Sermon on the Mount: The Golden Rule

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My sister-in-law has been staying with us all week while she completed a training here in Des Moines for her work place.  It was really nice to come home in the evenings and to be with not only my husband, but both of his siblings every evening.  We relaxed, had nice meals together, caught up on what was going on in each other’s lives and played a lot of cards.

One of our go-to games is pinochle.  You play the game with a deck made up of only 9’s through Aces, but we play with four of every single card.   There is a bid phase, a meld phase, and then a playing phase.  It’s kind of a complicated game, but once you get the hang of it, it goes fairly quickly.

Like any card game, there are endless variations on the rules.  And the thing about pinochle is that whenever we play at my sister-in-law’s house, we play with a different set of rules than when we play at their dad’s house.  In one case, a four of a kind can earn you anywhere from 40-100 points, and in the other, it’s worth absolutely nothing.  When I looked down at my hand about halfway through the game and saw four Kings of Hearts, I suddenly wished that we were playing at her house instead.

But, the house rules prevail.

A couple of weeks ago as we gathered here to explore the Sermon on the Mount, we talked about the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, as explained by Jesus.  He took some of those well-known laws from the Ten Commandments and actually made them harder… in the end, reminding us that our aim is to be perfect, to be complete in our love.  Jesus puts his own spin or variation on them.

Now, the difference between a rule and a law is hard to distinguish.  Laws are official, because they are created and enforced by the political structure of the time – whether it is a democracy, like the United States today, or a theocracy, like the early Jewish monarchy and they have official consequences.    But rules, are standards of behavior that guide our actions and tend to be dictated by the community or environment or home that you are in.  There are consequences for rules, too, but they tend to be less severe – like a loss of privilege or opportunity.

In the case of a card game, you could think about the law being the standard way a game is played. In the game we were play, for example, a Queen of Spades and a Jack of Diamonds is a what is known as a pinochle and that is same everywhere you play the game.   But the variations, the house rules, vary and tell you a little bit about what that particular community values about the game itself.

Much of the Sermon on the Mount is made up of these “house rules.”  Jesus describes for us how it is that we play this game of life as people who are part of the Kingdom of God.  He lays out the variations that are going to guide our life and our relationships if we want to be part of this community.  These aren’t formal laws with defined consequences, but rather describe the standards that we should aspire to embody if we are going to be part of God’s Kingdom.

And the section of the sermon that we focus on this morning is no different.  When it comes to relationships, when it comes to how we live together in community, Jesus lifts up this idea of reciprocal relationship… that you should give what you want to get.

He talks about this in terms of judgment:  Don’t judge so you won’t be judged.

He talks about it in terms of seeking:  That just as you expect to get the things you need from your earthly parent, so your heavenly parent will give you good things.

And he talks about this in how we treat one another in general: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

 

Now, Christianity isn’t the only community to have ever expressed this rule.

In the Hindu faith we hear: This is the sum of duty:  do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain. (The Mahabharata)

In Buddhism: Hurt not others with that which pains yourself. (Udana-Varga)

Islam teaches: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. (Hadith)

Confucius says: What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to others.

And as a contemporary of Jesus, Seneca taught: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.

What is interesting is that in many of these other cultural and religious expressions of this idea, the rule is usually expressed in the negative.  Don’t treat others how you wouldn’t want to be treated.  It is about refraining and restraint.   And the section on judgment certainly fits that kind of characteristic when it encourages us to not point out the specks in our neighbors eye – to refrain from judging.  But Jesus also expresses this rule in the positive light – Treat others the way you want to be treated.  As MacDonald and Farstad write in their commentary on this passage, Jesus “goes beyond passive restraint to active benevolence.  Christianity is not simply a matter of abstinence from sin; it is positive goodness.” (Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments).

The Golden Rules that Jesus give us are proactive.  They invite us to take a situation and to pour God’s mercy, love, and grace into every aspect.  We should look upon every encounter with others and ask in every circumstance – how would I want to be treated in the midst of this.  And then, we are supposed to do it.  Not just think about it, but do it!  William Barclay notes that this law invites us to go out of our way to help others, and it is something that “only love can compel us to do.  The attitude which says, ‘I must do no harm to people,’ is quite different from the attitude which says, ‘I must do my best to help people.’” (The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 1)

And Jesus calls us to do our best to love all people, whether or not they deserve it.

Think about even the “law of retaliation” that comes earlier in chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus reminds us that the reciprocal nature of our relationships in the past has been about an eye for an eye.  We give back what we have been given.  But Jesus challenges us to be proactive in our love… that if we are slapped on one cheek, to turn the other to them as well.  If we are sued for our shirt, we should give them our coat also.  In many ways, we are being asked to love first and ask questions later!

The world that we live in today is starkly divided.   There is a lot of pain and disagreement and conflict that is not only reflected in national politics, but it often takes its root in our homes and families and churches, too.  When I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues shared that their family has cancelled their annual reunion because they have such differing political views they can’t be in the same room together any longer.    Our larger United Methodist Church is so divided about whether and how we will welcome people of varying sexual orientations that we are in a season of deep discernment about if we can even remain a united church and what it might look like if we did.   I experience this in my own family, too.

And maybe that is why a commentary piece from foxnews.com really hit home with me.  The author describes how she and her husband find a way to live together in the midst of their disagreements and I’ll share the article to our church facebook page if you are interested in reading it.  What struck me about the piece, and why I share it today, is that it lifts up that you have to start with love.  You have to start with the Golden Rule.  You have to start in a place of generosity and mercy and kindness, treating those who radically disagree with you with the same respect and graciousness that you would hope to receive back.

Jennifer Dukes Lee calls us to resist trying to be right and to not judge others by putting them in boxes.  She calls us to think before we speak and to ask if what we say is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.  And she tells us that when we truly live in these ways, when we let love define what we do, that we can show the world that it is possible to live in the midst of diversity, if we put others first.  (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/02/16/trump-or-never-trump-what-to-do-when-cant-agree-with-people-love.html)

In this season of our national and state and home life, we need to  remember the house rules that define who we are as people of faith.  The rule of love and compassion.  The rule that invites us to put others first.  The rule that leads us to treat any person we meet the way we would want to be treated… whether they deserve it or not.

I am NOT a prophet

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In 1908, a mining disaster in Monogah, West Virginia claimed the lives of 361 men.

250 of those men were fathers and nearly one thousand children in the area were suddenly fatherless.

And along comes Grace Golden Clayton, a Methodist, who had recently lost her own father.

She felt a call to do something, to say something… and so the first observance of “Father’s Day” was held at her church, the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church South on July 5, 1908.

Ordinary people are sometimes called to speak extraordinary things.

 

There were, in the time of Amos, professional prophets who lived in bands and studied with one another in guilds. They would often lift up apprentices, like Elijah did with Elisha, and sometimes the trade was passed from one generation to the next.  Often, they found their place near power… much like the prophets of Baal in the court of Ahab and Jezebel.

Amos was not one of these professionals.  As we hear loud and clear in our scripture this morning: “I am not a prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son: I am a shepherd and a trimmer of sycamore trees.” Amos 7: 14

And yet he is called by God to go toe-to-toe with the royal priest Amaziah. He is called to speak uncomfortable truths to those with power.  There is no community at his back, just him and God’s word.

 

And it is not an easy word.  Everything is hunky-dory for the elite and powerful of Israel. Life is good.

And that is precisely the problem.

In the words God speaks to Amos:  I won’t hold back punishment, because they have sold the innocent for silver, and those in need for a pair of sandals.  They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and pus the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2: 6-7).

All of their wealth and comfort has come at the expense of the poor and afflicted.

They are fat and happy as cows, lounging around on couches, singing idle songs, drinking wine and buying expensive oils for their bodies… and they couldn’t care less about the suffering of others. (Amos 6:1-7)

Plague after plague was sent upon Israel… God’s way of gently pushing the people back onto the right path… Over and over God was calling the people to return and they refused.  They were too comfortable right where they were.

 

We live in a world of reality television, Netflix binging, and crowded airwaves.   We live in a time of consumer pleasure where everything can be bought for a price.  We live in an era of slacktivism… where we think that signing our name to an online petition or sharing an article on social media means that we are changing the world.  In spite of our own personal struggles, compared with the world… compared with history… we are fat and happy as cows, too.

The world of Amos was not all that different from ours.

 

One of the powerful images given to Amos in his vision in our scripture this morning is that of a plumb line.  As we demonstrated with the children this morning, the plumb line shows where adjustments need to be made.  The plumb line shows where things are out of whack.  The plumb line shows whether or not our foundations will be strong and lasting.

God was building a nation out of the people of Israel – a nation that would show the world how to live.

God wanted Israel to be a people who cared for the poor and oppressed.

God wanted Israel to let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

And just because Israel is set-apart and called to be God’s people doesn’t mean they are immune from judgement.

God desires true community and justice for ALL peoples, not just Israel, and holds all nations accountable to that same standard…  but perhaps there is no greater disappointment than when the one whom you love the best, the one you’ve chosen lets you down.

The walls of Israel are out of alignment.  The structure will no longer hold.  And so it needs to be torn down so that it can be rebuilt.

 

Sometimes, when we think about the Old Testament, we think of it as the collection of laws and judgment and so we write it off, because we have the New Testament… which is full of love and grace.

But that is to misunderstand both judgment and grace.

Both are acts of love.

They are two sides of the same coin.

Judgement helps you to have an accurate picture of where you are and where you should be and grace is the transformative power that moves you from here to there.

Tearing down the walls so that they can be rebuilt… better, stronger, more faithfully, is an act of love.

An act of love both towards the wayward elite who are full of sin and pride…. AND an act of love towards all of those whom they have trampled on in their climb to the top.

 

The world of Amos was not that different from ours.  And a plumb line is being held up in our midst, too.

 

I’m going to be completely honest that I stand in this pulpit today with a little bit of fear and trembling in my heart.

Much like how Grace Golden Clayton, who was very shy must have felt when she approached her pastor about starting a Father’s Day Commemoration.

Much like Amos must have felt when God sent him to the royal court of Jeroboam in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

I am not a prophet.

I’m a pastor… which ironically comes from the Latin… meaning shepherd.

So I resonate with Amos.

When Amaziah threatens him and sends him away for speaking a word against the king, Amos answers:

“I am not a prophet… I’m a shepherd… but the Lord took me from shepherding the flock and the Lord said to me, God, prophesy to my people Israel.”

 

Friends, I am not a prophet.  I don’t want to be a prophet.

I have felt a call all of my life to be someone who stands firmly in the middle to help bring ALL of the sheep into the fold.  Black sheep, white sheep, grey sheep, brown sheep… they are all precious children of God and I have felt a call to care for them… to care for you.

At various points in my life, I have been the type of leader who finds a way for every voice to be heard, who finds a middle way in the midst of difference, and who seeks to keep everyone engaged and involved.

Yet, as a shepherd, as a pastor, I also am keenly aware that there are sheep who have left the flock… who have wandered away… or who have been scared away by the other sheep.

 

Last week as we gathered for worship, I didn’t yet know about the tragedy that had taken place in the night in Orlando.  Even as we worshipped that morning, more names, more lives were added to the death toll.

And all week, my heart has been broken by this massacre… by the taking of so many young, vibrant, lives.

But I think one of the things that has truly broken my heart is that I wonder if they knew that God loved them.

 

You’ve heard me talk about how we are called to love all people many many many times from this pulpit.  And so maybe you know that when I say that, I mean the lives of gay and lesbian, trans and queer, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, intersex… the whole alphabet of our lives, too.  But if you didn’t, I’m saying it.  God loves you, too.

But I have watched as friends I love have left the church because they were not accepted for who they were.  I have watched colleagues have to hide who they are in fear… and I’ve watched them come out and claim their identity… even if it means that they might lose their credentials.

Yesterday, one of my friends posted on facebook that a fourteen year old trans* child in her last congregation took their life.

Several researchers have found that faith is associated with a lower chance of risky behavior and suicide among youth.  Religious teenagers are less likely to kill themselves than their peers… unless they are gay.

If they are LGBT+ and religious, they are actually more likely to take their own life.

And its because too often, they feel rejected, at the core of who they are, by their faith families.

As we have learned as the week went on that the perpetrator of this act of hate and terror was likely also someone who wrestled with his own sexuality and took out his pain and hatred on the lives of innocent people, I can’t help but think about that statistic.

 

This past week, I’ve been forced to hold up a plumb line to how we, as people of faith, truly welcome LGBT+ folks.

Do our sons and daughters, grandchildren and neighbors know that God loves them? Are they welcome here, in this place, in this sanctuary?

Monday, I came here in the sanctuary to pray and to cry and to grieve for the loss sustained last weekend… to grieve for them and their families… the moms and the dads whose children were taken from them…. For the ones whose own parents didn’t know that they gay… who didn’t know that there in the dance club was the only safe place they could be themselves.

And I was struck by how this tragedy also lived at the intersection of color and sexuality and how violence disproportionally impacts people of color.  And I was struck by how the lives lost on that morning are only a fraction of the lives taken because of homophobia and hatred.  And I heard the call to reach out to my friends and colleagues, my family, my neighbors and to simply say these words:  I love you.  I see you.  I care about you.  You are beautiful and beloved by God.  You are worthy.  You are not alone.  If you need me, I’ll be here.

 

Too often, acts of violence and tragedy come and go with the news cycle in our nation.  We say a prayer and then turn our attention back to something more entertaining.

And in that we are absolutely no different than the people of Israel in the time of Amos.  We turn our backs on the downtrodden and the marginalized.  We say all the right words and then go right back to doing what we have always done and nothing ever changes.

Stephen Colbert, in his opening monologue on Monday night talked about how we accept that script and become paralyzed by despair, but then he said these words, which I leave us with today:

Well I don’t know what to do, but I do know that despair is a victory for hate. Hate wants us to be too weak to change anything. Now these people in Orlando were apparently targeted because of who they love. And there have been outpourings of love throughout the country and around the world. Love in response to hate. Love does not despair. Love makes us strong. Love gives us the courage to act. Love gives us hope that change is possible. Love allows us to change the script. So love your country, love your family, love the families of the victims and the people of Orlando, but let’s remember that love is a verb, and to love means to do something.

 

We hold up the plumb line today and I can’t help but wonder if changing the script means to tear down the walls built on hate, injustice and oppression… tearing them down and starting over as a people who share the love of God with every single person… who create a wide space in this church, in this building for all of God’s people.

Amen and Amen.

 

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Some highlights from today…

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All are welcome at the wedding banquet!
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Voodoo Donuts!
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Let your light shine: Four Areas of Focus
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Celebrating 150 years of United Methodist Women
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#blacklivesmatter, intersectionality, protest
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Gender Justice! Such an important amendment ehen so many places where our church exists do not value the lives of women and girls.
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Creating a culture of call: start asking at a young age... What are you called to?
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Ministry and Higher Ed night...
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Ministry and Higher Ed night... Part 2

Holy Pockets of Grace #umcgc

As I came out of my subcommittee meeting in Faith and Order tonight, I felt like we were finally doing it. We were finally embodying what it meant to hear one another, to seek understanding, to seek God’s will, and to serve God in this capacity.

We were reminded by our vice chair at the start of the afternoon, as he read Psalm 23, that we serve a dual purpose.

We look to our Shepherd who guides and sustains us.

But we are also called in this role to Shepherd and lead the church.

My subcommittee took intentional time today to listen deeply, ask questions of context, and to bring scripture to bear on our conversation. We brainstormed. We were honest. We asked about the Holy Spirit. We didn’t let parliamentary rules interfere. I believe every person around the table in our group of 30, save one or two, spoke and shared.

In particular we looked today at Paragraph 304.3 under the qualifications for ordination. While paragraph two lays out the high standards of expectation for clergy persons, paragraph three specifically names that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” can’t be ordained.

So, not an easy topic.

But we did so with grace and faithfulness, recognizing that scripture speaks from a context to a context, and trying to help us stay united while at the same time not hindering the mission of the church and helping the church make disciples.

It was awesome.

I am also aware that our experience was extra ordinary. That other groups did not have such a holy and grace filled experience.

And I’m apprehensive, coming out of the bubble, about what comes next in our larger committee and the plenary. How on earth do you convey the spirit or translate our profound understanding of one another?

Keep praying, friends…

Renegade Gospel: The Red-Letter Rebel

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There was a challenge issued TWICE by Mike Slaughter in chapter one of this Renegade Gospel book we are examining during this Lenten season: to read through one of the gospels and pay specific attention to the red letters… to the words of Jesus… spoken there.

I pulled out my bible and started with Luke. Luke is the gospel assigned for this particular Lenten season according to the powers that be. It is the gospel we will be following most weeks during worship.

The very first time Jesus speaks in Luke’s gospel, it is in the synagogue in his hometown and he is preaching.

Jesus reads from Isaiah, explains a bit about what he has read, and makes everyone so angry they drive him out of town and try to throw him off a cliff.

I really hope you don’t try to do that to me this morning!

Now, many of his words, like the ones we find today in the reading (Rod/Natalie) just shared with us, are words of healing or forgiveness or calling.

“Woman, you are set free from your sickness” (Luke 13:12)

But almost every single time, like we found in our reading today, when Jesus does so, he really makes people angry.

He calls the wrong people, he forgives the unforgiveable, he heals on the wrong day…

The synagogue leader, in this particular healing, was “incensed” (as my bible puts it) that Jesus was healing on the Sabbath.

And all of this anger and frustration on behalf of the system was slowly coming to a boil, as we find just a few verses later.

As our reading continues, the Pharisees (the religious leaders) are plotting together with the political leader, Herod, to be done with Jesus for good.

Now, Herod’s father was the one who had tried to kill Jesus as an infant because he thought he might be a threat to his power.

And this Herod has already beheaded John the Baptist.

Both Herod and the religious leaders were upset about the populist movement stirring up in response to the ministry of John and Jesus.

As Mike Slaughter writes in Renegade Gospel:

“Jesus could never be perceived as a protector of the status quo” (p. 27)

 

I think the same is as true today as it was then.

Jesus is never satisfied with things the way they are, because Jesus has a vision of the way things can and should be.

He is constantly getting into trouble for doing what is “right for the sake of people” … even if it was against “the rules.”

I think, at the core, Jesus is always pushing the status quo, always challenging us to do more and to be more faithful, because his goal is nothing short of the Kingdom of God lived out on earth… and friends, we aren’t there yet!

Those of us gathered in this room are incredibly blessed… even if we struggle… because we have more resources at our fingertips than most people in this world.

But even here, in a great city, in a great state, in a great country, can we agree that we’re not in heaven yet?

And the KINGDOM is the standard Jesus is holding us to. The KINGDOM is the standard Jesus is holding the political and religious leaders to. The KINGDOM OF GOD is the standard.

And so even today, as a modern religious leader of the Christian faith, I read these words of Jesus and I am still challenged and pushed to really think about the teachings I share with you and how I call us to live them out together.

And all of those harsh words Jesus has for the Pharisees…. well, they are for people like me, too. Because too often, as your leaders, we have simply not preached the gospel! We haven’t shared the vision of the Kingdom of God and we haven’t given you the tools to truly be the Body of Christ, in the world, helping to bring that Kingdom to fruition.

 

And friends… I think that’s what we, the Body of Christ, are supposed to do.

When I re-read Luke’s gospel, over and over again, Jesus asks us to not only hear his words, but to obey them. Just on a glance back through this morning, I counted at least 9 times (Luke 6:47, Luke 8:21, Luke 9:48, Luke 10:1, Luke 10:28 & 37, Luke 11:28, Luke 12:1, Luke 18:22)… Jesus asks us to not only hear but to do them. To live them. To go and do likewise.

We are trying to be faithful Christians and put into practice what Jesus says.

And, here is the good news I discovered in these commands to “go and do likewise.”

Jesus is NEVER angry at ordinary people who doing the best they can to live out their faith.

He never shames them.

He never scolds them.

He invites them! But he doesn’t get mad at them for where they currently are in their journey of faith.

He is never upset with someone if they aren’t ready to do it. Jesus simply sends them on their way. Maybe another day, in a different sermon, they’ll be ready.

 

In our United Methodist tradition, we call this “going on to perfection.” Discipleship is a lifelong journey and you are wherever you are today without any judgment.

We are called to be like Jesus, and we fully acknowledge and admit that we aren’t there yet!

And why would we be? Jesus is divine! The Son of Man AND Son of God. The standards are the very KINGDOM OF GOD!

We are mere mortals, trying to live up to the standards of the divine.

There is a quote by Barbra Brown Taylor in her book, “The Preaching Life” that has always stuck with me:

Over and over, my disappointments draw me deeper into the mystery of God’s being and doing. Every time God declines to meet my expectations, another of my idols is exposed. Another curtain is drawn back so I can see what I have propped up in God’s place – no, that is not God, so who is God?

It is the question of a lifetime, and the answers are never big enough or finished. Pushing past curtain after curtain, it becomes clear that the failure is not God’s but my own, for having such a poor and stingy imagination. God is greater than my imagination, wiser than my wisdom, more dazzling than the universe, as present as the air I breathe, and utterly beyond my control. (p. 10)

Every day, when we read the gospels, we pull back the curtain, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, and we discover that we aren’t Jesus yet… we still have a ways to go!

We still have discoveries to make about what it means to be a faithful Christian.

But here is the beautiful and amazing thing about “going on to perfection”…

Every day, we also have an opportunity to grow more faithful.

Every day, we also have a chance to be more loving.

Every day, we also get to be a better Christian than yesterday.

 

The words of Jesus are NOT easy. The standards he sets for us are incredibly high! You know, Kingdom of God level!

But even in the midst of those Kingdom standards and Jesus’ never ending call for us to respond accordingly, there is grace upon grace upon grace.

One of my favorite lines in the chapter for this week from Mike Slaughter was this:

Although Jesus always called his followers to enter the small gate and take the narrow road to the Kingdom, he repeatedly taught mercy and relationship over rigidity and judgment. (p. 28)

And he points to Peter as the prime example.

You know Peter… the disciple who constantly questioned Jesus motives and got it wrong.

You know, Peter… the one who fell asleep in the garden.

You know, Peter… the one who denied Jesus three times when he needed him the most?

Jesus has ridiculously high standards. But when we don’t meet them… when we fail… and we will… Jesus keeps welcoming us back.

Keeps loving us.

Keeps showing mercy and love.

Keeps pouring God’s sanctifying, perfecting grace into our lives so tomorrow we can pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and try it again.

There is life and power and love and grace and mercy in the red-letter words of Jesus.

Jesus is constantly pushing our world through these words to rebel against what is… in light of what could be.

Jesus is asking us to examine ourselves, our church, our world, and to ask:

Can we be greater tomorrow than we are today?

Can we be more like Christ tomorrow than we were today?

Can this world look more like heaven tomorrow than it does today?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Always.

Thanks be to God.

Momentum for Life: God Loves You Too Much To Let You Stay There

God loves you just the way you are… and loves you too much to let you stay there.

 

Those words I heard from Anne Lamott in a lecture she gave at my seminary.

 

God loves you just the way you are… and loves you too much to let you stay there.

 

I have really enjoyed diving into Michael Slaughter’s book “Momentum for Life” this January. I think in many ways, he is speaking the same message as Lamott. He is reminding us that God has all sorts of things planned for our lives… a direction, a purpose, a mission.

Slaughter is inviting us to make a commitment and to discover where God is leading us… how God is changing us… through his acronym D.R.I.V.E.

D for Devotion

R for Readiness to Learn

I for Investing in Relationships

V for Vision

and E for Eating and Exercise.

Each of these qualities describe a committed Christian disciple who knows that God loves them just as they are, but who is willing to let God lead them to where they could be.

 

Over the last two weeks, Pastor Todd has been guiding us through both the concept of Momentum and the first characteristic, Devotion.

So today, we turn our attention to this concept of readiness to learn.

 

What I find fascinating about Slaughter’s emphasis on learning is that he connects it with our working life. Or maybe to put it a different way, our life’s work.

 

Now, just a quick survey here.

How many of you have a job you love, that fulfills your life’s passion and gives you a sense of purpose?

And how many of you have a job that pays the bills?

And of course, there are those of us who don’t work, either because we stay at home or are retired or are in school or simply can’t find work at this time.

 

Some of us are lucky enough to get paid for what Slaughter calls “our life work.” But for others of us, that life work can still be lived out on the job site, in our families, and throughout our communities.

Slaughter describes three characteristics of this life work: that it is creative, redemptive, and innovative.

 

But I think all three of these can be boiled down to one idea: He is calling us to let God’s sanctifying grace pour into everything we do.

 

In October, our ten confirmands and their mentors and teachers went on a retreat to Wesley Woods. Over those 48 hours or so, we covered many of the basics of United Methodist theology and teaching… from the creation to the new creation, from repentance to sanctification. We learned a LOT of really big, complicated words over that weekend and to help us remember them, the youth prepared some really amazing skits, drew pictures, and journaled.

But we also had some helpful metaphors to help us.

One of them is a depiction of grace in our United Methodist tradition.

house of grace

We believe that grace is not just a one time thing that happens to us, but is present all throughout our lives.

Before we are even aware of God, prevenient grace is there… preparing us to know and see God. It is like the front porch of a house… there to welcome us and create space for us to enter the Christian life. This idea of prevenient grace is why we baptize even newborn babies… because we believe God is already working in their life. Remember – God loves us just the way we are!

 

At some point, we consciously choose the grace God has offered to us. We call that justifying grace. It describes the moment when we accept God’s acceptance of us. In some faith traditions, people hold on to and celebrate the day, hour, and minute when they were saved and they are describing the door we have in this blueprint. That door is always open and waiting for us… and some of us walk through early in life and some late and some of us linger in the doorway for a long time.

 

The last kind of grace, and the one I think Slaughter is referring to in this chapter is sanctifying grace. It is the commitment to keep growing, to keep learning, to keep going on to perfection as we live in God’s grace and love.   You see… our Christian journey does not come to an end when we enter the house. We have a whole lifetime of grace awaiting us and God loves us too much to let us stay exactly as we were when we entered.

 

This grace is what Paul is speaking of in his letter to the Philippians we heard this morning. He starts in our reading to describe justifying grace… the righteousness of Christ he received. But he doesn’t end there. No, he writes:

It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose… I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me… God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. (12-14)

 

Our life work is to let God’s sanctifying grace fill all that we do.

 

If we close our lives to God’s grace… if we say to God – “Thanks for dying on the cross, thank you for salvation, but I’ll take it from here,” then we are like those described in Psalm 127… we can work and toil all we want, right where we are, and never go anywhere. It’s like we walk through the doorway of grace, but refuse to live in the house!

That’s what Paul had been doing back when he was the Pharisee, Saul. He had all of the right answers. He knew what he was doing and who he was. He was at the top of his game, an expert in the law, and successful beyond all measure.

He thought he knew what it meant to be faithful and thought he had achieved it.

Until he discovered that learning and seeking and changing is more important than having all the right answers.

Until he learned that growing is more important than knowing.

Until he found it’s not what you know, it is who you know.

 

God loves you just the way you are… and loves you too much to let you stay there.

 

No matter who you are, or what you do, God can use you. God can pour sanctifying grace into your life to transform even the most mundane or ordinary moments.

And that means we have to keep growing. We have to let go of what no longer works. We have to always seek what God is doing next. “We must forget what lies behind and stain forward to what lies ahead.” One of the practices Slaughter suggests for us is that we are always reading something. We never stop learning. We always are growing in our awareness of what is going on in the world and the new insights that others have to offer.

And it means we choose to participate in God’s redeeming work – to allow God’s love to fill all that we do and every person we meet so that our work is not in the service of money but in the service of God. Slaughter invites us to observe all the time… to look out for those who can teach us, but also to become aware every day of those opportunities to practice God’s redeeming love. In that way, we discover life work that seeks the good for others, instead of simply ourselves.

Finally, we were made to be creative… to dream and imagine, to nurture and to help life grow. You and I… we were made in the image of God and that means God has invited us to be cocreators, to open our minds, to keep pushing forward to excellence. And that means we need to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty… to keep practicing and seeking God every day, never content with what we have already accomplished.

Because even though God loves you just the way you are… God loves you too much to let you stay there.

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.

Love before Knowledge

There are two things I have come to hope for on Communion Sundays:

Welch’s grape juice in the cup, and Hawaiian Sweet Bread on the table.

 

941928_479696322109898_1492252979_nAnd that’s for a couple of reasons:

First, they both taste better than most other options available.

Second, the Hawaiian Sweet Bread is the perfect combination of soft and easy to tear and yet not crumble into pieces all over the place – which is a good thing when you are the one breaking bread every time.

And third, the Welch’s are Methodist.

 

In fact, the birth of Welch’s grape juice came out of our desire to stop using fermented wine during the temperance movement. Thomas Welch was a dentist and a communion steward at his local Methodist Church. He heard about how Louis Pasteur had begun to pasteurize milk, so he decided to try and apply the process to grape juice in 1869.

His son, Charles, marketed the pasteurized grape juice to these temperance-minded churches. In fact, he quit his job as a dentist to do so and created the Welch’s Grape Juice brand in 1893. (from Welchs.com/about-us/our-story/our-history and http://www.gbod.org/resources/changing-wine-into-grape-juice-thomas-and-charles-welch-and-the-transition-)

 

While the roots of our “unfermented juice of the grape” go back to the late 19th century, we have continued to emphasize using grape juice, even long after prohibition was repealed.

Our 1964 Book of Worship included this phrase which we have continued to use until today: that while the “historic and ecumenical practice has been the use of wine, the use of the unfermented grape juice by The United Methodist Church and its predecessors is an expression of pastoral concern for recovering alcoholics, enables the participation of children and youth, and supports the church’s witness of abstinence.” (BOW p 28)

I share the brief history lesson, because I think it relates to our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this morning.

As this community struggled with what it meant to be unified, they realized that a lot of different types of folks were part of their church.

Some of them were life-long Jews who had followed the way of Jesus. They had only ever worshipped one God. Yet some of the new believers in the faith were pagans. They had spent their entire lives worshipping at the temples of various Roman deities like Apollo and Poseidon.

So how were these people all supposed to share one roof? They had different histories of practice and different understandings of what it meant to worship.

One particular place where their practices conflicted was around the practice of eating meat. In the ancient world, almost all of the meat consumed was done so at a temple. That lamb or beef or whatever was the result of an offering given to the local god.

And here is where the conflict came.

Those who had been followers of Christ of a while, many from the Jewish background, KNEW that there was only one God. Intellectually, there was no worship of these various gods because they simply didn’t exist. So who cared if they partook of a little steak at the local temple?

Well, for those who had recently converted away from that temple worship, it was a big deal. The new converts were working hard to keep on the way, to follow Jesus, and all that alluring smell of roasted meat was making it awfully difficult. And when they peeked in the doors of Apollo’s temple and saw the elders of their new church eating – well, they got pretty confused.   Was Apollo real or not? And if Apollo wasn’t real, why were those Christians worshipping him?

So Paul lifted up a practical solution for the faithful long-time Christians: just stop eating meat.   It is the loving thing to do. And even though you know it isn’t idol worship, you have the ability to choose to act a different way in order to help your brothers and sisters in Christ.

In the same way, we lift up grape juice when we break bread together, so that all might be welcomed at this table. It doesn’t mean wine is bad. It doesn’t mean that some of us don’t drink. But choosing to consume grape juice together means that everyone has a place here.

There is a line in Paul’s letter that I think is key for us to remember this morning: You sin against Christ if you sin against your brothers and sisters and hurt their weak consciences this way.

Now, here Paul doesn’t mean they are weak as in bad… he simply means they are new to the faith. They still have a lot to learn. They are growing into what it means to be a Christian. And so they need to have as few barriers to their faith as possible.

Do you remember, with the children, when we talked about evil spirits? When we talked about those things in our lives that keep other people from knowing Jesus?

Knowledge is sometimes like that. We can flaunt it and it can puff us up and keep us from really and truly showing love to another person.

Love is what is important. Not rules or knowledge or what we eat or drink. Love binds us together. If we remember that we sin against Christ if we sin against our brothers and sisters and hurt them, then love leads us to ask the difficult question of how our actions keep others from Jesus. Is there something about what we are doing that is harming the body of Christ?

 

I am tempted to keep this a surface level conversation about grape juice on the communion table, but the truth is, there are all sorts of really tough and difficult things that threaten to break apart our churches. There are all sorts of things we do and say as Christians that hurt our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters and neighbors.

And perhaps the one that is on many of our minds in recent weeks has been same-sex marriage. Perhaps you have read in the newspaper, or seen on television, how a retired pastor in our conference, Rev. Larry Sonner, officiated the wedding of a same-sex couple and then turned himself in to the Bishop. In our Book of Discipline, our tradition and teaching does not support same-sex marriage, even though our state laws do, and so a process was begun seeking a just resolution.

What is amazing is that we have a process of just resolution at all. According to our Discipline, “a just resolution is on that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible and bringing healing to all the parties.” (¶363.1).

It is a powerful witness to the love and grace and mercy of God in a world that is so focused on punishment and retribution. In his article on the Des Moines Register, columnist Daniel Finney wrote:

“It’s especially admirable considering how poor our public dialogues are relating to just about any issue today. Here you’ve got a veteran pastor questioning the laws of a church he has dedicated his life to serving and not a voice was raised, not a fist was shaken. Instead, there was thoughtful discussion, prayer and resolution.

Regardless of how one feels about the specific issue, there’s a powerful lesson for peaceful negotiation in this story.”

This is how we act in a church when love and not knowledge is our guide. And this is the witness we have to offer to the world… a witness of finding a way forward in spite of our differences. A witness of acknowledging the harm we do by our actions and inactions. A witness of seeking the good for our brothers and sisters.

So today, I want to share with you portions of a pastoral letter that our Bishop, Bishop Julius Trimble sent to all churches last week:

Grace and peace to you as we journey in Christian discipleship in 2015.

One of the early prayers and initial responses to the formal complaint was that we would be “perfected in Christ love” and engage, rather than ignore, the difficulties the current conflict between what is prohibited in our Book of Discipline and what is legal and celebrated in Iowa.

The reactions to same-gender marriages and relationships and the serious subject of covenant accountability to church polity remind me of a Nigerian proverb: “Children of the same mother do not always agree!

Questions and conflict regarding our future as a Church require much prayer, graceful conversations and decisions that may spell a different future for the Church…

When I was consecrated Bishop, I promised to work to uphold the unity of the Church. I believe that unity has, as its foundation, our love of God and neighbor. I also believe we can have unity of heart and not necessarily all be of one mind. While this Just Resolution is a response to a specific complaint, it recognizes the division of our church on the issue of human sexuality. This Just Resolution is an attempt to honor our disciplinary process, maintain accountability, and seek a deeper, more prayerful, listening to each other and, most of all, to God.

As your Bishop I invite you to join with me in a time of intentional listening to God and each other, remembering that as the Body of Christ, the Spirit can speak through each of us.

Be Encouraged,   Bishop Julius Calvin Trimble

We don’t have time in worship to spend time listening or really go over the content of the just resolution, but I want to extend to you that invitation for a time of intentional listening to God and to one another.  And I want to let you know that I am always available for conversation about this and any other topic that affects our life as a congregation and your lives as individuals.

We won’t all agree. We come at the conversation from various perspectives. We read the scripture through the lenses of our own experience. But above all, we are a people of love, service, and prayer. And together we can put love at the forefront of our conversations and we, too, can seek a prayerful way forward.

And that way forward starts at the table. The table of love and grace and mercy. A table, set with grape juice. Amen and Amen.