Around Every Corner

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This summer I have harvested quite a bit of produce from my garden.
Tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers in particular.
I put up 7 quarts of salsa, 4 quarts of spaghetti sauce, 8 quarts of dill pickles, 4 quarts of sweet and spicy pickles, some pickle relish, and I’ve frozen 10 bags of roasted tomatoes.

My pantry is literally overflowing with the bounty from my garden, and you want to know what thought crossed my mind after this week?

Pickles and salsa won’t feed us if there is a disaster.

As I thought about all of the folks in Puerto Rico who are struggling with access to food and water and electricity, I tried to imagine what my family would do in that situation.
As the rhetoric has continued to rise with North Korea, I wondered what you actually could do to prepare for if the unthinkable happens.
As I sat and listened to colleagues at a Creation Care conference in Indianapolis yesterday, I heard them say that the UN no longer talks about climate change mitigation or prevention, but climate change adaptation… I began to think about how I personally need to start adapting.

If you turn on the television or scroll through your facebook feed or listen to the radio, there are a thousand threats to our health, safety, and security.
We lost 59 people last Sunday to a violent rampage from a man whose only motive appears to be that he wanted to shoot as many people as possible.
Our hearts began to race when a traffic accident in London outside of a museum yesterday was initially thought to be an act of terrorism.

The simple truth is that we have no clue what might be lurking around the corner. We can’t see what the future might hold and sometimes we allow fear to be the defensive mechanism that either keeps us from moving forward or which guards our hearts from those around us.

We aren’t the only people in history to have been afraid.

The scripture that Don read as a part of the drama just a few minutes ago comes from the 41st and 42nd chapters of Isaiah.
The people of Israel had sinned against one another and God and the prophet was called upon to bring judgment.
And for 39 chapters, Isaiah lists the sins of the people and names all of the things that would happen to them as a result.
And they did.
Everything they feared came to pass.
Jersualem was destroyed.
The people were carried off to Babylon.
Life as they knew it ended.
And they weren’t quite sure what to make of their new life.
But then Isaiah speaks into their midst once again:
“Comfort, comfort my people!” says your God.
“Speak compassionately to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended.”
The turnaround from chapter 39 to 40 is abrupt and stark. Christopher Seitz notes that this is because “ a word is being spoken from the void, against all hope and all expectation, by God.” (NIB – VI – 328)

Against all hope and expectation.
When everything appeared to be the darkest.
With the future completely up in the air and uncertainty around every corner.
God speaks:
Do not be afraid, I am with you.

God is inviting the people of Israel to not only trust in God’s presence in the midst of a difficult time… but God is inviting them to transform their fear into curiosity and purpose and assurance.

First, rather than be afraid of the things that is happening, the people are invited to become curious and inquisitive and to allow God’s power and majesty fill them with awe.
In fact, if you read through chapters 40-48, you will find God asks a heck of a lot of questions!
Who measured the waters in the palm of a hand or gauged the heavens with a ruler? (40:12)
To whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? (40:25)
Who has acted and done this, calling generation after generation? (41:4)

I think one of the ways we can respond to the fears that creep into our lives is to be curious as well.
In the midst of a changing neighborhood and world, instead of walling ourselves off in fear, we can ask questions about what is happening and why. We can get to know our neighbors and read up on the roots of conflicts that we experience.
One of the things churches often struggle with is finances – always fearing that we will not have enough for the next year.
That fear can stun us into silence or it can keep us from taking risks and stepping out in faith.
So one way that we can turn that fear into curiosity is to look deeper into trends in giving and learn about ways to reach new people and we can invite one another to think about stewardship in new ways.
Curiosity, learning, exploration – these are all antidotes to fear.

Second, God gives the people purpose in the midst of their fears.
As our reading continued into chapter 42 of Isaiah, God tells the people that he has a job for them to do.
“I have called you for a good reason… I will give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison.”

When we look out at all of the things in this world that might cause us to be afraid – it would be easy to hunker down in our homes or within the walls of this building.
But God has given us a vision and a purpose, too!
God is calling us to engage deeper, to build partnerships and get to know our neighbors, to live a life of love, service, and prayer…
And just like the Israelites were not only supposed to be a light, an example, but were supposed to get out and heal and set others free… we believe God is calling us to help heal the lives of our members and friends and neighbors and community.
God wants us to be a part of restoration right here in this place.

Finally, God gives the people assurance.
Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
You are not alone.
No matter what you are going through, I’m right here beside you.

I think this is perhaps the most important part of this message.
Because you know, fear can keep us from a lot of things.
It could keep us from visiting museums or hanging out in public places.
It could keep us from going to concerts.
It could lead us to build bunkers in our basement and never leave them.
It could keep us from doing the work of God in this world.

Every so often, folks stop in here to Immanuel and ask for some gas. We take them up the street to the Git-n-Go and fill up their tank.
Now, I’m a young woman, who doesn’t know much self-defense, and one of our previous Administrative Assistants was always afraid for my safety as I walked up the street to the gas station.
She was worried that the person might do something bad to me, or kidnap me, or some other unknown thing.

But you know what?
God is with me.
God has given me (and us) work to do.
And disaster and tragedy and violence might strike any person, at any moment, in any place.
It is all completely out of our control.
What is in our control is the work of Jesus Christ in this world.
And if something happened to us while we were trying to live that life of love, service, and prayer… well, God is with us.
God will be with us if the unthinkable happens.

Do not be afraid, I am with you.
I have called you each by name.
Come and follow me.
I will bring you home.
I love you are you are mine.

We are God’s.
And we have work to do.
In fact, in the midst of a world filled with fears and brokenness, we have even more work to do.
God has called us for a good reason…
We have the work of healing and wholeness and hope to do.

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?

Practice These Things…

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Last week, we broke bread in spite of our differences.

We shared at the table of the Lord with people who would vote differently than us and with some who would not or could not vote at all.

And we touched [will touch] the waters of baptism and remember our baptism in Christ and that we are all children of God.

And we did so because our heritage… our inheritance as a church… our tradition as people of God… is to overcome any division among us.

Paul exemplified this in the way he gave thanks for the Gentiles in Ephesus… in spite of the vast sea of differences between them.

 

In today’s scripture reading, Paul is writing to a different community… to the people of Philippi in Greece.

This, too, was a diverse community, and one of the interesting features is that there were many descendants of Roman army veterans living there.

 

Later on this morning, we will share together in a potluck meal and celebrate and honor our veterans… all of those who have faithfully served our country, who sacrificed in countless ways for us.  Every step of the way, they put the rights, the lives, the needs of other people above their own.

 

I believe that self-giving spirit… that spirit of love that would cause someone to lay down their life for another person… is part of what has made our country great.  We don’t sit back when people are in need, but we show up.  We have showed up to fight back tyrants and dictators, oppression and evil… and not always because it was on our doorstep, but because it was on the doorsteps of others.

 

All throughout the letter to the Philippians, you can see that kind of self-giving spirit we honor in our veterans.  Practice these things… practice that holy, radical, sacrificial love… Paul writes.

And yet, the context of Philippi was very different.  This was the site, if you appreciate history, where Brutus and Cassius were finally defeated by the armies of Marc Antony.  And much of the land was taken away from the original inhabitants and given to the soldiers and their families as a reward.

 

This was a place of division, dislocation, and disparity and the gospel of Jesus Christ took root in the people who were the most vulnerable in this community.

For some, everything had been taken away from them:  their citizenship, their land… everything that made them who they were.

Until they found their identity in Christ.

And as Paul writes this letter of encouragement to these displaced people, that identity, that love, that faith is what he reminds them of over and over again.

 

In chapter 3 he writes:  “All these things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ.  But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him.”

 

These are not empty words of someone who had privilege… as Paul was.  As a Roman citizen, he had rights that many of them had just recently lost and this might have felt like salt thrown onto open wounds…

Except, Paul really did let go of all of his power and privilege for the sake of the gospel.

This letter is being written from a jail cell – because Paul is awaiting trial for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.

He is living out with his very life every word he writes on the page… including the call to “adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.  When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (2:5-8)

Practice these things…

In every part of this letter, Paul reminds the church at Philippi to put others ahead of themselves.  To love fiercely, in spite of what might happen.  To overcome conflict and difference, anger and fear.

 

And friends, that’s not easy.

When there are deep divisions in a community it is easy to hunker down with people who are like-minded, to grumble and argue, to weep and be overcome with discouragement or to hold our victories over one another.

But Paul tells us to be grateful.

Paul tells us to rejoice.

Paul tells us to let love reign in our hearts.

The key to unity we heard last week… the key to overcoming division… is gratitude for the people who are different than us.

It is echoed all throughout this letter, too.

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.  Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”  (2:2-4)

And in our scripture this morning, from the Message translation:

Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them. (4:4-5)

 

Friends, I need you to know that there is real pain and fear across this nation right now.

There have been acts of hate and violence and aggression in our communities and neighborhoods.  And in this neighborhood, there are families who fear they will be separated and there are people who have been targeted because of their gender, or sexual orientation, religion or ethnicity, or even because of the clothes they are wearing.  I cannot and will not utter the hateful and horrendous words that have been used to diminish the value of our neighbors.

There have also been acts of violence as a part of generally peaceful protests and marches.

 

So I need you to know that I am not calling for a unity that blissfully ignores conflict.

Paul is not calling for a unity that ignores the trials and tribulations of our brothers and sisters and siblings OR neglects truth-telling and accountability.

Paul is in prison because he refused to be silent… because he challenged the powers-that-be with the radical love and gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

No, the type of unity Paul speaks of is a unity of resistance against the forces of this world that seek death, division, oppression, and hatred.

Paul calls us to “be blameless and pure, innocent children of God surrounded by people who are crooked and corrupt.  Among these people you shine like stars in the world because you hold on to the word of life.”   (2:15-16)

Stand firm in your faith, in spite of your enemies.

Be united in love and compassion.

Be united against injustice.

Be united against hateful rhetoric.

Be united in protection of the most vulnerable.

Put into practice all that we have learned from Paul – and won’t worry about it, don’t be paralyzed by fear, but lift up petitions and supplications and praises to God.

As Paul writes to the people of Phillipi:

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse… (4:8)

So let me close by telling you a story… a first-hand account from a Muslim woman:

Yesterday my husband and I attended a football game, it was Duhur time and we needed to pray.

Finding a place to pray at a football stadium is tough, but we managed to find an empty corner.

I was a bit nervous to pray because it wasn’t private at all, particularly in front of everyone, maybe i’m silly but i’m always paranoid i will get attacked while focused in prayer. My husband started praying and i get approached by stadium security.

I thought in my head, here comes this guy, he’s gonna escort me out and tell us we can’t do this here.

I was wrong…

he came up to me and said “i am going to stand here and guard you guys to make sure nobody gives you any problems, go ahead and pray.”

He allowed us to pray and stood in front guarding us to make sure we are safe. When i finished he came up to us shook our hands and told us to enjoy the game.

The key to unity… the key to overcoming division… is gratitude for the people who are different than us.

The key to unity is to listen with grateful ears the stories of another person… even if it is a story of hurt and fear and pain… it is holding open spaces for people when they are scared… standing by their side when they are in pain.

The key to unity is to seek out someone who is different from you and to tell your story – even if it causes conflict BECAUSE we are grateful they are part of our community and because we want to continue to be in relationship with them.

The key to unity is to practice what is good and true and holy… putting others before yourself and giving thanks to God that they are in your life…

May it be so.

 

 

When strangers meet in the woods.. 

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​I was run/walking today on a wooded path alone. Three guys were heading towards me, drinking beers, joking around. My heart rate increased. I did that mental calculus, wondering if something happened, and I screamed, would anyone hear. 

As they got closer, one of the guys said: good morning, ma’am! 

So I said good morning back. 
Are you having fun? He asked.
Trying! I said back. 
Keep at it! He responded. 

Earlier in my walk, I came across a deer in the middle of the path. While I was far off, it simply watched, waited, did it’s own mental calculus. I was actually astonished at how close we came. 

Photo from randyroberts.wordpress.com

But them my ear buds beeped, signalling the next run interval and as I changed pace, the deer was startled and took off through the woods.

I hate that we live in a world where my first instinct was to be cautious. I wasn’t afraid, but alert and anxious… just like I’ve been conditioned to be by the friends, family, and strangers who have had their vulnerability taken advantage of.  Just like that deer that turned an ran when it percieved me as a threat.

Even if I didn’t feel physically threatened, I have been cat-called enough that I was dreading the moment I came to the three guys. 

I was wrong.

Today, I’m grateful for people who remind me that most people really are decent, that kind souls exist, and who appreciate a beautiful stroll on a path in the woods on a gorgeous day as much as I do. 

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I serve on the Rules of Order Committee for our Iowa Annual Conference.  These rules are basically the organizing and structural principles that guide our shared work and life together – both within our 3-4 day conference sessions and for the rest of the year.

We’ve been working hard to clarify and “clean up” the rules.  We had stuck a number of standing reports within our Rules of Order at one point that really didn’t belong. And now, we are working to examine which of the rules help us to live effectively into shared ministry together, and which are hindering us from the work before us.  A colleague on the committee shared with lament:  “it’s like we didn’t know how to trust each other, so we just wrote all of these rules instead.”

Maybe you are familiar with the feeling.  An employee leaves under bad circumstances, so you change the job description before hiring someone new… so that all of the previous person’s faults can be avoided.  Or one person oversteps an unwritten boundary and the entire system reacts by making a complex set of rules.

Rules are good.  They guide and shape our life together.  They provide the foundation or the framework upon which our homes and churches grow and flourish.  Done well, they provide just enough support and instruction to enable us to be creative and joyfully share in our work together and then they get out of the way.

And I’m also acutely aware of the ability of rules to protect and defend the innocent, the marginalized, and the powerless.  Rules can keep us from running amok and forgetting to look around and see who we have neglected to create space for at the table.

But that comment from my colleague keeps sticking with me.  Too often, because of distrust, or instead of doing the hard work of learning how to trust or trying  to build trust, we just create new rules. We fill our churches, our institutions, our Discipline, with do’s and don’ts.

As I pour over the nearly 1500 pages of legislation brought to the General Conference, that comment keeps ringing out in the back of my mind.

Is this piece of legislation a symptom of our distrust of one another?  Or is it a tool that will help us work together towards God’s future?

Over and over, I ask these questions.

Will this addition or deletion help us be more faithful to the witness of God in our world today as the people called United Methodist?  Or are we simply adding or deleting a rule because we aren’t happy with what Mr. Smith said at the last Ad Council meeting?

Does this legislation lift up possibility of God calling us in a new way?  Or is it filled with fear that holds us back from living out God’s dream?

I don’t believe our work at General Conference 2016 is to legislate trust.  We can’t “whereas” and “therefore” our way out of our disagreements.  So I pray for the God of hope to fill our proceedings.  I pray for a Spirit of direction that will help us to create a framework for ministry that can reach every corner of this globe.  I pray that the Living Word would be heard afresh so that God’s vision for today might be heard a new.

Hopes and Fears

Awaiting the Already.

As church, we are exploring this book, written by a pastor who served here in Iowa. And he invites us to look at the Christmas story through new lenses.

Over four weeks, we pull apart each gospel: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, and explore what they have to tell us about how our story begins.

Last week, we covered Mark in worship… with that strange fellow, John the Baptist, preparing the way for Jesus… calling for mountains and valleys to be leveled out as we make a straight path for God and us to connect once again.

This week, we find ourselves in one of the more traditional Advent and Christmas stories. Matthew’s version that focuses on Joseph, Herod, and the magi.

Except, this isn’t a story full of good cheer, either.

This week’s gospel story and our reading from the prophets remind us that the world is a tough, scary, dangerous place… but the good news is, God is with us. Emmanuel, God with us, has come and is coming into the midst of the struggles of our day.

***

In our Advent candle reading this morning, we hear a story from the prophets about how God is with us, even in the worst moments of our lives.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are being persecuted for their faith, sent to burn in a firey furnace, and yet our God, Immanuel, God with us, is with them.

Their story echoes the reminder of DeVega in the second chapter of the book, “no matter what you are going through, God is in it.” (p.42)

[11:00 candle reading here]

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God was with Shardrach, Mesach, and Abednego in the furnace.

God was with Joseph when he got the news that his fiancée was pregnant and the baby wasn’t his.

God was with the Magi, guiding them along the way.

God was and is and will be with us no matter what it is we are facing in the world today.

 

And the world today is not as merry and bright as the Christmas decorations in the store fronts would have us believe.

As DeVega writes: “wars, brokenness, violence, oppression, heartache, grief, and betrayal do not magically disappear [this time of year]. There is too much darkness in this world simply to gloss over it and pretend it is not there, all for the sake of secularized merriment and plastic good cheer.” (p. 32)

 

And friends, there has been far too much darkness in these past few weeks.

The Paris terrorist attacks.

Suicide bombings in Beiruit.

Lives lost in Baghdad during a funeral.

Marketplace shootings in Nigeria.

Continued conflict between Palestine and Israel.

A shooting rampage that ends with two police officers and a civilian killed in Colorado Springs.

And these are just the disasters on the world stage that garner media attention.

They do not speak to the personal tragedies we have experienced in the loss of loved ones, new diagnoses, or broken relationships.

 

There is so much darkness, so many reasons to fear and cower and hide.

 

We are not the first to have experienced pain and loss, threats to our lives and reigns of terror.

As DeVega writes: “there is nothing about our allegiance to God that makes us immune to heartache and disappointment.” (p.33) I would add that our faith sometimes puts us directly in the path of danger when we step out and take risks out of love or compassion or others seek to destroy our faith.

In our gospel reading, Joseph was faced with such a trial. When he found out Mary was pregnant, he could quietly break off the engagement and excuse himself from any shame or blame… OR he could himself be subject to ridicule by staying with her.

Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego could have renounced their faith when it was challenged and they were threatened with death… OR they could continue to proclaim boldly the name of the Lord and be thrown into the furnace.

And then, the holy family: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus found themselves directly in the line of fire when Herod realized there was a threat to his reign and sought to kill all who might stand in his way. They were forced to leave everything they knew and flee in the middle of the night and seek refuge in a strange land.

 

We are called to be people of hope.

Yet, where is the hope in these stories?

Where is our hope today?

 

Hope is not naïve.

Hope is more than wishful thinking.

Hope is paying attention to Immanuel, God with us, and remembering that we are not alone.

Hope is recommitting ourselves every moment to be God’s people… even in the midst of darkness, disappointment, tragedy, and fiery trials.

 

Hope means that when fear rears its ugly head, we hold fast to the promise that God is with us.

And in these times of trial, Immanuel, God-with-us, whispers in our ear: Do Not Be Afraid.

 

So Joseph stays with Mary.

Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego go willingly into the furnace.

Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus pack up all of their belongings and without fear leave everything they knew to risk a dangerous journey to Egypt.

 

Yes, sometimes hope means seeking refuge somewhere else, because we have faith that God is with us even far from home and that someday God will bring us back to where we belong.

 

I have to be honest… that part of the story is the one that gives my heart the biggest pause.

I find it so hard to see the hope in a story where innocent children are being massacred.

It is so hard to see the hope when hundreds of people lose their lives to terror.

And I guess that is the “already but not yet” part of this story.

Because hope is the reminder that in this difficult passage about the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem, God set in motion a plan to protect the one who would save us all.

We are still waiting for the world to be saved.

We are still waiting for the taking of innocent lives to end.

We are still grieving and mourning and weeping with the mothers of Ramah and the mothers of Paris and Bagdad and Beirut and Yolo and Colorado Springs.

 

The only reason we have to hope is because we know the end of the story lies in the hands of our God.

God doesn’t promise to snap fingers and fix the problem.

God doesn’t promise it will immediately get better.

God doesn’t offer platitudes.

Our God tells us to stop being afraid.

It is a challenge for our faith.

As DeVega writes, God recognizes “that fear is an understandable response.”

And, friends, I have seen a lot of responses of fear in these past few weeks.

Fear that causes people lash out at those who look different from them.

Fear that causes us to shut our borders to refugees, turning our backs on those who need the most help.

Fear that labels and divides us from our neighbors.

Yet those very words, “Do Not Be Afraid,” are “a call to resistance, and a refusal to let the trauma of external circumstances consume [us] with fear and disillusionment.” (p. 34)

 

I’ve been pretty passionate and outspoken in the last couple of weeks about our response as a nation to Syrian refugees.

And that is because I firmly believe that hope is refusing to live in fear.

And what troubles me the most about the way we as a state and as a country have responded is that we are purely acting out of an emotional reaction of fear.

We have one of the most stringent processes for accepting refugees in the world… a process that was strengthened after our own country was attacked on 9/11.

It is simply a false choice to have to choose between safety and security and doing the compassionate thing.

 

As DeVega writes in his book, “the imminent arrival of Jesus” is not an excuse to turn our backs “from the miseries of this world, but to confront them squarely in the face. In fact, Matthew would not only discourage us from finding Jesus apart from our world, or apart from our time; he would invite us to find the presence of Jesus right in the midst of this world, right now.” (p. 37)

And the most vulnerable, the least of these in our day and age are those who have fled from a reign of terror in their own land and are now seeking compassion and welcome in far away places.

Hope is recommitting ourselves every moment to be God’s people… even in the midst of darkness, disappointment, tragedy, and fiery trials.

DeVega believes that the core of Matthew’s entire gospel is this: “If you are waiting for Jesus to come back some day, then stop waiting. You can find him right here on earth, right now, at this very moment. All you have to do is look in the eyes of the marginalized and the oppressed.” (p.38) Today, all we have to do is look in the eyes of a refugee from South Sudan or Syria or Bhutan.

 

Hope is refusing to be afraid.

Hope is answering the call and recommitting ourselves to being God’s people even when we are afraid.

Hope is reaching out to the least of these in the world… because it is in them, that we find our savior and our salvation.

 

Amen.

Saving and Investing

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I stand up here today exhausted, and yet filled with joy and satisfaction.

The past two days, I have been at Ankeny First with a few others from here at the church learning about how to be a better church for our members and our neighbors struggling with addiction, incarceration, mental illness, racism, life in general.

See highlights here: https://storify.com/RightNextDoor/right-next-door-5623dc20f44af4f567e61ee9

But this was not only a conference I attended, it was something I invested my time and energy in for the last nine months as part of the planning team.

And that investment grew and was added to over the past few months until it matured this weekend in 215 people, from 16 states, gathered in a sanctuary to pray, sing, learn, and be changed.

This month, we are exploring John Wesley’s advice to earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.

In The Message last week, I briefly touched on how John Wesley encourages us to truly make all the money we can with our work… as long as it is good for our souls and good for our neighbors.

And today, we are going to talk about what to do with that money… how to make your money do some work for God’s kingdom…. About how we invest our resources, how we save them instead of wasting or hoarding them.

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Will you pray with me?

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Our gospel reading this morning tells the story of a man going on a trip who delegates some responsibilities. He gives each of his servants some money to take care of while he’s gone. Two of them get started immediately and put that money to work… and it grows and doubles and multiplies. But the third, buries the money and sits on it. He is afraid to lose it and so he hides it. He hoards it and in doing so, he wastes it.

James Harnish tells two stories in his book, Earn. Save. Give. about children of the Great Depression. One is about Ivy League-educated brothers, Homer and Langley who withdrew from society. In 1947, police were called to their home because someone noticed a smell. They found both brothers dead in the house… one died in his chair, the other had been crushed by a booby trap he’d set for potential robbers. As the house was cleaned out, “the authorities found 130 tons of stuff, mostly junk… fourteen pianos… thousands of books… a dressmaker’s dummy, and part of a Model T Ford.”

The other story he tells is about a woman named Dorothy. She loved flying and served as a pilot during WWII. She worked as a nurse the rest of her career. She gave generously to her church. And when she died, she left $4.7 million to the school where she was trained and left a large gift to her church’s endowment.

One family hoarded their money and possessions out of fear… much like the third servant. The other family saved their money and gave it a purpose.

For our time of confession this morning, think about something in your life that you hoard… that you hold onto out of fear or compulsion. Share what that might be with your neighbor.

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Are you hoarding God’s gifts? Or are you saving them?

Are you wasting the resources you have been blessed with? Or are you investing them?

This is the question presented to us today as we think about what it means to SAVE all we can.

And Wesley doesn’t go around spouting off this advice because he feels like it… no, he lived it.

 

He figured out early on, when he was a young pastor and not making much money, that he could live on 28 pounds a year in England. When he got a raise with his work, and as he gradually began to make more money from publishing and speaking, his income grew drastically. He truly was earning all he could and eventually his income reached 1,400 pounds annually – 50x what he had first made.

Yet, he continued to live on 28 pounds a year.

He didn’t see an increase in his salary as an opportunity to buy more stuff or wear nicer clothes – he saw it as an opportunity to save more and give more.

 

Wesley encourages us to see our income – all of the gifts and resources we have – as something that has a considerable role to play in God’s kingdom.

Yes, we are supposed to take care of ourselves and our family. We need to be well-rested and healthy and safe if we are going to be out there on the front lines working for Jesus.

But we aren’t meant to spend all of God’s gifts on ourselves.

Wesley writes:

“Do not throw the precious talent into the sea… Do not throw it away in idle expenses, which is just the same as throwing it into the sea. Expend no part of it merely to gratify the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life.”

Wesley wanted his people to invest their resources in the Kingdom of God.

Wesley wants us to put our resources to work.

  1. Sometimes, we act like the last servant, who dug a hole and buried the gifts.

This servant thought about the high standards of his master and didn’t want to disappoint by not doing something perfectly. So the servant did nothing at all.

This is the attitude that infects our minds whenever we see a sign-up sheet for some project at church and we think: Oh, I could never do that…

It’s the hesitation that creeps in when an opportunity to serve comes along and we think: There are so many people better suited for that… they are so much better at it than I might be.

It is also the compulsion that we have to be the best and have the best and look the best. It is the compulsion that causes us to work too much or get involved in too many things or spend all of our time and energy and resources to become the best at our job or at school or a sport so that we aren’t left behind in the dust… so we can be the best.

I understand that, and I find myself there more often that I want to admit.

Fear keeps us from investing in the lives of other people and the Kingdom because we aren’t sure about them, and because we aren’t confident that we are taken care of.

And fear is a powerful thing. There is no denying it.

But the truth is, all of these fears and compulsions keep us keep us from digging deep into relationships that really and truly will save our lives and further the kingdom of God.

 

  1. So maybe we should be like the first two servants in our gospel lesson from Matthew.

They received (earned) sizeable gifts, talents, resources, and thought… Aha! I know just what to do with this. They got to work and the investment grew and grew and grew until it doubled in size.

They didn’t spend their talents and they didn’t hoard them… they saved them and invested them.

We can save our resources and talents… maybe by not buying that Starbucks, or staying home and eating in more often. We can live a little bit more simply so that we have a little bit more to invest.

Right here at Immanuel, there are tons of opportunities for you to invest your resources in the kingdom of God.

Before we dismiss/As we got started today, Erin McGargill shared with us about one way we can invest time and money to change a child’s story. By reading to children, by placing books in their hands, we are making an investment in their future… and investment that will multiply many times over as their head start allows them to break generational cycles of poverty.

We can also invest in the health of a community by helping to put wells in South Sudan. Our investment of resources means bringing clean water to families, the time saved allows women and children to learn more, it works to combat diseases and creates the conditions for life and life abundant.

Every week there are opportunities to think a little bit less about ourselves and a little bit more about the people God has called us to care for… whether it is teaching Sunday School, or serving meals with CFUM, or sleeping outside in a cardboard box to raise money for homeless youth.

 

When we live more like the first two servants, we discover that our resources can be used to bring the Kingdom of God to earth, right here, and right now.   We discover that our money and our time and our talents have a purpose.

Lives changed, disciples made, the world transformed.

Amen. And Amen.

truth and reconciliation

I read a post earlier today that dives into the words Bree Newsome said as she was arrested this weekend:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

What I loved about the author’s wrestling is that she highlighted that faith isn’t always about forgiveness.  It is also about speaking truth to power:

So Bree Newsome was a reminder to me that forgiveness is not the only thing faith can look like in public. Faith in public can look like a demand – for justice, for recognition, for grace.

Completely aside from what is happening in the world, those words hit me in the core of my being.

There are some relationships in my life that trouble me.  They tear at my heart. I feel like a divided person because of them.

And I’ve been praying for a heart to forgive.  I’ve been seeking reconciliation in my own way. And it is hard. And painful.

I keep reading about how forgiveness isn’t for the other person… it is for ourselves so that we can let go of the pain and be at peace. I think that is true, which is why it is about more than simply saying, “I forgive you.”  It is about getting to the point in your soul when that is really true.

When you are on the receiving end of such a phrase, the work is done.  Or rather, maybe there wasn’t any work at all.  “I forgive you,” is a balm to ease a troubled mind. That’s it. End of story.

But, “I forgive you,” doesn’t change anything. It allows those who have hurt us to continue to do so.

Maybe that is why God’s forgiveness and grace always comes with the call for a different way. God’s forgiveness is so profound and complete because it forces us to truly face our transgressions before we hear the words of comfort.

And maybe that is part of what has been missing in my own quest for forgiveness.  I haven’t yet told the truth of what I’m feeling. I have not yet demanded to have the pain recognized.

I’m too busy trying to be nice and kind and forgiving and it feels inauthentic.

I hesitate to make that demand to be seen, to have my pain recognized, largely out of fear. Fear of shaking the waters. Fear of making things worse. Fear that things might actually change?

Fear can cause us to want to fight. Fear can cause us to run away. Fear can paralyze us.

In one relationship in particular, I feel paralyzed.  I don’t know what to do, so I do nothing.

I wonder what would happen if I began my morning prayers not with the plea that I could forgive, but by thanking God for being my light and my salvation and my strength… with the reminder that, in God, I have nothing to fear. I wonder what would happen if before I focused on reconciliation, I found the courage to speak the truth.