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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Bearing Fruit: Extravagant Generosity

For the last four weeks we have been talking about what it means to be a vital congregation - a congregation that is growing deeper in love with God and serving their neighbor in love. So far we have found that vital congregations have passionate worship, are radical in their hospitality, are intentional about faith development and engage in risk-taking mission and service. This week we conclude our sermon series by focusing on how vital congregations are extravagant in their generosity.
The Apostle Paul told the church in Corinth that they will be “enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion.” There are times of year that people naturally count their blessings and as a result are generous - we just celebrated two of them Thanksgiving and Christmas. But now, in the season following these holidays, we sometimes are not as intentional in our generosity. 
A few months ago, well before the holidays, the ministerium (a group of local pastors representing congregations in the area) met with four wonderful groups in our area doing good mission work. Places like Interfaith Human Services and Community Action. When asked what the biggest need for us to take back to our congregations was, one of the service agencies said we need to remember that people are in need all year round. Her point was clear - while it is wonderful to be generous around the holidays, people need to be served the rest of the year as well. In my mind questions started to form as to to how we can cultivate a spirit of generosity amongst us. 
I believe that one of the ways we honor God is to give of our resources. When we give, we live into the great commandment to love God with all we are and all we have and love our neighbor as ourselves in a tangible way. We practice being generous because it reflect the very nature of God, who was generous to us in every way - rich in mercy and making a way even to the cross for us to be richly blessed with the gift of salvation. 
Think about some of the stories in scripture of how generous God has been to us. Abram, before he became Abraham, was able to rescue his nephew Lot from not one, not two, but four area kings who had banded together to plunder Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot was living. He was able to recover all of the goods that had been plundered as well as Lot and his family. King Melchizedek was so grateful for what Abram had done that he gave him a tenth of all that was retrieved. But Abram would not accept any of the riches, because he had sworn that he would not take it so that the King would be able to say that he made Abram rich instead of God.
God gave Abram strength and courage to retrieve Lot. God gave the people of Israel the gift of the Sabbath, a complete day of rest and worship, after they were freed from slavery in Egypt. God made the earth and everything upon it for people to be stewards of. God gave the words of the priests and the prophets when the people of Israel strayed and God gave us the gift of the cross when we continued to go our own way. I have one lady who every time I ask her what she is joyful for she has a sizable list, starting with getting out of bed today. She truly sees and understands that everything we have been given is a good gift from God - a sign of God’s generosity towards us. 
Yet, generosity can also make us uncomfortable at times. We worry that if we give out of the riches God has blessed us with that we will not have enough. Not enough to put into savings or retirement. Not enough for the things we want an d need. We worry about the present moment and the future. We worry that people aren’t worthy enough to be recipients of our generosity. Worried that people will mis-use our hard earned resources so we become hesitant in our giving. 
We don't mean to be hesitant in our generosity - it just happens from time to time. John Wesley was concerned that the people called Methodists could become so frugal in their saving that it would distract them from being able to give in the present. Certainly there is nothing wrong with saving, but Wesley did not want people to be able to look back and have regrets that they were not living faithfully in the present. 
The truth is we give because we believe that our gifts, together, can make a difference and proclaim Christ’s name in a mighty way. In the gospel of Luke we find Jesus and his disciples in the temple. They notice a poor widow putting in a few small coins. He taught his disciples that she gave a true gift, because she literally gave her all. God isn’t asking us to give everything we have in order to be generous, but lets be honest, how many of us struggle just to give ten percent because we think its too much? And here is the widow giving her last coins. She didn’t believe that her coins alone could do much, but coupled with the gifts of others giving their all, they truly could change the world. This is also why I appreciate shares of ministry as United Methodists - our gifts join United Methodists around the world to change lives in ways we may not be able to or may not have even though of as local congregations. 
The generosity of the church is counter cultural. It stands up against the idea that happiness is to be found in accumulation and instead proclaims that sacrificial giving changes hearts and changes lives - which can be a source of true joy. It is not so much about what you have as what you do with what you have in order to bless others. 
In a study between resources and happiness, it was found that people, no matter what their income said that they would need 20 percent more in order to be happy. So for the person making 25,000$ a year they said they needed 5,000$ more to be happy. And the person making $50,000 a year said they needed $10,000 more to be happy and so on and so forth. We have ether ability to tell people that money is not the root of happiness, and instead we called to not ask how much more we need but rather, how much more we are called to give. Its a spiritual issue folks. 
We are told that the early disciples “sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” Why did they do that? Well first, they believed that Jesus was coming back soon. Very soon. As in any day now - so they didn’t need a savings plan. Second, they believed that being generous could change lives. Do we still believe that today, brothers and sisters? Do we still uplift the power of generosity?
We are invited to not only be generous but to be extravagantly generous! To practice giving that exceeds all expectations. When we give we and give extravagantly we given blessed opportunities to share with others the love of Jesus Christ. To tell others that we give because God has already given us the greatest gift imaginable. To share about the power of God.

Friends, we have much to give - not just money, but our very lives. Stories of how God has touched us. Service we can give in the name of Jesus. We have the life changing power of God inside of us, and that should propel us to be generous! Let us go forth from this place, in the power of Jesus name, to use what we have to touch hearts and lives! Amen. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

“Bearing Fruit: Risk Taking Mission and Service”

This is not how I imagined a mission trip would be, I remembered thinking. I was in college and it was my first mission trip overseas. A group of us, under the leadership of the campus minister, had traveled to Vladimir, Russia. We were a few days in and it seemed like all we were doing was meeting people who took us around to historical sites. It didn’t make sense. Where were the building projects? Where was the VBS program to run? Those are the type of things that my friends who had been on mission trips before talked about. What were we doing?
We are now in the fourth week of our sermon series on being a vital congregation. So far we’ve lifted up passionate worship, radical hospitality, and intentional faith development as musts for congregations that want bear fruit. This week, we move to risk taking mission and service. 
What I had to learn that day was that not all mission trips are about buildings and programs. But all mission trips and fruitful service opportunities are about building relationships. Investing in people. What I didn’t understand about the Russian culture was that history mattered. You weren’t going to build relationships without first knowing who they were as a people and what they had been through. By visiting historic sites we were saying that their history mattered to us. That they mattered to us, and we were given profound ministry moments, because we took the time to invest in who they are. 
A few months ago at a council meeting I lifted up three ways that we are the church invest in people. The most common is ministry. I define ministry as those things we do for each other in the congregation - the Sunday School programs and ways we connect with our shut ins. Anything we do to nurture one another. Next we have mission - those ways that we serve with others. Often when we think of the word mission - mission trip or giving to mission organizations comes to mind. Lastly, we have outreach - the ways that we meet people and build relationships outside of the church building in hopes that one day people will accept our invitation to come. 
These categories are not perfect and often there is overlap. Today I want to pick up on that second category - mission, or in this case mission and service. Mission and service are outwardly focus. They are ways that we live out our faith walk by making a difference in the lives of others. 
In the passage of scripture found in the gospel of Matthew described as separating the sheep from the goats, we find Jesus teaching that we, as his followers, will be known by what we do - specifically who we serve. The passage ends with “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters, you did for me.” When we serve other people, it is to be as if we are serving Christ. In the Hebrew Scriptures we find the law to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When we serve people we are to serve them with the respect and compassion we would want others to treat us with.
One trap that church folks can fall into is thinking of the people we are serving as “the other” or “those people” who are so different than me. When we do that, we start to assume what people need and can end up belittling them instead of treating them like we are to treat Christ or like we would want to be treated. A few days ago I was speaking with a colleague about holiday food items that her congregation collected. They collected simple food, thinking that each of the three items they collected would be packaged together and given as a meal at a local food pantry. She had to explain to them, that all items once they were given were sorted onto shelves so folks could shop for what their specific family unit needed. Some people in her congregation were upset because there food wouldn’t be given as a package - they couldn’t understand why the food pantry couldn’t force people to take it since they went to the trouble of collecting it. Sometimes our own desire to serve, can get in the way of serving people in a compassionate, merciful, and respectful way.
The prophet Micah has a beautiful passage where God is posing the question what is required of people who follow God. The answer? To act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. What is so amazing about mission and service is that it has the ability to transform us. Justice, mercy, and walking humbly with God, can be difficult things. Yet when we care enough about people and serving our Lord and Savior to live into scriptures in this way we find that what we do can make a difference in the lives of others, and in our lives as well. 
Years ago there was thought to be a specific pattern in Christian discipleship. You came to church for worship. You joined the church as a member. Then you were invited to serve. What we are finding now is that inviting people to be part of mission and service, even if they do not you know Christ, can be a way to teach them about Jesus. As we serve alongside folks - whether it be people on our time or the people we are partnering to serve, we find that Christ opens up opportunities to have conversations and build relationships that transform people and communities for the sake of Jesus Christ. People notice when we care enough to give of our time and resources and often they will ask what leads us to do so - at which point we have a wide open door to tell them about what it means for us to walk humbly with Jesus Christ and what he means to us.
Jesus said in the Gospel of Luke that “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Brother and sisters that same spirit is upon each of us as Christ’s followers as well. But what is beautiful about this passage is that we are not just to proclaim these things to those who are like us - we are to proclaim them to the world. Mission and service pushes us outside of our comfort zones.
That is where the risk-taking part of mission and service comes in. Bishop Schanse puts it this way: “The stretch of Christian discipleship is to love those for whom it is not automatic, easy, common, or accepted. To love those who do not think like us or live like us, and to express respect, compassion, and mercy to those we do not know and may never be able to repay us - this is the love Christ pulls out of us.” When we engage in mission and service, no matter where and how, we are given the gift of being pushed outside of our comfort zones. To do something we may have never considered outside of our relationship with Christ.
In my last parish I took a small group of young adults to York to work on home repairs for a week one summer. The irony? None of us knew anything about home repair. This was so outside of our comfort zone - yet we felt called to go, so we went. And God used us in profound ways. We were used to paint, take out concrete, clean mold - and walk along side folks who just needed to be loved. 
Mission and service is a risk because we may not fully understand why we are being called to go where we are being sent. And its a risk because we may not always be able to know or even predict the outcomes. But when we engage in risk taking mission and service, through giving of our time or gifts, we are given the opportunity to live out our faith and share the love of Christ. May we go and do so, this day and always. Amen. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Bearing Fruit: Intentional Faith Development

For the last two weeks we have been in the midst of a discussion about what vital congregations look like. Vital congregations are intentional about engaging in activities that bear fruit - that help people share their faith, grow closer to God, and serve the Kingdom. So far we’ve touched on the idea that vital congregations are radically hospitable and continually think about those who do not yet know Christ - and inviting them to come to a welcoming space to get to know the Lord. Vital congregations are also passionate about worship - not simply going through the routine of worship God, but rather worshiping with all they have and all they are.
This week, the third mark of vital congregations is that they are intentional about faith development. Faith development is what we do when we dive into the word of God together. When we help one another grow deeper in our faith lives. None of us are meant to be lone rangers as Christians - instead we come together to study the word and learn from one another. 
This intentional faith development is modeled in the book of Acts. Looking back at the passage we picked up on last week we find that the earlier followers were described as people who “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer.” The early disciples devoted themselves to learning about the faith. I firmly believe that even if we spent every day of our lives from birth to death studying scriptures, there will be still things that we need to learn. There would still be hidden treasures for us within the Bible’s passages. 
Have you ever noticed that scripture can speak to you in different ways at different times of your life? You can study a passage one day and a year later, there is something new for you to discover about it? Studying scripture is not a once and done experience, it is a lifetime of being engaged and prayerfully discerning what God has for us in the midst of this passage for our lives right here and now.
Notice that the early disciples devoted themselves to these things - teaching, fellowship, sharing in communion, and prayer together. When John Wesley formed a structure for Methodists to grow in faith he required a covenant to do three things: be in corporate worship, be part of a small group for further prayer, study, and examination of the heart, and have private devotions. Folks were expected to do all three things - worship with many people, study with a smaller number of people, and be in personal study and worship as well. Why? Because we need other people to help us grow in our faith as Christians just as much as we need to connect with God alone. It is not an either/ or. It is a both/ and. 
But just as there is no formula for the correct way to worship corporately or privately, there is also not a one size fits all formula for small groups. At the first church I served - Sunday School was the small group. The Sunday school met every week before worship - one class for adults and another for children. Both dug into the word and talked about how they were to live out their faith. At my last parish small groups were pastor and lay lead topic discussions. Sometimes they were based on a book - like one Bill led on how to allow God to free us from our baggage and find freedom in Christ. Sometimes they were curriculum - like Rodger lifting up Adam Hamilton’s study on finding revival in our spirits and in the church, like the early Methodists. Other groups used a Bible study magazine in people’s homes each week to dive into a particular passage, digging into it slowly and savoring it. 
Sometimes intentional faith development doesn’t start with scripture but rather serving the Kingdom. One church I served had a group of women that met monthly to serve the church and the community through acts of compassion. Another church had a group that met weekly to make prayer shawls and lap robes they gave to shut ins and those who had medical concerns. We all need a group of believers to come along side us and support us as we grow in the faith.
In Ephesians we find Paul telling the church that when we accept Christ we must put away our old selves, be made new in the attitude of our minds, and put on our new selves in Christ. But brothers and sisters, we get in trouble on our faith journey when we only put on our new selves on Sunday morning - when Sunday morning worship is the only place where we seek to grow and engage the Word of God. 
I once had a colleague who told me that nothing frustrated them more then when people would come to him and complain that they didn’t get anything out the Sunday morning service. He would immediately ask them what they were doing to engage the word of God the rest of the week. He found that most of the time, people who didn’t get anything out of the service, where those who did not put anything into their faith lives Monday through Saturday. When we expect one hour of one day to be enough to sustain our faith the rest of the week, we often are disappointed. 
In the Methodist tradition, small groups were also the places where you faced some hard questions, like “how is it with your soul”. Small groups genuinely cared about the person who gathered, so they created a safe space to hold each person accountable. It was a place to confess your sin and ask for prayer. It was a place where people were prayed both for and with. And it was a place where folks were spurred on to the fruits of the spirit. We need more places like that today - places where we can truly be the church for one another. In the Gospel of Matthew we find the oft quoted teaching of Jesus that, where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them. We need places to gather and grow in our faith.
In fact, growing in our faith is central to our Methodist heritage. It’s referred to in different ways - sanctification, moving on towards perfection, being on a faith journey. Whatever terminology we use the point is this - faith is never stagnant. We are not finished in our faith when we first start to believe in Jesus. Instead, in the words of Bishop Schase -  “Faith moves, grows, changes, matures.” We all need to continue to mature in our faith - from the new believer to the season saint. 

When I was in college I was part of a very large Christian fellowship. We would come together Wednesday evenings for worship and a time of teaching. There were so many people you could get lost in the crowd. And that was a wonderful time of hundreds of us singing praise to God. But just as important were our small groups of 8-12 that met in places all around town throughout the week - apartments, dorm rooms, and church basements. It was here that we learned to care for one another. It was in those small groups where we learned to understand scripture and what it looks like to be faithful. And we held each other accountable. And we prayed for one another. We all need places like this brothers and sisters - where is your small group? Where is the place you can grow in your faith in community? Amen. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Bearing Fruit: Passionate Worship

Sometimes little things make big changes in our heart. Sometimes changing how we see things can change how we go about our lives. We are now in the second week of our sermon series on the Five Fruitful practices of vital congregations. Last week we discovered that fruitful congregations work towards being not just friendly, but radically hospitable. This week we be looking at what worship looks like in vital congregations.
Worship is part of who we are as a community of believers. In Acts chapter 2, we find the early church in its infancy, and it is described like this: “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teachings and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and prayer. Everyone was filled with the awe at the many wanders and signs performed by the apostles…Every day they they continued to meet together in the the temple courts….And the Lord added to their numbers daily.” The worship of the early church was passionate. It did exactly what worship is supposed to do - it connected those early believers to God and to one another. They gathered together to worship in homes and at the temple courts. They did life together in such a way that they glorified God and grew closer to God! 
What words would you use to describe our worship toady? Would passionate be one of them? Does our experience of worship connect us deeply to God and to one another? If we are honest the answer probably is sometimes. Sometimes our experience of worship deeply moves us, but other times we feel like we are just going through the motions - not really expecting God to show up and move in a mighty way. We don’t expect to encounter God during our worship experience.
My predecessor at the last parish I served was training to be a military chaplain. Part of his training included tools around prayer. He left hanging in the parish office a beautiful reminder that prayer is part of our expecting God. It was a large sign asking if you prayed for worship today. Have we prayed, brothers and sisters, for this worship experience? Have we prayed that we experience God? Have we prayed that we connect with one another out of love? Because if we don’t care enough to pray about it, then how do we expect it to happen? The sign in the office went on to encourage everyone to arrive at worship a few minutes earlier then usual to intentionally bring their hearts before the Lord and pray for God’s Spirit to move in this place. Are we passionate enough about our worship experience to pray for it? Do we actively prepare ourselves for worship?
What the passage from Acts reminds us is that worship is both personal and corporate. While the believers certainly came together to worship at the temple, they also worship in each others homes. They prayed and listened to the teachings of the apostles and broke bread together. Bishop Schanse reminds us that “Worship describes those times we gather deliberately seeking to encounter God in Christ”. Worship isn’t just what we do together on Sunday morning, its what we do through the week as well. It is how we nourish our souls. 
We recently celebrate Christmas and the season of Advent that proceeded. Every Advent I have a friend that gathers people in his home and he and his wife lead Advent worship services. He and his wife have been doing this since college; wherever they live they invite people to come around the Advent wreath to share in a time of devotions and song. They pray for one another. This doesn't replace their experience of worship on Sunday morning - but it does enhance it. They are nourishing their spirits throughout the week, not just on Sunday mornings. 
Song writer and musician Chris Tomlin writes in one of his songs that “You and I are made to worship”. Brothers and sisters, we are made to worship the living God! Repeatedly in Exodus we find that God freed the Israelites, bringing them out of captivity in Egypt so they may worship God. But sometimes we forget that we are made to worship God  and instead think worship is about us and having our personal needs met. Schanse writes, “People are not at worship to observe and evaluate but to receive what God offers and offer their best in response.” Sometimes we let our mind think of imperfections instead of focusing them towards God and our passionate devotion to God. We need to look beyond what we want, to see what God is doing!
We can also fall into the trap of thinking that worship is simply an obligation, which can suck the joy and passion right out of our experience together. Worship is where we come together, and echo the words of psalm 100: “We shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth! Worship the Lord with gladness; come before the Lord with song.” When we come together there is a method to how we do things, called liturgy, and each part of the liturgy from the prelude to the benediction has a purpose. But when we get so set is how we do things, instead of why we do them, we’ve missed the point. 
John Wesley was known for preaching in a variety of places, most notably outdoors. But John was raised to be an Anglican priest. He knew the liturgy and wanted people to be part of the Anglican church. He started the Methodists as a revival movement for the church, not its own entity. But along the way he had to adapt to doing things differently, to meeting the needs of the people, even if it wasn’t his choice, so that people who did not yet know Christ could connect with him deeply. 
Schanse contines, “God uses worship to transform lives, heal wounded souls, renew hope, shape decisions, provoke change, inspire compassion, and bind people to one another.” Praise God for worship, friends! Praise God for places where we come together and learn about Christ and how to live our our faith and find our hearts strangely warmed. The question is do we believe that worship can change us? And do we believe that we can worship God every day?
People are searching for communities where they can worship God. Where they can praise God. Its not about what style of worship we have or what order things happen in the worship service. Its about being a place where hearts are warm for God and our hands stretch out to love our neighbors. Its not about being a place where every desire of what we want is met or a place where we are entertained - it about being a place where we are transformed.
In my last parish, a small group studied the Five Fruitful Practices, and because of it changed some things in worship. While we still offered prayer time as usual where people raised their joys and concerns, we added a time in each service for annointing. If people had upcoming drs appointments, surgeries, or concerns they could come forward and be prayed over by the church. The first few weeks no one came, but then for months after people would often come to the alter to be annointed. It changed the spirit of our worship together. We became a people who expected God to show up and who diligently showed concern for one another. 

That was what worked for one congregation in a specific place with a specific need. All around the nation and the world people are looking for faith communities with worship experiences that show that they love God, love one another, are for new people coming in and have tangible expressions of their faith in Christ. Let us be known as one of the communities. Let us be a place that passionately worships the living God!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

“Bearing Fruit: Radical Hospitality” Romans 15:7

We are beginning a New Year today. A tradition that often accompanies the New Year is setting goals - thinking about things you wish to change in the coming year or things that you wish to grow upon in the days to come - resolutions. 
What would it look like if we made resolutions in the local church as well? Not resolutions that are so lofty that we quickly abandon them  - but instead resolutions to build upon who we already are, what we are passionate about, and what we do well in order to become even more vital. Bishop Robert Schnase wrote a book several years ago about the five practices of fruitful congregations - radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk taking mission and service, and extravagant generosity. Schanse proposed in his book that these are the marks of vital congregations that are healthy and growing - both in number, but also in spiritual depth. In other words, how we make the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ fit in our daily lives.
For the next five weeks we are going to journey together through these markers of vitality, in order to make resolutions about how we can grow as individuals and as a local congregation on our faith journey. This week we start with radical hospitality.
Schanse states, “Congregations offer gracious invitation, welcome and hospitality of Christ so that people experience a sense of belonging”. This is not a new idea, brothers and sisters. It harkens back to both the Old and New Testaments. The apostle Paul tells the church in Rome to welcome one another. And not to just offer any type of welcome, but to extend the welcome of Christ - the welcome that gave itself so that all could have the opportunity to be reunited in restore relationship with God. And we offer such an inclusive welcome for a sole purpose, so that people can come to know the glory of God!
Can you think of a time when you have been welcomed, with the radical loving welcome of Christ? Or maybe it would be easier for you to think of a time when you were not made to feel welcome - either intentionally or unintentionally. What was that experience like for you?
I can vividally remember a time that I was invited to belong. Someone in my high school class was starting a bible study in his family’s home. We didn’t really know each other, but he went out of his way to invite me. In fact, he went out of his way to invite a whole lot of people. So much so that we quickly out grew his parents living room, and then his house. We moved to a trailer attached to the small country church we were affiliated with. Inviting was so much a part of the culture of that bible study, that we out grew that as well - to the point where I remember one summer day when we had folks both inside and outside of the trailer listening to the youth pastor lead a study on the book of Acts. 
It felt good to be invited. Good to be thought of. Inviting is part of hospitality, friends. Often I think folks in church think that hospitality is the same thing as being friendly, but the truth is they are different but both needed. Hospitality has to do with inviting people, welcoming them when they come, including them and supporting new comers. Schanse writes, “Growing congregations don’t stop at friendly hospitality”. 
I thinking growing congregations don’t stop at being friendly congregations because we are never done. Hospitality calls us to go deeper, each time we gather together, in trying to reach out to new people so that they can come to know Jesus Christ. Hospitality invites us into this radical place where, yes, we can think about serving those are here amongst us, but even more so think about reaching out and serving those who are not yet present.
Take a moment to look around the sanctuary. What group of people aren’t here that you wish were - families with young children? Young adults? College students? People that are the age of our children? Now think - what would you be willing to risk and change in order to get that demographic here? Do we value people so highly that we are willing to make changes?
For example  - if we want more families with young children to be present what could we change in order to make this so? Could we hire someone to work in the nursery on Sunday morning to watch children if parents want a quiet time to worship? Could we invest in making bags full of activity items for children so if they want to sit with their parents they feel welcome? Could we have rockers put in the back of the sanctuary for mothers who want to sooth their infants? 
Some churches wanted to make a space in the sanctuary for children to participate in worship in their own way. What came next was the prayer-ground. Right at the front of the sanctuary there is an area set up with toys that children can play with during the worship service in order for children to be present. These spaces have even made the news because of the radical hospitality that they offer.
Maybe its not young families that we wish would attend, but rather young adults. Or another demographic entirely. Have we taken time to ask people what they are looking for in a place of worship and faith community? Radical hospitality calls us for us to be concerned about what people are looking for and to honestly ask if these are things that we can truly do. Not changing our core value. But changing the ways that we show people the Christ values and loves them in order to remove any road blocks that may be preventing people from coming to know Jesus Christ. 
The problem with hospitality, especially radically hospitality is that it asks us to serve others in order of being served. In the gospel of Matthew we find that “The son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” When we start to serve others as a congregation, we find that we are also strengthened as a congregation, because we are putting our focus not on making sure that we are personally happy and satisfied, but instead reaching out in the name of Jesus to glorify God’s name!
Again in the gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus telling the parable of the king who will sort out those who are known to him from those who are unknown to him at the end of time, and the king tells them, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” Schnase states, “Radical Hospitality is out of genuine love for Christ and others”. Radical hospitality asks us to care for those who are not yet amongst us just as much as we care for each other, who are like family. To care for the stranger. And then to invite and welcome them amongst us. 
We are inviting people because we truly believe that there is new life to be offered in Christ! We welcome people as God welcomes them, seeing their worth. And we invite, brothers and sisters, because God invited us. Why are you here today? Was it because someone invited you to be part of this faith community? A grandma or grandpa? Mother or father? Friend or colleague? And are there people in worship today because you invited them to be part of this faith community as well? 
When we invite and welcome people with radical hospitality we don’t just offer a cordial welcome. We act as if Jesus himself was coming to our place of worship this morning. In the book of Hebrews we find this admonishment, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” What would we be willing to risk in our hospitality if we were entertaining angels, brothers and sisters?
But in order to be an inviting culture, we need to ask ourselves some very hard questions - in particular why do we want people to come? Do we want people to come to boost our numbers or our offering? To make ourselves feel better? Or do we want to invite people to come so they can come to know the saving love of Christ in their own lives? Pastor Adam Hamilton states this question another way, saying that all churches need to be able to answer three questions: why do people need Christ? Why do people need the church? Why do people need this church? Hospitality is the genuine love we have for new people and how we show this, and this genuine love, is about their lives and their souls. Now how do we communicate this to those who are not yet part of our faith community?
Schanse states, “People are searching for churches that make them feel welcomed, loved, needed, and accepted”. Notice that he didn’t say that we need to have it all together or have all the answers. That isn’t what people are looking for. Instead they are looking for places where they come to know that God loves them and that they are not alone. 

How are we doing, Church, inviting people? Who is on your heart this morning to invite to worship to be part of the body of Christ? And what are we willing to change in order to reach new people? Do we strive without ceasing to exceed people’s expectations? Are we willing to make room for new people amongst us? For in the words of Schnase, “By God’s grace people may be more ready that we realize to accept the invitation of Christ that comes through gracious hospitality”. Amen. 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Isaiah 43: 16-21

We have reached the end of 2016, with 2017 approaching from just around the corner. As we gather for worship this evening, we come both to remember and to anticipate. To look back and look forward. 
While the world around us is getting ready to flip the calendar we have gathered together this evening for a holy time of worship. For centuries, Christians have gathered together on the evening of New Years Eve for watch night services - to think about the past year and to make confession in order to prepare for the year ahead. John Wesley held the first watch night service in the Methodist tradition in 1740 - following the lead of the Moravians who had been having such services years earlier. Tonight we join the chorus of the Saints who have went before us in worship.
When selecting a text for this evening, I could not help but go back to one of my favorites, found in the book of Isaiah. Close your eyes for a moment as we set the scene. The people of Israel are in exile. Years prior they had been taken captive by the Babloyians. They have lost everything - their homes, the temple, their sense of lively hood, their community. They are in a foreign place where they have been told to set down roots, and surely they asked themselves time and time again where God was and why this happened to them?
Brothers and sisters, over the last year how many of us have felt like we were in exile as well? Maybe we were in a familiar place geograpically, but we found ourselves going through situations that we would rather not have faced. Death of people that we have loved. Illnesses that we didn’t see coming. Hospital stays. Surgeries. Relationships that were important to us ending. We have walked through some dark valleys, brothers and sisters, some of which we are still wrestling with. We have faced impossible things, some of which almost seemed to destroy us. We have went through grief - there wasn’t a way around it. Yet here we stand, about to enter into a new year.
As we look back on 2016, some of us may have questions about why these things happened to us. I stand before you this evening, and honestly say I don’t know. I cannot fully comprehend why we went through some of the dark valleys and challenges that we have faced. But I can confidently say that Christ walked with us the entire time, even when we could not perceive him. 
The people of Israel were on the brink of losing hope. They had been in exile so long that a generation, the keeper of their stories and traditions, had begun to die off. They were forgetting who they were in. And in this time of seemingly complete despair and exile came a word of hope - God is doing a new thing and they are going to return to the land that they left so long ago. 
There is hope, because even though the people of Israel had no idea how God was going to do it - they were going to return to a land they were on the brink of forgetting. A place that seemed like a distant memory. The Lord was going to make a way for them through the sea- just like God did so long ago for their forefathers and foremothers that were fleeing Egypt. They were going to be promised a new beginning.
But here is the thing about God making a way - it usually isn’t the way that we would choose. People don’t wake up in the morning and say that they easiest path they want to take for the day is to go through the sea. And yet, that is the path that God is creating in order to bring newness - new life, new beginnings. Our God makes a way when there seems to be no way - it may not be the way we would choose - often through instead of around - but God makes a way.
The real question for us on the brink of 2017 is this: are we willing to follow wherever God leads us on this path to newness? Are we willing to risk going into the unknown with God at our side? 
The problem that we face on New Years Eve - the delimma if you will - is whether we are willing to move forward into a new year or whether we want to stay in the past - as painful as it may have been for us. Because at least with the past we know what we went through. God has a word for us about the past this evening - don’t remember the former things because God is about to do something radically new.
This is hard for us to hear. It was certainly hard for the ancient Israelites to hear. God was just speaking to them about making a path through the waters - something God did for them when they were fleeing Egypt! How could they help but remember the former things - they were their story, their identity. Thing didn’t go well for them when they forgot the former things of old. Yet, here is God telling them not to dwell on the past, because it could prevent them from moving forward into the future.
So it is with us, brothers and sisters. We know that we worship a God who has delivered us in the past, and we need to tell those stories. Especially this evening. But we can’t become so rooted in the past that God cannot use us in the future. We cannot become so focused on 2016 or years gone by that it keeps us from faithfully following where God may lead us as individuals and as a congregation in 2017. 
What if God wants to lead us on a different path from the exile of 2016 into the freedom of 2017 then what we expected? Then what we are comfortable with? Are we still willing to go? What if like the Israelites, we are being led out of exile to a place where we need to rebuild? Would we chase after God? God is making a way, through the wilderness, and we might not know exactly where we will end up, but we know that God will not fail us! 

So what is holding us back? Are we ready for what 2017 may bring and we trust our faithful God! 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

“Exploring Ephesians: Maturing in Christ” Eph 4: 1-16



To mature. Webster’s Dictionary defines maturing as the process of growing or developing. Full development of the body and mind. To become complete and perfect. Now there is a word that we don’t like very often do we - perfection. 
I’m a big fan of Broadway musicals. One of the songs that rings through my mind from Mary Poppins, the story about a cheerful nanny, is called “Practically Perfect.” This was her way of introducing herself to the children and she declares that she is “practically perfect in every way.”
We’ve created an image of Christian perfection in our heads that few would even want to obtain –nonsensical, prudish, unimaginative, and perhaps even gruff. Someone who doesn’t smile or laugh or have fun. As a United Methodist, one of the tenants of our tradition is that we are moving on towards perfection, but if these characteristics mark perfection it is most certainly not who I want to be, nor is it who I wish to lead people to discover as their pastor.  
When I think about Jesus Christ, the one that we are invited to mature in the example of and through the power of, I don’t apply any of the words we fear around perfection - nonsensical, prudish, unimaginative. No Christ invites us into a much more Wesleyan understanding of perfection in this passage - becoming more deeply in love with God and your neighbor every single day. 
For the author of Ephesians, this deeper love expresses itself as unity. This is another word that seems to bother us from time to time, mostly because it is mis-understood. The author is calling for unity of the Church, or a coming together around Christ as the center of our faith. But unity is not uniformity. We all have different gifts and talents. We have lived out our faith in different ways. God is not looking for cookie cutter Christians. No. God wants us to use our uniqueness to bless the Lord every single day. However, we need to keep coming together around our Savior, Jesus Christ. 
Unity is emphasized through peace. How many times have we seen Christians behaving badly - arguing over things that do not have eternal value? Rev. Lori Steffensen shared at the 2015 Charge Conference about having churches that fought over who brought what covered dish to church events and the color of carpet. I wish I could say that this was abnormal, but I’ve seen some of the same fights in my time as a pastor as well. Do those things have eternal significance? No. Then let them go for the sake of unity through peace. Let them go for the sake of proclaiming the message of the Kingdom of God. 
This passage, friends, is talking about what it looks like to be the church and why it matters. One of the things I do my first year in a church is work my way through the directory visiting folks, so we can get to know one another in the body of Christ. But it can get quite awkward if the directory hasn’t been updated in a while and contains folks who have left the church. Then I hear heartbreaking stories of why folks have left the church, and often it is because they were not treated with gentleness, patience, and love. It’s equally heartbreaking when I’m new in an area and introduce myself as the pastor of XYZ church and I hear folks respond with the stories they’ve heard about why folks left that church years ago. The author of Ephesians is reminding us that we need to do better - we need to be unified - because our ability to fruitfully share about the Kingdom of God is at stake. 
Church, we have the most important and beautiful message to share that has ever been told - the story of Jesus Christ. The story of hope and faith. The story of God pursing us and making a way for us to be reconciled to a holy God, even when we were yet sinners. The story of the cross and the grace that is to be found there. But all too often all this other stuff gets in the way of us being able to share that message. And as a result we become a church that is better known for our fundraisers or our fights then sharing the love of Jesus Christ. 
Its time for us to grow up, church. Its time for us to mature in our faith. The ten dollar theological term for this process of maturing is sanctification, to become set apart for a special, holy purpose. This is an ongoing process as we focus more and more on the love of Jesus Christ and less and less on the things that don’t matter. 
Part of maturing is making sure that Jesus is in the right place in your life - right at the center. Have you ever noticed that when Jesus isn’t the center of your attention and focus that you can often become side tracked by other things? That you are more prone to slip into the sins that can rip apart a church, like pride and gossip? When we don’t have Christ as our center, we often think that the Church is about us - meeting our needs instead of reaching out to those who don’t yet know Jesus as their Lord and Savior. But when Christ is in that right place in our lives, all of our focus comes around serving God and glorifying the name of Jesus.
But the other part of maturing in Christ is building up the body of Christ. This is not building up the select members of the body that we like. Its encouraging everyone in the body to use their gifts and talents to live into the call God has for them and the call that God has for this local church. It's helping to carry one another’s burdens during tough times and celebrating during joyous times. We are to build up one another is all that we do. The local church is God’s greatest hope in the world for spreading the message of Jesus, but when we are dysfunctional we aren’t as effective in doing that.
Think about your own body - growth depends on all of the parts of the body working properly together. When one part is out of wack, even from something as simple as a cold, the whole body suffers. So it is with the body of Christ, we all need to be working together and not against each other in order to be the most effective at reaching folks for Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters, how is our local body of Christ doing? Are we maturing in the faith? Do folks know us as a place where the love of Jesus is proclaimed and shown? If not, what needs realigned in order to get us there? And what about you as an individual? Are you moving on towards perfection? Are you loving God and your neighbor more and more every day? If not, how do you get your focus back on Christ? Folks, we are never done maturing. Never done growing. Never done moving on to perfection. Let us keep running the race with endurance, building one another up in love. Amen.