Listen!

Format Image

About nine years ago, we were in the midst of one of those bitterly cold Januarys… not unlike the one we have experienced here!
The snow was falling and the temperature was below zero, but I bundled up that afternoon and went to the local nursing home where I held a monthly worship service.
I really enjoyed this time of worship there. While I rotated with other community pastors for this afternoon time of singing and preaching, I was one of the only pastors who also celebrated communion with these folks. Other denominations were more exclusive about who is welcome at the table. So it was always a joy to walk around the room and share the bread of life and cup of salvation with those dear folk.
On this particular cold day, we shared the same text that we are focusing on this morning. As we heard about how Jesus entered those waters of the Jordan, we remembered our own baptisms.
I carried around the circle a basin of water and invited each one to dip their fingers in and remember that God has loved them and called them each by name.
As I came to one woman, she had fallen asleep, as often happens with that group, and she was gently nudged awake by her neighbor.
Hopefully, you won’t have to nudge your neighbor awake this morning!
I kept working my way around the room and came to another woman who proclaimed with joy, “I was baptized in the Iowa River!”

There was another woman whose name was Grace and all throughout the service, she would interrupt to ask who was going to take her home.
At the end of worship, I had the chance to sit with her and chat and with the bitter cold outside, she kept asking who was going to come and get her and take her home.
She openly began to weep because she had been forgotten and no one was coming to take her home.
I reminded her gently that this was her home now…
this was where she belonged…
But more importantly… I reminded her that she was not alone.
In fact, she was loved.
She was a child of God, blessed by the Lord, and touching those waters a voice from heaven was pouring out upon her, reminding her that she was beloved.

As I listened to Grace’s insistence that she go home, I knew that dementia was speaking loud and clear… but there was something of all of us in her words, too.
Don’t we all want to go home?
Don’t we all want to experience the kind of belonging where we are called beloved?

I said earlier that I really enjoyed worshipping there at Rose Haven in Marengo… but there is another part of me that found those times and moments extraordinarily sad.
Some of the residents were vibrant and full of life, but others were barely functional in mind, body or spirit.
Many had been forgotten by their families.
This was not the highest quality facility in the county… and there were many things that made me pause when I thought about the care that I would desire for my own loved ones.

In that moment of worship, I had a chance to name each and every single one of those residents as beloved…
but I also found wondering how my own community of faith was living out our baptisms…
How did the call of God that poured out in our baptisms invite us to be present in the lives of these people in a different way?

You see, on the one hand, our baptism is an echo of the one Jesus experienced… so we proclaim that each and every single one of us is also called beloved by our God.
You are beloved.
You are beloved.
You are beloved.

But so often, we hear those words falling upon our own heads in our baptism and then we stop listening.
I am a beloved child of God, we hear in our hearts. Period. End of story.

But that is not how Mark tells this story.
No, his version of this tale is urgent and messy.
He starts with John the Baptist at the Jordan River, inviting people to come and be baptized as a sign that they were changing their lives.
Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell reminds us that, “the Jordan river was where people went to wash their dishes and their laundry. It’s where they went to bathe. In other words, the river flowed with [the] filth and muck of human life… this wasn’t water that washed clean, but rather water that acknowledges the muckiness of our communal lives.”
John knew that his baptisms were not the end of the story, but that someone was coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit.
And then Jesus shows up.
This guy from the dump of a town, Nazareth…
A nobody from nowhere…
And yet, the very presence of God in the world.
And as God-with-us, Immanuel, Jesus Christ, waded into those filthy waters of the Jordan River, the very heavens split open.
And in that moment, the ministry of Jesus begins.
The Spirit flows upon him like a dove, names him beloved, and then forces him into the wilderness.

“What are our baptisms for?” Ted Smith asks in his lectionary reflection (Feasting on the Word).
Baptism is not simply something that makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside.
It is also the reminder that God’s power, God’s spirit, God’s life has poured out upon us… the very heavens were torn open and now YOU are sent out, like Jesus, into the wilderness of this life.
Because not only are you beloved… but so is every other child of creation.
No matter where they have come from or what their life has been, they, too, are beloved by God.
Whether they are from a place that is beloved or a place that has been condemned by others, they, too, are beloved by God.
Whether they are surrounded by love or whether they are forgotten and alone, they, too, are beloved by God.
And in our baptisms, the power of heaven itself pours out on us and calls us into the world to act on the behalf of our brothers and sisters.
To create opportunities.
To open doors.
To work for justice.
To call one another to reconciliation and repentance.
To make God’s love real in this world through our worship, through our work, through our play.
It is the call that drove Martin Luther King, Jr. to proclaim the dream that one day the children of slaves and slave holders would be able to sit down and share a meal together.
The dream that children would not be judged by color of their skin or where they were born, but by the content of their character.
That little children of different races and abilities and backgrounds would be able to join hands with one another.
That we can work together, pray together, struggle together, stand up for freedom together.

Our baptism is the foundation of every single thing we do as a church. Because this is not my place of ministry, but ours.
You are a beloved child of God.
The heavens were tore open as you were baptized and the Holy Spirit sends you out into the world to share the life you have found here with others.
On this day, let us shout with joy for the presence of God is in this place, leading us, calling us, shoving us out into world and reminding us with gentle words that every person we meet is a beloved child of God.
Amen.

God Moves In

Format Image

“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.

Drop Kick Me, Jesus

Format Image

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

Format Image

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

Format Image

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

Format Image

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.