Thankful Giving

In our gospel reading this morning, we meet Zacchaeus, that “wee-little man”, who was really a terrible, awful person.

As Carol Howard Merritt describes him: he was “a man who collected taxes from his own people and gave it to the Roman government. And if that wasn’t nasty enough, Zacchaeus skimmed money off the top. This despicable man stole from the poor to line his own pockets… he was like the broker who added hidden fees to our widowed mother’s mortgage so he could vacation in Barbados.”

And he wasn’t a tax collector in our modern sense. In this world, you could be stopped on the street by someone like Zacchaeus and duties could be assessed for anything in your possession. “A cart, for instance, could be taxed for each wheel, for the animal that pulled it, for the merchandise that it carried.” (Rev. Wilson) No one, except for the tax collector knew how many fees he was really taking, so he could send to Rome whatever he wanted and keep the rest for himself.

As a fellow pastor pointed out, when verse 2 of our reading says that Zacchaeus was wealthy, it was an indictment about just how corrupt he truly was.

I imagine that he must have been profoundly lonely.

You see, when you live your life as a taker, you don’t make too many friends.

He also lived in a precarious position between his own people and the Roman government. He had to take from his neighbors in order to keep the occupying force happy. But that doesn’t mean he was valued or welcomed by the Romans either.

Not only that, he was a ruler among the tax collectors… which meant he couldn’t even hang out with all of the other greedy, mean old tax collectors in Israel, because he was their boss.

As much as the lepers or the Samaritans, he was on the margins of society. He had all the money he could want, but he didn’t have relationships.

He was living the opposite life described by 1 Timothy… he had placed all of his hopes on his finances, and the treasures of faith, salvation, friendship, and hope were rotting away.

Until Jesus walks by.

Jesus, who knows how to see the lonely and the lost, caught a glimpse of this sad, despicable little man in a tree.

And Jesus invited himself over for dinner.

 

There is a sequence of events that happens here that can confuse how we understand the story.

  1. Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus… he is seeking and searching for something new in life.
  2. Jesus sees Zacchaeus… and not only sees him, but knows him by name…. and probably knows every detail about his sordid little life.
  3. Jesus initiates the relationship with this person.
  4. Zacchaeus accepts and happily welcomes Jesus into his life.
  5. Zacchaeus commits to giving away half of his possessions and to repay anyone he has cheated… four times over!
  6. Jesus responds: Today salvation has come to your home, because I came to seek the lost.

 

If we aren’t paying close attention, we might think that it was Zacchaeus’s changed attitudes and his radical offering of wealth that brought salvation to his door.

We might start to think that unless we give, and give sacrificially, without abandon, that we can’t be saved.

But friends, this isn’t true.

The money you just put in the offering plate will not save your soul.

Your pledge card will not bring you salvation.

 

You see, before Zacchaeus ever offered to give a single penny back, Jesus found him.

And Jesus initiated the relationship, offered to come into his home, his life, his heart.

And Zacchaeus welcomed him in joyfully.

 

In our United Methodist understanding of grace, at that moment, Zacchaeus was saved.

At that moment, Zacchaeus accepted God’s acceptance of him.

At that moment, salvation came to his household.

It wasn’t because he gave everything to the poor.

 

I actually think the exchange that comes between Zacchaeus and Jesus after this moment drives home the point.

Zacchaeus stops along their walk and suddenly feels like he has to do something.

God’s grace has already entered his life and changed him and he isn’t sure he deserves it and he needs to respond in some way.

So he makes this radical and amazing offering of his own wealth to help others and he promises to make amends for past wrongs.

And what I think Jesus does in response is not praise Zacchaeus for his gifts, but remind him that he’s already saved.

Today salvation has come. You, too, are a son of Abraham. I came to seek the lost.

 

That might seem like a counter-productive message for Stewardship Sunday.

But I think it is important for us to understand that we can’t earn our salvation by our offering.

No, giving is our response to what God has already done for us.

It is the fruit of a life that has already been transformed by God’s grace.

It is a demonstration of gratitude for the gift that we could never possibly repay.

 

This morning, as I was driving in to church, I heard an interview with Adam Grant, author of “Give and Take.”

He said that “we all… receive unexpected and meaningful gifts – we want to pay it back, but there’s really nothing you can do to pay it back. So the next best thing is to pay it forward.”

 

Grant might be talking about human gifts, but it applies to divine ones as well.

We simply cannot do anything to repay God for the amazing, abundant, overflowing gift of salvation.

But we can pay it forward.

We can take what we have and we can bless others.

 

Our offerings, our giving, our pledges of time, talent, and treasure are one way we can say thank you to God and this church.

 

We are grateful for the Sunday School teacher who first taught us to sing “Zacchaeus was a wee little man”…. so we give to the church so other children might be blessed.

We are grateful to the Trustee who gave up their Saturday afternoon to install new lights in the bathroom… so we give to the church so that we can continue to provide a safe, welcoming space for others.

We were in the hospital and someone made us a prayer shawl… so we give thanks and we give to the church so that caring ministries might continue.

We lost our job and the people of the church prayed for us… so we give thanks and work to provide support to others.

Whether you have been a part of this church for a month or for ninety years, you are here today because someone somewhere along the line gave and made a difference in your life.

I want to invite you to turn to your neighbor right now and share who that person was who blessed you… who shared God’s love and grace and mercy with you… who do you give thanks for?

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Those people you just named, that grace of God you just pointed to… that’s why we give.

We give because we have been blessed.

We give because we have been saved.

 

John Wesley wasn’t giving his advice to “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can” to people who were still outside the life of faith.

He was speaking to people like you and me who had already experienced God’s grace.

And they were asking what they should do now.

How could they pay it forward?

How were they supposed to live as redeemed people?

 

If we have been forgiven, then we should forgive others.

If we have been healed, then we should help heal others.

If we have been blessed financially, then we should financially bless others.

 

I often wonder what happened to Zacchaeus after his dinner date with Jesus, because he isn’t mentioned again in the scriptures.

But we can imagine that he was no longer the same person.

His priorities were changed.

He let go of his old life and committed to something new.

He probably spent the rest of his life trying to say thank-you to God for seeking him out, a lost and despicable man, someone who didn’t deserve an ounce of grace or salvation.

 

The way we say thank-you for every gift of God is to use it, to share it, to pass it on to the world.

And that is why these pledge cards we have don’t only include our financial commitment to the church, but our commitment of time and talents and skills as well.

God has blessed you with something and today, you can say thank you to our Lord and Savior for every ounce of grace you have received, by making a commitment to share your gifts with the world.

 

*image: Artwork for Texas Baptists Vacation Bible School curriculum by Scott Byers

Rescued

For the first 20 or so years of my life, I understood salvation as one concrete idea: that Jesus died for my sin on the cross.

Substitutionary Atonement is what we call it.  Jesus took our place.  He was our substitute and paid the price for our sins.

But before too long, I discovered that I was terribly mistaken.

Not about Jesus dying for our sins.

But about thinking that was all salvation meant.

 

In its fullest sense, “Salvation is ‘God’s deliverance of those in a situation of need… resulting in their restoration to wholeness.’ It is restoration because salvation does not offer something new; it is God’s original intent for creation.” (Introduction, The Lord is Our Salvation)

The best word I can find to describe that original intent, the life that God intends for each of us is the word shalom.

It means completeness, wholeness, well-being.

And God’s work of salvation in Jesus Christ rescues us from whatever hell we might experience in our lives that has destroyed shalom, so we might experience life and life abundant once again.

 

Christ dying and paying the price for our sins is one piece of that work of salvation.  But it isn’t the only one.

In fact, in the Western world, there are three major understandings of what the cross means, all different ways of talking about how Jesus saves us.

These are called atonement theories.  They describe how we become at-one again with God… how we are brought back into shalom… how we experience wholeness once again.

The first is the one most of us grew up being familiar with – a Forensic understanding of salvation.   These theories say we are like a defendant on trial and have been found guilty of breaking our covenant with God. So, a penalty must be paid.  Jesus knows we are guilty and out of love, pays the price for us.  He satisfies the debt we owe.

The second is called Moral Example.  This grouping of theories claims that the cross is the natural outcome of the life of Jesus, who spoke truth to power and dared to love those who society rejected.  And in his life and death, Christ shows us how we should live, too.

The third of the major groupings is called “Christus Victor” – Christ as the Victor!  This theory claims that in the eternal battle for good and evil, we are imprisoned by sin and held captive by Satan.  Jesus defeats death and evil on the cross and we are set free.

 

Throughout this season of Lent, we are going to see how this isn’t a debate or competition about which of these sets of theories is right, but that each and every one of them is a part of the whole.  Taken all together, they describe how God continually and relentlessly works to bring us salvation, to restore us to shalom.

I want to share with you one more scripture this morning as we hear the word.

In 1 Peter, chapter 3 we hear:

17 It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.

18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous… 

19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. 

 

Right there, in three verses, all three of these major theories are at play.  Be like Jesus and suffer for doing good… He died because of our sins… and he went down to hell and preached to the spirits in prison.

 

This morning, we are going to focus on the idea of being rescued.  1 Peter tells us, and the Apostles Creed affirms that Jesus descended to the dead.  He went down into hell after the crucifixion to preach to the spirits held in the prison of death.

The verses go on to say:

In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water.

As we remember in our first reading this morning, the whole world was drowning in sin… and eight lives were rescued through the water.

With the children, we remembered the promise God made right then and there, a promise to seek forgiveness and not punishment.  God put the rainbow in the sky as a reminder that never again would life be destroyed, that God wants to restore us to life.

 

But I sometimes wonder about those souls who weren’t rescued.  Whatever happened to them?

1 Peter tells us,  God’s rainbow promise extends even to those who died in the flood.  They were trapped by their own sin, imprisoned by Satan and death,  but through the cross, Jesus wins the victory over death itself and even the unfaithful disobedient spirits of the ancient world were given the opportunity to hear the message of God’s love and offered shalom.

That’s how powerful God is.  That is how mighty Christ’s victory is.

And if Jesus can rescue disobedient spirits from hell itself, than Jesus can rescue you.

 

Maybe you are struggling with an addiction that just seems to have you in its grip.  Jesus can help set you free.

Maybe bad habits and a poor attitude have been dragging you down.  Jesus can lift you up.

Maybe you are swimming in worries and fears and feel lost in that sea.  Jesus will keep you from drowning.

 

On Ash Wednesday, we were reminded of our sin, our mortality, our finite natures.  We are all sinners.  We are all made out the dust of the earth.  And we can’t save ourselves from drowning in all of the dirt and muck of this world.

But Jesus can.

And just as God took the dust of the earth and formed us as his people, God can take the dust of our lives and make something beautiful out of it.  God can rescue us from even the dust of death and raise us up.

 

We’ve talked about some big words and some big concepts this morning. Atonement.  Christus Victor. Salvation and Shalom.

And sometimes the only antidote to being overwhelmed by new information is to look at pictures of puppies.

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These puppies are rescue dogs and these amazing photos capture them on the day they were rescued… on the day they were brought home from the shelter.

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They transform from these sad and pitiful creatures, to vibrant and life filled friends.

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They come to find themselves at home, loved, taken care of.

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And this is what God wants for us.  God wants to rescue us from the hell we experience in our lives.  God wants to save us from our guilt and addiction, from our sin and temptation, from our fears and our failures.

God wants to bring us home.  To restore us to shalom.  To wholeness. To life and life abundant.

 

Jesus is strong enough to save even the spirits in hell and Jesus can save you.  Jesus can transform you.  Jesus can set free this entire world.

 

It is interesting that Mark’s account of the wilderness  is not a long series of temptations and failures, but a few words about faithfulness:  Jesus was tempted by Satan.  He was with the animals.  The angels took care of him.  No drama. No mistakes.  No surrender.  And in the midst of it all, Satan just disappears.  Jesus transforms even the wilderness, the time of testing and struggle, into shalom – a place where all are cared for.  Pheme Perkins writes that even before his ministry began, Jesus had already broken Satan’s power on this world.

And Jesus can enter the wilderness of our lives, the prisons we construct for ourselves, and can transform it too.

Now is the time.  Today is the moment.  Let Christ set you free.

Good News and Good Works

in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.I’ve had some conversations recently about the work of Imagine No Malaria from folks who are concerned that we are doing good, but we aren’t sharing the gospel.

My first response to that question is to seek out and share more stories about how lives are being changed and, yes, saved, because of the work we have done.  We are seeking more of these types of stories from those who work in the field and can tell us about how and where the word of God is being planted and bearing fruit through the work we are doing with Imagine No Malaria.

My second response is to push back against the divide between the good news and good works.  The book of James reminds us they are like two sides of the same coin, that we can’t have faith without works.  Matthew 25 reminds us that our faithful response is to care for the least of these.  The good news Jesus preached was about more than simply eternal salvation – it was about release for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind.  It was both now and later.  Salvation is already and not yet.  When we share food and shelter and health with those who do not have them, we are sharing the gospel… we are showing them that God loves them, that we love them, and that we love because we were first loved.  We begin the relationship that plants seeds and waters sprouts and eventually bears fruit.

One reality of our missionary work over the last 160 years in Africa is that we have often built churches and clinics and schools side-by-side.  We have not necessarily made strict separations between good works and good news… they are one and the same.  We are focused on saving lives in all sorts of ways – through a relationship with Jesus, through literacy, through health, through empowerment, through justice, through hope, through the scriptures, through systematic change.

Today, I came across this blog post from a young man who I believe helps to put into words what has been on the tip of my tongue… when we heal the sick and empower the poor and are in relationship with those who are struggling – we aren’t just sharing the gospel, we are living it, we are making it known, and others will see.

I encourage you to read Greg’s story here, but the highlights for me and for our work:

…What is more important is to communicate the message of our faith, the Gospel (hint: it’s about more than just being a sinner).

But unfortunately, we haven’t been taught how to communicate the Gospel. We’ve been taught how to lead Bible studies and have fellowship, how to run prayer meetings, and draw the bridge diagram.

But we haven’t learned to communicate the Gospel.

Why do I say this? Because the Gospel is not only communicated through words, but also how we live our lives. And when I was faced with the opportunity to live according to the Gospel, I felt obligated to abandon it on the street, on my way to being a good Bible study leader…

…So that’s why I quit being a Bible study leader. Not because it’s the wrong thing to be, but because it kept me too busy to do the right thing. Because while I participated dutifully in Christian activities, a homeless man sat outside in the cold and ate popcorn. Because Shane Claiborne reminded me that Jesus would have quit being a Bible study leader too, to sit alongside that man, if for no other reason than to ask him his name and eat popcorn together.

And because Eboo Patel taught me that you don’t have to do that alone. Even if you’re the only Christian eating popcorn with a homeless man while your fellow believers sing songs and socialize upstairs, if you invite them, there are Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Jains, and Buddhists who will join you. And the funny thing is that authentic dialogue begins to happen in these sorts of situations – you build relationships and you share stories, simply because you all agree that no one should have to eat popcorn alone in the cold.

And even though you might not observe the conversion experience your evangelism training taught you to expect, your actions have communicated something deeper than your words, and your stories have taken on fuller meaning. And there’s a good chance that you’ve convinced them all of something about the Gospel.

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Our work on the ground is often done in partnership with other faith communities who share our concern for saving lives.  In a story written in 2010 about our work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sheikh Usseni Faray talked about the importance of local congregations standing together in this work:

Government can only start things once and they stop. But us, we are the community representing the people, and we preach and work with the people all the time. So if they keep the church people involved, I think it will be a lasting program and many people will benefit.

We do these good works because we are people of faith and because Jesus sends us out to heal the sick and preach the gospel.  That gospel is shared through our actions, through every dollar we raise, through every net that is hung in a home, through every relationship built, and every life that is given a reason to hope.  Sometimes we are speaking and singing and praising the name of Jesus.  Sometimes we are simply present. And sometimes that is enough.

Photo: (top) in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. (right) A United Methodist church choir welcomes visitors to Kamina, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A delegation of United Methodist church leaders and public health workers visited Kamina in observance of World Malaria Day. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Following Jesus isn't easy…

This morning in my devotion time I read from Matthew 21… the cleansing of the temple. I have been using the daily reading book from The Message and there are always good questions that pull you into the stories and make me think.

This morning, I realized that following Jesus can give a person whiplash. I imagined myself in the midst of the temple, trying to resolve my own guilt and sin, working ou my own salvation, scraping together coins to pay for the doves or goat or whatever I needed for atonement… redemption. I remember this sickening feeling that others were profiting from my mistakes.

And in walks Jesus. I’ve heard about him… seen him once… and before I realize whats happening, the table where my doves were sitting in a cage has been overturned and the birds fly free… the guy who was charging me an arm and a leg for my ticket to redemption is on his heels looking for an exit. I feel so free in that moment… like the birds.

My sin ever present, I need healing as much as the disabled and ill who crowd around him. I press in closer and realize how fortunate I was to have been “in” the system already… I was struggling… but I was not a beggar. I had opportunities many of these never had to be here and connect with God and worship in this temple… and so I fall back and let others move ahead of me.

I want to be close and I want to give others a chance… I want salvation and in a way I feel like simply in the presence of Christ it is already mine.  I feel joyful and free and giddy…

And then the priests come running out. I notice the commotion… birds flying free, goats crapping in a corner, kids running through the building, the wall of people around Jesus.

I… well, ‘m going to say it. I feel a bit ashamed. I’m not entirely sure why, but perhaps it is because these are figures of authority in my life. These have been he agents of God in my life. These are the people who always told me what salvation was. And I feel like I have betrayed them, like we are all doing something wrong.

There is a confrontation between them and Jesus and he turns his face against them and leaves as quickly as he came. And the shame and anxiety and yet residual joy and hope I felt co-mingle and I run after him. I wan to hear what he is saying. I am a flutter of so many emotions and yet I know the truest ones I felt were at his side.

Sometimes as we follow Christ we get a glimpse of possibility… only to have that hope squelched by the world, or parents, or our church… sometimes the people we have loved so dearly and who have loved us so dearly disappoint when it comes to sharing our new hopes. I’ve heard some of those stories recently and as my work… following Jesus… leads me deeper INTO the structure and the “insiders” my prayer is that I never forget that whiplash… never fail to hear Christ’s voice… never overlook those who are thoughtful and hungry and full of ideas and hopes and dreams right next to me for the sake of what I think I’m supposed to be doing. 

Mercy Trumps Judgment

The UnitedMethodistChurch has a mission.

 We have been called by God to make disciples of Jesus Christ FOR THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE WORLD.

 That last piece… for the transformation of the world… is a recent addition to our mission, but it speaks volumes about who we believe God has called us to be.

 We believe that a church which shuts its doors to the outside world is a church that is dead and lifeless.  We believe a church that is not actively engaged in mission and service is no church at all.

 And we believe as United Methodists that God wants us to focus on four particular areas: to help combat the diseases of poverty, to engage in ministry with the poor, to create new places for new people in our churches and to help develop Christian leaders for the church and the world.

 This is who we are as the UnitedMethodistChurch. We believe God uses everyday ordinary people to join in his work across the globe to bring the Kingdom of God into its fullness right here.

 Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer together, we are asking for God’s kingdom to become a reality right here on earth AS IT IS in heaven.  You are the hands and feet of Jesus for this broken world.  Are you ready to get started?!

 But before we dive in and get to work, I think that our scripture lessons for today offer a cautionary tale.  In James and in Proverbs, we find that there are problems with simply looking down on those who are hurting and trying to give them a hand out.  We can get so busy doing good things that we forget about our faith…. But more often, we get so focused on our faith that we forget about doing good things.

 James finally whittles this distinction down to two words:  Mercy and Judgment.  And no matter what translation we decide to read James 2:13 in – the message is the same… Mercy trumps judgment.

1) What is judgment and why should we avoid it.

          a) Judgement is our arbitrary assessment of other people… who is rich and who is poor, who is deserving and undeserving, what is important and deserves our time and what doesn’t… it all depends on where we stand and what we believe about ourselves.  Even while we might look at our wealth compared to others in this nation and feel poor… we could look at all that we have in relation to most of the population of this world and realize just how rich we are. Who is rich and who is poor depends on where you are standing. Our job is not to judge another person based upon how we see them or based upon their relationship to us… but to see them through the eyes of Jesus.

          b) when we place ourselves in the seat of judgment, we have elevated ourselves to God’s level and we can no longer see the fault and sin in our own lives.  These verses from proverbs are warnings to the rich who have grown comfortable in their blessedness.  They believe they are where they are because God is rewarding them for all the good they have done and can no longer see that they are agents of oppression and subsumed in their own temptations and sin.

          c) this does not mean that we do not need to account for our sins.  this does not mean that every wrong thing a person does is okay.  What it means is that it is not for US to judge the lives of others.  Our job is not to wave around signs and point out another person’s failings… our job is to walk with one another and let the Word of God transform each of our lives.  God’s word alone can convict our hearts.

2) why mercy is better

          a) to show someone mercy is to give them something they do not deserve.  When we show mercy to the rich and poor, black and white, righteous and unrighteous, what we are doing is living out a simple truth – we are all the same.  We are all sinners saved by the grace of God.  None of us “deserve” it…

          b) mercy is the work God calls us to. At worship this Wednesday we heard from Latin theologian Rene Padilla.  He made a simple but profound statement.  We are not saved by good works – we are saved FOR good works.  Jesus Christ has saved us and freed us from our self-centered sin SO THAT we can be his hands and feet to care for this world.  The Law of God helped us to see how far away from God’s intentions we had fallen… but the Grace of God gave us the freedom to get back up and to reclaim who we truly were meant to be.

          c) over and over in the scriptures, we are called upon to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and in prison, proclaim the good news. This is our job… this is why we have been saved.  This is the fruit of our faith, the evidence of our salvation, this is who we were created to be and what we have been gifted to do.

 3) So I want to ask you a question:  are you living a life of judgment? or a life of mercy?  This is a very personal question… and once that I cannot answer for you.  It is something that you must discover through prayer, through reading the scriptures and reflecting on the word of God in sermons and bible study.

But we can ask a larger question… Are we a church of judgment?  Or a church of mercy?

James writes that faith without works is dead.  In Matthew chapter 25 the sheep and the goats are separated by what they have done to the least among us.  Proverbs tells us that those who are generous are blessed.

 So, lets do a little inventory of our fruits.

1) PET Project – What about  the story of Ventura?  We helped raise funds to purchase seven of these personal energy transportation vehicles and he recieved one that year.  Ventura lost the use of his legs after being shot twice in the spine.  He has four daughters.  With his physical challenges, he has been rejected by his family.  His only income comes from selling gum on the street and charity.  His P.E.T. has provided him transportation for the dirt roads of his community so that he can get to more places and he is thankful to be alive.

2) Women at the Well – Not only have we sent three carloads of clothes, toiletries, and luggage to Mitchelville for the Stepping Out clothes closet, but we have also built relationships.  We spent time getting to know Outside Council chairperson Rev. Marlene Janssen.  And this fall, we sent a group of ten people to worship with our sisters in Christ inside the walls.  We want to continue this relationship by becoming a partner church and supporting the ministry with our dollars and cents as well.  Our buckets on the table in the middle of the sanctuary are a fun way to begin this challenge.

3) Matthew 25 – Our church has been an active supporter of the Matthew 25 Ministry Center in Cedar Rapids.  We have collected tools and games, school supplies and flower pots.  But we have also travelled in person to serve lunches during the summer and we have welcomed Rev. Clint here as he shared the story of their ministry.

4) Youth and Mission Trips – Every week, this church opens its doors to youth in our community.  They sometimes make messes and leave holes in the walls – but they need a place to call home and you have provided it.  You have also helped to send them to three different states to be in service and to encounter Jesus.  Their lives are full, rich, and blessed because of you and they have in turn been a blessing to others.

5) Community Food Bank and Clothing Closet – we regularly collect items for the food bank, the clothing closet in Williamsburg, and have helped to make sure that the shelves are full.

6) Meals on Wheels – We take our turn entering the lives of those in our community who need help by driving meals and checking in on the folks who recieve them.

7) Volunteerism – you serve at the hospital, with the library, you sing at the nursing home and read stories to children at school.  You are involved with the Legion and the Lions club and all across this town and county, state and world, you are leaders – you are active – you are doing good works.

As a church, we have heard God calling us to reflect his light into this community.  And we have responded.  That huge list of good fruits tell the story of your faithfulness, your commitment, your generosity, your patience, your spirit of hospitality and grace.

And here is what I think is the most important part.  You have not simply given money for people in need… you have spent time with these people.  You have walked beside them.  You have visited them and gotten to know them.  You have built relationships.

I sat down for lunch last week with Pastor Dieudonne.  As we all know,  earlier this year the African Methodist Ministry at St. Mark’s came and joined us for worship.  Pastor Deiudonne led us in the word and members of their church led us in song.  This summer, we returned the visit and took a group from our church there to join them in worship.

Did you know that we are the ONLY congregation that has done that?  We are the only church that has been willing to join them where they are and to put ourselves in their shoes for an afternoon as the guests, the ones who were outside of our cultural comfort zone.

I believe the biggest thing that separates an act of mercy from an act of judgment is a willingness to see someone as an equal.  An awareness that you are not so different.  The ability to move past a person’s race or class or status and to love them and to work alongside them to accomplish God’s work.

As Pastor Dieudonne and I talked, I learned that he has contracted malaria three times.  He told me that every single person who is a part of their ministry has been affected by malaria.  Every one of them has had a family member die from this completely preventable disease.

In fact, every 60 seconds, a child dies from malaria.

As United Methodists, we believe that mercy is our work to do.  We believe that God has called us to serve him in our backyard and across the world.  And as a global church, we believe that we can do something about that statistic.

When we started this effort a few years ago, it was called, “Nothing But Nets.” We partnered with the Gates Foundation and the National Basketball Association and and for $10 we encouraged people to buy a net for Africa and save a child’s life.  You know what… it works.  We have cut the death rate IN HALF….

And so now we are moving on to phase two: Imagine NO Malaria…. We believe that by the year 2015 – just three short years from now, we can completely end deaths from malaria.    Our goal as a denomination is to raise $75 million dollars to fund mosquito nets, to create clean water supplies, to have on the ground training and to fund research for medications and disease prevention.

This effort is a part of our calling to combat the diseases of poverty across the world.  You see, United Methodists don’t sit back and wait… we act.  We stand up against injustice.  We care for the least of these.  We build hospitals and schools.  We are the first on the scene when there is a disaster and the last to leave.  We believe that we can not only do some good… but that we can actually make a difference.

And we do all of this because we believe that God wants to use us to truly change lives.  God wants us to care and minister to all of our brothers and sisters in our backyards and around the world so that this planet will be better tomorrow than it was today.

God wants your time and your money and your energy… but most of all, God wants your heart.  He wants you to accept the gracious gift of love that he offers and he wants you to pass it on to others… without judgment and without pity.

Amen and amen.

Spirit of Household Salvation

Religion is social.  Religion is corporate.  Religion is political.

As Christianity spread in the time of the apostles and beyond, it was often not the work of one-on-one conversations and personal confessions of faith, but of corporate conversions… of whole nations turning from one religion to another. 

I did some reading this week about the reformation in Norway in the 16th century.  Up to this point, Norway had been a Catholic country… being converted in the 9th century through the faith of Olav II, their beloved king who was later sainted. 

But with political allegiances changing, suddenly a union between Denmark and Norway was on the horizon.  And Christian III, king of Denmark was lining up to take his place on the Norwegian throne. 

The problem… Christian was a Lutheran.  He had been taught by Lutherans.  He had even traveled as a young man and heard Martin Luther speak in person.  And so his goal was to establish his kingdom as a protestant haven.  

The first step, of course, is to get rid of the Catholic leadership.  In 1536, the Catholic bishops were kicked out and replaced with Lutheran bishops appointed by the new king.  Archbishop Olav Engelbrektsson tried to resist these reforms and keep Norway from being united with Denmark.  There was even talk about establishing Christian’s younger brother John as king… since he remained favorable to the Catholic faith.   The Archbishop tried to do everything he could to resist the change, even helping to plan the assassination of an earl who was traveling to Norway to discuss the union.  Engelbrektsson ended his days in exile.

While all of this was going on in the realms of bishops and earls and kings… What do you think the everyday person was thinking.  Overnight they were transformed from Catholics to Lutherans. They didn’t have a say in the matter, they may not have even noticed a real difference. They were converted, wholesale, as a group.

In our world today, this makes no sense to us. Faith is so private and individualized. We make our confessions and trust in a personal Lord and savior.

But historically, this is the exception and not the norm. For much of history, faith has been a corporate… A communal experience.  Your religion was based upon the faith of your father or master or lord or king.  Your flavor of Christianity was not based upon the nuances that you chose, but the political affiliations and personal whims of someone higher up the food chain.

We could argue for days about whether it is better for faith to be personalized as it is today in our nation, or a corporate experience as it still is in some places today. 

We certainly have known the advantages of being able to have our own say about our faith.  You can know our God personally… you can turn to the scriptures and can find out for yourself what they contain.  You get to decide whether or not you join the church or go to church

But I believe this isn’t an either/or question.  There are some things about having a communal expression of faith that we have lost.  As we dive into this chapter of Acts, we might be able to figure out how not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

David Matson argues that we could see the entire book of Acts as a story about houses….  We start out the narrative with the disciples gathered together in a house and the story ends with Paul under house arrest on an island, telling the stories of faith to those who will come and visit.

Then, throughout the journey of the disciples, they travel from house to house, sharing the faith they have received.  We have heard of Peter and Cornelius, Paul and Ananias… and here in this chapter Paul and Silas meet up with two different families in the city of Philippi.

One of these households is led by a woman named Lydia.  The bible tells us she is a dealer of purple cloth – a wealthy woman trading a rare luxury commodity.  We know nothing of her husband, but she does well enough for herself that either he isn’t around or isn’t relevant to the story.  She is the head of the household.  And when she hears the story of salvation in her place of prayer by the river, she invites Paul and Silas back to her home and her whole household is baptized. 

The second household conversion happens after a Roman jailer experiences a miracle.  He had locked Paul and Silas up in jail under strict orders to keep them secure.  When an earthquake shakes their bars loose in the middle of the night – he is convinced his life is over.  With the prisoners escape, he will be punished and killed.  Just as he is about to end his life – Paul calls out from the cell… they had not left, even though they could have.

The jailer is so overwhelmed that he wants to know about the faith that has sustained them in difficult times, the faith that has allowed them to be so calm in the midst of distress.  He takes the two back to his home and he and his entire household are saved.

What can we learn from these two tales? 

First:  Lydia and the soldier both experienced conversion outside of their homes…. but took their faith back home with them. And not only that… they took people back with them. 

Now, it would be important here to mention what we mean by a household.  In the Greco-Roman world, the household was the place of residence of a family, but also of all the slaves and grown children under the master of that household’s authority.  The household could be rather large and encompassed all of a person’s business, social, and familial relationships.  The pater familias had unilateral authority over his wife, his children and his servants.

This thing that they had witnessed – the story they had heard – it was too important to keep to themselves.  As the heads of their households, they knew that this faith was not something that only belonged to them but it was meant to be shared.  They opened up not only their hearts, but their whole lives to the power of God. They made sure that this new conversion in their lives extended to EVERY part of their life – their children, their wives, their servants.

When we experience faith and conversion, do we run home and tell our families?  Do we share that faith with our employees?  Do we allow God into every part of our life? Do we make room for him in our homes, in our work, in the places we go to socialize?

One way that we could reclaim this idea of household salvation is to simply open up our whole selves to his power…

Secondly, the scriptures tell us that their whole households were baptized.  The act of baptism is personal.  More than a blanket statement that a whole nation is now Lutheran instead of Catholic, to baptize a whole household means that each person would have come before Paul and Silas to recieve the water.  Young and old. Rich and poor. Slave and free.  The head of the household would have lined them all up and said – you are going to do this. 

It sounds a lot like mom and dad getting the kids dressed up for church and dragging them kicking and screaming to the family pew. 

But it was important in that time and place for the whole household to believe the same things.  In the Greco-Roman world, your household worshipped one god among many.  To bring in idols or religious artifacts related to another deity would have caused your primary god to be jealous.  A master of a household would have had strict control over the faith of those under their authority. 

That sounds harsh to us today, until we realize that every day we make choices about what our family stands for and what we consume. 

We make choices about what food we eat, what television shows are allowed to be watched in our houses, what activities we will or will not participate in.  For a family that is trying to eat healthy, McDonald’s french fries are strictly forbidden.  For a family trying to instil good values in their children, much of MTV might be off the list.  We set rules and boundaries every day and each of those decisions says something about who we are and what we believe.

We also practice in our tradition infant baptism.  And when we baptize children, we are making promises on their behalf.  We are holding their faith for them. We are making decisions about their relationship with God even though they are not even aware of God’s presence yet. 

When we do so, we promise to raise them in the church, to hold that faith for them and to teach them until the day comes when they can accept or reject that faith for themselves.

Until that day comes, our job is to feed them properly (so to speak). If we believe it, we should live it, and live it in our whole lives.

If we think back to the tale of the Norwegian Reformation, the short version of the story goes:  The King appointed a new Lutheran bishop.  The old Catholic bishop appointed a new king… and as we all know from the Ollie and Lena jokes that we sometimes tell, the Lutherans won.

Someone, somewhere up the  food chain made a decision about the faith of the people.  And at the time, they had no say.  At the time, they may not have imagined what it meant.  But as time has gone one, Norwegians by and large identify themselves as Lutherans.  They lived into the faith that was handed to them.  They have claimed it as their own. 

In the same way, our children and grandchildren might live into the faith that we hold if we continue to bring them to this place… if we nurture them in the traditions that have sustained us… if we lead them to the Christ we have come to know and love. 

Your faith extends far beyond your life.  It extends to all of your relationships.  It extends to your family and friends and into every part of your life.  Let Christ in. Let Christ change you.  And let Christ have your relationships also. 

Save Us, Doctor!

I saw on facebook that a fellow pastor was going to be preaching on Palm Sunday and had a Doctor Who reference to throw in to the mix.  I never found out what his illustration was, but it got me thinking about a recent episode I rewatched.

In the series two premiere, the new Doctor – David Tennant – is still recovering from his regeneration.  Chaos is reigning outside with a large Sycorax war ship hovering over London.  Prime Minister Harriet Jones issues an urgent plea – “Doctor, if you are out there, save us!”

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

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

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

They are full of problems and stresses and this Jesus has shown that he can solve them.  He can heal them.  He can save them.  He can make it all go away… he’s the Doctor that Harriet Jones was pleading for.

But God’s ways are not our ways. Jesus spent a week in Jerusalem, but he didn’t leave victorious… he left carried away to be buried in a tomb.  The people couldn’t understand how his way of humility and love and grace and sacrifice could bring about the reign of God and TRULY save us… save us not from our current oppressive problems but save us to the core of our very being.  And so they rejected him, crucified him, and left him for dead. If he refuses to help me the way I want to be helped, I don’t want any part of it.

I find this particular episode of Doctor Who to be such an interesting parallel, because the Doctor too is rejected in the end.  Although he defeats the Sycorax in the challenge fight, he does so without killing the leader.  He sends them off packing with a warning – “When you go back to the stars and tell others of this planet, when you tell them of its riches, its people, its potential, when you talk of the Earth, then make sure that you tell them this… IT IS DEFENDED!”

The Sycorax leave.  They head back for the stars.

But Harriet Jones… the one who cried, “Save Us!” in the first place is not satisfied.  He didn’t save them in the way she hoped he would.  He didn’t save them in a way that would continue to isolate them from the stars.  He didn’t save them in the way that she was completely willing to do.  And so with a word, the Torchwood weapon is launched and the Sycorax are blown out of the sky.

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

May we have open minds this week.  May we have open hearts this week.  And may God surprise us and challenge us and transform us along this journey so that we might accept the amazing gift of salvation that he offers.

Hosanna!

In my flower garden this spring, I have learned the difference between joy and happiness.

You see, happiness is getting a bouquet of a dozen tulips from your spouse or from a friend and setting them on the counter for a few days.  It warms your heart to be thought of, they are beautiful to look at, and it doesn’t take any work to enjoy them.  It is a pleasant surprise, and unexpected wonder.  That is happiness.

But joy is “refined and thoughtful,” (in the words of Scott Hoezee) “because it has passed through death.” Joy persists through suffering.  Joy persists through doubt.  Joy enables us to look at the cross and still shout, “Hosanna!”

And unlike the fleeting happiness of a bouquet of flowers, a bed full of tulips that you dug by hand and then planted with care… and then spent a whole winter waiting for… is a true experience of joy.

There were moments in the waiting where I worried nothing would happen.  Maybe I had planted the bulbs too deep.  Maybe not deep enough.  Maybe the weather did not get cold enough for them to really do their thing.  Maybe the squirrels would dig them up.  Maybe the nursery I ordered them from was a scam and the bulbs were duds.  A thousand different what if’s could flow through your mind in that long time of waiting, watching and hoping.

And then the miracle occurs.  The bulbs start to peek out of the ground.  The colors start to emerge from the buds.  And before you know it, you are caught in the glorious joy of color and life and aroma that sustains much longer than a simple bouquet… and has the calluses to prove the work and the pain and the sweat that preceded it.

This distinction between joy and happiness is important as we think about this Palm Sunday and the Easter Sunday that is close on its heels.  Because today, we erupted with singing and happy songs and Jesus is enteringJerusalemand maybe you, like the people on the road that morning, are surprised by the light spirit of it all.  You join in and you wave your palm branches and sing with the children and it feels good.

But what we experience on Palm Sunday isn’t costly.  It is cheap and easy happiness.  It is unexpected.  It is a surprise.  It is happy… but it is not joyful.

No, the true joy comes with Easter Sunday.  The true joy comes after we have done the hard work and walked the long journey to the cross.  The true joy comes after we have planted all of our hopes and fears into the tomb… waiting, hoping beyond hope that there just might be a possibility of life in the midst of death.  The true joy of Easter is everlasting, sustained, and does not disappoint.

In contrast, this morning will seem like a wilted bouquet of flowers forgotten on the kitchen counter… the happiness of today simply cannot compare. You see, at the same time as we are shouting – Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  We are also saying the word, “Hosanna.”  We are crying out for God to save us.  We know that the elation we are experiencing is only temporary… we know that there is still work to do.

In fact, ever since I have been here, I have shied away from celebrating Palm Sunday alone.  It is too cheery and happy clappy in light of everything that we are about to experience during this next week.  And too often, folks will skip straight from the happiness of today to the joy of Easter without experiencing any of the difficult road.

So on most Sundays we have included the Passion texts and have really spent some time with the story of Jesus’ last week.  We sat with him through dinner, we pray at Golgotha, we experience his trial and visit Herod, we walk the streets ofJerusalemto the crucifixion.  We jam pack it all into one hour on a Sunday morning so that we at least will have had a glimpse of the cost of the grace we are offered.

But this year, we are walking this road with Jesus.  Our Lenten devotions this week in particular take us through each of the days this last week of Christ’s life.  (And if you haven’t picked one up or used one up until now, feel free to join in for this last week!)

We also have three opportunities to worship and experience Holy Week and to spend time with Jesus.  Our usual Wednesday evening worship is at 6:30pm and we will also celebrate Maundy Thursday at 7:00pm in the fellowship Hall and Good Friday with other local churches at Trinity UCC at 7:00pm on Friday night.  A carpool will be leaving our church at 6:20 for those who are interested in joining us.

So let’s enjoy today for what it is – a triumphant entry – an unexpected surprise – a momentary glimpse of joy, of hope, a glimmer of happiness.

1)    The happiness you experience when you catch a glimpse of someone from God.  The people shouted, “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” And we too have experienced people in our lives who are from God.  Who bless us for a moment or two… who exemplify what it means to reflect the light of God… who have helped to make our days brighter and our roads easier.

2)    Catch a glimpse of a way out – a way of peace and not violence.  Jesus on the colt vs. Pontius Pilate and a Roman processional coming into Jerusalem.

3)    Catch a glimpse of salvation

  1. Story of the 7th graders from Dr. Scott Black Johnson… big picture we know salvation is about hell/ life and death… but in the meantime, there are all sorts of things we need saving from. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of hope on a tough day… a reminder that Jesus can calm our fears… the feeling of peace in the midst of stress.

These tulips this morning are beautiful… but like our shouts of Hosanna on Palm Sunday they will wither away… they are unexpected and surprising but they are not permanent. Maybe by the end of the week, our cries of Hosanna will turn into cries of “Crucify Him!”  Maybe by the end of the week, we will find ourselves at the foot of the cross.  Maybe at the end of hte week, we will find ourselves staring into a tomb… but let us walk this last week with Jesus – both the good and the bad –  so that we can experience the true joy of Easter Sunday – a joy that lasts… a joy that endures through even suffering… a joy that comes from Jesus.

Amen and Amen.