The Spirit of Kindness

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One afternoon when I was serving the church in Marengo, a young woman walked into the church and asked to use the telephone.

Not a problem, I said.

We talked for a bit and I learned she had just been released from the county jail, was 80 miles from home, and no one was coming to get her. She finally got a hold of a friend or a neighbor… someone she thought might help and was chewed out over the phone. She hung up in frustration.

And so I asked if I could give her a ride. She was seven months pregnant and needed to get home. We got in my car and headed out. And on the way out the door, she asked if she could have one of the bibles on my shelf.

As we drove, we talked about our lives and stopped for food. We talked a little bit about church – but only enough to learn that she had never found one that had felt like home. She had dreams that she wanted to fulfill… but also was raising kids by herself and had put her goals on hold. But she was going home. And for the moment – that was all that was important.

An outsider might look on that situation and see a random act of kindness. Going out of your way to do something nice for a complete stranger. But what I did on Monday morning was far from a random act… and this young woman was far from being a stranger.

Each week this summer, we are exploring how the Holy Spirit moves in our lives and provides what we need for any situation. Today’s gift of the Spirit is kindness – and so we are going to wrestle with where it comes from and what it looks like, in part through the story of Joseph.

When Joseph finds himself sold into slavery in Egypt, he is purchased by Potiphar, a very important man and an official of the Pharaoh. It is like he was sent to work for one of our government’s cabinet officials.

In Paul’s letter to Titus, he writes about Christians who find themselves living under the authority of government officials. He tells Titus, “remind them to submit to rulers and authorities. They should be obedient and ready to do every good thing. They shouldn’t speak disrespectfully to anyone, but they should be peaceful, kind, and show complete courtesy toward everyone.” (Titus 3:1-2) Paul reminds Titus that it is God’s kindness and love that has saved us so that we can do these things.

The word that Paul uses here for kindness, chrestotes, describes a sort of temperament that is respectful and helpful without expecting anything in return. Rick Renner describes this attitude “being adaptable to the needs of others.”

Adaptable might be the best way to describe Joseph.

When sold into slavery, he tried to figure out what he could do to best please his master Potiphar. He served him with respect. Respect – even to the point of denying the advances of his master’s wife.

When that got him in trouble… Joseph adapted. His new home was the jail. His new task was to be the best prisoner he could be. And his willingness to be obedient and courteous put him in good favor with the jailor. Joseph was promoted in the prison system and was put in charge of the other prisoners.

And although he was there unjustly… and although he had no reason to treat the other prisoners with respect, he did. He cared for those other prisoners and did what he could to help them.

Which means that when the royal cupbearer and baker are thrown into jail… Joseph is the same person that he was the day before… he treats them with the same respect he would have treated anyone else in that prison. And his kindness eventually gets him out of that jail and in front of Pharaoh.

In Paul’s letter to Titus, we see that kindness is being ready for every good work. In that sense, it is not random at all, but an intentionally willingness to let God use you in every moment.

Here in Iowa, we are really good at being nice, but kindness is not just being nice or saying nice things… The Holy Spirit empowers us to live out a spirit of kindness so that we are ready to act on behalf of another person.

Kindness is always looking for the next person that you can bless.

Kindness is seeing others not as competition or as obstacles to your success – but as recipients of your grace.

The people who enter your life are not strangers… but they are children of God. The Hebrew word for kindness, Khesed describes how we should behave when we have a commitment to another person. And because we have a relationship with God, we have an obligation to love and care for every person we meet. It doesn’t matter if they are beneath you or the very kings and rulers and presidents of your nations. Every single one of their lives matter and the spirit of kindness urges us to look out for their best interests.

Last week, a number of us from Immanuel attended our Iowa Annual Conference. Our theme for this year is about being difference makers. Throughout our work and our worship, we heard stories of how people of the United Methodist Church are making a difference all across our state and received encouragement to come back to our churches to make a difference in our own communities.

Friends of Immanuel, you already have been difference makers. We go out in mission to make a difference at places like CFUM and under the bridges with the homeless here in Des Moines. We put together kits that make a difference in the lives of people all across this world. In your personal lives, you are part of service organizations that are making a difference for people far and wide. And before our service is over today, we will commission the Bell Tour, who have turned their musical offerings into service and who share God’s love with people who are lonely through the gift of a teddy bear or doll or stuffed animal.

And that is because the spirit of kindness is flowing through this place. We believe that God has called us, in Christ, to live lives of love and service and prayer. We believe that God is sending us outside these walls to bring healing and hope to broken people and places. We are ready for every good work.

One of the ways we have tried to live out that service this year has been through our 5th Sunday Service projects. In January, we put together care packages for some of our local police departments, in gratitude for their service and as a way of reaching out in love after the loss of some of our local police officers. We wanted to bring healing in the midst of their grief and we continue to pray for them.

At the end of April, we put together May baskets for our neighbors and our homebound folks. Those small offerings of love were a good work, a blessing, that we hoped might bring healing to those who were lonely.

We have another fifth Sunday coming up at the end of July but as we have been reflecting on what it means to go out and serve others, what it means to be ready for every good work and to act on behalf of others, and what it means to be open to where the Holy Spirit is sending us, we have a challenge for you.

On July 30th, our next Fifth Sunday Service project, we want to share 100 acts of kindness in this world. Instead of all picking the same project, you now have six weeks to get together with friends, and neighbors, and pew mates, and to figure out together what good work God is prompting YOU to do in the world.

Maybe you want to wash your neighbor’s windows and you can pull together 3-4 people to help you.

Maybe you are feeling called to visit some of our homebound folks. Round up a friend, or even better, a couple of children from the church and go and spread some joy.

Perhaps you know of a local agency that needs help with a project. Find out what is needed and take your book study group with you.

You could pull weeds, or write cards, or play bingo, or clean gutters.

All that we ask is that 1) you do it with at least one other person and 2) you make a difference in the world.

All together, we are hoping to bring about 100 acts of kindness on July 30th. If you can’t be here that day, plan your project for the week or two ahead and send us a picture of what you have done so that we can lift it up and celebrate all the ways Immanuel is making a difference in the world.

We can only do this big, amazing, and wonderful thing if YOU let God use you… if you let the Spirit of God fill you with kindness so that you can be ready for every good work.

Throughout the tale of Joseph, we discover that he is continually in the presence of God. He knew that every person he encountered was someone that God had put in his life. And so he treated Pharaoh the same way he treated his fellow prisoners.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us that even sinners love those who love them, and are good to those who are good to them. We are called to do even more… to love our enemies and do good to them. We are supposed to love all people the way God, our Father, loves us. And if God is kind and generous and gracious even when we are at our worst… well, that’s how we should treat all people (Luke 6:27-36).

As the Message translation puts it in Luke 6:36: “Our Father is kind; you be kind.”

And the loving-kindness of God saved us not because of anything worth that we had done… but according to his mercy. We were once ungrateful and wicked… and some days we still are.

Our job, as recipients of this grace and this mercy is not to go out and point to the sin in the lives of others… but to love them as we have been loved.

When that young woman walked into my church in Marengo, I knew that the Holy Spirit was prompting me to be kind.

I couldn’t begin to meet all of her needs, but I could get her home. I could buy her lunch. I could let her know that I didn’t care if she had spent a few nights in jail or a thousand years or if she was Mother Theresa – but she was loved by God and by me and she deserved to have someone help her. I could do that. Or rather…. God could do that through me.

And God can do amazing things through YOU. Live so that you might be open and adaptable to God’s promptings.

See every person you meet as a child of God, your brother or sister.

And remember that with the Spirit’s help… God’s kindness will be your kindness. Amen.

The Wealth in our Wallets instead of the Well-being of the World

This afternoon I watched the United States join two nations… Syria and Nicaragua… in being the only three nations in the entire world that are no longer signers of the Paris Climate Accord.

As I listened to the justifications, what I heard over and over again was the mention of a few economic sectors that will be impacted negatively and are disadvantaged because we are choosing to prioritize a different future for the world.  Our President spoke about a drastic and unfair “redistribution of wealth” through the International Green Fund and how instead we need to put America First. His focus is solely on the wealth and wallets of the few, instead of the well-being of the many.

Well, if we are really going to put Americans first, perhaps we should think about all of these ways that Americans will be impacted if we do not make drastic changes to halt climate change.  The link is the official report of the National Climate Assessment and includes data from thirteen different U.S. government agencies.  The impacts include health, agriculture, energy, coastal migration, extreme weather, and are broken down by sector, region, and show the risks if we do nothing.

One of the most disheartening aspects of the argument to withdraw is that we need to stop worrying about other people and focus only on ourselves and what is best for ourselves. And yet, as I understand the Christian faith and my calling to live our the love of Jesus Christ in the world, my duty is to love my neighbor and to set free the oppressed and to care more for the well-being of others than I do myself.  Even if we stick with the idea that we, as Americans, are leaders in protecting the environment, the thought that we can just take care of ourselves without helping to bring others along doesn’t even find a home in scripture.  For as Jesus teaches the disciples in the gospel of Luke, we have been given this world as a gift and we are called to be its stewards.  “Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48)

In this chapter filled with parables, we are called to remember the worth of even the sparrows, to guard ourselves against all greed, to sell our possessions and give to those in need, and to make wallets that won’t wear out.  And then, ironically, Jesus lifts up the fact that the crowds “know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky” (12:56).  We know when its going to rain or when a heat wave is coming.  Except, it appears that our government can’t see the conditions on the earth and in the sky.  We refuse to acknowledge our impact on the world around us.  We are willing to put our own personal gain above the well-being of the world.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.” – Luke 12:34

Lord, have mercy on us.

Livin’ on the Edge

This morning, we are hanging out in liminal space…

That’s a funny word isn’t it… liminal….

Say it with me… liminal.

 

It comes from Latin and means “threshold.”  It is the space in between.  It is transitional.

Our country is in that liminal space between an election and the swearing in of a new president.

The United Methodist Church is in a liminal space – knowing that we can’t be what we were and aren’t yet sure what we might become.

Many of us are in personal liminal spaces… a time of discomfort, of waiting, of transformation.  We are experiencing transitions in relationship statuses, or maturing from childhood to adulthood.  We are waiting for test results that might forever change our world or experiencing losses that already have.

The theologian Richard Rohr describes liminality this way:

It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else.  It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.

Or, if you’d prefer the theologians Aerosmith:

There’s something wrong with the world today

I don’t know what it is Something’s wrong with our eyes

We’re seeing things in a different way

And god knows it ain’t his

It sure ain’t no surprise

Livin’ on the edge

Every single one of us is dealing with something in our personal lives that looms large on the edges.  Job insecurity.  Financial woes.  Racism.  Personal loss.  Illness.  Depression.  Sexism. Addiction.  Work or School stress.  Bullying.

Whatever it might be for you… It’s there on the edges.

We don’t talk about it… but it’s there.

 

And it was there for Edmund, Peter, Lucy, and Susan in the Chronicles of Narnia.

As we enter this Advent and then Christmas season and beyond, we are going to be following these four children in this magical land and hear what  the author C.S. Lewis has to teach us about what it means to be people of faith in tough times.

And the story starts with this magical threshold… this doorway between two worlds that the littlest girl Lucy discovers.

 

We focus on the magic of that doorway… but what we sometimes overlook is the difficulty that brought all of the characters to this place in this time.

These children are in a liminal space.

The story is set during the middle of the London Blitz of World War II.  Their home in the city was no longer safe.  Like children in Aleppo, in Syria, today, every day they lived in terror that a bomb would drop on top of their home or school or the hospitals.

Yet these children were able to make it out of the city.  They were sent away to the countryside, sent away from their parents, into a big lonely house.

Everything they knew was in turmoil… and they didn’t yet know what might happen on the other side of the war.

 

This summer, as we preached through the prophets, we heard the passage we shared this morning from Isaiah.  About the people who lived in the land of deep darkness.

Those who lived in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali knew what it meant to live through wars and conflict.  Their tribal home had been ravaged for so long that they didn’t know what hope was anymore.

There’s something wrong with the world today

The lightbulb’s gettin’ dimmed

There’s meltdown in the sky

If you can judge a wise man

By the color of his skin

Then mister, you’re a better man than I

Livin’ on the edge

Right there… on the edge… where hope had ceased and the shadows seemed longer and longer, light was promised.

Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.

 

And so in the midst of this liminal season of her life, Lucy hides in a closet and discovers a magical doorway between worlds.

She finds herself in a forest, surrounded by snow, and she sees a light shining in the distance.

It is a lamppost.

A light shining on the edge.

“It is a beacon in the face of the dark, cold spell that lies on the land,” writes the author of our devotion Advent in Narnia.

Both lands.  All lands.

London and Narnia. Syria and Israel.  The United States. The World.

The lamppost, which stands there at the boundary between Narnia and the “wild woods of the west” remains shining in the darkness.  The power of the white witch who has taken over Narnia… the darkness of despair, sin, and death which threatens to overtake our lives… it cannot put that light out.  It shines.  Always has… always will.

 

As we will hear read on Christmas Eve, the gospel of John reminds us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.

And we hear… that the people loved the darkness more than the light.

As the Message puts it… the light entered the world “and yet the world didn’t even notice.  He came to his own people and they didn’t want him.”

In the midst of our story of light, we are reminded that that we are human.

It is so often our sin that is the cause of the world’s darkness.

Hatred and greed.  Nationalism and pride.  Consumer impulses that fail to recognize the cost to others and this planet.

That is why we are reminded in the gospel of Luke that the door is narrow and few will enter it.

Mr. Tumnus is the perfect example of this reality.  He is working for the witch, even though he knows it is wrong because he is too afraid to do otherwise.

We are too struck by the darkness.

We are too consumed with ourselves.

Something right with the world today

And everybody knows it’s wrong

But we can tell ’em no

Or we could let it go

But I would rather be a hanging on

Livin’ on the edge

My colleague Dan Dick has some challenging words for people of faith right now.  He writes as Advent begins:

Do we need a Savior?  Do we need a Messiah?  Yes, oh yes, but we really don’t want one – not if he/she is going to expect us to live up to our confession of faith.  If we have to honor the promises made for us at baptism and the promises we have made ourselves since then, well…,  we will take a pass on the Messiah, thank you very much… we really can’t afford/tolerate the Son of God coming to mess things up. (https://doroteos2.com/2016/11/26/wanted-savior-some-experience-required/)

We have a chance to say goodbye to the darkness and let go of our own sin and anger, disappointment and loss, frustration and hatred and focus on the light, the hope, the love, the promises of God.

There is light and right and good in this world… if only we would open our eyes to see it, open our hearts to experience it… open our hands to live it.

There is something so right in this world today and we are too scared, fearful, consumed to believe it!

But as Jesus instructs the people in chapter 13 of Luke’s gospel – unless you change your hearts and lives… unless you repent… unless you turn away from the darkness you will never enter that narrow door.

 

Mr. Tumnus was out there in the liminal space… hanging out by the lamppost.

We don’t know what brought him to that moment, but what we do know is that in the story, he finds a child.

A child that offers him hope and light, love and forgiveness.

A child that gives him the courage to turn away from the shadows.

 

This Advent season, we have a chance to enter that narrow door.

We have a chance to enter that liminal space of transformation.

Friends, all I ask is that you open yourself to the possibility.

I ask that you step outside of your comfort zone.

I pray that you will enter and journey in Narnia with me this season.

Come live on the edge.  Come experience the light. Come and wait for the coming of our savior.

It just might change your life.

Format Aside

We have probably 20 volunteer red bud trees growing in the landscaping of our back yard.  If we simply let them be, they are in the wrong spots and far too crowded for sustained growth.  The best choice is to pick two or three and move them to where they will have a chance to flourish.

As I have been researching this, one article I came across suggested cutting the roots in roughly a 15″ radius around the base of the tree in all directions.  By cutting directly down and through the longer roots, it forces root growth near the ball that will allow the tree to transplant better.

 

This same information was learned in a different context by a colleague this Sunday.

The lectionary scripture for the day is about the gardener, the owner, and the fruitless fig tree in Luke 13:6-9.

In the parable, the fig tree isn’t dead… but it also isn’t bearing fruit.  The owner wants to cut it down, but the gardener wants to give it another year.  He wants to “dig around it and give it fertilizer.”

Dig around it…  maybe like cutting the roots in all directions?

My colleague had a parishioner come up after her sermon and share her own anecdote about digging around to help something bear fruit:

…She grew up in Eastern Washington state, on an apple and pear farm. And she said she didn’t know anything about figs, but with the apples and pears trees, if a tree was otherwise healthy and fine but not bearing fruit, as a last resort they would take a spade and about a foot out from the trunk they would chop all the roots all around the tree. This makes the tree kind of “panic” and think it is dying, for some reason the reaction to the panic is that it bears fruit!

Plants like fig trees or apple trees or even my raspberry bushes can grow vibrantly and abundantly… and still not put forth fruit.  Sometimes this has to do with it being too crowded or having a bad season or putting too much energy into other places like leaf production.  And sometimes, they need a radical kick in the rear to jump start production.

 

And I think our faith is a lot like that, too.  I think sometimes we need someone to dig around us and cut all of the long roots that keep us healthy, but also keep us from bearing fruit: wealth, comfort, success, health, freedom…

It’s not that these things are bad – but we can put so much focus on them, that we forget all about the bearing fruit part.  Maybe “digging around” and cutting the roots can help us to not take those things for granted; help shift our focus and our priorities so that there is room for other roots to grow;  help create energy towards fruitfulness and not simply stability.

And sometimes in the process, we find ourselves uprooted and transformed and transplanted as God sees our renewed strength and thinks:  I have just the place for that disciple to bear fruit…

Renegade Gospel: The Red-Letter Rebel

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There was a challenge issued TWICE by Mike Slaughter in chapter one of this Renegade Gospel book we are examining during this Lenten season: to read through one of the gospels and pay specific attention to the red letters… to the words of Jesus… spoken there.

I pulled out my bible and started with Luke. Luke is the gospel assigned for this particular Lenten season according to the powers that be. It is the gospel we will be following most weeks during worship.

The very first time Jesus speaks in Luke’s gospel, it is in the synagogue in his hometown and he is preaching.

Jesus reads from Isaiah, explains a bit about what he has read, and makes everyone so angry they drive him out of town and try to throw him off a cliff.

I really hope you don’t try to do that to me this morning!

Now, many of his words, like the ones we find today in the reading (Rod/Natalie) just shared with us, are words of healing or forgiveness or calling.

“Woman, you are set free from your sickness” (Luke 13:12)

But almost every single time, like we found in our reading today, when Jesus does so, he really makes people angry.

He calls the wrong people, he forgives the unforgiveable, he heals on the wrong day…

The synagogue leader, in this particular healing, was “incensed” (as my bible puts it) that Jesus was healing on the Sabbath.

And all of this anger and frustration on behalf of the system was slowly coming to a boil, as we find just a few verses later.

As our reading continues, the Pharisees (the religious leaders) are plotting together with the political leader, Herod, to be done with Jesus for good.

Now, Herod’s father was the one who had tried to kill Jesus as an infant because he thought he might be a threat to his power.

And this Herod has already beheaded John the Baptist.

Both Herod and the religious leaders were upset about the populist movement stirring up in response to the ministry of John and Jesus.

As Mike Slaughter writes in Renegade Gospel:

“Jesus could never be perceived as a protector of the status quo” (p. 27)

 

I think the same is as true today as it was then.

Jesus is never satisfied with things the way they are, because Jesus has a vision of the way things can and should be.

He is constantly getting into trouble for doing what is “right for the sake of people” … even if it was against “the rules.”

I think, at the core, Jesus is always pushing the status quo, always challenging us to do more and to be more faithful, because his goal is nothing short of the Kingdom of God lived out on earth… and friends, we aren’t there yet!

Those of us gathered in this room are incredibly blessed… even if we struggle… because we have more resources at our fingertips than most people in this world.

But even here, in a great city, in a great state, in a great country, can we agree that we’re not in heaven yet?

And the KINGDOM is the standard Jesus is holding us to. The KINGDOM is the standard Jesus is holding the political and religious leaders to. The KINGDOM OF GOD is the standard.

And so even today, as a modern religious leader of the Christian faith, I read these words of Jesus and I am still challenged and pushed to really think about the teachings I share with you and how I call us to live them out together.

And all of those harsh words Jesus has for the Pharisees…. well, they are for people like me, too. Because too often, as your leaders, we have simply not preached the gospel! We haven’t shared the vision of the Kingdom of God and we haven’t given you the tools to truly be the Body of Christ, in the world, helping to bring that Kingdom to fruition.

 

And friends… I think that’s what we, the Body of Christ, are supposed to do.

When I re-read Luke’s gospel, over and over again, Jesus asks us to not only hear his words, but to obey them. Just on a glance back through this morning, I counted at least 9 times (Luke 6:47, Luke 8:21, Luke 9:48, Luke 10:1, Luke 10:28 & 37, Luke 11:28, Luke 12:1, Luke 18:22)… Jesus asks us to not only hear but to do them. To live them. To go and do likewise.

We are trying to be faithful Christians and put into practice what Jesus says.

And, here is the good news I discovered in these commands to “go and do likewise.”

Jesus is NEVER angry at ordinary people who doing the best they can to live out their faith.

He never shames them.

He never scolds them.

He invites them! But he doesn’t get mad at them for where they currently are in their journey of faith.

He is never upset with someone if they aren’t ready to do it. Jesus simply sends them on their way. Maybe another day, in a different sermon, they’ll be ready.

 

In our United Methodist tradition, we call this “going on to perfection.” Discipleship is a lifelong journey and you are wherever you are today without any judgment.

We are called to be like Jesus, and we fully acknowledge and admit that we aren’t there yet!

And why would we be? Jesus is divine! The Son of Man AND Son of God. The standards are the very KINGDOM OF GOD!

We are mere mortals, trying to live up to the standards of the divine.

There is a quote by Barbra Brown Taylor in her book, “The Preaching Life” that has always stuck with me:

Over and over, my disappointments draw me deeper into the mystery of God’s being and doing. Every time God declines to meet my expectations, another of my idols is exposed. Another curtain is drawn back so I can see what I have propped up in God’s place – no, that is not God, so who is God?

It is the question of a lifetime, and the answers are never big enough or finished. Pushing past curtain after curtain, it becomes clear that the failure is not God’s but my own, for having such a poor and stingy imagination. God is greater than my imagination, wiser than my wisdom, more dazzling than the universe, as present as the air I breathe, and utterly beyond my control. (p. 10)

Every day, when we read the gospels, we pull back the curtain, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, and we discover that we aren’t Jesus yet… we still have a ways to go!

We still have discoveries to make about what it means to be a faithful Christian.

But here is the beautiful and amazing thing about “going on to perfection”…

Every day, we also have an opportunity to grow more faithful.

Every day, we also have a chance to be more loving.

Every day, we also get to be a better Christian than yesterday.

 

The words of Jesus are NOT easy. The standards he sets for us are incredibly high! You know, Kingdom of God level!

But even in the midst of those Kingdom standards and Jesus’ never ending call for us to respond accordingly, there is grace upon grace upon grace.

One of my favorite lines in the chapter for this week from Mike Slaughter was this:

Although Jesus always called his followers to enter the small gate and take the narrow road to the Kingdom, he repeatedly taught mercy and relationship over rigidity and judgment. (p. 28)

And he points to Peter as the prime example.

You know Peter… the disciple who constantly questioned Jesus motives and got it wrong.

You know, Peter… the one who fell asleep in the garden.

You know, Peter… the one who denied Jesus three times when he needed him the most?

Jesus has ridiculously high standards. But when we don’t meet them… when we fail… and we will… Jesus keeps welcoming us back.

Keeps loving us.

Keeps showing mercy and love.

Keeps pouring God’s sanctifying, perfecting grace into our lives so tomorrow we can pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and try it again.

There is life and power and love and grace and mercy in the red-letter words of Jesus.

Jesus is constantly pushing our world through these words to rebel against what is… in light of what could be.

Jesus is asking us to examine ourselves, our church, our world, and to ask:

Can we be greater tomorrow than we are today?

Can we be more like Christ tomorrow than we were today?

Can this world look more like heaven tomorrow than it does today?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Always.

Thanks be to God.

Returning from Thin Places

There are places in this world that are “thin.”
It is a label given to places, in the Celtic understanding, where the barrier between the human and the divine, heaven and earth, is nearly imperceptible.
A place where we experience the divine more readily.

In biblical history, we see a number of these “thin places” or holy locations: like Mount Sinai or the temple in Jerusalem, or that mountain where Jesus was transfigured. Sometimes, it is the location itself that is key… sometimes it is the hearts of the people gathered who seem to transform it.

Perhaps you have known a “thin place.”
Experiences that have filled you with a sense of awe and purpose.
Sometimes people call these “mountain top moments”… even if they didn’t actually take place on a mountain because they are the peaks of our spiritual journey.
“Thin places” are where you have felt God’s presence more than any other.

As I think back in my own spiritual journey, I’ve had these kinds of experiences in large gatherings of faithful folks at retreats, and I’ve had them in silent moments at the top of mountains. I’ve also had them right here, in this sanctuary, in this building, as we have gathered to worship and praise God.

And what I have noticed is that it is always hard to leave those places.
You want to linger.
You can’t imagine normal life in the same way again.
The pull to stay is almost irresistible.
But eventually you have to return.
Return to your life.
Return to solid ground.
Return to the mundane and the thick and the muck and mess.

In our gospel this morning, we find Jesus returning from one of those “thin places.”
The Jordan River was a place of healing and transformation.
John the Baptist called people out to the river to repent and be baptized.
And when Jesus visited, that barrier between the heavens and earth grew so thin that the skies burst open and the Holy Spirit descended upon him.

But like us, Jesus can’t stay there.
He can’t set up shop there on the banks and wait for the world to come to him, any more than we can’t live here in the church for our whole lives… waiting for flocks of people to come into our doors.
No, he has to return to the rest of the world.
There is work to be done.

So, full of the Holy Spirit, like we often are after these holy moments, Jesus returns from the Jordan.

And there is something that happens in this returning, in this transition.
In between verse 1 where he returns from the Jordan and verse 14, where he returns to Galilee, there is a gap.

The wilderness.
A liminal space.
40 days of discomfort, of waiting, of transformation.
40 days of fasting and wrestling.
40 days of trial and temptation.
40 days.

Biblically, this 40 days reminds us of the great flood in Genesis, or the Israelites wandering for 40 years in the wilderness. Moses fasted for 40 days… so did Elijah.
This number 40 doesn’t have to mean a literal forty days… but it signifies the right amount of time it takes to get you ready for whatever comes next.

As Jesus returns from the Jordan, he needs to prepare himself for his ministry in the world. And the devil shows up to tempt him. As Jesus is shown all of the possibilities for what that ministry might look like, he has to figure out what kind of savior he will be. He wrestles with his calling. He takes time to focus fully on the presence and power of God that will sustain him in his work.
And in that time, Jesus is preparing himself to go and BE a thin space in the world.
To be the very presence of God, Immanuel, with the people.
And if Jesus, the very Son of God, needs this liminal time to get him ready to return to the world… don’t you think we do, too?

Every week, we gather in this church to worship and experience the divine. It has become for us a sort of thin place… [And soon, some of us will be worshipping in a new thin place].
And what we experience here… the friendships we make, the prayers, the support and accountability, the life-giving spirit… is good and awesome and holy.
But we can’t stay here forever.
Every Sunday, when the worship has finished and we take leave of the building, we have to return to the world.
We have to go out into Galilee, into Des Moines, into our mission field.
There is work to be done for the sake of the gospel.

But I’m afraid that too often, we come to a holy and thin place like this, we get filled up with the Holy Spirit, and then as soon as we step outside of the doors, the devil is waiting for us.
And the devil prays on all of our insecurities and temptations.
I fear, that most days, instead of holding on to the spirit of God… we instantly fill ourselves back up with worries and concerns, with politics and ideology, with work and school and family troubles.
We walk out the door and forget about what we have just experienced.
Back to the normal, mundane, ordinary world, as ordinary, normal, mundane people.

What if, before we left the building, we took a moment to get ourselves ready?

Sometimes I give you big challenges, but this morning, I want us to think small.
I want to challenge all of us to carve out not 40 days, not 40 minutes, but 40 seconds of space…
40 seconds of wilderness time… to help us return back to the world.
I want to challenge you, before you walk out the doors today, to spend just 40 seconds putting your trust in God.
40 seconds to remember who we are and whose we are.
40 seconds to lift up the temptations we know we will face and place them in God’s hands.

Our churches have work to do. We have a kingdom to help build. There are lives that are lost that need the love and grace and mercy of God.
And we cannot do it by ourselves.
We can’t do it without being filled with the Holy Spirit.

Here’s the thing… YOU are the temple of God. God’s Spirit lives within YOU.
And God wants you to be the hands and feet of Jesus out there in the world.
God needs your ministry and your work out in the world.

So let us get filled up with the Spirit.
And let us go out, to live as “thin places,” to be people who bring the love of God to every person we meet.
Amen.

Singing for Peace

As we continue to wait for the one who has already come, the birth of Christ into our world and our lives, we are so close we can almost taste it!

Maybe your lights are up and the tree is decked out.

Maybe there are already Christmas cookies sitting on the countertop and presents under the tree.

We are ready for the heavenly choirs of angels mingling with the shepherds in the fields.

We are ready for the moment the wise ones, led by celestial signs, lay eyes on the infant in the manger.

We are waiting in holy anticipation – not for experiences beyond this world, but ones that are embodied in things we can touch and feel, live and breathe.

We are getting ready for God to take on human flesh in our midst!

And boy, do we need it.

Maybe one of the reasons those little lights twinkling on my tree bring me so much comfort is that they are signs of light and life, hope and peace, in a world that is really struggling.

 

Last week, I lifted up so many places where violence has disrupted lives and this week, more cities, more lives are added to that list. San Bernadino, California. Savannah, Georgia.

If you count up all of the tragedies where four or more individuals were injured or killed in this year, there have been more mass shootings than days.

If you look at our own community, Des Moines has seen its 20th homicide this year – the highest number in 19 years.

 

On this Sunday, we are called to lift up the promise of peace as we light the Advent candles.

And peace is my prayer on this morning.

Peace is the deep yearning of my heart.

 

And this morning, we hear from Luke’s gospel songs of longing for peace.

 

Yes, songs.

 

As Magrey deVega reminds us in our Advent Study, if Mark’s version of the gospel is a Reader’s Digest, Matthew is like a Steven King novel, and John is like a Shakespeare play, then Luke is like a Broadway musical.

 

When his son, John is born, Zechariahs heart sings out: The prophets spoke of mercy, of freedom and release; God shall fulfill the promise to bring our people peace! (UMH #209)

 

Elizabeth recognized that the child in her cousin’s womb was the longing of all Israel. She was absolutely overjoyed…. and in her joy and in Mary’s song they recognized deep in their hearts that the promise from Micah – the promise of the one of peace – was being fulfilled.

 

Our hearts in contrast… are jaded and worn and disappointed. And maybe that is because we are looking for peace in all the wrong places.

I remember quite clearly President Obama delivering a speech to the nation and an audience at West Point in 2009.

He had just been named the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and he was announcing a surge in military personnel in Afghanistan.

“I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict – filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace on with the other.”

The prophet Micah describes the Prince of Peace in this way:

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace. (Micah 5:4-5)

Mary and Elizabeth and the child in Elizabeth’s womb cannot contain themselves as they encounter this promise of God – yet unborn. They have been longing and waiting and hoping for so long.

 

There was no triumphant singing after Obama’s West Point speech… and while there may have been music in Oslo at the Nobel ceremonies, Obama’s own speech tempered any bit of joy and celebration.

We keep looking to our national and world leaders to bring peace.

We keep waiting for the right legislation or diplomacy or defense policy to make us safe and quiet the world.

But they are not the ones we are waiting for.
We live in a world of cynicism and violence, a world of confusion and hatred. Whatever conflict we are experiencing… whether it is family trauma, violence in our neighborhoods, a civil war halfway across the world, it creates conflict internally.

In my own life, I am wrestling with the distractions of family conflict and must admit there are times it is all I think about.

I desire grace and healing to be experienced and yet I hold onto grudges and my own comfort with the status quo. These things are not compatible. They war within me.

And that internal conflict is magnified on the world stage.

Even as we seek peace, we send troops. Echoing out this week from Christian leaders were calls to sign the death warrants of our enemies and to seek out and destroy those who are against us. We demonize those who are different. We label those who have committed atrocities as outcasts and terrorists so we don’t have to recognize that they are human… just like us.

Yet, if we live in this way, will we ever experience healing or reconciliation? Will we ever know peace?

 

We come together as people of faith and we light the second candle on the advent wreath because we dare to believe that the Prince of Peace will reign.

We dare to hope that there will be day when nation will not rise up against nation.

We dare to hope that a day is coming when innocent lives are no longer taken by gun violence.

We dare to wait for the day when the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up.
And so we pray for peace.

The thing about prayer, though is that it is not a passive thing.

Prayer is an activity.

Prayer requires doing.

Richard Foster wrote:

“Prayer is the central avenue God uses to change us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.”

We believe that God is active in the world, bringing peace through us… just a Mary sang out that God was radically transforming the world through her.

As deVega writes in the third chapter:

The church can offer the very thing that would most remedy a world caught in an endless cycle of self-destructive behavior: a subversive, surprising song. A song whose lyrics speak of self-giving love rather than self-addicted agendas. A song whose sounds are counter waves to the thrum of war chants and the clanging of swords [or the sound of gunfire]. A song whose melody drives us upward towards holiness and purity, rather than into the darkest recesses of our sinful instincts. A sacred harmony that pulses with God’s unconditional love, calling us to forgiveness… the church has a song to perform, and we each have instruments to play.” (p. 60-61)

We each have instruments to play.

If we want to pray for peace, then we have to be peace in the world.

Robert Mann calls us to

“Be a reverse terrorist.

Plot. Plan. Scheme and launch random acts of love.

Incite it. Invite it. Ignite it.

Shake this world to its foundation.

And enjoy yourself in the process.”

That might be peace in the Middle East, or peace between you and your neighbors.

It might be peace among loved ones, or peace between you and your inner thoughts.

In this season of Advent, we stand in the face of war and suffering and distress and we not only look for the coming of peace, but we live it.

We stand like Elizabeth and Mary, pregnant with the hope that God’s promises are real.

The reality we long for this and every Advent…

The miracle that we wait for this and every Christmas…

Is that we might wake up one morning and run outside to discover that God is with us – Emmanuel – and that the Prince of Peace rules the earth.

Until then… we pray and we sing and we live for peace.

 

 

**side note** this summer, I attended a concert with Reba at the Iowa State Fair.  She talked about how she had been wrestling with so much going on in the world and asked God what she could do and the answer came back… pray for peace… ***

 

Thankful Giving

In our gospel reading this morning, we meet Zacchaeus, that “wee-little man”, who was really a terrible, awful person.

As Carol Howard Merritt describes him: he was “a man who collected taxes from his own people and gave it to the Roman government. And if that wasn’t nasty enough, Zacchaeus skimmed money off the top. This despicable man stole from the poor to line his own pockets… he was like the broker who added hidden fees to our widowed mother’s mortgage so he could vacation in Barbados.”

And he wasn’t a tax collector in our modern sense. In this world, you could be stopped on the street by someone like Zacchaeus and duties could be assessed for anything in your possession. “A cart, for instance, could be taxed for each wheel, for the animal that pulled it, for the merchandise that it carried.” (Rev. Wilson) No one, except for the tax collector knew how many fees he was really taking, so he could send to Rome whatever he wanted and keep the rest for himself.

As a fellow pastor pointed out, when verse 2 of our reading says that Zacchaeus was wealthy, it was an indictment about just how corrupt he truly was.

I imagine that he must have been profoundly lonely.

You see, when you live your life as a taker, you don’t make too many friends.

He also lived in a precarious position between his own people and the Roman government. He had to take from his neighbors in order to keep the occupying force happy. But that doesn’t mean he was valued or welcomed by the Romans either.

Not only that, he was a ruler among the tax collectors… which meant he couldn’t even hang out with all of the other greedy, mean old tax collectors in Israel, because he was their boss.

As much as the lepers or the Samaritans, he was on the margins of society. He had all the money he could want, but he didn’t have relationships.

He was living the opposite life described by 1 Timothy… he had placed all of his hopes on his finances, and the treasures of faith, salvation, friendship, and hope were rotting away.

Until Jesus walks by.

Jesus, who knows how to see the lonely and the lost, caught a glimpse of this sad, despicable little man in a tree.

And Jesus invited himself over for dinner.

 

There is a sequence of events that happens here that can confuse how we understand the story.

  1. Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus… he is seeking and searching for something new in life.
  2. Jesus sees Zacchaeus… and not only sees him, but knows him by name…. and probably knows every detail about his sordid little life.
  3. Jesus initiates the relationship with this person.
  4. Zacchaeus accepts and happily welcomes Jesus into his life.
  5. Zacchaeus commits to giving away half of his possessions and to repay anyone he has cheated… four times over!
  6. Jesus responds: Today salvation has come to your home, because I came to seek the lost.

 

If we aren’t paying close attention, we might think that it was Zacchaeus’s changed attitudes and his radical offering of wealth that brought salvation to his door.

We might start to think that unless we give, and give sacrificially, without abandon, that we can’t be saved.

But friends, this isn’t true.

The money you just put in the offering plate will not save your soul.

Your pledge card will not bring you salvation.

 

You see, before Zacchaeus ever offered to give a single penny back, Jesus found him.

And Jesus initiated the relationship, offered to come into his home, his life, his heart.

And Zacchaeus welcomed him in joyfully.

 

In our United Methodist understanding of grace, at that moment, Zacchaeus was saved.

At that moment, Zacchaeus accepted God’s acceptance of him.

At that moment, salvation came to his household.

It wasn’t because he gave everything to the poor.

 

I actually think the exchange that comes between Zacchaeus and Jesus after this moment drives home the point.

Zacchaeus stops along their walk and suddenly feels like he has to do something.

God’s grace has already entered his life and changed him and he isn’t sure he deserves it and he needs to respond in some way.

So he makes this radical and amazing offering of his own wealth to help others and he promises to make amends for past wrongs.

And what I think Jesus does in response is not praise Zacchaeus for his gifts, but remind him that he’s already saved.

Today salvation has come. You, too, are a son of Abraham. I came to seek the lost.

 

That might seem like a counter-productive message for Stewardship Sunday.

But I think it is important for us to understand that we can’t earn our salvation by our offering.

No, giving is our response to what God has already done for us.

It is the fruit of a life that has already been transformed by God’s grace.

It is a demonstration of gratitude for the gift that we could never possibly repay.

 

This morning, as I was driving in to church, I heard an interview with Adam Grant, author of “Give and Take.”

He said that “we all… receive unexpected and meaningful gifts – we want to pay it back, but there’s really nothing you can do to pay it back. So the next best thing is to pay it forward.”

 

Grant might be talking about human gifts, but it applies to divine ones as well.

We simply cannot do anything to repay God for the amazing, abundant, overflowing gift of salvation.

But we can pay it forward.

We can take what we have and we can bless others.

 

Our offerings, our giving, our pledges of time, talent, and treasure are one way we can say thank you to God and this church.

 

We are grateful for the Sunday School teacher who first taught us to sing “Zacchaeus was a wee little man”…. so we give to the church so other children might be blessed.

We are grateful to the Trustee who gave up their Saturday afternoon to install new lights in the bathroom… so we give to the church so that we can continue to provide a safe, welcoming space for others.

We were in the hospital and someone made us a prayer shawl… so we give thanks and we give to the church so that caring ministries might continue.

We lost our job and the people of the church prayed for us… so we give thanks and work to provide support to others.

Whether you have been a part of this church for a month or for ninety years, you are here today because someone somewhere along the line gave and made a difference in your life.

I want to invite you to turn to your neighbor right now and share who that person was who blessed you… who shared God’s love and grace and mercy with you… who do you give thanks for?

****

Those people you just named, that grace of God you just pointed to… that’s why we give.

We give because we have been blessed.

We give because we have been saved.

 

John Wesley wasn’t giving his advice to “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can” to people who were still outside the life of faith.

He was speaking to people like you and me who had already experienced God’s grace.

And they were asking what they should do now.

How could they pay it forward?

How were they supposed to live as redeemed people?

 

If we have been forgiven, then we should forgive others.

If we have been healed, then we should help heal others.

If we have been blessed financially, then we should financially bless others.

 

I often wonder what happened to Zacchaeus after his dinner date with Jesus, because he isn’t mentioned again in the scriptures.

But we can imagine that he was no longer the same person.

His priorities were changed.

He let go of his old life and committed to something new.

He probably spent the rest of his life trying to say thank-you to God for seeking him out, a lost and despicable man, someone who didn’t deserve an ounce of grace or salvation.

 

The way we say thank-you for every gift of God is to use it, to share it, to pass it on to the world.

And that is why these pledge cards we have don’t only include our financial commitment to the church, but our commitment of time and talents and skills as well.

God has blessed you with something and today, you can say thank you to our Lord and Savior for every ounce of grace you have received, by making a commitment to share your gifts with the world.

 

*image: Artwork for Texas Baptists Vacation Bible School curriculum by Scott Byers