The Peaceable Kingdom

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Since the end of September, we have had a guest at the Dawson house… a young female cat named Twiggy.
Twiggy belongs to my brother and sister-in-law who are just finishing up ten weeks in Germany getting to know the new company they work for. They also have a black lab, Rachel, but she was staying with a family that better understands how to take care of dogs.
Now, Twiggy is adorable and playful… but she is also ferocious and territorial and quickly became the alpha in our house. My husband has nick names for both of our kitties… Black Cat and Fat Cat… he affectionately refers to her as Satan cat. This is an evidence-based conclusion… She is known to hiss and growl, strike and chase the other cats, block their way to the food, and overall, causes a lot of racket.
The other day, though, I walked into the bedroom. All three kitties were curled up sleeping on the bed together.
For that moment, there was peace again in the Dawson house.

In our candle-lighting text for this morning, we hold before us a vision of that kind of peace for all creatures. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard with the young goat, the calf and the lion will feed together, and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11)
When we look around us today, this is not the reality we experience.
We read about violence in Jerusalem, we lament the five-year anniversary of Sandy Hook, and just this morning, there are reports of a suicide bomb and gun attack on a Methodist church in Pakistan…

Our relationships with one another and with the animal life of this world was intended to be very different. As the days of creation unfold in Genesis, God commands the waters and sky and land to be filled with a diversity of creatures. And unlike the plants, each of these new creations require relationship in order to reproduce. God then shifts attention towards humanity, creating us “in God’s own image,” so that we might care for and have dominion over all the living things that breathe.
And then verse 30 tells us – God gives to all creatures all the green grasses for food. What is laid out in this chapter is not a science-based description of the violent food chain we experience… but of peace and sustenance.
The vision of the peaceable kingdom we long for in the new creation is simply a restoration of how God created us to live.
But as the next chapters of Genesis tell us, and as we explored in the first week of this series, humanity quickly rebels against God’s plan.
We were cut off from the abundant life of the garden. All of creation was impacted – from the soil to the air to the creatures that were to be our companions and helpers.
John Wesley, on of the founders of our United Methodist tradition wrote about how our sin shook the foundations of creation and changed our relationship with what he calls the “brute creatures” of this world. Although they were formed to be our helpers, no longer do the creatures love and obey humanity – they flee from us or would seek to destroy us. Just as our hearts are caught up in violence and destruction, so too, do they turn and destroy one another. Nearly every creature on earth “can no otherwise preserve their own lives,” Wesley writes, “than by destroying their fellow creatures!” (“The General Deliverance”)

As John Wesley notes, it isn’t just the large creatures of prey that are violent; even the “innocent songsters of the grove” eat forms of life that are lower on the food chain than themselves.
In 2015, when I took the Organic Ministry class, I spent an entire day each month on my friend Tim Diebel’s farm, Taproot Garden. One of my favorite things to do during our afternoon sabbath was to sit by the chickens and watch them interact and strut around the yard. They appear so gentle and beautiful, but they are part of the violent circle of life. When you watch them there in the yard, they peck and scratch and will rip apart any worm or bug that crosses their path.
“The girls,” as Tim calls them, are well cared for. He lets them out of the coop every morning, pampers them with choice feed and treats from the garden, gathers their eggs, and safely tucks them in every night. Occasionally the chickens get territorial, and sometimes bigger ones would pick on the smaller ones, so multiple coops and a process for integrating new birds into the flock helped to manage that process. But you can’t guard against every danger and you can’t change the fact that chickens are also prey.
My heart broke one afternoon as I saw a post from Tim on his blog about “nature’s harder edge.”
Just as he was heading out to put the girls to bed for the night there was a commotion in the yard. The chickens were in chaos and making a ruckus and Tim caught out of the corner of his eye something larger that had been scared away by his presence. When he finally had a chance to take in the scene, three dead hens were found. It had been foxes, who had watching for just the right moment to grab dinner.
In the midst of his grief, Tim’s words capture the tension of what it means to live in this time of longing for the new creation:
“Here in the rawness of God’s order are pests and diseases in the garden and thieving birds and squirrels in the orchard. There are moles tunneling through the yard, and there are predators above and around the chicken yard attentively watching for and eventually seizing their hungry opportunity. It’s beautiful out here, and serene, but it’s also torn feathers and blood, rot and thorn.”
The reality of torn feathers and blood, and the pain and the violence, death and destruction, amplify the longing of all living beings for the peaceable kingdom.

Wesley reflected upon the violence of creation, but also had harsh words for how the brute creation is treated with cruelty by “their common enemy, man…” and… listen to these words, to what Wesley calls us, “the human shark, [who] without any such necessity, torments them of his free choice.”
From inhumane confinement operations, to dog or cock fighting rings… from the neglect experienced by so many pets to the ways some beasts of burden are abused. Not only did Wesley believe that in the new creation these creatures would be restored to full and abundant life… that all dogs and cats and lions and bears WOULD go to heaven… but that God’s creatures would “receive an ample amends for all their present sufferings.”
He encouraged people to reject our sense of entitlement and to remember God’s care for every inferior creature… in the hope it would soften our hearts towards them here and now. And he was not alone.
Charles Spurgeon wrote, “cruelty hardens the heart, deadens the conscience, and destroys the finer sensibilities of the soul … For the man who truly loves his Maker becomes tender towards all the creatures his Lord has made.”
And so we cannot divorce Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom in our focus text for this week from the verses that precede it.
In verses 1-5, we hear good news of hope for all who are needy and oppressed. The promised one will come to transform all relationships, human or otherwise.
And as Gene Tucker notes, “the rule of justice in human society is followed or paralleled by a transformation in the relationship among animals and between animals and human beings.” When our hearts are right, peace will prevail for all creatures.
And God calls us to account.
In these days of Advent, we are comforted by the image of peaceful animals around the manger and we hear the good news shared with the shepherds and sheep in the fields of Bethlehem.
But the expectation of Advent is not only about preparing our hearts for the birth of Jesus, but for Christ to come once again.
We are waiting for God’s kingdom to burst forth and set us free from the endless cycle of violence and death, revenge and pain.
We are waiting for that day of endless peace, justice and righteousness.

How shall we wait?
Well, first, we need to remember that when the Prince of Peace comes, there will be a great reckoning… Our Great Shepherd will gather the flock together and as much as we want to identify with the sheep and not the goats, we have to remember our obedience to God is shown in how we care for the most vulnerable of this world – the least and the last and the lost.
So, this season of Advent is a great time to remember the creatures around us…
You could donate items to local animal shelters and veterinary offices like old towels, pet food, and cleaning supplies. We also collect pet food and take it out with Joppa when we visit the homeless in our community.
Or you could give the gift of animals through Heifer International and help empower small-scale farmers across the world…
or maybe, you could foster or rescue an animal yourself.
God has never stopped calling us to practice care and dominion for the creatures of this world.
And when we do so, when we take up our responsibility, we are ushering in the peaceable kingdom in our little corner of the world and stewarding it until that day comes the little child shall lead us into the promises of the new creation.

The Beloved Community

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Today, we enter the world of Micah… a prophet from the late 8th century…  just over 700 years before Christ.

And to put ourselves in Micah’s shoes, I want you to imagine with me for a moment a world that is under great stress.

Imagine pressure coming from an aggressive empire or state that believes their success is determined by how far they expand their influence and power and who will stop at nothing to do so.

Imagine attacks upon nations’ capitols.  Imagine an influx of refugees. Imagine increased social stresses. Imagine those attacks that were far away and in other places suddenly taking place in your own homeland.


Maybe we don’t really have to imagine, do we.


Like Isaiah, Micah wrote from the Southern Kingdom, Judah, and witnessed the downfall of the Northern Kingdom, Israel.    And also like Isaiah, there are sections of this short book of scripture that seem to come from AFTER the time of Judah’s own destruction and exile two hundred years later, possibly updated by others.

And that is because Micah, like so many of our prophets, is lifting up a timeless theme that is just as relevant today as it was 2700 years ago.  We, too, could update the names of nations and rulers and find ourselves right here in this text, right now.

The judgments and accusations against Samaria… against Jerusalem… those capital cities of these ancient nations… they could be leveled against Washington, D.C. or Des Moines, Iowa as well.

So let us hear them…  Let us hear these judgments and lift up our confession

We seek God in all the wrong places (1:5)… like Pastor Jennifer said last week, we often turn to everything but God in order to fill that God-shaped hole in our heart.  Whether it is the abuse of drugs or sex, Netflix binges or self-help books, we have a spiritual hunger that we seek to fill in so many ways EXCEPT by seeking God.  Forgive us, O God.

We exploit the work of others and we tear down their homes… even the meager homes and tents of the most vulnerable among us (2:1-2).  Here in Des Moines, we know the homeless are among us and yet our official city policy is to keep evicting the homeless camps, knowing that there is nowhere else for these people to go.  We do not have enough beds and shelter spaces or a long-term strategy in place.  Forgive us, O God.

We turn to prophets who say all the things we want to hear, instead of what we need to hear (2:11).  I think one of the biggest symptoms of this is the echo chambers we find ourselves in… only paying attention to the news or science or reports that we agree with and only being friends with those who share our opinions.  Forgive us, O God.

Our public officials who should guard justice are corrupt and take advantage of the very people they should be serving (3:2-3). No matter which sides of the political spectrum we are on, we recognize politics is a dirty business.  Unlike the political landscape of Micah’s day, we live in a democracy and have the unprecedented opportunity to hold our public officials accountable through our votes and yet, so often we choose not to exercise that right.  Forgive us, O God.

The pastors and religious leaders serve the highest bidder, yet claim to be serving and proclaiming God’s will (3:11).  Too often, our religious leaders try to whittle all of scripture down to a single issue and claim this is the only issue that matters above all else, and then use that one issue to influence our people and our politics.  I believe in doing so, we are neglecting the breadth and depth of God’s call to us as God’s people.  So for the times I have done this, Forgive me, O God.


What the prophet Micah offers to us are not simply words of condemnation and judgement, but also a vision of what true community in God could look like.  Micah calls us to a different way of living and being in this world. Micah paints a picture of the beloved community… a sort of antidote to all of the spiritual, political, and economic sins of our day.

That term, “beloved community,” was often used by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a description of the ends sought by the civil rights movement.  In that time of turmoil and unease, he relied upon the wisdom of the prophets to help show the way forward.  And because the goal of the movement was redemption and reconciliation, the only path forward, Dr. King believe, was a path of nonviolence.  It was the only means that would seek the ends of God.

He proclaimed:  “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.  It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends…. it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men.  It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.  It is the love of God working in the lives of men.  This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”

Now, that passage is from his 1957 message called, “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma.”

Right now, as a nation have a moral dilemma.  We have neglected the vulnerable. We demonize our opponents.  We are afraid of one another. We are unable or unwilling to speak out when we see our neighbors oppressed.

And, we, the church, are called to say something… to do something… to be active agents of God’s redemptive power in this place.

We, too, need to hear again the call of the prophets, the vision of God’s kingdom so that WE can live in the kind of way that might bring salvation to our civilization.


And in Micah’s vision, there are three things that we, the church, can do.

First, we need to stop waiting for our leaders and we need to go to the house of God, to learn from God and walk in God’s path.

We have to get deeper into our scriptures.  We need to sit with our bibles and in prayer and ask for God’s guidance.  If Pastor Jennifer is right, and I believe she is, that the moral famine of our world is preceded by our spiritual famine, then we need to start being fed once again by God’s word.   So make Sunday mornings a priority in your family and come to not only worship and fellowship, but get involved with a study.  Participate in a  life group.  Find a friend and pray together once a week. Ask daily for God to guide you.

Second, we need to set aside violence and bloodshed and stop being afraid.

We might not walk around with spears or swords, but our own weapons today include more than guns.  As Bishop Jonathan Keaton preached at our North Central Jurisdictional Conference, social media has allowed for daily combat.  We fire off shots like snipers towards unseen and nameless others.  We bully and taunt with a few taps of our fingers.  And we escalate conflict, learning war and hatred from one another instead of seeking the ways of peace.

Seeking nonviolent interaction with our neighbors or enemies is about more than refusing to physically strike them.  It is also refusing to impart spiritual or emotional blows.  It is about choosing to see your opponent as a child of God.  It is about choosing love over fear or hate.

And finally, we can live a life of worship.  A life, in our language, of love, service, and prayer.

Micah describes this life of worship, not in rituals meant to appease God, but in every waking moment we live out the greatest commandments… to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

We worship by doing justice.

We worship by loving kindness.

We worship by walking humbly with God.

Or as the Message translation puts it:  Do what is fair and just to your neighbor.  Be compassionate and loyal in your love. And don’t take yourself too seriously… take God seriously!

Will the entire world be transformed if we do these things?  Not overnight.  But we can never get to that beloved community… we will never see God’s kingdom lived out right here on earth if we never take the first step.

If you are seeking an instruction manual or the blueprints for the beloved community it’s right here:

God’s made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women.

Do justice.

Love kindness.

Walk humbly with God.

Serve. Love. Pray. Every single day. Amen.

I am NOT a prophet

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In 1908, a mining disaster in Monogah, West Virginia claimed the lives of 361 men.

250 of those men were fathers and nearly one thousand children in the area were suddenly fatherless.

And along comes Grace Golden Clayton, a Methodist, who had recently lost her own father.

She felt a call to do something, to say something… and so the first observance of “Father’s Day” was held at her church, the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church South on July 5, 1908.

Ordinary people are sometimes called to speak extraordinary things.


There were, in the time of Amos, professional prophets who lived in bands and studied with one another in guilds. They would often lift up apprentices, like Elijah did with Elisha, and sometimes the trade was passed from one generation to the next.  Often, they found their place near power… much like the prophets of Baal in the court of Ahab and Jezebel.

Amos was not one of these professionals.  As we hear loud and clear in our scripture this morning: “I am not a prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son: I am a shepherd and a trimmer of sycamore trees.” Amos 7: 14

And yet he is called by God to go toe-to-toe with the royal priest Amaziah. He is called to speak uncomfortable truths to those with power.  There is no community at his back, just him and God’s word.


And it is not an easy word.  Everything is hunky-dory for the elite and powerful of Israel. Life is good.

And that is precisely the problem.

In the words God speaks to Amos:  I won’t hold back punishment, because they have sold the innocent for silver, and those in need for a pair of sandals.  They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and pus the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2: 6-7).

All of their wealth and comfort has come at the expense of the poor and afflicted.

They are fat and happy as cows, lounging around on couches, singing idle songs, drinking wine and buying expensive oils for their bodies… and they couldn’t care less about the suffering of others. (Amos 6:1-7)

Plague after plague was sent upon Israel… God’s way of gently pushing the people back onto the right path… Over and over God was calling the people to return and they refused.  They were too comfortable right where they were.


We live in a world of reality television, Netflix binging, and crowded airwaves.   We live in a time of consumer pleasure where everything can be bought for a price.  We live in an era of slacktivism… where we think that signing our name to an online petition or sharing an article on social media means that we are changing the world.  In spite of our own personal struggles, compared with the world… compared with history… we are fat and happy as cows, too.

The world of Amos was not all that different from ours.


One of the powerful images given to Amos in his vision in our scripture this morning is that of a plumb line.  As we demonstrated with the children this morning, the plumb line shows where adjustments need to be made.  The plumb line shows where things are out of whack.  The plumb line shows whether or not our foundations will be strong and lasting.

God was building a nation out of the people of Israel – a nation that would show the world how to live.

God wanted Israel to be a people who cared for the poor and oppressed.

God wanted Israel to let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

And just because Israel is set-apart and called to be God’s people doesn’t mean they are immune from judgement.

God desires true community and justice for ALL peoples, not just Israel, and holds all nations accountable to that same standard…  but perhaps there is no greater disappointment than when the one whom you love the best, the one you’ve chosen lets you down.

The walls of Israel are out of alignment.  The structure will no longer hold.  And so it needs to be torn down so that it can be rebuilt.


Sometimes, when we think about the Old Testament, we think of it as the collection of laws and judgment and so we write it off, because we have the New Testament… which is full of love and grace.

But that is to misunderstand both judgment and grace.

Both are acts of love.

They are two sides of the same coin.

Judgement helps you to have an accurate picture of where you are and where you should be and grace is the transformative power that moves you from here to there.

Tearing down the walls so that they can be rebuilt… better, stronger, more faithfully, is an act of love.

An act of love both towards the wayward elite who are full of sin and pride…. AND an act of love towards all of those whom they have trampled on in their climb to the top.


The world of Amos was not that different from ours.  And a plumb line is being held up in our midst, too.


I’m going to be completely honest that I stand in this pulpit today with a little bit of fear and trembling in my heart.

Much like how Grace Golden Clayton, who was very shy must have felt when she approached her pastor about starting a Father’s Day Commemoration.

Much like Amos must have felt when God sent him to the royal court of Jeroboam in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

I am not a prophet.

I’m a pastor… which ironically comes from the Latin… meaning shepherd.

So I resonate with Amos.

When Amaziah threatens him and sends him away for speaking a word against the king, Amos answers:

“I am not a prophet… I’m a shepherd… but the Lord took me from shepherding the flock and the Lord said to me, God, prophesy to my people Israel.”


Friends, I am not a prophet.  I don’t want to be a prophet.

I have felt a call all of my life to be someone who stands firmly in the middle to help bring ALL of the sheep into the fold.  Black sheep, white sheep, grey sheep, brown sheep… they are all precious children of God and I have felt a call to care for them… to care for you.

At various points in my life, I have been the type of leader who finds a way for every voice to be heard, who finds a middle way in the midst of difference, and who seeks to keep everyone engaged and involved.

Yet, as a shepherd, as a pastor, I also am keenly aware that there are sheep who have left the flock… who have wandered away… or who have been scared away by the other sheep.


Last week as we gathered for worship, I didn’t yet know about the tragedy that had taken place in the night in Orlando.  Even as we worshipped that morning, more names, more lives were added to the death toll.

And all week, my heart has been broken by this massacre… by the taking of so many young, vibrant, lives.

But I think one of the things that has truly broken my heart is that I wonder if they knew that God loved them.


You’ve heard me talk about how we are called to love all people many many many times from this pulpit.  And so maybe you know that when I say that, I mean the lives of gay and lesbian, trans and queer, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, intersex… the whole alphabet of our lives, too.  But if you didn’t, I’m saying it.  God loves you, too.

But I have watched as friends I love have left the church because they were not accepted for who they were.  I have watched colleagues have to hide who they are in fear… and I’ve watched them come out and claim their identity… even if it means that they might lose their credentials.

Yesterday, one of my friends posted on facebook that a fourteen year old trans* child in her last congregation took their life.

Several researchers have found that faith is associated with a lower chance of risky behavior and suicide among youth.  Religious teenagers are less likely to kill themselves than their peers… unless they are gay.

If they are LGBT+ and religious, they are actually more likely to take their own life.

And its because too often, they feel rejected, at the core of who they are, by their faith families.

As we have learned as the week went on that the perpetrator of this act of hate and terror was likely also someone who wrestled with his own sexuality and took out his pain and hatred on the lives of innocent people, I can’t help but think about that statistic.


This past week, I’ve been forced to hold up a plumb line to how we, as people of faith, truly welcome LGBT+ folks.

Do our sons and daughters, grandchildren and neighbors know that God loves them? Are they welcome here, in this place, in this sanctuary?

Monday, I came here in the sanctuary to pray and to cry and to grieve for the loss sustained last weekend… to grieve for them and their families… the moms and the dads whose children were taken from them…. For the ones whose own parents didn’t know that they gay… who didn’t know that there in the dance club was the only safe place they could be themselves.

And I was struck by how this tragedy also lived at the intersection of color and sexuality and how violence disproportionally impacts people of color.  And I was struck by how the lives lost on that morning are only a fraction of the lives taken because of homophobia and hatred.  And I heard the call to reach out to my friends and colleagues, my family, my neighbors and to simply say these words:  I love you.  I see you.  I care about you.  You are beautiful and beloved by God.  You are worthy.  You are not alone.  If you need me, I’ll be here.


Too often, acts of violence and tragedy come and go with the news cycle in our nation.  We say a prayer and then turn our attention back to something more entertaining.

And in that we are absolutely no different than the people of Israel in the time of Amos.  We turn our backs on the downtrodden and the marginalized.  We say all the right words and then go right back to doing what we have always done and nothing ever changes.

Stephen Colbert, in his opening monologue on Monday night talked about how we accept that script and become paralyzed by despair, but then he said these words, which I leave us with today:

Well I don’t know what to do, but I do know that despair is a victory for hate. Hate wants us to be too weak to change anything. Now these people in Orlando were apparently targeted because of who they love. And there have been outpourings of love throughout the country and around the world. Love in response to hate. Love does not despair. Love makes us strong. Love gives us the courage to act. Love gives us hope that change is possible. Love allows us to change the script. So love your country, love your family, love the families of the victims and the people of Orlando, but let’s remember that love is a verb, and to love means to do something.


We hold up the plumb line today and I can’t help but wonder if changing the script means to tear down the walls built on hate, injustice and oppression… tearing them down and starting over as a people who share the love of God with every single person… who create a wide space in this church, in this building for all of God’s people.

Amen and Amen.


J&MES: Mercy & Judgment

I love to play games. Board games, video games, card games…

One of my favorite ways to spend time with family is to grab a deck of cards and play all evening long.

Pinochle and 500 in particular. In both, there is some luck involved in the hand you are dealt, but also a lot of strategy during the card play. The games involve bidding, communication with your partner, and risk taking. Because you never know when your cards might get trumped.

You see, in both games, there is a trump suit. And that means that whoever wins the bid gets to pick the suit… whether diamonds, hearts, clubs, or spades… that will automatically win anytime they are played.

No matter how high of a card you play… a trump card can beat it.

In our life of faith, there are a lot of trump cards we can play. Actions we take or words we say that stop a conversation in its tracks or change the trajectory of a person’s action.

As James writes to the people of God, he is basically telling them that they have two kinds of trump cards to choose from: Mercy & Judgment.

The question is… which is more faithful? And which are YOU going to play?


Each of us were handed a card as we walked in this morning. For the purposes of our message this morning, I want you to ignore whatever the number or suit is of the card you were handed and instead I want you to pick your own ranking.

I want you to think about the worst thing you have ever done in your life. The biggest sin you have committed. That one that stays with you. Maybe, it is the one others keep reminding you about. Maybe, the one no one else even knows about.

How would you rank that sin?

Is it a four of stealing?

Is it a jack of adultery?

Is it an ace of lies?

No matter how we have ranked our sin, no matter what suit it is, God has a word for us today.

Because no matter how high of a card you have or you play… a trump card can beat it.

And in our life of faith, we can choose between two suits of trump: Mercy & Judgment.


First, let’s look at what it would mean to play the trump card of judgment.

When you choose judgment as your trump card, then when you see sin in the world, you choose to name it. You choose to treat others based upon their obedience to the Law of God, because you are playing by the rule of Law.

And that means that every one of the Ten Commandments Moses chiseled into the stone tables, every one of the 613 laws of the Old Testament, every single rule of the scriptures applies.

Not just for other people, who you are judging…. But for yourself, too!

This is the same message Paul shares with the Roman community. In chapter 2 of his letter to the Romans, he speaks about the difference between living under the law and living under grace… and specifically is speaking to a Jewish community. “Those who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law… If you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law…. Then why don’t you who are teaching others teach yourself.” (Romans 2: 12, 17, 21)

If you choose to judge others by the Law, you are choosing to live under the Law. And that means all the Law applies to you.

One of the big problems that James sees with this is that Judgment is often arbitrary.

We pick and choose which laws we are going to judge by.

As The Message translation of James 2:1 puts it: “My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith.”

The laws we tend to judge by ARE influenced by the changing tides of culture. We can see how the important sins of the day have changed through time… whether we are focusing on slavery, prohibition, child labor, sexuality, abortion… some sins get elevated to the top and are THE standard by which we judge other people.

If we go back to the game of cards… they are the ones that we think are the Aces, Kings and Queens of sin.

But as James writes, “you can’t pick and choose in these things.”

If you are going to live under the law, you have to live under the ENTIRE law. And Paul says it is impossible: “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” (Romans 2:23)

But we keep trying to play the trump cards of judgment, and we point out to others the exact rank and suit of their cards.

The problem is, we tend to use our life as the measuring stick, rather than the law. We pick out their suits by the Laws we choose to follow and rank them based on our own obedience, success, and failures. Who is rich and who is poor… who is deserving and undeserving… all of these distinctions depend on where we stand and what we believe about ourselves…. Not how God sees them or us.

And God sees all sin equally. It doesn’t matter if you are a serial killer or committed adultery or if you stole a candy bar when you were seven… we are all sinners.

Every single sin, no matter how we rank them… whether it is an ace or a three… they are equal. They all get trumped by judgment.


The other option is to choose mercy as your trump card. When you do so, it is grace that sets the rules of the game.

A very simple definition of mercy is to give someone something they do not deserve.

And as we just heard, none of us deserve grace. “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory,” Paul writes… and then continues, “but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace.” (Romans 3:23-24)

The Law of God helps us to see how far away from God’s intentions we have fallen, but it is only the Grace of God that gives us the freedom to get back up and reclaim who we were truly meant to be.

On Tuesday of this week, Pastor Todd and I were in Ames to hear a presentation from Bishop Ken Carter who presides over the Florida Annual Conference.

First and foremost, Bishop Carter reminded us that we were all made in the image of God. Before the fall, before sin entered the world, we were made in God’s image.

And in our tradition, we believe that no sin, no matter how big, can ever take that image of God away from us. It is there… deep within our lives.

Every person has it… whether they are aces by the world’s standards or fours and fives.

And God’s grace enters our lives while we are still sinners and sets us free.

In our tradition, we talk about the justifying grace that saves us, but again, grace has nothing to do with anything we have done, with our gifts or our merits…. It is simply our acceptance of the fact that God has already accepted us.

It is our decision to stop playing by the rules of Law and to start living by the rule of grace.

Or as James puts it, “talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free.” (2:12)

When we live by the rules of grace and play the trump card of mercy, then again, we have to treat every person in this world the same. No kings or threes here, either.

And the trump of mercy allows us to see others not as the worst thing they have ever done, but instead to see the image of God in their lives.


Bishop Carter also shared with us this past week a really concrete picture of the difference between playing the trump of judgment and playing the trump of mercy.

He pointed to two well-know, important people of faith: Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.

Both of them are holy men. They have both dedicated their lives to God’s word.

Yet, their words of response to one of the big “sin questions” of our time are striking.

In regards to homosexuality, Pope Benedict said: “although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil.”

Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?”

The world saw Pope Benedict as a continuation of a church that was declining in relevancy, pointing out the sins of the world and judging without paying attention to its own sins.

But we have seen the world respond in a different way to Pope Francis, and his focus on mercy has everything to do with it.

He washed the feet of prisoners on Good Friday. He lives a life of humility. He has declared a season of mercy and forgiveness of those who have had abortions. He is calling the church to treat every single person with mercy, love, and grace.

He has not abandoned the churches official positions on any of these controversial subjects, but he has let go of the trump card of judgment. He refuses to play it.

Bishop Carter pointed out that the more we approach holiness, the more humility we should have and the more we leave judgment in the hands of Jesus.

And what we see is that others’ lives are transformed not by playing a trump card of judgment and pointing out their sins.

No, transformation happens in the presence of holiness and grace and love… when the trump card of mercy wipes away whatever suit or rank has defined us and allows us to remember the image of God that is in our lives.


Mercy or Judgment?


James is pretty clear… Mercy trumps everything…. Even Judgment.

The Shepherd King

As each year draws to an end, another begins.

It is a cycle, an ebb and flow, watching and waiting, the birth of the promise, and then we watch as that promise is fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ.  We witness each year his life, his death, his resurrection.  We watch as the Holy Spirit blows among the people and how the people of God respond.

And at the end of every yearly cycle, we have a glimpse of the Kingdom.  We have a glimpse of the one who will rule forever, eternal in the heavens.

In our epistle this morning, Paul gives thanks for the faith and the love of the Ephesians, and continues to pray that they might know Christ, who sits at “God’s right side in the heavens, far above every ruler and authority and power and angelic power, any power that might be named not only now but in the future.”

You know…. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords that is promised in Isaiah.

And so today, the last Sunday in the church year, we celebrate Christ the King.  We remind ourselves of his power and glory and majesty.

And next week, the cycle begins anew as we return to waiting and preparation in the season of Advent.

Christ the King.

What does it even mean for Christ to be the king of our lives?

What kind of King will he be?

Some kings in our modern culture are ruthless dictators.

Other kings are figureheads who only represent power.

I might have been watching too much Game of Thrones lately, but when I think of a king, the first image that comes to mind is a ruler on the Iron Throne.

A leader who is a part from the people, indifferent to their plight unless it affects him personally.

I picture a king whose battles and wars are for his glory and power.

Other biblical images of kings find people who are full of both faults and incredible wisdom.  At times, we see them sitting in judgment over the people, much like we find Jesus doing in the vision of the end in Matthew 25.

The King is the final arbiter of the law.  When there is conflict among the people, the case is brought before him as their ruler for a word of justice.

Often, when we think of traditional ideas of kingship, the ruler is the judge, jury, and executioner who parse out sentences according to the laws of the land.

Laws that he probably wrote.

So, it is to be expected that when we come to the end… the end of the year, the end of our lives, the end of the earthly realm… that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will sit upon the throne and will give a final account.  He will determine who is worthy to enter the kingdom.

In Matthew 25:31-32: “When the Son of Man comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne.  All the nations will be gathered in front of him.  He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

Just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

What are shepherds doing in this story?

Historically speaking, shepherds and kings belong on opposite ends of the social spectrum.

While kings have armies at their disposal, the shepherd personally protects the sheep. His very body is their first line of defense.

While a king leads from on high, issuing orders through his commanders and sending word through the land, the shepherd leads from the midst of the sheep.

I learned that there is a difference between the way we lead sheep here in the West and how they would have done it in Jesus time, and continue to do in the east. We often herd our sheep like a king would – pushing them forward towards their destination, often with the aid of sheep dogs or other animals. When they begin to go the wrong direction, we push them onwards, or the dogs nip at their heels, and eventually they get where they are supposed to.

In the East however, the shepherd personally led his flock. He would have stood near the front of the flock, but was always in the midst of them. As he walked, they would walk with him. Wherever he went, they would go.

Kings are often indifferent to the plight of their people, but a shepherd knows each one in his flock by name.  And a shepherd wouldn’t hesitate to leave behind the entire flock in order to search for one that was lost.

Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, judges us, calls us to account, in the way a shepherd would.

He gathers the flock together and calls them by name.

He speaks and at the sound of his voice, those who recognize him come running near.


But what they and we are surprised by is that Jesus doesn’t judge us by the laws of the church and the kingdom.  You know…. by how many times we came to church or even by holding us accountable to the 10 commandments.  He doesn’t ask if we ate shellfish or if we were circumcised.  He doesn’t separate the married from the divorced.  He says not a word about the tithe or ask how many times we lied.

He separates the people into those who fed and clothed the poor, who welcomed the stranger, who visited the sick and imprisoned…. And those who didn’t.

Jesus, our King, is a shepherd at heart.

Even at the end, his concern is always for the flock.  It is for the lost, and the least and the last.  It is for those who have been forgotten.

The rules are only good in so far as they have led us to be shepherds alongside him in the world.

You see, Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and Shepherd of Shepherds and as his people, as his body the church, OUR task is also to care for the flock.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when the story came out a few weeks ago about Arnold Abbott who was arrested for feeding the homeless.  Abbott is 90 years old and has now been arrested twice for this act of loving his neighbor.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when I learned of the death of Dr. Salia this past Monday.  Dr. Salia went to Africa to serve at the Kissy United Methodist Hospital in Sierra Leone.  He went to the sick, to offer his gifts and skills, and contracted Ebola while he cared for those who were ill.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when I think of the hundreds of people who have poured into Ferguson to stand in solidarity with a community that is frustrated and grieving after the death of Michael Brown… especially those who have worked to bring non-violent training to the young people who felt like they had no other options but violence. Today, I hold them all in prayer as they await the grand jury decision.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when I think about one of our United Methodist ministers here in Iowa, Rev. Dr. Larry Sonner,  who has had a complaint filed against him for officiating a same-sex marriage.

In all of these complicated and difficult situations, I feel the tension between the law and tradition and scripture and what we are supposed to do… and the call to be with and serve the flock, to tend the sheep, to care for the people.

 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

None of these are easy situations.  Our lives are full of complicated choices that can put us in danger or on the wrong side of the law or put us at odds with our neighbors.

But as Paul prays for the Ephesians, so I pray for us… here at Immanuel, in the Iowa Annual Conference, for the people in Ferguson, and for our brothers and sisters across this world who are hungry and homeless and sick and imprisoned:

“I pray that that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, 19 and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers.”

Christ is our King. Christ is the head of our church and our lives.  Christ is the shepherd who is leading this flock.

May we turn our hearts towards prayer.  May we seek God’s wisdom and power and hope.  May we hear the voice of our shepherd and may we go where he leads us.

Amen. And Amen.

Mercy Trumps Judgment

The UnitedMethodistChurch has a mission.

 We have been called by God to make disciples of Jesus Christ FOR THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE WORLD.

 That last piece… for the transformation of the world… is a recent addition to our mission, but it speaks volumes about who we believe God has called us to be.

 We believe that a church which shuts its doors to the outside world is a church that is dead and lifeless.  We believe a church that is not actively engaged in mission and service is no church at all.

 And we believe as United Methodists that God wants us to focus on four particular areas: to help combat the diseases of poverty, to engage in ministry with the poor, to create new places for new people in our churches and to help develop Christian leaders for the church and the world.

 This is who we are as the UnitedMethodistChurch. We believe God uses everyday ordinary people to join in his work across the globe to bring the Kingdom of God into its fullness right here.

 Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer together, we are asking for God’s kingdom to become a reality right here on earth AS IT IS in heaven.  You are the hands and feet of Jesus for this broken world.  Are you ready to get started?!

 But before we dive in and get to work, I think that our scripture lessons for today offer a cautionary tale.  In James and in Proverbs, we find that there are problems with simply looking down on those who are hurting and trying to give them a hand out.  We can get so busy doing good things that we forget about our faith…. But more often, we get so focused on our faith that we forget about doing good things.

 James finally whittles this distinction down to two words:  Mercy and Judgment.  And no matter what translation we decide to read James 2:13 in – the message is the same… Mercy trumps judgment.

1) What is judgment and why should we avoid it.

          a) Judgement is our arbitrary assessment of other people… who is rich and who is poor, who is deserving and undeserving, what is important and deserves our time and what doesn’t… it all depends on where we stand and what we believe about ourselves.  Even while we might look at our wealth compared to others in this nation and feel poor… we could look at all that we have in relation to most of the population of this world and realize just how rich we are. Who is rich and who is poor depends on where you are standing. Our job is not to judge another person based upon how we see them or based upon their relationship to us… but to see them through the eyes of Jesus.

          b) when we place ourselves in the seat of judgment, we have elevated ourselves to God’s level and we can no longer see the fault and sin in our own lives.  These verses from proverbs are warnings to the rich who have grown comfortable in their blessedness.  They believe they are where they are because God is rewarding them for all the good they have done and can no longer see that they are agents of oppression and subsumed in their own temptations and sin.

          c) this does not mean that we do not need to account for our sins.  this does not mean that every wrong thing a person does is okay.  What it means is that it is not for US to judge the lives of others.  Our job is not to wave around signs and point out another person’s failings… our job is to walk with one another and let the Word of God transform each of our lives.  God’s word alone can convict our hearts.

2) why mercy is better

          a) to show someone mercy is to give them something they do not deserve.  When we show mercy to the rich and poor, black and white, righteous and unrighteous, what we are doing is living out a simple truth – we are all the same.  We are all sinners saved by the grace of God.  None of us “deserve” it…

          b) mercy is the work God calls us to. At worship this Wednesday we heard from Latin theologian Rene Padilla.  He made a simple but profound statement.  We are not saved by good works – we are saved FOR good works.  Jesus Christ has saved us and freed us from our self-centered sin SO THAT we can be his hands and feet to care for this world.  The Law of God helped us to see how far away from God’s intentions we had fallen… but the Grace of God gave us the freedom to get back up and to reclaim who we truly were meant to be.

          c) over and over in the scriptures, we are called upon to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and in prison, proclaim the good news. This is our job… this is why we have been saved.  This is the fruit of our faith, the evidence of our salvation, this is who we were created to be and what we have been gifted to do.

 3) So I want to ask you a question:  are you living a life of judgment? or a life of mercy?  This is a very personal question… and once that I cannot answer for you.  It is something that you must discover through prayer, through reading the scriptures and reflecting on the word of God in sermons and bible study.

But we can ask a larger question… Are we a church of judgment?  Or a church of mercy?

James writes that faith without works is dead.  In Matthew chapter 25 the sheep and the goats are separated by what they have done to the least among us.  Proverbs tells us that those who are generous are blessed.

 So, lets do a little inventory of our fruits.

1) PET Project – What about  the story of Ventura?  We helped raise funds to purchase seven of these personal energy transportation vehicles and he recieved one that year.  Ventura lost the use of his legs after being shot twice in the spine.  He has four daughters.  With his physical challenges, he has been rejected by his family.  His only income comes from selling gum on the street and charity.  His P.E.T. has provided him transportation for the dirt roads of his community so that he can get to more places and he is thankful to be alive.

2) Women at the Well – Not only have we sent three carloads of clothes, toiletries, and luggage to Mitchelville for the Stepping Out clothes closet, but we have also built relationships.  We spent time getting to know Outside Council chairperson Rev. Marlene Janssen.  And this fall, we sent a group of ten people to worship with our sisters in Christ inside the walls.  We want to continue this relationship by becoming a partner church and supporting the ministry with our dollars and cents as well.  Our buckets on the table in the middle of the sanctuary are a fun way to begin this challenge.

3) Matthew 25 – Our church has been an active supporter of the Matthew 25 Ministry Center in Cedar Rapids.  We have collected tools and games, school supplies and flower pots.  But we have also travelled in person to serve lunches during the summer and we have welcomed Rev. Clint here as he shared the story of their ministry.

4) Youth and Mission Trips – Every week, this church opens its doors to youth in our community.  They sometimes make messes and leave holes in the walls – but they need a place to call home and you have provided it.  You have also helped to send them to three different states to be in service and to encounter Jesus.  Their lives are full, rich, and blessed because of you and they have in turn been a blessing to others.

5) Community Food Bank and Clothing Closet – we regularly collect items for the food bank, the clothing closet in Williamsburg, and have helped to make sure that the shelves are full.

6) Meals on Wheels – We take our turn entering the lives of those in our community who need help by driving meals and checking in on the folks who recieve them.

7) Volunteerism – you serve at the hospital, with the library, you sing at the nursing home and read stories to children at school.  You are involved with the Legion and the Lions club and all across this town and county, state and world, you are leaders – you are active – you are doing good works.

As a church, we have heard God calling us to reflect his light into this community.  And we have responded.  That huge list of good fruits tell the story of your faithfulness, your commitment, your generosity, your patience, your spirit of hospitality and grace.

And here is what I think is the most important part.  You have not simply given money for people in need… you have spent time with these people.  You have walked beside them.  You have visited them and gotten to know them.  You have built relationships.

I sat down for lunch last week with Pastor Dieudonne.  As we all know,  earlier this year the African Methodist Ministry at St. Mark’s came and joined us for worship.  Pastor Deiudonne led us in the word and members of their church led us in song.  This summer, we returned the visit and took a group from our church there to join them in worship.

Did you know that we are the ONLY congregation that has done that?  We are the only church that has been willing to join them where they are and to put ourselves in their shoes for an afternoon as the guests, the ones who were outside of our cultural comfort zone.

I believe the biggest thing that separates an act of mercy from an act of judgment is a willingness to see someone as an equal.  An awareness that you are not so different.  The ability to move past a person’s race or class or status and to love them and to work alongside them to accomplish God’s work.

As Pastor Dieudonne and I talked, I learned that he has contracted malaria three times.  He told me that every single person who is a part of their ministry has been affected by malaria.  Every one of them has had a family member die from this completely preventable disease.

In fact, every 60 seconds, a child dies from malaria.

As United Methodists, we believe that mercy is our work to do.  We believe that God has called us to serve him in our backyard and across the world.  And as a global church, we believe that we can do something about that statistic.

When we started this effort a few years ago, it was called, “Nothing But Nets.” We partnered with the Gates Foundation and the National Basketball Association and and for $10 we encouraged people to buy a net for Africa and save a child’s life.  You know what… it works.  We have cut the death rate IN HALF….

And so now we are moving on to phase two: Imagine NO Malaria…. We believe that by the year 2015 – just three short years from now, we can completely end deaths from malaria.    Our goal as a denomination is to raise $75 million dollars to fund mosquito nets, to create clean water supplies, to have on the ground training and to fund research for medications and disease prevention.

This effort is a part of our calling to combat the diseases of poverty across the world.  You see, United Methodists don’t sit back and wait… we act.  We stand up against injustice.  We care for the least of these.  We build hospitals and schools.  We are the first on the scene when there is a disaster and the last to leave.  We believe that we can not only do some good… but that we can actually make a difference.

And we do all of this because we believe that God wants to use us to truly change lives.  God wants us to care and minister to all of our brothers and sisters in our backyards and around the world so that this planet will be better tomorrow than it was today.

God wants your time and your money and your energy… but most of all, God wants your heart.  He wants you to accept the gracious gift of love that he offers and he wants you to pass it on to others… without judgment and without pity.

Amen and amen.