Love Is All You Need

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

“Save us” we cry out.

Save us from our striving for power.

Save us from unending violence.

Save us from the walls that threaten to divide.

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

Save us.

 

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

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

 

The Shema from Deuteronomy 6: Love the Lord

And

Leviticis 19 – love others.

 

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

Love God. Love your neighbor.

That’s it.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love that is patient and kind.

That that is not envious or boastful.

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

Love that isn’t satisfied with injustice.

Love that endures all things.

 

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

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

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

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

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

The love of Christ gives life to others.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

God has called us to be the Body of Christ.

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

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

God wants us to welcome the refugees and the strangers.

God wants us to seek peace and pursue it.

God wants us to visit the sick and imprisoned.

And through it all, God wants us to love.

 

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

Love God.

Love your neighbors.

Amen.

Unity, Diversity, and the Body of Christ

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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.

 

The Heart of the Matter

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Sermon on the Mount: The Golden Rule

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

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

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

But, the house rules prevail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’ Version of the Law

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When we head back home to Cedar Rapids, one of the things that I like to do, as long as the weather is warm, is play disc golf at Jones Park.

We always start at tee 15 – in part because the parking is better there on the hilltop pavilion, and there are bathrooms handy if you need them.  And looking out from that hill, you can see the entire park.  The pond, the golf course, the playground and the pool, and just over the tree tops, you can see Mount Trashmore.

Mount Trashmore is the unofficial name of the city’s beloved landfill.  It is 208 feet tall and takes up 65 acres of land.  That is as much space as 50 football fields!

Now, I mention this, because that heap of garbage reminds me of another dump, which Jesus refers to multiple times in the Sermon on the Mount. 

As we heard our gospel reading this morning we caught just a snippet of this section on the law and if we continue for another 28 verses, we hear about how Jesus believes we should treat one another.  He talks about anger, adultery, divorce, promises, revenge and how we should treat our enemies.  And we’ll get there, but first, I think we need to spend a minute with a little four letter world. 

Hell.

This is how we translate a word that shows up three times in Matthew chapter 5 – Ghenna.

Ghenna is actually a place, the Valley of Hinnom, and it was literally a trash dump… it is a valley of garbage… it is a place for filth and waste… a place to burn and destroy the refuse of our lives. This smelly, disgusting, ugly, awful place is what Jesus is pointing to in our passage today.

Let’s forget, for just a moment, that we have typically read the word “hell” here.   Instead, put ourselves in the shoes of the first century Jews who might have been sitting on the hillside listening to Jesus teach. Imagine you can see that valley of garbage, gehenna, somewhere off in the distance… much like I could see Mount Trashmore from the hill top in Jones Park. Maybe it is just the faint smell of burning garbage that lingers on the air. Maybe it is just the rising smoke from the fires. Maybe you can actually see the heaps of trash, even from far off, just outside the gate of Jerusalem.

And as you look out at gehenna, Jesus tells you what it means to be part of the Kingdom of God. 

It takes love.

That, after all, is the summary of the law we find in Deuteronomy and echoed here in Matthew… love God with everything that you are and love your neighbor as yourself.

And we know, somewhere deep inside of us that this is what we should strive for.

We know, that this is how we were made.

And, we know, that this is where we are headed…

This is the Kingdom of God. Love. Trust. Forgiveness. Honesty. Faithfulness.

And from the beginning, there have been some rules, some laws that God has invited the people to follow to embody that Kingdom.  Jesus tells all of those people, that he is not here to do away with those laws, but to show us what it means to live them fully. 

It is all about the Kingdom of Heaven. Kingdom attitudes, Kingdom witness, Kingdom behavior.

And in this sermon, Jesus wants to talk about the trash that gets in the way of us truly living like Kingdom people. He’s talking about the garbage that has to be cleared out of our lives in order for us to be a part of this community of God.

Jesus is inviting us to let go of the things that hold us back from God’s transformative grace and love. Cut it off, throw it out, put it where it belongs… on the trash heap, out with the garbage, never to be seen again.

He is not talking about eternal punishment in some fiery place… but about what cannot, will not, be a part of the kingdom of Heaven.

If we are not honest about our failings and our missteps, if we are unwilling to clean house and transform our lives, then we are throwing ourselves out with the trash.  By refusing to examine our lives, we live out there in the dump all of our own free choosing.

 

You know, we have this image in our minds of what the Kingdom of Heaven should be, and we look around us and we see a lot of signs of brokenness, pain, and waste in our lives.

There is death and murder. There is violence and anger. There is lust and revenge and envy everywhere.

All of those things that can turn our daily lives into a garbage dump.

And right here, in this sermon to the people, Jesus tackles some of the toughest situations we face in our relationships and in the scriptures: murder, adultery, divorce, oaths and promises, revenge…

In each and every single one of these verses, Jesus challenges us to live like Kingdom people.

Not once does he give us an easy out.

Not once does he allow us to justify our actions.

Not once does he say we can ignore the wisdom of earlier days.

No. In every single one of these verses, Jesus takes a simple law and makes it harder.

Don’t just restrain yourself from killing that person… Jesus says – don’t even be mad at them

You’ve been told not to commit adultery, but I say to you – don’t even look at someone who isn’t your spouse with lust.

Divorce has become as simple as writing a letter when the spark has gone – but I say to you unless your spouse has broken the fundamentals of the covenant, and committed adultery, don’t give up on your relationship… and even then give it another try.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Don’t make oaths that are more than just yes and no.

Don’t seek your own revenge but love your enemies, pray for those who seek to destroy you. Turn the other cheek.

And he ends this whole section by saying what I think are the hardest two words in all of scripture: Be perfect.

What?! Be perfect? How do we do that? How can we get there?

There are two main theories about what Jesus is trying to do here.

The first, is that Jesus takes the old testament law and turns it into SUPER law… that to be Christian really requires more morality, more legalism, more demands.

The second, is that Jesus makes the law so hard we can’t live up to it. We can’t do it. We are utterly helpless when it comes to the law and therefore, we need Jesus to save us from our own downfall. So, the law convicts us… and then the law ceases to matter because Jesus is here to save us.

I’ve never been a black and white girl. I’m not a fan of either/or choices. So, I want to share with you today a third option… a both/and.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus pointing to this future Kingdom reality and he’s inviting us to live in that reality now. He knows we are helpless to do it on our own, but he wants us to try anyways.

Be perfect, he says.

My friend Jack works with addicts and one of the things he reminds me often is that the goal of recovery groups is to help you become clean and sober. It is a community of folks who are all seeking the same end goal. Life and life abundant. Perfection. Love.

At the start of the journey, a life of sobriety is almost unimaginable. It isn’t who they are. But they know where they are going. They know who they are seeking to be. And so they try. They hold one another accountable.  They talk about when they get it wrong and they keep going.

Maybe the church needs to be a little bit more like a recovery group. We need to be a group of people, banded together, helping one another get over our addiction to sin and death, and trying to live into the kingdom of God.

And in order to do so, we have to start letting go of some of the garbage in our lives. We have to throw it out… because in the end, it just won’t do in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus calls us in each of these situations to love. Not mushy gushy love – but real, genuine, difficult, honest love. Love that forgives wrongs. Love that seeks peace. Love that refuses to fight back with violence and hatred. Love that is strong enough to overcome.

Is it easy? No.

Will we get it right on the first try? No.

Are we supposed to try anyways? Yes.

Again, and again and again.

We are supposed to try to live our lives here in the Kingdom… and not out on the garbage dump.

Live into the Kingdom of heaven… where love is our first and not our second impulse.

At Conspire worship today, we are going to sing a song during communion called, If We’re Honest.  

And the song reminds us that I’m a mess and so are you… but If we’re honest, it would change our lives.  If we’re honest, it would set us free. If we lay our secrets, our shame, our mistakes, down at the cross then we find mercy waiting for us. 

Today, friends,  I invite you to throw your past and your mistakes and the failings of yesterday on the trash heap.  Let go of them. 

And let the people who surround you in this place, this morning, help you live into the Kingdom of God we all seek.

Rusty Leftovers

I want to start out this morning with a testimony… This is my experience and I hope and pray that my own story might somehow connect with yours and that the transformation in my own life might point to the way that God might also work in yours. 

This testimony however is about a topic that makes a whole lot of us uncomfortable… but it is part of our daily lives.  This morning, I’m going to talk about money.

And my testimony is this: It took me three years of serving a congregation… three years of being a pastor… before I tithed to the church.

You might hold pastors up on a pedestal or think that as a pastor I do all of the things that people of faith are supposed to do like feed the hungry, pray every morning, read the bible cover to cover all the time, and give 10% of their money to the church.

But pastors are just like everyone else.  We are disciples, too.  We have struggles and successes.  We have places where we are explorers and beginners.  Only sometimes are we truly mature in every part of our faith. There is always room to grow deeper in our relationship with God… even for pastors.

I often gave to the church… but for a long time, I made excuses about how much I should give.

When I was a teenager and had occasional part time jobs, I might have stuck a dollar or two in the offering plate – whatever pocket change I might have had that day.  It was the last of my money… not the best.

When I was in college, I did not attend a church regularly on Sundays, but worshipped on campus Wednesday nights – and no one asked for a financial contribution.  No one asked me to give, much less give sacrificially. So I didn’t.

As a seminary student and an intern at a church, I was spending more money on school and travel than I was making and piling up debt.  I gave my time to the church and occasionally a few bucks as well.

And then I was commissioned and sent to First UMC in Marengo.  I was sent to be their pastor and I knew that I could not ask them, in good faith, to give faithfully to the church and to God, if I was not also giving. 

Having a steady paycheck for the first time in my life, I should have immediately started tithing.  But I didn’t.  I held back.  I looked at my student loans and debt from college… I looked at how much our cable bill was going to be… I thought about how we wanted to travel a bit… I knew that taxes would take a chunk of my wages… And so I started out small.  I gave to the church – but only a small portion.

And then, I became comfortable with that level of financial giving.  I knew I was doing God’s ministry in other ways and so I didn’t worry about it.

But one day about three years into ministry, I was having a conversation with a friend, a fellow pastor, about the things that we cling to… the things we hold close and refuse to give to God.

I realized in the midst of that conversation that I had never willingly yielded my money to God. 

There had been times when I had given out of guilt. 

I have given because it was what I was supposed to do. 

I have given out of habit as the offering place went around and each person in the pew pulled out a few bucks and dropped it in. 

Sound familiar?

But never had I prayerfully thought about what God wanted me to give. 

Never had I searched my heart to ask what I was willing to yield, what I was willing to joyfully give up in my life, for the sake of our Lord and our church.

 

This conversation was a conversion experience for me, and I really prayed about what God could do through the gifts that were placed in my hands and started giving more to the church on a regular basis…

The next year as we made our financial commitments, my heart led me to set aside a full 10% of my salary for the Kingdom of God.

In Marengo, the church struggled with finances and they didn’t have a lot of money to pay their pastor…. But I found that even… maybe especially… because I was giving, I had enough. 

I joyfully gave that money to God… and I have to tell you – I didn’t miss one cent.  I still don’t!

And maybe that’s because in the process I learned how to give to the church first.  I make sure that the gifts I have committed come out of my paycheck before it ever comes home with me. 

I learned how to give God my first and my best, instead of the change in my pocket – instead of the leftovers from my own spending and desires.

In Leviticus, we hear instructions for this early agricultural society to leave the crops on the edges and on the corners for the needy in the midst.  The farmers were not supposed to harvest every last seed and kernel, but rather let them remain in the fields so that the poor could go through the fields and glean the leftovers for themselves. 

A portion of the harvest, of the economic benefit earned by the farmers, was to be let go of before it was even taken out of the fields.   It belongs to God… and God desires that it belongs to those who need it the most. 

Today, not all of us are physically out in the fields harvesting the grain… but we can think about setting aside a portion of our income… a portion of our take home pay… for God’s use before it ever makes it into our bank accounts.   

Instead of giving to God what is leftover after all of our other expenses… necessities and luxuries… we can leave that portion of our gifts in God’s hands first. 

 

A year or so after I had this discipleship conversion and grew in my generosity, Bishop Trimble asked me to lead Imagine No Malaria.

I had just learned how to give… but I was so excited about what God could do through the dollars and cents entrusted to our care…

Maybe that made me exactly the right person to help United Methodists across the state give over $2million to help fight malaria… often $5 and $10 at a time.  Millions of children are alive today because you helped purchase a net, and train a community health worker, and provide malaria medication. 

In Matthew, we are invited to stop hoarding the blessings of our lives, and instead set them free for the Kingdom of God: 

As The Message translation puts it: “Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

The old adage says, you can’t take it with you… and its true.  Our time here on earth is short and piling on pleasures and wants and desires doesn’t get us anything but a house full of stuff that someone else is going to have to sort through.

Where you put your treasure is where you end up, Jesus says.

My family still has a cable subscription and a Netflix subscription… and an amazon prime subscription… and I know I still have some growth to do in my personal discipleship.  Because let me tell you – I am putting some of my treasure into those forms of entertainment and almost every night I end up sitting on the couch in front of the television. 

Where you put your treasure is where you end up, Jesus says.

Television and new clothes and name-brand cereal… they don’t last.  They will all wear out without having made an ounce of difference in this world. 

What lasts is the kingdom of God.  What lasts is the word of God.  What lasts is the joy that I have found through letting go of my desires to ask what God needs from me.

 

This week, I had the amazing experience of traveling to Atlanta to attend the first meeting of the Global Ministries Board of Directors.  I was elected by the jurisdiction to serve as a Director for the next four years. 

One of the executive staff members is Dr. Olusimbo Ige who heads up our Global Health ministries.  Dr. Ige is trained as a community physician, which means she is not only a medical doctor, but also has background in community development, engineering, finance… she is trained to help make the entire community well. 

Dr. Ige shared that she could put her extensive skills to work in a hospital and make $500 – 600,000 a year… but when she sees the lives transformed in a village where babies are surviving birth and children stop dying from malaria… she knows that she is doing the work she is supposed to do.

Today, you will be asked to help contribute funds for UMCOR blankets and health, sewing, and school kits for Ingathering.

This past week, I heard countless stories of how those kits and blankets are being used across this world.  I heard about 5,000 girls in South Sudan who received school kits this year… about women in Armenia who are using sewing kits to learn a new skill and support themselves economically… pregnant moms in Liberia who had no prenatal or obstretic care… but because of the United Methodist Church… because of our gifts and resources… because we traveled to their remote village and brought life-saving interventions every single one of the 123 babies born this year lived. 

Where you put your treasure is where you end up, Jesus says…

And as United Methodists, we end up all over this world, doing amazing things for the Kingdom of God.  

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 

You see, friends, God does not want your money, if God doesn’t have your heart.

God doesn’t have any use for your stuff, if you won’t let go of your soul.  

God doesn’t care about the things that you own… even if they could be used to help other people… unless you are willing to share with God your life. 

 

Our generosity is a deep part of our discipleship… of our relationship with and for God.

Grow in your love of God… grow in your love of neighbor… and let God grow your generosity for this world. 

Fruit that Won’t Spoil

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

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

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

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

And I discovered tomatoes on the vines again! 

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

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

 

Sometimes, fruit stays on the vine too long. 

 

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

But that fruit is meant for a purpose!   

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

We are to love.

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

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

Love each other just as I have loved you. 

 

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

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

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

Every time we pray…

Every time we read the scriptures…

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

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

Something!

Do something!

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

First, how does this apply to my life? 

Second, what am I being asked to do?

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Love.

 We are called to love.

 Not to hoard love, but to share it.

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

 Amen.

Everyday, Ordinary Worship

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It’s Sunday morning.

According to the Pew Research Center, even though 77% of adults in Iowa claim the Christian faith, only 36% of those people commit to going to church worship at least once a week. 

Another 33% attend anywhere between twice a month to a few times a year.

If we are generous with our numbers, maybe half of Des Moines is not participating in a religious worship service this morning.

 

So what are your friends and neighbors doing? 

They’re sleeping in.  Or at softball games.  They are relaxing on the porch with the newspaper. Or at brunch at one of the many amazing restaurants in the city.  They are traveling back home after being away tailgating at a game yesterday. 

I see your wheels turning.  Those things sound amazing! Why didn’t I do those things?  Why didn’t we stay home today? 

 

I’m going to share with you a confession. 

When I stepped away from congregational ministry to lead Imagine No Malaria, I didn’t go to church every single Sunday. 

I traveled, preached, and led worship in churches on Sundays all across the state, but when I actually had the chance to be home, the temptation to actually be home and not go to worship was real. 

And here is something I discovered.  The more I stayed away, the easier it was to stay away. 

I felt less guilty about it, not more.  Honestly, I didn’t really even think about it.

But on those Sundays a couple times a month when I was back in a church, I realized how disconnected from God I had been.

 

Why do we worship?

Is it out of habit?  Obligation? 

Do we come on Sunday mornings to be fed and renewed?

Are we here to gain God’s favor? Or to hang out with those people who have the same beliefs as us?

 

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he addresses the divisions in the community and how focusing our attention on God transforms every aspect of our life. 

As the end of chapter 11 states in the Message translation:

Is there anyone around who can explain God?

Anyone smart enough to tell [God] what to do?

Anyone who has done [God] such a huge favor that God has to ask their advice?

Everything comes from [God];

Everything happens through [God];

Everything ends up in [God];

Always glory! Always praise!

Yes. Yes. Yes.  

If that is God… the beginning and end of everything… what does it mean to worship? 

It means, according to Paul, that we honor and praise God by putting our very lives into God’s hands… by discovering who God has created me to be and then by responding out of love.

Hear again our scripture for this morning from the Message translation

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what [God] wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

The time we spend in worship is about honoring God by being in relationship with God.   

And you know what… relationships take work.  They take time and energy.  It is hard to be in a relationship with someone you don’t spend any time with.  

When we gather to worship, we are saying that God is the focus of our attention, our energy, our time, our life.   

It is about living out the commandment to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. 

In worship, we encounter the living God and allow that encounter to shape everything else.  

 

Worship has nothing to do with you.  Worship isn’t about the songs you sing or the money you put in the offering plate.  It isn’t about your preferences or desires.  Worship reminds us that all of it… our time, our energy, our money, our voices… they aren’t ours to begin with.  Everything begins with God… everything ends with God… It all belongs to God already.

And the more time we spend with God in worship, the more we realize that worship is not about what we do for God: an obligation, a responsibility, a duty… but worship is about what God does for us. 

 

As Paul writes in this chapter of Romans, “the only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and what God does for us…  Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of [the body of Christ].”

Lisa Gungor, the singer/songwriter says – “It’s hard to truly worship and not be changed.  When we are connected with our Maker, we are pulled outside of our self; we begin to live for something more.  Love is the reaction to [encountering God in worship]” (http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/worship/features/25684-whats-the-point-of-worship)

And the opposite is true, too…  when we are disconnected from God… when we don’t worship, then we start to turn inward on ourselves and our world becomes much smaller.

When I chose not to spend time in worship, I found myself distracted by the world’s values and temptations.  There was even a time when I doubted my call… when I started to think that I could get a job doing something outside the church and just walk away and never look back.

I was forgetting what God had done for me.

How could I just walk away from that?  How on earth was that part of the great commandment to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength?

I wasn’t part of a community, a part of a worship experience that reminded me of who God was and who God created me to be.   

That’s what those people sitting next to you in the pew are for… to remind you.  To tell you the story again and again.  To hold that truth sacred, even if you forget it.

That’s what worship is about… It is rediscovering, over and over again, who God is and who God created us to be and responding to the good news of God’s love by being those people.  

 

Worship in its fullest sense is about far more than simply showing up for an hour on a particular day of the week.  

Worship is about taking those everyday, ordinary parts of our life… the sleeping, eating, going-to-work, walking- around life, and letting God have control of them. Letting God’s power fill them.  Letting God’s love shape them.  Every moment.  Of every day.  

 

All throughout this series on discipleship, we are recognizing that this journey of following of Jesus isn’t easy.  

We all start in different places… like the servants in the parable who each had a different set of talents.  

And the same is true of our worship experiences.  

I know this room has people who fall in that category of the 33% of Iowans who only come to worship once a month or a few times a year.  And I am so glad you are here today. 

I know this room has people has people who show up faithfully for church every Sunday, but who are simply going through the motions and don’t ever expect to really encounter God here.  

And there are people who not only show up, but bring with them the willingness to be transformed and changed through this time.

There are people in this room who not only worship on Sundays, but take time to be with God through worship and devotions in your homes and families.  

I’m so glad that all of you are here.

Wherever you are… whatever has brought you to this place… you have a chance to take the next step. 

You don’t have to go from attending church once a month to doing a daily devotion tomorrow.  God doesn’t expect that of you.  But God does invite you to take one more step.  To take one step closer.  To grow in your ability to love God, to serve God, to open your heart in prayer to God.   

And God would love for you to take just one more step deeper in your faith life.  To take the next step from wherever you are.  To let go of just a little bit more… because it’s all God’s anyways…