1/31/2016 Sermon: The New Thing #4 – “Going Somewhere!”

Before I die, I want to…   An artist named Candy Chang created a huge chalkboard on the side of a house in New Orleans and let people “fill in the blank.”  And random people on the street responded. To summarize…

A guy dressed as a pirate said, “before I die, I want to be tried for piracy.”  Those who have been to New Orleans will know that somebody walking around dressed as a pirate is completely normal.  Others said…

I want to straddle the international date line.

I want to sing for millions.

I want to plant a tree

I want to hold her one more time.

I want to be completely myself.

The wall started to become “news.”  Then it started to pop up in other cities around the country and around the world.  The remarkable thing about what people write is that their answers have nothing to do with death; only about life.

People have all sorts of answers to that question and everyone is different.  Your answer might have to do with some experience you’ve never had.  It might have to do with some relationship you’d try to fix.  Most people seem to hope for some kind of different future – at least some small new thing – and didn’t dwell much in the past.

Maybe you know where that question takes us.  If you think your life would be more fulfilled by doing that one thing, what is that?  Maybe you should figure out a way to do it.  This goes for the church as well.

God’s desire is to do a new thing, in you and in us.  God’s people are always moving to some next stage, some next place.

Hebrews 11.  Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’

13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Many people travel in the summer, and vacations take planning.  Depending on the kind of vacation you prefer, the planning can be simple or very complicated.  Some people need to have every detail worked out.  It probably depends on how much you can spend and how long can you be away.  By car, or can we afford to fly?  Where will we stay?  Sleeping on what kind of beds?  Where, exactly, will we eat?  What will we eat?  I think that if we took a survey around the room we’d find a variety of opinions.  Some people need to have all the details to be worked out from beginning to end.

The easy way to accomplish that would be a cruise, with a drive/flight to the port city and a shuttle to the ship.  Just get there.  Everything is taken care of.  Room, food, sightseeing.  No worries.

On the other side of the spectrum is the kind of trip where you just block out time on your calendar and… go.  Gas up the car.  Make a plane reservation a week or two ahead if you need to.  See what happens when you get there.  Make plans as you have to.  Carry a good travel guide and go.  Getting lost on a back road is part of the experience.  Put a tent in the trunk, just in case.  There are people who will only travel this way – because they think it’s more fun! It’s more of an adventure than having someone else plan your trip.

Hiking on the "Abrahamic Trail." Palestine, CN - 2011.
Hiking on the “Abrahamic Trail.” Palestine, CN – 2011.

But how about moving – relocating – with no particular place to go.  Not too many people have that kind of faith.  But that’s what Christians are called to do: sell out, step out, and move to a new place spiritually.  Trust God completely.  Keep moving keep growing.  Don’t allow yourself to get stagnant.  Looking too much in the rear-view mirror won’t help.

God gave Abraham a purpose to create a new people for God.  His great fulfillment was living into the purpose God gave him. “before I die, I’m going to do this one thing for God.”

To fulfill his life’s purpose, to be in the place God wanted him to be, to create new generations of believers, Abraham took a leap of faith. The question this scripture is asking of everyone who reads it is – what about you? What about you, church?

It starts with that first moment of trust: believing that hard-to believe story that Jesus really did die for our sin and rise from the dead?  God brought you to this moment.  The journey already began and you may not have been aware.  The hardest is that next step, making the decision that God can be trusted and giving yourself to God.  There are a million excuses not to make that trip.  “I don’t want to think about it today.  I can’t get the day off, and we’re just not prepared.  We don’t have a map.  What if we get there and don’t like it?”

God says, “Take that first step.  Trust me.”

“But there are so many other things to do first, before I get serious about God.  Being a Christian is something you do when you’re ready to settle down, put your feet up and think deep things.  I should read my Bible a little more.  I really need to get my theology and philosophy of life figured out before I can make a commitment.”

God says, “Just take that first step.  Trust me.”

Here’s the thing that set Abraham apart: he was not a young man.   His “prime years, his “productive years,” are past and there’s nothing much left to look forward to.  He’s done well for himself; he’s a rich guy with not much life left and no good reason to take chances or have faith in anything.  He is an unlikely choice to do anything huge.  Just the sort of situation God loves.  God loves to take the most impossible circumstances, the most unlikely person, and do a miracle.

The punch-line of this story is not that God helped Abraham go from point A to point B.  God didn’t say, “Abraham, you and your family need to go to the address I give you.”  Abraham never even knew where he was going.  Faith was what God wanted from Abraham – trust.  Faith that when he packed up everything he could carry and left home for good, he would be in a better place simply for doing what God wanted him to do.

God says, “Take that first step.  Trust me.  If I could do this with Abraham, think of what I could do with you, if you only said ‘yes.'”

You can substitute yourself in this story…

By faith, you headed back to school.  By faith, you changed your job.  By faith you moved.

By faith, you dealt with that habit.  By faith you apologized.  By faith you forgave.

By faith, you organized yourself to make a positive difference in someone else’s life.

You trusted God and took that step.  You said, “I will follow you where you lead,” and took that step.

Think for a moment.  What is the purpose of your faith?  Does it involve a list of things you hope for?  A bucket list?   Having faith does not mean making exchanges with God so that we get what we want; having faith means simply saying yes to God, believing that Jesus is who he says he is.  It means taking a deep breath, stepping out and trusting.  “God, I believe.”  And then going in the direction God sends you.  Live into your purpose.  God will open doors.

This is not easy.  It’s one of those things that’s so simple it’s hard.  Some believe that faith is the belief/hope that God will change circumstances.  But faith is allowing the Spirit of God to change you, to change us.

Abraham had to decide for himself whether God could be trusted.  But once he took that step of faith, that leap, he found a friend who never left him, and this is still true for anybody who has faith.  That first step is between God and you.  And we don’t just have God with us on this trip; faith is something we do together.

Personal faith may be a private decision, but there is no such thing as a strong solitary Christian.  God created the church to be a force, living out the love of Christ, and that’s all of us using our gifts together.  Everybody here brought those gifts into the room.  Together, they are a force.

Look at the Covenant of our church in your bulletin one more time.  You know, our Covenant (the agreement we make that describes how we live together) has nothing to do with worship styles or the sort of building we worship in.  It’s about how God lives through us and changes the world.

We covenant with one another to seek and respond to the Word and the will of God.  We purpose to walk together in the ways of the Lord, made known and to be made known to us.  We hold it to be the mission of the Church to witness to the Gospel and Jesus Christ in all the world, while worshipping God and striving for trust, justice, and peace and to make a difference through the love of Christ.  As did those who preceded us in the faith, we depend upon the Holy Spirit to lead and empower us.  We pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God, and we look with faith toward the triumph of righteousness and eternal life.  Amen.

The challenge I would have for us goes like this.  If we had to start over, if we were starting from scratch and all we had was that purpose, what would we do?  What we do to witness to the gospel and make a difference for Christ?  Let’s do those things.  It’s the way forward.

Prayer

O God, we believe; help our unbelief.  For the things you’ve taught us on the journey, we thank you. All along, we know that the ups and downs, the good times and bad times along the road, all these things have been leading us to you.  You are the destination; you are the one we have been looking for.  Within ourselves, we know you hold the key to the peace and fulfillment we know we need and only you can give.  Forgive our lack of courage in turning to you.  Forgive us for ignoring you when you call.

But now we open the door of our lives to you.  With faith in your son Jesus, we each give ourselves to you, and trust in your leading.  Transform us through your Spirit into the kind of people, the kind of church, known for their faith in a loving God.  Amen.

1/17/2016 Sermon: The New Thing #3– “Changed for a Purpose”

Did that video bring back any memories?  Christmas seems like such a long time ago, doesn’t it?  A whole three weeks!   But let’s go back there for a few minutes.  I’d like to think about gifts.  I don’t know about the rest of you but, as I’ve gotten older, I find that I really don’t need people to be giving me stuff.  I don’t need much or want much.  Of course, I don’t want that to dampen the holiday spirit on Christmas day, but it’s getting harder to answer that question: “What do you want for Christmas?”

On the other side of this is our almost 3-year-old grandson, who has a much different attitude toward gifts and boxes with ribbons on them.  Wow.  Look at that pile of boxes and bags with who-knows-what inside.  Attack.  Must find out what’s inside.  Okay, Okay, one at a time.  It’s not for me?  It’s yours?  Well, I’m going to need to help you open your gift. The paper went flying everywhere and it hardly mattered what was inside.  It was all about the adventure of opening that gift – the excitement of finding out what was inside.

Maybe that brought back a memory.  I wonder if you can even trace it back to your own childhood.  Can you remember feeling that was about opening a gift on Christmas day or on your birthday?  And I have to wonder, if God, the father who loves us so much, wants to give us gifts (no matter how old we are), is it possible that we think we don’t need them? Leave them unopened?

Let me turn it around a little bit.  When was the last time you gave a gift to someone and felt really good about it?  How would you feel if you gave a gift and it went unopened? Do you have a gift that you like to give away?

I wasn’t going to talk about being ill over these last few weeks, but it was a new experience for me and I thought I’d describe one little part of it that fits right here.

I hadn’t spent a night in the hospital since I was in high school. In the middle of it, I needed to have a treatment for pain.  The doctor who was doing this asked what I did for a living, and when I told him, he started talking about scripture and asking me questions.

I was a little distracted at the time, so I don’t remember exactly what we talked about while he was doing his job.  But when it was done, he told me that he felt this it was his calling, his gift, to relieve pain.  And his gift worked on me.  And afterward, I gave a lot of thought to that gift of his.  The time he had to spend developing that gift, then being in a place where that gift could be used.

God’s desire is to do a new thing, in you and in us.  God’s people are always moving to some next stage, some next place.  Developing our gifts so that we can be used, sometimes to relieve the pain around us.

Isaiah 4318 Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old. 
19 I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

God prepares us to do the new thing, whatever that might be, and gives us gifts to do that new thing.  There are a number of places in scripture that describe the gift-giving that God does, and one of the best-known is 1 Corinthians 12.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11.  Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.3Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

God changes your life for a purpose.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. The common good, for the good of everybody in the church.  That’s how these gifts are different from those boxes we open at Christmas time.  God gives you this so it can be shared.

This is how God prepares us for the new thing that God wants us to do for the good of other people.  A theme that runs throughout the writings of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament is that when you have faith, God gives you gifts.  Remember the story of Jesus changing water into wine at a wedding?  It was a picture of how God wants to work in us.  God takes the old stuff in you and turns it into good things that we share with each other.  God fills you up with the good stuff and sends you out.  It overflows.

Too often we’re more like sponges instead of water pitchers.  We sit and absorb instead of flow.  It’s a problem for God when the church just sits and absorbs instead of flowing out.

I’ve been to seminars and study groups intended to help people discover their spiritual gifts – that ability God gives you to bring something special to the church that it needs.  What I think is interesting is that in scripture, at least in the writings of Paul, nobody has to figure out what their gift is.  I think Paul would have hijacked the Nike slogan – “Just do it!”  You have the gift – just do it!  There is that thing that you love doing for God and others.  We just have to find the place where you can put it to use.  I truly believe that this is one of the main tasks of a pastor: find out what the gifts are and connect the dots.  Some would have the gift of…

  • wisdom or wise speech, v.8 – helping others express themselves in helpful ways.
  • knowledge, v.8 – helping others understand meaning.
  • faith, v.9 – helping others believe.
  • healing, v.9 – helping others become whole.
  • miracles, v.10 – helping others experience the unexpected things God does.
  • prophecy, (v.10) – speaking truth to others on behalf of God.
  • discernment of spirits, v.10 – helping others understand what is true spiritually.
  • tongues, v.10 – communicating the Good News of God in a language others can understand.
  • interpretation of tongues, v.10. helping others understand what God is saying.

Every church has gifts that are different from other churches.  Most of those gifts have to do with communication and our relationship with God.  But the gifts God gives include a broad range of abilities.  As you read through scripture, you find that God gives gifts aren’t in the 1 Corinthians list – the gifts of making music and art, for instance, are in the Old Testament.  In Romans, Paul mentions the gift of organization/administration and the gift of giving.  Each one of you brought something in with you that God would like to use with someone else.  You may think it’s not much to offer, but God doesn’t think so.

Singing in the choir, teaching Sunday School, keeping the roof from leaking, leading the youth group, and… stuff we aren’t even thinking of.

Not everybody has the same gift; and the gifts are not for individuals, they’re for the good of the group, and they bring people closer to God.  They happen when we are together and your gift, whatever it is, is not about you – it’s about what God wants to do for somebody else through you.

I know that in life, you can achieve a sense of success in many ways.  But God can give you a true sense of fulfillment, when you allow yourself to be used to bring faith to someone who has none, when you give your gift away.  I believe that the church has an even bigger sense of fulfillment and spiritual strength when we find ways to be a gift to the community, a gift that God wants to give to the community.

There’s a story I love called “Babbette’s Feast.”  And it’s one of the only foreign language films that I can sit all the way through!  (Danish)

Babettes-Feast-7943_6In a time long ago, Babbette is a French chef who is a refugee in Denmark.  She is escaping a war that killed her family, and settles in a small seaside village where the weather always seems cold and cloudy, just like the people.

She finds a job keeping house and cooking meals for two sisters.  It’s always the same: boiled fish and bread.  Day after day, and it goes on for years.  Life in this house and life in the village never changes, and no one can imagine it being any other way.  Babbette is just glad to be alive.  But she kept a connection with her home in Paris.  Every year, someone buys her a lottery ticket and sends it to her.  You guessed it; one year, she wins the lottery.

It doesn’t take her long to decide what she will do with the winnings.  She is a chef; she will create a feast for the people of this village like they have never had before.  She will open their eyes to the joys of life through the food she makes.

Babbette works for days to make the feast.  She buys only the best ingredients, the best meats, the finest wines.  She uses all her skills.

But making the food was the easy part.  The people of the village trust Babbette, but they don’t trust this new thing she wants them to do.  Surely, it’s sinful.  At first, they don’t want to come to the feast.  Then they only sip and take small bites.  Then, one by one, they begin to taste what’s on the plates in front of them.  They begin to taste the gift.  And their eyes begin to widen and their jaws drop.  Who knew food could be so good?

You can see their personalities begin to change, their relationships change. They leave the house arm in arm singing together.  The people of the village trusted a good thing to happen, they trusted the gift, and the gift worked in ways they never expected.

In the end, we learn that Babbette spent all she had; there was nothing left.  But everyone had all they needed.  God had done something new.

Everything we need to be the church, the Body of Christ, together is right here.  Everything we need to be a force for Christ is right here.  Everything God needs to make a real, lasting difference in our homes, our community, and our world, is right here.  And God will use us to do something new.

Prayer

O God, sometimes we follow our traditions without even thinking what they mean.  But we want to be filled with life.  We want you to make us new.  Our lives need to change, we need your kind of CPR, and so we come to you.  Send your Spirit into our lives; help us know the habits and traditions that take us away from you.  Give us the faith to know that you will walk with us through the withdrawal as we change direction.  And when our friends and family ask us, “What’s new?” we will know that the change they see has happened through our friendship with you.

As we think on the holiday tomorrow, give us the courage of a Martin Luther King Jr. to follow you and make difference in our world.  Amen.