Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Main Thing is To Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing (Hebrews 12:1-3)

So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.

Think about the one who endured such opposition from sinners so that you won’t be discouraged and you won’t give up.

In sports, the adage is to “keep your eye on the ball.”  In driving, it’s “keep your eyes on the road.”  In working on some difficult task, it’s “keep your eyes on the prize,” remembering the goal and reward that awaits you at the end of this hard work.

Maybe you’ve had the experience of driving down the road, and you look at something over on the side of the road, and without even realizing it, you’re starting to steer the car in that direction.  Why? Because our vision informs our direction.  The most common mistake I make in my golf game is that I tend to pick my head up before I swing through the ball.  Every time I lift my head and my eyes a little bit, the rest of me lifts up a little bit, as well, and I don’t make the clean contact needed for a good shot.

Our vision informs our direction.  What you see is very much what you get.  Anybody here drive or have driven a motorcycle?  I’m told that part of the training for learning how to ride a motorcycle involves very clear instruction on where to look as you ride.  Cyclists are told to look for the openings, not the obstacles, because where they look is where they will go, and you obviously want to gravitate toward the openings, not the obstacles.

Whether we are keeping our eye on the ball, the road, or the prize, these are simple reminders to stay focused on what is most important and what matters most, to not lose sight of what is central and essential, not only so that we see it, but that we align our movements toward it.

Someone once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  And friends, for Christians, the main thing is Jesus, for he is what matters most, he is most important, he is central and essential to our faith.  We keep our eyes on Jesus, not just for the sake of seeing him, but so we can constantly move our lives toward him.

On my last Sunday as your pastor, as we close out this chapter of the story and you and God prepare to write a new chapter, that is my prayer and encouragement for you as you move forward.  Morehead Church: keep your eyes on Jesus.  He’s the main thing.

Today’s Scripture reading from the book of Hebrews makes the same plea.  Let’s run the race set out before us, with a great cloud of witnesses from throughout all times and places in the stands cheering us on.  Let’s put aside sin – anything that separates us from God, anything that tangles us up, anything that distracts us, anything that takes our eyes off Jesus – let’s put all of that off to the side and focus with pinpoint-laser-vision on Jesus.  Keep the main thing the main thing, and the main thing is Jesus.

We stumble and get tangled up when we focus our attention on other things, when we allow ourselves to get sidetracked by people and things that aren’t even on track, when we major in the minors.

I know you already know this, so indulge me in this little public service announcement.  The main thing is not the building.  The main thing is not the worship service time, or style, or format, or location.  The main thing is not the music – it is not organ or piano or praise band or whatever else.  The main thing is not whether the choir or director or pastor wears a robe or street clothes.  The main thing is not the leadership or the committees or the staff.  The main thing is not the budget.  The main thing is not pride in the past, it is not productivity in the present, it is not possibility for a promising future.  The main thing is not people’s personal preferences.  The main thing is not the plans or programs or preaching.  The main thing is neither the pastor in the pulpit, nor the person in the pew next to you.  The main thing is Jesus.  Who’s the main thing?

How many times have we seen a church build itself around, or define itself by, one of these other things?  You ever just want to say, “How’s that working out for you?”

When we bring these other things from the periphery to center stage, Jesus gets crowded out.  You can’t focus on two things at the same time, and when we obsess over these other things, we lose our focus on Jesus.  Jesus himself warned us against doing this, he likened it to building our house upon unstable and shifting sand, rather than solid bedrock.  The old hymn says, “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

So, keep the main thing the main thing.  And the main thing is Jesus.  Keep your eyes so fixed on him that he remains the center, the focal point, and allow all those things and issues that ought to remain on the periphery to stay exactly where they belong.  Do that persistently, faithfully, regardless of whatever opposition you face, regardless of how other people respond, what they think of you, say about you, keep your eyes on Jesus, who has been there and done that, who has run the same race ahead of you, and is calling you to follow after him.

Keep your eyes on Jesus, who told us the greatest command is to love God and our neighbor.

Keep your eyes on Jesus, who has called you in your baptism, and commissions you to serve in ministry in his name.  Don’t leave the tasks of ministry to someone else.  Ministry is the work of ALL the people of God, laity and clergy alike.  We get in the bad habit sometimes of referring to the pastor as the minister, and often implied in that is that he or she is THE minister.  The paid professional who performs all the ministry tasks for and on behalf of the congregation.

When our Community Care Team was up and running, one member of the team told me that another member of the church objected to the word, “Minister” on her name badge.  “You’re not a minister!” this person insisted.  What emerged is that recognizing the person in the pew next to us as a minister brings us face-to-face with our own call to be in ministry.

Friends, when it comes to ministry, you are not a spectator.  You are not a consumer.  You are not a passive recipient of ministry goods and services.  You ARE a minister.  Don’t fall into the conspiracy of thinking you pay the pastor to do all the ministry, or thinking that the pastor’s role is to be Christian on your behalf.  Some pastors will be co-conspirators in that lie with you, preferring to do it all and decide it all themselves, rather than training up others and releasing them out into the fields.  One way the Bible describes the role of the pastor is to “equip and empower the saints – that’s you – for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4).  Everyone, including you, including the person sitting next to you, is called to be a minister.

Keep your eyes on Jesus, who calls his followers to serve rather than be served.  When a crowd of 5000 gathered on the lakeshore and mealtime came around, his disciples said, “Jesus, these people are hungry!”  And how did Jesus respond?  Did he say, “Thank you for telling me that!  You sit back, and I’ll take care of everything!”  No, he said, “Then YOU give them something to eat!” (Mark 6, Matthew 14, Luke 9)

Following Jesus means that we’re the ones serving, not the ones being served.  If you want to be served, go join a country club.  Take a cruise.  Book a day at the spa.  When you follow Jesus, get ready to serve.

Keep your eyes on Jesus, who welcomed little children to come to him, and rebuked those who tried to stop them.  He commended imaginative, boundary-pushing child-like faith, and told us adults, who often take ourselves way too seriously, to become more like these, and thus inherit the kingdom of God.

One measure of the health and vitality of a church is in what it does for children.  I’m encouraged when I see our best people, our most dedicated, our most faithful, step forward to work with children.  For all who teach Sunday School and keep the nursery and work in Vacation Bible School and children’s choir, and every other opportunity we have to care for and nurture children in their faith, I am grateful.

Keep your eyes on Jesus, who commissioned the church for the purpose of making disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to obey Jesus in everything.  As I leave, I’ll remember those I was privileged to baptize in this place over three years:

·        Jonathan Dixon

·        Jennifer Dixon

·        Parker Dixon

·        Reymonda Turner

·        Chad Hatch

·        Skylar Hatch

·        Melissa Lewis

·        Valorie Lewis

·        Jake Lewis

·        Zack Hurley

·        Sylvia LeClair

I’ll remember those of you who have come to faith for the first time, those who have come back to faith, and those who have grown deeper and wider in your faith.

Keep your eyes on Jesus, who is full of grace and love, and who said that we would be known as his disciples in how well we love others.  Love is one of those things that, if you have it, you just share it. And friends, there’s a lot of love here.  Look for it.  Nurture it.  Multiply it.

Thank you for all the ways you have been loving and gracious to me and my family for the last three years.

We came in July, 2013.  Ashley’s Grandma Alice passed away in August of that year, my Papa Bill less than a month later.  Ashley’s Papa Buddy died 8 months after that in May of 2014.  Four months later, my Dad received the kidney transplant for which he had been waiting for five and a half years, but during the wait, it turned out his health had declined to the point that he was simply too weak to recover from the transplant surgery.  Between September 2014 and April 2015, he spent 94 days in Wake Forest Medical Center, which meant we spent 94 days in Wake Forest Medical Center.  He eventually chose to go into Hospice care in April 2015, where he died a week later.

Friends, I wouldn’t wish losing three grandparents and a parent in less than two years on anyone, but you never forget how people respond during a time.  The depth of love and grace practiced by the people of Morehead during that time is something I will always remember.

And so, as you move forward, I encourage you to keep your eyes on Jesus.  That shouldn’t be a new concept.  It’s what I hope to have helped you do over the last three years.  If somehow that’s happened for you, then praise God and to God be the glory.  And if I’ve somehow let you down in that, I ask for your forgiveness.

Just remember, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.  And who’s the main thing?  Jesus.  Who’s it all about?  Who’s at the center?  The focus?  Keep your eyes on who?  Jesus.

What you see is what you get.  So keep your eyes on Jesus. Let his love surround you and fill you and shine through you.  I’ll be cheering you on.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Continue What God Started (2 Timothy 3:2-5,8-17)

People will be selfish and love money. They will be the kind of people who brag and who are proud. They will slander others, and they will be disobedient to their parents. They will be ungrateful, unholy, unloving, contrary, and critical. They will be without self-control and brutal, and they won’t love what is good. They will be people who are disloyal, reckless, and conceited. They will love pleasure instead of loving God. They will look like they are religious but deny God’s power. Avoid people like this.

These people oppose the truth in the same way that Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses. Their minds are corrupt and their faith is counterfeit. But they won’t get very far. Their foolishness will become obvious to everyone like those others.

10 But you have paid attention to my teaching, conduct, purpose, faithfulness, patience, love, and endurance. 11 You have seen me experience physical abuse and ordeals in places such as Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. I put up with all sorts of abuse, and the Lord rescued me from it all! 12 In fact, anyone who wants to live a holy life in Christ Jesus will be harassed. 13 But evil people and swindlers will grow even worse, as they deceive others while being deceived themselves.

14 But you must continue with the things you have learned and found convincing. You know who taught you. 15 Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. 16 Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, 17 so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.

Have you ever had someone stick their nose in your business?  It’s got nothing to do with them – nothing – and yet they’re all up in your Kool-Aid?  How do you like that?

How about when they start telling you how to do things?  Criticize you?  Complain about you?  Make up things about you?  Don’t you just love that?

Now, have you ever stuck your nose in somebody else’s business?  Why do we do that?

Maybe it’s simply human nature, but it’s been my observation and experience that a lot of us are more interested in other people’s business than we are in minding our own.  We spend a lot of time and effort in life worried about what other people are doing.

We can also waste a lot of time worrying about what other people think about us.  We get caught up in comparing ourselves to others, wondering how we measure up.  Who is ahead, who is behind, who is winning at life, and who is losing.  Who’s right?  Who’s wrong?  How do we rank?  Where are we in the pack?  What do other people think of us?  What do we think of them?

There is a lot of time and effort wasted caught up in what other people are doing, and in what other people think of us.  As the people of God, we are called to something different.  We are called to something better.

The Scripture we’ve read today is part of St. Paul’s letter to his young friend and protégé, Timothy.  It is his encouragement to him, and to us, to continue on the path of what we know to be true and faithful.  Regardless of other people, whatever they say, whatever they do, whatever they think, to do the right thing, the godly thing.  Continue on the path of new life in Christ, which we’ve learned from the Scriptures, which we’ve learned from preachers and teachers and parents and friends, to keep walking and living as children of God, even when people around us are not.

Growing up, we used to get in those little fights or arguments with our siblings or friends.  We all know that it’s not the person who throws the first punch or hurls the first insult in these situations who gets caught.  It’s the one who hits back.  How many times did I get caught doing this, and I’d always whine, “But Mom, he STARTED it!” and in our house, anyway, the response was always the same: “I don’t care what HE did, because YOU know better!”

The same dynamic is at play in the Scripture reading.  Paul gives a long list of what we would all consider poor behaviors and attitudes – there will be people who are money-hungry, selfish, braggadocios, prideful.  They’ll lie about others.  They will be ungrateful, unholy, unloving, contrary, and critical. They will be without self-control and brutal, and they won’t love what is good. They will be people who are disloyal, reckless, and conceited. They will love pleasure instead of loving God. They will look like they are religious but deny God’s power.  Paul says to avoid people like this.  To that, I’d add, avoid becoming people like this, too.  Avoid letting people like this have influence over you.

This afternoon, I am headed down to Charlotte to lead a celebration of life service for a friend I met through a member at my last church.  A couple weeks ago, I was talking to that church member, Sara, as we were starting to put together the plans for the service, and of course, we got to talking about other things, as well.

Thanks to the magic of social media, word has trickled down to Charlotte that I am making a shift to ministry beyond the local church, but apparently what got lost in the translation was that this is a choice I  have made, not one that was made for me.  Sara was very upset and agitated, because of what another member of the church was saying.  She said, “Carol is telling EVERYONE that you’ve been asked to leave your church!” and I just started to laugh.  I said, “Clearly, Carol spends a lot more time thinking about me than I do thinking about her.  I haven’t given her much thought since I moved away three years ago.  But, I’m honored and a little amused that she still thinks about me, enough so, that three years later, she’s still making up stories about me just so she can say something about me!”

Today’s Scripture says, “In fact, anyone who wants to live a holy life in Christ Jesus will be harassed.”  This echoes the words of Jesus, who said, “Blessed are you when people persecute you and hate you and speak evil and lies against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who came before me.”

If anything, I should sit down and write a thank-you note to Carol for giving me such a blessing.

Here’s some free advice: avoid fighting in the mud with a pig.  You’ll just get dirty, and the pig will just enjoy it.  It’s always better to take the high road, to stay above the filth, to walk away and simply refuse to play the game of those who wish to drag you down.  Let them talk about you, let them think what they want about you, and hold your head high as you do.  What they say and do about you reflects more on them than it does on you, and the Scripture says their minds are corrupt and their faith is counterfeit.  They won’t get far.  Their foolishness will become obvious to everyone.

It doesn’t matter what other people are doing, because you know what you should be doing.  What people out there in the world are doing, what the person sitting next to you in church is doing or isn’t doing doesn’t sway your course.  They are not making your decisions.  You are.  So make the right ones.  Paul’s encouragement now as of then is not to get caught up and swayed by the negative actions and behaviors of others.

We can get very good at diagnosing and pointing out the faults, shortcomings, sins, and failures of others.  We can also let our perceptions about the actions or inactions of others determine our own actions.  I don’t know about you, but I am not willing to allow misguided people to have that much control over my life. 

Friends, when we know who we are and whose we are, when we know that we are children of God, called to walk in his marvelous light, moving forward and continuing in the way of grace to which God has called us.  When we are comfortable in who we are, we can be confident in what we’re about.  That will drive people who want to exercise control over you absolutely nuts, but we must never allow ourselves to be sidetracked by people who aren’t even on track.

There’s some real freedom in that, folks.  Freedom from being controlled, and there’s also the freedom to feel like we need to control what other people do.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I have no control over anyone but myself.  I can’t make you do something any more than you can make me do something.

The Scripture says, “As for you, continue in the things you have learned and found convincing, because you know who taught you.”  It says, “As for you.”  Not all these other people.  Even if you’ve got clowns to the left of you and jokers to the right, don’t worry about what all these other jokers are doing, you just stay the course of what you know is right.

As for you, continue in the way of Jesus without worrying about whether anyone else joins you or not.  Don’t do it to get rewarded or noticed, not to have your name on a plaque, don’t do it to buy influence or so people will think more highly of you; do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Endure, persevere, practice hospitality, give generously, live graciously.  Don’t waste your time complaining or criticizing others who don’t, keep yourself busy doing what you know needs to be done, even if you’re the only one who does it.

In a couple weeks, I will pass the torch of pastoral leadership to Pastor Veranita.  As my tenure draws to a close and you prepare to welcome her, my prayer for you echoes this instruction from Paul to Timothy, from teacher to student: “As for you, continue in what you have learned and found convincing, because you know who taught you.”

The real teacher is Jesus, and his course of instruction is the experience of new life in him.  With Paul, I say to you, “Follow Jesus.  Learn from Jesus.  Walk with Jesus.  You know who taught you - not me, but Jesus.”

The prayer of this verse encourages the timid to do one thing: keep making progress in the same direction like the redemption of the world depends on it - because it does.  God’s redemption story is a masterpiece in the making, but what does the next chapter look like?

Well, that’s up to God, and it’s up to you.  I trust that God who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it, and that if God has brought you this far, then God will carry you on.

That’s God’s end of the bargain, and God always keeps God’s promises.  God will hold up his end of the bargain. The other part is up to each of you.  You have been on this journey for some time, but God still has work to do; and the terrain of the next mile, the tone of the next chapter hinges on your heart being open to God’s direction.

And so, for you, I pray you will continue what God has started.  That, as God’s grace has touched you, you’ll freely share that grace with each other and with those outside these walls, so that there’s not a person nearby who doesn’t know that God wants nothing more than to gather each and every one in his loving embrace.  That’s not a new story!  It’s the same one we’ve been working on for the last three years together, and indeed, it’s the story God has been writing since the very beginning.

Continue in that story.  Allow God to write the story indelibly on your heart.  Write the next chapter, and keep the story going.  I can’t wait to see what you and God will come up with.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The ABUNDANCE of Grace (Matthew 26:17-30)

17 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover meal?”

18 He replied, “Go into the city, to a certain man, and say, ‘The teacher says, “My time is near. I’m going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.” ’” 19 The disciples did just as Jesus instructed them. They prepared the Passover.

20 That evening he took his place at the table with the twelve disciples. 21 As they were eating he said, “I assure you that one of you will betray me.”

22 Deeply saddened, each one said to him, “I’m not the one, am I, Lord?”

23 He replied, “The one who will betray me is the one who dips his hand with me into this bowl. 24  The Human One goes to his death just as it is written about him. But how terrible it is for that person who betrays the Human One! It would have been better for him if he had never been born.”

25 Now Judas, who would betray him, replied, “It’s not me, is it, Rabbi?”

Jesus answered, “You said it.”

26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is my body.” 27 He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. 28  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven. 29  I tell you, I won’t drink wine again until that day when I drink it in a new way with you in my Father’s kingdom.” 30 Then, after singing songs of praise, they went to the Mount of Olives.

After my parents died, one of the things I ended up inheriting was the family dining room table.  It’s a piece that means a lot to me, not because it has any great monetary value, but because of what it represents.  That table represents years of family birthdays and Sunday dinners.  It represents Thanksgivings and Christmases and Easters.  It represents parties and open houses with friends from church.  It represents family and friends coming over for a meal.

I think of the times we would put all the leaves in this table and open it up to its full length so that everyone would have a place.  One of those times was during the week between Christmas and New Year, when friends of ours who were originally from the Dominican Republic, living in the US, planting a Spanish/English church came over.  Mom and Dad had invited them to come over, and then, unexpectedly, some friends of theirs from out-of-town showed up the same day.  Our friends called Mom and Dad to reschedule, and I remember Mom on our end of the phone call saying, “Oh, just bring them along!”  My grandparents were also in town for the holiday, and we ended up with 24 people squeezed in around the table that night – 8 of whom spoke only English, 8 of whom spoke only Spanish, and 8 of whom spoke some combination of the two.  We had a blast.

I think about the lessons I learned around that table.  Sure, there were the usual nuggets of etiquette about how to use my napkin, not chewing with my mouth open, not speaking with food in my mouth, waiting until everyone at the table had been served before I began to eat.  More importantly, I learned lessons about who I am, and to whom I belonged.  Lessons of nurture and love.  Lessons of hospitality and grace and abundance.  One thing about our table is that it was an open table – there was always room for one more.  And it didn’t matter how many crowded around that table, there was always plenty to go around.

What we learn and experience around the family table make us very much who we are today.  And for Christians, we find out very much who we are around God’s family table, in the meal we celebrate as Holy Communion.

In the Scripture we’ve read today, Jesus has gathered with his disciples for what we refer to as “The Last Supper.”  We call it that because it was the last meal he ate before death and resurrection.

Many of the same lessons I learned around my own family’s table are on display around this table with Jesus.  We see evidence of nurture and love.  Hospitality and grace and abundance.

As you look around the table of those first disciples, realize that none of them was worthy of their place at the table with Jesus.  Judas, of course, is the one we single out.  Judas, the betrayer, the one who sold Jesus out for a few measly coins, Judas, the bad apple in an otherwise good bunch.

But friends, there was plenty of sin to go around the table that night.  The disciples had argued about who would get the most important, honorable place.  They had all refused to serve each other.  They had false expectations about him, even at that late hour.  They would fall asleep when Jesus told them to pray.  Peter would deny ever knowing him.  The others would abandon him and run for their own lives.  None of the disciples is any prize.  Not just Judas, but there is enough sin to go all the way around the table.

If the places at God’s family table were awarded based on who is worthy, then Jesus would have eaten that meal alone.  Jesus took his place at the table among those who would betray, deny, and desert him.  Even those closest to Jesus would let him down and disappoint him, and yet he expressed how much he wanted to eat that meal with them.

The saying goes, “You’re known by the company you keep.”  Throughout the Gospels, you’ll find all manner of unsavory people around the dinner table with Jesus. You’ll find Jesus eating with tax collectors and prostitutes and every manner of sinner, every outcast, every social misfit, every disreputable character you could imagine.

It was his table company that seemed to upset the religious leaders the most.  Because, as Jesus ate with these people, he was giving them honor and recognition, worth and value as human beings created in the image of a good and loving God.  He was saying, “The world doesn’t think you matter, but I do.  The world doesn’t see you, but I do.  The world doesn’t think you have any value, but I do.  The world calls you garbage, but I invite you to sit here at the table with me.”

This ticked off the religious leaders something fierce, because it called into question an entire society and culture that was based on hierarchy and status and privilege.  The world worked just fine when “we” were up here, and “they” were down there, when the world was neatly divided into “us” on the inside of the party and “them” on the outside. 

Then along comes Jesus, and he starts inviting “them” to become part of “us,” he blurs the line between “we” and “they,” and if you are someone who has built your life and worth around considering yourself better than other people and someone comes along who threatens to undo that whole system, yeah, you’d be pretty ticked off, too.  You might just conspire to have such a person removed from power or even killed.

Jesus understood that cost.  Jesus knew what he was doing around the table.  He doesn’t end up sitting with tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners by accident; he invites them to his table, he invites himself to their tables, even up to the last, he desires to eat a meal with people who would let him down in the biggest ways imaginable.

Jesus invites to his table sinners and deniers and betrayers and those who disappoint him at every turn.  When it comes down to it, Jesus invites to his table all manner of unsavory, inscrutable, undesirable, undeserving rabble – people like you and me, who are not worthy of a place at the table, but are only here because of God’s amazing love and abundant grace.

Thanks be to God.

The challenge, as we come to the table of our Lord, is to adopt the same attitude that was in Christ Jesus.  I ran across this some time ago, and it seems appropriate: “Be like Jesus: spend enough time with sinners to ruin your reputation with religious people.”

It was Jesus who said he came not to save righteous people, but sinners.  It was Jesus who said he would leave behind the 99 sheep already in the fold in order to go after the one lost sheep.  The hard part for the religious people of Jesus’ day was that they considered themselves so holy already that they didn’t see their own need for grace.  They didn’t see their own need for repentance.  They were so comfortable with the life they had built for themselves, they didn’t desire the new life Jesus was offering them.  They didn’t see themselves as sinners or lost sheep, which is too bad, because sinners get a place at the table.

That’s some real food for thought.  The challenge, as we come to the table, is to adopt the same attitude that was in Christ Jesus.  As Jesus has offered grace and love and hospitality and hope and abundance to us, to in turn, offer them to those around us.

I have a friend who is a single mom who worked her way through college 4:  waiting tables in a restaurant.  Anyone here ever wait tables?  It’s a hard way to make a living.

She told me about the shift she dreaded working the most each week – can you guess what it was?  It was mid-day Sunday, the after church lunch crowd.  She came to dread seeing a nicely-dressed group of people who had obviously just come from church being seated in her section, because they proved to be some of her worst customers.  One of the more memorable was the party of 8 who stayed an hour and a half, had her running back and forth to the kitchen constantly, ran up a bill of $120, and left her a $4 tip.  She was amused at part of their conversation, in which they were talking loudly, about what an awful sin it is to work on Sunday, and yet they didn’t bat an eye at going out to eat and making someone else work on Sunday.

From her interactions with Christians, she had seen enough to know that she didn’t want to become one.  Whereas Jesus demonstrated amazing love and abundant grace at the table, her experience was that when his followers got to the table, they were rude, demanding, inconsiderate, and cheap.

Friends, we worship a loving, gracious, and generous God.  God is a giver, and we are created in God's image.  We are created to be generous as God is generous.  That’s something we learn and experience around God’s family table.

God’s grace is abundant and there’s always plenty to go around.  That’s part of the reason I give you such big hunks of bread when you receive Communion.  I want you to have a big reminder of how big and generous and abundant God’s grace is!  That’s something I want you to remember and why – that I gave you big pieces of bread because God is generous when it comes to giving out grace.

God gives grace in abundance; who are we to be stingy with what God has given abundantly?  When someone complains about the bread being too big, too much, you just look them right in the eye and say, “And how much of God’s grace is too much?”

How much grace is too much?  I’m 36 years in, and I haven’t had my fill yet.

Friends, taste and see, the Lord is good.  Exceedingly, abundantly good.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Visit from Grace (Luke 1:39-56)

39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”

46 Mary said,

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord! 47     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. 48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49         because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50     He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.
51 He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52     He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,
55     just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her home.

We are used to hearing the parental stories of Joseph and Mary, Zechariah and Elizabeth, in the weeks leading up to Christmas as we prepare for the birth of Jesus.  The story we’ve read today, however, comes around twice a year in the Christian calendar.  That’s worth paying attention to!

If you use December 25 as your birth date of Jesus, and then back up the other events according to the timeline in the story, you end up with the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth taking place right about this time of year. It’s a beautiful story of gracious hospitality and persistent hope, and it points us to the promise of God’s preferred future.  May we pray.

We were barely back from our honeymoon when the questions started, “So, when are you two going to have some kids?”  It’s always baffled me that people are so comfortable asking such a personal question about someone else’s reproductive practices.

Last week, we were down at the beach for a couple days for a wedding Ashley was doing.  We were waiting for the elevator in the hotel, when a little boy of about four looked at us and said, “Do you have kids?”  And I said no, to which he replied, “Why not?” and I was thinking, “Because of Exhibit ‘A’ talking to me right now!” but his Mom said, “Because maybe they actually want to enjoy themselves when they come to the beach!”

I don’t ask people about their plans for children.  For one, I figure that’s their story to tell, and when they are ready to tell it, they will.  For another thing, I have come to realize what a deeply personal and sometimes painful topic that can be for folks.  I think of those I know who desperately want to be parents, but for some reason can’t be.  I think of those who have made an intentional decision not to have children.  I think of couples where one partner desperately wants children and the other doesn’t, and it’s a source of constant fighting between the two.  I think of those who are struggling with issues too painful, complex and difficult to talk about.  I think of those who waited for years to adopt a child, only to have the whole thing unravel at the last minute.

Kids, and the issues around having them, can be complicated and difficult, to say the least.  If anyone knew that, it was the two women we’ve met in today’s Scripture reading: Mary and Elizabeth.

Mary, a young girl between the ages of 12 and 15, from a backwater village in the middle of nowhere, handed off in an arranged engagement to a man twice her age, and now, she was pregnant.

Elizabeth, an old woman, unable to have children, which, in her day was embarrassing.  She had endured a lifetime of whispers, speculation, hurtful comments and advice and questions of a rather personal nature.  Now, she too, is mysteriously with child.

They are an odd pair to have chosen to be the mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus. One seemed too old to have anything left to give to God. The other too young, to be wise enough or mature enough to offer anything of value to God.  One well past her prime, the other with plenty of living and learning left to do.

However, God doesn’t see as we do. In this story, God reveals again that God is on the move irrespective of age, gender, or status. God is always showing up in the most unlikely and ordinary of people, people like Elizabeth who seemed to be left out of “normal life” (whatever that means-married with 2.2 kids with a 2 car garage and a midsize SUV or Minivan...) Certainly she was too old to be a soccer mom now! 

At the other end of the spectrum, God is always surprising us by choosing people like Mary, who at the age of 12-15, was chosen to be entrusted with the most important work God has ever asked anyone to do-bear the incarnation, bear God for the world! A 12-15 year old! You know your teenager, you barely trust them with a car.

What does God see in both the old and the young that we might miss? Where we look for something great to come from people in power, or people with fame and influence, or only men, or only women, or only up-and-coming-20 somethings who can navigate this digital age, or only 50 somethings who have had enough life experience to be wise but are young enough to still have some energy...they’re the ones who can be trusted to do something great! We have all these caveats about who can do something great.

God doesn’t have these same hang ups. What we measure as greatness, God declares foolishness.  What we elevate, God knocks down a peg.  God is recklessly indiscriminate, appearing to and working through all kinds of people: slave, free, young, old, refugees, foreigners, non-religious folks, widows, the divorced, women, men, fisherman and lawyers. What do they all have in common that allow them to do something great for God?

Each of them willingly say “yes” to partnering with God to change the world.

In the Old Testament, Abraham says “yes” to partnering with God to be a blessing to all nations and goes to a new country/new land. Moses, at the burning bush, says “yes” to partnering with God to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Deborah says “yes” to partnering with God to be a righteous judge over the people. Jonah finally relents and says “yes” to proclaim repentance to his enemies in Ninevah, saving their lives. Isaiah says “yes” in worship to being God’s prophet proclaiming God’s longing for repentance and new life in Israel. Esther says “yes” to partner with God, using her status and position as Queen to help save God’s people.

This narrative continues in the New Testament. Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph...later Matthew the tax collector, Peter, James, and John the fishermen...Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus...all very different people...but the one thing they have in common...they all say “yes” to partnering with God by becoming disciples of Jesus.

This is what all the major players in scripture have in common – they say “yes” to God.

How about you?  When your life is said and done, as someone is writing the epitaph on your tombstone, your obituary for the paper, the eulogy for your funeral – how do you want to be remembered, as one who said, “Yes” to God, or as one who said, “No, thanks”?

Mary and Elizabeth were two people who said, “yes” to God.  Theirs is a beautiful story of hospitality and grace lived in the midst of difficult and threatening times.  It happens sometimes that hard times or a hard life can harden a person’s heart.  They become ill-tempered, angry, and short.  We excuse it easily enough, knowingly saying, “That’s just their way,” or “You’ll have to excuse so-and-so, but they’ve had a hard life,” or “Nobody ever taught them any better than that.”

What I love about Mary and Elizabeth is that they didn’t let a hard life or hard circumstances harden their hearts.  They were open, flexible, pliable to the new thing God was literally doing within them.  In an unkind and difficult world, they were hospitable and gracious, open to each other, and open to God.

Both women have an unshakable faith in God’s ability to do extraordinary things, and an openness that God would do those things through them.   Mary wasn’t too young.  Elizabeth wasn’t too old.  The only thing to say “no” to is our excuses.

Like Mary and Elizabeth, be a person who says, “yes” to God.  Will you do that?  Yes to the presence of God? Yes to God within you?  Yes to God working through you?  Yes to God changing you and changing the world through you?

Say yes, and open yourself up to visit from grace in your own life.  May something jump for joy within you, may a new song be on your lips, and may you find yourself pregnant with the hopeful promise of God’s preferred future.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Praying with Wildfire (Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost Sunday)

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Today, we are celebrating Pentecost.  Pentecost is the conclusion of the great Easter season, and it occurs fifty days after Easter Sunday.  Pentecost is sometimes referred to as the birthday of the Church, because on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on the followers of Jesus, and the Church began.  Every year, the Church continues to celebrate Pentecost, and pray for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us, just as it was on the first followers of Jesus.

A young man visited a prominent church in his town.  Let’s just say he didn’t fit in.  He was “different” than the majority of people who attended that church.  After worship, he greeted the pastor on his way back outside, and said, “Pastor, I really enjoyed worship today.  I think I’d like to join this church!”   The pastor was visibly agitated by this – anyone could see that this young man was “different,” and the pastor didn’t need the headache of what people might say if someone like this young man joined the church.  But, trying to be diplomatic and pastoral, he said, “Well, joining a church is very serious business.  Why don’t you go home this week and pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance about this very important decision?”

The young man walked away, and the pastor was surprised to see him sitting in the congregation the next week.  As he left worship, the pastor said, “Did you pray about what we talked about last week?”  The young man said, “I sure did, and I’ve decided not to join your church.”  The pastor was visually relieved that this undesirable person would not join his church.  The young man continued, “I did what you said, and the Holy Spirit told me I shouldn’t bother; she’s been trying to get into this church for the last ten years!”

I’ve known plenty of folks who speculate about whether or not the Holy Spirit shows up in Methodist churches.  My friend, Oliver Box, says, “The Holy Spirit does, indeed, show up at the Methodist church.  He just knows to mind his manners when he’s there.”  And, perhaps that’s the problem.

The United Methodist "cross and flame"
Take a look at our denominational logo, our trademark “cross and flame.”  That red thing beside the cross is supposed to represent the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Even on our logo, it looks like a pretty controlled burn, doesn’t it?  Not getting out of control, burning quietly, never really flaring up too much.

We are good with God the Father, whom we have experienced as a loving parent, whose creation we see and are struck with awe and wonder.  We are good with God the Son, because we can see and understand the life, teaching, and example of Jesus Christ.  When it comes to God the Holy Spirit, we aren’t quite sure what to do there.

We’ve seen that the Spirit can be wild and unruly and unpredictable, and we’re not sure we want the wind and fire of God’s presence blowing through our tidy and neatly-ordered lives.  We’ve worked hard for this, we’ve put everything where we want it, we like it how it is – and the last thing we need is the Holy Spirit getting loose and going wild and messing everything up.  And so, we invite the Holy Spirit in, but with a list of conditions: “Sit in the corner.  Don’t make too much noise.  Don’t draw attention to yourself.  And don’t mess with our stuff.”

We want to experience the Holy Spirit as a controlled burn, as tame as the pilot light on your water heater, as contained as candle flame on the altar table, as easily-extinguished as a cheap pocket lighter.  We want a Holy Spirit we can control.

But friends, the Holy Spirit is not a controlled burn.  The Holy Spirit is wildfire.  When we pray for and open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, we are praying with wildfire!  We are praying for fire to fall from heaven upon us and ignite something within us we would never light for ourselves.  We are praying to be blown out of our comfort zone, out of our control zone, swept up in a holy consuming fire we did not start and can never hope to extinguish.  Who in the world would want something like that?

The followers of Jesus, that’s who.

In the Scripture we’ve read, when the first followers of Jesus received the Holy Spirit, they found themselves getting into all sorts of things they never would have on their own.  They were speaking in languages they’d never learned, prophesying about things they didn’t know anything about, not bound by a spirit of fear and timidity but boldness and courage – all because they received the Holy Spirit.

The same is true for us.  Having the Holy Spirit in our lives means giving up control and opening ourselves up to things and people and experiences we would never seek on our own.  It means getting out of the drivers’ seat and letting the Holy Spirit set the course.  It means getting caught up in the wildfire of the Holy Spirit.

The power and presence of the Holy Spirit is the difference between going to church and being the church – the living, breathing, body of Christ, the real hands and feet of Jesus in the world – if we’re going to do all that we have been called to be, we need the Holy Spirit.

We’ve got to get fired up.  The first car I bought was a 1986 Honda Prelude, and it was everything you would expect from a first car a high schooler bought for himself with what he had saved over a couple years of a part-time job.  On cold mornings in upstate New York, it had trouble getting fired up.  You had to turn the ignition and then mash your foot down on the accelerator, hoping it wouldn’t die right away.  The goal was to increase the RPMs on the engine and let it run long enough that it would warm up enough to not stall out when you let it idle.  There were some mornings I had to turn the ignition 20 times just to finally crank it up enough that it would continue to run.

With that car, if it didn’t get fired up in the morning, do you know what happened?  It didn’t go anywhere.  Likewise, when the church fails to get fired up with the Holy Spirit, we don’t go anywhere, either.

Or, to put it another way, we need fire in our belly.  When we see someone with passion for something, we say they have fire in their belly.  We need passion for the things Jesus was passionate about. 

We need to get fired up.  We need some fire in our belly.  We need passion for the things God would have us be passionate about.  We need the wildfire of the Holy Spirit.  Without that wildfire, without that passion, without that fire in our belly, we just sit on the curb like my first car on a cold morning; all we do is sit there and occupy space, but we’re not taking anyone anywhere.

Friends, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is the difference between just going to church and being the church. 

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist.  But I am afraid they should only exist as a dead church, having the form of religion without its power.”  “My fear is that our people will become content to live without the fire, the power, the excitement, the supernatural element that makes us great.”

Too often and too easily, we settle for a faith experience devoid of the Holy Spirit.  Tidy, neat, predictable, under control – and completely powerless to change our lives, let alone change the world.

The worst thing is not that we would cease to exist.  No, the worst thing would be to lose our vitality, to have the outward form of religion without its power.

Every weekend – sometimes on Saturday, sometimes on Sunday morning – I walk through the sanctuary and fellowship hall, and I touch every seat, and I pray for the Holy Spirit to fill the hearts of the people who will sit there and kindle in them the fire of God’s love.  I do the same thing for every outside door, up and down every hallway, pausing at the door of each room, praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured upon each person who walks through them, down these halls, and into each room.

So, when you show up on Sunday morning, I have prayed for you.  As you sit in these seats and walk through these doors, I pray you feel the power of those prayers and sense the presence of the Holy Spirit upon you and full within you.

But remember, that’s just the beginning.  I want you to remember what those first followers of Jesus did as soon as they received the Holy Spirit.  They unlocked the door and boldly went out to share God’s good news with the world.  The first thing they did was take a mission trip.  They didn’t build a building, they didn’t have a worship service, they didn’t create a budget, they didn’t have a stewardship campaign, they didn’t create any programs, and they most certainly didn’t form any committees.  They boldly went out in mission.  The very first thing the Church did was to leave the building, because their passion for the Gospel was greater than their personal preference, comfort, and control.

If you keep reading the book of Acts, you’ll see that those winds of the Holy Spirit kept right on blowing.  The wind that first blew the disciples out of their comfort zone, beyond their locked door and into the street with God’s good news kept blowing.

Today, I’m praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured upon us just as it was poured upon the first followers of Jesus so many years ago.  Our faith is not just the story about what God did once upon a time, to some people we don’t know, in a land far, far, away.  God’s story is still being written, and it continues in us, so long as our hearts are open and receptive to the warm winds of the Holy Spirit.

There are times when the work of the Spirit is imperceptible, but there are other times when you can see it, hear it, and feel it. To this day, every time I see the color red or a fire burning, when I feel the wind stir or hear the flap of a dove’s wings, I think, “Holy Spirit!  I wonder what wild and unpredictable and wonderful thing God is up to today.”

I don’t know when or in which direction the Spirit might blow.  I only know that it will.  Let’s be open enough to get caught up in the fiery wind when it comes by.