Drop Kick Me, Jesus

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Yesterday after the Iowa – Iowa State game, Chad Leistikow wrote that it was a game “neither team deserved to lose.” [1] You all know I’m a huge Iowa Hawkeye football fan… but I am also the sort of fan who loves to cheer on Iowa State or UNI or any other Iowa team, as long as they aren’t playing the Hawkeyes. But the game yesterday was the sort of game where you were really happy that neither team beat themselves. Sure they both made mistakes, but none they couldn’t overcome. It was a great game.

There was another rivalry game this weekend. Creston/Orient-Macksburg were on the road verses their conference opponent Harlan. This week, five Creston players were kicked off the team after posing in a KKK style image with hoods and a burning cross. The community, including their African-American quarterback, Kylan Smallwood was stunned… he thought of those kids as teammates and friends. One of the families issued a statement – “We sincerely apologize for the hurt and strive we have caused this community. We do not condone the behavior… Our family strongly believes that all individuals are created equally in God’s eyes.” [2]

The community is only beginning to respond in a way that allows for conversation and healing in the midst of the tension they expereince, although it is yet to be seen how that will play out. In some ways, Friday night’s football game was a chance to return to “normalcy” for a moment, but the real work is just beginning. It will take that whole community, standing up against racism, demonstrating repentance and forgiveness for healing to truly take place. But even a football game can show a glimpse of hope. In an act of solidarity, the Harlan marching band turned towards the Creston fans and played their opponents fight song. It was a reminder that whatever happened on the field Friday night was just a game and really, we are all supposed to be on the same team.

My friend, Laura, is a pastor in Ohio and she is a huge Buckeyes fan. After a frustrating loss last night, she posted on her facebook wall that her faith has given her a different set of lenses to view such heartache. Football is only football. “It is not oppressions, hunger, disease, poverty, devastation, or in this moment hurricane force winds. Keep perspective Buckeye nation.” [3]

Keep perspective, Immanuel.

Because Laura is right. Football is fun and exciting and we all enjoy giving one another a hard time, but we are here to play a different sort of game.

As we heard in our scripture reading this morning, we are called to follow Jesus and to run with perseverance the race that is set before us. As the Message Bible updates this passage in every day language:
“Start running – and never quit!… Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God – he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever… When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long list of hostility he plowed through. THAT will shoot adrenaline into your souls!”

Here at Immanuel, we do believe that God has given us a race to run. For over five years now, that vision has been to “In Christ, live a life of love, service, and prayer.”
Like tackling, passing, and running in football are the basic skills that players must learn and practice, in many ways, love, service, and prayer are the basic moves we utilize in our faith. In everything we do, they help us to run the race of faith.

But one of the things that we have been talking about for more than a year now as the leadership here at Immanuel is that they don’t paint a picture of where we are going. They don’t tell us what the finish line looks like.
How will this church, how will this community, how will this world be different because we have been loving and serving and praying?
So last fall, our Administrative Council began praying and brainstorming with one another. We took the values and priorities that you as a church named in last year’s CAT Survey. We looked at our community demographics. We explored this history of Immanuel and the vast resources that the vision team had put together five years ago.
And today, we want to put some meat on the bones of this vision. If you look at the half sheet, you’ll notice that is still our vision, but we have fleshed it out a little bit.
We believe God is calling us to personally engage in and partner with our community as we live out this life of love, service, and prayer, so that broken people and places might be healed by God’s grace.
If love, service, and prayer are the basic skills that we each will employ, the goal… the endzone if you will, is that this community and this world will experience God’s healing and wholeness.

As my friend, Laura said, there is a lot in this world that is broken.
Broken relationships can be seen all around us: in the partisan division, in racial tension, and in family strife.
Lots of people in this world also experience the pain of broken bodies – we are surviving and thriving in the midst of chronic disease, broken bones, addictions, and poor health.
And there are places that experience brokenness, too. This morning, we look out on the devastation caused by hurricanes and wildfires, but closer to home, we can see the impact of poverty and how our economic choices impact the environment around us.

We believe God has called us to love and serve and pray in each of these places.
We can help people heal relationships, reconcile, and learn to talk to one another again – like we did with our Cookouts and Conversations this summer and will do with the “My Neighbor is Muslim” study this fall.
We can be present with one another in the midst of pain and loneliness and isolation – like we will when we train folks from Immanuel to go out and visit our homebound seniors next week and like we do when we go out with Joppa to the check on the homeless.
And we can pool our resources to make a difference all across this world – whether it is through disaster relief and health kits, through donations to the food pantry, or through the Season of Creation organized by our Green Team.
God is calling you and me to love, serve, and pray… to practice those basic skills… so that God’s goals might be reached.
But basic skills alone will not help us get to the end zone.
In football, you put those things together in strategic plays. Those are the ministries of our church. Whether it is choir or children’s church, Ratatouille or Under the Bridge Casseroles, Re:Ignite or Men’s group… every activity we do, is aiming for that end zone and helping us to live out God’s mission in this church.

The other thing that I have learned after many disappointing seasons watching my favorite team is that in order to be successful and reach that end zone, every single player has to play every single quarter. And the coach needs a game plan that will help those players be successful.
If you flip to the back side of this sheet, you will find our game plan for ministry here at Immanuel. We can each practice our basic skills… but part of being on this journey together is that we should all be moving the same direction.
And as your pastors and your staff and your leadership, we think there are four different areas, four quarters of this game that we all have to play in if we are going to be successful.

  1. We need to worship together. If we don’t show up in this place to hear the story of God’s love and grace and to renew and strengthen each other, we will not reach the end zone.
  2. We need to connect with one another. We need to reach out in love and help one another out. We need to build relationship both inside and outside of this church.
  3. We all need to grow. Each one of us should be a part of a group that is helping us to grow in our faith and use our gifts and as we mature, we should be helping other people to grow in their faith as well.
  4. We need to go out into the world and serve. Through financial gifts, through hands-on mission, we can only help this world experience God’s grace if we get out of this building.

Friends, this is our game plan. With our eyes fixed on Jesus, we will live lives of love, service, and prayer and this world will experience God’s healing and wholeness.

And the best news is that we don’t have to do this alone.

There is this country gospel song called “Drop Kick Me, Jesus” by Bobby Bare and Paul Craft and it reminds me that God has our back in this work:

 

Make me, oh, make me, Lord, more than I am
Make me a piece in your master game plan
Free from the earthly temptations below
I’ve got the will, Lord, if you got the toe.

Drop-kick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life
End over end, neither left nor the right
Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights
Drop-kick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life

 

[1] http://www.hawkcentral.com/story/sports/college/iowa/football/2017/09/09/leistikows-first-word-hawkeyes-win-cy-hawk-classic-neither-team-deserved-lose/649140001/

[2] http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/sports/high-school/2017/09/09/creston-game-frayed-nerves-calls-unity-after-photo-students-white-hoods-confederate-flag-rocks-town/647639001/

[3] https://www.facebook.com/laurakennedyjaissle/posts/10154632317611986

Everyday, Ordinary Worship

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It’s Sunday morning.

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

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

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

 

So what are your friends and neighbors doing? 

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

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

 

I’m going to share with you a confession. 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why do we worship?

Is it out of habit?  Obligation? 

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

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

 

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

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

Is there anyone around who can explain God?

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

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

Everything comes from [God];

Everything happens through [God];

Everything ends up in [God];

Always glory! Always praise!

Yes. Yes. Yes.  

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

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

Hear again our scripture for this morning from the Message translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

I was forgetting what God had done for me.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

And the same is true of our worship experiences.  

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

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

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

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

I’m so glad that all of you are here.

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

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

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

every piece of the pie

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I’ve always liked playing Trivial Pursuit.  The questions were always so difficult, but I like that the game aims to help you be well-rounded in your knowledge.  The goal is to get every single different piece of the pie filled in… only then do you win the game.

Maybe that’s because I’ve always been somewhat of a generalist instead of a specialist… I like to try a little bit of everything, learn a little here and there, get involved in as many different ways as I can.

Today in worship and in celebration, that’s how we talked about our life of discipleship.  God doesn’t want us to just do one thing – like prayer or one activity like music.  I firmly believe that God wants us to dive in – to take our ordinary, every day lives, and to let every part of it be part of God’s work in the world.  Our volunteering, our resources, our love for people, all of it.  It all belongs to God.

God wants us to love with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

God wants us to experience every single piece of a life of discipleship:  worship, hospitality, spiritual formation, practicing our faith, service, and generosity.  God wants us to be well-rounded as we follow Jesus into the world.

And so today at Immanuel, we had pie… lots of pie!  And we heard testimonies from many different people in the church about how they have been called to serve in all these different areas and what difference they make in their lives.  And we had opportunities for people to sign up for over 80 different activities, ministries, and groups as part of the ministry of our church.  We worshipped with songs that were traditional and contemporary (sometimes in the same song!), we gave bibles to our kindergarten and third graders and paused for a time of remembrance of 9/11.  We sang and prayed and explored the building – every nook and cranny.

I am constantly amazed by the talent and love and devotion of the people at my church.  They are passionate about what they do and willing to grow and try something new.  They have skills beyond measure.  Their hearts overflow.

And I can’t wait to see what God is going to do when we all challenge each other to continue growing as disciples… to share the gifts we have with others and stretch ourselves in new ways and new areas by letting others teach us.

 

The Beloved Community

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Today, we enter the world of Micah… a prophet from the late 8th century…  just over 700 years before Christ.

And to put ourselves in Micah’s shoes, I want you to imagine with me for a moment a world that is under great stress.

Imagine pressure coming from an aggressive empire or state that believes their success is determined by how far they expand their influence and power and who will stop at nothing to do so.

Imagine attacks upon nations’ capitols.  Imagine an influx of refugees. Imagine increased social stresses. Imagine those attacks that were far away and in other places suddenly taking place in your own homeland.

 

Maybe we don’t really have to imagine, do we.

 

Like Isaiah, Micah wrote from the Southern Kingdom, Judah, and witnessed the downfall of the Northern Kingdom, Israel.    And also like Isaiah, there are sections of this short book of scripture that seem to come from AFTER the time of Judah’s own destruction and exile two hundred years later, possibly updated by others.

And that is because Micah, like so many of our prophets, is lifting up a timeless theme that is just as relevant today as it was 2700 years ago.  We, too, could update the names of nations and rulers and find ourselves right here in this text, right now.

The judgments and accusations against Samaria… against Jerusalem… those capital cities of these ancient nations… they could be leveled against Washington, D.C. or Des Moines, Iowa as well.

So let us hear them…  Let us hear these judgments and lift up our confession

We seek God in all the wrong places (1:5)… like Pastor Jennifer said last week, we often turn to everything but God in order to fill that God-shaped hole in our heart.  Whether it is the abuse of drugs or sex, Netflix binges or self-help books, we have a spiritual hunger that we seek to fill in so many ways EXCEPT by seeking God.  Forgive us, O God.

We exploit the work of others and we tear down their homes… even the meager homes and tents of the most vulnerable among us (2:1-2).  Here in Des Moines, we know the homeless are among us and yet our official city policy is to keep evicting the homeless camps, knowing that there is nowhere else for these people to go.  We do not have enough beds and shelter spaces or a long-term strategy in place.  Forgive us, O God.

We turn to prophets who say all the things we want to hear, instead of what we need to hear (2:11).  I think one of the biggest symptoms of this is the echo chambers we find ourselves in… only paying attention to the news or science or reports that we agree with and only being friends with those who share our opinions.  Forgive us, O God.

Our public officials who should guard justice are corrupt and take advantage of the very people they should be serving (3:2-3). No matter which sides of the political spectrum we are on, we recognize politics is a dirty business.  Unlike the political landscape of Micah’s day, we live in a democracy and have the unprecedented opportunity to hold our public officials accountable through our votes and yet, so often we choose not to exercise that right.  Forgive us, O God.

The pastors and religious leaders serve the highest bidder, yet claim to be serving and proclaiming God’s will (3:11).  Too often, our religious leaders try to whittle all of scripture down to a single issue and claim this is the only issue that matters above all else, and then use that one issue to influence our people and our politics.  I believe in doing so, we are neglecting the breadth and depth of God’s call to us as God’s people.  So for the times I have done this, Forgive me, O God.

 

What the prophet Micah offers to us are not simply words of condemnation and judgement, but also a vision of what true community in God could look like.  Micah calls us to a different way of living and being in this world. Micah paints a picture of the beloved community… a sort of antidote to all of the spiritual, political, and economic sins of our day.

That term, “beloved community,” was often used by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a description of the ends sought by the civil rights movement.  In that time of turmoil and unease, he relied upon the wisdom of the prophets to help show the way forward.  And because the goal of the movement was redemption and reconciliation, the only path forward, Dr. King believe, was a path of nonviolence.  It was the only means that would seek the ends of God.

He proclaimed:  “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.  It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends…. it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men.  It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.  It is the love of God working in the lives of men.  This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”

Now, that passage is from his 1957 message called, “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma.”

Right now, as a nation have a moral dilemma.  We have neglected the vulnerable. We demonize our opponents.  We are afraid of one another. We are unable or unwilling to speak out when we see our neighbors oppressed.

And, we, the church, are called to say something… to do something… to be active agents of God’s redemptive power in this place.

We, too, need to hear again the call of the prophets, the vision of God’s kingdom so that WE can live in the kind of way that might bring salvation to our civilization.

 

And in Micah’s vision, there are three things that we, the church, can do.

First, we need to stop waiting for our leaders and we need to go to the house of God, to learn from God and walk in God’s path.

We have to get deeper into our scriptures.  We need to sit with our bibles and in prayer and ask for God’s guidance.  If Pastor Jennifer is right, and I believe she is, that the moral famine of our world is preceded by our spiritual famine, then we need to start being fed once again by God’s word.   So make Sunday mornings a priority in your family and come to not only worship and fellowship, but get involved with a study.  Participate in a  life group.  Find a friend and pray together once a week. Ask daily for God to guide you.

Second, we need to set aside violence and bloodshed and stop being afraid.

We might not walk around with spears or swords, but our own weapons today include more than guns.  As Bishop Jonathan Keaton preached at our North Central Jurisdictional Conference, social media has allowed for daily combat.  We fire off shots like snipers towards unseen and nameless others.  We bully and taunt with a few taps of our fingers.  And we escalate conflict, learning war and hatred from one another instead of seeking the ways of peace.

Seeking nonviolent interaction with our neighbors or enemies is about more than refusing to physically strike them.  It is also refusing to impart spiritual or emotional blows.  It is about choosing to see your opponent as a child of God.  It is about choosing love over fear or hate.

And finally, we can live a life of worship.  A life, in our language, of love, service, and prayer.

Micah describes this life of worship, not in rituals meant to appease God, but in every waking moment we live out the greatest commandments… to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

We worship by doing justice.

We worship by loving kindness.

We worship by walking humbly with God.

Or as the Message translation puts it:  Do what is fair and just to your neighbor.  Be compassionate and loyal in your love. And don’t take yourself too seriously… take God seriously!

Will the entire world be transformed if we do these things?  Not overnight.  But we can never get to that beloved community… we will never see God’s kingdom lived out right here on earth if we never take the first step.

If you are seeking an instruction manual or the blueprints for the beloved community it’s right here:

God’s made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women.

Do justice.

Love kindness.

Walk humbly with God.

Serve. Love. Pray. Every single day. Amen.

See(k)ing Jesus

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I’m sometimes asked what the difference is between Christians who are out there serving people in the world and regular, ordinary people, who are out there serving.

So many of our businesses here in Des Moines are great proponents of volunteerism. Every time we go to a Meals from the Heartland event, or collect stuff for the food pantries or the schools I hear about Wells Fargo or Principal or Hy-Vee doing the same sort of thing.

Is there anything different about the character or the content of what we do as people of faith?

Most days, if we are honest, probably not.

Should there be?

Absolutely.

But what is it?

 

Mother Teresa was once showing a bishop the community she served. It is said that she asked the bishop, “Would you like to see Jesus?”   She then took him around a few corners to a man laying on a leather pallet who had clearly visible things crawling on his body. The bishop stood there in shock, but Mother Teresa knelt down and wrapped her arms around him, holding him like a baby in her arms.

“Here he is,” she said.   To which the bishop replied – “Who?”

“Jesus” was her answer. “Didn’t he say you’d find me in the least person on earth? Isn’t this Jesus challenging us to reach out and love?” (wright-house.com/religions/Christianity/mother-teresa.html)

 

Seek and you will find.

That is what our gospel reading says.

Or as Michael Slaughter reminds us in “Renegade Gospel” – the passage uses the present continuous tense… Ask and keep on asking… Seek and keep on seeking…

 

The bishop wasn’t looking for Jesus and couldn’t see him in the suffering of the man on the pallet. But Mother Teresa was. She was looking for him every day. She was seeking Jesus every day. She knew that in every moment she was serving, she was doing it to Jesus.

 

Seek and keep on seeking and you will find.

The problem is, we aren’t always paying attention to Jesus.

 

I think one of the fundamental differences between Judas Iscariot and Mary in our other gospel text this morning is that the first was focused on himself and the second was seeking Jesus.

As _________ shared with us this morning, Jesus and the disciples were with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. And in the midst of the gathering, Mary takes this extravagantly expensive bottle of nard and anoints Jesus feet with the ointment.

This story itself appears in different ways in different texts.

In some cases the woman is unnamed, in another she is Mary Magdelene, and here she is identified as a different Mary.

In Matthew and Mark, the story comes earlier in the timeline and the woman anoints his head – a prophetic act that symbolizes his kingship.

But here, H. Stephen Shoemaker points out, that she anoints his feet, which would signal instead his imminent death. She, unlike the disciples, unlike Judas or Peter, had already accepted the true meaning of his teaching- that he was about to die. (Feasting on the Word)

There Jesus was, in the flesh, right in front of both of them.

 

Seek and keep on seeking and you will find.

 

But the gospel of John points out that Judas was so focused on that bag of money and his own selfish interests that he wasn’t even paying attention to Jesus.

Mary, on the other hand…

Mary sees Jesus in front of her, plain as day. She sees the suffering he is about to undergo. She sees his fear and pain. She sees his holiness.

Mary knew that this might be the last time she saw Jesus before he made the final trip to Jerusalem.

She knew their time together was short.

And she knew she could do this one thing for him. She anoints his feet in an act of worship showing her love and reverence for him. That was all that mattered.

 

When I heard that story about Mother Teresa, embracing the man who was suffering, I thought of Mary and Jesus. The tenderness of the physical touch. The dignity bestowed. The compassion and love that were offered through the embrace.

Love is costly.

Whether it is expensive perfume or the risk of embracing a diseased stranger, love is costly.

To use a word we shared last week – love is prodigal.

It is extravagant and sometimes appears wasteful. It is overwhelming and too much. And sometimes, by its very nature, it is immensely temporary.

In his reflection on this text, William Carter notes:

“Lots of extravagant gifts are put into the air, where they soon evaporate. A church choir labors to prepare and intricate anthem, and three minutes later it is gone. The teacher prepares the lesson, stands to deliver, and then the class is adjourned. Mourners provide large arrangements of flowers to honor those whom they grieve. Saints donate large sums of money for their congregations to spend. Why do they do this? Love has its reasons.” (Feasting on the Word)

 

Where Judas saw wastefulness and a hit on his personal pocketbook, Mary saw an opportunity to pour out extravagant love to her Lord and Savior.

Even his excuse – Hey! We could have spent this money on the poor – comes off as a limited perspective. For Jesus, in turn, quotes from Deuteronomy 15:

“Give generously to needy persons. Don’t resent giving to them because it is this very thing that will lead to the Lord your God’s blessing you in all you do and work at. Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.”

 

And what I can’t help but hear in his response is the reminder that while Mary had the opportunity to pour out extravagant, generous love to Jesus in that moment, in just a few weeks, he would be gone.

And then, their responsibility, OUR responsibility, is to pour out that same extravagant love to the poor in our midst.

Give generously.

But you see, Jesus changes the dynamics of that exchange.

Because, now, it is not simply because it is a command from God on high.

Now, we do so, now we give and love and get down on our hands and knees to serve because whatever we do for the least of these, our brothers and sisters, we are doing it for Jesus.

 

That, friends, is the fundamental difference that we can offer the world.

We can love our neighbors as we would love Jesus, himself, present in front of us.

As we serve the homeless here in Des Moines – and a group is going out to do just that with Joppa this afternoon – you can serve them as you would serve Jesus.

As Slaughter writes in chapter four, “When Jesus walked Planet Earth, everyone could see him in the flesh – friends, followers, and foes. We no longer have that opportunity. Now that Jesus’ physical presence is removed, the world can no longer see him, but we can. Those who are born of the Spirit are able to experience and see him today. When we ask, seek, and knock in expectation, we find what we are looking for.” (p. 82)

 

Seek and keep on seeking and you will find Jesus right in front of you.

 

Too often, we miss out on the opportunity to truly love extravagantly because we are too focused on ourselves.

Or because we are going through the motions.

Or because we simply aren’t paying attention… because we don’t realize Jesus is right in front of us.

 

The world can no longer see him… so they do good deeds and they serve their neighbors and think nothing of it.

But friends, the essential character of HOW we serve is different, because when we look into the eyes of someone who is sick or dying or struggling, we don’t see an opportunity to do good… we can see Jesus.

 

When did you see Jesus?

When did YOU last see Jesus Christ?

When did you interact with him?

When did you hold his hand?

When did you share a meal with him?

When did you visit him?

When did you offer him a cup of water?

 

And when you saw him… how did you show your gratitude and love to him?

Tables and Holy Experiences

I have a sense of my first Maundy Thursday service, but I can’t quite place where it falls in my history.  I was not a child, but not yet fully grown.  Perhaps it was high school, or maybe somewhere in my college years.  I have a sense of a fellowship area, a place not just for worship, but for eating and laughing as well.  Classmates and adult leaders alike are present as we strip off our socks, giggle about stinky feet and toe lint, and form a line to wash one another’s feet.

When I began serving in a congregation and had the opportunity to craft the service for my people, that sense of communal life was an important sense memory to hold on to.  So we gathered around tables in our fellowship hall and worshiped with food on the table, candles lit, everything set as it might be for honored guests.  There were dates and figs and olives, bread and apples, glasses of grape juice and almonds.  It wasn’t meant to be authentic.  Or a seder meal. It was meant to nourish your soul and invite you in to an experience of the table. We worshipped with prayer and singing, celebrated the great thanksgiving, washed one another’s hands, and feasted with laughter and stories and finger food.

There is immense joy and comfort in the Maundy Thursday celebration.  As Jesus ate and drank with the disciples, he knew what was coming, but perhaps that only made the stories longer and the fellowship more sweet.  It was a time to teach them, to be with them, to love them just as they were…. knowing fully that in mere hours they would fall away one by one.  He knew they would fail, and yet he washed their feet.  He knelt before them.  He showed utter devotion and compassion.  He left them with words and memories that may have seemed normal in the space of that moment, but would become so much more in the reality of their betrayal and his death and resurrection.

We cannot be bystanders to that kind of experience.  We must dive into it.  We must sit at table with friends and family and strangers and break bread.  We must feel the cool water rush over our skin and the warmth of another human body as we slowly and deliberately and carefully take the time to wipe and dry away their fingers or toes.  If we are going to sing “let us break bread together,” then we must take the bread and feel the crust and one by one tear off a section and give it to our neighbor. 

Okay, maybe “must” isn’t the right word.  But when we do, when we let ourselves be transported in worship and word and action and song from our day to day hustle and bustle of life to another physical/spiritual/emotion place… then we do encounter the holy.

This year, in a new church, I dug through my files and found the service that had sustained me all those years.  With some flexible space at the front of our sanctuary (due to a few rows of pews being replaced by chairs) we made room for tables and gathered in that holy ground for some fellowship.

I watched as one or two couples reluctantly took their places at the round tables.  They were longing for the comfort of the pew. The experience of sitting back at watching from a far. The distance. We don’t realize it is there at first, but it is when we are ten rows back with all of those wooden seats between us and the front.

But they sat down. And participated. And the moment took over. 

As we pulled ourselves back together as a large group from table conversation and we were about to pray our prayer of thanksgiving following the meal, one of those women raised her hand. 

“We should do it like this every time,” she said.

Not every Maundy Thursday… she meant every time we break bread together and celebrate the Lord’s supper. 

“We might have to get rid of the rest of the pews,” I gently responded with a smile.

I’m not sure what is next or what the path forward might be, but experiencing one another and God and the divine mystery in that holy space opened up a world of possibilities about what it could mean for us to worship that has little to do with pews or hymn books or standard orders of worship.

I have been blessed to be a part of amazing worshipping experiences that grew organically from a community of faithful people.  Some were traditional and some were emergent.  But each was an outside of the box opportunity to personally and communally encounter God with sight and sound and smell and touch and taste.  Each gave me the space to be fully present in mind, body, and spirit.  What better way to worship the one who created us, inside and out?

True Worship

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“We keep a troubled vigil at the bedside of the world,” writes Howard Thurman, “Thus we clutch the moment of intimacy in worship when we become momentarily a part of a larger whole, a fleeting strength, which we pit against all the darkness and the dread of our times.

I want to invite you to think for a moment about some of the darkness and dread that hangs over our world today…

 

When in worship have YOU felt a part of something bigger? When have you been given the strength to face those struggles in the world?

 

The idea that worship itself is a moment of intimacy when we become part of a larger whole is a powerful and timeless truth.

 

In our scripture this morning, we read about Isaiah, and the very reality of reality was presented to him when he met God in his vision of worship.

 

To set the stage, to understand just how important his experience was, we need to look at the first words of verse 1:

In the year King Uzziah had died…

King Uzziah was ruler over the southern kingdom of Judah and he came to be king at only 16 years of age. According to both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, he did what was right in the sight of God and had a powerful and successful reign over Judah for fifty-two years.

But then something happened. All of the success that God had brought the nation went to King Uzziah’s head. In the wake of military victories, Uzziah provided top of the line armor and weapons for his soldiers and fortified the city of Jerusalem with towers and archers and traps. But in these things, he was demonstrating trust in the hands of man, rather than in the power of God.

Our God is on that would take a whole army of the ready and send only three hundred into the battle. When you fight on God’s side, you don’t have to fight with anything else!

But King Uzziah forgot this. His pride became such a problem that he entered the holiest place in the temple… that special room at the very center that only the high priest was allowed to enter and he walked in like he owned the place and burned incense to the Lord.

 

Now, today, we wouldn’t consider that a big deal. But in the days of King Uzziah, there was a strict boundary between the people and God and just as important of a boundary between the authority of the priests and the authority of the King. This was the separation of church and state for its time… and Uzziah crossed the line.

He snuck into the temple and had just lit the flame to burn incense to the Lord, when 80 priests came pouring into the room. The chief among them cried out, “Get out of the sanctuary, for you have trespassed! You shall have no honor from the Lord God.”

Instantly, leprosy came upon Uzziah as a consequence of his prideful action and he was a leper until the day of his death.

 

It is in the midst of this culture of pride and success that Isaiah receives his vision from God.

Beginning in chapter 1 of the book of Isaiah, we hear…

 

What should I think about all your sacrifices?     says the Lord… 12 When you come to appear before me,     who asked this from you,     this trampling of my temple’s courts? 13 Stop bringing worthless offerings.     Your incense repulses me. …15 When you extend your hands,     I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time,     I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood. 16     Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.     Put an end to such evil; 17     learn to do good. Seek justice:     help the oppressed;     defend the orphan;     plead for the widow.

 

True worship, worship that is pleasing to God, is a moment of intimacy.

It is a moment where we are connected, as Thurman writes, to a larger whole.

It is a moment not where we show God how great we are, but we offer ourselves, with all of our flaws and weaknesses, and let God’s greatness strengthen us.

 

After Isaiah has vision after vision of the failings of his nation, of the people and the bloodshed and the oppression his people have created, King Uzziah dies and Isaiah – in the midst of this moment of transition and change – is mystically transported into God’s presence.

In eight verses, we receive the pattern of a life of worship. We find the structure we need in order to let the spirit of God connect us with reality at large.

These four movements help us keep worship from being all about “me.” They pull us and stretch us and teach us what it means to be faithful.

I want to invite you to pull out your bulletin and look with me at the headings for each section. Each one of these represents a movement we discover in this passage from Isaiah this morning.

 

We begin with Gathering Together… a time of praise .

 

I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. They shouted to each other, saying:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”

 

Isaiah finds himself in the temple and he is not alone. The seraphim have joined him and they sing praise to the one who has gathered them all together.

Most importantly however, worship begins with the presence of God.

As we gather with one another, we do so in the name of God, in the presence of God, and in our call to worship, we remember that God is here before us. Whether we are worshipping in the sanctuary or outside or in the park or at home, we gather in God’s presence.

But another key aspect of this gathering is that we are praising God. We acknowledge… no, we can’t ignore WHO it is that is before us. The seraphim are moved to sing in this awesome presence. We, too, begin our time of worship with a song of praise.

Each week, as the hymns and songs are chosen that will begin our time of worship, the first one we sing always points to the God who has called us here.

As we think about what this gathering time means, we can see clearly just how far King Uzziah crossed the line. He entered the temple for his own selfish reasons, rather than to praise and honor God.

 

As we return to our bulletin, the next heading is a time of confession…

 

The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke.

I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!”

 

How many of you have had worship moments where you felt God’s glory filling the room?

Maybe it was during a hymn being sung or a scripture passage or some moment of prayer… whatever it was, in the presence of God’s glory we can feel so uplifted and close to the Lord.

But the flip side of being in God’s presence is realizing just how NOT like God we are.

When Isaiah stood there in the temple with the hem of God’s robe surrounding him and the seraphim singing and the sound of it all so overwhelming that the door frame shook… he felt pretty small.

Instead of trying to prove ourselves to God, like King Uzziah, instead of trying to stand on our own righteousness, true worship is a time to confess who we really are – both individually and as a community.

Confession is a time to lay bare the truth about ourselves. It is a time when we don’t have to pretend. It is a time when we are forced to see difficult truths about ourselves we might not otherwise admit.

We are human. We are weak. We are selfish. We need the Lord.

 

And in worship, we experience the Lord our God.

 

Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”

Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”

 

After we stand before God, vulnerable, open, knowing fully who we are and how not like the Lord we are, we hear God’s word proclaimed.

You are forgiven.

I love you.

I have a job for you!

Now… these might seem like simple words – and they are! – but they are also words we proclaim in our time of worship in a hundred different ways.

Through song and scripture, through the cross above us, through our actions and bodily motions, through painting and dance, through sermons and images, through the smell and taste of Holy Communion, through the touch of a neighbors hand or the smile on a strangers faice, through a burning coal that touches our lip and makes us clean… This is the gospel that is proclaimed over and over and over again:

You are forgiven. I love you. And I have a job for you!

 

You see, in the very same moment God is helping us get over the past and our failings and weakness, God is getting us ready for the future God has planned.

In the words of Anne Lamott – God loves you right where you are and loves you too much to let you stay that way.

And when we come face to face with God in Christ, we hear that message, too. When we are touched by Christ in the breaking open of the word, we are forever changed.

Worship, therefore, is a time when we let God set the agenda, rather than barging in to tell God what we think, as King Uzziah did.

Finally, we respond in faith.

 

I said, “I’m here;

send me.”

God said, “Go…”

 

When we open ourselves up and let God in, when our lives start to change – then we can’t help but respond to God’s call.

In our response to God’s word, we begin to realize that it is not about us. Isaiah’s plans don’t matter anymore.

His problems and failings don’t matter any more

The money he was saving to buy a new donkey doesn’t matter anymore.

When God asks, Isaiah responds – Yes.

 

In worship, we respond to God’s invitation with prayers. We lift up our own lives and those of others that God has called us to care for.

In worship, we respond by offering our whole selves in love and service and by giving back even a piece of what we have been giving.

In worship, we hear hymns that call us back into the world that is full of darkness and dread with a renewed strength and a word of hope.

In worship, we are sent out into the world, not alone, but with the Holy Spirit as our guide.

 

 

 

 

Ashes and Lattes

In the middle of a public place, a busy coffee shop, surrounded by strangers… people got real.

We hosted our first ashes to go in the community and while we didn’t have a large turnout, the conversations were deep and holy. I got to know my parishioners better. I heard what brings they joy and where they are struggling. I witnessed the joy and excitement of a family rushing through on their way to school.

People you only have time for quick conversation with in the greeting line after church hung around for a while and visited. It was fascinating to have so much more intimate encounters in a public setting.

In fact, I think the average length of stay at our table was probably 20-30 minutes.

Although, that’s what people do at coffee shops. They talk. They go deep. They open up and become friends.

I’m declaring our first time a qualitative success :)  I wonder about the conversations that will come as a result of our few hours of ashes and prayers.