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Bishop’s Blog: Via Dolorosa

BY BISHOP PEGGY JOHNSON

In Jerusalem is the famous “Via Dolorosa,” the road where it is believed that Jesus walked on the way to Calvary.  It literally means the “way of suffering.”  Nothing can compare to our Savior’s suffering and sacrifice for us on Good Friday.

His willingness to give his life for the sins of the world is the bedrock of our faith.  He came in person to give his life for the redemption of humanity out of love.

When I visited the Holy Land years ago it was important for me to walk those streets and experience first-hand that road of suffering.  It reminds me of my responsibility to love and suffer like Christ.

The way of suffering is not an unfamiliar road for most of humanity on this planet.  Globally there is untold pain because of wars, disease and natural disaster, and with it comes migration.  A fraction of the world experiences the benefits of this nation’s freedom and wealth, and often we don’t see people on this difficult road face-to-face.

Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to meet a young Honduran woman who was walking the way of suffering.  She came to this country out of love for her son. She knew that if the family did not leave the country he would be recruited into a murderous gang or be killed if he refused to join.

What mother would not sacrifice everything for her child’s safety?  As I sat with this young woman and a translator, she told her story of her family’s travels to this country, the great physical suffering, her kidnapping, and her final arrival in Pennsylvania.  She came out of love for her child.

She joined one of our churches and found a way to make a living, just barely enough to survive.  Then her husband was deported, and it is likely he will never be able to come back to the United States.

They depended on the advice of an immigration lawyer who took their money but gave them no help. In fact, he gave them bad advice. As a result, the husband was picked up by immigration agents, detained for months and then sent back to Honduras.

This is another part of the “way of suffering”—those who exploit desperate, fearful immigrants without status, promise legal help but then leave their unwitting clients in worse shape. Using lies and false promises to entice their victims, they reap large sums of money from their human pain and benefit from their plight.

To see this young mother’s tears and hear of the difficult ordeal she faces, with two young children who miss their father, causes deep sorrow in me.  I am well aware of our country’s immigration laws; but we must all acknowledge that this system is inadequate and less than humane.  And with the draconian policy threats and decisions being made these past few weeks, it will get worse.

Our United Methodist Social Principles state: “We recognize, embrace and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin as members of the family of God.  We affirm the rights of all person to equal opportunities for employment, access to housing, health care, education and freedom from social discrimination.  We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.”

The Word of God says: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.  The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.  Love them as yourself for you were foreigners in Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.”  (Leviticus 19:33-34)

It is hard to turn our backs on these mandates and allow continued suffering to occur. This young woman told me that she did not come to take things from America but to work hard, contribute her part and offer a better, safer life to her children.

Surely, we must find a better way.  I am happy to report that her church and other churches are assisting her with humanitarian aid. More support would be appreciated for her and for our churches that have large numbers of immigrant sojourners traveling this road of suffering.

What else can we do to help? Our conference, along with two other neighbor conferences, are initiating a program known as Justice for Our Neighbors. JFON is an immigration legal assistance and hospitality ministry of The United Methodist Church, with 18 chapters across the country. For the past 20 years it has been a free/affordable legal service that is ethical, affordable and safe for immigrants to use.

To help us start up this vitally important service donations can be sent to “Delaware Valley JFON” and mailed to Historic St. George’s UMC, 235 N. 4th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106.  For more information, contact: Rev. Mark Salvacion at pastor@historicstgeorges.org.

We can also advocate for more humane laws in our country with regards to the number and treatment of those seeking asylum and for the “Dreamers” (young people who are undocumented and who were brought to the U.S. as young children).

We can contact our elected officials and ask that the number of refugees allowed to resettle in this country not be limited to just 18,000 people.  The average number of refugees allowed to come into this country over the last four decades had been 95,000.  People are fleeing violence and religious persecution and need a place of refuge.

The road of suffering is real, and it is in our neighborhoods, and they are members of our churches.  When you see their faces and hear their stories it becomes a call for us to do something, say something, and to offer our prayers.

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.


‘Do No Harm, Do Good’

By Bishop Peggy Johnson

As The United Methodist Church prepares for General Conference 2020, numerous legislative petitions flooded in by last week’s deadline for consideration. Certainly, we should always have as the backdrop of our discussions and deliberations the General Rules of John Wesley: “Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.” 

If we would be influenced by these basic three rules in everything we debate and vote on at General Conference—and even more so, in everything we do or say daily as Christians navigating our way through this complicated world—what a better world this would be!

Wesley was a man of many interests, and medicine and health was one of his priorities.  “Do No Harm” is reminiscent of the ancient Hippocratic Oath that has for centuries guided the medical profession.  One of the lines in the oath states, “I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free.” 

Sounds like “Do no harm” to me; and indeed, Wesley advocated for the things that make for healthy bodies and minds. He knew it was part of our spiritual responsibility as Christians.  He even wrote a home remedy book titled “The Primitive Physic” to aid in the healing of many common ailments.

So it would behoove us as United Methodists to live by this important law as we consider addictive substances and their place in society.  The practice of vaping is front and center in the news now, as serious, cases of lung disorders are happening across the country and leading to increasing, tragic deaths. 

Publicity is growing with bans on the sale of all vaping products by mega-store chain Walmart and the state of Massachusetts, as others consider doing likewise. Lawmakers are studying advertisements and the offering of various flavors of vaping products because of their strong attraction to young people. 

People are up in arms about vaping, it seems, and rightly so. Even though it is credited with helping some turn away from addictively smoking tobacco products, it is nonetheless killing people.  We may possibly see this young industry put out of business altogether as the pressure against it seems to be rising.

So why are we not as concerned about the prevailing and pernicious legal drugs of tobacco and alcohol?  The detrimental and horrific effects of these products have long been proven.

I don’t know a person who has not been affected by the tragedy of these two addictions in their families.  My great-grand-father used to beat my grandmother with a buggy whip because of his alcohol addiction.  My best friend lost her father to lung cancer from years of smoking. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every day “29 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver.  That is one death every 50 minutes.  The annual cost of alcohol-related crashes totals more than $44 billion dollars.”  

Think what we could do with $44 billion dollars?  What a waste! What injustice, especially when you consider that many of the dead people were innocent victims of drivers under the influence. 

According to the American Lung Association, an estimated 154,050 Americans died from lung cancer in 2018. Most of this was smoking-related.  Why are we so pumped up about vaping while the legal stuff is killing people at epidemic rates? 

The answer is simple: alcohol and tobacco are multi-billion-dollar industries with profits and lobbying efforts that speak loudly in our consumer-driven world of greed and gain.

What does The United Methodist Church say?  According to our Social Principles:

“We affirm our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love for persons. (Par. 162.L)   “In light of the overwhelming evidence that tobacco smoking and the use of smokeless tobacco are hazardous to the health of persons of all ages, we recommend total abstinence from the use of tobacco.”  (Par. 162.M)

So, yes, do no harm.  Join the bandwagon of people who are speaking up against vaping. But don’t stop there!  The elephant in the room is the huge, high-profit industries in this country that are profiting from rampant addictions that lead to suffering, sorrow and death. 

What a world we would have if personal pain and trauma issues were handled in spiritual and therapeutic ways, rather than masking and exacerbating them with addictive substances!

How can you, your family and church, your voices together be used to speak out against this massive harm?  Silence is complicity.  Lead by expression—your words—and by example—your active witness.  Your voice can make a difference. 

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.

Listen to your children

BY BISHOP PEGGY JOHNSON

I have always loved the praise song by Ken Medema titled “Lord, Listen to Your Children.” Its refrain goes like this:

Lord, listen to your children praying,
Lord, send your Spirit in this place;
Lord, listen to your children praying,
Send us love, send us pow’r, send us grace.

Love, power and grace are the things that God has for his children, children of all ages.  In recent years our chronological children are speaking to this world about things that are happening that need the attention of all of us.  Front and center are the issues of gun violence and climate change

One does not have to wait very long for the next mass shooting. They occur now almost weekly, and one begins to wonder if it is safe to go shopping or to an open air concert, theater or country fair. Always there is the fear of being the next victim of these acts of horror. 

Grandmothers are buying their grandchildren bullet-proof school backpacks.  I raised my children in a more innocent time, and they never experienced “active shooter drills.” But children today are going to school with an undercurrent of fear.

Some of our children went to Washington DC after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting. They begged our legislators to do something about this crisis. I hope people will listen to our children. I pray that God’s love, power and grace from above will inspire our leaders to address this urgent, complicated issue honestly and effectively.  Let’s be in prayer about this and add our voices to those of our impassioned young advocates!

Recently, a spunky Swedish 16-year old named Greta Thunberg journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean on a yacht and arrived in New York City to continue her crusade to help save our planet. She is calling for the world to address with more urgency the issues of climate change that are causing catastrophic weather systems on the planet. 

Greta’s critics call her “crazy” and say she is an alarmist who has “no sense of humor.” There are even bumper stickers with expletives decrying her crusade for the world to wake up and do more to save itself.  But she has created a groundswell of support among many, and her voice continues to be heartening.

Greta Thunberg

She has Asperger’s Syndrome, but she calls it her “super power” for the work she is doing. A Nobel Peace Prize nominee, she has inspired many other young people with her courage and conviction. I pray for her relentless voice!

The alarming increase of category 4 and 5 hurricanes could be construed as a wake-up call.  Some of our churches and their cemeteries on the Eastern Shore of Maryland are imperiled by rising sea levels.  I hope people will listen to our children and to Greta’s message and take some personal steps to care for the environment.  Let’s be in prayer and join their active, conscientious witness on this matter as well.

Our children want what we all want: love, power and grace for our world.  Only God is the true source of these intangible but very real forces that can conquer our mammoth challenges. 

God’s spiritual resources are the answer to our fear, violence and over-consumption. Could God be calling us to do more about the things that are killing our people and destroying our planet? 

Are greed, apathy or lack of creativity taking center stage? Or are we unwilling to partner with those we consider “the other,” those who are different from us?  What world are we leaving for the next generation if we sit by and do nothing? Do we care?

I urge us all to listen to the children and youth in our families, churches, schools and communities.  God gives them messages that we need to hear.  As we work together lovingly on these challenges, more good can be accomplished.  As we call upon the love, power and grace of our Lord, there is no telling what good can happen and how we might be transformed.

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.

Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is A Bible

By the Rev. Dr. Bronwyn Yocum*

A Sermon Preached at Thorndale UMC, September 8, 2019
(First preached at Grove UMC, September 7, 2014)

An ideal message for the start of a new NFL pro football season

Sermon scripture text: Psalm 78:1-8

Today is one of my most favorite days of the year.  Today is the opening weekend of the National Football League season.  Since I was a little kid, I have watched and loved football.  We can all have high hopes for the Philadelphia Eagles since they haven’t played any games yet with the starting players on the field.  I will root for the Eagles, but for some reason, in my early years, I took a liking to the Green Bay Packers, and they were my favorite team.  Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, they were the men I dreamed of on Sunday night after the game.  But the best guy of all was Vince Lombardi, coach of the Packers.

Lombardi had arrived as the Packers’ coach in early 1959.     The team  hadn’t had a winning season since 1947, and the year before Lombardi’s arrival their record was one win, ten losses and one tie.  Lombardi clearly had his work cut out for him.  In his very first team meeting after his hire, Lombardi told his players, “I have never been on a losing team, gentlemen, and I do not intend to start now.” True to his word, Lombardi never knew a losing season as a head coach.

That summer of 1959, when the Packers reported for training camp, Lombardi challenged his players in every way possible.  He was charged with the seemingly impossible task of turning the franchise around, and he was pumped up about it. He led practices – inspiring, training, motivating the players. But one day, in the middle of a practice, Lombardi got so frustrated with what was going on with the players that he blew his whistle.  “Everybody stop and gather around,” he said. Then he knelt down, picked up the pigskin, and said, “Let’s start at the beginning. Gentlemen, this is a football. These are the yard markers. I’m the coach. You are the players.” He went on, in the most elementary way, to explain the basics of football.

Later, Hall of Fame players like Starr and Hornung would talk about how much they had learned from Lombardi.  After that year, he began every subsequent season with the same speech, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”  He never took for granted that his players knew the basics.  In fact, many of them said that the genius of his coaching was his ability to break down the game into its simplest elements and teach them again and again.   In the introduction to his book about Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss wrote:  “Lombardi was a Jesuit in his football instruction, as in most other things… He made things simple for his players by taking nothing for granted, repeating the same lessons to them over and over, every day, every year. He would spend hours diagramming one play, the Packer sweep, so that his players knew how to adjust to whatever defense the opposition might employ. The point of his repetition,” Maraniss concludes, “was a timeless idea that is as applicable in jazz and dance and writing and other art forms, and perhaps in faith, as in football—freedom through discipline.”

By focusing on the basics, by repeating them over and over again, Lombardi instilled them into his players so that doing the basics became second nature.  He believed they were never too experienced to go back to the basics and review them again, and they came to understand the value of that return to basics.

Too often, we in the church think we’ve passed the basics.  We “did” Sunday School, we say.  We “graduated” from Christian Education when we were confirmed and now we just get to live our lives and come to church once a week for worship.  But God is a lot more like Vince Lombardi – maybe its the other way around.  In the kingdom of God, we are all learners and God is our lifelong teacher; or to put it in the language of the season, God is the coach and we are the players on the field.  Like Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, we may have years of experience behind us, years of Christian living under our belt and bible studies completed, but we will never graduate from this school in our lifetime.

The very name we use to describe ourselves as followers of Jesus says it all.  We are disciples.  The word literally means student or learner.  Great teachers in the ancient world would gather around themselves students who wanted to learn.  These students wouldn’t just attend lectures, take notes and then go home.  They would learn by observing and listening to everything the teacher did and said.  They lived with the teacher, ate with the teacher, spent every possible minute with the teacher, just as Jesus’ 12 disciples lived with him.  Day and night the disciples watched how the teacher interacted with the world around them.  Oh, there were formal lessons at times – “Listen, a sower went out to sow.”  But most of the learning came from simply taking note of how the teacher lived their daily life, so that they, too, could live as their teacher lived.

When I was in high school, my church youth group leader was a volunteer.  Mr. St. Clair had started out to become a Jesuit priest, but somewhere along the way he left that path and the Roman Catholic Church to become a Protestant and a high school Latin teacher.  Every weekend he had students over to his house for a weeks long-running game of Monopoly.  Two days a week before school he voluntarily taught Greek classes for anyone who was interested in learning.  His Latin classes were always fascinating – memorizing the opera Dido and Aeneas as we read the Aenead, making a Trojan Horse out of the boxes our desks had come in and then reenacting scenes from the story of Aeneas.  He taught us Latin, but more than that, he taught us that learning could be fun and interesting and collaborative.  And at church, he taught us to think critically about our faith, bringing both our mind and our heart to our commitment to Jesus Christ.  My life was shaped by years of interacting with him – not just by daily 45 minutes Latin classes, but by observing how he lived, listening to how he talked about his faith, appreciating how he cared for his students and imitating how he worshipped the God he served.

Today, we see Christian Education classes shrinking, bible studies being cancelled and Sunday Schools disappearing.  We see churches preaching prosperity gospel to make people feel good without having to think.  Don’t fall for that; don’t make the mistake of saying, “I did that stuff as as kid.”  No matter how old you are, no matter how long you’ve studied the bible, there is always more to learn, always some new appreciation of God’s saving activity in the world, some way of using our critical thinking skills to better understand Scripture.  And truth be told, every one of us can, like Lombardi’s Packers, benefit by going back to the basics. We need to remind ourselves of what we believe and why we believe it, not just assume that because we said yes to Jesus twenty years ago, everything is still the same.

Wayne Cordiero, the pastor of New Hope Church, a mega church in Hawaii, tells story of a Russian Orthodox priest who was discouraged and downcast after decades in ministry. One evening he wandered in the woods and came out near a military base.

A young armed guard at the perimeter stepped forward and shouted, “Halt!  Who are you and why are you here?”

Roused from his melancholy, the priest looked up and asked, “What did you say?”

The soldier became even more stern and said, “Who are you and why are you here?”

The priest then said the strangest thing.  He asked the young soldier, “How much do you get paid?”

The young man was caught off guard by the question, and answered, “Why does it matter to you?”

“Because,” the priest replied, “I’ll pay you that much to ask me those same two questions every day.”

Each one of us needs to revisit the basic questions of our faith periodically.  Who am I?  Why am I here?  What does Jesus Christ mean in my life today?  How do I live out my commitment to God in my daily life now?  Why do I bother to get up every Sunday morning to go to church?  What difference does God make in my life?  What difference does church make in my life?  The answers you gave twenty years ago or ten years ago or even last year may no longer accurately reflect your faith understanding.  The world around us changes; our life changes; we change.  And as we change, our relationship to God changes and adapts to the current circumstances in our life.  So we must regularly reexamine ourselves, our relationship with God and how we are living out our faith.

It’s all too easy to start taking our faith for granted, to turn on the auto pilot switch and just coast through our spiritual life.  We think we’re heading in the right direction, and so we turn off our passion, we look at the basics and say, yeah, yeah, yeah. We assume that deep within our heart we still believe what we said we believed when we first joined the church, without examining our belief system.  Our mouths may say one thing, but do our lives and actions say the same thing?  Have we become lukewarm?  Do we still orient our life around God’s will and God’s way?  A plane on auto pilot can keep flying quite a ways even without a pilot in the cockpit.  If we’re lucky, we have an experience like that priest’s, something that brings us up short and invites us to a time of self examination of our faith, something that sends us back to the basics.

Let me share one final story about Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century.  His theological treatise, Church Dogmatics, presents his view of Christian theology in five volumes and is regarded by many as the finest theological achievement of modern theology. Many years ago, when he visited the United States for a lecture tour, an enterprising journalist asked him, “Dr. Barth, can you give us the essentials of your theology in a few sentences?”  Barth looked at the young journalist for a moment, and then he answered, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” 

What we began as young children in a Sunday School classroom may expand and grow and develop, but the basics never change.  We come here to church remembering the one who taught us through all of his life – through his words, yes, but also through every action, every relationship, every way in which he connected with the world around him.  And every day we have an opportunity to check in with the basics of our faith once more.  Oh, choirs and classes, mission projects and fellowship events are all wonderful, but we need regularly to return to those basics like Lombardi’s players, to ask the essential questions of our faith.  If we revisit those basics and allow them to renew and replenish our faith, then there is nothing we cannot accomplish for the kingdom of God.   Like Lombardi talking to his Packers, we need to be reminded, This is the bible, this is the cross on which Jesus died for our sin, and we are the Body of Christ – God’s way of incarnating love in the world today.  Amen.

*Rev. Dr. Bronwyn Yocum, a retired pastor, is Director of Methodist Student Advising and Ethos at Palmer Theological Seminary, Eastern University, St. Davids, PA

The Body of Christ at Work in Beverly, Kentucky

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

Download the Bishop’s PPT presentation about the Red Bird Mission trip and see more of her great photos!

“For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” I Corinthians 12:14

The week of August 11-17, 2019, was probably the most diverse week ever recorded at the United Methodist Red Bird Mission Work Camp, in Beverly, Kentucky.  Onto that campus came a group of about 75 Christians from many places, representing many forms of diversity. 

This included:

  • Ethnicity (African American, African, Korean, Latino, European-American);
  • Location (Delaware, Washington DC, South Dakota, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Arizona, Texas);
  • Age (between age 8 to 80);
  • Denomination (United Methodists, ELCA Lutherans, Unity);
  • Denominational role (pastors, deacons, district superintendents, a bishop, certified lay ministers, lay people);
  • Ability (Deaf, Hard of Hearing, mobility-challenged, able-bodied); and
  • Gender and sexual orientation. 

The groups were sent out each day to work on various projects: building wheelchair access ramps, repairing floors, upgrading bedrooms, and arranging donated clothing for distribution. 

We included carpenters, electricians, painters, sign language interpreters, photographers, cleaners, dish washers and people who prayed and led worship.  We also experienced the diversity of interacting with the homeowners where we worked and learned of their lives and culture in Appalachia. 

We experienced their warm hospitality and the hospitality of the Red Bird Mission staff, conference leaders, work crew leaders and local neighbors we met on our field trips out in the community.

What made this mission trip especially unique was the large number of culturally Deaf* members on the team—20 of them!  They were part of “Deaf ELM” (ELM stands for Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist). 

This ecumenical organization of Deaf folks and their advocates work together on various common goals of inclusion and empowerment.  History was made on this trip when for the first time members engaged in “hands-on mission work.”  

The team completed a ramp for a KY child who uses a wheelchair, so he can now get into his grandfather’s home.

Many of our own United Methodist Deaf members are active in ELM.  Many were highly-skilled carpenters and craftsmen, and they worked side by side with hearing people who were not fluent in American Sign Language. 

The sign language interpreters on each team kept busy filling in the communication gaps; but slowly people began to figure out ways to communicate and work together.  Humor and God’s Spirit broke down many of the walls of communication and difference.  

We worked hard and came home tired and dirty each day. But we shared in worship each morning and evening and had lots of time on the porch to socialize, meet new friends and play with the resident cats. 

On Wednesday night we were treated to a tour of the Red Bird School and an ice cream and cake party hosted by the Red Bird Conference District Superintendent. On Thursday night we had the “Talent-No-Talent” show starring hearing and Deaf people who shared their gifts of music, storytelling, humor and skits. 

On Friday, our last night there was a closing communion service with the Deaf Community primarily taking the lead. A Deaf pastor preached, beautiful songs were signed and our young people served the Communion elements. 

I saw the Body of Christ in Beverly, Kentucky, this week. And none one of us will ever be the same. 

Each of us brings a better understanding of the “other.”  Each learned the age-old lesson of I Corinthians 12, that the giftedness of Christ’s Body calls us to join together to do the work of Christ, each one bringing their unique gift to benefit the whole.  Everyone had an important gift!

We pray for a day for economic justice for the folks of Appalachia, made poor by the excesses of coal mining and the inability of the rich to share with the poor. These are issues we are struggling with the world over.

Helping the poor on a mission trip is a commendable act of mercy.  But justice would call us to bring attention to the inequities that create this poverty and to work for sustainability and empowerment for all.  When there is justice there will be peace on earth. 

* Deaf culture is the set of social beliefs, behaviors, art, literary traditions, history, values, and shared institutions of communities that are influenced by deafness and which use sign languagesas the main means of communication. When used as a cultural label especially within the culture, the word deaf is often written with a capital D and referred to as “big D Deaf” in speech and sign. When used as a label for the audiological condition, it is written with a lower case d. (Wikipedia)

Download the Bishop’s PPT presentation about the Red Bird Mission trip and see more of her great photos!

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.