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As that short film reminded us, there 65 million refugees and forcibly displaced persons in the world today.

That is roughly thirty-two times the number of people who live in Iowa.
In fact, if you added up the populations of the whole North Central Jurisdiction of the UMC – both Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio – you’d only reach a population of 57 million. You’d have to also throw in Nebraska and Missouri.
65 million people across this planet have had to leave their homes in order to survive… and I thank God that the United Methodist Church is responding in love and compassion towards these people – providing support, health, welcome, opportunities, and hope.

But I must admit that I am challenged by our Advent texts for this morning that ask a very difficult question.
Welcoming the stranger, the migrant, the refugee is one thing…
How are you going to help clear the way for your neighbors to someday return home?

You see, when Isaiah proclaims his words of comfort to the people of Israel, he is not simply talking about making a way for God’s presence to be known…
No, a way, a literal path, is being made for the exiles in the land of Babylon to go back home.
After being forcibly removed from their homes and carted off to a land of strangers, Isaiah was proclaiming that the time had come to return.
And all obstacles were being removed… the mountains were being leveled, the valleys being filled… anything that might keep the people from finding their home once again would be swept away.
Perhaps one of the most visible group of refugees in the world today are Syrians. We are haunted by the images of those little ones on the beach and moved by the gratitude of those whose families make it to the shores of a distant land.
This weaving that usually sits outside of my office is made from life jackets and clothing that have been collected along the shore line in Greece. Refugee women put their entrepreneurial spirit to work in making these beautiful creations that are a powerful reminder of their journey.
In this season, as we think about how not only people, but the entire planet longs for Christ to come once again and usher in the Kingdom, I am reminded that the roots of the Syrian conflict that led these families to leave their homes started with a drought.

Syria is a region that was the birth of human civilization. It is known as the Fertile Crescent, a land of rivers and agriculture and the flourishing of life. But from 2006 – 2009, the region experienced an extreme drought… the worst seen in a millenia… the culmination of “a century-long trend toward warmer and drier conditions.”
This drought was a catalyst for the conflict, because as many as 1.5 million people fled from rural to urban areas after failed governmental policies to mitigate the damage and crop failures, adding to social stresses and anger at government leaders.

In fact, the United States military has now classified climate change as a “significant strategic threat” or a “threat multiplier” that leads to instability in various parts of the world.
We now are in the sixth year of a violent conflict that has left nearly half a million dead and has forced 11 million from their homes.

Climate scientists see two potentially permanent shifts in the climate of this region that contributed to the severe drought – “a weakening of winds that bring moisture-laden air from the Mediterranean and hotter temperatures that cause more evaporation.” Natural causes cannot account for such a drastic shift… only when you factor in the human impact on the environment can you make sense of the data.
When I hear John the Baptist standing on the banks of the River Jordan, crying out for us to prepare the way of the Lord… I also hear him calling for us to repent.
For too long, we have considered this planet as a resource to be plundered, instead of as a gift to be protected. We have allowed our desire for convenience to change our habits as consumers and we buy and throw away material goods at an alarming pace.
Instead of leveling mountains and raising valleys, places like Cedar Rapids are literally creating mountains out of our trash…

Someday, I pray to God, when peace comes to Syria and the conflict ends, the reality of a changed landscape and climate patters still has to be reckoned with.
So the question for us today, is how do we need to repent… how can we help clear the way and change our practices, so that these places might once again be fertile and sustain life?
How can our actions today help prepare the way for future generations to return home?

When I think about how the world has banded together through the Paris Climate Accords, our efforts to curb global warming are not an effort to bring about restoration, but merely to prevent the worst from happening. And even then, the goals are only aspirational.

What we truly need is to repent, change our ways, and work to restore creation.

In past years, I have listened to the wisdom of a group called Advent Conspiracy. They believe that Christmas can change the world if we focused on four simple things:
1) We need to worship fully. We need to dive into our scriptures and these texts from Isaiah and Luke in order to remember the one who has called us to live differently in this world.
2) We need to spend less. We need to let go of the endless need to consume and buy that is wreaking havoc on our planet. 99% of everything that we purchase will end up as waste products within 6 months. 99%!
3) So their third call is to give more… not of stuff, but of presence – relational presence. We need to spend more time with one another rather than money.
4) Lastly, we need to love all people – and remember the poor, the forgotten, and the marginalized

In all of these things, we can make a significant impact on creation around us. We can stop putting money in the pockets of the most wealthy and stand on the side of the oppressed. We can work for the restoration of relationships, rather than buying happiness. And we can answer the perennial call to live differently upon this world.

In many ways, this is what Mary is proclaiming in her song as well.
She glorifies the Lord who chose her… a young, poor, female servant.
She cries out God’s praises for pulling the powerful down from thrones and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty handed.
She sees in the new life that is growing within her the possibility that all who fear, all who are oppressed, all who have not will be able to find a way to thrive in God’s kingdom.

This Advent and Christmas is an opportunity for you and me to repent and change our ways.
We can take stock of our endless consumerism and instead seek to live more faithfully and gently upon this earth.
We can advocate for policies and practices that help us to reduce our impact upon this world.
We can personally do our part to reverse environmental harm – whether it is in our own backyards or halfway across the world.
And someday, as a result of our actions, we will have helped make a way for all of God’s creation to return home…

We Have Found the Messiah

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“I am not the Messiah”

That’s probably pretty obvious to all of you.  Of course, I’m not the Messiah.

But I wasn’t talking about me.

These were the words of John the Baptist as he started his ministry.

He was out there, talking to people about the coming Kingdom of God, preaching, inviting people to repent… well, actually, doing things that I typically do as a pastor.  

And people started to wonder about him.

Who are you?

Are you Elijah?

Are you a prophet?

Are you the Christ?

“I am not the Messiah” he answered.

“I’m just a voice, crying out in the wilderness, making the Lord’s path straight.”


I’ve been thinking a lot about what it might mean to make the Lord’s path straight and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really about making it easier for people to connect with God.

If you go back to the origins of the phrase from Isaiah, the Hebrew word used in this passage actually means to clear the land… to remove the rocks and roots and everything that gets in the way so that something new can be planted, so that something new can be done.

John was someone who was called to help clear out the obstacles that prevent people from experiencing God.  To clear the way for God’s salvation.


And so in our passage today, we hear about what happens when the Messiah does show up.  John is out there, doing his job and Jesus comes to be baptized… by him!    He has this amazing experience and vision and realizes that THIS is the Messiah.  THIS is the one they had been waiting for. 

But John’s job isn’t finished. 


No, John’s role is to keep pointing to Jesus, to keep making it easy for people to come and discover the Messiah for themselves.  

And so the next day, John is hanging out with two of his own disciples.  And when he sees Jesus walking by, he cries out:  “Look!  It’s the Lamb of God!  That’s him!  That’s the one I was telling you about!”    

And so these two start to follow Jesus.  And then they reach out and invite others to come and see.  “We have found the Messiah!” they tell their friends and neighbors and siblings.  “Come and see!”


In many ways, the beginnings of the church was a pyramid scheme.

You find one person, and that person finds two people, and then those two people each find two people, and then those two people… and before you know it, there are 2.2 billion followers of Jesus Christ in the world.   


The question I want to explore this morning is how you and I are called to keep this church going.  In many ways, our job is simple.  We have found the Messiah!  We don’t have to BE the Messiah.  We don’t have to save this world all by ourselves.  We don’t have to single handedly run this thing or be perfect or fulfill every obligation.  

We have found the Messiah.  We already have someone who can do that.


No, I think you and I have two jobs.  


First,  it is state loudly and clearly to all the world that “I am not the Messiah.”

Will you repeat that with me?  “I am not the Messiah”

Let’s say it like we really mean it: “ I AM NOT THE MESSIAH.”

That might seem like a strange exercise, but the truth is, we aren’t perfect.  We are totally unworthy of this calling.  We will make mistakes all the time.

In fact, we are only 15 days into this year and I have already made a bunch of small mistakes and a couple of big ones.  But I learn from them.  I keep going.  I try to grow and do better the next  time.  That is all that we can do. 

One of my own failings is that sometimes I set the bar too high.  And I’ve heard from some of you, who are overwhelmed that you don’t feel like you are good enough or can do enough for the church.  And I’ve heard from some of you that you are burnt out and tired and trying to do all that you can, but you simply can’t do any more.  

You know what?  None of us are the Messiah.

None of us are good enough to be here.  And we all have some kind of brokenness in our lives – be it a broken relationship or our bodies are broken and letting us down or we’ve broken promises to ourselves or others.  

We aren’t perfect.  And we aren’t supposed to be. We are not the Messiah.


But we ARE here today, because we think we have found the Messiah.  

I am part of the church, not because it’s a community of perfect people who never make mistakes or let one another down, but because I believe that this is a place where broken people find healing.  

I am part of the church because this is where I hear the stories of Jesus Christ and in the midst of the brokenness, I meet Jesus all the time.

Rachel Held Evans is a Christian writer and blogger and recent talked about why people come to church. And she said:

You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.

What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.  (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html?utm_term=.14f389a46dd4)

And so our second job is to make it easier for people to come and meet the Messiah. To clear the way.  To invite our friends and neighbors and siblings to join us on this journey.  To ask them to come and see what it is that we have found here:  life in the midst of death, healing in the midst of struggle, hope in our despair, forgiveness in our mistakes.


Our Administrative Council has been wrestling over the last few months with what we want to set as goals for this church in 2017.  And part of what we have been doing is looking forward as well to what God is calling us to as a church.

We’ve had a vision for the last four or five years to “Live a life, in Christ, of love, service, and prayer”   and part of what I have been pushing them, and us, to think about is so what?  

What is going to be different in this world because we have done so?  


You know, the meaning of “salvation” is “to heal.”  It is God’s deliverance of those in a situation of need, resulting in their restoration to wholeness.  

Taking what is broken and making it whole.  

That’s the business God is in.

What if that is the business we were called to be in?

We are not the Messiah, but we are here, because we have experienced God’s love, grace, and healing power.  

So what if we lived in such a way, if we loved in such a way, if we served in such a way, if we prayed in such a way that we could clear a path for others to come and find Jesus here, too.


In a few minutes, we are going to take a moment to remember our baptism.  We are going to remember that we have been saved and healed and are being made whole by the Lord Jesus Christ.    

And part of this rememberance is being honest about just how fall we have fallen short.  We have ALL fallen short.  None of us are perfect.  We are not the Messiah.

But we will also be invited to make anew some promises to God.  

Because, we might not be the Messiah, but we, the church, believe that God can use us and use our gifts to help make it easier for others to come and find Jesus, too.  

And so our covenant prayer simply places our lives in God’s hands.  It invites us to remember that we are not the Savior, but that we are willing to let God work in our lives this year.  


I am not the Messiah.

You are not the Messiah.

But we have found the Messiah.  

Thanks be to God.



It was a Monday afternoon, in Marengo, and a young woman walked into the church and asked to use the telephone.

Not a problem, I said.

And while she sat in the office dialing numbers and getting no response, I sat at my desk trying to pick out hymns for worship the next Sunday. Are you stranded? I asked.

I learned that Maria had just been released from the county jail, was far from home, and no one was coming to get her.

She finally got a hold of a friend or a neighbor… someone she thought might help and was chewed out over the phone.

She hung up in frustration. Maria had no options.

She was seven months pregnant, in Marengo with no vehicle or ride, and needed to get home to the Quad Cities to her kids.

In Isaiah chapter 40, the prophet is moved to share God’s compassion for the people of Israel in exile. He gave them words of comfort in the midst of their trial and tribulation. And then Isaiah hears a voice:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

He was to tell the people that EVERY obstacle that came between them and their salvation and their home was being removed.

In this time of worship, let us listen once again for the cry of the prophets.


I think about that woman often.

I thought about her as a group of us gathered in Ankeny about a month ago for the “Right Next Door” Conference and as we were surrounded by all of these people.

They represented those we knew, and people we have yet to come to know, who are impacted by addiction, domestic violence, incarceration, human trafficking…

We were invited to open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to see them… and us… in a new way.

Because, let’s be honest: we, too, have been impacted by these things.

We are not immune to the realities of alcohol or drugs, abuse, crime, or sex.

But we often leave those parts of our lives outside of the church.

Friends, those realities are deeply part of who we are and ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist can keep us from relationship with God.

Those people in exile saw an immense gulf separating them from their home and their God. Valleys of sin and mountains of guilt lie between them and the Lord.

We face those obstacles, but I’m increasingly aware that some of the mountains and valleys that keep people from the Lord include artificial barriers we put up to “protect” the church.

It is not just their past that keeps people like Michael or Maria from walking in the doors of the church.

So my question for us to ponder is this: What are the barriers we put up as a church? What keeps people who are struggling from having a relationship with God in this place?



A voice is crying out in the wilderness:

Prepare the way of the Lord!

Make it easier for people to come to God!

Help clear out a path!

Make a smooth and straight road for the Lord to come.


Maria found the courage to walk across the street to the church and ask to use the phone.

And I’m going to be honest, there are all sorts of mountains and valleys that might have kept me from helping her.

  • I was there in the building alone and I had been fighting the suggestions that I keep the doors locked when it was just me there.
  • I was in the middle of trying to get some work done and I was really busy.
  • She had just been released from prison.
  • I didn’t know if she was feeding me a line or if she was telling the truth.
  • I didn’t know if she was safe to be around.

Prepare the way of the Lord!

The door was open and I invited her in. I sat with her as she made her phone call.


Make it easier for people to come to God!

I passed the box of Kleenex when she felt betrayed and abandoned by her friend on the phone. And, knowing she was at the end of her rope, I asked if she needed a ride.


Make smooth and straight the road for the Lord to come!

We gathered up her bag and I set aside my work, and on the way out the door, she asked if she could have one of the bibles on the shelf. We got in my car and drove 90 some miles to get her home.


Some of you might be thinking that I am incredibly naïve and too trusting.

But I think that we, as people of faith, aren’t foolish enough.

We are called to prepare the way of the Lord – and that means knocking down barriers and building up gaps in this world.

We are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus wherever he leads us.

We are called to take risks in order to care for the least and the last and the lost of this world.

We are called to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and to eat in the presence of our enemies.

We are called to be vulnerable with one another and admit our faults and our weakness.

Over and over again, we hear God tell us: Do NOT be afraid, for I am with you.


And perhaps what is more naïve is to imagine that sin and danger exists only outside the walls of this church.

There are people in this room who are in recovery or who love someone who is… just as there are people in this room who are in denial about needing help.

Some people in this church have experienced abuse as a child or a spouse… and there are people in this room are abusers.

Our congregation has members who have been in prison or who love people who are in prison.

In this room, there are those who have visited pornography sites and probably even men who have frequented prostitutes.

We just don’t talk about it.


We are entering the season of Advent and the first character we discover is a prophet named John the Baptist.

He wasn’t afraid of what others thought.

He wasn’t afraid of what might happen to his own life.

He wasn’t afraid to tell the truth.

And He prepared the way for countless people to let go of their old lives and embrace God’s love.


He prepared the way of the Lord by calling people out to the river… to a space carved out for people to be honest about who they are… a space where they could name and repent of their sins… a space where they could receive forgiveness and new life.


He carved out a clear path for all people… no matter who they were… to come and be in God’s presence.


Isn’t that what church is supposed to be all about?

Expectations and Realities

Sermon based on Luke 1:39-55 and Matthew 11:2-6

About a year ago, I began working with Imagine No Malaria here in the Iowa Conference, and I have to tell you… since then, I can’t look at a pregnant woman the same way again. 

In our scripture this morning, we actually have two pregnant women – Elizabeth and her cousin Mary… both unlikely mothers… both full of hopes and expectations about what that pregnancy will bring.

Treatment6WEBOne of the first things I learned about malaria, however, is that it is a disease that overwhelmingly affects pregnant women and their new born babies.  Women who are expecting produce more carbon dioxide than a typical person, which attracts mosquitos and makes them more likely to be bitten.  Add that to the fact that they have a compromised immune system trying to protect and care for the new life growing inside of them and it’s a deadly combination.

Malaria is one of the leading causes of death in pregnant woman globally.  In fact, 85% of the deaths from malaria are children under five and women who are expecting. A woman who has malaria while pregnant is likely to have a miscarriage or a child with low birth weight and other medical problems.  And even if a baby is born healthy, children under five are not strong enough to fight the parasite that causes malaria if it attacks them. Eevery sixty seconds, we lose a life to malaria. Over half a million deaths every single year…

The joy… the hope… that comes with the promise of new life …

And the devastation of loss when a precious life is lost.

Expectations and reality…

They aren’t always the same thing, are they?

In our two gospel readings for today, as we encounter these pregnant women, we also experience the hopes of John the Baptist in relation to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Luke tells us that before they had even been born… while they were still in their mothers’ wombs… John was jumping for joy at the promise of what Jesus was bringing to the world.  His expectation poured out through the words of his mother, “God has blessed you and the babe in your womb… why am I so blessed that the mother of my Lord visits me?”

But by the time the two are grown up and have gone their separate ways, John the Baptist starts to question the reality of the promise.  In Matthew’s gospel, John finds himself in prison and sends word through his disciples… ‘ Are you the one to come?  Or should we look for another?”

This is not the little baby leaping for joy.  This is a man who is tired, who has worked long and hard for the Lord and right now is a little bit jaded.  He doesn’t want to waste the time he has left on unfulfilled hopes. And right now… what he has seen and heard about Jesus hasn’t lived up to the expectations.

Expectations and reality…

In 2006, the United Methodist Church launched an extraordinary effort to help end death and suffering from malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Speaking of expectations… we expected Nothing but Nets to be a six month long project… but the reality is it has continued to this day.  In fact, this past NBA season, Stephen Curry with the Golden State Warriors promised to donate nets for every three point shot he made… and then proceeded to set the NBA record for the most 3-pointers in a season!

But as United Methodists, we heard God asking us to do more.  And in response, we expanded our work to include not only preventative efforts, but also a focus on treatment, education, and communications around malaria.  There were such expectations built up around the beginning of this work and our dream to raise $75 million dollars to put our faith into action.

Bill Gates, Sr. was there as we kicked off our work at General Conference in 2008 and he claimed: “You are 12 million people armed with the conviction that all the world is your parish. That makes you the most powerful weapon there is against malaria.”

Five years later we are still engaged in this work. But here in Iowa, we are far away from where the real work is taking place.  It is hard for us to see the reality on the ground in Africa.  Like John the Baptist, we might be tired from our own ministry and struggles.  We get a bit jaded sometimes.  We wonder if maybe we shouldn’t have focused our time and energy and efforts somewhere else.  Is this the program that is going to save lives and transform our church?  Or are we still waiting?

Maybe the problem is that we just haven’t done a good enough job telling the story about what is really going on.

That’s what Jesus realizes as those disciples from John arrive.  They just haven’t heard the stories yet.  So Jesus responds by simply telling them what is really happening:

Healing abounds. Lives are being changed. Faith is poured out in action. I am bringing salvation in all of its forms – release from captivity, healing, new life.  Go back and tell the good news.  That the blind see, the deaf hear, and the wretched of the earth are learning God is on their side.  The Kingdom of God is here!  Go back and tell John the good news.  Go and tell what you have seen and heard.

That is what my job is… to be a witness… to share with you the good news of what is happening through Imagine No Malaria.  Because friends, God is doing amazing things out there.  God is using the ordinary gifts of people like you and me to heal the sick and to transform lives.  Our actions are a beacon of hope to those who struggle, our words a life-line to those who despair.

In just the past three years, we have distributed over 1.5 million bed nets.  We are working to empower communities by training over 5,800 community health workers who are the hands and feet of Christ in this battle against malaria.  And we have worked to improve the infrastructure for health in general by establishing health boards in 15 countries that will help provide treatment and accountability for the work we do.

I could probably share with you for hours about the lives that have been affected by this work… about Juliette in Zimbabwe who literally jumped on her bed for joy when the bed net was installed… or John, who carried his sick baby 15 miles to the rural health clinic and found life-saving medication for his little one.  But frankly, we don’t have that much time today. So I’m going to tell you just one story about a woman named Muriel from Sierra Leone.

D1411Muriel was already struggling to maintain her home and put food on the table for her family.  I don’t know where her husband was… perhaps he died in the conflict a few years ago in Sierra Leone or from malaria… or maybe he had just taken off not to be heard from again.  But Muriel was doing the best she could.  Until her children all became sick with malaria at the same time.  She had seen the symptoms… she knew what it was, but without the resources to afford a single dose of medication for herself or her children, she felt completely without hope. In desperation, she tried negotiating with a government health worker to purchase drugs on credit, but to no avail.

Can you imagine her situation?  Can you imagine sitting there, trying to comfort your sick children and not being able to do anything to help them?  She knew that without the medication they so desperately needed, it was simply a matter of time before they began to die in her arms. Her expectations were bleak.

It was then that one of our Community Health Volunteers, trained by the Saving Lives Sierra Leone/ Imagine No Malaria team at the UMC health center found Muriel.

Tiaima reached out to Muriel and took the family to the United Methodist Clinic.  There, the staff welcomed them with open arms and before Muriel knew it, the children had been tested and were already receiving their first dose of medication.  Tiaima sat down with Muriel at taught her about how to prevent malaria in the future, gave her a net and instructed her how to use it, and made sure that she knew the correct dosages and timing for the medications that needed to be taken at home.

All of this happened in a heartbeat, and as the family was being sent on their way, Muriel turned back and offered to come back with one of her goats in exchange for the care.   A goat that might have been the only thing providing income for that little family… the promise of security in the future…  The nurse assured her that the services for malaria were free. It was then that Muriel broke down in tears and asked again and again if it was true or if she were dreaming. She had been praying for someone to help her family.

Muriel’s family is now healthy because of the work of United Methodists in Sierra Leone.

But even more than that.

Surprised by the grace she found through our work, Muriel went back home to her community to tell the women there about how they can work to reduce malaria and she has signed up to become a Community Health Volunteer herself.

She has become a witness, inviting others to experience the reality of the joy of salvation she herself experienced.

No matter what our expectations, we have a God who can surpass them beyond our wildest dreams.

The very name, Imagine No Malaria, comes from Ephesians 3:20:  “Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us.”

Expectations… and reality.

John leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb because of the promises of God.

Mary was so overcome and filled with hope and praise that she couldn’t help but sing out the words we know as the Magnificat… words of longing for healing, for justice, for salvation.

Later, John’s disciples would rush back to tell him the good news that the Kingdom of God was becoming a reality.

Muriel did not hesitate to shout with joy as she experienced the healing power of God in her family’s life.

Friends… the Kingdom of God is breaking in all around us.  What do you hope for?  What do you expect?  And are you ready to be surprised when God does far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams?

In my work with Imagine No Malaria, I have been blown away by what I have experienced.  We are not simply handing out medicine and nets.  Through the grace of God, we are welcoming people as our brothers and sisters, treating them with love, and building relationships with them. In the process, we empower them to be agents of change in their communities and the world. That is salvation in action. That is the kingdom of God springing forth!

I have to tell you, I have HUGE expectations about what the United Methodists here in Iowa are going to do to help in the fight against malaria.  We have set a goal to raise at least $2 million dollars here in our state to help provide the vital resources needed as we live out our faith.  And I have been wonderfully surprised and blessed by the generosity of my brothers and sisters.  God is doing far beyond what I could ask or imagine.

You can be a part of this Kingdom work.

Just $10 is all it takes to put up a bed net in a home and save a child’s life.  Just $10 can provide a full course of medical treatment for a pregnant woman who is ill.  Just $10 can make a difference…

But think about what $100 could do.  Or $1000.  A gift to Imagine No Malaria means that you are putting resources into the hands of doctors and nurses, community health volunteers, and educators who are going to bring healing and hope to a whole continent.

I don’t have children myself.  I have never been pregnant like Muriel, or Mary, or Elizabeth… but I do know about the joy of children.

I am the proud aunt of four nephews and a neice and they bring light to my life every single day.  And so when I thought about how just $10 could be the difference between life and death for a precious child half a world away, I knew I had to help.  I knew I could be the answer to a prayer of a mom or a dad or an aunt or a grandpa in Africa.

So I am giving $1/day for each of my nephews and my neice to help save lives in Africa.  100 lives for each of them. A gift of $5000 over three years.  I know you hear these appeals from the pet associations and from the hunger organizations… but with Imagine No Malaria, a $1/a/day really does save lives.  And EVERY dollar you give goes directly to those who need it.

You can answer that call, too, and commit to helping us save lives… whether it is $10 or $10,000 you can make a difference.

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We have talked a lot today about our expectations and about how God realizes them… but I want you to talk for just a minute as we close about God’s expectations for us.

God has given us a song to sing and a story to tell.  He has given us strong faith to live out and has blessed us with many, many things.  Like Mary, we could declare that we are the most fortunate people on earth.

But God also expects us to take those gifts and those blessings and to share them with the world… to participate in the coming Kingdom of god.  To witness to the good news when we see it. To feed to poor. To heal the sick. To bring hope to the hopeless.

Will we go and tell what we have seen today?  And will we actively join God’s kingdom work with our hands and our hearts and our whole selves?

Let’s pray:

God of justice and joy, hope and healing,

we give thanks for all the ways you work for wholeness and right relationship in our own lives and throughout the world.

When suffering arises, let our hearts find joy in you, and fill us with courage to bear witness to what we have seen and heard.

May our lives always testify to the good news of your love, and may we lift up those who are bowed down so that your joy may spread throughout the earth.

We pray in the name of Jesus, who opened the eyes of the blind and proclaimed good news to the poor. Amen.

Carnival Mirrors

Two summers ago, our family was on vacation at Lake Okaboji in northwest Iowa. We had this tiny little house rented and with six adults and two kids and a baby, we needed to be out and about as much as we could!

One of the days we were there, we went to Arnold’s Park – this lovely little amusement park right on the shores of the lake. As we walked into the main area of the park, we climbed through a tilted house. I remember being inside buildings like this as a child, but something about walking crooked with the ceilings shrinking above you feels very odd and disconcerting as an adult!

And then, the first thing we found inside of the park was the house of mirrors.

My niece grabbed my hand and dragged me to the entrance. As we stood in front of the skinny mirrors and the fat mirrors and the wavy mirrors, she giggled and pointed as the images of each of us transformed into creatures we didn’t recognize. I had mile long legs one minute and a neck as tall as a giraffe the next. We laughed as we told stories about what it would be like to live lives with really tall tummies and itty bitty heads.

However, as an adult I have to admit, these mirrors are a lot less amusing. The distortion of these mirrors brings into greater focus small and insignificant parts of ourselves. They either expand them out of proportion or they reduce them to nothing. Our noses grow fat and wide. Our stomachs suddenly look thin. Or vice versa.

And in doing so – the truth of our bodies comes out. Our thighs might be a little larger than we would like. Our shoulders might be narrower than we assumed. That little gap between your teeth has a spotlight shown on it.

This morning, we are going to explore how Jesus helps us to see the truth in our distorted views of reality.

Charles Campbell is a preaching professor at Duke University and he tells this story about how Jesus would like to shake up our perceptions. Campbell was watching and interview on television with Dr. Phil, the famous tv psychologist. Dr. Phil was asked, “If you could interview anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be?” And immediately, he responded: “Jesus Christ. I would really like to interview Jesus Christ. I would like to have a conversation with him about the meaning of life.”

Well, Campbell was watching this on television and tells of the inner dialogue he was having at the moment. He wanted to shout out at the television and to Dr. Phil: “Oh no, you wouldn’t! You would not want to sit down with Jesus, treat him like an interviewee, and ask him about the meaning of life. You would be crazy to do that. He would turn you upside down and inside out. He would confound all your questions and probably end up telling you to sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me. No, Dr. Phil, you do not really want to interview Jesus, and I do not want to either. It would not go well.”

Jesus sounds like a nice and simple guy… a gentle soul… a friend to walk beside you and share your thoughts with… but in reality, Jesus turns our worlds upside down and inside out. He does the unexpected, he shows up in places we try to stay away from, he loves the unloveable, he calls the unworthy, and he brings us life through his death. And sometimes in doing so, he reveals the most difficult truths about our hearts.

His ways are not our ways – and as we walk with him, we have to be willing to let our distorted views of the world fall by the wayside so that we can see the reality of God’s love.

The main distortion that we encounter when we meet Christ is the false belief that we are good enough, that we have the answers, and that we fully understand God. This is the mirror that makes us look tall and big and fat and grand. It puffs us up, it fills us out, and we start to believe we are more important and more knowledgeable than we really are.

You see, this false understanding of faith, of religion, and of themselves is what got the priests and elders into so much trouble in our gospel reading this morning.

To put this story into context, Jesus had just come into Jerusalem the day before. The long list of things he accomplished that day included: riding into the city on a donkey and in righteous anger overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple. He was literally turning things upside down!

And so when he comes back to the temple the next morning, the religious leaders are in a grumpy mood. They want to know who this guy thinks he is and so they approach him and say very bluntly: Show us your credentials – Who authorized you to teach here?

Oh, those poor leaders. They had no idea what they were about to get themselves into. Jesus may have looked like a country bumpkin rabbi just in from the hills, but they were dealing with the Son of God. And when you ask Jesus questions… you never get the answers you expect.

Instead of giving them an answer – Jesus himself asked them a question. Jesus shed light on the true nature of their question.


Who has it? And where does it come from?

These religious leaders had been trained. They had studied long and hard. They spent their days in the temple. They have the full weight of their culture and the institution behind them. They firmly believe that they speak for God.

And if they speak for God, then this man, this ruffian, this Jesus of Nazareth clearly does not. They want to keep things in good order, according to the traditions and the way things have always been.

But Jesus is ready to turn the world upside down.

And so he asks them a question in return: Was the baptism of John from God or from man?

He trapped them.

If they said John’s baptism was from God – then they were legitimizing his movement and in doing so, legitimizing Jesus who stood right before them.

But if they said that it was only from man – then they might have had a riot of the people on their hands… all around them were faithful people who had traveled out to the Jordan river to repent of their sins.

The distortion of their mirrors fell away. They came face to face with the truth. This Jesus did not fit in a box. Their privilege and power were more important to them than the right answer and so they responded simply – we don’t know… hoping it is the end of the story and they can return quickly to the way things were.

But Jesus doesn’t stop talking.

Instead, he tells them a story. The story of two children sent by their father into the vineyard to work. One of them refuses, but goes to work anyway later. One of them says they are going to, but never actually ends up working.
Everyone knows it was the first son who did the father’s will. No questions there.

But Jesus looks the priests and leaders straight in the eye and all false distortions fall away:

“ Yes, and I tell you that crooks and whores are going to preced you into God’s kingdom. John came to you showing the right road. You turned your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him.” (The Message 32)
Photo by: Chris

Staring into the funhouse mirror, these leaders thought they were being faithful by saying the right words and going through the right motions. But they were so busy looking at the faults of others that they never took the time to see themselves as they truly were. They never took the time to actually live out God’s will. They never stepped away from the mirror to see their own sin and to repent.

As Christians today, that is often our greatest failing. We get so wrapped up in being a part of the church, in wearing the name of Christian, in spouting off moral precepts, that we forget to look at ourselves.

When we let Jesus show us who we truly are… a hard and difficult process… may we have the courage to look away from the mirror and into the eyes of our Savior. May we have the courage to follow him.

But while we are talking about distortions, I think it is also important to look at the flip side of the distortion… the one that makes you look smaller than you really are. That shrinks your head and whittles your body away to nothing and makes you small like a child.

In the story of those two sons, there was the one who said he would obey his father but never did.

And then there is the story of the one who said he wouldn’t.

I always wonder about what makes him say no.

Did he have other things to do? Kids to take to soccer practice, maybe?

Was he planning on other less than noble deeds like going out and getting drunk with his friends?

Did he doubt his ability to actually perform the work?

Was he just being stubborn?

Whatever was going through the first son’s mind… he refused to do the will of his father.

Just as there are many of us who have been in the church from the beginning of our lives, there are many here this morning who took a long time to get here. We had other things to keep us busy, distractions, feelings of unworthiness, and the pride of wanting to do things our own way.

But our false images of ourselves can fall away too. Like the tax collectors and the prostitutes, we can turn around, repent, and say yes… even if we have spent our whole lives up to this point saying no. We can see our true selves, and then lay our lives at the feet of Jesus and follow him.

When we really engage with Jesus, our carnival mirror distortions come into focus. And every single time we find out that he has very little care for what our lives have been in the past but really wants to know if we are going to let go of those funhouse mirrors, take off our false perceptions and see his reality instead. Jesus does not want our distorted image of ourselves… Jesus was us. He wants us to believe in him and to follow him.

As Paul wrote in Philippians, Jesus laid aside his glory to become one of us. He humbled himself even to the point of death on the cross so that each one of us could see the truth – that Jesus is Lord and that he is our reality.

Everything that we do, everything that we have, everything that we are comes from God. That is the truth we find when we look him face to face. He turns our lives upside down and yet does not leave us on unsteady ground.

No, he invites us to join in the heavenly parade of the crooks and the prostitutes, the gamblers and the addicts, the self-righteous and the stubborn… Jesus invites us to take our place among all of those who have said goodbye to their old ways and are now marching joyfully toward heaven.

Amen and Amen.

You Are Mine…

Baptism begins with repentance.

This water is cleansing water.
By diving in,
by letting this water pour over our finger tips,
we are saying that we want to live differently.

A strange man named John was led to call people to repentance.

He set up camp there at the Jordan River

and people were so moved by his call:

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,”

that they came to him from all over the place.

They were yearning for a chance to let go of their pasts,

to confess their sins,
and to be made clean.
There were of course other ways of repenting.

Official ways of repenting.

They could go to the temple and offer sacrifices for their sins.

The Day of Atonement was a yearly chance to let go of their transgressions.

They could pray for forgiveness like so many
of the prophets and psalmists and kings had done throughout scriptures.
But they were drawn in by John’s call.
They were moved by this tangible act
of letting themselves
be washed
by the waters
of the Jordan.

As the cold water drifted passed them,
the current took their sins away.

Baptism begins with repentance.

But it certainly doesn’t end there.

John the Baptizer himself knew that this repentance wasn’t enough.
It wasn’t enough to say, “I’m sorry.”
You actually had to live differently.
You had to bear fruits of repentance.
And he was aware we don’t always have what it takes.

John the Baptizer knew that this was only the beginning.
That water wasn’t enough.

He proclaimed that one was coming
Who would baptize with
The Holy Spirit
And with fire.
He proclaimed that one was coming
Who would not only forgive,
But set things right.
Someone was coming who would judge.

And then, out of nowhere
And I really do mean out of nowhere,
Because a couple of decades have passed between
We last saw him…
Jesus shows up.

He is no longer a baby.
No longer a child.
But a man.
And he steps into the river…

John is beside himself –
This isn’t right!
What are you doing!
You have it all backwards!
I’m supposed to be baptized by you…

But Jesus replies back gently:
It’s okay.
Let’s do it this way.
It’s proper.
It’s necessary.

Trembling, John helps to immerse Jesus
And as he comes up
Out of the water
The heavens open.

What that means, I don’t know.
Do the clouds part?
Does a gap in the blue sky appear?
Are their angels singing like at his birth?
Could anyone see it but him?
I don’t know that,
but I do know the heavens opened.

The heavens opened.
The Holy Spirit came down.
Like a dove it came down from the heavens
And landed on him.
t rested on him.
And there were words.
“This is my Son.”
“This is my beloved.”
“With him, I am well pleased.”

Jesus went into that water
Not because he needed to repent.
Not because he was unclean.
But for us.
He went into that water
So that we might go into the water.
So that we might let go of our sins
So that we might be made sons and daughters of God
So that the Spirit might flow into our lives.
Jesus went in that water
To fulfill our righteousness.

And then he leaves.
Jesus gets up from the water.
The Spirit takes him into the wilderness.
And we are left standing at the Jordan.

Only not really.
Because we know the rest of the story.
We know that what began
As water for repentance
Became water and spirit
Became newness of life
Became a beginning that was not only a fresh start
But the power to be different

What began as water for repentance
Became a mark on our souls that can never go away.
“You are mine,” God says.
“I love you,” God says.
“Don’t forget it,” God says.

Don’t forget it when you look out on this world:
This broken, bleeding, bruised world.
Carry my mark with you.
Love others, serve them, bind up their wounds.

Don’t forget it when you listen to the hatred in this world:
Remember I have called you to bring peace.
I have called you to trust in grace and mercy.
I have called you to renounce evil.
Carry my mark with you.
Don’t be afraid.

“You are mine,” God says.
“Don’t forget it.”

But how often do we forget.

How often do we forget that Jesus is our Lord and Savior
And try trusting in something else… like money or security.

How often do we fail to be Christ’s disciple
And we disobey his very word.

How often do we embrace evil and take pleasure in violence
Rather than stand against them.

How often do we use and abuse God’s name
To get what we want…
Not what God wants.

Many of us have taken the vows of baptism.
We have said them as adults.
Or we have confirmed the vows our parents took.
Some of us are parents
Who hold these vows for our children
Until they are ready to accept them themselves.

These vows are not just words we say
They are promises.
Promises that we have left behind us evil and sin and injustice
Promises that we will stand with our Lord.
Promises that we trust in his grace.

Martin Luther once said:
Everytime you wash your hands
Everytime you wash your face
You should remember your baptism
You should remember that you are God’s child
You should remember that you have made promises.

We need to remember.
We need to remember so that
When violence breaks out we can shout, “no.”
When pain is felt, we can say, “no.”
When darkness rears its ugly head, we can say, “no.”

We need to remember.
So that
we can say “YES” to hope.
“YES” to life.
“YES” to the good news that God has not abandoned us.
We need to remember
So that we are not afraid to say, YES and NO.

A colleague wrote these words yesterday
In the wake of the shootings in Tuscson…
In the wake of remembering Jesus baptism
In the wake of remembering her baptism:

“How do I preach on baptism and not address that we have witnessed the power of evil in this world practically firsthand today – and yet vow to renounce it.

“How do I preach on baptism and not address that obeying His Word and showing his love are action verbs, especially in the light of an event that is dangerously close to stunning us into silence and inaction?

“How do I preach the Good News in the shadow that has been cast by the news of a 9 year old girl’s senseless death?

“Our nation’s rhetoric has once again driven someone who is unstable to do the unthinkable and although we may not be in Arizona, there is still blood on our hands and ONLY the waters of baptism can wash them off. (kathrynzj)“

These vows are our calling.
They are our responsibility.
These waters wash us clean.
And the spirit gives us strength.

It has been said that we should
Face the world
With a newspaper in one hand

And a bible in the other
(Karl Barth)
We need to be able to face the world

And face it in all its reality
Good news and bad
Tragedy and pain, joy and celebration
And we need to be able to say, YES and NO

Yes to the things that bring life.

No to the things that bring death.

But we cannot do it

Without our baptisms.

We cannot do it
Unless the Spirit has our back.

“Do not be afraid,” God says.
“I love you.”
“You are mine.”

Joy… for the tough times

This morning in worship we focused on John the Baptist’s question to Jesus:

How do I know that you are the one? Are you him?

photo by: Mattox

Jesus listed off all the signs of the kingdom – the things he was doing that demonstrated the Kingdom of God had come near.

Instead of preaching, I asked the congregation to help me proclaim the good news. We had a small crowd because of weather, and it was a much more intimate setting to be sharing anyways.

Together we lifted up all of the places we have seen joy in this world in the past year, all of the ways we have witnessed God working. We talked about flood recovery and coming back from illness. We talked about new babies and celebrations of life. We talked about simple things that bring a smile to our faces. It was a joyous morning of testimony!!!

calls for justice in the midst of advent joy

This coming Sunday we will light the third candle on the Advent wreath – the candle for JOY.

We hear in the midst of this call to rejoice, however, a very startling message. John the baptist calls out to the crowds: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  (Luke 3:7-8).
He tells people to share their coats and their food, to not take advantage of others, to be satisfied with their wages. 

In many ways, that is the spirit of the season that we find ourselves in.  At Christmas we collect canned goods for the local food pantry, collect coats and mittens for children who need them, we remember the blessings of this year, we look out for our neighbors.  We take on a whole new attitude toward life in the month of December…

If only it would last.  Before the holiday lights on the town square are taken back down, our hearts begin to grumble.  Our spirits of generosity are suddenly overwhelmed by the credit card bills that come in the mail.  It seems impossible to sustain that good will towards all into the new year.

But that is exactly what John the Baptist is calling for – Repent, believe the Good News – you can live differently. You can bear fruit that lasts.  You can be changed.

I know I’m on a Susan Werner kick lately – only because I recently discovered her and I can’t put down the album.  One song in particular has just absolutely stuck with me.  It’s called “Help Somebody.”

When I hear this song, absolute joy floods my heart.  It helps me to realize just how much I have been blessed.  I have plenty.  I have a roof over my head.  I have supper on the table.  I have a sense of God’s salvation working in my life.  And if I have it to give – I should…. JOYFULLY. 

There are a lot of places in the world where some have too much and others have not enough.  We are having a huge debate over health care nationally for exactly that reason.  I think all (most) of us would agree that everyone should have affordable access to care.  We just don’t agree on how that happens.  But if we let this song and John’s call fill our ears and eyes and hearts then the question that comes to my mind is how can I help others get what I have. 

It’s not a question of whether they deserve it or not.  Perhaps it’s not even a question as to whether it is right.  It’s a question as to whether we want to give.  It’s actually a question of joy… what kind of joy and peace and wholeness can I create in the life of another person?  What kind of joy can I create in my own life through giving a little bit extra?

We could apply this same formula to anything.  It’s not about what we can get, but what we can give.  It’s about the joy that comes through recieving the good news of God and then not hoarding it, but changing our lives and giving it freely away.  It’s the spark of life that we have to pass on. 

We are going to be looking at the “Enough” stewardship/money series in January – and I think that this song is going to be our theme for the whole thing.  I’m looking forward to the ways that our congregation finds joy in the good things that we have – enough joy to take responsibility for how we use our resources and enough joy that we overflow from that abundance and help others in our community and in the world.