March 12, 2017

Conflict Isn’t (Always) Bad

 

Genesis 32:22-32

22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”

But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”

27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”

29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”

But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh. 32 Therefore, Israelites don’t eat the tendon attached to the thigh muscle to this day, because he grabbed Jacob’s thigh muscle at the tendon.

 

 

For some people, one great struggle defines who they are for life. The Rev. Dr. James Lawson gave many talks and sermons during my time at Vanderbilt. His life was defined by the struggle of the Civil Rights Era where he was a close aide to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The conflicts he went through defined him, even though, at the time, I’m sure he thought they would end him.

 

Our country’s first President, George Washington, is also defined by conflict. His leadership of the Colonial Army earned him the clout to be voted as president. He suffered mightily through his own battle scars and through the pain of knowing he sent many men to their deaths. In the end, his conflict defined him.

 

In the month of March we celebrate women’s history and mark on society. Figures like Helen Keller, whose conflict with the stigmas and limitations around human disability, defined her and the entire population of those who are differently abled. I think of Malala Yousafzai who continues to be a major figure in women’s rights, Muslim advocacy, peace building, and proving that age does not limit one’s ability to be a leader all while getting regular death threats from terrorists.

 

I could go on about figures like Susan B. Anthony, who conflicted with men and women who did not think women should vote; Marie Curie who won two Nobel prizes in two fields in spite of conflicts with male scientists; Simone de Beauvoir who defined sexism in the modern world, and on and on. All of these persons were defined by the work they did in the midst of conflict and overcoming it to some degree. Conflicts have a way of proving our mettle as people who are dedicated to a cause.

 

Today’s Scripture also speaks of a literal defining conflict. It points to the origin of the nation of Israel, and their namesake Israel, who was formerly Jacob. We all know many stories about Jacob, yet his wrestling with a mysterious figure is where we center our minds today.

 

Jacob’s history in the story of the early Israelites illustrates God’s long arc of being an active participant in the lives of the chosen people. In Jacob’s story, as he heads out to make peace with his brother Esau, he is caught in the night by the mysterious figure. Some say this person is God while others say an angel. Whomever it is, Jacob wrestles with him through the night, and when he overcomes, he demands a blessing.

 

During the fight, Jacob is injured in a way that probably affected him throughout his life. He could easily pity himself for the injury and become angry and spiteful, and he would have the right, but he instead gained a great honor from it. He was now Israel, “one who wrestled with God.”

 

The conflicts that affect our lives can be very meaningful in both good and/or bad ways. For some of us, conflicts we have with others cause breaks in relationships that take a long time to heal or don’t heal at all. Conflicts can cause major physical, emotional, or mental pain. There is a time and place to talk about where one is justified in anger but we must attempt to live by God’s command to forgive.

 

Now, assuming we can at least entertain that some conflicts are worth forgiving and learning from, there is a truth that not all conflict is bad. Or, as I titled this sermon, “Conflict Isn’t (Always) Bad.”

 

I say that because good conflict resolution can accomplish some things for us. I want to highlight three of those: they unearth issues, address issues, and teach us what to do and what not to do.

 

  • Conflict Unearths issues: I made the mistake of moving in with three friends from school during college before I knew what their living styles were like. All three were, to some degree, messy. I’m not generally a messy person. Some of them were what you could call disgusting. I’m definitely not disgusting. We often fought amongst each other about whose job it was to do what and how often. Resentment was a constant theme around the trash, specifically. One night, after a huge blowup between all four of us, we came together through a mutual love of video games and began to talk it out. I learned that one of them who often got most angry didn’t want to clean because he lived in a household where his parents were too aggressive about small issues like cleaning his room. From then on, at least for him, when I and the other roommates wanted something cleaned, we said please. Being respectful helped.

 

  • Conflict Addresses Issues: I had a professor who once said almost all the conflicts in the world can be boiled down to poor communication. Over and over in my life, in my personal and professional relationships, including my marriage, I have learned that not understanding a problem or not discussing it means that it will never resolve itself. Oftentimes, the subject of a fight is rarely ever what the fight ends up being about. We say we are mad that the laundry isn’t getting done or done wrong, but what we are really angry about is being appreciated for the work we do around the house that isn’t the laundry. We have to think about what matters to us the most, especially when what angers us is a different issue, so we can name those problems and address them. Next week, I will spend my whole sermon talking about naming what matters.

 

  • Conflict Teaches Us What To Do and What Not To Do: This is hardest, especially when we have “won” a fight. We have to be careful about how we engage conficts. Even if you win, you will find yourself in that mentality over and over and cause more and more damage over time. If you want to live a life where conflicts are few and far between and only when necessary, you have to address your own shortcomings. If you tend to cuss during fights and your partner is hurt by that, learn that lesson. If you find every little nitpicky thing you can throw at your partner and take them down during arguments, that’s going to be a problem long after the conflict is over.

 

When I talk about conflicts and partners, I don’t just mean romantic partners. We get in conflicts with family, loved ones, coworkers, other church members, random people in the supermarket. In those moments, when the face off happens, it is your job to slow it down and think about what the issue is about and whether or not it is worth it. If it is, find the problem and address it, then move on.

 

I have noticed in the South that a lot of times people don’t actually deal with their conflicts, or they bottle it up. I’ll be honest, I’m all about good manners, but if you are angry in your heart and not out loud you are still angry. We can be Southern Christians all we want to, but that is limited to accent, style, and food choices. When it comes to being good people, God’s call to be honest, open, and upright are more important. When we do that, we may actually teach others what is important to us. It may teach us how much God is calling on us to be or do or say something that is dear to God’s heart. Redemption and growth is what separates bad conflicts from good conflicts.

 

The good news is, God wants to be part of that redemption and growth. God wants to transform your heart so that you won’t fall prey to being a winner and instead choose to be a Christian. You’ll find it is a lot easier to get over yourself if your goal is what Jesus wants and not what I want. Jesus wants a healthy church full of people who are selfless and mission-driven to bring hope to those who need it.

 

That being said, your conflicts often point to real needs and desires that you have. It is up to you to find out what in there is worth working on and learning from. We all have different things that are important to us, and running up against what is important to others helps us all to better learn each other. The hard part is not letting our mistakes define us, rather than our successes.

 

Go and be people who, like Israel, wrestle for God’s blessings. Amen.

March 5, 2017

Conflict and Selflessness

 

Numbers 16:41-50

 

41 On the next day the entire Israelite community complained to Moses and Aaron, “You killed the Lord’s people.” 42 When the community assembled against Moses and Aaron, they turned toward the meeting tent. At that moment the cloud covered it, and the Lord’s glory appeared. 43 Moses and Aaron came to the front of the meeting tent, 44 and the Lord spoke to Moses: 45 Get away from this community, so that I may consume them in an instant.

They fell on their faces, 46 and Moses said to Aaron, “Take the censer, put fire from the altar on it, place incense on it, go quickly to the community, and seek reconciliation for them. Indeed, the Lord’s anger has gone out. The plague has begun.” 47 Aaron took it as Moses said and ran into the middle of the assembly, for the plague had already begun among the people. He burned incense and sought reconciliation for the people. 48 He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague stopped. 49 Those who died from the plague were fourteen thousand seven hundred, in addition to those who died because of Korah. 50 Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance of the meeting tent once the plague stopped.

 

 

 

In 2008, Central Washington’s softball team faced off against Western Oregon. It was a clash of small college rivals. On an ordinary day, no one outside of those two schools’ region would have known anything about this game, but you may have seen the story on the news. Sarah Tucholsky of Western Oregon hits her first ever home run, but as she closes in on first, ligaments in her knee tear. She can’t walk.

 

The rules of softball state that her teammates cannot help her in any way, but she cannot claim her run if she herself does not round the bases. In a show of compassion and love of the game, Central Washington’s players pick her up and walk her around the bases. National news learned about it, and we had a nice moment that reminded us that some things are more important than winning.

 

There is a common phrase we use for situations like this: the greater good. It’s a strong motivator. We see it all the time in movies and books and television where a character sacrifices his or her goals and dreams so that the collective benefits. Stories like these occasionally make it into our news stream as wonderful reminders that decency and compassion do still remain.

 

For these softball players, it was more important to give an opponent the opportunity to overcome a low moment to hold onto the high of hitting her first run. It could have cost them the game, but that didn’t matter – Sarah deserved her run. With so many of our youth and kids involved in sports and other competitive activities, it is important for all of us to be good examples of how to achieve personally while not sacrificing our ethics and maintaining a good attitude.

 

Sad to say, that is a very counter-cultural idea when we look how it is put into practice in the rest of the world. So many people view achievement as a matter of winning or losing and would gladly sacrifice integrity for the ability to claim victory. It is also sad to say that it happens in churches. I’ve seen it. When a person will sabotage another ministry or recruit against it so their pet project can win. Or in budget meetings when long-standing programs that are stagnant still demand every last dollar they can get.

 

Going through a vision process is something every church needs to do every so often to maintain their missional function which is the bedrock of the faith. The Great Commission found in Matthew says to make disciples of all nations, and that is a tall order by itself. When we do decide that we must go out and find people who aren’t disciples and invite them in, our own personal stories and motives have to direct where we start, but ultimately, we have to learn to share space with new people.

 

In a church I worked for back in Athens, a missional push almost split the church. The Youth Mission Team decided they wanted to do an afterschool study hall where the church bus would pick up students and would take them to the church two days a week to let them do homework, play some games, have dinner, then their parents could pick them up after work.

 

A few people were adamant that they swing through the nearby low income, predominantly black housing to pick up kids there. That’s what mission is about! Another group was concerned about this idea. Certain gangs were seen in the area, and church members were not sure if they could keep the church or the kids safe. Ignorance of crime statistics and pseudo-racism against black kids aside, there are two very present, and conflicting, points here.

 

It would be easy for me to tell you that they ultimately worked around the issue, picked up the kids from the housing complex, and all went well. But that’s not the point of the story. I’ll let you imagine what happened there. Instead, I want to focus on what happened next: the church members met, and talked, and planned, and finally, decided what to do.

 

I remember that meeting. Voices got loud, then soft. I heard anger, I heard passion, and I heard silence. I listened as people who had valid points were heard. I heard people who had not done a good job reflecting on their thoughts express them and be given space. I heard an apology or two.

 

This is the process of finding a greater good. Sometimes, it is hard to find it, because we have to listen for it after some really bad things happened. That brings us to today’s Scripture.

 

I don’t know if I have ever preached out of Numbers. It’s not what I would call a very happy book, but it tells the stories of how the leaders of the Hebrews were willing to overcome their feelings to save their people who had done some pretty terrible things that upset God. This story is meant to be a warning against losing commitment to the faith and how even one person can have a great impact on the community.

 

Prior to today’s passage, earlier in Chapter 16, many had been killed through divine wrath because they continually angered God through their blasphemy and complaining. Their bitterness continued, and God sent a plague among them. Aaron, the brother of Moses and chief priest among the people, took the holy elements and risked catching plague himself so that he could perform the rites of reconciliation. God saw this show of holy compassion and ended the plague.

 

Honestly, Aaron had every right to simply watch them die off. The complaining of the people and their impatience with God had already cursed them to never see the Promised Land. They had to wander until the last of them had died so their children could go in. Had Aaron simply watched, that process would have been much quicker and the kids could have gone on to Canaan. But what kind of leader would he be? Just? Definitely. Our understanding of justice is “you do the crime, you do the time.” Makes sense for him to claim what they were doing was essentially ancient treason.

 

Instead, he saw that they must learn what the greater good is. To do the just thing would also be doing the unjust thing. He had the power to save – to do the greater good – and not doing so would have been its own crime. Sometimes, the world is not as cut and dry as we think. Sure, we could say that God wanted Aaron to save them the whole time, but then why kill fourteen thousand of them first?

 

The story here is that sometimes finding the right answer isn’t a matter of correct or incorrect. It is a deeper experience. Those folks at my former church had good points on both sides. Kids need Jesus but kids also need safety. It would be justified either way, so we have to decide together, as a group, what good looks like here and not think our point of view is the only one worth considering.

 

Conflict is going to happen when competing points of view have limited resources. As we listen to the ideas being given to individuals in our vision process, and when we meet in April to discuss what vision looks like for the whole church, we are going to have to talk out where we are willing to give and how much we are willing to give. Some things will push ahead and others will have to wait for a time. So we all have to be like Aaron, who was willing to take risks to save as many people as he could. That requires putting what we want behind us and listening for what is good for the whole community, especially those who need to hear the good news that Christ wants them in the kingdom, too.

 

I ask you to pray earnestly for God to speak to your heart so you will know what God wants from you in this process. We are Methodists; we believe that we cannot simply sit in the pews and call it “good enough.” We are to work out our faith so that we can help others work our theirs. Listen to God, and you can be part of the greater good in the world.

November 20, 2016

The Vision of the Church

 

Scripture: Luke 1:68-79

68 “Bless the Lord God of Israel
    because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house,
70     just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.
71 He has brought salvation from our enemies
    and from the power of all those who hate us.
72 He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and remembered his holy covenant,
73         the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham.
He has granted 74 that we would be rescued
        from the power of our enemies
    so that we could serve him without fear,
75         in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes,
            for as long as we live.
76 You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
77 You will tell his people how to be saved
    through the forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of our God’s deep compassion,
    the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
79     to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
        to guide us on the path of peace.”

 

 

Hello, my name is Nick, and I am a pre-Christmas Grinch. For those of you who are familiar with comedian Lewis Black, my inner monologue around Christmas turns toward his sketch on the ridiculously early arrival of Christmas each year. Let’s be honest – our obsession with Christmas is out of control. It seems to start somewhere in august. I know that because my parents were stressing me out about a Christmas list on November 2. November. Second.

 

A friend and I were having dinner the other night out on his patio, because Mother Nature has granted me my wish of summer that lasts eight months (although I wonder if that is a good thing), and we watched his neighbor hang up lights and inflatable characters. Poor Frosty has become the epitome of ironic hipster decorations.

 

I wouldn’t be such a Grinch about it but I know when Christmas comes, people tend to get really uptight right up to the week of Christmas. Kindness and compassion fall victim to whether or not we are prepared for this or that and “THAT’S MY SPOT I SAW IT FIRST, YOU JERK!.” Anxiety about decorations arise and whether we have every ornament placed and figurine dusted. For all the joy we are to imagine at Christmas, it really does sometimes bring out the worst in people.

 

This concern brings me to question what the church is saying in this season, whether intentionally or not. It is still technically our holiday, right? Or have we lost it amid all the ruckus? I do like that as it gets closer, people become momentarily more devout, but it doesn’t last. We get a couple of Christmas visitors then all goes back to normal.

 

If I have learned anything about this time of year working in the church, we care a lot more about checking off items on our to-do list than we do spreading the message of Christ in ways people understand. Sure, it is good that we have plays and cantatas and candlelight services, but what message are we sending to those who see them? That God came to earth to save humanity from ourselves by showing us a better way or that we are really talented?

 

It may be better that we take a strong look at the meaning of the season before it starts. We have to ask what our role is in welcoming the newborn Prince of Peace and King of Kings into the world before he gets here. I think the best way of doing that is by examining the prophesies that came before his arrival.

 

When Christ came to earth to call people back to righteous faith in God, he was doing so as a fulfillment of prophesies found in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and much of the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Today’s passage is not one of them. Instead, it is the prophesy of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who was Jesus’ cousin.

 

John had a special job. He was to proclaim the coming of Christ’s ministry that would lead to fulfillment. Traditionally, this Sunday is known as Christ the King Sunday in the Christian calendar. It is the last Sunday of the Christian year. Traditionally, we focus on the passages that declare Jesus’ true role as ruler of all creation. I chose to instead focus on the passage about John, because he gives us a better glimpse of what is to come right after the Advent and Christmas seasons.

 

John sets up the vision of what the followers of Jesus are to do before there even was a Christmas to celebrate. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry comes at his baptism, not his birth.

 

John’s job is the same as our job but in a different manner. John was proclaiming the coming of Christ. Our job is to proclaim Christ has come. When you think about it, the message is really the same: Belief in Jesus requires that we live better. We should repent (turning away from our poor behavior), seek forgiveness (healing our relationship with others and/or with God), and live in a way that serves others and God.  That, in a nutshell, is what the kingdom of heaven is about.

 

The church, then, is an extension of the kingdom of heaven found in the witness of believers. Our job collectively is to feed the hungry, clothe the poorly clothed, offer shelter to those without shelter, and be a space of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. In addition to that, our primary, number 1 reason for existence is to make disciples of all those who come by faith. We must take care of the first part before we do the latter, otherwise we have naked, hungry, homeless disciples; however, we also must not do the first part and neglect the latter because then we are a help center. Churches do both.

 

No amount of Christmas pageants and concerts or live nativities or carols will do those things for us. I hate to say it, but I imagine Jesus would walk through every church doing their Christmas specials and would walk right past them asking where the lost and broken were. He would call the little children forward and know them all by name. Do we do that?

 

More often, we operate in the realm of whether or not the church meets our desires and preferences. Biblically speaking, what is the nature of the church that was begun by John the Baptist if the believers’ biggest concern is whether or not we like the temperature of the water? (metaphorically speaking)

 

The vision of the church is so much more than making sure our wants and desires are met first. It is making sure those called to Christ are fed, clothed, healed, and told they are welcome. It is teaching our friends and neighbors that the kingdom of God – where we are made whole and loved unconditionally – is real and here right now if we are willing to believe in it.

 

So how do we do that? How do we live as the church we are supposed to be? In a recent training on youth ministry that Becky, Jay, and I attended, the facilitators made some claims about churches that really apply to the whole church when it comes to making disciples.

 

Number 1: We have to invite people, and we have to actually invite them in person.  Our church will not grow simply by being the church on 49. There’s already other churches on 49, so why come here? Also, it is you that must invite them. If I invite them, they’ll connect with me. When I’m gone, they’re gone. When the person who invited them is still here, they are far more likely to stay. Churches that are successful and remain successful invite their friends and neighbors and keep inviting them.

 

Number 2: Discipleship matters. I preach so that you will continue to hear the words of Christ but that isn’t the same as discipleship making. You have to commit yourself to study and growth. Join together in small groups and read the Bible. Join a Sunday School class and make sure that class always reads the Bible at least once per class. Coming to church alone does not make a disciple. It makes an attendee.

 

Number 3: Care about the faith formation of others. So often, we like to say that if we don’t like teaching it must not be our gift and we shouldn’t have to do it. That’s just wrong. We need multiple styles and methods of teachers and helpers so that our kids grow up knowing something real about the God they claim to serve. They need to see people they can get to know and respect leading them. We are about to get desperate for teachers because we are using up those we have. If you care about the church and our kids, consider this a slight nudge to help out and volunteer when we start asking for helpers in the new year.

 

These are just the beginnings of establishing a basic vision of our church. I have already shown you what God wants and what Christ demands, so where do we go? First, we celebrate the mission we have been given.  When Zacharias first learned of his son’s birth, he celebrated it. He was exuberant about it. In the same vein, John took his life very seriously because his father and mother cared deeply about his life’s work. He grew up to be one of the greatest prophets in the faith, because he knew the vision given to him and he took it to heart.

 

It is good that we celebrate Christmas. It is good that we hang the greens and adorn this sanctuary with light. It is good that we have our kids tell us the story of Jesus in plays and choirs sing choruses that speak of that same story. But it only points to the real message: “The kingdom of heaven is coming. Come all ye weary and needy. Come all ye hurt and heartbroken. Come all ye saints and sinners. It is time to follow our Lord.”

 

Who is brave enough and devoted enough to help us find our path to give light to those sitting in darkness? Who is going to invite somebody new or teach our young ones and make disciples?

 

That is your vision to claim for yourself. Amen.

November 13, 2016

The Vision of God

 

Scripture: Isaiah 65:17-25 (NRSV)

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

 

They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent–its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.”

 

 

I have wrestled with what to say during the election season. Other than a couple of jokes, I have largely avoided the topic, because it is so divisive. Sadly, whenever something is in the realm of politics, it is believed by many to be off limits to talk about from my position. In many cases, that may be true, such as openly endorsing a candidate from the pulpit or fundraising or the like. But some things – as my friend Michael Williams says – are Jesus issues, even if they are highlighted in the realm of the political.

 

It was a feat of discipline to not comment on how devolved we have become as a nation that our electoral process turns people into caricatures and completely strips them of their humanity. It offers them temporary status as vulnerable, volatile demagogues who can spend billions of dollars just to make the other look bad. Watching two people live as both heroes and villains makes for an interesting commentary when we say all people are God’s children, including Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Gary Johnson.

 

Now we come to the after where I yet again have to discern what is a Jesus issue in our country and what is my own viewpoint. I think God would have a lot to say about recent days, and I bet few of them would start with the election. It’s what has been said and done before and after that I would think bothers God the most.

 

In recent days, I have read stories about racist epithets being shouted at people of color: “go back home,” “get out of our country,” “this is our America now,” and the dastardly graffiti scrawled on roadways, bathroom walls, and in our gathering places. I saw a story of a Muslim woman having her hijab ripped off her head as a slur was spit at her. Many Muslims and Sikhs are even questioning whether they should wear the markers of their faith at all under threat of harassment and violence.

 

Even if the majority of these cases are the work of the uneducated or of mocking children, we are responsible for this tone and tenor. Even if it is all happening out there and not here, which, by the way, I bet it is happening here, we are dutifully called to watch and pray for God to end our hatred. We are to stand alongside those are being yelled at and put ourselves in the way of those who face violence and rage lobbed in their direction. Having views and opinions are political issues, but treating our neighbors and enemies with love and dignity – that’s a Jesus issue. We cannot simply be silent when God’s children are hurting.

 

In the end, even amidst all of this poor behavior, I always hold true that God is working toward an ultimate good, sometimes in spite of us.

 

That’s a hard claim to make. If we look at our history, this is not a new phenomenon. For all the good, there is a lot of bad; and for all the bad, there is a lot of good. Christians tend to like making the claim that God will make everything well in due time; however, claiming, “God’s going to win in the end” is just bad theology if we don’t have a healthy dose of realism and sadness towards the moments when God obviously does not win. When people are forced into wars and violence, no matter how noble either cause may be, God watches God’s children suffer. When trade and commerce, no matter how good for some, leaves others to die in the cold, God does not get God’s way. For every moment of triumph in medicine, a person suffers due to lack of resources for their care. I have to believe God has a vision, and we aren’t there yet. God will win in the end, I believe, but it’s a long road getting there.

 

The good news is God does have a vision, and it is good. It is a vision of joy and wholeness and fulfillment in the presence of heaven. God has chosen not to dictate every action in our world in bringing this vision about, but God does have a hand in our world. That hand has reached out far before us, even before Jesus. Today’s passage in Isaiah speaks to this message of comfort to us just as it did with the Hebrews.

 

First, some background: The Book of Isaiah is actually three, separate writings that span multiple centuries. We know that due to scholarly research in language, grammar, and syntax. If the prophet wrote it all, he lived long enough to change from what would be the equivalent of Shakespeare’s English to our modern version.

 

The chapter we read today comes from the third set of those writings. The Hebrew people, who had been exiled for years due to Babylonian conquest, were allowed to return home under new Persian rulers who did not desire to keep them in captivity. They had the enormous task of rebuilding their cities, villages, homes, and lives. Even though they were home, they probably felt like strangers in their own land.

 

The words written here are words of hope for those persons who likely felt they had no place after their homeland had been settled by new people. For many of us, we don’t feel that pain. Our families have been here generations. When I tried to understand the meaning of this, I looked back at my father’s family history. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother came to the US via Ellis Island, NY, possibly for a new shot at life.

 

When they arrived in New York, the country was very hesitant to welcome Eastern Europeans. Starting life in a place that is not your own without much more than others like you is a hopeful, yet daunting, feeling, I imagine. Nevertheless, they managed to make a life for themselves. They had a vision that America offered something worth staying and working for, and that is part of what we celebrated this past week with our veterans.

 

The promises God makes in Isaiah are powerful for people like my great-grandparents. They left a land where things were familiar but they weren’t thriving.  They came to a place where they thought they could leave behind uncertainty of surviving. They went to a place where they could have a home and work and a life. That is God’s vision.

 

The intent is for us to share in that vision. We are to all work, and enjoy that work, and share with each other. The section about planting and eating isn’t about “what’s mine is mine” but the idea that all will have their place and will benefit together. They will thrive together.

 

We have lost the vision of God for our world. We took the image of the kingdom of heaven and labeled it heresy and socialism. When that happened, instead of the church picking up the slack and proving that God’s vision isn’t a pipedream, we sold out to the market society. We stopped believing in God’s vision and await the inevitable death of the Church as a force of change and goodness in the world.

 

I was reading a blog post by a bishop in Texas. He said something powerful. The vision of the church is often left to the pastor because people think the pastor can do the most change, but in denominations like ours where the pastor is not local, it leaves the church without a coherent vision. I know many pastors who like to walk into a church and say, “This is how it is going to be; these are our projects; and you better get on board.” I don’t work that way. I shouldn’t work that way. I want you to tap into the image of God for our world and let me help you get there.

 

I have realized, though, that I am not doing a good job of equipping you all to share your visions. For many of you, your experience of church is coming here on Sundays, listening to me and a few others talk, then going home. That doesn’t encourage vision. For our children and youth, we only want them to talk when they are answering questions we ask them. That doesn’t encourage vision either. I want to know what vision you feel God has put on your life. I want to know where you think you can help people and make sure you get there.

 

A while back, I developed a vision team, and then I let it fall. We jumped too quickly to making a new program. I failed to hold us accountable to listening to what is needed. If we just look for a new thing to do, we start making our vision happen and not God’s vision. We must be together if we expect something to happen. I am discerning a way forward for our community to build a vision that is holy and hopeful. I want this period in our church’s history known as the time we decided we want our future.

 

I am aware of the concerns about having long-term vision here. You have been burned by short-term pastors. When folks have said that to me, I usually respond with “that is why the church needs to take care of itself so no matter who is in charge, you still lead.” I know that sounds a little too sweet, but it is true. You are fully capable of handling your own dreams. I know you have the ability already. When I said we need people to help with visits, people volunteered. When we asked for nursery help, y’all signed up.

 

I have heard so many of you talk about how great it would be to have a family life center for us to have extra social space or event space. Sunday School teachers sorely need more room, so an education wing would be awesome. I heard one person mention that we could have an on-site shop to keep lawn equipment and tools so we can help fix and care for homes in the community. The only thing stopping us from having all of these is believing we actually can.

 

The vision of God is for those who have no home to have a home. The vision of God is for those who have no meal to have a meal. The vision of God is for all those who are weary would have rest, for those who are alone to have a friend, and for the lost to meet their savior. God’s vision is couched in the success of the church. Are we ready to be that?

 

We have to be a better place, and we can do that if the church is willing to lead the charge. I think this church is fully capable and ready to take its next steps in creating a vision by listening to God. I believe in Charlotte-Fagan’s part in the gospel. We just have to get over our fear of loss. For the time of Advent, we are going to do a churchwide Bible study using Sent.  That is going to give us a baseline for crafting our vision as we prepare to welcome the newborn Christ into the world.

 

Soon after that, I will call the Vision Team again and we will start the process for finding what God wants us to do. And I am going to leave that up to you. It’s not my job to make your vision. I’m just here to remind you that Christ does not let believers simply walk by a world of hurt. We are here to turn it around.

October 23, 2016

FaithBuilding Through Our Service

 

1 Peter 4:7-11

The end of everything has come. Therefore, be self-controlled and clearheaded so you can pray. Above all, show sincere love to each other, because love brings about the forgiveness of many sins. Open your homes to each other without complaining. 10 And serve each other according to the gift each person has received, as good managers of God’s diverse gifts. 11 Whoever speaks should do so as those who speak God’s word. Whoever serves should do so from the strength that God furnishes. Do this so that in everything God may be honored through Jesus Christ. To him be honor and power forever and always. Amen

 

 

Today’s Scripture teaches us an important lesson: our honoring God comes from our very being. We were made in the Image of God in order to serve God, which, according to 1 Peter, is done by serving others. We are to open our homes and give of our gifts without complaint. We are to use that which we have to bring others up. In the end, which the author thought was coming sooner rather than later, it did not matter where one came from, how they got there, who they were with – everyone was to fall under the lordship of Christ. All were to be honored so that Christ could be honored.

 

A couple of weeks ago, I got a phone call from a man I had not yet met. He got my number from a parishioner, because he wanted to talk to me about an idea he had. Yesterday, many of you got to see the fruits of that man’s idea. When I talked to Dale, he told me that he likes to throw fundraisers. It is a skill he has.

 

I was dumbfounded. For one, this fundraiser was going to be large in scope, and the reason for it was not an organization or a cause. It was for two women I’m sure none of you knew. I’m not sure how much was raised, but I do know it was in the tens of thousands. Even more amazing was what Dale said during that call: “The Good Lord has blessed me in so many ways, so I use my gifts to bless others.”

 

Last week, we talked about how giving to God helps build up our faith. It’s because we have to rely on God and others to use the fruits of our labor to do good. That’s hard. We don’t trust other people to use our money and resources well. In this day and age, when our time has managed to become the thing we take most for granted yet also value most, service may be even harder than giving.

 

Instead of preaching on serving, I am going to simply let someone else speak. Renee Boehm serves as the Executive Director of the Dickson County Help Center. Her service preaches for two reasons: for one, she helps connect people in need to resources. That means she also connects people looking to help, like Dale, see their idea turn into real blessings. People living into the mandate found in 1 Peter.

On top of that, Renee could have done so many other things with her life. When I met with her a couple of months ago, I could not help but admire her firm faith in her work. Nonprofit work is not glorious; it doesn’t pay well; and it can be so draining both physically and emotionally. In spite of all that, Renee has relied on God to use her gift of service in transforming it into one of the premier organizations for the marginalized in our county and in surrounding counties.

 

When we are willing to give ourselves and our skills and gifts to God, great things happen. I invite Renee to come up and speak to the amazing things God has done through her and the Help Center and the needs we at Charlotte-Fagan can do to make it even better.

 

*For more information about the ministry on which Renee presented, please visit the Dickson County Help Center site at www.dicksoncountyhelpcenter.org

October 9, 2016

“FaithBuilding Through Our Presence”

 

Luke 17:11-19

11 On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten men with skin diseases approached him. Keeping their distance from him, 13 they raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, show us mercy!”

14 When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed. 15 One of them, when he saw that he had been healed, returned and praised God with a loud voice. 16 He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. 17 Jesus replied, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18  No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” 19 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.”

 

As we continue on the road of building and re-building our personal faith stories, we find ourselves in parallel with another journey: the journey of Jesus as he taught and healed throughout the Galilee. Jesus is no stranger to this village. His presence is known even before he gets there.

 

Ten men come out to see him but keep their distance. They have skin conditions that are commonly thought to be a sign of their sinfulness. Those with visible diseases were cast out to the edge of the village. People didn’t want to “catch” their sin, I guess.

 

After Jesus speaks with the men, he tells them to show themselves to the priest. They had to be “approved” before they were allowed to return to the village as full citizens. When they did so, the condition left them. It had to be a big deal. Nine of them went away, presumably to go show their families and friends, and one returned.

 

The man who returned is important in a few ways. For one, he was the only one who returned, and that will become important later. Two, he is Samaritan. As those of you who grew up in Sunday School and church know, Samaritans were the outsiders in Judea. That is why Jesus tells a parable about the good Samaritan. Needless to say, this man was not welcome most places. It could be why he was the only one who came back – he probably had no one with whom he could share his good news.

 

This man is our lesson holder for the day, because of a simple exchange. In the Scripture, it says all ten men were cleansed, but the use of the word “healed” only applies to the Samaritan. The distinction is important. To be cleansed meant that you no longer had the evidence of what ailed you. To be healed is to not be affected by it anymore. Healing is a much more wholesome and full description of what we need when we seek Jesus, but it also takes a lot more effort to be healed.

 

Let’s talk about it in modern terms: a person is cleansed of an addiction when the substance is no longer in his or her system. That person is only healed when the temptation to return to the substance is no longer an issue. Or, if that’s too heavy, how about when we go through all of our old junk at home and start “purging.” It cleanses our closets and minds for a while, but we aren’t healed until we can say, “maybe I don’t need five pairs of the same jeans” or “maybe I don’t need a new TV just because the new ones are slightly curved now.”

 

So what makes this man worthy of healing when the others were simply cleansed? All of them received the benefits of no more disease, so why is the lone Samaritan healed? Jesus gives us the answer: faith. The man knew that, without Jesus’ intervention, he would still suffer. Unlike the others, who probably thought, “what do I have to lose by asking?,” this one had the faith to know that he should come back to give thanks and finish the lesson. With Jesus, there’s always a lesson behind everything.

 

What he understood was he needed to be made well to show glory to God. He wanted to be an agent of the kingdom of heaven. That required that he come back and show himself to Jesus as someone who understood what the healing truly meant.  In short, his healing depended on his presence with Jesus.

 

You’ll remember that this series is about the promises we make in our baptismal vows. The second thing we promise is to honor God with our presence. In the Scripture, the Samaritan is present with Jesus before and after he is healed. We come to church because we are told our presence makes a difference in our faith growth, but what does presence exactly mean?

 

It can mean being literally present in a space. When teachers call the class roll, what do kids say? “Present!” [I said ‘here’ for years until my mom told me it would sound more refined to say present] In addition to naming where we are, it also means that we recognize what we are “here” to do. Presence in body is only part of the requirement. Presence in mind is the other part. All ten of them were present bodily when they asked Jesus for help. It was the one who was mindful that came back.

 

When I was in my first year of seminary, I did not attend church very often nor did I pray very often. I felt like I already got plenty during the week. While I did know a lot, my spiritual life was not very good. Not only did I feel disconnected from God, I was more anxious, less optimistic, and overall not as good a person. When I returned to church and returned to my devotional life, I felt more connected with myself and others. I felt healthier mentally and spiritually. I was more open to God’s work.

 

We have to be present both in body and mind in three important parts of our lives: with ourselves, with each other, and with God.

 

When I say being present with myself, I mean I take time every day to stop and reflect on where I am mentally, physically, and spiritually. That means recognizing the good and bad I do in a day, whether it is by knowing I did or didn’t exercise, eat right, pray. It also affects how I act around others. I ask myself each day if I was the best I could have been. I want to be as peaceful and uplifting as possible.

 

So many people choose to be negative and life-oppressing that I must choose in every interaction to be a living example of hope. I once heard a man who said he felt it was his job to be the devil’s advocate. His associate responded, “out of all the Catholic Church, that position is held by one person. They think that’s plenty. They don’t need you.” I think he’s right. Are we being present and vulnerable with others, or are we simply trying to be the smartest or wisest one in the room? People who are present with others are better listeners than they are speakers. They give advice only when it is asked to be given. They are patient.

 

And, finally, the reason we are all here (hopefully) is we want to be more present with God. That’s most likely the one we focus on the least, because we see our presence in faith as something that is just ours. The problem is that isn’t true. Your faith is not your own – it affects everybody you meet. I learned that myself through experience. When we neglect to build on our faith in God, we suffer elsewhere. We get too busy to know if we are living good lives and thus forget to “check in” on our own behaviors. Back in the beginning of Methodism, preachers would often ask, “how is it with your soul?” Where we are spiritually matters to the whole community of faith.

 

How are you working on your presence with God in growing your faith?

 

One way we can build up our faiths is to be present in church in both mind and body, (read: without texting or social media through it all). We may hear the words and say the prayers, but they don’t mean anything if we aren’t focused on God. Or, put another way, having a gym membership or even going into the gym doesn’t mean squat until you actually do a squat. The same is true for church. We work out our faiths while we are here. That takes actively listening and thinking about something other than what is for lunch after this.

 

As we become more and more involved in other parts of our lives, whether its work or hobbies or whatever else, are we taking time to be present with God? It’s not just about being at church an hour a week. It’s also praying earnestly with an open heart and a willingness to sit and be quiet so God can speak; it’s about reading our Bibles to discern better where God is in the world; it’s about finding a small group of people who will keep your honest about your problems and your triumphs.

 

As we work out our faiths in these manners, we grow. God becomes more present in our lives as we become more present with God. That’s actually what grace is – faithbuilding with God’s help.

 

We are a busy and disconnected people. Our lives are tugged in hundreds of directions and we become so busy that we rarely take time to take stock of where we are. Are we actually in the moment in life? In church? In places that feed our soul? Or are we like the nine others, so ready to move on that we forget to stop and say “thanks” and find out what Jesus wants from us?

 

We all need to put the to-do list down sometimes. Maybe slim the list of activities down to a couple so we have time to stop and be present. I know that’s hard. Just with my job, I feel like I am always involved in some other thing, but I also take time each day to reflect on where God is. Sure, I may miss some TV time or have to shower a little faster, but it’s worth it to be healthier.

 

Are you seeking health through presence with God, or are you simply cleansed for now so you can get on to the next thing?

 

September 11, 2016

“Stay Humble”

 

1 Timothy 1:12-17

12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength because he considered me faithful. So he appointed me to ministry 13 even though I used to speak against him, attack his people, and I was proud. But I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and without faith. 14 Our Lord’s favor poured all over me along with the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all. 16 But this is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show his endless patience to me first of all. So I’m an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life. 17 Now to the king of the ages, to the immortal, invisible, and only God, may honor and glory be given to him forever and always! Amen.

This letter from the Apostle Paul to his young protégé Timothy shows us that Paul, at this point in his ministry, had begun delegating tasks to various leaders in cities where Christian communities were forming. According to many scholars, Timothy was likely a younger man than many in his community.

 

I often wonder how Timothy felt. He’s probably in his twenties, and he is tasked with overseeing the Christian faith in Ephesus. How could anyone in their twenties have a clue on how to run a Christian community? In his twenties![1] He hasn’t done anything with his life yet to offer any advice to anyone! Imagine the ego on that guy…or the crippling anxiety he must have felt.

 

In all seriousness, I feel for Timothy. His assigned task is difficult. Being responsible for the right teaching of the faith is rough, especially as a young person. I feel for him, because in many ways, I am a lot like him. It’s hard being a keeper of the faith even today. It seems like everyone has a strong opinion of what Jesus would do and I don’t.

 

When I read these words in Paul’s letter, I hear voices of mentors who have helped cultivate my faith and who have offered me encouragement along the way. Paul knows Timothy feels anxious. Being responsible for the wellbeing of anything bigger than a goldfish is hard. How many of us are willing to admit having anxiety issues or know someone with anxiety issues? I’ve got them. [I found it interesting that in the Catholic faith, Timothy is actually the patron saint for people with stomach and intestinal issues, so that’s comforting. The one saint I feel most akin to is the patron saint of the irritable bowel.]

 

Paul knows the task ahead of Timothy is hard, and the key to succeeding in this life is to be honest and humble about who we are.

 

What makes this so wonderfully accessible is how open Paul is being with his young protégé about his own struggles. He writes about how prideful he used to be and openly admits to the terrible things he did in the name of the faith. That’s such a rare trait being honest with our faults, especially to those under our tutelage or age. My parents rarely ever admitted to their deepest faults with me. Not until I was an adult, anyway.

 

No one likes to admit when they mess up. On top of that, I have noticed when people do admit their faults, oftentimes it’s followed by little “but it’s part of who I am” commentary or something else to diminish our faults’ impact – like our faults aren’t actually faults, just quirks.

 

But Paul knows better. His pride and self-assurance in the law made him a vengeful person. He was famed in his early life for all the people whose lives he destroyed in the name of justice and purity of the faith. Then he met Christ and learned a whole new way of justice. Even with his decades of evangelism and spreading the faith and doing his best to keep the right message out there, not much changed outside him. I’m sure he still had to admit to his pride even after his conversion. We all still carry who we are after we are brought to faith. Hopefully we have more empathy with others’ problems.

 

We can be so proud of who we are and what we know that we often play the role of Saul more than we play the role of Paul. So as much as this letter is to Timothy, it’s really about Paul. And as much as it is about Paul, it is ultimately written for the guidance of all the Timothys of the world who want to be confident yet humble in their leadership.

 

I struggle knowing what is the right path some days, too. I question my steps almost everywhere I go because I want to do the right thing. Sometimes, that means having hard conversations about what is the right thing and what is the thing we want to do.  As people in church struggle with following Jesus, others seem to have all the answers. The truth is, they may not. Following Christ correctly can lead us to places where there are no easy answers, or at least we need to listen and learn as if there aren’t any easy answers. We can’t be too

 

That’s the issue we face with Paul. Paul is telling Timothy that it is so easy to get bogged down, that we start letting our pride get the best of us. That means we get defensive or angry when someone asks us to do something or be something we don’t want to do or be. We get angry at the messenger who, honestly, may not even understand the message fully.

 

Look at Timothy. For him, the religion of Christianity is new which means not all the details of belief have been worked out. Lots of teachers were telling people what was right and wrong, and they had not discussed it with anyone else. Timothy is tasked with keeping the right belief among Christians, but he also must do it with mercy, Paul says, because Christ offered him mercy first.

 

Mercy is the lynchpin of right belief. Mercy is the opposite of pride. Pride demands rightness and wrongness. Pride is what makes us see things in terms of “better” and “worse.” We need a way of judging things correctly; however, how one does that work is far more important than being right or wrong. The mercy Paul speaks of is a total humility before God.

 

The line that really expresses this is one I think none believes or wants to believe: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all.” I know I struggle with that. I know that I am a sinner, and I also know my sins aren’t nearly as bad as some other folks’, but trying to find myself on God’s holiness meter defeats the meaning of Christ all together. One sin is as all sins, but we surely don’t believe that.

 

And in some ways, I don’t believe we should believe that. White lies are nowhere near murder and violence, but who am I to argue with God? And that’s the lesson for today. We live in a world that seems so unlike Paul’s, but it really isn’t. People think they know the law pretty well and will get loud, angry, and vengeful against those who disagree. Or they’ll do their best to cut them down behind their backs. Look at current debates in the church around sexuality or conversations about how we spend our money. Not a lot of mercy extended on either side. Also not unlike the debates on the workings of how communion works or how divine Christ was. Isn’t the point of our faith what he said and did?

 

What if we truly believed that our sins are no better than anyone else’s? Wouldn’t it help us be humble? Isn’t that what Paul is telling Timothy to do?  Even when Jesus was wrongfully accused and arrested, he told his disciples to put down their weapons. He even healed the ear of the one who came to arrest him who was cut off by Peter’s sword. He didn’t argue about the legitimacy of it all. He just knew that there was pain and answered that first. Are we ready to show that kind of patience and mercy?

 

How about in our relationships? How many of us treat our partners or friends with humility and mercy when we get angry? I find that, even when I’m rightfully mad about something, I still have to answer for when I cross over into unkind and unmerciful territory. Even when life gets hard, and we justifiably want to say, “No, dummy, you shouldn’t say that” or “you shouldn’t think that” or “do that,” are we living by Paul’s words? “I have been forgiven, and I am the greatest sinner of all.”

 

Pride is everywhere. Sometimes, it’s good. But mostly, before we are proud, we must stay humble. So let this lesson from Paul to Timothy offer you hope: things are hard, it’s ok to be anxious. Just remember Christ, for he will never lead you astray.

[1] Hmmm…I’m in my twenties. I wonder if there is a correlation here.

July 31, 2016

“All Ye Saints and All Ye Teachers”

I went home this week to help a friend of mine plan her wedding that I’ll be officiating in September. It was good to go home, and I have needed to do that without having every last minute planned out for me.

I also took the time to speak to people from my past who I knew before I became a pastor. People I trust who know what church is like. I have a lot to learn about doing my job and figured I would learn better from people who don’t know me as a pastor or about this church. Makes it less personal. Just advice from folks who will be honest.

I need those voices in my life. We all do. We all need people who can teach us without worry about being too personal, or if they do know us that well, they can say it like we need to hear it. When you are in a line of work that takes you away from family and friends, honest conversation is one of the things you miss most.

Basically, I need a teacher.

The teachers in my life who have had the most impact are the ones who, I think, share a love for knowledge and people that are matched fairly equally. They care about individuals and yet they know that it is what collectively informs us that lets us move together.

What makes a person “smart” or “wise” or worldly isn’t how well we can make others to do what we want; it is taking what we have been taught and using it in the best ways possible. In addition to that, we have to learn how to make knowledge work for us as a whole world. Sure, those with the bigger sword are most famous in history, but the cultures and systems that lasted were the ones that were seen as smartest. That’s why our society is based on Greco-Roman forms and our math is based on Arabic systems. They were all powerful at one time, but it was their knowledge that lasts today.

We in the church hold up teachers in hopes they get some of the same love as our best leaders. We especially hold up those that took their knowledge and used it for the good of God and/or neighbor. Those who have lived good lives in that manner are what we know as saints.

The Catholic and Orthodox churches uphold a number of saints. Many of them are martyrs who died studying and upholding knowledge. The church is where many of our modern education systems were first honed. We should do our best to learn more about the saints and teachers of old for the purpose of growing our own faiths.

I think there are also saints and teachers that will never be mentioned in a textbook who are just as important. We all have people in our lives who taught us how to do certain things or who modeled what being a good person looks like. I’m sure for many of you, it is a former teacher or Sunday School teacher or family member.

I’ve mentioned before my grandmother is one of my personal saints for teaching me about manners, etiquette, style, and how to make biscuits. I also had a teacher growing up who told me that my charm and intelligence should always be tools and never weapons. Mr. Rogers told me a whole lot about loving my neighbor.

All these people – and many, many others – are my personal saints. I’m sure at least a few of you would consider the Rev. Fred Rogers, decked out in the cardigans his mother made for him, is a saint for you. What about saints here?

Every one of us needs a saint in our lives who will show us the way and teach us who to be. It is through our teaching of the faith that we will teach our children who God is, what the church is supposed to be, what being a Christian looks like.  We also need saints to teach us how to act here and now in Charlotte. I challenge the older generation to take a younger person under their wing and teach them about our history and what goes into putting on a Sunday lunch.

I challenge the younger people to seek out someone you respect and ask them to teach you. Get to know someone new this week – learn about them, pray with them, share what pains you and what hopes you have in life. I think this church could use to celebrate each other, and a great way to do that is to tell stories of the people who have really impacted your life.

Go on visits with our older members who have seen the world change over and over. Let them teach you what strength looks like or how to make good jam. Learn about this place you call home – even if you have been here your whole life.

Go ahead and try it. Meeting someone new isn’t scary after you say “Hi, my name is Nick and I know we have gone to church together for a long time but I still don’t know you.” Then you’ve made a friend and a connection. If we all go downstairs and do that with at least one person, our church will be that much more connected and our saints and teachers will do what they do best.

July 10, 2016

“The World’s Gonna Turn”

It’s been a rough week. If I’ve learned anything from it, it is that no matter what, the world is gonna turn.

I was excited when Em told me about my surprise trip to NOLA. I love coastal cities, and NO is one of my favorites. But I couldn’t help but feel the creep of a world that will continue to turn, even when on vacation. Last year we felt that driving into Charleston the day after we got the news about Mother Emanuel.

On Wednesday morning, we had already heard the total in Baghdad was rising towards 300 dead before we left. I thought of civilians and military who must be scared there. Then the day we left we heard about Alton Sterling being gunned down in Baton Rouge. The next day we heard about Philando Castille – more of the same. Later we heard about Dallas. Five officers. Five. Because some folks with their own issues now had a reason to go out and do something terrible under the guise of armed retribution.

I’m not going to preach about racism other than to say minorities, especially black minorities, have a hard life even in 2016. Statistics show high rates of poverty, incarceration, poor job opportunity, poor economic mobility, etc that it simply cannot be explained away with, “well, if only they …” The deck is stacked, and the only time most black people are on the news it is due to incidents like this week.

I think something can be said similarly about police. Lots of police officers are trying to do their jobs, are often scared, and are usually poorly funded and poorly supported. We pay them pennies which is why, instead of getting the best of our people protecting us, we often get some poorly-adapted cowboys with power complexes. The work of police is stacked against them being seen or treated in a positive manner save the “we thank you for your service” comments we make on occasion.

The world is extra tense this week. It may not be tense here on Highway 49 in Charlotte, but I would bet it wouldn’t take many miles to meet someone who felt ill at ease for being who they are. Whether it is a minority wondering if that next traffic stop could be their last or a police person wondering if they will be the target of vengeful, anonymous hatred, the world is tense.

I could say it’s racial or economic bias. I could say it is a lack of identifying the child of God status in others. I could say it is our shoot first mindset that those we dislike or fear should be quote/unquote “gone.” I honestly don’t think nuancing the difference helps as much in our context as just being honest about the consequences. Folks are dying unfairly, folks are targeted unfairly, folks are scared or grieving.

So this is when we, as a people of God, grieve. No matter how virtuous or criminal a person’s life – God does not want us to suffer. God is sick of how good we are at hurting and killing. In an act of unthinkable joining with humanity, God took on our prejudice, the power of the people, the power of the state, and said, “look what you do.” That’s why He, in the person of Jesus, died.

The world is gonna keep turning. Each day this week I will hear more news. Hopefully some of the news I hear this week will be “the AC is fixed and it only cost $100.”  We are pretty safe here. We can afford a little bit of humor. But there are those in this world who can’t – who aren’t safe.

The world will continue to turn with more news – some good and some bad. It is what we do between those hours that matters. We could choose to be angry, suspicious, point fingers. Those are sins. Looking for who to blame, who to fear, who to kill back. That’s sin. No matter how much the news will try to dig up dirt on those two men that died, the officers sworn to protect and serve were the ones who shot. That’s sin. When someone makes us feel threatened, when we shoot first, when we injure first, it’s sin. Also, when we take vengeance in our own hands and harm or kill innocent people in return – it’s also sin.

There are plenty of ‘what ifs’ people will throw around to counter that this week. I’m just telling you – how we choose to act when we are threatened is typically shoot first, ask questions later. That’s Jesse James – not Jesus.

I point you to the cornerstone of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount, as a guiding set of principles of how to move forward. None of them are easy. Most make little sense to our modern sensibilities. All of them point to a state of humility and brokenness that says, “we offer our lives to you, O God, because otherwise, doing this would be nonsense.”

Jesus offers a better way, even if it is counter to how we are taught to act; however, if we love first, if we love proactively, the world will get better. We have waited so long to love proactively we are wondering if we should do so reactively. But it’s not too late to make changes before it gets even worse.

We must choose instead to walk in courage, to speak love, to say we want a better world and the only way to do that is to find ways to commit acts of love. That’s grace. You wanna fix hate? Be a listener more often than you are a speaker. Be a learner more than being a judge. Search out places that offer help and give of yourself in some way.

As the world turns, we Christians are given choices to express the light of Christ. If you can’t give money or time, offer a smile. Say nice things. Don’t flick off people who cut you off in traffic. Check your motives often. Ask what is the right thing to do. Tell others about Jesus. Even the mention of his name can bring out the best in people. He is the one who brings hope. Don’t worry if what you say or do is perfect. You serve a perfect Savior – he will work in you.

Confronting our sinfulness instead of justifying it is an uncomfortable experience. But we have to do it. We have to.

This isn’t about politics or religion. It’s about choices. As the world turns, we make lots of choices, and if you make choices that are against God’s will, then I pray you recognize it now while you still have time and breath to rectify it and do some good in the world. This world needs Jesus, it needs us.

 

Post-Sunday addendum: As I noted last week, black lives matter and blue lives matter. Both are subject to extra distrust, extra scrutiny, and all manners of bias. No amount of ‘what ifs’ will justify our maintaining poor outlooks on those who are different from us. Nor do I find “All Lives Matter” as an acceptable way of dealing with the specific issues surrounding persons of color and persons in uniform. We are awash in a sea of context and specific details that calls us to better thinking.

When a group of people is under anxiety – we pray for them. Our Lord Jesus Christ taught us to pray for our enemies. His parable said those who we least expect to love us will be the Good Samaritan. It is time we take His words seriously in times of trouble rather than allowing them to be simple platitudes in times of comfort.

July 17, 2016

Pastor Nick’s Sermon: VBS Sunday
July 17, 2016
“Then, Feed ‘Em”

This week has been a blast at VBS. Our primary verse comes from Nehemiah 4:14, “Remember that the LORD is great and awesome.” For three evenings, I felt the buzz and excitement that reminded me of being a kid in church. I long for the day when churches are constantly buzzing with people – even through the week – coming to pray, serve, spend time together, worship, plan…whatever.

This week, we have learned a few key lessons about God: We learned that God Creates, God Loves, and God Calms.

In the beginning, God made the world. From chaos and darkness came light, then form, then being. All the living things came together in a wonderful symphony of the divine process. We were made so that God would have companions. Remember a few Sundays ago when I said the basis of who we know God to be is in relationship? God created so that we would be in relationship with God.

And from that relationship, God develops a love for us. A love even deeper than the ones we know. It is an all-encompassing love – one that surrounds us completely, sweeps through us like flowing water. We see evidence of that love in the person of Jesus – God made into a person. That love connected with us in the act of baptism in the river Jordan. If you have ever seen the Holy Moly video we show our youngest Sunday School students, what is once a black and white world comes alive in color at the moment of baptism. Jesus beginning his ministry greatly remade the world. It made the world closer to God’s kingdom of love for our neighbor and ourselves.

And finally, we learned that God calms us. We talk about love so often in church, and yet, we see a world that does not seem to be touched by that love. Bad things happen daily. People hurt other people. We are scared of people who band together to do bad things and hurt those like us.

I was having lunch with Katie from Austin Peay, who preached here a few months ago, and she told me about something one of her students said about the rapid culture wave of Pokemon Go. The student said, “In a world where bad things happen, we aren’t equipped to know what to do, and we feel overwhelmed, so we go outside and play Pokemon instead.”

That is quite the gut punch to me. We have done very little in offering hope to our kids. All they know is pain and mourning and more pain. We never seem to give real airtime in our homes or in our churches on how to deal with all of it. When the disciples were fearful of an oncoming storm, Jesus simply spoke the words of quiet, and the stop subsided. Do we believe that the name and presence of Jesus can still do that?

The only one who can bring peace and calm in our lives is our God. I, for one, believe in a Prince of Peace, who could easily let us whether the storm ourselves, or who could have said “you aren’t worthy of my love,” or could have simply taken us out at the first sign of sin. But didn’t. And won’t.

So in a world that has been created, taught to love, and shown our protection is in our God, what is left to say? That is where the Bible passage for today comes in. Jesus, having overcome death itself, is ready to ascend back to God. But first, he goes to his disciples on last time. They are scared, too. They do not know what to do next since their master is gone. They do the thing that makes sense: they go back to old lives and old habits. They act as if their walk with Jesus didn’t matter. They do what makes sense. Old lives. Old habits.

Jesus comes up and they rush to him. The first thing they do? Eat breakfast. (Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, right?) They ask their master, “Jesus, what do we do now?” And his response? “Feed my sheep.” What?!

Couldn’t he give a better answer than that? Couldn’t he say something like, “oh, don’t worry, I gave you invincibility so spears and arrows can’t hurt you, now go get ‘em.” They were so scared by what had happened at the crucifixion they went home. The journey was over. They couldn’t rid the world of evil – the crushing power of the enemy – themselves. Sound familiar?

We the church have gotten scared. We want to stay in our walls, be with our people, and live like that. We want our old lives and our old habits. Jesus calls us to a greater existence. We are to find his lost flock: people who live in agony, people who live even less than paycheck to paycheck. His sheep are those who have so little to look forward to and who live wondering if life is even worth it. He says we should feed them. Not save the world. Not conquer evil. Feed his sheep.

We talk a lot about mission and outreach. We talk about programs and worship. All of those require a flock of people who need it. So what do we do? We need to feed them.

You’ve heard the phrase: “Church is a hospital for the sin-sick.” But that doesn’t mean we come here, someone cares for us, and we just sit until we feel better and go home. Somewhere along the way, we started seeing Christianity as being about making us feel better and then the world when we feel like it. Again, we want the comfort of our old lives and old habits, including church in them rather than Christ in us.

God tells us to go out and live our faith. We live it by sharing it. We live it by praying over it. We live it by feeding his sheep. If you are here, God is sending you out. The healing you seek comes from loving God and neighbor, feeding his sheep.

We need a visitation team to call and visit our shut-ins and help them with basic needs. We need people to host Bible studies or prayer meetings in their homes. We need people to volunteer to go on trips with youth. We need people to serve at the non-profits.

Feed my sheep, he said. Then, feed ‘em.