this world (and we certainly face
some challenging things), God has already overcome it! No matter what “Babylons” we face in life –
that which is not of God and Love – whether we face them personally or communally, God has and
will again, cause Babylon to fall!
 
There are times when the world around us feels like it’s crumbling. It’s in those moments that the
King of all kings, the Lord of all lords, and the Prince of Peace invites us to hear the thud of that
which is evil, hate, violence, hurt, division, and strife. 
 
Say it with me: “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon!”
 
And so, we give thanks!
Pastor Brian
 
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October 2023 Connection

“Pull Up A Chair”

Then Levi threw a great banquet for Jesus in his home. A large number of tax collectors and others sat down to eat with them. The Pharisees and their legal experts grumbled against his disciples. They said, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to change their hearts and lives.” Luke 5:29-32 (CEB)
 
The other day, I was watching a reality TV show (insert eye roll). You know, the kind of show that adds zero value to your life, but you can’t help but watch? Anyway, during this particular episode, the show’s participants were asked what time they’d like to have their lunch. Their response? 3 o’clock in the afternoon! When asked when they’d like to sit down for dinner (not yet eat, but just sit down, mind you), they replied, 10:30pm! Now, I’m all for enjoying your vacation and living life outside of the box, but lunch is at noon and dinner is between 5 and 6pm,right?!
Maybe you’re with me, or maybe you’re not.
 
And that’s kind of the point. I wonder what Levi’s banquet was like. Do you think it was catered? Buffet style? Family style? Maybe plated? What was the vegetarian option? How much wine was there? Was there enough for everyone? Oh, and how do you suppose the guests were invited? Maybe it was an invitation to the whole community! Or maybe it was just for certain hand-picked guests. Jesus seemed to have been the guest of honor, so do you think he got to weigh in on who came? Do you think they ate dinner on time, or was it more like 10:30pm?
 
We don’t know the details, but the religious leaders certainly had some criticism for the party…for Jesus…maybe even for Levi – but most certainly for the party guests. “Why [does Jesus] eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Now, to be fair, the Pharisees were not the only ones asking this question; I guarantee it! You see, how should I put this gently?
 
NO PERSON OF ANY RELIGIOUS AND SPIRITUAL INTEGRITY SPENT TIME WITH PEOPLE WHO WERE KNOWN TO BE SINNERS OR TAX COLLECTORS UNLESS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY!
 
Jesus was doing that which no self-respecting rabbi would do…and I think he knew it. I suspect Jesus did it for two reasons. The first was simply because Jesus was showing absolute love for each person, all of whom he saw as a child of God. Why? Because no one is left out of the banquet – here or heavenly. The second reason I suspect Jesus did it was because he wanted to prove a point to everyone who questioned it. Just because what I’m doing has not been done before…just because it’s unfamiliar…just because its new…doesn’t make it wrong. It’s as if Jesus’ response is simple, “Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s not loving.”
 
In other words, just because I prefer my dinner at 6pm, doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with eating dinner at 10:30pm, especially if that’s where the people who are hungry for love are. And so, if that means that we need to pull our chairs up to that late night table – no matter how different or out-of-our-comfort-zone it may be, our resounding response should simply be, “Let’s Eat!” 
 
There’s another seat next to mine. You want it?
                               
Pastor Brian
 
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September 2023 Connection

“Pull Up A Chair”

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you…If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”
~Matthew 5:43-44, 46-48 (CEB)
 
“But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” ~  Romans 8:37-39 (CEB)
 
When my grandmother, Jane West, passed away in December 2006 at the age of 90, she left us with two requests for her funeral. The first was that we’d sing the hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” The second was a bit unorthodox, and that was that she demanded that we not serve Green Bean casserole at her funeral luncheon. Needless to say, it wasn’t her favorite! The problem was, for everyone else in the family, Green Bean Casserole was (and still is) a favorite. We wanted to bring to the table a dish that we loved, but simply wasn’t allowed. We honored that wish of hers…for the most part.
 
In the last year or so, I’ve been sharing a vision with this congregation that I pray we can live into what it means to be what I call a “Big Table Church.” Having shared this before, bear with me as I share it again with a bit more nuance. By a “Big Table Church,” what I am referring to is the idea that we gather at the figurative (and sometimes literal) table of the God, feasting on the goodness of God’s great love, and
experiencing what it means to be Christians and a people called the church. Jesus invites us to recognize that this table is not only BIG, but that it is also Growing. At this table where we gather as a church, we have to begin to recognize that what allows me to come to the table is God’s all-sufficient grace, which is also the very thing that brings you to the table.
 
You see, God’s table – the fellowship of believers – is not yours or mine. It is wholly God’s! And when it’s God’s table, and it is God’s grace that invites you and me to it, there can be no argument that it is not available for each and every one of God’s children! No exceptions, no small print, no asterisks. If there is space for me, then there is space for you. And if there is space for us, then there is absolutely space for
all! God’s grace and love knows no limit (Romans 8:37-39)!
 
But, we can’t stop here, because this begins to sound like a table full of chaos! God’s kingdom is one of love, grace, hope, peace, joy, and inclusion, and so it would be reasonable to expect that the table would be, too. For this purpose, I like to say that the table is big and open to everyone, but the menu is God’s, too, and we don’t get to bring our own food. And that’s where the Green Bean Casserole comes in. 
 
When we’re at God’s table, the meal that is served is love and love, alone! Another way to look at is to remember that the meal that is served at the big table is the gospel – a gospel of immense and unfailing love; a gospel of diminishing margins and the inclusion of, and love for those who have spent too long on those margins; a gospel that announces forgiveness and grace; a gospel that sets free and tears down barriers, not builds them; a gospel that commands our love to be more reflective of God’s love (Matthew 5:48).
 
For us to be a “Big Table Church” means that we’re going to work hard – and at times struggle – to
pull up chairs to the table to make sure that everyone has access to a seat. We’re not going to leave anyone out, determine litmus tests for who belongs, or leave anyone on the outside looking in. We’re not going to own the table, but instead recognize that it is, has always been, and will forever be GOD’S TABLE! For us to be a “Big Table Church,” it means that we’re going to feast on the incredible love of God and demand of ourselves and hold one another accountable to leave behind us all that is not of love.
 
There is no question that this is going to be incredibly hard for all of us at various times! At moments
we’re going to forget whose table it is and we’re going fall short by thinking that we somehow deserve a seat at the table while others are still on the outside looking in. There are going to be days where we demand our Pyrex dish of Green Bean Casserole be allowed at the table, even though it just doesn’t belong. And while we will succeed again and again at being a “Big Table Church” that reflects God’s love, we must admit that this will likely be the most difficult thing we’ll ever do in our lives! But I promise you this: there is nothing in this world more worth this effort than the Kingdom of God!
 
The truth is, we live in a world that is looking for a church that can be trusted. People of all ages are
looking for a church that not only talks about love, but actually loves; not only talks about grace, but also
extends it; not only exists for itself, but exists to that the world might come to know the goodness of God. In this season of Christianity, the world aches for an authentic expression of God’s very real love. We can be that! But it’s going to take each and every one of us.
Pull up a chair!
 
Pastor Brian
 
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August 2023 Connection

Scooter-O’s

“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ “Then the king will reply to
them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’  -Matthew 25:37-40 (CEB)
 
I’d never heard of Scooter-O’s before, but there they were in the “Community Closet,” a small cupboard in the basement kitchenette below my Intro to New Testament and Homiletics classrooms in DeWire Hall at Methodist Theological School in Ohio. The “Community Closet” wasn’t a very large cupboard, with its
doors a bit sticky from years of build-up and not much attention. The food items inside were a bit questionable in terms of their expiration date, but there they were; food items available for anyone in need to take. It was the seminary’s version of a food bank. And sitting between a couple of cans of
green beans and some form of bean with the label half torn off was a giant bag of off-brand Cheerios with about a month to spare on the expiration label. Looking around on a Saturday morning, I took them, went to my apartment, and had what I convinced myself was a fairly decent breakfast.
 
The background to the story is a lot longer than this article calls for, but the long and the short of it is that my pride kept me from reaching out for help. I wanted to believe I could do it alone. Were there those who would have helped me if I’d asked? Sure! But pride is a lonely thing.
 
I think about those Scooter-O’s often, and I’m immensely grateful for whoever it was that put them there in that sticky “Community Closet” cupboard. I think about that bag of cereal every time I have the chance to hand out a blessing bag from the church, or when I can help someone a bit out of the church’s
discretionary fund. For me, I do my best to help others who are in need, in part, because someone decided to put cereal in a cupboard in anticipation of a day when I’d be hungry and afraid to ask for help.
 
In Matthew’s Gospel, we find Jesus’ reminder to his disciples that each time they are helping others, they are helping the divine. Each time they are serving the hungry, the hurting, the naked, and the marginalized, they are – in a very real way – serving Christ.
 
When our neighbors ask for help, may we recognize the courage that may take. When we’re face to face with panhandling, may we recognize the pride that has been abandoned. When our neighbors ask for help, may we see in their faces the image of Christ. And when our neighbors are in need, may we
seek to remember moments in our lives when we were in need and found aid in the One we call Love and LORD.
 
Pastor Brian
 
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