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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Living Our Beliefs: Small Groups

Acts 2: 42-47 “Living Our Beliefs: Small Groups - Fellowship and Community”       Hebrews 10: 24-25
Proverbs 27:17 4/26/16

A brief history lesson - when John Wesley started the Methodist movement in England, one of the key pieces for spiritual groups were small groups. These groups were called classes and were the predecessor to the modern day Sunday School, small groups, and cell groups. The idea behind such gatherings that it was here, in the company of no more than eleven other people, that people would become empowered to be disciples. These neighborhood groups had a leader, picked for their spiritual maturity, who would lead people through questions as well as celebration and confession. 
What exactly do United Methodists believe and how do we live out those beliefs in our daily lives? Today we are launching into a sermon series on just that - what makes United Methodists - United Methodists. As you can guess from our brief history lesson, this week’s topic focuses on small groups - the places where we can grow in our faith with other people. 
Perhaps the original small group can be found in the book of Acts, were followers devoted themselves to the teachings of Jesus. We do this different ways. For most people, the extent of family development and Christian Education is limited to the worship hour on Sunday morning. This is understandable. We are busy people in a chaotic world with over-crowded schedules. But for the early apostles, what was preached publicly was different then what was taught. Preaching was meant to give people the basics of Christian teaching and living, the teaching was studying together more deeply the word of God. Its in this teaching and studying time that the disciples were constantly reminded who they were as Christ followers and held each other accountable to the standards of Christian living. For our faith is something that we continually grow into and live out of. The earliest disciples understood this. Apart from continually learning, one could not grow in faith. Its through study that we can become more faithful followers of Christ, because we know what Christ requires of us and we are surrounded by others who hold us accountable. 
Second, the followers were in fellowship together. At this time in the life of the church, the Holy Spirit is drawing together people from every nation and tongue, people who prior to their conversion would not have fellowshiped together. What made their fellowship even more remarkable was that it was not simply brotherly and sisterly love, rather it was a fellowship that was marked by wonders and signs, which included the selling of possessions in order to meet the needs of others. The fellowship didn’t exist solely for itself, it existed to reach out in love. It existed for something beyond itself. This wasn’t a community that held possessions with the idea of this is “mine” or this is “yours” and this is “ours”. Rather all was truly God’s and was to be used for the mission of Jesus Christ to give God the glory.
Third, they broke bread together. The breaking of bread can mean two different things. It could be sharing in meals together, around the table, or it could be the celebrating of the Eucharist. Or perhaps Luke, the author of Acts, means it to be both. Gathering around the dinner table is an intimate time, and often leads to people being excluded. The table is a place to talk about the events of the day, to share our deepest hearts, and to feast on what has been provided. In the ancient world, table fellowship was reserved for family and dear friends, and clear lines were drawn between those who were invited to the table and those who were not. Think back to the gospels and how many times Jesus created controversy around who he chose to dine with. For Jesus there was a place at the table for everyone, and the early church upheld this teaching. Here all were counted as close friends, and social barriers were broken. All ate of the same food, showing their unity. And when they partook they did so with glad and generous hearts, praising God for what had been provided. 
About three years ago, my home church in Clearfield decided to take a leap of faith and serve a free weekly meal to any who showed up. They opened up their doors, put on their aprons, and started to cook a simple meal each Monday. Then they would gather around the table with all who showed up and have fellowship. Their wasn’t a distinction between who was a church member and who wasn’t. Or between who cooked the meal and those who ate. For all shared together. There is something beautiful and Christ like about this type of table fellowship that is unique to the church. 
Lastly, the people of Christ were marked by their prayers. The believers taught each other how to pray, and did so without ceasing. They prayed for people they did not know. They prayed for each other. And they prayed with each other. 
Perhaps one of the most powerful marks of the community of Christ is this ability to pray for and with each other. To authentically lift each other before the throne of grace and be vulnerable enough to share the joys and concerns of our hearts. To pray for those whom we may not even know, but to do so as a mark of our deep care for them. 
When I was working as an intern, one of my favorite times during the week was Tuesday afternoons, when I would go to pray with another person. Each week I would meet with this amazing woman of God for an hour. We would share our hearts with one another and lift each other up in prayer. It was a powerful time that cannot be contained in words. We were able to remind each other about how God has answered prayers in the past and hold each other accountable in our struggles. The Holy Spirit was noticeable in each of our prayer times and God was praised.
For the early Methodist this is why classes, or small groups, were formed. Groups of 8-10 people who looked after each other. Prayed for each other, both when they were together and apart. And asked each other “how is it with your soul?” and expected a truthful answer. It was the place where they lived into the scripture from Hebrews, spurring one another one towards love and good deeds. They shared food together. Learned together. Who are the people in your small group? Those whom you can grow in Christ’s love with? If you don’t have such a group of people, where can you look for one? Who are people you can invite into your faith journey in an intentional way and grow with every week?
Church is more then something that we attend once a week or a place that we go to. Church is being the body of Christ where we share in a common life together, a place where we sharpen one another. It is a new type of family. A family that learns, prays, laughs, fellowships, eats, and grows together. Let us live into the gift of small groups in our lives. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

“Praying Big Prayers” Numbers 11:4-23, 31-32

The story of the Circle Maker goes something like this. The people had been without rain for far too long. Not a drop. The drought threatened to wipe them all out. Then along came Honi, with his six foot staff and confidence in God, who came among the people and drew a circle with his staff. He stood in that circle and declared he was going to stay there until the waters came. And they did - small little drops. The people rejoiced, but Honi stayed in the circle and prayed again - not for this sort of rain, God did I pray. The thunder claps and heavens broke open and rain drenched the earth, which frightened the people. But Honi stayed the circle and prayed again - not for such rain did I pray. And finally the waters fell at the perfect pace for the ground to quench its thirst, causing the people to dance in the rainfall.
When is the last time you prayed a bold prayer like Honi did that day? I think sometime we are afraid of offending God with our prayers. So we pray these anemic prayers that don’t speak to the heart of God - that aren’t Kingdom sized prayers.
Pastor Mark Batterson wrote a wonderful book on prayer entitled The Circle Maker. One of the first quotes that jumped out to me from the pages was “bold prayers honor God.” That gave me pause to examine my own prayer life - do I pray bold prayers? A few months ago we took the journey markers survey together, helping us see where we were as individuals and as a congregation on our journey of faith together, almost everyone checked that they pray daily. Let’s take a moment to rejoice in that! We are a people of prayer! My hope and prayer is that we will be a people who prayer bold prayers.
Sometime I think our prayers look more like those of the Israelites than Moses in today’s scripture lesson. The Israelites have been wondering in the dessert in the while and they have a complaint for God - they don’t like the food they are being provided. They are craving meat, not the bread like substance called mana that was falling from heaven each day. They were starting to grow restless and were talking about what they once had back in Egypt - fish. They didn’t think they had been provided for; they didn’t think they had enough. Have we ever prayed prayers where we have told God, directly or indirectly, that we do not have enough? 
But Moses overhear the Israelites complaining and he gets upset. God was becoming angry as well that the people didn’t recognize what they had been given. So Moses starts to ask God why him? Why was all this trouble upon him? Where can I get what the meat they are asking for? Have we ever cried out to God in prayer about our frustrations?
What amazes me about this particular piece of scripture is that God responds to all of their cries about not having enough and all of Moses frustrations in a big way. First, he has seventy of the elders of Israel consecrated to help Moses lead. They received a portion of the Spirit that had fallen upon Moses so that he didn’t have to struggle with the people alone or feel like he was the only one carrying their burden. 
Then God gave the people quail. In fact, God gave the people so much quail that they were told they would become sick of it. The first day enough fell from heaven that each person could have ten. Moses said he had 600,000 soldiers, even if this was just ten for each of them, it would equal 6,000,000 birds. God provided in a dramatic fashion.
Sometimes I think we don’t open up our eyes to see how God is answering our prayers in dramatic ways. Or we pray such vague prayers that we would never even notice that they have been answered.
What I also find striking about this passage of scripture is the intimacy Moses had with God. He could take his frustrations to God the way he did because of how he walked with God. In a way, even Moses’s prayers of frustration were responded to in such a profound way because of the deep roots of his relationship with God. Perhaps at times we don’t feel as close to God in prayer or are hesitant to pray big, bold prayers because we don’t have a daily rhythm with God we have a weekly rhythm. 
Moses’s prayer was also desperate. He was facing a big demand from the people, and you can’t help but pray big prayers when you are facing big circumstances. The truth is, if we aren’t desperate sometimes we won’t pray like everything depends on God. We try to do things on our own, by our own power. And when we try to go by our own power alone, it is as if we are invariantly making the statement that God is not powerful enough. Sometimes we need desperate situations in our lives to remind us who God is. We need to be in situations that are far beyond our control, to remember who God is. Sometimes we need to lose our job to see that God is offering us our dream one. Or sometimes we need to step away from a ministry, to see what new opportunities God is giving us. Or sometimes we need to wait a long time for something to be reminded that God alone is the one that provides, not us - we need to be in situations where we can say, but by God’s hand alone 
Lastly, Moses’s prayer was one of praying through. Big situations don’t go away over-night. We need to remember that big situations demand big prayers and big prayer are not prayers we simply pray for a time or two, big prayers are ones that bring us to our knees time and time again. And when we ware on our knees we need to not just be praying for things to happen but praying though them. We need to pray for God to do something unpredictable and uncontrollable. We need to pray that whatever we are going through is planting seeds for the faith of others. We need to pray. 
Brothers and sisters, only you can know what your prayer life is like with God. Only you can know if you pray bold prayers like Honi or Moses, or prayers like the Israelites, that ask for what you need at the moment. There is a whole range of ways to pray. The first step is to pray, but what we are looking towards growing into through our relationship with God is to be people who pray bold Kingdom sized prayers.

Will you pray with me….

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Finding Rest in God Pt 2

4/10/16 Sabbath: Pt 2 Deut 5: 12-15
Time is a precious thing. We only get 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 8,736 hours a year. How are we going to spend them? And what is our relationship to time. Does time control us - pulling us this way and that? 
The bible has two words for time - chronos and kairos. We are probably most familiar with chronos time - chronological time. What happens during our days. How we are going to spend those 8,000 plus hours we have been given a year. But kairos time is different - that’s God’s appointed time. God’s moment or season that are a gift to us. Sabbath time is kairos time, but it is hard to fit this into our view if we are viewing everything as chronos time.
The truth is even though we see time as one of our most precious commodities, we squander it. We very rarely ask bigger questions about how we spend our time and instead it simply become a routine. Get up, get ready, go to work, come home, spend a little time with family, go to be. Repeat. Then by the time the weekend comes we feel pressure to get done everything that didn’t fit into the rest of our week. We quickly become overwhelmed by time instead of embracing it. 
What is your biggest regret? Its a tough question isn’t it. What is your biggest regret? I was reading a book lately where the response may not be what you expect, but deeply resonated with me - being in a hurry. When we keep worrying about having our schedules full and getting to what comes next, we miss something beautiful about being in the moment. We miss something in the relationships we have and the quality of our time. And we start to regret what we are missing. 
The book of Deuteronomy tells the story of what happened to the Israelites once they fled Egypt. In some places it retells the stories found in Exodus and Numbers. In other ways it is wholly unique. In the particular area we pick up at this morning is a retelling of Moses receiving and then relaying the ten commandments. This is one of the longer commandments - keep the Sabbath holy. To only work six days a week and on the seventh day set it apart - marked for God. No one is to work - even those who are currently slaves and the animals. And as the people rest they are to remember that God brought them out of the land of Egypt. 
The people needed a law, or a commandment in order to change their behavior. Their chronos time had been filled with toiling every day - that was their reality and even though they were now free it was hard to change that behavior. So they had to have a commandment that helped them change their mind about changing their behavior. They wanted to - it was just so foreign to them.
Is that true of us too? Are we so used to being busy that it is hard for us to imagine Sabbath rest? Hard for us to imagine changing our behavior? In the words of Pastor Mark Buchanan, “Busyness makes us stop caring about the things we care about”. If we keep up the pace we are going eventually we become too numb to care. So God gives us, as well as the ancient Israelites, a commandment to stop. To rest. To be.
That doesn’t make it any easier to live into, but at least the commandment makes us consider why God commanded Sabbath rest. And helps us to put on our radar to choose to follow this particular law. Here’s the thing - there is no thing as partial disobedience. You can’t partially break the Sabbath. You either follow the command to rest or you don’t. But let’s at least be honest with ourselves about where we are, what we need, and how we can improve. 
Let me be clear - we live in a very different time then ancient Israel. We live in a very different time from even the 1950s in America. So we need to figure out how to live into the heart of Sabbath today. The reality is for some people Sabbath isn’t Sunday. They have to work that day. So what day have you set apart to fill your spirit and worship God? What day do you have when you can simply be with your Creator? And what day do you have where you can rest without feeling guilty or like you have to get on to the next thing? 
The truth is Sabbath can do wonders to transform us, which is why God offers it to us as a gift. It can free us from our concerns and obligations. Sabbath can transform our relationships. It can free us from stress.
We know that we have too much stress. We know we live in a world where are are defined, not by how God sees us, but by our productivity and accomplishments. This stress and definition of self comes from the belief that we need to have too much to do. We need to keep ourselves busy in order to seem successful. And that is why we need the discipline of Sabbath.
Sabbath truly is a discipline. We’ve talked a little bit about why it is hard to do. So we need to make it a practice in our life, in order to transform our understanding of time and sense of self. Sabbath requires us to prepare. It requires us to get done what needs to be done so we can simply rest. It requires us to say “no” to continuing to work so we can say “yes” to all that life has to offer us. And when we allow ourselves to live into this rhythm of a weeks or a few months, we can see that Sabbath, when practiced properly, also effects the rest of our week, preventing us from becoming a workaholic. 
I shared with you last week a little bit about my practice of Sabbath, this week I want to share with you about a friend and his family’s practice. Sabbath is a time to say “yes” more often. To say yes, we have time to go to the park, or the museum, or the zoo when his son asks. Its a time to bake meals together and invite other people over to share them or say “yes” to the invitations they are offered to eat with others. Its a day to say “yes” to long walks in the sunshine or building snowmen. And the more they are able to say “yes” because there is space in their schedule to do so, the more the find themselves delighting in each other and the experiences they can have together right now, in this moment. For them, Sabbath is about relationships, especially with family, trumping all else, so they can celebrate the good gift God has blessed them with. 

What do you need to say “yes” to in order to reorient your time? What do you have to say “no” to in order to move away from the demands of chronos time? While our sermon series on this particular discipline is concluding this week, the journey towards reorienting our time is not. Let us encourage each other to embrace Sabbath rest in order to get our heart in the right place to worship God and find his rest. Amen. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

“Finding Rest in God: Part 1” Gen 2:2-3 and Exodus 16: 23

This is a sermon just as much for me as for anyone else. As I write it, I am full of anxiety and stress. I worry about people in this church and my family. I didn’t sleep much the night before - tossing and turning. I am in need of rest. Of Sabbath rest.
Are you feeling rested this day? Or do you feel like your life is one endless run on of things to do and places to be? Our days just seem too full. How are we to rest when there are chores to be done, kids to be feed, work to attend to? Do you have enjoyment in your days? Do you have enjoyment in God? 
I don’t think many people would proudly declare that they broke most of the commandments. We don’t find Christians who find joy in the fact that they murdered someone or took the Lord’s name in vain. Yet, there is one commandment that many Christians seem to find such comfort in when they break - the command to keep the Sabbath. 
Pastor Mark Buchanan wrote a book I read while in college that changed my view of Sabbath rest entitled The Rest of God. The pages of the book are filled with colored markings and questions I posed to myself as I read through the pages. The basic question that is asked of each of us in this: how many of our problems stem from not honoring the Sabbath fully?
The idea of Sabbath rest traces the whole way back to the book of Genesis, to creation. God created the world, putting the stars in the sky and creating the fish of the sea. God put each flower and animal and blade of grass on the earth and declared it very good. Then good created the finest masterpiece yet - human beings - a mixture of flesh and bones, breath and blood. Made in the very image of God. Then when God had finished and declared that everything was very good, God rested. 
We don’t talk about God resting very much. Perhaps because the idea isn’t one we like. That God wouldn’t just busily move on to the next thing when there is so much more to do in the world. We don’t like the idea of God resting because it makes us come face to face with our own need for rest, the Sabbath rest that God modeled for us by declaring that the seventh day was holy - set apart, not to work but to just be. 
We are a purpose driven people - moving from one thing to the next and finding our worth by how busy we are. How often has someone asked how you are doing to which you replied “busy” or “tired”? According to spiritual author Jane Rubietta in her book Resting Place, constant activity - even when it is good activity - can damage us, damage our bodies and wound our souls. 
We recognize that constant working was not good for the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt. They were under the direction of the pharaohs to build great things for Egypt’s glory. But as the people of Israel grew in number, the Pharaoh started to fear their insurrection more. So he made them work every day of the week. With less materials and demanding more productivity. When they could not produce they were punished. When God brought them out of the land of Egypt one of the first things he provided was a day of rest - holy, Sabbath rest, when they stopped toiling for productivity and instead rested in the Lord. 
There is nothing wrong with working. Unless we let our work consume us. When let work become our personal god instead of worshipping the God who gave us the ability to both work and rest. According to Pastor Buchanan, “The opposite of a slave is not a free man. It’s a worshiper.” Are we a slave to our work or a worshipper of God, because according to this particular pastor it is very very hard to do both, as they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. 
The truth is if we are on the go all the time, always working, we lose pleasure in our work. We need a place of respite. Sabbath allows us to reorient our time towards God and remember whose we are and who we are. Sabbath sanctifies time. Without it, we feel like we can get just one more thing done in order to prove ourselves to be worthy instead of finding our worth in God alone. 
We know that we are made to be people with a purpose, but the true question is - what purpose is that exactly? Is it to work all that we can? Or is it to fall in line with God’s rhythm for living, which involves rest. Sabbath offers us a gift to simply be still. To simply be. And to become alive under the rest and care of our Creator, who made us to be more than simple work horses. During that time we open ourselves us not only to re-creation, but to listening - to listening to the voice of God stirring in our spirits. Its a time to play, to remember that we to are called to create in so many different ways. Above all, sabbath is a time to cease from doing what is necessary.
So what does that look like exactly? I think its different for each of us because we each rest differently. I have even changed how I embrace Sabbath rest at different times in my life, but let me tell you what it looks like for me now. I prepare for Sabbath the night before - making sure all of the dishes are done and the house is clean, so I won’t be tempted to tidy up a mess the next day. I have a cup of slow brewed full leaf tea. Often I soak my feet in a foot bath and curl up with a good fiction novel before going to bed. The next morning I sleep in, not setting my alarm. When I wake up I have a small canister next to my bed with different spices that I open up, to remind me to use my senses different on Sabbath. I light different candles. I eat different foods. And I do everything more slowly. I let the day dictate what I will do, listening to what my body needs on that particular day. This is not a day for doing laundry, or cleaning, or getting groceries. It is a day to have lunch with friends or dinner with family. A day to talk to those I love. Its a day to be fully me.
Sabbath time is different then the time the rest of the week. By doing things differently, I physically mark that this day is different, set apart. Jane Rubietta states that such type of rest is a death - where we allow ourselves to die to ourselves and our agendas and to learn to let God love us deeply right where we are. Brothers and sisters, that is a hard lesson. One would think that resting would be easy, especially with so many of us on the brink or exhaustion, but its not, because it requires us to set how we perceive ourselves aside in order to let God fully love us. 

Will you join me this season on trying to embrace Sabbath? Trying to live into the commandment? Maybe you’ve been going at full speed for so long that the idea of an entire rest seems too hard for you. Can you start with a half day? Or could you not fill in your schedule when God gives you glimpses of reprieve? Can you let yourself simply be for a few hours one or two days a week to start? What could Sabbath renewal do for the state of your body and soul? Amen. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Final Miracle John 11: 32-44 John 20: 1-18

For the last several weeks we have been exploring the miracles of Jesus found in the gospel of John. Today we look at the final miracle, or rather final two connected miracles, as Jesus conquers that which we thought was undefeatable - death itself. 
When Jesus walked on this earth he had friends, close dear friends, some of whom traveled with him wherever he went and others that welcomed him and his followers into their homes. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were in the later group. They were such good friends that upon Lazarus falling ill, the sisters sent word to Jesus because they knew he would want to be there to heal their brother. Only day after day passed and Jesus did not come. The result was tragic - their brother’s life ended. So they followed the typical burial traditions of the time - binding Lazarus’s feet at the ankles. Tying his arms across his body and then having his body wrapped in around one-hundred pounds of ritual clothes to protect and preserve the body. That ritual itself had taken place days ago, as the dead were buried on the same day as their passing. And now - now - Jesus showed up.
  Mary believed that Jesus could have healed her brother - but what could Jesus do now? Death always had the final word - and even Jesus couldn’t speak into that darkness. Mary had the same faith that many of us have today - preventative faith - that makes us go to God in order to keep things from happening. Could Jesus reverse the irreversible nature of death itself? 
Jesus had Mary take him to where the body of his friend was laid and told her and those gathered around to remove the stone. At which Mary hesitated. Her brother had been dead for four days - there would a stench. And what was the point? Dead was dead. But Jesus persuaded her by reminding her that she was about to see the glory of God.
We have the privilege of the written version of this story. We know how it ends. But just pretend for a moment that you were one of the folks gathered at the grave that day? How would you have reacted if you heard Jesus calling for Lazarus to come out - and then he actually did!?! Lazarus lived again - and he was freed from his death clothes and from death itself. 
The miracle of Lazarus coming back to life after death is important because it foreshadows both Jesus’s resurrection, which we celebrate this day, and our own as well. Our faith, in the words of Pastor Mark Batteron, revolves around the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For those who believe in Jesus, we know that our life, and even our death, are only temporary, for some day we too will hear Jesus call our name as we enter into glory. Today in the face of the empty tomb we hear the triumphant cry “Chris is Risen Indeed” as Jesus comes face to face with Mary and commissions her to tell the disciples the good news.
In our second scripture lesson this morning we find a different Mary also weeping outside of a tomb. he stood weeping outside of the tomb, by now catching up with the men who had ran in front of her. She still couldn’t bring herself to go into the tomb – what was the point? She knew what was facing her there and it was not what she was prepared to see. She wanted to do the only thing she could for her slain Lord, and someone had denied her that opportunity. Not only had she faced his death, but now his fallen body wasn’t even present. So she wept. Finally, with tears still blocking her sight, she bent over and saw two angels in the tomb, sitting where Jesus once was. They looked at her with tender respect in their eyes and asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?”. She sputtered out that the Lord, the one whom she was looking for, had been taken away. As she turned around, she saw another man looking at her with this seemingly familiar compassion in his eyes. He too addressed her in terms of respect, care, and admiration, “Women, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” Mary once again gave her answer that caused her so much pain, her eyes unable to see who truly stood before her. 
But then Jesus said but one word, “Mary!” and her eyes were opened. She exclaimed, “Teacher!” and ran to cling to Jesus. He then gave her the command to tell the disciples that Jesus had not yet ascended to God, but of course Mary could not explain this to the disciples without first proclaiming, “I have seen the Lord!” Even though Mary knew about the healing of Lazarus, she had the same preventive faith as the other Mary - instead of resurrection faith - that type of faith that looks for God to redeem situations for the glory of God - even the seemingly unredeemable - even death itself. 
Sight and hearing are two of the most commonly used human senses throughout scripture to explain the richness of the faith. People may be able to see with their physical eyes, but can they perceive with their hearts? People may be able to hear the scriptures, but do they hear and understand the voice of God? There seems to be a disconnect at times between sensually experiencing the physical world and its deep spiritual meaning.
Mary had to hear her own name in order to be able to see properly. In the words of Chris Tomlin, she rose when Christ called her name – no more sorrow, no more pain. And when she did hear and see all logic flew out the window. Logically, Jesus was dead, not only dead but mangled, and those who die that painfully do not come back to life. Further, Jesus didn’t bring himself down off the cross, didn’t save himself, so why would he be alive now? All rational thoughts about how or why escaped her as she gasped, “Rabbouni” and went to him. She didn’t need reason in order to believe what was right in front of her.
At the heart of Christianity is the peculiar and illogical belief that Jesus rose from the dead. It doesn’t make sense. We can understand cross dying on the cross, but our faith does not hinge on that fact alone. No, Christ is risen, which means Jesus is alive! We are the only religion to make the claim that one we stake our faith on, our very lives on, lived, died, and lived again. And because Jesus lives again, so can we – death does not have the final word over our lives because it did not have the final word of Christ’s. And this doesn’t make sense. So all too often, we only focus on Jesus hanging on the cross, or what he taught his disciples, instead of claiming the power of the resurrection. But when Christ calls our name, our eyes are opened like those of Mary. Not by arguments or persuasion, but by hearing our name.

Have you heard Christ call your name today? Have you been awakened by it.  As artist Matt Maher proclaims, “Christ is risen from the dead, we are one with him again, come awake, come awake, come arise up from the grave.” For many of us, the Easter story is simply that, a story. But when it is connected with the reality of the risen Christ calling our name, we are able to see and place our faith in the empty tomb. Jesus, the risen one, knows each of our names. He knows that sometimes we let our rational sides block us from hearing him. And he knows that sometimes, in the face of the great mystery of his risen body and the empty tomb, we really want to defend him with logical explanations. But what Jesus really wants are not our explanations, but our ears and hearts listening to the sweet call as Jesus says our names so we can see, even when our world is clouded with darkness. Listen. Can you hear the voice of the Risen Lord? How will you respond when Jesus calls your name, not just on this Easter Sunday, but every day? Amen. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Never Say Never - John 9

Never Say Never John 9

We live in a world that wants to ascribe blame, in the form of sin, for people who are different then us. This difference may be in the form of a mark of differently abledness (previously called disabilities), or a different religious tradition. It may even be people who are going through a disaster. Author Anne Rice states, “We are frightened of what makes us different.”, but really we are frightened because other people’s differences remind us just how different each of us are as well. 
In the beginning of today’s scripture passage we are met with a familiar situation – once again the disciples just aren’t getting it. They see a man who has been blind from birth and asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Maybe we aren’t quite as blunt with our questions such as, “why is this happening?”, but at the root of our questions we are just as curious as the disciples – why did God cause this to happen to this person. If God is all good and all knowing, then God must be punishing someone for something. What is it?
But Jesus responds to the disciples’ questions, and our questions, in a profound way – no on has sinned, but this has happened that the work of God may be displayed through him. What a re-orientation to our modern uneasyiness with difference – being different brings glory to God! It is not sin that causes what we have labeled disabilities – because disabilities allow us to see God in a new way! 
Then Jesus, with the craftsmanship of words that only he could possess, started playing around with the images of light and darkness – being blind and being able to see, saying, “as long as it is day, we must do the work of the one who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. But while in the world, I am the light of the world.”. Seeing and working and believing exist is this tangential relationship. And ironically, the disciples question shows that they are still in the dark.
I must admit, this is one of my least favorite healing stories of Jesus. It is one of the only ones where Jesus does not ask the man if he wants to be able to see. Perhaps this is because Jesus has set his inability to see up as a gift to be used for the glory of God. Perhaps Jesus just forgot to ask. But whatever the case, Jesus got messy with this healing. It was not as simple as touching someone and speaking healing into their life. No, he spit on to the ground and made mud from his saliva and then spread the mud over the eyes of the man. He then sent the man to wash in the pool – the pool whose name could be translated as sent. It’s like Jesus is teaching the disciples what it really means to live in the tension of seeing, working, and believing. This man had work to do before he could see. He had to believe that this man taking the messiness of life could bring light into his world for the first time.
Unfortunately, all is not well that ends well. This man’s healing turns into a public spectacle. Some people see him and wonder if he was the man who had begged outside of the city gate because of his blindness. Others thought that the man was never blind. But the man protested that he was the man who was once blind from birth. But now his eyes have been opened by this man Jesus.
The story goes on to a full out trial in front of the Pharisees, including this man’s parents attesting to the fact that yes, this was their son, and yes, he was born blind. And all the Pharisees have to say is that Jesus couldn’t possibly bring healing from God, because he didn’t honor the Sabbath. They aren’t able to rejoice with their brother in his healing because they were so caught up in labeling Jesus as a sinner. But my favorite line from this passage is in the man’s reply, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I do not know. One thing I do know. I was blind, but now I see!”
Oh how I wish that each of us could make that same exclamation – all I know is that I was blind, but now I see! But my fear is that we fall in line more with the disciples and the Pharisees – unable to admit our own blindness, which is really the first step. We are so caught up with deflecting our own insecurities by pointing out the difference in others, by labeling their sin in order to avoid looking at our own, that we miss the point that we are in need of Jesus’ healing and love as well.
Jesus answered the question about sin causing different-ness in a way that brought light and hope into the world – even those things that we are afraid of, those things that others use to label us and mock us, God redeems and transforms. God takes those desolate areas in our lives where light may never have entered and brings a sunrise. God took the areas were there wasn’t enough light for things to bloom and made a bed of flowers arise. If only we would acknowledge that we cannot see the light, while believing that the light still transforms ourselves and everything around us.
This season of lent is one where we are challenged to look into our lives and ask God to shine light on the dark places. Those dark places may be different for each of us, but the mere fact that they exist makes us human. We then repent of those areas of our lives and ask God to transform them, through the love of Jesus Christ. Lent is only 40 days long – a snippet out of the breadth and depth of our entire year. But I fear that for some of us it’s hard to even approach this self-examination for this brief period of time. It is just too painful. So out of that pain we look around us for others to judge ourselves by, stating, “well at least I’m not as bad as him or I don’t do what she does.” But when we do this, we are missing the beauty of what Jesus is trying to teach us and the healing that Jesus is trying to bring us through his grace.
While I wish that Jesus would have asked if the man desired to be healed from his blindness, I also find comfort in the fact that Jesus knew just what to heal him from. Because there are times in my life when I am so unattended to the dark areas in my life, that I wouldn’t even know to ask healing for them. So I find myself just stumbling along the path, trying to feel my way from one step to the next, all the while going down the wrong path because I can’t see. 

Now is our opportunity to have our eyes opened and to have the blinding light of healing enter our lives. I pray that each day we can each become a little bit less like those who stand in the dark, asking questions about sin instead of those of healing and grace. I hope that we can have our eyes opened to the transforming power of God. And above all, I plead that we respond to the healing that God is offering us, even when it involves messiness and commands of being sent. Because healing is real work. But in that work we can find our belief strengthened and our sight restored. May it be so. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Midweek Lenten 5

Mid Week - Lent 5 “Journey to the Cross: Things Are Not As They Appear” Mark 13: 1-8

Have you ever seen the signs that say that things are not as they appear? Jesus is trying to wave one of those sings in front of his disciples in this evening’s passage. Jesus and his disciples are leaving the temple, probably after a time of Jesus teaching, and one of the disciples tries to point out to the group the beauty of the place they just came from. Maybe he was really stuck by the outward beauty of the temple or maybe he was just trying to start a conversation, but either way his observations were cut short as Jesus gestures to all of the great buildings around them, including the temple, and saying that the time will come when they are no longer standing - no longer considered to be great. 
Isn’t this true in our lives as well? That things are not always as we think that they appear.  What seems to be the most solid may not last and what seems like an ending is only a beginning. We, like Jesus’s disciples, sometimes get too caught up in outward appearances. We get caught up in rumors and gossip. We get caught up in the limited way that we see things, when Jesus is trying to open up our eyes, the disciple’s eyes, to the much larger picture of what is going on. 
It is believed that the gospel of Mark was written around 70AD, right around the time that the temple of Jerusalem was seized and destroyed. When Mark looked out of his window at the ruins of the temple, did he remember these words of Jesus about not a stone being left upon a stone? 
The disciples interest is now peaked. Tell us when these things will happen. Tell us how to know that they are coming. Just like us, the disciples seem to want to know the future. But instead of directly answering their questions, Jesus instead gave them advice and wisdom that they would need to carry on the purposes of the Kingdom of God in his absence. He warned them that if they spent too much time trying to predict the future, they would end up being deceived and led astray. 
When I was in college I took a class on New Religious Movements and Cults. Something that I was struck by again and again as we studied each religious movement was the more that folks tried to predict the end times, the more they tried to decipher a set date when Jesus would reappear, the farther they moved away from the heart of the gospel message. And then when their predictions ended up being wrong they would simply say that was God’s will and set about trying to predict it again. 
But Jesus, as he is teaching his disciples isn’t looking for signs - he is looking for teachings that will sustain them in his absence. He is looking for them to be so grounded in the gospel message that they will not be deceived by false teachings and promises. So what is Jesus trying to teach them?
First, that our goal isn’t to become an expert in the end times, but instead to live as Christ’s faithful disciples here and now. Christ is looking for day to day faithfulness. Not faithfulness just on the big things, but faithfulness in every aspect of our lives. Faithfulness that will lead others to know the good news of the gospel. Because at the end of the day we are vessels for God’s message. Note, however that we are striving for faithfulness in our own lives. We can become equally distracted when we start to judge the faithfulness of others. In fact, often when we start to judge the faithfulness of others its because we don’t want to look into our own hearts to examine our own motives. 
It always amazes me when I share with people that I am a pastor for the first time the assumptions they have about myself and my vocation. Sometimes it isn’t pretty - with people simply stopping the conversation or walking away because of their ow judgments. However, if I get to know a person and then it comes to light that I’m a pastor the response is often very different - people have seen my faithfulness and so they react completely differently - often with “Wow - I can totally see that now”. 
Second, disciples need to be discerning. The point of being discerning, however, is not to try to predict when Jesus will come back. The point is to keep ourselves from being led astray by false teachings. 
For the last several years I have taught Bible Studies at colleges - first through the Wesley Foundation at Penn Sate and then at Mansfield University. Every few years a group of students would ask to study Revelation, which often led to a conversation about why they wanted to study the book of Revelation. The first answer was always the same “so we can prepare ourselves for the end times.” I would often ask students when we entered into this study to be there every single week, and usually over the course of an entire school year, we would slowly work our way through the book, until at the end they world declare “this wasn’t what I thought it was at all.” The book of Revelation instead of teaching them how to know the signs of the end times, often taught them instead how to be faithful and discerning Christians here and now. 
Third, believers must be patient. Jesus described some awful things that were going to take place in this world and described them simply as birth pangs. As I write this sermon, I have two dear friends who are in the process of giving birth. The first has been having contractions on and off for the last month. However, her doctor has helped her to realize that these aren’t contractions that will lead to her son’s birth, but instead are simply ones to prepare her body for what is to come. She needs to be patient.
We too, need to learn to be patient. Changes don’t happen in people’s hearts over night. We aren’t called to simply share the gospel message once and then have a friend or family member or stranger come to accept the Lord. If that happens, it is wonderful. But often in takes 15-20 positive interactions with Christians who care about them before they even step foot in a church building, let alone accept the Lord. We need to be patient and keep being faithful in sharing the gospel message, no matter what.

And perhaps it is that no matter what part that is the most difficult. Jesus lists these awful things that are going to take place but then asks us to continue to witness to the good news which is about hope. For Christians there is always hope, no matter how things appear. How can be we be a people marked by hope as we go about witnessing to the gospel message? How does our patience and discernment and faithfulness play into this message of hope? How can we witness not to temporary things that will fade away, however beautiful they may seem right now, but instead point folks to the enteral faithfulness of Jesus Christ? Let us pray…