Pastor Colin’s Blog

Food for Thought, March 22, 2020

I AM the Good Shepherd

Sermon based on John10:11-18

March 22, 2020

I am reminded of the story of Desmond Doss. His story, memorialized in the 2017 movie Hacksaw Ridge, is a true example of bravery and sacrifice. Doss was born in Lynchburg, VA, in 1919. When World War II broke out, Doss wanted to serve his country as a soldier. just not as a typical soldier. For you see, Doss was raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist, a church that believed in pacifism. But Doss did not let his pacifism get in the way of desire to serve his country. He wanted to do this by becoming a medic in the Army.

Because of this desire to serve as a medic and not take up arms against the enemy, Doss was met with much ridicule and anger from the soldiers in his unit. His deep-held beliefs were unwavering. So much so that he was court-martialed for his refusal to fire a weapon. In the end, he was finally allowed to be a medic on the front lines.

Doss went on to serve in several campaigns in the Pacific. In April 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa, Doss’s battalion was tasked with the capture of a ridge that became known as Hacksaw Ridge. During several weeks, his battalion fought endlessly for this ridge. In one such assault on the ridge, the battalion was beaten back by the Japanese, not before having to leave 75 wounded men behind, along with a medic that refused to leave his men behind. Doss, in the course of many hours, treated these men and lowered each one down to safety. For his actions Doss became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor. At his presentation ceremony, where he was credited with saving the lives of those 75 men, President Truman remarked, “I consider this a greater honor than being president.”

Jesus said: “I AM the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11 NRSV). In the time of Jesus, one of the more common occupations was being a shepherd. Sheep were valued for their wool and their meat. And being a good shepherd meant being vigilant and always caring for your sheep. When one was lost, a shepherd would always try to find that lost sheep. When one was sick, the shepherd always tried to nurse it back to health. When the flock were being threatened by wolves, the shepherd always stood watch over the sheep. What a rich metaphor when Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd!

But our Gospel lesson goes on and describes the hired hand, the one who is less invested in the well-being of the flock. In this instance, the hired hand sees the wolf coming, leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf eats a nice dinner of mutton. Jesus, though, is the good shepherd that will never leave his sheep and will lay down his life for his sheep.

The Gospel narrative, of course, tells us that’s exactly what Jesus did. He laid down his life for his followers, and that should be the end of the story. But really that is the beginning of the story for those who call themselves Christ followers.

Remember back several years ago when there was that popular trend of wearing a WWJD bracelet. WWJD stood for What Would Jesus Do. Us followers of John Wesley sometimes used that acronym to apply to our Wesleyan heritage because we can ask: What Would John (Wesley) Do? Before I digress too much, I want to remind us of what WWJD truly means. Of course, it was really cool to wear that bracelet. But it also reminded us of what was required of us as people of faith. It reminded us to be like Jesus and to act like Jesus.

Now to state the obvious: it sucks to be under this shelter-in-place order. Our daily routines have been thrown out all of whack. Some of us are having to work remotely. And then there are those that have been laid off or terminated from their jobs because of this crisis. And then there is the daily reality of being home day-after-day. Some of us welcomed this time because it would allow to have the time to do our hobbies or watch Netflix unencumbered. Others of us welcomed this time because we could read that novel we’ve always wanted to read. And still others welcomed this extended time to be with their kids. But now we are realizing that after almost a week of being under this order, a lot of those things are starting to lose their luster and our attention spans are waning. Our souls are starting to become restless.

At a very basic level this shelter-in-place should not hinder us from always striving to be like Jesus. One of the ways we live in the “Jesus” way is to be in community with one another. That’s hard during this time. At least we think it’s hard because we aren’t aren’t comfortable being in community behind closed doors, sequestered off from our friends and family.

I wanted to let you know that this has been on my heart since this crisis started. And so, I wanted to let you know that I, along with our staff, are planning some practical ways we can stay in touch and be in community with one another. One of the unique things about being a Methodist is that historically we started out being very “methodical” in our ways. John Wesley created a system among his followers in which there was intentional community. Through the creation of his societies, bands and classes, people were connected to assess their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

In the days ahead, we are going to employ a similar system to make sure that our community will be well cared for. You will be hearing more information on this soon. What I would like you to remember now is that we are called to be like Jesus. We are called to sacrifice when necessary.  But on a more basic level, we are called to care and to love our neighbor in whatever possible. To be like Jesus and be a shepherd like Jesus was a shepherd. Amen.

Food for Thought, March 15, 2020

A Message and Then a Sermon from Pastor Colin

We are living in a rather strange time. Toward the end of last year, there was a report of a strange undiagnosed virus in China that had the potential to bring on a world-wide pandemic. And now we are all living through that pandemic! Yikes!

Just a week ago I issued the first of a series of pastoral letters telling you of actions myself, our staff and church leadership were taking to abide by the safest practices of hygiene while we are at church. It astounds me how fast things can change in a week. Now we have canceled church for the next two Sundays (March 15th and 22nd). But that does not mean that the Good News of Jesus Christ is silenced. So, to be connected to all of you, I give you my message for this Sunday. For purposes of brevity and ease of putting it on our website, I have scaled down the length of my sermon. Nevertheless, I give you: I AM the Door. Enjoy!

I am the (door). Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture. (NRSV John 10:9)

Do you remember watching Let’s Make a Deal with Monty Hall. I think the show is still around, except with a different host. Truth be told: it was a rather silly show. Contestants would be dressed in outrageous costumes in hopes of being recognized by Monty Hall as he walked among the audience. If they were chosen, contestants would then play some game in hopes of winning the big prize. One of those games was to select one of three doors in the expectation that a new car or boat or vacation was behind that door. And when they didn’t select the right door, there was usually something unappealing there like a bag of coal or some broken down car.

In our Gospel lesson Jesus proclaims himself as the Door (… or Gate as per the NSRV). Furthermore, he tells us that anyone who enters by this Door (meaning Jesus) will be saved. So, what doors do you enter? Sometimes in our lives there are doors of opportunity like a new job or business venture. Sometimes we enter doors that open us to exciting travel or new hobbies. And then at other times, we enter through doors that cause us great distress and sorrow, like broken relationships and losing loved ones.

Throughout my life and career, I’ve had the opportunity to spend many a night in a hotel. Not too long ago, hotels used to issue you an actual metal key with your room number on it to get into your room. Now, we are issued cards, and if you’re like me, sometimes I don’t carry the little cardboard jacket my room card comes in and I forget my room number. That, of course, comes with much inconvenience and feeling like a fool.

In our Gospel lesson we are presented with only one door to choose: the Door of Life through Jesus. We have entered many doors throughout our lives and have closed others. What is important to remember is that this door Jesus talks about is one that never closes. What Jesus promises us when we go through this door is a life that has meaning and hope. We learn what it truly means to love our neighbor. When we enter through his door we glimpse a world in which we see possibilities and hope.

We have all lived through some tenuous times. My parents were young adults during World War II, and they often reflected of the anxiety and hopelessness they lived through. We all remember our own feelings and emotions on September 11, 2001. Our nation had been attacked and many lost their lives. And now we have this virulent pandemic that many of us are trying to make sense of and to take precautions against, but we simply do not know if we are safe from the COVID-19 virus.

So, my hope for you is to focus on that door that you’ve gone through with Jesus. As you live through this tenuous time, remember that hope and love abound! It is happening now as we watch out for our neighbors making sure they are safe and healthy. It is happening now in the love and concern we are showing towards those strangers who have contracted the virus. It is happening now in the ways we are caring for members of our community, both in the places we live and in our church. We have walked through the door with Jesus, and Jesus is with us as we walk out and serve in this world of ours!

So be safe. Keep your eyes on the door of Jesus. And wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds (… while humming or singing the first verse of Amazing Grace). Amen.

150th Anniversary Celebration Sermon

February 10, 2019

            This year will mark my 34th year in ministry. I feel kinda old when I consider this. And this is especially true when 150 of my best friends helped me celebrate my 60th birthday last Sunday. But I digress…

In considering my 34 years of ministry I harken back to the memories of all the wonderful churches I’ve served. By my count I have had the honor of serving 10 churches over the course of those 34 years. Among them there have been small, struggling rural churches, and vibrant, suburban churches like our beloved church, the Walnut Creek United Methodist Church. And in each of those churches, I have been so profoundly touched by the countless faithful followers of Jesus who called those churches their spiritual home. In another sense, some of those churches touched me in another way: by the living, breathing history that some of these places possessed. One such place was the last church I served in New York: the Sauquoit Valley United Methodist Church.

The Sauquoit Valley church literally reeked of history. It was the first Methodist Episcopal Church established west of the Hudson River in 1788. In its present sanctuary there was a sacred chair named the Francis Asbury chair of which no one was supposed to sit in…. ever. Francis Asbury is one of the patron saints of our church, for he was one of the founders of Methodism in America. I remember several times when no one was around that I would go into the sanctuary and, breaching the “no sit” rule, sitting in Asbury’s chair trying to summon his spirit and energy for the Gospel.

As I walked around that church there were other things with as much significance as the Asbury chair. I remember our church bell having been rung as the clarion call to worship in that community for over 200 years, and seeing all the children’s names, who rung that bell over the years, signed on to the beam next to the bell rope. Literally this church reeked of history that reminded me each day of the legacy the Sauquoit church was built upon. And in the same light, that is why we are here today… to celebrate our life and legacy that our church mothers and fathers have left us over the years!

In our sanctuary today you will notice two banners. The theme of these banners are: from cocoon to bursting forth; from our humble beginnings towards the future. One of the things you will be receiving today after church is a copy of our history. For those of us that had the opportunity to revise our history for this our 150th anniversary, reading it over and over and over again, we realized we have a very rich history that started from very humble beginnings.

In 1868 the Rev. Richard Kernick, pastor of the Lafayette and Livermore Charge, stopped at what was then known as “The Corners” to arrange for services in this little community, to be later known as Walnut Creek.  By 1869 – February 12, 1869 to be exact – this small group of people officially organized themselves into a church that was to be known as The First Methodist Episcopal Church of Walnut Creek.   And it was from this genesis that we are who we are today: a community united in God’s love, actively sharing that love with all! But as we worship here this day, I hope you realize that the path that has led us to this place has been one paved with both blessing and sorrow, hope and desperation.

It is written that in our early history as a church, we grew initially and then declined over the next few decades until finally we found ourselves about ready to close our doors. But our church had one person with the conviction that no matter what, we needed to keep our doors open and our church witnessing for the sake of the Gospel. And so, on this day we remember one of the venerated saints of our church, Sarah “Grandma” Wilson.   Sarah Wilson was born on October 25, 1867, in Iowa. She joined the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Walnut Creek on May 4, 1913. When the District Superintendent suggested that our church be closed because of declining attendance, Grandma Wilson replied that she would be the church and insisted that the church remain open. It is written that there were many times when the only two people in worship were the preacher and Grandma Wilson. The minister even told Sarah that she might as well give up and join the Presbyterian Church. She responded by saying, “I pay my tithes and you are going to preach.” Later, “Grandma” went out and recruited more people to our church so that within a year membership had increased to 16. I thank God for the witness of Sarah Wilson.

There have been many others, both pastors and lay persons, who have made our church what it is today. The list is extensive. We remember the foresight of those that decided our church was growing and we needed expanded facilities. In 1950 through the leadership of the Rev. Phillip Solbjor and the committed laity of our church, we sold our property in downtown Walnut Creek and bought a 3-acre parcel out in what was then known as the country on a street called Sunnyvale Avenue. By 1953 we were worshipping in our chapel with the place we are sitting in now, our sanctuary being completed in 1955.  And by 1966 we added the education building on to our complex. One would have to conclude that this was the part of our history when we truly started to thrive as a church in our community.

Our Gospel reading this morning comes to us from the Gospel of St. Luke and is the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story a man is traveling on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, a desolate, unforgiving place even today. Along this road the man is robbed and assaulted, left on the side of the road to die. As this parable goes on, we see a priest coming by the man that we assume would have helped him, but he hurries on not wanting to be bothered. Then we are told a Levite passed by. This man, who was held in high esteem because of his position in the Temple, passed by as well, looking the other way. And then we see a Samaritan, a person who was considered less than, a guy from the other side of the tracks, come by and do everything possible to bring this man back to life.

As I consider our history, I do believe throughout the years that we have been driven by a bunch of Good Samaritans. Over the years we have seen people from ordinary walks of life do extraordinary things for the sake of the Gospel. Perhaps it is safe to assume that countless people acting in faith, being about justice and mercy in our world, is deeply seated in our church’s DNA.

One such justice ministry had its beginning in 1986 when, under the leadership of Marianna Mihills, our congregation began the process of becoming a Reconciling Congregation. In becoming a Reconciling Congregation, we were committing ourselves to be an open congregation to all people regardless of sexual orientation, race, or gender. Our congregation undertook an intensive process of study and meetings in order to understand more fully what this charge meant in the life and ministry of our church. Starting in 1986 there were a series of classes held to further enhance people’s understanding of what it meant to be an open and reconciling church. For eight years the church offered information about this subject in its adult classes.

By March 1994 our Administrative Board voted unanimously that it was time for a church-wide ballot on becoming a reconciling congregation. An affirmation was written by our Church and Society work area which read in part:

We affirm the teachings of Jesus that call us to move beyond judgment to love, and renew our commitment to one another and to this church to be faithful witnesses of the gospel. As builders of the bridges of connectedness, we invite all to join with us in our gatherings.

On June 5, 1994, the Church Conference voted 79 percent in favor of becoming a Reconciling Congregation. We have never looked back. And to this day we continue in faithful witness of striving to be a truly open church to all!

This idea of building bridges of connectedness has taken us way beyond the boundaries of this church and this community. Perhaps this connectedness was never more profound than in the outreach this church did in Bosnia back in the 1990’s. And the one person above all others that embodied this outreach with such a fervent passion was our friend and saint of this church Lyle Morris. I knew Lyle back then in my work as a member of our conference staff. I remember Lyle as someone who did not take “no” for an answer, and instead seemed to look at possibilities of situations standing before him.

In 1997 this church took a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission trip to Sarajevo, Bosnia to volunteer at the Sarajevo Youth House. Seeing that there was a need for a new Youth House, Lyle undertook a massive effort, overseeing fund-raising, land acquisition, design and construction of the facility. It no doubt came to fruition because Lyle saw what could be and acted accordingly with undying energy and enthusiasm.

The result was a brand-new facility designed and funded to be self-sustaining. Carol Morris, Lyle’s wife, described Lyle’s optimism this way, “There was a phrase Lyle loved to quote: ‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing, because he could only do a little’”. Words I believe not only reflect optimism and hope, but the core of what the Gospel means in our lives.

You know I’ve mentioned a few people that have stood out in our congregation that performed great works in the name of Christ. I would be remiss however if I did not mention countless others who have made this church what it is today. We have been a place in which we have taken an active interest in the lives of our young people. There have been perhaps thousands of young people that have come through our doors and exited as well-rounded persons of faith. Some of you are here today. Through the efforts of those who taught you and guided you in Sunday School and youth group, and through missional activities like the Sierra Service Project, we have informed and molded the lives of young people to be faithful disciples in the world.

I think of all the fine work that our United Methodist Women have done throughout the years. I sometimes quip that our UMW is the life-blood of our church. I don’t think I’m too far off in that assumption. I think of those who have been behind the scenes administering our church and making sure we have adequate up-to-date facilities out of which to do ministry. Imagine where we would be if it hadn’t been for those people that had the vision to establish our church at its present location.I praise God for those present here and past, who have ably handled and administered our finances. And to literally the thousands of people who have supported our church with their tithes and offerings, I give thanks.

One last thing I give thanks for is our hospitality and fellowship we share together. I love the fact that we gather together in so many different ways and that we can have fun and laugh together. To quote one of our most recent pastors, the Rev. Paul Dirdak, “The part that has stayed with me in every assignment since is the value of a whole group’s side-splitting sense of humor. Leading and laughing help each other along. WCUMC taught me that lesson every day. And for years after, I ran a disaster agency – in wars – if laughter was to carry its load, I had better set that standard. And I did.”

Finally, I want to leave you with these concluding words I wrote for our history: The world has changed much throughout the last 150 years. Consider this: when our church came into being the common mode of transportation was by foot or horse. Now we worry whether we have enough parking spaces for our cars. Back in 1869 one common form of communication was letter writing. These days we communicate through such medium as email and cell phones. The world has truly changed in the last 150 years, but what hasn’t changed is the message we give to others. For the Good News as experienced in Jesus Christ is as true 150 years ago as it is today. And so we move forward, prompted by the Gospel, united in God’s love, actively sharing that love with all. Amen and Amen.