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.
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.
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
By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
“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.
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.”
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)
By Bishop Peggy Johnson
“On August 25, 1619, the White Lion (pirate and slave ship) entered from the Chesapeake Bay and arrived at Point Comfort, an English settlement…at the mouth of the harbor, 20 nautical miles downstream from Jamestown (Va.).” (www.Project1619.org) Thus began the scourge of slavery in this country that has continued on for 400 years.
According to an article in the Sunday Tribune by Michael Coard, 12.5 million stolen Africans were brought to this country. By the time of the Civil War there were 4 million enslaved people and 1.32 million of them were children.
They were sold on slave blocks, treated inhumanely, and whole families were separated: “…mother from daughter, father from son, brother from sister, husband from wife. Following these forced separations, they were scattered across the country. And they would never touch or even see one another again.” (Sunday Tribune, July 28, 2019, p 2-A)
It can well be said that the wealth and success of this country came on the backs of enslaved people. Again citing Coard’s research: Of the 56 signers of the American colonies’ Declaration of Independence, 41 had slaves. Of the 55 signers of the U.S. Constitution, 25 owned slaves. One in six households had slaves in Philadelphia in the 1760’s, and even William Penn himself had three. George Washington had 316 slaves.
The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 did little to improve the lot of enslaved people. And through the years the scourge of slavery has continued to wound and scar us through Jim Crow laws, stubborn racism and racial inequities, white privilege, white Nationalism and mass incarceration.
August 25 is a date to acknowledge the grievous sins of this nation against not only slaves but also first-nation peoples. It is a time to also recognize the ongoing attacks on immigrants and migrants in this country.
It is a time to remember and reflect on how the hunger for gain and material wealth has caused people to subjugate and enslave their fellow human beings. It is said well in one of our rarely sung hymns: “O shame to us who rest content while lust and greed for gain in street and shop and tenement wring gold from human pain.” (UM Book of Hymns, No. 726)
It is a time to commit the church—our church—to name racism when we see it, to work harder to achieve equality and shared leadership and wealth for all, to carefully monitor our elected officials and vote for those who have hearts of justice, and to promote laws that encourage reparations, affirmative action and fair voting rights, policies and alignment of districts.
The road is long and the battle lines are deeply entrenched in this country presently. But each of us can do our part and together the Church of Jesus Christ can make a difference. Start by praying this prayer at church on August 25.
Gracious God of all people, we acknowledge and repent of the grievous acts of inhumanity against people of African descent in our long history. We know that much generational wealth in this country has been in the hands of European-American people at the expense of people of color.
Forgive us we pray and on this anniversary of 400 years of American slavery. We commit ourselves anew to work for justice, peace and equity. Give us the strength to step out in faith to do our part. And give us the courage to face the persecution that comes with justice ministry. This we pray in the name of the lover of our souls and of all: Jesus, the Christ. Amen.
Learn more about this poignant anniversary of a momentous event in American history. Read “Slavery anniversary leads to new discussions,” by Jim Patterson of UM News Service (July 8, 2019)
By Bishop Peggy Johnson
Doctors have perfected many kinds of tests that diagnose heart disease. From coronary artery blockages to arrhythmia, to heart valve disease—with modern testing equipment, we can know what is in a person’s physical heart.
However, when our Scriptures speak of the heart, it is far more than a body organ. The “heart” is found 762 times in the KJV Bible, and it tends to mean what it is the central core of a person’s desires, wonderment and passion. It is our true best self. One cannot test this kind of heart with a stethoscope, but it is easily discerned by a person’s words.
Jesus taught his disciples that eating food with unwashed hands does not defile a person: “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled?”
He goes on to assert the true test of a person’s heart: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” (Matthew 15:17-19)
What is in our heart is evidenced by the way we talk. Just listen to what a person says. Listen to yourself talk. No special equipment necessary; just listen with your ears… and your heart.
This is no little thing. The Book of James reminds us, “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire. And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness… it is a restless evil… full of deadly poison.” (James 2:5-6, 8b)
In our current political climate, we are experiencing countless inflammatory words whose name is legion. Many of them come from a heart of racial bigotry, sexism and classism. Calls for congresswomen to be “sent home” and unkind words about Baltimore being an unlivable “rat and rodent infested mess” are disappointing and hurtful. It stirs up more and more strife between people as the cycle of harsh criticism and insults goes on and on.
However, we are not sitting above it all in holiness and purity. In the life of the church, mean-spirited words are spoken against one another as well. James says, “Every kind of beast and bird or reptile and sea creature can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue.” (2:7).
Sadly, it is part of the human condition to speak unkindly. So, do we just take it as a “given” and keep on hurting one another with insults and slander? I think not! We have a God who can understand our weakness and will help us.
Paul teaches, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humanity. And God is faithful; and he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, God will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (I Corinthians 10:13)
May we use God’s preventive medicine for the heart disease of slander and evil words spoken against each another. Indeed, may we use that same medicine to also cure the callous, heinous and even murderous actions that too often are prompted by our words. Should we be surprised that hurtful public policies and personal threats and attacks often seem to follow hateful public discourse?
May we continue to pray and work unceasingly for a world in which everyone is given respect in our thoughts, words and deeds, and where the better angels of our nature lead us to promote inclusion and equality for all. If each of us takes responsibility for what we think, say and do in this world, our church can still become part of the beloved community that God intended.