God Moves In

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“Before the creation of the world,” Ephesians tells us, God had a plan.

Before you made plans to join us here in worship at Immanuel.
Before the star in the sky led the Magi to Bethlehem.
Before the prophets first heard the voice of God.
Before the moon and the stars were set in the sky.
Before everything!
While “the earth was without shape or form” as the first words of the Bible tell us…
And while “the Word was with God and the Word was God” as John proclaims…
There. Was. A. Plan.

What kind of a plan was this?
If we look to the root of the word used here in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, oikonomia, we find that it describes the administration of a household or an estate.
It’s the same word we find at the root of ecology and economy.
It describes how something is held together… the rules that govern how it functions, what sustains it, how it thrives.
So Paul is telling us that from the very beginning, God had a plan for how all of creation, God’s household, was going to work.
God wanted to bring everything – from the highest heights of heaven to the deepest crevices of the earth – together and to make a home among us.
And God’s plan was made known to us in Jesus Christ.
Immanuel.
God-with-us.

In these weeks leading up to Christmas here at Immanuel, we have been exploring God’s love for all of creation.
When we open up our bibles to the very first chapters, we discover this plan of God’s was already set in motion.
For six days, God was building, creating, and giving life to all things in the heavens and on earth.
And God looked around and saw that it was all very good.
And then God rested.

Now, I have to admit to you. Typically, when I think about God resting, I imagine that God goes back to wherever God has come from… leaving earth to go and take a day off.
After all, that is how we treat Sabbath, isn’t it?
The day we get away from everything?
Turn off the work email… veg out in front of the television and watch Netflix… get away from everyone and go fishing or golfing?

But, what if we have it all wrong?
What if the Sabbath is part of God’s plan?
What if in that moment of rest, God is with us?

The theologian Jurgen Moltmann describes Sabbath as a time when God “begins to ‘experience’ the beings he has created… He adopts the community of creation… He allows them to exist in his presence. And he is present in their existence.” (God In Creation, page 279)
God-with-us. Immanuel.
God creates us and on the Sabbath day of rest and presence, heaven and earth are one.
That’s why we are called to honor the Sabbath and make it holy.
Because whenever we truly stop to rest and worship and simply be in God’s presence, we are participating in that amazing plan set in motion before the stars were put in the sky.
We remember that God has already moved into the neighborhood.

If we are honest with ourselves, however, we know that is not how we usually keep the Sabbath.
In fact, throughout human history, the people of God have often forgotten the presence of God in their midst.
We turn our backs on God.
We seek our own will.
We make mistakes and fail in our humble striving.
But God is not content to be driven out of our lives.
God refuses to be turned away.
God has a plan, remember, and so God acts over, and over again, in ways that bring heaven and earth together.
After all, as John’s gospel tells us, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.” (John 1:5)
And so God heard the cries of the oppressed and rescued them and brought them into the land of milk and honey.
And so God called the people of faith over and over again through the words and actions of the prophets.
And then God acts by coming in really close… diving in deep to all of the mess and the struggle, the pain and sorrow of our human worldly lives.
As we moved away from God, God moves towards us.
The Word became flesh.
Immanuel.
God-with-us.

And it happened in a particular life, in a particular time, in a particular place.

Now… I don’t want to ruin the Christmas story for you… but I’ve come to realize that we’ve been telling it wrong.
And I think when we hear this story again, put back into its context and place, in many ways the story of Christmas becomes all the sweeter and more meaningful.

You see, as we read in Luke’s gospel, Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem to parents who really weren’t anyone important. And Mary “wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.”
When you look back to the original koine Greek, it says katalyma. This was a place where travelers spent a night… and while it could have referred to an inn, it was used to describe “the sleeping area in a single-room Palestinian peasant home” or a guest space in such a house.
The homes in Bethlehem would have had one large living space and if they were lucky, they might have had a smaller private room set aside for guests.
There would have been an area by the entrance where animals were brought in at night to keep them safe and warm.
And that large multi-purpose room would have not only had places to sit and eat and cook… but also mangers, built out of wood or hollowed out of the ground, where straw for those animals were kept.

The scene reminds me a lot of Christmas celebrations among either sets of my grandparents. You see, my dad was one of five kids and my mom was one of seven kids and the holidays were always a big deal. Everyone would come back home and the grown-ups would get the bedrooms that they slept in as children, but the grandkids would all pile together in the living room with sleeping bags and pillows. If you had to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you had to take care not to step on one of your relatives!

If we peered back into Bethlehem on that night long ago, instead of a cold and lonely couple huddled in a shed, we probably would have discovered Mary and Jospeh surrounded by family… in fact, maybe a bit too crowded by family – remember, Luke says there wasn’t room in the guest room. Everyone had come to town to be registered in the census so aunties and uncles and cousins galore would have been packed into the room together.
And right there in the midst of it all – in a normal home, in an everyday life, in the midst of community and the animals, Christ was born.
God moved into the neighborhood.
Immanuel.
God-with-us.

I think the most powerful statement of the incarnation is the reminder that right here… on this earth, among all of creation, surrounded by our community, is where we are redeemed.
God’s plan is not that this earth will waste away and we will be whisked away to some far off heaven.
No… in Jesus Christ all things in heaven and on earth will be brought together.
Right here is where salvations shows up.

As we have been leading up to this day, this time of worship, when we remember the birth of Christ, we have also been looking ahead to a moment that is yet to come.
For, we are still waiting.
This morning, I prayed for two colleagues who lost their mothers yesterday.
This world is still filled with disease and struggle and this might be the last Christmas we celebrate with certain loved ones.
We even remember that places like Bethlehem are today places of conflict and strife.
God’s plan isn’t complete yet.

So as people of faith, we are also looking ahead to that day of new creation when the kingdom of God is made known.
John tells us that the light shines in the darkness and has not been overcome by it… and when we keep reading to the Revelation, we find hope in the words that “death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying or pain anymore… There will no longer be any curse… Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them.” (21:4, 22:3,5)
At the climax of all times, when the plan is fully complete, the heavens and earth will be brought together and God will make a home among us.

The Letter to the Ephesians may seem like a strange text to share together on Christmas Eve, but for me it is a reminder that the promises we hope for can already be experienced right now. Paul’s words here remind us that while the plan isn’t quite yet complete… it has already become a reality within the church.
You see, from the moment the heavens opened and the angels began to proclaim the birth of our Messiah, we have been invited to participate and respond to the kingdom of Glory.
Shepherds left their flocks to search out the baby in the manger.
Magi traveled great distances to greet the newborn King.
Fishermen would leave their boats to follow the Messiah.
Rich men like Zacchaeus gave away their wealth.
Scholars like Paul set aside everything they thought they knew about God to discover the message all over again and then carried it across the world.
The ripples from the birth of that one moment built the church, the Body of Christ alive in this world today.
Friends, you and I are that body of Christ right here and right now.
And as Ephesians 2 tells us, “we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.”
We have been adopted into God’s household, filled up with the Spirit of God, and called to imitate Christ wherever we go.
So fall on your knees in this time of worship.
Remember that God set the stars in the sky and the ground beneath our feet.
Imagine the birth of that child in Bethlehem.
And ask how God is inviting you today to love one another and to bring peace and joy to all who struggle.
Because it is through you… and you… and you… that the presence of God can be known in this neighborhood today, and tomorrow, and the day after that.
YOU are also God’s plan for this world.

Reproducing in the Church #NaBloPoMo

I was sitting at a conference with some friends and the speaker kept lifting up the decline in membership of the United Methodist Church.

One of the reasons cited was United Methodists were having less children than we used to.

And the four of us all stole a glance at one another.

The speaker was talking about us.

We represented three couples that were intentionally choosing not to have children.

 

Of course, making babies isn’t the only way to make new Christians.

And, even if we had babies, that doesn’t mean when they grew up they would choose to carry on our faith.

 

So what does “reproduction” really look like in the faith?

One of the first things I thought of was the “each one, reach one” campaign in my district about 10 years ago.

The idea was simple:  Every person should try to bring one person to church in the next year.  If everyone took the time to bring one friend or family member or neighbor to church, we would quickly double in size.

Which is essentially the process of mitosis.

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We learn, grow, build our own faith, and then we pass it along to another person.

No, we don’t actually split ourselves in two, but the “each one, reach one” concept has the potential to multiply the church in the same way.

 

There is another important reproductive parallel here.

Because our role along the way, as we nurture someone into the faith, is to act like a spiritual midwife for them.

Midwives today are there to support during the entire pregnancy, but also provide care and advice months after a child is born.

And we can help guide someone into faith in the same way.

We can first make the invitation to church, but we have to be prepared to answer whatever questions they have in a non-judgmental way.

We need to not just invite them, but be there in a real and incarnational way: offering to pick them up, walk with them through the doors, sit next to them at whatever worship or church event or small group it is.

If we are taking ownership for truly nurturing someone into faith, then we can’t forget about them as soon as they have shown up once.  It’s a continual  process of support and encouragement.

As a pastor, I am actually probably more like a doctor who is called into provide medical assistance when necessary. Most of the work of bringing someone to the faith is done by the lay people, the midwives, who actively support and care for people as they become Christians.

(and, parents, this is how you help nurture your babies, too)

 

In my own church, I’m watching as our confirmation students go through the process with a mentor.  And what I’m discovering is that the personalized attention really impacts their growth, and the mentors are growing, too.  They are building new relationships and becoming stronger and more confident in their walk with God.

What if every one of us took on the work of inviting and mentoring one person in the faith?

We’d become a completely different church.

 

You Will Be My Witnesses

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I want us to take a few moments this morning to reflect on what God has done in our lives.

In the back of each of the pews, there are little notepads and there are pencils and pens. Or you can take some of the space in your bulletin where it says “I praise God because…” As we think about what God has done in our individual lives, I want to encourage you to jot down some notes.

Take a deep breath and pay attention to your life.

Where has the power of creation and creativity been present?

Where have you experienced healing or forgiveness?

When were love and joy given to you?

What about grace and peace?

 

Forty days after Jesus rose from the grave and conquered death, he led the disciples out to the countryside to the little town of Bethany. And he reminded them of everything he had done.

Jesus reminded them of how he healed and forgave.

He reminded them of his words and truth.

He connected the dots for them and helped them to understand his suffering and death.

And then he said five simple words: “you will be my witnesses.”

He blessed them.

And he left them.

On that day, forty days after Easter, Jesus was taken up into heaven.

And the disciples worshiped him, were filled with joy, and continuously praised God.

 

One of the questions I always have wrestled with is WHY the ascension is such good news. Why is this moment so important?

 

Wouldn’t it be so much better if Jesus had stayed here on earth with us? Teaching and preaching? Leading us? Showing us how to live?

 

The disciples, who had been so scared and timid in the days after his death are suddenly celebrating his leaving.

 

In their commentary on this text, the General Board of Discipleship reminded us that heaven is not really “up.”  As we know from our modern scientific inquiry – and I quote from the GBOD: “If Jesus went ‘up there,’ he would have frozen to death, suffocated, been dangerously irradiated, or ripped to shreds by black holes (if he got that far!).”

No, this language of going up… of ascension… is really the “language of enthronement.”

In the ascension of Jesus, he rises not simply from the grave, but up to his full authority.

He no longer walks and talks among us but he is now “seated at the right hand of the Father.”

He is no longer the prophetic carpenter from Galilee, but he has risen to his fullest stature as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

The ascension is the completion of the resurrection.

And that is a good and holy and awesome thing.

 

But there is something else to the ascension that we often miss.

In the incarnation of Jesus, we celebrate the word of God was made flesh. We witness how God came down and was born as a tiny babe in Bethlehem.

Every aspect of our human life was experienced by God.

Love and loss.

Stubbed toes and broken promises.

Laughter and tears.

Disappointment and overwhelming joy.

Fear and grief.

Jesus experienced the fullness of our lives – and the ultimate depths of suffering and death.

 

God entered our humanity in the birth of Jesus… that little child who was fully divine.

And when Jesus Christ – a man of flesh and blood, a fully human being who ate and drank and lived and died – when Christ is taken up into heaven, all of humanity is taken up to God also.

 

These two moments: the incarnation and the ascension unite the human and the divine. They establish an unbreakable relationship.

The reason that we can “go up” and experience the fullness of life in the divine presence is because Jesus is already there. He has shown the way.

The majestic and awesome Lord and King knows us and in spite of that, loves us and died for us and has made space for us.

 

For that… we praise and thank God.

So with the psalmist, we clap our hands in joy! For God is king of the whole world. God has gone up with a joyous shout! Sing praises!

 

This holy and awesome God intimately knows our lives. Jesus has not left us… he has united us with the divine.

You will be my witnesses.

You are going to tell my story.

Jesus unites humanity with God and empowers us to carry on the work of love and grace and transformation in the world. “You will be furnished with heavenly power,” he says as he is carried up into heaven.

 

We don’t have to share this good news in order to earn our place with God… it is something we do out of deep gratitude for what we have already been given.

Think about that list you made.

Of the ways God has worked in your life.

You didn’t have to do anything to earn that love and grace and forgiveness. It was freely given to you out of love.

And out of gratitude and thanksgiving, you are invited to tell the world.

Go, be my witnesses, Jesus says.   Tell the world about what I have done.  Love them because I love them. Share my kingdom with them!

 

One of my favorite blogs is rev-o-lution and the author tells about a sign she saw once in England.  It reads:  “We believe in life before death.”

 

We can get so caught up in life after death, in what happens up there with Jesus and whether or not we are going up there, that we forget about this life.

Jesus invites us to live before we die.

He invites us to go and share and tell and bless and love.

He invites us to not only live, but to share new life with the broken and hurting of this world.

 

As Rev. Mindi writes on her blog: “This is why we work for justice and peace in this world.  This is why we stand against hate and stand for love.”

 

We do not work for the Kingdom of God in order to get up there, but because that Kingdom has already come down here and already dwells in our hearts.  And in Jesus’ ascension, we have been given keys to the Kingdom.

Because he has gone up, we can get down and dirty and engage people in the real mess of their lives.

Because he has gone up, we can stop worrying about whether or not we are saved and we can simply tell people about Jesus and invite them to get to know him and us better.

Because he has gone up, we can stop counting dollars and cents and we can start measuring how deep our conversations are, how real our expressions of love are, and how many people we have shared the story with.

Because “up there” there is really not “UP” at all… all of humanity has been given the opportunity to live life right now in the presence and the power of the divine.

And for that we give thanks.

And we can’t wait to start telling the story.

Making Room

Funeral Meditation based on Luke 2:1-7

As Christmas approaches, we are reminded that a very pregnant young woman and her patient fiancé were once left out in the cold. They made their way to the town ofBethlehemhoping and praying that someone would have a place for them to stay… but there was no room.

As Luke tells us:

Joseph went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

There was no place for them in the guestroom.

Notice… it doesn’t say that they were full. It doesn’t say that there wasn’t room. It says that there was no place for them.

Your mother and grandmother was someone who always had a place in her heart for others.  She took great care to make sure that everything was just right for people and that they knew how loved they were.

Wilma was born in 1925 here in Marengo to John and Carrie Ehrman, she graduated from the Marengo High School.  She worked in the office of Byron Goldthwaite and also as a Deputy Clergy for the county… but you know best that her true love and her true vocation was to be a homemaker.  She greatly enjoyed cooking for her family and you enjoyed eating her fried chicken and other wonderful meals.  She made many of her own clothes with her skills as a seamstress… and some for you too, although Jean, you would have preferred to wear the store bought clothes =)  She kept an exceptionally clean house and cared about the details.  And she did it all for you.

She made a place for each of you in her lives and made sure that you were taken care of and that you were loved.  She made a place for you.

Luke reminds us as we approach Christmas that the Lord of Lords crept into this world on a quiet evening and that there was no place for him. There was no place for his unmarried mother. There was no place for the man who would be his earthly father. There was no place.

I hear in that statement that there was no welcome for them.

Who wants to take in a pregnant girl in the middle of the night?

Who wants to deal with these strangers who didn’t have enough sense to plan ahead?

Who wants to give up their spot?

In some Mexican and Latin American communities, the tradition of Las Posadas reminds folks of the absence of hospitality Mary and Joseph recieved.  In the days before Christmas, processions go from house to house and request lodging.  The host for each evening turns the people away… until the final night, Christmas Eve, when Mary and Joseph are finally allowed to enter and the people gather around the nativity to pray.

So many times in our actions, we too, can tell other people: There is no place for you here.

But I imagine your mother and your grandmother would have loved being the host for the last night of LasPosadas… That she would have opened up her home and said – yes, there is a place for you.  I will make room.

The God that your mother and grandmother believed in, crept into this world to make sure that we all had a place. He came as a child to make us children of God. He came and was rejected so that we might never be rejected again. He died so that we might live.

Before he died, Christ reminded his disciples and reminded us:

Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too.

There is a place for you. That is what Christ tells us. That is what Christ shows us. That is what Christ gives us.

Wilma knew that her job was to make a place for you in this world.  May you let her life and her memory live on by carrying in your hearts the desire to serve others… to love others… more than yourself.

Amen. And Amen.

Scars

I have a couple of scars in my body.

Right below my left knee the area is numb and without feeling and there is a small whitish mark.  That scar is from the time I thought it was a good idea to do a cartwheel in the girl’s locker room and I ended up hiting my leg… hard… against the corner of the wall.

I have a few tiny scars on my belly from my gall bladder surgery a few years ago.  They are nearly imperceptible… unlike the scars many have from days when that surgery was performed open and not lapriscopically.

And I have a scar on my left forearm from an iron last summer.  After going through the entire pile of t-shirts for Vacation Bible School and getting all of the transfers ironed on… I reached over to unplug my iron and my arm hit the hot plate.  There is a triangular shaped mark on my arm to this day!

But none of those are extremely noticeable.  Especially not compared with some of the scars that others have in their lives.

My dad is one such person.  In an accident at work, his hand was caught in a gear of a machine that processes hot sugars.  After months of surgery and rehabilitation, he lost two fingers on his right hand, part of his pinky finger, and had a large skin graft around his thumb and forefinger.  His right hand will never be the same.  And while his hand looks a bit gnarled and ugly, to me it is a sign of his perseverance, his incredible work ethic, and a reminder of how he got through that difficult part of his life.

The scars in our lives tell stories.  Whether they are small marks or large ones, they are visible reminders of the lives that we have lived.  Maybe it is not a physical scar, but a nickname you bear, or a tattoo, or an item that you keep around in your life to remind yourself and others of something important that has happened.

I want to invite you to turn to a neighbor or a small group around you and share what kinds of scars and battle wounds you might have.  If you feel comfortable, share a story about that scar with the group.

There was a classmate of mine in high school who had a large scar that ran down the center of her chest.  She had had open heart surgery when she was fairly young, but will carry that scar with her for the rest of her life.  And I remember the day I discovered that scar.  We all went swimming at a friend’s house and for the first time, she revealed her scar.  She had kept it carefully covered up all those years.  She wore shirts with high collars, or scarves, or jewelry, anything that would keep people from seeing the scar she thought was ugly… and embarrassment.  But when she told us about the story of the scar, I thought it was such a powerful sign of her strength – that she got through that journey and came out on the other side a strong and healthy and powerful young woman.  She continued to feel uncomfortable about her scar, but that scar helped me to see the strength and the beauty inside of her.

Did anyone learn something about a friend based on those scars?  Anyone want to share?

Will you ever look at that person the same way again?

 

There is a reason that twice in our gospel reading for this morning Jesus hands and feet are mentioned.

The first time is when he appears to some of his disciples on the evening of the resurrection. They were huddled together – scared, frightened, unsure of themselves – and suddenly the Risen Lord shows up.  He breathes into their lives peace.  He forgives them.  He gives them a job to do.  AND he shows them his hands and his side.

He shows them who he is.

He shows them what he has been through.

He shows them what he has overcome.

And then, a week later, the disciples don’t seem to have moved.  They are still there, in the house, only this time Thomas was there also.  Thomas missed the first appearance, and said that unless he had seen the nail marks and put his finger where those nails were, that he wouldn’t believe.

So when Jesus stands among them, the first words he utters are: “Peace” – but then he offers an invitation.  An invitation for Thomas to come and to reach out his hand and to touch his scars.  And Thomas recognizes those scars, remembers what they have all been through together and cries out – “My Lord and my God!”

The Rev.Dr. Janet Hunt writes:

Our scars tell part of the story of who we are, what has mattered to us, what has happened to us, the risks we’ve taken, the gifts we’ve given. And as we are reminded in the story before us in John’s Gospel, this was surely also so with Jesus, too.

Which is why Thomas insisted he needed to see, no more than that, feel the scars in his hands and put his own hand in Jesus’ side to be sure that it was him. One would think he would have recognized him with from the features of his face or the sound of his voice, but no, for Thomas, Jesus had become something more since that long walk to the cross a week before. Jesus’ very identity was now defined by the sacrifice he had made in our behalf. A sacrifice made most visible in those wounds that by then could have only begun to heal. (words.dancingwiththeword.com)

So what are the lessons that we learn by seeing the visible wounds of Jesus?  What are the lessons that we learn from seeing the visible wounds of one another?

We see Jesus wounds, and in spite of how the disciples failed him… in spite of how we have failed him, Jesus tells us that we are loved… we are forgiven… that peace is freely offered… and that we have a job to do.

1)      We are loved:  Jesus comes to us.  When someone shares a scar with us, when they are vulnerable with us, it means that they trust us and care about us and are willing to share their lives with us.

2)      We are forgiven: Each of us played a role in the crucifixion of Christ.  Each of us is responsible for the wounds he bears.  And yet, he tells us we are forgiven.  When we encounter wounds in our lives, they can be symbols to us of our failings… but they can also be symbols of forgiveness, healing, and love.

  1. Story of running into a pole in Brandon’s car… I was in a bad place, my grandpa had just died… he wasn’t happy, but his love for me in the midst of that experience of loss and grief that got me through. My mind was in a million places when I was backing up the car and I did not even notice the parking pole before I slammed into it.  The bright yellow scrape on his car marred it in the same way that my soul was grieving and broken and needed some healing.  But just as that car was patched up good as new, so too, with time and love, did we both make it to the other side of the grief process.

3)      Peace is offered: This may seem to go with the idea of forgiveness, but it really is about releasing ourselves from a heart full of fear.

  1. In her reflection, Kathryn Matthews Huey talks about life one week after Easter… when we return to life as usual: “wars and uprisings that drag on for months and years, with hundreds and thousands dead and maimed; an economic crisis that still threatens thousands with foreclosure and bankruptcy, high unemployment, high gasoline prices, high health care costs, and a political season poisoned with ugly rhetoric and personal attacks. And then there are our own private griefs and burdens: health problems, kid problems, too much work, too much worry, too much coming at us, so much to run away from, so much to fear. What’s an overwhelmed person of faith to do? Even one week after the music of the trumpets and the splendor of the lilies have faded, how are we to live “as Easter people”?
  2. William Sloane Coffin once said, “As I see it, the primary religious task these days is to try to think straight….You can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth. If your heart’s a stone, you can’t have decent thoughts – either about personal relations or about international ones. A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind. When our hearts fill with a fear we can’t organize or get our arms around, a fear that makes us feel weak and small and inadequate, all of us disciples receive that same gift of grace, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit, a gift that limbers up our minds and our hearts, turning them from hearts of stone to hearts full of love.”

4)      We have a job to do: The visible wounds of Jesus and of our own lives can also remind us that there is a job to do.

  1. Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners, and there is a world full of people who need to know that love and grace.
  2. Jesus takes our wounds and scars and uses them to ministry to others
  3. There are wounds in this world that need healing. And in the end, Jesus sent his disciples out from that upper room… and “Jesus sends us out into the world, to put our hands on the marks of its suffering, to bring good news and hope to all of God’s children.” (Kate Huey)

Amen!

LIFE in the Spirit

I woke up this morning, and literally, almost, could not physically get out of bed!

Yesterday, my husband and I cleaned the exterior of our cars.  No… cleaned isn’t quite the right word.  We scrubbed and polished and waxed and buffed our cars.

And let me tell you… my car needed it.  As we started the project, I realized that I had not actually washed my car since I purchased it last spring.

I thought this might be an hour long little project.  Brandon had other plans 😉

So five hours later, my arms feel like they are going to fall off from polishing out scratches and buffing on a shiny coat of wax… and then I decide there is still time left in the day to pull the weeds that have been accumulating in my flower beds.

This morning, I can barely move my fingers, much less hang on to anything… my back is stiff, my shoulders ache… man, this getting old stuff is for the birds!  😉
Sometimes we like to think about our bodies as a physical container.  That the real “me” is somewhere inside all of this skin and bone.

In fact, this morning, I was ready to throw out the container all together if it would stop aching so much…. Bring on the robot bodies, or the heavenly places where I could float around without any join pain.

But you know what?  That way of thinking is not true.  Our bodies are incredibly important.

Our bodies are an integral part of who God created us to be. Our flesh and blood are not earthly things that we have to slough off and deny before we get into heaven…. No, according to scripture, these bodies go there with us…. In one form or another!

Our sloppy thinking around bodies comes from passages like the one we have this morning.

The Apostle Paul uses a Greek word that is often translated as “flesh” – sarx. So we get translations that say things like – “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the spirit.”

…and…

“those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
To our modern day ears, we think we know what that means at first hearing.

We know what flesh is… skin and bones… these things that ache and touch and feel and move around.

We know what spirit is… our souls, our minds, that of God that dwells within us.

So we think, bodies = bad, not pleasing to God…. Spirit=God, very pleasing to God.

BUT… sarx has more than one meaning.

While it can mean these skin and bones… it also is used to describe the lesser parts of ourselves…. Our animal nature, our cravings, the wretched parts of ourselves that keep grasping on to sin, no matter how many times we try to choose the right thing.

We talked about some of these last week: the craving for more, for status, for money, for food… all of those things that sometimes get the better of us and lead us down the pathways to sin.

THAT is what Paul is talking about here… not these good old, but sometimes achy bodies of ours.

In fact… our whole passage for this morning is about how we can have abundant life right here and right now in these very bodies!

How these bodies can be filled with strength and power and holiness…

How these bodies, these selves, can be Christ-like.

This passage for this morning, far from being a diatribe against our physical nature is a challenge to live up to the potential of what we can in fact DO.

Last week, the question was asked:  What do we do when we joyfully accept the love and grace of God… but sin is right there next to us like the walls of a prison fence?
Our answer came at the very end… and it’s the answer to almost every single children’s sermon question… Jesus Christ.  Trust in Jesus, Live in Jesus, Look to Jesus.  He is the one who has set us free and if we remember that, if we celebrate that, if we hang on to that, then sin doesn’t have the power to touch us anymore.

Now, that was a quick and easy answer. The kind of quick and easy answer that we might go home and stick on our fridge and forget about.

So we are going to unpack that answer a bit.  We are going to look at all of it’s parts and pieces and explore, using this week’s passage from Romans explains HOW and WHY Jesus Christ frees us from sin and death. And we are going to do it through a simple little acronymn… LIFE.

First, we have the letter L – and L stands for LOVE.  You see, God doesn’t just tell us not to sin…. He sends his own Son to deal with the problem of Sin.

As John 3:16 reminds us: For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Romans 8:3 translated by the Message:  In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all.

No one enters another person’s messy life unless they love them.  And when Christ died for us, he took all the sins of the world with him on that cross.  And the powers of sin and death thought they had won…

And here is why I think the resurrection means far more than the crucifixion.  Because when Christ rose up, sin and death were defeated. They were conquered once and for all. They no longer have any power over Christ….

Which brings us to our second letter – I.  And I stands for INCARNATION.  Incarnation means living inside, taking on flesh.  We often use it to describe the birth of Christ – when God came and dwelt among us.  But it also applies here.  Because you see, Jesus Christ didn’t just wipe his hands of the matter.  He didn’t just defeat sin and death… no, he sends his Spirit to live in us, so that we, too, have his power and strength and righteousness.

Yes, Jesus Christ wants to share that power with you.  He wants to live inside of you.

When the Spirit of God dwells within us, then life and peace and righteousness and power dwell within us. And that is an amazing thing.

Over and over again in scripture, we are reminded of how we access this resurrection power…. We have to believe in Jesus Christ.

So our third letter is F, for FAITH. Belief seems like a simple thing.  A thought. A statement. “I believe in Jesus Christ,” isn’t such a difficult thing to say.

But this third letter reminds us that belief is a choice.  Belief is an action. Belief is a lifestyle.

Belief in Jesus Christ means letting his spirit rule our hearts, instead of our lesser animal nature.  It means choosing the Spirit of God rather than Sarx – our human desires.

Let’s think about this another way.  When we live according to the flesh, sarx, we are selfish and self-centered people.  Any decision we make is based on our whims, our desires, and sin easily creeps into that life.  Living only according to our desires leads us down the paths of gluttony and pride, anger, greed, and death.

But when we believe in Jesus Christ, we are making the decision to live according to his Spirit. We exchange our desires for his.  We exchange our self-centeredness for Christ-centeredness. When we believe in Jesus Christ, we make him the Lord of our life… rather than ourselves.

And you know what?   The Spirit of Christ makes much better choices than my gut does.  The Spirit of Christ has much more power than my own selfish will.   And the Spirit of Christ is the only spirit that has the power to defeat the death that will eventually overcome this body.

Our last letter is E.  And E stands for EMPOWERED.  When we know about God’s love… when we let the Spirit be incarnate in our lives… when we have faith in the way of Jesus Christ… then we are empowered to be different.

We are set free from sin and death.

>We are set free to love God more than ourselves

We are set free to participate in God’s saving work in this world.

Because you know what?  God so loved the world… not just you, not just me, not just this church, but the world.

And what we know from the life of Jesus and the testimony of scripture is that God seeks to save this whole world.  God seeks to transform this whole world.

That seems like a mighty and daunting task. We are barely keeping sin at bay in our lives… how could we possibly help God to change the world?

Perhaps it’s not so much that we are helping God, but that we get out of the way enough for God to help us.  When Christ dwells within us, we not only find the grace and strength and power to resist sin, but also the love and peace and power to do God’s will. When we let the Spirit of God in, the transformation of the world begins… in your life, in your family, in this community and from there it spreads to the world.

All of this is God, working in you.   God loving you.  God dwelling in you.  God’s acts and words that we have faith in. God’s power filling you up.

In the Spirit, there is LIFE.

a few bytes of inspiration

I took copious notes at the recent GBCS forum I attended in Washington, D.C.

And then I came home and had hoped to decipher and debrief, but ran smack into four funerals and piles of mail and pastoral visitation needs, and a husband who missed me, and family gatherings… you get the picture.

But remember, I took notes!

So here are some of my attempts at wading through the tiny print all over my folder from the event… the statements and questions that continue to linger in my mind:

  • Can we balance the budget without hurting the poor?  This is the top advocacy issue for economic justice.
  • the difference between lobbyists and advocates:  one works for the benefit of their organization, the other works for the benefits of others and do not raise money for legislators.
  • government of the people, by the people, and FOR the people
  • The United Methodist Building was built before the Supreme Court that is next door to it.
  • Your call is: one sentence, impossible, won’t let you go.
  • Pastors stand at the gaps to bring reconciliation between people – the pastor has to get involved… and you have to win the hearts of the people
  • We say, “WE BELIEVE…” but will we help usher in these things that we believe so firmly in?
  • Legislative priorities adopted by the GBCS are based on our Book of Resolutions and Social Principles…. but also depend on what congress is actually going to focus on that year.
  • Do we have FOOLISH VIGOR?
  • Everyone needs to be proud about what THEY bring to the table… otherwise there cannot be alliances, partnerships, solidarity
  • the church is never called to be partisan, but always called to be political
  • EKKLESIA means to be called out – called out of the world, from the world… the church is the body that is called out, and calls out.
  • Congregational vitality has everything to do with Justice and Mercy… we can’t feed people’s souls if they die of hunger.
  • A leader is someone who makes sure no one falls down (7 year old boy)
  • Do we really believe the UMC can change the world?  Do we really believe God can work through us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the TRANSFORMATION OF THE WORLD?
  • In Defense of Creation talks about three systems that destroy: hunger making systems, war making systems, and desert making systems.  The intersection of these destroys life.
  • Evangelism is absolutely connected with Mercy and Justice ministries… as long as you communicate WHY you are doing what you are doing.
  • you have to have some kind of personal engagement with what you do… in D.C. policy is traded without an awareness of lives that are affected.  We need to know what the INCARNATIONAL IMPACT OF JUSTICE is.
  • The point of justice is not programs and issues but relationships…
  • To be Christian is going to COST something… faithful sacrifice.
  • Ask folks how they feel about this issue personally… how does it affect them? what is it like to read the news? where do they have fears and hopes?
  • the UMC is a leader on Capital Hill because we have United Methodists who passionately care about the issues.

Anything catch your eye? Anything you want to talk more about?

Hebrews Part 2: Cut to the Heart

This morning, I want share with you a little video clip that will become for us a parable about what it means to trust in God’s word.

http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/hosting_files/theworkofthepeople.com/content/store/images/preview_video.swf?preview_file=/hosting_files/theworkofthepeople.com/content/store/files/previews/V00444.flv&thumb_file=/hosting_files/theworkofthepeople.com/content/store/files/thumbs/system_thumbs/V00444.jpg

If we each took some time, we might each find ourselves relating to one of these characters just a little bit more than others. We could ask who we each as individuals are, or we could ask who we as this congregation is most like.

The character that I relate to the most in this clip is probably the father.

You see, we have good intentions but are so wrapped up in the things around us that we are just going through the motions. We’re doing something just because we think it’s the right thing to do. And then, in our attempts to be faithful we stumble and we fall back into old patterns.

The father in our holiday dinner is trying his hardest to bring his family to the table and to offer thanks for what they have received. And after his wife makes a meager attempt to give thanks – I think Nordstroms and Neiman Marcus were on her list – our dad himself flounders around with his thankfulness. He hasn’t really thought it through all the way. We are disappointed by his focus on things and in the end we have a feeling that he has set a bad example for his kids to follow.

More often than not – no matter how good we are or how hard we try, we are like that dad. We are like the rich young man in our gospel reading from Mark. We can cross all the t’s and dot all the I’s, but then Jesus shows up and cuts straight to our hearts. Deep inside, are we really ready to leave it all behind and trust in the God of the universe?

We are going to journey a little bit farther into the book of Hebrews this morning. Last week we skimmed over the beginning of this letter. So I want to touch on it again. In chapter 1 we are reminded that God has been reaching out to us throughout all of history… first through the prophets… and then through his Son.

The Son of God – Jesus Christ – has finally brought God’s message of love and salvation to us. He is greater than even the angels – who helped us to hear this message in the past.

In chapter 2, we find the same question raised that we did when we studied Isaiah – presented with God’s glory and majesty and power… we start to compare ourselves to that glory and find ourselves utterly unworthy and feel as tiny as ants. If you remember in Isaiah – this leads to confession and it is why we confess our sins together in worship after we praise God in our call to worship and opening hymn.

But in Hebrews – there comes a slightly different answer to this question. The author of Hebrews goes back to Psalm 8 and while we might question why God cares so much – we are reminded that God made us just a little less than the angels – that all we see is a gift and it has been placed in our hands. While we don’t always see the power in this statement – we do have control over this world. We have control over how we treat one another. We have control over our children and the animals that surround us. We have harnessed natural resources for power. And In this day and age as we see the impact that humanity has made on the climate of our world – we even recognize our power over the wind and the rain and the sun.

We have lots of power… however sometimes that power spins out of control and we do hurt one another, and we are hurt by one another and by the planet. What gets us through those times is knowing that Jesus humbled himself and took human form and became himself a little less than the angels for a time. Christ entered fully into our human experience so that the one who saves and us who are being saved might all become one. Christ took our lives upon himself – so that he might redeem us, restore us, heal us, from all of the mistakes we have made with our gift of control, power and free-will.

God in Christ came to save us and calls us to follow… but first, there is a warning.

You see, God has tried to save us before. In chapters 3 and 4 of Hebrews, we are reminded of the failure of the Hebrew people to respond.

Our writer in Hebrews is very familiar with our Old Testament and he quotes from Psalm 95… Hear these words again from the Message Translation:

“Today, please listen; don’t turn a deaf ear as in the “bitter uprising,” that time of wilderness testing! Even though they watched me at work for forty years, your ancestors refused to let me do it my way; over and over they tried my patience. I said, ‘They’ll never keep their minds on God; they refuse to walk down my road.’ Exasperated, I vowed, ‘They’ll never get where they’re going, never be able to sit down and rest.’”

Because of their stubbornness, because of their unwillingness to trust in the God who was leading them, because of their foolish attachment to the “golden years” of slavery in Egypt – the Hebrew people refused to accept the gift that was right in front of them! All they had to do was trust in the power of God enough to cross over a border into the land of the Canaanites. And they would have found themselves in the land of milk and honey.

But they couldn’t let go of the security of the past. They couldn’t let go of the things that they knew. They wouldn’t open themselves up to the possibility of what was lying ahead.

The same could be said of our father in the clip we showed at the beginning. He wanted to show some kind of faithfulness so he was trying to express his thankfulness. But he was so tied to the things of this world like cars and HDTV that he found himself grasping for straws…. Did any of you think that he really meant what he was saying?

As the older son chimes in – his thankfulness extends to things like piracy and music groups and the internet. He is focused on himself and what he can get and how quickly he can get it.

The younger son follows up with being thankful for the food that is right in front of them. He rattles off the items on the table because he knows that if he says something he will finally get to eat them. He might actually be thankful for the food – but he has no spirit of thankfulness for those who have prepared it or made it possible for him to sit down and eat.

In our gospel reading – our rich young man falls in the same boat. He has said all the right words and done all the right things and he has gone through the motions of faithfulness – but is his heart really in it? Does he really believe?

You see, belief is the difference. In the message translation, it might be called “ a deaf ear” and in the text as printed in your bulletins it might be called “ a hardened heart” – but in either case, it is an unwillingness to accept the truth.

There are a couple of ways that the truth escapes us.

First, we might not look beyond ourselves. Like the older son, we see and feel only our own truth and our own reality. If you noticed in the clip, he actually interrupted someone else who was speaking to quickly rattle off his list of items. This perhaps was also the greatest sin of the Hebrew people in the desert, because they were so focused on what was in it for themselves that they forgot the blessings they had received from God and looked only at what they lacked – what they were missing.

Second, we might be unwilling to go past the surface level of things. Like the boy at the table, we see only what is right in front of us and don’t look any farther. We put our blinders on to the reality that is just beyond our fingertips. All he sees are mashed potatoes and red stuff – and he misses the time and energy his parents put into making the meal, the people at the store who worked so they could buy the ingredients, the farmers who raised the crop, the sun and the rain and the earth that nurtured his food, and the God who is behind it all.

Third, we might be fooling ourselves by going through the motions. Here, the father at our dinner and the rich young man have a lot in common. They are doing all the right things – they might even be saying all the right things, but are their hearts really in it? Do the dad really understand what thankfulness is about? Does the young man really understand what the law is about?

In Hebrews we are warned about the deceitfulness of sin – it blinds us, it tricks us into thinking that we can do it on our own.

But what we really need – all we really need – is faith. We just have to believe and trust in God’s promises. We just have to believe and trust and God’s goodness. Today – Please listen – the psalmist implores us – don’t turn a deaf ear!

God means what God says. The promises are sure. The invitation is real. And when Jesus calls out to the rich young man asking him to leave all of his wealth behind – he means it. Because he is cutting to the heart of what is holding him back. The Word of God, both as we see it on the page and as Christ speaks it, knows who we are and it cuts through all of our defenses. As put by the Message translation – the word lays us open to listen and obey – nothing and no one is impervious to God’s Word – to the truth. We can’t get away from it – no matter what.

Jesus has compassion on that rich young man… even more than that he loves him. And so he has to tell him the truth. And Jesus’ words cut straight to the heart of the matter. You are just going through the motions, my friend. You have built for yourself a wall of deception through your wealth and you trust in your things more than you do in me. So trust me. Leave it all behind. I will take care of you.

The rich young man hears the truth. He sees the promises. But just like the Hebrews in the wilderness who could almost taste the honey that awaited them across the border, he turned a deaf ear. He walked away. He thought it was impossible – because he wasn’t ready to believe that with God all things are possible.

Which brings us back to the person at the dinner table we haven’t talked about yet. The daughter among the group – who was hesitant to even speak opens her mouth and out pours truth. Her words cut to the heart of the matter, and you can see that each person around that table has to stop for a second. The truth gets through – even if just for a second – the truth gets through that God loves us… even if we don’t deserve it… even if we turn a deaf ear and harden our hearts and ignore him. The truth gets through.

Today – Please listen – don’t turn a deaf ear. Take the mercy, accept the help, trust in God.