Tuesday, May 19, 2009

God's sense of humor is intimately linked with God's sense of time.

Today, Matt got up and rode to a conference for preachers with his friend and colleague. This conference, called the Festival of Homiletics, is kind of a big deal. Last year, 2300 preachers and ministers of all kinds descended upon Minneapolis for this conference. This year, it's back in Atlanta, and we were thrilled that it would be so close.

So, today, Matt arrived for the opening session and at around 10:30 am, was approached an asked to speak at the Festival. Today. At 1:30. Apparently, Jim Wallis missed his plane.

Jim, wherever you are, Thank you.

So, with a little bit of frenzy and a lot of trust, Matt walked to the pulpit at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, and began his lecture. People laughed at his jokes, they nodded at his points, they murmured in agreement. Also, they showed up, which had caused some brief concern. He may not be Jim Wallis, but he's got something to say.

I'm proud of you, Matt Flemming. And, I managed to control myself and not bring my rainbow wig or big foam finger or sign that read, "I share intimate moments with this man!!" or, "I know Matt Flemming (Biblically, that is)" which I think is a sign of my devotion.

You've worked long and hard for such a time as this. Well done, Boo.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Remembering SPC Ryan King

On May 1, 2009, SPC Ryan King and two others from his unit were killed in an attack. He and his new wife, Rachel were both serving in the Army and stationed in Afghanistan. They were scheduled to return in June. Ryan was 22 years old.

Ryan's mother attends Saint Mark UMC, and today she grieves the loss of her oldest son with her partner, her two children and Ryan's widow.

The funeral was scheduled for 11:00, and when I arrived at 10:00, the funeral home was packed. The Patriot Guard was present for support and protection against any protesters. The service was powerful and moving, and the question hovering in the room was, "Why, O Lord? Why?" We lifted our voices and sang "I'll Fly Away" and "Amazing Grace" with throats thick with sorrow.

After the service, the funeral procession began from Dallas,GA to the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton. For the duration of the 36 miles, a procession of motorcycles, limousines, police escorts and cars stretched for a mile past the hearse. It seemed that all of North Georgia had come out to pay their respects. Schools and businesses shut down. Marquees donned Ryan's name. Veterans knelt in sorrow on the side of the road. Flags were waved and tears were shed. Interstates were blocked, and overpasses were crowded with people pausing to remember. The trees of the field clapped their hands in mourning.

We are gathering for the interment now. In this sight, there is the amazing grace of God who sits with us as we weep.

My Chains are gone, I've been set free.
My God, My Savior has ransomed me.
And like a flood, his mercy reigns.
unending love, amazing 'Grace.
- Chris Tomlin, Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sermon: Let us Love One Another

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Sermon, Festival of the Christian Home
Bearden United Methodist Church
May 10, 2009

1 John 4:7-21, NRSV

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed to us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in God and God in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is not fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because God first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Jen: The Word of God for the People of God.
All: Thanks be to God.

May my meditation be pleasing to you, O God, for I rejoice in the Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

If I may, I’d like to begin this morning with an apology. The last time I was here, was on my birthday, May 24, 2002. It was a few days after my finals of my second year of seminary, and Rev. Pollock had extended an invitation for me to come and preach. I was young, inexperienced, and emboldened with one preaching class and a whopper of a Wesleyan Theology paper under my belt. So, I came, and preached to you what was essentially that paper. Sisters and Brothers, you were so gracious. So kind. Maybe I preached with some conviction and knowledge, but certainly with no sense of hospitality or compassion. So, today, my clever mother has found that the only way to get me to come celebrate Mother’s Day with her is to wrangle the UMW into inviting me to preach. Well done, Mom. Well done. It was with great joy and much humility that I accepted Linda Warner’s invitation, and I am so glad to be here with you today. I promise, this time, to preach you a sermon, rather than a final paper.

This morning, I also bring you greetings from Saint Mark United Methodist Church in midtown Atlanta, where I have been appointed as the Minister of Christian Education and Spiritual Formation for the past two years. They were gracious and kind to encourage me to come and be with you today with their blessing. Between their love and support, and yours, as well, I am certainly blessed to be called into service in this church we all call home.

Today, our text centers on the topic of love, and the love that we are called to have for one another. Today, we are also celebrating what we celebrate in the church as the Festival of the Christian Home. At Saint Mark, we have a number of non-traditional families. For days like this, when we celebrate our Mothers who have raised us, it calls into question what it means to be a family. Many of our congregants have been cast aside and are out of relationship with their mothers and fathers. So, this day arrives with weight. I imagine that’s true for some of us here today, as well. We know that we are commanded to honor our mothers and fathers, who have, from time to time, disappointed or hurt us, failed us or even abandoned us. On my best days as a mother, I am certain that I commit all of these sins, and yet, I still hope and pray for the love and forgiveness of my young sons.

But the truth of it is, for each of us to be given one shot at love – one shot at mothering or being mothered – lacks a lot of grace. The good news for us is that God calls us to love with a transcendent love that surpasses our failings and misgivings, disappointments and wounds. And God calls us, as the church, to love one another. Not because we’re good people or deserving. In fact, we’re called to love one another because we don’t deserve it. We’re called to love one another because God did it first.

Our scripture comes from a tiny but important letter in the back of your New Testament, 1 John. John is writing in the afterglow of the Resurrection, but with the understanding that this resurrection could not have happened without the crucifixion. Holding these things in tension, he writes in chapter four he hits identifies what our final call as Christians is: to love one another, because love is from God. John Wesley wrote in his notes on the Bible that “This is the sum of all religion, the genuine model of Christianity when we are reminded that God is love.”

The author of 1 John begins with a reminder that God’s love was revealed to us in a particular way: that God sent God’s only son into the world so that we might live through him. For the theologians in the crowd, we understand that God’s love has been revealed to us through the Incarnation. Revelation through Incarnation. We understand God’s love because God lived with us, died with us and rose again to remain with us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Revelation. Incarnation. Trinitarian. It’s getting heavy here in this little letter. So, what does this mean?

Sisters and Brothers, it means that God loved us so much that God couldn’t stand to live apart from us. So, Jesus was born. A humble child in a humble manger with humble parents and a fabulous birth announcement from the Angels and Archangels. When God breaks into the world, the world takes notice. This child was born, and from that moment on, death chased him – into Egypt, out of Egypt and into Jerusalem and all of Judea. As this boy Messiah came of age, he grew into a profession, taught in the synagogue, and got baptized. This boy. The Son of God. Of one essence with God, was baptized in the Jordan, where Naaman had been washed and cleansed and healed. Where John prophesied that one was coming who was greater than he. The fanfare that proceeded him pointed to his glory, but his glory was found not in gilded clothes or magnificent chariots, but in his dirty feet and worn garments. His glory and majesty didn’t set him apart, but made him all the more common. This man, this God, this Author of Life came to speak the Word to us, that we might hear and believe the truth and power of God’s love and grace.

But we, brothers and sisters, are dense people. We do not know what it means to love with such radical hospitality or forgiveness. With such grace and compassion. At least, not in the way that Jesus loved. He ate with sinners and tax collectors, and we prefer to cast down our eyes and pray quietly as we mutter, “Bless their hearts.”

One of my favorite authors is Anne Lamott. I conduct a class on Wednesday evenings and we’re currently reading her most recent book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. In this book are a collection of essays, including one called Sincere Meditations. Here, she describes a man she knows who has started a church, of sorts. He has come to claim that “unconditional love is a reality, but with a shelf life of about 8-10 seconds” (Lamott, p. 110). And when we get to that point, we should be grateful, name it and share it with our loved ones: “Darling, I love you unconditionally, but only until the end of dinner.” Cynical? Maybe. But true. You see, we can’t live like saints all of the time, since we are sinners all of the time. But on occasion, the grace and holiness breaks into our own lives and we’re able, if only for a moment, to love like we’re called to love.

The author of 1 John knows this, too. He writes about a concept beloved of our denominational father, John Wesley: Christian Perfection. The critics of our tradition like to misrepresent what Wesley was describing in this call. But, he was picking up on the language used in this passage: “Love has been perfect among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because God first loved us.” (v. 17-19) Wesley was drawn to the understanding of God as love because it had been so profoundly important in his own spiritual maturity. On his day of conversion, Aldersgate Day (May 24, 1738), he understood that God’s love was for him – even him – a sinner. For this epistle to center on the theme of love only solidified what Wesley encountered in his moment of justification. Revelation led him to understand perfection in love, because God is love: “This little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this love is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections” (Wesley, Notes on the Bible, v. 8, 19).

God’s darling: Perfection in love. Here, the author names that what we are called to be is not perfect models of unconditional love, which is good, because that’s only setting us up for failure. Rather, he is calling us to be fearless. Fearless because in love, there is no fear. No fear of punishment or abandonment, rejection or hurt. And, the source of this kind of love – the love that destroys not only fear, but even death – is God. For God is love. We learn that love is the opposite, not of hate, but of fear. Fear is what causes us to be timid, keeps us from being vulnerable, and leads us to mistrust. But God says: Fear not, for I am with you, and will be with you to the end of the age.

When I was 7 years old, my parents decided to go out of town together for the first time since I’d been born. It was a big decision, and one they made with much caution. They made arrangements for Carol Long to come and stay with me, and planned to leave on Friday while I was at school. That afternoon, I arrived home on the bus to find Carol waiting for me, as planned. We’d gotten a movie and some popcorn. It was going to be a great night. Except… I was sick. My stomach hurt more than I could describe. I’d always been prone to bad stomachaches, especially when anxious, so Carol did her best to comfort and console me. She offered me pepto bismol and fizzy drinks. I refused, curling on the couch and trying to find some comfort.

After a few hours of this behavior, Carol called the person she thought might know what best to do: Genie Kilday. Genie had successfully raised 3 children into childhood and through puberty. Genie came over, took one look at me and put me in her car. Relieved, and scared, I did what any queasy and anxious child would do in this situation: I vomited all over the floormat. So, I could add embarrassment and a bit of shame to my list of symptoms. When we arrived at the Emergency Room, Carol and Genie accompanied me back to the small, curtained off room. There, the doctor supposed that my appendix was on the verge of rupturing, and I would most certainly need surgery by morning. They sent me home for the night, and frantic phone calls were made to my parents to alert them of the situation. Remember, these are my parents, who took a weekend off from parenting their only child for the first time in seven years. They were due a nice vacation.

The following morning, Carol drove me to the hospital, where I was admitted and sent back to receive the anesthesia. My parents were driving from North Carolina, and I was scared. But, as I waited for surgery, something miraculous happened: you came to see me. Carol was there, Genie was there, and more and more faces from this congregation gathered to sit and wait and pray with me. It’s even more glorious in my memory because the anesthesia was kicking in, which made the gathering seem all the more ethereal, but I can say that I experienced what unconditional love is in that tiny room. You showed it to me.

And, Sisters and Brothers, I’ve watched you show that kind of love to so many throughout the years. Some saints of this congregation have passed away recently, and you’ve shown up to sit and mourn and grieve their passing with their families and friends. You have comforted the afflicted, helped to feed the poor, visited the sick, and wept for the dying. You’ve sat with scared little girls before surgery and shown that the greatest weapon against fear is love.

Wesley believed that “This commandment have we from both God and Christ. That he who loveth God love his brother - Every one, whatever his opinions or mode of worship be, purely because he is the child of, and bears the image of God. Bigotry is properly the want of this pure and universal love. A bigot only loves those who embrace his opinions, and receive his way of worship; and he loves them for that, and not for Christ's sake,” (Wesley, notes on the Bible, v. 21). Sisters and Brothers, you have shown me what it is to love for Christ’s sake, not for your own. I invite you today to show this radical sense of love to someone – someone who might have hurt you or chastised you or radically disagrees with you, or someone who might have taught you what it means to love – show them what it means to love as Christ loved… even if for only 8-10 seconds.

May the God who created us, give us love.
May the Christ who redeemed us, give us grace.

May the Spirit that abides with us, give us peace.


Friday, May 8, 2009

Stained Glass Ceiling: Shattered!

Last week, I was driving with Jackson to a party. Something came up about St. Mark Church, and we had this exchange:

Jackson: Mom? Why don't you sit with Daddy, Cooper and I during church?
Me: Well, J, I have to sit up front with Reverend Josh and Reverend Jimmy and Reverend Phillip so that we can help lead worship.
Jackson: Oh. [Pause.]
I didn't know boys could be Reverends.

Congratulations, women in ministry! We have finally arrived! Matt and I have joked that the next mind-boggling topic will be the discovery that boys and girls can get married. (BA-ZING!) We've got a new generation of tiny folks on our hands, and I have to say, I like how they think.