A Big Tent

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
June 14, 2020
Genesis 18:1–15; 21:1–7; Matthew 9:35–10:15


I forget what the joke was, exactly. But it was at the Monday morning knitting-group and I’m reasonably sure it was at my expense, though in a good-natured kind of way. Whatever the joke was, the commentary was swift and sure: “Well, that’s how you know—you’re one of us now.”

That’s a comforting thing to hear as a new pastor. It’s nice to know that you’ve been accepted. And our lives are filled with such rites of belonging, those moments when you know that you’re truly welcomed in a place. 

That it should happen in church should not be surprising. I have rarely gone to a Methodist church and not felt welcomed. Once, in college, I attended services at McKownville United Methodist Church. They were so friendly to me that one of them even wondered whether they’d scared me off for good. I didn’t go back there, but it had nothing to do with their friendliness and more to do with the schedule I kept in college which was not conducive to Sunday morning piety.

It’s encouraging to see that so many of our churches are welcoming spaces, because welcome is at the heart of our Christian values.


The Community of God

Rev. Mark Schaefer
June 7, 2020
Genesis 1:1–2:4a; Matthew 28:16–24


There are a lot of things I can explain, if asked. 

I can explain why the word for ‘father’ in the majority of Indo-European languages is something like pater and starts with a ‘p’ but in the Germanic languages like English, German, and Dutch, the word starts with an ‘f.’

I can explain how the Interstate Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution is a mechanism for federal regulation of matters that would otherwise be state matters.

I can explain how it was that the District of Columbia wound up getting disenfranchised without any voting representation in the Congress. I can explain the various possible remedies to that disenfranchisement. I can even explain why this has been such a tough problem to solve.

I can even explain how a telephone works—something I once had to do when I was trying, in vain, to explain to my 85-year-old boss in 1996 what the internet was.

But ask me to explain the Trinity? Well, that’s a whole different story.


Translating the Gospel

Rev. Mark Schaefer
May 31, 2020—Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2:1–21; John 20:19–23


אַשׁלמֵתֽ לכֻֽון גֵ֗יר מֵֽן לֻוקדַֽם אַיךֽ מֵדֵ֗ם ד֗קַב֗לֵתֽ
ַ֗משִׁיחֹא מִיתֽ עַל אַפַ֗֯י חטֹ֯הַין אַיכַ֗נֹא דַ֗כֽתִֽיבֽ
ודֵֽאתֽקבַֽר וקֹם לַתֽלֹתֹֽא יַומִי֯ן אַיךֽ דַ֗כֽתִֽיבֽ

I’m sorry… I’m being told that people don’t understand Aramaic. That’s a little surprising, don’t you think? I mean, after all Jesus spoke Aramaic and we’re supposed to follow in his example. Should I have not assumed that Christians everywhere understood Jesus’ language perfectly well? Should I have not assumed that Christians were completely in step with Jesus’ teaching in light of its historical, linguistic, cultural, and theological context?

Oh, I see. 

Well then, I guess then I’m going to have to translate some this message. Will Greek do? No? Latin? Okay, English, then. 

Now, this is a perilous undertaking. People don’t like it when you translate things. They like it when things stay as they are.


Does Forgiveness Require Me to Be a Victim?

Part 6 of the series “Questions of Faith
Rev. Mark Schaefer
May 24, 2020
Proverbs 25:21-22; Matthew 5:38-48


Nobody likes being pushed around.  Nobody. It’s why bullies are so terrifying.  These tyrants who terrorize others into doing their will.  Who abuse, manipulate, and threaten others into submission.  We all know that there’s only one response to a bully or a tyrant or someone who’s hurt you: a taste of their own medicine.

We all know that the strong respect only those who are stronger.  A bully backs down when you demonstrate a willingness, even an eagerness, to fight.  Standing up for yourself.  Resisting. Fighting back.  We understand how that works and we admire those who do it.

Think of how many movies are about resistance to oppression.  And how many of them involve blowing things up.  We can watch a film like Schindler’s List and feel the agony and the horror of the persecution and suffering of the Holocaust. But when we watch a movie like Defiance starring Daniel Craig about Jewish partisans in Poland during World War II, we get a whole different level of emotional satisfaction watching the Jews fight back against the Nazis.  We may admire films like Gandhi and the portrayal of nonviolent resistance in it, but we really like it more when Sean Connery says in The Untouchables, “When he draws a knife, you draw a gun. If he puts one of your men in the hospital, you put two of his in the morgue.  That’s the Chicago way.”  We like that.  Standing up to the bad guy.  Telling him what’s what.


How Is Jesus Both Human and Divine?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Part 5 of the series, “Questions of Faith
May 17, 2020
Acts 17:22–31; John 14:8–21


There are a lot of things that people don’t understand about Christianity.

Do you really believe that you’re eating the flesh of Jesus when you have that little piece of bread? What does that rabbit have to do with Jesus coming back from the dead? What on earth is a narthex? But perhaps the biggest source of confusion is what it is we say about Jesus: How is Jesus both human and divine?

Of course, that’s not a question limited to people outside of Christian faith; plenty of Christians wonder this same thing. After all, that’s why it’s in a sermon series entitled, “Questions of Faith.”

And so, this is a question that both Christians and non-Christians ask and one that goes right to the heart of our faith. For, in can certainly be said that this is the question that divides us from the other Abrahamic faiths. This is the issue that separates us most profoundly from the other monotheistic traditions.  This is the one where our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters draw the line: the Divinity of Christ.

For our Jewish brothers and sisters, it is not just that we declare Jesus to be the Messiah; all manner of messiahs were proclaimed in First Century Judaism (and continue to be proclaimed). The mere declaration that any particular individual was messiah was not enough to be kicked out.  Declaring that person to be God Incarnate: that was a different matter.

In the same way, Muslims also reject Jesus’ divinity.  They accept that Jesus was the Messiah—in fact in the Qur’an, Isa ibn Maryam, Jesus son of Mary, is referred to as the Masih, messiah, and is even declared to have been born of a virgin. But again, Muslims draw the line with equating Jesus with God, or attributing to him divinity, or arguing that he is in any way God’s “partner” in salvation.

So, this is the one.  This is the issue around which is the most disagreement with our fellow members of the Abrahamic faiths. And it’s one of the questions that causes the greatest amount of confusion within the church.

So how do we begin to understand this question?


Do Non-Christians Go to Heaven?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Part 4 of the series “Questions of Faith
May 10, 2020
Acts 7:55–60; John 14:1–7


The best thing about having a club is who’s not allowed to be a member.  Little kids figure this out pretty quickly.  The first time boys get a tree fort or similar hideout, the first thing they do is hang a sign on it that says “No Girls Allowed.” Girls themselves have elaborate qualifications to join what secret clubs they have, usually requiring several oaths of fealty and pledges of the utmost secrecy.

As adults we still recognize the attractiveness of exclusivity. It was the initial appeal of Facebook—that it was limited to college campuses—that drove its early success. Its continued success is that it allowed limited access to view people’s profiles, creating a sense of being “in” that was coveted.  “Membership has its privileges” reads a famous marketing slogan from American Express, suggesting that belonging to this particular club (for which you even have to be willing to pay an annual fee), there is a benefit not available to just anyone. In fact, it is the exclusivity of clubs that makes them attractive. Clubs where just anyone can belong don’t hold the same appeal.  It’s why Groucho Marx famously said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”

Sometimes it seems that the same phenomenon holds true with our understandings of heaven.  It’s the ultimate club, isn’t it?  It’s got all the best food, everyone is really happy, lots of celebrities like the Apostles and the Prophets.  Beautiful landscaping.  And soooo exclusive.  I mean, they don’t let just anyone in.  No, this club is reserved only for Christians and even then, we’re not sure it’s all Christians.  I’m reminded of the old joke where a man dies and goes to heaven and is given the tour.  The angel walks him past the grand halls where the Buddhists are meditating, the Jews study the scriptures, the Muslims are praying, until finally he comes across one room and the angel says, “Now, we have to be very quiet around this next room.  It’s full of Christians and they think they’re the only ones here.” 

Image courtesy Wordle

That joke wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t true.  In fact, the whole reason we talk about this issue today is because this question—what happens to people of other faiths—is one of those questions of faith that resurface time and time again.  And it does so because the presumption is that non-Christians do not have access to eternal life and instead are cast off into the outer darkness.  That presumption is shared by many Christians and non-Christians about what it is that Christianity actually believes.  But is it?  Need it be?

We’ll take a look at this issue using the time-honored Methodist tradition of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, exploring the question through the lenses of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.


Why Does God Allow Evil?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
May 3, 2020
1 Peter 2:19–25; John 10:1–10


Some years ago, I took a sabbatical to work on a book. During that sabbatical leave I planned on worshiping with a different house of worship every weekend. On my second weekend, I went to St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in D.C. where my friend and colleague Fr. Dimitri Lee was serving.

That day was September 13 and he noted that it was a Sunday that lay between September 11 and the elevation of the Holy Cross on September 14. He said it was a Sunday that lay between two days of great tragedy and violence. Between two days that raised questions like: Why do the innocent suffer? Why does such tragedy happen? Why does God allow evil? And he said, “A perfectly good answer to those questions is, ‘I don’t know.’” And then he left it at that.

I was astonished. Only the Orthodox, with their embracing of mystery, could pose the great question of theodicy—of the justice of God—and be content to leave it unanswered.

No Protestant would have done that, that’s for sure. Most of us would try to answer.

So, as a Protestant minister preaching this sermon, why does God allow evil?

Well, I don’t know, either. To tell you the truth.

I have an idea—but I don’t know.  Not for sure.


Image courtesy Wordle

This is a question that has vexed theologians and philosophers for centuries.  It would be hubristic of me to say that I had the answer for this most difficult of questions: why is there evil?  Where did it come from? Why does God allow it to exist?  Why do the innocent suffer?  Why is there injustice in the world?  Oppression and violence? It is known as the question of “theodicy.” Quite frankly, answering these questions is above my pay grade.

Still, as with all good questions, there is virtue in asking it.  For a questioning faith is a living faith.  When your faith has run out of questions, it becomes not faith but dogma.  Not true religion, but merely a code of behaviors and a rigid set of understandings.  No, for us, we ask the unanswerable questions precisely because that is a vital part of our faith.  And while there are no easy answers, it’s not really about the answers, it’s about having the safe space to ask the questions.


Is the Resurrection Real?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
April 26, 2020
Acts 2:14, 36–41, Luke 24:13–35


When I was in seminary, I had the privilege of studying under a wonderful New Testament scholar, and current Dean of Perkins Theological Seminary, Craig Hill. Dean Hill is an excellent scholar, having written a wonderful book about conflict in the early church called Hellenists and Hebrews and a fantastic book on Christian end-times theology called In God’s Time. (Craig, if you’re watching, you can either Venmo me the endorsement money or just mail me a check.)


The Road to Emmaus by Ducio di Buoninsegna

When he was getting his doctorate, he had the privilege of studying with one of the great scholars of our age, E.P. Sanders, author of the landmark book Jesus and Judaism, which established the gold standard for historical Jesus studies in the late Twentieth Century. I had occasion to hear Dr. Sanders speak at Wesley seminary and there are things he said in his remarks that to this day stick with me. I’ve had occasion to read Jesus and Judaism as well as a few other books by Sanders and am impressed by the depth of his scholarship and his intellect.

As a scholar of the historical Jesus, Sanders was engaged in the exploration of the gospels to determine what facts, if any, could be defended from an objective, historical point of view. That is, what are the things from Jesus’ story that a disinterested, secular historian could affirm as accurate and credible? Sanders had fashioned a list of “several facts about Jesus’ career and its aftermath which can be known beyond doubt.”[1] They are:

  • Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist
  • Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
  • Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
  • Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
  • Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
  • Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
  • After his death, Jesus’ followers continued as an identifiable movement.
  • At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement, and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul’s career.

Noticeably missing from this list is Jesus’ resurrection. My professor told me that he had wondered why Sanders couldn’t add that to the list, since it was attested in every single gospel, in the epistles, including the writings of Paul who declared that he had seen the risen Christ. Surely, that was just as attested as his baptism by John, wasn’t it? Why could his mentor and friend not make that leap?

“Because that kind of thing just doesn’t happen,” was the response.

If we’re honest we admit he’s not the only one. Our pews and often our pulpits are full of people who sing the hymns and celebrate the stories of Easter, but who wonder deep down: is this real? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? And if so, in what way?


Am I Lost If I Have Doubt?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
April 19, 2020
John 20:19-31


If you’re going to get a place in history, be sure you get a good epithet to accompany your name.  Like “the Great”, if you can swing it.  King Alfred the Great—the only “the Great” in all of English history—earned that distinction likely for his promotion of Anglo-Saxon literature.  Pope Gregory the Great earned that epithet for his guidance of the church into the post-Imperial world and his presiding over the collection of the Gregorian Sacramentary and Gregorian Chant.

You’ll want to aim high, of course, and go for epithets like “the Conqueror” or “the Magnificent” or “the Powerful”. And if they called you “the Fair” or “the Just” or “the Merciful” that wouldn’t be bad either. 

Of course there are other epithets you could earn like “Pepin the Short”, “Charles the Bald”, or “John the Theologian.” Those are mostly harmless. But definitely try to avoid ones like “the Accursed”, “the Impaler,” or “the Apostate.” You wouldn’t want to go through life with an epithet like that hanging over you.

Which is why I always feel so bad for poor Thomas.  Thomas the Doubter. Doubting Thomas. That’s a rough nickname to live down, especially in church, right?


The Promised Land

Rev. Mark Schaefer
April 12, 2020—Easter Sunday
Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 28:1–10


A number of years ago, The Simpsons had a special in which the Simpsons characters related a number of classic Bible stories. The stories included things like the Garden of Eden and King Solomon’s wisdom, wherein Homer Simpson played King Solomon deciding who was the true owner of a pie claimed by two men. (Homer’s decision: “The pie will be cut in half. The two men will be killed and I will eat the pie.”)

But the scene that sticks out in my mind today was their reenactment of the Exodus from Egypt. Nerdy kid Milhouse Van Houten plays Moses and in one particular scene after the deliverance through the Red Sea and the revelation of the Law asks Lisa Simpson to check the Biblical text she has: 

Milhouse says,
Image courtesy frinkiac.com

“So, Lisa, what’s next for the Israelites? Land of milk and honey?”

“Hmm, well, actually it looks like we’re in for 40 years of wandering the desert.”

“40 years?! But after that, it’s clear sailing for the Jews, right?”

“Umm, more or less… hey, is that manna?”

And the reason this particular scene occurs to me is that it reminds me a little of how I feel about Easter.

That seems like a strange thing to say, I grant you. After all, this is Easter Sunday.  We’ve made it through all the trouble.  The long wilderness of Lent and the suffering and sorrow of Holy Week have yielded to the Promised Land of Easter.  Christ is Risen and everything’s wonderful.

Why wouldn’t there be clear sailing? Why wouldn’t the arrival in the promised land be the happy ending to the story?