Rising Strong: Go All In

You know, in churches we like to use words like repentance and transformation – all words for making radical changes in our lives.  But, the truth is, the church is often the LAST place change occurs.  One of my mentors often reminds me that church is often our escape from rapid change that happens in the world… it’s one of the only stable places we can run to.  But sometimes, we just are stubborn and afraid to try new things, to take risks, to do it the way we’ve never done it before.

I firmly believe, however, that God is not done working on the people of Immanuel.  The Holy Spirit and God’s sanctifying grace are always and every day working to make us better and more faithful. To make us stronger because we are people of the resurrection.

In this series, Rising Strong, we are looking at what it means to be children of the resurrection.  What does it mean to let Easter change our lives?

In the first week of our series, Pastor Todd reminded us that we need to be ourselves.  You have got to be you.  But that doesn’t mean that is the you will be forever.  No, as Max Lucado says: God loves you just the way you are… and refuses to leave you that way.

Will you pray with me:  (prayer)

 

What does it mean to live as a child of the resurrection?  What is asked of us?  What will be required?

As Jesus began his public ministry, he calls out: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The Greek word that we translate into repent is metanoia…  it is a reorientation or a fundamental transformation in the way that we experience the world and everything that God created.

Metanoia is not simply owning up to past sins – although, that is part of it, because repentance is seeing ourselves fully – the good and the bad –through the power of Christ.   We see the dark parts of our lives, but we also discover gifts and strengths that have been dormant or hidden.  Repentance is a new awareness of who we are and who we are called to be.

As Jesus moved to Capernaum, change started to happen in Galilee.  People began experience their faith differently.

People like Simon Peter and Andrew. People like James and John.  Brothers who were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee.

 

I used to think of fishing as a sort of leisure activity – lounging in the sun by a lake, waiting for a fish to come by and nibble.  Until the Discovery Channel began to air their series: Deadliest Catch.

The show follows fishing crews in the Bering Sea as they attempt to bring in the most king crabs during the winter season.  It’s not easy work.  The worst storms occur during crab-fishing season and the waves can be as large as 30 or 40 feet tall!  Add that to the frigid 38 degree water and there is plenty of danger.

In fact, more than 80 percent of the fatalities Alaskan fishermen suffer on the job are due to drowning — either from falling overboard or as a result of a boat accident.

While the Sea of Galilee might not be quite as cold – the temperature averages from 60-90 degrees throughout the year – fishing was dangerous… especially considering that it was done without all of the safety equipment of today!

The Sea of Galilee is known for having violent storms caused by wind funneling down into the valley the lake is located in.  I read about a storm just over twenty years ago that sent ten feet high waves crashing into towns on the western shore.  Try to imagine those kinds of waves on the Saylorville Lake and you get the picture.

Besides being dangerous because of the waters, fishing was also extremely labor intensive.

Nets were tossed into waters by the shore or dropped from boats and then drug to round up the fist. Those nets had to continually be washed and boats kept in repair.  Newly caught fish must be sold immediately or smoked or salted for storage.

Suffice it to say – Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John were not lazy young men.  They were hard workers whose families depended upon their labor.

But then Jesus came to Galilee… “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

And he called out to these brothers: Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.

Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

 

You know, Andrew and Peter and James and John didn’t just leave their nets.

They left their jobs, they left their families, they seem to have left everything behind in order to start on this new path and follow Christ.   They went all in.  They gave everything they had.  They let the radical, amazing call of Jesus completely transform their lives.

 

So what does it mean to go all in today?

Is this call so powerful that we, too, are called to leave families and jobs hanging in the balance?

 

Thomas Long, a preacher and professor at Candler School of Theology says that in a sense, yes:

“… Jesus disrupts family structures and disturbs patterns of working and living.  He does so, however, not to destroy but to renew.  Peter and Andrew do not cease being brothers; they are now brothers who do the will of God (Matt. 12:50).  James and John do not cease being sons; they are now not only the children of Zebedee but also the children of God.  All four of these disciples leave their fishing nets, but they do not stop fishing.  They are now, in the nearness of the kingdom of heaven, fishers for people.  Their past has not been obliterated; it has been transformed by Jesus’ call to follow.”

These first disciples came to see themselves in a totally new way.  When Jesus called them to follow, they saw the potential of who they could be.  Not just brothers and sons and fishermen, but a part of the Kingdom of God.

Sure, they were ordinary guys, but they discovered within themselves a new purpose and direction.  They just had to use the talents, abilities and life experiences they already possessed in a new way.  Andrew, Simon Peter, James and John went all in and became disciples… but they never stopped being fishermen.

When we go all in today, we come to see our lives in the light of the resurrection.

We come to understand that God wants us to use all of the gifts and skills in our lives for the Kingdom.

 

While other kids in my class would get stage fright or be wary of volunteering for a demonstration… I was always the kid with my hand shot up in the air waiting to be picked.  Words just seem to come naturally and I was always comfortable talking in front of others.  So I majored in speech and rhetoric communications in college, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to use that degree.

Because, you see, I also love science and math and thought that all fit together if I became a meteorologist.  And not just a t.v. weather girl… I wanted to be one of those people you see behind computers doing calculations and teaching viewers El Nino patterns.

I never imagined I’d be a pastor.  Even after I decided to go to seminary… I thought I would use my skills teaching in a small college and helping students find their way.

Until I finally heart God’s call for my life.  Repent!  Shift your thinking!  Go All In!  You are supposed to be a pastor!

Holy cow, was it scary to think about.  It was overwhelming!

I didn’t know what it would mean for my life – especially how it would impact my future husband.   I wasn’t sure what it would mean to be itinerant in the United Methodist Church and have little control over where God would send me.  I didn’t grow up in the church, how could I ever lead one?

But, when I decided to go all in and give this crazy call a chance, everything started to make sense.

If metanoia is having a greater understanding of the reality that we experience – then I began to see how all of the pieces of my life fit together.  And I was able to embrace my calling and followed Christ.

That doesn’t mean that it has been an easy road– but for now – I truly feel like this is my part to play in the Kingdom of God.

 

I imagine many of you are sitting out there, thinking, well, that’s all fine and good for Pastor Katie or Pastor Todd, but I’m not called to go all in and give everything to God.  I’m a normal person!

Well, really, so am I.  And so were the disciples.

You know, those four in the boat were fishermen before they heard God’s call to go all in.  And God took what they had and who they were and used it for God’s kingdom.

And that same invitation comes to us whoever and wherever we happen to be. A carpenter might hear Christ call out, “Follow me and I will make you builders of people.”  A chef might hear Christ call out, “Follow me and you will feed my hungry people.”

Just like those first disciples – we are called to take the best of what God has given us and use it for the Kingdom of God.  Our act of repentance is not only realizing the places where we have failed in our lives… but also recognizing the gifts and strengths of who we are and how God wants us to use them.

The message of Christ is not “Help Wanted – Fishermen Only!” As one pastor put it, “The point is that you and I were meant to become a part of the tremendous divine plan to bring light to a dark world.”[1]

 

Jesus calls out:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

How are you called to be a part of the Kingdom that Christ has begun?

What does it mean for YOU to be a child of resurrection in the work you do outside this building?

Just imagine what might happen if every person in this room decided to go all in… to give all of your gifts and skills over to God.

In love, service, and in prayer, God could truly change this world.

[1] http://www.lectionarysermons.com/jan24ser99.html

Love, apologies, and prayer breakfasts

I sat in a room filled with hundreds of Christians and felt a little bit like an outsider.

This was the second year I’ve attended the Iowa Prayer Breakfast… held every Maundy Thursday in Des Moines.  It includes prayers for our state and leaders, music, and a keynote message.  On the site, it clearly states that “people from all walks of life come to enjoy this Maundy Thursday celebration.”

I am so grateful for the opportunity to go and be in prayer with so many faithful people and for those who have invited me.  And that is because my hope and prayer for this kind of public gathering of people of faith is that the above statement is lived out:  that the tent is big enough for all walks of life and all corners of the Christian family to find a place in that room. After all,  ALL of our prayers are needed during these difficult times.

Yet, that wasn’t entirely my experience.

I found myself constantly wanting to interject with a “yes, but…” or “what about…” or “that’s not exactly right…”

The lineup of past speakers for this event has been full of Christian apologists and I found myself wanting to apologize for the public theology I was encountering.  I looked out on the 1,000+ people in attendance and feared that some might think this was the full scope of Christianity. And while it wasn’t appropriate to stand and lift up counterpoints in the moment, I do have this platform to lift up a different voice.

During the event, more than one speaker lifted up the religious persecution of Christians and Jews.  Our governor said, “The lives, the safety, the well-being of Christians and Jews especially in the Middle East is certainly threatened.”  Yet, Religious persecution is not limited to these two faiths. In the wake of the attacks in Brussels, I mourn for the loss of life there, and know that Yazidis, Turkmen, and Shia Muslims are daily under attack from ISIS in their homes as well.  I inhabit a Christian faith that also weeps with Sikh and Muslim and Buddhist and unbelieving brothers and sisters around the world who fear for their lives because of this kind of persecution.

As Branstad turned his gaze to threats to our religious freedom in the United States, I lift up the words of George Washington in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation:

…happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it [toleration] on all occasions their effectual support… May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants – while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

The Christian faith does not ask us to abandon our love, care, and concern for brothers and sisters of other faiths. Rather than being “under attack,” I am free to practice my faith every single day without fear and yet I know that Muslim brothers and sisters right here in Des Moines sometimes have to be careful about how they do so.  As such, I was moved to tears as Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of Muslim refugees on Maundy Thursday.   As a fellow clergywoman, Janie McElwee Smith, wrote:

The truth is this: no matter what else we do, say, or stand for, if we do not follow Christ’s commandment to love all of God’s children as Jesus has loved us, then we have not just missed the point. Nothing else we do will matter ?

What if this Iowa Prayer Breakfast, held on Maundy Thursday, was an extension of the command Jesus gives on this day: to love.

What if we lifted up in our prayers of lament and confession the realities of racism, homelessness, addiction, hunger, and poverty in our state.  What if instead of simply naming the evils and wickedness of our nation (and subtly placing the blame on the sinful people out there), we actually turned that same introspection to our own hearts – to the intolerance, the greed, the fears we perpetuate in spite of our proclaimed trust in the Lord. In a room filled with elected leaders, what if together, we repented of our failure to love the last, the least, and the lost.  After all, Maundy Thursday reminds us that in spite of the disciples’ failings, fears, and betrayal, Jesus loved them and washed their feet and continued to trust them with the message and mission of the Kingdom of God.  This day, above all days, it is appropriate to find ourselves in that crowd of those who turned their backs and to admit our sins. What if the message we heard on this morning was a challenge to a room full of influential leaders to repent and live more faithfully as disciples of Christ in the world?

I am exceptionally curious if this event is as politically partisan as it appeared this time, every year.  It felt more like the faith was promoting the elected leadership, rather than the leadership together with the public seeking God’s direction and blessing.  If this, truly, was a space where all Christians could pray for Iowa, in spite of our political leanings, then I think there would be much greater room for confession, lament, thanksgiving, and prayers for vision and unity.  I think whenever we surround ourselves with a particular perspective, we have a hard time seeing ourselves clearly.    Our current republican administration was represented through those elected officials in attendance and I can imagine those who are tasked with organizing the event are careful not to ruffle feathers. I wonder if it felt tilted in the opposite direction during democratic administrations.  Or does this gathering represent a more particular lens of Christian tradition?   My imagination and hope for this event is that the walls dividing us politically might be leveled as we share a meal with those with which we might not agree. After all, we share a common love for Jesus and this world and that love crosses all boundaries.

Two final words:

download1) Our speaker, Dr. Alveda King, did hearken back to the original languages in interpreting Romans 13, but then lifted up a cry against using X-mas instead of Christmas… with great applause from the crowd.  Note: the X used in this expression is a Christogram, in this case the letter “Chi” and the first letter of Christ in the Greek language, often used alone to represent Christ.  It can also be seen in the chi-rho, where the two Greek letters are combined to represent the person of Christ.

2) I have only attended for two years, but I have yet to see a clergywoman speak from the platform and three pastors spoke/prayed each year. I’d be happy to hear it has been otherwise in the past. Also, only four of the speakers listed since 1977 were women, including this year’s keynote. Both years, thankfully, scripture has been shared by a laywoman.  One way to intentionally show that “people from all walks of life” are welcome is to include people from all walks of life as speakers.

 

Them, Too!

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When I was looking at seminaries, two of my top schools were in Chicago right across the street from one another in the Hyde Park neighborhood. My mom and I went to visit and we started to imagine what life would be like if I was there. My brother, Tony, was also attending school in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology – right near the White Sox stadium. I started envisioning hopping on the L and going to visit him and all of the possibilities.

But I remember as my eyes lit up, my mom looked back at me with a tiny bit of fear in her eyes. “Katie Marie” she said. “I don’t want you traveling alone in that part of town.”

It was hard enough to send her son to the big city… but her daughter?

We ALL have some definition of what “that part of town” is like. But it is different for each of us.

For some of us, “that part of town” is the street where all the shops are boarded up and folks loiter on the corner.

For some of us, “that part of town” is full of expensive houses and we might get pulled over because of the color of our skin.

For some of us, “that part of town” is where we read about shootings and crime.

For some of us, “that part of town” is where we were a parent or relative was spit on or discriminated against.

It is the place where people aren’t like me. Where we are afraid of what might happen to us if we went there. It is the place where we just can’t wrap our minds around what life must be like there.

And the truth is, we all live in somebody else’s “that part of town.” Or “that part of the country.” Or “that part of the world.”

Each of you were handed this morning a slip of paper.

I want to invite you to take it out right now and hold it in your hand.

This morning, I want to invite us to think about those places where we refuse to go. The people we aren’t sure we want to talk to. The situations we would rather keep our distance from. Maybe it is because you have been hurt. Maybe it is because you are afraid.

This is just for you… not for anyone else to see or read… and what I’m going to ask is not going to be easy.

I want to invite you to write on that paper a place that you stay away from. I want you to think about someone you have intentionally not tried to build a relationship with and write their name. I want us all to spend a minute or two in silence as we reflect and are honest with ourselves and with God.   What people or places come to your mind…

[ pause ]

That might have been the longest minute some of us have ever spent in worship.  I know that wasn’t an easy exercise and I thank you for giving us that time.

Now, fold up that paper and hold it in your hand.

I want you to know that you are not alone.

We all are afraid at times.

We all hesitate to go to certain places.

We all have baggage and prejudice and facts and excuses and our reasons for staying away.

You are not alone.

In fact, Jonah, is just like each of us.

If he was with us this morning, Ninevah would be written on that sheet of paper.

The city of Ninevah was full of horrible, terrible people.

In the book of Nahum the prophet, chapter 2 and 3, we read about their misdeeds:

“Doom, city of bloodshed – all deceit, full of plunder: prey cannot get away. Cracking whip and rumbling wheel, galloping horse and careening chariot! Charging calvary, flashing sword, and glittering spear; countless slain, masses of corpses, endless dead bodies – they stumble over their dead bodies!”

That’s not a pretty picture!

It’s not surprising that Jonah doesn’t want to go.

How would you feel if God asked you to go to this violent, wretched city and tell them all they were about to be destroyed by God’s wrath?

Jonah bought a ticket and headed as fast as he could in the opposite direction.

Well, if you remember the story of Jonah, that didn’t work out so well. He got kicked off the ship, swallowed by a whale, and spit up on the shoreline.

And finally, reluctantly, with fear and trepidation in his heart, he goes.

He goes to “that part” of the world. To “those people.”

He goes to the city and preaches a one sentence sermon:

“Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”

He repeats it over and over again as he walks across the city.

Think about “that place” you have written down.

Could you do that?

Not just go to that place you fear, but actually proclaim their destruction?

I think the core of this one sentence sermon was the message that all was lost.

The people were too far gone.

They were just too terrible and God was ready to wipe the slate clean.

And Jonah thought so, too.

He thought the world would be better off without them in it.

What a terrible thing to say.

And yet, if we thought long and hard about the people and the places we have written on our little scraps of paper, I wonder if that phrase maybe had crossed our mind the past.

Anytime we write off someone as hopeless… or treat a community as if it didn’t exist… or think “wow the government would be a whole lot better off if (insert political party here) weren’t around”… we are doing the same thing.

We have done it throughout history… and we have had it done to us.

Whenever the line has been drawn of us/them, good/bad, right/wrong, folks of all sorts of different faith traditions have felt divine calls to pronounce judgment.

The good news is, it isn’t up to us.

Because even when we have declared something hopeless, God isn’t ready to be done yet.

God could have just sent a plague or rained down fire from above upon Ninevah.

But God didn’t.

God called Jonah.

God warned the people.

God gave them a chance.

And even though Jonah didn’t even offer up the possibility of hope in his one sentence sermon of destruction, the people changed their ways.

They repented.

They turned to God.

The entire kingdom, from the king to the lowest in their midst put on sackcloth and ashes.

As Rev. Bill Cotton pointed out in his reflection this week, some translations say even the cattle repented!

Over this season of Epiphany, we have been exploring the light and the dark. We have been wandering back and forth between the two, and one of the things I hope we are discovering is that the dark isn’t a terrible awful place.

There is possibility in the dark.

There are the seeds of creation and re-creation.

And even a place like Ninevah… Even a place or a person like (hold up your piece of paper)… isn’t lost. It isn’t hopeless.

The question is, are we willing to look for the possibility of change?

Will we open our eyes to see the good in a neighborhood or another person?

Will we lay aside our fears and prejudice and assumptions and go to build relationships?

Will we celebrate when we witness transformations?

Will we ourselves be transformed?

Yes, you, too.

Because God is working on your life also. All those pieces of you that are bent out of shape and bruised and dented. You aren’t hopeless either.

So in the words of Christ, “Now is the time! Here come’s God’s Kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust in the good news!”

Spirit of Healing

When I was in Tampa for General Conference, I saw a few folks on the street who were looking for handouts.  And every time, I diverted my eyes, or I politely said “I’m sorry” and kept going.  Except for one instance.  A man on a bench asked me for some money for food.  I went through my usual explanation – I don’t have cash, I’m in a hurry, I’m sorry… and kept moving.  But I got about 25 feet from him and I stopped.  I knew that I could help him.  I knew there was something I could do.  The Holy Spirit filled me up and turned me around and before I knew it, I was introducing myself to Fred and taking him across the street to Quiznos.  I really was in a hurry, but I stood in line there with him and he ordered a nice hot sandwich and we talked about his life.  He had lost his job and had moved here looking for work.  He hadn’t found any.  He was waiting for his unemployment check to catch up with him and until it arrived he had nothing, so he was staying in a shelter.  He was hoping to be back on his feet in a week or two… but I had the feeling that this was only the beginning of a tough road for him.

I knew I couldn’t fix all of his problems… but I could get him a nice hot dinner.  As we parted ways outside the door, he gave me a huge smile and said, God bless you.

As we heard from Acts chapter 3 – a lame man was carried to the temple every single day to beg for the resources that would sustain his meager life. He was begging for bread and water and shelter.  And when Peter and John encounter him – his life is turned upside down and will never be the same again.  It wasn’t a sandwich that stirred his blood – it was the power of the Holy Spirit and the name of Jesus Christ that strengthened his weak legs… and this broken man stood up leaping and laughing.  He ran in through the temple gates and made a joyful exuberant scene – praising God for the chance at new life.

I want to invite us to look at this story from a couple of different angles this morning.

First, from the perspective of Peter and John.  If you remember from last week, they had found themselves leaders of a small movement – three to four thousand people were now following their guidance and were committing themselves to the way and the teachings of Christ.  Each person – and especially Peter and John as leaders – had given up everything they knew before in order to help support and care for and nurture this precious new community.

One of the primary things they did together was to worship and pray.  And so it is not surprising that these two are on their way to the temple for the 3:00 prayer.  It is a custom in the Jewish faith to pray three times a day – morning, afternoon, and evening – as a way of keeping your whole life focused on the Lord.

So they walk to the temple, passing through the same gate they might have entered hundreds of times before…. and probably past dozens of beggars along the way.  In fact, maybe we can’t fully understand the story unless we appreciate the culture of begging that would have surrounded them.

Bob Deffinbaugh describes his experience with beggars in India this way:

There were so many beggars there was no way one could respond to all of them. The solution was often not to “see” any of them. But the beggars made this difficult. Those who were mobile would press themselves on you. They would approach your taxi at an intersection, tugging at your sleeve and pleading for help. Those not mobile would call our for charity. The beggar would be aggressive, something like the salesmen as you try to walk through the appliance section at Sears. You would concentrate on not seeing them as they converged on you, and you hurried to get through the section before you were trapped.

Living in the midst of this culture, you train yourself to ignore them, because you simply cannot respond to the needs of all.  Maybe you occasionally stop and help one person to make yourself feel better.  But you don’t make eye contact.  You keep moving.

Imagine Peter and John walking a path they have every day and seeing countless beggars along the road.  As I thought about my experience in Tampa, I have to ask.. What is different about today?  Why do they stop?  Why do they reach out to this particular man?

Peter and John stop that day intentionally.  They, too, were filled with the Spirit and knew that there was something they could do for this man.  They had not a dime in their pockets, no food to offer, nothing that could satisfy this man’s earthly needs… except for their faith in Jesus Christ.

We each have times in our lives when we feel that small tug on our heartstrings.  And as the people of God – even though we might not have confidence, or money, or resources, we do have faith.

Our two disciples were familiar with this concept because they had once been sent out to preach and heal and teaching with nothing but the clothes on their back.  They had learned through practice that God truly can be depended on, that he is our very present help in times of trouble.  They knew that faith could move mountains… and if it can move mountains than it can certainly help this lame man to walk.

They looked him in the eye, they reached out their hands in faith, and the lame man leaped for joy.

Everyday, you and I pass countless people who are broken and hurting.  They may not be sitting on the street corners and their pain might not be visible to the naked eye, but if we look closely – we can see the strain of tension by the eyes, we can hear the waver in the voice, we feel the frustration and despair in the way they move and live in this world.  And because it is so common, we keep walking.  We don’t have the heart to pay attention because it might overwhelm us.

Listen to your heart.  Listen to those promptings of the Holy Spirit that stop you in your tracks.  Stop, listen, and share with that person the hope and faith and love you have experienced through Jesus Christ.

Sometimes we have the opportunity to be Peters and Johns – going through our daily lives and coming across the opportunity to heal someone.

But we are also the lame beggars who sit by the gate.

Each of us has a whole host of problems – aching backs, sore knees, family disagreements, conflicts in our marriage, struggles with our children, sinful pasts and temptations in the present, stress around deadlines and finances, cancer, disease, death.

You name it, this community has experienced it or will experience it.

But unlike the lame beggar, we tend to hide our struggles.  We don’t sit with them out in the open for all to see, but hold them close to our hearts and silently wait for an answer.

This lame man knew he couldn’t remain at home and do nothing.  So every day he convinced someone to carry him from where he slept to the Beatiful Gate.  For nearly forty years he had done this daily.  He went to the temple, to the place of God, and begged.

I wonder if sometime during the last year or two, he heard rumors of Jesus passing by.  I wonder if he had heard about the miracles that had happened.  Maybe Jesus had walked through that very gate, but he was too weak, or too quiet, to catch his attention and to ask for a miracle for himself.  Maybe he didn’t feel worthy, like a lost cause, a hopeless mess.
It doesn’t matter how sick you are, how broken or how sinful… the grace of God has time for you.  The Holy Spirit has time for you.  And so even though our beggar could not even look into their eyes, Peter and John stopped in front of him and shared their faith – they healed him.

He could do nothing but leap for joy.

Some of us have experienced miracles, healing, and forgiveness… and we know that when we do, we cannot go back to life as it was…. nothing will ever be the same.

I must admit, I always have a deeply engrained, “BUT” in my soul whenever I talk about the power of healing and the miracle of faith.

I know too many people who have prayed for miracles that have never come.

I watched with agony as my friend, Doug, prayed for healing for his wife that never came.

In my time as a hospital chaplain, I watched one young woman healed of lukemia, and watched another die within a week from the disease – both clutching their faith.

I believe that sometimes, we hide our problems and our sins; we refuse to tell others about our disease, because we are afraid that we will be found wanting.  We are afraid that if we tell the truth, everyone will know that we “didn’t have enough faith” and that the answer we want will not really come anyways.

Friends, prayer is not magic.  It is not an incantation that we can repeat over and over in order to get what we want out of this world.

Prayer is a relationship with God.  A two-way relationship.  And sometimes the answers that we recieve are not the ones we initially begin praying for.  Sometimes we recieve the gifts of peace and comfort instead of cures.  Sometimes we hear a calling to be strong and to share our faith with others in spite of the pain we are experiencing.  Sometimes the answer to our prayers is that we ourselves have to change – that we need to forgive or give up a lifestyle that was harming us or move away from a difficult relationship.

In the miracles of healing – the answer is never, “if you just had more faith, you would be healed.”

No, the words the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts are these familiar words of scripture, “be still and know that I am God… trust in me and my goodness… I am with you… Do not be afraid… repent and believe the good news”

Sometimes, as is the case with our lame beggar, the healing comes in the present moment.  Sometimes, we know that the wholeness will only come after our time on this earth is complete.

But still we pray, and still we have faith, and still we trust, because we know that there is some good that God can make out of the brokenness of our lives.

Today, we have the opportunity to be both disciples and beggars.  We have the opportunity to come forward and to offer prayers of healing and to ask for healing in our lives as well.

I know that one of the primary gifts of this church is the gift of healing and prayer… so many of you believe in this power of miracles and that God truly does work for good in our lives.  I want to invite you to claim that gift, and as we come forward for healing, to take time to talk with someone, to listen to their prayers, and to pray with and for them.
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self-awareness, faith, repentance and the Lord's Supper

In the past two weeks, I have had a number of conversations with colleagues and family about the Lord’s Table… not necessarily about who is welcome, but about what MAKES that person welcome.

My friends in the LCMS church have been discussing what kind of understanding of faith is required for a first communion experience. I am not completely versed in their traditions, but from what I was told (and then understood) current practice is for children to have to be old enough to express the faith for themselves before participating in the sacrament.  But as the practice of infant baptism and baptism of younger children has increased, they wonder if a) communion should also be extended to young children or b) both sacraments need to remain as practices reserved for those who understand and have claimed their faith personally.  I think it is a wonderful conversation for them to be having, as we should always make sure that our theology is consistent with our practices and that those practices are then consistent in and of themselves.

One of the important factors in their conversation is that the sacrament of communion (in particular) is a gift for believers of the faith and that there is some danger in coming to the table unprepared, with wrong intention, or misusing the sacraments. The primary place in scripture they (and other Christians) draw upon regarding this issue is 1 Corinthians 11:26-29:

Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes. This is why those who eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord inappropriately will be guilty of the Lord’s body and blood. Each individual should test himself or herself, and eat from the bread and drink from the cup in that way. Those who eat and drink without correctly understanding the body are eating and drinking their own judgment. (CEB)

If we are not old enough or developed enough to test and examine ourselves, to be self-reflective, then there is a danger present there.

In the United Methodist tradition, one of the ways that the Lord’s Table is emphasized is as a means of grace. In fact, communion is not necessarily reserved for only the baptized, as John Wesley believed it could bestow even prevenient grace… grace that goes before us… and that partaking of communion could be a converting act. As the Holy Spirit transforms us through the ritual, we might let go of our old life and finally become ready to accept the faith for ourselves.

George Lyons has modernized John Wesley’s sermon “The Means of Grace” and shares these words on the duty of constant communion:

“all who desire an increase of the grace of God are to wait for it in partaking of the Lord’s supper.” By meditating upon his saving death, by expecting his personal presence, by anticipating his coming again in glory, we prepare ourselves to receive his grace. Those who are already filled with peace and joy in believing, or anyone who longs for the grace of true repentance may, No, must eat and drink to their souls’ content. “Is not the eating of that bread, and the drinking of that cup, the outward, visible means, whereby God conveys into our souls all that spiritual grace, that righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, which were purchased by the body of Christ once broken and the blood of Christ once shed for us Let all, therefore, who truly desire the grace of God, eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.”

Wesley was convinced that communion was not only a confirming, but also a converting ordinance.

In some ways, our tradition in the United Methodist Church has taken 1 Cor 11:26-29 with a grain of salt… Yes, we believe that one needs to be of the right heart and mind before you come… BUT, we see so much grace in the ritual that it not merely confirms the faith we have, but can even overcome our lack of belief and faith and repentance.

This is possibly why my mom recently became a little angry at the dinner table. She had attended worship with my brother and sister-in-law at their non-denominational church. I have never been to their church, so I can only relate her experience as she shared it. In their tradition, communion is open to those who have faith in Jesus Christ, but the pastor made a special plea right before the time of communion that those who were not right with God and their neighbor should not participate.

As my mom exclaimed to us later, “If they mean everyone is welcome, then EVERYONE SHOULD BE WELCOME!”

The conversation continued and as I heard the experience recounted, my sister-in-law talked about how the service was running long and the pastor skipped some of the more “pastoral” instructions that typically go with that plea. To my parents and brother who were guests that day and were unfamiliar with their traditions (and also from the United Methodist tradition), the words sounded cold and off-putting.

And yet, I gently reminded my mom, even in our tradition do we speak similar words. In every service of Word and Table, we have a time of not only confession, but also of reconciliation where we have the opportunity to pass the peace with one another and seek forgiveness with our neighbors. And our invitation clearly states:

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.

Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.

As I think about it more and more, the United Methodist tradition tries to hold in tension both the particularity of scripture (1 Cor 11) and the depth and breadth of scripture and our theological understanding of God’s grace.

In his article “Admission to the Table and Recent United Methodist Debate” Hoyt Hickman lays out the history of how we came to our current understanding of who is welcome to participate at the table and points to these words (which I can’t remember having ever read before) in our Book of Worship:

All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive… Every effort should be made to make each person, and especially children, welcome at the table. It is particularly effective to look directly at the person being addressed, touch each person’s hand while giving the bread and cup, and if possible call each person by name.

We don’t talk about baptism being a prerequisite. We welcome children, even young children who have no full concept of what this meal means, as a part of the covenant and care that their parents make on their behalf (Acts 2:39 – This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites. – CEB). And while we encourage personal confession, make opportunity for doing so available, and invite people to be earnestly repentant before they come, we will not refuse someone who comes. We believe that God just might act in their lives anyways… in spite of where there heart is at the moment.

Or as George Lyons puts it, ” It is not only for those who already believe and long to deepen their relationship with the Lord, but for those who truly want to believe, but seem to lack the grace to do so.”

I am not sure where my LCMS brothers and sisters will end up in their conversations. And I don’t know fully the practice of my brother’s church. But with all of its nuance and tension, I love where my own United Methodist tradition lands….

So come to the table if you seek to love God. Come to the table confessing the truth of your heart. Come to the table and bring with you your children and grandchildren and your friend who is hurting and the stranger who needs to be loved. Come to the table where God’s grace is ready to meet you and to welcome you home.

truth and repentance #gc2012

Last night, our General Conference participated in an act of repentance toward healing relationships with Indigenous Peoples.  I’m not entirely sure what I expected from the service of worship, but it was more somber and prophetic than I had imagined.  There was less imagery and pageantry and more thoughtfulness and truth-telling. And the language used was much more radical than I had expected.

As people of this world, we have perpetuated crimes against our brothers and sisters.  We have taken land, forced our perspectives, and destroyed cultures.  We have not only committed sins of omission for not helping, but we have actively resisted the peace process and we have have gone into places as a violent force. We heard stories about the role of  Methodists in slaughter in the Phillippines, in the Sand Creek Massacre, in the Trail of Tears, in Africa, in Norway, in places all across this globe where we have done damage in the name of Jesus Christ for our own personal and corporate benefit.

It was hard to hear.  It was hard to relive.  It was hard to dream that reconciliation is ever even possible, that damage could be reversed, that wounds could be healed.

And it was a powerful witness by our leadership that this was not a time OF reconciliation.  This is merely the first step.  We have to know what we have done and we have to feel pain about it.  That pain leads us to repentance.  That pain leads us to weep at what we have done. 

In the service of worship, there were not celebrations or even folks there who we could apologize to.  Rev. Tinker made it very clear that others are not at the table because we cannot just say we are sorry and move on.  We are not at a point of reconciliation yet… but he is walking with us because he knows how difficult it is to repent and he is walking beside us in the process.  That point was driven home again and again and it was important to hear. 

Our call now is to be in repentance.  To be continually repentant.  To take a step forward every day. To work for harmony and balance in all that we do. 

One step forward. 

May we not take two steps back…

Confessions before General Conference

In the past few weeks, between holy week services and fundraiser dinners and youth group and church meetings and the normal day to day business of pastoring, I’ve been trying to get a handle on the general conference legislation.

It is actually difficult to try to digest it all.  There are 1400+ pages in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate.  There are different proposals about the same items.  There are nuances.  There are huge, crazy, dramatic statements.

And my blood pressure has been rising. 

I have been focusing much of my effort on the materials related to restructuring and changes to the understanding of ministry. Which means that I put off the section on church and society.  In part I was afraid to look.  But I did.  Monday night, I dug deep in those two sections and realized why I was so afraid to even look. 

One of the reasons that I am United Methodist is because we have such a rich heritage of taking progressive stances in areas of war, poverty, work, and relationships.  And for the first time, as I read through legislation, I began to worry that we might take huge steps back this year in our areas of social witness.  Now, I have very little historical perspective under my belt.  This is my first General Conference, my first rodeo, so to speak, and so perhaps these are issues that have come and gone before.  Maybe there are always people making waves and trying to take us back to the way things were before.

But I do not have that history.  And my shackles started to raise.  I found myself wanting to yell at the pages and the proposals.  I began to see familiar names repeated… legislation that would roll back some stances on worker’s rights, the death penalty, our positions on war and peace, and they were coming from the same few people. 

Confession time:  I started to feel bad thoughts towards those people.  Until I realized that they were merely the secretaries of the conferences that those pieces of legislation were arising from.  And then I really felt bad. 

If we are not even at conference yet, and I’m feeling this defensive, territorial, angst filled… God help us all. 

I closed my files.  I took a deep breath.  And I prayed for forgiveness.

In this particular General Conference, I get to travel on behalf of my conference as a reserve delegate.  And this means that while I will not be voting on every issue, I will be in the midst of it all. And my prayer is that I can help remind us of the spirit of unity that brings us together as disciples of Jesus Christ.  I want to surround my delegates with prayer and support. I want to be a calm, non-anxious presence for them and for all who gather.  I want to breathe deeply and remember that this is the Body of Christ in action.  I want to see the best in every person, hear their best intentions, and prayerfully discern together.  I am going to lay aside my own anxiety, my own agendas, my own desires and truly hope that God will speak through us. 

My friend, Anna Blaedel, wrote on facebook today:  “holding the pilgrims making their way to Tampa in prayer… for courage… grounding… webs of care… for surprising in-breaking of Justice and Joy”

Amen, Anna. 

Instead of expecting the worst, I’m looking for God.  I’m looking for where God surprises us, and breaks in to the ordinary time and the ordinary practices of debate and decision to bring holy unity and powerful witness.  I’m looking for joy and courage and stories of resurrection and hope. 

I repent of my divisiveness of spirit.  I repent of my anxiety.  And I pray that Christ would help us all remember – Peace.

The Gift of Goodness

We’ve heard of goody-two-shoes. Good riddance. Goodness gracious great balls of fire. And Goodbye. Things can taste good, we like to read good books and tell good stories. We tell our children to be good and to get good grades.

But what does it really mean to be good?

The Random House dictionary has 41 different definitions for the word… and that’s just the adjectives.

But in general, I think we usually say that something is good if it fulfills our expectations – if it does what it is supposed to – and if we get some kind of benefit from it.

Take our cookies for example. If we had taken a bite of the cookie and they were old or dried out… they wouldn’t be so good. They wouldn’t have been all that they were made up to be.

In the same way… we are good when we fulfill the expectations of ourselves and others and if we benefit others as we do so.

I keep using the word benefit… and that is because there are lots of things that fulfill their purpose that we would never call good. For example – those cookies might taste good – but if you never got to eat them… if I never shared them… they would have been good to no one but myself.

Or, think about what makes a good chef’s knife. It is sharp, it cuts the way that it is designed to, and we can use it to prepare food and to eventually be fed. We benefit from the design and use of a good chef’s knife.

But in the hands of someone unskilled, like a child, the knife becomes dangerous and what we thought was good could harm them.

In the hands of someone who is angry or revengeful – the very thing that we called good only a moment ago can turn into a weapon. It still has the same qualities that fulfilled its purpose… only it is being used for ill rather than good.

So to be good… we must fulfill the expectations of ourselves and others and benefit others as we do so.

Throughout the scriptures – we hear stories of men and women who were good: Noah was a good man and so his family was saved from the flood. Lot was a good man and so his family was rescued from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Rahab the prostitute took in the spies from Israel and her family was saved from the battle of Jericho.

But there are plenty of people who were not so good. Who didn’t do what was expected of them. Who lived not to benefit others, but to benefit only themselves.

And it is to such people as these that the prophets were sent. Prophets like Samuel, Elijah and Elish, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habbakuk, Hosea… and our prophet for this morning: Nathan.

We have here a story of paradox. David was a man after God’s own heart. We always think back on all of the good things that he did – his trust in God, his loyalty to Saul, his music, and his love… but in some ways, David was a kind of bad dude.

As we heard this morning, David breaks two commandments all in a weeks time. He sleeps with another man’s wife… one of his soldiers Uriah’s wife Bathsheeba… and then to cover up the fact that he has done so – he has Uriah killed out on the battlefield.

Nathan’s job here is simple… bring God’s judgment upon David for these acts. But what I want to look at this morning is how the goodness of Nathan shines through.

First, Nathan helped the truth to come to light… Ephesians 5 says that God’s children live as children of light… “for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth.” He didn’t shy away from the fact that David had done wrong, but made sure that David knew that he had done wrong.

Second, Nathan knew what David had done wrong… He knew that he was unrighteous

The right thing to do as soon as David confessed would be to have David stoned… but goodness goes beyond simple righteousness… goodness goes beyond simply pointing out the wrongs in others.

He not only told the truth, but nowhere do we have any indication that Nathan is prepared to follow the letter of the law. He instead waits for a response from David.

As people of faith, too often we are quick to bring judgment upon others and stand waiting with signs of condemnation. We are good at bringing unrighteousness to light. We are terrible about leading people into repentance.

When our righteousness is only about what is right and what is wrong, it becomes a weapon of judgment.

But by telling David a story, Nathan does just that. He helps him to see what is wrong, and in doing so, he also provides an opportunity for David to confess, to repent, and to live a different life.

Third, Nathan blessed David because of his repentance

He didn’t just bring the right thing to light, but he went the extra mile. Nathan did what was needed to set David back on the right path… what was needed to build him up and to help him live a better and more faithful life.

There would be consequences from his actions… and yet there was also room for God’s grace and mercy to flow back into David’s life and Nathan not only acknowledged that, but helped to point it out.

As Christians, we believe that all have fallen short of the glory of God. All of us are in need of grace and repentance.

I believe the basis of righteousness is fact that God sets us right. God forgives us. God leads us on the right paths. It has nothing to do with how many answers we get right or how many good deeds we do. It has everything to do with God.

But you see, that grace and that mercy that flows into our lives is not ours alone. It is meant to be shared.

If we fail to extend grace and mercy and love and forgiveness to our brothers and sisters, than we merely turn the precious gift we have been given into a weapon of destruction.