Do What Is Good

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I think in many ways it is a cruel irony that as we begin our Lenten series on heroes that our first pop culture example is the Dark Knight, Batman.
As a young boy, Bruce Wayne was a victim of gun violence.
In a dark alley, his parents were gunned down by a thief in front of his very eyes.
That traumatic moment forever changed the course of his life – setting him on a path to fight crime, battle evil, and protect his city.

Over the past few days, I have watched other young people, teenagers who survived the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, take up their own calling to demand change in a society in which too many lives are taken as a result of gun violence.
I read a story this morning about moms in Keosauqua here in southeast Iowa who rallied together on Thursday to raise the money to install a safety device called a sleeve in every classroom in their small school.
As one mom said, “we’re tired of it. It’s like, OK, nobody’s going to do anything about this: Our government, our state government, our national government. We’re the moms, and these are our kids. What can we do?” (https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/local/columnists/kyle-munson/2018/02/16/sick-school-shootings-these-iowa-moms-took-action-single-day-make-their-kids-classrooms-safe/344133002/?hootPostID=746aea71a5583aa9b0209e37f4bdbabb)

What can we do?
When evil seems to lurk around every corner…
When the places we thought were safe become sites of terror…
When a sense of hopelessness in the ability to truly witness change starts to seep in…

Sometimes our “what can we do?” is a cry of resignation.

Where are the good guys? Where are the heroes who are going to rise up and make everything better?

And sometimes, it is a reminder that we, too, have been called to act.  Our discipleship is lived out in how we answer that question.

Each of the weeks of this Lenten series, we are going to be exploring together ways we often see the world through opposing lenses: good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, insiders vs. outsiders. We divide up this world and place ourselves firmly in one camp or another.
And yet, as we think together about how Jesus comes to redeem and restore this world… how Jesus acts to save us from sin and bring us eternal live, we discover that often Jesus turns our ways of viewing the world upside down.

In fact, when a leader of the community tried to call Jesus “good” in an effort to flatter him, Jesus practically rejected the label. “Why do you call me good?” he asks in Luke chapter 18. “No one is good but God alone.”

In doing so, Jesus reminds that all that is good comes from God.
When our Creator spent six days building and forming and shaping all that we know and see, God looked out and called it good.
That isn’t because of something innate within us.
It is because we are from God.

And so, what is this evil that we promise to resist in our baptismal vows?
What is this force that opposes life and leads so many on paths of destruction?
Matt Rawle defines evil in his book, “What Makes a Hero?” as nothingness. “Evil represents a void…. Evil is a shadow that cannot stand on its own. A shadow by itself is nothing but the absence of light… made manifest when someone or something stands between us and the light of God shining through Christ.” (p. 26)

Evil is the result when we let anyone or anything stand between us and the love and power of God made manifest in this world.
Sometimes what blocks the goodness of God is our own selfishness and sin.
Sometimes it is anger and resentment.
Sometimes it is idolatry – when we take something that is on its own good or neutral in value – but elevate it to a status that blocks our ability to reason or follow God.
I think in many ways, our nation’s obsession with guns has reached the point of idolatry. Guns themselves are not good or bad, they just are… however, our unwillingness to even allow for research to be done as to the causes of such endemic gun violence means that we cannot take the actions we need to in order to curb the tide of this deadly force.

I think about how through training and technology, Bruce Wayne would put on his bat costume and watch over Gotham, but traditionally, Batman never took up a gun himself. Even as he fought night after night against the dark forces, he sought to never use deadly force in bringing justice to his city. He kept himself focused on his purpose and what he was fighting against.

As people of faith, our call is not simply call something good or evil, but to keep our eyes focused on our purpose and the source of what is truly good, God alone.
It is what Christ did as he lived out his ministry among us.
And in many ways, the blueprint for how we should live and follow his example is found in that familiar verse from the prophet Micah.

“He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”
Goodness is therefore the result of a life of justice, mercy, and humility.

First, we are called to do justice.
As Jesus reaches out to teach a lawyer about how to receive eternal life, he tells the parable of the good Samaritan.
The lawyer must learn to recognize even the Samaritan as his brother.
He must do justice by acknowledging that God has created each and every person.
Oppression and violence and hatred must cease.
We must always look out for the outcast, the vulnerable among us.

Second, we must embrace God’s love and practice mercy.
Jesus lived this out through acts of healing and mercy – feeding the hungry, healing the sick.
In every action, he sought to bring life to people by reaching out and touching them.
It is not just reaching out in love, however, to people we know and care about… it is also reaching out to offer kindness and forgiveness even to those who would seek to harm us.
Just as Bruce Wayne refused to take up the weapons that destroyed his family, so Jesus refuses to play the games or fight in the ways of evil.
He forgives those who crucify him.
He doesn’t fight back.
He knows that with God there is another way.

Lastly, we are called to walk humbly with our God.
Jesus showed us what this meant through the cross.
The greatest love, he told us, was to lay down our lives for our friends.
And so as the Christ hymn of Philippians reminds us, even though Christ Jesus was in the form of God, he emptied himself, he was born among us, and he humbled himself even to the point of death in order to serve the will of God. (Philippians 2:5-8)

Today, we are called to a life of goodness. A life of justice, and mercy, and humility.
We are called to lay aside anything that would distract us from God’s life and power in this world.
When evil looms around us and lives are being taken every day by forces that oppose God’s will, I think we are invited this Lent to a time of reflection and repentence.
Where are we complicit?
Where do we need to seek justice?
Where do we need to practice mercy?
Where do we need to humbly bow before our God and lay aside our idols?
May God stir our hearts…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spirit of Gentleness

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Yesterday morning, Brandon and I were walking through the farmer’s market downtown when suddenly before us was a man holding a gigantic sign. As people passed by, averting their gaze, he shouted out condemnations and warnings.

“Don’t return to church,” he said as I crossed his path, “Return to the Lord!”

Most of you haven’t met my husband because he is not a churchy person. He had some bad experiences with the church as a younger man and they have forever left an impression upon him. In many ways, he left the church because of people like the man who stood shouting in the middle of the street.

I don’t doubt for one second the sincerity or faithfulness of that man.

I don’t doubt that he is standing there in the street out of an honest desire to bring people to Jesus Christ and to share the message with salvation with them.

But today we are going to talk about not only the message, but the method for how we share God’s saving power with others, and how we should respond when that message falls on hostile ears.

For most of this summer, we have used various biblical characters to exemplify the fruits of the spirit that God has given for ministry. From the healing powers of Peter to the patience of Esau, these ancestors of our faith have been witnesses of how God equips us for ministry.

Today, we are going to learn from example what NOT to do.

As Andrea and Noah just shared with us, the prophet Elisha is a man of God, but he is also a very human being.

In a moment of frustration and embarrassment he lashes out at a group of young boys.

Every time I hear this story, I am reminded that this kind of conflict and tension between grumpy old men and rude young boys is timeless.

From Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace to the character of Walt Kowalski, played by Clint Eastwood, in Gran Torino we catch a glimpse of Elisha’s mindset in this story. Like Eastwood’s character, Elisha is overcome by recent grief, which only complicates his violent response.

But we also have seen the impertinence of those who jeer the elderly, mock the disabled or anyone different from them. Sometimes we try to excuse the behaviors, thinking that boys will be boys, but bullying in any form, at any age, is inexcusable and it hurts.
As I shared with the children, sometimes our first instinct to bullying or frustration is to push back – through words or actions.

And so many of us has let a curse slip out of our mouths in a moment of anger or pain.

Elisha is only human and that kind of response is understandable.

Yet, Elisha is also filled with the Spirit of God and he is new to the whole business of being a prophet. Just days before, his mentor Elijah had been carried away up into the heavens and the mantle of God had been left to HIM.

And Elisha doesn’t quite have this power of God figured out yet. He doesn’t understand, like the prophet Nathan did last week, that his ability has tremendous power to harm as well as help.

Aristotle once said that a person who displayed gentleness would be angry, “only on the right grounds, and against the right persons, and in the right manner, and at the right moment, and for the right length of time.”

Elisha let his anger get the better of him.

He might have been hurt because he had been teased, but these were children and rather than an “eye for an eye” – his curce called out bears from the woods and killed those children on the spot.

We can look firmly at his actions and state without a doubt they were anything BUT gentle.

The same Spirit of God filled the first disciples when they were sent out on their first steps of ministry. Jesus called them and gave them this charge in Matthew 10 and Luke 9:

“Go to the lost, confused people right here in this neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons…”

Along the way, they were sure to encounter their share of hostile glances and threats. He tells them to not be naïve, because “some people will impugn your motives, others will smear your reputation – just because you believe in me.”

So Jesus also added these instructions. Knowing that they were still new to this work of God, he told them:

“When you knock on a door, be courteous in your greeting. If they welcome you, be gentle in your conversation. If they don’t welcome you, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way.”

We imagine they might have followed his advice and performed much better than Elisha had with this power of God within them… yet by the end of the chapter in Luke’s gospel the disciples have already forgotten that Spirit of Gentleness.

When a town will not welcome them, James and John turn and ask Jesus if they can call down fire from heaven to destroy the people.

Again, we discover rash, arrogant, and excessive behavior, which Jesus quietly rebukes and they move on.

So, what is gentleness and how are we supposed to live it out in our lives.

The The Full Life Study Bible defines gentleness as “restraint coupled with strength and courage.”

Aristotle says that it is halfway between excessive anger and indifference.

It is the kind of restraint that Nathan showed when he confronted David in our text from last week, the same that Paul tries to emulate as he writes to the Corinthians. He asks them: “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit.” (1 Cor 4:21).

He could be angry. He could be harsh. As a teacher, he probably knew something about discipline… but he wanted them to repent and transform their lives not out of fear… but out of the love and gentleness that was shown to them.

Maybe that is why I am so troubled by the good and faithful folks who stand in the middle of the street at places like the farmer’s market, shouting out dire warnings at all who might walk by. Because I believe that change comes when we approach one another with a spirit of gentleness and not fear.

In John Wesley’s writing, we see that gentleness in his command to “do no harm.” As our former, Bishop Reuben Job reflected on that command, he writes: “I have found that when this first simple rule was remembered, it often saved me from uttering a wrong word or considering a wrong response.”

He adds, “this simple step, when practiced, can provide a safe place to stand while the hard and faithful work of discernment is done.”

Maybe that is the key. Gentleness invites us to take a step back and to determine proper response.

And I think that if we are faithful to the scriptures we will find that gentleness should be our response to the world.

In Luke, chapter 9, the disciples remember times when the power of God was unleashed on the people and on communities unwilling to repent or upon people who don’t appear to be on their team. They think that they might be justified in doing the same.

Maybe, they are even thinking back to the horrific mauling of those children by the prophet Elisha.

But “vengeance is mine” says the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35).

And as Paul encourages us,
“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12: 19-21)

Jesus responds to the anger and pain of the disciples and gently rebukes them and in doing so, he shows us how we should respond when threatened or encountering injustice.

He is aware of the power of the Spirit that lives within him and he uses it to be gentle to those in need of transformation.

As Stanley Horton writes, “The broken reed He would not crush but would fully restore. The flickering wick of a lamp He would not put out but would cause it to burn brightly again… [Jesus] gently takes the sinner and makes him whole.” (http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/top/fruit8_gentleness.cfm)

That man who stood there in the farmer’s market is correct in naming that there will be a time of judgment. After all, our God is great. God is strong and mighty and I truly hope that there will come a day when all things are made right and justice comes to those who have harmed and destroyed on this planet.

But I also know that only God knows how to unleash that power “on the right grounds, and against the right persons, and in the right manner, and at the right moment, and for the right length of time.”

And so the spirit of gentleness we are called to embody is to take a step back and allow that work to be God’s.

Elisha tried to be the judge, jury, and executioner when he encountered wrong in this world.

Instead, God’s spirit calls us to embody gentleness by remembering that we are all sinners.

We are all broken.

We are all filled with the power to lash out or shut out.

And way the message of God’s good news of saving grace is shared is just as important as the message itself.

For my husband, the words shouted out in the street did not open up new possibilities for God’s grace to enter, but probably closed him off even more.

As we live out a spirit of gentleness in this world, let us instead do no harm and in gentleness and love give God time to transform the lives we encounter.

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.