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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Responding in Prayer

I was recently listening to a sermon where the preacher, Scott Chrostek of Res Downtown, asked an important question - where you experience God in your daily, ordinary life?    For some of us, it is a question that we made need to put some thought into before we can answer it. For others, we may have a response in mind right away. How do you experience God in your daily life?
I think a lot of us can start to name the ways that we have seen God on the mountain tops - those places where we have deeply connected with our Savior. I’ve shared before that most of my mountain tops have taken place in nature, in the midst of God’s creation. For others they may be able to speak about how they have experienced God in the valley, when they were going through the lowest lows. How God was right there with them through the hardest things that they have ever faced in life. 
But the problem with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, is sometimes we forget. We forget how God has been faithful to us in the past so it makes it hard for us to proclaim how God is with us in the present. We forget the story.
The prophet Habakkuk knows the story of his people, he trusts that God is with them in their present state of oppression and captivity, and because he knows that story and has that trust, we found him praying a bold prayer of lament in chapter 1 of this book. He cried out to God essentially asking, “how long”? How long O Lord, are things going to continue like this? How long, O Lord, until you redeem your people? 
And God responded to this prayer of lament in chapter 2, essentially saying that God would take care of what the people are going through in God’s timing. Proclaiming that they have not been forgotten. 
We pick up in today’s scripture, Habakkuk 3, which takes place after God has spoken, and Habakkuk is moved to present a prayer of praise. In fact, while we might call it a prayer, it can also be in the category of a Psalm or a hymn. He has had a mountain top experience where he received a word from God for his people and he could not help but address God in a prayer of praise, a combination of the thanks and wow prayer that we talked about just a few weeks ago. 
It is almost as if yes, Habakkuk knew his people’s story about how God has saved them in the past, but in the midst of their very present trouble he had forgotten. So the words that God spoke about the salvation that was coming for them, deeply touched his heart. He knew, but he needed to be re-reminded. 
But once he was re-reminded, it was if everything he knew in his head and his heart, his holy scriptures and his experience, came flooding back to him. Essentially saying, yes Lord, in your time reveal yourself to us again. Reveal yourself like you did before, like you did the Exodus story with pestilence and plagues, the precursors to the Exodus from Egypt, leaving behind the oppression of the Pharaoh.  Show yourself, not just in grand ways like this, but in the graduor of nature as well. In the brightness of the sun. The shaking of the earth. No matter what, Lord, help me look for your coming and remember your story of salvation.
In fact, he goes on to say, that even if the trees don’t bloom, and the olive fails, he will still trust in God, even in times of trial. In other words, even if the land that bears God’s promises may fail, the word of God will not. God will save God’s people in God’s timing, but God’s intention is to bring salvation. 
Sometimes we need big moments in our lives to help us re-remember our story as well. How God has brought us here. To help re-orient us towards what we, too, already know in our head, heart, experience, and Scriptures. 
But what if it isn’t just the big moments that can bring us to songs of praise, but the every day moments as well. Which brings us back to that question posed by Rev. Scott Chrostek, where you experience God in your daily, ordinary life?  Because if we can’t see God in the every day, then we are more prone to miss God on the mountain top and in the valley as well. If we don’t believe that God is with us every day, then we’ve missed the point of a Savior. 
For so long the church has preached that Salvation is about getting into heaven, and don’t get me wrong, I’m just as excited as the next person to get there. But Salvation isn’t something that happens to us now, so that someday we can be in heaven with God. Salvation also changes us now. It changes the ways we live. The ways we think about things and respond. It changes the way we notice things around us in the world and helps us to testify to God’s faithfulness in the past and the present, so we can walk with God in the future. God’s intent isn’t to change our hearts someday. To save us someday. We worship the God who is with us right here and now. Working towards our best interest right here and now. If only we open up our eyes and hearts to see and respond. 
While we have broken up the book of Habakkuk into three separate weeks, it is all part of one story. A story that begins and ends with the people’s relationship to God. Not just a right relationship when things are going really, really well or are really, really troubling, but a sustained relationship with God in the muck and Meir and manontney of the every day. Which once agains echoes that deeply important question - where do you experience God in your daily life? How do you experience God in your daily life? And what do you do with that?
Because our past experiences with God can inform our present relationship with God. How many folks do you know who became disappointed when God did not respond to a prayer or a need in their life in a particular way so they decided that God is no longer trustworthy - walking away from the faith? And how many people do you know who went through the worst thing imaginable but still proclaim “I made it through because my God is able.” What we have grounded our relationship with God on in the past informs the present. If we have trusted God in the past, we are more apt to have confidence in God in the present. And if we haven’t trusted God before, then it may be harder for us to trust God now.
When God speaks to Habakkuk he reminds the proper the God is able. That God is about the work of Salvation in the lives of the chosen people. The prophet is told that God is able to be trusted even in the midst of conflict, because that story of who God has been in the past for the people, that Exodus story that brought them to the Promise Land, is not just a story of the past - it speaks to what is coming in the present and the future. 
Friends, how about us? Do we trust God in the every day-ness? Do we proclaim that our God is able, not just in the big things, but in the ordinary things of life? Do we have enough confidence in the salvation that God brings us to say that Salvation changes hearts and lives right here today? Can we proclaim with confidence that our God is the God of Salvation? Amen. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Watching Over One Another

I spend quite a bit of time on the road, traveling to meetings and visiting people in their homes and other pastoral duties throughout the week. In all of that commuting time I often listen to Podcasts, which are like radio programs that you download to your phone and listen to at your connivence. I was struck by a question Christian author Emily P. Freeman, asked in her Podcast, “The Next Right Thing” in the Episode “Offer You Work with Hope” - “When we are confronted with overwhelming need, how do we decide what our role is in the midst of it?”
That question certainly rang true for Habakkuk, who was surrounded by overwhelming need. The deep need of his people, the Israelites, that wasn’t going away. When faced with the question of what to do in the face of such deep need was to stand watch for the hearts of his people. 
Sometimes it seems like we live in dark times. In times were wickedness is prevailing and like those who are praying for justice are getting beat down at every turn. However, even in the darkest of times, sadly this is nothing new. The prophet Habakkuk looked at the world he lived in - where his people were oppressed, there were invading armies, people were forgetting who they were - and he too proclaimed that the times were dark - only he didn’t stop there.
Last week, we began our sermon series by talking about the prophet’s lament - how he turned and cried out to God, asking how long until God’s justice would come. Habakkuk knew that God was able - that was part of his history, proclaiming the history of Israel - that it was God, the great I am, who rescued them out of the oppressive hand of enslavement to the Egyptians. It was God, Jehovah Jirah, the Provider, who lead them to the Promised Land. It was God, King of Kings, who kept proclaiming the law and calling the people of Israel back through the words of the Prophets when they went astray.
So the Prophet firmly believes that God has a word for him to take back to the people of Israel. A word to encourage them when it appears that the world around them is crumbling. In fact, Habakkuk we are told, is so eager for a Word from God that he stood at his watch post. 
In ancient societies the role of the watchman was of upmost importance. They were often positioned around the city wall and watched for impending invaders. They were the heightened since of awareness for the entire city. The eyes of the people who were resting. The ears of the people who were sleeping. They were vigilant so that others could be at ease. The watchman is the first line of protection and defense of behalf of an entire community. 
The prophet is just as vigilant in representing his community before God and waiting for, believing that, God will respond. He trusted that a revelation would come from God and he patiently watched, day and night, for it to come. 
And the Lord did answer, not just with a message for Habakkuk, but with one for the entire community that the prophet was standing in the gap for. When Habakkuk took the message back to the Israelites he was to make it plain to them, in words that they understood and in a way that would sink into their hearts. And the message was essentially this: Wait for God. God isn’t moving slow or tarrying. God’s word comes to pass in God’s perfect timing, but while you wait it doesn’t make it any less true. So wait on God. 
As you wait, know that the proud who don’t seek after the heart of God are not as people are to live. The proud could also be called those who are not upright. Those who lean on their own ways and own understanding. Those who are arrogant, greedy, and violent. While it looks like they may be prospering in the moment, that is not the way to live for a lifetime. Instead, live like the righteous. Those who trust God and are rooted in their faith. Those who are in right relationship with God. 
God goes on to give a word of warning to those who are not living in righteousness. Those who had been characterized as proud. This was for anyone who was oppressing the Israelites. At the moment it was more than like the Assyrians, but it was also for other nations that practiced greed and oppressed others. And that warning was actually an exclamation of doom - that once again it may look like they are winning in the moment, but it will not last as other rise up against them. The survivors of those who were oppressed will rise up against them one day. Everything they once held dear is actually just an idol, so it is time to repent and turn their hearts to God. 
These are the type of stories we like to hear. Yes, the good guys may be down at the moment, but they will come from behind and will succeed. I think its one of the reasons we like to talk about the end times so much when brokenness seems to abound in the world - we like the idea of God straightening everything out in the end and the oppressors get what is coming to them. 
But we talk little about what it means to watch over one another. To be persistent in praying for one another. To wait for the Lord’s answer on the behalf of our communities. Jesus tells a few different parables about this type of persistence in the Gospel of Luke as well. The first comes from Luke 11 and tells of a person who came to the home of a friend at midnight to get bread. The friend tells him to go away because the family was already settled into bed, but eventually gets up and gives the bread to the friend because he just kept knocking at the door. 
Another such parable can be found in Luke 18 and tells of a widow who finds herself before a judge who is known for not respecting people. She cried to have justice granted to her, but the judge refused. But that widow would not take that answer, and kept showing up, demanding justice, and eventually the judge gave in. 
Such parables can make us a bit uncomfortable, because we would quite frankly rather be given something the first time we ask and pray about it. We don’t like the idea of bothering God. But by being the watchman over his people, Habakkuk didn’t see his consistent praying as bothering God, instead he say it as an act of faith, believing that God was going to answer his prayer and intervene on behalf of the people of Israel. 
Brothers and sisters, when we proclaim that we know God as Christians we aren’t saying that we know things about God - facts that we can hold in our heads. Instead, we are saying that we know God in our hearts, and that boils down to trust and belief. That is the type of knowing Habakkuk has for God - trusting and believing in his heart that God cares and God’s going to respond. So Habakkuk situation himself at the watch post in prayer.

Are we that persistent in our prayer lives? Do we situate ourselves as folks who watch out for this community and pray for folks? When we are confronted with the overwhelming need of the world, do we believe in God enough to be a people of prayer? Let us, as the Church, be those who watch out for the hearts and souls of our communities. Amen. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Cries of Lament

Habk 1 “Lament” 1/28/18

I reached the point a while ago where I don’t want to turn on the news any more. Now that doesn’t mean that I don’t still engage the news - but I had to acknowledge that I had a deep sense of despair that every time I would wake up in the morning and look at the news there would be more heartbreak. More injustice. Just more.
Recently I was listening to a program that made an interesting point -  there were days when we would only receive the newspaper once a day. There were days when there were only a handful of news programs and they didn’t run twenty-four hours a day. But as we shifted to having news available to us every moment of every day, it began to overwhelm us. 
Habakkuk didn’t need twenty-four hour news to overwhelm him or break his heart. He was living right in the middle of it. Habakkuk is one of the later prophets that we find in the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament. The entirety of his writings focus on the relationship between a Holy and Just God, the righteous, and the wicked. 
As we enter into Habakkuk’s story and prophecy today and engage with it for the next several weeks, we need some background. Habakkuk is a prophet of God, which means one who is called. He is entrusted with bringing the word of God to God’s people. As we find Habakkuk today he is crying out to God asking “how long, O Lord?” And God responds to him. There are variety of ways that God responded to the prophets, some times by seeing visions. Other times by hearing a voice or being compelled to write something down, but what they received wasn’t truly a prophecy until they communicated it to the people. 
Habakkuk was a prophet during the time of Assyrian oppression and occupation of Israel. There had been glimmers of hope that the injustice would end throughout their history, chiefly under the rule of King Josiah of Judah, who lead the people out of oppression and purified Israelite worship, but those days were long gone, as King Josiah was killed in battle. 
Enter Habakkuk, the one whose name means to embrace. Martin Luther said of Habakkuk that his lament, and being a prophet for the people at such a time as this was like embracing them as mothers embrace hurting children. 
For the people are hurting. All around them it looks like the wicked are prospering. Winning if you will. So Habakkuk brings their complaint against God, crying out to God and waiting for God’s answer. In fact, Habakkuk waits like a watchman would wait in the night. Looking, patently scanning the horizon for a sign of God’s justice. 
The Biblical word for what Habakkuk is doing on behalf of the people is lamenting. Grieving. Crying out to God on their behalf. A lament could be described as just simply crying out to God in anguish and expressing how hard life is at this current time. Have you ever noticed how many psalms of distress or lament there are? Times when David was struggling. Times when he was fleeing for his life. Yet in the midst of those times of trial he still turned to God - still asked God to be his help. David trusted God and that trust was the foundation of his faith life. For in the words from this morning’s psalms, “My God, I have trusted you.” and “Blessed is the man who makes Yahweh his trust, and does’t respect the proud, nor such as turn aside to lies.”
So Habakkuk joins in the tradition of the Psalmists in lamenting. Asking God how long. And why. Telling God what the people are going through. Declaring to God that they need help. The type of help that can only come from God. 
Friends, are there not times, when we are watching the news today or when we are going through extremely difficult times that we are right there with Habakkuk? Right there crying out and asking God how much longer we need to wait? 
We need to reclaim the power of lament in our lives. All too often we feel that we need to put on a happy face for God, a mask. But God knows what’s in our heart so we should feel free to speak to God about what we are thinking, feeling, experiencing. We don’t need to protect God from our suffering, but God doesn’t desire to be shielded from our grief, rather wants to walk through it with us. 
Other times we buy into what culture proclaims about suffering instead of looking at the Holy Scriptures. We buy into the lie that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. In fact, God shows us time and time again in the stories of scripture we will face suffering, but we are not to lose our faith during those times. In the words of Pastor Adam Hamilton in his book about suffering entitled Why he writes, “The Bible does not teach that these who follow God will have a life of bliss. It describes the dogged faith of those who continue to trust in God despite their suffering, and the comfort, strength, and hope they find in the face of suffering.”
Habakkuk had that type of dogged faith. The type of faith that keeps looking to God, keeps crying out to God, even when injustice seems to be winning as it abounds around us. Habakkuk would not be able to lament if he didn’t have a foundation of faith. He would not be able to lament if he didn’t believe that God is powerful and just. He would not be able to lament if he didn’t believe that God could and will redeem the righteous. 
Let’s be honest. We have some of the same questions as Habakkuk. We wonder why the wicked are allowed to oppress the righteous. We wonder how long God is going to let all of this go on. We wonder how many more days we are going to have to wake up to heartbreaking news. But we also know, that even as we cry out in lament that this is not the end of the story. Devastation and violence will not have the last word. 
For Christ knew what it was like to suffer at the hands of the oppressor. He too knew what it was like to suffer injustice. But that did not have the final word in his life, and will not have the final word in ours as well. And that brothers and sisters, as distant as it may seem at times, leaves room for hope. There may be times now when it seems like the darkness is winning, like it is clouding out our vision, but it will not prevail. 
And so we wait. We wait each day patiently on the Lord. We wait as we lament. We wait as we speak out saying that this is not the way that God intended things to be. We wait as we tightly grasp God’s hand. And we wait as we are unabashedly honest with God. Let us wait on the Lord, even as we sit together and cry out, “how long, O Lord, how long?” Amen. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

“While We Wait: Mystery” Luke 1: 26-38

We have gathered together this evening to celebrate - to celebrate the brith of Jesus. But before the birth of Jesus could even take place, the angel Gabrielle kept showing up in the story of Jesus’s family. Gabrielle came to Jesus’s Uncle Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, and told him that while his wife had been without child for many years, she would bear the one who was to prepare the way for the Lord. Then Gabrielle showed up again, this time to Mary, a virgin, and said that she would conceive and give birth to a son, who would reign over the house of David. Then on the night we celebrate in this moment, Gabrielle showed up again, this time with a chorus of angels, telling the shepherds to not be afraid. 
But the thing about Gabrielle, is that every time he shows up and tells folks to not be afraid, that is the most natural reaction for them to have! Gabrielle is an angel, who yes, is coming to bring good news, but is also an interruption to life as they know it who asks them to take a risk for the sake of God. Zechariah was to risk believing that God could do the impossible. Mary was to risk the ridicule that she knew that she would face from her community, becoming pregnant, even with the son of God, outside of wedlock. The shepherds were to risk tending their flocks in order to respond to a great invitation, directly from God. 
And here we are tonight, where some of us may have been before, hearing a story we may be very familiar with. But we are being asked to let God interrupt our lives as well. Interrupt perhaps our familiarity with this scripture and hear it anew, and ask with Mary, how can this be?
For Mary didn’t just accept that she was to be the mother of the son of God. She had questions - asking how can this be, since I am a virgin? Mary knew where babies came from and she was wondering how God could offer such an invitation to her, one who never knew a man. Mary was probably thirteen years old when a messenger of the Lord named Gabrielle came to her to announce that she was pregnant. Mary’s life up to this point had been one of waiting – waiting to become a mother and a wife. Preparing herself to bring honor to her family in these roles by practicing household duties for many years. Because this was quite an educational undertaking in and of itself, she probably never had any education outside of the home.
        Mary was now actively preparing for marriage. As was Jewish custom she would be engaged to her soon to be husband, Joseph, for a year. This would give him time to make the proper arrangements as well; carving out another room in his family’s dwelling for them to live in. It needed to be big enough to accommodate them, and the one child they expected to create each year of their marriage together. Mary was preparing herself not only to be a good wife to Joseph, providing for his needs, but a good mother to as many children as she could bear successful. Mary hoped and prayer that she would be able to provide Joseph with a male offspring and survive the multiple births.
        Mary was preparing for the day, gathering water at the local citrine, probably not her first trip of the day, when this messenger appeared to her. Mary was going about her ordinary tasks of preparing when she was interrupted and told that another period, a new period, of waiting would begin. This one would last nine month – the time it would take to give birth to a baby boy. Mary knew how babies came to be and questioned the angel how she – one who had never known a man – would give birth. But the angel told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and she would bear a son, to be named Jesus, who would be the Son of God. For nothing is impossible with God.
But the angel accepted Mary’s question and responded with an invitation for her as well, an invitation to be part of the mystery. For what the angel had to say was unlike anything Mary had heard before - the Holy Spirit was to wash over her. But in case Mary had any doubts of the power of God, the angel also told her that her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, whom all believed to be barren, was going to bear a child as well. For the word will not fail. 
Mary had to be thinking, why me? Why a common girl from a town so small and insignificant that it wasn’t even counted as being part of Galilee by her neighbors. Why not someone older? Or someone from Seppohris, the next town over, with so many thousands of people to choose from? Why someone from Nazareth – where everyone knew everyone and the total population could not be more then 400? Why her? Why here? Why now?
But despite all of Mary’s questions and her fear, she responded, yes, here I am a servant of the Lord. Let it be for me as you have described. Mary knew the consequences. She knew that if she was discovered to be pregnant while being engaged, but not married, to Joseph that the law said she was to be stoned to death. She knew that if she could not wrap her mind around being a pregnant virgin, then her family, Joseph, the town, would not understand it either. But something that this angel had said had caught her attention. The child she was carrying would be the son of God. Not a son of God, the son of God. Wasn’t this what her people had been waiting for? Isn’t this what her very town had been named for. Netzer – a branch or shoot. A new tree would grown from the stump of where another tree had died. Isn’t this what the prophets had predicted? That a shoot shall come up from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of its roots? She would be carrying the promise of hope within her womb, and that hope was greater then any of the consequences.
And thus began one of the greatest stories ever told - the story of our faith. The story of our savior. The story of God choosing to come to us in the flesh.  Jesus wasn’t born in a hospital, or even the home where many children were born during that time period. He was born in a stable, a cave often located underneath the home where the animals lived. Often this is referred to as humble circumstances - those not befitting him as King and Lord. This humility serves as a reminder to us, even today, that Christ is not compelled to be who we want him to be or to show up the ways that we want him to show up. He comes in his own time and in his own way.
Friends, we all need Christ to come into our lives. We need the Word made Flesh. We may not fully understand the mystery of what happened this night so long ago, but we need to be reminded of the gift that we have received in the birth of Jesus Christ. And to remember the gift we received in his sacrificial death on the cross and his Resurrection. For the humble beginnings of his life foretold so much. Jesus, being born in Bethlehem, “The city of Bread” and being placed in a manger, the troughs that animals came to be fed at. We are people who cannot live by bread alone, so we come to Christ to meet our needs that are vital to our very being. When we hunger for hope, faith, and joy - Christ feeds us. When we are starving for love and something to fill our deepest longings, Christ provides. When we ache for forgiveness and reconciliation, Christ invites us to the table. For Christ is the bread of Life that gives us more then we can ever ask for.

Friends, who are the people in your life simply waiting to hear about the Christ child so they can be in relationship with him? Who are the people in your life who are in need of meeting the bread of life? Invite them to come. For the manger is for everyone. Let us live into the mystery of the greatest gift that has ever been given. Amen. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

While We Wait: Favored Matthew 1:18-25

     Jospeh had an active role to play in preparing the way for the coming of the Lord. While some may look at scripture and say that we never really see Joseph acting, I would disagree. I think we see Joseph acting in his choices - his choice to still take Mary as his bride. The choice to not listen to what the neighbors were whispering. The choice to follow God, wherever God may lead.
    We, too, have an active role in preparing for the Lord. But we must prepare on God's terms and not our own. If Joseph would have chosen to ignore the dream he had, he would have been going about life on his own terms. We need to be careful to make sure that our preparations, especially this season, are truly about Jesus's will be done, so that God can break into our hearts and our world, so that others may come to know the love of Savior. How are you preparing your heart for the coming of the King?

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Revival: Works of Mercy. James 2: 14-18

We are now in the final week of our sermon series focused on revival. We have talked about how different people experience revival in their faith lives in different ways. We have focused on the role of God’s grace in the midst of revival. Today as we end our time together, I want to hone in on what we do once we experience revival in our lives. 
Wesley deeply believed that how we live our our faith lives matters. In fact, Wesley even had a phrase that he used to describe this active, living faith - “works of mercy.” Works of Mercy were intentional acts of care and assistance for those who need God’s help. 
James also understood the necessity of works of mercy in the Christian life. Earlier this year we studied James in our parish Bible studies and discovered that some Christian leaders, chiefly Martin Luther, weren’t big fans of the book of James because they felt that it focused too much on our own works of faith. As a result it has been misinterpreted over the years to be bearing the message that we can be saved by our works - but that in fact isn’t the message of James at all. Instead of saying that we are saved by what we do, James is trying to get across the point that we are saved from sin and death for something - for righteousness. For holiness. For works of mercy. 
James’s message is just as pertinent to the church today. Sometimes we can get caught in the trap of thinking that the entire goal of being a Christian is being born a new. But then we stop. I have often said that I find it much easier to be in conversation about Jesus with folks who do not yet know his love and saving grace then those who say that they know Jesus, but don’t act like it. Then those who say that it is all about them and Jesus and then they stop. When we get caught in the trap of just worrying about whether we are saved instead of asking what we are saved for - which is service to our Heavenly King - then we only have half of the story of being Christian.
Now am I saying that a personal relationship with Jesus isn’t necessary - not in the slightest. Nor am I trying to say that accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior isn’t absolutely vital - because it is. But what I am trying to get across is the fact that being saved isn’t just about getting to Heaven some day. It’s also about making God’s Kingdom known on this earth here and now. We aren’t just saved for the future when we die, we are saved for the sake of the world we live in now. And Wesley would claim that anything less is spiritual narcissism - being solely focused on one’s self to the point where it is absolutely detrimental to your faith life. 
We see this type of self-focus in the book of James. Remember, authors didn’t take time to write letters about things that were not already problems in the communities that they were addressing. In this particular community, which is actually Jews who have come to known Jesus spread across different geographic regions, James has heard that there has been a problem with how people are treated. Some people, based on their status, wealth, and appearance, are being treated better than others. They get the best seats in gatherings. They get the best food. So James is trying to emphasize that unequal treatment - lifting up some based on their status - that isn’t what this whole Christian thing is about. In fact, what it is about isn’t about being served, but rather serving others. 
Which leads him to ask the famous question posed in today’s scripture passage -  What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Then he goes on to give a haunting example (that I have personally witnessed more than a few folks do in today's world). Someone needs clothes or food or something to sustain their very life. But instead of offering to help in any way - you look at them and say “I’ll be praying for you.” Friends, even if you mean that you truly will be praying for that person, prayer was never meant to be a blow off. Or an excuse not to reach out to someone in need. Should we pray for the folks we serve - absolutely! But James reminds us that faith without action is dead.
Rev. Adam Hamilton states that is exactly where some of our churches are headed today. When the church stops serving - stops reaching out to the least and the last and the lost - exactly the people we are called to be ministering to in Jesus’s name - the church starts to die. 
For Wesley, works of mercy were in no way separate from the teaching about God’s grace that could free people from sin or God’s love. We’ve bought into this destructive lie today that some churches teach about Jesus and some serve Jesus. No! No! No! James reminds us that we do both - we serve because of our faith and in our service we are give profound opportunities to teach about the love of a Savior. Our faith on these points is not either/ or, its both/ and. 
Wesley experienced the power, love, and joy of the Lord in works of mercy when he was invited by a friend to come and serve at Castle Prison, where he taught Bible study and offered prayer, often several times a week. Because our God is gracious and good, often works of mercy aren’t just about the person who is receiving them, but for the giver as well. Think about your own life - how did you feel when you served in the Lord’s name? I know for me, some of the times I felt most deeply connected to God were when I was serving. Time when I was able to engage in works of mercy. In fact, it is one of the many things that I treasure about the United Methodist Church - an emphasis on sharing our faith through word and action as we serve others.
At my last appointment, we discussed how service has no ability or age limits. One year I took two college-aged women from the congregation to York, PA to do home repair through Servants, Inc. I did not know a single thing about home repair and everything that could go wrong went wrong on that particular trip - but I still had a deep joy in getting to serve folks. Another year, we took a group of retired folks down to Mission Central to sort out items for UMCOR disaster kits. On the way home, we kept talking about how good it felt to serve, even if we never get to connect with the folks who will receive the works of our hands. 
What makes works of mercy so meaningful are the values that ungird it when we serve in Christ’s name. Our service proclaims that we value people. We value lifting up Christ’s name. We value being the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. We value loving our neighbor as ourselves. And through service, we are changed! Praise be to God!
Wesley, later in life, took service even further. While he still reached out to individuals, he also worked hard to change society to be a reflection of the Kingdom of God. He spoke out about the injustice of the slave trade, even when many people in the Methodist Society made their living off of the works of slaves. Why? Because Wesley believed that we were saved for good works, as a reflection of our heartfelt gratitude of what Christ has done and is doing in our lives. And that leads to yielding ones entire life to Christ - including what we do and what we say. 

Friends, I have often told folks that the only day we know that we are given is today. And I don’t know about you, but I want to yield my life to Christ this day so that I can strive to bring Christ glory in everything I do. That is a reflection and an overflow of my personal relationship I have with Jesus and thankfulness for the gift of salvation I have received. May we go forth from this place, living into the spiritual revival we have experienced, so that others may come to know the love and freedom of a Savior! Amen!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

“Revival: The Necessity of Grace” Eph 2: 8-10

If you had one message that you could give to the world what would it be? For John Wesley, after his Aldersgate Experience, the one message that he became deeply passionate about was this: God longs for everyone to come to know the love of the Savior and God’s grace is available to all who accept Christ. He was so passionate about the message of grace that he traveled over 250,000 miles by foot, horseback, and carriage in order to preach this message. In fact, he was so passionate about Paul’s presentation about grace in today’s scripture passage that he preached on these verses from Ephesians over forty times. 
What makes Paul’s message so compelling in Ephesians? I believe that it is his emphasis on the fact that grace is a gift. A gift from God. It is not something that can be earned or accomplished by our own means. It is was something that we could accomplish on our own then we wouldn’t need God - it would be our own medal of honor, not something that proclaims the very glory of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. 
We have lost something in our culture around gifts. I know that out of the Five Love Languages as described by Gary Chapman -  Words of Affirmation, Receiving Gifts, Physical Touch, Quality Time, Acts of Service - the way that I best express my love for folks is by giving gifts. A fellow gift giver once described it as thinking long and hard about the perfect gift to give someone so that you can watch their face light up when they realize that you thought just about them. 
But as much thought that I may put into giving the perfect gift to those whom I love, Jesus gave the best gift. The most perfect gift. When it became evident that we, as humans, were incapable of following through on the first covenant God made with us through the law, Jesus came to earth to show us how to live, before giving his very lift for us. He offered himself as a gift. Allowing us to have the opportunity to choose to have new life and salvation through Jesus Christ himself. 
For Wesley, there were at least three different types of grace in our lives, as he studied the New Testament and saw the Greek word for grace (which also means gift - char is) appearing over 148 times. 
First, there is Prevenient Grace - the grace that comes before. Wesley firmly believed that God is at work in our lives before we even know God, realize that we are in need of God, or know how to reach out to God. God loves us so much, that God laid the foundation for salvation, the foundation for us to accept this wonderful gift, before we even knew how wonderful it was. 
For a lot of folks Prevenient Grace is best noticed by the people in our lives who were sharing with us the love of Jesus before we even knew that we needed Jesus. The Vacation Bible School Directors. Sunday school Teachers. Mothers and Fathers of the church who shared with us countless Bible stories, taught us how to pray, and told us that yes, Jesus Loves each of us.
For those who came to know Jesus later in life, it may have been a co-worker who you noticed something was different about who kept inviting you to church, even if you didn’t know if you felt comfortable coming. Or the friend who kept telling you that they were praying for you and meant it.
Prevenient grace invites us into the space where we can encounter justifying grace where we accept Jesus into our lives as Lord and Savior and grow in trust of him. Trust him to save us. Trust him to redeem us. Trust him to give us victory over sin.
The thing about justifying grace is that we need to be able to accept or at least hold on to two fundamental truths of the Gospel message. First and foremost, Jesus saves. Jesus made a way for us on the cross. And Jesus selflessly gave his life for us on the cross, even though we are completely undeserving. But we also need to understand that we are sinful. That sin is missing the mark and we have done the time and time again, which is why we need Jesus to save us. To save us from our sinful selves and to save us from the mess that sin leaves in its wake. If we don’t think that Jesus can save or we aren’t aware of sin and why we need a Savior, we may not be ready yet to accept Jesus into our lives.
The Apostle Paul describes sin this way in his letter to the Romans: I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I keep doing the evil that I don’t want to do. Sin living in me does this. Sin ruins things, brothers and sisters, but Jesus can to set us free from the power of sin in our lives.
For a lot of folks justifying grace is that date and time when you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Or that moment when you see how Jesus has been working in your life all along. This type of grace looks different for each person.
The third type of grace is sanctifying grace. This is the grace where we grow closer to God. But we can try to resist growing with God. I often tell folks how many years you have been a Christian doesn’t always reflect how deep your relationship with God is, which can be really hard to hear. But there are some folks, once they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, who simply stop there. They think the fact that they have been saved is good enough. They come to worship on Sundays and may pray from time to time or read scripture occasionally, but they aren’t super interested in getting any closer to God than that.
Sanctifying grace can also be frustrating, but we notice it a lot more in others then we see it in ourselves. Every year at the conclusion of camp, I send my campers a manila envelope containing a cd of this years camp songs, pictures from the week, but also a note. Over the years, as I have had the same campers, I have been able to write them notes about where I see them growing with God. Sometimes we need other people to help us see the sanctifying grace in our own lives.
Wesley wanted believers to be positioned for this type of growth with God. So outside of the weekly larger meetings, he broke them down into smaller class meetings and bands, where they could study the word and pray for one another. In our modern language we may call these groups Bible studies or small groups. Further, these groups were encouraged to serve, in a variety of ways.
Just as Christ selflessly gave himself for us, so we are at our best, most living into the God image inside each of us, when we are serving others. This is simply how we were created to live. Sometimes I become deeply frustrated with the institutional church. When we aren’t serving. When we aren’t talking to folks about the good news of Jesus. But then I am brought back to a place where I remember that spiritual growth is a process, that begins with folks who are laying ground work even before we are ready to accept the gift of salvation. Brothers and sisters, may we be the folks laying the ground work. May we been the ones inviting people to come and accept the gift Jesus is trying to offer. May we be the people encouraging each other to grown. All for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.