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This sermon was given by John Wolforth on Nov 23, 2008 while Rick was in Colombia.


Good Morning.   This is my third sermon and Moose Lake UMC.  My first was the spiritual journey ending with my coming to Moose Lake United Methodist, second was my attempt at preaching from the readings as they are assigned by the lectionary.  This time I will split the difference, speak to the readings for today, then talk about the journey I have had since getting here and working with the Sunday School.  I realize we haven't had much of a Sunday School this year, but I hope you find the story interesting, and I think it's something we should keep in front of us and be ready for whatever might be in our future.

Today marks the end of the liturgical year.  Matthew gives us Jesus' last public teaching.  After this, are the stories of arrest and crucifixion, which we leave for Easter.  Next week we'll start with the coming of Christmas.  What I really like about this reading is a perfect example of why it's a good idea to read what comes before and after any particular story or reading, especially in the New Testament. 

We read these bits each week as if they stand on their own, but of course they don’t.  Each must be viewed through many lenses, the first being the context of the reading itself, then the larger context of the whole book, plus considering who is the author and where did this occur in history.  No one lens or view is the right one. I have spent a lot of time with the historical lens, and eventually figured out it is not the whole story.

We have already covered the context of the two parables that preceded this passage in the last two weeks.  We had some women not giving up their extra oil and then a man being cast in to the outer darkness because he didn't invest the money his mean boss gave him.  Both of those can be taken out of context, or otherwise misinterpreted.  But today's is pretty clear, there is a plan, there is an end to all of this, and in the end, those who fed the hungry, helped the homeless and healed the sick will be rewarded.  A little sketchy on the details of what the reward is, but it's probably better than eternal punishment.

Some Bibles use the words "eternal fire", which I don't believe is a literal fire.  And even eternity now has a different cultural context than it did when these words were spoken.  The view of the universe, how vast it is, and even what time is, is partly cultural.  For example, it may seem difficult to accept that the universe as we know it has an end, but for a long time, science did not accept that there was a beginning.  The term "big bang" was originally quoted as a way of mocking the current theory, now widely accepted scientifically, of the beginning of the universe.  Before that, it was widely accepted that the universe had just always been here.

In this case, our biblical story was a more accurate description of the beginning, although again, lacking in details.  Of course for some people this is still not enough and they want to get into discussions about the age of the universe, or when did dinosaurs exists, I don't think that's important.  This passage repeats three times, what Jesus stands for, what he taught was important, then it ends with this half of a sentence about an eternal reward, and unfortunately, that gets a lot of attention.  A lot is made of whether you believe in heaven or whether or not you believe in hell, and it can get in the way of the discussion of how do we what is important, like help the poor.

And we need to have that discussion.  Jesus offered us a vision, but did not intend to write a manual on community organizing.  He simply says, "for I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat", but we know there is more to it than that.  Once that hungry person is fed, they need to get with the program, be part of the solution and find someone else in need and help him or her.  The two preceding stories give us some sense of the complexities of this.  Those women should have thought ahead and brought enough oil for their lamps, but should the other's have closed the door on them and shut them out of the marriage feast for their mistake?  I think today's reading says no. 

Well, I'm could get all worked up about this and go on about community organizing.  I did say I wanted to talk about my Sunday School experience here, and I think that story will help explain how I look at something like this reading and pick out what is important.

About two years and a half years ago, we had some kids show up.  This was very exciting for all of us.  In my excitement, I said, "I'll do Sunday School!" 

So, Brandon and Peyton and I head downstairs, and not being sure what else to do, we open up the Bible to page one and start reading.  Brandon was a voracious reader, he was fast, reading the words, and the chapter numbers.  I thought we'd go through it slow and stop and discuss each day of creation, and he'd ask questions, but he just kept going.  That was a bit of relief since I didn't have to do anything.  I also thought we'd stop at the end of the 7th day, but he just kept going, right on to the bit about temptation.  He finally started to glance up at me a little, with kind of a twisted expression of "huh?" 

I tried brush it off with statements like, "some people say", or "there are more than one way to look at that".  I don’t remember exactly what I said.

So, I thought I should look around for something else to work with.  I found some dried up glue sticks, and tempera paint jars with the lids stuck on.  We had plenty of crayons and scissors, but no craft projects, no schedule.  Our books were mostly geared toward pre-teens and teens, which would make sense because that who was in Sunday School the last time we had any.  I have found a few more books since then and some people have helped me out with that.

Our pastor at the time, Pam, helped out with a few toys, some pipe cleaners and a workbook called "Life Together".  I opened that up and the lesson for the week was something to do with preparing for the second coming.  It helped me a somewhat because I got the sense of how to take these stories and simplify them.  There are some parts of the Bible, most parts actually, that have "adult situations", and it's best to just skip those, until you're working with kids who are mature enough.  But, the bigger problem I had is, waiting for the second coming.  This is what made my Mother finally leave the church.  She had heard it all her life, and as she became an adult, she just couldn't accept it anymore.  And I have talked with many people who have this same difficulty with Christianity and I couldn't just regurgitate this and hope Brandon could sort it out.  I needed to figure out to get from "Jesus is coming, so you better read your Bible" to "Feed the hungry, help the homeless".

So going straight from the workbook was going to be difficult for me.  And I realized I need to understand these stories better myself.  What interpretation can I speak about and be faithful to the text, and come across as authentic, because a 9 year old can smell inauthentic.

Finding Sunday School resources doesn't seem like it should be that big of a challenge, there are whole stores for it, and many free resources available, but our unique challenge it that we are small.  Most workbooks assume there are at least a few kids who can work together on projects.  And they assume different age groups will split up.  There are only a few designed for the "one room school house" we have here.

But I managed to put a few things together.  I did a thing on the plagues, which reminded Brandon of some horror movies he had seen.  I also love Christmas, so I had lots of fun talking about that throughout December.  I tried to work in teaching about the liturgical year and Jewish celebration, I'm not as sure about how those went over.

And we did get into some interesting theological discussion.  We talked about Martin Luther on the day we celebrate his nailing the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church.  Andrew asked about other religions, so I gave a very brief history, but he wanted to know more about the differences and he seemed to have some awareness that wars had been fought over these differences.  I wasn't prepared to sort out the differences of kingdoms throughout millennia, so instead I talked about how that is mostly in the past, today, religious leaders of different faiths get together and talk about their similarities.  And, pretty much on his own, he got that each are pointing to the same thing, just in different ways.

So this was going pretty well.  I would find projects or stories on my own, or sometimes work from the "Life Together" workbook and was putting together a curriculum of sorts.  Then I looked ahead to February, coming up on Easter, and found this thing called the transfiguration. The story is Jesus takes a couple of the disciples up on a mountain to show them just how important their work is, because he knows what's coming.  He knows his death is coming and he wants to assure that this all part a larger plan.

Up on this mountain, he “transfigures” into a glowing kinda spirit, and Moses appears, also glowing, and this guy named Elijah.  Well, I knew these boys pretty well by now and I knew they would ask me who that was. Moses I can handle, but Elijah I had only heard in a Jewish context, I knew very little about him.  I've heard the part about how they leave an empty chair for him, because he might come to the Passover dinner.

He must be important if he's appearing on a Mt. next to Jesus, but he doesn't have a book named after him, so I couldn't find his story.  Our district superintendent Katie happened to visit right around then, so I got a little help from her and she pointed me to the book of Kings.  The story of Elijah starts with King Solomon, so I did a class on the famous story of the baby being divided between two women who claim to be it's mother.  That was fun. 

Meanwhile I continued to read about this prophet.  I found some stories that I can really feel and pass on.  For example, at one point Elijah goes off in to the mountains, to a cave, to talk to God and first a huge wind comes up, but no voice of God, then an earthquake, still not God, then a fire, and after the fire came a gentle whisper.  And Elijah steps out of the cave, and has one of the rare discussions with God, not a dream or an angel, but a talk. 

This talk is somewhat of a turning point, and why Elijah is so important.  It's not about miracles anymore, not just about having faith, and if you don't have faith God will open up the Red Sea and that should convince you.  It's now about offering guidance to the Kings and administrators and helping to create a just world, a world where the homeless and the sick are cared for.

What was really interesting for me, was that I saw how the Bible is structured.  I finally have some context for all these disjointed stories. 

I should mention that this is not something to take on alone.  I've been talking about me, but I had help.  I mentioned our district superintendent, and Pam, and Rick has been a big help and I've had some conversation with some of you.  We have some good people right here, Clayton, Norma, Diane, do more than just set up a glass of water, change the batteries in the smoke alarms, write personnel manuals, make banners and figure out how to add a lift.  While they are doing all of that, they do find some time to do the things a church is supposed to be doing, like comforting the sick or feeding the hungry. 

One of those lenses I mentioned earlier is the lens of our current culture.  So, having discussions with people you know about what you've been thinking recently or have read recently is very important.

I left you hanging back there with my discomfort with the second coming, but that wasn't the end of that.  I don't remember exactly what I read, or when this occurred to me, but I kept thinking about how can I talk about the second coming?  What does that mean?  The answer that came to me, is the same as how you would prepare for anyone coming to visit, coming to your house.  In this case, your house is the whole world.  You clean up a little, you make a little extra effort for dinner, you're on your best behavior.  I can teach that.

This has been the nature of my journey.  I find things, or hear of things that don't seem quite right to me.  I study and research them and just meditate on them, and find they can be interpreted to fit the overriding theme of a spirit that nurtures us and shows us the value of caring for each other. I’m not saying I can explain everything in the Bible, there is some stuff in Leviticus that I'm still working on.  But I don’t look for rigid rules.

I look more to the story from Matthew Chapter 12, when Jesus was confronted for healing on the Sabbath, you're not supposed to work on the Sabbath and the Pharisees were out to get him.  He replied, "it is lawful to good on the Sabbath".   He was saying, we don't need to follow a rigid rule for every situation, if it's a good thing, if it helps people, then it's okay.  And today we heard, what I think is a pretty good summary from the end of that ministry, Feed the hungry, help the homeless, heal and comfort the sick. 

 

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