Dear Church, Love God

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Dear Church,

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

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

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

That’s it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With love that will last forever, God.

The Heart of the Matter

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For the past couple of weeks, I’ve had this strange sensation in my neck.  To me, it feels like my pulse is a bit off of rhythm, like occasionally it skips a few beats, or does a few too many in a row.  It isn’t a constant thing, and it was pretty random until Thursday.  On Thursday afternoon, this thing, whatever it was, happened multiple times all afternoon long.  It doesn’t hurt, but it was kind of freaking me out so I got in to my doctor later that day.

They took my blood pressure, we did an EKG, and ran some blood tests.  Everything came back perfectly normal and my physician isn’t concerned… aside that I need to exercise more.  

While on the one hand, I’m comforted by the knowledge of what it isn’t, I also don’t necessarily have an answer either.  I found myself yesterday second guessing the way I even described the problem.  Maybe it’s not my pulse I’m feeling, but a twitch in my neck.  Maybe it’s all in my head and I’ve just had too much caffeine.

 

As we enter this season of Lent, we are going to be exploring some of the ways that both the United Methodist Church and our congregation have found ourselves searching for explanations and diagnosis.  And we are going to be honest about some of the symptoms that we see, the realities of our lives together. 

In the larger denomination, we are in the midst of a time of disunity that really reflects the culture we find ourselves in.  And the UMC is also numerically declining… we have lost a million members since 2006!  But simply looking at those symptoms, like the strange feeling in my neck, doesn’t automatically tell us what the problem is.  Is it that our older generations are dying out?  Are we having less children?  Is there too much competition?  Are we irrelevant?  Theologians and church leaders keep offering their explanations and no one seems to be able to put their finger on “the answer” to the problem.

 

Bishop Thomas Bickerton wrote the book that is the backbone of not only our worship series this Lent, but also our life group conversations we’ll be having.  (Quick plug: if you haven’t signed up for one yet, you can join this morning’s classes at 9:45, go to Java Joes on Monday nights, or join the one here at the church on Wednesday evenings!)   He thinks in many ways that we are like the church in Ephesus who had forgotten who they were called to be. 

Our scripture this morning comes from a letter Paul wrote to this church and at this time, the church was just on fire for God.  They had started as a small group of committed people and when Paul showed up and ministered among them, the Holy Spirit started working.  God did amazing things through them… impacting the entire city.  Temple prostitution, idolatry, magic, all of these things ended because people instead turned to Jesus.  When the Ephesians experienced the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, God accomplished abundantly more than what those first twelve disciples in Ephesus could have asked or imagined!  

Kind of like the United Methodist Church.  We started with a small group of people at Oxford University who wanted to know God better.  They were committed to the gospel and to Jesus and their faith took them across an ocean to start a church.  John and Charles Wesley could never had imagined the way that God would use them, but their little bands started healing the sick, taking care of the poor, preaching to those who would never have set foot inside the church, and before you know it, the UMC was a world-wide denomination!

You would think that kind of energy can be sustained forever, but it takes work.  We can get ourselves in ruts and we forget the power that got us started in the first place.  In the letters to the churches of Revelation, one of them is written to the people of Ephesus and God praises the work and the labor and endurance of the people, but God also says that they have let go of the love they had at first.  They are urged to remember the high point from which they had fallen.

Maybe the United Methodist Church, maybe our church, has let go of the love we had at first.  Maybe, like the Ephesians, we have a spiritual problem.

 

Bishop Bickerton points to what he calls the “Five I’s” to help us discern a bit about our spiritual reality and where we might be lacking the love of God.   

He notes that the church is a bit low on our INSPIRATION – that we tend to grumble and complain more than we focus on hope.  We need to remember where God is leading us and get excited about it again!   

He sense a lack of INTEGRATION  between what we say and what we do.  I actually have been fairly proud of Immanuel in this sense, because not only are we willing to talk about things that are happening in the world, but so many of you are out there caring for the homeless, visiting the sick, and living your faith.  

Bickerton also points to the dangers of ISOLATION.  Once you disconnect from a community, it is hard to find ways to become part of the group again.  On the back table as you leave, you’ll notice some names and some cards.  We want to reach out to folks whom we haven’t seen for a little while with a phone call or a card… and if you recognize a name out there and are willing to make a connection, take a card and put your name down!

The fourth I is INDEPENENCE.  This world tells us that we have to do it ourselves, but the church reminds us that we are better together.  We don’t have to do it alone because we all can do our part.  

Finally, INVITATON.   This is actually one of the goals of our church today. When we are excited and transformed by the work of God happening here, then we are going to want to pass it on, to reach out and bring people along with us.  

 

At Immanuel, we have had a vision that has sustained us for the last four or five years.  Say it with me:  In Christ, live a life of love, service and prayer.

But one thing our leadership has realized is that we are called to not just be and exist and look to our past, but to continue actively working towards our future.  What are we fighting for? also means What are we fighting to accomplish?  What will be different because we have loved, served, and prayed?  What is inspiring us to move forward?  What is going to challenge us in a way that we simply can’t do it alone and need to invite others to join us?  

As our leadership has discerned, we are feeling God pull is in a new direction and we are excited to share it with you over the coming weeks and months.  

But the heart of the matter, the deep question that faces not just us, but the UMC, and the Ephesians, is whether or not we really want to tap in to the power of God.  The love so strong, so wide, so long, so high, so deep, that God is going to do abundantly more than what we believe in our hearts is possible… if we know where we are going.  If we know what we are fighting to accomplish.    

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.  

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Later this morning/This morning, I’m sharing these words with our Confirmation Class – 10 remarkable young men and women who have worked hard all year long to arrive at this moment.  This sermon is in part for them, but it is also a message for all of us and so I hope you are willing to eavesdrop in  and hear as well.

My young brothers and sisters being baptized and confirmed today: Sometimes people think of Confirmation as the day you join the Church. After you are baptized and confirmed, you now belong to church.

Well, you have belonged to Immanuel for a long time. You have attended Sunday School with Eunice and Deb. Wendy and Pat have taken care of you in the nursery. You have had lock-ins here. I bet there are places in this building some of you have been in that I haven’t seen yet. You have belonged to Immanuel for a long time, and Immanuel has belonged to you.

Baptism and Confirmation are really about something even more profound than belonging to church or belonging to Immanuel or even the United Methodist Church. Baptism and confirmation are celebrations, ceremonies, that announce to the world that we belong not just to church; they are announcements that we belong to Christ.

My young sisters and brothers being baptized and confirmed today: You belong to Christ. All of us here who have taken Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord and who have decided to be followers and disciples of Jesus, we belong to Christ. We are Christ’s.

And that means that you now have a new role to play in your everyday lives. It means that your job, every day, for the rest of your life, is to represent Jesus Christ to the world. Your job is to love people like Jesus would have loved them. It is to treat them with the respect Jesus would have shown them.

I think this job is harder to do today than ever before.

Because our world wants to divide us up into groups.

The athletes and the musicans.

The smart kids and the popular kids.

Rich and poor.

White and black and brown.

Republicans and Democrats.

United Methodists and Baptists and Catholics.

And sometimes when you find yourselves in one of those groups, you start to think that your group has it all together and has all the answers. And you stop paying attention to the people in other groups. You stop trying to figure out what they think. You might start to judge them for who they are and what they represent.

But here is the thing that I have learned so far… a lesson that is lifted up in our scripture this morning…

We need one another.

Last week, at the confirmation retreat, we took a survey to help us figure out our spiritual gifts – our place in the Body of Christ.

And we learned that some of us are like stomachs: we are teachers who can digest complicated ideas and explain them simply to others. We learned that some are brains: we are organizers and planners and lead others. We learned that some of us are feet: we are willing to go to the places in this world we are needed to love and serve.

We each have a part to play. We are not the same, but we are each essential to the Body of Christ.

 

A really big part of growing up and belonging to Christ is letting go of all of the ways the world tries to divide us and looking for the unique role we can play in bringing others together.

Paul encourages us to be worthy of that calling to belong in Christ. We are to be humble and gentle and patient with one another. We are to accept each other with love.

 

Friends, that is not always easy. We are not always going to agree. Sometimes those worldly divisions of money or power or color or preference sneak into the church, too. Sometimes there are fights in churches because we can’t agree about what to do.

And if we are ever having a hard time with that, then Paul tells us we need to remember that this Body of Christ, all of us, are bound together in unity. There are some things that link us together, like ligaments and tendons that hold this whole church together.

We have to remember that we are one body and one spirit. We have one hope that we share. We claim one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God.

Together, as confirmands, you spent some time figuring out what it is that you believe. The creed that we wrote together lifts up that oneness and unity. It describes what we mean that we are one body, together.

One of our founders, John Wesley, had a saying that he used regularly:

In essentials, unity.

In non-essentials, liberty.

In all things charity.

And that means that we are always united by these things you have said together in your creed. They are what bind us together. In all the other details, we might not agree. We might choose different ways. We might not believe exactly the same thing. And that is okay. We have the freedom – the liberty to do so.

But in absolutely everything, we are supposed to love. Because we belong to Christ.

And so in the future… when you are the Ad Council chairperson or the head of Trustees… when you are teaching the preschool class or volunteering in the kitchen… and you get frustrated with one of these church folks, remember this unity.

Remember what holds us together. Remember the core of who we are: we are human beings, created in the image of God, who mess up sometimes, but who are defined by how we have been forgiven and our forgiveness of others. We belong to Christ.

The Shepherd King

As each year draws to an end, another begins.

It is a cycle, an ebb and flow, watching and waiting, the birth of the promise, and then we watch as that promise is fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ.  We witness each year his life, his death, his resurrection.  We watch as the Holy Spirit blows among the people and how the people of God respond.

And at the end of every yearly cycle, we have a glimpse of the Kingdom.  We have a glimpse of the one who will rule forever, eternal in the heavens.

In our epistle this morning, Paul gives thanks for the faith and the love of the Ephesians, and continues to pray that they might know Christ, who sits at “God’s right side in the heavens, far above every ruler and authority and power and angelic power, any power that might be named not only now but in the future.”

You know…. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords that is promised in Isaiah.

And so today, the last Sunday in the church year, we celebrate Christ the King.  We remind ourselves of his power and glory and majesty.

And next week, the cycle begins anew as we return to waiting and preparation in the season of Advent.

Christ the King.

What does it even mean for Christ to be the king of our lives?

What kind of King will he be?

Some kings in our modern culture are ruthless dictators.

Other kings are figureheads who only represent power.

I might have been watching too much Game of Thrones lately, but when I think of a king, the first image that comes to mind is a ruler on the Iron Throne.

A leader who is a part from the people, indifferent to their plight unless it affects him personally.

I picture a king whose battles and wars are for his glory and power.

Other biblical images of kings find people who are full of both faults and incredible wisdom.  At times, we see them sitting in judgment over the people, much like we find Jesus doing in the vision of the end in Matthew 25.

The King is the final arbiter of the law.  When there is conflict among the people, the case is brought before him as their ruler for a word of justice.

Often, when we think of traditional ideas of kingship, the ruler is the judge, jury, and executioner who parse out sentences according to the laws of the land.

Laws that he probably wrote.

So, it is to be expected that when we come to the end… the end of the year, the end of our lives, the end of the earthly realm… that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will sit upon the throne and will give a final account.  He will determine who is worthy to enter the kingdom.

In Matthew 25:31-32: “When the Son of Man comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne.  All the nations will be gathered in front of him.  He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

Just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

What are shepherds doing in this story?

Historically speaking, shepherds and kings belong on opposite ends of the social spectrum.

While kings have armies at their disposal, the shepherd personally protects the sheep. His very body is their first line of defense.

While a king leads from on high, issuing orders through his commanders and sending word through the land, the shepherd leads from the midst of the sheep.

I learned that there is a difference between the way we lead sheep here in the West and how they would have done it in Jesus time, and continue to do in the east. We often herd our sheep like a king would – pushing them forward towards their destination, often with the aid of sheep dogs or other animals. When they begin to go the wrong direction, we push them onwards, or the dogs nip at their heels, and eventually they get where they are supposed to.

In the East however, the shepherd personally led his flock. He would have stood near the front of the flock, but was always in the midst of them. As he walked, they would walk with him. Wherever he went, they would go.

Kings are often indifferent to the plight of their people, but a shepherd knows each one in his flock by name.  And a shepherd wouldn’t hesitate to leave behind the entire flock in order to search for one that was lost.

Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, judges us, calls us to account, in the way a shepherd would.

He gathers the flock together and calls them by name.

He speaks and at the sound of his voice, those who recognize him come running near.

 

But what they and we are surprised by is that Jesus doesn’t judge us by the laws of the church and the kingdom.  You know…. by how many times we came to church or even by holding us accountable to the 10 commandments.  He doesn’t ask if we ate shellfish or if we were circumcised.  He doesn’t separate the married from the divorced.  He says not a word about the tithe or ask how many times we lied.

He separates the people into those who fed and clothed the poor, who welcomed the stranger, who visited the sick and imprisoned…. And those who didn’t.

Jesus, our King, is a shepherd at heart.

Even at the end, his concern is always for the flock.  It is for the lost, and the least and the last.  It is for those who have been forgotten.

The rules are only good in so far as they have led us to be shepherds alongside him in the world.

You see, Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and Shepherd of Shepherds and as his people, as his body the church, OUR task is also to care for the flock.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when the story came out a few weeks ago about Arnold Abbott who was arrested for feeding the homeless.  Abbott is 90 years old and has now been arrested twice for this act of loving his neighbor.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when I learned of the death of Dr. Salia this past Monday.  Dr. Salia went to Africa to serve at the Kissy United Methodist Hospital in Sierra Leone.  He went to the sick, to offer his gifts and skills, and contracted Ebola while he cared for those who were ill.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when I think of the hundreds of people who have poured into Ferguson to stand in solidarity with a community that is frustrated and grieving after the death of Michael Brown… especially those who have worked to bring non-violent training to the young people who felt like they had no other options but violence. Today, I hold them all in prayer as they await the grand jury decision.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when I think about one of our United Methodist ministers here in Iowa, Rev. Dr. Larry Sonner,  who has had a complaint filed against him for officiating a same-sex marriage.

In all of these complicated and difficult situations, I feel the tension between the law and tradition and scripture and what we are supposed to do… and the call to be with and serve the flock, to tend the sheep, to care for the people.

 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

None of these are easy situations.  Our lives are full of complicated choices that can put us in danger or on the wrong side of the law or put us at odds with our neighbors.

But as Paul prays for the Ephesians, so I pray for us… here at Immanuel, in the Iowa Annual Conference, for the people in Ferguson, and for our brothers and sisters across this world who are hungry and homeless and sick and imprisoned:

“I pray that that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, 19 and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers.”

Christ is our King. Christ is the head of our church and our lives.  Christ is the shepherd who is leading this flock.

May we turn our hearts towards prayer.  May we seek God’s wisdom and power and hope.  May we hear the voice of our shepherd and may we go where he leads us.

Amen. And Amen.

More than we can ASK or IMAGINE

On the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, a lot of people are talking about dreams today.
Dreams for racial equality.  Dreams for unity.  Dreams for access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Dreams for our children.  Dreams for reconciliation.  Dreams for a future with hope and freedom, love and peace.
As I read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech again today, I was struck by how focused on the American experience it was.  Never before in my reading had I noticed how every word is intertwined with a sense of national identity and a prophetic reality check on our history and at the time, present conditions.  Or rather, I had always taken that piece of the address for granted.  The American experience encompassed my worldview.  This country is my country.  It is the place of my hopes and dreams.  This is the place where they are realized.
martin-luther-kingOnly, in the last year, my eyes have grown wider.
I’m dreaming different dreams.
I’m looking beyond borders to the needs of my brothers and sisters half a world away.
And so I read those words in a new way today.
Today, I’m thinking about the injustices of a world in which WHERE here we live determines IF we live.
In my work with Imagine No Malaria, I’m constantly trying to figure out how to get my friends and colleagues and brothers and sisters in Iowa and the United States to think about the lives of folks who do not live in this place.
I am trying to help them understand the “fierce urgency of Now” – the need for action, the need to take the momentum in our global fight and step on the accelerator so we can truly overcome this global disease that is taking so many lives.
Our fight is not necessarily against racial injustice, but we are battling a disease of poverty. We are working desperately to overcome systemic problems of access to care and education and resources.  We are working with those whose very fight with the disease keeps them trapped in the poverty that puts them most at risk.
In our work with Imagine No Malaria, we have placed our feet firmly in the promises of Ephesians 3:20… that God will do far more than we can ask or imagine by his power at work within us.
So we are raising our voices and dreaming prophetic dreams, too.
We imagine a world in which WHERE you live doesn’t determine IF you live.
We imagine a world where mothers tuck their …children in at night under bed nets and no longer worry for their safety.
We imagine a world where 655,000 deaths a year are prevented because we have taken action against malaria.
We imagine a world where illness and death do not keep families from fulfilling their dreams for education and work and stability.
We imagine a world where United Methodists from every nation stand together, united, to overcome disease by putting God’s abundant resources into the places where they are needed most.
Our work does not end with our imagination any more than the dream of Dr. King ended with the words said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
God works through us… in us… God accomplishes great things because we stand up and speak out and choose to turn our words into actions.
Just as his speech was a call to action and solidarity, a call to “never be satisfied” until the dream is fulfilled, I am spurred on to keep going, to keep preaching and speaking and working until we watch those deaths from malaria diminish to zero.
The work of the United Methodist Church in Imagine No Malaria is not the same challenge as overcoming oppression and injustice.  It will not lead us into clashes of power  and the resistance we find will not be water hoses and dogs and hatred… but we still have to work together.  We still have to be willing to step out of the comforts of our position in order to give sacrificially to make the dream a reality.
We still have a kingdom dream, a dream of brothers and sisters of all hues living full and abundant lives, working together, praying together, struggling together.
We dream not of a nation, but a world, united by God’s love and sustained by God’s redeeming power.

the wedding garment

When a girl gets married these days, one of the most important decisions she makes is what to wear. On television, you can watch Bridezillas and Say Yes to the Dress and Four Weddings – or even an hour long special on Kate Middleton’s wedding gown – and I guarantee, one of the most expensive items included in any of those celebrations and the one that causes the most anxiety is the dress.
I try not to watch those shows.
And… I tried really hard to “NOT” be one of those girls. I wanted to throw off the shackles of consumerism and find a nice, simple, elegant dress that did not cost me an arm and a leg.
As my mom and grandma and sister-in-law and maid of honor walked into the bridal shop, I made them promise: I was not trying on a dress that cost more than $200. I was not going to fall in love with something that I could not afford.

And seven or eight dresses into the experience, I found the one. It was simple and elegant, understated and yet gorgeous. It was MY dress. And after sashaying around the room and standing in front of the mirror, and picking out bridesmaids dresses that matched, I looked at the price tag: twelve-hundred dollars. I had done it. I had fallen in love with something that was far too expensive.

Unfortunately for the bridal shop, but lucky for me, I am a skilled online shopper. I found the exact same dress for about half the price a few months later. And the dress did make the day. It was and still is – MY dress. And it helps me tell the world who I am. One look in my direction, and people not only knew I was the bride, but also that I wasn’t showy, or stuck-up or traditional.
I love this dress… I really do… but the simple fact is, I can’t wear it to any other wedding. 😉
Wedding garments seem to be the theme for the day, because in our gospel this morning, Jesus tells the crowds a parable about a wedding feast. And he tells them – what you are wearing matters.

Will you pray with me:

We could spend hours talking about the first half of this parable… about how the king threw a wedding feast for his beloved son and how the guests one by one declined the honor, made excuses, and in some cases slaughtered his servants when they showed up with the invitation.

As we have discovered in the past few weeks, there are a number of people in this world who think there are more important things to do than respond to the call of God. There are some who are so caught up in being religious, they forget about who they are accountable to. And as the gospel makes clear, they do so at their own peril.

But for today, I’m more interested in the second half of this story.

You see, when the king’s guests don’t show up, he doesn’t cancel the party. No, he just invites more guests. He has his servants go out and pull people in off the street. Homeless folks, addicts, fishermen, swindlers and thieves, families with children, small town merchants, teachers, retirees… the good and the bad, the simple, the unworthy, the unprepared, the underqualified. You and me.

Never in our lives would any of us ever dream of being invited to a king’s wedding feast. Through the miracles of television, some here got up very early in the morning to watch the latest royal wedding festivities, but our television screens are the closest we are ever going to get to that kind of celebration.

And for most of the people gathered around Jesus as he told this parable, that would have been true as well. They just didn’t bump elbows with those kind of people.

This unexpected invitation, this outpouring of love and acceptance, this grand gesture is one more reminder that God’s ways are not our ways… It is a reminder that the Kingdom of Heaven is opened up to all who will receive the call – the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the good and the bad… as long as we accept that invitation and drop what we are doing to respond.

Here WE are. In one way or another, you have responded to the call of God upon your life… to the invitation from the great King to participate in the holy celebration.

In the church, we often like to talk about how faith saves us. How belief in Jesus Christ and his righteousness leads us into the Kingdom of God. Jesus died for my sins, I accept what he has done for me, bing-bang-boom, one way ticket to heaven.

But you know what… this parable throws a wrench in that simple formula. You see, while everyone was invited… while the invitation and the gospels tell that each one of us is now entitled to heaven through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross… not everyone at the party is allowed to stay.

“When the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” and the man was speechless. Then the King said to the attendants, “bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Sheesh – all because he wore the wrong thing?

If you are anything like me, you are utterly grateful for the grace of God in Jesus Christ that invited you to the Kingdom party. And you were more than happy to drop what you were doing in order to accept that grace and be found worthy of the feast.

We understand that our being a part of the Kingdom of God has very little to do with our actions, but everything to do with the righteousness of Christ, freely given to us through repentance and communion and baptism and faith and prayer. We know we don’t deserve to be here, we know we don’t deserve the grace that has been given to us, and we know that “deserving it” isn’t the point…. Christ is. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, that proves God’s love for us…

But (there is always a but, isn’t there), But, if you are anything like me, in the middle of the party, you start to worry about that guy who wasn’t wearing the right clothes… and maybe you look down at your own clothes.

At weddings today, the bride’s dress is gorgeous, the bridesmaids look lovely and the groom and his men are dressed to the nines. But who really cares what anyone else is wearing. As I have officiated weddings lately, I’ve seen people in suits, people in polos and khakis, jeans and t-shirts, cotton summer dresses, flip flops and sunglasses. And in my experience, no one has been thrown out of any of these weddings I have been to for what they were or were not wearing.

But there it is. At the end of this beautiful parable that has us feeling all warm and fuzzy because we didn’t deserve the invitation, we have a conversation about proper wedding attire.

As scholar Alyce McKenzie reminds us,

Though his actions are harsh, they are not completely unjustified, when understood in the first century context. It was the custom in Ancient Near Eastern weddings, that the guests would wear a garment that symbolized their respect for the host and the occasion. Often the host would provide a rack of such garments at the entryway for guests who had [not] brought theirs. Not to be wearing a wedding garment, when one could have chosen one on the way in, is a sign of disrespect for both host and occasion.

Ahh…. A missing detail from the parable.

When we, the unworthy, accept the invitation and show up for the wedding, we are supposed to “put on” this special garment as we come in the door. AND – it is something that the Lord our King will provide for us, if we only chose to accept it.

I am reminded that there are many places in the New Testament “putting on clothing” was used as a symbol for new life in Christ.

From Galatians 3:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

From Colossians 3:

Since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self… Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience… And over all these virtues put on love.

From Ephesians 4:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self… to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

In his sermon, “On the Wedding Garment,” John Wesley describes this special clothing as our personal holiness. He claims that while the cross of Christ and his righteousness bestowed upon us entitles us for the Kingdom of God… only personal holiness with qualify us to continue there. The first makes us children of God and heirs of the kingdom… but the second makes us worthy of have the inheritance of the saints.

If we think about all of those New Testament scriptures – they have one thing in common – we are called to put on a different life in Christ Jesus. We are called to actually BE different. As Wesley describes it, “holiness is having ‘the mind that was in Christ,’ and the ‘walking as Christ walked.’”

The righteousness of Christ saves us… but as the parable reminds us, we have to show up… we have to honor the King through our actions… we have to participate in the Kingdom… we have to put on the life that he has prepared for us.

I keep my wedding dress hanging in my closet, in part, as a reminder of our wedding. But I have to admit, that it is also a reminder that I no longer fit into the dress. It is a goal, a challenge, staring me in the face and daring me to start exercising again. This dress has become like a mirror in which to evaluate my physical health.
In the same way, we all need to evaluate our spiritual health. We need to take time every now and then to look at what we are wearing and decide if it still fits. We need to remind ourselves of the wedding garment that God has provided… of the holiness that he asks of us… of the new life that has been prepared for every single one gathered here.
Are you putting on Christ?
Are you practicing patience and gentleness?
Are you humble?
Do you forgive others?
So you seek peace with your neighbors and your enemies?
By the grace of God and the strength of Christ do you seek to love everyone you meet?
Are you walking as Christ walked?
And if not… what are you going to do to get back into those wedding clothes? What are you going to let go of so that they fit once again? Which person in this room will be your accountability partner, pushing you and reminding you and walking along side you?
As John Wesley concluded his sermon, he reminded us that “The God of love is willing to save all the souls that he has made… revealed by the Son of his love, who gave his own life that they that believe in him might have everlasting life… But he will not force them to accept of it; he leaves them in the hands of their own counsel… Choose holiness, by [his] grace; which is the way, the only way, to everlasting life…. This is the wedding garment of all that are called to the “marriage of the Lamb.” Clothed in this, they will not be found naked.

May the power of the Holy Spirit fill us all with knowledge and guidance and strength as we seek to not only be children of God, but to be found worthy through his grace.

Proclaiming the Word

In our passage from Ephesians this morning, we hear two very important, complimentary lessons.

First – God is One. There is One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, One Spirit, One Hope, One Body, ONE!

A few weeks ago, as I first introduced these elements of worship, we looked at the very simple message that Isaiah heard proclaimed in his vision. I forgive you, I love you, and I have a job for you. It’s short, It’s simple, in some ways, It is a summary of the entire Biblical tradition. Repeat it with me. I forgive you, I love you, and I have a job for you.

All of those “ONE’s” that we just heard about – they each have to do with this core message. We are forgiven by One Lord, through our One Faith, and in our One Baptism. We experience God’s love through the One Body. And empowered by the One Spirit, we are called to One common Hope.

That call is the Second lesson for this morning. The Word of God gave each of us a gift – a task – a calling… and these gifts, though united in purpose, are as varied as we are.

At annual conference this year, our resident artist, Ted Lyddon Hatten, created a color wheel out of chairs. Each one of the 16 chairs represented a different part of the color wheel.

Now, when we talk about light and color, we may remember from our childhood that white light is made up of many different wavelengths. Blues and Reds and Greens and Yellows all come together to create what we see as white. But in certain situations, that light is broken up, it is refracted, and we see a rainbow. We see the beauty of difference in what once appeared to be unified.

The color wheel is in some ways like that. If we mixed them all together, we would get a muddled and icky brown color – but individually, if we allow them to be in relationship, to compliment one another, our pictures become more vivid and brighter and full of life.

God’s Word – rather than being black and white words on a page that never change – is alive and varied and moving among us – as different as each of these sixteen chairs and sixteen colors. And the Word of God who is Jesus Christ chose us to carry the word to one another.

As The Message translation interprets this passage: You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly… BUT that doesn’t mean you should all look and speak and act the same. Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us is given his own gift.

In different times, in different places, and to different people, the Word of God is revealed.

In part, that’s what we saw in our children’s time today.

Each one of our senses, though different, experience the same God – they just do it in different ways.

Each sense is like a chair around this table. And when we put all of those messages together: the smells of Christmas, the taste of bread, the sight of the empty cross, the feel of cleansing water, the sounds of love – we find we have written one story: We are forgiven, We are Loved, and We have a job to do.

The One Body of Christ is a lot like this circle of chairs also. Because each of us are different people. We are each called and gifted and blessed in different ways. We each have unique and beautiful life experiences to share. Some of us have spent our whole lives working with the soil. Some of us have spent our entire lives helping and serving others. Some of us are young and have fresh eyes with which to look at the world. Some of us have experienced profound pain in our lives. Some of us work with machines, and others of us work with our minds.

And in all of those very different experiences, we have each felt the love and grace of God, although none of us in quite the same way.

Because of our difference – we are all a part of the Body of Christ. Because of our difference – we all have a seat at this table. Because of our difference – we all are called to proclaim the Word of God.

What I notice about this list of gifts here in Ephesians, is that none of these gifts call for silence. As Paul begs the people of Epheses to live up to their calling, he says that some of us are apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers… but NONE of us are benchwarmers. NONE of us get to watch. ALL of us have something to share in ministry, all of us have to build up one another up, all of us are needed. The circle of chairs isn’t complete without the Word that each of us has to offer.

When Paul writes this letter to the Ephesians, he’s locked up in jail because of proclaiming the Word. And what does he have to say as a word of encouragement: Get out there and walk – better yet, run! – on the road God has called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes no where… Grow up! Know the truth that is in your heart and tell it in love. (adapted from The Message)

In many ways, that is what the Roundtable Pulpit conversations are about every Tuesday morning. It’s a chance to sit together with the scriptures and for me to hear the truth that each of you has to speak around that table. It’s an acknowledgement that even though I am the pastor, I don’t have a monopoly on the Word of God – we all have something to contribute.

It is the same spirit behind a very old tradition called Lectio Divina, or Holy Reading, that has been transformed into a new practice in some congregations. All of those who gather around the table are invited to hear the word of God, ponder it in their hearts and then speak the truths that they have received. And as we celebrate the word this morning, I want to invite you to practice this with me.

First of all, I need for all of us to find here in the sanctuary a small group of people – five or six is a good size, and make sure you are close enough to hear one another speak. Once we are all settled, I’ll have a few more instructions =)

Lectio Divina has four parts and the easy way to remember is that they all have something to do with eating. First, we take a bite of the scripture, we pay attention to a word or phrase that jumps out at us as we hear and read it. Second, we chew on that word or phrase as we hear the scripture a second time – why did it speak to us? what does it have to say? Third, we savor and celebrate the Word that has come to us by sharing it with others. Fourth, we digest the Word and make it a part of our lives.

We will go through each of these four stages together, and before each one, I will read our scripture, and then invite you to share with those around you how you would respond to the question on the screens.