Sunday, August 17, 2014

Spiritual Disciplines: Worship John 4:23

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

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

Sunday, August 10, 2014

ConfessionJames 5:16 1 John 1:9

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

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

Sunday, August 3, 2014

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

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

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

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Submission 1 Peter 2:18, Phil 2:8

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

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

Sunday, July 20, 2014

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

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

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

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.