Sunday, July 27, 2014

Submission 1 Peter 2:18, Phil 2:8

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

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

Sunday, July 20, 2014

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

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

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Study Rm 12:2, Jn 8:32

As I sat down to write this sermon words of wisdom from one of our own kept running through my mind, “Part of a pastor’s job is to have time to study.” I fully agree with the person who said this - part of my job is to dwell in the word, listening for where God is leading me for a sermon, a Bible study or a conversation. However, its not just my job to study because I’m a pastor. It is my job, all of our jobs, to study the Word of God because we are Christian. 
Part of the revolution of Protestantism under the leadership of Martin Luther was to make the Bible accessible and in the hands of everyone, not just the priest. However, now that the battle has been fought and won, and many of us own more than one Bible, I wonder how many people actually take time to read it? And not only read it, but also to study it as a spiritual discipline. 
All spiritual disciplines exist for the same purpose, to transform us. However, just as the discipline of physical exercise takes time to transform our body, so any spiritual discipline takes time to transform our hearts and spirits. In fact, transformation is often a long, slow, process, which turns far too many well meaning people away. They try a discipline for a while, but don’t see immediate results so they give up. 
In order to be transformed we must be both willing to keep going, even when we don’t see or feel or sense a change right away. And we must be willing to bring ourselves before God - the very One who wants to transform us. If there are people who turn away from spiritual disciplines because they don’t like the hard work, there are just as many who turn away because they don’t actually want to spend time, alone with God. Instead they like to be in the vicinity of God or pretend to be busy for God. Come to church and be close to other people who are close to God, hoping that relationship rubs off. Of course that is not how any relationship, and especially our relationship with God, functions and blossoms. We may sense someone else’s depth in their spiritual lives, but they cannot transmit it to us. All they can do is make us want to seek out our own growth, our own deep relationship with the Holy One. 
What I like about the discipline of study is that there is no way anyone else can put in the hard work and time for us. It really is something we must do  - just as we had to study when we were in school. But the reward is so much greater than studying for a test - the reward is simply spending time with Jesus because he wants to be with us. We don’t enter into the discipline of study because we should do it, but because we also want to spend time with Jesus, the one who desires us. 
I was a child who loved school. I loved the challenge. Learning new things. I still love to learn. I devour books, soaking in what they have to teach me. I love dwelling in scripture, not just the words written there, but the spirit and context in which they were written. Reflecting back I think my love for learning came from my parents, who are both vivacious readers. I think we were some of the only kids in our neighborhood who had just about every family vacation turn into a history lesson. How many other children can claim they went to a museum at the beach? We also had additional books that we read, selected each summer for the coming school year, outside of the assigned curriculum. Studying was just part of who we were and still are today.
However, I have many friends who didn’t like learning. Studying didn’t come easy for them - and it was often undergirded by fear. If they didn’t get a certain grade on a report or a test they would be punished. To this day those friends still don’t like studying. To them learning was linked with duty, which caused resistance instead of fostering love. 
Much is the same with our study of scripture. Some of us grew up in households where curiosity about the Word of God was fostered, encouraged, and as a result there is a natural love there. Others grew up in places where the study of scripture was frowned upon or perhaps forced, so there is residual resistance today. Still others, never had the opportunity to figure out if they love to study or not - and as a result they fear that they don’t know enough to start studying now - thus giving up without even trying. 
Maybe you recognize yourself in one of those scenarios or maybe you having a different inclination towards studying scripture altogether. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to the discipline of study is that we have bought into the bondage of false teaching. We have come to believe that studying the scripture is no different than devotional scripture reading, and that ultimately it is about what I feel when I read a text instead of what is being said. 
To fight off that bondage we need to engage scripture in four different ways. First, we need to have a consistent, repetitious way to engage the Bible. We need to make reading and studying scripture a habit. Maybe ask someone else to promise to study scripture at the same time every day or ask you about what you are studying, in order to hold you accountable. The study of scripture is not meant to be something that we do occasionally or only on Sundays. Its meant to be done every day. 
Secondly, we need to concentrate on the scripture. We need to pay attention to what is written or said for Biblical instruction. We need to seek to study scripture in a place where we can at least try to limit distractions. 
Thirdly, we need to seek comprehension. The truth is that the Bible can be confusing. But it also has limitless possibility, even in the midst of all of that confusion to move us towards knowledge if we desire it. In today’s scripture we find Paul calling the Church to a new way of thinking - one where knowledge leads to service. We aren’t seeking to comprehend the Bible just so we can feel smart, we are seeking to find the knowledge that can free us to serve others. Free us to new truths and insights. Free us to be more fully in love with God.
Lastly, we need to reflect upon what we are reading, asking what significance the part of the Bible we are studying has for our daily life. However, a word of caution. You cannot skip the other three steps of studying scripture just to get to this one. The discipline of study demands the entire process, not just this part. If you are tempted to read the Bible just to figure out what it has for you today, perhaps consider joining a Bible study or small group that uses study guides and discussion to walk through all four movements of study. We need to look at scripture in its context, what it meant when it was written, instead of just what we think it means today. 

What are you studying that is helping you seek truth and freedom today? What are you studying that demands humility - admitting that you don’t understand or know everything? What questions do you have about scripture that you can engage through study? Notice, that the question is not are you studying scripture. Remember this is one of our tasks as Christians. To be in the Word. Daily. So again I ask, what are you studying that can lead to transformation? Amen. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

“Growing in Christ: Fasting” Luke 18: 9-14

When I was in college, I took a three week summer course that focused on spiritual disciplines. Overall, I enjoyed the class until we get to today’s topic - fasting. There was just something inside of me that had a negative reaction when I heard the word “fasting”. This poor attitude spilled over to the rest of the class when my professor shared his personal practice with fasting - how he skipped dinner with his family once a week to fast. The idea of not being with your family in order to grow spiritually made me feel even more distant from the concept of fasting.
But the truth is that we need to fast. In Western culture we are obsessed with the idea of being better than we are. The idea of presenting to others that we are better - more wealthy, more righteous, more successful - then we feel on the inside.  So we cling to the latest fad to make us “better”, seeking outer glory instead of inner transformation. We want all the glory with little work and cost. And that’s the problem with fasting - it allows us to explore the depth of our own spirits and doesn’t let us settle for the half-truths that we tell others about being better than we actually are. In fact, through surrendering to God we start to discover new truths - about who we are, who God is, and the world around us. Truths that aren’t always comfortable. As we allow God to work in and through us, stripping away our layers of self-deceit and self-righteousness, we find that it is our heart that matters to God, not moral or spiritual achievements. 
The Pharisee in this morning’s scripture missed out on the heart being the center of our connection with God. The Pharisee sets his status before God and proclaims boldly, loudly, his own actions for his salvation - including praying, fasting, and tithing. In contrast there is the tax collector, who cannot bring himself to boast, and instead prayers for God to have mercy on him for the awful things that he has done, the things that bring him deep shame. 
We cannot hear today’s scripture without trying to insert ourselves in to it. Who do we each identify with more - the tax collector or the Pharisee? Before answering too quickly, think back. Has there ever been a time when you have thanked God that you aren’t like your neighbor who refuses to go to church or not like someone in a different political party who you feel isn’t following God’s leading or law? The Pharisee’s prayer is filled with arrogance and pride as he exalts himself before God - tries to prove to God his worth. Have you ever tried to tell God why you deserve something or how good you have been?
The Pharisees problem is that he practiced the discipline, not for transformation, but to check it off his to-do list. For true fasting breaks our hard hearts and makes us humble before our Creator. Instead of having true humility, he had the false form of humility that often beckons us to find our identity in our accomplishments instead of in God alone. 
The Pharisee often gets a bad reputation in this parable, but truth be told, we have probably all been the pharisee in one way or another. Just like we have probably all been the tax collector at one time or another. We live in the continuum between the two figures, seeking out a way to trust God with our deliverance and transformation.
Enter fasting. Fasting is difficult in today’s society, where we are bombarded with restaurants and advertising for food every where we turn. We also have bought into the propaganda that tells us that if we do not have three large meals and several snacks in between, we aren’t healthy. Further, fasting, like most disciples, has gotten a bad reputation over the years because of Christians who have absurd it for their own purposes. Here are some simple truths about fasting: Fasting is not a guarantee, we cannot force God to do what we desire simply because we fast. In fact, if you don’t live as God intends then chances are fasting will not form you into a faithful disciple. Second, fasting is not about outward appearances. We do not fast so we can loudly proclaim that we fast, instead it is a private matter between the person and God.  Further, fasting is different from dieting which has people abstain from food for physical reasons, not spiritual purposes. Lastly, fasting is not a rule. In Matthew 6 Jesus says, when you fast, but he doesn’t command people to fast or give them an excuse or an out not to. Instead, fasting is a way of life, that draws us into trusting God more fully. 
So what does fasting look like? When we hear the word fasting the first thing we think of is giving up is food. But fasting is really about giving up something, anything so that we can seek out God more deeply. Some people abstain from the internet, TV, shopping, or use of comfort devices, like an elevator, for a set period of time. Some people fast one day a week, and others fast for weeks at a time. The key to fasting is to examine your heart and see what you are craving, the thing you turn to for comfort, and to intentionally give that up for a time in order to more fully depend on God. When we let go of something in order to seek God out more deeply in prayer. 
Most often people fast alone, but there are also set time when people fast as a group. The one advantage to fasting with other people is to have a support network to remind us that we are not fasting in order to force God to give us what we want. A group to seek out God’s sustaining presence together. 
Back to the story of my professor. Part of the class requirements included trying each of the disciplines we were exploring. So ever so reluctantly I had to at least give fasting a try. For physical reasons I could not fast, so instead I gave up media for a day. As simple as it sounds, I began to realize just how much control the media had in my life - from watching TV in the morning when I got ready for class, to relaxing in front of a movie each evening, and listening to music while walking to class. I grasped how much the media was blocking out my ability to hear and respond to God, filling up space in my life and acting as a numbing agent. So this reluctant fast-er saw the necessity and power of the discipline, when practiced properly.
What proper fasting looks like in each of our lives will be different. Some of us cannot fast from food for physical purposes. In fact, if you have any doubt, please do not start fasting without talking to your physician. For others of us, food isn’t the thing that controls us, so we will need to fast from something else. And others may not even be at the stage of practicing a fast yet, instead we need to look into the depths of our heart and see what controls us.

Reading today’s parable, my guess is that the Pharisee was controlled by his need to have people accept him. Controlled by his need to be needed. But I’m not so sure that he even realized it. Instead of fasting to give God control and regain balance in his life, he fasted because it was what he thought he had to do in order to please God. But fasting is about looking to God to sustain us more than seeking God’s pleasure. Which brings us back to the question from the beginning of the sermon - who do you identify more with at this time in your life - the Pharisee or the tax collector? What do you need to let go of in order to more fully rely on God’s sustaining grace? What is blocking your relationship with God? What do you need to fast from? Amen. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

“Growing in Christ: Meditation” Psalm 1

I only remember having a family garden one time growing up. We picked a spot away from the house. We picked out what vegetables we wanted to plant. We dug in the dirt. Planted. And waited. And waited. The yield from our garden was tiny at best. Carrots no bigger than my pinky. A handful of potatoes. There may have been some green beans. But most of the crops died.
Looking back, my brothers and I liked the idea of a garden a lot more than actually taking care of one. We didn’t cultivate the soil well before we planted. We didn’t read the instructions about the best way or time of the year to plan each crop. And we only watered our little patch of land when we felt like it and remembered. 
As sad as our little garden was, what breaks my heart more is that how we treated that garden is how most people treat their spiritual life. Not really cultivating their inner life. Only seeking to practice spiritual disciplines when they feel like and remember, instead of seeing them as vital to spiritual growth and survival. Choosing to get caught up in the busyness of the day instead of dwelling in the word of God. And the result is a parched spiritual life.
Once we neglect our souls, what happens? They start to cry out. Sometimes we even know that our spiritual lives are hurting, but we choose instead to ignore it by being consumed in other things that we think are more important. In the words of Dallas Willard, one of the prolific writers on the spiritual life, “Only once we clearly acknowledge the soul, we can learn to hear its cries.”.
For the next ten weeks we are going to do just that - acknowledge the soul. We are going to delve into scripture together to come up with spiritual practices to try as individuals and in community in order to find spiritual grounding. Some of the disciplines may not seem to be your thing, but I would encourage each of us to earnestly try them for one week, only one week, in order to find the best way to feed your soul. Who knows, maybe God is waiting to reach out to you a new way through one of these disciplines.
We are made for relationship with God. In fact, our relationship to God is the most important relationship we have. Yet, sometimes we act as if God is the least important relationship in our life, putting off the work of the spiritual life until we have more time. Or we run to God when circumstances are trying, but turn back to our old habits and schedules when things are going well. This isn’t living from the center of a healthy soul, brothers and sisters. And as a result our spiritual lives become more focused on knowing about God, instead of really knowing God personally. Spiritual practices are tools to help us connect to this first and primary relationship with God, cultivating it. No one else can do the hard work of cultivating your soul for you. No one else can practice spiritual disciplines for you. Its up to you - and flows from the importance you place on your relationship with God. 
We live in a day and age of superficiality. As a result, our faith lives have started to look like the world around us, shallow at best. We need people of faith, who reject the noise, hurry, and crowds of the world, to dwell in a deep relationship with God. Spiritual disciples are truly for everyone, not the spiritual elite. In fact, we are all called to cultivate our inner lives in order to be able to hear God’s voice and more faithfully obey God’s word. 
Today’s Psalm speaks of one of these spiritual practices - meditation. “Happy are those who...delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on his law day and night.” Meditation is one of those words that has gotten a bad reputation over the year. For some of us we may think of other religious practices when we hear chanting, and become uncomfortable, others may think of those who seem to space out of society. Still others may claim that meditation is only for those who have lots of time to fill. But at its very core, Christians believe that meditation is gaze deeply into God’s word and reflect upon God’s works. Meditation allows us to give God our undivided attention so we can more fully know about God’s nature and see God’s heart for us. 
There are many different things we could choose to meditate on in order to fall more deeply in love with God, but the Psalmist speaks on meditating on God’s law, the word of God. Scripture reflects God’s nature and purpose for us. In this Psalm, the author speaks of two different types of people - those who love scripture and use it to feed their souls, and those who aren’t grounded in the Word, so they blow too and fro. In a way the Psalmist is asking if we live by God’s law or our own? If we allow God to search us and be our judge, or if we use our own rules and logic to justify what we are doing, even if we know that it is wrong. The Psalmist is essentially asking, do you allow yourselves to be instructed by God’s word? And this is a question that still penetrates each of our faith lives today. 
Another botched planting story. When I was in elementary school we had to have science projects. Both of my projects had disastrous consequences, but for one of them I watered plants with different kinds of beverages. Some with water. Some with soda. Some with kool aid. Only one plant survived - the one that was nourished by water. The others began to grow mold and smell, so much so that we had to move them out of the main living area, to a back room so they didn’t make the whole house reek. 
Where are you getting your nourishment? From dwelling in the word of God? Or from superficial sources? Are you like a tree with deep roots, drinking from the living water, or do you think that you can absorb the word through other people instead of putting in the hard time and work yourself?
In order to find life giving nourishment in the word through meditation, we can’t just pass over a scripture superficially. Instead we have to read bits of passages slowly, over and over again, until we find the reality of what the passage is speaking to us, or in the words of Richard Foster, until “The written word becomes the living word addressed to you”.
The best way to meditate on scripture is find a time to be alone, just you, the Lord, and the Word. Plan this time daily and make sure it happens. It doesn’t have to be a long period of time, try starting out with 15 or 20 minutes. Find a passage that speaks to your heart and read it slowly. Don’t read the passage to absorb facts so much as to seek the truth it has for your life. Reflect upon it with your mind and your heart. Absorb it, letting it sink in and transform you from the inside out. Let it be integrated into your life. 
Meditation is an act of faith. It requires with drawing from the things that distract us from God, so that we can intentionally be present to our Creator, leading us into deeper relationship. Its not rooted in a desire to study, but rather a desire to love God more fully. 
But here’s the thing - meditation is hard work. It keeps us from being spiritually lazy, which means automatically there are some people who will give up on it because its difficult. But how many of you are married? Or have a child? Or a friend? All of those relationships are hard work too. Somewhere along the way, we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking that our relationship with God should be easy. But how easy can it possibly be to fill your mind with God in a world that is trying to pull you every other possible direction? No wonder the Psalmist describes those who do not meditate on the law of the Lord as chaff that the wind drives away.

What makes the righteous, righteous in this Psalm is that they dwell with God. They seek to integrate the law in  a way that helps them live with integrity, living a life that is authentic and whole. Can we say the same things about our faith lives currently? Today, do you feel more like chaff blowing in the wind, or a tree with deep roots? Do you feel like a plant that is being nourished with living water, or one that is molding and starting to smell? And, what are you willing to put into your relationship with God in order to cultivate your soul and bear the fruit of the righteous? Amen. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

“Disciples for a New Day” 1 Cor 4: 1-5

Psychologists have found that humans are constantly judging situations and each other. We may place a fancy word on it, such as discriminating, but we are still judging things and people, even unconsciously to see if they are worth our attention. We live in a day and age when we are on sensory overload, so we judge even more frequently. We have become poisoned by the judgment epidemic, to the point where we do not even realize that we are judging anymore. 
And surely there are times when judging is fruitful, preventing us from being caught up in situations we should rather stay away from. But the Apostle Paul reminds us in today’s scripture lesson that we are first and foremost to see ourselves as servant of Christ, not the judge of others, or even the judge of ourselves. 
Why would Paul even take time to talk about judging versus not judging? Isn’t that a no-brainer, God is the judge of all, not us? Perhaps we think this lesson is easily learned, yet even today we struggle with judgmental attitudes inside of the Church. Paul takes time to write to the Church at Corinth about this issue because judging has its roots in an even bigger heart issue, which is largely hidden. Issues such as insecurity with ourselves, bigotry, racism, classism, agism - the list goes on and on. When our hearts become infected with these intolerances, we find ourselves judging a group of people more quickly than we should, or making sweeping generalities based off of what people look like, instead of getting to know who they truly are. Perhaps this is why God alone is judge, because God alone knows what is going on inside of each of us.
The Church at Corinth wasn’t just having a problem with judging those outside of their fellowship, they were judging those on the inside as well. A few chapters later, Paul needs to remind them what communion is truly about, as it has become a time to separate the classes. The wealthy ate first and had their fill, while the poor were left with the scraps, if not disclosed entirely. This was not the vision of community that God had in mind.
Further, the people of Corinth were struggling with their own insecurities over their identity as well. They didn’t know who they were to be. So many different people were placing labels on them, some positive and some negative, that they began to see themselves through the lens of others instead of the eyes of God. They had to come face to face with the competing expectations they were being saddled with, and throw out those which were not of God - a hard task to say the least - that left them feeling vulnerable and questioning who they were. 
Perhaps we can have a bit more sympathy with the church at Corinth when we start to examine our own situations. We live in a world that has much to say about the Church. In fact, in a study conducted by the Barna Group, the chief religious research institution, people under the age of 40 say that above all they see the church as judgmental. Further they think the Church is self-serving and irrelevant. We, like the Corinthians, need to stop and examine just how we got saddled with these labels and if this has become our identity over and above being servants of God. 
Sometimes the labels others place on us are spot on. Other times, they come from mis-perceptions. In a world that is faced with an over-whelming amount of choices, sometimes what Christians choose, under the banner of following Christ, results in them being mis-understood. And sometimes our choices are a result of mis-understanding the command of Christ as the Church and factions result. 
So what exactly is Jesus calling us to do? To make disciples. He is remarkably clear in what we call the great commission in the Gospel of Matthew - go to the very ends of the earth to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, this commission has been carried out in harmful ways over the years - including baptism following the threat of death, fire and brimstone preaching, and even removing children from parents who refuse to raise them as Christians. But we have also made disciples in incredibly beautiful and nurturing ways. The question we need to ask ourselves, is how are we being called to make disciples in a new day?
First off, we need to remember our place. We are called to be servants of Christ, not judges. God has that covered. We are simply to go forth and live out our Christian vocation, not discriminating between who we feel is worthy to hear this message or not. We need not judge people by our standards, but rather are called to look at them with the eyes of God. 
Second, we need to be adaptable. I’ve heard time and time again that we need young people to come into the Church. But we simply think that offering an invitation, or even worse, not offering an invitation at all, will result in young adults flocking to the church in droves. Young people today want to be invested in something that is making a difference in this world that they can see and experience. Do we have places like this in our parish? If not, what do we need to change in order to make this a place that is known for ministries of healing and justice? If we aren’t living into our vocation of a shared life of mission and service, we are missing a valuable opportunity to make disciples in this new day and age, where the focus is transforming the world, not membership. 
Third, we need to live our lives in such a way that people want to know what is different about us. If the best we’ve got going for us Church is that we are judgmental, we have a problem. If that is what we are known for, what do we need to change in order to be experienced as a place where God’s grace is freely given to all and where Spirits are awakened to that grace? Why aren’t people witnessing God’s transforming power through our words and actions? Why aren’t we heard as the place proclaiming love for God and our neighbor?
Lastly, to make disciples for this new day, we need to have a living faith. The type of faith that doesn’t mis-represent itself to make others look bad. The type of faith that is honest and authentic. A faith that is vulnerable when we come before God and one another. A shared faith with our brothers and sisters who hold us accountable for our sin and ignorance, because they know us well. A faith that shares one another’s burdens.
Here’s the thing. People can throw around all sorts of statistics about why the Church is in decline in North America. But those statistics can backfire when they lead us to judge ourselves or others. Instead, what is we turned the conversation around, asking how we will reach out to so many people in our community who are not yet a disciple of Christ? What if we changed the conversation into how we can be an inviting and welcoming Christian community? Or how we will reach out to people in adaptable and relevant ways? What if we take an honest look at ourselves and see if what people are saying about us, the Church, have any roots in the truth and seek to repent so the message of Christ isn’t hindered? What if we reclaim that we are servants of God, not the judge of others?

Robert Evans once said that transformation is the conversion of the entire person and society. As United Methodists we claim that our purpose is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world - the conversion of people and society. How are we going to live into this claim in this day and age? Amen. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

“The Spirit of God” - Acts 2: 1-21

The story is told of an elderly man who had been a life long member of a local church. One day the man died and the church folks all gathered to celebrate his life, but many people didn’t know much about him. The following Sunday the church folks returned for worship only to find that the lights were off, the heat wasn’t turned on, there was still a mess in the sanctuary, and the garbage was overflowing. It ends up this man singularly took care of most of the behind the senses tasks that made the church a pleasant place to be on Sunday. He did it all without any fanfare so people didn’t realize until his absence how vital he was.
When I heard this story the first time my thoughts immediately went to the Holy Spirit. One of the claims of the Church is that God is three in one and one in three. Three distinct persons with distinct roles, yet wholly untied and all part of the Godhead. Yet, the Holy Spirit seems to be the most forgotten and least talked about part of the Trinity. Even on this Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the birth of the Church, the Holy Spirit sometimes gets discounted. We forget how vital the Spirit is, until he seems to be absent from our lives, personally or corporately.
In some Bibles, in addition to scripture verses being numbered, topics are broken up and given headings - a preview of what the section is about. In my Bible, the first part of today’s scripture passage is entitled “The Coming of the Holy Spirit”. While that statement is true, the Holy Spirit has also existed with God and Jesus since the beginning of time, sweeping over the vastness that was to be created in the beginning. But now the Holy Spirit has come to form the Church, empowered by God to carry forth Christ’s mission to go the very ends of the earth baptizing disciples.
It makes me wonder, how long the Godhead had been planning this Pentecost celebration. How long had God been dreaming up this time when disciples would be gathered together, fearing for their very lives, yet would be met with a gift from Heaven that rushed through their space like a violent wind and appeared like tongues of fire? Did Christ know that the Spirit would enable his followers to speak languages they never studied, some they had never even heard before, in order to go forth in his name? Did God chuckle knowing how the people hearing these disciples would react? Asking how this was possible for them to hear Galileans speaking their own language? Or that some would be nay sayers would say that disciples were only drunk - as if alcohol would give them the power to speak different languages discernibly?
This celebration that God was planning was a giant gift to the Church that we still do not fully understand or unwrap today. We don’t understand the role of the Holy Spirit so we can’t tap into his power in our ministry. So what are some of the things that the Holy Spirit brings to the Church? The list is extensive, but I want to address four this morning. 
First, the Spirit brings forth signs and wonders. One of the things I hear from time to time that breaks my heart is that we are no longer in the age of miracles -that they don’t exist anymore. For that’s simply not true. We just don’t recognize the Spirit moving among us, bringing forth signs and wonders even today. Like the people in Jesus’ day who demanded a certain sign, only to receive something else instead, we overlook every day miracles, or worse don’t properly attribute them to the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t come in the packing we expect, so we dismiss it.
Second,, the Spirit gives us courage. The second part of this morning’s scripture has the title “Peter Addresses the Crowd” in my Bible. Peter, filled with the Spirit, has the courage to preach the first sermon of the Church. He raised his voice and told the crowd to listen to what he is saying. That those filled with the Spirit aren’t drunk, rather this is a fulfillment of scripture. Peter, who didn’t even have the courage to admit that he was a follower of Christ only a few months earlier, now is boldly proclaiming the gospel. 
Every time we claim that we aren’t brave enough to do something, or it makes us feel uncomfortable, or we can’t possibly do a certain work for the kingdom because we aren’t gifted, we are denying the courage and power the Spirit gives us. We dismiss the Spirit, thinking that he isn’t big enough to stand up to our own self-proclaimed inadequacies. What would have happened if Peter wouldn’t have seized the courage given by the Spirit at this moment? Three-thousand people would have missed out on the opportunity to be baptized. What moments do we miss when we make excuses instead of depending on the Spirit?
Third, the Spirit gives us guidance when making decisions. One of my favorite parts of the Pentecost story is the timing. The disciples were gathered in the upper room, waiting. Christ told them to wait in a certain place until a certain, undisclosed time. There is a lot of trust and hard work that goes into waiting. Yet the Spirit helps us discern the right time, decision, or plan of action, if we actually pray for these things. But all too often, we pray about something once and consider that good enough for discernment. Or we get caught up in other people’s ideas instead of the prompting of the Spirit. We lose our sensitivity to the movement of the Spirit and our ability to discern diminishes as we rely solely on ourselves instead of waiting on the Holy Spirit.
Lastly, the Spirit equips the Church for ministry. The disciples couldn’t speak these languages, they weren’t native to them. Yet the Holy Spirit came and reversed the confession that had existed since the tower of Babel. The Holy Spirit brings gifts and power to use them to the disciples. The Spirit works in creative ways to unite the nations for the mission of God, if only we would claim them.
Sometimes Pentecost is described as a Birthday party. And in some ways this is true. But some times we get too caught up in the image of a birthday party - where only certain people are invited. And at the end of the day, after the presents are opened, and the cake is eaten, people go home, back to their lives as if nothing has happened. But the birthday of the Church is something everyone is invited to, a celebration for the world if only people would RSVP. Some will dismiss the message, like the nay sayers claiming that the disciples were drunk. Others will simply come to see what all the commotion is about before return to their lives as scheduled. But there is the potential for the celebration to lead to lives being changed, if we rely on the Spirit in all of its power, creativity, and gifting. People can come to know Christ, if we have the courage to discern where the Spirit is leading and boldly follow. 

Brothers and Sisters, may we be a Church known for following the Spirit, instead of dismissing him. May we follow the gifting granted to us for the mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world, proclaiming the signs and wonders of our God, three in one and one in three. Amen.