Remember Where You Are

This sermon was preached by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali on March 30, 2014, at University United Methodist Church.

O God, in the stillness, come meet us.  Amen. 

You can learn a lot about a group of people based on the jokes others tell about them; and the ways they make loving jabs at themselves. 

So, in the spirit of self-reflection, I did a google search to find out what the general impression is of United Methodists.  I found two blogs that poke fun at those of us in the good old UMC.  I want to share some of them with you all this morning.  Some of these are from a Blog Spot called “Imagine” by someone named George[1] and others are from Milford United Methodist Church[2]. 

Here goes: 

You might be a Methodist if…

-- You think God's presence is strongest on the back three pews.
-- You believe that you are supposed to take a covered dish to heaven.
-- There's at least one person in every church meeting who says, "But we've never done it that way before"
-- Your congregation's Christmas pageant include both boy and girl wise men
-- You understand that an "appointment" has nothing to do with keeping a lunch date
-- You need a committee to start a committee.

Some of these may hit home with you. 

I have to admit the first two stereotypes that I think of when I think of generalizations about Methodist are: 1) We make good food and we love to share it! 2) We have way too many committees!

These jokes do reveal part of who we are as a church, as a denomination, but we can also learn something important about ourselves by looking at who we have been historically.

Historically, Methodist are known to be a people who value education.  This is in part due to the fact that John Wesley started the Methodist movement on a university campus at Oxford University. 

Methodists are also known to be disciplined and methodical.  In fact, the name “Methodist” is used early on when the Wesley brothers and friends gathered for small groups which they called “class meetings.”  These class meetings involved an intense self-examination and required adherence to a methodical discipline and balance of prayer, study, social life, mission and service and physical activities. 

In addition, Methodists are known to be a people of faith who care about the poor and disadvantaged.  For example, Methodists are usually the first group on the ground after a natural disaster and the last to leave an area when clean-up is finished.  Methodists are known for starting global health initiatives, as well.

So, who are we, really?  Where did we come from and where are we going?

Well, our scripture from Deuteronomy sheds some light on these questions.

Here’s a little context for this part of the story that we read this morning.  Moses has been up on the mountain and God reveals the 10 commandments to him.  Moses has two stone tablets that have the 10 commandments written on them.  But when Moses goes down the mountain with the tablets, he can see that the people are sinning.  This incites such strong feelings inside Moses, that he raises up the tablets and smashes them down in front of all the people and then he starts fasting and praying.

Eventually, Moses goes back up the mountain and God gives him two new stone tablets.  While Moses is up there, he and God have a conversation about obedience and justice.  The verses that we read this morning are a small part of that conversation.

These verses specifically talk about integrity in the administration of court justice and protection of the marginalized.  Although historically, defending the rights of the poor and marginalized was the responsibility of the monarch, in this conversation, God switches things up and asserts that it is actually the responsibility of God and God’s people to do this.  Human social ethics come to life by imitating God and God’s ways of peace and justice.

In these verses, God is the example.  God is exalted as great, powerful, fair, just, and non-partial.  God is the one who does justice for the orphan and widow and who loves the strangers by providing them with food and clothing.  Therefore—doing these things is our mandate as well—this is what love looks like. 

God asks Moses and the Israelites to remember where they are and where they’ve been as they consider how to treat those around them.  They were once strangers (or literally resident aliens) in the land of Egypt.  Even now, they are wandering in a desert that is not their home.  This makes the mandate about how to welcome other strangers personal. 

We must love the strangers because we’ve been there before.  We were once strangers somewhere.  We’re also in a land that is not our own.

So, I wonder, have you ever been a stranger (maybe not a resident alien, but a stranger)?  Have you ever been in a place that was not your own?  Have you ever felt like a stranger, even if you were at home (so to speak)?

I remember feeling like a stranger my first year of college.  I was still in the same country—even in the same state as where I grew up, but I didn’t know anyone.  Customs seemed to be different.  Freedom from my parents was thrilling and scary.  The upperclassmen seemed to be decades older than I was; and they seemed to know everything.  Meanwhile, it was all I could do to find my classes and the dining hall.  I was in a strange land with strange rules and strange people who I did not know.

But, things changed by the beginning of my second year.  I returned to school more confident in who I was and where I was.  Now I was the one who knew the place, knew the rules, and knew at least some of the people!

Remembering my experience my first year made me more compassionate.  I handed out free lemonade the first week of school; I helped freshman move into their rooms; I invited new people to the campus ministry I was involved with.  I wanted to do what I could to make the new students feel more welcome than I had felt the year before.

I remembered where I was but I also remembered where I had been.

According to Stephanie Spellers, in her book Radical Welcome, this self-awareness is also key for churches.  It is important to listen to what others are saying about us and who we have been historically in order for us to remember where we are and see clearly the call that God has for us.

Spellers quotes the Right Revered Cathy Roskam from the Episcopal Diocese of New York when she says, “Most congregations can grow, if they can live into the idea of radical welcome.  [But] You have to examine what’s under the iceberg, what militates against transformation, for it to happen.  You have to make some conscious choices.”[3]

We can have a dream for how our congregation could grow and change.  We can have a vision written down in words.  We can even have ideas and willpower to make something happen, but sometimes it begins to feel like it is unattainable.  We can get busy trying lots of things, and not necessarily see the results we want to see.

It is in these times that we have to stop a moment and remember where we are.  We need to remember our own cultural and historical identity as well as learn about the cultural and historical identity of those with whom we are trying to connect.

There is something called the Iceberg Theory of Culture.  [4]{C}

It says that external culture is culture that we or others can see.  Things like fine arts, drama, dancing, cooking, sports, music and games.  These are a great place to start when we are looking for common ground and a way to connect.  But these things are just the tip of the iceberg. 

Underneath the water, there is a huge mass that includes things that are just as strongly present, but are not as easily viewed or understood.  This is called the internal culture and includes things like child rearing, relationship to animals, incentives to work, conception of justice, facial expressions and body language.  All of this is culture: both the external and the internal.

The Iceberg Theory of Culture is a reminder that there is much more to culture than a traditional food.  Culture shapes others and ourselves in ways that are not immediately self-evident, but are deserving of lengthy conversation.  Culture shapes others and ourselves in ways that will take time and intention to understand.

So, what is the history of UUMC?

One little known fact is that at one point in history, our denominational church split over the issue of slavery.  Our congregation was founded as part of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which condoned slavery.

How things have changed over time.  How God has worked on our souls and our hearts.

Today we seek to be a church that loves all people and honors the image of God in every person.  We are known to be a church that serves and cares deeply about mission and social justice.  We aspire to grow as a church where people of all cultures, all nations, and all ages can come together to love and serve God.

But along the way of this journey, we must remember where we’ve been in order to know where we are.

Remember, you were once strangers, too.

[1] http://onlyimagine.blogspot.com/2005/03/you-might-be-methodist-if.html

[2] http://milfordunitedmethodistchurch.wordpress.com/2008/08/30/you-might-be-a-united-methodist-if/

[3] Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, by Stephanie Spellers, Copyright 2006 by Stephanie Spellers, Church Publishing, Incorporated, p. 121.

[4] http://mocada-museum.tumblr.com/post/77083765767/coolculturegram-just-as-nine-tenths-of-the

Copyright 2014 by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali