3/19/2017 Sermon – Dare to Dream #4: “Lose the Excuse”

In the video series and book we’re following, Dare to Dream, Pastor Mike Slaughter is helping us define our BHAG – our Big Hairy Audacious God-Purpose.

Last week, we looked at how Moses stumbled into a conversation with God in the burning bush.  In that moment, everything changed for Moses.  After a huge moral failure and then many years of life on the run, just when he thought he had retired, God had a huge purpose for Moses. Out in the middle of nowhere, when he least expected it, God got his attention and changed his course.  God does that.  You thought you were done, but God had other ideas.

This week’s chapter of Dare to Dream is called, “Lose Your Big Buts.”  I prefer to say… Lose your excuses!  Here is this week’s video…

Do you have a favorite excuse for not doing something you know that you should?  I confess, I have trouble with making the time to exercise.  Too many other important things to do! And I confess, I’ve found excuses sometimes to avoid things that God might want me to do.

The bush is still burning as God speaks to Moses and Moses gets his mission, his marching orders, his purpose.

Exodus 3:7-15.  7 Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ 11But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ 12He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’

13 But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ 14God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ 15God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”: This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.

The bush is still burning when Moses asks, “But who am I?” Great question that countless people have asked themselves, asked other people, asked God.  Given any kind of remotely daunting situation, I’ve asked that of myself.  We’ll come back to that question.  In spite of whatever Moses thinks of himself, it doesn’t sound like God is going to take no for an answer.  Listen to how God moves through his purpose; listen to the logic of God.  Speaking from the bush, God says…

I have observed the misery of my people.

God is not blind to what is going on.  God sees misery. Maybe you think God just doesn’t notice the pain that any of us are going through.  Then God says…

I have heard their cry.

God is not deaf.  God listens and God cares.  What did God hear?  Their cry.  God was waiting by the phone for some contact!

I know their sufferings.

God doesn’t just see and hear; God knows.  God has empathy.  God is there with the suffering.  God knows.I have come down to deliver them.

God doesn’t just see and hear and know, God acts.  God enters the picture.  If you look back in the story, the Hebrew people were invited guests of the Egyptians during the time of Jacob and Joseph.  Now they are slaves; captives with no way out.  When things seem most hopeless, God comes; God becomes present.

I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them

God names the oppressor – these are not mystery villains. It’s the Egyptians.  They have a name. These were real people in real history.

As I’ve mentioned, workers just dug up a colossal statue of one of the Pharaohs that Moses might have known.  Ramses the Great built huge buildings and conquered a lot of people. God came to save the Hebrew people at the height of Egyptian power and culture.  They were a formidable enemy.

God’s people still have enemies.  I know you know that people in so many places experience misery and oppression.  These enemies can be named.  Hunger, illness, emptiness, addiction, depression, hopelessness.  It’s as close as next door.  No, it’s closer.  There is someone in the room who is experiencing some kind of misery; you can count on it.  They wonder if God is watching, if God is listening, if God knows.  The answer is yes, and remember, Moses was not in such a good place himself when God says…

So come, I will send you.

The people God loves are oppressed by a huge enemy and someone needs to go.  That’s you, Moses.

Scripture doesn’t mention if Moses asked God to repeat that.  I’m sorry, voice coming out of the bush, I thought I just heard you say, “I will send you.”  Send me?  You can’t be serious.  Until 30 seconds before, Moses wasn’t even aware of God.

God gets it and in spite of Moses’ lack of previous theological engagement, and lack of deep spiritual content, God still had a purpose for Moses, and God has a purpose for us, a purpose for St. Paul’s.  Moses is not the world’s idea of an ideal leader and he knows it.  None of us are perfect ambassadors for God.  So Moses has a logical reaction.

But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’

That’s the first excuse Moses offers up to God to get out of the thing that God needs him to do.  Who am I?  He looks in the mirror and asks, “Who do you think you are?”

Palestinian shepherd. CN – 2011.

Until that moment with the burning bush, he had no relationship with God and a lot of good reasons to tell God to find somebody else.

I hope the church is listening, because we all do this.  I know I’ve done it.  Too much asking Who do you think you are?  Anybody who does any kind of good work for God has had to get past that question.  Who do you think you are? That’s Satan’s challenge to anyone who’s thinking about dreaming a Big Hairy Audacious God-Purpose.

But “Who am I” is overruled by I AM.  I’ve got to think that God turned up the volume and the bass a little bit when he says…

I will be with you.

I will be with you.  God says – yes, Moses, I’m sending you, but this is my project and you won’t be doing this alone.

But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’

God then says the most profound thing ever spoken in any language.

God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.” ’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”

God’s purpose to create and preserve a nation of people has is now moving on from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob through Moses, whether he believed in God or not, whether he thought he was capable or not.  No excuses.  I Am is in charge.

This is something we need to keep in mind as we form our own mission statements and think about the purpose of our church.

About 1,400 years later, it’s no accident that Jesus says, I am the light of the world; I am the bread of life; I am the good shepherd; I am the way, the truth, and the life; I am the resurrection and the life.  Who is Jesus?  I AM.

When we believe he rose from the dead and make him our Lord, God comes to live in us through the Holy Spirit.  How does the Spirit come to the first believers?  Flames of fire, giving them words of salvation to speak to lost people, people who need to understand that God knows and God cares.  God sees the need of people in Manheim, turns to St. Paul’s church and says, “So come, I will send you.”

Every week, our Dare to Dream book gives questions guiding us toward defining our purpose.  Here are our questions so far:

Where do you see the greatest need around you in your neighborhood, your community, and your world?  How can you meet that need?  We are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”  (Ephesians 2:10).

What struggles in your life have you had to overcome?  How have those struggles defined you?  God uses difficult moments in our lives to shape us and make us more useful in the lives of others.

What tightly-held excuses keep you from living God’s dream for you?  Take some time and write a prayer asking God to remove your excuses.  List your excuses in the prayer.

Last week, I shared a little bit about about being a new Christian, just graduated from college, thrust into an urban middle school to teach art.  In the moment, for me, that job was about having enough money to eat.  My goal at the time was to be a serious artist, and to that point, I had actually had some success.  In the year or two before I took that job, my artwork (mostly silk-screen prints) was hanging in a lot of “juried competitions” in galleries and museums.  I remember having a piece accepted in a show in Boston and one of my former college professors saying to me, “Congratulations.  You know, that’s about as good as it gets.  Not too many shows beyond that level of competition.”  After feeling awesome for about 10 minutes, I felt a huge let-down.  That’s all there is?

On the other hand, I was getting enormous fulfillment from the conversations I was having with kids in the youth groups I was running.  They were becoming believers and growing in faith.  So I left teaching to join the staff of Youth for Christ, which meant raising support for my salary.  My family thought I was crazy to do it, but I resigned my teaching job and jumped in.  I had 3 summer vacation months to raise $12,000.  Half-way through the summer, I had $600 – pledged by our church.

One day, I was invited to a businessmen’s Bible study.  As we did introductions around the table, I explained what I had been doing (teaching art) and where I was going (ministry with kids).  Not long after I got home, the phone rang.  I businessman named Greg was calling to say that he had been impressed by what I said and was wondering if I still needed support.  He was hoping that he could contribute the rest of the $12,000 I needed.  For the two years I worked for YFC, I had two financial supporters – our church and Greg.

Privately, I had been debating the idea of graduate school and had assumed I’d be heading off to get an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree.  But I was open to whatever God would do.  Then the phone rang again.  Greg was wondering: “Wouldn’t you be better equipped to do this ministry work with a seminary degree?  Go pick a seminary and we’ll pay.”

A few years after I graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, Greg passed away.  The family asked if I would help conduct his funeral.  At the service, I learned that there were several of us whom Greg had quietly supported.  Only God knows how far the ripples have spread, how many people have been influenced because of his generosity and support.

Do you know the Serenity Prayer?  God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I have my own version: God grant me the courage to challenge the things I cannot accept; the vision to see where God needs me to go, and the wisdom to know God is with me.

Prayer

God, we thank you for the freedom of our relationship with you.  We are amazed that you choose to love us just as we are.  You sent Moses to the Hebrew people to lead them and you sent Jesus to us.  Now help us follow him, for the sake of those who come after us.  Help us be the people you called us to be.  Send us, and help us show our world that we carry in us a loving, merciful God.  Amen.

3/12/2017 Sermon – Dare to Dream #3: “Your Burning Bush”

This week, we’ve moved to chapter 3 in the Dare to Dream series.  Here is this week’s Dare to Dream video:

This chapter of Mike Slaughter’s book is called, “Your Burning Bush.” That’s a strong hint.  There’s only one place in scripture that has a story about a bush on fire, and I suspect that many of us know that story and have seen the movie.  It’s about… Moses.  What do you know about Moses?

Moses is a Bible hero, right?  When we add up the total of his life experiences, he is a significant guy in the story of God’s mission to redeem God’s people, to save you and me.  And you really need to pay attention to the way God used Moses. God stepped in to bring Moses a couple of major life-changing experiences, times of before and after.

If you look in the first couple of chapters of Exodus, you remember that Moses was a Hebrew baby saved miraculously by the daughter of the Pharaoh, the Egyptian king.  He becomes a prince.  Won the Egyptian lottery, right?

Why are Hebrew people, God’s people, in Egypt?  That’s where Joseph (son of Jacob) brought his entire family hundreds of years before to escape a famine.  And now they are slaves.  Their situation is bad, and they have been crying out to God.

After Moses finds out who he really is, he kills an Egyptian in an angry moment, and then spends the next 40 years on the run.  Not exactly running.  He took on the most obscure job he could find:  tending sheep in a remote place outside of Egypt. Riches to rags, right?  Let’s hear the story one more time and we might learn a few new things about Moses and about ourselves.

Remember, this series is about helping us lock into our own mission from God, our own purpose to honor God, bless other people, and find joy.

Exodus 3:1  Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  2  And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3  And Moses said, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.”

4  When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.”  5  Then he said, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6  And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

That story describes the first experience of spiritual clarity for Moses – that moment when he was introduced to God.

It’s clear from the story that Moses knew who he was ethnically (Hebrew), but not who he was spiritually.  Moses (part one) had been a rich kid growing up.  Moses was an Egyptian name; he was part of the royal family.  He probably worshiped Egyptian gods.  He was one of the people in control until it all came crashing down.  None of that great stuff he had meant anything.  Everything he grew up with evaporated, including family.  Maybe you’ve had some experience with that. Everything seemed good until something happened that served to “clear the decks.”  Maybe you found that God needed to do that in order to get you to listen.

Moses was 40 years old when the bottom fell out and he was exiled.  His life ends up punctuated by huge moments every 40 years, so this is the end of Moses part 1.

Palestinian shepherd.  CN – 2011.

Moses, part 2, is a lost soul.  Broken.  Empty.  No direction. Moses had not prepared himself to fit into God’s purpose and was not even aware that there was a God who had a purpose for him.  But God was using life experience to prepare Moses. By the way, Moses may have been as old as 80 when God speaks to him out of the bush.  When I think of this story, it reminds me that there is no retirement age in God’s kingdom!

The Hebrew people have been begging God for help.  God hears and God has just the right guy…

Moses had the perfect resume.  Moses knew all about Egypt.  Moses knew the language.  Moses knew Pharaoh.  He even had that Egyptian name.

Moses had also had the experience of trauma.  How many of us have had some kind of a huge moment of difficulty that God then used somehow?  God can use the painful stuff that we would like to forget!  In fact, for us to fulfill God’s purposes for us, God needs to use the painful stuff.  Pain and discomfort are the ministry tools God uses best.

The first half of my ministry years were all about working with youth.  I believe God used my parents’ divorce to prepare me, especially for that.  They had been married for 36 years.  Kathy and I had just graduated from college when that happened, and we had only been married for a few months.  I don’t care what anybody says, there is no age for children when your parents’ divorce becomes easier to handle.  It took some years, but I can look back and see how God used that experience to make me a better husband, a better father, a better pastor.

At that literally that same time, I saw a burning bush. Actually, it wasn’t a burning bush that sent me down the path of serving God; it was a burning car.

I had gotten a job to teach art in an urban school in Elyria, Ohio.  Just before I started, the city was in the news for rioting that was happening a few blocks from the school – burning buildings and a burning car.  Here’s a NY Times article from a few years ago about the 1975 Elyria riots:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/17/us/this-land-elyria-hard-fall-of-favorite-son-reminder-of-scars.html?pagewanted=all

The kids outside my door were bragging about turning over a police car.  Everyone in the building was depressed and oppressed in some way, including me (for my own reasons).  The principal let me start a before-school devotional time with some kids who had noticed the Bible on my desk and they became a kind of art-room youth group. I had just become a believing Christian a couple of years before and I had no idea what I was doing.  But God’s hand was in all of it.  It was powerful, better than making lemonade out of lemons.  No huge plan; I just said yes and one thing led to another.  Not along after, there were 20 students in my room before school started for a short prayer, a little piece of Bible, and just enough encouragement to get through the day.

At a different time, God used the prophet Jeremiah to speak some important words to the people of God when they were in trouble:

For surely, I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord.  (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

God says, surely, I know the plans I have for you.  Too often, we seem to be the ones trying to make a plan for God, but it really doesn’t work that way.  After his world came crashing down, falling apart, and after years of thinking about it, Moses was ready to be used by God.

Here’s how Mike Slaughter’s Dare to Dream challenges us to use a burning bush moment:

What struggles in your life have you had to overcome?  How have those struggles defined you? 

God can use all things to strengthen his kingdom and we are called to do the same.  How can you share the lessons learned from your struggles?

How have those lessons helped you in the past and how might God use them to shape your future?

We are all part of a movement.  God uses each of us to bring freedom to slaves somewhere.  Moses’ job was to bring the Hebrew people into their purpose with God – to help them follow a path to freedom.  Moses was a messenger for change.  Beginning with himself.  Moses listens to God and begins again when he is older.

I’m talking about restarting with life after hitting the wall, even after running into things that knock us down badly.

After the illness, after the divorce, after the personal failure, after the rejection, after the loss…

You thought you were done.  Then, there comes this moment when God lights up a bush and it gets your attention.  I’ve talked about this before: that circumstance, that situation, the sight that pulls you in.  And then God speaks.  And it becomes clear that there is something that you need to do.  And no one else will do it.  Something you can use to honor God, bless other people, and bring you joy.

So, I was selling BBQ chicken halves on the square on Friday with some high school kids and had unique experience.  A guy walked up and with money in his hand, ready to buy his dinner.  He gave us his money, but refused to take the chicken.  He was paying for the whoever came along next, paying it forward.

He gave us a card explaining that this happening because of a family in Lititz (PA).  This pay-it-forward day was in memory of their daughter who was stillborn on March 10, 2010.  On the card was a list of suggestions for making a difference in someone else’s life.  Small things and some not-so-small things.  And of course, my mind was running with possibilities for a group of believers in a church like St. Paul’s, whose purpose is to make a difference through the love of Christ.

I dare you to dream about what God accomplishes when we do that together.

Prayer

God, we thank you for the freedom of our relationship with you.  We are not impressive people.  We are amazed that you choose to love us just as we are.  You sent Moses to the Hebrew people to lead them and you sent Jesus to us.  Your love for us never ends.

Now help us follow.  Show us the path we need to walk. When we get off the path we should be on, help us know which way to go, for the sake of those who come after us.  Help us be the people you called us to be – the people we have committed ourselves to being.  And help us show our world that we carry in us a loving, merciful God.  Amen.

3/5/2017 Sermon – Dare to Dream #2: “Jacob’s Prayer”

During Lent, we’re following a book called Dare to Dream by a pastor from Dayton, Ohio named Mike Slaughter.

On Wednesday nights during Lent, we will watch the short video talks that go along with the book and discuss the ideas that go along with the series.  On Sunday mornings, I’ll go into the scriptures he uses and dig a little deeper into what he says.  You don’t have to have the book for Sundays or Wednesdays; I think you’ll do just fine with or without.  Here’s Mike Slaughter’s video for the first session…

Mike talks about developing a God-sized purpose for your life, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey.  No matter how old or young you are.  We’ll discover some of the principles of living into God’s will.  Mike suggests discovering and developing a BHAG:  A Big Hairy Audacious Goal (God- Purpose).  This is how you know a God-Purpose:  (it will…)

Honor God.

Bless other people.

Bring you joy.

This isn’t just good guidance for a personal dream or vision; this is what we do on the way to fulfillment as a church.

Last week, we were encouraged to pay a little more attention to dreams. Maybe you’re thinking a little more about your sleeping dreams; I know that I am, but I can’t say that I’m able to interpret anything yet.  My dreams are kind of strange!

Chichen Itza, Mexico. CN – 2003.

Last Sunday, we were looking at how God stood next to Jacob and spoke to him in a dream: angels going up and down on a staircase (some versions say it was a ladder).  “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder…”  You remember the song, right?  Soldiers of the cross?  I not sure about the connection between Jacob’s angel-dream and the military.

The word “ladder” probably means something like this – a staircase on a huge stone monument like this one (that’s Chichen Itza in Mexico).  In his time, this kind of temple was a form of ziggurat.  Have you heard that word before? The same sort of construction, but the stairway would wrap around in a “spiral.”

Leading up to this dream of angels going up and down on the staircase, Jacob was on the run from his brother Esau and really didn’t have a relationship with God to speak of.  But God had a relationship with him.  It’s a lesson in how God will fulfill dreams and promises with even the most imperfect people.  God will build a nation out of Jacob – his people will be like “the dust of the earth.”  So Jacob has a huge promise to fulfill, but as the story plays out, it’s God who does all the heavy lifting. Let’s finish this part of Jacob’s journey…

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.’  (Genesis 28:18-22)

That’s the story of how Jacob began to understand that God was nearby somewhere.  He was beginning to believe.  Do you remember a time like that?  A time when you were starting to understand that you were not alone?

Palestinian shepherd. CN – 2011.

In his empty brokenness, Jacob had an extraordinary experience with God in the middle of nowhere and marked the place with a big rock, a pillar.  Why would he do that?  To remember. Your pillar is a reminder of your mission.  But it’s not just your reminder; there’s a message in the pillar that can be shared.  Jacob was by himself when he first had the idea to set up this big rock.  Later in Genesis he sets up other pillars (Genesis 31:45 – covenant with Laban, 35:20 – Rachel’s tomb) and invites others to join in the experience, so that they remember together.

Sometimes that little passage is called “Jacob’s Prayer,” but Jacob doesn’t really do much talking to God, not until the very end (of all that you give me, I will give one tenth to you).  He’s making a bargain, and God is rolling his eyes -with a smile.  God is going to accomplish great things with Jacob in spite of Jacob.  And how many of our prayers have started out this way.  God, if you will be with me, if you will take care of me, then I will do this or that.”

With God, there is no if.  We only have to realize it and open ourselves to him.  Surrender.  Let God supply the vision and the means to accomplish it.

But it’s okay; it was a beginning.  This is how prayer works in the middle of stress. Don’t forget he’s on the run; he’s just happy to know that God is there and God has made a promise to give him a future no matter how things look.  And that’s true with us too.

So Jacob sets up this rock as a kind of reminder of the moment. Nobody is really sure what it looked like or where it is. Picture a a rock standing in the middle of nowhere.

Obviously, for Jacob, it honors God.  Because it can be seen, it blesses other people.  And clearly, it brought Jacob joy.  He was still a work in progress, but he was a changed person.  He can look back at that rock and say, “This is where it started for me.  This is where I realized that God is standing next to me and has a mission for me.”  It’s something you see in the Old Testament story again and again, God’s people making a pile of rocks as a reminder of God’s work and their mission.

Do you have reminders of important moments somewhere in your house? I know that a lot of us have family pictures up on our walls, or fireplace mantles, or end tables. Maybe a memento or souvenir.

I suspect that most of those things are about memories.  But do you have (or have you had) pictures or things that give you a sense of purpose?  Something that makes you think, “I need to go there, or, I need to keep doing this, or maybe, believing this.”

Dare to Dream encourages you to do this as you form your purpose statement.  A physical reminder to honor God, bless other people, embrace the joy God gives.  Over the years, I’ve had a bunch of “monuments.”

This picture hangs over our couch at home.  It’s a picture of a window in a house in the Dominican Republic, near a house that a mission group from this church was working on a few years ago.  It’s a reminder of a calling that I’ve sensed growing over the years to bring change to the world in the name of Jesus, beginning at home, wherever home is.  Beginning with local mission projects, I believe God has called all of us to bring change, and I’ve seen it happen when God is honored, people are blessed, and we all share in the joy.

At the end of the second chapter of Dare to Dream, Mike Slaughter asks:

Where do you see the greatest need around you in your neighborhood, your community, and your world?

How can you meet that need?

What gifts do you bring to further that mission?

Prayer

Lord, you have called us to make a difference through the love of your son Jesus.  So, we pray that you help us learn step by step how to follow his teaching. Free us from those things that separate us from you.  Help us live our lives filled with love, as he did.  Remind us of the power of your love and set us on a course of compassion, gentleness.  Give us the discipline of forgiveness and peacemaking.  Give us opportunities to bless other people.  Help us, each day, feel a sense of calling – that there is a ministry you give each of us – and all of us together, as we live and serve in a world full of need and injustice. Amen.