Sunday, July 24, 2022

Weight of the World

Psalm 138 & Luke 11: 9 – 13


I am guessing we all know a person.

 

A person who has amazing abilities – amazing skills. And folks just keep asking them for more and more. They put on a brave face, they share themselves with everyone who asks. But maybe what we don’t know is that on the inside, they are really unsure – really concerned that they may fail, that they may not be as skilled as everyone thinks.

 

Maybe it’s you.

 

Or maybe you know this person – the person who once again can do amazing things. And because of the amazing things they do, folks around them know that they will be a doctor or a lawyer or a famous artist. But others probably don’t know that what they really want to do is bake the best bread. Or teach. Or be an amazing barista at a she-she coffee shop.

 

We know a person like that, right?

 

Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s you. 

 

Let’s back up and remember the basics of the story we find ourselves in during this series on the Disney movie Encanto – every member of the Madrigal family has an exceptional gift revealed to the community as they come of age – everyone that is except Mirabel. 

 

As the story begins, the charmed house occupied by the family Madrigal is beginning to literally crack open and apart. There is an awareness and a denial that we see in the characters privately – perhaps because the family is afraid that it means they are the ones falling apart.

 

Mirabel has two sisters -  Luisa (whose gift is exceptional strength) and Isabela (whose gift is the ability to conjure beautiful things with just a touch). 

 

Maybe if you have siblings you can pause for just a moment to think about the tension that sometimes exists – the competition among siblings. I know that as a mom, I continue to work hard (much like the girls’ mother Julieta [hoo le EH ta]) to assure each of my kids that they ALL have unique gifts and they are ALL great gifts that the world needs…and still competition and uncertainty among siblings remains. Am I right? It is a sibling thing.

 

Add to all of that sibling tension the story behind Mirabel NOT receiving a gift – all of that is important to the story.

 

Luisa, with her amazing physical strength, is called on by the entire community to move roads, fix buildings, carry livestock and she keeps showing up and bearing (literally) all of the weighty things for her community. 

 

Isabela, who presents as the perfect beauty herself even as she creates perfect beauty, is headed toward a marriage proposal from Mariano, who has grown up in the Encanto community. Like Isabela, he’s kind of dreamily perfect looking…and it is clear that the family and community at large are cheering for this perfectly beautiful couple. 

 

(If you have watched the movie, I draw your attention to a detail lost to some – Isabela and Mariano look a LOT like Abuela Alma and Abuelo Pedro when they were very young and in love in the flashbacks…think about how that visual representation might create pressure for Isabela in the story!)

 

Both sisters have taken on the weight of the expectations of their family and community and through conversations with Mirabel, both of them reveal their discomfort with the pressure. 

 

In a time when it seems something might be falling apart, they feel grave responsibility to be beacons of strength, which they understand as their unique gift within the family lore.

 

Can you imagine that?

The weight of expectations about how you will use one particular gift? To the extent that maybe you lose sight of who you are as a whole person, beyond the giftedness others see and know and expect?

 

It is as Luisa sings, “Under the surfaceI'm pretty sure I'm worthless if I can't be of service.”

 

Or as Isabela sings, “What could I do if I just knew it didn't need to be perfect? It just needed to be? And they'd let me be?”

 

So often, the world in which we operate, the world of families and jobs and school and service, rewards us and recognizes us for specific things – most specifically for the gifts we have honed or that have been noticed, for what we produce that pleases others or meets their needs. Often we are recognized for the gifts by which we have earned a living.  The HR person, the finance person, the communicator, the teacher. And those gifts are important, but they are one aspect of who we are.

 

And as pastor, I chair the nominations committee, and I’ll confess some guilt I have for honing in on those gifts each of you has, sometimes blind to all the other richness of who you are. 

 

In the movie, Luisa and Isabela both have an opportunity to reveal their anxieties to Mirabel privately. In doing so, each is beginning to see that they NEED to live from more than just their gift.

 

I wonder where that inner knowing, that inner nudge or longing to be their fullest selves comes from?

 

Yesterday, I was listening to Brene Brown, a vulnerability researcher, and Fr. Richard, who you know I quote often.  Fr. Richard was talking about how organized religion has made the image of God into a gatekeeper or dictator who tells us how to be have and then monitors our behavior.

 

If that is who God is, then we are what we produce. Somehow God creates us and then monitors our production.

 

But is that who God is? If that were true, would we each have so many incredible nooks and crannies and unique abilities and gifts? 

 

I feel like I am at the brink of understanding God in a very different way and I wonder if you might join me on this step of the journey where I understand God as love. Love which is full and embraces each person with God’s wonder and delight at the uniqueness of creation.

 

Now this kind of understanding can be hard to take in. The world around us rewards people for specific things – for kinds of productivity, for ways of being in the world. And people seek out the comfort of being assured that they must be right and good and others must be wrong and bad.

 

Last week I told you that I was going to try to let the Spirit lead me through exploring this movie alongside texts in the lectionary and alongside the ways life is unfolding every day. So let’s pivot to scripture.

 

If you read ALL of this week’s gospel lesson, it begins with the Luke version of Jesus teaching the disciples to pray. You heard today the part which is Jesus’ encouragement to ask, search, knock – to take things to God, to listen for what God is saying, to show up to God. 

 

One of the reminders to me in this gospel passage is the call to be in conversation with God – in relationship with God, asking for what I need, seeking understanding. 

 

Because if you ask God for bread, God loves us so much (more than a parent, the text suggests) that God is going to show up with a feast and not a snack, and definitely not a stone instead of bread. 

 

And if God is love and loves us that much, then as God’s creation, aren’t we are called to bear God’s love throughout our lives? 

 

And if we are bearers of love, then at our most authentic selves, doesn’t God’s love shine through all of the various parts and pieces of our whole selves? Even the parts that maybe the world doesn’t reward or recognize?

 

Doesn’t Encanto the community need Luisa and Isabela to be their fullest selves and not just their gifts in order to survive and thrive?

 

I have been thinking about what this need to be our fullest selves means to us – as Faith Church – as we claim to be a community of belonging.


It seems we probably have work to do to invite folks to be their fullest selves and not just what we think we need them to be.

 

It seems we probably have work to do to check in about our own gifts, and to be willing to share all of ourselves with the community – which may mean surprising folks by saying “no” to one thing but then sharing something unexpected.

 

In today’s psalm, it is written,


The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.

 

This week, my prayer is that we will individually and collectively talk to God – giving thanks for the fullness of who we are and seeking the courage to share all of ourselves, opening ourselves up beyond what the world expects. Because I think that is what the world needs to be whole – our fullest, beloved selves.

 

May it be so.

Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Welcome to the Family - Belonging (Part 1 of 4 focused on Disney's Encanto)

Psalm 139: 1 – 18, Luke 10: 38 – 42


The good news of the gospel is told throughout scripture in stories. Jesus used stories to teach. Stories that are both timeless and time bound, that is to say that they can have meaning beyond their original context AND that we need to consider them in the context from which they originated. When we hear or tell a story, we are processing our experience – our physical, emotional, intellectual, and social experience – by recounting a moment. Stories are a representation of reality bent through the prism of our lives, not an accurate reflection of the reality the represent.

 

I used to have a pastor who would excitedly report about every movie  - I just saw (fill in the blank,) and it is all about Jesus. It got to be such a familiar report that we always knew it was coming. 

 

But here’s the thing. When you are centered in the good news that God is love and you are God’s beloved creation, a LOT of stories will remind us of God the creator, or Jesus the rabbi and connector, or the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and creativity. 

 

And if we believe in God’s creativity and power, who’s to say a story we see on the big screen can’t speak into our lives. This summer, I’ve been swimming in Disney’s Encanto – first because we used it as a central planning theme for a week at summer camp with adolescent girls, but also because when I had COVID, I spent three days on the couch soaking up movies that I love. This was one of them.

 

Here's the synapsis from Disney in case you are unfamiliar with the story:
“Encanto” tells the tale of an extraordinary family, the Madrigals, who live hidden in the mountains of Colombia, in a magical house, in a vibrant town, in a wondrous, charmed place called an Encanto. The magic of the Encanto has blessed every child in the family with a unique gift from super strength to the power to heal—every child except one, Mirabel. But when she discovers that the magic surrounding the Encanto is in danger, Mirabel decides that she, the only ordinary Madrigal, might just be her exceptional family’s last hope.

 

I also must confess that in a conversation with our Messy Church leadership team this week, I shared that I’m not really sure I am a “series” preacher – or more specifically, I feel really called to follow the lectionary rather than choose my own texts most of the time. I feel like the revised common lectionary, a three year cycle of readings that cover the broad expanse of scripture, is a pathway that shapes my experience as a beloved child of God and as your pastor. And so it tickled my heart this week to turn to the lectionary text from the Gospel of Luke and realize it actually spoke to me as I considered the magic of this story Encanto. We’ll see whether and how the lectionary plays out in weeks to come. I wonder what the Holy Spirit might be up to?

 

Key to the beauty of Encanto is the struggling of young Mirabel, an adolescent girl who is singled out in her family as “the one” who did not receive a gift at her “coming of age” ceremony. Over the course of the first part of the story, we get glimpses of Mirabel’s memory of that day – her beloved, firm and strong Abuela preparing her to walk up to the magical doorway to receive her gift, assuring her that, “whatever gift awaits will be just as special as you.” 

 

We then see the sad moment when Mirabel reaches for the magic door that will reveal her gift only to see the doorway disappear, leaving Mirabel presumably “ungifted” and based on Abeula’s understanding, perhaps “unspecial,” too.

 

From there, we see current day Mirabel cheerfully leading children through her village as she tells of her amazing family. The children listen with great interest to the litany of gifts by family member while they also demand to know Mirabel’s gift.

 

She ducks their questions about her gift, distracts them, recounts the family gifts in ever greater detail…and finally cousin Dolores, whose gift is miraculous hearing from great distances, overhears the children’s question and reveals to the kids that Mirabel didn’t receive a gift.

 

Embarrassed, Mirabel goes on to say to the children that she is just as special as the rest of her family …and one of the children responds, “Maybe your gift is being in denial.”

 

Ouch.

 

Then as the big day approaches for youngest cousin Antonio’s gift to be revealed, Abuela shuns Mirabel’s efforts to help with preparations because she doesn’t have a unique gift to contribute to the work.

 

Another ouch.

 

Even as all of this is unfolding, we glimpse Mirabel’s way with children, we see how Mirabel helps her younger cousin Antonio with whom she’s shared the nursery until his coming of age.  We see how Mirabel’s parents dote on her and try to protect her from Abuela’s barbs and cross words. We see Mirabel’s heart.

 

From the perspective of the viewer of this story, we can see how Mirabel does belong to this family and community – even when she and Abuela cannot see it.

 

Psychology Today describes belonging and its vital importance this way:

Belonging means acceptance as a member or part. Such a simple word for a huge concept. A sense of belonging is a human need, just like the need for food and shelter. Feeling that you belong is most important in seeing value in life and in coping with intensely painful emotions.

 

The desire to belong is real and natural and we have all experienced it. The people around us can help us feel like we belong or they can help us to feel quite the opposite.

 

Mirabel believes that belonging must be tied to her abilities, her gifts, the things she does or is capable of – where the understanding of ability is also comparative to those family members around her.

Abuela seems to fall into that way of thinking, too.

 

In our gospel passage this week, you heard an often repeated story from Luke about Jesus dining in the home of friends. While he is there teaching, Mary sits at his feet and listens. Martha is busy making sure that he and his entourage are fed, and that all of the tasks of hospitality are done. In her frustration, she asks Jesus to tell Mary to help with the work, and Jesus responds with a bit of a scolding. He tells Marth that Mary, sitting at his feet, has focused on the right things.

 

I read a blogpost this week that functioned kind of as midrash, reading between and behind the lines of the text. It was an imagined dialogue between Martha and Jesus after that incident. Martha was feeling hurt by Jesus’ scolding and she tells him privately about that hurt. Jesus took a moment to explain why he had praised Mary’s act and then went on to name his appreciation for Martha’s caregiving and hospitality.

 

I realize this reflection isn’t scripture, but it helps me to remember that Jesus, while fully divine, was also fully human – and I assume sometimes he hurt people’s feelings and sometimes he had to make amends. Sometimes he had to clarify what he said…because that is what it means to be a human in relationship. And it is safe to assume that those interactions were not recorded as gospel.

 

I found myself this week laying Abuela’s hurtful words to Mirabel alongside Jesus scolding Martha. Do we sometimes to make belonging conditional? Do we rank the ways that people belong by some expectation or standard that is ours and not necessarily of God?

 

Each week in worship we hear these words:

We are a reconciling community within the United Methodist tradition, seeking to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, and also seeking to invite others who need a place to belong in community, become followers of Christ, and believe the Good News of the Gospel. As we are transformed, we are called to be love.

 

As I said in yesterday’s Finding Faith Online email, I have felt the first three steps of that movement – belong, become and believe – as God’s call for this community at 6810 Montrose from the moment I was called here. 

 

How is it that we are a place where people can belong – a place where people are accepted just as they are as part of a bigger thing – a thing that is bigger and better because of all the different folks who belong? A place where people can see their place in the picture and feel seen and important even as they wrestle with the complicated things of life? A place where people know that they are beloved of God, no matter what?

 

Do we belong here at Faith because of what we can and cannot do?

Or do we belong because people know us, nurture and encourage us, embrace us? 

 

Today, we had the privilege of committing to Patsy’s belonging in God’s big family – a family where everyone belongs. We may not be the weekly presence that surrounds her as she grows and becomes, but we have committed to stand with her in prayer, to be a source of nurture and growth. And others have made those same commitments to each of us – so that we will know our belovedness to God and to the Kin-dom of God.

 

Thank you for being a place of belonging. Let’s keep imagining how God is calling us more deeply into that work, day by day. In the movie, before Antonio walks up the stairs to get his special gift, Abuela asks him to promise to use his gift “to serve this community and strengthen their hope.” 

 

In our baptism covenant, the charge to the congregation is to “do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.” 

 

The work of being a place of belonging is vital. 

May we do that work with intention and love and grace.

Amen.

 

Walk the Talk (Final in Flat Wesley Series)

Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and John 21:15-17

The verse you heard this morning from Deuteronomy is drawn from the Shema, a prayer still prayed daily in morning and evening by some Jewish folx. It is understood as a cornerstone in faith life and is perhaps the most essential prayer in all of Judaism.

 

Jesus, who was a Jew, would have had this on his tongue frequently.

 

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 

 

The accompanying instructions follow:

Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

 

Because of the instruction to inscribe these words on doorposts and gates, Jewish homes often have a mezuzah on the doorway, a small decorated chamber that holds a tiny scroll with this prayer on it… And as you enter in and out, it is there to be touched, a reminded of the command to love God with heart, soul and might.

 

I love this part of the tradition. I love this tangible reminder of who God is and how we are called to LOVE God with all of ourselves. I appreciate it so much that I happen to have a mezuzah on the door that I enter and exit each day at my home. As a follower of Jesus, I believe that this teaching about remembering and loving God day in and out was central to who Jesus was and what he taught. It is at the foundation of his declaration that the greatest command is to love God, and like it to love neighbor.

 

You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your might.

 

All of you.

Each and every moment of each and every day.

 

And that teaching is at the heart of Jesus is instruction to Peter to act out his love for Jesus by feeding his sheep.

 

Steve Manskar, a pastor and scholar of John Wesley who has written MANY books and articles on how we practice discipleship, the work of following Jesus, writes this:

 

In the Baptismal Covenant you (as United Methodists) promise to “confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church ….” The congregation, in turn, promises to proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ; to surround you with a community of love and forgiveness, that you may grow in your trust of God, and be found faithful in your service to others; to pray for you, that you may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.[1] Living the Baptismal Covenant is how Christians obey Jesus’ “new commandment.”

 

There is SO MUCH hard work wrapped up in that covenant commitment that we make. It is nearly impossible to live into the fullness of that commitment 24/7 without some stumbling. And so thank goodness for that relentless grace that surrounds us each and every moment of each and every day. Remember that grace that we discussed 3 weeks ago?

 

John Wesley and his brother Charles, along with their friends that made up the ‘holy club’ at Oxford, recognized the risks of trying to navigate doing the right thing early on. And as we discussed just 2 weeks ago, they set up systems and programs of accountability for themselves and eventually for many lay people. For the earliest Methodists, small groups were the place to name what is hard, pray for one another, own up to short-comings and seek support for continuing to do the work of loving God and neighbor.

 

Today, I want to focus in on the 24/7 quality of faith that the Wesley brothers encouraged people toward.

 

In the preface to a 1739 publication entitled Hymns and Sacred Poems, John Wesley wrote:

Solitary religion is not to be found there. “Holy Solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy Adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.

 

Manskar writes:

Holiness is social because God is social. He created human beings in his image to be relational creatures. We become fully human when we share in the relationships God initiates with us through the people he places in our way.

 

Social holiness is the practice of obeying Jesus’ commandments to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, loving your neighbor as yourself, and loving one another one another (fellow members of your local congregation) as Christ loves.

 

When Wesley says that holiness is social he means that the depth of your love for God is revealed by the way you love whom God loves.

 

A core premise of Methodism as expressed and taught and practiced is a recognition that our faith and commitment is practiced, lived out, and expressed in community, meaning we don’t do it alone,

 

and it is practiced, lived out and expressed in all aspects of our life – our family life, our work life, our relationships with friends and colleagues, our neighborhoods, our political life, our physical and mental well-being.

 

You can’t be a Christian alone.

And you can’t limit the moments in a week when you are a Christian. 

 

In a world that feels really difficult sometimes, I wonder what it means to really embrace this idea of social holiness that Wesley intended for the movement.

 

What might happen when we work together consistently and we act together as people who love God and follow Jesus and listen for the Holy Spirit? What happens when we make all other titles and identities secondary to that of Christian? When we are figuratively neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free…but instead one body? One body called to LOVE.

 

To love God is to love God’s creation, which happens to be everyone and the earth and all of her resources. To be alive and to profess faith is to be a citizen of the Kin-dom of God first and foremost – ahead of all other allegiances. 

 

When the resurrected Christ appeared to Peter, who would be the rock on which the future Christian community was built, Jesus challenged – Peter, do you love me? If you do…feed my sheep.

 

This is the question and challenge before us each day. The Wesley’s sought to reclaim the centrality of that question and command and to live it in such a way that justice showed up in community – housing, healthcare, education, faith, hope and love.  

 

And so, will we each choose to walk the talk? To love God actively, not just with our worship but with our work for justice and mercy?

 

Will we walk the talk collectively as a community? Will we lay down labels like “red” and “blue” in order to see the hungry fed, the homeless housed, the oppressed set free? Will the scales fall from our eyes so that we can see how we have been part of systems of oppression, and will we turn our feet away from those choices, those behaviors (which is repentance) so that we are living as walking expressions of God’s love for God’s people and God’s creation?

 

Already, I see us reaching for and doing `this work. I know we have already discovered at times it is not easy. But it’s happening! And I see it in the way your hearts are being transformed.


Take heart. This is not easy but it is how we are called. It is the road we are making…together.

 

Thanks be to God.

And may it be so.

Amen.

 

 

 

Flat Wesley challenge – where is your Christian identity being called to present front and center? OR…where is one place you want to be more conscious of living into your identity?

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

We Agree to Disagree (or Why we should't say this...)

Matthew 22: 36 – 40 and Romans 8: 38 – 39

We are in week 3 of a four-part series about core understandings that the Wesley brothers brought to the Christian practices that came to be known as Methodism.  In our first week, we talked about the centrality of GRACE to our lives. Last week we talked about how vital strong lay people (those who are not ordained) are to the leadership, vitality and discipleship of our communities of faith. 

 

Today, we’re going to talk about how we navigate our differences. AND we’re still working to make this FUN and light-hearted because this is our own mini version of VBS, after all. Hymn singing and Flat Wesley (I still have received exactly 0 pictures from you all – I get it, you aren’t so keen on Flat Wesley.  Alas, I tried). And memory verses.

 

Who remembers our first memory verse – from our conversation about GRACE – and you all came up with the description of grace as unrelenting?

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…

 

Remember last week’s memory verse?

All who believed were together and had all things in common…

 

And for today – 

I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord…

I wonder if you can hold that in your heart as you listen for God today?

 

I spent this past week at camp with three other amazing adult volunteers and nine girls. I knew two of these folks well – we went to seminary together and came through the ordination process together.  We care about one another as colleagues, and we support one another in ministry.

 

During the course of the week, we stumbled across issues on which we deeply disagreed – and not small issues. Things like whether or not the practice of yoga is acceptable for Christians, whether or not watching scary movies or reading books that include witches and wizards is an appropriate activity for Christians, and on a different kind of path - whether or not you should drink ANY beverage (including water) with a meal. 

 

Sometimes the adults had FOUR different opinions. Even as we were united to create a weeklong camp experience in which our girls KNEW they were loved and lovable, no matter what. We had some wildly different understandings of things. It was kind of amazing.

 

By the end of the week, I was proud of our shared work. Nine girls had made new friends, new memories, knew they were loved and discovered some new things about themselves and others.

 

And my brain and spirit and ears needed a rest. Because it had been an intense week. 

 

When I checked in with my spirit, checked in about what was most draining to me, I felt pretty tight and frankly judge-y about some of the differences among adults - things like our disagreements about yoga and Harry Potter. Navigating differences takes energy.

 

Of course, I have been keenly aware all week of the message I would be offering today – I chose the title We Agree to Disagree sometime back in late April or early May as I imagined this series about our core Wesleyan beliefs.  In my head back then, in the midst of so much division in our denomination and society, I wanted to talk a bit about being a big tent, a place where there is room for many different ways of understanding God, understanding the Bible, understanding the work of the church, and understanding sin, redemption and perfection.  So as I considered our differences over the course of the week at camp, as I examined my own heart and soul about what I was feeling at the end of the week, I was also thinking about John Wesley’s work and this sermon.

 

And it turns out, I don’t want us to agree to disagree. I don’t think John Wesley believed we should agree to disagree…

 

In fact, let’s talk about why “We Agree to Disagree” is probably a bad title for this sermon.

 

Let’s begin with an oft-cited Wesley quote:

“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”


This excerpt is from a sermon entitled “The Catholic Spirit.”

 

In Wesley’s usage in the title, the word catholic is the uncapitalized one – the one that means “all embracing” or “including a wide variety of things,” (which is the spirit in which we say in the Apostle’s Creed – we believe in the holy catholic Church) NOT the capital C Catholic – as in the Vatican, the Pope and seven sacraments.  

 

As a scripture text, the sermon draws on a story in second kings about a difference between Jehu and Jehonadab in which Jehu asks the question – “is your heart as true to mine and mine is to yours?”

 

That is a complicated question, and Wesley unpacks it further so as to not leave room for “anything goes” when discerning the alignment of hearts. He expands what discerning a true heart looks like with these further questions (and I have paraphrased his original text into modern English):

 

Is your heart right with God? Do you believe in God’s being, and God’s perfections? God’s eternity, immensity, wisdom, power; God’s justice, mercy, and truth?

And that God governs all, even the most distant from God, to God’s own glory, and to the good of those that love God?

Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, one who is fully divine? Is he ‘revealed in’ your lived life?

Is he ‘formed in your heart’ by your faith in him?’

Have you submitted yourself to God because of your faith in Jesus who is the Christ? 

Is God the center of your life? Do you long to be close to God, to be in relationship with God?

Are you more afraid of displeasing God than either of death or hell? Is nothing so terrible to you as damaging your relationship with God? And in consideration of all these questions, do you hate the things that separate us from God? That separate us from his holy and perfect law, from loving God and neighbor? 

 

If the answer to these questions is yes, then Wesley suggests that we are unified. Shall we begin assessing one another right here and now? 

 

As United Methodists, we have leaned for 21 years a tag line for our brand identity – open hearts, open doors, open minds – all while fighting bitterly about topics like human sexuality, racism, property, and how we interpret and prioritize scripture. In our denomination as it is currently comprised, we are NOT able to even agree on what those questions John Wesley framed mean. 

 

In our society, we have been fighting bitterly about marriage, about reproductive health care, about gun rights, about living wages, about how to interpret the constitution. As Christians, our positions in those societal disagreements should be rooted in our understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus would do. (The separation of church and state is about a lot of things – it is NOT about separating our Christian identity from our civic discernment and advocacy.)

 

It seems that perhaps we have to be willing to take a stand and NOT just agree to disagree.

 

Because when we agree to disagree, God’s justice isn’t served and people get hurt. And I’m pretty sure Jesus would not stand for people getting hurt.

 

Don’t get me wrong – I am not suggesting that we spend our time seeking out disagreement. We have to be able to sort out differences of opinion from differences of TRUTH. Our opinions may be wrong. God’s truth is not. And it turns out, we are only “close” to certain about God’s truth when we are in close relationship to God. That is work we share in the midst of disagreeing.

 

I believe we fear disagreement. We fear not being liked. And maybe we even fear not being loved.

 

The work of loving God and loving neighbor is not nicey-nice.  It takes work. It takes finding the things we hold in common while holding onto a vision of justice where everyone has enough to live. It takes some disagreement. But disagreement with one another can be undergirded with love – love for God and one another.

 

I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord…

I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord…

I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord…

 

When we return to John Wesley’s questions, we might be able to join hands and work together agreeing that the Lord our God is one, that Christ is Lord, that we are called to seek justice.

 

You know, the justice that Jesus proclaims as he quotes the prophet Isaiah:

 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because he has anointed me

        to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

        to set free those who are oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

…Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

 

Sometimes loving God with our heart, mind and actions requires disagreement with one another. 

 

We can also disagree in love.  We can do that by asking questions, sharing viewpoints, talking about hard and once-upon-a-time taboo things.  Because hard conversations matter. And if we are connected to God, and we are working to love the person with whom we disagree, we might just be able to keep putting one foot in front of the other, moving toward a place of justice.

 

So back to the camp disagreements.  I love those people. And I will continue to find ways to share with them MY understanding of the things about which we disagreed. But I know that in spite of those disagreements, we share the work of loving young people and helping them understand how much God loves them.

 

I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord…

 

May it be so. Amen.


Sunday, June 26, 2022

Teamwork makes the dream work (or...I'm not feeling that so much this week - can we please just LOVE one another better?)

Acts 2: 42 – 47


 

I confess that in the news cycle this week, it has been impossible to focus on any task, particularly on Thursday and Friday. And we are in week two of what is supposed to be a light-hearted, Vacation Bible School infused series about key things that the Wesleys, and particularly John Wesley, brought to churches like ours that claim Methodism as our tradition and our roots.

 

And I’m not feeling particularly light-hearted. I’m not feeling much like “teamwork makes the dream work.”

 

That is straight talk. Right after church today, I leave to spend a week with 7th - 9th grade girls at West River, one location of camping ministries that serve our annual conference. So I am carrying all of my own anger and my deep concern as a mother about whether or not girls and young women will have access to the basic reproductive health care they need going forward. And while I am there with those girls, I am called to be a source of love, acceptance, support and care – for whatever these beautiful adolescent souls carry with them. I am called to unconditionally receive their questions and their concerns, and to show them God’s love. 

 

So…how to talk about the Wesley brothers here today in the midst of all of that…

 

And yet, I know that part of what is breaking my heart, part of what I recognize is broken in the world, part of how I know I am to respond to the world in this moment comes out of how John Wesley sought to reform the church by connecting people to God and to one another.

 

Last week, we talked about how the Wesley brothers understood God’s grace – God’s love that surrounds us and embraces us - grace becomes the water we swim in, the water that shapes us and strengthens us, and the cool water we offer as refreshment and sustenance to those we meet on our life journey. 

 

Who remembers our memory verse from last week?
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”

 

One of the amazing nuggets that came from your shared conversation last week was that God’s grace is relentless. This week, in the midst of so much, I take great comfort in God’s relentless pursuit of my heart…in spite of my flaws and foibles.

 

This week, our work is to explore how John Wesley strengthened lay people – people who were not clergy – to help others grow and walk in faith. I want to talk about this from an historic and traditional place…and then I want us to really spend some time paying attention to how we might make a difference in the world today. 

 

For John Wesley, the work of being a disciple was to follow Jesus’ interpretation of the law - to love God and neighbor. And he built systems of connection – networks of small groups – that helped people help one another to learn what the bible has to say about this way of being, to learn how Jesus lived into this, and to practice means of grace like prayer and worship, study and service in order to move closer and closer to God.

 

John Wesley knew that clergy could never reach the numbers of people who needed to learn about God’s love and who needed to have places to live into and practice that sharing that love in the world. He wanted a model that could be replicated anyplace with any who could gather. And so he set about connecting the laity in small groups called classes. These classes were places for weekly accountability and coaching, growth and inspiration.

 

The classes were grounded in a set of general rules that read this way:

It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind …;

Secondly: By … doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all …;

Thirdly: By attending upon all the ordinances of God (2016 BOD ¶104).

 

I like to use the paraphrase that hangs in my office:

Do no harm, do good, stay in love with God.

 

It was through these class meetings that more and more people began to connect to the Wesleys’ method of growing as disciples. And the movement spread. 

 

Perhaps it would be enough just to point to the number of people involved in these small groups, growing in their faith. But they weren’t just connecting to small groups and improving their own relationship with God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. 

They were offering health care. 

They were demanding living wages. 

They were visiting prisons and seeking to rehabilitate criminals.

They were building schools in poor neighborhoods.

 

They were actively living out love for God and neighbor.
They were not using their faith as a measuring stick.

They were empowered to share God’s love.

They were at the heart of societal safety nets in England.

They were making life better for their neighbors day by day.

 

This week, in the midst of what I believe is catastrophic news for women and particularly women of color, I wonder what we might learn from John Wesley’s original vision for how people live into the love of God and neighbor. I wonder how you as laity – not clergy – share that work in order to expand the reach of love in the world.

 

More than ever, what the world needs is NOT another line in the sand or another judgement about right and wrong. What the world needs is healthcare, food, shelter, human relationship. What the world needs is people sharing their unique gifts with one another building networks of love and support.

 

Today’s memory verse is from the second chapter of Acts – a description of how the earliest followers shared life, recognizing that everyone had spiritual gifts, everyone played a role in the earliest churches which were actually communities that shared meals, resources, life. 

 

“All who believed were together and had all things in common…” 

 

“All who believed were together and had all things in common…” 

“All who believed were together and had all things in common…” 

 

I wonder…what is it that your heart felt this week?

For whom does your heart break right now?

 

I assume that within our gathering, there are lots of different opinions about lots of different things – the access to abortion and guns among the many. I wonder if you might sit quietly for a few breaths and really feel what your heart is speaking, feeling, longing for in this moment.

 

Now, I wonder if you might turn to someone near you and share something you want to do in the coming week to actively love God and love your neighbor?

 

And now, will you turn to someone nearby and share one way you would like us as a community of Faith to be more active in loving God and neighbor.

 

“All who believed were together and had all things in common…” 

 

May it be so.

Amen.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Grace Really IS Amazing (part 1 of 4 in the Flat Wesley series)

Ephesians 2: 1 - 10

 

For the next four weeks, we’ll be exploring some key ideas at the heart of John and Charles Wesley’s faith and lifetime work. And it is important because it situates our church, Faith, in a wider stream of churches – it helps us name what is unique, what is true, what is good about our tradition that shapes us so that we carry these key ideas with us into the world each day.

 

For some folks, this idea that there is something really unique about Faith as part of Methodism is new. For others it may be quite familiar to you – a refresher from your confirmation, perhaps.

 

John and Charles Wesley weren’t setting out to start a new denomination when they were young men. They were dedicated Anglicans seeking a reform movement within the Anglican church – the church of England. They were hungry for faith in God that shaped people’s whole lives, faith that was lived out 24/7 and not just in worship on Sunday. They were hungry for faith that wasn’t just for show. They were hungry for a faith that reached those on the margins – in their day as the economic shifts of industrialization and urbanization were taking shape in England, those on the margins would include miners, field workers, factory workers and domestic workers. 

 

Just to get a sense of how big their influence has been and continues to be, let’s take a little poll.

Who likes ice cream? What kinds of ice cream do you like? 

There are lots of flavors of ice cream. Similarly there are lots of kinds of denominations – each one a little bit different. But if denominations are like different flavors of ice cream, John and Charles weren’t just inventing a new flavor – they were doing something like creating the underpinning for all of the chocolate flavors – chocolate mint, rocky road, turtle swirl, moose track, chocolate mocha chip…you get the idea. The Wesley’s key ideas underpin denominations like the Church of the Nazarene and the Salvation Army…not just folks with the word “Methodist” in the name.

 

So for the next four Sundays, we’re going to learn about some specific understandings of God and faith that John or Charles held that became a vital underpinning for many folks who value Wesleyan tradition, some even beyond Methodism.

 

Today, let’s talk about grace. And in good vacation bible school fashion, we’re going to start with a memory verse from the letter to the Ephesians (2:8) which you heard:

 

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”

 

(Work on it as a group for a bit)

 

Now, grace can be one of those church words that we toss around a lot, sing about, claim as amazing. 

 

John Wesley believed that grace was an undeserved gift of God that surrounds everyone, rooted in God’s profound love for God’s own creation. 

 

But grace isn’t just a big churchy idea that we point to or read or write about.  When we understand grace, particularly as John Wesley understood it – God’s love that surrounds us and embraces us - grace becomes the water we swim in, the water that shapes us and strengthens us, and the cool water we offer as refreshment and sustenance to those we meet on our life journey.

 

Now, it is true that something can be all around us and we can be unaware or unwilling to receive it. 

 

But when we actively receive God’s gift of grace, when we say – wow I am so far from perfect, I mess up, and I know God loves me anyway – we might be moved and able to live a changed life.  We may respond with our own love for God, love that moves us closer to God and closer to something John Wesley called “Christian perfection.”  (More about Christian perfection in a few weeks!) 

 

John Wesley broke the idea of grace down in three phases, if you will. 

First, prevenient grace is the grace of God that goes before us – before our recognition of our need for that grace, and especially before our recognition of its presence available to us.  John Wesley described prevenient grace as that borne of God’s love and commitment, without prejudice, for all of creation. 

 

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”

 

Known by God in all we are and all we do, fearfully and wonderfully made as described in Psalm 139, we are always surrounded by God’s unconditional love and grace. 

 

Practically speaking, it is this understanding of the grace underpins our practice of infant baptism in Methodism.  Because God’s love and grace surround each of us before we even know we are in need of it, we claim this grace on behalf of the very youngest children. We as a community commit to walk with children while they grow to discover their need for God’s grace.

 

There comes a moment (and even moments) in our lives when we open our hands and actively reach for that grace that has always been present with us.  John Wesley understood this second phase as justifying grace. This is the moment or moments in which we are reborn –“born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).[1]  

 

Because there is something going on in our lives to create our awareness of a need for God, we accept what God is doing for us, and make the choice to be with God. In that choice, we receive power that helps us to focus on what is good and true to God. We are strengthened by justifying grace to resist sin and to seek what is pleasing to God. We don’t have to do good things to get God’s love, but once we realize how much God loves us, justifying grace causes us to make good choices, do good works, serve others and to share God’s grace.

 

Once we have reached out to claim the power and strength of God’s grace in our own lives, we are surrounded by what John Wesley called sanctifying grace. Sanctifying grace is the work of God in us through the Holy Spirit, helping us to become the very creation God intended, bringing about growth and change, perfecting us to God’s design and intention for the kingdom of God.[2]

 

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”

 

…all of these words about grace matter very little if we aren’t aware of how it is working around us, in us and through us all the time. And living life in response to what we become aware of.

 

John Wesley believed that we could intentionally access grace through acts of mercy and compassion – those times we serve with and place ourselves in relationship with others in need of love and care – and through acts of piety – worship, prayer, reading scripture, participating in communion. And he believed we should seek to participate in these “means of grace” as often as we could – not because we wanted to be more holy but because it was a way of loving God.

 

It was this understanding of grace that infused John and Charles Wesley’s desire to organize communities into small groups to learn and pray and worship and serve together. It was this understanding of grace that underpinned John Wesley’s belief that we should receive communion as often as possible. (Did you know that? It wasn’t John’s idea that folks should receive communion on the first Sunday of the month…)

 

I wonder…where else do you see this concept of grace expressing itself in our community?

In our shared work?

In our vision for the future?

 

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”

 

If you had to define grace in your own words, how would you do that?

Turn to your neighbor - here on the parking lot or at home - and describe grace as you understand it to one another.



[1] Heitzenrater, Richard P., and Outler, Albert, C., “The Marks of a New Birth,” John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, p174 – 182.

[2] Heitzenrater & Outler, “Christian Perfection,” p 69 – 84.