Unity, Diversity, and the Body of Christ

Format Image

Over the past week, I’ve been working to get my garden prepped a bit for spring and to start some of the seeds that will be set out after Mother’s Day.  And I was reminded as I dug my fingers into the dirt that soil is so incredibly diverse and complex.  That just one handful of the stuff contains more living organisms than there are people on this planet.   

And in every part of the soil, every one of those organisms has a part to play, impacting chemical and physical properties.  And all of these living organisms live off of and feed off of one another.  It is their interaction that makes soil healthy and thriving and good.

In his book, The Third Plate, Dan Barber describes two ways of seeing what is happening in the soil that surrounds us.

One, is a class system… or a battlefield…

We’ve all seen those videos of a tiny fish being eaten by a bigger fish, being eaten by an even bigger fish… that’s some of what happens in the dirt beneath our feet.  One way of looking at all of the interaction beneath us is to focus on how microbes are eaten by protozoa, which are eaten by centipedes, ants, and beetles.

 

 

But another way of thinking about all of that diversity in the soil is as a system of checks and balances. 

 

Fred Magdoff is a soil scientist and he thinks that “When there is sufficient and varied food for the organisms, they do what comes naturally, ‘making a living’ by feeding on the food sources that evolution provided… What you have is a thriving, complex community of organisms.”

And all of that diversity and interaction in the soil is what makes our food taste good. 

Magdoff says, “Taste comes from a more complex molecule that gets eaten, taken apart, and put back together in a different way.  The plant takes this, and all the other molecules, and catalyzes them into phytonutrients.  Taste doesn’t come from the elemental compounds (like calcium or nitrogen).  It comes from the synthesis” [The Third Plate, Dan Barber, page 85]

 

That’s really why you and I want all of that diversity in the soil after all.  Because we want the things we grow to thrive and taste good.  We want it to bear tasty fruit! 

In musical composition, unless it is a solo piece, it is the interaction of the various instruments each playing their part, yet working together that create harmonization.  

And in the church, it is the way that we each utilize our various gifts and we each play our part as hands or tongues or livers that allows the Body of Christ to make a difference in this world.  

 

But sometimes, the church acts more like a battlefield than the Body of Christ.  

When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, he was responding to the way factions and power and pride were tearing the community apart.  

Corinth was a port city and as such it had incredible diversity.  Ideas from across the globe all mingled and freed slaves lived amongst wealthy entrepreneurs.  The church reflected this diversity… but that created a power contest between the believers who argued with one another about which ideology or status was better than another.

At every turn, Paul reminds the people that their diversity should be seen not as a source of division, but as a blessing.  Because of their varied gifts and perspectives, they could do far more together than any of them could do on their own.  

 

We’ve experienced this as a church, haven’t we?  We have incredible diversity as far as our age and our political and theological perspectives and yet look at the amazing things that we have done together.

We raised over $5000 for Joppa in a weekend with a garage sale last year that brought so many different people together.

We built on Faith Hall and paid it off in record time because every person did their part.

We successfully launched Children’s Church because of the incredible work of so many different volunteers and people who were willing to try something new.  

Today is the last day of Third Grade Bible, which is an amazing way our more experienced folks help our young people learn about this amazing book that guides our faith journey.  

 

None of that could happen unless the various parts of THIS Body of Christ were willing to step up and play a part.  

You might be a foot or an eye or a spleen, but you play a part in this church.   We all play a part.  You might think that you are too young or too old or too busy to make a difference, but Paul says you are wrong.  You are an essential part of making the church work!  

Or you might think that church would be a whole lot simpler if everyone was just like me, but again, Paul says we are wrong.  It takes all of our different perspectives and experiences… even when they make things more complex… to be the Body of Christ God has intended for this community.

 

In the United Methodist Church right now, we are divided.  We are different.  And we feel differently about human sexuality.  We can’t always agree about how we should be in ministry with those folks on the margins, whether they are refugees or poor or elderly or tattooed or whatever else marks them as different from the majority.  And underneath all that disagreement is that we don’t all read the scripture in the same way.  

And sometimes, that diversity feels like a war.  It feels like the battle described the soil beneath us or in that clip from Minions.  We are chewing each other up and spitting each other out. And I hate the way my brothers and sisters are hurt and damaged by actions and words that cut to the core of their very being.  And I’ve watched as some people have walked away from the Body of Christ because of it.

When you focus on the conflict that diversity creates, you want to strip out everything that is different to protect yourself and others.  We want simple things.  We want unity, which means, we want to all be the same.

But I believe, and Paul believes, that to be healthy, we need diversity.  We need difference.  We need checks and balances.  We need reminders of the importance of the scripture and justice and mercy and love from people who don’t see it the same way we do. 

We need to listen. 

We need to hold one another accountable. 

We also need to challenge one another. 

We need to be willing to speak the truth in love.

And together, the interaction of all of our different parts creates something beautiful and mysterious and powerful.

John Wesley claimed the Moravian Motto: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.”

There are key things that are pretty essential to who we are as not only United Methodists, but as Christians:  ideas like believing in the Triune God, and understanding that grace plays a role in our lives.  Core things, without which we simply could not be the Body of Christ.  

But there are other things that are non-essential.  What style of music or which translation or scripture or if we prefer percolator coffee or ground coffee or whole bean pour over. In those things, we are called to allow the freedom of diversity and expression and to give room and space for our siblings in Christ to be different and to share their varying gifts.

But no matter what… in all things, we are called to love.  To respect each other.  To listen.  To disagree without being disagreeable.  To be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit.  

In all things, Love.

It is not a coincidence that this chapter on what it means to be the Body of Christ comes right before the chapter on love.  Because the only way we make this kind of community work is through love.  We’ll talk more about that next week.   

 

In the same way the soil beneath our feet thrives on diversity and competition and interaction and synergy – this church thrives because we are different AND because we love one another.  And through God’s grace, that means we can do more than any one of us could accomplish on our own for the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

 

We Have Found the Messiah

Format Image

“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.

 

Light of the World

Format Image

The prophet Isaiah is a difficult person to pinpoint.

Unlike some of the other prophets we have covered so far, where we understood who they were and when they were speaking, there has been great debate about whether the entire “Book of Isaiah” was in fact written by one person.

Whether the book is all written by one person, who wrote before and after the Babylonian exile… or if it was written by different prophets all within the school of Isaiah, may not entirely matter.

What is important is that we can divide the book of Isaiah into distinct sections that have some distinct messages.

 

Go ahead and open that pew Bible that is in front of you… or open it in the app on your smart phone.

 

First Isaiah, or the “Isaiah of Jerusalem” was a prophet about 700 years before the birth of Christ.  He was called to be a prophet in the Southern kingdom of Judah.

The message of First Isaiah can be found in chapters 1-39… although there are a few chapters that include material by the other “Isaiahs”.

Second Isaiah’s work focuses on chapters 34 & 35 and 40-55 and take place after the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem around 540 years before the birth of Christ.  The prophecies come near the end of the time of exile and captivity and these chapters are full of words of comfort and reassurance that they will soon return home.

Third Isaiah’s work focuses on chapters 24-27 and 56-66 and take place when the exile ends.  They remind the people that returning home will not be easy or simple.

 

For today, we are going to focus on First Isaiah, chapters 1-39.  First Isaiah understood that God’s home, God’s favor, God’s delight was Jerusalem.  And as such, the kings of the Davidic line that ruled from the capital of Judah, Jerusalem, were also divinely favored.

If you remember from last week, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, had rejected the heirs of David and Solomon and had set up their own capital at Samaria and temple at Bethel.

But the Southern Kingdom, Judah, remained true to the line of David and the temple and capital at Jerusalem.

One of First Isaiah’s central beliefs was that, “while Jerusalem and its king may suffer punishment for sin, God’s chosen city will never be utterly destroyed, nor will King David’s dynasty fall.” (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 955)

 

And punishment abounded.

As First Isaiah was called to proclaim:

“How the faithful city has become a whore!  She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers!  Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.  They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause doesn’t come before them. “

“Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!” (1:21-24)

First Isaiah finds himself called by God to remind the Kings Uzziah, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, to return to the Lord, to repent of their ways and turn to God.  If not, the wrath of God would be felt in the land.

The Lord was their only source of protection and only by trusting in God would they be saved from attacks from outside their borders.

But time and time again, the Kings chose to find security in weapons and alliances instead of in the Lord. They sought protections from Assyrian against Aram and Israel, and eventually found themselves as a vassal state instead of their own nation.  The land was ravaged. Jerusalem was preserved only by God’s grace… but barely… and only because it is the delight of the Lord.

 

It is in this context that First Isaiah speaks the prophecy we find in chapter 9:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.  In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.

This small corner of the land – the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali – were some of those ravaged by the wars of Aram and Israel.  There wasn’t much there, and one scholar notes it was a place where they “fought their wars so ‘nothing important’ was disturbed. (http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/third-sunday-after-the-epiphany4)

As later conquerors came in, the culture of this place was so diluted and transformed by the influx of peoples and languages so that there was no unity.  As Rev. Dawn Chesser writes: “Keep the mix of languages and cultures there mixed enough, and oppressed enough, and no one of them will have the strength or the urge to resist the new overlords.”

This is why it is “the land of deep darkness.”

It is a place that was hopeless.

It was a place that desperately needed good news.

 

First Isaiah firmly believed that in spite of the cycle of sin and punishment, wrath and forgiveness, God would never forsake Jerusalem.  Even if this was a time of struggle and conflict, God’s ultimate plan was that the line of King David would reign.

And that promise, that hope, was a light shining in the darkness.

 

John Wesley, a founder of the United Methodist Church, said that the scripture is twice inspired… once when written and again when it is read.

And I think that is a good reminder to think of when we read these prophecies from the Old Testament.

The prophets were by and large speaking to the people and context, the situations of their day.

In this beautiful hymn about light in the darkness, about a son being given for us, about the endless peace for the throne of David… First Isaiah was probably not thinking about the birth of Jesus.

This was likely a hymn written for the coronation of King Hezekiah, who First Isaiah believed would return the land to God.

First Isaiah, if you remember, had this really high view of the monarchy. He believed the kings were divinely called and eternally chosen by God.  And these words were full of hope and promise that the forsaken lands of Galilee, indeed ALL the lands, would be reunited under Hezekiah’s royal leadership.

 

But if we take seriously the idea that God can inspire the people as we read the scriptures, too, then it is understandable how early Christians, notably Luke and Matthew, remembered these words, remembered this prophecy, and saw it being lived out once again in the birth of Jesus Christ.

And so we find in the gospel of Matthew that this text is quoted and Jesus symbolically begins his ministry in that once and again occupied land of Zebulon and Napthali… before by the Assyrians and in the time of the gospels by the Romans.

And we find in Luke the promise this light in the darkness, this child that is born for us will deliver us from bondange and will uphold the Kingdom of David forever.

 

Even today, whenever we open these pages of scripture, God speaks.

You can read the same passage twenty different times in your life and every time you might have a new insight or learn something new about yourself or about God.

And that is because these words are alive.

These promises were true yesterday and they are just as true today and they will be tomorrow.

 

We are tempted to leave these old prophecies on the shelves, to forget about their harsh words and judgements, to leave the wrath of God with the prophets and to instead focus on the gospel.

But these words, though spoken to a particular context, still have meaning for our context today.

As we watch political ads on our televisions, I am reminded that we live in a time of political unrest and deception.

As I heard news that Iowa is now ranked last in our care for the mentally ill, I am reminded that we live in a land that has forgotten the most vulnerable.

As we watch the fallout from Brexit, some might say that we, as people of this earth pursue our own self-interest ahead of the needs of others.

Whenever we fill out houses with things we don’t need instead of generously letting go, we are putting greed ahead of compassion.

Our weapons, our security systems, our locks are reminders that we rely upon our own strength instead of relying upon God.

First Isaiah’s words need to be spoken into our midst today just as much as they did 2700 years ago.

And the call to be God’s people from Isaiah chapter 2 is a call that still echoes across this land today…

Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,     to the house of Jacob’s God         so that we may be taught God’s ways         and we may walk in God’s paths.” Instruction will come from Zion;     the Lord’s word from Jerusalem. God will judge between the nations,     and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows     and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation;     they will no longer learn how to make war.

Come, house of Jacob,     let’s walk by the Lord’s light.

Reflections a week after General Conference… #umcgc

As Psalm 146 reminds us: human leaders and human institutions aren’t everything.  They won’t save us.

We are finite and we make mistakes.

Only God is forever faithful.

Yet, any denomination or tradition comes from God’s followers attempting to live out their faith and their discipleship together.

Fully knowing that we are not perfect, we nevertheless seek to do the best we can to respond to God’s movement and calling in the world in a given place and time… based on where our forefathers and mothers have led us and based on where the Holy Spirit is calling us anew.

That is what we tried to do at General Conference.  Over 10 days, we attempted to be faithful to God’s leading and yet we are not God and our plans are just that… ours.

Over these last two weeks, we very nearly split our denomination into pieces.  Our differences are stark. Our life together is marred by conflict as much as collaboration.  And I’m going to be honest… I’m not quite sure yet what comes after General Conference.

We asked our Bishops to help us find a way forward out of our predicament and that way forward is still vague.

So rather than making predictions, maybe it would be better to share who we are and how we got to this place.  I think fundamentally, there are three key things to keep in mind as we wrestle with what it means to be the United Methodist Church.

 

First, I think it is helpful to understand that the United Methodist Church is a global church. 

We are the only protestant denomination that is worldwide.  Our churches span from Manila to Legos to Moscow. And, while the church in the U.S. has been declining, the global church is growing exponentially.

In the last ten years, the U.S. has declined in membership by 11%, while the church in the Africa Central Conference grew by 329%!

42% of United Methodists now live outside of the United States.

One of the most important things we do at General Conference is listen to one another, try to understand more about our contexts, and find ways to help ministry flourish all across the world.  And that is not an easy task.

But because of our global partnerships, we can do amazing things like Imagine No Malaria and our United Methodist Committee on Relief is the first to arrive on the scene of disaster and the last to leave.

And we can learn from one another.

I remember listening to a committee four years ago debate the process for closing a church.  A woman from Liberia stood and said that she was extremely confused as to what we were talking about… not because of a language barrier, but because she simply couldn’t comprehend why we would close a church. The church in the United States needs that passion for the gospel that is growing so fast we can’t build enough churches!

As we continue to debate the inclusion of LGBTQI people in the life of our church, I also heard clearly from our African delegates, like my new friend Pastor Adilson, that their contextual struggle is not with homosexuality, but with polygamy. Rather than asking if same-gender marriages are allowed in their churches, they are struggling with how to welcome and include a man who has four or five wives.  Does the church ask him to divorce all but one?  What happens to the other wives?  Or the children?  How is the entire family welcomed?

We are also learning to reframe our conversations to be more global than United States centric.  One of our debates this year was about a resolution for health care that referenced the Affordable Care Act.  When 42% of United Methodists live outside the United States, these kinds of statements need to be broader in scope.  It was hard to be talking about a system that only applies to some of us, when so many people in that room had little to no access to care, much less health insurance.

One of the realities of being a global church is that multiple languages play a role in all of our meetings. While we have four official languages as the UMC: French, English, Portuguese and Kiswahili, we had simultaneous interpretation in Russian, German, Spanish, and many others.

An ever present reality is also that in many of these global areas Christianity arrived along with colonialism.  “Most Africans teach their children that Jesus and other biblical characters are muzungu (Kiswahili, “white”) notwithstanding the fact that Jesus would likely have been dark complexioned because he was born in the Middle East.”  (http://unitedmethodistreporter.com/2016/05/11/are-africans-grown-a-response-to-bishop-minerva-carcano-dealing-with-wounded-united-methodist-church/)

We, as a church, have tried to combat colonial impulses by allowing the conferences outside of the United States to adapt our Book of Discipline to their local contexts.  However, that means that 42% of the church doesn’t have to abide by all of what we vote on… and that we need their votes in order to make changes to the rules only we follow.

 

Second, it is helpful to know how we make decisions.  

The roots of our church lie in England, but we were born during the American Revolution.  And our polity, our government is modeled upon our national government.

Just like the government, we have a judicial branch and a Judicial Council.

Our Bishops function as the executive branch.

And the General Conference itself is the legislative branch… just like Congress.

864 of us were elected as voting delegates to represent the worldwide church and we were half clergy and half laity.

The General Conference is the only body that can speak for the United Methodist Church and everyday people like you and me are the ones who make the decisions.

So those of us gathered there had the responsibility of pouring over legislation and making changes to our structure, rules, and positions… four years worth of work condensed into two weeks.

I believe that to discern the Holy Spirit, one has to be humble, empty yourself, and allow other voices to influence you.

The first week of conference is largely spent in legislative committees and in those smaller groups some of that discernment could happen.  I had truly transformative experiences in my committee and the work felt good and holy.

But all of those relationships and trust falls apart when an item comes to the floor of the plenary session.  There, the decision making process moves away from consensus building and instead creates winners and losers.

On the FIRST DAY of conference… we spent hours debating the rules that we would use in order to debate. We used and we abused Robert’s Rules of Order.

And when we were presented with an alternative decision making process (what you might have heard as Rule 44) to use for particularly contentious issues, we debated it for two days and then voted not to use it.

But we did accomplish some things.  We approved the creation of a new hymnal for our church.  We strengthened our process for the affirmation of clergy.  We created new pathways for licensed local pastors.  And we added gender, age, ability, and marital status to the protected classes in our constitution.

 

Third, it is helpful to understand that while it appears that our conflict as a church is centered around the inclusion of LGBTQI people, our division is deeper.

Our church is a very broad tent and the likes of both Dick Cheney and Hilary Clinton call our church home.  This is one of the things that I love about the United Methodist Church.

But I think what came into focus for many of us at this General Conference is that our disagreements may no longer be sustainable.

Perhaps fundamental to our conflict is how we interpret scripture. For some, scripture is absolutely central and the only tradition, reason, or experience that matters is that which scripture can confirm.  For others, scripture is absolutely central and yet we have to interpret scripture through the lenses of our tradition, reason, and experience.  That shift might seem subtle, but it can make the difference between allowing women to be ordained or not in our church.

We also fundamentally disagree about whether we are a church of personal piety or social holiness. Of course, John Wesley thought it had to be both… but where we place our emphasis determines how we engage with the world and the moral stances we choose to take.

All of this difference is floating beneath the surface of any conversation about how LGBTQI people are included or not in the life of our church.

 

If you asked me a month ago what was going to happen at General Conference I would have been full of optimism. You see, I’m a bridge builder.

And so I went to General Conference with all kinds of hopes about how we would make decisions to benefit the church all over the world and how in spite of our differences we would find a way forward together.

I don’t think it was naïve to believe this going in.

But in the midst of our gathering in Portland, something shifted. Something shifted in my own life and in the hearts and minds of countless other delegates.

We realized that we could no longer keep doing what we have been doing together as a denomination.

We realized that our differences were tearing us apart.

And in Portland, we made a very conscious choice to avoid the end of our denomination through our votes.  We voted to seek unity, to try to find a way to remain together for the sake of God’s mission in the world. But there is a phrase we kept using that I think is important.  Unity does not mean unanimity.

As we look at our differences, particularly in the three areas I named, for many, we avoided the end, but are only delaying the inevitable.

Maybe our global structure is unsustainable.

Maybe our decision making process has to change.

Maybe  our fundamental disagreements will only continue to allow conflict to rule our work together and we would be better to split amicably and allow each part of our church to be the most faithful it can be to God’s will.

The next four years as United Methodists will not be easy.  We have asked the Bishops of our church to lead us in discerning a way forward and that might mean that in the next two or three years we will call a special gathering to decide how to move forward… on what it means to be a global church, on our structure, on our polity, and on our stances regarding human sexuality.

I have about 45 more minutes of things I could share with you and I’m happy to continue to have conversations about our work.  But I want to leave you with this one request.

Pray for our church.

Pray for God’s will to be done.

Pray that we might follow the one who is faithful forever, who as Psalm 146 reminds us…

defends the wronged,     and feeds the hungry. God frees prisoners—     God gives sight to the blind,     and lifts up the fallen. God loves good people, protects strangers,     takes the side of orphans and widows,     but makes short work of the wicked.

In spite of all the good and all of the mistakes that we made at this past General Conference, I take comfort in the knowledge that God’s in charge—always.

Untitled

Later this morning/This morning, I’m sharing these words with our Confirmation Class – 10 remarkable young men and women who have worked hard all year long to arrive at this moment.  This sermon is in part for them, but it is also a message for all of us and so I hope you are willing to eavesdrop in  and hear as well.

My young brothers and sisters being baptized and confirmed today: Sometimes people think of Confirmation as the day you join the Church. After you are baptized and confirmed, you now belong to church.

Well, you have belonged to Immanuel for a long time. You have attended Sunday School with Eunice and Deb. Wendy and Pat have taken care of you in the nursery. You have had lock-ins here. I bet there are places in this building some of you have been in that I haven’t seen yet. You have belonged to Immanuel for a long time, and Immanuel has belonged to you.

Baptism and Confirmation are really about something even more profound than belonging to church or belonging to Immanuel or even the United Methodist Church. Baptism and confirmation are celebrations, ceremonies, that announce to the world that we belong not just to church; they are announcements that we belong to Christ.

My young sisters and brothers being baptized and confirmed today: You belong to Christ. All of us here who have taken Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord and who have decided to be followers and disciples of Jesus, we belong to Christ. We are Christ’s.

And that means that you now have a new role to play in your everyday lives. It means that your job, every day, for the rest of your life, is to represent Jesus Christ to the world. Your job is to love people like Jesus would have loved them. It is to treat them with the respect Jesus would have shown them.

I think this job is harder to do today than ever before.

Because our world wants to divide us up into groups.

The athletes and the musicans.

The smart kids and the popular kids.

Rich and poor.

White and black and brown.

Republicans and Democrats.

United Methodists and Baptists and Catholics.

And sometimes when you find yourselves in one of those groups, you start to think that your group has it all together and has all the answers. And you stop paying attention to the people in other groups. You stop trying to figure out what they think. You might start to judge them for who they are and what they represent.

But here is the thing that I have learned so far… a lesson that is lifted up in our scripture this morning…

We need one another.

Last week, at the confirmation retreat, we took a survey to help us figure out our spiritual gifts – our place in the Body of Christ.

And we learned that some of us are like stomachs: we are teachers who can digest complicated ideas and explain them simply to others. We learned that some are brains: we are organizers and planners and lead others. We learned that some of us are feet: we are willing to go to the places in this world we are needed to love and serve.

We each have a part to play. We are not the same, but we are each essential to the Body of Christ.

 

A really big part of growing up and belonging to Christ is letting go of all of the ways the world tries to divide us and looking for the unique role we can play in bringing others together.

Paul encourages us to be worthy of that calling to belong in Christ. We are to be humble and gentle and patient with one another. We are to accept each other with love.

 

Friends, that is not always easy. We are not always going to agree. Sometimes those worldly divisions of money or power or color or preference sneak into the church, too. Sometimes there are fights in churches because we can’t agree about what to do.

And if we are ever having a hard time with that, then Paul tells us we need to remember that this Body of Christ, all of us, are bound together in unity. There are some things that link us together, like ligaments and tendons that hold this whole church together.

We have to remember that we are one body and one spirit. We have one hope that we share. We claim one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God.

Together, as confirmands, you spent some time figuring out what it is that you believe. The creed that we wrote together lifts up that oneness and unity. It describes what we mean that we are one body, together.

One of our founders, John Wesley, had a saying that he used regularly:

In essentials, unity.

In non-essentials, liberty.

In all things charity.

And that means that we are always united by these things you have said together in your creed. They are what bind us together. In all the other details, we might not agree. We might choose different ways. We might not believe exactly the same thing. And that is okay. We have the freedom – the liberty to do so.

But in absolutely everything, we are supposed to love. Because we belong to Christ.

And so in the future… when you are the Ad Council chairperson or the head of Trustees… when you are teaching the preschool class or volunteering in the kitchen… and you get frustrated with one of these church folks, remember this unity.

Remember what holds us together. Remember the core of who we are: we are human beings, created in the image of God, who mess up sometimes, but who are defined by how we have been forgiven and our forgiveness of others. We belong to Christ.

Saving and Investing

Format Image

I stand up here today exhausted, and yet filled with joy and satisfaction.

The past two days, I have been at Ankeny First with a few others from here at the church learning about how to be a better church for our members and our neighbors struggling with addiction, incarceration, mental illness, racism, life in general.

See highlights here: https://storify.com/RightNextDoor/right-next-door-5623dc20f44af4f567e61ee9

But this was not only a conference I attended, it was something I invested my time and energy in for the last nine months as part of the planning team.

And that investment grew and was added to over the past few months until it matured this weekend in 215 people, from 16 states, gathered in a sanctuary to pray, sing, learn, and be changed.

This month, we are exploring John Wesley’s advice to earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.

In The Message last week, I briefly touched on how John Wesley encourages us to truly make all the money we can with our work… as long as it is good for our souls and good for our neighbors.

And today, we are going to talk about what to do with that money… how to make your money do some work for God’s kingdom…. About how we invest our resources, how we save them instead of wasting or hoarding them.

****

Will you pray with me?

****

Our gospel reading this morning tells the story of a man going on a trip who delegates some responsibilities. He gives each of his servants some money to take care of while he’s gone. Two of them get started immediately and put that money to work… and it grows and doubles and multiplies. But the third, buries the money and sits on it. He is afraid to lose it and so he hides it. He hoards it and in doing so, he wastes it.

James Harnish tells two stories in his book, Earn. Save. Give. about children of the Great Depression. One is about Ivy League-educated brothers, Homer and Langley who withdrew from society. In 1947, police were called to their home because someone noticed a smell. They found both brothers dead in the house… one died in his chair, the other had been crushed by a booby trap he’d set for potential robbers. As the house was cleaned out, “the authorities found 130 tons of stuff, mostly junk… fourteen pianos… thousands of books… a dressmaker’s dummy, and part of a Model T Ford.”

The other story he tells is about a woman named Dorothy. She loved flying and served as a pilot during WWII. She worked as a nurse the rest of her career. She gave generously to her church. And when she died, she left $4.7 million to the school where she was trained and left a large gift to her church’s endowment.

One family hoarded their money and possessions out of fear… much like the third servant. The other family saved their money and gave it a purpose.

For our time of confession this morning, think about something in your life that you hoard… that you hold onto out of fear or compulsion. Share what that might be with your neighbor.

****

Are you hoarding God’s gifts? Or are you saving them?

Are you wasting the resources you have been blessed with? Or are you investing them?

This is the question presented to us today as we think about what it means to SAVE all we can.

And Wesley doesn’t go around spouting off this advice because he feels like it… no, he lived it.

 

He figured out early on, when he was a young pastor and not making much money, that he could live on 28 pounds a year in England. When he got a raise with his work, and as he gradually began to make more money from publishing and speaking, his income grew drastically. He truly was earning all he could and eventually his income reached 1,400 pounds annually – 50x what he had first made.

Yet, he continued to live on 28 pounds a year.

He didn’t see an increase in his salary as an opportunity to buy more stuff or wear nicer clothes – he saw it as an opportunity to save more and give more.

 

Wesley encourages us to see our income – all of the gifts and resources we have – as something that has a considerable role to play in God’s kingdom.

Yes, we are supposed to take care of ourselves and our family. We need to be well-rested and healthy and safe if we are going to be out there on the front lines working for Jesus.

But we aren’t meant to spend all of God’s gifts on ourselves.

Wesley writes:

“Do not throw the precious talent into the sea… Do not throw it away in idle expenses, which is just the same as throwing it into the sea. Expend no part of it merely to gratify the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life.”

Wesley wanted his people to invest their resources in the Kingdom of God.

Wesley wants us to put our resources to work.

  1. Sometimes, we act like the last servant, who dug a hole and buried the gifts.

This servant thought about the high standards of his master and didn’t want to disappoint by not doing something perfectly. So the servant did nothing at all.

This is the attitude that infects our minds whenever we see a sign-up sheet for some project at church and we think: Oh, I could never do that…

It’s the hesitation that creeps in when an opportunity to serve comes along and we think: There are so many people better suited for that… they are so much better at it than I might be.

It is also the compulsion that we have to be the best and have the best and look the best. It is the compulsion that causes us to work too much or get involved in too many things or spend all of our time and energy and resources to become the best at our job or at school or a sport so that we aren’t left behind in the dust… so we can be the best.

I understand that, and I find myself there more often that I want to admit.

Fear keeps us from investing in the lives of other people and the Kingdom because we aren’t sure about them, and because we aren’t confident that we are taken care of.

And fear is a powerful thing. There is no denying it.

But the truth is, all of these fears and compulsions keep us keep us from digging deep into relationships that really and truly will save our lives and further the kingdom of God.

 

  1. So maybe we should be like the first two servants in our gospel lesson from Matthew.

They received (earned) sizeable gifts, talents, resources, and thought… Aha! I know just what to do with this. They got to work and the investment grew and grew and grew until it doubled in size.

They didn’t spend their talents and they didn’t hoard them… they saved them and invested them.

We can save our resources and talents… maybe by not buying that Starbucks, or staying home and eating in more often. We can live a little bit more simply so that we have a little bit more to invest.

Right here at Immanuel, there are tons of opportunities for you to invest your resources in the kingdom of God.

Before we dismiss/As we got started today, Erin McGargill shared with us about one way we can invest time and money to change a child’s story. By reading to children, by placing books in their hands, we are making an investment in their future… and investment that will multiply many times over as their head start allows them to break generational cycles of poverty.

We can also invest in the health of a community by helping to put wells in South Sudan. Our investment of resources means bringing clean water to families, the time saved allows women and children to learn more, it works to combat diseases and creates the conditions for life and life abundant.

Every week there are opportunities to think a little bit less about ourselves and a little bit more about the people God has called us to care for… whether it is teaching Sunday School, or serving meals with CFUM, or sleeping outside in a cardboard box to raise money for homeless youth.

 

When we live more like the first two servants, we discover that our resources can be used to bring the Kingdom of God to earth, right here, and right now.   We discover that our money and our time and our talents have a purpose.

Lives changed, disciples made, the world transformed.

Amen. And Amen.

Daily Bread

Format Image

My friends and family play this game called “Would You Rather…” It sets up silly and sometimes serious scenarios and you have to decide which of the two you would rather do. It’s good for parties… it’s good for car rides…

And it’s good for getting to really know someone.

Would you rather live in a place that was always very hot or a place that was always very cold?

Would you rather swim in a pool of marshmellows or a pool of M&Ms?

Would you rather go without the internet or a car for a month?

Would you rather be poor and work at a job you love or be rich and work at a job you hate?

 

With our children in just a minute, we’ll talk about how King Solomon is faced with a “would you rather” question of his own.

God comes to Solomon in a dream and basically asks what is the one thing that he wants to receive… what is the one blessing that he wants to sustain him for the rest of his life.

Would you rather have wealth or power or love…?

Or would you rather have something else?

Solomon quickly answers with the one thing he both wants and needs… “Give me your wisdom so that I can help your people.”

********

If you are anything like me, when faced with a kind of “would you rather” question about the one thing I want or need, my thoughts first went to the things that I need in my life for daily sustenance.

And because we live in a world that is run by money… maybe that is what I would ask for.

But how much? How much money is enough?

Enough to provide daily bread for my family?

Enough for a rainy day?

(For our time of confession this morning), I want to invite you to turn to a neighbor and answer this question:

How much do you need to provide daily bread for your family? Or to put it another way, what does it cost to put food on the table for one week in your home?

*****

The Batsuuri family in their single-room home—a sublet in a bigger apartment—in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, with a week’s worth of food. Standing behind Regzen Batsuuri, 44 (left), and Oyuntsetseg (Oyuna) Lhakamsuren, 38, are their children, Khorloo, 17, and Batbileg, 13. Cooking methods: electric stove, coal stove. Food preservation: refrigerator-freezer (shared, like the stoves, with two other families). /// The Batsuuri family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 226). Food expenditure for one week: $40.02 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 227 for the family’s detailed food list.)
The Batsuuri family in their single-room home—a sublet in a bigger apartment—in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, with a week’s worth of food. Standing behind Regzen Batsuuri, 44 (left), and Oyuntsetseg (Oyuna) Lhakamsuren, 38, are their children, Khorloo, 17, and Batbileg, 13. Cooking methods: electric stove, coal stove. Food preservation: refrigerator-freezer (shared, like the stoves, with two other families). /// The Batsuuri family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 226). Food expenditure for one week: $40.02 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 227 for the family’s detailed food list.)

How much do you need to provide daily bread for your family?

Guatemala 75.70

It is a question we all wrestle with…

The Glad-Ostensen family in Gjerdrum, Norway. Anne Glad Fredricksen, 45, her husband Anders Ostensen, 48, and their three children, Magnus, 15, Mille 12, and Amund, 8 with their typical week's worth of food in June. Food expenditure for one week: 4265.89 Norwegian Kroner;  $731.71 USD. Model-Released.
The Glad-Ostensen family in Gjerdrum, Norway. Anne Glad Fredricksen, 45, her husband Anders Ostensen, 48, and their three children, Magnus, 15, Mille 12, and Amund, 8 with their typical week’s worth of food in June. Food expenditure for one week: 4265.89 Norwegian Kroner; $731.71 USD. Model-Released.

whether in Norway

The Aboubakar family of Darfur province, Sudan, in front of their tent in the Breidjing Refugee Camp, in eastern Chad, with a week’s worth of food. D’jimia Ishakh Souleymane, 40, holds her daughter Hawa, 2; the other children are (left to right) Acha, 12, Mariam, 5, Youssouf, 8, and Abdel Kerim, 16. Cooking method: wood fire. Food preservation: natural drying. Favorite food—D’jimia: soup with fresh sheep meat. /// The Aboubakar family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 56). Food expenditure for one week: $1.23 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 57 for the family’s detailed food list.)
The Aboubakar family of Darfur province, Sudan, in front of their tent in the Breidjing Refugee Camp, in eastern Chad, with a week’s worth of food. D’jimia Ishakh Souleymane, 40, holds her daughter Hawa, 2; the other children are (left to right) Acha, 12, Mariam, 5, Youssouf, 8, and Abdel Kerim, 16. Cooking method: wood fire. Food preservation: natural drying. Favorite food—D’jimia: soup with fresh sheep meat. /// The Aboubakar family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 56). Food expenditure for one week: $1.23 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 57 for the family’s detailed food list.)

or Chad

The Caven family in the kitchen of their home in American Canyon, California, with a week’s worth of food. Craig Caven, 38, and Regan Ronayne, 42 (holding Ryan, 3), stand behind the kitchen island; in the foreground is Andrea, 5. Cooking methods: electric stove, microwave, outdoor BBQ. Food preservation: refrigerator-freezer, freezer. Favorite foods—Craig: beef stew. Regan: berry yogurt sundae (from Costco). Andrea: clam chowder. Ryan: ice cream. /// The Caven family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 260). Food expenditure for one week: $159.18 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 261 for the family’s detailed food list.)
The Caven family in the kitchen of their home in American Canyon, California, with a week’s worth of food. Craig Caven, 38, and Regan Ronayne, 42 (holding Ryan, 3), stand behind the kitchen island; in the foreground is Andrea, 5. Cooking methods: electric stove, microwave, outdoor BBQ. Food preservation: refrigerator-freezer, freezer. Favorite foods—Craig: beef stew. Regan: berry yogurt sundae (from Costco). Andrea: clam chowder. Ryan: ice cream. /// The Caven family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 260). Food expenditure for one week: $159.18 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 261 for the family’s detailed food list.)

or Des Moines.

Today, as we think about our daily bread… as we think about breaking bread with people all across the world today, on World Communion Sunday, the stark differences between what is available and what is needed in these various places across our world is astounding.

The Ahmeds’ extended family in the Cairo apartment of Mamdouh Ahmed, 35 (glasses), and Nadia Mohamed Ahmed, 36 (brown headscarf), with a week’s worth of food. With them are their children, Donya, 14 (far left, holding baby Nancy, 8 months), and Karim, 9 (behind bananas), Nadia’s father (turban), Nadia’s nephew Islaam, 8 (football shirt), Nadia’s brother Rabie, 34 (gray-blue shirt), his wife, Abadeer, 25, and their children, Hussein, 4, and Israa, 18 months (held by family friend). /// The Ahmed family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 118). Food expenditure for one week: $68.53 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 119 for the family’s detailed food list.)
The Ahmeds’ extended family in the Cairo apartment of Mamdouh Ahmed, 35 (glasses), and Nadia Mohamed Ahmed, 36 (brown headscarf), with a week’s worth of food. With them are their children, Donya, 14 (far left, holding baby Nancy, 8 months), and Karim, 9 (behind bananas), Nadia’s father (turban), Nadia’s nephew Islaam, 8 (football shirt), Nadia’s brother Rabie, 34 (gray-blue shirt), his wife, Abadeer, 25, and their children, Hussein, 4, and Israa, 18 months (held by family friend). /// The Ahmed family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 118). Food expenditure for one week: $68.53 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 119 for the family’s detailed food list.)

The needs and concerns that any given family have are so varied.

The Bainton family in the dining area of their living room in Collingbourne Ducis, Wiltshire, with a week’s worth of food. Left to right: Mark Bainton, 44, Deb Bainton, 45 (petting Polo the dog), and sons Josh, 14, and Tadd, 12. Cooking methods: electric stove, microwave oven. Food preservation: refrigerator-freezer, a second small freezer. Favorite foods—Mark: avocado. Deb: prawn-mayonnaise sandwich. Josh: prawn cocktail. Tadd: chocolate fudge cake with cream. /// The Bainton family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 140). Food expenditure for one week: $253.15 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 141 for the family’s detailed food list.)
The Bainton family in the dining area of their living room in Collingbourne Ducis, Wiltshire, with a week’s worth of food. Left to right: Mark Bainton, 44, Deb Bainton, 45 (petting Polo the dog), and sons Josh, 14, and Tadd, 12. Cooking methods: electric stove, microwave oven. Food preservation: refrigerator-freezer, a second small freezer. Favorite foods—Mark: avocado. Deb: prawn-mayonnaise sandwich. Josh: prawn cocktail. Tadd: chocolate fudge cake with cream. /// The Bainton family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 140). Food expenditure for one week: $253.15 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 141 for the family’s detailed food list.)

I recently joined the Board of Directors with DMARC, the Des Moines Area Religious Council. Today, one of their major focuses is on food distribution in Central Iowa.

And what I have learned is that the need that surrounds us, right here in Polk County is great. Many families… many working families… don’t have enough to put daily food on their tables.

 

Solomon was King David’s son and when his father died, he became the ruler of the land. He wasn’t a perfect person and he often was focused on things other than God.

But God came to Solomon in a dream one night with a simple offer: “Ask whatever you wish, and I’ll give it to you.”

Whatever you wish.

He could have asked for palaces of gold, or a thousand wives, or to rule the world…

But he found himself in this new position of power and responsibility and he had one request:

“Give me, your servant, a discerning mind so that I can govern your people, so I can tell good from evil, and so I can take care of your people.”

 

What amazes me is that Solomon didn’t see this one wish, this blessing from God, as a “I” request… what do I want or need.

He saw it as an “US” request… what do we, God’s people, need.

 

He asked for wisdom.

He asked to be fed, not with the daily bread of grains and wheat, but with the daily bread of the Word of God.

He asked for something that would bless all the people.

 

Today, we are kicking off our month long series focusing on John Wesley’s simple advice for our finances… that we should earn all we can, save all we can, and give all we can.

And I think that as we start to explore Wesley’s advice, he starts in the same place as Solomon.

Over the next few weeks we will discover that he encourages us to find joy in the money we make, but to do so in ways that benefit the well being of others and ourselves.

He will encourage us to be frugal, to not be extravagant or wasteful and to save as much as possible.

But the goal of both of these is always in service of the third…. To give all we can.

To make a difference in the lives of other people.

To serve God by feeding the people, visiting them in prison, taking care of the sick, giving clothes to the naked.

Wesley encourages us to do just what Solomon did…. to shift our focus away from what me and my family needs and to think bigger…

What do God’s people need?

What kind of wisdom and discernment and truth is required in order to take care of one another?

 

What is needed, here in Polk County, in order to survive?

2014-COL-polk

Above is a basic budget that details the cost of living in this county in Iowa… a comparison of the basic expenses that a family needs in order to provide a simple home and daily bread for their family. (from www.iowapolicyproject.com)

 

As the demand for food pantries and assistance in our community has skyrocketed in the last few months, I was wondering why until I saw this chart.

If you look at the final column, you will see that a family of two working parents with only one child needs to make at least $44,639 a year in order to meet these basic expenses.

That means that together, with both working, they each need to make at least $10.50 an hour.

At least.

The minimum wage here is $7.25.

If you work full time on these wages, you simply cannot make ends me. It is impossible.

 

So I wonder what it means to ask for daily bread and daily wisdom in Polk County, Iowa today.

I wonder what it means to ask for daily bread in Mongolia and Ecuador.

And I pray that God would give us the wisdom to ensure that every family has enough, as we gather around the table this morning to break bread.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

The Spirit of Debate

I love to have a good argument! 

One of my favorite memories from college was debating with my good friend, Brian Johnson.  We argued about anything and everything… politics, religion, who could marry, why you shouldn’t marry, our favorite philosophers, the best movie, you get the picture.  There was something about a debate with Mr. Johnson that made your heart beat faster and sharpened your intellect.  You were thinking deeply.  You were listening for flaws and places to make counterpoints. You were learning what rhetorical strategies worked and which didn’t. 

Most of mine, didn’t work. 

I lost a lot of debates with my good friend – probably because he was on course to become a professor of philosophy – but through it all, we remained good friends.  Even when we got flustered after a good fight, we could turn around and the next moment go eat dinner together. 

Debating and politicking can be exciting… to a point.  But sometimes a vigorous debate turns into a personal attack.  Sometimes fighting just for the sake of fighting reveals hidden anxieties and anger.  And sometimes, when parties impose their ideas on others, reality clashes with ideals and people are hurt in the process. 

It is a reality we see all the time in Washington, D.C. as political parties refuse to compromise their platforms to deal with the lived reality of the people they are called to serve.  But it is also a reality in our churches.  A good natured debate, a serious conversation about what we should do sometimes turns ugly and hurts our Body of Christ far more than we could imagine.

In Acts 15, we find one of the first recorded official church council meetings.  In the history books and in the headings of our bibles, we know this as the Council of Jerusalem.  It was the first time the church leaders gathered together to make an important decision about what should be done… and about who could be included.

Conflict is normal and expected in the life of a church.  In fact, as Rev. Dr. Jill Sanders reminds me often, conflict is simply two different ideas occupying the same space.  How we handle that conflict, and what kind of debate we have, is what can make or break relationships and groups. 

As the Holy Spirit moved through this early church argument, we can learn about how we, too, in the 21st century can handle the conflict that arises.

First – when the question or problem arises, you address it directly.

The issue in this instance was a debate about whether or not Gentiles had to be circumcised before they could be saved.  That is, did they have to become Jewish before they could accept Christ as their Lord and Savior. 

Paul and Barnabas were out working among the people and gentiles were converting to the Jesus left and right.  All along, all they had ever taught was that Jesus was the way and the truth and the life.  No prerequisites.  No admission exams. Christ and Christ alone was the source of salvation. 

But a group of folks comes along teaching something different.  Paul and Barnabas could have had a number of options here. 

They could have ignored this new teaching and continued to do what they were doing… with both ideas growing up alongside of one another in the community.  But that only delays the debate until a time when people are more entrenched in one position or another.

They could have driven the newcomers out of town violently… which was what sometimes happened to them when their teachings were not well received by a community.

But Barnabas and Paul had the wherewith all to directly address the problem. They confronted the teachers and argued against them.  They spoke their piece.  They defended their position.  And most assuredly, the other side made their arguments as well.  A healthy conflict allows room for disagreement and conversation.  It allows for people to stand in one place or another.  They talked and argued until they were finished.

What our scriptures don’t tell us is how this conflict was resolved.  There is no tale of winners and losers in the debate.  What we next hear is that Paul and Barnabas are being sent from Antioch – the community they were serving – to go up to Jerusalem to get an official ruling on the issue. 

Which leads me to point two:  some arguments and debates are bigger than us as individuals.  A sign of maturity and health in any conflict is calling in other voices when the debate has reached a stalemate. 

In the world of business, this might be a mediator.  In a marriage, this might involve seeing a counselor.  In a church, its when you place a call to your district superintendent.  Sometimes we need neutral third parties to help us to see the bigger picture and to resolve our differences. 

But sometimes, we also need to have a larger conversation because the impact of our decisions involve more than simply us. 

The church in Antioch realized that the debate they were having would merely be repeated time and time again across the world… it was not a question only for them, but for the whole Body of Christ.  The power of a group speaking together – of a group deciding to live one way or another – would define that body one way or another.  They could either be a church who welcomed Gentiles as they were or a church who demanded circumcision, but they couldn’t be both.  They made a mature decision and sent the question to a higher authority.

That is not to say that all arguments require calling in the big guns.  If a church can’t agree about what color of carpet to install, the bishop doesn’t need to be informed.  The carpet isn’t a life or death matter of identity. 

But when we have fundamental disagreements about who to welcome, or how to interact with a particular social issue like immigration, then we might find we are having conversations that are bigger than us. 

That doesn’t mean they are conversation we shouldn’t participate in or have a voice in… it simply means that we also need to include others. 

So the Council of Jerusalem meets and the apostles and the elders all gather together to hear about what they problem is and to make an official decision. 

The third thing that we can learn is what the nature of these discussions should be.  As Acts 15 describes this debate, it plays out much like a courtroom scene.  Parties stand and argue their case.  People listen and wait their turn.  The gathering is respectful and honest with one another.

One of the more powerful realities of this testimony of scripture is that names are not tossed back and forth.  No party is painted to be the bad guy.  There is no negative campaigning or slander.  Each group simply speaks the truth about who they are, what they have experienced, and what they believe.

Those who believed in circumcision stood and made their case from the perspective of tradition and then others began to speak as well. 

Peter stood and talked about his vision of the gospel for the Gentiles and the conversion of Cornelius.  He lifted up the revelation of God he had received and his calling to carry that message back to the church.

Barnabas and Paul stood and spoke about their ministry among the gentiles and the signs and wonders they saw. 

And in each case, the people were allowed to tell their whole story.  They weren’t questioned or cross-examined.  They simply shared their experience and others listened.  They listened completely – not with the intent of finding flaws in the argument or ways to defeat them… they simply listened. 

When one party was done speaking, they waited in silence until the next voice was ready to speak.  It was a respectful, holy debate. 

And when all had spoken, James felt moved to respond on behalf of the assembly.  He lifted up the scriptures and the precedent for ministry to Gentiles even in the Old Testament.  He made a statement, and it was affirmed by the whole body. Gentiles would be welcomed, as they were… no additional burden would be placed upon them.

A letter was written and sent out to all the churches – a letter that would clarify the church teaching, a letter to provide stability and unity among the people of God. This letter assured the people that the Holy Spirit had led them to a decision… no burden would be placed upon them but these essentials: to refuse food offered to idols and refrain from sexual immorality. 

John Wesley was often fond of saying: In essentials, unity; in unessentials, liberty; in all things – charity (that is to say, love). 

In the course of their debate, the early church argued about the essentials – about how we are saved and who we should be as the people of God.  And sometimes their positions on those essentials would change – as would later happen with the prohibition against eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. But there were also many questions they didn’t address and left unanswered.  There were questions that were not important and were practiced differently depending on what city or village you were in at the time. 

But perhaps most important is that these conversations happened with grace and love and respect. 

With my friend, Brian Johnson, our friendship was always prioritized above all else.  The questions we were asking of one another did not ultimately matter.  Brian might disagree with me of course =) , but I guess I mean that even if there was a right answer, our friendship was more important than the debate we were having. Sure, the questions were important and someday we might be in positions and places where the decisions we made and the answers we arrived at really would matter.  But what was truly important was the fact that we could argue and disagree and still love one another. 

The same is not always the case with the church.  The same is certainly not the case in our nation.  We yell and demonize and refuse to listen to one another. We line up for chicken sandwiches or stay home and choose to boycott.  We get so caught up in the little things, the unessentials that don’t matter, that we have no energy left to talk about what is really important. 

May we let go of our fears and our pride.  May we open our hearts and minds to truly listen to one another.  And may we have a different sort of argument… an argument filled with the spirit of love. 

Amen and Amen.