January 28, 2018

Why? (Deuteronomy 18:15-20)

  • I want to ask you a question: “Why did you come to church today?”
    • What got you to come to church this morning? The sermon? Hymns and prayers? Communion? Maybe someone at home told you to.
  • There is a lot of power in the question “why?”
    • Kids ask questions to learn. Adults ask questions to determine the value or purpose of things. “Why did you do that?” means something very different from your child versus your spouse or friend.
    • It is a question that sounds like mechanics and how things work that often in daily speech is actually a question of motive.
      • Why did you come to church today?” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people and can even change depending on how the question is asked and which words get emphasized.
    • We come for various reasons:
      • We are suffering and need healing.
      • We want to ask God to answer our prayers.
      • We want to be uplifted for the week ahead.
      • Great – welcome to your faith community!
    • When we don’t ask questions, especially why, we lose our sense of purpose, or we think we only need to come to church when we are in crisis.
      • Looking into our reasoning for being here may seem scary, but it is good for us to be reminded what brings us here.
  • Today, the primary reason we gather is to worship God, which, quite literally means to tell God how worthy God is of our devotion – as if God needed to know that. We, however, could use the reminder.
    • The original worship gathering format comes from the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – our Old Testament – which is called the Pentateuch.
    • In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, a lot of the instruction is on the sacrifices and how the tabernacle should be arranged. Lots of mentions of materials like gold and ivory and measures like cubits.
    • In the later chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses begins to outline the roles of priest and prophet – those who interpret God’s will for the people.
      • This makes sense to be part of worship. If we think God has worth to us, we should care what God says.
  • Today’s passage focuses on the role of the prophet, which is what I do as the preacher and pastor of this church. This passage isn’t to highlight the extravagance my job – notice the very end says those who claim the will of God but are not doing so should die, yikes – but to show that it is important we listen to God. God tells us what God wants from us as we gather together in worship. Are we listening?
    • When we listen to God as a community, we find what God is calling us – Charlotte-Fagan UMC – to be and to do.
      • This Wednesday at a district gathering, Bishop McAlilly talked about being the church of Matthew 25 (when I was sick…, when I was imprisoned, when I was hungry…) and the church of Matthew 28 (go and make disciples). How are we doing on those? Do we hear God calling us to these tasks?
      • What are we doing that cares for the sick? The lost? The imprisoned?
      • How many of us are making disciples? How many of us are engaged in becoming disciples ourselves?
      • Those who receive care and those who are sought after to become disciples will know why they come to church. They’ll come often, because they want to hear the word of God.
  • When people who are seeking God – who ask “why?” – actively engage in the church, the world gets better.
    • Is God happy with our world? Is God happy that churches are better at splitting up than coming together? Is God happy that people choose comfort and tradition over sharing the good news? Are we listening?
    • When we come to church with open and curious hearts, those who need to be encouraged find encouragers; those who need healing find compassionate healers; those who have little will find what they need. We don’t have to begin and end our question of why we are here with Sunday morning. We come here to engage our calling all week long. “Why?” is a great question about your life’s path.
    • Are you hearing God tell you something? Let’s talk! I love coffee meetings, office conversations, trips to get ice cream. I want to hear about what brings you passion in life – where God calls you.
      • Unsure but want to help? I invite you to be a part of our Vision Team, attend committee meetings and hold our church accountable to using our resources for ministry, or to offer ideas how we can volunteer together to help our community. Everyone who seeks an answer will have a place where they fit.
  • Next week, we will continue this series by asking “Why not?” There’s lots of reasons we don’t follow the call of Christ. We feel ill-prepared or overwhelmed. Thankfully, Christ hears it, empathizes, and offers us help on our journey.

December 10, 2017

December 10, 2017- The World Turned Upside Down

 

Scripture: Mark 1:1-8

 

A couple of weeks ago, Emily and I took a trip to Chicago to celebrate her birthday. Our plan was to have a nice dinner, tour the city, and see the megablockbuster musical Hamilton.

 

We love Hamilton. Since Emily received the album last year, we have listened to it over and over.  It follows the life of the lesser-known founding father Alexander Hamilton, who was famous for setting up the Treasury and tragically dying in a duel.

 

What makes the musical so popular is the feeling of electricity that one feels when experiencing it. The songs are contagious and compel you to sing along; the characters are complex with virtues and flaws; the writing is witty.  It is no wonder that what seems like everybody has picked up on this show and it continues to be sold out even after it left Broadway. People love it. They proclaim it. [Like I’m doing right now.]

 

Today’s sermon title comes from one of the songs in the show, when the British armymen ironically sing an English ballad as they march off in defeat – “The World Turn’d Upside Down.” The small colonies somehow beat the might empire out of sheer will and tenacity to achieve their independence, because people were excited by the message that they could rule themselves if they worked together.

 

Have you felt that feeling? Being so excited you just can’t help but talk about it?

 

 

 

One such story is the one we heard today from Mark’s gospel. A man was proclaiming that a savior was coming. For generations, others had talked about it and waited for it, but this guy thought it was happening any day now. His name was John, and he baptized people.

 

What about John’s telling made this message – the same one told for generations and held dear by the people – different? For one, he REALLY believed it. John left village society and went into the wilderness so that he would not be distracted by everyday life. He looked like a wild man, which today would be a strike against him, but then was just curious enough that people came to listen.

 

Secondly, he spoke with compassion. He believed this coming person was the messiah they were waiting for. He believed he was called by God to tell others. The savior was also his cousin, which would seal the deal for me. Nobody thinks their cousin will save the world unless they really believe it.

 

As people heard, they paid attention. This man Jesus seemed like the real deal, so they talked about him, and more began to show up and listen.  He performed miracles; he taught with conviction; something about him pulled at the hearts of those who witnessed his ministry. They proclaimed his greatness, too.

 

 

This season of Advent compels us to find the excitement of the season. We do that well. We get excited about music and trees and lights. We get excited about presents and the warmth of showing appreciation for those we love. Even people who know little about Jesus share in our excitement and take part in the festivities.

 

It’s obvious many people believe in the values of Jesus – peace on earth, sharing love, merriment and gladness – so how do we connect them to Jesus so they believe?

 

We proclaim him. We put up our trees and lights, we decorate our homes, and then, we go out into the world and proclaim it through our actions and our words. We tell everyone that their savior is coming and we can do great things together if we all join in the message.

 

Not to stuff the message down others’ throats. No more wars on Starbucks. Believe it ourselves and be so overcome by the excitement and joy of the season that we can’t help but say “Merry Christmas” with a smile and mean it. People will want to know what joy you have found. That’s proclamation. And I, for one, enjoy talking about Jesus. You can have church baggage and still talk about Jesus. He’s that good.

 

 

 

What would Christmas be like if we added proclamation to it? What if we stopped doing the same old things that cause us anxiety around the holidays? What if we put our efforts into staying up late having deep conversations about our faith rather than forcing ourselves to drink an almost lethal amount of coffee? I’ve seen enough dads who use up all their Christmas patience putting together “some assembly required” toys and managing not putting a “ho-ho-hole” in the wall.

 

We have an opportunity to turn Christmas on its head by starting with the message: “He’s coming! The Savior is coming!” There are a lot of people in our community who see Christmas come and go every year and never hear the message of Christ.

 

I want to offer you the excitement of the story so you can proclaim it. We are waiting on the arrival of a savior who calls us to a better way of living. We are citizens of his kingdom, and more than that, we are treated as children of God.

 

At Christmas, we proclaim that we too are joining in the coming kingdom of God. God chose to send the Son, the Word that created the whole world, to be one of us. To have a body like us, to live a normal life like us, and to die like us. Then he changed the game, he turned the world upside down. He was raised from the dead. We will be too.

 

Our lives now have purpose – to make the world closer to God’s kingdom. We have a reason to get up. We have a reason to keep going. We can stare down evil and darkness because our savior is with us. We can be made whole through faith, and we can share that wholeness with others.

 

Go and be the people that turn the world upside. Proclaim the story of Jesus.

November 26, 2017

November 26, 2017: Christ the King (Sacred)

 

Scriptures Used: Matthew 25:31-46, Ephesians 1:15-23

 

(To intro the sermon, I showed pictures of various “kings” – Michael Jackson, James Brown, Elvis, then Charlemagne, Ghengis Khan – to show the various natures of what makes someone an authority to others)

 

We have many ways of understanding what makes a ‘king,’ or more broadly, an authority.

Authority is a strange concept. In the narratives of history, authority is ascribed to world leaders of nations and factions, military commanders, persons with great influence or command of a resource whether people or goods. Authority is the power to cause change. We have seen multiple examples of changes enacted by authorities – both good and evil – that have pushed us to think more deeply about what speaks to people: those who wield authority as commanders, or those with influence to get us to do what they want willingly because we like them. George Washington was commander-in-chief of the colonial army because he was given that power from the American Congress, but he also had a charisma that garnered respect from his peers. They would fight for him because of who he was.

 

We obsess over authority and leadership. What makes a good leader? What makes a bad leader? Think of the current news of famous men being outed for sexual harassment. We struggle to determine what kinds of behaviors or actions disqualify a person to be a leader or even whether they deserve to be an entertainer due to the power of influence. We really want to know who we can like or dislike, who to follow and who to avoid. Many leaders in history and today have power and authority yet are known to have major flaws, but we still listen to them and even do what they want. Why?

 

Whether or not we like it, politics and church often look and act similarly because both are reliant on authority. People stick with a leader’s presence and authority because the community values their message. And the message matters for both politics and church. In last year’s election, we heard the same message by folks on both sides that resonated with many people: “If we change the leadership, our lives get better.” The church’s message differs only slightly but significantly: “If we change what leads us, our lives get better.

 

Now, here’s the difference: In politics, the judge of what qualifies as “better” is the person or group of people with the most power to influence. Government and society interpret “good” and “bad” by their shared opinions. There is a margin of error we live with in describing how well we are doing overall as a society. In church, we are bound by God’s interpretation of our actions.

 

In today’s passage from Matthew 25, Jesus makes it clear that there is a definitive “good” and “bad” way of being. Those who follow God’s commands to care for those in need, the hungry, thirsty, strangers, the poorly clothed, prisoners, and/or sick, are put on God’s right side. They are safe. Those who do not are deemed wild, untamed goats who deserve the fires of torment.

 

That’s quite the blow to our sensibilities! Aren’t we allowed grace and to be individuals and exercise free will? Yes! But there is still a law, and we are held to it. “How do we know,” they ask, “if we are in the correct group following the correct authority?” He tells them, if you really follow me, you’ll already be doing it. That’s real authority – to trust that those who get your message will follow it with all they have to the point that it is second nature.

 

For those who see the authority of Christ, the judgment should not be scary. God knows what a good heart looks like. Not only is God the One who made everything, God also joined us through the life of Christ to know what it is like to be human – indecisive, tempted by other things, to have cravings, to feel – and even died a human death so that our whole experience was fully embraced. But God wasn’t finished, and raised Jesus from the dead so that we could also claim resurrection as part of our experience, too.

 

It is through this connection of absolute power in divinity and absolute powerlessness in humanity that God truly has authority over us in the final chapter of our lives. There is no place we can say, “God, you don’t get it.” God does. Those of us who believe will be willing to follow God’s word, because we know that God truly has the best for us at heart. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul puts it this way:

 

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you. I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers. This power is conferred by the energy of God’s powerful strength. God’s power was at work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and sat him at God’s right side in the heavens, far above every ruler and authority and power and angelic power, any power that might be named not only now but in the future. God put everything under Christ’s feet and made him head of everything in the church, which is his body. His body, the church, is the fullness of Christ, who fills everything in every way.

 

Those who understand Christ have no issue submitting to his authority as judge, nor will they fear caring for the needy or fear for their lives to help strangers, because that’s just what Christians do. Our king is both the king of heaven and the Great Shepherd who cares for his flock.

 

We all have other kinds of kings in our lives that claim authority over our time, our money, our attention and cause us to wander. I’m guilty too. Sometimes, Christ isn’t my king. Instead, it’s making sure things get done, or that I keep as many people in my personal life and in the church as happy as possible. Some days my king is financial security, or getting something I want. Or having a good time. I can still do those things with Christ as my king, and I would likely do them better because I wouldn’t be stressed out over whether or not I succeed. I am thankful he continues to come after me, and sometimes even carries me, back to the fold.

 

For those who are concerned about the state of the world today, I know many want to say we should invest in authorities that are more present to us: political agendas, securing financial gains, doing what makes us happy and ignoring what does not. Some feel we should put our hope in the unifying tenants symbolized in the flag. You can do those things, and to some degree all are effective at helping shape a better world, but let me offer another way. Look to Christ first in everything you say and do. Prepare your heart to give of all you have in service to God. To rephrase Paul: only the greatest authority would give up all power, live as a normal person, insist on giving everything away to embody modesty, and die without a fight to know what it was like to be one of us and cause no harm, then break the darkness of sin and death and add to our existence a resurrection we do not deserve nor could we do ourselves.

 

Today ends the worship series Sacred, which was designed to remind us all that we have a lot of work to do if we want to claim that the Church has something to say to people today. We have to go back to what made us “not of the world but in the world”[1] as first residents of the kingdom of heaven. We cannot do that if we do not truly accept Christ’s authority over our lives and all that we have. We cannot be followers when we feel like it and expect others to fall in line. It is only through our love and loyalty to God that people will come to know the true King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  The world needs a savior; we can offer him to those in need every day through our attention, our time, our gifts, and our prayers.

 

In the name of Christ our Lord, Amen.

[1] John 17:14-15

November 12, 2017

November 12, 2017: Sacred (Lessons)

 

Scriptures Used: Joshua 24:1-3, 15-24;, Psalm 78:1-8

 

I was recently reminded of a phrase that I was taught as a child: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Kids have sticky minds. I was talking to a friend of mine who has three kids, and he told me the story of how his son, in his first day of class, dropped a perfectly timed and grammatically correct swear in front of the class. When he reminded his child of the rules of listening instead of just doing what other people do, the son responded, “but YOU said it.”

 

How easy it is for kids to pick up on all the wrong things. And yet, getting them to learn other lessons like saying kind words, tying their shoes, or doing their own laundry takes a lot more effort. Wouldn’t the world be better if our kids just did what they were supposed to do by knowing what to pay attention to?

 

I imagine Joshua, as leader of the Israelite people, felt the same way as he led them into the Promised Land. He had been Moses’ assistant and chosen successor as the leader of the Israelites who had wandered the desert after escaping from Egypt. For 40 years, things went like this:

 

  • The people complained that slavery was better than wandering in the wilderness.
  • Moses prayed they would be given good food; God provided good food.
  • The people were happy for a time, then forget and start to complain.
  • God sends a punishment. They get mad, complain some more.
  • Moses tries to make it better, pleads with God. God blesses them.
  • They forget and complain, God punishes again. Rinse and repeat.

 

Over and over, especially after they had been given the law from Moses after he met with God on Mt. Sinai, they would be reminded of who they were supposed to be so they would be ready in heart and mind before making it to the Promised Land. But, like all people, living under the law takes a lot of practice, and they instead did the wrong things. Once they made it to the Promised Land, right living became even more difficult. For one, they were going to take the land from the people who lived there, which meant living in a war mentality that tends to ask for forgiveness before deciding if they had permission to do what they would do. Then, of those that they did not kill, the lifestyle of the foreign people seemed new and exciting: new foods, new riches, new gods, and new people with whom they could “make friends.”

 

As a sidebar, I don’t know how to feel about what the Israelites do to the other peoples in the Book of Joshua. Given that God never encourages the Israelites and Jews to conquer again, one can surmise that God’s command to kill and conquer, if it truly existed like it is written in the Bible, began and ended there. So, not to down the Choir’s offertory music today, but let’s stick to the idea that God keeps promises rather than thinking it is ok to tear down cities and kill everyone inside.

 

So, back to our lesson, of course, after years of being told to eat kosher, dress a certain way, live modestly, and worship God with all they had, the people instead started repeating the things they had learned from the Amorites, Canaanites, Moabites, and others. Like children that hear their first curse word and repeat it to others, they found that they liked these new cultures. Joshua reminded them that it was when they were faithful and not when they were disobedient that God allowed them to take the land. It was also God that gave them good harvests of grapes and olives when they settled. Joshua knew their disobedience, just like it happened in the desert, would lead to destruction.

 

By chapter 24, Joshua has become old, so he reminds them of all the good God has done for them and presses them to uphold the law as God’s people. He even makes them swear to it. If you notice in today’s Call to Worship, “we are witnesses” is the same language as is found in their response to Joshua when he made them promise to keep the law. It’s saying “we promise!” He tells them, “Focus your hearts on the Lord.”

 

To uphold the law would take focus. Not much has changed throughout our history. It’s human nature to see things that are good for us as less fun or enjoyable so we become easily distracted and tempted. Who do we notice most in elementary, middle, and high school: The good ones who do everything they are told, never talk in class, and answer all the questions or the funny ones who make you laugh?

 

And adults, the same is true for us. There’s a reason why Real Housewives and Game of Thrones are so popular – we like it when people say and do things we don’t think we should.

 

Following a strict set of rules just seems so unappetizing. Have you ever been on a diet? It’s hard! But perseverance and allowing ourselves to be affected by the good stuff takes hold. After a while, you don’t want the fried stuff or the sugary drinks because you feel awful afterward. Doing what is good can feel like a chore, but it becomes a necessity after a while.

 

Even so, the temptation to live and be as we want is far more powerful than living by rules. That is why the verse 23 says to ‘focus your hearts…’ and not ‘think about…’ or, ‘remember…’ Focus means discipline and constant reminders.

 

In Psalm 78, the psalmist writes it this way: “Listen, my people, to my teaching; tilt your ears toward the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth with a proverb. I’ll declare riddles from days long gone— ones that we’ve heard and learned about, ones that our ancestors told us. We won’t hide them from their descendants; we’ll tell the next generation all about the praise due the Lord and his strength—the wondrous works God has done. He established a law for Jacob and set up Instruction for Israel, ordering our ancestors to teach them to their children. This is so that the next generation and children not yet born will know these things, and so they can rise up and tell their children to put their hope in God— never forgetting God’s deeds, but keeping God’s commandments— and so that they won’t become like their ancestors: a rebellious, stubborn generation, a generation whose heart wasn’t set firm and whose spirit wasn’t faithful to God.

 

The oath to serve the Lord in Joshua was not only meant for those people who were there. They were promising that they would keep their oath for generations, and that requires teaching their children and their children’s children of the law and its importance as the way the people declared their obedience to and love of God. The psalmist here again tells of that promise – they are to teach each generation so that they never forget God’s deeds for them and the promise they made to keep their commandments.

 

We Christians inherited this promise to teach each generation from our Jewish roots through Jesus and the disciples. And like their ancestors, we are just as easily tempted to lose focus and go after other things. We become Christians when we are around church people or people we think would think bad of us if we did something wrong. We pray in public and even talk about our faith to others, and yet, when we are alone or away from people who know of our traditions, we do what we want in ways that do not glorify God.

 

The remedy that has long been how we have pushed back against our loss of focus was to be in church or around church people all the time. We had Sunday School, and Bible Study, and small groups, and youth group or children’s and family night and cookouts and camp meetings. We used to schedule our lives around places where we could listen and teach God’s deeds and keep our focus. But we don’t do that anymore.

 

The Sacredness of keeping contact with God has become the thing we put on the nightstand to do first thing in the morning or before bed and even that sometimes takes a backseat if we don’t feel like it. Church attendance is when we feel like it. And I get it – I don’t always want to do my Bible reading or to get up here and preach or go to meetings or events, because I don’t feel like it. But then I still do it. And I remember what God has done in my life, and I feel joyful again.

 

Each time I come to a meeting, and people want to talk about the good ol’ days of church, we tend to get sad that things aren’t like they used to be. No wonder people don’t want to uphold the Sacred traditions of teaching and worship and Bible Study – we in the church have also lost focus and fall into making it a sad thing.

 

This past week, I met with a group of conference leaders who are going back to basics in developing churches to do ministry specifically with youth and young people. One thing we realized quickly: people don’t want to be at church because they don’t enjoy it. We don’t know each other – some we don’t know their names or their stories and even people we call friends we only know surface level stuff.

 

When we talked about children’s and youth ministry, we noticed that when churches do ministry around events and traditions rather than developing relationships with the kids and showing them love, kids and youth quickly realize how much effort is being put into knowing about them. And in worship, we can change the order and the music and do all kinds of things, but people only come back when they are noticed each week and the folks in the pews around them actually care about who they are. Churches grow when they care about showing that they know what God has done for them and actively want to share it, and they die when they insist upon doing it the same old way because that’s how it has always been or what we’ve always done.

 

If we want to claim church is Sacred, we have to focus on what we are teaching. Are we teaching our kids that they are loved children of God? Are we teaching our youth that they matter and have something to contribute? Are we teaching our adults that it is their responsibility to be actors that want the church to be what God wants them to be? Or are we window dressing and doing the bare minimum so we can get out of here and do what is fun and exciting elsewhere?

 

Go out this week with these sacred teachings of the church:

  • Live for Christ. Not for the rules of Christianity – for Christ.
  • You are already made good, strive for better.
  • Love more.

 

 

November 5, 2017

November 5, 2017: Sacred

 

Scriptures Used: Revelation 7:7-19, Matthew 23:27-28

 

In our last worship series, I focused the sermons on values – internal beliefs. When we come together as a group and determine which values are important for us as a community, we move into what is known as sacred.

 

When you work in church, you hear the word sacred often. We make sacred spaces, we sing sacred music. We refer to worship together as a sacred act. What do we mean when we use the word sacred? Do you use that word in your everyday life? I imagine not.

 

Calling something sacred is reserved for only the most special aspects of our lives: family holiday traditions, Grandma’s cast iron skillet, football alliances. To say something is sacred means a lot of people think it is important and worth honoring.

 

Let me offer an example: the Chancel I stand in on Sunday mornings is sacred space because it is our church’s recreation of the original Holy of Holies of the Jewish temple. There’s nothing really inherently important about it, though, as it is. No saints are buried underneath it. It has no healing properties on its own. Only its symbolic nature, but that nature is worth upholding, because we together view this space as the dwelling place of God. That is why the altar is there.

 

Sacred spaces and objects and traditions require upkeep and even adaptation, which can cause stress for some. Have you seen the Sister Act movies? Whoopi Goldberg plays a woman placed in witness protection in a convent. Some folks went crazy because her antics in the movies seemed to dishonor the Catholic Church’s traditions. They even address it in the sequel, when she takes on training a choir of supposedly rough, urban youth. The choir is tasked with singing a song that is sacred to many: Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” often known as “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.”

 

I remember the minor, but intense, backlash from some that Hollywood would dare mix hip-hop and rap with sacred music. And that argument is the crux of what we will wrestle with in this series: “what makes something sacred?” And “what offends or upholds the sacred?”

 

This may seem like a silly topic. Sacred things are sacred and everything else is not. Yet, if we look around us, the dismantling of the sacred is one of the greatest discussions of our generation. Sacredness is at the crux of current events in the NFL and Presidential tweeting; opinions on tattoos and hair color; and even the Ritual of Friendship we follow here. [You know I’m not wrong…]

 

So what is sacred beyond discussion? And what isn’t?

 

Let us look to Scripture. In today’s lectionary reading from the Book of Revelation, the writer is witnessing a vision of the heavenly throne room. Most of the book actually follows a worship service, occasionally interrupted by actions of judgment against the earth. In the chapter we read, John describes the arrival of a crowd of worshippers in white robes. He questions the angel with him, and the angel responds these are the ones who have been through great hardship. While not explicit, these persons are often referred to as the martyrs, but we can assume anyone who has suffered for the faith, whether or not they died from it, would be among this crowd.

 

Suffering, real suffering, is often associated with the sacred. That is part of the modern narrative of flags – flags are just patterns and colors until we attribute them to a group or movement – because they take on the history of all those who suffered for the cause.

 

John does not witness a symbol but a people. The white robes are a symbol of their sacredness, but what makes them sacred is their suffering for God and God’s recognition of them in the throne room. They are promised to be given eternal goodness without pain or suffering of any sort. In death, they achieve life.

 

Today, we and many other churches will honor friends and loved ones who have passed on to be with God. We call all of them saints, and I imagine that not every person honored by all the churches on All Saints Day would be counted among those who have suffered for the faith like those in the heavenly throne room. On that alone, we would not have to view this as a sacred moment, but then we miss what is sacred. It isn’t the perfection of the original intent – the suffering for the faith – that is important. What makes All Saints sacred as we celebrate it is God in it. We believe God can do the impossible; God can redeem the living and the dead; we honor all the lives who have gone before us because in some way – big or small – they affected us in a way that makes us think of God.

 

This falls in line with Christ: if we build our faith and how we honor the faith through some understanding of perfection, we risk losing what makes it important. Jesus constantly railed against the religious leaders of his time for how much judgment they placed on those who were not perfect – not because of a failure of Judaism itself but their understanding of how to live by it. One can follow laws all day and be a dishonorable person. We must both honor our laws and the reason why they were written in the first place. In Christianity, thankfully, part of our law is to love, and love requires constantly asking if how we do life, how we live by our rules, is also loving God and neighbor. Otherwise, as Jesus says in Matthew 23, we are little more than whitewashed tombs: we look put together on the outside, but inside we are empty.

 

So, I would say Sister Act 2 not only did not offend the sacredness of Beethoven’s work, but actually helped uphold its sacredness by highlighting the intent of the piece: it is an ode to joy to honoring the glory of God. It speaks to all sorts of ages and ethnicities and backgrounds. Joyful singing to God can bring all sorts of people together.

 

Our challenge today is to find meaning and value of the sacred in our lives so that we too can take part in the holy work of God’s deeds in the world. We do that by making their stories and witness meaningful to ourselves and to others. If the sacred parts of our lives are not transformative, we have lost their sacredness.

 

I will honor the saints in my life by continuing to uphold the values and lessons they instilled in me. While the easy way of reading that is ‘I will be kind and loving and a good Christian person,’ it also means as a pastor I will honor the pastors, reformers, theologians, and people of the faith who challenged comfortable church folk to do more than simply claim their faith and attend worship. I will honor the saints of service and advocacy by striving to give up my wants and desires and even my way of living if it means I can reach others by highlighting that some are privileged with much and some suffer with so little.

 

We have a duty to do more than simply remember those who have gone before us by occasionally mentioning them. We have to continue the paths they tread and call upon others to take the path too. We have to honor them by picking up where they left off.

 

Are we going to only pretend to honor what we love and watch our insides fall into disrepair as our outsides look like whitewashed tombs? Or are we going to pick up our crosses, put on our robes, and live as one called by God? If all I have is my robe, I will continue to sing “Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of Love.”

 

 

October 29, 2017

October 29, 2017: Values (Life Choices)

 

Scriptures Used: Matthew 7:7-14, Mark 12:30-31

 

In 2008, I bought a car. A sporty, black Mazda 6. At the time, I didn’t even look at other models. I could have bought a Honda Civic or another Toyota Camry, but they didn’t carry the same appeal as the 6. I wanted my car to scream “edgy musician,” not “22-year-old dad material.”

 

Eventually, the sporty black car started to have issues. Electrical problems caused malfunctions; the low profile tires were more expensive than economical ones; every repair requires going to a dealer and paying their prices unless I want to get into the vast world of car parts. Thankfully, it has been a mostly reliable car. But when it’s had problems, I worry that I can’t go anywhere because my car will break down on the side of the road and I’ll get attacked by highway robbers or maybe bears.

 

That’s the hard thing about our choices: they have effects, sometimes consequences.  If we have solid values, and we stick to them, our choices should work to our benefit. There are times when we choose what’s easy, or what’s good in a moment.

 

Like when parents tell their kids they can’t go to McDonald’s because it is closed today, then you pass by a well-lit McDonald’s full of customers. What did your child learn? Mommy fibs.

 

What about those times that choices do not have a clear answer? Getting the opportunity for a job that’s far away or staying close to communities we love; or when we wonder if giving money to someone in need may be helping them or feeding bad habits; spending time with family or friends that bring us down or letting the relationship suffer. Choices can be complicated.

 

In today’s reading, Jesus tells the disciples that our choices matter by equating them to paths leading to a gate. One gate is big and easy to find, the path is wide, others are there, except the wide gate is the one that leads to destruction. The less attractive, harder to find, narrow gate is the one that we should strive for.

 

When have you ever heard, “pick the hard path, it’s the one you want” and thought “well that just makes sense”?  That’s why we don’t call the gospels “Easy News.” It’s Good News, but it requires some effort.

 

Later on, in Matthew 11:30, Jesus says that following him is easy, that the burden is light. So why here is he saying that the gate is narrow and hard to find? The truth is that getting used to the path of Christ is hard, it requires a lot of difficult decisions. Our path may require that we do not invest in those things that cause us to slip into the mindsets of the wide road: like following Christian values when it’s easy, serving both God and money, etc. These are the things Jesus preached against: when claiming to be a person of faith and law, we need to be dedicated to that choice to be a follower even when we don’t like it.

 

How many of these things in your life or in the lives of those you care about are leading you toward or away from the narrow gate?:

– how we respond to conflict or dissatisfaction in our relationships and our marriages

– how we spend our money

– how and how often we indulge in our vices –Is it “because Halloween” or would any holiday suffice?

– how we respond when folks say or do things we don’t like – bad drivers and people who talk in movies, am I right?

– But let’s be real: how do we respond when we hear words like racism, sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia? Beliefs can vary, but love and grace are the narrow path.

 

Thankfully, Christ offers us guidance in how to negotiate making the right choices with our values: we can ask for help. Knock and God will open the door. Ask and God will provide. We have to choose to ask, but God will deliver. If you are quick to judge, ask God for the grace to listen. If you are scared to speak out, ask God for courage. If you tend to shut down when you hear something you don’t like, ask God for patience. These are all ways you can choose to love.

 

God is also mighty in forgiveness, because God loves you. Think about the Great Commandment: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s the whole commandment, but only part of the story. The missing piece that follows is “…because God loves you more than you know.” Then it works like a circle. We love God because God loves us, which then makes it easier to love ourselves, because we are loved, and then love our neighbors well. Maybe your first step in getting on the narrow path is asking God again, or maybe for the first time, to show you how much you are loved.

 

Because of love, I appreciate the narrow gate. Choosing to be a Christian wouldn’t be worth it if it was easy. Easy is nice, but easy typically doesn’t make us any better. Every time I do something for myself and struggle with it, I develop love for myself and my ability to do something the right way.

 

Let me offer an example: this summer, I spent a lot of time working around the parsonage. Emily and I painted some rooms; I did some landscaping and made some small repairs and upgrades. I could have asked the church to pay for someone to do it or planned on a work day, but I chose to learn for myself. I am proud of myself for choosing to learn how to do things that I didn’t know how to do. My newly found confidence has led me to believe I can do other things. I built a headboard a couple of weeks ago, and it actually looks pretty good. I’m proud of that.

 

That’s what the narrow gate is about – doing the right things, persevering through the learning curve – because it makes us more resilient and patient people. In the kingdom of heaven, where the greatest commandment is love, we have to be patient and resilient. We might as well start practicing now.

 

Here’s a chance to practice following the narrow gate: every year, just as Halloween ends, we start seeing Christmas décor. You will hear folks complain that we took Christ out of Christmas.  You may even be tempted to say it yourself. Well, don’t. Instead, show love. If you meet that bitter person, show them the light of Christ. Say, “I hope you see Christ today.” If it’s you that a little Grinchmas-y, take Bishop Ken Carder’s advice[1] and find a place to experience Christ’s presence anew: volunteer in a memory care unit, serve with the underprivileged, minister to inmates at the prison, bring food to the Help Center or donate to the Community Clinic. Go looking for the narrow gate. Make the choice of love.

 

I am choosing to follow the path to the narrow gate. I invite you to come with me. There aren’t many of us, but loving and praying and serving together gives my life so much purpose and power. Even when it’s hard, it’s worth continuing to try, because I know that we are seeking God, and God is with us.

 

Our values and choices matter.  I want to challenge you this week to ask what you value about your church. If you haven’t noticed, attendance in worship has not been very good this past couple of months. Churches decline when we don’t make them a priority. Instead of choosing to guilt you, I am going to invite you to help us take the narrow path, to grow together and not give up on church as a valuable and necessary part of our week. What are we going to do to get our community back on track and wanting to come spend time with God every Sunday? Or, God lead us, having opportunities to love and serve together during the week!

[1] http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/united-methodist-forum-unity-kenneth-carder#.WfJ_kZmw_IS.facebook

October 22, 2017

October 22, 2017: Values (Happiness and Wealth)

 

Scriptures Used: Matthew 6:25-34; Exodus 16:11-21

 

Can you imagine the happiest place on earth? No, not Disney.

 

My friend Michael Jordan (no, not that one) lived in the country Bhutan. Bhutan claims to be the happiest country in the world. They even have a gross national happiness they somehow measure. [1] A BBC News report recently stated Norway, Denmark, and Finland are in the top five happiest countries according to their surveys.[2] What makes these countries so happy? Is it job satisfaction, safety, kittens per capita?

 

I would define happiness as the condition where one’s life enjoyment outweighs the emotional toll of stress. To enjoy life means to feel as though, at the very least, our needs are met so that we can focus on wants. Some of us put that energy towards getting the latest gadgetry or a nice home or traveling, and others put that energy into working less so that one can enjoy the great luxury of free time.

 

People whose needs are not met, I would think, are probably generally unhappy. But then, one could ask what makes something a need and something a want.

 

To get answers, we look to passages like the one we read in Matthew and realize that God’s plan is for us to not have to worry about our needs, even though we see our needs and wants the same. After being rescued from slavery in Egypt, the people complained about needing not just enough food for the journey but food they like. In chapter 16 of Exodus, God solves even that problem:

11 The Lord spoke to Moses, 12 “I’ve heard the complaints of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat. And in the morning you will have your fill of bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’”

13 In the evening a flock of quail flew down and covered the camp. And in the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the desert surface were thin flakes, as thin as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” They didn’t know what it was.

Moses said to them, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. 16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Collect as much of it as each of you can eat, one omer per person. You may collect for the number of people in your household.’” 17 The Israelites did as Moses said, some collecting more, some less. 18 But when they measured it out by the omer, the ones who had collected more had nothing left over, and the ones who had collected less had no shortage. Everyone collected just as much as they could eat. 19 Moses said to them, “Don’t keep any of it until morning.” 20 But they didn’t listen to Moses. Some kept part of it until morning, but it became infested with worms and stank. Moses got angry with them. 21 Every morning they gathered it, as much as each person could eat. But when the sun grew hot, it melted away.

Obviously, the people weren’t happy when God wouldn’t let them do what they wanted. We tend to think happiness means we should not only have enough for today but also have extra just in case. That goes back to last week’s lesson on security – do what is smart, but also be aware that God is in control.

 

If you follow the story, even though they had what they needed, they still complained, so happiness is about more than having what we need or what we want. Multiple studies on happiness among the rich have shown that wealth doesn’t open the doors to happiness. The question is, what does?

 

Early in the week, I spent two days in Memphis with other pastors looking at various ways the churches there are getting involved in their respective communities. The organization hosting us is housed in a closed church in the Binghampton neighborhood. We spent the next day at a community garden and a gathering space in South Memphis. On the final day, we learned about the rural city of Mason, which is a lot like Charlotte.

 

What struck me about all of these communities was their belief that God had provided for them, and they in turn wanted to use what they had to honor God. Obviously, if each of them took stock of what they had individually, it would seem like very little. Some even lived off the bare minimum of what they needed.

 

One such gentleman runs the soup kitchen out of a larger African-American church in South Memphis. He spends much of his time outside of that role doing odd jobs and asking for money to pay his rent, but he uses the time he has to serve in the soup kitchen.

 

I was very convicted on this trip in understanding the feeling of enough in my life. I have plenty of things to be grateful for: a good family, good friends, a home and a job, and I have many of the creature comforts I like to have, but I also often feel like I do not accomplish enough with my days. My feeling of happiness is usually tied to feeling that I accomplish something each day.

 

The feeling of needing more, whether it is more achievement, more status, more money, more time, more people that like you, can do a number on you. We are so used to getting the daily ration of blessings that we take them for granted. When was the last time you said thanks to God for the health to get out of bed? Or that you have enough in your kitchen that you can actually choose what to eat for lunch or dinner?

 

We tend to judge our happiness on our ability to have more. It’s natural. You are going to be what you value. The pursuit of happiness that we share as free people often gets interpreted through this lens of gaining happiness through our efforts to better our lives through our wealth.

 

We want to live and work where other people are at our level. We think that sameness makes a happy community, and then in turn, we will be happy too.

 

What I found interesting in these two neighborhoods of Memphis, which are typically cast as some of the most dangerous in the city, is they operate more like the friendly neighborhoods we idolize than many of the suburban neighborhoods where people are living the dream that was supposed to get them there. Cars drove slowly and drivers waved, lots of folks walked the sidewalks and crossed the street to talk to neighbors, folks greeted us strangers. The vestiges of a neighborhood where one would get shot disappearing. How did it happen?

 

Along the way, people began to recognize the wealth of their neighborhoods. Things we so often take for granted like sidewalks and open lots were developed for communal use rather than personal property or for a new condo; people made efforts to talk to their neighbors they didn’t know to ease distrust; they held meetings to solve neighborhood problems rather than individually solving things on their own. They all seemed, for the most part, happy. Some were even gleeful with what little they had, because what they had was enough for them to be able to make a better life for themselves and those around them.

 

When I began this series, I told you that Emily and I had been downsizing. As we started that process, we asked ourselves what to do with the things we didn’t want or need anymore. Some we sold, some we donated, and some I fixed up to make them useful again. That’s what happened in these communities: they realized that things they had been overlooking or thought were beyond use actually could be used with some work. Community spaces and spare rooms in churches became clothes closets and food pantries run by people who lived there. And other than their time, nothing had to be bought; no one had to give extra money unless they all agreed on something that would be for the common good.

 

When they talked about it, it was obvious they felt more connected to the area and to each other. They were happy with the simple pleasures of spending time on front porches and gathering for potluck dinners. The so-called dangerous neighborhood of South Memphis has a USDA certified organic farm and a federally-accredited afterschool program. God used the faith of a few to bless the many.

 

When we asked each person in these neighborhoods what made it all worth it, they all used the same word: love. They loved where they lived. They loved the people there. They loved the potential. Only a handful had what we would call a nice house. Many did not own cars. What they owned didn’t matter. It was the fact they had enough to live, a place they belonged, and a purpose with their time.

 

It may not be Bhutan or Norway or even Disney, but folks in Memphis taught me about wealth and happiness through the eyes of God. It isn’t about having our wants and needs met – it is about having a purpose with what we have so that love grows in us and we show the world that heaven on earth is not only possible, it is happening. In Memphis. It could happen here too.

[1]          https://www.forbes.com/sites/annabel/2017/03/06/the-happiest-place-on-earth-why-bhutan-belongs-on-your-travel-list-now/#46a8186a24b1

[2]                http://www.bbc.com/news/world-39325206

October 15, 2017

October 15, 2017: Values (Security)

 

Scripture Used: Daniel 3 (select verses)

 

We are going to continue our exploration on Values by talking about something that is sensitive, and it may be the greatest hurdle to fully embracing our call as Christians for some of you. Today, I want to talk about security. Does God really intend for us to feel safe secure?

 

Last year, journalist Courtney Martin presented a TED talk that got a great deal of attention due to its splashy subject matter: millennials and the American Dream. Her talk points to a trend in how young people have to deal with an economic market that is undermining traditional Western values of achievement and financial security through hard work and a good education.

 

It centers on a study by the Pew Research Group that points to a distinct change in how millennials experience the job hunt after school, lack of sufficient jobs (aka “you need experience to get a starting job, you need a job to get experience). It threatens the ideal of the American Dream.

 

But, Martin claims, the American Dream of my generation and generations after mine is not the same. Today, she claims, is different because the majority of parents do not think their kids will be better off than they were. Now, she notes, people change jobs more, incomes have not risen, and we cannot escape the implicit and explicit demand to overwork even if they payoff isn’t there anymore. Owning a home is less and less possible in more and more places. Even in Charlotte and Dickson County.

 

I grew up believing I would go to school, get a job, and could live how I wanted and where I wanted in a comfortable manner. I could save for retirement and pay off a mortgage. I could one day feel like my life was safe and secure, at least financially.  But it isn’t true, and when I and others look for answers or at least some way of understanding why that is, we are told that we are too entitled and we expect things to be handed to us.

 

So, before I continue, let me tell you those generalizations are wrong, offensive, and a copout for older generations to not take responsibility for their actions’ toll on the current state of the economy, culture, and environment. But that’s not what I’m talking about today. The reason people my age are upset and why people who are not my age are indignant, is because the changes we see in the world – whether they are economic, differences in perception, or any other problem – cause us to feel less secure than we would like. We don’t like change, and we especially don’t like change that makes us feel like we aren’t in control of our future.

 

In our society, we value independence and accomplishment because we believe those are what makes a person secure. We don’t like the reality that it only takes a few instances of bad luck to put us on equal footing with the dependent and the unaccomplished – the poor.

 

Security, or the feeling of being in control, also ties into safety. Safety is about being in control of our bodies. We like to feel like we can affect almost everything that happens to us.

 

Depending on who you are, safety and security can mean different things. I have friends who never leave home except on one vacation, and even then they tend to always go to the same places and stay in the same hotel or condo, because familiarity is safe to them. I also have friends who have no desire to live or vacation in the same place twice for the rest of their lives. Security for them is flexibility. Both types, and all the types in between, are concerned about security and safety in their own way.

 

But what does God say about security? It’s easy to point to the passages from Exodus and the Psalms that we put on t-shirts, like “God provides for the sparrows so why not you, too?” (I’m paraphrasing) and the ever-popular Psalm 23, where God clears our life’s path. Those are powerful, but we use them so much, we have lost the power of their meaning through our control over the parts we like.

 

Today’s passage is one that is also well known, but it’s imagery is so specific and vivid that it helps keep us from watering down its meaning.

 

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are three Jewish men who serve the king of Babylon. Being good Jews, whenever the king decided to erect great statues and monuments, they avoided worshipping those idols, because one of the Ten Commandments is pretty clear about not doing that.

 

The people who convinced the king to erect these statues did so because they knew it would trap them in the king’s law to obey. The king gets mad – really, really mad – and declares Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be burned alive. The fire is so hot, the soldiers preparing it die by being too close. The men hold on to their faith, expecting to die, but are saved.

 

There are three lessons I glean from this passage:

 

  • Their security is in their faith. They believed fully in God’s power and would rather die than blaspheme against God. God sees their faith and their commitment and sends an angel to keep them safe in the furnace.
  • They hoped God would act, but they also made room for God to choose not to. So often we think that God should do what we want, and when God doesn’t, we resign ourselves to it not being part of God’s plan. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego expected either decision to be a witness to others that faith in the God of the Jews was worth the price of death. Truly, in all things, to God would go the glory of this situation.
  • They didn’t decide to take matters of security and safety in their own hands. The position they had in the court meant a lot of people worked with them, under them, and were possibly even loyal to them. They could have used their position to start a revolt or a coup, or found a way to escape in the night. but curiously, they didn’t seem to even plead their case very much. Sometimes we are in positions where our only option is to believe God will help us.

 

The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is a powerful claim to God’s ability to deliver the righteous, which is proven over and over in the Old Testament, and it is especially powerful for those of us who follow Christ, who also held on to faith and faced his enemies often.

 

I noted in Bible Study this week that we Christians in the developed world have lost that sense of total reliance on God to keep us safe and secure. In the wake of horrible tragedies, like the one in Nashville last month, people feel encouraged to come to church armed so they feel safe. Does that speak to our belief that God will be with us? Or are we undermining God’s ability to protect us? For this, we must look to Jesus.

 

In Matthew 26, when a crowd came to arrest Jesus, one of his disciples uses a sword to cut off the ear of a servant. We aren’t sure if Jesus wanted his disciples armed or would have allowed it if he did not know. His response to this act is telling nonetheless: He tells the crowd, “…those who live by the sword will die by it.” He then heals the man’s ear.

 

It is hard to believe that God wants violence when over and over in the life of Jesus, he could have chosen to call upon the angels to save him or to end the rule of the sinful and self-righteous, but he doesn’t do that.

 

You rarely hear people use this passage when we are threatened, but it is a powerful reminder that our safety and security are not up to us, and assuring them ourselves may cause us to disobey God’s desire for our lives. It may cause us to end the life of another God chooses.

 

God does not call us to lives of comfort, God doesn’t even call us to lives of safety. We have to embrace what following in the footsteps of Jesus means for each of us individually, but we also must recognize that the path of discipleship at some point will rub against our selfish desires to be in control of the situation.

 

Whatever you do in life to assure your security, remember that it is all up to God.  It is good stewardship to save money and be prepared for a rainy day; it is good leadership to be strong in the face of evil; it is good to protect those we love; but all of that means nothing if we do it in the name of a God we do not have faith in.

 

Let me close with this: in a couple of weeks, members of multiple white nationalist groups will descend upon Middle Tennessee. I believe the idea that certain groups are better than others is an inherent evil. Hate groups are but one fiery furnace that we face today. Pray for those people who will stand against them peacefully to send the message that hate does not belong in our society. Pray that no one gets hurt and that love and hope in our shared status as children of God wins the day. Pray for those who lay their security on the line to bear witness to the power of God like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, no matter what happens.

 

October 8, 2017

October 8, 2017: Values (Community)

 

Scriptures Used: Galatians 6:1-10, Hebrews 10:24-25, Matthew 12:46-50, Matthew 18:20

 

A few weeks ago, Loran taught a series for the youth about Jesus’ people. She highlighted for our students that Jesus calls the unexpected – the outcast, the marginalized, “those people” – and made them his. Her goal was to open their eyes to all the others outside their group of friends. In school, those friends become, in conjunction with family, their community.

 

I want to ask you a question. “Who or what or where is your community?” You don’t have to say anything out loud. Just think about it for a minute. Who are the people that you would call first when you have news to share?

 

I think, for most of us, it would depend on what was happening, but I imagine you have a best friend or two, or maybe a parent, that is the first number you call or text when something major is going on that you want others to know about.

 

If it is your family, how did you grow where you saw your parents or your siblings or your kids as being relatable? If it’s not, where did you get to know the people you tend to call? Is there a group to which you belong?

 

These communities are important to us, if we give ourselves to them honestly, because those people are the ones who tend to know us best. That’s a good thing. In other parts of life, from our jobs to friend groups to families and even sometimes our marriages, many people put on a face that makes us more likable. A good community either discourages that because we feel safe being honest, or, they hold us accountable to acting differently to how we truly are.

 

I believe we live better when we have people who are close to us and share our experiences. I believe that, because the Bible tells us God designed it so we live with other people.

 

In the opening passages of Genesis, God thinks the first person needed a mate or companion, because people should not be alone. Years later, the original people of God were drawn together by common heritage under Abraham and Sarah. Those people became a nation, and they struggled together. Even more years later, Jesus picked 12 people to follow him, and that group kept growing. Paul had his Barnabas, then Timothy, who traveled with him.

 

There are times when community is hard. Sometimes we get in arguments when different opinions meet. Sometimes we act foolish and embarrass ourselves. Has that ever happened to you? Where you felt scared to face people because you did something wrong?

 

Good community welcomes you back – maybe with a light and friendly, “don’t ever do that again” – with grace. One of the hardest things about that is it requires not only patience and humility from other people, but a willingness for us to take an inner look at ourselves and think, “maybe it’s not all about me.” Plenty of people go their whole lives without having good community because they can’t grasp that other people may act and think differently because they have lived differently.

 

The Bible does not just say, “have community.” It also gives plenty of guidance in understanding what God thinks communities should look like. It’s not just about meeting our needs; it’s about using those relationships in ways that make us better people to in turn love and care for others.

 

If you need examples of what that looks like, read the first four chapters of the Book of Acts. The early Christians spent a lot of their time together and shared all that they had, because they liked being with each other. As time went on, and they realized that Jesus wasn’t coming to reset the world any day now, they started thinking some folks worked harder and deserved more than others. Certain roles and people felt they were more important than others.  Things got dicey. That is why Paul’s letters to the churches are so important in reinforcing Christ’s teaching for those of us who are in this faith for the long haul.

 

James the brother of Jesus says this in Hebrews: “And let us consider each other carefully for the purpose of sparking love and good deeds. Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.”

 

In today’s reading from his letter to the church in Galatia, what is now southern Turkey, Paul teaches them about what is important in their shared life. Many of them were trying to follow the laws of the Old Testament very precisely and chastised those that did not do the same. Following the law is good when we are seeking God’s will. Following it to be holier than others or to have some higher claim on the church is not so good. We have to do church in a way that listens to all the various people in church. A church is a community.

 

In our reading from chapter 6, he goes on to say that it is within community that our lives gain sustenance and resilience. We need each other to bear the weight when we are down. By being uplifted, we can continue our work which then goes into what we can give others. Not just our money and our stuff but also our mental and emotional strength. Sometimes, being there for others by just being present is work enough. We need each other so that we are encouraged to live and love as Christ commanded.

 

We know what happens when a community has good people. We want to be with them; they give our time meaning. Some of you have that. I get excited when I see folks get together for parties and it’s obvious parents are having as much fun as the kids. Last year some of you posted a video of everyone at a party doing the mannequin challenge. Parents, kids – all were involved. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. That’s community.

 

It is through that shared joy that we develop deeper relationships. We talk more about who we are, what we believe, how we can live healthier. That is ultimately what church should be – where we meet each other and have a good time together. Sitting in a pew by yourself is a start, but then you have to take a risk and join the church both in your presence and in your participation. Church should be a place that we always want to come back to because the people we love are there. What can we do to make that happen more often here?

 

When Jesus says in Matthew 18 that where two or three or gathered, he is there with them, he doesn’t specify what the gathering should be for. I’m just as inclined to feel Jesus’ presence at game night or pancake breakfast as I am during the holiest high worship.  When we allow ourselves to just be who we are around other people we love, Christ shows up through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit likes being around, and we are made better by its presence.

 

When I began thinking about what I would say today to encourage us to value community as a Christian practice, I had originally planned to ask why it is that people are more dedicated to watching ballgames than being at church, or are at every Zumba or yoga class and only sometimes “make it” to Sunday School. I recently learned of folks in the area who meet to work on their trucks, Jeeps, and motorcycles together on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Those all can be good communities. I’m not going to ask y’all who do that to not do that and come to church instead. That would be holier than thou, and I’d just be doing what Paul told the Galatians not to do.

 

What I will ask is that, in your community, you honor that you are a follower of Christ. By your presence and prayers and love for them, make them better. Help them find the same hope in Jesus that you have. If there is a way we can minister to them, let me know. If there is a way our church building or resources can help them grow, let’s do that. Take time to worship God with other Christians; take time to devote yourself to prayer and study of the Bible. When it comes to how and where your gifts are best fit to make disciples, be open to where God calls you. We can work out the “getting church part” together later.

 

God’s out there; God doesn’t just stay in the church building when we leave.  I think that’s something we should think about more often. If we cannot make new programs that bring people to church, let’s bring the church to people.

 

So, let me ask a favor. If you are part of a community that satisfies your soul and is where you are comfortable with sharing your faith, pray for them often. Pray for their needs over yours. Work on listening well and being a peaceful and loving person when you are with them. Give yourself fully.

 

If you don’t have a community, I invite you to start one. Last week, I brought up starting a Bible Study or small group in your home. No one signed up, and that’s ok if everyone here has a place where they can live in community. In case that isn’t true, I’ll ask again – do you have a community of people with whom you are willing to be open about your faith? If not, start one. It doesn’t have to be about the Bible. It can be about Jeeps, or crafts, or sweet tea on the porch. It could be about a shared love for beta fish. Just get together and build shared life.

 

If you are like me and do that through service, we can still use help with visiting the homebound, caring for our members, and developing a missional culture here. The building could use some work, and I like working and moving more than talking, and I bet many others are the same way.

 

I encourage you to value communities and people who lift you up and make you better. I encourage you to devote yourself to the people who make you who you are, and if you don’t have that, I encourage you to explore how to get it. We are made in the image of a God who is always in relationship. Let walk in the footsteps of Christ, be empowered by the Holy Spirit, and love each other as God shows us how to love. Amen.

October 1, 2017

October 1, 2017: Values

 

Scriptures Used: Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 16:17-19, Matthew 28:24-28

 

How many of you feel like you just have too much? Too much stuff; too much to do; just too much to keep your life together.

 

Emily and I have been on a downsizing kick this past year to alleviate the feeling of “too much.” We have walked around the house and asked the same questions over and over:

 

  • What do we actually use?
  • Of the things we don’t use or use very much, do we like it or need it enough to find space for it?
  • Of the things we don’t use and don’t really like, do we donate it, sell it, etc.?
  • If we have lots of versions of a thing we like, do we need all of them?

 

This process has been sometimes fun, sometimes difficult, and sometimes, quite frankly, silly. We have debated for hours on the smallest things, but the drive to only have things we like and use has helped us feel more in control of our lives.

 

Downsizing has helped us get away from the feeling to buy more and more stuff. We save money. Our hope is we can use the money we save to travel, be able to afford cars when ours break, and maybe one day own property. We have learned we value simplicity.

 

Simplicity can be hard – it means I have to say “no” to the newest high-def, smart TV that only costs $300. It means I don’t shop unless I really need something.

 

Values are a powerful part of who we are, and you probably don’t think about them much. We don’t notice them until we have to think about them, and we can see how powerful they are.

 

I was listening to a talk a few days ago that said it this way: values are the basic principles we live by, so basic that they are subject to interpretation. Next are attitudes. Attitudes are how we interpret those values. Finally, behaviors are how we act based on those attitudes.

 

Here’s an example: Life is a value. If someone says they value life, we assume their attitude is all life is important – they don’t kill something without a really good reason. In the Godfather movies, Don Corleone the mafia boss values life. It’s his attitude that is different. His attitude is that his family’s life is more important than the lives of other people. When the lives of Corleone or his family are even perceived to be threatened, you can guess where that value shows its boundaries.

 

You may be thinking that seems too simplistic, but it actually does the opposite by showing that we sometimes think certain words, phrases, and beliefs are fairly universal but are understood in a variety of ways. It also means that just because we believe something to be good, it can be exercised in a not-so-good ways.

 

For the next four weeks, we are going to look at some of the basic values that are shared by many, if not all, members of this congregation and ask the question: “Are our values in line with God’s values?” This is important, because, to be a follower of Jesus, we open our lives to following Christ more and more each day, which then affects what we value and how we show it.

 

Today’s reading from Philippians shows us meeting God’s values requires dedication. Paul is speaking from prison. We aren’t sure what got him there this time, but his preaching on the kingdom of heaven was not seen as acceptable or polite to Roman society.

 

The people to whom he is writing, the church in Philippi, was poor and powerless. They managed to scrounge up enough money to ship food many miles away to the imprisoned apostle.  FYI – how a church spends its money is a great indicator on what they value.

 

Paul is encouraging them through this letter to continue to be humble in their living. They were to work together, to be of one mind and one heart, so that kingdom work could be done. If they valued their mission enough, and they committed to working together, God would accomplish great things through them.

 

This is why being involved in a church is so important; it is where we find the same encouragement to pursue Christ. This makes church a value for many of us; however,it is important to know what we mean when we speak of church. Does it mean the same thing to us now as it did then?

 

Jesus only speaks of the church a few times in his ministry (as opposed to the more common kingdom of heaven). Once, in Matthew 16, he tells Peter that he Peter is the rock on which the church would be built. A second reference is the passage I mentioned a couple of weeks ago from Matthew 18 when Jesus instructs that conflicts between two people be brought before the church after it has failed to be resolved personally.

 

The word for church in the Greek is ekklesia. It means a gathering of people. Today, many people understand church to mean both the gathered body and the building in which they meet. Sometimes, they mean the act of worship, “We enjoyed church today.” If we decided to use the word as Jesus did – the assembly of the people – and couple that with Christ’s constant command to “go out and make disciples,” the nature of what we mean by church quickly changes.

 

In so many of his addresses to the Tennessee Conference, Bishop McAlilly has made clear that churches that focus outwardly in how they understand their buildings and their budgets and their ministries fair far better than churches that are focused inwardly. If we value the church as Christ does, we seek to make disciples. We seek to add to our assembly. We seek to ask questions like, “What can we do to make disciples?” instead of “How can we make sure people are happy?”

 

We have done some great work in valuing church as Christ does in parts of our ministry. When we had the pancake breakfast, some of the marching band members asked if they could eat, too. They were handed a plate and encouraged to eat as much as they’d like.  That shows them that Christians care about them being fed. That is a seed planted that they know that Charlotte-Fagan authentically cares about people who come through our doors.

 

We have a number of people who attend Christmas Eve and Holy Week services here because their church home doesn’t offer them. I like that they are always welcomed. That is a seed that says we believe God is bigger than denominations or single beliefs.

 

I also think we can do better. I would like to see people express value in the church by attending Vision Team and Worship Team meetings and speaking up on how we can better engage those around us. I would like to see someone step up and help by being an alternate teacher for our Pre-K/K Sunday School class. Loran told us at charge conference we really need people to value our youth by becoming adult volunteers. We need to have more folks involved in bringing communion to homebound members. I would love to see folks volunteer to hold Bible Study and small groups in their homes.

 

Sign up sheets  for these ideas can be found at both entrances to the sanctuary and in the adult Sunday School classrooms. I ask that you will pray about getting more involved – showing what you value – through these or things that come up in the rest of the series.

 

I hope, by the end of this series, you will find places that you can make your values match God’s and will hold yourself to it. That starts with you.  You don’t have to change everything at once. It’s like downsizing: you start with one decision, then you make another. This process of growing in the likeness of Christ is what Methodists call sanctification. Helping our values line up with God’s makes us better Christians.

 

If you want to find ways to value the church, come talk to me. I am happy to help you find a way. Next week, we will talk about valuing community and how to build a group of people who care about you deeply and hold you up through your life.