The Winners, The Losers, and The Foolish

A young rabbi found a serious problem in his new congregation. During the Friday service, half the congregation stood for the prayers and half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting that theirs was the true tradition. Nothing the rabbi said or did moved toward solving the impasse.
Finally, in desperation, the young rabbi sought out the synagogue’s 99-year-old founder. He met the old rabbi in the nursing home and poured out his troubles.
“So tell me,” he pleaded, “was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?”
“No,” answered the old rabbi.
” Ah,” responded the younger man, “then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers?”
“No,” answered the old rabbi.
“Well,” the young rabbi responded, “what we have is complete chaos! Half the people stand and shout, and the other half sit and scream.”
“Ah,” said the old man, “that was the tradition.”

As we reflected together at our Conference on the Past back in October, and as I have been in conversations with many of you… conflict was the tradition of this church as well.

For many years… even when the pews were filled… there was a sense of competition, tug-of-war, a sense of unease as this congregation was pushed and pulled from one end of the political spectrum to another and back again… from laity empowered ministry to pastor-in-charge ways of doing ministry to times without a pastor altogether.
How many of you have felt like this church has sometimes been on a roller coaster?
I cannot speak for our past Bishops or our leadership or the Holy Spirit… because I know very well that the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways… But I do want to say that no matter who has been sent to lead this congregation what really matters is not the pastor up front, but each of you.
That was one nugget that a few of you shared with me over these past few months. That in spite of everything that this congregation has been through – maybe because of everything that this congregation has been through – you have realized that the people sitting around you are who really matter.
Like that Jewish congregation of sitters and standers, no matter what your differences, you still get together and you still come together to worship and serve.

I think what we can all admit about the past, however, is that there have been times of winners and losers, folks who have gotten their way and those that didn’t, people who stayed and people who left.

As we continue on this “Come to the Table” journey, we are entering a time when we want to find out just what is on our plate. We want to discover what’s going on here in this church right now, but also what is happening out there in the world.

As we walk with the church at Corinth, they will help us to understand that many of the problems we face today are problems people of faith have been facing for thousands of years.

There may not be much comfort in that… but at least we have good company!

The first reality we must face, the first course on our dinner plate, if you will… is conflict.

As soon as Paul finishes praising God for all of the potential that this congregation has, he launches into a plea that the people of Corinth would stop fighting with one another.
“In the name of Jesus,” Paul writes, “you must get along with each other! You must learn to be considerate of one another and cultivate a life in common.” (message paraphrase)
He sees among them a whole lot of folks vying for their piece of the pie, wrestling for the spotlight, people who believe that they are right and everyone else is wrong. He sees people who really do want to be faithful… but they are putting all of their eggs in the wrong basket. They think that to be faithful they have to be on the winning team.
So they pick sides. They follow Apollos or Cephas. They throw their lot in with Paul. Some of them even go around saying, “to heck with all this division… I’m following Jesus!” And in doing so, they only stoke the fires of competition even more. It’s like playing a trump card.
Photo by: Philippe Ramakers

But you know what… they aren’t using that trump card in order to actually be more faithful to Jesus… they are doing it to put others down. “I’m a Christian and you’re not” they seem to be saying.

In the worldly realm of politics, we understand how this works. There are winners and losers on each issue, there is competition for money and time and we don’t care who gets run over in the process. We don’t care who our words hurt or what we do to our nation in the process.

And it is sad to say that sometimes that spirit gets into our churches as well. Paul saw it happening in Corinth… and before it got too bad, he wanted to set things right again.

Paul was aware that this continuous practice of win/lose behaviors ends up exacting a high cost. Listen and see if any of these sound familiar:
  •  Sometimes it causes people who actually do have great leadership skills to sit in the background and keep quiet. They simply do not want to enter the fray.
  • Sometimes, we are so hurt by past conflict between winners and losers that we are afraid to disagree with anyone, and so a diversity of opinion is lost.
  • Sometimes, confidence disappears.
  • Sometimes, anxiety that comes from past hostility seeps into our current conversations and tiny differences are intensified and exaggerated.
  • Sometimes, we are unable to discern creative solutions to our problems because we are afraid of trying something new and failing.

Even when a church finds itself back on healthy ground… even when the fruits of the spirit and running rampant in our midst… the residue from those past conflicts can stick around for a while. We are so tired of having winners and losers, that we simply choose not to participate… or when we do, we are timid, and afraid to say what we really think.

 I think the first thing we need to see when we confront this reality that is before us is that conflict… in and of itself… is not bad.
Jill Sanders once told me that conflict is simply two ideas co-existing in the same space. Whenever you have community, you will have conflict. You will have differences of opinion. You will have perspectives that offer different solutions.
Conflict is not bad. It is necessary. It sparks change. It leads to growth. We can’t learn without conflict.
How we deal with conflict is a completely different story. If we quickly chose a side and fight to the death, we are repeating old patterns and will lead to our ruin.
God gives us another way. God has formed us as the church by the Holy Spirit so that we can show the world how to be a people of truth, peace, wholeness and holiness. We can show the world that you can have conflict, without competition, violence and war.
The second thing we need to see, confronted with this reality, is that we have a standard by which to judge all of our conflicts. It isn’t the side of the winners… it isn’t the side that has the most money… it isn’t the side that is even right.
As Paul writes to the church of Corinth:
The good news that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer foolishness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation… it makes perfect sense. (message paraphrase).

The cross is what unifies us. The cross is our standard. The cross of Christ, his life, death and resurrection, should be the focus of all of our decisions.

So faced with a conflict, faced with difference, we are called to look to the cross. We are called to love as Christ loved… sacrificially. We are called to die to our old ways and take up the ways of our resurrected one. We are Easter people. We are people of hope. We are people who love the unloveable and forgive the unforgiveable. We are called to find a way through the chaos… and we do it through the cross.
And sometimes that makes us look like fools by worldly standards.
But it is what we are called to.
We are called to not just follow in name only- but to actually become the name of Christ… to let the cross of Christ transform us. To make ourselves different. To be the crucified and risen body of Christ in the world… to go to those who suffer and suffer with them, to bring healing and hope through Christ’s love and to share the good news of the salvation of the world…

Potential Energy

I must admit that growing up, I was a bit of a science nerd. What can you expect from the girl who wanted to be a meteorologist? But I think the best part of science were the experiments – the hands on exploration of concepts. Because I saw it happen, I believed it. Because I was able to be a part of it happening, I learned it. It was the combination of not just hearing the words spoken, or reading them in a book… but actually doing it… that helped these concepts to be not just in my head, but also in my heart.
And I realized… faith is much the same way. Unless we are actively practicing our faith as we are learning about it… unless we are out there loving people and helping folks and praying and seeking God – then all of the stuff that we read in the bible or hear in a sermon are just words. But when we have hands on learning… when we have the chance to apply what we hear and read to our daily lives… then anything is possible.

Will you pray with me?

First off this morning – to engage you with more than just your ears, I want to give you a visual demonstration of this thing we are going to talk about this morning: Potential Energy!

Already the children have helped to explain some of these concepts to us… but I thought that Wiley E. Coyote might be able to help as well:

Well, there we have it, energy that is stored up in something – whether it is an object or a person – is POWERFUL. Just like a mousetrap that is spring loaded – or an actual coiled spring- all that energy is there, just … waiting… for the right…. Moment… to… SNAP – to release! To let all of that bundled up and constrained potential energy loose!

Well, I look around this morning and I see a whole lot of potential energy. I see a whole lot of bodies waiting… sitting… storing up… a whole lot of energy that can be released on this world!
{Well, inside… the energy is inside… Sheesh – some of you look like you are ready for naps already! Let’s make sure none of that energy goes to waste! }

The apostle Paul looked out on the communities he ministered to, also, and made a similar statement. Especially in our epistle for today. Today, we start to explore Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth… a church full of potential energy for the future.

“To the church of God that is Corinth,” he writes, “to those called to be saints… Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

“I give thanks to my God always for you… not because of anything that you have done – but because of the grace of God that has been giving you in Christ Jesus. And you have been enriched in every way by the Spirit of God, but especially in speech, in knowledge and in testimony.”

Paul starts out this letter with some praise, with some encouragement, with a reminder – that God has blessed them, God has equipped them, God has stored up in them a whole lot of potential energy and resources and talents and spirit… This is a church FILLED with the potential to truly set their city on fire with the love of God.

In particular, God has blessed them with three spiritual strengths. They have been gifted with speech, knowledge and testimony. They are a community that knows how to share their faith with words. They aren’t afraid to tell other people about God and maybe more importantly, they know what they are talking about. They have been taught well.

They have been blessed with speech, knowledge, and testimony. Are they using them to their full potential? Is all of that stored up blessing being used to its fullest extent? We’ll talk more about this in the coming weeks – but it is pretty safe to say that the answer is, no. They have everything they need… but much of their blessing is still waiting to be unleashed.

I was asked this week, if Paul were writing a letter to this community, gathered here on Sunday mornings, what three things would be lifted up as our spiritual strengths? What has God gifted and blessed this particular community with?

I have to admit… it didn’t take me very long to answer this question. And that is because as a community, we have done some work to discover who we are.

Back on October 31st… just two and a half months ago… we gathered as a community downstairs for worship. We broke bread with one another, we sang, we told stories. And we celebrated with one another who God has called us to be. We celebrated the things that have brought us together to this moment.

“The Family Meal 2” painting by De More
And if I had to pick out the three things I saw as our strongest gifts out of that Celebration of the Past they would be food, fellowship, and openness.

We are a church that has often brought people together around food.  Whether it is a funeral supper or feeding RAGBRAI riders, a potluck or a progressive dinner… meals are one of our greatest passions and strengths!

We also have a strong fellowship with one another.  We meet in small groups during the week, we take time to be with one another after weekly worship, we are a community and a family.

We are also open in many way.  We often talk about how our communion table is open to all who wish to come.  We have been open to going and serving in new ways – like when we answered the call to clean up after flash flooding in other communities and took with us folks who were not connected with our church.  We are open to new people and to going to new places.

To heck with Paul… I’m writing a letter to you this morning and I say that “ I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in your desire to break bread with others around the table, for the fellowship that you form through study and prayer, and for your openness to whomever the Holy Spirit sends your way… and wherever the Holy Spirit sends you.”
Now, we could have some debate on other fantastic and amazing gifts God has blessed this church with. Contrary to popular opinion, there are many. This church is so gifted, you can’t breathe without drawing in some Holy Spirit. All around us are financial resources, resources of time, a beautiful space with a roof that doesn’t leak anymore… people who can paint, people who can sing, people who can sew, people who can build things with their hands, people who garden and farm, people who can use computers, people who pray… people who love God and want to serve him and who have all come together to this place.
I look at that collage and I see amazing huge potential.
Lots and lots and lots of potential energy stored up. The Holy Spirit flowing within this church just waiting to be released onto the world!
I do not, for a minute, want to suggest that there isn’t some kinetic energy going on here as well… In so many ways, we are out in the world, living out our faith… the potential energy is being turned into kinetic energy and we are active! We serve all over the place, we respond when there are needs, we care for one another.

But…

Like the Corinthians we also have some obstacles in our way. We have some things that hang us up and get us stuck so that we can’t move.

Over the next couple of weeks, we are going to hang out with these Corinthians. We are going to learn about their troubles and their problems and think about whether or not they are things that get in the way of our ministry too. Think about ways of removing these obstacles so that all of that potential energy stored up inside of us can be unleashed on the world.
But, I think another reason why our potential energy sometimes doesn’t get unleashed is that we aren’t sure where to use it. We aren’t always sure what the needs are. We don’t know where our gifts and talents and strengths are needed.
For the next month and a half, as a part of our “Come to the Table” journey – we are going to be listening. We are going to open our ears to folks in the community as they come and share with us the ministries they are engaged in. The first one of this is right after church today, as Terri Schutterlee from the Iowa County Food Bank shares with us what they are doing to help fight hunger right here in Marengo and how we are and can continue to be a part of their work. We want to invite you to especially stay after worship on these Sundays to have a cup of coffee and a treat and to ask questions about what more we can do.
There is so much potential here. And when this energy gets unleashed… when we figure out exactly what God wants to do with us… world – you better watch out!

Amen and Amen.

God Loves Sinners

I am a person who does not get lost. Never in my life can I remember a time when I didn’t know where I was or how I was going to get where I needed to go next. I have always been a very spatial person, and so if you give me a map, I can not only find my way somewhere – but on the route, I can tell you alternative directions. I am an EXCELLENT navigator… at least when I can remember my rights from my lefts.

In high school, I was a part of speech and drama and music – which meant we went to many contests at other schools throughout the year. The group was always trying to find their way around the new building and in the first half hour that we had been in the building, I had it all figured out. I knew where to be when, I helped out others who were lost. I never got lost.

The same goes with driving. I like to figure out new ways to get places and sometimes I run into obstacles or dead ends, but that just presents new opportunites to learn about what way not to go next time. When my friend, Stasia, was learning how to drive – her mom would often suggest that I accompany her in the car… and we never got lost as long as we were together. I do not get lost.

I do, however, lose things. Oh boy, do I lose things. This past week, I had to buy a new pair of earbuds – little headphones that fit into your ear canal very comfortable, because I lost the pair I had. And in nearly every single move that I have made in my life – I have lost my car keys. When I moved out of the house I lived in at Simpson College – I literally packed my keys up with my other belongings and sent them home in the truck… two hours later, I realized my keys were back in Cedar Rapids and me and my car were still in Indianola.

And of course… I lost one of my monkeys this morning =)   [Reference to the children’s moment… sent the kids out in the sanctuary to find my lost monkey]

Today, in Luke’s gospel we get to spend some time in the parables of the lost… the lost sheep, the lost coin, and if we kept reading – the lost son… the child who takes his inheritance and runs off, squanders it all and returns home. Now that word, parable, is simply a short brief story that tells us a moral lesson… kind of like the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. It doesn’t matter if its true or not – the point is what it teaches us about who we are and how we live.

Luke groups all of these lost parables together, because Jesus has a message for us about who we are and how we are to live.

You see, at the beginning of this chapter, Jesus has sat down for some supper with some quite unsavory characters. He was eating with tax collectors and sinners. Ooooo….

What? Does that not trouble you? The idea that Jesus would sit down with a tax collector? That’s probably because tax collectors today – our friendly and unhelpful IRS agents are not typically people we think of as unsavory. But who would be? Who would be scandalous to eat with here in Marengo?

Perhaps a gathering of area gays and lesbians invited Jesus over for dinner? Or the Muslim community in Cedar Rapids? Or prostitutes from Waterloo? What if Jesus was sitting down to eat with a bunch of liars and adulterers? Or murderers and meth makers?

Would we be upset? Would our feathers be ruffled just a little bit? Would we stop in our tracks and stare?

The Pharisees sure did. They walked by the house where Jesus was having this grand old feast with a bunch of sinners and they started to whisper. They started to grumble. They started to complain… that fellow welcomes sinners! And not only that – he eats with them!!!
Photo by Martin Baldwin
And so loud enough so that they could hear – Jesus begins to tell these stories about the lost. About the shepherd that leaves behind the entire rest of the flock to seek out the one lost sheep. About the woman who burns the oil a single coin was worth in order to seek out the coin that was lost.
And when they find those lost things – Jesus said – there will be great rejoicing… and in the same way God seeks the lost people of this world… and God rejoices when he finds them.
I may not know what it is like to be lost and not know my way home… but I do know what it is like to have lost something. I know the desperation of seeking out that thing that I need – the thing that I love. I know how important it is.
And so in some small way, I can understand what it might be like for God when he seeks out the lost of this world.
What is harder to understand is that I am someone who has been and who probably still is lost. What is harder to accept and acknowledge is that we are sinners, that there are parts of our lives we still hold back from God. We are really good at being oblivious little sheep, wandering away from the flock and not realizing it.
Whether it is a habit of telling lies, or the anger you harbor in your heart. Whether it is simply the fact that you like spending more time playing football than thinking about your faith journey. Whether it is the way that you use and abuse the gifts of God’s creation, or the prideful idea you have stuck in your head that you can do it yourself and you don’t need God’s help… We are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God.
That is an ugly fact about each and every single one of us. As much as we might try to white wash it and pretend its not so – at the very least, let us take comfort in the fact that we are all sinners. We are in this together. We have all fallen short of the glory of God.
That is what Paul reminds his young friend Timothy in our first reading from today. Paul – that great pioneer of the faith – proclaims out loud for all to hear that he was a blasphemer, a persecuter, and a man of violence – a man who loved to do violence for violence sake… a torturer. I am the foremost of sinners, Paul says. Note, he doesn’t say – I was the foremost of sinners… but I am the foremost of sinners. It is like how addicts are taught to think of their addictions not in the past tense, but in the present tense… I am an alcoholic. I am a chocoholic.  I am a sinner. I will always live my life with the temptation to sin at my doorstep. I am a sinner.
And not only that, Paul says, but I am the foremost of sinners. I’m the worst one out there, because I killed people who followed Jesus and I liked it. I took pride in it. I was the best at what I did. And yet… And yet… God chose ME to serve his church.

God sought me, the foremost of sinners out, because God seeks the lost. Jesus came to save sinners. God came to save me, and God came to save you.

Can I hear an Amen!
There is one last piece of this story that I think we need to remember… a man named Rodger Nishioka tells the story of a time he was a part of an ecumenical team in Alaska: Presbyterians working alongside Russian Orthodox. In the course of their work, he had referred to this so familiar “Parable of the Lost Sheep” with some of the RO folks when someone interrupted him and asked him which parable he meant.
For a moment there, I can imagine Mr. Nishioka thought these Russian Orthodox folks didn’t know their bibles very well. And so he summarized the story about the shepherd looking for the one sheep that had gone missing from the flock of 100. The Russian Orthodox priest looked at him and said, “Oh! You mean the Parable of the incomplete flock.”
In the eyes of that tradition, God was concerned about the one sheep that went missing, because without that one sheep – the 100 would not be complete. God desires all of his children to come home… and the family is only complete when each and every single one of us is sought out.
Many of you know that my family is incomplete right now – that there is division on my dad’s side of the family that I have no idea how to reconcile. And it hurts. I know that many of you have experienced this kind of separation and pain in your lives, too. To be incomplete as a family is an ugly and bitter thing…
But if we remember from last week, God desires us to move beyond our immediate families and to follow him. To follow him in seeking out our brothers and sisters in this world who are lost. To follow him in his diligent search to find them and tell them how much they are loved.
Our family is incomplete without the rest of our brothers and sisters. The family of God is incomplete without the folks from the county jail, and without those prostitutes in Waterloo, and without our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and without our Jewish and Muslim and Buddhist brothers and sisters.

Our family is incomplete as long as we hold those people at a distance who we believe are unworthy, or unfaithful, or uninterested. Our family is incomplete if we act in hatred and anger towards our brothers and sisters. Our family is incomplete if we are unwilling to sit down and have a meal with one another.

As much hatred and anger and division is in the world… we know that God seeks out his children. And I know we are called to seek out our brothers and sisters in love and in respect. Let us be found by the Lord our shepherd… and let us go with him to all the world.

Amen.

The Gift of Love

This week, my husband and I had two houseguests… our niece and nephew. They had the distinct honor of being able to have a sleep over at our house and boy, were they excited!

For the most part, I think that excitement came from hanging out with their favorite aunt and uncle. But a few hours into their visit, I got a hint of a different reason for their joy.

Our nephew loves to play with the wii. They have one at his house, but he is limited to 20 minutes per day of playtime. We were attempting to enforce that rule, but he stood up and looked at us very seriously and said: But this isn’t my dad’s house. His rules don’t work here!

Every rule that governed their lives at home – about bedtime, playtime, what they had to eat, what they could wear – these two assumed went out the window when they came over to Aunt Kaky and Uncle Spicy’s house. We were going to love them and spoil them and let them get away with anything and everything… or so they thought.

I think that many times, in our Christian faith, we too believe that rules go out the window when we believe in Jesus. More than a few times in my life, I have heard people say that all of the law and judgment of the Old Testament is done away with when Jesus comes. It’s like we magically are transported to a new world where all the tired rules from the past are done away with. We didn’t like all of those rules about not wearing poly-cotton blends, or staying away from shellfish, anyway. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth sounds pretty barbaric in our minds. And really… how can we be expected to not covet our neighbor’s possessions when their new car looks so nice and we want one just like it?!
It doesn’t help that Jesus says things like “I have come not to do away with the law but to fulfill it,” but then in the next breath he is breaking some Sabbath law by eating grain out in the field and saying things like “the law is made for man, not man for the law.”

How do we know what rules to follow? How do we keep ourselves from being too legalistic, without slipping in the other direction and becoming too lax in our moral compass?

It’s simple. We keep at the front of our minds the standard by which all laws are held: love.

The mixing of materials like polyester and cotton has nothing to do with love or how we treat our neighbors… we consider laws like this to be ceremonial by the standard of love we aren’t too concerned with them in our daily lives in the 21st century.
But there are many other laws that have everything to do with love. Like the ones Paul reminds us of in Romans: don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t covet… in each of these laws, we are faced with relationships. And love is the absolute standard for how we are to behave.

In Romans 13:8, Paul writes that we should owe no one anything, except to love one another. In saying this, he teaches “that our highest obligation toward men is our obligation to love them.” (Bob Deffinbaugh). More than our obligation to do the right thing, we are to love.

Of course, when love becomes your highest priority… the right actions naturally follow.

Because Love fulfills the law. When we act in love towards God and our neighbor, we are already living out the law. An act of love is never to commit adultery or murder. The love of Christ that should rule our hearts would never steal or covet.

Each of these acts would be unloving because they harm other people. Adultery destroys lives. Coveting is “desiring my good and my gain at my neighbor’s expense.” (Deffinbaugh)

Murder not only takes the life of another, but rips away from family members the life of a beloved. Stealing harms the economic wellbeing of our neighbors.

Bob Deffinbaugh summarizes what Paul teaches us in Romans 13 by saying: “We are to view our neighbor from the perspective of love. When we do, we will seek his good, avoid doing what is harmful to him, and thus fulfill the law.”

Love seeks the good for another. It doesn’t matter who they are – whether rich or poor, friend or enemy, neighbor or stranger. Love always seeks the good for others… even at our own expense.

That is the love that Christ showed us. Unconditional love. Self-sacrificial love. Love that bends down in service to others. Love shown to the stranger, to the sinner, to the rich and to the proud. Love that gives life.

Love like Jesus loved.

Love as if people, not laws, were more important.

Because the truth of the matter is, there are days when we will face a conflict between the laws of our fathers and the needs of humanity.

St. Thomas Aquinas once said that if a family is starving and the rich will not share their abundance with the poor – it is justified for a mother to steal to feed her children.

I think that Aquinas was able to make this bold and radical claim, because every time Jesus faced a conflict between the laws of the righteous and showing compassion and love to a sinner – he always came down on the side of love.

One of the most recognized examples of this is when Jesus came across a woman who was about to be stoned to death. In John, chapter 8, Jesus was confronted with one of the 10 commandments: a woman who had been caught in the very act of adultery.

Now, the first thing I wonder when I hear this passage is where the other offender was. If she was caught in the very act… certainly there was a man around somewhere who was also deserving of this same sentence. According to the law, both were required to be stoned.

But the man is nowhere to be found and the crowd is angry and ready to enforce the law to its fullest extent. But when Jesus enters their midst, he talks the crowds down, and helped her back on her feet. And then he spoke these amazing words to her: I do not condemn you – go and sin no more.

In his short and simple statement, Jesus shows us how love and the law fit together. God’s laws have been given to protect us. They are given to show us the good and holy ways to live. But love is always the standard.

When he says, “I do not condemn you – go and sin no more.” He is not saying that what she did wasn’t wrong. And he’s not saying that she isn’t responsible for her actions… because he asks her to live differently. He isn’t even saying that he accepts her apology, because nowhere in the text does this woman say anything, much less beg for forgiveness.

No, he simply forgives her. He loves her. He accepts her – no matter what she has done. When it comes to the law, the first thing Christ does is love. And then he asks her to respond to that love that he has shown by allowing him to change her life. (based on work by Gary DeLashmutt)

Yesterday, I drove to my cousin’s wedding in Iowa Falls and along the side of HWY 21, I saw a sign that said: “Hell is for deadbeat moms”. This being Father’s Day, it could have just as easily said: Hell is for deadbeat dads. All across our nation, all across the world, the first impulse of many Christians is to remind folks of their sin and to condemn them for it.

Most of these images are pictures not of love, but of anger… of hate… of judgement.

It is easy to do these things.

It is easy to point out the speck in the eye of our brother and ignore the log in our own eye.

It is easy to hate. It is easy to give up on someone and tell them they are going to hell… maybe even easier
still to send them to hell for their sin with a few stones or a firing squad.

But Jesus looks down upon the one who has done wrong and says – I do not condemn you…. Go and sin no more. Get up… let me help you.

Loving our neighbors is hard.

Loving the Lord with all of our heart, and soul and mind and strength is hard.

And unlike my niece and nephew, who thought they were getting a free pass to do whatever they wanted, we know that abiding in God what is asked of us may actually be harder than simply following the rules.

We will fail. Constantly we will fail in this charge to love.

But when we do, Christ will bend over and look us in the eye and say: I love you, I do not condemn you… get up… go…. And sin no more.

Amen.

Down to the River to Pray

The last few days have been simply overwhelming in my life. The first reason is that there is just a lot to do.  My weekend was jam packed full of good church related things like a Holy Spirit filled training with leaders from my church and a beautiful celebration of marriage and excitement about renovations being made at the church.  But there is also a lot of heaviness of heart that comes from my cousin being sick and searching for answers and my husband’s great-grandmother facing the end of her life and seeing pictures and hearing stories of my last hometown Nashville under water.

I opened up my worship planning book this afternoon trying to figure out what to preach on.  For the past few weeks I have been following our churchwide bible study (although most days, I’m not sure people get the connection between the two) and this week the topic is the Household of God – the creation of God’s people who are sent to be witness to God’s love.  It fits in okay with the whole Mother’s Day thing happening, but for some reason in the midst of all of my exhaustion and anxiety, it feels a little too schmaltzy.

Want further proof of my “unsettledness” – just listen to my dream last night.  I was in an elevator with these two twenty something women who were gossipping and saying horrible stuff about other people and the elevator started to tip and we heard a snap and then went plummeting downwards – the elevator falling faster and faster and faster down the shaft with screams and shouts until I woke up.

So, when I opened up the book of Acts today, I found it kind of funny that Paul was dreaming too. A man stood pleading in his dream – COME HELP US! And in that plea, Paul felt the urgency of God’s calling and immediately the band of evangelists packed up their bags and made a long journey to Phillippi.

And they wandered around in the city for a few days, settling in, seeing what would arise, and finally on the Sabbath they went down to the river… “where we supposed there was a place of prayer.” 

I read that phrase and my heart skipped a beat.  Because there is a lot of praying happening by the river these days.  I don’t know anything about Ancient Roman culture or why they guessed that people would be praying at the river, but I know today that praying happens at the river.  I’m not sure what Paul and Luke and the others thought they might find there – but I know that if I were able to head over to the Cedar River here in Iowa or down to the Cumberland River in Tennessee, or even to the Mississippi River Delta and the coastlines of the Gulf of Mexico there would be a lot of praying going on.

COME HELP US! the vision came in Paul’s dream.  And they got up and left and went down to the river to pray.

We could talk about the church gathered at the river and have the visions from Revelation in our minds… the faithful gathered at the river with their beautiful robes, but instead my mind is going to pictures of the church gathered at the river with sandbags and stories of hope and songs of peace and offerings of money for recovery.  My mind is going to images of churches full of people who have just come from the river and are now stopping for a free meal and rest for their tired arms and legs. My mind is going to images of churches that have traveled hundreds of miles to come to the river and help rebuild. 

And as we head down to the river to pray and help and listen and cry and share… as we are the family of God down by the riverside… maybe others will hear our stories of hope, like Lydia did.  Maybe they will be moved by the good news and they will put down what they are doing and open their hearts to us and join us in this journey. 

Everything is not alright today.  And maybe my dream was just an indication of the helplessness that I feel as things fall apart.  But if we go down to the river to pray with our brothers and our sisters and our mothers and our fathers we might just find the strength we need to keep going and the hope that we need to survive.

Strong in the Broken Places

All of us are gathered here this morning to celebrate. In fact – if we didn’t have something to celebrate, each of us would be inside our own churches or maybe even still in bed this morning. But no! We got up, we got dressed, we brought out the lawn chairs this morning because there is so much to celebrate we just couldn’t stay home! We just couldn’t stay quiet! Can I get an Amen! (AMEN!)

Isn’t it such a great day to get together and celebrate the fact that we suck? Yes you heard me right. We suck. We are not perfect. We can’t do it all. We are not the best, or the brightest, or the most talented. We don’t have the most money, or the biggest churches, or even… and I know I’m going out on a limb here… we probably don’t even have the most wonderful pastors in the entire world. We make mistakes… a lot of them… all of the time. We are a nation that is stressed out, frustrated by our jobs, worried about our families, just trying to make ends meet in a world that seems to be out to get us.

Now – I know that doesn’t sound like very good news. That doesn’t sound like a very good reason to celebrate either… but hang in there for just a second!!

Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian and ethicist at Duke University, has a rule that I think applies here. His rule is this: You always marry the wrong person. But that rule has a very important qualifier – the wrong person is the right person.

Pastor Brian Volck heard that rule of Hauerwas’ and realized that our relationship with God could be described the same way. Volck writes, “We in the church Christ gathers are generally a nation of rebels, impudent and stubborn. We repeatedly go whoring after idols of status, security and national pride or, out of false humility (oh, I couldn’t possibly make a difference in that situation, we) fail to respond when we see members of the Body harm others and themselves. And – here’s the catch – the Creator of the Universe chooses us to be His people, sending us into the world unarmed, scarcely ready, flawed, dependent… In short, we are the wrong people for the job.”

But you know what? It’s precisely because we are the wrong people that we are such a perfect match for God’s plans.

In our scripture for this morning, we find Paul writing to the church in Corinth. Now, we may not know all of the circumstances, but it is safe to assume that the people in Corinth thought Paul might be the wrong person for the job as well!

Corinth was a city that was all about power and strength. They hosted athletic contests and games where competitors outdid one another in feats of strength. They were an economic power house being a huge harbor on the Mediterranean Sea. Power and success were worshipped in Corinth much as they are in the United States today – even among the Christians that Paul ministered to there. And Paul had impressed them with his letters, but something about Paul-in-person, turned them off. Two chapters before our reading today, we find one of these complaints quoted… “His letters are weighty and strong,” some Corinthian writes, “but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”

The people in Corinth much preferred the “superstars” who came into town after Paul left – the traveling circus of visions and wonders and contemporary music and dramatic preachers. Superstars who swept them up in an emotional fury and then left them begging for more! Superstars who were paid a pretty penny for their services.

Compared to these showmen, Paul seemed rather lame. He didn’t charge anything for sharing the word of God with them. He seemed to always be getting in trouble with the local governments. And he wasn’t that entertaining when he showed up either. He spent way too much time telling them what not to do, rather than making them feel good about themselves. We don’t know all of the details of the exchanges back and forth between Paul and the followers of Christ in Corinth, but there were some problems there.

So part of the reason that Paul is writing to the church is because he needs to defend himself a bit against the misguided theology of his opponents. With great sarcasm and irony, Paul writes to compare himself with these “superstar apostles” who have been visiting Corinth as of late.

You have no problem putting up with those fools, he writes, so let me tell you just how foolish I am. Instead of boasting of all of the things I can do like they are so prone to do, I’ll boast of my weaknesses! I am a fool for Christ. I’ve been beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, robbed, hungry, thirsty, and homeless – you can’t necessarily call that successful ministry by the world’s standards. Oh, I can match them, vision for vision if they want to talk about ecstatic experiences and revelations from God – but I’m not going to play that game. I will not boast of anything but my weakness and God’s power.

In fact, Paul writes, just to help me remember that I am weak but God is strong, I was given a thorn in my side – a permanent reminder in my life – that I am not perfect, that I don’t have it all together, but that God chooses to work through me anyways. I don’t have to be everything because God is everything and God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.

We may not be the right people for the job, but through God’s grace we are perfect for the job.

Paul is desperately trying to tell us some good news! News that is contradictory to the Corinthian view of power and to the ways of this world… it is because we are weak, that we are so strong in God. It is because we are flawed and imperfect that God’s grace has room to maneuver. It is when we get our overinflated egos out of the way that people can see Jesus Christ in our lives.

Throughout history, God has chosen the wrong people to be his servants. He chose Jacob the trickster, Moses the murderer, David the adulterer, Mary and Joseph, a poor unmarried couple to nurture the Christ Child, a whole band of disciples who got it wrong more times than they got it right. And God chose Paul – a persecutor of the church to be one of its greatest evangelists. In each and every single one of those partnerships – it was God’s power working through their lives, not any personal strength that they had.

Earnest Hemingway wrote that “Life breaks all of us, but some of us are strong in the broken places.” In the church, we might rephrase that to say that we are all fallen and broken people, but some of us turn our brokenness over to God and through God’s grace, we become strong in the broken places. God uses our hurts and our pains and our frustrations and our failings and makes something beautiful out of our lives.

This is a time for celebration. We come to celebrate this Independence Day holiday, and to celebrate the birthday of our community – and in the midst of that celebration there is a lot of boasting. But let us also remember to boast about our weaknesses. Let us also remember to boast about the places where our communities are broken. Let us remember a hospital that almost closed, and a river that threatened to overrun the town. Let us look through the pages of our history and never forget the times when only God’s grace got us through.

As we gather today around this table as the family of God, some of us are feeling quite broken. We may not speak of it, but we all know that it’s there. We need to remind one another that through God’s grace, we can become strong again; we can endure whatever hardships come our way.

Let one another know of your struggles. Don’t be afraid to speak them out loud! Don’t feel like you have to pretend that everything is okay when it’s not… Because it is in those broken places in our lives that God does his best work. It is our faith in the midst of those broken places that gives us the foundation we need to stand on.

God’s grace was sufficient for Paul. God’s grace is sufficient for me – in spite of my weakness. God’s grace is sufficient for you… And God’s grace is sufficient for this nation and this world – no matter how broken, how unredeemable we may seem. Amen. And Amen.

Gotta Serve Somebody

Last week, we spent some time on Sunday morning asking about who we choose to serve. And as we did so, we focused on priorities… about what happens when you choose to place one thing at the forefront of your life. When you make one thing more important than all the rest.

And you know what? We are going to think about it again this morning. Because the question of “who we serve” is so much harder and more difficult than it looks. It is painful really to have to ask the question… to place one thing above another, to make those kinds of choices, because it means that some things in life – some things that we truly love – have to be placed second. Or third. Or stop becoming a part of our lives all together.

If last week we look at this question from the perspective of priorities, this week, the question comes at us from the perspective of love. What do you love more than anything?

What are you “in love” with more than anything?

I ask the question that way, because when we think about being in love with something – or someone – we forget how often our culture uses the language of servitude and slavery. Last night in fact, I was out to dinner with my brothers and my dad and after we finished eating my brother, Tony pulled out his phone and called his wife. Darren proceeded to kid him: “Boy, are you whipped!”

Oftentimes, you will hear someone talk about being “tied down” with someone – as in – not available, or even worse a spouse referred to as a “ball and chain” – or the thing they are imprisioned to!

Bob Dylan once sang a song called “Gotta Serve Somebody.” And the things we are slaves to are the things we love. As much as we love to talk about freedom here in the United States, the truth is, we are always, every day, serving someone or something. We are always, every day, slaves to something. Whether it is our jobs or our families or a certain value like freedom itself – we live our lives so that that thing determines all of our actions.

And for most of us, we serve that thing because we love it. Or we love what it will bring us. We love it so much that we would be willing to do ANYTHING for it.

If like Bob Dylan sang, we’re gonna have to serve somebody… or something – then I guess what Paul is really trying to ask us in today’s passage from Romans is: Why can’t that be God?

In the Book of Romans, Paul takes us on a trip from our old sinful lives, where we loved everything – ourselves, sin, the world, everything under the sun more than we loved God, and he is taking us to a new place where we choose to willingly submit ourselves to God’s will because he loved us, and because we love him. We stop being slaves to sin and we now becomes slaves of God – slaves of righteousness.

We don’t like that slave word. It makes us uncomfortable. We like to have choice. We like to have freedom. We want to have our own thoughts and actions and wills come into the picture. We want to soften the image up a bit with a word like “serving.” And for a while I thought that would work just fine. We could take the hard edge off. I mean, who doesn’t want to serve God?

But Paul specifically uses “slave” in this text for a reason. He does it because we really and truly have been slaves to sin. We have been stuck in patterns and lives that we didn’t want to live. And Christ broke free those chains and set us free… set us free to choose a new yoke. Set us free to choose a new master. Set us free so that we could make the decision and choose of ourselves who we would serve this day.

Because we’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Paul goes even farther and as a prime example of what it means to love God in this way turns to that father of our faith Abraham. And I think he does it to say that this whole following God thing isn’t easy. At all. We have lots of great stories to tell about Father Abraham… and this mornings reading from Genesis isn’t one of them. It is a painful story. It is difficult. And many times it leaves us with more doubt about God than faith. What kind of God would demand human sacrifice? What kind of father would willingly lead his own son up that mountain?

This is a story about love. And about loving two things. And about trying to choose and decide which is more important. And nothing about it is easy.

Isn’t that what Matthew has also been telling us for the past few weeks? That following God isn’t easy? Just last week we had that extremely difficult passage where we are told

“35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

The week before that, we focused on being sent by God to the hurt and helpless of the world, but if we had kept reading that passage in Matthew we would have been told:

16“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles… 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

No one ever said this following God stuff was going to be easy. And the thing is, if we don’t whole-heartedly give ourselves, 110% into his care, we won’t have the strength, the courage, the power of the Holy Spirit within us to endure to the end. If we let our own selfish thoughts, our own loves, everything else that pulls on us and drags us back down into that pit of sin have a voice, then we won’t make it. So we give ourselves fully and totally over to God and trust that He will get us through. We trust that God loves us and knows what is best for us. We hold fast to the truth that our lives are in the palm of God’s hand.

We gotta serve somebody… why not let it be God?

And that takes us back to Abraham. Abraham who truly loved and cherished his son. Who loved his son, not just because he was the promised heir and the future of his line. But because this was the joy of Sarah’s own heart and a gift from God. And probably because of his dimples and his curly hair… I always picture Isaac with dimples and curly hair.

Abraham loved Isaac. But Abraham also loved and served the Lord. Abraham who was practically a king in his own right with herds and flocks and land and a trained army at his command. Abraham who had no want for any money or power. Abraham had to serve somebody too. And he could serve himself. He could choose to align himself with others and serve them. He could serve his wealth. But he didn’t. He chose to love and serve the Lord.

And then God does this terrible, terrible thing. God tests Abraham. God says: Put ME first. Above everything else. Even above this precious gift of a child that you love so much. Take him, take your son, your only son, the only person who really matters to you, that one person that you love so much, and take him up to Mount Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering.

Maybe what I find terrifying about this story is that Abraham doesn’t say a word in response! He doesn’t cry out! He doesn’t protest! He just gets up extra early the next day and goes!

I have trouble with this story. I’m not a parent yet, but I cannot even imagine entertaining the possibility of such an act. It is horrifying. It is awful. The only way that I can even begin to wrap my head around such an idea is that Abraham did it because he loved his Son, but he loved and trusted God more. He not only loved God, but he put his life and his son’s life in God’s hands. He gave himself 110% over to God.

And the reason I know this is that when Abraham and Isaac were making their lonely way up that mountain, with the wood strapped to Isaac’s back, with the torch and flame being carried in Abraham’s hand and Isaac looked around and asked where the lamb was, Abraham didn’t flinch. He didn’t panic. He didn’t doubt. He looked his son right in the eye and he said “God will provide.”

He knew that whatever end God had in mind was the best. Whatever end God had in mind could bring no harm. Whatever end God had in mind would come to pass if Abraham followed and listened and obeyed.

That doesn’t make the story any less horrific. Isaac was bound, lying on the altar and Abraham had his knife raised in the air before God stopped him. It was only at the last possible nano-second that a ram appeared. The story isn’t easy. It isn’t nice and tidy. It’s kind of crap actually. It is not the kind of reading that we want to claim as being a part of our faith. It’s not something that we ever want to experience, or want anyone else to ever have to experience. The trouble with this passage is that it means “even when God says crazy, unimaginable, horrible things, you need to listen to him.”

Because you gotta serve somebody.

I think we can hold this passage as a part of our message today with a few caveats. 1) When we choose to serve God, we don’t do it on our own… but we do it in community. And so there are other people around us who can help us to tell whether or not God is really speaking and whether we should act. Faithful people who can tell us whether or not we are ourselves crazy. 2) Abraham had a happy ending in this story. His son was spared. But there are many people all across this world who chose to follow God and who suffer for it. Who lose their lives or whose families are in danger. And things don’t always work out to be such a happy ending. But they do so, because as individuals and as families, they trust that their lives are in the palm of God’s hands.

Whatever we make of this passage, we can say without a doubt that no one can ever question who Abraham chose to serve. That is why Paul calls Abraham a righteous man. He trusted with his whole self the God whom he chose to serve. He loved God and put his life in God’s hands. He believed that the end God had in store…

And by saying that, I don’t believe that the end that Abraham was seeking justified his means. No, I think that when we talk about our journey of faith, the ends and the means are really the same. The only way that we get to experience that wonderful, beautiful end that Paul talks about – of life with God and of freedom to serve God through Christ is by accepting that it is a gift and not something we earn, and by living our lives every day in that reality. Or as the Psalmist says, “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” I trusted that you loved me first and so I was able to love you. I trusted in your promise and gave myself over to you, and so every day your love and your grace flows through my body and allows me to serve you ever more. We have the choices to love and serve God freely… because we know that God loves us. Amen and Amen.