Sunday, May 24, 2009

Leaving Muddy Footprints

May 24, 2009
Ascension Sunday
Taken Up
Luke 24:44-53

Parents, try to remember the emotion. Others of you who are not parents can imagine it fairly easily, I would think. Your first child has come into your life. It’s been a day and a half and the hospital has carefully packed your room. You’ve nestled the baby in the car seat for the first time, with one of you actually sitting in the back seat on the drive home. And here you are, the baby carefully lying on a blanket on your bed in your home. You look at the baby’s intricate little self. Likely aloud, you say to one another, “Now what do we do?”

This little life is your responsibility. There is no longer a nurse to bathe the baby. Every diaper is yours now. Midnight feedings will be done by you. It is completely up to you.
Remember that feeling? It’s almost like the whole world has vanished. There you three are all alone. “Now what do we do?”

It’s a similar emotion the disciples feel in our lesson today. While it doesn’t say it in the text, I think the emotion is implied. Jesus has risen from the dead. There have been many appearances of Jesus. They have enjoyed 40 days of the Risen Jesus walking around. They’ve been given a little pep talk of sorts. “You are my witnesses of these things” Jesus tells them. He even promises them a special gift for the task, an innate something that will empower them. And he has even blessed them.

Then, he’s taken up. Luke says he “was carried into heaven.” The book of Acts has a cloud doing the work of “taking up.” I imagine that the disciples stood there for a moment. The book of Acts says they were “gazing up toward Heaven.” They are staring off into a distance. Maybe they are even saying aloud to one another “Now what do we do?”

They are entrusted with the precious life of the gospel. There is no one else anymore. Jesus is no longer with them physically. It’s all up to them. You can imagine the emotion.

Barbara Lundblad, a preaching professor from Union Theological Seminary, tells of a picture of Jesus’ ascension that caught her eye. It was a black and white woodcut print, finely etched. In the picture Jesus is rising up while the disciples watch him disappear into the clouds. But if you look closely at the picture, not at the clouds, but look on the ground, you can see footprints on the earth. The artist has carefully etched Jesus’ footprints. Those footprints are down on the level where the disciples are standing. They are down where they are standing with their mouths open, down where the disciples are asking “Now what do we do?”

It makes you wonder what the artist was thinking when he or she etched those footprints into the picture. Maybe it’s just a strange detail without too much meaning. Perhaps the artist is imagining something about the text that isn’t in there at all. Or perhaps the artist is pressing the question from Acts: “Why are you staring off into heaven?” Maybe the artist wants us to notice the footprints instead of the cloud, to notice Jesus’ footprints here on earth. Maybe the artist wants us to stop staring up into heaven and start looking at the earth. Maybe the artist wants us to start noticing the footprints of Jesus, the muddy footprints of the one who walked the earth.

Jesus’ muddy footprints are all over the pages of the gospel. Can you see them?
Can you see his footprints as he walked along the shore, inviting this motley crew of disciples to his work? Can you see his footprints as he walked hand in hand with the outcasts? Can you see his footprints as he walked into the temple to correct ancient teachings? Can you see his footprints as he walked to get a drink from a woman the most despised race in his day? Can you see his footprints as he entered Jerusalem to give up his life? Can you see his footprints as he stumbled under the weight of the cross? And can you see his footprints leaving the empty tomb? Or walking on the road to Emmaus? Or entering the closed and fearful hideout of the disciples?

Jesus’ muddy footprints are all over the gospel. It is hard not to notice the muddy footprints, the very real presence of Jesus walking the earth.

Now Jesus is calling the disciples to the task of placing his footprints all over this world.
Repentance and forgiveness are to be preached in Jesus’ name and this precious gospel is to be proclaimed to all nations. “And, by the way,” Jesus says to the disciples, “You are witness to these things. And I am sending you. I am sending you to blanket the earth with my muddy footprints.”

But Jesus has been “taken up.” He is no longer standing among them. So the disciples stand, mouths wide open, staring off into a distance, as they mumble under their breaths to one another, “Now what do we do?”

That day in Bethany, before Jesus was “taken up,” he had promised them a power to get the job done, an innate, internal thing that would empower them in their foot-printing work. That power that would come to them soon enough, the power of the Holy Spirit.

Then Jesus blessed them. He lifted up his hands and blessed the disciples, this motley crew of unlikely, imperfect characters. He lifted his hands and blessed their footprints. He made holy the impact of their steps on earth. He made holy each footprint a disciple on earth makes, not only the “days after the resurrection” disciples we read about in the gospel, but also the “21st century disciples” gathered for worship today. Jesus blessed us and made holy the impact of our footprints.

Here is the theological truth of Ascension Sunday: Because there is no longer a physical body of Jesus, we are the embodiment of the risen Christ. Where there is no physical presence of Jesus anymore, we are that body on earth. It is our feet that will leave muddy footprints on earth. It is our feet that must walk the way of Jesus. It is our feet, our blessed and made holy feet. We are the embodiment of the one who left in the cloud. That is our call as disciples.

No matter where we walk, our steps are made holy by Jesus. Our task to embody Jesus is to make careful footprints on the earth, to walk tenderly and intentionally with our lives, to make each step count for the sake of the precious life of the gospel.

So how are we doing at making muddy Jesus footprints with our holy feet? Are we walking among the unlikely to invite a motley crew of disciples to Jesus’ work? Are we walking hand in hand with the outcasts? Do our footprints show up in the worship space? Do we make steps among races and genders that are despised? Are we stepping out to heal and make whole? Are we walking among the hungry and poor and oppressed to bring food and resources and freedom?

There’s a lot of talk lately about our carbon footprint. It is a question of the environmental impact of your life. Do you drive to work, or ride your bike? Do you recycle, or throw everything in the trash? We are encouraged to as faint a carbon footprint as possible.

Sometimes we get our muddy Jesus prints confused with our carbon footprints. We think the task is to walk lightly on the earth with the gospel, to make faint the footprint of our faith. We are discouraged by some from making an impressionable footprint, so as not to offend other faith traditions. It is best if we keep our faith to ourselves. Then no one will be offended or hurt or …. Impacted. We tend to walk so gingerly, that Jesus’ footprints have a hard time being noticed in our generation. Or we are so busy looking up that we aren’t making footprints? Are we so concerned with our “heavenward-ness” that we standing staring into the clouds and forget to look at or make footprints on earth?

One of those “Reader’s Digest” quips seems appropriate here…Jesus has no hands but your hands. Or, if you will, Jesus has not footprints on earth if you are not making them. We are the embodiment of Jesus, the Risen Christ, and our call is to be sure that our muddy Jesus footprint is significant.

May you walk firmly and intentionally with the love of Jesus, and may you make real the one who was “taken up” by your words, your actions, your footprint on the earth. Amen.

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

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Black & White? or Full Color Living?

May 17, 2009
Black & White? or Full Color Living?
Psalm 23; John 10:11-18; 1 John 3:16-24

I don’t ask the following question to offend anyone. Does anyone remember the switch from Black & White to color TV? It happened in 1954 when the Rose Parade was the first broadcast in color TV. In anticipation of it, 200 color televisions were produced and distributed. Perhaps that color TV came into your life later – after your Black & White TV gave out
Do you remember what it was like to go from Black & White to Color TV?

A black & white television told a story and got a point across. It enabled you to see expressions on faces and gave you a sense of the landscape in the storyline.

With full-color television, the scenes came to life. Landscapes were lush and green or parched and brown, and you could tell the difference, The color of one’s coat could convey something it could not on the black & white TV.

Jesus lived in full-color. He spoke about love. He encouraged others to love. But eventually, he demonstrated love. He is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life. You have to understand that imagery a bit. A shepherd in Jesus’ day would have cared for the sheep at night by placing them into a “pen”. It was a space closed in by a wall of rocks or something like that. Each night the shepherd would lead the sheep through the one opening to this pen. After all the sheep were safely in, away from the danger of wolves or thieves or predators of any kind, the shepherd would literally lay down in front of the opening to the pen. The shepherd would act like a gat to the sheep pen. No one got in without going through the shepherd. If something threatened the sheep, they would literally have to kill the shepherd to get at them. The shepherd laid down his life like a gate in front of the sheep pen to protect those sheep. Like a gate in front of the sheep pen, Jesus was willing to give up his life to save the sheep. Jesus did that very thing.

The Good Shepherd imagery unfolds a post-resurrection understanding of the cross as a supreme act of love, a demonstration of what Jesus talked about and encouraged. It’s taking the Black & White world of knowing and believing, of intentions and passions, and turning it into the full-color living of acting and doing, of life laid down.

First letter of John calls us to the same full-color living. The writer tells us that we only know love by its action, such as an action as bold as laying down our very lives. Not just talking about it. Not just believing in it. Actually doing it. Actually demonstrating a self-giving kind of love. That’s full-color living! We are called to this kind of living as disciples of Jesus Christ

I was overwhelmed recently by love in action in a self-giving kind of way. Since 1977 Sea Shepherd as been an international non-profit, marine wildlife conservation organization. Their mission is to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world's oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species. They have a love for animals that I, sadly, do not know. Their work in Antarctica is documented on an Animal Planet show called “Whale Wars,” a title I wished they would not have chosen.

In Antarctica they work to thwart the efforts of whaling fleets trying to catch whales. There is a debate whether or not the catch is for research or industry, depending on your perspective. Sea Shepherd members work diligently and creatively to do their work of thwarting the efforts of the whalers. The thing that impressed me the most, though, was their commitment. They are out on a large ship for a few months at a time. You only get on the ship if you are able to make a particular commitment to the cause. Of course you must believe in their work and having passion for the work is important, too. Some experience on a ship would be good. But you don’t even step foot on the ship if you are not willing to give your life to save the life of a whale. That’s full-color living!

You may not be passionate for whales or the work of Sea Shepherd. I’m mildly interested, but certainly not passionate.

What is it for which you feel passion? Feeding the hungry? Violence free neighborhoods? Clothing the naked? Clean water for African nations? Housing the homeless? Educating children? Homes free of domestic violence?

Jesus asks us to demonstrate our love, not just believe in it or talk about it. Jesus asks us to act on it, to act out of love for others by laying one’s life down, by actually doing something about the things for which we feel passionate. Jesus calls us to move from talking to action, to act in ways that cause you to sacrifice some of you in order to accomplish the mission.

Jesus invites us to full-color living. It’s taking the weekly on-call for the domestic violence hotline. It’s serving regularly at Noon Meals. It’s becoming educated and doing something about providing clean water to remote places in our world. It’s creating a peaceful presence by being in the more violent neighborhoods in peaceful ways, by providing meaningful activities for at risk kids. It’s taking a lesser paying teaching job in a neighborhood with little hope.

Jesus invites us to full-color living.

Can you turn your Black & White living of passions and causes into full-color living?

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

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Creating Home…One Gift At A Time

May 3, 2009
The Barnabas Effect
Acts 4:32-37; Malachi 3:10-12; 2 Corinthians 9:6-8
Homestead UMC is in the middle of a capital campaign called "Creating Home" for the purchase of land to relocate the ministries of our church. These sermons are to encourage our congregation and listen to God's call on our community of faith to extend its reach in ministry and mission through relocation.

The Acts community is “all-in”

Do you know that phrase? I had to look up again why I know that phrase. It is planted in my memory from the days I was fascinated by Texas Hold’em Poker tournaments on Television. All-in is a bet a player can make. They look at the cards they have, presumably it’s a winning hand, so on that hand they make their bet “all” the money they have. They lay it all on the table. They go “all-in”.

The Acts community has gone “all-in”. They have held nothing back. They have given everything they have and everything they are. They have laid it all on the table. They are “all-in”.

So to what is the Acts community “all-in”? They are all-in to this resurrection faith that has been given to them. They are “all-in” to reaching in as a work of God and to reaching out with the Word of God.

They are reaching in as a work of God. They have pooled their resources. Because of this, no one in their community was in need. They took care of their widows and orphans. That was something to which Jesus challenged the people of God. They had not lived up to caring for the most vulnerable of their society. But this Acts community was working to care for the vulnerable. No one had excess and no one was needy. That’s the way it goes. Because if I have excess, someone else is in need. The Acts community understood this truth. They lived in a kind of harmony not as common today.

They also reached out with the Word of God. They gave their testimony to the resurrection by going out and telling others why they were so full of joy. They brought others into the joy of their community and their way of life. They were sharing the risen Christ with others.

How is it that the Acts community can go “all-in”?

First – someone taught them the faith. The disciples and others who were filled with the Holy Spirit were compelled by the Spirit to spread the Good News. They made a life out of drawing others to Christ. This early Acts community of faith were recipients of their faithfulness. The Acts community of faith can go “all-in” because someone has taught them the faith.

Second – the Acts community of faith can go “all-in” because they believed in the ministry in which they participated. Scripture says they were “of one heart and one soul.” The thing that God had called them to do was powerful. They were gladly a part of what God was doing in their midst, even privileged to be a part of it! The Acts community of faith can go “all-in” because the work God called them to was so important!

Third – the Acts community of faith can go “all-in” because they had resources. God had provided those resources to them. There was land and houses and other resources. Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, they sell it all. And in faith, they “laid it at the apostle’s feet”. They give it to the work of God happening in their midst. They are so convinced at the life-changing work happening in their midst that they are wholly committed to this work. They have gone “all-in” with their lives already. Now they go “all-in” with their resources, too.

Is it possible that we could go “all-in”, too?

We can go “all-in” because someone has taught us the faith! Do you remember who they are? Perhaps it was your mother or grandfather. Perhaps it was a youth group leader or a Sunday School teacher. Someone came into your life and taught you of the life-changing truth of the risen Christ. Perhaps it was several someones. For some of you, that was right here, in this building. For others, it may have been in another building or even in another faith community. Someone was so filled with the Spirit that they couldn’t help but reach out with the word of God to you. Someone taught us the faith!

We can go “all-in” because the work to which God has called us to is so important! God has called us to reach in, to teach the faith to our children and youth. God has called us to build a community that lives “family at its best”. God has called us to grow a community that nurtures and challenges and grows people in their walk of discipleship.

God has also called us to reach out, to go to where young families live an bring to them “family at its best”. We are called to strengthen families and individuals in their faith walk, and to share the family that we love with others.

Honestly, I have never served or been a part of a community of faith that has had such a clear call and ministry from God. I am privileged to help lead in this call. I am thrilled to see how it will unfold. I am excited to see what will happen by the power of the Holy Spirit through this faith community.

We can go “all-in” because someone taught us the faith and because the work to which God calls us is so important.

We can also go “all-in” because we have resources! God has provided abundantly for us individually. We have homes and land and cars and savings accounts and a variety of resources. At the very least, we must acknowledge that God has provided for us. Even if we struggle some financially, compared to other parts of the world, we have an abundance.

Paul reminds us in our 2nd Corinthians about our abundance. When we have enough of everything, it as a gift from God. And it is not a gift for ourselves. God has made sure we have “enough of everything” so that we “may share abundantly.” Do you hear that? When we “enough of everything,” God has given it to us so that we can share it with others. And, when we share it with others, God entrusts us with more so that we can share it with others. That is the way of God.

Barnabas understood that truth. He stands as an example to us. I don’t know if he had a lot or a little, but the fact that he owned a piece of land meant he was somewhat wealthy in his day. As he came to know Christ, he had to respond! So he sold that field and he, like the others, laid the proceeds at the apostle’s feet. That’s another way of saying to us that he gave them to be used in the important ministry work. Barnabas went all in! He held nothing back. He didn’t keep a little for himself or for a rainy day. He was so fully committed to the work of God that he gave all that he had!

Is it possible that we could go “all-in”, too?

In the time the Prophet Micah is writing, there is great difficulty, presumably because of locust. Whatever the case, they are in a place of uncertainty. In such a time, God invites them to put God to the test. “See if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.” Put God to the test? We do that by entrusting what we have been given by God to the work of God, partnering with God.

We can go “all-in.” It is time for us to go “all-in” and put God to the test. We’ve already been doing that with our regular giving and God has proven faithful. In a time of a down economy and people cutting back, we are able to keep doing the important ministry work to which we’ve been called. Now is the time for us to put God to the test again. Let’s bring in all of our gifts and so test the limits of what God can do with us. May we be a powerful witness to the risen Christ. May God work in and through us and our “all-in” commitment. May the Barnabas effect change lives, ours included.

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