Eve Meets Mary

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Lately, as I’ve made my way home from work here at the church, I can see the stars in the sky. And it’s not because I’m here until 10pm.

No, the days are growing shorter… the air colder…
This is the time of year when we are preparing ourselves for the longest night, the winter solstice, and while the daylight wanes, we are clinging to reminders that better days are ahead.

Right here, in the midst of this season of darkness, we remember that it is in the darkness that new life comes.
The bulb has to be planted within the cold, dark earth to bring forth its buds.
Babies grow and are formed in the dark warmth of the womb.
And in this “bleak midwinter” we set out our evergreens and yule logs to remember that resurrection and eternal life are ours.
We are waiting, you see, during this time of Advent for the birth of the child spoken of by prophets… the Savior, Messiah, Prince of Peace, Light of the World.
And… as people born on this side of his birth, life, death, and resurrection… we are still waiting.
Advent you see, is not only a season of remembrance. It is also a time to look forward. The fullness of that kin-dom that Christ came to bring has not yet fully been realized.
All we have to do is open the newspaper to know that God’s will has not been done on earth.
We are still waiting.

Earlier this week, I heard news reports that the Island of Puerto Rico still only has power for 46% of its residents. The devastation of Hurricane Maria was so severe that months after the winds and rain poured down, rural areas still do not have any access to resources.
But not only Maria… the impacts of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana are still being felt.
While it is not as present in the news, the continual onslaught of storms in Louisiana has had a doubled impact because of the simultaneous destruction of wetlands. The dead zone in the Gulf created by run-off farther up the Mississippi and the altering of the flow of the Mississippi for human habitation has devastated the area. The US Geological Survey now reports that nearly 1,900 square miles of land have disappeared in the last seventy years.
Sometimes, the sin and destruction and pain of this world is almost too much to bear.
Sometimes, it feels like we have been waiting too long.
Sometimes, it is hard to have any hope when we look out at reality.

Maybe that is why I find so much comfort in the words of The Archbishop of Denver, Charles J. Chaput. He defines hope as a choice, “a self-imposed discipline to trust in God while judging ourselves and the world with unblinkered, unsentimental clarity.”
Those words remind me that hope is not a naïve sentiment or wishful thinking.
We can look out unfiltered at the world that surrounds us… and we find hope at the intersection of what we see and our faithful trust in God
Hope doesn’t shirk away from problems or difficulties, but enters into them, confident that God will be there and will bring order, life, and joy out of the chaos.
That hope is not only for you and me. It is for all of creation. This whole world is waiting with us.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are reminded that “the whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice – it was the choice of the one who subjected it – but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now.”

Whatever was intended for creation, with the tree of life and fertile land and those first humans holding dominion over it all, is not what we experience today.  When we read through those first chapters of Genesis, there is no mention of rainfall or storms, no death, no decay, only life, and life abundant.

Our faith explains the brokenness of creation – the cycles of destruction, natural disasters, violence, and death by pointing to a single moment: When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden (Genesis 3:6-7).
At that moment, everything changed.
That first sin, that first rejection of God’s intentions, had an impact on the entire world! God confronts Adam and Eve and there is not only punishment for the snake and the two humans, but as Genesis tells us, “cursed is the fertile ground because of you; in pain you will eat from it every day of your life. Weeds and thistles will grow for you, even as you eat the field’s plants; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread – until you return to the fertile land.” (Genesis 3:17-19)
We acknowledge this pain of creation even in the songs we sing this time of year. We proclaim how “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy”…. But we also sing about the groaning of the earth itself and its longing for redemption… “no more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground.” (Isaac Watts, Joy to the World, UMH #246)

And as our Advent candle reading from Isaiah lifts up, it was not only the first sin of Adam and Eve that impacted creation, but as we continue to sin, the earth dries up and withers. (Isaiah 24:4-5)
Theologically, we are called to remember that our selfishness, our disobedience, our breaking of the covenant impacts the physical world around us. Because of our continued sin, the whole of creation is trapped in a cycle of death, enslaved by decay, and waiting to be set free.

So where is the hope that Paul writes of in Romans? Where do we turn for hope as we look out at the groaning of creation today?

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One afternoon I stumbled upon an image that took my breath away.

It was drawn by Sister Grace Remington who is a member of the Cistercian Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey here in Iowa. It depicts Eve, clad only in the flowing locks of her hair and clutching that forbidden piece of fruit. Her leg is entwined in the grip of a snake; her head hung in shame. Evil, sin, and death are her legacy. It is our legacy.
But with one arm, she reaches out and places her hand on Mary’s womb.

Mary stands there full of grace and mercy.
She gently touches the face of Eve as if to tell her it is okay. She holds her other hand over Eve’s and together they feel and experience the life of the one who was coming to redeem and restore all the creation.
There is hope.
When Paul writes about the groaning of creation and all of God’s children, he describes that pain as nothing compared with the “coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)
And then in verse 22, he uses the Greek word synōdinō to portray this reality; a word used only once in scripture to describe the agony of childbirth.
Creation is suffering labor pains.
Something new is about to be born.

In this season of Advent, this image of Eve and Mary fills my heart with possibility and invites me to hear the words of Romans 8 in a different light.
So often, I hear the frustration and groaning of the text, instead of diving in to see the good news.
Yes, the world around us is groaning, but they are labor pains. Creation itself is about to be delivered, to be release, to be set free to become what God fully intends for it.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul keeps pointing back towards Adam, because in those first human beings, we see God’s ultimate intention for the human race.
Paul believes that in Christ, in that child that would be born of Mary, the human project finds it’s completion (Jospeh Sittler).
In the beginning, there was a part for humanity to play – tending the garden, carrying the image of God, helping all of creation to thrive.
And now, as Christ is born into our lives and we claim the Spirit of God that sets us free, it is our job to take up that role once again.
As this image conveys, in Christ, we find release from our temptations… that snake of sin that would bind us is being stomped on by Mary.
In Christ, we find forgiveness for past transgressions… the head hung in shame and guilt is gently touched, the hand is embraced.
The way we have lived on this world – using and abusing God’s gifts for our own intentions – doesn’t have to be the way that we move forward.

In fact, Paul tells the Romans that those who have been set free by the Spirit of Christ have an obligation to live as God’s sons and daughters right here and now.
Not for our sake.
Not for selfish reasons.
But because the whole earth is waiting for us to do so.
The love and mercy of Christ reaches out to us as the descendents of Adam and Eve and yes, we are offered forgiveness, but more than than, we are empowered by God’s Spirit to live differently.

Paul believed that God linked the restoration of creation with you and me, and so I find hope in this season of Advent in the possibility that people of faith can help to change the tides of decay.

All throughout this season, we will highlight some of those stories and ways we can make an impact, but these Christmas Trees here at the front of the church remind me of one…

 

In the midst of that loss of habitat and wetlands in the Louisiana delta, people are working to restore the wetlands and help mitigate the impact of storms by collecting used Christmas trees.
As they deposit them into threatened bayous, they become the basis for new marsh vegetation and they help to reverse erosion.

We have a choice of how to live on this earth and whether or not we will obey the call of God to care for all of creation.
Just like this image of Eve, may we be transformed by the birth of Christ into our lives, so that we might be the hope for the world.

 

NOTE:  This sermon is an adaptation from chapter one of my book, “All Earth Is Waiting.”

Spirit of Embodiment

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Last week I talked a little bit about how I am trying to be more healthy and strong and one of the ways I am doing that is by going to the gym.
I’m there four-five days a week and each time, while the majority of the exercises we all share together, there are a few movements where you can choose which equipment you use based on your level of experience and comfort.
This past week at the gym I moved from the beginner to the more advanced movements in our exercises. And, whew, I can feel it.
My back is still a bit stiff, my shoulders ache… My dad keeps telling me that I shouldn’t get old because this kind of soreness will just keep coming, but unfortunately that’s just a natural process I’m pretty sure I don’t have the power to stop.

Many of you have joined in prayers for my dad in the past couple of weeks. He is someone who works incredibly hard… always has… but who hasn’t always taken the time to stop and take care of his body. He gets so focused on the work that is before him and us Ziskovskys also have been known to have a bit of stubbornness when it comes to our diets.
He developed a sore on his big toe, which became a deeper infection, which eventually led to an amputation of that digit. He is recovering very well – body, mind, and spirit.

You know, sometimes we think of our bodies as just the physical container that holds the real “us.” We imagine that our lives will continue without the burden of flesh someday – either through technology or computers or floating around in heavenly places.

But the scripture constantly reminds us that our bodies are incredibly important.
They are an integral part of who God created us to be.
Our flesh and blood are not earthly things that we have to shed before we get to heaven… according to scripture – these bodies go with us – in one form or another.

Some of our sloppy thinking around bodies comes from a misunderstanding of the writings of Paul. In Romans 8:5-6, we read:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Our modern ears known what flesh is… our skin and bones… those things that ache and touch and feel and move around.
We know what our spirit is… our souls, minds, that of God which dwells within us.
So, bodies must be bad and spirit must be good.

Except, the word that gets translated “flesh”… sarx… has more than one meaning. It can mean our skin and bones – but it is also used to describe the lesser parts of ourselves – the animal nature, the cravings, the wretched parts of ourselves that keep holding on to sin no matter how hard we try to do what is right.
That is what Paul is talking about… not these good, old, sometimes worn-out bodies of ours.
In fact, this passage from Romans is a reminder that God’s abundant life, that God’s very Spirit dwells within these bodies. Far from being an argument against our earthly life – this is a challenge to live up to the potential of what we can in fact DO with God’s spirit living within us.

So this morning, we go all the way back to the beginning, to that time when God made the heavens and the earth.
As Mel shared with us, Genesis tells us that God formed humanity from the dust of the earth. We were made out of the same stuff as all of the rest of creation.
But then God did something amazing.
God breathed into us.
The breath of life filled us.
The Spirit of the Lord entered our lives and these bodies became God’s body. You and I became the hands and the feet of God in the world.

That doesn’t mean that we have responded perfectly. After all, one of the first things that Adam and Eve did with the Spirit of God dwelling inside of them was to focus more on their own desires than what God wanted them to do. They lived according to the flesh, the sarx, and allowed temptation to distract them.
They sought their own comfort and pleasure before the well-being of the world or God’s creation. Their sin had consequences for not only themselves, but all of creation.

But, our scriptures tell us, God found another way to empower our bodies with the divine spirit…
God came and took on our flesh.
In that tiny child in Bethlehem, in the incarnation of Jesus, the very Word of God took on our human life.
Every aspect of our bodily existence was experienced by God.
Love and loss.
Stubbed toes and broken promises.
Laughter and tears.
Fear and grief.
Jesus experienced the fullness of our lives – and the ultimate depths of suffering and death.
And then, Jesus gave the Spirit to all who would be his disciples.

All summer long, we have been talking about the blessings of that gift and what it looks like when the Spirit dwells within us. Our lives begin to bear the fruit of love and joy, peace and kindness, goodness and gentleness, faithfulness, self-control, community, surrender, and patience.
But none of it happens without our bodies.
The Spirit cannot move without these hands and feet, eyes and ears.
When we let the Spirit of God become incarnate in OUR lives, and to fill up OUR bodies, then we are empowered to live very differently in this world.
We are set free from sin and death.
We are set free to love God more than we love ourselves.
We are set free to participate in God’s saving work in this world.

I’ve been thinking a lot this past week about what difference it has made that we spent this whole summer talking about the Holy Spirit. I’ve been wondering what it might look like to really add flesh and blood to these words that we have been saying all year long.
And I realized as I have watched not only the devastation of Harvey, but also the outpouring of human kindness just how important and precious our bodies really are.
Perhaps you were as heartbroken as I when you saw the nursing home residents under water…
and then wept for relief when I knew they had been rescued.
All across the region, people pushed
and carried
and turned to one another for support.
and now countless folks whose homes have been destroyed turn to one another and to us.
What does it mean to be the church in the wake of something like Harvey? Or the landslides earlier this year in Sierra Leone? Or the flooding in India?
PUT ON UMCOR HAT –
It means that we roll up our sleeves and we get to work.
We send flood buckets to help clean up.
We turn our sanctuaries into shelters
We build up trained helpers who have the knowledge and skills to truly make a difference.
and through a simple thing like toothbrushes and soap, we help take care of people’s bodies.

Today – you’ll have the opportunity to give a little bit extra towards disaster response by writing in the memo of your check or putting in one of the envelopes in the pew, or giving online towards disaster relief.

But, I also want you to hear two specific invitations… ways you can use YOUR bodies to make a difference.
First… if you feel called to go and help and put to use your hands and feet there is an opportunity to join one of the Early Response Teams. There are a few fliers on the back table about a training that is happening THIS coming Saturday right here in Des Moines.
Second… as a church, I want to challenge us to help take care of some of those bodies by putting together health kits. Beginning NEXT Sunday, we will have a bulletin board right outside of the sanctuary where you can indicate which specific items you will commit to bringing as we first gather and then assemble these kits.
Then, for our Fifth Sunday Service Project in October we’ll put all of these kits together and send them out with the Thanksgiving Ingathering.

Whenever we let the Spirit of God live within us, the transformation of the world begins.
Thanks be to God. Amen!

The Hope of the World is Us

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The President of the United States is currently weighing whether or not to withdraw our nation from the Paris climate accord. Political leaders within our country are skeptical about the science behind climate change and its causes.  One congressman said this past week: “As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us.  And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”

I’m a Christian, too.  And I think God has placed this problem squarely in our laps.

For the last five or six months I have been blogging fairly infrequently, because I’ve been working hard to put into words why it is important for people of faith to care about what is happening to our planet.  My new book, All Earth Is Waiting, will come out this fall along with a daily devotional for the season of Advent. I’ve spent countless hours pouring over the scriptures and asking how we are called to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in the world today.

One of the primary scriptures for the book is from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In chapter 8, we find these words:

The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters.  Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice – it was the choice of the one who subjected it – but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children.

The earth is waiting for us to let go of our selfish ways and begin acting like the children of God. It is waiting for us to hold in our hearts a vision of an interconnected world and to remember that every part of this planet tells of God’s goodness. It is waiting for us to see the sacred worth of the elements, the flora, and the fauna; to live gently as stewards and protectors. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the source of our hope and it has and will transform our lives.  But once it does, we are supposed to truly live as God’s children. Paul reminds us in this passage the world is waiting for us. Only then will creation be set free.

 

Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve

In the beginning…

 

Most years when we get to the season of Advent, we dive deep into the gospel texts.  We want to hear about the shepherds and angels, about Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the magi and the star.

Yet, as Heidi Haverkamp will share with us in this week’s reflections in her book “Advent in Narnia”, the medieval church also focused on Adam and Eve. 

They went all the way back to the beginning to remember who we are and why God needed to come to redeem us. December 24th was the feast day of Adam and Eve… a time to rehearse once again the story of the creation and the fall. 

And that tradition continued in the seasonal Lessons and Carols of Kings College… which will be presented next Sunday at Simpson College.  There, too, the story of love and light begins where it should… in the beginning. 

 

In the first chapters of the book of Genesis, we find out who we are.    We were created by God.  We were created for relationship and to care for this world.  And having been given the world, we want more, we desire more, we test our boundaries and more often than not… we cross them. 

This is the human condition.  It is our story. 

And so maybe it is not so surprising that when the Pevensie children stumble into Narnia and the magical creatures of the land discover these humans, they are called the “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve”. 

They, and we, are full of goodness and knowledge and love.  

Last week, we met Lucy, the youngest child whose heart is full of longing and hope.  Her love was so strong that it cut through the fear of Mr. Tumnus and helped to transform his life.

The prophecies of Narnia talk about how these four children will bring hope to the land and break the power of the White Witch…

 

But they, and we, are also full of temptation, mistakes, and sin.  

The next child who makes his way into the wardrobe has a much different experience.  

Edmund is the next youngest and he often feels left out and unappreciated.  He is jealous and hurt and when he finds himself in Narnia the first to cross his path is the White Witch.

 

We find in their encounter a parallel to our story in Genesis chapter 3 this morning.  

First, there is this figure that is on the edges of our main characters story… a figure that at first seems completely neutral.  

On the one hand, we have the serpent, the craftiest and most intelligent of all the creatures who strikes up a conversation with Eve.  The serpent asks questions, raises intrigue, and starts Eve wandering about that tree in the middle of the garden.

The White Witch is beautiful, arrives on a sleigh and plies Edmund with warm beverages and questions.  She invites him up onto her sleigh and tempts him with his favorite treat:  Turkish Delight.  

Both are lured in by what is pleasing to the eye and good to eat…

 

But even more than that, they are both lured by the possibility of what might away it they say yes.  

Eve is told by the serpent that she will not die as she supposes, but she will become like God – knowing good and evil.  All of creation is at her fingertips, and yet she longs for the one thing that has not been given to her.  She is not satisfied with the blessings that surround her.

Edmund is likewise tempted by power… and a life apart from his siblings.  “It is a lovely place, my house,” said the Queen.  “I’m sure you would like it.  There are whole rooms of Turkish Delight…. I want a nice boy whom I could bring up as a Prince and who would be King of Narnia when I’m gone.” As the youngest son, he glimpses in this offer approval and power, love and prestige… to finally have the chance to lord it over his brothers and sisters.  

Overcome by the temptation, he agrees to lure his siblings to the palace.  

And like Adam and Eve, as soon as Edmund is away from the witch and realizes what he has done, he begins to be filled with shame.  

He encounters Lucy in the woods, who tells him the truth about the White Witch and he begins to feel sick to his stomach…  That, and he ate too much Turkish Delight.

 

As we continue our story over the coming weeks, we will experience Edmund’s journey.  He will make more mistakes. 

Like any good Christmas movie, there has to be a bad guy… a Scrooge, a spinster, a grouch…

But eventually Edmund will experience mercy and forgiveness, life and love.  The delight of a Hallmark Christmas move is to watch that characters life turn around.  Scrooge finds his generosity.  The Grinch’s heart grows.  A  prodigal son returns home.  

 

We are the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve.  We have an infinite capacity for good and for evil residing in our souls.  

Maybe that is why some of our most popular Christmas songs ask us to reflect upon the state of our souls.

“He’s making a list and checking it twice, Gonna find out whose naughty and nice….

He sees you when you’re sleepin’  He knows when you’re awake.

He knows if you’ve been bad or good… so be good for goodness sake.”

 

The truth is, we are both.  

We are simultaneously sinners and saints.

Our lives are full of mistakes and missteps, but also acts of kindness and generosity.  

We are tempted by the glitz and glam and our comfort zones, but occasionally find our way out to be in real relationship with people who are struggling.

The reality of our souls is not as simple as making a list of who is good and who is bad.  

 

And the good news is that while we were yet sinners… while we were still weak… while we are this complicated jumble of goodness and evil… God entered our lives to redeem all of the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve

 

As we sing in “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” we yearn for the Christ Child to be born in our midst to cast out the sin of our lives.  We yearn for new life, for joy, for an end to the tears and the loneliness and the pain.

This season is about transformation and embracing what is good and holy and pure… letting go of the past that has haunted us.

God has come to offer us mercy and forgiveness and life abundant.

Thanks be to God.

The Sweetest Grapes are Closest to the Vine

This spring when I planted my garden, I included some pumpkins for my husband.

Typically, I try to avoid plants with vines, because they tend to take over the entire garden.  I plant bush varieties of cucumbers and squash and beans to keep everything more compact.

But pumpkins don’t come in bush varieties 😉

I planted only four seeds… all together in one mound…

They were planted at the right depth, they were watered and weeded.  And the vines grew.

As the summer went on, the vines took over the garden with their broad leaves and bright yellow flowers.  Stretching the entire length of my garden were glorious vines and the beginning of fruits. The weather was perfect for vine production… maybe not so much for fruit… but definitely for vines. 

But there were some scattered ugly brown vines here and there.  

In the midst of all of the living, thriving vines, some were dying. 

Now… the pumpkins really did take over much of my garden.  And so I had to tread carefully through the chaos to trace those dying vines and find the source of the problem. 

All of them were connected to a single branch… a single shoot off of the main stalk that had been severed from the vine.  Perhaps it was a rabbit or a chipmunk.  Maybe a bug.  Maybe I stepped on it.  No matter what had happened, every vine that branched off from that point was dying because it was no longer connected to the roots and stem that gave it life. 

 

In our scripture this morning, we are reminded that we will die spiritually… that we are incapable of producing fruit when we are not attached to the vine, when we are not connected to the roots which nourish us.  

And our true vine is Christ… the Christ we meet in worship… the Christ we meet in God’s Word… the Christ we meet in fellowship and in the face of the stranger.

 

As I studied this scripture, I set aside my paltry knowledge of pumpkins and turned to the world of grapes.  

Did you know that the best and the sweetest grapes are found closest to the vine?  

Nancy Blakely reflects that this is because they are closer to the source, “where the nutrients are the most concentrated.”  In fact, this is why growers of grapes are so diligent about pruning their vines… because the farther away from the vine the grapes are, the bitterer and the smaller they will be.  

But close in, close to the heart of the vine, abiding near the heart, they find the nourishment they need and produce bountifully.  

 

As we have been exploring a life of discipleship, so far we have explored what it means to be people who worship and people who share in God’s hospitality towards others.

But we also need to be fed and nourished in our work.  As Jesus reminds us in the gospel of John:

“A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine.  Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me… without me, you can’t do anything.”

 

So today, we turn our attention towards our spiritual formation, or how we stay connected to the vine.    What it means to abide in God and to remain in Jesus.

Take out the half sheet of paper that describes those various levels of spiritual formation.  

Maybe you are a small bunch of grapes way out there on the edge of the vine.   Many of us in worship today want to know more about God and Jesus and you are curious and getting started.  And that is amazing.    

We have third graders who will be learning today with their bible partners after worship…  but even if you are older than a third grader, its not too late to start.  

All of us should be reading the bible… it is the number one way that we stay connected with Jesus.  And it is a whole lot easier when you are in a safe place where you can ask questions and learn together.

We have been trying to offer Sunday morning bible studies, and I, personally, have been disappointed that more of you have not signed up.  Maybe it’s not the right time… but bible study itself is something that this church really needs in order for us to grow spiritually.

In fact, this is so important to me, that starting in November, I’m going to be leading a bible study every Wednesday night, and I’d love for you to join me.  

 

Maybe you are a bunch of grapes that is a bit closer in to the vine.  Growing a bit sweeter and bigger and fuller.   Do you regularly spend time reading your bible?  Are you finding other ways to connect with God through prayer or contemplation?

Maybe then your next step is to go deeper with others.  Our life groups have been places where many have been formed and have grown in their faith as they connect with God or each other.  They have made prayer beads, and explored topics like forgiveness and stewardship.  Some of our in-depth scripture studies like Covenant or Disciple have really challenged people to take seriously the bible in a new way.  If you are ready to go deeper… we have resources – either within the church or through retreats like Walk to Emmaus to help you connect more fully to the one true vine.  

 

Maybe you are a strong bunch of grapes… ripe, sweet, and full… right up there tucked in close to the vine.  Are you in a place where get up every day, ready to connect with God?  Do you not simply wait for the church to offer something, but seek out opportunities to learn and to grow?  

Maybe your next step is to turn your life-giving energy towards others.  Whether it is a partner for our third graders, or a leader of a class or life group, or personally mentoring someone… in helping another person grow, you will grow in new ways yourself.

 

One limitation of our vine metaphor is that it makes us think we are fixed in and we are not.  

You are not limited by wherever it is you are on the vine.  

If you are a tiny, sour little bunch of grapes way out on the edge, you can take the next step and move a bit closer to God.  

If you are a bunch of grapes that is not yet ripe, but growing… you can take the next step and move a bit closer to God. 

And you can carry the vine itself with you wherever you might go.  This vine is not meant to be stuck in the ground at 2900 49th Street…. We are meant to move and be engaged in the world with Jesus.

 

Now, there is another category of people who are not listed on this sheet, but who come up in our scripture:  The spiritually wilted and dying.  

Maybe you were closely connected to the vine at some point, but that day has come and gone.  

You know, none of us are perfect.

All of us let things besides God into the center of our lives at one time or another.

Just like my vines were cut off by critters or bugs or clumsy feet, maybe you were disconnected by work or family responsibility, disappointment or doubt.

The troubling part of this scripture for me is always the part about the pruning.  It appears like God the vinedresser simply snips off those dead and wilted branches from the vine, throws them in the fire or compost pile, and forgets about them… just like I did with my pumpkin vines this summer.  

So is there any hope for those of us who aren’t as connected as we would like?

 

No matter who you are or where you are in your relationship with God, there is always a chance to take a next step and be formed spiritually.

Even if you have broken away from the vine.

You see… the same God who talks about pruning also talks about grafting.

Grafting is a process where a branch can be attached to the trunk and roots of another tree – in many cases, different types of trees and plants are connected together for hybridization and for strength and growth.

In the scriptures, Paul talks not about vines, but about trees… the family tree of God.  The gentiles were grafted on to that tree… brought into the family after some of the faithful branches broke off.  

In Romans, chapter 11, he talks about those branches were broken off because of their own unbelief.

But if God could take us… gentiles who didn’t belong… and graft us on to the tree… then God has the power to reattach the broken branches, too.  

Even the branches that appear to be dead and dying have the ability to be restored by God’s grace.  

This morning, the bread and juice from this table will go to our homebound members who are not able to be physically present with us today, so too do we need to take the vine with us to those who are in danger of being cut off.

You are the hands and feet, the branches and leaves of Christ in this world.  And maybe you are the reconnection point for someone you know.  Maybe it is your own son or daughter. Or a friend. It might be a neighbor who hasn’t opened a bible or door to a church in a very long time.

With God’s grace and strength flowing through you, let the love of God that abides in you overflow into your love for them.

This World Communion Sunday reminds us that we don’t do faith all by ourselves.  Every part of the Body of Christ across this globe is a branch of the one true vine.  And parts of this world are broken and hurting, full of anger, pain, and grief.  

But as Kate Huey puts it, “Here, up close to the vine, immersed in [God’s love and peace], we find not only nourishment but also hope and joy, and we let God’s word ‘find a home in us through faithful devotion… ‘ When we remain that close to Jesus, we attuned to him and he to us, the remarkable result is that what we want will be what God wants, and it will surely come to pass.”

And it will take all of us, living together in love, growing deeper in our love and knowledge of God, to truly transform this world into what God desires.  But we aren’t alone. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Everyday, Ordinary Worship

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It’s Sunday morning.

According to the Pew Research Center, even though 77% of adults in Iowa claim the Christian faith, only 36% of those people commit to going to church worship at least once a week. 

Another 33% attend anywhere between twice a month to a few times a year.

If we are generous with our numbers, maybe half of Des Moines is not participating in a religious worship service this morning.

 

So what are your friends and neighbors doing? 

They’re sleeping in.  Or at softball games.  They are relaxing on the porch with the newspaper. Or at brunch at one of the many amazing restaurants in the city.  They are traveling back home after being away tailgating at a game yesterday. 

I see your wheels turning.  Those things sound amazing! Why didn’t I do those things?  Why didn’t we stay home today? 

 

I’m going to share with you a confession. 

When I stepped away from congregational ministry to lead Imagine No Malaria, I didn’t go to church every single Sunday. 

I traveled, preached, and led worship in churches on Sundays all across the state, but when I actually had the chance to be home, the temptation to actually be home and not go to worship was real. 

And here is something I discovered.  The more I stayed away, the easier it was to stay away. 

I felt less guilty about it, not more.  Honestly, I didn’t really even think about it.

But on those Sundays a couple times a month when I was back in a church, I realized how disconnected from God I had been.

 

Why do we worship?

Is it out of habit?  Obligation? 

Do we come on Sunday mornings to be fed and renewed?

Are we here to gain God’s favor? Or to hang out with those people who have the same beliefs as us?

 

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he addresses the divisions in the community and how focusing our attention on God transforms every aspect of our life. 

As the end of chapter 11 states in the Message translation:

Is there anyone around who can explain God?

Anyone smart enough to tell [God] what to do?

Anyone who has done [God] such a huge favor that God has to ask their advice?

Everything comes from [God];

Everything happens through [God];

Everything ends up in [God];

Always glory! Always praise!

Yes. Yes. Yes.  

If that is God… the beginning and end of everything… what does it mean to worship? 

It means, according to Paul, that we honor and praise God by putting our very lives into God’s hands… by discovering who God has created me to be and then by responding out of love.

Hear again our scripture for this morning from the Message translation

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what [God] wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

The time we spend in worship is about honoring God by being in relationship with God.   

And you know what… relationships take work.  They take time and energy.  It is hard to be in a relationship with someone you don’t spend any time with.  

When we gather to worship, we are saying that God is the focus of our attention, our energy, our time, our life.   

It is about living out the commandment to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. 

In worship, we encounter the living God and allow that encounter to shape everything else.  

 

Worship has nothing to do with you.  Worship isn’t about the songs you sing or the money you put in the offering plate.  It isn’t about your preferences or desires.  Worship reminds us that all of it… our time, our energy, our money, our voices… they aren’t ours to begin with.  Everything begins with God… everything ends with God… It all belongs to God already.

And the more time we spend with God in worship, the more we realize that worship is not about what we do for God: an obligation, a responsibility, a duty… but worship is about what God does for us. 

 

As Paul writes in this chapter of Romans, “the only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and what God does for us…  Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of [the body of Christ].”

Lisa Gungor, the singer/songwriter says – “It’s hard to truly worship and not be changed.  When we are connected with our Maker, we are pulled outside of our self; we begin to live for something more.  Love is the reaction to [encountering God in worship]” (http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/worship/features/25684-whats-the-point-of-worship)

And the opposite is true, too…  when we are disconnected from God… when we don’t worship, then we start to turn inward on ourselves and our world becomes much smaller.

When I chose not to spend time in worship, I found myself distracted by the world’s values and temptations.  There was even a time when I doubted my call… when I started to think that I could get a job doing something outside the church and just walk away and never look back.

I was forgetting what God had done for me.

How could I just walk away from that?  How on earth was that part of the great commandment to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength?

I wasn’t part of a community, a part of a worship experience that reminded me of who God was and who God created me to be.   

That’s what those people sitting next to you in the pew are for… to remind you.  To tell you the story again and again.  To hold that truth sacred, even if you forget it.

That’s what worship is about… It is rediscovering, over and over again, who God is and who God created us to be and responding to the good news of God’s love by being those people.  

 

Worship in its fullest sense is about far more than simply showing up for an hour on a particular day of the week.  

Worship is about taking those everyday, ordinary parts of our life… the sleeping, eating, going-to-work, walking- around life, and letting God have control of them. Letting God’s power fill them.  Letting God’s love shape them.  Every moment.  Of every day.  

 

All throughout this series on discipleship, we are recognizing that this journey of following of Jesus isn’t easy.  

We all start in different places… like the servants in the parable who each had a different set of talents.  

And the same is true of our worship experiences.  

I know this room has people who fall in that category of the 33% of Iowans who only come to worship once a month or a few times a year.  And I am so glad you are here today. 

I know this room has people has people who show up faithfully for church every Sunday, but who are simply going through the motions and don’t ever expect to really encounter God here.  

And there are people who not only show up, but bring with them the willingness to be transformed and changed through this time.

There are people in this room who not only worship on Sundays, but take time to be with God through worship and devotions in your homes and families.  

I’m so glad that all of you are here.

Wherever you are… whatever has brought you to this place… you have a chance to take the next step. 

You don’t have to go from attending church once a month to doing a daily devotion tomorrow.  God doesn’t expect that of you.  But God does invite you to take one more step.  To take one step closer.  To grow in your ability to love God, to serve God, to open your heart in prayer to God.   

And God would love for you to take just one more step deeper in your faith life.  To take the next step from wherever you are.  To let go of just a little bit more… because it’s all God’s anyways…  

Holy Ground

In our scripture video just now, the creators left off one snippet of a verse. Right at the very end, the Book of Romans reads:

Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. 20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. 21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.

Do good. Love. Feed the hungry.

What does piling burning coals of fire on someone’s head have to do with any of that?

If you are anything like my, you might have assumed this had something to do with sending someone to hell. That your actions of good will serve to highlight their deeds of evil and justice will eventually come to them.

And to tell you the truth, I’ve skipped over that verse, or ignored it, like the creators of the video did… for a long time. It doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the scripture.

But one day, I learned about what it really meant to pile burning coals of fire on someone’s head.

As we just explored with our children, we need fire to cook our food. We need fire to warm our houses. Fire can seal up wounds and provides light in the darkness.

In the ancient world, a fire meant the difference between life and death.

So what happens when your fire goes out?

Without resources to start a fire again, you would have to go begging with your fire bowl, and pray that someone would take pity on you, and share some burning coals from their own fire with you.

Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Pile burning coals upon even your enemies heads.

 

We have been called to serve. We have been challenged by Jesus Christ throughout the gospels to step out of our comfort zones and to give of ourselves to others. Even if they don’t look like us or talk like us… even if they are our enemies.

But this call doesn’t start with the Paul or the gospels…. It goes back to the beginning.

Moses was called… through fire… to help set the people free.

He was an ordinary guy, living in extraordinary times. He was the child of a slave. He was a murderer. He stuttered. And yet God got his attention through a burning bush and called him to serve.

God’s power transformed his weakness into strength. And through God’s power the people were freed.

Moses just had to show up.

Today, we are going to hear some stories of folks from this church, who were called to serve in Omaha this summer. I hope you will hear that they are ordinary folks, just like you. But they heard the tug on their heart to go, to serve, to feed the hungry, and build houses for those who were struggling. They heard the call to pile burning coals on a neighbor’s head… to help make sure they have everything they need to survive.

Along the way, they changed lives… but I hope you will also listen for how they were changed.

 

[sharing from members of our mission team]

 

The call to serve is not just for some people in the church. It is for all people. There are thousands of ways to serve.

This week, we have a special opportunity to serve and feed the hungry through Meals From the Heartland’s annual Hunger Fight. On Wednesday afternoon from 2-4 pm, we will be taking a group of 30 from the church to pack meals for those who are hungry.

We still need lots of volunteers, so if you can give a few hours to change lives… please sign up as you leave!

In two weeks, we are going to fill out our time and talents sheets. But before they show up in your bulletin, I pray that God would light a fire in your life. It might not be as dramatic as a burning bush, but wherever you feel your heart strangely warmed… wherever something out of the ordinary catches your attention… wherever you sense like you could make a difference (as ordinary as you might be)… listen.

Listen to that call to love, serve, and pray. Listen for where God is trying to get your attention.

My prayer is that as you offer yourself up for service, the fires of God’s love will transform this church, this community, and this world. And that God would transform your life, too.

Fire does that you know.

It takes what is ordinary and transforms it.

Intersection Intercessions

While a student in seminary, I had the opportunity and privilege to take Clinical Pastoral Education through the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.  I was thrown into the lions den, as it were, and was invited to put my very limited skills to use caring for patients and their families in some of the most trying times of their lives.  To say I was unprepared is an understatement.  I had no idea what would be expected of me.  As borderline introvert, I was terrified of knocking on strangers doors.  I had no clue what to say to someone who was going through the horrors of chemotherapy or losing a loved one.

I remember one of my very first patients.  I had been assigned to the Immuno-suppression wing of the hospital.  All of the patients there were battling diseases like leukemia that left their immune systems compromised either because of the illness or the treatment.  Gowns and masks were required in over half of the rooms. I didn’t know how I would relate to someone with all of those barriers in the way.  I was unsure of myself and of what this person would be like and I wanted to run and hide.  But as I rode the elevator up to the 9th floor… I took deep breaths and prayed.  O Lord… I have no idea what I’m doing… please help.

When I walked into Amanda’s room, she cracked a joke about how all of us should have called ahead and planned better because in our gowns and masks we were all dressed alike.  My muscles relaxed, my spirits lightened, and I laughed right along with her.

Over the next few days and weeks we talked about the absurdity of a thing like leukemia.  We talked about how she was feeling as they prepared for a bone marrow transplant.  We talked about gratitude for her friends and family who were pulling behind her in her hometown.  She showed me pictures of the coffee cans at the gas station where folks were contributing money to help pay for treatments.  And she asked me to pray with her and for her.  We prayed for faith in the tough times.  We prayed that she might find ways to reconnect with the God she had long forgotten about.  We poured ourselves over devotional books and I answered her never ceasing stream of questions about the faith… sometimes by simply giving her more questions to think about.

Amanda was my first patient during CPE and she was also one of my last.  Her course of treatment kept her there in the hospital almost the entire summer of my clinical and so we regularly kept in touch.  I missed the few weeks when she wasn’t there because she was finally able to go home and be with family and friends again.  On one of my last days, she was there once again, for her final treatment.  Things were looking good.  We praised God with laughter and singing and ate cake together.

I did not have the resources to minister to Amanda.  I had never done this kind of work before.  I didn’t know what to say or what to do or where to sit or how to act.  But God did.  God knew what both Amanda and I needed in that moment, and through the amazing work of the Holy Spirit, both of our lives were ministered to that summer.

There are so many times in our lives when we come to a crossroads.  When our lives intersect with the lives of other people and we have the unique and awesome opportunity to share the love of God with them.  In those moments, it is not always what we have done or said, but it is how the Holy Spirit has moved in the midst of that intersection that has given the moment and the relationship power.

Sometimes it is a homeless man on a street corner who asks for some money.

Sometimes it is a new neighbor who moved in because she and her husband just divorced.

Sometimes it is a person at a gas station whose car has run out of gas.

Sometimes it is sitting down at the dinner table with extended family and reconnecting with an aunt or a cousin on a new level.

In these intersections… where our lives cross the paths of the lives of other people, it is extraordinarily common for us to feel out of our element.  We might be anxious  We might feel ill-equipped to truly meet their needs.  We might fear rejection or for our own safety.  We might simply be comfortable with remaining strangers and don’t want our lives to really change.

But through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, sometimes we find the strength to act… like I did with Amanda in that hospital room.

More often than not, however, we come to these intersections and we brush up against the life of someone else and we move on.  We fail to act.  We fail to speak.  We fail to truly touch that person.

What we fail to do, is to draw upon the power of the Holy Spirit that can transform all of our lives.

Art by: “Stushie” www.stushieart.com

If we doubt that power of the Holy Spirit, then maybe we need to be reminded of what happened on this festival day we call Pentecost.

Let’s set the scene and take ourselves back 2000 years…

10 days ago, Jesus rose up… was carried off into heaven.  And the disciples returned to Jerusalem and spent the next few days praying and worshipping God in the temple and fellowshipping with the other believers.  For the next ten days, they remained a small group of faithful men and women – content to love God and love one another.  There are just over 100 of them… the size of a nice little church today.  We don’t hear any stories of miracles.  Nobody is saved during this time.  They don’t go out into the streets proclaiming the word of God.  No… they remain with their own little community, they take care of some business and elect a new apostle to replace Judas, and that is pretty much it.

Did their lives intersect with other people in those 10 days?  Probably.  They probably were out in the marketplace to buy food.  They rubbed shoulders with folks in the temple.  They would have met all sorts of folks coming into town for the Jewish celebration of Shavout… or the Festival of Weeks.  But nowhere does the book of Acts tell us that they did anything about it.

They let those countless intersections and moments of crossed paths pass them by.  They kept their heads low.  They stayed with their friends.  They took no chances.

They sound like a rather boring, small-town church, that gathers together for worship and food and fellowship and has some really deep connections with one another, but who aren’t doing anything out in their community.  They sound like a lot of the churches we have in the United Methodist tradition.  Churches that just plod along, doing what they have to in order to get by.

This was the church for 10 days.  A lifeless, boring, safe little group.

In fact, on the day we call Pentecost – 50 days after the resurrection of Christ, 50 days after the Passover, they weren’t out in the community celebrating with others.  The people who had come from all corners of the world would have been celebrating the gift of the Torah and reading together from the Book of Ruth and sharing in festive meals… but no, that group of 120 were all gathered together in a house, doing their own thing.

God had something else in mind that morning…

They might have been safely tucked away in a house, but the Holy Spirit rushed into that place and stirred them up.  A holy fire was lit in their hearts and they began to shout and speak and sing and the voices of those 120 people carried beyond the walls of the house out to the streets where people had been passing by.

Can you imagine that?  Can you imagine our joyful noise here in the walls of the church being so loud and exciting and exuberant and that people who are walking by stop and stare and maybe even come in?  There might not be that many folks outside our doors this morning, but on Pentecost in Jerusalem, the streets were full.

And out there in the streets, people stopped and stared.  They stared at this house where the commotion was so great.  They came closer and peeked in the windows.  A crowd started to gather out there in the middle of the road as people were intrigued by what they were hearing.  As they looked around, they saw folks who looked nothing like them, but each began to realize they could hear in their own native language.

I sometimes wonder how long it took for Peter and James and Mary and Salome and others inside that house to realize that they were attracting attention.  How long did it take for them to open their eyes and see all of the faces staring back at them through the windows?  How long did it take for them to work up the courage to open the door and walk out into the street and to speak?

They were ill-equipped and scared.  They were anxious and hesitant.  They weren’t quite sure they were ready for their lives to be changed.

But there at the intersection of their lives and the lives of those gathered, the Holy Spirit was present.  For the first time in 10 days, probably even longer… since much of the time after Jesus rose from the dead they were huddled together afraid also… they found the power and the courage and the words to speak the good news of God.

Within hours… that intersection of lives turned a small group of 120 believers into a church of 3000 persons.

In the book of Romans this morning, we were reminded that there are times in our lives when we cannot see God’s future.  We don’t know who is waiting just around the corner.  We don’t know what we might be asked to do next.  Just like this whole creation, our lives are pregnant with hope and anticipation and yes, sometimes fear and trembling and trepidation…

As I rode up the elevator on that day six years ago to the ninth floor of the hospital, I was full of that kind of expectation.  I didn’t know what to do or what to say or how to act… but God was already there, in that moment, ready and waiting for me.

Romans 8:26-28 tell us: the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

The Holy Spirit intercedes at those intersections in our lives.  The Holy Spirit can and does give us the power we need to reach out with the right words at the right time.

She reached out as I stepped off that elevator and created laughter and conversation out of my wordless heart.  She has moved us to stop and talk with the homeless guy on the street corner and to buy him a sandwich.  She has interceded with you as you carried a plate of cookies to the new neighbor and listened to her heartache.  The Holy Spirit has been present at the intersection when you give the guy with his gas can a ride back to the car.  And she has been by our sides as we have hard conversations with family members about the skeletons in our closets and the reconciliation we need.

The Holy Spirit was there as Peter stepped out of the comfort zone of familiar community and safety and spoke to the crowds gathered outside the house.  The Holy Spirit gave him words and power and purpose… none of which had been there before.  At that intersection of a new and an old faith, a church was born.  Lives were transformed.

We are going to leave this place today and each go our separate ways.  Whether it is off to the campground or lunch with friends or back home… pay attention to the intersections in your lives.  Pay attention to the paths you cross.  Pay attention to the other people you encounter.  And although you might not know what to say or how to say it… and even if you don’t WANT to… take a deep breath and pray….   “O Lord… I have no idea what I’m doing… please help.”

May the Holy Spirit intercede in every intersection of your life… Amen.