Dear Church, Love God

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Dear Church,

I’m not often in the habit of writing letters. My apostle, Paul, loved to write letters and you have quite a few of those contained in the scriptures. I guess I did write seven letters some time ago – to seven different churches… but I digress…. This isn’t something I do a whole lot of.
Let me properly introduce myself. I am God.
The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
One in Three and Three in One.

I know that sometimes that gets confusing. I know its down right difficult to understand. I designed those brains of yours. I know it is not easy.
So, here is a simple word of advice… you can’t. I am not a puzzle to be solved or a question to be answered. I Am Who I Am. Sometimes that might feel to you like a mystery. And that is okay.

Here is what you do need to understand however:
The basic truth about me is love.
I love you and I want you to love me and I want you to love one another.

That’s it.

Seems simple enough, doesn’t it?
One of your modern day pastors put it well (Rev. Dr. James B. Lemler)… although I’m going to put it into my own words:
I love you enough to be the Creator who created the whole universe and every creature, I am the one who created you and gave you the very breath of life.
I love you enough to be the Redeemer who has saved and redeemed the world from sin, sorrow, and separation so that you might be joined to my love forever…
And… I love you enough to be the Spirit/Guiding God who is at work in you inspiring, strengthening, guiding, advocating, and illuminating you in your being.

Everything that you know of me… everything that you have experienced of me…. Is love.
Think about it.
The very act of creation was the love within me as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit bubbling over and outward.
Your very life is an expression of my love.
From the very beginning I have been calling your brothers and sisters, and now you, by name… beckoning you into a relationship with me.
From the beginning I created you to be in relationship with other people – loving them, caring for them. And I know this because I created you to be just like me… capable of loving and uniting yourself with others.

And through it all… no matter how many times you turned away and your love faltered and puttered out and got angry… I stayed there.
With the love of a father and a mother, I sometimes used harsh words. I sometimes used thorough punishment.
But just like you know that the time out or soap in the mouth or being grounded was meant out of love… so too, my actions have always been out of love for you.
I want you to hear this very plainly: I love you.
I know that you are messed up and make mistakes and that there are a thousand reasons I shouldn’t.
But guess what.
I. Love. You.
Just as you are. With all of your issues and flaws.
I created you. I breathed into you my life. And no matter how many nicks and scratches you have – You Are Mine. And I love you.

But there is something else you need to know.
Because I am the King of Kings and Lord of Lords…
The Alpha and the Omega…
The beginning and the end…
There is immense power to be found by following me.
It is the power that filled the skies with light and that split the Red Sea right in half
My power has smashed huge kingdoms and struck down famous kings (Ps 136, MSG)
And I have done these things because it is only the rule of my love in your lives that will truly bring life to you and to the world.

Not the rule of presidents.
Not the number of social media followers.
Not your ranking as a sports team.
Not the number of zeros in your bank account.
No, only when you let me be the ultimate authority in your life will you find joy and strength.
Only when you kneel before me will you truly be set free.

For I am the one who remembered you when you were humiliated.
I am the one who rescued you from your enemies.
I am the one who provided for your every need. (Ps 136 CEB)
I am the one who gave my very self to bring you life.

Don’t you remember what my apostle John told you?
I’m sure that you can even say it by heart…
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” NKJV

It’s true!
I loved you all so much that my very life was outpoured and given out and broken for you.
I didn’t go through all of that just to point a finger and tell you how awful you were… I did it to show my deep, abiding, steadfast, forever love for you.
I did it to put you back on the right paths, to give you a chance to start fresh. I did it because I loved you.
Because even though you are awesome just the way you are… I also love you too much to let you stay that way. (Anne Lamott)

The life I poured into your life… it wasn’t a one-time offer. Every day, every hour, every minute you can come to me… pray with me… talk with me… and my Spirit will encourage you and enfold you in my love and grace and help you to find peace in this world.
My love transforms. It changes lives. It is powerful.

And you know what, church?
I put that overwhelming power of love inside of you, because I want you to help me to spread it.
This great and awesome mystery of my love is not something reserved for the pastors… it is meant to be shared. This mystery is YOURS.
I want you to baptize others into this love.
I want you to welcome others into this love.
I want you to let this love to guide your life… every single day.

Do you remember my faithful friend, Paul, and all of those letters he wrote?
Well, he wrote and encouraged the Ephesians to tap into the great power of my love.
We were destined by the plan of God… called to be an honor to God’s glory… Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, this is the reason that I don’t stop giving thanks to God for you… (Ephesians 1:11, 12, 15 – CEB, ) But I do more than thank. I ask – ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory – to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally…. So you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers, oh the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him – endless energy, boundless strength! (Ephesians 1 – MSG)

Church!
You are my body in this world!
With your lips I speak!
With your hands I serve!
With your feet I move!
All I want to do is pour out my love upon the whole world and to gather it all up in that love.
And I created you to do that also.
I created you to share my life with others.
To love them when they don’t deserve it.
To set free the oppressed.
To bring food to the hungry.
To clothe the naked.
To love the world the way that I love you.

You are my answer to the brokenness and pain and violence and hatred of this world.
YOU!
I created you to share my steadfast love with all of creation.

Church – can you do that?
Let me rephrase the question… because I know you CAN do it… I gave you the power to do it.
Church – will you do that?

With love that will last forever, God.

Enough…

“Enough” by John van de Laar

Worry and stress are not hard for us, God,
We do them without thinking:

There is always the potential of threat
To our security,
Our comfort,
Our health,
Our relationships,
Our lives.
And we foolishly think that we could silence the fear
If we just had enough money,
Enough insurance,
Enough toys,
Enough stored away for a rainy day.
It’s never enough, though;
The voice of our fear will not be dismissed so easily.

But in the small, silent places within us is another voice;
One that beckons us into the foolishness of faith,
That points our gaze to the birds and the flowers,
That in unguarded moments, lets our muscles relax.
And our hearts lean into loved ones.;
In unexpected whispers we hear it,
Calling us to remember your promises,
Your grace,
Your faithfulness;
And, suddenly, we discover,
That it is enough.
Amen.

A week or two ago as some of us came into church on Sunday morning, you might have noticed a police car here at Immanuel.
Overnight, the garage in our yard was broken into and a snow blower and set of tools had been stolen. They weren’t fancy or terribly expensive, but they were ours. The garage door was damaged in the process and our amazing and excellent Trustees have been working since then to secure the garage, increase a bit of our security, and help keep us all safe.

The neighborhoods around our church are changing.
We have had quite a few shootings recently and we are not the only ones who have experienced break-ins. Whether it is cars, or garages, or houses, there has been an increase in crime.
Our neighborhood is also becoming more diverse. Economic inequality is growing. We see more people of color and more languages are spoken in our midst.
I hesitate to correlate these things, but they are all part of the fabric of what is changing around us.

I think about this reality as we start our new worship and stewardship series: Moving Out of Scare City.
Des Moines is a fantastic place to live and work and grow. It was named the #1 city for young professionals a few years ago.
Yet, we were also in the top 10 list of worst cities for African-Americans in the nation.
We have had a higher murder rate this year than we have in a long time.
More of the students in our schools are on free and reduced lunches.
One in five children in Polk County are hungry.
There are some things about our neighborhood and city that feel less safe and more scary.

I think about the poem by John van de Laar that I shared with you and our temptation to silence that fear through money, insurance, security, gadgets… by clinging ever more tightly to what we have.
When it feels like death, hunger, and the overwhelming struggles of the world loom all around us some of us think about moving out. We want to separate and wall ourselves off from the problems and focus on taking care of our own.
Some churches around us have done that.
They moved out to the suburbs.
Or their church no longer looks like the neighborhood it is situated in.
Their beautiful sanctuaries and people in fancy clothes who walk into them on Sunday mornings stand in stark contrast to the needs of the people that surround them.

In many ways, I think that was the impulse of the people we follow in Genesis this morning.
In chapter 10, we find a listing of all of the descendants of Noah as they developed into the nations of the earth. One of his great-grandsons, Nimrod, began his kingdom with Babel.
While we don’t know of the threats or dangers that surrounded them, the scripture tells us in verse 4 that they wanted to make a name for themselves.
The promise of God that came to Noah was that he and his sons would “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” They were meant to spread the knowledge and blessings of God across the planet.
But this group of descendants feared being scattered over the face of the earth. They feared falling apart.
The potential threat of losing their identity, their status, their place in the world caused them to foolishly throw themselves into building a tower.
They believed that if only the tower were strong enough…
Rich and famous enough…
High enough…
Nothing would threaten them.

But this is not God’s desire or intention for our lives.
God doesn’t want us to worry about getting more and more or protecting only ourselves.
In fact, God knows that if we live our lives that way it will never BE enough.
We will always be unsatisfied and fearful.

Instead, God calls them… and us… to turn our attention away from ourselves.
God tells them they don’t need a tower – they are already enough.

And then God confuses them, scatters them, diversifies them.
Like the bloom of a dandelion becomes a thousand seeds that drift away to far flung places on the wind, God caused the people of Babel to be scattered to the winds – speaking different languages, practicing different customs, becoming different people.
In whatever place they found themselves, they began to look like the ones they were surrounded with.
They allowed the blessings of that new place to transform them.

When we look out on our neighborhood, it is tempting to see the diversity as a threat that might cause us to lock the doors of our building even tighter.
We might turn inward and stop reaching out, stop making connections, stop inviting others to join us.
OR
We could listen to that still small voice that beckons us out into the neighborhood.
We could open our doors to those who are yearning to find a relationship with God.
We could reach out in love and grace to even those who would rob us.
We could find ways to allow ourselves to be transformed and blessed by people who don’t look like us.

When I think about the legacy that Immanuel is building, I don’t see us building up a monument to ourselves, but I think about the ways we have opened our doors to welcome others in.
Not only do we gather and collect food for our neighbors through DMARC, but our front lawn is an invitation for our neighbors to come and take a book or what they might need for an evening meal.
Our building is available for other groups like Bikers Against Child Abuse to gather and plan so they can do the important work of ministry they feel called to.
We realized we had more than enough space to allow a small group of African refugees to come in and worship with one another. Under Pastor Joshua’s leadership, they became a congregation that now has a building of their own!
Our space was empty for just over a year, when this summer, a new friend called the church, looking for a place to worship.
Her name is Mu and she is one of many folks from southeast Asia, Myanmar in particular, who have built a community here. They were looking for a place where they could worship in their own native tongues… but also where they could build relationships with others.
Over the last few months, we have gradually been exploring what this new relationship might look like. Our Fireside Room was sitting fairly empty and on Sunday mornings their group has been gathering in that space to worship and pray.
They don’t have a pastor, but a volunteer from another church has been teaching in Burmese. Mu then translates into another language, Karenni. Their children are joining our children in Wednesday night activities and children’s church and we are navigating multiple languages at once!
On this day when we celebrate World Communion Sunday, I remember that while the people of Babel sought to make a name for themselves, God calls us to share the divine love with all people and to celebrate and delight in the diversity and abundance of all we share this neighborhood with.
Young and old. Rich or poor. Black, Hispanic, Asian, White.
This is what church looks like.
This is what blessing looks like.
And as we join and share and break bread, we remember that we don’t have to fear that we will not have enough.
With God’s help, there is always enough.

Discerning What Matters Most

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This faith community began in the 1920s , as the neighborhood of Beaverdale was starting to rapidly grow.  Reverend Orf, the pastor of Crocker Hill UMC,  recognized the growing need for a church presence in this area and so area churches banded together for a committee, remodeled an old farmhouse, and on Easter Day, 1925 the first worship service was held at this location.  

As the community grew, the congregation made plans to build a church and the part of our building that is now the music room and offices was built in 1941.  A big part of the design at the time was to build a church structure that would be in keeping with the style of the homes being built all around us.  Classrooms were added in 1947 – part of Immanuel’s long legacy of education.   Our church also opened itself up to the community in this part of our history, housing some of the local elementary school classes in our Fellowship Hall as the schools got too large for the students of the day. 

As the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren church were merging in 1968 to form a new denomination – the United Methodist Church, this congregation was continuing to grow and completed work on this sanctuary.  In the 1960s, youth bell choirs were formed, with adult bells following a decade later – another part of the way music has been a rich part of our tradition.

In 1970s, we began a new ministry that reached out to shut ins with tape recordings of the worship services.  Members from Immanuel were instrumental in helping to pave the way for Vietnamese refugees to be welcomed into our state. 

And since that time, we have continued to grow in faith, we are known as a caring and mission focused community, and we have been willing to take leaps of faith to respond to the needs we recognized within the church and the community, like our expansion of Faith Hall which was completed in 2004.

 

The Apostle Paul wrote to the people of Philippi to encourage them in the faith and as a church.  And he reminds them that the God who began a good work in them would not abandon them, but would continue to help them to love and bear fruit for the gospel until that day when their work was finally complete. 

And the Philippians needed some encouragement.  While they had been on fire for God at the start, they also had experienced intense persecution because of their faith.  Many were wondering how they could continue to go in in the face of the opposition they were experiencing.  What should their church look like now?  How could they continue to serve when so many around them were dying and falling away? 

Paul’s letter called them to press on with rejoicing even in the midst of their difficulties and to return to God in a spirit of discernment, so they could discover a more excellent way and so they could be strengthened for whatever would come next… until that day when God fills the entire world with the love of Jesus Christ. 

 

There simply is no comparison between the struggles we experience today in the United States and the persecution experienced in places like Philippi and in other places that are hostile to the Christian faith today.   We gather in this room this morning without fear of death.  We can sing at the top of our lungs and share our faith and the only consequences for doing so might be some angry words or cold shoulders. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t face bumps in the road or our own kinds of trials.  That doesn’t mean that parts of our journey aren’t difficult. 

And so, we need encouragement in our faith sometimes, too.  And like the Philippians, we constantly find ourselves asking the question, what should our church look like now?  How do we continue to serve in the midst of declining membership or in the midst of a culture that cares less and less about what the church has to say?  What are we to do when the good news of the gospel seems to be falling on deaf ears? 

What is it that we are fighting for?  What kind of church are we going to invest in becoming for the future? 

 

I began our message this morning by remembering a few fragments of our past, because the practice of spiritual discernment about next steps always begins with looking to see what we can learn from where we have been.  And as I look at the history of who this church has been, I see that we began as a community of people who were willing to take risks and go to new places where we thought we might reach new people. 

This church began as a renovated old farmhouse – a house church – that welcomed people into a family.  But we didn’t just stay there.  As the needs of this community of faith continued to grow, we expanded and grew ourselves.  And we took care to continue to resemble the community around us – even thinking about making our physical structure look like the homes in the neighborhood.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Although I’m free of all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them.  I act like a Jew to the Jews, so I can recruit Jews… I act weak to the weak, so I can recruit the weak.  I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means.” (1 Cor. 9: 19-22)

So as we think today about what we might be called to next, I think its important to remember that we as a church were willing to take risks to meet new people and willing to adapt to the community as it changed around us so that the community might feel at home in our midst. 

 

One of the problems with looking backward to find the answer, however, is that we can get caught in analysis paralysis and stay there.  We can try to recreate exactly what we did before or keep researching and studying and waiting for exactly the right moment and we miss the opportunities that are right before us. 

In What Are We Fighting For, Bishop Bickerton reminds us that as a church, we simply can’t wait any longer.  He talks about the act of hitting a baseball and how difficult it is to time your swing just right.  While it is easier in slow pitch to be able to see what is coming at you, as the game goes faster and faster,  we often wait far too long to swing.    And Bishop Bickerton says that the church game is going faster and faster and changing more and more rapidly every day.  There are so many moving parts to a church and we need more technical expertise to reach people today.  We have to adapt and be nimble, and react more quickly to the ways our community and culture are changing, or we might find that we have waiting too long, we have missed the pitch, and our church is no longer relevant. 

All around us, there are pitches coming our way.  There are opportunities a plenty.  In fact, there are so many great ways that we could be in ministry today that it is tempting to try to do everything and toss out a whole bunch of new programs and activities like scattershot and see what works.  But that itself is exhausting.  Instead of scattershot, we need help to discern a clear focus.  And part of that discernment is asking who is the new community that God is calling us to take a risk and step out in faith to reach?  How can we be faithful to our heritage as a church, while also paying attention to where the Holy Spirit is leading us next? 

As an administrative council, we spent some time last fall in discernment looking at a number of the opportunities, realities of our surrounding community, and ways that we are particularly gifted to lead and serve.  We noticed things like that our surrounding neighborhood is now only 80% white, that we have more elementary schools in our community, and that over 1/3 of the families with children around us are now single parent families.  We also have more younger, couples moving into the homes of the neighborhood. 

How is God calling us to step out in faith and reach them for Christ? 

As we continue to discern, we start by connecting our passions and our gifts as a church with the ways we will choose to live in the midst of this place.  We can take the things that we value like music and education and being a caring community and we can carry them with us as we go outside of these walls to reach new people. 

But we also should be willing to test the things that we have always done and do them not just because they are what we like to do, but to ask always if they are faithful to God’s will for our community.  Do our activities and our programs resemble God’s love?  Are they filled with the knowledge of our Lord?  Are we bearing the fruit of the gospel in what we do?  Are we doing them simply because they are easy, or are we rising up to meet the demands of call of Jesus Christ? 

 

Next week, Trevor will be preaching once again and he will help us think about a final part of our discernment… how do we know what really is the core of who we are as a church that will always be the same and will never change no matter how the world changes around us, and where are the places where we can be more nimble and flexible, so that we can continue to grow towards completion for the glory of God.    What are the things we should be willing to fight for, no matter what? 

 

Sermon on the Mount: Blessed

This morning, friends, you and I find ourselves in a season called “Ordinary Time”

That is the actual liturgical name for this time in the church year: Ordinary Time.

And so, last fall,  we decided to spend this Ordinary Time – this season between Christmas and Epiphany on the one side and Lent on the other to explore a sermon about ordinary things given to ordinary people.

Last week, we talked briefly about the calling of a few of the disciples – ordinary people, fishermen – and how they brought others along to follow Jesus. And they followed Jesus all throughout Galilee, where he taught in synagogues and proclaimed the Kingdom of God and healed people along the way.

And the crowds kept growing and people kept talking and inviting and bringing their friends and neighbors and siblings.

And Jesus looks around at all of those ordinary people who were following him that day – at the crowds of ordinary people – and goes up the mountain just like Moses and sits down to teach them.

 

In what we have come to know as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about the faith of ordinary people.  In the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7, we find Jesus using everyday, ordinary language to talk about how we should live out the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, about how we should treat each other, about how we should share this good news we are finding.  Over the course of these next few weeks, we might not always look at the sermon in the exact order Jesus did, but today we are going to start at the beginning.  

 

And Jesus starts with what we have come to know as the Beatitudes.  

A beatitude, a blessing, declares that certain people – based on their current circumstances, either are or will be blessed.   Eugene Boring writes in his commentary on Matthew that “they do not merely describe something that already is, but bring into being the reality they declare.” (NIB, Vol 8, p 177)  And these words are true not because of anything we have done to be in these circumstances, but because God is acting in the world, because Jesus has said it to be true.  In fact, these are not even virtues or characteristics, like the fruits of the spirit, that we are supposed to strive towards or embody, they simply name the reality of real people.

Today, I want to lead you into a bit of reflection.  I want to invite you, ordinary people, to find yourselves at the feet of Jesus hearing these words.  I want to invite you to close your eyes and imagine yourself hearing that sermon for the first time.  I want to invite you to ask where you are in this story.  (NLT translation + “Blessed are”)

 

Blessed are those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

Blessed are those who mourn,  for they will be comforted.

Blessed are those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,  for they will be satisfied.

Blessed are those who are merciful,  for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.

Blessed are those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

Blessed are you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. 12 Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.

Where are you in these blessings?  

Are you the poor?  Are you mouring?   

Are you the humble who are not only content with everything that you have but who are grateful for your abundance?

Are you someone who is hungering and thirsting for justice? Or the person who is showing mercy towards people who don’t deserve it?

Is your heart pure?  Are you working for peace?

Are you someone who is living out your faith in such a way that people in this world turn against you because of that faith?

Then blessed are you.  Blessed by God. 

 

The question is, how are those blessings conveyed?  How do we receive them?  

 

Eugene Boring writes that these are both future promises, but they are also the lived realities of those who participate in the community of Christ.  The mourning are comforted.  Justice is realized.  Those who seek peace find their place in the family of God.

 

And so we are invited not only to see ourselves as the ones who are poor or hungry for justice or mourning or merciful… as the people of God, as the Body of Christ, as the church that anticipates the Kingdom of God… we are also invited to see ourselves as ones who God uses to brings these blessings to others.  This is what discipleship looks like… this is what the Kingdom looks like.

 

And this is why as we near the end of Matthew’s gospel we find Jesus, seated on the heavenly throne, ushering in the Kingdom of God.  And he looks around at those crowds of people, those nations who are gathered once again at his feet.  He looks around for the people who have done ordinary acts of faith and love and care.  He looks around for the ones who have helped to usher in the Kingdom right here on earth.

Come, you that are blessed… for I was hungry and you fed me.  I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.  I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was naked and you clothed me.  I was sick and you cared for me, imprisoned and you visited me.

Church, this is our job.  Our job is to be people who share God’s blessing with the world.  Our job is to seek out those who are struggling and mourning, who are in pain and longing for justice.  And we are to remind them they are not alone.  We are to walk with them.  We are to stand with them.  We are to be the living embodiment of God’s will, a walking answer to the prayer that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  You and I, that is our job. 

 

This morning, are you yearning for a blessing? Are you stuck and struggling and seeking God?

Then the good news is you are surrounded by people of faith, who are called by God to help bring about the kingdom.   Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

Salt and Light

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Last week, I talked briefly about the root of the word, politics… how it refers to the city or the citizen… and how at its core, politics are the relations between people who live in a society.  As Christians who live in this society, we have unique sympathies that guide our engagement in this society.

But there is another reason why Christians shouldn’t shy away from politics.
It is because our very faith is political.
We serve a leader who will never be in the White House.
We claim citizenship in a Kingdom that includes this country… but is far bigger than this world.
We pledge our allegiance… as we affirm in the vows of baptism … to Jesus Christ, our Savior and promise to serve him as our Lord.
Those are political statements.
Men and women through the ages have died for believing those things… and yet, we believe them anyways.
When we become disciples, we choose to serve the Kingdom of God.
As disciples, we serve… we follow… the risen Lord.

So, what does it mean to be a disciple in today’s world?
It doesn’t matter if they are man-made problems like Aleppo, or natural disasters like Hurricane Matthew… the chaos of our climate today is overwhelming and part of us wants to run inside the safety of our homes and ignore it. But as disciples, we are called to love and serve this world.
How can we, the church, serve the Kingdom today?

This morning, we find our answer in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount.
In “The Message” translation, Eugene Peterson, starts off these verses with these words:
“Let me tell you why you are here…”
You see, this whole sermon is full of instructions for the people of God. It reminds us of the attitudes we are supposed to carry with us into the world. And it tells us what we are supposed to do – how we are supposed to live. These words of Jesus are so important we are going to take the first part of next year, in January and February and dive in deep to this message.
Today, we focus on a few verses that describe our witness to the world.

Whenever we see the word “serve” or “service” we often think about the good works we perform or the ways we give and distribute goods. We think of projects like Ingathering and school kits, Joppa, CFUM, all of those ways we use our hands and feet to make a difference.
But “to serve” also means “to be of use” and points to a specific purpose for being and belonging.
“Let me tell you why you are here…” Jesus says.
Let me tell you how you can serve me, how you can serve my Kingdom…
“You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth.”
We are the salt of the earth.

I know that some of us here can’t always have salt, because of dietary restrictions, and perhaps you know better than all the rest of us about how useful salt is!
When you sprinkle salt on watermelon or on tomatoes – the flavor of those fruits become brighter and more crisp! When salt is added to soup, it becomes rich and deep. When we sprinkle salt onto roasted vegetables, or French fries…. Mmmm…
Salt takes what is already there and it brings out the flavors. It helps us to taste what was hidden.
That is our job as disciples. We point to the hidden work of God in this world and bring it out. We are supposed to help the world see and taste and experience God – even though they can’t always see him.
And one of the ways that we can be the salt of the earth is by pointing to the good news and movement of God in the world… by lifting up stories of hope and life. Remembering those stories, pointing to those stories, telling those stories to our friends and our neighbors help us to remember that there is hope even in desperate situations. And they allows us to share the source of our hope – Jesus Christ.

On our “next step discipleship” handout for today… you’ll notice that the very first step, our exploring step… is that we simply notice, we are aware of, the salty people in the world. We start to see that God is moving through in our midst and we, too, want to join in.

And once we become aware… once our eyes are opened, then we can go out and serve.

The thing about salt is that it does no good sitting on the shelf. You have to use it! Just as salt has to make contact with food to be effective, so as people of faith, we need to be out in the world, helping folks, praying with them, listening to their stories.

And the next step you can take as a disciple is to go out there and try it out. Hear that call to serve and try seasoning something!

This church has so many different ways that you can dip your toes in to a world of service. You can prepare casseroles for Under-The-Bridge. You can go to CFUM and dish out supper one night. You can join with others and package meals. You can bring in canned food items for DMARC. Next week, you can give towards the Ingathering kits which will be sent across this world to help those in need…
But your salty life isn’t confined to the church… It also happens in your own backyard.

Every time you attend a youth sporting event or concert…
Every time you mow your neighbor’s lawn…
Every time you sit down and have coffee with someone, you can be, bringing out the God-flavor in this community.

You can let people know they are important, that they matter, and that you – and God – are there.

Jesus continues by putting this message another way – you are here in this world to be light – to help the world see God.
This faith of ours is not a secret to be kept locked up – it’s meant to be made public – it’s meant to shine out wide and far.
And friends, we all shine in different ways.
Some of us are a strand of Christmas lights twinkling in the cold darkness.
Some of us are campfires that provide warmth and light and food.
Some of us are flashlights – portable, willing to go anywhere to be of service at any time.
And as we think about the next steps in our discipleship, part of what we need to do as we serve God is figure out what kind of servant we are called to be. What are the unique gifts that God has placed in my life? What are the things I can offer to this world?
Do you have a passion for food? Or art? Are you able to teach? Or called to lead? Are you an encourager? Or do you have a knack for understanding technology?
Our Lord and Savior does not want or need people who all fit the same mold. We are each here, called into community, because it is our unique gifts, fitting together, that create a light that shines far beyond what any one of us could do.

And that light is meant not for the church… but for the world.
We can’t keep the good news hidden away. We can’t keep the transforming power of God under a basket. We have to let it shine.
As disciples, we are ambassadors for God everywhere we go. The clothes you wear, the place you choose to visit and live in, the work you do, the protests you join, the types of people you eat with in public… all of these things can tell the world something about you… AND the God who you claim to follow.

The question is… what message is your light sending to the world?

“Let me tell you why you are here…”
Every day you are a living witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ… whether you want to be or not!
So, disciples… citizens of the Kingdom of God… choose today to serve Jesus.
Choose this week to go into the world loving, praying, and serving.
Choose this week to be the salt and light that will open the eyes and the heart of someone to God for the first time.
Be that salty, light-filled person that will cause someone else to say, “wow… I want to know more about why they do that.”
May we be salt. May we be light.
Amen.

Everyday, Ordinary Worship

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It’s Sunday morning.

According to the Pew Research Center, even though 77% of adults in Iowa claim the Christian faith, only 36% of those people commit to going to church worship at least once a week. 

Another 33% attend anywhere between twice a month to a few times a year.

If we are generous with our numbers, maybe half of Des Moines is not participating in a religious worship service this morning.

 

So what are your friends and neighbors doing? 

They’re sleeping in.  Or at softball games.  They are relaxing on the porch with the newspaper. Or at brunch at one of the many amazing restaurants in the city.  They are traveling back home after being away tailgating at a game yesterday. 

I see your wheels turning.  Those things sound amazing! Why didn’t I do those things?  Why didn’t we stay home today? 

 

I’m going to share with you a confession. 

When I stepped away from congregational ministry to lead Imagine No Malaria, I didn’t go to church every single Sunday. 

I traveled, preached, and led worship in churches on Sundays all across the state, but when I actually had the chance to be home, the temptation to actually be home and not go to worship was real. 

And here is something I discovered.  The more I stayed away, the easier it was to stay away. 

I felt less guilty about it, not more.  Honestly, I didn’t really even think about it.

But on those Sundays a couple times a month when I was back in a church, I realized how disconnected from God I had been.

 

Why do we worship?

Is it out of habit?  Obligation? 

Do we come on Sunday mornings to be fed and renewed?

Are we here to gain God’s favor? Or to hang out with those people who have the same beliefs as us?

 

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he addresses the divisions in the community and how focusing our attention on God transforms every aspect of our life. 

As the end of chapter 11 states in the Message translation:

Is there anyone around who can explain God?

Anyone smart enough to tell [God] what to do?

Anyone who has done [God] such a huge favor that God has to ask their advice?

Everything comes from [God];

Everything happens through [God];

Everything ends up in [God];

Always glory! Always praise!

Yes. Yes. Yes.  

If that is God… the beginning and end of everything… what does it mean to worship? 

It means, according to Paul, that we honor and praise God by putting our very lives into God’s hands… by discovering who God has created me to be and then by responding out of love.

Hear again our scripture for this morning from the Message translation

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what [God] wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

The time we spend in worship is about honoring God by being in relationship with God.   

And you know what… relationships take work.  They take time and energy.  It is hard to be in a relationship with someone you don’t spend any time with.  

When we gather to worship, we are saying that God is the focus of our attention, our energy, our time, our life.   

It is about living out the commandment to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. 

In worship, we encounter the living God and allow that encounter to shape everything else.  

 

Worship has nothing to do with you.  Worship isn’t about the songs you sing or the money you put in the offering plate.  It isn’t about your preferences or desires.  Worship reminds us that all of it… our time, our energy, our money, our voices… they aren’t ours to begin with.  Everything begins with God… everything ends with God… It all belongs to God already.

And the more time we spend with God in worship, the more we realize that worship is not about what we do for God: an obligation, a responsibility, a duty… but worship is about what God does for us. 

 

As Paul writes in this chapter of Romans, “the only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and what God does for us…  Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of [the body of Christ].”

Lisa Gungor, the singer/songwriter says – “It’s hard to truly worship and not be changed.  When we are connected with our Maker, we are pulled outside of our self; we begin to live for something more.  Love is the reaction to [encountering God in worship]” (http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/worship/features/25684-whats-the-point-of-worship)

And the opposite is true, too…  when we are disconnected from God… when we don’t worship, then we start to turn inward on ourselves and our world becomes much smaller.

When I chose not to spend time in worship, I found myself distracted by the world’s values and temptations.  There was even a time when I doubted my call… when I started to think that I could get a job doing something outside the church and just walk away and never look back.

I was forgetting what God had done for me.

How could I just walk away from that?  How on earth was that part of the great commandment to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength?

I wasn’t part of a community, a part of a worship experience that reminded me of who God was and who God created me to be.   

That’s what those people sitting next to you in the pew are for… to remind you.  To tell you the story again and again.  To hold that truth sacred, even if you forget it.

That’s what worship is about… It is rediscovering, over and over again, who God is and who God created us to be and responding to the good news of God’s love by being those people.  

 

Worship in its fullest sense is about far more than simply showing up for an hour on a particular day of the week.  

Worship is about taking those everyday, ordinary parts of our life… the sleeping, eating, going-to-work, walking- around life, and letting God have control of them. Letting God’s power fill them.  Letting God’s love shape them.  Every moment.  Of every day.  

 

All throughout this series on discipleship, we are recognizing that this journey of following of Jesus isn’t easy.  

We all start in different places… like the servants in the parable who each had a different set of talents.  

And the same is true of our worship experiences.  

I know this room has people who fall in that category of the 33% of Iowans who only come to worship once a month or a few times a year.  And I am so glad you are here today. 

I know this room has people has people who show up faithfully for church every Sunday, but who are simply going through the motions and don’t ever expect to really encounter God here.  

And there are people who not only show up, but bring with them the willingness to be transformed and changed through this time.

There are people in this room who not only worship on Sundays, but take time to be with God through worship and devotions in your homes and families.  

I’m so glad that all of you are here.

Wherever you are… whatever has brought you to this place… you have a chance to take the next step. 

You don’t have to go from attending church once a month to doing a daily devotion tomorrow.  God doesn’t expect that of you.  But God does invite you to take one more step.  To take one step closer.  To grow in your ability to love God, to serve God, to open your heart in prayer to God.   

And God would love for you to take just one more step deeper in your faith life.  To take the next step from wherever you are.  To let go of just a little bit more… because it’s all God’s anyways…  

Build the Church Again

It is the last Sunday of the fair.

The final Sunday of the Olympics.

The last Sunday before the school year starts for our children.

And the final Sunday of our Summer of the Prophets.

 

It might be hard to believe it, but this summer we’ve covered about 400 years of biblical history.  We’ve talked about, in one way or another, fifteen different prophets and their messages from God.  We have journeyed through Judah and Israel, Edom, Assyria, and Babylon.  We have watched the aftermath of a kingdom divided, watched their downfall and destruction.  We have wept with the exiles in Babylon and as they tried to make themselves at home in a foreign land.

 

Today, we get to celebrate that they finally returned home.

 

The Babylonians, you see, that great and mighty kingdom that conquered the world… well, if we remember from our  time in the book of Daniel, they aren’t the be all and end all of the story.  They, too, are conquered… by the Persians.  And the Persians dramatically re-write the story of the people of God.

Unlike many other kingdoms which forced their religion and perspectives on the peoples they defeated, Cyrus the Great of Persia greatly respected the diversity of all of the peoples of the kingdom.  Including their religions.  And so when the Babylonians were conquered, all of the kingdoms they had brought into their fold had the opportunity to return home, and rebuild their own cultures.

Cyrus, king of Persia, is the Messiah in Isaiah’s song of praise. 

Cyrus is the one in 2 Chronicles… a history of the people… that decrees “God, the God of the heavens, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has also assigned me to build him a Temple of worship at Jerusalem in Judah. All who belong to God’s people are urged to return—and may your God be with you! Move forward!” (36:23)

And so the people return home.  If you are curious about their journey and what they experienced as they finally arrived… the process and details of the rebuilding of the temple, I encourage you to check out the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in our scriptures.  Rather than being prophecies, these books are included with the books of Chronicles as a history and testimony of that time. 

 

Haggai, for his part, was called to speak God’s word in Jerusalem after the exiles all returned home.  Darius was the third king of the Persian empire… coming to power after Cyrus’s son failed in a complicated game of thrones.    What is important for our story, is that Darius continued the policies of the previous rules and allowed the people he ruled to practice their own religions and cultures – even giving grants from the royal treasury for this work. 

In fact, the temple in Jerusalem was funded by the Persian kingdom.   Cyrus sent the Judeans back home to begin building it, but the work didn’t begin quickly. 

The people were preoccupied by their own households.  They were worried about a drought.  They focused on themselves instead of on God.

And so, once again, God’s word comes to the people through a prophet… Haggai.  In this short, two chapter book, Haggai helps the people understand the urgency of the need to rebuild the temple. 

Then the Lord’s word came, “Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses while this house lies in ruins? … rebuild the temple so that I may enjoy it and that I may be honored.” (1: 4, 8b)

The people heard…. and in September of 521 BCE the rebuilding of the temple began.

 

In the passage that we are focusing on today, God provides words of encouragement to the people in this process. 

Generations had come and gone in exile.  Not many… if any… were alive during the time of the Judean kingdom or who had seen the previous temple.  They were in uncharted waters, unsure of what came next.

And these words were a reminder that God was in control. 

Be strong! 

Work, for I am with you!

My spirit stands in your midst!

Don’t fear!

I make the heavens and the earth quake and I will fill this house with glory. 

 

When I think about church today and the rebuilding of the temple, I for one am incredibly grateful to all of those who have maintained and planned and cared for this church building that we worship in.  Just yesterday, people gave their time to help renovated and rejuvenate this space in preparation for fall. 

This house is not lying in ruins.  We have been faithful stewards of this physical space and honor God through our care of this space. 

 

But, as we have heard in so many of the prophets recently, the temple, the church, is about far more than the building. 

Giving honor and glory to God far more about about creating room for God to dwell in your heart and your life than about bricks and mortar. 

And it is a lot more difficult as well. 

It is far easier to focus on our professional development than our faith development.

We are often preoccupied with our recreational life and don’t take time for our spiritual life.

We experience droughts in the form of finances or stress or illness and they become excuses that keep us from doing the hard work of building a relationship with God.

And so Haggai speaks to us, too.

Only we don’t need to build a structure for God to live in… we need to build on our commitment to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

 

And just as God spoke to the Judeans, God speaks to us:

Be strong! 

Work, for I am with you!

My spirit stands in your midst!

Don’t fear!

I make the heavens and the earth quake and I will fill this house… I will fill your life… with glory. 

 

 

Just as we are coming to the close of the summer and so many exciting things we have done and seen and shared, so, too, are we coming to the start of something new.  

A new school year.

A new Sunday morning schedule.

A new focus on discipleship in our church and what it means to live out our faith and follow Jesus. 

And we are going to challenge you to step up and step out in faith.

We are going to wrestle with what it means to put God first in our lives.

We are going to ask one another if we are really living lives of love, service, and prayer.

 

You see, God is doing a new thing in our midst.   

God wants to build this church again.  Build our faith again.  Build our hearts again.   

 

Maybe your relationship with God is like a house that has been neglected for too long.

Maybe your faith life is in shambles.

Maybe the windows have been boarded over or the roof is caving in.

Maybe structurally you don’t know where to start picking up the pieces and starting over.

Maybe you are like the Judeans who are heading to a home that was never really theirs to begin with and you have no idea what this is supposed to look like.

You are not alone.

We all have to start somewhere and as a church, this fall, we are going to explore our faith life one piece at a time.

We are going to celebrate where we are, and then lay out a plan and help each other grow. 

One step at a time. 

One choice at a time.

One day at a time.

 

The God who can shake the heavens and the earth can shake up our church and our hearts, too.  God will do this work in our lives, if we just give the spirit room to move… 

Because as God reminds us at the end of the book of Haggai…. I have chosen you. 

 

We didn’t chose God.  God chose us. 

God chose you.  And God wants to build this church with you and you and you.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Pastoral Persona

Pastoral Persona

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A while back, Verily put out an article:  Three Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Post Something on Social Media

The basic three questions are these:

  1. Is it useful?
  2. Is it truthful?
  3. Is it fruitful?

I had shared the article with other pastors because I thought that the three questions raised in the article are good guidelines for how we can interact with parishioners and one another online.  In today’s vicious political climate and in the lead up to our own General Conference, I thought these questions would be good to revisit.

On the one hand, these questions help us to utilize social media and our web presence and be truly vulnerable.  But I think they are also guidelines that allow us to be real without oversharing or crossing boundaries.  These questions act as a filter for whatever content we might put forth – from our feelings on a basketball game to our opinion of a candidate to our experience of worship that morning.

Verily doesn’t have a Christian background, so I find it so interesting that fruitfulness is one of the criteria they use. And the very idea of promoting ourselves as a brand seems the very definition of inauthentic.  However, we do have a persona, a public perception, that we are known by – whether as pastors or as church folk or as church bodies in general.  The world sees us based on what we choose to put out there via blogs, websites, tweets, and posts.  So, what are we saying?

Is it useful?

“if I think someone else will benefit intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually from my post, I’ll push it out.”

I think this could also be thought of as relevance.  Is this something that my community should be aware of or are they already talking about it? I’ve long used the Barthian quote about having a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, and I think this usefulness question asks us to make connections with the lives of people and the gospel we proclaim. And, I think it invites us to look to the secular world and see where we can find insight that is good for the people of God, too. (like the article I’m referencing!)  One of my hobbies is watching television shows and I am constantly discovering questions, insights, and realities of the human dilemma that we fail to talk about as a church.  So occasionally I try to blog about where I see grace or the human condition or redemption in the media we consume in the secular world.  If we aren’t paying attention to the world we live and breathe in, I think our posts will fail to be useful.

Usefulness also has to do with what we are trying to accomplish with our posts.  Maybe we need to ask if the church will benefit intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually from our posts.  Or, are we simply trying to stir the pot?  Are we trying to build up the church or does our commentary simply serve to tear it apart?  The same could be asked of our national conversations and politics.

Is it truthful?

“Is what I’m broadcasting… an accurate representation of who I am personally and professionally?”

While this item does have to do with actual facts, and we shouldn’t ever promote or share things that simply aren’t true, this point for me really is about whether something accurately represents me.  I post about sports and food and family and friends because it is who I am.  Yes, I am a pastor, but I am also a real, normal human being, just like others are.  If my online pastoral persona is all about the church or if it is all about ministry, then I am painting a false image of what it means to serve God.  I don’t create space for others to live their lives AND serve God, too.

The flip side of this is that ministry is a high calling and we commit to living according to higher standards.  And as a colleague noted, perhaps as pastors we give up the right to a “private” life when we take on our calling.

Or perhaps, a different way to say it is that our lives as pastors are always under the microscope of public opinion.  What we do, even in our private time, reflects our profession (whether we want it to or not).  I hang out with a lot of non-churched people.  They are at my house every Friday night, playing board games and ping pong.  Even in that little microcosm of personal life, they don’t forget that I am also a pastor.

And so, if I can’t say it in front of colleagues or in front of the church, maybe I really shouldn’t say it… or at the very least not say it online.   I find it much harder to remember this when I’m at home watching a basketball game and my team is down by 35 points.

Is it fruitful?

“Will what I’m sharing create something bigger or make an impact, whether in the form of an online debate or dollars for a charity?”

My colleague, Deborah Coble Wise, noted that this definition of fruitfulness is sometimes part of the problem:  “When everything because a ’cause’ or a debate… does it lose the possibility of authentic relationship?”

How we, as the church, define fruitfulness is very different from the rest of the world. Sometimes, yes, it is about numbers and getting people on our side (if our side is the Kingdom).  We could ask how this post could help make disciples of Jesus Christ and how it will help to raise money for a project we are working on.

But we also define fruitfulness in a lot of un-quantifiable ways.  Will this post help us transform the world?  Will it bring hope to someone?  Will it spark a conversation?  Will it create a deeper relationship or community?  Will it impact the life of a youth?