Thursday, October 18, 2018

Justice and Mercy



This scripture is often called one of Isaiah’s servant songs.  In them, Isaiah describes what the servant of the Lord will be like.  Now, there’s been a lot of discussion about who Isaiah is talking about. 
Some think he is writing about King Cyrus of Syria who was seen as a messianic figure because he allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.
 
Others think Isaiah is describing the nation of Israel.  Those who were called, set apart to be God’s chosen people. 

And of course, Christians read them and immediately think of Jesus.  Jesus, after all, read from Isaiah and used similar words in Luke 4 to declare his life’s purpose as he said he came to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.     
Christians believe Jesus is the ONE, anointed by God, the chosen one who was called forth in the fullness of time to fulfill the prophecy of old.  And he is. 

Isaiah is foundational for all of God’s chosen people.  And some think this is why Isaiah is vague about who this servant is.  Jesus is the ONE but he isn’t the only one.
 
I learned this week that one of my heroes was canonized by the Catholic church.  Oscar Romero was the Arch Bishop of San Salvador, El Salvador in the 1970’s.  He was selected because he was a quiet, unassuming presence.  He knew how to tow the company line and wasn’t one to make waves. 
Shortly after taking this position of power, he was introduced to other high-powered people. Not long after, he realized all was not as it seemed.  Corruption was rampant at all levels of society and he could tell the rich were getting richer at the expense of the poor. 

In the streets he heard from women whose children went to work in the fields and never came home, there was gunfire in the streets, young girls were being raped and left for dead, people were starving and innocent people were being killed for not paying bribes or not being respectful enough to the government and sometimes, simply because they were poor.   
He saw the inequality, he tried to do the diplomatic thing. 
He tried to correct the misguided desires of the elite but quickly understood nothing was changing.  They said the right words, but their actions never changed.   He began to speak up.  He stood up when he saw government bullies and during his radio broadcast of Sunday Mass he read off the names of those killed that week.

He was imprisoned, tortured and watched as others were tortured for trying to provide work, food, and dignity to the poor.  He fought against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture. He never advocated fighting back.  He simply held a mirror up to the powers that be to allow them to see the horrific nature of their actions and attitudes.

This is what Jesus did as he told the accusers of the woman caught in adultery for the one without sin to cast the first stone.  It is what he did when he pointed out to the religious leaders that they tithed cumin and mint but neglected the weightier things of Justice and mercy.  It is what Jesus did when he welcomed outcasts into his life. 

This is what a servant of the Lord does.  Oscar Romero was assassinated March 24, 1980, when two government assassins, walked into the sanctuary and shot him as he lifted the communion bread above his head. 
I don’t know if Father Romero fits the Vatican’s traditional definition of a saint, but he certainly lived and died like Jesus.  

The more I learned of him, the more I questioned myself.  Would I be that brave?  Would I be willing to live and die to give a voice to the voiceless, hope to the hopeless and dignity to the scorned?

When we take our baptismal vows, we proclaim we will make the mission of Jesus our mission. We proclaim that we will be the hands and feet of Christ.   We promise to uphold and live out God’s vision for the world. 

Isaiah states that the eyes of the blind will be opened, prisoners set free and release offered to those in darkness.  The chosen ones will bring forth justice and the righteousness of God will rest upon them. 

Jesus heals the blind; allowing them to see the world and the glory of God.  Jesus opens the eyes of those blinded by the law, the strict code of right and wrong that often isolates the broken and snuffs out the spirit of those who long for more.  Jesus releases those who are imprisoned by physical and mental illness.  He casts out demons, heals the sick and welcomes the sinner.

God enfleshed in Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy and more.
 
The servant of the Lord will bring forth Justice.  Sometimes we see the word justice and think of court systems and punishment.  We think a just God is one who punishes the bad and rewards the good.   
In Jesus, we see a different justice.  We see a justice of equality where the sinner is just as valuable as the righteous.  We see Jesus raise the lowly, restore honor, hope, and dignity to those who are told their life circumstances were God’s punishment.  

Even those Jesus corrected he did so in a loving way.  He wanted the leaders to see past their privilege and the laws that kept some superior to others, to see the hearts of those they oppressed.  Those whom he corrected, he always gave a way forward with hope and love. 

Where do we fit in?  Do we accept that we are all in need of justice and are called to act on behalf of justice? 
How do we, who proclaim to be followers of Jesus Christ, the chosen people of God, fit into the mission of God that played out so perfectly in Jesus Christ? 

This isn’t an easy question to answer, especially in a culture where every action is seen with political motivation.  When standing up for the voiceless gets you labeled an enemy of one party or the other.  We live in a divided world where either you are for or against.  There is little middle ground.  Most people are scared to say anything. 
But this is exactly the Jesus type of justice we are called to advocate for.  We are called to give a voice for the voiceless.  It was Jesus who gave dignity to the woman caught in adultery.  It was Jesus who restored honor to the lepers.  It is Jesus who gave women and children a voice, a place of honor and sinners a place at his table. 

Jesus calls us to be people of mercy: feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, visiting the lonely, and providing for the orphan and widow.  But we are also called to be people of justice. 

Most of us will not be asked to give our life advocating for the voiceless but it is still our call as chosen people of God to act for and on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.  Who has God placed on your heart?  There are many in this world who need someone to advocate for them. 

It starts by asking God to heal our eyes blinded to injustice, speaking up when someone tells an off-color joke or makes a denigrating comment about “those people”. 
It is about taking a chance on someone, giving them an opportunity to find hope and dignity.  And it is as simple as calling your waitress by name, asking about her life and leaving a larger tip than is expected. 
Unlike Mercy, Justice cannot be done from a distance.  We can pack backpacks, donate money, food and old things we don’t want.   Justice requires sacrifice, a willingness to be uncomfortable and to be open to loving those the world says isn’t lovable. 

While it is hard, God promises we aren’t in it alone.  Isaiah says we who serve the God of Justice will receive the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Lord who created the heavens and earth will take you by the hand and keep you. 
And through those who choose to walk in this path, the glory and light of the Lord will shine brightly for all the world to see. 

And in it we get to be like Jesus and intimately know the power of the God who transcends time and creation, to see hope restored, love lived and joy in the brokenhearted. 

Who doesn’t want to live in a world where faith, hope, and love are poured out for all.  This is the Kingdom of God!  Praise God for inviting us to be a part of it!

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

True wisdom

James 3:13-4:8

Several years ago I bought a t-shirt for my brother that says “beware of stupid people in large numbers”.  I thought it fit his sense of humor and that he would get a kick out of it… although now that I think about it… I never saw him wear it…
Anyway- the problem with thoughts like this is we always assume we’re the smart ones and the stupid people are someone else.  I haven’t met very many people who didn’t think they were smart, that they had the right answers. 
This isn’t about formal education or even street smarts.  Most people, given the opportunity to say so, think they have the answers.   Get a group of friends around a dinner table and before you know it you will be solving the world’s problems.   
Whether it is unemployment, health care, drug addiction, how to run the government, how to withdraw troops from the middle east, trade wars and farm subsidies to more personal things like how your spouse should treat you or how to raise your kids, how to do your job better or the best recipe for chili. 
We know it is complicated…. but what you need to do is…. And if they would just do what we tell them, life would be so much better. 
This is the way we think because this is how the world teaches us to think.  Fake it till you make it.  If you say it with enough confidence, they will believe you.  If you don’t’ know guess.
And if someone dares to challenge you, get angry and they will leave you alone!  When you fail, find someone else to blame. And, if you succeed make sure to take all the credit. 
After all this is what our heroes do. 
A quick search of the internet told me that the most admired people in the world are Barak Obama, Donald Trump, Bill gates, Angelina Jolie, Oprah Winfrey, Xi Jinping the President of China and Vladimir Putin.
All people who have power, influence, money, beauty, popularity and often are seen by the people who agree with them to do little wrong. 
But power, influence, money, beauty, popularity, strength, and knowledge are not the same as wisdom.  All these things can be gained by less than honorable means.  Al Capone and Charles Manson both had many of these qualities.
So how do we know who is wise and who is just fooling us and leading us astray by the image the world sees and values? 
James tells us we know by the fruit of their lives.  What do they leave in their wake?  Are their works gentle, peaceful, willing to yield, are they willing to listen to the thoughts and needs of others? 
Are they merciful and impartial towards any one person, group or issue and do not sow hypocrisy?  Do they seek harmony and peace? 
Or do they seem to just want what they want, getting angry, bitter and envious when things don’t go their way? 
Do their gifts seem born out of ambition or a desire for earthly possessions?  Are they boastful about their accomplishments or do they give credit to others?  Do their lives promote order or disorder, chaos or harmony? 
True Wisdom is not something we get from a university or through wealth.  It is a gift from God.  It is simply the awareness of and desire for God living in our lives. 
The Old testament often personified wisdom as part of the triune God, calling us to right, peaceable, careful living.  Here James describes it as a gift from God that comes through prayer. (HCSB NRSV)
The true comparison is when we look at some of the most admired faith leaders of our time.
Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Tich Nach Han, Pope Francis, and Billy Graham.  How do their lives, attitude, actions and fruit compare to the list of world leaders? 
Which group do we want to follow, imitate and be like?  Maybe that seems like a silly question. How does who we admire affect how we live?  Who we admire, who we strive to be like, who we look up to, who we want to represent us and make decisions for us matters.  Because it reflects and affects what we value. 
Do we strive for Godly things or worldly things? 
I have met way too many people whose family has been destroyed over arguments about inheritance.  One person got more than another or got the one thing they wanted, and family relationships were killed.
We send our children to fight wars which are primarily over property disputes, pride, power and wealth. 
Black Friday is only 2 months away.  We have all seen the fights over cheap items, people pushing and shoving just to be first in line. 
We argue over power, money, having the right things, who is smarter, prettier, or more athletic.  We fight over possessions we cannot take with us and the opinions of others that don’t matter.  We argue over who gets to make decisions and who gets credit or blame depending on how it turns out. 
Where there is conflict; whether it is in the family, the church, the nation or the world, we know there is earthly, devilish and selfish desires. 
Just admitting we have a problem is the first step.  We are selfish from birth to death; it is a constant source of pain and something we must continually fight against. 
We must constantly question our motives and our desires because the worldly ones are so much easier to access and look so much more attractive and shinier than Godly ones. 
And Godly desires seem counter intuitive to the barrage of marketing and messaging about worldly success which surrounds us. 
Our emotions are a huge clue to our motivations.  Why are we hurt or angry?  Why do we want the things we want?  Are we willing to damage relationships and experience conflict to get it?  Is it for some higher good or just because we want to feel important?  How often are we saying—I deserve… more money, more attention, more respect….?
Do we jump to conclusions and make assumptions or are we yielding, listening, showing mercy, and seeking compassionate justice?  How often are we putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, trying to see life and the decisions we make from someone else’s perspective? 
This is a constant work in progress.  We as humans are so influenced by our moods, our whims, our attitudes and the attitudes of others that we are constantly moving back and forth away from God then close to God.  Away from worldly desires then closer to them. 
The more we envy, are selfish, ambitious, irrational, impulsive, and participate in chaotic and disordered life, the further we are from God.  The more we seek to live in peace, calmness, selflessness, seeking God’s approval instead of others, the closer we are to God. 
The Bible tells us to ask and we shall receive.  With what attitude are we asking?  What is the underlying desire behind our prayers?  How often is our prayer- Lord let me have what you want me to have?  Or, Lord let my wants be your wants. 
God is always there, offering true wisdom to us.  We just have to want it.  God is always there, no matter how far away we go chasing our dreams and desires that aren’t God’s.  God is always there wanting to give us the peace of Christ, the comfort of the Holy Spirit. 
When we compare the two- the effects of earthly wisdom and the effects of Godly wisdom, isn’t it clear which is better, which makes life better, more peaceful and abundant?  Why would we want what the world has to offer when we can have the better part?  The part that looks, lives and thrives in this life and the life to come. 
God gives us the grace, the role models, the ability to seek the better way if we only look for them.  God provides all we need to live a beautiful and abundant life and to offer that love and life to others. 
When we look for heroes, people to admire and aspire to be like.  Let us look to Jesus who even in the face of torture kept silent, choosing submission and peace over violence and war.  Who, shelved his power so that we might know love, surrendered his life so that we might have eternal life. 

Do you need a hero?  Let us look for those who look more like Jesus and less like the world.  

Monday, July 30, 2018

multidimensional love


Last Sunday, my husband, Jay, and I drove to Charlotte to watch a professional soccer game.  As we walked from the car to the stadium we passed a man with signs placed along the sidewalk.  Each listing condemnations and things he considered false truths.  He clearly had an idea of who God is and what or who God loves and doesn’t love and anything contrary to his beliefs would mark you for an eternity of flames and torture. 
Now, we didn’t speak to this man, but usually in situations like that, even when I tell them I am a Methodist pastor, I am told that I don’t believe in God the right way, my femaleness combined with a position of spiritual leadership has inevitably put me on God’s Do Not Call list. 
This always makes me wonder:  are we worshiping the same God, following the same Jesus, do we all have to believe the same way, or is it more like the directions we are given by GPS? 
When we typed in the address for the stadium on the way to the game, we were sent I-40 to Hickory, through Gastonia to Charlotte.  On the way home, we were sent to Greenville SC to catch I-26 back home.  So clearly there are multiple ways to get to our destination.  We have our preferred routes and maybe we have pitstops planned along one route that doesn’t exist on another, but they will both get you where you want to go. 
(Now, let me just say this.  I think this man thought he was doing and believing the right things, I don’t like them.  Any religion which offers more hate than love, more condemnation than grace and more rules than relationship is on the wrong path.  But I also acknowledge he’d probably think the same thing about me.)
The writer of Ephesians is clearly not a stranger to this phenomenon.  There have always been differing views on what it means to follow Jesus.  In his day it was the Jewish versus Gentile believers.  Those who followed Paul thought differently than those who followed Apollos or James, or Thomas or any of the other apostles and missionaries for Christ in the early church. 
Today it is Evangelicalism compared to Mainline Protestant compared to Catholic or Orthodox.  We all worship God and believe in Jesus, but how we get there and what we do along the way is different. 
As Paul writes this letter, he realizes no matter what path we are on, there is value in the common threads which bring us together; prayer, deepening our relationship with God and being strengthened for service.  So, Paul prays for the church.  Prays for you and me, and that man on the street.  Paul prays we would know that we all belong to the same God and Father.  That we may be strengthened in our faith, that Christ would dwell in our hearts, that we would be rooted and grounded in love, and that we may know with every ounce of our being the abundance and awe inspiriting love God has for us and all of God’s children. 
He prays that we would be so filled with God’s Spirit that we could see past the limitations of our own physical bodies, our own narrow vision of God and God’s desires for us and that we would trust God so explicitly with all that we are and all that we have that we would be able to accomplish things for Christ that are beyond our wildest imaginations which will continue well past when our life has ended. 
This prayer is huge.  Just reading it seems overwhelming.  It is something we want so badly for ourselves, for our church and for those who don’t yet know Jesus.  When we spend time thinking about this kind of love, it is hard to not get giddy with excitement. 
It’s like hearing someone say I love you for the first time.  Our hearts race, faces flush, we get butterflies in our stomachs, you can hardly sit still and you cannot wait to shout it from the mountaintop. 
It is just too much to bear.  And sometimes, we are so overwhelmed with our own love, gratitude, and excitement we don’t know where to start.  How do you show your love for them?  Words, songs, poetry or do you do nice things for them, buy gifts, do favors or go to the ends of the earth for them? 
This happens when it comes to God and how we respond to God’s love for us too.   
For some, the focus is on words.  Have you said the prayer, confessed your faith in front of others, been baptized, and do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?  There is a strong focus for many on words; on reading scripture, praying, preaching, professing and sharing testimony, using words to convince the world that they too need a personal relationship with Jesus.  They spend a lot of time being rooted and grounded in their love and relationship with God.  But for some, it ends there.
Then there are others who focus on action.  They want to show others the height and depth and breadth of love through their willingness to go to the ends of the earth for someone else.  These are your volunteers, your workers, the ones who are challenging the church to dream big dreams, try something new for Jesus.  They may not talk about Jesus a lot.  Their mantra is akin to the words of St Francis “preach often, only using words when necessary”.  They may say – what’s the use of telling someone Jesus loves them if their stomachs are grumbling so loudly that your words are drowned out?  They believe you show someone the love of God by loving them and meeting their needs.  But they may not stop working long enough to talk about Jesus or listen to him. 
Both ways are needed.  We all have different love languages (Gary Chapman).  Someone may be more likely to respond to one and not the other.  But each on their own doesn’t fulfill what God has imagined for us.  We need both. 
Those whose primary focus is words and a person’s internal relationship with God can forget we are called and saved for a purpose.  In extreme circumstances a person may spend all day in prayer, telling God how much they love Jesus, and neglect to love their neighbor.  Jesus tells us the way we treat others, is the way we treat him.  What good does it do to tell Jesus we love him if we aren’t willing to be kind when we meet him?
On the other hand, those whose focus is on action often neglect to introduce others to their reason for giving and helping.  And the danger for them is they work so hard and give so much that they run out of fuel.  They burn out and dry up.  They don’t have the roots in personal prayer and relationship with God to sustain them when times get difficult.  They may not receive the spiritual nourishment they need to do the work of God.  And, without it, they fall into the trap of believing they are accomplishing tasks by their own power and will and may even forget who they are serving. 
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism tells us there can be no personal holiness without social holiness and no social holiness without personal holiness.  We need both to be whole and both to grow in our faith and in our relationship with God. 
To fully experience the breadth, and length and height and depth of the love of God in Christ, we must access it in our quiet private devotional times and personal prayer, but we also must access it in service to and with others, helping, loving and encouraging people you know and those you don’t. 
Jesus isn’t just in the heart, or in this room.  Jesus is out there.  Why would you want to profess your love for someone and never meet them face to face? 
This is how we come to a better understanding of how much we are loved.  But this is also how we learn to expand our imaginations and begin to dream big God-sized dreams and given the strength and desire to seek after them. 
God doesn’t want you to sit at home, comfortable with your own ideas, and limitations.  There is a whole world of love and promise out there for you.  Nor does God want you to go out in the world on your own, a lone ranger fixing the problems of the world by yourself.  God wants you to take the Spirit with you fueled by worship, study, and prayer. 
We need both, we need each other, to encourage our weaknesses, support our efforts at stepping out of our comfort zone, and to hold each other accountable.  People of prayer need people of action to bring them along and people of action need people of prayer to help them slow down and refocus on God’s will. 

Jesus wants you to experience all the dimensions of his love, not just one.  Allow Jesus to love you- inside and out.  

Monday, July 23, 2018

Tug of War

Ephesians 2:8-22
This scripture requires us to do a little bit of a history lesson.  As the Christian movement started, the early church had a few issues.  They faced opposition from the outside; persecution by religious as well as cultural leaders.  But they also had some internal struggles.  Before Peter’s dream of the unclean animals and before Paul expanded his mission to the Greek Isles, most of the early Christians were Jewish.  And, they believed they were doubly special.  Not only were they part of the Chosen People of God as Jews but also chosen by Christ.  They believed if you wanted to be a Christian you had to keep all the Jewish customs.  All Jewish boys were circumcised on the 8th day of life.  Non-Jewish people, Gentiles, were not; hence the derogatory statement about circumcision. 
So, some Jewish Christians believed Gentile Christians were second-class citizens, less deserving, less special, which clearly caused some disharmony in the community.  The Jewish Christians had always been included in the family of God but now there are interlopers, red-headed stepchildren, so to speak, with different cultures and value systems and now they have to figure out how to get along as one big happy family.  And, as you can imagine there was some hostility. 
The writer of Ephesians essentially says you are one in Christ.  You are one family.  You both have equal access to God in Christ and it is Jesus Christ on the cross that brings you together.  So act like it.  And of course when the letter was received, everyone did just that, and they lived happily ever after…. Right?!   Of course not!
What is it about human nature that even those who have everything they need in life, and in faith in Christ insist on playing Tug of War with Jesus?  Instead of allowing Jesus to be the hope and peace which unites us together.  We fight over who gets him and his blessings. 
Many non- Christians see the hostility, hurt, confusion and chaos within individual churches,  denominations and within the universal church and understandably say:  Jesus I get-but I’m not sure I want to have anything to do with the church. 
There are an estimated 33,000 Christian denominations in the world.  In our little community in Western North Carolina alone, we have at least 5 different types of Baptist churches, 3 members of the Methodist family, and 2 different types of Presbyterians, plus a whole host of others.  Many of these churches exist because the Christian family couldn’t get along. 
For people who claim to not like divorce, churches do it a lot.  Some of you have left a church because of the hostility you experienced.  Someone’s feelings get hurt, there was a shift in church politics, a change is made that some don’t like, and a few came together and decide to take their ball and go home.  They would rather leave than do the work of reconciliation.   Even the United Methodist Church is in the process of deciding if we can survive our family problems, hostilities and hurt feelings. 
I am not pointing the finger at any one person or group.  In one situation or another, we have all preferred to leave a situation than work the problem out.  Unfortunately, it seems to be part of our human condition.  This isn’t limited to Christians, but it is exacerbated and illuminated when we profess to be united in Christ. 
The problem is we as people of faith are not reconciled to each other, or God.  And often we aren’t reconciled to ourselves.  We choose to ignore the things about ourselves we don’t like.  Blaming our problems on others, criticizing others so that we don’t have to admit any fault in ourselves.
We claim faith in Jesus, love of God and love of neighbor, but what we really mean is I believe God is on my side.  The personal relationship with Jesus allows individuals to say: “Blessed assurance Jesus is mine!” forget the rest of you.  And if you don’t like the image of Jesus being painted then you can go somewhere else. 
Anne Lamont a Christian author is famously quoted as saying “you know you have created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you hate.”
It seems as if we have taken the image of Jesus on the cross and one group grabs one hand while another grabs the other hand and we play tug of war with Jesus.  Pulling Jesus to “our side” whatever that side is.  Wrestling him away from “those people”. 
When we do this our energy is depleted.  Our faith becomes about us, and what we want, not Jesus.  And we no longer have the energy to actually do the work of God or follow Jesus because we are too exhausted fighting about who Jesus belongs to.  This is just another expression of hostility toward the “other”, one-upmanship, being higher on the food chain, more important than someone else: insider vs outsider, or as our scripture names it.  Near v far, citizen v. alien, stranger v. friend. 
It is such a common part of our culture whether it’s church, nationality, social class, color or language that we have come to accept it as normal behavior.  For one group to be special or important we assume that means someone else must be less special and less important. 
This breaks God’s heart.  No one likes to have a family meal to have all the children fighting and angling for attention.  Every time we do that we are crucifying Jesus again and again.  God looks at all of humanity, no matter our differences and proclaims they are his child.  They were made in the image of God, knit together in their mother’s womb, special, unique and loved equally. 
And if we profess there is only one God, creator of all, then we must accept that “those people” whoever they are, as our brother and sister- whether they share our faith or not, because everyone, even non-believers are still created by God, worthy of God’s love and redemption. Even you, whether you believe it or not, are loved and cherished by God.
The love, grace, mercy, and compassion of God is a gift, freely offered and available at no cost- to everyone who accepts it.  This is the start of reconciliation.  It starts by seeing Jesus not as an object to be possessed but as the keystone that holds God’s arc of promise together.  The cornerstone of our life and faith. 
People of faith are chosen, not because they are special, but instead for a purpose, to participate in the work of God to bring all creation back into unity and harmony with God. 
This starts when we acknowledge where and whom our focus is and where it should be.  When we realize our focus is not on Jesus, but our own selfish desires, then we can begin the process of changing that attitude and mending God’s broken heart and ours. 
This means catching ourselves when we make a critical comment about others.  When we blame problems or challenges on a group of people, catch ourselves saying “those people” messed everything up or if my group was in charge we wouldn’t be in this mess, we can stop and remind ourselves that they and their opinion are just as important as ours.  There is no us or them, it is only we.  We are in this together and we need every voice. 
It allows space in our hearts to listen to someone else’s point of view.  Most of the time when we say we are listening, we are just looking for a weakness, something to refute, argue about or challenge.  We aren’t listening to their perspective but a way to convince them to see things our way. 
When we listen with the heart of Christ.  We soon understand we have more in common than what divides us.  We are more alike than different.  But this also means, there are no winners and losers.  We may not always get what we want, but we may see that there is a better way than we first imagined. 
Reconciliation, harmony, getting along with others doesn’t happen overnight; in our families, the church, or in politics but it is necessary work if we are to be the body of Christ.  V 10 of the scripture for today says we are created for good works, it isn’t just feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, welcoming the stranger.  It is those things, but more than that, it is being an example to the world about what it means to find hope not in our own human understanding of political, cultural and national peace, but in the true peace of Christ that outlasts all of us.  This is true hope, true peace.  A peace that crosses boundaries, isn’t imposed by force, challenges the dividing walls we put up to keep others out and showers us with that peace which surpasses all understanding.    
It is living our faith in the community in such a way that when others see the way we treat people who are different, they can say, that person loves like Christ. 

This was the example of the early church Jews and Gentiles.  The places where they shared meals, worshiped and prayed together were in the open.  People could easily walk by and see these two people sharing intimate moments together and this became the example for all the world to see and know that peace was possible.  How much more of an example would it be today if we did the same.  If we could learn to focus on what unites us in Christ and work together for his peace to spread through our church, our families, our communities, our nation and our world.    

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Successfully weak

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Most people and organizations, churches included struggle with what it means to be successful.  On one hand, the world tells us success is about numbers.  It is about productivity, salary, number of people at your party, number of clients or how much you are liked.  In the church we talk about numbers of people in worship, bible study, people who have come to a relationship with Jesus, number of dollars in the plate, number of meals served, and volunteer hours given. 
And of course, in all these scenarios the higher the number the more successful a person or organization is.  We expect this in the world.  It is part of living in a capitalistic society.  We are expected to work hard, earn more and shut out the competition, making more stuff with fewer resources so that we can get the approval of those above us, get a bigger paycheck and make our company more money. 
Even in the church, there seems to be some competition about whether someone is a successful Christian, even if we don’t use that term.  Have they ever healed someone by laying hands on them?  Do they pray eloquently or speak in tongues?  Do they receive visions or a word from God?  Maybe we think of the person who can quote scripture, is always doing something for others or always seem to be praising and never having a bad day. 
We can always find some point of comparison.  And honestly, it is often difficult to feel like we measure up.
And, if we aren’t hard enough on ourselves, worried about measuring up, others will point it out for us.
Why aren’t you more like So-n-so?
It happens in families: growing up a friend of mine repeatedly heard the phrase, why can’t you be more like your sister? 
We hear it at work:  We might have reached our sales goal if you hadn’t taken that vacation.  So-n-so made sales calls from the hospital bed, couldn’t you have made a few from the beach?  Everyone liked the person you replaced a lot.  She used to bring doughnuts to the office on Fridays. 
It is in these moments that our hard work, our likability, our numbers become a source of pride.  We are so driven by these markers of success that we often neglect our own health, relationships, and spiritual lives. 
This is where we find Paul as he nears the end of his letters to the Corinthian church. 
Paul travels to and from Corinth several times in his ministry but in his absence, other ministers have come in and begun to build on the foundation Paul laid.  In 1 Corinthians 3, we hear Paul responding positively to this type of ministry sharing when he says, “I planted, Apollos watered, God gave the growth”. 
Now that more time has passed and those unassociated with the original apostles have begun to build on that foundation, pride and the world’s definition of success is setting in.  Many commentaries believe that these new missionaries were trying to change some of what Paul had taught and had tried to discredit Paul’s authority. 
They claimed divine visions, dreams, and miraculous signs and then said things like “can your precious Paul do that?  You should follow us instead.”  And because of their signs and wonders, some have begun to question and doubt Paul’s influence and authority in the church. 
This isn’t an unusual scenario either.  We see very charismatic leaders all the time who people hear their message of blessings, wealth, and dreams coming true and their congregations and followers soar and book sales climb!
Years ago, I was doing a project and I asked the church what kind of preacher they would like to have.  Their response:  Billy Graham.  Of course- a preacher like that would be sure to quadruple their congregation. But even then, Billy Graham was in his 80’s and wasn’t the Billy Graham they wanted.   
This is the type of personality Paul is up against.  There is only one Billy Graham and very few people will ever mark his accomplishments. 
In this environment, Paul is compelled to taunt his credentials, pull rank so to speak and reassert his authority.  He essentially says- I could boast about those same things other ministers do too… I have seen visions, I have spoken in tongues, I have built the church from the ground up, they would be nothing if I hadn’t laid the foundation for their ministry.  I am the man!
But instead, Paul decides to boast without boasting, giving credit to others for his own spiritual experiences; visions, revelations, and experiences of God which would have given him credibility before people but humility before God. 
Instead, Paul chooses to brag about his weaknesses.  He uses this opportunity to draw the church and us back to what really matters and redefines what it means to be successful. 
Instead of making a list of all his accomplishments, he tells us just how human he is.  He like all of us is tempted by this desire to be successful, to be liked, appreciated and admired.  But he has been given a thorn in his life to keep him from getting too cocky. 
Although there has been much speculation, we don’t know what the thorn in Paul’s side was.  And maybe God keeps it vague on purpose because we all have our thorns.  Even the most successful people, by the world’s standard, have shortcomings, challenges, imperfections and barriers that cause them pain.  We, like Paul, all have this messenger of Satan, whether it is problems we bring on ourselves, challenges imposed on us by others, or some sort of physical ailment. 
And we like Paul may cry out to God to remove this burden from us and we may lose faith when it seems to stubbornly stick around, despite our best efforts. 
This, strangely enough, is when God’s power, grace, and blessings are most evident.  We all have things in life we just can’t overcome on our own and this is when the Glory of God shines the brightest.
It is when we acknowledge our shortcomings. When we can admit we don’t have it all together.  When we can accept our weaknesses then we can give credit where credit is due for those things that seem like a worldly success. 
We see Bill Gates as the epitome of success but there is no way one dorky kid soldering electronics in his parents’ garage as a college drop out would ever become one of the wealthiest people in the world.  God did and now the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is giving God the glory by giving their fortune away as they seek to address issues of global poverty and health care to improve the lives and increase the understanding that all people have equal value in the eyes of God.  (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/july-august/melinda-gates-high-price-of-faith-action.html)
Who would have ever thought a peanut farmer from Georgia would ever become president, much less kickstart global programs like Habitat for Humanity and the Jimmy Carter Center to “Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope”, all while still teaching Sunday school at his church.  
The same goes for churches as much as individuals.  When a small church makes a big impact on the community.  We know it isn’t because we have unlimited resources, or people knocking down our doors to help- it is because God is working through us to make God’s kingdom a reality in this place.  This is the exact reason God gives us Big Audacious Goals.  God calls us to dream bigger than we think is possible, bigger than we can handle, bigger than we can accomplish on our own so that others can see God working through us in our weakness. 
The reality is we are a small church in a small community.  Even if we were to double in size we would still be a small church in a small community.  The world says this will never be a recipe for success.  The world says we are too small to play with the big kids. (https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-secret-small-churches-know-best)
That is a bunch of rubbish!   God says; “My Grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
God has big plans for you as individuals, for you as a church, even in our weakest moments, even when we cannot stand much less march.  We may often feel like the kid in the corner saying, not look what I can do… but look what God can do! 
This is the story of Jesus.  It is in his weakest moment that the Glory of God shown brightest.  It is in the humble circumstances of his birth and the humility of the cross where God said… Look what I can do!  In this one life, in this one act, I can and will redeem the world. 
Don’t allow Satan to convince you that your thorn is too big, your weakness too great.  Instead allow God to work through your weakness, showing the Glory of God as central to our lives as people, as a church and as a community. 
And when we do.  Others will testify to the glory of God not because we brag about our strengths and minimize our weaknesses, but because of what God does in and through us. 

Amen.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Are rules meant to be broken?

I have been thinking a lot about rules lately.  Everywhere we go there are rules. 
I am going to proctor End Of Grade tests at the local middle school and there are rules.  I can’t speak during testing, read a book, have my phone out or help with the questions. 
When I explored being a missionary in Venezuela, there were rules.  I would have to live with another single woman, I would have to hire a woman to be my companion and go nowhere alone.  I would have to dress conservatively, be vigilant about who I spoke to and I would have to leave every 90 days, so I wouldn’t violate visa and immigration policies. 
Life has rules.  Some written, some unwritten.  We want 2.2 feet of personal space, acceptable amounts of eye contact, words you can use in some situations but not others, clothes appropriate to different situations and events. 
Most people would look at me funny if I preached in shorts and an old t-shirt. 
The Bible has rules.  We have the 10 commandments, but we also have rules about forgiveness, loving our neighbor and our enemy and care for the less fortunate.  We also have rules that help us keep the other rules.  
Our lives are consumed with rules. 
In our scripture, Jesus addresses the issue of rules, specifically what it means to Honor the Sabbath and keep it Holy. 
This is one of a series of challenges in Mark.  Jesus has been challenging the cultural rules of who can forgive sins, when people should fast, whom it is acceptable to share a meal with and who can be seen in public together.
These confrontations build up to this climax.  Mark has the religious and political powers in such a tizzy that they are conspiring to kill him only three chapters in. 
Jesus is challenging the rules, challenging the status quo, and the authority of those in power, not because he wants to be a trouble maker or know it all.  Jesus challenges the rules because people have forgotten or misused the rule and its importance. 
When Jesus says; “Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath,” Jesus is challenging the core of their reasoning. 
Why do we follow rules?  Why are there rules? 
In a just society, rules are there for the benefit of those who follow them.  Observing traffic laws keeps us safer on the roads.  Not eating raw meat helps prevent us from getting sick.  Taking all our antibiotics help prevent antibiotic resistant germs.  The rules we follow when dating or talking with people on-line will help keep you safe too. 
All the rules about living in Venezuela were to protect me and my reputation as a woman, as a Christian and to keep me safe in a dangerous country where I hadn’t perfected the language and didn’t know the unspoken cultural norms. 
Rules are typically created with good intentions, not to be a burden but to provide an avenue to health and happiness. 
So why is Jesus challenging these rules?  The same reason God calls us to challenge some of our rules today.  Jesus recognizes that what has become most important was the rule itself, not the people it was designed to help. 
The people in power had gotten and kept power by enforcing the rules.  The people in our scripture were more concerned about keeping the rules than whether people were hungry or suffering. 
We in this country are no different than our forefathers in the faith in this regard.  We have rules today that we keep more for power and control than safety or care for those without power. 
The commandment the Pharisees in the story wanted Jesus to keep was the command by God to Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.  They had created many rules around this one rule.
They had defined what it meant to rest, and work.  They had rules about when an exception could be made and the consequences for breaking the sabbath, but they had forgotten why we were given the command and what it means to keep it holy.
Sabbath is a gift from God.  An opportunity to rest, to spend time in worship, to remember to trust God to provide for our needs. 
A reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around us and we aren’t in control.  It is a time to meditate, reflect and give thanks for the gifts of God. 
Humanity turned it into rules.  When I was a kid it was an unwritten rule that you didn’t mow grass on Sunday.  But what if that is the only time during a week you can be alone with your thoughts and with God?  What if the mower is where you feel relaxed and able to contemplate God’s creation? 
It has been within my lifetime that businesses were expected to be open on Sundays and I don’t know about you but the only time I crave Chic-fil-a is on Sunday when they’re closed. 
Does this mean we aren’t keeping Sabbath?  Does it mean Sunday is the only day to take Sabbath?  Does sitting at home watching a race instead of mowing make it holy?  What about the drivers and others working the NASCAR race?   
Jesus says, we have forgotten the point.  Sabbath rest is important for us, not because of us. 
God wants us to ask the same questions about our rules.  What’s the point?  Is the rule misused?  Is it there to keep some in power at the expense of others?  Do our rules lift people up and encourage them to live healthy lives?  Or are they there so that others can be condemned for breaking them, made to feel shame and guilt? 
Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.
Not because they were breaking the rule but because Jesus sees us for who we are; broken and sinful people. 
Jesus is grieved because he wants better for us.  He wants us to thrive in a loving relationship with God and others, not the rules our egos have put in place.   
What is it we do that grieves Jesus?  Are there times in our lives when we want power, and the ability to judge others for breaking the rules that we forget the humanity of the person in front of us.  Do we overlook their needs, their pains, their desires so we can maintain control? 
What’s more important being right or being compassionate?  Jesus says being kind and compassionate is more important and thank God, because those kind and compassionate eyes are the ones Jesus uses to see us. 
Jesus knows when we break the rules.  Jesus knows when we do things that break his heart and he still loves us anyway. He sees our humanity and our need for grace behind every misstep and failure.  That is truly good news because there is no way to ever keep all the rules and we break them every day. 

If this is the grace, we hope to receive then shouldn’t we extend that same grace to others?  

Friday, May 18, 2018

Testify

In 1850, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, grieving from the loss of eight of her twelve children, all before the age of seven, began organizing something called Mother’s Day Work Clubs near her home in West Virginia.  She wanted to combat the poor health and sanitation issues that contributed to such a high child mortality rate.  She organized these groups to provide care for the sick and medicine for the poor.    
As the Civil War began, these women grew to understand the harsh reality, that many of the children they worked so hard to help simply survive, were now going off to war.  Ann Marie took these groups of women and organized them to provide medical care to injured soldiers on both sides of the fighting.  These soldiers were someone’s son whether they fought for the North or the South. 
After the war was over, she began working for peace.  She knew the devastation and death caused by war and the residual fear, hurt and anger which remained after the war was technically over.  She began working to bridge the divide war had caused and worked to help families and neighbors, those who had fought on opposite sides of the war, heal relationships and restore family and community ties.
After her death in 1905, Ann Marie’s daughter Anna wanted to recognize her mother for the testimony of her life.  On the second anniversary of Ann Marie’s death, a celebration of her, and all mothers was held at her church, a Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia.
Anna envisioned a day to celebrate mothers and to encourage and support those women who fought for justice, care for the poor and the rights of all children, not just those in their own homes, but throughout the nation and the world. 
About the same time, in the 1870’s Julie Ward Howe, a suffragette, abolitionist and author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” urged women to join forces to promote peace and commemorate that with a Mother’s Peace Day in June. 
With the efforts of Julie Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis, Mother’s Day was officially added to the national calendar in 1914.  (legacyproject.org/ History.com)
These women testified to the love of God through their love, actions and activism.  And today we commemorate their testimony and the testimony of our mothers, grandmothers and those who love us like mothers.  We give thanks to God, this day that these women have given us an example of the love of God in Jesus Christ; a self-less, unending and never-failing love.    
If the love of a caring and compassionate mother can mean this much, then how much more so is the ultimate love of Jesus Christ.  Whose life, death and resurrection testify to the true and ultimate love of God the Father, and which allows us the opportunity to experience eternal life through him. 
We see in Jesus, God incarnate.  God who walks among us, lives with us, hungers with us, grieves with us, celebrates with us, challenges us to seek peace and care for the oppressed and provides us a way to live an abundant life that we cannot experience without faith in him. 
It is this faith and this desire to live like Jesus that makes our lives a testimony to the one who created us, loves us and saves us.  It isn’t just our family legacy we strive to honor but more so, the legacy of our faith.
The problem is this, there are many who claim to testify to God.  There are many whom we look up to, whose lives do not testify to Jesus.  Unfortunately, there are those among us who’s mothers did not testify to the ultimate love of God in Jesus Christ.  There are those who were led astray, and who’s legacy is not one of peace, compassion and self-lessness.  God tells us to honor our parents.  How do we do this when not everything we, or our parents do is honorable? 
How do we know?  How do we look at a person’s life, listen to a person’s words and know if they are worthy of imitation and honor?  How do we know if they testify to the One true God, or to some other false god who leads us not to life, but to death?
When I first tread the story of Ann Marie Jarvis and Julie Ward Howe, I knew immediately of their faith. None of the articles I read said they were Christian.  The only hint to their faith was mentioned was the authorship of a hymn and a brief blurb about the location of the first Mother’s Day celebration. 
What testifies to their faith, was how they lived their lives.  They fought for peace and justice.  They lived out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in how they cared for the poor, healed the sick, provided healing to broken relationships, saw those created in God’s image as children of God, as their own children.  They showed the love of God, not only to their own families, but they allowed God to bless the grief and loss of their own children and turn it into action. 
They understood that no matter a person’s color, age, wealth, or even their political affiliation, prevented them from being loved by God, worthy of the sacrifice and eternal life God promised.  They fought, they sacrificed, they struggled, so that others could experience the abundant life Jesus desires all of us to have. 
We are surrounded by people who profess to testify to the will of God.  They profess to know the desires of God’s heart.  They proclaim God’s blessing on whatever cause they want to justify, and some will claim the name of Jesus, professing with their lips a belief in God and the eternal life offered by the blood of Christ. 
So I want to propose a way, to clear out the static and noise which threatens to drown out the true voice of God. 
All around us are voices of division and fear.  Voices that desire to be the best, the greatest, the richest.  Those who tell you that you deserve what you have and to be afraid of those who want to take it from you.
There are voices that tell us war is a negotiation tactic, and violence is the solution to hold power over others and solve disagreements.  There are voices that tell us the poor deserve to be poor, people of color deserve to be feared and treated as less than, and those who speak other languages are manipulating your good intentions. 
These are not the words of Jesus.  This is opposite to what the life of Jesus and word of God proclaim and teach. 
Instead, look and listen for those voices that testify to love, peace, equality, and abundant life for everyone.  Listen to the voice of those who advocate for the same things the life of Jesus testified about.
Listen for the voice that cries out and seeks to lift the oppressed out of the margins.  Listen for those who seek the health and well-being of all, regardless of their color, religion, language or nationality.  Listen to those who sacrifice comfort, security, wealth and power in favor of those who have less.
It is these lives that testify to the love of God and life of Christ.  It is God in Jesus Christ who sacrificed his life for those in the margins, who slept on the ground, walked dusty roads, and ate with sinners and embraced those considered unclean and unworthy. 
It is Jesus who healed those with a broken body, broken heart and broken spirit.  It is Jesus who relinquished his life and power on the cross so that ultimate power could be seen in the resurrection and so that you and I, sinful, unworthy, dirty and undeserving could experience true love and life. 
The life of Jesus testified to the heart of God.  Resurrection and eternal life testify to the power of God and gives us the life Jesus testifies to. 
And the life of those who truly love God and believe in Jesus, will testify to God as well.  This is the life we have in Christ.  The eternal life that begins now, for those who profess the saving grace and love of Jesus Christ.  It is our lives, how we chose to live in the shadow of the cross that witness to our faith, that show to whom we pledge allegiance, and provide an example for others to follow. 
Our testimony isn’t just the words we say, but how we live our life.  This is a call and a challenge for all of us, not just mothers.
Our children, God’s children, are watching.  Do our lives testify to the values of God and to those women who were honored at the inception of Mother’s Day? 

Do we work for justice, peace, and reconciliation or do we work for division, hate and fear?  To whom will our lives testify?