Sunday, September 21, 2014

Who is the Holy Spirit? John 16: 1-15

My senior year of college I took both the most challenging and most rewarding class in my degree in religion - an independent study on the Trinity. What made it both hard and fulfilling was today’s topic - the Holy Spirit. Every week my friend and I would talk for hours about the Holy Spirit’s purpose and presence in our lives. The others discussions around the Trinity we understood. We grasped God. We loved Jesus. But the Holy Spirit...well that still remained a mystery.
Most folks who claim to be Christians would fall into the same boat as my friend and I. They grasp the concept of God as the ultimate Creator. They love Jesus who modeled how to live out our faith and paid the price for our sins by dying on the cross. But the Holy Spirit still alludes them. 
I’m sure the concept of the Holy Spirit confused the disciples in today’s scripture passage as well. This is part of Jesus’s farewell discourse. He is trying to simultaneously tell his disciples that he will be leaving and give them comfort. Enter the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells them that while he hadn’t revealed it to them from the beginning, he now how to tell them that he was leaving them, but another would be coming from God. This other would only enter into their lives once he had physically departed their presence. 
Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate. In the United Methodist Modern Affirmation of Faith, the Holy Spirit is described as “the divine presence in our lives whereby we are kept in perpetual remembrance of the truth of Christ, and find strength and help in our time of need.” The Advocate comforts, sustains, and empowers us. In other words, the Holy Spirit gives the disciples, and us, exactly what we need to live out our faith in this world, even when it is difficult.
And perhaps that is the image of the Holy Spirit that we like to cling to the most. When I taught confirmation a few years ago, I asked the class how they envisioned the Holy Spirit. The most common answer was as a dove. One who brings peace. But that’s only part of what the Holy Spirit does. Yes, the Spirit does comfort us and stirs up our desire to draw us closer to God. But the Holy Spirit also won’t leave us alone - won’t leave us as we are. The Spirit moves us towards perfection, holiness, sanctification, and the love of God. And that brothers and sisters is hard work. Some of the confirmation students were shocked to find out that the Holy Spirit appeared as a fierce wind and fire on Pentecost. One person even remarked that the Holy Spirit is the power behind our faith. 
That hits the nail on the head. Who is the Holy Spirit? The power behind our faith. The one who can answer the questions, “where is God now?” and “how is God active, alive and moving now?” I wonder how the disciples would have responded if that is how Jesus would have described the Holy Spirit to them at first. Would they have jumped ship? Said it was too much? Left the mission. Jesus is spoon-feeding them at first about who the Spirit is. The Holy Spirit is more powerful then we can ever imagine. I’ve been the work of the Spirit through mending broken hearts and healing relationships torn asunder. 
As Christians we do believe that the Holy Spirit is the power behind our faith, the rutter behind the ship of the Church, even if we don’t always recognize it. Have you ever noticed how many times we pray to the Holy Spirit? During baptism we ask “that the Holy Spirit work within you” and during the celebration of holy communion to “pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here and on these gifts of bread and wine” and “by the power of your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all of the world.” We pray to the Holy Spirit because we get that the Holy Spirit has power, we just fail to claim that power in our daily lives. Jesus is trying to both comfort the disciples and tell them to claim the power God is sending them through the Advocate. We need to claim that same power today, realizing the impact the Holy Spirit has on our life and our world. 
But notice what the text says next: that when the Spirit comes he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. The Holy Spirit has the power to convict those both inside and outside of the Church about sin and prime our response to the gospel message! Have you ever got frustrated because you shared the gospel message with someone but they didn’t quite get it. Its okay - let the power of the Holy Spirit work in their lives and through you! Keep witnessing! For it is by the power and gift of the Spirit that we can share at all. We need to realize that the Spirit both goes before us and responds to our prayers. Keep praying. Keep acting. Keep following the Spirits prompting!
For United Methodists, our founder John Wesley believed that it is the Holy Spirit that moves us forward in our faith. The Spirit who inspired scripture. The Spirit that brings us to speak prophetic words. And the Spirit that propels the church forward through the ages. The Spirit gives gifts that are to be used both for the church and through the church to transform the world. The mission statement of our parish is to “share the power of Christ” but it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit, prophesied by Christ, and made a reality by God, that we are sent out to transform the world.
There is a video series for small groups by Rob Bell called NOOMA. It breaks basic Biblical teachings down to about twelve minutes, making them understandable and adaptable. The word NOOMA means breath and Spirit. In one of the videos, entitled Breathe, the question is asked, “with all that all of have going on every day, who actually thinks about their breathing?” Maybe that is what makes the Holy Spirit so confusing, so mysterious. The Spirit is as close as our breath, and needed for our Christian walk, yet just like our breath we take it for grant it until we stop and notice. Stop and realize that the same breath and Spirit that God breathed into dust to create Adam is the same powerful Spirit that Jesus introduced the disciples to that day. Stop. Notice the Spirit. In our prayers. In our very presence. In our service. In our witness. Go. Follow the Spirits leading. Amen. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

“Who is God?” Psalm 81: 1, 10-16

There are some basic beliefs that Christians hold and there are ways that United Methodists interpret and live into those beliefs. For the next five weeks we will be digging deeper into some of these truths and why they matter to our lives. They are things that most people in the Church will say that they “know” but there are always new things to learn and let sink into your heart. This series will be like an introduction course or refresher to the faith we share.
There isn’t really any way to ease into this series so we are just going to start off with a big topic - who is God? Today’s psalm describes God in so many ways: as our strength, our source of joy, our deliver, the one who fills us, the one who is jealous for us, and the one who satisfies us. Big promises and concepts to wrap our minds around. 
The truth is, we will never be fully able to describe who God is to us. For we only know about God what God has chosen to reveal to us. And even in the midst of those revelations, our human understanding of God is limited at best. So we craft stories and poems to try to get language around these revelations. Language to express to others who God is and what God is doing in our lives. And that is hard. There is so much to say about God, yet we don’t know even how to begin.
Think about the person you are closest to in life. Or perhaps the person you have known the longest. How would you begin to describe them to someone who has never met them? Some of us are good at describing folks that don’t know each other to one another. I have friends who have never met, but will ask me about each other when we chat, because they feel like they know them through my descriptions. But its hard to describe our whole experience with a person - it takes many conversations, many descriptions, many stories. 
As United Methodists we place an emphasis on having a personal relationship and experiences with God. We lift up the fact that its not enough to know about God, we need to know God personally. Think back to my friends - they know about each other, but they don’t know one another with the deep sense of intimacy I do. That can only emerge over time with shared experiences. So it is with God. We may be able to start out our relationship with God finding out facts and descriptions, but that relationship will remain shallow at best if we do not progress to knowing God personally, in a way that can only develop over time shared together. 
The way that we perceive our experiences with God will ultimately influence how much we trust God and can grow in our relationship. One of the questions that blocks relationships with God the most often is ‘why would God allow humans to suffer?’ Inherent in this questions are the beliefs that God is in control and is all powerful and all knowing. Yet, we seem to forget that God created humans with the capacity for free will, which means that our decisions have consequences. And sadly, other’s decisions can have unintended consequences for us. Its as the psalmist writes: “I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsel”.  We seem to embrace the freewill that God has gifted us with, until something goes wrong - then we want God to be a puppet master, controlling each of our experiences. But that would not allow us to develop a relationship with God. On the other side of the coin - God didn’t just create the universe then step back, just to see what would happen. God walks with us through our suffering, if only we can perceive that Holy presence in the midst of chaos. God does not and will not leave us alone in our suffering. Additionally, as United Methodists we believe that God will redeem our suffering when a new heaven and new earth is created, as well as use it for Kingdom purposes while here on earth. God does not cause suffering, but God redeems it for us. Ultimately that is what God is doing - working through and with us to create this new Kingdom, both here on earth and beyond. We believe that God is not a far off deity, simply living in Heaven and not present in our lives. Instead we believe that God is active and moving and present with each of us. 
Another stumbling block for some people in how to describe who God is comes with naming God. We are limited in our human language in how we can talk about God, so we try to use human descriptions and names to capture what our relationship is with God. But God doesn’t make this easy, for the only name or title God gives us is “I am who I am.” Because of our discomfort with this description of God we search for other names, most often landing on “Father”, which is Biblically used. But the Bible has other ways to describe and name God as well: God of Abraham, Shepherd, Woman in Labor, Creator, Maker, Lord, Jehovah, King, Almighty. Ultimately God cannot be captured by any one of these descriptors, but at their very best they can help draw us into a deeper relationship and lead others into relationship with a Holy God as well. 
We cling to and describe most frequently the language around the parts of God we treasure most - but we need to realize and accept that this may not be true for every other Christian - and that does not make either of us wrong. For example, the last church I served was African American, some of whom survived Hurricane Katrina. They stressed the God of deliverance who accompanies us even through the darkest valleys of life. They see the God of deliverance in the Exodus story and lift that up, just like today’s Psalmist who writes, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the Land of Egypt.” But that may not be how you view God. Maybe you cling to the image of God expressed later in the psalm when it says, “I would feed you the finest of the wheat and with honey from the rock I satisfy you.” Or maybe you view God in a different way entirely. I once was told that trying to describe God was like looking through a kaleidoscope - we all are going to see different shapes and images, but they represent different parts of God, because God is so vast. 

Part of the first Article of Religion for United Methodists sums up the scriptural teachings about God by stating, “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible.” A description wide enough for us to find God in the midst of. A description narrow enough that we can be in relationship with this God. Who do you believe God to be and how is God alive and moving in your life in a way you can point out and describe to others? How is your life proclaiming the presence and power of God? How are you leading others to know who God is? Amen. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

“Growing in Christ: Celebration” Luke 2:10 Neh 8:10 Gal 5:22

What do you think of when you hear the word “Celebration”? One of the first thing that comes to my mind Is parties. Birthday parties. Anniversary parties. Graduation parties. Bon voyage parties. Celebration is linked in my mind with joyful occasions that bring together folks that truly care for us and want to share in our deepest moments in life.
But how many of you would consider celebration to be a spiritual discipline? We are now concluding our ten week sermon series on spiritual disciplines - those practices that draw us closer to God. When most people hear the phrase “spiritual discipline” thoughts come to mind of praying, fasting, and reading the bible. What does celebration have to do with growing closer to God?
The answer is everything. Celebration has everything to do with growing closer to God because it is the culmination of all of the other disciplines, for celebration is the very heart and the way of Christ. Think back to the verse we read from the gospel of Luke this morning when the angels came and announced to the shepherds that Jesus’ very birth was good news of great joy. A cause for celestial celebration. The word Gospel, which we use to summarize the story of Jesus from birth to resurrection, means good news. Christians are to celebrate the life of Jesus and Jesus working in each of our lives. But do we live as if it matters?
There are many things that can cause us as Christians to cease celebrating God’s work among us. One of the biggest things that blocks us though is worry. Worrying about tomorrow. Worrying about paying the bills. About what we are going to make for dinner. About where the money is going to come from. Worry sucks the life of celebration right out of us. But God offers us in Christ, freedom from anxiety and deep, tender care, as we are encouraged to cast our burdens upon him. Do we live like this? Do we live a life of worry or a life of celebration? Because it is very hard for the two to co-exist. 
The discipline of celebration frees us to find joyful, passionate pleasure in God and glory in all that God has created - the Word, the world, God’s very nature, each of us. When we take time to allow celebration to be the center of our lives, something inside of us changes. We start to bear the fruit of the spirit - joy. And that joy gives us strength. I love the part of today’s verse from the prophet Nehemiah that says the “joy of the Lord is our strength”. There is a popular praise song that proclaims the same thing, but most people don’t know that it came from this prophet, because it is the most unlikely of places. Nehemiah is bringing a divested people back to an even more devastated land and asking them to join him in an impossible task - rebuilding the city of Jerusalem, brick by brick and wall by wall. The people are overwhelmed with the job and start to doubt, yet the prophet proclaims, even when all else fails, even when facing the impossible, “the joy of the Lord is the strength.” Can we proclaim the same thing about our lives? When the divorce papers are served? Or the kids ends up in serious trouble? We get that letter from the IRS? Or we are deeply lonely after the death of a spouse? That the joy of the Lord is our sustaining strength? Its a nice catch phrase, but it is a hard truth to live into - thats why we need to practice at it, time and time again, through celebration. 
Because the truth of the statement that the joy of the Lord is our strength, is that we don’t celebrate God based only on circumstances or if we feel happy. We are called to praise and celebrate God simply because of who God is, by doing the things that bring us the deepest sense of joy - those things that bring our heart gladness. For some of us, we praise God through spending time with other people, sharing meals around the table, or serving in the community for the sake of the Kingdom. Other express their thanksgiving for God’s goodness through working, worshiping, or laughing. Have you ever thought of laughter as a spiritual discipline before? But it is because without experiencing the joy of the Lord and expressing it, we are simply existing. We aren’t living. And we certainly aren’t living for God’s glory.
Celebration is central to all of the other spiritual disciplines, because without a joyful spirit, the disciplines simply become something to check off of our to-do list. The true spiritual life isn’t about doing something to check it off, but rather living into the disciplines out of joyful obedience.
Notice though that I did not say happy. We may not be happy about our circumstances, and some days just wear on us. But when we have the right perspective, putting God’s goodness and glory first, we begin to realize that God sanctifies the ordinary. Celebration is the beginning and end of the disciplines functioning in our lives. It comes with redemption and the freedom God brings us. 
But like all of the other disciplines, celebration is hard. Because being free from care, free to celebrate is so foreign to us. We need to practice not taking ourselves too seriously. We need to practice on putting things in perspective and putting God first. We need to practice expressing gratitude towards God in whatever way comes naturally to you - be it singing, dancing, shouting, or laughing. Doing whatever we need to do to reflect God’s goodness.
One of my favorite stories of celebration comes out of the book of Esther and is the Jewish celebration of purim. Purim is a celebration that even though enemies tried to destroy the people of Israel, God saved them. When our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate purim they go all out - noise is made, people eat and drink, and express they have the joy they have for being saved. Money is given to charity. There may even be a carnival. It is truly a celebration of God’s goodness.

Friends, we have something to celebrate as Christians as well. For we, too, have been saved from the hands of the enemy who seek to destroy us and suck the joy from us. We have been saved through Jesus Christ and have been called forth by his goodness and mercy to go and make disciples, to celebrate the Kingdom of God with the world. Yet, sometimes I think we would be hard pressed to find that spirit of celebration on Sunday mornings. Instead of celebrating God’s saving grace, we look and sound more like a group of people who are suffering through. We need to embrace the discipline of celebration. Celebrating and praising God for all that God has done that is a reflection of who God is! We need to let our joy spill over into the streets. We need to proclaim that once we were bound but now we are free and that the joy of the Lord is our strength. Now is the time, brothers and sisters. Now is the time to celebrate our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

“Growing in Christ:Guidance ” Matthew 7: 7-11 John 16:13

Who are the people in your life who hold you accountable? Who help you grow? 
We all need people in our life who can help us discern God’s will at certain points in our lives. But what this looks like in every day living may be different for each of us. 
Some examples from my own life: Once a month for the past 4 years I have met with Renee, my spiritual director. Renee and I sit in silence, praying that God speaks to us. I share with her about the past month, knowing that without fail she is going to ask me where I experienced the movement of God. Renee holds me accountable while challenging me to listen to the Holy Spirit. Because of her powerful example, I also serve as a spiritual director for folks, asking them that same powerful question about where they saw the movement of God.
Once a month I also receive a phone call from Jenn, my ministry coach. Jenn and I talk about ups and downs in the life of ministry and prayerfully work through a difficult situation for a positive and God-honoring resolution. While she does not ask me the same question as Renee, she strives to help me live into the verse we heard from John 16:13, asking the Holy Spirit to guide us in the Truth that God holds. Some of Jenn’s favorite questions to help me discern include “What is God’s Truth in that?” and “where is God leading you next?”
Another place of accountability in my life are deep friendships. Some of these friends I am blessed to see once or twice a month, sitting in each others presence and asking how it is with our souls. Others live too far away to sit across from each other so we connect via video-chatting on the internet and emails asking for prayer requests. There are five such friends who I know are praying for me daily, and I pray for them, asking that God helps them continue to grow in their faith and ministries.
Those are just examples from my own life, but I think what we are being prompted to ask with this particular spiritual discipline is are we willing to be held accountable by another person? Do we seek out people who can help us listen for the power of the Spirit to guide us at all times or do we only surround ourselves with people who will tell us what we want to hear?
The reality is that some of our friends are wonderful people to spend time with, and that is extremely important, but they are not spiritual friends - the friends we turn to for an honest assessment of our souls. On the flip side, not everyone we know in Church knows the state of our soul either, and we need to carefully choose who we will reveal our deepest spiritual longings and struggles with. 
Sometimes, as we examine our circle of friends, we find that the best people to hold us accountable are not to be found there and we need to seek out folks who do not yet know us, but can be objective, such as spiritual directors. Spiritual directors are perhaps one of the best kept secrets regarding guidance in the Christian Church. For centuries, people have been raised us in the body to help others discern the movement of the Spirit. Often people do not even know they exist until something perks their soul to start seeking someone out, and they then find spiritual directors abound. 
We need people in our life who can guide us, help us discern. But what exactly is discernment? Discernment is about being open to the leading of God, both in ordinary moments and during times of big decisions. Discernment is critical both for us as individuals in our walk with Christ and for the leadership of this Church. Discernment helps us see God more clearly. We are on a journey from seeing God no where, to seeing God only where we expect to see God, to seeing God at work everywhere. Discernment involves peeling back that which clouds our perception of God so we can experience God more clearly. 
Guidance and discernment are one in the same. They involve asking questions such as: What am I called to do? How is God working in this situation and how can I get on board with it?
Discernment starts when we acknowledge that we lack wisdom and need divine intervention. But its hard for this type of guidance to take place if we aren’t taking care of ourselves spiritually - we cannot just “turn” discernment on when we are in need and forget God the rest of the time. And we need other people to hold us accountable in our discernment.
One of the ways folks hold me accountable in my discernment is to join me in praying a prayer I learned from our former Bishop, Jane Allan Middleton: God if this is of you, increase my desire, and if it is not of you, decrease my desire. To be surrounded by folks who are praying this prayer on my behalf, and who will ask me what I have discerned, keeps me from being spiritually lazy or substituting what I want for what God is calling me to do.
But here’s the thing - like the other spiritual disciplines we’ve looked at in this series, discernment is hard work, because we really have to trust God with the things that are most important to us. One of the scriptures we looked at this morning is from the Gospel of Matthew about seeking, knocking, and finding. This is a passage that is often mis-construed as saying that God will give us whatever we want as long as we ask. But really this passage is saying that we need to ask God for what is best for us, what is better than we can even imagine asking for. Are we asking for things, or to be transformed more into the person of Christ? Are we asking for what we want at the time, or are we seeking guidance on what is best? 
The scripture passage from John proclaims that Jesus wants to give us assurance and authority. Wants to help lead us in the way of Truth through the Holy Spirit, but the question really is, is that we are asking for, or are we settling for so much less? Are we seeking out people who can hold us accountable, or are we just going about our own thing, whatever works best for us at the moment? Are we looking for Jesus to bring folks into our life that will help us grow, or who will keep us comfortable?

My challenge for you this week, is to find someone who can hold you accountable spiritually. Maybe its a spouse. Or a parent. Or a friend. Maybe you need someone like a spiritual director to guide you. But find someone. Someone to pray for you. Someone to ask you the tough spiritual questions. Someone to help guide you. Someone, who at the end of the day, you know is helping you live into all that God has in store for you. Amen. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Spiritual Disciplines: Worship John 4:23

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

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

Sunday, August 10, 2014

ConfessionJames 5:16 1 John 1:9

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

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

Sunday, August 3, 2014

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

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

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