8/25/2013 Sermon: “No Excuses”

DSCN0688
Melissa in the Dominican Republic. 2013 – CN.

[This sermon was delivered at the 2nd worship service at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Manheim, PA.   At the close of worship, shortly after the sermon, Melissa S. received laying on of hands and prayer as she was commissioned for missionary service in Spain through Brethren in Christ World Missions. St. Paul’s UCC is her sending church.]

About 600 years before Christ, Jeremiah was a young man just minding his own business in the southern kingdom of Judah when he says,…

Jeremiah 1:4  The word of the LORD came to me, saying, 5  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

6  “Ah, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.”

7  But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.

9  Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “Now, I have put my words in your mouth.  10  See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

It seems to me, as I’ve thought about calling to ministry and what it involves, and the process one goes through as they accept an authentic call from God, it works out something like this:

There is…

  1. Hearing.  God speaks and plants an idea.  God gives an assignment and a vision, and it just won’t go away.
  2. Doubt.  God, were you really talking to me?  Surely, you need someone else.
  3. Opposition.  Someone or something stands in your way. God gives the courage you need when it seems like everything and everyone is against you.
  4. Fulfillment.  God acts, often in a way that contrasts what you have been thinking. This fulfillment can only come when you stop trying to be God, and let God do what God does.

The passage from Jeremiah is a reading you and I might normally hear at ordination services.  Most often, someone has just taken vows of service to God, or is about to, when they hear these words:  “I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.”  (Jeremiah 1:5)  And Jeremiah hears.

In the 7th century B.C., those nations include Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt – the superpowers of the time.  The tiny kingdom of Judah, where Jeremiah lives, is between them, so the challenge for the people and their leaders is to survive without completely selling out, to have faith in their God.  But they are afraid.  God needs someone to remind the people whom they belong to.  And of all people, it’s Jeremiah.

Jeremiah is probably a teenager when he hears God’s call.  The natural response is to look for a way out.  “Ah, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.”  (Jeremiah 1:6)  Jeremiah doubts.

God was asking Jeremiah to go speak to people (adults!) who had turned their backs to God, so it’s understandable that he was looking for a way out.  God, I’m too young!  They’re too old!  There’s always an excuse – God I’m too old, God, I’m way too busy, God I’m too… (fill in the blank).  God, I don’t have enough talent, God, you might ask me to do something embarrassing. God, I might lose friends.  God….. I’m afraid.

But Jeremiah understands that his relationship with God will not allow him to walk away from the thing God needs Jeremiah, and only Jeremiah, to do.  Jeremiah can’t just not do what God says.  So God gave him the courage he needed in spite of himself.

 7  But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.  8  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.

Good thing God speaks like this to Jeremiah, good thing God gives encouragement in dark times, because everything and everybody is opposed to what Jeremiah does and says.  There is opposition to Jeremiah from the beginning of his ministry to the end.

I’ve wondered about using Jeremiah as a good example of calling to ministry on days like this.  Jeremiah didn’t have crazy-good success.  He never started a mega-church.  It doesn’t seem like he was even able to put together a good small-group ministry.

The fact was, people really didn’t want to hear what he had to say.  Nobody.  Not his family, not his friends, not his neighbors, and for sure not the kings of his time.  Not anybody, ever. But somehow, Jeremiah was able to get the kings to at least listen.  God had told Jeremiah…

“Now, I have put my words in your mouth.  10  See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Jeremiah’s calling is to bring change!  King Zedekiah’s people were so upset with Jeremiah – because he kept saying these things they didn’t want to hear, because he kept saying the words God put in his mouth, that they grabbed him and threw him in a pit.  A cistern, a place where rain-water collects, except there hadn’t been any rain.  Jeremiah’s faithful response to God has him knee–deep in mud.  Maybe deeper.  In the dark.  With no way out.  Alone.

About 30 years ago, I was in a preaching class, and the assignment was to write a verse on a scrap of paper, put it in a bowl, and then we were to draw out one of these slips of paper and preach from it for 3 minutes.  Extemporaneous preaching, it’s called.  The verse I put in the bowl was Jeremiah 38:12.

12Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, ‘Just put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes.’ Jeremiah did so.

Somebody took it out and read it aloud to the class, and everybody laughed.  I’m pretty sure the professor said, “You can pass on that one.”

Well, today it’s not so much of a joke to me.  A fuller version of the story goes like this:

God put it on the heart of one of the king’s servants, a black man, a black eunuch, to go to the king on behalf of Jeremiah to save him.  The polite way to describe a eunuch is “an ineffective man.”  Ebed-melech puts together a team of people to pull Jeremiah from the pit.  He knows that Jeremiah is weak, and the ropes will hurt him, so he brings rags to wrap around the ropes.  He might be the only person in the entire book who shows any care of any kind to Jeremiah.  He has no reason to do this, except that at that moment, God needed him to care, and he was the only one.  Ebed-melech, the black foreigner, saved Jeremiah.  Maybe your call is to care for the prophet.

Jeremiah gets pulled out, gets a shower, goes on with his work as a prophet of God, and that is his fulfillment.  He gets to work for God for another day.  When he thought he was as good as dead, he gets to serve God once more.  And that was his reward – the work, the calling.  Jeremiah was fulfilled.

Today, we recognize that God has spoken and been heard.  There has been doubt.  There has been opposition.  God acted and has brought fulfillment.

I think that not many people notice it, but there is a stained-glass window over the front door of this building that says, “St. Paul’s Reformed Church.”  For me, this begs a question:  Reformed from what?

SPUCC front door windowIn the early 16th century, Martin Luther was on trial for heresy in Germany.  On trial for his life.  We all know that this was the beginning of the Reformed Church, the beginning of the Reformation. And the basic issue was: obey the pope, obey the teachings of the Catholic Church, and stop preaching justification by faith in Christ alone (I know I’m simplifying things).  Do this or die.  He refused, saying something like, “Here I stand. I can do no other”.   What’s lost in history is whom he was speaking to when he said that.  It was King Charles V of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor, who then wanted him killed.  One man, Martin Luther, knew that God needed him at that moment. And so, we are here. And no part of the Reformation reached Spain.

During that time, Spain was conquering much of this side of the Atlantic.  Columbus brought a nightmare.  Violence beyond our imagination.  The diseases the Spaniards brought wiped out most of the indigenous people they had contact with.  Spain introduced slavery to this hemisphere, capturing local natives and kidnapping people from Africa.  It’s true that until the Civil War, our country also profited from the work of slaves.  We were building on what the Spaniards started.

This is where it gets personal – for me. In half a day, I can take you to a place where everyone clearly has African ancestry, lives in huts, and speaks Spanish.  For 25 years, I have been taking groups to the Caribbean to help the people there.  I’ve taken hundreds of people to build homes and schools and hospitals.

It’s occurred to me over time that what I have been working at is undoing the historical effects of Spain.  So I have attitude about Spain.  I know it’s a little irrational – I’ve met Spaniards and they are great people.  I’ve known wonderful sisters and brothers in the Catholic Church, and we share the same Jesus living in us.  But those who have visited Europe can attest that many people live in a kind of spiritual cluelessness.  The cathedrals exist largely as historic sites.  Intentional Christian community is rare.

So, doesn’t it figure that God would bring me to St. Paul’s where the Interim Director of Contemporary Worship had heard a call from God for ministry to the people of Spain. Melissa heard a call.

I know that Melissa had doubts along the way – she first heard this call three years ago and she has been serving in this church (St. Paul’s UCC) for most of that time.  Ministry in a local church can be distracting and create doubt.  That is an understatement.

But I was new.  In December of last year, I didn’t know Melissa; I hadn’t even moved here when I suggested that if she’d heard a call, it might best to get on with it, to take a step.  “You aren’t going anywhere until your name is on a plane ticket.”  So she did get on with it, and it wasn’t much later that she asked me to be her mentoring pastor.  I’ve been privileged to do that, but I must confess that I don’t know if I did it correctly.

It’s been an easy pleasure to encourage her – she is so gifted in so many ways.

Me: “Melissa, who gave you the most encouragement?”

Melissa: “You did.”

And that is correct.

But almost immediately, Melissa encountered opposition.

I said, “Spain?  Melissa, really?  Spain?”  Of all the places in the world where you could be used, Spain?  I gave it my best shot and worked every angle.  Every angle.

Me:  Melissa, who gave you the most opposition?

Melissa:  “You did.”

Incredulously, I asked, “And it costs how much?!”  Melissa needed to raise $31,000/year for her work in Spain.  Staggering.  My jaw dropped.  It took my breath away.

Now another confession: you need to know that this was a completely hypocritical challenge from me.  When I raised support for my own missionary work with Youth for Christ in the late 70’s, I needed over $40,000/year in today’s dollars. Over time, I received support totaling to more than 3 times what Melissa needs.  That work was the springboard to my being here as the pastor to this church.

Financial cost, by the way, is almost always the lamest excuse to use for not pursuing any ministry that God has called us to.  The lamest.  Our God has deep pockets.  And owns us.  Today, Melissa actually has 101% of the support she needs for her missionary work…  and I was a fool to doubt.

When you are called, there are no excuses.

Once again, God acts, often in a way that contrasts what you and I have been thinking. This fulfillment can only come when you stop trying to be God, and let God do what God does.  And that is what we have seen happen here.  We are all witness to an act of God.  Melissa has been supplied with all she needs to do ministry in Spain, except a blessing and a prayer – we’ll be getting to that in a few minutes.  Melissa is on her way to fulfillment.

The last earthly words of Jesus to his followers are these:  “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

A couple of weeks ago I attended a video-streamed conference – The Global Leadership Summit sponsored by the Willowcreek Church near Chicago.  Really great speakers.  Very encouraging. Just good basic Christian teaching.  All about helping each of us be witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, no matter who you are or where you are.  It wasn’t just for professional Christians!  It was broadcast to over 140,000 Christians around the world, gathered in groups in over 100 countries, except… Spain.

DSC_0090And it came to me.  I understood what we needed to do.  We will send Melissa.  God has something to say to the people of Spain and she is called to speak those words.  She has received power from the Holy Spirit, and she will go to the “ends of the earth.”  And God will grow his church in powerful ways that none of us can predict or imagine.  She has discovered, by the way, that she has also been called to seek out “the least of these,” to minister to the discarded ones, to be a voice for the voiceless.  They are part of that picture.

The amazing grace of God that we experience in our lives is directly proportional to our willingness to say yes to God.  Not only did she need us to send her, you have your own calling.  It may not be as public as this, but there is something that God needs you to do that involves hearing, doubt, opposition… and fulfillment.

And you will receive power from the Holy Spirit to do that.  It may be a really hard road to walk, maybe a little lonely at times.  Maybe a lot lonely.

Mandela cellEvery few years, I’ve found myself making a kind of pilgrimage to South Africa.  And each time I go, I take the ferry to Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town.  There is a prison there.  An unwelcoming, sterile place. Stone walls and barbed wire.   And for a few minutes, I stand outside of Nelson Mandela’s cell.

Until 1990, Nelson Mandela had spent 17 of his 27 years in prison living in that space, no bed, just blankets on the floor.  Behind gates and walls and guards, laying on that floor, he dreamed of a new South Africa, and a new life for his people. He became president in the first fully democratic election in South Africa in 1994.

In his inaugural address, Mandela said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’

Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us. It’s in everyone, and, as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Melissa, that’s what you gave the people of St. Paul’s.  You let your light shine.  You showed them how it’s done.  Now teach the people of Spain how to shine for Jesus.

Prayer

God, faith is what you want from us, and at the same time, it is the simplest and hardest thing to do, to step out and walk the path, to places where you need us to go.  So God, through your Spirit, give us stronger faith that teaches us you are the foundation on which we stand, and nothing changes with you.  Open us to the power of your Spirit.  Give us opportunities to say yes to serving you, and making a difference in your world, through the love of your risen son Jesus.  In his powerful name we pray.  Amen.

8/25/2013 Sermon: “I’ve Got a Job for You!”

Hilltop near Nazareth in Galilee, Palestine.  CN - 2011.
Hilltop near Nazareth in Galilee, Palestine. CN – 2011.

[This sermon was delivered at the early worship service at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Manheim, PA.   At the close of worship, shortly after the sermon, Melissa Shumaker was formally commissioned for missionary service in Spain through Brethren in Christ World Missions. St. Paul’s UCC is her sending church.   http://www.bic-church.org/wm/explore/workers/melissa-shumaker.asp]

Matthew 28:16-20.  Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

You can say that life begins for a church whenever – and wherever – two or three are gathered in the name of Christ (Matthew 18:20).  And we have a job to do.  As members of Christ’s church, Christ’s body, we’ve all made a commitment to follow the commands of Christ.  Who is the head of the church?  Not you. Not me.  It’s Jesus.  And he has something for us to do.  We’ve got a job.

The command we all hear when we read today’s gospel lesson has to do with baptizing.  Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  (Matthew 28:19)  It’s a famous verse that not only commands us all to be missionaries; it is the only verse in the bible that names the Trinity in one sentence:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Or: Creator, Savior, and Holy Spirit.  Every Christian baptism uses this formula because of the command Christ gives to the church in this verse.

At the end of next month, we will baptize Shane Myers (son of Eric and Stacy Myers).  We do not do christenings, except to ships and boats.  I have to admit that I don’t know much about christenings because I’ve never done one.  But baptism, for Christians, is a faith experience.  We stand in front of our church community and say, “I believe in Jesus, and (if parents are doing this, they are saying…) I’m going to help my child (or my children) believe too.”  We are going to help the world believe in Christ too.  If we follow Christ, our job is to give our faith away.

Baptizing is part of our job description as believers in Christ to reach out to the world with the commands of Christ.   You also heard Jesus say that when we go to the world, we are to teach them “to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

For Matthew, the commands of Christ that we take to the world are: ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”  (Matthew 22:37, 39).  That is what we teach the world to do.

I wonder if you heard the first piece of instruction from Jesus in that passage.  The first order Jesus gave his people before they could baptize anybody is “Go to the mountain.”  (see 28:16)

View from the top of the traditional Mt. of Transfiguration near Nazareth, Palestine.  CN - 2011
View from the top of the traditional Mt. of Transfiguration near Nazareth, Palestine. CN – 2011

So they went to Galilee, to the mountain.  But you disciples of Christ all need to know, strange things happen on mountains.  You remember what happened to Moses on the mountain: God speaks and hands out commandments on the mountain.  Moses wasn’t the same after that; he took on a new appearance (you’ve seen the movie; Charlton Heston had white streaks in his hair!).  Before he was crucified, Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, he began to brightly glow – a sign of who he is.  This is God in the flesh who is being nailed to the cross.

But this is later, this is the risen living Jesus who said to these people, “Go to Galilee; go to the mountain.  I’ve got a job for you.  You’re going to baptize the nations.”

From Jerusalem to Galilee, it’s a very long, very hard walk.  It takes about a week, and the terrain is rough. It’s going to take some commitment. These followers of Jesus will have plenty of time to think and talk.  They are on their own; on the way back home, Jesus isn’t walking with them.  On the way to Galilee, on the way up to this mountain, they had to decide whether they really wanted to be a part of this group, and whether they really believed in Jesus.  Before you baptize anybody, (are you listening church, parents of children?) you need to be clear about your own commitment.

You may have heard me say that I’ve walked that route through Palestine; it’s very difficult. And they’ve been talking without Jesus around.  So by the time they got there and saw Jesus again, some doubted.  Even with the risen Jesus standing right in front of them, some doubted.  Wasn’t this supposed to be easy?  Why couldn’t Jesus just say what he wanted to say right there in Jerusalem?  Why did we have to walk all this way and climb all the way up here?

Couldn’t it be easier? Isn’t it easier to just stay home and be religious?  Isn’t it enough to just do a few ceremonies and touch all the bases?  Can’t we just be a Lions Club or a Rotary Club?

And do you understand what can happen on the mountain?  It’s a risk!  Your life changes on the mountain.  If you climb up that mountain, you have to be willing to let God change your life.  When you come down, you’re not going to be the same person who went up.  Isn’t this faith thing supposed to be easy?

Jesus said “Go to the mountain. I’ve got a job for you.” 

It’s a test of faith.  This is the resurrected Jesus telling us to do these things.  We got this command to go to the mountain by somebody who just walked out of a tomb.  I can hear it from our families now.

“Who told you to do this?  You heard this from whom?  I thought he was dead!”  From this moment on, everything we do is a statement of our faith in the resurrection of Jesus.  Our good intentions can never replace the power we get from our faith in this person who died for us and then overcame death.

Jesus has faith in us.  He wants to know if we have faith in him.   Jesus wants to know if we’re obedient.  Jesus wants to know if we’re going to go to the mountain if he tells us to.  If we won’t go to the mountain as his disciples, then how can he trust us to go the nations?

People of God, Jesus said, “Go to the mountain; I’ve got a job for you.”  When we get to the mountain, Jesus gives us a mission, should we decide to accept it (don’t forget, some of us are going to doubt and turn the other way).  We’re going to baptize the nations.  We bring faith to the nations.  And he said he would always be with us.

Over the summer, some of us went to the nation of the Dominican Republic.  We went to show the people of that place that we love God and our neighbors as ourselves.  Before that, some of us went to the local nation of Manheim and Lancaster, to show everyone nearby that we love God and our neighbors as ourselves.

cropped-DSC_7868.jpgTomorrow, many of you are going to the nation of work.  That nation needs to know how to love God and “your neighbor as yourself.”  Some people have already started going back to the nation of school, and you’ll show that nation you’re following the commands of Jesus.  In September, one of us (Melissa Shumaker) is being sent to the nation of Spain.

The followers of Jesus can’t be sent unless they are prepared.  I’ve become convinced that it is the duty, that it is the obligation, of people my age to show the love of God to those who are 20 or 30 or 40 years younger than us, to disciple them, to pay attention to the leaders who are following and equip them, to stop making the Christian experience about us and what we think our needs are.  What do they need to be leaders of our church today?  Our job is to give it to them.

God needs us to pour our lives into them, to create an environment that clearly shows them the Christ who is saving them – and then to set them free, to let go of the “way we think things should be done,” to allow them to create a church that allows them to be the legacy that God is making of them.  When we do that, God does astonishing things.  God calls on us to change our world, and we all have a job to do.

cropped-60168_07.jpgAt the Top of the World.  Colonel Heath Bottomly was an American fighter pilot in World War II. When he was a small boy living in Montana in 1928, his father took Heath and his brothers on a hike. They went to Glacier National Park in the northern part of the United States.

After a day of driving and a day of walking, they had hiked to the top of a peak and stood at the top gasping for breath. At the top of the mountain, Heath’s father began to explain that from where they were standing, they could see four states and Canada.  They could also see that water was dripping from the edge of the glacier, with a steady drip, drip, drip.  And a little below them it became a stream that flowed across a flat rock and shot out into space, falling hundreds of feet below.

Heath’s father said, “Here is where the oceans begin.  The water goes in different directions…  (pointing left) From the Columbia river to the Pacific.  (pointing straight) Over here, the Mackenzie river and the Yukon river flow to the Arctic Ocean.  (pointing right) This water flows to St. Mary’s Lake, the head waters of the Milk River, which flows to the Missouri, which feeds the Mississippi, which flows to the Gulf of Mexico.

The boys were amazed by the thought of all this.  Then their father did something they couldn’t believe.  He crawled to the edge of the rock they stood on; slithered his stomach, put out his hand and directed and redirected the water that flowed across this flat rock.  Then he crawled back and stood up.

“This is the top of the world.  The water running through my fingers will soon be a part of the oceans that surround our country.”

It was time to leave.  Heath’s father and brothers moved down the trail, but Heath stood still.  When they were out of sight, he got on his hands and knees, crawled out over the rock, out to the edge, and put his hand in the icy water.  He directed all the water he could to the left.  He lay there in pain, redirecting the water until he felt a strong tug on his belt, and he was pulled back from the edge.

His father looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Son, I’m proud of you.  Already you are trying to change the world.  That water was flowing toward the Atlantic and you deliberately pushed it toward the Pacific.”

His father held his hand as they walked back down the mountain.  Heath’s soul was on fire.  He thought: “What power one person has!  With one hand I can change the face of the earth!  From now on the Atlantic will be a little shallower and the Pacific a little deeper.”

John Wesley said, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”

Prayer

O God, the concept of Trinity is a mystery to us.  Understanding who you are –Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, yet three in one –is beyond our understanding. Yet even though our minds cannot comprehend the mystery of who you are, we understand Trinity because we experience it in our walk with you. We have seen your work as Creator and felt the touch of your hand as a loving Father. We have been loved through the sacrifice of Jesus as Son and Savior. We have experienced the power of your Holy Spirit as it changes our lives. Day by day, we feel your presence as you bless us in so many ways. Even as you have blessed us –as Father, Son, and Spirit– use us to bless others.  Make  us instruments of your love to reach a world that needs so desperately to know you.  Help us remember our responsibility to reach out to the world you love with the good news of new life and resurrection.  Amen.

8/18/2013 Sermon: “Starting a Fire”

RSCN0232[I invited Melissa Shumaker, the Director of Contemporary Worship at St. Paul’s UCC, Manheim, PA to share the sermon time with me; her words appear below.  I began….]  

Would You Rather…   whenever I go on a trip with a group of people, I throw a book in my bag called, “Would You Rather…”  It’s a discussion starter.

Would you rather…

…Live in the city or the country?

…Own a cabin in the mountains or a home on the beach?

…Be highly educated or highly successful?

Here are some questions I think Jesus would throw in to prepare us for the gospel lesson today:

Would you rather… have a strong inner core of faith and be misunderstood by many, or be disconnected from God and spiritually clueless, but loved by everyone?

Would you rather… have faith in Christ and be used by God in meaningful ways which make some people unhappy with you, or be separated from God, but have a peaceful existence with everyone?

The longer I am a Christian, the more I’m convinced that if everybody is happy with who we are and what we are doing as a Body of Christ, a United Church of Christ, then something’s wrong.  I know this sounds contradictory to what we are all about, so I’ll let Jesus say it.

Luke 12:49-65.   ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided:

father against son
   and son against father,
mother against daughter
   and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
   and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

The last part of what Jesus said gets me thinking about a fire tower in a forest.  There is smoke in the distance. There is danger.  The world is not a peaceful place.  Jesus understood this and he wants believers to understand some things about being faithful in an unfaithful world.

LTP00079He said, “ I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”  Let’s get it going!  Then later in Luke’s story, after Jesus had risen from the dead, after he ascended to his Father, one day, when his disciples were together, he describes how something like “tongues of fire” appeared over their heads.  That was the day of Pentecost, and they were never the same.  The fire was started.

He said, I came to bring fire to the earth.  Now when Luke writes this, he’s thinking about the Holy Spirit, the spiritual fire that comes and lights up believers with the presence of God when they believe.  It changes the inner lives of people so dramatically when they have faith, that they begin having different values and behaviors. So much so, people in their own households start to say, hey, wait a minute, you aren’t the same person you were.  What’s up with that?

I came to bring fire to the earth.  I picture Jesus talking to his people around a campfire one night when he says this.  He holds up a burning stick – and everybody watches.  He holds it up so that he can see the faces of everyone in the group and they can see each other.

DSC_3224Have you ever sat around a campfire and meditated on the fire?  Watched the smoke and the colors?  I remember going to summer camp when I was in grade school, a place not much different from the Hartman Center (UCC  summer camp & conference center in central PA).  The camp director would tell us stories around the campfire every night, and I remember him saying, “What you are seeing in that campfire are the images of everything that’s touched those branches that are now burning.  The light of a sunset, or a cardinal, or the fall leaves.”  And we would look into the fire and let our imaginations take over.

I came to bring fire to the earth.  Maybe you can see what he’s talking about.  Looking into the fire, maybe you can see some bright memories wrapped around your faith and church experience.  But the images Jesus sees aren’t necessarily happy ones.

He sees the religious system and the political system, both in a power struggle from top to bottom in both – there was no separation of church and state in his time.  The political deck stacked against the poor – the rich only get richer.  And religious traditions with no heart or soul – people keeping God in a box with rules and more rules.  Nice buildings with people dying on the other side of the city walls.  And everybody seems to have forgotten who God is.  He says this to his own disciples and they shrug their shoulders as if to say, “So what can we do about it?”  We’re just fishermen and tax collectors.

We peace-loving followers of Jesus only want to get along with everybody.  Jesus reaches into the fire and pulls out a flaming stick.  He turns to us and says, “ I came to bring fire to the earth.”  Well, that’s either good or bad.  If you’re a pile of dried-up branches or weeds, that’s bad news.  If you’re already burned out, I guess it doesn’t matter.

Jesus does bring harm to bigotry and prejudice, to old harmful habits, to the status quo, to all things that stand in the way of relationship with God and healthy relationships with neighbors.

The match that starts this fire is what he calls his “baptism,” which we understand as his crucifixion, when he cleared the path between us and God.  When the followers of Jesus have faith in what he has done, the fire catches and spreads around town, around the country, around the world, changing people one by one, giving them life and making them different people than they were before.  All from that one flaming stick.  After the fire of faith takes over, life is never the same again.

Melissa Shumaker:

All this talk of fire makes me think back to a very popular story of the OT. Turn with me to 1 Kings 18:16-  The people had been worshiping Baal and Elijah calls for a meeting of all the prophets of Baal on top of the mountain for a showdown of who truly is God.

21 Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

But the people said nothing.

24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”

Our God is a God who shows himself through fire, at least that’s how Elijah called for Him to reveal himself. He had done it before- Sodom and Gomorrah, the pillar of fire that led the Israelites… and he was about to do it again!

The story continues…The prophets of Baal calling out all day and getting no answer. So Elijah decides it’s his turn. He has the servants soak the sacrifice with water 3 times and then

36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.

This was an ALL-CONSUMING FIRE. It left nothing… the prophets of Baal had been hoping for this kind of fire, but got nothing. Can you imagine what kind of relief this must have brought to Elijah when God answered his prayer? His life was on the line, but God came through. And look what happened next!

39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”

People believed because God had revealed Himself through fire! But it didn’t end there with a big happy celebration. Instead, there was death and conflict…..

40 Then Elijah commanded them, “Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!” They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there.

It takes me back to our verses from Luke- “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51-52)

Elijah witnessed a great victory that day because of his faith and how the Lord revealed himself, but if you look at chapter 19 of 1st Kings, we see Elijah now fleeing because of all that just happened! You see, Jezebel wasn’t so happy that all her prophets had just been killed and she wanted Elijah killed. Not quite what you would expect for the ending of a story of radical faith, but isn’t it so true to life?

When the fire of Christ is burning in our lives and we are living radically for the Lord, it looks pretty different. Perhaps we’re not calling down fire from heaven, but the Holy Spirit does call us to be set apart, to be HOLY. People should see the difference in us because of Christ. We should be noticeably more loving, kind, gentle, joyful, and faithful than those around us, and this should cause people to praise the Lord.

But that’s not always the case is it? Forgotten God by Francis Chan suggests that, “Even in our daily living we can look more like the prophets of Baal as we live our lives, running about in a frenzy, trying to fix our problems, not stopping long enough to call on the power of God Almighty. Yet as children of God, we are not called to trust in our idols or ourselves. We are made to be like Elijah, who did not question whether God would show His face that day. He prayed and asked for help, and God sent down fire from heaven in response.” (pg 145).

This kind of faith doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a step-by-step, day-by-day kind of transformation that only God can work in us. And that’s what He wants to do! He wants to completely transform us so that our timid hearts are set ablaze with strength and courage, so much so that people know something supernatural has taken place- life change just as miraculous as fire coming down from heaven (Chan 146).

However, like Elijah, the disciples, and many others through history that we look to as “on-fire” examples of the faith, we may be more likely to face persecution and obstacles than a warm embrace. It might require a sacrifice. Perhaps you will never be persecuted for your faith the way many Christians around the world are experiencing, but if you choose to listen to Christ and let him make the changes in your life He wants to, I can almost guarantee that you are going to be faced with opposition. Maybe it’s a family member not agreeing with the choices you’ve made or a co-worker putting you down for an ethical decision you’ve made. Maybe it’s friends at school making fun of you for not watching a certain TV show or choosing to go to church instead of spending your time in another way. Whatever it is, it might be uncomfortable. It might bring division. But it might bring someone to ask you why you live differently and be a testimony to Christ at work in you. Wouldn’t you rather people see that then just see you as a good person? It’s not our being good people that sets us apart. It’s Christ in us and the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives that does that. That’s the kind of fire I want to see being poured out and set ablaze within our hearts! Don’t you?

Back to CN:

Cliff cave near the traditional site of Elijah's hiding place.  Basic supplies are raised by rope to the Greek Orthodox monks who stay here in seclusion for meditation and prayer.  Near Jericho, Palestine. CN - 2011.
Cliff cave near the traditional site of Elijah’s hiding place. Basic supplies are raised by rope to the Greek Orthodox monks who stay here in seclusion for meditation and prayer. Near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2011.

To escape Jezebel, Elijah runs off into the desert and hides in a cave – this guy who had just shortly before been so full of faith.  We all can have these moments when that one threat, that one angry, negative person can throw us off our game and we run.  But God didn’t leave Elijah alone; God came to the cave in the small voice and restored his courage (1 Kings 19).  God won’t leave you alone either.  God promises to face these challenges with you.

Let’s look at the activities of our church, all the things that project to the community who we are.  Let’s do the best we can to communicate that we are the United Church of Christ, people with faith, and not a generic civic group whose main task is to keep the buildings in nice shape.  As the next program year comes, we need to be asking, “How can we do ministry in the name of Jesus?  What can we do that shows God we have faith?  How can we help others to catch that fire?  Less of “How can we do things that make us satisfied with church,” and more of “What can we do to make a difference through the love of Christ for somebody else?”

It’s always very moving when, at the end of the opening ceremony of the Olympics, a lone runner with a small torch lights a huge cauldron of fire.  These athletes are making a statement to the world:  we are going to do this, here and now – together.  In spite of our differences, we are unified.

Jesus is standing at the edge of our stadium with a match in his hand.  He lit a torch and the flame is being passed around.  I came to bring fire to the earth.  There is a fire coming.  There are signs in the sky: we know we need this.  I say let’s burn for Christ.

Prayer

O God, there is so much we need to learn about you and about each other.  We need to learn to love as you do, and then learn it again.  We need to learn to listen to you and to each other.  We need to be on fire. Burn away all the distractions that keep us from growing in our faith.  Open our eyes so that we can tell truth from lies, and good from evil.  Help us follow along the way you call us, to make decisions that reflect our faith in you at work, at school, at home, in the goals we set for ourselves, and especially in our relationships.  Mold our lives, and give us the courage to be known as followers of Christ, as much by the words we say as the things we do.  Amen.

8/11/2013 Sermon: “Ready for Action”

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock..." (Rev. 3:20)
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock…” (Rev. 3:20)

Luke 12:32-40.   ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.  Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’

I remember in the days after 9/11, that there was a brief frenzy focused on being ready for the potential of a disaster.  A lot of people felt that there was a strong possibility that daily life as we knew it was about to end, at least in the northeast United States.  And we should all be prepared.  Do you remember those days?

We all began to think about having a basic supply of food stored away somewhere.  Cash.  A generator.  A working vehicle and a destination in case everything in our culture collapsed.  There is a genre of movies that work off of this idea – a small group of people survive after “life as we know it” has ended.  Do you have a survival kit?  What’s in it? What seems most important to do or to have?

Well, nothing like that happened, but airline travel became more of a hassle.  Now we have to get to the airport earlier so there will be time to take off shoes and belts.  Got to make sure there are no big bottles of liquid or sharp objects in your carry-on.

But there have been some weather-related events that make me think of being prepared like that.

I took a group to New Orleans in 2006, shortly after Hurricane Katrina.  Almost 250,000 homes had to be abandoned because of flooding.  My group gutted three houses and hauled peoples’ personal belonging to the street (which is really sobering).  Twice in Connecticut we had to leave home because of winter storm damage to the power lines.

Twice last year in Connecticut, we went without power for a week after hurricanes.  Those are just minor things compared to what some people have gone through in their lives (there was massive flooding in the Midwest this week, and very destructive fires out west).

There are moments like those do have a way of making you think about your priorities.  There are people in this room who have had life-altering “episodes” in their lives that have helped them know what’s really important.  I think most of those times had nothing to do with losing stuff.

Jesus was speaking those words you just heard as he’s on his way to Jerusalem to accomplish his mission, to give himself for his disciples, to suffer and die, then rise from the dead, and so piece by piece, he’s telling them things that he thinks are really important.  And they are so important to hear.

Live simply; take care of each other.  Love God more than anything. Discipleship, according to Jesus, is to go beyond knowing about God, to knowing God, to continually getting rid of the things that come between us and God, to being a vessel of God’s love to other people.  If we have something we don’t need that could help someone else, give it to them.  Don’t let your possessions possess you.  Look for opportunities to be the good neighbor.  Be ready for action!  Be ready especially for that kind of action.

Poorness and Poverty.  One of the things that people learn from studying those in need is that there is a difference between being poor and being in poverty.

Poverty means having no hope.  You see yourself in a deep hole with no way to climb out.  No advantages.  You name it, nobody in your family has ever had it and you’ll never get it.  It’s not just an attitude problem.  It’s a reflection of the reality you see that there are barriers around you that are nearly impossible to overcome.  The struggle for many of the things we take for granted is so difficult, those in poverty never sense the desire to even try.  Education, healthcare, a decent job – those things are for somebody else.  And the rest of society, at least those higher up the economic food chain, generally speaking, have no good reason to give you a break.  So if you get a little money somehow, why not use it to feel good for a while? And that leads to behavior most of us are fairly judgmental about.

On the other hand, those who are poor don’t see life quite that way.  There is hope.  I may not have a lot, but I’ll make the most of what I have and get by somehow.  I’ll share what I have with my friends.  We’ll get by together.  We’ll teach our kids to have dreams.  One of the side benefits of taking a group to a third-world place (like the Dominican Republic) is that some of us get to see what that looks like up close.

In the typical white American community, in the typical white American church, this may be one of the things that keeps our fellowship and our concern for each other from being deeper: we do not see ourselves as being poor.  At least materially, we really don’t need each other. When we reach the point that all our nice things don’t keep us fulfilled, only then do we realize that we are spiritually poor.  Then, maybe, we realize how much we need Christ.

But that’s only half of it.  We need each other, too.  We need to be with each other.  The Christian not only needs a healthy relationship with God through Christ, we need healthy relationships with each other.  Jesus says that our lifestyle can get in the way of good relationships.  God’s kingdom is this: good relationships with God first and then with others; caring for those who need care.

The issue for a lot of us seems to be time vs. money.  We spend a lot of our time making a living and prefer to pay for somebody else to go do good things for others.  I’d like to encourage everybody to get involved with work for the poor – not just to give money, but to find at least a few days each year (or even a few hours) to go somewhere and immerse yourself in helping someone else.  “Making a difference through the love of Christ” isn’t just a warm, fuzzy slogan or mission statement.  Any Christian can and should help those who need help. I believe we die spiritually when we don’t.  If that kind of excessive behavior worries you, you need to hear Jesus say again:

32 ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”   

Now that we don’t have to worry, Jesus is free to say…

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock..." (Rev. 3:20)
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock…” (Rev. 3:20)

33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Eugene Peterson translates it this way:

33 “Be generous. Give to the poor. Get yourselves a bank that can’t go bankrupt, a bank in heaven far from bankrobbers, safe from embezzlers, a bank you can bank on. 34 It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.

I don’t know how many times I’ve quoted this to introduce an offering.  It seems pretty basic.  Where is my treasure?  Where is my heart?  Do I really care more about possessions than the well-being of other people?

Then Jesus gives a warning:  Follow through on these caring-about-people priorities because he’s coming back.  Be ready; none of us knows when that is.  And he wants to have a conversation about the gift of life he gave us when we came to faith.

He tells a parable about an ancient wedding custom – those who have made the commitment to prepare the late-night banquet will join the guests at the banquet.  They need to be ready for the wedding party.  Be ready like someone who knows when a thief is going to try to break in.

40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

There is a whole study of these New Testament scriptures about the return of Jesus and the “End Times” called eschatology.  Fancy word.  I’ve known people who focus much of their faith around being prepared for Jesus to return.  You might be thinking of the cartoon guy on the street corner who holds a sign saying “The End Is Near.”  There is much debate about what the return of Jesus means and what that looks like.  Think about it too much and it’s possible to miss the point of what Jesus was saying whenever he talked about it.

Make no mistake, we have a loving God.  A loving God who wants to live in us and through us.  Want to know what ticks Jesus off?  It makes perfect sense.  You can do a study about this: Jesus gets really unhappy at the sight of apathy.

Matthew 25:42  “’I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’”

I needed help, and you didn’t care.  So the Spirit living inside us compels us to help those who need help. I believe we die spiritually when we don’t.  Our church provides access to so many opportunities to serve; you see them in the newsletter, in the bulletins, you hear people talk about them in worship.  I encourage you to find yours.  Let that service be part of your lifestyle.  Find your treasure.  Be ready for action.

The Treasure.  There was a demon who kept watch over a large treasure buried under an old house.  One day, he was ordered to leave that area for another part of the world.  He would not be able to return for twenty years.  The demon thought long and hard about what he should do with the treasure while he was gone.

Perhaps he should hire a guardian.  No, that would cost a lot of money.  If he left it under the house, some one might eventually tear the house down and find it.  At last, a foolproof idea came to him.

He dug up the treasure and took it to the home of a miser who lived in a ramshackle house in a needy part of town. Disguising himself, he said, “Sir, I wish to give you this gift before I depart for another country.  I have always been fond of you, and I pray that you will not refuse my offer. You may feel free to spend this money however you wish.  When you die, I am to be your sole heir; that is my only stipulation.”  The miser agreed to accept the gift and the demon left.

Twenty years later, the demon returned.  The miser’s house was nearly collapsed and the neighborhood was even more desperate.   He went inside the house and found the miser dead from starvation.  The treasure was still intact in the strongbox.  Not a single coin was missing.  He laughed, knowing that the miser had been a guardian who had not cost him a penny.

Jesus said, 34”For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Lets each think about who owns our heart.

Prayer

O God, we admit that we come here to get away.  We come to this sanctuary from the world in hopes that you give us direction and peace. Now as our worship of you has given us strength, we begin to see with your eyes.  Our world is filled with violence and greed – we pray for the victims of war, our government, the for-gotten, the lost. These are your treasures.

Give us the wisdom and power to take from this sanctuary the will to make a difference where we are and wherever we might be in this world, as you have made a difference in us. Amen.

8/4/2013 Sermon: “Remembering Who We Are”

Sanctuary frontI thought I’d give you a look at the progress of the sanctuary refurbishing here at St. Paul’s.  The surface painting is done and the floors will be cleaned up next.  The pews will come in by the end of next week, then the backs of the pews will be painted.

The empty room is a little strange and it reminded me of a conversation I had with an African minister a few years ago.  I had been to his church in Zimbabwe and he came to visit ours in Connecticut.  As he stood in the pulpit and looked across the pews in the sanctuary, he said, “How do you dance in here?”

Dancing together is an important part of Christian worship in some cultures.  I saw people do it in several churches in Africa and we saw it happen a few weeks ago in the Dominican Republic.  Line dancing – moving around the room in a line together.  Not just singing.  Physical movement together.

The congregation dances at the Mutare United Church of Christ. Zimbabwe, 2009 - CN.
The congregation dances at the Mutare United Church of Christ. Zimbabwe, 2009 – CN.

That’s a UCC church, believe it or not.  It would feel unnatural for us to worship that way.  But God is really interested in how we express ourselves when we are together.  What’s it like for people to be around us as a church?  What do they see?  Listen to what God wants:

Colossians 3:12  As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Zim Church singersI want to be around people like that.  When we believe in Christ, when we give ourselves to Christ, that’s the kind of atmosphere God creates, the kind of people God creates.

Some years ago, I was driving on rural Connecticut road on a Saturday night, listening to the radio.  I was on the way home from a wedding ceremony that I’d performed somewhere and I was thinking about traditions, especially wedding traditions, and Garrison Keillor started to tell this story on the “Prairie Home Companion:”  As he gave the news from Lake Wobegone, Minnesota, he said…

The Sons of Knute lodge is dwindling due to lack of interest in memorizing pages of ancient Nordic wisdom and ritual like the Little Finger Pull. A brother Knute taps your forehead, you say, “Ost vest, hjemme bedst” and walk five paces and he cries, “Oya!” and you turn and come back and hook your little finger with his and pull… An ancient greet ritual of Nordic sages.

Every January, on the coldest day, the Grand Oya and the High Chamberlain and the Keeper of the Keys and the Hooper dress up in the horned helmets and capes made from the skins of rainbow trout… and get out the golden walleye on the staff and the silver Hoop, and the Hooper cries, “Hold op og vaer smuk,” which means “Shut up and be beautiful,” and sing the hymn to winter, which begins…

“Sons of Knute we are, sons of the prairie, With our heads held high in January, Hauling ourselves around in big parkas, Wearing boots the size of tree stumps.”

When receiving new members, the lodge opens the doors to the loft and the initiates slide down the holy grain chute blind-folded, through the silver hoop.

But the children of the original members had no interest in the lodge.  They were rebellious and the rituals made no sense to them.   But it was different with their children.  One night some of the grandchildren – some teenagers – were caught sliding down the holy grain chute dressed in the rainbow trout capes just for fun, trying to see how fast they needed to go to make it through the silver hoop as they moved it farther away.  They all suddenly realized that no one could remember why they did these things in the first place.

It’s a very silly story.  But maybe you get the point.  Why are we here?  We need to remind ourselves.  Is this just ritual?  I would say that the core of our being hinges on knowing why we are here.

The focus of Christian worship is Christ. Period.  In the town of Colossae, which was in Asia Minor (Turkey), some Christians were apparently trying to concoct a kind of hybrid Christian faith – practicing strange rituals, which included extreme asceticism (a lifestyle of denial – a kind of group anorexia).  They also had a special cult of angel worship.  It was a kind of accommodation to the culture they lived in when the church started there. Some of these things are lost in history and we can’t understand them.  But they were mixing and matching, and this has happened in some way in churches all over the world through the centuries. Saint worship in Europe, etc.

I’ve known Protestant churches that were organized around ham and bean suppers more than worship (is that a New England thing?).  They are small and do not grow spiritually or otherwise.   But the out-of-place ritual can be more subtle.  There was a church on Cape Cod, near the place where we lived, that focused its worship on a Bible on a fancy altar in front of the sanctuary.  I’m using the past tense because I don’t think this church is there anymore.  The Sunday service has to do with actually worshiping the book itself, rather than the God the book describes.

The building was beautiful, but almost falling down – birds were living in the rafters of the open ceiling; they came in through an un-patched hole in one of the walls. The congregation is part of a very small denomination that’s almost dead, and this little group of people only “worships” in the summer so that they don’t have to pay for winter expenses.  I don’t think the building was ever winterized.

Christians, like the ones in Colossae, and like Christians in Manheim, need to be encouraged to keep it simple.  What we do here isn’t as much about tradition and ritual as it is about life.   When you become a believer in Christ, you become a new person.  There is an old and a new.  In the old life, you may have been centered on something other than Christ, in the new, Christ is at the core of your life.  Your growth as a Christian happens as you are renewed from the inside out.  As you grow closer to Christ, God replaces the things from your old self that keep you from becoming the person God wants you to be.  Your faith gives you new habits, new attitudes, new things to do with your time and energy.

It works the same way for God’s church, us together.  We might have all sorts of temporary goals, like fixing the building or accomplishing things like mission projects, but it’s important that our purpose together is to worship Christ, to have him at the core.  Did you know that we have a purpose?

The avowed purpose of this Congregation shall be to worship God, to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and celebrate the sacraments; to introduce persons into this community of faith within the church universal and nurture their growth in the same; to promote the Christian life; to render loving service toward all people; to strive for righteousness, justice, and peace; and to advance the Kingdom of God, both at home and throughout the world.

That is why we are here.  If that’s not our purpose, we should call a meeting and change it.

The avowed purpose of this Congregation shall be to worship God, to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and celebrate the sacraments.  Maybe you’re thinking about the specific rituals we do here.  But what happens when we honestly worship together is that we take on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Together we take on Christ’s personality; we become like him.  It’s not easy – it takes practice.  Worship is a lifestyle and it’s a process that happens in the midst of a struggle, because it’s not natural for us to be like this. But God makes it happen as we have faith and we create opportunities for relationships.  It’s God’s job to come in and clean house when we open the door and that’s what happens as we worship together.

We love ritual; we are comfortable in ritual, but rituals in themselves are not what God wants.  You can’t find a place in scripture where God was impressed with great ritualistic vocabulary.  A nice building with nice furnishings is not a priority with God.  God wants us.  God wants to be followed.  God wants to be worshiped.

Even in our own purpose for this church, there are no rules or guidelines for what that looks like.  Because what we do is about life more than liturgy.  It’s only God who can give a center to life – fulfillment and meaning.  When we worship, we give God the keys to our lives and say, “You drive.”  When we allow God to do that, we can’t help but find ways to celebrate. Ben Patterson describes what that looks like:

…sometimes I think the church has forgotten how to celebrate, how to party. Maybe it is because we have forgotten what Jesus has done for us. Or maybe because the stories in the Bible have gotten old and we haven’t been around any new believers to remind us of the hope we have in Jesus Christ.

That reminds me of what happened to a tribe in the jungles of East Asia, when missionaries showed them the “Jesus Film.” It was a big deal when I was in Seminary and one of my friends was a missionary telling me about all that was going on with the “Jesus Film. The movie was being shown as an evangelistic tool to people all over—in the desert, and in the jungles. Not only had some of these people never heard of Jesus, they had never seen a motion picture. And on that one unforgettable evening, they saw it all—the gospel in their own language, visible and real.

Imagine again how it felt to see this good man Jesus, who healed the sick and was adored by children, held without trial and beaten by jeering soldiers. As these East Asians watched this, the people came unglued. They stood up and began to shout at the cruel men on the screen, demanding that this outrage stop. When nothing happened, they attacked the missionary running the projector. Perhaps he was responsible for this injustice. He was forced to stop the film and explain that the story wasn’t over yet, that there was more.

So they settled back onto the ground, holding their emotions in tenuous check. Then came the crucifixion. Again, the people could not hold back. They began to weep and wail with such loud grief that once again the film had to be stopped. The missionary again tried to calm them, explaining that the story still wasn’t over, that there was more. So they composed themselves and sat down to see what happened next.

Then came the resurrection. Pandemonium broke out this time, but for a different reason. The gathering had spontaneously erupted into a party. The noise now was of jubilation, and it was deafening. The people were dancing and slapping each other on the back. The Christ is risen, indeed. Again the missionary had to shut off the projector. But this time he didn’t tell them to calm down and wait for what was next. All that was supposed to happen—in the story and in their lives—was happening.

SOURCE: Ben Patterson, “Resurrection and Pandemonium,” LeadershipJournal.net 4-13-04

As we prepare to move back into the sanctuary, let’s think about why are we here.  Let’s think about what fills that room.  Let’s reclaim the fire that brought us together in the first place.  Let’s focus our attention on Jesus and give ourselves back to him.  Let’s find ways to make faith fun, and invite the community to join in. 

Prayer

God, help us remember who we are.  Help us remember that we are the church – the gathering of people – of Christ.  Help us create open doors for him in our lives, not just on Sunday mornings, but in every circumstance.

We are often distracted by all of our activities, the schedule of things we’ve created for ourselves, and it’s true, we enjoy much of it.  Help us also learn how to slow down, to stop, to find fulfillment in these moments spent with you.  Amen.