Saturday, March 28, 2009

Radical Renovation: The Radical Center

March 22, 2009
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Radical Renovation: The Radical Center
1 John 4:7-21 ; Mark 12:28-34
*I am indebted in my Lenten preaching preparations to the book Radical Renovation: Living the Cross-Shaped Life by James A. Harnish.

What do you think of when you hear love? What do you see in your mind’s eye? A couple sitting across a candlelit table. The look of a mother with a newborn baby in her arms. That tingly feeling you get when you see her. The “I can’t think about anything else” syndrome. The way our culture talks about love it is feelings between people or emotions of great intensity.

But is love more than that? Is true love more than an emotion or a feeling?

We’ve been talking about an internal radical renovation God wants to accomplish in us. We’ve been talking about turning toward the ways of God, serving as the greatest act a disciple can do, and surrendering all that we are to God.

At the center of the renovation is LOVE. Love is both the source of the renovation and love is evidence of the renovation.

The source of our renovation is love. Love born of God. God first loved us. God’s love isn’t about feeling, but about actions. Think back to the Hebrew stories of God. The rainbow after the flood is an act of love from God. Saving the people from slavery in Egypt is an act of love from God. Manna and quail in the middle of the wilderness is an act of love from God. Bringing the people home after exile is an act of love from God.

God doesn’t just speak a word of love, though God certainly does that. God acts out God’s love for God’s people. The greatest act of love is the cross, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our ability to love is rooted in God’s act of love by the way God defined it with Jesus on the cross. We would not know what love truly is without God’s act of love in Jesus. Our ability to love has its source in God. Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God. The source of our renovation is love.

The evidence of our radical renovation is love. A scribe asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is. The two that Jesus quote are not new to him. They are a part of the long history of the Hebrew people. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. What is unique is the way Jesus bound them together. The first commandment is to love God. In Matthew’s telling of this story (Matthew 22:34-40), Jesus says, “And the second is like it” – to love others. In Mark’s telling, these are the two most important commandments. In Matthew’s telling Jesus says that “all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus is really summing up the faith life here. The greatest commandment is to act on our love for God by acting out our love for others.

When we act on our love for God by acting out our love for others, there is evidence that we let God into the house of our souls, there is evidence that we are content to let God do more than a little fix up work, there is the evidence that God is working that radical renovation in us.

George was a young man who enlisted in the military during WWII. He was injured twice shortly after arriving in Europe, then he was taken prisoner in Germany. As was the case in those days, he was forced to march from one POW camp to another. His daily rations was a small piece of bread and a water soup. Without much nutrition, and the physical exertion of the marches, he lost nearly 60 pounds in those days. One day on their march, a German woman approached George. Without a word, she thrust a warm loaf of bread into George’s hand, and walked away. There is evidence that the radical renovation was happening in that German woman’s life. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

Evidence of God’s radical renovation in our lives is… demonstrated in our ability to love and measured by God’s act of love in Jesus Christ.

Love shaped by the cross is love in action. Love is not a look, a feeling, an emotion… Love is an action. Love is pouring fresh water for the one sitting across the candlelit table. Love is walking that crying baby back and forth in the wee hours of the morning while teeth are coming in.

Here’s the really good news about love. Every act of love undermines the power of evil, violence, hatred and sin. That is the work Christ came to do. Perhaps that is why these two commandments rise to the surface as most important, because when we love God in our actions of love toward others, the work of Christ is happening.

In the movie Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen has been building a relationship with a man on death row and building a relationship with his victim’s family. The relationship with the condemned man is a difficult one, especially as she takes in the heinousness of his crime, and as she begins to know the victim’s family. Still, at one point in the movie, Sister Helen says to the man condemned to death: I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. I’ll be your face of love.” The power of acted out love has the capacity to undermine evil, violence, hatred and sin

When Jesus hung on the cross he offered forgiveness for a criminal. He asked God’s forgiveness for those who were part of the machine of death that would take his life. He demonstrated on both this and the other side of life the power of a love acted out. Jesus’ act of love on the cross undermined evil, violence, hatred and sin for all times.

Look at his face, and you see the face of love. Thanks be to God!

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

Rev. Becky Jo Thilges, Lead Pastor

Homestead UMC, Rochester, MN

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Radical Renovation: Nothing Short of Everything

March 15, 2009
Third Sunday in Lent
Radical Renovation: Nothing Short of Everything
Mark 10:17-27
*I am indebted in my Lenten preaching preparations to the book Radical Renovation: Living the Cross-Shaped Life by James A. Harnish.

We’ve been talking about the radical renovation God wants to do in us: the total change in us, the turning our faces toward the ways of God, and learning the peculiar way of greatness that Jesus teaches, serving. The radical renovation that Jesus asks for from the “rich young ruler” helps us see another part of that radical renovation. It helps us see a new aspect of what God wants to do in us.

Now the man we meet in the important story is known as the “rich young ruler,” though you’ll not find that designation in any one gospel. Mark refers to him as a “man,” while Luke says he’s a “certain ruler” and Matthew indicates that he’s young. But they all say he is “rich.” The man has the big 3: position, power and possessions. By the world’s standards, he has everything going for him.

We also know that he is a faithful person. He has kept all the laws – perfectly – from his youth. Everyone knew he was a good man. He certainly was better than the crowd Jesus gathered around him, full of “tax collectors and sinners.” And if he were to be among us today, he certainly shows us up, too, in his following of the law.

But this rich young ruler longed for more. Not more stuff, or things or wealth. Not more power or position. He wanted something more spiritually. He wanted real life in God. He wanted the life he witnessed in Jesus, that deep relationship with God. He was searching for a radical renovation and so his question to Jesus was, “What must I do to get eternal life?” After playing to the rich young ruler’s strength – following the law – a beautiful thing happens between Jesus and the man.

Jesus looked at him, perhaps in the same way a cardiologist looks into a person’s heart in search of what is stopping the flow of blood. Jesus looked into this guy’s soul. Jesus wanted to see what was blocking the flow of God’s life into his own life, and so Jesus looked at him and Jesus loved him. In that searching and love, Jesus found the blockage.

What was the diagnosis? The rich young ruler had one thing that caused the block. It was his wealth. Now, it was not that he possessed so many things, but that his many things possessed him. He was a slave to his big 3: position, power and possessions. Salvation is being set free from whatever has us bound. It happened for this man that his things bound him.

The diagnosis was tough to take. It was the last thing he wanted to hear. Jesus asked of him the one thing he could not surrender, would not surrender. He held tightly to his big 3, and there was no way he was going to give them up.

This story is certainly about money. Recently we talked about how much Jesus taught about money, and this is one of those instances. But this story is not only about money. It’s about whatever binds us. It’s about the block in our hearts that keep us from a full relationship with God. It’s what we are holding back. It’s the one thing we are not willing to give up for God. For many of us, it’s our wealth that gets in our way of the radical renovation that God wants to accomplish in us.

But the block in our hearts can be so many things. It might be pride, power, prestige or position. It might be addictions that are taking your life. It might be a victim mentality that comes from a memory of past hurts and emotional abuse. It might be an over commitment to our careers. It might be racial, cultural or political prejudice. It might be the way you use your time, energy and resources. It might be the places you go. It might be the sites you visit on the internet.

I don’t know what the one thing is for you. I do know that Jesus is looking deep into your heart. I do know that Jesus loves you. And I do know that the blockage needs to be removed. I do know that the radical renovation to live the cross-shaped life is dependent on your willingness to surrender that one thing.

You see, the rich young ruler lacked an ability to surrender fully to God. He held back a part of his life – his wealth. In his unwillingness to surrender every aspect of his life to God. He blocked the flow of the very thing for which he longed: the rich life of God.

God calls us to surrender nothing short of everything. There’s a saying in sports: “Leave it all on the field.” I hear Mike say that all the time. It’s about giving every ounce of yourself to the game. It’s about coming to the end of the game and being able to say that you had nothing more to give. That you left all your energy, talents and abilities on the field. That you surrendered your whole self to the game.

Jesus called the rich young ruler to leave it all on the field: to surrender nothing short of everything, to surrender all that he was to the transforming power of God, to surrender not only how he lived his life with respect to the rules of the faith, but also to surrender all that he had. God did not ask him to give them up, but to surrender them to God, to surrender his big 3: position, power, and possessions to the work of God.

It’s the same big 3 Oscar Schindler had developed for himself. He wasn’t much before the war, but as the war progressed, he saw his opportunity. He profited from slave labor available during WWII. He bribed his way to the top of the heap. He developed position, power, and possessions at the expense of others, until he had a nice little munitions factory full of the cheapest labor he could have in that day – Polish Jews. His position, power and possessions blocked the radical renovation that was necessary in his life.

The rich young ruler never surrenders. His story ends tragically. The scripture says “he walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things and not about to let go.”

The good news is that Schindler does begin to surrender. He begins to understand what was blocking his heart. He begins to care about saving the Polish Jews rather than take advantage of them. Just before the war ends, he uses everything he has to buy the lives of as many of his factory workers as he can. He surrenders everything for that work. His accountant, Itzhak Stern, lets him know, he has nothing left to use to buy more workers.

It’s the day before the end of the war. The Jews he worked so hard to save will be free tomorrow, but he will be a war criminal. So in the middle of the night, he and his wife prepare to flee. That’s where we pick up the story in this video clip from Schindler's List.

Oscar Schindler learned what it meant to surrender. Are you ready for the same?

If we want the radical renovation that God offers to us, then we must be willing to let Jesus look into our hearts, to see and diagnosis the blockage, to love us, and to remove the block from our hearts, so that the life of God can flow in and through us.

Let us pray: Give us courage, Gracious God, to hold nothing back, but to surrender it all to you, to surrender nothing short of everything, that we may discover the life that is really life! Amen.

Rev. Becky Jo Thilges, Lead Pastor
Homestead UMC, Rochester, MN

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Radical Renovation: A Peculiar Way of Greatness

March 8, 2009
Second Sundy of Lent
Radical Renovation: A Peculiar Way of Greatness*
Mark 9:33-37; Mark 10:35-45
*I am indebted in my Lenten preaching preparations to the book Radical Renovation: Living the Cross-Shaped Life by James A. Harnish.

Take a quiz with me this morning. Which American has the greatest # of Olympic medals? (Michael Phelps with 14) Who is the greatest American boxer of all time? (Mohammed Ali – often known as “The Greatest”) Who is the greatest golfer? (Tiger Woods – likely surpassed Jack Nicklaus for that title) Who is the greatest scientist of this past century? (Albert Einstein)Who was the greatest American president? (Abraham Lincoln)

The list of the “greats” and “greatests” goes on and on. So how do you get to be on the list? What makes Einstein and Woods and Lincoln rise to the top? How do we determine “greatness” in America? And what does it mean to be on quest to be the greatest?

It’s not a new question. Nor has Christianity over the centuries been void of the self-serving pursuit of greatness. Take, for example, the disciples in the 9th chapter of Mark’s gospel.

Chapter 9 opens with a mountain top experience. Jesus takes Peter, James & John up a mountain. Why these three? We are not sure. While they are up there, an amazing thing happens. Jesus is transformed before their eyes and Moses and Elijah appear for a moment. Then it is all gone.

It is important for the gospel to move off the mountain and toward Jerusalem. After a little healing experience with Jesus, we get the idea that there is a walking classroom of disciples. Jesus is teaching them about the radical renovation that needs to be accomplished. He talks about how the Messiah must suffer and die. But somewhere in the back of the classroom, or while the teacher is gathering his thoughts for the next lesson, the disciples are arguing. When the classroom comes to Capernaum, the teacher asks, "Um, back there, I could tell you were arguing. What was that about?" Like children caught for their trouble, they say nothing. They were arguing about who was the greatest, and somehow, instinctively, they know it wasn’t right. When confronted, they are silent, the same way all the children are silent when the parent asks, "Who broke the lamp?"

The opportunity for the next lesson for the travelling classroom is here. Today’s topic: Greatness. So Jesus sits them all down for the lesson. This isn’t, right now, a lesson for the crowd. This is a lesson for the disciples, the followers. “So you want first place?” Jesus asks. Then take the last place. Be the servant of all."

Lesson taught, lesson learned, right? Well, we are talking about the disciples. To our great relief, they don’t always get it. In the 10th chapter of Mark, Jesus is teaching again about the Messiah suffering and dying. Jesus even offers more details of what that suffering and death will look like. By now the disciples should understand the radical renovation God intends in his life and theirs. But it is just not so!

James and John are a bold pair. They remember the mountain top experience from earlier. They remember being chosen from among the 12 for this special experience. In that confidence, they walk right up to Jesus. “We want you to do for us whatever we ask you," they tell Jesus. I love how Jesus humors them. “What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. They request the seats of honor – on Jesus’ right and left. “Do you know what you are asking?” Jesus inquires. “Are you able?”

Remember that faithful old hymn? It has always been one of my favorites.
"Are ye able," said the Master,
"To be crucified with me?"
"Yea," the sturdy dreamers answered,
"To the death we follow thee."

I have always sung it with gusto. The hymn begs from us a whole hearted response. "Yes, Lord we are able!" But do we know what we sing about? Do we understand that a yes involves a radical renovation? Do we understand that a yes means a willingness to go to the cross with Jesus? Are you able to do that? At least when we sing the hymn, we are always able! But what about in life?

Look ahead to the 15th chapter of Mark’s gospel. There the disciples will witness what it means to be given the seats of honor on Jesus’ right and left. The scripture reads: And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Seats of honor and greatness have nothing to do with power and prestige. Jesus said that they have everything to do with serving. That’s Jesus peculiar way to greatness.

What does our world consider great? Well, if we are talking Donald Trump on his show Celebrity Apprentice, then greatness is making the most money. That's the person or team that always wins. If we are talking the Oscars, then you are great when your peers think you were the best actor or musician or whatever the category was. If we are talking the Hall of Fame – weather football or baseball or another sport - you are the greatest when you were dominate player at your position for the era in which you played. Greatness in our world is defined as the accumulation of wealth, successfulness, beauty, domination.

And then there’s Captain Sullenberger. Jesus would call him great. Successfully landing his commercial airliner on the Hudson River made him a hero. Quick thinking, the right speed and angle, and the hand of God prevented the plane from breaking apart on impact. But that’s not what made Sullenberger great in Jesus’ eyes. It’s what Sullenberger did as the plane was sinking into the Hudson. Sullenberger calming, but quickly urged people off the plane. And when he thought that everyone was off the plane, he walked the it twice more from end to end, checking to be sure no one else was on board. Then he got himself off the plane. If you want to be first, you must be last.

Then there’s Dave. Dave was the team leader of the first ever swing team at Mountain Tennessee Outreach Project. He was in charge of the six of us staff. He had all the power and authority over us. I remember him gathering us one night for worship while we were yet training for our positions. He lead us to the corner of one of the bunk rooms. There was barely enough space for the six of us to sit on the floor. He read to us from John's gosepl. Then he reachedunderneath one of the bunks, and pulled out his stashed items for worship: a basin, a pitcher of water, and a towel. Without a word he proceed, one by one, to wash our feet. Silently, he poured the water over my feet. Silently, and with a look of Christian love, he wiped them dry. The greatest among you must be your servant.

Then there’s "Jim". Jim and "Vivian" had been married for years by the time I met them. Very early on I understood Vivian’s battle with dementia, but you had to look very carefully to see it. Jim would walk with Vivian to church, hand in hand. If you didn’t know that she needed the guidance, they just looked totally in love. Jim would open the hymnal for Vivian. His arm was always around her providing security. And when they would come for communion, Jim would reach out his hand first to demonstrate the art of intinction so Vivian could mimick. And when that didn’t work anymore, he served her the communion himself. Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

If you want to become follower of Jesus, then a radical renovation of your life must begin. You must set aside the pursuit of the accumulation of wealth, of success, of beauty, of domination. You must learn this peculiar way of greatness. You must be last. You must be servant. You must serve all. This is not optional for the very religious, or suggested to the struggling followers. The language Jesus uses is strong on purpose. If we want to follow Jesus, we must learn to serve.
So, are you able?
Lord, we are able. Our spirits are thine.
Remold them, make us, like thee, divine.
Thy guiding radiance above us shall be
A beacon to God, to love, and loyalty.

Are you able?

Rev. Becky Jo Thilges,
Lead Pastor
Homestead UMC, Rochester, MN

Monday, March 2, 2009

Radical Renovation: Living the Cross-Shaped Life

March 1, 2009
First Sundy of Lent
Radical Renovation: Living the Cross-Shaped Life*
Mark 8:27-38
*I am indebted in my Lenten preaching preparations to the book of the same title by James A. Harnish.

Do you ever watch Ty Pennington’s Extreme Makeover? More than once I have watched it. Ty brings a crew in to renovate the home of some needy family. Perhaps there are allergies or mobility concerns or space issues. Certainly some renovations and cleanup need to happen. But almost always I am amazed at the total renovation that happens. What in my mind could have been a simple fix up always ends in a radical renovation of the whole house and property. Sometimes even taking the house down to the foundation. But the home is always rebuilt beautifully for its intended purpose.

Peter is not ready for the extreme makeover Jesus is about to unveil.

The gospel begins in a beautiful place today. The disciples and Jesus are walking and talking and teaching. In their recent memory was the feeding of the 5,000 and amazing healings of Jesus. In his teaching, Jesus wonders aloud, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples venture a guess: John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet. Jesus pursues them further: “Well, who do you think I am?” Peter is always willing to jump in with an answer right away. Peter steps up to the plate. “You are the Messiah!” Peter clearly had it right, because Jesus says, "Shh!…keep the secret."

Now Peter has his own idea of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. Perhaps it was what others in his day thought the Messiah was to be. The Messiah was to be a military and political power. The Messiah would come in and rule the land. The Messiah would exercise worldly power over others, especially over those who had power over the people of God prior to the coming of the Messiah. That’s what Peter knew the Messiah was supposed to be about.

So when Jesus in our gospel provides a different image of the Messiah - when he begins talking about the Messiah needing to suffer and die - Peter can’t take it! He pulls Jesus aside. The scripture says he “rebuked” Jesus. It’s the same word that is used to describe the way Jesus “rebukes” evil spirits. Peter is calling Jesus’ statement “evil”. At the first sign that Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t look like Peter expects or wants Peter turns to head in an opposite direction. Peter will have nothing of a radical renovation today.

I wonder if we don’t have a little Peter in each of us? When being faithful means something we haven’t expected, do we run the other way? Do we draw a boundary around what we will and won’t do for our faith? Do we prefer to have just enough faith to have it benefit us? And if it gets difficult or uncomfortable or unexpected, will we head in the opposite direction?

Do you remember when you invited God into your life? Did you invite God in to re-decorate your life? Did you even tell God the rooms of your life you were willing to have him re-decorate?

God, You can have my Sunday mornings – well, 1 ½ hours anyway. You can re-shape my marriage – it needs it anyway. But hands-off my relationship with my mother – that’s beyond repair. And steer clear of my wallet – that’s my business, not yours.

When we invite God into our lives, God doesn’t intend a simple redecorating. God intends nothing short of a radical renovation, a total reconstruction of our lives, a reorientation of the way we live; so that Jesus Christ can take up residence in our lives; so that through us God’s kingdom can come in the here and now!

Jesus rebukes Peter for “setting his mind on human things”, for wanting things to be safe and comfortable, for the inward, selfish focus of Peter, for not setting his mind on things of God, for not being able to see his life and world through God’s eyes, for not living the “cross-shaped life.”

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If we are to follow Jesus, we must walk the way of Jesus. We have to allow Jesus to reconstruct our selfish, inward focus. We must set our minds on things that are of God. We must allow a radical renovation that has at it center the “cross-shaped life.”

Through the traditional disciplines of Lent, disciplines like prayer, worship, study, fasting, we invite the power of the Holy Spirit to reshape us, to reshape the way we think, act, and live, until we resemble more and more of the ways of Jesus as he journeys toward the cross. That’s what it means to live the cross-shaped life. That’s what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus: to mirror the values and priorities and actions of Jesus; to care for the poor and the oppressed; to heal and make whole; to welcome others in ways the world does not; to live the “cross-shaped life”; to serve and surrender, to love and to reconcile, to sacrifice and to hope.

Will you take on an intentional journey this season of Lent? Will you invite God into the house of your life? Will you ask God to renovate your life? Will you give Jesus Christ every corner and crevice of your life? Will you not refuse God’s radical reconstruction in any part of you?

May the Lenten disciplines you choose this year, be it daily prayer or study or fasting or worship, draw you into the radical renovation that will set your face toward the things of God so that Jesus Christ can live within you and God’s kingdom can be born through you by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Becky Jo Thilges, Lead Pastor
Homestead UMC, Rochester, MN