Dear Church, Love God

Format Image

Dear Church,

I’m not often in the habit of writing letters. My apostle, Paul, loved to write letters and you have quite a few of those contained in the scriptures. I guess I did write seven letters some time ago – to seven different churches… but I digress…. This isn’t something I do a whole lot of.
Let me properly introduce myself. I am God.
The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
One in Three and Three in One.

I know that sometimes that gets confusing. I know its down right difficult to understand. I designed those brains of yours. I know it is not easy.
So, here is a simple word of advice… you can’t. I am not a puzzle to be solved or a question to be answered. I Am Who I Am. Sometimes that might feel to you like a mystery. And that is okay.

Here is what you do need to understand however:
The basic truth about me is love.
I love you and I want you to love me and I want you to love one another.

That’s it.

Seems simple enough, doesn’t it?
One of your modern day pastors put it well (Rev. Dr. James B. Lemler)… although I’m going to put it into my own words:
I love you enough to be the Creator who created the whole universe and every creature, I am the one who created you and gave you the very breath of life.
I love you enough to be the Redeemer who has saved and redeemed the world from sin, sorrow, and separation so that you might be joined to my love forever…
And… I love you enough to be the Spirit/Guiding God who is at work in you inspiring, strengthening, guiding, advocating, and illuminating you in your being.

Everything that you know of me… everything that you have experienced of me…. Is love.
Think about it.
The very act of creation was the love within me as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit bubbling over and outward.
Your very life is an expression of my love.
From the very beginning I have been calling your brothers and sisters, and now you, by name… beckoning you into a relationship with me.
From the beginning I created you to be in relationship with other people – loving them, caring for them. And I know this because I created you to be just like me… capable of loving and uniting yourself with others.

And through it all… no matter how many times you turned away and your love faltered and puttered out and got angry… I stayed there.
With the love of a father and a mother, I sometimes used harsh words. I sometimes used thorough punishment.
But just like you know that the time out or soap in the mouth or being grounded was meant out of love… so too, my actions have always been out of love for you.
I want you to hear this very plainly: I love you.
I know that you are messed up and make mistakes and that there are a thousand reasons I shouldn’t.
But guess what.
I. Love. You.
Just as you are. With all of your issues and flaws.
I created you. I breathed into you my life. And no matter how many nicks and scratches you have – You Are Mine. And I love you.

But there is something else you need to know.
Because I am the King of Kings and Lord of Lords…
The Alpha and the Omega…
The beginning and the end…
There is immense power to be found by following me.
It is the power that filled the skies with light and that split the Red Sea right in half
My power has smashed huge kingdoms and struck down famous kings (Ps 136, MSG)
And I have done these things because it is only the rule of my love in your lives that will truly bring life to you and to the world.

Not the rule of presidents.
Not the number of social media followers.
Not your ranking as a sports team.
Not the number of zeros in your bank account.
No, only when you let me be the ultimate authority in your life will you find joy and strength.
Only when you kneel before me will you truly be set free.

For I am the one who remembered you when you were humiliated.
I am the one who rescued you from your enemies.
I am the one who provided for your every need. (Ps 136 CEB)
I am the one who gave my very self to bring you life.

Don’t you remember what my apostle John told you?
I’m sure that you can even say it by heart…
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” NKJV

It’s true!
I loved you all so much that my very life was outpoured and given out and broken for you.
I didn’t go through all of that just to point a finger and tell you how awful you were… I did it to show my deep, abiding, steadfast, forever love for you.
I did it to put you back on the right paths, to give you a chance to start fresh. I did it because I loved you.
Because even though you are awesome just the way you are… I also love you too much to let you stay that way. (Anne Lamott)

The life I poured into your life… it wasn’t a one-time offer. Every day, every hour, every minute you can come to me… pray with me… talk with me… and my Spirit will encourage you and enfold you in my love and grace and help you to find peace in this world.
My love transforms. It changes lives. It is powerful.

And you know what, church?
I put that overwhelming power of love inside of you, because I want you to help me to spread it.
This great and awesome mystery of my love is not something reserved for the pastors… it is meant to be shared. This mystery is YOURS.
I want you to baptize others into this love.
I want you to welcome others into this love.
I want you to let this love to guide your life… every single day.

Do you remember my faithful friend, Paul, and all of those letters he wrote?
Well, he wrote and encouraged the Ephesians to tap into the great power of my love.
We were destined by the plan of God… called to be an honor to God’s glory… Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, this is the reason that I don’t stop giving thanks to God for you… (Ephesians 1:11, 12, 15 – CEB, ) But I do more than thank. I ask – ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory – to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally…. So you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers, oh the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him – endless energy, boundless strength! (Ephesians 1 – MSG)

Church!
You are my body in this world!
With your lips I speak!
With your hands I serve!
With your feet I move!
All I want to do is pour out my love upon the whole world and to gather it all up in that love.
And I created you to do that also.
I created you to share my life with others.
To love them when they don’t deserve it.
To set free the oppressed.
To bring food to the hungry.
To clothe the naked.
To love the world the way that I love you.

You are my answer to the brokenness and pain and violence and hatred of this world.
YOU!
I created you to share my steadfast love with all of creation.

Church – can you do that?
Let me rephrase the question… because I know you CAN do it… I gave you the power to do it.
Church – will you do that?

With love that will last forever, God.

Spirit of Embodiment

Format Image

Last week I talked a little bit about how I am trying to be more healthy and strong and one of the ways I am doing that is by going to the gym.
I’m there four-five days a week and each time, while the majority of the exercises we all share together, there are a few movements where you can choose which equipment you use based on your level of experience and comfort.
This past week at the gym I moved from the beginner to the more advanced movements in our exercises. And, whew, I can feel it.
My back is still a bit stiff, my shoulders ache… My dad keeps telling me that I shouldn’t get old because this kind of soreness will just keep coming, but unfortunately that’s just a natural process I’m pretty sure I don’t have the power to stop.

Many of you have joined in prayers for my dad in the past couple of weeks. He is someone who works incredibly hard… always has… but who hasn’t always taken the time to stop and take care of his body. He gets so focused on the work that is before him and us Ziskovskys also have been known to have a bit of stubbornness when it comes to our diets.
He developed a sore on his big toe, which became a deeper infection, which eventually led to an amputation of that digit. He is recovering very well – body, mind, and spirit.

You know, sometimes we think of our bodies as just the physical container that holds the real “us.” We imagine that our lives will continue without the burden of flesh someday – either through technology or computers or floating around in heavenly places.

But the scripture constantly reminds us that our bodies are incredibly important.
They are an integral part of who God created us to be.
Our flesh and blood are not earthly things that we have to shed before we get to heaven… according to scripture – these bodies go with us – in one form or another.

Some of our sloppy thinking around bodies comes from a misunderstanding of the writings of Paul. In Romans 8:5-6, we read:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Our modern ears known what flesh is… our skin and bones… those things that ache and touch and feel and move around.
We know what our spirit is… our souls, minds, that of God which dwells within us.
So, bodies must be bad and spirit must be good.

Except, the word that gets translated “flesh”… sarx… has more than one meaning. It can mean our skin and bones – but it is also used to describe the lesser parts of ourselves – the animal nature, the cravings, the wretched parts of ourselves that keep holding on to sin no matter how hard we try to do what is right.
That is what Paul is talking about… not these good, old, sometimes worn-out bodies of ours.
In fact, this passage from Romans is a reminder that God’s abundant life, that God’s very Spirit dwells within these bodies. Far from being an argument against our earthly life – this is a challenge to live up to the potential of what we can in fact DO with God’s spirit living within us.

So this morning, we go all the way back to the beginning, to that time when God made the heavens and the earth.
As Mel shared with us, Genesis tells us that God formed humanity from the dust of the earth. We were made out of the same stuff as all of the rest of creation.
But then God did something amazing.
God breathed into us.
The breath of life filled us.
The Spirit of the Lord entered our lives and these bodies became God’s body. You and I became the hands and the feet of God in the world.

That doesn’t mean that we have responded perfectly. After all, one of the first things that Adam and Eve did with the Spirit of God dwelling inside of them was to focus more on their own desires than what God wanted them to do. They lived according to the flesh, the sarx, and allowed temptation to distract them.
They sought their own comfort and pleasure before the well-being of the world or God’s creation. Their sin had consequences for not only themselves, but all of creation.

But, our scriptures tell us, God found another way to empower our bodies with the divine spirit…
God came and took on our flesh.
In that tiny child in Bethlehem, in the incarnation of Jesus, the very Word of God took on our human life.
Every aspect of our bodily existence was experienced by God.
Love and loss.
Stubbed toes and broken promises.
Laughter and tears.
Fear and grief.
Jesus experienced the fullness of our lives – and the ultimate depths of suffering and death.
And then, Jesus gave the Spirit to all who would be his disciples.

All summer long, we have been talking about the blessings of that gift and what it looks like when the Spirit dwells within us. Our lives begin to bear the fruit of love and joy, peace and kindness, goodness and gentleness, faithfulness, self-control, community, surrender, and patience.
But none of it happens without our bodies.
The Spirit cannot move without these hands and feet, eyes and ears.
When we let the Spirit of God become incarnate in OUR lives, and to fill up OUR bodies, then we are empowered to live very differently in this world.
We are set free from sin and death.
We are set free to love God more than we love ourselves.
We are set free to participate in God’s saving work in this world.

I’ve been thinking a lot this past week about what difference it has made that we spent this whole summer talking about the Holy Spirit. I’ve been wondering what it might look like to really add flesh and blood to these words that we have been saying all year long.
And I realized as I have watched not only the devastation of Harvey, but also the outpouring of human kindness just how important and precious our bodies really are.
Perhaps you were as heartbroken as I when you saw the nursing home residents under water…
and then wept for relief when I knew they had been rescued.
All across the region, people pushed
and carried
and turned to one another for support.
and now countless folks whose homes have been destroyed turn to one another and to us.
What does it mean to be the church in the wake of something like Harvey? Or the landslides earlier this year in Sierra Leone? Or the flooding in India?
PUT ON UMCOR HAT –
It means that we roll up our sleeves and we get to work.
We send flood buckets to help clean up.
We turn our sanctuaries into shelters
We build up trained helpers who have the knowledge and skills to truly make a difference.
and through a simple thing like toothbrushes and soap, we help take care of people’s bodies.

Today – you’ll have the opportunity to give a little bit extra towards disaster response by writing in the memo of your check or putting in one of the envelopes in the pew, or giving online towards disaster relief.

But, I also want you to hear two specific invitations… ways you can use YOUR bodies to make a difference.
First… if you feel called to go and help and put to use your hands and feet there is an opportunity to join one of the Early Response Teams. There are a few fliers on the back table about a training that is happening THIS coming Saturday right here in Des Moines.
Second… as a church, I want to challenge us to help take care of some of those bodies by putting together health kits. Beginning NEXT Sunday, we will have a bulletin board right outside of the sanctuary where you can indicate which specific items you will commit to bringing as we first gather and then assemble these kits.
Then, for our Fifth Sunday Service Project in October we’ll put all of these kits together and send them out with the Thanksgiving Ingathering.

Whenever we let the Spirit of God live within us, the transformation of the world begins.
Thanks be to God. Amen!

The Spirit of Kindness

Format Image

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

Not a problem, I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adaptable might be the best way to describe Joseph.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hope of the World is Us

Format Image

The President of the United States is currently weighing whether or not to withdraw our nation from the Paris climate accord. Political leaders within our country are skeptical about the science behind climate change and its causes.  One congressman said this past week: “As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us.  And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”

I’m a Christian, too.  And I think God has placed this problem squarely in our laps.

For the last five or six months I have been blogging fairly infrequently, because I’ve been working hard to put into words why it is important for people of faith to care about what is happening to our planet.  My new book, All Earth Is Waiting, will come out this fall along with a daily devotional for the season of Advent. I’ve spent countless hours pouring over the scriptures and asking how we are called to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in the world today.

One of the primary scriptures for the book is from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In chapter 8, we find these words:

The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters.  Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice – it was the choice of the one who subjected it – but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children.

The earth is waiting for us to let go of our selfish ways and begin acting like the children of God. It is waiting for us to hold in our hearts a vision of an interconnected world and to remember that every part of this planet tells of God’s goodness. It is waiting for us to see the sacred worth of the elements, the flora, and the fauna; to live gently as stewards and protectors. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the source of our hope and it has and will transform our lives.  But once it does, we are supposed to truly live as God’s children. Paul reminds us in this passage the world is waiting for us. Only then will creation be set free.

 

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

Format Image

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

Format Image

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

Format Image

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.