Sunday, July 28, 2013

extravagant love

Luke 12: 13-21/  Passionate Worship- Adapted from Robert Schnase’s “Five practices of Fruitful congregations” for sermon/Study series.

A wealthy business man was opening the door of his BMW when a car came along and hit the door, ripping it off completely. When the police arrived at the scene, the man complained bitterly about the damage to his car.
"Officer, look what they've done to my Beemer!"
"You are so materialistic, it's ridiculous" retorted the officer. "You're so worried about your stupid BMW, you didn't even notice that your left arm was ripped off."
"Oh, my gosh!" screamed the man, noticing the bloody stump where his arm used to be. "My Rolex!"  (
Now that joke, I realize is on the ridiculous side but many of us approach life this way. We place value on possessions, money, and status often over our own lives and relationships.  I can’t even count the number of people I know who have damaged family and friend relationships because of money and inheritance. 
Jesus, as radical as he is, challenges this part of our society.  Jesus wants us to know it is not about what we have it is about our relationship with the giver and it is about what we do with what we have been given that is important. 
As we examine the witness and example of Jesus Christ, his parables and his life itself teach us these lessons.  As we talked last week about balancing prayer and study with service.  The concept of balance applies to this scripture today too.  Money and possessions are not a bad thing in and of themselves.  They are a necessary part of this world we live in.  But we must learn to find balance and responsibly use the gifts we are given.  It is the effect these possessions have on us that matters. 
Each week in worship we are encouraged to share our praises, how God has been active in our lives, how we have experienced God’s provision and blessings.  We give thanks to God for these gifts and pray that we will use them for God’s glory.  This isn’t rhetoric and habit.  It is important to take time each week, each day as a matter of fact, to remember that everything we have is a gift from God.  Every gift, not just our money but our time, energy, health, our talents of creativity and passion for caring for others, our willingness to be there for others are gifts from God. 
It is important to recognize God as the giver.  These are not things we deserve.  What we have and what we are able to do to earn, live, and buy are gifts from God.  And, as God gives generously we are called to respond generously. 
Jesus Christ is the ultimate example for us.  His teaching in today’s scripture invites us to evaluate the importance we place on possessions. This theme is repeated and reflected in the call to the rich man to sell everything he had to follow Christ and the stressing of a person’s inability to serve two masters, as well as his desire for us to store up treasures in heaven not on earth. 
Jesus is teaching us that what we have in this life is not what is really important.  Jesus wants to turn over the tables in the temple of consumerism that we all too often worship. 
Jesus wants us to see that what is important is our relationship with God not stuff.  What is important is seeing and recognizing how generous God is with us not only providing for our physical needs but our spiritual needs.  Jesus shows us what it is like to give extravagantly and to love extravagantly. 
Each one of us is here because either we know or we want to know what it means to be loved by God.  We want to realize that God loved us so much that even though we don’t deserve it and can’t earn it God loves us anyway.  God’s love is so strong that no matter what we do, we can always find love in Christ and no matter what we do we can turn to Christ and see the extravagance of his love and sacrifice on the cross.  Jesus didn’t have to be crucified.  God could have found another way but this is the ultimate expression of love to lay down one’s life for another.  Jesus Christ was brought to life to give love and give it extravagantly.
Is that how you view your gifts, your resources, your possessions? As gifts given by God, the only purpose being to show the love of Christ to others? 
Having money and possessions is not a bad thing.  God wants us to have them but he also wants us to use them.  This desire to have more, keep what we have and save our pennies for a rainy day all too often prevents us from fulfilling the will of God and showing the love of Christ to others because we are more worried about our own needs than the needs of others. 
This week I have seen people give extravagantly to people and causes that truly share the love of Christ.  Yesterday we witnessed as people from Webster Methodist and church choirs from around the community came together to share their time, talent and love with the community- not to raise money for themselves but to help a family that many of them may never know.  Why, because they understand the love of Christ goes beyond the walls of their church sanctuary and church family.
Today, Love’s Chapel announced that they were willing to go above and beyond to show extravagant love and support of Linsey’s call to missionary service.  It is just money, but money combined with prayer and love will allow Linsey to touch the lives of people around the world sharing the hope and love of Christ with those who may never know it otherwise. 
Giving is good.  It feels good to give when it is given out of the love and abundance of Christ.  Often when people are facing difficult times you might hear someone say- God won’t give you any more than you can handle.  And with God’s help we can face any trail.  But, on the same token, if you are serving out of love and leaning on God for strength and provision God will supply what you need.  There is never a reason to serve out of a place of deficiency.  God will provide and provide abundantly giving extravagantly to us so that we may respond by sharing extravagantly with others.
How does your attitude toward giving of your gifts, time and talents reflect your relationship with God? How does it reflect your experience of the love of Christ?  Are you using your gifts responsibly and productively to be a witness to the love and grace of Christ in this world?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Be intentional

Luke 10: 38-42-   Mary/ Martha/ Intentional Faith Development

Adapted as part of a study/sermon series from Robert Schnese’s “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations”

The story of Mary and Martha is a familiar one.  Most of us can relate to one or the other and it seemed appropriate to use for a discussion on Intentional Faith Development because of its focus on balance.  Mary and Martha are not polar opposites.  Jesus is not telling us that Mary is better than Martha but is telling us that there is a time for service and there is a time for learning. It is about discovering balance.

We are no strangers to the call for a work-life balance.  We know that people whose life focus is on work struggle to maintain personal relationships and often burn out at work.  We know, at least in principle the importance of balancing our work with personal time off with family and friends. 

Our spiritual life is no different.  Balance is important.  If we only spend time in prayer and study it is hard to get the work of Christ done in this world but at the same time if we spend all of our time in service we soon forget why and whom we serve.  Service quickly becomes habit, a way to get personal approval, and sometimes an escape from facing our own spiritual deficits.  We need balance.  Without personal faith development and service combined, life becomes more about us and less about Christ. 

 Living in this world does require work and there are times when things just need to get done.  However, it is easy to get so caught up in the busyness of life that we forget to slow down, take time to learn, recharge our batteries and strengthen our relationship with Christ. 

 Without an intentional study and prayer life it is easy to get discouraged by the happenings in this life and easy to start focusing on what we want instead of listening for the direction and will of God. 

The life of Jesus is important on many levels his teachings and who he was is enough to deserve awe and wonder but his willingness to sacrifice his life for our sake is only part of the story.  The way he lived his life is an example for all of us to imitate. 

When it comes to intentional faith development the life of Jesus and the disciples is a great role model.  The example and ministry of Jesus took many forms and teaches us the importance of balance between doing the work of God and growing spiritually.  Jesus is seen repeatedly listening to the rabbis, reading scripture in the synagogue, and discussing scripture with others.  At times he is teaching and preaching in the temple while other times he is on a hillside or on a street corner.  He teaches multitudes of people sometimes, but often he is having discussions one on one with a stranger or in a small private gathering with his closest friends.  His willingness to teach and the disciples to learn is not confined to one place or time but each moment is used as a teachable one.   

This life of Jesus was a busy one of teaching, listening, healing, traveling but even Jesus Christ couldn’t keep up that pace of life without spending time alone with God.  Jesus not only preaches and teaches; he spends time alone in prayer as well.  We see Jesus leave the multitudes of people to go into the garden to pray or walk through the hills of Jerusalem to be alone with God listening to the will of God and gaining strength for the next step in his ministry.

Jesus needed to recharge his batteries and needed to gain perspective on life from a distance.  We are no different from Jesus in this way.  We, like Martha, often get so caught up in the busyness of daily living that we lose sight of the reason for living.  Also like Martha, we begin to believe that our way of living is the best way, the only way and we struggle to see the world from other people’s perspectives and our lives begin to fill with anxiety as we stress over the actions and inactions of others. 

Intentional Faith development takes many forms as it did in the life of Jesus.  We need corporate worship- coming together to fellowship, sing hymns, hear the word of God proclaimed. We need personal study, prayer and meditation; time alone with God when we can apply the Word to our lives and quietly listen for the will of God while we recharge our spiritual batteries. 

Maybe this seems to daunting for you.  It is hard to know where to start or how much to read.  Maybe you need a daily reading guide or a daily devotional to guide the process.  Maybe it is just a matter of writing it into your schedule or setting an alarm to remind you to spend time in prayer. 

Sunday School classes, weekly Bible study groups and group discussion is vitally important.  By nature, we often think we are right and the way we read something is correct.  We need small group Bible study to dig deeper into the word and to help correct our assumptions about the teaching and will of God.  It helps us to hold one another accountable for the way we impose our own personal bias into our reading.  One of the most common heard phrases in group Bible study is – hum- I never thought of it that way and wow- I have read that story many times but never realized what Jesus was trying to say there.  It often takes shared opinions and discussion to really work out the meaning of scripture.

Even the early disciples who knew and learned directly from Jesus came together to discern the will of God and to offer direction, encouragement and make decisions for the church.  No one person has a monopoly on knowing exactly what God would have us to do- even Peter and Paul needed others to help guide their thoughts and hold them accountable when they strayed.

We need public and personal prayer to help discern the will of God for the church, the community and to direct our actions in the world.    This is also a way to encourage and validate one another, lift one another up in prayer, and share in personal struggles and successes. 

Prayer and study help remind us what is important, lower anxiety and once we have recharged and refocused our lives on the will of God and the love of Christ it will be much easier and fruitful to enter into the world of service and the busyness of doing life.  There are opportunities in this church for Intentional Faith Development.  We have Sunday School classes, a week day Bible study and more opportunities will be coming soon.  It is never too late to join a group.  This church always has a daily devotional available for people to take home with them.  And today you are getting a reading guide to take home. 

My challenge to you is to start a new habit of prayer and study.  It is never a waste of time, the vacuuming and mowing can wait 10 minutes and your life will be richer and blessed because of it.

Spend even just a few minutes alone with Christ each day.  Refocus and recharge your spiritual batteries.  Stress and anxiety will decrease; life will seem a little less daunting and it will be easier to hear the will of God for your life.   Christ came to this world as a living example for us; to show us the true meaning of love and sacrifice.  Even on the cross we see his focus and determination to do the will of God.  Let us gain strength and encouragement from Christ as we strive to serve him in this world.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

quick fixes and easy answers

2 Kings 5: 1-14 

God has a great sense of humor. Admittedly we may not think it is so great when things are happening to us but never the less, it is easy to see some of God’s funny quirks as we read todays scripture. 
Here we have this powerful guy, Naaman.  He is rich, courageous, a mighty warrior, and a high ranking officer in the Aramean Army.  And yet, all that may come to an end because of a rash.  The version of scripture we read today calls it leprosy but there is a footnote in most Bibles that explains that it was probably something more like eczema or psoriasis. On any level, this big strong man may lose everything because of the social stigma associated with having a skin disease.  To make matters worse, no one in the “great” country of Aram knew how to fix it.

Where does the solution to this powerful man’s problem come from?  A young Israelite slave girl.  Her importance to society was the opposite of Naaman’s.  She was young, female, and not from the wonderful country of Aram.  What did she know?  And, what she suggests he do is go to a prophet in the weak, recently defeated in battle, non-influential Podunk town of Samaria. 
Instead of going to the lowly prophet like the slave girl suggested Naaman goes to the King.  We can see where Israel got its reputation at the time- the king is immediately frightened, weak, tears his clothes and goes into premature mourning.  

No one yet seems to recognize that the power does not belong to the king, or the nation.  It belongs to God.  I can just see Elisha just shaking his head, will they ever learn!  Send him to me- I will show him who is really in control.
Even though Naaman is full of self-importance, carrying riches and being followed by soldiers and servants, Elisha is not impressed.  He doesn’t even feel it is necessary to leave his meager house to greet this man.  Instead he sends a messenger with simple, easy to follow instructions.

Naaman however, isn’t quite impressed with Elisha either:  How dare he treat me this way! Doesn’t he know who I am and he wants me to do what? That river is NASTY!  No way! 
Naaman can’t see past his own sense of self-worth and dignity to lower himself to bathe in the Jordan.  Once again it is his lowly servants who talk some since into him. 

I hate to admit it, but I am a lot like Naaman .  I probably think more highly of myself than I should from time to time and I often want a quick fix to my problems.  I am sure I am not the only one.   Every time we turn the TV on there is a new pill for something, a new diet, a new gadget or cream that will make you as beautiful as the model endorsing it.  We want someone to wave a magic wand -we want all the Benny Hinn TV miracles to be real.  But rarely is this the way God works.
We don’t want to have to do anything or change anything to find healing in our life.  Sometimes the easiest solution is the hardest because it means we have to change, we have to do something, be different.

About 10 years ago, a new prescription weight loss pill came on the market.  I had been hearing about it on TV and when I went to my annual doctor’s appointment I talked with him about my concerns with my weight.  I was about 25 lbs heavier than I am today.  He entertained no thought about this new pill but told me I had a very common ailment; Fork to Mouth Syndrome.  He told me to eat right and exercise. 
It was the simplest answer to my problem but it was not what I wanted to hear.  I wanted to keep eating what I wanted and keep spending my evenings and weekends watching TV not exercising.  I didn’t want to change my lifestyle.  It took me a couple of years and failed attempts at other OTC pills and fad diets to realize he was right. 

Sometimes the simplest solution is the hardest.  Faith is the same way.  We are told repeatedly in the Bible that all we have to do is believe.  John 6:29- “The work of God is this: believe in the one he has sent”  John 3:16 “For who so ever believes in Him shall have eternal life.”  That is the simple answer to life’s big questions. Believe in God, Believe in Christ.  It is easy but we as humans are the ones who want to make it so difficult.  Somehow we feel like we should have to earn our salvation; either through good works, or status in the church and community.
But, Jesus made it clear when he ate with the lowliest members of society and broke the temple rules.   It is not what you have and it’s not following the rules and all the good deeds that make you right with God.  It is the believing that changes a person.  We don’t want to hold grudges; we want to be kind to strangers.  We don’t obey because the rules say we should, we obey because we are loved and it is because of that love that we want to be at peace with ourselves but also with others.  It is the love of Christ that changes us that makes us want to be better people.  

People can go through the motions of taking the “spiritual pill” being kind, generous, helpful, serving others, volunteering- whatever it is that makes a person feel better about themselves but it is believing in Christ that really brings peace, that really leads us to truly love others as Christ loves us and being able to fully forgive, engage and welcome others.  We are not better because of what we do.  We are made better because of what Christ did for us. 
God, the Almighty, Prince of Peace, Lord of Lords, Creator of all and worthy of worship and adoration showed us true love by humbling himself, coming to Earth in the form of a man, a helpless and vulnerable baby, child, teenager and persecuted prophet to show us how it is done.  It is about thinking less about us and more about others. 

Are you willing to truly believe; lay everything else to the side, allow yourself to put the obstacles of life out of the way and be changed by the love of Christ?  It is the hardest thing and the simplest thing all at the same time. 
To fully believe that Christ died for you and the person sitting next to you in the pew and even the person in front of you at Wal-Mart. Can you believe? Can you allow this belief to change you and make you better?  Having faith is not a reason to brag or be proud. Haaman left the waters of the Jordan a changed man, humble and blessed- forever believing in God. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Life as a garden

Galatians 5: 1, 13-25

In this life, one of the greatest gifts and sometimes curses we have been given is free will.  God never wanted to have emotionless, zombie followers.  We were created to choose.  It is the basic freedom of this life.  This freedom comes with some parameters and requires sacrifice and there are natural consequences for the choices we make.
As I was studying the scripture this week, it seemed fitting for us to look at life as a garden.  We are each given a piece of land to care for and to plant whatever we choose. 
Some choose what may seem the easy way.  The land lays barren and whatever seed happens to land is allowed to grow or die.  There is no work required with this method. It may become a small collection of wild flowers, it may just be a pile of dirt but most likely it will quickly be over grown with weeds.  If anything healthy does happen to land there like an apple seed it is quickly choked out by the briars and vines.  The owner may pretend that the dandelions are beautiful flowers but they have no control over them, they seed and sprout where ever they choose, killing anything beneficial near them.
These are those who always want things to be better but don’t want to do any of the work it requires.  They want an “I” centered life.  What I want, what I need, when I want it, and on my terms.  They give in to temptations and Instead of fruit; they grow vices- addiction, bickering, tearing others down, pessimism, gossiping, jealousy, anger and hatred.  When positive things do happen they are quick to belittle the idea, attempt to choke it out like kudzu using words like can’t, won’t, don’t …..  At the end of the day, while there may be a sense of pride that one got their way- there is nothing left but an over grown plot of ground, an emptiness- aching to be filled.
On the other hand…
Some choose to care for their plot of land.  They carefully choose which plants they want; trees that bear fruit, vegetables, herbs, and beneficial flowers.  They choose to work their land diligently, planting, fertilizing and nurturing the land with love and encouragement.  When negative attitudes and weeds of life do creep in they are quickly plucked out and removed before they can do damage.  The gardener knows that it takes hard work, time and persistence to care for the life they have been given but the reward is great.  At the end of the day there is fruit: love, joy, peace, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, patience, self-control and a spirit filled with Christ.
Instead of lists of cannot, will not, and do not; you will hear words of how, we can try it, what’s next, and what can I do to help.
The life of the diligent gardener is not an easy one.  Often we start out on the right track excited and eager but as the summer heat moves in we begin to neglect what we started. We put off caring for the land until another day but weeds take hold, often before we realize it or we forget to water and fertilize the once beautiful plants and they slowly wither and die   It is not enough to just plant good seeds; it is not enough to weed on occasion.  It takes persistence and ever watchful eye.    
Our life of faith is so similar to this garden metaphor.  What are the weeds in your life?   What do you want to plant in your garden?  Have you experienced a harvest in your life? What kind of fruit have you witnessed in your life, in the life of this church? 
 Have you planted a healthy garden but see the weeds creeping in?  Are you in desperate need of nutrients so that the fruit you see budding can grow healthy? 
You are in luck.  This book, the Bible, is the spiritual farmer’s almanac- maybe you think you read it a long time ago and think you know everything in it- I promise there is something new to be learned!    Maybe you are out of practice and need to ask for help or want to learn from how other people have cared for their garden.  Maybe sharing and hearing new opinions, a new perspective will deepen your faith.
Maybe you can look back to your ancestors and learn lessons from their lives or maybe you need to spend time with a new believer who is still excited about how God is growing in their life, get excited again!  Share the fruit of your life with others- love someone you never thought was lovable, sow patience, kindness and forgiveness.  Use your gifts to encourage others – we can never give it all away- the more we give the more we have to give.
 Maybe you feel like you have too many weeds growing in your life and you feel like giving up.  Don’t, there is always hope!  Look around you- there are people all around willing to help.  You have a God who loves you and wants to see an orchard in your life.  A God, who sent his son to this earth, to guide the way so that you would never have to do this alone. 
Spend time in worship, in prayer and meditation, sing hymns, study the words of Christ, and learn from the lives (successes and failures) of those around you.  Weed out the people who tear you down and belittle you.  Add people who are encouraging, supportive and loving. When you feel the words of pessimism and doubt creeping in acknowledge them and weed them out too.   
It is never too late to start fresh with Christ.  Because of Christ we can take a deep breath, repent and try again, each time learning something new and realizing that with Christ we have unconditional love, forgiveness, and all the tools we will ever need to grow healthy in the light of the Son into everlasting life. 
Someone once told me you will have pain in your life- either the pain of discipline now or the pain of regret later.  It is your choice.  This is the freedom we have been given.  Christ is showing us the way.  The Holy Spirit is guiding us to make healthy choices- we just need to listen, follow and stay focused on what is important.