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.

Love before Knowledge

There are two things I have come to hope for on Communion Sundays:

Welch’s grape juice in the cup, and Hawaiian Sweet Bread on the table.

 

941928_479696322109898_1492252979_nAnd that’s for a couple of reasons:

First, they both taste better than most other options available.

Second, the Hawaiian Sweet Bread is the perfect combination of soft and easy to tear and yet not crumble into pieces all over the place – which is a good thing when you are the one breaking bread every time.

And third, the Welch’s are Methodist.

 

In fact, the birth of Welch’s grape juice came out of our desire to stop using fermented wine during the temperance movement. Thomas Welch was a dentist and a communion steward at his local Methodist Church. He heard about how Louis Pasteur had begun to pasteurize milk, so he decided to try and apply the process to grape juice in 1869.

His son, Charles, marketed the pasteurized grape juice to these temperance-minded churches. In fact, he quit his job as a dentist to do so and created the Welch’s Grape Juice brand in 1893. (from Welchs.com/about-us/our-story/our-history and http://www.gbod.org/resources/changing-wine-into-grape-juice-thomas-and-charles-welch-and-the-transition-)

 

While the roots of our “unfermented juice of the grape” go back to the late 19th century, we have continued to emphasize using grape juice, even long after prohibition was repealed.

Our 1964 Book of Worship included this phrase which we have continued to use until today: that while the “historic and ecumenical practice has been the use of wine, the use of the unfermented grape juice by The United Methodist Church and its predecessors is an expression of pastoral concern for recovering alcoholics, enables the participation of children and youth, and supports the church’s witness of abstinence.” (BOW p 28)

I share the brief history lesson, because I think it relates to our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this morning.

As this community struggled with what it meant to be unified, they realized that a lot of different types of folks were part of their church.

Some of them were life-long Jews who had followed the way of Jesus. They had only ever worshipped one God. Yet some of the new believers in the faith were pagans. They had spent their entire lives worshipping at the temples of various Roman deities like Apollo and Poseidon.

So how were these people all supposed to share one roof? They had different histories of practice and different understandings of what it meant to worship.

One particular place where their practices conflicted was around the practice of eating meat. In the ancient world, almost all of the meat consumed was done so at a temple. That lamb or beef or whatever was the result of an offering given to the local god.

And here is where the conflict came.

Those who had been followers of Christ of a while, many from the Jewish background, KNEW that there was only one God. Intellectually, there was no worship of these various gods because they simply didn’t exist. So who cared if they partook of a little steak at the local temple?

Well, for those who had recently converted away from that temple worship, it was a big deal. The new converts were working hard to keep on the way, to follow Jesus, and all that alluring smell of roasted meat was making it awfully difficult. And when they peeked in the doors of Apollo’s temple and saw the elders of their new church eating – well, they got pretty confused.   Was Apollo real or not? And if Apollo wasn’t real, why were those Christians worshipping him?

So Paul lifted up a practical solution for the faithful long-time Christians: just stop eating meat.   It is the loving thing to do. And even though you know it isn’t idol worship, you have the ability to choose to act a different way in order to help your brothers and sisters in Christ.

In the same way, we lift up grape juice when we break bread together, so that all might be welcomed at this table. It doesn’t mean wine is bad. It doesn’t mean that some of us don’t drink. But choosing to consume grape juice together means that everyone has a place here.

There is a line in Paul’s letter that I think is key for us to remember this morning: You sin against Christ if you sin against your brothers and sisters and hurt their weak consciences this way.

Now, here Paul doesn’t mean they are weak as in bad… he simply means they are new to the faith. They still have a lot to learn. They are growing into what it means to be a Christian. And so they need to have as few barriers to their faith as possible.

Do you remember, with the children, when we talked about evil spirits? When we talked about those things in our lives that keep other people from knowing Jesus?

Knowledge is sometimes like that. We can flaunt it and it can puff us up and keep us from really and truly showing love to another person.

Love is what is important. Not rules or knowledge or what we eat or drink. Love binds us together. If we remember that we sin against Christ if we sin against our brothers and sisters and hurt them, then love leads us to ask the difficult question of how our actions keep others from Jesus. Is there something about what we are doing that is harming the body of Christ?

 

I am tempted to keep this a surface level conversation about grape juice on the communion table, but the truth is, there are all sorts of really tough and difficult things that threaten to break apart our churches. There are all sorts of things we do and say as Christians that hurt our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters and neighbors.

And perhaps the one that is on many of our minds in recent weeks has been same-sex marriage. Perhaps you have read in the newspaper, or seen on television, how a retired pastor in our conference, Rev. Larry Sonner, officiated the wedding of a same-sex couple and then turned himself in to the Bishop. In our Book of Discipline, our tradition and teaching does not support same-sex marriage, even though our state laws do, and so a process was begun seeking a just resolution.

What is amazing is that we have a process of just resolution at all. According to our Discipline, “a just resolution is on that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible and bringing healing to all the parties.” (¶363.1).

It is a powerful witness to the love and grace and mercy of God in a world that is so focused on punishment and retribution. In his article on the Des Moines Register, columnist Daniel Finney wrote:

“It’s especially admirable considering how poor our public dialogues are relating to just about any issue today. Here you’ve got a veteran pastor questioning the laws of a church he has dedicated his life to serving and not a voice was raised, not a fist was shaken. Instead, there was thoughtful discussion, prayer and resolution.

Regardless of how one feels about the specific issue, there’s a powerful lesson for peaceful negotiation in this story.”

This is how we act in a church when love and not knowledge is our guide. And this is the witness we have to offer to the world… a witness of finding a way forward in spite of our differences. A witness of acknowledging the harm we do by our actions and inactions. A witness of seeking the good for our brothers and sisters.

So today, I want to share with you portions of a pastoral letter that our Bishop, Bishop Julius Trimble sent to all churches last week:

Grace and peace to you as we journey in Christian discipleship in 2015.

One of the early prayers and initial responses to the formal complaint was that we would be “perfected in Christ love” and engage, rather than ignore, the difficulties the current conflict between what is prohibited in our Book of Discipline and what is legal and celebrated in Iowa.

The reactions to same-gender marriages and relationships and the serious subject of covenant accountability to church polity remind me of a Nigerian proverb: “Children of the same mother do not always agree!

Questions and conflict regarding our future as a Church require much prayer, graceful conversations and decisions that may spell a different future for the Church…

When I was consecrated Bishop, I promised to work to uphold the unity of the Church. I believe that unity has, as its foundation, our love of God and neighbor. I also believe we can have unity of heart and not necessarily all be of one mind. While this Just Resolution is a response to a specific complaint, it recognizes the division of our church on the issue of human sexuality. This Just Resolution is an attempt to honor our disciplinary process, maintain accountability, and seek a deeper, more prayerful, listening to each other and, most of all, to God.

As your Bishop I invite you to join with me in a time of intentional listening to God and each other, remembering that as the Body of Christ, the Spirit can speak through each of us.

Be Encouraged,   Bishop Julius Calvin Trimble

We don’t have time in worship to spend time listening or really go over the content of the just resolution, but I want to extend to you that invitation for a time of intentional listening to God and to one another.  And I want to let you know that I am always available for conversation about this and any other topic that affects our life as a congregation and your lives as individuals.

We won’t all agree. We come at the conversation from various perspectives. We read the scripture through the lenses of our own experience. But above all, we are a people of love, service, and prayer. And together we can put love at the forefront of our conversations and we, too, can seek a prayerful way forward.

And that way forward starts at the table. The table of love and grace and mercy. A table, set with grape juice. Amen and Amen.

 

 

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?

Rescued

For the first 20 or so years of my life, I understood salvation as one concrete idea: that Jesus died for my sin on the cross.

Substitutionary Atonement is what we call it.  Jesus took our place.  He was our substitute and paid the price for our sins.

But before too long, I discovered that I was terribly mistaken.

Not about Jesus dying for our sins.

But about thinking that was all salvation meant.

 

In its fullest sense, “Salvation is ‘God’s deliverance of those in a situation of need… resulting in their restoration to wholeness.’ It is restoration because salvation does not offer something new; it is God’s original intent for creation.” (Introduction, The Lord is Our Salvation)

The best word I can find to describe that original intent, the life that God intends for each of us is the word shalom.

It means completeness, wholeness, well-being.

And God’s work of salvation in Jesus Christ rescues us from whatever hell we might experience in our lives that has destroyed shalom, so we might experience life and life abundant once again.

 

Christ dying and paying the price for our sins is one piece of that work of salvation.  But it isn’t the only one.

In fact, in the Western world, there are three major understandings of what the cross means, all different ways of talking about how Jesus saves us.

These are called atonement theories.  They describe how we become at-one again with God… how we are brought back into shalom… how we experience wholeness once again.

The first is the one most of us grew up being familiar with – a Forensic understanding of salvation.   These theories say we are like a defendant on trial and have been found guilty of breaking our covenant with God. So, a penalty must be paid.  Jesus knows we are guilty and out of love, pays the price for us.  He satisfies the debt we owe.

The second is called Moral Example.  This grouping of theories claims that the cross is the natural outcome of the life of Jesus, who spoke truth to power and dared to love those who society rejected.  And in his life and death, Christ shows us how we should live, too.

The third of the major groupings is called “Christus Victor” – Christ as the Victor!  This theory claims that in the eternal battle for good and evil, we are imprisoned by sin and held captive by Satan.  Jesus defeats death and evil on the cross and we are set free.

 

Throughout this season of Lent, we are going to see how this isn’t a debate or competition about which of these sets of theories is right, but that each and every one of them is a part of the whole.  Taken all together, they describe how God continually and relentlessly works to bring us salvation, to restore us to shalom.

I want to share with you one more scripture this morning as we hear the word.

In 1 Peter, chapter 3 we hear:

17 It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.

18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous… 

19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. 

 

Right there, in three verses, all three of these major theories are at play.  Be like Jesus and suffer for doing good… He died because of our sins… and he went down to hell and preached to the spirits in prison.

 

This morning, we are going to focus on the idea of being rescued.  1 Peter tells us, and the Apostles Creed affirms that Jesus descended to the dead.  He went down into hell after the crucifixion to preach to the spirits held in the prison of death.

The verses go on to say:

In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water.

As we remember in our first reading this morning, the whole world was drowning in sin… and eight lives were rescued through the water.

With the children, we remembered the promise God made right then and there, a promise to seek forgiveness and not punishment.  God put the rainbow in the sky as a reminder that never again would life be destroyed, that God wants to restore us to life.

 

But I sometimes wonder about those souls who weren’t rescued.  Whatever happened to them?

1 Peter tells us,  God’s rainbow promise extends even to those who died in the flood.  They were trapped by their own sin, imprisoned by Satan and death,  but through the cross, Jesus wins the victory over death itself and even the unfaithful disobedient spirits of the ancient world were given the opportunity to hear the message of God’s love and offered shalom.

That’s how powerful God is.  That is how mighty Christ’s victory is.

And if Jesus can rescue disobedient spirits from hell itself, than Jesus can rescue you.

 

Maybe you are struggling with an addiction that just seems to have you in its grip.  Jesus can help set you free.

Maybe bad habits and a poor attitude have been dragging you down.  Jesus can lift you up.

Maybe you are swimming in worries and fears and feel lost in that sea.  Jesus will keep you from drowning.

 

On Ash Wednesday, we were reminded of our sin, our mortality, our finite natures.  We are all sinners.  We are all made out the dust of the earth.  And we can’t save ourselves from drowning in all of the dirt and muck of this world.

But Jesus can.

And just as God took the dust of the earth and formed us as his people, God can take the dust of our lives and make something beautiful out of it.  God can rescue us from even the dust of death and raise us up.

 

We’ve talked about some big words and some big concepts this morning. Atonement.  Christus Victor. Salvation and Shalom.

And sometimes the only antidote to being overwhelmed by new information is to look at pictures of puppies.

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These puppies are rescue dogs and these amazing photos capture them on the day they were rescued… on the day they were brought home from the shelter.

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They transform from these sad and pitiful creatures, to vibrant and life filled friends.

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They come to find themselves at home, loved, taken care of.

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And this is what God wants for us.  God wants to rescue us from the hell we experience in our lives.  God wants to save us from our guilt and addiction, from our sin and temptation, from our fears and our failures.

God wants to bring us home.  To restore us to shalom.  To wholeness. To life and life abundant.

 

Jesus is strong enough to save even the spirits in hell and Jesus can save you.  Jesus can transform you.  Jesus can set free this entire world.

 

It is interesting that Mark’s account of the wilderness  is not a long series of temptations and failures, but a few words about faithfulness:  Jesus was tempted by Satan.  He was with the animals.  The angels took care of him.  No drama. No mistakes.  No surrender.  And in the midst of it all, Satan just disappears.  Jesus transforms even the wilderness, the time of testing and struggle, into shalom – a place where all are cared for.  Pheme Perkins writes that even before his ministry began, Jesus had already broken Satan’s power on this world.

And Jesus can enter the wilderness of our lives, the prisons we construct for ourselves, and can transform it too.

Now is the time.  Today is the moment.  Let Christ set you free.

Ashes and Lattes

In the middle of a public place, a busy coffee shop, surrounded by strangers… people got real.

We hosted our first ashes to go in the community and while we didn’t have a large turnout, the conversations were deep and holy. I got to know my parishioners better. I heard what brings they joy and where they are struggling. I witnessed the joy and excitement of a family rushing through on their way to school.

People you only have time for quick conversation with in the greeting line after church hung around for a while and visited. It was fascinating to have so much more intimate encounters in a public setting.

In fact, I think the average length of stay at our table was probably 20-30 minutes.

Although, that’s what people do at coffee shops. They talk. They go deep. They open up and become friends.

I’m declaring our first time a qualitative success :)  I wonder about the conversations that will come as a result of our few hours of ashes and prayers.

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Them, Too!

When I was looking at seminaries, two of my top schools were in Chicago right across the street from one another in the Hyde Park neighborhood. My mom and I went to visit and we started to imagine what life would be like if I was there. My brother, Tony, was also attending school in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology – right near the White Sox stadium. I started envisioning hopping on the L and going to visit him and all of the possibilities.

But I remember as my eyes lit up, my mom looked back at me with a tiny bit of fear in her eyes. “Katie Marie” she said. “I don’t want you traveling alone in that part of town.”

It was hard enough to send her son to the big city… but her daughter?

We ALL have some definition of what “that part of town” is like. But it is different for each of us.

For some of us, “that part of town” is the street where all the shops are boarded up and folks loiter on the corner.

For some of us, “that part of town” is full of expensive houses and we might get pulled over because of the color of our skin.

For some of us, “that part of town” is where we read about shootings and crime.

For some of us, “that part of town” is where we were a parent or relative was spit on or discriminated against.

It is the place where people aren’t like me. Where we are afraid of what might happen to us if we went there. It is the place where we just can’t wrap our minds around what life must be like there.

And the truth is, we all live in somebody else’s “that part of town.” Or “that part of the country.” Or “that part of the world.”

Each of you were handed this morning a slip of paper.

I want to invite you to take it out right now and hold it in your hand.

This morning, I want to invite us to think about those places where we refuse to go. The people we aren’t sure we want to talk to. The situations we would rather keep our distance from. Maybe it is because you have been hurt. Maybe it is because you are afraid.

This is just for you… not for anyone else to see or read… and what I’m going to ask is not going to be easy.

I want to invite you to write on that paper a place that you stay away from. I want you to think about someone you have intentionally not tried to build a relationship with and write their name. I want us all to spend a minute or two in silence as we reflect and are honest with ourselves and with God.   What people or places come to your mind…

[ pause ]

That might have been the longest minute some of us have ever spent in worship.  I know that wasn’t an easy exercise and I thank you for giving us that time.

Now, fold up that paper and hold it in your hand.

I want you to know that you are not alone.

We all are afraid at times.

We all hesitate to go to certain places.

We all have baggage and prejudice and facts and excuses and our reasons for staying away.

You are not alone.

In fact, Jonah, is just like each of us.

If he was with us this morning, Ninevah would be written on that sheet of paper.

The city of Ninevah was full of horrible, terrible people.

In the book of Nahum the prophet, chapter 2 and 3, we read about their misdeeds:

“Doom, city of bloodshed – all deceit, full of plunder: prey cannot get away. Cracking whip and rumbling wheel, galloping horse and careening chariot! Charging calvary, flashing sword, and glittering spear; countless slain, masses of corpses, endless dead bodies – they stumble over their dead bodies!”

That’s not a pretty picture!

It’s not surprising that Jonah doesn’t want to go.

How would you feel if God asked you to go to this violent, wretched city and tell them all they were about to be destroyed by God’s wrath?

Jonah bought a ticket and headed as fast as he could in the opposite direction.

Well, if you remember the story of Jonah, that didn’t work out so well. He got kicked off the ship, swallowed by a whale, and spit up on the shoreline.

And finally, reluctantly, with fear and trepidation in his heart, he goes.

He goes to “that part” of the world. To “those people.”

He goes to the city and preaches a one sentence sermon:

“Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”

He repeats it over and over again as he walks across the city.

Think about “that place” you have written down.

Could you do that?

Not just go to that place you fear, but actually proclaim their destruction?

I think the core of this one sentence sermon was the message that all was lost.

The people were too far gone.

They were just too terrible and God was ready to wipe the slate clean.

And Jonah thought so, too.

He thought the world would be better off without them in it.

What a terrible thing to say.

And yet, if we thought long and hard about the people and the places we have written on our little scraps of paper, I wonder if that phrase maybe had crossed our mind the past.

Anytime we write off someone as hopeless… or treat a community as if it didn’t exist… or think “wow the government would be a whole lot better off if (insert political party here) weren’t around”… we are doing the same thing.

We have done it throughout history… and we have had it done to us.

Whenever the line has been drawn of us/them, good/bad, right/wrong, folks of all sorts of different faith traditions have felt divine calls to pronounce judgment.

The good news is, it isn’t up to us.

Because even when we have declared something hopeless, God isn’t ready to be done yet.

God could have just sent a plague or rained down fire from above upon Ninevah.

But God didn’t.

God called Jonah.

God warned the people.

God gave them a chance.

And even though Jonah didn’t even offer up the possibility of hope in his one sentence sermon of destruction, the people changed their ways.

They repented.

They turned to God.

The entire kingdom, from the king to the lowest in their midst put on sackcloth and ashes.

As Rev. Bill Cotton pointed out in his reflection this week, some translations say even the cattle repented!

Over this season of Epiphany, we have been exploring the light and the dark. We have been wandering back and forth between the two, and one of the things I hope we are discovering is that the dark isn’t a terrible awful place.

There is possibility in the dark.

There are the seeds of creation and re-creation.

And even a place like Ninevah… Even a place or a person like (hold up your piece of paper)… isn’t lost. It isn’t hopeless.

The question is, are we willing to look for the possibility of change?

Will we open our eyes to see the good in a neighborhood or another person?

Will we lay aside our fears and prejudice and assumptions and go to build relationships?

Will we celebrate when we witness transformations?

Will we ourselves be transformed?

Yes, you, too.

Because God is working on your life also. All those pieces of you that are bent out of shape and bruised and dented. You aren’t hopeless either.

So in the words of Christ, “Now is the time! Here come’s God’s Kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust in the good news!”

It’s a coaching problem…

1389667_71630522I was recently talking with a colleague about the fear/frustration that church members think we, as the pastors and staff, are the ones who do ministry.

Obviously, since we are the ones getting the paycheck, we should be the ones out making new disciples and teaching and being prophetic and visiting the sick and all of those other things churches do.

In that scenario, it is the congregation’s job to sit back, complain if something isn’t happening (like growth), and financially support the work.

 

Our job, however, is not to do the work, but to call and equip the laity (the people) to share in the work.

 

Using a sports analogy, I guess you could say we are a lot more like coaches than players.  We are paid to look at the gifts and talents of our players, to train them, to condition them, to challenge them to grow, but they are the ones who play the game.

We can stand on the sidelines and encourage. We can call timeout and give advice and lay out a new strategy (pastoral care).  Coaches review game films and get the team ready for the opponent (bible study). We can hold practices where the players learn the essential elements of the game.Worship is such a time where we learn to pass the peace, confessing and forgiving, and hear a pep talk about how to play.

What I love about this analogy is that most coaches have a season of recruitment where they go out and build relationships with people and build a team.  So, evangelism and community engagement are an important part of our job.

But then the church has to go out there and play.  Out to their schools and homes and workplaces and golf courses and hospitals and homeless shelters.

 

 

As a sports fan in the Hawkeye State, there is a lot of armchair coaching that goes on in my house.

Some days are better than others.

During football season, we’d cry out, “put Sunshine in!”

Watching ISU miss free throws makes you want to pull out your hair.

I’m not even going to discuss the Hawkeye loss last night.  I can’t even….

But at some point, you have to stop looking at the players, and you have to ask what is going on with the coaching.

 

The same can be asked of the church.

When we see a church declining or in financial trouble or stagnant, we have to ask what is happening with the coaching.

 

Part of the problem is that as pastors, we forget we are supposed to be coaches.

We get bogged down in meetings and administration and in the pressure to go out there and bring people into the church and don’t always make time for one-on-one coaching sessions.

We sometimes worry about how the music or sermon will be perceived, rather than how it will shape and form the congregation.

It seems to be easier to make the visits to the sick and home bound than to train up the laity to care for one another as an act of Christian love (and to train them to receive care from one another).

And sometimes, we simply assume the “team” is playing fine so we fail to change the line-up. Maybe that’s the hardest one. With good and faithful people serving in a particular ministry area, we are afraid to inject new leadership, or worry more about how someone will feel if they are benched… even if it is better for the mission and work of our church.

And then, in some churches, we find that we are coaches who don’t have a team in the church, but a booster club. We have people who think they are fans rather than the starting line. And the coaching mistake is that we let it happen or continue to happen.

 

 

Maybe its time to run some laps and do wind sprints and shoot a thousand free-throws.

Maybe what we need is a good hard season of practice.