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Sunday, March 1, 2015

“Revolutionary Lifestyle” Isaiah 61:4

The Lenten season is a time of reflection and repentance. Reflection upon who we are, what we believe about God, and how we live into those beliefs. And repentance for our sins, both personal and social.
Perhaps one of the sins we need to communally repent of this season is making faith seem too easy. In most worshipping bodies, men only compose about thirty nine percent. Have you ever taken time to wonder whey there are so few males present in comparison to females? Or so few young people? Or so few families? Whatever demographic you feel the church is missing. Have you done more then bemoan the fact that worship attendance is slipping? Perhaps one of the reasons that people are missing is because we’ve made Jesus’ image to be domesticated and docile. We have picked apart the Bible and have lifted up the parts that we would like to see emulated - the good shepherd, letting the children come, and Christ forgiving others. But in doing so we have left out a majority of scriptures - the places where Jesus was kicked out of almost every place he went or caused a riot or a stir. The parts where Jesus has righteous anger and flips over the money changers table. The parts where Jesus’ words challenge the hearts of religious leaders and the folks listening to him. 
We need to present all of the pictures of Jesus in order to appreciate both who he is and who he is calling us to be as followers. We need to remember that Jesus is God - powerful and confrontational. Perhaps when folks come to worship they need to meet not necessarily a docile Jesus, but one who can be powerful in the midst of their struggles. Or one who brings a word of challenge when necessary. 
Further, maybe people are missing from worship because we’ve made our faith watered-down. We don’t make membership challenging, difficult, or demanding. The churches that are growing in the United States, brothers and sisters, are those in which faith means something and membership vows are not taken lightly. They hold people accountable to tithing, being in worship, and being in a small group. They are the places that remind folks that membership does not come with privileges, but rather demands. When we don’t hold folks accountable the vows they make, we are essentially saying that numbers matter more to us then helping people live out their faith - and perhaps the easiness of joining the church makes it just as easy to leave.
The early church understood such problems. For the first 300 years, the church was illegal. And during that time there were at least ten mass persecutions of Christians, that resulted in so many people being killed that it was dubbed “the age of the martyrs.”
Why were so many people killed during this time period? Because they declared with their lips and their lives “Jesus is Lord”, which was threatening to the government where Caesar alone was to be Lord over people’s lives. In essence, these Christians were killed because they were committing treason in the eyes of the government, declaring that someone else ruled their lives. As a result, tens of thousands of people hung on crosses by major roadways as a warning to the people passing by not to believe or proclaim what they did, or they would meet the same fate. But it backfired. This time of persecution showed one of the fastest growths in the church’s history. 
To be a martyr is to witness to something, and these Christians sacrificed their very lives to witness to their faith in Jesus Christ. What does our faith witness to today? Do we proclaim Jesus is Lord in a way that other people notice? Or has the church simply become a place that we go on Sundays for an hour or two, instead of being who we are as believers of Christ?
The Age of the Martyrs didn’t last forever. In 313, Emperor Constantine had a conversion and decided to cease persecuting Christians and instead make Christianity legal. After this point, the Christian flag flew under the flag of Rome. According to Pastor Mike Slaughter, “The new, legalized status for Christianity thankfully diminished the persecutions but ironically would prove to deal an almost fatal blow to the vibrancy of the church. Jesus’ followers started to become comfortable and complacent - enjoying being part of the status quo.” Before if you joined the church, it meant you were risking your very life for what you believed. You had to be sure that Christ was Lord of your life and you had to be bold in declaring it. Now, as Christianity became the status quo, it was simply expected. To be a Christian was to be a good citizen of Rome. Do you see the difference? Maybe he didn’t mean to, but by making Christianity legal and by flying the Christian flag under the Roman flag, Constantine was essentially saying, once again, that Rome was Lord of the people and Rome was Lord of Christ. Which the Christians just accepted. 
Before we go criticizing the early Christians, I have to ask, don’t we do the same thing today? When we bemoan that America is no longer a Christian nation? Perhaps what we should be asking is how no longer being part of the status quo can increase our faith? How it can help us proclaim that Jesus is Lord. Perhaps if Christianity is no longer the religion of the state, we are freed to ask hard questions, such as: is our lifestyle aligned with meeting the status quo or the worldview of the Kingdom of God? A worldview is a set of beliefs or concerns. For the government, those concerns are chiefly being capitalistic and democratic. But are those the same concerns of the Jesus of the Gospels? No. But for some reason we’ve allowed the worldview of the government to become the Christian worldview over time.
Maybe this Lenten season we need to confess and repent that, in the words of Pastor Slaughter, “Christians began to value, honor, and prioritize a worldly system, ideology, and politics over the kingdom of God. Jesus’ authority began to be subjugated to the state’s authority.” Now I’m not saying to be antigovernment or anti-America. As Christians we can certainly respect and appreciate democracy, but I am asking you were your ultimate allegiance lies - with the nation or with God. Another way to ask this is what do we allow to create our values - what the government or the news tells us or the Kingdom of God we find in the gospels? Because we can proclaim that we are one nation under God, but the truth is, even some of the early forefathers had a very skewed view of Christianity, as they picked and chose what they wanted to believe out of the Bible. We will never fully be able to follow the Kingdom of God if we put nation above Christ.
Maybe this Lenten season we need to confess that we have made religion privatized - focusing on the fact that Jesus came and died so I can get to heaven, while forgetting to reach out to our neighbor. The verse from the prophet Isaiah today is about rebuilding, restoring, and renewing not just looking out for ourselves in this life and the life to come. Jesus came to bring heaven to earth. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, reminds us that salvation is both personal and social. It is about our relationship with Jesus, but that should be manifested in god works. That is to say that works don’t save us, but they are a fruit of our relationship with Jesus, when we put what Jesus teaches into practice. When we just talk about our relationship with Jesus, it is as if we want to make ourselves an exception to Jesus’ cry for us to pick up our cross and follow him. It is as if we want to the rewards of discipleship without the cost. But being baptized means that we are fully submitted to the authority of Christ. If we make Christianity about what we want or our excuses or complaints and if we focus on these things we haven’t realized what it means to follow Christ fully. 

Mother Teresa once said “Preach Jesus, the true Jesus, the real Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, and not the Jesus of people’s imaginations.” This Lenten season may we strive to know the real Jesus and put his teachings into actions. May we take a risk for the sake of the Kingdom of God. May we confess that which blocks us from following Christ more closely. And may we repent of making Jesus into who we want him to be, safe to follow, instead of loving who he truly is. Amen. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Renegade Gospel: Discovering the Rebel Jesus John 14:6

This morning’s scripture verse is one that has been debated over by Christians for centuries. It is one that is catchy and often finds its way on to church signs and bulletin boards on the side of the highway. But I have to wonder if we ever took time to examine what we mean when we say that Jesus is the truth. 
I have a ministry coach who I talk to monthly. One of her favorite things to say is that just because something is true, that does not make it the Truth with a capital ’T’. This is the type of truth that Jesus is - capital ’T’ truth. But sadly, for too many churches this type of truth isn’t reflected in their worship and service. Instead, as the church we have often confused the Truth of Christ with our desires and personal preferences.
Over the next several weeks we are going to be discussing something uncomfortable - Jesus’ truth. Some of you are going to end up getting mad at me, because I’m going to invite you to set aside the lens of what you believe is true in order to re-discover Jesus. We are going to explore some of the scripture verses that reflect Jesus’ truth, the words that some of you may find printed in the color red in your Bibles. And we are going to come back to this mornings scripture verse about what Jesus means when he says that he is the way, the truth, and the life. I’m going to apologize in advance if this sermon series make you comfortable, because I know that it is trying. I too was faced with some unpleasant truths as I read the book this sermon series and our parish Lenten Bible study will be based off of, Pastor Mike Slaughter’s The Renegade Gospel. It’s uncomfortable because too many of us have stopped looking for Jesus and instead have made Jesus into who we wanted him to be - culturally, politically, and theologically - and we no longer now which version of Jesus is the Truth, the Way, and the Life. The Truth is Jesus isn’t republican or democrat. Jesus isn’t just the savior of America. Jesus is the Good News - the gospel Truth embodied, God in the flesh. 
Pastor Slaughter states, “We often forget that Jesus was a member of the marginalized and persecuted minority.” We forget that Jesus was a refugee because of genocide. We forget that he wasn’t white. And we forget that he wasn’t like by the religious leaders of the day. And neither were his followers - in fact all of his disciples except for two died a martyrs death. The only ones who didn’t were Judas who took his own life and John who died on an island in exile. What would lead so many of his disciples to die a martyrs death? They believe the Truth of Christ. They believed that he was Lord and that he had all authority over their lives. Jesus’s radical stance and radical demands on his disciples changed their lives to the point where they were willing to die for what they believed, which ultimately changed the world. 
The reality is, however, that this is rarely the Jesus that we were taught about in Sunday School, or is preached on, or even studied in Bible Studies. But we’ve done ourselves, as followers of Christ, a dis-service by only talking about the Jesus that we knew in Sunday School.  For a few years I taught Sunday School to kindergartners and for many years I dramatized Biblical Stories at Vacation Bible School. For those stories, we often had to edit them - to take out the parts that would cause parents to be uncomfortable if their child went home and retold the story. We took out details that were not child friendly or appropriate. But for too many of us, our knowledge of Biblical stories stopped in Sunday School, instead of growing to know the Jesus of the Bible, the red-letter Jesus, as an adult.
I want you to think of someone you knew who was passionate and enthusastic about their faith life? Do you have that person in mind? My guess is that person, even though I never met them, knew the Jesus found in scriptures. The radical Jesus that his disciples, both in the past and today, were willing to put their life on the line for. There aren’t enough Christians like this around today. Far too many of us never encountered the Jesus of scriptures in such a way that we were transformed and our lives were re-arranged. Instead, we made Jesus into someone who is docile and only offers comfort instead of words of challenge. The Jesus in the Bible was so radical that he started a movement that spread like wildfire - and it breaks my heart that some of us can go our whole lives without knowing this contagious Jesus. Instead we’ve made him into a God that makes us feel safe, instead of one who changed the world. 
For when we encounter this radical Lord, we have a choice to make - if we are going to follow him. If we are passionate about what he is passionate about. If he will truly be our first love. But, as the Church, we’ve set aside hard questions like this, set aside even asking people if they have encountered this Jesus, and have taken the type of discipleship shown by his first followers with other things - what it means to be a good citizen, or a good church member, or a  nice person. Brothers and sisters, these were not the things of Jesus’ heart and mind when he came to save the world.
And the more distance we have put between ourselves and the Jesus of scriptures, the more we have made church into a place to go, a building, instead of remembering that we are the church as the people of God. We are the tool God wants to use to transform the current state of our world. But all too often we get caught up in different things, and have made Jesus someone to believe in, instead of someone to love and follow and be wholly dedicated to. 
Now don’t mishear me, this is not true of all people and all places. According to Pastor Slaughter, “The places in the world today where Christianity is growing the fastest are those countries where Christianity is still illegal and Christians are being persecuted by their government.” I have friends who have served as missionaries in such countries and their accounts mirror those of Pastor Slaughter. In places where people need to really decide in their faith in Christ is worth dying for, his Word spreads like that wildfire of the first centuries. Because they are actually engaging the Word, making their own decision, and dedicating their entire lives to it, no matter what the cost. 
This is also one of the reasons that I love working with college students so much. At a time when they are away from their homes, parents, and faith communities, they have a choice to make - whether Jesus is worth giving their all too. And many of them begin reading the scriptures for themselves and discover as Mike Slaughter writes that, “The real Jesus was pro-love and pro-peace, yet unafraid to challenge the hypocritical religious status quo regardless of consequences.” That the Jesus they grew up hearing about isn’t the same one on the pages of their Bibles. And they radically commit their lives to the Truth of Christ. They start to realize that it isn’t just about knowing Christ or believing him, for even the demons knew Christ by name and believed in his power, but about the saving and radical way of the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. 

Believing alone will not save us. And Christ did not come to this earth simply to be believed in or so we can get to heaven. Christ came so that we can have the promised life now and have it abundantly. And that isn’t a promise or a call that is dependent upon any particular life stage or age. Its the call of the Real Rebel Jesus - the Jesus who changed lives and changed the world. Is this the Jesus you know? Is this the Jesus you want to follow? Amen. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Forgiving Other Matthew 6: 14-15 Col 3:13 Matthew 18:21-22

We are starting off this morning with a tough topic - forgiveness. For the next two weeks we are going to be discussing what it means to forgive others and ourselves. What it means to be in relationship with other people. This is one of the topics that was selected by a congregation member, and I find it deeply important for the world that we live in. Most of us have  personal stories or know of close friends who have stories of broken relationships. Deep hurts. Un-forgiveness. Is this God’s plan for us? Is there a better way?
Part of life is being hurt. Its an ugly, but true fact. In the words of Pastor Adam Hamilton, “We are bound to hurt others and other are bound to hurt us.” But this is not how God imagined or wanted life to be for us. Emotional hurts are a direct result of Adam and Eve disobeying God, they are a consequence of free will, and stumbling into sin. God wants us to repent of the harm that we cause others (which we will be discussing more next week) and wants us to seek to forgive others for the pain that they cause us, though this is often easier said than done. 
Because the world we live in is filled with brokenness, forgiveness is essential to life. In fact, if we do not forgive, we often perpetuate the cycle of hurting others. But as Christians we believe that Jesus taught us a counter-cultural way to live by both his example and teachings on forgiveness. Jesus ultimately did as he taught, forgiving even the people who called for him to be crucified and those who mocked and beat him as he hung on the cross. He suffered pain and humiliation that is hard for many of us to even fathom, yet he asked God to forgive those gathered around the cross that day. And he forgave his disciples even though they turned their backs on him, only one staying by his side as he died. But Jesus also calls us as his followers to live into his example of forgiving others, even asking the disciples to go to the very ends of the earth announcing the forgiveness of sins. However, we know the actual act of forgiveness can be unspeakably difficult at times.
One of Jesus’s first teachings to the disciples about forgiveness came as part of the Lord’s prayer, which he repeated throughout his time on earth - “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. We pray this prayer together each and every Sunday, 52 weeks a year. But have you let those words capture your soul? Do we mean what we pray? We are asking God to forgive us as we, or in the same way, that we forgive others. Thats powerful. How would God respond to you if you are being judged in the exact manner that you judge others? Would God quickly forgive you? Hold a grudge? Try to let things go, but find that they keep coming up in your mind and spirit?
Thankfully, God does not judge us as we judge others, but I think if we let the Lord’s Prayer transform us from the inside out, if we mean what we pray, than we will be more prone to forgive. But I also think that one of the reasons we are slow to forgive is because we don’t exactly know what forgiveness means or looks like in our daily lives. Even the best relationships in our lives have conflict. Most of the conflict are small things - irritations and disappointments - but if we don’t actively choose to forgive the small things, they often fester and infect our soul. Other conflicts are like boulders, weighing on us. But whether we have to make a decision about forgiving small or large conflicts, it boils down to the same basic question: are we going to choose justice or mercy?
I had a friend in high school who dealt with conflict big or small in the same way - he would ignore you. If you had done something wrong you would know it because you were shown the silent treatment until you accurately figured out what you had done and apologized. This was his way of seeking out justice. You had hurt him, so he was going to hurt you by ignoring you. Now he may not have explained it that way if you asked him, but that is what he was doing. But before you start criticizing my friend, I think we need to each examine our hearts and see if we do the same thing from time to time. Where are the places in our lives when we demand an eye or an eye, or a hurt for a hurt? How do you respond when someone hurts you - by seeking to hurt them in return, even if its just by ignoring them? Or by the words you choose to say? Justice seeks to right wrongs through punishment - though we each have a different way of inflicting punishment on others. On the other hand, mercy is forgiving someone. Offering to them what they cannot earn or deserve. 
At times justice may seem really appealing, so why would we choose mercy? Because God choose to show mercy to us - by offering us life through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Through his example, teachings, death and resurrection Jesus modeled for us what it looks like to love someone instead of seeking to punish them. 
We also get confused because we don’t know what to do if we have a conflict with someone or if we have been wronged. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians he writes that we are to forgive whenever we have been wronged. But how is this possible? Especially when righteous anger seems to simmer inside of us? First, and most importantly, we are to pray for those who hurt us, bringing our pain before God. As you pray to God, remember your own shortcomings. Remember ways that you have harmed others in relationships, by doing so you may be more able to offer grace because of the grace you have been freely offered. As you pray, ask God to reveal to you the very best about the person, helping you focus on their positive attributes instead of simply the wrong before you. And then pray for the person by name. Pray that God blesses them, even in the midst of your hurt.  Praying this type of prayer often helps us let go of our need, our right, for retribution and opens up our heart to offer mercy. 
However, a few words of caution about approaching forgiveness in this way. First, notice that you are talking to God about the complaint, not other people. Often we have a tendency to gather people in our corner when we feel we are wronged, as if we are preparing for battle. Please don’t do this. It just makes it easier to perpetuate hurt feelings and hide behind anger. This type of prayer asks us to strip away the layers of the hurt by bringing it before God so we can offer mercy. That’s a lot harder if other people are chanting for you to seek justice instead. Second, through this prayer, God may prompt you to sit down and talk to the person face to face. This is difficult, but is much better than telling everyone else about our problem instead of telling the person directly. But when we choose to show mercy, we shine forth the light and message of Christ, who forgave us. 
Lastly, we are confused about what it means to continually forgive. I’ve heard every message there is about forgiveness from you need to be a doormat who allows people to mistreat you because its what Jesus would do, to you need to seek vengeance is the form of an eye for an eye, because its scriptural. But this morning we hear Jesus telling Peter to continually forgive. To forgive more times then you could possibly remember. But this does not mean that we forget, or that there are not consequences to the pains that we face. Forgiveness is not the same as condoning. Sometimes people have hurt us so deeply that even after we choose to forgive them that we still must seek to rebuild trust.
Notice that Jesus is giving Peter this teaching about those in the church - those that we are in relationship with. Often it is the pain caused by people we are in relationship with, family, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, that hurt the most, and can sometimes even feel like small deaths. With these type of relationships, forgiveness means we renounce vengeance and retaliation, but it does not mean that we need to be abused. When we think that forgiveness means that we continually offer ourselves up to be mistreated or diminished again and again. Forgiveness also doesn’t mean we ignore an incident on the outside and get angry about it on the inside, allowing it to get stuck inside of us. When we do this, it is both unhealthy, and gives the other person power over us. 
But I also think Jesus is speaking to Peter here about a more basic problem as well - how do you forgive others who do not seem to repent? Those who can’t say they are sorry or aren’t even aware that they have wronged us. Those who don’t change their behaviors or don’t know how to ask for forgiveness. In those cases it is so much harder to forgive or say that you will only forgive if someone asks for forgiveness. But remember that these are people you are in relationship with, so you need to ask, is this worth losing a relationship over? In most cases, the answer is going to be no. So we keep forgiving, but are in conversation with the one who wronged us, slowly chipping away at the wrongdoings. 

Forgiveness is difficult. It requires us to examine ourselves, to pray, to choose mercy over justice, and to remember that forgiving is not the same as condoning. But forgiveness also becomes easier the more we practice it and the more we remember that we are forgiven by God. May we leave this place and seek to be people marked by forgiving hearts and follow the path of mercy, in order to proclaim the love of our Lord and Savior. Amen. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

“Prayers: Wow!” Psalm 98:1 Psalm 86:10 Isaiah 25:1

Today we conclude our sermon series on three different types of prayer. The first week of our series we looked at the most common type of prayer that many of us offer to God, “help” - help for me or help for someone else, help for our broken world. The second week we explored another type of prayer commonly offered “thank you”. Perhaps one of the first prayers we learn to offer around the family dinner table. However, this week we are going to dive into a prayer that we do not pray often enough “wow.”
Author Anne Lamott states, “Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty”. Wow are prayers of amazement. Prayers of praise for those things in life so beautiful that we take our breath away. A few examples from my own life. 
As I write this sermon I see a picture of the sun setting over a bay of water. Orange and full as it disappears in its brilliance through clouds scattered across the sky. I can tell you the exact spot where that picture was taken and that it reminds me of the conversation I was having with a dear friend shortly before it was taken about who God is and why we need God in our lives. That picture and the conversation surrounding it are intricately linked and remind me of just how beautiful, grand, powerful, and creative God is. 
And as I write this sermon the picture of my computer is one that simply takes my breath away. It is of a sunrise on a farm. The entire sky is yellow and deep orange. I can tell you that when that picture was taken, I had barely slept in days. It was taken on the morning I was camping. When I woke up before everyone else to be in a time of prayer, but instead the only prayer I could utter was “Wow, God.” In that moment I felt enveloped by God’s peace and presence. Which I am reminded of every time I look at this picture. 
“Wow” moments like this, and so many others are connected to wonder and lead us to worship. Wow moments can come from reading a piece of poetry, seeing a beautiful sight, coming alongside a child who is learning new things. They can shine forth in nature or ring true in our hearts through music. Wow moments cause us to realize something new about God’s love for us or capture our heart anew with an old truth that we have too quickly forgotten. The Psalmists this morning reminds us that God has done glorious things and is worthy of our praise - do we live like this? 
More “wow” moments from my own life. When I was in college I traveled with a group of religion students over winter break to Israel, right after the boarders had been reopened. All around us we saw signs of destruction and the pain of two groups in a seemingly endless battle. But in the midst of so many breaking hearts, we entered into an old cathedral make of large stones and with high ceilings. Without any prompting we started to sing the Doxology together, as our voices echoed against the stone. We made a joyful noise unto the Lord.
In seminary I was required to lead an interactive Christian Education class in the chapel. It was a long lesson, and I was cleaning up the chapel getting ready for our service of communion and prayer. As I was cleaning I was humming one of my favorite praise songs when all of a sudden someone across the room started to sing out loud the words I was thinking in my mind “Lord I’m ready for a change, only you can make me change.” We started to sing with one another until we heard a gasp - another seminary student was standing behind us. He told us that the harmony and words we were singing we rippling through his heart. 
The prophets, the Psalmists, the gospel writers, and the apostles all tell us the same thing about God - God alone is to be praised. God alone has done great and wondrous things. In the words of today’s prayer - God alone deserves our amazement - but do we live this way? Do we first think of God when we are cuddling with a cooing newborn, or hugging a beloved friend, or reading a passage in a book that stirs something in our spirits? Do these powerful life moments lead us to praise God? Or do we too quickly take them for grantit. 
Some people who study language believe that “wow” is a contraction of “I vow”. I vow to remember. I vow to never forget. I vow to cherish this moment. Do we live like that? Do we proclaim prayers of amazement enough in our lives? Do we thank God for those moments that leave us almost speechless and transform something inside of us? Those moments that act like a mini-resurrection, bringing us closer to God and reminding us that God is ultimately in control? 
The sad truth is that sometimes we look past the great gifts that God is trying to offer us - those moments of amazement. We forget what Isaiah is trying to speak to the people about - that we are to exalt God, praising God’s name, because God is faithful in giving us more gifts than we can ever deserve. 
One last example of a moment of amazement from my life - an experience was at my first year of the Creation Concert, Christian Woodstock. As I was just letting go and singing my heart out to God during one of the Newsboys concerts, there were not one, not two, but three shooting stars that came across the sky. We later found out that the appearance of three shooting stars together rarely happens but it was a God-moment for me. I could only gasp and hold my hands up in praise. 
Now there were over fifty thousand people in the open field that evening who could have and should have sen those stars. But only a few of us did and spoke about them later. Why? Because sometimes we live our lives as if we are too busy to take notice of the moments God is trying to gift us with. We don’t live with intentionally or we overlook the work of God’s gracious hand. 
I want to challenge us as we go forth this week to do two things: First, think back to your own life over the moments of amazement - those moments that took your breath away and drew you closer to God. If you haven’t thanked God for those times, take time to do so this week. Write them down and pray over them. Secondly, be open and attentive to the “wow” moments around you this week - because I promise you they exist. Live in such a way that doesn’t take for granite all that God is trying to give you. All that God is trying to do to draw you into worship. 

Let us go forth being the people who proclaim “how, O God, can I keep from singing your praise” because of all of the amazing things God is doing amongst and through us. Amen!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

“Prayer: Thanks” Psalm 95:1-6

Last week we started our sermon series on prayer by discussing perhaps the most common type of prayer, prayers of help or petition. Today’s prayer is the second most common type of prayer - prayers of gratitude or thanksgiving.
Growing up my Sunday School teachers used to try to teach us the ACTS method of praying - with prayers of thanksgiving firmly planted near the end. But I think we need to re-examine how we pray - thanking God for the many blessings we have received first. Its one of the reasons that I love how we do prayers of joys and concern in this parish, with prayers of joy or thanksgiving almost always coming first. We need to remember that our blessings overflow and claim God’s goodness in our lives. 
Prayers of gratitude can look like many different things. For some it may be that “rush of relief” that you feel when you don’t get pulled over by the cop for speeding, finding the item that you thought you lost, or hearing that it was not the diagnosis that you most feared. Its in these times, after things seem uncertain or a time of fear, that the words “Praise God!” readily pass our lips. But it is much harder to express prayers of praise and gratitude in other situations - especially when things don’t seem to be going well.
It’s during times like this that we sometimes hold our thanksgiving hostage like a bargaining chip with God. We state that if only God comes through for us or gives me what I desire then I will show that I am thankful, only to find that our thankfulness wains after a time of trial. As a pastor who ministers to people during times of crisis, it is not uncommon for me to hear people say that “if only God will….” then they will come to church or then they will tithe. That is not a true prayer of gratitude, because it doesn’t lead to us acting as the Psalmist described today, coming into God’s presence with thanksgiving and worshipping.
Instead of bargaining with God for the praise that God is due, prayers of gratitude invite us to think more deeply about all that God has blessed us with. I read a story this past week about a teacher at a boarding school. He had one boy in his class that always acted out - often becoming physically or verbally abusive to other students to the point where they did not want to be around him. One day after class the teacher called this student-bully aside and told him that he was going to have a new assignment - to come to that teacher each and every day and tell him five things that he was thankful for. At first the student balked, saying that he had nothing to be thankful for, but the teacher stuck with the assignment. Over time, the boys personality changed, and he started to be kinder to others students, often reaching out to help them instead of harm them. 
What changed for this student? For him gratitude became a habit. A habit that so many of us are desperately in need of. If any people should be grateful, it should be Christians - for we have been offered the greatest gift ever given in Jesus Christ. And yet, Christians can be among some of the meanest people I know. Never offering a kind word. I loved what our District Superintendent, Beth Jones, said at change conference this year - if you are a grumpy person, don’t try to reach out to lead others to Christ, it only gives Christians a bad name. 
To get over our grumpiness, we need a habit of gratitude. Often this means we need to reframe situations to see what God is offering us. That awful thing you are going through, is there a life lesson in it? That time of trial, does it help you grow closer to God or others? That unanswered prayer - could there be a blessing in God giving the answer of “no” or “not yet”? Author Anne Lamott points out that if we got everything that we ever prayed for or wanted, we often would be short changing ourselves, because God’s blessings and plans are so much better. Can we praise God even in the midst of life’s storms because of who God is?
The Psalmist today tells us that we are to make a joyful noise to God. To worship God and bow down at God’s throne. Perhaps one of the best examples of seeing gratitude in action is when it leads us to service. Anne Lamott says, “Gratitude begins our hearts and then dovetails into behavior”. Have you ever noticed that it is joyful people who seem to give away more freely their time, treasures, and talents? That people who are always praising God with their lips are manifesting their joy with their actions?
This past Thanksgiving, nine different churches came together for an ecumenical Thanksgiving service. Instead of having one pastor give a sermon, all seven pastors took turns standing up and saying ways that their churches were reaching out into the community. They weren’t sharing these things to brag - at least not brag on themselves - but to brag on God. To talk about how their love and gratitude for God has lead them to want other people to know about God’s goodness by our actions. This, brothers and sisters, is what it means to truly be the Church. To serve out of the well-spring of our joy and praise. Gratitude leads to service and the more we serve and see other people’s lives blessed, the more readily we ask “how can I give more?” Do you see what a big difference there is between a prayer of gratitude that leads to action and prayers that tell God to give us something first, before we will even say that we are grateful?  
Joyful noises unto the Lord come from our lips and our actions, which are inter-connected. They express what our heart is feeling towards God. At the close of the thanksgiving service the light of Christ was shared, in a similar way to how we share it as a parish on Christmas Eve. It was a tangible reminder to me that we praise God our light shines - we reflect the will and the heart of Christ - which was always praising the Father - not just when circumstances were going well, but at all times.
At its core prayers of thanksgiving reflect what we will testify to in our life. What we will proclaim and share with others. If we have reflected upon what God has done for us and what we are grateful for, we are more likely to share that with others - more likely to shine it through our actions - then if we only dwell on what is wrong. Will we testify to God’s goodness at all times?
The book that this sermon series is based off of, Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott, was first introduced to me at an ordination retreat. For the opening worship the leader asked us to lift up prayers of petition, thanksgiving, and amazement. During the time of thanksgiving, she asked us a powerful question that I want to leave you with today. What are you most grateful for these days? My guess is that if we each actually sat down and reflected upon that question we could fill up pages and pages. But the real question is how that gratitude for the abundance of blessings, some of which we probably never took time to consider before, lead us to live our lives different. Lead for us to rejoice in God’s goodness like the Psalmist. To come into God’s presence, not demanding something, but simply because we are grateful. 
What are you most grateful for these days and how does it lead you to live your life? Amen. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Pastor Appreciation

   Our parish is working on a list of possible ways to show appreciation to one's pastor. We aren't looking to do all of these things, rather to create a list of possibilities. What would you add?

Compensation Package:
For younger clergy - offer to put money towards student loan payments
For older clergy - offer to put more money into their retirement account

Generous Continuing Education allowance - especially if they are pursing specific educational goals. 

Compensation package that reflect education of pastor as well as years of service. The annual conference encourage additional compensation for those with advanced degrees in ministry.

Extra personal days

Paying a fair salary

Offer a membership to the YMCA for the family. 

Non-Compensation Package:
Notes of thanks and appreciation, both from individuals and in the form of a card shower.

Acknowledge when your pastor goes out of his/ her way to do something

Deal with parsonage concerns in a timely fashion. Strive to make the parsonage the best possible living situation.

Gift certificates to go out to dinner or engage in relaxing activities 

Staff appreciation dinner at least once a year

Offer to give the pastor an extra weekend or two off a year from preaching/ leading worship. 

Encourage new pastors to repaint the parish office or re-arrange the space to make it their own. This could also possibly include getting new furniture. 

Offer to cook and deliver one dinner a week during Advent and Lent, which are particularly hectic times of the year. 

Held accountable for taking Sabbath. Remember all Pastor/Staff Relations Committees shall encourage their pastors to take a minimum of one day off per week.

Offer birthday, time around Christmas, and time after Easter as days off (non-vacation days)

Get to know pastor’s primary love language (Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages) and communicate appreciation in that way.

Pastor’s Birthday

Pastor’s Anniversary

Pastor Appreciation Month (October)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

“Praying: Help” Phil 4: 4-7 Psalm 121

How did you learn to pray? What were some of the first prayers you remember praying? For me two distinct prayers come to mind. The first was a plaque hanging on my brothers nursery wall that we prayed together every evening: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I’m not sure that we ever realized the magnitude of what we were praying, but we said that prayer night in and night out at bedtime. The second prayer was around the family dinner table. We each had a turn praying it throughout the week, but the prayer remained the same “Dear God, bless this food to our bodies. Amen”.  As we grew older, the prayer changed a little bit, but the basic request remained the same, blessing and nourishment. It was around the bed and the family dinner table I learned to pray, taught by my parents. Certainly other people also taught me,but it was through these basic prayers that I learned to take my needs before God. 
For the next three weeks we will be discussing what it means to pray. How we pray. And some basic prayers. Author Ann Lamott writes, “Prayer is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding - communicating from the heart to God”. Prayer is meant to be simple. Simply talking with the God who loves us. But somewhere along the way, some of us have got it into our minds that prayer needs to be complicated - involving “thees” and “thous”. Or done a certain methodical way. Many people have fears about praying aloud, not because they don’t pray or even because they have a fear of public speaking, but because they are afraid that they will do it wrong. But that simply cannot happen because there is no wrong way to pray to God. Prayer is meant to be simple. 
In fact, prayer can be as simple as crying out “God, help me!”. Asking for help for the people we love. Help when facing trying situations. Help in meeting our needs and desires. When we ask for help, it is often out of desperation, and all fancy words and formulas are set aside. Its when we pray honest prayers, not what we believe that God may want to hear. 
When we pray for God’s help we do so for two reasons. First, because we believe that we are in relationship with God and that we communicate through prayer. Second, because we believe that God deeply cares about us and what we are going through. We communicate with people that we are in relationship with. I am quite a distance away from many of the people I love the most. But we chat on the phone or Skype a few times a week and text almost every day. We are in constant communication because we care about what is going on in each other’s lives. So it is with God. We are in constant communication with God through prayer, because we are in a relationship with God. Its okay to just sit down and tell God about your day. Or pray short prayers like “help” in times of need. Once again, there isn’t a wrong way to pray - its just important that we keep the lines of communication open.
We also believe that as God’s beloved children, God cares deeply about us and what we are going through - both in times of joy and pain. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians that we are to bring everything before God. Not just the good things. Not just the bad things. But everything. Think back to the example of important people in our lives. For the people I’m closest with, I want to know everything that is going on in their lives - the good and the bad. If they only tell me the good things, I feel like they are keeping themselves from me. If they only tell me the trying things, I can feel like they are using me. But when we bring whatever we may be going through at the moment - the good and the bad - that is how we know that we are in an authentic relationship. So it is with God. We don’t just try to sugarcoat things for God, or say when something is going well. But we also don’t just go to God in times of need. We go to God in all things, because God cares about us at all times. 
Paul goes on to write that we are to make our requests known. It may be hard to articulate what prayer exactly is - in fact books upon books have been written on this topic. But actually praying is only difficult if we make it so. We are simply talking to God, like we would talk with anyone else that we deeply care about. We are telling God what is going on. It doesn’t need to be fancy. Some of my favorite examples of prayers in scripture are the Psalms, because they express such authentic emotion. The psalmist lays before God what they are feeling at any given moment, because they know that God is already aware. They are simply handing it over to God in trust.
And at its core, that’s what prayers of trust do - hand over our requests in trust. Requests like “hold my friend in your light”, “help my child”, “I don’t know what to do next”. “Help, enter this mess”. Sometimes when we pray for help we want to tell God what to do. Or have God tell us what to do. But often when we hand them over in trust we will find that they are answered, even if it is not in the way we expected. 
Prayers for help remind us that we are not in charge and that we cannot fix anything. In America we are often told to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” - but that is not Biblical. We are to turn to God with our needs. And we are to open ourselves us to the help from God. Where does the Psalmist say that our help comes from - God. The only one who never stops watching over us 
The problems arise when we fail to act as if our help comes from God. In fact, prayers of help often only comes when we are at our absolute last resort. When we have exhausted all other options. When we feel as if we have failed. When there isn’t any other path to take or magic solution to try. But Paul reminds us to make our requests known to God - not when we don’t have another option, but as soon as we have them. It is not a bother to God to hear what we are going through. God wants us to come before the throne of grace. God wants to brings us the peace that passes understanding. But we don’t get it because we don’t want to admit that we have a need and come. We need to learn to open ourselves up to the help of God, but this is especially hard for those who don’t like to ask others for help. Those that have to fix everything on their own. But God asks us simply to come, so our load can be lighted and our burden lifted.
Another pitfall we can run into when asking for help is handing our problem over to God only to pick it up and take it back a short while later. When we do so, we are essentially saying that we don’t trust God to help us. Don’t trust that God cares. For those of us who are visual or tactile learners, you may want to try writing down your prayers of help on slips of paper and locking them in a lock box - symbolically showing that you surrender your prayers for help into the hands of God. Others may have different way to affirm that God is their source of help. But we all need reminders of this from time to time. 
Prayers of help aren’t easy to pray. They aren’t easy to admit. And its often when we are at the end of our rope, with no words left, that we even say them. When I talk to people about prayers for help, I often say that these are the type of prayers that the apostle Paul talks about in Romans, those that are sighs too deep for words. Spiritual writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, said his most often prayer for help was “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me”. We all have such moments. The question is do we hand these times of distress and trial over to God? Do we trust God with the deepest concerns of our soul? Or do we simply go on trying to find a way out on our own? 

Our times of distress can make or break our relationship with God. I have seen far too many people flee from God in times of distress only to ask where he was when things go wrong. But other people I have seen endure things that are beyond my wildest comprehension only to emerge with a closer relationship with God, because they handed all of their pain over to the God who can handle it. Will you cling to or flee from God? Will you cry out for the One our help comes from? Amen.