Rise Up! Focus

Isaiah 40:21-31
Mark 1:29-39
 
There will be many times later today that those watching what is marketed as the most significant professional football game of the year will “focus,” or call on others to “focus.”
 
Some will focus on the food, enjoying a feast prepared for this special event, even if not planning to really watch the game; focusing on the time with family and friends around a common interest.
 
Others will focus on the stats, considering if “their team” has a chance to out play the opponent and how that changes as the game progresses focusing on the plays called, the officiating,  the effectiveness of players, and many other aspects of the game.
 
Some will focus on the advertisements. A 30 second ad costing $ 5 million and advertisers hoping to cash in on their investment with lots of focus on their products.
 
Some will focus on doing anything but paying attention to this game we dub the “Super Bowl.”
 
For players and fans alike, “focus” will go a long way in what kind of experience tonight’s big event brings.
 
This morning’s scriptures provide us with the foundation for an experience that comes with a focus unlike any of those I’ve mentioned so far this morning. They call us to “get into the zone”: to stay focused on the one who gives us the power to get where we are called.
 
The Israelites to which the Isaiah passage is addressed are focused on the difficulties they have experienced, the wilderness in which they have wandered, a complete loss of hope that they will ever reach their destination. They are focused on what was, because they have lost the vision of what can be and they feel abandoned.
 
Into their darkness, their despair, the prophet offers encouragement, calling them to focus on God’s power and authority. They hear these words:
 
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength. (NIV)
 
The prophet calls them to focus on the Lord’s power and direction, the strength and renewal found by trusting the everlasting God.
 
Mark takes us from the synagogue where Jesus calls out the impure spirit, immediately to the home of Simon and Andrew. Immediately reflective of the urgency of the unfolding of Jesus’ ministry with which Mark fills this gospel and literal in that the synagogue entrance is about thirty feet from the door to Simon Peter’s home
 
Simon’s household is focused on the illness of his mother-in-law and the possible negative impacts of that illness. Jesus calls them to focus on healing, and Simon’s mother-in-law calls us to focus on service as a response to healing.
 
Those who gathered at the doorway that evening are focused on healing for themselves or others.
 
Jesus is focused on revealing that the kingdom of God is dawning and declaring his identity. He healed many, but didn’t heal all who came to the door of their physical aliments. His healing was broader, it encompassed focusing them on God’s plan for which shapes their earthly walk into eternal life. It showed that God was still active in a hurting and sinful world, reaching out in love in the midst of all circumstances.
 
In both passages the difficulties draw the focus of the people. In both they are redirected to focus on God and their relationship to God and others. They are called to trust in God’s plan and power to get them through.
 
When I came to Abundant Harvest I asked you to tell me your focus, your hope for this faith community. Almost all of you said “growth” and we have explored the various directions “growth” can take.  I also shared a vision written by one of you: “ a hope that the UMC of the Abundant Harvest can be for this community the hands and feet for Christ, acting as advocates for those people/ families/ communities that are struggling by showing our love and the love of Jesus can reach everyone… showing, rather than just saying, that we are an open, caring, group of people, that love in spite of our differences, breaking down barriers, to bring people to Jesus.
 
Illness, grief, disillusionment, finances, pain, disagreements, anxiety about the future, barriers, and fatigue have in many ways surfaced as our focus.
 
As I worked through these passages, God laid it on my heart that we are called to intentionally focus on hearing God’s voice through the voices of those within our faith community and those outside of our community. To focus on preparing to hearing those voices with prayer, study, and dialog. To committing to making short and long term plans together, based not on what has been, not on the wilderness or the illness, but on the strength of God that will lift us where we need to go. We have done significant focusing together, but there is more work to do.
 
Problems we face will not all go away, but our Lord, our everlasting God still heals, still gives energy for whatever continues to reveal God’s kingdom to a broken and hurting world.
 
Simon’s mother-in-law may have started serving dinner when she was healed, but the service indicated by the Greek was the service which gave her life for the sake of the Gospel.  Each of us has experienced healing, can we do any less?
 
Our focus needs to be doing what is in front of us to do, because this is what the Gospel call us to do.  Together, we can figure out what is in front of us.
 
Let us pray
 
God who has promised us strength in all things, who has revealed your kingdom to us through the life of Jesus, who empowers and enlightens us through the Holy Spirit, give our souls eyes and ears that we may see and hear what you have placed in front of us to do to reveal your kingdom to those who are searching for you in this time and place. Amen

Rise Up: Answer

Our Rise Up series continues today with the title “Answer”.  Remembering that God is Speaking; that it takes study, community, and practice to listen to God’s voice; and that hearing God’s call on our life requires action, forces us to move; “Answer” reflects our movement or chosen answer to God’s call on our lives, as well as God’s answer letting us know if we are headed in a direction that shows we really heard.

There have been multiple times in my faith journey that my prayer went something like, “God I’ll go and do wherever and whatever you call me to, but could you just email your answer, the map, as well as a “to do list?”  Taking the time to sort it out, to consider the people and information put in my path which point me in the way I am called to move, is sometimes painful, filled with self-doubt, questions, and missed turns.  I tend to need that list of expectations to feel truly comfortable with what I’m hearing and where I’m moving.

Early this week I was the Board of Ordained Ministry and other Provisional Elders.  I went reluctantly, looking at the agenda of the three-day event with skepticism and a feeling my time was better spent in other ways.   From the very beginning, God called me to an attitude change, as session after session I discovered “stuff” which has the potential to help us in ministry in the greater Millville/Knowlesville area.  It was in fact exactly where I needed to be for those three days.

God lifted leaders who could share what I needed to hear.

I did get an answer to my prayer for a “to do” list for continuing this process toward full ordination as an elder.  It is already printed out and I will enjoy checking off each of the items on what at the moment seems like a very long list.

Information on financial reporting should help us as we complete our annual Conference reports and plan for the future.

Planning and visioning surfaced as a main theme for the retreat and while listening, I purchased three of the suggested books to read.  Amazon Prime “One click” is helpful and dangerous at the same time.

The event showed me some possible ways forward for discerning God’s call to the UMC of the Abundant Harvest.  In some cases, practical process ideas, in others, dreams of vital ministry in ways we may not believe are possible.

One of the young pastors who happened to sit next to me most of the time (we shared an electrical outlet for our computers) serves a new church plant.  A new ministry without traditional funding in the heart of a community filled with people who are homeless.  It is not a ministry of “doing for” the community, but a ministry of “being in” community.

Built in many ways on what economists might call “social entrepreneurialism” this congregation has formed a construction company and is training members to work in that industry.  Employment provides them with a means to move out of precarious housing situations and profit from the business helps fund the ministry of the congregation.  That is only part of the way this new congregation is building community and mission in the midst of what others may see as impossible conditions.

God sent a “prophet” to meet the needs of God’s people and they are listening and answering by moving forward into the unknown and seemingly impossible path.

This is a community of faith recognizing the God still speaks when it seems God is nowhere to be found, that growing spiritually and finding ways to work with one another, God’s voice can move them in exciting, life-affirming ways, which offer tangible evidence that God is answering their cries even before they lift them.

When we left on Tuesday, this pastor and I shared contact information and a plan to share ideas, find ways to work together, and to lift each other’s ministries in prayer.

Prophets often help us see where God is leading.  Speaking truth in love, they offer the information we need to make informed, God directed decisions.  It was a prophet-filled week for me.

Moses assures the people who follow God that the Lord will lift up a prophet from among the people to lead them.  The population to which he spoke would discover Joshua was the one to immediately follow Moses.  We know that God has lifted men and women, children and adults who have a heart for God and the ability to give us insight into God’s call, to us throughout time.  Sometimes that word seems a little silly, difficult or impossible to follow, but the truth of it tugs at our heart and requires us to move to at least explore it as God’s answer to our question.

Jesus is in Capernaum in this morning’s reading, and heads into the synagogue on the Sabbath.  There were others there, as it was the tradition of the people to be in synagogue on the Sabbath.  It is possible some were only there because it was a cultural requirement, that others felt a personal need to be there but recited the liturgy and prayers of the day out of habit more than from the heart.  It is possible some were there discouraged and had stopped believing they could hear the word of God, and that others were distracted by the circumstances of their lives.  There is no indication they came expecting to hear something new, or to experience a healing as profound as the one they witness.

It is interesting that while the people in the pews should have recognized that Jesus was the One for whom they were waiting, it is the impure spirit who recognizes that Jesus is the Holy One of God.

In the interaction with the impure spirit, the authority which is Jesus, is made known and his uniqueness and teaching spreads.  The people in the synagogue aren’t just surprised by what they hear and see that day – they are amazed, changed, and quick to share their experience with others.

The exact nature of the spirit in this passage is unknown, only defined as “impure”.  The known is that Jesus had authority over it, and as his ministry progresses we know Jesus has authority over physical, mental, and spiritual illness.  We have the assurance that no matter what is holding on to us, God is bigger, God has authority, and prevails.

There are still impure spirits that affect us today.  They may not exhibit themselves as did this one, they may not be illness driven.   They may be a variety of things that keep us from fully deepening our relationship with God and others.  Busyness, apathy, fear, distrust, believing we have all the answers, having a critical nature, aversion to healthy change, being consumed with things and substances, and a long list of others.

Those impure spirits recognize the authority Jesus has to silence them, and to leave us as we become more and more Christ-like in our thinking and living.  As those spirits leave us, those around us notice the subtle changes in our priorities, our words, our actions.  As others learn by whose authority we live, news will spread and more will be freed from the spirits that plague them.

God often answers our need for vision and direction correction by sending us prophets who help us answer God’s call on our lives.  They help us see where to make adjustments which surrender our impure spirits to the authority of Jesus.

Moses connects prophets sent by God with God’s authority and what happens in relation to what they say.  Mark wants to make it clear, to those who will listen, that the words and deeds of Jesus are connected to God, who empowers them with authority in a kingdom that is here, now, and forever.  If the church today is to preach, witness, or minister to the needs of a hurting world, it must do so with an empowered authority thereby ensuring the consistency between what it says and what it does.[1]

According to Moses and Mark, people will know the difference.

People all around us are looking for answers to the impure spirits that torment them.  You have the answer, you have experienced the grace and authority of Jesus.  You are a prophet empowered by God to share that answer with at least one person, if not many people.

To live into that call you need to believe God is speaking, put in the effort to study, be part of the faith community, and practice to listen to God’s voice; you need to move in the direction God is leading.  Share how God has answered the impure spirits that popped into your life over the years and expect to be amazed!

[1] Ministry Matters Sermon options January 8, 2018

Rise Up!

Isaiah 60 1-6

Matthew 2:1-12

The Magi may be the characters in the story of Christmas who receive little attention other than their colorful addition to the children’s pageant and nativity scene, yet they have one day in the Christian calendar all to themselves, Epiphany. Counting 12 days after Christmas, Epiphany was yesterday, but we often observe it on the closest Sunday.  This day was set aside because it marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas and reflects on God’s revelation that Jesus is the light of the world, coming to save all nations.

We know very little about these journey-taking persons.  The information we do have comes from this passage in Matthew, the only gospel to share that they even traveled to see Jesus.

From his account, we know some “magi” journeyed to Jerusalem “from the east” seeking the child who was born king of the Jews.  We often refer to them as Kings and portray them with crowns and royal garments.  Yet, The term “magi” originally meant a member of the tribe of the Magoi, and then became synonymous with a group of Persian priests with special powers to interpret dreams and read the stars for signs. Our modern term “magic” is a derivative of “magi.” These “magi” who show up at Herod’s doorstep could hardly be more strange and foreign to the Jewish messianic tradition. They are the ultimate “outsiders” in this story. In fact, some of this group of priests were women, so those who followed may have been both men and women, all of whom were gentiles seeking the light of the nations.[1]

Christian tradition sees in the Magi the first among the Gentiles to see Jesus; they lead in showing all the peoples of the earth that this child born under the “star” is important to everyone, and because of that, the Epiphany is an affirmation of salvation available to all.

We say there were three because there were three gifts named, but many more could have made the journey.

Tradition looks at the gifts as symbols of who Jesus was: gold, a symbol of his royalty, frankincense a symbol of his divinity, and myrrh, a burial spice, a symbol of his suffering but Matthew does not specify those reasons for these particular gifts.

We know they brought gifts of immense value; gifts that were precious to themselves.  They so adored the Lord, they were willing to give up something they adored to worship Him.

We know they left for their own country by another road, because they were warned that going back to King Herod was not a good idea.

After seeing Jesus for themselves, kneeling before him, not only was their route home changed, they were changed.  Nothing was the same and they found themselves going another way.

These travelers had followed a light.  Their risky, probably to some looking on, foolish journey, didn’t just happen one night as they gazed up at the sky and saw a unique star.  They knew there would be a star signifying the birth of the King of the Jews.   There is evidence they read and studied, listened to the voice of God; that they looked beyond themselves and the limited focus we sometimes get in our own small part of the world.

The differences between the rural Jewish family and the urbane, educated, cosmopolitan magi were ridiculously huge. And yet they came together as one in the presence of Jesus.[2]

Maybe we really do know a lot about these Magi from the East.  Maybe in their story we can see ways we can come to see the Christ-child anew in the weeks and months ahead.  How we can experience God in our lives in ways that take us places and introduce us to people we haven’t met yet, or with whom we are acquainted but haven’t really gotten to know.

Following their example we need to Rise up.

Rise Up to study more so we are prepared to notice the stars that God sends us to lead us.  These magi looking at the star charts and reading the religious and political papers of the day, find Jesus, while Herod’s Bible scholars miss the Messiah completely.

Rise Up to set aside quiet time for prayer, talking and listening, each day that we may hear God guiding us to the best paths to serve God and our neighbor.

Rise Up to risk surrendering more of what makes us comfortable, our power, our time, or stuff, to follow where God is leading.

Rise Up to recognize the light of Jesus shining through others, as well as the ways the light of Jesus can increasingly shine through each of us.

Rise Up to realize that sometimes others will think we are foolish, that we aren’t really making a difference, and there is still more darkness in the world than we can possibly illuminate; to realize we are not called to be the light to everyone, to eliminate all the darkness in the world.  The glory of the Lord has that handled.  We are to light the corners of darkness God calls us to light.

As Isaiah calls to us, we can Arise, Shine, knowing our light has come.  Knowing that as we reflect the light others will be drawn to it.  That the light is brighter in community. Remember the brightness of our candles as we joined together Christmas Eve.  A community reflecting the Christ-child in all it says and does brings light and hope to all those who see it.

The Star still leads us if we watch for where it shines.  By its light we see a humble child, born in poor circumstances to ordinary people in an obscure, oppressed nation, a child with all true authority who rightly rules in our lives and our world.  His authority showed by gifts fit for a king, his power in his self-giving love.

By its light we are led to new places and new ways in which to shine this love which came down at Christmas.  Let’s look for ways to Rise Up, hear God’s voice, and Shine.

 

[1] Dr. Leonard Sweet Plough Sunday Preachthestory.com

[2] Ibid

Breaking through!

Isaiah 64:1-9

Mark 13:24-37

Coming home for Christmas is a common theme of movies and music this time of year.  Most of us know the song “I’ll be home for Christmas,” originally written to honor soldiers overseas who longed to be home at Christmastime, which is now a standard of the season.

Some of us know of the movies by that title

the one where a college student faces an impossible journey when he is left stranded in the desert thousands of miles from home, with no money and only a few days left until Christmas.

Or the one that Hallmark aired for the first time last year, dealing with an Assistant District Attorney and single mom, whose estranged dad, a gruff retired police officer shows up at her door unexpectedly forcing them to confront old wounds.

Some of us are having conversations as to who in our families will be home for Christmas and who will not.   Some of us long to be home, others long to be anywhere else because of situations in our lives.  Some of us are not sure where home is.

The phrase “Home for Christmas” can bring us warm, comforting feelings, and it can push us to confront situations we would rather ignore.

This morning’s scripture lessons are comforting and disruptive all at the same time.  The Isaiah passage depicts all the powerful ways God breaks into our world, showing us majesty, power and direction.  The Mark passage encourages us to watch for the ways God is with us in past, present, and future.  Again, lifting a God who meets us where we are in our common experiences, in ways that are really beyond our ability to comprehend.

God comes down to our home in ways we can understand if we are looking for them and provides a path for us to come to God’s home.  We need to stick the tasks Gods set before us, all the while watching and waiting for glimpses of where God is working for and through those who are alert to God’s presence.

Advent is a time of preparation.  We are cleaning and decorating our homes, shopping for family meals and presents, for some a very long list.

For many children it is a time of watching for the Elf on the shelf and the ways they can stay on the “Nice” list.  For some adults it is a time to look at the Isaiah passage and see where some redirection is needed, what areas of our lives we need to give over to the potter to reshape.  These are all appropriate directions to take during this special season of our faith.

There is a direction, a focus, that I suggest is even a more important part of this season of preparation.  It is becoming more in tune to seeing the places God is breaking into our world, living among us, leading us, caring for us.  It is difficult to see Jesus in the manager as “God with us” if we cannot see God with us in those around us.

It is a time which offers us an opportunity to consider how Christ is leading us, to realign our lives with the purposes and challenges of living in God’s kingdom here and now.  To remind us that it is God’s intention to meet us where we are, to fill us with joy, and to do everything possible here and now through us to make this world more closely approximate what God is longing for it to become.  We are called to live always as those who are ready, who are fully prepared for God’s kingdom to come, and for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, whenever and wherever that occurs.

Here is a Christmas commercial that is currently running.  Several of my Facebook friends posted it this week and it seemed to fit with a theme of expecting God to break into our daily lives in unexpected and amazing ways.  Let’s watch.

So many twists and turns in this story of lost and found.  A dog is found and returned to its owners. A lonely man finds a friend, willingly gives the friend back to those who love this new friend, and then is welcomed into a new family.  All have found their way home, even if they didn’t know they were looking.

Advent isn’t just about waiting for the baby in the manger.  It’s about expecting Christ here, in our own messed-up lives, right now.  It is about recognizing that we don’t need the perfect house, the most expensive gift, or a magazine worthy dinner.  It is about knowing deep within our souls that we don’t need to have it all together, that we can be imperfect, flawed, fragile. God will meet, love, and redeem us regardless of our condition and will use us to reflect His love for all people to those with whom we come in contact.

I expect the last few weeks have given you opportunities to see God break into your world.  Answers to prayers, healing, people stepping up to help people, transitions that seemed hard at first and which ultimately proved to be just the right thing at the right time.  All of you have experienced Christ breaking through time and space to be present in your life and the lives of others,  I hope all of you have been awake and alert to know it was happening.

I hope you will have opportunities to invite others to see where God is breaking into their worlds through your actions and when necessary, your words.

In the midst of knowing that we are changed when God comes down home, when God breaks into our now, we have the assurance that God comes in love.  May we be alert for the unexpected places and ways it happens throughout this Advent season.

Scattered

Ezekiel 34:11-22

Matthew 25: 31-46

Officially, Christ the King Sunday is a late addition to the church calendar.  It was added in 1925 in response to the government of Mexico insisting that all allegiance was due that entity.  The Church in Mexico remained faithful, holding public parades throughout the land with significant governmental pushback proclaiming Christ is King and Pope Pius XI made that declaration the basis of Holy Day, which after the Vatican II became part of the church calendar.  It was a day set aside as a reminder of who we are called to follow above all others.[1]

Earthly governments demanding ultimate allegiance from their subjects is not new.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are figures from chapter 3 of the Book of Daniel: three Hebrew men thrown into a fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, when they refuse to bow down to the king’s image.  In the story of Esther, Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman  putting him on the execution list.

In modern times governments in North Korea and Cuba try to eliminate the church or minimally keep it under their control.   North Korea’s leader demands citizens of his country worship him and if they don’t, the consequences can be prison or death. Cuban leadership has the authority to make any church a part of the government system, requiring rent if they do.  The official stance of the country is there is no God.

We are not faced with the same levels of control and intimidation in our faith communities, but there are often efforts to influence how we live out our faith.

There are organizations that demand our ultimate loyalty even if it conflicts with our worship and service in the local congregation.  There are activities and sports teams which would have us believe our children cannot be successful, happy individuals if they don’t participate and which often schedule mandatory participation at hours of worship.  To follow our favorite professional sports team from pre-game to post-game can fill a Sunday morning and afternoon.

There are voices encouraging us to buy and do something they are offering or selling to be truly fulfilled and happy. There are business systems that push us to the point we have little room for family, let alone family time for Christian Education and worship.

Into that history and our scattered reality comes Christ the King Sunday.  A day we focus on to whom we will give our full allegiance, for whom we are willing to sacrifice, time, resources, comfort, our very lives, as well as what that means in our daily and eternal lives.

The passage in Ezekiel describes the pastoral side of shepherding.  Israel and other ancient Near Eastern cultures often depicted their leaders as shepherds.  In that culture, flocks could number in the thousands, requiring immense administrative skill.[2]

Here the Shepherd who is King has the interests of his flock ahead of his own interests.  The sheep are scattered and bringing them all home is his priority, which he takes on personally.  The Shepherd who is King is gentle and caring, seeking good pasture for his sheep, making provisions for them to lie down and rest in safety, caring for their brokenness, sticking by them in adversity, making sure everybody is cared for.

The sheep are scattered by the influences which have self-interest as priority.  Political leaders, those with influence who want to profit from them, predators who want to make a meal out of them.  They are scattered because they follow something or someone more closely than they follow the Shepherd who is King.

Their true King, the King God appoints, is not just any shepherd.  This shepherd actively goes out looking for the scattered sheep, wherever they have been abandoned or wandered astray.  This Shepherd cares for their wounds, and when it is time, carries them back to a safe fold where they can find healing.

This is also the shepherd who will choose to ignore or even destroy the sheep who have prospered at the expense of those who have been injured and scattered, those who have pushed or shoved the others out of the way to get all the choicest pasture for themselves. Those whom made themselves strong on the backs of those who were weaker and whom they made weaker still.  This shepherd sides with the weak, the outcast, the damaged, the diseased, the abandoned, the marginalized.  This shepherd spends time with them, caring for them.

The Ezekiel passage is reflecting on the kind of Shepherd King God is calling King David to be.  It also reflects the kind of Shepherd King that Jesus was and is.  Actively looking for those who he calls into the flock, never giving up on them even when they follow other shepherds or are wounded.  Calling out to them with directions and hope.  Lovingly caring for all their needs.

The sheep, listening to the Shepherd’s voice and direction, are changed, healed, and called to be in community where each one is important.

As we move to the Matthew passage we see how the sheep who follow Christ the King as Shepherd are found to be righteous.  Jesus tells the parable showing us how as those truly gathered into his flock we are to see Jesus in each human being.  To listen carefully to their stories, to offer the hope found in following the Shepherd, Christ the King, to care for them, to love them.  It is in living our lives as passionately for others as the Shepherd in Ezekiel, that we find ourselves among the sheep Jesus deems righteous.

In both passages, it is God’s responsibility to determine who are among the flock, who are worthy, who are righteous.  It is our responsibility to love and care for others in the manner the Shepherd shows us.  To follow the laws and teaching of Christ the King before any set by worldly rulers. To have as our highest authority and example, Christ our King.

Christ is at the same time both fully human and fully divine, and is truly worthy of worship and obedience.

When our priorities are not those set by our Shepherd, when we do not fully heed his voice, we remain among the scattered.  When decisions and relationships reflect more self-interest than Good-Shepherd interest we remain among the scattered.

It is tough to consider that in some situations, in some relationships, on some days we are more like the goats than the sheep, more like the things that threaten the sheep than a shepherd.

But those situations and relationships exist at times for all of us.  Those circumstances do not need to define us.  We have a Shepherd King in whom we are loved, safe, and protected no matter what we face.  If we are his, we acknowledge who we are and what we’ve done.  We let him find us, let him tend our wounds, let him love us with the love of the Eternal, let him show us his face in the face of those who we might be more comfortable ignoring or casting aside.

We respond to his touch on our lives and find ourselves out of the fold less and less.  We are both broken and whole, at once healer and healed, at the same time shepherd and sheep.[3]  As the sheep in the parable we help because we cannot stop ourselves.  Christ’s love in our hearts has compelled us to compassionate action.

We are not saved by our compassionate action, our action is a natural response to recognizing the grace extended to us through Christ.  It is part of how we respond to others because of how God reached out in loving compassion to us before we were even aware.

Many of us will watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” this holiday season.  We will watch as a man discovers that everything he did in his life, even the smallest seemingly insignificant kindness, impacted someone else and made a difference.  The lead character, George, never realized all the good he had done, and all the bad he had prevented, simply by being alive and by being himself.

He simply was not aware of the larger meaning around him every, every minute of every day.  A similar phenomenon plays a surprisingly large role in Jesus’ words about the sheep and the goats.  Sometimes the most important things we do in life are things that, at the time, we see no real significance in.   Like meeting Jesus in prison, at a food bank, at a homeless shelter, the clothing depot, on sidewalk, in the parking lot…[4]

We shout “Christ is King,” in the face of all the forces that try to scatter us, every time we follow our Shepherd and live like his sheep.

[1] Discipleship Ministries, Christ the King Sunday

[2] James C. Howell Weekly Preaching: Christ the King Sunday www.ministry;matters.com

 

[3] Worship Elements: November 26, 2017 Ministry Matters.

[4] Proper 29A Center for Excellence in Preaching 11/22/2017

Grateful Living

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Matthew 25: 14-30

“Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”

I read these words on the plane as we headed home on Wednesday.  They were words I really wanted to ignore in that moment.  But my commitment to preach the Lectionary scriptures each week so that I force myself not to ignore the tough passages, removed that as an option.

We had a roller coaster, emotional, faith deepening, relationship building, and life changing experience last week, all impacted by the reality that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, when we least expect it.

Our mission team almost immediately came together as one body with many parts, working, sharing, and at times giving each other a difficult time as if we had known each other for years.  We openly shared how the long drives on bumpy dirt roads to communities where survival was the focus of each day and the number of those coming to know joy in loving Jesus was increasing, impacted our hearts.  We worked together to work with disabled children and their parents, to buy food from “croppers” and distribute it to those in the greatest need.

We took equipment and uniforms to teams who had none, we heard the triumphs and the struggles of pastors actively taking the good news of Jesus to those who are hungry to hear, we received blessing after blessing, as person after person offered us hospitality.

The team became family and those who welcomed us into their homes and churches became brothers and sisters as well.  Late in the week, one of our team members, John, shared a testimony with a small congregation which worships in the open air of an abandoned building where slaves lived well into the 1800’s.  John told those gathered to meet us that they were his brothers and sisters in Christ, that we would all be together and understand each other’s language someday, no longer needing a translator.  He shared with enthusiasm and joy and the congregation received him in the same way.

On Sunday, John was part of the worship team traveling with me to a growing congregation meeting in a living room already expanded twice to hold the worshipers attending there.  He sang with gusto, greeted his brothers and sisters in that place with love, and enthusiastically shared in a three person reading with Ken and another team member to end my message.

The pulpit had inscribed in Spanish the words from John 1:51    51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you,  you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”

Accepting an invitation from the pastor and his wife to enjoy some coffee, John and the rest of us enjoyed a time of conversation about the countries we love, family, and faith.  Around the table we were one with each other and with the Lord we serve.  When we were reunited with the rest of the team they asked me how I did, and before I could answer, encourager John told them all emphatically.  “She knocked it out of the park.”

We didn’t know it in that moment, but the message John shared about being together with God without language barriers and the scripture on the pulpit that morning, were prophetic in his life’s journey.

Seven members of the team decided to go to the ocean Sunday afternoon, Ken and I headed to find a WiFi connection, taking advantage of the first opportunity we had to let our kids and some of you know we had arrived safely.  Our team leader headed for a nap, he had preached three times in two days, probably the equivalent of six times here.

Five went swimming, getting caught in a rip tide which pulled them out a significant distance from the shore.  Three made it back on their own, although one of them was quick to say he felt God pushing him until he could crawl out.  One needed help from people on the shore, and one needed rescuers to swim out to him and pull him in.  That one was John.  Efforts to revive him failed, our brother had seen heaven open to receive him.

In the hours that followed, we experienced coping with loss and dealing with authorities in an authoritarian country.  We also experienced many connections that helped us feel God’s presence in the midst of tragedy.  Police there do not generally have a friendly demeanor.  As John lay on the beach and the team took turns staying with him, a police officer came to stand with us.  Before taking his post, he greeted John’s pastor and myself expressing sympathy, extending a hand to both of us.  A while later a woman and her daughter came down the beach with a candle in a mason jar.  They offered condolences, asked God to bless us, then dug a hole in the sand at John’s feet and set the mason jar and candle in the hole, kneeling in prayer before they turned, and again expressed sympathy before returning to her home.

Back at the place we were staying, the staff remained, letting the last bus for home leave so they could bring food to members of the team as they came back.  Using translators on their phones they asked about his family, about the accident, what they could do for us.  They sat with us as we prayed while calls were made to John’s family.  They encouraged us and cared for us.

Then on the plane I read these words:

“He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.  Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing”

Scripture made flesh  in the lives of those who love Christ and who share His love with strangers.  God revealed in those who, by the way they reached out to us, reminded us to put on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.

As I continued to work through the scriptures scheduled for this Sunday, the parable of the talents emerged.  At first the connection was unclear.  Then I remembered the way John shared his faith.  How a man with little material resources of his own, played ball with kids challenged physically, joyfully shared his faith and enthusiastically took on the job of carrying heavy sacks of beans and rice and carefully packaged them for the families who needed them.  I remembered his smile that was contagious wherever we visited.  I remembered his desire to share God’s love in any way he could.

The talents God gave John were not large sacks of heavy gold.  The talents God gave John were the understanding of what it means to be saved through the grace of God, to be loved no matter what has gone on in your life, to have someone on your side regardless of what you face.  He faithfully multiplied those talents by risking reaching out to those he didn’t know in a country that may look the other way, but which officially does not support churches, by risking not being in control so that he could encourage and build others up in the Lord.

As those images circled in my head the song by Tim McGraw – “Live like you were Dying” – kept coming to mind.

I went skydiving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying”
“I was finally the husband
That most of the time I wasn’t
And I became a friend a friend would like to have
And all of a sudden going fishin’ Wasn’t such an imposition
And I went three times that year I lost my dad
I finally read the Good Book, and I Took a good, long, hard look At what I’d do if I could do it all again
And I watched an eagle as it was flying”
And he said
“Someday I hope you get the chance To live like you were dying
John didn’t know when he went for that swim that it would be his last.  But he was prepared, because he lived like he was dying.  He took every gift and blessing God gave him and he shared it with everyone he met.  He knew Jesus died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.  He lived every moment with a sense of thanksgiving for every part of his life.  He was an example of “Grateful living,” and the lives of many are forever changed because of his example.

As we celebrate the day we call “Thanksgiving” this week, my prayer is we pause to look at the talents God has given us, even if only a smile, to took a good, long, hard look at what we’d do if we could do it all again, and find ways to multiple what we have by sharing it with others by loving deeper, speaking sweeter, forgiving one another.

Continuing to encourage one another and building each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

Creator God, who gives us all we need, who bestows blessings better than heavy bags of gold, who calls us to live abundantly, be with us this day and every day.  Help us to live like we were dying, not in fear but with joyful enthusiasm that brings your light to all we meet and serve.  Amen

Spilling the Spirit

As Halloween approaches many are choosing costumes to wear for the Halloween events in which they will participate.  Some choose their customs on “what’s in”: Star Wars seems to be pretty popular this year, as does Wonder Woman and Disney characters.  Others choose based on the characteristics of the person they want to be: super powers like Super Girl and Superman, or on cuteness like Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, or on a favorite game such as Minecraft.  Some choose costumes which are scary or allow them to have an evil persona for the evening.

Whatever the costume, imitating the character we choose is play acting.  We don’t expect to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, to stop bullets, to rescue the galaxies, or become a Disney prince or princess.  We are just pretending, briefly living a reality that isn’t our own, and ultimately, we will change out of costume and character to become the unique person we really are.

Sometimes our faith resembles this kind of imitation.  We look the part and use the language of a faithful follower of Jesus.  Our resumes say “active member of,” and we get to worship, study, fellowship, and opportunities as it fits into our schedule.  We have the persona of who we say we are, in the situations we choose.  However, sometimes what we say and how we treat each other reveals the “self” under the costume.

When Paul writes to the people in Thessalonica saying “You became imitators of us and of the Lord,” he isn’t talking about putting on the right clothes and saying the right things to be counted among those who love God and neighbor in the way Jesus modeled.  He is talking about living in such a way that the outward garments and accessories are not needed because every part of their lives, every action, every word is filled with the grace, mercy, and compassion they saw in Paul and Jesus.  The transformation is internal, not external.

Paul notes that the church of Thessalonica welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.  They didn’t find reasons to dismiss the parts that made them uncomfortable, that required a change in how they formed relationships with one another, that didn’t offer an easy way out of their circumstances.  They embraced the message and embraced the power of the Holy Spirit to reflect that message at all times and in all places.

The Message paraphase describes this realty this way: “Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word, not only in the provinces but all over the place. The news of your faith in God is out. We don’t even have to say anything anymore—you’re the message! People come up and tell us how you received us with open arms, how you deserted the dead idols of your old life so you could embrace and serve God, the true God. They marvel at how expectantly you await the arrival of his Son, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescued us from certain doom.”

The description: “You are the message!” struck me.

Claiming that we are the message to the Millville, Knowlesville, Medina area. We should also consider what message we are giving.

There is a message of “amazing cooks” out there.  When I talk about this congregation I often hear about a wonderful meal they have eaten here.  The medical personal helping Loraine recover all know about the Applefest and Lenten dinners at the Knowlesville Fellowship Hall.  The pastors I meet with are quick to ask about the many events with food in case they are free to attend and we were the first congregation they thought about when planning for the Ride4Life event at the fairgrounds, and many ask about the availability of pies.

There is a message of caring for one another.  Funeral directors in the area know this is a congregation that will support grieving families with food and fellowship.  Caregivers at Medina Hospital, the Manor and the Villages, know patients and residents and visited and supported by members of this congregation and express appreciation.   In the last week all parts of this congregation have joined in prayer for the family of Betty and for Joe and Roxanne.  You have also made sure there was the support of personal presence, as well as physical and spiritual nourishment.

There is a message we believe in the power of prayer, with persons in the community with no direct tie to the congregation, added to our prayers.  With our pausing whatever we are doing to pray when an urgent need comes to our attention.  Our prayer quilts and prayer chains reaching out whenever and wherever needed.

There is a message we put our faith into our feet as we gather and distribute resources to help those suffering physically, economically, spiritually, and more.

These are the messages that share with others in tangible ways that when the Message you heard about Jesus came to you, it wasn’t just words. Something happened in you. The Holy Spirit put steel in your convictions as a paraphrase of this passage says of the church of Thessalonica.[1]

Then there are the messages that we don’t get along, that some of us walk out when we don’t get our own way, that change is unacceptable, that there isn’t any room for new people and new ideas although we say there is.  There are messages that we criticize before we learn the whole story.  There are messages that some of us do more, know more, contribute more, are more holy than others.  These are the messages that can make it look as if we are in costume, acting out the role of Disciple of Jesus rather than acting out of a transformed life.

Paul embraced the unique gifts he found in the people of the Thessalonica church.  He thanks God for each one of them.  We welcomes them as an important part of the body.  He lifts up all the ways they witness to the love of Christ in their lives.

All of those times when we embrace the gifts each one of us bring to the body we send the message that we love each other as God loves us.  All those times we celebrate rather than criticize our differences we recognize the wonder of a Creator God.  Whenever we extend hospitality in all of its many forms, reflecting God’s love for all, we send a message that we have the heart of Jesus who was sent to free the poor, the lonely, the hungry, the discarded.

Hospitality is one of the things for which this congregation is known.  It is a foundation from which we can show our Spirit of love and grace as loudly and passionately as possible.  Sometimes we will have a hard day, maybe a string of hard days, and we just don’t feel like reaching out to others in joy.  We know that the Spirit of Christ is always with us, in us, so we can move forward in our hope that joy will return.

When the Holy Spirit who dwells within us is allowed to shine through us in hope, love and grace of the Lord, others can see it and feel it.  People who live their faith, who do not need a costume because every cell of their being is in relationship with God and neighbor, are Holy Spirit fountains – spilling out the Spirit onto everyone they meet, so it surrounds and embraces many.

Beginning in November we will be talking about those who have spilled out the Spirit on our lives, introducing us to what it means to be imitators of Jesus in our real life situations.  I hope it will be a time when we can hone our hospitality to each other, allowing the Spirit to increasingly spill over in this sanctuary, our fellowship halls, our community and beyond.

As we serve a living and true God, and live into his kingdom through Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we leave behind those things that separate us and embrace and encourage the gifts that bring us closer together and feed into our “Spilling the Spirit” into the lives of others.

Together we have the endurance of hope as we labor in love so that all with whom we come in contact will experience the hope and love found in Christ.  In turn we will grow deeper in our faith and closer to Jesus as well.

[1] The Message