Listen!

Format Image

About nine years ago, we were in the midst of one of those bitterly cold Januarys… not unlike the one we have experienced here!
The snow was falling and the temperature was below zero, but I bundled up that afternoon and went to the local nursing home where I held a monthly worship service.
I really enjoyed this time of worship there. While I rotated with other community pastors for this afternoon time of singing and preaching, I was one of the only pastors who also celebrated communion with these folks. Other denominations were more exclusive about who is welcome at the table. So it was always a joy to walk around the room and share the bread of life and cup of salvation with those dear folk.
On this particular cold day, we shared the same text that we are focusing on this morning. As we heard about how Jesus entered those waters of the Jordan, we remembered our own baptisms.
I carried around the circle a basin of water and invited each one to dip their fingers in and remember that God has loved them and called them each by name.
As I came to one woman, she had fallen asleep, as often happens with that group, and she was gently nudged awake by her neighbor.
Hopefully, you won’t have to nudge your neighbor awake this morning!
I kept working my way around the room and came to another woman who proclaimed with joy, “I was baptized in the Iowa River!”

There was another woman whose name was Grace and all throughout the service, she would interrupt to ask who was going to take her home.
At the end of worship, I had the chance to sit with her and chat and with the bitter cold outside, she kept asking who was going to come and get her and take her home.
She openly began to weep because she had been forgotten and no one was coming to take her home.
I reminded her gently that this was her home now…
this was where she belonged…
But more importantly… I reminded her that she was not alone.
In fact, she was loved.
She was a child of God, blessed by the Lord, and touching those waters a voice from heaven was pouring out upon her, reminding her that she was beloved.

As I listened to Grace’s insistence that she go home, I knew that dementia was speaking loud and clear… but there was something of all of us in her words, too.
Don’t we all want to go home?
Don’t we all want to experience the kind of belonging where we are called beloved?

I said earlier that I really enjoyed worshipping there at Rose Haven in Marengo… but there is another part of me that found those times and moments extraordinarily sad.
Some of the residents were vibrant and full of life, but others were barely functional in mind, body or spirit.
Many had been forgotten by their families.
This was not the highest quality facility in the county… and there were many things that made me pause when I thought about the care that I would desire for my own loved ones.

In that moment of worship, I had a chance to name each and every single one of those residents as beloved…
but I also found wondering how my own community of faith was living out our baptisms…
How did the call of God that poured out in our baptisms invite us to be present in the lives of these people in a different way?

You see, on the one hand, our baptism is an echo of the one Jesus experienced… so we proclaim that each and every single one of us is also called beloved by our God.
You are beloved.
You are beloved.
You are beloved.

But so often, we hear those words falling upon our own heads in our baptism and then we stop listening.
I am a beloved child of God, we hear in our hearts. Period. End of story.

But that is not how Mark tells this story.
No, his version of this tale is urgent and messy.
He starts with John the Baptist at the Jordan River, inviting people to come and be baptized as a sign that they were changing their lives.
Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell reminds us that, “the Jordan river was where people went to wash their dishes and their laundry. It’s where they went to bathe. In other words, the river flowed with [the] filth and muck of human life… this wasn’t water that washed clean, but rather water that acknowledges the muckiness of our communal lives.”
John knew that his baptisms were not the end of the story, but that someone was coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit.
And then Jesus shows up.
This guy from the dump of a town, Nazareth…
A nobody from nowhere…
And yet, the very presence of God in the world.
And as God-with-us, Immanuel, Jesus Christ, waded into those filthy waters of the Jordan River, the very heavens split open.
And in that moment, the ministry of Jesus begins.
The Spirit flows upon him like a dove, names him beloved, and then forces him into the wilderness.

“What are our baptisms for?” Ted Smith asks in his lectionary reflection (Feasting on the Word).
Baptism is not simply something that makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside.
It is also the reminder that God’s power, God’s spirit, God’s life has poured out upon us… the very heavens were torn open and now YOU are sent out, like Jesus, into the wilderness of this life.
Because not only are you beloved… but so is every other child of creation.
No matter where they have come from or what their life has been, they, too, are beloved by God.
Whether they are from a place that is beloved or a place that has been condemned by others, they, too, are beloved by God.
Whether they are surrounded by love or whether they are forgotten and alone, they, too, are beloved by God.
And in our baptisms, the power of heaven itself pours out on us and calls us into the world to act on the behalf of our brothers and sisters.
To create opportunities.
To open doors.
To work for justice.
To call one another to reconciliation and repentance.
To make God’s love real in this world through our worship, through our work, through our play.
It is the call that drove Martin Luther King, Jr. to proclaim the dream that one day the children of slaves and slave holders would be able to sit down and share a meal together.
The dream that children would not be judged by color of their skin or where they were born, but by the content of their character.
That little children of different races and abilities and backgrounds would be able to join hands with one another.
That we can work together, pray together, struggle together, stand up for freedom together.

Our baptism is the foundation of every single thing we do as a church. Because this is not my place of ministry, but ours.
You are a beloved child of God.
The heavens were tore open as you were baptized and the Holy Spirit sends you out into the world to share the life you have found here with others.
On this day, let us shout with joy for the presence of God is in this place, leading us, calling us, shoving us out into world and reminding us with gentle words that every person we meet is a beloved child of God.
Amen.

Rise Up!

Format Image

As we gather this morning to worship, we are looking backwards towards these strange individuals who saw a star in a sky and who let it take them to a manger in Bethlehem.
They heard God speaking through that heavenly vision… maybe not in so many words, but in a language and a message that they could understand.
They were stargazers, astronomers, people who identified with the light.
And when God spoke to them, they arose.

“Arise, shine, the light has come” we hear in Isaiah, chapter 60.
Arise! Shine!

These are not words spoken only in far off lands to far off people.
No, God is still speaking.
The message of old is still being heard throughout this world.
Even in the midst of times that seem dark and troubling, painful and chaotic… there is a still small voice that is whispering:
“Arise… shine…”
In his reflection on these texts, Rev. Dr. B. Kevin Smalls notes (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2018-worship-planning-series/january-7-2018-god-is-speaking/epiphany-baptism-of-the-lord-2018-preaching-notes) that sometimes the darkness in our lives is so thick that we don’t trust the things that resemble the light:
“Might be a trick… and tricks don’t always
Lead to a treat, so I retreat in the darkness,
Hoping, slightly, ever so lightly that
My deepest fears will submit to the changing
Of dark gears leading to light years of praise
And adoration.”

We like to believe that we are the people of the light, like the Magi, but there certainly are times that we refuse the light.
We hesitate to take a risk, a step of faith.
We are comfortable in the darkness, in what we know, in what is familiar.
As Smalls writes,
“Darkness is for lying down, laying down, hanging around, pretending to be asleep.”
And wow, it feels good to pretend to be asleep. Or to actually be asleep.
To close our eyes and ignore what is happening outside of our lives, our homes, our neighborhoods, our country.
And so we get complacent in the midst of a changing climate and culture.
Statistics that should make us quake with their injustice barely faze us.
• Black women in the United States are 243% more likely to experience maternal death than white women. (https://www.thecut.com/2017/12/black-women-are-3-times-more-likely-to-die-from-childbirth.html)
• Every day, 46 children and teens are shot in murders, assaults, suicides & suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, and police intervention (https://www.bradycampaign.org/key-gun-violence-statistics)
• 1 in 5 adults in the United States or 43.8 million people experience mental illness in a given year (https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers)

But usually, we are too nice and kind to want to have real conversations about racism or gun violence or mental health.
We hesitate to talk about these things in church or to ask how God might be speaking, calling, pushing, begging us (the people of God) to respond.
Maybe we are like the people of whom Isaiah was speaking…
You see if we turn just one chapter ahead in that prophetic text, these people felt like:
“justice is far from us and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! There is darkness… we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead.”
They were sitting back, retreating into the darkness, waiting for someone else to do something about it.
“Hoping, slightly, ever so lightly that
My deepest fears will submit to the changing
Of dark gears leading to light years of praise
And adoration.”

But then Isaiah comes along with the reminder that we can’t just sit back and wait for our fears to go away.
“Arise, shine, the light has come”
Maybe those old words aren’t quite seeping deep enough under our skin to be heard and felt.
Let me try it again from the Message translation:
“Get out of bed, Jerusalem! Wake Up! Put your face in the sunlight. God’s bright glory has risen for you!”
God’s glory has risen for you… So what on earth are YOU going to do about it?

The Magi in our scripture rose up… they got out of bed and they followed where God was leading them.
Over field and fountain, moor and mountain, that star in the sky was their guiding light until it took them to the place where the child was.
And when they arrived, they could barely contain themselves.
They felt an overwhelming kind of joy, the Gospel of Matthew tells us, that was born out of the sense that they were in the right place at the right time.
So they fell on their knees and worshiped that little child.

You and I… we are called to get out of bed, to shake off the sleep, to open our eyes and put our faces into the light and to hear where God is calling us to go.
As we start a new year, of ministry together, I have such a fire and energy in my heart.
I can see all sorts of amazing things that God has in store for us if we would simply put our face in the sunlight and head out into this world.
This church is so generous, so powerful, so filled with talent and compassion and love.
And as we have risen up and followed God’s leading – I know that many of you have experienced that immense joy that comes from being in the right place at the right time… from finding that place where your gifts have met some great need in this world.
We experienced that kind of joy in our gigantic Joppa garage sale.
We experience it as we laugh and serve together at CFUM.
We experience it when we dress up in ridiculous costumes to help our young people understand something in confirmation.
Or when our children teach us the nativity story on Christmas Eve.
And in all of these places, we are also discovering the joy of realizing that we are not alone!
There are all sorts of other people on this journey with us. People who have the same kinds of yearning and hopes and fears… and who are ready, with us, to rise up and to truly make a difference in this world for the sake of Jesus Christ!
They are sitting right here in the pews with you.
But they are also outside of these walls – our neighbors here in the community – who might have the same kinds of passion and see the same needs, but might not use the same faith words to describe it.

Maybe they are the Magi – the strangers, the Gentiles, the ones who we didn’t know, but who have been on this journey as well, to bring light and hope into the world.

God is speaking and leading all around us…. Giving us opportunities to bring hope and joy and light and love to all we meet. Together, let us rise up to seek them.

We Have Found the Messiah

Format Image

“I am not the Messiah”

That’s probably pretty obvious to all of you.  Of course, I’m not the Messiah.

But I wasn’t talking about me.

These were the words of John the Baptist as he started his ministry.

He was out there, talking to people about the coming Kingdom of God, preaching, inviting people to repent… well, actually, doing things that I typically do as a pastor.  

And people started to wonder about him.

Who are you?

Are you Elijah?

Are you a prophet?

Are you the Christ?

“I am not the Messiah” he answered.

“I’m just a voice, crying out in the wilderness, making the Lord’s path straight.”

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it might mean to make the Lord’s path straight and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really about making it easier for people to connect with God.

If you go back to the origins of the phrase from Isaiah, the Hebrew word used in this passage actually means to clear the land… to remove the rocks and roots and everything that gets in the way so that something new can be planted, so that something new can be done.

John was someone who was called to help clear out the obstacles that prevent people from experiencing God.  To clear the way for God’s salvation.

 

And so in our passage today, we hear about what happens when the Messiah does show up.  John is out there, doing his job and Jesus comes to be baptized… by him!    He has this amazing experience and vision and realizes that THIS is the Messiah.  THIS is the one they had been waiting for. 

But John’s job isn’t finished. 

 

No, John’s role is to keep pointing to Jesus, to keep making it easy for people to come and discover the Messiah for themselves.  

And so the next day, John is hanging out with two of his own disciples.  And when he sees Jesus walking by, he cries out:  “Look!  It’s the Lamb of God!  That’s him!  That’s the one I was telling you about!”    

And so these two start to follow Jesus.  And then they reach out and invite others to come and see.  “We have found the Messiah!” they tell their friends and neighbors and siblings.  “Come and see!”

 

In many ways, the beginnings of the church was a pyramid scheme.

You find one person, and that person finds two people, and then those two people each find two people, and then those two people… and before you know it, there are 2.2 billion followers of Jesus Christ in the world.   

 

The question I want to explore this morning is how you and I are called to keep this church going.  In many ways, our job is simple.  We have found the Messiah!  We don’t have to BE the Messiah.  We don’t have to save this world all by ourselves.  We don’t have to single handedly run this thing or be perfect or fulfill every obligation.  

We have found the Messiah.  We already have someone who can do that.

 

No, I think you and I have two jobs.  

 

First,  it is state loudly and clearly to all the world that “I am not the Messiah.”

Will you repeat that with me?  “I am not the Messiah”

Let’s say it like we really mean it: “ I AM NOT THE MESSIAH.”

That might seem like a strange exercise, but the truth is, we aren’t perfect.  We are totally unworthy of this calling.  We will make mistakes all the time.

In fact, we are only 15 days into this year and I have already made a bunch of small mistakes and a couple of big ones.  But I learn from them.  I keep going.  I try to grow and do better the next  time.  That is all that we can do. 

One of my own failings is that sometimes I set the bar too high.  And I’ve heard from some of you, who are overwhelmed that you don’t feel like you are good enough or can do enough for the church.  And I’ve heard from some of you that you are burnt out and tired and trying to do all that you can, but you simply can’t do any more.  

You know what?  None of us are the Messiah.

None of us are good enough to be here.  And we all have some kind of brokenness in our lives – be it a broken relationship or our bodies are broken and letting us down or we’ve broken promises to ourselves or others.  

We aren’t perfect.  And we aren’t supposed to be. We are not the Messiah.

 

But we ARE here today, because we think we have found the Messiah.  

I am part of the church, not because it’s a community of perfect people who never make mistakes or let one another down, but because I believe that this is a place where broken people find healing.  

I am part of the church because this is where I hear the stories of Jesus Christ and in the midst of the brokenness, I meet Jesus all the time.

Rachel Held Evans is a Christian writer and blogger and recent talked about why people come to church. And she said:

You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.

What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.  (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html?utm_term=.14f389a46dd4)

And so our second job is to make it easier for people to come and meet the Messiah. To clear the way.  To invite our friends and neighbors and siblings to join us on this journey.  To ask them to come and see what it is that we have found here:  life in the midst of death, healing in the midst of struggle, hope in our despair, forgiveness in our mistakes.

 

Our Administrative Council has been wrestling over the last few months with what we want to set as goals for this church in 2017.  And part of what we have been doing is looking forward as well to what God is calling us to as a church.

We’ve had a vision for the last four or five years to “Live a life, in Christ, of love, service, and prayer”   and part of what I have been pushing them, and us, to think about is so what?  

What is going to be different in this world because we have done so?  

 

You know, the meaning of “salvation” is “to heal.”  It is God’s deliverance of those in a situation of need, resulting in their restoration to wholeness.  

Taking what is broken and making it whole.  

That’s the business God is in.

What if that is the business we were called to be in?

We are not the Messiah, but we are here, because we have experienced God’s love, grace, and healing power.  

So what if we lived in such a way, if we loved in such a way, if we served in such a way, if we prayed in such a way that we could clear a path for others to come and find Jesus here, too.

 

In a few minutes, we are going to take a moment to remember our baptism.  We are going to remember that we have been saved and healed and are being made whole by the Lord Jesus Christ.    

And part of this rememberance is being honest about just how fall we have fallen short.  We have ALL fallen short.  None of us are perfect.  We are not the Messiah.

But we will also be invited to make anew some promises to God.  

Because, we might not be the Messiah, but we, the church, believe that God can use us and use our gifts to help make it easier for others to come and find Jesus, too.  

And so our covenant prayer simply places our lives in God’s hands.  It invites us to remember that we are not the Savior, but that we are willing to let God work in our lives this year.  

 

I am not the Messiah.

You are not the Messiah.

But we have found the Messiah.  

Thanks be to God.

 

J&MES: Faith & Action

Format Image

This month in worship, we are going to be focusing on the book of James in the New Testament.

It is all the way in the back of our bibles… just after Hebrews and right before a couple of shorter letters that lead into Revelation.

This book is actually a letter written by James to many churches.

And while I encourage you to read the whole letter… it’s only five chapters… we are going to be focusing on a just a few of James’s main points.

Sometimes, we are asked to embrace the both/ands of life… like faith & action.

Sometimes, James will show us how the &’s in our life… like blessing & cursing… are keeping us from being faithful.

 

Will you pray with me:

Gracious God, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts and minds be holy and pleasing to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

 

You must be doers of the word and not only hearers.

You must study the word and then put it into practice in your life.

 

Sometimes, James gets a bad rap. In fact, Martin Luther… the same guy that nailed up his demands on the door of the church and started the reformation… wanted to leave this letter out of his bible precisely because of this theme of faith & action.

We talk a lot about faith. We talk about how the only thing we have to do to receive God’s love is to believe. To trust. That faith alone matters. There is nothing we can DO to earn salvation.

The problem is not that James disagrees.

It is that James defines faith a little bit differently.

He doesn’t see it as an either/or. It’s not that we choose between faith and action to get to salvation.

It’s not even that it’s a two-step process. First, faith…. Then, works.

No, in James’s understanding they are the same thing. You simply can’t have one without the other.

Faith, when it is alive, can be seen in the works we do and in the ways we treat one another.

Put another way… actions are the fruit that grow on a healthy and living tree of faith.

 

I had a whole sermon in the works that basically took that point and ran with it…

But I realized yesterday that it was just me, saying a whole lot more than I needed to say on the topic.

 

James is pretty clear (and this is the Message translation):

Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

 

I was going to stand up here today and give you a whole lot of God-talk.

But we need some God-acts today.

We need to see where we have simply been looking on and praying and wishing people well without living out our faith.

 

And I’m thinking specifically about those who are naked and hungry and hurting today.

I’m thinking about the images of children being washed up on shore we saw this week.

I’m thinking about the millions of families who are fleeing from the violence in Syria.

According to Mercy Corps, more than 11 million people are displaced.

More than half of those who have been forced to flee their homes are under the age of 18.

4 million Syrians have registered or are awaiting registration with the United Nations High Commission of Refugees.

(Read more from Mercy Corps here)

And hundreds of thousands of them are risking a dangerous and costly trip across the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe. One man, Abu Jana, told the Guardian, “Right now Syrians consider themselves dead. Maybe not physically, but psychologically and socially [a Syrian] is a destroyed human being, he’s reached the point of death. So I don’t think that even if they decided to bomb migrant boats it would change people’s decision to go.”

 

We have seen how our own ancestors in faith, like Abraham, Lot, Jacob, Moses, and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees themselves… fleeing from persecution, famine, violence, and war.

And because of their experiences, we have been told over and over again in our scriptures about our call to care for immigrants and refugees.

Exodus 22: You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19: You shall not strip your vineyards bare… leave them for the poor and the alien.

Leviticus 24: The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Psalm 146: The Lord watches over the strangers…

Isaiah 16: Be a refuge to the outcasts of Moab.

Malachi 3: The messenger will bear witness against those who thrust aside the alien.

Each of these passages uses the Hebrew word nokri (nok-ree’), which can be foreigner, alien, or stranger…

And when we get to the New testament, we hear over and over again the call to reach out to the strangers among us.

Matthew 25: I was a stranger and you welcomed me

Romans 12: The Mark of the true Christian…. Extend hospitality to strangers…

 

Will we simply hear the words? Or will we live out our faith?

 

Yesterday, I read a blog post from a woman named Ann Voskamp and I decided to rewrite most of this sermon.

Because she reminded me that this is not a new problem… and that I have been sitting back and not doing much for a while now.

And I felt after reading her words like the person James was talking about in his letter… who hears the word of God but doesn’t do it. Who listens and then forgets.

And what I love about her post is I felt like I have something I could do.

Like there are things WE can do.

Ways for the church to be the church and live out our faith.

 

The first thing we can do is simply understand the problem and let it move you. Maybe some of the facts I have shared today, or the stories you have seen and heard this week are part of that for you.

 

Second, while we may not be able to physically make a journey to Syria or the Mediterranean to make a difference, we can advocate for our government to open the doors to more refugees who are seeking a life for themselves and their families.

You can write a letter to one of our congressional leaders.

You can sign a petition at whitehouse.gov for our country to resettle Syrian refugees here.

And after worship today, you can take a picture of yourself with this sign (#refugeeswelcome), post it on social media, and encourage others to share the word with our government as well. In fact, I encourage everyone who wants to do so, to come back up to the front after worship so we can take some pictures together.

 

Third, you can support the organizations that are on the front lines making a difference.

Doctors without Borders.

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station, which is a family foundation that has launched a private ship to rescue people at sea.

World Vision.

Our very own United Methodist Committee on Relief.

The list goes on and on and a number of different organizations are included in Ann’s blog. If you are so moved, choose one that inspires you and give financially to support their efforts.

 

The last thing that we can think about doing…. is to consider sponsoring a refugee family yourself.

I was amazed last winter as we celebrated the life of Evie Surface to learn about her efforts to help settle refugees from Vietnam here in the United States.

She was just one person, but she believed that Jesus meant it when he said that we were to love the widow and orphan and stranger among us.

Here in Des Moines, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants helps to resettle refugees and they have a wide range of opportunities for you to give of your time and energy to help folks who have sought home here in our community.

 

Hearing and Doing.

Faith and Action.

 

“It is the seamless unity of believing and doing” the Message translation of James tells us. (2:25-26)

 

We have heard the word this morning. A word of calling to reach out in love to the last and the lost and the least in this world.

And as that seed is planted in our hearts, may it bear fruit in the world.

Amen.

In the Night

Format Image

When I was in college, our chaplain encouraged us to go to this event called, “Exploration.”

It was a conference for young people who felt like they were hearing a call to ministry – a place to explore what that meant for their lives.

I don’t remember a single thing about the conference, except for one worship service.

Bishop Minerva Carcaño was preaching and before her message she read aloud for us the call of this young man we hear about today.

But even though Bishop Carcaño is from Texas, she doesn’t have a Texas drawl.  She is Latina.  So what sticks in my mind is her calling out, over and over again through the scripture and her message:

“Samuel! Samuel!” (heard phonetically as Sam-well!)

Hearing her say that name in such a different dialect helped me to hear the entire passage in a new way. It snuck into every corner of my mind.

The entire drive home, I thought about all of the people throughout my life who had been calling me to ministry: my pastor, a youth leader, teachers and fellow students. I realized that like Samuel, I thought I was simply hearing the voice of my pastor or my teacher.  I had never stopped to consider before that weekend that perhaps it wasn’t just a human voice after all…. Perhaps God was speaking to me!

So I love this call story. It helped me to hear my own calling into ministry in a difficult time of my life.

 

Today, as we continue our exploration of The Light in the Darkness, I notice as I read again this passage how God calls to us in the night, in our darkness, in our times of difficulty and asks us to serve, to lead, to go.

Samuel has been serving in the temple with Eli and that night is charged with the duty of keeping the lamps burning through the night in the part of the temple where the ark of the covenant was kept.

As we learned with the peace light from Bethlehem came through, it is not easy to keep a lamp burning over night. You worry the oil will go out or the wick will burn through.

So Samuel is sleeping there on his mat in the temple so that he can get up periodically and check on the lamp.

And there in the night… in the dark… God speaks to him.

We don’t know how old Samuel might be in this part of the story, a boy is all the scriptures say, but he has spent his entire life in the temple.  His mother Hannah was barren and prayed with all her might for a child.

“Lord of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy! Then I’ll give him to the Lord for his entire life. No razor will ever touch his head.” (1:11)

Her prayer was answered. So Hannah and her husband brought the child before God and left him in the care of Eli, the priest.

Out of her struggle and despair, God blessed them with not only Samuel, but five other children.

So Samuel grew up in the temple, under Eli’s care.

 

But I think too often we focus on how Samuel heard his call and forget to pay attention to what he was called TO.

 

In that time, Eli had two sons: Hophni and Phinehas, and they were the worst pastor’s kids you have ever met.

When people came to the temple to offer sacrifices, some of the meat was always given to the priests for their service. But the boys wouldn’t wait until the sacrifice was nearly over and then take their share, as was custom… but they would  grab a chunk of the choicest meat right off the fire. Today, it would be like if the pastor’s child stopped the offering plates as they were being passed, took out the largest bills they could find so they could go spend it as they pleased, and then allowed everything to proceed. And they did it with threat of violence.

Not only that, but they also sexually harassed the women who served at the temple.

And Eli didn’t stop them.

Oh, he said once or twice, “you probably shouldn’t do that,” but he never actually stopped them from doing so.

And God promised that this injustice would end. God promised to establish a new, trustworthy priest and that the sign of this prophecy would be the death of Hophni and Phineas on the same day.

So God waited until Samuel, who had dedicated his life to God’s service, was nearly ready.  And God called him in the night with the vision that the injustice and outrage of Eli’s household would end.

 

Can you imagine that?

 

Can you imagine growing up in a place with a vision of what was good and right and true, and yet every day having those in power and in leadership stomp all over those ideals?

 

That was life for Samuel. He knew the struggle of his mother. He knew he was meant to serve the Lord. And every day, he watched as Hophni and Phineas drove people away from the temple, and took advantage of them. He watched as Eli did nothing to stop it.

Yet somehow, he didn’t allow the example of his mentor and peers to turn him away from his path.

 

Can you imagine what it would be like to find yourself called to do something?

To proclaim a different future?

To speak light out of the darkness?

 

I have been inspired by the stories of young people around the world who are doing just that.

Julia Bluhm is a 16 year old dancer who saw young women around struggling with their image based on photoshopped and unrealistic images of what it meant to be a woman.  So she stood up to Seventeen magazine and asked them to commit to unaltered photographs and a diverse range of girls in their magazine. In 2012, the magazine committed to never change the size of a girl’s face or body and to show real girls n the magazine.

Malala Yousafzai  was just 11 when she started promoting education for girls in the Swat Valley. She was targeted for assassination and survived and continues to work to ensure all children have access to education and rights for children and young people. When asked by Jon Stewart about what gives her courage to keep going, she talks about how she decided early on to speak the truth, even in the face of someone who wants to hurt her:

If he [the Talib] comes, what would you do Malala? …If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there will be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others…with cruelty…you must fight others but through peace, through dialogue and through education…then I’ll tell him [the Talib] how important education is and that I even want education for your children as well… that’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.

 

Can you imagine proclaiming a different future? Speaking light out of darkness?

 

Today is Human Relations Day and we celebrate this Sunday in connection with Martin Luther King Jr. Day

To quote Dr. King: Every [one] must decide whether [they] will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.

So with Samuel, we choose to seek the light of service and sacrifice, rather than to simply stand by and do nothing when we witness wrongs.

The United Methodist Church is committed to standing with those who are on the margins and who are struggling.

Rev. I Maliik Safir, whose church works with those gripped by addiction in Little Rock, sums up the work of Human Relations Day by recalling Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan: “to meet the poor, the disadvantaged and the underserved at the places where others have robbed them and help them to recover from the wounds of social inequality.”

 

But I think this Sunday needs to be about more than putting a few dollars in the special offering envelope to support these important ministries.  You should do that, by the way… take out that envelope and give whatever you can to help us continue to serve in these places.

But God demands more of us than simply our financial resources.

I think this is also a day when we are called to look at the world around us and ask what is happening in our midst and how are we called to proclaim a different future.

In the dark of the night, where do you hear God calling you?

Has something kept you up at night, calling you to do something?

Have you felt the tug of your heartstrings around something you are reading in the news… issues affecting Des Moines and Iowa?

Is it around issues of incarceration?  Racial disparity?  Poverty? Mental health?

Are you called to advocate for others?

Speak truth to power?

Is there something at work or school that just doesn’t feel right?  Can you do something about it?

Sit beside someone who is struggling?

If you are… take it to the Lord. Cry out that you are ready to hear. You are listening. Ask what God wants you to do.

And feel free to come and talk with me or Pastor Todd if there is a place you think we, as the church, should be responding. Because together, we can work to let the light of Christ shine in the darkest parts of this world.

As Dr. King said:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Let us be people who are not afraid of the darkness.

Who go to the darkness.

Who listen in the darkness.

And who work to let the light shine.

 

 

 

Holy Ground

In our scripture video just now, the creators left off one snippet of a verse. Right at the very end, the Book of Romans reads:

Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. 20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. 21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.

Do good. Love. Feed the hungry.

What does piling burning coals of fire on someone’s head have to do with any of that?

If you are anything like my, you might have assumed this had something to do with sending someone to hell. That your actions of good will serve to highlight their deeds of evil and justice will eventually come to them.

And to tell you the truth, I’ve skipped over that verse, or ignored it, like the creators of the video did… for a long time. It doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the scripture.

But one day, I learned about what it really meant to pile burning coals of fire on someone’s head.

As we just explored with our children, we need fire to cook our food. We need fire to warm our houses. Fire can seal up wounds and provides light in the darkness.

In the ancient world, a fire meant the difference between life and death.

So what happens when your fire goes out?

Without resources to start a fire again, you would have to go begging with your fire bowl, and pray that someone would take pity on you, and share some burning coals from their own fire with you.

Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Pile burning coals upon even your enemies heads.

 

We have been called to serve. We have been challenged by Jesus Christ throughout the gospels to step out of our comfort zones and to give of ourselves to others. Even if they don’t look like us or talk like us… even if they are our enemies.

But this call doesn’t start with the Paul or the gospels…. It goes back to the beginning.

Moses was called… through fire… to help set the people free.

He was an ordinary guy, living in extraordinary times. He was the child of a slave. He was a murderer. He stuttered. And yet God got his attention through a burning bush and called him to serve.

God’s power transformed his weakness into strength. And through God’s power the people were freed.

Moses just had to show up.

Today, we are going to hear some stories of folks from this church, who were called to serve in Omaha this summer. I hope you will hear that they are ordinary folks, just like you. But they heard the tug on their heart to go, to serve, to feed the hungry, and build houses for those who were struggling. They heard the call to pile burning coals on a neighbor’s head… to help make sure they have everything they need to survive.

Along the way, they changed lives… but I hope you will also listen for how they were changed.

 

[sharing from members of our mission team]

 

The call to serve is not just for some people in the church. It is for all people. There are thousands of ways to serve.

This week, we have a special opportunity to serve and feed the hungry through Meals From the Heartland’s annual Hunger Fight. On Wednesday afternoon from 2-4 pm, we will be taking a group of 30 from the church to pack meals for those who are hungry.

We still need lots of volunteers, so if you can give a few hours to change lives… please sign up as you leave!

In two weeks, we are going to fill out our time and talents sheets. But before they show up in your bulletin, I pray that God would light a fire in your life. It might not be as dramatic as a burning bush, but wherever you feel your heart strangely warmed… wherever something out of the ordinary catches your attention… wherever you sense like you could make a difference (as ordinary as you might be)… listen.

Listen to that call to love, serve, and pray. Listen for where God is trying to get your attention.

My prayer is that as you offer yourself up for service, the fires of God’s love will transform this church, this community, and this world. And that God would transform your life, too.

Fire does that you know.

It takes what is ordinary and transforms it.

Finding Faith at the Lunch Table

If I think back to the first moment when faith sunk in deep into my life, it would be sitting around a lunch table at Simpson College. 

I wasn’t actually a college student then, but a sophomore in high school participating in our Youth Annual Conference.  It was hosted there at the college every year and it was an opportunity for youth leadership to be developed, new friendships to be made, and for us to explore faith in a totally different way.

I had been floating around the periphery of church for a while.  I went to Sunday School a few times as a youngster.  We went on Christmas Eve with my grandparents.  I had been to funerals and weddings.  And I had a number of friends who were Christian and often invited me along to church.  But their experiences of faith were not my own.  I wanted to know more about Jesus, but I never quite felt like I totally fit in with their traditions.  Looking back, they were more conservative and evangelical than where I eventually ended up, so perhaps early on I was sensing that wasn’t where I belonged. 

I remember vividly in the fall of my sophomore year, however, that my mom realized I had not yet been confirmed and we started going to church as a family.  Both sides of our family had been United Methodist, so we went to the biggest church we could find nearby.  And I was instantly hooked.  I joined the youth choir and the youth bells.  I started confirmation.  I went to youth group.  Because it was a large church, my social circle instantly expanded with students from other area high schools all becoming my new best friends.  It was a really amazing time. 

And that spring, we went to Youth Annual Conference.  We were a small group, even though it was a large church – just my mom; the youth pastor, Todd; another student and myself.  It was my first experience of holy conferencing and resolutions and voting on legistation.  It was my first experience of a praise band.  It was my first chance to really understand what it might mean to be United Methodist.

But it was a conversation around the lunch table that really got me hooked.  Others had been debating about whether or not we should listen to pop music, but Todd had just been rapping in the lunch line the whole “Fresh Prince of Bel Aire” song.  And when he finally joined in the conversation, he talked about how he had used a Judas Priest song in youth group one night.  This was many years ago, but I remember he talked about redeeming rather than rejecting culture.  He talked about asking better questions in the face of music and narratives and people we don’t on the surface agree with, finding out what makes them tick and what they are trying to say, so we can speak with them. And I knew, right then, that I could claim that kind of faith. 

In his book, Falling Upward, Richard Rohr talks about the two halves of our lives.  The time we spend creating the container for our lives (identity, security, relationships) and then the time we spend living in and discovering the life we have built for ourselves.  He writes that a type of spiritual awakening or falling apart happens in between the two of them…. when we realize we can’t just keep going on and building that container for ever, we actually have to start exploring what it means to live in this life we have created.

In the life of faith, one way this can be described is the move from law to grace.  In the first half of our lives, we need the rules of faith: don’t kill, love God, pray this way.  Rules lay the foundations… but the law itself is not the end.  Rohr quotes the Dalai Lama here: “Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.” Grace is helping the man get his oxen out of a hole on the sabbath.  Grace is releasing the adulteress and telling her to go and sin no more.  Grace is meeting people out of love rather than judgment. 

Because I came to my faith a little bit later in life, my religious experience was never steeped in law and judgment language.  That being said, I was one of those “good girls” who tried to always follow the rules.  I got straight A’s.  I never drank in high school, or smoked, or experimented in any way. I had enough formation in rule following in other aspects of my life.

In fact, I think in many ways, the church I discovered in places like that lunch table helped to break down and expand that initial container I had built for myself.  My experiences of Jesus and religion were the catalyst for some big changes in my life.  I moved from a desire to be a scientist/meterologist to a religion major.  I found myself moving towards people who were all about breaking the rules…. in both healthy and not so healthy ways.  But because my initial experiences of church were fairly traditional, I have maintained an ability to see and converse with all sorts of different faith languages. We don’t discard the containers we build in the first half, Rohr says, but they become the stuff we build from.

I am living in a very different sort of faith life than I ever imagined was possible sixteen years ago, when I sat down at that lunch table.  I have been an advocate and fundraiser for global health.  I have ministered in cities and small towns.  I’m about to become the senior pastor of a mid-sized church in the city. But as I continue to live into my relationship with God, the desire to get to know and understand someone or something where it is and start from there is what continues to drive me.

Prayers from under a blanket

Today’s prompt begins with verse 6 of the familiar Psalm 139 (NRSV): “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.”

Look up today. Let the high places catch your eye and your imagination. Be full of wonder as you pick up your pen to pray.

Holy God, we turned up the thermostat tonight.

Outside our walls the wind is rushing and swirling and stirring up everything in sight.

It is a cold and bitter wind.

It is the kind of that makes you want to hunker down and drop your head and close the hood of your coat in tighter.

It is a wind that humbles you.

Brings you to your knees.

It moves with such power that it goes through your very bones.

Goes through the bones of the house.

Gets to the core even if you are wrapped up tight.

Sometimes, God, you blow like that in my life.

Your Spirit moves so fiercely through me that I have to back away.

I want to curl up in a ball.

I want to become small so that you won’t notice me.

But you do.

You get to me.

You get into the depths of me.

But instead of a cold and bitter wind, it is a touch of fire, a spark of movement, a calling to go and to do.

And when I hunker down and try to resist, you get me anyways.

You fill me up so that I can’t take it anymore.

And brought low to my knees I have to respond.

Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.