The Spirit of Gentleness

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Yesterday morning, Brandon and I were walking through the farmer’s market downtown when suddenly before us was a man holding a gigantic sign. As people passed by, averting their gaze, he shouted out condemnations and warnings.

“Don’t return to church,” he said as I crossed his path, “Return to the Lord!”

Most of you haven’t met my husband because he is not a churchy person. He had some bad experiences with the church as a younger man and they have forever left an impression upon him. In many ways, he left the church because of people like the man who stood shouting in the middle of the street.

I don’t doubt for one second the sincerity or faithfulness of that man.

I don’t doubt that he is standing there in the street out of an honest desire to bring people to Jesus Christ and to share the message with salvation with them.

But today we are going to talk about not only the message, but the method for how we share God’s saving power with others, and how we should respond when that message falls on hostile ears.

For most of this summer, we have used various biblical characters to exemplify the fruits of the spirit that God has given for ministry. From the healing powers of Peter to the patience of Esau, these ancestors of our faith have been witnesses of how God equips us for ministry.

Today, we are going to learn from example what NOT to do.

As Andrea and Noah just shared with us, the prophet Elisha is a man of God, but he is also a very human being.

In a moment of frustration and embarrassment he lashes out at a group of young boys.

Every time I hear this story, I am reminded that this kind of conflict and tension between grumpy old men and rude young boys is timeless.

From Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace to the character of Walt Kowalski, played by Clint Eastwood, in Gran Torino we catch a glimpse of Elisha’s mindset in this story. Like Eastwood’s character, Elisha is overcome by recent grief, which only complicates his violent response.

But we also have seen the impertinence of those who jeer the elderly, mock the disabled or anyone different from them. Sometimes we try to excuse the behaviors, thinking that boys will be boys, but bullying in any form, at any age, is inexcusable and it hurts.
As I shared with the children, sometimes our first instinct to bullying or frustration is to push back – through words or actions.

And so many of us has let a curse slip out of our mouths in a moment of anger or pain.

Elisha is only human and that kind of response is understandable.

Yet, Elisha is also filled with the Spirit of God and he is new to the whole business of being a prophet. Just days before, his mentor Elijah had been carried away up into the heavens and the mantle of God had been left to HIM.

And Elisha doesn’t quite have this power of God figured out yet. He doesn’t understand, like the prophet Nathan did last week, that his ability has tremendous power to harm as well as help.

Aristotle once said that a person who displayed gentleness would be angry, “only on the right grounds, and against the right persons, and in the right manner, and at the right moment, and for the right length of time.”

Elisha let his anger get the better of him.

He might have been hurt because he had been teased, but these were children and rather than an “eye for an eye” – his curce called out bears from the woods and killed those children on the spot.

We can look firmly at his actions and state without a doubt they were anything BUT gentle.

The same Spirit of God filled the first disciples when they were sent out on their first steps of ministry. Jesus called them and gave them this charge in Matthew 10 and Luke 9:

“Go to the lost, confused people right here in this neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons…”

Along the way, they were sure to encounter their share of hostile glances and threats. He tells them to not be naïve, because “some people will impugn your motives, others will smear your reputation – just because you believe in me.”

So Jesus also added these instructions. Knowing that they were still new to this work of God, he told them:

“When you knock on a door, be courteous in your greeting. If they welcome you, be gentle in your conversation. If they don’t welcome you, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way.”

We imagine they might have followed his advice and performed much better than Elisha had with this power of God within them… yet by the end of the chapter in Luke’s gospel the disciples have already forgotten that Spirit of Gentleness.

When a town will not welcome them, James and John turn and ask Jesus if they can call down fire from heaven to destroy the people.

Again, we discover rash, arrogant, and excessive behavior, which Jesus quietly rebukes and they move on.

So, what is gentleness and how are we supposed to live it out in our lives.

The The Full Life Study Bible defines gentleness as “restraint coupled with strength and courage.”

Aristotle says that it is halfway between excessive anger and indifference.

It is the kind of restraint that Nathan showed when he confronted David in our text from last week, the same that Paul tries to emulate as he writes to the Corinthians. He asks them: “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit.” (1 Cor 4:21).

He could be angry. He could be harsh. As a teacher, he probably knew something about discipline… but he wanted them to repent and transform their lives not out of fear… but out of the love and gentleness that was shown to them.

Maybe that is why I am so troubled by the good and faithful folks who stand in the middle of the street at places like the farmer’s market, shouting out dire warnings at all who might walk by. Because I believe that change comes when we approach one another with a spirit of gentleness and not fear.

In John Wesley’s writing, we see that gentleness in his command to “do no harm.” As our former, Bishop Reuben Job reflected on that command, he writes: “I have found that when this first simple rule was remembered, it often saved me from uttering a wrong word or considering a wrong response.”

He adds, “this simple step, when practiced, can provide a safe place to stand while the hard and faithful work of discernment is done.”

Maybe that is the key. Gentleness invites us to take a step back and to determine proper response.

And I think that if we are faithful to the scriptures we will find that gentleness should be our response to the world.

In Luke, chapter 9, the disciples remember times when the power of God was unleashed on the people and on communities unwilling to repent or upon people who don’t appear to be on their team. They think that they might be justified in doing the same.

Maybe, they are even thinking back to the horrific mauling of those children by the prophet Elisha.

But “vengeance is mine” says the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35).

And as Paul encourages us,
“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12: 19-21)

Jesus responds to the anger and pain of the disciples and gently rebukes them and in doing so, he shows us how we should respond when threatened or encountering injustice.

He is aware of the power of the Spirit that lives within him and he uses it to be gentle to those in need of transformation.

As Stanley Horton writes, “The broken reed He would not crush but would fully restore. The flickering wick of a lamp He would not put out but would cause it to burn brightly again… [Jesus] gently takes the sinner and makes him whole.” (http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/top/fruit8_gentleness.cfm)

That man who stood there in the farmer’s market is correct in naming that there will be a time of judgment. After all, our God is great. God is strong and mighty and I truly hope that there will come a day when all things are made right and justice comes to those who have harmed and destroyed on this planet.

But I also know that only God knows how to unleash that power “on the right grounds, and against the right persons, and in the right manner, and at the right moment, and for the right length of time.”

And so the spirit of gentleness we are called to embody is to take a step back and allow that work to be God’s.

Elisha tried to be the judge, jury, and executioner when he encountered wrong in this world.

Instead, God’s spirit calls us to embody gentleness by remembering that we are all sinners.

We are all broken.

We are all filled with the power to lash out or shut out.

And way the message of God’s good news of saving grace is shared is just as important as the message itself.

For my husband, the words shouted out in the street did not open up new possibilities for God’s grace to enter, but probably closed him off even more.

As we live out a spirit of gentleness in this world, let us instead do no harm and in gentleness and love give God time to transform the lives we encounter.

Love Is All You Need

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As Coptic Christians gathered in Egypt this morning to celebrate Palm Sunday, bombs rocked their sanctuaries.  Thirty-six people were killed in the blasts.

This week has seen horrific chemical attacks upon the Syrian people, but what is more horrific is that these kinds of atrocities are happening all the time, but only occasionally make it to our headlines.

In the Des Moines area, this week has seen a slew of gun violence, with five people shot last Sunday morning and three deaths in Bondurant this week.

 

When we gather in this sanctuary and wave our palms in the air, we cry out Hosanna!

 

And that very word has a double meaning that is meaningful in our world context.

We typically think of the Hosanna as a call of praise and glory, welcoming the coming King.

 

But Hosanna also is a cry for salvation. “Save us!” the people call out.

“Save us” we cry out.

Save us from our striving for power.

Save us from unending violence.

Save us from the walls that threaten to divide.

Save us from social forces that stomp on the sick, the poor, and the outcast.

Save us.

 

In the Jewish tradition, the laws were given to the people as a guide for how to live as a saved people.  The Israelites had been rescued from the Pharoah’s grip and in the wilderness they were formed as a people.  And the laws were given as a means to help them live in community and to prevent the kinds of personal and social evils that could destroy them.
613 different commandments are given in the Torah to try to accomplish this purpose.

And when Jesus was asked about which was the most important, he referred to only two.

 

The Shema from Deuteronomy 6: Love the Lord

And

Leviticis 19 – love others.

 

When Jesus summarized all of the law and the prophets, he basically took the ten commandments and boiled them down to five words:

Love God. Love your neighbor.

That’s it.

These laws are all about the relationships we have been talking about these past few weeks.

Love is the fence that guards us from harmful activity. Love is the standard for how we are to behave. Love defines who we are.

 

Throughout this series, we have been touching on the surface of some of the conflict that threatens to divide us as a church.  We are not all the same.  Across this great wide world we worship in different languages and sing different types of songs. We live in various political and social and economic realities.

And I believe that is a good and a holy thing.  But it is also a really difficult reality to live in the midst of.

All of our differences, all of our separate gifts and hopes and desires, all of the nonessentials that can tear us apart, they can only be put into perspective if we take the time to truly be in relationship with one another.

This body only works if at the core of who we are and how we live is love.

When the Apostle Paul hears about the mess that the Corinthians have made of their church by squabbling over non-essentials, he writes to them.  He wants to encourage them to be their best selves.   And if you remember from last week, he tells them that they are the body of Christ and that each of them has an important role to play in the church. He tells them that each of them is gifted and that they should pay attention to and rely upon the gifts of others. He tells them they need to give and accept help and to treat all members with respect.

And then he launches into a beautiful part of his letter that is very familiar to us.

 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing

All of this stuff that you think is so important – Paul writes – all of this stuff that you are arguing about, it means absolutely diddly squat if there isn’t love in the midst of your community.

You could have the most money or be the most talented or live in the most beautiful house, or even have the most elegant prayers or know the scripture backwards and forwards…. But all of it is for nothing if there is not love in your life.

Paul’s not just talking about the romantic love between two people. He’s talking about deep, sustaining love. He’s talking about the love that knits people and communities together. He’s talking about the love that only comes from God.

Love that is patient and kind.

That that is not envious or boastful.

Love that doesn’t seek its own advantage and doesn’t keep a record of complaints.

Love that isn’t satisfied with injustice.

Love that endures all things.

 

As the people of God and followers of Jesus Christ, and as the people called United Methodist, we are all have the same calling: to love.

The primary thing that unites us is the love of Jesus Christ.

The love of Christ reminds us we are all sinners in need of God’s grace.

The love of Christ shows us what grace and mercy are all about.

The love of Christ is sacrificial and bends down in service to others.

The love of Christ gives life to others.

Love seeks the good of others, no matter who they are, even if it is at our own expense.
Love is not a feeling… love is a verb.

It is a daily decision to choose to love and be in relationship with others.

 

In our prayer of confession this morning, we asked that God might turn us, cleanse us, and forgive us our transgressions.

We asked that God might set us again into the procession of love that makes all things new.

 

When we leave this place today, we are going into a world that praises all of the wrong things and that desperately needs to experience the saving power of God.

We are going into a world where children are hungry and parents are frustrated.  Where the mentally ill don’t have access to care and where innocent people are trapped in the midst of countries at war.  If we took the time to list all of the problems and concerns of our nation and world we might never leave this sanctuary.

And yet, God has called us to be his hands and feet in the world.

God has called us to be the Body of Christ.

And that means that God wants us to be the answer to the world’s cries for salvation and healing.  God wants us to carry these palms into the world as a procession, a parade of love and healing and salvation.

God wants us to bind up the brokenhearted and feed the hungry.

God wants us to welcome the refugees and the strangers.

God wants us to seek peace and pursue it.

God wants us to visit the sick and imprisoned.

And through it all, God wants us to love.

 

You know, we are ending this series with the call to love, but in reality, this is only the beginning of the life that we are called to.  As Bishop Bickerton writes, love is “the source of our being, the fuel for the journey, and the goal for which we live.”

Love God.

Love your neighbors.

Amen.

Unity, Diversity, and the Body of Christ

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Over the past week, I’ve been working to get my garden prepped a bit for spring and to start some of the seeds that will be set out after Mother’s Day.  And I was reminded as I dug my fingers into the dirt that soil is so incredibly diverse and complex.  That just one handful of the stuff contains more living organisms than there are people on this planet.   

And in every part of the soil, every one of those organisms has a part to play, impacting chemical and physical properties.  And all of these living organisms live off of and feed off of one another.  It is their interaction that makes soil healthy and thriving and good.

In his book, The Third Plate, Dan Barber describes two ways of seeing what is happening in the soil that surrounds us.

One, is a class system… or a battlefield…

We’ve all seen those videos of a tiny fish being eaten by a bigger fish, being eaten by an even bigger fish… that’s some of what happens in the dirt beneath our feet.  One way of looking at all of the interaction beneath us is to focus on how microbes are eaten by protozoa, which are eaten by centipedes, ants, and beetles.

 

 

But another way of thinking about all of that diversity in the soil is as a system of checks and balances. 

 

Fred Magdoff is a soil scientist and he thinks that “When there is sufficient and varied food for the organisms, they do what comes naturally, ‘making a living’ by feeding on the food sources that evolution provided… What you have is a thriving, complex community of organisms.”

And all of that diversity and interaction in the soil is what makes our food taste good. 

Magdoff says, “Taste comes from a more complex molecule that gets eaten, taken apart, and put back together in a different way.  The plant takes this, and all the other molecules, and catalyzes them into phytonutrients.  Taste doesn’t come from the elemental compounds (like calcium or nitrogen).  It comes from the synthesis” [The Third Plate, Dan Barber, page 85]

 

That’s really why you and I want all of that diversity in the soil after all.  Because we want the things we grow to thrive and taste good.  We want it to bear tasty fruit! 

In musical composition, unless it is a solo piece, it is the interaction of the various instruments each playing their part, yet working together that create harmonization.  

And in the church, it is the way that we each utilize our various gifts and we each play our part as hands or tongues or livers that allows the Body of Christ to make a difference in this world.  

 

But sometimes, the church acts more like a battlefield than the Body of Christ.  

When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, he was responding to the way factions and power and pride were tearing the community apart.  

Corinth was a port city and as such it had incredible diversity.  Ideas from across the globe all mingled and freed slaves lived amongst wealthy entrepreneurs.  The church reflected this diversity… but that created a power contest between the believers who argued with one another about which ideology or status was better than another.

At every turn, Paul reminds the people that their diversity should be seen not as a source of division, but as a blessing.  Because of their varied gifts and perspectives, they could do far more together than any of them could do on their own.  

 

We’ve experienced this as a church, haven’t we?  We have incredible diversity as far as our age and our political and theological perspectives and yet look at the amazing things that we have done together.

We raised over $5000 for Joppa in a weekend with a garage sale last year that brought so many different people together.

We built on Faith Hall and paid it off in record time because every person did their part.

We successfully launched Children’s Church because of the incredible work of so many different volunteers and people who were willing to try something new.  

Today is the last day of Third Grade Bible, which is an amazing way our more experienced folks help our young people learn about this amazing book that guides our faith journey.  

 

None of that could happen unless the various parts of THIS Body of Christ were willing to step up and play a part.  

You might be a foot or an eye or a spleen, but you play a part in this church.   We all play a part.  You might think that you are too young or too old or too busy to make a difference, but Paul says you are wrong.  You are an essential part of making the church work!  

Or you might think that church would be a whole lot simpler if everyone was just like me, but again, Paul says we are wrong.  It takes all of our different perspectives and experiences… even when they make things more complex… to be the Body of Christ God has intended for this community.

 

In the United Methodist Church right now, we are divided.  We are different.  And we feel differently about human sexuality.  We can’t always agree about how we should be in ministry with those folks on the margins, whether they are refugees or poor or elderly or tattooed or whatever else marks them as different from the majority.  And underneath all that disagreement is that we don’t all read the scripture in the same way.  

And sometimes, that diversity feels like a war.  It feels like the battle described the soil beneath us or in that clip from Minions.  We are chewing each other up and spitting each other out. And I hate the way my brothers and sisters are hurt and damaged by actions and words that cut to the core of their very being.  And I’ve watched as some people have walked away from the Body of Christ because of it.

When you focus on the conflict that diversity creates, you want to strip out everything that is different to protect yourself and others.  We want simple things.  We want unity, which means, we want to all be the same.

But I believe, and Paul believes, that to be healthy, we need diversity.  We need difference.  We need checks and balances.  We need reminders of the importance of the scripture and justice and mercy and love from people who don’t see it the same way we do. 

We need to listen. 

We need to hold one another accountable. 

We also need to challenge one another. 

We need to be willing to speak the truth in love.

And together, the interaction of all of our different parts creates something beautiful and mysterious and powerful.

John Wesley claimed the Moravian Motto: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.”

There are key things that are pretty essential to who we are as not only United Methodists, but as Christians:  ideas like believing in the Triune God, and understanding that grace plays a role in our lives.  Core things, without which we simply could not be the Body of Christ.  

But there are other things that are non-essential.  What style of music or which translation or scripture or if we prefer percolator coffee or ground coffee or whole bean pour over. In those things, we are called to allow the freedom of diversity and expression and to give room and space for our siblings in Christ to be different and to share their varying gifts.

But no matter what… in all things, we are called to love.  To respect each other.  To listen.  To disagree without being disagreeable.  To be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit.  

In all things, Love.

It is not a coincidence that this chapter on what it means to be the Body of Christ comes right before the chapter on love.  Because the only way we make this kind of community work is through love.  We’ll talk more about that next week.   

 

In the same way the soil beneath our feet thrives on diversity and competition and interaction and synergy – this church thrives because we are different AND because we love one another.  And through God’s grace, that means we can do more than any one of us could accomplish on our own for the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

 

Lessons for the Journey

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Last winter, my immediate family planned a trip to Hawaii to escape the cold and the snow.  We often like to travel all together, but because of my weekend work responsibilities, the rest of the family took off earlier, while Brandon and I stayed here in Iowa to get through church on Sunday morning and then fly out. 

Our original plan had been to fly out on Sunday afternoon, but about a month before the trip, they cancelled that flight and rebooked us for first thing on Monday morning.  So our alarms were set for 4am, our bags were packed and we were ready to go.  And then the text message came.  Our flight had been cancelled.   There had been storms that weekend in Dallas, flights were backed up and ours was being bumped.  We had been rebooked for Wednesday morning. 

I instantly got on the phone and tried to see if there was any way we could get out of town sooner.  Except the hold time with the airline was estimated to be an hour or more.  Brandon and I live near the airport, so I decided to go and try to get in line and talk with an actual agent at the ticketing counter.  Only, the lines there were nearly out the door.  Everyone was trying to get out of town and no one was going anywhere.   There were no earlier flights to be had.

We decided to make the most of the day and built a fire in the fireplace at home and tried not to grumble.  The next day around noon, we got another text from the airlines.  Our flight Wednesday morning out of Des Moines had been cancelled, too. 

I think I spent about three hours on the phone with the airlines and the soonest they could rebook our tickets was on January 1st.  It would be another two days before it would be possible to get out of Des Moines due to the back up all throughout the system.  I cried.  The good lady from the airlines tried her best to help make something work, but it was a mess.   

I finally asked if the flight from Dallas to Hawaii was still taking off the next morning.  It had been only the Des Moines leg of the trip that had been cancelled.  And sure enough, it was still going to be leaving at 9 am Wednesday morning.  Brandon and I looked at each other, and decided to drive to Dallas.  

We picked up the rental car around 4pm, left Des Moines around 5, and drove through the night.  When we arrived, exhausted, around 4am, we found a quiet corner in the airport to take a short nap, made our flight, and made it to Hawaii to spend the rest of the trip with our family… only three days late.  

 

In our scripture this morning, the Israelites are on a journey as well.  While Brandon and I were trying to escape the cold of winter for a warm, sunny beach, the Israelites had escaped slavery in Egypt and now they were headed for the Promised Land.  God was leading them to the land flowing with milk and honey.  Only, they didn’t quite know how to get there and they trusted God to lead them.  

This was supposed to be a fairly simple trip, and yet at the outset, God planned to lead them the long way round.  The pillar of smoke and fire was taking them on a journey that would avoid most of the difficulties they might encounter along the way.  But no road is easy and the setbacks they experienced were far greater than a few cancelled flights. If you continue reading through the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the Israelites experienced loss, frustration, bickering, and ended up wandering for forty years in the wilderness.  There were times in the journey when the destination seemed so far away that they wished they were back in Egypt.  And despite the daily guidance and food provided from above, there were even times they forgot God was with them.  Ultimately however,  just like we finally touched down on the rainbow isle and got to spend our vacation with my parents, siblings, and three amazing niblings, the Israelites finally made it to Canaan.

While we might not be on a physical journey, the people of the United Methodist Church and the people of Immanuel are on a journey, too.  John Wesley often talked about how we are going on to perfection and I think part of that means that we as the church should always be working towards the Kingdom of God and growing not only in our personal faith, but we should be transforming the world around us to look more like the “Promised Land” every single day.  As a church, we need a compelling vision to hold in front of us, a picture of the destination we are longing for, so that we can actively work to bring that reality into being. 

But like the Israelites, our journey has been and will be marked by setbacks. Most journeys are.  We, too, have experienced loss and decline.  In fact, I bet some of you in this room can remember when this sanctuary was built in order to accommodate when we had over 500 in worship every single Sunday.  And, there are times of disagreement and disunity.  We won’t always be able to find the best worship times for every person and we won’t all agree on what a faithful Christian response is to some of the toughest conversations of our day.  

Last week in fact, an email came out from a new group that has formed within the UMC called the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  The email contained a video that highlights the three central beliefs of the organization.  That God is good, the Bible is true, and that Promises should be kept.  And yet, how those three very simple statements were defined is not something that all United Methodists agree upon.  So I became part of a group of young clergywomen that created a statement in response, trying to expand and enlarge the conversation.  

When Bishop Bickerton talks about this journey of faith we are on, he knows that it will not be easy.  But he offers a couple of simple lessons that might help us arrive together at our final destination.  As I have thought about the journey of the Israelites,  my own adventures in travel, and the journey we are currently on as a church, I find them helpful.

The first lesson I want to highlight is what my colleagues and I were attempting to do last week as we drafted a response to others in the church.  And that is the see yourselves and others as a work in progress.   I think this faith that we share is not simple, but it is complex and messy and real.  We are always learning and growing and going on to perfection.  Or as Paul put it, “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face.  Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way I have been completely known.” (1 Cor. 13: 12).  And so that means we should constantly be in dialogue with one another.  We need to admit our shortcomings and leave ourselves open to the possibility that we might be wrong.  We do not need to have it all together or have all the answers… we are still on a journey!

The second lesson relates to that idea.  In the famous words of Vanilla Ice, we need to stop, collaborate and listen. It is often the people we disagree with the most who can help us to get farther on our journey.  We need to collaborate across generations, with our older folks helping out our young parents and our younger folks providing support and care for their elder counterparts.  In his book, Bishop Bickerton shares a story from Zimbabwe and Bishop Nhiwatiwa.  In the Shona language, the word used for the spirit of collaboration is chabadza .  “If you approach a person working in a field, you do not say, “May I plow your field for you?” Instead you say, “May I help you plow your field?”  Chabadza represents a willingness to enter into relationship with someone else on the journey.” (p. 36)   And it is a willingness to let to, let others help, and to let it be done another way.  This is the spirit that we embody here at Immanuel whenever we put the needs of another person above our own and let go of our way in order to let God move us in a new way.  

The final lesson is one that I needed to remember many times on our long journey to Hawaii.  You need to lighten up, loosen up, and have a little fun The journey we are on is difficult, and if we don’t open ourselves up to find the joy in the midst of the journey it will feel like its longer than it actually is.  We need to enjoy the ride, remember that we are loved by God, let the Holy Spirit encourage us every step of the way.  Here at Immanuel, there are so many opportunities to have a little fun as we grow in this journey of discipleship.  You can sing and dance with the kids in Children’s Church.  You can laugh together over coffee in Faith Hall.  You can step out of your comfort zone and make a new friend.  You can stand up and let God move you when the music starts playing.  You can roll with punches and smile more and see where the Spirit will move.  

Above all, no matter where we are on this journey, God is with us, pushing us, pulling us, prodding us, and never letting us go.  Like the cloud of pillar and fire never left the side of the Israelites, the presence of God is in this place and will continue to guide us every step of the way.  Amen. 

Momentum for Life: Eating & Exercise

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About ten years ago, I was living in Nashville and was in the middle of my seminary journey. I was overwhelmed by studying and coursework and I was working full time at a local church as a part of an internship. I was burning the candle at both ends and learning a lot… but I was worn out a lot, too.

One afternoon, I stepped on the scale at my parent’s house… I didn’t have a scale myself… and I was blown away by the number listed right by my toes. It was the most I had ever weighed in my life.

I had been so busy doing all of this work that I hadn’t been taking very good care of myself. I was using food to get me through the day. I wasn’t taking time to exercise. And part of the reason I felt so worn out wasn’t all the work… it was that I wasn’t giving my body the right kind of energy to sustain the work.

I started preparing healthier meals in smarter ways – cooking up a whole crockpot on the weekend to last me through the rest of the week.

The next week, I started going to the gym with a friend of mine.

And suddenly, I discovered I wasn’t nearly so tired. I could focus more and tasks didn’t take as long. My mind was more nimble. And my soul felt more whole than it had in a long time.

 

We have been exploring Michael Slaughter’s acronym “DRIVE” over these past few weeks. He is inviting us to think about all of the things that give us momentum to keep following Jesus Christ.

D – for Devotion… for that personal one-on-one time with God in scripture and prayer

R – for a Readiness to Learn… for the ways in which we allow ourselves to be taught by God and one another.

I – for an Investment in Relationships with other people who are on this journey with us – through mentoring and being mentored and honoring our families.

V – for Vision… and understanding that we have a clear sense of where we are going… together!

And lastly E.

E is for Eating and Exercise… but when I look at this topic, it is really about how we honor and care for our bodies so that they have the energy and the focus they need to keep making this journey of discipleship.

 

Ten years ago, when I decided to focus on being healthier, I found a community of support online. There was a website that I visited every single day and I logged what I ate and how long I worked out and I found that there were kindred spirits who could encourage me or help me resist temptation or who needed MY help in their own journey.

I’m not sure I could have done it without them.

That sense of community is important when it comes to our bodies. Because we as Christians do not believe that we exist as individuals completely set apart from other people. This walk of discipleship is one that we take with others.

And Paul agrees. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he talks a lot about our bodies and what we do with them.

Before today’s reading, Paul writes about how the community should hold itself accountable for faithful living.

He doesn’t want us to live apart from the world – completely separate from those who engage in unhealthy activities. We can’t! It’s impossible to totally shut ourselves off from every sinful behavior we see.

But as we live in the midst of our communities, those of us who claim to follow Christ can hold one another accountable for what we eat and drink, who we sleep with, what we say.

Why should we do these things? What does it matter?

 

As we heard in our reading today:

It may be true that the body is only a temporary thing, but that’s no excuse for stuffing your body with food, or indulging it with sex. Since the Master honors you with a body, honor God with YOUR body! …

Or didn’t you realize that your body is a [temple, a] sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? (1 Cor 6:13-20)

 

As we think about the role of eating and exercise in our journey of discipleship, there are two basic ideas at play here.

 

First: life itself is a precious gift. These bodies are a precious gift from God.

On Wednesday of this week, we will gather once again for Ash Wednesday and the putting on of ashes reminds us that from the dust of the earth we were formed. We were made by our Creator who breathed into us the breath of life. Every life, every body has value.

And when God took on our human flesh and was born as one of us, Immanuel, he came so that we might have life and life abundant ( John 10:10).

The very concept of momentum reinforces the fact that we need energy to go the distance. We need a healthy system of food and relationships, active lifestyles and spiritual care in order to sustain long and abundant life.

A team of researchers discovered in 2004 that there were small communities around the world where people lived measureably longer. In what they termed “Blue Zones” folks reached the age 100 at a rate 10 times greater than the United States.

What was the difference? What made their communities healthier?

Nine characteristics were discovered… characteristics that I think echo what we have heard from Slaughter during this series:

  1. They exercise as a part of daily living
  2. They understand their purpose – they have a vision of what we are here to do
  3. They down shift – they find ways to relieve stress and take Sabbath
  4. They abide by the 80% rule – they stop eating when they are 80% full.
  5. They eat more plants – they sometimes eating meat only once or twice a week
  6. They have a drink with friends –moderation and community are key!
  7. They belong to a faith community – attending a church service four times a month adds 14 years to life expectancy (REPEAT!)
  8. They put their loved ones first – they care for their elders and invest in their children.
  9. They choose a healthy tribe – they surround themselves with people who support healthy behaviors

Do any of those sound familiar to our D.R.I.V.E. acronym?

By being part of a faith community that supports a healthy lifestyle, we can help one another, in the words of the psalmist, “experience Jerusalem’s goodness your whole life long…. And see your grandchildren.”

 

But we also have to remember a second very important point. Our bodies are a gift… but they don’t belong to us. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians:

“Don’t you see that you can’t live however you please, squandering what God paid such a high price for? They physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:16-20)

As Slaughter writes, “You cannot be a healthy influencer and agent of kingdom change if you are not demonstrating the reality of the kingdom of God within yourself.”

We have to live what we are teaching and preaching. Our lives, our bodies, witness to the faith we follow.

We are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, after all. And if you are not taking care of yourself, you will not have the energy you need to serve where God calls you.

But this also means that advocating for health and the care of other’s bodies needs to be a part of our ministry.

One of my leadership commitments in the community is that I am on the board of the Des Moines Area Religious Council. Every month, we as a church contribute food and resources to DMARC for use in their 12 food pantries across the greater Des Moines area.

A few years ago, DMARC made a conscious decision to change the food it was providing to clients. Researchers from ISU had helped the organization to discover that rates of diabetes and obesity were much higher in the clients we served than the general population. So a very intentional shift was made to provide more whole grains, to focus on fruits in their natural juices and not in heavy syrup, or vegetables with no salt added. The shift means that the food we provide is a bit more expensive, but contributes to a healthier overall lifestyle.

 

I’m going to close with a confession.

I have personally not been living out these principles lately. I stepped on the scale this winter and found myself back up to where I was about 10 years ago. Actually, a couple of pounds higher.

We are entering the season of Lent… a time of fasting and transformation. A time to recommit ourselves to the journey of discipleship. A time of accountability.

People all around this world give up indulgences for this six-week season, but I, personally, have felt convicted by the reality that I cannot serve God if I do not have the internal resources and energy to do so. So my commitment this Lent is to a healthier lifestyle… and I hope you will help hold me accountable to that… to eating better and exercising more.

And I hope that you will think about the momentum of our faith journeys we have discussed over the past month. Do you need to spend more time in devotion? Do you need to practice humility and an openness to learning? Do you need to invest deeper in relationships with your family or community? Do you need to spend time discovering the vision of God’s future for your life? Do you need to re-evaluate your eating and exercise habits?

This is the perfect moment to shift gears. This is a perfect time to create a new habit. This Lent is God’s gift to you and to this church as together we follow Jesus in the walk of discipleship.

self-awareness, faith, repentance and the Lord's Supper

In the past two weeks, I have had a number of conversations with colleagues and family about the Lord’s Table… not necessarily about who is welcome, but about what MAKES that person welcome.

My friends in the LCMS church have been discussing what kind of understanding of faith is required for a first communion experience. I am not completely versed in their traditions, but from what I was told (and then understood) current practice is for children to have to be old enough to express the faith for themselves before participating in the sacrament.  But as the practice of infant baptism and baptism of younger children has increased, they wonder if a) communion should also be extended to young children or b) both sacraments need to remain as practices reserved for those who understand and have claimed their faith personally.  I think it is a wonderful conversation for them to be having, as we should always make sure that our theology is consistent with our practices and that those practices are then consistent in and of themselves.

One of the important factors in their conversation is that the sacrament of communion (in particular) is a gift for believers of the faith and that there is some danger in coming to the table unprepared, with wrong intention, or misusing the sacraments. The primary place in scripture they (and other Christians) draw upon regarding this issue is 1 Corinthians 11:26-29:

Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes. This is why those who eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord inappropriately will be guilty of the Lord’s body and blood. Each individual should test himself or herself, and eat from the bread and drink from the cup in that way. Those who eat and drink without correctly understanding the body are eating and drinking their own judgment. (CEB)

If we are not old enough or developed enough to test and examine ourselves, to be self-reflective, then there is a danger present there.

In the United Methodist tradition, one of the ways that the Lord’s Table is emphasized is as a means of grace. In fact, communion is not necessarily reserved for only the baptized, as John Wesley believed it could bestow even prevenient grace… grace that goes before us… and that partaking of communion could be a converting act. As the Holy Spirit transforms us through the ritual, we might let go of our old life and finally become ready to accept the faith for ourselves.

George Lyons has modernized John Wesley’s sermon “The Means of Grace” and shares these words on the duty of constant communion:

“all who desire an increase of the grace of God are to wait for it in partaking of the Lord’s supper.” By meditating upon his saving death, by expecting his personal presence, by anticipating his coming again in glory, we prepare ourselves to receive his grace. Those who are already filled with peace and joy in believing, or anyone who longs for the grace of true repentance may, No, must eat and drink to their souls’ content. “Is not the eating of that bread, and the drinking of that cup, the outward, visible means, whereby God conveys into our souls all that spiritual grace, that righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, which were purchased by the body of Christ once broken and the blood of Christ once shed for us Let all, therefore, who truly desire the grace of God, eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.”

Wesley was convinced that communion was not only a confirming, but also a converting ordinance.

In some ways, our tradition in the United Methodist Church has taken 1 Cor 11:26-29 with a grain of salt… Yes, we believe that one needs to be of the right heart and mind before you come… BUT, we see so much grace in the ritual that it not merely confirms the faith we have, but can even overcome our lack of belief and faith and repentance.

This is possibly why my mom recently became a little angry at the dinner table. She had attended worship with my brother and sister-in-law at their non-denominational church. I have never been to their church, so I can only relate her experience as she shared it. In their tradition, communion is open to those who have faith in Jesus Christ, but the pastor made a special plea right before the time of communion that those who were not right with God and their neighbor should not participate.

As my mom exclaimed to us later, “If they mean everyone is welcome, then EVERYONE SHOULD BE WELCOME!”

The conversation continued and as I heard the experience recounted, my sister-in-law talked about how the service was running long and the pastor skipped some of the more “pastoral” instructions that typically go with that plea. To my parents and brother who were guests that day and were unfamiliar with their traditions (and also from the United Methodist tradition), the words sounded cold and off-putting.

And yet, I gently reminded my mom, even in our tradition do we speak similar words. In every service of Word and Table, we have a time of not only confession, but also of reconciliation where we have the opportunity to pass the peace with one another and seek forgiveness with our neighbors. And our invitation clearly states:

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.

Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.

As I think about it more and more, the United Methodist tradition tries to hold in tension both the particularity of scripture (1 Cor 11) and the depth and breadth of scripture and our theological understanding of God’s grace.

In his article “Admission to the Table and Recent United Methodist Debate” Hoyt Hickman lays out the history of how we came to our current understanding of who is welcome to participate at the table and points to these words (which I can’t remember having ever read before) in our Book of Worship:

All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive… Every effort should be made to make each person, and especially children, welcome at the table. It is particularly effective to look directly at the person being addressed, touch each person’s hand while giving the bread and cup, and if possible call each person by name.

We don’t talk about baptism being a prerequisite. We welcome children, even young children who have no full concept of what this meal means, as a part of the covenant and care that their parents make on their behalf (Acts 2:39 – This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites. – CEB). And while we encourage personal confession, make opportunity for doing so available, and invite people to be earnestly repentant before they come, we will not refuse someone who comes. We believe that God just might act in their lives anyways… in spite of where there heart is at the moment.

Or as George Lyons puts it, ” It is not only for those who already believe and long to deepen their relationship with the Lord, but for those who truly want to believe, but seem to lack the grace to do so.”

I am not sure where my LCMS brothers and sisters will end up in their conversations. And I don’t know fully the practice of my brother’s church. But with all of its nuance and tension, I love where my own United Methodist tradition lands….

So come to the table if you seek to love God. Come to the table confessing the truth of your heart. Come to the table and bring with you your children and grandchildren and your friend who is hurting and the stranger who needs to be loved. Come to the table where God’s grace is ready to meet you and to welcome you home.

Your Race, Your Game

When I was in middle school, my mom and dad invited me to try out as many different sports as I could.  In 7th grade I ran track.  In 8th grade I played volleyball and tennis.  I worked on my soccer skills with the rec leagues.  I played softball in the summer.

Instead of focusing on one single activity, their thought was I should find out what I was actually good at and enjoyed doing.  How would I know if I didn’t try them out?

What I quickly learned was that I didn’t have the hand-eye coordination for tennis.  I didn’t have the stamina for long-distance running or a fast game like basketball.  But I was great at sacrificing my body.  I didn’t care if I got hurt… I was good at hustling and diving if need be in order to get to a ball and make a play.

On the volleyball court, I was a scrappy setter – not only able to get into position, but also able to recover those bumps that went off kilter.

In softball, I found myself playing catcher – diving to the sides if need be to trap those wild pitches and save a stolen base.

And in soccer, my skills found their natural home as a goalie.  I threw my body in front of kicks and was not afraid to close the distance with a forward to prevent a shot.

I earned bumps and bruises, but I also found my game… I found my place… that connection point between my skills and the needs of a team and I found myself as the starting varsity goalie for the high school soccer team my sophomore year.

As I think about my experiences with sports, I think about what Paul said to the Corinthian people.  I don’t run without purpose, he writes… but I punish my body – I’m staying in top condition – I am working hard to accomplish my goals.  I am going to have the discipline and the focus to actually run this race and win it.

He is comparing the Christian faith to an athletic competition… as we follow Jesus Christ, we need to practice our discipleship.  We need to give it our all in order that we might one day cross the finish line and enjoy life eternal with our Lord.

Something that I have realized, however, is that we are not all running the same race.  This is not a competition between you and me.

No, each of us has a race to run, a game to play, a course to chart.  Each of us has been called to use the best of what we have got to serve the Lord.

Just as I would never survive a marathon… you might not last long in the goalie box.  We have been blessed with different gifts – different skills and abilities – and we need to discover those gifts and use them to the best of our ability as we love and serve the Lord.

So what is your race?  What is your game?  Where does God want you focus your energy?

Today, I want to invite us to discover those gifts by taking a simple inventory.  I am going to read off  a number of statements and for each one, you will be invited to respond with a number on your sheet.  There is a scale from 1-7… with a 7 meaning that the statement ALWAYS describes you and a 1 meaning that it NEVER describes you.

I want you to hear very plainly… there are no wrong answers.  Think about what your first gut response answer would be and record in on the sheet.

Each one of us has been blessed in different ways – we each have a race to run, a game to play.  And this tool will help us to narrow our focus and find those places where we can truly soar.

(take spiritual gifts inventories)

________

May God grant us grace to claim and celebrate these gifts… and may we not be afraid to use them.  May we run with a clear goal ahead of us, may we play with a purpose.  Amen and Amen.

________

 

Invitation to respond and give these gifts sheets to the Lord – a symbol that we will let God use us to reflect the light of Christ to those we meet.

Clearing the Clutter

Look at what I’ve done for you today: I’ve placed in front of you

Life and Good
Death and Evil…
I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you today: I place before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Choose life so that you and your children will live. And love GOD, your God, listening obediently to him, firmly embracing him. (Deuteronomy 30)

(prayer)

How many of you have had a busy week? How many of you are looking ahead to a busy and jampacked week?
As we wait upon God’s word today, I want to invite you to take that little slip of paper you were given as you walked in this morning and to write down on it all of the things that take up your time right now. Everything – from walking the dog… to the hours you spend working or serving here at church… to the television shows you watch. What has occupied your week past and what kinds of things will occupy next week. It doesn’t have to be precise… this is just for you… an estimate. Let’s give ourselves about five minutes to do this…

How did it feel to write all of those things down? To name all of the ways that your life is busy?

If you were to lump these tasks and events into categories – things in your life that tug on you and pull on you from different directions, what kind of categories might we lift up?

(work, family, church, sports, recreation…)
That is quite a list!

Each and every single day of our lives, we are bombarded with choices. We are pulled by commitments. We are asked to live within these multiple communities.

For these past few weeks, we have been taking a look at the world through Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. As we have done so, we have become aware of some realities about this world outside the church walls.

1) It is a win/lose world out there… and sometimes we let that seep into our church life as well. Instead of getting wrapped up in winning and losing, we are called to be fools for Christ.

2) This world is full of fads and changing tides… and the church is often quick to jump on the bandwagon and lose the core of our message. Instead, we need to keep centered on the cross and the good news of God.

3) The world tells us bigger is better. The church often believes that and feels pressure to get more butts in the seats and more dollars in the offering plate. But Paul reminds us that our weakness is God’s strength and that small churches can do powerful things.

Today, the reality we face is that we are busy people. We are pulled in so many different directions. Some weeks, I know it is hard for you to give the church even an hour of your time.

And we all know the families that surround us who run with their kids from this thing to that and on Sunday mornings breathe a sigh of relief that one more week is over… but can’t we please stay in bed for another hour.

This world is exhausting.

It is fast paced.

It is chaotic.

It drains us.

This morning in our scriptures, we are reminded that we have a choice in this world between the things that give us life and the things that take life away.

As Moses stood before the people on the edge of the promised land, he shared with them the simple choice they faced.

I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you today: I place before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Choose life so that you and your children will live. And love GOD, your God, listening obediently to him, firmly embracing him.

The people quickly chose life! Who wouldn’t right? They mentally made the assent that they would live according to God, that they would love God and their neighbor…

But then they crossed into the land of milk and honey and before they even realized it, they were caught up in distractions. Their choice never got translated from their head into their hearts and into their hands. And they found themselves broken and scattered and falling apart in exile. Moses had spoken truthfully… If you have a change of heart… you will most certainly die.

Fast forward many, many generations.

Paul writes to the church in Corinth and offers a piece of wisdom:

 

“It’s not the latest message, but more like the oldest—what God determined as the way to bring out his best in us, long before we ever arrived on the scene… The Spirit, not content to flit around on the surface, dives into the depths of God, and brings out what God planned all along… God offers a full report on the gifts of life and salvation that he is giving us… he taught us person-to-person through Jesus, and we’re passing it on to you in the same firsthand, personal way…

The simple truth, Paul passes along is this:

The unspiritual self, just as it is by nature, can’t receive the gifts of God’s Spirit. There’s no capacity for them. They seem like so much silliness. Spirit can be known only by spirit—God’s Spirit and our spirits in open communion.”

Do we want to choose life in this generation? Do we want to choose the ways of God?

Then we have to make room for the Spirit. We have to spend time with our Lord.

We have to clear some space in the chaos of these things that tug on us for God.

Perhaps one of the greatest gifts that we can offer one another and all of those busy, exhausted families outside those doors is Sabbath.

Space…

Time…

To simply let God into our lives.

Sabbath, at its core, is taking time to remember that we do not create life – it is a gift from God.

The exhortation to rest on the Sabbath reminds us that we cannot do it all… and that ultimately the things of this world are in God’s hands.

At a recent clergy event, I was asked to help lead our opening worship.
I knew that some of them would be worried about folks at home who might be in the hospital or troubled. I knew that some would be thinking ahead to their sermons for the next Sunday. I knew some would have their minds set on their kids, or their parents, and the family concerns that plague them. I knew some would have their fingers ever connected to their blackberrys and would try to stay in contact with all of the business of the church, even as they were supposed to be fully present with us.

So, I lead the group in a ritual of setting aside the things that were on our minds. Much like what we did this morning, I invited them to write down all the things that were distracting them on a slip of paper and to fold it up and put it away.

This ritual was an act of trust… trust that for these six hours we were gathered together that our lives back home could wait… trust that our lay people in our churches could take care of the things we left them… trust that God in his infinite wisdom could be trusted to take care of these things so that we could focus and be present in this moment with one another and with God’s holy word.

Take that list that you made this morning.

It represents all of your choices and commitments and communities.


It represents all of the things that tug on your heart.

Sometimes these things lead us towards God… and sometimes they pull us away from the source of life.

For that is what God is… He is life itself and when we seek him we will find exuberant life.

Fold that piece of paper up and I want you to write four simple words that Dave Crow, our district superintendent shared with me…

“Choose Well. Choose Life.”