Lenten Devotional: Wednesday, March 6

by Joe Dennis

Proverbs 29:11
Fools give fool vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.

I was filled with rage. 

I was crippled with anger as the General Conference of The United Methodist Church voted to continue its discriminatory policies on LGBTQ people. I shot argumentative texts back and forth with Carla about leaving the church. I scoured the internet, consuming fiery responses from like-minded Methodists. I provoked social media debates with those who disagree with me. 

But none of my actions mattered. The outcome of the General Conference vote didn’t change. The words in the Book of Discipline weren’t altered. I didn’t convince one person to think differently. And quite honestly, I didn’t feel any better.

I was a fool. 

In the immediate aftermath of General Conference, I single-handedly took on the issue without God, convinced that my outrage was the solution for the injustice of the day. But my anger did nothing to help the people who were persecuted by the decision — LGBTQ Methodists who were labeled as “less than” by the governing body of their own church. 

Don’t be mistaken, I’m not downplaying the importance of speaking out against injustice, but it must be done with God at our side, prayerfully, reflectively and intentionally.

The theme this Lenten season is “Make Room for God.” It’s critical that we take this message to heart as we discern how we — individually and as a church — move forward. Although we cannot change the decision made at 2019 General Conference, if we allow God to help us, we can be confident our way forward will bring calm, peace and love to those who need it most.

Prayer: Dear God, we are hurting today. We are sad. We are angry. We are letting you in. Please guide us. Amen.

Sermon: Showing Your Work

In my lifetime of being a United Methodist, I’ve never experienced the level of anxiety in myself or across the board for the future of their church. As you all know, today is the first business day in the Special General Conference that will determine the future of the church—not just on human sexuality, but perhaps on the makeup and structure of our denomination as it moves forward.

“Showing Your Work” by The Rev. Joe Gunby

Everyone is trying to picture the future of the church. What will it look like? While I have absolutely no idea what if anything will happen as a result of the next few days of deonimational deliberation, I think that in order to help us picture the future of our church and the denomination, we could hardly do better than draw on the image that  Paul suggests in 1 Cor, but maybe with a little help from postmodern architecture. Now before beginning, let me say that no image of the people of God is perfect or complete, and that’s why Scripture has so many of them. Last week, Paul told the believers in Corinth that they were like plants organically connected to the field where God brings growth and new life, but now he provides a metaphor from the building trades. Hear this word:

1Cor. 3:5   What then is Apollos? What is Paul? …. we are God’s servants, working together; you are …God’s building. 

1Cor. 3:10   According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must take care how to build on it.  11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.  12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—  13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.  14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward.  15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. 

So if GC2019 is like the denomination trying to decide how and where the church should be built in the future, then we would do well to heed this advice from 1 Corinthians and make sure that the church is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. There are some people who say, “If the foundation is poured concrete, then by God, the whole thing is gonna be poured concrete. Let’s form this thing up and reinforce it. Let’s make the connection to the foundation obvious and literal.” What might that position look like if it were a building? Well, fortunately for our exploration this morning, there is a school of architecture called Brutalism!

Brutalism

How would you like to live there, or work there? As much as we want to ensure that our church is built on the foundation of Christ, if the result is ugly, then we might need to reconsider. Scripture often talks about “the beauty of holiness.” That is, what is good and true is also beautiful. 

Now on the other hand, there are some who might be tempted to build something creative and beautiful while saying, who cares if it’s structurally sound as long as it looks good. At first glance, the instructions to build on a foundation that has already been poured might seem like a hindrance to creativity. But I actually think that the more our work is “tied in to the foundation,” the more we will be able to extend ourselves even further and to push the forms we’ve been given. For instance, consider an example of postmodern architecture like the Wexner Center for Contemporary Art in Columbus, Ohio. 

The Wexner Center is not just a place to hang contemporary art, or a roof to keep rain off your head. Like a lot of contemporary architecture, it’s an attempt to say, “this is what architecture ought to do.” It’s playful and fun, it’s de-centralized rather than having one main resting point for the eye of beholder. I see several possibilities that this building suggests for the future of Oconee Street.

1. It’s connected to traditional forms, but clearly distinct.

Wexner Center (aerial photo)

Notice how it is situated next to these other buildings. Their straightforward, rectilinear form provide a contrast to the creativity and playfulness of the Wexner Center. It’s very possible that as a result of General Conference, some churches may exit left or exit right, (or both), but no matter who keeps the name UMC, or whether or not there are two denominations or three Connectional Conferences, we won’t be alone. 

2. There is another aspect to consider in the next view of The Wex:

The Wex (white poles)

The Wex is provisional and playful with historic forms. You see these white geometric poles? Those evoke scaffolding, like a builder would put up to work on the walls. Scaffolding suggests that the work of architecture is constantly under revision, that it’s not fixed and final.

Similarly, discerning the will of God for the church is work that has to move forward through time. Every generation has new challenges to work through, and the work of building on the foundation of Christ is never done.

3. The Wexner center is interesting for the way it builds on its foundation. It’s connection to the foundation is complex—more connected for being less obvious. 

Wexner Center (inside)

One of the most interesting features is a column that playfully deconstructs what a column is. It doesn’t rest on the ground, but hangs from above, it doesn’t support the roof overhead but is itself supported by the roof. But notice. The cross members that it hangs from are supported by what? The wall at the edge of the building. And that wall is resting on what? Not a hovercraft, not a gaseous substance or water or mud. The wall that holds the cross member that holds the column is itself resting on a solid foundation. Reference to the foundation can be deferred, but not disregarded altogether. 

Just because we’re built on the foundation, that doesn’t mean that the connection has to be obvious. Sometimes the church might need to cantilever it’s ministry into new terrain, or to make room for new ministry and new people. But a floor that cantilevered out over nothing in some ways has to rely on the foundation all the more. Think about Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic house called Falling Water.

Falling Water

The horizontal floors echo the dramatic rock formations below, and to achieve the effect of flying out over the water, they had to extend past the foundational supports. About 20 years ago, major cracks began to appear as the cantilevered concrete began to pull away from the foundation. As architectural historians began to cull through the details of its construction, they discovered an angry correspondence between the architect and the construction foreman, in which the lead on-site builder  tried to tell the Wright that the building would never last and that it would require twice as much steel reinforcement than Wright had specified. When the restoration of Fallingwater got to a certain point, they realized that despite the architects protests, the men who built it did in fact double on the the reinforcements to the foundation, and the only reason that the building lasted as long as it did was because those who built it took great care to build on the foundation that had been laid.

Paul says that the work of church leaders will one day be judged, not just in the slow breakdown of material by natural processes like gravity and erosion, but by a decisive gesture of God. The true nature of our work is not how good it looks, or how obviously it hews to the foundational footprint, or how big it is or how grand it is. What separates lasting material from ersatz imports can only be known by the revelation of God. There will come a Day when the Chief Building inspector asks us to show our work. Straw roofs will be consumed with fire, and wooden walls will be tinder in the fire, but there will be parts of the building that will remain in all their golden splendor. 

While the judgment of God might seem a foreboding prospect, if we care about the future of the building, we will welcome it now so that we don’t have to fear it in the future. Because we’re the children of God, its kind of like “knowing somebody down at the permit and inspection office.” We don’t fear their judgment but welcome it. There are several stages of getting construction inspected—the foundation, the framing, electrical and plumbing all have to be approved before the work is covered up with sheetrock. If we didn’t have those preliminary inspections, how much more trouble we would have to go to if something leaked or arced and the entire wall had to be torn off. Better to show our work while we’re still in process. Better to welcome God’s inspection of our church, knowing that it’s provisional and unfinished and maybe a bit messy and hard to explain to people who don’t understand what we’re trying to do here. 

In these days of uncertainty it’s important to remember that we are not the ultimate judge of what will last and what will not. This Special General Conference is important for the future of our church, but it is by no means the decisive moment that reveals which parts of the UMC that have been built on the solid rock of Jesus Christ. General Conference 2019 is more like a remodeling job whose worth will only be proven in God’s good future. 

There is something in these proceedings that makes us impatient for that future. Every plan and piece of legislation has its advocates, with the various factions determined to win out over their foes and to some extent that’s necessary. Take heart in this season of uncertainty. In the end as at the beginning, we are God’s building through and through. General Conference 2019 is not the Day of Judgment. It will not fully determine once and for all who is faithful and who isn’t. That is for God to do. Nor will General Conference determine how the church will look in the future. That is also the creative work of our Chief Architect who allows us to participate in good work of building the church. Back here at Oconee Street we can have the courage to extend ourselves in love because we are tied in to the foundation of Jesus Christ.

“Showing Your Work”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
1 Corinthians 3: 10-15
Feb. 24, 2019

Listen to the choir anthem, “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation

Lenten Devotional: Thursday, March 24

by Jamie Calkin

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Easter Week, painted with OSUMC sunday school children, Ink and watercolor on 4x8ft panel.

Matthew 26:36-38 (NIV)
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” 

Thank god I go to a church that welcomes trouble makers like me. For example, in talking to an Atlanta-area United Methodist pastor last year, I think I stopped him a bit short when I said the ‘hocus pocus’ of Jesus ascension wasn’t what made Easter and Jesus important to me. Usually, I try remember what Katie and many others at Oconee Street have said: it’s the power of story (not the suspension of logic) that makes the Bible so meaningful. The ’hocus pocus’ line just slipped out.:)

But for me, the story of Jesus in Gethsemane is still the most meaningful part of the Jesus Easter story. It’s no wonder that I put that image of Jesus at Gethsemane (based on painting by Michael D. O’Brien) centrally in the mural of Easter week painted with Ms. Jamie’s sunday school kids.

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Pencil and Pen on paper (on one of Sharon’s clipboard meant for the kids:)

To do the right thing in the face of fearful consequences is, for me, one of the most powerful things about Jesus’ story (I did the sketch) a few weeks ago (during Lisa’s sermon:). Jesus knew this was the likely  consequence!!!

And here is a 13-minute podcast of an incredible story of the same thing: doing the right thing in the face of fear:

http://www.newyorker.com/podcast/political-scene/evan-osnos-on-father-michael-pfleger

It’s about a Catholic parish priest, Father Michael Pfleger, in Chicago’s South Side and includes an amazing audioclip of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I’ve already written more than I intended, so to the …

Prayer: God, don’t let me forget that You were with Jesus throughout as you surely were with MLK and have been with Father Pfleger. I want to do the right thing, even in the face of my fears and doubts. I’ll try to remember Gethsemane. Thank you for your help God. And thank you for Jesus.

Lenten Devotional: Thursday, March 13

Every day during Lent, members of Oconee Street UMC will write a Lenten devotional and share with the congregation.

ALL I NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED IN THE CHURCH

by Sally Curtis AsKew

March 13, 2014

(With apologies to Robert Fulghum, author of All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten)

For most of us growing up in a small central Georgia town in the 1940s and 1950s, the focus of our lives was school and church.  For me the church early became a large part of my life.  My grandmother was at the Methodist Church every time the doors opened, and my sister and I grew up playing “missionary society” when other children played school.  There were two small churches in our town, Methodist and Baptist.  No animosity existed between them, and we joined in many of the activities at both churches.  It was out of that kind of cooperative, loving environment that I grew in my understanding of the church and what it means to be a Christian.

For a small, traditional Georgia town we were blessed to have wonderful ministers at both the Baptist and Methodist churches who understood the need for cooperation.  As I look back on those ministers, they along with my grandmother helped me on my journey of learning to live with those whose opinions differ from mine and to listen to them.  Those ministers and my grandmother were the first to raise my awareness of the chasm between the white and black communities in our town and to nudge me toward working to overcome that chasm.  I learned that even though we loved the woman who cooked and cleaned for us, that there was a huge divide between her and her family and us.  I struggled with my own relationships with black persons as well as with white persons who lived and believed differently from the way my family did.  It was the church and my involvement in M.Y.F. which threw me into the boycott of the swimming pool at Lake Junaluska in the mid-1950s as I shared a suite with  black teenagers from Birmingham.   I learned to stand up and say that I thought the disparate treatment of blacks and whites was wrong.  

Those first steps I took in learning to disagree with others without being disagreeable and severing relationships were important as I continued to grow through my years at LaGrange College, working for the Woman’s Division of Christian Service Summer Service program in the summers, marrying a preacher, moving from place to place in the North Georgia Conference, becoming a mother, and gradually finding my place in an adult world. 

As a young adult I struggled to deepen my own spiritual life through participation in small groups of sharing and praying.  It was out of a group where we dealt for more than a year with a book on the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of  Matthew that my concern for civil rights for all persons grew and grew. I found I had to speak out in places where my words were not welcome.   However, I felt my deepening Christian commitment required me to speak out.  Then, in the 1970s I found myself again having to speak out when I really didn’t always want to on issues like equal rights for women, sexist language, abortion, sexuality, the rights of workers to organize, welfare rights, poverty, and globalization.  Even though as a human being, I knew that only God had  the final and complete answers, I felt I must speak out of the desire to follow the command to do justice and love my neighbor as myself.   

In 1990 I was introduced to a book Unity and Diversity in the New Testament  by James D.G. Dunn.  It was a forbidding looking tome, hundreds of pages long and scholarly.  The more I read, the more excited I became.  In a book by book examination of the New Testament Professor Dunn guided readers to the conclusion that there is only one common thread to the entire New Testament, only one thing that all the authors agree on: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. 

As much as I have raved and ranted in my mind against others who think differently from me in the 20 years since my first encounter with Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, I find myself unable to do that publicly.  I find that I cannot tear down those with whom I disagree, but I must talk in a civil manner with them and try to find those places where we may agree and to agree to disagree on others.  We need to learn to talk about issues of war, peace, poverty, security, sexuality, abortion, and so many others and, most importantly, to learn to disagree without being disagreeable.  We need to take heart from the lessons Professor Dunn teaches: to spread the word that Jesus is the Christ does not imply or require that we agree on every issue before us today.  It only requires that we follow the leading of the Jesus Christ who continues to be revealed to each of us as we grow and learn to disagree without being disagreeable.   This is just one of the lessons I learned from the church, and it is a lesson all of us need to learn and relearn throughout our lives. 

Ash Wednesday Sermon: Holy Habits

“Holy Habits” by The Rev. Lisa Caine

Matthew 6:1-6, 19-21 • March 5, 2014 (Ash Wednesday)

Our theme for Lent this year is Holy Habits.  We are here tonight and we gather here on Sunday mornings and at other times because we sense the presence of something greater than ourselves within us and around us.  We seek closer communion with that Other, with God,  whom Paul describes in Acts as the One in whom we live and move and have our being.   But how do we go about doing that besides coming together for worship on Sundays?

John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist denomination wondered about that too.  As a young man, together with his brother Charles, he organized a group of likeminded persons into what was known as a “holy club.” There they encouraged one another, read and studied scriptures together, prayed, practiced fasting, and encouraged each other to participate regularly in worship and Holy Communion.  Wesley believed that the methodical commitment to these spiritual habits would result in the grace of God being channeled into a person’s life, and he considered these “Holy Habits” to be means or channels of God’s grace.

The primary means of grace, according to Wesley include: avoiding harmful behavior, doing good, praying, engaging in Christian conversation, fasting, participating in Holy Communion, and searching the scriptures.   And so this Lent, we will follow in our founder’s footsteps, at least for a little ways, in the hope that the development or strengthening of Holy Habits will lead us to a closer relationship with God and with one another.

Wesley, of course, was not the first to recommend the importance of certain practices to come closer to God.  The Old Testament is full of practices – thou shalts and thou shalt nots – designed to bring the Hebrew people into right relationship with God and each other.  Each of the laws that were so carefully spelled out in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy were designed to remind them that they were a chosen people, blessed by God to be a blessing.  And the observance of these laws, and the performance of certain actions and the refraining from certain others were designed to keep holiness and right relationship with God constantly at the forefront of one’s attention.  So that from getting up in the morning until going to bed at night, every action was aimed at pleasing God and being holy as God is holy.

These laws were not meant to be ends in themselves, but were meant to be constant reminders and pointers beyond the act itself to God.  They were a means of discipline and a regimen for growing in faith.  Performed rightly, with exquisite care and concentration, the mind could be focused on God and God alone.  So – I am washing my hands before meals because God is pure and I want to be pure.  Hand washing is a reminder – it not only effects clean hands, but it points towards something even greater than clean hands, the purity and holiness of God.

But you know how it is with a lot of rules and traditions.  They become ends in themselves after awhile, and pretty soon means and ends get confused.  So hand washing becomes an end in itself.  And if you can wash your hands while others are around to see you do it, then you reap double benefit – very clean hands and the admiration of the onlookers. And if you can criticize someone who has failed to wash his hand, you can perhaps be seen as a pious and knowledgeable upholder of the law.

So it was with the Pharisees who come in for some pretty hard knocks in the gospel of Matthew.  In our reading for tonight, Jesus lifts up some holy habits – habits that we are going to be talking about and practicing in the next four weeks – but he says, don’t perform these habits the way the Pharisees do them.  They are experts at giving alms and praying and fasting, but unfortunately they are now doing them for the wrong reasons; they’re doing them for an audience, and that audience isn’t God; it’s other people.  They like to be seen – not just by God, but by their peers.  They enjoy the attention – not just from God, but from the crowds.

Now before we jump on the “beat up on the Pharisees” bandwagon, we have to stop to admit that we kind of like the approval of others too.  There are things we do and don’t do that are aimed at acceptance, appreciation, admiration, or praise.  We all like to be liked and looked up to.  Anybody here not appreciate positive attention?  And we also do things that are designed to keep us safe and protect us – have you ever withheld information about yourself, or refrained from a particular behavior because you feared you might not be liked if you were totally honest?   And, of course, we do things for control, to maintain a power balance, to never seem vulnerable or weak because vulnerability and weakness are signs of failure in our culture.   So when Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites,” instead of immediately pointing our fingers and nodding in self-righteous agreement, we have to admit “been there, done that.”

Jesus is telling his disciples that when we give gifts, when we pray, when we fast or practice other holy habits we have to decide what is our motivation, who is our audience, for whom is the effort intended, and with whom do we wish to establish a relationship.  If we decide to go for the recognition, praise, and attention of our peers, then Jesus says we will receive an appropriate reward – which is exactly the recognition, praise, and attention of our peers – no more, no less.  I have a sinking feeling that this means if I give a gift to charity, even to the church, on December 31 because I need another tax deduction, that’s exactly what I’ll receive – another tax deduction. No more, no less.  And if I decide during these four weeks not to eat chocolate, hoping to lose five pounds in the process, and even ask God to help me to accomplish this goal, that’s what I’ll get.  A five pound weight loss.  No more, no less.  Jesus says in each example, as the Pharisees sound the trumpets before giving alms, or pray loudly on the street corner, or drape themselves in sackcloth and ashes while fasting, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”

But if we want a different kind of reward, then we approach these habits quietly, humbly, free from the temptations of the crowd, and focused on the One whom we want to please, whom we want to know better, love better, and serve better.  Three times Jesus says, “your father who sees in secret, will reward you.”   In this time of Lent, as we prepare for Easter, we have the opportunity to be present to God and to seek guidance and renewal for no other reason than to love God more.

For some it may be a time to concentrate on prayer, for when we pray, we are changed as God meets us where we are and moves us deeper.  Prayer brings us into the presence of God, where we are open to change and grace.  For some, Lent is a time of abstention, and many people give something up for Lent.  John Wesley encouraged regular fasting as a way of drawing nearer to God.  In abstaining, we are reminded that we are truly sustained by God.   For all of us, I hope, Lent will be a time of giving and generosity, as we remember Jesus saying, “do not store up treasures for yourself on earth; where you treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

In a moment each of us will come to the altar and have a cross of ashes placed on our foreheads as a symbol – a symbol that we need to repent and change our direction, and that we are human creatures, made by God from dust and in our physical being destined to return to dust.    It will be an opportunity to commit ourselves to practices that will remind us of God and will have the potential to lead us into an ongoing and closer relationship and awareness of God.  May it be so for you and for me as well.  Amen.

Oconee Street congregation heading home

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by Joe Dennis

The congregation of Oconee Street United Methodist Church will be moving back to its 717 Oconee St. location in April, nearly a year after a fire destroyed the sanctuary of the historic Athens church.

“April 15 is the anniversary of the fire, and we all felt strongly that we wanted to return on or before that anniversary,” said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Lisa Caine in an email to the church congregation. “One year is long enough to be away from home.”

The church consisted of two buildings: the sanctuary built in 1902 and an education building erected several years later. Although the fire destroyed the sanctuary, the foundation of the education wing survived the blaze — with significant damage.

“It had to be taken back to the studs,” said Maxine Easom, chair of the church’s rebuilding committee and lifelong church member. “The smoke and water damage was too much to save the interior.”

After roughly six months of construction and renovation, the building is set to be ready for occupancy by the end of February. While construction of the brand new sanctuary begins next door, the congregation plans to temporarily worship on the first floor of the education building, which consists of a few classrooms and an open gathering space.

“Much is the same, and much has changed from what we knew prior to the fire,” Caine said. “The space looks wonderful and will function much better for us as we move ahead.”

As the education building was being refurbished, members of the church have been meeting at the chapel of Tuckston United Methodist Church on Lexington Road in Athens. “We are so grateful for their hospitality and inviting us to use their chapel,” Caine said.

While still holding Sunday service at the Tuckston Chapel, Caine said the congregation will use March as a “moving month,” furnishing the classrooms and transforming the first floor into a worship space. Caine hopes the Oconee Street UMC and Tuckston UMC can hold a joint service on April 6, before the congregation moves back home.

“My heart is full of gratitude for how far we have come,” she said. “God has been good to us. We have new challenges ahead as we go through the process of moving and as we adjust to our ‘new’ location. But I have no doubts about our being able to do that and to move forward confidently, supported by the hope and faith that has carried us throughout.”

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