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Sunday, June 19, 2016

“Simple Spirituality: Simplicity” 2 Cor 8:9 Proverbs 11:28 Luke 16:13

Ghandi is known for many things, one of which is his now famous quote, we are to “live simply so that others may simply live.” While Ghandi was not a Christian, this quote summarizes the way our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, lived his life as well. Jesus did not have a house. He did not have possessions. He traveled from town to town, house to house, sharing the good news about the Kingdom of God.
Now before you get too worried, hear this, I am not asking you to give up your possessions and your house and travel town to town, house to house for the sake of the Gospel. To do so would certainly be a very specific call upon your life from God. But I do believe that time and time again scripture asks us to live in a way that is contrary to the world around us, a way marked by simplicity. 
I’m not sure many of us know what it is like to truly live uncluttered lives. I have heard many people reminisce over the years about how much more peaceful, maybe even nicer, it was to live in times when things didn’t clutter our homes, family was the center of who we were, and you had to make your own fun. In fact, maybe even one or two of you were among those to share such reflections with me. And that may very well be true - things were certainly different. But I also believe that living an uncluttered life, a simple life, is about so much more than having less material possessions to deal with. 
Simplicity is a state of being. In the words of author and missionary Chris Heurtz, “Simplicity has become my posture and intention to live free from the bondage and control of anything other than the embrace of God”. This is what makes simplicity part of our discussion on simple spirituality - not the absence of things, but rather the intentional way that we live our lives so that they are wholly focused on God. Even having uncluttered lives does not guarantee that our focus is right - but having an uncluttered life certainly raises our chances of focusing on God instead of other things.
The author of the book of Proverbs shares the wisdom that those who trust in riches, or the wealth of the world, will eventually lose something - their power, their status, their sense of meaning - but those who are righteous will flourish. I recently was visiting with a shut-in from our parish talking about gardening. She loves to to garden and was sharing with me an article about different techniques to grow some of her favorite produce. What struck me in the article is that no matter what way you choose to garden its the simple things that matter the most - rich soil, good earth quenching rain, and sunlight. It started getting me to wonder what are the simple things that we need in our spiritual lives, in the lives of our congregation that we need to flourish. It’s not the big fancy things - its the simple things that matter most - deep relationship with God, a place to grow with other Christians, a place to share our faith with other. The simple acts of reading scripture, praying and practicing spiritual disciplines. We can plant our spiritual gardens using the newest techniques or ancient ways, but at the end of the day, its the simple things that yield the growth.
Hertz continues, “Simplicity is letting God be truly God, surrendering to that in all areas of life as an act of submission to God.” We will talk more about submission next week, another thing that is very hard, but simplicity requires us allowing God to be God, which is sometimes the hardest thing to do in our spiritual lives. Often one of two things happen along our faith journey. Number one, sometimes we start to act as if we are God. We certainly don’t set out to act like this, but slowly, over time, we buy into the false belief that we are in charge our our destinies, that we are the masters of our lives, that it is our job to pull ourselves up by our own boot straps. As soon as we let this belief sink into us, it starts to change us. We start to act as if God isn’t the one who provides for us, but that we provide for ourselves. And when that happens it is really hard to live a simple life - because if something is ours and ours alone, it is really hard to give away in service to God. Its hard to lay down who we are and what we have for God’s glory and honor and Kingdom.
If number one hasn’t happened to you, perhaps number 2 has. When we don’t let God be God, sometimes we allow other things and people to become masters over us, taking God’s place in our lives. The gospel of Luke warns agains this happening, when Jesus teaches that no one can have two masters because they are going to lead you two different directions. So you can’t serve both God and money. What Luke is not saying is that we cannot have money, rather he is pointing out that we can’t base our life decisions and actions on two things leading us opposite directions. You can’t always follow the call of God upon your life and work on your nest egg. You can’t always base the next ministry decision of the church on both what God is leading you to risk through prayer and what the checkbook says. Because it doesn’t always match up. Part of letting God be God, part of the simplicity of our faith, is trusting that God will provide and living into that trust, daily. 
I have done a bit of traveling and have some beautiful memories of times spent abroad. But perhaps nothing wrecks your sense of how things are then stepping outside of your comfort zone and getting to know different places and meet new people. Perhaps nothing wrecked my understanding of simplicity then traveling on a mission trip to Russia. Our time in Vladimir, Russia wasn’t what you would typically think of a mission trip - it wasn’t about building buildings or structures, but building relationships. On our first trip together we helped lead a retreat for young adults to grow in faith. My understanding of the Russian language was pretty much please, thank you, and a few colors, so I didn’t quite understand what the leader was saying when he was talking about how our spending habits reflect our faith - it sounded like he was chastising one of the young women for spending a certain amount of money that wasn’t unreasonable on clothes - in fact it was about what we may spend on two pairs of jeans today. When I was able to ask one of the translators about it later, he noted that an amount of money that was normal to me was astronomical for them - and that the presenter was trying to encourage all to be thoughtful and simple in their spending not wasteful.
What he taught that day blew my mind. Sometimes what we look at as simple could actually be perceived as wasteful by others. There is no right or wrong way to be simple, because it is going to look different for each of us. But at the end of the day, we need to think about if our spending matches up with our understanding of priorities - especially as Christians. Is this necessary or superfluous - is it useful or wasteful? Simplicity isn’t about judging by what we have or don’t have, but rather how we hold on to them, how we perceive them, and how they align with our faith.
One last story about simplicity from my time in Russia. On the same trip I told you about earlier, we were visiting people’s homes. We had one cardinal rule that went against everything we understood as Americas - don’t compliment anyone on anything in their home. It made no sense to us - we do it all the time. Telling people how beautiful their scarf it or how we admired a certain piece of furniture. One of my team members forgot the rule and complimented our host on a beautiful picture that hung in the entrance way - the next thing you knew she was taking the picture home with her. For our host so valued the relationship she had with the young woman, that she wanted to give her the thing she complimented straight off of her wall. In her words, it wasn’t about the picture, for the picture was simply a thing, but about sharing the love of God with my teammate by giving her that beautiful thing. 
Oh brothers and sisters, how much we have to learn about simplicity. To learn about sharing what we have, straight off of our walls and in our homes, to share the love of Christ. To learn about letting God be God. To learn about living simple lives so we are freed to share the gospel message! May we leave this place seeking to grow in our simplicity so free us to serve God! Amen!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Health Care

   We all know clergy health coverage is ridiculously expensive - both for the clergy and the church. I am in the midst of a reconfiguration of churches, two of which have not been served by full time clergy for some time. One of the gentleman from the charge remarked how shocked he was about the sticker price of our health insurance, and was even more shocked when I noted that didn't even include my portion to pay. Tag teaming with another clergy we then explained some of the reasons the numbers are so high, older clergy, a sedentary job that is high stress, etc. But we left a big one out - poor habits.
 
    This past week at annual conference as I looked around the room that is what I noticed the most - poor habits. Unhealthy eating. Not taking time to exercise or even get up and really walk around any more than was necessary. Shame on us.

   I won't pretend to be the healthiest person in the world - but I do try to take care of myself. For the past month I have been intentionally exercising every day. For the past three weeks, I've been watching what I eat and just trying to make good choices. It doesn't mean that you exercise every day of the week - that isn't good for you either. And it doesn't mean you can't have days when you enjoy a good dessert - but it means being informed about what you are putting into your body and how you are using your body.

   I want to be able to look at my churches and say, yes, I know that the price of health insurance for clergy is very high, but I'm doing everything in my power to take care of myself so I don't knowingly contribute to higher costs in the future. There are some diseases that are beyond our control - I was knocked out of commission for a good period of time in 2014-2015 because of one such disease, but there is also a lot that we can control when we are intentional. Let's do our best to do right by the folks contributing to our health insurance, including ourselves.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

“Simple Spirituality: Community” Matthew 25: 42-43 1 Cor 12: 12-31

Every church I have ever visited, been a part of, or heard about has described itself as friendly, but rarely have I heard a church describe itself as a community. Community is the second spiritual practice in our simple, or not so simple, spirituality sermon series.
Perhaps many churches don’t describe themselves as a community because we don’t fully understand what it means. We understand friendly - that you are nice to other people, but community seems harder to grasp. A community is a group of people, of any size, that shares similar core values. Communities are connected by deep, long lasting relationships, and who believe that such relationships are important to them - its who they are and what they are about. The word community comes from a french word meaning things held in common.
Folks, if anyone should understand and embrace community, things held in common and deep relationships, its the local church. But sometimes this spiritual practice just scares us. I think it scared ancient Christians as well. The scripture found in the epistle of 1 Corinthians comes from the Apostle Paul writing to a group of believers who he founded and deeply loved, but who had greatly strayed from what it meant to be a follower of Christ. The church in Corinth was facing all sorts of problems - chiefly that they were ostracizing people based off of things like wealth and social class, instead of seeing fellow Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ. The church in Corinth was in crisis when Paul penned the famous words to them about being the body of Christ - trying to get them back on track by laying out before them the master plan for community: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need for you’. On the contrary, the members of the body seem that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members we treat with great respect, whereas the more respectable members don’t need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior members., that there may be no dissension amongst the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one members suffers, all suffer together, and if one member is honored, all rejoice with it.” We have been raised in a culture that tells us to be independent, self-sufficient, and non-emotional. And brothers and sisters, this is such a lie. And it’s why we have such a hard time getting our minds wrapped around this idea of community. 
We cannot fathom community because we refuse to think that we need others. We’ve been told that we need to achieve everything on our own and claw our way to the top, not acknowledging the costs. But here Paul is telling us that we have no right to say to anyone that we don’t need them. No! We need one another to support each other, to help each other out. Here’s the thing, God put this huge task in front of the Church, to go and make disciples of all of the nations baptizing them in the name of the Triune God. I’m sorry, but you can’t do that alone. You need others to accomplish this. We need to work off of the generations before us and trust the generations after us to work towards the great commission, while fully being the body of Christ now with our brothers and sisters, depending upon one another.
Here’s the truth - we cannot say that we don’t need each other, because we really do deeply need each other. For it is a community that allows us to be strong in our faith. It’s a community that helps us clarify our identity as Christians. It’s community that gives us accountability. In the words of author and missionary Chris Hertz: “In community sin cannot be isolated from others. When we are selfish or unresponsive to God, we have less to give our community.” It’s in community that sin is exposed through confession and we receive absolution. We need community. 
But we also need to know what community is not - community is not the place where we all look the same or agree with everyone all the time. In fact, I know no such place that exists. I confess that for a long time I actually didn’t like the word community because I had been in place that had corrupted the word to mean just that - a place where you have to think and be exactly like another person in order to be accepted. That is not the community of the church, which Paul stresses when he talks about having different people with different gifts. What is important in the community of the church is that we are all under the lordship of Jesus Christ. 
The gospel of Matthew picks up on another aspect of Christian community. In this particular passage, Jesus is speaking to his disciples about how they will be recognized vs. those who claim to be followers but do not live into the teachings of Christ. Those who do not live into the teachings do not provide food and water, clothing and shelter, or health and wholeness. Christ is stressing that those who follow him are people of compassion. In fact, Christian community and compassion should go hand in hand. 
Christian community also works with what it has. I rejoice in the fact that we are all different and have different gifts. I believe God provides within our local body every person and thing we need to reach this county for Jesus Christ. I believe that in the Church Universal we have all the people and things we need to transform the world for Jesus Christ. I have often churches bemoan and say “if only”. “If only” we had more people, more resources, more money. But brothers and sisters, if we neglect this body, the body we have been gifted with, by saying that we are not yet good enough or have enough for the mission of Jesus Christ then we are not living up to the call of the Kingdom. And more will not come.
When we embrace true Christian community we realize, however, that such community is a valuable and vulnerable gift, for it is in community that deep wounds can be created when we speak poorly of one other or do not trust each other. Or when we do not live into the ideal of what God created community to be when we start to become exclusive or not truly welcome those who God would welcome. We need community, but when community is absurd it can also harm us. 
Years ago I was part of an experiment in Christian community over in State College, where right out of college I was involved in a church plant. I want to close by sharing with you a prayer a dear friend prayed time and time again for that community, which is just as true in our community, here and now today: "Jesus, they may be few and they may be faithful, but if must be you who makes them into a family.  Make them into your body; the image and the vision and the actors (and actresses!) of your love in the world.  Holy Spirit, be the love flowing through them to all they meet, and be the love that binds them together and draws them to You.  And God, be the one to whom they give all that they do, the one to whom they aim and to whom they strive in everything, their hope and their joy.” May it be so of our community. Amen. 



Saturday, June 11, 2016

Truly Listening

   Sometimes I wish we could truly listen to one another. Stop all of the commentary going on in our heads and set aside our assumptions and truly listen. At conference there was a beautiful resolution that came forth from all three conferences in PA to support healthcare for all children, especially undocumented workers children who cannot currently enroll in CHIP.
   But we made it ugly with some thoughts put into words. One asked, can you define undocumented? Does that mean illegal aliens? Another opposed because our pastors and spouses do not currently have dental, so why would we offer others healthcare? Still another wanted the responsibility to go to the local church and not the state.
  Lord, forgive us.
  Some stood up and quoted scripture about why we need to love and support all of your children. Others pointed out the healthcare for all resolution in the UMC.
  It was like we talked right past one another.
  Lord, forgive us.
  Thankfully this resolution passed, but I still feel we need to repent for not listening. Repent for not seeing the beauty of the moment. Lord, forgive us, and help us listen not just to one another, but to the movement of your Spirit.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Restoring the Meaning of Covenant

   I was talking to a colleague recently at annual conference who pointed out something interesting that had been bothering him about our worship services. When we come to annual conference, as either a clergy or lay delegate, we have made a covenant to be fully present, especially at the worship services like ordination, because they help define who we are. We stand with one another.
   Yet, worship has lost its ability to inspire a little, not because of the bishop or preachers or worship design team (all of which have been fantastic) but because we have broken covenant. We don't show up. We aren't present so something was missing.
   Death and resurrection. Retirement. Ordination. These are all important moments for us to be the body together, yet so many skip out. Now I am all for self-care - but let's take that time in a way that doesn't violate covenant. Let's BE the body.
   Because if we can't do it here for 3 days, what makes us think that our local churches can do it year round? We were at a meeting table recently, where one of the lay folks asked what we do with folks who don't show up to meetings. They are on the committee so they should be there. The answer - nothing. We don't know what to do when people break covenant and promises.
   How can we restore what is important in covenants? How can we be the body with one another - in the big moments and the day to day?

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Double-Standard?

   Something has been pricking at my conscience weeks later after General Conference. It was hard to put words to at first, hence the nagging sense. But something that I appreciated during the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice discussion was the General Board of Church and Society staff person who is tasked with women's health made the comment that we are at the table to be engaged and see changes through our presence and engagement. Engagement not leaving the table was the path forward. Then we voted to leave.
    Yet around the issue of fossil fuels there was a big push from the Board of Pensions to stay for engagement and not divestment and we accepted that.
    Double standard?
    Now don't get me wrong - I was on a committee tasked with studying divestment options in seminary and it is a tangled mess, especially with certain types of investments - but still. Why were we so eager to stay at one table and yet leave another? Because environmental concerns is not an evangelical hot button issue. We make choices based off of what makes us comortable vs. what becomes a hot button issue/ slogan/ something we can use to define our family (though not necessarily rightly so since our faith should effect our whole lives not just political issues).
    We need to pray to remove the double standards from our lives and our faith so we can be whole, healthy, faithful people. It's time for the double standards to end.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Simple Spirituality: Humility James 4:10 John 21: 4-7

Simple Spirituality. Its a bit of an oxymoron isn’t it? At times it seems like there isn’t anything simple about our spiritual life - or at least not as simple as we thought it would be when we first accepted Christ into our lives. The truth is growing in our spiritual lives is hard - it requires us to consider things that we did not previously consider and to stretch past some of the natural ways we go about our lives in order to grow in our relationship with God. That growth doesn’t happen naturally. Like other types of growth in our lives, it takes hard work.
For the next four weeks we are going to be discussing simple spirituality - the simple practices we can works towards in order to grow in our relationship to God. Some of these things may not come naturally to us, but they are needed in order to re-orient ourselves to a new way of being through the grace of Jesus Christ. 
There is a saying that goes something like this: pride comes before the fall. It’s actually found in the book of Proverbs. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins - the sins that are thought to birth all other sins in our lives. In fact, pride is considered to be one of the most serious sins - the root of all other sin. Pride is defined as the belief that you are better than others - which leads us to feel more self-important than we actually are. Pride can lead us to believe that we don’t need God or our neighbor.
The legend of the Devil goes like this: Lucifer was an angel who was supposed to worship God. Yet, one day, he stopped worshipping God and instead gathered other angels around to worship him instead. As a result, he could no longer dwell in heaven with a Holy God who was to be worshipped alone - so he and his followers fell from heaven. As he fell he was transformed to the antithesis of God - the Devil. The one who led people astray from worshipping God, just as he did with the angels who worshipped him. According to the legend, Lucifer was the first to succumb to pride, believing that he was worthy of worship, that he was better than the other angels, even better than God. But many of us struggle with pride every day in a variety of ways.
The truth is that we all yearn for significance. We all yearn for other people to tell us how good we are, how needed we are, how worthy we are. If we are honest, to a certain extent we need that in order to build ourselves us. But if we are not careful, we can let such praises define us instead of our identify as a child of God. If we are not careful, such praises can quickly lead to hubris, or pride, that tricks us into believing that we are better than everyone else, and can survive on our own without others, without God even.
The spiritual practice we need to combat pride and help keep us in check in our lives is humility. The bible instructs ourselves time and again to humble ourselves, because when we are truly humble, our pride is exposed. Humility is a modest, or truthful, view of one’s importance. According to missionary and author Chris Hertz, “humility affirms our need for God.” Humility reminds us that we are not perfect - that we don’t have it together all the time, and that we are in desperate need of a Savior.
Did you ever stop to consider that there are differences between being a believer in Jesus and being a follower of Jesus? The scriptures tell us that even the demons believed in Jesus, but they didn’t follow him. We need to believe in Jesus in order to be his disciple, but following Jesus, that requires us setting aside ourselves and our agendas because we truly embrace that we are in need of Savior. Brothers and sisters, there are many people who believe in Jesus who haven’t set themselves aside enough to actually follow him. There are people who believe in Jesus but are so wrapped up in their pride that they want to go about life their own way on their own terms. That’s why we need a healthy dose of humility to lead us to the spiritually well-springs of life. We need humility to remind us that we actually don’t always know best and sometimes we get in the way of our own spiritually growth - through pride and arrogance, individualism and independence, excess and greed, power, control, and defiance - just to name a few.  Sadder yet, we don’t even always recognize how we get in our own way and how we are hurting ourselves in the long run spiritually.
There were times that the disciples, the original followers of Jesus, let themselves get in the way of Jesus’s ministry to others, Jesus’s ministry to them, as well. But there were also beautiful moments where they set themselves aside in order to trust God. In the gospel reading this morning we find the disciples after Jesus’s death. They aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves so they go back to the one thing they do know - fishing. They were trained fishermen, yet despite years of being on the sea they have not caught a single fish all night. Then a stranger appears on the shoreline and tells them to go against all of their training, to go against all of their years of knowledge and cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They could have let themselves get in their way - they could have deferred to their pride and said that would never work, that they had tried that earlier, but instead they so badly wanted to catch some fish that they were willing to be humble and try this suggestion. The results? Their nets were so full that they couldn’t even begin to drag them up. And the disciples recognized that it was the Lord who had instructed them.
Hertz states, “It’s humility that opens our eyes to the discovery of God”. It was humility that allowed the disciples to see Jesus on the shoreline that day. But how many times do we fail to recognize the presence of Christ in our own lives because we are so caught up in our pride? So caught up in thinking that we know the best way or that we have it all together?
However, if we are not careful our pride can morph into pseudo-humility. We can say things like “oh it wasn’t me, it was God” without truly believing it or knocking ourselves down a peg or two. False humility and false pride are still forms or pride. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said that humility is not pretending that you don’t have gifts - its recognizing that who you are is a gift from God and worshipping God alone for that good gift. 
Brothers and sisters, I have a fear that pride has deeply embedded itself into our hearts and into the life of the Church universal. I fear that instead of seeking the will of God together, sometimes churches simply resort to their own power and understanding and pride. I fear that the church wants new member not for kingdom purposes but so that we can be as prestigious as we once were. We, as individuals and as the Church, need a healthy dose of humility - true humility, not false modesty, in order to be reminded that we don’t just believe in Jesus, but we follow Jesus alone. Let us seek to truly humble ourselves before God, seeking to follow God fully, wherever God may lead, setting aside all that we once knew and once were, for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Amen.