creation-care
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Listening to the Earth

Our entire world is greening up this time of year, isn’t it. The trees are leafing out. The grass is vibrant. Shoots of green spring out of mulched patches of wood and earth.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

And as we walk through the springtime here in Iowa, our hearts do feel at peace.

It’s like we take one big gigantic sigh of relief that winter is over.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.

This world is amazing.

And in the midst of the green and purple and white and yellows of this time of year, we carved out space in our civic and religions calendars to celebrate this world. To honor the earth. To plant some trees. To remind ourselves once again of our need to care for this planet.

In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth and declared them good.

And then, that very same God formed us from the dust of the earth and gave to us a precious task… to care for the world God had made.

From the ancient Israelites to the earliest followers of Christ, caring for the Earth was an important means of honoring and praising our Creator.

The General Board of Church and Society put out a resource a few years ago that remind us that ancient cultures worshipped a whole realm of Gods that each controlled a different part of nature. And so as they sought to control the world: to produce a harvest or stop torrential rains, they would honor and worship this God or that.

But we believe in one God, and we believe this world is not fragmented but interconnected. We believe every part of this creation is in the hands of our Creator and that every piece of the earth tells of God’s goodness. As Jesus noted in our gospel reading this morning – the stones themselves shout God’s praises.

And the ancestors of our faith saw that this interdependent world works well when it is cared for and that it fails when it is damaged or neglected. “In response to their understanding of God and the natural world, they created an ethos for living in healthy relationship with God, the Earth, and one another.”

Today, we refer to this as stewardship.

At our leadership retreat this spring, we talked about how stewardship was a core value of who we are here at Immanuel United Methodist. We believe we are called to the thoughtful and prudent use of God’s blessings.

One of those blessings is this earth. The earth that sustains and gives us life. The earth itself speaks God’s praises.

Yes, the rocks would cry out with shouts of joy if we were silent. And if we quiet our lives just a little and pay attention, we can hear the dirt speak.

This year, I wanted to feed that part of my soul that likes to play in the dirt, so I am currently taking a year-long continuing education course called “Organic Ministry.” I have been surprised by how many times I discover something new we should be learning… or we shouldn’t have forgotten… about our world. It has been a wonderful opportunity to listen to the earth and hear what it is telling us about God’s glory.

The first thing I’m hearing the earth speak is that everything truly is connected. We simply cannot sustain ourselves on our own. And God has provided this rich world of resources to give us life.

You see, good soil isn’t just something that farmers and gardeners care about. Soil makes our lives possible.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. God our creator has provided.

This is not something that we often think about, but one little clump of dirt can hardly do much. All by itself, that clump of dirt would become dry and would not have the room for anything to take root within it.

But when one clump of dirt is surrounded by millions of other little dirt particles, then, it is something to be reckoned with! We know that the outermost layer of our planet is soil… but did you know that five tons of topsoil spread out over an acre of land would only be as thick as a dime? We need soil and lots of it to have abundant life.

How many of you slept on soil last night? Well, where do you live? What is your home built on?

How many of you are wearing soil today? Cotton grows in soil! Just check the label on your clothing.

What about eating soil? Just think about all of the foods that you have eaten this week that were grown in the soil, or medicines that were taken from the ground, or water that we have drank that has flowed through and been cleansed by the soil.

The second thing the earth is trying to tell us is that whether we are aware of it or not, is that we have a relationship with the earth.

It is not simply a stockpile of resources that we can use, but our actions impact the health of our world and its ability to continue to sustain us. The soil itself is like a living and breathing organism we must care for.

We think about dirt as dead matter, but in reality it is organic – full of both living and dead organisms. Fungi and bacteria help break down matter into soil and animals such as earth worms churn and nurture the earth. Without all of that living and breathing of the soil – life as we know it would cease.

Now, as a farm girl, I thought I knew this truth well. The soil that we faithfully plant our grains in each spring needs thoughtful and prudent care. We can’t simply plant corn in the same field every single year and expect our harvests to increase. A simple practice like crop rotation insures that vital nutrients like nitrogen are returned to the soil. That describes a relationship we have with the earth, where we listen to what it is telling us and we adapt and act in a new way so that all benefit.

But if we pay better attention to the earth, we begin to see that it thrives on diversity. It is often said that a handful of soil has more living organisms than there are people on the earth. Like the body with many parts that Paul describes in First Corinthians, every part is essential to health.

Yet we gradually strip out the essentials when we plant fields upon fields of only corn or beans for the sake of convenience and production.

As we listen to the earth, conservationists and farmers and gardeners are rediscovering the benefits of companion plants, and smaller scale farms with greater rotation. We are rediscovering that if we care for the soil, the soil will take care of the things we want to grow.

The last thing we hear from the earth today, is that it needs rest and renewal just like we do.

We look out this morning and we can see the flowers budding and hear the birds chirping the sun is shining… and it all sings God’s praise precisely because just two months ago the earth was brown and dormant.

Those of us who experience all four seasons are not doubly blessed, but blessed four times over because in each transition, we witness the hope and the promise and the love of God. We see life bursting forth. We watch things die and have the opportunity to rest, to find Sabbath in the cold winter months… holding fast to the promise the new spring of resurrection is just around the corner.

The world is a miracle.

It is a treasure.

When the Ancient Israelites noticed that everything in this world is interdependent, this is what they are talking about. The dirt and the air and the sun and plant life and our lives are all interconnected and this beautiful system God created works – as long as we take care of it.

Feel free to call me
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Knowing the End of the Story

Welcome, friends, to Holy Humor Sunday. This day is part of a tradition (a very old tradition) of laughing on the Sunday after Easter as we celebrate the cosmic joke that God plays on sin and death when Jesus Christ is raised from the dead.

 

It is a day to laugh, to lift up our hearts, to thank God that we know already the end of the story.

And its important that we hold on to that promise, because while we look out at the world and think about our personal lives, we discover all sorts of things that might cause us to yell or scream or break down in tears.

Another unarmed black man was killed this week in our nation.

A tornado levels a community in Illinois.

Friends diagnosed with terminal illness.

Job losses.

So many people in our community are homeless today, are broken, are struggling right now.

 

I know in my bones that God has already won.

I know that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.

I understand.  I believe.

But I find it so hard to keep that Easter joy in my heart because we haven’t reached the end of the story yet!  We are inbetween times… in between the empty tomb and the new creation.  It’s here, but not fully.  It’s already, but not yet.

How on earth can we laugh at a time like this?  How can we laugh as towns are ravaged by deadly winds and little ones go to bed hungry tonight?  How can we laugh when people are staring death in the face and losing?  How can we laugh when the disparity between the haves and the have nots is so stark?

Maybe the question is… how can we not laugh?

How can we not just take a deep breath and remember that God is in control… not us.

St. John Chrysostom preached in his famous Easter sermon:

If anyone is devout and loves God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If anyone is a wise servant, let him rejoice and enter into the joy of his Lord.

He gives rest to him who comes at the 11th hour, even as to him who has worked from the first hour. And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first. Let all then enter into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, keep the feast. You sober and you heedless, celebrate the day.

Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast… Let all receive the riches of loving-kindness.

Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.

O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.

Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.

Christ is risen, and life reigns.

Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of the dead.

To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

 

This world is broken and imperfect and horrible things happen all around us.  But if we cannot laugh in the midst of our sorrows, then the Devil has already won.

If we cannot laugh and lift up one another’s spirits, then there is no hope.

If we cannot laugh and rejoice, then why keep going at all?

Christ is risen. Death is overthrown. Life reigns.

We don’t have to be afraid.  We don’t have to be scared.  We know the end of the story and we can laugh in the face of all that tries to hurt us.

Those words are so powerful…  and so hard to believe in.

But maybe… just maybe… if we get together as a community and we laugh, if we practice together what we preach, then we will find the faith we need to trust.

Christ is risen. Death is overthrown. Life reigns.

And because of that our hearts are filled with joy. Amen.

Corporate Prayer for the Desperate

Holy and Forsaken God,
We come into your presence knowing that you felt utter desperation and loneliness.
You felt isolated and forgotten.
You felt unimaginable pain.
So you are not unfamiliar with our struggles.
And that brings us comfort.
That brings us hope.

For those in our congregation who have been wrestling in the long dark night and are contemplating suicide, we pray.

For those in this place who are survivors: who have lost a friend or family member who suicided, we pray.

For those here today who have made it through the dark night and are a witness of hope for others, we pray.

For those who are watching a friend struggle and want to reach out and listen and provide support, we pray.

For those who cannot understand why another would take their life, who are filled with questions and anger, we pray.

Holy, Forsaken God, we lift these up to you. Connect us. Help us to listen. Give us courage to speak our truths. And fill us with a hope that will sustain us in the midst of utter desperation. Amen.

IUMC Easter
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What’s Your Story?

Living, Risen God, May the words of my mouth be your words, and may I be blessed with the courage to say them. May the thoughts of all of our hearts and our minds, be your thoughts, and may we be blessed with the courage to live them. Amen.

This morning, I invite you to hear our gospel reading from Mark once again…

We know the story, about how the three women made their way to the tomb just after sunrise. They went expecting to finish the funeral rites for their beloved teacher… but what they discovered forever changed their lives.

In that tomb, they discovered not their teacher, but a man in dazzling white who whispered to them:

Don’t be afraid! You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, but he’s not here! He has been raised, just like he promised. Go – tell the disciples and Peter that he will meet you in Galilee. He’s waiting for you!

What surprises us about this story, however, as Mark tells it is that the women freeze. They had come to honor a dead body and they were met by a mystery. He has been raised?! He’s… waiting for us? Was it a trap? Was it true? Could it possibly be?

It was all so completely overwhelming. They felt like they were standing in the presence of the holy – like Moses before the burning bush – like Elijah standing on the side of the mountain and hearing God in the silence… and yet nothing made sense.

The world was turned upside down for these three women by this radically holy encounter. Terror and amazement seized them and they turn and fled from the tomb.

Was it unworthiness?

Was it the weight of the message that they were called to proclaim?

Was it fear and awe that come from being face to face with God’s power?

The world may never know. But Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome said nothing to anyone… for they were afraid.

They said nothing to anyone… for they were afraid.

 

Believe it or not – that is the way that the Gospel of Mark ends. Jesus never shows up in his resurrected glory, there are no witness from the disciples, no sharing of the good news. Mark ends his account of the life of Jesus with three women, fleeing from the scene because terror and amazement had seized them and he tells us they said nothing to anyone.

 

We, of course, can say this probably didn’t actually happen for a number of reasons.

First of all, Every gospel has Mary Magdalene there at the tomb, witnessing first hand the resurrection of Christ. And every other gospel tells us how she and other women who may have been with her shared the good news with the disciples.

Secondly, if we believed Mark’s account above the others – if that truly was the end of the story – then how did we get here? If they didn’t tell anyone, then how was the church born?

No, Mark has a reason for telling his story this way. His goal, in writing the gospel, is to teach us about what faithfulness looks like. Every time the disciples make a mistake, we learn something. Every time they fail, we find out what it truly means to follow God.

And this cliff-hanger ending functions the same way. Mark tells us the women were afraid and said nothing to anyone… so that WE are invited to live the rest of the story. So that WE are invited to take up the call and tell the story ourselves.

 

Peter was also called to take up the story. Even after his failure on the night of Jesus’ trial, he was called by Jesus to tell the story of resurrection wherever he went. And he found himself in the home of Cornelius… a Gentile… someone who was never part of the plan of salvation that Peter had imagined… and he found him telling the story of how God saves to even such as him.

We are all called to tell the story, and we are called to tell it to anyone and everyone we meet.

Because the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus… it is your story!

From the Sunday School teacher that first taught you the words to Jesus loves me…

to the grandparent who always encouraged your faith…

to the girlfriend who made you get up and come to church this morning…

Someone, somewhere along the way shared the good news with you. You heard the story and you believed it enough to show up. You have responded. You are here.

And because you are here this morning, you have a story to tell.

Your story might not be as dramatic as peering into an empty tomb and being a first hand witness to the resurrection, but you do have a story to tell.

A story about how God has been present in your life. Your story doesn’t have to be filled with drama… it just has to be yours.

Sure, God chose some people with wild stories, like Moses the murder and Jacob the deceiver and Rahab the prostitute… but God also used people like the farmer Amos and the fishermen James and John and the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, to pass along the good news of salvation to the world.

And we are here because they did.

We are here because they were not afraid to speak about what God was doing in their lives.

 

Over the next two months here at church, we will be following some of the first disciples of Jesus who were not afraid to talk about what they had seen. And along the way, we will use their stories to help us claim our own story of faith.

We discover in that book of Acts that the message moves from Jerusalm to Samaria and to the ends of the earth… all the way to Des Moines, Iowa in 2015!

But here is the real question we have to wrestle with this morning.

What if they women really had been silent?

What if the disciples had never left Jerusalem?

What if Peter had not gone to Cornelius?

… who would have shared the story?

 

And who is not hearing the story today, because we are too scared to tell it? Who isn’t hearing the good news of God’s love and mercy and grace and forgiveness because we have been overcome with terror and amazement and haven’t figured out what to say?

 

We have fear in our hearts because we have come face to face with the holy and we are no longer in control. And any encounter with the holy rightly puts awe and trembling in our hearts.

It is the kind of fear portrayed in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, as the people rightfully fear and revere Aslan the Lion. He is dangerous, he is righteous and there is no escaping him, no containing him, no forgetting him. He is wild and wonderful.

And the wild and wonderful Christ, who cannot be escaped or contained or forgotten is calling our names and has a word for us to proclaim. That on an old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, Jesus suffered and died to pardon and sanctify us all….and…. AND… this is the part we leave out of the song… AND death itself has been defeated.

Sharron Riessinger Lucas calls this: living in the tension of holy fear and prodigal joy.

We are filled with joy because God has run out to meet us like a father who destroys all barriers in order to welcome home us wayward children! Christ is Risen! Jesus destroyed death in order to give us life! The tomb is empty! Amen!

But in the midst of that joy, that holy fear is present… Because with the empty tomb comes the amazing and awesome announcement that “Jesus is risen and on the loose in this world” (Lucas).

And if God is really out there – really present in this world that we live in… then as the great theologian Karl Barth once said… “each of us has some serious changes to make in our living.”

This morning… you have encountered the presence of God and witnessed the miracle of the resurrection…

So, what will you do?

Will you let fear close your mouths?

Will you roll the stone back in front of the tomb and conveniently forget that this all happened?

Will you be silent?

Or will you find the courage to risk it all to share the good news with the world?

As Mark asks us: when – not if, but when the terror and amazement of the gospel seizes your life – what are you going to do?

Save Us!

Some of you sometimes ask what I like to do in my spare time and one of my favorite things to do is binge watching television.  I like all sorts of things, from Grey’s Anatomy to Breaking Bad, but I also have a healthy obsession with British television and sci-fi.  Both of which are perfectly satisfied by Doctor Who. About five years ago, I discovered Doctor Who and I think I’ve watched every episode of the newer material about three or four times.

So, what, you might be wondering, does Doctor Who have to do with Palm Sunday?

Well, this is a show about a time-traveling alien with twelve lives, but of all the places the Doctor could go in the world, Earth seems to be his favorite. One the one hand, he sees its vulnerability and innocence.  On the other, he praises humanity for their survivability and curiosity, their fortitude and spirit of exploration.  He wants to see them thrive.

In the series two premiere, Christmas has come, but chaos is reigning on our planet with a large alien war ship hovering over London.  The Sycorax have seized control of 1/3 of the population and Prime Minister Harriet Jones issues an urgent plea – “Doctor, if you are out there, save us!”

That’s what we all hope for, isn’t it?  Someone to save us?  Someone to make everything better and the monsters and demons and agonies of our lives to go away?

 

When Jesus appeared on the scene in Galilee, people flocked to the countryside, to the houses, to the shores just to catch a glimpse of this man who would save them.  He healed their illness, he cast out their demons, he even forgave sins… He made their worldly pains go away.  He saved them from their current predicaments.  He was amazing.

And then, like any good Savior, he rides in on a donkey, the ancient world’s version of a white horse or a blue box to save the day and make everything better.

You see, that’s what the people thought Jesus was there to do.  He fufills the prophecy, as told in Zechariah 9: the symbolic triumphant entry of a King into Jerusalem on a young donkey:

“Rejoice, greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Unlike conquering forces who rode in on war horses, this was the sign of a true king – the one who brings peace and hope to the people.

And so when he rides into Jerusalem on the back of a colt, when he comes bringing peace and hope, the people spontaneously shout out: HOSANNA!  Which means Save us!

Their lives are full of problems and stresses and this Jesus has shown that he can solve them.

He can heal them.

He can save them.

He is on their side.

HOSANNA!

 

Only, Jesus doesn’t save us in the way we expect.

 

They, and we, expect our hero to be a Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone type hero: riding in to save the day, confident, untouchable, there is no question that they will triumph.

But Jesus appears more like Frodo Baggins: he seems to be facing an uphill battle, he is humble, at times during this holy week questioning his purpose, and yet always willing to sacrifice his own life for the purpose to which he was called.

In our Philippians reading this morning, that picture of a humble servant is painted for us. It has come to be known as the Christ Hymn – a song of praise for the one who gave everything up, the one who emptied himself of power and life rather than grasping at it for himself and for others.

Repeatedly, Jesus demonstrates humility.  He gave up his seat at the right hand of God to be born among us, an infant whose life was in danger from the very start.  He reached out to the hurting and sick and those imprisoned by sin.  He invited them to his table and was rejected for doing so. He touched the unclean and welcomed children onto his lap.

Jesus went to the underdogs of this world.  Those who don’t have power, money, or the system on their side, and he loved them.

 

If that was how he lived his life, I’m not sure why we expect the road to salvation will be different.

We want fireworks and trumpets and victory, but instead the path before us this week is marked by the cross.

Jesus will spend the coming week in Jerusalem, but he doesn’t leave victorious… he leaves carried away to be buried in a tomb.  The people couldn’t understand how his way of humility and love and grace and sacrifice could bring about the reign of God and TRULY save them and us… save us not from our current oppressive problems but save us to the core of our very being.

And so they stubbornly turn their backs on him.  Like children, they stomp their feet and pout: If he refuses to help me the way I want to be helped, I don’t want any part of it.

 

christmas_invasion-1I find “The Christmas Invasion” episode of Doctor Who to be such an interesting parallel, because the Doctor too is rejected in the end.  He stands up for earth and is willing to be their champion in an epic duel for the planet.  And although he defeats the Sycorax, he does so without killing the leader.  He sends them packing with a warning – “When you go back to the stars and tell others of this planet, when you tell them of its riches, its people, its potential, when you talk of the Earth, then make sure that you tell them this… IT IS DEFENDED!”

And the Sycorax leave.  They head back for the stars.

But Harriet Jones… the one who cried, “Save Us!” in the first place is not satisfied.

He didn’t save them in the way she hoped he would.

He didn’t save them in a way that would continue to isolate them from the stars.

He didn’t save them in the way that she was completely willing to do.  And so with a word, Harriet Jones signals for a weapon to be fired and the Sycorax are blown out of the sky.

 

We are not happy when things don’t go our way.  And when our “savior” comes along and isn’t what we expected, it is surprising how quickly we turn to violence.  How quickly we become the very thing we are fighting against.  How quickly we lose our humanity in a desperate attempt to cling to the salvation we think we deserved.

 

Just five days after they shouted in the streets for Jesus to save them, the people reject Jesus, and shout for him to be crucified instead.

 

And as Paul writes in Philippians, Christ was obedient to God’s will, Jesus remained the humble servant, even when it meant death on the cross.

When we praise Jesus, it is not the triumphant entry, but the cross that truly shows us God’s glory. In giving up his power, in emptying himself, in this act of love, Jesus reveals what divine power is all about: non-abusive, patient, never grasping, “power… made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Today, we live on the other side of the cross.  We know the power of the resurrection.  We know that death was not defeat at all, and that Christ has not only risen from the dead but has been exalted on high.

The question is:  how do we live in light of that knowledge?

 

From a jail cell, Paul penned the “Christ Hymn” and encouraged the Philippians to embrace the power of Jesus… to “adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.” (2:5)

We are to let go of our power and live in obedience to God’s will.

Here at this church, we claim a particular vision:  In Christ, live a life of love, service and prayer.

Our salvation demands that we live as Jesus lived.

And as we adopt the mind of Christ, our eyes are opened to those all around us who are in need of love, and service, and prayer.

We are called to love: we are called to go and stand with the widow and the orphan.  We are called to the dark and lonely corners of this community – to the people who have no one and to carry the love of Christ with us… even if it means putting our own lives on the line.

We are called to serve:  We are called to be in relationship with people and offer ourselves.  We are called to sacrifice time and energy and money to help our brothers and sisters.  And that service extends to more than just a handout… we are called to bow down in service and treat those with whom we minister as honored guests.

Finally, we are called to pray:  Sarah Coakley believes that to be in Christ, we need to practice prayer.  We need to “cease to set the agenda… [and] make space for God to be God.”  In doing so… in praying for our community and our world, we set aside what we think we are entitled to and instead ask for God’s will to be done.  We ask for God to give us the courage and strength to act on behalf of those who can’t.

 

Today, Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem.

He rides not on a war horse, but a humble donkey.

He rides not to conquer and destroy, but  to die for our sins and to set us free.

As one of my colleagues wrote this week:

We thought that we wanted a King.

We thought of all that he would bring.

Power and might and wealth and singing.

We thought we wanted a King.

Instead, we got everything. (Jessica Harren)

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the one who sets the prisoner free!

Blessed is the one who comes to save us!

Outside – In

Over the past eight months, I have learned a lot about the people of Immanuel UMC.  I had heard you were friendly and welcoming, hospitable and that this was a caring church, but those are really just words until you see them lived out in people’s lives.  And having a fresh set of eyes – an outsiders eyes – I want to share just a few things I’ve learned. I’ve learned that you are quick to show up at the bedside of a friend and have often have visited before either of us pastors hear someone is in the hospital or is sick. I’ve discovered the joy filled welcome that so many greeters offer to those who walk in the doors on Sunday mornings. I see the care that is taken to make this a hospitable and welcoming place – from the pots of coffee that are prepared to the flexibility to adapt and use this space differently, like you did with the nursery and library moves. On the sign outside our building, it says “All Welcome!”  and you really want everyone to feel welcome here.   But I must share that I also come as an outsider that looks and talks a whole lot like many of you do here in the church…. And on the surface, whether we intend for it to or not, that is itself a barrier for people who may not look or speak like the majority of those in this room. Being a part of this church, I can now see and name the multitude of ways we are diverse.  We have a wide range of ages – from four week old babies to 104 year olds!  We are people who are wealthy and who are struggling financially.  We are healthy and we are in need of healing.  Some of us have been educated by the streets and some of us have taught in universities.  We vote republican and we vote democrat.  And perhaps the most striking dichotomy of all:  Some of us are Hawkeyes and some of us are Cyclones and some of us are Panthers and some of us don’t fit into any of those categories, but we still somehow are able to worship together ;) We have made room in this place for all of this difference. God is good!   Yet, there are still people missing from our midst. There are still people in this neighborhood and in this larger community who do not know that they would be welcome here. Even inside this caring, loving community, there are still people who feel like they simply don’t quite belong. Our sign outside might say, “All Welcome…” but do we truly live that out with every fiber of our being?     In our gospel reading for this morning, the question of who belongs is lifted up. One afternoon, Jesus is hanging out with some of his disciples… who were all Jewish, both ethnically and religiously.  In other words, they would have looked and talked the same. Philip and Andrew were out and about in the community when they encountered some Greeks who were in town for the festival.  And these Greeks approached the pair and asked if they might see Jesus. What is interesting is that these are the same words that were used when Philip and Andrew first met Jesus… He asked them to “come and see.”  So, these Greeks want to do more than just meet Jesus – they want to become followers OF Jesus. I can imagine Philip and Andrew turned to each other and started whispering. “They want to see Jesus?” “But they are Greek!” “Um…. Let’s go ask first…”   What was the big deal? First of all, in the gospel of John, the disciples understood themselves to be part of a Jewish movement. They were traveling the countryside, preaching good news to the poor, but most of those people looked remarkably like them.  Yes, there had been that one encounter with a Samaritan woman, but for the most part, this was a Jewish movement for Jewish people. This is only the second time in John’s gospel that Jesus encounters gentiles, people outside the Jewish community. Second, I have always found the disciples to be a bit thick.  It takes them a little longer to catch on than we would like.  They tried to keep the children from Jesus, but he welcomed them.  They watched as he embraced sinners and prostitutes and outcasts. Yes, the ethnicity of these Greeks set them apart from Jesus’ disciples.  At a minimum, their accents would have distinguished them.  But maybe they dressed different and had a lighter hair and fairer skin.  But Jesus had shown again and again that all sorts of people were welcome.   Can you picture it? They walk up to Jesus, with the Greeks standing not too far behind them and they ask: “Hey Jesus,  do you want to see those people, or should we send them away?” We want Jesus to answer with something like –“ Sure!  Have them come over!”   or “You guys just don’t get it… of COURSE I want to see them.” But he doesn’t. Jesus instead, for all to hear, starts talking about how you have to die to bear fruit. That he is going to give up his life and anyone who wants to follow him must give up theirs as well.   When we think of it in the context of this diversity, Jesus’ words make a bit more sense.  Standing before him are Andrew and Philip, the first Jewish disciples… and behind them are those who might become the first Greek disciples. Will they be able to get along? Will they be able to set aside their differences to follow him? Or will their pasts get in the way of the future God has planned for our salvation?   This parable of sorts that Jesus offers is all about their identity.  They can cling to their heritage and their labels, but if they do so they will always remain strangers.  They will remain in their differences and never be lifted up with Christ. But if they let go of their worldly identity… their distinctions as Jews and Greeks… then they will come to know true life in the community of Jesus Christ. Jesus is asking them, and us, to declare our allegiance.  Jesus invites us to let go of our labels – Jew or Greek, male or female, young or old and to take on a new identity as the servant of Christ… to identify ourselves not by any characteristic of this world, but to claim our identity in Jesus’ death and resurrection.   I am white.  I am a female.  I am American.  I am United Methodist. But first and foremost and more important than any of those other labels, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. And the question raised by this parable is what kind of sacrifices do we need to make… what do we need to risk… in order for the world to know that is the core of our identity?   Whether we want it to or not, all of those other identifying characteristics can get in the way of the world knowing the love of God in Jesus Christ. The color of our skin can be a barrier. The way we talk can be a barrier. Our nationality can be a barrier. And if we want others to see Jesus in us… If we want others to know and follow him who died to save us all… then it is up to us to cross whatever barriers might exist and be present with people where they are.   Recently, Samsung put together an ad that describes the kind of hospitality and love that helps someone who feels like they are on the outside experience what it might like to be in. Muhareem is deaf and his primary language is sign language.  Yet as he encounters neighbors and strangers in the world, they don’t speak his language. But what if they did? What if a whole neighborhood decided to cross a barrier and meet Muhareem where he is?   What sacrifices can we make? What risks can we take? What barriers can we cross to help others see Jesus? God loves all sorts of people who live outside of these four walls.  Single dads.  Drug addicts.  The homebound elderly.  Children who are competing for first place in a contest. Folks who partied too much last night. So the question I leave us with today is what might Jesus be asking us to do to cross a barrier and share the love of Christ with them today? What might we, as a church, let go of, so that the world might know Jesus?

Trust, not Unquestioning Belief

In 2012, I took my youth group on a mission trip to Minneapolis.  We worked in a number of different sites and one of them was the Emergency Foodshelf Network.  This organization helps distribute food items to 70 area food shelves by channeling donations for organizations and large corporations.

Most of these are bulk items.  Like 50# bags of rice that needed to be bundled into smaller portions.  Or bushels upon bushels of fresh produce that we sorted so each box had a little bit of everything.

unlabeled-canOne day, our job was to affix generic labels onto 18,000 cans of corn that were donated without labels. Yes. 18,000.

As we walked in that morning, there they sat, all shiny and shrink-wrapped on pallets, just waiting for our little paper labels that read “Corn.”  Our job was to cut the labels to size, add two pieces of tape, and bundle them onto trays of 30 for distribution.

But there was this nagging question in the back of our minds all day long as we cut and taped and stacked and moved these aluminum cans.

How did we know it was really corn?

 

The only way to tell was to open the can.  But that of course ruined the product.

You could shake the cans… and we did… and it sounded like corn… but it could have sounded like peas or beets for all we knew.

 

We had to trust that it was really corn in those cans.  We had to go about our work, tape those labels on and trust.

And to be honest, because we knew that people would be receiving these cans, we felt responsible for their contents.  Others would trust then when they got a can that said corn, a can that we had labeled, they would actually be opening a can of corn.

 

Trust.

 

Our two scripture readings for today seem to give us a portrait in contrasts… between Abraham, the one who trusted and Peter, the one who didn’t.

 

Abraham, was well past retirement age, yet chose to follow and trust the God would use him to birth a nation.  He is lifted up as the example.  The one who did it right.  The one who was trustworthy and true.

And Peter. Oh Peter.  In this season of Lent we see how so many times he gets it wrong. He questions Jesus.  He denies him. He is even called Satan in our reading for today.  Perhaps what we might imagine is the opposite of one who trusts.

 

Last week, we talked about three different types of atonement theories. Three different ways God is working in the world to bring us back into relationship, to restore us to shalom.

We had the forensic theory – the idea of a trial or a courtroom.

We had the moral example theory – where Jesus shows us how to live.

And we had the Christus Victor theory – where Christ is victorious and rescues us from sin and death.

 

Today, our scriptures lead us to those forensic theories.  They take us to the courtroom.

 

courtroom-drama-1It is the courtroom Paul has in mind as he writes to the Romans in this section of this letter.

It is courtroom language that Paul is using as he describes Abraham’s relationship with God.

 

Imagine that Abraham is sitting in the witness stand of a great courtroom.  And the question put to him is this:

Why do you deserve the promises of God?

It’s a different version of the question we often think of at the end of our days: why should you get into heaven?

Why do you deserve shalom?

And throughout chapter 4, Paul lays out an argument.  Like a lawyer, Paul claims it was not Abraham’s works that made him worthy of the promises.  It wasn’t that he followed the laws of God, the Torah.  It wasn’t that he did all the right religious things like be circumcised.

No, what puts Abraham in the right… what proves that he deserves the promises of God is that he “trusts him who justifies the ungodly (4.4).” He trusted the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (4:17).“ He believed, even though the odds were stacked against them.

And he was right.  He trusted that God would give him and Sarah a child and his claim was upheld. So using the courtroom language of the time, he was in the right. He was righteous. He deserves the promise because he trusted in the promise.

 

That seems too simple, doesn’t it?

 

Abraham’s faith was nothing more than a trust in the specific promises God made.

 

So what about Peter?  What if we put him in the same courtroom?  Where does he stack up?

 

If we focused strictly on this passage from Mark, he doesn’t get it.  He doesn’t trust.  He doesn’t understand.

Or maybe a better way of putting it is that he was operating on unquestioning belief.  Faith without any understanding. Peter was making assumptions about God.  Assumptions like: the journey was going to be easy.  An assumption that Jesus was going to march into Jerusalem and magically everything would be better.

And when faced with new evidence, new teaching, Peter chose to shut his mind.  He clung to that unquestioning belief.  He, in fact, challenged Jesus!  The word used here actually is the same word used for silencing demons – Peter thought Jesus was out of his mind!

Jesus has to correct Peter.  He has to tell him once again what God really promises.

 

That snapshot of Peter’s faith, however, doesn’t give us the full story.

 

In fact, if Peter and Abraham were really on trial, if their whole lives were spread before a court that was trying to determine if they deserved the promises of shalom, their stories wouldn’t be all that different.

 

If we go back to Genesis and really read Abraham’s story, his is one of fits and starts, too.

He and Sarah laugh out loud at God’s plan for their lives.

They try to do it their own way.  They always have a plan B in the works. (maybe talk about how Abraham tells the king Sarah is his sister not his wife… if his wife, Abraham will be killed… as his sister, the king will bargain with him…)

Yes, they go. They stick with it. They make it to the end of the long and complicated journey of faith.  But it isn’t an easy road.  When we pick their lives a part with a fine toothed comb, we find there are all sorts of things that are far from trustworthy and true. There are plenty of moments when they set their eyes on human and not divine things.

Peter, likewise, makes lots of mistakes.  He radically misunderstands what it means for Jesus to be the messiah.  Just like Abraham and Sarah, he has his moments of weakness where he looks out for his own interests above God’s plans.  He lies to protect himself.

But at the end of the day, Peter came to believe and trust in the specific promises God made. Peter came to believe in the giver of life. He came to trust that if God could raise Jesus from the dead, then God could raise him too.  And Peter shared that faith with others. He led others to trust in those promises, too.

 

What makes us worthy of shalom? What makes us children of Abraham?

We come to deserve the promise when we trust in the promise.

 

And that promise is that life can and will come from death. It is a promise that sin has nothing to do with our salvation, because Jesus has already wiped it away.

In the courtroom at the end of our lives, our mistakes are no longer on the table. They no longer count as evidence against us.

What matters is if we trust with our whole being that the God who created this world out of nothing and brings life from what was dead can justify the sinner, too.

If we trust in that promise, its ours!

 

And it isn’t unquestioning belief.  It isn’t faith without evidence or justification.  We trust in that promise because we have carry the story with us of how God works. And maybe we have even witnessed it with our own eyes.

 

So here’s a question…. What if I was pulled in front of a courtroom one day to testify about why I labeled those cans “corn”?

Our supervisor promised that those cans held corn and I believed her.  I trusted her.  Why?

To be honest… if we had showed up one day at a random building with an unknown organization and we were asked to label cans of corn, I’m not sure I would have trusted.  If we had done so, simply on unquestioning belief, without any relationship or evidence or understanding of who they were or what they were about, that trust would have been pretty unjustified.

 

But that isn’t what happened.

We learned about the organization and its history.  We spent some time working with them. We saw their attention to detail and how much they cared for their clients.  So on that final day, when we labeled those cans of corn… we believed in what they told us.  We trusted them.

 

Here in this church, we aren’t asking you for unquestioning belief, either.

We hope to build a relationship with you.

We want to learn together and wrestle with the promises of God that have been handed down for generations.

And just like Abraham and Peter and Paul passed down what they knew to be true… what they witnessed God doing in their lives… we are going to share our stories too.

Stories of how God has transformed us.

Stories of how God has brought life out of death.

Stories of how we have experienced grace and forgiveness and love.

And no matter how many fits and starts and mistakes any of us make along the way, my prayer is that someday, each of us will trust in the promises of shalom.  That we will trust in God and in this community of Christ in such a way that whenever difficulty and struggle come our way, we can hold fast and support each other, knowing, trusting, believing that in Christ, all will be well.