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|Sermon Archives Sorted by Pastor and Year||Christmas: The Sequel - Week 1 - The Rev. Michael Love (Text)||Jesus is the Gift: Christmas Eve, 2009 - The Rev. Michael Love (Text)||Homily for Christmas Eve 2009 - The Rev. Laurie McHugh (Text)|
|God's Christmas Gift to You: Joy - The Rev. Laurie McHugh (Text & Audio)||God's Christmas Gift to You: Love - The Rev. Michael Love (Audio)||God's Christmas Gift to You: Peace - The Rev. Michael Love (Audio)||God's Christmas Gift to You: Hope - The Rev. Laurie McHugh (Text & Audio)|
|We Are Called to Thanksgiving - The Rev. Michael Love (Text & Audio)||Other Campfires - Part 2 - The Rev. Michael Love (Text & Audio)||The Ways We Care - Part 4 - Gifts - The Rev. Laurie McHugh (Text & Audio)||The Ways We Care - Part 3 - Service - The Rev. Michael Love (Text & Audio)|
|The Ways We Care - Part 2 - Presence - The Rev. Michael Love (Text and Audio)||The Ways We Care - Part 1 - Witness - The Rev. Laurie McHugh (Text & Audio)||Women, Water & Wellness - Deborah Katina (Audio & Presentation)||Jesus and Good Health - Part 2 - Resolving Conflict - The Rev. Michael Love (Audio)|
|Jesus and Good Health - Part 1 - Personal Responsibility - The Rev. Michael Love (Text & Audio)||Report From The Field - Sierra Service Project Youth (Audio)||The One Anothers - Part 4 - Live in Harmony - The Rev. Michael Love (Text & Audio)||The One Anothers - Part 3 - Peace vs. Truce - The Rev. Michael Love (Audio)|
|The One Anothers - Part 2 - Forgive One Another - The Rev. Michael Love (Text & Audio)||The One Anothers - Part 1 - Sing to One Another - The Rev. Michael Love (Text & Audio)||The Purposes of Jesus - Purpose 5 -That All Shall Make It - The Rev. Michael Love (Text & Audio)||The Purposes of Jesus - Purpose 4 - That All Shall Tend Gardens - The Rev. Laurie McHugh (Text & Audio)|
|The Purposes of Jesus - Purpose 3 - That All Shall Be Fed - The Rev. Michael Love (Text & Audio)||The Purposes of Jesus - Purpose 1 - That All Shall Be Accepted - The Rev. Michael Love (Text & Audio)||Other Campfires - The Rev. Michael Love (Text & Audio)||July 5, 2009 Children's Message (Audio)|
|Greeting - The Rev. Laurie McHugh (Audio)|
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Read Pastor Michael's December 27, 2009 sermon.
The reading was Luke 2:41-52.
This is the first sermon in his Christmas: The Sequel series. Read and listen to the other sermons in this series.
Download a copy of this sermon.
Christmas: The Sequel
December 24, 2009
Luke 2: 41-52
The Rev. Michael Love
What if Christmas had a sequel? What would it look like?
We have entered into the post-Christmas week of games and puzzles and books. And photos from people we haven't seen in a year and news from others we haven't heard from in at least a year. What can the other side of Christmas look like, if it's not merely the wind-up to New Years?
I would like to take you through a new series called Christmas : The Sequel. I guess it's my way of drawing out the story a little bit longer and so that we might explore the impact of the gift of Christmas in our lives. Just as the games will get old and the treats will all be eaten, sometimes the power of Christmas fades and gets packed away with the ornaments and the garlands.
So, while the notion is fresh, I want to leave it unpacked for awhile. Next week, Jan 3, we'll get a real-life look at Christmas faith in action as Rev. Ken Bosworth shares his testimony about the Volunteers in Mission Philippines Medical Project. You can read more about Rev. Bostworth in the bulletin. Then on Jan 10 I will return to wonder with you “How Is the Christmas Story “True?” What questions of life did the Jesus narrative answer “in those days.” We'll follow that with “Why is the Christmas Story “True?”, asking What questions of life does Jesus answer in these days?
We'll keep asking questions, like “What's so radical about Jesus?” And, “What Ever Happened to the Christmas Story?” And, “Why isn't the Church all that it could be?” I'll bring this series to a conclusion with a sermon called “The Christmas Story.Now” Exploring how the people of Jesus can be true to the story of Jesus, and in the process dare to redeem and renew ourselves, the church and the world itself.
For today, we begin as the implications of the Nativity sink in. As the shepherds depart and the wise men go home and the story moves along to the early childhood of Jesus. But before we go, there's a hymn that reveals in the Christmas season an awareness that there's something bigger going on than a cute baby Jesus in a manger scene, surrounded by gentle donkeys, lowing cattle, and humble shepherds. I invite you to turn in your hymnals to page 219 and we will sing verse one and two. As we sing, listen closely to the words especially in verse two.
What Child Is This : UMH 219 “Why lies he in such mean estate (lowly location) Good Christians fear, for sinners here, the silent Word is pleading.”
Jesus came pleading a case for us, but he did from a place of identification with us. I mean that he understands our circumstances are rough also. He started his life in a hidden, out of the way place. And he lived among people who knew the uncertainty of life. Now you may not identify with the shepherd's life or the culture of the subsistence peasants of 2st century Palestine, but we live in uncertain times. Just look at the current events of the day. What a different Christmas we almost just had. The attempted sabotage of a passenger jet over Detroit on Christmas day remind me that we still inhabit a fallen and struggling world.
Jesus did not come into a world of tranquility and gentleness. He came into a world as complicated and challenging as the one we inhabit even now. The idyllic imagery of the Nativity points to a hope, not a reality. It paints a scene of tranquility that the world longed for, not one it was basking in at that moment.
So also for us. The silent Word, the infant Jesus, who conveys a Word of safety and redemption to you and to me; that Jesus pleads for us. That work extended far beyond the cradle for him. In other words, Christmas was meant to have a sequel.
In Matthew, Jesus is born, the wise men visit, the family flees to Egypt, they return and then John the B gets to work. In Luke, Jesus is born, the family heads to the 8th day ritual of dedication at the Temple, then the Temple for Passover and then John the B. In LUKE, Jesus as a 12 year old, has a significant Passover experience. Luke has a flair for literary devices and so maybe he means this to be a mirror of a later Passover, when Jesus and his practice of debate and conversation with the elders would lead to conflict instead of amazement. At any rate, the story shows us a 12 year old boy engaged in the community of his day and culture.
Ever get lost in the department store? Or at the mall? Who was more alarmed? You or your parents? Maybe they masked their alarm with a little anger and indignation? As Mary and Joseph did when they discover Jesus at the Temple. Listen to verse 48 again, ”And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” (vs, 48 ESV) Eugene Petersen's translation, The Message, gets it better. “But his parents were not impressed; they were upset and hurt. His mother said, “Young man, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been half out of our minds looking for you.”
His parents are probably close to hysterical by the time they find him. Mary and Joseph traveled a day with the caravan back toward Nazareth before they saw he was gone. They traveled the one day’s journey back to Jerusalem to search for him. And once in Jerusalem, they searched for three days before finding him in his Father’s house, the Temple. It's an amazement that they found him not taken in by thieves and hustlers, but safe and sound in the Temple. How is it, they might have wondered, that they found him alive at all? It is the center of this story that he was safe because he knew where to find safety in the real world.
We have a fake Christmas tree. It's very lovely. And I think that one result of a fake Christmas tree is we miss one of the lessons a Christmas tree can remind us of. Because with a real tree, as we used to do it, when the tinsel is off the tree and the ornaments go back into the boxes, we are left with a drying out, branch dropping, needle dropping tree. It's a not too subtle reminder that there is after all a real tree under there. And that real tree entered life, grew and was harvested for us and will now dry out and die off. The reality of the cycle of life is right there. And the image of Jesus' promise of eternal life stands in striking contradiction to that claim of time upon us. So, without shirking the reality of living, the Christmas Sequel says, stay tuned, Jesus has a way forward in the midst of this reality. And so the journey of the Christmas story as it moves from Nativity to SEQUEL again looks like it must be rooted in the reality of life. There is the potential for danger. But there is also the promise of renewal.
If you'll turn to page 273 in the hymnal, I would like to share another hymn. This one is called Jesus Hands Were Gentle Hands. It only has 2 verses and they focus on the answer Jesus gave to us, by the actions of his life. It was an answer rooted in an understanding of human need and informed by his compassion.
The Sequel of Christmas now begins to have a suggested way forward. “Let me watch you Jesus, till I'm gentle too.” The story as it moves away from the Bethlehem manger is about to catch up with us. To engage our hopes and fears. To redeem and save us. And in the process, give us a charge to carry out in the world.
One of the more notable parts of the Nativity Story is that it leads immediately to action and engagement. We learn that the shepherds GO and tell the people what they have seen. The little family, Mary, Joseph and Jesus GO to the Temple for an infant dedication. Jesus GOES to the Temple again, to converse with the elders. Mary and Joseph GO to, return to Jerusalem to search for him.
Indeed in the stories of all 4 Gospels, action and engagement will be big themes. The people will GO seeking Jesus. The disciples will travel throughout the Mediterranean world, essentially the known Western world, in a frenetic and energized engagement of the people.
The over-arching theme of the Christmas Sequel is that we who hear these stories are “called out,” invited into a journey. Christmas isn't over. The adventure is just getting under way. This is Luke's thesis. Jesus' ministry quidkly engages and encompasses the larger community. The Christmas Sequel is a journey of engagement. We are invited into the story right away as well.
This next hymn I want to share with you is an oldie. Please will you turn to hymn 398. The verses are short, so let's sing all 5 and then I'll make some closing remarks.
Jesus Calls Us UMH 398
The invitation was given to us on Christmas Eve at the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. We were never meant to be observers or spectators. The story is one of risk-taking engagement and radical living in the face of God's outrageous and abundant love. In the weeks ahead, we'll look at the power and significance of this Gospel Story. In the process I hope you'll find a renewed interest in the story that is convincing and connecting. Convincing of God's love for you in Christ Jesus and connecting you to a depth of faith and witness in the world so that real and positive change can happen in your life. If you can be renewed, so can the world. If you can find the eternal living that is the promise of the Nativity, then the world can be redeemed and healed.
Read Pastor Michael's Christmas Eve 2009 sermon.
Download a copy of this sermon.
Jesus is the Gift : Christmas Eve, 2009
The Rev. Michael Love
December 24, 2009
We are gathered tonight in anticipation of the gifts of tomorrow morning's festivities. Some of you have gone to great length to pick just the right gift for a loved one. Or maybe are hoping and waiting for a gift that you dropped numerous hints about over the past couple of weeks...or months. I tell you that before you have opened one gift from under the tree, you will receive most astounding gift human kind has received. The gift of Jesus is the gift that pre-figures all the other gifts. They are fitting reminders to us of his Gift.
And that gift befuddles us. It's not a simple gift like a sweater or a necktie. The gift of Jesus, you see, raises just as many questions as it can answer. For example: Is the story of his birth a true story? And if true, what significance can it have in my life? And how does a birth so long ago have such lasting influence that we are drawn, lured to candlelight services and children's pageants and nights of carols and lessons? Who knew a birth could carry such weight?
There are three birth stories that carry a special significance to Christians. We take great care to preserve them and pass them on. One is the story of a birth at Bethlehem, the birth of the Prince of Peace, Jesus. The second is a re-birth story really - it is the story of the empty tomb, after Jesus is crucified and buried. It is the Resurrection story. The third is also a re-birth story - it's the one many have experienced at personal times and places on the occasion that they have been swept up in the fullness of God's love. The re-birth happens when they respond by saying, “Okay, God, I'll try it your way.” We have seen people undergo this change. The Apostle Paul called it the experience of a new creation. Jesus, in the lessons of John, says that it is like being born all over again. It is the birth we mark when we turn over the reins of our life to Christ.
Three stories of birth. All, cornerstones of our tradition. Birth is a very important image in our faith narrative.
So I want to ask, When you hear these words that we have just shared, the words from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, can you hear in them something more that a narrative that happened a long time ago, in a far away place? Or does it seem to have little to do with us here in our lives? I worry that it might seem that way; distant and remote. Not out of ignorance or disrespect, but because we have heard the story so often, or maybe not enough. Maybe we've never really been able to enter into the story in a deep and personal way. Maybe we're like those shepherds, taking it easy in the fields, watching our flocks leisurely by night. Perhaps we, too, could use a clanging of bells and a flurry of angels and the air full of light and the Glory of God to shake us awake.
Ever take a ride a roller coaster? If you have and it's frightening for you, then you're like me. I like riding them, but they scare the dickens out of me. But, I have to admit, that when I get off a ride that scares me like that, a ride that maybe makes me think a bit about my own mortality, I'm kind of giddy. How about you? In that moment of post-panic, do you feel ultra clear and totally aware and really alive? So maybe it takes a little holy angel banging and clanging to jolt us into a bit of clarity so that we can see the wondrous thing that has occurred.
We already have a notion of what is about to occur, because after all, here we are. It is Christmas eve, it is in the dark of this night that he is born. And here we are, waiting. So maybe, even though the story is threadbare and worn, we still have an inkling of it, maybe more than an inkling, and we have assembled here this evening to witness it, together.
I think we come here tonight to wait, together, because we simply can’t stand to wait separately any longer. In less than 1 hour, we will be able to say with joy and confidence, “Christ the Lord is born!” And that's exciting!
“But Pastor,” you could be thinking, “Do the math, Jesus was born 2000 years ago! He’s not going to be born tonight! That story in Luke, that’s ancient history!”
Well. . . . if you were to say that, you’d be half-right.
It’s true, our Savior WAS born 2000 years ago in Bethlehem of Ephratha, a suburb of Jerusalem. But I am here to tell you that he will be born again, tonight, as he has been every Christmas season since that census was taken during the reign of the Emperor Augustus.
I think there is something in the anticipation of the evening that points to this. We have a sense, God-given, I believe, that this night above all others, is filled with possibility. And so we gather, because we must. Because we long to see if this year, maybe this year, we'll glimpse the change that comes over the world when its Savior is born. We came because some part of us remembers that something amazing and wondrous can occur this night. So we must come to this place and witness it as a gathering of God's beloved children.
To sum up my claim then, I believe that the Nativity will be re-enacted this very night! I know where he will be born. And I know that this time there will be no problem finding room at the inn. This time he will be born in a kind of “hotel”, if you will, a very modern place. It’s a different setting I know for the birth of the Infant Jesus, and I hear that this hotel - well really not quite a hotel - has all the current conveniences. In fact it’s quite a rather large and successful chain, perhaps you’ve heard of it - it’s called the Inn of the Heart. On top of that, all of you are owners in this chain. Each of us, in fact, owns and operates one location, one hotel in this international conglomerate. Imagine yourself as the innkeeper of your own heart. Imagine yourself as the one who watches over the guests as they come and go.
Now, in this hotel, if you'll entertain my image a little bit further, you employ a staff of hard working folks who keep the hotel running smoothly while you pay attention to the rest of your busy life. Sometimes we forget what important work goes on in this establishment. Here in the Inn of the Heart you care for others and remember good old times you’ve had together. Here is where you feel a sadness at the passing of a friend. Here is where you remember to send a card to cheer up a sick relative. Here is the place that where you fret over the state of the world and decide to get involved in making a difference. The Inn of the Heart is a busy place. And while you are running around doing all that life demands, the staff of that hotel, the Inn of the Heart, keeps things going as smoothly as possible.
A nice metaphor, you might be thinking. Maybe. I invite you to join me in a little bit of imagining what the responsibilities and work of such an establishment might be like on this Christmas Eve.
You are the owner and it's Christmas Eve. Imagine with me that you are very nice employers. In fact you are so generous that you each gave your night managers Christmas Eve off. Fair enough? Wasn’t that nice of you? And since all the other employees have long since headed off to their holiday celebrations, that leaves you filling in on this special evening as the Late-Night Desk Clerk for the Inn of the Heart. All the details of hospitality and administration are up to you tonight. (I hope we can remember how to do everything that the desk clerk has to do!)
The evening has started out quietly enough, but just wait, for in a little while, on this evening, as on every Christmas Eve from time gone by, you are going to be asked a very simple question by a rough faced traveler named Joseph. He is going to ask you for a room for himself and his traveling companion. Her name is Mary and she looks a little on the young side. Neither of them wears wedding rings and Joseph admits that they are not yet married, although Mary is clearly with child. Now, tonight, it's going to be up to you to decide if there's a place for them, so that this miracle can happen. No one can tell you what to do, you gave the night manager the evening off, you have to decide what the company policy is going to be tonight at the Inn of the Heart. No one else can tell you whether to turn them out into the night, or invite them in.
It’s late and the lobby is empty except for you and them. Some Christmas lights are twinkling in the window in time with the pulse of the Vacancy sign. Garlands and red and green ornaments are draped in the lobby area near the travel brochures and the free coffee and the ice machine. Johnny Mathis is singing in the background, urging you to “have yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But, really, it’s late and if you turn them away, no one will know the better . . . just you. The sign over the desk proclaims the company motto “This Heart is big enough for all.” And there you stand deciding whether or not you can live into that motto.
And all over town, all over the world, there we all stand. At our own check-in desks in this moment, looking into the eyes of the Holy Family, making that same decision.
So you see, Jesus will be born again tonight. Because every year we get a chance to say “yes” to that little family of travelers from Nazareth, who have come to be counted. And who have come to count so very much in our lives.
The question is not so much whether the Holy Family will find room in the inn, there are plenty of inns now-a-days. And for as many Inns of the Heart as are out there, that is how many Josephs and Marys will ring the bell at the night-clerk’s desk looking for a room. The real question is, will they find room in the Inn of your Heart. You see, Jesus will be born tonight. As surely as God promised it, it will happen. And really Advent has been about getting the room ready, putting out new glasses on the sink, fluffing the pillows, making sure the Gideon Bible is in the drawer. . . getting our Inn ready for the arrival of these special guests. This is the night you have been getting ready for! That’s the excitement of Advent which culminates on Christmas Eve!
You see I knew that Jesus would be born again tonight because I already knew that his family has come knocking each year, brand new, in the Inn of your Heart. And so it really isn’t much of a guess to believe that the Holy Family would be welcomed again this year.
And you know something else? I do believe that this very evening, in this very place, some new locations will be opened in this great chain of hotels. Because Joseph and Mary also call at Inns that don’t know they are open for business yet. They call on people who may not even think themselves capable of housing the Christ child in their heart. And that is another one of the wonderful and amazing gifts of Christmas - we all receive from God the special ability to cover the night shift at the Inn of the Heart. You can make a difference in your own life tonight by inviting the Christ child in for yet another nativity.
Now, there's a little more work ahead for us as Innkeepers. For, having registered the Holy Family and given them the key to their room, which is the key to our hearts and lives, we will turn and see the morning light. We will welcome Christmas Morning. Our shift will be over for this year and once again we are like the shepherds because we will be sent out into the Christmas morning glorifying and praising God for all we have seen and heard. We have received a true gift, the new life and fresh start offered by God in Jesus Christ. May each of you enter the new day that God is even now making for us, filled with a spirit of joy.
Sisters and brothers, I give you the true gift of Christmas. I proclaim that Jesus Christ is born this day, not only in Bethlehem, but in each of you. And by that Nativity may each of you are renewed and reborn. I pray that Nativity will live and thrive in your Inn of the Heart so that the world may be re-born as a place of sustainability, justice and peace. Thanks be to God. And Merry Christmas to you all. Amen.
I want to make sure to invite you to continue the journey of Christmas, as I begin a new sermon series next Sunday, entitled, “Christmas : The Sequel.”
Rev. Michael Love
Listen to and read Pastor Laurie's Christmas Eve, December 24, 2009 sermon. This was given at the 8:30pm service
Download a .pdf of this sermon.
Homily for Christmas Eve 2009, 8:30 pm
December 24, 2009
Rev. Laurie McHugh
Text: Luke 2:1-20
Earlier this week a church member forwarded me an email story about one mother's memorable church Christmas pageant; there may be as many of these stories as there are mothers, and half of them are making the rounds on the Internet, I'll bet. You've probably read some yourself -- though, I imagine, perhaps not as many as I have, since people like to share these with their pastor, and many such stories also make their way into the various Christian publications I read. You can guess at the humorous details: bathrobe-clad children who get their lines mixed up due to confusion over the King James language ("swaddled" clothes interpreted as "dirty, rotten" clothes); kids alternately paralyzed by stage fright or squabbling in full view of the congregation; props malfunctioning or dropped (in this case, it was a Baby Jesus doll bouncing down the center aisle, emitting a pitiful "maa-maa" with every bounce) -- all to the embarrassment or hilarity of parents and onlookers alike. For most of us, these things are what make such events memorable and dear.
What sets the stage for these amusing tales is the amount of fussiness we often go to in an effort to make a so-called "perfect" Christmas. From lights and tinsel hung just right, to mixing the ingredients for grandma's prize-winning recipe, to wrapping up a just-right present, we tend to pull out all the stops and wear ourselves down to a frazzle in the process. And against all this, in our near-exhaustion, we hope: for the children to be on their best behavior, for Dad and Uncle George to get along for once, for the pain of loss, disappointment, and anxiety for the future to just go away. If we do it "right," we think, then it will be a Merry Christmas.
But what we need to be reminded of is this: Jesus wasn't a plastic doll. The place where the animals were kept, and where the child was born, wasn't clean, and neither were the shepherds, who were considered among the lowest of the low in the ranks of first-century village society. Baby Jesus soiled his diaper, and he cried and skinned his knee. He was born totally dependent and helpless, just like you and me. And this was God's choice, to become one of us, God with us, so that we might know that we are not alone. And grace is found in the ordinary. And hope is found in the ordinary. And light shines in the ordinary.
What that means is the God who created the universe knows us as we really are, frail and ordinary, complicated and full of potential, and God longs to be in relationship with us. God’s arms stretch out to embrace all who long for home and safety. From the comfort of those arms we can, in turn, reach out with confidence and trust, to extend grace to other frail and ordinary people. We can trust God enough to do this.
Whether that good news breaks in through a minor mishap, or a big one, through people just being people or a kid just being a kid, may you receive it as good news. May your eyes be opened this Christmas, once again, to the abundant love of the God who loves you, warts and all. And may your heart be opened to the imperfect ones in your midst. Merry Christmas. Amen.
Listen to and read Pastor Laurie's December 20, 2009 sermon.
This is the fourth sermon in their Jesus is the Gift series. Read and listen to the other sermons in this series.
Download a .pdf of this sermon.
"God's Christmas Gift to You: Joy"
Message for 4th Sunday in Advent, December 20, 2009
Rev. Laurie McHugh
Text: Luke 1:39-56
The "Attentiveness" small group study we held for a number of weeks this autumn helped me fall in love with the devotional practice called lectio divina, which means "sacred reading" and is most associated with the Benedictine tradition. It's an approach to listening to God through reading a short portion of scripture a couple of times, noting a word, phrase, or image that catches your attention, and repeating it in your mind to let it sink in and insights unfold. I admit I'm sort of an eclectic when it comes to spiritual practices; for a season I'll be drawn to centering prayer, or movement, or intercession, and then something will shift in me, and I find myself needing to try something else; I'll become more distracted, or just need a change to reconnect more deeply with God's presence. I've tried lectio divina at different times in my life with varying results and varying degrees of satisfaction. Thanks to this class, and to deciding to use Eugene Peterson's The Message paraphrase as I read this time around, I've been finding the practice to be very fruitful during this period of my life.
Practicing lectio divina in a group setting is a neat experience. If you'd like to learn more about it, just let me know!
Anyway, it was because of my positive experience with the lectio "homework assignments" from the Attentiveness study that I found myself reading through the first chapter of Luke this week from The Message, perhaps for the first time. (I've got a lot of Bible translations, as you might expect, and while I love The Message for reading in worship, I usually pick up a more scholarly, precise translation -- or even Greek or Hebrew -- for times of study.) Well, that lectio divina habit has been well-ingrained now, and as I read with fresh eyes and ears, as The Message often leads me to do, two words sort of caught on my heart. Does that ever happen to you? You're in a conversation, or watching a film, or reading a book, and some phrase catches, gets hooked on the line in your brain, and doesn't stop tugging at you? That's sort of how it is with me. And because I was reading The Message, a word that is not in most translations, and that was repeated more than once in Peterson's version of the story, leaped out at me: that word was suprise. It was paired with the word joy.
Now, I've got to tell you, I don't much like surprises. It seems to me that surprises, all too often, mean I'm going to have to adjust my plans. Surprise! Tim's work schedule has changed, or he has to travel somewhere else on short notice. Surprise! Somebody's sick, or somebody's mad, and I need to respond. Surprise! The car won't start, or there's a suspicious noise all of a sudden. Something's broken that needs fixing. Worst of all are surprises that pop up in church meetings -- I don't even want to go there! I just like to be prepared, and I'm not fond of wrenches being thrown into my busy life.
But this is life for a mother, and to a large degree, it's life for a pastor. I remember one of my teaching pastors saying long ago, "We are paid to have time," and that's stuck with me. There's a whole load of unrealistic expectations that can go with that, and it's important to have some boundaries, but there's often a precious opportunity for ministry that happens with surprises, and openness to those opportunities is indeed part of the work. Sometimes it's in those interruptions that the most teachable moments come. That's true for the work of parenting, too.
Katie opened a cabinet this week and discovered an unmarked, wrapped Christmas present. She needled and wheeldled me, first playfully, then with more vigor, trying to get information beyond "Who's it for?" to "What is it?" and then, in frustration, she declared with great authority: "I don't like surprises," and I had to think she got this from me. She later amended her statement to "When it comes to gifts, I don't like surprises." Having received my fair share of disappointing, impractical, or overly extravagant presents, there's something I resonate with in her sentiment. While I knew that, in Katie's case, she's just impatient for Christmas and is still learning about delayed gratification, I also heard in her words a truth about her personality. Since she was a baby, Katie hasn't done transitions or change smoothly. I've learned that I need to tell her every detail of what she can expect of a new experience or place -- and she gets really uncomfortable when the answer to a question is "I don't know; I've never done it before," or, "I've never been there before."
Have you ever taken a Myers-Briggs personality inventory? For those of you who have, do you remember the J-P scale? It measures folks along a continuum for a trait having to do with folk's comfort with structure, organization, rules and deadlines, versus process, spontaneity, and a more fluid view of time. Neither is right or wrong; the goal of the inventory is understanding and appreciation for the uniqueness of self and others. For this trait, I score on the border line; I swing slightly one way or the other depending on the need of the situation, and, I notice, depending on the people around me. When I'm working in a team with someone who is an extreme "P" -- someone who's often very creative, not very detail-oriented, maybe even flighty -- I shift into organized, structured-implementation-plan "J" mode. When I'm teamed up with a deadline-conscious, go-by-the-rules, habitual, even anal-retentive extreme "J" person, I swing over into process, go-with-the flow, relax-and-breathe "P" -- just to keep the team in balance. Deep down, I think I want to be a "P" -- and most of the times I've taken the Myers-Briggs that's where I end up, slightly -- but sometimes I go to "J" just to get a given job done, like get a college degree, or run a household on a weekday morning, or meet a denominational guideline.
It's when stress has made me live in "J" mode for too long that I become wary of surprises. I forget about being centered; I forget about adventure. I just get scared.
Which is why I'm particularly fascinated by Mary and Elizabeth. Amazed and a little puzzled may be more like it. If I were past childbearing years and became pregnant, joy would not be my first response -- even if I'd never had a child (perhaps even because I'd never had a child!). I've seen enough of life to know there are plenty of things that can go wrong, even in this age of modern medicine, especially for an older mother. Yet the Bible says Elizabeth spent her first five months in a state of blissful seclusion, "relishing her pregnancy," as Eugene Peterson puts it. Maybe she was being extra careful, but Luke focuses on the happiness of her "time of confinement."
And since scholars believe Luke was a physician, his attention to detail is significant. I wonder at Mary's staying with Elizabeth until just before baby John was born; I have to assume Luke would make no mistake with the counting of months, and assume that he's pointing out the timeline deliberately. Was there some obscure cultural element at work here -- some fear about young pregnant women witnessing childbirth, perhaps -- that has escaped attention with the passage of centuries? Or is Luke making some obtuse theological point about John and Jesus not meeting as infants, except in utero? I'm not sure. I just notice it. It surprises me, and I don't have an answer.
But there's no mistaking the significance Elizabeth places on her unborn child's movement in the womb when Mary's voice calls out at the gate. To Elizabeth, one attuned to miracles, little John's kick (or leap? or elbow in the ribs?) is a confirmation, both of how special her child is (no surprise there; most moms are looking for such signs when they're pregnant, and later), but of how special Mary's is. Luke tells the story as if Elizabeth hasn't even received word of Mary's coming or of her condition, except by supernatural means. And again, on that score, I am neither dubious nor certain.
What I do want to lift up about the way Luke tells this story is that these women, who were of little account to most in their world -- an old barren woman, a young unmarried girl -- responded to the great surprises and upsets in their world in a much different manner than I would. Their poetic exclamations are peppered with passionate verbs and adverbs: skip, dance, leap, filled, bursting, exuberantly. They trusted the surprise because they believed the angel Gabriel's words: "You have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you" (Luke 1:29, MSG).
God has a surprise for you. Elizabeth and Mary trusted surprises from God. People's surprises don't always deliver joy; they can disappoint, throw off our plans, stir up conflict and induce stress. God's surprises might bring an equal measure of turmoil and challenge, but we can trust the good will of the Source. We can trust that we will grow, and God will win. We can trust that God will be with us, and, therefore, we can expect joy.
Are you looking for God to surprise you in this holy season? Are you still enough to be surprised by joy? It might come in wandering down an unaccustomed path and discovering a light-decorated street; or going to a share a song with some elders, expecting the two or three people who signed up, and being met, instead, by a lively intergenerational group ready to spread cheer. Those were just two joys that came my way this week. God tells me: do your part, and show up. Really show up. Pay attention, and I'm there blessing you. Be open to the new and unexpected, and I'll appear in the most surprising places. Be hope. Live peace. Share love. Look for joy, and share these things with others.
Some have missed a week or two this Advent, and didn't get to hear every verse of my "Christmas Gift" song. So for today's last installment, if you'll humor me, I'm going to sing the whole piece. You'll find the words to the fourth verse printed on today's insert, with questions on the back side to read and ponder during your meditation time this week.
Listen to Pastor Michael's December 13, 2009 sermon.
This is the third sermon in their Jesus is the Gift series. Read and listen to the other sermons in this series.
Listen to Pastor Michael's December 6, 2009 sermon.
This is the second sermon in their Jesus is the Gift series. Read and listen to the other sermons in this series.
Listen to and read Pastor Laurie's November 29, 2009 sermon.
The reading was Luke 21: 25-36.
This is the first sermon in their Jesus is the Gift series. Read and listen to the other sermons in this series.
Download a .pdf of this sermon.
Listen to and read Pastor Michael's November 22, 2009 sermon.
The reading was John 18:33-37.
Download a copy of this sermon.
We Are Called to Thanksgiving
The Rev. Michael Love
November 22, 2009
When the GPS went haywire
It was on the way down the mountain from the Clergy retreat last week, that the GPS lost it's bearings. I expected to be on route 50 for almost 100 miles before anything significant happened to my course back to home. But the GPS kept getting lost. I'd glance over at it after an odd and unexpected suggestion to turn left or right and see that it had me tracking in the woods paralleling the highway about 200 yards over.
So did I turn it off? Well. I waited for it to regain it's senses. I was doing fine, even knew where I was going. After the fellowship of the retreat and the wisdom of the bishop and a visiting guest speaker who really gave us some tools for ministry. Where I was going, on a lot of levels, I felt. But I couldn't turn off that GPS when it was clearly not providing the best way forward.
We picked, Dolly Sam and I, we picked C3PO for our GPS voice. It's kind of funny, we can pretend that our car really has the highly advanced android-butler from Star Wars as our guide and helper. When you get to you intended location, C3PO very formally announces, “You have reached your destination, master.” But, as I drove the winding road down the mountain, C3PO advising me to drive through the woods or into the river to regain my course, got a little, creepy.
So, did I turn it off? And trust the direction that I had received both by having driven the way up (reverse course is pretty easy) and by virtue of the experience of the retreat. Did I turn off the voice giving me odd and actually dangerous advice? Did I go with what I knew and give thanks for the freedom?
Why I give thanks for Jesus
Jesus met with Pilate and had a discussion, oddly as equals it seems to me. Or so it looks by the boldness of Jesus' replies and his own questions he points at Pilate. And all along, you could say that Pilate kept giving Jesus bad advice. Advice that gave Jesus an out, like the “advice” from the devil to Jesus when he was being tested in the wilderness at the start of his ministry. Advice that originated in a world of “no thanks” and “that's mine.” Jesus had a word about where his Thanksgiving came from. “My kingdom is not FROM this world.' He said. (NRSV) Or: My kingdom, said Jesus, doesn't consist of what you see around you. (MSG)
And Jesus is about to give us cause for Thanksgiving because a whole trajectory of history, a momentum of violence and corruption is about to meet its match. Jesus is the catalyst, the change agent, the savior in a hinge moment that will change the arc of history. The actions of Jesus life, ministry, his death and resurrection are the new reality declared in the face of power that the age of Evil is at an end. He turns from the to each of us and beckons that we might activate that reality. We might find cause in that possibility to give thanks and get to work on the Kingdom. For clearly, we have not lived into the reality that Jesus died for. But we can, thanks to Jesus. We can conceive of a peaceable and sustainable kingdom where before the prevailing advice had us driving in the woods. Think it's bad to be at war? (yes) Good. That's a step forward from a human condition that accepted war as necessary, heroic and inevitable. Give thanks to the King who never took to the throne who made that possible. Give thanks to the King who abdicated power and achieved glory.
The bishop said an interesting thing at the retreat this week.
He said many things. One thing that spoke to me was about how we are tempted to pretend everything is okay. And I believe he nailed it, it's a snare and a trap laid for us. The work to pretend everything is just alright is tiring, draining labor that keeps us from our real calling, whatever that may be. And I began to see how it pointed to the times I stop giving thanks. I don't give thanks when things go wrong. Then I can sort of skip over it. I don't have to acknowledge it. It's not in my prayer life, maybe it's not there at all, I tell myself. That's a confession. Because I want to give thanks for everything. This may sound odd, but if I give thanks for everything a bunch of stuff happens that's really helpful. One thing is that I have to face the stuff I don't want to face and stop the exhausting work of pretending everything's okay.
The bishop was applying this to the life of the church and our need to see our situation with clarity and realism. But I guess you can see how it might apply to the walk of faith each of us takes daily.
So, I am using that line of thought to encourage us to give thanks for everything.
This notion comes from the scriptures.
It reminded the bishop and he reminded the clergy and I'm reminding myself and you to give thanks for everything, not just the good stuff.
More specifically it comes from Jesus. Jesus did not say, stand back, everything is going to be alright....this wasn't a Superman moment, or even an Underdog moment. He says, to Pilate, Are you speaking/thinking on your own...or just saying what you saw on Foxnews and CNN? You know what's coming. You can see the signs. Will you own the truth of the situation? Pilate does the first cowardly thing of the story, he cops out. “Well, what is truth?” he asks. Even Pilate knew big stuff was ahead. Even Pilate couldn't pretend everything was going to be alright. Thanks be to God, everything was about to change.
The Christian Strategy
“Its tempting to pretend that everything is alright". And I think it is tempting to think, after we get over this little bump, after things settle down...it's going to be alright. We need that, I need that, to keep balance in my life. But Jesus life reminds us that discipleship is a vocation, an effort is required. That in fact a key part of discipleship is an honest look at the plain facts of life. You know they say that everyone is either just coming out of a tough patch in life, in the middle of a tough patch, or just about to enter into a tough patch. That's not pessimism, that's just remembering what life is really like. Everything is about to change. Christian Discipleship is the most realistic life-style choice for acknowledging and navigating that reality. The thanksgiving I give for the new life I find in Jesus Christ is that I have been given (not a fantasy, pie in the sky vision) but a solid core, authentic view of the world and my place in it. That probably sounds pretty funny to some, given the sugarplum and lemondrops make believe that passes for the religious life in these consumption driven times. So I declare to you that you will never find a more realistic life-style choice than Christian Discipleship. That's cause for thanksgiving.
When your GPS breaks down
We all have this internal GPS that we inherited. Some of it comes from our families, some from our schooling, some from our position in the class system of American life. Our internal GPS is programmed by a number of factors and influences. Some of them are useful and accurate. But every once in awhile the GPS breaks down. And when that happens, give thanks. In those moments, listen to Jesus, he doesn't get enough air-time on those gadgets. Enter into conversation with the King who showed us a way when all our navigational stuff seems broken. Meet the sovereign who re-claimed the language of peace and justice and community. Do it quick before the old directionals come back on line and have you driving through the woods.
The Bottom Line
We are called to Thanksgiving. Few of us come to it naturally or find it on our own. We have to be summoned, cajoled, encouraged. I did finally turn off the GPS. I was finally able to settle into the great Thanksgiving of knowing that I knew where I was going. And I knew that after a reset or update or something, C3PO would be back giving road directions. What I had been resisting on route 50 coming down from 7000 feet through 6000 to 5000 and onto the Sacramento Valley and then home, was my call to Thanksgiving. I think we have to be cajoled by the spirit of God's own self, to release and give thanks and then watch some really astonishing and amazing scenery go by. God is calling you, each of you, to thanksgiving. You maybe also find it not your usual posture. You may find, like I did, that Thanksgiving is most poignant when I don't think I have much to give thanks for at the moment.
It's in the giving of thanks, that Jesus steps in to aim me in the direction of my intended thanks. And I come away knowing that indeed each of us has much for which to thank God. It's a kind of practice really. If you give thanks, you find things for which to be grateful. Funny about that.
And, as our now working GPS with C3PO voice always reminds me, then You have reached your destination. Amen.
Listen to and read Pastor Michael's November 15, 2009 sermon.
Read and listen to part 1 of Other Campfires. Pastor Michael preached this on his first Sunday at First Church, July 5, 2009.
Download a copy of this sermon.
Other Campfires – Part 2
The Rev. Michael Love
November 15, 2009
I arrived in Palo Alto on July 1 and preached about Other Campfires. That sermon was generally about what I believe to be a pre-eminent opportunity for the church today. That opportunity I called “Other Campfires.” It was to encourage a renewed sense of adventure in the Christian enterprise of building new ministries. I cast the idea that our work as disciples of Jesus includes reaching out in a variety of ways. I contend that in response to God's abundant love, we are given a sense of safety and security that equips us to wander from the comfort of our sanctuary. I like the image of the campfire as our sanctuary, a place of coziness as well as mystery, a place that nurtures and keeps us spiritually warmed. A place where we can prepare meals to sustain and meal to share. I also want to notice that it is the success of our campfire that emboldens us to wander off to help others start new campfires. This image I use to think about new missions, new worship venues, and new models for being church itself.
This morning, I will take up the topic of Other Campfires again. This time through the lens of Paul's address to the Athenians which you have just heard, from Acts 17:16-33. I see in Paul's manner and speech a template of instruction for how we might best go about building "other campfires" in Jesus' name.
Today, I am going to focus the metaphor of Other Campfires. Let's say this morning that Other Campfires are all the potential ministries that God is calling us to plant. I presume something here and so in the fairness of disclosure will name it explicitly. I presume that God makes churches primarily to build other ministries and other churches. I presume that God is not finished with us once we've settled into a particular address on a particular block in a particular section of town or city. I presume, as our good friends in the United Church of Christ share in their media, that “God is still speaking.”
So, with all that in mind, I want to observe that in Paul's experience in Athens, preaching the Good News of God's unconditional love, we glean some advice on building new campfires. To put it another way, we might see in Paul's experience the basis for a Frequently Asked Questions list about building new ministries. I have 3 questions on that list.
Question 1 : Can you build another campfire if you're happy with the one at which you sit?
Answer 1 : Yes. It's good to be satisfied with the campfire at which you sit. It means that you're pretty good at building campfires. It means that you have enjoyed success at building campfires. Don't settle down yet, however. Because, if you are going to build other campfires, you have to be dissatisfied in some way. Look at Paul. Right away, he's dissatisfied. As he wanders Athens, he is distressed to see the abundant evidence from the culture that God has many competitors in Athens. And he sees an opportunity for another campfire. We can mimic Paul when we love our community enough that we would want to add further ministry choices to it. So, the first step is avoid the satisfaction of what is, instead of always leaning forward into the opportunity of what could be.
Question 2 : If you want to start another campfire, do you have to leave the campsite?
Answer 2 : Yes. If you want to launch viable, sustainable ministries that will make an impact for God's peaceable kingdom, you have to "wander the townsquare." Again, look at Paul. He explored and saw with new eyes. We, too, can explore our community and see it with new eyes. If we don't learn everything we can about the place in which we plan to start a new campfire, good luck. Not only will we have failed to keep faith with the ones we are given to serve, but we will fail to discern the many rich opportunities for ministry in our own backyard. Adam Hamilton in his book about church life entitled Selling Swim Suits In the Arctic notices this for us. When you have swim suits to sell and your customers live in a non-swimsuit environment, you have to engage the needs that they DO have.
When you do wander the townsquare, you have to take what you find seriously. If you dismiss what you see around you in the culture, you will not be able to engage in meaningful conversation. And remember, the longer it's been since we've visited the world beyond this campfire, the more likely it is that what we find will seem weird to us.
Question 3 : Will we have to give up our identity to serve others beyond this place?
Answer 3 : Here's where we really live. “What will I have to give up?” The answer is No, and Yes. No, having taken what you see seriously, you have to retain your own self-definition. This is crucial to successful campfire building. Your strength comes from a willingness to hear others into being while remaining rooted and centered in your own identity. This isn't a matter of “while in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This is not about going native. This is about being a good visitor ourselves while in the middle of the culture that surrounds us.
And Yes, you will have to give up something. We in the church will be set free from our isolation. We will no longer be the only ones in the conversation. Observation and analysis of the mission field alone build no campfires. Campfires are extraordinarily relational. Paul really went out on a limb to connect relationally to the Athenians. Some smirked. Some will. Others were touched and followed on to become involved in the Way that Paul was declaring. Some will do that also in this day and place. And in the addition of new folks to the Body of Christ, the Body was transformed. New vitality and new visions were added. Our invitation to new members needs to always include this message : “Come and be among us and in the process, transform this congregation.”
Building new campfires, starting new ministries will always change the “us” we understand ourselves to be.
Those are my 3 FAQs. And remember, the goal is not to get compliments for the design of your campfire. Building new ministries is not an exact science. The campfires you start to build will not look like the one we're used to. But that's okay, the goal is not to replicate one model of the Body of Christ over and over. The goal is to model a process of that equips others to build campfires, whatever the shape or style. The goal is deployment of qualified campfire builders who also understand that they are now enlisted in the work of teaching others.
You have heard me say, some of you, that the church is a group of leaders making leaders who make leaders. You could also say it's a group of teachers making teachers who make teachers. Or a group of healers making healers who make healers. That's my not so subtle way of saying that we have a job to do, and it's not optional. The health of a church is directly mirrored by its attentiveness to growing other ministries or even other churches.
Jesus did a lot of walking around, so did Paul. It was an essential ingredient in the core structure of the church that we sometimes have overlooked. For our metaphor, that means that building a new campfire means walking around. Going to the other campsite, and working with the campers at that site to help them build a fire...at their site. I think you can see that this has some serious implications for us.
Often this is taken as a kind of tampering with the institutional needs of the existing church. I want to address that and allay those fears.
Let me say that we build other campfires as a celebration of our our successful ignition of this campfire. It is because we are specially blessed and strong enough to help others that we have been called into this ministry. It is because God has graced us with the successful ministry in this place that we are so bold as to imagine more ministry, more opportunity to serve, more ways to worship and be in mission together.
The biggest hurdle that we face is that we have to act in faith. Starting new campfires is a work of multiplication not a work of division. We are call by God to risk success. When we hedge against division, it is a way of not engaging the real question. The real risk is risking success.
Our Greatest Fear
by Marianne Williamson, founder of the Peace Alliance, which sponsors a movement to form a United States Department of Peace.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other
people won't feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
Today I want to leave you with a practice of starting a new campfire. This is a little exercise that we can build on later. This is a walking around exercise.
The ushers are distributing something I call a Boomerang Postcard. You can take it home, put a stamp on it, give one to a friend. They mail it. For every one of these I rec'v back, a $5 contribution from the Pastor's discretionary fund will go to the FUMC Children's Fund which makes grants to the Ravenswood School district mostly for school for supplies and educational field trips. This is a practical exercise in walking around the “town-square.” It is the beginning of getting our legs under us in a renewed way to reach as far as God is calling us to reach.
And may the spark you ignite become the basis for a new campfire that we have not yet even imagines. Amen.
Listen to and read Pastor Laurie's November 8, 2009 sermon.
This is the fourth sermon in their The Ways We Care series. Read and listen to the other sermons in this series.
Download a .pdf of this sermon.
The Ways We Care: Gifts - Message for November 8, 2009 by Pastor Laurie McHugh
Text: Acts 2:42-47
Believe me, we weren't trying to be sneaky when we took the church membership promises out of order in our planning for this sermon series. We could have it straight out of the book and done it as (do you remember these?) "Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service and Witness." Then this hard talk would have been past you! But All Saints' Day lent itself to prayer, so we rearranged things. So whether you planned for it or not, whether you wanted to hear about it or not, you’ve got today’s topic. But I won’t talk long because either you will get it, or you won’t, and there’s no use belaboring the subject.
Let me just put it to you straight. There is something utterly and unspeakably sacred in the act of giving wholeheartedly. It transforms both the giver and the receiver. And it’s so powerful that it’s my belief that there is no compromise possible.
You can’t be a disciple if you haven’t converted your wallet. You can’t get around it. Hold back from the act of generous giving, and you may as well hold back from the whole enterprise. It’s a matter of the heart. You can’t give your heart to Jesus and be transformed by the Holy Spirit of grace if you hold back from the call to practicing extravagant generosity.
There's a story about a little boy who wanted to meet God. He knew it was probably going to be a long trip, so he pulled out a backpack and put in a box of Twinkies and a six-pack of root beer and he started his journey. When the little boy had gone a few blocks, he came to a park. Sitting there, staring at some pigeons, was an old woman. The boy sat down next to her and opened his backpack. He pulled out a root beer, popped the top, and was about to take a drink when he noticed that the old woman looked hungry, so he offered her a Twinkie. The woman gratefully accepted it and smiled at him. Her smile was so dazzling that the boy wanted to see it again, so he offered her a root beer. Again, she smiled at him. The boy was delighted.
They sat there all afternoon eating Twinkies and drinking root beer and smiling, but they never said a word. As it grew dark, the boy realized how tired he was and he got up to leave, but before he had gone more than a few steps, he turned around, ran back to the old woman, and gave her a hug. This time he was rewarded with the biggest smile ever.
It wasn’t long before the boy found his way home. As he opened the front door and went through to the kitchen, he met his mother, who was surprised by the look of joy on his face. She asked him, "What did you do today that made you so happy?"
He replied, "I had lunch with God." And before his mother could respond, he added, "You know what? She's got the most beautiful smile I've ever seen!"
Meanwhile, the old woman, also radiant with joy, returned to the home she shared with her son. He was stunned by the look of peace on her face and he asked, "Mom, what did you do today that made you so happy?"
She replied, "I ate Twinkies in the park with God." And before the son could respond, she added, "You know, he's much younger than I expected." (Story a paraphrase from a source at esermons.com)
I tell this story because we meet God in the act of giving. Giving transforms the giver and the receiver, and its power is so compelling you can hardly put it into words; we just have to do it.
We connect with the power at the heart of the universe when we share those things that are precious to us, those things that give life: food (Twinkies and root beer or food of the more healthy variety), clothing, shelter and the money that buys these things; medicine that heals, time, knowledge, forgiveness. When we give what’s been given to us, there’s this cosmic rightness about it. Our universe responds, because we’re not looking out for “number one” anymore – we’re deliberately letting go of that preoccupation, taking the food from our own mouth and putting it into the stomach of another creature who’s equally precious, equally created. And we suddenly realize that this is what we were made for: to help one another, with no strings attached, no guarantees, simply trusting in the great Master Giver to provide the next breath, and the next, and the next. Sometimes sustenance will come by our hand, and sometimes it will come by another. We’re bound to each other. That’s the whole plan of it.
The generosity of the Early Church is probably the most distinctive, most jarring detail that is emphasized in the Book of Acts. The miracles, the bold preaching and standing up to the authorities, the daily worship, the speaking in tongues -- all of this pales in comparison to the description of how these believers sold everything they had and shared their possessions in common. It's the one thing that seems most impossible to us, the one thing that makes us stop and say, "No one could live like that anymore." It's the one thing that we want to cover over as impractical in our day and age. But I tell you, it is in this one respect that we are most missing out on the treasure of our heritage.
The fact that it chafes us so much is most telling. This is the place where our culture has us enslaved.
It is no accident that the New Testament account of the birth of the Church goes straight from Holy Spirit-filled preaching, miracles and baptisms as numbers were added to the flock, to descriptions of amazing generosity and compassion for the most vulnerable. From the beginning, faith and works went hand in hand. It was what made the new movement stand out, what made others sit up and take notice. Our heritage is being the people who care, who love God and love others equally, being the people for whom unselfish, sacrificial giving for others is an act of faith and worship.
Realizing and trusting in this is so important to our spiritual growth. There is no getting around it. It’s so important to your spiritual health that I’m going to go out on a limb here. I invite you to try giving extravagantly and generously without my getting a single benefit from it. I know times are tough and money’s tight now. But this is always going to be a stumbling block, no matter what the inflation or unemployment rate is, no matter what the Dow Jones average is, no matter what the state of the economy is. And this is of eternal importance! So I challenge you to tithe – to another church. Try it for one month. Figure out your income and give one tenth of it away to someplace else. Give it to the church down the street, to the shelter or the government of Bolivia. I don’t care where it goes so long as it leaves your hands. (Giving it to your friends and family doesn’t count! Give it where you won’t be able to ask for it back.) Practice extravagant generosity with no strings attached. I guarantee only one thing: your heart and soul will be so blessed, I don’t think you’ll want to go back.
The church asks you to give, not because we need the money for our operating expenses, to pay the pastor or fix the roof or keep the lights on, or even to help children or the poor, as much as they may need it, but because faithful people, followers of Jesus, need to give. People of faith need to let go in order to unleash the power of God in them and in the world.
This world is so different. It operates on a totally different principle. And it’s so messed up, with this “grab and hold” instinct it’s teaching.
It starts in toddlerhood, I think, when we learn one of those first words: “mine.” “That’s mine!” I know it was a long time ago, but do you remember that? I bet somewhere in your deepest, primal memory you do. And from that moment, that first time clinging to a toy or some attractive object, we’re possessed. We change. We lose a piece of ourselves, of our souls. Our existence becomes about getting, grabbing, and keeping as much as we can. And it’s reinforced, over and over, in our day-to-day life.
That’s not what God made the world for. That’s not the way to freedom. That’s not the way to a rich, meaningful life. Generosity is.
That’s why about 60% of all Jesus’ teachings were about money. Possessions possess us; they were never meant to, though. God wants us. God wants our humanity back. God wants our hearts back in heaven. Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21). I hear that as a challenge to put our treasure where we want our hearts to be. Generosity has everything to do with the kingdom of God. It’s the key to it, my friends.
Every act of giving, every moment of extravagant generosity, is a deposit in an eternal trust fund. I pray you will invest wisely. That’s all I have to say, but Keith and I do have something to sing.
(Sing "When It's All Been Said and Done")
When it's all been said and done, all our treasures will mean nothing; only what we've done for love's reward will stand the test of time. Now I'm done. Amen.
Read and listen to Pastor Michael's October 25, 2009 sermon.
This is the third sermon in their The Ways We Care series. Read and listen to the other sermons in this series.
Download a copy of this sermon.
The Ways We Care –Week 3 – Service
The Rev. Michael Love
October 25, 2009
Saul was doing everything he'd been trained for. He was at the top of his game. He was protecting the faith from interlopers. This was good work, let's be clear... Except for one thing, Saul wasn't paying attention to the one who had called him into service in the first place. He was just going along, acting out of habit and training, and had stopped reflecting on what his job was. Saul, devout as he was, was not alert to God's call to service in those moments when he was dragging Jesus followers from their homes and hauling them off to the authorities.
Had he remained alert to God, that startling Damascus Road experience, that desert highway flash of light and thunderstruck blinding wouldn't have been so startling.
We know when we're out of line with God. And yet God still has ways to startle us when we drift. Ever been startled by God in this way? I have. I've been startled when, even though I was doing everything I'd trained for, I was struck to the ground by Jesus' alarming question:
“Michael. Michael. Why do you persecute me?”
When you hear THAT question, you can be sure that a Mid-Course Correction in your life has begun. Like Saul, when we lose focus on God, when we elevate other concerns and projects above God, then we have worked against the best interest of the Body of Christ.
Service is one of the gifts of membership that we promise. It is one of the harder promises of membership that we keep. I can pray, daily, work to give my tithe, commit to being present in the congregation; but fulfilling my service and being a witness to my faith...those two require that I act beyond my own interest. Those two require an added blessing of God's grace for the strength to commit and follow-through.
But when we are enabled by God to serve, there is no other experience of religious life quite like it. We have heard time and time again of the ones who serve in the world and comes back reporting all that THEY have gained. When we step out in faith as servant ministers, as volunteers, as healers; so often we return as the ones healed ourselves.
It's that we are completed when we serve. We are not whole when we serve only our interest or are ourselves served by others. Only in service do we become whole. That is a statement of our faith.
And so this morning we examine the third of our membership promises : Service. We acknowledge God's generosity to us and respond in faith. Service is one of the ways we are given to respond.
I need to add a supplemental reading today, from the prophet Isaiah, who knew something about being called into service by the Lord. In the beginning of the book of Isaiah, we hear 5 chapters of bad news, tough times, hard living and low expectations. It is a sobering introduction to Isaiah's call from God. It's as if the writer wants to make sure that we know in what social environment Isaiah is being called. And so then in Isaiah 6:8, he finally tells us, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, [into service and witness in these extraordinary times] and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here I am; send me!”
Now, I have to hand to Isaiah. He answered more quickly than I could have. But then again, Isaiah knew that God doesn't suggest we serve. The tradition of faith understands service as an essential part of our relationship with God. Not optional. Indeed, the bible is filled with episodes of the prophets speaking on God's behalf, warning against empty observances, vacant service, listless attention, distant allegiance. The radical message of Jesus Christ follows in the same tradition. If you seek to follow me (Jesus say) then you will be last in line, dragging a cross, speaking out for justice and probably drawing heat for doing so.
That's enough to knock you off your horse. To come up to a full stop against that assertion of risk-taking service (to borrow a phrase from one of our UM bishops, Robert Schanese) is for most of us, like having God suddenly change our job description. We might be understood if we said, “Gee, this isn't what I thought I signed up for!”
What would you do if God changed your job description? How would you react. Because under all that dramatic language of “Saul, still breathing murderous threats.” Is the story of a mid-course correction. A job-description change. A mid-life crisis. That's what happened to Saul. That's happened to me. Has it ever happened to you?
Doing one thing with zeal and certainty, over-certainty really, and all the while being off-course? God can and does enter into our lives in moments of opportunity, maybe when our defenses are down, because life is handing us some challenges, or maybe when our defenses are down, because we think we've got it all under control. God is opportunistic, because God knows us well enough to understand that it often takes a blinding light and a voice like thunder from the sky to get our attention back to what's important.
This text is set in the drama of the life of the early church, when one of the challenges had a name, Saul. This text is the story of how God's grace can even overtake a cruel and fanatical mind and aim it in a new direction of service.
Are you open to God changing the work plan of your life? Are you open to God changing your job description? If you've ever changed jobs, switched majors in college, transferred to another post, moved, got laid off or went back to school to learn a new career, you've been through this already. You know what I'm asking of you. You know the gravity of this question.
This morning maybe you were thinking as you glanced over the bulletin and saw the title of the sermon, maybe you were thinking that I would be celebrating service. And I am. But you may not be as ready for me to speak about why a call to service is a call to some kind of change initiated by God. Why not just serve, Pastor? Why do I have to go through a job description change?
Let me answer that by asking another question. Is there anyone here who has not had to make a course correction at some point in their journey? Is this actually new to anyone? I suspect it's not. As for me, I wouldn't choose it. But you know, I've just had too much experience of God doing just that in my life. And I've had too much experience of seeing God doing just that in other's lives.
When God calls us to service there's usually some kind of change ahead for us as the ones who serve.
So, are we open to God changing the “job description” of our lives? If you can say, even hesitantly, “yes” then you have made the gift of service. Because when you say yes to service, you had said, “here I am Lord”. And God puts us to the field of work then that God has chosen.
I'd much rather pick my favorite service or helping-area and have God bless and equip me for that. That's mostly how we go about this service thing. And that's okay, but it's not quite the service we pledge to in our membership vows. The kind of service we pledge to, results in chances to serve that sometimes come as a surprise or an unexpected opportunity in an area that we could not ourselves imagine.
Ever have an odd job?
I found some odd jobs the other day. Listen to this.
How about being a Hair Simulation Supervisor?
Believe it or not, digital artists proficient in the art of creating 3-D hair are hot commodities in the world of animation. Just ask Mark Thomas Henne, the man responsible for every follicle flip in Pixar's CGI blockbuster, 'The Incredibles.' According to Nathan Pieratt, Director of the Online Animation Program at Westwood College, the industry has shifted from 2-D design to 3-D digital media, giving rise to highly specific jobs. So you could be a Hair Simulation Specialist.
Need something odder? How about being a Banana Gasser? - Less flatulent than it sounds, banana gassers finish off what Mother Nature started. To make sure the bottom of your banana split is tasty, bananas are shipped while they're still green to prevent bruising. Gassers for the JFC Fruit Company are in charge of moving new shipments into hermetically sealed chambers where the fruit is sprayed with an ethylene gas to catalyze ripening.
And my favorite: A Fire Scientist. That sounds cool before you even know what it is. A fire scientist specializes in experiments involving flame. They do everything from checking gas pipe leaks to blowing things up. Grads from the University of Maryland's University College online fire science program not only learn the science behind smithereens, but are also trained in emergency management and arson investigation. 1
There are many odd jobs out there. God calls us to odd jobs, too, sometimes.
I once found myself called to teach Sunday School in a downtown church in Los Angeles where Spanish was the first language of the congregation. I was in my first year of high school Spanish as I remember and it definitely was not enough Spanish to teach Sunday School. For some reason, I said, “Here I am.” And it was an amazing experience as the class took care of me and I worked diligently to tell la vida de Jesus en espanol.
God changed Saul's Job Description....God will change yours when your bring your life to the altar of service. It is not only that we are asked to submit to God's draft call, it's more than that. I believe that when we do something that God has called us to, rather than something that I have picked, that our own lives are also transformed.
There are 4 hymns in our hymnal that reflect Isaiah's anwser to God's call, “Here I am, send me.” One of them is hymn number 436, “The Voice of God is Calling.” The third verse makes this pledge:
“We heed, O Lord your summons, and answer: “Here are we! Send us upon YOUR errand, let us YOUR servant be.”
As we consider God's call to us in service, may these words be our own response as well.
1 from http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2009/08/16/odd-jobs-and-crazy-careers/
Listen to and read Pastor Michael's October 18, 2009 sermon.
This is the second sermon in Pastor Michael and Pastor Laurie's The Ways We Care series. Read and listen to the other sermons in this series.
Download a copy of this sermon.
The Ways We Care –Week 2 – Presence
The Rev. Michael Love
October 18, 2009
Video : Jesse's Back (from “Step Into Liquid”, a film by Dana Brown)
The gravity of presence. You know that Jesse could have just gone home after his accident and not come back. But he showed up. His true love of the sport and his friendships drew him back. Jesse came back to the surf out of love. Now, you could argue that he can't surf anymore, just kind of scoots along on the knee-high breaks. But what's amazing is the effect he has had on his circle of friends. How he has inspired and lifted them up, even though they're the ones doing all the lifting. Jesse's presence sits large in the lives of those who know him.
Reminds me of the story of the 4 friends who lowered their paralyzed friend through the roof of the house where Jesus was teaching. Lowered him down on a bed so that Jesus could take a look and see what could be done. Jesus took one look at the man, and at his friends, and at the length to which they had gone to get in. Jesus said, You've shown your faith. Well done. Your friends “showed up”, you “showed up.” You've achieved a healing.
Presence matters : Ever wonder if your presence matters? If people would notice if you were there or not? I want to assure you that your presence is highly significant, I'd even say it is a gift from God.
It was Woody Allen who said that "90% of life is just showing up."
You can't tell the parents of Falcon Heene, the 6 year old boy from Ft. Collins, Colorado, that presence doesn't matter. You can bet that whether Falcon was, or was not, present in that helium balloon accidentally loosed over Colorado, was very important to his parents and friends. You are important, don't forget to "show up."
“90% of life is just showing up.” Putting the effort to be present. It matters. Being present changes everything. For example: This sanctuary : empty = beautiful, colorful, resonant, inspiring. This sanctuary : filled = wow!
Your presence matters. When we are here, songs are full and fellowship is a work spread among many caring hands. We gather to build one another up in Christ. To hear one another as carefully as we can and to pray together for direction, strength and even healing.
Our presence is a response to the Generosity of God that we have experienced. We show up to say thanks and to pray we might be in some small portion a reflection of that Generosity ourselves. There's a lot at stake, when you decide to “show up.”
Let me ask this then : What's it take to “be the church”? I believe presence is a key ingredient to thriving in the church and in the rest of our daily living.
Let's see how the church did it in the Acts of the Apostles. They didn't have the option to pick and choose who would put the thing together. Otherwise they might have assembled a highly skilled and qualified team of experts. As it was they went with who showed up.
Matthew : Tax collector (ordinary guy)
Mary, Martha, Salome, Mary Magdalene (bold, outspoken, boundary breakers)
John and James (the sons of thuner Jesus called them because they were always at each others' neck)
Peter (the loudmouth)
Stephen and Phillip (who let the Greeks in?)
Not exactly a likely bunch of candidates for the top-flight Team Jesus.
However, they did one thing, relentlessly. They showed up. The Lord had told them to gather in his name and share a meal, “in remembrance of me.” And that they did every first day of the week. And the Lord told them to wait, and that they did also, for 50 days. Think of it, who in this day would show up here, right here, for the next 50 days, not knowing if the wait would be 50 or 100 or 150 days, or more? And not knowing exactly what had been promised?
They showed up. And they didn't worry over Jesus' absence, they went about the work of being present to one another. Of remembering Jesus in song and prayer and the breaking of the bread.
Not exactly the most compelling business plan., I'll admit. Not exactly the most exciting way they could have spent their time, either. But they did it. And because of that relentless waiting, the Lord fulfilled a promise of Holy Spirit proportion.
There is no doubt in my mind that this is a template of what happened again and again and again around the Mediterranean Sea spreading the gospel and the church in an unprecedented manner. And there is no doubt in my mind that this template has continued to be the most significant cause of the growth and sustenance of the church for 2000 years.
Presence matters. Showing up makes a difference. Can you imagine what would have happened if every other person or even every third person had woke up on the morning of August 28, 1963 and said, I'm not going down to the mall at the Washington monument in Washington, DC to hear what that guy Martin Luther King had to say. Think I'll go shopping, instead. Presence matters in our tradition because we profess the astonishing claim that where ever 2 or more followers of Jesus are gathered in his name, Jesus himself is there among us. Do not fail to gather together Hebrews 10:25 tells us. (Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.)
Now....We live in times when gathering is not an innate instinct. We don't seem to “clump together” naturally into groups. Sometimes that feels like a development of this age, but I think it is nothing new. There have always been reasons and causes keeping humankind separated into small batches. The gathering is a counter-intuitive choice we make. We gather in places like this. We gather at school events. We even gather now in communities of on-line connected groups. That seems to some to be more separateness, but to a new generation that has grown up with the tools of cyberspace, it is a gathering none the less.
It's an act of faith when we can choose to gather. To be present to one another. And, I believe that it is a gift of God when we choose to do so.
This sounds tough, doesn't it? But I want to re-share something that Pastor Laurie mentioned last week that helped me see the project as more do-able. “Breathe,” she said. “Don't push. Just breathe.” This came from her parable of child-birth. What a great insight for living! It acknowledges that we have raised the bar anytime we are speaking of being people of faith AND it also lays claim that we have the resource to accomplish and succeed.
The life of a disciple IS a life of heightened expectations. Remember the story : they were told to wait, and had done so, for 50 days, when this amazing episode of the Holy Spirit occurred. I can imagine that they had to do some sitting and breathing to get through that time together. I'm sure that some of the disciples had a better idea. That some got antsy and wanted to re-organize the whole thing. So I believe they had to breathe in and breathe out. And trust God and one another. And look what happened! The church was born.
See what can happen when you just show up!?
It is the generosity of God, a promise delivered on, modeled for us, so that we might have an idea of what generosity looks like. That's why it is one of our touchstones of membership—the gift of your presence—because how you show up matters. Here and in the rest of your living. God invites each of us to a heightened awareness of the impact we make in the world by the fact of our being. I invite you to pray about and celebrate the ways that we may be more intentional about our participation in the life of this church and in all the other parts that make up our total experience of living.
I invite you to remember that in the eyes of God, you are important. You are a significant fact in the world. You have an impact, how you choose to use that impact is up to you. Don't forget to "show up."
Listen to and read Pastor Laurie's October 11, 2009 sermon.
This is the first sermon in their The Ways We Care series. Read and listen to the other sermons in this series.
Download a .pdf of this sermon.
The Ways We Care: Witness - Message for October 11, 2009 by Pastor Laurie McHugh
Text: Acts 1:1-8
Our membership and baptismal vows in the United Methodist Church were amended at our last General Conference gathering (that's our official church body -- a representative group that has the authority to speak for our whole denomination, and meets once every four years to go over our Book of Discipline and our social statements). It was a big deal to change such a key ritual in our church, and it required a lot of communication, since the words are part of our hymnal which we haven't republished! You may or may not have noticed the change given the frequency of our turning to that part of the book (or lack thereof), and it's small change, but a significant one. We've added just one word to the promises, just one word to the list of expectations of what it means to be a member of the United Methodist Church. You might remember that list: to support the ministries of the church through our prayers, presence, gifts and service. Give me a show of hands: do you remember those? And how many of you know how the list reads now? Say it with me if you do: it's prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. (Let's repeat that: prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.)
Over the next five weeks we are focusing on each of these promises in turn as we consider the ways that we care: for each other in this congregation, for each other in the Body of Christ, and for the world as disciples of Jesus Christ, in gratitude for the gifts that God has given us. We're not taking them in the order that's used in the book; we're adjusting to the contours of other rhythms in our church life, so bear with us on that. But I think it's fitting that we begin with witness, given its new status in the rite, and because of its crucial place and need in the Church (that's "Church" with a capital "C") at this pivotal time in history.
But before we go to right now, let's go to "back then," and take a look at today's story from the Early Church in the Book of Acts. These are the farewell words of Jesus according to the gospel writer Luke. It's after Easter, after the resurrection -- and it's not totally clear from the text whether these verses are the summation of several conversations over those forty days -- when Jesus would appear to the disciples from time to time, and he would talk with them, and eat with them, and show in many ways (not specified in the text) that he was indeed physically alive -- or if this is the last of those conversations. I expect this was stuff that needed to be repeated for the disciples to get it. They had to be jarred out of the wonder of the resurrection and pushed into what was next for them; they needed a fire lit under them and in their hearts to get that this was news that needed to be shared.
And Jesus says two things to the disciples during this precious, transitional time -- the time between the triumphal ending of Jesus' ministry on earth and the wild, turmoil-filled, risk-taking period of his disciples' launch into the world on his behalf.
The first thing he says is, "Wait. Wait here in Jerusalem. Wait for God to send what has been promised."
That can be hard to do -- waiting. When you're chomping at the bit to see something done, when you're uncomfortable with the state of things, when something so good is coming, and when you're used to being a person of action, waiting can be the hardest thing.
Just over ten years ago I was making a move to a new church. I was seven months pregnant when I had my intake interview, eight months pregnant on moving day. For me, the word "transition" had more than one meaning. Having taken my birthing classes, and looking forward to Katie's entry into the world, I had much in mind the transition phase of labor. And it was a helpful image for pastoral and congregational transition, that I have kept in mind ever since that year when it had special significance. Any moms here remember giving birth? (I hope so!) Any of you remember what they tell you about the transition phase? For you men out there, I'm talking about that (usually!) mercifully brief period in labor when the diameter of the cervix goes from 7 centimeters to 10 centimeters. It's when things often get the hardest, when the contractions take it up a notch (or several notches) -- and some of you dads who were blessed to be present with your wives in the delivery room probably have some strong memories of that particular time. I've heard a few comedians have fun with their stories, of the transformation that their beloved ones underwent -- but I won't go there. Let me just say that sometimes the training goes out of the head when the reality of pain hits. And we need to be reminded -- and that's the coach's role, or the nurse's, or the midwife's -- to say, "Breathe. Don't push. Just breathe."
Let me tell you, that can be the toughest part of any transition -- not pushing, just waiting. It's an act of faith, trusting that there's a baby -- or some form of new life -- at the end of that hard process, and not pushing for it. Every fiber of your being may want to push, but you have to breathe and wait. Otherwise, you do terrible damage (and with a baby, you don't want to do damage!) -- to mother and child alike. You have to wait until that measurement of 10 centimeters comes. And there's precious opportunity in that waiting time, hard as it is, because it gets you ready for what's next.
In the case of Jesus' teaching with his disciples, what was next was the Holy Spirit. It was gonna set them on fire. It was gonna burn in their hearts. It was going to blast away all their timidity and give life to a new thing, a community of believers that could move mountains with their faith, that would bring healing and hope and turn the world upside down.
And it was worth waiting for.
Waiting is an important part of the Christian life. It can teach us humility and make us go deeper. It can teach us to listen instead of talking so much, and adding to the noise and bustle and stress around us. It can give us space to reflect on where God has been and what God has been teaching us up to this point, so that we can really be ready when the Spirit and the call comes -- ready to be bold, ready to take risks, ready to grow.
Perhaps today you are waiting for something -- for an answer to prayer or for a door to open. If it's your time to wait, be patient with it. Accept the time as a gift, and as an invitation to go deep.
On the other hand, some folks use waiting as an excuse, as a cover for timidness or shallow discipleship. There's got to be a balance in this, or else, if you wait too long, the call of the Spirit will come as a kick in the pants!
Jesus said, "Wait." But he also made a promise that there was something to wait for, and invited his followers to be ready and open for the Holy Spirit. And that means a different kind of waiting. It's an expectant, getting-spiritually-prepared kind of waiting.
One of my favorite reflections about worship is from Catholic writer Annie Dillard (and I expect you'll hear me quote it more than once!). In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, she writes:
Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?... On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.
(from Teaching a Stone to Talk, 1982)
What we worshipfully wait for is not a tame God. What we wait for is meant to turn us upside down. And if we're transformed, there's a chance that the world will be turned upside down and transformed, too.
I've got to tell you something, my friends -- and don't get paranoid when I tell you this: People are watching us. You can't fade into the woodwork if you're a Christian anymore. We are no longer in the age of Christendom, of state religion, when everyone was at least nominally Christian, and you could just put up a church building and open the doors and that's all you had to do in the way of evangelism, because everybody went to church. We're in a postmodern, post-Christian age. People ask questions. They're skeptical of truth claims. There's now more than one generation of people among us who has never set foot in a church. They didn't just turn their back on what they learned in Sunday school; no one brought them to Sunday school. They don't know the stories. They've never heard the hymns. They've never experienced the rituals. And many of them are hungering for something more than what they're finding in their entertainment and education and careers and addictions and acquisitions and relationships. And they're watching you and me. They want to see if this Jesus stuff is relevant. They want to see if we walk our talk. And they want to hear our talk! They really do! They want to be listened to, genuinely and respectfully listened to, and they want to know how our lives are given purpose and richness because of our walk with God.
Now, there are some out there who are suspicious. They think that getting involved in a church is going to demand something of them, that it's going to take their freedom, that they'll be asked to turn their life over to the endeavor. And in most churches there are good-hearted folks who are on a mission to reassure others that it's not that way, that the demands are not so much. I've heard well-meaning folks say, "the Methodist church is about believing what you want to believe," or even, "We're kind of the loosey-goosey church." I've heard folks say, "Don't worry about taking classes; they're not required." There are folks in the church who make it their passion to reassure others that their lives don't have to change.
Well, let me tell you something. The reason the suspicion is out there is because it's true! Grace is free, but it isn't cheap. Jesus paid a price for it, for you. And Jesus asks for your life. If you really follow him, your life will change. And people will notice it. Following Jesus is not something you can just dabble in. Christianity is not meant to be a hobby. It is not an endeavor for mere intellectual stimulation, or comfort, or entertainment.
"When the Spirit comes, you will be my witnesses," Jesus says. "Your life will be a living testimony of who I am."
Don't water that down, my friends! Don't spin doctor it! Don't hide the faith that gives you life and helps you face the demons out there. The world desperately needs it. And they won't hear it if you don't tell it and live it. They won't find their way stumbling through the maze of options and the demands on their time and attention if they don't come into contact with a living human being who will befriend them and hear their story and open their heart to what God can do. They need someone who will be vulnerable instead of perfect, who doesn't wear an armor of protection and project a facade. They need someone real, who's waited in the dark, who's listened for the Spirit's voice, and who's been set on fire and given hope and made bold. They need you.
SONG: When It's All Been Said and Done
The pictures shown during that song were taken by Heather Perry and Laura Norris. I invited them to find shots that for them show the generosity of God -- a God who calls us to respond with generosity in kind. If you're a photographer and that subject sparks you, or the words of the song inspire you, I invite your submissions as we'll continue to build on this project through the course of our stewardship emphasis.
When it's all been said and done, there is just one thing that matters. Do we show in the way we live our lives a witness to truth and the power of love? And does our witness expand the circle of grace? Amen.
May the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you always...
Deborah Katina was our guest preacher on Sunday, October 4, 2009.
View the slides which accompanied her sermon here.
The sermon audio starts with the Rev Michael Love introducing the Rev. Vy Nguyen who will introduce Deborah Katina. Rev. Nguyen is the Associate Director of the Northern California/Northern Nevada Office of Church World Service.
The reading was John 4:5-15.
Deborah was the first of our Special Mission Visitors. Learn more about our Special Mission Visitors program here.
Deborah Katina is from the Nairobi, Kenya office of Church World Service (CWS) where she heads the CWS projects in Kenya and Uganda that bring good water – literally, the water of life – to peoples in those two sub-Saharan countries. She spoke to us about the ongoing water projects themselves and witness to the transformation the projects bring to the health and well being of the people. This CWS work is funded in part through our World Service Apportionments.
Listen to and read Michael's September 27, 2009 sermon.
This is the second sermon in his Jesus and Good Health series.
The reading was Matthew 18:15-20.
Listen to Michael's September 20, 2009 sermon.
The reading was Luke 9:18-27.
Before the sermon we heard a video of First Church members answering the question "Who do you say Jesus is?". During the sermon Pastor Michael showed us a clip from the movie Wall-E.
Download a .pdf of Pastor Michael's preaching notes for this sermon.
This is the first sermon in his Jesus and Good Health series.
Listen to the September 20, 2009 sermon preached by four of our youth who went on a Sierra Service Project mission trip this summer to Greenfield, CA in the northern Sierras.
The reading was Matthew 25:31-40.
During their trip they did plenty of roof repairs, building porches and wheelchair ramps as well weatherization projects and painting. Our group joined youth from 4 other churches all over California and Oregon.
Listen to and read the Rev. Michael Love's September 6, 2009 sermon.
The reading was Romans 12:9-18.
The book mentioned in the sermon is The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A. J. Jacobs.
This is the fourth and last sermon in Pastor Michael's The One Anothers series.
Download a copy of this sermon.
The One Anothers –Week 4 – Live in Harmony
The Rev. Michael Love
September 6, 2009
I'll bet the disciples felt that way and pretty often.
When worship ends and the rest of your week gets under way, then what? When Jesus steps away and raw life rushes in, what happens? What's that like when we lose sight of the Lord? For the disciples it was always a little dicey.
When Jesus stepped away, they forgot how to pray. They couldn't do healings right. They confused the kingdom of God (a place of equity) with the Roman Legion (a place of rank and power). They got hungry and couldn't find the bread of life. They were even frightened by the weather. And the thing is, Jesus continually came back. Throughout the narratives of the Gospel, Jesus returns to rescue, to bless, to teach and nurture them. Paul, seeing the same struggle in the infant churches, responds, in part, with today's text. He responds by numbering 24 positive marks of the congregations. Paul wants to give them a blessing of confidence, not a spirit of fear. And that is what we are aiming at today.
As we consider the instruction to Live in Harmony with One Another, let's look at this through the lens of the Get Smart film clip we just saw. Did you notice the 3 very strong statements in that short interaction?
“I'll be right back”(God's promise)
“Where could you possibly be going” (What happens when God steps away)
AND “Never do that again” (What we learn when God returns, as God always does)
“I'LL BE RIGHT BACK”
In this slice of scripture, Paul notes 24 positive qualities of Christian community. I don't think we celebrate those enough. We get lured into fixating on all the times we don't make it. We all too often live in that split second of fear when God says, you can do this, I'll be right back, keep moving forward. And so sometimes we spend a lot of time living in regret, instead of in celebration. In the story of the Gospel and in the larger narrative of our faith, Jesus returns again and again to equip us for something more than that. I'll bet you've often heard the phrase, “Jesus saves.” And that is certainly true for me. But I believe with the same intensity that it is also deeply true that “Jesus Equips.” When the disciples can't pray, Jesus teaches the Lord's Prayer and models a methodical practiced life of spirituality. When the disciples get confused about power and rank, he shares parables of God's justice describing equity and acceptance that is not based on social status. When the disciples buckle to the pressures of a fear-filled world of materialistic competition, Jesus points to qualities of living that are eternal and un-limited. Jesus returns throughout the story to model and equip. And Jesus works in us to this day for the same purpose, commissioning us to model Christian community and equip one another.
Now, our response when God says, “I'll be right back” is usually “WHERE COULD YOU POSSIBLY BE GOING!”
In spite of ourselves, we seek to be in charge of God. And because this is an absurd project, we do the next best thing, we worry. Instead of carrying on in the ways we have been taught, we wander about and even invent new ways to follow God. We construct some pretty silly ways to follow God as a kind of spiritual filler.
The journalist A. J. Jacobs makes light fun of this impulse. In his book, “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible”, 2007, Simon & Schuster, Jacobs tries to live out the bible literally for one year. It's an absurd project, and he knows it. But in the process we learn the ways in which all of us enter into a strange quasi-religious life when we simply forget the deep meanings of the stories we have shared.
This is important to mention as we try to internalize and understand the scriptural lessons I've called the One Anothers. The One Anothers aren't about the work of filling a vacuum where God should be standing. They aren't a naïve attempt to live like Jesus & his disciples did. We're not trying to find a way to walk everywhere instead of using bicycles or buses or cars. We're not trying to learn how to avoid refrigeration by eating only salted and dried foods. The behaviors we seek to modify are the ones related to our interpersonal relations. We don't seek the appearance of religiosity, we seek the substance of justice and equity, charity and friendship between us.
We have spent a time at the One Anothers. A short time. I have only lightly touched on them. And we have looked at them in a context, the times in which we live. We are situated in a time beset by the fear that if we took all this to heart, if we acted upon the One Anothers, we would be weird. If we lived in a structured and sacred way, that we might veer off into crazy fanaticism. Indeed the American landscape, our very culture, encourages that caution. For the religious life in general competes with parts of life in the American landscape. Despite arguments to the contrary, this is hardly a Christian nation and hardly a faithful nation on many accounts. The American landscape is a challenge that excels in goading us away from any other belief system besides some occasional and changeable false gods of consumerism. Satisfaction through shopping and immortality through medicine are 2 such false gods that come to mind. There are other false gods that you might recognize and can name as you them pass by each day.
So, it's frankly risky and adventurous business to think we can live in harmony. It's risky business when make a declaration of care for One Another in a congregation. We risk sounding insular and exclusionary. And it's good to approach this with introspection and prayer.
I believe however, that we can find our balance there, in spite of the shrill critiques of a cynical society. A bigger obstacle, perhaps, is the quaintness of the One Anothers. Sure they are tender, but are they believable? And if believable, then how does one negotiate them? How does one lose one's life to gain the kingdom and remain authentic, not merely another cartoon character of religious belief on the landscape? How does one matter, how does one remain authentic and relevant?
I think a part of the answer comes in the form of celebration. Just as Paul sought to sow the seeds of celebration in his only partial list of 24 qualities of church life, we might celebrate what is happening right and where we are connecting. Sometimes the only thing needed to banish darkness is one small light.
At the the recent Multifaith event at the Cubberly Community Center on August 31 I learned something about this. This was an important event for many reasons. It was a community-wide interfaith conversation about ways that we can gather together in support of our kids who daily negotiate some of these same questions of caring and acting in faith. A highlight for me were the thoughtful remarks of Rabbi Janet Marder of Congregation Beth Am, Los Altos Hills. She spoke of Psalm 23 as a psalm we mostly hear at funerals. She thought that was too bad that Psalm 23 had fallen into that box. She reminded us that, although it is clearly a Psalm of comfort, it is also Psalm of life. It is a Psalm that promises God's ever-presence. It is a Psalm that reminds us of feasting in the very midst of strife. It assures and calls on the power of life in the face of death itself. To mourn loss is important human work and it is best done in a community that can also celebrate life with depth and passion. We need to be reminded from time to time that God is around. Especially when the harmony of life is rattled.
Still when we've been convinced of God's return, don't we always want to say to God: “DON'T EVER DO THAT AGAIN!”
As if we can't still believe that God always returns from an absence, a time away. And as if we've forgotten the ways that we have made it, while God stood not at all as far away as we thought, and while we walked on our own for a little, trying out the steps that God taught.
A commentator (Kean Salzer) made this kind of counter-intuitive observation, that spiritual maturity requires that we go it alone sometimes. To make his point, he shares a story about how eaglets learn to fly. The adult eagles, the parents do an astounding thing...when it's time to learn to fly, they carry the eaglets up high...and drop them. It is the way, he says, “to move from Nestling, crying for someone to come and feed you, to an Active Flyer.”
To learn to live in harmony, to live into the One Anothers, requires that we are Active Flyers. This is the way that that we become, in Slazer's words, “the ones who ride the wind and can feed ourselves and others, preserving the future of eagles.”
Bottom Line : Is God Trustworthy?
We have been lofted high by our hopes and needs in faith. That is how God calls to our souls to get the whole thing started. An inner call, an inner longing, an inner need. It's a risky place to be, to say, out loud to yourself, “I'm going to try God. I'm going to honestly engage Jesus. I'll be vulnerable to the Holy Spirit. And then I'll see what happens.” We want to know the outcome first. We all start as Nestlings, getting fed, not too much risk. Can we let go and cast ourselves on those 24 promises of safety in the Body of Christ that Paul lists? Or to ask it more bluntly : Is God trustworthy?
Psalm 9 says this, “You Lord have never foresaken those who seek you.” Psalm 18 says, “Everyone who runs toward God, makes it.”
The ability to live into the One Anothers is not an ability based upon logic or will-power, it is the ability to lean on the trustworthiness of God. And we can expect to fulfill God's call in our lives to observe the covenant, the promise to live together under these behavioral rules, only by that grace and strength. It is the work of the church, always has been.
“I'll be right back” - This is the promise of God. You are never that far away from God's care. “Where Could You Possibly Be Going!” & “Never Do That Again.” Are just about the most dramatic admissions of our need as anything else we could say. We are bonded in Christian community because we are bonded to God. And it is this bond that makes us fit to engage our world in healing ways.
We conclude this examination of the One Anothers with another significant admission. It is one made in some way or another by everyone who is a follower of Jesus. It is our individual understanding of the identity of Jesus Christ. The question comes from the NT : Who do you say that Jesus is? The answer to that is foundational. Does Jesus have credibility to instruct us in the ways we live together in this community and thus in the larger world we inhabit? I invite you to continue to study and pray about the instructions to the church found in the One Anothers. And may the grace of God give us insight and daring so that we might continue to live into the Welcome Project as our way to focus this in our local experience.
As I prepare to share worship next Saturday at our District Quarterly Conference, this topic is very much on my mind. The question in fact I am charged to share is : Who do you say that Jesus is? I want to invite you to help me answer that question. On the plaza during our time of fellowship, I will be standing by with a video camera recording brief answers to that question as you might feel called to share them. They will be an important part of encouraging others at the conference to enter into dialog about the identity of the one who says to us, Love one another. Others will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.
Listen to Michael's August 30, 2009 sermon.
The reading was Mark 9:42-50.
This is the third sermon in his The One Anothers series.
Download an outline/study guide to this sermon.
In the sermon Pastor Michael mentions The One Anothers list. Download a .pdf of this list.
The One Anothers –Week 3 – Truce vs. Peace
The Rev. Michael Love
August 30, 2009
Today's Reading is by Rev. Laurie McHugh
The Video Clip is from the animated feature “9” with the tag line, “We're going to need a map.” Clip used by permission of WingClips
INTRO & VIDEO TRANSITION
The thing about being the Body of Christ is, we're going to need a map. The thing about these One Anothers is, they are the map. You may be asking yourself, “Come on, how hard can it be?” Seriously, we need a map to be friends?? To be peaceful??
How hard can it be to be friends?
A trail of crumbs leads to this instruction by Jesus to “have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” (v 50)
Three texts :
After returning from retreat with John, James and Peter
Mark 9:16 “What are you arguing about?” (Healing techniques, which weren't working)
Stopping for a break on the road
Mark 9:33 “What were you arguing about?” (Out there on the road) (Which one's the greatest)
Mark 9:43-47 This is the teaching that Jesus gives after seeing the disciples arguing at every turn. It's a story, a parable, about an argument WITHIN (if you hand, or foot, or eye cause you to stumble)
This is an argument, an unrest within the Body.
The story reminds us that it's hard to really be friends...that we argue with one another when we are taught to be at peace with one another.
HOW IMPORTANT THEN IS IT TO BE FRIENDS?
TRANSTITION TO TEXT : How important is it to stop quibbling, to be friends? Jesus describes as casting obstacles in the way of faith. Sounds important.
TEXT : “It's better to enter life [maimed] than to be whole and be tossed into hell, where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.” (V 47-48)
Quaint little verse. Only vaguely scary to us now. As it might have been to those hearing it, IF that's what Jesus said. Too bad that we have translated it so poorly.
What Jesus said, as recorded in the Greek, is “better to be maimed than to be tossed into Gehenna.” Gehenna is the Greek form of the Hebrew ge himmon, or Ben-hin nom, or the Valley of Hinnom.
And the Valley of Hinnom was a real place. You could see it yourself in those days, if you just looked over the southern wall of Jerusalem.
In OT times, it was where human sacrifice to the pagan god Molech happened. King Josiah, (ruled ca. from 640 to 610 BCE) of whom it was said, “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him. (2 Kings 23:25. So Josiah, a reformer, put an end to the practice of human sacrifice. (2 Kings 23:10)
Listen to and read Michael's August 23, 2009 sermon.
This is the second sermon in his The One Anothers series.
Download a .pdf of this sermon.
The book mentioned in the sermon is Getting Rid of the Gorilla: Confessions on the Struggle to Forgive by Brian Jones.
The One Anothers - Forgive One Another
The Rev. Michael Love
August 23, 2009
There is a certain something that we do as a church community, a kind of holy atmosphere we try to create and preserve. Sometimes we fall short of the goal, because we are not in fact experts. And that's not the best outcome, but we need to acknowledge that it happens. And I believe we need to begin by letting ourselves off the hook, just a little. We don't know it all. We aren't perfect. And we don't always do the right thing. In fact, “the certain something” we do as the community of the church, when we are doing it even a bit right should feel like a work in progress, an intentional something to which we have to actually apply ourselves.
You might say being church feels like spiritual calisthenics, a kind of 24 hour fitness club for the soul. And I know how that works; I was a member of a gym for 2 years. I didn't get full value out of that membership. I know, you see, how easy it is at the beginning to go regularly and do the circuit and work with a trainer. And I also know that it gets to be more and more of a matter of making a real lifestyle change so that the gym doesn't just fit into schedule, but is a part of my life.
The spiritual workout of forgiveness is no different. It takes practice. We do not come to it naturally. What we come to naturally is righteous indignation and resentment and even vengeance. When Paul says to the Ephesians, “you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds,” this is what he is speaking about. Paul is admitting that sometimes life brings us to anger more readily than to joy. And that sometimes it brings us to thoughts of getting even more often than getting it right.
Embedded in the verses today, Paul introduces one of his corner-stones of faith. An astonishing conclusion based on his grasp of the Gospel message. In a little verse near the middle he says, “We are members of one another.” And Paul means united, welded together in faith, no part more distinguished than any other. In Paul's eyes, we can not conceive of withholding forgiveness from one another any more than we could say to our knee, you won't get the nourishment from this meal I am taking. In the Body of Christ, if one is nourished, all are nourished. And if one is wounded, all are wounded, in the economy of Jesus Christ. When the Body of Christ can not exercise forgiveness within itself, it's like a man walking down the street hitting himself on the foot with a hammer, because he doesn't like the way his shoes fit.
As are each of the One Anothers we've received from Jesus and Paul, the admonition to forgive one another is an imperative. For in the life of the church, we are in close spiritual proximity. Although we would like to think that in the church we won't ever step on any toes, in practical experience, we will. We do step on each others toes from time to time. It's what we do next that is distinctive of a community of Jesus followers. The work of forgiveness is a highly visible mark of the church.
Media and Music break : Rev. Laurie McHugh, The Welcome Project
Here's how it's done. Every member of the body of Christ must exercise, spiritually exercise a soul muscle that may be present or not. May be strong or atrophied. But this muscle of forgiveness must be exercised. It is a matter of our personal survival. And that may sound odd, because often we think of the forgiveness as a kind of gift we bestow on someone else. But the point Jesus and Paul make is that forgiveness is fundamentally an antidote to rage and sin which we give to ourselves. It may begin as a response to an insult against you, but it ends as a way to release yourself from the long-term damage and power of the insult. We forgive, not so the other feels good about themselves, but so that we may diffuse the toxicity of resentment. Restitution and reconciliation are all parts of a whole and healing repair to the damage, but forgiveness is pre-eminently the power that lets go of power, the glue that holds the whole thing together.
Brian Jones in his book “Getting Rid of the Gorilla: Confessions on the Struggle to Forgive”, does an excellent job of stepping through this. If you are struggling with forgiveness, I recommend it. He says that an unforgiving heart will steal joy from your life, bust up your marriage, kill friendships, ruin your job and more. He observes that an unforgiving heart will paralyze and poison a church, successfully keeping it from fulfilling its ministries. This is because in church is where we least know how to take on the “Gorilla.” For some reason, at church, we have an even harder time with this than we do in other places in our lives. Maybe because it's harder to admit we struggle with it to begin with. After all, church is where all the good people go, right? Remember what I said earlier about letting ourselves off the hook? This is one of those hooks. We gain by acknowledging our need of healing. We chain ourselves when we say we are just fine.
In the office the other day, the conversation was grandchildren. And one us spoke of being met at the door by a grandchild who excitedly knocked on the door to grandmas house. When grandma came to the door, he blurted out , “Hi grandma! I am so happy. Today is a great day!” And after a beat, “Grandma, are you happy too?” This is a grandkid who knows he is loved and that knowledge just pours from his heart and he loves everything and everybody.
And we reflected, Don't we all pray we could be like that!? Knowing we are loved and because of that ability to totally let loose and give love back.
As adults, life is a bit more complex and the ability to be free to love is all wrapped up in the ability to forgive.
This ebb and flow of positive regard, of grace and of love is instrumental to our understanding of today's bit of the One Anothers; the call on each of us to forgiveness. There is a reciprocity, a give and take, a mutuality in all that Jesus and Paul had to say about this.
Jesus saw forgiveness as so key to clearing up the pathways to love that he constructed teaching cycles around this relationship. In Matthew, Jesus taught his disciples the Lord's Prayer including the part about “forgive us our trespasses as we have also forgiven those who trespass against us.” Right after that he reinforces the linkage saying, “If you forgive others their trespasses, the Lord will forgive you.” To seal the lesson he states the opposite, “If you do not forgive, you will not be forgiven.”
In an age of resentment over the many trespasses experienced by his audiences, this was a major challenge. What do you mean, if someone strikes me on the cheek, I'm to turn the other?!!!
Paul, speaking to the Ephesians, who are going through this also, says, “I insist” this stuff can be done. Don't live in futility. Don't idolize your weaknesses, put them away in faith and clothe yourselves in the new creation that you have become in Christ Jesus. That other stuff is the old practice, we have been called to develop a new practice, a new habit, that is founded on God's love, not on the futility of our human condition.
Last century, my favorite amateur theologian-team of Lennon and McCartney said, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” And I think they had it half right. Because I believe that, in the end, we all need to receive unconditional love first in order to make us strong enough, secure enough to love freely ourselves. I believe this because it rings truer to the gospel message upon which I was raised, that the Love of God flows first freely to us in Jesus Christ and that critical relationship frees us and empowers us to give love. And so, in the end, seeing the source of the love as God rather than myself, is a critical difference between Paul of Tarsus and Paul of Liverpool.
You see it all depends on where we start, on where our first principles lie. It's a lot easier to speak of forgiveness and love when we begin with the candid observation that we gather in our need of God's love to get the whole thing started.
So, please remember, you don't need to be an expert, but you are given abilities and strengths by a God who loves you so that you can do something. Henry David Thoreau said, “One is not born into the world to do everything but to do something."
And remember the something you do depends an awful lot on how you are equipped. If you are equipped in fear and doubt, that's going to determine some outcomes, so be equipped by the abundance of God's love instead.
Next week we will speak a bit about the difference between Truce and authentic Peace within the Body of Christ.
Listen to and read Michael's August 16, 2009 sermon.
This is the first sermon in his The One Anothers series.
Download a pdf of this sermon.
In the sermon Pastor Michael mentions The One Anothers list. Download a .pdf of this list.
The One Anothers - Sing to One Another
The Rev. Michael Love
August 16, 2009
Were it only so easy...that we could just “order up” a faith to suit us at the drive through window of our local church franchise. But we know better than that. We expect more of faith, that it be deeper and more compelling and therefore require more of us. Still, we might cringe a little when we see those two young faith seekers in the drive-through lane of a make believe “have it your way” church. Maybe because we ourselves struggle from time to time to know what exactly constitutes a living faith that is solid, and relevant, and authentic.
Today we begin a new series I'm calling the One Anothers. And while looking at the lessons that I have come to know as those which illustrate the living practices of the church, I acknowledging that struggle. I acknowledge that God's strength and grace is always needed to accomplish what I am going to be suggesting over the next 4 weeks.
A part of what I will be suggesting is that there is a big challenge in the perennial disconnect between what we say we believe and how we act in the church. Isn't that always a challenge in the life of the church? Can we admit this safely here this morning? That the high hopes, the good intentions often do in fact pave the way to a kind of confusion and suffering, because we don't always know how to live those hopes out with consistency, with integrity and in love.
Lucky for us that we 21st century followers of Jesus are not the first to have this dilemma before us. It seems that from the start, the church has needed advice on this tough topic. Also lucky for us, Jesus and Paul both are recorded sharing a fair amount of specific advice related to this very thing.
Those two lads in the convertible didn't really need a laundry list of beliefs as much as they needed a to-do list, a list of faithful behaviors that would craft their lives as followers of Jesus. They needed an agreement between themselves and God on how they were going to live and behave.
One reason it's not so easy to outline faith as a laundry list is that faith, contrary to popular rumors, is not so much a stack of beliefs as we might think it is. Oh, we hold some bedrock and uniting beliefs, but I am convinced they grew up around a church that was living, acting out a relational covenant with God and one another. The bible say “believe in” only a few times and mostly in the NT that is said this way, “Believe in Jesus.” Now, how we believe in Jesus is described in a wonderful diversity of ways. What's much more common, however, and much more specific, in descriptions of faith are lists of preferable behaviors. Behaviors like “Take care of the widows and orphans.” “Welcome the stranger.” “Feed my sheep.” “Teach the nations,” and so forth.
Belief as it is biblically illustrated is essentially a bunch of behaviors. Even the Ten Commandments are action oriented. Not “what to believe,” but “how to behave.” Keep no other gods, make no idols, do not misuse the name of God, rest on the Sabbath, honor your parents, do not kill, remain faithful to your partner, don't steal, don't bear false witness against your neighbor, don't lust after the possessions of others. All of these are actions.
In the course of this series, we will look at some of the behaviors, the actions that Jesus and Paul put forth as markers of the church. You want to know what a church looks like? What they believe? Look to their actions. Tertullian, an early Christian author and theologian noted in his 2nd century defense of Christians how Christian behavior attracted pagan notice: "What marks us,” he said, “in the eyes of our enemies is our loving kindness. 'Only look,' they say, 'look how they love one another'" (Apology 39).
[Welcome : Song and visuals by Pastor Laurie]
You have before you an incomplete list of “The One Anothers.” The One Anothers, is a list I owe to the insights of my pastoral coach, Rev. Dr. Bill Tenney-Brittain. This list is itself a partial index of the coaching advice that Jesus and then Paul gave to the early churches spread throughout the ancient near east as they grew and encountered successes and stumbling blocks. As I note on the top of that list you have before you, there are many lists of behaviors of the ways that we are called to treat the world in general. This is not that list. This is a list that in every occasion is the response to some event in the life of a local body of Christ, from the days of bands of followers during Jesus' life and ministry, to the spirit empowered church that rose after Jesus resurrection.
The list you have before you is how WE have been instructed to treat one another. And I am inviting us to be in a journey that reflects upon this list in a soul-searching fashion. It will require great prayer to see ourselves through the lens of the One Anothers. For it is easy to see how others may need to focus on them, harder to see ourselves that way. Anne Lamott, author of “Grace (Eventually),” notices rightly I think that “God can't clean the house with you in it.” We need to pray for the ability to get just enough outside of ourselves to see ourselves in a new light. Prayer and study of these “One Anothers” that you have in your hand, will be instrumental to the journey I will endeavor to guide us on.
You must know that I see this not as optional but essential. This work is essential so that we may be the very best church we can be, the church that God is calling us to be. An ongoing self-reflectivity is critical and healthy in this work. The church can well afford to escape some of the abiding myths about life in the church. When I was a kid, the myth, a joke really, made about the UMC was that we believed that all you needed to get into heaven is a covered dish. Some of the myths aren't as light-hearted as that. Some of the myths about the church are based in a bit of truth (as most myths are) and don't always shine a good light on us. Last week I suggested an example in the area of theology : that the core image of Eternal Living had become calcified into a stale and strange myth. And that we are receiving in this time an opportunity to re-own and re-live that core concept in a viable and relevant way. It is, I intend, a slippery slope between that willingness to re-investigate our faith and a willingness to re-investigate in safety and community, our behaviors as Christians. We owe this to ourselves and to our God. We owe this to the world we seek to reach which looks to us for a more excellent way of living; a way that is welcoming and healing and has integrity.
Only the church can re-examine the myths of Christian behavior, many of which we have come to believe ourselves. They are often comprised of messaging that we've received or carried in from a wounded world. The world is puzzled by this, because the world doesn't want us to be dysfuncational like the world. Indeed the world desperately needs us to own our traditional role as the antidote to the poisons people take on while struggling in the world. The last thing the world wants is for us to emulate the soul sickness of the world.
And for that reason, to promote a healing and refreshing image of the church to the world, for that reason I begin this series with a healing image. Today I cast the image that may be the most refreshing immediate behavior that we share in common with the early church. The most striking to me as a specific behavior that Jesus and Paul commission us to : the practice of worshiping together in spirit, truth and joy, corporately celebrating and declaring our faith in action. The lesson in Ephesians shares that image as one in which we sing to one another as an act of faith. We are told elsewhere in scripture that the disciples gathered on the first day of the week, broke bread with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day, the Lord added to their numbers those who were being saved. (Acts 2)
As we move through this sermon series and build a congregational expression of what the One Anothers look like in this place, I invite you to enter into a time of guided self-reflection. Can the words of the letter to the Ephesians guide your behavior? “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.”
Next week, August 23, we will see if we can answer the question: What is the covenantal community? In a sermon entitled : Forgive One Another. On August 30, we will look at the difference be Peace and merely Truce and what that means about Authentic Community. Then on Sept 6, we will explore specific and practical Steps a church may take to Becoming a Covenantal Community, as we conclude the series in a sermon entitled : Live in Harmony.
I hope that you will follow along and give your prayers to this topic in the days and weeks ahead.
Listen to and read Michael's August 9, 2009 sermon.
Todays reading: Mark 10:17-31.
This is the last sermon in his The Purposes of Jesus series.
Download a .pdf of this sermon.
The Purposes of Jesus - That All Shall Make It
The Rev. Michael Love
August 9, 2009
Today is the final morning in our 5 part series on the Purposes of Jesus, although I hope that it isn't the last time you ponder the idea that Jesus was driven in ministry by very specific goals and visions. That he had a purpose and that it is all wrapped up in our lives. That the purposes of Jesus have something vital to offer us.
Today we'll speak about: The Purpose of Jesus : That All Shall Make It. It's going to be a summing up, really, because all of the purposes of Jesus, in the vernacular of the biblical texts, are united in an overarching purpose, pointed to in the scripture today. That overarching purpose is that All Should Make It. That all should find God. And, in the language of the lesson from Mark, that all shall come to know eternal life. That everyone makes it to the goal of eternal life.
Now this is a very problematic goal because frankly the very idea of eternal life gets a bad rap these days. Eternal Life is usually associated with a line of religious thinking that fewer and fewer people can grasp. And so, we make the mistake of throwing out what Jesus said about eternal life before we take the time to explore it faithfully and deeply.
So I have to start there. What is eternal life? The bible gives plenty of imagery. Eternal life is life spent constantly in God's presence. Eternal life is spent in a community of care and growth. Eternal life is signaled by the experience of the Lion laying down with the lamb, in other words, the meek and the strong living in fairness, safety, and peace. Eternal living is an experience of God's economy of justice presiding over us in grace and love. These are the marks of eternal living and mostly we think of them as quaint biblical pictures of primitive theologies by primitive people. We almost dare not image them as sophisticated and viable world views that reconcile our sinful nature to a better way of living. As God inspired and excellent ideas that confront us with our human struggle with war and greed and vice and hunger.... But the ace in the hole for me is that Eternal Live involves, most importantly of all, something that you can do and experience now. The challenge to the rich young man was, in my estimation, that Jesus gave him something immediate and presently possible to do. Eternal life under those terms was then and there and active. Eternal life is not an endless world cruise with God Almighty after you've consummated a righteous life here below. Eternal living is a lifestyle that Jesus described which begins in any moment we surrender to God and then reaches out beyond time.
With that maybe different picture in mind, I believe the idea, the concept, the theology of eternal life is a key element of understanding the Purposes of Jesus in our lives today.
No wonder the rich young man was so stunned. This is a bigger deal than he may have imaged. Coming in with an opinion that eternal life might be something that he could “inherit” (his words) like a family title or office, he was stunned by the answer. Jesus did what Jesus always does, offers the blessing in a way that challenges and changes and renews us to our very soul. What Jesus had to offer was more than a t-shirt and a poster from some kind of “Salvation Lolapalooza.”
And so, I hope that you may have detected in the sermon series a kind of stealth sub-text. Every purpose of Jesus includes within it a significant challenge and opportunity for altering the way that we live. A chance for renewal. A challenge to change our behaviors in ways that significantly align us with God's purpose for our lives.
For example, in week one I said that the gift of God's total and unconditional acceptance is also an equipping tool. A tool that you and I are sent to use in the world offering that same kind of radical hospitality. And I said that the two are inexorably tied together. Identical twins in the life of a disciple of Jesus. The work we do receiving and reconciling and healing the diversity of the world..that work I declare as impossible until we have experienced the complete and radical love of God ourselves. In short, we can't offer what we don't first experience. eg. Tell me about a chocolate cake, if you haven't tasted one.
In week two I cast a picture of God's transforming power in our lives, but then asked you to see that it's not something done to us, without our consent, it's a change that we may embrace or hold off. The whole idea of the transforming power of God is often seen as an external machine in the world. But the idea of my involvement, my surrender to God's motion in my life, THAT is compelling and immediate, and yes, another opportunity for renewal.
Week three had us visiting the promise of being fed. And once again, a challenge, because we are called to stay present in the world as we find it, leaning on the miracle of God's supply and also, ALSO, being ministers of that supply ourselves as we collect the abundant overflow of God's grace in our baskets and go once again out into the world.
Last week, it was Pastor Laurie's turn to challenge and well she did, asking us how we would be actively and consciously tending gardens of compassion, service, prayer and faithfulness. She gave us gifts, seeds really, and observed about little and big gifts alike, that we are given a gift by God and what we choose to do with it is our decision. The opportunity she testified to was a self-reflective question for each of us: What has God given me, and you, to grow? Where have we been called out to plant a new garden, to build a new campfire, to be a new creation in Christ as a witness to God's healing power in the world?
And so to today, The Purpose of Jesus : That All Shall Make It. And I have already painted the picture of the goal, for if all shall make it, you have the right to ask the question, Where are we making it to? We are making it to eternal living. And I have to be honest enough to say that for me and I'm betting for you, every day doesn't feel like eternal living. Some days feel more like negotiating a very big pit, with unknown stuff at the bottom...
What chance have we of seeing beyond this moment by moment existence in which we live? Limited by our perceptions to the ever-present now and sometimes bullied by our memories of the quickly fading past. How do we look forward to eternal dimensions, limitless futures, with faith, not foolishness? I believe it is very difficult, Jesus even says in the 27th verse of the lesson, that it is impossible for mortals, without God's assistance. The Life of Jesus is a promise with a purpose, to supply assurance along the way through questions like these. Sometimes we tell ourselves that if we release from our plan, and our r expertise and our knowledge, that we will plunge into a pit of chaos, endless depth. The promise of Jesus that emerges from these purposes is that he will not let you fall very far, only far enough to shock you awake to the work he has for us to do.
You see the ultimate purpose of eternal living is so that you may be an active agent of change in the transformation of the world. We hold a sacred trust to this image of the peaceable kingdom, a place that Jesus clearly showed us how to construct. We only mess it up when we forget that Jesus also told us, we can't do it on our own. But as the hands and feet of God's grace, we cannot fail.
Maybe the biggest challenge for us as 21st century followers of Jesus is recapturing the imagry and language of our faith and re-exploring it, re-owning it and re-living it. I invite you to a bold and exciting adventure of re-acquistion of the ideas of Jesus, ideas that we have set aside sometimes because they are unfamiliar or strange to us : key ideas like salvation, reconciliation, covenant, holiness, eternal living, and transformation.
I invite you to continue exploring the scriptures with an eye to discovering more purposes of Jesus, more teachings of Jesus, more challenges to life-change. I pray that they can all be activated in your life.
Next week we will look at what a Christian Community looks like, when it takes the purposes of Jesus to heart. We begin a new series entitled, the One Anothers. And in it I will briefly introduce the ways that Jesus and Paul instructed the early church on the manner in which they (and we) are to take care of one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Listen to and read Pastor Laurie's August 2, 2009 sermon.
This is the third sermon in the The Purposes of Jesus series.
The reading was John 6:24-35.
Download a .pdf of this sermon.
That All Shall Tend Gardens -- Message for August 2, 2009 by Pastor Laurie McHugh
Text: John 6:21-35
It is a distinct challenge to preach a first sermon in a new pulpit. There are the logistical considerations, for starters: not all pulpits are the same size, or the same distance, or angled so that you're used to the way the paper slides. But that just scratches the surface of the discomfort. It's strange to preach to a community you're just getting to know. And add on top of that the challenge of preaching in the middle of a series that the senior pastor started! So I hope you'll send a few grace notes, good thoughts and prayers my way. (I imagine that the experience from your side of the pulpit is a bit strange, too!)
We’re in week four on a series Michael has entitled “The Purposes of Jesus,” looking not so much as what Jesus would do as at what Jesus did do for clues to what our purpose might be as people of faith gathered in this place and time. The first week’s message was called “That all shall be changed;” the second, “That all shall be healed;” the third, “That all shall be fed,” and this week, “That all shall tend gardens.”
As our scriptural foundation, we've been working our way through the story of Jesus' early ministry watching people's reactions to the things that Jesus did, from the gathering of great crowds, to the wrath and fear of Herod and other authorities, to the bewilderment of the disciples, who never seemed quite to get what Jesus' purposes were, and needed extra explaining (that's a comfort to me, since I consider myself to be a disciple of Jesus, but I don't always understand what Jesus is calling me to, either). Today's text is one of those explanatory conversations between Jesus and a bigger group of followers, fleshing out the meaning of his miraculous feeding of a large crowd.
Apparently this miracle was distinctive enough, in comparison to what some of the other wonder workers and wandering renegade preachers of Jesus' day were doing, that Jesus needed to explain the meaning of what he was doing, so that the people would not be led astray (and again, this is a comfort to me!).
Finding Jesus inexplicably on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the crowd asks him, "How did you get here?" They were looking for more theatrics, you see -- more of the grandstanding that those other preacher-types were doing to draw attention to themselves. They wanted Jesus to admit that he could disappear and reappear at will, or walk on water, or some other trick for their entertainment. But Jesus refocuses the conversation when he answers, "You've come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions" (the One he's calling attention to, not himself), "but because I fed you, filled your stomachs-and for free.” (John 6:26, MSG, emphasis added)
Did you ever wonder why, if Jesus wanted to do a miraculous sign to show his power -- or even to show God's power -- he didn't just eradicate all hunger with a sweep of his hand? He could have done that, right? If he could feed thousands for a day with a little bit of fish and bread, he could have made it so that they would never be hungry again. He could have permanently altered the state of things, so that all would be fed, as Michael entitled his message last week. If that's what Jesus wants, and if he's the Son of God, why didn't he just do it?
Or, to phrase the question differently, why doesn't God just take away our suffering? And why doesn't God just make things obvious? Why do we need to mess with this faith stuff? After all, it's so messy. Removing the struggle would be so much easier.
As Michael noted last week, Jesus' feeding miracle seems to fly in the face of one of the most disturbing things he ever said: “You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives” (Matthew 26:11, MSG).
Did you know that Jesus was quoting scripture when he said that? It's from Deuteronomy 15:11 - and there's more that goes with it, which might shed some light on this conundrum we've got here. So let's read it (this is The Message version): “There are always going to be poor and needy people among you. So I command you: Always be generous, open purse and hands, give to your neighbors in trouble, your poor and hurting neighbors.”
As I see it, it's not because Jesus couldn't do it, or because it's God's will that there be hunger or suffering in the world. The truth is that there is already enough. There is enough food. There are enough resources. God made the world with enough for everyone. It blew me away when I learned just a couple years ago that this is scientific fact: there is enough. The problem is one of distribution. The problem is not resources. The problem is not a scientific one. The problem is human psychology, or sociology -- or to be more basic, it's sin. It's our basic selfishness. It's our self-preservation instinct that grabs and holds on. It's a matter of the human heart. And that's where Jesus comes in, to be bread of life. Not to make it so we're not physically hungry anymore, but to empower us to trust God enough to let go and let our lives be molded, to make us selfless instead of selfish, to make us generous and open-hearted, to help us live into the abundance that is intended for everyone, and to see all people as our neighbors, all as friends.
That means that each one of us is called to be a part of the big plan: to tend gardens, as it were - to use the gifts that God has given us, that others might share in the blessing, that it all might be part of the big redistribution process, so that all might be fed.
This garden tending metaphor extends not only to the literal, physical growing of food, but to everything that is needed for abundant life. And the reason, as far as I can tell, that God planned it this way - that everyone should depend on everyone else - is that we are wired for relationship: with fellow human beings, with the rest of creation, and with God - and in participating in this great plan, sharing generously of that part of the pie God entrusted to us, we find fulfillment, we grow spiritually, and we come to understanding and wisdom and knowledge of our part in the universe. We become fully human, all that God created us to be. It's a far bigger plan than having each one of us functioning just fine in isolation, with everything that we need just handed over equally. In this great plan of God's, we need each other. And in the sharing, we can see and come to know the power and grace of God.
I like the image of tending gardens, because there really isn't just one way to do it. You can grow vegetables or flowers or herbs or fruit trees; you can grow cacti in the desert or farm hydroponically; you can dig up the dirt in your yard or grow container gardens; there's just an endless variety of combinations and techniques, and because of all the unknown and unpredictable factors that come into play, it's more of an art than a scientific procedure.
I also like the image because gardening is nearly universal; it's a metaphor that crosses cultures. I attended a workshop a few years back in the Golden Gate District in which the presenter used gardening as a metaphor for doing pastoral ministry, and it was one of the most successful workshops I've ever experienced for getting our ethnic clergy to engage and participate in the discussion. There's something about the challenge of coaxing life and growth out of the earth that is a deep part of the human experience; there's something primal about it. Let me see a show of hands: how many of you garden? Am I right about this? There's this great mystery in how the combination of soil and seed and moisture and light brings more of the same elements into the universe, and gives us the stuff we and the animals around us need to consume for life.
I have a little take-away gift for you today. The ushers are now passing the plates with something for you to take away (I call this a reverse offering). It's a little card with a grain of wheat attached. The reason for the symbol is this: God has given you the gift of the bread of life in Jesus. And with that gift you are given a choice: you can either be a consumer of that gift, and keep it to yourself, or you can share it, multiply it, grow it, tend a garden with it. One course leads to a dead church in one generation, your gift dying with you. The other course, in time, duly watered and warmed by the love of God, will bring forth a harvest beyond our imagining.
So consider for a moment the garden of your life. Consider all of the raw materials that make up your unique soil conditions. There's your upbringing and education, where you were born and raised, the family and friends that God put in your path. There are fertilizing elements: setbacks, disappointments, failures, illnesses, challenges. There are rocks, and there is moisture and light, and there are seeds. What has God given you to grow? What has God given you to share?
Michael encouraged me to share little with you today about the garden patch that I feel called to tend (and to which the Bishop has appointed me). It's a pretty formidable assignment, and one that both excites and terrifies me! I am called to start a new garden (or another campfire, if you prefer the metaphor Michael was using a few weeks ago) and tend that. That's going to mean finding a spot and digging up some soil, fertilizing and planting some seeds, watering (with tears, I expect) and nurturing with lots of prayer and encouragement as a new community grows up under this roof. I'll be looking for spiritually hungry people who might find the answer to their yearnings in Jesus, but who aren't necessarily interested in the music or forms of worship that we presently offer. That garden will maintain a connection with this worshiping community, but it will look different in some ways. I'm looking for prayer partners and and adventurers to join a team to start the tilling of this garden, and if you hear a call to participate in the adventure, I invite you to talk to me about it so we might dream together.
I remember the old proverb: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach him to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” I think of the work of the Heifer Project, which began when a midwestern farmer named Dan West took that principle and began sharing the elements of life and the gifts God had given him - in the form of livestock and knowledge of how to care for them - and changed the world for millions of the world's hungry and impoverished - a work that continues over 60 years later.
Take a look at your grain of wheat again. Let's remember that we are meant to care for each other, and to extend that circle of care ever wider.
How do we reconcile the reality of hunger and suffering with the love and grace and abundance of God? These things are ended when each person is transformed by the love of Christ and then answers the call to tend a garden and share the harvest. In the process, love is multiplied and the world is changed, one life at a time, and all are drawn closer to God. Now that's a real miracle. Amen.
Listen to and read Michael's July 26, 2009 sermon.
The sermon audio begins with Pastor Laurie reading today's Gospel lesson, John 6:1-21.
This is the third sermon in his The Purposes of Jesus series.
Download a .pdf of this sermon.
The Purposes of Jesus - That All Shall Be Fed
The Rev. Michael Love
July 26, 2009
A story was told of a priest in a small rural church. He was restarting the local Sunday school. He recruited the new Sunday School teachers, got the curriculum, announced in worship that Sunday School was commencing. It was in the Social Hall of the small church. There was only the sanctuary and the social hall, so Sunday School was in the social hall. One Sunday, a church stalwart came into the social hall early to get the coffee made. He saw the one teacher and 2 students sitting at a table in the corner of the room, learning about Jesus. The priest was passing through on the way to the sanctuary to get ready for morning worship. The church officer said to the priest, “Gee, it's too bad, only 2 kids. Looks like Sunday School is a failure.” The Priest, preferring to see the work of God in the room, said, “Well, tell me how many children did we have in Sunday School last month?” “None,” said the stalwart. “Well then,” replied the priest, “Look at it this way, you've witnessed 200% growth in your Sunday School in just one month!” Which started to look more like a miracle than a failure and that church officer became the biggest champion of the newly re-launched Sunday School. Asked to feed the children, that priest said, “Here are 2 you may feed.” The church said, “Only two?” Just as the disciples said, “Only a few loaves and a couple fish?” And look what happened. So today I want to speak with you about the very real need and the very real possibility that ALL SHALL BE FED. And more so, why that will require a different look at the whole idea we have of being fed.
Even as I see this as a purpose of Jesus, I wrestle with the mixed message Jesus sent us about the matter. The Jesus who said : Feed 'em. All of 'em (John 20 eg) that Jesus also says “The poor you will always have with you.” Matthew 26:11...not an innovation by the way...Jesus is reminding everyone of us what the tradition had held since Deuteronomy 15:11 “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I [Moses] therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
Well there can be no doubt, the people who populate the Jesus story are often these, the poor and the needy. They followed Jesus around the countryside because they needed him to survive, to live, to receive wisdom, to be healed in an oppressive time, to receive the bread of life in a season of dry spirits and desperation. We have an instant recognition of the powerful images of spiritual and physical hunger. The human want of the soul can be seen from quite a ways off. If you've watched any of the Holy Blockbusters by Cecille B. Demille or the more recent Jesus movies, one thing is common to all. The anguish and dire need of those who clung to Jesus' every word and every step. They came to Jesus to be fed.
In this case, in the reading from John, what they may have noticed most is that he makes them to lie down in green pastures and feeds all to restore their souls.1 There is also plenty left over for the next time. If five loaves and two fish were enough for the over 5,000, then 12 baskets would make a good starter batch for the next congregation.
Let me be clear about what this is. I approach this as a miracle story, a wonder-working story. If we apologize for it and dismiss it, we throw out the power of this story to startle and save. The central image is that All Needed to Be Fed and All WERE Fed. AND, and, that proceeding from that day it was apparent that this was a repeatable event. They had the props, 12 baskets of provisions for the next time of need.
The dilemma for us and for the church is that the One who says feed them all, also says, the need will never go away, those 12 baskets are going to come in handy. The miracle of human kindness worked out on that hillside, will not alone accomplish the deed. Hunger will not cease, the miracle will need to occur again and again and again. The greater dilemma is for us to see ourselves as among the hungry AND among those who share bread with others.
Boy does this drive us us crazy. One kind of Faith says God could do it. God could replicate that event, could eradicate hunger. Why doesn't God just do it? Probably missing the point with that question, eh? Doubt responds (also, missing the point I believe) that, Well the answer is plain enough, it never happened and therefore could never happen again, let alone on a global scale. And we are left in the middle of what is not a philosophical or even a logistical problem, but rather a spiritual catastrophe. Dire need and no workable way to apply our faith and hope and love.
The Good News today is that we will always be called to lean on the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 because there will always be the un-miraculous reality of hunger and strife. And we profess that God in Jesus Christ is our way out of that seemingly un-winnable end-game.
What's here for us in this story is an outline of our faith declaration wrapped around a purpose of Jesus. That ALL need sustenance, that Jesus stands by ready to sustain us, and this keeps us alive and kicking for a purpose: that we might carry those 12 baskets on to the next hunger event we encounter. I tell you that I believe that the redemption of the the world is tied critically to these steps. The improvement of your personal life, your family, your community and the world, is wrapped in this.
And so here now we are finally ready to say something about hunger, being fed and the other thing...the unspoken thing. The matter of growth. We say we come to God because we are hungry and need to be fed. Most often I hear it in relation to Worship Experiences. I hear it all the time. I say it myself. “I go to church to be fed.” I'm pretty sure you've heard it, too. I believe this is coded language, a short-cut way of saying something more.
We all use short-cut language. If you text-message, you use REALLY short-cut language. If you've ever text-messaged anyone, you know what LOL means. (laugh out loud) And you know that IMHO means __________ (in my humble opinion). And that BTW means ______________ (by the way.) These are all ways of saying something in a compact space. I believe that saying “I Go To Church To Be Fed,” is also such a phrase. What would that be?.... IGTCTBF.
I think we are pointing to a more complex need when we say that. I know a pastor who can really incite angry conversation when he says, “Those who come to worship to be fed, leave hungry.”2 My expanded version of that thought, is that I believe we come to worship because we are hungry and we need to Grow. Being Fed is a step, a middle moment. It is the instrument of growth, not the destination.
This requires an acknowledgement that is counter-intuitive. Eagerness and mild, not chronic, mild anxiety goads us to growth. We are in the self-esteem era and mistake good feelings about self as the end goal. It has been known for awhile that it is not satisfaction with the present state of affairs that moves anyone or anything forward. It is hunger, a mild form of pain, to be frank, that pushes us on. A hunger for knowledge drives our kids through school. A hunger for wisdom takes that knowledge and applies it to the human condition. A hunger for justice puts people in the mission field and out in public service. A hunger for God urges each of us to be here and in many houses of worship across the world. Growth and strength come from a mild dis-comfort with what is and a yearning for what can be. The mild dis-comfort is a signal of need.
We hunger as a triggering mechanism that alerts us to a need for food so that we can grow. Spiritually, we hunger and that driving force gets us in the neighborhood of God so that we can grow and be fit for a life of servant ministry. Now that may seem like a trivial difference, but I am convinced that it is a world of difference. All are fed, not to be satisfied, not to be pacified, but to be energized, and made eager and ready to grow. We are fed by God in Jesus Christ, so that we will grow.
The story in John had that implicit “Go and Do Likewise” Clause, that we find in all the Jesus stories. Here, Jesus would be saying, take these 12 baskets and go find others who need healing, teaching, justice, reconciliation, and salvation. The push to FEED ALL, is once again our calling. And it is a call to mobilize for transformation and improvement. That All Shall Be Fed says to me that All Shall be made ready to run the race, not to sit around and be satisfied too long after the banquet has ended.
This 3rd purpose of Jesus is aimed at each of us in differing ways. But each of us is called to be fed and then take up the basket of resource that is produced from that encounter. And to move out into the world, because the resource you carry is also a miracle that will multiply as you share it.
Next week I will be in Chicago at our national School of Congregational Development event, and Rev. Laurie McHugh will journey with you through the 4th Purpose of Jesus : That All Shall Tend Gardens.
1 Green, Joel B. & Willimon, William H., General Editors, Wesley Study Bible, commentary notes at John 6:10, Abingdon, 2009
2 Bill Tenney-Brittain
Listen to and read That All Shall Be Accepted, the Rev. Michael Love's July 12, 2009 sermon.
This is the first sermon in his The Purposes of Jesus series.
The reading was Mark 6: 14-29.
Download a .pdf of this sermon.
The Purposes of Jesus - That All Shall Be Accepted
The Rev. Michael Love
July 12, 2009
Stephen Covey : the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is known as the originator of the saying : 'The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.' I confess that during these last 2 weeks, many things have competed for my attention, all claiming to be "the main thing." I'm betting that the same's true for you as well. Anyone here today, having a landslide of "Main Things" on their calendar? So, I have to apologize in advance because I'm about to add to the problem. The lesson from Mark, about John the Baptist losing his head, is not the main thing. It probably felt like the main thing to John the Baptist, but it is not, the main thing for us this morning. It is important to what I have to say, but as a backdrop, as a context, as a setting. Not as the main thing.
The function of this reading, for me, is to set the stage. It paints a picture of the exceptionally bad times into which Jesus walked. And, how Herod was happy to sweep Jesus up into the same frame as John the Baptist. The account that follows is kind of the back-story. As if to say, “In case you didn't know how bad Herod was, get a load of this.»
At the end of the day, I guess you could say that Herod is an extreme example of someone who just could not accept difference. Herod, like much of the world around him, couldn't see human interaction in any other light than power dynamics, political gain, and the balance of risk against threat. John the Baptist intrigued Herod, and yet he alarmed the puppet king. If Jesus is the Gospel story's emblem of the rightful hero, the anointed king, the one who is coming in to save the day, then Herod is definitely the anti- to all that. While Jesus is ushering in God's grace and full acceptance of everyone, Herod was checking credentials at the door for his own little kingdom affairs. It is against this striking backdrop of contrast that we are introduced to Jesus, the one who in Mark's next episode in the story will show Jesus presiding over a free lunch in the park for over 5000 folks without credentials. Over 5000 people that Jesus simply reached, received and accepted.
Today we are beginning a sermon series on the Purposes of Jesus. In it we will examine the central figure of our faith from a rather practical point of view. We will be asking not What Would Jesus Do, but rather, What DID Jesus Do. What was his purpose, his mission, as he moved among us, and continues to move among us as the Risen Lord. So, let's start with the idea that a main purpose of Jesus, his life, his death and his resurrection is THAT ALL SHALL BE ACCEPTED.
We will follow up with 4 other purposes in the weeks ahead: July 19 That All Shall Be Changed. July 26 That All Shall Be Fed. August 2nd Rev. Laurie McHugh will preach That All Shall Tend Gardens. Finally, on August 9 That All Shall Make It.
These are all things that Jesus makes possible, that he facilitates, that are his mission and purpose. I hope that you'll be able to journey through these Purposes with me. The list is not exhaustive, you may likely have some others of your own. But these are 5 that resonate with me and make a firm foundation for faith. I look forward to sharing them with you.
There we are, in a time typified by Herod (he was not some unique bad-guy, just a good poster-kid of the times)...in a time typified by Herod, Jesus arrived on the scene and couldn't be more opposite. In my mind, Jesus couldn't have been clearer that through him all shall be accepted. That all might reconcile their differences with God and with one another. The Second letter to the church in Corinth said it like this... All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.” (2nd Corinthians 5:18-19 NIV)
This morning I'm going to be using Acceptance and Reconciliation as synonyms. You'll see why in a while.
Did you ever find yourself in a spot where you needed to take something back that you said? Or did? Or that you needed to repair a breach between yourself and a neighbor, or a friend, or a family member, or even (Saints preserve us) repair a breach between yourself and another member of the church? If you have, you have known the need for reconciliation. And if you have succeeded, you know the joy of reconciliation achieved. We were talking the other day about what might be the motivation for church folk to press so hard at the work of being disciples. 'Cause it is hard work. While studying and praying for this sermon today, it occurred to me that one reason we do it is because Reconciliation, once achieved is one of the highest joy-bringers we know.
What a great day it is when peace is restored between friends, between groups of peoples, between nations. We all yearn for restoration and reconciliation and full acceptance. And Jesus was purposed to fulfill that need, to pave a way forward through our struggle to the successful achievement of reconciliation.
One of the places in the Gospel story where this joy of restoration is celebrated is one of the more familiar parables of Jesus; the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is a story of a wayward son who leaves home, squanders his inheritance, parties away his respectability, and comes to the edge of starvation. And I want to remind us of how surprising the ending is. It's hard to achieve that surprise factor if you are already familiar with the outcome. Oh yeah, Prodigal Son, all-forgiving Father, big feast, blah blah blah. No, no, this is a truly astounding outcome! That the son comes to his senses, returns home and is received unconditionally by his loving father (no time outs, no earning back favor, no restitution, just forgiveness and love) This is wild and crazy and extravagant....And wonderful. And against the cultural backdrop of the violence of Herod, surprising and astonishing.
How wonderful is it? Well, the Assurance flowed from this improbable tale to its hearers (how are remember living UNDER Herod), that through Jesus any of us, all of us, when we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and head home, can know with certainty that a loving Parent God waits to throw a humongous party at our return.
Now, it's always easier to see this assurance as made for someone else. It's always easier to see how the other guy has to get right with God, or their family, or with me. It's easy to see this story of a returning son as an object lesson for the wayward; harder to see it as a lesson for us. Doubly hard to see it as a lesson for the church, the Body of Christ.
We can see in this purpose of Jesus some imbedded work for us, the Church of Jesus Christ. So this purpose—that all shall be accepted, that all shall be reconciled—has implications for us. Because if the purpose of Jesus is that all shall be received home for the feast, then we are called firstly into an atmosphere of joyous thanksgiving and secondly into a behavior shift to radical hospitality. This is a big adventure, much beyond the mere assertion of doctrine, precepts or political stance. Isn't it always that way with Jesus. The Gospel of Jesus always involves taking a thing received (your salvation by God's grace) and turning it into a thing given. From the passive intellectual understanding of God's grace into the pro-active dispensing of that same Grace.
Jesus calls me to move from raising my hand to show support for an Idea (All are worthy of God's grace, I can vote yes for that) to Extending my hand in care to act on that value. That is the full and completed arc of faithful action in the Methodist tradition. I complete that action in response to the Love of God given me without reservation. Without reservation, then I am called to both assert my faith and act on it. Raise my hand and extend my hand. For us, the 2 are inseperable.
The implications of this run deep in the life of the church. Not only are people of difference acceptable to that imaginary “us” that we believe we constitute, but we are called into the scarier of being acceptable in this place to one another. That's not so abstract now, is it? And when we are convicted to our core of that truth, that All Are Acceptable in the Eyes of a Relentlessly Loving God, a lot of things are called to change.
Here's the challenge for us. There is only one way that I know for ALL TO BE ACCEPTED and that's if ALL ARE REACHED. In case that sounds like a «bait and switch» in my sermon topic, let's test the question you might be having right now. Really, ALL CAN BE ACCEPTED if ALL ARE REACHED? Well, In my mind If all REALLY are accepted (as we rightly declare, along with our sisters and brothers in many other faith tribes); if all REALLY are accepted, it sounds to me like we will get the blessing of being in relationship with all? To put it another way, What if we are successful in getting out the word that we find all people acceptable and accepted AND they actually show up? You see, from the standpoint of a disciple of Christ, there is nothing theoretical about this. At some point, early on, it becomes relational and experiential and tangible. We know this. What will it mean to be in relation with our whole community? What does it mean to be in reconciling relation with those who are here in this place now?
In our minds, we know that it is absurd to accept others theoretically or in principal only. Our Spirits tell us that's not acceptance and reconciliation, that's toleration (maybe even and gritting my teeth till you go away). And so to say that all shall be accepted means that must all be reached out to and all shall be cared for. Oherwise this is an empty sentiment, an impractical ideal that we hold without covenant or the integrity to deliver upon.
Jesus modeled full acceptance to us that we might turn around and go and do likewise. I tell you this morning that ALL CAN BE ACCEPTED, all the prodigal sons and daughters will find their way home, if ALL ARE REACHED. I tell you this morning that the two are entwined. To accept all means to reach out and care for all.
In this first purpose of Jesus are our marching orders, so to speak. This is the main thing from which all the other things are derived. The words given to us at the end of Matthew, describing Jesus' commission to his disciples are underwritten by this generous hope that we will accept all as we have been accepted.
I can imagine no other way that Jesus could have said, “Go, make disciples of all people, baptize them, teach them my commandments” without this underpinning of extreme reconciliation. And he wouldn't do it without enlisting us in the same mind-set and heart-set. The context is Herod and pain and fear and resentment and addiction and violence. The response is the one Jesus modeled. The response is full acceptance and radical love.
Let me ask you a funny question? Where is the door to the church? Are those doors out there the doors to the church?
Are those the safe passages to reconciliation? They are of course critical to the process, but I am wondering if the door to the church isn't really right here. Your heart is the pathway to God's full acceptance and reconciliation. Jesus works that out through you. We are called to open our hearts so that the doors of the church, the pathways to safety, will be open for everyone.
I got to thinking about this. One thing led to another and I got curious about doors. Do you know how many doors there are in this church? A lot. I did a very fast count, so this is very approximate, but the point will be telling. There are about 75 doors in this church (and I didn't even count multiple doors into the same rooms.) About 75 portals. Here's the thing. Only about 23 of them are doors from the outside. In the main, about 52 doors are doors that are interior. I like that. I like that the portals are inner. Not cut off from the outside, but safe and sacred. And I believe that the Good News of Jesus Christ is that we are those inner pathways.
This is a new season in the life of the church, and Jesus is tugging on the hearts of some of you that we would follow the commandments to make a church for ALL that ALL shall be accepted in the sustainable Kingdom.
So, here's a little practice related to this work. Kind of a prayer exercise to get in the frame. So get comfortable, settled, quiet... I want you to think of someone. Someone not in this church. Maybe a friend. Maybe a neighbor. Someone you know but who you would like to get to know better. Think of what you do know about them that draws you together. Dwell on the good stuff, the endearing stuff. There may be very little that you share, maybe all you share is that you put your recycle bins out at the same time each week and say, “hello.” Just find that image of beginning friendship. Get a picture of that person and fix them in your mind's eye. Hold them there as I pray... God we would like to focus for a moment on these persons who we hold in our minds and hearts. First we pray that you care for them and bless them in all they do. Also, we bring to you this prayer; that we would like to get to know them better and for them to know you better. God, you have taught us that when we're on the road back home, you are there waiting to welcome all home. You have also taught us that our lives describe the pathway to acceptance, the road to safety. So, we're counting on you to make opportunities for increased friendship to happen. We're also praying that you will give us insight and boldness to notice when those opportunities arise. Give us the clarity to reach out for the sole purpose of getting to know our neighbors better; for the joy that this will add to their lives and ours. We pray to reach across that gap that separates us from our neighbors, that we might be witnesses to your amazing love that reaches out to all, that receives all and cares for all. We pray this in Jesus name. Amen.
Listen to and read Michael's July 5, 2009 sermon. This was his first sermon as Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto.
The reading was Mark 6:1-13.
Download a .pdf of this sermon.
Good morning. I was raised camping. And that single fact may have as much to do with who I am as any other bit of God's working in my life. Any campers? If you've never camped, let me say that it's more than sleeping in the dirt. At dusk and amazing begins to happen. At dusk, campfires start up around the campground and at other camp-sites. Woodsmoke and flickering lights. Finally as dark comes on, blazing fires with smiling faces silhouetted in the nighttime. It's a magical time, it's a God moment. There is something primal and sacred about being in a circle around a warming fire.
It's also a picture of generations. This is something you have to see to understand, I guess. Campfires are also about passing on a really basic human capacity. So there's also a lot of teaching that goes on around the campfire ritual. There's always time to teach the kids, the first-timers, the rookies about tinder and kindling and split-wood versus whole logs. And there's always at least one or two impatient ones. The ones who think the shortcut to a bonfire is a good dose of camp stove fuel on the wood before lighting. Don't know if their eyebrows ever grow back...
But I have to tell you what I like most about campfires, is that everyone of every age and every station in life, is drawn to them. Everyone is fed by the warmth and the changed environment that a campfire lends. And I see in the lesson from Mark, the directive to be about the work of campfire building. Let me explain:
The lesson in Mark is like this super-condensed outline of a disciple's life. A disciple's life is promised by Jesus to be one of teaching/sharing our faith. Seems to me there's a lot of “go and do likewise” in Jesus' message to us. So we are to be about the teaching and sharing of our faith.
In this reading, a disciple's life is promised by Jesus to be one of risk. When you are a disciple you always run the risk of sounding like a “smarty pants.” The next promise follows after that. A disciple's life means continuing in the face of the opposition and criticism you receive. The disciples life is promised to be one of moving around from place to place. And of sending others to do the same. We can only work this block for so long and then as the author of Mark puts it, we have to hit the circuit. (A little Methodist language there in verse 6.
The disciple's life is one that requires we travel light and that where we land we are fully present and focused. Also noted is that we are to move on when we must. Lastly and certainly of primary importance in the life and teaching of Jesus: the disciple's life is an assignment to anoint (that is to bless) and heal.
A snap-shop view in my mind of the life of a disciple as modeled, promised and commissioned by Jesus. It's an outward bound life, isn't it? That's the itchy part. There is this constant movement in the descriptions of discipleship that is outward. It begins with those who know the Gospel, then moves outward to those around “on the circuit” (v. 6, NKJV).
It's not easy work we disciples enter into. It's a mighty good thing that we don't go alone. That we travel those roads to heal and teach and witness for justice, we travel those roads in the company of the Living Lord, Jesus of Nazareth whom I confess to you as the Christ. For it's not easy work we enter into, but it is the best work you can ever get.
Our work, to put it as simply as possible, is to share the very good news of Jesus Christ with everyone within the sound of our collective voices. And when I say voices, I also mean the voice of our actions in the world. Or, to use the image of the campfire, our job, the work given us by God is to begin as many campfires as we possibly can to warm as many people as we possibly can in as many places as we possibly can.
Jesus says in John 10:16 “I have other sheep which are not of this flock. I must also bring them so there will be one flock.” Remember I mentioned that Jesus was in the “go and do likewise business”? This is a case in point. If Jesus modeled his concern for others beyond the recognizable flock, it is my faith declaration that we are called to go and do likewise.
The flock then is always growing. There's always room for another. Or maybe we could say, that there's always need of another campfire to be built and that probably we're going to be called on to make sure that the next one doesn't burn his or her eyebrows off because they are new at it. But you know that there's a stray who's almost lost hope of finding a place where they'd fit in. Maybe one who was hurt or misunderstood, and is looking for a safe haven. Jesus would gaze out upon us this morning, with love and compassion that knows no bounds, and then would reflect, “You know, somebody's missing.” One of my favorite images of God, I'm sorry I can't tell where I stole it from, can't remember the one much wiser than I who first said it, goes like this. God is like a Mom who steps away from preparing our dinner to stand on the porch watching the horizon, waiting patiently, maybe a little anxiously, for those who haven't come home yet for the supper. We who are at the table are also called to the porch to watch and welcome, even to leave the porch and go searching for those who hunger.
Let me start wrapping up by reflecting on the things that you can learn from campfires. Firstly, you can't start one fast : remember the guy with the Coleman fuel. It takes time, just like discipleship takes time, building and keeping a fire that will warm the camp, takes time. Go slow, be diligent. Secondly, you can't start one with only tinder, or only kindling or only branches or only logs. Gotta have a lot of different kinds of fuel to make a fire.
Thirdly, you don't need a big fire for a big group, you need a multitude of fires. Oh sure, you might remember that big ol' bonfire at camp. We had that too. Looked great, a backdrop to the night's story-teller, songleader, worship leader. But usually then we were in the ampitheater, too far away to be warm. A bonfire may look good but they're usually too hot, if you're up close. If you're up close, you get singed. If you're a couple of rows back, or up in the ampitheater, you're chilly. We don't need a single fire to bring the warmth of the Spirit of God to a multitude of people, we need a multitude of campfires.
Now these last 2 are the most important. Somebody on the campground is not able light a fire. You can see them standing in a cloud smoke, kindling all gone, some big old log smoldering away. They're eyes sting and they don't know what to do. They can't light that fire until and unless you take a bit of your fire over to help them get started. Think of it as your campfire having new life in the neighbor's campsite. It's a lot like ministry, I think. We have a treasure of mission and ministry that is the product of God's spirit moving in this place for many years. And we have the opportunity and responsibility to cast that treasure forward as a legacy of the Good News of Jesus Christ for all who come after us. We are called to light new campfires. Not extinguish ours. Ours is the source from which the new fires are made. We are responsible for keeping our fire well-fed so that it continues to cast the warmth of God's reconciling spirit. And, we are called to light new campfires.
And here's the last thing, the fire we start, at the next campsite over? I guarantee you , that fire in the next campsite over is going to look different. Real different. But it is a campfire none the less, rooted in the spark that begins in the original campfire. I dare someone started the campfire we're sitting around right now, with a spark or a bit of kindling that was passed on to us. We didn't originate the fire. God's holy spirit did that little bit of scout-craft a long time back. We are keepers for a season.
The church has never been a place of one fire. The church has always been a place of multiple campfires. Our communities are the same. Our families certainly are: everyone in your house like “fruit loops” for breakfast? I doubt it. I'm a child of the 50's and we had these televised fantasies called advertisements that showed a happy family bounding into the kitchen for breakfast and EVERYONE wanted a bowl of Corn Flakes, or Raisen Bran or Malto Meal.......what planet is that from? If our home experience is that diverse (if we have multiple campfires going in our own homes), I think it's safe to suppose that we will encounter other campfires in the workplace and in school or in church.
Here's the thing. Jesus calls us to be alert beyond the warming flames of our campfire. To look through the flames to the other campers out there. Some are not at a campfire yet, Jesus calls us to help them get started. Now don't pick up and go crowd them out of their campfire, get 'em started and leave 'em alone. There'll be times for all the campfires to get together for some kind of mass thing....in the UMC we call them potlucks and bible study and soft ball games and service missions.
Jesus modeled for us this Other Campfire image, not as a charitable act, but as normative and healing for our lives and the world.
Remember that book, “I'm OK, You're Okay”? Written in 1969 by Dr. Thomas Harris, it was a book of the times. It created spin-out and goof titles to this day. For example, you can find “I'm Okay, You're Not,” “I'm OK, You're a Brat,” and even a music offering entitled “I'm Okay, You're Undead.” But original was kind of novel, a bit of open-ness and inclusivity in an era where that was kind of new stuff. It was a self-help book and the title kind of says everything there is to say about the premise and the content. It was great in the accepting everyone department. Think of the untold hurt that could be be avoided if we practiced the I'm OK, You're Ok mantra. I think the demise of I'm OK, You're OK came from the reality that life doesn't always feel like I'm OK. A truer place to start, when we're being honest with one another, might go like this..... I'm not Ok, in fact I'm broken, and I'm guessing you are too. Sometimes we forget that and get to the business of campfire building and management that's simply joyless. How much more quickly could we be able to gather around the warmth of the campfire of God's grace if we could start there. We all need God's warmth. We all have a stake in building campfires. And we are all called in our own way to build other campfires. Amen.
On Sunday, July 5, 2009 we welcomed our new pastors to First Church.
Keith Perry introduced Michael Love, Laurie McHugh and Cate Noellert to the children. The kids even had some great questions for them!
Sunday, July 5, 2009 was the Rev. Laurie McHugh's first Sunday as the Associate Pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto.
Listen to her speak about coming to Palo Alto, as well as about change and growth. She also reads today's Gospel, Mark 6:1-13.
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