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?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Desperate Households: Broken Promises

“When the Covenant Ends”
Matthew 19:3-10

Sometimes scripture is very difficult. Today, that is the case. And the reasons why we find this scripture so difficult is that our corporate experience in these generations has seen many marriages end in divorce; something between 40% - 50% of first marriages. That’s one of every 2 marriages. In case you think we are immune because we are people of faith; it might interest you to know that, statistically, being a person of faith has very little to do with the divorce rate. We know that anecdotally by our experience even in this faith community. So that when we hear Jesus’ words in scripture today about marriage and divorce, they are difficult for us.

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, knew that reading scripture without a context was an impossible task. We can’t just read a text without bringing something to it. We always bring ourselves, and our own personal history, among other things, to the reading of any scripture. So those of you who have experienced divorce personally or in your family heard this scripture differently than others do today, and that is just how it is. We bring ourselves to the text, even the texts that aren’t as difficult for us.

In our theological reflections, scripture is always primary. We go to the scripture, as the foundation of our faith, to discover what God has to say about things of life. For instance, as we are talking today about divorce, it is appropriate, it is essential, that we search the scriptures for what they have to say about the topic. But Wesley warned that our attempts to grasp the meaning of scripture always involve tradition, experience, and reason. Like the scriptures, tradition, experience and reason can become the vehicles of the Holy Spirit to our understanding.

The traditions of the church shine light on the scriptures. They tell us how the scriptures have been interpreted over the history of the faith community. Personal and corporate experience gives life to the words on the page. Our experiences of God help us to better interpret scripture, giving life to what we read from generations ago. God gave us reason to confirm what we read and understand and experience. We check to make sure that our understandings of scripture make sense through our God-given gift of reason.

Wesley understood scripture as primary, like the top of this table. We don’t have much of a functional table without the top. Scripture is the primary source of God’s revelation in the world. Because the Holy Spirit is still at work, these are not just words on a page, but the living message of God for us.

But as Wesley understood it, scripture is not understood by itself, but in a context illumined by tradition, given life in experience and confirmed by reason. They are the legs of the table that hold up our interpretation and understanding of scripture. I brought this image today because it helps me see what Wesley talked about. The table is not strong with one or two legs, but all three. Scripture is not made less by tradition, experience and reason, but strengthened. They are the means through which God helps us understand the scriptures for our times.

Ok, so why all of that for today?

I find the words of Jesus in this text difficult. And not because I am looking for a reason to justify a pending divorce. (Michael and I are good right now.) I find them difficult because of my pastoral experience with people who are walking through relationships that are ending.
Late one night I received a phone call. There was a man on the other end; a strong man who I knew was having a difficult time in his marriage. His wife was struggling with alcohol abuse and not trying to work at their marriage at all. He knew the relationship was over, something I had heard him struggle with many times before. He wanted to do anything in his power to rescue the relationship. But by the time this late night phone call came, she was living in a different state. She had not made the agreed upon move with her husband. She was drawing a line in the sand, moving on from their marriage. It was clear for this man that his marriage was over. But what he struggled with was divine guilt. “God says that I can’t get a divorce,” were his words. He was gut-wrenched over the idea that he might have to do something that he thought God would think was unforgiveable.

What could I say to him? He knew the scriptures well enough. “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” It was this very thing that had him tied up in knots. His experience didn’t match up with what he read in scripture or with the tradition of the church. When he allowed himself to use reason in this situation, he knew the relationship was over. What could I say to him?

What I said to him that night, and to others in some fairly similar circumstances, is that the covenant was already over. Like it or not, the covenant, the sacred promise of marriage, which he wanted to keep intact, was already broken. Sometimes that happens. Covenants can be broken by one party, and the other party can do nothing to restore it. Sometimes it is not very godly to try to restore the covenant. If there is abuse, it is not very godly to go on in that marriage covenant. If there is ongoing mistrust, it is not very godly to go on in that marriage covenant. As one of my clergy friends said to me, “I knew God wanted life for me, and there wasn’t any life left in my marriage.” Sometimes the covenant ends.

Jesus is right, of course. Sometimes we let go of our marriages because we are too hard-hearted. We don’t want to do the hard work of restoring a relationship that has gone through difficulties. Certainly some of the 50% of marriages that are ending in divorce are ending because someone is unwilling to do the hard work of breathing life back into a relationship. I wonder what Jesus would say about the way marriage is sometimes entered into somewhat casually in our generation? And I wonder what Jesus would say to those who are so easily divorcing when things get tough? Probably the same things he said to those trying to test him that day.

But I wonder what he would say to my late-night calling friend? Or to the woman in an abusive relationship? Or to the man whose wife continues to be consistently unfaithful? My experience tells me there is a grace of God for these times that is not in the words of these few verses of scripture. When I search the rest of the Bible, consult the tradition of the church, consider personal and corporate experience, and use my ability to reason, I know a God of grace who always sides with the vulnerable and hurting. So that a scripture that on the surface seems so plain, is really quite complex. And a God who on the pages of one short scripture seems to draw such a firm line, really is a God of love and grace and second chances. These theological tasks, these times of trying to figure out what God is saying to us in this generation, are less plain than they seem. They are certainly more complicated that a literal interpretation of the words on the page.

I pray we can know God’s grace in all our relationships. I pray that those who are experiencing the end of a covenant may know the grace of God that sustains and upholds them through it all. Because I think the disciples are wrong. I think it is very much worth it to enter the covenant of marriage and give life-long love a noble effort. But that’s a topic for next week. Amen.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Desperate Households: Purposeful Parenting

“Keep on Keeping On”
Ephesians 6:1-4 and Proverbs 22:6

Tell the truth! It was that simple. It was both the most important rule in the house I grew up in, and the most basic advice my father would give me. If you’re in trouble, tell the truth. It will go better for you. If someone’s trying to hurt you, tell the truth. If someone’s trying to hurt someone else, tell the truth. That’s why things like pretending you didn’t know who broke the lamp, or trying to change a D on a report card into a B, or saying you’re going to a movie when you’re actually going somewhere you aren’t supposed to go: that’s why those things didn’t work in the house I grew up in. That’s why it didn’t work when one of us four kids tried to convince Dad that the parking lot was icy, and even though driving slow, it was the ice that caused Dad’s truck to hit the cement bottom of the light pole. It didn’t take Dad too long to figure out that the truth was that it was easier to hit the light pole on an icy parking lot when you are spinning donuts in that same parking lot.

There were other important things, too. We were expected to make our bed every morning, to pick up after ourselves, to help with the chores, inside and outside of the house. When the chain saw started, it did not matter what your plans were, we were a family, and all were expected to help. My parents expected us to treat one another with love. On Sunday mornings we knew we were to be ready to go to church. A curfew was meant to be kept. Parents were to be respected. School work was to be completed. Trying your best was the very least you could do. A’s on a report card were worthy of celebration. Less was very often more. Vacations were things families always did together. More than anything, I knew my parents were living to make my life better than theirs, not that theirs was bad, but they wanted more for us.

Were they perfect? Probably not. Certainly not. But I give thanks for how my parents parented purposefully.

The scripture we read this morning encourages parents and children to be intentional in their relationships with one another.

The role of the child is one of respect: to show consideration and thoughtfulness to one’s parents. That is to say that children should be attentive to the care, direction and guidelines of their parents.
But that assumes that parents are being good models. When God commands children to “honor your father and mother” God gives a promise with that commandment: “That it may go well with you.” There is an assumption that parents are being good models of godly lives. The assumption is that parents are giving their children a model to follow that will actually give them the abundant life that God intends for them. That, my friends, requires some purpose in our parenting.

Ok, before I preach myself right out of this sermon, let me say that no where does the scripture require perfection in our parenting. Human as we are, perfection is not possible. You only need to ask a child in their early teens if their parents are perfect to be reminded that we sometimes mess up and stand in need of the grace that God offers us. Yesterday was a pretty good day in my parenting life, but I still messed up at least a half dozen times. Thank God for grace, because we parents need it!

So if we don’t need to be a perfect model, what kind of a model do we need to be? A healthy model seems what God asks. God asks us to model a life marked by guidelines. “Bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” the scriptures say. Purposeful, godly parenting gives our children a sense of what will give abundant life and what will suck the life from their existence. We do not do our children any favors when we opt for friendship over boundaries, trade in rules and guidelines for a “hey, all my friends think you’re the coolest mom ever!” There simply are things that will give our kids a good life and there are things that will make our children’s lives more difficult. For instance, my dad’s #1 rule of “tell the truth” seems a simple enough boundary. But without it, a simple lie about sneaking a peak at another kids test in 3rd grade can turn into insider trading or cheating on taxes or embezzlement. We give our kids boundaries so that it may go well with them, for their whole lives. We discipline our children so that, even when they are old, they will know the ways of the Lord. That is the intentional, purposeful parenting to which God calls us.

That’s hard work. I’ve only been a parent for 12 years, but I know that this is really hard work. It is so easy sometimes to just give up. Does it really matter if I try hard today? Maybe for just today we can be friends, rather than parents and children. The rules are so hard to enforce when you’re getting pushback. It would be easier to just let it slide this time. You who have ever tried to influence the life of a child know what I mean. Some days it would just be easier to give up. But Paul, in Galatians, gives encouragement, not only to Christians trying hard to lead the Christian life, but also to parents trying hard to keep on keep on at parenting. Paul reminds us why we do this hard work of parenting. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) Sometimes it takes a very long time to see the blessing of your hard work of purposeful parenting, but at some point, you will see the harvest of your work of keeping on keeping on.

My mother was a great model of what it meant to parent in this Christian sense of it. She was not perfect. I like sometimes to remind her of that. I like to recall the time that I brought a bouquet of dandelions for a mother’s day corsage and she told me that dandelions were just weeds. No, she wasn’t a perfect Christian mother. And there were some teenage years in there where I thought she was the absolute worst mother ever. It wouldn’t have been a stretch to say I despised her and her mothering ways. But when I was about 22 years old, my mother became the smartest, most loving woman I had ever known. She never gave up on parenting, even during the years where it would have been easy to just give in to this last child and the ridiculous ideas of her teen years. When the harvest came, I would guess my mother was grateful that she hadn’t given up. I sure am glad my mother kept on keeping on! I am blessed and my life is well because of my mother’s and father’s purposeful parenting.

Some of you are parents now, and I would guess you have been particularly attentive to the things I have said, if they carried any godly wisdom at all. For some of you, I would guess you believe your parenting years are behind you. Still others have never and may never be parents to their own children, whether biological or adopted. So it is possible that several of you have kind-of tuned me out this morning without meaning any disrespect by that. This next part is for all of you, for anyone between the ages of 2 and 102. This next part is a word on parenting for anyone who calls Homestead their church family.

God has called Homestead to become family at its best. That means in our own homes, to be sure. And that’s one reason why this sermon series has been important: to help us make the best of our own families. But family at its best as our church mission has always been about more than our families. It’s always been about helping all sorts of families be the best families they can be. Family at its best is about helping parents across the Rochester area parent their own children. We are learning more and more what that means as we learn more and more about the families of Rochester and their particular needs.

But one thing has always been clear, highlighted in the congregational response to the baptism of children in our midst. We vow in that response to live as an example that others can look at, to live intentionally as a Christian so that others might know what that looks like and why it is so appealing. We vow in that response to witness to Christ, to share the good news of Jesus Christ with all children who ever walk in the door, and even more children than that. We vow to create a community of love and support that will be a blessing to all children whom God will entrust to our ministry sphere. We vow to be in prayer for children, that they may choose the ways of Christ for themselves. You see, at the time of baptism, we vow to be Christian parents to every child whom God brings into our midst in any way. That’s the children in our Sunday School and worship, for sure. But it’s also the 7 year old boy who rode his bike to the church nearly every day this summer, just looking for someone to care about him. It’s also the children of the Interfaith Hospitality Network families who are housed for a time in our facility. It’s children we haven’t even met, who will play on our green space. It’s children who may sometime eat at our church during a free summer lunch program. It’s really all the children who ever come anywhere near us or to whom we ever come near. Purposeful parenting is what we do at Homestead, for our children and all of God’s children! May it be so! May God give us courage to the task! Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Desperate Household: Marriage Lessons

The Key: Being Subject to One Another

Ephesians 5:21-33

Last week I wondered aloud if I was crazy to come out of the gate on this preaching series about the household speaking to the subject of intimacy. This week the question is equally valid. I am not necessarily a feminist, but that doesn’t mean that this text is easy for me. It confounds me every time I come to it. And how many weddings in conservative settings have we heard this text followed by an exposition of how a woman needs to know her place and how a husband needs to rule over the household. There is a classic read of this text that troubles me. So as I begin to think about it with you, I am aware of that history within most of us.

Paul opens this section of Ephesians by encouraging us saying, “Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another.” Paul is describing a way for all of us to be with one another. If we are faithful Christians, wanting to walk in the ways of Jesus, then there is a way for us to be with one another that isn’t like the culture around us. Another translation says “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” When we think of being subject to one another we think of a kind of slave and master relationship. But that, I don’t believe, is what Paul is describing. What Paul’s phrase encourages us to is a life of serving one another, not out of a relationship where one has power over another, but out of a relationship of mutual love for one another, first demonstrated in Christ’s servant love for us.

When I read this text from Ephesians, I read this first phrase as a sort of thesis statement. Paul makes his point in the first line. Live a life of trying to outdo one another in service. What follows people have taken as prescriptive, a rigid account of how husband and wife are to live out that service to one another. It is a rigid account in that this prescription delegates a particular role for the wife and a particular role for the husband. That, anyway is the traditional reading of the account.

As I read this text over the last three weeks or so, I began to believe what follows Paul’s thesis statement is not so much prescriptive, as descriptive. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” And then Paul goes on to describe some ways we can live that out in the marriage relationship, not the only way to do so. Paul describes for his generation a way he can see husband and wife “being subject to one another.” He gives examples of what it might mean within that marriage relationship.

If there is a key to marriage, or any relationship for that matter, Paul gives it to us in the first phrase of this section of Ephesians. “Be subject to one another.” Serve one another out of love. Do things for one another any chance you can. Think of the other person first. What would be good for them? How can I make their lives easier? Better? More full? As the Thompson’s talked about it in the video, it is finding the joy in doing for one another. To be kind and outdo one another in demonstrating a love for one another.

Elvin hasn’t yet gotten this servant’s attitude straight the afternoon he comes over to the Huxtables to pick Sondra up for a date.

Remember the Cosby Show?

Elvin has learned about marriage in that more conservative tradition. But he has some idea that Sondra’s parents don’t have that kind of marriage.

While he waits for Sondra to be ready for their date, Claire inquires as to whether or not Elvin & Cliff, her husband, would like a cup of coffee.

“You mean, you’re going to get?” Elvin asked confused.

“Yes. You’re surprised?” Claire wonders aloud?

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Huxtable,” remarks Elvin. “I didn’t think you did that sort of thing.”

“What kind of thing?” she asks.

“You know, serve,” he responds.

“Serve whom?” You can hear and see Claire getting a little steamed.

“Serve him.”

“Oh, as in serve your man?”

“Yea!” Elvin says confidently. He thinks they have finally got to the center of the issue. But there is Cliff in view, hanging his head in his hand and wishing for Elvin that he was somewhere else. Cliff can see what’s coming.

Wagging her finger at Elvin, Claire starts in “Let me tell you something, Elvin.” She passionately describes how what she is doing for Cliff is not “serving,” as that’s the kind of thing that goes on in a restaurant. No, what she is doing is bringing Cliff a cup of coffee in the same way Cliff brought her a cup of coffee earlier that morning. “And that, young man, is what marriage is made of. It is give and take. 50 / 50.” And just to bring home the point, she tells him that if he doesn’t change his attitude, “you’re never going to have anyone bringing you anything, anywhere, any place, any time, ever!”

There’s the nugget again, that nugget of marriage advice that we all need. That nugget of relationship advice that Paul, out of his love for Christ, gives to those of us who want to live in Christ’s ways. Marriage isn’t about who’s in charge of what. Marriage isn’t about power over another. It is about a mutual love that is lived out in trying to do for one another. It’s drawing a bath for your wife when the work day has been particularly hard for her. It’s spending time listening to the joy your husband wants to share about this week’s football game. It’s surprising your partner with their favorite home-cooked meal. It’s a well written note of encouragement in their lunch. You know the kinds of things that Paul encourages us to. You know the nugget of relationship advice that makes a marriage work. Mutual love for one another, lived out, quite frankly, in finding ways to serve one another out of that love.

May such an attitude and work of love reign in your relationships, and especially in your marriage. Amen.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Desperate Households: Intimacy

Genesis 2:18-25
I am glad to preach this Desperate Households series. But I want to let you know that this is not just a series for married folks with children at home. We’re going to talk about… Intimacy, Marriage, Parenting, Divorce, and Lifetime Love.

The church does not talk enough about these topics. So the fact that we’re going to talk about them isn’t meant to exclude anyone. All of us, whether we ever choose marriage or not, whether we ever contemplate divorce or not, all of us need to know the biblical and spiritual basics of these issues. All of us need to build a foundation of understanding, for it is on that foundation that we are able to keep our footing through many circumstances. So if you are single, or long past your parenting years, widowed, divorced or empty nesters, these messages over the next few weeks are for you as well. There is a message God has for all of us on these topics, and it is a very different message than the one we get from watching TV or listening to the cultural influences around us.

Am I crazy? Intimacy? It’s a topic the church has been reluctant to speak about publically over the years. So right here, in the midst of our worship experience, we are going to talk about God’s gift of intimacy.

Parents of children and youth, I just want you to know this morning that I have chosen my words carefully, so I do not want you to worry about that. But I will tell you that I am guessing that my message may generate further questions, and that is a good thing. May this be the start of a fruitful discussion with your children.

So, my friend Rhea, was a youth minister while she and I attended the same seminary. She took her youth group on a retreat where the topic was sexuality. When she came home, she relayed the message of the main speaker. This speaker took out a flowering plant. She used this beautiful flowering plant to describe the gift of sexuality that God gave each of us. This beautiful, pure gift is just that, a gift from God. When our sexuality is lived into in the ways that God intended, it causes the gift to flower, to grow, to become more beautiful. Up to this point of her description, Rhea did not have a problem. Nor do I. Intimacy and sexuality is truly a gift from God. As it comes to us, it is not something evil or wrong or sordid.

Then the main speaker began to describe what happens when teenagers participate in sexual activity before marriage. Perhaps she was unaware of something that did not escape Rhea. Rhea knew she had brought with her at least a few youth who were already sexually active. Statistics show that 60% of youth will have a sexual encounter before they graduate from high school. But Rhea wasn’t dealing in statistics. She knew the stories of some of the youth of her youth group. She had walked as pastor with some of her youth through their far too early experiences of sexuality. Whatever the speaker would say next, Rhea was listening carefully.

But it wasn’t so much the words that came from the speaker, although Rhea would never forget them. It was the visual demonstration that went along with the words. As the speaker plucked flowering blossoms off the plant, she described the destruction done to the gifts of sexuality and intimacy when one participates in pre-marital sex. She continued until the beautiful flowering plant was a stem without any beauty to it all, destroyed, damaged and ruined. No matter what her words said from there, the visual image for the youth in the room was that if they participate in pre-marital sex, their beautiful gift will be forever ruined.

It was here that Rhea grieved for her youth, and worked with them for the rest of the weekend. The youth were left with the idea that it was all over, they were beyond hope, that nothing could restore for them the really beautiful way they had been created by God. Grace, Rhea repeated, over and over and over again. Grace is the gift of God for this and so many other situations where we fall short.

In the second chapter of Genesis, we get one of the stories of God’s creation of humanity. From this particular story, we learn a couple really important things:

Humanity is created as partners and companions for one another. When the first man was alone, God thought it was not good. Alone is not good. We should be in community, together. So God made more than the first man. God made a helper and a companion for the man. And that is how God has designed us. We desire to be in partnership, companionship with one another.

Secondly, we learn that intimacy is naturally the way in which God created us. I think that’s what the story of the rib gets at. The helper, partner, and companion comes from the first man. There is a very literally sense that we come from one another. That is intimate and beautiful. “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” says the man. That is oneness, closeness, intimacy.

We also learn that partnership and intimacy is something for which we need not feel ashamed. We are called to recreate the intimacy in God’s design and plan for us. Though two people are just that, two distinct people, God gives us this intimate way to be one again. We leave the families in which we learned about relationships, and we experience this deep intimacy by becoming one with our partner, companion and helper. And in that deep intimacy, when it is as God intended it, we are not ashamed.

God created us for intimacy with another human being, but there are boundaries for that intimacy: boundaries that are designed for our benefit, boundaries that allow us to be naked and unashamed. The scriptures tell us that this intimacy is designed for people who “leave their father and mother.” In the culture in which the creation story was told and recorded, one did not leave the home of their parents until it was time to be married, when an emotional separation from the family of origin was possible. Intimacy is designed for two people who can give themselves to one another fully, be completely vulnerable before one another. This giving of ourselves happens by God’s design within the commitment of marriage. Before we can ever be vulnerable with another, there has to be an unconditional commitment. Before we can be vulnerable enough to be before another naked and not ashamed, there has to be a person who will say to you, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Vulnerability comes when a commitment is made to be with another person through all the messiness of life, the weight gain, the moodiness, the job losses, the confusions, the financial struggles , the health diagnosis. There can never be true intimacy without the unconditional commitment that comes through the covenant of marriage.

What one has in a sexual relationship outside of the commitment of marriage is not intimacy. I am not naïve enough to think that we are a room full of people who do not know what I mean by that. Sexual relationships outside of the commitment of marriage, whether that is pre-marital or extra-marital sexual encounters, cannot know the intimacy and vulnerability God intends. The person you are with has not made a commitment to you, nor have you made a commitment to them. And while for the moment it may feel wonderful, and you may mistake the good feelings as intimacy, it is not the intimacy God intends when it is outside of the commitment of marriage.

I have not seen the movie, nor do I recommend it, but I am told of a scene in Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz’s Vanilla Sky that brings this point home. Cameron’s character was stalking Tom’s character after a sexual encounter. Her character says to Tom’s, “Don’t you know that when you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not.” What Cameron’s character understands is that the deep intimacy in a sexual relationship is supposed to be attached to a promise to never leave one another. Pre-marital or extramarital sex does not have this deep promise attached to it. So when we are involved in these kinds of encounters, we are torn within us. We have been naked, but indeed, we are ashamed. We have been intimate without experiencing the intimacy that God intends as a gift to us. We have literally become one flesh, but only temporarily so in a body designed for this kind of oneness to be for a lifetime.

Ok, so I think I have said that clearly enough. God designed us to experience intimacy with someone with whom we have made a lifelong commitment and promise.

I can only imagine that there are some here today who have experienced a sexual encounter outside of the commitment of marriage. My goal this morning is not to bring guilt or shame or pain into your lives through my words. I wholeheartedly believe these kinds of encounters are outside of God’s plan for our lives. They can create a brokenness in who God created us to be. But unlike the beautiful flowering plant whose blooms are gone and not coming back, God makes a way for us to be restored. God’s desire is for us to be whole. God’s purpose is to bring healing to your brokenness. God’s plan is to bring restoration for you so that you can experience the gift of true intimacy. And that is possible as we turn our lives toward God. That is possible as we accept the grace and forgiveness that God offers. Friends, all of us have failed in one way or another, and all of us stand in need of God’s grace, if not in this area of our lives, than in another. The restoration happens when we accept the forgiveness that God offers to us.

Today, if you are so moved, I have written a prayer for us to pray silently in the moments ahead. It is a prayer of commitment to the kind of intimacy that God gives as a gift to us. I invite you now, in the silence of hearts, to pray either this prayer or to pray as you are lead. May God bless our desire to be whole and well.

Let us pray…

Dear God, I want to practice appropriate intimacy from this day forward, to do my best to remain pure in thought, word and deed. Give me the strength to be pure in what I say, what I do, what I wear and what I think about. Help me to avoid things that tempt. Assist me in refraining from all sexual activity that destroys the gift of intimacy you have given me.

In the case that I am not pure in these things and I stand in need of Your grace, I pray for the courage to accept Your gift of grace in my life, for this, and all things. May it be so, as I make this commitment to you and to the one with whom I will experience true intimacy as you intend. Amen.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Be Light

Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12

I woke up early the day after Christmas. I didn’t want to, though. I had taken two long naps on Christmas Day to catch up from the day before and went to bed early Christmas night. I wanted to sleep in … but I was up before it was light out. In the stillness of the early morning, I was sitting on the couch relaxing, when something we hadn’t seen in days was suddenly there. Sunlight. The sunlight poured into the living room. And when the sun comes in my living room, it’s hard to ignore!

On Christmas Eve in West Bend, Iowa, my sister-in-law, Linda, had to get her flashlight out. It had snowed and rained for a couple of days in Iowa and it was the rain icing on the power lines that was the problem. It caused the lights in the house to flicker on and off, on and off. The flashlight was just in case. It’s really hard to find your way in absolute dark.

Darkness was what the people of God had been experiencing in the time of our Isaiah text this morning. It’s likely the early days of Israel’s return from exile in Babylon. Those days are easily cast in shades of grey and gloom. Israel was once a powerful empire, but they lost a war to Babylon and had been taken captive and sent to live in a place that was not home. Now they were a downsized clan trying to rebuild their lives and their kingdom. The prophet pierces this gloom with a brilliant light, a vision of God's glory transforming the world and a promise that God will restore God's people.

The prophet calls to the people. Arise! Shine! Lift up your eyes and look around! The promise is that God will transform the people’s lives. This is how he says it: The glory of the Lord will appear over you… Then you shall see and be radiant… And in transforming the people of God, they will transform the world through their light! Nations shall come to your light.

So often we read these words of Isaiah referring to the infant Jesus, and I suppose from a Christian perspective that’s natural. First because of the reference in Isaiah 60 to gold, frankincense and myrrh that is mirrored in Matthew 2 and the story of the wise men. But more importantly, we Christians see all of our hope and light through the incarnation. The glory of God came into our lives through the infant child. The light began to shine when the star rose over Bethlehem. That light guided the seekers from the East to the infant Jesus.

What is fascinating to me is who is drawn to the infant Jesus by the light. That light drew people of wealth and means. They came to worship one of poverty and need. That night in Bethlehem, the rich and poor mingled in harmony. That night in Bethlehem, the rich bring gifts for this poor infant. It is so much a glimpse of the Kingdom of God that the grown Jesus will proclaim: a kingdom of peaceful co-existence; a kingdom of mercy to the poor; a kingdom where the rich understand their ability to bless others; a kingdom where no one is forgotten.

The star guided the rich visitors to the meek infant Jesus. It was light that drew them to this transformation. It was light that caused them to change everything. Remember that Herod had asked them to come back and tell him when they found this infant king. But siding with poverty instead of the power of Herod, the wise men went home by another road, changed, transformed, made new. It was the light of the incarnation that reshaped them, and in turn, the light, through them, changed the world around them.

The promise that God’s glory would shine on us happened that night. The star pointed to God’s glory in the infant Jesus. The star pointed to the kingdom of God glimpsed that night. But if it is just a picturesque image, it is nothing. The light shines not to illuminate the darkness of long ago. The light shines to illuminate the darkness of today. And the way that it shines is through us. Just like it was to shine through the nation of Israel so long ago. The light shines through us when we bring peace to places of discord and strife. The light shines through us when we bring mercy to the poor through gifts that bring them life. The light shines through us when we bring our abilities and resources to make other’s lives better. When we bring Light and shine it in everyone’s dark corners, the kingdom of God is at hand.

Barbara Bate (formerly on the staff of the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church ) tells of a time when she saw God’s light shining through. She was travelling in Zimbabwe to preach and lead a workshop. After worship, she visited a children’s village called SOS. Here orphaned children are raised, schooled and loved. These are mostly abandoned children, “dumped” as they are called in Zimbabwe. When they come to SOS they are gathered in small groups of children. Local mothers look after each small group of children. Most of those mothers are active United Methodists. They hold the children, feed them, name them and give them a place. Part of their care for the children is also to bring them to worship each Sunday. [You can ready Barbara’s account here.] Here is a community of people dedicating themselves to these abandoned children. Here is a community of people letting the light of God’s glory shine through them. Here is a community of people putting their faith to work. Here is a community of people being light for a very dark place in our world.

Zimbabwe is not the only place in the world where there are dark corners in which to shine the light. What dark corners of Rochester need to the light of Christ? What people abandoned by our culture need to be held, fed, named? The call of God is clear for those of us who have God’s glory shining on us, those of us who would call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ. Arise! Shine! Be light for the world. In 2010 my prayer for Homestead and its ministry is that the people of Rochester would say of us, “We know they are Christians because of their work!” Amen.

Rev. Becky Jo Thilges, Lead Pastor
Homestead United Methodist Church
Rochester, MN