Sermon: What Unites Us

Paul goes to the church of Corinth and finds the Corinthians divided. The cause of their division was over who baptized them.

Although the church today does not argue over baptism, a key issue often divides Christians — political ideology. Many people take pride belonging to churches that claim to be “progressive” or emphasizing “conservative family values.”

What would Paul’s message be us? The same it was to the Corinthians. What divides us doesn’t matter. The important thing is what unites us — the power of the cross. And despite human attempts to take control of the cross and shape its message, the power of the cross is unlike any other. It does not depend on us, it depends on God.

And we have been invited to participate in that power — but we cannot manipulate it.

Sermon: “What Unites Us”

“What Unites Us”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Jan. 27, 2019

Sermon: The Right Question

In an era of political tension, it’s easy to misuse the Bible for political gain. As the events at Willow Creek church demonstrate, you can preach Jesus Christ every Sunday morning and still use it for demonic purposes if your focus is on yourself, and not God. Jesus says anything that is standing in the way of salvation is demonic.

We go through life thinking other people owe us the debt of being what we imagine them to be. That’s a lie. Paying attention is one of the most important skills in life, and it’s only possible when Christ helps us find our true self and abandon our selfish self. If you truly want to follow Jesus, you’ll have to deny yourself. You’ll have to go through life not having it your way. You’ll have to bear other people’s burdens and be transformed by their problems.

“The Right Question”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Mark 8: 27-38
Aug. 12, 2018

Sermon: Form an alternate political reality with silence

God is always open to having a relationship with us. But often things get in the way of our relationship. One such thing our human desire for recognition, which can lead to self-righteousness. Jesus addresses this when he tells us in Matthew 6 that when we pray, we should do so in secrecy. Those who pray loudly and publicly trump their Christianity are receiving their reward on Earth — recognition.

It’s easy to understand take this story literally and think it’s just about prayer. But it’s about more than that. It’s about our relationship with God. In this highly partisan time, we’re tempted to publicly tout our allegiances to political parties and policies, surrounding ourselves with Facebook friends who will praise our beliefs. But are we doing this just to feel vindicated in our beliefs?

Imagine if we took Jesus’ words to heart, and practiced secrecy in our prayer. Imagine if we silently praised God and practiced God’s work on Earth. Imagine the political influence we would have if we, as people of God, all silently acted like Jesus, instead of arguing about what to do. Silence can be the formation of an alternate political reality.

Sermon

“The Secret Life of Piety”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Matthew 6: 1-7, 16-18
March 19, 2017 • 3rd Sunday of Lent

Sermon: Sprinkling salt on a divided world

There are evident divisions within our society, not only politically, but also spiritually among Christians.  There is a splintering in the belief of what evangelical Christian faith should look like. We should look at this as an exciting time — we have an opportunity to be what Jesus said we should be: the salt and light of the world.

We should be adding our Christian flavor — our salt —  to help solve problems like immigration, hunger, poverty, etc. God doesn’t want us to be ignorant of the political issues around us. However, we shouldn’t go “all in” without forgetting our faith. Although it’s necessary for us to be faithfully present with the world, it’s important for us to retain our distinctive witness.

Too much salt ruins the flavor of the dish. But no salt leaves the food bland. Our charge from Jesus is to be the salt of the world, influencing change through Christian witness. Not forcing our beliefs and values on others.

Sermon

“Salt for the Soil, Light for the World”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Matthew 5:13-16
Feb. 5, 2017

Sermon: Trump got you down? Through Jesus, we can make it right.

beatitudes-smallBanning refugees from our borders, promoting torture for our prisoners, placing a physical barrier between our Mexican brothers and sisters, creating a universe of “alternative facts” — the last week has been tough for many Christians.

We are in a blood fight. Not just in a blood fight about policy and what is right or wrong, but about what is true and what is false. It’s not just about The Trump administration. That is a symptom of the problem. The problem is that we lack a vision of salvation.

We’re called to live in the truth. The truth is not a fact, it’s not a precept, it’s not even a verse of Scripture. The truth is a living person — a living presence that we’ve had made available to us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus told us with The Beatitudes that all the situations that are beyond human hope can be made right.  There is nothing in this world that is going to set the world right for you other than the power of Jesus.  It’s time to turn this world upside-down.

Sermon

The Word in Song: “No Turning Back”

“#Blessed are …”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Matthew 5: 1-12
Jan. 29, 2016

Sermon: We have inherited Jesus’ power …

allsaintsdayAs we endure a bitter Presidential election campaign, it’s easy to get caught up in the “gloom and doom” politics of candidates and pundits. However, All Saints Day reminds us that there is someone much more important than our President.  The saints show us there is a power greater than the politicians and the celebrities that dominate our headlines.  That “old story” in the Bible reminds us that while those with earthly power may take our lives, they cannot fully describe the meaning of our death.

Sermon

The Word in Song: “The Cloud of Witnesses”

“Our Storied Inheritance”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Ephesians 1: 11-23
Nov. 6, 2016 • All Saints Day

 

Sermon: The Gift of Misfits

“The Gift of Misfits”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Luke 6:20-23
March 20, 2016 • Palm Sunday

“Hosanna!” Call to Worship featuring Youth Quintet

“What the Lord Has Done in Me”  The Word in Song featuring Carla Dennis on flute

Sermon

During these weeks of Lent we have been exploring the “Dark Wood,” the shadow side of our lives, those feelings and situations where we seem out of step with the rest of the world, uncertain of what to do next, lost in a place not of our own making, tempted to settle and not rock the boat, lacking the knowledge or the tools even to fake it until we make it, but occasionally being gifted with glimpses of what might be if we persevere and don’t give up. Somehow what seems to be in each case a loss, proves to be a gift when we allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit to depend less on ourselves and what we think we know or must have for sure, and depend more on the revelations that come to us when we are stripped clean of all of our props, excuses and defenses.

The truth is that in vulnerability we find our strength, in losing our lives we find them; in surrender we gain victory.  And through those experiences, we find the last and perhaps best gift of the dark wood, the gift of misfits, ourselves and others, all of us experiencing our own “endarkenment” and finding companionship as we help one other, taking turns being guides, mentors, and friends.

Jesus and his disciples could be thought of as a group of misfits – a carpenter, some fishermen,  a tax collector – all from the country, trying to be leaders, bringing the unorthodox message that the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand to other misfits in the world – the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the persecuted, the powerless, telling them that are blessed; they are the ones for whom God has a special affection; that in the midst of the deepest challenges of their lives, God has somehow placed the most profound joys.

Jesus tells them that the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor; that the hungry will be filled, the weeping will laugh, and those who are excluded, hated, reviled, and defamed can rejoice because their reward will be great.  He doesn’t idealize or romanticize or spiritualize any of these conditions; they are real evils, communal, social evils, contrary to God’s will and love for the world, and they will be addressed and eradicated. These were – and still are – scandalous promises because they upset the way things are. To eliminate poverty, to feed the hungry, to comfort the hopeless, to welcome the stranger – all these things require a overturning of conventional expectations and norms. Jesus’ mother  Mary had sung about these things before he was born – “[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. . . . brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; . . . filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Lk 1:51-53)

Scripture can be breathtakingly contemporary and disconcertingly political. As is so often said, Jesus was not crucified because he said “consider the lilies of the field;” he was put to death because of the incredible inversion of the social order that he was proposing – not for some time in the future, in the great by and by, but right here, right now, whether in the first century or in the 21st century.  In the first century, the ordinary people had no voice, economic exploitation of the underclasses by the privileged was expected. The working poor were kept poor through restrictions on ownership of land, by taxation, and by indentured labor through default on debt. And below the working poor, were those in desperate need, unable to help themselves, the beggars, homeless, and destitute.  The tendency then as now was to blame them for their misfortune; they brought it on themselves – which in some way then serves as a reason for not offering assistance – making a distinction between the “deserving” poor and the “undeserving” poor.

The rich were thought to be blessed by God, given special opportunities because of their virtue and hard work. Today some call that theo-capitalism.  And  today corporate wealth is joined with individual wealth and also entitled to equal blessings, because “corporations are people too,” as we were told a few years ago.  Thus when Jesus-like questions are asked – why are the structures as they are? What can be done to economic systems that will alleviate poverty, so that the rising tide does truly float all ships and not just some, there is immediate objection. Richard Rohr wrote in his morning devotional today, “Because structural sin is accepted as good and necessary on the corporate or national level,” greed, ride, and ambition are considered virtues.  Twenty years or so ago, Archbishop Helder Camara pointed out, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist.”

Now the political and religious leaders of the 1st century did not call Jesus a communist, or a socialist – they didn’t have those words – but they perhaps labeled him a misfit along with other negative  terms like trouble-maker or rabble rouser, and the more directly challenged maybe chose stronger language –  insurrectionist and blasphemer. It is human nature that more challenged someone is, the stronger their defensive language becomes; some things never change. And now this “misfit” had left the countryside, where he was only a distant irritant, befriending outcasts, eating with the unclean, defending criminals, breaking all kinds of rules, stirring up the poor, the oppressed, the sick and homeless, the hungry, telling them that God loves them best, reminding them of the old rule in Deuteronomy about loving God and neighbor, but insisting that they not only remember it, but actually do it. As long as he kept to the country, he was annoying but not a threat.

But then the misfit came to town, riding towards Jerusalem on a donkey, with followers galore waving palm branches, or placing them in his path and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  The stony road into Jerusalem became a spontaneous parade route with loud, poor, insignificant, no account misfits actually having the audacity to celebrate and sing.

It was Passover, the holiday when the Jewish people celebrated their freedom from captivity in Egypt, when God led them out and across the sea, killing their Egyptian oppressors and giving God’s people a place to call home, which now unfortunately was under the rule of another oppressive regime; the Romans this time.  Needless to say the current oppressors, were a bit nervous during Passover; they had their own parade of sorts going on the other side of town as  they reinforced their legions of soldiers and their supply of arms just in case someone or some group got out of hand with the celebration of their long lost freedom and started to do something crazy.  Jesus was headed to the temple and they were headed to the military headquarters which actually faced the temple across the plaza.[i]

Jesus must have been afraid as he entered the well-armed city. He was human after all. But he did it anyway. I wonder if it felt as much like a funeral procession to him as a holiday parade. He knew where the road ended. He’d been predicting it all along. That same road strewn with palm branches would soon enough be the rocky road he’d be dragged over, and the crowd would be shouting a different message, “Crucify him!”  All because he opposed the status quo and challenged the hypocrisy of the priests and authorities.  He did it anyway because it was the right thing to do. It was what he had to do.  And Pilate, too did what he thought he had to do to keep the peace – get rid of one more dangerous misfit.

It has been noted that “it is important to realize that [who and] what killed Jesus was nothing unusual. [As] empires go, Rome was better than most. There was nothing exceptional or abnormal about it; this is is simply the way domination systems behave. So common is this dynamic that it can also be called the normalcy of civilization. Good Friday was the result of the collision between the passion of Jesus and the normalcy of civilization.”[ii]

We today live in a very normal civilization. The normalcy of our civilization keeps the powerful in power, protects the wealth of the rich, prevents the poor from escaping poverty. The normalcy of our civilization keeps refugees out; snatches fathers from their families and ships them off to detention facilities, and leaves mothers and children penniless and weeping. “Blessed are those who weep for they shall know joy.” The normalcy of our civilization gives white men the benefit of the doubt and puts black men in jail or worse.

Thus, Holy Week serves as a template today for us 21st century would-be misfits. Sometimes we celebrate, sometimes we stumble over rocks; sometimes we are praised; sometimes we are criticized. But if we want to be a misfit like Jesus, even knowing the cost, we, like him, must press on asking questions, looking for solutions, protesting injustice when we see it.  Holy Week, is not just one week, but happens every week, every year, every lifetime.[iii]

Last week during prayer concerns, Joel  mentioned Berta Caceres, a Honduran activist who was murdered on March 3 because of her work for the protection of the natural resources of Honduras. Honduras in an attempt to build the national economy  granted contracts to transnational companies looking to capitalize on Honduran land. The protestors’ actions against the destruction of forests and the damming of rivers brought death threats. And Berta said, last year “giving our lives in various ways for the protection of the rivers is giving our lives for the well-being of humanity and of this planet. I take lots of care, but in the end, in this country where there is total impunity, I am vulnerable . . . when they want to kill me, they will do it.”[iv] Berta was a holy misfit.

Palm Sunday asks us to join in the misfit parade.  We’ve already brought our palm branches to the altar, so we’re off to a good start. Palm Sunday tells us that we cannot stand mutely by and expect the stones to do our work for us. We must be the ones to speak out. Fortunately, we do not do this alone.  We have one another; fellow misfits who want to walk fully in the path of Jesus, treating all as persons made in God’s image regardless of difference, and acting together to serve, strengthen, and extend God’s realm of love[v] whatever the challenge; whatever the cost.

I’ve told you before that if I were a church planter, two names I’d love to call the new church are St. Thomas the Doubter UMC and Christ the Hen UMC. Today I’d like to add another to the list: UMC of the Misfits. We couldn’t do much better than that.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; Peace in heaven and hosanna in the highest! May it be so. Amen.

[i] Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, Jesus’ Last Week, 2006, 100.

[ii] Borg and Crossan

[iii] Rev. Claire Feingold Thoryn, “Power, Politics, and Palm Sunday: Which Leader Will You Follow?” Patheos, 3/12/16

[iv] Betsy Shirley, Sojourners, 3/18/16

[v] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and other Wanderers), 2015, 184-85,

Lenten Devotional: Saturday, March 12

If Jesus were a single-issue voter, what would his single issue be?
by Janet Frick

James 2:14-18 (NIV)
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.

The 2016 presidential election is still 8 months away, and yet we are already seeing a baffling / disturbing electoral process that seems to be driven more by outrage and click-baity headlines than by serious substance and debate about the direction of our country. One of the principles that I am trying to teach my children is to treat our elected officials with respect, even if we don’t agree with all of their politics. Since my kids were old enough to understand voting (3-year-old Melanie was fascinated with “Arackabama” in 2008), our family has discussed elections, and I have had them do research on the different candidates to learn more about them and to try to understand their issues and values. Yet despite my best efforts this year, it is hard to explain exactly what we are seeing in the media (and, frankly, it is hard to disguise my own confusion and bafflement at the statements and actions of some of the candidates).

When it comes to understanding what factors motivate voter turnout and participation in elections, many voters describe themselves as “single-issue voters.” This issue may be motivated by “liberal” values, such as minority rights or improving immigration issues. Or the single issue may be one that resonates more with conservative voters, such as abortion or being anti-same-sex marriage. Single-issue voters usually feel passionately about their issue, and use it as a litmus test for which candidates can be supported vs. which ones have to be immediately ruled out.

An op-ed I read recently, written by the associate pastor of the church I attended in high school, gave me a fresh perspective on what “single issue” should (arguably) unite all Christians, whether we consider ourselves politically conservative or liberal. If we describe ourselves as followers of Christ, and aspire to follow his lead in what our priorities are, what would be the number one issue? What social / political issue is discussed the most throughout Scripture? Is it guns? Sexual sin? Immigration? Greed? Love?

Actually, a strong case can be made that the single issue uniting Christians should be poverty. There are over 2000 verses in the Bible concerning economic justice for the poor. Jesus admonished his followers over and over to care for the needy in their society, to give up their possessions and follow him, and to prioritize spiritual things over earthly possessions. As Rev. Bowen-Marler writes in this op-ed, “the beauty of being a single issue voter on poverty is that nestled within that single issue are a plethora of other issues: payday lending reform, Medicaid expansion, affordable health care for all people, race equity, defense, foreign policy, education, transportation, campaign finance reform, the list goes on and on and on. And let’s be real here, all the evidence shows that the No. 1 way to reduce abortions is by reducing poverty. For pro-life Christians, wouldn’t it then make sense to elect politicians committed to reducing poverty so that in turn the rate of abortions in our country will go down?”

Political liberals and conservatives might disagree on the best strategies for reducing poverty, but if all Christ-followers were committed to taking steps in both their personal and political lives to reduce poverty and to genuinely prioritize the needs of the poor, how radical a shift would that be for our country? In this lenten season, as we reflect on how we might eliminate excess in our own lives, how might we use this election season as an opportunity to look in our communities for ways that we might make tangible steps to care for the needy all around us?

Prayer: God, help us to love as you love, to see the world with your eyes, and to show our faith through our words and deeds. Amen.

Further reading:

http://www.news-leader.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/03/03/christian-voters-single-issue-poverty/81290240/

Lenten Devotional: Friday, March 4

by Joe Dennis

Matthew 6:5-6
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

In this politically-charged season, as some of our candidates flaunt their Christianity by using public prayer in their political outings, I am often reminded of something a political science professor once told me: “If you have to keep saying you’re running a ‘grassroots campaign,’ then it is likely not a ‘grassroots campaign.’ Likewise, I often wonder about our politicians who flaunt their Christianity.

Being educated in Catholic schools from kindergarten to 12th grade, prayer was a daily, mandatory part of the school day. Students would recite the same rote prayers every day, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. I’m sure they were trying to instill good, Christian (and patriotic) habits in us. It didn’t work for me. Immediately after graduation and through my early adulthood, I abandoned prayer.

When Carla and I discovered Oconee Street UMC in 2001, getting back to the weekly habit of going to church was easy for me. Prayer proved much more difficult. It was during the aftermath of 9/11, and public prayer was becoming commonplace. But just like all those Catholic school days, the prayers felt empty to me.

Then I stumbled upon this verse, and it made complete sense. In order for prayer to work, I need to have a one-on-one connection with God. I need the silence to organize my thoughts to communicate with God. I need to be alone in the presence of God, so God can reach me.

If I flaunt my Christianity, my reward is Earthly: as people around me hear my prayers, they will praise me for being such a good Christian. But if I pray by myself in private, God is hearing my prayers, and my reward is Heavenly.

I’d much prefer the latter.

Prayer: God, thank you for the one-on-one time you give me every time I pray. Amen.