Why This Site —

I read Scripture – and particularly the lectionary texts – to discover how God is calling me to be faithful. What I record on this website are my discoveries on this journey and I share with whomever wishes to read them. I offer them as my faithful witness to the grace of God revealed to me in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

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The Revised Common Lectionary

This site is based on the following version of the Revised Common Lectionary

Step Forth . . . In Your Spiritual Gifts

Preached By: Pastor Rick Pearson
Scripture Text: Romans 12:1-8
Preached at College UMC and North Oxnard UMC
September 3, 2017

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.”

There can be little doubt about the power of twentieth century advertising. In the 1960s, this image, all by itself, on an envelope [Screen shows Playboy Bunny logo] was sufficient to get a letter delivered to the headquarters of Playboy Magazine in Chicago.

And this “swoosh” [Screen shows Nike “swoosh] is sufficient to make most 21st century Americans – and maybe those in every other country as well – think of Nike brand athletic wear.

This symbol is so ubiquitous, I am not even sure why Nike thought they needed to add a tag line but they did. So now you see their familiar “swoosh” with the words, “Just Do It.” [Screen shows Nike swoosh with tag line “Just Do It”]

I have to admit that I am not sure what the “it” is that I am supposed to do, but when I see this logo and tag line on an ad, it is usually accompanied by images of people – usually young, fit and attractive – pushing themselves to great feats of physical endurance by running fast or jumping high usually accompanied by a great deal of perspiration.

So I assume that I am supposed to buy Nike products and go out and exercise so I will be as fit and beautiful as the people in the ads.

Now I know that exercise is a good thing and sometimes I can even get myself to do it, but usually I have to trick myself into it by calling it something else. Like riding my bike and telling myself I am saving the planet.

But I am old enough to remember a time when there was a similar phrase that was not intended to sell shoes and T-shirts. Back in my youth there was a phrase that was sure to cause arguments between young people and their parents. You are probably old enough to remember it too, regardless of whether in those days you were the young people or the parents.

“If it feels good, do it!”

To the young people it was a breath of fresh air casting off all the repressive morals of their parents. And to the parents it was a casting off of all the moral truth that they held dear.

That phrase brought to the fore the Christian attitudes about the human body that had held sway for a long time. That the pleasures and desires of the human body were dangerous at best and evil at worst and they must be carefully controlled and regulated.

And in those tumultuous times I heard a number of sermons based on the Scripture we read this morning telling me, in effect, to bridle my body and nourish my Spirit. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

“Your body is a temple – don’t pollute it with sex and drugs. Tamp down those carnal desires and focus on your spiritual side. Sacrifice and pray and go to Church instead.”

Now my purpose here this morning is not to argue whether those sermons were good advice or not. My purpose this morning is to say that that was not what Paul was trying to say to the Romans.

Paul was not telling what we should NOT do with our bodies. He is telling what we SHOULD do with our bodies – and with our lives.

Paul was certainly aware that what we do with our bodies is what we do in our lives. Our bodies are simply part of who we are and – for better or worse – they are our only vehicles to live in the world.

Paul does not take this opportunity to list all the evil things we can possibly do with our bodies.

No, he tells us that we need to figure out is what is call calling us to do – what is, as he says, the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. And then – as Nike also reminds us – “Just Do It.”

It is not that the body is inherently evil. It is not that the Spirit is inherently good. The question is what is God’s will and am I doing it?

At the Bible Study at Bethel AME on Wednesday, Dr. Oden said something that, on its surface, is surprising coming from the mount of a Christian pastor. He said, “The four most useless words are, ‘I’m praying for you.’”

Now Dr. Oden did not mean that prayer is useless. He was certainly not suggesting that we not pray for each other and those in need. But he is saying that “I’m praying for you” is useless and meaningless if that is all we do.

In the Letter of James we read these words, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

It is like the cartoon that I kept on my desk for a number of years at Project Understanding. It shows a preacher in a pulpit in prayer saying, “O Lord we remember the poor and the hungry in our midst and trust that, by remembering them in prayer, we have somehow fulfilled our obligation to them.”

In what I am going t say next, let me say that I do not know Joel Osteen. I have never heard Joel Osteen preach – even on television. I have never attended worship at the Lakewood Church where Joel Osteen is pastor. But Pastor Osteen and his Church were in the news this week.

This is Joel Osteen’s home in Houston, Texas. This is Joel Osteen’s Church in Houston Texas. It’s a big place. During the flooding in Houston last week, the Church was asked why it hadn’t made its buildings and grounds available as an evacuation site and shelter. The response was that the flooding made the campus inaccessible so it could not be used.

So someone went to the Church and made a video of the locked church and showed all the dry streets surrounding the campus. They posted the video on Facebook and it went viral. The Church was shamed into opening their doors. In an interview later, Joel Osteen said that they had not previously opened their doors because the City had not asked them to.

I am not trying to condemn Joel Osteen or the people of Lakewood Church. I just don’t want to make the same mistake. I do not want to have someone ask me, what are you and your people doing for the victims in Houston and the rest of Texas and Louisiana.

I do not want to have to say we simply did our spiritual duty – we prayed for them. I have prayed for them. I have prayed for them daily for the past week. I will continue to pray for them and I hope that you will do the same.

But we must also determine what the will of God is in this situation and then, “Just do it.”

I don’t want to just say to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill.”  In the bulletin this morning is the flyer from UMCOR about how to respond.

We will certainly do number one – continue to pray for those whose lives have been impacted by Harvey.

I am certainly open to seeing how we can respond to number two – making relief kits.

We will do number three this morning. During our receiving of Communion this morning, you are invited to make a special separate offering. Simply bring your gift with you when you come forward to receive and place it in the plate.

Numbers four and five are vital. In our desire to do something, we sometimes do a thing that is not helpful or even harmful. We will not be filling a rental truck with clothing and driving it down to Texas. The roads are clogged and there is not yet a process in place for distributing the items we might bring.

And we will not rush down to volunteer. If we go there now, we will simply add to the number of people who must be housed and fed when housing and food are in short supply.

But in the months ahead the interest of the media and the public will wane. Other news and other disasters will take their place. As the public interest wanes we will have the opportunity for our interest to increase. I am sure that our Conference and our District will be organizing relief and rebuilding efforts that will work long after the television cameras are turned off or turned in other directions. I hope that we will support these efforts with our gifts and where possible, our lives. We can pay forward something of the efforts of the Arizona work team that gave so generously to us a couple of months ago.

And as we do, I hope that we will keep in mind those who will suffer most in the long term (because they always suffer most in the long term.) The bulk of the recovery efforts of the government will be – as they usually are – aimed at restoring property. Aid will be given to the owners of homes to rebuild and repair damaged and destroyed houses. We need to be sure that those who rented and also lost everything, continue to have housing they can afford. We need to insure that, as businesses and industries are rebuilt to aid the economy, the workers who have lost their jobs and livelihoods, are also cared for and made whole.

It is often said in an economic recovery that, “A raising tide raises all boats.” We must also remember those whose boats were destroyed by that rising tide.

But lastly and perhaps most importantly, I want to be sure that we learn from the response of the Lakewood Church. We are not subject to hurricanes here in Ventura County. We are not subject to tornadoes. But we are subject to wild fires. And we are subject to earthquakes. I pledge to work with our trustees and Church Council to make our facility available to the County Disaster Relief Committee so that, in the event of a local emergency, we will not be found waiting for them to contact us. We will have already made the commitment to be available to share our space with those in need of comfort and shelter.

At the end of the reading this morning, Paul encourages those with special spiritual gifts to use those gifts – in prophesy and teaching and love and support.

We sometimes listen to that list and say, “Gee, I wish I had one of those gifts.” We need to remember that Paul is not singling out those gifts as being the best and saying we should strive for those gifts. He is reminding us that we need to identify those gifts that God has given us and then use them. We are all gifted by God with gifts and graces. Paul assumes that we each have gifts. That is not his point. His point is that if we have those gifts, God expects us to use them. To just do it.

We are about to gather around God’s table. We will commune with God and with each other. It is our spiritual worship. But Paul reminds us that our spiritual worship includes sacrifice. Our communion here today is God’s gift to us here and now to empower us to go forth into the world – with all its hurt and with all its needs – to go forth into the world as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

In the words of the Gospel according to Nike, “Just Do It.”

Amen.

Step Toward . . . Your Siblings in Abraham

Preached By: Pastor Rick Pearson
Texts: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Preached at College UMC and North Oxnard UMC
August 27, 2017

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.”

If it hadn’t been for Simon Peter, there is a good chance that we could have all slept in this morning because there would have been no Church. Simon – and his brother Andrew – were among the first who responded to Jesus’ call to “Follow me.” Jesus recognized such strength in Simon that he nicknamed him Rocky – from the Greek word for Rock – Petros.

According to the Gospels, Simon Peter was the first to recognize Jesus as the Christ. He stoutly promised Jesus that he would never leave him but on the night that Jesus was arrested, this Rock denied that he even knew Jesus.

But somewhere between that act of denial on Thursday night – and the awful events of Friday – and the events of Sunday when Simon experienced the Resurrection, he found that strength that Jesus had seen in him and became the great leader of the early Church in Jerusalem, throughout Galilee and up to Antioch in that whole eastern portion of the Roman Empire at the end of the Mediterranean Sea.

Now Peter was a Jew – a faithful Jew – who saw in Jesus the culmination of centuries of the faithful covenant between God and God’s chosen people – the people of Israel.  He understood Jesus to be the one who completed and the fulfilled of all God’s promises. For Peter, Jesus didn’t end Jewish life – he brought it to completion. He was both a follower of Jesus and a faithful Jew. He saw no way to separate the two.

And while Peter was traveling around trying to encourage other Jews to become followers of Jesus, there was another young Jew named Saul. Saul saw Jesus, not as a completer of the Jewish way but as a corruptor.  For the good of Judaism, Saul endeavored to stamp out this new sect.

But then he too experienced the Risen Jesus and everything changed for him, too, just as it had for Peter. And Saul became Paul.

Paul sincerely believed his own experience of the Risen Jesus – although several years later – was every bit as real and as valid as the experience of the original Apostles on that first Easter morning. And he too felt strongly called to share the Good News of the love of God that had been revealed in Jesus to those who needed to experience it for themselves.

But Paul, though a Jew, knew in his heart that the Gentiles – the non-Jews – needed this experience every bit as much as the Jews.

Both these men played a vital role in the Christian faith begin passed down through the centuries and spreading throughout the world.   They are indeed the two pillars who supported the spreading of the Good News throughout the Roman world to Jew and Gentile alike.

But as committed as they both were to sharing the Gospel, there was a constant source of real tension between. Peter strongly believed that Jesus stood squarely in the Jewish tradition and that any new follower of Jesus must also become a Jew. Paul placed no such restriction on those who wished to follow Jesus.

This disagreement came to a head several times that we know about – once in Antioch when Peter pulled back from eating publically with Gentiles because some Jewish Christians came from his home Church in Jerusalem and then famously at a conference in Jerusalem  where Peter and Paul basically agreed to disagree.

We know whose side won this debate. As great as Peter was and as much as the Church owed him for its very existence, his view lost out. None of us was required to become a Jew and follow Jewish customs when we became Christians. The very idea seems ludicrous to us. The debate between these two pillars of the early Church is just a long-ago decided little spat that is meaningless to us.

But the passage we heard this morning suggests that the winners in this spat were not so gracious to the losers. When Paul writes to the Church at Rome – the center of the Empire and a congregation, no doubt, made up largely of Gentile Christians – Paul had to deal with the gloating of the winners.

These Gentile Christians had come to believe that the Jewish religion – despite the fact that it had given the world Jesus – could now be cast aside as having done its job. Yes Judaism had given the world Jesus but now God had rejected his former people and made these Gentile Christians his new people.

Paul says that nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, God loves the Gentile Christians but God has not stopped loving the Jews as well. Because all of us – Jew and Gentile alike – are still loved and accepted by God even though we have all fallen short of loving God and our neighbors as Jesus called us to do.

God did not reject the Jews then and God does not reject the Jews today, even though this supposed rejection has led to bigotry and violence against Jews for centuries and has reared its head again as recently as two weeks ago in Charlottesville, Virginia where white – supposedly Christians – people could walk through the streets chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”

And Paul’s arguments about Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians are not just pertinent to a first century dispute in the early Church. Paul is making the much larger point that none of us – none of us – have done anything to deserve God’s love and yet God loves us just the same.

God does not love me more because I am white – or Christian – or American – or male. There is nothing about me personally that makes God love me more than God loves anyone else.

When God chose me it does not follow that God rejected someone else. God has not chosen Americans and rejected people from Africa or Latin America or Asia. God has not chosen people whose skin is light and rejected those whose skin has a darker tone. God has not chosen males and rejected females.

You may think that I am stating the obvious and that no one would say otherwise, but you do not have to travel across the country the Charlottesville to see that this is not true.

As many of you know, our son, Jonathan, and daughter-in-law, Karen, are in the process of adopting three little brothers.   These little boys are of Vietnamese heritage – but they are Vietnamese the way I am Swedish. They were born in this country and their parents were born in this country. Their family has been in this country at least as many generations as mine.

Our oldest grandson began Kindergarten this week.

The Orange County Register chose his school to do the usual “first day of school” article.   Karen posted a link to the article on Facebook and wrote this comment:

This is J’s school, his teacher, his classmates. His picture is not in there, but there is one of his brand new backpack. I was feeling happy looking through all the smiling faces, feeling proud that they represented the whole district today. And then I saw the only comment [posted at the end of the article on-line]: “Your dollars at work, ladies and gentleman. You taxpayers pay for the education of illegals.”

Karen goes on: Wow. What could go so wrong in your life that you would see all of these beautiful children, their loving parents, and their dedicated teacher and have that be what comes to your mind. Racism is alive and well in Orange County.

I am so glad J is attending a school with a diverse student body and teaching staff. It’s the best possible learning situation for him as a child of color and something we should aspire to for all schools.

Several of her friends commented on her post – including a couple who said, “Just ignore the crack-pot comments of internet trolls.” And Karen responded: I appreciate all of the supportive comments, and I genuinely respect all of you that have commented here and know that you are coming from a place of love and support for my family. That being said, as white people I think we seriously need to reconsider this impulse that we should “just ignore” racism, at any level (including coming from trolls, etc.). I get it; I really do. And I have subscribed to that school of thought in the past. But the truth is that people of color can never just ignore racism of any stripe. That is a privilege reserved solely for us as white people. Another truth is that ignoring racism will never make it go away. I think we all know our society has tried that many times resulting in only making things worse. There is something I read many years ago that had a profound impact on my thinking around this issue, so I will leave it here for all of us:

Karen concludes quoting Mary Quinn

“There are times when you must speak, not because you are going to change the other person, but because if you don’t speak, they have changed you.”

I do not know who Mary Quinn is, but I have to agree with her that remaining silent in the face of hatred, violence and oppression is not an option.

Her words are reminiscent of the words of Martin Niemöller.   Niemöller was a leading Lutheran pastor in the 1930s during the rise of Hitler to power. In the early years he supported the Nazis but by the mid 1930s he had become a part of the Confessing Church movement and was imprisoned from 1937 until the end of the war.

After the war he spoke publically and widely about his silence in the early days. His words have been recorded in a number of ways – the names of the groups and the order in which they are listed varied but the last line was always the same.

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The question of whether you have to become a Jew in order to be a Christian was decided nearly two millennia ago. But the question of whether God loves some people or groups and has rejected others continues to come up generation after generation. The answer is always the same as Paul’s – God’s love and forgiveness extends to us all regardless of who we are.

For Paul it was Jew or Gentile. For us it may be Christian or Jew or Muslim. It may be citizen or undocumented immigrant. It may be white or black or some color in between.

The answer is always the same. We can never be silent when any of those whom God loves is abused or rejected or oppressed. We can never be silent.

Amen.

Trust

Preached By: Pastor Rick Pearson
Scripture Text: Romans 10: 5-15
Preached at College UMC and North Oxnard UMC
August 20, 2017

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.”

This is a cleaver. [Image of Eldridge Cleaver on screen] Eldridge Cleaver. Author of Soul on Ice. A leader of the Black Panthers. Proponent of Black Power. A man who struck terror in the hearts of middle-aged, middle class adults in the 1960s.

This is a cleaver. [Image of June Cleaver on screen] June Cleaver. Mother of Beaver Cleaver. A middle-aged, middle class woman who struck terror in the hearts of no one in the 1960s.

And this is a cleaver. [Image of a meat cleaver on screen] An implement used in the meat-packing industry to separate joints. An implement that strikes terror only when wielded by homicidal maniacs in horror movies.

Three cleavers, but if you are trying to translate a story from English into another language, you had better know which cleaver the original author had in mind.

Nor does it get any better when we move to the verb form of the word.

If you open any dictionary to the word “Cleave” you will find these two definitions: First, Cleave: to adhere closely; stick; cling.

And then, right below it is Cleave – same spelling, same pronunciation – Cleave: to split or divide by or as if by a cutting blow.

So, which is it? To stick or to split? To adhere or to divide?

If you are trying to translate cleave into another language you had better be very sure what the author meant.

Of course, this problem is not unique to English. Every language has words that could be correctly translated into a number of words in a second language depending on context and situation.

So it is not too surprising that this can be a huge problem when attempting to translate the Greek in which the New Testament is written into English. It is estimated that there have been 400 different translations of the Bible into English in the last 400 years. If translation was an easy process, so many translations would not be necessary.

For those of us who speak only one language, it is easy to believe that translation is merely a process of taking a word in one language and substituting the corresponding word in the new language.

Just as a translator might have difficulty translating “cleave” into another language, we have trouble translating our old friend, the Greek word, pistis into English.

Now this is where I put a Greek word on the screen and your eyes glaze over and you start gazing out the window at the garden and wondering where you want to go for lunch, but bear with me.

Pistis is a word that the Apostle Paul used a lot. It is usually translated as faith, but it is also translated as belief, and faithfulness and trust.

So, in the midst of Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome, Paul makes this statement that we heard this morning this way, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

I was taught that what happened to Jesus at the Resurrection was a miracle – a once in all time miracle – that proved that Jesus was the Son of God and that I had to believe in that miracle. God did this miracle as a test to see if I would believe.

Believe it – go to heaven. Don’t believe it – go to hell. When I read the words of Paul that way it seems pretty clear.

But you know what? Paul did not think that what happened to Jesus was some one-time miracle that happened only to Jesus which we either believe or don’t believe.

No, what happened to Jesus was what Paul expected to happen to him and to everyone else.

Paul said, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”

For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus was not meant to be a proof of Jesus’ divinity. The resurrection of Jesus was a sign of how much God loves us all and that even death cannot separate us from God’s love. Resurrection is what will happen to all of us. It just happened to Jesus first.

Look again at those words on the screen. “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Now suppose we say that instead of believe we translate pistis as trust.

“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and trust in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

For Paul, it is not about a test of believing something that seems unbelievable. It is about trusting the love of God to carry on well beyond our lifetime.

Let me give you an example that makes sense to me. What makes my 45-year relationship with Ellen special are not the things that I believe about her. I believe her to be a good person. I believe her to be extremely gifted and multi-talented. I believe her to be beautiful in every meaning of that word. I believe many things about her.

But when I pledged her my faith – when I made a vow to be faithful – I was not promising to believe those things about her. I was promising to place my trust – in her faithfulness as she promised to place her trust in my faithfulness.

When Paul tells us to have pistis in the resurrection of Jesus, he is not saying to believe that the resurrection happened in a certain way.

No, he is saying that we can trust that God’s faithfulness – God’s pistis – and God’s love of Jesus extends beyond Jesus lifetime and, in fact, into eternity. And he is saying that, the Resurrection is not a onetime event that happened only to Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus means that we can trust that God is faithful to us as well and loves each and every one of us just the same way.

Far from being a one-time event for Jesus, it is for all of us – we will all be changed. What will it look like? What will it feel like? I have no idea. Paul calls it a mystery.

But what Paul knows for certain – what he said just a few paragraphs before the words we have before us today – is that “nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And if I trust God with my own life, I must trust God with your life too. And not just your life, but the lives of all the other people I meet. And not just the people I meet but all the people I will never meet.

I trust that God’s love for me knows no bounds. That is a comforting thought.

I want to trust that God’s love for everyone else – and everyone means everyone – I want to trust that God’s love for everyone else also knows no bounds. That is a humbling and sobering thought.

I will admit that I have no trouble trusting that God loves each and everyone of you. I think you are all very lovable people.

But I will also admit that there are people in this world – some whom I have met and some that I have only heard about in the news – some people in this world I have great difficulty thinking of as lovable people.

As you know, I team-teach a Bible study on Wednesday evening with Pastor Clyde Oden of Bethel AME Church in Oxnard. The class is made up of about a dozen people from both Bethel AME and North Oxnard UMC and it meets at Bethel.

Many weeks, as we gather for dinner and fellowship – prayer and study – I am reminded of another Wednesday evening Bible study at another AME church on the other side of the country. I am reminded that, at a Bible study at Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina – a Bible study much like ours – Dylann Roof was welcomed. He prayed with the people. Studied with the people and after an hour together, pulled out a gun and shot nine of them dead.

Dylann Roof was trying to start a race war – that was his stated purpose. As a Christian – as a follower of Jesus Christ – I do not have to tolerate Dylann Roof’s beliefs. I must speak out in opposition to his beliefs and to the beliefs of the Neo-Nazis and white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville and in Boston in recent days. I cannot remain silent.

And in speaking out I must also remember that – as hateful as those racist and bigoted ideas are, I have benefited from them and still benefit from them.

White privilege is a reality and I am an unwitting beneficiary of it. I can drive down the street without fear of being stopped for little or no reason. I can know that, if I have an encounter with an authority, I will most likely be treated with dignity and respect and that I will not be in personal physical danger.

And not only have I benefited from them, I have all too often incorporated these ideas into my own psyche. I must admit that I am not immune to feelings of discomfort – or even fear – when a large black man enters the room – and this despite the fact that my best friend is a large black male.

But, as repugnant as I find these feelings and ideas in myself and in others, I have to recognize that God loves Dylann Roof. Loves him in the present tense. Just as God loves the man who drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville a week ago. Just as God loves the people who drove a van into a crowd in Barcelona a few days ago.

Jesus meant it when he said, “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew something about being hated. He knew something about being the object of violence. But in 1963 he wrote, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence . . . in a descending spiral of destruction.”

Dr. King died a violent death at the hands of one who hated him but he never stopped preaching love. Jesus died a violent death at the hands of those who hated him but never stopped preaching love.

Neither learned to hate but neither learned to tolerate hatred.

We live in a time when hatred is, all too often, being tolerated. We must not tolerate hate, but the only way to show our intolerance is to love.

Earlier I said that the Resurrection of Jesus is not a miracle to be believed but a reality to be trusted. And not just trusted but lived every day. And our entry to this reality is our baptism.

Paul told the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

I invite you – I challenge you – to walk in that newness of life. Let us be united to Jesus in a Resurrection like his. Let us relegate hatred to our former life and let us make love the source of power in our new life.

Let us “confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and trust – trust – in our hearts that God raised him from the dead.”

You don’t have to believe it. But you can definitely trust it.

Amen.

Now Is the Time! The Kingdom Is Here!

Preached By: Pastor Rick Pearson
Scripture Text: Mark 1:9-11, 14-15
at College UMC and North Oxnard UMC
August 13, 2017

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.”

Someone once said – and that someone might have been Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw or some even say, Winston Churchill – but someone once said that “Great Britain and the United States are two countries divided by a common language.”

Well, I think you could also say that Christianity is a collection of religions divided by a common Lord.

Let me tell you about this conversation I had years ago that may illustrate my point. A man walked up to me (I suppose I was in my twenties at the time) and asked me if I was a Christian. I said, “Yes, I am a Methodist.”

He said he didn’t care if I belonged to a Church or not, but was I a Christian.

I asked him how he defined “Christian”. He said, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” I said, “Yes” and that seemed to satisfy him.

I was greatly relieved because if he had pushed the issue much harder we probably would have found significant areas of disagreement about what we each meant by those words. But at least I was being honest in my response.

When I was confirmed – probably in about 1963 or 1964 – I am sure that I responded to the membership vows that were in the then-current Methodist hymnal. I looked back in my old hymnals to confirm the wording and it is this: “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and pledge your allegiance to his kingdom?” and the answer is, “I do.”

Now I am aware that that vow lacks the word “personal” – my personal Lord and Savior – but otherwise all the words seem to be there.

But for some Christians, those words – in that order – are vital to being a Christian. If you have said them, you are a Christian – if you haven’t said them, you are not.

Those words are so vital to some that I once had a member of a congregation I served who requested that all people who joined the Church face the congregation and recite those words – “I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.”

When I said that people did affirm those words when they said “I do” to the sentence I read earlier – “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and pledge your allegiance to his kingdom?” – he said, “No, they can’t just affirm them, they have to say them.”

As you may know by now, my mother was a Jehovah’s Witness. She was tireless in her efforts to bring others into the Witness fellowship. One woman in particular, my mother met with just about every week to study and share the Witness message. It was my mother’s fondest wish that this woman would eventually choose to be baptized as a Witness.

I think that this woman, who was in her seventies when my mother began to meet with her, was just lonely and enjoyed my mother’s company. But after about twenty years, when both the woman and my mother were in their early 90s, the woman finally said she was ready to take the plunge, so to speak, and be baptized.

My mother was ecstatic and immediately called an elder from the congregation to go over and get it arranged. My mother’s joy was short-lived, however. After the elder visited the woman he announced that she could not be baptized. It seems that she had started to lose some of her mental acuity and she could not adequately recite back the Witness doctrine to the elder. She could not pass his test so she could not be baptized.

When I was in seminary, there was a recurring joke that would come up every time one of us was struggling to understand what some theologian we were reading was trying to say. The joke went like this:

And Jesus said unto the theologians: “Who do you say that I am?”

They replied: “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the ontological foundation of the context of our very selfhood revealed.”

And Jesus answered them, saying: “Huh?”

It seems that when you mention a Church today – any Church – the first question someone asks is, “What does that Church believe – what are its doctrines?” We have come to believe that doctrines make the Church – if you don’t have a creed, you don’t have a Church.

But it is helpful to remember that followers of Jesus got along for more than 300 years without a creed – without a formal doctrine.

For 300 years a three-word statement sufficed to identify a Christian – a follower of Jesus. That statement is “Jesus is Lord.”

But that statement was not a theological statement, per se. Those early Christians did not sit around and discuss what are the theological implications of the statement, “Jesus is Lord.”

That is because being a follower of Jesus was not so much about belief as it was about action. It was not about a statement of faith but a faithful life. It was not about what you said. It was about what you did.

We think that the Churches we see today – in all their many forms and architectures – are what the Church was in those first three centuries. We believe that those early followers set up a structure – including a real structure, a building. That they gathered in that building and they invited others to come to that building and join them and as the Church grew the buildings became larger to accommodate all the people who were joining the Church.

And we think that what attracted the people to these structures was the compelling message that they preached – the doctrines that they proclaimed.

But what attracted people was not the structure and doctrines of the Church. There was no structure – if by structure you mean a building. And there was no structure if by structure you mean an organization.

There was no building. There was no clergy. There was no creed or statement of belief.

There was just that statement “Jesus is Lord.” And that statement was not a belief about Jesus, it was an organizing principle about living one’s life.

Making Christianity about belief – about creeds and statements of faith – was the price that Christians paid to have the government stop killing them. When Constantine recognized the Church, the first thing he made Christians do was formalize their beliefs.

He called together whoever he could identify as a leader in the church and he brought them, at his expense, to a lavish resort in the town of Nicaea on a lake near the Black Sea. He wined them and dined them extravagantly.

But he told them they could not leave until they agreed on a concise statement of faith that would be binding on all Christians. They debated and argued and hammered out a statement that today we call the Nicene Creed.

And the first thing they did was to begin killing those who did not agree with it. Within the blink of an eye, Christians went from being killed by the government to being killed by each other.

The Church suddenly became a structure – with buildings – great buildings – and with an organization structure of clergy and hierarchy.

Titles like bishop and elder and deacon, which had formerly been offices which described action in the lives of Christian communities, became positions of power and authority.

I am not suggesting that we can wipe away seventeen hundred years of the Church as we know it today. But I do want us to remember that what we call “the Church” would be completely unrecognizable to a follower of Jesus who lived in the first three hundred years following Jesus life.

Because – as I have been saying repeatedly for the last three weeks – for those Christians – for those followers of Jesus – the Church was the collection of individuals who were trying – day in and day out – to live in the kingdom of God and not in the Empire that ruled the land.

“Jesus is Lord” is not a statement of belief about the divinity of Jesus. It is a statement that I choose to follow Jesus and not Caesar. That Jesus claims my allegiance and not Caesar. It is a statement about how I act in the world and not a statement of theological belief.

We have been talking for the past month about what the Church – the people of God – would look like if we understood the Church to be the people of God in mission rather than a building or an institution.

We have said that if the Church were truly in mission, our focus would be external rather than internal. We have said that if the Church were truly in mission our focus would be on the development of people rather than on the development of programs.

And today we say that if the Church were truly in mission, our focus would be on living in the Kingdom of God rather than living in the Empire of our age.

Yes, living in the Kingdom of God has grand goals and aims – that all are feed – that all have shelter – that all live in peace and security. And we need to continue to find ways to make this happen both locally and globally.

But living in the Kingdom of God also has simple aims. It means that in the minute to minute decisions that we make every day, we live out the twin commandments of Jesus to love God and love our neighbor.

Our focus is not to convince people of the rightness of our opinions so that they will join our Church structure. Our focus is not to convince people of the rightness of our beliefs so that they will believe as we do and that that convergence of beliefs will somehow make us both more pleasing to God.

Our focus should be on loving them as they are – where they are.  Our focus should be on living in such a way that they will experience the love of God – the acceptance of God – the grace of God – through us.

People do not experience the grace of God simply because we tell them that God loves them. People experience the grace of God because they see the grace of God in us.

But whatever we may think and do about prayer we can find ways to live in the Kingdom of God now. A couple of years, Anne Ward and Ginger Novstrup (two members over at North Oxnard) reminded me what it means to live in the Kingdom of God right now. They did it by sharing this Facebook post.

“When you find yourself to the position to help someone, be happy and feel blessed because GOD is answering that person’s prayer through you.

Remember: Our purpose on earth is not to get lost in the dark but to light to others, so that they may find [a] way through us…”

Being a blessing to others. Being the answer to another’s prayer. That is what it means to be the Church. To be the people of God.

This morning we heard some words read from the very first chapter of the very first Gospel ever written. Within the first couple of hundred words of that first Gospel, Mark summarizes all of Jesus message in just a couple of sentences. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The Kingdom of God. We hear those words and we immediately think, “If God has a Kingdom, then God must be a King.” So you might be surprised to hear that nowhere – in any of the four Gospels – is Jesus recorded to ever refer to God as King. Not once.

When I first heard that statement, I wouldn’t believe it. I mean, we speak of God as King all the time. Our opening hymn this morning was “Lead On, O King Eternal.” To prove the person wrong I got out my concordance – that reference book that tells you every instance of the use of a word in the Bible.

You know what? Jesus is never quoted in any of the Gospels as calling God “King.” Not once.

On the other hand, Jesus calls God “Father” about a hundred times – including, of course, when he taught us how to pray.

To be more precise, Jesus called God, “Abba” which is an Aramaic word for Father – but not exactly Father. Abba is a child’s word for God. So a much better translation would be that Jesus referred to God as “Poppa” or “Daddy.”

So, if Jesus often called God Poppa but never King, why would he speak of God’s Kingdom? Well, the word that is translated Kingdom can mean a wider range of ideas than just Kingdom. Basilea (the Greek word) can mean any of the many ways that people structure themselves – Kingdom, country, state, republic. If we translate it as Kingdom, we think of God as King. If we translate it as State of God, we think of God as Governor. If we translate it as Republic, perhaps we think of God as President.

But if we think of God as our loving Poppa – as Jesus clearly did – then God is the head of the family – the head of the household.

So, instead of announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God – where rules God as King – Jesus is inviting us to be a part of the household of God – where God cares for us as our loving Poppa.

In a Kingdom, we owe obedience and loyalty to the King. But in a household – in a family – we owe love to the Poppa and mutual respect and support to all the other members of the household.

Remember, “When you find yourself to the position to help someone, be happy and feel blessed because GOD is answering that person’s prayer through you.” That person whom you help is not your fellow citizen in the Kingdom of God. That person you help is your brother or sister in the family of God because you have the same Poppa.

That is the Good News that Jesus preached and taught – the Good News that Jesus called us to believe and to be faithful to. The Church is that visible family of God – all of those brothers and sisters of Jesus who have the same Poppa. Jesus wants us to be that family. Jesus wants us to be that Church.

I started this morning with the question that the man asked me, “Are you a Christian?”

Sometimes people ask it a different way. They ask, “Do you go to Church?” That is the wrong question. Don’t GO to Church.

Be the Church.

Amen.

Abundant Life

Preached by: Pastor Rick Pearson
Text: John 10:7-10
Preached at College UMC and North Oxnard UMC
August 6, 2017

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.”

“You can’t take it with you.” That’s what they say, “You can’t take it with you.” To which some reply, “If I can’t take it with me, I ain’t going.”

If, however, you were a Pharaoh in ancient Egypt, you didn’t believe that you can’t take it with you. Pharaohs like King Tut filled their burial chambers with incredible wealth so that they could enjoy comfort and ease in the next life.

It is like the story I head about a place where the custom was to sell all the possessions of a deceased person and fill the casket with cash. At the wake for a very wealthy man, the open casket was filled with a huge amount of cash. Just before the casket was to be closed, the man’s business partner went over and began taking the cash out.

The deceased man’s family was aghast and asked the man “What do you think you are doing?” The man replied, “It’s OK. I am going to write him a check.”

Well, the fact that we cannot take it with us, does not keep us from amassing it. You have probably seen the bumper sticker – usually on a huge pick-up truck or SUV – that says, “The one who dies with the most toys, wins.” It never says what the person wins.

I don’t think this kind of hunger after collecting and keeping wealth was what Jesus had in mind when he promised us abundant life. I mean that the stuff that I own – stuff that I think I have got to have just to survive – would have been unimaginable to even the wealthiest people alive at the time of Jesus.

Yet surely no one would suggest that most Americans have achieved the abundant life. I am sure you remember the poem “Richard Cory” written more than a century ago by Edwin Arlington Robinson. It goes like this:

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Yes, we have all heard enough sermons on this passage about the abundant life to know that it is not about wealth and possessions. And we know that it is not about health or long life.

In fact, we are very good at saying what the abundant life is NOT, but when it comes to saying what the abundant life is, we are a little like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. When faced with the question of whether a particular movie was pornographic in 1964 he famously wrote, “[Pornography] is hard to define, but I know it when I see it.”

Well, we may have trouble defining what the abundant life is but we believe that we will know it when we see.

But the bigger question is not what the abundant life is. The question is how many of us – even those of us who have spent a life-time in the Church – how many of us would say that we enjoy an abundant life?

But if Jesus said that he came that we might have abundant life – and if the Church is where we find the followers of Jesus – wouldn’t we think that one of the goals of the Church would be to help people find that abundant life that Jesus promised?

Which brings us back to the book that has given this sermon series its theme – Missional Renaissance, by Reggie McNeal.

I hope you will remember that he said we need to remember that the Church is not a building or an institution but the Church is the people – the collection of faithful followers of Jesus Christ. McNeal says that for the Church to reshape and recapture this vision of itself, it must experience three paradigm shifts – three shifts in its priorities.

Last week I outlined the first of these, that the Church must shift from being internally focused to being externally focused. That we must stop trying to build and maintain an institution and begin living and working in the world outside our doors.

The second is that we must stop being program driven and become more people driven,

Somewhere along the line, we in the Church seem to have decided that the abundant life that Jesus promised was to be found within the walls of the Church building and the Church structure. That the goal of the Church was to convince people to leave the world and enter the Church.

To accomplish that goal we have seen the Church create more and more programs. We added programs for youth and young people – programs for seniors – programs for newly married people and new parents.

Now we started these programs to meet the needs of people, but our standards of success quickly became – not the change in the quality of life of the people – but the number of people involved. We seem to assume that if more people come to the program more people lives are being changed.

So we measure the success of the Church by how many people attend worship events. How many people become members of the Church. How much money do people give to the Church. But we never ask whether people’s lives are being changed. We never ask if people are living more abundantly.

Let me tell you the story of my penny. I know that some of you have heard the story but bear with me.

In his journal, John Wesley tells the story of trying to pay off the debt on the Methodist meeting house in Bristol. There was a congregational meeting and they were trying to figure out how to raise the money.

In the congregation was a Captain Foy. We don’t know much about Captain Foy but he seems to have been a bit of an engineer. Engineers are problem solvers. They look at problems, see where we are and where we need to be and figure out a path from here to there.

I have the feeling that Captain Foy sat in that meeting – looked at the size of the debt – looked at the size of the congregation – did some calculations on the back of an envelope – smart phones hadn’t been invented yet so he didn’t have a calculator readily available – and determined that a penny a week per person would do it. So he stood up and said let each person give a penny a week.

I told that story in a sermon once and got the expected reaction. Any Church that asked just a penny a week would have no problem raising the money.

But the next day a retired minister from the congregation came by my office and gave me a penny – the penny in the picture – this penny.

At the time of John Wesley, the penny was not the least valuable coin. There was the ha’ penny – and the farthing – and the mite – the coin from the parable about the widow’s mite.

The penny was a significant portion of a day’s wages for a worker.

Now apparently a penny a week was well within the means of Captain Foy, but others quickly pointed out that the majority of the members of that Methodist society were poor factory workers for whom a penny a week would have been a sizable contribution – well beyond the means of many.

Captain Foy saw the validity of this argument and quickly amended his plan. “Put the twelve poorest with me – let each give what they can – and I will make up the difference.”

Now the suggestion of a dozen in the group might bring to mind the twelve disciples or the twelve tribes of Israel, but I think it more likely that Captain Foy was driven by the British monetary system in which twelve pennies made a shilling. Captain Foy was publicly pledging a shilling a week to the Debt Retirement Fund.

Others made the same offer and the plan was quickly adopted by the body.

Now if that was the end of the story it would just be an example of a successful capital campaign. But there is a serendipitous ending to the story.

Because they still had to work out the details of how the contributions would be collected. Initially, Captain Foy went to each of his dozen teammates each week and collected their individual donations. Others did the same.

But this proved too time-consuming so they switched to a system where the people each brought their gifts to Captain Foy.

But the people needed to know when Captain Foy would be available to receive each of their donations so they set a single time when Captain Foy would be available to receive their donation.

When they all came together the actual handing in of their gifts took about 30 seconds but since they were together they began to talk. They would ask one another how their week had been and over time they began to share their concerns and their hurts.

And Wesley saw that these meeting had potential far beyond the paying of the debt on the meeting house. Remember these people were all Methodists. That meant that they had responded to the love of God that the early Methodists were preaching – the love of God that was greater than anything these people had done or thought that distanced them from God.

And in response, the people were called and challenged to follow Jesus – to change their behavior – to change their behavior not to earn God’s love but in response to God’s love.

And these weekly meetings became an opportunity to share with likeminded people the struggles and temptations that they had experienced in the preceding week in trying to live out this new life in the world.

In short, they were seeking ways to live life more abundantly right here and right now.

And so this idea that had begun as a way to raise money to pay off a debt quickly became a way to encourage people to grow in their discipleship to Jesus.

Wesley began to introduce this concept in places where there was no debt to pay.

And people, being people, grumbled because they saw this as a new obligation rather than a new opportunity to grow in their discipleship. In his writings, Wesley addressed these grumblings. He said, “Some of you say, ‘we didn’t have to go to these extra meetings when we first became Methodists.’ I say, it is too bad we didn’t have them then. We all would have benefited. But now, thanks be to God, we do have them and they will help you in your attempts to follow Jesus faithfully.

So here was a program of the Church – instituted strictly for practical, financial reasons – which had the result of leading people to a more abundant life.

The mission statement of the United Methodist Church is this: The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches and extension ministries of the Church provide the most significant arenas through which disciple-making occurs.

I am really happy to be with you. I am enjoying the ongoing programs of this congregation – the Thursday morning Bible study – the Tuesday afternoon Inquirers group – Family to Family – the new Bone Builders group – and, of course, our time together for worship. The fellowship – the service – the praise – these are vital to the vitality of the congregation. But we need to be sure that the intention – the focus – of all our programs and activities is to future our mission. To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

A disciple of Jesus Christ is one who – out of response to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ – follows the commands of Jesus – to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

When we live our lives out of these twin motivations – love of God and love of neighbor, we will indeed live more abundant lives – we are going to be faithful followers of Jesus – we will find ways to move beyond programs that will increase the size and stature of the institution to ways to change the lives of people. We will move from program development to people development. We will indeed have life – and have it abundantly.

Amen.

Go Into All the World

By: Pastor Rick Pearson
Text: Mark 16: 14-15
Preached at College UMC and North Oxnard UMC
July 30, 2017

Prayer – May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

OK, here’s a pop quiz to see how well you were paying attention last week.

Question 1: A mission is A: a building created by Father Serra and his successors in California in the 1700s,

OR

B: Our task of going into the world as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

The correct answer is B: Going into the world.

Question 2: The Church is A: A building or an institution designed to protect Christians from the world,

OR

B: All of the faithful disciples of Jesus Christ going into the world in mission.

And, of course, the correct answer is B: All of the faithful disciples of Jesus Christ going into the world in mission.

The Church is not a building. The Church is not a steeple. The Church is not a resting place, the Church is the People. I am the Church. You are the Church. We are the Church together. All who follow Jesus, all around the world. Yes, we’re the Church together.

Those words are not just the overused verse and chorus of a catchy little song that we sing to feel good about ourselves. Those are the marching orders of the people who call themselves Christians – the people who call themselves faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

I also mentioned last week the book, “Missional Renaissance” by Reggie McNeal. McNeal reminds us that all of us have grown up and lived with the understanding that the purpose of the Church is to grow. That our goal is to attract more people to become part of the Church. To become members of the Church. To go to Church. That somehow building the Church as an institution is the same as building the Kingdom of God.

And this view of the Church is so ingrained in us that we think that that is the way it has always been and that that is what God wants.

I hate to keep blaming everything on Constantine but this is not the way the followers of Jesus saw the Church for he first three centuries after Jesus walked this earth.

Jesus never asked anyone to build a building called a Church. Jesus never asked his followers to create an institution called the Church. Jesus never asked anyone to write creeds about belief in him and use those as a litmus test for those who could be in this institution called the Church and those who would be excluded.

Jesus only asked people to follow him. And if these followers could band together in order to transform the world – the world – so much the better.

The Church – the People of God – the faithful followers of Jesus – did not really begin building structures until the fourth century. Let’s face it, until Constantine decided to recognize the Church in order to tame the Church, a building was the LAST thing that the Church needed.

Before Constantine, the Church had been persecuted by every emperor for three hundred years – some more than others – but every emperor for three hundred years saw those pesky Christians as a threat to his power. Why? Because the Christians refused to recognize the Emperor as Lord and continued to say that “Jesus is Lord.”

If every emperor is persecuting you – crucifying you – feeding you to lions for sport and entertainment – you are not likely to gather in one place and hang a sign out front that says, “If you want to find us, we will all be in this building at 11:00 o’clock on Sunday morning.”

No, Constantine succeeded in putting the Church, literally, into a box and we have spent the last sixteen centuries making the box bigger and better.

And now we need to think outside the box.

As I shared last week, we need to start thinking about the Church as an airport. An airport is not a destination. We do not go to the airport because it is such a wonderful place to gather together and enjoy each other’s company.

No, the airport is a means to an end. We go to the airport in order to get somewhere else. The airport is not a destination it is a connection.

We do not measure the success of an airport by counting how many people are gathered in the waiting rooms. No, an airport’s success is measured by how efficiently people are moved through it to where they really want and need to be.

So why do we measure the success of the Church by how many people gather inside the building? By the average number of worshippers? By the membership? By how much money they give?

No, we should be measuring the success of the Church by how many lives are touched outside the Church by those who claim to be the Church. By how many lives are changed.

All too often, the goal of the Church is to get people out of the world and into the Church. Our goal ought to be to get the people out of the building that we call the Church and into the world.

Reggie McNeal says there are two models of the Church. The first is for the Church to be attractional. In this model, the Church is trying to attract people to leave the world and enter the Church. The Church is a success if more people join the Church – if they leave the world.

The model of the Church before Constantine – and the model that we should pursue today – is the Church as incarnational. That the Church should be what the New Testament calls it – the body of Christ. We are called to be the body of Christ in the world.

When Jesus called his disciples, he did not tell them to gather together and talk quietly among themselves. He did not sit quietly with them in a setting away from the world.

No, Jesus continued to be out in the world. To eat with those who the established religion considered beneath it. To walk and talk and dine and die with those who were marginalized and disenfranchised.

And he sent his disciples to do the same. In the words we heard read from Mark this morning, we have Jesus final instructions to the disciples. “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”

Not “Go to the Church.” Not even “Go, create the Church.” But go into the WORLD.

And do what? “Proclaim the Good News.” “Proclaim the Gospel.” To the whole creation!

Now we have changed these words to mean, “Proclaim a doctrine about the Good News.” “Try and convince people to believe certain things about Jesus.” Try and get people to say certain words and phrases. Try and get people into the Church.

Our focus is internal – on us – on our institution – on what we call Church. Our version of the Good News is “if you believe as we do – if you become as we are – if you join our institution – God will love you more.”

Our focus needs to be external. Our focus needs to be away from the institution that we call the Church and towards the people out there – the ones in what we call the world.

The Good News that Jesus calls his disciple to proclaim is not a doctrine – it is not a belief – it is the news that hopefully we have heard ourselves – that God loves us right here – right now – more than we can imagine. And that God cannot possibly love us more than God loves us right now.

So God will not love us more if we say certain things – or believe certain things – or even do certain things.

If we are going to proclaim the good news that God loves us all – just the way we are – sometimes we will do that in organized structured ways. Through programs like Family to Family. These are truly means of taking the love of God into the world.

But they are not the only way of taking the love of God into the world. We can also take the love of God into the world in more informal, unstructured ways.

A few months ago a bunch of United Methodists from eight different congregations met at the Camarillo UMC for an event called “Stop Hunger Now” to package food to be sent around the world to hungry people. Some of you in this room were there. We packaged more than 10,000 meals in just two hours. That was certainly the Church being external rather than internal.

But that is not why I brought it up.

That Stop Hunger Now event was not the first I had participated in. About a year and a half ago, at a clergy gathering of several hundred United Methodist ministers near Palm Springs, we also did a Stop Hunger Now event. As we were working, I was across the table from a clergyperson named James whom I did not previously know. He looked at me and said, “Aren’t you with some organization that helps poor people?” I told him that I used to be with Project Understanding. He said that he remembered hearing me speak at some previous clergy gathering. He said that I had said that what homeless people miss the most is not a roof over their heads. It is not food on the table or even a modicum of privacy – although they miss all these things.

No, over and over again homeless people have told me that what they miss most is eye-contact. When you are homeless, people will not even look at you. They treat you as if you do not exist.

James said that that one comment of mine had had a big impact on him. He has used it a number of times in sermons.

But more importantly, he said that it had changed the way he interacted with homeless people. He says that he now makes it a point to speak to homeless people on the street. To smile at them. To even ask them their name.

Will looking a homeless person in the eye end homelessness? Of course not. But it is worth remembering that when people become homeless, they do not become “The Homeless” as we often refer to them. They are homeless PEOPLE. PEOPLE who are homeless.

Any solution that does not remember that these are people first – children of God first – and homeless second, is not proclaiming to them the good news of the love of God.

And this doesn’t just apply to homeless people.

When God called Abraham to leave his home and promised to bless all of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, God did it for a purpose. God said “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

If we are holding on to the blessings of God – and by blessing I do not just mean money and possessions – if we are holding on to the blessing of God and are not blessing the world we are not fulfilling the very reason for God blessing us.

Reggie McNeal tells people to go and bless three people this week and to make sure that at least one of them doesn’t deserve it. Of course, he says, none of us really deserves it.

McNeal punctuates this point by telling of one pastor who wanted to make this external rather than internal view a reality in his life.

He regularly went to a certain Starbucks – ordered a coffee – and sat and read for a while. He said he rarely said a word more than was necessary to the baristas who filled his order.

He decided to bless the baristas in his Starbucks. When he received his coffee he asked, “How can I ask God to bless you?”

He said that, at first, the staff was reluctant to even talk to him. But over time, they began to seek him out during their breaks, sit with him and open their lives to him.

He was so gratified by their response that he told people in his small church group. The group discovered that they were customers of every Starbucks within a 13 block radius. They decided that they too would start to bless the baristas in their Starbucks.

The pastor said that a few weeks later he was visiting a Starbucks that he usually didn’t frequent and asked his standard question, “How can I ask God to bless you?” at which point she pulled the cup back and asked, “Are you one of those blessing people.”

That is what we ought to be – “those blessing people.”

I am not saying that this is the way we should all try to pass on the blessings of God, but I will tell you one thing that has struck me while thinking about this.

For a number of years, the Neighborhood Council for the area around the North Oxnard Church has met in the North Oxnard sanctuary 4 to 6 times per year. They always call and ask if a particular night would be alright and I have only said no when they asked for Ash Wednesday and we were going to be using the Sanctuary. They choose another evening.

They always came on Wednesday night at 7:00 which is when we have our Bible study. So I had never attended the neighborhood meeting. I made sure the Sanctuary was open and then went to teach my Bible Study. It has struck me that my neighbors have literally come into my living room and I have hid in the den until they leave.

Now I make it a plan to be there to welcome our neighbors – to serve as their host.

Maybe I will find a way to bless them. Maybe they will find a way to bless me. But whatever happens, I know that I will be beginning to BE the Church rather than just GOING to Church.  Amen.

Go to Nineveh

By: Pastor Rick Pearson
Texts: Jonah 3: 1-8,10
Preached at College UMC and North Oxnard UMC
July 23, 2017

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer”

Pope Francis came to the United States a couple of years ago. He didn’t come anywhere near us but he took one action during his visit that had a direct bearing on California.

On September 23, 2015, Pope Francis conducted a mass in Washington D.C. canonizing Father Junipero Serra as a saint in the Catholic Church.

Because I am a native Californian and a product of California public schools, I was taught a fair amount about Father Serra and his work in California. He and those who followed him created the string of 21 missions along the California coast. The intention was that these missions would be a day’s journey apart so that people traveling up and down California could always find hospitality.

Unfortunately, hospitality was not what those who were already living in California found. The indigenous people found harsh – often brutal – treatment. Forced conversions – slavery and forced labor – bans on speaking their native languages.

It is not my intent to speak here of Father Serra’s fitness for sainthood or to judge the actions of the Spanish. No, I mention Father Serra’s canonization only because it got me thinking of the California missions.

During my childhood, my parents took me to visit most of the missions – maybe all of them – including Mission San Buenaventura – the last of the missions founded by Father Serra.

So growing up, if I thought about missions, I thought about buildings.

Of course, that is also how I thought about the Church. The Church was a building – a place. As I have mentioned before, for the first 23 years of my life, this was the Church. This building – this building was the Chuerch

So too, if you mentioned the Church in Rome, this is what would immediately come to my  mind.   Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

It is certainly an impressive building. One might even say, “awe-inspiring.” And I have to admit – as crazy as it sounds – when I hear about Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome, this is the image that leaps into my mind.

Of course, Paul never saw this building. It was begun in 1506 and took 120 years to complete. The building it replaced was truly ancient. The Old Saint Peters was built in the fourth century by the Emperor Constantine. Even that building was three hundred years too late for Paul.

No, when Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Rome, there was no building at all. Just 20 or 30 people meeting wherever they could. In someone’s home (if they were willing to take the risk.) Or in an open field. Or in the Catacombs beneath the city.

Where they met was unimportant in any religious sense. The important thing about their meeting place was security – not sacredness. They had no clergy. They had no building.

Sometime early in the 13th Century, Francis of Assisi (he wasn’t a saint then) was praying in the chapel of San Damiano, a building in ill-repair outside of Assisi. As he prayed, he heard a voice coming from this crucifix   which said, “Francis, Go and rebuild my Church, which you can see has fallen into ruin.”

Francis took that call quite literally at first and set about to rebuild the chapel of San Damiano with his own hands. He even stole from his father to finance the effort.

It was only later that Francis realized that God had not meant the Church as a building but the Church as the people. His mistake is understandable. For sixteen hundred years – at least since the time that Emperor Constantine began construction on the original Saint Peters Basilica – we have mistaken the buildings of the Church and the organization of the Church as being the Church, when in reality it is the people who are the Church.

Some time ago a clergy colleague of mine shared a book with me and it has made a huge difference in my understanding of the Church and what we mean when we say mission.

The book is “Missional Renaissance” and the author is Reggie McNeal.   The subtitle is “Changing the Scorecard for the Church.” I began reading this book during a trip to visit a dying friend in Wisconsin – a trip where I spent quite a few hours in airports. McNeal compares the Church to an airport.

He says that certainly an airport cares about the comfort and security of the passengers. They have to have adequate room for people to wait – and wait – and wait (hopefully in a modicum of comfort.) They need to provide services – restrooms, places to eat and to buy needed items, Wi-Fi to connect passengers with the outside world.

But the purpose of all these services is not to make the passengers so comfortable that they want to stay. Because the airport is not a destination. We do not want to move in and live in an airport. The airport is a means of getting us where we really need to be.

We need to view the Church like an airport. The Church is not a destination where we can come and be comfortable. It is a means by which we can get to where we need to be as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

I know that you all remember that, while I am an ordained United Methodist clergy, I am a deacon not an elder and that my call to ministry as a deacon has a different focus than the call of the elder. The call of the elder is to lead the congregation in worship and sacrament and to order the life of the congregation. In short, elders serve as pastors.

The call of the deacon is different. The call of the deacon is to love, service and justice. The call of the deacon is to connect the Church to the World – to connect the altar to the marketplace.

Yet, here I am as your pastor. The bishop and the District Superintendent asked me to serve as your pastor. And I had to pray hard to discern whether this was indeed what God was calling me to do.

Not that I didn’t want to be with you. But was this the ministry that God was calling me to do.

Obviously I decided that it was, indeed, the ministry to which God was calling me. But as a deacon it is not enough for me to preach and lead worship. It is not enough for me to see to the administration of the congregation. Those things are important and I will see to them. But as a deacon I am also called seek ways for us to carry God’s love into the world – not just to draw the world to the Church.

And I believe that call is very much in keeping with what McNeal is calling the Church to be through his book.

McNeal says that there are three shifts in perspective that are necessary for a congregation to become missional in its outlook and approach. It must:

  1. Shift from an internal to an external focus,
  2. Shift from Program Development to People Development, and,
  3. Shift from Church-Based to Kingdom-Based leadership.

It is my intention to share with you my thoughts on each of these in the weeks ahead.

Since Constantine, the focus of the Church has too often been inward. To building up the Church and silo it against the world. The goal of the Church was to reach into the world and attract non-Christians – non-Churchgoers into the Church and out of the world.

And we have developed scorecards to measure how effectively we have done this. For example, every year we are required to submit three tables full of statistics to the Annual Conference. These statistics are intended let the Bishop and the annual conference know what we have been up to during the past year.

We report things like number of members lost and gained and current number of members. Average worship attendance. Average attendance in study groups. How much money was received and how that money was spent. Current value of the property.

All of these are important numbers and we should be tracking them. But perhaps we need to track other measures as well.

Numbers like, “How many people from the Community beyond the congregation use the facility?”

How are the lives of people beyond the congregation impacted by the members of the College UMC community? How are members of the CUMC community empowered and enabled to live their lives as faithful followers of Jesus Christ in their lives off the Church property? How many hours each week do the members of the CUMC community spend in service to the larger community?

John 3:16 is high on every list of favorite passages in the Bible. It is helpful for us to remember that God so loved the world – not God so loved the Church.

A mission is not a building created by Father Serra – a mission is our call to live out our faithfulness to God through our life in the world.

A Church is not a building – the Church is the people who pour forth from the building to be the Church in the world.

This morning we heard part of the story of Jonah. The story of Jonah is a familiar one. But all too often we focus on the question of whether it is possible for a person to be swallowed by a fish and spit up on dry land.

But we forget that the fish is not the point of the story. Jonah is called to leave the Church and go into the world. Jonah is called to leave the life among the good people of Israel and to preach God’s love and forgiveness to the people of Nineveh – the capital city of the enemy of the people of Israel. And Jonah says no, I would rather die. But after trying to flee, he finally goes to Nineveh, that great city, and he preaches, taking joy in predicting their destruction. But the people are not destroyed. They respond to the love of God and turn from their violent ways.

Does Jonah rejoice that these enemies have found the Love of God? No he sulks because God changes his mind and does not destroy them.

All too often we in the Church want God to love and save us and at the same time we want God to hate and destroy those whom we identify as the enemy – those outside our Church or those outside our nation. We want to sit safely inside our fortress buildings and watch God destroy those outside, forgetting that God loves those outside the walls as much as those inside the walls.

We are called to go to Ventura. That great city. We are called to be the church.

We sometimes sing a song, the chorus of which says, “I am the Church. You are the Church. We are the Church together.”

And one of the verses says, “The Church is not a building. The Church is not a steeple. The Church is not a resting place. The Church is the People.

Beginning today, let us resolve to stop GOING TO Church. Let us GO FORTH to BE the Church.

Amen.

Do I Live in Sin or Does Sin Live in Me?

By Pastor Rick Pearson

Text: Romans 7:15-21

Preached at North Oxnard UMC and College UMC

July 9, 2017

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.”

Do you remember Flip Wilson – the comedian from back in the ‘60s and ‘70s?   He dressed in drag and did a character name Geraldine.

Geraldine’s catch-phrase was, “The Devil made me do it.”

It was a funny bit and it played to another common image in our culture – the idea that we have the two competing voices in our ears – the Devil on one side and God (or and angel) on the other. I don’t think there has ever been a cartoon character created who has been portrayed facing that dilemma.

Donald Duck.

Homer Simpson.

Even Fred Flintstone.

I saw a funny poster once.    It said, “I have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. I’m also deaf in one ear.”

That might describe Paul in the passage from Romans that we heard this morning. He says, “The thing I want to do, that is the thing I do NOT do. But the thing I do NOT want to do, that is the very thing that I do.”

That certainly makes Paul sound a lot like me. Maybe it makes Paul sound like you too.

But the interesting thing about is that Paul does not blame this condition on the Devil – he does not say, “The Devil made me do it.”

In fact, in the whole Book of Romans, Paul never mentions “the Devil” at all and makes only one reference to Satan (right at the end of the book in what might be a quote of a common saying – the theological equivalent of “Have a nice day.”

But if Paul doesn’t blame the devil, what reason does he give for his failure to do the good that he wants and for his doing the evil that he doesn’t want? He blames sin. “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

He doesn’t say that the evil that he does is a sin. No, he says that sin causes him to do evil.

Bear with me for a minute – I need to do a little grammar lesson about Romans.

In the entire book of Romans, Paul never uses the word sin in the plural – he never talks about “sins.” Nor does he ever speak of something being “a sin.”

We usually speak of sins as being things we do or things we don’t do that we should. In short, we think of sins as actions – actions that are contrary to the will or commandments of God.

Now Paul certainly understands that there are actions that are contrary to the will of God, but he does not call those actions “sins.” No, Paul says that those actions are caused by sin.

For Paul, sin is not an action, it is a condition.

“Living in sin” used to be a euphemism for a man and a woman living together without being married. But Paul would never say that we live in sin. Paul would always say that sin lives in us.

I was taught growing up that in every thing I do there are two choices – what God wants me to do and what the devil wants me to do. To help us make the choice, God has given me a bunch of Commandments. There are the ten big ones but we all know that there are hundreds and hundreds more. And our choice comes down to whether we are going to obey those commandments or not.

We are back to the angel and the devil on our shoulders again – and if I do what the devil wants me to do, then I have committed a sin. And God is keeping score.

Each day – each hour – each moment – God is making a tally in his Big Book and – when I get to the end of my life – Saint Peter is going to open that Book and there had better be more ticks on the God side than the devil side.

In short, I had better not have committed too many sins.

Then, Jesus comes along and ups the ante. He says, if I see a beautiful woman and have lusty thoughts about her, it’s as bad as if I actually had sex with her. In terms of our angel/devil paradox, having the debate in my mind is just as bad as committing the act.

If that is the case, then I am racking up black marks on the wrong side of the ledger in that Big Book at an alarming rate.

Look, when it comes to commandments and sins, we are all hoping that God grades on a curve. We are all looking around and saying, “Well, at least I’m better than that guy.” We are all like the Pharisee in the Temple who prays, “God, at least I am no tax collector.”

We live our lives like the two lion hunters who I know you have probably heard about. One day these hunters were outside of camp without their rifles. They suddenly realized that there was a lion between them and the safety of their camp.

They see the lion and, more importantly, the lion sees them. They start running and the lion starts chasing them. As the lion is closing in, one of the hunters pants, “This is hopeless. We can’t outrun a lion.”

The other hunter says, “I don’t have to outrun the lion. I just have to outrun you.”

That’s us. We hope that if we are just fast enough – just good enough – God will condemn the other guy and let us slip in.

But what Jesus was saying – and what Paul is trying to make clear – is “don’t sweat the small stuff.” And what we call sins – all those individual thoughts and actions that are contrary to the will of God – all those sins are the small stuff.

On the surface, Jesus sets the bar impossibly high. I mean, if lustful thoughts are just as bad as adultery, who can be saved? It’s not surprising that, after listening to Jesus, people were confused.

So Jesus was asked, “Jesus, please make this simple. Which are the most important commandments – you know, the ones I really have to keep to get into heaven.”

And Jesus said, “OK, I will make it easy. There are only two – love God and love your neighbor.”

Jesus and Paul were not so concerned about all those individual thoughts and actions which may – or may not – be sins. They were more concerned about the basic motivations behind those thoughts and actions.

Paul is trying to make it clear that, left to ourselves – to our natural state – we are driven by sin. Paul says that sin dwells in us.

But thanks be to God, there is another option. Instead of sin living in us we can let the very Spirit of God live in us. Left to our own strength, we cannot drive sin out of our lives. But we can let the Spirit of God do it for us.

And we know this is possible because we have seen it in Jesus.

For Paul, Jesus was not able to drive sin out of his life because he was the Son of God. No, Jesus was able to live in the Spirit rather than live in sin. He was faithful to the call to love God and love neighbor. He was so faithful that he chose to remain true to those twin commandments – love God and love neighbor – even in the face of death. And because of that faithfulness, Paul tells us that Jesus was “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection.”

The words from Paul that we heard this morning ended on a rather pessimistic note. “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.”

But then immediately Paul changes his tone. What comes next it Chapter 8 of the letter. Chapter 8 is the very center of the letter and it is the very heart of the Gospel.

After Chapter 7 where he have heard Paul lamenting the good he has not done and the evil he has done, he goes on: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”

He is telling us that the commandment to love God and love neighbor has overcome all those little commandments that have led us to actions which we then call sins.

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

I know that, throughout my life, I committed countless acts and even more thoughts that were painful to my own parents. But I also knew – without a shadow of a doubt – that none of those actions – none of those thoughts – ever lessened their love for me. That bond of love could never be broken. And their love from the earliest years filled me and empowered me to live into that love.

So too does the love of God – that love which has adopted me as a Child of God – the love of God – the Spirit of God – can and does fill me in such a way as to drive out sin.

Oh, yes, I continue to commit actions and thoughts that can and are labeled sins. But the power of sin is broken by the power of the love and the Spirit of God. And if the power of sin is broken, the power of those little actions that I call sins is also broken.

The power of sin and the power of the Spirit of God both continue to seek to dwell in us. And if we want we can picture them as the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. And we may indeed be deaf in one ear.

But thanks be to God, the Spirit of God can be on the shoulder with the good ear.

Amen.

Talent Show

By: Pastor Rick Pearson
Texts: Matthew 25:14-30
Preached at North Oxnard UMC
November 16, 2014

If you are familiar with Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion, then you know that Keillor is from Lake Wobegon, MN, “where the women are strong and the men are good looking and all the children are above average.”

I thought about everyone being above average when I saw an ad for the investment house, T. Rowe Price.

The ad said, in part:

“Our disciplined, long-term investment approach has proven successful in a variety of market conditions. In fact, for each 3-, 5-, and 10-year period, 80% of our funds beat their Lipper average. Put the expertise of T. Rowe Price to work for you.”

Do you know if your mutual funds beat their ten year Lipper average? I certainly don’t. In fact, I had no idea what a Lipper average is. Which probably doesn’t matter much because I am not even sure if my retirement account includes any mutual funds.

But if my retirement account does include any mutual funds, I certainly hope that they beat their ten year Lipper average – whatever that is.

Well, in this story we heard this morning, I think it is safe to say that 66% of the mutual fund managers exceeded their Lipper averages. Those two faithful slaves (I grew up hearing them called “faithful servants”) – those two faithful slaves doubled their master’s money.

Now, I am guessing that you – like I – have heard many sermons based on this text. I am also guessing that a fair number of those sermons were preached on a day called something like “Stewardship Sunday.”

In all likelihood, those sermons had one of two themes. Either they said that the money that you have is given to you by God so you should invest it wisely and then return a portion – shall we say ten percent? – to God. Now here is your pledge card.

Or else those sermons played up the fact that the Greek word talenta (which was a unit of weight) has become the English word talent (which means the ability to do something well.) The preacher then said that we, like these faithful servants (the preacher never called us slaves) – we should use our God-given talents in the service of God.

Now I am not suggesting that we ought not return to God a portion of the resources that God has placed in our hands. Nor am I suggesting that all of our talents should be used to the glory of God rather than our own glory.

But I am suggesting that Matthew had a different intention when he used this story of Jesus. All the times that I have heard this passage used, I have always assumed – and I have always been told – that this is a parable of Jesus and that the man who went away and left that money with the slaves was God. Then everything that those preachers said grows out of that assumption.

But when this passage came up in the lectionary this time and I started reading about the passage, I read someone who questioned that assumption. And suddenly some thoughts that have been lurking and festering in the back of my mind jumped to the front of my mind.

What I read pointed out that this story begins differently than most of Jesus’ parables.

Matthew recounts lots of Jesus’ parables and usually Matthew prefaces the parable by having Jesus say, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like. . .” Jesus doesn’t say that at the beginning of this story. So maybe Matthew didn’t see this story like those parables. Maybe Jesus did not see this story as being about the way things will be in the Kingdom of Heaven – maybe this story is about the way things are now.

Now to my way of thinking that explains that thing that always troubled me. That worthless slave – you know, the one who buried the money in the ground – said that he was afraid because the master was a man who reaped where he did not sow and gathered where he did not plant. And the master does not deny the accusation. He virtually admits that he is guilty of fraud and thievery. Now that does not sound like God (or Jesus) in any parable I ever read.

So suppose Jesus told this story not to say what the Kingdom of Heaven was like but to describe what the world is like now. What does the story say then – what is its purpose?

So this master – a human master, not God – is going away and he entrusts a sum of money with some of his slaves. Now the amount that he leaves them is staggering. We get hung up on the word talent but the word was simply a unit of weight – and that unit of weight came to mean money when it was considered that weight of silver.

And a talent of silver was a lot of money – an amount equal to what a laborer would earn in fifteen years. What would a laborer earn these days? If we assume a minimum wage of $10 an hour, that is $20,000 per year. That means that a talent of silver was worth $300,000. And this master left a total of eight talents with these three slaves – nearly two and a half million dollars.

The story does not tell us if he gave them any instructions as to what to do with this money – he simply “entrusted” it to them. Now if that third slave knew what kind of man his master was, I think we can assume that the other slaves did too. They knew what was expected of them and they did it. They were above average. They beat their Lipper averages. They put to work doing everything that they had learned from their master and they doubled their money.

We are not told where that additional two million dollars that the two slaves amassed came from, but I think it is likely that it came from “reaping where they did not sow and gathering where they did not plant.” And when the master returns, he doesn’t ask. He simply says, “Well done you good and faithful slave.” “I am proud of you.”

But the third slave has more morals than that. He cannot bring himself to act like that master or his fellow slaves. So he simply holds on to that money – more money than he is ever likely to see again in his lifetime. He doesn’t spend it. He doesn’t run away to the Cayman Islands and stash it in a secret bank account and retire. He simply holds it until his master return and gives it back to him.

And the master is furious. He says, “you knew what kind of business I run. You at least could have done some loan-sharking and gotten me some interest.” And he throws the man out into the street – I suppose that slave should have been grateful the master didn’t kill him.

And Jesus ends this story with a damning indictment of the current economic system. He says, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” The sad thing is that we have taken this statement and turned it into the Protestant Work Ethic and implied that Jesus was saying that those who work hard will be rewarded and those who are lazy will be poor. The corollary being that those who have much must have earned it and those who are poor deserve to be poor.

I am well aware that this is a radical new reading of this story. To take a passage that has been used for decades – if not centuries – to encourage Christian charity and make it a scathing indictment of our human economic system may been seen as a leap too far. It is a lot to base simply on the fact that Mathew did not preface the story with the words, “the kingdom of heaven is like. . .”

But look at the context where Matthew has placed it. First of all, it comes at the very end of Jesus ministry. Jesus is already in Jerusalem. His arrest is just days away. His followers are asking him when the Kingdom of God will arrive and Jesus says he cannot tell them because he does not know.

But he says, it doesn’t matter when it comes, you have to live right now as if it has already arrived. And he tells them a parable – a real parable that begins with the phrase, “The kingdom of Heaven is like . . .” And it is the parable about the wise and foolish maidens about being prepared and he concludes, “Don’t worry about when the kingdom of God will arrive but live each day as if you are living in the Kingdom now.”

And you have two choices. You can live like the world does now – amassing wealth and fortune by any means possible like these two slaves who are called “good and faithful slaves” by their unscrupulous master.

Or you can live like the slave who is called “wicked and lazy” by his unscrupulous master and risk being thrown out of your only means of livelihood.

For the Story of the Talents concludes with these words, “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

And the very next words that Jesus speaks are these:

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

So which will it be? In the story of the talents the successful slaves are told to “enter into the joy of your master.” But in the story of the sheep and the goats, those who cared for the least of these are told to “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

So which will we choose? How will we live? Are we going to beat our Lipper average? Or are we going to live now – today – in the Kingdom that has been prepared for us since the foundation of the world?

Amen.

Choose This Day

By: Pastor Rick Pearson

Texts: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-18, 25

Preached at North Oxnard UMC

November 9, 2014

When I was a student in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I learned about the California Missions which was appropriate because, as a native Californian, the missions are a part of my history.

And I learned about the American Civil War which was appropriate because as a native-born citizen of the United States, the Civil War is a part of my history.

And I learned about the original thirteen colonies struggle for independence in 1776 which was appropriate because as a native born American citizen the founding of the United States of America is a part of my history.

But when my father was born in Chicago a little over a hundred years ago, he was a part of the first generation of his family to be born in the United States. All of his ancestors – from his parents on back for countless generations – had been born in Sweden. When they had studied in their schools, they had studied the history of Sweden which was appropriate because, as native born citizens of Sweden, that was their history.

So how did it come to pass that I, with this long history of Swedish ancestors came to accept this history of America as my history? The answer, of course, is that when my grandparents came to this country, they cast their lot with their new home. The people of this country became their people and the history of this land became their history.

When the Great War came – World War I – my grandfather was too old to serve and his sons were too young – two of them were not even born.

But when World War II came, Sweden was not in the war – they remained neutral. But of the four sons of these Swedish immigrants, three served in the military and the fourth – my father – designed and built airplanes for the war effort. Which was appropriate because they were all American citizens, despite the fact that their parents had been born in Sweden.

I mention all of this because of the gathering at Shechem that we heard Lonnie reading about this morning. A couple of weeks ago we read about Moses climbing Mount Nebo and looking over into the Promised Land but dying on the mountain and never entering the Promised Land. That was where the book of Deuteronomy ends with leadership of the people of Israel passing from Moses to Joshua.

We literally turn the page to the book of Joshua and we read about the settlement of the people in the Promised Land. We read about Jericho, where the walls fall down flat. And we read about kings defeated and cities and towns occupied. And we read about lands distributed among the twelve tribes, until we read in chapter 23 that, “The Lord had given rest to Israel from all their enemies all around and Joshua was old and well advanced in years.”

And then, in chapter 24 – the last chapter in the book of Joshua – we read about this gathering of the tribes of Israel at Shechem – a city in the very center of the Promised Land.

Now if you were paying close attention, you may have noticed that the Lectionary leaves out about a dozen verses in the middle of this speech of Joshua to this assembled multitude.

What the lectionary leaves out is a long telling of the history of the Exodus. Joshua tells them about Moses and Aaron going to Pharaoh and about the plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army and the wandering in the wilderness and the entry into the land and the taking of Jericho and battles with “the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and [God] handed them over to you.”

And Joshua concludes, “[God] gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.”

This is a beautiful speech but there is something wrong with this picture. Supposedly the people to whom Joshua is speaking are the tribes of Israel – the very people who lived the very history that Joshua is retelling. It is their history, why should Joshua have to recount it is such detail. Is he afraid that they have forgotten it?

But suppose that Joshua is not speaking just to the people who came out of Egypt under Moses and entered the Land under Joshua? Suppose he is talking instead to people like my father and uncles – people who have not lived the history – people who have lived another history but who are being drawn to this new history – people who are being drawn to this new God who acts in history and who are willing to cast their lot with these new people and to call these people their own.

My grandparents’ family had not lived through the American Civil War but that history became their history. My uncles had no family living in Boston or Virginia at the time of the American Revolution but that struggle became a part of their history as well.

So too, the people at Shechem may not have come out of Egypt with Moses – they may not have entered the land with Joshua – but they were being drawn to these new people and to the God of these new people.

And Joshua tells them that they have to choose. They have many gods to choose from. The gods beyond the Euphrates from where Abraham and Sarah had come – the gods of Egypt from where the people under Moses had come – and the gods of the land where they now lived – the gods of the Amorites and all the rest.

Or they could choose Yahweh – the Lord – the God who had led the people to this place and to this time.

They had many choices but they had to choose. And Joshua concludes his speech with these words, “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

And it is simply stating the obvious to say that we, too, have many choices. Not simply choices among the myriad of religious traditions – although they are many. It is not simply the lure of Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism that make our choice difficult.

No, it is more likely the choices of other lures. The choice of wealth and power and comfort – the very choices that Jesus faced in his temptation in the wilderness. These are clearly the idols that are more likely to tempt us and draw us away from choosing to follow our God.

And, as difficult as the choice might be, it is not a decision that is made once and it is done. Because it is not a decision to believe – it is a decision to follow.

When Joshua makes his call to the people to choose, he says, “Choose THIS DAY whom you will serve.” And this day is not simply the day on the plain at Shechem. It is not simply that day at summer camp when you were moved to give your life to Jesus. It is not simply that day when you prayed that prayer to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.

No, it is that day and the day after and the day after that. It is every day. It is THIS day. It is the choice, made day after day, to follow Jesus.

When Joshua made his impassioned plea to the people gathered at Shechem, they enthusiastically responded in the affirmative. And then we are told, “So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.”

A covenant is a relationship. It is the difference between a wedding and a marriage. A wedding lasts a day. A marriage lasts a lifetime. The gathering at Shechem was the wedding. But the people had to go forth from that place and live out the choice that they had made and affirmed.

Yes, the choice is vital. The people of Israel made it at Shechem. Paul made it on the road to Damascus. Martin Luther made it when he nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Church at Wittenberg. And John Wesley made it at a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street. Maybe you can point to a day and time when you made that choice. Maybe you can’t. But whether you can point to that day or not is not the point of the story.

Choose THIS day. Now. Today. But it is always today. At the wedding we make promises. But the marriage – the covenant – is living out those promises each and every day.

“Choose this day whom you will serve, but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

“I have decided to follow Jesus. I have decided to follow Jesus. I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back. No turning back.”

Amen.