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.”

The Spirit of Goodness

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

But what does it really mean to be good?

The Random House dictionary has 41 different definitions for the word… and that’s just the adjectives.
But in general, I think we usually say that something is good if it fulfills our expectations – if it does what it is supposed to – and if we get some kind of benefit from it.

Take the cookies we just gave the children, for example. If they had taken a bite of the cookie and it was old or dried out… they wouldn’t be so good. They wouldn’t have been all that they were made up to be.
In the same way, we are good when we fulfill the expectations of ourselves and others and if we benefit others as we do so.

I keep using the word benefit, and that is because there are lots of things that fulfill their purpose that we would never call good.
An example – those cookies might taste good – but for all of you adults who didn’t get to eat them, since we didn’t have enough to share, they are only good for our children.
Or, think about what makes a good chef’s knife.
It is sharp, it cuts the way it is designed to, and we can use it to prepare food and eventually be fed. We benefit from the design and use of a good chef’s knife.
But, in the hands of someone unskilled, like a child, the knife becomes dangerous and what we thought was good could harm them.
In the hands of someone who is angry or revengeful – the very thing that we called good only a moment ago, can turn into a weapon.
It still has the same qualities that fulfilled its purpose… only it is being used to harm instead of help.

So… to be good, something or someone must fulfill the expectations and be a benefit.

Throughout the scriptures – we hear stories of men and women who were good:
Noah was a good man and so his family was saved from the flood.
Lot was a good man and so his family was rescued from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Even Rahab the prostitute was good. She fulfilled the expectations God had of her by taking in the spies from Israel, benefitting the people of God, and because she did so, her family was saved in the battle of Jericho.

Culturally, morally, we might wonder how could such a person be considered “good.”
Well, God has a tendency to upend our assumptions about a person’s worth or value. All throughout the scriptures, God chooses unlikely people to accomplish God’s will.

Throughout the scriptures, there are also people that are not good.
They didn’t do what was expected of them.
They lived not to benefit others, but only themselves.
And It is to such people as these that the prophets were sent.
Prophets like Samuel, Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Hosea… and our prophet for this morning: Nathan.
Today’s story is one of paradox.

You see, David was a man after God’s own heart.
We always think back on all of the good things that he did – his trust in God, his loyalty to Saul, his music, and his love…
But in some ways, David was a kind of bad dude.
As we heard this morning in our scripture, David breaks two commandments all in a week’s time.

First, he sleeps with another man’s wife. Bathsheba was married to one of his soldier’s Uriah and David saw her from afar and decided that he wanted her. Her husband was away at war, and so David took what he wanted.

Then, to cover up the fact this terrible thing he has done, David breaks another commandment. He has Uriah killed out on the battlefield.

Neither of these are good things. His actions go against God’s expectations for David and they harm both Uriah and Bathsheba and they mar his moral leadership, harming the entire nation.

Nathan’s job here is simple. He is called, he is expected, to bring God’s judgment upon David for these acts.
So this morning, we are going to look at how the goodness of Nathan shines through and how WE might be called to be good in the fact of another person’s wrongdoing.

First, Nathan helped the truth to come to light.

In Ephesians 5 we hear that God’s children should live as children of light and that “the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth.”
With the Holy Spirit living inside of us, we are expected to allow the truth to be seen in the world.

Grace and mercy, forgiveness and love are all good and holy things, but they only have meaning in relation to the truth of what has gone wrong.

When I attended the General Conference in Tampa, Florida five years ago, we spent one evening participating in a service of truth-telling about how United Methodists and our predecessors had harmed Indigenous Peoples across the world. As people of faith and in the name of Jesus Christ, we perpetuated crimes against our brothers and sisters. We took land, forced our values upon others, and destroyed cultures. We actively resisted peace processes and in some cases were the instigators of violence and bloodshed. That night, we heard stories about the role that Methodists had played in the Trail of Tears, and in the slaughter of peoples in Philippines, Africa, and Norway.

The act of betrayal that hit closes to home was that of the Sand Creek Massacre. A Methodist preacher, U.S. Army Col. John Chivington, ordered the attack on an encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho. These native peoples had come to that site to fulfill their side of a recent peace treaty that had been made with the U.S. Government. While their men were away hunting, Chivington attacked the camp, killing mostly women and children.
It was hard to hear. It was hard to re-live. It was hard to dream that the damage could ever be reversed and that wounds could ever be healed.

And that night, one of the things our leadership focused on was that this night was not the full act of reconciliation. That night was only the first step. Repentance has to begin with understanding what we have done.
Nathan did not ignore or shy away from the wrongs and the harm that David had perpetrated. Rather, he made sure that the truth came to light and that David knew that he had done wrong.

Second, Nathan provided a way for David to turn away from his harm towards good.

The prophet was fully aware of David’s sin.
Had he followed the letter of the law, the right thing to do as soon as David confessed would be to have him stoned. The law was clear that the punishment for adultery and murder were death.
But Nathan shows us that goodness goes beyond simple righteousness. It is far more simply pointing out the wrongs in others.
Nathan spoke the truth about David’s sin, but his first instinct is not to carry out a sentence, but to wait for a response from David.
As people of faith, too often we are quick to bring judgment and condemnation upon others. We are good at bringing unrighteousness to light. We demand that justice be carried out swiftly through every possible means available.

What we aren’t good at is leading people into repentance.
When righteousness is only about the letter of the law, judgment can become a weapon, leading us to harm people or communities.
But by telling David a story, Nathan creates an opportunity for David to confess, to repent, and to choose to live a different life.
In the years that have followed that night at General Conference, United Methodists in various parts of the world have been working to listen and to repent of the various ways we have harmed indigenous peoples. One group in particular was formed to learn more about the tragedy at Sand Creek and to explore whether or not healing could be possible.
Four years later in Portland, a member of the Northern Cheyenne, William Walks Along, shared that although that date “can never be erased from the memory of our people… together let us discover the treasurers we can learn from hardships and from the deeds and misdeeds of our fellow human beings.”

He was extending a hand of friendship to the United Methodist Church and the willingness of fellow descendents of those victims to reconcile and move forward together.

Third, Nathan blessed David because of his repentance.

Not only did the prophet bring the truth to the light, not only did he invite David into a spirit of repentance, but Nathan also gave him the encouragement he needed to faithfully follow God in the future.

Nathan did what was needed to set David back on the right path… what was needed to build him up so that he could once again fulfill God’s expectations for him and live to benefit the children of Israel.
That does not mean that there were no consequences of his actions…. But Nathan reminded David that there was also room for God’s grace and mercy to flow back into his life.

That is a reminder that we all need.
As Christians, we have all have fallen short of the glory of God.
That is the plain and simple truth.
Every single one of us have places in our lives where we need to repent, where we need to turn around and seek God’s forgiveness.
On our own, we are unrighteous and our hearts seek our own benefit and expectations instead of God’s.
And yet, through the grace of Jesus Christ, we are made righteous.
I believe the basis of righteousness is fact that God sets us right.
God forgives us.
God leads us on the right paths.
It has nothing to do with how many answers we get right or how many good deeds we do.
It has everything to do with God and the divine goodness that exceeds every expectation and whose great love seeks only our benefit.
And when we are made righteous, when we are made good, we are meant to let that goodness become contagious. God’s grace and mercy is not ours alone… it is meant to be shared.

Friends, you are armed with a powerful tool that can be used for good or for harm in this world.
The truth of God, the reality of God’s expectations in our lives is now in your hands. And you are invited to let that truth to be know, but you are also invited to share it in a way that brings blessing and benefit to all.

We Have Found the Messiah

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“I am not the Messiah”

That’s probably pretty obvious to all of you.  Of course, I’m not the Messiah.

But I wasn’t talking about me.

These were the words of John the Baptist as he started his ministry.

He was out there, talking to people about the coming Kingdom of God, preaching, inviting people to repent… well, actually, doing things that I typically do as a pastor.  

And people started to wonder about him.

Who are you?

Are you Elijah?

Are you a prophet?

Are you the Christ?

“I am not the Messiah” he answered.

“I’m just a voice, crying out in the wilderness, making the Lord’s path straight.”

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it might mean to make the Lord’s path straight and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really about making it easier for people to connect with God.

If you go back to the origins of the phrase from Isaiah, the Hebrew word used in this passage actually means to clear the land… to remove the rocks and roots and everything that gets in the way so that something new can be planted, so that something new can be done.

John was someone who was called to help clear out the obstacles that prevent people from experiencing God.  To clear the way for God’s salvation.

 

And so in our passage today, we hear about what happens when the Messiah does show up.  John is out there, doing his job and Jesus comes to be baptized… by him!    He has this amazing experience and vision and realizes that THIS is the Messiah.  THIS is the one they had been waiting for. 

But John’s job isn’t finished. 

 

No, John’s role is to keep pointing to Jesus, to keep making it easy for people to come and discover the Messiah for themselves.  

And so the next day, John is hanging out with two of his own disciples.  And when he sees Jesus walking by, he cries out:  “Look!  It’s the Lamb of God!  That’s him!  That’s the one I was telling you about!”    

And so these two start to follow Jesus.  And then they reach out and invite others to come and see.  “We have found the Messiah!” they tell their friends and neighbors and siblings.  “Come and see!”

 

In many ways, the beginnings of the church was a pyramid scheme.

You find one person, and that person finds two people, and then those two people each find two people, and then those two people… and before you know it, there are 2.2 billion followers of Jesus Christ in the world.   

 

The question I want to explore this morning is how you and I are called to keep this church going.  In many ways, our job is simple.  We have found the Messiah!  We don’t have to BE the Messiah.  We don’t have to save this world all by ourselves.  We don’t have to single handedly run this thing or be perfect or fulfill every obligation.  

We have found the Messiah.  We already have someone who can do that.

 

No, I think you and I have two jobs.  

 

First,  it is state loudly and clearly to all the world that “I am not the Messiah.”

Will you repeat that with me?  “I am not the Messiah”

Let’s say it like we really mean it: “ I AM NOT THE MESSIAH.”

That might seem like a strange exercise, but the truth is, we aren’t perfect.  We are totally unworthy of this calling.  We will make mistakes all the time.

In fact, we are only 15 days into this year and I have already made a bunch of small mistakes and a couple of big ones.  But I learn from them.  I keep going.  I try to grow and do better the next  time.  That is all that we can do. 

One of my own failings is that sometimes I set the bar too high.  And I’ve heard from some of you, who are overwhelmed that you don’t feel like you are good enough or can do enough for the church.  And I’ve heard from some of you that you are burnt out and tired and trying to do all that you can, but you simply can’t do any more.  

You know what?  None of us are the Messiah.

None of us are good enough to be here.  And we all have some kind of brokenness in our lives – be it a broken relationship or our bodies are broken and letting us down or we’ve broken promises to ourselves or others.  

We aren’t perfect.  And we aren’t supposed to be. We are not the Messiah.

 

But we ARE here today, because we think we have found the Messiah.  

I am part of the church, not because it’s a community of perfect people who never make mistakes or let one another down, but because I believe that this is a place where broken people find healing.  

I am part of the church because this is where I hear the stories of Jesus Christ and in the midst of the brokenness, I meet Jesus all the time.

Rachel Held Evans is a Christian writer and blogger and recent talked about why people come to church. And she said:

You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.

What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.  (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html?utm_term=.14f389a46dd4)

And so our second job is to make it easier for people to come and meet the Messiah. To clear the way.  To invite our friends and neighbors and siblings to join us on this journey.  To ask them to come and see what it is that we have found here:  life in the midst of death, healing in the midst of struggle, hope in our despair, forgiveness in our mistakes.

 

Our Administrative Council has been wrestling over the last few months with what we want to set as goals for this church in 2017.  And part of what we have been doing is looking forward as well to what God is calling us to as a church.

We’ve had a vision for the last four or five years to “Live a life, in Christ, of love, service, and prayer”   and part of what I have been pushing them, and us, to think about is so what?  

What is going to be different in this world because we have done so?  

 

You know, the meaning of “salvation” is “to heal.”  It is God’s deliverance of those in a situation of need, resulting in their restoration to wholeness.  

Taking what is broken and making it whole.  

That’s the business God is in.

What if that is the business we were called to be in?

We are not the Messiah, but we are here, because we have experienced God’s love, grace, and healing power.  

So what if we lived in such a way, if we loved in such a way, if we served in such a way, if we prayed in such a way that we could clear a path for others to come and find Jesus here, too.

 

In a few minutes, we are going to take a moment to remember our baptism.  We are going to remember that we have been saved and healed and are being made whole by the Lord Jesus Christ.    

And part of this rememberance is being honest about just how fall we have fallen short.  We have ALL fallen short.  None of us are perfect.  We are not the Messiah.

But we will also be invited to make anew some promises to God.  

Because, we might not be the Messiah, but we, the church, believe that God can use us and use our gifts to help make it easier for others to come and find Jesus, too.  

And so our covenant prayer simply places our lives in God’s hands.  It invites us to remember that we are not the Savior, but that we are willing to let God work in our lives this year.  

 

I am not the Messiah.

You are not the Messiah.

But we have found the Messiah.  

Thanks be to God.

 

Practicing Our Religion in Public

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By some accounts, yesterday morning I did exactly the opposite of what Jesus tells us in Matthew.

Some of us gathered at a local coffee shop, a public place, to pray and impose ashes and remember we are merely human.

We were out there, practicing our religion in public.

I always find this passage from the gospel of Matthew such a very strange text to be assigned for Ash Wednesday, but there it is. Every year, on this day, these are the words that are proclaimed.

When you pray, shut the door and pray in secret.

When you give, don’t look for praise.

When you fast, don’t let it show.

 

All of these seem to speak against exactly the kind of public activity of gathering in a coffee shop to impose ashes.

Or the rather public display of walking outside of the church after worship with a big black cross on your forehead.

We are starting a series in worship here at church called, Renegade Gospel, and are reminded that Jesus didn’t come to start a religion. Jesus didn’t come to hand out new rituals for us to follow.

 

But you know what, Jesus did come to start a revolution.

Jesus did come to re-instigate a relationship.

Jesus came because of the simple fact we remember today. We are nothing but dust and to dust we shall return.

 

When we look deeper and contextually at our gospel reading in Matthew today, we come to understand that Jesus isn’t warning against being religious people in public.

No, he is asking us to stop pretending to be religious just because we are in public.

Jesus is calling us back into relationship… with God, with ourselves, with one another.

He is calling us back to the reality of our sin, our failures, our outward trappings of religion that demonstrate little or no faith on the inside.

As the Message translation sums up this passage: When you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production… Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace. (Matthew 6:5-6)

 

That sentiment is echoed in the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:13. He is reaching out to them and asking that they listen, that they heed his words, because of what they have seen and heard about his faith.

He hasn’t hidden it. He has lived it. Fully. And living his faith has gotten him into lots of trouble.

The kindness and holiness of spirit, the genuine love and truthful speech… all of it has brought dishonor, ill repute, punishment… and yet he and the other disciples persist. They are not afraid to live out their faith publically for all to see and directly in the face of the religion of the day.

 

We might think of religion as the rituals and rules, the culture and conditions of faith. It is the box we put our faith in.

But Jesus comes to break the box apart and pull us out into the world.

Jesus comes to help us understand that our relationship with him is about far more than prayerful words and pious actions.

The gospel is yearning for us to be so caught up in its mercy, love and goodness that we can’t help but live into its revolutionary reality.

We are called to stop pretending to be religious and start living faithfully.

 

Whether this morning, gathered in a public space, or right here, tonight, in this community of worship, we are proclaiming the revolutionary message of the gospel.

We are dust.

We are nothing.

We are sinful.

We need help.

And those words are anathema to our culture. In a world where we try to show how strong and powerful and successful they are – they are tantamount to treason.

But we stand on the street corner and say them anyways… because they are true.

And because Jesus has come.

The one who created us out of dust will re-create us from the dust of death.

There is mercy and forgiveness in this place.

There is life, even in the midst of death.

And that, we should proclaim from every place we find ourselves.

We should invite every friend and stranger alike into that revolutionary truth.

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It was a Monday afternoon, in Marengo, and a young woman walked into the church and asked to use the telephone.

Not a problem, I said.

And while she sat in the office dialing numbers and getting no response, I sat at my desk trying to pick out hymns for worship the next Sunday. Are you stranded? I asked.

I learned that Maria had just been released from the county jail, was far from home, and no one was coming to get her.

She finally got a hold of a friend or a neighbor… someone she thought might help and was chewed out over the phone.

She hung up in frustration. Maria had no options.

She was seven months pregnant, in Marengo with no vehicle or ride, and needed to get home to the Quad Cities to her kids.

In Isaiah chapter 40, the prophet is moved to share God’s compassion for the people of Israel in exile. He gave them words of comfort in the midst of their trial and tribulation. And then Isaiah hears a voice:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

He was to tell the people that EVERY obstacle that came between them and their salvation and their home was being removed.

In this time of worship, let us listen once again for the cry of the prophets.

****

I think about that woman often.

I thought about her as a group of us gathered in Ankeny about a month ago for the “Right Next Door” Conference and as we were surrounded by all of these people.

They represented those we knew, and people we have yet to come to know, who are impacted by addiction, domestic violence, incarceration, human trafficking…

We were invited to open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to see them… and us… in a new way.

Because, let’s be honest: we, too, have been impacted by these things.

We are not immune to the realities of alcohol or drugs, abuse, crime, or sex.

But we often leave those parts of our lives outside of the church.

Friends, those realities are deeply part of who we are and ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist can keep us from relationship with God.

Those people in exile saw an immense gulf separating them from their home and their God. Valleys of sin and mountains of guilt lie between them and the Lord.

We face those obstacles, but I’m increasingly aware that some of the mountains and valleys that keep people from the Lord include artificial barriers we put up to “protect” the church.

It is not just their past that keeps people like Michael or Maria from walking in the doors of the church.

So my question for us to ponder is this: What are the barriers we put up as a church? What keeps people who are struggling from having a relationship with God in this place?

 

****

A voice is crying out in the wilderness:

Prepare the way of the Lord!

Make it easier for people to come to God!

Help clear out a path!

Make a smooth and straight road for the Lord to come.

 

Maria found the courage to walk across the street to the church and ask to use the phone.

And I’m going to be honest, there are all sorts of mountains and valleys that might have kept me from helping her.

  • I was there in the building alone and I had been fighting the suggestions that I keep the doors locked when it was just me there.
  • I was in the middle of trying to get some work done and I was really busy.
  • She had just been released from prison.
  • I didn’t know if she was feeding me a line or if she was telling the truth.
  • I didn’t know if she was safe to be around.

Prepare the way of the Lord!

The door was open and I invited her in. I sat with her as she made her phone call.

 

Make it easier for people to come to God!

I passed the box of Kleenex when she felt betrayed and abandoned by her friend on the phone. And, knowing she was at the end of her rope, I asked if she needed a ride.

 

Make smooth and straight the road for the Lord to come!

We gathered up her bag and I set aside my work, and on the way out the door, she asked if she could have one of the bibles on the shelf. We got in my car and drove 90 some miles to get her home.

 

Some of you might be thinking that I am incredibly naïve and too trusting.

But I think that we, as people of faith, aren’t foolish enough.

We are called to prepare the way of the Lord – and that means knocking down barriers and building up gaps in this world.

We are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus wherever he leads us.

We are called to take risks in order to care for the least and the last and the lost of this world.

We are called to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and to eat in the presence of our enemies.

We are called to be vulnerable with one another and admit our faults and our weakness.

Over and over again, we hear God tell us: Do NOT be afraid, for I am with you.

 

And perhaps what is more naïve is to imagine that sin and danger exists only outside the walls of this church.

There are people in this room who are in recovery or who love someone who is… just as there are people in this room who are in denial about needing help.

Some people in this church have experienced abuse as a child or a spouse… and there are people in this room are abusers.

Our congregation has members who have been in prison or who love people who are in prison.

In this room, there are those who have visited pornography sites and probably even men who have frequented prostitutes.

We just don’t talk about it.

 

We are entering the season of Advent and the first character we discover is a prophet named John the Baptist.

He wasn’t afraid of what others thought.

He wasn’t afraid of what might happen to his own life.

He wasn’t afraid to tell the truth.

And He prepared the way for countless people to let go of their old lives and embrace God’s love.

 

He prepared the way of the Lord by calling people out to the river… to a space carved out for people to be honest about who they are… a space where they could name and repent of their sins… a space where they could receive forgiveness and new life.

 

He carved out a clear path for all people… no matter who they were… to come and be in God’s presence.

 

Isn’t that what church is supposed to be all about?

J&MES: Mercy & Judgment

I love to play games. Board games, video games, card games…

One of my favorite ways to spend time with family is to grab a deck of cards and play all evening long.

Pinochle and 500 in particular. In both, there is some luck involved in the hand you are dealt, but also a lot of strategy during the card play. The games involve bidding, communication with your partner, and risk taking. Because you never know when your cards might get trumped.

You see, in both games, there is a trump suit. And that means that whoever wins the bid gets to pick the suit… whether diamonds, hearts, clubs, or spades… that will automatically win anytime they are played.

No matter how high of a card you play… a trump card can beat it.

In our life of faith, there are a lot of trump cards we can play. Actions we take or words we say that stop a conversation in its tracks or change the trajectory of a person’s action.

As James writes to the people of God, he is basically telling them that they have two kinds of trump cards to choose from: Mercy & Judgment.

The question is… which is more faithful? And which are YOU going to play?

 

Each of us were handed a card as we walked in this morning. For the purposes of our message this morning, I want you to ignore whatever the number or suit is of the card you were handed and instead I want you to pick your own ranking.

I want you to think about the worst thing you have ever done in your life. The biggest sin you have committed. That one that stays with you. Maybe, it is the one others keep reminding you about. Maybe, the one no one else even knows about.

How would you rank that sin?

Is it a four of stealing?

Is it a jack of adultery?

Is it an ace of lies?

No matter how we have ranked our sin, no matter what suit it is, God has a word for us today.

Because no matter how high of a card you have or you play… a trump card can beat it.

And in our life of faith, we can choose between two suits of trump: Mercy & Judgment.

 

First, let’s look at what it would mean to play the trump card of judgment.

When you choose judgment as your trump card, then when you see sin in the world, you choose to name it. You choose to treat others based upon their obedience to the Law of God, because you are playing by the rule of Law.

And that means that every one of the Ten Commandments Moses chiseled into the stone tables, every one of the 613 laws of the Old Testament, every single rule of the scriptures applies.

Not just for other people, who you are judging…. But for yourself, too!

This is the same message Paul shares with the Roman community. In chapter 2 of his letter to the Romans, he speaks about the difference between living under the law and living under grace… and specifically is speaking to a Jewish community. “Those who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law… If you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law…. Then why don’t you who are teaching others teach yourself.” (Romans 2: 12, 17, 21)

If you choose to judge others by the Law, you are choosing to live under the Law. And that means all the Law applies to you.

One of the big problems that James sees with this is that Judgment is often arbitrary.

We pick and choose which laws we are going to judge by.

As The Message translation of James 2:1 puts it: “My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith.”

The laws we tend to judge by ARE influenced by the changing tides of culture. We can see how the important sins of the day have changed through time… whether we are focusing on slavery, prohibition, child labor, sexuality, abortion… some sins get elevated to the top and are THE standard by which we judge other people.

If we go back to the game of cards… they are the ones that we think are the Aces, Kings and Queens of sin.

But as James writes, “you can’t pick and choose in these things.”

If you are going to live under the law, you have to live under the ENTIRE law. And Paul says it is impossible: “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” (Romans 2:23)

But we keep trying to play the trump cards of judgment, and we point out to others the exact rank and suit of their cards.

The problem is, we tend to use our life as the measuring stick, rather than the law. We pick out their suits by the Laws we choose to follow and rank them based on our own obedience, success, and failures. Who is rich and who is poor… who is deserving and undeserving… all of these distinctions depend on where we stand and what we believe about ourselves…. Not how God sees them or us.

And God sees all sin equally. It doesn’t matter if you are a serial killer or committed adultery or if you stole a candy bar when you were seven… we are all sinners.

Every single sin, no matter how we rank them… whether it is an ace or a three… they are equal. They all get trumped by judgment.

 

The other option is to choose mercy as your trump card. When you do so, it is grace that sets the rules of the game.

A very simple definition of mercy is to give someone something they do not deserve.

And as we just heard, none of us deserve grace. “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory,” Paul writes… and then continues, “but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace.” (Romans 3:23-24)

The Law of God helps us to see how far away from God’s intentions we have fallen, but it is only the Grace of God that gives us the freedom to get back up and reclaim who we were truly meant to be.

On Tuesday of this week, Pastor Todd and I were in Ames to hear a presentation from Bishop Ken Carter who presides over the Florida Annual Conference.

First and foremost, Bishop Carter reminded us that we were all made in the image of God. Before the fall, before sin entered the world, we were made in God’s image.

And in our tradition, we believe that no sin, no matter how big, can ever take that image of God away from us. It is there… deep within our lives.

Every person has it… whether they are aces by the world’s standards or fours and fives.

And God’s grace enters our lives while we are still sinners and sets us free.

In our tradition, we talk about the justifying grace that saves us, but again, grace has nothing to do with anything we have done, with our gifts or our merits…. It is simply our acceptance of the fact that God has already accepted us.

It is our decision to stop playing by the rules of Law and to start living by the rule of grace.

Or as James puts it, “talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free.” (2:12)

When we live by the rules of grace and play the trump card of mercy, then again, we have to treat every person in this world the same. No kings or threes here, either.

And the trump of mercy allows us to see others not as the worst thing they have ever done, but instead to see the image of God in their lives.

 

Bishop Carter also shared with us this past week a really concrete picture of the difference between playing the trump of judgment and playing the trump of mercy.

He pointed to two well-know, important people of faith: Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.

Both of them are holy men. They have both dedicated their lives to God’s word.

Yet, their words of response to one of the big “sin questions” of our time are striking.

In regards to homosexuality, Pope Benedict said: “although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil.”

Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?”

The world saw Pope Benedict as a continuation of a church that was declining in relevancy, pointing out the sins of the world and judging without paying attention to its own sins.

But we have seen the world respond in a different way to Pope Francis, and his focus on mercy has everything to do with it.

He washed the feet of prisoners on Good Friday. He lives a life of humility. He has declared a season of mercy and forgiveness of those who have had abortions. He is calling the church to treat every single person with mercy, love, and grace.

He has not abandoned the churches official positions on any of these controversial subjects, but he has let go of the trump card of judgment. He refuses to play it.

Bishop Carter pointed out that the more we approach holiness, the more humility we should have and the more we leave judgment in the hands of Jesus.

And what we see is that others’ lives are transformed not by playing a trump card of judgment and pointing out their sins.

No, transformation happens in the presence of holiness and grace and love… when the trump card of mercy wipes away whatever suit or rank has defined us and allows us to remember the image of God that is in our lives.

 

Mercy or Judgment?

 

James is pretty clear… Mercy trumps everything…. Even Judgment.

Plural Pronouns and Prayers

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Yesterday, our family was boating on the Cedar River and we pulled into this little cove we like to visit. Often, in the summer, it is full of people, but since it was cloudy and cool with sprinkles here and there it was calm and peaceful.

Another boat pulled up with two little girls inside… twins, five years old.

They hopped on the shore to play in the sand, but that water was just too tempting.

First their toes dipped in.

Then the ankles.

And then there were squeals as they ran back to the safety of the sand.

After a few minutes of this back and forth, they held hands and jumped in together.

 

They reminded me of mornings at my grandparent’s lake house.

We’d start out the day by putting on our swimming suits and after a rushed breakfast we’d run down to the dock and dip our toes in.

But the water was so cold that early in the morning none of us was ever brave enough to do it on our own.

The only way we got wet before noon is if someone pushed us in…

or if we grabbed someone else’s hand and we did it together.

 

Today, we, too, are diving in.

We are diving into a series on prayer.

 

For some of us, prayer is as scary and daunting as the ice cold waters of a lake. We like to dip our toes in, but we run back to the safety of the shore as quickly as possible.

 

Others of us are more familiar with prayer. We make prayer part of our daily lives like swimming laps at the pool.

 

But here is what I have learned about prayer… just as I have learned about diving into the waters… it is always easier to do with a friend.

And, as Jesus taught us in the most basic prayer, it is something we are supposed to do together.

 

In fact, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he taught them a very simple prayer without any singular personal pronouns.

 

Let’s say that prayer together… Our Father…

 

Not once we do we say, “I” or “me”… it is always “us” or “we.”

 

And that tells us a little bit something about our faith and our life of prayer together.

 

OUR FATHER: It’s not my father… it’s our father… we are brothers and sisters

 

GIVE US TODAY OUR DAILY BREAD: our faith is based around the table… we pray for daily doses of love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness, but we also practically pray for real food and sustenance to be given to our brothers and sisters.  And we become Jesus to one another when we provide food and assistance through our food pantry and when we pray for hunger relief.

 

FORGIVE US OUR SINS: not just personal sins, but corporate sins: economic justice, our greed, ignoring the cries of the needy.  In Iowa, there are 117,000 children living in poverty.  And it is a sin that we have allowed that to be a reality.  God calls us to respond to the needs of others and when we turn our backs, we need to confess that sin and act.

As the United Methodist Church of Iowa, we are committing ourselves to respond to poverty and reach out to help support and educate our young people.  Our Bishop has challenged us to donate 500,000 books to children in poverty and to commit to 1,000,000 hours of reading to children who are in the most need in our communities.  And we will be talking about ways to engage in this work in the coming weeks and months.  Together, we can help change a child’s story. Read More Here

 

AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO SIN AGAINST US: read the story of Farmer’s Chapel UMC, forgiving their arsonist and inviting them to worship (pages 20-22)

 

SAVE US… DELIVER US… We are in this together. We pray for one another, we hold each other accountable. We watch each other’s back. Like recovery groups that provide partners and support, a place where you always know there is someone else on this journey with you, we are that for one another.

 

Matthew 18: When two or three are gathered, I am there…

 

Turn to your neighbors. As two or three people, I want to invite you right here and right now to pray for one another. You don’t have to have a specific prayer request in mind, but turn to each other in prayer and lift up those who are closest to you right now…

 

Amen.

Knowing the End of the Story

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Welcome, friends, to Holy Humor Sunday. This day is part of a tradition (a very old tradition) of laughing on the Sunday after Easter as we celebrate the cosmic joke that God plays on sin and death when Jesus Christ is raised from the dead.

 

It is a day to laugh, to lift up our hearts, to thank God that we know already the end of the story.

And its important that we hold on to that promise, because while we look out at the world and think about our personal lives, we discover all sorts of things that might cause us to yell or scream or break down in tears.

Another unarmed black man was killed this week in our nation.

A tornado levels a community in Illinois.

Friends diagnosed with terminal illness.

Job losses.

So many people in our community are homeless today, are broken, are struggling right now.

 

I know in my bones that God has already won.

I know that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.

I understand.  I believe.

But I find it so hard to keep that Easter joy in my heart because we haven’t reached the end of the story yet!  We are inbetween times… in between the empty tomb and the new creation.  It’s here, but not fully.  It’s already, but not yet.

How on earth can we laugh at a time like this?  How can we laugh as towns are ravaged by deadly winds and little ones go to bed hungry tonight?  How can we laugh when people are staring death in the face and losing?  How can we laugh when the disparity between the haves and the have nots is so stark?

Maybe the question is… how can we not laugh?

How can we not just take a deep breath and remember that God is in control… not us.

St. John Chrysostom preached in his famous Easter sermon:

If anyone is devout and loves God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If anyone is a wise servant, let him rejoice and enter into the joy of his Lord.

He gives rest to him who comes at the 11th hour, even as to him who has worked from the first hour. And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first. Let all then enter into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, keep the feast. You sober and you heedless, celebrate the day.

Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast… Let all receive the riches of loving-kindness.

Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.

O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.

Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.

Christ is risen, and life reigns.

Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of the dead.

To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

 

This world is broken and imperfect and horrible things happen all around us.  But if we cannot laugh in the midst of our sorrows, then the Devil has already won.

If we cannot laugh and lift up one another’s spirits, then there is no hope.

If we cannot laugh and rejoice, then why keep going at all?

Christ is risen. Death is overthrown. Life reigns.

We don’t have to be afraid.  We don’t have to be scared.  We know the end of the story and we can laugh in the face of all that tries to hurt us.

Those words are so powerful…  and so hard to believe in.

But maybe… just maybe… if we get together as a community and we laugh, if we practice together what we preach, then we will find the faith we need to trust.

Christ is risen. Death is overthrown. Life reigns.

And because of that our hearts are filled with joy. Amen.