Discerning What Matters Most

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Practice These Things…

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Until they found their identity in Christ.

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Practice these things…

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

 

And friends, that’s not easy.

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

But Paul tells us to be grateful.

Paul tells us to rejoice.

Paul tells us to let love reign in our hearts.

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

It is echoed all throughout this letter, too.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Be united in love and compassion.

Be united against injustice.

Be united against hateful rhetoric.

Be united in protection of the most vulnerable.

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

As Paul writes to the people of Phillipi:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was wrong…

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.

 

 

Pride and Humility

I didn’t plan it this way intentionally, but I find it providential that we are talking about humility and pride on the weekend in between our two national political conventions.

Each party competes to see who can blow the most hot air and puff themselves up the most.

They will talk up their achievements and point out the other team’s failures.

And the national pundits and media will delight in every mistake along the way.

 

Pretty much the opposite of everything the scripture calls us to be and do.

 

Today, that scripture focuses on two of the minor prophets… connected only by this thread of pride that rings through their message.

Up until this point in our Summer of the Prophets we have been going in a sort of chronological order.  We started with some of the earliest prophets – Elijah and Elisha – and made our way through various kings and rules, to the destruction of first Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and then Judah, the Southern Kingdom.  Last week, we found ourselves with the Judeans in the middle of exile, trying to make the most of life in a strange land.

Scholars disagree about where Obadiah fits into the mix.  Some firmly believe that Obadiah was the servant of King Ahab mentioned in the scriptures… which meant he would have been in ministry during the time of Elijah. Yet the context of his words make far more sense either during or after the time of exile.

In either case, the word of God he receives is meant not for Israel, or for Judah, but for the neighboring kingdom of Edom.

 

To understand how Edom fits into the picture, we need to go all the way back to Genesis to the story of two brothers… Jacob and Esau.

 

Esau is the older of the two – a rough and tumble sort of guy who thinks with his gut.  Jacob on the other hand, is quietly clever… a mamma’s boy who uses his wit to trick his older brother and gain the upper hand.  And Jacob uses these skills to steal the birthright from his older brother and to gain a deathbed blessing from his father.

Esau is furious at these events.  He knows that his father is near to death and promises that as soon as their father is gone that he will take his brother’s life.  And Jacob must flee for his life.

 

Usually we follow Jacob in this story… to Paddan Aram where he works for seven years in order to marry Rachel… and then for seven more when he is tricked into marrying her sister Leah instead.

We mostly forget about Esau… but he lets go of his anger and moves on with his life.  He marries and has children and is wildly successful… and his people become the nation of Edom.

 

While Jacob and Esau eventually reconcile,  Edom remains a separate kingdom… sometimes ruled over by Judah… at other times in alliance… and still at other times they benefit from Judah’s downfall.

Such is the case when Nebuchadnezzar rolls through Judah and destroys Jerusalem.  The Edomites are recruited to help in the battle AGAINST the people of Judah and plunder the city of Jerusalem.

And so Obadiah cries out… “Because of the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame will cover you, and you will be destroyed forever.  You stood nearby, strangers carried off his wealth… You should have taken no pleasure over your brother on the day of his misery… you shouldn’t have bragged on their day of hardship…” (Obadiah 1:10-13)

 

Zephaniah’s words follow on the heels of these and describe the sort of people God creates out of the judgment and punishment that was visited upon Israel, Judah, and Edom:

“I will remove from your midst those boasting with pride.  No longer will you be haughty on my holy mountain, but I will cause a humble and powerless people to remain in your midst; they will seek refuge in the name of the Lord.” (Zephaniah 3:11-12)

 

We have here a picture of contrasts.

Those who are prideful, who gloat over the misfortunes of others, who are so thankful that they are safe and warm in their beds while others suffer… they are the ones facing judgment and destruction.

But those who seek refuge in the Lord, who know their limitations and weaknesses, who seek to help others and have compassion on the suffering… they are the ones in whom God delights.

 

In this day and age, our political parties are like the perpetually warring brothers Jacob and Esau.  Pride, vanity, power all get in the way of real relationship.  And we can be so focused on having it our way and our answers and our recipe for success that we actually hurt ourselves and those around us.

And as much as we don’t want to admit that those same kinds of prideful interactions are part of the church, they are.  As someone who has participated in the local, regional and global levels of church leadership, we, too, have political parties and opposing sides… caucuses and maneuvering… winners and losers.

No doubt, some of you will have heard that the Western jurisdiction in the United States just elected and consecrated the first openly gay, married bishop of our church.  Bishop Karen Oliveto has served as the pastor of Glide Memorial in San Francisco, one of the 100 largest churches in our denomination, before being nominated and elected.

As Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops wrote the night of the election:  “There are those in the church who will view this election as a violation of church law and a significant step toward a split, while there are others who will celebrate the election as a milestone toward being a more inclusive church…”

Whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, conflict is at the center of our relationships in the church and in the world.

 

But as Bishop Ough continues in his letter, “We affirm that our witness is defined, not by an absence of conflict, but how we act in our disagreements.  We affirm that our unity is not defined by our uniformity, but by our compassionate and Spirit-led faithfulness to our covenant with God, Christ’s Church and one another.”

 

I hear in the Bishop’s letter and in our scripture today echoes of my favorite passage from Philippians 2:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.

But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.

When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

 

That call to be humble, to let go of our perceived power, to get down in the dirt and be in solidarity with those who are weak and suffering and broken… that is the core of the Christian faith.

It is right there in the life of Jesus.

It is in the parables… as the shepherd leaves the 99 to find the one lost lamb… in the story of the Good Samaritan… in the story of the widow and her mite.

 

As the blogger, Joshua Becker, puts it:  “Humility is… the opposite of aggression, arrogance, pride, and vanity.  And on the surface, it appears to empty its holder of all power.

But on the contrary, it grants enormous power to its owner.

“Humility offers its owner complete freedom from the desire to impress, be right, or get ahead.  Frustrations and losses have less impact on a humble ego and a humble person confidently receives opportunities to grow, improve, and reject society’s labels.” (http://www.becomingminimalist.com/the-hidden-power-of-humility/)

 

There is nothing we can do to change the dialogue at the national level right now, but we can choose how we engage in the relationships right here in this room.  We can choose how we have dialogue in our families.  We can choose the kind of dialogue we will have on social media and in coffee shops.

We can let go of our pride, we can let go of arrogance and aggressive attitudes towards one another and instead, we can practice humility.

We can try to hear what one another really thinks.

We can discover and appreciate the values that are at the core of their positions.

We can respect one another as persons and refuse to demonize our opponents.

And we can commit together to turn not to the power of kings or presidents or worldly leaders to save us… but to turn instead to prayer.

Prayer centered in the humble and self-giving life of Jesus Christ.

Prayer that calls us out into the world to love all people as children of God.

Prayer that transforms us from the inside out.

 

I urge you, as a witness to how Christians act in times of conflict, to live with humility over the next few months.

Seek out conversation with people you disagree with and truly listen.

Be willing to let their positions change you.

Be willing to share openly and honestly and in loving ways what you believe.

Don’t gloat over wins, and don’t pass around falsehoods and half truths.

Instead, stand with people when they are hurting.

Admit when you are wrong.

Try to grow in the knowledge and love of God and the world every single day.

 

 

 

Momentum for Life: God Loves You Too Much To Let You Stay There

God loves you just the way you are… and loves you too much to let you stay there.

 

Those words I heard from Anne Lamott in a lecture she gave at my seminary.

 

God loves you just the way you are… and loves you too much to let you stay there.

 

I have really enjoyed diving into Michael Slaughter’s book “Momentum for Life” this January. I think in many ways, he is speaking the same message as Lamott. He is reminding us that God has all sorts of things planned for our lives… a direction, a purpose, a mission.

Slaughter is inviting us to make a commitment and to discover where God is leading us… how God is changing us… through his acronym D.R.I.V.E.

D for Devotion

R for Readiness to Learn

I for Investing in Relationships

V for Vision

and E for Eating and Exercise.

Each of these qualities describe a committed Christian disciple who knows that God loves them just as they are, but who is willing to let God lead them to where they could be.

 

Over the last two weeks, Pastor Todd has been guiding us through both the concept of Momentum and the first characteristic, Devotion.

So today, we turn our attention to this concept of readiness to learn.

 

What I find fascinating about Slaughter’s emphasis on learning is that he connects it with our working life. Or maybe to put it a different way, our life’s work.

 

Now, just a quick survey here.

How many of you have a job you love, that fulfills your life’s passion and gives you a sense of purpose?

And how many of you have a job that pays the bills?

And of course, there are those of us who don’t work, either because we stay at home or are retired or are in school or simply can’t find work at this time.

 

Some of us are lucky enough to get paid for what Slaughter calls “our life work.” But for others of us, that life work can still be lived out on the job site, in our families, and throughout our communities.

Slaughter describes three characteristics of this life work: that it is creative, redemptive, and innovative.

 

But I think all three of these can be boiled down to one idea: He is calling us to let God’s sanctifying grace pour into everything we do.

 

In October, our ten confirmands and their mentors and teachers went on a retreat to Wesley Woods. Over those 48 hours or so, we covered many of the basics of United Methodist theology and teaching… from the creation to the new creation, from repentance to sanctification. We learned a LOT of really big, complicated words over that weekend and to help us remember them, the youth prepared some really amazing skits, drew pictures, and journaled.

But we also had some helpful metaphors to help us.

One of them is a depiction of grace in our United Methodist tradition.

house of grace

We believe that grace is not just a one time thing that happens to us, but is present all throughout our lives.

Before we are even aware of God, prevenient grace is there… preparing us to know and see God. It is like the front porch of a house… there to welcome us and create space for us to enter the Christian life. This idea of prevenient grace is why we baptize even newborn babies… because we believe God is already working in their life. Remember – God loves us just the way we are!

 

At some point, we consciously choose the grace God has offered to us. We call that justifying grace. It describes the moment when we accept God’s acceptance of us. In some faith traditions, people hold on to and celebrate the day, hour, and minute when they were saved and they are describing the door we have in this blueprint. That door is always open and waiting for us… and some of us walk through early in life and some late and some of us linger in the doorway for a long time.

 

The last kind of grace, and the one I think Slaughter is referring to in this chapter is sanctifying grace. It is the commitment to keep growing, to keep learning, to keep going on to perfection as we live in God’s grace and love.   You see… our Christian journey does not come to an end when we enter the house. We have a whole lifetime of grace awaiting us and God loves us too much to let us stay exactly as we were when we entered.

 

This grace is what Paul is speaking of in his letter to the Philippians we heard this morning. He starts in our reading to describe justifying grace… the righteousness of Christ he received. But he doesn’t end there. No, he writes:

It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose… I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me… God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. (12-14)

 

Our life work is to let God’s sanctifying grace fill all that we do.

 

If we close our lives to God’s grace… if we say to God – “Thanks for dying on the cross, thank you for salvation, but I’ll take it from here,” then we are like those described in Psalm 127… we can work and toil all we want, right where we are, and never go anywhere. It’s like we walk through the doorway of grace, but refuse to live in the house!

That’s what Paul had been doing back when he was the Pharisee, Saul. He had all of the right answers. He knew what he was doing and who he was. He was at the top of his game, an expert in the law, and successful beyond all measure.

He thought he knew what it meant to be faithful and thought he had achieved it.

Until he discovered that learning and seeking and changing is more important than having all the right answers.

Until he learned that growing is more important than knowing.

Until he found it’s not what you know, it is who you know.

 

God loves you just the way you are… and loves you too much to let you stay there.

 

No matter who you are, or what you do, God can use you. God can pour sanctifying grace into your life to transform even the most mundane or ordinary moments.

And that means we have to keep growing. We have to let go of what no longer works. We have to always seek what God is doing next. “We must forget what lies behind and stain forward to what lies ahead.” One of the practices Slaughter suggests for us is that we are always reading something. We never stop learning. We always are growing in our awareness of what is going on in the world and the new insights that others have to offer.

And it means we choose to participate in God’s redeeming work – to allow God’s love to fill all that we do and every person we meet so that our work is not in the service of money but in the service of God. Slaughter invites us to observe all the time… to look out for those who can teach us, but also to become aware every day of those opportunities to practice God’s redeeming love. In that way, we discover life work that seeks the good for others, instead of simply ourselves.

Finally, we were made to be creative… to dream and imagine, to nurture and to help life grow. You and I… we were made in the image of God and that means God has invited us to be cocreators, to open our minds, to keep pushing forward to excellence. And that means we need to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty… to keep practicing and seeking God every day, never content with what we have already accomplished.

Because even though God loves you just the way you are… God loves you too much to let you stay there.

Save Us!

Some of you sometimes ask what I like to do in my spare time and one of my favorite things to do is binge watching television.  I like all sorts of things, from Grey’s Anatomy to Breaking Bad, but I also have a healthy obsession with British television and sci-fi.  Both of which are perfectly satisfied by Doctor Who. About five years ago, I discovered Doctor Who and I think I’ve watched every episode of the newer material about three or four times.

So, what, you might be wondering, does Doctor Who have to do with Palm Sunday?

Well, this is a show about a time-traveling alien with twelve lives, but of all the places the Doctor could go in the world, Earth seems to be his favorite. One the one hand, he sees its vulnerability and innocence.  On the other, he praises humanity for their survivability and curiosity, their fortitude and spirit of exploration.  He wants to see them thrive.

In the series two premiere, Christmas has come, but chaos is reigning on our planet with a large alien war ship hovering over London.  The Sycorax have seized control of 1/3 of the population and Prime Minister Harriet Jones issues an urgent plea – “Doctor, if you are out there, save us!”

That’s what we all hope for, isn’t it?  Someone to save us?  Someone to make everything better and the monsters and demons and agonies of our lives to go away?

 

When Jesus appeared on the scene in Galilee, people flocked to the countryside, to the houses, to the shores just to catch a glimpse of this man who would save them.  He healed their illness, he cast out their demons, he even forgave sins… He made their worldly pains go away.  He saved them from their current predicaments.  He was amazing.

And then, like any good Savior, he rides in on a donkey, the ancient world’s version of a white horse or a blue box to save the day and make everything better.

You see, that’s what the people thought Jesus was there to do.  He fufills the prophecy, as told in Zechariah 9: the symbolic triumphant entry of a King into Jerusalem on a young donkey:

“Rejoice, greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Unlike conquering forces who rode in on war horses, this was the sign of a true king – the one who brings peace and hope to the people.

And so when he rides into Jerusalem on the back of a colt, when he comes bringing peace and hope, the people spontaneously shout out: HOSANNA!  Which means Save us!

Their lives are full of problems and stresses and this Jesus has shown that he can solve them.

He can heal them.

He can save them.

He is on their side.

HOSANNA!

 

Only, Jesus doesn’t save us in the way we expect.

 

They, and we, expect our hero to be a Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone type hero: riding in to save the day, confident, untouchable, there is no question that they will triumph.

But Jesus appears more like Frodo Baggins: he seems to be facing an uphill battle, he is humble, at times during this holy week questioning his purpose, and yet always willing to sacrifice his own life for the purpose to which he was called.

In our Philippians reading this morning, that picture of a humble servant is painted for us. It has come to be known as the Christ Hymn – a song of praise for the one who gave everything up, the one who emptied himself of power and life rather than grasping at it for himself and for others.

Repeatedly, Jesus demonstrates humility.  He gave up his seat at the right hand of God to be born among us, an infant whose life was in danger from the very start.  He reached out to the hurting and sick and those imprisoned by sin.  He invited them to his table and was rejected for doing so. He touched the unclean and welcomed children onto his lap.

Jesus went to the underdogs of this world.  Those who don’t have power, money, or the system on their side, and he loved them.

 

If that was how he lived his life, I’m not sure why we expect the road to salvation will be different.

We want fireworks and trumpets and victory, but instead the path before us this week is marked by the cross.

Jesus will spend the coming week in Jerusalem, but he doesn’t leave victorious… he leaves carried away to be buried in a tomb.  The people couldn’t understand how his way of humility and love and grace and sacrifice could bring about the reign of God and TRULY save them and us… save us not from our current oppressive problems but save us to the core of our very being.

And so they stubbornly turn their backs on him.  Like children, they stomp their feet and pout: If he refuses to help me the way I want to be helped, I don’t want any part of it.

 

christmas_invasion-1I find “The Christmas Invasion” episode of Doctor Who to be such an interesting parallel, because the Doctor too is rejected in the end.  He stands up for earth and is willing to be their champion in an epic duel for the planet.  And although he defeats the Sycorax, he does so without killing the leader.  He sends them packing with a warning – “When you go back to the stars and tell others of this planet, when you tell them of its riches, its people, its potential, when you talk of the Earth, then make sure that you tell them this… IT IS DEFENDED!”

And the Sycorax leave.  They head back for the stars.

But Harriet Jones… the one who cried, “Save Us!” in the first place is not satisfied.

He didn’t save them in the way she hoped he would.

He didn’t save them in a way that would continue to isolate them from the stars.

He didn’t save them in the way that she was completely willing to do.  And so with a word, Harriet Jones signals for a weapon to be fired and the Sycorax are blown out of the sky.

 

We are not happy when things don’t go our way.  And when our “savior” comes along and isn’t what we expected, it is surprising how quickly we turn to violence.  How quickly we become the very thing we are fighting against.  How quickly we lose our humanity in a desperate attempt to cling to the salvation we think we deserved.

 

Just five days after they shouted in the streets for Jesus to save them, the people reject Jesus, and shout for him to be crucified instead.

 

And as Paul writes in Philippians, Christ was obedient to God’s will, Jesus remained the humble servant, even when it meant death on the cross.

When we praise Jesus, it is not the triumphant entry, but the cross that truly shows us God’s glory. In giving up his power, in emptying himself, in this act of love, Jesus reveals what divine power is all about: non-abusive, patient, never grasping, “power… made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Today, we live on the other side of the cross.  We know the power of the resurrection.  We know that death was not defeat at all, and that Christ has not only risen from the dead but has been exalted on high.

The question is:  how do we live in light of that knowledge?

 

From a jail cell, Paul penned the “Christ Hymn” and encouraged the Philippians to embrace the power of Jesus… to “adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.” (2:5)

We are to let go of our power and live in obedience to God’s will.

Here at this church, we claim a particular vision:  In Christ, live a life of love, service and prayer.

Our salvation demands that we live as Jesus lived.

And as we adopt the mind of Christ, our eyes are opened to those all around us who are in need of love, and service, and prayer.

We are called to love: we are called to go and stand with the widow and the orphan.  We are called to the dark and lonely corners of this community – to the people who have no one and to carry the love of Christ with us… even if it means putting our own lives on the line.

We are called to serve:  We are called to be in relationship with people and offer ourselves.  We are called to sacrifice time and energy and money to help our brothers and sisters.  And that service extends to more than just a handout… we are called to bow down in service and treat those with whom we minister as honored guests.

Finally, we are called to pray:  Sarah Coakley believes that to be in Christ, we need to practice prayer.  We need to “cease to set the agenda… [and] make space for God to be God.”  In doing so… in praying for our community and our world, we set aside what we think we are entitled to and instead ask for God’s will to be done.  We ask for God to give us the courage and strength to act on behalf of those who can’t.

 

Today, Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem.

He rides not on a war horse, but a humble donkey.

He rides not to conquer and destroy, but  to die for our sins and to set us free.

As one of my colleagues wrote this week:

We thought that we wanted a King.

We thought of all that he would bring.

Power and might and wealth and singing.

We thought we wanted a King.

Instead, we got everything. (Jessica Harren)

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the one who sets the prisoner free!

Blessed is the one who comes to save us!

With Careful Intention

I have a nasty smart phone habit.  Every commercial break, every need to stretch, every chance I get, I check my phone.  I browse through Facebook posts.  I glance at tweets.  I absorb a lot and pay little attention to what is happening right here, right now.

I realized that I often do not interact, therefore, with much intentionality.  I don’t really take the time I need to engage, because I’m just giving content a skimming glance.  By the time I have time to sit and think and reflect and engage… well, something else new and shiny has distracted me.

So I reorganized the apps and widgets on my smart phone so the notifications and alerts and temptation to take a quick glance is less prominent.  I put all social media into one folder that isn’t so easy to get to.  I have a whole page dedicated now to “self-improvement and edification” that includes writing, prayer, health, finances, etc.  I’m trying to take give myself just a little bit more sense of organization, time management, and focus.

What this means, is that I also need to take intentional time each day to truly interact and engage through social media.  No more hit and runs but prayerful, thoughtful engagement. That hasn’t been too difficult so far and I’m actually finding I have MORE time because that effort is focused.

I would often check posts as I was stirring at the kitchen stove or walking up stairs or between episodes on Netflix.  I have more time to be present in the moment, to breathe, and I think I’ve tripped a few less times.

I’m also a lot less anxious.

When I have constantly been flooding my presence with news and disaster and debates and provocative posts then my senses are on high alert all the time.  Before Christmas, with the flood of Duck Dynasty and Schaefer Trial posts I was on edge, all day long, feeling agitated, frustrated, and not sure how to really respond.  But to pull back a little bit allows space for engagement and time for processing.  I’m not worried about the sinking ship all the time.

Philippians reminds us that fretting and worrying push God out of the center of our hearts.   I’m not necessarily only going to focus on the good posts people share and ignore the struggles and trials of life… but being intentional about how I read and respond is giving me the opportunity to transform my engagement into something good, rather than crude and ugly.

Shine Like Stars

Imagine No Malaria Guest Sermon – Advent 2

 

When we lit our advent candles just a few minutes ago, we were reminded that not everything in our scriptures is full of sunshine and roses.  Luke’s vision of the coming Messiah includes terrible signs and distress among the peoples.

As the Message translation of these verses puts it:

 It will seem like all hell has broken loose – sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.

We don’t have to look far to see those kinds of signs all around us.

Wars and rumors of war fill our news broadcasts.

Natural disasters have wreaked their havoc on our crops with drought and on our friends on the east coast with wind and rain and destruction.

Mayan calendars appear to have end dates and the fiscal cliff looms precariously in the very near distance.

Even in our scripture from Philippians, we were reminded that this world is filled by  a corrupt and perverse generation… a squalid and polluted society.

While it would be easy to point fingers, the truth is that greed, lust, anger, violence fill our favorite television shows and we don’t bat an eye when yet another child falls prey to child slavery or is forced into an army or work in a sweatshop.

This week, Bishop Hoshibata of the Desert Southwest Conference reminded me that what is truly perverse is that in this world of God’s goodness and abundance there is one corner over here where we have mountains of waste because of our riches and another corner over there where people have nothing.

What is perverse is that we spend until it hurts on things we don’t need in order to celebrate the birth of the child who is everything that we need.

What is perverse is that we live in a time and a place where we grumble and argue over the specifics of health care when there are children who are dying from a preventable, treatable, and beatable disease.

Malaria claimed a reported 655,000 lives in 2010.

And 85% of those who die are children under the age of 5.

D0455When we do the brutal math, that means that every 60 seconds, a child dies from malaria.

A child like this little, blessed child – Domingos.

Domingos weigned only 15.5 lbs when his family brought him to the hospital.  He had been sick for several days before the family brought him in for treatment… although we do not know why they waited.  Sometimes there is a long distance to go to the hospital… sometimes they need to scrape together the funds to pay for treatment… sometimes they are just hoping and praying that a child will get better on their own.

When Domingos was admitted, he was suffering from acute anemia and he couldn’t breathe.

Malaria is caused by a parasite that is transmitted by the female anopheles mosquito.  And when this parasite enters your blood stream it wreaks havoc on your body.  One of the ways that it spreads is by attacking your red blood cells, causing them to swell until they burst.  That lack of blood cells was the cause of his anemia, which in turn meant that oxygen was not being carried through his blood to his organs.

The doctors did what they could, but because Domingos was so small and his veins were so tiny, they were unable to give him the blood transfusion he desperately needed.  If there had a been a pediatric surgeon at that hospital, perhaps a vein could have been found.

Five minutes after this picture was taken…. 8 month old Domingos died.

The photographer asked what else might have saved his life and the doctor responded – “Oxygen.”  This hospital in Angola did not even have an oxygen tank.

 

With realities like these pressing in on us… with the weight of human sin and the fears of disaster… what are we to do?  Sit back and weep?  Crawl into a hole and hide?

In our candlelighting scripture, Jesus speaks directly to our burdened hearts:

When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near!

Your redemption is drawing near!

Do you hear those words, people of God?

Your redemption is drawing near!

The day when weeping and crying and hunger and sickness will be no more… that day is drawing near!

The day of the Lord is drawing near!

And seeing that day on the horizon, the apostle Paul left us with words to live by:

Do everything without grumbling and arguing so that you may be blameless and pure, innocent children of God surrounded by people who are crooked and corrupt. Among these people you shine like stars in the world because you hold on to the word of life.

Stand up! Raise your heads! Shine like stars in this world!  Be beacons of hope and light and life in this world full of darkness and disaster and death.

As people of faith, we know that there is nothing to fear because the Lord is on our side.

And we are called to tell the world the good news that not only has Christ come… but he will come again.

We are called to shine like stars in the dark night sky.

 

I’m here this morning, because I believe one of the places where we as a church can be a shining star for Jesus Christ is in this battle against malaria.

We, as the UMC, have only begun to let our light shine.  But bright already it has shone.

  • As United Methodists, our tradition of work in Africa spans over 160 years!
  • Together, at General Conference in 2008  we affirmed Global Health as an area of focus
  • Through a generous grant from the United Nations Foundation and out of the passionate response to Nothing but Nets the UMC created Imagine No Malaria as a comprehensive response to the devastating scourge of Malaria
  • Imagine No Malaria builds on the success of “Nothing But Nets” and takes it beyond, preparing us to engage public health in Africa not only with nets, but with a comprehensive and effective strategy that will attack all the killer diseases of poverty.

While we did amazing work before, Nothing But Nets was just that… nothing but nets.  But now we are fighting this disease with nets, treatment, education, communication and advocacy – our scope (and impact) are delivering life-saving results!

We are working together, our little stars shining bright, to say a resounding NO to hunger and poverty, illness and death.  We are speaking words of hope and life into places where there was despair and struggle.  We are answering God’s call to make a world of difference in the name of Jesus Christ.

So I want to share with you a few bright stars I see shining out there in the darkness.

1SL picThis little girl is Dodo.  She is five years old and has a twin brother Caliste.  By the grace of God, Dodo and her brother have made it to the age of five and their family is now protected from malaria because of the work of the United Methodist Church.  Dodo’s face lights up with joy as her dad hangs up an insecticide-treated mosquito net in their home…. And her little brother can be seen playing under the net.

And there are men and women, the people of the United Methodist Church in Africa, who are coming together to make communities like hers a healthier and more vibrant place.  We have already established 15 Health Boards throughout Africa and these community health care workers are attending a training so that they may return to their villages and bring education, sustainability, and accountability to our prevention and treatment efforts.

Each one of those people are a shining star who help their communities to stand up and raise their heads so they can work together to combat this disease.

But it doesn’t matter what age you are… each one of us can be a star for Jesus Christ.  SThese are school children in Nigeria who are teaching their families and their village about the effectiveness of mosquito nets.  This little boy near the bottom is playing the role of a mosquito who has been killed by the insecticide-treated net.

All across Africa, there doctors who are shining stars who combat this disease day in and day out.

I learned this week that in some of the places where our United Methodist Church has been actively engaging in Imagine No Malaria the longest  there is profoundly good news.  In some hospitals today, the doctors and nurses can now honestly say, “we cannot remember the last time we had a death from malaria.”

And that is because we… the United Methodist Church… has made this a priority in our churches.  Just this past week, I was in Washington, D.C. with over 100 United Methodists to learn and make our voices hear throughout the capital about our investment in this work of global health.

We were liberal and conservative, black and white, young and old.   This is something that we all get to do together, a call of God that not only unites us, but allows us to join with Jesus Christ in truly transforming this world.

Paul tells us that we are to chart a different course than the world that surrounds us.  We are to stand in the midst of the darkness and proclaim that there is another way.  We are to fill ourselves with the word of God so that we may act and shine and witnesses to God’s glorious future.

In our work with Imagine No Malaria, there are three specific ways that I want to challenge you to be a shining light.  Each one of us, no matter how old or young, can help shine by advocating, raising funds, and engaging your community.

When we advocate:  raise awareness, build support for this work.  Advocacy is really just finding a way to tell the story.  Be a witness and tell someone when you go home today about the good news that we are making a difference in this world!

But you can also help to raise the funds we need to make a difference.  Nets and medicine and training costs money… but even $10 makes such a huge difference.  In your advent offering this year, give what you can to save lives and be a light of hope for a family in Africa.

And if you feel called to do more… find me after worship and I have some pledge cards for you and your family to pray over and think about what more you might be able to do.

The last thing that each one of us can do is to engage our community.  All around you are people who are hungry to make a difference… people who want to help, but don’t know how.  In this great work, we get to not only shine, but one by one, we will add the voices and work and lives of others who can join us.  Don’t forget to invite your neighbors and your classmates and your co-workers to join us in this effort.

We get to be shining stars.  We get to answer the gospel and let the light of Christ shine through us as we heal the sick and feed the hungry and empower the poor and build relationships with those who are struggling.

D0279AI don’t know about you, but when I hear that invitation from God, I can’t help but stay YES!

Yes to saving lives.

Yes to a world of healing and hope.

Yes to moms like Marie here, who will no longer have to worry when she tucks her kids into bed at night.

Yes, God. Yes.  We want to shine like stars in the sky.  We want to shine for Jesus.

Carnival Mirrors

Two summers ago, our family was on vacation at Lake Okaboji in northwest Iowa. We had this tiny little house rented and with six adults and two kids and a baby, we needed to be out and about as much as we could!

One of the days we were there, we went to Arnold’s Park – this lovely little amusement park right on the shores of the lake. As we walked into the main area of the park, we climbed through a tilted house. I remember being inside buildings like this as a child, but something about walking crooked with the ceilings shrinking above you feels very odd and disconcerting as an adult!

And then, the first thing we found inside of the park was the house of mirrors.

My niece grabbed my hand and dragged me to the entrance. As we stood in front of the skinny mirrors and the fat mirrors and the wavy mirrors, she giggled and pointed as the images of each of us transformed into creatures we didn’t recognize. I had mile long legs one minute and a neck as tall as a giraffe the next. We laughed as we told stories about what it would be like to live lives with really tall tummies and itty bitty heads.

However, as an adult I have to admit, these mirrors are a lot less amusing. The distortion of these mirrors brings into greater focus small and insignificant parts of ourselves. They either expand them out of proportion or they reduce them to nothing. Our noses grow fat and wide. Our stomachs suddenly look thin. Or vice versa.

And in doing so – the truth of our bodies comes out. Our thighs might be a little larger than we would like. Our shoulders might be narrower than we assumed. That little gap between your teeth has a spotlight shown on it.

This morning, we are going to explore how Jesus helps us to see the truth in our distorted views of reality.

Charles Campbell is a preaching professor at Duke University and he tells this story about how Jesus would like to shake up our perceptions. Campbell was watching and interview on television with Dr. Phil, the famous tv psychologist. Dr. Phil was asked, “If you could interview anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be?” And immediately, he responded: “Jesus Christ. I would really like to interview Jesus Christ. I would like to have a conversation with him about the meaning of life.”

Well, Campbell was watching this on television and tells of the inner dialogue he was having at the moment. He wanted to shout out at the television and to Dr. Phil: “Oh no, you wouldn’t! You would not want to sit down with Jesus, treat him like an interviewee, and ask him about the meaning of life. You would be crazy to do that. He would turn you upside down and inside out. He would confound all your questions and probably end up telling you to sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me. No, Dr. Phil, you do not really want to interview Jesus, and I do not want to either. It would not go well.”

Jesus sounds like a nice and simple guy… a gentle soul… a friend to walk beside you and share your thoughts with… but in reality, Jesus turns our worlds upside down and inside out. He does the unexpected, he shows up in places we try to stay away from, he loves the unloveable, he calls the unworthy, and he brings us life through his death. And sometimes in doing so, he reveals the most difficult truths about our hearts.

His ways are not our ways – and as we walk with him, we have to be willing to let our distorted views of the world fall by the wayside so that we can see the reality of God’s love.

The main distortion that we encounter when we meet Christ is the false belief that we are good enough, that we have the answers, and that we fully understand God. This is the mirror that makes us look tall and big and fat and grand. It puffs us up, it fills us out, and we start to believe we are more important and more knowledgeable than we really are.

You see, this false understanding of faith, of religion, and of themselves is what got the priests and elders into so much trouble in our gospel reading this morning.

To put this story into context, Jesus had just come into Jerusalem the day before. The long list of things he accomplished that day included: riding into the city on a donkey and in righteous anger overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple. He was literally turning things upside down!

And so when he comes back to the temple the next morning, the religious leaders are in a grumpy mood. They want to know who this guy thinks he is and so they approach him and say very bluntly: Show us your credentials – Who authorized you to teach here?

Oh, those poor leaders. They had no idea what they were about to get themselves into. Jesus may have looked like a country bumpkin rabbi just in from the hills, but they were dealing with the Son of God. And when you ask Jesus questions… you never get the answers you expect.

Instead of giving them an answer – Jesus himself asked them a question. Jesus shed light on the true nature of their question.

Authority.

Who has it? And where does it come from?

These religious leaders had been trained. They had studied long and hard. They spent their days in the temple. They have the full weight of their culture and the institution behind them. They firmly believe that they speak for God.

And if they speak for God, then this man, this ruffian, this Jesus of Nazareth clearly does not. They want to keep things in good order, according to the traditions and the way things have always been.

But Jesus is ready to turn the world upside down.

And so he asks them a question in return: Was the baptism of John from God or from man?

He trapped them.

If they said John’s baptism was from God – then they were legitimizing his movement and in doing so, legitimizing Jesus who stood right before them.

But if they said that it was only from man – then they might have had a riot of the people on their hands… all around them were faithful people who had traveled out to the Jordan river to repent of their sins.

The distortion of their mirrors fell away. They came face to face with the truth. This Jesus did not fit in a box. Their privilege and power were more important to them than the right answer and so they responded simply – we don’t know… hoping it is the end of the story and they can return quickly to the way things were.

But Jesus doesn’t stop talking.

Instead, he tells them a story. The story of two children sent by their father into the vineyard to work. One of them refuses, but goes to work anyway later. One of them says they are going to, but never actually ends up working.
Everyone knows it was the first son who did the father’s will. No questions there.

But Jesus looks the priests and leaders straight in the eye and all false distortions fall away:

“ Yes, and I tell you that crooks and whores are going to preced you into God’s kingdom. John came to you showing the right road. You turned your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him.” (The Message 32)
Photo by: Chris
(http://vivid-blog.blogspot.com/2009/05/fun-house-mirrors.html)

Staring into the funhouse mirror, these leaders thought they were being faithful by saying the right words and going through the right motions. But they were so busy looking at the faults of others that they never took the time to see themselves as they truly were. They never took the time to actually live out God’s will. They never stepped away from the mirror to see their own sin and to repent.

As Christians today, that is often our greatest failing. We get so wrapped up in being a part of the church, in wearing the name of Christian, in spouting off moral precepts, that we forget to look at ourselves.

When we let Jesus show us who we truly are… a hard and difficult process… may we have the courage to look away from the mirror and into the eyes of our Savior. May we have the courage to follow him.

But while we are talking about distortions, I think it is also important to look at the flip side of the distortion… the one that makes you look smaller than you really are. That shrinks your head and whittles your body away to nothing and makes you small like a child.

In the story of those two sons, there was the one who said he would obey his father but never did.

And then there is the story of the one who said he wouldn’t.

I always wonder about what makes him say no.

Did he have other things to do? Kids to take to soccer practice, maybe?

Was he planning on other less than noble deeds like going out and getting drunk with his friends?

Did he doubt his ability to actually perform the work?

Was he just being stubborn?

Whatever was going through the first son’s mind… he refused to do the will of his father.

Just as there are many of us who have been in the church from the beginning of our lives, there are many here this morning who took a long time to get here. We had other things to keep us busy, distractions, feelings of unworthiness, and the pride of wanting to do things our own way.

But our false images of ourselves can fall away too. Like the tax collectors and the prostitutes, we can turn around, repent, and say yes… even if we have spent our whole lives up to this point saying no. We can see our true selves, and then lay our lives at the feet of Jesus and follow him.

When we really engage with Jesus, our carnival mirror distortions come into focus. And every single time we find out that he has very little care for what our lives have been in the past but really wants to know if we are going to let go of those funhouse mirrors, take off our false perceptions and see his reality instead. Jesus does not want our distorted image of ourselves… Jesus was us. He wants us to believe in him and to follow him.

As Paul wrote in Philippians, Jesus laid aside his glory to become one of us. He humbled himself even to the point of death on the cross so that each one of us could see the truth – that Jesus is Lord and that he is our reality.

Everything that we do, everything that we have, everything that we are comes from God. That is the truth we find when we look him face to face. He turns our lives upside down and yet does not leave us on unsteady ground.

No, he invites us to join in the heavenly parade of the crooks and the prostitutes, the gamblers and the addicts, the self-righteous and the stubborn… Jesus invites us to take our place among all of those who have said goodbye to their old ways and are now marching joyfully toward heaven.

Amen and Amen.