Scattering Fear and Gloom

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Easter Sunday is a rollercoaster of emotions.

We felt that as we began worship today… instead of starting with the joy of the resurrected Christ, we began with the despair felt by Mary and the disciples because their Lord and Teacher was no longer with them.

You see, for the disciples, Easter morning began with a hopeless situation.

It began with fear of the unknown.

It began with the gloom of death.  

When I wrestled with what I should preach about this morning, I couldn’t help but think about all of the hopelessness and fear and gloom in this world. 

I hear it in the halls of this church, and around our dinner tables… in the grocery store, the halls of work or school… all of the varied and sundry places that we gather in our lives.  

We worry about family who just can’t seem to get their act together.

We struggle with illness or money in our personal lives.

We watch the evening news and everything seems wrong with the world.

After a while, the daily grind starts to take its toll and we become numb to all of that stuff around us. We find ourselves settling into the rut and start to believe that this is just the way it’s going to be.

The violence of the world almost ceases to phase us.  What is a crucified Savior when another bombing in Syria has taken lives?  Another shooting at a school last week?  Another gun related death in our city?     

We can barely keep ourselves abreast of the human rights violations occurring across our planet as war-torn countries continue to destroy the lives of innocent men, women and children. So many of these places of conflict feel utterly hopeless and without end.   It seems that no matter what we do, or maybe because of what we do, new groups and new people spring up to fight, instead of searching for ways to work together and to rebuild lives.

 

In our gospel reading this morning, Mary goes to the tomb and she is not going with expectant hope. She is going to bring spices and oil and to continue to prepare his body for burial.

You see, Jesus was laid in the tomb just before sunset and the beginning of the Sabbath Day and so the women did not have enough time to properly lay him to rest.

As the sun rose on this Easter morning, Mary Magdelene went to the tomb to mourn, to pray, and to say her good-byes.

She was someone who desperately loved Jesus. He was her Teacher and her Master. He offered her new life and a brand new beginning when he cleansed the demons from her life. And ever since that time, she had followed him faithfully. Then, in one fell swoop, everything that she had begun to put her trust into was taken away.

Her Lord was gone.

The disciples who followed him had scattered and those who remained were hiding out in fear of the Jewish authorities.

Mary had no one to turn to and nowhere to go.

The only thing she knew to do was go to that tomb and rehearse a ritual practiced by Jewish women for centuries. She would go to the tomb to honor Jesus and to mourn for him properly.

 

But as our scriptures this morning remind us, when she arrived, everything was in disarray!

The stone was rolled back and her Master was nowhere to be found!

His body was gone!

Desperately, she ran to the house of one of the disciples for she knew that some of them would be there…

They have taken away his body! She cried out….

They have taken him and I don’t know where they have laid him!

Two of the disciples, run back to the tomb with her and find her story to be true. They enter and find the burial clothes there also, neatly folded and placed on the stone. They know that something has happened… but none of them really knows what it means.

 

Mary, in the midst of all of her desperation and mourning saw Jesus standing before her but did not recognize him. She couldn’t see the promise that was right before her eyes!

Jesus even called out to her, trying to scatter her fear and her gloom:

 “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

As Mary stood in that garden weeping out of desperation she heard her Master call her voice. One moment of startling fear and overwhelming joy – a moment of holy awe – as the significance of what is seen – and what is unseen comes crashing in.

 

And Christ is calling out to us all the time, every day.

He asks us constantly what we are weeping for.

He longs to wipe away the tears from our eyes.

Jesus is Risen. Death could not hold him.

And if it cannot hold him, it cannot hold us.

All that Jesus said about life and death

all that was understood only as idea – as a concept – as a vision

is made real in that empty tomb and in that encounter in the garden.

 

The disciples and the women heard Jesus talk SO MANY TIMES about his death and resurrection and it just never sunk in.

They couldn’t understand the promise because they never believed it would happen.

So when Jesus shared his final meal with them on Thursday night they let him down and failed to remain faithful.

And when Christ was crucified on Friday afternoon, they were paralyzed by their unbelief and forgot the promises he made to them.

They couldn’t see past their own pain and fear and gloom to remember the promise!

The ancient promises from Isaiah:

“No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”

 

And he wants us to see him, to recognize him as the Jesus who is alive – the Jesus who is risen – the Jesus who has the power to bring that new creation to bear on our lives.

But like Mary, our hearts are often so slow to believe, to trust, and to accept he is standing before us.

There are so many things in our lives that we could feel hopeless about:

Loved ones who die too young,

People who work away their lives for a wage that won’t pay the rent,

Hungry families… including the 55,000 people in Des Moines who don’t have enough food on their tables,

But the power of the Easter resurrection didn’t just bring Christ to life.

The power of the Easter resurrection took a rag tag bunch of disciples who barely knew their left from their right as far as following Jesus was concerned…. And turned them into apostles.

It turned these doubting, stammering, disobedient fools into the leaders of a movement that would transform the world!

When Christ rose from the dead, the Body of Christ that is the church was brought to life – a community was formed that would love and cherish and carry on the mission and the ministry of Christ!

Each and every single one of us is a living testimony to the power that Christ’s resurrection had on our world.

Each one of us is who we are today and is in this place this morning because those first disciples experienced the risen Christ.

And because that experienced so radically changed their lives that they had to tell others.

 

So what is this Easter morn?

It is God’s promise of a new day

It is God’s promise of a new life

It is God’s promise of a new world

coming to pass in our midst.

 Jesus is risen. Death could not hold him. And it will not hold us either.

 

Wherever in your heart there is weeping, Christ promises to turn your tears into laughter.

Jesus is risen! Death could not hold him!

And the forces that tear us apart in this world will not defeat him either!

Christ has risen!

And we… as the body of Christ, in this time and in this place… are called to continually live our lives as a beacon of that promise!

We are called to visit the sick and those who mourn and pray for healing in this life or the next.  

We are called to work for those who are struggling and help to create a better way.

We are called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

We are called to welcome the stranger and the outcast, the person who is not like you: 

whether that means they were born here or not,

an NRA member or fighting to limit guns,

someone who wants sidewalks in their community or doesn’t,

whatever the color of their skin or whomever they love. 

 

You and I… because of the reality of what we experience this morning… are called to go forth and scatter the forces of fear and gloom in the world.

We are to find small ways to live out and practice the resurrection power in our world today.

Christ is risen!

Let us crown him the lord of Life, the Lord of Peace and the Lord of Love

and may we believe in his power to truly transform our lives.

Amen.

Love Is All You Need

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As Coptic Christians gathered in Egypt this morning to celebrate Palm Sunday, bombs rocked their sanctuaries.  Thirty-six people were killed in the blasts.

This week has seen horrific chemical attacks upon the Syrian people, but what is more horrific is that these kinds of atrocities are happening all the time, but only occasionally make it to our headlines.

In the Des Moines area, this week has seen a slew of gun violence, with five people shot last Sunday morning and three deaths in Bondurant this week.

 

When we gather in this sanctuary and wave our palms in the air, we cry out Hosanna!

 

And that very word has a double meaning that is meaningful in our world context.

We typically think of the Hosanna as a call of praise and glory, welcoming the coming King.

 

But Hosanna also is a cry for salvation. “Save us!” the people call out.

“Save us” we cry out.

Save us from our striving for power.

Save us from unending violence.

Save us from the walls that threaten to divide.

Save us from social forces that stomp on the sick, the poor, and the outcast.

Save us.

 

In the Jewish tradition, the laws were given to the people as a guide for how to live as a saved people.  The Israelites had been rescued from the Pharoah’s grip and in the wilderness they were formed as a people.  And the laws were given as a means to help them live in community and to prevent the kinds of personal and social evils that could destroy them.
613 different commandments are given in the Torah to try to accomplish this purpose.

And when Jesus was asked about which was the most important, he referred to only two.

 

The Shema from Deuteronomy 6: Love the Lord

And

Leviticis 19 – love others.

 

When Jesus summarized all of the law and the prophets, he basically took the ten commandments and boiled them down to five words:

Love God. Love your neighbor.

That’s it.

These laws are all about the relationships we have been talking about these past few weeks.

Love is the fence that guards us from harmful activity. Love is the standard for how we are to behave. Love defines who we are.

 

Throughout this series, we have been touching on the surface of some of the conflict that threatens to divide us as a church.  We are not all the same.  Across this great wide world we worship in different languages and sing different types of songs. We live in various political and social and economic realities.

And I believe that is a good and a holy thing.  But it is also a really difficult reality to live in the midst of.

All of our differences, all of our separate gifts and hopes and desires, all of the nonessentials that can tear us apart, they can only be put into perspective if we take the time to truly be in relationship with one another.

This body only works if at the core of who we are and how we live is love.

When the Apostle Paul hears about the mess that the Corinthians have made of their church by squabbling over non-essentials, he writes to them.  He wants to encourage them to be their best selves.   And if you remember from last week, he tells them that they are the body of Christ and that each of them has an important role to play in the church. He tells them that each of them is gifted and that they should pay attention to and rely upon the gifts of others. He tells them they need to give and accept help and to treat all members with respect.

And then he launches into a beautiful part of his letter that is very familiar to us.

 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing

All of this stuff that you think is so important – Paul writes – all of this stuff that you are arguing about, it means absolutely diddly squat if there isn’t love in the midst of your community.

You could have the most money or be the most talented or live in the most beautiful house, or even have the most elegant prayers or know the scripture backwards and forwards…. But all of it is for nothing if there is not love in your life.

Paul’s not just talking about the romantic love between two people. He’s talking about deep, sustaining love. He’s talking about the love that knits people and communities together. He’s talking about the love that only comes from God.

Love that is patient and kind.

That that is not envious or boastful.

Love that doesn’t seek its own advantage and doesn’t keep a record of complaints.

Love that isn’t satisfied with injustice.

Love that endures all things.

 

As the people of God and followers of Jesus Christ, and as the people called United Methodist, we are all have the same calling: to love.

The primary thing that unites us is the love of Jesus Christ.

The love of Christ reminds us we are all sinners in need of God’s grace.

The love of Christ shows us what grace and mercy are all about.

The love of Christ is sacrificial and bends down in service to others.

The love of Christ gives life to others.

Love seeks the good of others, no matter who they are, even if it is at our own expense.
Love is not a feeling… love is a verb.

It is a daily decision to choose to love and be in relationship with others.

 

In our prayer of confession this morning, we asked that God might turn us, cleanse us, and forgive us our transgressions.

We asked that God might set us again into the procession of love that makes all things new.

 

When we leave this place today, we are going into a world that praises all of the wrong things and that desperately needs to experience the saving power of God.

We are going into a world where children are hungry and parents are frustrated.  Where the mentally ill don’t have access to care and where innocent people are trapped in the midst of countries at war.  If we took the time to list all of the problems and concerns of our nation and world we might never leave this sanctuary.

And yet, God has called us to be his hands and feet in the world.

God has called us to be the Body of Christ.

And that means that God wants us to be the answer to the world’s cries for salvation and healing.  God wants us to carry these palms into the world as a procession, a parade of love and healing and salvation.

God wants us to bind up the brokenhearted and feed the hungry.

God wants us to welcome the refugees and the strangers.

God wants us to seek peace and pursue it.

God wants us to visit the sick and imprisoned.

And through it all, God wants us to love.

 

You know, we are ending this series with the call to love, but in reality, this is only the beginning of the life that we are called to.  As Bishop Bickerton writes, love is “the source of our being, the fuel for the journey, and the goal for which we live.”

Love God.

Love your neighbors.

Amen.

Unity, Diversity, and the Body of Christ

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Over the past week, I’ve been working to get my garden prepped a bit for spring and to start some of the seeds that will be set out after Mother’s Day.  And I was reminded as I dug my fingers into the dirt that soil is so incredibly diverse and complex.  That just one handful of the stuff contains more living organisms than there are people on this planet.   

And in every part of the soil, every one of those organisms has a part to play, impacting chemical and physical properties.  And all of these living organisms live off of and feed off of one another.  It is their interaction that makes soil healthy and thriving and good.

In his book, The Third Plate, Dan Barber describes two ways of seeing what is happening in the soil that surrounds us.

One, is a class system… or a battlefield…

We’ve all seen those videos of a tiny fish being eaten by a bigger fish, being eaten by an even bigger fish… that’s some of what happens in the dirt beneath our feet.  One way of looking at all of the interaction beneath us is to focus on how microbes are eaten by protozoa, which are eaten by centipedes, ants, and beetles.

 

 

But another way of thinking about all of that diversity in the soil is as a system of checks and balances. 

 

Fred Magdoff is a soil scientist and he thinks that “When there is sufficient and varied food for the organisms, they do what comes naturally, ‘making a living’ by feeding on the food sources that evolution provided… What you have is a thriving, complex community of organisms.”

And all of that diversity and interaction in the soil is what makes our food taste good. 

Magdoff says, “Taste comes from a more complex molecule that gets eaten, taken apart, and put back together in a different way.  The plant takes this, and all the other molecules, and catalyzes them into phytonutrients.  Taste doesn’t come from the elemental compounds (like calcium or nitrogen).  It comes from the synthesis” [The Third Plate, Dan Barber, page 85]

 

That’s really why you and I want all of that diversity in the soil after all.  Because we want the things we grow to thrive and taste good.  We want it to bear tasty fruit! 

In musical composition, unless it is a solo piece, it is the interaction of the various instruments each playing their part, yet working together that create harmonization.  

And in the church, it is the way that we each utilize our various gifts and we each play our part as hands or tongues or livers that allows the Body of Christ to make a difference in this world.  

 

But sometimes, the church acts more like a battlefield than the Body of Christ.  

When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, he was responding to the way factions and power and pride were tearing the community apart.  

Corinth was a port city and as such it had incredible diversity.  Ideas from across the globe all mingled and freed slaves lived amongst wealthy entrepreneurs.  The church reflected this diversity… but that created a power contest between the believers who argued with one another about which ideology or status was better than another.

At every turn, Paul reminds the people that their diversity should be seen not as a source of division, but as a blessing.  Because of their varied gifts and perspectives, they could do far more together than any of them could do on their own.  

 

We’ve experienced this as a church, haven’t we?  We have incredible diversity as far as our age and our political and theological perspectives and yet look at the amazing things that we have done together.

We raised over $5000 for Joppa in a weekend with a garage sale last year that brought so many different people together.

We built on Faith Hall and paid it off in record time because every person did their part.

We successfully launched Children’s Church because of the incredible work of so many different volunteers and people who were willing to try something new.  

Today is the last day of Third Grade Bible, which is an amazing way our more experienced folks help our young people learn about this amazing book that guides our faith journey.  

 

None of that could happen unless the various parts of THIS Body of Christ were willing to step up and play a part.  

You might be a foot or an eye or a spleen, but you play a part in this church.   We all play a part.  You might think that you are too young or too old or too busy to make a difference, but Paul says you are wrong.  You are an essential part of making the church work!  

Or you might think that church would be a whole lot simpler if everyone was just like me, but again, Paul says we are wrong.  It takes all of our different perspectives and experiences… even when they make things more complex… to be the Body of Christ God has intended for this community.

 

In the United Methodist Church right now, we are divided.  We are different.  And we feel differently about human sexuality.  We can’t always agree about how we should be in ministry with those folks on the margins, whether they are refugees or poor or elderly or tattooed or whatever else marks them as different from the majority.  And underneath all that disagreement is that we don’t all read the scripture in the same way.  

And sometimes, that diversity feels like a war.  It feels like the battle described the soil beneath us or in that clip from Minions.  We are chewing each other up and spitting each other out. And I hate the way my brothers and sisters are hurt and damaged by actions and words that cut to the core of their very being.  And I’ve watched as some people have walked away from the Body of Christ because of it.

When you focus on the conflict that diversity creates, you want to strip out everything that is different to protect yourself and others.  We want simple things.  We want unity, which means, we want to all be the same.

But I believe, and Paul believes, that to be healthy, we need diversity.  We need difference.  We need checks and balances.  We need reminders of the importance of the scripture and justice and mercy and love from people who don’t see it the same way we do. 

We need to listen. 

We need to hold one another accountable. 

We also need to challenge one another. 

We need to be willing to speak the truth in love.

And together, the interaction of all of our different parts creates something beautiful and mysterious and powerful.

John Wesley claimed the Moravian Motto: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.”

There are key things that are pretty essential to who we are as not only United Methodists, but as Christians:  ideas like believing in the Triune God, and understanding that grace plays a role in our lives.  Core things, without which we simply could not be the Body of Christ.  

But there are other things that are non-essential.  What style of music or which translation or scripture or if we prefer percolator coffee or ground coffee or whole bean pour over. In those things, we are called to allow the freedom of diversity and expression and to give room and space for our siblings in Christ to be different and to share their varying gifts.

But no matter what… in all things, we are called to love.  To respect each other.  To listen.  To disagree without being disagreeable.  To be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit.  

In all things, Love.

It is not a coincidence that this chapter on what it means to be the Body of Christ comes right before the chapter on love.  Because the only way we make this kind of community work is through love.  We’ll talk more about that next week.   

 

In the same way the soil beneath our feet thrives on diversity and competition and interaction and synergy – this church thrives because we are different AND because we love one another.  And through God’s grace, that means we can do more than any one of us could accomplish on our own for the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

 

Discerning What Matters Most

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This faith community began in the 1920s , as the neighborhood of Beaverdale was starting to rapidly grow.  Reverend Orf, the pastor of Crocker Hill UMC,  recognized the growing need for a church presence in this area and so area churches banded together for a committee, remodeled an old farmhouse, and on Easter Day, 1925 the first worship service was held at this location.  

As the community grew, the congregation made plans to build a church and the part of our building that is now the music room and offices was built in 1941.  A big part of the design at the time was to build a church structure that would be in keeping with the style of the homes being built all around us.  Classrooms were added in 1947 – part of Immanuel’s long legacy of education.   Our church also opened itself up to the community in this part of our history, housing some of the local elementary school classes in our Fellowship Hall as the schools got too large for the students of the day. 

As the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren church were merging in 1968 to form a new denomination – the United Methodist Church, this congregation was continuing to grow and completed work on this sanctuary.  In the 1960s, youth bell choirs were formed, with adult bells following a decade later – another part of the way music has been a rich part of our tradition.

In 1970s, we began a new ministry that reached out to shut ins with tape recordings of the worship services.  Members from Immanuel were instrumental in helping to pave the way for Vietnamese refugees to be welcomed into our state. 

And since that time, we have continued to grow in faith, we are known as a caring and mission focused community, and we have been willing to take leaps of faith to respond to the needs we recognized within the church and the community, like our expansion of Faith Hall which was completed in 2004.

 

The Apostle Paul wrote to the people of Philippi to encourage them in the faith and as a church.  And he reminds them that the God who began a good work in them would not abandon them, but would continue to help them to love and bear fruit for the gospel until that day when their work was finally complete. 

And the Philippians needed some encouragement.  While they had been on fire for God at the start, they also had experienced intense persecution because of their faith.  Many were wondering how they could continue to go in in the face of the opposition they were experiencing.  What should their church look like now?  How could they continue to serve when so many around them were dying and falling away? 

Paul’s letter called them to press on with rejoicing even in the midst of their difficulties and to return to God in a spirit of discernment, so they could discover a more excellent way and so they could be strengthened for whatever would come next… until that day when God fills the entire world with the love of Jesus Christ. 

 

There simply is no comparison between the struggles we experience today in the United States and the persecution experienced in places like Philippi and in other places that are hostile to the Christian faith today.   We gather in this room this morning without fear of death.  We can sing at the top of our lungs and share our faith and the only consequences for doing so might be some angry words or cold shoulders. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t face bumps in the road or our own kinds of trials.  That doesn’t mean that parts of our journey aren’t difficult. 

And so, we need encouragement in our faith sometimes, too.  And like the Philippians, we constantly find ourselves asking the question, what should our church look like now?  How do we continue to serve in the midst of declining membership or in the midst of a culture that cares less and less about what the church has to say?  What are we to do when the good news of the gospel seems to be falling on deaf ears? 

What is it that we are fighting for?  What kind of church are we going to invest in becoming for the future? 

 

I began our message this morning by remembering a few fragments of our past, because the practice of spiritual discernment about next steps always begins with looking to see what we can learn from where we have been.  And as I look at the history of who this church has been, I see that we began as a community of people who were willing to take risks and go to new places where we thought we might reach new people. 

This church began as a renovated old farmhouse – a house church – that welcomed people into a family.  But we didn’t just stay there.  As the needs of this community of faith continued to grow, we expanded and grew ourselves.  And we took care to continue to resemble the community around us – even thinking about making our physical structure look like the homes in the neighborhood.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Although I’m free of all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them.  I act like a Jew to the Jews, so I can recruit Jews… I act weak to the weak, so I can recruit the weak.  I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means.” (1 Cor. 9: 19-22)

So as we think today about what we might be called to next, I think its important to remember that we as a church were willing to take risks to meet new people and willing to adapt to the community as it changed around us so that the community might feel at home in our midst. 

 

One of the problems with looking backward to find the answer, however, is that we can get caught in analysis paralysis and stay there.  We can try to recreate exactly what we did before or keep researching and studying and waiting for exactly the right moment and we miss the opportunities that are right before us. 

In What Are We Fighting For, Bishop Bickerton reminds us that as a church, we simply can’t wait any longer.  He talks about the act of hitting a baseball and how difficult it is to time your swing just right.  While it is easier in slow pitch to be able to see what is coming at you, as the game goes faster and faster,  we often wait far too long to swing.    And Bishop Bickerton says that the church game is going faster and faster and changing more and more rapidly every day.  There are so many moving parts to a church and we need more technical expertise to reach people today.  We have to adapt and be nimble, and react more quickly to the ways our community and culture are changing, or we might find that we have waiting too long, we have missed the pitch, and our church is no longer relevant. 

All around us, there are pitches coming our way.  There are opportunities a plenty.  In fact, there are so many great ways that we could be in ministry today that it is tempting to try to do everything and toss out a whole bunch of new programs and activities like scattershot and see what works.  But that itself is exhausting.  Instead of scattershot, we need help to discern a clear focus.  And part of that discernment is asking who is the new community that God is calling us to take a risk and step out in faith to reach?  How can we be faithful to our heritage as a church, while also paying attention to where the Holy Spirit is leading us next? 

As an administrative council, we spent some time last fall in discernment looking at a number of the opportunities, realities of our surrounding community, and ways that we are particularly gifted to lead and serve.  We noticed things like that our surrounding neighborhood is now only 80% white, that we have more elementary schools in our community, and that over 1/3 of the families with children around us are now single parent families.  We also have more younger, couples moving into the homes of the neighborhood. 

How is God calling us to step out in faith and reach them for Christ? 

As we continue to discern, we start by connecting our passions and our gifts as a church with the ways we will choose to live in the midst of this place.  We can take the things that we value like music and education and being a caring community and we can carry them with us as we go outside of these walls to reach new people. 

But we also should be willing to test the things that we have always done and do them not just because they are what we like to do, but to ask always if they are faithful to God’s will for our community.  Do our activities and our programs resemble God’s love?  Are they filled with the knowledge of our Lord?  Are we bearing the fruit of the gospel in what we do?  Are we doing them simply because they are easy, or are we rising up to meet the demands of call of Jesus Christ? 

 

Next week, Trevor will be preaching once again and he will help us think about a final part of our discernment… how do we know what really is the core of who we are as a church that will always be the same and will never change no matter how the world changes around us, and where are the places where we can be more nimble and flexible, so that we can continue to grow towards completion for the glory of God.    What are the things we should be willing to fight for, no matter what? 

 

Lessons for the Journey

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Last winter, my immediate family planned a trip to Hawaii to escape the cold and the snow.  We often like to travel all together, but because of my weekend work responsibilities, the rest of the family took off earlier, while Brandon and I stayed here in Iowa to get through church on Sunday morning and then fly out. 

Our original plan had been to fly out on Sunday afternoon, but about a month before the trip, they cancelled that flight and rebooked us for first thing on Monday morning.  So our alarms were set for 4am, our bags were packed and we were ready to go.  And then the text message came.  Our flight had been cancelled.   There had been storms that weekend in Dallas, flights were backed up and ours was being bumped.  We had been rebooked for Wednesday morning. 

I instantly got on the phone and tried to see if there was any way we could get out of town sooner.  Except the hold time with the airline was estimated to be an hour or more.  Brandon and I live near the airport, so I decided to go and try to get in line and talk with an actual agent at the ticketing counter.  Only, the lines there were nearly out the door.  Everyone was trying to get out of town and no one was going anywhere.   There were no earlier flights to be had.

We decided to make the most of the day and built a fire in the fireplace at home and tried not to grumble.  The next day around noon, we got another text from the airlines.  Our flight Wednesday morning out of Des Moines had been cancelled, too. 

I think I spent about three hours on the phone with the airlines and the soonest they could rebook our tickets was on January 1st.  It would be another two days before it would be possible to get out of Des Moines due to the back up all throughout the system.  I cried.  The good lady from the airlines tried her best to help make something work, but it was a mess.   

I finally asked if the flight from Dallas to Hawaii was still taking off the next morning.  It had been only the Des Moines leg of the trip that had been cancelled.  And sure enough, it was still going to be leaving at 9 am Wednesday morning.  Brandon and I looked at each other, and decided to drive to Dallas.  

We picked up the rental car around 4pm, left Des Moines around 5, and drove through the night.  When we arrived, exhausted, around 4am, we found a quiet corner in the airport to take a short nap, made our flight, and made it to Hawaii to spend the rest of the trip with our family… only three days late.  

 

In our scripture this morning, the Israelites are on a journey as well.  While Brandon and I were trying to escape the cold of winter for a warm, sunny beach, the Israelites had escaped slavery in Egypt and now they were headed for the Promised Land.  God was leading them to the land flowing with milk and honey.  Only, they didn’t quite know how to get there and they trusted God to lead them.  

This was supposed to be a fairly simple trip, and yet at the outset, God planned to lead them the long way round.  The pillar of smoke and fire was taking them on a journey that would avoid most of the difficulties they might encounter along the way.  But no road is easy and the setbacks they experienced were far greater than a few cancelled flights. If you continue reading through the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the Israelites experienced loss, frustration, bickering, and ended up wandering for forty years in the wilderness.  There were times in the journey when the destination seemed so far away that they wished they were back in Egypt.  And despite the daily guidance and food provided from above, there were even times they forgot God was with them.  Ultimately however,  just like we finally touched down on the rainbow isle and got to spend our vacation with my parents, siblings, and three amazing niblings, the Israelites finally made it to Canaan.

While we might not be on a physical journey, the people of the United Methodist Church and the people of Immanuel are on a journey, too.  John Wesley often talked about how we are going on to perfection and I think part of that means that we as the church should always be working towards the Kingdom of God and growing not only in our personal faith, but we should be transforming the world around us to look more like the “Promised Land” every single day.  As a church, we need a compelling vision to hold in front of us, a picture of the destination we are longing for, so that we can actively work to bring that reality into being. 

But like the Israelites, our journey has been and will be marked by setbacks. Most journeys are.  We, too, have experienced loss and decline.  In fact, I bet some of you in this room can remember when this sanctuary was built in order to accommodate when we had over 500 in worship every single Sunday.  And, there are times of disagreement and disunity.  We won’t always be able to find the best worship times for every person and we won’t all agree on what a faithful Christian response is to some of the toughest conversations of our day.  

Last week in fact, an email came out from a new group that has formed within the UMC called the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  The email contained a video that highlights the three central beliefs of the organization.  That God is good, the Bible is true, and that Promises should be kept.  And yet, how those three very simple statements were defined is not something that all United Methodists agree upon.  So I became part of a group of young clergywomen that created a statement in response, trying to expand and enlarge the conversation.  

When Bishop Bickerton talks about this journey of faith we are on, he knows that it will not be easy.  But he offers a couple of simple lessons that might help us arrive together at our final destination.  As I have thought about the journey of the Israelites,  my own adventures in travel, and the journey we are currently on as a church, I find them helpful.

The first lesson I want to highlight is what my colleagues and I were attempting to do last week as we drafted a response to others in the church.  And that is the see yourselves and others as a work in progress.   I think this faith that we share is not simple, but it is complex and messy and real.  We are always learning and growing and going on to perfection.  Or as Paul put it, “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face.  Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way I have been completely known.” (1 Cor. 13: 12).  And so that means we should constantly be in dialogue with one another.  We need to admit our shortcomings and leave ourselves open to the possibility that we might be wrong.  We do not need to have it all together or have all the answers… we are still on a journey!

The second lesson relates to that idea.  In the famous words of Vanilla Ice, we need to stop, collaborate and listen. It is often the people we disagree with the most who can help us to get farther on our journey.  We need to collaborate across generations, with our older folks helping out our young parents and our younger folks providing support and care for their elder counterparts.  In his book, Bishop Bickerton shares a story from Zimbabwe and Bishop Nhiwatiwa.  In the Shona language, the word used for the spirit of collaboration is chabadza .  “If you approach a person working in a field, you do not say, “May I plow your field for you?” Instead you say, “May I help you plow your field?”  Chabadza represents a willingness to enter into relationship with someone else on the journey.” (p. 36)   And it is a willingness to let to, let others help, and to let it be done another way.  This is the spirit that we embody here at Immanuel whenever we put the needs of another person above our own and let go of our way in order to let God move us in a new way.  

The final lesson is one that I needed to remember many times on our long journey to Hawaii.  You need to lighten up, loosen up, and have a little fun The journey we are on is difficult, and if we don’t open ourselves up to find the joy in the midst of the journey it will feel like its longer than it actually is.  We need to enjoy the ride, remember that we are loved by God, let the Holy Spirit encourage us every step of the way.  Here at Immanuel, there are so many opportunities to have a little fun as we grow in this journey of discipleship.  You can sing and dance with the kids in Children’s Church.  You can laugh together over coffee in Faith Hall.  You can step out of your comfort zone and make a new friend.  You can stand up and let God move you when the music starts playing.  You can roll with punches and smile more and see where the Spirit will move.  

Above all, no matter where we are on this journey, God is with us, pushing us, pulling us, prodding us, and never letting us go.  Like the cloud of pillar and fire never left the side of the Israelites, the presence of God is in this place and will continue to guide us every step of the way.  Amen. 

The Heart of the Matter

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For the past couple of weeks, I’ve had this strange sensation in my neck.  To me, it feels like my pulse is a bit off of rhythm, like occasionally it skips a few beats, or does a few too many in a row.  It isn’t a constant thing, and it was pretty random until Thursday.  On Thursday afternoon, this thing, whatever it was, happened multiple times all afternoon long.  It doesn’t hurt, but it was kind of freaking me out so I got in to my doctor later that day.

They took my blood pressure, we did an EKG, and ran some blood tests.  Everything came back perfectly normal and my physician isn’t concerned… aside that I need to exercise more.  

While on the one hand, I’m comforted by the knowledge of what it isn’t, I also don’t necessarily have an answer either.  I found myself yesterday second guessing the way I even described the problem.  Maybe it’s not my pulse I’m feeling, but a twitch in my neck.  Maybe it’s all in my head and I’ve just had too much caffeine.

 

As we enter this season of Lent, we are going to be exploring some of the ways that both the United Methodist Church and our congregation have found ourselves searching for explanations and diagnosis.  And we are going to be honest about some of the symptoms that we see, the realities of our lives together. 

In the larger denomination, we are in the midst of a time of disunity that really reflects the culture we find ourselves in.  And the UMC is also numerically declining… we have lost a million members since 2006!  But simply looking at those symptoms, like the strange feeling in my neck, doesn’t automatically tell us what the problem is.  Is it that our older generations are dying out?  Are we having less children?  Is there too much competition?  Are we irrelevant?  Theologians and church leaders keep offering their explanations and no one seems to be able to put their finger on “the answer” to the problem.

 

Bishop Thomas Bickerton wrote the book that is the backbone of not only our worship series this Lent, but also our life group conversations we’ll be having.  (Quick plug: if you haven’t signed up for one yet, you can join this morning’s classes at 9:45, go to Java Joes on Monday nights, or join the one here at the church on Wednesday evenings!)   He thinks in many ways that we are like the church in Ephesus who had forgotten who they were called to be. 

Our scripture this morning comes from a letter Paul wrote to this church and at this time, the church was just on fire for God.  They had started as a small group of committed people and when Paul showed up and ministered among them, the Holy Spirit started working.  God did amazing things through them… impacting the entire city.  Temple prostitution, idolatry, magic, all of these things ended because people instead turned to Jesus.  When the Ephesians experienced the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, God accomplished abundantly more than what those first twelve disciples in Ephesus could have asked or imagined!  

Kind of like the United Methodist Church.  We started with a small group of people at Oxford University who wanted to know God better.  They were committed to the gospel and to Jesus and their faith took them across an ocean to start a church.  John and Charles Wesley could never had imagined the way that God would use them, but their little bands started healing the sick, taking care of the poor, preaching to those who would never have set foot inside the church, and before you know it, the UMC was a world-wide denomination!

You would think that kind of energy can be sustained forever, but it takes work.  We can get ourselves in ruts and we forget the power that got us started in the first place.  In the letters to the churches of Revelation, one of them is written to the people of Ephesus and God praises the work and the labor and endurance of the people, but God also says that they have let go of the love they had at first.  They are urged to remember the high point from which they had fallen.

Maybe the United Methodist Church, maybe our church, has let go of the love we had at first.  Maybe, like the Ephesians, we have a spiritual problem.

 

Bishop Bickerton points to what he calls the “Five I’s” to help us discern a bit about our spiritual reality and where we might be lacking the love of God.   

He notes that the church is a bit low on our INSPIRATION – that we tend to grumble and complain more than we focus on hope.  We need to remember where God is leading us and get excited about it again!   

He sense a lack of INTEGRATION  between what we say and what we do.  I actually have been fairly proud of Immanuel in this sense, because not only are we willing to talk about things that are happening in the world, but so many of you are out there caring for the homeless, visiting the sick, and living your faith.  

Bickerton also points to the dangers of ISOLATION.  Once you disconnect from a community, it is hard to find ways to become part of the group again.  On the back table as you leave, you’ll notice some names and some cards.  We want to reach out to folks whom we haven’t seen for a little while with a phone call or a card… and if you recognize a name out there and are willing to make a connection, take a card and put your name down!

The fourth I is INDEPENENCE.  This world tells us that we have to do it ourselves, but the church reminds us that we are better together.  We don’t have to do it alone because we all can do our part.  

Finally, INVITATON.   This is actually one of the goals of our church today. When we are excited and transformed by the work of God happening here, then we are going to want to pass it on, to reach out and bring people along with us.  

 

At Immanuel, we have had a vision that has sustained us for the last four or five years.  Say it with me:  In Christ, live a life of love, service and prayer.

But one thing our leadership has realized is that we are called to not just be and exist and look to our past, but to continue actively working towards our future.  What are we fighting for? also means What are we fighting to accomplish?  What will be different because we have loved, served, and prayed?  What is inspiring us to move forward?  What is going to challenge us in a way that we simply can’t do it alone and need to invite others to join us?  

As our leadership has discerned, we are feeling God pull is in a new direction and we are excited to share it with you over the coming weeks and months.  

But the heart of the matter, the deep question that faces not just us, but the UMC, and the Ephesians, is whether or not we really want to tap in to the power of God.  The love so strong, so wide, so long, so high, so deep, that God is going to do abundantly more than what we believe in our hearts is possible… if we know where we are going.  If we know what we are fighting to accomplish.    

Sermon on the Mount: The Golden Rule

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My sister-in-law has been staying with us all week while she completed a training here in Des Moines for her work place.  It was really nice to come home in the evenings and to be with not only my husband, but both of his siblings every evening.  We relaxed, had nice meals together, caught up on what was going on in each other’s lives and played a lot of cards.

One of our go-to games is pinochle.  You play the game with a deck made up of only 9’s through Aces, but we play with four of every single card.   There is a bid phase, a meld phase, and then a playing phase.  It’s kind of a complicated game, but once you get the hang of it, it goes fairly quickly.

Like any card game, there are endless variations on the rules.  And the thing about pinochle is that whenever we play at my sister-in-law’s house, we play with a different set of rules than when we play at their dad’s house.  In one case, a four of a kind can earn you anywhere from 40-100 points, and in the other, it’s worth absolutely nothing.  When I looked down at my hand about halfway through the game and saw four Kings of Hearts, I suddenly wished that we were playing at her house instead.

But, the house rules prevail.

A couple of weeks ago as we gathered here to explore the Sermon on the Mount, we talked about the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, as explained by Jesus.  He took some of those well-known laws from the Ten Commandments and actually made them harder… in the end, reminding us that our aim is to be perfect, to be complete in our love.  Jesus puts his own spin or variation on them.

Now, the difference between a rule and a law is hard to distinguish.  Laws are official, because they are created and enforced by the political structure of the time – whether it is a democracy, like the United States today, or a theocracy, like the early Jewish monarchy and they have official consequences.    But rules, are standards of behavior that guide our actions and tend to be dictated by the community or environment or home that you are in.  There are consequences for rules, too, but they tend to be less severe – like a loss of privilege or opportunity.

In the case of a card game, you could think about the law being the standard way a game is played. In the game we were play, for example, a Queen of Spades and a Jack of Diamonds is a what is known as a pinochle and that is same everywhere you play the game.   But the variations, the house rules, vary and tell you a little bit about what that particular community values about the game itself.

Much of the Sermon on the Mount is made up of these “house rules.”  Jesus describes for us how it is that we play this game of life as people who are part of the Kingdom of God.  He lays out the variations that are going to guide our life and our relationships if we want to be part of this community.  These aren’t formal laws with defined consequences, but rather describe the standards that we should aspire to embody if we are going to be part of God’s Kingdom.

And the section of the sermon that we focus on this morning is no different.  When it comes to relationships, when it comes to how we live together in community, Jesus lifts up this idea of reciprocal relationship… that you should give what you want to get.

He talks about this in terms of judgment:  Don’t judge so you won’t be judged.

He talks about it in terms of seeking:  That just as you expect to get the things you need from your earthly parent, so your heavenly parent will give you good things.

And he talks about this in how we treat one another in general: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

 

Now, Christianity isn’t the only community to have ever expressed this rule.

In the Hindu faith we hear: This is the sum of duty:  do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain. (The Mahabharata)

In Buddhism: Hurt not others with that which pains yourself. (Udana-Varga)

Islam teaches: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. (Hadith)

Confucius says: What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to others.

And as a contemporary of Jesus, Seneca taught: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.

What is interesting is that in many of these other cultural and religious expressions of this idea, the rule is usually expressed in the negative.  Don’t treat others how you wouldn’t want to be treated.  It is about refraining and restraint.   And the section on judgment certainly fits that kind of characteristic when it encourages us to not point out the specks in our neighbors eye – to refrain from judging.  But Jesus also expresses this rule in the positive light – Treat others the way you want to be treated.  As MacDonald and Farstad write in their commentary on this passage, Jesus “goes beyond passive restraint to active benevolence.  Christianity is not simply a matter of abstinence from sin; it is positive goodness.” (Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments).

The Golden Rules that Jesus give us are proactive.  They invite us to take a situation and to pour God’s mercy, love, and grace into every aspect.  We should look upon every encounter with others and ask in every circumstance – how would I want to be treated in the midst of this.  And then, we are supposed to do it.  Not just think about it, but do it!  William Barclay notes that this law invites us to go out of our way to help others, and it is something that “only love can compel us to do.  The attitude which says, ‘I must do no harm to people,’ is quite different from the attitude which says, ‘I must do my best to help people.’” (The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 1)

And Jesus calls us to do our best to love all people, whether or not they deserve it.

Think about even the “law of retaliation” that comes earlier in chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus reminds us that the reciprocal nature of our relationships in the past has been about an eye for an eye.  We give back what we have been given.  But Jesus challenges us to be proactive in our love… that if we are slapped on one cheek, to turn the other to them as well.  If we are sued for our shirt, we should give them our coat also.  In many ways, we are being asked to love first and ask questions later!

The world that we live in today is starkly divided.   There is a lot of pain and disagreement and conflict that is not only reflected in national politics, but it often takes its root in our homes and families and churches, too.  When I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues shared that their family has cancelled their annual reunion because they have such differing political views they can’t be in the same room together any longer.    Our larger United Methodist Church is so divided about whether and how we will welcome people of varying sexual orientations that we are in a season of deep discernment about if we can even remain a united church and what it might look like if we did.   I experience this in my own family, too.

And maybe that is why a commentary piece from foxnews.com really hit home with me.  The author describes how she and her husband find a way to live together in the midst of their disagreements and I’ll share the article to our church facebook page if you are interested in reading it.  What struck me about the piece, and why I share it today, is that it lifts up that you have to start with love.  You have to start with the Golden Rule.  You have to start in a place of generosity and mercy and kindness, treating those who radically disagree with you with the same respect and graciousness that you would hope to receive back.

Jennifer Dukes Lee calls us to resist trying to be right and to not judge others by putting them in boxes.  She calls us to think before we speak and to ask if what we say is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.  And she tells us that when we truly live in these ways, when we let love define what we do, that we can show the world that it is possible to live in the midst of diversity, if we put others first.  (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/02/16/trump-or-never-trump-what-to-do-when-cant-agree-with-people-love.html)

In this season of our national and state and home life, we need to  remember the house rules that define who we are as people of faith.  The rule of love and compassion.  The rule that invites us to put others first.  The rule that leads us to treat any person we meet the way we would want to be treated… whether they deserve it or not.

The Sermon on the Mount: Lord’s Prayer Lessons

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This morning in worship, we built our entire service around the Lord’s Prayer, using songs and brief meditations to help us focus on the various parts of the prayer itself.  Below are the three meditations:

 

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…

 That little tiny phrase is one of the most subversive and radical things that we can say as Christian people. And we say it every week. Too often, we rush over the words, practically tripping over them to get to the end, because we know the Lord’s Prayer so well.

For the last two thousand years, Christians have tried to let God use them to bring about glimpses of the Kingdom on this earth.  If we are going to be daring enough to pray for the kingdom to come on earth – then let us also be daring enough to participate when we see it!

In, “Listening to your Life,” (page 304), Fred Beuchner writes:

“…the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born within ourselves and within the world; …[it] is what all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know… The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”

We are homesick for it and yet it is as close as our next breath. Thy Kingdom come on earth.

Thy Kingdom, Oh Holy Lord, come on this earth and pull us beyond the borders we have artificially made.

Thy Kingdom, Oh Lord and King, come on this earth and root all of our actions in the care of your creation.

Thy Kingdom, Blessed Ruler, come on earth and let us find the boldness to feed and clothe and heal our brothers and sisters without waiting for the government to help.

Thy Kingdom, Glorious King, come on earth and make us uncomfortable. Don’t let us be content with peace in our hearts until your peace truly reigns over the nations.

Thy Kingdom, Ancient of Days, come on earth and turn our allegiance from brand names and politicians and flags and nations … but help us imagine and embody life on earth, here and now, as though you were truly the king of it all and the rulers of this world were not.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

 

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I want to tell you a story about a church here in Iowa that took seriously Jesus’ prayer and the command to forgive. (from Becoming Jesus’ Prayer)  

Farmers Chapel UMC, “was burned to the ground by an arsonist. In the weeks and months that followed, the congregation had to wrestle with how to forgive the person who destroyed their 107-year-old church…. [so, their pastor] wrote an open letter to the unknown arsonist and had it printed in the local newspaper…” (
page 37-38)

He wrote:  “Our worship time is 9:00AM every Sunday. I tell you this because I want you to know that you are invited. In fact, we even plan to reserve a seat just for you. Our faith has a lot to say about forgiveness. Every Sunday we ask God to forgive our sins but only as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us. That would be you. So if you would join us for worship, we could practice this kind of forgiveness face to face. I say “practice” for a reason. I don’t expect us to get it right the first or even the second time. Of course we’ll continue to work to forgive you even if you decline our invitation to worship. Forgiveness is the cornerstone of the faith we have inherited. Some people think it is impossible. They may be right. I only know that we have to try. Our forgiveness of you is tied to God’s forgiveness of us. We can’t receive something we are not willing to give others. So you see, if we harbor hatred for you in our hearts, we harbor the smoldering ashes of your arson. If we cling to bitterness, we fan the embers of your violent act. If we fantasize about revenge, we rekindle a destructive flame that will consume us. Forgiveness may indeed be impossible, but for us it is not optional.” (as printed in Becoming Jesus’ Prayer)

That church has been rebuilt and at the focal point of their worship space is a cross that has been built out of the charred timbers of their old building. Every single time that Body of Christ comes together, they are a living witness to the power of forgiveness. And when we pray Jesus’ prayer – when we truly pray it – we are asking… no we are begging for our lives to be changed. We are asking for this church to be transformed and for it to be a place of transformation.

 

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

All throughout the gospels, Jesus shows us what it means to be delivered from evil. 

He teaches about the ways that we should follow and does so with authority and power.

And when the demons show up, questioning his wisdom, he casts them out.

Ofelia Ortega writes that “the forces of evil know of the healing power of Jesus’ word; they are not submissive or indifferent. Jesus’ powerful teaching not only is fresh to the ears of the faithful, but it also disrupts the undisturbed presence of evil. Evil discovers that it is running its course.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, page 312)

All Jesus had to do was speak, and the evil powers of the world started shaking in their boots.

“Be silent.” Jesus commanded. “Come out.” He said firmly. And the spirit obeyed.

I don’t know what to tell all of you about evil, demons and spirits. I have never personally experienced them, although I know people who have. What I can tell you is that I firmly believe that God has power over the evil in this world.

The reign of God… the Kingdom of God is at hand. And when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, it is a personal prayer and we are talking about God’s authority and power within us. We are praying for God to help us tap into that amazing power that the people witnessed within the synagogue. We are praying not only to be cleansed of our own internal demons – but we are also praying for the power to love others who have their own internal demons.

A Cherokee elder was teaching his children about life.

A fight is going on inside me,” he said to them. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandchildren thought about it and after a minute one of them asked, “Which wolf will win?” The elder simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Every time we pray this prayer, we are feeding the wolf of love in our lives.  We are asking God to help us to be imitators of Christ, to be ones who can truly praise God as our King.