Altars Everywhere!

Defiant Praise – John van de Laar
There are many doorways to cynicism, Jesus,
Many reasons for despair,
May causes for fear;
But there is no excuse for giving them ultimate power;
Not if we really believe what we claim to believe.

Resurrection is real, Jesus;
We have touched it, and seen it;
Our own lives bear witness to it,
And it constantly reveals itself in our world.
And so, in spite of the fear that nags at us,
In the face of the despair and cynicism that taunts us,
In denial of all that would seek to steal life away,
We offer you our love,
Our devotion,
Our lives,
As an offering of resurrection faith
And defiant praise.
Amen.

Over these past few weeks, we have been talking about what it is like to live in Scare City.
Our fear of not having enough or being enough made us want to build tall towers and make a name for ourselves.
Our fear of the unknown and what lurks around every corner kept us from stepping out in faith.
Our fear of those who are different – who live on the other side of the tracks – caused us to miss opportunities to share our gifts with them or to receive blessings from them.

Fear, scarcity, cynicism… these are all things that limit our ability to fully experience the life God has given us.
In our attempts to cling to what we have, we don’t allow ourselves to take hold of what is truly life.

Our scripture this morning comes from a letter written by Paul to a young minister named Timothy.
Timothy was having a tough time in his work. In many ways, he was living in Scare City, perhaps facing fears that he wasn’t good enough, he was too young and unexperienced; maybe he didn’t feel brave enough for what God was calling him to do.
Or maybe, he was a young pastor, sent to a church where everything was hunky dory and he was having a hard time helping the church to grow – both in numbers and in faith.
So Paul sent this letter as a form of encouragement that young man’s ministry and as a reminder of what was really important… and I’m finding it helpful and encouraging as well.
I think its important for all of us to hear this call to move out of our attitudes of scarcity and to move into a sense of God’s abundant grace and love in our lives.

Because, friends, that is our call.

We are called to dismantle all those symbols of fear and scarcity in our lives so that we can embrace God’s abundant, joyful, overflowing life.
In our worship space this morning, we have literally dismantled the scaffolding that symbolized over these past few weeks the towers we build, the corners, and the walls…
Instead, all of these pieces are now altar spaces of their own… filled with signs of God’s hope and love and mercy that pours out into our lives.
They are symbols of OUR resurrection faith and defiant praise of God in the midst of a world that so often seems scary and uncertain.

Paul’s letter to Timothy was filled with reminders of how he could shed those fears.
The instructions were meant to help him fight the good fight of faith and to take hold of the eternal life to which he was called and for which he made his confession.
Confession isn’t a word that we use every day in our faith tradition.
We confess when we have done something wrong or when we are sorry, but the way it is used here also means to confess what we believe to be true.
Jane Anne Ferguson reminds us that this likely referred to the confession that Timothy made in his baptism.
A confession that he was God’s child.
A confession that he would serve God and love his neighbors.

A confession not unlike the one that we make in our baptisms…

I’ve been thinking about those promises that we in fact made during our baptisms and how they connect with the fears and the scarcity that lurk on the edges of our lives.

[slides for baptism]
So often, the feeling that we are not enough and that we have to build towers to make a name for and protect ourselves… that desire to have more and more and more… well, those are the powers of consumerism and nationalism run rampant.
When our desire to earn and spend and save money becomes idolatrous… when our patriotism blinds us to our kinship with brothers and sisters of other nations… then it is time for us to remember our confession.
Will you let the Spirit use you as prophets to the powers that be?
We accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves!
That is resurrection faith. That is defiant praise. That is how we build altars everywhere in this world!

When our world is filled with jealousy, conflict, abuse, and rumors… when there is a constant state of bickering and violence shows up on our news every single day… when the threats of war and destruction loom over us… then it is time for us to remember our confession…
Will you turn away from the powers of sin and death?
We renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin!
That is resurrection faith. That is defiant praise. That is how we build altars everywhere in this world!

Where there is division and anxiety over those who look different or speak different or come from different places. When we look out in judgment upon those who don’t have the things that we have or when we hesitate to see and name and celebrate the gifts of people we think are below ourselves. When we forget that we, like Paul, are completely unworthy of the love of God for us… well, then it is time for us to remember our confession…
Will you proclaim the good news and live as disciples of Jesus Christ, his body on earth?
We confess Jesus Christ as our Savior, put our whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as our Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races!
That is resurrection faith. That is defiant praise. That is how we build altars everywhere in this world!

And we do so by going back to the basics. By remembering the faith of our ancestors. By using their struggles and blessings to guide and shape the way that we live our lives. We turn to those pages of scripture, like this letter to Timothy, to remind us of the calling that is at our roots. And so, we make our confession…
Will you receive and profess the Christian faith as contained in the Scriptures?
We affirm and teach the faith of the whole church as we put our trust in God, the Father Almighty, in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, and in the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever.
That is resurrection faith. That is defiant praise. That is how we build altars everywhere in this world!

Like Timothy, we, too, have been called to a different kind of life.
We are called to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness” (1 Tim 6:11) –those fruits of the spirit that we talked about all summer long.
Fight the good fight of faith…
Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and for which you made your confession.
Remember your baptism and be grateful.
Remember your baptism and be grateful.
Remember your baptism and be grateful.

Be grateful.
As 1 Timothy 6:6 reminds us, we are called to a life that combines godliness with contentment,
Gratitude and contentment are key and perhaps the only way we can truly move from a spirit of scarcity to one of abundance.
It is a reminder that we brought nothing into this world and we will take nothing out of it.
Paul urges Timothy to remember that those who desire to be rich and to have more get caught up in a cycle of self-destruction. Their lust brings nothing but trouble.
On the other hand, those who have wealth can become so full of themselves and obsessed with their money that it becomes a stumbling block to their faith.
As the Message translation puts it, “a devout life does bring wealth, but it’s the rich simplicity of being yourself before God…. If we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough.”

Bread on the table and shoes on our feet.
Friends, that is all that we really need.
That is what is important.
These are signs of God’s abundance that will transform this world.

Bread and shoes…

Bread on the table… a sign of the great thanksgiving and a reminder that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
A reminder of the abundant grace that has been given to us.
And a sign of the Body of Christ and how we are all united in this common mission.
And a loaf which is meant to be broken so that not just we… but others may be fed.
Bread symbolizes the ministries of our church where we praise God in our worship and we connect with one another around tables.

Shoes on our feet… because we have places to go!
Just as the first disciples were sent out into the world to baptize and teach and spread the good news, so we have been called to go from this place out into the world. After we have been fed by God’s word, we are supposed to share it.
We are supposed to carry it with us from this sanctuary so that we can transform this world.
Shoes symbolize the ministries of our church in which we teach and share the faith with young and old and in which we go and serve in places near and far.

Today… we have the opportunity to make our commitments for next year.
As a church, we have been deepening our vision and we believe that our love, service, and prayer in this world is meant to make an impact.
Just like bread is meant to be shared and shoes are meant to go out, when we deepen our engagement in this church and when we partner with others out in the world, things are going to happen!
You and me, right now, today, we are laying the foundation for the future ministry of our church.
And it will take all of us, making the commitment to personally engage in just a slightly deeper way for our church to grow and flourish and thrive.

If we are honest with ourselves… the foundation that we are laying today is not for us.
It is for the church of our children and grandchildren.
Some of us won’t be here in 10-20 years as our dreams for this place are being realized.
But for the sake of our children, for the sake of our grandchildren, for the sake of the neighbors all around us who are hungry and yearning for hope… we are called to this work.
We are called to fight the good fight.
We are called to do good.
We are called to carry this worship and word out of this place and bring light and hope and grace and mercy to all we meet.
We are called to be generous and to share.
And when we do so, we will take hold of what is truly life.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Around Every Corner

Format Image

This summer I have harvested quite a bit of produce from my garden.
Tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers in particular.
I put up 7 quarts of salsa, 4 quarts of spaghetti sauce, 8 quarts of dill pickles, 4 quarts of sweet and spicy pickles, some pickle relish, and I’ve frozen 10 bags of roasted tomatoes.

My pantry is literally overflowing with the bounty from my garden, and you want to know what thought crossed my mind after this week?

Pickles and salsa won’t feed us if there is a disaster.

As I thought about all of the folks in Puerto Rico who are struggling with access to food and water and electricity, I tried to imagine what my family would do in that situation.
As the rhetoric has continued to rise with North Korea, I wondered what you actually could do to prepare for if the unthinkable happens.
As I sat and listened to colleagues at a Creation Care conference in Indianapolis yesterday, I heard them say that the UN no longer talks about climate change mitigation or prevention, but climate change adaptation… I began to think about how I personally need to start adapting.

If you turn on the television or scroll through your facebook feed or listen to the radio, there are a thousand threats to our health, safety, and security.
We lost 59 people last Sunday to a violent rampage from a man whose only motive appears to be that he wanted to shoot as many people as possible.
Our hearts began to race when a traffic accident in London outside of a museum yesterday was initially thought to be an act of terrorism.

The simple truth is that we have no clue what might be lurking around the corner. We can’t see what the future might hold and sometimes we allow fear to be the defensive mechanism that either keeps us from moving forward or which guards our hearts from those around us.

We aren’t the only people in history to have been afraid.

The scripture that Don read as a part of the drama just a few minutes ago comes from the 41st and 42nd chapters of Isaiah.
The people of Israel had sinned against one another and God and the prophet was called upon to bring judgment.
And for 39 chapters, Isaiah lists the sins of the people and names all of the things that would happen to them as a result.
And they did.
Everything they feared came to pass.
Jersualem was destroyed.
The people were carried off to Babylon.
Life as they knew it ended.
And they weren’t quite sure what to make of their new life.
But then Isaiah speaks into their midst once again:
“Comfort, comfort my people!” says your God.
“Speak compassionately to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended.”
The turnaround from chapter 39 to 40 is abrupt and stark. Christopher Seitz notes that this is because “ a word is being spoken from the void, against all hope and all expectation, by God.” (NIB – VI – 328)

Against all hope and expectation.
When everything appeared to be the darkest.
With the future completely up in the air and uncertainty around every corner.
God speaks:
Do not be afraid, I am with you.

God is inviting the people of Israel to not only trust in God’s presence in the midst of a difficult time… but God is inviting them to transform their fear into curiosity and purpose and assurance.

First, rather than be afraid of the things that is happening, the people are invited to become curious and inquisitive and to allow God’s power and majesty fill them with awe.
In fact, if you read through chapters 40-48, you will find God asks a heck of a lot of questions!
Who measured the waters in the palm of a hand or gauged the heavens with a ruler? (40:12)
To whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? (40:25)
Who has acted and done this, calling generation after generation? (41:4)

I think one of the ways we can respond to the fears that creep into our lives is to be curious as well.
In the midst of a changing neighborhood and world, instead of walling ourselves off in fear, we can ask questions about what is happening and why. We can get to know our neighbors and read up on the roots of conflicts that we experience.
One of the things churches often struggle with is finances – always fearing that we will not have enough for the next year.
That fear can stun us into silence or it can keep us from taking risks and stepping out in faith.
So one way that we can turn that fear into curiosity is to look deeper into trends in giving and learn about ways to reach new people and we can invite one another to think about stewardship in new ways.
Curiosity, learning, exploration – these are all antidotes to fear.

Second, God gives the people purpose in the midst of their fears.
As our reading continued into chapter 42 of Isaiah, God tells the people that he has a job for them to do.
“I have called you for a good reason… I will give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison.”

When we look out at all of the things in this world that might cause us to be afraid – it would be easy to hunker down in our homes or within the walls of this building.
But God has given us a vision and a purpose, too!
God is calling us to engage deeper, to build partnerships and get to know our neighbors, to live a life of love, service, and prayer…
And just like the Israelites were not only supposed to be a light, an example, but were supposed to get out and heal and set others free… we believe God is calling us to help heal the lives of our members and friends and neighbors and community.
God wants us to be a part of restoration right here in this place.

Finally, God gives the people assurance.
Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
You are not alone.
No matter what you are going through, I’m right here beside you.

I think this is perhaps the most important part of this message.
Because you know, fear can keep us from a lot of things.
It could keep us from visiting museums or hanging out in public places.
It could keep us from going to concerts.
It could lead us to build bunkers in our basement and never leave them.
It could keep us from doing the work of God in this world.

Every so often, folks stop in here to Immanuel and ask for some gas. We take them up the street to the Git-n-Go and fill up their tank.
Now, I’m a young woman, who doesn’t know much self-defense, and one of our previous Administrative Assistants was always afraid for my safety as I walked up the street to the gas station.
She was worried that the person might do something bad to me, or kidnap me, or some other unknown thing.

But you know what?
God is with me.
God has given me (and us) work to do.
And disaster and tragedy and violence might strike any person, at any moment, in any place.
It is all completely out of our control.
What is in our control is the work of Jesus Christ in this world.
And if something happened to us while we were trying to live that life of love, service, and prayer… well, God is with us.
God will be with us if the unthinkable happens.

Do not be afraid, I am with you.
I have called you each by name.
Come and follow me.
I will bring you home.
I love you are you are mine.

We are God’s.
And we have work to do.
In fact, in the midst of a world filled with fears and brokenness, we have even more work to do.
God has called us for a good reason…
We have the work of healing and wholeness and hope to do.

Enough…

“Enough” by John van de Laar

Worry and stress are not hard for us, God,
We do them without thinking:

There is always the potential of threat
To our security,
Our comfort,
Our health,
Our relationships,
Our lives.
And we foolishly think that we could silence the fear
If we just had enough money,
Enough insurance,
Enough toys,
Enough stored away for a rainy day.
It’s never enough, though;
The voice of our fear will not be dismissed so easily.

But in the small, silent places within us is another voice;
One that beckons us into the foolishness of faith,
That points our gaze to the birds and the flowers,
That in unguarded moments, lets our muscles relax.
And our hearts lean into loved ones.;
In unexpected whispers we hear it,
Calling us to remember your promises,
Your grace,
Your faithfulness;
And, suddenly, we discover,
That it is enough.
Amen.

A week or two ago as some of us came into church on Sunday morning, you might have noticed a police car here at Immanuel.
Overnight, the garage in our yard was broken into and a snow blower and set of tools had been stolen. They weren’t fancy or terribly expensive, but they were ours. The garage door was damaged in the process and our amazing and excellent Trustees have been working since then to secure the garage, increase a bit of our security, and help keep us all safe.

The neighborhoods around our church are changing.
We have had quite a few shootings recently and we are not the only ones who have experienced break-ins. Whether it is cars, or garages, or houses, there has been an increase in crime.
Our neighborhood is also becoming more diverse. Economic inequality is growing. We see more people of color and more languages are spoken in our midst.
I hesitate to correlate these things, but they are all part of the fabric of what is changing around us.

I think about this reality as we start our new worship and stewardship series: Moving Out of Scare City.
Des Moines is a fantastic place to live and work and grow. It was named the #1 city for young professionals a few years ago.
Yet, we were also in the top 10 list of worst cities for African-Americans in the nation.
We have had a higher murder rate this year than we have in a long time.
More of the students in our schools are on free and reduced lunches.
One in five children in Polk County are hungry.
There are some things about our neighborhood and city that feel less safe and more scary.

I think about the poem by John van de Laar that I shared with you and our temptation to silence that fear through money, insurance, security, gadgets… by clinging ever more tightly to what we have.
When it feels like death, hunger, and the overwhelming struggles of the world loom all around us some of us think about moving out. We want to separate and wall ourselves off from the problems and focus on taking care of our own.
Some churches around us have done that.
They moved out to the suburbs.
Or their church no longer looks like the neighborhood it is situated in.
Their beautiful sanctuaries and people in fancy clothes who walk into them on Sunday mornings stand in stark contrast to the needs of the people that surround them.

In many ways, I think that was the impulse of the people we follow in Genesis this morning.
In chapter 10, we find a listing of all of the descendants of Noah as they developed into the nations of the earth. One of his great-grandsons, Nimrod, began his kingdom with Babel.
While we don’t know of the threats or dangers that surrounded them, the scripture tells us in verse 4 that they wanted to make a name for themselves.
The promise of God that came to Noah was that he and his sons would “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” They were meant to spread the knowledge and blessings of God across the planet.
But this group of descendants feared being scattered over the face of the earth. They feared falling apart.
The potential threat of losing their identity, their status, their place in the world caused them to foolishly throw themselves into building a tower.
They believed that if only the tower were strong enough…
Rich and famous enough…
High enough…
Nothing would threaten them.

But this is not God’s desire or intention for our lives.
God doesn’t want us to worry about getting more and more or protecting only ourselves.
In fact, God knows that if we live our lives that way it will never BE enough.
We will always be unsatisfied and fearful.

Instead, God calls them… and us… to turn our attention away from ourselves.
God tells them they don’t need a tower – they are already enough.

And then God confuses them, scatters them, diversifies them.
Like the bloom of a dandelion becomes a thousand seeds that drift away to far flung places on the wind, God caused the people of Babel to be scattered to the winds – speaking different languages, practicing different customs, becoming different people.
In whatever place they found themselves, they began to look like the ones they were surrounded with.
They allowed the blessings of that new place to transform them.

When we look out on our neighborhood, it is tempting to see the diversity as a threat that might cause us to lock the doors of our building even tighter.
We might turn inward and stop reaching out, stop making connections, stop inviting others to join us.
OR
We could listen to that still small voice that beckons us out into the neighborhood.
We could open our doors to those who are yearning to find a relationship with God.
We could reach out in love and grace to even those who would rob us.
We could find ways to allow ourselves to be transformed and blessed by people who don’t look like us.

When I think about the legacy that Immanuel is building, I don’t see us building up a monument to ourselves, but I think about the ways we have opened our doors to welcome others in.
Not only do we gather and collect food for our neighbors through DMARC, but our front lawn is an invitation for our neighbors to come and take a book or what they might need for an evening meal.
Our building is available for other groups like Bikers Against Child Abuse to gather and plan so they can do the important work of ministry they feel called to.
We realized we had more than enough space to allow a small group of African refugees to come in and worship with one another. Under Pastor Joshua’s leadership, they became a congregation that now has a building of their own!
Our space was empty for just over a year, when this summer, a new friend called the church, looking for a place to worship.
Her name is Mu and she is one of many folks from southeast Asia, Myanmar in particular, who have built a community here. They were looking for a place where they could worship in their own native tongues… but also where they could build relationships with others.
Over the last few months, we have gradually been exploring what this new relationship might look like. Our Fireside Room was sitting fairly empty and on Sunday mornings their group has been gathering in that space to worship and pray.
They don’t have a pastor, but a volunteer from another church has been teaching in Burmese. Mu then translates into another language, Karenni. Their children are joining our children in Wednesday night activities and children’s church and we are navigating multiple languages at once!
On this day when we celebrate World Communion Sunday, I remember that while the people of Babel sought to make a name for themselves, God calls us to share the divine love with all people and to celebrate and delight in the diversity and abundance of all we share this neighborhood with.
Young and old. Rich or poor. Black, Hispanic, Asian, White.
This is what church looks like.
This is what blessing looks like.
And as we join and share and break bread, we remember that we don’t have to fear that we will not have enough.
With God’s help, there is always enough.

Lots to Brag About

Format Image

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy wrote this letter of encouragement to people who desperately needed some good news, and my prayer for today is that the word of God heard this morning might be encouragement for our troubled souls, too. 

Let us pray:

Holy God, speak into our midst this morning.  Fill us with hope, grace, and peace.  May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts and minds honor You this morning. May they be worthy of your calling and accomplish your faithful work in our midst.  Amen.

 

I thank God for you.

I do.  I really do.

I thank God for you, the people of Immanuel United Methodist.

I thank God for the way that the love you all have for each other and the world is increasing.

 

That love is born from a common struggle. 

And as we gather today… not only in worship this morning, but also at our charge conference later this afternoon, we reflect upon another year of ministry. 

This year, we did some hard things…

Some of them were challenges that we set before ourselves:  like raising money for Joppa or purchasing brand new books for every student at Hillis Elementary.

Some of them were difficulties that arise out of the reality of earthly life:  the illnesses, the injuries, the loss of treasured members of our community whom we will celebrate next week with all the Saints. 

And some of the struggles we have faced together in the last year, like trying to discern and implement new times for worship, are born out of a reality that the world we live in is changing and we as a church are trying to adapt and provide opportunities for new generations and new people.   

But we did these things together… and they helped to form and shape us as the people of God. 

Robert Dunham wrote that “common struggle often forges an uncommon unity and love for one another.  Like the peace that holds the community fast in turmoil, love for one another and congregational unity are best received and celebrated as gifts.”

 

The love we have for one another is a gift… the bonds formed in the midst of common struggle are a blessing… and they should be celebrated as such. 

Thank you, God.

[the numbers represent images that were projected during the worship service]

 

[1] Thank you God for the deeper relationships we formed with our neighborhood elementary school, Hillis, as we brought books for so many children and we have more and more people taking just an hour a week to read with those who need some extra help.  

[2] And Thank you for helping us to continue efforts like Donuts for Dudes and Muffins for Moms where we can be present in our neighborhood and share God’s love with breakfast.

 [3] Thank you God for the ways that young people and their mentors here at the church bonded through hard work, study, and recreation through confirmation this year.

 [4] Thank you God for the impact you had on children in our church and community as we worked to help them learn more about your powerful and never-ending love.

 [5] Thank you God for the ways that members of our community show up to support the work of each other… even when their efforts aren’t related to Immanuel… like these runners did in supporting the Clover Dash organized by one of our youth.

 [6] Thank you God, for calling our leadership to deeper faithfulness and helping us to have hard conversations about your calling for our church in this world.

 [7] Thank you God, for bringing together men of all ages in fellowship and for new relationships formed over barbeque and basketball.

 [8] Thank you for challenging us to stretch beyond our own teams and ministries to build new partnerships with others, like the Interfaith Green Team Coalition.

 [9] Thank you God, for those who give so faithfully of their time and energy to create this amazing space for us all to worship and learn about you in.

[10] Thank you God for the faithfulness of our predecessors like Mrs. Simser and the bibles we give our children and the faithfulness of bible partners and teachers.

 [11] Thank you God for a seven year partnership and relationship with Imani church

[12] and for blessing both us and them as they moved to a new location and continue their ministry there.

 [13] Thank you God for the ministry of Joppa and the relationships we are creating with the homeless in our community as we go out to where they live and bring them items they need.

[14] and thank you for challenging us to expand our ministry to provide new resources… and in the process helping us to build new and deeper relationships with each other through the MASSIVE garage sale. 

 [15]  Thank you God for sending our VIM team back to Milwaukee to build new relationships and work again in familiar places

[16] and for the deep connections that are created when we labor together for a common good.

[17] Thank you God for those who not only prepare meals for us every week, but who care for and minister to one another in good times and in bad.

 [18] Thank you God for those who knit and purl and crochet and create blankets and shawls that we distribute to those who are experiencing transition or loss or health problems… extending the love of Immanuel to those who need it the most.

[19] Thank you God for life groups that push us to try new things, including leaping off of cliffs

 [20] Thank you for our nursery and for Wendi and Pat, Gretchen and Zach.

 [21] Thank you for our staff

 [22] Thank you for the youth and volunteers and chaperones who go out and represent us so well in the community.

 [23] Thank you, God. 

Thank you. 

 

You know, I started out just trying to find a few highlights of the amazing work God has been doing here among us and the list just kept going on and on and on. 

As Paul and company write to the church in Thessalonica, there really is so much to brag about.  There is so much to tell about.  There is so much to give thanks to God for.

 

But I also don’t want to gloss over the challenge that is presented within this text. 

I chose our passage for this morning because it is part of what we call the Revised Common Lectionary.  And each week, four texts are assigned for Sunday morning worship – something from the Old Testament, something from the Epistles, something from Psalms, and a gospel reading.

 Over the next few weeks, we’ll be focusing on the Epistles… the letters to the early church… and looking for all of the ways that we are called to be grateful and to give thanks in this writings. 

Today’s assigned scripture skips a section of the text, however.

And the more I thought about what we have been learning over these past few weeks about discipleship and the more we lean into a life of gratitude over the next few weeks, I don’t think we have the luxury of skipping those passages.

 

This is the text in its fullness… without skipping the hard parts: 

Brothers and sisters, we must always thank God for you. This is only right because your faithfulness is growing by leaps and bounds, and the love that all of you have for each other is increasing. That’s why we ourselves are bragging about you in God’s churches. We tell about your endurance and faithfulness in all the harassments and trouble that you have put up with. This shows that God’s judgment is right, and that you will be considered worthy of God’s kingdom for which you are suffering. After all, it’s right for God to pay back the ones making trouble for you with trouble and to pay back you who are having trouble with relief along with us. This payback will come when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his powerful angels. He will give justice with blazing fire to those who don’t recognize God and don’t obey the good news of our Lord Jesus. They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction away from the Lord’s presence and away from his mighty glory. 10 This will happen when he comes on that day to receive honor from his holy people and to be admired by everyone who has believed—and our testimony to you was believed.

11 We are constantly praying for you for this: that our God will make you worthy of his calling and accomplish every good desire and faithful work by his power. 12 Then the name of our Lord Jesus will be honored by you, and you will be honored by him, consistent with the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

We are reminded in this text that the journey of faith is not easy. 

As Robert Dunham puts it, “the Christian calling is seldom to a vocation of ease and comfort, but to a unity with Christ in suffering.”

 And this isn’t the suffering of aches and pains, of loss and difficulty that every person experiences… it is the suffering, the harassment, the struggle that comes because we claim to be people of God. 

 

As people of faith, God is continually calling us to do hard things. 

God is calling us to take unpopular stands on important issues.

God is calling us to stand with the poor and the marginalized.

God is calling us to leave our comfort zones go and be in ministry with the least and the last and the lost.

And maybe the hardest of them all… God is calling us to be honest and real about our own vulnerabilities, our own brokenness, struggle, and pain, so that this community can walk with us, can love us, can remind us over and over again about the love of God in Jesus Christ that can transform even our broken souls. 

That’s what church is all about.  Growing in love for each other and in love for God.

May we continue to do hard things. 

May we continue to hear and be faithful to God’s call.

May  we continue to be formed in love born of our common struggle to truly be disciples of Jesus Christ in this world. 

Amen. 

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?

****

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

Saving and Investing

Format Image

I stand up here today exhausted, and yet filled with joy and satisfaction.

The past two days, I have been at Ankeny First with a few others from here at the church learning about how to be a better church for our members and our neighbors struggling with addiction, incarceration, mental illness, racism, life in general.

See highlights here: https://storify.com/RightNextDoor/right-next-door-5623dc20f44af4f567e61ee9

But this was not only a conference I attended, it was something I invested my time and energy in for the last nine months as part of the planning team.

And that investment grew and was added to over the past few months until it matured this weekend in 215 people, from 16 states, gathered in a sanctuary to pray, sing, learn, and be changed.

This month, we are exploring John Wesley’s advice to earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.

In The Message last week, I briefly touched on how John Wesley encourages us to truly make all the money we can with our work… as long as it is good for our souls and good for our neighbors.

And today, we are going to talk about what to do with that money… how to make your money do some work for God’s kingdom…. About how we invest our resources, how we save them instead of wasting or hoarding them.

****

Will you pray with me?

****

Our gospel reading this morning tells the story of a man going on a trip who delegates some responsibilities. He gives each of his servants some money to take care of while he’s gone. Two of them get started immediately and put that money to work… and it grows and doubles and multiplies. But the third, buries the money and sits on it. He is afraid to lose it and so he hides it. He hoards it and in doing so, he wastes it.

James Harnish tells two stories in his book, Earn. Save. Give. about children of the Great Depression. One is about Ivy League-educated brothers, Homer and Langley who withdrew from society. In 1947, police were called to their home because someone noticed a smell. They found both brothers dead in the house… one died in his chair, the other had been crushed by a booby trap he’d set for potential robbers. As the house was cleaned out, “the authorities found 130 tons of stuff, mostly junk… fourteen pianos… thousands of books… a dressmaker’s dummy, and part of a Model T Ford.”

The other story he tells is about a woman named Dorothy. She loved flying and served as a pilot during WWII. She worked as a nurse the rest of her career. She gave generously to her church. And when she died, she left $4.7 million to the school where she was trained and left a large gift to her church’s endowment.

One family hoarded their money and possessions out of fear… much like the third servant. The other family saved their money and gave it a purpose.

For our time of confession this morning, think about something in your life that you hoard… that you hold onto out of fear or compulsion. Share what that might be with your neighbor.

****

Are you hoarding God’s gifts? Or are you saving them?

Are you wasting the resources you have been blessed with? Or are you investing them?

This is the question presented to us today as we think about what it means to SAVE all we can.

And Wesley doesn’t go around spouting off this advice because he feels like it… no, he lived it.

 

He figured out early on, when he was a young pastor and not making much money, that he could live on 28 pounds a year in England. When he got a raise with his work, and as he gradually began to make more money from publishing and speaking, his income grew drastically. He truly was earning all he could and eventually his income reached 1,400 pounds annually – 50x what he had first made.

Yet, he continued to live on 28 pounds a year.

He didn’t see an increase in his salary as an opportunity to buy more stuff or wear nicer clothes – he saw it as an opportunity to save more and give more.

 

Wesley encourages us to see our income – all of the gifts and resources we have – as something that has a considerable role to play in God’s kingdom.

Yes, we are supposed to take care of ourselves and our family. We need to be well-rested and healthy and safe if we are going to be out there on the front lines working for Jesus.

But we aren’t meant to spend all of God’s gifts on ourselves.

Wesley writes:

“Do not throw the precious talent into the sea… Do not throw it away in idle expenses, which is just the same as throwing it into the sea. Expend no part of it merely to gratify the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life.”

Wesley wanted his people to invest their resources in the Kingdom of God.

Wesley wants us to put our resources to work.

  1. Sometimes, we act like the last servant, who dug a hole and buried the gifts.

This servant thought about the high standards of his master and didn’t want to disappoint by not doing something perfectly. So the servant did nothing at all.

This is the attitude that infects our minds whenever we see a sign-up sheet for some project at church and we think: Oh, I could never do that…

It’s the hesitation that creeps in when an opportunity to serve comes along and we think: There are so many people better suited for that… they are so much better at it than I might be.

It is also the compulsion that we have to be the best and have the best and look the best. It is the compulsion that causes us to work too much or get involved in too many things or spend all of our time and energy and resources to become the best at our job or at school or a sport so that we aren’t left behind in the dust… so we can be the best.

I understand that, and I find myself there more often that I want to admit.

Fear keeps us from investing in the lives of other people and the Kingdom because we aren’t sure about them, and because we aren’t confident that we are taken care of.

And fear is a powerful thing. There is no denying it.

But the truth is, all of these fears and compulsions keep us keep us from digging deep into relationships that really and truly will save our lives and further the kingdom of God.

 

  1. So maybe we should be like the first two servants in our gospel lesson from Matthew.

They received (earned) sizeable gifts, talents, resources, and thought… Aha! I know just what to do with this. They got to work and the investment grew and grew and grew until it doubled in size.

They didn’t spend their talents and they didn’t hoard them… they saved them and invested them.

We can save our resources and talents… maybe by not buying that Starbucks, or staying home and eating in more often. We can live a little bit more simply so that we have a little bit more to invest.

Right here at Immanuel, there are tons of opportunities for you to invest your resources in the kingdom of God.

Before we dismiss/As we got started today, Erin McGargill shared with us about one way we can invest time and money to change a child’s story. By reading to children, by placing books in their hands, we are making an investment in their future… and investment that will multiply many times over as their head start allows them to break generational cycles of poverty.

We can also invest in the health of a community by helping to put wells in South Sudan. Our investment of resources means bringing clean water to families, the time saved allows women and children to learn more, it works to combat diseases and creates the conditions for life and life abundant.

Every week there are opportunities to think a little bit less about ourselves and a little bit more about the people God has called us to care for… whether it is teaching Sunday School, or serving meals with CFUM, or sleeping outside in a cardboard box to raise money for homeless youth.

 

When we live more like the first two servants, we discover that our resources can be used to bring the Kingdom of God to earth, right here, and right now.   We discover that our money and our time and our talents have a purpose.

Lives changed, disciples made, the world transformed.

Amen. And Amen.

Daily Bread

Format Image

My friends and family play this game called “Would You Rather…” It sets up silly and sometimes serious scenarios and you have to decide which of the two you would rather do. It’s good for parties… it’s good for car rides…

And it’s good for getting to really know someone.

Would you rather live in a place that was always very hot or a place that was always very cold?

Would you rather swim in a pool of marshmellows or a pool of M&Ms?

Would you rather go without the internet or a car for a month?

Would you rather be poor and work at a job you love or be rich and work at a job you hate?

 

With our children in just a minute, we’ll talk about how King Solomon is faced with a “would you rather” question of his own.

God comes to Solomon in a dream and basically asks what is the one thing that he wants to receive… what is the one blessing that he wants to sustain him for the rest of his life.

Would you rather have wealth or power or love…?

Or would you rather have something else?

Solomon quickly answers with the one thing he both wants and needs… “Give me your wisdom so that I can help your people.”

********

If you are anything like me, when faced with a kind of “would you rather” question about the one thing I want or need, my thoughts first went to the things that I need in my life for daily sustenance.

And because we live in a world that is run by money… maybe that is what I would ask for.

But how much? How much money is enough?

Enough to provide daily bread for my family?

Enough for a rainy day?

(For our time of confession this morning), I want to invite you to turn to a neighbor and answer this question:

How much do you need to provide daily bread for your family? Or to put it another way, what does it cost to put food on the table for one week in your home?

*****

The Batsuuri family in their single-room home—a sublet in a bigger apartment—in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, with a week’s worth of food. Standing behind Regzen Batsuuri, 44 (left), and Oyuntsetseg (Oyuna) Lhakamsuren, 38, are their children, Khorloo, 17, and Batbileg, 13. Cooking methods: electric stove, coal stove. Food preservation: refrigerator-freezer (shared, like the stoves, with two other families). /// The Batsuuri family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 226). Food expenditure for one week: $40.02 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 227 for the family’s detailed food list.)
The Batsuuri family in their single-room home—a sublet in a bigger apartment—in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, with a week’s worth of food. Standing behind Regzen Batsuuri, 44 (left), and Oyuntsetseg (Oyuna) Lhakamsuren, 38, are their children, Khorloo, 17, and Batbileg, 13. Cooking methods: electric stove, coal stove. Food preservation: refrigerator-freezer (shared, like the stoves, with two other families). /// The Batsuuri family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 226). Food expenditure for one week: $40.02 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 227 for the family’s detailed food list.)

How much do you need to provide daily bread for your family?

Guatemala 75.70

It is a question we all wrestle with…

The Glad-Ostensen family in Gjerdrum, Norway. Anne Glad Fredricksen, 45, her husband Anders Ostensen, 48, and their three children, Magnus, 15, Mille 12, and Amund, 8 with their typical week's worth of food in June. Food expenditure for one week: 4265.89 Norwegian Kroner;  $731.71 USD. Model-Released.
The Glad-Ostensen family in Gjerdrum, Norway. Anne Glad Fredricksen, 45, her husband Anders Ostensen, 48, and their three children, Magnus, 15, Mille 12, and Amund, 8 with their typical week’s worth of food in June. Food expenditure for one week: 4265.89 Norwegian Kroner; $731.71 USD. Model-Released.

whether in Norway

The Aboubakar family of Darfur province, Sudan, in front of their tent in the Breidjing Refugee Camp, in eastern Chad, with a week’s worth of food. D’jimia Ishakh Souleymane, 40, holds her daughter Hawa, 2; the other children are (left to right) Acha, 12, Mariam, 5, Youssouf, 8, and Abdel Kerim, 16. Cooking method: wood fire. Food preservation: natural drying. Favorite food—D’jimia: soup with fresh sheep meat. /// The Aboubakar family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 56). Food expenditure for one week: $1.23 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 57 for the family’s detailed food list.)
The Aboubakar family of Darfur province, Sudan, in front of their tent in the Breidjing Refugee Camp, in eastern Chad, with a week’s worth of food. D’jimia Ishakh Souleymane, 40, holds her daughter Hawa, 2; the other children are (left to right) Acha, 12, Mariam, 5, Youssouf, 8, and Abdel Kerim, 16. Cooking method: wood fire. Food preservation: natural drying. Favorite food—D’jimia: soup with fresh sheep meat. /// The Aboubakar family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 56). Food expenditure for one week: $1.23 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 57 for the family’s detailed food list.)

or Chad

The Caven family in the kitchen of their home in American Canyon, California, with a week’s worth of food. Craig Caven, 38, and Regan Ronayne, 42 (holding Ryan, 3), stand behind the kitchen island; in the foreground is Andrea, 5. Cooking methods: electric stove, microwave, outdoor BBQ. Food preservation: refrigerator-freezer, freezer. Favorite foods—Craig: beef stew. Regan: berry yogurt sundae (from Costco). Andrea: clam chowder. Ryan: ice cream. /// The Caven family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 260). Food expenditure for one week: $159.18 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 261 for the family’s detailed food list.)
The Caven family in the kitchen of their home in American Canyon, California, with a week’s worth of food. Craig Caven, 38, and Regan Ronayne, 42 (holding Ryan, 3), stand behind the kitchen island; in the foreground is Andrea, 5. Cooking methods: electric stove, microwave, outdoor BBQ. Food preservation: refrigerator-freezer, freezer. Favorite foods—Craig: beef stew. Regan: berry yogurt sundae (from Costco). Andrea: clam chowder. Ryan: ice cream. /// The Caven family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 260). Food expenditure for one week: $159.18 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 261 for the family’s detailed food list.)

or Des Moines.

Today, as we think about our daily bread… as we think about breaking bread with people all across the world today, on World Communion Sunday, the stark differences between what is available and what is needed in these various places across our world is astounding.

The Ahmeds’ extended family in the Cairo apartment of Mamdouh Ahmed, 35 (glasses), and Nadia Mohamed Ahmed, 36 (brown headscarf), with a week’s worth of food. With them are their children, Donya, 14 (far left, holding baby Nancy, 8 months), and Karim, 9 (behind bananas), Nadia’s father (turban), Nadia’s nephew Islaam, 8 (football shirt), Nadia’s brother Rabie, 34 (gray-blue shirt), his wife, Abadeer, 25, and their children, Hussein, 4, and Israa, 18 months (held by family friend). /// The Ahmed family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 118). Food expenditure for one week: $68.53 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 119 for the family’s detailed food list.)
The Ahmeds’ extended family in the Cairo apartment of Mamdouh Ahmed, 35 (glasses), and Nadia Mohamed Ahmed, 36 (brown headscarf), with a week’s worth of food. With them are their children, Donya, 14 (far left, holding baby Nancy, 8 months), and Karim, 9 (behind bananas), Nadia’s father (turban), Nadia’s nephew Islaam, 8 (football shirt), Nadia’s brother Rabie, 34 (gray-blue shirt), his wife, Abadeer, 25, and their children, Hussein, 4, and Israa, 18 months (held by family friend). /// The Ahmed family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 118). Food expenditure for one week: $68.53 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 119 for the family’s detailed food list.)

The needs and concerns that any given family have are so varied.

The Bainton family in the dining area of their living room in Collingbourne Ducis, Wiltshire, with a week’s worth of food. Left to right: Mark Bainton, 44, Deb Bainton, 45 (petting Polo the dog), and sons Josh, 14, and Tadd, 12. Cooking methods: electric stove, microwave oven. Food preservation: refrigerator-freezer, a second small freezer. Favorite foods—Mark: avocado. Deb: prawn-mayonnaise sandwich. Josh: prawn cocktail. Tadd: chocolate fudge cake with cream. /// The Bainton family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 140). Food expenditure for one week: $253.15 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 141 for the family’s detailed food list.)
The Bainton family in the dining area of their living room in Collingbourne Ducis, Wiltshire, with a week’s worth of food. Left to right: Mark Bainton, 44, Deb Bainton, 45 (petting Polo the dog), and sons Josh, 14, and Tadd, 12. Cooking methods: electric stove, microwave oven. Food preservation: refrigerator-freezer, a second small freezer. Favorite foods—Mark: avocado. Deb: prawn-mayonnaise sandwich. Josh: prawn cocktail. Tadd: chocolate fudge cake with cream. /// The Bainton family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 140). Food expenditure for one week: $253.15 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 141 for the family’s detailed food list.)

I recently joined the Board of Directors with DMARC, the Des Moines Area Religious Council. Today, one of their major focuses is on food distribution in Central Iowa.

And what I have learned is that the need that surrounds us, right here in Polk County is great. Many families… many working families… don’t have enough to put daily food on their tables.

 

Solomon was King David’s son and when his father died, he became the ruler of the land. He wasn’t a perfect person and he often was focused on things other than God.

But God came to Solomon in a dream one night with a simple offer: “Ask whatever you wish, and I’ll give it to you.”

Whatever you wish.

He could have asked for palaces of gold, or a thousand wives, or to rule the world…

But he found himself in this new position of power and responsibility and he had one request:

“Give me, your servant, a discerning mind so that I can govern your people, so I can tell good from evil, and so I can take care of your people.”

 

What amazes me is that Solomon didn’t see this one wish, this blessing from God, as a “I” request… what do I want or need.

He saw it as an “US” request… what do we, God’s people, need.

 

He asked for wisdom.

He asked to be fed, not with the daily bread of grains and wheat, but with the daily bread of the Word of God.

He asked for something that would bless all the people.

 

Today, we are kicking off our month long series focusing on John Wesley’s simple advice for our finances… that we should earn all we can, save all we can, and give all we can.

And I think that as we start to explore Wesley’s advice, he starts in the same place as Solomon.

Over the next few weeks we will discover that he encourages us to find joy in the money we make, but to do so in ways that benefit the well being of others and ourselves.

He will encourage us to be frugal, to not be extravagant or wasteful and to save as much as possible.

But the goal of both of these is always in service of the third…. To give all we can.

To make a difference in the lives of other people.

To serve God by feeding the people, visiting them in prison, taking care of the sick, giving clothes to the naked.

Wesley encourages us to do just what Solomon did…. to shift our focus away from what me and my family needs and to think bigger…

What do God’s people need?

What kind of wisdom and discernment and truth is required in order to take care of one another?

 

What is needed, here in Polk County, in order to survive?

2014-COL-polk

Above is a basic budget that details the cost of living in this county in Iowa… a comparison of the basic expenses that a family needs in order to provide a simple home and daily bread for their family. (from www.iowapolicyproject.com)

 

As the demand for food pantries and assistance in our community has skyrocketed in the last few months, I was wondering why until I saw this chart.

If you look at the final column, you will see that a family of two working parents with only one child needs to make at least $44,639 a year in order to meet these basic expenses.

That means that together, with both working, they each need to make at least $10.50 an hour.

At least.

The minimum wage here is $7.25.

If you work full time on these wages, you simply cannot make ends me. It is impossible.

 

So I wonder what it means to ask for daily bread and daily wisdom in Polk County, Iowa today.

I wonder what it means to ask for daily bread in Mongolia and Ecuador.

And I pray that God would give us the wisdom to ensure that every family has enough, as we gather around the table this morning to break bread.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

Listening to the Earth

Format Image

Our entire world is greening up this time of year, isn’t it. The trees are leafing out. The grass is vibrant. Shoots of green spring out of mulched patches of wood and earth.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

And as we walk through the springtime here in Iowa, our hearts do feel at peace.

It’s like we take one big gigantic sigh of relief that winter is over.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.

This world is amazing.

And in the midst of the green and purple and white and yellows of this time of year, we carved out space in our civic and religions calendars to celebrate this world. To honor the earth. To plant some trees. To remind ourselves once again of our need to care for this planet.

In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth and declared them good.

And then, that very same God formed us from the dust of the earth and gave to us a precious task… to care for the world God had made.

From the ancient Israelites to the earliest followers of Christ, caring for the Earth was an important means of honoring and praising our Creator.

The General Board of Church and Society put out a resource a few years ago that remind us that ancient cultures worshipped a whole realm of Gods that each controlled a different part of nature. And so as they sought to control the world: to produce a harvest or stop torrential rains, they would honor and worship this God or that.

But we believe in one God, and we believe this world is not fragmented but interconnected. We believe every part of this creation is in the hands of our Creator and that every piece of the earth tells of God’s goodness. As Jesus noted in our gospel reading this morning – the stones themselves shout God’s praises.

And the ancestors of our faith saw that this interdependent world works well when it is cared for and that it fails when it is damaged or neglected. “In response to their understanding of God and the natural world, they created an ethos for living in healthy relationship with God, the Earth, and one another.”

Today, we refer to this as stewardship.

At our leadership retreat this spring, we talked about how stewardship was a core value of who we are here at Immanuel United Methodist. We believe we are called to the thoughtful and prudent use of God’s blessings.

One of those blessings is this earth. The earth that sustains and gives us life. The earth itself speaks God’s praises.

Yes, the rocks would cry out with shouts of joy if we were silent. And if we quiet our lives just a little and pay attention, we can hear the dirt speak.

This year, I wanted to feed that part of my soul that likes to play in the dirt, so I am currently taking a year-long continuing education course called “Organic Ministry.” I have been surprised by how many times I discover something new we should be learning… or we shouldn’t have forgotten… about our world. It has been a wonderful opportunity to listen to the earth and hear what it is telling us about God’s glory.

The first thing I’m hearing the earth speak is that everything truly is connected. We simply cannot sustain ourselves on our own. And God has provided this rich world of resources to give us life.

You see, good soil isn’t just something that farmers and gardeners care about. Soil makes our lives possible.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. God our creator has provided.

This is not something that we often think about, but one little clump of dirt can hardly do much. All by itself, that clump of dirt would become dry and would not have the room for anything to take root within it.

But when one clump of dirt is surrounded by millions of other little dirt particles, then, it is something to be reckoned with! We know that the outermost layer of our planet is soil… but did you know that five tons of topsoil spread out over an acre of land would only be as thick as a dime? We need soil and lots of it to have abundant life.

How many of you slept on soil last night? Well, where do you live? What is your home built on?

How many of you are wearing soil today? Cotton grows in soil! Just check the label on your clothing.

What about eating soil? Just think about all of the foods that you have eaten this week that were grown in the soil, or medicines that were taken from the ground, or water that we have drank that has flowed through and been cleansed by the soil.

The second thing the earth is trying to tell us is that whether we are aware of it or not, is that we have a relationship with the earth.

It is not simply a stockpile of resources that we can use, but our actions impact the health of our world and its ability to continue to sustain us. The soil itself is like a living and breathing organism we must care for.

We think about dirt as dead matter, but in reality it is organic – full of both living and dead organisms. Fungi and bacteria help break down matter into soil and animals such as earth worms churn and nurture the earth. Without all of that living and breathing of the soil – life as we know it would cease.

Now, as a farm girl, I thought I knew this truth well. The soil that we faithfully plant our grains in each spring needs thoughtful and prudent care. We can’t simply plant corn in the same field every single year and expect our harvests to increase. A simple practice like crop rotation insures that vital nutrients like nitrogen are returned to the soil. That describes a relationship we have with the earth, where we listen to what it is telling us and we adapt and act in a new way so that all benefit.

But if we pay better attention to the earth, we begin to see that it thrives on diversity. It is often said that a handful of soil has more living organisms than there are people on the earth. Like the body with many parts that Paul describes in First Corinthians, every part is essential to health.

Yet we gradually strip out the essentials when we plant fields upon fields of only corn or beans for the sake of convenience and production.

As we listen to the earth, conservationists and farmers and gardeners are rediscovering the benefits of companion plants, and smaller scale farms with greater rotation. We are rediscovering that if we care for the soil, the soil will take care of the things we want to grow.

The last thing we hear from the earth today, is that it needs rest and renewal just like we do.

We look out this morning and we can see the flowers budding and hear the birds chirping the sun is shining… and it all sings God’s praise precisely because just two months ago the earth was brown and dormant.

Those of us who experience all four seasons are not doubly blessed, but blessed four times over because in each transition, we witness the hope and the promise and the love of God. We see life bursting forth. We watch things die and have the opportunity to rest, to find Sabbath in the cold winter months… holding fast to the promise the new spring of resurrection is just around the corner.

The world is a miracle.

It is a treasure.

When the Ancient Israelites noticed that everything in this world is interdependent, this is what they are talking about. The dirt and the air and the sun and plant life and our lives are all interconnected and this beautiful system God created works – as long as we take care of it.