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

image

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.

line-of-rocks-203x300

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

 

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

 

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

We aren’t perfect.

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

So there are bound to be disagreements.

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

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

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

Or the style of music.

Or who gets to sit in the back pew.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

And this is for one simple reason.

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

And we simply cannot walk away from one another.

We… the church… are one body.

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

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

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

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

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

That doesn’t seem so hard, does it?

 

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

We sulk.

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

We gossip.

We are passive aggressive with each other.

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

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

 

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

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

We have sinned against God.

We aren’t perfect… remember?

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

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

Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God-with-us.

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

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

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

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

To Peter, “Get behind me Satan.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Sometimes we will make mistakes.

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

But we are the body of Christ.

We are the people of God.

And we need each other.

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

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

Not taking sides.

Not stirring up problems.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Defeat Evil with Goodness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theologian John Mabry writes:

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

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

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

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

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

A Cherokee elder was teaching his children about life.

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

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

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

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

Amen and Amen.

Clearing the Clutter

Look at what I’ve done for you today: I’ve placed in front of you

Life and Good
Death and Evil…
I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you today: I place before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Choose life so that you and your children will live. And love GOD, your God, listening obediently to him, firmly embracing him. (Deuteronomy 30)

(prayer)

How many of you have had a busy week? How many of you are looking ahead to a busy and jampacked week?
As we wait upon God’s word today, I want to invite you to take that little slip of paper you were given as you walked in this morning and to write down on it all of the things that take up your time right now. Everything – from walking the dog… to the hours you spend working or serving here at church… to the television shows you watch. What has occupied your week past and what kinds of things will occupy next week. It doesn’t have to be precise… this is just for you… an estimate. Let’s give ourselves about five minutes to do this…

How did it feel to write all of those things down? To name all of the ways that your life is busy?

If you were to lump these tasks and events into categories – things in your life that tug on you and pull on you from different directions, what kind of categories might we lift up?

(work, family, church, sports, recreation…)
That is quite a list!

Each and every single day of our lives, we are bombarded with choices. We are pulled by commitments. We are asked to live within these multiple communities.

For these past few weeks, we have been taking a look at the world through Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. As we have done so, we have become aware of some realities about this world outside the church walls.

1) It is a win/lose world out there… and sometimes we let that seep into our church life as well. Instead of getting wrapped up in winning and losing, we are called to be fools for Christ.

2) This world is full of fads and changing tides… and the church is often quick to jump on the bandwagon and lose the core of our message. Instead, we need to keep centered on the cross and the good news of God.

3) The world tells us bigger is better. The church often believes that and feels pressure to get more butts in the seats and more dollars in the offering plate. But Paul reminds us that our weakness is God’s strength and that small churches can do powerful things.

Today, the reality we face is that we are busy people. We are pulled in so many different directions. Some weeks, I know it is hard for you to give the church even an hour of your time.

And we all know the families that surround us who run with their kids from this thing to that and on Sunday mornings breathe a sigh of relief that one more week is over… but can’t we please stay in bed for another hour.

This world is exhausting.

It is fast paced.

It is chaotic.

It drains us.

This morning in our scriptures, we are reminded that we have a choice in this world between the things that give us life and the things that take life away.

As Moses stood before the people on the edge of the promised land, he shared with them the simple choice they faced.

I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you today: I place before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Choose life so that you and your children will live. And love GOD, your God, listening obediently to him, firmly embracing him.

The people quickly chose life! Who wouldn’t right? They mentally made the assent that they would live according to God, that they would love God and their neighbor…

But then they crossed into the land of milk and honey and before they even realized it, they were caught up in distractions. Their choice never got translated from their head into their hearts and into their hands. And they found themselves broken and scattered and falling apart in exile. Moses had spoken truthfully… If you have a change of heart… you will most certainly die.

Fast forward many, many generations.

Paul writes to the church in Corinth and offers a piece of wisdom:

 

“It’s not the latest message, but more like the oldest—what God determined as the way to bring out his best in us, long before we ever arrived on the scene… The Spirit, not content to flit around on the surface, dives into the depths of God, and brings out what God planned all along… God offers a full report on the gifts of life and salvation that he is giving us… he taught us person-to-person through Jesus, and we’re passing it on to you in the same firsthand, personal way…

The simple truth, Paul passes along is this:

The unspiritual self, just as it is by nature, can’t receive the gifts of God’s Spirit. There’s no capacity for them. They seem like so much silliness. Spirit can be known only by spirit—God’s Spirit and our spirits in open communion.”

Do we want to choose life in this generation? Do we want to choose the ways of God?

Then we have to make room for the Spirit. We have to spend time with our Lord.

We have to clear some space in the chaos of these things that tug on us for God.

Perhaps one of the greatest gifts that we can offer one another and all of those busy, exhausted families outside those doors is Sabbath.

Space…

Time…

To simply let God into our lives.

Sabbath, at its core, is taking time to remember that we do not create life – it is a gift from God.

The exhortation to rest on the Sabbath reminds us that we cannot do it all… and that ultimately the things of this world are in God’s hands.

At a recent clergy event, I was asked to help lead our opening worship.
I knew that some of them would be worried about folks at home who might be in the hospital or troubled. I knew that some would be thinking ahead to their sermons for the next Sunday. I knew some would have their minds set on their kids, or their parents, and the family concerns that plague them. I knew some would have their fingers ever connected to their blackberrys and would try to stay in contact with all of the business of the church, even as they were supposed to be fully present with us.

So, I lead the group in a ritual of setting aside the things that were on our minds. Much like what we did this morning, I invited them to write down all the things that were distracting them on a slip of paper and to fold it up and put it away.

This ritual was an act of trust… trust that for these six hours we were gathered together that our lives back home could wait… trust that our lay people in our churches could take care of the things we left them… trust that God in his infinite wisdom could be trusted to take care of these things so that we could focus and be present in this moment with one another and with God’s holy word.

Take that list that you made this morning.

It represents all of your choices and commitments and communities.


It represents all of the things that tug on your heart.

Sometimes these things lead us towards God… and sometimes they pull us away from the source of life.

For that is what God is… He is life itself and when we seek him we will find exuberant life.

Fold that piece of paper up and I want you to write four simple words that Dave Crow, our district superintendent shared with me…

“Choose Well. Choose Life.”