The Spirit of Surrender

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A little bit later in the service today, we will be receiving a new member of this Body of Christ.
And we will ask Tom some questions… questions that all of us were asked when we joined this church, questions that our parents and sponsors were asked when we were baptized.
Do we accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
Do we put our whole trust in God’s grace and promise to serve him as our Lord in union with the church Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

In light of those promises, I want to invite Pastor Todd to read a statement that Bishop Laurie has invited all churches in Iowa to share this morning:

Many of you have heard about the violence that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier today. White nationalist and other right-wing groups had scheduled a “Unite the Right” rally to protest the removal of Confederate symbols in the city, including a statue of Robert E. Lee. This afternoon a man drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring nineteen others. Two others have died. Self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi and hate groups were very open in their intentions to provoke violence, and Virginia’s Governor declared a state of emergency.

The United Methodist Church condemns the evil, hatred, and bigotry that led to this violence, and we ask you to pray for those who have been injured and the families of those who have been killed. We also ask you to pray for the restoration of order and peace for the community of Charlottesville.

At this tragic time, may each one of us renew our commitment by our words and actions to create a world where all people live out the words in this prayer of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.

In today’s scripture from the book of Acts, we find a scene from the early Christian community.
In many ways, those early followers of Christ were trying to create that world in which their whole lives exemplified the teachings of Jesus. In the chapters before this, twice we hear tales of how the believers sold everything they had and made sure there were no needs in their community.
Twice, we have been told of their love and faithfulness and how everyone who joined this community of Christ was full of prayer and devotion and the church was growing exponentially every day.
They were standing up for what was right, willing to die for their beliefs, and always sought to share the love, grace, and mercy of God with one another.

But, living in community is not easy… in fact, to truly commit to living with one another is dangerous.
A community that truly cares for the needs of others is a community where people can share their needs without being embarrassed with them.
A community that heals the sick is a community where people are not afraid to speak the truth about their own disease.
A community that cares for the widows and the orphans and the oppressed is a community where people sacrificially put their own lives on the line for the lives of others.
A community that offers grace and mercy is also a community that speaks the truth and names evil and sin in the world when they see it.

And I imagine that many of us in this room today would hesitate and pull back from that type of life, because there are great risks involved in being vulnerable, open, honest, and accountable to a community.
We might have to take off our fake plastered on smiles and tell the truth about the problems in our lives.
We are afraid of our own tears, afraid of our own weakness, afraid that the community around us will turn their backs if they really knew what was going on.
We are afraid of what those outside the church might think if we took a stand for something that we truly believed in.

In Acts chapter 5, we find the story of this couple who just couldn’t surrender it all to God.
They had seen the acts of sacrificial love and were on the fringes of this community who shared everything in common without worrying about what belonged to whom. And perhaps they were inspired by a man named Barnabas who sold a plot of land and laid the proceeds at the feet of the disciples.
Immediately following his sacrificial act, Ananias and Sapphira decide to do the same… sort of.
They, too, sell a plot of land and bring the proceeds from the sale to the disciples… except they lie about how much they sold it for and keep some of it back for themselves.

In the midst of a community where all are of one heart and mind…
in the midst of a community where everyone cares for everyone else and no one has need…
in the midst of a community – united by the Holy Spirit – where no one says “that’s mine, you can’t have it…”
… Ananias and Sapphira are looking out for themselves.
They essentially embezzle money from the sale and hide it for themselves. In doing so, they reject the community, reject the Holy Spirit, and seek to provide for their own welfare.
Ananias and Sapphira were telling the church – it’s nice what ya’ll are doing, and we want to help, but we’re not going to become beholden to you.
We’re going to stand over here on the sidelines and get praise for our giving but we sure as hell are not going to let you take care of us.
We can take care of ourselves just fine, thank you very much.

What they fail to understand is that the Body of Christ asks every person, every member, to fully participate.
No one is more important than another.
An eye can’t see without a brain to process the information.
A hand can’t reach out to help without an arm to support and extend.
A stomach is pretty worthless without a mouth to bring it food.
For this Body of Christ to work, for it to witness to the world, it asks us each to play our part and to do so with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
We can’t hold back.
And we have to allow others to do their part.

In the last question we will ask Tom as he professes his faith, we invite him to confess Jesus Christ as his Savior, to put his WHOLE trust in his grace, and to serve him as his Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.

The reason that we, as Christians, as baptized members of the United Methodist Church, have to look out on the actions of white nationalists and Christian hate groups and denounce their words and actions as sinful is precisely because they go against everything we proclaim in that profession of faith.
As Bishop Trimble wrote, “naming hate, injustice, and the sin of “-ism” is the only way for us to tackle the forces that would divide us and that would have any of us believe that there is less opportunity to reach our highest God-given potential because of one group of people or another.”

I used to think that the greatest sin of Ananias and Sapphira was the fact that they lied to God and the community about how much money they had sold their land for.
But the more I put this story into the context of this community of believers who relied upon a spirit of trust and vulnerability and risk in order to be united, I realized that their sin wasn’t so much that they lied, or stole the money, but that they believed they could follow God without relying upon the rest of the community.
They thought they were better than everyone else.
They thought they had the right to stand apart.
They were not just clinging to their money… they were clinging to their ideology and trying to carve out a space in their life where God and God’s people couldn’t exist.
And in the process, they were denying others the opportunity to reach their “God-given potential.”

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

And here come two people who want to be a part of the community and want to walk with Jesus, but who don’t want to dive all the way in.
They pretend that they do – they want the prestige, they want to be a part of this awesome new movement, but they just are not ready to commit ALL THE WAY.
And you know what is really sad – they didn’t have to. They could simply have said that. They could have been up front with Peter and said “Hey, we want to support the church and see what you guys are doing and maybe someday we’ll be at the point where we can do what Barnabas has done and really place ourselves in community.”
Peter even reminds Ananias that the land was his to do with as he pleased and he didn’t have to sell it and he didn’t have to give it to the church…
but when they did so, and when they lied and pretended to really surrender themselves, when they hid who they were, they were actually putting the whole community in danger.
They were acting directly against the Holy Spirit and the unity it brought to the church.
In their act of holding back their resources, of refusing to fully give in to the power of God, in their lack of surrender of their ideologies and power, Ananias and Sapphira let a Spirit of Discord into the body of Christ.
They said with their actions, “it’s okay God, I’ll take care of myself.”
And God’s response… well – this is the difficult part of the story.
First, Ananias and the Sapphira fall dead.
I find this so troubling because I sometimes hold back, too.
We don’t always let God have our hearts and minds and soul.
We are timid with our faith.
We surrender some… but not all.
This passage makes me uncomfortable, because I realize that I’m really no different than Ananias and Sapphira… what on earth prevents God for striking me dead, right here and right now for holding back, myself?
What we learn in the story of Ananias and Sapphira is that we still worship a holy, awesome, and fearful Lord.
In a world full of grace, we do not simply have a free pass to act however we want.
God is still righteous and just and has every right to punish sinners by death or other means.

We are tempted to simply believe that grace covers all and to run through this life as if our actions do not matter.
We are tempted to rest in the love of God and not consider what the consequences of our sin might be.
And, we are tempted to sit back and not speak out when we see the words and actions and beliefs of others in our community or neighborhood or world… we are tempted to not hold one another accountable for the sin and evil that is perpetuated out of fear.
And yet the consequences of sin in the world is real.
Three people died yesterday… communities and families can be destroyed… when we allow sin to run rampant in this world than we have essentially turned our back on God.
Christ demands all and we give some.
We hold back and don’t fully let the Holy Spirit build up this Body of Christ.
We refuse to surrender and therefore we deny the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts, this church, and the world around us.
We might not be struck dead here in this place at this moment, but what do we stop from growing and living and thriving by our blatant denial of the Holy Spirit?
This path of Christian faith is not easy.
While the book of Acts has begun with all sorts of joyous accounts of healing and transformation and triumph over the powers of evil, these passages remind us that discipleship is hard.
It is a warning to those who are considering this faith: think twice.
Think about the price you are being called to pay.
Think about what is being demanded of you.
But also think about the joy and the possibility and the abundant life that awaits if you are willing to let go of what you think and what you believe you deserve in order to embrace what God knows you need.
Are you willing to let go?
Are you willing to dive in?
Are you willing to let the Holy Spirit transform us into the body of Christ?

The Spirit of Community

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This summer at Immanuel, we have been exploring how the Holy Spirit shows up in the lives of characters throughout the scriptures.

Today, we find two men who have very different attitudes towards the work of God: the sorcerer and the eunuch.

Philip is a deacon, a servant of the church, and he encounters lots of people who hear and believe the good news about Jesus Christ. So, what is it about the sorcerer and the eunuch that make their stories so special?

It is how they respond to the work of the Holy Spirit.

One is arrogant and brash, the other humble and full of questions.

For one, the power of the Holy Spirit is a commodity to be bought and sold, possessed and tamed.

For the other, that power is precious, mysterious, and a gift to be treated delicately.

First – there is a difference in how they each are introduced to the Holy Spirit.

The sorcerer was familiar with magic and illusion and he saw the Holy Spirit working from a far. When he heard the good news of God he joined the fellowship of believers. So, in many ways, he is a changed man, but he still desires to be the center of attention. He still wants to draw a crowd. And so when he sees the apostles laying hands on people so that they could receive the Holy Spirit, he suddenly wants their job.

So he runs over to them and throws down a bag of coins… “I want to do that, too!” he begs. “Give me that authority.”

The sorcerer believes the Holy Spirit is something to be possessed. The sorcerer wants a new bag of tricks for his show.

On the other hand, the Holy Spirit was working behind the scenes to bring Philip and the eunuch into a relationship. She leads Philip to take a certain road. She tells him to walk alongside the cart. And, She has been present in the life of this eunuch – they are reading the scriptures, hoping to understand them. And so, when they hear the good news, and an oasis of water suddenly appears alongside their desert road, they ask – what would stop me from being baptized too?

It is not a demand, it is a humble question of faith.

In our journeys of faith, sometimes we get jealous of what other people have – faith that seems so strong, a prayer life that seems so powerful. We often struggle with what we don’t have.
Maybe you have uttered the phrase, “I wish I could pray like so and so” or “if only we had a choir or a praise band” or “I wish I could read the scriptures like that person.”

There is nothing wrong with wanting to grow in our faith. There is nothing wrong with seeing what other people are doing and seeking God’s guidance about the ways we can live out our faith.
But in the stories of the sorcerer and the eunuch, we are invited to see that it is not what we don’t have that matters…. what matters is what the Holy Spirit has already brought into our lives.

We can be so busy looking at what others have and what we desire that we can’t see the gifts right in front of us. We each have a voice that we can use, we each have a part to play in our time of worship. Just because we don’t have robes and lights and big voices does not mean that there isn’t a song to be sung.

Secondly, there is a difference between these two characters and what they hope to gain through the Holy Spirit.

While the sorcerer had once been the center of attention, he finds that notoriety fading as a new player, the deacon Philip, comes on the scene. Suddenly, it is someone else doing the healing… someone else drawing the crowds… and the sorcerer himself is astonished by the power that the followers of Christ possess.

But as soon as he perceives the source of this power, he wants it for himself. He wants to again be someone that others flock around. He wants to have the magical ability so that he can carry it to some far off place and again be on the stage with people at his feet.

Our sorcerer is a performer and faith is a tool, a prop, to get him what he wants.

Maybe I’m being cynical and faith IS a part of his life, but he hasn’t quite given up his old ways and he is trying to get the faith to fit into his life rather than allowing it to transform him.

Notice, nowhere did I talk about a community, or a group… faith for the sorcerer was all about himself and what he could use it for.

On the other hand, the eunuch wants to be included. They want to belong. They want to be a part of a community that understood.

Our text tells us that this African man was coming from Jerusalem. He had probably spent some time worshipping in the temple. Yet, as a eunuch, the fullness of worship would have been closed off to him. He would only have been allowed into the Court of the Gentiles.

Gary DeLashmutt writes that because of his social standing as a “sexually altered black man from a pagan country” doors were automatically closed for him. Time and time again, he had probably been turned away from opportunities.

In spite of his standing in the court of the queen of Ethiopia… in spite of his wealth… in spite of all the power he could and did possess, the eunuch knew that he could not buy a place in the family of God. He knew that there were countless barriers in his way, but all he wanted to do was to belong.

In spite of the threat of further rejection, the eunuch persists and when he and Philip come to that small oasis of water by the side of the road, he asks a heartbreaking question: “What would prevent me from being baptized?”

He wants to belong.

He wants to join in the fellowship.

And he found in Philip a person who, according to DeLashmutt, “understood that his standing with God was based not on his ethnic identity, moral record, religious heritage, etc.—but through Jesus’ death alone… He understood that Jesus loved this eunuch and was able to give him new life just as he did Philip.”

So Philip leads him down to the water and the eunuch is baptized.

Although our story says that he went on his way rejoicing, we do not know the end of his story. We don’t know where he goes or how his life and his faith continue in the story of God.
All we know is that he wanted to belong… and my experience is that when someone finds true welcome, they can’t help but pass it on.

In the stories of the sorcerer and the eunuch, we find a performer desiring a stage and a person seeking a home.

In their contrast, we are reminded that faith through the Holy Spirit is not about me or you, but about us.

Diedrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “It is not you that sings, it is the church that is singing, and you, as a member… may share in its song. Thus all singing together that is right must serve to widen our spiritual horizon, make us see our little company as a member of the great Christian church on earth, and help us willingly and gladly to join our singing, be it feeble or good, to the song of the church”

That is what we do when we gather to worship. We join our singing to the song of the church. We join our lives to the body of Christ. We become part of something far bigger than ourselves.

Many of you are here because you have already found a spiritual home in this community of faith. But at some point in your life, perhaps you, like the eunuch, were searching for a place to belong and a song to sing…

Others gathered here this morning might still be looking for that sense of community.

One of our hopes in gathering out here on the front lawn this morning was to simply be present with our neighbors and to remind one another that we are not alone.

The Spirit of God is moving through our midst, uniting us, binding us together, and helping us to create a place where all might know God’s love.

It is not about you.

It is not about me.

It is about us.

So, let us not be sorcerers who want to control and possess the power of God, singing by ourselves – or even worse, letting someone else sing for us while we sit back and watch…
Instead, like the eunuch, let us humbly join our faith and our voices with those of others.

Let us celebrate the welcome and the community we have found and like Philip, and like the eunuch, let us not be afraid to share it with others.

Amen.

Sermon on the Mount: The Golden Rule

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My sister-in-law has been staying with us all week while she completed a training here in Des Moines for her work place.  It was really nice to come home in the evenings and to be with not only my husband, but both of his siblings every evening.  We relaxed, had nice meals together, caught up on what was going on in each other’s lives and played a lot of cards.

One of our go-to games is pinochle.  You play the game with a deck made up of only 9’s through Aces, but we play with four of every single card.   There is a bid phase, a meld phase, and then a playing phase.  It’s kind of a complicated game, but once you get the hang of it, it goes fairly quickly.

Like any card game, there are endless variations on the rules.  And the thing about pinochle is that whenever we play at my sister-in-law’s house, we play with a different set of rules than when we play at their dad’s house.  In one case, a four of a kind can earn you anywhere from 40-100 points, and in the other, it’s worth absolutely nothing.  When I looked down at my hand about halfway through the game and saw four Kings of Hearts, I suddenly wished that we were playing at her house instead.

But, the house rules prevail.

A couple of weeks ago as we gathered here to explore the Sermon on the Mount, we talked about the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, as explained by Jesus.  He took some of those well-known laws from the Ten Commandments and actually made them harder… in the end, reminding us that our aim is to be perfect, to be complete in our love.  Jesus puts his own spin or variation on them.

Now, the difference between a rule and a law is hard to distinguish.  Laws are official, because they are created and enforced by the political structure of the time – whether it is a democracy, like the United States today, or a theocracy, like the early Jewish monarchy and they have official consequences.    But rules, are standards of behavior that guide our actions and tend to be dictated by the community or environment or home that you are in.  There are consequences for rules, too, but they tend to be less severe – like a loss of privilege or opportunity.

In the case of a card game, you could think about the law being the standard way a game is played. In the game we were play, for example, a Queen of Spades and a Jack of Diamonds is a what is known as a pinochle and that is same everywhere you play the game.   But the variations, the house rules, vary and tell you a little bit about what that particular community values about the game itself.

Much of the Sermon on the Mount is made up of these “house rules.”  Jesus describes for us how it is that we play this game of life as people who are part of the Kingdom of God.  He lays out the variations that are going to guide our life and our relationships if we want to be part of this community.  These aren’t formal laws with defined consequences, but rather describe the standards that we should aspire to embody if we are going to be part of God’s Kingdom.

And the section of the sermon that we focus on this morning is no different.  When it comes to relationships, when it comes to how we live together in community, Jesus lifts up this idea of reciprocal relationship… that you should give what you want to get.

He talks about this in terms of judgment:  Don’t judge so you won’t be judged.

He talks about it in terms of seeking:  That just as you expect to get the things you need from your earthly parent, so your heavenly parent will give you good things.

And he talks about this in how we treat one another in general: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

 

Now, Christianity isn’t the only community to have ever expressed this rule.

In the Hindu faith we hear: This is the sum of duty:  do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain. (The Mahabharata)

In Buddhism: Hurt not others with that which pains yourself. (Udana-Varga)

Islam teaches: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. (Hadith)

Confucius says: What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to others.

And as a contemporary of Jesus, Seneca taught: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.

What is interesting is that in many of these other cultural and religious expressions of this idea, the rule is usually expressed in the negative.  Don’t treat others how you wouldn’t want to be treated.  It is about refraining and restraint.   And the section on judgment certainly fits that kind of characteristic when it encourages us to not point out the specks in our neighbors eye – to refrain from judging.  But Jesus also expresses this rule in the positive light – Treat others the way you want to be treated.  As MacDonald and Farstad write in their commentary on this passage, Jesus “goes beyond passive restraint to active benevolence.  Christianity is not simply a matter of abstinence from sin; it is positive goodness.” (Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments).

The Golden Rules that Jesus give us are proactive.  They invite us to take a situation and to pour God’s mercy, love, and grace into every aspect.  We should look upon every encounter with others and ask in every circumstance – how would I want to be treated in the midst of this.  And then, we are supposed to do it.  Not just think about it, but do it!  William Barclay notes that this law invites us to go out of our way to help others, and it is something that “only love can compel us to do.  The attitude which says, ‘I must do no harm to people,’ is quite different from the attitude which says, ‘I must do my best to help people.’” (The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 1)

And Jesus calls us to do our best to love all people, whether or not they deserve it.

Think about even the “law of retaliation” that comes earlier in chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus reminds us that the reciprocal nature of our relationships in the past has been about an eye for an eye.  We give back what we have been given.  But Jesus challenges us to be proactive in our love… that if we are slapped on one cheek, to turn the other to them as well.  If we are sued for our shirt, we should give them our coat also.  In many ways, we are being asked to love first and ask questions later!

The world that we live in today is starkly divided.   There is a lot of pain and disagreement and conflict that is not only reflected in national politics, but it often takes its root in our homes and families and churches, too.  When I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues shared that their family has cancelled their annual reunion because they have such differing political views they can’t be in the same room together any longer.    Our larger United Methodist Church is so divided about whether and how we will welcome people of varying sexual orientations that we are in a season of deep discernment about if we can even remain a united church and what it might look like if we did.   I experience this in my own family, too.

And maybe that is why a commentary piece from foxnews.com really hit home with me.  The author describes how she and her husband find a way to live together in the midst of their disagreements and I’ll share the article to our church facebook page if you are interested in reading it.  What struck me about the piece, and why I share it today, is that it lifts up that you have to start with love.  You have to start with the Golden Rule.  You have to start in a place of generosity and mercy and kindness, treating those who radically disagree with you with the same respect and graciousness that you would hope to receive back.

Jennifer Dukes Lee calls us to resist trying to be right and to not judge others by putting them in boxes.  She calls us to think before we speak and to ask if what we say is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.  And she tells us that when we truly live in these ways, when we let love define what we do, that we can show the world that it is possible to live in the midst of diversity, if we put others first.  (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/02/16/trump-or-never-trump-what-to-do-when-cant-agree-with-people-love.html)

In this season of our national and state and home life, we need to  remember the house rules that define who we are as people of faith.  The rule of love and compassion.  The rule that invites us to put others first.  The rule that leads us to treat any person we meet the way we would want to be treated… whether they deserve it or not.

Never Go Hungry

We are gathered here tonight, as one community of faith, to give thanks.

Throughout this month, I’ve been preaching about gratitude and giving thanks and one of the things that we have highlighted is that God wants us to give thanks for the differences among us.  It is only by being grateful for someone you disagree with that you can ever move beyond those differences into community.

And our three churches probably don’t agree on everything.  I think that’s a good thing.  We all play a different role in this great big body of Christ.  And we choose to view one another not as competitors, but as partners in the amazing mission and ministry of God in this world. 

For that, I’m grateful.

 

We choose to gather around this time of year in particular because of our national celebration of Thanksgiving. 

While the fuller history of this gathering is far more checkered and controversial, one thing is certain… there were at least three days of community and peace between the pilgrims at Plymouth and the Wampanoag Nation (Wahmp – uh nahg).  The colonists had barely survived the first winter and it was only through the charity and hospitality of these Wampanoag  people that this feast occurred.   They made sure that they would not go hungry.

Our scriptures call us back to an earlier time of Thanksgiving, however. 

Gary Roth draws the connection between the early pilgrims, dependent upon the mercy of the native peoples and the Israelites, who were utterly dependent upon the grace and mercy of God.

As our text from Deuteronomy reminds us – “My father was a wandering Aramean…”  The Israelites were brutally oppressed in Egypt, and God heard their cries of distress.  They were led out of the land of Egypt, sustained by daily bread from heaven, and eventually came to the land promised to them by the Lord.  God made sure that they would not go hungry.

And these Israelites were called to give thanks and to remember that the land and everything it produced was a gift from God. 

The first fruits of the land were set aside as an offering of thanks and the people were called to celebrate their blessings and to share them with all.

 

We, too, are utterly dependent upon God. 

And we, too, have been blessed. 

As Jesus reminds us in the gospel of John, those Israelites wandering in the desert relied upon manna, bread from heaven to sustain them daily. 

We like to imagine that we are self-sufficient and don’t need anyone’s help, but that simply is not true.

Every breath of air that fills our lungs is a gift from God.

Every ray of sunshine and drop of rain that nurtures our crops is a gift from God.

Every grain of wheat is a gift from God.

And so is the bread of life… the love and mercy of God… the incarnation and death and resurrection of Jesus that provided the gift that none of us could even imagine… true life, eternal life, life with God.

Because of God, we will never go spiritually hungry.  And so we must give thanks.

 

The question is, what does a thankful life look like?

What does it mean to live in gratitude, knowing that is only by God’s grace we are sustained?

In Deuteronomy, we discover that one way to live in gratitude is to pay the gift forward again and again. 

The Israelites remembered that their father was a wandering Aramean… and then they looked out at the immigrants and refugees who were among them and shared the first fruits with those in need. 

The book of Leviticus is full of instructions to leave the gleanings of the harvest and the edges of the field for those who were in need.

We live out our thanksgiving by making sure that others have enough.

Enough food.

Enough water.

Enough grace.

Enough love.

Whether it is spiritual or physical bread… God invites us to share it with others as a mark of our gratitude.

 

Talk about the DMARC / CWS offering for the Karin people… A Christian community from Myanmar/Burma that has found a home and a refuge here in the greater Des Moines area. 

We can give thanks today by sharing God’s love and mercy and physical sustenance with these immigrants and refugees in our community. We can make sure that they will never go hungry.

But we also are challenged to think about sustaining gifts that go beyond immediate needs and create life-sustaining conditions.  So the CWS offering will go to help the communities in Myanmar that are most at risk so that they don’t have to flee their homeland in the first place.

 

Let us give thanks to the Lord for all of our blessings.

And let us never cease to pass them on to others.  

Amen.

Home. #umcgc

Each evening, when deliberations are done, it’s time to head home.

While for most delegates, that has been to a hotel room, sometimes shared with one other person, I am sharing a home with a small group of folks.

We found a place through AirBnB not too far from the convention center. It is a Victorian, in a lovely neighborhood, close to stores and transportation.

And it has been amazing to have a home to come home to.

In college, I lived in intentional community with folks through our “theme house” system. We shared interests and ideals along with milk and bathrooms. Common spaces were where ideas were freely exchanged, debate was encouraged, and at the end of the day we had to figure out how to get along because for the most part we were stuck with each other.

Our living arrangement these two weeks is temporary, but we do have relationship with each other. And it has been wonderful to have common space to reflect and process what each day has brought… And sometimes talk about anything but.

The conveniences of a house are nice… But home really is about who you share it with… And for those folks these past two weeks, I am grateful.

Look. See. Live. #growrule

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As part of my Lenten disciplines, I’m using a tool from The Society of Saint John the Evangelist called “Growing a Rule of Life.”

As Marjorie Thompson writes:

Certain kinds of plants need support in order to grow properly. Tomatoes need stakes, and beans must attach themselves to suspended strings… human beings are much like these plants… we need structure in order to have enough space, air, and light to flourish. Structure gives us the freedom to grow as we are meant to.

And a rule of life is just that kind of structure and support.  There have been times in my life when I have practiced this kind of rule of life: a college covenant discipleship group comes to mind.  But it has been a while since I have formed one and I’m looking forward to this season of structured discernment.

 

Today’s question from SSJE asks: How might the rhythms you observe in nature inform the way you live?

 

I was struck today by the snow falling outside of my window.  During this time of year, it seems like we find ourselves in an endless cycle of snow, melting/slush/dirty heaps of snow, and then it snows once again.

This morning, we gathered for Community Ashes at a local coffee shop.  We gathered to remember our common humanity and sinfulness. We gathered in solidarity with those across this world who are suffering and mourning.  And when I pulled up to the coffee shop at 6:20 am… there was that gross, dirty snow all along the sides of the road.  I pulled out the supplies and we began to impose the dark, sooty, ashes – signs of our mortality and repentance – upon one another’s foreheads.

Then a snow flake fell.

And another.

And before long, the whole world outside the window was blanketed in silent, fluffy, pristine snow.

 

On the very day we echo the words of Psalm 51, pure white snow fell from the sky.

Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!

Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;

wash me and I will be whiter than snow.

 

I am a human being, like any other human being. Though I strive for perfection and seek to become more and more like Christ, I have a long way to go.

Just like nature spoke aloud today that fresh snow or bright sunlight will take away the grime, so my life needs God’s mercy and the joy of salvation to cover my mistakes, to melt away my imperfections, to renew my spirit. Over and over again.

 

Tables and Holy Experiences

I have a sense of my first Maundy Thursday service, but I can’t quite place where it falls in my history.  I was not a child, but not yet fully grown.  Perhaps it was high school, or maybe somewhere in my college years.  I have a sense of a fellowship area, a place not just for worship, but for eating and laughing as well.  Classmates and adult leaders alike are present as we strip off our socks, giggle about stinky feet and toe lint, and form a line to wash one another’s feet.

When I began serving in a congregation and had the opportunity to craft the service for my people, that sense of communal life was an important sense memory to hold on to.  So we gathered around tables in our fellowship hall and worshiped with food on the table, candles lit, everything set as it might be for honored guests.  There were dates and figs and olives, bread and apples, glasses of grape juice and almonds.  It wasn’t meant to be authentic.  Or a seder meal. It was meant to nourish your soul and invite you in to an experience of the table. We worshipped with prayer and singing, celebrated the great thanksgiving, washed one another’s hands, and feasted with laughter and stories and finger food.

There is immense joy and comfort in the Maundy Thursday celebration.  As Jesus ate and drank with the disciples, he knew what was coming, but perhaps that only made the stories longer and the fellowship more sweet.  It was a time to teach them, to be with them, to love them just as they were…. knowing fully that in mere hours they would fall away one by one.  He knew they would fail, and yet he washed their feet.  He knelt before them.  He showed utter devotion and compassion.  He left them with words and memories that may have seemed normal in the space of that moment, but would become so much more in the reality of their betrayal and his death and resurrection.

We cannot be bystanders to that kind of experience.  We must dive into it.  We must sit at table with friends and family and strangers and break bread.  We must feel the cool water rush over our skin and the warmth of another human body as we slowly and deliberately and carefully take the time to wipe and dry away their fingers or toes.  If we are going to sing “let us break bread together,” then we must take the bread and feel the crust and one by one tear off a section and give it to our neighbor. 

Okay, maybe “must” isn’t the right word.  But when we do, when we let ourselves be transported in worship and word and action and song from our day to day hustle and bustle of life to another physical/spiritual/emotion place… then we do encounter the holy.

This year, in a new church, I dug through my files and found the service that had sustained me all those years.  With some flexible space at the front of our sanctuary (due to a few rows of pews being replaced by chairs) we made room for tables and gathered in that holy ground for some fellowship.

I watched as one or two couples reluctantly took their places at the round tables.  They were longing for the comfort of the pew. The experience of sitting back at watching from a far. The distance. We don’t realize it is there at first, but it is when we are ten rows back with all of those wooden seats between us and the front.

But they sat down. And participated. And the moment took over. 

As we pulled ourselves back together as a large group from table conversation and we were about to pray our prayer of thanksgiving following the meal, one of those women raised her hand. 

“We should do it like this every time,” she said.

Not every Maundy Thursday… she meant every time we break bread together and celebrate the Lord’s supper. 

“We might have to get rid of the rest of the pews,” I gently responded with a smile.

I’m not sure what is next or what the path forward might be, but experiencing one another and God and the divine mystery in that holy space opened up a world of possibilities about what it could mean for us to worship that has little to do with pews or hymn books or standard orders of worship.

I have been blessed to be a part of amazing worshipping experiences that grew organically from a community of faithful people.  Some were traditional and some were emergent.  But each was an outside of the box opportunity to personally and communally encounter God with sight and sound and smell and touch and taste.  Each gave me the space to be fully present in mind, body, and spirit.  What better way to worship the one who created us, inside and out?

An Examen for Ministry #NaBloPoMo

Too often, we simply don’t stop to ask questions, to examine our lives.

We do things without thinking about the consequences or implications.

We do it because we always have.

We do it because everyone else is.

We do it because it seems like the best option in the moment.

And we do it in ministry, too.

An unexamined life is not worth living (Plato, quoting Socrates)

Well, maybe, unexamined ministry is not worth doing.

We should always be mindful of the implications of our words and actions.

We should take time to pause, reflect, and see if we really are acting according to our values and goals.

 

I really started thinking about this after having a dialogue with Rev. Bill Cotton on Monday of this week.  We were out at Taproot Garden for “Organic Ministry.”  One of the big themes of our classes is that we need to pay attention… to the soil, to the water, to the microorganisms, to the weeds, to everything!  It’s all related. And what happens to one has implications to everything else.

One of our guides for “Organic Ministry,” Tim Diebel,  shared with us the nautical terming “kedging.”  When you run aground with your boat, it is a method for getting back to where you want to be.  You throw or take your anchor to where you actually WANT to be, and then you winch yourself there. Taking time to examine your life (ministry) is like asking if we have gone off course and tossing the anchor into deeper waters.

The next morning, I sat down with a congregation member who is concerned about the potential addition of lazer tag to our nearby UMC camp.  As she paused to reflect upon values and goals, she is troubled that in a culture of so much violence, so many deaths of children via firearms (7 every day), as we prepare for a day of praying for peace and the end of gun violence as a conference, we want to install a recreational option at camp where we give kids toy weapons to point at each other for fun. And her words hit me like a ton of bricks. We had taken our youth to play lazer tag at a local business and hadn’t even paused to wonder about the underlying messages, the glorification of violence… it was simply for fun.  We just didn’t think about it.

So we are now talking about the values of our ministry and whether or not this type of activity is in line with the ends God has in mind for us.

Then, in Covenant Bible Study, we were exploring Paul’s writings to the Corinthians and I kept running into the idea that freedom means everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial. The only way we can live into the freedom of Christ is to ask, in every situation, if what I’m doing is beneficial for myself AND for the community/world.

 

 

So here are four questions that I want to start incorporating into “an examen for ministry” in my church.

 

Could this be a bridge?

Is this ministry/event/class for insiders of the church only? What are the possibilities for transforming it into a “bridge event”? There are so many things we do as a church without every imagining they could be bridges for us to go to the community or the community to come to us.  For example: we have a Veteran’s lunch coming up: we have always done this special lunch after church for our veterans to thank them for their service. What would happen if we sent invites to local American Legion or VFW groups and invited them to come for a free meal so we could stay thank-you?

 

Who could this impact?

Who could this ministry/event/class impact? How do we reach them? What would it look like if every ministry in the church asked this question?  If they thought outside their current make-up to share what they have experienced with others?  We get so comfortable with our groups we often don’t think to expand.  Or maybe we do, but we neglect asking how to reach them.  We need to be reminded that what we are doing isn’t reaching them… or they would be there.  Do we change how we promote something? Do we change the event itself – day, time, format? For example: we have a monthly senior fellowship that hasn’t been able to get newly retired folks to attend.  One of the realities is some of these newly retired are the children of active attenders! We are starting to imagine how the event might need to change so all feel welcome.

 

Does this fall within our vision frame?

We have been using a tool called a vision frame this past year. Does this support/enhance our vision and mission? Is it in line with the core values of our church? Is it part of our strategy? Will it help us to reach the measures we have set?   Our mission at Immanuel UMC is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Our vision: In Christ, live lives of love, service, and prayer.  Our core values: hospitality, caring community, stewardship, missional outreach, worship/music, and growing in discipleship. Our strategy and measures include the goals we set at charge conference. This one seems fairly obvious… but how often don’t we stop to ask the question. This frame allows us to truly zoom in on our calling from God in this time and place… and it means we won’t do some things so that we can do these things well. This next year, our two main areas of focus will be children and seniors and it means we will shift away resources and attention from other things for this season.

 

What kind of world does this create?

What kind of world/community does this event/ministry/class create or support? What are the implications for the neighborhood; for the generations that follow; for the world?   And this question asks us to think long term about the consequences of any particular ministry.  One of the tensions of ministry is that what might be needed in the short term isn’t always what is best for the long term. Asking this question allows us to weigh options as we seek God’s future. It invites us to think about the values of the world we are implicitly supporting by our actions or inactions. As United Methodists, we have social principles and resolutions because we believe that we can and should have an impact on the world.  The conversation we have begun about lazer tag as staff is one example of how we are starting to wrestle with this question.

 

What questions would you add to this examen?