Sunday, November 17, 2019

The END (Spoiler Alert - It's going to be ok.)

Sometimes studying scripture causes brain cramps.

So also does working on a sermon for 3.5 hours, and then losing it because of some bad file management.

Poof. Catastrophe. The end. The worst thing. Or so it seems.

This might be one of those weeks.

Earlier in the week I was in a swirl of hard news about the current state of our denomination. It seemed every email I received from anywhere other than Maryland was about how many fragments the church might split into.

I realize that not everyone is tuned in or concerned about the ongoing debate about what will happen to the United Methodist Church.  But I’m a delegate, elected as an alternate to represent our annual conference in legislative matters at General conference in 2020. And I spent last Saturday at a delegate meeting stewing in legislative proposals coming before the body.

Here’s the thing. I’m a cradle Methodist. I am descended from a line of Methodist pastors.  I have dedicated the last 10 years of my life to steeping in the stuff of John Wesley and so when the headlines are all about the end of the United Methodist Church I tend to hyperventilate.

But on Tuesday, after waking weighed down by all of this, I nestled into my study for prayer time, feet tucked warmly into the hand-me-down mohair throw I recently rescued from my mom’s basement.  I opened my favorite devotional.  The reading was from Luke 12: 29 – 31:

29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

These are the lines that follow observing the lilies of the field, how they neither toil nor spin and yet are as splendid as anything in Solomon’s temple.

And the reflection that went with it was by Reuben Job, a Methodist bishop that has gone on to glory, who was committed to love and justice and happened to also be an amazing writer.  His reflection for this way was this:

We can have peace, joy, assurance, comfort, hope, tranquility, confidence and companionship with our Creator, and beyond that, eternal life.  With a life bank full of such gifts, we are indeed rich.  And yet, so often I permit myself to slip into poverty thinking and poverty living.  I feel anxious, alone, faithless, fearful, without joy, and sometimes without hope. I feel this way because I have forgotten and lost grip on the inheritance that God give me anew each morning. 

(I cannot explain to you the irony of finding myself retyping that again after weeping over that lost sermon…)

Yes.  I was feeling anxious, fearful and without hope.  It was true.  And that reminder – instead, strive for his Kingdom, and these things will be given you as well” hit home. 

Laura, you’re worried about the wrong things. 

Our gospel text for today is a “little apocalypse,” one of those moments in scripture where there is some warning about the destruction to come.

There are those who focus on teachings like this – looking at them for clues about what they might mean for destruction in the days to come.  I suppose one could focus on Jesus’s warning about how the temple will be destroyed and how wars and natural disasters will rage.  It might even be tempting to read this text and think about how right Jesus was – of course the temple was destroyed.

But this is where the brain cramps show up for me.  You see…it’s important to remember that the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in about 70 CE.  The Roman empire came down hard and made sure the Temple was no longer standing.  Luke’s gospel was written somewhere between 85 and 100 CE.  Which means that the writer was writing about a moment with Jesus predicting that something was to come.  But in the time the writing was taking place, the something had already happened.  (See – there’s the brain cramp) The author lived through that destruction about which Jesus warns.

Brain cramp aside, it would be unfair to focus our efforts and attention on the prediction of hard things to come.

Let’s face it. Hard things, catastrophic things are a way of life.  They have happened throughout history – think of all of those dreadful battles and kingdom brawls in the Hebrew Scripture.  And they have happened in recent history – the Civil War, the Trail of Tears, the decimation of nearly an entire generation of men in parts of Europe during WW1, Hiroshima.  And natural disasters just keep showing up – Katrina, the Tsunami in Sri Lanka and then Japan, the wild fires in California.

Each of these is not a mark of the end of time.  And time is always coming to an end.

But there is something so vitally important in this text from Luke – as one commentary notes: “This text is not a road map to the end times but a survival guide to living through the days that precede the end…”

That road map has three important parts:

First – do not be terrified.  Do not be terrified… Bad things happen.  They always do.  In every age.  But they don’t have to cause you to fall off course.  They do not have to define you.  There’s a hymn for that:

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control, that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and has shed his own blood for my soul.
It is well…it is well…it is well with my soul

Second – I will give you words.  This is your chance to TESTIFY to what God is doing in your life.  I realize that the idea of testifying is terrifying for some. If that’s true, return to number one – do not be terrified. But here’s the thing – Jesus says, “I will give you words.” And he says, do not prepare because I will give you words and wisdom.  You know what God is doing in your life.  In the moment, don’t worry about how it’s said. Just say it.

There’s a hymn for that, too:

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord!
Unnumbered blessings give my spirit voice;
tender to me the promise of God’s word;
in God my savior shall my heart rejoice.

Finally, Jesus promises Not a hair on your head will perish.  I mean…we know that this bodily life ends, right?  We’ve all experienced the void that comes when someone we love leaves this world.  Just before this verse – Jesus has indicated that some will lose their lives – they will put some to death and you will be hated because of me…  But earlier in Luke’s gospel, in fact earlier in chapter 12 from which I shared at the beginning – Jesus promises – “even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid;”

Guess what – there’s a hymn for that (and we’re singing it in just a bit…)

In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity.
in our doubt there is believing, in our life, eternity.
In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

And so this week I’ve been swimming in this advice.  And on good days, I look at all the upheaval and remember that good things happen and bad things happen and God goes on and on.

And I lean in to promises like the one in Isaiah 65
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD-- and their descendants as well.

Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent--its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.

I started my week fretting about the future of the denomination of my birth. 
And my computer ate my sermon at 8:30 on Friday night.

Here’s what I know.

God is fully present. And God is doing a new thing.
The Holy Spirit is on the move.  What will come may not be something I fully understand or recognize.

I will not be terrified.
I know I will be given the words.
And not a hair on my head will perish.

I love the way the last verses are translated in The Message:
There’s no telling who will hate you because of me.  Even so, every detail of your body and soul—even the hairs of your head!—is in my care; nothing of you will be lost. Staying with it—that’s what is required. Stay with it to the end. You won’t be sorry; you’ll be saved.

And so I watch with breathless anticipation for what will become of the future of the church.
And my sermon was rewritten in 40 minutes.

The beat goes on.  There are political upheavals and wars and financial collapses. But the path Jesus forges is one of radical love for you and for me.

Do not be terrified.
I will give you words.
Not a hair on your head will perish.

As Paul wrote to the church at Rome:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

May it be so.

Sources: Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Vol 2: Luke 21: 9 - 19 Homiletical Perspective by Susan K. Olson; Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year C, Volume 3 Proper 28 Commentary on Luke 21: 5 - 19; The United Methodist Hymnal: 377 It Is Well with My Soul, 200 Tell Out My Soul, 707 Hymn of Promise

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Forward with Faith: Sealed in Faith (Part 4 of a 4 part series)

We have spent a few weeks preparing for this day.  We have explored the idea that we have been created by a generous and abundant God and as a result, we are created for generosity – a generosity of love, a generosity of spirit, and a generosity of sharing from what we have.

We have explored a resulting call to gratitude.  When we recognize all that we have received, we are then called to spill over and share from the abundance we have. For some, it is a natural instinct. For others, it is a discipline of letting go that will need to be nurtured, cultivated, experimented with, prayed over.

And then last week, I invited us all to dive deeply into that backdrop of abundance and gratitude with a big open-ended question to God.  In light of all that I am in you, what would you have me do? what would you have me share? what would you have me give?

Today, we take just the first step into living in a new way in light of what we’ve talked about these past weeks.  Today, we make our commitment – our personal promise – to recognize our abundance with gratitude, and to follow God’s call in light of that.

Our commitment, our decision to faithfully do something in light of who God is and what God is doing is “sealed in Faith.” And as a family of Faith moving forward with Faith, we are learning it as mantra:

 - faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Today’s gospel lesson is the miracle of the loaves and fishes as told in John’s gospel.  The feeding of the 5000 is only miracle story found in all four gospel texts.  It’s one of those that, if we grew up anywhere near Sunday School or Vacation Bible School, we learned early on.  We drew pictures of five fishes and two loaves of bread.  Maybe as children we imagined the magical multiplication as baskets seemed to never be emptied, instead filled at each pass from family to family – overflowing with plenty.

I want us to look at this story today with slightly different eyes – eyes of hope and faith.  With eyes that are seeing abundance and gratitude. 

Watching an enormous crowd gather on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Jesus turns to his disciple Philip – “Where are we going to buy bread for these people to eat?? “

I think it is notable that only in John’s gospel does Jesus initiate this conversation.  It’s not the disciples wringing their hands, afraid to lose the crowd to hunger-driven unrest. 
Philip answers with some despair – “it would cost so much to feed these folks even a little.”

But Andrew says, “there is this boy with a little bit of food – I mean I’m not sure what that little does, but there IS SOME.”

And Jesus takes those loaves, and gives thanks for them, because even in their not muchness, they are something – and he begins to pass them out to the crowd.

Again, I note that John’s gospel has JESUS doing the distribution…”He distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted….”

Certainly one way to look at this story is that of a miraculous, mysterious, magical multiplication.  Of cartoon like self-generating baskets of smoky fish and crusty bread that just keeps bubbling up and over the edges of the basket.

Another way to look at this story is that of miraculous sharing on the part of all who gathered. 

These people, hungry for Jesus, hungry for a moment in his presence, hungry to hear what it is he has to say, hungry to hear a word of hope in the difficult daily life of Roman oppression, gather in the hope and faith that what they hear on this hillside will make a difference.

So that they have the stamina to remain, listen and be taught, Jesus calls on the disciples to trust that indeed, they will be physically able to stay and listen and grow. The resources exist.

Present in that crowd was the capacity for enough – actually for more than enough.  More than a snack.  There was capacity in that crowd for a sustaining feast of bread and fish for each person gathered. 

I wonder…

What is the enough that we have in our midst?

What are the bits and pieces we are holding onto? 

A few hours of our time because we might need it. 

Our ability to work with numbers, because really, who wants to choose to spend time looking at another budget spreadsheet.

Our ability to troubleshoot technology. Our ability to lay out a newsletter.  Our ability to share our witness with another who is trying to learn and grow.

Money that we’re not entirely sure we can “entrust” to the work of the church right now because there is so much change in the world. So much change in the church.

Willingness to show up to one another, to demonstrate love to one another, even when we don’t completely agree or see the same next steps.

What is the enough that we have in our midst?

What are the bits and pieces we are holding onto? 

And what would it look like if we trusted there was enough to go around?  If we believed that we wouldn’t run short in our personal stash – our stash of time, of talent, of things –

Might there be baskets of plenty?

What if we imagined Jesus standing with us as we hold our breath waiting to hear words of life, stomachs growling but afraid we might miss the very best part if we leave.

What if we imagine Jesus standing with us giving thanks for our meager offering and blessing it to God’s work in the world.

Might we find our basket overflowing –
overflowing with the commitment of little bits of time and talent that add up to revitalized ministry to young families.
overflowing with the commitment of little bits of connection and relationship that might help us discover people who need the warm embrace of this community.
overflowing with little bits of vision about how we might offer our building and our experience as a thriving church to help another congregation thrive and grow and become.
overflowing with little bits of money that doubles our outreach, keeps our building safe, keeps our music streaming, keeps allowing us to offer childcare for meetings and events, keeps helping us take the risk to reach a new set of people?

Our hands releasing those little bits with confidence that God blesses our vision and our work and all of our little bits…

there is enough for music
there is enough for heat
there is enough for new small groups
there is enough for mission trips
there is enough for energy efficient windows and doors that honor creation
there is enough to help our homeless neighbors
there is enough to grow our youth outreach
there is enough…
and not just enough.  There is plenty.

And those little bits, taken, blessed, broken and given, sealed in FAITH add up to a God size dream.

Our little bits of imagination, our little bits of vision, our little bits of hope are also somehow blessed and multiplied. 

A feeding – bodily or spiritually – of a crowd larger than we could have imagined.


This is how we will move forward with Faith.  Unclenching.  Releasing. Called to let go of anxiety and worry.  Called to let go of our fear of there not being enough.  Called to let go of what has been with hope and faith and vision for what God is doing in our midst. 

Confident that our little bits become MUCH.  With faith in the muchness of God.

May it be so.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Forward with Faith: Revealed in Prayer (Part 3 in a 4 part series)

While the rest of the world makes the transition from Halloween clearance sales to blow up yard decorations and twinkle lights for Christmas, the church is called to rest in days of remembrance.  Days in which we remember all who have come before us, all who have left us…those we knew and love.  Those who shaped those we knew and loved.  Those who came so far before us that we don’t really know them…but they have something to do with who we are.

Halloween emerged, in part, from a celebration in the church – All Hallow’s Eve – the evening which began the feast of all saints.  It was a time to recall all of those who had passed before…to recognize that there are saints with a capital S but also saints with a small s.  Those simple folks whose lives touched others and we are who we are because of who they were.

In the midst of a change of seasons, when we are losing minutes of daylight each day along with degrees of temperature, the sweet growth of summer is fading and browning and crisping and falling away.

And as we watch the leaves come off the trees, we see bare branches and bare dirt.

Things around us are doing their seasonal dying. Death is afoot.

And in the midst of all of that, it seems appropriate to recognize those bodies and souls once with us that have passed from life to death….and from death to new life. 

At the same time, we are in the third week of a sermon series that focuses us on generosity. First we talked about being children of an abundant, generous God.  Then we talked about how our gratitude for the abundance that surrounds us calls us to live our lives differently.  And today, assured of God’s abundance, grateful for the gifts of grace in our life, we are called to turn and ask God some important questions in prayer.

If last week was a focus on naming the things we are grateful for, this week is about letting that gratitude carry us to the next step, letting our sense of generosity lead us to God, asking the question, God, in light of all that you are and all that I’ve received, what is it that you would have me do?

And as I sat with these two themes, themes of recognizing what has been and passed away alongside themes of how we receive and are called therefore to give, I realized that they are quite closely aligned.

This community, this Faith church has experienced incredible loss in the past year.  There is something particularly holy about the season of shift and change you are living through.  I am grateful for the grace with which you bear your grief…grief for saints who have been long-standing members of this community, and grief for the loss of a very new pastor.  Grief for the way things change.  Grief for that which slips away, leaving us forever changed.  I am grateful for the call to stand with you in this season.

In so many ways your personal losses here at Faith shed light on other losses – systemic losses, communal losses, loss of the way things have been.  Loss of things that are comfortable, familiar.

A shrinking number of familiar faces in the pews. 

A shrinking choir.

A shrinking budget.

A shrinking preschool.

Loss creates grief.  And it creates anxiety.

And there is something about being willing to look our losses in the eye and ask God to help us make sense of it all.  When we can do that, when we can ask God to help us make sense of it all, there can be something vital and renewing and lifegiving…

Let me be clear that we are not called to shove away our grief, because grief has an important place in helping us understand love and loss and change…but All Saints Day reminds us to sit with those losses…and to place them in context of all our loss.  And to look for and to God.

And when we are ready, we step through grief to give thanks for the ways that we have been shaped, molded, changed by all that has come before us.  I think it was just a few weeks ago that I quoted the Broadway musical Wicked – because I knew you, I have been changed for good…

As death slips past us and we realize what we’ve lost, at some point we also realize what we had, and what we’ve become as a result. 

Thanks be to God for the way my dad shaped me as a person who reads maps, who understands cardinal and ordinal directions, as a person who oozes when merging on the interstate, as a person who tries lots of new foods and takes risks.

In a few moments, we will speak the names of those dear to us and we will remember and give thanks for the ways they have shaped us.  This is an act of thanksgiving and remembrance.  And it is a gateway to what God is doing and calls us to do.

Just two weeks ago, we began this series remembering that each of us is created in the image of a loving and abundant God. Then last week we talked about how gratitude for the abundance that surrounds us calls us to live our lives differently.  And today, assured of God’s abundance, grateful for the gifts of grace in our life, we turn to asking God some important questions in prayer.

So…place that against this backdrop of All Saints day for a moment.

If last week was a focus on naming the things we are grateful for, this week is about letting that gratitude carry us to the next step, letting our sense of gratitude lead us to God, asking a generous question:

God, in light of all that you are and all that I’ve received, what is it that you would have me do?

In light of all those who have loved me.
In light of all those who have shaped me.
In light of all of those who have poured into me.
In light of all that has happened before this moment. 
In light of all of the seasons of program and mission and outreach at Faith church, in light of the rise of big churches in seasons, and in light of dwindling numbers of folks showing up inside the building we also call the church,
what, God, are you calling me to today? 
What are you calling me to do with my gifts and my graces? 

What are you calling us to do as a community of Faith? 
What are you asking of us…of me…

Let me repeat a few lines from Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus…

“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

Our call is to receive Paul’s prayer…

that we might have a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to Jesus so that we may know the hope to which we are called.

…that we might know the hope to which we are called…

….that we might see and know how to share that gift of love and grace we have received with those around us.

…that we might see and know how to do that differently in a changing world.

Because God is part of the changing world, too.  We can’t just pretend it is not happening.

God, in light of all of this….
In light of what has been
in light of those who have shaped us
in light of what is happening in the world around us today
in light our zip code
in light of our gifts and graces
what would you have us do?
How would you have us serve?
How would you have us share light?
What do you want ME to do God?

And then we listen. 
I listen, you listen. 
And prepare for what shows up. 
Because when we ask for guidance, we ought to be ready to act.
Then do…

This prayer thing isn’t for the faint of heart. 

God, in light of all of this…in light of who you are, in light of what has been and what will be, what would you have me do?