From Everywhere to Everywhere (2.0)

This Sunday, I was making my way back from our bi-annual Global Ministries meeting and so took the opportunity to do a brief rewrite of the message I preached at Ingathering:

This quadrennium, I have the honor of serving on our General Board of Global Ministries:

Last fall, in our opening worship, we read the names of the missionaries who have died in the last four years, like we do on All Saints day.  It was holy and humbling to think about all of those people who had spent their lives serving God wherever they were sent.  But I also noticed that they almost all had very white, very Anglo sounding names.

That evening, and since then, I have met missionaries who remind me that the focus of our global ministries has truly shifted.  Katherine fits that traditional model and is from California. She has served through Global Ministries in a variety of far flung places including Japan, Iowa, and now Nepal.

But Alina is a native Bolivian and she is serving in Nicaragua on behalf of Global Ministries.

Luis is from Brazil and will be heading up the new regional Mission Center in Buenos Aires.

Another leader from Brazil will work with the new regional Mission Center in Africa focusing on Portuguese speaking countries.

There is an African American who speaks Japanese who will serve in the new Mission Center in Seoul, South Korea.

And we heard about a missionary from Zimbabwe who is heading to Canada to serve an African refugee community there. 

Our Executive Director of Global Mission Connections was just elected a bishop in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but last year, Bishop Mande wrote:

“Mission used to be thought of as coming from the center (churches in developed countries) and going to the peripheries (people in developing countries). But our sense today is that there isn’t a center anymore—that doing mission lies in mutuality, looking at each other as equal partners and learning from one another. Our heritage from the Wesleyan movement tells us that God’s grace is everywhere and everyone shares in it.” (http://um-insight.net/in-the-church/umc-global-nature/no-center-no-periphery-a-regional-approach-to-mission/)

 From everywhere… to everywhere…

 

Fundamental to the shift in our global ministries is the recognition of prevenient grace.

The idea that God is moving in our lives long before we know who or what God is.

The idea that grace and truth, beauty and holiness, forgiveness and love are not gifts we enlightened people bring to the heathens, but that we can discover God’s work in the midst of people we meet… whether or not they know God, yet.

 

I think the shift we are experiencing in mission is paralleled in Paul’s ministry in Athens.

As we start the scripture reading today, he is preaching and sharing the good news of Jesus on the streets. And the people don’t get it and they don’t get him.

Some translations say they take him, or brought him, others that they asked him, but if you look to the original Greek the word is “epilambanomai” – to lay hold of or to seize. 

The Common English Bible translates this passage… “they took him into custody.”  The people REALLY don’t get him.  Paul is trying to shove something foreign down their throats.

This is the same word used when Simon the Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross as we remembered on Good Friday.  And it’s a word used twice to describe how Jesus grabs hold of someone to rebuke or challenge and heal them.

Paul is not taken to Mars Hill by choice.

He is brought to the council and placed in the middle of the people…

 

And then something in Paul shifts.  His language changes.  

He realizes that speaking of foreign things isn’t making and impact.

He starts to contextualize the good news of Jesus Christ.

He recalls an altar he saw, “To an unknown God” and uses that altar… in a city filled with idols… to begin explaining the God he has come to know.

What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you… God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him.  In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.  In God we live, move, and exist.

 

In our Wesleyan heritage, the idea of prevenient grace is that it goes before us.  God’s grace is all around us. In God, we live, move, and exist.  Even if we don’t know it yet.  And by grace, some of us reach out and find God.

 But there is another side to prevenient grace… that God doesn’t just sit back and wait to be found, but actively seeks us.

God enters our lives and our stories.

God takes on our flesh.

God speaks our words and breathes our air and tells stories about our lives.

The incarnation was as much a part of the good news as the resurrection.  

And so Paul, at Mars Hill, adopted an incarnational ministry and spoke the words of the people, pointed to their objects, entered their stories, and showed them where he saw God.

Or as he writes in 1 Corinthians: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… to the weak, I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:20-22)

 

Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren, in “Introducing the Missional Church,” claim this is the same type of ministry Jesus commissioned the disciples for – sending them out in pairs into communities, inviting them to live deeply in the midst of strangers… eating what they eat, relying upon their customs and hospitality. It was incarnational ministry.

It is the life so many of our United Methodist missionaries take on – going from everywhere to everywhere.

 

In my work earlier with Imagine No Malaria and now with Global Ministries I am so proud of the fact that we do not seek to impose our ways upon communities, but partner with people and seek mutuality.

We no longer fly into a community and drop off bed nets then leave… we work with local leaders and partners and build community health workers who can help us explore best practices, share with us their customs, and ultimately be that incarnational presence on the ground long after an initial distribution of nets has occurred.

Those same community health workers were also then in place when the Ebola epidemic struck so many Western African countries and we were positioned to make a difference because of the relationships we had already established.

And now, we are applying that same model to our disaster response through UMCOR – not sending in support, but nurturing local leadership to be the disaster response coordinator in places like Mozambique.    

 

Our Global Ministries Board of Directors only meets twice a year to evaluate and govern the work of the staff who do this ministry daily.   And in these past three days when I was in Atlanta, I learned that the biggest challenge and blessing facing our work today is Global Migration.  

65.3 million people today are forcibly living outside of their own country.  

65.3 million.

And while about a quarter of these are refugees fleeing from conflict in their homelands, we are also seeing increasing numbers of people who are being forced to migrate because of climate change.

One of our United Methodist communities in Fiji has been forced to leave their island home because of rising sea waters.  

Changing weather patterns contribute to droughts and immense hunger and poverty that cause others to flee.

But other severe weather events like hurricanes and cyclones are also increasing, both numerically and in strength, sending many from their homes.

So not only are we needing to listen to the people in local contexts, but we are also learning how to listen to the world around us and are positioning ourselves to be in place to respond and be proactive for the disasters that we know are coming that will impact our ministries.  

 

The work of Global Ministries is from everywhere, to everywhere.

The only question I have for you is… why do we leave it to the work of our missionaries?

Why are we not living out the gospel in our communities in the same way?

Because if our call is really from everywhere to everywhere, then we become aware of the reality that our neighborhood is a mission field, too.

Corey Fields writes, “today, in the attractional model, the church expects the opposite. We program and advertise and try to do just the right thing that will compel others to come to us as the stranger on our turf. It is the church that is to go, however, taking on the flesh of its local context. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “If the gospel is to be understood…it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed.”  (http://soapboxsuds.blogspot.com/2013/05/taking-on-flesh-incarnational-theology.html )

Our neighborhood is filled with people from nations all across this world.  And it is filled with people who have been in the United States for generations, but for whom the good news of God has become a distant and unknown reality.  

Our churches need to learn more than we teach.

We need to listen more than we speak.

We need to go out into our neighborhoods more than we sit back and wait.

Like Paul, we need to start paying attention and figuring out how to speak in the languages of the people we encounter.

 

Because only by being present with our communities will we ever see how God is already present and how the people of this place live, move, and exist in God.

 

From everywhere… to everywhere… God is present, God is living, God is breathing new life and hope.

 

From Everywhere to Everywhere

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My sermon from the Thanksgiving Ingathering on November 5

This quadrennium, I have the honor of serving on our General Board of Global Ministries:

Tell about opening worship – reading the names of the missionaries who have died.  Very white, anglo sounding names.

 

But that evening, I met missionaries who reminded me that the focus of our global ministries has truly shifted.  Katherine fits that traditional model and is from California. She has served through Global Ministries in a variety of far flung places including Japan, Iowa, and now Nepal.

But Alina is a native Bolivian and she is serving in Nicaragua on behalf of Global Ministries.

Luis is from Brazil and will be heading up the new regional Mission Center in Buenos Aires.

Another leader from Brazil will work with the new regional Mission Center in Africa focusing on Portuguese speaking countries.

I also heard there will be an African who speaks Japanese who will serve in the new Mission Center in Seoul, South Korea… although I didn’t get to meet him.

Mande Muyombo is from Katanga, DRC and is the executive Director of the new Global Ministries Connections.

As he wrote earlier this year:

“The theology of our regional structure is based on our sense of mission “from everywhere to everywhere”—while recognizing the shift of Christianity’s center of gravity. Mission used to be thought of as coming from the center (churches in developed countries) and going to the peripheries (people in developing countries). But our sense today is that there isn’t a center anymore—that doing mission lies in mutuality, looking at each other as equal partners and learning from one another. Our heritage from the Wesleyan movement tells us that God’s grace is everywhere and everyone shares in it.” (http://um-insight.net/in-the-church/umc-global-nature/no-center-no-periphery-a-regional-approach-to-mission/)

 

From everywhere… to everywhere…

 

Fundamental to the shift in our global ministries is the recognition of prevenient grace.

The idea that God is moving in our lives long before we know who or what God is.

The idea that grace and truth, beauty and holiness, forgiveness and love are not gifts we enlightened people bring to the heathens, but that we can discover God’s work in the midst of people we meet… whether or not they know God, yet.

 

I think the shift we are experiencing in mission is paralleled in Paul’s ministry in Athens.

As we start the scripture reading today, he is preaching and sharing the good news of Jesus on the streets. And the people don’t get it and they don’t get him.

What is interesting is how the Common English Bible translates this passage… “they took him into custody” like they really don’t get him.  Paul is trying to shove something foreign down their throats.

Some translations say they take him, or brought him, others that they asked him, but if you look to the original Greek the word is “epilambanomai” – to lay hold of or to seize.  It’s the same word used when Simon the Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross… and the same word used twice as Jesus grabs hold of someone to rebuke or challenge and heal them.

There is a sense in which Paul is not taken to Mars Hill by choice.

He is taken to the council and he is placed in the middle of the people… (again, this can be translated as either a forceful or wilful act)… and I want you to imagine a light bulb going off above Paul’s head.

 

Because his language shifts.

 

He realizes that speaking of foreign things isn’t making and impact.

He starts to contextualize the good news of Jesus Christ.

He recalls an altar he saw, “To an unknown God” and uses that altar… in a city filled with idols… to begin explaining the God he has come to know.

What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you… God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him.  In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.  In God we live, move, and exist.

 

In our Wesleyan heritage, the idea of prevenient grace is that it goes before us.  God’s grace is all around us. In God, we live, move, and exist.  Even if we don’t know it yet.  And by grace, some of us reach out and find God.

 

But there is another side to prevenient grace… that God doesn’t just sit back and wait to be found, but actively seeks us.

 

We are about to enter the season of Advent… a time of dual purpose where we both remember the coming of Christ into this world as a child and look ahead to the second coming of Christ into our midst.

God seeks us.

God enters our lives and our stories.

God takes on our flesh.

God speaks our words and breathes our air and tells stories about our lives.

The incarnation is as much a part of the good news as the resurrection.

And so Paul, at Mars Hill, adopted an incarnational ministry and spoke the words of the people, pointed to their objects, entered their stories, and saw God.

Or as he writes in 1 Corinthians: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… to the weak, I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:20-22)

 

Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren, in “Introducing the Missional Church,” claim this is the same type of ministry Jesus commissioned the disciples for – sending them out in pairs into communities, inviting them to live deeply in the midst of strangers… eating what they eat, relying upon their customs and hospitality. It was incarnational ministry.

It is the life so many of our United Methodist missionaries take on – going from everywhere to everywhere.

 

The only question is… why do we set it aside as the work of our missionaries?

Why are we not living out the gospel in our communities in the same way?

Because if our call is really from everywhere to everywhere, then we become aware of the reality that our neighborhood is a mission field, too.

Corey Fields writes, “today, in the attractional model, the church expects the opposite. We program and advertise and try to do just the right thing that will compel others to come to us as the stranger on our turf. It is the church that is to go, however, taking on the flesh of its local context. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “If the gospel is to be understood…it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed.” (http://soapboxsuds.blogspot.com/2013/05/taking-on-flesh-incarnational-theology.html )

 

Our churches need to learn more than we teach.

We need to listen more than we speak.

We need to go out into our neighborhoods more than we sit back and wait.

 

Because only by being present with our communities will we ever see how God is already present and how the people of this place live, move, and exist in God.

 

In my work so far with Imagine No Malaria and now with Global Ministries I am so proud of the fact that we do not seek to impose our ways upon communities, but partner with people and seek mutuality.

We no longer fly into a community and drop off bed nets then leave… we work with local leaders and build community health workers who can help us explore best practices, learn about customs, and ultimately be that incarnational presence on the ground long after an initial distribution of nets has occurred.

Those same community health workers were also then in place when the Ebola epidemic struck so many Western African countries and we were positioned to make a difference because of the relationships we had already established.

 

These kits we have collected today… they don’t always represent Western ways of doing things, but connect with the real lived needs of  women and children across this world who are eager to learn, seeking healthy births, and who need very concrete resources to maintain health.

Yet, as we go forward, we even must be willing to explore and Global Ministries is currently evaluating how kits like the ones we have collected today can be more contextually relevant… maybe even by purchasing and assembling the kit materials in the places where they are needed to boost their local economies.

 

In the song we share together – We’ve a Story to Hear from the Nations” we hear these lyrics:

 

There’s a message we need in each nation,

That God, Creator of all

Is living in Christ among us

And breathing new life and hope.

 

From everywhere… to everywhere… God is present, God is living, God is breathing new life and hope.

Reflections a week after General Conference… #umcgc

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

We are finite and we make mistakes.

Only God is forever faithful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we can learn from one another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Our Bishops function as the executive branch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

We realized that our differences were tearing us apart.

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

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

Maybe our global structure is unsustainable.

Maybe our decision making process has to change.

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

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

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

Pray for our church.

Pray for God’s will to be done.

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

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

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

Open. #umcgc

I haven’t posted much of substance the past few days. Mostly because there simply isn’t energy to do so.

Two mornings ago, the Council of Bishops presented us with a report we asked them to make.

We took a break and came back to discuss it and one word expressed how it is with my soul: open.

I think emptiness has a lot to do with openness. When you pour yourself out, there is a lot of space left to be filled.

For most of the remainder of the day, we found ourselves lost in parliamentary procedure, mistrust, debate, misunderstanding, chaos, and clamor.

In the end, we adopted the Bishops’ report by 23 votes.

Some of the stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance.

Is openness acceptance?
Am I, are we, collectively grieving the end of The United Methodist Church?

I’m tired and not fully prepared to reflect, but here are some initial asides to explore later:

1) it feels like we both avoided catastrophe.. and like we simply put off the inevitable.

2) Unity in Christ is bigger than unity in a denomination.

3) in spite of our differences, we do incredible discipling and world transforming work!

Blessed are the Debonair

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This morning, we celebrate God’s good creation.

We celebrate the gift of this world… this earth that has been placed in our care.

And I’m sure you are wondering as you heard the scriptures for today and look at that sermon title… what in the world do these things have to do with creation care?

Well, as I prepared for our time of worship today, I spent some time in the works of Lutheran eco-theologian Joseph Sittler.

Rev. Sittler was born in 1904 and in his work began connecting Christian theology and environmental matters as early as the 1950s. He firmly believed that care for the earth and our environment is one of the central concerns of our faith.

He also loved to explore the ways various biblical translations impacted our understanding of what they mean. Robert Saler points to his fascination with a French translation of the Beatitudes – in particularly Matthew 5:5.

We know the verse today as “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

However, “Sittler noticed that the French would often translate this as ‘blessed are the debonair.’ “ (Saler)

Immediately, you probably have an image in your mind of what it means to be debonair. I know, for me, it was almost the opposite of meek.

Yet, as Sittler explains:

… “debonair” in French, in the time of the French Bible of John Calvin, meant a person who is not an idolater, one who hasn’t gotten hooked up in anything worldly, one who is so sophisticated as to know wealth for what it is and that it isn’t everything…

This is a person who has a kind of centeredness that doesn’t let the idols of this world capture it. It’s a kind of debonair in which you sit lightly on the offerings and temptations of this world because you have a vision of something better…

I think about this in the context of our passage from Acts.

Peter has operated under a world view his entire life that divided the world into good and bad, clean and unclean, impure and pure. He was hooked on an understanding of the world that separated him and those like him from others.

There were some things, and some people, as a part of this creation that were outside his concern. Just as he traditionally wouldn’t have been allowed to enter the house of a Gentile, he couldn’t eat certain foods.

But then he has this vision… a vision that opened up his world as never before.

As the Message translation describes that vision in modern language:

Something like a huge blanket, lowered by ropes at its four corners, came down out of heaven and settled on the ground in front of me. Milling around on the blanket were farm animals, wild animals, reptiles, birds—you name it, it was there. Fascinated, I took it all in.

7-10 “Then I heard a voice: ‘Go to it, Peter—kill and eat.’ I said, ‘Oh, no, Master. I’ve never so much as tasted food that wasn’t kosher.’ The voice spoke again: ‘If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.’

There are two things happening here.

Missionally, God is opening Peter and the disciples’ hearts to the possibility of ministry among the Gentiles. God is helping them come to a more sophisticated understanding of their mission that is no longer limited by the old delineations. The Holy Spirit sends Peter to a non-Jewish family who is converted on the spot.

But important for our conversation today, God is helping Peter to understand that all of creation was made by God and it is all a gift. Just as there is no distinction between clean and unclean people, there is no distinction between clean and unclean animals or birds. God has made it all and to God it all belongs… yet it is also being given to Peter, to the people, to us, as a gift… as an inheritance.

In his reflections on the beatitudes, Rev. Sittler considers those debonair who will inherit the earth:

It doesn’t say they shall own the earth, or control the earth…It says they shall inherit the earth.

…The difference is: what you own, you probably earn, or make. An inheritance is something you don’t own. You don’t deserve it. It’s a surprise. You live in the world with a gentle spirit, because the whole of creation is a kind of outrageous surprise, a gift.

Blessed are they of a gentle spirit, because they live in the world not as ones who strut around as if they own the place… Rather, their first feeling for the world is one of tender wonder, gratitude, and amazement.

And Peter does have that sense of awe. The Message translation in particular captures the drama, the wonder of it all, by saying that Peter was fascinated and took it all in. That gentle debonair spirit took over.  He realized that the systems of division between clean and unclean he had lived with his entire life were stripped away.

Every little bit of this world was made by God and belongs to God and we are merely granted temporary guardianship and use. Like Adam and Eve were given creation in Genesis to care for, to steward, to use for their needs, so this world is gifted to Peter and to us.

Rev. Sittler describes a moment when he saw that debonair spirit in action:

I went with some college kids on a trip, a big Saturday afternoon walk through the gigantic Douglas-fir forest in the lower slopes of the Cascades. I watched these sophisticated kids . . . . When they walked into the woods, they became quiet, silent. They would reach out and pat the big trees as they went by. The further we got into the woods, the quieter they became.

Then the phrase came to me, “They inherit the world, because they don’t own it.”

They don’t think of it fundamentally as potential two-by-fours, though it’s all right to use it that way wisely; if you love a thing, then you’re prepared to use it wisely.”

Why should we, as people of faith lift up creation care? Why would someone like Joseph Sittler claim that environmental concerns are one of the central issues of Christianity?

Precisely because it is one of the richest gifts and inheritances that God has given us.

As we state in the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church:

All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways we use and abuse it. Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings… we should meet these stewardship duties through acts of loving care and respect. (Book of Discipline, ¶160)

And if we truly love God, if we truly love one another, if we truly love this gift of creation, then our love will lead us to use it wisely.

The greatest commandment, after all, is to love. And that love should fill every relationship and every engagement with the world.

And that love also leads us to periodically check ourselves and ask if we have taken this gift for granted. That love calls us to speak up when we see others abusing our common resources. That love demands that we teach our children and ourselves how to walk gently and carefully among this precious planet.

Blessed are the Debonair… for they shall inherit the earth.

We have been given this world as a gift, and we are to make sure future generations are able to inherit it as well.

 

References:

Robert Saler – “Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary Easter 5”

Jospeh Sittler, “His God Story,” in The Eloquence of Grace: Joseph Sittler and the Preaching Life, ed. Richard Lischer and James Childs, Cascade, 2013, 23-24

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.

Format Aside

When I was in high school, my youth group went on an international mission trip to Peru. Forty youth plus chaperones set out from Cedar Rapids determined to make a difference in the lives of other people. We even made t-shirts.

I remember the night that we came up with the slogan for the back of our shirts. We were at a planning meeting… a barbeque in someone’s backyard. We divided into crews and we all did our own brainstorming and came up with ideas, and then we merged into larger groups and condensed ideas and eventually we came up with this:

Building Hope, Changing Hearts… one nail at a time.

What I remember most profoundly was the idea that we were the ones who would be doing all of this. That as high school students we had the power to truly transform lives. That we could give of our time (in the middle of summer no less) and our talents (as meager as they might be) and other people would be changed.

Sometimes, I think back to how naïve we were. To really think that a group of teenagers could work for 8 days and completely change a community.

But in the end, people were transformed.   Only, it was us, far more than the children at “El Refugio de Esperanza” (the Refuge of Hope).

When we give, we are changed. It is as simple as that.

Delegate!

These are the jobs we are assigned to do as the Church Council, according to the Book of Discipline:

  1. Plan and implement all the programs of nurture, outreach, witness and resources.
  2. Administer the church organization
  3. Envision, Plan, Implement and Evaluate the mission and ministry of the church.
  4. Act as the administrative agency of the charge conference.

That is a lot to accomplish for a group that meets for 90 minutes once a month. Yet, according to the Discipline, all of this is our job to provide for.

So, how is it possible?

 

Exodus 18 (MSG)

13-14  Moses took his place to judge the people. People were standing before him all day long… When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What’s going on here? Why are you doing all this, and all by yourself…?”

15-16 Moses said, “Because the people come to me with questions about God. When something comes up, they come to me. I judge between [them] and teach them God’s laws and instructions.”

17-23 Moses’ father-in-law said, “This is no way to go about it. You’ll burn out, and the people right along with you. This is way too much for you—you can’t do this alone. Now listen to me. Let me tell you how to do this so that God will be in this with you… Your job is to teach them the rules and instructions, to show them how to live, what to do. And then you need [to appoint competent people as leaders over smaller groups]… They’ll be responsible for the everyday work of judging among the people. They’ll bring the hard cases to you, but in the routine cases they’ll be the judges. They will share your load and that will make it easier for you. If you handle the work this way, you’ll have the strength to carry out whatever God commands you, and the people in their settings will flourish also.”

24-27 Moses listened to the counsel of his father-in-law and did everything he said.

 

The advice Jethro offered Moses was to delegate.

He didn’t have to shoulder all of the responsibility himself. He didn’t have to do it all on his own. And by delegating responsibility and sharing authority, both Moses and the people would flourish.

First, he had to train those additional leaders and equip them… you can’t be responsible for something if you don’t know what the expectations are.

But then Moses had to get out of their way. He didn’t have time to micro-manage. They didn’t have time to continually come back and ask if they were doing it right.

They all needed to trust one another.

As a result, Moses could periodically check-in and evaluate his leaders. And, he was available when there were big issues to discuss.

 

As the Ad Council, we could look at our purpose statement as defined by the Book of Discipline and try to shoulder it all ourselves, as Moses did at first.

Or, we can delegate.

When we delegate, we make clear the expectations by setting goals and strategy and communicating our vision and mission. Then, we need to empower our committees to do the work of ministry.

We give them a budget, we make sure they understand our vision as a church, and then they have the responsibility and authority to do whatever they need to do, within those parameters, as their work.

This means the council is freed up to truly handle the big picture and major decisions. We are freed to hold the church and committees accountable for living into our mission and vision.

“If you handle the work this way, you’ll have the strength to carry out whatever God commands you, and the people in their settings will flourish also.”