Rising Strong: Go All In

You know, in churches we like to use words like repentance and transformation – all words for making radical changes in our lives.  But, the truth is, the church is often the LAST place change occurs.  One of my mentors often reminds me that church is often our escape from rapid change that happens in the world… it’s one of the only stable places we can run to.  But sometimes, we just are stubborn and afraid to try new things, to take risks, to do it the way we’ve never done it before.

I firmly believe, however, that God is not done working on the people of Immanuel.  The Holy Spirit and God’s sanctifying grace are always and every day working to make us better and more faithful. To make us stronger because we are people of the resurrection.

In this series, Rising Strong, we are looking at what it means to be children of the resurrection.  What does it mean to let Easter change our lives?

In the first week of our series, Pastor Todd reminded us that we need to be ourselves.  You have got to be you.  But that doesn’t mean that is the you will be forever.  No, as Max Lucado says: God loves you just the way you are… and refuses to leave you that way.

Will you pray with me:  (prayer)

 

What does it mean to live as a child of the resurrection?  What is asked of us?  What will be required?

As Jesus began his public ministry, he calls out: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The Greek word that we translate into repent is metanoia…  it is a reorientation or a fundamental transformation in the way that we experience the world and everything that God created.

Metanoia is not simply owning up to past sins – although, that is part of it, because repentance is seeing ourselves fully – the good and the bad –through the power of Christ.   We see the dark parts of our lives, but we also discover gifts and strengths that have been dormant or hidden.  Repentance is a new awareness of who we are and who we are called to be.

As Jesus moved to Capernaum, change started to happen in Galilee.  People began experience their faith differently.

People like Simon Peter and Andrew. People like James and John.  Brothers who were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee.

 

I used to think of fishing as a sort of leisure activity – lounging in the sun by a lake, waiting for a fish to come by and nibble.  Until the Discovery Channel began to air their series: Deadliest Catch.

The show follows fishing crews in the Bering Sea as they attempt to bring in the most king crabs during the winter season.  It’s not easy work.  The worst storms occur during crab-fishing season and the waves can be as large as 30 or 40 feet tall!  Add that to the frigid 38 degree water and there is plenty of danger.

In fact, more than 80 percent of the fatalities Alaskan fishermen suffer on the job are due to drowning — either from falling overboard or as a result of a boat accident.

While the Sea of Galilee might not be quite as cold – the temperature averages from 60-90 degrees throughout the year – fishing was dangerous… especially considering that it was done without all of the safety equipment of today!

The Sea of Galilee is known for having violent storms caused by wind funneling down into the valley the lake is located in.  I read about a storm just over twenty years ago that sent ten feet high waves crashing into towns on the western shore.  Try to imagine those kinds of waves on the Saylorville Lake and you get the picture.

Besides being dangerous because of the waters, fishing was also extremely labor intensive.

Nets were tossed into waters by the shore or dropped from boats and then drug to round up the fist. Those nets had to continually be washed and boats kept in repair.  Newly caught fish must be sold immediately or smoked or salted for storage.

Suffice it to say – Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John were not lazy young men.  They were hard workers whose families depended upon their labor.

But then Jesus came to Galilee… “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

And he called out to these brothers: Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.

Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

 

You know, Andrew and Peter and James and John didn’t just leave their nets.

They left their jobs, they left their families, they seem to have left everything behind in order to start on this new path and follow Christ.   They went all in.  They gave everything they had.  They let the radical, amazing call of Jesus completely transform their lives.

 

So what does it mean to go all in today?

Is this call so powerful that we, too, are called to leave families and jobs hanging in the balance?

 

Thomas Long, a preacher and professor at Candler School of Theology says that in a sense, yes:

“… Jesus disrupts family structures and disturbs patterns of working and living.  He does so, however, not to destroy but to renew.  Peter and Andrew do not cease being brothers; they are now brothers who do the will of God (Matt. 12:50).  James and John do not cease being sons; they are now not only the children of Zebedee but also the children of God.  All four of these disciples leave their fishing nets, but they do not stop fishing.  They are now, in the nearness of the kingdom of heaven, fishers for people.  Their past has not been obliterated; it has been transformed by Jesus’ call to follow.”

These first disciples came to see themselves in a totally new way.  When Jesus called them to follow, they saw the potential of who they could be.  Not just brothers and sons and fishermen, but a part of the Kingdom of God.

Sure, they were ordinary guys, but they discovered within themselves a new purpose and direction.  They just had to use the talents, abilities and life experiences they already possessed in a new way.  Andrew, Simon Peter, James and John went all in and became disciples… but they never stopped being fishermen.

When we go all in today, we come to see our lives in the light of the resurrection.

We come to understand that God wants us to use all of the gifts and skills in our lives for the Kingdom.

 

While other kids in my class would get stage fright or be wary of volunteering for a demonstration… I was always the kid with my hand shot up in the air waiting to be picked.  Words just seem to come naturally and I was always comfortable talking in front of others.  So I majored in speech and rhetoric communications in college, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to use that degree.

Because, you see, I also love science and math and thought that all fit together if I became a meteorologist.  And not just a t.v. weather girl… I wanted to be one of those people you see behind computers doing calculations and teaching viewers El Nino patterns.

I never imagined I’d be a pastor.  Even after I decided to go to seminary… I thought I would use my skills teaching in a small college and helping students find their way.

Until I finally heart God’s call for my life.  Repent!  Shift your thinking!  Go All In!  You are supposed to be a pastor!

Holy cow, was it scary to think about.  It was overwhelming!

I didn’t know what it would mean for my life – especially how it would impact my future husband.   I wasn’t sure what it would mean to be itinerant in the United Methodist Church and have little control over where God would send me.  I didn’t grow up in the church, how could I ever lead one?

But, when I decided to go all in and give this crazy call a chance, everything started to make sense.

If metanoia is having a greater understanding of the reality that we experience – then I began to see how all of the pieces of my life fit together.  And I was able to embrace my calling and followed Christ.

That doesn’t mean that it has been an easy road– but for now – I truly feel like this is my part to play in the Kingdom of God.

 

I imagine many of you are sitting out there, thinking, well, that’s all fine and good for Pastor Katie or Pastor Todd, but I’m not called to go all in and give everything to God.  I’m a normal person!

Well, really, so am I.  And so were the disciples.

You know, those four in the boat were fishermen before they heard God’s call to go all in.  And God took what they had and who they were and used it for God’s kingdom.

And that same invitation comes to us whoever and wherever we happen to be. A carpenter might hear Christ call out, “Follow me and I will make you builders of people.”  A chef might hear Christ call out, “Follow me and you will feed my hungry people.”

Just like those first disciples – we are called to take the best of what God has given us and use it for the Kingdom of God.  Our act of repentance is not only realizing the places where we have failed in our lives… but also recognizing the gifts and strengths of who we are and how God wants us to use them.

The message of Christ is not “Help Wanted – Fishermen Only!” As one pastor put it, “The point is that you and I were meant to become a part of the tremendous divine plan to bring light to a dark world.”[1]

 

Jesus calls out:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

How are you called to be a part of the Kingdom that Christ has begun?

What does it mean for YOU to be a child of resurrection in the work you do outside this building?

Just imagine what might happen if every person in this room decided to go all in… to give all of your gifts and skills over to God.

In love, service, and in prayer, God could truly change this world.

[1] http://www.lectionarysermons.com/jan24ser99.html

Sermon on the Mount: Blessed

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you in these blessings?  

Are you the poor?  Are you mouring?   

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

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

Is your heart pure?  Are you working for peace?

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

Then blessed are you.  Blessed by God. 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

Rusty Leftovers

I want to start out this morning with a testimony… This is my experience and I hope and pray that my own story might somehow connect with yours and that the transformation in my own life might point to the way that God might also work in yours. 

This testimony however is about a topic that makes a whole lot of us uncomfortable… but it is part of our daily lives.  This morning, I’m going to talk about money.

And my testimony is this: It took me three years of serving a congregation… three years of being a pastor… before I tithed to the church.

You might hold pastors up on a pedestal or think that as a pastor I do all of the things that people of faith are supposed to do like feed the hungry, pray every morning, read the bible cover to cover all the time, and give 10% of their money to the church.

But pastors are just like everyone else.  We are disciples, too.  We have struggles and successes.  We have places where we are explorers and beginners.  Only sometimes are we truly mature in every part of our faith. There is always room to grow deeper in our relationship with God… even for pastors.

I often gave to the church… but for a long time, I made excuses about how much I should give.

When I was a teenager and had occasional part time jobs, I might have stuck a dollar or two in the offering plate – whatever pocket change I might have had that day.  It was the last of my money… not the best.

When I was in college, I did not attend a church regularly on Sundays, but worshipped on campus Wednesday nights – and no one asked for a financial contribution.  No one asked me to give, much less give sacrificially. So I didn’t.

As a seminary student and an intern at a church, I was spending more money on school and travel than I was making and piling up debt.  I gave my time to the church and occasionally a few bucks as well.

And then I was commissioned and sent to First UMC in Marengo.  I was sent to be their pastor and I knew that I could not ask them, in good faith, to give faithfully to the church and to God, if I was not also giving. 

Having a steady paycheck for the first time in my life, I should have immediately started tithing.  But I didn’t.  I held back.  I looked at my student loans and debt from college… I looked at how much our cable bill was going to be… I thought about how we wanted to travel a bit… I knew that taxes would take a chunk of my wages… And so I started out small.  I gave to the church – but only a small portion.

And then, I became comfortable with that level of financial giving.  I knew I was doing God’s ministry in other ways and so I didn’t worry about it.

But one day about three years into ministry, I was having a conversation with a friend, a fellow pastor, about the things that we cling to… the things we hold close and refuse to give to God.

I realized in the midst of that conversation that I had never willingly yielded my money to God. 

There had been times when I had given out of guilt. 

I have given because it was what I was supposed to do. 

I have given out of habit as the offering place went around and each person in the pew pulled out a few bucks and dropped it in. 

Sound familiar?

But never had I prayerfully thought about what God wanted me to give. 

Never had I searched my heart to ask what I was willing to yield, what I was willing to joyfully give up in my life, for the sake of our Lord and our church.

 

This conversation was a conversion experience for me, and I really prayed about what God could do through the gifts that were placed in my hands and started giving more to the church on a regular basis…

The next year as we made our financial commitments, my heart led me to set aside a full 10% of my salary for the Kingdom of God.

In Marengo, the church struggled with finances and they didn’t have a lot of money to pay their pastor…. But I found that even… maybe especially… because I was giving, I had enough. 

I joyfully gave that money to God… and I have to tell you – I didn’t miss one cent.  I still don’t!

And maybe that’s because in the process I learned how to give to the church first.  I make sure that the gifts I have committed come out of my paycheck before it ever comes home with me. 

I learned how to give God my first and my best, instead of the change in my pocket – instead of the leftovers from my own spending and desires.

In Leviticus, we hear instructions for this early agricultural society to leave the crops on the edges and on the corners for the needy in the midst.  The farmers were not supposed to harvest every last seed and kernel, but rather let them remain in the fields so that the poor could go through the fields and glean the leftovers for themselves. 

A portion of the harvest, of the economic benefit earned by the farmers, was to be let go of before it was even taken out of the fields.   It belongs to God… and God desires that it belongs to those who need it the most. 

Today, not all of us are physically out in the fields harvesting the grain… but we can think about setting aside a portion of our income… a portion of our take home pay… for God’s use before it ever makes it into our bank accounts.   

Instead of giving to God what is leftover after all of our other expenses… necessities and luxuries… we can leave that portion of our gifts in God’s hands first. 

 

A year or so after I had this discipleship conversion and grew in my generosity, Bishop Trimble asked me to lead Imagine No Malaria.

I had just learned how to give… but I was so excited about what God could do through the dollars and cents entrusted to our care…

Maybe that made me exactly the right person to help United Methodists across the state give over $2million to help fight malaria… often $5 and $10 at a time.  Millions of children are alive today because you helped purchase a net, and train a community health worker, and provide malaria medication. 

In Matthew, we are invited to stop hoarding the blessings of our lives, and instead set them free for the Kingdom of God: 

As The Message translation puts it: “Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

The old adage says, you can’t take it with you… and its true.  Our time here on earth is short and piling on pleasures and wants and desires doesn’t get us anything but a house full of stuff that someone else is going to have to sort through.

Where you put your treasure is where you end up, Jesus says.

My family still has a cable subscription and a Netflix subscription… and an amazon prime subscription… and I know I still have some growth to do in my personal discipleship.  Because let me tell you – I am putting some of my treasure into those forms of entertainment and almost every night I end up sitting on the couch in front of the television. 

Where you put your treasure is where you end up, Jesus says.

Television and new clothes and name-brand cereal… they don’t last.  They will all wear out without having made an ounce of difference in this world. 

What lasts is the kingdom of God.  What lasts is the word of God.  What lasts is the joy that I have found through letting go of my desires to ask what God needs from me.

 

This week, I had the amazing experience of traveling to Atlanta to attend the first meeting of the Global Ministries Board of Directors.  I was elected by the jurisdiction to serve as a Director for the next four years. 

One of the executive staff members is Dr. Olusimbo Ige who heads up our Global Health ministries.  Dr. Ige is trained as a community physician, which means she is not only a medical doctor, but also has background in community development, engineering, finance… she is trained to help make the entire community well. 

Dr. Ige shared that she could put her extensive skills to work in a hospital and make $500 – 600,000 a year… but when she sees the lives transformed in a village where babies are surviving birth and children stop dying from malaria… she knows that she is doing the work she is supposed to do.

Today, you will be asked to help contribute funds for UMCOR blankets and health, sewing, and school kits for Ingathering.

This past week, I heard countless stories of how those kits and blankets are being used across this world.  I heard about 5,000 girls in South Sudan who received school kits this year… about women in Armenia who are using sewing kits to learn a new skill and support themselves economically… pregnant moms in Liberia who had no prenatal or obstretic care… but because of the United Methodist Church… because of our gifts and resources… because we traveled to their remote village and brought life-saving interventions every single one of the 123 babies born this year lived. 

Where you put your treasure is where you end up, Jesus says…

And as United Methodists, we end up all over this world, doing amazing things for the Kingdom of God.  

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 

You see, friends, God does not want your money, if God doesn’t have your heart.

God doesn’t have any use for your stuff, if you won’t let go of your soul.  

God doesn’t care about the things that you own… even if they could be used to help other people… unless you are willing to share with God your life. 

 

Our generosity is a deep part of our discipleship… of our relationship with and for God.

Grow in your love of God… grow in your love of neighbor… and let God grow your generosity for this world. 

The Sweetest Grapes are Closest to the Vine

This spring when I planted my garden, I included some pumpkins for my husband.

Typically, I try to avoid plants with vines, because they tend to take over the entire garden.  I plant bush varieties of cucumbers and squash and beans to keep everything more compact.

But pumpkins don’t come in bush varieties 😉

I planted only four seeds… all together in one mound…

They were planted at the right depth, they were watered and weeded.  And the vines grew.

As the summer went on, the vines took over the garden with their broad leaves and bright yellow flowers.  Stretching the entire length of my garden were glorious vines and the beginning of fruits. The weather was perfect for vine production… maybe not so much for fruit… but definitely for vines. 

But there were some scattered ugly brown vines here and there.  

In the midst of all of the living, thriving vines, some were dying. 

Now… the pumpkins really did take over much of my garden.  And so I had to tread carefully through the chaos to trace those dying vines and find the source of the problem. 

All of them were connected to a single branch… a single shoot off of the main stalk that had been severed from the vine.  Perhaps it was a rabbit or a chipmunk.  Maybe a bug.  Maybe I stepped on it.  No matter what had happened, every vine that branched off from that point was dying because it was no longer connected to the roots and stem that gave it life. 

 

In our scripture this morning, we are reminded that we will die spiritually… that we are incapable of producing fruit when we are not attached to the vine, when we are not connected to the roots which nourish us.  

And our true vine is Christ… the Christ we meet in worship… the Christ we meet in God’s Word… the Christ we meet in fellowship and in the face of the stranger.

 

As I studied this scripture, I set aside my paltry knowledge of pumpkins and turned to the world of grapes.  

Did you know that the best and the sweetest grapes are found closest to the vine?  

Nancy Blakely reflects that this is because they are closer to the source, “where the nutrients are the most concentrated.”  In fact, this is why growers of grapes are so diligent about pruning their vines… because the farther away from the vine the grapes are, the bitterer and the smaller they will be.  

But close in, close to the heart of the vine, abiding near the heart, they find the nourishment they need and produce bountifully.  

 

As we have been exploring a life of discipleship, so far we have explored what it means to be people who worship and people who share in God’s hospitality towards others.

But we also need to be fed and nourished in our work.  As Jesus reminds us in the gospel of John:

“A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine.  Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me… without me, you can’t do anything.”

 

So today, we turn our attention towards our spiritual formation, or how we stay connected to the vine.    What it means to abide in God and to remain in Jesus.

Take out the half sheet of paper that describes those various levels of spiritual formation.  

Maybe you are a small bunch of grapes way out there on the edge of the vine.   Many of us in worship today want to know more about God and Jesus and you are curious and getting started.  And that is amazing.    

We have third graders who will be learning today with their bible partners after worship…  but even if you are older than a third grader, its not too late to start.  

All of us should be reading the bible… it is the number one way that we stay connected with Jesus.  And it is a whole lot easier when you are in a safe place where you can ask questions and learn together.

We have been trying to offer Sunday morning bible studies, and I, personally, have been disappointed that more of you have not signed up.  Maybe it’s not the right time… but bible study itself is something that this church really needs in order for us to grow spiritually.

In fact, this is so important to me, that starting in November, I’m going to be leading a bible study every Wednesday night, and I’d love for you to join me.  

 

Maybe you are a bunch of grapes that is a bit closer in to the vine.  Growing a bit sweeter and bigger and fuller.   Do you regularly spend time reading your bible?  Are you finding other ways to connect with God through prayer or contemplation?

Maybe then your next step is to go deeper with others.  Our life groups have been places where many have been formed and have grown in their faith as they connect with God or each other.  They have made prayer beads, and explored topics like forgiveness and stewardship.  Some of our in-depth scripture studies like Covenant or Disciple have really challenged people to take seriously the bible in a new way.  If you are ready to go deeper… we have resources – either within the church or through retreats like Walk to Emmaus to help you connect more fully to the one true vine.  

 

Maybe you are a strong bunch of grapes… ripe, sweet, and full… right up there tucked in close to the vine.  Are you in a place where get up every day, ready to connect with God?  Do you not simply wait for the church to offer something, but seek out opportunities to learn and to grow?  

Maybe your next step is to turn your life-giving energy towards others.  Whether it is a partner for our third graders, or a leader of a class or life group, or personally mentoring someone… in helping another person grow, you will grow in new ways yourself.

 

One limitation of our vine metaphor is that it makes us think we are fixed in and we are not.  

You are not limited by wherever it is you are on the vine.  

If you are a tiny, sour little bunch of grapes way out on the edge, you can take the next step and move a bit closer to God.  

If you are a bunch of grapes that is not yet ripe, but growing… you can take the next step and move a bit closer to God. 

And you can carry the vine itself with you wherever you might go.  This vine is not meant to be stuck in the ground at 2900 49th Street…. We are meant to move and be engaged in the world with Jesus.

 

Now, there is another category of people who are not listed on this sheet, but who come up in our scripture:  The spiritually wilted and dying.  

Maybe you were closely connected to the vine at some point, but that day has come and gone.  

You know, none of us are perfect.

All of us let things besides God into the center of our lives at one time or another.

Just like my vines were cut off by critters or bugs or clumsy feet, maybe you were disconnected by work or family responsibility, disappointment or doubt.

The troubling part of this scripture for me is always the part about the pruning.  It appears like God the vinedresser simply snips off those dead and wilted branches from the vine, throws them in the fire or compost pile, and forgets about them… just like I did with my pumpkin vines this summer.  

So is there any hope for those of us who aren’t as connected as we would like?

 

No matter who you are or where you are in your relationship with God, there is always a chance to take a next step and be formed spiritually.

Even if you have broken away from the vine.

You see… the same God who talks about pruning also talks about grafting.

Grafting is a process where a branch can be attached to the trunk and roots of another tree – in many cases, different types of trees and plants are connected together for hybridization and for strength and growth.

In the scriptures, Paul talks not about vines, but about trees… the family tree of God.  The gentiles were grafted on to that tree… brought into the family after some of the faithful branches broke off.  

In Romans, chapter 11, he talks about those branches were broken off because of their own unbelief.

But if God could take us… gentiles who didn’t belong… and graft us on to the tree… then God has the power to reattach the broken branches, too.  

Even the branches that appear to be dead and dying have the ability to be restored by God’s grace.  

This morning, the bread and juice from this table will go to our homebound members who are not able to be physically present with us today, so too do we need to take the vine with us to those who are in danger of being cut off.

You are the hands and feet, the branches and leaves of Christ in this world.  And maybe you are the reconnection point for someone you know.  Maybe it is your own son or daughter. Or a friend. It might be a neighbor who hasn’t opened a bible or door to a church in a very long time.

With God’s grace and strength flowing through you, let the love of God that abides in you overflow into your love for them.

This World Communion Sunday reminds us that we don’t do faith all by ourselves.  Every part of the Body of Christ across this globe is a branch of the one true vine.  And parts of this world are broken and hurting, full of anger, pain, and grief.  

But as Kate Huey puts it, “Here, up close to the vine, immersed in [God’s love and peace], we find not only nourishment but also hope and joy, and we let God’s word ‘find a home in us through faithful devotion… ‘ When we remain that close to Jesus, we attuned to him and he to us, the remarkable result is that what we want will be what God wants, and it will surely come to pass.”

And it will take all of us, living together in love, growing deeper in our love and knowledge of God, to truly transform this world into what God desires.  But we aren’t alone. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

every piece of the pie

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I’ve always liked playing Trivial Pursuit.  The questions were always so difficult, but I like that the game aims to help you be well-rounded in your knowledge.  The goal is to get every single different piece of the pie filled in… only then do you win the game.

Maybe that’s because I’ve always been somewhat of a generalist instead of a specialist… I like to try a little bit of everything, learn a little here and there, get involved in as many different ways as I can.

Today in worship and in celebration, that’s how we talked about our life of discipleship.  God doesn’t want us to just do one thing – like prayer or one activity like music.  I firmly believe that God wants us to dive in – to take our ordinary, every day lives, and to let every part of it be part of God’s work in the world.  Our volunteering, our resources, our love for people, all of it.  It all belongs to God.

God wants us to love with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

God wants us to experience every single piece of a life of discipleship:  worship, hospitality, spiritual formation, practicing our faith, service, and generosity.  God wants us to be well-rounded as we follow Jesus into the world.

And so today at Immanuel, we had pie… lots of pie!  And we heard testimonies from many different people in the church about how they have been called to serve in all these different areas and what difference they make in their lives.  And we had opportunities for people to sign up for over 80 different activities, ministries, and groups as part of the ministry of our church.  We worshipped with songs that were traditional and contemporary (sometimes in the same song!), we gave bibles to our kindergarten and third graders and paused for a time of remembrance of 9/11.  We sang and prayed and explored the building – every nook and cranny.

I am constantly amazed by the talent and love and devotion of the people at my church.  They are passionate about what they do and willing to grow and try something new.  They have skills beyond measure.  Their hearts overflow.

And I can’t wait to see what God is going to do when we all challenge each other to continue growing as disciples… to share the gifts we have with others and stretch ourselves in new ways and new areas by letting others teach us.

 

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In today’s parable, Jesus is in the middle of teaching his disciples one last time.  He is only days away from his crucifixion in Jerusalem, days away from leaving them, days away from his death.  Jesus wants to make sure they are prepared for life after he is gone.

He is asking these people to live out their discipleship – to follow him, to become like him, to take care of each other and to carry on his ministry in the world

Much like the master in this parable who is going on a long trip, Jesus is trying to put his affairs in order so that his ministry is taken care of while he is gone.

The master, like Jesus, is entrusting an extravagant gift in the hands of his servants.

One single talent was a gigantic weight of money. It equaled 6,000 denarii. One denarii was roughly equal to a day’s wages… so if you do the math, each one of these talents was about twenty YEARS worth of pay.

In today’s terms a talent might be thought of as nearly a million dollars.

Now… this is the kind of money that most people never saw. Especially not at once.

But the Lord and master in this story has eight times this much to divvy up among his servants. One hundred and sixty years’ worth of pay… and he is leaving it in their hands.

This is a lifetime’s worth of money. It is costly. And being given all at once, you wonder what the Lord and master could possibly have left. This could very well be everything that he has.

And we know that in reality, the gift of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection was costly.

And this talent, this incredible gift, is placed into your hands.

The gift of discipleship… the gift of a lifetime of following Jesus has been given to you…

What are YOU going to do with it?

 

One of the fascinating features of this story is that not everyone is given the same amount of talents.  The master in this story looks over the skills and abilities of those who are standing in front of them and recognizes they are not the same.

As William Herzog notes, the word used here for ability could also be translated as power.  They are given these gifts because of their power, their position, because of what they have already demonstrated they could handle.

In other words, this is not a test.

No master would be foolish enough to use this much money as an experiment.

No, this ruler knows the servants, honestly assesses them, and puts in their hands exactly what they can realistically handle.

One of these servants receives a single talent.  Another two.  Another five whole talents.

What we discover in this parable is that it is not important what your power or abilities or talents are today.  It doesn’t matter how much you are given.  It is what you decide to do with your discipleship that really counts.

 

This past spring, many of you helped our church to honestly assess our ministry and our life together through a really long survey:   the Congregational Assessment Tool.

We have learned a lot of things through this tool and the leadership of our church is starting to wrestle with how to respond to various pieces.

In worship over the next couple of months, we are going to be exploring a few areas that reflect our discipleship as a church.

Now, in these scores, we were compared to 500 other churches our size around the entire country.  So these scores are not the percentage of you that said these things… but how our church as a whole compares with others

  • I work to connect my faith to all other aspects of my life (32%)
  • I experience the presence of God in my life (36%)
  • We do a good job supporting people in ministry by reminding them they make a difference (48%)
  • We prepare our members for ministry by helping them discern gifts (51%)
  • We understanding that we have a spiritual responsibility for life-long learning and formation (47%)
  • We welcome and are enriched by persons from many different walks of life (39%)

 

If I were to name a common thread that I see in these items, it would be that we as a church have abundant, extravagant gifts in our midst… and we don’t know what to do with them.

These results tell me that when it comes to living out our faith, when it comes to our discipleship, we act a whole lot like the third servant in our scripture today…. Both personally, and as a church.

And I think there are two factors at play here.

1)    As a church, we have not taken the time and energy, like the master of the story did, to help one another figure out what our abilities and position and gifts really are.   You need to know where you are starting in order to know what you have to work with.

2)    Even if we DO know what our abilities, skills, and gifts are… even if we have this talent in our hands… we aren’t sure what we are supposed to do with it.  We don’t have a clear sense of how to help it to grow

 

Here at Immanuel, we define discipleship with a phrase we use every single week:  In Christ, live a life of love, service, and prayer. 

It’s a great, easy to remember phrase… but…

What do we mean by love?  How are we supposed to pray?  Who are we serving?

How do I know if I’m doing it?

And above all… How can I do it better and more fully next week that I did last week.

That’s what today’s parable is all about, after all… taking what you have and helping it to grow.

 

So, starting today, and over the next eight weeks, we are going to break down that vision of discipleship at Immanuel into bite sized pieces.

We are going to explore what this looks like in worship and hospitality, service and generosity, formation and practice.

We’ll start next week with this whole pie and what each area of discipleship looks like at Immanuel, then over next six weeks, we’ll explore how we can take the talent placed in our hands and help it grow.

 

Figuring out where you start is the key to taking the next step.

You may have noticed a bulletin board in the foyer that includes four words:

Exploring.

Beginning.

Growing.

Maturing.

These words are going to help us to claim where we are in this journey of discipleship.

Are you someone who is brand new to this and has no idea what the possibilities are?

Are you someone who is just beginning your faith journey and you are starting to try some things out?

Are you someone who has been working on your discipleship for a while, but you still know you have room to grow?

Are you someone who understands what discipleship is all about and you have been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, and now you aren’t sure what comes next?

The truth is, it doesn’t matter where you start on this journey today.

It doesn’t matter if you are the servant in our story who was given one talent or five talents… or the servant that didn’t even get talked about who wasn’t entrusted with a talent at all.

What matters is what you do with what you have.

 

The truth of this parable is that any one of these servants could have been the ones who chose to let fear or ignorance or laziness creep in.  It could have just as easily have been the one who had been given the most who chose to do nothing with his gift.

Here at Immanuel, we are going to try to help one another not only figure out what we have, but what we can do with it.

We are going to help each other take the next step in our discipleship.

You don’t have to start with a lot in order to be faithful.  You just have to choose to do something with it.  Together… we’ll figure out how.

Amen.

Build the Church Again

It is the last Sunday of the fair.

The final Sunday of the Olympics.

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

And the final Sunday of our Summer of the Prophets.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Be strong! 

Work, for I am with you!

My spirit stands in your midst!

Don’t fear!

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

And it is a lot more difficult as well. 

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

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

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

And so Haggai speaks to us, too.

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

 

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

Be strong! 

Work, for I am with you!

My spirit stands in your midst!

Don’t fear!

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

 

 

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

A new school year.

A new Sunday morning schedule.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Maybe your faith life is in shambles.

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

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

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

You are not alone.

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

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

One step at a time. 

One choice at a time.

One day at a time.

 

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

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

 

We didn’t chose God.  God chose us. 

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

A Different Kind of Proof

A man named Bob Ebeling thought he was a loser.

Mr. Ebeling was an engineer on the Challenger Space Shuttle and discovered that the O-ring seals in the rocket might not hold up in the cold temperatures of the 1986 launch.

He and fellow engineers pleaded with NASA to stop the launch, but they decided to go ahead anyways.

He went home, knowing the shuttle would explode. “And it did, 73 seconds after liftoff. Seven astronauts died.” (NPR 2/25/2016)

In an interview with National Public Radio, Mr. Ebeling shared that for thirty years has been carrying the guilt and the burden of the loss of life on that day.

Lots of people told him that it wasn’t his fault…

That he had done everything he could…

But he couldn’t forgive himself.

He believed one of the mistakes God made was picking him for the job.

And because NASA and the contractor in charge of the launch had never given him confirmation that he had done the right thing, he didn’t believe it.

 

What fascinates me about this story is that Mr. Ebeling did the right thing. He told the truth. He did everything he could to prevent the launch. And after his story first aired in January of this year, calls and letters poured in to his home. People who had been close to him. People who had worked with him. Complete strangers who had been moved to write and let him know that he wasn’t a loser, but a hero.

And yet, he wouldn’t believe… he couldn’t forgive himself…

Unless there was a specific act of proof – a call or a letter from NASA themselves.

 

I hear in his story the same kind of need to know and to find proof that I hear in our gospel lesson this morning.

Women trek to the tomb are the break of dawn. And they have no idea what to make of the stone rolled away. The body of their Lord is no longer there. What they are experiencing doesn’t make any sense until the angels appear and remind them what Jesus had told them: that on the third day, he would rise. And they remember.

Can you imagine their amazement?

They rush back to the disciples and tell everyone about what they have discovered. They tell them about the tomb. They tell the crowd: He Is Risen!!!!

And no one believes them.

They need proof.

They need something more concrete.

They need to see it to believe it.

 

And so Peter runs to the tomb himself, looks inside, and sees nothing but a cloth.

And the scripture says… he returned home, wondering at what had happened

But what I find amazing is that this account leaves out a key detail:  It never says he believes.

And I think if I had showed up there, I would have been surprised and amazed, but I’m not sure I would totally understand what had happened.

I think he was unsure.

Filled with doubt and questions.

He didn’t have enough proof to believe that what the ladies had told him was true.

Unless there was a specific act of proof…

 

Friends, it isn’t easy to believe the story that we share with you this morning.

Resurrection? Yeah, right.

We haven’t seen it or experienced it.

We can’t go back in time and run to the tomb ourselves.

Angels aren’t popping in to worship this morning to tell us how it is.

If even the disciples had a hard time believing, how are we supposed to understand this good news?

Where is the proof? Where is the concrete evidence?

 

Mr. Ebling wanted a word from specific people in order to forgive himself.

And he got it. He got a call on the phone from one of the vice presidents for the contractor, Thiokol who told Mr. Ebling – you did all that you could do. (NPR)

And George Hardy, a NASA official involved in the Challenger loss wrote to Mr. Ebeling – “You and your colleagues did everything that was expected of you.”

And it started to make a difference.

And then came a statement from NASA itself: “We honor [the Challenger astronauts] not through bearing the burden of their loss, but by constantly reminding each other to remain vigilant… and to listen to those like Mr. Ebeling who have the courage to speak up so that our astronauts can safely carry out their missions.”

That was it. That was the thing he wanted to see and hear. The proof he needed to let go of his burden of guilt.

 

The disciples wanted to see it with their own eyes… to touch their Rabbi with their own fingers.

And Jesus appeared to them.

He showed them his hands and feet. He ate a piece of fish with them. He personally reminded them of everything he had said – that he was supposed to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.

They got the proof they wanted.

 

But there is something that those disciples didn’t quite understand…

something that Mr. Ebeling didn’t quite understand…

something that we don’t quite understand whenever we are looking for a specific piece of proof or evidence… something concrete to demonstrate truth.

 

Yes, Jesus gives them the proof they wanted – he shows them his physical resurrected self – but the proof they needed was still to come.

Jesus isn’t there to show them his body. He is there to send them forth to live out his message.

“A change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Look, I’m sending you to what my Father promised.”

 

What if we have it all wrong?

We always say, “seeing is believing.”

But what if DOING is believing?

 

What if in the very act of living out the resurrection and the good news of Jesus Christ we find the proof we are looking for?

What if we are looking for proof instead of living out the proof with our very selves?

 

You see, Jesus, didn’t ask us to intellectually understand the resurrection.

He didn’t ask us to be able to explain it scientifically.

He doesn’t want us to have a philosophical debate with people about it.

Jesus wants us to live it.

To change our hearts and our lives.

To go out in the world and turn it upside down.

He started a resurrection insurrection and Jesus rebelled against the powers of evil, sin and death… and now he calls us to follow him in turning the forces of destruction on their heads.

It is in the process of living it, that we discover just how true and real the power of the resurrection is.

 

Over the last few weeks here at church we have been reading this book, Renegade Gospel. And it hasn’t been an easy book. The author has challenged us time and time again to get out there and live our faith!!!

That has been a hard message to swallow, because so many of us feel like we aren’t doing as much as Mike Slaughter asks of us. We feel guilty because we don’t go as far as he asks us to go. We aren’t sure we are ready to give it our all.

But what Slaughter reminds us in the very last chapter is “that an abundance of faith is not necessary.” Jesus told the disciples that faith as small as a mustard seed could change the world. “It’s not about how much faith you have, but how much of what you have that you commit to action.”

You don’t have to believe every single word of the gospel to live out the power of resurrection.

You can have all kinds of doubts and questions and you can still live out the power of the resurrection.

 

I’m begging you… don’t sit back, waiting for definitive concrete proof before you decide to become a Christian.

I’m not sure it’s there.

But what I do know is that when I live out my teeny tiny little mustard seed faith and trust in the power of resurrection, I find intangible, mysterious, holy truth everywhere.

I find it in this room when I hear the stories of healing in this life and in the celebration of a life that will continue in the next.

I find in in a letter I received from one of you this very morning that describes how you have awakened to a new understanding of faith and discipleship.

I find it at the food pantry in the hope that comes to life on the face of a mom who was desperate.

I find it in the pile of goods and sleeping bags and food that are outside the sanctuary, waiting to be delivered to homeless people through Joppa.

I find it in the discovery on a child’s face when they learn a new word.

 

Mike Slaughter writes that “the resurrected Jesus revealed himself to his followers in a very personal and real way. But he made clear its impossible to know him apart from the commitment to become intimately involved in his life and mission. Intentional participation in his life and mission is part and parcel of faith. Faith is a verb!!!”

So friends, don’t wait for proof.

Don’t spend thirty years of your life waiting for some kind of external validation.

Just follow Jesus.

Go where he sends us.

Join the incredible movement to transform this world!

Live it out by showing forgiveness and grace to every person you meet.

Live it out by praying for the sick.

Live it out by loving the unloveable.

Live it out by holding the hand of someone who is dying.

And you will find the proof you are looking for…

Because Christ is risen!