Sunday, July 26, 2020

JUSTICE: Praying in the Spirit

Prayer is essential to seeking justice, righteousness, goodness, and fairness, for ourselves and for others. 

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. (Romans 8:26, KJV)
These are the words of Saint Paul as recorded in his letter to the Romans in the Good News translation. Justice begins with prayer for us as Christians anyway, and we would want to encourage everybody to begin there. Because in prayer, we face ourselves honestly in the presence of the almighty. And then we get an opportunity to pour our hearts out before God. And then we have the opportunity to receive guidance from God as to what we can do to change whatever that is on our hearts and how God might work with that, to bring about the transformations, some of those being within us and some of them being things that need to change in our relationships and in our society.

Transcript of sermon
Preached Extemporaneously [Video] on July 25, 2020 
for Briensburg UMC

And so prayer is a very important part of seeking justice, righteousness, goodness, things to be fair, fairness. We have all these different concerns and issues going on at any given time in our lives. Sometimes the things that are more pressing for us are less pressing for somebody else. And sometimes it's the other way around. But given all in all, there's always something going on that needs to get prayed about and something that's on our mind, something that especially if we are trying to follow Christ in compassion and empathy, then we're going to have concerns, burdens that we need to bring to the Lord. And as the song says, leave it there, bring your burden to the Lord and leave it there.
Sometimes those burdens just seem impossible even to define or articulate. And I think we're going through that as a nation right now, and as a church, and in many of our other kinds of ways that we relate to each other, organizations, and groups, and communities. Because of on top of the other injustices that have already been present and under the surface, and then those that are coming to the surface and quite visible ways, and then on top of all that is this Coronavirus epidemic, pandemic stretching around the world and adding extra layers of burden and of heartache to everyone in all kinds of different ways. To some measure, all of us are affected by that pandemic.
And so all of these together, then, in addition to whatever we've been struggling with personally, ourselves, along the way with ... They all kind of go together into a big melting pot of things that we just don't really know what to do, sometimes, or how to manage. But God knows. And so we want to look with confidence to God when we pray. What Paul is telling us here is that a lot of times we don't even know how, where to begin. We have our prayer list. We keep putting our friends and family and their friends and family on our prayer list. We lift them up and we just have one thing after another.
And so how do we manage that? And when sometimes we don't even really know what to ask for, we just have to pour it out and trust that the Lord will sort it all out. And that is, I think what Paul is promising here. There are many ways for us to pray. But all of them invite us to cast our burdens on Him, as the Psalm has said, for he careth for you. So wherever the burden is, and how heavy it is, or however light it's like what Jesus invited us in the great invitation, let him carry part of that burden. Let him shoulder part of that responsibility, yolk yourselves with Christ. Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden.
Some of the burdens are burdens of sin and guilt that we carry in our own lives because of things that we realize, in terms of justice, things where we have not been fair, where we have been unjust in our own dealings, are unfair in our relationship with other people, not just necessarily recently, but maybe decades ago, we might still carry some of that burden. And for other times, all the way in between throughout our lives. Well, that's where this other invitation that's given in Isaiah, it's God's invitation given by the prophet Isaiah.
"Come now and let us reason together," saith the Lord. "Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be like wool. Though they be crimson, they shall be white as snow." And signifying that the washing away of that red signifies the blood, in the New Testament, the blood of a lamb, but in the Old Testament, and in this case, particularly the blood that represents the heartaches and pain that we have caused lots of times, maybe even people that we love and care about. And our contribution to the sins of society, and to the injustices that have been built up over the years from one generation to the next and become a part of the systems that we live in and work in.
And so what God is offering to do is come together in a conversation, not just one, lots of them, and gradually just wash that all away to where it's gone. Cleaned it up, clean up our personal lives, clean up our institutional lives, get rid of all the injustices and all the other things, too. But we're focusing on the injustice part of it these days and as a theme for this season.
And so, and from that perspective, we want to do something about all that. And how can we, if we don't even know what it is, sometimes? We just know it's there, and we hurt, and we ache, to do better, and to be better, and for the world to be a better place for everyone. And so all of that I think is what Paul is addressing when he said that. We just don't always know how to say it, we just have groans and utterances. And there's all kinds of ways that we pray and sometimes are more formal, and sometimes are less formal. But one part of it is that we pray with our hearts and we pour our hearts out. And so sometimes we may do that with just the size, and the tears and the feelings and thoughts that come randomly to our minds as we just let it all out.
When Jesus was talking about that kind of prayer, which he practiced, also. He practiced all these other kinds. He practiced, sometime he prayed in public in the Bible, sometimes often by himself. And that's the kind where he recommended going off by yourself. In the Sermon on the Mount before he gave the Lord's Prayer, he said, "Go off by yourself and make sure you're in a spot where nobody even knows you're praying, much less can hear what you're saying, because then you have the freedom to just let go, and you don't have to worry. God loves you. So you don't have to worry about if God is going to be upset because your sentence structure, or your vocabulary, or the ways that you are trying to express yourself. And there, you can even pray almost like in your own prayer language. However you feel like expressing your issues because it's just you and your maker. And you're not really telling God something he doesn't know."
Because this is the same one that we just talked about earlier last week, and when we talked about that, the spirit beareth witness to our spirit, that we are the children of God, this same spirit who comes in and attaches within us bears witness to us. So we're the children of God also is the one who is interpreting our prayers. The same one that raised Jesus from the dead and the same one that is bringing life to our even mortal bodies, the same one who convinces us to stop sin, and righteousness, and of judgment, the same spirit who empowers us to be witnesses and to love as Christ has loved us. All of these and much more, this same Holy Spirit is there to help us in our prayer time.
I think that's pretty good news just by itself. Stands alone, not counting all the other blessings of the faith that we have. In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus gave a pattern for us that we can use in thinking about the kinds of things we want to pray for in that personal time. He also gave that as a prayer that we can share in unison with each other and with Christians of all different beliefs, and cultures, and backgrounds, and languages and everything else. We can belt that together into one great prayer of God's people, the Lord's Prayer.
And if you look at all, everything that's in that, Lord's Prayer, those are all things that are common to all of humanity. So there's nothing in the Lord's Prayer that would prevent us from sharing those, at least [Joe's 00:11:46] issues, with anybody who prays however they pray, and worships however they worship, and believes however they believe, and a part of whatever religion they're a part of or no religion. Those are issues that we share in common with all of humanity, so we can pray for everybody that way, and they can pray for us, too. And we can pray together with them, find ways to pray together.
And so that's a beautiful aspect of all of the way that the Lord wants us to pray and in the spirit. So when we pray in secret we have certain liberties that we don't have any other place. We don't have to worry about anybody judging either the issues that we're praying about, or the way we're praying, or the feelings that we're expressing. Because sometimes some things really hurt and it's hard to express those. And we don't want everybody always just leaning over our shoulder when we're talking to God about the things that are going on in the depths of our hearts. Even whether it's something we ache for ourselves or for somebody else that we love and care about that they're going through. It's a absolutely confidential moment when you go apart, close the door and pray.
And we pour our spirit out and we may laugh, we may cry, we may talk with words that nobody else would understand, that aren't even intelligible to us. You don't want to encourage this too much, but we might even argue with God sometimes until we kind of get it settled because Jacob did. He got his hip out of joint for the rest of his life. So keep that in mind. But yet, again, he wrestled all night with the Lord until he got the blessing to. And in that prayer, which was all by himself, out in the middle of nowhere, it was just a pile of stones that he had set up. And he had one that he used for a pillow. And that was where Jacob's Ladder comes from. And he saw the angels ascending and descending that we sing about still in Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine. O what a foretaste of glory divine.
And that's what that time in prayer is really meant to be, a place where we're cleansed and where we're transformed. And then we're empowered to cleanse and transform our whole life, our whole situation, our relationships, our church, and our community, and our family, our country, our world. And we can make a difference when we start in that sweet, sweet hour of prayer. Let's hear this view, then of the spirit coming along to help us, coming right into and interpret whatever, however we're expressing ourselves as an invitation to step aside, to spend the time with the Lord that we need in private, in person, spirit to spirit, heart to heart, and pour ourselves out. Praying always in the spirit with all supplication, as Paul often invites in his letters. 
In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Monday, July 20, 2020

JUSTICE: Sharing the Inheritance of All God’s Children

All are included in the family of God, and to exclude any is a grave injustice to the whole family as well as to the individual.
In verse 21 of today's Bible reading, Romans 8:12-25, and this is in The Message, it says, "Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens." 
And so the Lord is inviting us to look forward to what is to come. And I think that we've been talking about the scriptures through the lens of justice. And just right there, it stands out to me that what we look forward to is just only as we all can look forward to it, not if some have some future that they are anticipating with joy at the expense of others whose futures are being detracted from or made worse by whatever we're looking forward to. It's something that we want to keep everybody in mind for and how things affect everybody when we look forward and make our plans and our thoughts about where we're headed and what we're doing. And then when we do, then we can be confident in what God is leading into.

Transcript of sermon Preached Extemporaneously [Video] on July 19, 2020 at Briensburg UMC

The particular passage here, I focused in on the middle verses there. The verses 14 through 18. And the whole passage is part of that letter to Romans where Paul says things like that. There is now no condemnation for you. We don't have to go and feel that we're under the condemnation of God, but we have been brought into the family of God. And so that's what this particular passage this morning emphasizes. And so in the Gospel lection for today is about the wheat and tares and letting them grow together. And we think about that in terms of our lives. We let all the ideas kind of grow together and we trying to nurture and strengthen those that are good and right and wholeness and inclusive and loving and caring. But there's also going to be other ideas that other people are going to be strengthening and working with. We have to focus on what God invites us to and as his children, as his family.

Children of God
Those who are led by God's Spirit are God's children.  Vs 14 (GNT)

 So as the children of God, in the Good News Translation says those who are led by God's Spirit are God's children. In our particular theological heritage and that of many other Christians is the idea of the image of God, that we all are made in the image of God. And that that is an indelible part of who we are. Nothing can change that. Nothing can take away from that. We can cover it up. We can pretend it's not there. We can ignore it in ourselves and each other, but it's still there. We're still made in the image of God. God's image, the essence of who God is, is still really who we are made to be like. And so in that sense, when we look at any person and we can look at them from that viewpoint, as the children of God together with us. So we can know that when we are the children of God and you are the children of God, and they are the children of God.

And then even those who don't believe in that, who believe that humanity has fallen and lost that image of God completely. And they say all believe that when you place your faith in Christ, you get it back or you get born again into, that would be part of the definition of born again for some is that that image is restored. So either way, we're the children of God. We're the children of God.
And then what Paul says here though, those who are led by God's Spirit. And sometimes we might not be being led by God's Spirit. We might sometimes forget or decide to ignore God's leading, but we're still the children of God, we don't go back and forth between being the children of God and not being the children of God. But sometimes we may not be acting like it. And so we're invited to always be acting like it, to be trying to work on our lives, to where that we are more and more living up to our namesake as the children of God and encouraging others to do the same and seeing that in others and drawing it out and pointing to it, looking for the good in others, looking for the image of God in others, and highlighting that, bringing it out, to help them to experience also the blessings of being in the family of God.

Spirit of Adoption
For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.   Vs 15 (KJV)

And then Paul in the next verse says that, "For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption whereby we cry 'Abba, Father'." And in The Message translation he puts it, "What's new, Papa?" We have a person here who's here in the spirit is almost every Sunday who went on to be with the Lord several years ago now, Ray Wyatt, and he always emphasized just about every time we had any kind of get together about, he called God "Papa." And that he emphasized that closeness between our paternal relationships and our maternal relationships, our relationship with our parents, the fathers and mothers, the closeness that we would ideally have there, with the closeness that we would ideally have with our heavenly parent, with God.

And that's what Paul is bringing out here with the word Abba. It's like Papa, Mama, Daddy. And the term of that kind of a closeness and relationship, rather than what oftentimes we think of as formal and far and distant, of God being out there in the universe someplace, and He is, God's out there everywhere, but close to us, as close as we are to ourselves. And so we haven't received the spirit of bondage to fear. That can cover a lot of territory. So I want to make a list, but just basically it's anything that's not that spirit of adoption. Anything not that closeness. We haven't received a spirit to anything that takes us away from that closeness and love. And that rather, that brings us in as the family.
And so whether we felt like we were as a family before or not, we are now. Paul puts another way like a tree being, a plant being grafted into another plant to become one with that plant. We have that song I'm so glad I'm a part of the family of God. And I am, aren't you? I'm glad I'll be a part of the family. I'm glad you're a part of the family. And we should try to help encourage others to feel their part in the family. We're all one family, family of God, brothers and sisters. And we're all a part of this family. I praise God for that. We share this heavenly parent of God.

God’s Spirit Bears Witness to Our Spirits
God's Spirit joins himself to our spirits to declare that we are God's children.  Vs 16 (GNT)

And then God's Spirit bears witness to us about this. "God's Spirit joins himself to our spirits to declare that we are the children of God" (GNT).  I like the idea of God joining the divine Spirit with our spirit within us. And God speaks to us and confirms this to us. We might witness to one another what we think and what we've experienced and what we are understanding is, but underneath all of that is God himself bearing witness to each of us. And to all, that we are God's children. And we can hear that voice speaking within us. And we can help others hear that voice. We need to amplify it. And echo it.

I think that too is a justice issue, that people not only often not told that they are the children of God, but sometimes often told that they're not, when they are, and much of their joy of life that they could already be experiencing, they're missing because they don't know. And because someone is trying to exclude them and trying to tell them some other message and sometimes going to extreme lengths at this misinformation and distortion that the Spirit of God is moving among us and within us and through us to communicate to us and to all that we are the children of God, that God loves us and wants us all to be together as one family, of people who love one another and who care about and encourage and support one another and help each other find our true nature, our divine nature as the children of God.

Joint Heirs with Jesus
And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.       Vs 17 (KJV)

And then this next verse 17, "And if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ." Now we get down to where the rubber meets the road a little bit. Surely he's not really talking about money, inheritance of money, because we see Christ himself not inheriting that. When Christ lived a life of what seemed like the physical world poverty, but think how rich that he was with the spiritual gifts and graces and how those are a part of our inheritance, with the bearing of fruits, with the ministries that Christ ministered, that we mi now to one another. And to the extent that we received those and use them in our lives. And we are experiencing that inheritance now, of love and joy and peace and a friendship with one another and fellowship that is eternal.

So that it's not just in the life with the world to come, although it is. And that's beautiful. So we need to think about that life of the world to come, think about heaven. I love to have my thoughts about heaven and to think about how wonderful that will be, when everybody's all united together in love that has been brought to perfection, and all of the joys and all of the eternal life that is there. But we're also invited to make all of that as much as we can a part of our daily life right now, this hour, this day, in our relationships with one another. And to that extent, we're actually receiving our inheritance.
And isn't that more important than any kind of earth, just a worldly types of inheritances that we could receive.

The Coming Glory
I consider that what we suffer at this present time cannot be compared at all with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.    Vs 18 (GNT)

We want that. We want that love.  We want that peace and joy in our hearts, that is there regardless of the difficulties and struggles that we might be going through, which is what Paul begins to talk about in this next verse when he says, "I consider that all we suffer at this present time cannot be compared with the glory that is going to be revealed in us." And he goes on throughout the passage that Mitch read about the hope, the hope of glory, and that hope that we have. Perhaps the greatest injustice as it relates to this passage is the deprivation of hope. And that's been going on a long time. People are using the religion to take away and steal away the hope of other people. And when they do that, you're depriving, not us of course, but whoever does that is depriving somebody of the essence of what we need to look forward with anticipation and joy to the future.

And one striking example that associates with the injustices that we're dealing with as a country today is the slave Bible that they used to use. They used to tear out the books and passages of scripture that would give a slave any hope if they happened to read it. And try to impose that on people. We could probably just come up with all kinds of things that are oppressive and that make people feel like that they cannot be a part of this inheritance, that they can't be a part of society, or they can't be a full part of the church or anything.
And we stand against all that, because we stand for hope. 
We stand for hope. We stand for inclusiveness and for justice for all. Just like we're supposed to say that in our pledge whenever we say The Pledge of Allegiance, "liberty and justice for all." It's not just for some. I like that button I've gotten that says "Justice is not just us." Not just one group or another, not one viewpoint or another, but for all. We all grow together. We all love together. We all live together and we suffer together and we rejoice together. That's how things that Paul drives at in his letters. And as he says that whatever struggles we're having in doing that, whatever difficulties and obstacles we might come up against, whatever push back there may be is nothing compared to the joy when we get through it all, the joy as it becomes reality.
And so it may be difficult. It may be slow going. It may be some that don't like that or there may be some obstacles and there may be all kinds of trouble that we would go through to get there, but just keep your mind on where it is we're going. Think how beautiful it is, how wonderful it is when all God's children are at peace and in love with one another. Amen? Just picture it, think about how it feels, where there's, as the promise that as God put it in the end of the Bible in the new Jerusalem imagery of the city of new Jerusalem. And He said that "the tabernacle of God is with people. God himself shall wipe away every tear from our eyes. There shall be no more suffering, no more sorrow, no more sickness, no more pain, no more suffering, no more death."
And that's the promise God said, God would take care and make sure that happens. That sounds pretty good to me, doesn't it? Doesn't it make you feel good?
Well, it makes you feel good when you think that people can be as Steven prayed in his invocation, from all different backgrounds, all different lifestyles, and all different viewpoints. And yet we all are in harmony with one another, we're all in peace and love with one another. When we don't have to worry about whether somebody loves us or doesn't love us, we know they do. When we don't have to worry about any of that. We just grow together and learn together with each other and from each other, supporting and encouraging each other with full confidence, that we love one another as Christ has loved us.
Feels good then, doesn't it? Make you feel kind of happy. Might make you feel like shouting after a while if you keep thinking about it. And so that's what Christ invites us to in this passage. The Lord is inviting us to put on our heavenly outfits, put on our spirit of adoption, put on our being a child of God as the way that we relate to each other to the world around us. And everybody's not going to like that. A lot of people aren't going to like it. Everybody might not respond to that, but a lot of people will. And then it will grow and build from there, until finally it's all brought to its perfection and we're good. We got to be a part of it all this time. 
"Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens." In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Friday, July 17, 2020

JUSTICE: Being Good Soil for the Seeds

Systematic justice and injustice are like the root systems of plants, always growing and adding new branches below the surface to strengthen and nourish the growth and fruit of the whole. 
This is from the Disciples' New Literal New Testament, the last verse that Steve read, and it said, "The one having been sown the seed on the good soil, this person is the one hearing the word and understanding it, who indeed is bearing fruit and producing a hundred and another sixty and another thirty." These are the words of Jesus Christ.

Transcript of sermon Preached Extemporaneously [Video] on July 12, 2020 at Briensburg UMC

This parable of the sower is one that for me, as I was reflecting, I think that I have to be introspective with this, because everything that Jesus is teaching us in this parable, we kind of have to apply that personally to our own lives. It's not something that we can look at somebody else so much and do something with. As well, we can look in our own hearts and minds and make changes and do an evaluation of our own personal situation through this parable.
I've been preaching the lectionary readings through the lens of justice because that's one of the great themes of the scripture and of the prophets, and especially like we always remember Micah 6:8, where he said, "What does God expect of you except to love tenderly, act justly and walk humbly with your God."
So, taking that and looking at it and bringing the justice issues of the day and all of our positions, so we're taking in the charge, what we're trying to do, and bringing us to the scripture and then hear what God says to us about that.
One thing that is a great image that comes to my mind in this passage, and that is the root system of any plant. So when a seed is planted and it sprouts and then it begins to grow roots, it sinks down a taproot, and then other roots come out to the side and other groups come off of that. And pretty soon it's a whole system there that nobody really sees unless they dig down. But you always see what's up on the top, but that's all supported by what's down underneath. And that's the system that supports it of sometimes big pieces and sometimes little tiny pieces.
They're always growing, always finding something new to add, something new to do, something new to strengthen the plant and to draw nourishment, moisture and all from the soil. That's why the soil is so important to this parable, because the root is so important to the plant. When we think now of our situation now, where we are today as our country and in our church is that we have all these systems in place. Some of them are just systems and over the years and centuries and all, that things that have taken root are just and good and they have a strengthened righteousness for everybody. But then there are some systems that aren't so good, amen? There are some that are unjust. And that's what we're hearing a lot about on the news is the systematic injustices that become built in to communities and churches and processes and our relationships.
So those we're trying to dismantle, but not just to leave a void. Even the more important than dismantling those is building and strengthening the righteousness and the goodness and the justice. That's one of the things that we've been trying to do here at Briensburg. I think we have sunk a deep root into the love, and to be rooted and grounded in love, as the apostle wrote. And we have been adding little programs and systems and ways of doing things that strengthen that and connections with people and so forth that strengthen that through the various issues of inclusiveness, of inclusive of race and LGBTQ and gender and immigrants and all of these things that we want to strengthen and be just and do right by them and by the Lord to minister his love.
So we can just picture that whole root system continuing to grow, continuing to strengthen, continuing to nurture. I'd like to share this. It's from Ephesians, I've got it right here, chapter three. "For this cause I bow my knees unto the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that he would grant you according to the riches of his glory to be strengthened with might by his spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith. That ye being rooted and grounded in love may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God."

The Sower
So again, looking at ourselves and being introspective with this, we see ourselves as the sower in this parable. This is how The Message writes it. "And he spake many things unto them in parables saying, behold, a sower went forth to sow." And so Jesus spoke this parable and then to everybody, but everybody didn't really know what the riddle was in there. It was kind of a riddle to everybody. So a few events went by and we skipped those and we went to the explanation in the reading today that Jesus gave to his disciples and they have shared with us. I've fought these, what the riddle is in the parable of the sower. So one of them is the sower, the person that goes out and sows the seed. Paul said that, so some people sow and some water, but God gives the growth.
If we see ourselves as the sower in this, we can't really pick and choose where we're going to scatter the seed because we can't see other people's hearts and minds. So we sow the seed wherever we go, and somebody will come along and water it, we trust, and the Lord will give the growth. We don't know how or when that's all going to happen. We just know as the sower of seed in that role, that we just, like the one song says, sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness. We sow those seeds of kindness and mercy and love wherever we go, and we just see what happens, because we know that the Lord will take it from there.
I remember one time being in a revival and there it was a log church out in the country (probably I've shared this with other scriptures too because it comes up in my mind every once in a while). But this guy had a bad reputation for being kind of mean in the community all his life. But yet then you've got this revival. Right in the middle of the sermon, the door was opened and he came walking down the aisle. He got down on his knees at the altar and everybody was praying for him. Some other people joined him and were praying for him. It was somebody that the church had been praying for for years and years. And he got up and he turned around and he raised his hands out and extended them out like this, and he said, "I love everybody."
That was a moment of transformation in the community in addition to his own personal conversion in life. I mean, revival broke out in his own personal life and in the life of that church and community that night from seeds that had been planted and watered over the years in his life.
We never know. We never know what's going to happen when our role, if we see, or when we see ourselves as the sower in this parable, is just to scatter the seed. Seeds of love and kindness and mercy, seeds of the scripture, seeds of the love of Christ, seeds of faith. All of these different things that are part of our spiritual lives, to make them a part of the lives of the people around us and see what God does with it.

The Path
Then there are four kinds of soil that Jesus addresses and uses as examples in this passage. The first one here and in The Message is, he wrote, "When anyone hears news of the kingdom and doesn't take it in, it just remains on the surface, and so they evil one comes along and plucks it right out of that person's heart."
It made me think in my, of course, like I said, this is more, I guess this is kind of a confessional sermon when it's introspective, and you have to be looking at yourself. So I am, and then looking at myself through this, I thought about the ways that sometimes that I don't pay attention or I'm kind of shallow, or I don't really hear what somebody's saying. And sometimes there are things that I look back on that years ago, somebody said something and I ignored it. Somebody, some way that I didn't take something right and everything. I didn't take it seriously, and now it's a regret that I have, and there's nothing really to do about it except accept forgiveness and move on.
But that's that kind of a path that is where it just falls and it doesn't even take root before it's swept away by something. In this case, birds picking it up, but it could be anything. Anything that just sweeps the seed aside and that doesn't even have a chance to take root. I think for me, it speaks to my distractability or the shallow places in our hearts. So that's something for us to address, isn't it, in our lives? To try to make sure that we have less of that. Find those paths and identify them.

The Stony Places
Then the stony places. The seed cast in the gravel. I like that image there, and it's not just the big rocks, but the little gravel places, too, in The Message. There, I think about the hardness of my heart. And sometimes it's easy to kind of identify that in the big things, when something really bad happens on the news and you say, "Well how can they be so hardhearted and cruel?"
But we really can't do much about their hardheartedness and cruelty except to pray. But we can do something about our own, to make sure that we don't have that in our own lives. And to evaluate the way we think about things, the way we talk to people, the way we do things, the way we pray and all of our attitudes, that there are not stones that are preventing the seed from growing and that are blocking that growth and they're messing up the soil.
I think that of the great injustices that we're reminded of when we travel around, when we see the slave walls where the slaves, one of the injustices that was imposed on them was to force them to go and dig up the stones out of fields so that the fields would bear the fruit. And then they carried those stones over and built walls around them, the slave walls.
But the stones need to be taken out of the fields. How are we taking them out? We can take them out in ways that are just or unjust, but when we look in our lives, we need to remove that hardness of our heart. Identify our own places of stony places in our own hearts and minds where we're not open to the new ideas and the new callings that Christ gives us in his word and in our relationships, in our fellowship.

The Thorns
And the thorns, the weeds of life. Sometimes we might not get all the rocks out and we might have the ground all tilled up, but then if we let the weeds grow, then that still negatively affects the plants that are growing around it, doesn't it? They grow up with them and they choke them out. Choke out is what Christ is referring to. Choke out the word.
For me, this is some of those things like distractions or other things I get tied up in or get sidetracked, or the things that we're worried about and the cares of the world that we're not managing in such a way that keeps them under control. So then they take over and choke out the actual crop that we're wanting to grow in our life, which in the parable, and some people translate it as sweet and others as corn or something, but some agricultural. But in our own hearts and minds, it's the fruits of the spirit. It's the crops of the spirit of God. The fruits of love, the fruits of being a disciple of Jesus that get choked out and they take second place and they become, maybe until that the word of God doesn't have any effect in our lives because we crowd it out with everything else. So we have to watch out for that and find ways when we see those weeds start to grow up, to pull them, get them out of there.

The Good Soil
But then that brings us to the good soil, and that's what the whole point of the parable is, really. That we would prepare our hearts and minds to be good soil for the word of God and to get rid of the things that crowd out. Get rid of the hardness, get rid of the carelessness with the word, and let it take root and grow in our hearts and minds by faith and make us more than we are. To give us the joy of our salvation, to give us the fullness of our healing in Christ.
We can just think of a field out there that has been cleaned all out and the ground's broken up and it's been planted and it's been cultivated and it's got good irrigation and good nutrition and everything, and the crops are growing beautifully and a beautiful crop comes up. That's what we want for our own spirits, amen? We want that good crop. We want good soil so that the plants that we really want, the things we really want in life can take root and grow.
You never can tell. I like how like he put it in The Message. "Beyond your wildest dreams." Jesus put it 30, 60 or 100 fold. I mean, just as much as you can imagine of the results that come from this in our lives, beyond what we can ask or imagine, so it says.
So that is the parable that we have before us today to think about, and I'd like to end with this prayer by Charles Wesley. It's in our hymnals. This is the third verse of I Want a Principle Within. I don't know if I can sing it, but if I can't, I'll stop and read it.

Almighty God of truth and love,
to me thy power impart;
the mountain from my soul remove,
the hardness from my heart.
O may the least omission pain
my reawakened soul,
and drive me to that grace again,
which makes the wounded whole.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Monday, July 6, 2020

JUSTICE: The Great Invitation

Some people are forced to disproportionately carry undue burdens, and we are invited to share the load with each other and with Jesus. 

"Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28).

The great invitation got its name because of all the invitations in the Bible, this one stands out to the church historically as the one where Christ is most pointed in saying, "Come to me," and then he gives his reasons.

As we meditate on that this morning, I'd like to just kind of drill down on that. There were so many invitations given in the Bible. There's one where God says, "'Come now, let us reason together,' saith the Lord." There's a wonderful invitation at the end of the Bible, "The spirit and the bride say come. Let whosoever heareth say come, and whosoever will may come and drink freely from the fountain of the water of life."  "All you that are thirsty, come to the water without money, without price."

Transcript of sermon Preached Extemporaneously [Video] on July 5, 2020 at Briensburg UMC

Come unto me

There's constantly an invitation, and that helps us to see that the commandments and the teachings in the scriptures, the teachings that Christ brought, and our faith is an invitational faith. We don't force people to become a Christian or we don't try to scare people into becoming a Christian. We don't, and that's not how Christ does. He invites us to be a part of his fellowship. He invites us into these commandments, into the fellowship of love. He gives the command, but then he also gives with that the choice. Of course, I mean with the choice comes to consequences also of our choices, but so it's a constant invitation.

If we hear in each passage of scripture the invitation, then also can sense our appropriate response to that invitation, become a part of the mystery that Christ is calling us into in that invitation. It becomes some more than just something we're just told to do, but something we're invited to be a part of. There's a difference there. There's a big difference in that, in the ownership and in the belonging and in our whole participation in the kingdom of God.

In the Message Translation, this first part of the invitation is translated, "Are you tired, worn out, burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life." The invitation is to come to Christ personally, and that goes beyond even the teachings, into the person, into the personal saving relationship with God in Christ. In prayer, prayerfully we come to the Lord. We turn our thoughts to Christ. We center our hearts and minds on him, and he becomes for us a personal Lord and savior and not just the savior of the world or the center of the universe, but the center of our own universe, and of our own world, and our own savior, and our own Lord, and our own companion and guide.

All of you who labor and are heavy laden

 Then the invitation is given to ... well, it's given to all of you who labor and are heavy laden, or in the Good News Translation it says "all of you who are tired from carrying your heavy loads." There we begin ... As I said, we're looking at this through the lens of justice. There we begin to think, if we think about that in terms of justice, then we can think about our heavy loads that we're carrying, but sometimes those loads are unjust burdens on some people, burdens that'll be put on some people for reasons that are not fair, maybe on ourselves, maybe on others. Carrying undue burdens because of racism, or discrimination, or exploitation, or violence, or all these things that we've been trying to take a stand on to try to at least diminish or push back.

The remission of sins that we speak of, that's pulling that back and making it a little less than it was. Anything that we can do to address that and make it diminish just a little bit, even if it's only in our own minds and hearts, maybe it's in their own family and friends or however that we're able to, wherever we're able to do the work of the remission of sin, of pulling back this and these injustices, then we have done what about the scripture last week was about, about giving somebody just a little cold water, a drink of water will not lose their reward. It helps.

Christ invites all who labor and are heavy laden. If we think about some of the things that we've done in our lives, all of us could probably think of some times when we felt a little overburdened, when we felt like there was just a little much on us at that time. It can be in all of these realms. Sometimes it could be finances, sometimes relationships, sometimes employment or any other kind of things that are just hard, get hard to carry and we could get tired from carrying that. That's when Christ hopes we most remember his words, "Come unto me. If you're tired from carrying your heavy load, bring it to me."

Take my yoke and learn from me

 Then he said, "Take my yoke and learn from me." Again, in the Message it says, "Walk with me and work with me. Watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill fitting on you." The yoke is a symbol of unity, a symbol of working together. Christ in his invitation is inviting us to be the other side of that yoke.

When the beasts of burden are trained to the yoke, they usually put an older one that has more experience along with a new one that is beginning to learn how to do this, because the new one will just learn from the older one, will learn from that experience. Nobody, they don't read a book about it. They just hook them up. The one with the most experience just goes ahead and plods away doing what they know and have learned through their experience of pulling the load, and how to pace themselves, and how to draw whatever it is they're pulling. While the new one might struggle against it and might work against it for a while, but gradually kind of learns how it works, and it eases into the knowledge and becomes proficient in pulling the load to the point, and then maybe then that beast will be used to train another.

In that sense, when we're yoked with Christ, then we are his disciple in that kind of a sense that we are learning by doing. We're learning by being a part of the work that Christ is already doing, and we're brought in to that, and we gradually learn not to struggle against the load, but to pull it as it's meant to be pulled. Also, we're sharing that load, because if we try to carry everything by ourselves that's meant to be carried and meant to be shared, then we'd be carrying too much. Christ invites us to share the load. If we're not trying to do it all ourselves, then we find that Christ is helping us and the load becomes lighter and easier to bear.

The same thing works with us as we can use the same imagery with Christ and us in the yoke with ourselves and each other, someone else, other people and the carrying of their loads, because we kind of have the same system. We have the same system for teaching and the same system for learning. It's how we learn from each other. We help each other.

Going back to the commandment of Christ, he said, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you, and everybody will know you're my disciple by this." That's a part of this invitation, because Christ offers this commandment as an option that we can choose. If we do, then everybody will know we're a disciple, but mostly we'll know we're a disciple because we'll be becoming a disciple by actually practicing the love that Christ practices. That's the invitation that we would become a part of that love that Christ demonstrated and that we would then share that with other people.

Saint Paul used to like to emphasize how that love was the fulfillment of all the law. Especially in Romans and Galatians he wrote about that. When he wrote about it in Galatians, he said, 'Love fulfills all of these laws, and so we don't need to get tangled up in all of those again. What we need to do is love one another as Christ taught us to love, and then we'll be fulfilling the law." Then he went on to the say, "And this is how you do it. This is how you fulfill that law, by bearing each other's burdens." That fits right in with this invitation, doesn't it? By bearing each other's burdens, you fulfill the law of Christ.

It really kind of helps us to know a little bit more about love just in that statement, doesn't it? It's not just that we feel affectionate toward the people around us, and we hope we do. We care about people. We love them, but it doesn't stop there. If we love as Christ loved, then we bear one another's burdens. We become yoked with them.

Then this is again a place where I think we can see the injustices that some people have in being maybe forced to have too much of the burden on them. It's coming out a lot for example in the news in the COVID crisis about segments of our population who are bearing too much of the burden. I think one thing I think about it is the healthcare workers, that they're bearing so much the burden of this crisis. Then if people are not helping them by trying to just be safe and trying to keep prevent the spread, then they're adding unduly to the burden, and they're also adding fighting against the yoke and causing making that burden harder, heavier to bear it. Heavier in the first place and then making it harder to bear, harder to pull, harder for those who are having to do that part of the job. We could probably apply that to all these other things about population, parts of the population that suffer more, not because of any fair reason or not because of these problems themselves, but because of additional burdens and additional expectations that are placed on them.

I am meek and lowly in heart

 Jesus said, "I am meek and lowly of heart." A lot of times we think of Christ more in that one incident where he cleansed the temple and that he's going to just go around and do everything like that, but that's not really representative of most of his ministry. In the Beatitudes, he said, "Blessed are the meek." He teaches us and the apostles taught about being humble. He says here, "I am meek and lowly of heart. I am gentle and humble." That's part of the invitation for us then is to be gentle with each other, gentle with the world around us, humble in our approach.

In seeing Christ that way, I think he's trying to remind us that we don't have to be afraid. Again, another way of saying that, "Don't be afraid to come to me. Don't be afraid to be yoked with me. Don't be afraid of the burden that you want to share with me. But instead, realize that I'm meek. I'm lowly of heart. I'm tender and compassionate. I'm empathetic to everything you're experiencing, and I want to be there with you through it all, and to be a part of it, and to help you bear that burden."

It reminds me of the song, Leave It There. "Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there." Do you have a burden on your heart today for anybody or anything, something that you're going through or something that somebody else is going through that you care about, somebody you care about? Maybe a rhetorical question, because I think we all do have those burdens and we have a burden for our community, and for the world, for our country, and everything that people are going through at that time. There's only so much that any one of us could do on our own, but together with Christ and with each other, we can do more because the burden is lighter. We can do more and the burden will still be lighter because we're doing this together. We're yoked together with each other and with Christ, and we're invited into that kind of approach to life.

Find rest for your soul
 When we think of these burdens, they can feel oppressive to us and become oppressive to us, and it can be even more oppressive to those who don't have this yoke, who aren't wearing it already, haven't already begun to work their way into the fellowship of this mystery of Christ. Think how heavy that burden can be for people that have tried to do everything alone without Christ. It almost like weighs you down. It makes you feel under labor, like you're laboring and carrying a heavy load already thinking about it.

But then it comes to this promise. "You shall find rest for yourselves. You will find rest, for the yoke I will get you is easy and the load I will put on you is light." Then you can feel, I can breathe again. The air is coming back. The wind is coming back into my soul, because the Lord is breathing breath into me. The Lord is lifting me up. The Lord is helping me through, and I'm not doing this alone.

That's the promise that we claim in this invitation, and it's why when Christ invites us, "Come unto me. You shall find rest." It's to lift that burden, to share, to teach us how to work it, and then to help us to become those who help others to do the same thing. Together, we all find that our burden is lighter and the load is easier to bear. All the while, we begin to find the rest for our souls, and it feels a lot better, amen? 

This is the great invitation. "Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

 In the name of Jesus, Amen.