Sunday, April 11, 2010

Why Do Evangelism?

"Delivering the Invitaiton"

Matthew 28:16-20

Christ is risen! The good news of last week, the gospel, I pray is still alive in you.

In today’s lessen we find the disciples in Galilee. The risen Christ had urged the women, who first experienced the joy of Easter to do two things: 1) Go and tell the good news to the disciples, and then 2) tell them to go to Galilee. So the disciples are at the meeting place. It feels somewhat like determining what tree the family will gather at in the event of a house fire evacuation. We’ll find each other under the oak tree across the street and two doors down. But this time it’s the mountain in Galilee. You see, Jesus had a plan for them all along. While their experience of resurrection is good, it’s not the only surprise that Jesus had planned. He gathered the disciples on the mountain after his resurrection, to send them out into the world. Jesus uses some active verbs, here: go, make disciples, baptizing them, teaching them. They are to do the work of evangelism.

Someone in a Bible study class asked me the other day what “evangelism” is. While her question came from a lack of knowledge, which made her unaware of things like TV evangelists that are slick and creepy, and street corner evangelists that yell at you, my sense was that everyone else in the room wanted to hear the answer, too. Evangelism is this: sharing with other people an important time in your life with God. It’s that simple. And this is what Jesus had planned for the disciples all along.

Have you ever lost anything under the fridge? You can imagine it. A child has been playing in the kitchen with her Lego’s. The kitchen, as we all know, is the best place for this kind of play. The solid floor for building things high, and the slick floor, if the need arises, to scoot some Legos across to the other side of the room in imaginative play. And it seems, children are always playing on the floor in the kitchen while other things are happening in there, too. So when you walk by the child to pull something out of the freezer for dinner, unknowingly, a yellow Lego gets kicked underneath the appliance. The child doesn’t miss it – she has plenty of others in yellow. And even when an adult helps to carefully pick up the toys before the meal, no one misses the yellow Lego.

Now its been 5 years, and the family is getting ready to move. And though you have thought many times of pulling the fridge out to clean behind it, you haven’t. But before we’ll let someone else move in, it must be cleaned. The fridge is carefully pulled out, and there you see it. Among the M&M you remember loosing to fridge last week, and the magnet that fell off some years ago, and the enormous amount of accumulated dust: there it is…a Lego! And the dust and fuzz on the under-the-refrigerator Lego makes it nearly impossible to tell the color. It’s been under there so long, and no one missed it until we pulled it out again.

Evangelism has been the under-the-refrigerator yellow Lego of the mainline church. Unknowingly, we kicked it out of sight some years ago now. We haven’t missed it at all, until we shifted a few things around, changed our priorities, were challenged in our faith, and then it was unearthed…with dust and fuzz on it so it was almost unrecognizable!

Why don’t we do the evangelistic work the risen Christ calls us to? We have a lot of emotions around this one. We’ve seen the slick TV evangelist equate faith with money. We don’t want to be a part of that. We’ve seen street corner evangelist try to literally scare the hell out of folks: If they don’t become Christians it’s a burning fiery hell for them. So you’ll want to turn your life around now and live in the bliss of the assurance of eternal life with God, now! And we’ve even seen pushy friends equate evangelism with church attendance, at their church, nonetheless! We have some fairly negative images of evangelism. We’ve seen it at its worse, and we don’t want to be a part of that. And because we don’t want to be a part of these negative expressions of evangelism, we’ve kicked it under the refrigerator, to gather dust and fuzz and hope no one will notice it is missing.

What does evangelism in its purest form look like?: sharing with other people an important time in your life with God.

Evangelism is always done in the context of relationship. It’s two people who already know each other, who have built a trust with one another, in which the Christian finds a very natural time to share their own important encounter with God.

Evangelism tells stories, rather than proselytizes, seeking not so much convert the other, as to simply share the life-changing experiences you have had in Christ, with an invitation to a time and a place where they might experience that life-changing work of Jesus Christ.

Evangelism invites rather than scares. There’s no scaring the hell out of people, rather, an invitation to something more in their lives.

Evangelism doesn’t seek the perfect technique. Rather, the evangelist is always aware of the presence of God, confident not in their perfect delivery, but in God’s perfect work in the midst of their attempts to share the gospel.

What is the purpose of evangelism?: To help people begin a living relationship with Christ. To invite them into something new in Jesus. To call folks out of meaninglessness and hopelessness into the life-giving relationship with the risen Christ! The purpose of sharing our story with others is simply this: so that they might begin a relationship with the one who gives us life! Note that I didn’t say the purpose was to increase church membership, to increase worship attendance or to increase giving to the church budget. The entire purpose of evangelism is invitational, to invite someone with whom we have a relationship into something deeper with God.

What is at stake in evangelism? That’s another way of asking, so what? Why do evangelism? What should motivate us?

What is at stake in evangelism? Transformed lives – theirs and yours! People who receive and act on an invitation of evangelism have their lives changed forever. They experience the transformation of their entire lives. All that they used to know is altered by their new relationship with Christ and with the people of Christ. Even so, your life is transformed, too! The disciples left the Galilean mountain to make, baptize, and teach. We know their work, as it is recorded in part in the book of Acts. There we find story after story of the work of evangelism. And we know that their lives were never the same again. In fact, from the first time each disciple met Jesus, everything about who they were changed. In their work of spreading the Good News, they were changed again. transformed into the people of God in Jesus Christ.

As you do the work of evangelism, expect your life to be changed, too. You’ll be developing relationships with people you don’t know. You’ll be remembering the work of God in your life. You’ll be telling the stories of blessing and goodness and beauty. God will work a mighty change in you, too!

Can we dust off and remove the fuzz from our under-the-refrigerator yellow Lego? You had a chance today to share with other people an important time in your life with God. You already know one of your stories, and you’ve practiced telling it to someone else. This is evangelism. Now, would you try something riskier yet? Would you pray about who you already know who might need to hear a word of hope? Who do you know who doesn’t know God? This isn’t your Lutheran, Presbyterian or Catholic friends who might be unhappy with their pastor or their church. Who do you know who really doesn’t know God? Or who do you know who has turned away from God? In the coming week, I want you to … 1) Ask God who you know that needs a word of hope, 2) Look for or create an opportunity to share your story with them, 3) And deliver an invitation to them to worship with you. Even if you don’t have any idea who the person might be. Even if you are scared right now to do it. Even if you are thinking I am crazy to ask such a thing of you, take the invitation anyway, and ask God to do the work to get you and your friend ready so that you can tell your story and deliver the invitation! Evangelism is about changing lives for Christ! There is no more important work that this!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Journey to Hope...Easter!

“Jesus is on the Loose...”
Mark 16:1-8

Today is a day of celebration. We have a gorgeous array of flowers, the Children processed with gold and white banners, a clear sign in the church that it’s a special day, we are singing beautiful, full sounding hymns, you all came dressed so beautifully. We are clearly celebrating here today. This is a day like no other, and I hope it is a day like that for you!

But the scene of the first Easter morning is quite different. It’s been three days now, since the crucifixion. Christ’s bloody, battered, lifeless body lies in the tomb. The 12 disciples who gathered as friends at the Passover table have now fled. One of them, the betrayer, has taken his own life in despair. There is a numbing air of let down, disappointment and grief: that is, for those who had hung their hope on Jesus; that is, for those of the community of believers; that is, for all those who had hoped he was the Messiah That first Easter there are no trumpets, no hallelujahs, no joy. The first Easter begins in grief and disappointment.

Three women are on their way to prepare the bloody, battered, lifeless body of Jesus for burial. It is the last act of caring love they can offer. This was what women did when there was a death. But these women were followers of Jesus, too … disciples. So even though they come to do what is ritually appropriate, even though they come to anoint the body with oils and spices and perfumes to give the body a bit of beauty for burial, they are disciples coming to do this work. It had to have been an emotional task. They were disappointed. They had, like all the other followers and disciples, placed their hope in Jesus. In the darkness of that Friday afternoon, they are the ones who had stood by the cross as Jesus was killed. All their hope had hung on the cross with Jesus. Their entire future, as they saw it, was crucified that afternoon. So they come this first Easter morning to do the very last thing they can do for Jesus. But they come let down, disappointed and grieving.

Shouldn’t the Easter story resolve those emotions? We expect something more out of our Easter story. Let down, disappointment and grief should turn into trumpets, and hallelujahs, and joy. But it simply isn’t there in Mark’s gospel. Even when they find the stone rolled away, even when they see the tomb empty, even when they hear the words of hope from the man in white, the women’s Easter morning response is not celebration. Instead, it’s terror, amazement and fear. Easter begins with fear!

Why were the women afraid? The English translation says it this way, “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” End of sentence. The Greek translation doesn’t resolve the question, either. “They said nothing to anyone, they were afraid for…” The sentence doesn’t end, but the gospel does end here. Scholars have discovered that the oldest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel end here. And we are surely left wondering, what has them so afraid? End the sentence, please. Please tell us what has them so afraid.

I believe the women fear the same two things we fear 2,000 years later. Either they fear Jesus’ life and ministry didn’t make any difference or they fear a Jesus on the loose that will change their lives completely.

Maybe the women fear that Jesus’ life and ministry didn’t make any difference. Perhaps they fear … actually, they must fear that death has won, that in Jesus’ death there is no hope for any of us. That death, with its ravenous appetite, has finally, utterly swallowed up their friend. And in that, has sealed the fate of people forever. They must fear that death will always win. That death will always have the final answer.

And maybe they fear that the message of the man in white was a lie. Maybe he was a Roman guard playing some sick joke on them by stealing the body of their loved one. Maybe he knew what buttons of theirs to push. Maybe he had heard of Jesus’ promise of resurrection. So, maybe he wanted to get a good laugh. Knowing someone would come prepare the body for burial, maybe he waited that morning to play this sick joke on them, to say to them what they wanted to hear, only to play a kind of April Fool’s joke on them.

But do not overlook the fact that Jesus is on the loose. The message of the man robed in white doesn’t end with “he has been raised.” He continues, “Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him just as he said.” Perhaps this is what elicits the fear. And I think it should. The women might fear that this news will change their lives forever. For the women knew as well as we know that if Jesus is waiting on-down-the-road for them…He probably has plans for them.

“They said nothing to anyone, they were afraid for…” But they did say something to someone! Even in their fear, they said something to someone. Because we know their story 2,000 years later. We know their fear, their terror, and their amazement. But even that didn’t stop them, eventually, from saying something to someone. Because we know that Jesus is on the loose. We know that Jesus went ahead of them to Galilee. We know that this on-the-loose Jesus was waiting for them and the rest of the disciples to show up. We know he had plans for them, plans for them to say something to someone. It’s the telling of the story of hope that will change their lives forever!

What kind of fear does the Easter news bring you?

Are you afraid that this Easter celebration will leave you unchanged? That you will gather around your Easter dinner table among the azaleas and chocolate Easter eggs without having seen God? Are we “afraid” that we will find the tomb empty of meaning and hope? Have we experienced so many moments of shock, moments of let down, disappointment, moments when the bottom drops out of things, that even the slightest Easter news still brings us fear?

The Easter story comes first to those in shock, let down, disappointment, to folks who have nothing in which to hope, to folks who share your experience of loss. And yet, they find hope. They find the empty tomb full of promise, because the missing body hasn’t been stolen; it has been raised from the dead! It has defeated the ravenous monster of death. Death will never again have the final word! Life, abundant life in the Risen Savior, has the last word! And in that, you can find hope. In that your life can be forever changed. In that hope Jesus waits to meet you.

Or maybe you are afraid of the possibility that Jesus is on the loose and waiting for you? Perhaps you should be! Because Jesus is waiting on-down-the-road for you…and he probably has plans for you. Plans for you to share this good news with the world; plans for you to bring hope to a hurting and broken world; plans for you to meet people where they are and show them who Jesus is and the kind of hope and promise he provides. To say something to someone.

For a Jesus on the loose is impatiently waiting for us. A Jesus on the loose calls us out from tomb-gazing, to go meet him in the world, out where people are waiting for the word of resurrection hope; out where we can say something to someone who hasn’t yet heard of the joy of this special day.

I wonder if you won’t do something risky with me and walk with me out of fear and into hope this day. Jesus is on the loose and he is waiting for you to meet up with him and to bring hope to the hurting world…to say something to someone!

(Here in worship I challenged people who had their cell phones to look through their list of contacts and see who among their contacts might need to hear a word of hope. Everyone else, I invited them to go through their mental contact list and see who they know that need to hear a word of hope. Those with cell phones were encouraged, right during the message this day, to text that person from their cell phone: “Jesus is on the loose…” Others were encouraged when they got home to call the person they thought of, say “Jesus is on the loose” and hang up. The person will call or text you back and you can share the story of hope with them.)

Christ is Risen…and he’s on the loose!!!
Thanks be to God!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Journey to Hope...Suffering

“God is No Stranger to Suffering”
Mark 14:43-64

How many of you have seen Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ? This movie changed the conversation about Jesus’ suffering. The point of his movie is this: Jesus suffered extensively for us. After seeing the movie, people would respond by being overwhelmed by the amount of suffering, awed by the sacrifice that Jesus made, with a faith deepened by how much Jesus suffered for them. I left the movie with two lingering questions: “Does anyone need to see that much violence?” and “Why wasn’t the resurrection scene more prominent?” But those questions were a bit off the mark. Gibson was intentional in his display of violence. He wanted people to know for sure the suffering of Jesus. For him, the point of Jesus’ death is how much he suffered.

The amount of Jesus’ suffering is not what is significant about Jesus’ passion. What is significant about Jesus’ suffering is how he faced that suffering.

This morning’s text begins in the garden of Gethsemane. Just prior to our text, Jesus is praying. It’s his prayer where we first see how he’s going to face the suffering. “For you all things are possible; remove this cup from me.” That’s a very human response. No one wants to suffer. Suffering in itself has nothing necessarily redemptive. Suffering brings pain and hurt, but there is nothing necessarily redemptive in the pain and hurt. In fact, it is Jesus who called folks hypocrites who made a show of their suffering for religious purposes. Jesus doesn’t desire the suffering that is coming his way. Like the rest of humanity would respond, Jesus begs God to make it so the suffering would go away.

And without even a breath, it seems, Jesus says, “Yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Here is the first way Jesus deals with suffering. While he does not want to face what lies ahead, he very much wants what God wants. Jesus understands that God has a bigger picture in mind, and that he is a vital part of that bigger picture. So, while his very human desire leads him to plead with God, it also leads him to trust in God’s ability to redeem any situation.

When we meet Jesus in the text today his passion has begun. Jesus suffers because of betrayal. The one he counted as friend and partner would turn on him. Whether its greed or passion for God that prompts him, Judas comes with a kiss and a crowd. It is not the swords and clubs of the crowd that brings the hurt. It is the kiss – the kiss of betrayal. This is how Jesus’ passion begins, with the betrayal of a close friend. For this he suffers greatly.

Jesus also suffers because of how they come after him. The authorities come at Jesus as if he is a violent criminal. The swords and clubs and crowd are big enough for siege. His is grabbed like a criminal, subdued in case he acts out. But this is never who Jesus was in his ministry, and they knew that. Jesus lived peaceably in his ministry. He said what was difficult and necessary, but he never resorted to any kind of aggression. He was never a part of the movements that sought a violent revolution for God, the Zealots. So for them to come at Jesus as if he was a violent criminal is beyond appropriate. He is a peaceable man, even in this time of suffering. When one of his own people wants to respond to evil with evil, grabbing a sword to meet the swords that came for Jesus, Jesus rebuke’s him. It is a peaceable solution that Jesus wants. It is the will of God that Jesus wants. And that does not involve matching evil for evil.

As humans in a broken world, we know suffering. We know suffering that comes unwarranted. We suffer from a disease and its effects, or a disaster comes into our lives. These are not the product of something we have done. Nor are they a part of God’s plan for our lives. These unwarranted sufferings come not do bring redemption to us, to somehow make us stronger or to test us. They come as pure suffering. And while redemption may come from them, they are not sent by God for redemption. Think Haitian earthquake. No one in Haiti deserved the suffering that came from the earthquake. They did nothing to provoke the earth to shake violently. That earthquake came unwarranted. And contrary to what some religious type folks will tell you, God did not bring on the earthquake for redemptive purposes, to somehow shake the unbelievers into belief. That earthquake is pure, unwarranted suffering.

We know suffering that comes provoked, too. Like when we take a stand for righteousness, we can incur another’s wrath and anger. And while we did not intend to provoke suffering, it comes none the less. Think Nelson Mandela. He stood up against legal segregation in his country. His stand for righteousness caused him suffering. He spent many years imprisoned, essentially for his stand.

Suffering is something that comes to us all.

How we meet that suffering is what can create redemption in the midst of pain.

In his suffering, Jesus shows us a way to meet our own suffering redemptively. Jesus met his suffering with prayer. He spent time with God. He sought not so much a way out of the suffering. He sought the strength of God in the midst of it. And he sought, more importantly, the will of God. In prayer God unfolded for Jesus God’s redeeming ways. Jesus met his suffering with courage. Not a passive acceptance of it, but a courage to face nobly the enemies who came after him. When they came with violence, he met them with goodness. He has this steady power that comes not from fighting back. His steadiness comes from his being deeply rooted in the goodness of God. Jesus’ courage is to bring good out of evil, rather than add to the suffering of the world.

It is a comfort to know that our God is no stranger to suffering. He paved the way to a redemptive response to suffering. He showed us how to meet it with courage. He demonstrated a desire to do the will of God in all things. He created good where only evil existed.

Our God, who is no stranger to suffering, journeys with us through our own suffering. When 9-11 happened, people asked “Where is God?” People wanted to know how folks could suffer so much if there really was a God. We worship a God who is no stranger to suffering. We worship a God who knows that suffering comes, even to those who have not provoked it. We worship a God who showed us how to redeem unprovoked suffering by our response to it. So that when people asked “Where is God?” we people who know the God who is no stranger to suffering could honestly answer, “Right there with you!” And then we prayed and acted out of a courage to do God’s will, to bring a goodness out of what was evil.

This Jesus who is no stranger to suffering has really just begun the suffering that will come. In this week ahead, this Passion Week, Jesus will suffer more than we can imagine. But the amount of Jesus’ suffering is not what is significant about Jesus’ passion. What is significant about Jesus’ suffering is how he faced that suffering with peace, with courage, with a desire for what God desires. Let us come into this passion, not to gawk at the suffering, but to experience the power to bring good out of evil. Amen.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Journey to Hope...Tempation

"Depleated and In Need of Refueling"

Do you think God has a sense of humor? I do! I’ve seen it too many times. I’ve seen it usually as a sense of humor that teaches me something I need to learn.

I walk by our church sign several times a week. There’s the sermon title, right there in front of me. I read it every time I walk up the ramp into the building. So many times I don’t think about it. Sometimes it reminds me of what I’m preaching about on the weekend. Sometimes it’s where God’s humor shows up.

I had an awesome work week. There were great team meetings full of energy and hope. I had several meaningful pastoral care moments this week. I felt the support by an awesome staff. But it was one of those really full weeks. In 2 days time I spent 30 hours in this building or doing this work. That’s how it happens sometimes, though not often. By the time I came in Thursday morning to work, I was wore out from not sleeping well, had a sore throat, and was feeling like I was catching a cold. And as I walked up the ramp to come into the building, the sermon sign that read “depleted and in need of refueling” made me laugh. See, God does have a sense of humor. God must have thought I needed a personal example this week from which to preach.

It seems I’m not the only one who knows what it’s like to need refueling. All week long people said to me: I can’t wait to hear that sermon!
Jesus, in his humanity, knew the need for refueling.

Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus’ need for refueling. He’s just been baptized, when the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. If Jesus was going to begin his public ministry, perhaps he should get away for a while to refuel himself for what was to come.

Jesus needs refueling after his initial public ministry. He’s been teaching and healing. He leaves the crowd behind. Jesus goes so far as to cross to the other side of the sea, into a foreign land. He and the disciples need a little time away.

And then again after the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus needs refueling. He sends the disciples to the “other side” again. This time he dismisses the crowd, helping them know he needs some time away. And Jesus himself goes up a mountain to pray. He sends the disciples for refueling, and he as a leaders does the same for himself.

Right before Jesus heads to Jerusalem comes another time out. Jesus takes his closest friends up the mountain for prayer. While they are up there, they have a time of spiritual renewal, an amazing experience of God. Jesus will carry with him this encounter with the living God into Jerusalem and his impending death.

On the night of his arrest, Jesus is keenly aware of his need for refueling. He is in tremendous emotional pain. The scriptures describe him as distressed, agitated, and deeply grieved. He realized how close he was to the agony that lay ahead. So he takes his closest friends to the garden with him to pray. This day his refueling has the familiar component of personal prayer and personal connection with God, and it has the important component of spiritual friends carrying him into the presence of God. How important it was that they “stay awake” to Jesus’ needs. How important it was that they are there for Jesus’ refueling.

Why is it so important to be refueled? What happens when we are spiritually, physically or emotionally wore out?

Well, I found out this week again what happens when I get physically wore out. The body becomes vulnerable. It’s so easy for me to get sick when I’m physically wore out. I don’t eat right or sleep enough, and my body just gets more vulnerable to illness. If I don’t take time to refuel, I will get sick. So, when I get to this point, I remember what works. I remember it’s my allergy season and take the allergy pills. I take my vitamins and my vitamin C. I drink lots of water and rest a lot. In other words, I refuel myself physically.

What happens when we are spiritually, physically or emotionally wore out? We are vulnerable to temptation. Temptation comes to everyone. It isn’t that good Christians don’t experience temptation. It comes to all of us, and it comes in many forms. We can be tempted by relationships that are outside of appropriate. We can be tempted by actions that are ungodly. We can be tempted by words that are meant to hurt. We can be tempted by the easy way out. We can be tempted to break rules that will make our lives easier. Temptation comes into everyone’s life.

When we are wore out, temptation has a stronger pull on our lives. We over eat or under eat to deal with our exhaustion. Extramarital affairs are a far easier decision when we have emotional pain in our marriages. Looking for a way to deal with our physical or emotional pain, the temptation to medicate is strong. Prescription drugs get overused. Alcohol or illegal drugs get abused. Whatever it takes to mask our pain or get through it. Shortcuts and lies in our work come to be justified in our minds. When we are depleted and in need of refueling, temptations can have a strong pull on our lives.

We can choose life-giving resources or quick remedies for our need to refuel. When I am tired, I could sleep. But all too often I choose chocolate and caffeine. Bring on the diet Mt. Dew and the candy bar. That should do the trick! Unfortunately, the tired after that is even more intense.
And that’s the thing about quick remedies to refuel. They often push the pain into the future. They mask the real need only for so long. And the quick fixes don’t fill us in a way that can stand up to temptation, so that we find ourselves equally as vulnerable to temptation as before.

Jesus’ refueling station was the life-giving resource of prayer. When he was wore out, he reconnected with God. When he had taught and healed and had nothing left to give, he went away by himself for reconnection with God. When he had something as difficult to do as give his very life up for us, he took spiritual friends with him to pray. He counted on his friends to carry him to God, while at the same time praying intimately and personally to God.

What refueling station will give you life? Time away in prayer? Connection with God through spiritual friends? Worship that carries you into God’s presence? A quiet devotional reading of scripture?

Temptation will come. It always does. Will you have filled up before temptation arrives at your door? Will you have gone to the refueling station that is God? Because that is the place of power that can help you resist the temptations that come your way. That is the place of hope. That is the place of lasting healing. Amen.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Journey to Hope ... Money

“Does Money Have You? Or Do You Have Money?”
Mark 11:15-19

This season of Lent we have been on a journey to hope. We’ve been looking for hope in the midst of suffering. The promise is that we will find that hope in Jesus, no matter what the suffering. We’ve looked for hope and found it with traveling companions, by knowing who we are in Christ, by turning Church into a verb as we serve others.

This week we are looking at the place in lives where most suffering comes from our relationship with money. You’ll notice I didn’t say money is where our suffering comes from. Money doesn’t create suffering, too much or too little of it. Our relationship with money can create suffering. I’ve talked many times about money in my five years at Homestead. I talked about how we can use our money in godly ways, about how to return a portion of what God has given us, and about how money isn’t the thing we need for joy in life. But today I just want to talk about how to have hope in the midst of the suffering we can create through our relationship with money.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus addresses that relationship a few different times. Let’s take a look.

First is the story of the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:17-22). Here is a man who wanted to know how to have eternal life. The question he was really asking is the same question we have: In what should I have hope? Jesus told him in what to put his hope when Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. But the rich young ruler couldn’t do it. Scripture says “he had many possessions.” His wealth didn’t create a suffering for him. It was his relationship with money that was his problem. His possessions controlled him and controlled his response to God. Perhaps the scripture would have been more accurate if it had read “his many possessions had him.” We leave the Rich Young Ruler in the story unable to take the hope Jesus Christ laid before him.

In contrast to the Rich Young Ruler, we meet the Widow in the Temple (Mark 12:41-44). She had a completely different relationship with money. To start with, she had very little of it. But what she did have didn’t control her life. She was willing to give it all up in the temple. She so trusted in the God she worshipped, that she gave up all that she had for God that day. She found her hope not in money or things but in God. Jesus stood on the sidelines of the temple witnessing it all. As he did, he carefully pointed out to the disciples where this widow found her hope. She did not find her hope in having things, but in the freedom found in a life grounded in God.

And then there’s the question about taxes (Mark 12:13-17). That is a timely question, yes? Religious leaders are sent to Jesus to ask a question meant to trip him up. “Should we pay taxes?” was their question. The question comes from a broken relationship with money for the religious leaders. In the same way most of us are longing for Jesus to tell us something different than he does. We want Jesus to say to us: “No, you don’t have to pay taxes. Opt out of those silly taxes for religious reasons.” Think of the money we would have to do the things we want if we didn’t have to pay taxes! But what Jesus says is something altogether different. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus is encouraging us to a healthy relationship with money, a balanced and appropriate relationship. Not a relationship with money where we are trying to get away with things. Instead, a relationship with money where we pay our taxes, and live within our means, and have enough to give to God, too.

Then there’s today’s story of the Cleansing of the Temple. Like the other stories, Mark is trying to teach us about our relationship with money. So whether or not this incident actually happened as it is written is an irrelevant question. (That is a question scholars debate over. Some believe it would have been impossible for Jesus to create the described scene in the temple, citing things like the size of the temple – 12 football fields, the fact that the temple was the economic center for Jews from all over the world and money changing was expected, and that there were probably 400,000 Jews there for Passover. How could Jesus create such a scene as one person on such a large canvas like the temple at Passover?) Whatever you believe about whether or not this story actually happened, the writer of the Gospel wants us to know something about our relationship to money, something he felt Jesus was teaching all along. Jesus teaches that we can get so lost in our lives. We can get distracted by the way money controls us. We can be under the influence of what money provides and doesn’t provide. When money controls our lives, it’s difficult to find hope and it’s easy to turn something pure and holy, like the temple, into a place of greed. In righteous anger, Jesus turns the tables in the temple. Look at the scene: buying and selling animals for sacrifice in the temple, exchanging money to purchase other things. It was a flea market atmosphere right there in the temple. What are we to make of this? Jesus is angry for religious reasons, for the diluting of the sacredness of the temple, but also for the diluting of the sacredness of our relationship with money and things and possessions. Mark is emphasizing Jesus’ teaching that our relationship with money can get in the way of our relationship with God.

It occurs to me that much of our human suffering comes from the control we allow money to have over our lives. We set up a financial situation that controls us. The house payment is so much a month, and the car payment adds to that, and we have to eat, put gas in the car, and pay for braces. Then there are the medications, the dentist, and the insurance payments. Anyone of those things on their own is not a big deal. But add them all together and we have a budget, a particular amount of money we need to make, a level of expenses that need to be funded. And giving money that kind of control in our lives does not bring hope. It leads to feelings of being trapped. It leads to a sense of being controlled by something. It leads to decisions we would not otherwise make.

I know this personally. My friends and I always joke about getting our “No thank you, bishop” money together. “No thank you, bishop” money is the amount of money that we would need to have tucked away so that when the bishop got ready to appoint us to a particular place we did not feel we could go, we could, with financial security, say “No thank you, bishop.” But here’s the thing about that reality. Each year that passes, the amount needed grows. Each financial commitment made makes it more difficult to say “No thank you, bishop.” And before you know it, you find myself backed into a corner. We feel trapped into not making decisions we don’t want to make. All to keep financial security. And in that, you hear the control money has over us. (By the way, I have yet to want to say “No thank you, bishop.”)

Listen to how a high school friend of mine who exchanged messages on facebook with me, described the control money has over us:
It’s sad how it seems like money actually does buy happiness but that’s only on the outside. I wasn’t truly happy until I asked Jesus to come into my life. When people have to show off their big house or nice car etc...whether they can afford it or not… just shows an emptiness they have in some part of their life.
Each financial decision we make is a decision to have money have more or less control over us. Sometimes we make those financial decisions from a place of full awareness. We got cable back a few weeks ago. In full awareness, we made a decision about our money and how we would spend it. For good or not, that’s the decision we made, in full awareness of what financial obligations we were making.

Sometimes we make those financial decisions because we are backed into a corner. For instance, take last summer when our car stopped working, our good car we hoped to get a few more years from. We were four hours from home, and we were backed into corner to make a decision, especially since our little car only has 3 working seatbelts and there are four of us. We were backed into a corner.

Sometimes we make those financial decisions from a place of greed, and that’s what has Jesus mad this day in the temple. Here he is, on his way to the sacrifice of his very life. For him, things are in laser clear focus. And then he comes to what should be a holy place, the temple, and all he sees around him is greed and corruption. He sees people being controlled by money and things. It must have both saddened him and made him angry. Out of those emotions, out of his love for us, out of his desire to give us hope, he sends those money changers out of the temple. He sends those selling animals for sacrifice out of the temple. He cleanses the temple so that his sacrifice might carry the hope that the people need.

Jesus wants us to know that hope in the midst of suffering doesn’t come from possessions or money or things or financial security. Hope comes from refusing to let money control of our lives. Hope comes from living into Jesus’ priorities. Hope comes not from having a lot but living with what we have. Hope comes not from getting what we want, but giving what others need. It is possible, in the midst of a life like that of the widow, to have hope, not because we have a lot of money or things, but simple because we have Jesus, and Jesus has us!

So, does money have you? Or do you have money?

And who or what has your soul?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Journey to Hope...Work

What if Church was a Verb?

Mark 10:35-44

Sometimes we play church.

Don’t get me wrong. Community worship is so important. It is the time when disciples are nourished. It’s the experience where God draws us together as a community, fills us up, and sends us out to do the work of the disciples. Community worship is vital.

But sometimes we play church. We act as if what we do on Sunday is all there is to discipleship. We come here , get our fix, and do very little else as disciples onthe other days of theweek. We work at the church and think that is our act of disciples. We go to team meetings, choir rehearsals, and prepare meals.

But we are still playing church.

When I say we, I mean myself as much as I mean all of us. I gravitate toward the things that are easier for me in ministry, the things for which I feel particularly gifted by God. I could be about planning worship all day long, I just love it! I can prepare meeting agendas, manage staffing and develop processes to accomlish goals for the church.

But I spend far too little time on being church. I spend too little time in the community with folks outside of the church community. I spend too little effort toward meeting the needs of others outside of our faith community. I do too little reaching out and serving others outside of the church community.

Sometimes we play church.

That’s what the disciples are doing in our scripture lesson today. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, talking about his sacrifice to come. He's explaining the work he’ll do for the sake of others. But the disciples aren’t focused on Jesus' sacrifice and self-giving. While Jesus has been talking sacrifice, they’ve been talking position and power and authority. “Give us a place of honor,” they ask Jesus. "Promise that we’ll sit at your right and at your left.” In other words, let the whole world know how important we are to your ministry, Jesus.

This isn’t the first time they’ve done it. After being on the mountain with Jesus, in that wonderful, spiritual experience, and as they were all coming down the mountain toward Jerusalem, toward Jesus’ sacrifice, the disciples argued about who was the greatest among them.

Both times Jesus gives them the same words of correction: whoever wants to be first should take the last place. The greatest are those who serve others.

I hear Jesus saying to the disciples and to us, “Quit playing church! Be Church!” Turn church into a verb, an action, a life lived for Jesus, a life of being the least so that others can be the most, a life of serving others.

What if Church was a verb? What would it look like?

I’ve been focused on that in these last two months as we have narrowed in on the neighborhood to which we feel God is calling us to relocate. I have been thinking about reaching into northwest Rochester. What are the needs of families? Where are people hurting? What hope do people need? How can we serve the families of northwest Rochester?

If we started being church more intentionally than playing church, it might look like…

  • An after school homework help and childcare for the dual income families who are trying to fill that time between when their children get out of school and they get home from work with valuable experiences for their children.
  • Budgeting classes to help families whose income to debt ratio is high
  • Our older adults adopting grandchildren from the neighborhood who don’t have grandparents near by.
  • A safe playground for neighborhood kids and their families to enjoy outdoor play time together.
  • Food distribution / food shelf ministries specifically for folks in need in NW Rochester who likely have difficulty getting transportation to the local foodshelf or can't get their at the time it is open. Maybe we can be a satellite location for a food distribution.
  • Transportation help for folks with medical appointments
  • Child care for sick children whose parents run the risk of loosing their jobs if they can't find child care when they need it. Or child care on nights and weekends for shift working families.
  • Welcoming a neighborhood pickup game at a couple basketball hoops on our property where the players know they are welcomed and safe and loved.

The list could go on and on and on.

God invites us to not clamor for the top, but intentionally take the place of last and servant, to be a people who are Church by being unbound and outbound, as the video said: unbound of playing church and outbound in being church. To make church not something we play… but a verb, an action of the people within the community of faith. When we are being church we are changing people’s perception that church is a building that holds people interested in their own survival, by being a people who are interested in the survival of others.

Let’s stop playing church and start being church! Let’s make church not a place or a gathering of people. Let’s make church a people in action.

What if church was a verb…?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Journey to Hope...Traveling Companions

Choosing Your Traveling Companions

Mark 10:13-16; Ruth 1:14b-19 ; Matthew 18:6-7

I met an inspiring woman when we lived in Colorado. I got to know her as she helped teach in the children’s education program I oversaw at a neighborhood church. She was former catholic nun who met a man, married him, and grew a family together. Even though she was now a wife and a mother, her contemplative life was still important to her. Nothing stood between her and her relationship with Jesus Christ. She created in her home a special room for prayer and devotion with a nice chair, a lamp, and a side table with her favorite devotional books and Bibles. She taught her children to know that when she went into her special room, they were not to interrupt her. Only if the house was on fire were they to interrupt her. She taught her children to give her a full hour with Jesus. She knew she was a better Mom to the children when she grew her relationship with Jesus.

The things that can get in the way of our relationship with Jesus aren’t always negative things. Time with our children and spouse is beautiful and necessary. If we don’t do our job, we may not keep it. Entertainment and hobbies bring joy to our lives. But none of these need to block our relationship with Jesus.

That’s what the disciples were doing to the children that day. People were bringing their children to Jesus And why not? This Jesus was doing amazing things for people’s lives. And why wouldn’t people want that for their children? So they brought them to experience the love and power of Jesus. For some reason, though, the disciples stand in the way. I can almost see them standing there, arms crossed, blocking the way. I love The Message translation which says, “The disciples shooed them off.” They tried to send these children on their way. They stand as a gatekeeper between the children and Jesus, as if there are only some who are worthy to receive Jesus. And children certainly aren’t a part of that group of worthy ones, according to the disciples. Jesus gets mad! He’s irate that someone would stand between him and these children. And so the disciples hear about it.

In Matthew’s gospel, this section with the children is followed by a warning. Don’t be a stumbling block to other’s spiritual lives. Don’t get between someone and their relationship with Jesus. And when Jesus makes these warnings he warns those who would be stumbling blocks to others. It’s not going to go well for you. It would be better for you if you weren’t around. The language is strong: It would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Really, Jesus, how do you feel about this? Clearly being a stumbling-block is among the worst things we can do in another’s life. There are plenty of things that get in the way for people anyway. We should not be among the list.

One of the more tragic stumbling-blocks I see in my ministry is with children. When children are given access to the stories of God in the scriptures, they hear them with joy and wonder and imagination. They hear the wonder of Jonah swallowed by a whale. They hear the glorious promise of the rainbow after the flood. They hear of the saving work of God for Daniel in the lion’s den. They hear the beauty of the way Jesus gathered children up on his lap in welcoming love. They hear of the way Jesus invited the short tax man, Zaccheaus, to be his host. When they hear these stories, children receive them with wonder and joy and imagination. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is parents who rob their children of that wonder and joy and imagination by not bringing them to church until confirmation. This is the age of questioning and a search for facts and for what is real and tangible and believable. That’s a beautiful stage of life, too. But when we don’t bring our children until then, we rob them of wonder and joy and imagination as they encounter the stories of God with God’s people.

People and things in our lives can stand between folks and their relationship with Jesus.

Who or what gets in your way of your relationship with Jesus?
Busyness…always having something on your to-do list that you let be more important
Work…expectations of you in your career leave you little time to develop your relationship with Jesus
Relatives or friends…who have a negative view of faith and argue and fuss about your church-going
Priorities…setting so many things as more important than prayer, study, worship, etc.
Church work…we can be so busy doing things at church that it can act as a replacement with a deep relationship with Jesus
Addictions…living our lives for things that are destroying us, like alcohol, drugs, sex, overeating, and under-eating
Self-importance…believing in the uniquely American idea that the individual is of most importance, and that our individual desires trump everything else in life

This week I was reminded through a message on Facebook of three people who opened the way to Jesus for me …David, Rosanne and Tim. These were the sponsors of the youth ministry program. They spent every Sunday night with me and the other youth. They made the love of God tangible. They encouraged my relationship with Jesus Christ. They called me to be accountable in that relationship. They were just the opposite of a stumbling-block. They were what we are called to be for one another … spiritual traveling companions.

And that’s exactly what Naomi and Ruth are for one another. Naomi and her daughter-in-laws, Ruth and Orpah, have all become widows. Naomi has decided to head back home to where she is from, Bethlehem, and encourages her daughter-in-laws to stay in their home country. Orpah agrees to that, but Ruth will not have it. She will go wherever Naomi goes, she feels such a strong connection to her. “Where you go, I will you’re your God will be my God,” Ruth says to Naomi. Ruth and Naomi both need spiritual companions. They need people to encourage them in their walk with God. Naomi treats Ruth with such grace and respect that Ruth is willing to walk alongside Naomi as she recovers her home place and faith. Together they journey to support and encourage one another in the faith and in life. They are traveling companions on the journey of hope.

In our lives, whether we experience suffering or not, we need traveling companions who encourage our relationship with Jesus. Traveling companions help make the love of God tangible. Traveling companions encourage our relationship with Jesus Christ. Traveling companions call us to be accountable in that relationship. Traveling companions point us further down on our path toward the hope of Jesus. Traveling companions are God’s design for our lives.

Who are your traveling companions on this journey to hope?
And whose traveling companion are you?