Regional Assembly Sermon – Surprise!

I was honored to preach at my denomination’s Kentucky Regional Assembly this past weekend. Here’s the sermon text.

SCRIPTURE – Gen. 18:1-15

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures[c] of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for theLord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

SERMON
Surprise!
Gen. 18:1-15
Sept. 26, 2014 – KY Regional Assembly

It’s truly an honor for me to be standing in front of you today at the culmination of my time as your moderator. I want to thank Rev. Nathan Brown and Rev. Jackie Twedell for opening up their pulpit and to all the great folks of First Christian Church in Hopkinsville for their amazing hospitality. I sure feel sorry for whatever church has to follow this act in two years!

I want to thank the Regional staff for their leadership and their support, as well as the entire Regional Board, including my teammates Darrell Hayden and Shelia DeMoss, for their hard work these past two years. And I would like to thank you, the people that make up the Kentucky region, for your continued faithfulness and commitment to living out your faith in Jesus Christ in tangible, transformative ways. I have been blessed to serve you.

But I didn’t want to. At least not at first. When Greg called me and asked me to consider serving in this role, my initial reaction was surprise. I responded the same way as the girl who was caught off-guard when her teachers asked her to name two pronouns, and she said, “Who? Me?” How often do we respond that way when we’re asked to do something we don’t feel capable or worthy of doing? God gives us a call that God knows we’re capable of doing, and yet our first response is surprise. Who? Me?

Do you like surprises? I remember growing up I spent the night at a friend’s house. We liked to play practical jokes on each other, so that evening while he was brushing his teeth, I snuck up to the bathroom door and jumped out to scare him. Only it wasn’t my friend who was brushing his teeth. It was his dad…in his boxer shorts. Awwwwkward. We just stood there looking at each other, and then with the brush hanging out of his mouth and toothpaste foam on his lips, he said, “I don’t like surprises.”

But some surprises are good, right? A few weeks back I was able to attend a surprise birthday party for my friend Cheryl, who swore that her husband Darren would never, ever throw her a surprise party because she hated them. When Cheryl pulled into the driveway, Darren hid behind the guests, afraid of Cheryl’s reaction. After hugs and smiles and happy tears were shared, Cheryl was asked if she was mad at the surprise. She said, “If I’d have known how special this would be, I would have asked for it a long time ago!”

Some surprises are good, some are not so good. So how do we classify the surprise that Abraham and Sarah get when they are visited by the three guests? It had been 24 years since God had first come to Abraham and said, “Go” and Abraham had said “Who? Me?” and God had said, “Yes, you.” So Abraham and Sarah went, trusting in the promises of God, promises of land and offspring that were taking a L-O-N-G time to be fulfilled. In fact, too long for Sarah. She got fed up with waiting and instructed Abraham to have a child with her handmaiden Hagar. If God wasn’t going to act, Sarah was going to take matters into her own hands. She was, in polite terms, a control connoisseur.

So imagine her surprise when she overhears these divine visitors tell Abraham that Sarah was going to have a son. Who? Me? I know it’s fashionable to wait a little later in life to have children, but don’t you think 90 is a bit past the expiration date for this kind of thing? I love the way professor Gerry Janzen translates Sarah’s response: “After I have become word out with use and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” Hers is a worn-out body, and yet she’s just heard the absurd promise that new life will come from it. So she laughs.

I think Sarah’s laugh is one of disbelief. That’s different than unbelief. Disbelief still contains the element of belief, but it is belief with limits. “I believe that God can do some things, probably most things, but not even God can do THAT thing!” God comes to Moses and says, “You’re going to Egypt to free my people.” Who?  Me? You’ve got the wrong number. I can’t do that. Disbelief. For people like Moses and Sarah, the real issue is the character and the capacities of God. For them, Yahweh is measured by and confined within what they know of themselves and of the world. For them, God can’t operate outside those limits, the limit of a stuttering fugitive shepherd or a 90-year-old worn-out matriarch. That’s why Moses protests. That’s why Sarah laughs. The God they know has limits. The God they know isn’t capable of surprises.

But they eventually learn what we already know: God is not confined by our limits, but calls us beyond them. And, if we are willing to go there, that is where we find the divine surprise. I wish the gospel writers had been a little more adventurous in their writing style. The Bible needs more exclamation points. Can anything good come from Nazareth? Surprise! Hey, Jesus, don’t touch that leper. Surprise! Geez, we’re out of the good wine already? Surprise! Sorry, this banquet is for the elite only. Surprise! Lazarus? You mean the dead guy? Surprise! Uh, folks, the body isn’t in the tomb. Say what? Surprise! Time and time again God shows us that God’s capacity to surprise us greatly exceeds our expectation of being surprised.

But the limits we place on God’s capacity to surprise are justified, aren’t they? You heard Diana Butler Bass, right? You saw her colorful line graphs that basically said mainline Protestantism as we’ve known it is becoming extinct. But we don’t need her to tell us that, because many of us live it every Sunday. A graying congregation. Declining attendance. Dwindling giving. Is it too harsh to say. Kentucky disciples, that ours is a worn-out body? We’ve seen the trends, we’ve read the articles, we’ve watched as our pews get a little emptier every year. And we wonder…is God done with us?

Ha! Laugh with me…Ha! Is God any more done with us than God was with Sarah? With Moses? With Nicodemus? With Saul of Tarsus? The God who came to Moses and the God who came to Sarah is the same God who comes to the region of Kentucky and says, “Surprise!” And I’ve got news for you. God isn’t going to clear it with Greg Alexander before coming to your church. “Um, Greg, God here. Yes, again. Listen, I was thinking about going out to Salvisa and Madisonville and Murray and doing a new thing. Would that be OK with you?” That’s not going to happen! God doesn’t live at Regional Office at Red Mile Road. God lives in Dry Ridge and Flemingsburg and Hopkinsville and anywhere God’s people are willing to open their tents, welcome a stranger, and extend hospitality. And yet, we are hesitant to do that, because inviting them might mean opening ourselves up to the surprising ways God works, and sometimes it’s safer to stay put. Does our God have boundaries? Are we responsible for putting limits on what we think God can do?

I wonder what would happen if our response to God’s surprise wasn’t a laugh like Sarah’s, but a confession like Mary’s. When God comes to her and tells this single teenage female that, like Sarah, she’s going to have a baby, her response isn’t laughter. She doesn’t say, “Who? Me?” She doesn’t say, “I can’t do that.” What does she say? “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Wow! Did you hear that? Wow!

“According to your word.” What word is that to which she is referring? Maybe it’s Isaiah 43: I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Maybe the word is 2 Corinthians 5: So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! Or how about Matthew 9: New wine isn’t put into old wineskins, but into fresh ones. Maybe it’s Psalm 51: Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and put in me a new and right spirit. Is it safe to say that when God’s word comes to us, we’re not being encouraged us to maintain the status quo? “Hey Kentucky? God here. Just checking in. No news for you, just keep doing what you’re doing.” I can’t find that in the Bible anywhere. All I see is that when God shows up…surprise!

During my two years as moderator, I’ve been able to witness how God’s capacity to surprise is already happening around the region. Our Lexington area youth led a powerful worship service remembering Dr. Martin Luther King. Really? Can anything good come from teenagers today? Surprise! I read about mission trips where youth from Mt. Sterling and Jeffersontown and Hurstbourne changed lives and made a difference while learning that faith isn’t just about head and heart, but also hands and feet. I’ve seen the congregation of First Christian Church in Owensboro rise from the ashes of their burned-down church to continue on their vital and vibrant ministry.

Did you hear the one about the church that turned a divisive conflict into a new church start? That’s Chalice Christian Church in London. Surprise! Did you hear the one about the church that raised $10,000 for a local food pantry. Good job, First Christian Church in Mayfield. Surprise! Did you hear the one about the church that thought it was dying, and then God showed up? Surprise! The God who brought new life from the worn-out body of Sarah is the same God who comes to us right here in Kentucky.

The message God is bringing is one of hope, but like for Abraham and Sarah, it’s a call to move. Author Anne Lamott says, “If we stay where we are, where we’re stuck, where we’re comfortable and safe, we’ll die there. If you want to know only what you already know, you’re dying. When nothing new can get in, that’s death. But new is scary, and new can be disappointing and confusing – we had this all figured out, and now we don’t. New is life.”

I believe God is coming to us with an offer of new life. God’s not coming to Greg or Linda or the regional staff. They are not the region. You are the region. We are the region. And God is coming to us in ways that will take our breath away, which creates space within us for new breath, the breath of the Holy Spirit, which will call us out into this scary new future. It may mean for us that we can no longer sit in our buildings and wait for people to come to us. It may mean we have to meet them where they are, listening to their stories and their pain and their longing, introducing them to a God who is not bound by doctrine or dogma or liturgy, but who is working in and around them in surprising ways. It may mean having conversations with people who don’t look or think or act like us, not for the purpose of converting them to our way of thinking, but to build a connection that reflects the mutuality of our relationship with God. It may even mean passing the communion tray on Sunday morning to someone you think doesn’t belongs at the table. This new thing God is doing with us? It can be scary. Very scary. But new is life.

Kentucky Disciples, our story is still unwritten. God is still moving in and among us, working in all things to bring about good. But there’s something troubling me that I have observed about our region. It has nothing to do with attendance or giving or camps. What is troubling to me is our reluctance to be co-authors with God of our own story. In preparation for this message, I read through three years’ worth of our regional newsletter, the Kentucky Christian, looking for inspiring stories where God had shown up and something amazing had happened. Do you know how many I found? Not enough. Not nearly enough. So one of three things must be true: (1) God is not at work in the region, so nothing amazing is happening; (2) the regional office ran out of paper; or (3) we aren’t sharing our stories.

Maybe we think our story isn’t good enough. Maybe we don’t think what’s happening in our congregation is amazing enough. Maybe we think we can’t hold a candle to that big church down the road and the story they have to tell. Has God moved on, passed by our tent? Or do we have a story to tell, Kentucky? Of course we do!

We need to hear those stories for several reasons. First, there’s a different story being told about Christians out in the world, and it’s a bad story. If I learned everything about Christians from the stories I hear in the news, I’d probably be spiritual but not religious, too. But that’s not the only story, is it? We have a different story to tell, not of hatred but of love, not of exclusion but of embrace, not of judgment but of grace. The world needs to hear our stories.

When we tell our story, we tell God’s story. We need to be reminded that God is still here, God is still with us, and God is not done with this worn-out body just yet. Your story has the power to change this region, to infuse it with new life, to serve as a lighthouse to those who need guidance or a gentle nudge or a swift kick in the pants to remind them they are God’s people, called to do God’s work.

But your story, when you tell it, won’t only change the region. It will change you. Naming the ways God is at work in your congregation is like holding up a mirror to yourself and seeing Jesus in the reflection. We will discover things about ourselves as we tell our stories. It may be something new, or it may simply be something we had forgotten about ourselves. As was quoted at the beginning of our assembly, “God will not save us without us.” We have stories to write. We are God’s co-authors. What surprises await us when we pick up the pen, when we boldly proclaim that God is not done with us yet, when we open our imaginations to the surprising God in our midst? Yes, our story is still unwritten. So who are we waiting on to write it? Greg? Linda? It’s not their story, folks. It’s your story. It’s God’s story. Let’s stop worrying about if we have anything to say and if the ink’s going to run dry, and let’s get to writing.

After Sarah laughs at the visitors’ birth announcement, they ask Abraham why she did this. Then they ask the question, “Is anything impossible for God?” And then they leave, the question left hanging in the air, unanswered. “Is anything impossible for God?”

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Mission Possible sermon series – #4 Encouraging People to Take the Next Step in Their Faith Journey

This is the fourth sermon in the series on our church’s new Vision and Mission Statements. You can read the statements here.

SCRIPTURE – Mark 10:17-22 – As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

SERMON
#4 – Encourages People to Take the Next Step in Their Faith Journey
Sept. 28, 2014

We continue our sermon series this morning on our new Vision and Mission statements, which can be found on the front of your bulletin. You may have noticed that there’s a natural progression to the Mission Statement. We start by welcoming and accepting people into the church. We follow that by inviting people’s questions, as they try and figure out how their faith impacts their life and vice versa. Then, we encourage them to take the next step in their spiritual journey, whatever that may be. That’s what we’ll be talking about today.

What is that next step? That’s a question the Vision Team was asked in one of their feedback sessions with the Elders. How do we encourage them to take the next step if we don’t know what that next step is? The answer to that question is a part of the discovery process, as we listen to each other’s stories, as we hear how our faith has been strengthened or challenged, and as we pay attention to the longing we hear for a closer connection with God and each other. As we listen to each other, we’ll hear the next step emerge in the conversation. And no matter who we are or what we’ve done, there’s always a next step to take in our faith.

The rich young man in our story today is a good example. It’s obvious he has already taken a number of steps on his spiritual journey. He’s studied the material, he’s followed the rules, and now he’s ready for the final exam: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus looks at him and loves him, because he knows this man has another step to take on his journey, a step that proves too difficult for him.

Not everyone is at far along on their spiritual pathway as this man. Some of us are life-long believers and church-goers; others may be coming back to church after a time away; and still others might not even be sure what they believe, if anything. Paul was aware of this when he wrote to the Corinthians. He knew they were fledglings in their faith, so he treated them as such, helping them discern the next step that was right for them. He wrote, “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.”

So where are you? Still nursing on spiritual milk? Ready to try the strained peas of the Spirit? Or are you far enough along for the BBQ Ribs of faith, the meaty stuff that helps us go deeper in our beliefs? Wherever you are, our mission statement calls us to provide an avenue for you to take that next step. As we consider how we do this, we need to keep in mind what I said last week about the changing nature of faith. Our faith used to be defined by what we believed. We assented to a certain set of spiritual principles and that defined what kind of Christian we were. Didn’t really matter if we actually lived those out or not. Faith started with belief. You affirmed a certain set of beliefs and you were then a member of the church.

But how many other groups can you think of that require assent to beliefs before joining? Maybe a political party, but that’s all I can think of. Nowadays, people don’t join a group by passing a test about what they believe. “So, you want to join our poker group. Do you believe it’s better to hold ‘em or to fold ‘em?” Belief is not a criteria for joining a group. People join a group by doing what group members do. For example, you don’t join a quilting club by promising to use an agreed-upon pattern or signing a contract that says you will only use certain kinds of stitches. You join a quilting club by quilting! You spend time with the group learning the craft, building relationships, completing projects, and before you know it, you’re a quilter.

That’s how I became a runner. I didn’t run the first time thinking I was a runner. I ran the first time because the quicker I reach my distance goal, the quicker I could celebrate with a milkshake. The next time I ran, I ran a little farther – and had a bigger milkshake. I kept running, a little at a time. I started talking to other people who ran to learn tips and techniques. Then one day, I looked back at how far I’d come and how many milkshakes I’d drank and I thought, “Wadda ya know? I’m a runner!”

The point of these two examples is this: We no longer become Christians through an intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. We become Christians and grow as Christians by surrounding ourselves with other Christians and behaving like Christians. Actions shape our faith. We are what we do. Jesus’ followers didn’t listen to lectures. They listened to stories that taught them how to act toward others and what to do in the world. They didn’t have to sign a covenant to be a part of Jesus’ followers. They simply had to follow.

Diana Butler Bass calls this the Great Reversal. In times past, people were taught that belief came first, behavior came next, and finally belonging resulted, depending on how you answered the first two questions. Do you believe this about Jesus and the Bible? Do you act like you believe this? Good, then you can belong to our church. But now, says Butler Bass, the script has been flipped. Now, it starts with belonging – sure, come join our group. It doesn’t matter if you have all the answers; just bring your questions. Then, behavior – you start acting like a follower of Jesus, serving the homeless or helping at VBS or caring for another person. And before you know it, you’ll find that behavior has resulted in belief about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. From believing-behaving-belonging to belonging-behaving-believing.

This shift is reflected in how we welcome people into membership here at Crestwood. Traditionally, to join our church, you only have to answer one question: Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and do you accept him as your Lord and Savior? If you believe this, then you belong. But how many of us know what that truly means? I don’t. So now, I ask this: Do you trust that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, do you accept him as your Savior, and do you promise to spend the rest of your life figuring out what that means? You belong, then you seek to understand what you believe.

If this shift to belonging first is true, then that changes how we as a church help people to move forward in faith. We not only need to provide the intellectual learning, we also need to provide the opportunity to practice what they learn. In other words, we need to balance learning about God with connecting with God through spiritual disciplines and hands-on service inside and outside the church. If we want people to become quilters, we need to show them how to quilt. If we want them to become followers of Christ, we need to show them how to follow.

That’s an important point and one that I believe we often miss. Many people come back to church after time away because they want their children to have the same spiritual grounding and faith formation they had as children. That’s why our Children’s Wing is bursting at the seams and we have more and more kids up here on the steps with us during Children’s Time. But our kids are not the only ones who need spiritual nourishment. If we adults are also not striving to grow in our faith, then we are missing out on a huge part of our calling to be followers of Christ. You hear that word “followers,” right? We’re not called the loiters of Christ. We are not the statues of Christ. We are followers of Christ, and following implies movement. Christ was always on the go in scripture, doing God’s work and showing people the grace and love of God’s kingdom. As followers, we are supposed to be doing the same, learning and loving and leading and serving, just like our savior.

This isn’t always easy. Sometimes that next step – or first step – forward is the hardest. Just ask the young man in our story. That’s why our Mission Statement says we “encourage” people to take the next step in their spiritual journey. That word literally means to give courage to someone, because sometimes taking a step in faith is really, really scary. It’s not easy to walk into the sanctuary or a Sunday School class for the first time. It’s intimidating to stand in front of a group of children or sing in the choir if you’ve not done it before. Whatever your next step is, you have a whole congregation here ready to encourage you. If you’re not even sure what your next step should be, talk to Robyn – for a limited time only! – or me or an Elder. We’ll figure it out together.

Christianity didn’t start with a confession. It started with a rag-tag group of blue collar workers who were invited to belong to a community where they acted out what they saw and learned from the leader, Jesus of Nazareth. Only after belonging and behaving where they able to say, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” I guarantee you that there is someone in this sanctuary today that doesn’t know if that’s true. And on any given day, that could be every one of us. Our goal is not to make people believe this, but to help them experience it in life-changing ways by connecting them to God and to each other. It is through those connections that we learn what we believe is true.

Butler Bass says, “The disciples didn’t hope the world would change. They changed it. And in doing so, the changed themselves.” May we have that same courage, the courage to take the next step in our spiritual journey toward become the person and the people God has called us to be. Actions shape faith. We are what we do. So what is your next step?

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Mission Possible sermon series – #3 Invites Questions about How Faith and Life Intersect

We continue our sermon series looking at our Vision and Mission Statements. You can find the earlier sermons in audio and text form at http://www.crestwoodchristian.org.

SCRIPTURE – Luke 10:25-37 – Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

SERMON
Mission Possible sermon series
#3 – Invites Questions about How Faith and Life Intersect
Sept. 21, 2014

When I was a seminary student serving as an intern at a church, I had a member of the congregation ask me to lunch. Darrell, who was usually friendly and talkative, said very little until after the food was brought. And then, with a shameful look, he said to me, “I have some concerns.” Realize that’s not a minister’s favorite thing to hear. It ranks right up there with, “We need to talk” and “Who picks these hymns, anyway?” I told the man I was all ears and over breadsticks and pizza he said in a hushed voice, “I have some questions about the Bible. I don’t know if I believe all of it.” I assured him that he was not alone and I encouraged him to talk the senior minister, who was much better trained to handle these things. He said, “Oh, no, I can’t tell this to a real minister! That’s why I wanted to talk to you.” I asked him why he wouldn’t go to the senior minister and he said something that has always stuck with me: “I can’t let anyone know I have questions.”

We continue our sermon series on our Vision and Mission statements to better understand what they mean and how we are called to live them out here at Crestwood. Today we look at the line that says we connect people to God and each other by “inviting questions about how faith and life intersect.” Is it OK to ask questions, to express doubts, to challenge the words we read in the Bible and the practices of the church? A lot of us grew up in churches and households where the answer was an emphatic “No.” God was to be worshipped and obeyed, but never questioned.

But that’s not the example the Bible has set for us. If you have questions, you stand in a long line of famous people who didn’t quite understand this whole faith thing. Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Job, all of the prophets – every one of them had serious questions they weren’t afraid to ask directly to God. Hear these words from the prophet Habakkuk: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?” Or how about these lines from the psalmist, who asks, “Why, O Lord, do you stand so far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”

In the New Testament, Jesus is peppered with questions as he goes about his ministry. Today’s scripture is a great example, when a lawyer tests Jesus by asking him, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responds with a story about a foreign Samaritan man who demonstrates compassion and care. Other questions asked to Jesus carry the same kind of urgency: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is the greatest commandment?”  “Are you the one who is to come?” The Bible is full of rich examples of people questioning Jesus to get a greater understanding of who he is.

But somewhere along the way, questions went from being a necessary step of faith to a spiritual no-no. I think this had a lot less to do with God welcoming our questions and a whole lot more to do with the church not knowing how to answer them. When the Protestant Reformation put the Bible in the hands of the people, an amazing thing happened: they read it. And when they read it, they found that the God the church had been selling them was different than the God they read about in scripture. So they started asking questions. Many of the most prominent question-askers were rewarded with excommunication or a backyard barbecue with them tied to the stake. The message? Don’t ask questions.

The questions didn’t stop with the Reformation. Ever since, we’ve been reading the Bible, listening to sermons, going to Sunday School, and watching what’s happening around us in the world, and responding with “Huh?” How do we reconcile what we know about God and what we see in the world? How do we make sense of starving children, genocide, holy wars, and broken families in light of God’s promise of goodness and protection? In other words, how can we claim to have faith and NOT have questions?

Sometimes these questions are about God. Sometimes they are about the church and how it does or doesn’t reflect the love and grace of God. And sometimes those questions are much more personal. I asked people on Facebook this week to name some of the questions they have when they come to church on Sunday. Listen to the genuine searching here, some of it from life-long church members: Am I loved? Do people care? How can I really experience God’s love in my life? Are these people going to judge me? Can I fit in? What’s the difference between free will and God’s will? Can I make change out of the offering plate? Never let ministers respond to your Facebook questions. Do you hear the deep, soul-level longing in those questions? Whether people have questions about God or questions about themselves, people come here each Sunday with questions.

And still, churches have told their congregations that God is not to be questioned. “God’s ways are not our ways,” they say. So the church has developed a reputation as a place where assent to belief is expected and where questions represent weakness and aren’t welcomed. “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” But the Bible says a lot of stuff I struggle with, or that doesn’t mesh with what I experience in my day-to-day life. Are we supposed to just blindly accept that this is the way it is, or is there space for questions, for conversations, for wrestling with God to find a blessing?

Not only do I think questions should be welcomed, I believe they are essential for a growing faith. Diana Butler Bass says these questions have less to do with doctrine – “What should I believe?” – and more to do with the experience of faith and life – “How am I to live?” For example, she writes that “Do you trust in the resurrection?” is a much harder question to answer than “Do you believe that Jesus was historically and scientifically raised from the dead?” People are wrestling with the hard questions, and for the church to tell them that they can’t ask those questions is a sure sign that we are out of touch with people’s lives and hearts. We as a church need to create space for them to be asked.

I believe the questions people are asking are indicative of a larger change going on in our culture, one that will determine the future of the church. People are hearing one thing from the church but are experiencing something quite different in real life. What should they believe? If the church has been telling people that God is all-powerful, and yet we see planes flying into buildings and children dying of hunger, we start to wonder: Is God all-powerful? And if so, why isn’t God doing something about this? These are the kinds of questions people are asking, and if the church doesn’t allow them to be asked, the church’s authority erodes and those folks will go somewhere else. And in our world of overwhelming choice, one of the options is to go nowhere with those questions.

I believe Crestwood’s future depends on how open we are to these questions. The definition of belief is changing, moving from an intellectual assent to a set of principles to an experiential encounter with God and other people, and we need to let people know that not only is it OK to ask questions and have doubts, but the relevancy of their faith depends on it. And they need to know they are not alone in asking their questions, that they don’t have to whisper when they ask them, that they are free to express all their fears and frustration and doubts within the walls of a welcoming church.

I’ve seen this in action here at Crestwood, and it’s amazing to watch. I’ve sat in Sunday School classes as people have expressed doubts and in Crash Course gatherings were guests have asked about why we don’t do infant baptisms or why we have women ministers and Elders. I’ve had email and text exchanges with people wanting to know where God is in the midst of their mess. And behind all of that is the fundamental question: Is it OK for me to ask questions? Are we at Crestwood open to people asking us their deepest questions about how faith and life intersect?

This may sound daunting to us, as if people are going to start quizzing us on our theology or our understanding of God’s authority. But here’s the great thing about all of this: you don’t have to have the answers! And no, that doesn’t mean you can just say, “Go ask Kory.” Because, honestly, can any of us answer why bad things happen to good people or who really is our neighbor or what it truly means to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength? I know I can’t. But I believe we are not called to provide pat answers; instead, we’re called to give people the space and the community in which to ask the questions. Because I believe people will find that their questions and our questions are the same questions! We are wrestling with the same kind of knotty stuff they are, and they are not alone in wondering how what we hear on Sunday intersects with what we experience Monday through Saturday.

Ultimately, I believe Jesus is the answer to their questions, so it’s our job to connect them with Jesus. Am I loved? Do people care? Will I be judged? I believe Jesus is the definitive answer to these questions, and those answers are embodied in how we welcome people into this space, as they place their spiritual baggage alongside ours and say, “I have questions.” As we sit next to them in the pews, as we pass them the communion trays, as we invite them to Sunday School or a fellowship dinner, we are saying, “Yes. You are loved. You are welcome. You matter.”

When we answer those basic questions, we create room for the deeper ones, questions about God’s power and the existence of evil and why churches love committees. I don’t know that we’ll ever have answers to those on this side of Heaven. But I believe transformation is found, not in finding the answers, but in asking the questions. As Rainier Rilke says, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

From biblical times until the present time, we have questions. How can we not? I believe our questions are answered for us each Sunday when we come into God’s presence, when we are reminded of God’s goodness, when we are welcomed into a community. Sometimes, during the course of the week, we forget those answers. And so we are welcomed back, welcomed again to the table, welcomed to ask what’s on our minds and hearts. We are invited to ask, and then to experience the presence of Christ among us and within us, who walks with us as we live into the answer.

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Mission Possible sermon series – #2 Welcomes and Accepts All People

SCRIPTURE – Gen. 18:1-8 –  The Lord appeared to Abraham[a] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures[c] of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

SERMON
Mission Possible sermon series
#2 – Welcome and Accepts All People
Sept. 14, 2014

We’re off and rolling on our sermon series taking a closer look at our new Vision and Mission statements. Last week, we spend time with our Vision Statement, which is “connecting people with God and each other.” We concluded that what people are most looking for is themselves, and that by connecting them with God and each other, the church can help them find what they are looking for. At our core, we are children of God, made in God’s image, called to love one another with Godly love.

That sounds so easy, doesn’t it? But how do we do that? How do we connect people to God and each other? That’s what our Mission Statement is all about. It spells out five different ways that we are called to achieve our Vision. These next five weeks I’ll be preaching on each of them, hopefully giving us some clarity on what it means to strive for each of these five goals. Then, our General Board will start the important work of putting concrete action steps to each of the five points of the Mission Statement, and then…we pray! We pray that God’s Spirit leads us into the future God has ordained for us.

A quick disclaimer that I probably should have offered last week. These are not going to be the kinds of sermons I normally preach. I really enjoy diving into a scripture passage and sharing the context and history and interpretation with you, then figuring out how to apply it to our lives. I promise we’ll get back to those, but this series is more of a view from the balcony, a big-picture look at our future together. So I ask that you listen with your ears and with your imagination as we figure out together who God is calling us to be.

Today, we look at the part of the Mission Statement that says we connect people to God and each other by welcoming and accepting all people. Now, I’m not naïve. I recognize very clearly the potential minefield into which we’re about to step. That’s why I want to make a couple of things clear right up front. First of all, I’m not going to draw any conclusions for you today. You have a brain, you don’t need me to think for you. We each have our limits to who we are willing to welcome and accept, so you’re not going to leave here with a checklist of who’s in and who’s out of God’s kingdom. Frankly, there’s a good chance that each one of us would be on someone else’s “you’re out!” list, anyway.

Secondly, I’m not expecting everyone to be in agreement about what this statement means. That’s the challenge of a good, God-given Mission Statement. It calls a congregation out of their comfort zone into the wilderness places where their assumptions will be tested, their understanding of God expanded, and their faith deepened. Sure, we could take the easy way out and not wrestle with these kinds of issues. That would be safer. But I don’t believe God is calling us to be safe, God is calling us to be faithful. This sermon, and all the ones in this series, are not meant to be definitive explanations but conversation starters.

OK, have I sufficiently insulated myself from any hecklers or flying tomatoes? “Welcomes and accepts all people.” In our town hall meeting where we discussed this statement, one congregation member said, “This is hard. We don’t do this.” Do we? I think that’s an interesting place to start the conversation. Many of the visitors to Crestwood say that they experience this to be a very warm and welcoming congregation. I believe one of the reasons we have so many new families in our church is because they felt genuinely welcomed here. Like Abraham in our scripture, we go out of our way to extend hospitality to those in our midst.

But before we break our arms patting ourselves on the back, let’s remember that our Mission Statement is not meant to name who we are, but who God is calling us to be. That means that, while we do each of these things well, there is room for challenge and growth. For example, the Mission Statement says we welcome and accept all people, but I believe that each and every one of us has a limit to “all.” I know I do. I would struggle to welcome someone who had been convicted of a violent crime. I would have a hard time welcoming someone who had wronged me or my family. Who would you have trouble welcoming? Each one of us has a limit to “all.”

Here’s something a tad shocking: there’s actually biblical precedent for not welcoming all people into your midst. In the Hebrew scriptures, as the Israelites are settling into their new home in the Promised Land, God is very explicit about instructing them not to intermingle with the pagan tribes that surrounded them. God didn’t want the Israelite’s purity diluted by the introduction of foreign gods or foreign wives, so through the law God told them to keep to themselves and exclude those not like them.

Thankfully, Jesus came along, who told us that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Rather than trying to keep his followers separate from those around him, Jesus repeatedly crossed boundaries and upset the exclusivist tendencies of the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, had conversations with women and lepers, and often made the hated Samaritan foreigners the heroes of his parables. Jesus radically redefined what it meant to connect with God and each other, especially those not like us.

So if Jesus left us with an example of welcoming all to the table, where did we go wrong? Unfortunately, the church in America today has a reputation for being mean-spirited, exclusivist, and extremely prejudiced – all in the name of Jesus. I believe that started way back at the Reformation, when Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church and began interpreting the Bible for themselves. They quickly learned that where two or three are gathered, there will be four opinions, and none of them will agree. So the Protestant church started splitting over issues of doctrine and biblical interpretation.

That’s the issue about trying to interpret and apply what we think the Bible says. Every single person who does this believes in their heart that they have it right. And not everyone has the humility to keep that opinion to themselves, so out of their passion and conviction, Christians began trying to encourage people who disagreed with them to see how wrong they were. And if someone didn’t come around to the correct way of seeing things, then those folks weren’t welcomed in the church or at the communion table. That’s why today we have thousands of different denominations, many of which are downright hostile to those who think or act differently than them.

I’m relieved to say that I don’t believe Crestwood or the Disciples of Christ denomination is one of them. We have a generous spirit when it comes to welcoming people different than us, and I believe our church is especially good at creating space for people who hold differing views. But I’d like to suggest there is a difference between welcoming someone and accepting them. It’s one thing to have them worship with us for a week or two. But what if that person we don’t want here joins the church? Or serves on our ministry team? What if they sit next to us in worship?

The root question here is, “What is required for a person to be accepted at Crestwood?” As you know, there are no entrance exams or litmus tests people must pass in order to place their membership here. We don’t check references or quiz you on your Bible knowledge. But just because someone is a member here doesn’t mean you have to accept them. I believe the challenge the Mission Statement gives us is to move from occupying the same space as others to accepting them as part of our church family. And that’s not always easy to do.

Making that move to acceptance goes back to the promise we’re given in scripture that each and every one of us is made in the image of God. Each and every one of us. The abused and the abuser. The victim and the convicted. The persecuted and the persecutor. The homeowner and the homeless. Every one of us. There are some folks that I would personally struggle with welcoming to the table each Sunday. But those personal biases are balanced by this quote from Rev. Sara Miles: “The surest sign of Jesus’ real presence in communion is when there’s someone completely inappropriate at the table.” From week to week, that inappropriate person could be a visitor, the person sitting next to you, or, depending on what you did the past week, it could be you. And yet, we are welcomed and accepted by Christ.

In her new book, our denomination’s general minister and president, Sharon Watkins, relates a wonderful story about an experience with a family living in Appalachia. The family’s dinner table was set in their large kitchen. At that table they gathered for meals and sharing the news of the day. It was a rough-hewn table that was handmade. Each time a new child was born into the family, he went out and cut another board for that table. They always made room for one more in their expanding family.

Our table should constantly be expanding. Each week, we have people visiting with us, looking for a warm welcome, looking for a genuine experience of God, looking for their true selves. Is there room for them here? All of them? Paul says in Galatians that, because of Christ’s ushering in of God’s kingdom here on earth, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are made one in Christ Jesus.” What categories would Paul add today to his list? There is no longer Republican or Democrat, there is no longer gay or straight, there is no longer black or white, there is no longer Cardinal fan and Wildcat fan…All means all. All are welcome and accepted.

I want to close by making this point: acceptance doesn’t mean agreement. We don’t have to believe the same way as another person to accept them. To accept them is to listen to them, to get to know them, to hear their story. That way, if you still disagree, it is grounded in your relationship with them, not uninformed judgments or prejudices. Is there space here at Crestwood for those conversations? Do we feel safe sharing with others our fears, our doubts, those things that others might deem unacceptable? We are called to be witnesses to God’s love, the life-changing love we have received through Jesus Christ. We’re not only called to love those we want to love; that would be too easy, and faith isn’t meant to be easy. We’re called to love all of God’s people, especially those we judge to be unloveable. In doing so, we make God’s kingdom real here on earth. Our Mission Statement calls us to welcome and accept all people. May the welcome and acceptance we extend to others reflect the welcome and acceptance we have received from our generous, gracious God.

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Mission Possible sermon series – #1 Connecting People to God and Each Other

This week, I’m starting a sermon series on our new Vision and Mission Statements. I’m very excited to preach these sermons and I hope they help articulate the meaning behind our statements. I also hope they help ground our sermons in the love of Jesus and our desire to follow him more fully. I believe God has great things in store for Crestwood!

SCRIPTURE – John 1:35-51 – The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed. He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

SERMON
Mission Possible sermon series
#1 – Connecting People to God and Each Other
Sept. 7, 2014

Who ARE you? If someone who didn’t know you asked you that question, how would you answer? You’d give them your name, for sure, but then what else would you say about yourself to help them begin to understand who you are? Would you tell them where you live? What kind of work you do or did? Would you tell them about your hobbies, your family, maybe even your church? How do YOU know who you are?

Last week in our congregational meeting we approved adopting our new Vision and Mission statements, which you can find on the front of your bulletin. I think they are excellent statements, but they are only words on the page until we decide to live them out in our lives and in the life of this church. So starting today we’re going to explore those statements in much more depth, beginning with the Vision Statement: Connecting people to God and each other.

Who are you? Jesus asked those kinds of provocative questions, didn’t he? Do you want to be well? Why are you afraid? Who do you say that I am? Jesus had a way of skipping the small talk about the weather and cutting to a person’s soul. In our scripture reading today, Jesus asks a similarly striking question to a couple of John’s disciples. John had been preaching and baptizing, and was popular enough to attract a crowd of followers. But he was quick to point out that he was only the opening act. The main attraction, the Lamb of God, was on his way. When Jesus arrives, John points him out and two of John’s disciples began following him. Jesus turned to them and said, “What are you looking for?” They answered, “Where are you staying?” and Jesus said, “Come and see.”

What are you looking for? I believe the disciples were looking for much more than a place to sleep or a quick cup of coffee with Jesus.  I believe what the two disciples were truly looking for was themselves. They were looking for a new understanding of who they were apart from the way their society defined them – lower class, blue-collar, manual laborers, riff raff. They wanted to know themselves in a deeper, more existential way and they believed Jesus could show them the way.

I believe the question “Who am I?” has been the driving force behind the human condition for centuries. Our search to know ourselves, to find our place in this world by naming and claiming our identity, has been a struggle for us ever since we were created. We are told in the beginning of the Bible that we are created in the image of God, and yet we can think and do such depraved, destructive things. So who are we? Are we gods? Are we devils? Are we a little bit of both?

You know, for a long time, this question didn’t really matter. For centuries before and after Jesus, a person’s individual identity was really of no consequence. You were defined in predetermined ways – what tribe you belonged to, the town in which you lived, your family connections. That’s why when Nathanael hears about Jesus he responds, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Jesus was defined by where he lived, a backwater town with a bad reputation. All people from Nazareth were no good. There was no sense of individualism.

This continued on into the Middle Ages, when people were often defined by their connections to other things, like jobs and family. My last name, Wilcoxson, means that I am the son of Will Cox. Now, that will surprise the heck out of my dad because his name isn’t Will Cox. But somewhere in my history, an ancestor of mine was known as the son of Will Cox. Many other names are connected to jobs – Carpenter, Bailey, Smith – or family – Johnson, Richardson, etc.

Well, all that changed when we got to the Enlightenment. The wealth of knowledge made available through new discoveries in science, medicine, and engineering also stirred up curiosity about the Self. Probably the most famous proclamation of the time came from French philosopher Rene Descartes, who asserted, “I think, therefore I am.” Suddenly, none of your external connections mattered. Regardless of your job, your family, or your social status, because you had a brain, you were your own person, no longer restricted by societal boundaries. According to Descartes, because he has a brain, Mr. Nobody can become Mr. Somebody.

Oh boy, here we go! Did we take this idea and run with it or what? Once we realized we had a say in who we were, we’ve never stopped talking. I believe our sense of identity has slowly transformed as our ability to define ourselves individually, apart from a particular community, has grown. Leigh and I were lamenting the other day that our girls don’t know their cousins as well as we wished they did, whereas Leigh and I grew up with very close relationships to our extended family. With the ability to move fluidly around the country and around the world, we are no longer geographically tied to a certain place we can call home or a group of people who are with us our whole lives. Without those anchors to ground us, how do we answer the question, “Who am I?”

In today’s world, we often don’t answer that question, but let our culture answer it for us. As Diana Butler Bass says, “We have lost any real sense of self in a world of broken memories, entertaining technologies, and frenzied materialism. We are reconstructing our sense of self through nostalgia or consumerism.” In other words, in a world that presents a myriad of competing images about who we should be – a certain kind of dresser, eater, shopper, etc. – we build a persona from the buffet of choices we’re given. But with so many options of who to be, how in the world do we figure out who we really ARE? Who ARE you?

That is where our Vision Statement comes in. I believe the only way to truly answer that question can be found in what theologian Paul Tillich called “the ground of our being,” that which anchors us in the midst of life’s swirling storms. We are created in the image of God, the God who came to Moses and told him to go to Egypt and free the Israelites. Moses hemmed and hawed and stuttered and stammered, asking, “But who do I say sent me to do this?” And God says, “Tell them I AM sent you.” Do you see the answer to our question? All the wanderings to find our Self – “Who am I?” – should lead us to the one who is named “I AM.”As Butler Bass says, “God’s being and human beings are intimately related.”

Church should be the place where that interconnectedness is rediscovered. That’s what happened for me. When I was in college, searching for myself, struggling to forge my identity, my mom said, “I think you’d like our church. Come and see.” She didn’t beg or bribe or threaten to ground me. “Come and see.” So I went. I found people like Rick Burch and Joanne Robbins and Don and Joan Allen who accepted me and helped me take the next step in my faith journey. I found a God who loved me for who I was but called me to be something greater. And ultimately, I found myself.

Our world, as it pulls us in a hundred different directions, unravels our core identity, causing us to forget who we are and Whose we are. Butler Bass says we need to be stitched back together into a new whole, fundamentally defining our identity by providing a new answer the question, “Who am I?” that is informed and transformed by the experience of being in a community of faith. What are people out there looking for? They are looking for themselves. And they will find it here.

But the question really isn’t just “Who am I?” The question really is “Who am I in Christ?” How does the fact that I’m created by God change my self-understanding? And then, if we’re brave enough, the next question to ask is, “Who is Christ in me?” What does Jesus look like to others when I live out my faith in this world? Our identity cannot be confined to or determined solely by us, because we’ll screw that up in a heartbeat. Our identity is inextricably linked to the One who created us. That’s who we are, that’s how we are connected to God. We just need to be reminded of that every so often, every Sunday, or even every day.

But we can’t stop there, because there’s this little monkey wrench called “other people” that we have to throw into the mix. We can’t just be in relationship with God. We still have to buy groceries and call customer service and pass the communion trays. So not only should the church connect people to God, but it must also foster connections between and among people. Ah, now it starts to get tricky, because those connections don’t always work, do they? I mean, I love being in relationship with other people, at least until they do or say something that really honks me off, which happens about every day. Then it’s a lot easier to sever that connection and go back inside, to forgo the hard work of being connected to others.

But here’s the thing. To live out this vision, to welcome people into the church, means connecting them with this beautiful looking but imperfect community. It means being willing to let the image of God in us bump up against the image of God in someone else. It means pooling our collective gifts and resources, binding them together, and then figuring out what we can do to make this world a little more like Heaven it can be and a little less like Hell it is.

Butler Bass says, “The church is not an institution, an organization, or a building, but a community of relationships where people’s selves are with God and with one another, bound by love.” If God is love, as the Bible tells us, and we are made in the image of God, then we are made to show that Godly love. And, as theologian Emil Brunner says, “Love can only operate in community, and only in loving can people be truly human.” In other words, it’s only when we act out the image of Godly love inside of us that we can truly know who we are.

Who are you? I don’t mean to imply that you can ever fully answer that question. We are so much more than we’ll ever know. But by grounding ourselves in the context of our creator and our fellow creatures, we are taking the steps toward discovering who we were created to be and what we’re supposed to do about it. Our vision is to connect people to God and to each other. That means we have to trust that we can work through the doubts and the messiness and the hurt feelings and the hard questions to forge a relationship with each other and with the living God we have come to know through Jesus Christ. There is a world out there that is desperately looking for something, searching for the answer to the question, “Who AM I?” Let’s introduce them to the great I AM, who made us in God’s image to be in life-giving relationships with each other. It doesn’t matter how tarnished that image is within you. It doesn’t matter how many relationships have failed. You belong to God and have the power of God’s love and grace within you. Now, live like you believe that. That’s who we are and who we are called to be.

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This Week’s Sermon – Thanks!

We continue our “Essential Prayers” sermon series, based on the book by Anne Lamott titled “Help Thanks Wow.” This week’s sermon is on the importance of praying, “Thanks!”

SCRIPTURE Luke 17:11-19 – On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.  Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

 

SERMON
The Essential Prayers sermon series
#2 – Thanks!
August 24, 2014

            I was working with a particularly ornery youth group one time while I was in seminary. This group of mostly middle school boys was rambunctious and not really very good at taking directions. We were doing some painting in our youth room and they weren’t quite as focused on the task as I thought they should be, so I was quickly losing patience with their shenanigans. When one of the boys asked for a paint tray, I handed it to him and waited for his response. When it didn’t come, I said, “Um, Joey, don’t you have something to say to me?” “Like what?” he said. I said, “When someone gives you something, you’re supposed to say the magic words.” And he replied, “Abracadabra!”

            While that might indeed be a magic word, it’s not the one I was waiting for. And as fun as it is to say, it doesn’t make Anne Lamott’s list of the three essential prayers. In her latest book, Lamott makes the case that the three prayers we need to pray most are “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow.” Last week we learned the importance of praying for help. This week, we’ll talk about why we need to pray our gratitude to God.

            Our Bible story today is a perfect illustration of the power and necessity of this prayer. Luke tells us Jesus is traveling between Samaria and Galilee. That’s the border between two groups of people – the Jews from Galilee and the Samaritans from Samaria – who really don’t like each other. The Samaritan race came about when a group of Jews violated God’s law by interrelating with a group of Gentiles. Because of this, Jews considered Samaritans to be ethnic and religious half-breeds who perverted the pure race of Jews. For Jesus to be walking the borderlands between them was like walking the fence line that separated the Hatfields and McCoys. To call someone a Samaritan in those days was a racial slur.

 As Jesus is approaching a village, he is met by ten people who had leprosy. Leprosy is a disease mentioned frequently in the Bible, and actually could have been used to describe a number of different skin ailments. Leprosy was believed to be a disease not just of the skin but of the soul. It was often considered to be a punishment from God, and it was an especially tragic disease because it was so obvious for everyone to see. You can hide a stomach virus or sinus infection; you can’t hide leprosy. These factors meant that the lepers were exiled from society. If a leper was approaching a crowded area, they had to shout “Unclean!” to warn the people that they were coming. If they wanted to get someone’s attention to ask for a handout, they had to shout from a distance, so as not to contaminate the person.

That’s what these ten lepers do when they see Jesus. Keeping their distance, they shout to him, asking for mercy. They don’t ask to be healed; the idea of being cured was beyond their wildest dreams. They’re not asking Jesus for a life change; they just want his spare change. The title the lepers use, “Master,” was a common way at the time to show respect, and their request to “have mercy on us” was simply a way of begging for money. They weren’t expecting a miracle.

            But that’s what they get. Jesus commands them to go show themselves to the priest, an action that would be necessary to do before the lepers could be considered clean and fit to return to society. On the way, they are healed. One of the lepers turns back, praising God in a loud voice, throwing himself at Jesus’ feet and offering thanks. Then Luke drops the bomb – and he was a Samaritan. Really? The only one who does the right thing is a leprous Samaritan? What is this, a bad joke? That can’t be true. You know what Samaritans are like. Why would one of those people be the hero of the story and return to give thans?

            But Jesus had a better question: why didn’t the other nine do the same? Like the Samaritan, their illness had been taken away, their health had been restored, their lives had been changed. Why didn’t they stop and take the time to give thanks? It’s easy for us to criticize the nine for their lack of gratitude. But considering the circumstances, they may have had legitimate reasons.

            For example, the first was so happy he was healed that he simply forgot. The second was just following orders. He was determined to do what he was told by carrying out Jesus’ command to see the priest. The third was too busy rushing off to be reunited with family and friends and to share the good news of his healing with others. The fourth leper, after years of suffering, felt he deserved something good to happen to him, and saw no need to offer thanks for it. The fifth was so overwhelmed by the miracle itself that he didn’t pay attention to one who provided it. The sixth just knew there was a logical explanation for the healing, and that Jesus had nothing to do with it. The seventh leper? He was just plain frightened by what happened and frightened of Jesus. The eighth was secretly offended because Jesus took away his identity, and he didn’t know how to live life without leprosy. As for the ninth leper, his life had been full of such misery and disrespect that he stopped saying, “Thank you” to anyone a long time ago. In our own lives, we can usually come up with at least nine different reasons why we don’t stop and say, “Thank you.”

            But one did. One saw beyond all those reasons and realized that the only proper response to the miraculous work of God was to return to Jesus. He praised God with a loud voice, he threw himself at his feet, and he thanked him. Does that sound? Singing God’s praises, placing ourselves in Jesus’ presence, giving thanks through words and offering. As Martin Luther said, “Worship is the tenth leper turning back.”

I don’t think this was quiet, hushed form of praise, either. The guy didn’t sneak up to Jesus and whisper in his ear, “By the way, thanks!” He came running and shouting making such commotion that everyone around him stopped to see what was going on. This man had so much for which to offer praise, and when that’s the case, as one writer said, praise gushes!      

Praising God by giving thanks is one of the ways we worship God. Gratitude a spiritual discipline, and not an easy one to practice in a world where too often we assume we have an absolute right to health, happiness, and all our creature comforts. It’s easy for us to believe that we deserve what we have, and we only realize the preciousness of our blessings when they are removed. Too often we get so caught up in our blessings that we forget to acknowledge the Blesser. I think it’s ironic that the less you have the more you appreciate it, and the more you have, the harder it is to say thanks.

            Sometimes we have to think like those much different than us in order to understand how thankful we should be. In our story, it took an outsider, a leper, a Samaritan, to be thankful in such an excessive way, because the last thing he was expecting was to be made well. On the other hand, we church folk can become so used to following a pattern of faith – come to church, be nice to others, lend a hand, give some money – that we either can become blinded to the awesomeness of our blessings or we can begin to think that we are entitled to them.  At some point we become like the little kid at Christmas who opens each gift, looks at it a few seconds, and then tosses it aside, ready for the next present. Do we treat God’s blessings that way? Our jobs, our health, our family, or possessions. Sometimes we simply need to step back from our lives, look around and let the joy and gratitude and praise gush forth. Ask yourself this: Does the sincerity and frequency of your thanks to God come close to matching the ways in which you are blessed?

            We learn from the 10th leper that the only response to our blessings is to be a blessing, to turn back to Christ and give thanks. Are we required to do this? No. The other nine didn’t. Does Christ need our thanks? Of course not. But we need to be thankful, because developing and nurturing a spirit of gratitude makes for a richer and fuller and more peaceful life. What would it mean for us to not complain about all the traffic and instead give thanks for having transportation? Or to pause in the long line at the grocery to give thanks for the abundance of food we have. Or to take a moment while paying a medical bill for the skill of the doctors and nurses who care for us. We have been blessed beyond measure, most fully in the gift of Jesus Christ. Therefore, a meaningful goal for all of us is to try and live a life that is a constant “Thank you.” Ann Lamott says, “Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into our behavior.” We sing a song of thanks called the Doxology every week, but beyond these walls we are called to be a living doxology to God. Do the words you speak and the choices you make and the way you treat others say “Thank you” to God?

            An amazing thing happened when the leper returned. Jesus sees his spirit of gratitude, his gushing praise, and says, “Rise and go, your faith has made you well.” Jesus doesn’t mean “well” in a physical sense; that’s already happened. Luke actually uses two different Greek words here for “cleansed” and “made well.” Jesus means that this man’s soul has been made whole. On that day, ten were cleansed, but only one was made well, healed of his anger and resentment as well as his leprosy. Giving thanks has that kind of power, the power to make us whole.

When the leper gave thanks for his blessing of healing, he was blessed even more. What blessings are in store for us and for this church when we take time to say, “Thank you?” Don’t wait until you’ve taken care of all your other business to give thanks. Come to God first, let your praise gush forth, let your life become a constant “Thank you” to God. And then, just as you have been so blessed, you will be a blessing – to this church, to all those whom we serve together, and to God.

 

 

 

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This Week’s Sermon – Learning God’s Math

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 14:13-21 – Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

SERMON
Learning God’s Math
Matthew 14:13-21
August 3, 2014

When I was little, every Christmas morning after we opened presents, my mom and I would join the rest of the family at my grandparents’ house for breakfast. Now my grandfather, PawPaw, had a very small shotgun kitchen, barely enough room for more than two people at a time. When we got to his house, I would run to the kitchen to see how things were going. On the counter I would see a small bowl of batter, a half-dozen eggs, maybe a potato or two, and then PawPaw would shoo me out of the kitchen while he and my grandma Bonnie worked.

About a half hour later, PawPaw would call us all into the dining room, where he had turned that bowl of batter and those few potatoes into biscuits and sausage gravy, scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, hash browns and fried potatoes, buttered toast, pancakes and syrup. The more we ate, the more food appeared from that little kitchen. When we were all finished, there were enough leftovers to feed Santa and all his reindeer. We would sit back, pat our satisfied bellies, and marvel at how PawPaw and Bonnie worked their miracle.

Now, as I look back on this event as an adult, I know this wasn’t a miracle. It doesn’t diminish the meaning of the memory for me, but I know there was more food stored in the refrigerator and the pantry. I know how PawPaw did it. But I don’t know how Jesus did it. I’ve tried to make sense of this story several ways, but it just doesn’t fit into any of the math I learned in school. I’ve applied my algebra, my trigonometry, even my calculus, and nothing fits. I remember the old equations I would do for homework. If 2 times X equals 4, what was X? The answer, if I remember correctly, was 2. But that doesn’t work here. Two fish and five loaves times Jesus equals everyone being satisfied and 12 baskets left over.

Did you know that only one of Jesus’ miracles is told in all four gospels? It’s not the calming of the sea or raising Lazarus from the dead or changing water in to wine. It’s the feeding of the 5,000. Even though each gospel writer tells the story a little differently, to me, this fact lends credence to the authenticity of the miracle. If one eyewitness told me they saw a gorilla loose in Lexington, I’d smile politely at them and quickly walk the other way. But if four eyewitnesses told me they saw a gorilla loose in Lexington, I’d be much more inclined to believe that it’s true. Plus, I’d hide my bananas.

But the fact that this story is repeated four times doesn’t make it any easier to explain, does it? As humans, we like problems we can solve and occurrences we can decipher, yet this story from Matthew defies description. Some people have tried to rationalize it by saying that Jesus only gave each person a pinch of bread, feeding them spiritually rather than physically. Others say that when the disciples began sharing their own food, the crowd, who had been hiding the food they brought, got it out and began sharing, as well, creating an abundance of food for everyone. But both of those theories diminish the miraculous power of what happens here. Five loaves and two fish are turned into feast.

That happy ending is a far cry from how the story begins. I imagine if I were one of the disciples on that day, I would have had the same concerns they did. After all, Jesus wasn’t considering the reality of the situation. In the passage just before this one, we learn of the execution of John the Baptist by King Herod. When Jesus hears about the death of his close friend and cousin, Matthew says, “He withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” As you would expect, he wanted to be alone. But the crowds knew Jesus was someone special, so they followed him. Jesus, seeing the crowd, has compassion on them and spends the day with them.

As the day goes on, it’s obvious that Jesus isn’t paying attention to the details, because it’s getting close to dinner time and Jesus hasn’t even considered how all these people are going to be fed. The disciples, being the rational, realistic bunch they are, bring this point up to Jesus, and he says, “You give them something to eat.” Talk about something not computing!  Jesus obviously hadn’t learned his multiplication tables yet. Doesn’t he know we only have five loaves and two fish?

You know, I take issue with the disciples here. Usually I’m right there with them in my lack of understanding or fair-weather faith, but not this time. I understand they are frustrated at Jesus, I know they are tired and hungry, too, but there’s no need for them to use profanity like that. Did you hear it? That word, “only.” That’s a four-letter word when it comes to faith. I wonder how often we use that word. “I only have a few minutes.” “I’ve only opened my Bible a few times.” “I only know a little about what I believe.” The disciples use that bad word as an excuse, as if to say, “Well, if that’s all we have then the equation is settled.”

Do they not know about the Great Mathematician standing in front of them? Do we not realize that we worship a God who has rewritten the multiplication tables, who has graced us with a new math? Our God turns “only” into abundance. Our God takes what we have, no matter how small, and turns it into something we can share with others. Our God says, “You give what you have and let me worry about the math.”

We can try to explain it a hundred different ways, but the point of a miracle is that it defies explanation, just like the challenge to remain faithful sometimes defies explanation. Our lives get rudely interrupted by some crisis or detour, and we know we should have faith, but we can’t quite figure out the equation. When we look ahead and all we see are the challenges, it’s easy to shrug in defeat and forget the promise Jesus gave us at the end of Matthew when he promised to be with us always. It’s so easy to lapse into a language of scarcity, using words like “only” to describe what God can do.

We all come to this place today with concerns. Each of us has something in our lives that is weighing us down. Maybe it’s a health issue or a financial issue. Maybe we’re worried about an aging parent or a straying child. And we get so distraught, so caught up in the challenges that we almost forget Jesus’ promise. In fact, we may be 99% sure that we’re all alone on this journey.

I promise this will be the first and the last time I quote the movie “Dumb and Dumber” in a sermon, but there is a scene were Jim Carrey’s character Lloyd is trying to find out if a girl he likes will go out with him. She tells him the chances aren’t good. He says, “Not good, like one out of a hundred?” She responds, “More like one in a million.” He pauses, looks pensive, then says, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance! Yeah!”

We may believe that the chances of God helping us are one in a million. We may be 99% sure that God can’t bring about something good from our situation. That 1% of hope is all God needs. “You give what you have and let me worry about the math.” If we believe in a God who loves without limits, who can turn a small snack into a banquet feast, why would we limit our understanding of what God can do in our lives? We worship a God of abundance, and we have no problems being the recipients of that abundance, yet so often we choose to live with a mentality of scarcity.

Here’s the thing. In order for God’s math to work in our lives, in order for us to move from a spirit of scarcity to a spirit of abundance, we have to be willing to give some things over. Jesus couldn’t have multiplied the bread and fish had they not been given into his hands to bless, break, and share. The disciples could have hoarded what they had, which would have ensured two things: (1) they would have had something to eat, and (2) no one else would. I can’t guarantee that God will always fix things the way we want them. But I can guarantee that God can’t work with what we’re not willing to give.

“You give them something to eat.” The amazing thing about this story is that God chooses to use us to do God’s work in this world. Just the fact that we are called to be God’s co-laborers is a miracle in itself. For example, let’s say for argument’s sake that this wasn’t a real miracle, and instead one of the more rational explanations of this story is accurate. Let’s say that when the people saw the disciples’ willingness to take their five loaves and two fish and share it, the people took out their own food they had been secretly saving for themselves and added it to the collective bread basket for distribution. Let’s say this spirit of hoarding was transformed into a spirit of sharing by the disciples’ generosity.

Really, is that any less of a miracle? The fact that people were willing to give up their only sustenance for the sake of others strikes me as pretty miraculous. And look what God did with that. God not only fed those who gave, but everyone else, as well. When we are willing to share what we have, we participate in God’s ongoing miracle of abundance. God asks us to give, no matter how small the gift. If we turn our hopes, our talents, our resources over to God, we are giving God the ability to multiply them for use as a blessing, not just for us, but for many, many others. If we live our lives with a spirit of generosity, God can feed a lot of people – literally and spiritually – with what we’re willing to share.

We have a roof over our heads. We have transportation. And we have enough food to feed ourselves. We are rich. God has blessed us abundantly. Those blessings are not to be hoarded, but shared. How much can God accomplish with what you give? How many lives can be changed? How big a difference can you make? As we starting talking about our vision and mission in the coming months, we’ll be seeking to answer those questions. And I bet whatever answers we come up with, God has something bigger planned. And the cool thing? God wants to work with us and through us to make it happen. Us! We have been given all the tools we need to make a difference in this world, a world where people are starving for food and starving for God. Now, you give them something to eat.

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