Sunday, August 27, 2006

August 27 Sermon--"Does this Offend You?"

Sermon Texts
Eph. 6: 10-20
John 6: 56-69

One year ago this week, we witnessed the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes in recorded history. At least 1836 human lives were lost in hurricane Katrina, and another 705 people are still missing. In my review of this past year’s finances, I noticed that this church gave generously to aid the relief effort. We’ve also had two of our members join a VIM trip to assist in relief and rebuilding efforts. At my church in Western Arkansas, I can remember going down to the motels on hwy. 71 in the days previous and immediately after the disaster to see if any evacuees had made it as far north as Waldron and what we could do to help them. I had no idea what an impact this hurricane would have on my little town in the weeks to come.
After hearing the news that massive amounts of people were going to be brought to Ft. Smith’s national guard base to be housed in barracks, our local ministerial alliance organized to see what we could do to respond to the crisis. Through the community’s willingness, and the help of a local physician of alternative medicines, we were able to turn an abandoned hospital and nursing home into a temporary evacuee shelter that housed 85 former New Orleans residents for 3 months.
Community churches prepared the facilities, we prepared 3 meals a day, we transported people to meet up with loved ones, we took people to the doctor, hosted game nights and social functions, we mourned their losses, we celebrated their reunions and joys.
I remember one week when my friend who was a priest in town held a memorial service for a famous musician and husband of one of our new residents. In the same week, a couple who had not been married before the hurricane decided that if they could make it through this together, they could make it through anything together, local townspeople donated flowers and wedding cakes, and the two were married in the courtyard of the evacuee shelter. We gave the evacuees the gift of hospitality, and in return these people shared their lives with us, brought this little mountain town some more diversity in culture, and helped the people transcend barriers and gel together as a real community. After some settled elsewhere, other evacuees decided to make Waldron their new permanent home and work there.
Sometimes discipleship is something we don’t think we can handle. If you had asked anyone in the town of Waldron if we had the ability or even the willingness to house and care for 85 people who were very different in culture, race, values, etc. for more than 3 months, I think that most people in that town would have said, “NO WAY!” But we did.
Jesus asks his followers, “Does this offend you?” The central theme of the gospel text today is the responses among Jesus’ disciples to his teaching. There was grumbling, disbelief, rejection, betrayal, and finally, confession of faith. We too have encountered teachings and realities that offend us. It might offend our sensibilities of God and love and justice to have witnessed the devastation of the hurricanes on television a year ago this week, or perhaps to experience the trials and tribulations of war. It might offend our belief in God to imagine the tragedies that happen to children every day—and not just to beauty pageant queens like JonBenet Ramsey, but every month in every state, children suffer unimaginable harm at the hands of adults. How can God let this happen? It might offend or embarrass us as Christians when we see other Christians behaving in ways that are thoroughly un-Christian. When Christians act self-righteous or judgmental, or seem oblivious to the ethical demands of accepting Christ as the captain of our lives. Yes, many of us have taken offense. Some people seem to make a living out of taking offense.
We know that as Christians, Jesus expects us to take offense at certain things going on in the world. Jesus asks us to be offended by injustice, by greed, by inequality, by materialism, by worshipping the culture or our nation rather than our God. How do we know when to take offense and when to swallow it and have faith?
When Jesus asks his followers if the strange teaching offended them, he gave them a forward glance of the future. He said, “well, just wait until you see me ascend to where I came from—then what?” In some ways, the difficulties haven’t even begun for the disciples. At this moment, they are merely hanging out with some guy who a lot of people now thought was pretty strange. But soon he wouldn’t be with them in the flesh anymore, and they’d be left with the Spirit and a meal to remember him by. That’s when the going got tough for them. That’s when the divisiveness really began, when they began to be martyred for their faith in this mysterious man.
The Ascension—the “lifting up” in glory into heaven that was bestowed on the most honored prophets of Jesus’ tradition, would happen only after Jesus had been lifted up in shame—lifted up on a cross in mockery and punishment. The crowds wanted to take Jesus by force and make him a king after he distributed the five loaves and two fish and fed 5000—the irony is that the Romans would succeed in taking Jesus by force and making him a king. When they lifted him up on the cross, they hailed him in scorn as the King of the Jews and placed a crown of thorns on his head.
Yes, Jesus knew that more offensiveness was going to occur.
But Jesus didn’t leave us naked to withstand these offenses on our own. Our faith tradition shows us that sometimes the best way to deal with the offensiveness of the world is to have a good DE-fence!
Ephesians tells us that we have been left implements of battle to defend ourselves against the onslaught of the powers of Evil. Though the world may seem like it is closing in on us—though it may seem dark and inhospitable and hopeless, we are to be strong in the Lord’s power.
Harkening back to passages in Isaiah, the writer of Ephesians reminds us to fasten truth around our waste like a belt. We are to wear righteousness like a breastplate. Our shoes should be our proclamation of the Good News of peace.
I remember the locker room of the Arkadelphia Badgers on Friday evenings, how there would be a change in the air when we all got our pads on in preparation for the game. We would feel ready—we would feel excited and pumped up. Some of us would go around hitting things with our shoulderpads, or would walk up to each other and crack our helmets like battling rams on a mountainside. Yes! When we are given the tools we need, our mindset changes. We get in the zone—we put on our “game-face” and focus on the task at hand—fighting to win!
Now, just to clarify: I would put on pads and a helmet like all the other football players before the game, and it did make me feel ready—but unfortunately all I really needed to get ready to do was to go stand on the sideline for about 2 hours.
Yes, I’d walk around the room slamming my shoulderpads into lockers, but it was less about getting pumped up and more because I wanted to do something to justify me actually putting them on. I would crack helmets with one or two of my friends who actually played, but more to help them get amped up—it usually just gave me a headache.
We are given faith like a shield, salvation like a helmet, and the Spirit Sword, which is the Word of God. This last piece of our arsenal calls our attention to Isaiah 49, where God lifts up the Messiah as “the light to all nations,” whose mouth is like a sharp sword.
Yes, sometimes Jesus’ did have a mouth like a sharp sword. His words divided families, they divided truth from fact, they cut a crowd of people eager to make him king into a remnant of believers, who wouldn’t back down just because they didn’t understand. They knew these sharp words held eternal life, and they wouldn’t let go of this wild man—no matter how fierce things got.
I ask God that we have the same willingness. That we have the courage and fortitude to say, “We’ll be right here with you, Jesus,” when the big party is over--When the miracles aren’t as apparent as they are in the high times. I want to be with Jesus through thick and thin—and I hope you do as well. Whether or not that describes you—I want you to know that he is with you through thick and thin. He never gives up on you and he is always willing to take you in with open arms. He wants to share his very being with you. He wants to live in your life and turn your life into something new, something lasting, something eternal.
I want to feel my faith like a shield in my hand. The Greek word here for shield isn’t just the small shield you see gladiators use to deflect blows from a sword. It is the word for the large shield that covers the whole body. The kind that when wielded as a group created the unstoppable Greek phalanx—the Greek military tactic of making a group of warriors into an impenetrable force. This is a good image for the power of community--The power of having faith within a group of people who also have faith. If we have faith together, we are impenetrable.
I look back on my high school football career and regret not having more competitiveness, part of the problem with me not getting any playing time was the fact that I also played in the band. So when everyone else on the football team would be in the locker room during half time, I’d go out in my football uniform and play with the marching band.
Sometimes along the journey of faith, we need to focus on the task at hand. Sometimes we want to do it all—we want to live life to the fullest. The funny thing is, when we fill, fill, fill our lives to the brim, and shortchange our faith life, we don’t end up feeling fulfilled at all. We should instead pour our being into our walk of faith. We should invest ourselves into our relationship with this man who wants to be for us the Bread of LIFE. If we are nourished first by this bread, we may find that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
We have the opportunity today to put on our armor. The men and women we have entrusted with the highest authority in our church have issued an appeal: Fund the rebuilding of the church in the Gulf region. Through your donations today, the United Methodist Church will be rebuilt, clergy will be assigned to areas struggling to be rebuilt and reborn. The infrastructure of the United Methodist Connection today is re-claiming spiritual “power-lines” that went down in a storm a year ago.
Jesus asked his disciples, “Do you want to leave as well?” Peter, speaking for the disciples, said, “To whom else would we go? You have the words of eternal life!” Through your contributions today and in the next couple weeks, we have the opportunity that those words of eternal life are heard loud and clear in a region that needs badly to hear them.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Bishop's Appeal--Rebuilding the Church in the Gulf

Click the link to watch a special video outlining the Bishop's appeal for which we will be taking a special offering this Sunday.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Aug. 20 Sermon, "Mystery Meat"

Proverbs 9: 1-6
John 6: 51-58

It has been a week now since school started, and perhaps you teenagers or teachers have already been served a legendary meal in the school cafeteria: mystery meat. I remember my days in the school cafeteria—some of you would probably point out that it wasn’t that long ago.
I remember as a 1st grader at Root elementary school capturing the attention of my whole table by taking my milk carton and pretending it was a monster truck and the little compartments filled with the leftover food were the different mud-pits and other kinds of obstacles that the monster truck had to ramp and race through. My tray became a mess of food and the screams of delight and horror of my little colleagues gave way to the horrible sound of Seth, the kid across from me, throwing up his lunch as he was overcome by the entertainment I was providing.
Yes, the infamous mystery meat of the public school system leaves a similar pit in the stomach. My wife and I have differing opinions on the value of mystery meat. She confessed to me less than a month ago that she actually really enjoyed the burgers at school. “Do you think that those were soy burgers?” she asked me. “Who knows?” I answered her.
It seems that Jesus’ audience was just as flummoxed by his teaching that we heard today. According to the text, not only was the audience offended, but some of his own disciples stopped believing at this point and stopped following. Eat my flesh and drink my blood and you will have eternal life, says Jesus. Huh? says the world. Even the Biblical literalists don’t accept these words of Jesus at face value.
We hear the words in the context of our celebration of communion, but the problem is, at the time Jesus spoke these words, the Eucharist had not yet been instituted. Actually, the gospel of John contains no story of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, but if the timeline is compared, Jesus at this point in his career had not yet covered that subject with his disciples.
What could Jesus possibly mean when he said these words? Did Jesus go back to camp later that night as my son sometimes comes home from daycare—with bite marks on his arm, or back? Were there those who heard Jesus and followed, expecting that Jesus was going to offer himself in some kind of cannibalistic ritual?
This text illustrates perfectly the reasons we have for reading the text of the Bible in a way that frees its words from face value. A contemporary theologian, Sallie McFague, says that “metaphor is a strategy of desperation, not decoration.” Jesus was speaking with desperation. He had just fed 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish and was now being followed by a multitude who wanted to “take him by force and make him king.” What we read today was the third installment of a discourse where he tries to hammer into his audience’s mind that HE is the bread they should be hungry for. He moves from speaking about his words as bread to referring to his very flesh and blood as the bread these hungry crowds should consume.
I think it is wonderful for us to hear texts from the Bible that leave us puzzled. This puzzlement has the power to trip us into the real practice of faith. In Zen philosophy, there is a practice called the koan. The koan is a riddle that is unanswerable to the rules of logic. Zen masters give their students a riddle such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping, or what did your face look like before you were born, and then asked to meditate on that question for weeks at a time. The students are called before the master periodically and asked to give an answer to the question, and when they inevitably get it wrong, they are slapped on the back with a stick and told to go try again. Eventually after weeks of contemplating the koan, the riddle will become a roadblock to the intellect and ego and will allow the mind to travel onward into the realm of enlightenment.
Sometimes the mysteries of our faith give us a route to truth outside the realm of logic and factual information. The great blunder of 20th century theology is to hold up the truths of our scripture to the limited capacities of knowing that are encompassed by fact and logic. We can delve more deeply into this and other texts if we unloose our minds from the hitch of fact and let them run free in the pasture of metaphor.
So, what could Jesus mean by referencing this “mystery meat?” Jesus gives us another reference to bounce his teaching up against. He says, “This is the true bread from heaven, not like the manna that your ancestors ate. They ate and died. Anyone who eats this bread will live eternally.” We are one step closer to discerning what Christ is by defining what Christ is not.
You may or may not be familiar with the story he’s referring to from Exodus 16. Here, the slaves from Egypt are in transit to the promised land, and they are out of food. They grumble and complain and wish they had never left their shackles and chains, and go to Moses—“Who is this God we’re following that would let us go hungry? Take us back to Egypt!” God heard the grumbling and complaining and caused the dew to become bread for the people to eat. But the bread only sustained their bodily life—it didn’t transform their hearts! In the next chapter, the people are complaining about water, and then they complain about the lack of diversity in their diet.
I found wisdom in Paul Stroble’s recent article on this scripture passage in the most recent Christian Century. He writes, “IN my own spiritual path, sometimes I’ve confused manna for living bread. Both are God-given, but manna doesn’t nourish indefinitely. Think of manna as the aspects of the church life that are suitable and grace-full, but fleeting. Manna is the preaching style of a certain pastor whom you love (but what do you do when a new pastor comes along with a different style)?
Manna is the program ministry of the congregation, or the church’s music, wonderful and beneficial but sometimes a source of disagreement. Manna is the small group to which you’re attached—but people move away and the group magic disappears. Manna is the congregation that you love—that you’d rather would never change. And what if a crisis in your congregation brings out the worst in the people you trusted as spiritual models? Our walk with Christ can be hampered, even ruined, when we allow impermanent aspects of church to define our spiritual journey.
Christ on the other hand, is the bread that gives us meaning. Christ gives us eternal life. The living bread doesn’t just fill our belly, it changes our heart.
The Ephesians text this week said “don’t get drunk on wine, for that cheapens your life. Instead, fill yourself with the Holy Spirit! That will lead you to life-enriching behavior. Yes, what great images to contrast—filled with wine to the extent that we are disoriented, impaired, slow-witted vs. filled with Spirit to the extend that we are oriented, enabled, intelligent. Spirit vs. spirits. Permanent and eternal vs. fleeting and consequential. Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
Christ says that it is the will of the Lord that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood “abide in him” and he abides in us. Abide is a word that I often translate as “make a home in.” For John, the basis of faith in Christ is a relationship. It is one that can be characterized as making a home in each other.
When we eat something, the nutrients that it gives us are absorbed in our intestines and are incorporated into our very cells. Christ wants to be part of our lives. Christ doesn’t want to just walk alongside us and leave footprint in the sand. Christ isn’t just asking to be our lifelong buddy, a loyal golden retriever, or a constant companion. Christ wants to live in us. Christ wants to become part of us—wants us to be nourished by his presence in our lives. Not just in our lives like our spouse or children or friends are “in our lives” as a part of the life that is lived by the individual “you.” Christ offers us the chance to live eternally. We don’t live eternally without his presence inside of us because we don’t have the power to do that. What I call “me” is temporary. It is made from dust and it will return to dust. But the aspect of “me” that I give to Christ lives through Christ’s power to move beyond death.
This isn’t just an idea to accept and give assent to. It is not just a belief. It is not a doctrine to be saluted so that we can all go to heaven. Christ’s life in us is a way of living. It is living in the light. It is living as a child of the light. And it’s not just ethics or morality. Living in the light is a life in the presence of God’s life in us. It is abiding, or making a home in Christ—and in so doing making a home for Christ in us.
And the amazing thing is that this is just one of the meanings of these texts that we’ve read today. It unfolds further, and a life in Christ guides us into the mystery. The mystery is not a riddle to be solved. It is a riddle that saves.
Jesus wants to help us get by—Jesus wants to be for us that bread in the wilderness that sustains us and keeps us going. But that’s not all Jesus wants to do. Jesus wants to give us new hearts. As the prophet Ezekial wrote, “I will take your hearts of stone and give you hearts of flesh.” Christ wants to set our hearts on fire so that we may live like lighthouses, exposing the darkness and bringing others into the light.
Are you open and willing to let Christ in to your life—literally? Not just as a friend, but as food? Today’s passage from Proverbs gives a metaphor for wisdom as a rich woman throwing a housewarming party. Lady Wisdom’s household is complete, it is represented by the seven pillars of the house—which represent completeness. The table is set and the servents are sent to spread the invitation far and wide. The meal is lavish—meat and bread and wine. This image is contrasted with the other household that offers distractions that mask death. And the “strange woman” of the house sits out in the street on a stool, hawking her wares.
Are you willing to be shaped and nourished by his word—the true bread from heaven? Christ transcends time and space and offers himself as a full course (lifelong) meal. We can dine with Lady Wisdom and accept this invitation, or we can go down the street and stuff ourselves silly with Dame Folly. The choice is ours.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Notes/impressions from Cottage meetings on the nature of discipleship

Here are the notes that Nathan recorded from the five cottage meetings that were conducted over the last two weeks. If you are motivated to respond to any of the comments that people had at these meetings, you can respond in the "comments" section at the end of this post. IF you would like to remain anonymous, you can comment anonymously. Also--the notes are scrambled--they are not in order of when the cottage meeting was held. I hope this motivates further discussion and action in this facet of our church.

Impressions from Cottage meetings

Discipleship involves loyalty, willingness to follow, willingness to help others follow, commitment to giving of oneself,committment. Being motivated to share the gospel. Identifying our gifts and giving them in return to the church, discipleship involves being able to work together and accept one another within the family of faith.

What we need to increase/strengthen/deepen discipleship:
A resurgence of Sunday school, strengthened youth program. Some feel like adults are set in their ways, but youth can still be molded to be disciples.

We need to make a stand in our culture. We are challenged by a culture that doesn't seem to place as much of a value on faith life anymore. We in the church don't value the teachings of our faith anymore. The example of our failure to observe the Sabbath was given as an example.
Question? What would it look like if members of the church made a covenant with one another to observe a real Sabbath on Sunday which would include not going shopping, not patronizing any eating establishments, not working. Instead, Sabbath day would be observed by spending time with family and friends, relaxing and resting, praying, enjoying leisure, etc?
Impression was that we know we need to take Sabbath more seriously, but how are we to do it when we feel so busy? Hmm.

Most members feel that the worship services are motivating, rejuvenating, and attractive to others. We want to share that excitement with our community but how?
Ideas sometimes a sermon series is an easier thing to invite friends and family to. Something pastor has done before is a sermon series on what makes the UMC distinctive.
People seem to appreciate that the sermons are based on the scripture and expand the witness of the scripture.

We need a foundation of knowledge of our stories of faith.

How can we pattern our lives after Jesus if we don't know (like the back of our hand) what Jesus did.

For the UMC to better create disciples, we need stronger leadership. Don't feel compelled by the majority of the clergy. Parish doesn't understand the iteneracy and feel it is a roadblock to making disciples. Big parishes don't have to worry about this as much because they can keep a pastor for more than 3 or 4 years. Small parishes view themselves as having a rotating door, and sense that the community is not attracted to that.

We need to live in a way and challenge each other in a way that shows that we are committed to something that faith makes a difference in a life, it is not just a social club.

We need more accountability within the church. With regard to giving and tithing, we need to be more responsible with the budget of the church. We need a stewardship campaign: building the budget on a pledge.

As members of the church, we need the accountability with one another to know that membership means something. Discipleship means showing up. It means not quitting when we don't agree with something that happens in the church.

Discipleship involves open and honest communication within church.

Discipleship involves speaking the truth in love, building up one another with our words and deeds.

We need to be find ways to make our worship and congregational life appealing to those who do not find church interesting.

Bible Study: we need to be more intentional about focusing on scripture.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

August 13 Sermon--What Comes out of Our Mouths

Sermon Texts
Ephesians 4: 25-5:2
Matthew 15: 10-20

Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me.
I remember my mother drilling this into me as a kid. I’m sure you are unsurprised to learn that I was a dorky, nerdy little kid, and so that little mantra was an important part of helping me develop a good self esteem despite the fact that I’d heard a lot of taunts and jokes.
Despite my mother’s best intentions, I’m afraid the mantra is a bit off the mark. It’s a little bit of wishful thinking. Words can and do hurt us, sometimes more than broken bones. The words don’t have to be name calling. Sometimes they are simple words that carry a large weight in meaning. “You can’t,” or “You should.” Sometimes even nice words can be hurtful if they are turned sideways with the intention of cutting. William Blake wrote, “A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.” How true!
In Ephesians we hear that we are to be tellers of the truth in Love. We should save our speech for building up others, not tearing them down. The words we speak should represent the purity and forgiveness we find in the sacrifice made by Christ. They should be a fragrant offering to God. They should echo the words of our savior. We should be like little children imitating their parents.
(((((((Story about Wesley mimicking me the other day at youth group.))))))) I was launching into some monolog at youth group while the youth dutifully listened. Wesley climbed up in the chair next to me an sat facing the youth and started saying “jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, jab…” He kept speaking as I stopped talking and everyone looked at him, laughing. Yes, children do imitate their parents!
Jesus and the leaders of the early church were less concerned about the ways that we honor God in our rituals and customs and more concerned with how we honor God through our actions toward one another and the way that we speak to one another.
Christ was sick of the religious know it alls claiming to know all about purity. God’s statutes carried down through the ages were designed to preserve a sense of culture and community, but Jesus saw them destroying community. The Pharisees observed the fact that Jesus and his disciples neglected to wash their hands before eating. They had probably noticed the repulsive filth that Jesus chose to fraternize with, and were especially concerned that those types were washed off of your hands before one put food and drink into the body, which was a temple of God.
Jesus knew that the Temple of God was soiled more by our intentions than by neglecting to observe ritual and custom. What proceeds from the mouth comes from the heart, but what goes into the mouth merely passes through our body. The rituals we believe make us holy and acceptable in the eyes of God are merely transitory, but the words that we say are permanent impressions left on the world. Do we hear this message today?
Jesus doesn’t define these things that come out of our mouths “words,” he calls them evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. If “words” may never hurt me, then why does Jesus equate them with murder? Have you ever murdered someone with your mouth? I would suggest that many of us have at one time or another. We get so carried away with voicing our anger or our frustrations that we may indeed find ourselves alone. We’ve murdered our relationships and people have fallen away from us one by one.
Have you ever committed adultery with your words? Many of us have spoken with lust and desire about a person other than our spouse, many of us in heated arguments have said things to our spouse that we may later regret. How does this amount to adultery? Jesus tells us that it does!
You see, God’s temple within us is attempting to bubble up affirmation, hope, agape. When we force aside these things in favor of gossip or rumors or lies or hurtful words, we desecrate God’s temple within us. This is what Jesus means my defiling the heart. The heart is such a strange organ isn’t it. It wields such power to hurt or to heal. It seems as though it is connected directly to our throats. Sometimes I wish its products went through my brain first though!
Now, it doesn’t defile the temple within us to simply get angry. Ephesians tells us it does us well to be angry. Anger is an emotion that can be led toward positive ends. Many systems of oppression and injustice would not have changed in the world if people believed it was unholy to be angry. When we allow our anger to consume us—when we give it more time than it is due—it provides a foothold for the devil. Prolonged anger at other people may open us to the temptation to display behavior that is not reflective of our life in Christ.
So what can we do to stem the tide of anger? Address it when we feel it! Don’t be nervous ninnies when it comes to confronting a problem. If we are honest about our anger or our hurt feelings to our neighbor or family member by speaking the truth in love, we may find that our anger dissolves instead of erupting in our life. If we’re open and honest in communication, we may find that problems resolve instead of spiraling out of control into hurtful messes.
We can also live a life that is propelled by the Spirit by practicing edifying speech—speech that is constructive, rather than destructive. Complaining all the time is destructive. Accentuate the positive, eliminaaate the negative is how Baloo the bear tells Mogli the “man cub” in the Jungle Book. I’ve always loved that song. That’s what Ephesians tells us as well. Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.
30Don't grieve God. Don't break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don't take such a gift for granted.
31-32Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.
This way of life is living the good news. You know, from some of the conversations I’ve had this week, I’ve gathered that we can sense there are expectations to discipleship that we don’t really feel from anyone in the church. There is no accountability—we’ve become satisfied by merely coming to church, hearing a good story or two, singing some hymns, and then going on with our daily lives. But we are called to more. Discipleship and membership in the church means that there are goals we strive to live up to. One of the purposes of us gathering here is so that we might encourage our brothers and sisters in faith. The text in Ephesians says it quite plainly: 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.
How many of us have experienced the opposite here in church? When we forget our purpose and forget the grace that has been given us, it is time for us to be renewed in hope and perfected in love. We do have an obligation—it is to build each other up, as we focused on at the beginning of August at the church retreat—as we spoke together when we received John into membership in this church last month. Our church states that each one of you who are baptized is a minister of God. Your bulleting says it right on the inside—Ministers—all of the church!” What does it mean to minister to someone? It means building them up. It means carrying out the virtues and the ethic that has been spoken of today in our Ephesians text. It means that we live as a purified sanctuary of God—that we aren’t despoiled by what comes out of our mouths.
Today I’m calling you to respond to this sermon in an interactive kind of way. On this altar is a trash can. Traditionally we’ve put on the altar those things which are most important to us—we celebrate the scripture and the Lord’s table on the altar. In the days of Jesus, a sacrifice was made on the altar in the Temple for the sins of Israel. Today I’d like us to offer a tangible form of repentance on this altar. Take some time while the following song is playing to remember an instance in your life when you have let your words defile the dwelling place of the Holy within you.
Your heart has a long memory. Though we may convince our minds to forget our darkest moments, they make an imprint on our heart that can only be relieved by God’s forgiving grace. God’s forgiveness is so much more sweet when we reconcile our wrongs within the community. We have all said things that have hurt others, sometimes in spite, sometimes in ignorance, sometimes in frustration. Let your heart search itself for a time when it gave birth to words that defile. Write those words on the slips of paper that I have put in the pews, then bring it to the urn here on the altar. I will take these papers and burn them and add the ashes to the burned palms for our imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday next year.
As the song “Sanctuary” plays, you may join in singing if you wish. The words bring home the message of today’s scripture. We call on God’s grace to prepare us to be the Sanctuaries of God’s Spirit. The things that come out of our mouth that defile this sanctuary cannot be erased—but they can be forgiven. We cannot take back the words that we give life to, but we can add other words of repentance, hope, love, compassion, and joy. If we continue to ask for God’s preparation in our lives, God’s inspiration will guide us toward more filling and creative lives.
After you cleanse the temple through this silent time of confession, think of what you might say to someone else in this congregation to build up the body of Christ in this congregation. Who have you been impressed by, who has deserved a congratulations? Who has needed encouragement? After church—tell that person what has been laid on your heart. If we think it and don’t say it, that stifles the movement of the Holy Spirit. Don’t be embarrassed! Build each other up—It is a mark of our baptism for our words to give grace to one another. For we are members—one of another! Amen!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Devotionals from Family Life Retreat

First Devotional--Interactive, go at your own pace movement through 5 stations which included these meditations:

Knowing who you are:
The book of Ephesians, chapter 4 states that while we are all on the same path toward glorifying God, we also walk that path in various ways. Around the room you’ll find different aspects of a building that represent these four gifts to the church as a whole. Visit the different stations and consider if any describe you. In order for us to “build the church” we need to know what it is that we bring to the building project.

Bricks. (Hold a brick in your hand as you read the following)
Bricks are strong and sturdy. They are uniform and fit well with one another. Bricks don’t get to choose where they go on the building, they just go where they are placed. The word apostle means “sent.” Perhaps your heart tells you that you glorify God best by going where you are sent. You may feel God is sending you to another country to help people. You may feel God sending you to the hospital to visit the sick. You may feel God sending you to the finance committee to volunteer as the church treasurer.

The point is that Apostles are constantly open to where God is sending them. Sometimes the job God is calling us to do does not seem all that glorious. It may be raking the leaves of an elderly person in the church, or mowing the pastor’s yard, or showing a new person around at school. But an apostle understands that anything is glorious that we are called to by God.

Devotion for brick/apostle—Sing or simply read the lyrics of “Here I am Lord.” How does that song speak through your life?

Blueprint. (Add a room to the blueprint in progress on the table) –Compass, protractor, eraser, etc. also fills the table.
Every building needs a blueprint. A blueprint guides the progress of a building. We have a great blueprint for the church in the Bible—but God also uses creative minds to interpret our scriptures for our particular context. Prophets are people to whom God chooses to reveal the blueprint for the Kingdom of God. Sometimes this involves speaking truth to power or living a life that is counter to the culture we usually unquestionably accept. Prophets have an eye on the blueprint and an eye on the world as it is. If we have been building without the use of the blueprint, our structure may be lopsided or structurally unsound or even dangerous. A prophet sometimes has to show where we need to correct our faults.

Devotion for Blueprint reader/Prophet—Elijah was a prophet who knew how to listen to God. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah goes to a cave to seek God. After an earthquake, fire, and hail, Elijah keeps listening for the voice of God because he didn’t hear it in any of those things. Then he hears the sound of sheer silence, and a “still, small voice” comes to him. Use the meditation tools
to quiet your mind so that you may focus on the still small voice that carries the blueprint of God.

Door—this station is either at a door.

“Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” is the motto of our denomination. Doors are passageways for people to walk through. Doors might be opened to find someone we don’t really expect, or even someone who may be unwelcome, such as a salesman, a Jehovah’s Witness, or someone unpopular. Some of us have probably experienced having a door literally or figuratively “slammed in our face.”
Evangelism is about opening the door to the church. It is about sharing God’s grace with others who may not know it. It is about sharing your story with others so that others may find some connection with the truth and grace of God.

Devotional for Door/Evangelist—With someone else, take turns being on either side of a door. First, go to the outside of the door and stand with your face as close as possible to the door as it is closed in your face. What does that feel like? Then go to the other side and open the door and help your partner through. What is the difference? Talk with your partner about your story of coming to church and why you think faith is important. Whom have you shut the door on in your life?

Window—this station is at a window.
Windows are important because they let the light into a building. Some windows can also be opened to let in the fresh air. The art and gift of teaching is a gift to the church because it lets in the light and sometimes the fresh air. Without teachers, a church becomes ignorant because it is not educated about itself or the world. Without teachers, a church becomes stuffy because it doesn’t let in the fresh winds of change which sometimes challenge us. Teachers are willing to pull back the drapes and let the light in. They are willing to open the windows and let the Holy Spirit come blowing in.

Devotional for Window/Teacher
Stained glass windows were meant to educate a church that was mostly illiterate in the Middle Ages. The windows told stories about the Bible and about the doctrines of the Church. Take the wax paper and crayolas and write or draw a representation of something you have learned in the church, then tape it in the window to create a stained glass window with other people’s contributions.

Alternative Station—This table has nails, shingles, wood, stone, other building materials.
The gifts of prophets, apostles, teachers, and evangelists are four mentioned in Ephesians, but they are by no means the only “walks of life” along the path toward the Kingdom. Perhaps none of these struck a chord in you. Are there other building materials that represent a calling that you feel? God gives us individual talents and lives. What represents your gifts as a member of the Household of God?

Examples: nails hold things together, wood provides a frame (perhaps a person whose family has been foundational in a church), stone reminds us of a solid foundation, or as a strong exterior, saw or awl shapes wood, gives fine detail, etc. etc.

Our second session focused on collaboration. Assigned groups were given a box full of odds and ends and asked to create something that signified our church. The creations were inventive and indeed reflective of who we are as a body of faith.

Our third sesion gave us three questions to answer individually. How has Jesus changed my life? Where is Christ found in my church? and Why would someone want to come to my church? The questions were intended to help us practice evangelism. We need to be able to relate to another person, in 3 minutes or less, why Christ is important to us, how Christ is made known through our church, and why someone should come to our church!

The three sessions were intended to be "building blocks" of the church. First, we should identify our gifts and how we might share those gifts with our family of faith. Secondly, we should learn how to work with others so that our gifts can have harmony with other's gifts. Third, we should all find a way to share our story with others so that they may come to know Jesus and share their gifts as we walk the faith together.

We had a great time and 72 people were in attendance. Pictures are below!

Below are photos of our recent Family life church Retreat. Here, lunch preparations are made

enjoying the river

Jessica operates the ferry from the dining hall to the river for a while

More lunch

Eva gets the RandR award

What we Methodists do best

Wade in the water!

At the water's edge

Before you float--you've gotta have something that floats!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

August 6 sermon--"Bread of Life"

Sermon Texts:
Ephesians 4: 1-16
John 6: 24-35

Why do we follow Christ? Are we waiting around for the physical rewards, the equivalent of a full belly as Jesus accuses the people of in the gospel reading. Do we follow Christ because we think it is good “networking” to come to church? Do we follow Christ because we simply like the fellowship and feeling of belonging? These things are certainly needs—and they are things that being a Christian certainly provides. But they’re not the point of faith. They are not the “living bread,” that Jesus describes. When we ask Jesus what is required to live a life according to God’s will, he says that believing in him is God’s will, and that he—Jesus Christ—is the Bread of Life.
He takes the crowd’s physical hunger and he points out the fact that they should be more concerned about their spiritual hunger. Jesus shows us that he has come into the world to pacify that hunger. He has embodied God so that we may know how real God is.
That’s why communion is so important to me. When I hand you the bread, I tell you “Sister, or Brother—this is the Bread of Life!” It is the Christ in our presence. It is a reminder that Christ is and was as real and tangible as that bread that you put in your mouth and chew and swallow. It is a reminder that through Jesus Christ, God came into the world and breathed, walked, had to take baths, loved, got cranky, felt rejected, felt abandoned.
The bread that you put in your mouth and the juice that you swallow are reminders that GOD is indeed the Bread of Life. God is not only some mysterious, cosmic, beyond our capabilities of understanding Being, God is in the dirt under your fingernails, God is in the sweat on your eyebrow, God is in the Owl that hoots at my front door, and God is in the field-mouse that that Owl hunts at night.
The life of Jesus meant that God was incarnate. God was in the flesh. God comes to us in the flesh so that we can relate to God and give our burdens to God. And according to Paul and the tradition of our church, God is present in us, and in the whole world. God is in us in the form of the Holy Spirit, who is with us and in us when we are “in-spired” and “in-spiring” to others.
The letter of Ephesians tells us that though we are on the same path and are one Body, this doesn’t mean that we are inspired and inspiring to others in the same way. We are given the gifts of apostle, prophet, teacher, evangelist. What do these words mean? It means that it is a gift to be sent by Christ (apostle means sent). It is a gift to speak truth to power—which is what a prophet does. It is a gift to teach—especially the little children, according to the Gospel. It is a gift of God to be able to spread the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness.
Why are we following Jesus? After being a part of that miracle of the multiplication and distribution of 5 loaves and 2 fishes, would we be following this man because we knew he could get us something? Would we be tagging along because he could fill our bellies? Our worldly concerns always miss the point of who this person is that we follow and call savior. Jesus’ own disciples argue who’s going to sit on Jesus’ right and left sides when Jesus talks about his kingdom.
I love a line from the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ” when two disciples are talking about what they’re going to get when Jesus becomes king and they of course become his trusted landowners. Philip is the character who’s always concerned about his sheep. “I’m going to ask for some more sheep, and some goats!” They just don’t get it! Why are you following me? Jesus asks—do you hope to “get” something out of it?
“I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE,” Jesus tells them. I asked you to fast this past Sunday because I hoped that if you spent the day refraining from eating, if you interrupted the normal routine, you might open your eyes to the Bread of Life. The miracle in your midst. I hoped that you might take this experience and share it with others, so that they too might see the miracles in our midst.
I was happy with the stories I heard. I heard that some of you spent the day discussing the scripture, I heard that some of you really did fast and struggle with it. Why did you do it? I invited you to because I know you are hungry for something more, something deeper, than what you may find in the everyday routine. I invited you to fast with me because I knew I needed to fast so that I could key in to the feast that is in the moment.
To be honest, sometimes when I am doing something for the sake of “spiritual renewal,” there is no magic, there’s nothing different at the time I’m doing it. But as I carry on again with normalcy, the lessons of that “spiritual practice” may come to me later. I have had only a few spiritual experiences that were gut grabbing and attention getting in the moment that they happened—most of the spiritual refreshment I have experienced is in the reflection on something that I did for the purpose of drawing closer to God. God isn’t bound by time—sometimes when we try and try to draw close to God, God’s movement toward us may not be felt until the following day, the following week, or even the following year. But in that moment that we know God came close, we see that God’s presence has always been there. That’s the Bread of Life. That’s why LIFE is the BREAD.
When I share with you the sacrament of communion, I believe what I am sharing with you is the best, most time tested method, of communicating God’s presence. If it were up to me, we’d celebrate communion every Sunday—and my sermons would be shorter to accommodate it! This table is what is important, because it shows us through our taste buds, through our eyes, through our smell, through our touch, and in the liturgy through our ears, that God is with us. It brings the Psalm to life—“O taste and see that God is good!”