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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

“We Don’t Understand” Mark 9: 30-37

We have arrived at the beginning of the Lenten season. A time set apart the six weeks before Easter to repent of our sins and be in an attitude of prayer before the resurrection of our Lord on Easter morning. 
The disciples also knew that they had to prepare. Jesus had told them time and time again that something was coming - that he would be killed and then would rise again. Only they didn’t understand it. Not the first time they were told, and not on this instance either. There was something about how Jesus was talking - the mixture of sadness and intensity in his eyes that caused them to be just as afraid as the words he was speaking. What did he mean that he would be delivered into the hands of man?
The disciples knew that not everyone loved Jesus the way that they did. They understood that Jesus seemed to caused a disturbance wherever he went. They saw the ways that the Pharisees whispered about him in disapproval - but how could any of those people hand him over to be killed? And why would he rise again. Dead men didn’t rise. At the very best, God lifted them up into the heavens before their death - but dead people coming back to life, especially after three days, was unheard of. 
They needed a distraction from all of this teaching that saddened and confused them so they found themselves returning to their favorite subject - who was going to be the greatest. Who was going to rule with Jesus. Because to rule you needed to be alive and surely their rabbi was going to live for a long time, just to teach them. 
Jesus must have overheard them however because he asked them what they were discussing. But no one would answer him. Then he started up with his confusing teachings again - to be first you needed to be last, very last, and be a servant. That was not what they had signed up for. No they wanted to be first. Not a servant.
Then he picked up a child - a child! - and said that only if they welcomed a child, one whom they didn’t even know, they could welcome him. Jesus, we don’t understand! Why do you make things so difficult!
Even with knowing about Jesus’ death and resurrection, even with all of the writings of the church mothers and fathers and two-thousand years of being the church to work in our favor, I’m not sure we understand Jesus’s teachings any better today then his disciples did so many years ago.
One of the things that I am called into ministry to do is listen to stories. Especially the stories of those who have left the church who have been hurt by church. At times I just want to weep when I hear about people who have been hurt by people who, like the disciples, just wanted to exercise their power, to let others know that they were greater than then. This season is our time to repent church of hurting people. To ask God for forgiveness for not putting first things first.
Some of you know that I have a short article posted in a book about the obstacles young clergy face. As my dad and I were recently talking about the book he commented on how hurt some of the authors were, and I said yes, some have left the ministry and other’s have left the church entirely because of the wounds church people cause. Brothers and sisters, we have much to repent of, this Lenten season, for sins of the past and the present, and ways that we have knowingly and unknowingly hurt people.
And now, now is our time to be a people of prayer. A people who pray for those who are broken in this world, including ourselves. Now is the time to pray that we understand Jesus’s teachings a little more each day so we can more fully live into them. Time to pray for the needs that surrounds us.
Some of you also know that one of my favorite ministries at my last parish was the time I intentionally spent on Sunday evening at a local pub, not drinking, but simply sitting with a sign stating that I was a pastor. It was amazing to see the conversations I entered into with people, and I always closed by asking to pray with them. No one ever refused to let me pray for them. Brothers and sisters, let us pray for all people this Lenten season, as we seek to introduce people to the love of our Savior and more fully live into his teachings with our own lives.
But today, on Ash Wednesday, we also remember. We remember that we don’t know everything. We remember that we don’t have all of the answers. And we remember that we don’t fully understand, just like the disciples so long ago. 
While I love all types of worship services, the ones that are the most meaningful for me as a pastor are funeral services - a time to remember a person for who they truly are, not just the good things, but the imperfections as well. But then to declare that even in their imperfections, even in their flaws, they were loved by God - not for what they knew and understood, but because they were a child of the Lord. 
May we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. May we remember that we are put on this earth to minister to other’s, not to hurt them because of our own egos. 

Let us repent, pray, and remember this day as we enter into this holy season of Lent. Amen. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

“Enough: Cultivating Contentment” Luke 12:15, Ecc 2:10-11

We are now in our third and final week of our sermon series on finances, specifically when to recognize that we have enough. 
We live in this tricky relationship with material things - we know that we need things like food, water, and shelter to live. And we are blessed to have resources to purchase other things that we enjoy. But we need to be ever mindful of the thin line that we could possibly cross that where we go from enjoying things to being held captive by them. The thin line between owning something and letting it own us. Before you think I am speaking a bit too harshly about things owning us, pause and think back over some of the thoughts you have had over the last few days. Were there any about how you needed a new thing? Or you wish you had something that someone else owned? Or how you couldn’t possibly give money away because you don’t have enough?
We need to pause and examine our relationship to material things, truly examine it. Do we have more than we need? What do we do with what we have? Americans are generally very poor at recognizing what we consume, and that includes Christians. While Americans only represent 5 percent of the world’s population, we produce 40 percent of its garbage. We mis-use the resources God has called us to be stewards of. We throw things away that someone else could use. We think it is our right to make money to buy and waste things. We don't recognize the wisdom of Solomon, who notes that whoever his eye desires he did not keep from. We see things we want and we feel that we have to have them. We have a damaged relationship with material things, where they control our hearts.
Solomon goes on to state that he considered all that his hand has done, all that he had toiled for in order to have the things that he now has, and realizes that it is all vanity and chasing after the wind. The truth is, all too often we look to things to make us happy, when at the end of the day everything is temporary. There is an old saying that you can’t take things with you, but we don’t live our lives like that. One of two things happen. The first is what I see the most often as a pastor. You spend your entire life accumulating things that you think that your family will want when you pass away. And then either the family fights over those things, either as an act of grief or greed, or more often then not, those things end up getting thrown away. Dumpster bins full of material things that were once important to us, but don’t hold the same value to our family and friends, most of whom have their own material items.
The second situation is a bit more rare but was portrayed in an episode of The Gilmore Girls on TV. One of the main character’s uncles died. When he went to purchase the casket to bury him in however, the lid could not close, because the uncle had such a long list of his material possessions that he wanted to be buried with. He was going to take everything with him in the grave so that no one else could take them.
We spend most of our lives accumulating things, perhaps giving away a bag to charity here and there, instead of examining the very heart of the matter around material things, asking ourselves why we really want something. When we pause and answer that deeper question, we find that we want things because we have the false belief that that the thing itself will make us happy, instead of seeking to be content with what we have - which is exactly what Jesus warns against in today’s Gospel passage.
We also have a damaged relationship with the concept of contentment. We all too often can find ourselves being content, or satisfied with our relationships, how much we love others and love God, and satisfied with our faith journey, how much time we put into serving God and other’s or praying or reading the scripture, but not content with the material things we have. It’s like we get it backwards, being content with the areas of our life we should be seeking to grow in while striving to accumulate more things than we could ever use.
At my first church there was a lovely family that did something I had never heard of for Christmas. Their celebration lasted for days. Each of the four children were only allowed to open one gift at a time and then they took the toy or gift out of the box, played with it for a period of time, before they opened the next gift - hence the longer celebration. When I asked the mother about it, she said they adopted this way of celebrating Christmas so that the kids learned to be content with what they have. To fully appreciate each gift for what it is worth, instead of simply moving from one box to the next, resulting in a feeling of discontentment. 
That mother was teaching her children not only about contentment about how to have a grateful heart.  Jesus is today’s gospel lesson proclaims that one’s life does not consist in an abundance of possessions. I would further add that one’s life does not necessarily consist of possessions at all. Yes, we need certain things to live, but our life - that’s another story. Our life for all that it’s worth is full when it contains not material possessions, but those attributes that you cannot place a price tag on, love, gratitude, joy, peace, wisdom, honor, and mercy. The list that cannot be bought. These things can only come from cultivating time where your heart and soul are truly filled - relationships with others and with God. 
At the end of the day things are mostly just things. We find that every day when we hear of natural disasters, when people have to leave behind almost everything to seek safety. The question that is often asked is “what would you take with you if you were facing a fire?” but you could say flood, tornado, hurricane. What would you take with you? Most people don’t answer with the newest things they just acquired, but instead with treasured memories - photo albums, letters, things with deep meaning. Folks, most of the things we acquire each day don't have deep meaning. They can’t make us happy. So lets stop looking for freedom and contentmenr in material things, and instead look towards what matters most - deep relationships with others and with God. 

Brothers and sisters, it is time to embrace the counter-cultural stance of contentment, not to be different, but in order to free ourselves for God’s purposes. What a better time to do this then the season of Lent which stats this week. 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. Amen. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Enough Pt 2 - Sermon

I get it. Talking about stewardship of our time, talents, and resources makes us uncomfortable. We like to claim that money and church just don’t mix - and that’s where I stop understanding. Stop getting it. Because Jesus talks about money and wealth a lot. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, but there is no shortage in either testament in addressing money. And if Jesus talked about it, so do we.
I grew up in a tithing family. I remember watching my dad write out his tithe check  every Sunday before I could even really know what a check was for. The story goes that around the age of six I came out to my dad while he was writing his tithe check and asked for an envelope. Dad gave it to me, and I disappeared into my room, returning with my name printed in large letters on the front in crayon. I handed it to my parents and my dad asked me what it was. I told him it was my money for church, just like his - and when he opened up the envelope he found $1.00 - a treasure for someone that age. I have tithed and given to the church ever since.
Now maybe its easier to give when we are children. We aren’t all wrapped up in the fear of what is to come. But I also think that children understand the wisdom of today’s scripture lesson in a way that we forget when we grow up. When we are children who are well cared for, we don’t worry where our next meal is going to come from or if we will have clothes to wear. We simply trust that we will be provided for. Trust our parents. Trust our grandparents. Trust those who are our caregivers. But then we grow up and think that we need to make it all on our own - we start to fret over not just having food and clothing, but having the best. We start to fear that we will not have enough instead of trusting God to provide. We start to sum up our lives not by God’s grace but by what we have accumulated. We start to worry that God doesn’t know what we need or that God won’t come through for us. We fear that if we give to the church, give back to the work of the Kingdom of God, that our quality of life will diminish. We start to wonder if we will need that money for something else. As we write out the check, we hesitate, wondering if we are saving enough for future, unknown needs. 
Last Sunday we discussed, at the beginning of this sermon series, some of the ways we can unknowingly waste our money. Perhaps you live beyond your means, racking up more debt then you ever intended to, in an attempt to keep with “the Jones’s” as presented in commericals and advertizements that surround us every day. Sometimes we waste money on buying things that we don't even want or need. But other times, perhaps, we waste our money because we aren’t living into some of the Biblical principles presented about money. We may know them, just like we may know the basic principles around what we need to do in order to be physically healthy, but we haven’t put them into practice, which can lead to squandering and spending at a rapid pace. 
Biblical principles #1 - tithe unto God. Sometimes people start to argue over the details of tithing. Do I give God ten percent of my net or my gross income? Here is my take on tithing. It is an act of trust, and its giving to God our best. For me, I give the church ten percent of my income after taxes and deductions, like healthcare and pension - knowing that I will one day be tithing on my pension checks as they are withdrawn. Perhaps not everyone will agree with me on that, but that is what a tithe looks like in my life. It may look different for you. But the question is what are you giving to the work of the Kingdom of God in terms of finances and why. I don’t give to the church, in order to be blessed, like a trade-off with God - if I give you ten percent, you will give me this. Instead, I tithe as an act that I trust God. My tithe checks are always the first ones written when a paycheck is deposited. Perhaps you can’t give ten percent this year because you are new to the idea of setting aside a certain portion for the Kingdom, instead of simply giving whatever you have in your wallet on Sunday - that’s okay. Figure out, prayerfully, what percentage you can set aside, maybe 2 or 3 or 5 - and faithfully give that. The basic idea is are you giving God what God is due - are you giving God your very best or simply what is left over? 
Biblical principles #2-4 have to do with being wise with the money we receive. The problem is that we aren’t always good at this. CNN Money reported in a 2007 survey that less than 50 percent of Americans have $25,000 or more set aside in their retirement accounts. Some this is because they are living beyond their means now instead of planning for the future. For others, saving simply isn’t on their radar - and instead of setting aside some money in savings, they are spending it now simply for the sake of spending money - not on necessities, or even things they want, but simply things that catch their eye, finding themselves buying on impulse. It doesn’t matter if you are saving for retirement or a trip or a just incase something breaks in the house fund - we can all find our efforts to save thwarted form time to time by impulse buying. Try taking a step back, leaving the item for 24 hours. If you still find yourself wanting it after that period of time, you can return and get it. 
Biblical principles #2-4 around money include: having a budget, living a simple life below your means, and paying off your debts and saving money for the future. Once again these all fall under the categories of being wise with the financial resources God has entrusted into our care.
Because at the end of the day that is what money is  - a resource that we are called to take care of, to be good stewards of. And to what end? To be able to live into the call and purpose God has placed on your life. Another way to state this would be to ask what is the purpose of your life and how do your financial habits reflect that purpose? One of my chief purposes is to glorify God and spread the good news of Jesus - do my finical habits reflect this? Another is to care for my extended family and help them feel supported and loved - do my financial habits reflect this as well? When we consistently, impulsively spend our money without examining our habits through the lens of God’s purpose and call on our life, we can unknowingly end up being wasteful.

Brothers and sisters, where are you struggling around the idea of Biblically wise finances this morning? With tithing? Having a budget? Living a simple life, below your means? Or paying off debts and saving? Our money is meant to be a resource to help us live into the purpose that God has placed in our lives, not a chain that holds us back. Would you join me this week in prayerfully considering how to have more Biblical practices around money, in order to glorify God? Amen. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

“Enough: When Dreams Become Nightmares”

1/24/16 “Enough: When Dreams Become Nightmares” 1 Tim 6:10
Ecc 5:10
Matt 16:26

Money. The topic no one likes the preacher to talk about in church. Yet, a topic that is vitally important. How we spend our money shows what is important to us. And so we need to talk about it. For the next three weeks we will be exploring together the idea of gratitude for having “enough.”
I’m not sure if you notice but we live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with the message that we don’t have enough. Commercials and ads tells us that we need a newer, shiner, car. Need to supersize our meals. Need faster internet. The list goes on and on. And brothers and sisters, those are just messages I get from the billboards driving the roads in this area, since I don’t have cable at the house. We are indicted with the message that we need to have more things that are bigger, better, and faster in order to consider ourselves to be successful. 
But what has the church’s response been to this bombarding? One of two things. Either cricket silence, saying that it isn’t our place to talk about money. Or misquoting scripture to say that money is evil. But scripture does not say that money is evil, money itself is neutral. Scripture tells us that the love of money is evil. We need money to live, but it is how we spend our money that matters. Do we look to money to give us happiness? Or are we grateful to God for the blessings we have? Scripture speaks quite a bit about money, both in the Old and New Testaments, so this is not a topic that we can simply ignore. 
Most Americans live in a constant state of anxiety about money. If there will be enough to pay the bills this month. If there will be enough to retire. We are so worked up about not having enough that we are stressing ourselves out. In fact, the American Psychological Association stated in a study from 2008 that 80 percent of Americans are stressed out about finances. And no one is exempt. Not single people or married couples. Not those with one child or multiple children. All sorts of demographics are affected.
Whenever I offer pre-marital counseling one of the topics that inevitably comes up is finances. How do you handle your finances now and how do you anticipate handling your money once you are married? More often then not the response I get from couples is that they haven’t talked about it and don’t want to think about it yet. It is as if we are embarrassed by our spending habits or our debt, and think that by not talking about it all of our problems will go away. But that isn’t the case. 
Because we live in a world that constantly encourages people to live beyond their means. That wasn’t always the case, but it is certainly true of the world we live in today. We live in a day and time that tells us that we can have things now and pay for it later - everything from big ticket items like cars that we take out loans for to smaller every day items we put on credit cards. Now don’t mishear me, there are certainly times we need spend money. For example, I have a loan from attending seminary. While I received a scholarship that covered full tuition and fees, the financial aid did not extend to housing, which was astronomically expensive both on and off campus in New Jersey. I worked while in seminary to provide money for groceries and utilities, but I still have to deal with this ten year loan now. I’m not ashamed of the loan, but I realize that I need to curb my spending habits because of it. The choices I made about the loan will effect choices I make in the future. All too often, I fear that we jump into spending money without thinking about how it will change our spending habits in the future. Or worse, we don’t change our habits at all, instead, living as if the loan or bill doesn’t exist, and simply charging more and more. 
One of the questions we are asked during the ordination worship is service is a historic question that traces back to the days of John Wesley, are you not in debt as so to embarrass yourself or others? Usually there is a bit of struggle around this question because of the cost of the seven years of education that it takes to become and ordained pastor, but I think that what the question is really getting at is reflective in 1 Timothy 6, are you so in love with money that your spending habits have caused you to wonder from the faith? Do our finances reflect a life of simplicity and generosity?
When we answer that question during the ordination service we do so only for ourselves, not for the person who is standing to the left or the right of us. We are not called to judge how others handle money - we can only examine ourselves. Because only we know exactly how much we make, how much we save, and how much we give away. We can only know the state of our own hearts, not the hearts of others. We are only in a place to ask God to pierce our own consciences about whether we are profiting by the world’s standards or Gods.
And what is the difference between the two standards? The standard of the world around is what has become known as the American Dream - which over the years has morphed into the belief that you can have anything and everything you want materially. This dream is perhaps best summarized in the slogan for Master Card: “Theres some things money can’t buy but for everything else, there’s master card”. The American Dream has lead some people to purchase things on credit that they would never dream of buying if they had to hand over cash. The American Dream has also lead us in this current day and age to live beyond our means, and not save for the future. It used to be that most people put ten percent of their pay checks into savings, now the national average is less than one percent. 
In contrast, we find God’s standards around money which allows us to certainly use the money that God has blessed us with, but also calls for us to be generous in giving to others. God’s standard asks us to seek to live a simple life - whatever that may mean for you and your family - instead of trying to find our worth in how much we can spend or having the “best” new things on the market. God’s standard asks us to prayerfully examine what difference our time, talent, and resources can make in the lives of others and for the sake of the Kingdom of God. 

Brothers and sisters, if most of us were honest this morning we would say that we feel some of the tension we just discussed about money. We worry about it. We sometimes overspend. And we feel trapped between the idea of that we should be able to have everything we want and knowing that there has to be a better way. Would you join me, for the next three weeks, in praying to God to help us reveal to us that better way - the way of scripture to live into our finances in this day and age? Will you join me in examining our heart, especially around the topic of money? Not examine the hearts of others, but to examine our own heart and our own household? Will you join me in asking God to reveal to us what is truly “enough”? Amen. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

“Be Courageous: The Impossible” Joshua 6: 8-21

One of my favorite type of spiritual song is the spiritual. Most of us know them, we just don’t know where they came from. There is an old spiritual written about today’s bible passage: “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho. Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, An’ the walls come tumblin’ down.” Spirituals were Christian songs written by slaves that spoke both of Biblical stories and truths and had a much deeper meaning. For example, this spiritual also speaks of escaping from slavery as well as today’s Biblical text. 
We are now in our final week of our sermon series focusing on the book of Joshua found in the old testament. We have been exploring different ways to be courageous - preparing to follow God and putting God first in our lives. 
This week, our text takes us to a favorite story of Sunday School children - the battle of Jericho. Jericho was the first battle fought by the Israelites as they are entering into the promised land. However, it is a bit of a different battle, with an odd battle plan under the leadership of Joshua. The Israelite army didn’t rush into the city, taking it as their own. Instead, they marched around the city once a day for six days before the trumpets were blown and a loud shout came up from the people of Israel, causing the walls of the city to fall. 
The battle plan was not the most conventional, but it would set the tone for the rest of time Israel would be claiming the land. This was their first test of obedience - would the follow this plan that didn’t make sense to them, but that God had communicated to their leader Joshua, or would they try to go their own way instead. 
Every day we have a very similar choice to make in the world. Are we going to live our lives in a way that others would think to be unconventional, but as God calls us to live through scripture, or are we going to go about life the way that makes sense to everyone else. 
This morning in your bulletin you should have found a  piece of paper entitled “Journey Markers”. The first question is about how long you have attended worship at Grace or St. Paul’s. Think about it - the longer you walk with Christ the more you should be growing in obedience to Christ. It is not always easy growth, but it comes from choosing to follow God’s ways time and time again. 
The battle of Jericho was the first battle for the Israelites. It was going to set the tenor of every battle to follow. If you have read the book of Joshua before, you know that it wasn’t always easy for the people to follow Joshua’s instructions to them. In fact, there were some moments in the book where they were just as disobedient as they were back in the story told in Exodus. But this battle, where they were faithful, become the launching off point for everything to come. They had been faithful and obedient to God in the past so they knew they could be faithful and obedient to God in the future. 
We don’t necessarily expect the same obedience from new Christians as we do from folks who have been walking with Christ for years, because obedience is born out of trusting God and relying on God’s faithfulness, which comes with time. I invite you now to take time to mark down how long you have been attending worship in this particular church, however short or long, though we fully recognize that how long you have been attending worship with us may or may not be a reflection of how long you have been walking with Christ.
The last few weeks we have been talking about how the Israelites prepared for this journey to the promise land - packing what they needed and preparing themselves physically and spiritually. This is true for us on our Christian journey as well. We need to be prepared for whatever we may face. In fact, if we are not prepared we are more likely to be disobedient. How do you think the Israelites would have reacted to this plan to walk about the city walls for six days instead of trying to seize it immediately if they had not prepared? Probably not quite as willing to take the risk of following this seemingly impossible way, if not for that preparation.
We too, need to prepare. And while I acknowledge that each of us may prepare a bit differently, I am also aware that there are four things we all need to do in order to face the seemingly impossible together for God. The first is to worship. While we aren’t going to study it in this particular sermon series, the ending of the book of Joshua is all about worship - the people being called together to worship and to follow the most important command when they worship - to worship Yahweh and no other gods. We come together as the people of God to put God first, to learn about God, and to praise God together. The second is to pray daily. Prayer is the basic way we communicate with God. We talk to God through prayer, not because we want to get something in return, but simply to spend time in the presence of God. Think about talking to a friend or a spouse, if you only communicated when you wanted something it would not be a very life-giving relationship. So it is with God - we pray to spend time with the one who loves us the most. Third, read the Bible. We believe the Bible is the living word of God which teaches us about life and how to best represent Christ in the world. We need to be in the word in order to live out the word. One of my chief pet-peeves is when people tell me what they think the Bible says about something instead of what it actually says, not just in what is written but in the rich context and history surrounding it. We can never stop learning from the Bible, so we need to continually be reading it, daily. Lastly, studying scripture with other people. Our faith is both personal and communal. We need other people to study the word with us so we can hear what God is pointing out to them, because it may just be what we need to hear. We recognize things differently when we are studying scripture together, and it also gives us a group to hold us accountable to growing in Christ. 
Once we are prepared, we are sent forth to face the impossible - to help grow the Kingdom of God by sharing our faith in different ways, just as the Israelites were sent out once they were prepared. Once again, this may look a bit different for each of us, but there are three things we are all called to do Biblically - first, to tithe. Tithing, or giving a certain percentage of our income serves two purpose - first it allows the work of the Church to take place and second it strengthens us to trust God with every aspect of our lives, including our finances. Note in today’s passage that the Israelites were told to give everything to the Lord’s treasury. While God certainly deserves everything we have, we are instructed to give the first ten percent back to God, leaving the other ninety for our discretion. I am fully aware that this is a hard practice, but what would it look like to give 2 percent or 3 percent, working your way up to ten, if you have never tithed before? Second, sharing our faith. There are many different ways to share our faith, but we are called to share the good news of Jesus Christ as often as we can so that others may come to know the God we love and Savior we follow. Lastly, serve in a ministry. For some this may mean serving as a children’s church teacher inside of the church for others it may mean being a camp counselor or sorting food for community action - we are all called to serve others, to love our neighbors, in whatever way we feel lead in particular to use our gifts and talents.

Now I want you to fold up your journey marker sheet. If you wrote your name anywhere on it cross it out. If you feel comfortable doing so, please pass it in the offering plates being passed around. Joshua lead the people because he knew the people he was leading. He knew where they needed growth and what their strengths are. These sheets will help me see, as your leader, where we need to grow as a congregation in 2016 so we can trust God more fully. Do we need to focus more or preparation or more on facing the impossible? Let us face 2016 brothers and sisters, together, on this journey to glorify the Kingdom of God. Amen. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

“Be Courageous: God is Our Help” Joshua 3: 1-13

Spiritual writer Anne Lammott authored a book about prayer a few years ago where she stated that perhaps the most sincere form of prayer is to ask for help. To come before God, in all humility, and say that a situation is simply bigger than you and that you can no longer handle it on your own. To ask God to help you. But there is a difference between asking God for help and saying that God is our help.
We are now in the second week of our sermon series on the book of Joshua. Last week we discovered that the book of Joshua invites us to be courageous with our faith in different ways than perhaps we had previously imagined. Joshua was the leader after Moses who had to have courage given by God to lead the people, finally, to the promised land. Today the Israelites, under his leadership, are taking the first steps in that direction. 
The time has come. The people have been wondering for forty years in the dessert. Have faced the death of their parents, loved ones, and even their leader, but now they are going to take the first step towards the land that God has promised them - the land they left captivity in Egypt for - the land flowing with milk and honey. They prepared for this day - they had set aside three days to spiritually and physically prepare for the journey and now it was time.
If you were going to go on the journey of a lifetime what would you take? A few years ago there were lots of hypothetical questions asked in this manner - like if you were on a dessert island what three things would you take with you? I lived out a more practical version of this question when I was in France during seminary. I spent a week in a community called Taize, where thousands of young adult pilgrims from around the world gathered to pray each week. We were instructed to only bring a hiking backpack - so the question became what do I really need to fit into this backpack and what can be left behind. 
The Israelites were used to moving from camp to camp, but this was still a hard question. They had learned to trust God for their provisions in terms of food and water each day, but surely in forty years they had also accumulated some stuff. And now they were being asked what they would carry with them on this final leg of the journey. But there was one thing the community knew they couldn’t leave behind. The ark of the covenant. Before there was ever a temple built to worship God in, the Israelites had the ark, containing items that reminded them of God’s presence in their daily lives. The ark contained different items from their journey, most notably the ten commandments. They not only refused to leave the ark behind, despite its size and weight, but they gave the ark the place of prominence on their journey. First and foremost.
When the ancient Israelites made the statement that God is their help it came from this understanding of the prominent place God had in their lives - first. They recognized, on an almost daily basis, that everything they had came from God as a gift, not a right. They recognized, every time they saw the ark of the covenant leading them, that they were people of the covenant. The covenant of Noah - that the earth would no longer be destroyed completely by water. The covenant of Abraham - that they were the chosen people. And the ten commandments -  that they were brought out of slavery in Egypt to follow God. 
When the ancient Israelites said that God was their help they recognized that they had to ask God to help them every single day. Which they were most certainly doing now. They were even told to concencrate themselves, not because what they were going to now do, taking this first step to cross the Jordan, was of their own merit, but because it was a holy and set apart moment for God’s glory. It was God who was going to do amazing things amongst them, not the other way around.
Oh how far we’ve come from the ancient Israelites crossing the Jordan that fateful day. Not that they got every moment right, but we have seemingly lost their dependance on God. We have become the society that has bought into the lie that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Yes, we ask God for help, but usually when it is only a last resort. And we no longer mean a total dependance upon God when we claim that God is our help - instead we seem to mean that God will help us accomplish achieving our wants and desires instead of seeking after the heart of God.
We need to renew our hearts. Renew our minds. And renew our covenant with God by putting God in the rightful place, first and foremost, with us following. No matter where God may lead. I love what happens next with the ark of the covenant - those carrying it stop right in the center of the Jordan. Right in the center. Dead halt. The Israelites didn’t rush past the ark - trying to out pace God. They stopped too. And the waters parted, like they did so many years ago with the Red Sea, so that the Israelites could cross on dry land.
How often do we try to outpace God? Thinking that we know a better way or an easier way that backfires, only then leading us to cry out for help. What would have happened if we would have said that God is our help in the first place and meant it? Following God’s directions instead of our own? Would things have turned out differently?
We cannot re-write the past, but we can consider how we will pack as we move forward into the future. We can consider if we will put God in a place of prominence in the coming year or if we will try, once again, to do things our own way first. 
Let us start anew today, as we reclaim who we are on this special day for United Methodists - Covenant renewal Sunday. Wesley understood that at times we, as the Church, loose our way and forget our identity, which often leads to us not following God fully. So each new calendar year a service is held for us to recommit ourselves to the teachings of Christ. 
My friends and family will tell you that I strongly dislike broken promises. In our present culture, we seem to make promises left and right that we have no intention of fulfilling. Or we make promises that we try to keep for a short period of time and then give up when it becomes hard, returning to our old habits and patterns instead. But if there is any place that the words “I promise”, or “I vow”, or “I covenant to” should matter it should be the Church. For God has made an unbreakable covenant with us through Jesus Christ, who we strive to both worship and emulate. 

Some promises we can only make once, like vows of membership or promises made at our baptism. But John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that we needed a reminder of those promises. Like celebrating an anniversary or the people of Israel remembering God’s covenant when they saw the ark of the covenant, as Methodists we gather once a year to reaffirm what we believe and who we covenant to be together. In your bulletin you should have found a copy of the Wesley covenant prayer this morning. I’d like to invite you to take it out and read over it. In a few minutes we will read this covenant aloud together, saying that we want God to be first in our live and that we will submit to the will of God, whatever that may be. This is our binding promise for the year, one we will remember when we gather together for worship or fellowship. One that puts God first in our lives. Amen. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

“What Lies Ahead" Joshua 1: 1-11

The book of Joshua is known for two things - the statement that we find repeated throughout today’s passage “Be Strong and Courageous” and the story of the Battle of Jericho. For the next three weeks we are going to dive deeper into the text of Joshua, looking both at these familiar passages and some others, and seeing how the stories found within this book apply to our lives today.
The book of Joshua continues the story of the people of Israel’s escape from Egypt and journey into the promise land. While Moses was the leader who brought the people out of the land of Egypt by the call and promise of God, and gave them their new law of the covenant, as well as ventured with them in the wilderness for 40 years, Moses could only take the people so far. He was prohibited from taking the people into the promise land. His past sin of killing an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew made him go as far as the corner of the promise land, seeing it in all of its glory, but he was not allowed to be the one to lead the people across the threshold. 
Now a new leader has been appointed and installed by God - Joshua. But there is a small hiccup in the people’s claim to the promise land. Other people are living there. So Joshua must make military campaigns to enter into the land. What we find in today’s scripture is Joshua being called by God to be the people’s new leader and then Joshua’s address to the people of Israel.
Many folks have memory verses - verses of scripture that are committed to memory to be recalled at a later time - usually a time of trial. Amongst the verses folks memorized the statement made by God to Joshua is amongst the favorites, “Be strong and courageous.” We love the idea of God calling us to be strong and instilling courage in us, but when we lose the context of the verses, we displace their importance.
Consider this: the people of Israel have been wondering in the wilderness for nearly 40 years after escaping enslavement under the Pharaoh. Things have not necessarily been smooth. The people were hit with disease and famine from time to time because of their disobedience against God. They turned against God and Moses by building idols. They have complained so much that Moses had grown weary of them for a period of time. But even though the people and Moses often bumped heads, they still trusted Moses. However, now Moses is dead. Who is going to lead them into the promise land?
Even though the people appeared to be leader-less, the goal still remained the same - to get to the promise land. It is what God had called the people to do. It is what Moses risked his very life for. They are almost there, they can feel it, yet it seems so far away without someone to help them take the final steps - crossing the Jordan and claiming the land. So God raised up a leader - Joshua from amongst them. One who would be faithful and obedient. 
But that doesn’t make Joshua’s task any easier. He was probably still morning the death of his leader and mentor - Moses. He was caught between needing to mourn and this call to move forward. God showed up with a big call on Joshua’s life - not only to lead, but accompanied with the promise that everywhere Joshua set his foot, will be given to him and the people of Israel.
We like the phrase “be strong and courageous” because of their power, but Joshua needed to hear them from God. He needed them to move him forward. He needed them because the task seemed insurmountable - too big for him to comprehend on his own. And the task called for great risk in the face of danger.
We don’t call people courageous for doing simple things. No, we call people courageous for taking big risks. For being every-day heroes amongst us. And we may not like it, Church, but we have the same call as Joshua in a way today. No, not the call to go and engage in war for the purpose of conquering land, but the call to be strong and courageous in the face of insurmountable odds. To face the risk of rejection in order to bring froth the message of Good News. To face statistics that aren’t in our favor. We face the call to do the hard work of making God’s name known so people can come to know the saving love of Jesus Christ. And that means we can no longer simply do things as we have always done them.
Joshua could chosen to ignore the call of God, stayed behind mourning the death of Moses, and never moving the people forward into the Promise Land. Let’s be honest, we have plenty of churches that do that every day. Churches that think if they just hold on, doing what they have always done, that things will turn around. Churches that don’t want to risk changing something about themselves so new people can come, just as they are, and hear about Jesus Christ. We would rather have people come and adapt to us, because there is less risk in that, but that is no longer what we are called to do. It is no longer true that if we just keep the doors open people will flood in, or that if we hold a special event the next logical step for folks is to show up in worship Sunday morning. We now live in a world where people have to have multiple contacts with church folks where they consistently feel honored and loved before they can trust them. And by multiple, I do not mean 1 or 2, I mean 20 or 30. And that takes the risk of time. But it comes with such a beautiful reward.
What lies ahead for us is directly correlated to whether we are willing to risk being strong and courageous. And being strong and courageous often means risking to do what others see as foolish and going to the places others will not go for the sake of the Gospel message. I want to share with you some of the stories of hope I know about churches taking risks. One pastor I know has been offering free seasonal clothing once a month in her town. While it is important to offer this service in order to meet direct needs of those in her community, more importantly, relationships are being built between people from the church and community members. People are being prayed for. Hope is being shared, all because of the depth of these emerging relationships and the trust that is being built with consistency. Another pastor is offering a monthly service with a meal catered by Panera, so that people get to know each other’s stories and a safe space is created where people don’t feel like they have to have it all together or know everything before entering into a space for worship. The church is intentionally thinking about the potential obstacles that could prevent people from coming to worship and they are setting aside their familiar liturgies and known hymns so that new people can come and meaningful connect with God for the first time. Another church is having open discussions in local restaurants where people can come and talk about issues of faith in a deep way. No question is seen as off limits and people are starting to learn how to share their faith in a respectful way and people keep coming back. Another church decided to serve their community in Lent, by honoring a different group every week with a small gift and to let them know they are being prayed for. Instead of having a mid-week Lenten service they came together to create and deliver the gifts and then come back together to pray for the names of the people they just met. Another church is packing backpacks full of food for a local elementary school to distribute on Fridays so children could be fed during the weekend. 

There is no magical formula to engaging our community in a strong and courageous way. And sometimes the risks we take do not work out the way we expect. But we have a choice to make - here and now and in the coming days - are we going to stay the same for the sake of our own comfort or are we going to go out and engage new people in new ways? Are we going to be strong and courageous? Are we going to take a risk for the sake of the Kingdom of God, the Promised Land? Amen.