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

The Spirit of Surrender

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A little bit later in the service today, we will be receiving a new member of this Body of Christ.
And we will ask Tom some questions… questions that all of us were asked when we joined this church, questions that our parents and sponsors were asked when we were baptized.
Do we accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
Do we put our whole trust in God’s grace and promise to serve him as our Lord in union with the church Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

In light of those promises, I want to invite Pastor Todd to read a statement that Bishop Laurie has invited all churches in Iowa to share this morning:

Many of you have heard about the violence that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier today. White nationalist and other right-wing groups had scheduled a “Unite the Right” rally to protest the removal of Confederate symbols in the city, including a statue of Robert E. Lee. This afternoon a man drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring nineteen others. Two others have died. Self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi and hate groups were very open in their intentions to provoke violence, and Virginia’s Governor declared a state of emergency.

The United Methodist Church condemns the evil, hatred, and bigotry that led to this violence, and we ask you to pray for those who have been injured and the families of those who have been killed. We also ask you to pray for the restoration of order and peace for the community of Charlottesville.

At this tragic time, may each one of us renew our commitment by our words and actions to create a world where all people live out the words in this prayer of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.

In today’s scripture from the book of Acts, we find a scene from the early Christian community.
In many ways, those early followers of Christ were trying to create that world in which their whole lives exemplified the teachings of Jesus. In the chapters before this, twice we hear tales of how the believers sold everything they had and made sure there were no needs in their community.
Twice, we have been told of their love and faithfulness and how everyone who joined this community of Christ was full of prayer and devotion and the church was growing exponentially every day.
They were standing up for what was right, willing to die for their beliefs, and always sought to share the love, grace, and mercy of God with one another.

But, living in community is not easy… in fact, to truly commit to living with one another is dangerous.
A community that truly cares for the needs of others is a community where people can share their needs without being embarrassed with them.
A community that heals the sick is a community where people are not afraid to speak the truth about their own disease.
A community that cares for the widows and the orphans and the oppressed is a community where people sacrificially put their own lives on the line for the lives of others.
A community that offers grace and mercy is also a community that speaks the truth and names evil and sin in the world when they see it.

And I imagine that many of us in this room today would hesitate and pull back from that type of life, because there are great risks involved in being vulnerable, open, honest, and accountable to a community.
We might have to take off our fake plastered on smiles and tell the truth about the problems in our lives.
We are afraid of our own tears, afraid of our own weakness, afraid that the community around us will turn their backs if they really knew what was going on.
We are afraid of what those outside the church might think if we took a stand for something that we truly believed in.

In Acts chapter 5, we find the story of this couple who just couldn’t surrender it all to God.
They had seen the acts of sacrificial love and were on the fringes of this community who shared everything in common without worrying about what belonged to whom. And perhaps they were inspired by a man named Barnabas who sold a plot of land and laid the proceeds at the feet of the disciples.
Immediately following his sacrificial act, Ananias and Sapphira decide to do the same… sort of.
They, too, sell a plot of land and bring the proceeds from the sale to the disciples… except they lie about how much they sold it for and keep some of it back for themselves.

In the midst of a community where all are of one heart and mind…
in the midst of a community where everyone cares for everyone else and no one has need…
in the midst of a community – united by the Holy Spirit – where no one says “that’s mine, you can’t have it…”
… Ananias and Sapphira are looking out for themselves.
They essentially embezzle money from the sale and hide it for themselves. In doing so, they reject the community, reject the Holy Spirit, and seek to provide for their own welfare.
Ananias and Sapphira were telling the church – it’s nice what ya’ll are doing, and we want to help, but we’re not going to become beholden to you.
We’re going to stand over here on the sidelines and get praise for our giving but we sure as hell are not going to let you take care of us.
We can take care of ourselves just fine, thank you very much.

What they fail to understand is that the Body of Christ asks every person, every member, to fully participate.
No one is more important than another.
An eye can’t see without a brain to process the information.
A hand can’t reach out to help without an arm to support and extend.
A stomach is pretty worthless without a mouth to bring it food.
For this Body of Christ to work, for it to witness to the world, it asks us each to play our part and to do so with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
We can’t hold back.
And we have to allow others to do their part.

In the last question we will ask Tom as he professes his faith, we invite him to confess Jesus Christ as his Savior, to put his WHOLE trust in his grace, and to serve him as his Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.

The reason that we, as Christians, as baptized members of the United Methodist Church, have to look out on the actions of white nationalists and Christian hate groups and denounce their words and actions as sinful is precisely because they go against everything we proclaim in that profession of faith.
As Bishop Trimble wrote, “naming hate, injustice, and the sin of “-ism” is the only way for us to tackle the forces that would divide us and that would have any of us believe that there is less opportunity to reach our highest God-given potential because of one group of people or another.”

I used to think that the greatest sin of Ananias and Sapphira was the fact that they lied to God and the community about how much money they had sold their land for.
But the more I put this story into the context of this community of believers who relied upon a spirit of trust and vulnerability and risk in order to be united, I realized that their sin wasn’t so much that they lied, or stole the money, but that they believed they could follow God without relying upon the rest of the community.
They thought they were better than everyone else.
They thought they had the right to stand apart.
They were not just clinging to their money… they were clinging to their ideology and trying to carve out a space in their life where God and God’s people couldn’t exist.
And in the process, they were denying others the opportunity to reach their “God-given potential.”

We are asked to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.
We are to become “living sacrifices.”
Jesus Christ died for us and he wants our whole selves in return.

And here come two people who want to be a part of the community and want to walk with Jesus, but who don’t want to dive all the way in.
They pretend that they do – they want the prestige, they want to be a part of this awesome new movement, but they just are not ready to commit ALL THE WAY.
And you know what is really sad – they didn’t have to. They could simply have said that. They could have been up front with Peter and said “Hey, we want to support the church and see what you guys are doing and maybe someday we’ll be at the point where we can do what Barnabas has done and really place ourselves in community.”
Peter even reminds Ananias that the land was his to do with as he pleased and he didn’t have to sell it and he didn’t have to give it to the church…
but when they did so, and when they lied and pretended to really surrender themselves, when they hid who they were, they were actually putting the whole community in danger.
They were acting directly against the Holy Spirit and the unity it brought to the church.
In their act of holding back their resources, of refusing to fully give in to the power of God, in their lack of surrender of their ideologies and power, Ananias and Sapphira let a Spirit of Discord into the body of Christ.
They said with their actions, “it’s okay God, I’ll take care of myself.”
And God’s response… well – this is the difficult part of the story.
First, Ananias and the Sapphira fall dead.
I find this so troubling because I sometimes hold back, too.
We don’t always let God have our hearts and minds and soul.
We are timid with our faith.
We surrender some… but not all.
This passage makes me uncomfortable, because I realize that I’m really no different than Ananias and Sapphira… what on earth prevents God for striking me dead, right here and right now for holding back, myself?
What we learn in the story of Ananias and Sapphira is that we still worship a holy, awesome, and fearful Lord.
In a world full of grace, we do not simply have a free pass to act however we want.
God is still righteous and just and has every right to punish sinners by death or other means.

We are tempted to simply believe that grace covers all and to run through this life as if our actions do not matter.
We are tempted to rest in the love of God and not consider what the consequences of our sin might be.
And, we are tempted to sit back and not speak out when we see the words and actions and beliefs of others in our community or neighborhood or world… we are tempted to not hold one another accountable for the sin and evil that is perpetuated out of fear.
And yet the consequences of sin in the world is real.
Three people died yesterday… communities and families can be destroyed… when we allow sin to run rampant in this world than we have essentially turned our back on God.
Christ demands all and we give some.
We hold back and don’t fully let the Holy Spirit build up this Body of Christ.
We refuse to surrender and therefore we deny the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts, this church, and the world around us.
We might not be struck dead here in this place at this moment, but what do we stop from growing and living and thriving by our blatant denial of the Holy Spirit?
This path of Christian faith is not easy.
While the book of Acts has begun with all sorts of joyous accounts of healing and transformation and triumph over the powers of evil, these passages remind us that discipleship is hard.
It is a warning to those who are considering this faith: think twice.
Think about the price you are being called to pay.
Think about what is being demanded of you.
But also think about the joy and the possibility and the abundant life that awaits if you are willing to let go of what you think and what you believe you deserve in order to embrace what God knows you need.
Are you willing to let go?
Are you willing to dive in?
Are you willing to let the Holy Spirit transform us into the body of Christ?

The Wealth in our Wallets instead of the Well-being of the World

This afternoon I watched the United States join two nations… Syria and Nicaragua… in being the only three nations in the entire world that are no longer signers of the Paris Climate Accord.

As I listened to the justifications, what I heard over and over again was the mention of a few economic sectors that will be impacted negatively and are disadvantaged because we are choosing to prioritize a different future for the world.  Our President spoke about a drastic and unfair “redistribution of wealth” through the International Green Fund and how instead we need to put America First. His focus is solely on the wealth and wallets of the few, instead of the well-being of the many.

Well, if we are really going to put Americans first, perhaps we should think about all of these ways that Americans will be impacted if we do not make drastic changes to halt climate change.  The link is the official report of the National Climate Assessment and includes data from thirteen different U.S. government agencies.  The impacts include health, agriculture, energy, coastal migration, extreme weather, and are broken down by sector, region, and show the risks if we do nothing.

One of the most disheartening aspects of the argument to withdraw is that we need to stop worrying about other people and focus only on ourselves and what is best for ourselves. And yet, as I understand the Christian faith and my calling to live our the love of Jesus Christ in the world, my duty is to love my neighbor and to set free the oppressed and to care more for the well-being of others than I do myself.  Even if we stick with the idea that we, as Americans, are leaders in protecting the environment, the thought that we can just take care of ourselves without helping to bring others along doesn’t even find a home in scripture.  For as Jesus teaches the disciples in the gospel of Luke, we have been given this world as a gift and we are called to be its stewards.  “Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48)

In this chapter filled with parables, we are called to remember the worth of even the sparrows, to guard ourselves against all greed, to sell our possessions and give to those in need, and to make wallets that won’t wear out.  And then, ironically, Jesus lifts up the fact that the crowds “know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky” (12:56).  We know when its going to rain or when a heat wave is coming.  Except, it appears that our government can’t see the conditions on the earth and in the sky.  We refuse to acknowledge our impact on the world around us.  We are willing to put our own personal gain above the well-being of the world.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.” – Luke 12:34

Lord, have mercy on us.

The Hope of the World is Us

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The President of the United States is currently weighing whether or not to withdraw our nation from the Paris climate accord. Political leaders within our country are skeptical about the science behind climate change and its causes.  One congressman said this past week: “As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us.  And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”

I’m a Christian, too.  And I think God has placed this problem squarely in our laps.

For the last five or six months I have been blogging fairly infrequently, because I’ve been working hard to put into words why it is important for people of faith to care about what is happening to our planet.  My new book, All Earth Is Waiting, will come out this fall along with a daily devotional for the season of Advent. I’ve spent countless hours pouring over the scriptures and asking how we are called to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in the world today.

One of the primary scriptures for the book is from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In chapter 8, we find these words:

The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters.  Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice – it was the choice of the one who subjected it – but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children.

The earth is waiting for us to let go of our selfish ways and begin acting like the children of God. It is waiting for us to hold in our hearts a vision of an interconnected world and to remember that every part of this planet tells of God’s goodness. It is waiting for us to see the sacred worth of the elements, the flora, and the fauna; to live gently as stewards and protectors. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the source of our hope and it has and will transform our lives.  But once it does, we are supposed to truly live as God’s children. Paul reminds us in this passage the world is waiting for us. Only then will creation be set free.

 

From Everywhere to Everywhere (2.0)

This Sunday, I was making my way back from our bi-annual Global Ministries meeting and so took the opportunity to do a brief rewrite of the message I preached at Ingathering:

This quadrennium, I have the honor of serving on our General Board of Global Ministries:

Last fall, in our opening worship, we read the names of the missionaries who have died in the last four years, like we do on All Saints day.  It was holy and humbling to think about all of those people who had spent their lives serving God wherever they were sent.  But I also noticed that they almost all had very white, very Anglo sounding names.

That evening, and since then, I have met missionaries who remind me that the focus of our global ministries has truly shifted.  Katherine fits that traditional model and is from California. She has served through Global Ministries in a variety of far flung places including Japan, Iowa, and now Nepal.

But Alina is a native Bolivian and she is serving in Nicaragua on behalf of Global Ministries.

Luis is from Brazil and will be heading up the new regional Mission Center in Buenos Aires.

Another leader from Brazil will work with the new regional Mission Center in Africa focusing on Portuguese speaking countries.

There is an African American who speaks Japanese who will serve in the new Mission Center in Seoul, South Korea.

And we heard about a missionary from Zimbabwe who is heading to Canada to serve an African refugee community there. 

Our Executive Director of Global Mission Connections was just elected a bishop in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but last year, Bishop Mande wrote:

“Mission used to be thought of as coming from the center (churches in developed countries) and going to the peripheries (people in developing countries). But our sense today is that there isn’t a center anymore—that doing mission lies in mutuality, looking at each other as equal partners and learning from one another. Our heritage from the Wesleyan movement tells us that God’s grace is everywhere and everyone shares in it.” (http://um-insight.net/in-the-church/umc-global-nature/no-center-no-periphery-a-regional-approach-to-mission/)

 From everywhere… to everywhere…

 

Fundamental to the shift in our global ministries is the recognition of prevenient grace.

The idea that God is moving in our lives long before we know who or what God is.

The idea that grace and truth, beauty and holiness, forgiveness and love are not gifts we enlightened people bring to the heathens, but that we can discover God’s work in the midst of people we meet… whether or not they know God, yet.

 

I think the shift we are experiencing in mission is paralleled in Paul’s ministry in Athens.

As we start the scripture reading today, he is preaching and sharing the good news of Jesus on the streets. And the people don’t get it and they don’t get him.

Some translations say they take him, or brought him, others that they asked him, but if you look to the original Greek the word is “epilambanomai” – to lay hold of or to seize. 

The Common English Bible translates this passage… “they took him into custody.”  The people REALLY don’t get him.  Paul is trying to shove something foreign down their throats.

This is the same word used when Simon the Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross as we remembered on Good Friday.  And it’s a word used twice to describe how Jesus grabs hold of someone to rebuke or challenge and heal them.

Paul is not taken to Mars Hill by choice.

He is brought to the council and placed in the middle of the people…

 

And then something in Paul shifts.  His language changes.  

He realizes that speaking of foreign things isn’t making and impact.

He starts to contextualize the good news of Jesus Christ.

He recalls an altar he saw, “To an unknown God” and uses that altar… in a city filled with idols… to begin explaining the God he has come to know.

What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you… God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him.  In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.  In God we live, move, and exist.

 

In our Wesleyan heritage, the idea of prevenient grace is that it goes before us.  God’s grace is all around us. In God, we live, move, and exist.  Even if we don’t know it yet.  And by grace, some of us reach out and find God.

 But there is another side to prevenient grace… that God doesn’t just sit back and wait to be found, but actively seeks us.

God enters our lives and our stories.

God takes on our flesh.

God speaks our words and breathes our air and tells stories about our lives.

The incarnation was as much a part of the good news as the resurrection.  

And so Paul, at Mars Hill, adopted an incarnational ministry and spoke the words of the people, pointed to their objects, entered their stories, and showed them where he saw God.

Or as he writes in 1 Corinthians: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… to the weak, I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:20-22)

 

Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren, in “Introducing the Missional Church,” claim this is the same type of ministry Jesus commissioned the disciples for – sending them out in pairs into communities, inviting them to live deeply in the midst of strangers… eating what they eat, relying upon their customs and hospitality. It was incarnational ministry.

It is the life so many of our United Methodist missionaries take on – going from everywhere to everywhere.

 

In my work earlier with Imagine No Malaria and now with Global Ministries I am so proud of the fact that we do not seek to impose our ways upon communities, but partner with people and seek mutuality.

We no longer fly into a community and drop off bed nets then leave… we work with local leaders and partners and build community health workers who can help us explore best practices, share with us their customs, and ultimately be that incarnational presence on the ground long after an initial distribution of nets has occurred.

Those same community health workers were also then in place when the Ebola epidemic struck so many Western African countries and we were positioned to make a difference because of the relationships we had already established.

And now, we are applying that same model to our disaster response through UMCOR – not sending in support, but nurturing local leadership to be the disaster response coordinator in places like Mozambique.    

 

Our Global Ministries Board of Directors only meets twice a year to evaluate and govern the work of the staff who do this ministry daily.   And in these past three days when I was in Atlanta, I learned that the biggest challenge and blessing facing our work today is Global Migration.  

65.3 million people today are forcibly living outside of their own country.  

65.3 million.

And while about a quarter of these are refugees fleeing from conflict in their homelands, we are also seeing increasing numbers of people who are being forced to migrate because of climate change.

One of our United Methodist communities in Fiji has been forced to leave their island home because of rising sea waters.  

Changing weather patterns contribute to droughts and immense hunger and poverty that cause others to flee.

But other severe weather events like hurricanes and cyclones are also increasing, both numerically and in strength, sending many from their homes.

So not only are we needing to listen to the people in local contexts, but we are also learning how to listen to the world around us and are positioning ourselves to be in place to respond and be proactive for the disasters that we know are coming that will impact our ministries.  

 

The work of Global Ministries is from everywhere, to everywhere.

The only question I have for you is… why do we leave it to the work of our missionaries?

Why are we not living out the gospel in our communities in the same way?

Because if our call is really from everywhere to everywhere, then we become aware of the reality that our neighborhood is a mission field, too.

Corey Fields writes, “today, in the attractional model, the church expects the opposite. We program and advertise and try to do just the right thing that will compel others to come to us as the stranger on our turf. It is the church that is to go, however, taking on the flesh of its local context. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “If the gospel is to be understood…it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed.”  (http://soapboxsuds.blogspot.com/2013/05/taking-on-flesh-incarnational-theology.html )

Our neighborhood is filled with people from nations all across this world.  And it is filled with people who have been in the United States for generations, but for whom the good news of God has become a distant and unknown reality.  

Our churches need to learn more than we teach.

We need to listen more than we speak.

We need to go out into our neighborhoods more than we sit back and wait.

Like Paul, we need to start paying attention and figuring out how to speak in the languages of the people we encounter.

 

Because only by being present with our communities will we ever see how God is already present and how the people of this place live, move, and exist in God.

 

From everywhere… to everywhere… God is present, God is living, God is breathing new life and hope.

 

Scattering Fear and Gloom

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Easter Sunday is a rollercoaster of emotions.

We felt that as we began worship today… instead of starting with the joy of the resurrected Christ, we began with the despair felt by Mary and the disciples because their Lord and Teacher was no longer with them.

You see, for the disciples, Easter morning began with a hopeless situation.

It began with fear of the unknown.

It began with the gloom of death.  

When I wrestled with what I should preach about this morning, I couldn’t help but think about all of the hopelessness and fear and gloom in this world. 

I hear it in the halls of this church, and around our dinner tables… in the grocery store, the halls of work or school… all of the varied and sundry places that we gather in our lives.  

We worry about family who just can’t seem to get their act together.

We struggle with illness or money in our personal lives.

We watch the evening news and everything seems wrong with the world.

After a while, the daily grind starts to take its toll and we become numb to all of that stuff around us. We find ourselves settling into the rut and start to believe that this is just the way it’s going to be.

The violence of the world almost ceases to phase us.  What is a crucified Savior when another bombing in Syria has taken lives?  Another shooting at a school last week?  Another gun related death in our city?     

We can barely keep ourselves abreast of the human rights violations occurring across our planet as war-torn countries continue to destroy the lives of innocent men, women and children. So many of these places of conflict feel utterly hopeless and without end.   It seems that no matter what we do, or maybe because of what we do, new groups and new people spring up to fight, instead of searching for ways to work together and to rebuild lives.

 

In our gospel reading this morning, Mary goes to the tomb and she is not going with expectant hope. She is going to bring spices and oil and to continue to prepare his body for burial.

You see, Jesus was laid in the tomb just before sunset and the beginning of the Sabbath Day and so the women did not have enough time to properly lay him to rest.

As the sun rose on this Easter morning, Mary Magdelene went to the tomb to mourn, to pray, and to say her good-byes.

She was someone who desperately loved Jesus. He was her Teacher and her Master. He offered her new life and a brand new beginning when he cleansed the demons from her life. And ever since that time, she had followed him faithfully. Then, in one fell swoop, everything that she had begun to put her trust into was taken away.

Her Lord was gone.

The disciples who followed him had scattered and those who remained were hiding out in fear of the Jewish authorities.

Mary had no one to turn to and nowhere to go.

The only thing she knew to do was go to that tomb and rehearse a ritual practiced by Jewish women for centuries. She would go to the tomb to honor Jesus and to mourn for him properly.

 

But as our scriptures this morning remind us, when she arrived, everything was in disarray!

The stone was rolled back and her Master was nowhere to be found!

His body was gone!

Desperately, she ran to the house of one of the disciples for she knew that some of them would be there…

They have taken away his body! She cried out….

They have taken him and I don’t know where they have laid him!

Two of the disciples, run back to the tomb with her and find her story to be true. They enter and find the burial clothes there also, neatly folded and placed on the stone. They know that something has happened… but none of them really knows what it means.

 

Mary, in the midst of all of her desperation and mourning saw Jesus standing before her but did not recognize him. She couldn’t see the promise that was right before her eyes!

Jesus even called out to her, trying to scatter her fear and her gloom:

 “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

As Mary stood in that garden weeping out of desperation she heard her Master call her voice. One moment of startling fear and overwhelming joy – a moment of holy awe – as the significance of what is seen – and what is unseen comes crashing in.

 

And Christ is calling out to us all the time, every day.

He asks us constantly what we are weeping for.

He longs to wipe away the tears from our eyes.

Jesus is Risen. Death could not hold him.

And if it cannot hold him, it cannot hold us.

All that Jesus said about life and death

all that was understood only as idea – as a concept – as a vision

is made real in that empty tomb and in that encounter in the garden.

 

The disciples and the women heard Jesus talk SO MANY TIMES about his death and resurrection and it just never sunk in.

They couldn’t understand the promise because they never believed it would happen.

So when Jesus shared his final meal with them on Thursday night they let him down and failed to remain faithful.

And when Christ was crucified on Friday afternoon, they were paralyzed by their unbelief and forgot the promises he made to them.

They couldn’t see past their own pain and fear and gloom to remember the promise!

The ancient promises from Isaiah:

“No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”

 

And he wants us to see him, to recognize him as the Jesus who is alive – the Jesus who is risen – the Jesus who has the power to bring that new creation to bear on our lives.

But like Mary, our hearts are often so slow to believe, to trust, and to accept he is standing before us.

There are so many things in our lives that we could feel hopeless about:

Loved ones who die too young,

People who work away their lives for a wage that won’t pay the rent,

Hungry families… including the 55,000 people in Des Moines who don’t have enough food on their tables,

But the power of the Easter resurrection didn’t just bring Christ to life.

The power of the Easter resurrection took a rag tag bunch of disciples who barely knew their left from their right as far as following Jesus was concerned…. And turned them into apostles.

It turned these doubting, stammering, disobedient fools into the leaders of a movement that would transform the world!

When Christ rose from the dead, the Body of Christ that is the church was brought to life – a community was formed that would love and cherish and carry on the mission and the ministry of Christ!

Each and every single one of us is a living testimony to the power that Christ’s resurrection had on our world.

Each one of us is who we are today and is in this place this morning because those first disciples experienced the risen Christ.

And because that experienced so radically changed their lives that they had to tell others.

 

So what is this Easter morn?

It is God’s promise of a new day

It is God’s promise of a new life

It is God’s promise of a new world

coming to pass in our midst.

 Jesus is risen. Death could not hold him. And it will not hold us either.

 

Wherever in your heart there is weeping, Christ promises to turn your tears into laughter.

Jesus is risen! Death could not hold him!

And the forces that tear us apart in this world will not defeat him either!

Christ has risen!

And we… as the body of Christ, in this time and in this place… are called to continually live our lives as a beacon of that promise!

We are called to visit the sick and those who mourn and pray for healing in this life or the next.  

We are called to work for those who are struggling and help to create a better way.

We are called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

We are called to welcome the stranger and the outcast, the person who is not like you: 

whether that means they were born here or not,

an NRA member or fighting to limit guns,

someone who wants sidewalks in their community or doesn’t,

whatever the color of their skin or whomever they love. 

 

You and I… because of the reality of what we experience this morning… are called to go forth and scatter the forces of fear and gloom in the world.

We are to find small ways to live out and practice the resurrection power in our world today.

Christ is risen!

Let us crown him the lord of Life, the Lord of Peace and the Lord of Love

and may we believe in his power to truly transform our lives.

Amen.

Winter is Over!

Before our Christmas traditions took hold, there were other festivals in the northern hemisphere among folks who were tucked in for winter.  The crops had been harvested and stored, the work was done, and they celebrated…  But in one of the pieces I read this advent from a writer named Gayle Boss,  I was a reminded about a truth in those celebrations: “No matter how glad the party, they couldn’t keep from glancing at the sky… Each day throughout the fall they watched the light dwindle, felt the warmth weaken.  It made them anxious, edgy… When they had eaten up the crop they were fasting on, how would another crop grow?  Throughout December, as the sun sank and sank to its lowest point on their horizon, they felt the shadow of primal fear – fear for survival – crouching over them.”

I don’t know if there are any Game of Thrones fans here this morning, but one of the mottos of one of these houses is “Winter is Coming.” 

It is a reminder that dark and difficult times are ahead.  It is an echo of that primal fear of a long winter.  It is the sentiment that says nothing good happens after midnight.

It is the dread that overcame the people of Narnia as the White Witch took over power.  Her cold power overwhelmed the land and even her touch would turn people to ice and stone. 

The land of Narnia came to be known as the place where it was always winter, but never Christmas. 

And in that place, hope can be hard to find.  Anxiety grows.  Fears are plenty. 

 

The people of Narnia thought that winter might last forever.  Many thought they would never see Christmas. 

And yet some clung to the promises, the hopes, the prophecies to sustain them through the long, dark, cold nights. 

Folks like Mr. and Mrs. Beaver waited, they longed, they believed that Aslan would return to Narnia and that four children would sit on the throne and bring a reign of peace.

 

What I love about the “Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is that there are glimpses of the end of the witches power… the end of winter… long before Aslan ever appears in the story.

 The hospitality of even enemies like Mr. Tumnus.

The snow begins to thaw. 

Flowers start to bloom.

Father Christmas shows up to equip the children with the tools they will need in the upcoming battle.  

Aslan is near and winter is already disappearing.

 

A few days ago, the season of winter technically began in our part of the world.  The winter solstice marks the turning of the seasons and on that longest night, that darkest day, winter began.

And you know,  it was in the dark… At about midnight last night… or this morning… whichever you want to call it, that our Christmas Eve service wrapped up. 

And in the darkness, in the quiet stillness, in the bleak midwinter, something amazing happened. 

We welcomed Jesus into our lives. 

We proclaimed Hallelujah and celebrated the good news of Jesus birth. 

In that hour and season that represents the height of our fears, where nothing good is supposed to happen.  

 

My colleague Melissa Meyers wrote last night about that phrase, but then she went on to list all sorts of blessings of midnight: 

“Midnight is pregnant with possibilities… just waiting to be birthed…

Midnight gives you a chance to start over …

Midnight gives you an opportunity to forgive that person who has wronged you…

Midnight gives you the opportunity to ask for forgiveness…

Midnight gives you the possibility of something new…

Midnight is not the darkness, but a reminder that the dark doesn’t last forever”

 

Midnight is not the darkness, but a reminder that the dark doesn’t last forever. 

 

And it’s not only midnight… it is right now, in this cold, dark, time when everything else is stripped away and seems lost and full of fear that we actual glimpse the most profound sign of hope .

That longest night of the year… this season of cold and reflection and barren earth… it is not the darkness either, but a reminder that the dark will not last forever.

It is in that amazing moment when all seems the darkest, the coldest, the loneliest, that God creeps into our lives, our world, our hearts. 

The beginning of the winter season is actually the moment when the light begins to return to the sky.

It is the moment the days grow longer.

 

Gayle Boss reflects upon this, she notes that “to their and our abiding fear of a dark ending, the Church spoke of an advents: a coming.  Faith proclaimed, When life as we know it goes, this year and at the end of all years, One comes, and comes bringing a new beginning.”

Every midnight is a new beginning.

Every year end is a new beginning.

Every time winter begins with the solstice and the longest night, the reality is that the days are already growing longer. 

Winter is not coming. 

Winter is already over.

The power of cold and death and barrenness cannot remain. 

The White Witch is defeated before the battle has even begun in the land of Narnia.

 

Heidi Haverkamp writes in the reflections we have been reading this Advent and Christmas season that the power of the White Witch was “foiled by the faith and perseverance of a group of otherwise small and humble creatures who have been surviving under her tyranny… Their watching and waiting have prepared the way for Aslan’s coming.”

 

Today, we proclaim that God has come near. 

We celebrate that the Christ Child has entered our human lives to wipe away the despair and fear, the hatred and sin. 

But like those people of Narnia… although we know that winter is already over… although we know that in God’s time the powers of this world have already been defeated… still the final battle has yet to be fought.

We wait… still.

We hope… still.

We long… still.

Waiting for the final victory of Jesus.  Waiting for the second coming of our Lord. 

And living every single day as if the powers of this world cannot hold our hearts. 

 

As Melissa Meyers wrote in the wee hours of the night:

“Midnight is not the end of the story, but only the beginning…

Midnight invites you into the story of resistance, subversion, radical inclusion, and peace…

Midnight brings us a thrill of hope as the weary world rejoices…

Midnight births a King of Kings that changes the world in ways that we continue to discover…

Midnight brings to us the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Emmanuel… “

 

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

Transferred into the Kingdom

Over the last two weeks in worship, we have talked extensively about how we should give thanks for one another…  

Because of our differences, we give thanks.

We gave thanks as we broke bread together.

We gave thanks around the waters of baptism.

We should give thanks always and everywhere for the people of this world who help us claim our inheritance, who help us overcome division, and who teach us how to practice what is true and holy, just and pure.  

 

Today, we explore one more of Paul’s letters.

Today, we are reminded to give thanks to God who is the reason we all share in the Kingdom.  

 

Let us pray:

 

This past week, the annual Bucksbaum Lecture at Drake University was given by Krista Tippet.  

Many of my Sunday mornings, as I drive in to church, I listen to her broadcast, “On Being,” and I listen as she asks people from all sorts of traditions and backgrounds what it means to be human.  

Recently, I picked up a copy of her book, “Becoming Wise,” and like she starts so many of her interviews, she starts by exploring her own background and faith tradition.  

 

One of the interesting things about Tippet’s story is that she served as an aide to the American ambassador in Germany while it was divided.  

She writes:

More riveting to me in the end than the politics of Berlin was the vast social experiment its division had become.  One people, one language and history and culture, were split into two radically opposing worldviews and realities, decades entrenched by the time I arrived.  I loved people on both sides of the Wall that wound through the heart of the city.

I keep thinking about the division of Berlin… the division of Germany after WWII… and the division of our own nation in this moment.

Especially in regards to our letter from Paul this morning.

 

As Paul writes to the Colossians, Gentiles who lived in what is now modern-day Turkey, he writes to encourage them in their faith… to help them grow into this new relationship they have found with Jesus.

And as Paul talks about the transition, the shift they have experienced in their life by accepting Jesus, he uses this really interesting phrase.  

God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.  (1:13)

Transferred us into the Kingdom.

As Neta Pringle describes this word – transferred, she writes that:

His image conjures up pictures of refugees, rounded up after battle and taken to the victor’s land, of Israelites marched far from home to live in Babylon – a kingdom so different, so far from home in both geography and style.  Here the rules are different, the ruler is different.  All assumptions about the way in which life goes on – indeed about its very meaning- are different. (Feasting on the Word)

Transferred into the Kingdom… much like those who found themselves on the eastern side of the wall in Berlin suddenly found themselves living in a different country, under different rules.  

Transferred into the Kingdom… much like after an election a nation wakes up to a world where different people are in charge and different priorities come to the front.  

You don’t always have to physically shift your location to feel like the world has changed all around you.  For better or for worse. 

 

Except, Paul is not writing here about a temporary shift in power that comes and goes with various political leaders and world events.

Paul is writing about a cosmic shift…

God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.  

And not just the people of Paul’s day and time.  Not just the Colossians, or the Ephesians, the Philippians, or the Romans.  

All of us.

We have been rescued from the powers of evil, sin, and death.   

We all have been transferred into the kingdom of forgiveness, redemption, and life.  

Thanks be to God.

 

Today in worship, we celebrate that Christ is King.  That he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  The Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise. 

We celebrate that through his death on the cross, the blood of Jesus rescued humanity from its captivity to the powers of this world.

In the cross, in the resurrection, Jesus declared victory over the powers over evil, injustice, and oppression.

And friends, in that great and glorious act, we have been transferred into God’s kingdom.  

We have been transferred into the Rule and the Reign of God.

We are no longer merely citizens of this place, of Iowa, of the United States… Jesus is Lord.

Thanks be to God!

 

To emphasize this new reality, Paul continues his letter by breaking out into song.  

While we don’t know the melody, while it isn’t a familiar tune to our ears, these lyrics in Paul’s letter would have been as familiar to the Colossians as Amazing Grace is to us. 

They might have even started singing along.

 

And this song reminds the people in familiar words that when we look at Jesus, we see God.

They remind the people that in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were made.

They remind these new citizens of God’s kingdom that everything… every nation, every King or President, every Prime Minister or Governor, every Mayor and every Councilperson… everything is from God and finds purpose in God.  

From the clouds in the sky to the microorganisms in the dirt beneath our feet, God in Christ holds everything together.  

And Jesus is in charge of it all.  

From beginning to end, Alpha and Omega, this kingdom will never end.  

Thanks be to God!

 

And like any change in leadership… whether temporal or heavenly… the rules under which we live change a bit.

So this letter to the Colossians is a reminder that them and us that we are called to grow in love and faith.

Paul encourages us to bear fruit in every good work and grow in the knowledge of God.

And we are reminded that just because Christ has already won, does not mean that evil death and sin are forever gone.  Paul’s letter, in fact, is full of the reminder that we will be made strong in Christ and is meant to help us endure with patience the trials and tribulations that will come.  

That is why when we gather around the baptismal font and we welcome new ones into our midst we make these familiar pledges:

We pledge to renounce the spiritual forced of wickedness and evil powers of this world.

We repent of our sin.

We accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves.

And we must hold one another accountable to the rules of God’s kingdom.  

All because we confess Jesus Christ as our Savior.

All because we promise to serve him as our Lord.

 

When Krista Tippett talks about life in Berlin, she also talks about the day the wall came down.  It was her twenty-ninth birthday.  

She writes that “no one imagined that it could fall or the Iron Curtain crumble…. The wall finally collapsed with a whimper, not a bang, as fear lifted all at once from an entire nation.  I had walked through Checkpoint Charlie hundreds of times, respecting its absurdity as authority.  On the night the Wall fell… the entire city walked joyfully through it.  The border guards joined them. It was truly nearly that simple.”  

 

While we live under the rule and the reign of Jesus Christ, we work and pray for the day when all people will joyfully walk through the walls of division and hatred.  

We work and pray for the day when fear is lifted for all people.  

We work and pray for the moment when the powers of this world that keep us apart let go of their last grasp upon our hearts and we are finally free to simply be in Christ.  

And until then… we live as people who see all things and all people in their true light… as the ones who already belong to Jesus.  

Thanks be to God.