Discerning What Matters Most

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This faith community began in the 1920s , as the neighborhood of Beaverdale was starting to rapidly grow.  Reverend Orf, the pastor of Crocker Hill UMC,  recognized the growing need for a church presence in this area and so area churches banded together for a committee, remodeled an old farmhouse, and on Easter Day, 1925 the first worship service was held at this location.  

As the community grew, the congregation made plans to build a church and the part of our building that is now the music room and offices was built in 1941.  A big part of the design at the time was to build a church structure that would be in keeping with the style of the homes being built all around us.  Classrooms were added in 1947 – part of Immanuel’s long legacy of education.   Our church also opened itself up to the community in this part of our history, housing some of the local elementary school classes in our Fellowship Hall as the schools got too large for the students of the day. 

As the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren church were merging in 1968 to form a new denomination – the United Methodist Church, this congregation was continuing to grow and completed work on this sanctuary.  In the 1960s, youth bell choirs were formed, with adult bells following a decade later – another part of the way music has been a rich part of our tradition.

In 1970s, we began a new ministry that reached out to shut ins with tape recordings of the worship services.  Members from Immanuel were instrumental in helping to pave the way for Vietnamese refugees to be welcomed into our state. 

And since that time, we have continued to grow in faith, we are known as a caring and mission focused community, and we have been willing to take leaps of faith to respond to the needs we recognized within the church and the community, like our expansion of Faith Hall which was completed in 2004.

 

The Apostle Paul wrote to the people of Philippi to encourage them in the faith and as a church.  And he reminds them that the God who began a good work in them would not abandon them, but would continue to help them to love and bear fruit for the gospel until that day when their work was finally complete. 

And the Philippians needed some encouragement.  While they had been on fire for God at the start, they also had experienced intense persecution because of their faith.  Many were wondering how they could continue to go in in the face of the opposition they were experiencing.  What should their church look like now?  How could they continue to serve when so many around them were dying and falling away? 

Paul’s letter called them to press on with rejoicing even in the midst of their difficulties and to return to God in a spirit of discernment, so they could discover a more excellent way and so they could be strengthened for whatever would come next… until that day when God fills the entire world with the love of Jesus Christ. 

 

There simply is no comparison between the struggles we experience today in the United States and the persecution experienced in places like Philippi and in other places that are hostile to the Christian faith today.   We gather in this room this morning without fear of death.  We can sing at the top of our lungs and share our faith and the only consequences for doing so might be some angry words or cold shoulders. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t face bumps in the road or our own kinds of trials.  That doesn’t mean that parts of our journey aren’t difficult. 

And so, we need encouragement in our faith sometimes, too.  And like the Philippians, we constantly find ourselves asking the question, what should our church look like now?  How do we continue to serve in the midst of declining membership or in the midst of a culture that cares less and less about what the church has to say?  What are we to do when the good news of the gospel seems to be falling on deaf ears? 

What is it that we are fighting for?  What kind of church are we going to invest in becoming for the future? 

 

I began our message this morning by remembering a few fragments of our past, because the practice of spiritual discernment about next steps always begins with looking to see what we can learn from where we have been.  And as I look at the history of who this church has been, I see that we began as a community of people who were willing to take risks and go to new places where we thought we might reach new people. 

This church began as a renovated old farmhouse – a house church – that welcomed people into a family.  But we didn’t just stay there.  As the needs of this community of faith continued to grow, we expanded and grew ourselves.  And we took care to continue to resemble the community around us – even thinking about making our physical structure look like the homes in the neighborhood.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Although I’m free of all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them.  I act like a Jew to the Jews, so I can recruit Jews… I act weak to the weak, so I can recruit the weak.  I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means.” (1 Cor. 9: 19-22)

So as we think today about what we might be called to next, I think its important to remember that we as a church were willing to take risks to meet new people and willing to adapt to the community as it changed around us so that the community might feel at home in our midst. 

 

One of the problems with looking backward to find the answer, however, is that we can get caught in analysis paralysis and stay there.  We can try to recreate exactly what we did before or keep researching and studying and waiting for exactly the right moment and we miss the opportunities that are right before us. 

In What Are We Fighting For, Bishop Bickerton reminds us that as a church, we simply can’t wait any longer.  He talks about the act of hitting a baseball and how difficult it is to time your swing just right.  While it is easier in slow pitch to be able to see what is coming at you, as the game goes faster and faster,  we often wait far too long to swing.    And Bishop Bickerton says that the church game is going faster and faster and changing more and more rapidly every day.  There are so many moving parts to a church and we need more technical expertise to reach people today.  We have to adapt and be nimble, and react more quickly to the ways our community and culture are changing, or we might find that we have waiting too long, we have missed the pitch, and our church is no longer relevant. 

All around us, there are pitches coming our way.  There are opportunities a plenty.  In fact, there are so many great ways that we could be in ministry today that it is tempting to try to do everything and toss out a whole bunch of new programs and activities like scattershot and see what works.  But that itself is exhausting.  Instead of scattershot, we need help to discern a clear focus.  And part of that discernment is asking who is the new community that God is calling us to take a risk and step out in faith to reach?  How can we be faithful to our heritage as a church, while also paying attention to where the Holy Spirit is leading us next? 

As an administrative council, we spent some time last fall in discernment looking at a number of the opportunities, realities of our surrounding community, and ways that we are particularly gifted to lead and serve.  We noticed things like that our surrounding neighborhood is now only 80% white, that we have more elementary schools in our community, and that over 1/3 of the families with children around us are now single parent families.  We also have more younger, couples moving into the homes of the neighborhood. 

How is God calling us to step out in faith and reach them for Christ? 

As we continue to discern, we start by connecting our passions and our gifts as a church with the ways we will choose to live in the midst of this place.  We can take the things that we value like music and education and being a caring community and we can carry them with us as we go outside of these walls to reach new people. 

But we also should be willing to test the things that we have always done and do them not just because they are what we like to do, but to ask always if they are faithful to God’s will for our community.  Do our activities and our programs resemble God’s love?  Are they filled with the knowledge of our Lord?  Are we bearing the fruit of the gospel in what we do?  Are we doing them simply because they are easy, or are we rising up to meet the demands of call of Jesus Christ? 

 

Next week, Trevor will be preaching once again and he will help us think about a final part of our discernment… how do we know what really is the core of who we are as a church that will always be the same and will never change no matter how the world changes around us, and where are the places where we can be more nimble and flexible, so that we can continue to grow towards completion for the glory of God.    What are the things we should be willing to fight for, no matter what? 

 

The Long Hurt

The second most difficult thing in the world to do is to harbor anger and pain.

This week, I read the story of a woman who had refused to forgive. As John van de Laar tells the story:

Whenever a visitor came for a cup of tea or coffee, she would pour the drinks and then reach for an old and battered plastic sugar bowl. Then, apologetically, she would tell her story of the beautiful bone china bowl that her mother had owned, but that her sister had taken when her mother died and they divided up her possessions. She had never forgiven her sister, and had turned her bitterness into a daily routine that kept it fresh and growing.
Every single time she reached for that plastic sugar bowl, she rekindled the anger.
She had never forgiven her sister.
Van de Laar goes on to say that we sometimes let “our lives be defined by our wounds.” We spend all of our days looking backwards at what was and refusing to see the possibilities of healing and hope and forgiveness in our lives.
And while on the surface, it may not seem to take much energy or thought, the truth is that refusing to forgive is exhausting. It is a burden that you carry with you every moment. It is bitterness that never leaves your mouth.
As Nelson Mandela once said – “Resentment is like a glass of poison that a man drinks; then he sits down and waits for his enemy to die.”
And the only person that it hurts, is yourself.
September 11th, 2001 is a terribly sad and painful day in our history. And on this day, exactly 10 years later, we have a question to answer: How are we going to let that day define our lives?
Is it a wound, perpetually reopened, refusing to let us move forward?

Is it a source of anger and bitterness that causes us to lash out in fear?

Or in the midst of our grief and pain, can we also remember the tremendous acts of courage and love from that day? And can we look not only backwards but also look forward to as David Lose puts it, “a future that is not defined by the calamity of that day but instead is shaped by hope, possibility, and the grace of God.”

That is what forgiveness is after all. It is letting go of the pain. It is releasing the anger. It is refusing to allow what has happened in the past define your future.

Photo By: Alex Bruda
And while hanging on to old wounds might be the second most difficult thing in the world, the act of forgiving is the first.
Forgiving goes against our nature. We want revenge. We want answers. We want apologies. We want justice. We want someone in this world to pay. We want to hold guilt over another person. Overcome by sadness, anger, and pain, we do not want to move on.

As I have talked about many times in these messages – my own extended family is trapped in a pattern of unforgiveness. I, myself, find it extremely difficult to let go of that pain and imagine a future of mercy and love. Even when I find myself getting close to the point where I can, something else happens, another wrench thrown in, that makes saying, I’m sorry and I forgive you, that much harder.

And yet, over and over again, I find these words in the scriptures that say: Forgive.

Proverbs 17:9 – He who covers and forgives an offense seeks love, but he who repeats or haprs on a matter separates even close friends.

Matthew 6:14 – If you forgive people their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.

Colossians 3:13 – Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

Mark 11:25 – And when you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgiven him and let it go, in order that your Father who is in heaven may also forgive your own failings and shortcomings and let them go.

Luke 6:37 – Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

from Romans this morning: Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

Or the even more difficult passage from Matthew: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Forgiveness is the most difficult thing in the world to do, and yet over and over and over again, the scriptures command us to forgive.

Why?

Because without forgiveness, there is no life.

Without forgiveness, there is no hope.

Without forgiveness, there is no future.

And we are not talking about the people who hurt us here… we are talking about ourselves.

You see, if debts always have to be paid and sins must always be punished, then there is no hope for us.

And there is no hope for our communities.

You see, a family does not work without forgiveness.

A marriage falls apart without forgiveness.

A church cannot survive without forgiveness.

Even a nation will find itself spinning out of control if revenge and justice are the only goals that it seeks… if it cannot find ways to compromise and show mercy and yes, even forgive.

Left to our own devices, we do not have the strength to do the hard task of forgiveness.

But in the midst of remembering the events of September 11th… in the midst of grieving the destruction and loss caused by four hijacked airplanes and grieving the death and destruction cause by the cycle of revenge that came afterwards… we also take time to remember the events of 2000 years ago.

You see, that is when our ability to truly forgive was realized.

On the cross, looking out on a world of brokenness and destruction, facing his tormenters in the eye, Jesus Christ called down forgiveness and not vengeance. “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

Our future was forever changed through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The wounds that we caused were forgotten. The sins we committed were forgiven. The debts of the past were canceled.

The future of Christ is one of mercy and not judgment, hope and not despair, healing and not violence, abundance and not scarcity, love and not hate, new life instead of death. (from David Lose, paraphrased)
That is the power of forgiveness.
Life, love, hope, healing, mercy.

The most powerful stories that I have heard in recent days are the ones in which loved ones recounted the conversations they had with loved ones who were trapped high above the ground in towers one and two of the World Trade Center.

They are stories full of tears and goodbyes and I love yous. I was driving down the road, listening to a woman tell of the last time she spoke with her husband and I had to pull over, because the tears just overwhelmed me.
But what I realized in the midst of those stories is that not once did those courageous people who died tell their loved ones to seek revenge.
They spent the few precious moments they had saying I love you.
They said, I’m proud of you.
They said, I’m sorry.
They said, All is forgiven.
They said, remember I love you.
And as we remember those who perished. As we grieve… and we must… we also need to look to our futures. We need to put away the wounds.
I we keep pulling out that old beat-up plastic sugar bowl and refuse to seek peace or forgiveness, then evil has already won and we are truly defeated. (van de Laar paraphrased)
It is hard and painful to forgive… and we cannot do it alone.
But the good news is that through the love and grace of Jesus Christ, we can find the strength and courage we need to let go. To admit when we have caused pain. To say, “I forgive you.”

Today, as we remember, let us forgive… and let us imagine together a future in which God’s peace truly reigns.

Ezra and Nehemiah… rewriting history

In my local emergent cohort, we have been reading Phyllis Tickle’s Prayer Is a Place: America’s Religious Landscape Observed.  As this book has been in the back of my mind, I have been thinking about how we look back and view history.  As my carpool buddy Tim put it, we are always rewriting history and every history has a slant.

As I dove into Ezra and Nehemiah then this week with our Disciple study, I have been wrestling with how they, too, are rewriting history.  They come parading back into the land they were so visciously torn away from and suddenly begin setting themselves apart, above, against those who are already in the land.  They are so terrified of being punished again by God, of being sent back into exile, of having all of this tenuous peace destroyed that they immediately begin talking about righteousness and what makes them righteous.  All of the foreign wives they fell in love with and the children of those marriages have to go.  This is about purity, this is about a common identity, this is about trying their darndest to not make the mistakes of the past.

I found myself greatly disliking these two books as I read them through this time.  I lamented the fact they were so exclusionary, so focused on works and rightousness and reclaiming what was theirs.  I had never seen the texts in that way before, and it troubled me.
But I realized that we also have a group of people who grew to experience God very differently in the land of exile than their brothers and sisters who were left behind in Israel.  And so when they come back, they find folks who did not sit by the waters of Babylon and weep.  They find folks who managed to go on worshipping God in the land without the temple.  They find folks who are now complete strangers to them… adversaries.
Having this revelation about Ezra and Nehemiah helped me to see how difficult it is to lay claim to a space in the world without pushing others away.  In any attempts to define ourselves, we inevitably also say what we are not.  We tell our stories in such ways that show how we have arrived at a certain place and that might mean that others must be written out of our histories.  Is this a good or a bad thing?  Is it simply reality?
Alongside these two accounts, we also find the prophet Haggai who tells this story without such an exclusionary tone. We find the story of Esther who was in the diaspora and who saved her people by her relationship with the gentile king.

What a wonderful thing it is that our sacred texts can hold these contradictions together.  That we can witness to both our struggle to self-identify and to include, to be a people among people and to be a people set apart.  What it means to be faithful in this world is not a black and white story, but it is a complicated interweaving of telling our stories, saying who we are and who we are not, working to make the best of our lives in a given place, our attempts to be faithful, our mistaken journeys down wrong paths… and through it all, God is still God.

And thanks be to God that in each of our readings of these sacred texts we are lead deeper into a realtionship with God.

Setting the Table: The Plate

Two weeks ago, I was honored to be asked to plan worship for a gathering of clergy in Des Moines. A friend, Rev. Sean McRoberts planned the service with me and we had everything arranged and ready to go. I just had to make sure to arrive early enough in the morning that I could meet with the technical engineer to set up the microphones and other electronics we would need that morning.

Lately, I have not been a morning person – and this particular trip required that I leave my house by 6:30. Which meant waking up by 5:30 to get myself ready. Now, I know that many of you have internal clocks that work much differently than mine and 5:30 is sleeping in… but for me – this was a super super early morning.

The alarm went off. I turned it off. And promptly pulled the covers back over my head. Every fiber of my being wanted to go back to sleep. So I did.

Notice, I didn’t hit the snooze button. I turned the alarm off, and fell back to sleep.

Ten minutes later, something woke me up. Whether it was the rustle and squacks of the birds in the tree, or a cat pouncing on my legs in the bed or just some kind of internal switch – I woke up. And I remember very distinctly taking a deep breath and saying – thank God. And I didn’t mean it in an offhand, irreligious kind of way. I was grateful to God that I had woken up. I was grateful to God that although my body was not ready or willing, God was making sure I was going to be able to answer the call I had received. I was grateful to God, because even though I was weak – he is strong.

How many of you have heard of the word “providence”?

What exactly does “providence” mean?

The word originally comes from the Latin providentia – and has to do with foresight, prudence, the ability to see ahead. So when we talk about God’s providence – we think of God’s ability to provide for, to direct, to shape the future.

Martin Luther understood providence to be both the direct and indirect work of God in the world. Not only does God provide the good things we need for human life – but God also works through family, government, jobs, and other people. “We receive these blessings not from them, but, through them, from God.”

If you remember last week the story of the cellerar – the monk in charge of looking after the storage room at the monastery – even mundane and simple tasks can be a vehicle of God’s blessing to others. God can use even the lowliest of jobs for his glory.

And so, Providence is the way that God cares for the universe – upholds the universe – and also the special ways that God extraordinarily intervenes in the lives of God’s people.

That holy providence is the subject of our psalter this month. The Psalmist reminds us of the glorious deeds of the Lord – the wonders that he has done… wonders that we are supposed to pass on to generation after generation.

According to the Psalmist our ancestors were a stubborn and rebellious people. They witnessed miracles: they were released from bondage in Egypt, they passed through the Red Sea, they were led through the desert by cloud and light, they drank pure clear water from rocks in the midst of the wilderness… and yet they doubted. Yet they did not, could not, would not believe that God would continue to provide.

“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” they grumbled. “Yeah, God made water come out of a rock – but can God provide bread and meat for us? Can he fill our bellies? Can he satisfy us?”
God’s anger was kindled… because the people had no faith in God – because they doubted God’s providence.
And yet…. And yet…. God opened the skies and manna rained down. Birds came and dwelt in their camps. Their bellies were full. He gave them what they craved.
This idea of God’s providence stays with me today… and not just because I was miraculously woken up in time to make it to a meeting. It stays with me because all around this room are folks who have witnessed the miraculous working of God in their lives.

Each of you has a story to tell about how God provided for you in some time of need.

Many of you have a story to tell about how God guided this church through a difficult time.

This building itself has a story to tell about how God has upheld and sustained the life of this congregation throughout the years.

In the middle of the sanctuary there are those large doors. I have yet to see them fully opened, but I’m told that in times of war – times of scarcity – when we sacrificed our use of energy so that factories could provide for our soldiers… those doors were closed to reduce our heating costs. The simple wonder that someone would create such doors is a reminder that through other people, and not from them, we receive the blessings of God.

All throughout this month, we will be telling the stories of this church. We will be reminding ourselves of God’s active presence in the history of this congregation.

Perhaps it was the Sunday School teacher that sustained your faith in one of those classrooms back there.

Maybe it was church dinner that took place at a time when your family had nothing left to put on the table.

Perhaps it was the words of a pastor who encouraged you during a dark moment.

Maybe you felt God’s blessings through a brother or sister in Christ who got down on their hands and knees and served you.

I hope that today as you came in, each of you were handed a note card. I want to encourage you to take out that note card and to write there on the card a memory of God’s action in your life.

For those of you who can do so – think of a specific moment or a person in the life of this church when God’s presence was know.

And for those of you who might be visiting with us, or are new to our church, or whose memory does not go back that far – share with us some other testimony of how God has worked to sustain you along your journey.

I want us to take a few minutes to fill out these cards, to remember together, how God has provided for us.

The Psalmist asks us to tell the coming generations the glorious deeds of God so that we might teach them to set their hope in God and not forget his works.

I want to urge you to place these note cards in the offering plates this morning. Hand them over go God as a thankful offering for the blessings you have received and in doing so – we will collect these memories and share them with one another at our Celebration of the Past on October 31st.

These memories… these reminders of God’s active presence in our past remind us that God does indeed provide. They remind us that not only does God call us to the table as his children… but that the table is not empty. God has and God will continue to set the table.
What I am asking you to do as a congregation is to join me in awaiting those promises of God.
To take all of these blessings that we have received and to remember them. To remember that God has worked in the past… and therefore – to have faith, to trust, that God will continue to work in the future.

The plate that we put on the table today is a reminder of this foundational promise.

No longer will we worry, “what will we eat?” or “what will we drink?” We know that God has provided in the past. We trust that God will continue to provide in the future.

We place it here today because we eagerly await the next action of God in our lives. We are prepared for the next blessings that will come. We are putting aside our worry, our stress, our doubt – We come to God and know that God will provide.

Amen and Amen.

What “Little House on the Prairie” Leaves Out…

As a child, I absolutely adored the “Little House” books.  I fawned over the pages and the stories of Laura Ingalls and imagined her life growing up in the midwest in the late 1800’s.  They were full of rich detail and you could put yourself into that little sod house or the cabin in the woods or the shanty out on the prairie with FULL detail.

There is one thing that I think Mrs. Ingalls Wilder forgot, however – a small tidbit about life for women that perhaps she just couldn’t bring herself to mention.
I almost didn’t notice, until I finally finished a book on life in Iowa during the Great Depression called Little Heathens.  It is an autobiography, perhaps much in the same way that Wilder’s was – but with a slightly more matter of fact sense about it.  Mrs. Armstrong Kalish recounted her days as a little girl and described everything from butchering chickens to taming racoons, from school days to first kisses.  It was charming but not sentimental.  I really enjoyed reading it… so thanks Glenn and Maggie for the gift!
And in the last chapter of the book, as she told in some ways “the rest of the story,”  Kalish tells the story that Wilder forgot – what happens when little girls became young women.

Perhaps it is the fact that decades separated these women and the cultural allowances just weren’t the same when Wilder sat down to write out her stories.  But in the back of my mind, as I was becoming a young woman myself, I secretly wondered what exactly they did in those days.

Now, I know. Safety pins, old blanket scraps, and a bucket of water by the dresser… until she could save up her pennies to buy Kotex.
(I got curious after I typed this post as to whether I was wrong and Wilder did mention her “coming of age” somewhere in her journals or books.  I found this comment: “Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1890s diary of the move from Dakota Territory to Missouri hints only: ‘I am not feeling very well and cannot go [river-bathing]’. Her daughter (technically also a Victorian, although quite forward-thinking as early 20th century standards went) deleted even that from the published version of the diary.”)