Can’t Keep Silent!

Format Image

While the Advent journey takes us through an emotional rollercoaster of joy, fear, humility, and anticipation, there is no other emotion to guide the days after Christmas than pure celebration.

 Each of the readings for this time of Christmas call us to take a deep breath of relief, to look around at the beauty of what God has done, and to simply enjoy it.

We have waited patiently for four weeks in this season of Advent and in these fast paced days, a month may seem like an eternity. 

 But our scriptures from Luke for this Sunday tell us of two people who had been waiting their whole lifetimes for the birth of Christ and then who absolutely couldn’t keep silent when they encountered the Christ-child.

  

First of all, a little background about why Mary and Joseph and the newly born Jesus find themselves in Jerusalem in our gospel reading this morning. 

 This probably would have been the second trip that the trio would have made into the holy city – first in order to name their child and to have him circumcised eight days after his birth, and then this second trip – in order for Mary to be purified after the birth according to the law. 

 In the book of Leviticus, the law proclaims that any woman who has given birth would be ceremonially unclean – or unable to worship at the temple or to touch holy things, for 33 days if the child born was a boy, or 66 days if the newly born baby was a girl. 

 While this may seem to be strange – it was actually probably a welcome time of rest and a chance for the new mother and child to bond in peace and quiet.

 But then after that time, the family would come to the temple to make the required offering. 

 Families who could afford to do so would bring a lamb, but there were allowances made for those who were less fortunate.  Scripture tells us that Mary and Joseph were only able to bring a pair of small birds as their gift to God.

 

These trips back and forth, all of this pomp and ceremony, were actually very normal, really, expected parts of what it meant to have a baby.  Mothers and fathers and infants would have been a common sight around the temple as they marked this important time of their lives in God’s presence.

 But in the midst of other mothers and fathers and babies – Luke tells us that two wise old saints- Anna and Simeon – picked this particular trio out of the crowd and knew that they were something special.

 Perhaps it was the fact that Anna and Simeon had been waiting for such a long time to see the Messiah.

 Perhaps they were just more in tune with the power of the Holy Spirit after lifetimes of faithful service to God.

Or maybe they just allowed themselves to be overcome by the joy of the moment and couldn’t help but be silent.

 In any case, both Anna and Simeon rushed to the new parents and their infant son, God-in-the-flesh, and gave praise to God.

  

Who are these people?  And why does Luke record their reactions?

  

Simeon was a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit, and long ago a promise was made to him that he would not see death until the Messiah had come. 

Most people were looking for a leader to rise above the people – a powerful and spiritual figure.  But Simeon was led by God to see that this infant child that crossed his path was something more… and he knew that his promise had been fulfilled.  

 He understood that this child would grow to become not just a light of revelation to his Jewish brothers and sisters, but would be the light of salvation to the entire world.  And the Holy Spirit helped him to understand that this path to salvation would be a heart-breaking journey for Mary and Joseph, but also for God.  

 Now that he had seen the Messiah, he could pass from this world in peace. 

 

 Anna was a prophetess, a woman of God who spent her life worshipping God through fasting and prayer in the temple. 

 It is likely that she had served God in this capacity for nearly sixty years of her lifetime!   

 In those sixty years, surely many babies had passed before her eyes. 

 And while we don’t know of anything particularly special about the way the infant Christ looked, something about this month old child caught Anna’s eye. 

 Her heart was filled with joy and Luke writes that she began to tell the story of this amazing child to everyone that was looking for redemption and hope in the city of Jerusalem.

 Hope has come! Light has entered our midst! was likely her cry.

She may have been eighty-four years old, but she wasn’t going to let anything stop her from sharing what she had experienced.

 Maybe she thought in the back of her mind of our text from Isaiah today: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest.”

 Her years of prayerful anticipation had been answered, and now she simply couldn’t keep her mouth shut.

  

My question for all of you this afternoon is simple. If an eighty-four year old woman and a dying old man can share the joy of this birth with all of those around her—why shouldn’t we?

 I want to encourage each and every single one of you to go out from this time of worship and to share! To announce! To celebrate!  How God has entered our midst in this Christmas season.

 At dinner, tell a story of something that happened to you or your family this Christmas. 

 Find your neighbor later today and share the joy of Christmas with a hug or a word of encouragement.

 Call your children and tell them about something you are thankful for.

 Talk with the staff here at Wesley Acres and let them know you are still praying for them this Christmas season. 

 God has entered our midst!!!   And as we continue to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, let each one of us continue to proclaim good tidings of great joy…

What's Your Story?

Format Image

Living, Risen God, May the words of my mouth be your words, and may I be blessed with the courage to say them. May the thoughts of all of our hearts and our minds, be your thoughts, and may we be blessed with the courage to live them. Amen.

This morning, I invite you to hear our gospel reading from Mark once again…

We know the story, about how the three women made their way to the tomb just after sunrise. They went expecting to finish the funeral rites for their beloved teacher… but what they discovered forever changed their lives.

In that tomb, they discovered not their teacher, but a man in dazzling white who whispered to them:

Don’t be afraid! You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, but he’s not here! He has been raised, just like he promised. Go – tell the disciples and Peter that he will meet you in Galilee. He’s waiting for you!

What surprises us about this story, however, as Mark tells it is that the women freeze. They had come to honor a dead body and they were met by a mystery. He has been raised?! He’s… waiting for us? Was it a trap? Was it true? Could it possibly be?

It was all so completely overwhelming. They felt like they were standing in the presence of the holy – like Moses before the burning bush – like Elijah standing on the side of the mountain and hearing God in the silence… and yet nothing made sense.

The world was turned upside down for these three women by this radically holy encounter. Terror and amazement seized them and they turn and fled from the tomb.

Was it unworthiness?

Was it the weight of the message that they were called to proclaim?

Was it fear and awe that come from being face to face with God’s power?

The world may never know. But Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome said nothing to anyone… for they were afraid.

They said nothing to anyone… for they were afraid.

 

Believe it or not – that is the way that the Gospel of Mark ends. Jesus never shows up in his resurrected glory, there are no witness from the disciples, no sharing of the good news. Mark ends his account of the life of Jesus with three women, fleeing from the scene because terror and amazement had seized them and he tells us they said nothing to anyone.

 

We, of course, can say this probably didn’t actually happen for a number of reasons.

First of all, Every gospel has Mary Magdalene there at the tomb, witnessing first hand the resurrection of Christ. And every other gospel tells us how she and other women who may have been with her shared the good news with the disciples.

Secondly, if we believed Mark’s account above the others – if that truly was the end of the story – then how did we get here? If they didn’t tell anyone, then how was the church born?

No, Mark has a reason for telling his story this way. His goal, in writing the gospel, is to teach us about what faithfulness looks like. Every time the disciples make a mistake, we learn something. Every time they fail, we find out what it truly means to follow God.

And this cliff-hanger ending functions the same way. Mark tells us the women were afraid and said nothing to anyone… so that WE are invited to live the rest of the story. So that WE are invited to take up the call and tell the story ourselves.

 

Peter was also called to take up the story. Even after his failure on the night of Jesus’ trial, he was called by Jesus to tell the story of resurrection wherever he went. And he found himself in the home of Cornelius… a Gentile… someone who was never part of the plan of salvation that Peter had imagined… and he found him telling the story of how God saves to even such as him.

We are all called to tell the story, and we are called to tell it to anyone and everyone we meet.

Because the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus… it is your story!

From the Sunday School teacher that first taught you the words to Jesus loves me…

to the grandparent who always encouraged your faith…

to the girlfriend who made you get up and come to church this morning…

Someone, somewhere along the way shared the good news with you. You heard the story and you believed it enough to show up. You have responded. You are here.

And because you are here this morning, you have a story to tell.

Your story might not be as dramatic as peering into an empty tomb and being a first hand witness to the resurrection, but you do have a story to tell.

A story about how God has been present in your life. Your story doesn’t have to be filled with drama… it just has to be yours.

Sure, God chose some people with wild stories, like Moses the murder and Jacob the deceiver and Rahab the prostitute… but God also used people like the farmer Amos and the fishermen James and John and the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, to pass along the good news of salvation to the world.

And we are here because they did.

We are here because they were not afraid to speak about what God was doing in their lives.

 

Over the next two months here at church, we will be following some of the first disciples of Jesus who were not afraid to talk about what they had seen. And along the way, we will use their stories to help us claim our own story of faith.

We discover in that book of Acts that the message moves from Jerusalm to Samaria and to the ends of the earth… all the way to Des Moines, Iowa in 2015!

But here is the real question we have to wrestle with this morning.

What if they women really had been silent?

What if the disciples had never left Jerusalem?

What if Peter had not gone to Cornelius?

… who would have shared the story?

 

And who is not hearing the story today, because we are too scared to tell it? Who isn’t hearing the good news of God’s love and mercy and grace and forgiveness because we have been overcome with terror and amazement and haven’t figured out what to say?

 

We have fear in our hearts because we have come face to face with the holy and we are no longer in control. And any encounter with the holy rightly puts awe and trembling in our hearts.

It is the kind of fear portrayed in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, as the people rightfully fear and revere Aslan the Lion. He is dangerous, he is righteous and there is no escaping him, no containing him, no forgetting him. He is wild and wonderful.

And the wild and wonderful Christ, who cannot be escaped or contained or forgotten is calling our names and has a word for us to proclaim. That on an old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, Jesus suffered and died to pardon and sanctify us all….and…. AND… this is the part we leave out of the song… AND death itself has been defeated.

Sharron Riessinger Lucas calls this: living in the tension of holy fear and prodigal joy.

We are filled with joy because God has run out to meet us like a father who destroys all barriers in order to welcome home us wayward children! Christ is Risen! Jesus destroyed death in order to give us life! The tomb is empty! Amen!

But in the midst of that joy, that holy fear is present… Because with the empty tomb comes the amazing and awesome announcement that “Jesus is risen and on the loose in this world” (Lucas).

And if God is really out there – really present in this world that we live in… then as the great theologian Karl Barth once said… “each of us has some serious changes to make in our living.”

This morning… you have encountered the presence of God and witnessed the miracle of the resurrection…

So, what will you do?

Will you let fear close your mouths?

Will you roll the stone back in front of the tomb and conveniently forget that this all happened?

Will you be silent?

Or will you find the courage to risk it all to share the good news with the world?

As Mark asks us: when – not if, but when the terror and amazement of the gospel seizes your life – what are you going to do?

How to plan a funeral #NaBloPoMo

Format Image

Today’s prompt comes from BlogHer Blogging: What knowledge do you have that others don’t? Write a “how to” post about anything you’ve got skills for, small or large.

In the first month of ministry, I had three funerals in my community. Nothing about their lives were the same. A baby who had struggled from the beginning. A good and faithful servant entering his nineties. A beloved grandmother.

Armed with my pocket book of worship and a prayer, I managed my way through.

Over time in that community I did more funerals than I can count. One year it was nearly 25 different services. Along the journey, I developed a system of preparation for the service that might be helpful.  My number one goal is always to weave the life story of the person who has died with the story of God.  Using traditional liturgy and pieces I have cut and pasted from various sources, I hope it might be helpful for you also.

 

The Family Meeting

  • What made ____ who he/she was?
  • What will you miss the most?
  • Tell me about where they grew up.
  • How did they meet their spouse? Where did they make their home together?
  • Vocational questions: if homemaker – what kinds of things did she cook/sew, if farmer – what crops/animals, etc.   Stories usually come out here.
  • Ask the funeral director about how they died… then ask follow-up questions with the family: What was it like seeing them in the hospital for so long?  What were their later years like? How did they adjust to a loss of physical ability?
  • Ask about what is important to the family about the funeral itself: music, scriptures, those who speak
  • Be kind. Be firm. Be open.
    • Most families haven’t been through this kind of planning before. They don’t know what they don’t know.
    • They don’t know what is normal. If there are things you feel are inappropriate, it is okay to simply say so, but figure out what that element represented for them and try to incorporate it.
    • Don’t be afraid to embrace the weird… sometimes it is the wonderful.

The Sermon

This  is kind of the basic structure that I work in for most funerals… especially when I don’t know the person.  If I do, I have more freedom to play around and adapt, but this structure helps me to use the above questions to make the meditation personal.

 

  • Today we come together to remember the life of ______________..  Each of you are here today, because you carry with you memories of a dear friend, a neighbor, or an aunt who loved to work with her hands and who loved her family and her friends.
  • Obituary information woven in with stories from the family about his life growing up, marriage, life with kids, his work, what she loved, etc.  Don’t read the obituary… tell their story in four or five paragraphs. Include the little details the family shared

[Name] was born not far from here on June 11, 1927 to [Name] and [Name] .  He served his country faithfully during World War II… [Name]  remembered how the young men would all hop on the train together here to go off to training and to service.  [Name] was actually still in training when the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred, and then was later stationed there. 

 In 1949, [Name] married [Name] here in  and together they brought [Name] and [Name] into the world.  [Name] worked for well over forty years with his father and brother as a part of the family business.  And then he watched as [Name] and [Name] came into their lives… and then grandchildren… and eventually great-grandchildren. 

 Even running his own business however, [Name] an knew that work wasn’t everything.  The family remembers fondly weekends hanging out with the neighbors and dancing to Lawrence Welk in the living room – simpler times.  In almost every picture I got to see of [Name] last night at the visitation, he has that great smile on his face… you can see that he was enjoying his life… almost as if he had a secret that he was treasuring in his heart.  [Name] also liked to take time to fish and boat and he liked to take the grandkids camping in the RV. 

  • Connect something about their life story to scripture or a song – something that sums up who they were in a way that connects us with the divine.
  • Be honest about the reality of death and the promise of resurrection:

More recently, you as a family have been through some rough weeks.  A month and a half ago, [Name] had a stroke that dramatically altered your lives.  Unlike some illnesses that gradually overwhelm us – this was a sudden transformation. 

 Perhaps one of the hardest parts that we have to do in this life is accept that all of the things that we love and all of the people that love us eventually will pass on in this life.  In the book of Isaiah we heard the words:  All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades… but the word of our God will stand forever.

 These mortal lives that we lead, they are not forever. [Name] knew this to be true.  (something about their own experience with death – spouse, child, the loss of a physical or mental ability in her last days, etc.) And as some of you gathered around [Name] bedside in her last days and weeks, that was an ever present reality. We come from nothing but dust and to dust we shall return. 

 But in between, we have the opportunity not only to lead beautiful and wonderful lives, but we have the opportunity to clothe ourselves with a new life as well – a life that will endure beyond even the valley of the shadow of death – a life that will extend beyond the grave.

 Jesus told his disciples as they were gathered together that in his Father’s house there is room for many – and that a place was being prepared for them and for us.  As we remember all of those things that you loved about [Name] – we also celebrate that those are the very things that she is able to enjoy once again… that the life in these past years that gradually slipped away from her is now restored – that she is in the presence of our God and that she loves you all dearly.

  • Connect God’s story back to their memories and name very specific things the family has named:

That doesn’t mean that we won’t be sad.  Sometimes when someone has (lived for so long, or suffered for so long or done so much in their life) – we think that we should simply be grateful for how long we did get to share our love with them, grateful that (we got to experience…. Or that their suffering is over… or that we had so much time together) But as we celebrate her life, we remember all of those things that you will miss. You will miss… [be specific! – the smell of cookies baking in her kitchen…. the way he yelled at the television every the Hawkeyes lost… etc. ] 

And we should mourn. Because it means that we remember and that we cherish what we have lost.  But also know that in your time of mourning – we are promised comfort. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. The same shepherd who leads us through the valley of the shadow of death walks beside each of you today and as you leave this place and walks with you forever more. Amen, and Amen.

MY BIGGEST ADVICE –Figure out what you want to say in general at funerals – what is the message of comfort and hope, life and resurrection that you want to speak.  It is okay for that to be said at every single funeral that you do.  The last third of the above message is what I say most of the time… put the gospel in your own words and continue to share that good news.  The rest is simply weaving in their story with God’s story.

 

The Service

Entrance

Here is where customs will dictate.

  • At my funeral home, the casket remains at the back and when I walk to the front, the director closes the casket and then the music stops and I begin.
  • At the church, the casket is wheeled to the front, I follow and make my way to the pulpit, and the family follows me… the whole church stands as the family enters and then sits only after the words of grace/greeting
  • For a graveside (more later) we all gather, the casket is closed and I start when everyone is present.

 Words of Grace

 Greeting

 Invocation

Psalm 23

Song –

Common Scripture Lessons

  • Ecclesiastes 3: (1-8) 9-15 – use OFTEN for farmers, blue collar folks who enjoyed the work of their hands and were simple people.
  • Gospel Reading – John 14:1-3
  • I also let scriptures from the family direct the mood here – we’ve used the beatitudes, Christmas scriptures, favorite verses ( ask why!) , Revelation 21, etc.

 Message (not long… 5-10 minutes)

 Song –

 Litany of Thanksgiving  (adapted from Book of Worship and from materials at West End UMC, Nashville)

Gracious and loving God, we thank you for all with which you have blessed us even to this day: for the gift of joy in days of health and strength and for the gifts of your abiding presence and promise in the days of pain and grief.  It is right and good in this our time of need to offer thanks for [Name]’s life among us. We take comfort in the memories of her presence and the wonderful ways in which she blessed our lives.

(If a family wants to have a time of sharing… this is where I do it – in the context of giving thanks for that persons life and celebrating memories… if no one stands, then I have these ready to go and prepared… if they aren’t doing sharing, we go through these anyways as a part of the litany/prayer)

We give you thanks and remember her faithfulness as a wife to [Name] for over 30 years. 

We give you thanks and celebrate her love of her children, [Name], [Name] and [Name]and her grandchildren and grandchildren.

We give you thanks for the way she created her own family in the staff and residents at ____. 

And we give you thanks for the work of her hands – her vocation as a homemaker and her love of crafts.

And now that [Name]’s  race is complete and her struggle is over, we commend your servant [Name] into your loving arms, O merciful God.  Receive her into the blessed rest of everlasting peace and into the glorious company of your saints.  Fill us with your peace and abiding comfort, and keep us true in the love with which we hold one another.  Above all else we thank you for Jesus, who died our death and rose for our sake, and who lives and prays for us.  And as he taught us, so now we pray.

The Lord’s Prayer

Benediction

Song (especially if they want three – here is a good place to add the last one)

 

Graveside Only Service

(entire service is same as memorial service through the message… with the exception of probably NOT having music… this is where the committal becomes a part of the service, instead of separate)

Litany of Thanksgiving & Committal

Gracious and loving God, we thank you for all with which you have blessed us even to this day: for the gift of joy in days of health and strength and for the gifts of your abiding presence and promise in the days of pain and grief.  It is right and good in this our time of need to offer thanks for [Name]’s life among us. We take comfort in the memories of her presence and the wonderful ways in which she blessed our lives.

We give you thanks and remember her faithfulness as a wife to [Name]’ for over 30 years. 

We give you thanks and celebrate her love of her children, [Name]s and her grandchildren and grandchildren.

We give you thanks for the way she created her own family in the staff and residents at _____. 

And we give you thanks for the work of her hands – her vocation as a homemaker and her love of crafts.

And now that [Name]’s race is complete and her struggle is over, into your hands we commend your song/daughter _____, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life the Jesus Christ our Lord.

This body we commit to the ground… earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Now as we offer _____ back into your arms, receive him/her into the blessed rest of everlasting peace and into the glorious company of your saints.  Comfort us, O God, in our lonliness, strengthen us in our weakness, and give us the courage to face the future unafraid.  Fill us with your peace and abiding comfort, and keep us true in the love with which we hold one another.  Above all else, we thank you for Jesus, who died our death and rose for our sake, and who lives and prays for us.  And as he taught us, so now we pray…

The Lord’s Prayer

Benediction

 

 

I hope this is helpful for any beginning pastors out there…. or any of us more seasoned pastors who are looking for something to get them out of a rut.

Justice, Kindness, and Mercy

As we began worship today, we sat for a bit with images that reminded us of the story of the prodigal son, or daughter in this case.

The question that I asked was simple:

Do you celebrate and rejoice when someone who is lost has been found?

Or are you like the brother or sister who stayed at home, the good child, the one who has always done everything right?

Do you feel like you are entitled to more because of your faithfulness and obedience and your work?

It is the question we wrestle with again in our parable from Matthew’s gospel.

It is the question the laborers must ask of themselves.

Do we think that we rightfully deserve something more than others? Are we resentful of what others get, when we are the ones who put in the time and the effort and the energy?

 

As we continue to think about the difficult relationships in our lives, competition, resentment, and jealousy can all play a role.

We can hold a grudge against someone that we feel has gotten an unfair leg up in this world.

We get caught up in that counting game of wrongs and rights, in who is ahead, and who deserves what.

And these kinds of sentiments can destroy relationships with friends, family, and co-workers.

 

The idea of fairness is built into our economic system. We believe everyone has a shot at the American Dream. We want the playing field to be level and we search out those who are cheating and throw them out of the game.

We want everyone to have an equal chance at greatness.

We want to be able to start at a place of fairness… and then the chips fall where they may.

Those who exceed expectations or break records or make billions have our attention. They have worked for it. They have earned it. They deserve it.

After all, we have worked hard for the things we have, just the same.

But when someone comes around who does little to no work whatsoever and gets paid the same as us…. Or when someone who has made millions does so by cheating the system… or when we lose our jobs because someone somewhere else is trying to save a little bit more money for themselves – then we start to feel that maybe the situation isn’t fair again.

As much as we like to use that word, fair, I have often found that the scriptures are full of stories that are unfair.

Like the prodigal son being welcomed back home after squandering his wealth.

And like our parable from this morning:

A wealthy man had a vineyard and needed workers. So he did what all landowners did: he went out and hired some laborers for the day.

Now, all of these day laborers started out with an even playing field. All of them were without work for the day. All of them were willing to work.

The problem was, there were always more people looking for a fair day’s work than there are jobs to go around.

In this story, if you got lucky, you would expect to work for 12 back breaking hours out in a field for minimal wages. You got to go home with your hands dirty, your head held high, and with bread for supper tonight.

But if you weren’t so lucky… then you went home to your family empty handed. You would have spent the entire day standing in the hot sun waiting for work, and you would have nothing to show for it.

There was no safety net. No food stamps, or welfare or unemployment.

No matter what you think about how our government today responds to the needs of the unemployed, the poor, the disabled, and yes, sometimes the lazy and the freeloader, that doesn’t change the fact that in the day and time of Jesus – if you did not get hired for the day, then you would not have money for that day’s food. It was as simple as that.

The laws of fairness would say – well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. No work, no pay. Little work, little pay.

But this is not how Jesus’s story goes.

Our landowner hires some workers first thing in the morning. They are eager to get to work and head out in the fields for their 12 hour shift.

But the work is plentiful and so the landowner keeps going back in to town to hire more people. Some at 9, some at noon, some at 3, and the last group gets hired just an hour before quitting time at 5pm.

And then they all get lined up to come forward and receive their daily wages.

Those poor souls who were hired for just an hour went into the fields because they were desperate for work. A few bucks would help buy a piece of bread for dinner, if nothing else. But as they were called up, they found themselves being paid the full wages for an entire day’s worth of work!

Well, the rest of the workers were simple peasants, but they could do basic math. And if they had worked for twice as long, they expected twice as much! Can you imagine how the mouths of those who had been working for 12 full hours watered?!

But as each group came forward to receive their wages… each one received one full day’s worth of pay.

And, boy… were they mad!

“It’s not fair!” those workers cried.

And they were right. It wasn’t fair.

But as the landowner spoke, do you remember what he said? “Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

 

There has been a meme going around on facebook illustrating the difference between what we might call equality and justice.

If we related this image to our parable for this morning, equality would look like each worker being paid the same wages per hour of work.

At $10 per hour, those who were hired at 6 in the morning would have walked away with $120 and those hired at 5pm would have walked away with only $10.

This would have been fair.

But as we look at this first image, we sense that something isn’t quite right.

Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher defined justice as proportional equality.

And in the second image, we see how the proportions of are changed, so that each person has the same capacity as another.

 

The parable of the laborers in the field is the story of God’s grace and forgiveness in our lives.

Each one of us is given exactly what we need.

Not what is fair.

Not what we deserve.

But what we need.

You see, each of us are like day laborers when it comes to our salvation.

 

We have no land, no rights, no security. The kingdom of heaven, like the vineyard doesn’t belong to us.

We don’t deserve anything.

But then God reaches out to us and says, come my children. Come and walk with me. Come and work with me. Come and be a part of what I am doing.

The thing is, we aren’t all the same. And when it comes to how God hands out love and grace, we discover that

God’s justice lifts up those who are bowed down and sets at liberty the oppressed.

God has compassion for the poor and the sick.

God shows mercy to sinners… no matter how small or great their wrongs.

In the incredible grace of God’s love, we don’t get what we deserve… we get what we need.

 

I think sometimes in our human relationships, we can grow resentful of one another when we feel like someone has gotten more than their fair share of grace.

We watch someone who continues to squander God’s love and keep making the same mistakes over and over again and don’t think it’s fair.

Or see someone live their whole lives away from God only to turn to our Lord and Savior at the last moment and start to imagine they won’t be living in the same patch of heaven as us!

But I think the lessons we are learning in our Forgiveness book study need to be applied not only in those situations where someone has willfully wronged us, but to all of our difficult relationships in general.

This week, Adam Hamilton introduces us to a simple acronym: RAP

R. A. P.

First, we have to Remember our own story. In the case of forgiveness, we need to remember the wrongs we have perpetrated. But in all of our relationships, we need to remember the blessings we have received, the advantages that have been afforded to us. We need to remember the times when undeserved grace flowed through our lives.

We have to remember.

Secondly, we have to Assume the best about another. We need to listen for their story. We need to pay attention to how God is working in their life. We might have one impression of what has led them to this moment in their life, but is it the most truthful one? Does it represent their struggles and triumphs accurately? Do we know their life well enough to discover what they truly need… even if it might not be what they deserve?

We have to assume the best.

Lastly, we need to pray for one another. We need to pray for patience. We need to seek God’s will in our relationships. We need to pray that the person we are encountering is experiencing the love and grace of God in this world. And, as a disciple in God’s kingdom, we need to pray that our eyes might be opened the the ways we are invited to love those who don’t deserve it. We need to pray for the strength to live lives of justice, kindness and mercy to all we meet.

We have to pray for each other.

 

When we focus on these three things: Remembering our Story, Assuming the Best, and Praying for one another, I believe the resentments and jealousies that plague our relationships will fall by the wayside.

We will discover instead that we all live, but by the grace of God, and will work together towards that day when God’s justice and kindness and mercy will reign – that day when we don’t get what we deserve… but what each one of us truly needs.

And on that day, we will rejoice with the lost who has been found.

On that day, we will celebrate with those who have come late to the party.

On that day, we will delight in bountiful gifts of another.

May that day come, and may it come soon. Amen.

The Spirit of the Damascus Road

If one is going to preach through the book of Acts, you can’t leave out the story of the transformation and conversation of Saul/Paul.  It is a chapter I have heard many times, from many different angles, and recently heard powerfully preached by Bishop Palmer at our Iowa annual conference.

Sometimes, having an overwhelming number of angles going into a sermon is more of a burden than a gift.  There are so many things that you want to say that you aren’t quite sure where to start.  I opened up my bible on Monday, prayed for some focus, and picked out some hymns to send to my organist.  But my prep time was shorter than usual because that evening I got on a plane and flew to Akron, Ohio for our North Central Jurisdictional Conference.

The conference itself was fine. Time with friends and colleagues, conversations about the life of our church and where God was leading us, and worship were the main highlights.  The food was surprisingly good.  But in the back of my mind, I still was thinking about this sermon I had to write.

Just down the street from our hotel was a little cafe called The Damascus Road Cafe.  That’s funny, I thought.  That’s exactly what I’m preaching about!  I secretly hoped that maybe I’d find some clever little story about this restaurant that would give me a parable for my sermon.  Little did I know that I’d throw out my entire sermon to tell the tale of this cafe and the people who ran it.

Every morning, my roommate and I stopped by for breakfast.  The prices were fantastic and the food was delicious.  The muffins were huge and moist and dense.  The fruit was fresh.  The staff was friendly.  What’s not to like?  Every day, those of us attending the conference walked right by this little cafe from our hotel half a block away.  We bought sandwiches and coffee, soup and cookies.  The place was full of nice United Methodist folks with our huge name badges and conference bags.

And then on the last full day of conference, I started to hear the stories.  The story about how this little cafe had been struggling.  A story about the mom and dad and their five children who ran the shop.  A story about how the week before they looked at the bills piling up and began to pray for help.  The story about how they were only a week or two away from closing their doors.  The story about how the United Methodists showed up and they made more money in three days than they had in the three years before.  I’m not sure of the truth of all of those stories… but what I do know is that this family and business needed help and we showed up just in time.

On the last day, conference had ended and we had a few hours to wait until our flight.  So my roommate and I grabbed some coffee and cookies from the Damascus Road Cafe. We sat in the sun and talked through the week and couldn’t wait to get back home.  And then about 3pm, just before our rides were supposed to arrive, we walked back over to the cafe to grab a few sandwiches to go.  The two of us stood there at the counter while they began to close up shop and we started to talk.

They shared with us their gratitude that we had been in town that week.  They asked questions about my friend who was using a cane (Jessica was the one hit by the truck in Tampa two months before).  And then the guy behind the counter told the story of his own injury and healing.  He had a job that required a lot of walking and time on his feet and bone spurs had developed in his heel.  They were so debilitating that he was put on light duty and his job was on the line.  One day, he was doing laundry and his wife was in another room watching Pat Robertson and the 700 club.  He heard in the distance Robertson talking about a man who was being healed… a man who had bone spurs… pain in exactly the spot where HE had pain… and he ran into the main room.  “Honey, he’s talking about me!!!”  As he said the words, he felt warmth travel through his leg.  He felt the pain leave his body.  His bone spurs were healed, right then and there.

Now, those of you who know me also know that I don’t usually pay too much attention to Pat Robertson.  I’ve never watched the 700 Club.  And I’m sometimes skeptical of these kinds of healing stories.  But I was moved by his sharing, and even more moved when he and his family asked if they could lay hands on my friend, Jessica, and pray for healing for her foot.  They knelt down beside us and placed their hands on her ankle and foot.  We joined together in prayer, right there in the middle of the cafe.

The Damascus Road symbolizes for me a place of transformation.  A place where the past doesn’t continue to be the future.  A place where the pain and anger of previous times are replaced by light and grace and love.  That was why Saul couldn’t continue to carry his name around and had to change it.  It is why he left behind persecution and embraced the testimony of Christ.  And at the Damascus Road Cafe, we saw a little bit of hope sneak into a dark situation.  We felt healing and grace.  We saw community formed and relationships built.

That is the story I told on Sunday morning.  Not a tale of a guy on a road, but of people gathered in a cafe for prayer, fellowship, food, and grace.

Breaking Your Heart

For the last month or so, we have been reading Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. In prison, sick, struggling, shipwrecked, he just hasn’t had the time or resources to make it to Rome personally, so this letter contains everything that he thinks those people of faith in Rome need to know.

He wants them to take this letter and not only be strengthened in their own faith, but to carry this letter to their friends and neighbors and everyone they meet in Rome… and to offer to them the grace and love of Jesus Christ.

Everything we need to know about the road to salvation is right here in this letter. We’ve talked about much of it in these past weeks. All of us – no matter who we are – are under the power and control of sin. There is nothing we can do to escape it – not ritual, not the law, not ignorance, nothing.

Nothing, except Jesus Christ.

Paul writes that his faithfulness makes us righteous. His faithfulness makes us worthy of salvation. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us and by his blood we have been reconciled to God.

And so, faith and trust in Jesus Christ helps us to die to that old power of sin and now live under the power of grace. Faith and trust in Jesus Christ helps us to say no to sin and yes to God’s ways. It’s not a magic fix, and it is not an easy journey, but through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, the victory is ours already. Now we wait… but always knowing that no matter what happens, the love of God in Christ Jesus is ours.

That’s it… That’s the “Romans Road” as some people refer to it. Believe and trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and salvation is yours.

But what happens in this next part of the letter, Romans 9 and 10 is that Paul shifts directions.

He starts writing to the Romans about a deep sorrow that he feels over a particular group of people who have not been able to trust in these words about Jesus:

In selected verses from 9 and 10:

At the same time, you need to know that I carry with me at all times a huge sorrow. It’s an enormous pain deep within me, and I’m never free of it. I’m not exaggerating—Christ and the Holy Spirit are my witnesses. It’s the Israelites…If there were any way I could be cursed by the Messiah so they could be blessed by him, I’d do it in a minute. They’re my family. I grew up with them. They had everything going for them—family, glory, covenants, revelation, worship, promises….

Believe me, friends, all I want for Israel is what’s best for Israel: salvation, nothing less. I want it with all my heart and pray to God for it all the time. I readily admit that the Jews are impressively energetic regarding God—but they are doing everything exactly backward… After all these years of refusing to really deal with God on his terms, insisting instead on making their own deals, they have nothing to show for it.

Paul’s heart is breaking for his brothers and sisters, his neighbors, and even those people he has never met, who think that they have to earn their way to salvation. His heart is breaking for all of the people who think they are unworthy of God’s love. His heart is breaking for those people who believe that because they have done good in this world that salvation is theirs…

I know that each of us in this room this morning, has someone in our lives that our heart breaks for.

I want you to take just a moment and think about that person.

Maybe it is a spouse or a child that wants to do it their own way, and not God’s way.

A brother or sister who has always had it rough in this life and just can’t accept that God would love them after everything that has happened.

A dear friend who has left the church and left the community of believers and now is disconnected and alone in their faith struggles.

We could probably spend hours today naming those people in our lives who are separated from the love and grace of God that is in Christ Jesus.

I’ll admit it myself. My heart breaks for my own husband who is this jumbled mix of pride and doubt all at the same time. And I know that I can’t make that decision for him. I know that I can’t let it all go for him. And so I pray. And I love him even more.

We feel this way… this aching in our hearts for our brothers and sisters in this world… because we know how amazing it is to experience Christ’s love.

So, when was the last time you actually told that person how you felt? When was the last time you laid your own fears of rejection aside and asked them to just look at your heart and see the deep love and compassion and genuine concern that you have for them?

Here’s the thing. You could lay out the Roman Road for them. You could give them a lecture or hand them a tract or read to them from the bible… but when was the last time you looked that person in the eye and said –

Whether or not you are ready
Whether or not you want to let God in your life…
I need you to know that I love you and that my heart breaks sometimes because you have not yet experienced the joy and the freedom that comes from letting God in.
That love I have for you will never go away.
And God’s love for you will never go away.
Whenever, if you are ever, ready to experience it too, I’m here.

We have to actually speak the words. We have to carry that message of love and salvation to our friends.

As we heard this morning in the scripture that Colette read, “ If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raise him from the dead, you will be saved.”

So when is the last time that you carried that message to someone you loved?

When was the last time you sat and wrestled with someone who was unsure of God’s love in their life? Or helped them to see that they could chose to let Christ rule their hearts rather than money or status or culture?

As his heart is breaking for the people he loves… Paul writes in verse 14 (and I invite you to follow along):

But how can they call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if nobody tells them? And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it?

 

Maybe our hearts are aching for these brothers and sisters because we have not been active enough in our faith.
Photo by: Jesse Therrien

 

Christ says that we need to be hearers and doers of the word. Someone, somewhere once shared the good news with us… and we heard that word of joy and believed in our own hearts. But not only do we need to believe in our hearts but we also need to confess with our mouths so that others may in turn hear.
But some of us have become “pew potatoes.” Some of us are “occasional Christians.” Some of us are afraid to be sent into the world. Some of us are hanging on to the good news instead of sharing it with others.
(Play “I’m just sitting on the dock of the bay wasting time.” )
Are we just sitting here wasting time? Are we just watching people come in and out of our lives like the ships rolling in and out of the bay?

It’s a good song… but it’s not a good motto to live by.

We are called to go. We are called to share. We are called to take leaps of faith and risks. We are called to speak and to listen. We are called to love.

Every person, in every place, including our own families and circles of friends, needs to hear the good news about Jesus Christ. Will you let Christ send you?

Wedding Season =)

I have to admit it… I love weddings.  This is my fourth season in ministry and after today, I will have 14 weddings under my belt!

As the pastor of a small town church, we don’t have a lot of couples in the church who are getting married, but I often am called for ceremonies at local outdoor locations or even in the church for couples who simply want a church wedding.

I know some pastors that hate doing weddings.  I am not one of those people.

I like being the mediator between families and helping them come together for a special day.  I like working with photographers. I think secretly at one time I wanted to be a party planner, and so this is a little way to experience that =)

But what I love the most about weddings is not the flowers or the dresses or even the food (and we all know that I love food!).

It is actually the same reason that I love funerals… I get the chance to tell someone’s story.

Photo by : Harry Fodor
With weddings, I have spent many sessions preparing with the couple for the ceremony.  I get to know how they interact, what they hope for, and from where they have come.  And then in front of all of their friends and family, I get to help them begin this next part of their journey together.  It is an honor to be a part of that moment.
Actually telling their story through the wedding ritual is the fun part.  My first piece of homework for any engaged couple I meet with is for them to come up with a word or a phrase that describes their relationship.  That word or phrase becomes the foundation, the metaphor, for the entire service.  We find scripture readings that relate to their relationship based on that word.  My message is based around that word.  The liturgy is adapted to suit that word.
I have had easy words to work with like partnership and fire/passion.  But some couples challenge me to really do some research with words like “symbiotic” and “osculate.”  Sometimes only by grace, the story is woven together and their relationship springs out of the liturgy.

Today, I get to be a part of my best friend’s wedding.  I get to help tell the story of her and her husband-to-be.  And this is one of those days where I just pray I don’t bawl in joy at the beauty of it all and the amazing music they will make together in their lives.

foolish vigor

While I might be young, I’m also a bit daring. I have found myself in recent events at the front of the room instead of the back. Maybe it is my naiveity, but even standing at the front or on a committee, I wonder where the hope has gone. I wonder where the risk has gone. This isn’t even a commentary on my denomination, the United Methodists… I have had many ecumenical conversations recently and I am sideswiped by “we can’t do that, or get away with that” comments.

It sometimes feels like the church has lost its foolish vigor.  We have neglected St. Paul’s call to forget the ways of the world, forget success by earthly standards, and to just take a chance and stand with the cross.  We have neglected the call to take up our cross and to follow Jesus – because we are scared of where the cross takes us. It isn’t just fear, or temptation to suceed, sometimes it is just down right laziness and the tedium of daily tasks that keep us from diving in.

I think I’m able to keep going, because in the midst of all of the “safe” choices and the call to “increase numbers” and the forms I have to fill out… I hear about a few folks are taking risks.
A local presbyterian church held a Christmas Eve service this year at a bar in town. They took the risk and were invited back for next year. It wasn’t a success numerically – but they were out there, in the world, and if even one person thought in a different way, they were successful.
A group of young pastors gathered in Washington, D.C. for an event I attended.  We gathered in the chapel at the capital building and prayed and sang.  We have found some courage from one another to try new things, to apply for grants, to start programs and to ask questions.  We are putting ourselves out there – and we do so knowing that there is a small community of support to help us.
Congregations in Cedar Rapids are responding to the changing communities around them and are throwing open their doors for native African congregations to meet in their midst.
The churches who have joined mine for the Co-Missioned transformation process are all taking risks and trying to pay attention to what the Holy Spirit is calling us to be and do.  We have had to let go of some things in order to embrace this time of listening and waiting.  It is hard, and it is scary to let go of what we think works for us.  But every time we do so, we have been blessed by God’s movement.

I want us to be more foolish. To be more daring. And to trust where the Spirit calls us. Don’t be afraid to step out there.  Don’t let your head tell you “no” when your heart is screaming “yes.” Don’t get caught up in this world’s definitions of success – numbers and money and power… just go where God tells you, wipe the dust off your feet if people don’t respond, and then go to the next place.  Don’t be afraid of failure.  Don’t worry about looking stupid.  Take up your cross, with foolish vigor, and follow.