The Heart of the Matter

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For the past couple of weeks, I’ve had this strange sensation in my neck.  To me, it feels like my pulse is a bit off of rhythm, like occasionally it skips a few beats, or does a few too many in a row.  It isn’t a constant thing, and it was pretty random until Thursday.  On Thursday afternoon, this thing, whatever it was, happened multiple times all afternoon long.  It doesn’t hurt, but it was kind of freaking me out so I got in to my doctor later that day.

They took my blood pressure, we did an EKG, and ran some blood tests.  Everything came back perfectly normal and my physician isn’t concerned… aside that I need to exercise more.  

While on the one hand, I’m comforted by the knowledge of what it isn’t, I also don’t necessarily have an answer either.  I found myself yesterday second guessing the way I even described the problem.  Maybe it’s not my pulse I’m feeling, but a twitch in my neck.  Maybe it’s all in my head and I’ve just had too much caffeine.

 

As we enter this season of Lent, we are going to be exploring some of the ways that both the United Methodist Church and our congregation have found ourselves searching for explanations and diagnosis.  And we are going to be honest about some of the symptoms that we see, the realities of our lives together. 

In the larger denomination, we are in the midst of a time of disunity that really reflects the culture we find ourselves in.  And the UMC is also numerically declining… we have lost a million members since 2006!  But simply looking at those symptoms, like the strange feeling in my neck, doesn’t automatically tell us what the problem is.  Is it that our older generations are dying out?  Are we having less children?  Is there too much competition?  Are we irrelevant?  Theologians and church leaders keep offering their explanations and no one seems to be able to put their finger on “the answer” to the problem.

 

Bishop Thomas Bickerton wrote the book that is the backbone of not only our worship series this Lent, but also our life group conversations we’ll be having.  (Quick plug: if you haven’t signed up for one yet, you can join this morning’s classes at 9:45, go to Java Joes on Monday nights, or join the one here at the church on Wednesday evenings!)   He thinks in many ways that we are like the church in Ephesus who had forgotten who they were called to be. 

Our scripture this morning comes from a letter Paul wrote to this church and at this time, the church was just on fire for God.  They had started as a small group of committed people and when Paul showed up and ministered among them, the Holy Spirit started working.  God did amazing things through them… impacting the entire city.  Temple prostitution, idolatry, magic, all of these things ended because people instead turned to Jesus.  When the Ephesians experienced the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, God accomplished abundantly more than what those first twelve disciples in Ephesus could have asked or imagined!  

Kind of like the United Methodist Church.  We started with a small group of people at Oxford University who wanted to know God better.  They were committed to the gospel and to Jesus and their faith took them across an ocean to start a church.  John and Charles Wesley could never had imagined the way that God would use them, but their little bands started healing the sick, taking care of the poor, preaching to those who would never have set foot inside the church, and before you know it, the UMC was a world-wide denomination!

You would think that kind of energy can be sustained forever, but it takes work.  We can get ourselves in ruts and we forget the power that got us started in the first place.  In the letters to the churches of Revelation, one of them is written to the people of Ephesus and God praises the work and the labor and endurance of the people, but God also says that they have let go of the love they had at first.  They are urged to remember the high point from which they had fallen.

Maybe the United Methodist Church, maybe our church, has let go of the love we had at first.  Maybe, like the Ephesians, we have a spiritual problem.

 

Bishop Bickerton points to what he calls the “Five I’s” to help us discern a bit about our spiritual reality and where we might be lacking the love of God.   

He notes that the church is a bit low on our INSPIRATION – that we tend to grumble and complain more than we focus on hope.  We need to remember where God is leading us and get excited about it again!   

He sense a lack of INTEGRATION  between what we say and what we do.  I actually have been fairly proud of Immanuel in this sense, because not only are we willing to talk about things that are happening in the world, but so many of you are out there caring for the homeless, visiting the sick, and living your faith.  

Bickerton also points to the dangers of ISOLATION.  Once you disconnect from a community, it is hard to find ways to become part of the group again.  On the back table as you leave, you’ll notice some names and some cards.  We want to reach out to folks whom we haven’t seen for a little while with a phone call or a card… and if you recognize a name out there and are willing to make a connection, take a card and put your name down!

The fourth I is INDEPENENCE.  This world tells us that we have to do it ourselves, but the church reminds us that we are better together.  We don’t have to do it alone because we all can do our part.  

Finally, INVITATON.   This is actually one of the goals of our church today. When we are excited and transformed by the work of God happening here, then we are going to want to pass it on, to reach out and bring people along with us.  

 

At Immanuel, we have had a vision that has sustained us for the last four or five years.  Say it with me:  In Christ, live a life of love, service and prayer.

But one thing our leadership has realized is that we are called to not just be and exist and look to our past, but to continue actively working towards our future.  What are we fighting for? also means What are we fighting to accomplish?  What will be different because we have loved, served, and prayed?  What is inspiring us to move forward?  What is going to challenge us in a way that we simply can’t do it alone and need to invite others to join us?  

As our leadership has discerned, we are feeling God pull is in a new direction and we are excited to share it with you over the coming weeks and months.  

But the heart of the matter, the deep question that faces not just us, but the UMC, and the Ephesians, is whether or not we really want to tap in to the power of God.  The love so strong, so wide, so long, so high, so deep, that God is going to do abundantly more than what we believe in our hearts is possible… if we know where we are going.  If we know what we are fighting to accomplish.    

Blessed are the Debonair

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This morning, we celebrate God’s good creation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, as Sittler explains:

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the Message translation describes that vision in modern language:

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

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

There are two things happening here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References:

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

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

A Different Kind of Proof

A man named Bob Ebeling thought he was a loser.

Mr. Ebeling was an engineer on the Challenger Space Shuttle and discovered that the O-ring seals in the rocket might not hold up in the cold temperatures of the 1986 launch.

He and fellow engineers pleaded with NASA to stop the launch, but they decided to go ahead anyways.

He went home, knowing the shuttle would explode. “And it did, 73 seconds after liftoff. Seven astronauts died.” (NPR 2/25/2016)

In an interview with National Public Radio, Mr. Ebeling shared that for thirty years has been carrying the guilt and the burden of the loss of life on that day.

Lots of people told him that it wasn’t his fault…

That he had done everything he could…

But he couldn’t forgive himself.

He believed one of the mistakes God made was picking him for the job.

And because NASA and the contractor in charge of the launch had never given him confirmation that he had done the right thing, he didn’t believe it.

 

What fascinates me about this story is that Mr. Ebeling did the right thing. He told the truth. He did everything he could to prevent the launch. And after his story first aired in January of this year, calls and letters poured in to his home. People who had been close to him. People who had worked with him. Complete strangers who had been moved to write and let him know that he wasn’t a loser, but a hero.

And yet, he wouldn’t believe… he couldn’t forgive himself…

Unless there was a specific act of proof – a call or a letter from NASA themselves.

 

I hear in his story the same kind of need to know and to find proof that I hear in our gospel lesson this morning.

Women trek to the tomb are the break of dawn. And they have no idea what to make of the stone rolled away. The body of their Lord is no longer there. What they are experiencing doesn’t make any sense until the angels appear and remind them what Jesus had told them: that on the third day, he would rise. And they remember.

Can you imagine their amazement?

They rush back to the disciples and tell everyone about what they have discovered. They tell them about the tomb. They tell the crowd: He Is Risen!!!!

And no one believes them.

They need proof.

They need something more concrete.

They need to see it to believe it.

 

And so Peter runs to the tomb himself, looks inside, and sees nothing but a cloth.

And the scripture says… he returned home, wondering at what had happened

But what I find amazing is that this account leaves out a key detail:  It never says he believes.

And I think if I had showed up there, I would have been surprised and amazed, but I’m not sure I would totally understand what had happened.

I think he was unsure.

Filled with doubt and questions.

He didn’t have enough proof to believe that what the ladies had told him was true.

Unless there was a specific act of proof…

 

Friends, it isn’t easy to believe the story that we share with you this morning.

Resurrection? Yeah, right.

We haven’t seen it or experienced it.

We can’t go back in time and run to the tomb ourselves.

Angels aren’t popping in to worship this morning to tell us how it is.

If even the disciples had a hard time believing, how are we supposed to understand this good news?

Where is the proof? Where is the concrete evidence?

 

Mr. Ebling wanted a word from specific people in order to forgive himself.

And he got it. He got a call on the phone from one of the vice presidents for the contractor, Thiokol who told Mr. Ebling – you did all that you could do. (NPR)

And George Hardy, a NASA official involved in the Challenger loss wrote to Mr. Ebeling – “You and your colleagues did everything that was expected of you.”

And it started to make a difference.

And then came a statement from NASA itself: “We honor [the Challenger astronauts] not through bearing the burden of their loss, but by constantly reminding each other to remain vigilant… and to listen to those like Mr. Ebeling who have the courage to speak up so that our astronauts can safely carry out their missions.”

That was it. That was the thing he wanted to see and hear. The proof he needed to let go of his burden of guilt.

 

The disciples wanted to see it with their own eyes… to touch their Rabbi with their own fingers.

And Jesus appeared to them.

He showed them his hands and feet. He ate a piece of fish with them. He personally reminded them of everything he had said – that he was supposed to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.

They got the proof they wanted.

 

But there is something that those disciples didn’t quite understand…

something that Mr. Ebeling didn’t quite understand…

something that we don’t quite understand whenever we are looking for a specific piece of proof or evidence… something concrete to demonstrate truth.

 

Yes, Jesus gives them the proof they wanted – he shows them his physical resurrected self – but the proof they needed was still to come.

Jesus isn’t there to show them his body. He is there to send them forth to live out his message.

“A change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Look, I’m sending you to what my Father promised.”

 

What if we have it all wrong?

We always say, “seeing is believing.”

But what if DOING is believing?

 

What if in the very act of living out the resurrection and the good news of Jesus Christ we find the proof we are looking for?

What if we are looking for proof instead of living out the proof with our very selves?

 

You see, Jesus, didn’t ask us to intellectually understand the resurrection.

He didn’t ask us to be able to explain it scientifically.

He doesn’t want us to have a philosophical debate with people about it.

Jesus wants us to live it.

To change our hearts and our lives.

To go out in the world and turn it upside down.

He started a resurrection insurrection and Jesus rebelled against the powers of evil, sin and death… and now he calls us to follow him in turning the forces of destruction on their heads.

It is in the process of living it, that we discover just how true and real the power of the resurrection is.

 

Over the last few weeks here at church we have been reading this book, Renegade Gospel. And it hasn’t been an easy book. The author has challenged us time and time again to get out there and live our faith!!!

That has been a hard message to swallow, because so many of us feel like we aren’t doing as much as Mike Slaughter asks of us. We feel guilty because we don’t go as far as he asks us to go. We aren’t sure we are ready to give it our all.

But what Slaughter reminds us in the very last chapter is “that an abundance of faith is not necessary.” Jesus told the disciples that faith as small as a mustard seed could change the world. “It’s not about how much faith you have, but how much of what you have that you commit to action.”

You don’t have to believe every single word of the gospel to live out the power of resurrection.

You can have all kinds of doubts and questions and you can still live out the power of the resurrection.

 

I’m begging you… don’t sit back, waiting for definitive concrete proof before you decide to become a Christian.

I’m not sure it’s there.

But what I do know is that when I live out my teeny tiny little mustard seed faith and trust in the power of resurrection, I find intangible, mysterious, holy truth everywhere.

I find it in this room when I hear the stories of healing in this life and in the celebration of a life that will continue in the next.

I find in in a letter I received from one of you this very morning that describes how you have awakened to a new understanding of faith and discipleship.

I find it at the food pantry in the hope that comes to life on the face of a mom who was desperate.

I find it in the pile of goods and sleeping bags and food that are outside the sanctuary, waiting to be delivered to homeless people through Joppa.

I find it in the discovery on a child’s face when they learn a new word.

 

Mike Slaughter writes that “the resurrected Jesus revealed himself to his followers in a very personal and real way. But he made clear its impossible to know him apart from the commitment to become intimately involved in his life and mission. Intentional participation in his life and mission is part and parcel of faith. Faith is a verb!!!”

So friends, don’t wait for proof.

Don’t spend thirty years of your life waiting for some kind of external validation.

Just follow Jesus.

Go where he sends us.

Join the incredible movement to transform this world!

Live it out by showing forgiveness and grace to every person you meet.

Live it out by praying for the sick.

Live it out by loving the unloveable.

Live it out by holding the hand of someone who is dying.

And you will find the proof you are looking for…

Because Christ is risen!

Renegade Gospel: The Red-Letter Rebel

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There was a challenge issued TWICE by Mike Slaughter in chapter one of this Renegade Gospel book we are examining during this Lenten season: to read through one of the gospels and pay specific attention to the red letters… to the words of Jesus… spoken there.

I pulled out my bible and started with Luke. Luke is the gospel assigned for this particular Lenten season according to the powers that be. It is the gospel we will be following most weeks during worship.

The very first time Jesus speaks in Luke’s gospel, it is in the synagogue in his hometown and he is preaching.

Jesus reads from Isaiah, explains a bit about what he has read, and makes everyone so angry they drive him out of town and try to throw him off a cliff.

I really hope you don’t try to do that to me this morning!

Now, many of his words, like the ones we find today in the reading (Rod/Natalie) just shared with us, are words of healing or forgiveness or calling.

“Woman, you are set free from your sickness” (Luke 13:12)

But almost every single time, like we found in our reading today, when Jesus does so, he really makes people angry.

He calls the wrong people, he forgives the unforgiveable, he heals on the wrong day…

The synagogue leader, in this particular healing, was “incensed” (as my bible puts it) that Jesus was healing on the Sabbath.

And all of this anger and frustration on behalf of the system was slowly coming to a boil, as we find just a few verses later.

As our reading continues, the Pharisees (the religious leaders) are plotting together with the political leader, Herod, to be done with Jesus for good.

Now, Herod’s father was the one who had tried to kill Jesus as an infant because he thought he might be a threat to his power.

And this Herod has already beheaded John the Baptist.

Both Herod and the religious leaders were upset about the populist movement stirring up in response to the ministry of John and Jesus.

As Mike Slaughter writes in Renegade Gospel:

“Jesus could never be perceived as a protector of the status quo” (p. 27)

 

I think the same is as true today as it was then.

Jesus is never satisfied with things the way they are, because Jesus has a vision of the way things can and should be.

He is constantly getting into trouble for doing what is “right for the sake of people” … even if it was against “the rules.”

I think, at the core, Jesus is always pushing the status quo, always challenging us to do more and to be more faithful, because his goal is nothing short of the Kingdom of God lived out on earth… and friends, we aren’t there yet!

Those of us gathered in this room are incredibly blessed… even if we struggle… because we have more resources at our fingertips than most people in this world.

But even here, in a great city, in a great state, in a great country, can we agree that we’re not in heaven yet?

And the KINGDOM is the standard Jesus is holding us to. The KINGDOM is the standard Jesus is holding the political and religious leaders to. The KINGDOM OF GOD is the standard.

And so even today, as a modern religious leader of the Christian faith, I read these words of Jesus and I am still challenged and pushed to really think about the teachings I share with you and how I call us to live them out together.

And all of those harsh words Jesus has for the Pharisees…. well, they are for people like me, too. Because too often, as your leaders, we have simply not preached the gospel! We haven’t shared the vision of the Kingdom of God and we haven’t given you the tools to truly be the Body of Christ, in the world, helping to bring that Kingdom to fruition.

 

And friends… I think that’s what we, the Body of Christ, are supposed to do.

When I re-read Luke’s gospel, over and over again, Jesus asks us to not only hear his words, but to obey them. Just on a glance back through this morning, I counted at least 9 times (Luke 6:47, Luke 8:21, Luke 9:48, Luke 10:1, Luke 10:28 & 37, Luke 11:28, Luke 12:1, Luke 18:22)… Jesus asks us to not only hear but to do them. To live them. To go and do likewise.

We are trying to be faithful Christians and put into practice what Jesus says.

And, here is the good news I discovered in these commands to “go and do likewise.”

Jesus is NEVER angry at ordinary people who doing the best they can to live out their faith.

He never shames them.

He never scolds them.

He invites them! But he doesn’t get mad at them for where they currently are in their journey of faith.

He is never upset with someone if they aren’t ready to do it. Jesus simply sends them on their way. Maybe another day, in a different sermon, they’ll be ready.

 

In our United Methodist tradition, we call this “going on to perfection.” Discipleship is a lifelong journey and you are wherever you are today without any judgment.

We are called to be like Jesus, and we fully acknowledge and admit that we aren’t there yet!

And why would we be? Jesus is divine! The Son of Man AND Son of God. The standards are the very KINGDOM OF GOD!

We are mere mortals, trying to live up to the standards of the divine.

There is a quote by Barbra Brown Taylor in her book, “The Preaching Life” that has always stuck with me:

Over and over, my disappointments draw me deeper into the mystery of God’s being and doing. Every time God declines to meet my expectations, another of my idols is exposed. Another curtain is drawn back so I can see what I have propped up in God’s place – no, that is not God, so who is God?

It is the question of a lifetime, and the answers are never big enough or finished. Pushing past curtain after curtain, it becomes clear that the failure is not God’s but my own, for having such a poor and stingy imagination. God is greater than my imagination, wiser than my wisdom, more dazzling than the universe, as present as the air I breathe, and utterly beyond my control. (p. 10)

Every day, when we read the gospels, we pull back the curtain, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, and we discover that we aren’t Jesus yet… we still have a ways to go!

We still have discoveries to make about what it means to be a faithful Christian.

But here is the beautiful and amazing thing about “going on to perfection”…

Every day, we also have an opportunity to grow more faithful.

Every day, we also have a chance to be more loving.

Every day, we also get to be a better Christian than yesterday.

 

The words of Jesus are NOT easy. The standards he sets for us are incredibly high! You know, Kingdom of God level!

But even in the midst of those Kingdom standards and Jesus’ never ending call for us to respond accordingly, there is grace upon grace upon grace.

One of my favorite lines in the chapter for this week from Mike Slaughter was this:

Although Jesus always called his followers to enter the small gate and take the narrow road to the Kingdom, he repeatedly taught mercy and relationship over rigidity and judgment. (p. 28)

And he points to Peter as the prime example.

You know Peter… the disciple who constantly questioned Jesus motives and got it wrong.

You know, Peter… the one who fell asleep in the garden.

You know, Peter… the one who denied Jesus three times when he needed him the most?

Jesus has ridiculously high standards. But when we don’t meet them… when we fail… and we will… Jesus keeps welcoming us back.

Keeps loving us.

Keeps showing mercy and love.

Keeps pouring God’s sanctifying, perfecting grace into our lives so tomorrow we can pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and try it again.

There is life and power and love and grace and mercy in the red-letter words of Jesus.

Jesus is constantly pushing our world through these words to rebel against what is… in light of what could be.

Jesus is asking us to examine ourselves, our church, our world, and to ask:

Can we be greater tomorrow than we are today?

Can we be more like Christ tomorrow than we were today?

Can this world look more like heaven tomorrow than it does today?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Always.

Thanks be to God.

God Changes Minds

I change my mind all the time.

I like variety. I learn. I grow. I experience new things. I’m in a different mood.

And my understanding and beliefs change as a result.

All. The. Time.

Most recently, we have been doing some work on our backyard.

Early this spring, we removed a few trees. And the morning the workers came to take the trees down, I thought I wanted the pile in one place.

Today, I want it somewhere else.

I changed my mind.

My initial decision was one that had to be made in the moment.

And at the time, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted.

I also thought I understood how much wood there would be.

Now, I’m the first to admit, I was completely and utterly mistaken.

 

woodpileWhat we were left with when the tree company left was an enormous wood pile.

I didn’t have all the information.

I didn’t understand the scope and breadth and depth of what this pile would be. Or how it would block the view of my barberries and take up the entire first level of our retaining wall.

I hadn’t thought about the best way to store said wood in order to help it cure.

I couldn’t see in that moment the bigger picture.

And now, I’m going to build some muscles moving all of those logs… because now, with more information and some experience, my mind was changed.

 

In our reading from Acts today, Peter changed his mind, too.

Or rather God changed Peter’s mind.

Like me, Peter couldn’t see the big picture.

 

He was living his life as a faithful Jewish man and thought he knew exactly what God was about and what God wants from the people. He presumed to understood the rules of faith.

But his knowledge was limited.

He didn’t see the scope and the breadth and the depth of God’s love for all people.

In the prelude to our scripture reading from Acts this morning, Peter has been sent on a missionary journey to the home of Cornelius… a gentile.

A Gentile is anyone who is not Jewish, someone who was not a part of the family of Israel, someone who was an outsider as far as the faith was concerned.

While the scripture describes Cornelius as a God-worshipper, Gentiles had limits on their participation in the Jewish temple.

Second Temple Model, JerusalemThe temple had many different courts, and the requirements to move further and further into the temple, towards the holy of holies, left many out. The big open area you see in the photo is called the Court of the Gentiles. That was the only part of the temple Gentiles could enter.

They were excluded from the rest because they were unclean.  They were different.  They were not welcome.

But many faithful god-fearing folks like Cornelius continued to show up. They continued worshipping God from those outer courts. In spite of the exclusion, they wanted a relationship with God.

 

And God wanted a relationship with them. So God prepares Peter’s heart for a transformation in thinking. Before God sends Peter to Caesarea and the home of Cornelius, he gives him a vision of the clean and unclean joining together.  Peter receives a vision of a new sort of body of Christ.

Then he is summoned to the home of Cornelius, and although he was not allowed by Jewish custom to enter, he did. He went in and ate with the family and he shared with them the good news of Jesus Christ. And as he preached to Cornelius and his family, the Holy Spirit descends upon them and they receive the gift of faith.

 

Peter’s world has just been turned upside down.  Those he thought were outside of God’s love and power have just had it poured upon them.  And exclaims: “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?”

No one could deny their gifts. Water was brought and Cornelius and his whole family were baptized on the spot… they were part of the family of God.

 

When my husband and I decided to take down some trees at our house, we thought we understood the parameters of the proposal. They take down the trees. We keep the mulch and the wood. End of story.

But what exactly are we going to do with all of that wood?

How are we going to store it?

What do we do with the plants that were once in a shady area that now need to be moved?

And what happens to the family of bunnies that has now made their home in the wood pile in its current location?

As soon as a new, unexpected element enters the equation, it is natural that there is some anxiety, some wheel spinning, and chaos.

 

And that is precisely what happened in the aftermath of Peter and Cornelius.

You can take down a tree or two. You can baptize a Gentile family.

But there are going to be repercussions.

Things just won’t be the same.

 

Peter is summoned back to Jerusalem. He is called back to the apostles who heard about what happened and who aren’t so sure they like what has happened.

They start with criticism. They launch into accusations. They read off the rules. I can imagine their frustration growing as they start to wrestle with the implications of what has just happened.

 

The leaders of the early church, like Peter, believed that faith meant one thing, and God was trying to show them it meant something else. But we cling to our traditions, to our rules, to what we know and understand.

I think the number one way God changes our hearts and minds is by helping us experience the world in a different way.

That’s what happened with Peter. God moved him to the right time and place and put Cornelius in his life to give him an undeniable experience of grace and power and Holy Spirit led transformation.

 

But the number two way God changes hearts and minds is by calling those who have had these life-altering experiences to tell their story.

 

The apostles were furious and demanded an explanation.

And Peter gave them one.

 

He told them about his vision.

He told them about how God led him to the house of Cornelius.

He connected what he had experienced of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with what he witnessed first-hand in Caesarea.

In chapter 11, verse 16-17 he testifies: “I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John will baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If God gave them the same give he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”.

 

Seventy five years ago, I probably would not have been welcomed in this pulpit.  As a woman, ordination was out of the question.  A combination of tradition and a patriarchal society and a way of reading the scriptures precluded the church from welcoming women as preachers and pastors.

But here I stand… robed, ordained, my calling from the Holy Spirit confirmed by the church.

At various points throughout our history, faithful folk stood up and exclaimed about women:  These people have received the Holy Spirit… just like we did – How can we stop them from being baptized?  How can we deny them a place at the table?  How can we stop them from being ordained when God has so clearly spoken in their lives?

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was against women preaching in principle… until he witnessed the Holy Spirit working through the lives of women like Sarah Crosby, Grace Murry, and Hannah Ball.  He relented and licensed them for preaching in the circuits across England.

God changed his mind.

God changed the mind of our church.

God helped us to see a different vision of what the church and our community could be, just as God had done for Peter.

As a young woman, I have always lived in a church that ordained women.  I have always been a part of a church that valued the contributions women made in ministry, in leadership, and in the world.  It has been a given.

But I often wonder where God is going to change our minds next.

 

“I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another,” Peter says.

 

When I was in Washington, D.C. last week for a leadership fellows training, the church we spent our days at had welcome signs plastered throughout the building.

 

“We love single people, divorced people, widowed and married people,” it says.

“We love people who have not been to church in ages and those who never miss a Sunday.”

“We love people who are in recovery and those who are still addicted.”

 

The list went on and on, but it reminded me that God shows no partiality to one group of people or another.

God wants to be in relationship with all of us.

With the whole of creation.

With you and me.

With black and white and brown.

With young and old, and gay and straight,

with those struggling with mental health and those who love them.

With life-long Americans and with people who have just arrived in our country.

 

When you start to make a list, all of a sudden the people we are supposed to love and share the good news with starts to overwhelm us.

Like the woodpile in my yard, it truly seems incredible and awesome.

The question that’s before us is: what are we going to do about it?

How will this knowledge change our practice?

And if we are going to let God change our hearts and minds and church, where do we need to start moving around the woodpile to make room for everyone to thrive and find a place here?

Trust, not Unquestioning Belief

In 2012, I took my youth group on a mission trip to Minneapolis.  We worked in a number of different sites and one of them was the Emergency Foodshelf Network.  This organization helps distribute food items to 70 area food shelves by channeling donations for organizations and large corporations.

Most of these are bulk items.  Like 50# bags of rice that needed to be bundled into smaller portions.  Or bushels upon bushels of fresh produce that we sorted so each box had a little bit of everything.

unlabeled-canOne day, our job was to affix generic labels onto 18,000 cans of corn that were donated without labels. Yes. 18,000.

As we walked in that morning, there they sat, all shiny and shrink-wrapped on pallets, just waiting for our little paper labels that read “Corn.”  Our job was to cut the labels to size, add two pieces of tape, and bundle them onto trays of 30 for distribution.

But there was this nagging question in the back of our minds all day long as we cut and taped and stacked and moved these aluminum cans.

How did we know it was really corn?

 

The only way to tell was to open the can.  But that of course ruined the product.

You could shake the cans… and we did… and it sounded like corn… but it could have sounded like peas or beets for all we knew.

 

We had to trust that it was really corn in those cans.  We had to go about our work, tape those labels on and trust.

And to be honest, because we knew that people would be receiving these cans, we felt responsible for their contents.  Others would trust then when they got a can that said corn, a can that we had labeled, they would actually be opening a can of corn.

 

Trust.

 

Our two scripture readings for today seem to give us a portrait in contrasts… between Abraham, the one who trusted and Peter, the one who didn’t.

 

Abraham, was well past retirement age, yet chose to follow and trust the God would use him to birth a nation.  He is lifted up as the example.  The one who did it right.  The one who was trustworthy and true.

And Peter. Oh Peter.  In this season of Lent we see how so many times he gets it wrong. He questions Jesus.  He denies him. He is even called Satan in our reading for today.  Perhaps what we might imagine is the opposite of one who trusts.

 

Last week, we talked about three different types of atonement theories. Three different ways God is working in the world to bring us back into relationship, to restore us to shalom.

We had the forensic theory – the idea of a trial or a courtroom.

We had the moral example theory – where Jesus shows us how to live.

And we had the Christus Victor theory – where Christ is victorious and rescues us from sin and death.

 

Today, our scriptures lead us to those forensic theories.  They take us to the courtroom.

 

courtroom-drama-1It is the courtroom Paul has in mind as he writes to the Romans in this section of this letter.

It is courtroom language that Paul is using as he describes Abraham’s relationship with God.

 

Imagine that Abraham is sitting in the witness stand of a great courtroom.  And the question put to him is this:

Why do you deserve the promises of God?

It’s a different version of the question we often think of at the end of our days: why should you get into heaven?

Why do you deserve shalom?

And throughout chapter 4, Paul lays out an argument.  Like a lawyer, Paul claims it was not Abraham’s works that made him worthy of the promises.  It wasn’t that he followed the laws of God, the Torah.  It wasn’t that he did all the right religious things like be circumcised.

No, what puts Abraham in the right… what proves that he deserves the promises of God is that he “trusts him who justifies the ungodly (4.4).” He trusted the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (4:17).“ He believed, even though the odds were stacked against them.

And he was right.  He trusted that God would give him and Sarah a child and his claim was upheld. So using the courtroom language of the time, he was in the right. He was righteous. He deserves the promise because he trusted in the promise.

 

That seems too simple, doesn’t it?

 

Abraham’s faith was nothing more than a trust in the specific promises God made.

 

So what about Peter?  What if we put him in the same courtroom?  Where does he stack up?

 

If we focused strictly on this passage from Mark, he doesn’t get it.  He doesn’t trust.  He doesn’t understand.

Or maybe a better way of putting it is that he was operating on unquestioning belief.  Faith without any understanding. Peter was making assumptions about God.  Assumptions like: the journey was going to be easy.  An assumption that Jesus was going to march into Jerusalem and magically everything would be better.

And when faced with new evidence, new teaching, Peter chose to shut his mind.  He clung to that unquestioning belief.  He, in fact, challenged Jesus!  The word used here actually is the same word used for silencing demons – Peter thought Jesus was out of his mind!

Jesus has to correct Peter.  He has to tell him once again what God really promises.

 

That snapshot of Peter’s faith, however, doesn’t give us the full story.

 

In fact, if Peter and Abraham were really on trial, if their whole lives were spread before a court that was trying to determine if they deserved the promises of shalom, their stories wouldn’t be all that different.

 

If we go back to Genesis and really read Abraham’s story, his is one of fits and starts, too.

He and Sarah laugh out loud at God’s plan for their lives.

They try to do it their own way.  They always have a plan B in the works. (maybe talk about how Abraham tells the king Sarah is his sister not his wife… if his wife, Abraham will be killed… as his sister, the king will bargain with him…)

Yes, they go. They stick with it. They make it to the end of the long and complicated journey of faith.  But it isn’t an easy road.  When we pick their lives a part with a fine toothed comb, we find there are all sorts of things that are far from trustworthy and true. There are plenty of moments when they set their eyes on human and not divine things.

Peter, likewise, makes lots of mistakes.  He radically misunderstands what it means for Jesus to be the messiah.  Just like Abraham and Sarah, he has his moments of weakness where he looks out for his own interests above God’s plans.  He lies to protect himself.

But at the end of the day, Peter came to believe and trust in the specific promises God made. Peter came to believe in the giver of life. He came to trust that if God could raise Jesus from the dead, then God could raise him too.  And Peter shared that faith with others. He led others to trust in those promises, too.

 

What makes us worthy of shalom? What makes us children of Abraham?

We come to deserve the promise when we trust in the promise.

 

And that promise is that life can and will come from death. It is a promise that sin has nothing to do with our salvation, because Jesus has already wiped it away.

In the courtroom at the end of our lives, our mistakes are no longer on the table. They no longer count as evidence against us.

What matters is if we trust with our whole being that the God who created this world out of nothing and brings life from what was dead can justify the sinner, too.

If we trust in that promise, its ours!

 

And it isn’t unquestioning belief.  It isn’t faith without evidence or justification.  We trust in that promise because we have carry the story with us of how God works. And maybe we have even witnessed it with our own eyes.

 

So here’s a question…. What if I was pulled in front of a courtroom one day to testify about why I labeled those cans “corn”?

Our supervisor promised that those cans held corn and I believed her.  I trusted her.  Why?

To be honest… if we had showed up one day at a random building with an unknown organization and we were asked to label cans of corn, I’m not sure I would have trusted.  If we had done so, simply on unquestioning belief, without any relationship or evidence or understanding of who they were or what they were about, that trust would have been pretty unjustified.

 

But that isn’t what happened.

We learned about the organization and its history.  We spent some time working with them. We saw their attention to detail and how much they cared for their clients.  So on that final day, when we labeled those cans of corn… we believed in what they told us.  We trusted them.

 

Here in this church, we aren’t asking you for unquestioning belief, either.

We hope to build a relationship with you.

We want to learn together and wrestle with the promises of God that have been handed down for generations.

And just like Abraham and Peter and Paul passed down what they knew to be true… what they witnessed God doing in their lives… we are going to share our stories too.

Stories of how God has transformed us.

Stories of how God has brought life out of death.

Stories of how we have experienced grace and forgiveness and love.

And no matter how many fits and starts and mistakes any of us make along the way, my prayer is that someday, each of us will trust in the promises of shalom.  That we will trust in God and in this community of Christ in such a way that whenever difficulty and struggle come our way, we can hold fast and support each other, knowing, trusting, believing that in Christ, all will be well.

Over and Over and Over Again

Earlier this week, I was tired and worn out, and I kept being lazy and forgetting all kinds of things. I didn’t put the dishes in the dishwasher and left them on the counter. I forgot the previous day’s laundry in the washing machine and when we opened it, everything smelled a little musty. I left a light on in the family room all night long.

Each time, my husband reminded me of what I had left undone.

Each time, I found myself saying, “I’m sorry.”

Each time, it felt like a bigger deal, like straws being added, slowly and surely to the camel’s back.

I don’t know if Brandon was counting, but I was. I kept making note of all the times I messed up and did something wrong.

The little things just kept piling up.

And I felt so rotten about the whole thing that when I noticed something that he had left undone, I jumped on it.

In my head, I thought – HA! Here is something that will cancel out one of those mistakes I made.

In reality, I was not my most grace-filled self.

 

In our relationships, we spend far too much time keeping track of the wrongs we and others have done. Adam Hamilton, in his book Forgiveness, describes these sins and injuries as rocks that we carry around with us.

Some are small like pebbles. You know, like leaving a dish on the counter. [drop a few pebbles into your bag]

Others are medium sized stones, like forgetting a birthday or anniversary. [drop a medium sized stone or two into your bag]And then there are the boulders. Major hurts like cheating on your spouse or getting someone fired. [drop a brick into your bag]

 

When we spend our days keeping track of the mistakes and sins of others, what we are doing is metaphorically carrying around the weight of those wrongs with us. It doesn’t matter if it is one big boulder or a thousand little pebbles… it’s heavy! It’s a burden.

 

In my relationship with my husband, I was counting up my faults. And it wasn’t that he was unkind or not forgiving… I just took it personally every time he pointed out where I had made a mistake.

I found myself mentally adding a stone to our relationship each and every time.

I foolishly thought that pointing out one of his faults would take a stone away.

It didn’t.

It made everything worse.

Because now I wasn’t just thinking about my own faults. I was actively seeking out his so that I could even the score.

In doing so, I only piled a bunch more weight in our bag.

 

The only way to truly let go of the stones is to forgive.

The weight of sin and debt and grievances will overwhelm us if we try to carry them on our shoulders.

Jesus knew this.

And so when Peter asked how many times he should forgive his brother or sister in Christ, there was only one answer.

We aren’t to forgive once or twice or seven times… we are to forgive over and over and over again.

We are to forgive always.

We are to never stop forgiving.

 

To help Peter, and us, understand more fully this imperative to forgive, Jesus tells a little story. A story about someone with unimaginable financial debts who was forgiven by the ruler of the kingdom. Only, when that debtor turned around and was asked to forgive a small debt from a neighbor he refused. The king heard about how the debtor would not forgive another, and took back the pardon that was offered.

A long time ago, a monk named Anselm used this analogy to teach about how we could never make amends to God for our sin. Our sin is like a debt that we will never be able to repay.

If we think about our sins as little mistakes, the cost or weight of that sin is the price we have to pay. In the past, we might have tried to pay for our debts by counting up each one and offering the sacrifice that would counteract each grievance.

But in Anselm’s view, our sin can pile up into one gigantic, big, rocky mountain. It is overwhelming trying to even imagine, much less quantify, the ways we have let God down and have strayed from God’s will in our lives. We simply can’t keep up with the payments and they compound with interest and before we are even aware of it, we owe God an infinite debt. We simply could never repay God for the price of our sins.

Like the debtor on his knees before the king, there is nothing left for us to do, but fall on our knees before our Lord and beg for mercy.

There is nothing we can offer that can make it right.

Even if we gave our very lives, Anselm wrote, it wouldn’t be enough. The weight of our sin is overwhelming.

Our God is a loving God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast mercy.

Our God created us and loves us, even when we don’t deserve it.

Our God comes to us and lifts us up out of our despair and sin and mistakes.

I forgive you, God says.

I have already covered the price of your sin. It is wiped clean. It is no more.

And so, like the debtor before the king, we have experienced incredible compassion and forgiveness and mercy.

This morning, we baptized little Adelyn Rohde. In that act of baptism, God’s forgiveness pours into our lives.

The point is not that baptism covers all of our sins before we find this water. It’s that God’s love and grace and mercy overwhelms us with forgiveness before we even know we need it.

That’s how abundant and powerful the love of God is.

The question is… what will we do with that unimagineable gift of grace?

 

What we shouldn’t do is live like the debtor. He took advantage of the mercy of the king and hoarded forgiveness for himself. As soon as he was given the opportunity to pass grace on, he refused. He counted every penny of his neighbor’s debt and forced them to pay it all.

That is not what God desires for us. Our Lord and Savior wants the gift of grace to fill in every aspect of our lives.

God wants forgiveness to transform every relationship we have… not just with Jesus Christ, but with our spouses and children, with neighbors and strangers.

God wants forgiveness to transform how we see ourselves.

The debtor in the parable this morning… he went right back to counting sins. He went right back to piling pebbles and stones and rocks up and forcing others (and himself) to carry them around.

God wants us to stop counting.

In the book many of us are reading right now, Forgiveness, a woman talks about her relationship with her husband. Like my husband and I, she had been looking for the mistakes and keeping a mental count of the wrongs in their relationship. But one day, she stopped counting.

“I find that when I make up my mind to stop being bitter or annoyed at my husband that our love is the best. It’s all in what I make up my mind to do.”

God wants us to stop counting.

We aren’t supposed to forgive once, or twice, or seven times.

We are to forgive over and over and over again.

The point of such an extravagant number like 70×7 is that you can’t keep track. You are just supposed to keep forgiving.

Even before Jesus answered Peter’s question, he had been trying to help the disciples learn this life lesson.

We forgive because we have been forgiven.

It is what he taught us in the Lord’s Prayer.

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who have debts against us.

 

Friends, we don’t have time to count the sins of others, and we don’t have time to keep track of all the mistakes we have made in our lives either.

A life of love and grace and mercy means that we have the freedom to simply live.

We will make mistakes.

We will forget to put the dishes away.

We are going to not always be our best.

Adam Hamilton writes that “We are bound to hurt others , and others are bound to hurt us.” (page 1)

But we can let the love and grace of God transform our hearts. We can clothe ourselves, as Colossians invites us to with kindness, compassion, humility, and patience.

And we can choose to forgive over and over and over again.

Breathe

Shortly after we moved into our new home, there were a number of big, scary storms. It was cool for June, so we had opened the windows to let the cool breeze blow in.

Our cats typically LOVE to sit in the open windows. They look out, smell the world, and watch the birds.

But when those storms rolled through, the curtains blew everywhere. The breeze going through the house was strong enough to move things off the table. I thought it was crisp, cool and refreshing… but the cats were not pleased.

With each gust of wind, my cat Tiki’s ears laid back and he would meowl. He was a bit overstimulated. He didn’t know where to look or what to do. You could just see chest rise and fall with each panicked breath. So, I spent about half an hour petting and reassuring him that morning. The other cat, Turbo, refused to even make an appearance.

The blowing of the wind always makes me think of the Holy Spirit. She blows where she will, she stirs things up and creates a ruckus, and we can either be comforted or agitated by her presence.

When we are ready for the Spirit to blow, it is a refreshing change of pace…. We breathe in deep and enjoy the ride.

But when we are not ready for that change, when we are not looking for the Spirit and she shows up, well, then we feel like trouble is brewing. We complain about how we’ve never done things like that before. We might try to fight back and then when it’s obvious the change is here to stay – we might just hunker down in the middle of the floor and give up.

 

In our scriptures today, we find two different groups of people who are in the midst of some powerful Holy Spirit changing winds.

 

In our first story, Elijah is dealing with the shifting winds of culture and a changing political situation. His whole world has been tossed upside down and he feels threatened and afraid. He isn’t sure what he is supposed to do in response and cries out to God for help.

 

In our second story, the disciples find themselves in a strange in between time. We talked last week about how their friend and colleague John the Baptist had just been executed. They are being led deeper into more dangerous territory in their faith and being encouraged by Jesus to take bigger risks than ever. Their entire understanding of who God is has radically been changing. They are completely unsure where their faith will lead them next.

 

And in both places, a powerful wind shows up and helps remind them that God is always with them.

 

As we think about these two stories, it is helpful to imagine ourselves in their shoes.

Sometimes, we run away to a place of safety like a cave.  This sanctuary can feel like such a refuge, with its cavernous space and the warmth and protection it offers.

The disciples, were sheltered from the storms in their boat.  A boat much like this church…

20140818_093323[1]You may think I’m talking about some symbolic and imaginary boat. You might picture yourself floating down the Raccoon River or on a pontoon out on Saylorville Lake. But believe it or not, we have all, literally, gotten into a boat this morning!

The part of the sanctuary where you are sitting is officially called the “nave.” The word comes from the Latin navis, which means a boat or ship. This sanctuary is constructed, on purpose, to look like an upside down boat. The rafters are the frame and the wooden slats become the hull of the ship.

So we are all together, in the boat this morning. We are all in this boat called church doing our best to be faithful and follow Jesus.

The problem is, sometimes the winds start to blow. And when that happens… well, we can’t always be sure where we will end up!

In the gospel, the wind picks up and pulls the disciples from the shore.   Their boat is battered around on the water. The winds whip around and blow the lake water into their faces. It’s not a pleasant way to spend the night.

Out there on the water, they not only sense the breeze, but also the winds of change. Their fears and hesitations and feelings of inadequacy about this journey of faith creep in. In the wee hours of the morning, they start to feel alone, lost, and afraid.

 

That’s how Elijah was feeling too. Alone. Afraid. The winds of change were against him and he alone was left of the prophets of God. Ahab and Jezebel, the rulers of Israel had turned against God and God’s people and Elijah had done everything he could to try to get them to follow God again. Nothing he did worked. He felt like giving up. He wanted things to go back to how it was before. He wanted the land to be full of God’s power and blessing again.

 

It is a common experience.  Whether it was Elijah looking backwards or the disciples wanting to stay near the shoreline.

It is the tension between wanting to stay near to the shoreline, where we know Jesus has been, and allowing the winds of the Holy Spirit lead us into different waters and a new mission field.

The shoreline is where we are safe and comfortable.

The shoreline is where we have experienced Jesus.

Just close your eyes for a few moments and breathe in deep.

As you breathe in and out, think about where that shoreline is in your life. That experience of Jesus.   A Sunday school class, a worship service, a bible study….

PAUSE

The shoreline is our cherished past. It is where we KNOW God has been. So we try as hard as we can to stay near to that shoreline, or to find one just like it in another place. We don’t want to venture out into the world without Jesus by our side, so we want to hang on, right there, and wait.

If the disciples had their way, they would have stayed right by the shoreline, all night long.

That’s what many of our churches try to do. They tread water, anchored in one place, doing their best to stay afloat and keep things as they are.

But sometimes, the winds of change start to blow. The Holy Spirit starts to move us. And like the disciples, we find ourselves drifting farther and farther from where we are safe and comfortable.

Some of those winds might be cultural shifts that move news and conversations online instead of in print or in person.

Some of those winds represent the migration of people and the changing demographics of the state and this very neighborhood.

Some of those winds are changes in styles and preferences of those who would worship with us.

Sometimes those winds of change are finding pink slips in our bulletins instead of those familiar green pew pads.

 

It can be scary and disorienting to be led somewhere new by the Holy Spirit.

I remember I had this sense of absolute terror when I was called by my district superintendent to go to my first church. I had no idea what the future would bring. I didn’t know what the people would be like. I didn’t know whether or not I would fit in. All I knew were the churches of my past, the familiar boats I had worshipped and been taught in.

The winds of change were blowing and I had two options. I could embrace the call – take a deep breath and hope and pray that the Holy Spirit was truly working through the process. Or, I could try to hunker down and resist and probably would have been miserable. I chose to trust that no matter where the Spirit of God took me, Jesus would be there. And he was.

 

I think the mistake the disciples made in our scripture today is that they tried so hard to stay by the shoreline, where they knew Jesus had been… that when the winds drove them to the middle of the lake, they believed they were in a place Jesus couldn’t possibly be.

With the breeze swirling around, in that unfamiliar territory, they felt overwhelmed by the chaos of it all.

Their boat was the only thing they had left.

Without a shoreline to cling to, they took a deep breath, said a prayer, and hunkered down.

 

For Elijah, his mistake was constantly trying to go back to the old king and make them change. Do you remember the saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Well, that was Elijah. Trying to convert Jezebel and fight her religion instead of moving on and looking for new people to minister to.

 

There is a temptation, when the winds of change are blowing, to retreat into a building like this. This church can become the center of our attention. It is that place we keep returning to, the familiar boat we hold on to for safety.

And so when those winds pick up, we retreat to our cave or hunker down in the boat.

Sometimes, it’s hard to get a sense of when we are being blown by the Spirit and when we are simply being tossed and turned by the breezes of popular opinion.

So, we focus on our people and our ministries And then we get into the rut of doing the same things over and over again, and wonder why it isn’t working any more.

But the biggest danger in doing so is that we no longer recognize Jesus when he shows up out there in the wind and the waves.

All around us are churches that are perishing because they have stopped paying attention to their neighborhoods and the world around them. They are dying because they no longer recognize Jesus when he’s standing out there in the winds of change.

When Jesus came out to the disciples, rocked by the winds on the lake that night, they didn’t know who he was. They were so startled by his presence, they thought he must be a ghost – an apparition – not their Lord and Savior.

Because why on earth would Jesus be out there?

 

“Hey! It’s me!” Jesus calls. “Don’t be afraid.”

 

Peter takes a deep breath and raises the courage to respond. He shouts into the wind at this dark figure approaching.

“ Lord! Is that really you? If it’s you… well…. If it’s you, then, tell me to come to you! “

 

And Jesus says, “Come.”

 

Take a deep breath and take a step out onto the waters.

Take a deep breath and step out of the cave.

 

I have new places to send you.

I have a new direction for you to go in.

 

Take a deep breath and step outside of these doors.

 

God is waiting. God is patient. And God has plans for us.

 

When we let the winds of the Holy Spirit move us,  we go where our Creator calls us, we will experience amazing and miraculous signs of God.

 

The winds… they aren’t going to stop blowing.

Change will keep coming.

The Holy Spirit is alive and active in this world.

So pull up the anchor, take a deep breath, and enjoy the ride.