Monday, August 27, 2012

Keeping it in perspective

Zoom by Istvan Banyai was shared with the congregation.

As we make our Way through this children’s book it is amazing how our perspective changes as we gain knowledge.  Nothing is truly how it appears.  As a child our point of view is very narrow and self-focused.  It’s all about ME!  As we grow in our knowledge and experience that image begins to encompass more people- our family, friends, and then grows to our community, state, country and for some it will eventually be global. 

But even the smartest, well- traveled, well educated, people still have a very limited view of the world.  

It is impossible to see and know what God sees and knows.

We often quote scripture like Jeremiah 29:11 as a verse of comfort and encouragement “’ For I know the plans I have for you’ declares the Lord. ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”  And while this is true it is not just about us as individuals.  This passage was intended not to encourage individuals but meant as an encouragement for a nation that after 70 years of exile would finally be able to come home to this prosperous future God had planned for them.  It is intended to offer hope to people in despair but maybe not to individuals.

God’s intention is not for us as individuals to have a life that is fun, carefree and full of wealth and riches but it is for us to be fulfilled in Him!  The plan for God is much larger than our wants and our needs.  We just can’t always see the bigger picture. 

As we read the Bible we repeatedly see the people with the deepest faith and most connection with God suffer the most.

Hebrews 11 gives us a quick glimpse into the history of some of those people.

These, our ancestors, and those since are part of God’s plan.  They were loved by God but to most everyone else’s standards- they should have been miserable and crying out to God begging him to make it stop! But they were people of great faith because they believed in God, trusted in him, and were able to see that they were part of something bigger than their current circumstances. 

God is too great to fit in any box we create to put him in.  As soon as we think we have him figured out we learn something new or he changes our perspective to see things in a different way.  We as humans usually suffer from being able to see from only one vantage point.  We either can’t see the forest for the trees or we can’t see the individual trees because we’re too focused on the forest.

God is able to have it all- God is able in one moment to not only keep the world turning and this plan for the future of every generation from the beginning of time to the end but is also hearing our prayers, concerned about our daily lives, caring for us, providing for us, loving us.  He knows every star in the sky and every grain of sand on the beach.  He sees each one of us, knows each one of us by name!

Jeremiah 1:5 tells us “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.”

What an awesome God we worship and Serve!  He is the God of the past, present and future- isn’t it amazing to know that God knows each child even before they are born and knows not only the past but also knows what the generations to come will be like.

We have hope in a God who loves us, a God who does have a plan.  This world is not chaos and haphazard and even when it feels like our plans are not working out as we would like- we can trust that as long as we have a heart for God and a desire to live our lives fully with him, we are part of that plan and God is using us for the betterment of and fulfillment of his promises to us.  He hears our prayers, he knows what we need in this life and he knows how to give us a peak at the future that waits for us.  Even in the darkest days in Him we can see the light of a better tomorrow and rewards that are greater than we can ever imagine.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

building community

Ephesians 4:25- 5:2
I had been a member at a pervious church I attended for about 6 months when I participated in my first Administrative Council Meeting.  The church had been going through some struggles at the time and although I knew some of what was going on I was coming in on the tail end of quite a bit of drama.  About 25% of the church’s regular attendees had already left and we needed to make some huge adjustments to the budget and worship schedules.  There were still a lot of hurt feelings in the church and in that meeting.  A few people were tossing around accusations and accusatory questions aimed directly at people who were trying to do their best and suggest solutions to the issues at hand.  People were angry but not necessarily at the people in the meeting or even over the issues being discussed.  They were just angry.  Their anger had been building up over months and possibly years and had not been dealt with appropriately so they exploded.  I distinctly remember calling my Mom in tears that night wondering how church people could act so ugly towards one another.   People who confessed to be Christians weren’t acting so Christ like. 
Anger is often like this.  Our feelings are hurt, sometimes repeatedly, and sometimes the offender doesn’t even realize what they said was so hurtful.  But we fail to address it in a healthy way and over time the pressure builds, we complain to others, gossip begins and results in more anxiety and hurt. The devil is working his way into our life and maybe the life of the church.  So he eggs us on, we relive negative conversations over and over again in our minds, and the anger starts to boil and the bitterness begins.  We get ourselves so worked up over what may have been something relatively unimportant in the beginning until one day someone says something with just the slightest sound of sarcasm and we explode.  Like the pressurized canning pot without a vent our top explodes and hot boiling water and emotions scold everyone in the room.
Sometimes that is the end of it- you got it off your chest, now it is time to move on.  Sometimes it is not.  People begin to take sides, other peoples’ feelings are hurt and before we know it a church is divided, a family is divided, and the devil has won- destruction and mistrust have replaced the unity, love and forgiveness we find in Christ. 
This part of the letter to the Ephesians is aimed at stopping this before it starts. It is in essence the 10 commandments rewritten for a new audience.  Many of the new Christians were not trained in the Jewish tradition and may not know much about Moses and the 10 commandments and many of the others had forgotten the “why” behind them.  Paul wanted to remind them that the church is a community.  We aren’t just in this for ourselves.  Life in Christ is not about an individual doing what is right for themselves it is about doing what is right within relationships, church and community.(Good Pastor)
Great faith is only found in a community of believers.  We need people around us to teach us, observe the faith of others and to test our own beliefs.  Faith was not intended to be lived out in a vacuum. We weren’t designed to do it alone.  In order for us to grow and mature in our faith we can’t simply watch others.  We have to put our faith into action and practice what we learn in church and from our community of believers.  (Homiletics)  It is much like a corn field.  If we want corn to produce fruit we must plant it in groups.  One stalk planted may grow but without other stalks of corn nearby it will never produce fruit.  We need each other to mature and produce Fruits of the Spirit.
God knew this when he gave us the 10 commandments but over the years they have become distorted.  We began to look at them as a list of “Shall Not’s” for individuals.  But all along they were intended to help us to live together more effectively as a community.  So Paul essentially rewrites them as a list of things to do and then offers an explanation and reasons for living this way.
Paul goes through his suggestions step by step.  These suggestions weren’t just to make life more pleasant but to help us survive when things get tough.  If we are honest with each other in a loving and positive way feelings that are hurt can be mended and misunderstandings corrected before bitterness and division sets in. 
Anger is not always a bad thing.  It is often necessary to fight injustice and abuse.  Where would we be if Civil Rights activists hadn’t been angry about the way African Americans were being treated?  Women would have never been allowed to vote if people hadn’t gotten angry.  Fair wage laws would never have been established if people had not gotten angry.  Anger is a good thing when fighting the injustices of our time but not when it is used to belittle and teardown a child of God.  What Paul tells us is to not let anger cause us to sin.  (Barclay)  We see a couple examples in the Bible of Jesus being angry.  Each time though he is trying to correct a wrong against God. He is trying to build up God’s kingdom.  The people he became angry towards were dishonest and taking advantage of all those they encountered and preventing many from worshiping God.
It is often suggested to newlyweds to not go to bed angry.  Although this might result in some sleepless nights it is not bad advice.  I will take a moment to pick on Women- since I am one- I am sure most of the men in this room at some point and time asked your spouse “What’s wrong”  and what is often the answer?      Nothing.  I think it is because at some point we are told that anger is not attractive and we are just too emotional and make a big deal out of nothing.  So we don’t say anything.  We allow emotions to pile up and pile up and then one day- Ka-boom!  It explodes over something silly like laundry baskets. 
Then comes Paul’s point about unwholesome talk.  Once all that anger and bitterness builds up it is really hard to not say something mean and degrading.  This is not only harmful for a marriage but any relationship.  It is hard to not take the anger personally when personal attacks are being made and names called.  Sometimes this is not done out of anger at all.  We purposefully try to tear others down to make ourselves look better.  We attempt to build up our own self esteem by cutting others down.  When we do this to individuals within a community it is like chipping away at the foundation holding it all together.  Eventually it will begin to loose its strength and the walls will start crumbling.
Once this hurt happens, it is hard to make amends and move forward.  Healing and wholeness take a much longer time to create than the hurt feelings and the anger.  It is much easier to be mad at someone or insist we get our way than to talk to them about differences and reach understanding.  It is much harder to put away our pride, recognize we were in the wrong and say “I’m sorry. “  It is much easier to tear down a wall than fix the foundation.  This issue is reflected in a lot of marriages today.  It is much easier to divorce and stay mad at someone than it is to fix what is wrong and make the relationship stronger.  We need to think before we speak.  How is what we are about to say or do affect this person?  Is it going to tear them down or build them up? Is it going to build community or create division?
Paul knows that it is not enough to tell us what to do and not to do.  So, he gives us an example to imitate.  We imitate others all the time in how we dress, what kind of car we want to buy, the types of careers we have, even the types of food we buy.   I am sure several people here are like me and at some point have said “I am becoming my Mother!”  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and God gave us a great person to imitate- Jesus Christ.  (Good Preacher)
Every week we recite the “Lord’s Prayer” in worship.  Do we ever really stop and think about what we are saying?  Whether you prefer “Forgive us our trespasses, Forgive us our debts or Forgive us our sins it all has the same meaning.  We desire to imitate God by forgiving others of their wrongdoing against us because every day of our lives in some way or another we sin against God and through Jesus Christ he has forgiven us.  Shouldn’t we at least attempt to do what we pledge and imitate Christ? 
When we call ourselves Christians we are claiming to be of Christ.  We are a reflection of what Jesus stood for and the kindness, love and compassion of God! This is not just an inward choice or actions we do in secret.  We live within the context of the church and the communities we live in.  We are being watched.  People look at us to get a glimpse of God.  Are we providing an accurate reflection through our attempt to imitate Christ?  When we speak with kindness, compassion and love people see Jesus.  Too often though we speak with hate, bitterness, disdain and judgment which distort the image of God.
Mahatma Gandhi is quoted to have said “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.  They are so unlike your Christ.”  What a powerful statement and one that probably resonates with a lot of non-believers.   It is impossible to completely be like Christ but it is important that we as Christians are aware of how unlike him we are and make a valiant effort to do better. 
The church is struggling.  Not just this church but the Church as a whole.  People see how Christians act and they quickly decide- I don’t want to have anything to do with that.  Some who have attended church all their lives leave because their feelings are hurt or they don’t like the way things are done.  Some move on to other churches, some don’t ever go back.  Forgiveness is hard when you don’t feel it’s justified or when you can’t see the good in others through the veil of anger.  Maybe it is a problem of public perception.  People see one or two self-proclaimed Christians acting foolishly and using words and actions that tear down instead of buildup and decide that is what all Christians must be like. 
Who would buy a car that always backfires, blows smoke and overheats all the time? Just because the owner says it is a good car?  If we want to share the love of Christ with others we need to be willing to work on it and attempt to fix the parts that overheat or at least be good at singing the praises of the ”great mechanic” that is willing to fix us at no charge.
We need to take responsibility for our own actions, our own words, our own Christian persona.  Be imitators of God! Live a life of love, just as Christ loves us.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

seek what endures

John 6: 24-35
As I watch the Olympics this week over and over again we see records broken.  The athletes who were once on top of their sport- lose their place on the medal stand and are replaced by the next generation.  Very few people outside the sport even remember who last held most records yet these athletes work so hard for this moment- they eat, drink and sleep their sport for years just for the chance to compete for this awesome but fleeting moment in the spotlight of the Olympics.
Many people work just as hard in the business world.  They are willing to work endless hours so they can have a big fancy title, a little prestige, power, and a big paycheck.   Many people are hoping for that next big promotion or raise which sometimes comes at the expense of their family, friends and integrity. 
We put so much time, energy and effort into things that don’t last. 
Apple will always come out with a new gadget just a few months after you bought what we thought was the latest and greatest.  The most luxurious car will still breakdown.  The most expensive clothes will go out of style.  World records will be broken and no matter how hard celebrities fight it- they will still grow old and someone younger and cuter will be waiting in the wings to take their place.
Jesus tells us “Do not work for the food that parishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life which only the Son of Man will give you”
We get so caught up in the rat race that we forget that without belief in Christ we are just stuck on the hamster wheel working hard but going nowhere.
The crowd asked Jesus how they could do the works of God- Jewish tradition was founded on works and culturally that is what they understood.  For example they knew what sacrifice was required for which sin.  They knew they were supposed to bathe a certain way before entering the temple.  They had a list of Do this…Do that…don’t do that.  Like many of us many got so caught up in the doing that they lost track of why they were doing these things in the first place.  It often became more about their own place in society and less about bringing Glory to God.
When Jesus said the only work was to believe- I can just see the look of confusion in their eyes.  They didn’t get it!  So again, they asked Jesus to do something.   Hadn’t he already proved himself enough?   The problem is that there were never really enough good deeds.  It wouldn’t have mattered how many people Jesus healed or how many demons he cast out or how many people he could feed with a single dinner roll- it would never be enough for some people to believe in Him.
Jesus tells them that the only work required is faith.  This is not used as a noun. Faith is not something John suggests we acquire or own but as a verb.(homiletics  8/4/12)  Faith is something we do.  We live faith.  We grow faith, we long for faith to be stronger, more caring, more loving.  We do good works not for our own salvation but to be a reflection of the love of God and bring Glory to His name.  It is always something we need more of.   John Wesley stressed this same thought by saying “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can”.  This may seem  on the surface contrary to what Jesus is teaching us about the value of money and possessions in this passage but it is not. He wasn’t telling us to work so hard that we neglect our faith or our families in order to make more money. Nor was he telling us to have big savings accounts.  He meant this to mean that we should earn a living, but spend as little of it as possible so that we will have more to give to those less fortunate.  Thus making our faith a verb- and living it boldly every chance we have.   
Jesus gives the crowd the answer to their questions. And Jesus is our answer to getting off the proverbial hamster wheel of life. 
Jesus said “I am the bread of life- whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”
We have to find that balance in life.  Discover what is really important.  Glory fades. There will always be someone smarter and better looking, better technology, and a fancier car- but what happens when this life ends and your prize possessions are taking up space in a landfill.  What happens when we do what the man in Australia did last week and put his 15,000 dollars in the oven?  Never imagining his wife might actually cook something.(Huffington post 7/26/12)  It is just paper- it burns, melts, is easily destroyed.
It is all for nothing without the love and salvation of Jesus Christ.   God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ … and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade (1 Peter 1: 3-4)  Why does it matter what we possess in this life if we have something absolutely wonderful waiting for us in Eternal Life with Christ. 
Just as in Biblical times this concept is comforting to those who have little and scary for those who have much. It is time we take inventory of what is important to us and place our trust in Christ instead of our pocket books.  Even Spike Lee agreed with this when he told Charlie Rose that the most important lesson in life is that Money isn’t everything.  Even people who seem to have everything take their own life.
As we come forward in a few minutes for communion remember to be grateful for our salvation through Jesus Christ.  Whether we have little or a lot; Trust that Jesus Christ is the bread of life and through faith in him well will have all we need. Our only work is to believe in Him.
 The bread and juice on this table may nourish the body but faith in God nourishes the soul.