It's been a long day in the office today. Been working on Sunday's sermon and the messages for both Christmas Eve services, scheduling liturgists and children's sermons for 2013, and updating the church website and sign. It wasn't until later in the afternoon that I realized that this was supposed to be the end of the world. According to the Mayan calendar, tomorrow doesn't exist. The philosophy major in me responds to that with, "Of course tomorrow doesn't exist until we get to tomorrow." But many folks have been calling 12/21/2012 the official end of the world because the Mayans didn't write anything on their calendar after this date. Did anybody think that maybe the guy writing just got tired? Maybe his stone chisel broke? It's hard for me to believe that the Mayans saw the end of the world but didn't see the Spaniards coming to wipe out their civilization. Of course the Bible speaks about this. In Matthew 24 we're informed about the signs that indicate that the end is coming. Many folks have been saying that we're living in those times. In fact, folks have been saying we're living in those times since they first read those words. We always seem to believe that things are worse now than they ever were. That's awfully pessimistic if you ask me. In verse 36 of Matthew 24 we read the following, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." Only God knows when the end of this creation will be. Not the Mayans. Not Harold Camping. Not the guy on the street with the sign that reads, "The end is here."
Of course these are dark times. Natural disasters, mass shootings in schools and malls and movie theaters, countless wars around the globe... all these and more lead us to understand the mess that we've made of this world by having free will. But there is a light in this darkness. Jesus was born into dark times too. But he was born to be a light in that darkness. Each year at Christmas we celebrate His birth once again. Each year we look for that light to banish the darkness - the darkness in our world and the darkness in ourselves. So in the midst of dark times, when the world is absolutely not ending (at least not today), let us all celebrate the light of the world and let us carry His light to brighten the dark places.
As many of you who know me IRL already know, I'm currently homeless. The home that is provided for my by the church I currently serve is situated east of the railroad tracks in Point Pleasant Beach, NJ. Most of the homes and businesses in that part of town closer to the beach were damaged, many severely, by superstorm Sandy. My residence took on 18-24" of storm surge ocean water. We lost our hot water heater, furnace, washer and dryer, assorted pieces of furniture including many bookshelves, media shelves, two desl chairs and my executive desk in my home office. But it's really difficult for me to dwell on my own loss when I look around my new home town and indeed the surrounding shore area. As I told a reporter from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, it's unfathomable http://www.umcor.org/UMCOR/Resources/News-Stories/2012/November/Sandy-Survivor-Its-Unfathomable The devestation from this storm just goes on and on and on. From the rollercoaster in the ocean at Seaside Heights to the houses in the Barnegat Bay to the boats on Broadway in Point Beach... and that's only what I've seen in newspapers, a few online photos and in person. That's only the most local incidents for me. I've yet to see the grand scale of this storm's havoc because I've yet to see a news broadcast since before the storm hit. When my family and I were displaced we were taken in by another Methodist church about ten miles away who had an empty parsonage that they were using for homeless ministry. While the house has electric and heat, there is no network television and no internet access. So we spend our evenings watching DVDs that we've salvaged from our flooded family room. The intensity of it all is what's beginning to get to us at this point. Every day is about recovery. Everything we do has to be done differently because we're not home or things have changed. Every day one of us is overheard saying, "I just want to go home." We'll get through this. We'll get home. We'll find a new sense of normal. But right now, we're just surviving in the wake of the storm. Thank God for another day and the opportunities it brings.
Some of you are already aware that I missed most of the last week because of illness. I was laid up in the hospital for three days and have been recuperating at home since Wednesday. Since I missed the second service last week I thought that it might be a good idea to share the message that I wrote for last week on here so that you don't feel left out. So without further delay - Meet the X-Men!
Genesis 2:5-25 When no plant of the field was
yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon
the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise
from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the
ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a
living being. And the Lord God
planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had
formed. Out of the ground the Lord
God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food,
the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge
of good and evil. A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there
it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is
the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and
the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of
the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of
Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And
the fourth river is the Euphrates. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to
till it and keep it. And the Lord
God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of
the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day
that you eat of it you shall die.” Then the Lord
God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a
helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of
the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and
whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave
names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the
field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall
upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its
place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord
God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.
Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” Therefore a
man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become
one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. (NRSV)
Luke 10:25-37Just then a
lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit
eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read
there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and
with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and
your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right
answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked
Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from
Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat
him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going
down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So
likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the
other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him,
he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured
oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn,
and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the
innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you
whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to
the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed
him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (NRSV)
The Uncanny X-Men
So far in this series we’ve studied the
following heroes and their context:
Spiderman and the idea of responsibility
Batman/Daredevil and vigilantism vs. God’s
The Incredible Hulk and anger And last week, Iron Man and stewardship of
all we have. What all of those have in common and a vital
difference from the next two weeks is that they were individuals and we’re now
going to turn our focus toward some hero teams. And this makes a lot of sense by the way. All of us start our journey of faith as
individuals. We all come to Christ by a moment of personal
But… true Christian faith isn’t practiced in
a vacuum as an individual. True Christian faith takes a team. That’s why we have a church. Because we’re a team.
So let’s take a look at this team – the
Uncanny X-Men. Anybody ever heard of these guys? Not as popular as the Avengers or the Justice
League, that’s for sure. Well, maybe better to say not as well-known. Because the truth is, the X-men are actually
much more popular among comic book fans than any other super hero team. Back when I read comics it was the X-men that
drew me in and they were always my favorite book.
Right from the very beginning, the X-men were
different. First off, rather than an X-man having his or
her powers due to radiation or gadgets, they are all born with their powers that
manifest at puberty. In comic book terms, they’re mutants. The membership in the team is in constant
flux because their base of operations is a school. It’s a school for mutants to learn how to
control their powers, so who makes up the team is always different.
I want you to get a feel for this team, so
here is a sampling of some of the membership. Founding members: Cyclops – has the ability to project a force
beam from his eyes Jean Grey/Phoenix – telepath, telekinetic
with unlimited power Beast – acrobatic, intensely strong and
covered with blue fur. Iceman – has the ability to solidify even the
water vapor in the air, can turn his body into an impenetrable ice form. And Angel – has the ability to fly by way of
wings grown out of his back Newer members include: Rogue – mutant ability to absorb other
mutant’s powers, permanently endowed with super strength and
flight from accidental absorption of another mutant’s power that killed that
person. Storm – African princess with the ability to
conjure and control weather. Emma Frost/the White Queen – psychic attack
and the ability to change her skin to impenetrable diamonds. Gambit – Cajun gambler with the ability to
imbue inanimate objects with kinetic energy. Nightcrawler – German circus acrobat with the
ability to teleport Mystique – shapeshifter and marksman, can
assume the appearance of anyone she sees. Wolverine – accelerated healing factor and a
skeleton infused with unbreakable metal with retractable claws. Thunderbird – Native American with super
speed and super strength. Banshee – Irishman with ability to fly due to
sonic projection (screams)
Had enough? Because there’s a lot more… a lot more. What do you notice about all of that? I’ll tell you what I see; I see a very
diverse group of people with a broad range of gifts and abilities
working together for a common cause. I see a picture that ought to look like the
church… unfortunately it mostly doesn’t. Mostly in this day and age the church looks
like a homogenous mix of similar people with similar gifts trying to do the same
things over and over and expecting different results. BTW, that’s one of the definitions of insanity. Doing the same thing again and again and
expecting to get different results. And we’re not crazy, right? But that’s not what the X-Men are about in my
eyes. The way I see it, this team is a model of
diversity. Men and women. Young and experienced. Black, white, Asian, Latino, Native American…
even blue furry people are welcome. And one of the biggest issues that this
diverse group faces, on a grand scale? Discrimination. There are endless storylines in the X-Men
line of comics concerning mutant oppression, mutant slavery, attempts to “cure” mutants. Like I said in my blog the week before we
started this series, these stories reflect our cultural values and
our societal issues. Marvel’s writers and artists have continued
to use mutation as a metaphor for groups who are disenfranchised and
discriminated against in our society. These metaphors contained in the X-Men
stories are meant to be obvious. Mutants are different. Mutants are hated and feared. Mutants are a minority. Mutants are discriminated against because of
what they are. Sound familiar? Apply that mutant metaphor to any
disenfranchised group, any minority, anyone who feels alone, and it works. So what’s the answer? The answer is simple and it’s Biblical. If you read any of the Genesis creation
stories, and btw, there’s more than one, you get the idea that God seems to like the
idea of diversity. God created everything and every one of us. And God created us each the way we are, with
particular gifts and particular flaws with intention and with purpose. There’s a design here and it’s all about
diversity. Our problem in this world today is that we’re
too much like the priest and the Levite in the Luke passage from this morning. A good Jew was traveling from Jerusalem to
Jericho and was beaten and mugged. The Jewish Priest wouldn’t touch him for fear
of being ceremonially unclean. The Levite, keepers of the Temple, wouldn’t
touch him for the same reason. Who helps? A Samaritan, a resident of Samaria, a
heathen! Samaritans weren’t supposed to be on this
road. You want a good comparison? If Jesus told this parable to us today the
Samaritan instead would be a Muslim, perhaps even a terrorist. That’s the kind of status that Samaritans had
among the Jews. And yet, this one shows love. This one shows compassion. And you get the feeling that it didn’t matter
who it was in that ditch, the Samaritan was going to help… even if it was a blue furry beast man, or a
shapeshifting mutant, or well, or anybody. Again, out of Jesus’ mouth we get God’s love
of the diversity in this world. Now it’s our turn. Jesus made women, Gentiles, and even
Samaritans heroes in his stories. Paul saw the wide-ranging revolutionary
implications of Jesus’ Gospel. Jennifer Berenson, a Biblical scholar said,
“In the church, human distinctions associated with ethnicity and socioeconomic
status are meaningless.” The book of Acts makes it very clear that
from the very beginning, on the day of Pentecost, the church included people from many
different nations who spoke many different languages. If one of us today, modern Christians, were
to walk into a first century church, I think we’d be amazed at the diversity
represented there. The fact of the matter is that in this
society the most segregated time of the week is Sunday mornings. Unfortunately, many churches are taking an
approach to their outreach and ministries that, intentionally or unintentionally, lead to
more uniformity rather than more diversity. Some churches have adopted church growth
strategies that target one specific demographic group and then design all their programs and
worship events to meet the needs and desires of the kind of people already
attending that church. Folks, this doesn’t follow the Gospel’s call
to enter into an inclusive community. As our culture becomes increasingly more
diverse, younger generations of people are finding it
strange and uninviting to walk into church congregations where
everyone looks and acts the same. Just as it is in business, by having a
diverse group, we are better able to understand the needs of our communities. When we are around only those people of the
same background, we start to assume that our way is the only way to approach an
issue. Diversity brings with it new ideas and new
approaches that enrich the whole congregation. So my challenge to you this week is to
broaden your horizons. Yes, I know that for the most part we live in
a very homogenous community. But even there, we still don’t reflect the
diversity all around us. Let’s think together. Let’s pray together. Let’s push ourselves outside our comfort
zones and embrace folks unlike ourselves. Let’s invite them to a personal relationship
with Christ. Let’s invite them to an uplifting
relationship with the Body of Christ, the church. Let us love the diversity of this world that
God loves. Let’s pray together.
This week my oldest daughter is visiting with us from South Carolina. We decided the night before last that we should watch a movie together rather than letting me watch my usual Monday night fare (sports and/or wrestling). So... we sat in the family room and watched the recent release of Captain America: The First Avenger. This is one of five Marvel super hero films that were prequels to this summer's blockbuster film The Avengers, and it was in my opinion the best of the bunch. Captain America is something of a period piece in that it is set during World War II, with the primary villain being a Nazi version of the super soldier named Red Skull. Red Skull's plan includes harnessing the energy of the tesseract, a mystical power source first introduced to us in the Thor movie, and using it to conquer the entire world including overthrowing Hitler. Our hero Captain America is a former scrawny weakling transformed by the super soldier serum. While his powers are not super, so to speak, he does have the ability to use the full potential of a perfectly physically fit human.
Ultimately, this film is an old-time good guy/bad guy story. Cap is the consummate "white hat" hero.
He's the very traditional "never thinks a bad thought" good guy, and I kind of like that. Of course, as good as Captain America is, the Red Skull is equally as evil. This sets up that very traditional good vs. evil conflict that hearkens back to the early days of Hollywood, but it is done with a modern style that makes it refreshing and quite a bit of fun. All in all, especially if you're a comic book fan like me, I highly recommend this film. It's a good origin story and it sets up the Avengers movie really well. But as always, I watch movies looking for the spiritual angle, and that is where this film shies the brightest.
Steve Rogers is an everyman. He even identifies himself later in the film as "just a kid from Brooklyn." But he is chosen as the experiment for the super soldier serum for a reason. Check out the following two pieces of dialogue from the film:
Abraham Erskine: Do you want to kill Nazis? Steve Rogers: Is this a test? Abraham Erskine: Yes. Steve Rogers: I don't want to kill anyone. I don't like bullies; I don't care where they're from. And then later, just before he undergoes the transformation: Steve Rogers: Can I ask a question? Abraham Erskine: Just one? Steve Rogers: Why me? Abraham Erskine: I suppose that's the only question that matters. Abraham Erskine: [Displaying a wine bottle] This is from Augsburg, my city. So many people forget that the first country the Nazis invaded was their own. You know, after the last war, they... My people struggled. They... they felt weak... they felt small. Then Hitler comes along with the marching, and the big show, and the flags, and the, and the... and he... he hears of me, and my work, and he finds me, and he says "You." He says "You will make us strong." Well, I am not interested. So he sends the head of Hydra, his research division, a brilliant scientist by the name of Johann Schmidt. Now Schmidt is a member of the inner circle and he is ambitious. He and Hitler share a passion for occult power and Teutonic myth. Hitler uses his fantasies to inspire his followers, but for Schmidt, it is not fantasy. For him, it is real. He has become convinced that there is a great power hidden in the earth, left here by the gods, waiting to be seized by a superior man. So when he hears about my formula and what it can do, he cannot resist. Schmidt must become that superior man. Steve Rogers: Did it make him stronger? Abraham Erskine: Yeah, but... there were other... effects. The serum was not ready. But more important, the man. The serum amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen. Because the strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows... compassion. Steve Rogers: Thanks. I think. Abraham Erskine: [Gesturing toward the wine] Get it, get it. Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are, not a perfect soldier, but a good man.
Each and every one of us is called to be a super soldier of sorts. We are all called to our fullest potential in Christ. Christ can amplify what is best in us, and our own sinful nature can amplify what is worst in us. But we are all called, not to perfection, but to a greater good. In that, Captain America is one of the better examples of our true calling in Christ than most of the super heroes out there. Is he perfect? Absolutely not. But is he good? Most often, yes. And that is a good ideal to strive for in this life.
By the way, I'm still preaching that series on super heroes that I've titled "Holy Heroes, Batman!" This week we're looking at the Invincible Iron Man and trying to understand how his story informs us about being good stewards of our God-given gifts. 8AM on Jenkinson's Beach south or 10AM in the sanctuary.
Well I said I was going to try to post every week and, except for last week's mission trip, I've kept that going... so far. Anyway, this week I'd like to bore you to tears with a little report about the mission trip that I participated in last week with several of the youth from Central UMC in Point Pleasant Beach. Above you'll see a picture of most of the people that participated in this year's JUNE Project, a mission experience for youth that takes place in central Pennsylvania. JUNE Project, which stands for Jesus Unites Neighbors Everywhere, has been going on for over twenty years now and has been ministering to the communities of Reading, Pottsville, Hamburg and Hazelton. This year the church that I am serving sent three youth and two adults to be part of the team of over one hundred twenty servants. Each day begins with a hearty carbohydrate loaded breakfast before we split up into teams and head out to our work sites. The Central group worked with youth and adults from Erma Tabernacle UMC, Edison New Dover UMC, and Millville First UMC cleaning up and beautifying an area of Pottsville called Overlook Park. Here's what it looked like when we arrived:
A wonderful plant called Japanese knotweed had taken over the park in the last year since a crew had cleaned it up. In fact, this was the fifth year in a row that a crew from June Project had been working on this park. Take a look at what it was looking like by Friday afternoon:
Our work included massive amounts of weeding, laying in mulch and gravel, reconstructing stone path borders and ongoing construction of a pergola. While the work was not completely finished when we left on Friday, our hope is that some members of the community will feel empowered by the progress that has taken place and continue the upkeep of the park. As you may have noticed from the pictures, there's not a whole lot of shade in this park and it can get fairly hot in July and August, so kudos to everyone who participated in that no one was overcome by the heat or the labor. Also, there was a lot of fellowship and worship that took place on this trip, something that the youth especially appreciated. This was my ninth mission trip overall and I'm already planning for numbers ten and eleven. I find that there is little in this world so satisfying as knowing that I'm serving God's people in the way that God would serve, and in doing so with brothers and sisters in Christ. I challenge all Christians to live out their faith in tangible ways by serving whenever and wherever you can.
By the way, if you'd like to see a video report of the trip featuring the youth that participated and some of the fun events that we shared together, check out the Central UMC of Point Pleasant Beach Facebook page.
Also, we're still looking at comic book super heroes and how their stories inform our faith each Sunday morning. This week will be all about anger, its risks and its benefits, as we try to understand Marvel's the Incredible Hulk.
Just wanted to take a moment to update the blog this week because I won't be updating next week. I leave with the youth group tomorrow right after church for a six day mission trip to Reading, Pa. We're working as part of the JUNE Project doing minor maintenance in the Reading and Pottsville area during the day all week long. Please keep us in prayer as we strive to serve as Jesus served.
Will be updating again in the following week after we get back. And if you're keeping up with my current series, Spiderman tomorrow, Daredevil/Batman next week.
This Sunday (July 29th) I will begin a preaching series that looks at comic book super heroes and how their stories help us to understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ and living as better Christians in this world. I'm calling the series "Holy Heroes, Batman!" In the wake of the incident last week in Aurora, Colorado this title feel a little crass, but it's what I've been working with and promoting since before that incident, so I'm going to stick with it. Anyway, this week's blog is sort of a precursor to the series as there are some things I want to get out there before we delve into the comic book stories. We live in an increasingly violent culture. Last week proved that to us all once again in a terrible way. And unfortunately, many of our movies, television shows and other forms of entertainment glorify that violence. We gotten to a plae even in comic books that the bad guys don't just have to be caught and imprisoned, they have to be hunted down and killed. Theologian and Bible Scholar Walter Wink calls this The Myth of Redemptive Violence. He says, "[This] is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today." Sadly, I think that many of us know this all too well just this week. I don't care to think of the numbers of people I've heard say that they'd like to see James Holmes dead. Why? What would that solve?
Our problem in this society is that we've come to a place where we too often see good and evil as competing forces struggling for control of the universe. Theologians have given this worldview a name - Manichaeism. It's based on the teachings of the Persian prophet Manes in the third century C.E. and for all Christian intents and purposes, it is heresy. As Christians we believe that God is in control and that no evil force is God's equal. Ethically, this line of thinking causes Christians issues because we can see ourselves as fighting on the side of good (and therefore God) and all those who disagree with us are allies of evil.
So what does this all have to do with my next sermon series? Well, I think we need to be clear that these stories, the fictional stories of comic book heroes, are commercial products designed and written primarily for entertainment purposes and company profitablility. So from a perspective of faith they are a mixed bag. Some parts of these stories offer positive values and insights, and some parts appeal to our baser nature. So my intention in this series, rather thn embracing the comic book heroes and their stories as sacred texts, or rather than rejecting them outright as having no redeeming value at all, let us reflect on them a bit. Let's engage these bulked up soap operas in a thoughtful dialogue about the helpful and the harmful message that they're sending us.
In the last year or so I've come to focus more on looking for God and Christianity in popular culture, so that's what you're going to find here. I'll write about my impressions of movies, television, popular music, books... really anything that is in the news or the popular consciousness. I'm not always on point, so to speak, but I am always willing to hear a differing opinion. So feel free to comment on anything that I post.