Sunday, October 26, 2014

“The Growing Ambition” Matthew 6: 19-21

Pastor Andy Stanley tells the story of Milton Scott in his book Fields of Gold. In all appearances, Mr. Scott was an average man, who died at the age of 106. He worked from the time he was 25 until he was 102 in a textile mill. He lived his entire working life in the same house, driving a simple car. He owned only four suits and four pairs of shoes. By all appearances, Mr. Scott was living a less than middle class ideal life. But what people didn’t know was that he was a fearless giver. As his income grew over the years, he kept his life style the same. Appearances or being noticeable were not among his priorities. Funding the work of ministry was his priority. He helped widows and orphans. He smuggled thousands of Bibles into Russia before the iron curtain fell. He didn’t save money for a rainy day or worry about tomorrow. He didn’t ask the “what if” questions about money we talked about last week. He was simply wrapped up in the joy of giving for the Kingdom of God. By the end of his life it was conservatively estimated that he gave away 70-80 percent of what he earned for the work of God.
Where would you say that Milton Scott’s treasure was? In the gospel of Matthew this morning Jesus is teaching his followers about money and possessions - asking them where their treasure is stored - on earth or in heaven. Telling them that where their treasure is, that’s where their heart is. 
My guess is that the Milton Scott story made some of us uncomfortable. We cannot even fathom parting with that much money for the work of God. For others of us we simply dismiss the story by citing how this man had more money to give so of course he gave more away. But the story of Milton Scott isn’t about the specific details. Or how much money he made. The story of Milton Scott challenges us past where we may be comfortable with questions like: how much am I willing to give to the work of the Kingdom of God? Is advancing the Kingdom of God my priority no matter what the cost? 
Or in the words of Pastor Stanley, “What if God called you to give beyond your comfort level?” Where is our treasure? Where is our heart?
I think the fact that this passage of scripture is found in scripture points to the fact that the tug of war between generosity and self-preservation is age old. Part of us wants to save money “just in case” and buy things for ourselves because “we deserve it”. We get caught up in questions of what if: what if the harvest isn’t good this year? What if I get a pay cut? What if my bills increase? What if the stock market crashes? So we focus on self-preservation, letting the fear of the “what if?” block our generosity. Let me be clear - I am not telling us to be irresponsible with our money - going into debt for the Kingdom of God. Instead, I’m asking us to examine our lifestyle, live below our means, and look past the “what ifs” for the sake of the Kingdom. 
Stanley admonishes that “as believers we have the responsibility to leverage our wealth for kingdom purposes”. In other words our giving to the work of the Kingdom tells where our heart is. Tells where our treasure is stored. Church folk feel pretty okay when the pastor brings up working for the Kingdom of God. They feel comfortable with the idea of growing in their relationship with Jesus Christ. However, resistance comes when talking about putting our money where our mouth, and our heart is, for God. Its as if money is where we hit our limit with trusting God. We don’t quite trust God financially. And as a result we don’t sow for the eternal harvest with our money - it just seems like a little too much to ask. But in the words of Stanley “Sowing in faith results in an eternal crop. Cowering in field yields empty fields”
I’m not trying to make you feel nervous, uncomfortable, or angry. But I can understand why those emotions may be present because of this sermon series. Instead, I’m asking you if you trust God financially? If your check book reveals your heart chasing after God? If you are trying to grow in your stewardship? Because its not until we start to ask these questions that we can find freedom. Its not until we start examining our hearts that we can truly seek the Kingdom of God first. 
Here’s the thing - every person in this room, including myself, has a threshold when it comes to giving. Just as everyone in that crowd gathered around Jesus as he taught about where our treasure is, so our heart is, had a threshold for what they would give. Thresholds are natural for humans. They are the dollar amount or percentage of money that we feel comfortable giving. When we step out in faith beyond our threshold, thats when we become uncomfortable. But the question is are we willing to step out in faith, beyond our threshold? Are we willing to surrender control of our money to God? Or are we going to let our fear be in control? Stanley shares his own threshold moment to which he responded, “God I’m not 100 percent comfortable with giving this money but I’m too uncomfortable not to give it”.
In the church there are typically two types of people who give in the offering plate throughout the year. The first are those who give out of what is left over - after all of the bills are paid and they see what is left over. The second type of giver takes a risk and gives off of the top. One way is not better then another, but the order in which we write our checks speaks of our priorities. Speaks of what makes us more comfortable - giving up front or giving what’s left over?
Do we become more uncomfortable with not giving then we are with giving an amount that scares us? Are we more focused on sowing for the kingdom or taking care of ourselves in potential situations in the future?
If God has given us all that we have, including the money we get from our vocation, and the offering plate belongs to God, why are we still fearful? If all of our treasures belong to God, why do we invest so much time and money into protecting them? And do we offer the same level of care and money into the work of God among us?

United Methodist consultant Cliff Christopher points out “Stewardship is a journey that is grounded in gratitude, revealed in prayers, and lived in faith.” We are not going to let go of our fear around finances tomorrow. It comes one little step at a time. One percentage more in our giving each year. God is inviting us to a lifestyle of generosity vs. Fear, but the choice is ours as to what we will choose. Money and our attitude towards possessions speak directly to what we choose. So I ask you - wheres your treasure this day - on earth or in heaven? And where would you like them to be even if it is beyond our comfort level? Amen. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fields of Gold: Dust in the Wind Matthew 6:25-34

I get it. Talking about stewardship of our time, talents, and resources makes us uncomfortable. We like to claim that money and church just don’t mix - and that’s where I stop understanding. Stop getting it. Because Jesus talks about money and wealth a lot. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, but there is no shortage in either testament in addressing money. And if Jesus talked about it, so do we.
I grew up in a tithing family. I remember watching my dad write out his tithe check  every Sunday before I could even really know what a check was for. The story goes that around the age of six I came out to my dad while he was writing his tithe check and asked for an envelope. Dad gave it to me, and I disappeared into my room, returning with my name printed in large letters on the front in crayon. I handed it to my parents and my dad asked me what it was. I told him it was my money for church, just like his - and when he opened up the envelope he found $1.00 - a treasure for someone that age. I have tithed and given to the church ever since.
Now maybe its easier to give when we are children. We aren’t all wrapped up in the fear of what is to come. But I also think that children understand the wisdom of today’s gospel lesson in a way that we forget when we grow up. When we are children who are well cared for, we don’t worry where our next meal is going to come from or if we will have clothes to wear. We simply trust that we will be provided for. Trust our parents. Trust our grandparents. Trust those who are our caregivers. But then we grow up and think that we need to make it all on our own - we start to fret over not just having food and clothing, but having the best. We start to fear that we will not have enough instead of trusting God to provide. We start to sum up our lives not by God’s grace but by what we have accumulated. We start to worry that God doesn’t know what we need or that God won’t come through for us. We fear that if we give to the church, give back to the work of the Kingdom of God, that our quality of life will diminish. We start to wonder if we will need that money for something else. As we write out the check, we hesitate, wondering if we are saving enough for future, unknown needs. 
As we grow up we lose confidence in the belief that we will be provided for and that brothers and sisters, takes all of the joy out of giving. I remember the joy of giving as a child - whether it was giving to the church every week or wrapping up one of my favorite books to give to my cousin on her birthday. I remember the joy of celebrating my birthday, not because of what I would receive, but because then I got to put a special offering in the birthday Sunday School bank for missions. What happened to that joy? The joy of simply giving unto God because we have been provided for beyond our wildest imaginations?
Life. The drain and worry of living. The worry about things that we cannot control. The worry that Jesus is talking about in this passage. In his book Fields of Gold, Pastor Andy Stanley tells the story of one man, Jeremiah Clay’s, worry. Maybe you can identify with it...
Jeremiah was a farmer during the Great Depression and was lured west by promises of fields being ripe for the harvest. So he packed up his family and headed out to a new life - only to find out those fields were more like a dust bowl. From year to year he didn’t know if there would be enough water for his crops, or if they would be flooded out, or blown away. Each month, for five trying years, he could spend an entire salary on seed - seed that he didn’t know would take or not. Jeremiah was now finding the courage to replant hard to summon. He hadn’t made a profit in five years. He found himself worrying each day about the next storm that may come and blow away his investment. He wondered if he should even bother planting another bag of seed.
When we start to worry about things that we cannot control - we let our anxiety drive us to be irrational. We stop seeking the most important thing, the Kingdom of God, and become fixated on the immediate, and on us and on our own needs. But that fear is mis-placed, brothers and sisters. If God intends for us to sow our financial resources for the Kingdom of God, shouldn’t we more aptly fear under sowing for the Kingdom? Shouldn’t it bring us to our knees that we may be spending our lives worrying about food and clothing and only sowing a few handfuls of our finances for God as a result?
The truth is that the Christian Church doesn’t like to hear stewardship sermons because it makes us face our fears about money. Our fear of not having enough. Our fear of owning up to the fact that we are watering down our giving. In the Untied States only one-third to one-half of church go-ers give in the offering plate. Give anything. And out of that percentage only three to five percent actually give God ten percent or more. In the United Methodist Church it is even worse. We are among the lowest of all denominations in giving. And for those that do give, they often give only one percent or less of their yearly income. 
We get anxious when we start to talk about stewardship or pass the offering plate. We start to hear only what we want to hear or let our anxiety and fear lead to anger, instead of allowing God to speak into our hearts. But there is good news, brothers and sisters - fear and faith often go hand in hand. We become fearful when we trust God to do something grand amongst us, but when we trust and take that step of faith, we get to see who God is and why we can stand on the promises of God. 
Our finances allow us to proclaim what we believe - and make us come face to face with the questions of if we really believe that God will provide and if we trust God enough to faithfully give? When we give to God, boldly, we get to see Jesus Christ at work. Its not about keeping the doors of this particular church open or continuing the mission and message of this denomination, though I believe that both of those things are good and pleasing to God. At the end of the day its about trusting that we are sowing for the Kingdom of God - here and now and in the future. Its about setting aside our fear, and having a conversion about our wallets, in order to proclaim the Kingdom message. 
I know that doesn’t make the message about finances any easier to hear. Too many of us feel that we are drowning in our debt and are caught on the hamster wheel of worry. When we talk about money we need to confess those spending habits that we have that keep us away from God, keep us in debt, and render us ineffective for the Kingdom. And after confession we need to repent and turn around in a way that fully releases all of our resources - time, money, and talents - for God’s purposes, instead of only looking to and trusting God when we personally are in need.

That is a hard message to swallow. To cease worrying is a challenge unto itself. To cease worrying about money and the future - that seems insurmountable. And yet, this conversation also gives us a chance to dive into the heart of the question - what do finances reveal about our commitment to God? Are we striving and seeking after the Kingdom of God, first, foremost, and forever? Or are we worrying about what tomorrow may hold. Amen. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

What Christians Believe about Salvation Psalm 96: 1-6

Up to this point in our sermon series on what Christians believe, it could be said that Christians across the board believe the same statements of faith about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. However, today’s topic, the final in this particular sermon series is a bit trickier. Salvation is a hot topic in the church - how do you get saved. When were you saved. Do you need say certain things. Can you only be saved once. Has God chosen some people to be saved and others to perished. The list goes on and on.
Salvation is also confusing because we cannot address it apart from sin. God created humans to be in relationship with Him and with each other, but we screwed that up. Royally. We have strayed from the love of God in so many ways - and every possible way that we can sin is equally in the eyes of God; there are not some sins that are “worse” then others. Sin also always has consequences, both in the present and the eternal. And yet, we are also hesitant to admit or confess our sins, because we don’t want to acknowledge that we have screwed up. 
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. Enter Jesus. Who seeks to reconcile the lost world to God through his sacrifice on the cross and resurrection. Salvation is accepting this gift, this sacrifice, for one’s self. However, believing is not enough, for salvation should transform us into new people serving God in new way in community. 
We need to be communities of faith that remind us that our human story involves creation, sin, grace, and the law. To be reminded that we cannot save ourselves, no matter how hard we try.  In “Our Doctrinal Heritage” for United Methodist it states, “as sinful creatures we have broken covenant, become estranged from God, wounded ourselves and one another, and wreaked havoc throughout the natural order. We stand in need of redemption.” We need community to remind us that genuine salvation comes from God and that we have a responsibility to respond to that salvation. For John Wesley believed that humanity had a responsibility in being made in the image of God and a responsibility in responding to God’s grace. 
At its core that is what salvation is, responding to God’s grace. We cannot earn salvation. In fact, salvation belongs to God. Today’s psalm reminds us that we are to bless God for the majesty of salvation, telling that story each and every day. Telling of the marvelous work God has done among his people. It is by God’s power and grace alone that we can be redeemed. Christians believe that before we knew God that God has gone before us to prepare a path to the Divine. This grace stirs in us the desire to repent, which in traditional evangelical doctrines means turning around or going a new direction. It should be noted that “because prevenient grace from God moves us to repent, this repentance is not our good works, but God’s gracious activity in us.” 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
Wesley preached a two-fold legal and evangelical repentance. Legal repentance was a conviction for sin, but evangelical repentance was a change of heart that led to a life of holiness. He believed that change in mind and behavior were inextricably linked, thus a change of heart and mind would be most noticeable by changed behaviors and actions. This change of heart and mind came from an “awakening of the sinner to one’s need for God, one’s own guilt, and one’s inability to solve it on one’s own.” 
United Methodists do not believe that repentance is a one-time event. Rather, repentance is ongoing as we become more self-aware and seek to grow in holiness of heart and life. One of my favorite quotes from John Wesley comes after his life transforming experience with God when someone asks him if he is saved. His response: “I am being saved”. Salvation, like repentance, is not a one time event, but rather a process where we grow more in love with God. The journey to salvation starts with repentance, and as God convicts us of our sins, we turn in the other direction, moving closer to the heart of God. 
When I think about Wesley’s statement two friends come to mind. Both attended a Bible study I was a part of. Both claimed to come to know Christ at the same time - however, one only changed his behaviors for a few weeks, before giving up. The other still attends to his faith. What was the difference between the two? The first thought salvation was a one time event that cleared him to act however he desired in the future, While the other lived into Wesley’s statement - seeing his faith as a process.
In recent months the conversation has emerged in different studies in the parish about whether you need an event that you can point to in order to be truly saved. While some people have such life changing events, others grow up in the church and transition from infancy in faith to maturity without a large landmark to point to. Both are equally valid paths of salvation - one is not better that the other.
However, Wesley believed that the fruit of our salvation, whether a gradual process or a life defining moment, should be seen in how we treat others, especially the poor, the sick, and the hungry. For the early Methodists it was not enough to save souls, for they believed we needed to seek to redeem society, which God deeply cares about, as well. We cannot earn salvation through good works, but good works should flow from our repentance, in order to reveal to others the One who has changed our lives.
As Christians we believe that individuals and the world is in need of salvation - delivered from the death we are due for our sins. Christ gave the ultimate sacrifice for our sins, which we will celebrate today around the communion table, in order to reunite humanity with God. However, there is no one right way to accept Christ’s sacrificial death for one’s self. Instead, as Christians we are in the process that continues throughout our lives and will be complete when we stand before Christ in judgment. 

The question really is are we going to accept God’s gracious gift of love in our lives and how are we going to live in a way that reflects this love? Will we be freed from the bondage of sin or will we dismiss salvation and be held captive? Will we live into our salvation in a way that draws others to God or will we make it all about us? What fruit have we bore through accepting the sacrifice of Christ? Hard questions that reflect an even harder topic - but questions we must ponder for our sake and the sake of our world. Amen. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Eph 4:1-16 “Who are We as the Church?”

Kenneth Carder in his book Living Our Belief writes this powerful statement: “Without a memory of what the church is called to be, the church becomes what the people want it to be.” Let me repeat that: “Without a memory of what the church is called to be, the church becomes what the people want it to be.”
While folks may claim that we need to know more about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, few would wonder think we need to discuss what it means to be the Church - who we are as the Body of Christ. Yet, as Carder points out we need to remember what it means to be the Church - remember the purpose and mission God has for us, so we do not become just another organization.
We talk about Church a lot, but how many people actually know what the Church is supposed to be? Let me ask you a question, if the Church is the tool that God uses to transform the world, how would our neighborhood be different if this church wasn’t present? Would our community even notice? Another way to phrase this question would be to ask why we need this specific Church? Adam Hamilton often speaks about the vital questions that we need to be able to answer as people of the Christian Faith. Two include - why do we need the Church universal and why do we need this specific church?
We need the Church universal because it is the way God has chosen to fulfill the mission of Christ in the World. In fact, the Church is called to be the very sign of God’s presence to the World. But sometimes we forget that. We forget that the Church, both universal and local, isn’t about us. It isn’t about what style of worship we like. Or how we prefer to spend our money. Or even about what we do or do not get out of Sunday worship. Because the Church belongs to God, not us. Its about making the mission of God visible in the world by being the light in a very dark world. 
But as a denomination the United Methodist Church takes the mission of the Church Universal one step further. We are a missional church. Which means, we exist chiefly for people who do not yet know God. We exist to do good for all people - to reach out and be an alternative community to neighbor and stranger alike. We exist to serve people in the world in order to further the mission of Christ. 
I want you to think of something this church does - anything. Do you have something in your mind? Great. Now how does that thing, be it an activity or a place we donate money to or a study we participate in, whatever it may be, serve people who do not yet know Christ or grow people who know Christ into deeper disciples. In other words how does it fulfill the mission of the United Methodist Church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the World? Or even more locally, how does it fulfill the mission of this parish to share the power of Christ? If you can’t answer that question, we may have a problem. If you can answer that question, do you think your neighbor next to you could answer it about the same thing and give the same answer? If not, we are not on the same page with the mission and vision of God’s Kingdom that we are working towards as this local church. And that stings a little. 
In this morning’s scripture lesson we hear that the Church is the body of Christ, knitted together under the leadership of the Lord. Carder writes, “the Church is our very identify, not an organization we belong to in accordance with our preferences or connivence.” Sometimes the Church looses its way and losses it memory about who we are and whose we are. When we make it about petty things its evident that we have forgotten who we belong to.  Just whose Lordship we are under. Just who we exist for. 
But even when we remember whose we are, we may still forget what we are supposed to be doing. Paul tells the followers in Ephesus that they are to live a life worthy of their calling. Here’s the thing about calling - we all have one - we just sometimes choose to ignore it. While pastors may have a very specific calling to lead the church, everyone who calls them-self Christian are called to some time of servanthood and ministry by way of their baptism. Its just that the calling varies. But in this scripture passage we are told that we all have gifts - its just that the gifting and calls vary. 
Have you ever taken time to pray about why you are part of this local body of Christ? Because you aren’t here by accident. You are here, because Christ gives us every gifting we need in each local body to thrive, THRIVE, for the Kingdom of God. Not just get by. Not just meet the budget. But to make a difference in transforming the world.
Whenever I start to talk about the church universal, I get passionate. Because the Church universal is both visible and invisible. Is here in this place and around the globe. Its any place where the Word of God is preached, the sacraments are administered, and there is a presence of people of faith. Not just people but people of faith. People who faithfully want to be the Church. Want to be about something bigger than themselves. Want to be about the mission and work of God. Want to be about reaching new people about Jesus Christ - and move past want to action. In fact, people of faith live a life of holy, active expectancy, meaning that we are aware that God is using us to work in the world for something so much bigger than we could ever grasp.
Then when I start to talk about how local churches are living into that mission, that vision of being the Church of Jesus Christ I get really excited, and often really loud. While there are many places and organizations that do good in this world, the church is the only one that exists to transform lives both here in the present and in the life to come. Amen! That’s why we reach out beyond our walls - not make more members, but to make more disciples. To connect more people to the person and message and power of Christ! 
But the Church universal and the local church can also break my heart when we put the wrong things first. My dad was telling me when they were up to visit a few weeks ago that he teaches his Sunday School class that its not about them - there may be months when they do not get anything and thats when people sometimes give up and stop coming. But they need to be present because their neighbor may be in a fruitful season spiritually and their presence is a part of that. It breaks my heart when we forget that. When we make it all about us. When we make it about what we want instead of about the heart of God.

There is an older contemporary worship song entitled the Heart of Worship that contains powerful lyrics that I often pray for the Church universal, may we make it “all about You Jesus. I’m sorry Lord for the thing I’ve made it, but its all about You.” May we remember that we exist because of Jesus Christ. And that our mission isn’t about us, or what we get out of being the Church, but is all about furthering the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. Our Leader, Head, and Lord. Amen. 

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.