Monday, February 3, 2020

Presenting Ourselves to the Lord

The child grew and became strong and was full of wisdom and God's blessings were upon him. (Luke 2:52 GNT)

We present Christ to the world, in the way we present ourselves -- not just books and rituals and beliefs about Christ, but the person. We invite everyone into a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

[Listen to the audio for this sermon]
Preached extemporaneously at Briensburg UMC on February 2, 2020.

The scene is the presentation of the Lord and the Holy family entered to the temple, but they weren't known as the Holy family back then. They were just a family, a poor family who came bringing the sacrifice, not of the wealthy family, but the one that was prescribed for poor families, 40 days after Christmas, today. For the ritual purification of the mother and the presentation of the child. And there were two particular characters in that story that were lifted up in the biblical account. There was Anna, the prophetess who spent all her time in the temple praying and worshiping God and praising God. And then there was Simeon who had been looking for this day to come when the Christ would be born, and somehow the spirit had impressed on him and revealed to him that he would live to see that day. And I like how the Bible says that the Spirit brought him to the temple just at that right time to meet Christ.

And he took him up in his arm and blessed him with a blessing that hundreds of millions really of Christian Jews to this day as part of their night prayers before they go to sleep. And along with remembering through the day and giving it an account of their soul for the day, examination of their conscience and a prayer that we would sleep peacefully. That we would sleep well and die peacefully. 
"Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace, according to your word.  My eyes have seen the salvation that you have prepared for the world"  (Luke 2:29-31; Nunc Dimmittis).
 In that ritual and all the people, they praised the Lord, they praised God for what was going on, they upheld the tradition that had been handed down to them. But there was an extra little significance there for some of the people that were present because the Holy family was offering Christ to the world and the world didn't know this yet. But it was still Christ and he was still being offered. And I love this part that he grew. From there on he grew, and wisdom and stature and the blessings of God were on him.

He didn't just step into his whole role. He was the Messiah already, but he hadn't lived into that role yet, he was just beginning. And it took him his whole life to live into the role of who he was and who had God made him and sent him to be for us. And likewise, it takes our whole life to live into the roles that we have. Where God has callings for us, God has opportunities for us, but it takes us our whole life to live that all out. And what's really a blessing is that we have all of eternity to keep living into it. However far away we've got so far, that's not the end, it's still at the beginning. Like we sing, 
When we've been there ten thousand years,Bright shining as the sun, We've no less days to sing God's praise,Than when we first begun.   (Hymn, "Amazing Grace")
 Christ was offered to the world and grew into the role and grew into the relationship.

And the world, they grew into a relationship with him, and we have grown into a relationship with him. In sending the ministers to come to the newly formed United States to preach the gospel, and form the Methodist church, John Wesley had this great command that echoes down and reverberates through the centuries, "Offer them Christ." There are a lot of things that the people of God have to offer. Churches small and large have a lot of things that we offer people, do all kinds of things, hopefully to help people whenever we can. And we have different ways of encouraging each other and we participate in big projects and all of these are very important. But there are some things that as it says in one of our rituals, "The means of grace, the church alone supplieth:"
[The Church is of God,and will be preserved to the end of time,for the conduct of worshipand the due administration of God's Word and Sacraments,the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline,the edification of believers,and the conversion of the world.All, of every age and station,stand in need of the means of grace which it alone supplies.
(UM Baptismal Covenant III)]
There are some that only the church can offer. Only the people of God can offer, only the Body of Christ can offer it to the world. And chief of all those is Christ himself.

The world can't offer Christ. We offer Christ to the world. Christ to the world we bring, the world to Christ we bring. That was the only thing the song says, 
Christ for the world we sing;
the world to Christ we bring.  (Samuel Wolcott, 1869;
That's our central focus. That's our central thing that we can do that no one else can do. If we didn't do it, which we are, but if we weren't, then who would? It comes from the salvation, that hope of salvation, the relationship with God in Christ comes through the body of Christ to the world. We serve the world in that way and everything else that we do is part of that. And that's why we offer him. We offer Christ and we offer Christ the way that Mary and Joseph offered Christ, the way that Simeon received him and held him up as somebody who's alive and living in and real. And not as just pages in a book. Our creeds that are recited or any of the rest of the things that we do.

When they came, they had all of that, the ritual, the tradition words and the scriptures, all of that. The hymns and all that they had in their service, but what they were offering, that wasn't what they were offering. That provided a context that pointed to what they were offering, that celebrated what they were offering. What they were offering was the person, this little baby, this human being, this person, they were offering Christ himself. And that's what we offer. And it can be cast in a lot of different songs and rituals and programs and times and places, but we're offering this personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ and then everything else about it celebrates that and points to it and informs us. And then as we say in our communion liturgy, 
"We offer ourselves in union with Christ's offering for us at Calvary." When we offer ourselves, we don't just offer a book about ourselves, our biography, just like when we offer Christ, we don't offer the book about Christ, the biography about Christ. We offer Christ himself.

When we offer ourselves, we present ourselves to be there, to be present in each other's lives and present in the life of the world. As individuals, as a congregation, as a denomination, as the faith community, we offer ourselves to be present in the world, caring and loving, and being who we are. Paul wrote it this way, 
So then, my friends, because of God's great mercy to us I appeal to you:
Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God,
dedicated to his service and pleasing to him.
This is the true worship that you should offer.
(Romans 12:1 GNT)
We're invited to offer Christ and with Christ we stand and offer ourselves. To be the hands and feet of Christ, to be the vessel through which Christ connects with the people around us. 

And we're invited to make that intentional by practicing presence. When Jesus was presented at the temple, it wasn't something far off in the future.

If we read it in the Bible, we think of it as that was a long time ago on a long, and long way away. But for the people who were there, it wasn't a long time ago or far away, it was right then and there and it was happening. They were seeing Jesus, they were seeing the event, they were sharing that, they were participating. It was all happening right there. And really that's what the scriptures and the songs and the prayers and the conversations that we have, all the things we do, they're not supposed to take us away from where we are, they're supposed to bring us into the experience of the moment. In our ritual for communion in a few minutes we'll be [celebrating the presence of Jesus]. Not to take us back and out away from where we are, but to bring all of that into the present, not just to take us back to Cavalry, but to bring Cavalry to Briensburg. To bring the Upper Room to Briensburg this morning, to us who are here.

And to each of the places where this Sacrament is celebrated, to bring the focus and the reality of God's presence to right there where we are. And we might express that in all kinds of different ways. We might have all kinds of different ways of communicating that, but that's what we're bringing. We're bringing ourselves around the Table of the Lord. We have a lot of different ways of thinking about the mystery of the sacrament and what's going on. When we have our prayers and our ritual and when we pray, "Make this be for us, the body and blood of Christ," and when we repeat Jesus' words, "This is my body, this is my blood." All different people have different ideas about how to understand that and how they perceive it, how they feel it. 

I always think of Dr. Gordon Thompson. He taught at Candler School of Theology where I took the Ministerial Course of Study back in the 80s,and he taught... The sacraments was one of the courses that he taught. And something that he said comes to my mind every time when we have communion. He said that for us, it's not so much about the mystery on the table, but the mystery that's happening around the table

That's something to think about I think is for us that we don't try to argue and try to answer all the questions about the part that what's going on with the bread and the wine. We try to focus on what's going on in the hearts and minds of the people who gather around the table of the Lord and who share this sacrament together with faith and confidence. God is present with us and within us and that's the focus of it all. Of everything that we do. Back in the medieval days there was a monk in France and he was a dishwasher at the monastery and a cobbler. He wrote a lot. And then they wrote down a lot of what he said about practicing the presence of God, brother Lawrence.  ("Practice the Presence of God: The Best Rule of Holy Life," by Brother Lawrence.

And the emphasis that he had was that in whatever we do, wherever we are, whatever work we're doing, whatever relationships that we have intentionally practice noticing that God is present there with us. That's our presentation, isn't it? That's when we praise the Lord presenting God's self to us wherever we are in any activity, any moment in our lives. Intentionally practice that presence. And it brings us to our own presence, to being intentionally present to the people around us, to living out the present moment and being aware of what's going on within us and around us in that moment. 

I'm notorious for not being very observant. Right? Cheryl can fill you in on a lot of things about that. Sometimes it's a struggle. You want to just be thinking about other things and your mind drifts. Well, I shouldn't say "yours" in this case, I should say like it is, "mine."  My mind wanders and drifts and thinks about all these things and I love to think about a lot of different things. But sometimes I find that then I'm not quite in touch with what's going on right there in front of me, what's going on right around me, sometimes what's going on inside me, in our thoughts and feelings. And that kind of calls us back to Simeon's prayer again, and the churches use of it over the centuries to remind us at least every day, to take a moment to think about who we are, and where we've been today. What's been our day today. To be present in the company of the Lord, like Wesley Grace, "Be present at our table, Lord." 

And we pray that this morning that in all that we do and say we'll be present with each other. Really know who's here and what they're thinking and feeling and what they're saying. Hearing what they're saying and seeing their face. And when we join around the Table of the Lord, that we feel each other's presence and the presence of Christ within us and among us. That divine presence that we share becomes central to our reality. And then when we take it outside the door and share that with the world, and be present to the world and bring Christ's presence to the world, we present Jesus to the world. 

In the name of Jesus, amen.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

We'll Still Be One Body in Christ

We love our friends on both sides of our various religious and political differences.  Our unity is best expressed in our persistent love and cooperation more than in the singularity of our institutions. Whatever our organizational structures, we share a common mission to let the light of Christ shine through us, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and to extend the healing power of God's love to everyone we meet. Our relationships are reshaped when we take our faith off the paper and put it into practice.

“Come with me, and I will teach you to catch people.” (GNT) or as many of us are familiar from the King James Version, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." (Matthew 4:19 KJV)

[Listen to the audio for this sermon]
Preached extemporaneously at Briensburg UMC on January 26, 2020.

Today is Ecumenical Sunday in the United Methodist church and other ecumenically minded denominations. And it culminates the week of prayer for Christian unity when so many denominations pray that somehow we can all be more unified as the body of Christ. We affirm our unity in the body, that all believers are members of the household of God and of the body of Christ. Even those that believe that they're the only ones and the rest of us are not. We still believe they are even if they don't believe we are. That all who place any faith at all in Christ are one body in Christ.

And one of the great heartbreaks I guess should tell you that many people have had over the centuries was the brokenness of institutions and inability of institutional Christianity to unite as one. That's with evermore growing denominations joining numbers of churches. And independent churches and various denominations. And part of that I think is where we might think of churches breaking up and starting new churches being like a divorce. And that's always pretty painful imagery. But if we think of it instead of family members starting a new family and still being connected by brothers and sisters or children or grandchildren and all having their own households within that household. I think that it's a little more comfortable and it might be a little more realistic for what has happened in the church. Because I don't see any way that all the denominations could all come together as one institution again. Certainly not in our lifetimes and hadn't been in several many generations of other lifetimes, too.

Bishop Sally Dyck of the North Illinois conference wrote a nice article about this the other day about thinking of Jacob and Esau and how they were one family, but they just couldn't get along at all until finally they separated and went their own ways. ["Road to Reconciliation" by Bishop Sally Dyck] And then they came back together and were able to rejoice that they were still one family, but they had their separate households and lived their separate lives the way that they thought was best.

Right now we celebrate this Christian unity at a time when there's been several proposals laid out for our denomination to vote on in May, for the delegates to vote on in May. And most of them are about some way of dividing the denomination up into at least two other denominations or dissolving it altogether and just starting something else all together. The one that has the most traction seems to be right now anyway or gaining the most support is the "Protocols for Separation" which would leave the United Methodist church just as we are. That would remove all the language that is non-inclusive especially for LGBTQ. That would all be removed from our discipline and we'd all be free of the things that we all stand for. Here would be the denominational position, it would be a completely inclusive denomination. [See "Comparison of GC2020 Proposals," UM News]

Well, a lot of people don't like that and of course as evidenced by the last general conference and then what this protocol for separation would do is that those churches and even conferences, if it was a whole conference, clergy persons, everybody that would like to leave them and form a new denomination then they would be permitted to do that and take their local church property with them and form a new denomination. And then of course we have a lot of denominational assets that we've accumulated over the years. And so those rather than breaking any of those add up, the denomination would provide financial assistance to the new denomination. The United Methodist church would provide the financial assistance to the new denomination in forming that. And that would be in lieu of trying to figure out how to divide up all of our institutions and organizations and all like that that we have.

So, we would still have UMCOR and the Board of Missions and the United Methodist Communications [all the General boards and agencies]. All that would remain there. And so that's the one that has really gotten a lot of traction because we would like to see The United Methodist Church move forward as an inclusive organization, instead of being non-inclusive or continuing to have this argument between people. Others would like to start over in a denomination that is not inclusive and we would help them do that would be pretty much the way that that goes.

And if we would look at that the way, you know as siblings who have two different ideas about how they want to live and so they move into form their own households, it's maybe a little less painful and more realistic view of what that would be like. And I like to think a lot of times of our church as the United Methodist tradition when John Wesley was an Anglican minister and he never did leave his denomination in forming the Methodist Church. He ordained ministers to begin the Methodist church in America. But he stayed a priest in the Church of England. So, that's more like being a parent denomination than spouses not getting along or something. It's more like one denomination sort of giving birth to another. And then we took on certain characteristics but then we took on our own as well. And before that, the Roman Catholic church and before that, the Universal church.

And yet through all of that, different people have had different ideas about how things should be done. And there have always been people forming new groups. Some countries used to try to force everybody to be a member of one church and that still didn't work because people would be dissidents to that and they would start their own groups anyway. And so to me it's more important that our unity be not in having the same organization and the same institution, but that we all have the same love and the same Lord. 
[There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:5-6).]
And a lot of times some of that gets lost in these other arguments and sometimes they can be recaptured by stepping back from each other a little bit and refocusing on the love of Christ for one another. Because we all, whatever the issues are in religion or in politics, we all have friends on both sides of the issue and we love them. And so many times in politics and religion today we think it's hard to express our love for one another when we're at odds with each other so much. So, if we can give each other a little space, I think that'd be good.

So, that's kind of the lens I've been looking at this passage of scripture through this week or so -- everything going on TV. We just sang our song about the story we have for the nations. ["We've a Story to Tell to the Nations," by H. Ernest Nichol, 1896].   It seems like how can we ever get that message across with all this going on in the church and in the politics and then the world around us and everything. How do we ever get that message? We've seen, I think throughout history of the church that we at our church don't have to get the message to everybody. We at our church get the message to the people that we come into contact with. We love our neighbor, we love our community, we love the people that are in our lives. And we demonstrate the love of Christ where we are. And then they in turn where they are and others in turn where they are. And so it kind of ripples around like that. And other groups are doing the same thing. And they're in all these different denominations.

Part of the reason why I made the title of this "We'll Still Be United in the Body of Christ" is that if our denomination does break into the two different denomination, if some leave and form another one, we'll probably both still be members of the World Methodist Council where there's about 128 [80] other denominations that have done that in the past couple of hundred years of Methodism. Many of them active right here in our community of churches that were Methodist and then for the various reasons started their own denomination. We'll still be a part of that, we'll still be a part of different other types of church councils and groups and associations. We will still be a part of the Body of Christ. We'll still be loving Christ and it's still in mission to the world and still trying to spread the scriptures and the message about Jesus.

And that's really what makes us one more than anything else that we do. There's the song 
We are one in the spirit,
We are one in the Lord
And we pray that all unity will one day be restored.
And they'll know we're Christians by our love,
By our love.
And they'll know we are Christians by our love.   (Peter Scholtes, © 1966)
So, in this passage of scripture, the Bible talks about the light of the world and as Jesus begins preaching and refers back to the prophecy that, "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Isaiah 9:2). And when Jesus came in then to the world and John describes him as the light of the world. And when we go back to the very beginning of the Bible in Genesis, that's how creation began, "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." (Genesis 1:3).  And there was the Psalmist who wrote, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path." (Psalm 119:105). Then when Jesus began to preach the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, he delegated that, he assigned that, he actually transmitted that light through us to the world, when he said, "You are the light of the world." If we just think of Jesus as the light of the world, only then that kind of limits what he was trying to do. He was trying to pass that light on to each of us, so that everybody who comes into the light and believes in him becomes a part of that light.

In fact, when he was talking with Nicodemus early in his ministry, in John chapter three --Say that verse 3:16 with me real quick -- 
For God so loved the world,
that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him
should not perish,
but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
Well then he went on to say, 
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world;
but that the world through him might be saved. (John 3:17)
And then he goes on to say that the only condemnation is that light has come into the world, and some people preferred to choose darkness over the light.

Christ is showing us that there isn't any condemnation in the light. The light is here. Step into the light and see what is true and what is right. And then you'll be the children of the light unless you choose not to. Unless you choose darkness. Unless you choose to turn a blind eye. Unless you choose to not see what's there. Then you will be free. You will be living in the light. So, that then it becomes the condemnation [the choice of darkness instead of light]. And he calls us to be not only people who step into the light, but that through us our [Christ-] light will shine. 
“You are like light for the whole world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl; instead it is put on the lampstand, where it gives light for everyone in the house. 16 In the same way your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.
(Matthew 5:14-16 GNT).
So then like I said, I was kind of looking at that through the lens of ecumenism and of church unity and everything. And it's like what we need to always be doing is continue to stand for what we see is the right as we have done. If our message doesn't seem to be getting through, then say it again. If the light isn't shining bright enough turn it up a little bit. The dimmer switch might be turned down. Turn that up to the bright. Somehow intensify the light because when they see the light, then you know, like this guy that stayed up all night wondering where the sun went and finally it dawned on him. We just have to let the light shine brighter and trust what Jesus says. The light penetrates the darkness. The darkness can't put the light out. Darkness doesn't penetrate light. Light penetrates darkness. And so it just keeps spreading the brighter that our light shines.

And then we share this commission. We share the commission of letting our light shine regardless of what our beliefs are, let that light shine. We share the commission to go make disciples of all people. Circling back again, in the World Methodist Council, one of the most prominent and powerful institutions within the World Methodist Council is the Foundation for Evangelism. And it's been a powerful witness over the years of all the different denominations that have formed out of Methodism, coming together for Evangelism to reach out and tell them the good news of Christ and to preach the gospel and encourage the preaching of the gospel.
And even with the differences that we have, we come together to do what John Wesley said when he sent those first people over to it. He said, "Offer them Christ."  "Offer them Christ." And that's our real central job regardless of what we feel about other things is to offer them Christ. Everything else is important. It's important that we take our stands that we take and that when we see the light, we've stayed in the light and don't get drawn out of it by people that haven't seen the light yet. But then they think that they're doing the same thing. We just have to kind of work through those things. But in the meantime, we're called to make disciples. That's our great commission. To help people come into saving knowledge of Christ. And when they do, Christ will lead them where they need to go. And so we're united in that. We're united as disciple makers.

These people that just started out as his disciples, the people that he sent out were few in number, but look now throughout the world. We're spread all over the world and the gospel continues to reach out and people come to know Christ in very personal ways. I think this right here is where in this passage ends up that after calling his disciples and after referring back to the light of the world, prophecies and all, but then he starts healing people. And that's part of our commission as disciple makers, as followers of Christ, is to spread the healing power, the healing touch of Christ. 

And a lot of times, when we're really putting our faith into practice and we take it off the paper and just put it into the way we relate to each other, a lot of things changed on that. Our faith gets reshaped and our understanding of the words themselves get reshaped in it when it takes on actual life and actual people that we're connected with. And the people that we know and love, then that helps shape our understanding of what Christ was doing. And what he calls us to do is not just an institution or even a congregation, but as each as individuals and each as people who love one another in Christ. And healing is a big part of that.

Sacramentally we anoint people with oil and lay hands on them and pray for them to be healed. And that's a big part of the message of healing. But he also said if somebody is thirsty, give them a cup of water. Whoever gives somebody a cup of water will not lose their reward. And so it's in our three General Rules that have been passed down to us from the beginning of Methodism. First do no harm. And that is also the medical profession's number one rule. Whatever we do don't cause more trouble, don't make it worse. And a lot of times that seems like it would be common sense. But then a lot of times isn't our first reaction if somebody wants to start an argument is to throw something back at them? Well then doesn't that just make it worse? .Then they throw something and we do and then we're embroiled in arguments and everything? And it's causing more harm than good. It's like pouring gasoline on fire.And we can always say, "Well, we have a right to this." We do but then again, it's still going to cause more problems. So, what we're really trying to do if we're healing is to first not do anything that makes it worse. 

In the church lot of times what happens is that we start throwing Bible verses at each other. And then we start finding a Bible verse that backs up our side and they find one that backs up their side. And pretty soon then we're just accusing each other of not even believing in the Bible. And accusing each other of not loving God or even believing in God because if you really were a Christian you wouldn't do this or that. And sometimes it's gone to a lot of extremes over the years about if you were truly Christian you wouldn't do whatever. And it would be something like way out that doesn't have anything to do with it. I don't want to name one because somebody might say, "Well I was the one I was thinking that."

But you know, Jesus did say that the mark of our faith, of our being a true disciple of him, is that we love one another. And the more we can zero in on that, then the more we can maybe not do so much harm and finger pointing and accusing of other people. It's like I have friends on both sides of just about any issue you can come up with and I want to stay friends with them, but sometimes it's hard. I've been unfriended by some lifelong friends. Unfriended on Facebook over things that I took a position on it and stuff and it's like, well, you know what I mean? It's kind of funny in a way, but it's kind of painful in a way, too. There's not a reason when we love Christ and we love one another, there's not a reason to be able to work things out somehow. And even if it's creating different organizations, then that's what we need to do or whatever. But we need to love one another through it all.

And so not doing harm is one big way that we can administer healing to the whole world, by not contributing to the hurt. 

And then our second General Rule is to do good. And sometimes there's not a lot we can do. Sometimes there's might be only a little we can do. It might be that cold cup of water, it might be a wash rag on their head when they're sick. Or it might be just a smile or a handshake or a note or just any small little act of kindness that we can do might spur a little bit of healing. Any kind of encouragement and a good word. And in our relationship with other Christians that have beliefs and practices that are different than ours, we can be interested in what that is and why they have those beliefs in practice would be affirming of the ones that we then touch us. Especially the ones we have in common. But also of the ones that might be different. Something in a way that we wouldn't do it but if we can just have an understanding there and an affirmation of their faith in Christ, I think that goes along the way.

Sometimes it's only just a little bit. Sometimes it's only prayer. But yet prayer changes things. Prayer changes us and changes the world and sometimes it gives an opening. Sometimes we find in our prayers like it gives us an opening. We might pray for Lord open the door for this relationship, open the door for this next step that we need to take. And then out of that prayer we see at least maybe our next step. Something that we can do. So, that is an important part of our healing is that we take the next step. That we pray and that we look for opportunities to do something good.

And then the third of the General Rules is to stay in love with God. As an expression, use the means of grace. Attend to the ordinances of the church, all of that different ways of expressing that. Staying in love with God. Just keep going to church, keep loving one another, keep worshiping, keep reading the Bible, receive the sacraments, pray at home and have your Bible study. Go to Bible study and do the different things that strengthen your faith and give other people an opportunity to become a part of the faith community.

All of this. Just like us being here today and worshiping together. We're sharing the love of Christ among us and we're meditating on his word and we're singing the hymns. We're not shaking hands because we don't want to spread anything around right now, you know, but we'll start shaking hands again when everybody's not sick anymore. Then we'll go back to big hugs and everything. But we're creating community among us and it's an opportunity for other people to be a part of it if they would like to. It's an opportunity to share the word of God and the love of Christ among us and then take that out into the world.

And so that's what Christ calls us to and... Again, I'm looking at this passage through the eyes of the unity of the church. These are the things that unite us. These are the things that make us one in the Spirit. And that's what Christ calls us to. A unity that transcends any differences that we have and allows us the freedom to be who we are and to encourage each other around us to be our full selves, our best selves. And holds us together, keeps us moving forward in Christ. And so the invitation, I think for us today is to keep our eyes on Jesus. Keep firm in our beliefs, in the affirmations, the stands that we take and the direction that we're going. Remember that we are right where God wants us to be and to praise God for how that affects the world around us. 

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Sin of the World

The spirit of the Lamb is our spirit, taking away the sin of the world. Not just our individual sins, but our institutional sins -- the sins of our families, of our congregations, of our denominations, of our communities, of our nations -- Jesus challenges, forgives, and takes away the sin of the world.

Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. John 1:29b

Today is Human Relations Sunday. Next Sunday is Ecumenical Sunday. So in conjunction with all of that, the sin of the world comes up. It affects the relationships that we have with each other, with everybody else in the world.

Preached extemporaneously at Briensburg UMC on January 19, 2020.

We are against sin, right? That is a standard thing as a church. But then there's always a lot of a conversation about what that means. Historically, people have had all different ways of trying to deal with the sin. Because sin itself, the hurt and the pain of that brings people to being at odds with each other and with themselves and with God. So when Jesus stepped onto the scene, began His ministry, He did so as John went up to Him saying, "Behold the Lamb of God."

The Lamb of God had a big significance to the people then as it does to us now. One image and one prophesy that comes to mind was the prophet Isaiah hundreds of years before pointing to that generation of people and everybody in between and then everybody after down to us in this room. When you compare the Messiah, the Savior, the Lamb that was being led passively to its slaughter. Isaiah 53:5 encourages us all to remember that 
he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities:
the chastisement of our peace was upon him;
and with his stripes we are healed.
So that's what it means to be the Lamb of God, a gentle, loving creature, passive and docile and yet in the Lamb of God is the power to take away the sins of the world. 

There's a lesson there I think the Bible is trying to communicate using that imagery. The world is full of imagery that could have been used besides animals. There are a lot of animals that could have been been used besides the lamb. But throughout the scriptures, Christ is held up as the Lamb. So if we reflect Christ in our lives, then that's one of the the associations we might think of for ourselves, the Lamb spirit, the spirit of the Lamb is our spirit, the spirit working within us, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

There were a lot of sacrifices people used to make in hopes of just having the punishment of sin staved off. But when John began preaching and baptizing, he said that he was baptizing for the remission of sins. He was calling on people to come and join together in letting sin recede from our lives and from the world. That became like the focal point of our whole faith, the forgiveness of sins. Christ demonstrated to us His plan of salvation was that sins would be forgiven, that God would forgive our sins and we would forgive each other's sins and we would forgive the sins of the people around us. When we do that, the sin is gone.

One of the beautiful things I think about in our service every week is a moment, a brief moment just to face ourselves honestly. We only really have enough time even when we stretch it out a little bit sometimes to just recognize and affirm that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," (Paul), the joys that God has for us. We give pause to do that and hopefully in that pause, we encourage each other to take up pauses like that throughout each day because every time, the Bible said,  "if we confess our sins then God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins," and "to lead us into everlasting life" is one of the ways we say it in our rituals. That's what God wants. He doesn't want to hold anything against anybody. He doesn't want us holding anything against each other.

He doesn't want us holding anything against anybody else in the world. He doesn't want them holding anything against us either but other people might need more of an example. We're the ones that can give that as the people of the Lamb, the people of Christ, to extend the forgiveness to everybody around us that Christ offers to us. We often talk about that, about things and about how even from the cross and without anybody confessing their sins there, He still forgave them. He still said, "Father, forgive them. They don't even know what they're doing." They didn't even know, but He still forgave them. That's a challenge for us, to be able to extend proactively our forgiveness and not because it's our right to hold a grudge, but because we are in the business of forgiving sin.

We're in the business of helping people know that their sins are forgiven. We assure them. We offer that assurance of absolution. It's sacramental in our lives to be able to tell somebody that we care about, or strangers, that their sins are forgiven in the name of Jesus, starting with us as a demonstration. But anybody can do that. Anybody can "not hold" anything against somebody else -- or they can hold something against them, but which one is actually the reflection of Christ? And which one do we choose? So "behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." Charles Wesley in his hymn ["And Are We Yet Alive"] wrote,
Then let us make our boast
of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the uttermost,
till we can sin no more.
Having our sins forgiven doesn't mean we can't do them all over again or do something worse later or something hopefully "less worse." But trying to do better is our goal, to "go and sin no more" (Jesus). But we still have questions and wrestle with things about what we should do or shouldn't do and everything. But in the moment, let's just say in the moment, from the moment we receive that assurance in our hearts by the Spirit that our sins are forgiven until the next time we do something wrong, which might be pretty quick. But no matter how quick it is, there's a whole space to that. There's a moment that we have been cleansed. So why not get those moments frequently through the day?

The more often we face ourselves honestly, then the more often we receive that assurance and have more opportunities to start again and do better each time. 

And then John said, "Who takes away the sin of the world." A lot of times when we're talking about confession and forgiveness and all that, a lot of times our mind tends to -- religious people's minds do this -- tend not to confess our own sins but each other's sins. That's not what it's saying, confess each other's sins and the Lord will forgive. Confess your own sins. "Go take the log out of your own eye before you try to take a little splinter out of somebody else's" (Jesus).  It's not about confessing other people's sins. It's about confessing our own.

But it does involve other people in this life. It's the sin of the world that the Bible was talking about that John said, "taketh away the sin of the world," not just my sin or your sin or somebody else's sin. It's sin in general. 

It is the sin that we're a part of in all of our associations, in the church, the sin of the church, in the community, the sin of our community, in our government, in our other institutions, organizations, families. 

When you think about it, the sins of the world, the most serious sins of the world are the ones where things that we wouldn't think of doing ourselves as individuals but we are a part of an organization or a government or a nation or something that puts it into law, makes it a part of the way that organization operates, the way that system runs that causes hurt to people, causes some of the gravest concerns that we have, suffering, war, and poverty and oppression and discrimination.

On and on that kind of a list could go that are corporate sins that we might not want to do ourselves but yet we can be a part of that. We don't really have a lot of control over it. Most people don't have even a vote or a voice in many of the matters that we're a part of. But we do have a little bit. We have a great amount that we can confess it ourselves and look at our role in it and see if there's anything we can do about our own personal role and that kind of thing and make what kind of stance we can, use our voice, use our prayers, use our whatever capacity we have, our vote or whatever that we do have. That's the part, I think, we're accountable for, not accountable for how other people vote but on how we vote. Not accountable for what other people stand up for or stand against, but what we stand for and we stand against, what we pray for and what we pray against.

We can all pray. If we are people of faith then that's part of our faith is that we believe that God will take those prayers, use them in many ways that we can't even imagine. But one of those ways is to open our own path to where we can maybe take another step after that, step into. When Jesus talked about the final judgment, He provided an image for the final judgment that really most other places in the Bible don't provide. His was a judgment of the nations and He said that the Son of Man will come in all His glory with all the angels and divide everybody up into two groups according to how they treated Him and each other (Matthew 25). That list that He gave the nations, He said this was the nations, which includes the people in them, which includes us individually.

But in His teaching and example, Jesus pulls us out of just thinking about sin as individuals and just what we're able personally to do wrong, but what we do wrong together. A lot of times I think the emphasis goes to that individual part. We don't want to forget about that, but in the context of the fullness of humanity and our part in all the decisions and all the actions of humanity, do we have a part? 

It's in the interest of institutions to want us to just think about personal sins, like if we said a bad word, how you dressed or wore your hair or something like that, keep everybody focused on that. Keep our mind off of the bigger picture, then we wouldn't be voting against whatever they're voting for or wouldn't be standing against things that we should be standing against because we're just thinking about our own personal spirituality.

When Jesus speaks of judgment of the nations, He brings that into full view. "Inasmuch as you have done unto the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you've done it unto me." Not just you personally, but you all as a congregation, as being a nation, as a religion, as humanity, nations and states and counties. What we do is all under the scrutiny. That's where God wants to take away our sin and for it to all recede, be pulled back, and be replaced by love and goodness and forgiveness and joy, peace, prosperity, all the things that God wants for us and for everyone. 

So that's something for us to pray about, isn't it? "Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

How to Be Blessed

The Beatitudes are Jesus parallel to Moses giving the 10 commandments. These eight Beatitudes are Jesus laying out the introduction where it led to his Sermon on the Mount. For All Saints Sunday it's traditional for us to use one or the other of the accounts of the Beatitudes. The actual one in lectionary for today is the one from Luke, which has four, but some words are a little different and it still has eight, but four of them were positive and the others are reversed to the negative. So four Beatitudes and four woes in the Sermon on the Plain.

Preached extemporaneously at Briensburg UMC on November 3, 2019.

So there's some parallel similarities, but just like the King James version being more familiar to me than some others. So the Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount and all is kind of more familiar, I guess, in a way, or we think about it more as the Beatitudes. And it begins with this verse that Jesus saw the crowds and went up the hill where he sat down, his disciples gathered around him and he began to teach them.

So that begins the real blessing, I think. Just think how it would feel to be in this crowd, depicted in the picture here, of people gathered around Jesus to hear him lay out his plan for humanity. His vision for the kingdom of God. We have his law that is recorded later, but you kind of can see as you read the scriptures, that he was mixing that into the whole of his teaching all along, how we love God and love one another, and that we do this the way that Jesus did it. And we follow his example of love, not just any body who has some kind of way of thinking about it, but the example that Jesus set.

So we're following him and we're hearing his teachings, and we're just sitting there and Jesus' feet. Well, what price is he really inviting us to? I think one of the main reasons why this is important for All Saints Sunday is that we're invited to sit there spiritually right now. We're all gathered around the feet of Jesus wherever we are. We don't have to go over there, climb the mountain. Wherever we turn to Christ, we find that he's there and we can learn from him and look at his example.

We can see how he lived out these teachings, the Beatitudes and the teachings that emanate from them in the Sermon on the Mount as they filled them up and fulfilled the Old Testament law and build on that with the new covenant and the New Testament that we share. Not only Christ, but also all those in Christ. We have a small congregation here and yet we're vastly outnumbered by the ones in this room that we see by the ones who are here with us that we don't see.

Who we can feel their presence as they look in on us and as they join us in the spirit, and as Wesley put it, they seen the lamb in hymns above and we in hymns below. Every once in a while I mention that during the time when we'd sing the doxology every Sunday and it says, "praise him above your heavenly host," you know, I could do some visualize several of those people, my mother, different members of the congregation that have come and gone to be with the Lord, other family and friends that have been important in my life. And I can just see them, Cheryl's dad and mom, different ones, you know, just to start, I probably shouldn't of started making a list. Everybody's family and friends, all of them.

It's just a beautiful feeling to know that we are all family. Whether we can see each other or not, that we're present. We have eternal life. They have eternal life. We're all a part of who Christ is, and Christ invites us and everybody into that kind of an internal spiritual fellowship that is not dependent on our physical state. But instead what we're willing to live into, and we see in his life the example of how he lived out those Beatitudes.

Then he invites us to try to do that ourselves and live into those conditions and receive those blessings. So I put on there the word as it appears in Greek, and of course it's all Greek to me, but "makarias" is the word that's translated blessed, and another way is just happy. But it's a supreme happiness that we all are looking for. It's heaven. It's the glory of God, the Chicana glory of God that he invites us into, to live into, and to grow into, which might take an eternity, but he's been around for a long time with his happiness and he wanted us to be as happy as he is. God wants us to be as happy as God is.

So that we would have the fullness of our joy. So that's when we talk about being blessed. It's just Christ is inviting us to the ultimate in his blessings, and blessings that we enter into a little bit of joy and then it just keeps growing and becomes more perfect, throughout all of this life and the life of the world to come.

One of our prayers at the grave side is that we would grow, that the person who has led upside their earthly tabernacle, that now they have returned to God who gave it, and they're going on from strengths to strength in that service to the heavenly kingdom. And another predator that we have at the funerals is that we pray that our beloved will live in perpetual light. And these are all ways of expressing the divine glory of God that is there for us, it waits for us, not just in the life of the next world, but in this life and on into the next life.

We see these as one continuum and we don't... Our body is laid aside and maybe the promise is that one day our bodies will be restored, but whether they're laid aside or whether they're restored, we still are in Christ, and Christ in us. And our life is eternal. And our families and friendships and fellowship that we share is eternal. It makes changes in this life all the time, you know, as people move to another part of the country, and people go through different situations in their lives and all, and then it changes in the next life too.

So there's a lot of ways that we... The way we relate to each other changes according to our circumstances, but it's all one life, a life in Christ. And that Christ is inviting us into perfect blessing. The blessings that we see him expressing in his life and in preaching about in his life. And then each of these Beatitudes has a condition with it, and it's not the kind of condition where it's transactional. It's not something that well you do this and you'll get that.

But it's rather the condition is the condition of your soul, the condition of your relationship with God and with the people around you. This is the condition your condition is in. This is your state of being. What kind of person are you? This is your character. What kind of person are you? How do you relate to the people around you? How do you relate to God? What's important to you in life? Those aren't just transactions that you can turn off and on. Those are like a switch or something. Those are something... Those are that the way you're growing in life, the trajectory of your life, the direction you're headed in, and the condition of your heart and your mind.

What kind of things... How do you think about people? What kind of things are on your mind? What kind of feelings do you have? What kind of thoughts do you have? That's what Christ is getting at and so that requires a lifetime of growth, doesn't it? As we grow into the likeness of him who filleth all in all. The Bible is always calling us and inviting us. Paul wrote, "Whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are pure." And to think on those kind of things.

That's what Christ is inviting to in the Beatitudes. Look at the Beatitudes, see how Christ manifested those in his life and then see how best it can every day be growing into that likeness, and be more like that. Most of them are like contradictory to the ways that we normally think would make us happen. And so that's an extra step of growth because we have to by faith say, well this is Christ and this is how Christ is inviting us, and I believe that and that's what I want to be like and that's why I want my world to be like, so that's what I'm going to grow into. I'm going to work on that and try to become that way.

Then as we become that light, the more we are that way, then the greater the blessings that follow. And we're sort of always on a little continuum, probably somewhere, nobody that I know of is at the very opposite of the Beatitudes. Some seem like they might be for the moment, you know, but they're not really that way, but sometimes we get to thinking that some people are completely the opposite, but nobody's actually completely, they don't think, you know? But anyway, somewhere between the complete opposite, but nobody I know is the complete absolute reflection of Christ either.

So somewhere in there we all find ourselves, and everybody else is in there somewhere too, in that mix, always growing on the spiritual journey. And as we grow into that condition, as we grow into that character, that reflection of Christ, then we also grow into the promises that are included in the Beatitudes. If you're this common person, then this is going to be the kind of blessing that you're going to get out of it. And the more you're... These kind of people that are here, then the more those blessings will... those promises will come to fruition in our lives, is that we live into the promises of God.

We live into the image that God created us in the first place. We're really just becoming who we really are. I guess it's like, you know, we want to be the fullness of who we were made to be, to reflect fully the image of God. That is the image in which the Bible says we were created, male and female. Everybody created in this image, image of God. That's what we're going into, and the promise is we can do this. The promise is it's an invitation and then Jesus goes on in the Sermon on the Mount to kind of explain how, and he goes on in his life to demonstrate how.

The church through the ages, including all our family and friends that have handed the faith down to us, and others through the ages who have handed this faith down to us, the mighty times witnesses have been showing us how, and have been helping us come into the glory and the joy and the victory and the wonder of true happiness.

Then we also have that as part of our opportunity to pass on, not only to the other people around us of this generation, but to the generation and generations yet to follow. They would be a part of that mighty throne. The crowd throughout from history, from eternity upon eternity. We're a part of that. We're just kind of in this little niche in the flow right now.

Charles Wesley on the other hymn wrote about all the mighty number of people that have gone on before. Many have gone on and have already crossed the river. Some are partying now, and some will cross later. That's us. We're in that number.

So that's the Beatitudes that Christ invites us into and it's the same part of the same promise and the same invitation of the great invitation. When he said, "Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, I will give you rest. Come take your yoke and learn of me. For I am meek and lowly and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls."

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Painting: BĂ©atitudes by Joseph Matar,

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Jesus Expects Us to Follow His Example

I have set an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you. John 13:15 (GNT)

I've had the privilege of being involved in different kinds of worship services throughout my life, different contexts, different churches, different denominations, different ways of doing the symbolic foot washing service.

When the Bible tells us about Jesus doing this foot washing, He said that He was setting this as an example of the kind of relationship we're supposed to have with each other, and the world around us.
In John's gospel, it's the bigger part of the Communion Service. In John's gospel, he just mentions that they had the bread and the wine as they had their Passover meal, and then he elaborates on this part of the service they share. The foot washing part of their experience.

[Listen to the audio for this sermon]
preached extemporaneously 
at Briensburg UMC on September 22, 2019.

For many people, the Gospel, and everything that Jesus did gets marginalized somehow as something that's unattainable. Something that was only to make us look bad, only to show how good that God is. And it does show that, but that's not all it is. Sometimes we have a tendency to think, "Well, Jesus did that, but I can't. I'm not even supposed to try."

But Jesus said He was doing this as an example of what He wants us to do, and expects us to do as His followers. I would like to reflect today on one of the meaningful foot washing services I have participated in, and as you share that reflection, perhaps it will touch you as it touched me.

Several decades ago, many more than several, but forty years ago I had the privilege of living for a couple years on the family farm in Tennessee where my father's mother grew up. Her father had three jobs there. My Great Grandfather was a blacksmith in the community, and he was a fireman on the railroad, and he was a preacher. So I got to meet some of the people who were my Grandparent's age who still remembered my Great Grandfather. They told me stories about him and everything, and so that was pretty neat! To live in that community and to worship sometimes with the people that my Great Grandfather, and my Grandmother, and my Grandparents worshiped with.

Several of the smaller churches in the community of that denomination had a tabernacle that they shared, and whenever they had in their Communion Service they would meet up at the tabernacle from all the different churches. And there'd be a whole lot of people. It was like an open auditorium, and they would have a lot of singing, and a lot of preaching, and a lot of food for a dinner on the grounds. Then a lot more singing, a lot more preaching, and a lot more singing. There was lots of singing!

In fact, you know I've told this story about how every once in a while, I'll tell you about this lady that requested for Brother Billy to sing in the garden, and that's where that was. And I still don't know whether she meant, sing the hymn, "In the Garden," or to go outside and sing in the garden, but that's where that was.

As we gather for Communion after the meal and after a lot of singing and a lot of preaching. Then we shared the bread and wine, and then the way they did it was everybody separated, the men to one side and the women to the other for modesty. They passed out basins of water and towels, and then we each took turns getting down on our knees and bathing each other's feet. It's one of the most emotional, spiritual times, experiences of my life. To be with these people that I had learned to respect and love, that we worked side by side with, that we worshiped with, that we struggled with, and we went through things in the community with, and people I looked up to getting down on their knees and washing my feet and I theirs.

Along with the singing came a little shouting and a lot of people hugging each other's necks and weeping in each other's arms. As all this we brought up is that the love and the stresses together and all this washed through the crowd throughout our hearts and minds while we symbolically washed each other's feet.

It's hard to think that you could have that kind of experience with somebody, I mean go outside and not love them even more and then come back together before it all wore off and do it all over again. That's one of the things I love about our time here of passing the peace. When we shake each other's hands, and hug each other, and smile at each other, and talk to each other, and remind each other the love that we share, as Mitch said it that "swells in the room." I love that way you said that in your prayer. So then as we kind of melted back together, all the people back to their places singing some more.

In this Bible passage, the disciples shared that experience in a small group with Jesus being around to wash their feet. You can kind of get a little bit of a sense of that when you think about somebody you look up to, somebody you love, somebody you respect humbling themselves to wash your feet. They got up from that place and then they went outside and they talked and sang as they walked.

They talked about heaven, they talked about love, and they sang hymns the Bible says. They made their way out to where Jesus was being arrested, and giving himself up for us. And Jesus in this room before they left, 
He said, "I've done this to set an example for you that what I've been doing, all of it really, symbolized, all these things that I've been doing, all the ways I've been loving you, all the ways I've been showing you God's love, that's what I expect you to do for each other and for the world around you."

And then He gave that commandment. You know, the lectionary reading for today I think talks about when Jesus celebrated the Great Commandment and said the greatest is that you love God and love one another, and on these two commandments saying all the law and the Gospel, and the prophets.

In this law, toward Gethsemane after the foot-washing, Jesus gave His commandment. He said that, "You are to love one another as I have loved you."

It's so wonderful, isn't it? To think that Jesus has given us an example, and invited us to love one another the way that He has loved us. And that he expects us to do that and that's not something for us to wish we could do, but something for us to learn how to do.

Like the song said, "Teach us how to love one another! Lift us to the joy divine!"

So one of the songs that everyone told me was my Great Grandfather's favorite song, then it had become one of my favorites. "Life's Railway to Heaven." It's about keep your hand upon the throttle and your eye upon the rail, and this is the chorus.

"Blessed Savior! Thou wilt guide us! 
Till we reach the blissful shore,
Where the angels wait to join us, 
in thy praise forever more."

One more thought as we close. Yesterday, I shared a picture on the Internet: "Jesus knew Judas' heart and still washed his feet."

Christ invites us to love each other. Christ invites our family and friends to love each other. Christ invites the world to love each other. That way, right now. 

In the name of Jesus, Amen.