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Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Morning After (Romans 8:38-39)

(On Saturday afternoon, a 16-year-old in our congregation died in sudden and tragic circumstances.  In light of that, I scrapped the scheduled sermon and worship service for the next day and wrote what is below.  It seemed odd to simply continue with "business-as-usual."  My hope was to address some of the pain and questions I knew our congregation would be coming in with, to help us all find some solid ground when everything else seemed to be slipping away, and to point us all in the direction of healing.)
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


When tragedy strikes, it is easy for us to start looking for answers.  Why did this happen?  Where was God?  Why did God allow this?  Why do bad things happen to good people?


The temptation is to rush in with some sort of response.  And if you’re a person of faith, the temptation is to rush in with some sort of theological explanation, and my first piece of advice is simply this: “Don’t.”  When my Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, she put together a list she called “Stupid things not to say to someone who has cancer.”  Several well-meaning Christian friends suggested that she take comfort in the fact that “everything happens for a reason,” or “this must have been the will of God.”


It sounds like the right sort of thing to say, but it’s not comforting.  It’s not even true.  Far from being comforting, it only leaves people angry with God.  Suffering, unanswered prayers, and the unfairness of life naturally lead us to question God’s goodness and sometimes to question God’s very existence.  Ask atheists why they reject the idea of God, and this will be among their answers.


The question often goes this way: “If God is loving and just, then God must not be all-powerful, otherwise God would stop tragedies from happening.”  Or, “if God IS all-powerful, then God must not be loving and just.”  Because, if God is powerful, loving, and just, God would intervene and stop the suffering and tragedy in our world.


In light of what took place yesterday, perhaps you are wrestling with these questions.  What I want you to know first off, is that God is the Lord and giver of life.  God is not the taker of life.


Should we tell a family who has lost their child: “There, there: God needed another angel in heaven?”  Really?  If that’s true, then God sounds like a real jerk to me.  And yet, Christians can be notorious for saying stuff like that – maybe it’s our way of finding meaning or sounding noble and pious and all that, but really, all we do is tremendous harm, and the worst of it is we do it in God’s name. 


I feel like every time someone says something like that, God just says, “Whoa, that wasn’t me!”


In the days ahead, many of you will want to know what you can do to help Sandy and Tyler and M’Kenzie, and Bill and Judy.  The first thing I’d say is to not say things like these.  What happened to Dalton yesterday was not part of God’s plan, it was not God’s will, it was not for some reason only known to the mind of God.  Don’t promise things you have no control over, either, like saying it will get better, or they’ll get over it, eventually.  This isn’t something that’s going away.  It’s something we will all have to carry with us.


Don’t say those things because they’re not helpful.  They’re not healing.  They’re not true.  They’re more likely to turn a grieving person away from God than toward God – because if God was the one who caused the suffering, why would I go to God to comfort me in the suffering?


Friends, when you don’t know what to say, you don’t actually need to say anything.  Turns out you don’t have to say much to let someone know you care.  Often, a hug, a smile, a call, a card, and a simple, “I’m so sorry” is all that needs to be said.  That’s all you need to do.


Someone asked me yesterday where Dalton is now.  He is safe and secure in the arms of the Lord, and I believe that with every fiber of my being because I believe the promises of the Scripture that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


You got that?  God IS Love, and NOTHING – NOTHING shall separate us from God’s love.  Not death (whether at the hand of someone else or ourselves), not angels (be they of light or darkness), not powers of depression, not depths within our soul that drag us down and lead us to a point where we feel we have no alternative.


The darkness of mental illness is something over which persons have no control. Our understanding of human psychology and mental illness still has a long way to go, but it’s also come a long way.  I’ve heard well-meaning people tell depressed people to just “turn it over to God,” as if it’s that easy.  But, even after people seek God, they may still be very much troubled by feelings of failure, hopelessness, or being unloved, and God understands the difficulties of those feelings and how truly overwhelming they can be.


And not only does God understand, I understand, and I care, and whatever any of you may be going through, please, know that I’m willing to listen and help in any way I can.  If you’re struggling with self-destructive thoughts and habits, don’t go through that alone.  I promise no shame, no judgment, no guilt – just a desire to see you healthy and full of life and thriving.


I am well-aware that in a group of people this size, statistically, it is highly likely that one or more persons here today are dealing with destructive thoughts that make you feel like you’re at a dead-end or you’ve got nowhere to go. Listen, if that’s where you are, I want you to come talk to me this week. In fact, I expect you to come talk to me.  Or maybe you don’t want to talk to me, and you’d rather talk to someone else, and I’m willing to bet that there are other people here today who would be glad to talk to you and help you before you do something that can never be taken back – if you would be willing for people to talk to you, would you please put your hand up?

Even Jesus prayed on the cross, “My God, my God: why have you forsaken me?” Do you know the response that came from heaven when Jesus prayed those words? Nothing. Deafening silence.


I can’t overstate the significance of that. Jesus – the son of God, who was himself God – knew what it felt like to be alone and abandoned and forgotten. Jesus – who was sinless – knew what it felt like for his deepest and most earnest prayer to be met with silence. And so when someone feels alone in the world, when they feel friendless and hopeless, that is a very real feeling that even Jesus himself experienced. Those feelings don’t make someone a sinner or suggest that they have some defect or flaw of character, because even Jesus himself struggled with the very same feelings.


God is well aware that people are subject to harmful and self-destructive thoughts. That doesn’t make them wicked people. It makes them ill.  Jesus is the Great Physician – who came to heal all illness, including mental illness that may lead to people doing things that are harmful to themselves and those they love.  God’s mercy and love and grace is big enough to cover that.  There are those who leave this life too early, and God has special understanding and mercy for those who take an incomplete in life.


I just can’t imagine God – the God of Love, the God whose heart and love and grace is bigger than we can ever know – I can’t imagine God holding the events of yesterday afternoon against Dalton.  God grades on the curve – and where mercy and grace are needed, God supplies it all the more.


Was this God’s will for Dalton?  Hell, no.  Again, any god who willed this, who wrote this particular tragedy into Dalton’s life story is a god I would want nothing to do with.  No, this was not the will of God.  The Scriptural witness is clear: God’s will is ever-directed to his children’s good.  Jeremiah 29:11 says, “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jesus promised us that we came so that we would have life and have it abundantly and to the full (John 10:10).  All of this witnesses against God having anything to do with a life tragically cut short – that when life does end too soon, it was clearly not the will of God.


Since yesterday afternoon, I have imagined the conversation God and Dalton had when he arrived in heaven.  I imagine God saying, “Dalton, you knucklehead, you are here way too soon.  This was not what I wanted for you.  This was not my plan or will for you.  I wanted so much more for your life.  This was not the way I wanted your life to end.  There was so much more I wanted you to know and experience, so much I wanted you to do – you’re not supposed to be here, yet!  So yes, I am so disappointed to see you here so soon, yet, I love you.  You are my beloved child.  I know the difficulties you’ve had, the feelings you’ve had, the mistakes and shortcomings and decisions you’ve made that I wish you hadn’t.  And, my grace is sufficient for you, for this and every time of need. I am sorry for the pain and torment you went through, and my love for you is greater than all those thoughts and feelings, and my grace is greater than even this destructive thing you have done.”


You see, we have a God who weeps when we do.  Who grieves when we do.  God knows what we’re going through – he lost a son once, too, you know.  We don’t have the promise that God will make the pain go away or shield us from tragedy, or that if we’re good, godly people, bad things will never happen to us.  I wish, but it doesn’t work that way.


But the things that break our hearts also break God’s heart.  We have a God who enters into our suffering and takes it on himself.  As his hands and feet, we are called to enter into the suffering of others and walk with them through it.  And I know for the Davis family, you are already doing that and will continue to do that.


Where is God?  God is with us, particularly as the people of God show up where love and grace is needed the most.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Better Together (Matthew 18:15-20)

15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. 16  But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. 17  But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. 18  I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. 19  Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. 20  For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”

Psychiatrist Scott Peck wrote that communities often pass through four stages of development. Peck called the most common, initial stage of building community “pseudo-community” or “false community.”  And sadly, “pseudo-community” is often the only stage that many communities will know.  There are no problems, people mind their manners, and, when asked, everyone is doing, “Fine.”

But then we find out that, beneath the plastic smiles and polite pretense, beneath all that sugar-sweet niceness, dishonest failure to name things leaves untended cavities which rot out everything under the surface such that just a hollow outer shell remains.  It’s not that conflict doesn’t exist in the pseudo-community, it’s simply swept under the rug and ignored.  Like deferred maintenance, the longer you let it go, the more damage it does.

Jesus, however, calls us beyond pseudo-community into Christian community.  Whereas in pseudo-community, politeness and proper appearances are the highest goals, in Christian community, reconciliation and restoration of relationships are the highest goals.

The 18th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus’ blueprint for moving from pseudo-community into real community.  It doesn’t ignore conflict, but recognizes it as part of life, and even that it can be a healthy thing that builds the community when it’s handled in the right way.

Where two or three are gathered, there is bound to be a difference of opinion.  It’s been said that one of the greatest things about being part of the church are the people!  And one of the most difficult things about being part of the church are . . . the people!  Spend enough time with people, and someone will, inevitably, rub someone else the wrong way.  I wish I could guarantee that if you’re part of a church, that will never happen, but I can’t.

What I can do is invite and challenge you to deal with those bumps – the misunderstandings, the hurt feelings, the disagreements, the conflicts – in a Christian way.  Not to live as a pseudo-community, but as a Christian community.  And here’s the number one rule for dealing with conflict as a Christian: when you have a problem with someone, talk directly to them.  Don’t talk about them.  Don’t talk around them.  Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, do not tell anyone else about it until you have first talked to them, in person, face-to-face, so the relationship can be restored.

I was thinking of conflict in the church, and trying to think of an example I could give of bad ways to handle church conflict.  After 34 years in the church, it’s hard to think of examples that aren’t real examples, and it’s interesting how the issues that come up in one church are similar to ones that come up in another.  Even if I change the names and the scenario and the ministry area, even if I completely made up an example, it could still sound enough like another instance you know that you’re left wondering if I’m really talking about that situation or about so-and-so – I’m not.

Here are some unhealthy ways of dealing with conflict that clearly are not interested in restoring relationships and fixing what is wrong:

Talking about someone rather than to them.  Anyone here ever talk about someone behind their back?  Anyone here ever have someone talk about you behind your back?  That’s a pretty universal human experience, and we all know, first-hand, how frustrating and painful that can be.  When we have a problem with someone, it’s easier to talk about them behind their back, bless their heart, than to their face, but this provides us with no opportunity to fix the problem and work on the broken relationship.

Just so you know this is a made-up story, let’s imagine I’m mad at, say, Lib Joyner for something.  I’m picking on Lib because, come on, like I could be mad at Lib about anything, and I figured she’d be at both services like usual.  So, let’s say Lib did something that really ticked me off.  Maybe it was on purpose, maybe not.  Maybe she knows she did it, maybe not.  Maybe she can sense how mad I am about it, maybe not.  Doesn’t matter.

So, and see if this sounds familiar, I’m mad at Lib, and I pick up the phone and call four people to let them know what she did and how upset I am.  Then, each of them in turn call four people and say, “Did you hear what’s going on between Lib and A.J.?” and within an hour, everyone knows some version of the story, the whole church is talking about it, except for the only two people who should be talking about it.

According to Matthew 18, what did I do wrong in that example?  If I have a problem with Lib, who should I talk to about it?  Do you see how it’s a problem when I talk to everyone but the person who is actually involved?  Most conflicts within the church involve far more people than they need to.

Being a willing audience.  Gossip spreads because there’s a market for it.  When someone comes to you and says, “Let me tell you about so-and-so,” and you say, “Okay,” you are just as responsible for the spread of hurtful gossip as the person saying it.  You’re working against reconciliation by giving the person the easy out by telling you about their beef with someone else instead of doing the hard thing to talk to the person they have the problem with.  If, however, you respond by saying, “Have you talked with them, yet?  If not, don’t talk to me,” you have decreased the street value of gossip by indicating there is no market for it.

Anonymous feedback.  Anonymous feedback is a way of saying, “I want to say this, but I don’t want to take responsibility for what I’ve said.”  We have a special file that anonymous notes go into.  It’s next to my desk, round, and gets emptied once a week by the cleaning crew.  Not only is anonymous feedback cowardly, it provides no opportunity for reconciliation because you don’t know who to seek out in order to fix the issue and restore the relationship – an anonymous complaint is an unresolvable complaint.

Spokesperson for a cause.  One that’s a bit more subtle, but still under the category of anonymous, is when we speak on behalf of others.  We provide feedback and couch it in terms of “many people feel this way.”  When someone tells you how “many people” feel about something, you have permission to lovingly say, “I am interested in how YOU feel.  Please tell ‘many people’ that if they want me to know how they feel, then many people’ will need to talk to me directly.”

Unofficial Meetings.  These take many forms: the meeting before the meeting, the meeting after the meeting, in the parking lot, in the hallways, in the kitchen.  We hold what we really think in the official meeting, only to share it as soon as the meeting adjourns.  Again, do you see how this sort of things makes restoration and reconciliation impossible?

Disappearing Act.  I don’t like how things are going, I got my feelings hurt, someone said something to me, and so I either stop coming and/or stop giving.  I deal with conflict by taking my ball and going home.  Again, rather than dealing with the difficulty directly, we just walk away, and again, reconciliation and restoration become impossible with a person who is no longer there.

Christian community always has reconciliation and restoration at its goal.  Where these behaviors break down is that they provide no opportunity for reconciliation.  Our faith is the story of God restoring and redeeming all that is broken, all that is amiss, all that is damaged and in need of repair, beginning within us and our relationships with each other.

99% of the time, misunderstandings and difficulties can be cleared up if both parties are willing to sit in the same room and listen to each other.  I’m grateful for people who love me enough to sit down with me and let me know ways I’ve let them down.  I’ve learned things about myself that I’d never known before, and discovered how I can avoid doing it again.  These conversations typically end with one person saying, “I’m sorry,” and the other saying, “I forgive you.”  Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” but if I can channel my inner Bill Cosby for a minute, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!  Love means saying you’re sorry all the time, not because you have to, but because you realize the pain you’ve caused, and you want to fix it.

Where two or three are gathered in his name, Jesus is there with them – but it’s not about the numbers.  It’s about the reconciling spirit of Christ that brings people together.  We may say it to make ourselves feel better when there’s a low turnout at Bible study, but this verse is an assurance that when there is a conflict in the church that is resolved, Jesus is involved and present in that agreement. It’s all about agreement, not attendance.  The sincere agreement of two people is more powerful than the superficial agreement of thousands.

Sometimes, that means hard conversations with each other.  Those conversations are like removing a splinter from your finger.  It hurts to dig around and work on getting it out, even if you’re the one doing the digging.  But it hurts even more to do nothing, to leave it there so that it becomes infected and becomes even more painful and gets the whole body sick.

Conflict needs to be resolved.  And to be resolved, it has to be named.  Not with the goal of embarrassing one another or finding fault, but so we can do whatever it takes for the relationship to be restored.  That’s hard work.  But it’s faithful work.  And it’s necessary.

Reconciliation takes place on a small stage, usually one-to-one.  And if one person is reconciled to another through Christ, you know what you have?  Two people gathered in his name, the building block of Christian community.

One of the most difficult things about being part of the church are the people.  But, one of the greatest things about being part of the church are the people.  The people around you are among God’s greatest gifts to you.  Don’t take those gifts lightly.  In the life of faith, we’re always better together.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

God's Preferred Future: Growing as Neighbors (Luke 6:27-31, Luke 10:25-37)

27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.


25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31  Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32  Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33  A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34  The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35  The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36  What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”


“Love your neighbor.”  Part of the Great Commandment, inseparable from the command to love God with everything we have.  The center of our religious practice, holiness that is both personal and social, two sides of the same coin in this command from Jesus to “Love God, Love neighbor.”

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Easy for you to say, Jesus, – you don’t have to live next to my neighbors.  I don’t even like my neighbors, how am I supposed to love someone I can’t stand to be around?  Someone who leaves their trash bin open and the wind blows it into my yard, someone who trims the trees on my side of the line, someone who always borrows my tools, and either doesn’t return them, or manages to break them before I get them back!  This is the neighbor you want me to love?  I don’t even know half my neighbors; I actually like them more than the others!”

Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Simple to say.  Sometimes difficult to practice.

For the last several weeks, we have been exploring the ways God is calling us to grow as a congregation as we move into God’s preferred future.  We give thanks for where we’ve been, we appreciate where we are now, and we rejoice that God’s not done with us, yet.  As good as our history and heritage is, God is calling us to even better things in our future.  With God, the best is yet to come.  Moving into that future requires some stretching.  Some deepening.  Some growing.  Where are we growing?  We’re growing in faith.  We’re growing in grace.  We’re growing as disciples.  And, we’re growing as neighbors.  May we pray.

I grew up in a city neighborhood where the houses were built between 1920 and 1950.  The houses were close together.  There were public sidewalks.  People parked on the street.  No one had air conditioning, and you could tell what everyone was cooking for dinner just by riding your bike up and down the street.  Summer evenings typically found the adults out on the front porch with a glass of tea or some other beverage of choice.  I knew the adults, kids, and pets of every home within a four-block radius, and they knew me.  If my friends and I got into any mischief, my mom knew about it before I got back home.

People in the U.S. feel less-connected to their neighbors now than they did fifty years ago.  It’s not that people are less-friendly than they used to be, it’s that our lifestyles have changed so that we interact with other people less and less.  Look at the way we’ve built our homes and neighborhoods.  Public, tree-lined streets with sidewalks gave way to cul-de-sacs in gated communities.  Big front porches gave way to private backyard patios and decks.  Attached garages became the norm.  Air-conditioning sent everyone inside to escape the summer heat.  Thanks to technology, you can buy gas, shop, and bank without ever having to interact with another human being.  Our world is much more convenient than it used to be, but there is a high price for all that convenience – a loss of our sense of community and connection.

Human beings are social creatures.  We are hard-wired with a need to connect with other people, a need which increases as our social space decreases, and in a world in which our neighbors feel less and less connected, the church is presented with an opportunity to fill that void, and be the place in our community where significant connection among neighbors happens.  For the people of God, being a good neighbor is part of who we are.  It’s intrinsic to being a follower of Jesus.

Consider the story of the Good Samaritan we read a few minutes ago.  A legal expert and Jesus are sparring back and forth on what is essential in the life of faith, and they eventually settle that it is to “Love God and Love neighbor.”  But the legal expert, as lawyers are prone to do, starts looking for a loophole, and asks, “But who is my neighbor?,” a definition which would necessarily define some as “not my neighbor.”  The lawyer is essentially asking, “Who don’t I have to love?”

Jesus tells the story of a man who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road.  I imagine that man praying, crying out to God to send someone to help him.  Two respected religious officials come down the road, first the man’s pastor, then his favorite Biblical scholar – surely, one of these trusted, Godly men will stop to help.  But both avert their eyes, quicken their pace, and cross to the other side of the road as they pass by the man.

But then along comes an enemy – the most hated and despised person imaginable, and the half-dead man at the side of the road knows the situation is about to go from bad to worse.  Sure enough this enemy stops over the man – what evil trickery is he about to commit?  He looks at the wounded man for a moment, thinking to himself, and then reaches in his cloak, and pulls out the best antiseptic medicine he has and starts to apply it to the beaten man’s wounds.  He carefully takes the man into the next town, finds him a room, and calls a doctor to look after the man until he comes back in a few days.

Oh yeah - he was a Samaritan – a people group who were more hated than you can imagine.  Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which one was the neighbor?” and the lawyer is so disgusted by the story he can’t even bring himself to say “The Samaritan,” and can only mumble, “The one who showed mercy.”

It’s easy to love your neighbor when your neighbors are lovable.  What if the term “neighbor” also extends to those you despise the most?

When my Dad sold his house in New York, I went up to help move him down here.  I was cleaning out the garage, when a neighbor from up the street came by.  “So, your Dad finally sold the house.  These people who bought his house, what kind of people are they?”

Now, I’m not dumb.  I’ve known this neighbor most of my life, and know that he is one of the most prejudiced, racist people anyone could ever meet.  When he said, “What kind of people are they?” he was asking, “What color are they?  Are they white like me, or are they something different?”

I said, “You know, I don’t know.  I haven’t met them.  Dad went to closing on his own.  I do know that the color of their full cash offer is green, and that’s good enough for me.”  Like it or not, we have no control over who our neighbors will be.  So we may as well make up our minds to love our neighbors, regardless of who they are.

It’s not only individuals who are called to be good neighbors.  Churches are also called to be good neighbors.  I drive around and see churches who look very unwelcoming: chains across the parking lots, or condescending messages on their marquees that the church members probably think are clever but everyone else finds cheesy or offensive, but each of those things are a signal about their engagement with outsiders.  They send messages that repel their neighbors rather than draw them in.

A Methodist church in Charlotte had been established 70 years ago, in a thriving mill neighborhood.  Eventually, the mill closed, the neighborhood changed, but the church remained.  Most of its members moved out of the neighborhood, but continued to drive in for church, but fewer each year, and so the church was dwindling further and further down.  The church looked less and less like its neighborhood, and became increasingly fearful and eventually hostile of the people who now lived within walking distance of their church.

They organized a backpack packing event at back-to-school time on a Saturday afternoon, and low-and-behold, half a dozen people from the community showed up to help.  The next morning, 20 first time visitors showed up in worship.  They were all a different color than the established church members, and the church members sat on one side and the guests sat on the other, and no one from the “church” side crossed the aisle to greet anyone on the “guest” side.

None of the visitors came back, and the church was slated to close later that year.  The DS came for a meeting with the church members, who were angry that he was closing their church.  He had heard about this incident of not welcoming the people from the neighborhood, and said, “I’m perplexed.  You say you want to save your church, you want to grow, you want new people.  20 people walked in, and you did nothing to welcome them, in fact, you made them feel unwelcome.  Help me understand why you did that?”

One man stood up, crossed his arms, and said, “Because, they were the wrong kind of people.”

The Golden Rule is not conditional: “Treat others as you wish to be treated – only if you like them and they’re similar to you and you approve of their choices and it won’t put you out too much and they’re the right kind of people.”  Loving our neighbor does not hinge on who our neighbors happen to be, how much we like them or don’t before we know anything about them.  The question is whether we will commit to loving our neighbors no matter who they are.

Love God, and love your neighbor.  We ask, but who is my neighbor?  What kind of people are they?  It doesn’t matter.  Jesus reminds us that our neighbor is anyone and everyone.

This story is more offensive than we sometimes realize.  The words “good” and “Samaritan” had never been uttered in the same sentence, other than saying that they were “good for nothing.”  The story was as shocking in Jesus’ day as if he had told it as “The Good al-Quaeda” or “The Good Hamas” or “The Good ISIS” or “The Good Taliban” in our day.  I’d be offended if Jesus said that, today!  But, our offense highlights the significance of what Jesus says.

Whoever you think, “the wrong kind of people” are, that’s who the Samaritan would be.  It would have been bad enough to tell the story as if the Samaritan were the one beaten and subsequently helped, but to make one’s most bitterly-hated enemy the hero of the story?  That was too much.  It’s not only that our enemy is our neighbor.  The enemy has seen us as neighbor, responding with grace and compassion toward us.

If the person we despise most, one of the “wrong kind of people,” can see our sacred worth as a child of God and love us as a neighbor, might we rethink how we see and love others?  If grace has been granted to us, will we not grant it to others?

Growing as neighbors means that we have an increasingly positive impact on the lives of those outside our church.  Sometimes people ask, “Shouldn’t we just focus on who is already here?”  “No.”  The problem with that question is in the word, “just.”  Because, we should focus on who is already here.  We need to nurture the faith and relationships of the church family, we need to build the body up, support and encourage each other.  But we don’t do “just” that.

Growing up, there were things we did together to build and support and nurture each other, things we did inside the home to grow as a family.  We also did things outside the home to grow as neighbors.  It wasn’t one or the other; it was both.  We didn’t “just” take care of the family, nor did we “just” look after the neighbors.  It was both.  As church, growing as a family and growing as neighbors are not mutually exclusive.  We are called to do both.

It’s sort of like breathing – you have to breathe in AND breathe out.  What happens if you only breathe in?  You get so puffed up and full of your own hot air you eventually pass out!  And what happens if you only breathe out?  You give out everything you have to give until you eventually pass out!  There’s a rhythm to it, of internal and external – staying healthy requires both.

John Wesley famously said, “The world is my parish.”  By that, he was called to minister to those outside the church walls, to take the message of God’s love and grace to the people who hadn’t darkened the church’s doors.  He didn’t open the door and hope a few wandered in.  The early Methodists took the message beyond themselves, freely sharing God’s love with anyone and everyone.  Methodists have been in mission since the very beginning.  It’s who we are!  By focusing not only on themselves, but on those around them, they were putting their love of God and neighbor into action.  They were known as good neighbors.

In our corner of the world, our parish, how is Morehead Church known?  My prayer is that the people who live within our parish, our neighbors, the people God has entrusted to our love and care, whether they are members or not, whether they have ever darkened our door or not, will know us a good neighbor.  They will know us as warm-hearted and genuine, a people who share freely and generously of what we have, a people who give ourselves for others as Christ has given himself for the world, that we are more concerned with what we can do for them than what they can do for us.  With the help of God, we are called to be good neighbors.

Where are we growing?  What is God’s preferred future for Morehead Church?  We are called to grow in faith.  We are called to grow in grace.  We are called to grow as disciples.  And we are called to grow as neighbors.

May our neighbors know us as good neighbors.  Once they do, watch how many become part of the family.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

God's Preferred Future: Growing as Disciples (Luke 10:25-28, 1 John 2:3-6)

25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”


This is how we know that we know him: if we keep his commandments. The one who claims, “I know him,” while not keeping his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in this person. But the love of God is truly perfected in whoever keeps his word. This is how we know we are in him. The one who claims to remain in him ought to live in the same way as he lived.


Did anyone have a place growing up where you measured your height from time to time?  Maybe at your house or grandma’s – a bedroom or closet door, the wall inside the pantry – somewhere in the house with your name and a series of dates that tracked your growth?


What if we did that in church, too?  What if there was a doorway somewhere with our name on it, where, periodically, God measured our spiritual growth and compared it to where we were a few months ago, a year ago, a decade ago?  Would God say, “Wow!  Look at how far you’ve come!  Look at how much you’ve grown!”


For the last several weeks, we’ve been looking at the ways we are called to grow as a congregation as we move into God’s preferred future.  We’ve already looked at growing in faith and growing in grace.  Today we build on that – in God’s preferred future, Morehead Church will grow as disciples.  May we pray.


In one of my college applications, we were asked to write an essay on this topic: “If you were to have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would it be, and why?”  It was supposed to be a way to let the admissions committee know who your influences were, who were the people you admired most.  I couldn’t think of who to write.  It’s not that I couldn’t think of someone, I thought of so many people, it was hard to narrow it down to just one.


Maybe I should have taken the easy route and written “Jesus.”  Who doesn’t admire Jesus?  Everyone admires Jesus.    Jesus is consistently ranked as one of the most admired people in history.


Admiration has its place.  Much of worship is admiration. However, it is easy and convenient for us to admire Jesus from a distance.  We can admire his teaching, his works, his example, his influence – without having to get too close, without having to consider how his life might affect our lives.


It is easy for us to admire Jesus like some sort of holy fan club, but Jesus isn’t looking for fans; Jesus already has more than enough fans.  No, Jesus is looking for followers.


A disciple is one who follows something or someone else.  An old blessing that was often given to disciples at the time of Jesus was, “May you follow your Master so closely, you are covered with the dust of his feet.”  I love that image – walking so close to Jesus, literally in his footsteps, following his lead, growing more and more like him every day such that we eventually become like him.


That’s a tall order, isn’t it?  To become like Jesus?  Yet, I am called, you are called, we are all called to be like Jesus.  Frederick Buechner said, “Where your feet take you; that is who you are.”


But here’s what I find, and maybe this is true for you, too: my feet have trouble finding the footsteps of Jesus.  My feet take me a lot of different places, many of them very good places, and sometimes I think it’s that desire to go everywhere that keeps us from getting anywhere.


So, let’s keep a singular focus on sticking close to Jesus.


One of the trends across American Christianity right now is that young adults – Generations X and Y, the Millennials, my generation and those younger – are leaving the Church and staying away from the Church in record numbers.


There has been a ton of research on why so many are opting out of church, and there are some excellent resources you can pick up: unChristian by Dan Kimball and Gabe Lyons, When Christians Get it Wrong by Adam Hamilton, They Like Jesus, But Not the Church by Dan Kimball.


Before you start to shake your head and say, “What’s the matter with kids today?  Why, in my day . . .”  Before you do that, much of the research shows that emerging generations rate higher in terms of openness to spirituality and particularly to Jesus than previous generations.  They love Jesus!  They just find that, often, the Church is driven by agendas and conversations that aren’t about Jesus – they see Jesus acting and talking one way, and the Church acting and talking another.


Perhaps it’s not “What’s the matter with kids today,” but an invitation to re-center our lives around Jesus, to lay down other agendas that are simply a distraction, and to whole-heartedly, single-mindedly, authentically focus on Jesus.


How many of the great religious movements throughout history have been a call back to authenticity, and how many of those movements were started by young people?  Methodism began among a bunch of college students at Oxford University.  Martin Luther was 33 when he sparked the Protestant Revolution.  Even Jesus was in his early 30s for his public ministry, and his disciples were mostly young men, including at least a few in their late teens.


It isn’t a generational thing.  It’s a Jesus thing.  Perhaps these young people who are opting out of church are providing us with an opportunity to be who we claim to be, growing up to become more like Jesus.


And yes, growing up can be hard.  Growing up, becoming a mature person comes with certain responsibilities.  I remember being in a big hurry to grow up, especially to get my license and therefore secure my independence.  I hadn’t banked on very grown-up things like car payments, gas, tires, insurance, oil changes – responsibilities that came along with growing up.


Happens in our faith, too.  Sometimes we’d prefer to have a Peter Pan faith – one that doesn’t grow up.  The Church can reinforce that, too.  “We don’t want to burden people with a lot of expectations and responsibilities.  We can’t ask too much of people.  We should just be happy that anyone showed up at all!”


I’ve heard that from church leaders, before.  Not here, thank God, but I’ve heard it.  Way to set the bar high, right?  Talk about creating a culture of mediocrity!  People will rise no higher than the level to which they are challenged.  Expect mediocrity, and people will give you exactly what you asked for.  Expect excellence, and people will dazzle you every time.


Take a look at our membership expectations in the bulletin (see bottom of post).  We have a culture of excellence here.  Being a disciple of Jesus, one who follows him so closely we are covered with the dust of his feet, allows no less.  I’m okay putting responsibilities and expectations on you, because I want you to grow as a disciple.  It’s my job to help you grow as a disciple!  I want you to have a grown-up, mature, Christlike faith; not a Peter Pan faith.  Those membership guidelines – they aren’t about what you’re going to do for the church, they’re about what you’re going to do for yourself as you grow deeper in your discipleship!  We’re making and forming disciples here, folks – that’s important work – important enough that if we really want it, we should be willing to put a bit of time and effort into it.


More than just showing up.  Sitting in a church doesn’t make you a disciple any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car.  It takes more than showing up.  It takes spiritual commitment, adopting the practices that will help grow up and mature as a disciple and become like Jesus.


Last week, we talked about growing in grace, having a warm welcome and embrace for all people as wide as the arms of Jesus himself, because all people are loved by God, created in the image of God, and therefore are of sacred and inestimable worth.  We welcome others because Christ has welcomed us.


This business about growing and becoming like Jesus, that’s another aspect of God’s grace working in us.  Ann Lamott says, “Grace finds us where we are, but it doesn’t leave us there.”  Grace first welcomes us, but it’s not done with us there.  Sitting at the feet of Jesus should make us different, changed, somehow.  Grace welcomes us to Jesus, and then grace continues to transform us to become like Jesus.


Perhaps you’ve heard of the couple who were celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary, and a reporter was sent to interview them.  He said, “Wow, 65 years!  Tell me, sir, what’s your secret to staying married to the same woman for 65 years?”  The man said, “You idiot, it’s been 65 years – she’s not the same woman now she was when we got married!”


Our relationships change and grow over time, don’t they?  Our relationship with God is no different.  Spending time with Jesus changes us.  It changes our priorities.  It changes how we spend our time, talent, and treasure.  It changes our attitudes, our habits, our actions to grow us more like Jesus.


Go back to our membership guidelines.  You’ll see that we set a high bar here, we ask a lot of our members, we expect a lot because it takes a lot to become like Jesus.  Maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t do all of these things,” or “Very few of our members do these things,” yet we don’t lower the bar.  If you want to be an olympic athlete, there’s a high bar for that, same is true for being a disciple.  We keep the bar high.  God expects you to give your best.  God expects excellence and we are giving you an opportunity to shine.  It takes a lot to grow and mature as a disciple.  It takes a lot to become like Jesus.


Maybe as you’ve looked over those membership guidelines, the Holy Spirit has already convicted your heart of where you need to grow.  Things you need to do, things you need to do more of, maybe things you need to not do.  Maybe you have attitudes and behaviors you need to let go of so you can grow and mature to become more like Jesus.


A word on that – sometimes people will say things like “We need some sermons on gossip, because there’s some people around here who need to hear a sermon on that, like old so-and-so.”  It’s tempting to point at the shortcomings of others and diagnose their sins and tell them all the ways they need to repent.  Yet, God does not work in all hearts alike.  Whatever is a barrier in someone else’s spiritual life is between that person and God.  They may ask us to help us with that thing, and it’s a holy privilege to do so.  As people grow in their faith and draw closer to God, God will reveal the things in their life that separate them from God and other people, the things that keep them from growing and flourishing in God’s love.  How about we catch ‘em and let God clean ‘em?


How?  What I want you to do today is commit to growing where you need to.  Don’t worry about where your neighbor needs to grow, focus on where God wants you to grow.  I don’t need to tell you; you already know.  God has already put it on your heart. 


As Dorothy comes to play, spend the next few moments praying about how you are being called to grow, making a plan to grow, and then committing to that plan.  Wherever you are, take a next step, because I hope we will all have a mature, grown-up faith.  Don’t settle for being just a fan of Jesus.  Be a follower.  Follow Jesus so closely, you become like him.
Membership at Morehead United Methodist Church
Membership is a way of saying, “Morehead Church is my church!  I believe in what God is doing here, and I want to grow as a disciple of Jesus Christ here, with these people.”
You do not have to be a member to participate fully in the life of Morehead United Methodist Church.  Everything we do is open to you whether you are a member or not. We consider you part of the Morehead family from the moment you walk in the door. So why join?  Membership is an important act of commitment as you grow deeper in your faith. Membership at Morehead United Methodist Church is an expression of your commitment to the ministry happening in and through this faith community.
What am I committing to if I become a member?
  1. Attend worship at Morehead weekly unless you are sick, out-of-town, or working.
  2. Participate in at least one activity each year designed to help you grow in your faith (Sunday School, Bible study, accountability group, small group, spiritual retreat, etc.).
  3. Give of your time at least once a year through the ministry of Morehead.
  4. Give to fund the ministries of Morehead in proportion to your income, with the goal of tithing (10%).
These commitments are not stringent requirements to be “enforced” or used punitively.  Rather, they demonstrate practices that are consistent in the lives of people who wish to grow as deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ.  We believe that persons who commit to these practices will grow in their relationships with God and with each other.
Growing in God’s grace to become a loving, Christlike person, we ask all members to
  • Be positive and joyful.
  • Seek opportunities to serve others before themselves.
  • Be teachable in all areas.
  • Be slow to speak and quick to listen


In all relationships with others inside and outside the church, we ask all members to

  • Demonstrate respect and grace.
  • Accept differences and value diversity.
  • Publicly support other members, church leaders, staff, and the pastor.
  • Avoid damaging words and actions toward others, including gossip.