The Heart of the Matter

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Awaiting the Already: The Promise of a New Dawn

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Have you ever sat and watched the sunrise?

The hints of purple… turning pink… and then neon orange as the sun peeks over the horizon.

What a profound thing to realize that each morning, as we wait for the sun to rise in our sky, it has already risen for our neighbors to the east… and set for our neighbors to the west.

We are waiting for something that has already happened.

Throughout this month and the season of Advent, we will be exploring these sorts of paradoxes and promises…

The already and the not yet…

The things that have happened that are about to happen again.

Of course the most obvious of these is the coming of Christ.

We remember that he came as a child to Mary and Joseph to save us from our sins.

But we also are waiting for him to come again and take us home.

Already…

And not yet…

Today, we will explore words of great comfort, as we are reminded that the promises of the resurrection are real and present for those we have lost… even as we await for the glorious day of resurrection with our Lord.

Already…

And Not yet…

A sunset, seen from the other side is a sunrise (Bishop Rueben Job)

Today is a special day in the life of the church when we take time to remember those who have experienced the final sunset of their lives.

But we do so, holding firmly to the promise that what we see as a sunset, is merely the beginning of a new dawn, a new life.

And we acknowledge that those who have died… these flames that flicker before us… they are still with us… still waiting like we are to experience the glory of God.

I have very little knowledge about the mysteries of death. No amount of book learning can prepare us for whatever might await us. But I can speak with certainty about the promises of scripture.

One of those promises comes to us from the Wisdom of Solomon – the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment will every touch them… they seem to have died, but they are at peace… their hope is full of immortality.

One of those promises comes to the thief crucified beside our Lord – he is promised that today he will be with Jesus in paradise.

In the book of Revelation we have the promise of the day of resurrection – when we will all be raised and clothed in our recreated bodies and there will be weeping and crying and pain no more.

In the gospel of John, after their brother has died, the sisters Mary and Martha are besides themselves with grief… each one pleads with Jesus – “if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

Martha knows in her heart – she trusts in the promise that on the last day her brother will be raised again. She knows that he and she and all of us are pressing on and that Christ is the Messiah – the Son of God who will bring us to the other side; to the dawn of resurrection.

And surely Mary understands this also. But that doesn’t take away their pain and grief at the loss of their brother in this life. No longer can they reach out and touch him or hear his laughter or look into his eyes. While they trust in the promises, it doesn’t take away their sorrow.

It doesn’t take away the grief Jesus himself feels as he weeps before the tomb of his friend Lazarus.

What Jesus then does, is to give us a glimpse of the resurrection.

Lazarus – who had been dead for four days – is called out of the tomb.

We are reminded of what awaits us all.

We are reminded that the Lord God will swallow up death forever.

We are reminded that God will wipe away every tear from our faces.

This year, we have said goodbye to many people who were a part of this church family. We have lit a candle for each of them, in honor of their lives among us, the ways they helped to shape our faith, and we wait with them for the day of resurrection.

They have joined the countless other faithful who surround us with love and encouragement.

They join the company of saints with whom we sing praises to God every time we gather around the communion table.

In Isaiah, we are reminded that God will prepare for all peoples a rich feast…

Bread and wine, joy and celebration…

As we gather today around this table, it is a reminder that the feast we are waiting for is already present among us.

It is present here today in the bread and the cup.

But it is also present here today in the company of those we love and lift before God.

As you came in this morning, I hope you received one of these paper angel cutouts.

If you haven’t… will you lift up a hand so we can bring one to you… ?

These slips of paper represent those saints in our lives who have and continue to encourage us in the faith.

We shared meals with them while they lived among us, and we continue to feast with them around the table of the Lord.

They are the names of people who took risks and showed us what trust looked like.

They lived through tough times and survived.

They refused to give in.

They were kind to us when no one else was.

They believed in the promise of resurrections.

This table this morning is set with bread and the cup, but what we bring to this meal, every Sunday we gather, but especially on this All Saints Sunday is the fellowship of each of these saints.

I want to encourage you to take a minute and think about who has been a saint in your life and if you feel led to write their name on your paper.

“Behold, God has made a dwelling among the people. God will live with them and they shall be God’s people. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying…”

I really wanted to take a moment to tell you a story about one of the saints written on my slip of paper… my Grandma Doni.

But the truth is, I couldn’t do it without crying.

I had the honor of sharing a few words at her funeral in 2002 and I bawled through half of it. I’d be a blubbering mess if I even tried to start.

The day Isaiah lifts up, and John lifts up in Revelation… of no more tears?

That day is not here… yet.

But we hold fast to the promises.

We hold fast to the glimpses of resurrection we have seen throughout history.

We hang on to the amazing, powerful, awesome love of Jesus Christ that went before us through the valley of the shadow of death, who walked through the sunset so that one day, we all might rise again to a new dawn.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

**Photographer Don Poggensee

No More Hunger or Thirst

Funeral Meditation based on Revelation 22:1-5 and John 14:1-3

On the inside of your bulletin is a beautiful passage of scripture from the book of Revelation.

If we want to know what this place is like… this place that Jesus promises he will take us… we need to look no farther than these pages.  This life that awaits us will have room for many, and never again will we hunger or thirst. Never again will we be left without shelter or shade.  Never again will we be on our own… the Lamb of God will be our Shepherd.

Now, knowing a little something about Doris Fry – I’m not sure that she would necessarily take kindly to being a sheep. Doris was really more of the shepherd sort, herself.  She was an independent sort of lady who minced no words and told you how it was.

But perhaps, in the way that she loved you… in the way she cared for you and for others… we saw in her life a glimpse of what our life with God just might be all about.

Doris was born to William and Lina Turner on Feb 22, 1927.  She went to the Cedar Rapids Beauty School and owned and operated her own beauty shop for many, many years here in Marengo.  And along the way – she fell in love with a man named Gene and they were married in 1946 at the Methodist parsonage.

Family was very important to Doris and she loved to travel – especially down to Missouri and the Ozarks where much of the family was.  But sometimes her home was the destination for others and her home was always open to family who stopped to visit.  As Jesus promises there will be room for many in his father’s house… you might have caught a glimpse of how many could fit in a home and some of you gathered with family to fish and to laugh and to enjoy one another’s company.

I’ve also heard famous things about Doris’ table.   Randy shared with me that Doris always cooked way more than anyone who was gathered around the table could possibly eat.  She often would feed Gene and the men he worked with, and would make different sorts of dishes to make everyone feel loved and included. At Christmas, Doris used to make all sorts of candies and sweets and pile them on plates for people to take with them. When we imagine our future with God where we will hunger and thirst no more… perhaps you caught a glimpse of that future around a table where everyone could have their fill.

Doris Fry spent her lifetime serving others.  While running her beauty shop she provided a place for women to gather and talk. Although as she spent time this last year with some of the men that Gene used to hang out with – she promises that there is more gossip flying around those guys than ever there was in her beauty shop.

She was also, I’m told, the unofficial team hairdresser for the Iowa Valley Wrestling team – in a time when hair had to be so short or the young men couldn’t compete, Doris would often be called upon to give the guys a trim right there in the locker room.

For many years, Doris cared for her own mother, Lina.  She taught Sunday School at the church.  She loved and enjoyed everyone who came into her life.

Doris is an example for many in her family about how to love deeply and strongly.  I think one of the things that sticks in my mind about her is a time when I visited Doris and Gene in the hospital.  They were sharing a hospital room… both in there for different reasons – but they were joking and enjoying one another and at the moment that was all that mattered.

In the midst of the ways that she cared for others, there was always a God who loves her moving in the background, always making sure that Doris was cared for and always preparing a place to which she would one day be called.

Jesus told his disciples that in his Father’s house there is room for many – and that a place was being prepared for them and for us.  As you remember all of those things that you loved about Doris – all of the ways that she spent a lifetime caring for all of you, telling you the truth,  and loving you – you can be assured today that she is today in the presence of our God and that she is home.

But also know that a place is being prepared for you. We gather today, because we believe in a God who walks with us through this dark valley. We gather today because we believe in one who will guide us through this valley of the shadow of death to the light of life eternal on the other side.  This is the God who wanted to be with us and for us so much that he came to earth as a fragile infant, and lived and moved among us.  This is a God who cares so deeply for us that he gave up his very life, so that we might all have life and have life abundant.

As we remember Doris’ life today and in the weeks and years to come, there will be times to cry and times to laugh.  Times for joy and sorrow.  And we need to let all of those emotions and memories to simply sit with us – to simply be… because it means that we remember and that we cherish what we have lost.  But also know and take assurance in the fact that those who mourn will be comforted. The same shepherd who leads us through the valley of the shadow of death walks beside each of you today and as you leave this place and will walk with you until you arrive at that place where every tear will be wiped from our eyes and there will be weeping and crying no more.  Amen.

Already/Not Yet

Every Friday night we have dinner with the family – as we all set the table and prepare for everyone to come to the table and sit, and especially as all of the food is there and we are just waiting for the time to pray, my niece and nephew like to sneak bites from the food being set at the table.

The table is one of my favorite images of the kingdom of God… a great big huge table where are all welcome, all are loved.
And the amazing thing about the Christian community that is born out of the ministry of Jesus is that we today are like those little kids at the dinner table – and here and there we catch a foretaste of the glorious banquet.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s entire goal is to write down what happens to the disciples after Jesus leaves them. His goal is to document those early days of ministry, the birth of the church, the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

And if you went home and spent some time just reading straight through the book – you would find that it reads a lot like a journal. While the beginning chapters recall the story of what happened before Luke joined up with the band of disciples, the rest of Acts is Luke’s personal account of what happens in each leg of their journey. It is his personal witness to the Kingdom of God that has already taken root in the world. And, it is his testimony that the Kingdom of God was not yet fully in this world.

Now, the Kingdom of God is a phrase that we hear quite often.

John the Baptist preached that the Kingdom of God was at hand… just as he was preaching that Jesus was about to enter their midst.

When Jesus healed the sick, he said that the Kingdom of God has come near you. (Mt. 10:7)

But also on the gospels we hear all sorts of stories and parables that tell us funny things like the kingdom of God is like a tiny seed, or like yeast, or a priceless pearl. (Mt 13)

We hear things like the kingdom is hard for the rich to enter, but that it already belongs to little children.

We hear that the kingdom is something we are supposed to seek out, but that it’s not necessarily outside of us, but within and among us (Luke 17).

But I think the most confusing thing is that the kingdom has already come among us… and that each week, we pray for it to come in the Lord’s prayer.

The Kingdom of God is already here, but not yet fully here. This morning, I want to help us to see three ways that the Kingdom of God is already… but not yet.

Our first already/not yet has to do with the one we worship.

Already… Christ, the bearer of the Kingdom has been among us.

As the Acts of the Apostles begins, Luke reminds his reader that there is a whole other book that was written about the ministry of Christ from the beginning until the day when Christ ascended into heaven. But just in case they forgot the last bit of that story, Luke tells it again.

Jesus suffered for us and died for us and then by God’s power he showed up again – alive as ever and for forty days he stayed with the apostles. And he taught them about his Kingdom.

It was a kingdom that they had witnessed when the hungry were fed and the blind were healed and the oppressed were set free. It was a kingdom whose power was Jesus. The kingdom was where Jesus was.

And after forty days, Jesus takes his disciples out of the city and they begin to think that this is the moment they had all been waiting for. One of them cries out – Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom?!

Not yet…. The response Jesus gives is that it is not for us to know the times for these things. Not yet is the Kingdom fully come. And as a sign of that fact, Christ is lifted up before their very eyes – not to initiate the Kingdom of God… but he is taken away from their sight. Not yet, is the Kingdom of Christ fully present among us.

What we are left with are promises… the promise from Christ that he will be with us always. The promise of the Holy Spirit – the comforter and advocate who bears within us the seeds of the Kingdom. And the prophetic witness we have in the pages of Revelation that remind us that just as Christ came to be with us once… In the new creation, God will come and be with us again. “See,” the prophet John writes, “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with him.” (Rev. 21:3)

As the church, we are sandwiched between these experiences of God. We carry with us the memories of Christ’s life and teaching and death and resurrection and we witness to these things. We share the story. Just like kids at the dinner table who sneak a piece of broccoli out of the bowl and quickly pass it to one another – we are eager and excited about this glimpse. But at the same time, we wait. We long for the time when all things will be ready – when all will be present at the table, and when God Godself will be with us.

Our second already/not yet has to do with life and death in the Kingdom of God.

Already, the disciples have witnessed how Christ brought back to life children who were dead and his own friend Lazarus. Already, the power to heal in Jesus’ name has been transferred to the disciples. Miracles have been seen everywhere – including the most amazing miracle of all… Christ died for our sins and then was raised from the tomb. Sin, death, and evil have been defeated for ever more! As we follow the apostles through Luke’s account in Acts – we see signs and wonders of more healings and resurrections, of life and life abundant!

But not yet… Lazarus would eventually die once again. Each of those apostles would all be killed proclaiming the new life of the Kingdom of God. In our own lives today, we experience suffering and pain, death and loss. We grieve, we weep, we mourn.

Brandon’s great-grandma passed away on Thursday at the age of 99 years. She lived a long full life, but we have all been acutely aware for some time now that at some point, her body would fail and she would no longer be with us. Death is the reality of human life. And when it comes, it is not always a sad thing.

Not yet have the promises of the Kingdom of God been fulfilled. For we hear in Revelation that the time will come when the new heaven and new earth are among us. And in that time and in that place, Death will be no more. Reality as we know it, with its cycles of life and death and life again will be no more. There will only be life. Life abundant.

As the church, our foretaste of that life comes when we baptize little children and we place them in God’s hands. Our foretaste of that Kingdom life comes at the altar table when we eat the bread of life and the cup of salvation. Our foretaste of that Kingdom comes at every single Christian funeral… when we carry our fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and friends across the threshold of death and place them into God’s hands. As the church, we proclaim the reality that death has been defeated, even as we are standing beside the grave. Like little children who stand on their tiptoes and peer over the edge of the counter, we see the dessert that awaits us. We know the truth of the end of our stories. This morning at our graduation breakfast, Wilda shared the story of a woman who wanted to be buried with her fork because she knew, that the best was yet to come.

Our final already/not yet has to do with the joy of the Kingdom of God

Already, we know that when we abide with Christ, when we join in the fellowship of other Christians that we experience joy. As Christ gathered with his disciples in the upper room before he was betrayed he breathed into them the spirit of peace. And we hear stories from the first books of Acts about the joy and the community, the singing and the fellowship that the early Christians experience.

Whenever two or more are gathered, there Christ is among them. We support one another in our walk of faith and together we know the good news of the Kingdom of God.

But not yet fully. There are difficult days. There are times when our church brothers and sisters drive us batty. We argue and fight. We have our ups and downs. We join together as the Christian community around the dinner table, but before we eat, we must confess all of the ways that we have hurt and neglected one another since we met last. Our lives are not yet perfect, and our joy is not yet complete.

And to be sure, there is much that takes away joy from our lives. There is sickness and pain. There is oppression and want in our world. We turn on the television sets at night and the last thing that we find there is good news. To put on a smile and pretend that everything is okay and that we are happy in the face of all of that trouble is dishonest and hypocritical.

In the inbetween time between the already and the not yet, the church has the blessed opportunity to find joy among one another. We share what we have and experience true fellowship. But at the same time, united by our faith and the joy of what God intends for us, we can confront the pain and suffering and injustice of the world with a rightous anger. We can speak out against those places where God’s joy and peace has not been made complete, we can weep with those who suffer, and we can hold forth a vision of the day that is spoken of in Revelation – the day when weeping and crying and pain will be no more.

We gather today as children before the dinner table. Gradually, pieces of the meal are being set for us. And here and there we catch a wiff of the banquet, we sneak a taste of the bounty, we eagerly await with one another the glorious feast that awaits us. But we wait… until what we see already becomes the glorious feast that is yet to come.