Sunday, August 31, 2014

“Growing in Christ: Celebration” Luke 2:10 Neh 8:10 Gal 5:22

What do you think of when you hear the word “Celebration”? One of the first thing that comes to my mind Is parties. Birthday parties. Anniversary parties. Graduation parties. Bon voyage parties. Celebration is linked in my mind with joyful occasions that bring together folks that truly care for us and want to share in our deepest moments in life.
But how many of you would consider celebration to be a spiritual discipline? We are now concluding our ten week sermon series on spiritual disciplines - those practices that draw us closer to God. When most people hear the phrase “spiritual discipline” thoughts come to mind of praying, fasting, and reading the bible. What does celebration have to do with growing closer to God?
The answer is everything. Celebration has everything to do with growing closer to God because it is the culmination of all of the other disciplines, for celebration is the very heart and the way of Christ. Think back to the verse we read from the gospel of Luke this morning when the angels came and announced to the shepherds that Jesus’ very birth was good news of great joy. A cause for celestial celebration. The word Gospel, which we use to summarize the story of Jesus from birth to resurrection, means good news. Christians are to celebrate the life of Jesus and Jesus working in each of our lives. But do we live as if it matters?
There are many things that can cause us as Christians to cease celebrating God’s work among us. One of the biggest things that blocks us though is worry. Worrying about tomorrow. Worrying about paying the bills. About what we are going to make for dinner. About where the money is going to come from. Worry sucks the life of celebration right out of us. But God offers us in Christ, freedom from anxiety and deep, tender care, as we are encouraged to cast our burdens upon him. Do we live like this? Do we live a life of worry or a life of celebration? Because it is very hard for the two to co-exist. 
The discipline of celebration frees us to find joyful, passionate pleasure in God and glory in all that God has created - the Word, the world, God’s very nature, each of us. When we take time to allow celebration to be the center of our lives, something inside of us changes. We start to bear the fruit of the spirit - joy. And that joy gives us strength. I love the part of today’s verse from the prophet Nehemiah that says the “joy of the Lord is our strength”. There is a popular praise song that proclaims the same thing, but most people don’t know that it came from this prophet, because it is the most unlikely of places. Nehemiah is bringing a divested people back to an even more devastated land and asking them to join him in an impossible task - rebuilding the city of Jerusalem, brick by brick and wall by wall. The people are overwhelmed with the job and start to doubt, yet the prophet proclaims, even when all else fails, even when facing the impossible, “the joy of the Lord is the strength.” Can we proclaim the same thing about our lives? When the divorce papers are served? Or the kids ends up in serious trouble? We get that letter from the IRS? Or we are deeply lonely after the death of a spouse? That the joy of the Lord is our sustaining strength? Its a nice catch phrase, but it is a hard truth to live into - thats why we need to practice at it, time and time again, through celebration. 
Because the truth of the statement that the joy of the Lord is our strength, is that we don’t celebrate God based only on circumstances or if we feel happy. We are called to praise and celebrate God simply because of who God is, by doing the things that bring us the deepest sense of joy - those things that bring our heart gladness. For some of us, we praise God through spending time with other people, sharing meals around the table, or serving in the community for the sake of the Kingdom. Other express their thanksgiving for God’s goodness through working, worshiping, or laughing. Have you ever thought of laughter as a spiritual discipline before? But it is because without experiencing the joy of the Lord and expressing it, we are simply existing. We aren’t living. And we certainly aren’t living for God’s glory.
Celebration is central to all of the other spiritual disciplines, because without a joyful spirit, the disciplines simply become something to check off of our to-do list. The true spiritual life isn’t about doing something to check it off, but rather living into the disciplines out of joyful obedience.
Notice though that I did not say happy. We may not be happy about our circumstances, and some days just wear on us. But when we have the right perspective, putting God’s goodness and glory first, we begin to realize that God sanctifies the ordinary. Celebration is the beginning and end of the disciplines functioning in our lives. It comes with redemption and the freedom God brings us. 
But like all of the other disciplines, celebration is hard. Because being free from care, free to celebrate is so foreign to us. We need to practice not taking ourselves too seriously. We need to practice on putting things in perspective and putting God first. We need to practice expressing gratitude towards God in whatever way comes naturally to you - be it singing, dancing, shouting, or laughing. Doing whatever we need to do to reflect God’s goodness.
One of my favorite stories of celebration comes out of the book of Esther and is the Jewish celebration of purim. Purim is a celebration that even though enemies tried to destroy the people of Israel, God saved them. When our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate purim they go all out - noise is made, people eat and drink, and express they have the joy they have for being saved. Money is given to charity. There may even be a carnival. It is truly a celebration of God’s goodness.

Friends, we have something to celebrate as Christians as well. For we, too, have been saved from the hands of the enemy who seek to destroy us and suck the joy from us. We have been saved through Jesus Christ and have been called forth by his goodness and mercy to go and make disciples, to celebrate the Kingdom of God with the world. Yet, sometimes I think we would be hard pressed to find that spirit of celebration on Sunday mornings. Instead of celebrating God’s saving grace, we look and sound more like a group of people who are suffering through. We need to embrace the discipline of celebration. Celebrating and praising God for all that God has done that is a reflection of who God is! We need to let our joy spill over into the streets. We need to proclaim that once we were bound but now we are free and that the joy of the Lord is our strength. Now is the time, brothers and sisters. Now is the time to celebrate our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

“Growing in Christ:Guidance ” Matthew 7: 7-11 John 16:13

Who are the people in your life who hold you accountable? Who help you grow? 
We all need people in our life who can help us discern God’s will at certain points in our lives. But what this looks like in every day living may be different for each of us. 
Some examples from my own life: Once a month for the past 4 years I have met with Renee, my spiritual director. Renee and I sit in silence, praying that God speaks to us. I share with her about the past month, knowing that without fail she is going to ask me where I experienced the movement of God. Renee holds me accountable while challenging me to listen to the Holy Spirit. Because of her powerful example, I also serve as a spiritual director for folks, asking them that same powerful question about where they saw the movement of God.
Once a month I also receive a phone call from Jenn, my ministry coach. Jenn and I talk about ups and downs in the life of ministry and prayerfully work through a difficult situation for a positive and God-honoring resolution. While she does not ask me the same question as Renee, she strives to help me live into the verse we heard from John 16:13, asking the Holy Spirit to guide us in the Truth that God holds. Some of Jenn’s favorite questions to help me discern include “What is God’s Truth in that?” and “where is God leading you next?”
Another place of accountability in my life are deep friendships. Some of these friends I am blessed to see once or twice a month, sitting in each others presence and asking how it is with our souls. Others live too far away to sit across from each other so we connect via video-chatting on the internet and emails asking for prayer requests. There are five such friends who I know are praying for me daily, and I pray for them, asking that God helps them continue to grow in their faith and ministries.
Those are just examples from my own life, but I think what we are being prompted to ask with this particular spiritual discipline is are we willing to be held accountable by another person? Do we seek out people who can help us listen for the power of the Spirit to guide us at all times or do we only surround ourselves with people who will tell us what we want to hear?
The reality is that some of our friends are wonderful people to spend time with, and that is extremely important, but they are not spiritual friends - the friends we turn to for an honest assessment of our souls. On the flip side, not everyone we know in Church knows the state of our soul either, and we need to carefully choose who we will reveal our deepest spiritual longings and struggles with. 
Sometimes, as we examine our circle of friends, we find that the best people to hold us accountable are not to be found there and we need to seek out folks who do not yet know us, but can be objective, such as spiritual directors. Spiritual directors are perhaps one of the best kept secrets regarding guidance in the Christian Church. For centuries, people have been raised us in the body to help others discern the movement of the Spirit. Often people do not even know they exist until something perks their soul to start seeking someone out, and they then find spiritual directors abound. 
We need people in our life who can guide us, help us discern. But what exactly is discernment? Discernment is about being open to the leading of God, both in ordinary moments and during times of big decisions. Discernment is critical both for us as individuals in our walk with Christ and for the leadership of this Church. Discernment helps us see God more clearly. We are on a journey from seeing God no where, to seeing God only where we expect to see God, to seeing God at work everywhere. Discernment involves peeling back that which clouds our perception of God so we can experience God more clearly. 
Guidance and discernment are one in the same. They involve asking questions such as: What am I called to do? How is God working in this situation and how can I get on board with it?
Discernment starts when we acknowledge that we lack wisdom and need divine intervention. But its hard for this type of guidance to take place if we aren’t taking care of ourselves spiritually - we cannot just “turn” discernment on when we are in need and forget God the rest of the time. And we need other people to hold us accountable in our discernment.
One of the ways folks hold me accountable in my discernment is to join me in praying a prayer I learned from our former Bishop, Jane Allan Middleton: God if this is of you, increase my desire, and if it is not of you, decrease my desire. To be surrounded by folks who are praying this prayer on my behalf, and who will ask me what I have discerned, keeps me from being spiritually lazy or substituting what I want for what God is calling me to do.
But here’s the thing - like the other spiritual disciplines we’ve looked at in this series, discernment is hard work, because we really have to trust God with the things that are most important to us. One of the scriptures we looked at this morning is from the Gospel of Matthew about seeking, knocking, and finding. This is a passage that is often mis-construed as saying that God will give us whatever we want as long as we ask. But really this passage is saying that we need to ask God for what is best for us, what is better than we can even imagine asking for. Are we asking for things, or to be transformed more into the person of Christ? Are we asking for what we want at the time, or are we seeking guidance on what is best? 
The scripture passage from John proclaims that Jesus wants to give us assurance and authority. Wants to help lead us in the way of Truth through the Holy Spirit, but the question really is, is that we are asking for, or are we settling for so much less? Are we seeking out people who can hold us accountable, or are we just going about our own thing, whatever works best for us at the moment? Are we looking for Jesus to bring folks into our life that will help us grow, or who will keep us comfortable?

My challenge for you this week, is to find someone who can hold you accountable spiritually. Maybe its a spouse. Or a parent. Or a friend. Maybe you need someone like a spiritual director to guide you. But find someone. Someone to pray for you. Someone to ask you the tough spiritual questions. Someone to help guide you. Someone, who at the end of the day, you know is helping you live into all that God has in store for you. Amen. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Spiritual Disciplines: Worship John 4:23

Why do we worship? What is worship? Is simply gathering together worship or is is there something more to it? How is worship a spiritual discipline that propels us to grow in Christ?
In today’s scripture passage, Jesus is telling the woman at the well, that the day would come when worship would be redefined. A day when it wouldn’t be about the place where we worship, but rather the attitude in our hearts when we approach God. A day when worship will come from the Spirit confronting us with Truth. That day, Jesus says, is both coming - its not here yet, and has arrived, is here now, but we simply do not realize it. 
To worship is to experience life at its fullest. To come into the presence of the one who is the Resurrection and the Life. Yet, all too often we make our experience of worship too small. We define it as only one hour a week, at a certain time, in a certain place, when we perform certain rituals. But worship is so much more, worship is more than an act, it is our very spirits communing with the Living Christ. 
One of the things that I often get told when folks find out that I’m a pastor is: “I don’t come to church, but I believe in God. I just better connect with God elsewhere.” And those same folks become surprised when I don’t fight their claims. For I truly believe that you can worship God in all sorts of places. Just think of the story of Brother Lawrence. 
Brother Lawrence was a monk who was given the most degrading and meaningless tasks to do all day, in hopes to discourage him from continuing to be a monk. Only this plan backfired. It was in those moments, washing the dishes, when he learned one of the greatest secrets to the spiritual life, practicing the presence of God through a life of unceasing prayer. He transformed his time in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning, to a time of worship that was just as meaningful for him as if he was on his knees praying in the church. He learned to praise God in the moments that others would dismiss as being not needing God’s attention through prayer. 
Brother Lawrence authentically worshiped God while doing the dishes. It is more than possible to worship God anywhere, but there are certain perimeters around worship. First, its not about you. Worship is about communing with our Creator. Scripture continually tells us about God wanting to be in fellowship with us, his children, his creation. But Scripture equally tells the story of us turning away from the love of God, going our own way, and only wanting to spend time with God when it is to our benefit. If you are first and foremost in a mindset about what you want instead of being your response to the love of God, its not worship.
Second, worship should make us want to serve God, for service and worship are inextricably linked together. If we enter into a space or an activity that makes us more self-centered, then it isn’t worship either.
However, even if we can worship God in all places at all times, we should still come together for the corporate act of worship. Sunday Services are structured in a way that make us come before the Almighty God together in a way that we may not be able to have other places. When we call each other to worship, we are welcoming each other in the name of the risen Christ, reminding each other why we have gathered. When we pray, we bring both our personal needs and the needs of others before the body of Christ, knowing that they will not only be publicly prayed for, but privately upheld throughout the week. When we bring our offerings to God, we proclaim that we believe God can do something with our gifts together that is bigger than we can even imagine. When we hear special music we are drawn closer to God. When a children’s message is proclaimed, we remember that all of life’s teachings are applicable for the body from the youngest member to the oldest. When we pray the prayer of confession we remember that we have sinned throughout the week and need God’s mercy. Hearing the words of absolution we are reminded of God’s grace. Singing together we proclaim deep theological truths to tunes that continually bring them to our mind through out the week.
We state what we believe as the Christian Church. We both read and hear scripture. We baptize and break bread together. We hear a sermon that has been crafted after hours of study and pray. We are the Church together. And we worship together. There is a purpose behind everything we do. 
When we come together on Sunday mornings we proclaim with our very presence that we intentionally cherish God enough to be here and we cherish each other enough to be fully present. For even when one is missing the body suffers. How many of you notice when the people you sit next to in Church miss a Sunday? Why? Because you miss their voice, their singing, their physical presence next to you. When we come to worship we are reminded that we are people with bodies and that we are spending time with the body of Christ and with God with our whole beings. 
But what about all of this makes worship a spiritual discipline? There is a song that we sing from time to time that states, “We bring the sacrifice of praise into the house of the Lord.” But really all worship, not just praise, is a sacrifice. Its something that we bring before a holy God whom we love as a gift. And we also bring the sacrifice of worship even when don’t feel like it, because worship is about an ever-deserving God, not about us. 
But worship is also a spiritual discipline because it propels us to both service in God’s name and to greater obedience. By coming together on Sunday morning as the body of Christ we remember that Christ is our head, which means that Christ leads our worship together. Christ meets us where we are at in worship, but he loves us too much to allow us to remain the same. So he draws us deeper into faith, deeper into love, and deeper into the hope of God, which asks us to be obedient, not because of what we will receive, but because of who God is. Worship changes us. It changes who we are individually and corporately at our very core.
Whether you are worshiping as an individual doing the dishes or in this body on Sunday morning, I would challenge you to be purposeful in your worship. Be mindful of what you are doing. Enter into your activity or the service 10 minutes early and dedicate it to God. Pray for those who will be present. And bask in the love of God.

May you, through your worship, be changed. Changed by the love of God. Carried forth into service and obedience. May you worship every opportunity you get, as an individually and with others, remembering that at its very heart, worship isn’t about any of us, but about our God, who deserves all praise and the sacrifice we bring. Amen. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

ConfessionJames 5:16 1 John 1:9

There is an old saying that goes “confession is good for the soul”, but what the adage leaves out is the fact that confession is hard. Its hard to confess your sins to God or other people or sometimes even yourself. Confession requires discipline. Confession is a discipline. 
In fact, confession, like so many of the disciplines that we have been looking at together over the past several weeks as part of this sermon series is both a personal and corporate practice. We need to confess before God our personal sins, but we also need to come together as a community to confess where we have sinned, either knowingly or unknowingly, as a group. How Methodist! Confession is something we learn to do as the body of Christ and practice both on our own and with others. 
Confession is good for our soul, not because we have some narcissistic need to examine ourself, or because it serves some therapeutic purpose, but because it reveals to us the heart of God - a heart that desires to give forgiveness. A heart that holds the love for each of us that lead to Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross. The love that doesn’t desire for us to simply stay as we are, but to grow and be transformed by our relationship with the Holy One. 
When I was home a few weeks ago, my dad shared with me a profound statement that he recently used to close a sermon that he preached. It went something like this, “Too many Christians love what Jesus did for them instead of loving Jesus.” I think this applies to what we are talking about today. If we love what Jesus did for us, we may proclaim the message of the cross and talk about how it opens for us the gates of eternity - which is true. But if we love the one who hung on that cross, we will remember who we are as a Church - not a group of saints waiting to get to heaven someday, but a fellowship of sinners, needing to strip off the masks of perfection and confess our sins to one another in order to more authentically follow the one whom our heart loves. 
In fact, today’s scripture verse from James admonishes us to do just that - to confess our sins to one another. James is trying to remind those listening to the teaching that disciplines, like confession, are practiced within the bonds of community relationship. If we don’t confess our short comings to one another, then we can get by with pretending that we are more holy than we are. And it is only after we confess how we have sinned that we can receive forgiveness.
Now, I am not implying that you need to stand up in front of the Church and lay out all of your sins for the entire congregation. But who are the small group of people you trust with your soul and its care in this congregation? Who are the people you can go to and set aside your false self and your pride in order to find forgiveness and wholeness? Who are the people you know will pray for you to find freedom from the bondage of sin? And what does healing through confession look like when you are in the presence of these individuals?
For me this looks like accountability partners - four of them spread across the United States. Four people I tell everything too, the good, the bad, and the sinfully ugly, in order to find wholeness. When they speak words of absolution over me, I am gently reminder of the loving absolution that comes from God. Who are these people for you? What makes the words of forgiveness spoken by a brother or sister in Christ deep and meaningful for you?
1 John reminds us, though, that we are not only to confess to one another, but to chiefly confess to God. However, often those that are afraid to confess their sins to other people, are also afraid to confess to the almighty. Instead of confessing their sin to God, they come with a laundry list of excuses as to why it is not their fault, why it really wasn’t a sin, why God should excuse them. Or they generically pray for confession instead of concretely bringing specific sins before God. These folks don’t find absolution, my friends, because they don’t believe in their heart of hearts that they need to be absolved, so they continue to carry around the weight of unconfessed sin. 
1 John 1:9 reminds us that we need to confess to God, not for God’s benefit, God already knows how we have screwed up, but for our benefit - so we can find the cleansing that can only come from accepting the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness freely given. When we try to earn God’s absolution by explaining why something wasn’t a sin or wasn’t our fault, then we are missing out on the gift because of our own fear. 
Lastly, confession also involves confessing to ourselves. In fact, confession to God and others can only take place after we have done the hard work of examining ourselves and asking “how is it with my soul?” We don’t do this for selfish gain or to act like our own therapists - instead we do it to admit to ourselves the truth that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Including me. Especially me. When we examine our souls, we see the reality of broken relationships left in the wreckage of sin. And when we gently examine ourselves we can be opened to repentance - as we hand over the carnage of the sin of our lives into the healing hands of God. Self-examination is allowing the Holy Spirit to open up our hearts in order to experience the healing transformation of God. 
Confession to God, ourselves, and others in a very Biblical model - but that doesn’t make it easy. We can still be bound up in fears that block us from confession - fearing what people will think of us. If God will accept us. If we should risk setting aside our false selves and the pride that they create. But mostly I think we are afraid of giving up on the lie that the world is okay and that we are okay. Confession makes us come face to face with the fact that we live in a culture that is sick with lies and we can no longer live this way - lying to God, ourselves, and others. 

Brothers and sisters, I invite you to come forward now, to the alter, or with a friend, and confess. Confess before God. Confess to find healing. Confess, because it is good for your soul. Amen. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Growing in Christ: Service - John 13: 14-15; Matthew 20: 25-28

When I graduated from high school and again from college, I was given a funny gift of sorts - a towel. At one of my graduation banquets for high school, one of my youth leaders gave each us a small white towel, telling us that we are now released from his care to go and serve the world. At college baccalaureate, each person in my graduating class was given a towel by the alumni association reminded us that we were commissioned to be scholar servants wherever we may find ourselves, serving as Christ served. 
Those two towels still sit in my office today, and every time I catch a glimpse of them, I am reminded of those instructions to go and serve. In fact, part of my call as an Elder, a type of pastor in the United Methodist Church, is to service. But service is not just for pastors, it is for all Christians, as modeled in our texts this morning.
A lot of folks are uncomfortable with feet. There is something about this story of Jesus washing the disciples feet that makes us uneasy. Feet seem private. The smell and get dirty. Think back to the time when this story would have taken place - the roads were dusty and the disciples wore sandals - dirt would have caked their feet. Sweat dripping off of them, from walking in the sun for hours at a time. Cracked and weary, a sign of hospitality was to gently wash a guests feet when they arrived at your home. But the only people who washed feet were slaves - and not even Jewish slaves at that, but gentile slaves, a mark of their lowly class. None of the disciples wanted to be the first to wash someone else’s feet, for surely that would show that they weren’t the greatest, but instead were the least. So Jesus took off his outer tunic, picked up a basin and towel, and slowly, gently, washed each of the disciples feet. 
Talk about the towel being a sign of service! Jesus did what was unheard of by teachers, masters, and lords. He bent down, and washed the grimy feet of his followers, symbolically becoming the least of the least. Now we too called to follow in our master’s footsteps and ask ourselves, what it it looks like to “wash someone’s feet” in service today.
That is what the spiritual discipline of service is all about. Setting aside the world’s notions of power and authority, and serving others. There are some people who believe that following Jesus gives them the authority to lord it over others when we serve them, but this is not the case. Jesus didn’t chastise his disciples for not being willing to wash one another’s feet, he simply served. 
Service frees us to look into the eyes of those we are serving, and realize that we are just like them, as we see our neighbors as real and important. The world tells us that people exist to serve us, to make our lives easier, but we forget all too quickly that Jesus came not to be served but to serve, so why do we expect others to serve us.
I was reading a book earlier this week where a preacher well on his way to retirement age stated that one of the saddest things that happens for some people who retire is thinking they have made it - that its now there time to sit back and let others serve them, instead of asking how God is leading them to serve others in this new phase of life. Don’t buy into the lie, brothers and sisters, that our neighbors exist to serve us - instead take up your towel, and seek to serve others, seeing them with the eyes of Christ.
Service, like feet, can be a bit off-putting and scary. We think that if we serve another person they will use us. Or that serving someone diminishes our own worth. But those thoughts and attitudes come from a mind-set of self-service, thinking that we need to manage the people we serve. Instead, Christ calls us to lay aside our desire to control and instead to seek to live into spiritual-service, which isn’t about our own efforts, but flows from the power of our relationship with God. Spiritual service realizes that we intentionally give in big and small ways each and every day and that service in God’s name doesn’t need to be flashy with bells and whistles, or even expect that we will be thanked, let alone have service reciprocated. Instead of giving to get something, we give simply for the joy of serving. 
Spiritual service isn’t based on whether we feel like it that day. Remember, Jesus would have been just as hot, sticky, and dirty as his disciples, and yet, he set aside how he was feeling in order to meet the needs of those he loved. Service became a moment to share in community with his disciples, even when they didn’t quite get it, and model humility and hospitality for them. 
But there is also a difference that we often over look in these texts between choosing to serve someone and choosing to be a servant. To serve someone is a one time event, but to be a servant, that is a way of life. Choosing to serve means that we are still in charge and can walk away whenever we want, while being a servant means that we submit to Christ - choosing to follow and let him lead. Serving someone is easy, choosing to be a servant...well, that’s a bit harder. 
We have to take time to ask ourselves if we want to serve or be a servant. To ask why we are serving someone else - for our praise and glory and for Christ’s? When we offer our resources, time, treasure, influence, and experience to others freely, it can be an act of service, but only if our heart is in the right place and we are truly seeking to love our neighbor as ourselves, which of course leads us to ask, who is our neighbor? Who are we truly meant to be serving?
I have a friend who struggles with the ability to walk. On good days she can use a cane, but at one point in time the good days were far between and she was mostly confined to a bed. Yet, she felt called to go with a mission team from our church to Africa. By the grace of God she was able to go. She wasn’t sure why she was being called to go, for surely she couldn’t do the same physical labor as everyone else. But one night during worship she knew. She managed to situate herself on the floor at the front of the sanctuary during worship and slowly wash people’s feet. She washed our African brothers and sister’s feet. She washed the team members feet. Neighbors from around the globe who she didn’t know before this day, and may never meet again, but surely will never forget. She realized that she was there to humbly serve and give of herself, and she was there exactly for this moment. 
My friend got it. She understood that life as a servant isn’t simply about checking “service” off of her to-do list for the day. Its about giving ourselves to others in service for Christ and being free to love beyond our comfort zone. Its about leaving the mindset that tells us that we are to be served by others, and instead seeks to serve. 

Brothers and sisters, where are the opportunities in your life to pick up your towel and serve others, modeling the love and heart of Christ? Where are the places you desire to serve, lead by the Holy Spirit? And how is God calling you to stretch and grow, day by day, through this discipline? Amen. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Submission 1 Peter 2:18, Phil 2:8

Amongst the words I dislike most in the English language “submission” is near the top. For centuries, this word has been abused under the guise of Biblical authority, all the while those using it in this way, haven’t really examined what submission means.
My negative attitude towards the word came out a few years ago when I was at the wedding of a dear friend. Before the sermon, the pastor looked at my friend and sternly told her “You’ve already failed at submission. If you would have truly submitted you would have let your groom plan the entire wedding and reception.” Perhaps the pastor meant the comment in jest or perhaps not, but either way our cultural misunderstanding of submission came through loud and clear as it was used to belittle another person.
In reality submission has to do with our relationship to Christ and begs us to examine ourselves, asking if we allow Jesus Christ to be master of our life in every way. Master is another one of those prickly words, especially for those who were in relationships where their freedom was deigned so another could prosper. For example, the passage we read this morning from 1 Peter had been used to justify both slavery in the United States and the abusive treatment of slaves. But what is Peter truly trying to communicate? That we are to serve God in all circumstances, not for our glory, but for God’s. That, brothers and sisters is submission. Not simply prostrating ourselves before Christ when we need something, but submitting our life for his glory each and every moment of each and every day. Peter isn’t telling masters to be harsh, nor is he condoning slavery. Instead, he is uplifting the imagery of the slave and saying that it doesn’t matter what circumstances there may be - if a master is good or harsh - in the end it doesn’t matter because Christ is the master of all and all will be held accountable to him. 
In God’s version of submission, we submit because God knows what is best for us. God only has our best interest in mind. While others may use the word “submit” to make us into their own personal doormat, God is telling us to surrender what we hold on to most tightly in order to find the gift of life. For when we find our life in the God who gives us life, movement, breath, and being, we find that we are more free than we ever imagined we could be. God’s submission is deeply rooted in the love that only God can have for each and every one of us. The love that Paul describes in his letter to the Philippines that Christ showed by humbling himself for us and was obedient to the Father to the point of death, all to show us how deeply we are loved. 
Submission is our response to this great gift of unsurpassable love. But here is the kicker - God doesn’t force us to submit - to lay down our lives for the sake of the Kingdom. Instead we are given the choice to obey and submit, or to turn away. It is our choice because we have free will, also a gift from a loving God.
This version of submission is vastly different from what was preached at my friend’s wedding that day. The discipline of submission has been abused to the point where it is barely even recognizable any more, but today is our chance to reclaim it. I’m not sure if you’ve ever thought about it before, but every discipline that we have been discussing actually opens us up to freedom. The freedom that we can find in submission is the ability to no longer carry the load of having to get our own way. 
Have you ever noticed how many silly things we fight about in this world, both inside and outside of the church? Have you ever wondered why we fight? Under the glassy veneer of whatever reason we give for heatedly disagreeing is the sad truth that we fight because we all feel that we need to get our way. Submission allows us to humbly give away what we think is best in order to embrace what God knows is best, even if it means that we don’t get our own specific way. Submission teaches us the grace in not having to have the absolute last word on a given matter. 
Shane Stanford in one of his books told the story of consulting with a church that was about to shut its doors because the church members were divided on whether to paint the sanctuary or not. It had been years since the sanctuary had been painted, yet the church was broken into two camps - those who were pro-painting and those who were against. Those who didn’t want to see the worship space painted claimed that their father and grandfather, now deceased, had painted it by himself years ago. Shane took a deep breath and asked why their father did that, to which the family leader replied “to glorify God”. And Shane asked, “what would he want you to do now?”. There was silence before the whispered answer, “pick up a paint brush and paint the sanctuary to glorify God,” Argument over. 
Oh brothers and sisters, how much time we waste drawing our lines in the sand and refusing to ask if we are submitting to God. And lest we too hastily think that this story was exaggerated, think back to a time when you were part of an argument, even as an observer, over something that could have been better resolved by bringing the perspective back to its proper place, back to God. The reality is that we don’t like to submit, especially when God is calling us outside of our comfort zone. But the more that we practice the discipline of submission, the easier it becomes, as we can remember how faithful God has been to us in the past.  
Submission is also not simply about obeying - for we can obey our Lord and Savior without submitting to him. For submission is a matter of the heart. Outwardly, we may do what God has called us to, but inwardly, deep in our heart, we rebel. We begrudgingly obey. Submission is not only about picking up our cross and following Christ, but the attitude we do this with. 
One final note, when we submit to Christ we also find ourselves submitting to the example of wise Christian elders who are trying to teach us. People who time and again have followed the voice of God in their own lives and have shown a firm pattern of submission. Allowing ourselves to be mentored, discipled, and guided, is a mark of submission taking root in our lives. Another word for this is teachability. Being not only trainable, but eager to learn. 
At the end of the day, submission is never going to be popular in our culture. It has been too mutulated from its original intent, and has made folks like the self-denial of submission with self-hatred. But hatred is not to be found in submission, for it is a reflection of God’s loving best intentions for us. Submission asks us, are we going to follow the way of God or not? Do we want to follow God in the deepest place of our spirits? Are we committed to the way of Christ? Do we resist opening up our ears to Christ’s call because we are afraid of what we will hear? Do we act as if the Lord is our supreme and true leader? Do we trust God wants what is best for us?

I would encourage you this week to ponder these questions in your heart and pray about them. Envelop yourself in the God who loves you enough to give you the choice to submit. And then ask ‘how can I submit to God in all things, in order to put the Kingdom of God first?’ Amen. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

“Growing in Christ: Simplicity” Ecc 7:30 Proverbs 11:28 Luke 16:13

“We need to live simply, so that other’s can simply live.” The catchy phrase used by Pastor Mike Slaughter for the “Christmas Is Not Your Birthday” campaign at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church. However, there is truth in that simple statement that rubs against our consciousness.
The spiritual discipline of simplicity is hard, because it requires untangling our lives from that which complicates them and distracts us from God. In its purest form, simplicity is the art of letting go - and that is difficult. 
When I was younger, I had a problem with necklaces. The problem was that  I had a gift for getting them tangled in lots of knots. Knots that my parents would often spend countless hours trying to workout with the aid of toothpicks at our kitchen table. For as soon as one knot was freed, it seemed like another would quickly appear. 
So it is with many of our lives. As soon as we start to untangle ourselves, seeking simplicity in one area of our lives, we find just how much we are bound up in other. Perhaps as you loosen your attachment to items you realize just how much your heart is tied up in the concepts of owning or having. Or maybe as you seek to free your schedule, you realize just how much time you spend not with family or friends, but doing things that don’t really matter in the end, wasting time. Or maybe as you seek to eat more simple food, you realize just how much you overindulge, not just in eating, but in speaking or entertainment. Our lives are complicated and the discipline of simplicity asks us to confront that complication directly instead of using it as an excuse, thus freeing us to be generous. 
In the verse from the gospel of Luke today we find Jesus telling his disciples that you cannot serve two masters. He is speaking about the danger of serving money instead of God, but really in today’s world we serve oh so many masters. To figure out just who you serve, look at your checkbook and your calendar. Or think about the very personal question of “what do you squander?”. Many of us like to keep up the facade of serving God only, but when we get to the heart of the matter, we see that our stewardship of time, talents, money, and resources often disappear in favor of self-promotion. We squander what we have been blessed with so that we make sure that we have enough, in the meantime setting aside more money for retirement than we could ever need or buying food in excess so that it goes to waste. 
Of course, we didn’t start out our spiritual journey wanting to serve two or more or many masters. We started out wanting to serve Christ. But somewhere, often around the middle of our spiritual pilgrimage, we stop living for Christ and more persistently live for what the world has defined as success. We feel like we love God, but when actually start to examine our daily lives, we don’t find a whole lot of places where we have left room for God to be present and in control. We find our time and treasurers tied up in work, not because we believe that God has given us work and purpose, but so that we can earn more to spend more, never really having time to enjoy the simple pleasures of life that God is trying to bless us with. 
The enemy to simplicity is envy. When we start to look around, comparing ourselves to others, we find ourselves wishing that we had more opportunities like that person or more money like our neighbor. Envy blocks us from having gratitude for what we have. When we have envy in our hearts, we become anxious in our spirits, and let that envy and anxiety dictate our behaviors instead of God’s desires for us. 
Another enemy to the simple life is not having people around us who champion or encourage simplicity. All too often we are bombarded by ads that tell us that we need to have more, be more, and do more. When we have the right people around us, they can remind us just how foolish of a life that type of attitude is setting us up for. Instead, they can remind us of our need to let go in order to live an un-abandoned life for God. 
Simplicity asks us to set aside things that will fade, as described in Proverbs, and to seek after eternal things. Such simplicity brings us closer to the reign of God by loosening the hold that culture has on us. The problem is that we have become confused about what will fade and what is important. We have confused the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of this world, and we need to look no farther than the songs we hear and sing to emphasize this confusion. We sing about poor boys growing up to become rich more than about rich boys growing up to become voluntarily poor in possessions but rich in Spirit. 
According to Pastor Mike Slaughter, there is one new birth, but many conversions. And many of us today are in need of a conversion about simplicity. We need to see how we live our lives as God sees them - that we are oppressed men and women, tied down to our things instead of freed for the work of the Kingdom. We’ve become slaves to what we own, what titles we possess, and how others see us. And sadly we are more comfortable being in slavery than embracing the possibility of freedom. We’ve made the gospel about having control instead of surrendering all we are and have to God’s purposes. 
We’ve bought into the lie that the Bible doesn’t have much to say about simple living or that it doesn’t apply today. But the truth is God is very clear through the Word about simplicity and finances. We are to buy things for their usefulness, not their status. We are to buy only what we need. We are to share what we have. And above all scripture tells us that simplicity is an outward manifestation of our inward reality. 
Brothers and sisters, it is time to embrace the counter-cultural stance of simplicity, not to be different, but in order to free ourselves for God’s purposes. Its time to be freed to be generous. To be freed to de-accumulate. Freed to reject that which breeds the oppression of others. Freed to shun that which distracts from seeking after the Kingdom of God first and foremost. 

And that freedom is going to look different in each of us. For some of us we need to let go of our anxiety around money. For others, we need to ask God to help us let go of our own self-image and titles. And still for others it means that we need to downsize our possession. Whatever are of our life that God is leading us to simplify, we will find that in reality, one step will lead to another, which leads to another, as we learn to trust God more fully. So that we can live into the promise of the Shaker Song “Simple Gifts” for ourselves, 'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free, and into the promise for our brothers and sisters here and beyond that we “live simply so that others may simply live.” Amen.