Scattering Fear and Gloom

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Easter Sunday is a rollercoaster of emotions.

We felt that as we began worship today… instead of starting with the joy of the resurrected Christ, we began with the despair felt by Mary and the disciples because their Lord and Teacher was no longer with them.

You see, for the disciples, Easter morning began with a hopeless situation.

It began with fear of the unknown.

It began with the gloom of death.  

When I wrestled with what I should preach about this morning, I couldn’t help but think about all of the hopelessness and fear and gloom in this world. 

I hear it in the halls of this church, and around our dinner tables… in the grocery store, the halls of work or school… all of the varied and sundry places that we gather in our lives.  

We worry about family who just can’t seem to get their act together.

We struggle with illness or money in our personal lives.

We watch the evening news and everything seems wrong with the world.

After a while, the daily grind starts to take its toll and we become numb to all of that stuff around us. We find ourselves settling into the rut and start to believe that this is just the way it’s going to be.

The violence of the world almost ceases to phase us.  What is a crucified Savior when another bombing in Syria has taken lives?  Another shooting at a school last week?  Another gun related death in our city?     

We can barely keep ourselves abreast of the human rights violations occurring across our planet as war-torn countries continue to destroy the lives of innocent men, women and children. So many of these places of conflict feel utterly hopeless and without end.   It seems that no matter what we do, or maybe because of what we do, new groups and new people spring up to fight, instead of searching for ways to work together and to rebuild lives.

 

In our gospel reading this morning, Mary goes to the tomb and she is not going with expectant hope. She is going to bring spices and oil and to continue to prepare his body for burial.

You see, Jesus was laid in the tomb just before sunset and the beginning of the Sabbath Day and so the women did not have enough time to properly lay him to rest.

As the sun rose on this Easter morning, Mary Magdelene went to the tomb to mourn, to pray, and to say her good-byes.

She was someone who desperately loved Jesus. He was her Teacher and her Master. He offered her new life and a brand new beginning when he cleansed the demons from her life. And ever since that time, she had followed him faithfully. Then, in one fell swoop, everything that she had begun to put her trust into was taken away.

Her Lord was gone.

The disciples who followed him had scattered and those who remained were hiding out in fear of the Jewish authorities.

Mary had no one to turn to and nowhere to go.

The only thing she knew to do was go to that tomb and rehearse a ritual practiced by Jewish women for centuries. She would go to the tomb to honor Jesus and to mourn for him properly.

 

But as our scriptures this morning remind us, when she arrived, everything was in disarray!

The stone was rolled back and her Master was nowhere to be found!

His body was gone!

Desperately, she ran to the house of one of the disciples for she knew that some of them would be there…

They have taken away his body! She cried out….

They have taken him and I don’t know where they have laid him!

Two of the disciples, run back to the tomb with her and find her story to be true. They enter and find the burial clothes there also, neatly folded and placed on the stone. They know that something has happened… but none of them really knows what it means.

 

Mary, in the midst of all of her desperation and mourning saw Jesus standing before her but did not recognize him. She couldn’t see the promise that was right before her eyes!

Jesus even called out to her, trying to scatter her fear and her gloom:

 “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

As Mary stood in that garden weeping out of desperation she heard her Master call her voice. One moment of startling fear and overwhelming joy – a moment of holy awe – as the significance of what is seen – and what is unseen comes crashing in.

 

And Christ is calling out to us all the time, every day.

He asks us constantly what we are weeping for.

He longs to wipe away the tears from our eyes.

Jesus is Risen. Death could not hold him.

And if it cannot hold him, it cannot hold us.

All that Jesus said about life and death

all that was understood only as idea – as a concept – as a vision

is made real in that empty tomb and in that encounter in the garden.

 

The disciples and the women heard Jesus talk SO MANY TIMES about his death and resurrection and it just never sunk in.

They couldn’t understand the promise because they never believed it would happen.

So when Jesus shared his final meal with them on Thursday night they let him down and failed to remain faithful.

And when Christ was crucified on Friday afternoon, they were paralyzed by their unbelief and forgot the promises he made to them.

They couldn’t see past their own pain and fear and gloom to remember the promise!

The ancient promises from Isaiah:

“No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”

 

And he wants us to see him, to recognize him as the Jesus who is alive – the Jesus who is risen – the Jesus who has the power to bring that new creation to bear on our lives.

But like Mary, our hearts are often so slow to believe, to trust, and to accept he is standing before us.

There are so many things in our lives that we could feel hopeless about:

Loved ones who die too young,

People who work away their lives for a wage that won’t pay the rent,

Hungry families… including the 55,000 people in Des Moines who don’t have enough food on their tables,

But the power of the Easter resurrection didn’t just bring Christ to life.

The power of the Easter resurrection took a rag tag bunch of disciples who barely knew their left from their right as far as following Jesus was concerned…. And turned them into apostles.

It turned these doubting, stammering, disobedient fools into the leaders of a movement that would transform the world!

When Christ rose from the dead, the Body of Christ that is the church was brought to life – a community was formed that would love and cherish and carry on the mission and the ministry of Christ!

Each and every single one of us is a living testimony to the power that Christ’s resurrection had on our world.

Each one of us is who we are today and is in this place this morning because those first disciples experienced the risen Christ.

And because that experienced so radically changed their lives that they had to tell others.

 

So what is this Easter morn?

It is God’s promise of a new day

It is God’s promise of a new life

It is God’s promise of a new world

coming to pass in our midst.

 Jesus is risen. Death could not hold him. And it will not hold us either.

 

Wherever in your heart there is weeping, Christ promises to turn your tears into laughter.

Jesus is risen! Death could not hold him!

And the forces that tear us apart in this world will not defeat him either!

Christ has risen!

And we… as the body of Christ, in this time and in this place… are called to continually live our lives as a beacon of that promise!

We are called to visit the sick and those who mourn and pray for healing in this life or the next.  

We are called to work for those who are struggling and help to create a better way.

We are called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

We are called to welcome the stranger and the outcast, the person who is not like you: 

whether that means they were born here or not,

an NRA member or fighting to limit guns,

someone who wants sidewalks in their community or doesn’t,

whatever the color of their skin or whomever they love. 

 

You and I… because of the reality of what we experience this morning… are called to go forth and scatter the forces of fear and gloom in the world.

We are to find small ways to live out and practice the resurrection power in our world today.

Christ is risen!

Let us crown him the lord of Life, the Lord of Peace and the Lord of Love

and may we believe in his power to truly transform our lives.

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.

 

Sitting REALLY close #NaBloPoMo

Yesterday morning in worship, I had the opportunity to sit in the pews at the first church I served. While I had a part to play, I also got to sit back and worship with the people.

A toddler was next to me and at one point, he leaned in really close, and propped up against me. He sat there for some time, flipping through the hymnal upside down, completely unaware of the fact I was a total stranger to him. The lack of boundaries spoke to a sense of safety and comfort in the walls of the building we were celebrating.

This morning, I was on a flight and the entire time, my leg and arm and side touched the person next to me. Seats keep getting smaller and we keep getting bigger, after all. Perhaps it is the assumed loss of personal space on a flight that allows one to sit, so utterly close, and not be uncomfortable.

But I am also aware that there is something profoundly human about touch. It is real connection. You cannot ignore the other exists when you are touching.

At a meeting on Saturday, we expressed the prayers of our hearts as we remembered our baptism. Each had the opportunity to come to the font, touch the water and speak.

Yet, I also recognize now, a loss of an opportunity to touch another’s head or hand in the process.

Some of our prayers were so personal and deep that we needed to touch one another to offer comfort, strength, hope, solidarity. Unprompted, we neglected to do so.

How can we share such physical proximity with strangers and not do so with those with whom we are treading this journey of faith?

I found myself fighting an urge to get up and embrace a friend as she prayed, unsure of why I refrained. Our vulnerability in those moments begged for touch, for human connection. When I finally did so, rushing towards her, pulling her in my arms, even if for a brief moment, I felt like even though things in this world are utterly broken, all shall be well. Not in a pie-in-the sky naïve way, but in the hope and coherence that allows us to take one step forward.

Today, I gather with colleagues to talk about the role of religion in public health. Our bodies, physical touch, acknowledging the dignity of another person have to play a role.

Hold someone’s hand today. Touch their shoulder. Make eye contact. BE the BODY if CHRIST to one another.

Confrontations

[Wild west whistle]

We know how the story goes.

High noon.

Hot dusty street.

People hiding on porches and behind closed windows.

Good Guy meets Bad Guy for a showdown.

10 paces.

And then the confrontation.

line-of-rocks-203x300

As simple and pure and black and white as those old westerns were…. The world we live in is a whole lot more complicated than that.

 

There are no clear lines marked out in the road to separate the good from the bad.

 

Here in the church, in this community, we are each a mix of good and bad, saints and sinners, well-intentioned folks who stumble sometimes.

We aren’t perfect.

And even if we were all perfect, we are unique individuals with different perspectives and opinions.

So there are bound to be disagreements.

Rev. Dr. Jill Sanders is a Field Outreach Minister in our conference. She has often reminded me that conflict is simply two ideas existing in the same space.

Let me repeat that: Conflict is two ideas existing in the same space.

Maybe the conflict is over what color the carpet should be.

Or the style of music.

Or who gets to sit in the back pew.

Whenever two or more people have two or more ideas, there will be conflict.

It’s not about who is good and who is bad, who is right and who is wrong…. It is just that we are different.

 

Now, in the rest of the world when we experience conflict, we often chose to leave a situation. We might quit a job when we disagree with a management style. We might end a relationship if we find that we are no longer interested in the same things. We quit shopping at a store or eating at a restaurant if we have a bad experience. We can unfriend someone on Facebook with the click of a button when they start posting stuff we disagree with.

In a world of choice and options, we don’t always have to resolve our differences.

 

rock personBut Jesus tells us today in Matthew’s gospel that this isn’t how we treat one another in the Kingdom of God. This isn’t how we behave in the church.

If someone in the church offends you or causes a problem for you – you are called to address it… directly… one on one with that person.

And this is for one simple reason.

There is not a good side and a bad side in the body of Christ.

And we simply cannot walk away from one another.

We… the church… are one body.

God has brought us all together to form one community in Christ. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 – we can’t say to another part of this body “I don’t need you.” And we can’t simply walk away from the church without hurting both ourselves and the community.

Imagine what this body of Christ would look like if every time we disagreed or were offended we picked up our rocks and stones and left? What would be left of the church? What would be left of the witness of Jesus Christ in the world?

As Jin Kim writes regarding this passage, “What makes us Christian is not whether or not we fight, disagree, or wound each other, but how we go about addressing and resolving these issues.” (Feasting on the Word)

Jesus makes it very simple for us. When someone offends you or sins against you or hurts your feelings, tell them!

Respect that person enough to go directly to them and tell them how you feel. Be honest with them. And do it with love.

That doesn’t seem so hard, does it?

 

And yet, how often do we do exactly the opposite of this.

We sulk.

We go and tell someone else about our problem so that we can get them on our side.

We gossip.

We are passive aggressive with each other.

Or even worse, we yell and preach and emotionally and verbally beat up on the person who has made a mistake.

And in the process, we bring one another down, we bring the community down, and we bring the body of Christ down with us.

 

Instead, we should look to how our Lord and Savior dealt with our sin. We should approach one another with the same kind of confrontational love of Jesus Christ.

Oh yes, because we have offended Jesus with our action and our inaction.

We have sinned against God.

We aren’t perfect… remember?

And yet God doesn’t talk behind our backs or gossip or turn others against us.

No, God so loved you and me and this whole world that God came directly to us.

Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God-with-us.

Jesus came to you and me in order to show us how our lives had missed the mark and to invite us to get back on track.

Jesus came to invite us to become a part of his body, the church, to find our place… no matter how many times we messed up or no matter how bad we have been.

Jesus ate with the sinners and hung out with the prostitutes and invited the cheats and the swindles to follow him.

And when he came across someone who was straying from God’s will, he told them the truth.

To Peter, “Get behind me Satan.”

To the woman at the well, “You haven’t had just one husband, but many.”

To the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more.”

 

Today, we are kicking off our fall lineup of activities here at the church. Some of us have had busy summers, but here we are, ready to learn and grow, sing and play, teach and serve.

And some things are different than they have been in the past. Some of us are new. Some of us are trying something we never have before.

And in the midst of the excitement and chaos, we will experiment and have a whole lot of fun.

But occasionally, we’ll step on each other’s toes.

Sometimes we will make mistakes.

There will most definitely be conflict, of some kind or another.

But we are the body of Christ.

We are the people of God.

And we need each other.

We need your smiles and your hugs, your questions and your insights. We need your hands to help us wash dishes and your voices to fill our choir. And you need us, too. You need our love and our support.

We have promised to be there for one another. That’s what being the church is all about.

Not taking sides.

Not stirring up problems.

But in love and care, supporting and encouraging one another to be the best we all can be.

So when you have a problem, be honest about it. Go to the person who has upset you and tell them how you feel. Do it in love. Find a way to work out your differences.

And if you are someone who is approached by another person here, listen. Admit where you’ve made mistakes.

 

If that doesn’t work, then invite someone else to come along and help mediate and help you work through the issue.

If that doesn’t work… if all else fails, then our scripture says to treat that person like a Gentile and a tax collector.

Well, we know how Jesus treated those folks.  He loved them. He ate with them. He never stopped inviting them to follow.

 

Above all else, ask God to help you forgive one another and to mend the relationship.

God has the power to do just that. We know how Jesus gave his life to forgive us and make us his body. And the love of God and the grace of God can give us the strength to live together in unity and peace and we will be a stronger church BECAUSE of the conflict we experience.

 

Spirit of Surrender

In today’s scripture from the book of Acts, we are told of the precarious balance upon which the body of Christ rests.  Twice now, we have heard passages that tell us the believers sold everything they had and made sure there were no needs in their community.  Twice now, we have been told of their love and faithfulness and how everyone who joined this community of Christ was full of prayer and devotion.  We look through rose-colored glasses at the life of the early Christian community and wonder why we can’t have that kind of church, too.

But things were not as rosy as they seemed.

Living in community is dangerous business. A community that cares for the needs of others is a community where people can share their needs without being embarrassed with them.  A community that heals the sick is a community where people are not afraid to speak the truth about their own disease.  A community that prophetically stands with the underdog is a community where people sacrificially put their own lives on the line for the lives of others. 

When we hesitate, when we pull back, we do so because there are great risks involved in being vulnerable, open and honest in community.  We might have to take off our fake plastered on smiles and tell the truth about the problems in our lives.  We are afraid of our own tears, afraid of our own weakness, afraid that the community around us will turn their backs if they really knew what was going on.

Earlier this spring, we were just starting worship, when my grandmother walked in the door and sat down right over there.  The grandmother I no longer visit.  The grandmother who my parents are engaged in a legal struggle with.  And I couldn’t look her in the eye during worship.  I knew if I looked over at her, I would start to cry.  I knew I would lose it.  I avoided that third of the room the entire service, until it came to the time when in this particular service, because of my planning and God’s sense of humor, people came forward for a time of prayer.  There she was, standing right in front of me.  The tears started to roll, and for a minute I was a blubbering mess, but thankfully was able to pull myself together so that we could keep going and finish our service. 

I share that because I know how hard it is to bring our full selves into community.  I know what it means to hold back and not tell the full story.  I know how scary it is to be vulnerable in front of other Christians.  I know what it means to have the heart of Ananias and Sapphira.

In Acts chapter 5, we find the story of this couple who just couldn’t surrender it all to God.  They were inspired by the acts of sacrificial love and community we have been talking about for weeks… a community that shared everything in common without worrying about what belonged to whom – AND inspired by a man named Barnabas who sold a plot of land and laid the proceeds at the feet of the disciples. 

Our verses this morning are a continuation of that story, because immediately following his sacrificial act, Ananias and Sapphira decide to do the same… sort of.  They, too, sell a plot of land and bring the proceeds from the sale to the disciples… except they lie about how much they sold it for and keep some of it back for themselves. 

In the midst of a community where all are of one heart and mind… in the midst of a community where everyone cares for everyone else and no one has need… in the midst of a community – united by the Holy Spirit – where no one says “that’s mine, you can’t have it,” Ananias and Sapphira hold back.  They embezzle money from the sale and hide it for themselves. They in essence, reject the community, reject the Holy Spirit, and seek to provide for their own welfare.

Ananias and Sapphira were telling the church – it’s nice what ya’ll are doing, and we want to help, but we’re not going to become beholden to you.  We’re going to stand over here on the sidelines and get praise for our giving but we sure as hell are not going to let you take care of us. We can take care of ourselves just fine, thank you very much.

The body of Christ requires every person… every member… to fully participate.  None of us is more important than another.  Each of us has something someone else needs and each of us has something that we need to receive from this body.  An eye can’t see without a brain to process the information.  A hand can’t reach out to help without an arm to support and extend.  A stomach is pretty worthless without a mouth to bring it food.

For our physical bodies to work, we need to have interdependent systems.  Each one giving and receiving. Each one playing its part in the whole. 

And for this body of Christ to work, we, too, require interdependence.  We can’t hold back.  We need to not only do our part and give, but also allow others to do theirs.  If we are sick, we need to say something so that those with the gift of healing can pray for us.  If we are in need, we need to bring that to the body so that those with the gift of generosity can support us.  The Holy Spirit has formed this unique body of Christ so that among us we might not only be of one heart and mind, but through us no one has to be alone or in need.

And that “no one” includes us.

I used to think that the greatest sin of Ananias and Sapphira was the fact that they lied to God and the community about how much money they had sold their land for. 

But the more I put this story into the context of this community of believers who relied upon a spirit of trust and vulnerability and risk in order to be united, I realized that their sin wasn’t so much that they lied, or stole the money, but that they held back. 

We are asked to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.  We are to become “living sacrifices.”  Jesus Christ died for us and he wants our whole selves in return. 

And here come two people who want to be a part of the community and want to walk with Jesus, but who don’t want to dive all the way in.  They pretend that they do – they want the prestige, they want to be a part of this awesome new movement, but they just are not ready to commit ALL THE WAY. 

And you know what is really sad – they don’t have to.  They could simply have said that.  They could have been up front with Peter and said “Hey, we want to support the church and see what you guys are doing and maybe someday we’ll be at the point where we can do what Barnabas has done and really place ourselves in community.” 

Peter even reminds Ananias that the land was his to do with as he pleased and he didn’t have to sell it and he didn’t have to give it to the church… but when they did so, and when they lied and pretended to really surrender themselves, when they hid who they were, they were actually putting the whole community in danger. They were acting directly against the Holy Spirit and the unity it brought to the church.

Living just a few miles away from the Amana Colonies, we are aware that communal living is tough.  To really trust and rely upon one another, to throw in your lot with others, is not easy.  Those kinds of communities do not last for a long time precisely because the temptation to hold back, the temptation to disrupt the tenuous balance of community is so strong. 

In their act of holding back, of refusing to fully give in, in their lack of surrender… Ananias and Sapphira let a Spirit of Discord into the body of Christ.  They denied the unity and power of the Holy Spirit.  They said with their actions, “it’s okay God, I’ll take care of myself.”

And God’s response… well – this is the difficult part of the story.  First, Ananias and the Sapphira fall dead.

I find this so troubling because I sometimes hold back, too.

We don’t always let God have our hearts and minds and soul.  We are timid with our faith.  We surrender some… but not all.

This passage makes me uncomfortable, because I realize that I’m really no different than Ananias and Sapphira… what on earth prevents God for striking me dead, right here and right now for holding back, myself?

Rev. Mark Vergruggen asks the question: ” So why aren’t we punished with a death sentence? The short answer is the grace of God. Psalm 103:10 says that the Lord “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” That’s grace. Grace is not something we can demand from the Lord. It’s not something we can earn.

What we learn in the story of Ananias and Sapphira is that we still worship a holy, awesome, and fearful Lord.  In a world full of grace, we do not simply have a free pass to act however we want.  God is still righteous and just and has every right to punish sinners by death or other means. 

We are tempted to simply believe that grace covers all and to run through this life as if our actions do not matter.  We are tempted to rest in the love of God and not consider what the consequences of our sin might be.  And yet those consequences are real.  Other people are really hurt in the process… communities and families can be destroyed… and when we deliberately sin, we are saying to God – I don’t want you or need you… I can do this myself. 

Sin is turning our backs to God.  Christ demands all and we give some.  We hold back and don’t fully let the Holy Spirit build up this Body of Christ.  We refuse to surrender and therefore we deny the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts, this church, and the world around us. 

We might not be struck dead here in this place at this moment, but what do we stop from growing and living and thriving by our blatant denial of the Holy Spirit?

This path of Christian faith is not easy.  While the book of Acts has begun with all sorts of joyous accounts of healing and transformation and triumph over the powers of evil, these passages remind us that discipleship is hard.  It is a warning to those who are considering this faith:  think twice.  Think about the price you are being called to pay.  Think about what is being demanded of you.  But also think about the joy and the possibility and the abundant life that awaits if you are willing to let go of what you think you need to embrace what God knows you need. 

Christ wants to build a church in our midst… a community of people who depend on one another but most importantly who depend on God.  Are you willing to let go?  Are you willing to dive in?  Are you willing to let the Holy Spirit transform us into the body of Christ?  Or are you going to hold back?

truth and repentance #gc2012

Last night, our General Conference participated in an act of repentance toward healing relationships with Indigenous Peoples.  I’m not entirely sure what I expected from the service of worship, but it was more somber and prophetic than I had imagined.  There was less imagery and pageantry and more thoughtfulness and truth-telling. And the language used was much more radical than I had expected.

As people of this world, we have perpetuated crimes against our brothers and sisters.  We have taken land, forced our perspectives, and destroyed cultures.  We have not only committed sins of omission for not helping, but we have actively resisted the peace process and we have have gone into places as a violent force. We heard stories about the role of  Methodists in slaughter in the Phillippines, in the Sand Creek Massacre, in the Trail of Tears, in Africa, in Norway, in places all across this globe where we have done damage in the name of Jesus Christ for our own personal and corporate benefit.

It was hard to hear.  It was hard to relive.  It was hard to dream that reconciliation is ever even possible, that damage could be reversed, that wounds could be healed.

And it was a powerful witness by our leadership that this was not a time OF reconciliation.  This is merely the first step.  We have to know what we have done and we have to feel pain about it.  That pain leads us to repentance.  That pain leads us to weep at what we have done. 

In the service of worship, there were not celebrations or even folks there who we could apologize to.  Rev. Tinker made it very clear that others are not at the table because we cannot just say we are sorry and move on.  We are not at a point of reconciliation yet… but he is walking with us because he knows how difficult it is to repent and he is walking beside us in the process.  That point was driven home again and again and it was important to hear. 

Our call now is to be in repentance.  To be continually repentant.  To take a step forward every day. To work for harmony and balance in all that we do. 

One step forward. 

May we not take two steps back…

A global church #gc2012

This Sunday, the African Ministry from St. Mark’s UMC came and joined our congregation for worship.  Well, they didn’t just join us… they led us.  Pastor Dieudonne preached, the choir sang, the little boys danced, and it was an exciting, uplifting time of worship. 

One of the things that really stuck with me was that Pastor Dieudonne kept reminding us that God is doing us a favor in worship… meaning that God is blessing us right now by allowing us to be here in this place.  And it truly was a blessing to gather with brothers and sisters from around the globe and to remember what we are about and WHO we are about. 

My congregation was full that morning – not only with members of my church and our brothers and sisters from Cedar Rapids, but also from other churches in our community who wanted to come and worship with us.  So we were not only global, but ecumenical, and all different ages were a part of our celebration, too!
For three hours, we were a living embodiment of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic church… the body of Christ, itself.  It was awesome.

And it got me very excited because this morning, I’m in Tampa.  And delegates from every state and countries from all across this globe are gathering.  And as we worship we will remember that we truly are a global church. We are a church that has listened to the command of Jesus Christ to make disciples of all nations… at least we are trying to do so.

So far, I’ve visited with folks from Michigan, Ohio, Alabama, Boston, Puerto Rico, Illinois, Korea, and the Phillippeans. (Yes, I know I spelled that wrong… my brain keeps wanting to type Philippians)

But on the plane yesterday, I was also reminded that our global church has some work to do.  We do not truly share our standards across the globe.  We will make a lot of decisions these next two weeks that will only affect the United Methodist Church in the United States.  We will employ practices that are very “American.”  Our denomination does not represent the diversity of the very places that we live in, much less the world.  There is work to do!!!

For the next two weeks, I hope and pray that we might not only become empowered to truly be a global church, but to listen to our brothers and sisters, to speak out of the fullness of our hearts, and to be willing to change and expand and grow if that means welcoming someone else at the table and into the Body of Christ… or maybe even being willing to get up from our table and go to join someone else in creating the body of Christ where they are!!!

Confessions before General Conference

In the past few weeks, between holy week services and fundraiser dinners and youth group and church meetings and the normal day to day business of pastoring, I’ve been trying to get a handle on the general conference legislation.

It is actually difficult to try to digest it all.  There are 1400+ pages in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate.  There are different proposals about the same items.  There are nuances.  There are huge, crazy, dramatic statements.

And my blood pressure has been rising. 

I have been focusing much of my effort on the materials related to restructuring and changes to the understanding of ministry. Which means that I put off the section on church and society.  In part I was afraid to look.  But I did.  Monday night, I dug deep in those two sections and realized why I was so afraid to even look. 

One of the reasons that I am United Methodist is because we have such a rich heritage of taking progressive stances in areas of war, poverty, work, and relationships.  And for the first time, as I read through legislation, I began to worry that we might take huge steps back this year in our areas of social witness.  Now, I have very little historical perspective under my belt.  This is my first General Conference, my first rodeo, so to speak, and so perhaps these are issues that have come and gone before.  Maybe there are always people making waves and trying to take us back to the way things were before.

But I do not have that history.  And my shackles started to raise.  I found myself wanting to yell at the pages and the proposals.  I began to see familiar names repeated… legislation that would roll back some stances on worker’s rights, the death penalty, our positions on war and peace, and they were coming from the same few people. 

Confession time:  I started to feel bad thoughts towards those people.  Until I realized that they were merely the secretaries of the conferences that those pieces of legislation were arising from.  And then I really felt bad. 

If we are not even at conference yet, and I’m feeling this defensive, territorial, angst filled… God help us all. 

I closed my files.  I took a deep breath.  And I prayed for forgiveness.

In this particular General Conference, I get to travel on behalf of my conference as a reserve delegate.  And this means that while I will not be voting on every issue, I will be in the midst of it all. And my prayer is that I can help remind us of the spirit of unity that brings us together as disciples of Jesus Christ.  I want to surround my delegates with prayer and support. I want to be a calm, non-anxious presence for them and for all who gather.  I want to breathe deeply and remember that this is the Body of Christ in action.  I want to see the best in every person, hear their best intentions, and prayerfully discern together.  I am going to lay aside my own anxiety, my own agendas, my own desires and truly hope that God will speak through us. 

My friend, Anna Blaedel, wrote on facebook today:  “holding the pilgrims making their way to Tampa in prayer… for courage… grounding… webs of care… for surprising in-breaking of Justice and Joy”

Amen, Anna. 

Instead of expecting the worst, I’m looking for God.  I’m looking for where God surprises us, and breaks in to the ordinary time and the ordinary practices of debate and decision to bring holy unity and powerful witness.  I’m looking for joy and courage and stories of resurrection and hope. 

I repent of my divisiveness of spirit.  I repent of my anxiety.  And I pray that Christ would help us all remember – Peace.