Monday, February 29, 2016

Reflections on the Spring Retreat by Daniel Yan

Over the weekend of Feb.12th, the Christian Association at the University of Pennsylvania went to the Poconos Mountains for its annual winter retreat. We left campus at 7:30pm and arrived at the retreat house around 10pm.
                  Leaving the overwhelming University City is always refreshing because it reminds you that there is something on Earth that is other than Huntsman, Van Pelt or Smokes.
                  During the retreat, as the retreat theme stated, we had a lot of discussions about what it means to relax with God and to live freely and happily following God’s guidance. However, implementing them in life is way harder than you think. We are always carried away by the materialistic things in this world.  And most of time we are chasing after those things not because we are selfish, but because we were born with responsibilities. We have seen our family members sacrificing their dreams and money so that we can chase ours. It will be hard to choose when your responsibilities are not resonating with God’s calling.  When that time comes, please pray and open your ears up to God, and listen to what he thinks you should do. As Scott said during the discussion, “Mother Teresa’s life is not for everyone.” For most of us, committing our entire life to love and help people is not a feasible option but that is not the only way you can help to make this word a more loving place. Tell your family that you love them every day; ask the people walking next to you how they are. Anything counts and everything matters.
                  Another discussion I felt mind blown was when Catalina and Arianna brought up that no matter how many times they try to help others, they never felt satisfied afterwards. In mother Teresa’s 1971 Nobel Peace Prize reception speech, she said, “And we read that in the Gospel very clearly - love as I have loved you - as I love you - as the Father has loved me, I love you - and the harder the Father loved him, he gave him to us, and how much we love one another, we, too, must give each other until it hurts.” I guess it is pretty self-explanatory that’s why someone has never felt satisfied after helping others. It also works with everything else in the world that fulfilling satisfaction is never together with comfort. As to whether we should commit our life to finding this particular satisfaction, as discussed above, is another story.

                  Every time I walk into the Christian Association house and see the slogan of “At the CA, you get to be whoever the heck you are,” I can’t help think of how blessed I am to be around this diverse, engaging community which, instead of telling you what is right, constantly guides you to find the truth. The Christian Association is showing the campus that you can have it both ways this time – your faith and your identity.

"Abiding to Bear Fruit" by Megan LeCluyse

Sermon given February 24, 2016
Scripture: John 15:1-17

This passages is normally separated into two chunks, one being verses 1-8, the other being 9-17. In some ways, this makes sense, because there is a ton of stuff here, and there is absolutely no way to touch on it all, even if we only were to look at half. So just so you know, we aren’t going to talk about the branches that get removed, but there is a lot we can discuss there later if you want. It involves digging into some horticultural learning about vines and what it means to tend vines. Good stuff actually, and yes, it is a vine the passage talks about, like what grapes grow on, and not a tree, which is what I tend to picture in my head. And while will talk about what it means to love one another, we’re also not going to dig into Jesus saying, “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend.” But, it is important to know that this whole speech happens while they are gathered for the Last Supper. We’re reading in John, so two chapters earlier, at this same meal, Jesus had washed the disciples feet, which was normally a servant’s task. Jesus has shown his disciples and friends that he loves them. There is so much here, and it is so rich, we could go in any number of directions. But what we are going to focus on, and why we read this whole passage, is what does it mean to abide in Jesus, and how this is absolutely necessary if we are going to be able to bear good fruit and truly love one another.

Jesus makes it clear that we are meant to abide in him, and there is no way around that this means making time for Jesus and God in our lives. Jesus doesn’t specify what this looks like, but that it is critical to our ability to bear good fruit. Using the vine metaphor Jesus uses hear, in order to produce fruit, the branches literally have to be connected to the vine, or they die. And this will probably look like a whole bunch of different things for each of us, from prayer, to worship, to serving, to retreating from normal life to be with God, it can and does look like a lot of things, and part of that is because abiding in God provides us with many different things. We abide in Christ to find rest, which was part of what we talked about at our retreat this past weekend. We looked at Matthew 11:28-30, where Jesus says, 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” When we abide in Jesus, we are given rest, a chance to trade in a heavy yoke for one that is light and easy. But we also abide in Jesus because in doing so, we are challenged, challenged to live into who God wants for us to be, challenged to not be complacent about the injustices of the world, challenged to live life as a disciple of Christ. When we abide in Christ, we are able to be sure of our identity as Children of God, and we have knowledge of who we truly are. Sure, we will experience seasons of doubt, and even dark nights of the soul, but even in the midst of those we can seek to abide, to rest, to dwell, to live in and with Christ. 

The passage tells us that if we abide in Christ, we will bear much fruit. And this is true. When we live into the life that Jesus offers us and calls us to, we enter a space in which we can thrive, in which as Frederich Buechner said, our greatest passion meets the world’s deepest needs. Jesus also commands us to live one another. Which is, in many ways, what makes life worth living, have community, family and friends, and even strangers, who we are called to love. But we all know that while fulfilling, this also is demanding, and requires energy, patience, strength, service, a willingness to put others ahead of ourselves, or to lay down our life for a friend. That’s not always easy to do, and in fact, we can’t do it on our own. Loving one another is part of the fruit that we bear, and that we can produce only when we remain close to the vine. There’s a poem by poet Ann Weems, talks about living love, and what it really looks like.  She writes:
“Living love is a complicated, painstaking, patient path.
An all-the-time, every time, watch-where-you’re-going
    Living love means making decisions all day long to
        Living love means patience with those who don’t
        care about living love,
            Living love means watching our words
            as well as our actions,
                Living love means treating others as we
                ourselves want to be treated,
Living love means not hitting back,
    Living love means loving our enemies,
        Living love means loving those who speak all
        manner of evil against us.
And these things are just the beginning of living Love.

Living Love means forgiving, means forgetting,
    Living Love means there is no room for
        Living Love means being the people of God
a community of those who love one another
and who love all the one anothers that God created.
            Living Love means understanding those
            who hate.
Living Love means going into all the world and telling
    God’s story.”

This living love she describes isn’t going to be easy, but it is what God calls us to. And we can only do so when we abide in Jesus, who gives us the strength to do so. So may you abide in the vine, and be branches that bear good fruit. Amen.

Monday, February 22, 2016

"Struggling with Religion" by Scott Sprunger

“What religion are you?”

That’s a question I’ve been asked more times than I can count. And I’ve asked it myself once or twice as well. Sometimes, among Christians, we ask each other “What denomination are you?” as though by naming the particular historical group in which you find yourself, you are naming something deeply true about your identity.

I’ve answered this question many times. I tell people that I’m a “Christian” (and I tell other Christians that I’m a “Mennonite”). But more often than not, it feels like a lie. Because there are a lot of ways I don’t feel at home in a “Christian” identity.

I much prefer the question, “What religion do you struggle with?” To that, I can unequivocally respond, “Christianity.”

There is some gravity to Christianity that I can’t ignore. Sometimes I hate it and sometimes I love it. I was born in a Christian family. I attended church, and Sunday school, and church camps, and conventions, and youth group meetings. At times in my life when my belief system would best be described as “Agnostic” or “Atheist,” I still took comfort in Christian rituals and hymns and traditions. Sometimes I attended church just to be around warm, caring people. Even when I had left Christianity behind, I still remained in its orbit.

Since then, I’ve made the return trip to Christianity. And sometimes I really miss the warm nostalgia I experienced in my agnostic days. There are times when I can’t stand church and church people. There are days when I want to wash my hands of organized religion altogether. Jesus and I can go off to our own private island, just the two of us. But I know it doesn’t work that way.

When I believe in God, I am also placing my belief in the church. I’m placing my belief in the idea that complex, messy people from all stations in life can come together and follow Jesus by making positive change in the world. So to believe in God also means to hope. But hope comes with the risk of vulnerability. To hope means to look at the world as it is and imagine what it could be. But the churches I’ve known have rarely lived up to the dream that hope has given me the power to imagine. And when that happens, it is a powerful reminder that the dominant social order is often more powerful than our ability to imagine a better world.

One such moment was last summer, when my denomination voted to make permanent a temporary agreement that aimed at excluding LGBTQ people, as well as silence all dialogue on the issue for four more years. As a gay Mennonite, I have often struggled over questions about whether I can be loved and welcomed by the religious community that raised me. To be honest, I still don’t know the answer. After that vote, I thought that I may have lost the strength to remain in a religious community.

What is the virtue of daring to hope? Of loving something so much that you are willing to struggle against it? For me, giving up on Christianity is the same thing as giving up on hope. And for some reason, God will not let me give up on hope. The Bible is filled with stories of hopelessness. Of marginalized people who see no way out of an oppressive social order. Then God intervenes. God breaks the rules. God tells the truth. God delivers hope in the midst of hopelessness. God is a God of hope.

I can’t give up on Christianity because I need to help move it (and I need it to help move me) toward a better reality. A reality of love, and of liberation, and of hope. There are days when I’m not sure I can call myself a “Christian.” But I can always honestly say that “Christianity” is the thing I choose to struggle with.

"Bread of Life" by Peter Hawisher-Faul

Sermon given on February 17, 2016
Scripture: John 6:35-51

The crowd that Jesus is speaking to followed him hoping he would perform another miracle. The day before, Jesus used five loaves of bread and two fish to feed five thousand people. Then Jesus snuck away from the crowd, walking on water to join his disciples on a boat.  Jesus and the disciples went to the other side of the local sea, but the crowd got in boats and followed Jesus the next day. They were looking for another miracle, maybe some more bread and fish, but Jesus doesn’t give them another miracle. Instead, he says “I am the bread of life.” “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus is saying, you think want bread, you think you want a miracle, but what you are really looking for is me. Jesus feeds people not just for their survival, but that they might know the Creator through the Son.
Here at the CA, a lot of people first come for the food and community. People hunger and thirst for food and fellowship, but that alone will not satisfy our desire to know God and our place in the world. We long for food and community for the sake of survival, but we also have many other needs that capture our attention. We might not be longing to see God feed five thousand people. We may be thirsty for God to show us a career path that will lead us to success and a meaningful impact on the world. We may be hungry for a sense of belonging in a community where our voices are recognized and heard. We may be looking for hope in a nation where power is misused. I think we all have miracles we pray for, ways that we want God to feed our hunger and thirst for life. When we pray “give us our daily bread,” it means much more than providing food for us to eat.
When we think of Jesus as the bread of life, it might be tempting to think of Jesus as spiritual food that fulfills disembodied needs rather than an answer to earthly problems. But I think it is no coincidence that Jesus says “I am the bread of life” the day after feeding bread to five thousand people. Jesus feeds people because he is the bread of life. Jesus cares for our hungers and thirsts, but they will never be satisfied. We will always be hungry for more. No matter how full or satisfying a meal is, we’ll still be hungry again in a matter of hours. It is not enough to find meaning by satisfying our own needs. We have to look beyond ourselves, toward the needs of others, and ultimately toward God. We were created by God and we will only find true fulfillment directly from God.
Jesus says he is the bread of life because as God’s son, only he can satisfy our existential need to find ultimate meaning in God. Jesus is saying that the only way our hungers and thirsts will truly be satisfied is if we understand our lives to be fulfilled in him. Jesus says that he will receive everyone his Father sends to him, he will never drive them away, and he will raise them up on the last day. In Christ our hunger is satisfied because it doesn’t have the last word. For as long as we live, we will have needs that we cannot survive without, but Christ calls us beyond our individual needs. Because Jesus is the bread of life, we can always come to Christ, we will never be turned away, and our lives will have meaning beyond our own needs. Jesus is “food” for us because he fulfills our needs, but unlike any other food the bread of life satisfies our eternal and existential needs.
This might seem pretty philosophical, but I hope to make clear that having faith in Jesus as the bread of life changes the way we approach our other needs. First, it puts our needs in perspective. Our hunger and thirst do not provide ultimate meaning beyond survival. Second, the bread of life uses our hunger and thirst to call us beyond our own needs. While hunger itself does not give our lives meaning, it make us aware of our dependence on God and each other, pointing us toward dependence on God. This is part of why Jesus feeds the five thousand, to call attention to what God has done. Jesus feeds people so that the crowd may see and believe that he is the bread of life. Jesus also compares himself to the manna that came from heaven to feed the Israelites in the wilderness. Just as manna sustained the people of Israel when nothing else could, Jesus, the bread of life, gives our lives meaning beyond our needs and limits. Our hunger for food shows our dependence on the earth, farmers, and the environment, each of them calling us beyond self-sufficiency and toward dependence of God in Christ.
Every Wednesday night at the CA we share an experience of what it means to receive Jesus as the bread of life. When Jesus says “I am the bread of life” he calls us from the meal we just shared to the meal we are about to share. Much like when Jesus feeds the 5000, we share a meal together. While this meal satisfies our hunger for food and community, the meal we had anticipates the meal we are about to have, communion, sometimes called the Eucharist which means “thanksgiving.” The Eucharist is a celebration of Christ as the bread of life, that Christ’s life was given for the world and we share in Christ’s life in gratitude. In gratitude, we give our lives for the world as an extension of Jesus’s work. This is why the church is sometimes called the body of Christ. Martin Luther once described eating the Eucharist like a wolf that devoured a sheep, but the sheep was so powerful that it turned the wolf into a sheep. The bread of life is food for us that turns us back toward the world that we might feed others.
As followers of Christ, we meet other’s needs, feeding the hungry as Christ did. Sometimes we feed the hungry on Wednesday nights, but we also look beyond our community. We may not feed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish, but at the CA we serve at places like Broad Street Ministries and UniLU’s Feast Incarnate. When we feed others, we not only meet immediate needs but extend Christ’s invitation to receive the bread of life to others as we have received it from Christ.

Jesus said “I am the bread of life.” He is food for us and for others. He is food that satisfies a hunger for meaning that could only be satisfied by God. This calls us beyond our own needs into community as the body of Christ, turning our hungers and needs into symbols of desire for God.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"Trust" by Megan LeCluyse

Sermon given on February 3, 2016
Scripture: Luke 5:1-11

There’s a chance that some of you have heard me say this before, but growing up, I could never do a trust fall. Like where someone stands behind you to catch you, and you lean back, trusting the will catch you and not let you hit the floor. It didn’t matter if your hands were 6 inches behind me or halfway to the floor, I couldn’t do it. It didn’t matter who it was, even when it was my own mother standing behind me, I didn’t budge. As soon as I tried to lean back, I took a step back, catching myself, not allowing someone else to help me out. Which is kind of ironic, because in some ways I am the product of an act of trust that led to many other acts of trust. My parents’ first real interaction involved trust – they shared a boss, Lou, with whom my mom was supposed to have a lunch meeting, but she also had a paper that had to be turned in, and it had to be hand delivered in those pre-e-mail days. My dad was just finishing up a meeting with Lou, and when my mom said she needed to get this paper turned in, their boss said, “Don’t worry, Joe can turn it in for you.” So my mom handed this person who she’d just met her paper, wondering if it would really get turned in or not, and if she should contact the professor to check. 8 months later, the paper writer and deliverer were married.

I think this is one of the places where our faith and our culture rub against each other, in ways reflected by the two examples above. My unwillingness to let myself depend upon another person to catch me reflects so much of what American individualism seems to praise – pull yourself up by the boot straps, rely on your own hard work, and believe that asking for help, or admitting you can’t do something, can be viewed as a sign of weakness. Doing what you need to do to get to the top is praised. Trust and vulnerability are too often seen as things that could damage you, not help you. Trust and you could be betrayed, show vulnerability and you could be exploited. True. But the blind trust of handing your paper to a stranger reflects what God says would be best for us, to trust one another, but more so to trust God, and that what God has in store for us is better than we can even fathom. And trusting God means also accepting that we are not in control of everything, including our own lives.

Now I’ll admit understanding what it means to trust God, in correlation with what we are still supposed to do, can be tricky. And even what it means to trust God can seem a little hard to understand. Too often, God has been portrayed as a vending machine God, pray for X, and God provides X. Now some say X could be whatever, including a Porsche, and that if you pray hard enough, God will provide you a Porsche. Now most would say that’s a bit too far, God doesn’t provide luxury items. But what if we’re praying for God to heal someone, to make somebody’s cancer go away. I’ve known really good people, faithful people who had lots of people praying for them, who have died from illness. I struggle with what I think it means when people say, “God answers prayer,” or trust that God hears you, and prayer is a topic that deserves it’s own conversation. Because I do believe that prayer is important, and it’s meant to be a conversation, and I do believe that we can trust that God is present with us no matter what happens, that God wants to be in conversation with us, and that we probably need to spend more time listening than we do talking, more time thinking maybe we ourselves don’t have all the answers.

In tonight’s Scripture, Jesus is early in his ministry, but has already developed a crowd that is following him around. It seems like it’s morning, and Jesus wants to speak to the crowd. The fishermen have come in from being out at night fishing, and have not had a good catch. As they stand at the shore cleaning their nets, Jesus borrows a boat so he can go out to sea a little, creating an amphitheater-like effect. You have to wonder what these fishermen, who would soon be disciples, were thinking as they listened to Jesus talk.  They were clearly influenced, and though Simon Peter wanted to rely on his own knowledge that there were not a lot of fish to be caught this day, they trusted enough to take their boats back out, and drop their nets down. The number of fish soon started breaking the net, and they had to use both boats to get their catch back to shore! And then they trusted this guy enough that they gave up their career, and went to follow him and be disciples, fishing for people.

Trusting God means living our lives in a conversation with God, and choosing to trust the voice of God when we hear it, in whatever form that might take. And then it means acting on what you have been told. It means depending on God instead of depending on yourself, relying on God and others to get you through each day. It doesn’t mean sitting around praying for God to do life for you, Jesus didn’t put the nets down for Simon Peter, James, and John. But they listened when he told them, against all conventional and situational wisdom, to put their boat back out to sea. If fishing, and leaving their work to follow Jesus was their version of the trust fall, they leaned back, trusting that God would be their support, and through their actions call us as disciples to do the same. Amen.

"Are we ready to Follow Christ?" by Megan LeCluyse

Sermon given January 27, 2016
Scripture: Luke 4:14-21

Let me tell you the story of a young man, who was given the name Giovanni at his baptism. Giovanni was born into a wealthy and large family; he had 6 siblings. His mother came from a well-to-do family herself, and his father sold high-end fabric, specializing in silk. His father was away in France when Giovanni was born, and when he arrived home he decided he wanted his new son to be called Francesco, which means the Frenchman, possibly because of what had happened during his business trip. Francesco embraced the life of luxury that he had been born into. Had there been tabloids at the time, his picture would probably have been in them. Then, around the age of 18 or 19, he decided to join the military. Sent out on a military expedition, he ended up being captured, and spent a year as a prisoner of war. Some say it was during this year that Francesco began to change. Yet when he returned home after his release, there was no real discernable difference in how he chose to live his life. Before going back off to fight again, he became seriously ill, and this illness also created a spiritual crisis for him. After recovering, as he went back off with the military, he had a strange vision, in which he returned to his hometown, but had lost his taste for the extravagant life he had led. A year later, as he once again set out, he had another vision, directing him to return home once again, which this time he did. He took a pilgrimage to Rome, and there he spent time with some beggars. He returned home from his pilgrimage, began living a very simple life, and started to preach on the streets, soon developing a following. Any guesses as to who this young man was?

 Hopefully some of you have heard of Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church. Francis spent this rest of his life living in very simple conditions, having no more than the bare minimum of what he needed. He lived in tune with nature, and is often portrayed with animals. He restored several chapels in the area around where he lived. He and his followers, which included women, some of whom formed the Order of Poor Clares, served the poor.

Part of the story is that many of those who knew Francis growing up were not happy with the changes they saw take place, as he went from a carefree wealthy party boy who did his duty by going off to fight, to a young man who literally dropped the life he had known, shedding his fancy garments, and was radically transformed. While we have no evidence that Jesus was ever a party boy, the scene is today’s reading is a similar situation. Jesus is returning to his hometown, and with some pretty bold things to say. People were expecting that when the Messiah came, he would look like the knight-in-shining-armor, leading the Jewish people to a military victory over Rome. So it’s one thing to proclaim that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, but then he also rubs salt into that by saying that what he will do is care about the poor and oppressed, the blind and the captives. Let’s just say that this doesn’t go so well, I mean, who is Joseph’s son to be talking like this. He says a few more things, and next thing you know, the people are trying to throw him off a cliff, so he heads out of town.

As we do our survey of the Bible, there are a few themes that stand out, and that show up again and again and again. One is what we looked at last week, that God has claimed you as a beloved child of your creator. Another is that God isn’t focused on, and didn’t become human primarily for, the wealthy and privileged. No, God came for those on the margins of society, for those not welcomed at the fancy dinner parties, for those who nobody wanted to talk to, for those who were broken, for those who needed healing. When God made the Israelites the chosen people, God wasn’t choosing a military powerhouse. No, the Israelites were a small, minority group, not very powerful, and soon enslaved. The wealthy and the popular are welcome to join in the party, but the party isn’t about them. That’s the kind of God we have.

Not many of us will have the radical transformation that St. Francis had, or return to our hometown only to be driven to the edge of a cliff. And while I think asking questions about how we chose to live and what we chose to buy is important, I don’t think we are all supposed to live in poverty either. But Jesus’ proclamation about why he came is still something we are supposed to hear and act upon. We have a new Francis, one who can helps us see both the complexity and the calling of following Christ today. A year after Francis became Pope, Jim Wallis wrote a piece for Sojourners on the new Pope. He looks at how Francis is trying to make it not about him but about the Christ he follows, and poses these questions to Christians today:  “Are we Christians ready and willing to follow Jesus? Are we ready to love, embrace, forgive, and show mercy as Jesus would have us do? Are we ready to stand with and give our lives for the poor and call the global economy not just to charity, but to justice? Are we willing to take “a preferential option for the poor,” and apply it to both our personal and public lives?

These are big questions, and ones we will spend our lives figuring out, especially as you graduate and begin careers from one of the most prestigious universities in the country. But the fact that they are big, daunting questions doesn’t give us an excuse to ignore them. So are you ready and willing to follow Christ? Amen.