Accountability

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Each year on or near October 31, many Protestant churches take time to remember the actions that resulted in some followers of Christ breaking off from the Roman Catholic Church.  There are many aspects to what led to the various Protestant denominations we know today, and what happened in Wittenberg, October 31 1517, nearly 500 years ago, is one critical piece.

The German Monk Martin Luther did not plan to create the “Protestant Reformation.”  He wanted to hold the Roman Catholic Church accountable for how they understood and applied the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The stories of his actions tell us he went to the large wooden doors on the Castle Church in Wittenberg and nailed 95 complaints, specific areas in which he felt the Church should be held accountable.

In his era, these doors were a good place to post a notice for public viewing and Luther knew that the next day, November 1 All Saints’ Day the church would be filled with worshipers, many of whom were educated and literate.  Today he may have purchased a newspaper ad, a billboard, or sent out a series of tweets or Ytube videos.

Luther had earned his Doctor of Theology degree in Wittenberg and was a respected professor there, as well as the assistant pastor of the Castle Church.

Pope Leo X, did not share current Pope Francis’s commitment to modeling care for the poor and living as simply as possible.  Pope Leo X had depleted the papal treasury built up by his predecessor Julius II, to purchase those things he wanted particularly fine art, literature and personal luxury.

With his financial resources gone, he devised a plan to sell forgiveness.  That plan was known as the sale of indulgences, most of us studied that practice in world history.  Church leaders gave official church documents to those who made financial contributions which transferred a portion of the merits of the saints to the bearer of the document.  This transfer of credit for doing good by the saints reduced the sentence of the contributor or of a loved friend or relative to purgatory.  In essence absolved the donor of all sin.  Some of Luther’s parishioners purchased these indulgences and then asked Luther about their validity.

It was more than upsetting to Luther that the church would claim forgiveness could be purchased.   He understood forgiveness to be free, paid for through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.  Luther lifted John 8:31-36 in support of his position: “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

A center of Luther’s position was that we are saved by grace through faith and it is Christ alone who puts us right with God.   Romans 5:8 reminds us:  8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.  Nothing we did or can do makes us right with God except God’s grace, given freely by God, a gift.

We sang “A Might Fortress” this morning, in which we find Luther lifts this important truth: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right man on our side the man of God’s own choosing.  Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he; Lord Saboth, his name, from age to age the same, and he must win the battle.”

Luther’s actions caused the initial furor that resulted in the Reformation and divided the western church, but they also led to a renewed enthusiasm among believers to study God’s word for themselves and to seek to live out a witness to the good news of the Gospel.   The priesthood of all believers, which means that Christians do not need an intermediary between them and God, was also a significant theme of the Reformation.  It put the accountability of our relationship with God on each of us, as we have the right and duty to enter into our own personal relationship with God, to read the Bible, worship in our own language, and to pray directly to God.

Church History shows us that as organized institutions, which the church uses as a tool to live out its mission, we sometimes do a better job of living as God calls us to live than at other times, and that accountability to other Christians and to God remains critical to our faith journey.

Charles and John Wesley, recognizing that to be true, developed Societies and Class meetings.  Wesley’s classes were small accountability groups that met to help encourage each other to do right and resist temptation.  They, like Luther, did not mean to form a new denomination, just to help one another live a life reflecting Christ.

In Wesley’s classes, they asked each other such questions as

John Wesley’s Small Group Questions:

  1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
  2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
  3. Do I confidentially pass onto another what was told me in confidence?
  4. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work , or habits?
  5. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
  6. Did the Bible live in me today?
  7. Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
  8. Am I enjoying prayer?
  9. When did I last speak to someone about my faith?
  10. Do I pray about the money I spend?
  11. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
  12. Do I disobey God in anything?
  13. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
  14. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
  15. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?
  16. How do I spend my spare time?
  17. Am I proud?
  18. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisee who despised the publican?
  19. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I going to do about it?
  20. Do I grumble and complain constantly?
  21. Is Christ real to me?

 

Wesley’s Band Meeting Questions:

  1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
  2. What temptations have you met with?
  3. How were you delivered?
  4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
  5. Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?[1]

 

Wesley felt the clergy of his day were not reaching all those who needed to hear the message of Grace.  He was criticized for preaching in the fields to which he said, “one plain reason why these sinners are never reclaimed is this, they never come into a church. Will you say, as some tender-hearted Christians I have heard, ‘ Then it is their own fault; let them die and be damned !’ I grant it may be their own fault, but the Savior of souls came after us, and so we ought to seek to save that which is lost.” He saw the world as his parish not just one congregation worshiping in one building.

Wesley developed a culture of holding one another accountable in love to living increasingly like-minded with Christ and of offering Grace to those who couldn’t come into the church for whatever their reasons were.

Paul is holding the Thessalonians accountable to their call to follow Christ in the passage we heard this morning.  He repeatedly emphasizes their identity in God and Jesus from the opening “Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,” to the conclusion in which he express his expectation that “the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

He holds them accountable to that identity, encouraging them to support and love one another as brothers and sisters, expressing gratitude that their lives show evidence that they are doing that more and more.  That those things that their circumstances and culture would lift as differences, are not important.  That their shared life in Christ brings them together, eliminating the “us”, “they, conversations.  They are attempting to do something for each other and others, continuing to learn and to grow, enduring through the obstacles that could change their direction.  Paul celebrates that endurance, encouraging them to love one another, to endure in faith, to remember they are empowered by God and Christ.

We exercise accountability to God and one another when we come to worship, participate in small groups and other opportunities to check in with each other.  We exercise accountability to God and to one another when we work through disagreements to find a shared way forward.  When we stop using “us” and “they” language, particularly when talking about our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We exercise accountability when:

We follow the policies and procedures of our United Methodist denomination and come together for the annual meeting we will hold later today.

We grow in love with God and each other as those in Thessalonica did,

We are able to endure all the things that come at us trying to get us to: accept the false truths of our broader culture; which push us to set different priorities than modeled by Jesus the Christ; encourage us to judge others as if the Grace of God needs to be earned; and other obstacles that keep us from an abundant life.

Following Paul’s encouragement, as well as the traditions formed in the leadership of Luther and Wesley we can echo the prayer shared in this passage:“asking that our God will make us worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith,  so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Trusting our prayer will be answered, we are in a position to transform the world, accountable to the one in whom we find our identity and reflective of His grace in all we say and do, no matter what the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

[1] Reference: John Wesley’s Class Meetings: a Model for Making Disciples, by D. Michael Henderson, Evangel Publishing House, 1997, pp. 118-9

 

Giving Over, not Up

II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-1

Luke 18:9-14

Many of us enjoy a good puzzle.  Something that requires us to use our ingenuity or patient effort to solve or to put something together.  There are crossword puzzles that test our vocabulary or build it, word puzzles that push us to think beyond the obvious to find the answer, and there are jigsaw puzzles which use the pieces you were given this morning to build a colorful, usually beautiful, scene.

There are also perplexing situations in our lives which “puzzle” us, questions for which there are no clear answers; understandings we have that others don’t seem to share; things that confuse, mystify, or baffle us; people who we can’t figure out.  Those circumstances of puzzlement can frustrate, bewilder, or confound us, occupying our thoughts and actions until we feel satisfied we have solved them, or at least attributed a plausible reason why we can’t.

The passages read this morning create puzzles for some of us seeking to follow Jesus.  We may find ourselves thinking of what it means to pour out ourselves as a libation, to fight the good fight, to recognize in what ways we have finished the race, to keep the faith.

Recognizing his race was finished was relatively obvious to Paul.  He knew he would soon be executed for his work sharing the news of Jesus Christ and the grace extended to all.  His government didn’t want that message told, seeing it as undermining their power and calling for a new world order.  The religious leaders of the day didn’t want that message told for the same reason.  Recognizing his earthly life would soon end, Paul reflects on what has transpired, what will be, and what those who continue to share the message need to know, most immediately Timothy.

His words convey he is confident he did his best, that he forgives those who didn’t support him when he was arrested, that God’s power is his strength during long periods of imprisonment and the long journeys and days bringing the good news to the Gentiles.

He trusts God is faithful to receive him into the heavenly kingdom, basing it on his experiences of God’s faithfulness throughout his ministry.  Timothy knew of the difficult times Paul had faced, of his standing alone before Nero’s hostile court with no other believers appearing to support him.  Timothy knew of the times Paul experienced God with him as he took the message of Christ to the Gentiles, how the chains had fallen off Paul in prison opening an opportunity to minister even there.  Timothy knew because of witness accounts and because Paul was faithful to teach Timothy of God’s faithfulness, to share the faith stories of his life which witnessed to God’s love and power.

“I am already being poured out as a libation,” Paul writes to Timothy.  A libation was the drink offering, an offering of wine poured over the sacrifice being cooked/burnt on the altar.  The wine has two effects, one theological and one physical.  The theological effect is a generous and joyous offering, an outpouring, to God.  The physical effect is that the wine hits the flame and “poof” bigger flame, lots of smoke, and the aroma spreads everywhere.  There is no element of “giving up”, of resigning oneself in the drink offering, but it is a joyous abandon.  A willingness to give everything to God so that the experience can be shared by others.[1]

This image would have been a piece of the puzzle for Timothy, a statement which brought with it a clearer image of the whole picture, not just the pieces available in the moment.  Paul tells Timothy he is “giving over” himself fully to God, even more so, as the end of his physical ministry nears.   We know his ministry didn’t end with his death.  We continue to hear and study the words he wrote.  They are part of the picture followers continue to build in this puzzle we might name “God’s story.”

His statements give Timothy and others, called to leadership in the church throughout the ages, the encouragement to live in the same way.  To give it your all, to pour out your best, to offer all that you are to God with joyous abandon, and in doing so the fragrance of the gospel will spread everywhere, even when it may mean you “depart.”[2]  Not necessarily “end of earthly life” depart, but the letting go of a leadership position so someone else can build on the foundation you provided, or opening yourself to worshiping in a new way so that it can connect with that visitor in the back row, or letting go of some of your understandings to see something new in God’s word and direction for those following Jesus.

Paul teaches us that our lives are not about us.  Too many times we insist on having our own way and it leads to anything but to that which God has called us.   We are called to be poured out for others, and only in doing so will be find the peace Paul conveys in this letter to Timothy.

From the time Paul encountered the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus, to the time he faced his upcoming death, Paul’s life included a series of circumstances in which he let go of his own plans, his own desires, his own hopes to serve God and to pour out himself so that others might know the grace God extended to them through Jesus Christ.   His puzzle pieces helping to form the big picture that he saw dimly as he shared the gospel with others, and which he now sees clearly.[3]

The parable about the Pharisee and the Tax collector may seem clear cut and not an example of a puzzle at all.  We may believe the take away from this story is that the Pharisee is a self-righteous hypocrite and the humble tax collector is the better person.  But the minute we lift labels “self-righteous,” “hypocrite,” “humble” and “better” we are being more like the Pharisee than the tax collector.

Pharisees and Tax Collectors were not high on the “most respected” list of their day.  It  was the Pharisees who preserved faith in God even under the crushing force of Roman military domination and they preserved it by maintaining clarity about the way the goodness of God out to shape all of faithful life.”[4]  They were also seen as money lovers, adulterers, and hypocrites, and were criticized by Jesus, usually in light of how their focus on rules kept them from seeing things from a God perspective.

Tax collectors were not innocent, they were hated by the people, an instrument of economic oppression by the Roman Empire, and often they took more from the people than they were authorized to take.   As Jesus shared this parable his audience likely had strong feelings about both the Pharisee and the tax-collector, and the meaning of the story may have proven more of a puzzle than a clear directive on who was better.

In all probability, the Pharisee has an accurate assessment of his actions.  He has set himself apart from others by his faithful adherence to the law.  He is, by the standards both Luke and Jesus seem to employ, righteous.  The Pharisee speaks the truth, he misses from where his righteousness comes, placing it entirely in his own actions and being.  He looks for the Lord to confirm his self-assessment, and doesn’t come in a spirit of gratitude.

The tax collector comes to the Lord in prayer, fully acknowledging that he has no means by which to claim righteousness, he is entirely at the mercy of God.  The parable tells us it was the tax collector who left this place of prayer justified.

We may be able to identify with the Pharisee’s statements when we consider that we do the work of the church, provide the financial support necessary to support religious institutions, seek to devote our lives to pleasing God.  We may have even say something like “There but for the grace of God go I” in evaluating the situation or decisions of someone else.

We may also find ourselves in the tax collector, fully aware of our own weakness, failures, and sins, acknowledging our total dependence on God.

Either way, or a bit of both, we know that it is God alone who knows our heart, who determines to justify the ungodly.  We are not called to evaluate the actions or heart of another.  We are called to stand before God aware only of our need for God’s mercy.

We don’t know the rest of the story for the characters in this parable.  The Pharisee may have come to know the risen Christ as did the Apostle Paul, and responded in humility to all Jesus had done to fulfill God’s plan for salvation.  The tax collector may have left justified, and fallen back into the patterns of taking more from others than he should, needing to turn to God again in humility.

CS Lewis said that “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you’re looking down, you can’t see something that’s above you.”  God’s view comes from above us.  Jesus tells us over and over that God sees things differently than we do.

This parable invites us to conduct our lives on the hope that God is merciful to us, and by extension to everyone else.  When we decide that love and mercy are what really counts, we have the opportunity, with God’s power, to extend mercy abundantly in a way that includes and offers healing to the whole world.[5]

David Kinnaman’s books unchristian and You Lost me, as well as Barna’s studies on the “Dones,” and “Nones” and a number of books on why people are leaving the church, or not seeking out a faith community, indicate that the number one concern raised by younger non-Christians about Christians was that Christians were overly judgmental.

Many feel they are good people, volunteering and giving to charity, helping their neighbors out in times of crisis.  They do not see what attending worship on Sunday morning or participating in a faith community has to offer.

This parable may offer us a glimpse at how we can live out our faith in such a way that those who don’t understand how Jesus changes things will begin to see those changes in us and be drawn to be a part of this faith journey we share.

We need to really believe Jesus matters.   Not just read about it, not just follow all the appropriate practices, not just speak it, but express it with our entire being.  We need to be as passionate about sharing the amazing things God is doing in our lives as we are about the newest restaurant or technological gadgets.

If we cannot articulate why Jesus , if we focus on our righteousness and not on God’s mercy to us, sinners in a broken and hurting world, others have no way to experience the God we know to be faithful, the God who knows the full picture, with all the puzzle pieces in place.

Our pieces are not perfectly square, they are different colors, different configurations, and different parts of the whole.  They are nothing if not connected to one another.  Unlike the puzzle from which these pieces come, in God’s puzzle there is a place for everyone.  God determines how they fit together.

Paul was faithful to teach Timothy of God’s faithfulness, to share the faith stories of his life which witnessed to God’s love and power.  We are called to be poured out for God and others, trusting God will provide the strength and the resources necessary whenever we humble ourselves in gratitude and ask for help and direction.

Connected to God and one another in love and humility, others will see a difference and be drawn to the One we serve.  Maybe not in the pew next Sunday morning, but in ways that fit the puzzle of God’s plan.

We don’t give up on others because the way seems difficult, things we try don’t seem to work, or we can’t make sense of this one piece of the puzzle we hold.  We follow Paul’s example of giving over our lives to God and trusting God to do the rest.

[1] www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/twenty-third-sunday-after-pentecost  p 5 of 15

[2] ibid

[3] 1 Corinthians 13:12

[4] Richard Swanson quote in Reflection by Kate Matthews – Weekly Seeds

[5] www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/twenty-third-sunday-after-pentecost  p 6 of 15

Worship as action

Matthew 22:37-39

37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

Micah 6:8

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Matthew 16:24

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Matthew 28:19-20

19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (NRSV)

 

This is Laity Sunday in the United Methodist calendar.  In some churches that means the Laity are responsible for every aspect of this morning’s worship service, in others the laity and pastor are working together during the service, in others there is no mention of the designation.

When I began planning for this message I asked some of your leaders what your tradition for Laity Sunday includes.  The answer I received was that there were no traditions regarding laity Sunday.

In some ways that is pretty great, after all, no matter what I do today, everyone can say “We never did it that way before!”

Talking about the importance of each and every one of you to ministry fits in well with our recent look at discipleship and spiritual leadership.

In reality the ministry of the laity is the work of mission or ministry to which each believer is called. As Christians we are all called to this ministry or priesthood – not just clergy.

Each of us has a responsibility to proclaim the Good News and reach out to others in love.[1]

The words Jesus shares in this passage from Matthew are the centerpiece of Jewish morning and evening prayer that comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (NRSV) and reads, “Hear O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your strength, and with all your might.”

It is these words from Deuteronomy that are written on tiny pieces of paper and rolled up and inserted in decorative scroll holders, called mezuzahs, and attached to the doorframes of the primary entrances of Jewish homes.

The mezuzah reminds the Israelites of this commandment whenever they come and go from their house. Scrolls with these words are also inserted into phylacteries, little leather boxes that Jewish men attach to their foreheads with a head strap to wear during morning prayer. These words are of critical importance to the Jewish faith. They were critically important to Jesus.

It is in Loving God with all that we are that our lives worship God with Love.  To put love of God and neighbor above all else.

As we look at how we live our lives we can see where we do this well, where we can improve.

Your Mission Team met this week to plan for the next few months.  They decided to respond immediately to a request from someone you know, Lucky, who has family in Haiti who have lost everything.  He is gathering necessities to take with him when he can get over to help.

They also looked at ways to expand your Christmas outreach through the shoebox ministry next year, putting together plans to meet needs of women and men as well.

They discussed ways to meet the needs of those who do not have enough to eat in this community and have a plan to increase our awareness and giving to the food pantry.

In all of these we worship God.

Our prayer, Bible study, devotion, tithing, fasting, and participating in Holy Communion all part of this life which worships our Living God.

All of these areas require Disciple.  24 Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Prior to Jesus speaking these words to his disciples, he had been healing people and teaching great crowds as he made his way toward Jerusalem for the last time. According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus had just multiplied seven loaves of bread and a few fish to feed four thousand people. The Pharisees and the Sadducees heard the news of his latest miracle and began demanding that Jesus show them a sign from heaven, which he refused to do.

When Jesus asked the disciples who people were saying he was, Peter declared that he was the Messiah, the son of the living God.

After this, Jesus began telling the disciples what fate awaited him in Jerusalem. When they protested, Jesus spoke harsh words and then and said that if they wanted to be his followers, they would need to take up their own cross.

He said that those who wanted to save their lives would lose their lives, but those who lose their lives for his sake would find their lives.

The way to discipleship is not free. It costs us to follow Jesus. We who call ourselves his followers must give up some of what the world teaches us it is important to have or be so that we may find a richer, more meaningful life in Christ.[2]

Our United Methodist heritage gives some help here. In the Class Meetings, the Methodists “watched over one another in love.” Their life together was guided by the General Rules given to the United Societies by John Wesley. The General Rules are the Methodist rule of life.

This Methodist rule of life was general because it allowed for the diverse personalities, needs, and spiritual maturity of the members of the class meeting.

It was a rule because it was a guide to help Methodists orient their corporate and individual lives toward Christ and his life in the world. It is like a compass that helps keep a traveler on course to his or her destination.

For the Methodists, the destination is holiness of heart and life. We are on a journey together guided by a rule of life.

Being accountable to and with one another, “watching over one another in love,” helped the early Methodists and us today make progress along the way.

The General Rules:

  1. Do no harm by avoiding evil of every kind; especially that which is most generally practiced…
  2. Do good as often as you can to as many as you can, to their bodies and to their souls …
  3. Practice the means of grace:
    • Private and family prayer
    • Public worship
    • Bible reading and study
    • The Lord’s Supper
    • Fasting or abstinence
      (The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church pages 72-74).

The General Rules help people grow in faith and love by following the teachings of Jesus Christ. They provide a model of balanced and varied discipleship.

The rules help disciples keep a balance of what Wesley called “works of piety” (loving God) and “works of mercy” (loving your neighbor as yourself). [3]

In some cases practicing these disciplines may cost us some friends, maybe a job, or something we really want but don’t really need.  The disciple of practicing these rules always leads to us sharing God’s love with those around us.

Wesley’s three rules reflect Micah’s call for us to Worship God by seeking Justice, to live God’s love through our actions.

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God

During the time of Micah, the people of Israel were doing a good job of worshiping God. In our context, they were the ones that we might call “active members.” They showed up for worship services most of the time. They received Holy Communion at least once a month. They attended Sunday school. They gave regularly to support the church.

Maybe they were even in a small group or a member of United Methodist Women. They might even have volunteered in the nursery, or taught the children, or sung in the choir.

They were not criminals (at least not the kind who got caught). They didn’t drink or gamble or cheat on their spouses. They took care of their families and paid their bills. They were, by all accounts, good church members.

But, the Lord says, it isn’t enough to be a good church member. If you show up for church every Sunday, but Monday through Friday you mistreat the people who work for you or with you, then you are not doing what the Lord requires. If you refuse to speak out against injustice, or fail to advocate for those whose voices are oppressed, or if you actively engage in practices that cause harm to a group of people, then your life is not pleasing to God.

So it was to this kind of a situation to which Micah spoke a bold and prophetic word: The Lord God requires more than empty rituals. God desires God’s people not to just talk the talk, but to walk the walk, every day, in their own communities and as a witness to the wider world.

Last month the speaker at MACC identified a justice issue that leaves some women released from prison with things stacked against her getting her life together and being a member of the community again.  She not only named the problems, but has offered solutions and proposed a transition home which will help address the circumstances which make it difficult for these women without support structures and people to help them when they are released.

She has put feet to her faith and those listening to her indicated they are prepared to help her meet this injustice head on.

You can probably lift many similar stories of living your faith, worshiping, through acts of justice in the places you work, study, and volunteer.

We also worship with all that we are when we answer Jesus’ call to 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

I suspect many are afraid of the Evangelism word.  Not sure what to say or do.

Jesus reminds us we are not alone.  We don’t do these things by our own power. It is only by the power of God working through the Holy Spirit that we are enabled to respond to Jesus’ commission on our lives.

It is through the power of the Spirit that Jesus stays with us to help us, giving us the right words and teaching us the right way to bring his good news to the people we meet.

It can be as simple as sitting down with a co-worker who is having a bad day and genuinely listening.

You answer the call when you take food to the hungry, visit the sick and those in prison.

You answer the call every time the way you live is worshiping God in love, disciplined, and seeking Justice.  You may never need to say a word.  Your life is the witness.

It isn’t our job as Christians to convert a heart. That is God’s job. Our job is to share our faith in such a way that we communicate the joy and passion we have for being disciples of Jesus Christ.

We go and take God’s love into the world because God first loved us, and we want to others to know that feeling of assurance.

We give our testimony in words and actions because we can’t help but want to share it with others! We don’t worship God in order to feed our own needs. We live our lives as an ongoing act of worshiping God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer![4]

You are the laity, you are called to the work of mission or ministry.  I invite you to celebrate and embrace that ministry.  As you worship with your entire being, others will see the difference in your life and be drawn to the joy and peace following Jesus brings.

[1] Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church.  http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/leadership-resources/ministry-of-the-laity

[2] Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church.  http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/leadership-resources/ministry-of-the-laity

[3] http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/opening-ourselves-to-grace-the-basics-of-christian-discipleship

[4] Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church.  http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/leadership-resources/ministry-of-the-laity

It is not easy

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Together we have explored several aspects of living the life of a disciple and spiritual leader over the last few weeks.  To varying degrees I believe those of you sharing this journey of faith as the congregation of the Abundant Harvest are committed: to being “all in,” with following Jesus your number one priority, and to Praying first and often.  You know that while you seek to becoming more and more like Christ, it is God that ultimately qualifies you; You are dedicated to becoming closer to God and each other with joy-filled persistence just as God persistently pursues us; and you are open to accepting that this godliness thing is filled with mystery.

With all those aspects of discipleship in place, with daily experiences of deepening faith and connection with God and each other, we might expect that everything will be smooth sailing from now on.

You already know that isn’t the case.  You regularly face health issues, job pressures, exhaustion, one more piece of that home improvement project that wasn’t expected, the challenges of parenting, the loss of someone you love, the fears associated with the selection of political leaders around the world, financial struggles, and the list goes on.

Sometimes it seems the closer we get to God the more seems to go wrong.  Sometimes we might even begin to question if we have what it takes for this discipleship thing or if it is worth the effort.

The world is working hard against the kingdom of God, against those counter-cultural decisions and relationships Christ calls us to make.  Our lives may feel as if we are in the middle of Hurricane Matthew.

These situations can leave us feeling we are in a strange, uncomfortable place with no control.   Circumstances might have us thinking, “I want it the way it was.”

That is the situation in which those receiving the letter from Jeremiah we read this morning find themselves.  They are exiles from Jerusalem now forced to live in Babylon – a land filled with people they dislike and distrust, who they view as the lowest of the low.  These new neighbors have dragged them from the known into the unknown, from freedom into captivity, and the exiles are feeling powerless.  They can’t wait for things to go back the way they were.

To make it worse, their Temple in Jerusalem has been sacked.  The place they believed that God’s presence was permanent, is not as it was.  Their religious leaders are gone or trying to figure it all out as well.  Their faith is shaken and they feel abandoned.  They want to go back.

Opposing voices begin to surface with opinions of what they should do now.  Some say the exile is only temporary, just God’s test for the people which will be over soon, others feel God has abandoned Jerusalem and as a consequence has left them as well.  Many are positioned to fight to go back.

Into this situation comes a word from God.  It comes through Jeremiah who may not be the exiles’ favorite person, after all he somehow managed not to be dragged off to this terrible place.  He is however, known to bring God’s word to the people and he is where they believe God is at home.  Jeremiah was the one to accurately told them the destruction of Jerusalem and their captivity would happen.  When Jeremiah brings a word from God, experience teaches them it is valid.

In this time and place he brings a word of hope and specific plan of how God wants the exiles to live in their situation.  A word and plan for the exiles and a word and plan for the situations or places we don’t want to be.

Anger toward Jeremiah and God was probably among the emotions the exiles experienced.  How could God be asking us to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf.”

They were prepared to fight to go back the way it was, to have God safely in the Temple, and known leaders and structure guiding them.  They wanted nothing to do with those who had brought the radical changes in their lives.

I am not sure we are much different.  When those situations emerge in our lives which push us into times of discomfort, confusion, change, self-reflection, unwanted relationships I think our first instinct is to fight to go back, to put God back in the four walls we understand, to back away from our calling to reach out to those who need to know about God’s love in new ways.

The great news Jeremiah brings is: God is with you wherever you are, in whatever situation you find yourself.  The not so great news is you are going to be in that situation for longer than you hoped, and the “are you kidding” news is you need to work for the good of the place in which you dwell now, and pray for those who you experience as enemies.

God’s instruction to the exiles is to see the possibilities in what they perceive to be a less than ideal situations, to focus on a future where they find themselves, even if that means doing things that benefit those who don’t look like them, who don’t think like them, who don’t worship like them.  Not an easy assignment.

As we move to the second reading this morning,  the Apostle Paul finds himself in prison, his crime boldly proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, of encouraging others to follow this radically new way of relating to God and one another.  Sharing this faith that doesn’t fit the understanding and expectations of the religious community of his day.

Those in power, politically and religiously, feel threatened by this grace-filled, equalizing faith and respond in ways designed to protect what they know, their power and authority, their way of relating to each other.  Their efforts focused on stopping the movement they see growing which, for them, turns everything upside down.

Paul witnesses to the fact that while they can imprison him, place him in chains, it doesn’t stop the word of God.  “It can’t be chained” he tells Timothy, who will continue the ministry Paul started beyond Paul’s lifetime.

8 Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, 9 for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11 The saying is sure:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; 13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.

He tells Timothy, and through Timothy, generations of Christ’s followers, that times get tough, things don’t feel like home, we are forced to deal with difficult people, sometimes tragic circumstances, often there are forces looking to keep us quiet, those who try to discredit us.  But we have the power to endure, Paul notes.

Power to keep going for the sake of those looking for a sign of God, of Hope, in our lives.

Power to focus on the simple truth that in Christ Jesus is a future and there are no problems here and now that can take that future away if we keep on sharing God’s grace with all persons through the faithful way we live.

Even when we fall short, God remains faithful to us, always ready to help us through.

Paul knows that humans have a tendency to get caught up in the smallest things.  To challenge each other on our differences rather than to look for the one thing that unites us.

14 Remind them of this, [he says] and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.”

As we explored last week, we are connected to God and to one another through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is a love filled, equalizing, push us out of our limited understanding, challenging connection.

Because we are one in Christ, one with one another and with God, the harm done to one of us impacts all of us at the soul level, often in ways of which we are not conscious.  Christ’s death and resurrection reveal to us the power of God to overcome all human conditions, even death.

That means we can hold onto hope, even when our differences are decades old, and our behavior toward one another is nothing like Christ, and we are embarrassed to be known more for being in conflict than for the good we do.[1]

We can be bold to speak the truth about the fact that God loves every aspect and person who is part of God’s creation.  We can celebrate the truth that Christ came that the world might be saved – not just us, not just them, but all of us.

We can be truth bearers who refuse to join the battles or to focus on the tough times we are experiencing.  We can be those truth bearers who encircle all with the love and light of Jesus Christ so that all can know that love and be free.

God is with us no matter what we are experiencing or how long we experience it.  God is not contained in those situations in which we are comfortable.  God is faithful in all things.  If we seek the good of others, if we endure the challenges with hope and peace in our hearts and in our actions, if we stay faithful, God will not only bring us through, but our future includes reigning with God.

If we focus on what is good for all in a shared future, not just what is good for us or meets our favorite memory of what was, we will follow God’s call on our life and, through that, all will benefit, even those we have yet to meet.

If we claim the challenges, see the potential in the uncomfortable, refuse to wrangle over words, we see God’s focus in new ways and places and it becomes our focus.  With that focus others will come to know the living God whom we love and serve.

It is not easy.  It is where God calls us.

[1] The Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2016 Linda Lee