Drop Kick Me, Jesus

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Yesterday after the Iowa – Iowa State game, Chad Leistikow wrote that it was a game “neither team deserved to lose.” [1] You all know I’m a huge Iowa Hawkeye football fan… but I am also the sort of fan who loves to cheer on Iowa State or UNI or any other Iowa team, as long as they aren’t playing the Hawkeyes. But the game yesterday was the sort of game where you were really happy that neither team beat themselves. Sure they both made mistakes, but none they couldn’t overcome. It was a great game.

There was another rivalry game this weekend. Creston/Orient-Macksburg were on the road verses their conference opponent Harlan. This week, five Creston players were kicked off the team after posing in a KKK style image with hoods and a burning cross. The community, including their African-American quarterback, Kylan Smallwood was stunned… he thought of those kids as teammates and friends. One of the families issued a statement – “We sincerely apologize for the hurt and strive we have caused this community. We do not condone the behavior… Our family strongly believes that all individuals are created equally in God’s eyes.” [2]

The community is only beginning to respond in a way that allows for conversation and healing in the midst of the tension they expereince, although it is yet to be seen how that will play out. In some ways, Friday night’s football game was a chance to return to “normalcy” for a moment, but the real work is just beginning. It will take that whole community, standing up against racism, demonstrating repentance and forgiveness for healing to truly take place. But even a football game can show a glimpse of hope. In an act of solidarity, the Harlan marching band turned towards the Creston fans and played their opponents fight song. It was a reminder that whatever happened on the field Friday night was just a game and really, we are all supposed to be on the same team.

My friend, Laura, is a pastor in Ohio and she is a huge Buckeyes fan. After a frustrating loss last night, she posted on her facebook wall that her faith has given her a different set of lenses to view such heartache. Football is only football. “It is not oppressions, hunger, disease, poverty, devastation, or in this moment hurricane force winds. Keep perspective Buckeye nation.” [3]

Keep perspective, Immanuel.

Because Laura is right. Football is fun and exciting and we all enjoy giving one another a hard time, but we are here to play a different sort of game.

As we heard in our scripture reading this morning, we are called to follow Jesus and to run with perseverance the race that is set before us. As the Message Bible updates this passage in every day language:
“Start running – and never quit!… Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God – he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever… When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long list of hostility he plowed through. THAT will shoot adrenaline into your souls!”

Here at Immanuel, we do believe that God has given us a race to run. For over five years now, that vision has been to “In Christ, live a life of love, service, and prayer.”
Like tackling, passing, and running in football are the basic skills that players must learn and practice, in many ways, love, service, and prayer are the basic moves we utilize in our faith. In everything we do, they help us to run the race of faith.

But one of the things that we have been talking about for more than a year now as the leadership here at Immanuel is that they don’t paint a picture of where we are going. They don’t tell us what the finish line looks like.
How will this church, how will this community, how will this world be different because we have been loving and serving and praying?
So last fall, our Administrative Council began praying and brainstorming with one another. We took the values and priorities that you as a church named in last year’s CAT Survey. We looked at our community demographics. We explored this history of Immanuel and the vast resources that the vision team had put together five years ago.
And today, we want to put some meat on the bones of this vision. If you look at the half sheet, you’ll notice that is still our vision, but we have fleshed it out a little bit.
We believe God is calling us to personally engage in and partner with our community as we live out this life of love, service, and prayer, so that broken people and places might be healed by God’s grace.
If love, service, and prayer are the basic skills that we each will employ, the goal… the endzone if you will, is that this community and this world will experience God’s healing and wholeness.

As my friend, Laura said, there is a lot in this world that is broken.
Broken relationships can be seen all around us: in the partisan division, in racial tension, and in family strife.
Lots of people in this world also experience the pain of broken bodies – we are surviving and thriving in the midst of chronic disease, broken bones, addictions, and poor health.
And there are places that experience brokenness, too. This morning, we look out on the devastation caused by hurricanes and wildfires, but closer to home, we can see the impact of poverty and how our economic choices impact the environment around us.

We believe God has called us to love and serve and pray in each of these places.
We can help people heal relationships, reconcile, and learn to talk to one another again – like we did with our Cookouts and Conversations this summer and will do with the “My Neighbor is Muslim” study this fall.
We can be present with one another in the midst of pain and loneliness and isolation – like we will when we train folks from Immanuel to go out and visit our homebound seniors next week and like we do when we go out with Joppa to the check on the homeless.
And we can pool our resources to make a difference all across this world – whether it is through disaster relief and health kits, through donations to the food pantry, or through the Season of Creation organized by our Green Team.
God is calling you and me to love, serve, and pray… to practice those basic skills… so that God’s goals might be reached.
But basic skills alone will not help us get to the end zone.
In football, you put those things together in strategic plays. Those are the ministries of our church. Whether it is choir or children’s church, Ratatouille or Under the Bridge Casseroles, Re:Ignite or Men’s group… every activity we do, is aiming for that end zone and helping us to live out God’s mission in this church.

The other thing that I have learned after many disappointing seasons watching my favorite team is that in order to be successful and reach that end zone, every single player has to play every single quarter. And the coach needs a game plan that will help those players be successful.
If you flip to the back side of this sheet, you will find our game plan for ministry here at Immanuel. We can each practice our basic skills… but part of being on this journey together is that we should all be moving the same direction.
And as your pastors and your staff and your leadership, we think there are four different areas, four quarters of this game that we all have to play in if we are going to be successful.

  1. We need to worship together. If we don’t show up in this place to hear the story of God’s love and grace and to renew and strengthen each other, we will not reach the end zone.
  2. We need to connect with one another. We need to reach out in love and help one another out. We need to build relationship both inside and outside of this church.
  3. We all need to grow. Each one of us should be a part of a group that is helping us to grow in our faith and use our gifts and as we mature, we should be helping other people to grow in their faith as well.
  4. We need to go out into the world and serve. Through financial gifts, through hands-on mission, we can only help this world experience God’s grace if we get out of this building.

Friends, this is our game plan. With our eyes fixed on Jesus, we will live lives of love, service, and prayer and this world will experience God’s healing and wholeness.

And the best news is that we don’t have to do this alone.

There is this country gospel song called “Drop Kick Me, Jesus” by Bobby Bare and Paul Craft and it reminds me that God has our back in this work:

 

Make me, oh, make me, Lord, more than I am
Make me a piece in your master game plan
Free from the earthly temptations below
I’ve got the will, Lord, if you got the toe.

Drop-kick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life
End over end, neither left nor the right
Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights
Drop-kick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life

 

[1] http://www.hawkcentral.com/story/sports/college/iowa/football/2017/09/09/leistikows-first-word-hawkeyes-win-cy-hawk-classic-neither-team-deserved-lose/649140001/

[2] http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/sports/high-school/2017/09/09/creston-game-frayed-nerves-calls-unity-after-photo-students-white-hoods-confederate-flag-rocks-town/647639001/

[3] https://www.facebook.com/laurakennedyjaissle/posts/10154632317611986

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? 

 

Momentum for Life: Vision for Immanuel

God spoke:

Write this!

Write what you see!

Write it out in big block letters so it can be read on the run!

 

And when God gives a vision aids our momentum.

It paints a picture of the future that drives us forward because we can’t wait to get there.

God’s vision aches for the future.

It takes our trajectory and pushes us on.

Michael Slaughter writes that “faith is looking forward, living with a forward focus.” (p. 87)

And a vision is big enough and bold enough and so clear that it moves us all forward in the same direction.

 

Friends, we are going somewhere!

As a church, we claimed a vision statement for this church in 2012. You see it in our logo and on the inside of every bulletin:

In Christ, live a life of love, service, and prayer.

Let’s all say that together: In Christ, live a life of love, service, and prayer.

 

I love this statement.

It is clear and concise and talks about our relationship with God and how we live that out. It gives us three very focused things to do: Love. Serve. Pray.

 

But these words alone don’t ache for the future.

They don’t drive us forward.

In fact, they are generic enough that when each of us wrote down our dream for the church a few minutes ago, we probably each had a very different destination described on our slips of paper.

One of the things I am consistently asked is to share MY vision for the church. When I first arrived, I hesitated to answer this question because I think every church is unique and where we are going depends on where we have been. Our congregational DNA, our experiences, our gifts… all of these things shape where God is calling us to go next.

 

Slaughter writes that, “when a leader has a clear picture of God’s destination, the people begin to articulate and live that vision. Over a period of time, that vision begins to penetrate the surrounding culture.” (p. 96)

So today, I want to paint for you a picture of where I see us going. When I turn my heart to God in prayer, this is the vision that aches to be heard. And really, it is a fleshing out of what it means for us to live lives, in Christ, of love, service, and prayer.

 

First, we are called to love by celebrate difference and disagreement.

One of our greatest strengths as a congregation is our diversity in age. Countless churches lament they don’t have any young people, but we are full of young families AND nonagenarians. Unlike other churches, we can truly do intergenerational ministry that helps connect children and elders, youth and parents, retirees and babies.

We could, however, become more diverse in other areas. Within 2 miles of this building, 88% of our community identifies as white. As I look at our congregation this morning, we are far less diverse that the people we live with. Hoover High School, just a bit north of our church, educates students who speak over 100 different languages. Surrounded by that kind of diversity, God is calling us to find new ways of welcoming and making space right here for new people.

Another place we are diverse is in our politics and perspectives. From private conversations, I know that we as a church disagree on countless issues!

But the world around us has never been further divided. The roar of politics might die down for a few weeks after tomorrow’s caucuses here in Iowa, but it will come back just as strong as we head into the general election.

As a church, we don’t let those hot-button issues get in the way of being a family.

But like so many families, we hesitate to talk about the places we disagree… even when it comes to the everyday sorts of things. We hold our opinions in even as we are being asked to share our thoughts and feelings for fear of making ripples in the water.

The world gives us two models for how we deal with our differences. We can scream, shout at those who we disagree with OR we can keep our mouths shut.

There is another way. In the book of Acts, chapter 15, circumcision threatened to divide the church. So the leaders gathered and shared what they had witnessed and what they hoped for. They each spoke their truth. And they listened deeply to one another. They laid aside preconceptions and let God move in their midst. They let reason, experience, and tradition co-mingle with scripture to discover a path forward.

In the United Methodist Church, we call this holy conferencing. In love, this church can be a place that shows the world a different way as we each feel respected enough to speak our truths and we love one another enough to listen and let God, rather than our opinions, create a path forward.

 

Second, we are called to service, by taking Immanuel into our community.

This congregation does incredible mission work. Each year, we report missional giving through monetary and in-kind donations and for 2015 we are reporting $214,763 of outreach into our city, state, and world. Your generosity is simply astounding.

On a regular basis, there are groups in this church that collect items for the food pantry, take produce and bread, milk and juice to local shelters and service locations, read to children, serve meals, visit the homeless and prisoners and more.

What I notice is that this incredible work is often done by a handful of people. We aren’t very good at inviting others to come along with us in the work that we do. And I think that is because we don’t lift up these folks and tell their stories nearly enough. We aren’t painting the picture of what it means to serve in a way that allows every single one of us to find our place.

God is calling each and every one of you to serve in our community this year. And that is a two-sided calling: first, we have to be better about sharing opportunities, but you also have to take some initiative to seek opportunities and to pay attention to that nudging and say yes.

God is calling us to push beyond our traditional models when it comes to service and mission. We can donate money and goods with the best of them and we have done pretty good at doing ministry for people. But the next step is to truly build relationships with the people we are serving.

So many have told me about the warm welcome and love they experience here at Immanuel. Now we are called to take that hospitality and love into our neighborhoods. To get to know the people and their stories. To hear where God is already active in their lives. To allow their experiences to shape how and what we do in the future. And, to open wide the doors to invite the neighborhood into our building and our life of faith.

This year, I’m reading just one hour a week at Hillis Elementary School. And building a relationship with those children and teachers has opened my eyes to the realities of our community in ways I never imagined.

Whether it is in the Merle Hay or Beaverdale neighborhoods, or the neighborhood where you live, you are an ambassador for Immanuel and that you have an opportunity to serve.

 

Finally, we are called to prayer that actively changes the world.

Richard Foster wrote, “Prayer is the central avenue God uses to change us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.”

We pray for people who are sick, because we believe that God will bring healing into their lives.

We pray for places of conflict, because we believe that God can bring peace.

Prayer changes the world.

But a life of prayer means a life attuned to the places where the status quo is no longer acceptable. A life of prayer calls us to play our part, to be the hands and feet of God, to listen for where God asks US to be the answer to a prayer.

We can do that by caring for one another, offering meals, knitting shawls, and visiting.

We can do that through letter writing and advocacy, through being agents of reconciliation in the midst of conflict.

We can do that by going to the people and places that are hurting and simply being present.

God is calling us to be people who not only pray for others, but who allow prayer change our hearts, minds, and lives.

 

God spoke:

Write this!

Write what you see!

Write it out in big block letters so it can be read on the run!

 

God’s vision aches for a future where every single one of us are engaged in ministries of love, service and prayer.

God’s vision aches for a community that loves and welcomes all.

God’s vision aches for a people that are deeply embedded in their neighborhoods.

God’s vision aches for a people who are transformed by the power of prayer.

 

Friends, we are going somewhere!

In Christ, let us live a life of love, service, and prayer.

Hopes and Fears

Awaiting the Already.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

[11:00 candle reading here]

***

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

The Paris terrorist attacks.

Suicide bombings in Beiruit.

Lives lost in Baghdad during a funeral.

Marketplace shootings in Nigeria.

Continued conflict between Palestine and Israel.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

We are called to be people of hope.

Yet, where is the hope in these stories?

Where is our hope today?

 

Hope is not naïve.

Hope is more than wishful thinking.

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

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

 

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

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

 

So Joseph stays with Mary.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

We are still waiting for the world to be saved.

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

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

 

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

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

God doesn’t promise it will immediately get better.

God doesn’t offer platitudes.

Our God tells us to stop being afraid.

It is a challenge for our faith.

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

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

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

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

Fear that labels and divides us from our neighbors.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Hope is refusing to be afraid.

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

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

 

Amen.

Recklessly Lavish, Wastefully Abundant

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This past Sunday, I stepped into the pulpit at Immanuel UMC for my first morning as their new pastor.

I had actually been in the pulpit before.

Working with Imagine No Malaria, this had been one of many churches I had visited over the past year and a half.

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There was something very different, however, about standing there at the front, being welcomed as a new leader within the church.

My topic for the morning was straight from the lectionary – the parable of the farmer who scatters seed all over the place – even in places where it probably will never grow.

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I flipped the narrative on its head a little bit and instead focused on what God is up to in this text.  Last year, I heard Rev. Maidstone Mulenga from the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference preach on this text and he used a surprising word to describe our God: “prodigal.”  Prodigal as in recklessly lavish, wastefully abundant, over-the-top, out of control.

To audible gasps, I tossed sunflower seeds around all over the front of the chancel area to show just how shocking this parable would have been… scattered in places where it never would grow…. (I got permission from our maintenance staff first!  It was fun to watch them sit back and laugh as folks wondered how they would respond!)

That is how the farmer was with the seed… and that is how God spreads seeds of love and grace and mercy in our lives. Recklessly wasteful, lavishly abundant.

 

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What I didn’t anticipate however, was the radical and abundant welcome from this church.  From my first morning in the office when I was warmly welcomed by staff and the SPRC, to meals together, to flowers left on my desk, to the countless cards and gift cards given to us by the church family… it was all so much.  It was prodigal.  It was wonderful.

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God works in strange ways like that… surprising us in unexpected places, giving us just the encouragement and confidence we need to face a new challenge, and never letting our limitations (be they weeds or rocks or a hard worn path) limit the power of God’s grace.