Lessons for the Journey

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Last winter, my immediate family planned a trip to Hawaii to escape the cold and the snow.  We often like to travel all together, but because of my weekend work responsibilities, the rest of the family took off earlier, while Brandon and I stayed here in Iowa to get through church on Sunday morning and then fly out. 

Our original plan had been to fly out on Sunday afternoon, but about a month before the trip, they cancelled that flight and rebooked us for first thing on Monday morning.  So our alarms were set for 4am, our bags were packed and we were ready to go.  And then the text message came.  Our flight had been cancelled.   There had been storms that weekend in Dallas, flights were backed up and ours was being bumped.  We had been rebooked for Wednesday morning. 

I instantly got on the phone and tried to see if there was any way we could get out of town sooner.  Except the hold time with the airline was estimated to be an hour or more.  Brandon and I live near the airport, so I decided to go and try to get in line and talk with an actual agent at the ticketing counter.  Only, the lines there were nearly out the door.  Everyone was trying to get out of town and no one was going anywhere.   There were no earlier flights to be had.

We decided to make the most of the day and built a fire in the fireplace at home and tried not to grumble.  The next day around noon, we got another text from the airlines.  Our flight Wednesday morning out of Des Moines had been cancelled, too. 

I think I spent about three hours on the phone with the airlines and the soonest they could rebook our tickets was on January 1st.  It would be another two days before it would be possible to get out of Des Moines due to the back up all throughout the system.  I cried.  The good lady from the airlines tried her best to help make something work, but it was a mess.   

I finally asked if the flight from Dallas to Hawaii was still taking off the next morning.  It had been only the Des Moines leg of the trip that had been cancelled.  And sure enough, it was still going to be leaving at 9 am Wednesday morning.  Brandon and I looked at each other, and decided to drive to Dallas.  

We picked up the rental car around 4pm, left Des Moines around 5, and drove through the night.  When we arrived, exhausted, around 4am, we found a quiet corner in the airport to take a short nap, made our flight, and made it to Hawaii to spend the rest of the trip with our family… only three days late.  

 

In our scripture this morning, the Israelites are on a journey as well.  While Brandon and I were trying to escape the cold of winter for a warm, sunny beach, the Israelites had escaped slavery in Egypt and now they were headed for the Promised Land.  God was leading them to the land flowing with milk and honey.  Only, they didn’t quite know how to get there and they trusted God to lead them.  

This was supposed to be a fairly simple trip, and yet at the outset, God planned to lead them the long way round.  The pillar of smoke and fire was taking them on a journey that would avoid most of the difficulties they might encounter along the way.  But no road is easy and the setbacks they experienced were far greater than a few cancelled flights. If you continue reading through the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the Israelites experienced loss, frustration, bickering, and ended up wandering for forty years in the wilderness.  There were times in the journey when the destination seemed so far away that they wished they were back in Egypt.  And despite the daily guidance and food provided from above, there were even times they forgot God was with them.  Ultimately however,  just like we finally touched down on the rainbow isle and got to spend our vacation with my parents, siblings, and three amazing niblings, the Israelites finally made it to Canaan.

While we might not be on a physical journey, the people of the United Methodist Church and the people of Immanuel are on a journey, too.  John Wesley often talked about how we are going on to perfection and I think part of that means that we as the church should always be working towards the Kingdom of God and growing not only in our personal faith, but we should be transforming the world around us to look more like the “Promised Land” every single day.  As a church, we need a compelling vision to hold in front of us, a picture of the destination we are longing for, so that we can actively work to bring that reality into being. 

But like the Israelites, our journey has been and will be marked by setbacks. Most journeys are.  We, too, have experienced loss and decline.  In fact, I bet some of you in this room can remember when this sanctuary was built in order to accommodate when we had over 500 in worship every single Sunday.  And, there are times of disagreement and disunity.  We won’t always be able to find the best worship times for every person and we won’t all agree on what a faithful Christian response is to some of the toughest conversations of our day.  

Last week in fact, an email came out from a new group that has formed within the UMC called the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  The email contained a video that highlights the three central beliefs of the organization.  That God is good, the Bible is true, and that Promises should be kept.  And yet, how those three very simple statements were defined is not something that all United Methodists agree upon.  So I became part of a group of young clergywomen that created a statement in response, trying to expand and enlarge the conversation.  

When Bishop Bickerton talks about this journey of faith we are on, he knows that it will not be easy.  But he offers a couple of simple lessons that might help us arrive together at our final destination.  As I have thought about the journey of the Israelites,  my own adventures in travel, and the journey we are currently on as a church, I find them helpful.

The first lesson I want to highlight is what my colleagues and I were attempting to do last week as we drafted a response to others in the church.  And that is the see yourselves and others as a work in progress.   I think this faith that we share is not simple, but it is complex and messy and real.  We are always learning and growing and going on to perfection.  Or as Paul put it, “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face.  Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way I have been completely known.” (1 Cor. 13: 12).  And so that means we should constantly be in dialogue with one another.  We need to admit our shortcomings and leave ourselves open to the possibility that we might be wrong.  We do not need to have it all together or have all the answers… we are still on a journey!

The second lesson relates to that idea.  In the famous words of Vanilla Ice, we need to stop, collaborate and listen. It is often the people we disagree with the most who can help us to get farther on our journey.  We need to collaborate across generations, with our older folks helping out our young parents and our younger folks providing support and care for their elder counterparts.  In his book, Bishop Bickerton shares a story from Zimbabwe and Bishop Nhiwatiwa.  In the Shona language, the word used for the spirit of collaboration is chabadza .  “If you approach a person working in a field, you do not say, “May I plow your field for you?” Instead you say, “May I help you plow your field?”  Chabadza represents a willingness to enter into relationship with someone else on the journey.” (p. 36)   And it is a willingness to let to, let others help, and to let it be done another way.  This is the spirit that we embody here at Immanuel whenever we put the needs of another person above our own and let go of our way in order to let God move us in a new way.  

The final lesson is one that I needed to remember many times on our long journey to Hawaii.  You need to lighten up, loosen up, and have a little fun The journey we are on is difficult, and if we don’t open ourselves up to find the joy in the midst of the journey it will feel like its longer than it actually is.  We need to enjoy the ride, remember that we are loved by God, let the Holy Spirit encourage us every step of the way.  Here at Immanuel, there are so many opportunities to have a little fun as we grow in this journey of discipleship.  You can sing and dance with the kids in Children’s Church.  You can laugh together over coffee in Faith Hall.  You can step out of your comfort zone and make a new friend.  You can stand up and let God move you when the music starts playing.  You can roll with punches and smile more and see where the Spirit will move.  

Above all, no matter where we are on this journey, God is with us, pushing us, pulling us, prodding us, and never letting us go.  Like the cloud of pillar and fire never left the side of the Israelites, the presence of God is in this place and will continue to guide us every step of the way.  Amen. 

Rusty Leftovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

Everyday, Ordinary Worship

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It’s Sunday morning.

According to the Pew Research Center, even though 77% of adults in Iowa claim the Christian faith, only 36% of those people commit to going to church worship at least once a week. 

Another 33% attend anywhere between twice a month to a few times a year.

If we are generous with our numbers, maybe half of Des Moines is not participating in a religious worship service this morning.

 

So what are your friends and neighbors doing? 

They’re sleeping in.  Or at softball games.  They are relaxing on the porch with the newspaper. Or at brunch at one of the many amazing restaurants in the city.  They are traveling back home after being away tailgating at a game yesterday. 

I see your wheels turning.  Those things sound amazing! Why didn’t I do those things?  Why didn’t we stay home today? 

 

I’m going to share with you a confession. 

When I stepped away from congregational ministry to lead Imagine No Malaria, I didn’t go to church every single Sunday. 

I traveled, preached, and led worship in churches on Sundays all across the state, but when I actually had the chance to be home, the temptation to actually be home and not go to worship was real. 

And here is something I discovered.  The more I stayed away, the easier it was to stay away. 

I felt less guilty about it, not more.  Honestly, I didn’t really even think about it.

But on those Sundays a couple times a month when I was back in a church, I realized how disconnected from God I had been.

 

Why do we worship?

Is it out of habit?  Obligation? 

Do we come on Sunday mornings to be fed and renewed?

Are we here to gain God’s favor? Or to hang out with those people who have the same beliefs as us?

 

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he addresses the divisions in the community and how focusing our attention on God transforms every aspect of our life. 

As the end of chapter 11 states in the Message translation:

Is there anyone around who can explain God?

Anyone smart enough to tell [God] what to do?

Anyone who has done [God] such a huge favor that God has to ask their advice?

Everything comes from [God];

Everything happens through [God];

Everything ends up in [God];

Always glory! Always praise!

Yes. Yes. Yes.  

If that is God… the beginning and end of everything… what does it mean to worship? 

It means, according to Paul, that we honor and praise God by putting our very lives into God’s hands… by discovering who God has created me to be and then by responding out of love.

Hear again our scripture for this morning from the Message translation

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what [God] wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

The time we spend in worship is about honoring God by being in relationship with God.   

And you know what… relationships take work.  They take time and energy.  It is hard to be in a relationship with someone you don’t spend any time with.  

When we gather to worship, we are saying that God is the focus of our attention, our energy, our time, our life.   

It is about living out the commandment to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. 

In worship, we encounter the living God and allow that encounter to shape everything else.  

 

Worship has nothing to do with you.  Worship isn’t about the songs you sing or the money you put in the offering plate.  It isn’t about your preferences or desires.  Worship reminds us that all of it… our time, our energy, our money, our voices… they aren’t ours to begin with.  Everything begins with God… everything ends with God… It all belongs to God already.

And the more time we spend with God in worship, the more we realize that worship is not about what we do for God: an obligation, a responsibility, a duty… but worship is about what God does for us. 

 

As Paul writes in this chapter of Romans, “the only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and what God does for us…  Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of [the body of Christ].”

Lisa Gungor, the singer/songwriter says – “It’s hard to truly worship and not be changed.  When we are connected with our Maker, we are pulled outside of our self; we begin to live for something more.  Love is the reaction to [encountering God in worship]” (http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/worship/features/25684-whats-the-point-of-worship)

And the opposite is true, too…  when we are disconnected from God… when we don’t worship, then we start to turn inward on ourselves and our world becomes much smaller.

When I chose not to spend time in worship, I found myself distracted by the world’s values and temptations.  There was even a time when I doubted my call… when I started to think that I could get a job doing something outside the church and just walk away and never look back.

I was forgetting what God had done for me.

How could I just walk away from that?  How on earth was that part of the great commandment to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength?

I wasn’t part of a community, a part of a worship experience that reminded me of who God was and who God created me to be.   

That’s what those people sitting next to you in the pew are for… to remind you.  To tell you the story again and again.  To hold that truth sacred, even if you forget it.

That’s what worship is about… It is rediscovering, over and over again, who God is and who God created us to be and responding to the good news of God’s love by being those people.  

 

Worship in its fullest sense is about far more than simply showing up for an hour on a particular day of the week.  

Worship is about taking those everyday, ordinary parts of our life… the sleeping, eating, going-to-work, walking- around life, and letting God have control of them. Letting God’s power fill them.  Letting God’s love shape them.  Every moment.  Of every day.  

 

All throughout this series on discipleship, we are recognizing that this journey of following of Jesus isn’t easy.  

We all start in different places… like the servants in the parable who each had a different set of talents.  

And the same is true of our worship experiences.  

I know this room has people who fall in that category of the 33% of Iowans who only come to worship once a month or a few times a year.  And I am so glad you are here today. 

I know this room has people has people who show up faithfully for church every Sunday, but who are simply going through the motions and don’t ever expect to really encounter God here.  

And there are people who not only show up, but bring with them the willingness to be transformed and changed through this time.

There are people in this room who not only worship on Sundays, but take time to be with God through worship and devotions in your homes and families.  

I’m so glad that all of you are here.

Wherever you are… whatever has brought you to this place… you have a chance to take the next step. 

You don’t have to go from attending church once a month to doing a daily devotion tomorrow.  God doesn’t expect that of you.  But God does invite you to take one more step.  To take one step closer.  To grow in your ability to love God, to serve God, to open your heart in prayer to God.   

And God would love for you to take just one more step deeper in your faith life.  To take the next step from wherever you are.  To let go of just a little bit more… because it’s all God’s anyways…  

God’s Love Never Fails

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This is our fourth week with the prophets of the Old Testament, and one of the things I hope you realize is that they weren’t all the same.

Every single one of them were called by God to share the word in radically different ways.

Elijah was called to do battle with other prophets.

Elisha did miracles like his master and brought healing in the midst of a time of conflict.

Amos stood up for justice, even though he wasn’t a prophet at all.

 

Sometimes, God called these prophets to speak the word to those in power, those in leadership.

And sometimes, God called the prophets to demonstrate with their very lives… to be an example to the world of God’s intentions.  They were called to acts of witness.

 

So today, we are going to hear God’s word through a living sermon, too.

I have here all of the things you expect for making a simple box cake mix.  Except, we are going to make it better…

 

God asked me to use Devil’s Food Cake Mix… because we all are tempted by sin in our lives.

Now, typically, I’d add some tap water to this recipe…. It calls for 1 1/3 cups.  But God is tired of lukewarm Christians, so we are going to use really really really hot water.

This recipe also calls for some eggs.  1, 2, 3.  But Jesus reminds us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light… so we are going to add some egg yolks to this recipe.  1…. And 2…..

And then, instead of using vegetable oil like I might normally do, we are going to use real, melted butter.  God doesn’t want us to substitute cheap grace for the real stuff of prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace that transforms our lives.

Okay then, now we mix it all up and we pour it out into the pan. And it takes a lot of work to mix it up.  And faith is like that too.  There are lumps and difficulties.  We can’t just throw everything in and hope it turns out okay. You have to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

And, we are going to add one more thing.  Now that it’s mixed, we pour it in and we are going to sprinkle the top with some sugar.  And that is because when we work our faith, we tend to get puffed up and inflated and think we are earning our salvation, and this very subtle layer will help keep our pride at the proper density.

And then, we bake the cake and it will taste absolutely delicious.  [puts raw cake batter to the side]

 

What… were you waiting for the finished product?

I did cut corners by having the water and butter right there, ready to go, but this demonstration is in REAL TIME.

So unless we want to put the whole service on hold for 40 minutes while we go preheat the oven and stick the cake in the oven, I think we had better just keep going 😉

God wants to build the spiritual fruit of patience in your lives, after all

 

That is the really difficult thing about demonstrating God’s word.  It had to happen in real time.

And for someone like Hosea, that meant a lifetime commitment to demonstrating God’s word through his actions.

As we heard in our scripture this morning, the Lord told Hosea to go and marry a prostitute and to have children together.

So even if Gomer and Hosea eloped and got married that very day, this demonstration, this living sermon, was going to take at least nine months before Hosea received the next command… to name the baby Jezreel, because the King would be punished for the sins of past generations.

And then, another child came into their lives… a daughter who was named “No Compassion” because God was done having compassion on the people.

And then another child… born after the second had finished nursing.  A son who was to be named “Not My People” because the people of the land were not acting like God’s people.

 

Hosea wasn’t just speaking to the head priest or the king of the land.  He and Gomer were bearing children that bore the marks of God’s prophecies.  And their very marriage represented the relationship between God and the people of the land, who sold themselves to other gods instead of being faithful to their God.

 

All throughout the prophecy of Hosea there are a few important things to keep in the back of our minds.

 

First, the land that we think of as Israel in the time of King David was no longer one nation, but two. 

In our teaching on the prophets thus far, we have overlooked this point, but the conflict of the leaders broke the nation into pieces.  Israel, or the Northern Kingdom, worshipped at Bethel, while Judah, the Southern Kingdom, continued to worship at Jerusalem.   Only two of the original tribes – Judah and Benjamin remained in the southern kingdom, loyal to the successor of David’s line, while the rest chose a new king in the north.

As you read the book of Hosea, then, you will notice that there are prophecies towards both Judah and Israel.  And to complicate matters even further, sometimes Israel is also referred to as Ephraim and Samaria – the tribe and the city that rule the kingdom.

 

Second, the relationship between God and the people is described in an intimate manner. 

Rather than a far off ruler or Lord, the relationship between Hosea and Gomer demonstrated the kind of deep love that God has for the people of Israel.  And God desires a marriage, a union with the people this is faithful and holy.

 

But a faithful marriage with someone who is used to infidelity is not easy.

Hosea experiences this when Gomer runs away and returns to prostitution.

In the same way, Israel and Judah keep turning their backs upon God and seeking after others.

The cycle keeps returning.  The faithlessness of the people is unending.

They seek protection from other lands.  They build altars to other gods.  They sacrifice to try to appease God…

But as God speaks in chapter 6:  “I desire faithful love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God instead of entirely burned offerings.”

And God is frustrated.

 

The very names of the children represent the prophecy against the kingdoms.  There will be no more compassion.  If the people will not stay in the relationship, then they will no longer be God’s people.  The land of Jezreel will be wiped away.

 

There is intense sadness in this prophecy.  The love of God for the people is palpable. In chapter 11:

“When Israel was a child, I love him, and out of Egpyt I called my son.  The more I called them, the further they went from me… yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them.  I led them with bands of human kindness, with cords of love… I bent down to them and fed them…” (vs 1-4)

And so in spite of God’s frustration and anger, in spite of the promise to destroy and turn away, God cannot help but remain faithful.

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?… My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” (vs 8)

And then God says, “I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being.” (v 9)

 

I am God, and not a human being.

 

We have fickle hearts.  Our emotions lead us to make rash decisions and to turn against one another.  And throughout the book of Hosea, as God speaks through the life of this human man, we see the heart and emotion of God as well.

 

But God is God and not a human being.

 

And God’s love for us is all encompassing and total.  There is no wavering.  There is no fault.

God will remain faithful to the covenant, to the promises, to the love God has for us even if we fail every single time.

Every time God will be faithful.

Every time.

 

So if you have been faithless…

If you have turned your back on God…

If you think that God must be so angry with everything you have done or left undone…

If you think it’s too late for you… it’s not.

 

Because God’s love never fails.  It never gives up.  It never runs out.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen

Inward, Outward, Upward

Since the first Sunday in November, we’ve been talking about the “Already” and the “Not Yet.”

We’ve been waiting for the day, for the moment to arrive, when Christ is born again in our hearts and minds and lives.

But it is a kind of paradoxical waiting, because God has already entered human history through the birth of Jesus. As Paul’s letter to Titus speaks – God’s salvation has appeared!

We have been waiting for something that has already happened… A long, long time ago in a Galilee far, far away.

 

Thursday, so many gathered right here, in this very place, to light candles and celebrate that birth. We rejoiced with the shepherds and angels. We brought gifts like the wise ones. Christ was born all over again in our hearts and minds and lives. You could see it on the radiant faces, holding the candles. You could feel it in the warmth and kindness and love offered to one another. Peace on earth and goodwill to all.

 

Today, a mere three days later, have we truly received what we we’ve been waiting for?

Or did everything go back to normal?

 

That truly is the question.

Did this Christmas change anything? Is your life at all different because of the birth of our Savior?

*****

Maybe all Christmas has taught us is that we aren’t quite done waiting…

In his letter to Titus, with just a verse in between, Paul goes from saying that “the grace of God has appeared…” to “we wait for the blessed hope and the glorious appearance of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:11-13)  Or as we talk about every time we take communion, Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

We believe there is still more to come.

We look out on the world and see the pain and hurt, the broken relationships and nations at war. Salvation and grace might have appeared, but this world is much the same as it has always been. There is another act to this drama of redemption that has yet to play out.

 

As a church, we have been reading this book, Awaiting the Already, by Pastor deVega. And he suggests that Paul’s advice to Titus is good advice for us today… advice about how we should wait during these “in-between times.”

He writes that the grace of God teaches us to live sensible, ethical, and godly lives.

Sensible.

Ethical.

Godly.

As deVega writes:

…these three words together capture the full range of the spiritual life. To live sensibly (or “with self-control,” as it can also mean) is to live in harmony with one’s self. To live ethically means to live in harmony with others. And to live in a godly manner means to live in harmony with God. In just three words, Paul reminds us that every relationship we have deserves our fullest commitment to love and reconciliation.

To live sensibly is to have harmony in your inward life.

To live ethically is to seek harmony in your outward life… with the whole of creation.

To live a godly life is to allow God’s harmony to filter through your upward relationship with the divine.

And, you can’t have one without the other two. Even Jesus, when asked to teach his followers the most important commandment included all three aspects: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Paul, for his part, is writing to encourage and instruct Titus, who had been tasked with organizing the church in Crete.   As Titus was to choose leaders, these three qualities… sensible, ethical, godly… should be present in their lives.

supervisors should be without fault as God’s managers: they shouldn’t be stubborn, irritable, addicted to alcohol, a bully, or greedy. Instead, they should show hospitality, love what is good, and be reasonable, ethical, godly, and self-controlled. (Titus 1: 7-8)

Why are these qualities so important?

Because they mark a transformed life. These qualities are a witness to the power of grace to make a difference in a life.  They show the world that we don’t just believe in the good news, but that it has taken hold of our lives and we are no longer the same.

You see, we may not be able to control other people’s lives… we don’t have any power over nature or sickness or disease… we can’t stop civil wars or end hunger…

But the grace of God, the birth of Jesus into our midst, has given me the ability to control MY life. And you, yours.

 

And that means, you and I can live sensibly, with self-control.

We were taught how to do so by Jesus himself, who faced earthly temptations of power and wealth and chose instead a better way.

But Jesus also showed us that living sensibly does not mean to live without joy. He turned water into wine at a wedding and he celebrated meals with friends and strangers alike. But never was he out of harmony with himself.

On Christmas Eve, fellow pastors and I were sharing on facebook all the little things that went wrong. This time of year can be awfully stressful as we try to make everything just so. More than one time, a colleague mentioned drowning away their troubles in a bottle of wine.

And one of us spoke up.

She said, “I’m in recovery… I’ve been clean for ten years this February, God willing…. I see more posts about alcohol in this group than anywhere else on Facebook. What does that say about us?”

It was a great moment for our group to evaluate and stop and take stock of our habits. To check in with ourselves and ask if we need a drink to get through an evening, what does that say about our health, our stress, and whether or not we are living in harmony with our inward selves.

 

Likewise, we should be living in harmony with others. We can follow the wisdom and teachings of Jesus who welcomed the stranger and healed the sick and fed the hungry.

This is a time of year when that type of generosity comes as second nature. But not too long after the tinsel is taken off the tree, we forget how to be generous and self-giving. Our hospitality gets worn out.

There are many different types of ethics that we might follow, but the entire point of an ethical life is that it is a habit or a custom. We shouldn’t treat our neighbors any different one time a year as another.   And so the spirit of joy and peace we discover in the warmth of embraces on Christmas Eve should be the basis of how we treat every neighbor all year long.

The saints and heroes of our Christmas story are those who sought the way of love and compassion, like Joseph choosing to stay with Mary, and the innkeeper who made room for the holy family. The grounding for our ethical lives is how we treat those who are the most vulnerable in this world.

 

Finally, we should live godly lives.   To be godly does not mean to be perfect or holier-than-thou. It means to turn our attention to God… to live a life of worship… to actually be in relationship with God.

Jesus taught us how to do with when he taught us to pray and reminded us that God is our Abba father. Jesus showed us how to do this when he took time to get away and pray.

But he also demonstrated what it means to be godly as he respected and honored the faith of others… including the Samaritan woman at the well and the Roman soldiers. He held open the door wide for all people to be in relationship with God. And at Christmas, we remember that even strangers from a far off land with no concept of the faith of Mary or Joseph were some of the first to kneel at the manger and honor God.

 

So what difference does Christmas make?

It might not change the world… but it can change your heart.

We are each tasked with living a sensible, ethical, and godly life.

As Howard Thurman once wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among people,

To make music in the heart.

J&MES: Mercy & Judgment

I love to play games. Board games, video games, card games…

One of my favorite ways to spend time with family is to grab a deck of cards and play all evening long.

Pinochle and 500 in particular. In both, there is some luck involved in the hand you are dealt, but also a lot of strategy during the card play. The games involve bidding, communication with your partner, and risk taking. Because you never know when your cards might get trumped.

You see, in both games, there is a trump suit. And that means that whoever wins the bid gets to pick the suit… whether diamonds, hearts, clubs, or spades… that will automatically win anytime they are played.

No matter how high of a card you play… a trump card can beat it.

In our life of faith, there are a lot of trump cards we can play. Actions we take or words we say that stop a conversation in its tracks or change the trajectory of a person’s action.

As James writes to the people of God, he is basically telling them that they have two kinds of trump cards to choose from: Mercy & Judgment.

The question is… which is more faithful? And which are YOU going to play?

 

Each of us were handed a card as we walked in this morning. For the purposes of our message this morning, I want you to ignore whatever the number or suit is of the card you were handed and instead I want you to pick your own ranking.

I want you to think about the worst thing you have ever done in your life. The biggest sin you have committed. That one that stays with you. Maybe, it is the one others keep reminding you about. Maybe, the one no one else even knows about.

How would you rank that sin?

Is it a four of stealing?

Is it a jack of adultery?

Is it an ace of lies?

No matter how we have ranked our sin, no matter what suit it is, God has a word for us today.

Because no matter how high of a card you have or you play… a trump card can beat it.

And in our life of faith, we can choose between two suits of trump: Mercy & Judgment.

 

First, let’s look at what it would mean to play the trump card of judgment.

When you choose judgment as your trump card, then when you see sin in the world, you choose to name it. You choose to treat others based upon their obedience to the Law of God, because you are playing by the rule of Law.

And that means that every one of the Ten Commandments Moses chiseled into the stone tables, every one of the 613 laws of the Old Testament, every single rule of the scriptures applies.

Not just for other people, who you are judging…. But for yourself, too!

This is the same message Paul shares with the Roman community. In chapter 2 of his letter to the Romans, he speaks about the difference between living under the law and living under grace… and specifically is speaking to a Jewish community. “Those who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law… If you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law…. Then why don’t you who are teaching others teach yourself.” (Romans 2: 12, 17, 21)

If you choose to judge others by the Law, you are choosing to live under the Law. And that means all the Law applies to you.

One of the big problems that James sees with this is that Judgment is often arbitrary.

We pick and choose which laws we are going to judge by.

As The Message translation of James 2:1 puts it: “My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith.”

The laws we tend to judge by ARE influenced by the changing tides of culture. We can see how the important sins of the day have changed through time… whether we are focusing on slavery, prohibition, child labor, sexuality, abortion… some sins get elevated to the top and are THE standard by which we judge other people.

If we go back to the game of cards… they are the ones that we think are the Aces, Kings and Queens of sin.

But as James writes, “you can’t pick and choose in these things.”

If you are going to live under the law, you have to live under the ENTIRE law. And Paul says it is impossible: “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” (Romans 2:23)

But we keep trying to play the trump cards of judgment, and we point out to others the exact rank and suit of their cards.

The problem is, we tend to use our life as the measuring stick, rather than the law. We pick out their suits by the Laws we choose to follow and rank them based on our own obedience, success, and failures. Who is rich and who is poor… who is deserving and undeserving… all of these distinctions depend on where we stand and what we believe about ourselves…. Not how God sees them or us.

And God sees all sin equally. It doesn’t matter if you are a serial killer or committed adultery or if you stole a candy bar when you were seven… we are all sinners.

Every single sin, no matter how we rank them… whether it is an ace or a three… they are equal. They all get trumped by judgment.

 

The other option is to choose mercy as your trump card. When you do so, it is grace that sets the rules of the game.

A very simple definition of mercy is to give someone something they do not deserve.

And as we just heard, none of us deserve grace. “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory,” Paul writes… and then continues, “but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace.” (Romans 3:23-24)

The Law of God helps us to see how far away from God’s intentions we have fallen, but it is only the Grace of God that gives us the freedom to get back up and reclaim who we were truly meant to be.

On Tuesday of this week, Pastor Todd and I were in Ames to hear a presentation from Bishop Ken Carter who presides over the Florida Annual Conference.

First and foremost, Bishop Carter reminded us that we were all made in the image of God. Before the fall, before sin entered the world, we were made in God’s image.

And in our tradition, we believe that no sin, no matter how big, can ever take that image of God away from us. It is there… deep within our lives.

Every person has it… whether they are aces by the world’s standards or fours and fives.

And God’s grace enters our lives while we are still sinners and sets us free.

In our tradition, we talk about the justifying grace that saves us, but again, grace has nothing to do with anything we have done, with our gifts or our merits…. It is simply our acceptance of the fact that God has already accepted us.

It is our decision to stop playing by the rules of Law and to start living by the rule of grace.

Or as James puts it, “talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free.” (2:12)

When we live by the rules of grace and play the trump card of mercy, then again, we have to treat every person in this world the same. No kings or threes here, either.

And the trump of mercy allows us to see others not as the worst thing they have ever done, but instead to see the image of God in their lives.

 

Bishop Carter also shared with us this past week a really concrete picture of the difference between playing the trump of judgment and playing the trump of mercy.

He pointed to two well-know, important people of faith: Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.

Both of them are holy men. They have both dedicated their lives to God’s word.

Yet, their words of response to one of the big “sin questions” of our time are striking.

In regards to homosexuality, Pope Benedict said: “although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil.”

Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?”

The world saw Pope Benedict as a continuation of a church that was declining in relevancy, pointing out the sins of the world and judging without paying attention to its own sins.

But we have seen the world respond in a different way to Pope Francis, and his focus on mercy has everything to do with it.

He washed the feet of prisoners on Good Friday. He lives a life of humility. He has declared a season of mercy and forgiveness of those who have had abortions. He is calling the church to treat every single person with mercy, love, and grace.

He has not abandoned the churches official positions on any of these controversial subjects, but he has let go of the trump card of judgment. He refuses to play it.

Bishop Carter pointed out that the more we approach holiness, the more humility we should have and the more we leave judgment in the hands of Jesus.

And what we see is that others’ lives are transformed not by playing a trump card of judgment and pointing out their sins.

No, transformation happens in the presence of holiness and grace and love… when the trump card of mercy wipes away whatever suit or rank has defined us and allows us to remember the image of God that is in our lives.

 

Mercy or Judgment?

 

James is pretty clear… Mercy trumps everything…. Even Judgment.

Two Texts: Pope Francis, the Environment, and Relationships

Format Image

This summer, Pope Francis issued a letter to the world, “Laudato Si’” or Praise be to You which calls upon all people to care for our common home, our sister, Mother Earth.

And while it made the news this summer, one of the first thoughts I had was that, as United Methodists, we had a letter of our own like this about six years ago. In 2009, a pastoral letter was issued from the United Methodist Council of Bishops called: God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action. (http://s3.amazonaws.com/Website_Properties/council-of-bishops/documents/grc_letter_english_1010.pdf)

If you would like to see or have a copy of our letter, you can pick one up at the table in the back as you leave today.

 

In both, we are reminded of the relationship between living organisms and their environment… that we need to understand our ecology: the interconnected system of water, air, soil, plants, animals, and ourselves.

From the fight over water rights in California, to our own conflict here in Iowa over nitrate levels, this summer has been full of stories about how the environmental choices we make in one location impact the whole of creation in another. And I’m not just talking about the decisions of a farmer. Each of them is simply responding to the demands of the market, which is impacted by our choices as consumers. We do not always appreciate how precarious the balance of our ecologies can be, until the weather and climate change.

As our Bishop’s letter states, “we no longer see a list of isolated problems affecting disconnected people, plants and animals… the threats to peace, people, and planet earth are related to one another.”

Or as Pope Francis writes: “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation…”

Everything… from the availability of quality water, to the loss of biodiversity, to the inequitable distribution and consumption of energy, violence, warfare… is interrelated.

 

And rather than debating the merits of specific proposals or policies, Pope Francis points us towards the foundation for a different way of being.

 

It all boils down to three relationships

  1. Our relationship with God
  2. Our relationships with our neighbors
  3. And our relationship with creation itself.

So today, aware of the multitude of articles and stories this summer on climate change, water, drought, and the environment, let us explore the text in our scriptures that lays the groundwork for our ecology… Genesis One.

 

We learn in this story of a creative and life-giving God. Everything has a purpose. Everything is connected to another. The sun, moon, and starts give light and determine the seasons. The plants provide food for the animals, who provide sustenance for humanity.

Everything is a gift and nothing was made by our own hands.

Therefore, the foundation of our relationship with God should be one of gratitude.

Gratitude for every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, every creature in the multitude of this diverse, beautiful planet.

 

Our relationship with our creator is also fundamentally related to our relationship with the creation, because we are called to take care of this earth. Historically, we have heard verse 28 as the call to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, over every living thing that moves on the earth.” We look at this image of the creation and our central image in it and believe the world revolves around us.

The language of dominion and subduing has led us to believe we are called to control and use and have power over the world. It is ours to do with it whatever our hearts desire.

 

But when we really look at these verses in context, I think we have been sorely mistaken.

The Hebrew word in this place is not so much the idea of dominion or rule, but rather that of holding sway over… influencing… guiding. Pope Francis holds both the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts together, reminding us our call is to “till and keep” the garden of the world…. We are to cultivate and work this creation… while at the same time caring for it, overseeing it, protecting it.

In my organic ministry class this summer, I have been reminded over and over again that any good farmer cares for the soil as much as they do what is planted in it. One must protect the earth in order to work it. And one must listen and pay attention to what the environment demands and respond accordingly if you ever want to influence what might grow there.

That is far different than a more domineering perspective…. a stubborn resolve to use the earth and grow whatever your heart desires whenever you want to.

 

I learned about this in my own garden this summer…. (talk about tomatoes)

Even if we stick with the language of dominion, the root of dominion is in the Lordship of God. We are to be lords as God is Lord over creation… in love, in creation, in fostering diversity, in nurturing life.

 

This earth does not belong to us. It is a gift. As we remembered two weeks ago when we recalled the Jubilee in ancient Israel, God tells us that the land is not ours… it is God’s and we are merely strangers and sojourners upon it.

Yet in God’s gracious and loving spirit, we are allowed to take and use what we need for sustenance. We are allowed to care for this earth, and pass its gifts down generation upon generation.

Because this planet belongs to not only Adam and Eve, but all descendants, all humanity, then our relationships with one another are intertwined with the gift of creation.

Just as every plant and animal, microbe and molecule is a gift… so too is every person on this planet. The very idea of Sabbath calls us to let the earth and its workers rest, so that all be renewed. And the promise is that even if we rest and cease working, there will be abundance and plenty. God will take care of us.

The gifts of this planet are to be shared. Not only with people of today, but future generations as well.

So that all might find joy. So all might be at peace.

Pope Francis begins his letter with a description of the type of lifestyle that people of faith should aspire to… a tribute to his own namesake, Saint Francis. “He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology… he was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature, and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace… Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it means to be human.”

May we be people who are concerned for nature.

May we be people who always seek justice for the poor.

May we be people who are committed to society and work towards its common good.

And may we be people who find inner peace as we do so.

 

Amen.

Hungry?

Yesterday, I preached on Jesus and the fig tree.  It is such a strange pericope (aka story).  Both Matthew and Mark tell us (Matthew 21 and Mark 11) that Jesus was walking along, sees a fig tree, doesn’t find fruit, curses the tree and wham-o, it dies.

What?!?!

There is a broader point to the story, as I mentioned in the sermon: about prayer, about asking for what we want, and about the power of God to move mountains. [And as reminded by a commenter, there are broader symbolic connections with the nation itself.]

But, c’mon… what is it with this  fig tree?

This morning I sat down with my devotions and read from Albert Edward Day’s The Captivating Presence:

Sometimes the best of us have days when our dearest friend must say, “you are not yourself today”. That fact gives them a hard time and sends them away deprived of what they should have from us. BUT GOD IS ALWAYS GOD.

“You are not yourself today.”

That’s what I wish the disciples had told Jesus when he cursed that fig tree.  It wasn’t even the right season.  What was he thinking?

Well, probably, he wasn’t.

 

snickersHave you seen those Snickers commercials with Betty White and Joe Pesci and the like?

You know… the one where  they are handed a Snickers and transform back into their real selves with just one bite?

The tagline is “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry.”

This story is also a reminder that while God is always God, Jesus was also fully human.

And human beings get hungry.

The next day, after leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. (Mark 11:12)

Early in the morning as Jesus was returning to the city, he was hungry. (Matthew 21:18)

When I get hungry, I get grouchy. Seriously cranky. My head hurts. I don’t want to do anything. I’m a bear to be around and I often lash out at whatever or whomever might be nearby.

What if Jesus just really needed a candy bar?

 

I wish I had the answers about how Jesus could be fully God and fully human all at the same time, but to me it is a mystery.  And I’m okay with that.

I’m okay with the unchanging, holy, everlasting, eternal, awesome God becoming one of us.

I’m okay with the idea that Jesus can be totally divine and holy and merciful and good and loving AND that he was a human being who cried as a baby and learned and changed as an adult, and yes, got hungry sometimes.

It doesn’t have to make sense and it doesn’t change my ability to turn to God or learn from Jesus.

Well, maybe it does change my feelings… maybe it deepens my appreciation of God’s love for us.  That God would go so far to get to know us so well.