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My heart beats for love. I want to be different. I want to be who I am called to be. WORTHY and LOVED!

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Friday, July 3, 2015

Smell

   What I find hardest to deal with during moves to new places are the new smells - or more accurately the lack of familiar smells. The scents of my home are gone because there hasn't been time for the candles, loose leaf tea, and dryer sheet smell to seep into the wood. Perhaps there is a good lesson in that for all transitions - it takes time to seep into a place - to become firmly established and comfortable - to become part of what it means to be from that place.
    In many ways with this move I am returning home, but at the same time I need to make this place my home.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

1 John 1:9 “How Do We Forgive Ourselves”

Way back before Lent we entered into our mini sermon series on forgiveness  by asking how we can forgive others when they hurt us. But this week we are going to flip the question, instead asking, how can we forgive ourselves when we hurt others.
When we are in relationship with others, we tend to hurt them from time to time. But after we wrong someone we have a choice to make - or rather a series of choice. First, we need to decide if we will humble ourselves to say “I’m sorry” or not. Second, if we choose to say “I’m sorry” we have to decide how we will say it and how we will respond to the one we have hurt.
Because we are all in relationships, we need to learn how to say “I’m sorry” - yet it seems that for some of us, these can be the hardest words to ever utter. They admit our shortcomings. They make us vulnerable. So some people avoid admitting that they have hurt anyone in life, refusing to say “I’m sorry”, and eventually causing even more pain. 
But others choose to say “I’m sorry”. After examining the distant that they are feeling from someone close to them and considering the part they have to play in creating that distance, they begin to ask how can I be reconciled to the one I’ve wronged? Reconcile is a difficult word. It means restoration of friendship or relationship. But such simple definition can trick us into thinking that reconciliation is easy - which is far from the truth. Reconciliation is difficult because it is beyond our control. We cannot make someone we have wronged restore relationship with us - we can only put our best foot forward. We can only control our part in seeking the reconciliation, not if someone else will it accept it, what terms they may present, or the timing. And that is hard to swallow. When we say “I’m sorry” to another person, we cannot expect the automatic response to be “I forgive you”, especially if we have deeply wounded someone. Forgiveness, like healing, takes time.
So why would we want to take the risk of saying “I’m sorry”, not knowing if the other person will accept our apology or not? Because right relationships matter to God. I often tell people that for Christians, our relationships with God and others are linked together. When we are feeling closer to God, when we are in right relationship with God, after confessing our sin and seeking to restore our relationship with the Holy One, we are usually in better relationship with the people who are important in our lives. The reverse is also true. When we seek to be reconciled to those important people in our lives who we have hurt, we often find ourselves growing closer to God. It is very difficult to love God and hate our neighbor, or to love our neighbor and be estranged from God.
We are meant to be loving, truthful, and kind to one another, but when we slip into the sin of selfishness, putting our needs and focus first, we are bound to hurt other people. I can think of no sin that is a private sin, for many times such sins end up unintentionally hurting others and most certainly hurt God. This is why we are told in today’s scripture verse to confess our sins. When we confess our sins earnestly to God, God meets us with grace and purifies us. This doesn’t mean that we will never make a mistake or sin again, it simply means that God, through Jesus Christ, intervene on our behalf. While we do not know if another person will accept our apologies, we know God will. According to Pastor Adam Hamilton, we must talk about sin, forgiveness, and reconciliation all together when he states, “But the process of forgiveness begins with our awareness and understanding of sin, for if we are not aware of our sin, we go on living self-absorbed lives hurting others. So the purpose of preaching and learning about sin is to open the door to healing!”
A caveat, however. Our confession to God and apologies must be sincere. How many of us have seen a little child hurt another person, only to have the parent demand that they say they are sorry? While this is certainly teaching a good skill, the child often half heartedly says “I’m sorry” without admitting what they did wrong or how it hurt another person. This is a bad trait we carry into our adult relationships. Making statements such as “I’m sorry, but….”, or making an excuse with our apology, or gloss over your mistakes, or seeking to place blame on the other person. Part of apologizing is thinking about and stating what you wish you would have done differently. Thinking about how you can seek through not only words, but also actions, to be in right relationship, as you answer the question, will I do my best to not harm this person in this way again?
But what if the wrong or the burden lies in the past? Too many of us are carrying around loads of unconfessed and unforgiven sin against other people. How can the burden of guilt from such instances be removed? Through prayer. And through seeking a right relationship with God through confession. If the person you have wronged is still living, try to seek them out and reconcile. I was reading a book this week and approaching death in the hospice program from a chaplain’s perspective. In one of the vignettes, the chaplain tells of a woman who was estranged from her brother for twenty years, but wanted to be reconciled to him before she died. Not knowing how to do so, she wrote him letter, essentially saying, I forget why we are estranged, but I am sorry that I continue to hurt you by keeping my distance. Before she died, he brother wrote back, saying he too, did not remember why they were estranged, and wanted to be in relationship again with her. When we confess our sins to God and others, we lighten our load and lay the burden of our guilt down. Part of the reason we pray a corporate prayer of confession each week is to get us in the habit of confessing and to remind us that we have fallen short in our relationship with God and with other people.
But what if the person we have hurt is no longer living or will not forgive us? Then take it to God in prayer. We may not be able to have the relationship with the person we once had, but we can ask God to keep us from committing the same sins against people in other relationships. We still need to lay the burden of guilt down. As long as we have tried our very best to restore the relationship and have earnestly repented, we can be assured of our pardon. 
The journey of seeking forgiveness for wrongs you have committed against others is not something we should enter into alone. Just as there are no private sins, there too are really no private confessions. For too often, we confess our sins to God alone, we do not have accountability from other people, which we deserpately need. This is why we need the Church. I’ve heard far too many people tell me that they are not good enough, too bad or too broken to come to Church. But the Church is for sinners. The Church exists to support one another on this journey towards forgiveness because we’ve all been there. We need a place to put what God has touched our heart with into action. To practice reconciliation. To seek to lay our burdens down. To both ask for and accept forgiveness.
I can think of no better way to end my time with you than with this sermon. To say I am sorry for the times you feel that I have not made the right decisions. To say I’m sorry for not being the pastor that some of you wanted or was able to fulfill your every expectation. But I ask that you do not carry any un-forgiveness you may be feeling towards me into your relationship with Pastor Tim. God has given you a clean slate - a fresh start. Embrace it. Learn from him. Love him and Brittany. And let him be the pastor God has called him to be. 

Brothers and sisters, what guilt of damaged relationships are you carrying around? Who do you need to say “I’m sorry” to? What unconfessed sins do you need to bring before God? May we leave this place, knowing that we have the support of one another as we seek to restore the relationships in our lives in need of healing - be it with God or with other people. Amen. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

“Freedom in Christ” Gal 5: 2-15

We are now in the second week of our discussion of some of the key passages in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Remember back to a few weeks ago when we started out in the first chapter, discovering that Paul had planted a series of churches in the region of Galatia - modern day Turkey. When he left them to continue on in his mission they were doing well, but quickly a group of Judiazers came in and told the gentile Galatians that they weren’t really saved by Christ or doing Christianity right because they weren’t following all of the Jewish laws and regulations. 
Today we are a few chapters ahead but are picking up where we left off in the story. Paul is by now getting quite upset in his writing. He is now addressing the issue of circumsision. Circumsision was a sign of the covenant that God established with Abraham. God told Abraham to have all boys circumsized when they were eight days old, dedicated to God. Now the Judiazers have come into Galatia and have told the gentile Galatians that they are wrong on this issue as well. All men need to be circumsised as a sign of their obedience to God. 
Paul did not teach this. In fact, Paul refutes it - saying that circumsion was a sign of the old covenant but a new one has been formed through the blood of Jesus Christ. Remember the words we hear every time we celebrate communion together “This is the blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Thus a problem emerged in the minds of the Galatians - had Paul left out part of what they needed to do or believe in order to be saved?
In some ways we do the same thing today - coming up with a laundry list of things people do or do not do, some of which aren’t actually even Biblically based, all in the name of being a “good Christian”. But those requirements, those laws, are human made, not God intended or blessed. Other times, we’ve taken an old law, such as those surrounding circumsion, out of their original context, and say that they are required in order to obey Jesus, when in fact Jesus didn’t even really speak about the issue. 
The crux of the question seems to be how much to we need to believe in order to be Christian? Or what do we need to do in order to follow Jesus? Is it this laundry list of things, some of which change from church to church and region to region, or is it about something deeper, the heart of the issue? 
The Galatians at the teachings of the Judiazers had become so confused and distracted that they had forgotten all that Paul had taught them about the love and grace of God through Jesus Christ. Paul had come to them with a very clear message, all had sin and fallen short of the glory of God. Sin was violating God’s will and breaking the relationship between us and God. We could never do enough or believe enough to earn forgiveness from God - many people throughout history had tried and all had failed. There had never been a perfect person or prophet or king… until Jesus. God came through the person of Jesus Christ, fully human and fully man, so that we could have victory over sin. Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves - restoring our relationship with God. And that is ultimate freedom. 
But that wasn’t enough for the Judizers. It seemed too simple. So they started adding fluff around the teachings of Paul in the form of laws. It was no longer about Jesus - it was about acting right. And thus the people were back in the mindset that has plagued us for ages about trying to earn our salvation, trying to earn our forgiveness and right relationship with God.
Several weeks ago we were deep into a sermon series about God’s grace. Remember that grace is a gift freely given to us by God through Jesus Christ. We can never earn it. And it is only by the grace of God that we can be saved. 
The truth is that law and grace aren’t really compatible and that makes us uncomfortable. We start to try to prove to God how good we are, how deserving, by pointing out to God all the good things that we have done or all of the things that we haven’t done, all the while overlooking that we are a sinner in need of God’s grace. Shame on us and shame on the Galatians for buying into this lie. 
When we default back to rules all that we have done is disregarded God’s gift of grace. Its like we saw the gift, brightly wrapped before us, but refused to take off the wrapping instead saying that we don’t want to open it or that it isn’t quite what we wanted. So we return to the law - that which is tangible and we can understand, but all that we have done is brought ourselves back into bondage. 
When I was in seminary on of the classes I took was inside of a women’s correctional facility with inmates. We studied along side the cream of the crop and one time I remember getting into a conversation about why some women end up back in jail shortly after being released - its because they don’t know how to navigate life outside of bondage, life outside of regulation and rules. Brothers and sisters we are all like inmates who have been made free only to yearn to return to bondage.
The Judiazers were afraid of Christian liberty and freedom. They twisted around what Paul had taught about freedom in Christ to be about people being free to sin, but that isn’t the point at all. God set us free from sin! Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we have been given victory over sin. Christian freedom isn’t about being able to sin whenever and however we want. Its about God through Jesus giving us the power to conquer sin.
During our last confirmation class back in March one of the students asked if it really was as easy as asking God to forgive us our sins. And it really is. And then asking God to give us the power to conquer sin - but far too many of us fail to pray the second part of this prayer, thus failing to take up the gift that we are being offered. For freedom isn’t about just being able to do whatever we want, its actually true liberation from our destructive habits and that which separates us from God! Praise be to God for such a gift as freedom!

According to Michael Youssef, author of Leading the Way Through Galatians, “Christian freedom is the very heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ”. Don’t let yourself be taken away from the heart of this gospel message. Don’t get sucked back into the idea of salvation being earned through good works and following the law. Christ has already offered you that gift, if only you would open it and accept it. For if you could overcome sin by following the rules why would you need Christ? Preach the gospel of Christ, the center of our faith, first and always. We are sinners saved by grace. Thanks be to God! 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

“The Word of God” Gal 1: 6-24


What is our faith built upon? What is the value of the Gospel? What do the letters of Paul, specifically the letter to the Galatians, have to teach us today? From now until I move we are going to spend time exploring parts of Paul’s letter to the churches in the region of Galatia and digging into what truths it holds for us today. Unfortunately we will not be able to get through the entire letter together, but I encourage you to take time to read it on your own.
Our theme today from Galatians is the Word of God. Specifically the Gospel message. This may seem like an odd message to some on this specific day - the day of Pentecost when we celebrate the birth of the church. But the growth of the church came when Peter went forth to proclaim the word of God to those gathered in Jerusalem - resulting in over 3,000 people being baptized. The Word of God is powerful and is the root of the Church.
  A few months back our parish Bible study used Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible to explore what the Bible is and is not. Some of the ideas that Rev. Hamilton pushed back against was that the Bible is simply a book of rules, or an instruction manual, or a history book. When we find Paul in today’ s scripture lesson he is pushing back against some of the same mis-understandings about the Gospel that Rev. Hamilton addressed. 
Paul had come to the region of Galatia, which is around modern day Turkey, to witness to the Gentiles. While he was there he suffered some of the most intense persecution, beatings, and sufferings that he ever encountered along his missionary journey. But despite all that happened to him, he deeply love the churches in this region. He taught them about finding freedom through the salvation offered in Jesus Christ. A spiritual freedom they had never experienced before. 
But then he left the region, moving on to the next area, and it seemed like everything started to fall apart. Yes, the churches in Galatia wanted freedom, but they didn’t seem to grasp what it meant to be truly free in Christ. In the midst of the confusion entered a group known as the Judiziers, people who grew up Jewish and told them that their faith in Christ wasn’t complete if they didn’t act like a Jew. News got back to Paul and he was noticeably upset. 
He is upset because the churches took the grace of Jesus Christ and imparted on top of it a list of rules - making it legalistic instead of loving. They put so many rules on it that they are in danger of losing what the heart of the gospel is all about - Jesus Christ. He saw what the Judiziers were doing as a hinderance to the faith that these gentile pagans who had came to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. The teachings of the Judaizers were becoming a hinderance. 
I have to believe that the Judiazers did not set out to make the Gospel message more complicated. I want to believe that they had the best interest of the Galatians in mind. I want to believe that because too many Christians are like the Judiazers today, adding rules to grace. Trying to put forth the message that Jesus is not enough alone, even if we don’t mean to. We say that you need to believe in Jesus and in order to be a good Christian. You need to believe in Jesus and like a certain style of worship. You need to believe in Jesus and vote a certain way. You need to believe in Jesus and following the rules not of Christ, but of this specific church. All of the rules were weighting the Galatians down, just like they weigh us down today.
Some of the “ands” that we add to our faith are preferences - we want you to dress a certain way. Others are cultural misunderstandings about the Bible - such as not having tattoos, which during our study using Making Sense of the Bible we saw had more to do with ownership, being branded, then the expression of love or devotion that most tattoos show today. The truth is that we all have “ands” that we’ve added to faith in Jesus Christ that are weighing us down and distracting us from the gospel truth, making faith and grace far more complicated then it should be. 
A word of caution. There is a distinction to be made between structure that helps us live out our faith by being acceptable and the Church representing Christ to the world and imposing rules on top of our faith that distract us from our mission. A wonderful example of this came from my spiritual director, who served with her husband as a missionary around the world for decades. The places where Christianity often faltered where those areas where North Americans and Europeans went into tribal cultures, introduced Christ to folks, but didn’t stop there. Instead of allowing people to live into their faith in the context of their culture and society, they took their evangelism one step forward, and one step to far, by explicitly telling people they weren’t quite Christian until they accepted the way of being and culture from the missionaries. For example, going into an African tribal society and trying to make them democratic in the name of being Christian. Democracy isn’t in the Bible and by trying to impose this way of living, they just confused what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ with their particular way of living.
During confirmation class this past year, we discussed how the “ands” that are imposed on people is really why the  Church universal keeps fracturing. We add preferences, even about theological issues, to our faith and split because of that. We make faith confusing.
According to Michael Youssef author of Finding the Way through Galatians, “The judaizers also practiced a dishonest from of argument called ad hominem attack (against the man). They sought to undermine the gospel message by attacking the messenger, the apostle Paul.” Have you ever noticed when someone doesn’t have all of the facts right they just skip logic altogether and start attacking people? Paul wants the Galatians to know that he has preached the full and true Gospel to them. Jesus’s teachings, death, and resurrection. He didn’t water down the Gospel, as he was accused on by the Judaizers, in order to convert them. He gave them the whole gospel and let the Holy Spirit convict and lead them into faith. Now others were coming to make their faith about the law instead of Jesus, and that is not part of the Gospel message of Christ. Its almost as if they have been saved from a burning ship, are on the lifeboat, and are now trying to steer the boat back towards the flames. And when they can’t, they start jumping overboard and swimming towards the now sinking ship. 
Paul once again proclaims that the Gospel message tells us that we are saved by Jesus Christ alone. Not by our own actions of following the law to a ’t’ or worshipping a certain way, or anything else that is done by our own merit. Paul isn’t giving them this message in a diluted form, or to make them like him. He is telling them the whole gospel because he is compelled to by Christ. Humorously, what the Juadizers are proclaiming about needing to follow the law, is what he believed before encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Knowing how painful that road is, he is trying to steer the Galatians away from it, towards the Gospel. He doesn’t want them to follow a law just to please others, he wants them to please God. 
Our deepest human desire is for companionship and we think we can achieve that by making people like us, or by making people like us, in our image. Paul speaks firmly against this, saying that we are not to proclaim the Gospel, the very word of God, to please others, but because we are compelled by God. We are merely vessels to help others glorify God! 
How much of what we do and who we are, both as individual believers and this Church, is because we are seeking to glorify God and how much of it is to make other people like us? How much of what we do is to fulfill other people’s expectations and how much of it is living into the mission God has created us for? 

Because the truth is that the Word of God is powerful. Rev. Hamilton has stated many times, and repeated in Making Sense of the Bible, that it was the message of the Gospel that lead him to faith in Jesus Christ. The message of Christ still converts hearts today - if we get out of the way and stop complicating it with our own agendas and laws. We need to get out of our own way in order to get back to the root of the church - the Word of God. We need to get out of our own way in order for the church to be re-born anew, like that first Pentecost. So Brothers and sisters I am commissioning you today, may the love of Jesus Christ and the grace that passes all understanding, shine through you, as it did the apostle Paul, so that those who do not yet know Christ come to that knowledge through you. And leave it at that. Don’t give into the temptation to make someone like you, so that others may be made in the image, not of us, but of God. Amen. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

“Grace: Moving Us Forward”

For the last two weeks we have been discussing God’s gift of grace - which is sort of like a house in structure. Previent grace is the foundation of the house, laid before we even knew God out of love for us.  The activity of God from the moment of our conception to the moment we say yes to all that God is offering us. Justifying grace is the porch, the place where neighbors come to visit and be invited into the house.  The place where we accept God’s love for us and invitation for salvation and the relationship that God offers us through Christ. Sanctifying grace is actually entering the house. Passing through the threshold and being totally committed and in the presence of God. 
I cannot remember the exact day and time when I moved from the porch of God’s grace into the house. In actuality there have been many experiences where I have moved into that space and have grown in my relationship with God - or experienced sanctifying grace. Moments when I knew that this time, and that this experience, were nothing short of a gift from God. Times that sang to me of God’s love and care for me and propelled me to “see Thee more clearly, follow Thee more nearly, and love Thee more dearly” in the lyrics from Godspell. In that moment something clicked for me about God’s love and the gift of grace. 
At the end of the day, all grace is God’s grace. But each type of grace describes a different aspect of God’s love for us, as if exploring it from different angles or looking through a prism. Sanctifying grace is the gift that God that provides the desire and power to grow in our relationship with God - forever. While justifying grace may represent a moment in time, sanctifying grace lasts forever. For we are on a journey with God that never ends and we always have room to grow even closer, and more committed, to God. All grace is God’s active love for us. Our response to sanctifying grace is actively loving God in return. Grace is God’s love in action - towards other and towards the world, and our response to that grace is our love in action for others.
The means of grace, those ways that we can tangibly experience and express God’s love for us, help us celebrate and strengthen our relationship with God. This is a continual process that moves us forward, but it can have obstacles along the way - those attitudes and actions that hinder our relationship with God and with our neighbor. During those difficult times, or times when we falter, we must remember that through the cross, Jesus has overcome every obstacle for us, if we would only claim the power of grace. 
As we respond to sanctifying grace we open ourselves up to the movement and work of the Holy Spirit through divine energy and power. Each of us may experience this movement of the Spirit differently, but the Holy Spirit alway moves us forward in our faith, with both uncontainable force and gentleness. This ability to grow in our relationship with God lasts forever. Just as physical birth begins the process to grow and mature, so does spiritual birth begin the process of growing towards spiritual maturity. 
Sanctifying grace is the process of opening ourselves us to the work of the Holy Spirit. Sanctifying grace is the divine energy transforming our hearts and life. As we mature the Holy Spirit brings us strength and courage to be made ripe for glory in the following ways:
One, restore our relationship with God and others. This is a mark of growth along our spiritual walk. The desire to restore relationships that have been broken because of sin. We cannot earn God’s love by changing our ways. Rather, we change our ways because God loves us and gives us the grace to make a fresh start, day by day, hour by hour. There have been countless times in my life when I have screwed up and hurt others. But the more I live into God’s grace, the more I realize when I hurt people and seek both reconciliation and to prevent me from hurting them again. This change can only come from God’s Spirit, “bearing witness with our spirit”, which the apostle Paul reminds us in Romans. Because my identity comes from being a child of God, I can begin to see others as a child of God, and seek to not hurt them. In medical terms, one could say this restoration of relationship with God and others is the process of spiritual growth and the recovery of our health, since we were once sick with sin.
Second, imparting newness. New life, new light, new strength, and a new heart. The Spirit gives us insight into this newness so that we can seek it out and fully embrace our new status in life as a child of God, because of Christ’s death for us on the cross. Justifying grace is the moment when the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. This means that we are declared “not guilty” because of all that Christ did for us on the cross and we experience a change in status. As we continue along the spectrum of grace, sanctifying grace is the process by which the righteousness of Christ is imparted to us - it becomes a part of us, and we experience a change in heart. Through these changes we become more like Christ, day by day, as we grow and mature spiritually. 
Sometimes it is difficult to grasp the concept of grace imparted to us. There is an old saying that you cannot choose your family. You are born into the lineage that you have,complete with our hair color and texture, our temperament, our family drama. In other words certain characteristics were handed down to us at our birth. However, as we grow and mature those characteristics are imparted to us as we make them our won. Sometimes we succeed and are able to separate our identity as an individual from the things we like least about our heritage while maintaining that which we claim as the best. 
Thirdly, the Spirit drives to perfect ourselves in the image of God and the likeness of Christ. God perfects us, but not all at once. We are rising to the likeness of Christ that is in us. Sometimes this perfection involves pruning, cutting away the areas in our lives that will not lead to growth and life, which can sometimes be painful. Christian perfection is both instantaneous (as in justifying grace) and extended over tie for maturity (as in sanctifying grace), thus making conversion a process. It happens once, but not all at once. It is a lifelong process of doing what is right and resisting what is evil. 
I used to really dislike the idea of being made perfect. It sounded boring and impossible. But then I stumbled upon what John Wesley felt that perfection was - growing in relationship to other people and in love with God. That is achievable. That is something I can work towards and I can find hope in! 
And best of all, God does not send us out to seek perfection on our own. The Holy Spirit gives us gifts to help us grow and build up the body of Christ. As a Christian matures, his or her life displays certain qualities known as the fruit of the spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In talking about this passage in a Bible Study a few months ago, we realized that these are the characteristics that we want, because they best exemplify Christ. They show what it means to lay our lives aside for other people, because they are the marks of God using us. And we can all have them. The fruits of the Holy Spirit, each and every one of them, are available to all of us who have gathered here today, if only we will start to use our liberty, our freedom, to live a life of service for others.
Perfecting involves pruning. The Bible tells us that every vine and fruit tree requires pruning, and so do we. A life in grace is a life in process, and some of this process is painful. Christian perfection is both instantaneous and progressive. The Greek word for perfect can also be translated “mature or complete” Just as a person can be mature or complete as a five-year old, the same person years later can be quite different and still be a mature and complete fifteen year old, or a mature twenty-five year old, or complete sixty-five year old. This is both God’s call and promise. This is the doctrine, or belief, of the more - that God has even more to offer us, and we have even more to grow into, more of the fruits of the spirit to bring to maturity in our life.s
When we stay connected to Christ in a healthy and vital way we open up our hearts to receive grace as a gift and we can share grace in the community of Christ’s body, where we can continue to come more alive in Christ. 

Remember when you enter into a house, the journey is not over, in fact it is just the beginning. The beginning of new opportunities, conversation, and experiences in the warmth and love of family and friends. So it is with our journey with God, never ending, always inviting us to the new experiences and growth in store for us. Amen. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Grace: Walking with Us Romans 3: 21-26

Author and speaker, Lisa Harper, writes in her book Stumbling into Grace that far too many people, including Christians, think that God is preoccupied with big things, so preoccupied in fact, that God doesn’t have time to care about us. If anything stands in contrast to the idea of a distant God who doesn’t have time to care about each and every person, it is grace. We are currently in our second week of our sermon series on grace. Last week we discussed how God loves us so much that God laid the foundation for our relationship with Christ before we could ever even know about God. This week we will be discussing a God who doesn’t just notice us but passionately loves us enough to offer us salvation. 
Prevenient grace, the grace that comes before us, as discussed last week, can lead us to justification, or faith in Christ through which our sins are forgiven. To be clear we cannot earn forgiveness for our sins through our own good works, rather it can only come through Christ’s saving work on the cross and our faith and trust in Christ. Because we cannot justify ourselves, this faith is seen as a gift from God, called justifying grace. This is often seen as the moment of conversion, when we experience new birth and the change that accompanies it. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that justification restored both our relationship to the Divine and our soul in God’s favor and image.
United Methodists believe that we are not only dead to sin in justification, but that we are raised to new life, or born again, in Christ. Regeneration is the word often used to describe being born again and is the beginning of our seeking to live a holy life.While justification and regeneration can occur at the same time, they are also distinct in that it is something God does in us and not for us.
But what does all of that fancy theological language mean for us today? What does it matter for our life with God? It means that God loves us so much that God invites us to be in a relationship through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But God knows that many steps exist between starting to know who Jesus is and truly believing that Jesus is enough for all of our needs. The beginning of this journey to growing in Christ is what the fancy word justification represents. Choosing to start to be in a relationship with a Holy God. Realizing that we will never be enough or have enough on our own. Moving from an image of a distant God to one who loves us even more than an earthly parent; loving us with a perfect love. 
The word justification means pardon. To be freed from. To be forgiven. To not experience the consequences that we deserve. The apostle Paul writes in this morning’s letter to the church in Rome that justification, or this pardon, that comes from God, is truly a gift. For we are all sinners, fallen short from the glory of God. In other words we all deserve punishment, but instead God offers us grace in the form of pardon. Sometimes though we forget that grace is a gift - so we start to try to work to earn God’s forgiveness, forgetting that we will never be able to earn our salvation. In fact, even after we have been saved, even after we have accepted this gift, we are still sinners in need of grace. 
This semester the college students at the lunch time Bible Study I lead have chosen to look at the less known epistles, or letters, in the New Testament. While working through the letter of 1 John, one student noted that she was really struggling with the writer’s very black and white writing that says either we were holy and a child of God, or were sinners and children of the Devil. She quoted from Paul in Romans about all of us being sinners, and we got into a wonderfully honest conversation about how we still sin even after we accept Christ. That’s one of the reasons we pray a prayer of confession as part of our worship service week in and week out. But we realize that we are sinning and are in need of God’s pardon, so we repent, knowing that God will forgive us, if only we honestly confess how we have screwed up and fallen short. None of us can save ourselves. 
John B Cobb is a United Methodists who’s book on grace I had to read while in college. He writes, “God saves despite our human condition. Christians are saved by grace.” We cannot shed our human condition that traces the whole way back to Adam and Eve, this brokenness from sin that separates us from God. So God chooses to allow divine love to redefine our human sinfulness, allowing Christ’s sacrifice to speak on our behalf and lay claim to us being children of God. But God so deeply loves us that the gift of grace doesn’t stop with the sacrifice of Christ - it is further seen through the presence of the Holy Spirit, present to and in us, confirming to us the message that God loves us and the truth of the gospel message! Praise be to God!
One of the things we celebrate in the life of Methodism is John Wesley’s Aldersgate Experience. Prior to this experience Wesley had gone to school to be a priest. He was serving in the Church. He even was part of a dedicated small group - praying daily, giving alms, serving the poor and those in prison, and pouring over Holy Scriptures. If you asked him before the Aldersgate Experience if he was a Christian he would surely say yes. But as someone was reading at a service in Aldersgate one day from the book of Romans, he felt that his heart was strangely warmed, as if the Holy Spirit was illuminating his life and calling him into a deeper relationship with God. Now Wesley was clear that didn’t mean he wasn’t saved, forgiven, and pardoned before that experience. In fact, justification isn’t necessarily about our experience, its about what God does for us. Yet, through that experience, Wesley accepted that he was pardoned and that his soul was restored to life.
As a pastor, one of the questions I get asked is how do you know that you are saved. I for one, never had a life altering salvation experience. I grew up in the church and have known nothing else but the love and grace of God. However, I know that Christ has pardoned me because I realize that God’s gift is greater than anything I could ever deserve. For me, personally, I might not know the exact date and time I was saved, but I do know it happened, because I am growing in grace, moving on towards loving God and neighbor more deeply, which we will talk about next week. I know I am saved, because I pray to God to search me and know me so I can repent. And I know I am saved by grace because in the words of Cobb, “through justifying grace once sees that spiritually that in spite of one’s sins God loves him or her, and for the sake of Christ, forgives.” I know I am saved, because I know that God loves me and loves you. 

I think Paul might have understood some of the apprehensions and questions around knowing if you are saved or not, even after his profound experience on the road to Damacus, because he writes to the church in Rome that it is by the righteousness of God that we can have faith at all. And, brothers and sisters, faith exists even when we cannot see something and even when we might not have a feeling of assurance. It is in those moments of question and doubt that we take a leap of faith of trust in God’s love and grace, even when it seems contrary to everything the world tells us. Justifying grace is the leap of faith - one that we take when we take the step of accepting the sacrifice and pardon of Jesus Christ, but also the leap that we take each and every day that we get up and choose to follow Christ anew. May you trust and believe that you are pardoned, not because of what you have done, but because God loves you oh so deeply. Amen. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Grace: Coming Before Us Eph 2: 4-1 1 John 4:19


Grace - a buzz word used by churches. Grace - a word with deep theological meaning on which our understanding of God is built. Grace - a word that very few of us truly understand. For the next three weeks we are going to be talking about grace, the way John Wesley did. This week we start with prevenient grace - the grace that comes before. 
As United Methodists, believe that before we knew God that God has gone before us to prepare a path to the Divine. This initial grace is referred to as prevenient grace. Prevenient grace stirs in us the desire to repent, or turn around a new direction. Theologian Belton Joyner writes, “because prevenient grace from God moves us to repent, this repentance is not our good works, but God’s gracious activity in us.”. Grace is a gift that leads us to repentance. Repentance involves the realization that we cannot save ourselves as we experience sorrow for our sin. As a result of this realization repentance leads us to seek God’s help and restoration.
While some people believe that God is not involved in our daily lives, grace stands in contrast to that. Grace stands to testify that God has the plan and power to save us from ourselves. Prevenient grace takes that thought one step further - saying it is God who saves us, even when we don’t even realize that we are sinful or in need of God. In fact, we can do nothing to make God show us grace - its not because of who we are or anything we’ve done - its by God alone. 
Paul understood prevenient grace, even if he never uttered that exact word. In the letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul writes that God loved us even when we were dead; it was God’s grace that saved us. Paul wasn’t talking about being physically dead, but spiritually dead. We see this every day, inside the church and out, when people walk around like the living dead -  not fully alive in the love of Christ. These folks go through the motions of living, but haven’t realized yet, or not living like, God’s grace sustains them. That God’s grace is open to every sinner, even before they realize what exactly they are in need of. 
Some of you know that I used to work at a women’s shelter. As one of the workers on an evening shift, it was not uncommon for women to show up at the door, a trash bag of possessions in one hand and a child’s hand in the other. Some of those women had been beaten, bruises still fresh and life sucked from their eyes. The first thing we did was treat them with dignity, showing them to their room, letting them settle in, the second thing we did was tell them about God’s love, with our words and actions. We did this because we firmly believed in a  philosophy that became popular later through one of my favorite charities, Thistle Farm. Thistle Farm rescues women off of the street who have been living through selling their bodies and feeding themselves drugs to forget the shame of it all. Thistle Farms, rescues them, by giving them a place to live, restoring their dignity, and a job that heals. Because Thistle Farm, as did the women’s shelter I worked at, believes that Love Heals. Not our love, but the love of God. The love that is seen in a grace that pursues us, even when we think we are unlovable. A love that pursues every single one of us, until we realize what a gift it truly is. A grace that comes before a decision to accept Jesus. A grace that comes before we even breathe our first breath in this world. 
For too long we have been living into the delusion that we can make it on our own - that we can make plans for life and make them happen. But the truth is, we can’t. Plans fail every day. Resolutions quickly fade after they are made. There is the old adage, “We make plans and God laughs.” But that’s not true. That’s not the healing love of God. No, we make plan and God gives us a gift instead. The gift of grace.
That’s a hard lesson for me to swallow as a planner, who grew up with a mother who was always early, and if you weren’t early you weren’t on time. But my plans, down to every last detail, may not be the best that God has in mind for me. They may not honor God or seem as beautiful to God as they do to me. Those times I struggle to see unpredictable grace as a gift, I remember the words of the of musical group U2, “Grace makes beauty out of ugly things”. Even our most well thought out plans cannot compare to the beauty of what God has in store for us. God’s grace to us is wild and complete. Unimaginable and alive. Its not a thing to be had, but something to live into. Paul writes of this unpredictable beauty of grace when he says that it is not by our own doing - its by God - that we are gifted with grace.
And grace truly is a gift. In the words of authors Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones in their book Proof, “Grace is an undeserved gift - not a passing sense of comfort provided by a personal problem-solver.” The word grace comes from the Greek word charis, which means gift. But its not the gift of grace as we understand it today. Charis was given only to those who deserved it. It would be like going to the store today to buy someone a gift only to stop and say “well they don’t exactly deserve that”. It would be like a parent saying that a child has not earned a birthday gift or a Christmas surprise. That isn’t God’s gift of grace - the unmerited favor that God lavishes upon us. God’s grace delights in us and pursues us relentlessly. God wants us to gift us with something that we cannot even begin to fathom or imagine. Even though we are sinners engaged in sinful activity, God still loves us. God still is building the foundation of our life with the Divine, the foundation of perveient grace, the grace that showers us with a healing love. 
As humans we may say that we show grace to people by putting up with them, or by giving them a cheap gift, or not telling them exactly what we think but that’s tolerance, not grace. God doesn’t just tolerate us. God loves us, completely. God loves us so much that God desires that we don’t stay the same. But God knows that we cannot do this on our own, so grace is given as a gift. A gift we have not earned and can never repay. A gift that leads us to simply point others to this wonderful, beautiful, indescribable gift - the gift described in 1 John as love, that we show others because God first loved us. 
It is not by our work that grace is given - you cannot achieve grace like a trophy. If grace was given on merit, we would be able to boast in it, but Paul reminds us that we cannot. In the words of Paul Zahl, “Grace is a love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved. It has everything and only to do with the lover.” 

God dreamed up the best gift for us before our very creation. God dreamed up the gift of grace that comes before we even knew we were in need of the love of God, a love that can lead us to be transformed through Jesus Christ. Next week we will be talking about what it looks like to accept this gift, but for today I want to leave you with this: you cannot earn grace. Stop trying. You will never be good enough or do enough to match God’s gift for you. Simply lean into the everlasting arms of God, as God reigns down on you the gift of grace. Amen.