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.

 

Unity, Diversity, and the Body of Christ

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Over the past week, I’ve been working to get my garden prepped a bit for spring and to start some of the seeds that will be set out after Mother’s Day.  And I was reminded as I dug my fingers into the dirt that soil is so incredibly diverse and complex.  That just one handful of the stuff contains more living organisms than there are people on this planet.   

And in every part of the soil, every one of those organisms has a part to play, impacting chemical and physical properties.  And all of these living organisms live off of and feed off of one another.  It is their interaction that makes soil healthy and thriving and good.

In his book, The Third Plate, Dan Barber describes two ways of seeing what is happening in the soil that surrounds us.

One, is a class system… or a battlefield…

We’ve all seen those videos of a tiny fish being eaten by a bigger fish, being eaten by an even bigger fish… that’s some of what happens in the dirt beneath our feet.  One way of looking at all of the interaction beneath us is to focus on how microbes are eaten by protozoa, which are eaten by centipedes, ants, and beetles.

 

 

But another way of thinking about all of that diversity in the soil is as a system of checks and balances. 

 

Fred Magdoff is a soil scientist and he thinks that “When there is sufficient and varied food for the organisms, they do what comes naturally, ‘making a living’ by feeding on the food sources that evolution provided… What you have is a thriving, complex community of organisms.”

And all of that diversity and interaction in the soil is what makes our food taste good. 

Magdoff says, “Taste comes from a more complex molecule that gets eaten, taken apart, and put back together in a different way.  The plant takes this, and all the other molecules, and catalyzes them into phytonutrients.  Taste doesn’t come from the elemental compounds (like calcium or nitrogen).  It comes from the synthesis” [The Third Plate, Dan Barber, page 85]

 

That’s really why you and I want all of that diversity in the soil after all.  Because we want the things we grow to thrive and taste good.  We want it to bear tasty fruit! 

In musical composition, unless it is a solo piece, it is the interaction of the various instruments each playing their part, yet working together that create harmonization.  

And in the church, it is the way that we each utilize our various gifts and we each play our part as hands or tongues or livers that allows the Body of Christ to make a difference in this world.  

 

But sometimes, the church acts more like a battlefield than the Body of Christ.  

When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, he was responding to the way factions and power and pride were tearing the community apart.  

Corinth was a port city and as such it had incredible diversity.  Ideas from across the globe all mingled and freed slaves lived amongst wealthy entrepreneurs.  The church reflected this diversity… but that created a power contest between the believers who argued with one another about which ideology or status was better than another.

At every turn, Paul reminds the people that their diversity should be seen not as a source of division, but as a blessing.  Because of their varied gifts and perspectives, they could do far more together than any of them could do on their own.  

 

We’ve experienced this as a church, haven’t we?  We have incredible diversity as far as our age and our political and theological perspectives and yet look at the amazing things that we have done together.

We raised over $5000 for Joppa in a weekend with a garage sale last year that brought so many different people together.

We built on Faith Hall and paid it off in record time because every person did their part.

We successfully launched Children’s Church because of the incredible work of so many different volunteers and people who were willing to try something new.  

Today is the last day of Third Grade Bible, which is an amazing way our more experienced folks help our young people learn about this amazing book that guides our faith journey.  

 

None of that could happen unless the various parts of THIS Body of Christ were willing to step up and play a part.  

You might be a foot or an eye or a spleen, but you play a part in this church.   We all play a part.  You might think that you are too young or too old or too busy to make a difference, but Paul says you are wrong.  You are an essential part of making the church work!  

Or you might think that church would be a whole lot simpler if everyone was just like me, but again, Paul says we are wrong.  It takes all of our different perspectives and experiences… even when they make things more complex… to be the Body of Christ God has intended for this community.

 

In the United Methodist Church right now, we are divided.  We are different.  And we feel differently about human sexuality.  We can’t always agree about how we should be in ministry with those folks on the margins, whether they are refugees or poor or elderly or tattooed or whatever else marks them as different from the majority.  And underneath all that disagreement is that we don’t all read the scripture in the same way.  

And sometimes, that diversity feels like a war.  It feels like the battle described the soil beneath us or in that clip from Minions.  We are chewing each other up and spitting each other out. And I hate the way my brothers and sisters are hurt and damaged by actions and words that cut to the core of their very being.  And I’ve watched as some people have walked away from the Body of Christ because of it.

When you focus on the conflict that diversity creates, you want to strip out everything that is different to protect yourself and others.  We want simple things.  We want unity, which means, we want to all be the same.

But I believe, and Paul believes, that to be healthy, we need diversity.  We need difference.  We need checks and balances.  We need reminders of the importance of the scripture and justice and mercy and love from people who don’t see it the same way we do. 

We need to listen. 

We need to hold one another accountable. 

We also need to challenge one another. 

We need to be willing to speak the truth in love.

And together, the interaction of all of our different parts creates something beautiful and mysterious and powerful.

John Wesley claimed the Moravian Motto: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.”

There are key things that are pretty essential to who we are as not only United Methodists, but as Christians:  ideas like believing in the Triune God, and understanding that grace plays a role in our lives.  Core things, without which we simply could not be the Body of Christ.  

But there are other things that are non-essential.  What style of music or which translation or scripture or if we prefer percolator coffee or ground coffee or whole bean pour over. In those things, we are called to allow the freedom of diversity and expression and to give room and space for our siblings in Christ to be different and to share their varying gifts.

But no matter what… in all things, we are called to love.  To respect each other.  To listen.  To disagree without being disagreeable.  To be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit.  

In all things, Love.

It is not a coincidence that this chapter on what it means to be the Body of Christ comes right before the chapter on love.  Because the only way we make this kind of community work is through love.  We’ll talk more about that next week.   

 

In the same way the soil beneath our feet thrives on diversity and competition and interaction and synergy – this church thrives because we are different AND because we love one another.  And through God’s grace, that means we can do more than any one of us could accomplish on our own for the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

 

Discerning What Matters Most

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This faith community began in the 1920s , as the neighborhood of Beaverdale was starting to rapidly grow.  Reverend Orf, the pastor of Crocker Hill UMC,  recognized the growing need for a church presence in this area and so area churches banded together for a committee, remodeled an old farmhouse, and on Easter Day, 1925 the first worship service was held at this location.  

As the community grew, the congregation made plans to build a church and the part of our building that is now the music room and offices was built in 1941.  A big part of the design at the time was to build a church structure that would be in keeping with the style of the homes being built all around us.  Classrooms were added in 1947 – part of Immanuel’s long legacy of education.   Our church also opened itself up to the community in this part of our history, housing some of the local elementary school classes in our Fellowship Hall as the schools got too large for the students of the day. 

As the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren church were merging in 1968 to form a new denomination – the United Methodist Church, this congregation was continuing to grow and completed work on this sanctuary.  In the 1960s, youth bell choirs were formed, with adult bells following a decade later – another part of the way music has been a rich part of our tradition.

In 1970s, we began a new ministry that reached out to shut ins with tape recordings of the worship services.  Members from Immanuel were instrumental in helping to pave the way for Vietnamese refugees to be welcomed into our state. 

And since that time, we have continued to grow in faith, we are known as a caring and mission focused community, and we have been willing to take leaps of faith to respond to the needs we recognized within the church and the community, like our expansion of Faith Hall which was completed in 2004.

 

The Apostle Paul wrote to the people of Philippi to encourage them in the faith and as a church.  And he reminds them that the God who began a good work in them would not abandon them, but would continue to help them to love and bear fruit for the gospel until that day when their work was finally complete. 

And the Philippians needed some encouragement.  While they had been on fire for God at the start, they also had experienced intense persecution because of their faith.  Many were wondering how they could continue to go in in the face of the opposition they were experiencing.  What should their church look like now?  How could they continue to serve when so many around them were dying and falling away? 

Paul’s letter called them to press on with rejoicing even in the midst of their difficulties and to return to God in a spirit of discernment, so they could discover a more excellent way and so they could be strengthened for whatever would come next… until that day when God fills the entire world with the love of Jesus Christ. 

 

There simply is no comparison between the struggles we experience today in the United States and the persecution experienced in places like Philippi and in other places that are hostile to the Christian faith today.   We gather in this room this morning without fear of death.  We can sing at the top of our lungs and share our faith and the only consequences for doing so might be some angry words or cold shoulders. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t face bumps in the road or our own kinds of trials.  That doesn’t mean that parts of our journey aren’t difficult. 

And so, we need encouragement in our faith sometimes, too.  And like the Philippians, we constantly find ourselves asking the question, what should our church look like now?  How do we continue to serve in the midst of declining membership or in the midst of a culture that cares less and less about what the church has to say?  What are we to do when the good news of the gospel seems to be falling on deaf ears? 

What is it that we are fighting for?  What kind of church are we going to invest in becoming for the future? 

 

I began our message this morning by remembering a few fragments of our past, because the practice of spiritual discernment about next steps always begins with looking to see what we can learn from where we have been.  And as I look at the history of who this church has been, I see that we began as a community of people who were willing to take risks and go to new places where we thought we might reach new people. 

This church began as a renovated old farmhouse – a house church – that welcomed people into a family.  But we didn’t just stay there.  As the needs of this community of faith continued to grow, we expanded and grew ourselves.  And we took care to continue to resemble the community around us – even thinking about making our physical structure look like the homes in the neighborhood.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Although I’m free of all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them.  I act like a Jew to the Jews, so I can recruit Jews… I act weak to the weak, so I can recruit the weak.  I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means.” (1 Cor. 9: 19-22)

So as we think today about what we might be called to next, I think its important to remember that we as a church were willing to take risks to meet new people and willing to adapt to the community as it changed around us so that the community might feel at home in our midst. 

 

One of the problems with looking backward to find the answer, however, is that we can get caught in analysis paralysis and stay there.  We can try to recreate exactly what we did before or keep researching and studying and waiting for exactly the right moment and we miss the opportunities that are right before us. 

In What Are We Fighting For, Bishop Bickerton reminds us that as a church, we simply can’t wait any longer.  He talks about the act of hitting a baseball and how difficult it is to time your swing just right.  While it is easier in slow pitch to be able to see what is coming at you, as the game goes faster and faster,  we often wait far too long to swing.    And Bishop Bickerton says that the church game is going faster and faster and changing more and more rapidly every day.  There are so many moving parts to a church and we need more technical expertise to reach people today.  We have to adapt and be nimble, and react more quickly to the ways our community and culture are changing, or we might find that we have waiting too long, we have missed the pitch, and our church is no longer relevant. 

All around us, there are pitches coming our way.  There are opportunities a plenty.  In fact, there are so many great ways that we could be in ministry today that it is tempting to try to do everything and toss out a whole bunch of new programs and activities like scattershot and see what works.  But that itself is exhausting.  Instead of scattershot, we need help to discern a clear focus.  And part of that discernment is asking who is the new community that God is calling us to take a risk and step out in faith to reach?  How can we be faithful to our heritage as a church, while also paying attention to where the Holy Spirit is leading us next? 

As an administrative council, we spent some time last fall in discernment looking at a number of the opportunities, realities of our surrounding community, and ways that we are particularly gifted to lead and serve.  We noticed things like that our surrounding neighborhood is now only 80% white, that we have more elementary schools in our community, and that over 1/3 of the families with children around us are now single parent families.  We also have more younger, couples moving into the homes of the neighborhood. 

How is God calling us to step out in faith and reach them for Christ? 

As we continue to discern, we start by connecting our passions and our gifts as a church with the ways we will choose to live in the midst of this place.  We can take the things that we value like music and education and being a caring community and we can carry them with us as we go outside of these walls to reach new people. 

But we also should be willing to test the things that we have always done and do them not just because they are what we like to do, but to ask always if they are faithful to God’s will for our community.  Do our activities and our programs resemble God’s love?  Are they filled with the knowledge of our Lord?  Are we bearing the fruit of the gospel in what we do?  Are we doing them simply because they are easy, or are we rising up to meet the demands of call of Jesus Christ? 

 

Next week, Trevor will be preaching once again and he will help us think about a final part of our discernment… how do we know what really is the core of who we are as a church that will always be the same and will never change no matter how the world changes around us, and where are the places where we can be more nimble and flexible, so that we can continue to grow towards completion for the glory of God.    What are the things we should be willing to fight for, no matter what? 

 

Lessons for the Journey

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Last winter, my immediate family planned a trip to Hawaii to escape the cold and the snow.  We often like to travel all together, but because of my weekend work responsibilities, the rest of the family took off earlier, while Brandon and I stayed here in Iowa to get through church on Sunday morning and then fly out. 

Our original plan had been to fly out on Sunday afternoon, but about a month before the trip, they cancelled that flight and rebooked us for first thing on Monday morning.  So our alarms were set for 4am, our bags were packed and we were ready to go.  And then the text message came.  Our flight had been cancelled.   There had been storms that weekend in Dallas, flights were backed up and ours was being bumped.  We had been rebooked for Wednesday morning. 

I instantly got on the phone and tried to see if there was any way we could get out of town sooner.  Except the hold time with the airline was estimated to be an hour or more.  Brandon and I live near the airport, so I decided to go and try to get in line and talk with an actual agent at the ticketing counter.  Only, the lines there were nearly out the door.  Everyone was trying to get out of town and no one was going anywhere.   There were no earlier flights to be had.

We decided to make the most of the day and built a fire in the fireplace at home and tried not to grumble.  The next day around noon, we got another text from the airlines.  Our flight Wednesday morning out of Des Moines had been cancelled, too. 

I think I spent about three hours on the phone with the airlines and the soonest they could rebook our tickets was on January 1st.  It would be another two days before it would be possible to get out of Des Moines due to the back up all throughout the system.  I cried.  The good lady from the airlines tried her best to help make something work, but it was a mess.   

I finally asked if the flight from Dallas to Hawaii was still taking off the next morning.  It had been only the Des Moines leg of the trip that had been cancelled.  And sure enough, it was still going to be leaving at 9 am Wednesday morning.  Brandon and I looked at each other, and decided to drive to Dallas.  

We picked up the rental car around 4pm, left Des Moines around 5, and drove through the night.  When we arrived, exhausted, around 4am, we found a quiet corner in the airport to take a short nap, made our flight, and made it to Hawaii to spend the rest of the trip with our family… only three days late.  

 

In our scripture this morning, the Israelites are on a journey as well.  While Brandon and I were trying to escape the cold of winter for a warm, sunny beach, the Israelites had escaped slavery in Egypt and now they were headed for the Promised Land.  God was leading them to the land flowing with milk and honey.  Only, they didn’t quite know how to get there and they trusted God to lead them.  

This was supposed to be a fairly simple trip, and yet at the outset, God planned to lead them the long way round.  The pillar of smoke and fire was taking them on a journey that would avoid most of the difficulties they might encounter along the way.  But no road is easy and the setbacks they experienced were far greater than a few cancelled flights. If you continue reading through the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the Israelites experienced loss, frustration, bickering, and ended up wandering for forty years in the wilderness.  There were times in the journey when the destination seemed so far away that they wished they were back in Egypt.  And despite the daily guidance and food provided from above, there were even times they forgot God was with them.  Ultimately however,  just like we finally touched down on the rainbow isle and got to spend our vacation with my parents, siblings, and three amazing niblings, the Israelites finally made it to Canaan.

While we might not be on a physical journey, the people of the United Methodist Church and the people of Immanuel are on a journey, too.  John Wesley often talked about how we are going on to perfection and I think part of that means that we as the church should always be working towards the Kingdom of God and growing not only in our personal faith, but we should be transforming the world around us to look more like the “Promised Land” every single day.  As a church, we need a compelling vision to hold in front of us, a picture of the destination we are longing for, so that we can actively work to bring that reality into being. 

But like the Israelites, our journey has been and will be marked by setbacks. Most journeys are.  We, too, have experienced loss and decline.  In fact, I bet some of you in this room can remember when this sanctuary was built in order to accommodate when we had over 500 in worship every single Sunday.  And, there are times of disagreement and disunity.  We won’t always be able to find the best worship times for every person and we won’t all agree on what a faithful Christian response is to some of the toughest conversations of our day.  

Last week in fact, an email came out from a new group that has formed within the UMC called the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  The email contained a video that highlights the three central beliefs of the organization.  That God is good, the Bible is true, and that Promises should be kept.  And yet, how those three very simple statements were defined is not something that all United Methodists agree upon.  So I became part of a group of young clergywomen that created a statement in response, trying to expand and enlarge the conversation.  

When Bishop Bickerton talks about this journey of faith we are on, he knows that it will not be easy.  But he offers a couple of simple lessons that might help us arrive together at our final destination.  As I have thought about the journey of the Israelites,  my own adventures in travel, and the journey we are currently on as a church, I find them helpful.

The first lesson I want to highlight is what my colleagues and I were attempting to do last week as we drafted a response to others in the church.  And that is the see yourselves and others as a work in progress.   I think this faith that we share is not simple, but it is complex and messy and real.  We are always learning and growing and going on to perfection.  Or as Paul put it, “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face.  Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way I have been completely known.” (1 Cor. 13: 12).  And so that means we should constantly be in dialogue with one another.  We need to admit our shortcomings and leave ourselves open to the possibility that we might be wrong.  We do not need to have it all together or have all the answers… we are still on a journey!

The second lesson relates to that idea.  In the famous words of Vanilla Ice, we need to stop, collaborate and listen. It is often the people we disagree with the most who can help us to get farther on our journey.  We need to collaborate across generations, with our older folks helping out our young parents and our younger folks providing support and care for their elder counterparts.  In his book, Bishop Bickerton shares a story from Zimbabwe and Bishop Nhiwatiwa.  In the Shona language, the word used for the spirit of collaboration is chabadza .  “If you approach a person working in a field, you do not say, “May I plow your field for you?” Instead you say, “May I help you plow your field?”  Chabadza represents a willingness to enter into relationship with someone else on the journey.” (p. 36)   And it is a willingness to let to, let others help, and to let it be done another way.  This is the spirit that we embody here at Immanuel whenever we put the needs of another person above our own and let go of our way in order to let God move us in a new way.  

The final lesson is one that I needed to remember many times on our long journey to Hawaii.  You need to lighten up, loosen up, and have a little fun The journey we are on is difficult, and if we don’t open ourselves up to find the joy in the midst of the journey it will feel like its longer than it actually is.  We need to enjoy the ride, remember that we are loved by God, let the Holy Spirit encourage us every step of the way.  Here at Immanuel, there are so many opportunities to have a little fun as we grow in this journey of discipleship.  You can sing and dance with the kids in Children’s Church.  You can laugh together over coffee in Faith Hall.  You can step out of your comfort zone and make a new friend.  You can stand up and let God move you when the music starts playing.  You can roll with punches and smile more and see where the Spirit will move.  

Above all, no matter where we are on this journey, God is with us, pushing us, pulling us, prodding us, and never letting us go.  Like the cloud of pillar and fire never left the side of the Israelites, the presence of God is in this place and will continue to guide us every step of the way.  Amen. 

Practice These Things…

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Last week, we broke bread in spite of our differences.

We shared at the table of the Lord with people who would vote differently than us and with some who would not or could not vote at all.

And we touched [will touch] the waters of baptism and remember our baptism in Christ and that we are all children of God.

And we did so because our heritage… our inheritance as a church… our tradition as people of God… is to overcome any division among us.

Paul exemplified this in the way he gave thanks for the Gentiles in Ephesus… in spite of the vast sea of differences between them.

 

In today’s scripture reading, Paul is writing to a different community… to the people of Philippi in Greece.

This, too, was a diverse community, and one of the interesting features is that there were many descendants of Roman army veterans living there.

 

Later on this morning, we will share together in a potluck meal and celebrate and honor our veterans… all of those who have faithfully served our country, who sacrificed in countless ways for us.  Every step of the way, they put the rights, the lives, the needs of other people above their own.

 

I believe that self-giving spirit… that spirit of love that would cause someone to lay down their life for another person… is part of what has made our country great.  We don’t sit back when people are in need, but we show up.  We have showed up to fight back tyrants and dictators, oppression and evil… and not always because it was on our doorstep, but because it was on the doorsteps of others.

 

All throughout the letter to the Philippians, you can see that kind of self-giving spirit we honor in our veterans.  Practice these things… practice that holy, radical, sacrificial love… Paul writes.

And yet, the context of Philippi was very different.  This was the site, if you appreciate history, where Brutus and Cassius were finally defeated by the armies of Marc Antony.  And much of the land was taken away from the original inhabitants and given to the soldiers and their families as a reward.

 

This was a place of division, dislocation, and disparity and the gospel of Jesus Christ took root in the people who were the most vulnerable in this community.

For some, everything had been taken away from them:  their citizenship, their land… everything that made them who they were.

Until they found their identity in Christ.

And as Paul writes this letter of encouragement to these displaced people, that identity, that love, that faith is what he reminds them of over and over again.

 

In chapter 3 he writes:  “All these things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ.  But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him.”

 

These are not empty words of someone who had privilege… as Paul was.  As a Roman citizen, he had rights that many of them had just recently lost and this might have felt like salt thrown onto open wounds…

Except, Paul really did let go of all of his power and privilege for the sake of the gospel.

This letter is being written from a jail cell – because Paul is awaiting trial for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.

He is living out with his very life every word he writes on the page… including the call to “adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.  When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (2:5-8)

Practice these things…

In every part of this letter, Paul reminds the church at Philippi to put others ahead of themselves.  To love fiercely, in spite of what might happen.  To overcome conflict and difference, anger and fear.

 

And friends, that’s not easy.

When there are deep divisions in a community it is easy to hunker down with people who are like-minded, to grumble and argue, to weep and be overcome with discouragement or to hold our victories over one another.

But Paul tells us to be grateful.

Paul tells us to rejoice.

Paul tells us to let love reign in our hearts.

The key to unity we heard last week… the key to overcoming division… is gratitude for the people who are different than us.

It is echoed all throughout this letter, too.

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.  Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”  (2:2-4)

And in our scripture this morning, from the Message translation:

Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them. (4:4-5)

 

Friends, I need you to know that there is real pain and fear across this nation right now.

There have been acts of hate and violence and aggression in our communities and neighborhoods.  And in this neighborhood, there are families who fear they will be separated and there are people who have been targeted because of their gender, or sexual orientation, religion or ethnicity, or even because of the clothes they are wearing.  I cannot and will not utter the hateful and horrendous words that have been used to diminish the value of our neighbors.

There have also been acts of violence as a part of generally peaceful protests and marches.

 

So I need you to know that I am not calling for a unity that blissfully ignores conflict.

Paul is not calling for a unity that ignores the trials and tribulations of our brothers and sisters and siblings OR neglects truth-telling and accountability.

Paul is in prison because he refused to be silent… because he challenged the powers-that-be with the radical love and gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

No, the type of unity Paul speaks of is a unity of resistance against the forces of this world that seek death, division, oppression, and hatred.

Paul calls us to “be blameless and pure, innocent children of God surrounded by people who are crooked and corrupt.  Among these people you shine like stars in the world because you hold on to the word of life.”   (2:15-16)

Stand firm in your faith, in spite of your enemies.

Be united in love and compassion.

Be united against injustice.

Be united against hateful rhetoric.

Be united in protection of the most vulnerable.

Put into practice all that we have learned from Paul – and won’t worry about it, don’t be paralyzed by fear, but lift up petitions and supplications and praises to God.

As Paul writes to the people of Phillipi:

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse… (4:8)

So let me close by telling you a story… a first-hand account from a Muslim woman:

Yesterday my husband and I attended a football game, it was Duhur time and we needed to pray.

Finding a place to pray at a football stadium is tough, but we managed to find an empty corner.

I was a bit nervous to pray because it wasn’t private at all, particularly in front of everyone, maybe i’m silly but i’m always paranoid i will get attacked while focused in prayer. My husband started praying and i get approached by stadium security.

I thought in my head, here comes this guy, he’s gonna escort me out and tell us we can’t do this here.

I was wrong…

he came up to me and said “i am going to stand here and guard you guys to make sure nobody gives you any problems, go ahead and pray.”

He allowed us to pray and stood in front guarding us to make sure we are safe. When i finished he came up to us shook our hands and told us to enjoy the game.

The key to unity… the key to overcoming division… is gratitude for the people who are different than us.

The key to unity is to listen with grateful ears the stories of another person… even if it is a story of hurt and fear and pain… it is holding open spaces for people when they are scared… standing by their side when they are in pain.

The key to unity is to seek out someone who is different from you and to tell your story – even if it causes conflict BECAUSE we are grateful they are part of our community and because we want to continue to be in relationship with them.

The key to unity is to practice what is good and true and holy… putting others before yourself and giving thanks to God that they are in your life…

May it be so.

 

 

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.

Claiming Our Inheritance

When I came home from our United Methodist General Conference in May, I shared with you these words:

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.

I went on talk about why that was:  how the source of dilemma lies in being a global church, in the way we make decisions, and the reality that we can’t agree on some fundamental basics of what it means to be church together, like what we mean by covenant or how we interpret scriptures.

 

This month, our bishops have not only announced the members of a special commission who will help us find a way forward, but they have also announced their intent to call a special session of General Conference in 2019… one year earlier than we would typically meet.  The purpose will be to allow this commission to do their work and then the delegates of our last general conference will gather back together solely for the purpose of discussing and voting on their recommendations.  Many imagine that if we cannot agree to a way to hold our differences in creative tension that our church will split at that time. 

 

For the last few months, there has been a tension in my shoulders that I can’t quite shake. 

I’m worried.

I’m worried for my country.

I’m worried for the United Methodist Church.

I’m worried for this church.

 

And the root of that worry is less about who wins on Tuesday or what kind of church we will be on the other side of 2019 or how many people stayed home from worship last weekend…

I worry about how we treat one another and whether or not we see the person sitting across from us as a person of inherent worth and dignity… and that we seem unable to set aside our thoughts and opinions for long enough to actually listen to the truth of another person.

I think the antidote to the worry we collectively are bearing might be found in our scripture this morning.  

 

One of the radical messages of Ephesians that is lost to modern readers of the scriptures is the fact that Paul reaches out and give thanks for people who are outside of his faith.

Historically, the early church experienced great tensions between Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ.  They had different backgrounds, different traditions and practices, and yet all claimed to have accepted the good news of God.  There was infighting and arguments about who had to give up what part of their heritage in order to be part of the community.

And so when Paul, a Jewish scholar and leader of the church, writes to this Gentile community at Ephesus, it is remarkable that one of the first things he does is emphasize unity.

We have obtained an inheritance”, Paul writes.

And then he goes a step farther… “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”

Paul specifically reaches out to people who are very different from him… people he has never even met before… and tells them that he is grateful for them.

This letter to the Ephesians is fundamentally about unity. 

That is our glorious inheritance.

Unity with God in Jesus Christ.

Unity with the saints who have gone before us.

And unity with one another in this present moment. 

And as Paul teaches us in these first few verses that you can’t have unity without gratitude. 

 

As we light candles to remember the saints, we are reminded that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we remain connected and unified with all of those saints who have gone before us… and with all who will come after us. 

As we break bread, we sing and feast with the saints.  This meal is an act of unity. This meal and the hope it instills in our souls is our inheritance. 

And as we remember, we give thanks for eight people from our congregation who died this past year:  for Lois.  Becky.  Viola.  Ruth.  Gary.  Mildred.  Sharon.  Marcia.   Thank you, God.   

But we also give thanks for the many people, friends and family, who have gone before us. 

We give thanks for all of the saints who shaped our lives. 

And we give thanks for the multitudes of saints and the historic church that is our foundation.  When it feels like the weight of the world is upon our shoulders and that the church will live or die based upon our decisions, it is good to remember that God’s church has been around for two thousand years.  It is built upon the prophets and the apostles.  The church is far bigger than this congregation or even this denomination.  And for that I give thanks…

And I also pray that we might claim this inheritance and that somehow we might be part of passing along this faith to generations yet to come. 

 

Sarah Birmingham Drummond reminds us that the unity we experience is not only across time and generations, but also for this present moment. “Paul’s message of unity was radical in its day, as it suggest unity across divisions that were woven into the fabric of daily life.  This suggests that the early church understood overcoming divisions to be part of its mandate.”

Let me repeat that. 

The early church understood overcoming divisions to be part of its mandate.

After all, Paul was reaching out to people he didn’t have a whole lot in common with to give thanks.   His letter reminded not only them, but also himself, of the unity of Christ that brings all of us together. 

That is our inheritance, too.

 

Today, we will break bread not only with the saints, but also with people who will vote differently than us on Tuesday. 

We worship every Sunday morning with people of different ages. 

We worship with people who prefer different types of music. 

We worship with early risers and people who long to sleep in on Sundays.

Yet overcoming division is part of our mandate as people of faith.

Being a people who overcome difference in order to be in community… that is our inheritance. 

That is the faith that has been passed down from generation to generation.

 

No matter what happens on Tuesday. 

No matter what happens in 2019 with our denomination.

No matter what tension we feel as a result of our worship times or classes or studies.

Our responsibility is to look around this room and to give thanks for each soul and get busy making a difference in this world.

That is the inheritance we can claim, right here and right now. 

 

And we do so… we claim the inheritance of Jesus Christ across generations and across divisions because we believe that God’s mission is built upon a church united to transform this world. 

Because we believe that God needs all of us… past, present, and future, to bring healing and hope to a broken people. 

Because our differences are small when compared to the call God has upon our lives to claim our inheritance. 

Because we believe in the immeasurable greatness of God’s power to truly make a difference… right here and right now.  

Lots to Brag About

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Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy wrote this letter of encouragement to people who desperately needed some good news, and my prayer for today is that the word of God heard this morning might be encouragement for our troubled souls, too. 

Let us pray:

Holy God, speak into our midst this morning.  Fill us with hope, grace, and peace.  May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts and minds honor You this morning. May they be worthy of your calling and accomplish your faithful work in our midst.  Amen.

 

I thank God for you.

I do.  I really do.

I thank God for you, the people of Immanuel United Methodist.

I thank God for the way that the love you all have for each other and the world is increasing.

 

That love is born from a common struggle. 

And as we gather today… not only in worship this morning, but also at our charge conference later this afternoon, we reflect upon another year of ministry. 

This year, we did some hard things…

Some of them were challenges that we set before ourselves:  like raising money for Joppa or purchasing brand new books for every student at Hillis Elementary.

Some of them were difficulties that arise out of the reality of earthly life:  the illnesses, the injuries, the loss of treasured members of our community whom we will celebrate next week with all the Saints. 

And some of the struggles we have faced together in the last year, like trying to discern and implement new times for worship, are born out of a reality that the world we live in is changing and we as a church are trying to adapt and provide opportunities for new generations and new people.   

But we did these things together… and they helped to form and shape us as the people of God. 

Robert Dunham wrote that “common struggle often forges an uncommon unity and love for one another.  Like the peace that holds the community fast in turmoil, love for one another and congregational unity are best received and celebrated as gifts.”

 

The love we have for one another is a gift… the bonds formed in the midst of common struggle are a blessing… and they should be celebrated as such. 

Thank you, God.

[the numbers represent images that were projected during the worship service]

 

[1] Thank you God for the deeper relationships we formed with our neighborhood elementary school, Hillis, as we brought books for so many children and we have more and more people taking just an hour a week to read with those who need some extra help.  

[2] And Thank you for helping us to continue efforts like Donuts for Dudes and Muffins for Moms where we can be present in our neighborhood and share God’s love with breakfast.

 [3] Thank you God for the ways that young people and their mentors here at the church bonded through hard work, study, and recreation through confirmation this year.

 [4] Thank you God for the impact you had on children in our church and community as we worked to help them learn more about your powerful and never-ending love.

 [5] Thank you God for the ways that members of our community show up to support the work of each other… even when their efforts aren’t related to Immanuel… like these runners did in supporting the Clover Dash organized by one of our youth.

 [6] Thank you God, for calling our leadership to deeper faithfulness and helping us to have hard conversations about your calling for our church in this world.

 [7] Thank you God, for bringing together men of all ages in fellowship and for new relationships formed over barbeque and basketball.

 [8] Thank you for challenging us to stretch beyond our own teams and ministries to build new partnerships with others, like the Interfaith Green Team Coalition.

 [9] Thank you God, for those who give so faithfully of their time and energy to create this amazing space for us all to worship and learn about you in.

[10] Thank you God for the faithfulness of our predecessors like Mrs. Simser and the bibles we give our children and the faithfulness of bible partners and teachers.

 [11] Thank you God for a seven year partnership and relationship with Imani church

[12] and for blessing both us and them as they moved to a new location and continue their ministry there.

 [13] Thank you God for the ministry of Joppa and the relationships we are creating with the homeless in our community as we go out to where they live and bring them items they need.

[14] and thank you for challenging us to expand our ministry to provide new resources… and in the process helping us to build new and deeper relationships with each other through the MASSIVE garage sale. 

 [15]  Thank you God for sending our VIM team back to Milwaukee to build new relationships and work again in familiar places

[16] and for the deep connections that are created when we labor together for a common good.

[17] Thank you God for those who not only prepare meals for us every week, but who care for and minister to one another in good times and in bad.

 [18] Thank you God for those who knit and purl and crochet and create blankets and shawls that we distribute to those who are experiencing transition or loss or health problems… extending the love of Immanuel to those who need it the most.

[19] Thank you God for life groups that push us to try new things, including leaping off of cliffs

 [20] Thank you for our nursery and for Wendi and Pat, Gretchen and Zach.

 [21] Thank you for our staff

 [22] Thank you for the youth and volunteers and chaperones who go out and represent us so well in the community.

 [23] Thank you, God. 

Thank you. 

 

You know, I started out just trying to find a few highlights of the amazing work God has been doing here among us and the list just kept going on and on and on. 

As Paul and company write to the church in Thessalonica, there really is so much to brag about.  There is so much to tell about.  There is so much to give thanks to God for.

 

But I also don’t want to gloss over the challenge that is presented within this text. 

I chose our passage for this morning because it is part of what we call the Revised Common Lectionary.  And each week, four texts are assigned for Sunday morning worship – something from the Old Testament, something from the Epistles, something from Psalms, and a gospel reading.

 Over the next few weeks, we’ll be focusing on the Epistles… the letters to the early church… and looking for all of the ways that we are called to be grateful and to give thanks in this writings. 

Today’s assigned scripture skips a section of the text, however.

And the more I thought about what we have been learning over these past few weeks about discipleship and the more we lean into a life of gratitude over the next few weeks, I don’t think we have the luxury of skipping those passages.

 

This is the text in its fullness… without skipping the hard parts: 

Brothers and sisters, we must always thank God for you. This is only right because your faithfulness is growing by leaps and bounds, and the love that all of you have for each other is increasing. That’s why we ourselves are bragging about you in God’s churches. We tell about your endurance and faithfulness in all the harassments and trouble that you have put up with. This shows that God’s judgment is right, and that you will be considered worthy of God’s kingdom for which you are suffering. After all, it’s right for God to pay back the ones making trouble for you with trouble and to pay back you who are having trouble with relief along with us. This payback will come when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his powerful angels. He will give justice with blazing fire to those who don’t recognize God and don’t obey the good news of our Lord Jesus. They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction away from the Lord’s presence and away from his mighty glory. 10 This will happen when he comes on that day to receive honor from his holy people and to be admired by everyone who has believed—and our testimony to you was believed.

11 We are constantly praying for you for this: that our God will make you worthy of his calling and accomplish every good desire and faithful work by his power. 12 Then the name of our Lord Jesus will be honored by you, and you will be honored by him, consistent with the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

We are reminded in this text that the journey of faith is not easy. 

As Robert Dunham puts it, “the Christian calling is seldom to a vocation of ease and comfort, but to a unity with Christ in suffering.”

 And this isn’t the suffering of aches and pains, of loss and difficulty that every person experiences… it is the suffering, the harassment, the struggle that comes because we claim to be people of God. 

 

As people of faith, God is continually calling us to do hard things. 

God is calling us to take unpopular stands on important issues.

God is calling us to stand with the poor and the marginalized.

God is calling us to leave our comfort zones go and be in ministry with the least and the last and the lost.

And maybe the hardest of them all… God is calling us to be honest and real about our own vulnerabilities, our own brokenness, struggle, and pain, so that this community can walk with us, can love us, can remind us over and over again about the love of God in Jesus Christ that can transform even our broken souls. 

That’s what church is all about.  Growing in love for each other and in love for God.

May we continue to do hard things. 

May we continue to hear and be faithful to God’s call.

May  we continue to be formed in love born of our common struggle to truly be disciples of Jesus Christ in this world. 

Amen.