Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Crazy little thing called Grace

A sermon based on pie AND grace?  Why not?!  The season of Lent continues with a message that I shared with Trinity United Methodist Church on March 15, 2015.  (please forgive the punctuation - I write for the ear)

Ephesians 2:8-10

8 You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. 9 It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. 10 Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.

Luke 15:1-7

All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2 The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ 7 In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.

It was just about this time of year – 11 years ago – when I was in my first year as a pastor when we had this hair brained idea to take a group of kids from our church on a mission trip. A seminary classmate up in Wisconsin had formed a team to do Hurricane relief work on the outer banks of North Carolina and they had some openings – all we’d have to do is come up with $300 a piece and we’d be able to tag along.

Before long we had our team…only problem was, I had never been on a mission trip before myself. Sure I had done lots of service projects – but never a full blown get on a bus – traipse across the country with a group of young people and adults mission trip…

And then, there was the money – the community was rural, agricultural and, quite honestly – folks were barely scraping by. There was no way the families could afford $300 to send their kids on a mission trip! We’d have to get organized and do some fundraising – and quick!

Our first step was to pray – and then, we took stock of our resources – thankfully we had a secret weapon – Lola…and we had 13 young people eager to work hard. Yards were raked, garages were cleaned out…and then..don’t forget Lola…

Lola was the most sought after baker in the area – she made pies…pies so good that at the home basketball games, when there would be a cake auction – the first thing to go was Lola’s pie – before ANY of the cakes!

Lola was a member of Apple River United Methodist Church – and she volunteered to help us make pies to sell – all we had to do was take the orders…so, the tradition of baking pies for fundraisers was born – that first Easter we baked well over 100 pies…at $10 each, with donated ingredients, that’s a great fundraiser!

Before we knew it we had met our goal and we were on our way to Cedar Island, North Carolina.

We traveled with a group from two other churches – and while the kids were working in the neighborhood, helping the residents of the fishing village recover for the storm the year before, I was watching and learning from Josh and Stan as they lead the group.

Each day we’d have a hearty breakfast, pack our lunches, go out in the community and work in groups. We’d have a devotion during lunch break, go back to work and then return to the church in the afternoon for some R&R before supper and worship together.

Much of how we did mission trips the next three years in Apple River and then two years in Spirit Lake are modeled after what I learned from Josh and Stan. They were both musicians – so we had a band a long – the work was meaningful, the worship was great and I soaked up lots of good ideas – along with an idea of some things to avoid – all in all – it was such a blessing and a launching pad for some terrific experiences for youth as well as adults over the next 6 years.

I wish I had some pictures, but truth is – these adventures were before Facebook – and digital cameras.

But let’s go back to pie…yes pie.

What I didn’t realize is that the greatest gift – the biggest take away wasn’t the work we did on the mission trips….it was the pie – the experience of working together to bake pies, Lola patiently teaching us how to make them – so they would be perfect – and delicious and worthy of being called Lola’s pies…

the excitement of the pie baking days was great energy for our church – and those who bought them were actually really appreciative – they loved not only the pies – they liked being a part of our fundraiser! By the way, the tradition continues – and this year they made nearly 300 pies the week before Thanksgiving!

And….i learned HOW to make pies…something I had failed at miserably for my 42 years prior to my appointment to Apple River United Methodist Church. Don’t get me wrong – I love pie…

But, my mom - well she couldn't make a pie crust that was worth eating.  Harsh words, for sure - but true none the less.  And MY poor pie baking skills?  Well, I based that on a genetic defect, thanks Mom.

Under Lola’s tutelage, I learned how to make a darn good pie crust.

And I have shared the recipe with others…the recipe has been emailed, copied, posted on Facebook – and even projected on the screen during worship!

It’s not a secret – but a gift – to share…

Sorta like grace.

Our lesson this morning from Ephesians is all about Grace…

You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. 9 It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. 10 Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.

Adam Hamilton in his book, Revival: Living Faith as Wesley Lived it, expands on this with what I believe is the best definition of Grace that I have heard or read…and this is saying something, because I have asked people for years for a definition of grace that speaks to the simplicity and yet the awesome wonder of this word…

Hamilton writes:

Grace, as Paul uses it, is an act of kindness, an expression of selfless love that is completely undeserved and is given without any expectation of repayment.

We are never more like God than when we are giving selflessly to others. Because God created us to live in this way, we seldom feel more alive and joyful than when we are serving, blessing, and helping someone else.

That is grace.

How amazing is Grace! In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost we have been given the greatest gift – Satan does not have the last word – death does not have the last word – sin does not have the last word – they were defeated by Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross – and It is a gift of God’s love and forgiveness – poured out lavishly for you – and for me.

Last week we left Wesley at Aldersgate, where his heart was strangely warmed by the realization that God loved even him. God’s forgiveness was a gift for him too – how he missed it, we will never know – but he finally had the assurance that he needed to be able to live more fully as God’s beloved son. Charles Wesley captured this sense of gratitude in the hymn And Can It Be that I Should Gain – we will sing it as our closing hymn this morning…

What happened next is faith in action – or grace – grace upon grace even…

John and his brother Charles were compelled to share their story of how God was working in their lives with everyone they met – their passionate embrace of God’s grace took them out of the comfort of the University – a pretty safe place to be – and out to the world.

The message they shared is the message that Paul was getting at – First – that grace is a quality of God’s character whereby God loves, blesses, and forgives humanity despite our sin.

In other words, God loves us and doesn’t give up on us…God’s forgiveness is extended to each and every one of us…thanks be to God!

And second – Grace is God, actively working by the power of the Holy Spirit, to draw us closer to God and to restore us to what God created us to be.

You are beloved – you are beautiful – you are precious in God’s sight…we each have unique characteristics – and yet we are bound together by virtue of our baptism into the family of God – a great big beautiful, messy and altogether wonderful family…

Are you owning the gift? Do you appreciate the radical nature of what God is telling us?

That’s the difference, I believe, between an Old Testament understanding of God – and a New Testament understanding of God… At just the right moment in history, God came to earth – to set the record straight…God revealed himself through the life of Jesus.

Jesus in his life here on earth sought out the least and the lost – because they seemed to get it…we would know them as the sinners and tax collectors – and the Pharisees were pretty unhappy with Jesus – they wanted him to conform to their rules and image of what the messiah was supposed to be all about – but Jesus would have none of it…

The more ‘unsavory folk’ were used to the harsh realities of life – and so Jesus’ stories resonated with them –

he taught them with stories about lost sheep and the prodigal son and missing coins…to help them see that each person – every one of us- is beloved…unique…and necessary for the health of the whole body!

With these examples and definitions of Grace in mind, let’s take a few minutes – share with someone nearby and experience you had this past week that was an act of kindness, an expression of selfless love that is completely undeserved and is given without any expectation of repayment.  (pause for conversation)

With these images in mind – can you see how what we need more of is the hope that comes from following Christ – and less on the things of this world?

One more story – and then a challenge…

Wesley amp’d it up at his society meetings – he and his friends got busy visiting those in prison and sharing what they had with widows and orphans – but everything changed when his buddy, George Whitefield – sent an invitation for John to join him in Bristol – to preach and teach the workers there…

At first John refused the invitation – he was an ordained Anglican priest – he didn’t have a pulpit in Bristol…what Whitefield was proposing was preaching out in fields for heavens sake! but when a poster came in the mail – advertising that the Rev. John Wesley would be preaching – well, what else could he do…?

And the rest, is history

Wesley shared his story – how he experienced the transformative grace of God.  How his heart was 'strangely warmed' and in the midst of this, lives were transformed by his powerful witness.

We each have a story of God's grace.  We each know someone who could perhaps benefit from hearing our stories.  How will you share your story this week? Who will you share it with? How will you go about sharing yourself selflessly so as to honor God?

We can only do so by the power of the Holy Spirit – and so this will be my prayer for each and every one of us… that we tune in to God this week - and seek out ways to share God's love with others in new ways!

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

a healing place...for ALL God's children

Posting some of my sermons from this season of life - as we consider God's call and claim on the Church (note big C Church - the church across the connections) to walk alongside be places of healing, hope and reconciliation...(note that I write for the ear, and thus the extra dots and dashes to slow me down...)

Mark 1:21-39

Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching.  The people were amazed by his teaching, 
for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts.  
Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. 
You are the holy one from God.”

“Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!”  
The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out. 
Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!”  
Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.

After leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James, and John went home with Simon and Andrew.  Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once.  He went to her, took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them.

That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed.  The whole town gathered near the door.  He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him.

Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.  Simon and those with him tracked him down.  When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you!”

He replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.”  
He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.

The first chapter of the Gospel of Mark packs a lot into it! No shepherds, no manger, no angels…instead we have Jesus - the Son of God – baptized, tempted and then beginning his ministry proclaiming with authority –

“Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! 
Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:14-15)

And how does Jesus share this good news? By showing up – showing up where God’s people are gathered - in the synagogue – in their homes – in their villages – and everywhere in between…and while he is there he speaks truth in dark places, he renounces the spiritual forces of wickedness – and proclaims the goodness of his heavenly father.

In our baptism we are adopted into the family of God – and as we claim the name Christian we are given power to fight against evil and oppression wherever it presents itself. How are we using this gift from God?

And in our times together – in our worship, our fellowship, our bible study, our prayer time…we experience God through acts of Justice, through experiencing beauty…and by telling our story… we have a foretaste of the kingdom of God.

But as I shared with the children – people are hurting – even here in our midst, just as in Jesus’ day – there are people right here who are in emotional, spiritual physical pain – and who desperately need the Good News…

What if church was the place where healing happened? Isn’t this part of our call – as the Body of Christ in the world today?

We, the mainline church, have a reputation, you know – of being the place where good people gather… where one must put on a façade, a mask, of righteousness… Peter Rollins, a theologian and philosopher from Ireland writes in his book, The Idolatry of God, about the disconnect between our worship places and other places where people gather – how do people hear the truth about God - in word, music and I’d add in action?…Rollins writes…

My concern is that most of the actually existing church acts as a type of drug den with the leaders being like the nicest, most sincere drug dealers. What we pay for are songs, sermons, and prayers that help us avoid our suffering rather than work through it.

In contrast I am arguing for collectives that are more like the professional mourners who cry for us in a way that confronts us with our own suffering, the stand-up comedians who talk about the pain of being human, or the poets singing about life at the local pub.

In other words, a church where the liturgical structure does not treat God as a product that would make us whole but as the mystery that enables us to live abundantly in the midst of life’s difficulties. A place where we are invited to confront the reality of our humanity, not so that we will despair, but so that we will be free of the despair that already lurks within us, the despair that enslaves us, the despair that we refuse to acknowledge.  

Now I am not presenting an argument for the disbanding of our worshipping community…but what if we were more intentional about offering a place for people who are hurting to gather for healing? What if rather than being uncomfortable with suffering we embraced it – so that suffering isn’t what defined us – but that God’s love and loving community along the way was what defined us?

What if we owned our junk, our brokenness – rather than let suffering define us, rather than let pain defeat us, what if we were to say that despite our pain – we are confident that God is in the midst of it…

In this morning’s gospel lesson we see Jesus healing in the sanctuary, in the home and out and about…friends, it may seem like a nice thing that happened a long time ago, but I am here to assure you that healing does happen by the grace of God. But we have forgotten how…or we’re afraid of that kind of power… what if Trinity United Methodist Church were to say – we are ready to be the healing church in Waverly? Not to provide answers, but a safe place to ask hard questions… that, is a bold vision for the Church my friends.

Given the realities of the world in which we live –how are we as the oldest, most established church in the community, reaching beyond our walls to provide healing to our neighbors…providing safe places for community to gather and walk alongside one another?

What can we do to extend the love of God to the least and the lost among us…and among those in our town who are at the end of their rope (or very nearly so?)

What do we who ARE in a good place - have to say to those who are in ‘survival mode’…for trust me, survival mode is not a great place to be… for a season of my life I was living day to day, moment by moment – not quite sure what would happen next as me and my family navigated some huge changes…it was not easy…there is a great deal of shame wrapped up in failure – and a huge amount of energy can be spent walking the tightrope and putting on appearances.

These are some of the questions that this text invites me to wrestle with today… the Good News is that we are not alone….God is with us – God is with us in our gathering, in our worship, in our homes, and in our villages… and we are not alone. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Dreaming - as a Lenten discipline

Because I believe that dreaming dreams and taking risks is important to who we are as people of faith I am sharing the following sermon - it was shared with the Trinity United Methodist Congregation on March 8th, 2015.  (Since I write for the ear, please excuse the punctuation.)

Luke 9:1-6   Jesus called the Twelve together and he gave them power and authority over all demons and to heal sicknesses. 2 He sent them out to proclaim God’s kingdom and to heal the sick. 3 He told them, “Take nothing for the journey—no walking stick, no bag, no bread, no money, not even an extra shirt. 4 Whatever house you enter, remain there until you leave that place. 5 Wherever they don’t welcome you, as you leave that city, shake the dust off your feet as a witness against them.” 6 They departed and went through the villages proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.

This afternoon I am heading to Ames – for a Board of Ordained Ministry meeting. Our task for the next three days is to spend time with and interview candidates for ordination.

These are folks who have responded to God’s call and claim on their lives, and they trust that God has called them to be pastors in the United Methodist Church. They have been affirmed by their home congregations, they have completed psychiatric assessments and background checks and have been approved by their district committees on ordained ministry, they have pursued and completed their educational requirements, and are prepared to enter into covenant with the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church to take their baptism vows one step farther – as ordained clergy.

When the Bishop lays his hands upon the head of those being ordained – this is the blessing that is prayed over the person…   
June, 2010 ~ my ordination as Elder in the UMC

_____, take authority as an elder
to preach the Word of God,
to administer the Holy Sacraments
and to order the life of the Church,
in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

My ordination was a holy moment in my life. More than an accomplishment – it was and still is a confirmation of God’s presence and activity in the world.

Under the authority of our Bishop, Julian Trimble, and the appointive cabinet I have been appointed to Trinity United Methodist Church to preach the Word of God, to administer the Holy Sacraments, to order, administer and arrange our life together as a church – and to serve in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It is in many ways this same ordination authority that Jesus sent the 12 out under…to go out into villages large and small – two by two – to preach, teach and heal in God’s name.

And it is the same authority that John Wesley received as a young man, where after a short stint as an associate pastor alongside his Father, Wesley was called to serve as a teacher and tutor of young students at Lincoln’s College – part of Oxford.

In 1732, the British established their first new colony in 5 decades…the called the colony Georgia and the city of Savannah was founded. John and Charles Wesley, who had already formed a group called the Methodists, a group based on holiness of heart and life – a life formed around prayer, study of scripture, participating in the sacraments AND actively reaching out to the least and the lost of Oxford England, were recruited to take a risk – and volunteer to serve as pastors and evangelists…

They boarded a ship headed for Georgia and the city of Savannah. In their minds they imagined a grand adventure – heading across the vast ocean to the new world – and once there they would meet Indians – wild savages – and bringing them to know and love God through the power of the gospel message.

Of course, we know not everything always goes as planned…the little ocean voyage – was a mess…

And by the time their ship was tossed too an through by the third storm of the season – the mainsail was in tatters, the crew was even afraid for their lives – and John and Charles’ voices joined the others in sobbing for the winds to stop – and begging God to save them from a watery grave.

All aboard thought they were doomed, except this group of Moravian settlers – who down in the corner of the hold, sang hymns, recited psalms and gave praise to God for their lives and their salvation.

It was humbling to John…here was this exceedingly well educated Oxford professor – and he knew that more than anything he wanted – he NEEDED - what they had…

Once on shore Charles became the personal secretary to the governor and John was appointed to the parish of Savannah –where he set about to order their lives together – he met a young woman, Sophie Hopkey – he fell in love - and while she was in love with him – she was even more ready and eager to be married, but John wasn’t quite sure what to do about marriage – he waited too long – and Sophie married another – heartbroken – John did something really wrong - he used his role as a clergy man to attempt to avenge his broken heart – by refusing to serve Sophie and her husband communion… they brought him up on charges – and out of fear of being arrested John slipped away in the dead of night

John Wesley returned to England… dusting off the experiences of the new world …but truth be told, he was also heart broken…not only for the loss of Sophey, but because he realized that throughout his life John knew in his head about God – but he still didn’t trust God with his heart…he wasn’t all in…he was afraid. Very afraid.

For all the risk taking the John did –he forgot to trust in God…he was still trying to be in control – he struggled to let God be God – he had this crazy idea that HE was in charge…

In the midst of his pain, in the midst of his suffering – God was there… just as in the midst of our pain…in the midst of our suffering…God is here…and here..and there…

The difference between half way Christians and folks who are all in – is a willingness to let God be God – and to trust that God is with us – even, to the end of the age.

I have known my share of suffering – and together, you and I, have walked in and through some tough times. I know that there is nothing I can do to fix things so that you don’t have to suffer – but I do not have to leave anyone alone in their pain, their hurts, their grief. Ahhhh – but to share in one anothers joy. THAT is what it means to be the body of Christ – Christ present in the midst of the ordinary moments of life.

Another way to look at it is these four simple phrases…

Show up – pay attention – cooperate with God – release the outcome

By virtue of my ordination, I am here for a finite amount of time. I do my very best to be present – to show up – and to pay attention. Through conversations here in our space and out in the community - at concerts, in the grocery or at Dairy Queen – I am always, always, always on the look out for God. One of my spiritual disciplines is to strive to see the world with God shaped lenses…we have talked about this before. And the cool thing is that this is something each and every one of us can (and should) do!

It has led me to connect the dots – and to share with you all from time to time some ideas – some of which fly and some don’t… these ideas aren’t about me – or about my desire to upset the apple cart – they are about bringing people and passions together to the glory of God.

For example - by listening to the yearning of your hearts we have a congregational care team that walks alongside members of our faith community with prayer and comfort, we have an after school program that reaches out to the youth of our community, we have Lifetree Café as a safe place for conversations to happen about faith and real life issues. We have a relationship with the schools at times of crisis and we have a voice at the table of the mayor’s food security task force with regards to hunger issues in our community.

For the past three years a group of women in our community have been meeting as a support group for one another – I am honored to call them friends and even more inspired by the work that they do advocating for their adult children who have needs that are beyond my capabilities…I can’t fix things for them, but I have learned so much listening to them and praying along with them.

A little over a month ago, at Lifetree Café – which is, my friends, one of the coolest things we are doing – I had a discussion with a member of our church about a pocket of folks he knows of who were at one time part of a church,

but the church closed – and they are out in the world, without a faith community – he and his wife grieve for them – and for the loss of community they experienced when their former church closed.

When I asked him what his dream was he said it was to find a space where they could meet and share life together…and not that there is anything wrong with our building, but friends – some folks are pretty intimidated by big fine building…and I have to respect this – so, how do we live into God’s call and claim on us to reach out and care for folks who think they aren’t good enough for a fine place like this?

I also have a dream – placed on my heart by the Holy Spirit - as a result of countless conversations with folks who are in life transitions – I dream of a space where folks can live and be part of a community that is focused on transformation. That sounds vague, but what I have heard and seen is that we need safe places for folks to live, work and get healthy – a healing place.

And as these conversations are swirling around – it was brought to our attention that there was an old church building – right across from Kohlman Park –available for sale – at a very reasonable price.

A few of us have walked through the building – and friends - dreams are being dreamed – and I don’t know if this is something that ultimately will come to fruition – or if Trinity United Methodist Church will even be a part of it – I do know that the mayor is very interested in how churches could work together on projects that provide safe places for people to know and experience God and community in new ways…

And from my point of view - what a thrill it is to see the threads of the dreams of so many different folks coming together in a tapestry of hope…

As you pastor, I am called to dream alongside each and every one of the folks in our parish - to affirm and honor your giftedness – to encourage each of you as you prayerfully consider God’s call and claim on your lives…

I am privileged to be able to remind you of how your gifts for teaching and caring for one another combines with your desire to be a part of a community that loves God and loves our neighbors…this is who we are – as United Methodists – as citizens of this community…

Of course, you may do what you like – this is after all your community – and your church – and I release the outcome…but I will not stop dreaming with you – and I promise to continue to visit and pray and talk together about how God can use us to make our community a better place for all God’s children…because you too have been given authority – by virtue of your baptism – the authority to resist evil and injustice in whatever forms it takes…the power to be agents of peace, hope and love in the world…and for this I give thanks.

John Wesley returned home to England – a broken man – and he could have just cashed it all in, returned to Oxford, taught a few classes – and become some obscure, bitter, angry old man. Instead he wrestled with his fears – he confronted his doubts – and he found through prayer, conversations with spiritual friends, and studying the scriptures the one thing – the one thing that he had been missing when he was out on the ocean…


Confidence in God’s love for him –even him.

This is something that sets us apart from other denominations – it is built into our doctrine – our statements about what we believe – we are saved by grace – by faith in a God whose goodness is irrefutable – we should have no doubt about this gift – because it is God’s to give – and he gives it to us with abundance…

As a result of the gift of God’s abundant grace, John Wesley became emboldened – we may joke about it a bit – about John’s conversion experience on May 24, 1738 – when John Wesley wrote in his journal that his heart was strangely warmed by the realization that God loved even him. It’s what we call his Aldersgate experience – but it was just what he needed to be able to dream and risk again…we will talk more about that next week.

Grace – its all about grace – and if you remember nothing else from our message today – know that grace is a gift – it is not deserved…Grace is a reflection not of our goodness – but of the generosity of God. Grace is surprising, overwhelming and amazing! For this gift I give thanks.

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.