Love Is All You Need

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

“Save us” we cry out.

Save us from our striving for power.

Save us from unending violence.

Save us from the walls that threaten to divide.

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

Save us.

 

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

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

 

The Shema from Deuteronomy 6: Love the Lord

And

Leviticis 19 – love others.

 

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

Love God. Love your neighbor.

That’s it.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love that is patient and kind.

That that is not envious or boastful.

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

Love that isn’t satisfied with injustice.

Love that endures all things.

 

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

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

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

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

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

The love of Christ gives life to others.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

God has called us to be the Body of Christ.

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

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

God wants us to welcome the refugees and the strangers.

God wants us to seek peace and pursue it.

God wants us to visit the sick and imprisoned.

And through it all, God wants us to love.

 

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

Love God.

Love your neighbors.

Amen.

Unity, Diversity, and the Body of Christ

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

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

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

One, is a class system… or a battlefield…

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

We need to listen. 

We need to hold one another accountable. 

We also need to challenge one another. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

In all things, Love.

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

 

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

Amen.

 

Claiming Our Inheritance

When I came home from our United Methodist General Conference in May, I shared with you these words:

Over these last two weeks, we very nearly split our denomination into pieces.  Our differences are stark. Our life together is marred by conflict as much as collaboration.  And I’m going to be honest… I’m not quite sure yet what comes after General Conference.

I went on talk about why that was:  how the source of dilemma lies in being a global church, in the way we make decisions, and the reality that we can’t agree on some fundamental basics of what it means to be church together, like what we mean by covenant or how we interpret scriptures.

 

This month, our bishops have not only announced the members of a special commission who will help us find a way forward, but they have also announced their intent to call a special session of General Conference in 2019… one year earlier than we would typically meet.  The purpose will be to allow this commission to do their work and then the delegates of our last general conference will gather back together solely for the purpose of discussing and voting on their recommendations.  Many imagine that if we cannot agree to a way to hold our differences in creative tension that our church will split at that time. 

 

For the last few months, there has been a tension in my shoulders that I can’t quite shake. 

I’m worried.

I’m worried for my country.

I’m worried for the United Methodist Church.

I’m worried for this church.

 

And the root of that worry is less about who wins on Tuesday or what kind of church we will be on the other side of 2019 or how many people stayed home from worship last weekend…

I worry about how we treat one another and whether or not we see the person sitting across from us as a person of inherent worth and dignity… and that we seem unable to set aside our thoughts and opinions for long enough to actually listen to the truth of another person.

I think the antidote to the worry we collectively are bearing might be found in our scripture this morning.  

 

One of the radical messages of Ephesians that is lost to modern readers of the scriptures is the fact that Paul reaches out and give thanks for people who are outside of his faith.

Historically, the early church experienced great tensions between Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ.  They had different backgrounds, different traditions and practices, and yet all claimed to have accepted the good news of God.  There was infighting and arguments about who had to give up what part of their heritage in order to be part of the community.

And so when Paul, a Jewish scholar and leader of the church, writes to this Gentile community at Ephesus, it is remarkable that one of the first things he does is emphasize unity.

We have obtained an inheritance”, Paul writes.

And then he goes a step farther… “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”

Paul specifically reaches out to people who are very different from him… people he has never even met before… and tells them that he is grateful for them.

This letter to the Ephesians is fundamentally about unity. 

That is our glorious inheritance.

Unity with God in Jesus Christ.

Unity with the saints who have gone before us.

And unity with one another in this present moment. 

And as Paul teaches us in these first few verses that you can’t have unity without gratitude. 

 

As we light candles to remember the saints, we are reminded that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we remain connected and unified with all of those saints who have gone before us… and with all who will come after us. 

As we break bread, we sing and feast with the saints.  This meal is an act of unity. This meal and the hope it instills in our souls is our inheritance. 

And as we remember, we give thanks for eight people from our congregation who died this past year:  for Lois.  Becky.  Viola.  Ruth.  Gary.  Mildred.  Sharon.  Marcia.   Thank you, God.   

But we also give thanks for the many people, friends and family, who have gone before us. 

We give thanks for all of the saints who shaped our lives. 

And we give thanks for the multitudes of saints and the historic church that is our foundation.  When it feels like the weight of the world is upon our shoulders and that the church will live or die based upon our decisions, it is good to remember that God’s church has been around for two thousand years.  It is built upon the prophets and the apostles.  The church is far bigger than this congregation or even this denomination.  And for that I give thanks…

And I also pray that we might claim this inheritance and that somehow we might be part of passing along this faith to generations yet to come. 

 

Sarah Birmingham Drummond reminds us that the unity we experience is not only across time and generations, but also for this present moment. “Paul’s message of unity was radical in its day, as it suggest unity across divisions that were woven into the fabric of daily life.  This suggests that the early church understood overcoming divisions to be part of its mandate.”

Let me repeat that. 

The early church understood overcoming divisions to be part of its mandate.

After all, Paul was reaching out to people he didn’t have a whole lot in common with to give thanks.   His letter reminded not only them, but also himself, of the unity of Christ that brings all of us together. 

That is our inheritance, too.

 

Today, we will break bread not only with the saints, but also with people who will vote differently than us on Tuesday. 

We worship every Sunday morning with people of different ages. 

We worship with people who prefer different types of music. 

We worship with early risers and people who long to sleep in on Sundays.

Yet overcoming division is part of our mandate as people of faith.

Being a people who overcome difference in order to be in community… that is our inheritance. 

That is the faith that has been passed down from generation to generation.

 

No matter what happens on Tuesday. 

No matter what happens in 2019 with our denomination.

No matter what tension we feel as a result of our worship times or classes or studies.

Our responsibility is to look around this room and to give thanks for each soul and get busy making a difference in this world.

That is the inheritance we can claim, right here and right now. 

 

And we do so… we claim the inheritance of Jesus Christ across generations and across divisions because we believe that God’s mission is built upon a church united to transform this world. 

Because we believe that God needs all of us… past, present, and future, to bring healing and hope to a broken people. 

Because our differences are small when compared to the call God has upon our lives to claim our inheritance. 

Because we believe in the immeasurable greatness of God’s power to truly make a difference… right here and right now.  

Pride and Humility

I didn’t plan it this way intentionally, but I find it providential that we are talking about humility and pride on the weekend in between our two national political conventions.

Each party competes to see who can blow the most hot air and puff themselves up the most.

They will talk up their achievements and point out the other team’s failures.

And the national pundits and media will delight in every mistake along the way.

 

Pretty much the opposite of everything the scripture calls us to be and do.

 

Today, that scripture focuses on two of the minor prophets… connected only by this thread of pride that rings through their message.

Up until this point in our Summer of the Prophets we have been going in a sort of chronological order.  We started with some of the earliest prophets – Elijah and Elisha – and made our way through various kings and rules, to the destruction of first Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and then Judah, the Southern Kingdom.  Last week, we found ourselves with the Judeans in the middle of exile, trying to make the most of life in a strange land.

Scholars disagree about where Obadiah fits into the mix.  Some firmly believe that Obadiah was the servant of King Ahab mentioned in the scriptures… which meant he would have been in ministry during the time of Elijah. Yet the context of his words make far more sense either during or after the time of exile.

In either case, the word of God he receives is meant not for Israel, or for Judah, but for the neighboring kingdom of Edom.

 

To understand how Edom fits into the picture, we need to go all the way back to Genesis to the story of two brothers… Jacob and Esau.

 

Esau is the older of the two – a rough and tumble sort of guy who thinks with his gut.  Jacob on the other hand, is quietly clever… a mamma’s boy who uses his wit to trick his older brother and gain the upper hand.  And Jacob uses these skills to steal the birthright from his older brother and to gain a deathbed blessing from his father.

Esau is furious at these events.  He knows that his father is near to death and promises that as soon as their father is gone that he will take his brother’s life.  And Jacob must flee for his life.

 

Usually we follow Jacob in this story… to Paddan Aram where he works for seven years in order to marry Rachel… and then for seven more when he is tricked into marrying her sister Leah instead.

We mostly forget about Esau… but he lets go of his anger and moves on with his life.  He marries and has children and is wildly successful… and his people become the nation of Edom.

 

While Jacob and Esau eventually reconcile,  Edom remains a separate kingdom… sometimes ruled over by Judah… at other times in alliance… and still at other times they benefit from Judah’s downfall.

Such is the case when Nebuchadnezzar rolls through Judah and destroys Jerusalem.  The Edomites are recruited to help in the battle AGAINST the people of Judah and plunder the city of Jerusalem.

And so Obadiah cries out… “Because of the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame will cover you, and you will be destroyed forever.  You stood nearby, strangers carried off his wealth… You should have taken no pleasure over your brother on the day of his misery… you shouldn’t have bragged on their day of hardship…” (Obadiah 1:10-13)

 

Zephaniah’s words follow on the heels of these and describe the sort of people God creates out of the judgment and punishment that was visited upon Israel, Judah, and Edom:

“I will remove from your midst those boasting with pride.  No longer will you be haughty on my holy mountain, but I will cause a humble and powerless people to remain in your midst; they will seek refuge in the name of the Lord.” (Zephaniah 3:11-12)

 

We have here a picture of contrasts.

Those who are prideful, who gloat over the misfortunes of others, who are so thankful that they are safe and warm in their beds while others suffer… they are the ones facing judgment and destruction.

But those who seek refuge in the Lord, who know their limitations and weaknesses, who seek to help others and have compassion on the suffering… they are the ones in whom God delights.

 

In this day and age, our political parties are like the perpetually warring brothers Jacob and Esau.  Pride, vanity, power all get in the way of real relationship.  And we can be so focused on having it our way and our answers and our recipe for success that we actually hurt ourselves and those around us.

And as much as we don’t want to admit that those same kinds of prideful interactions are part of the church, they are.  As someone who has participated in the local, regional and global levels of church leadership, we, too, have political parties and opposing sides… caucuses and maneuvering… winners and losers.

No doubt, some of you will have heard that the Western jurisdiction in the United States just elected and consecrated the first openly gay, married bishop of our church.  Bishop Karen Oliveto has served as the pastor of Glide Memorial in San Francisco, one of the 100 largest churches in our denomination, before being nominated and elected.

As Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops wrote the night of the election:  “There are those in the church who will view this election as a violation of church law and a significant step toward a split, while there are others who will celebrate the election as a milestone toward being a more inclusive church…”

Whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, conflict is at the center of our relationships in the church and in the world.

 

But as Bishop Ough continues in his letter, “We affirm that our witness is defined, not by an absence of conflict, but how we act in our disagreements.  We affirm that our unity is not defined by our uniformity, but by our compassionate and Spirit-led faithfulness to our covenant with God, Christ’s Church and one another.”

 

I hear in the Bishop’s letter and in our scripture today echoes of my favorite passage from Philippians 2:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.

But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.

When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

 

That call to be humble, to let go of our perceived power, to get down in the dirt and be in solidarity with those who are weak and suffering and broken… that is the core of the Christian faith.

It is right there in the life of Jesus.

It is in the parables… as the shepherd leaves the 99 to find the one lost lamb… in the story of the Good Samaritan… in the story of the widow and her mite.

 

As the blogger, Joshua Becker, puts it:  “Humility is… the opposite of aggression, arrogance, pride, and vanity.  And on the surface, it appears to empty its holder of all power.

But on the contrary, it grants enormous power to its owner.

“Humility offers its owner complete freedom from the desire to impress, be right, or get ahead.  Frustrations and losses have less impact on a humble ego and a humble person confidently receives opportunities to grow, improve, and reject society’s labels.” (http://www.becomingminimalist.com/the-hidden-power-of-humility/)

 

There is nothing we can do to change the dialogue at the national level right now, but we can choose how we engage in the relationships right here in this room.  We can choose how we have dialogue in our families.  We can choose the kind of dialogue we will have on social media and in coffee shops.

We can let go of our pride, we can let go of arrogance and aggressive attitudes towards one another and instead, we can practice humility.

We can try to hear what one another really thinks.

We can discover and appreciate the values that are at the core of their positions.

We can respect one another as persons and refuse to demonize our opponents.

And we can commit together to turn not to the power of kings or presidents or worldly leaders to save us… but to turn instead to prayer.

Prayer centered in the humble and self-giving life of Jesus Christ.

Prayer that calls us out into the world to love all people as children of God.

Prayer that transforms us from the inside out.

 

I urge you, as a witness to how Christians act in times of conflict, to live with humility over the next few months.

Seek out conversation with people you disagree with and truly listen.

Be willing to let their positions change you.

Be willing to share openly and honestly and in loving ways what you believe.

Don’t gloat over wins, and don’t pass around falsehoods and half truths.

Instead, stand with people when they are hurting.

Admit when you are wrong.

Try to grow in the knowledge and love of God and the world every single day.

 

 

 

Love before Knowledge

There are two things I have come to hope for on Communion Sundays:

Welch’s grape juice in the cup, and Hawaiian Sweet Bread on the table.

 

941928_479696322109898_1492252979_nAnd that’s for a couple of reasons:

First, they both taste better than most other options available.

Second, the Hawaiian Sweet Bread is the perfect combination of soft and easy to tear and yet not crumble into pieces all over the place – which is a good thing when you are the one breaking bread every time.

And third, the Welch’s are Methodist.

 

In fact, the birth of Welch’s grape juice came out of our desire to stop using fermented wine during the temperance movement. Thomas Welch was a dentist and a communion steward at his local Methodist Church. He heard about how Louis Pasteur had begun to pasteurize milk, so he decided to try and apply the process to grape juice in 1869.

His son, Charles, marketed the pasteurized grape juice to these temperance-minded churches. In fact, he quit his job as a dentist to do so and created the Welch’s Grape Juice brand in 1893. (from Welchs.com/about-us/our-story/our-history and http://www.gbod.org/resources/changing-wine-into-grape-juice-thomas-and-charles-welch-and-the-transition-)

 

While the roots of our “unfermented juice of the grape” go back to the late 19th century, we have continued to emphasize using grape juice, even long after prohibition was repealed.

Our 1964 Book of Worship included this phrase which we have continued to use until today: that while the “historic and ecumenical practice has been the use of wine, the use of the unfermented grape juice by The United Methodist Church and its predecessors is an expression of pastoral concern for recovering alcoholics, enables the participation of children and youth, and supports the church’s witness of abstinence.” (BOW p 28)

I share the brief history lesson, because I think it relates to our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this morning.

As this community struggled with what it meant to be unified, they realized that a lot of different types of folks were part of their church.

Some of them were life-long Jews who had followed the way of Jesus. They had only ever worshipped one God. Yet some of the new believers in the faith were pagans. They had spent their entire lives worshipping at the temples of various Roman deities like Apollo and Poseidon.

So how were these people all supposed to share one roof? They had different histories of practice and different understandings of what it meant to worship.

One particular place where their practices conflicted was around the practice of eating meat. In the ancient world, almost all of the meat consumed was done so at a temple. That lamb or beef or whatever was the result of an offering given to the local god.

And here is where the conflict came.

Those who had been followers of Christ of a while, many from the Jewish background, KNEW that there was only one God. Intellectually, there was no worship of these various gods because they simply didn’t exist. So who cared if they partook of a little steak at the local temple?

Well, for those who had recently converted away from that temple worship, it was a big deal. The new converts were working hard to keep on the way, to follow Jesus, and all that alluring smell of roasted meat was making it awfully difficult. And when they peeked in the doors of Apollo’s temple and saw the elders of their new church eating – well, they got pretty confused.   Was Apollo real or not? And if Apollo wasn’t real, why were those Christians worshipping him?

So Paul lifted up a practical solution for the faithful long-time Christians: just stop eating meat.   It is the loving thing to do. And even though you know it isn’t idol worship, you have the ability to choose to act a different way in order to help your brothers and sisters in Christ.

In the same way, we lift up grape juice when we break bread together, so that all might be welcomed at this table. It doesn’t mean wine is bad. It doesn’t mean that some of us don’t drink. But choosing to consume grape juice together means that everyone has a place here.

There is a line in Paul’s letter that I think is key for us to remember this morning: You sin against Christ if you sin against your brothers and sisters and hurt their weak consciences this way.

Now, here Paul doesn’t mean they are weak as in bad… he simply means they are new to the faith. They still have a lot to learn. They are growing into what it means to be a Christian. And so they need to have as few barriers to their faith as possible.

Do you remember, with the children, when we talked about evil spirits? When we talked about those things in our lives that keep other people from knowing Jesus?

Knowledge is sometimes like that. We can flaunt it and it can puff us up and keep us from really and truly showing love to another person.

Love is what is important. Not rules or knowledge or what we eat or drink. Love binds us together. If we remember that we sin against Christ if we sin against our brothers and sisters and hurt them, then love leads us to ask the difficult question of how our actions keep others from Jesus. Is there something about what we are doing that is harming the body of Christ?

 

I am tempted to keep this a surface level conversation about grape juice on the communion table, but the truth is, there are all sorts of really tough and difficult things that threaten to break apart our churches. There are all sorts of things we do and say as Christians that hurt our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters and neighbors.

And perhaps the one that is on many of our minds in recent weeks has been same-sex marriage. Perhaps you have read in the newspaper, or seen on television, how a retired pastor in our conference, Rev. Larry Sonner, officiated the wedding of a same-sex couple and then turned himself in to the Bishop. In our Book of Discipline, our tradition and teaching does not support same-sex marriage, even though our state laws do, and so a process was begun seeking a just resolution.

What is amazing is that we have a process of just resolution at all. According to our Discipline, “a just resolution is on that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible and bringing healing to all the parties.” (¶363.1).

It is a powerful witness to the love and grace and mercy of God in a world that is so focused on punishment and retribution. In his article on the Des Moines Register, columnist Daniel Finney wrote:

“It’s especially admirable considering how poor our public dialogues are relating to just about any issue today. Here you’ve got a veteran pastor questioning the laws of a church he has dedicated his life to serving and not a voice was raised, not a fist was shaken. Instead, there was thoughtful discussion, prayer and resolution.

Regardless of how one feels about the specific issue, there’s a powerful lesson for peaceful negotiation in this story.”

This is how we act in a church when love and not knowledge is our guide. And this is the witness we have to offer to the world… a witness of finding a way forward in spite of our differences. A witness of acknowledging the harm we do by our actions and inactions. A witness of seeking the good for our brothers and sisters.

So today, I want to share with you portions of a pastoral letter that our Bishop, Bishop Julius Trimble sent to all churches last week:

Grace and peace to you as we journey in Christian discipleship in 2015.

One of the early prayers and initial responses to the formal complaint was that we would be “perfected in Christ love” and engage, rather than ignore, the difficulties the current conflict between what is prohibited in our Book of Discipline and what is legal and celebrated in Iowa.

The reactions to same-gender marriages and relationships and the serious subject of covenant accountability to church polity remind me of a Nigerian proverb: “Children of the same mother do not always agree!

Questions and conflict regarding our future as a Church require much prayer, graceful conversations and decisions that may spell a different future for the Church…

When I was consecrated Bishop, I promised to work to uphold the unity of the Church. I believe that unity has, as its foundation, our love of God and neighbor. I also believe we can have unity of heart and not necessarily all be of one mind. While this Just Resolution is a response to a specific complaint, it recognizes the division of our church on the issue of human sexuality. This Just Resolution is an attempt to honor our disciplinary process, maintain accountability, and seek a deeper, more prayerful, listening to each other and, most of all, to God.

As your Bishop I invite you to join with me in a time of intentional listening to God and each other, remembering that as the Body of Christ, the Spirit can speak through each of us.

Be Encouraged,   Bishop Julius Calvin Trimble

We don’t have time in worship to spend time listening or really go over the content of the just resolution, but I want to extend to you that invitation for a time of intentional listening to God and to one another.  And I want to let you know that I am always available for conversation about this and any other topic that affects our life as a congregation and your lives as individuals.

We won’t all agree. We come at the conversation from various perspectives. We read the scripture through the lenses of our own experience. But above all, we are a people of love, service, and prayer. And together we can put love at the forefront of our conversations and we, too, can seek a prayerful way forward.

And that way forward starts at the table. The table of love and grace and mercy. A table, set with grape juice. Amen and Amen.

 

 

Confrontations

[Wild west whistle]

We know how the story goes.

High noon.

Hot dusty street.

People hiding on porches and behind closed windows.

Good Guy meets Bad Guy for a showdown.

10 paces.

And then the confrontation.

line-of-rocks-203x300

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

 

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

 

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

We aren’t perfect.

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

So there are bound to be disagreements.

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

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

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

Or the style of music.

Or who gets to sit in the back pew.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

And this is for one simple reason.

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

And we simply cannot walk away from one another.

We… the church… are one body.

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

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

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

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

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

That doesn’t seem so hard, does it?

 

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

We sulk.

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

We gossip.

We are passive aggressive with each other.

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

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

 

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

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

We have sinned against God.

We aren’t perfect… remember?

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

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

Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God-with-us.

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

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

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

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

To Peter, “Get behind me Satan.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Sometimes we will make mistakes.

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

But we are the body of Christ.

We are the people of God.

And we need each other.

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

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

Not taking sides.

Not stirring up problems.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Defeat Evil with Goodness

This past week, I listened to an interview between Terry Gross and Jason Segal – one of the producers and the star of the most recent Muppets movie.

Mr. Segal described what it was like to become a part of the Muppets franchise and how much he learned about Muppet culture.  One of the things he discovered was that Muppets don’t ever make jokes at other people’s expense.  They don’t ever make fun of other people.  They are intrinsically good and kind and well intentioned.

And they do not ever try to get revenge or hurt someone else.  Even when faced with their worst enemies – with someone who is trying to kill them or hurt them – they will respond with kindness.

In the very first Muppet movie – Kermit the Frog – was being pursued by Doc Hopper who wanted to loveable Muppet to be the spokesperson for his line of frog leg’s restaurants.  Eventually, the story led to a western style showdown.

Even faced with his worst enemy, Kermit reached out in love.  He shared compassion.  He tried his best to warm the heart of our cold-hearted villain… asking “What’s the matter with you Hopper?  Don’t you know what its like to have a dream?  Who are you going to share your dream with?” and he was willing to die rather than fight or give in.  Thankfully, Dr. Bunsen’s “insta-grow” invention kicked in just in time and Animal saved the day by scaring the villains away.

We might read our scripture this morning from Romans and we might watch that clip and scoff – a real person couldn’t be expected to do that.  We have been taught to fight back, to defend ourselves, to seek revenge AND to win…

I know that when my back is against a wall, my first instinct is to do everything that I can to get away from the situation – violence included.  Just ask either of my brothers after they have tried to tickle me.

Forgiveness and compassion and kindness towards our enemies is such a difficult thing to fathom.  Some of us have been in life and death situations where we have had to defend and protect ourselves.  A few of you have served our country and many of us have loved ones who have put their lives on the line in order to protect others.  In the real world – you can’t just offer a flower and ask someone to be your friend… You can’t just say, I’m sorry… You can’t be nice and hope that someone who is ready to attack you will go away.

Which is why it is important to remember that the words found in Romans 12:16-21 are not rooted in fantasy.  They are not simply wise words to remember and try to live by.  They are words written by someone who has experienced the grace of God.  They are words written by someone who has experienced the forgiving power of transformation.  They are words written by someone who is a living witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This book of Romans was written by an early enemy of the Christian faith.  Long before he was the Apostle Paul – the fine, upstanding, young Jewish leader Saul – was one of the leading agents in suppressing the movement.  He sought out the Christian followers to be executed for heresy.  He not only breathed threats against the disciples of Jesus… he was on his way toDamascusto carry out those threats.

And yet, one of the greatest early enemies of Christianity was touched by Jesus on that road and his life was forever changed.  And the disciples of Jesus Christ let him into their lives… witnessed his transformation and offered forgiveness and healing and love.

Paul, himself, witnessed what love could do to hatred.  He experienced what forgiveness could do to revenge.  He lived a life that exemplified compassion and grace towards his enemies.  Whether he was in prison, or on trial, or experiencing the ongoing persecution of Christians himself, he remembered and lived out the faith that Jesus Christ had passed on to him.

In Romans 12: 14-15, Paul encourages us to not only bless our enemies but to weep with them and to rejoice with them.  He is asking us to identify with them and to genuinely seek their good.  When he and Silas were imprisoned unjustly in Philippi, they ministered to their jailer, and Paul remembered what it was like to be an unbeliever, remembered what it was like to be a persecutor.  When we identify with our enemies, when we walk in their shoes, when we see them as human beings, we find it easier not only to love them… but also to forgive them and to share the good news with them.

In many ways, that is the amazing thing about our relationship with Jesus Christ.  Because of our sin, because of the ways we had turned our backs to God over and over and over again… all of humanity had become enemies of God.  Our love failed.  We rejoiced in the darkness rather than the light.

And yet, rather than deliver us what we deserved, our God in heaven decided to become one of us.  Jesus Christ humbled himself and laid aside his glory and became one of us – an infant placed in the hands of a humble family, a child learning in the temple, a young man teaching and preaching beside the sea.  He became one of us, identified with us, took our life into his own in order that we might not receive justice… but that we might receive grace.

Next week we begin a long and dark week of persecution and trials in the life of Jesus… beginning with his triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem.  But as we have read in the scriptures and as we will experience in worship, Jesus not once cursed his enemies.  Not once did he wish them harm.  Not once did he become like them.  He shows us how to love, how to forgive, and in the process to not be a passive bystander.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this is his encounter with the moneychangers in the temple.  While John’s gospel includes this event at the beginning of his ministry, in each of the other gospels it takes place during that final week in Jerusalem.  Knowing the persecution he would face, knowing the anger he would stir up, Jesus was not afraid to speak truth to power.  He was not afraid to protest at an injustice and make a scene without hurting people, work for change without diminishing another human beings dignity.  It is okay to be angry – but it is not okay for than anger to rule your heart.  The real question is, how can our outrage, our frustration, our pain be used to work for love and justice and change in this world?

Theologian John Mabry writes:

Rosa Parks is an imitator of Christ, not because she suffered for taking her stand (or keeping her seat, in her case), but because she had the courage to believe in her own dignity and fought for it in spite of the conflict that resulted. Nelson Mandela is an imitator of Christ, not because he suffered in prison, but because he held out for peace and justice, and led a nation to resurrection. In each case it is not the suffering that is redemptive, but the courage to pursue justice in the face of pain and evil.

And that is what Christ did.  He sought to share the good news of God with the world.  He proclaimed the reign of God in the face of the reign ofRome.  He sought to reconcile his enemies and restore the love of God in the temple and inJerusalemand in the world.  And he was killed for it.

In the face of injustice and evil and oppression, we are called to overcome with goodness.  We are called to overcome with love.  We are called to overcome with compassion.  We are called to not let those forces to control our own hearts.

Share the story of the Danish resistance to the Nazi occupation during WW2.

Maybe you have heard this before, but it is a parable worth repeating and remembering:

A Cherokee elder was teaching his children about life.

A fight is going on inside me,” he said to them. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandchildren thought about it and after a minute one of them asked, “Which wolf will win?”

The elder simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Let us feed the wolf of love in our lives.  Let us be imitators of Christ Jesus – standing up for what is right, blessing and not cursing our enemies, showering them with love and compassion and forgiveness… so that we do not ourselves become that very thing which we despise.

Amen and Amen.

What tires you?

I recently had my annual interview with my conference superintendent.  We talked about what was going on in the church, the joys and the struggles of ministry in a small town like Marengo, and I had a chance to talk about what I feel is a calling to revitalize small to medium sized churches like the one I am currently serving.

But about three fourths of the way through our conversation, he stopped me and said:  A few times now you have used phrases like “in a rut,” “tired,” and “wears me out.”  What is going on with that?

I had not even realized that I had been doing it.  And as I sat there and thought, my work had very little to do with why I was feeling that way.

My ministry was feeling some of the side effects of what was going on in other parts of my life.

So I’ve been thinking really hard this week about what exactly it is that is wearing me out.  Stress, conflict, exhaustion in some areas of our lives bleed through to the ones that are going well.  So you can’t ignore it.  You have to figure it out and work on dealing with it.
What is wearing me out?
To have a baby or not
It seems like everyone around me is pregnant or just had a baby.  I’m twenty-nine years old and I was convinced that I would have babies (yes, plural) by this point.  But my husband doesn’t want children.  He can’t imagine how they would fit into our crazy, busy lives.  And he’s right.  Our lives as they are right now don’t work for children.  They would have to change.  I am okay with that, he’s not.
So, for months now, we have been avoiding the conversation.  And not having a conversation is as hard as having it.  I mean, how do you compromise on something like that?  Either we have kids or we don’t… One of us is going to not get our way. And that reality in itself is hard for someone like me, who wants it to be fair for everyone, to deal with.
But, we finally did it.  We had the conversation.  A big, long conversation.  As I thought about all of the things that I am asking my husband to compromise on in this life as a pastor’s spouse (where we live, when we move, what kind of community we live in, potentially asking his own work to take a back seat at some point), I want to try to let him have this one. And in the end, I promised that I would live into the reality and sit with the idea that we aren’t going to have kids.  As I have done this these past few weeks, it has been easier.  The craziness that is teenage life expressed among my youth group kids helps (yikes!  I pity you parents!). Having adorable nephews and a niece to pour out all of my love on makes a huge difference (I can spoil them and wind them up and then leave!).  And considering the fact that I have not had a weekend free since the middle of August, our lives really are just too crazy to stick a baby into the middle of it right now.
That doesn’t mean that every time I see a baby I don’t get a twinge in my heart.  It doesn’t mean that I’m 100% okay with not having kids.  But I love my husband. And to be honest, I love my crazy and busy life, too.  And so we are going to try to make this decision work. But, please, for now, stop asking when we are going to have kids!
Family stress

There is a lot going on in my extended family right now that also adds stress and conflict and emotional burdens to my life right now.  So much so that as I sat in a funeral for a friend’s grandparents this past weekend, the tears just would not stop.  I’m mourning the loss of what was and it feels like we can never go back… the relationships are so damaged that I really cannot see a way forward. Carrying that pain is exhausting, but letting it go means that I have given up.

That conflict seems to also affect other relationships that are experiencing conflict… ones that would not have been so burdensome otherwise.  When I see firsthand what happens when problems are not addressed, and then watch other people in my life make similar choices to sweep things under the rug, I cringe, imagining the worst of what might happen.

I am so grateful for my brothers who are right there beside me walking this hard road and I can already see the ways that my family has been brought closer together as we protect and love and support one another… and as we commit ourselves to talking about what is going on in our lives, instead of pretending.

Exercise?  What’s that?
The hard part about really loving your work is that it takes over your life if you let it.  And I have.  It has been so flexible lately that I don’t have a routine for my home life. And so I’m doing good things and come home tired and instead of taking care of myself (especially my body), I sit in front of the television and let my brain turn into a pile of goo.  Exercise gives endorphins and makes you feel good and I just have not been keeping up with it lately.  But my mom and I are going to start holding one another accountable and that should help. =)

Our lives need balance and they need support.  When one area of our relationships or work or health is not functioning fully, the whole system can fall apart.  So take a good hard look… what is tiring you out?  And what can you do to take that seriously?