Do What Is Good

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I think in many ways it is a cruel irony that as we begin our Lenten series on heroes that our first pop culture example is the Dark Knight, Batman.
As a young boy, Bruce Wayne was a victim of gun violence.
In a dark alley, his parents were gunned down by a thief in front of his very eyes.
That traumatic moment forever changed the course of his life – setting him on a path to fight crime, battle evil, and protect his city.

Over the past few days, I have watched other young people, teenagers who survived the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, take up their own calling to demand change in a society in which too many lives are taken as a result of gun violence.
I read a story this morning about moms in Keosauqua here in southeast Iowa who rallied together on Thursday to raise the money to install a safety device called a sleeve in every classroom in their small school.
As one mom said, “we’re tired of it. It’s like, OK, nobody’s going to do anything about this: Our government, our state government, our national government. We’re the moms, and these are our kids. What can we do?” (https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/local/columnists/kyle-munson/2018/02/16/sick-school-shootings-these-iowa-moms-took-action-single-day-make-their-kids-classrooms-safe/344133002/?hootPostID=746aea71a5583aa9b0209e37f4bdbabb)

What can we do?
When evil seems to lurk around every corner…
When the places we thought were safe become sites of terror…
When a sense of hopelessness in the ability to truly witness change starts to seep in…

Sometimes our “what can we do?” is a cry of resignation.

Where are the good guys? Where are the heroes who are going to rise up and make everything better?

And sometimes, it is a reminder that we, too, have been called to act.  Our discipleship is lived out in how we answer that question.

Each of the weeks of this Lenten series, we are going to be exploring together ways we often see the world through opposing lenses: good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, insiders vs. outsiders. We divide up this world and place ourselves firmly in one camp or another.
And yet, as we think together about how Jesus comes to redeem and restore this world… how Jesus acts to save us from sin and bring us eternal live, we discover that often Jesus turns our ways of viewing the world upside down.

In fact, when a leader of the community tried to call Jesus “good” in an effort to flatter him, Jesus practically rejected the label. “Why do you call me good?” he asks in Luke chapter 18. “No one is good but God alone.”

In doing so, Jesus reminds that all that is good comes from God.
When our Creator spent six days building and forming and shaping all that we know and see, God looked out and called it good.
That isn’t because of something innate within us.
It is because we are from God.

And so, what is this evil that we promise to resist in our baptismal vows?
What is this force that opposes life and leads so many on paths of destruction?
Matt Rawle defines evil in his book, “What Makes a Hero?” as nothingness. “Evil represents a void…. Evil is a shadow that cannot stand on its own. A shadow by itself is nothing but the absence of light… made manifest when someone or something stands between us and the light of God shining through Christ.” (p. 26)

Evil is the result when we let anyone or anything stand between us and the love and power of God made manifest in this world.
Sometimes what blocks the goodness of God is our own selfishness and sin.
Sometimes it is anger and resentment.
Sometimes it is idolatry – when we take something that is on its own good or neutral in value – but elevate it to a status that blocks our ability to reason or follow God.
I think in many ways, our nation’s obsession with guns has reached the point of idolatry. Guns themselves are not good or bad, they just are… however, our unwillingness to even allow for research to be done as to the causes of such endemic gun violence means that we cannot take the actions we need to in order to curb the tide of this deadly force.

I think about how through training and technology, Bruce Wayne would put on his bat costume and watch over Gotham, but traditionally, Batman never took up a gun himself. Even as he fought night after night against the dark forces, he sought to never use deadly force in bringing justice to his city. He kept himself focused on his purpose and what he was fighting against.

As people of faith, our call is not simply call something good or evil, but to keep our eyes focused on our purpose and the source of what is truly good, God alone.
It is what Christ did as he lived out his ministry among us.
And in many ways, the blueprint for how we should live and follow his example is found in that familiar verse from the prophet Micah.

“He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”
Goodness is therefore the result of a life of justice, mercy, and humility.

First, we are called to do justice.
As Jesus reaches out to teach a lawyer about how to receive eternal life, he tells the parable of the good Samaritan.
The lawyer must learn to recognize even the Samaritan as his brother.
He must do justice by acknowledging that God has created each and every person.
Oppression and violence and hatred must cease.
We must always look out for the outcast, the vulnerable among us.

Second, we must embrace God’s love and practice mercy.
Jesus lived this out through acts of healing and mercy – feeding the hungry, healing the sick.
In every action, he sought to bring life to people by reaching out and touching them.
It is not just reaching out in love, however, to people we know and care about… it is also reaching out to offer kindness and forgiveness even to those who would seek to harm us.
Just as Bruce Wayne refused to take up the weapons that destroyed his family, so Jesus refuses to play the games or fight in the ways of evil.
He forgives those who crucify him.
He doesn’t fight back.
He knows that with God there is another way.

Lastly, we are called to walk humbly with our God.
Jesus showed us what this meant through the cross.
The greatest love, he told us, was to lay down our lives for our friends.
And so as the Christ hymn of Philippians reminds us, even though Christ Jesus was in the form of God, he emptied himself, he was born among us, and he humbled himself even to the point of death in order to serve the will of God. (Philippians 2:5-8)

Today, we are called to a life of goodness. A life of justice, and mercy, and humility.
We are called to lay aside anything that would distract us from God’s life and power in this world.
When evil looms around us and lives are being taken every day by forces that oppose God’s will, I think we are invited this Lent to a time of reflection and repentence.
Where are we complicit?
Where do we need to seek justice?
Where do we need to practice mercy?
Where do we need to humbly bow before our God and lay aside our idols?
May God stir our hearts…

Answer!

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In October, my facebook feed and our news stories were filled with two little words:
#metoo
Sisters from all sorts of walks of life started telling their stories, speaking their truths, naming names.
It was like the flood gates had broken loose.
Some could only type out those two words (#metoo) and others wrote chapters that had never before seen the light of day.
Women found the authority and the confidence to share some of the most mundane and monstrous things they experienced. The momentum of one voice, added to another, and to another, was a powerful thing to behold.
Just this past week, we witnessed the sentencing hearing of Dr. Larry Nassar whose abuse only came into the public eye in the midst of this past fall. 156 women and girls gave their testimonies as Judge Aquilina opened the courtroom to all who needed to speak their truth. In the end, he was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for the things the had done and taken from them.
As six-time Olympic medalist, Aly Raisman, said: “Let this sentence strike fear in anyone who thinks it is O.K. to hurt another person. Abusers, your time is up. The survivors are here, standing tall, and we are not going anywhere.” (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/01/24/sports/larry-nassar-victims.html)

Your time is up.

When Jesus entered the synagogue and began to speak the truth, to lift up the word, to tell stories of how God was moving in the world around them, he was telling all that opposes the Kingdom of God that it’s time was up.
But evil doesn’t want to go down without a fight.
Right there in the synagogue, a spirit began to cry out:
“What have you do to with us? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are.”

We don’t necessarily experience demonic possession and evil spirits in the same way today that they did in Jesus time. We have different understandings of bodies and mental health and to be honest, we filter out the spiritual and mystical and rationalize it away.
But I fully believe that evil is present in our world.
I believe that people can be ensnared by addiction and hatred and violence.
And I believe that when we, like Jesus, confront the sin and injustice and evil of this world and demand it to come out into the light of day then there can be the possibility of release and restoration and healing.
When the evil spirit began to speak out and interrupt the teaching of Jesus, he commanded it to be silent. To come out. And that spirit shook and screamed and then it finally released the person it had possessed.
It’s time was up.

What troubles me, both about this passage of scripture and with the countless stories of the #metoo movement, is the question of why it took so long?
How many times before had that evil spirit cried out in the midst of God’s people?
How long had the demon been hushed or covered up or ignored?
How many people had refused to stand up to it, to name names and call it what it was?
How many were frightened and simply stayed away?

William Cummings reported for USA Today about the woman who began the “me too” movement over ten years ago: Tarana Burke. In 2006, she founded an organization called Just Be Inc which helped young women of color reclaim their sense of well-being after they had been abused or exploited. But nearly ten years before that, Burke was a camp director and a little girl came to speak with her.
“The girl began to tell a story about her mother’s boyfriend ‘ who was doing all sorts of monstrous things to her developing body.’ Burke was horrified and as she listened it began to stir up all sorts of her own memories and emotions. She realized that she could not help in that moment and cut off the little girl in the middle of sharing this painful experience and directed her to another counselor.
Burke shared later, “I could not find the strength to say out loud the words that were ringing in my head over and over again… I watched her walk away from me as she tried to recapture her secrets and tuck them back into their hiding place. I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all along and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper… me too.” (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/10/18/me-too-movement-origins/776963001/)

Sometimes it is not our personal experience that keeps us from calling out and naming the evil before us, but our unwillingness to see it.

The complicity of systems that are focused on a singular goal, like that of Michigan State University and U.S.A. Gymnastics and the Olympic Committee, blind them to the allegations and words of little girls when they try to speak their truths.

As Amanda Thomashow, one of those who testified at Nassar’s hearing said, “the school I loved and trusted, had the audacity to tell me that I did not understand the difference between sexual assault and a medical procedure.” Another talked about how she was attacked on social media and called a liar for sharing her truth. Another, talked about how her parents “will forever have to live with the fact that they continually brought their daughter to a sexual predator, and were in the room as he assaulted me.” (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/01/24/sports/larry-nassar-victims.html)

Sometimes, we simply normalize these types of experiences and can no longer see them as out of the ordinary. Last October, I remember that I almost didn’t post my own “me too”, because my stories seemed so inconsequential compared to the hurt and pain I knew of others.

But then I started thinking about all of the stories and they kept adding up and some of them were crazier than I want to publicly admit. From cat calls to the phone call at my church office in Marengo that necessitated a call to the police and my district superintendent… The fact that I would write it off as just a normal part of ministry was not okay.

We, like the people of that synagogue in Capernaum, too often have been bystanders. We sit back and watch unwilling to do anything. We sweep the words of those in pain under the rug where we don’t have to listen.

In his poem, “Partnering with God,” John van de Laar names the reality we experience:

The struggles of our world feel overwhelming, Jesus;
Beyond our ability to understand, let alone solve.
We do not have the capacity
To silence the justifications,
To heal the addictions,
To restore the brokenness,
To repair the destruction,
Or to reverse the trajectories
Of our self-centered, short-sighted weakness,
Our heartless, dehumanising aggression.

 

But we do not have these struggles alone, Jesus;
You have aligned yourself with us,
In taking on flesh,
In going through the waters,
In laying down your life;
And you have invited us to partner with you,
In proclaiming Good News,
In freeing the imprisoned,
In restoring the broken,
In uniting the divided;
And you have given us the capacity,
The divine Spirit,
To be co-workers with God.

 

For this, we are eternally grateful. Amen.

God has given us the capacity, the authority, the power, to name and call out the presence of evil in our world. Even if it feels overwhelming. Even if it feels insurmountable. Even if it is too personal to face.
Because God’s authority comes with the presence of the one who has already experienced the worst of human suffering. And Christ walks alongside us as we silence and call out those forces that would harm the lives of others.

But you are also not alone, because you are part of a community. This body of Christ has promised in our baptismal vows to
“renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin.”
And “to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”

So that means two things.
First, I promise, as a pastor and faith leader, that I will listen to you. I promise not to cover up or deny. If you have a story that you need to tell, I am here to help you bring that story out of the darkness and into the light.
But second, it also means that if you are scared or hesitant or afraid you do not have to do this by yourself. Millions of women found the courage to say, “me too” this fall because they looked around and saw that they were not the only one.

Look around this room right now. You are not alone. All of those who are in this room who have taken their baptismal vows have already promised to help one another stand up to evil and injustice. We have committed to partnering with Jesus to proclaim the good news and to free the imprisoned and to restore the broken and unite the divided.
And by God’s authority, we can bring injustice into the light of day so that it can be healed and transformed and set free by God’s power.

Amen and Amen.

The Spirit of Surrender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sermon on the Mount: Lord’s Prayer Lessons

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This morning in worship, we built our entire service around the Lord’s Prayer, using songs and brief meditations to help us focus on the various parts of the prayer itself.  Below are the three meditations:

 

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…

 That little tiny phrase is one of the most subversive and radical things that we can say as Christian people. And we say it every week. Too often, we rush over the words, practically tripping over them to get to the end, because we know the Lord’s Prayer so well.

For the last two thousand years, Christians have tried to let God use them to bring about glimpses of the Kingdom on this earth.  If we are going to be daring enough to pray for the kingdom to come on earth – then let us also be daring enough to participate when we see it!

In, “Listening to your Life,” (page 304), Fred Beuchner writes:

“…the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born within ourselves and within the world; …[it] is what all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know… The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”

We are homesick for it and yet it is as close as our next breath. Thy Kingdom come on earth.

Thy Kingdom, Oh Holy Lord, come on this earth and pull us beyond the borders we have artificially made.

Thy Kingdom, Oh Lord and King, come on this earth and root all of our actions in the care of your creation.

Thy Kingdom, Blessed Ruler, come on earth and let us find the boldness to feed and clothe and heal our brothers and sisters without waiting for the government to help.

Thy Kingdom, Glorious King, come on earth and make us uncomfortable. Don’t let us be content with peace in our hearts until your peace truly reigns over the nations.

Thy Kingdom, Ancient of Days, come on earth and turn our allegiance from brand names and politicians and flags and nations … but help us imagine and embody life on earth, here and now, as though you were truly the king of it all and the rulers of this world were not.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

 

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I want to tell you a story about a church here in Iowa that took seriously Jesus’ prayer and the command to forgive. (from Becoming Jesus’ Prayer)  

Farmers Chapel UMC, “was burned to the ground by an arsonist. In the weeks and months that followed, the congregation had to wrestle with how to forgive the person who destroyed their 107-year-old church…. [so, their pastor] wrote an open letter to the unknown arsonist and had it printed in the local newspaper…” (
page 37-38)

He wrote:  “Our worship time is 9:00AM every Sunday. I tell you this because I want you to know that you are invited. In fact, we even plan to reserve a seat just for you. Our faith has a lot to say about forgiveness. Every Sunday we ask God to forgive our sins but only as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us. That would be you. So if you would join us for worship, we could practice this kind of forgiveness face to face. I say “practice” for a reason. I don’t expect us to get it right the first or even the second time. Of course we’ll continue to work to forgive you even if you decline our invitation to worship. Forgiveness is the cornerstone of the faith we have inherited. Some people think it is impossible. They may be right. I only know that we have to try. Our forgiveness of you is tied to God’s forgiveness of us. We can’t receive something we are not willing to give others. So you see, if we harbor hatred for you in our hearts, we harbor the smoldering ashes of your arson. If we cling to bitterness, we fan the embers of your violent act. If we fantasize about revenge, we rekindle a destructive flame that will consume us. Forgiveness may indeed be impossible, but for us it is not optional.” (as printed in Becoming Jesus’ Prayer)

That church has been rebuilt and at the focal point of their worship space is a cross that has been built out of the charred timbers of their old building. Every single time that Body of Christ comes together, they are a living witness to the power of forgiveness. And when we pray Jesus’ prayer – when we truly pray it – we are asking… no we are begging for our lives to be changed. We are asking for this church to be transformed and for it to be a place of transformation.

 

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

All throughout the gospels, Jesus shows us what it means to be delivered from evil. 

He teaches about the ways that we should follow and does so with authority and power.

And when the demons show up, questioning his wisdom, he casts them out.

Ofelia Ortega writes that “the forces of evil know of the healing power of Jesus’ word; they are not submissive or indifferent. Jesus’ powerful teaching not only is fresh to the ears of the faithful, but it also disrupts the undisturbed presence of evil. Evil discovers that it is running its course.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, page 312)

All Jesus had to do was speak, and the evil powers of the world started shaking in their boots.

“Be silent.” Jesus commanded. “Come out.” He said firmly. And the spirit obeyed.

I don’t know what to tell all of you about evil, demons and spirits. I have never personally experienced them, although I know people who have. What I can tell you is that I firmly believe that God has power over the evil in this world.

The reign of God… the Kingdom of God is at hand. And when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, it is a personal prayer and we are talking about God’s authority and power within us. We are praying for God to help us tap into that amazing power that the people witnessed within the synagogue. We are praying not only to be cleansed of our own internal demons – but we are also praying for the power to love others who have their own internal demons.

A Cherokee elder was teaching his children about life.

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

The grandchildren thought about it and after a minute one of them asked, “Which wolf will win?” The elder simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Every time we pray this prayer, we are feeding the wolf of love in our lives.  We are asking God to help us to be imitators of Christ, to be ones who can truly praise God as our King.

Transferred into the Kingdom

Over the last two weeks in worship, we have talked extensively about how we should give thanks for one another…  

Because of our differences, we give thanks.

We gave thanks as we broke bread together.

We gave thanks around the waters of baptism.

We should give thanks always and everywhere for the people of this world who help us claim our inheritance, who help us overcome division, and who teach us how to practice what is true and holy, just and pure.  

 

Today, we explore one more of Paul’s letters.

Today, we are reminded to give thanks to God who is the reason we all share in the Kingdom.  

 

Let us pray:

 

This past week, the annual Bucksbaum Lecture at Drake University was given by Krista Tippet.  

Many of my Sunday mornings, as I drive in to church, I listen to her broadcast, “On Being,” and I listen as she asks people from all sorts of traditions and backgrounds what it means to be human.  

Recently, I picked up a copy of her book, “Becoming Wise,” and like she starts so many of her interviews, she starts by exploring her own background and faith tradition.  

 

One of the interesting things about Tippet’s story is that she served as an aide to the American ambassador in Germany while it was divided.  

She writes:

More riveting to me in the end than the politics of Berlin was the vast social experiment its division had become.  One people, one language and history and culture, were split into two radically opposing worldviews and realities, decades entrenched by the time I arrived.  I loved people on both sides of the Wall that wound through the heart of the city.

I keep thinking about the division of Berlin… the division of Germany after WWII… and the division of our own nation in this moment.

Especially in regards to our letter from Paul this morning.

 

As Paul writes to the Colossians, Gentiles who lived in what is now modern-day Turkey, he writes to encourage them in their faith… to help them grow into this new relationship they have found with Jesus.

And as Paul talks about the transition, the shift they have experienced in their life by accepting Jesus, he uses this really interesting phrase.  

God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.  (1:13)

Transferred us into the Kingdom.

As Neta Pringle describes this word – transferred, she writes that:

His image conjures up pictures of refugees, rounded up after battle and taken to the victor’s land, of Israelites marched far from home to live in Babylon – a kingdom so different, so far from home in both geography and style.  Here the rules are different, the ruler is different.  All assumptions about the way in which life goes on – indeed about its very meaning- are different. (Feasting on the Word)

Transferred into the Kingdom… much like those who found themselves on the eastern side of the wall in Berlin suddenly found themselves living in a different country, under different rules.  

Transferred into the Kingdom… much like after an election a nation wakes up to a world where different people are in charge and different priorities come to the front.  

You don’t always have to physically shift your location to feel like the world has changed all around you.  For better or for worse. 

 

Except, Paul is not writing here about a temporary shift in power that comes and goes with various political leaders and world events.

Paul is writing about a cosmic shift…

God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.  

And not just the people of Paul’s day and time.  Not just the Colossians, or the Ephesians, the Philippians, or the Romans.  

All of us.

We have been rescued from the powers of evil, sin, and death.   

We all have been transferred into the kingdom of forgiveness, redemption, and life.  

Thanks be to God.

 

Today in worship, we celebrate that Christ is King.  That he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  The Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise. 

We celebrate that through his death on the cross, the blood of Jesus rescued humanity from its captivity to the powers of this world.

In the cross, in the resurrection, Jesus declared victory over the powers over evil, injustice, and oppression.

And friends, in that great and glorious act, we have been transferred into God’s kingdom.  

We have been transferred into the Rule and the Reign of God.

We are no longer merely citizens of this place, of Iowa, of the United States… Jesus is Lord.

Thanks be to God!

 

To emphasize this new reality, Paul continues his letter by breaking out into song.  

While we don’t know the melody, while it isn’t a familiar tune to our ears, these lyrics in Paul’s letter would have been as familiar to the Colossians as Amazing Grace is to us. 

They might have even started singing along.

 

And this song reminds the people in familiar words that when we look at Jesus, we see God.

They remind the people that in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were made.

They remind these new citizens of God’s kingdom that everything… every nation, every King or President, every Prime Minister or Governor, every Mayor and every Councilperson… everything is from God and finds purpose in God.  

From the clouds in the sky to the microorganisms in the dirt beneath our feet, God in Christ holds everything together.  

And Jesus is in charge of it all.  

From beginning to end, Alpha and Omega, this kingdom will never end.  

Thanks be to God!

 

And like any change in leadership… whether temporal or heavenly… the rules under which we live change a bit.

So this letter to the Colossians is a reminder that them and us that we are called to grow in love and faith.

Paul encourages us to bear fruit in every good work and grow in the knowledge of God.

And we are reminded that just because Christ has already won, does not mean that evil death and sin are forever gone.  Paul’s letter, in fact, is full of the reminder that we will be made strong in Christ and is meant to help us endure with patience the trials and tribulations that will come.  

That is why when we gather around the baptismal font and we welcome new ones into our midst we make these familiar pledges:

We pledge to renounce the spiritual forced of wickedness and evil powers of this world.

We repent of our sin.

We accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves.

And we must hold one another accountable to the rules of God’s kingdom.  

All because we confess Jesus Christ as our Savior.

All because we promise to serve him as our Lord.

 

When Krista Tippett talks about life in Berlin, she also talks about the day the wall came down.  It was her twenty-ninth birthday.  

She writes that “no one imagined that it could fall or the Iron Curtain crumble…. The wall finally collapsed with a whimper, not a bang, as fear lifted all at once from an entire nation.  I had walked through Checkpoint Charlie hundreds of times, respecting its absurdity as authority.  On the night the Wall fell… the entire city walked joyfully through it.  The border guards joined them. It was truly nearly that simple.”  

 

While we live under the rule and the reign of Jesus Christ, we work and pray for the day when all people will joyfully walk through the walls of division and hatred.  

We work and pray for the day when fear is lifted for all people.  

We work and pray for the moment when the powers of this world that keep us apart let go of their last grasp upon our hearts and we are finally free to simply be in Christ.  

And until then… we live as people who see all things and all people in their true light… as the ones who already belong to Jesus.  

Thanks be to God. 

Rescued

For the first 20 or so years of my life, I understood salvation as one concrete idea: that Jesus died for my sin on the cross.

Substitutionary Atonement is what we call it.  Jesus took our place.  He was our substitute and paid the price for our sins.

But before too long, I discovered that I was terribly mistaken.

Not about Jesus dying for our sins.

But about thinking that was all salvation meant.

 

In its fullest sense, “Salvation is ‘God’s deliverance of those in a situation of need… resulting in their restoration to wholeness.’ It is restoration because salvation does not offer something new; it is God’s original intent for creation.” (Introduction, The Lord is Our Salvation)

The best word I can find to describe that original intent, the life that God intends for each of us is the word shalom.

It means completeness, wholeness, well-being.

And God’s work of salvation in Jesus Christ rescues us from whatever hell we might experience in our lives that has destroyed shalom, so we might experience life and life abundant once again.

 

Christ dying and paying the price for our sins is one piece of that work of salvation.  But it isn’t the only one.

In fact, in the Western world, there are three major understandings of what the cross means, all different ways of talking about how Jesus saves us.

These are called atonement theories.  They describe how we become at-one again with God… how we are brought back into shalom… how we experience wholeness once again.

The first is the one most of us grew up being familiar with – a Forensic understanding of salvation.   These theories say we are like a defendant on trial and have been found guilty of breaking our covenant with God. So, a penalty must be paid.  Jesus knows we are guilty and out of love, pays the price for us.  He satisfies the debt we owe.

The second is called Moral Example.  This grouping of theories claims that the cross is the natural outcome of the life of Jesus, who spoke truth to power and dared to love those who society rejected.  And in his life and death, Christ shows us how we should live, too.

The third of the major groupings is called “Christus Victor” – Christ as the Victor!  This theory claims that in the eternal battle for good and evil, we are imprisoned by sin and held captive by Satan.  Jesus defeats death and evil on the cross and we are set free.

 

Throughout this season of Lent, we are going to see how this isn’t a debate or competition about which of these sets of theories is right, but that each and every one of them is a part of the whole.  Taken all together, they describe how God continually and relentlessly works to bring us salvation, to restore us to shalom.

I want to share with you one more scripture this morning as we hear the word.

In 1 Peter, chapter 3 we hear:

17 It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.

18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous… 

19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. 

 

Right there, in three verses, all three of these major theories are at play.  Be like Jesus and suffer for doing good… He died because of our sins… and he went down to hell and preached to the spirits in prison.

 

This morning, we are going to focus on the idea of being rescued.  1 Peter tells us, and the Apostles Creed affirms that Jesus descended to the dead.  He went down into hell after the crucifixion to preach to the spirits held in the prison of death.

The verses go on to say:

In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water.

As we remember in our first reading this morning, the whole world was drowning in sin… and eight lives were rescued through the water.

With the children, we remembered the promise God made right then and there, a promise to seek forgiveness and not punishment.  God put the rainbow in the sky as a reminder that never again would life be destroyed, that God wants to restore us to life.

 

But I sometimes wonder about those souls who weren’t rescued.  Whatever happened to them?

1 Peter tells us,  God’s rainbow promise extends even to those who died in the flood.  They were trapped by their own sin, imprisoned by Satan and death,  but through the cross, Jesus wins the victory over death itself and even the unfaithful disobedient spirits of the ancient world were given the opportunity to hear the message of God’s love and offered shalom.

That’s how powerful God is.  That is how mighty Christ’s victory is.

And if Jesus can rescue disobedient spirits from hell itself, than Jesus can rescue you.

 

Maybe you are struggling with an addiction that just seems to have you in its grip.  Jesus can help set you free.

Maybe bad habits and a poor attitude have been dragging you down.  Jesus can lift you up.

Maybe you are swimming in worries and fears and feel lost in that sea.  Jesus will keep you from drowning.

 

On Ash Wednesday, we were reminded of our sin, our mortality, our finite natures.  We are all sinners.  We are all made out the dust of the earth.  And we can’t save ourselves from drowning in all of the dirt and muck of this world.

But Jesus can.

And just as God took the dust of the earth and formed us as his people, God can take the dust of our lives and make something beautiful out of it.  God can rescue us from even the dust of death and raise us up.

 

We’ve talked about some big words and some big concepts this morning. Atonement.  Christus Victor. Salvation and Shalom.

And sometimes the only antidote to being overwhelmed by new information is to look at pictures of puppies.

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These puppies are rescue dogs and these amazing photos capture them on the day they were rescued… on the day they were brought home from the shelter.

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They transform from these sad and pitiful creatures, to vibrant and life filled friends.

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They come to find themselves at home, loved, taken care of.

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And this is what God wants for us.  God wants to rescue us from the hell we experience in our lives.  God wants to save us from our guilt and addiction, from our sin and temptation, from our fears and our failures.

God wants to bring us home.  To restore us to shalom.  To wholeness. To life and life abundant.

 

Jesus is strong enough to save even the spirits in hell and Jesus can save you.  Jesus can transform you.  Jesus can set free this entire world.

 

It is interesting that Mark’s account of the wilderness  is not a long series of temptations and failures, but a few words about faithfulness:  Jesus was tempted by Satan.  He was with the animals.  The angels took care of him.  No drama. No mistakes.  No surrender.  And in the midst of it all, Satan just disappears.  Jesus transforms even the wilderness, the time of testing and struggle, into shalom – a place where all are cared for.  Pheme Perkins writes that even before his ministry began, Jesus had already broken Satan’s power on this world.

And Jesus can enter the wilderness of our lives, the prisons we construct for ourselves, and can transform it too.

Now is the time.  Today is the moment.  Let Christ set you free.

Spiritually Blind

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I mentioned earlier this week a youth group conversation about Mary Magdalene and demon possession.  There are so many different ways of understanding what demon possession might have been about and what Mary’s demons might have been.

I’ve had demons explained away and described lots of different ways.

Illness.

Mental disorders and illness.

Cultural misunderstandings and differences.

And I started our conversation by talking about some of those things and how they might have applied to Mary Magdalene.

Then, I asked the question if the seven demons were cast out all at once, or in seven different encounters.  We talked about the Gerasenes demoniac who had a “legion” of demons, all cast out at once.  And one young woman very astutely pointed out they they must have been some real spiritual force because they entered the pigs and thousands of them died right then and there.

We don’t often see demons and angels in our world today, but we also aren’t looking.  Or maybe, like some of us in this world are color blind, maybe the problem is that we are spiritually blind.  Maybe we simply aren’t built to see spiritual forces in the world today.

Full props to our Director of Youth and Christian Inspiration, Mr. Vaughn, who pointed out that in John’s account of the resurrection, John and Simon Peter ran to the tomb and saw nothing but linen scraps lying inside, but Mary Magdalene saw the angels.

As a woman who had been possessed by demons, she had the spiritual sight to see the angelic presence, where John and Simon Peter saw emptiness and darkness.

The world is full of things I can’t comprehend or understand.  Who am I to say that those who see auras or who sense the spiritual forces of evil are mistaken?  What if I simply cannot see what they can? 

Confrontations

[Wild west whistle]

We know how the story goes.

High noon.

Hot dusty street.

People hiding on porches and behind closed windows.

Good Guy meets Bad Guy for a showdown.

10 paces.

And then the confrontation.

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

 

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

 

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

We aren’t perfect.

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

So there are bound to be disagreements.

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

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

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

Or the style of music.

Or who gets to sit in the back pew.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

And this is for one simple reason.

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

And we simply cannot walk away from one another.

We… the church… are one body.

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

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

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

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

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

That doesn’t seem so hard, does it?

 

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

We sulk.

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

We gossip.

We are passive aggressive with each other.

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

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

 

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

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

We have sinned against God.

We aren’t perfect… remember?

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

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

Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God-with-us.

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

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

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

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

To Peter, “Get behind me Satan.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Sometimes we will make mistakes.

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

But we are the body of Christ.

We are the people of God.

And we need each other.

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

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

Not taking sides.

Not stirring up problems.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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