Love Is All You Need

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As Coptic Christians gathered in Egypt this morning to celebrate Palm Sunday, bombs rocked their sanctuaries.  Thirty-six people were killed in the blasts.

This week has seen horrific chemical attacks upon the Syrian people, but what is more horrific is that these kinds of atrocities are happening all the time, but only occasionally make it to our headlines.

In the Des Moines area, this week has seen a slew of gun violence, with five people shot last Sunday morning and three deaths in Bondurant this week.

 

When we gather in this sanctuary and wave our palms in the air, we cry out Hosanna!

 

And that very word has a double meaning that is meaningful in our world context.

We typically think of the Hosanna as a call of praise and glory, welcoming the coming King.

 

But Hosanna also is a cry for salvation. “Save us!” the people call out.

“Save us” we cry out.

Save us from our striving for power.

Save us from unending violence.

Save us from the walls that threaten to divide.

Save us from social forces that stomp on the sick, the poor, and the outcast.

Save us.

 

In the Jewish tradition, the laws were given to the people as a guide for how to live as a saved people.  The Israelites had been rescued from the Pharoah’s grip and in the wilderness they were formed as a people.  And the laws were given as a means to help them live in community and to prevent the kinds of personal and social evils that could destroy them.
613 different commandments are given in the Torah to try to accomplish this purpose.

And when Jesus was asked about which was the most important, he referred to only two.

 

The Shema from Deuteronomy 6: Love the Lord

And

Leviticis 19 – love others.

 

When Jesus summarized all of the law and the prophets, he basically took the ten commandments and boiled them down to five words:

Love God. Love your neighbor.

That’s it.

These laws are all about the relationships we have been talking about these past few weeks.

Love is the fence that guards us from harmful activity. Love is the standard for how we are to behave. Love defines who we are.

 

Throughout this series, we have been touching on the surface of some of the conflict that threatens to divide us as a church.  We are not all the same.  Across this great wide world we worship in different languages and sing different types of songs. We live in various political and social and economic realities.

And I believe that is a good and a holy thing.  But it is also a really difficult reality to live in the midst of.

All of our differences, all of our separate gifts and hopes and desires, all of the nonessentials that can tear us apart, they can only be put into perspective if we take the time to truly be in relationship with one another.

This body only works if at the core of who we are and how we live is love.

When the Apostle Paul hears about the mess that the Corinthians have made of their church by squabbling over non-essentials, he writes to them.  He wants to encourage them to be their best selves.   And if you remember from last week, he tells them that they are the body of Christ and that each of them has an important role to play in the church. He tells them that each of them is gifted and that they should pay attention to and rely upon the gifts of others. He tells them they need to give and accept help and to treat all members with respect.

And then he launches into a beautiful part of his letter that is very familiar to us.

 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing

All of this stuff that you think is so important – Paul writes – all of this stuff that you are arguing about, it means absolutely diddly squat if there isn’t love in the midst of your community.

You could have the most money or be the most talented or live in the most beautiful house, or even have the most elegant prayers or know the scripture backwards and forwards…. But all of it is for nothing if there is not love in your life.

Paul’s not just talking about the romantic love between two people. He’s talking about deep, sustaining love. He’s talking about the love that knits people and communities together. He’s talking about the love that only comes from God.

Love that is patient and kind.

That that is not envious or boastful.

Love that doesn’t seek its own advantage and doesn’t keep a record of complaints.

Love that isn’t satisfied with injustice.

Love that endures all things.

 

As the people of God and followers of Jesus Christ, and as the people called United Methodist, we are all have the same calling: to love.

The primary thing that unites us is the love of Jesus Christ.

The love of Christ reminds us we are all sinners in need of God’s grace.

The love of Christ shows us what grace and mercy are all about.

The love of Christ is sacrificial and bends down in service to others.

The love of Christ gives life to others.

Love seeks the good of others, no matter who they are, even if it is at our own expense.
Love is not a feeling… love is a verb.

It is a daily decision to choose to love and be in relationship with others.

 

In our prayer of confession this morning, we asked that God might turn us, cleanse us, and forgive us our transgressions.

We asked that God might set us again into the procession of love that makes all things new.

 

When we leave this place today, we are going into a world that praises all of the wrong things and that desperately needs to experience the saving power of God.

We are going into a world where children are hungry and parents are frustrated.  Where the mentally ill don’t have access to care and where innocent people are trapped in the midst of countries at war.  If we took the time to list all of the problems and concerns of our nation and world we might never leave this sanctuary.

And yet, God has called us to be his hands and feet in the world.

God has called us to be the Body of Christ.

And that means that God wants us to be the answer to the world’s cries for salvation and healing.  God wants us to carry these palms into the world as a procession, a parade of love and healing and salvation.

God wants us to bind up the brokenhearted and feed the hungry.

God wants us to welcome the refugees and the strangers.

God wants us to seek peace and pursue it.

God wants us to visit the sick and imprisoned.

And through it all, God wants us to love.

 

You know, we are ending this series with the call to love, but in reality, this is only the beginning of the life that we are called to.  As Bishop Bickerton writes, love is “the source of our being, the fuel for the journey, and the goal for which we live.”

Love God.

Love your neighbors.

Amen.

The Heart of the Matter

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For the past couple of weeks, I’ve had this strange sensation in my neck.  To me, it feels like my pulse is a bit off of rhythm, like occasionally it skips a few beats, or does a few too many in a row.  It isn’t a constant thing, and it was pretty random until Thursday.  On Thursday afternoon, this thing, whatever it was, happened multiple times all afternoon long.  It doesn’t hurt, but it was kind of freaking me out so I got in to my doctor later that day.

They took my blood pressure, we did an EKG, and ran some blood tests.  Everything came back perfectly normal and my physician isn’t concerned… aside that I need to exercise more.  

While on the one hand, I’m comforted by the knowledge of what it isn’t, I also don’t necessarily have an answer either.  I found myself yesterday second guessing the way I even described the problem.  Maybe it’s not my pulse I’m feeling, but a twitch in my neck.  Maybe it’s all in my head and I’ve just had too much caffeine.

 

As we enter this season of Lent, we are going to be exploring some of the ways that both the United Methodist Church and our congregation have found ourselves searching for explanations and diagnosis.  And we are going to be honest about some of the symptoms that we see, the realities of our lives together. 

In the larger denomination, we are in the midst of a time of disunity that really reflects the culture we find ourselves in.  And the UMC is also numerically declining… we have lost a million members since 2006!  But simply looking at those symptoms, like the strange feeling in my neck, doesn’t automatically tell us what the problem is.  Is it that our older generations are dying out?  Are we having less children?  Is there too much competition?  Are we irrelevant?  Theologians and church leaders keep offering their explanations and no one seems to be able to put their finger on “the answer” to the problem.

 

Bishop Thomas Bickerton wrote the book that is the backbone of not only our worship series this Lent, but also our life group conversations we’ll be having.  (Quick plug: if you haven’t signed up for one yet, you can join this morning’s classes at 9:45, go to Java Joes on Monday nights, or join the one here at the church on Wednesday evenings!)   He thinks in many ways that we are like the church in Ephesus who had forgotten who they were called to be. 

Our scripture this morning comes from a letter Paul wrote to this church and at this time, the church was just on fire for God.  They had started as a small group of committed people and when Paul showed up and ministered among them, the Holy Spirit started working.  God did amazing things through them… impacting the entire city.  Temple prostitution, idolatry, magic, all of these things ended because people instead turned to Jesus.  When the Ephesians experienced the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, God accomplished abundantly more than what those first twelve disciples in Ephesus could have asked or imagined!  

Kind of like the United Methodist Church.  We started with a small group of people at Oxford University who wanted to know God better.  They were committed to the gospel and to Jesus and their faith took them across an ocean to start a church.  John and Charles Wesley could never had imagined the way that God would use them, but their little bands started healing the sick, taking care of the poor, preaching to those who would never have set foot inside the church, and before you know it, the UMC was a world-wide denomination!

You would think that kind of energy can be sustained forever, but it takes work.  We can get ourselves in ruts and we forget the power that got us started in the first place.  In the letters to the churches of Revelation, one of them is written to the people of Ephesus and God praises the work and the labor and endurance of the people, but God also says that they have let go of the love they had at first.  They are urged to remember the high point from which they had fallen.

Maybe the United Methodist Church, maybe our church, has let go of the love we had at first.  Maybe, like the Ephesians, we have a spiritual problem.

 

Bishop Bickerton points to what he calls the “Five I’s” to help us discern a bit about our spiritual reality and where we might be lacking the love of God.   

He notes that the church is a bit low on our INSPIRATION – that we tend to grumble and complain more than we focus on hope.  We need to remember where God is leading us and get excited about it again!   

He sense a lack of INTEGRATION  between what we say and what we do.  I actually have been fairly proud of Immanuel in this sense, because not only are we willing to talk about things that are happening in the world, but so many of you are out there caring for the homeless, visiting the sick, and living your faith.  

Bickerton also points to the dangers of ISOLATION.  Once you disconnect from a community, it is hard to find ways to become part of the group again.  On the back table as you leave, you’ll notice some names and some cards.  We want to reach out to folks whom we haven’t seen for a little while with a phone call or a card… and if you recognize a name out there and are willing to make a connection, take a card and put your name down!

The fourth I is INDEPENENCE.  This world tells us that we have to do it ourselves, but the church reminds us that we are better together.  We don’t have to do it alone because we all can do our part.  

Finally, INVITATON.   This is actually one of the goals of our church today. When we are excited and transformed by the work of God happening here, then we are going to want to pass it on, to reach out and bring people along with us.  

 

At Immanuel, we have had a vision that has sustained us for the last four or five years.  Say it with me:  In Christ, live a life of love, service and prayer.

But one thing our leadership has realized is that we are called to not just be and exist and look to our past, but to continue actively working towards our future.  What are we fighting for? also means What are we fighting to accomplish?  What will be different because we have loved, served, and prayed?  What is inspiring us to move forward?  What is going to challenge us in a way that we simply can’t do it alone and need to invite others to join us?  

As our leadership has discerned, we are feeling God pull is in a new direction and we are excited to share it with you over the coming weeks and months.  

But the heart of the matter, the deep question that faces not just us, but the UMC, and the Ephesians, is whether or not we really want to tap in to the power of God.  The love so strong, so wide, so long, so high, so deep, that God is going to do abundantly more than what we believe in our hearts is possible… if we know where we are going.  If we know what we are fighting to accomplish.    

Sermon on the Mount: The Golden Rule

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My sister-in-law has been staying with us all week while she completed a training here in Des Moines for her work place.  It was really nice to come home in the evenings and to be with not only my husband, but both of his siblings every evening.  We relaxed, had nice meals together, caught up on what was going on in each other’s lives and played a lot of cards.

One of our go-to games is pinochle.  You play the game with a deck made up of only 9’s through Aces, but we play with four of every single card.   There is a bid phase, a meld phase, and then a playing phase.  It’s kind of a complicated game, but once you get the hang of it, it goes fairly quickly.

Like any card game, there are endless variations on the rules.  And the thing about pinochle is that whenever we play at my sister-in-law’s house, we play with a different set of rules than when we play at their dad’s house.  In one case, a four of a kind can earn you anywhere from 40-100 points, and in the other, it’s worth absolutely nothing.  When I looked down at my hand about halfway through the game and saw four Kings of Hearts, I suddenly wished that we were playing at her house instead.

But, the house rules prevail.

A couple of weeks ago as we gathered here to explore the Sermon on the Mount, we talked about the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, as explained by Jesus.  He took some of those well-known laws from the Ten Commandments and actually made them harder… in the end, reminding us that our aim is to be perfect, to be complete in our love.  Jesus puts his own spin or variation on them.

Now, the difference between a rule and a law is hard to distinguish.  Laws are official, because they are created and enforced by the political structure of the time – whether it is a democracy, like the United States today, or a theocracy, like the early Jewish monarchy and they have official consequences.    But rules, are standards of behavior that guide our actions and tend to be dictated by the community or environment or home that you are in.  There are consequences for rules, too, but they tend to be less severe – like a loss of privilege or opportunity.

In the case of a card game, you could think about the law being the standard way a game is played. In the game we were play, for example, a Queen of Spades and a Jack of Diamonds is a what is known as a pinochle and that is same everywhere you play the game.   But the variations, the house rules, vary and tell you a little bit about what that particular community values about the game itself.

Much of the Sermon on the Mount is made up of these “house rules.”  Jesus describes for us how it is that we play this game of life as people who are part of the Kingdom of God.  He lays out the variations that are going to guide our life and our relationships if we want to be part of this community.  These aren’t formal laws with defined consequences, but rather describe the standards that we should aspire to embody if we are going to be part of God’s Kingdom.

And the section of the sermon that we focus on this morning is no different.  When it comes to relationships, when it comes to how we live together in community, Jesus lifts up this idea of reciprocal relationship… that you should give what you want to get.

He talks about this in terms of judgment:  Don’t judge so you won’t be judged.

He talks about it in terms of seeking:  That just as you expect to get the things you need from your earthly parent, so your heavenly parent will give you good things.

And he talks about this in how we treat one another in general: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

 

Now, Christianity isn’t the only community to have ever expressed this rule.

In the Hindu faith we hear: This is the sum of duty:  do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain. (The Mahabharata)

In Buddhism: Hurt not others with that which pains yourself. (Udana-Varga)

Islam teaches: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. (Hadith)

Confucius says: What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to others.

And as a contemporary of Jesus, Seneca taught: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.

What is interesting is that in many of these other cultural and religious expressions of this idea, the rule is usually expressed in the negative.  Don’t treat others how you wouldn’t want to be treated.  It is about refraining and restraint.   And the section on judgment certainly fits that kind of characteristic when it encourages us to not point out the specks in our neighbors eye – to refrain from judging.  But Jesus also expresses this rule in the positive light – Treat others the way you want to be treated.  As MacDonald and Farstad write in their commentary on this passage, Jesus “goes beyond passive restraint to active benevolence.  Christianity is not simply a matter of abstinence from sin; it is positive goodness.” (Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments).

The Golden Rules that Jesus give us are proactive.  They invite us to take a situation and to pour God’s mercy, love, and grace into every aspect.  We should look upon every encounter with others and ask in every circumstance – how would I want to be treated in the midst of this.  And then, we are supposed to do it.  Not just think about it, but do it!  William Barclay notes that this law invites us to go out of our way to help others, and it is something that “only love can compel us to do.  The attitude which says, ‘I must do no harm to people,’ is quite different from the attitude which says, ‘I must do my best to help people.’” (The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 1)

And Jesus calls us to do our best to love all people, whether or not they deserve it.

Think about even the “law of retaliation” that comes earlier in chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus reminds us that the reciprocal nature of our relationships in the past has been about an eye for an eye.  We give back what we have been given.  But Jesus challenges us to be proactive in our love… that if we are slapped on one cheek, to turn the other to them as well.  If we are sued for our shirt, we should give them our coat also.  In many ways, we are being asked to love first and ask questions later!

The world that we live in today is starkly divided.   There is a lot of pain and disagreement and conflict that is not only reflected in national politics, but it often takes its root in our homes and families and churches, too.  When I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues shared that their family has cancelled their annual reunion because they have such differing political views they can’t be in the same room together any longer.    Our larger United Methodist Church is so divided about whether and how we will welcome people of varying sexual orientations that we are in a season of deep discernment about if we can even remain a united church and what it might look like if we did.   I experience this in my own family, too.

And maybe that is why a commentary piece from foxnews.com really hit home with me.  The author describes how she and her husband find a way to live together in the midst of their disagreements and I’ll share the article to our church facebook page if you are interested in reading it.  What struck me about the piece, and why I share it today, is that it lifts up that you have to start with love.  You have to start with the Golden Rule.  You have to start in a place of generosity and mercy and kindness, treating those who radically disagree with you with the same respect and graciousness that you would hope to receive back.

Jennifer Dukes Lee calls us to resist trying to be right and to not judge others by putting them in boxes.  She calls us to think before we speak and to ask if what we say is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.  And she tells us that when we truly live in these ways, when we let love define what we do, that we can show the world that it is possible to live in the midst of diversity, if we put others first.  (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/02/16/trump-or-never-trump-what-to-do-when-cant-agree-with-people-love.html)

In this season of our national and state and home life, we need to  remember the house rules that define who we are as people of faith.  The rule of love and compassion.  The rule that invites us to put others first.  The rule that leads us to treat any person we meet the way we would want to be treated… whether they deserve it or not.

The Sermon on the Mount: Lord’s Prayer Lessons

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This morning in worship, we built our entire service around the Lord’s Prayer, using songs and brief meditations to help us focus on the various parts of the prayer itself.  Below are the three meditations:

 

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…

 That little tiny phrase is one of the most subversive and radical things that we can say as Christian people. And we say it every week. Too often, we rush over the words, practically tripping over them to get to the end, because we know the Lord’s Prayer so well.

For the last two thousand years, Christians have tried to let God use them to bring about glimpses of the Kingdom on this earth.  If we are going to be daring enough to pray for the kingdom to come on earth – then let us also be daring enough to participate when we see it!

In, “Listening to your Life,” (page 304), Fred Beuchner writes:

“…the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born within ourselves and within the world; …[it] is what all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know… The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”

We are homesick for it and yet it is as close as our next breath. Thy Kingdom come on earth.

Thy Kingdom, Oh Holy Lord, come on this earth and pull us beyond the borders we have artificially made.

Thy Kingdom, Oh Lord and King, come on this earth and root all of our actions in the care of your creation.

Thy Kingdom, Blessed Ruler, come on earth and let us find the boldness to feed and clothe and heal our brothers and sisters without waiting for the government to help.

Thy Kingdom, Glorious King, come on earth and make us uncomfortable. Don’t let us be content with peace in our hearts until your peace truly reigns over the nations.

Thy Kingdom, Ancient of Days, come on earth and turn our allegiance from brand names and politicians and flags and nations … but help us imagine and embody life on earth, here and now, as though you were truly the king of it all and the rulers of this world were not.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

 

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I want to tell you a story about a church here in Iowa that took seriously Jesus’ prayer and the command to forgive. (from Becoming Jesus’ Prayer)  

Farmers Chapel UMC, “was burned to the ground by an arsonist. In the weeks and months that followed, the congregation had to wrestle with how to forgive the person who destroyed their 107-year-old church…. [so, their pastor] wrote an open letter to the unknown arsonist and had it printed in the local newspaper…” (
page 37-38)

He wrote:  “Our worship time is 9:00AM every Sunday. I tell you this because I want you to know that you are invited. In fact, we even plan to reserve a seat just for you. Our faith has a lot to say about forgiveness. Every Sunday we ask God to forgive our sins but only as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us. That would be you. So if you would join us for worship, we could practice this kind of forgiveness face to face. I say “practice” for a reason. I don’t expect us to get it right the first or even the second time. Of course we’ll continue to work to forgive you even if you decline our invitation to worship. Forgiveness is the cornerstone of the faith we have inherited. Some people think it is impossible. They may be right. I only know that we have to try. Our forgiveness of you is tied to God’s forgiveness of us. We can’t receive something we are not willing to give others. So you see, if we harbor hatred for you in our hearts, we harbor the smoldering ashes of your arson. If we cling to bitterness, we fan the embers of your violent act. If we fantasize about revenge, we rekindle a destructive flame that will consume us. Forgiveness may indeed be impossible, but for us it is not optional.” (as printed in Becoming Jesus’ Prayer)

That church has been rebuilt and at the focal point of their worship space is a cross that has been built out of the charred timbers of their old building. Every single time that Body of Christ comes together, they are a living witness to the power of forgiveness. And when we pray Jesus’ prayer – when we truly pray it – we are asking… no we are begging for our lives to be changed. We are asking for this church to be transformed and for it to be a place of transformation.

 

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

All throughout the gospels, Jesus shows us what it means to be delivered from evil. 

He teaches about the ways that we should follow and does so with authority and power.

And when the demons show up, questioning his wisdom, he casts them out.

Ofelia Ortega writes that “the forces of evil know of the healing power of Jesus’ word; they are not submissive or indifferent. Jesus’ powerful teaching not only is fresh to the ears of the faithful, but it also disrupts the undisturbed presence of evil. Evil discovers that it is running its course.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, page 312)

All Jesus had to do was speak, and the evil powers of the world started shaking in their boots.

“Be silent.” Jesus commanded. “Come out.” He said firmly. And the spirit obeyed.

I don’t know what to tell all of you about evil, demons and spirits. I have never personally experienced them, although I know people who have. What I can tell you is that I firmly believe that God has power over the evil in this world.

The reign of God… the Kingdom of God is at hand. And when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, it is a personal prayer and we are talking about God’s authority and power within us. We are praying for God to help us tap into that amazing power that the people witnessed within the synagogue. We are praying not only to be cleansed of our own internal demons – but we are also praying for the power to love others who have their own internal demons.

A Cherokee elder was teaching his children about life.

A fight is going on inside me,” he said to them. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandchildren thought about it and after a minute one of them asked, “Which wolf will win?” The elder simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Every time we pray this prayer, we are feeding the wolf of love in our lives.  We are asking God to help us to be imitators of Christ, to be ones who can truly praise God as our King.

Fruit that Won’t Spoil

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Since we are continuing this morning with the gospel of John this week and Jesus’ imagery of the vine, I thought I’d share with you another story about my own garden.

 It has been a very busy couple of weeks, and although I have had time to glance at the pumpkins, I pretty much have ignored the rest of the garden.

I gathered all of the tomatoes I could weeks ago and I have jars of marinara and frozen stewed tomatoes packed away in the freezer.   The peppers never really grew and the lettuce was chewed away by the rabbits before we got to eat it. 

 This weekend however, I had the chance to do some yard work and clear out the garden, plant some perennials, and prepare for the changing seasons. 

And I discovered tomatoes on the vines again! 

There are probably 100 little cherry tomatoes currently ripening on the vines, and a few romas as well. 

 But here is the thing.  Some of those tomatoes have been there a while.  I reached out to grab one that looked red and juicy and… well… it was juicy all right.  And rotten to the core.  As soon as I touched it, the tomato burst open with a foul smelling mess. 

 

Sometimes, fruit stays on the vine too long. 

 

The entire purpose of being a part of the vine… being a branch connected to the source is to bear fruit.  And as we learned last week, the closer to the core of the vine you are, the sweeter and more abundant the fruit will be.

But that fruit is meant for a purpose!   

The grapes on the vine are meant for eating and juice making, sustenance and community.  They are meant to be dried into raisins or pickled and preserved.  The fruit is not for the sake of the vine.  The fruit is for the sake of the world!

As Jesus says in verse 16 – I chose you… YOU… and I appointed you so that you could GO and produce fruit and so that your fruit would last.    Or as the Message translation puts it… “I put you in the world to bear fruit… that won’t spoil.”

 

If we take a step back from these few verses, we find that the vine and the branches are part of a larger speech Jesus is sharing with the disciples at the last supper.  They have broken bread together, and share the cup, and Judas has left the table to betray him. 

As Jesus looks around at each of the disciples… those people who have been with him, learning from him, walking in his footsteps, closely connected to God in thought, word, and deed, he wants to prepare them for what comes next. 

Yes, Jesus will be handed over to the authorities.  Yes, Jesus will die.  Jesus will be resurrected, but will no longer be physically present with this rag tag bunch of followers in the same way. 

What are they supposed to do then?  What are WE supposed to do… those of us today who have never met Jesus, never seen his face or heard his voice? 

We are to love.

A new command I give to you, Jesus says, Love one another.

Remain in my love.  Abide in my love.  Live in my love.   

Love each other just as I have loved you. 

 

Last week, we talked about many of the ways we can stay connected to Jesus and remain part of the vine.  We can read the scriptures, we can pray, we can study and learn from others on the journey. 

But at some point, we have to take what we read and put it into practice. 

If we simply learn the words of Jesus… if we spend all of our time reading the bible or in prayer and we don’t go out into the world to share the fruit that has been formed in us… then we are just like those tomatoes on my vines.  We are going to rot in place. 

Every time we pray…

Every time we read the scriptures…

Every time we gather in a small group to learn from each other…

Every time you sit in this sanctuary and listen to a sermon here is what I want you to do…

Something!

Do something!

And friends, there are two questions that will get you started:

First, how does this apply to my life? 

Second, what am I being asked to do?

 

At some point, we have to take what we read and put it into practice. 

At some point, being connected to the vine means we have to bear fruit… and that fruit has to go out into the world.  

At some point, God’s love in us needs to spill out into love for others.

 

“I give you these commandments so that you can love each other.”

 

And that means that what we read in the bible about how we should treat strangers and refugees we need to put into practice.

It means that when we read in the bible that the church should visit the sick and pray with them, we need to do it.

When we read in the bible the call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, we need to ask – how does this apply to my life?  What should I do? 

“I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last.” 

You and I are called to bear fruit… fruit of love, grace, and mercy… fruit that will transform this world. 

This fruit is not meant for us to hoard… it is meant for the widow and orphan.  It is meant for the rich and the powerful.  It is meant for the stubborn and addicted.  It is meant for people of every color and ability.  It is meant for friend and for foe.  It is meant for all. 

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about our responsibility as Christians to bear fruit that will last during this election cycle.

Politics might seem like a dirty word, but the truth is that it comes from the Greek words that mean the citizen or the city.  Politics at is core are simply the relations between people who live in a society. Politics are the political opinions or sympathies of a person. (Mirriam-Webster)

And as Christians who live in this society, as people who follow in the footsteps of Jesus and bear the fruit of the gospel to the world, we have political opinions and sympathies.   

I cannot, and will not every tell you who to vote for or which party, if any, to align yourselves. 

But I do firmly believe that as citizens of a nation in which every person has a voice and a vote that one of the ways we bear fruit that lasts… fruit that doesn’t spoil… is by participating in the democratic process.  And I believe the votes you cast should be a reflection of the faith that has been formed by these scriptures. 

Every vote matters, and every race, from city council to the highest office in the land matters. 

The people we elect will influence the economic lives of our neighbors, the institutions of education that form our children, the health care systems that care for the least among us.  They will uphold or create laws that govern life and death. They will impact if we have sidewalks next to our streets, whether or not mental health care is provided, and our relationship with other nations.

 One of the realities is that our faith does not fit neatly into one political party or platform over and above others.  And so the hard work for people of faith this time of year is to spend time in prayer and discernment before casting our votes.

But perhaps as our scripture reminds us today there is really only one word that we need to remember… only one command that Jesus says will shape every facet of our life together.

 Love.

 We are called to love.

 Not to hoard love, but to share it.

 May this world reflect the love of Christ because we have been fruit bearers.  

 Amen.

The Sweetest Grapes are Closest to the Vine

This spring when I planted my garden, I included some pumpkins for my husband.

Typically, I try to avoid plants with vines, because they tend to take over the entire garden.  I plant bush varieties of cucumbers and squash and beans to keep everything more compact.

But pumpkins don’t come in bush varieties 😉

I planted only four seeds… all together in one mound…

They were planted at the right depth, they were watered and weeded.  And the vines grew.

As the summer went on, the vines took over the garden with their broad leaves and bright yellow flowers.  Stretching the entire length of my garden were glorious vines and the beginning of fruits. The weather was perfect for vine production… maybe not so much for fruit… but definitely for vines. 

But there were some scattered ugly brown vines here and there.  

In the midst of all of the living, thriving vines, some were dying. 

Now… the pumpkins really did take over much of my garden.  And so I had to tread carefully through the chaos to trace those dying vines and find the source of the problem. 

All of them were connected to a single branch… a single shoot off of the main stalk that had been severed from the vine.  Perhaps it was a rabbit or a chipmunk.  Maybe a bug.  Maybe I stepped on it.  No matter what had happened, every vine that branched off from that point was dying because it was no longer connected to the roots and stem that gave it life. 

 

In our scripture this morning, we are reminded that we will die spiritually… that we are incapable of producing fruit when we are not attached to the vine, when we are not connected to the roots which nourish us.  

And our true vine is Christ… the Christ we meet in worship… the Christ we meet in God’s Word… the Christ we meet in fellowship and in the face of the stranger.

 

As I studied this scripture, I set aside my paltry knowledge of pumpkins and turned to the world of grapes.  

Did you know that the best and the sweetest grapes are found closest to the vine?  

Nancy Blakely reflects that this is because they are closer to the source, “where the nutrients are the most concentrated.”  In fact, this is why growers of grapes are so diligent about pruning their vines… because the farther away from the vine the grapes are, the bitterer and the smaller they will be.  

But close in, close to the heart of the vine, abiding near the heart, they find the nourishment they need and produce bountifully.  

 

As we have been exploring a life of discipleship, so far we have explored what it means to be people who worship and people who share in God’s hospitality towards others.

But we also need to be fed and nourished in our work.  As Jesus reminds us in the gospel of John:

“A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine.  Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me… without me, you can’t do anything.”

 

So today, we turn our attention towards our spiritual formation, or how we stay connected to the vine.    What it means to abide in God and to remain in Jesus.

Take out the half sheet of paper that describes those various levels of spiritual formation.  

Maybe you are a small bunch of grapes way out there on the edge of the vine.   Many of us in worship today want to know more about God and Jesus and you are curious and getting started.  And that is amazing.    

We have third graders who will be learning today with their bible partners after worship…  but even if you are older than a third grader, its not too late to start.  

All of us should be reading the bible… it is the number one way that we stay connected with Jesus.  And it is a whole lot easier when you are in a safe place where you can ask questions and learn together.

We have been trying to offer Sunday morning bible studies, and I, personally, have been disappointed that more of you have not signed up.  Maybe it’s not the right time… but bible study itself is something that this church really needs in order for us to grow spiritually.

In fact, this is so important to me, that starting in November, I’m going to be leading a bible study every Wednesday night, and I’d love for you to join me.  

 

Maybe you are a bunch of grapes that is a bit closer in to the vine.  Growing a bit sweeter and bigger and fuller.   Do you regularly spend time reading your bible?  Are you finding other ways to connect with God through prayer or contemplation?

Maybe then your next step is to go deeper with others.  Our life groups have been places where many have been formed and have grown in their faith as they connect with God or each other.  They have made prayer beads, and explored topics like forgiveness and stewardship.  Some of our in-depth scripture studies like Covenant or Disciple have really challenged people to take seriously the bible in a new way.  If you are ready to go deeper… we have resources – either within the church or through retreats like Walk to Emmaus to help you connect more fully to the one true vine.  

 

Maybe you are a strong bunch of grapes… ripe, sweet, and full… right up there tucked in close to the vine.  Are you in a place where get up every day, ready to connect with God?  Do you not simply wait for the church to offer something, but seek out opportunities to learn and to grow?  

Maybe your next step is to turn your life-giving energy towards others.  Whether it is a partner for our third graders, or a leader of a class or life group, or personally mentoring someone… in helping another person grow, you will grow in new ways yourself.

 

One limitation of our vine metaphor is that it makes us think we are fixed in and we are not.  

You are not limited by wherever it is you are on the vine.  

If you are a tiny, sour little bunch of grapes way out on the edge, you can take the next step and move a bit closer to God.  

If you are a bunch of grapes that is not yet ripe, but growing… you can take the next step and move a bit closer to God. 

And you can carry the vine itself with you wherever you might go.  This vine is not meant to be stuck in the ground at 2900 49th Street…. We are meant to move and be engaged in the world with Jesus.

 

Now, there is another category of people who are not listed on this sheet, but who come up in our scripture:  The spiritually wilted and dying.  

Maybe you were closely connected to the vine at some point, but that day has come and gone.  

You know, none of us are perfect.

All of us let things besides God into the center of our lives at one time or another.

Just like my vines were cut off by critters or bugs or clumsy feet, maybe you were disconnected by work or family responsibility, disappointment or doubt.

The troubling part of this scripture for me is always the part about the pruning.  It appears like God the vinedresser simply snips off those dead and wilted branches from the vine, throws them in the fire or compost pile, and forgets about them… just like I did with my pumpkin vines this summer.  

So is there any hope for those of us who aren’t as connected as we would like?

 

No matter who you are or where you are in your relationship with God, there is always a chance to take a next step and be formed spiritually.

Even if you have broken away from the vine.

You see… the same God who talks about pruning also talks about grafting.

Grafting is a process where a branch can be attached to the trunk and roots of another tree – in many cases, different types of trees and plants are connected together for hybridization and for strength and growth.

In the scriptures, Paul talks not about vines, but about trees… the family tree of God.  The gentiles were grafted on to that tree… brought into the family after some of the faithful branches broke off.  

In Romans, chapter 11, he talks about those branches were broken off because of their own unbelief.

But if God could take us… gentiles who didn’t belong… and graft us on to the tree… then God has the power to reattach the broken branches, too.  

Even the branches that appear to be dead and dying have the ability to be restored by God’s grace.  

This morning, the bread and juice from this table will go to our homebound members who are not able to be physically present with us today, so too do we need to take the vine with us to those who are in danger of being cut off.

You are the hands and feet, the branches and leaves of Christ in this world.  And maybe you are the reconnection point for someone you know.  Maybe it is your own son or daughter. Or a friend. It might be a neighbor who hasn’t opened a bible or door to a church in a very long time.

With God’s grace and strength flowing through you, let the love of God that abides in you overflow into your love for them.

This World Communion Sunday reminds us that we don’t do faith all by ourselves.  Every part of the Body of Christ across this globe is a branch of the one true vine.  And parts of this world are broken and hurting, full of anger, pain, and grief.  

But as Kate Huey puts it, “Here, up close to the vine, immersed in [God’s love and peace], we find not only nourishment but also hope and joy, and we let God’s word ‘find a home in us through faithful devotion… ‘ When we remain that close to Jesus, we attuned to him and he to us, the remarkable result is that what we want will be what God wants, and it will surely come to pass.”

And it will take all of us, living together in love, growing deeper in our love and knowledge of God, to truly transform this world into what God desires.  But we aren’t alone. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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In today’s parable, Jesus is in the middle of teaching his disciples one last time.  He is only days away from his crucifixion in Jerusalem, days away from leaving them, days away from his death.  Jesus wants to make sure they are prepared for life after he is gone.

He is asking these people to live out their discipleship – to follow him, to become like him, to take care of each other and to carry on his ministry in the world

Much like the master in this parable who is going on a long trip, Jesus is trying to put his affairs in order so that his ministry is taken care of while he is gone.

The master, like Jesus, is entrusting an extravagant gift in the hands of his servants.

One single talent was a gigantic weight of money. It equaled 6,000 denarii. One denarii was roughly equal to a day’s wages… so if you do the math, each one of these talents was about twenty YEARS worth of pay.

In today’s terms a talent might be thought of as nearly a million dollars.

Now… this is the kind of money that most people never saw. Especially not at once.

But the Lord and master in this story has eight times this much to divvy up among his servants. One hundred and sixty years’ worth of pay… and he is leaving it in their hands.

This is a lifetime’s worth of money. It is costly. And being given all at once, you wonder what the Lord and master could possibly have left. This could very well be everything that he has.

And we know that in reality, the gift of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection was costly.

And this talent, this incredible gift, is placed into your hands.

The gift of discipleship… the gift of a lifetime of following Jesus has been given to you…

What are YOU going to do with it?

 

One of the fascinating features of this story is that not everyone is given the same amount of talents.  The master in this story looks over the skills and abilities of those who are standing in front of them and recognizes they are not the same.

As William Herzog notes, the word used here for ability could also be translated as power.  They are given these gifts because of their power, their position, because of what they have already demonstrated they could handle.

In other words, this is not a test.

No master would be foolish enough to use this much money as an experiment.

No, this ruler knows the servants, honestly assesses them, and puts in their hands exactly what they can realistically handle.

One of these servants receives a single talent.  Another two.  Another five whole talents.

What we discover in this parable is that it is not important what your power or abilities or talents are today.  It doesn’t matter how much you are given.  It is what you decide to do with your discipleship that really counts.

 

This past spring, many of you helped our church to honestly assess our ministry and our life together through a really long survey:   the Congregational Assessment Tool.

We have learned a lot of things through this tool and the leadership of our church is starting to wrestle with how to respond to various pieces.

In worship over the next couple of months, we are going to be exploring a few areas that reflect our discipleship as a church.

Now, in these scores, we were compared to 500 other churches our size around the entire country.  So these scores are not the percentage of you that said these things… but how our church as a whole compares with others

  • I work to connect my faith to all other aspects of my life (32%)
  • I experience the presence of God in my life (36%)
  • We do a good job supporting people in ministry by reminding them they make a difference (48%)
  • We prepare our members for ministry by helping them discern gifts (51%)
  • We understanding that we have a spiritual responsibility for life-long learning and formation (47%)
  • We welcome and are enriched by persons from many different walks of life (39%)

 

If I were to name a common thread that I see in these items, it would be that we as a church have abundant, extravagant gifts in our midst… and we don’t know what to do with them.

These results tell me that when it comes to living out our faith, when it comes to our discipleship, we act a whole lot like the third servant in our scripture today…. Both personally, and as a church.

And I think there are two factors at play here.

1)    As a church, we have not taken the time and energy, like the master of the story did, to help one another figure out what our abilities and position and gifts really are.   You need to know where you are starting in order to know what you have to work with.

2)    Even if we DO know what our abilities, skills, and gifts are… even if we have this talent in our hands… we aren’t sure what we are supposed to do with it.  We don’t have a clear sense of how to help it to grow

 

Here at Immanuel, we define discipleship with a phrase we use every single week:  In Christ, live a life of love, service, and prayer. 

It’s a great, easy to remember phrase… but…

What do we mean by love?  How are we supposed to pray?  Who are we serving?

How do I know if I’m doing it?

And above all… How can I do it better and more fully next week that I did last week.

That’s what today’s parable is all about, after all… taking what you have and helping it to grow.

 

So, starting today, and over the next eight weeks, we are going to break down that vision of discipleship at Immanuel into bite sized pieces.

We are going to explore what this looks like in worship and hospitality, service and generosity, formation and practice.

We’ll start next week with this whole pie and what each area of discipleship looks like at Immanuel, then over next six weeks, we’ll explore how we can take the talent placed in our hands and help it grow.

 

Figuring out where you start is the key to taking the next step.

You may have noticed a bulletin board in the foyer that includes four words:

Exploring.

Beginning.

Growing.

Maturing.

These words are going to help us to claim where we are in this journey of discipleship.

Are you someone who is brand new to this and has no idea what the possibilities are?

Are you someone who is just beginning your faith journey and you are starting to try some things out?

Are you someone who has been working on your discipleship for a while, but you still know you have room to grow?

Are you someone who understands what discipleship is all about and you have been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, and now you aren’t sure what comes next?

The truth is, it doesn’t matter where you start on this journey today.

It doesn’t matter if you are the servant in our story who was given one talent or five talents… or the servant that didn’t even get talked about who wasn’t entrusted with a talent at all.

What matters is what you do with what you have.

 

The truth of this parable is that any one of these servants could have been the ones who chose to let fear or ignorance or laziness creep in.  It could have just as easily have been the one who had been given the most who chose to do nothing with his gift.

Here at Immanuel, we are going to try to help one another not only figure out what we have, but what we can do with it.

We are going to help each other take the next step in our discipleship.

You don’t have to start with a lot in order to be faithful.  You just have to choose to do something with it.  Together… we’ll figure out how.

Amen.

Faithful. Kind. #UMCGC

This afternoon, as General Conference opened with worship, I was moved by the many first languages echoing through our space… One audible witness to the immense diversity of context, theology, and experience in the room.

As we approached communion, and partook of the bread and the juice, I returned to my seat and prayed. And prayed. And prayed.

In fact, I was kind of afraid to open my eyes.

There was a silent witness by a group of folks encouraging full communion. And as I sat there, praying, knowing the impact of their witness was rippling through the room, two words kept returning.

Let us be faithful.
Let us be kind.

Faithful.
Kind.

Those words echoed as a prayer for our gathering and as a plea to God and one another. Lord, may we be faithful. Lord, may we be kind.

I’m going to be totally honest.

Sometimes when I pray following communion, I’m simply going through the motions. I do a little prayer and I’m done. As a pastor, I rarely have the time to really pray and focus my attention on God, because it is time to clear the elements or refill the cups, or make sure the next group is served.

And I started this time of prayer intended to say a little prayer and be done.

But those words caught me.

The tension in the room and in those sitting around me caught me.

I closed my eyes tighter, clutching my prayer beads, and just kept repeating those two words.

Faithful.
Kind.

God knows, we each are bringing to this gathering the deep yearnings of our hearts. And, when we are honest, those yearnings can be a mixture of our faithfulness and our selfishness.

In part, the word faithful reminds me that every person I broke bread with is trying to be faithful. We earnestly love God and seek to do God’s will. I prayed that I might remember each person in that space was trying to be faithful.

And, we all need the reminder to be faithful. As Bishop Warner Brown Jr. proclaimed in the message: Jesus, we are here for you! If I had to summarize his message (and the GCORR and Christian Conferencing presentations) in two sentences: Keep Christ at the center…. And don’t say something you couldn’t say in front of Jesus.

Which leads me to that kind word.

We are called to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Kindness in this instance is sometimes referred to as mercy.

Undeserved and unexpected acts of compassion and love, service and hospitality.

As I kept repeating that prayer for kindness, I prayed that in our breaking of the bread, we might remember the outpouring of love at the last supper that included even the one who was about to betray. I prayed that we might remember the mercy and forgiveness of the Cross.

And deep down, I was also praying that there was a safe space for all people to be fully present. I was praying that hurtful words would not be spoken. I was praying that I would let go of my own uncharitable feelings. I was praying for us to create opportunities to really hear one another.

Faithful.
Kind.

I’ve posted a lot on those few minutes.

I’m also serving on the Committee on Reference (no clue how that happened) and will have 7 am meetings all throughout conference. Yay! (Insert sarcastic face here)

We skipped a break in favor of getting our work done, and then had to take a dinner break because we hadn’t decided anything and had to get something done.

We also nitpicked the procedural process for approving our rules for a very long time. We talked for 95% of the time about the process and not the content. And ended up passing all but one without any changes.

(Not that I didn’t try)

Tonight, I returned to my Portland “home” and broke bread again… Some cheese and bread and a glass of wine with friends, as we laughed (a lot), decompressed, all so we can get up and do it all again tomorrow.