Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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Church Well-Being 2016

Jane Rantz & Bill Tenney

Address Delivered January 29, 2017

 

Let us pray together:

 

Deliver us, God, from the temptation of accepting the world that we see as the only world that is. For the world that we see is not the world for which you created us. Give strength to our pursuit of true knowledge, and to a life lived in your presence and in your mystery.

 

We give thanks and praise for the movement toward broad inclusiveness here in the diverse community of Maple Grove. We pray that even though at times we do not think alike, you will enable us, God, to love alike.

 

Open our hearts, our minds, and our doors. May we invite others to join us as we see Christ in every person we meet. We know we can experience a glimpse of heaven on earth when we make that spiritual connection with others.

 

Guide us in this New Year to be all that we can be for you! 

In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we come to celebrate the end of a year dedicated to being one in Christ, and in the beginning of another year. The Book of Revelation promises a new heaven and a new earth, not an escape from earth. We seek to live on earth as Jesus did, making heaven and earth one.

 

How do we live this heaven on earth? By being willing to journey beyond our comfort zones to discover the world for which we have been created. We invite the Christ in us to live through us, loving our neighbors, our community, and our world. This is not a love that begins and ends just in warm feelings; it is a love that speaks in courage, in patience and kindness, and by being and by doing.

 

Bill and I want to share how Maple Grove has lived our mission statement of being an open community of Christians who love God and serve our neighbors.

 

Like Paul, we are called to foster a culture of invitation to Christian community. We have grown: We are committed to an ever-deepening relationship with God.

We have been transformed: We have formed life-changing relationships while serving others.

 

We are blessed by the leadership of Pastor Glenn, Cathy Davis, and Dawn Nauman. They help and encourage us to ponder their messages and be all that we can be as disciples of Christ. They love and support us through good times and bad. Thank you, Glenn, Cathy, and Dawn!

 

We’re thankful for the service of Eve Hathaway, who is the heart and soul of our church office. Thanks to Chip Austin and Terrell Brown, who take pride in the care and upkeep of our facility. Thanks to Sue Fletcher and Nancy Gay, whose ministries reach out to care for our absent and elderly members. We are grateful, too, for the loving care that Mandy Wray, our nursery coordinator, provides to the very youngest visitors to Maple Grove, and for the service of our additional nursery coordinator for 2017, Michelle Sekuskey.

 

We are blessed by the musical gifts of Len Bussard, Greg White, Rev. Michelle Baker, and our inspiring choirs. When the Chancel Choir sings, we hear scripture and messages of the love and peace of Christ woven into melody and harmony. When the bell choir rings, or New Song or our gifted soloists sing or play their instruments, they help put us in touch with God’s holiness and majesty. We deeply appreciate how much all of you do for us.

 

Thanks to the Maple Grove Players, who through drama, humor, and music deliver God’s message in our church and through their outreach programs to other groups in our community.

 

A few weeks ago we completed a successful capital campaign under the leadership of the Bennetts and Freers and their team members. Thanks to all of them and to those who have contributed to the campaign and committed to paying it forward to keep the physical facility of Maple Grove going for following generations. We have been the beneficiaries of those who came before us and with their faith and commitment laid the foundation and built upon the rock that became Maple Grove United Methodist Church at Henderson and High. Our pledged amount to the campaign to date is $875,000, and we have already received first fruits of $201,000. Projects to improve safety are beginning.

 

The capital campaign is a three-year effort, and if you haven’t already pledged, please consider doing so as you are able in the future.

 

Based on a successful stewardship campaign, our financial figures for 2016 are great! Total income was $571,649. Total expenses were $560,667 giving us a surplus of $10,982. This is the second year in a row we have finished with a surplus. Total church income was up, and expenses were held down. Our budget for 2017 is $572,434, which is a 0.72% decrease over last year’s budget. If you have not already made a commitment to the operating budget, please note that pledges are always gratefully accepted!

 

Last year we welcomed 33 new members to our Maple Grove family. Our total membership was 587. We had 117 first-time visitors.  

 

Maple Grovers love God and serve their neighbors in over 75 active ministry teams, thanks to the large number of ministry volunteers and team leaders. Among the mission and outreach ministries are groups that served here in Columbus at the NNEMAP Food Pantry and the New Life United Methodist Church Clothing Room. In partnership with the Clintonville Resources Center, we served dinner the first Thursday of each month and provided other food for the hungry: Sunday breakfasts, sack lunches, summer lunches for kids, and non-perishable food donations. We prepare and deliver sandwiches twice monthly to the Faith on 8th Men’s Shelter.

 

Our adult mission team traveled to Andrews, South Carolina, and completed repairs on mobile homes that had been damaged by storms. We hosted Feed the World, which provided food to people in need locally and around the world. (It was an amazing event, and if you missed out on participating last year, be aware that we plan to host it again this year in the month of August.)

 

Also in 2016, we completed our three-year 30-thousand-dollar pledge to Imagine No Malaria as our world outreach part of the Christmas in July campaign. Thanks to your support over the last three years, we helped save three thousand lives in Africa.

 

Maple Grove served 225 Thanksgiving meals in Fellowship Hall and delivered leftovers to local shelters. We provided 140 food boxes to Bethlehem on Broad Street. (There are only 153 days until our next Christmas in July!)

 

Maple Grove continues to add study groups for spiritual formation. Thirteen classes meet faithfully every Sunday morning. Seven other classes meet during the week. The following short-term study groups were offered in 2016: Disciples Path, We Make the Road, For the Love of God, Soul of a Pilgrim, Open the Door, Unusual Healings, and several Covenant study groups. Three Love Our Neighbor events were held during the summer. These included lunch and time to explore topics of Differences & Sameness, Conflict Resolution and Reconciling Ministries. Each event was attended by 60-70 people.

 

Four of our members are training as Stephen Ministers as we partner for training with Overbrook Presbyterian and North Broadway UMC. This will give us a total of 17 active Stephen Ministers. We also trained four more Hometown Service Volunteers through the HEROES program.

 

Twenty-seven women participated in a spiritual retreat at the Lial Renewal Center. Twenty-nine women attended an Advent Contemplative Gathering. There are two active United Methodist Women’s Circles.

 

The God-Centered Wellbeing Team put on an Emotional Resilience workshop, which drew 50-60 attendees. God-Centered Wellbeing also continued growing a variety of human connection groups in 2016.

 

The Teenage Youth group has 12 active participants. Our teens participated in the annual CROP Walk, sang carols to homebound folks, took Valentines to Wesley Glen, partnered with CRC to rake leaves for our senior neighbors, made sandwiches for Faith on 8th, led a Christmas Eve worship, and learned about mercy and justice.

 

Thirteen participants went on an unforgettable youth mission trip to Memphis, Tennessee. Their experiences on that trip included attending a service addressing racial violence, serving dinner at a homeless shelter, working at a Baptist boys’ ranch (where they heard heartbreaking stories of abuse, broken homes, abandonment and addiction, but also of gratitude for the ranch and for a God of love, forgiveness and second chances). Also in Tennessee, they volunteered at the Lisieux House for women in recovery from addiction and human trafficking, and heard more stories of second chances by the grace of God. They visited with residents of a rehabilitation facility, and they toured the National Civil Rights Museum, which includes the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

 

Ten seventh and eighth graders completed confirmation in May of 2016.

 

Dawn Nauman’s ministry to children continued with the process where all kids in the fourth through the sixth grades had the opportunity to study the same scripture and develop a presentation (In Project Sunday School on Sunday mornings and Tween Ministry Incorporated, or TMI, on Sunday afternoons). There were two Project Sunday School music and drama performances during worship in 2016. Both were based on New Testament scriptures—one on healing, and one on thankfulness. More than 25 kids participated in each of these events. At 8:30 services, TMI gave the message twice, on healing and on thankfulness.

 

Children and youth ministries continue to embrace our sanctuary’s audio-visual system, probably more than any other group, as they incorporate technology into their interpretations of the Bible.

 

Our Child and Family Support Group met twice last year to develop and support ministries for children and tweens at Maple Grove.

 

TMI kids in fourth through sixth grades continued to meet on alternating Sundays and for fun Friday evening activities. Attendance swelled to an average of 20 children (up from five in the first year and 18 in 2015). TMI continues to be an invitational ministry. Kids brought their friends to our Friday night activities and on Sunday evenings. They also took field trips for swimming at an indoor pool and for bowling. Members of TMI and their families prepared and served pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and assisted with the children’s Easter egg hunt.

 

We presented the Justin Roberts concert, which welcomed neighbors to our green space for a great family-oriented day.

 

Vacation Bible School was well attended, with more than 60 children and a strong group of leaders, including many teens and tweens from the church. We continue to use the small-group model, which allows leaders of all ages to develop strong relationships with children and work with peers within the church. During VBS, we raised money and awareness about type 1 diabetes, an illness that struck one of our Maple Grove families during the past year.

 

Advent and Christmas at Maple Grove was a great experience, with more than 35 children participating in the Christmas pageant. Church member Valerie Aveni provided music leadership, and the kids performed in a wonderful pageant that included both vocal music and bells. Kids also were invited to share their talents before the service. This year, many new families from the neighborhood or who have found our church by being invited to TMI events participated in the pageant.

 

In December, Maple Grove hosted a potluck for folks interested in building bridges between families in the Muslim, Methodist, and other communities in and around Columbus. More than 80 people gathered to get to know each other. This ministry of Muslims, Methodists, and More continues in 2017.

 

Late in 2015, a group of Maple Grove members joined together to promote our church’s openness to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, race, economic status, or a number of other descriptors that have been used in society to discriminate and divide God’s people.

 

This group grew in number as its work progressed. They crafted a statement of welcome, emphasizing the full inclusion of all of humanity, in all its diversity, in the life and ministries of Maple Grove. In the spring of 2016, the group presented this statement of welcome and inclusiveness to our church’s Administrative Council for approval. The council unanimously approved the statement, and it now appears on Maple Grove’s website. (We note that a church’s website is now, for many people, the primary means of finding out about a church before trying it out on Sunday.)

 

As a further public step in our movement toward broad inclusiveness, Maple Grove members were invited to vote at our November 2016 charge conference on whether to become a Reconciling Congregation, joining other area United Methodist churches in welcoming “people of all sexual orientations and gender identities into the full life of the church.” The reconciling designation allows people who are unfamiliar with Maple Grove, and perhaps are looking for a church home in Clintonville or nearby, to see that we are a church that welcomes one and all—something those of us who have already found our church home here know but that may not be readily apparent to folks who haven’t worshipped with us yet.

 

The proposal to become a Reconciling Congregation passed overwhelmingly, and we celebrate Maple Grove’s progress toward broad inclusion of all God’s people in the life and work of the church.

 

This is a day and a year of new beginnings. Let us draw near to God, praying for the willingness to deeply listen to each other without judgment, to be of comfort and compassion to one another even when we do not think alike, and to be united in our loving and living in a way that brings heaven to earth. Together, may we have the heart of Christ to take the next step, and the next, and all that follow!

 

Matthew 4:12-22

Not Alone

January 22, 2017          Maple Grove UMC

 

          Today’s gospel story is an early turning point in Jesus’ life.  He has submitted to baptism and heard those amazing words, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Then the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness where he fasts for forty days and is tempted by the devil.  There are many ways to think about these temptations, but in one way or another they all have to do with whether Jesus will make his ministry about himself—his own power, his own glory, his own ego--or let his ministry be about God and God’s will.  Then on the heels of that, Jesus learns that the one who had prepared the way for him, John the Baptist, has been arrested by Herod the King.  In other words, it is now his time.

          Bible scholar Joseph Donders writes about this pivotal moment in Jesus’ life.1 “The first thing Jesus did,” Donders writes, “when he heard that John the Baptizer had been arrested, was leave Nazareth forever.  He chose a new home, his new headquarters, at Capernaum.”  It’s like this geographic move represented a spiritual movement, a life change, that Jesus was going through.

          Donders goes on:  “The second thing [Jesus] did was start to preach.  His message was short and clear.”  It was, in fact, the very same message preached by John: Everyone repent!  We all need to change our hearts and minds, to let go of the old and embrace the new, for the Kingdom of God had come very, very near. 

          “But preaching,” Donders acknowledges, “is a strange thing.  Preaching can be frustrating.  As a preacher,” he says, “I know very well what I am talking about.  You can preach and preach, people can listen and listen, and you just wonder what all that preaching and all that listening accomplish.  I am afraid,” he admits, “that very often they accomplish nothing at all.  Something else must be added. . .”

          So “according to today’s gospel, Jesus did a third thing.  He left Nazareth, he started preaching, and he decided not to remain alone.”  He decided to associate, to unite himself with others, to create a community.  He called Simon and Andrew, he called James and John, and afterwards he called many others.  In our day, he has called you and he has called even me.  Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, but at this early turning point in his ministry and life, he decided not to remain alone, but to do his work and to live his life in the company of others.

          I suspect there were times when Jesus regretted that decision!  As lonely and as limiting as can be to be alone, living in community has challenges of its own.  The Twelve that Jesus chose to be closest to him neverendlngly misunderstood him.  They asked exasperating questions.  They were afraid of him when he walked on the water, and they deserted him when soldiers came to arrest him.  He would frequently get frustrated with them, and call them, “You of little faith.”  And of the Twelve closest to him, one betrayed him and another denied him.  Even for Jesus, community—being with others--involved conflict and disappointment. 

          But still, he did it.  He called Simon and Andrew, he called James and John; he called many others and in our own day, he has called you and me.  This was, Donders says, “normal and logical for anyone who wants to change anything in this world.  When you want something to be done, you associate, come together, network, unite, and do it together.  That’s what Jesus did.”  There’s an old joke that Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God and wound up with the church. . .  We chuckle, perhaps, because we sense the great and unfortunate difference between the kingdom of God and the church as we know it.  But really, the joke isn’t true.  Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God AND he came to found the church, to be with people, to bring people together in his name to show the world until the end of time what love and forgiveness and acceptance and unity of spirit look like. 

          After his baptism and temptation, after John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus left Nazareth for Capernaum, he started preaching, and he decided not to remain alone. 

 

          But there’s more to it even than that.  Jesus also decided not to let his disciples remain alone.  He didn’t just say, “Follow me—I want to be with you.”  He said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  Jesus calls us to be with him, and he tells us to call others to be with us and him.  This is what at Maple Grove we call the ministry of invitation--reaching out to others to say, “Come and see who Jesus is; come and see what Christian community can be like.  Come and see.”

          This ministry of invitation is admittedly hard most of us.  One of Administrative Council’s goals last year was that everyone would invite at least one person to a Maple Grove event some time during the year.  Sounds simple enough on paper, right? Well, on the commitment cards last fall, we gave people a chance to report how they did.  53 people said, “Yes, I invited someone in 2016.”  That’s not quite everyone. . .  But the good news is that 93 people said they intend to invite someone this year.  In other words, invitation is hard, but we are learning and gaining confidence, and we are committed to fishing for people.

          Jesus makes this ministry of invitation easier in two ways in this gospel reading.  One thing is this:  family counts.  Simon and Andrew are brothers.  James and John are brothers.  When inviting others, Jesu wasn’t talking about going door to door or accosting strangers on street corners.  We start with brothers and sisters, parents and children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.  Family counts.

          The second way Jesus makes invitation easier is this:  our invitation comes out of who we are.  To these fishermen, Jesus says, “I will make you fish for people.”  To construction workers he might have said, “I will make you builders of the kingdom,” to IT folks, “I will make you network people,” or to coaches, “I will make you recruiters for Team Jesus.”  Well, you get the idea.  Just be who you are, and use who you are to build relationships for Jesus.

 

          God-Centered Wellbeing is a movement, or maybe better, an emphasis, a way of being mindful to keep God’s love at the center of all that we do and all that what are.  And we start with our relationships.  Jesus chose not to remain alone, and he urged his disciples not to remain alone, but to be in holy relationship with others. 

 

          Jesus made his decision not to remain alone at a critical and stressful time in his life—after his baptism and his temptation in the wilderness and after the arrest of his relative and forerunner, John.  My own personal tendency in critical and stressful times is to isolate myself, to withdraw and protect myself and lick my wounds.  But that is not the call of the gospel.  Here’s how Donders puts it:  “[Jesus’] followers are not allowed to merely stay at home, criticizing and complaining. . .  We, his followers, are not allowed to remain alone, safe and secure.  We, his followers, are asked to associate ourselves with him and with one another in an organized and efficient drive to chase away the evils that terrorize our [world]. 

          So “please, sister,” he concludes, “please brother, don’t remain alone, don’t just criticize.  That’s too easy.  Let us unite, let us come together in [Christ’s] desire to shape God’s new world.  Let us associate, let us move together with him in the direction of the Kingdom.” 

          The answer for Jesus and the answer for us, is this:  not to remain alone.  We’re in this together.

 

1 Joseph P. Donders, “Not Alone,” Alive Now (January/February 2006), 34-36.

 

 

Matthew 3:13-17

No Matter What—You Are a Child of God

January 8, 2017

 

          No matter what—you are a child of God, precious and beloved. No matter how high you climb in life, no matter how many degrees you may get or how many people may serve and respect you, you will never achieve a title higher than you received at your baptism:  child of God, precious and beloved.  And no matter how low your heart may sink, no matter what is done to you or how you may disappoint yourself, baptism never rubs off.  No matter what--you are a child of God, precious and beloved.

 

          Baptism has many different meanings and associations. The word ‘baptize’ means literally to dip or to wash, so baptism represents the washing away of sin and the cleansing of our souls.  Baptism also symbolizes dying and rising to new life.  In immersion, when we go under the water it is like dying to our old life, and when we come back up, breathless and gasping, it is rising to the new life God makes for us in Jesus Christ.  Baptism is also a sacrament, the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace; or in John Wesley’s term it is a ‘means of grace,’ that is, God is present to us in all sorts of ways and places, but there are certain places where God has promised to be, where God’s grace is reliably present, and baptism is one of those places. 

          So baptism has many meanings and associations, but two above all stand out in today’s gospel reading. First, solidarity.  On the day when Jesus came to be baptized by John, as Barbara Taylor imagines it, "the place was teeming with sinners—faulty, sorry, guilty human beings—who hoped against hope that John could clean them up and turn their lives around."  Probably most of them hadn't done horrible things, but if not, they may havehad horrible things done to them, or experienced the horrible side of life.  They were troubled and weary, ashamed and wounded, and they were coming for baptism so they could feel clean again. 

          And then Jesus showed up and got in line with them.1 John tried to talk Jesus out of it: “No, no, I need you to baptize me, not the other way around.”  But Jesus insisted.  You see, Jesus didn’t only come to give his life for us.  He didn’t stand up front and lecture us or shout encouragement from afar.  He came to be with us, to be one of us, to stand in solidarity with us in all our trouble and weariness, in all our shame and woundedness.  We have baptism in common not only with one another and all other Christians, we have baptism in common with Jesus himself.  He comes and gets in line with us; we are in this life together, Jesus and us.  Baptism is about solidarity.

 

          But here’s the rest of the story:  Baptism bestows on us an identity.  As Jesus came up out of the water, the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  So important are these words, that they are repeated verbatim at the Transfiguration.  Jesus becomes dazzling white as his disciples look again and again the voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  And one assumes that in less public ways, God was always whispering these words to Jesus.  When Jesus was tempted by the devil, he needed to remember who he was—the Son of God, precious and beloved.  When the Pharisees criticized him and the disciples failed to understand, he needed to remember who he was—the Son of God, precious and beloved.  And when he wrestled in Gethsemane with the prospect of dying, he needed to remember who he was—the Son of God, precious and beloved. 

          Baptism bestows on us an identity, one we need to remember all of our lives.  No matter what, it says, you are a child of God, precious and beloved.  Peter Storey, the former Methodist bishop in South Africa, a white man who opposed apartheid, tells of a party at which he and Desmond Tutu were the honored guests.  A group of black South Africans asked Peter and Desmond if they understood why they were throwing a party for them.  “Because we were with you in the struggle against apartheid?”  Their hosts replied, “No, because you baptized us; you told us who we were and remembered it even when no one else did.”2 Baptism bestows on us an identity, one we need to know and remember all our lives.

          This is a kind of high theology of baptism, that baptism has the power to change us from one thing to another.  Thomas Lynch tells of his grandmother who was raised a Methodist but married into an Irish Catholic family.  Tongue in cheek she would explain to people how she converted to Catholicism.  She would say, “Ah, the priest splashed a little water on me and said, ‘Geraldine, you were born a Methodist, raised a Methodist. Thanks be to God, now you’re a Catholic.  Amen.”  And that was that.

          One evening Geraldine was grilling some steaks on a Friday in Lent when some church officials showed up to enforce the ban on eating meat on Friday during Lent.  Geraldine calmly splashed some water on the grill and said, ‘You were born a cow, and raised a cow.  Thanks be to God, now you are fish!”  Baptism changes our identity!  But always she’d end her story with this summary:  ‘Surely we’re all children of God, the same but different.’3 Do I hear an ‘Amen?’

          Baptism makes us something new, something we weren’t before.  Now don’t misunderstand me.  Baptism isn’t magic.  God loves unbaptized people just as much as baptized people. God doesn’t need baptism; we need baptism.  And we all know that some people struggle to live out the new identity baptism has given them.  But what baptism gives us, ideally, in a way that we can take hold of and understand, is what Rowan Williams calls “the restoration of what it is to be truly human.  To be baptized is to recover the humanity that God first intended.”4

 

          One problem is, some of us get to thinking that we are somehow more than just children of God.  We get to thinking that we don’t have to get in line with all the other poor sinners—with poor people or foreigners, with the uncouth or the unemployed.  We get to thinking that unlike run-of-the-mill children of God, we deserve a special status amongst God’s people, what with our years of faithful service, our generous giving, our demonstrated good taste and common sense.  Surely there’s a special line for those of us entitled to such respect, and we know who we are?  But baptism’s answer is: “Well, no, actually.  There’s only the one line, the same line Jesus went and got in.  And there is no higher title anywhere in heaven or earth than “child of God, precious and beloved.” 

          There are more of us, however, who get to thinking that we are somehow less than children of God.  We may have felt the power of that identity at some point, but life has a way of wearing us down.  Years of hard work tires us out, relentless criticism wearies our spirits, family stress takes its toll, our own foolishness and negativity bring us down.  Sure, sometimes we just get worn down.  But here’s what baptism says:  No matter what, you are a child of God, precious and beloved.

          Sometimes the church itself, through its doctrine or a lack of love, causes someone to feel less than a child of God.  Marilyn Alexander remembers, “On a crisp Dakota Sunday morning, tightly wrapped against the November cold, I was carried off to the town’s Methodist church to be the delight of the baptizing family of God. . .  Thirty-two years later,” she says, “I remember my baptism.  The church does not.”  The church, she says, has denied the identity bestowed on me at my baptism because of my sexual orientation. Sometimes, tragically, churches get it wrong; but God does not.  No matter what, you are a child of God, precious and beloved.

          After the choir sings, we will say together the liturgy of remembering and reaffirming our baptism.  If you’ve not been baptized, there is nothing standing in your way.  Just come to me and state your intention, and we can make it happen today. And if today isn’t the day, that’s okay. Anticipate your baptism here today and know deep in your heart that no matter what, you are a child of God, precious and beloved. 

 

1 Barbara Brown Taylor, “The River of Life,” Home by Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), 33-34.

2 In Stanley Hauerwas, “Transfigured,” Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church (New York: Seabury Books, 2013), 85.

3 Thomas Lynch, The Christian Century (February 22, 2011), 27.

4 Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publis

Looking for Jesus? Try the Manger

Christmas Eve 2016

Maple Grove UMC

 

          Are you looking for Jesus?  That’s been our theme here this season before Christmas.  Are you looking for Jesus—is that why you’re here?  Oh, I know—there are lots of reasons to be at church on Christmas Eve.  Some people come to sing the carols and hear the Christmas music.  Some people come because, well, they’ve always come to church on Christmas Eve—it’s a tradition.  Some people come just to make grandma happy once a year.  There aren’t any bad reasons to come to church on Christmas Eve. But maybe, just maybe, you’ve come to church this day because somehow or other, in the midst of it all, you’re looking for Jesus in your life.  Here’s where we’ve been the past few weeks.  Week 1 said that if you’re looking for Jesus, then stay alert—every moment of every day is a time when Jesus might show up.  Week 2 told us that wherever bodies and spirits are being healed and wherever the poor find relief, that’s where to look for Jesus.  But that Jesus is Immanuel reminded us that in some ways we don’t have to look for Jesus at all—he is God-with-us, always and everywhere.  If  you’re looking for Jesus, there are many right answers about where and how to look.

          And now finally we come to Christmas Eve.  Matthew’s gospel tells the story of the Wisemen who come from afar, looking for Jesus.  Unlike most men, they stop and ask for directions, saying to King Herod, “Where is this child who has been born king of the Jews?”  And the answer is not in the temple or palace, not in the capital city or any important place at all.  The answer is in Bethlehem, a has-been village in the hinterlands, not where you might expect the Son of God at all.  For my Advent devotions this year, I reread a book of Christmas sermons by Martin Luther who in the 1500s said:  “If we Christians would join the Wise Men, we must close our eyes to all that glitters before the world and look rather on the despised and foolish things, help the poor, comfort the despised, and aid the neighbor in his need.”1 Are you looking for Jesus?  Well, we’re beginning to find out where to look.

 

          Now I’m going to be careful here.  Peter Marty, a Lutheran pastor in Iowa, once preached on Christmas Eve about Herod killing the baby boys in Bethlehem, seeking to do away with this newborn pretender to his throne.  Rev. Marty compared this tragedy to a little boy who’d been killed that month in our own country.  One mother told him after the service that mention of children being murdered had no place in a Christmas sermon.  She said, “I will never set foot in this church again.”  And she never did.  “What I underestimated,” Marty admits, “on that particular Christmas night, was the peril of tampering with holiday sentiment.”2 Well, I promise not to tell you any stories about harming children tonight.  But in principal, I’m with Rev. Marty—the Savior we need is one who isn’t afraid to be found in dark and troubled places, because the world is full of dark in troubled places, even at Christmas

         

               So let’s look at where the gospels say to look for Jesus. In Luke, if you’re looking for Jesus, try the manger.  Mary gave birth not in the comfort of home but on the road, and not in an inn but in the barn out back.  And she laid her baby not in a crib but in a manger.  Now I know we make mangers look cute and cozy in our Hallmark manger scenes.  But you know what a manger is, right?  It comes from the French word, manger, meaning to chew or eat.  It’s the place where farm animals get their feed.  Rough and dirty would come closer to describing it than cute and cozy.  It is nowhere that any of us would even consider laying our baby.  But that’s all Mary had for Jesus.  If you’re looking for Jesus, try the manger. 

          And according to Luke, Jesus’ first visitors were not the grandparents with their cameras nor the neighbors with Babies”R”Us gifts cards, but shepherds straight from the fields, meaning they hadn’t had time to clean up.  Now we often romanticize shepherds too, but Martin Luther corrects that.  Being a shepherd, he says, was “low-down work, and the men who did it were regarded as trash.”3 What’s more, these aren’t just any shepherds; these are the ones who were keeping watch over their flocks in the middle of the night.  If you’re looking for Jesus, try the manger, try the night shift of the worst job you can think of.

          Well, that’s Luke’s gospel—what about Matthew?  Well, Matthew is the one who tells about King Herod doing that thing I promised I wouldn’t tell about.  And because of that, Mary and Joseph had to take their baby and flee for their lives.  They wound up in Egypt, where they looked and dressed different from everyone else, didn’t know the language and hadn’t been properly vetted  They were what today we would call refugees.  In Columbus today there between 40,000 and 65,000 Somalis who have fled violence there.  11 million Syrians have fled the fighting in their country.  If you’re looking for Jesus, try among the refugees. 

 

          Writer Harriett Richie tells about the year her husband was hungry after the late Christmas Eve service.  The only place they could find open was a truck stop by the interstate.  By that time the kids were asleep.  The air smelled of coffee, bacon and cigarette smoke.  The juke box played bad country music; a one-armed man in a baseball cap sat at the bar and drank with a couple of other scruffy guys.   A thin woman named Rita came to take their order, looking as any woman might who drew the late shift on Christmas Eve.  Harriett admits: the snob in me was enjoying feeling out of place there.  “Years from now,” she thought, “we’ll laugh and say, ‘Remember that Christmas Eve we ate at the truck stop?  The awful music and the tacky lights?’”

          A beat up VW pulled up outside and a bearded young man in jeans got out.  He opened he door for a young woman holding a baby.  They hurried inside and took a booth in back.  As Rita took their order, the baby started to cry.  The father lifted the baby to his shoulder but it didn’t help.  Rita poured them coffee.  The mother took the baby and began rocking it in her arms.  The mother picked up the diaper bag and started to leave.  But Rita came over and held out her arms.  “Drink your coffee, Hon.  Let’s see what I can do.”  Rita began walking, talking, bouncing the baby.  She showed her to the man in the baseball cap.  He began whistling and making silly faces, and the baby stopped crying.  “Just look at this little darlin’,” she said.  “Mine are so big and grown.”

          The one-armed fellow took a pot of coffee and started waiting on tables.  As he filled their mugs, Harriett felt tears in her eyes.  Her husband wanted to know what was wrong.

          “Nothing.  Just Christmas,” she said. . .  “He’d come here, wouldn’t he?” she asked.

          “Who would?” her husband said.

          “Jesus.  If Jesus were born in this town tonight and his choices were our neighborhood, the church or this truck stop, it would be here, wouldn’t it?”

          He didn’t answer right away, but looked around the place, looked at the people.  Finally he said, “Either here or a homeless shelter.” 

          The houses in our neighborhood were dark, Harriett writes.  As we passed the Mulfords, I wondered what Christmas Day would be like for them.  Their daughter died in a car accident during the summer.  Next door Jack McCarthy had lost his job.  A little farther down the street lived the Baileys, whose marriage was hanging together by the slimmest thread.  Mrs. Smith’s grown son had died from AIDS.  Maybe we’re not so different from the people in the truck stop, she thought.

          After they tucked in the children, she picked up a Bible and found where it says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”  Then she found the Christmas story where it says, “I am bringing good news of great joy for all  the people.” 

          Many Christmases have passed since that night, she says, but I still believe that Jesus would be born in what I’d call an unholy place.  But rich, poor or in between, we’re all poor in spirit.  In the places where we are broken, she concludes, in the dark holes where something is missing, in the silence of unanswered questions, the wondrous gift is given.4

          If you’re looking for Jesus, try the manger, try the truck stop late at night, try your neighbors’ silent pain, try the broken places of your own heart and life.

 

          Here’s the passage from Martin Luther that really tugged at my heart this Advent season.  He says, “There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves, ‘If only I had been there [in Bethlehem]!  How quick I would have been to help the Baby!  I would have [changed his diapers].  How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!’  Sure you would have,” Luther says.  “You say that because you know how great Christ is. . .  [Well,] why don’t you do it now?  You have Christ in your neighbor.  You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.”5

               Why don’t you do it now? Luther asked 500 years ago. Well, we do, some.  And Christmas is the time to turn our hearts to do it more. 

         

Thinking back to Peter Marty’s controversial Christmas sermon, I’m not intending to tamper with holiday sentiment—really I’m not. My home is as decorated as anyone’s.  Later tonight our family will give gifts to each other that we don’t really need but that warm our hearts nevertheless.  Tomorrow we’ll have dinner and reminisce about Christmases past.  I’ll enjoy every card you send and every cookie you give me!  Holiday sentiment?  Count me in!

          But if you’re looking for Jesus, try the manger.  Try among the refugees, the homeless couple out back of the inn, the night shift diner, try your neighbor’s silent pain and the broken places in your own heart and life.  That’s where the wondrous gift is given. 

 

1 Roland H. Bainton, ed., Martin Luther’s Christmas Book (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1997), 59.

2 Peter W. Marty, “Christmas Unvarnished: A Savior for a Troubled World,” The Christian Century (December 12, 2012), 10.

3 Bainton, 35.

4Harriett Richie, “He’d Come Here: Christmas Eve,” The Christian Century (December 13, 1995), 1205-06.

5 Bainton, 31.

 

Matthew 11:2-6

Looking for Jesus?

He’s Wherever the Lame Walk and the Poor Hear Good News

December 4, 2016

This Advent season we are looking for Jesus, week by week making our way to Bethlehem to find the baby in a manger. But along the way, the Gospel readings invite us to look for Jesus in some unlikely places. Last week Jesus said the Son of Man will return at an unexpected hour. If you’re looking for Jesus, stay alert, because every moment of every day is a time when Jesus might show up. Because everything we do—cleaning house and going to work and forgiving others—can be a way to be aware.

Are you looking for Jesus? Today, John the Baptist was looking for Jesus. Or more accurately, John knows where Jesus is; he’s looking to see if Jesus is One he’d thought he was--the Savior, the Messiah, the One. John had been an early believer in Jesus. He’d recognized that he wasn’t worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals, and when he baptized Jesus, John heard God’s voice say, "This is my Son, the Beloved." He believed.

But that was a long time ago. And now John is in prison, on death row for criticizing the king’s sexual misbehavior. By now John thought Jesus would have kicked the Romans out of Judea, or at least put together a band of soldiers, maybe come and bust him out of jail. Instead, from what John hears, Jesus has become some traveling preacher and faith healer, all the Jewish leaders hate him, and his posse is a few fisherman and a tax collector.

John is disappointed; Jesus has not lived up to his expectations. So John sent some people to ask Jesus, "Are you the One, or do we need to look for someone else?" He wasn’t exactly looking for Jesus; he was looking right at Jesus and wondering if he should look somewhere else. John may have been the first to grow disillusioned with Jesus, but he wasn’t the last.1 People still look around and wonder: if Jesus is the Savior, why aren’t we saved from senseless violence? If Jesus is the Messiah, why isn’t there more forgiveness and understanding? And if Jesus is the One, why do I still hurt so much inside? And lots of people look at the church and ask, If Jesus is their Savior, why don’t they shelter the injured and the vulnerable? If Jesus is their Messiah, why don’t they exhibit more forgiveness and understanding? And if Jesus really is the One, why don’t they reach out to me and help me stop hurting?

Are you among those who have been disappointed at times? And yet, are you still looking for Jesus? Are you wondering where to look to know he’s the One you need?

Fortunately, Jesus told John . . . and us, exactly where to look to know that he is the One. He tells John’s messengers:

Go and tell John what you hear and see:

The blind receive their sight,

The lame walk

The lepers are cleansed,

The deaf hear,

The dead are raised,

And the poor have good news brought to them.

You heard the same thing in the song Todd sang earlier:

The blind will see. The deaf will hear. The dead will live again. The lame will leap. The dumb will speak The praises of The Lamb.2

That’s where to look for Jesus. He’s wherever bodies and spirits are being healed. Jesus is wherever strangers and outcasts are welcomed. Jesus is wherever people find new life. And any news that’s good for poor people comes straight from Jesus.

I look for Jesus every time I visit the hospital, and most often see him. I see Jesus at AA meetings where lives are being put back together. I see Jesus at the CRC as hungry families find food and social workers help elderly residents stay in their own homes. I see Jesus where volunteers help immigrants learn English. And I absolutely saw Jesus in those cardboard testimonies (the video of which you can see right after this service)—people witnessing to forgiveness and acceptance, healing and peace of mind. Are you looking for Jesus? That’s where to look.

After Jesus tells us where to look, he says one more thing:

Go and tell John, Jesus says, what you hear and see:

The blind receive their sight,

The lame walk

The lepers are cleansed,

The deaf hear,

The dead are raised,

And the poor have good news brought to them.

And then he adds one more thing: "And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." And you might wonder—why would anyone take offense at any of those things? And why would anyone take offense at Jesus, of all people? Well, people did, didn’t they? You may recall they hung him on a cross. The truth is, everything on Jesus’ list of where to look has to do with today we’d call health care or helping the poor. Those were contentious topics back then, and they are contentious topics today. Every preacher and every congregation knows that. New Testament scholar Tom Long puts it this way: "Anyone who expects the work of God or the work of Christ’s church to be safe and free of controversy simply misunderstands the nature of Christ’s mission in the world." This looking for Jesus is blessed and holy and the most life-changing thing there is in the world; just don’t think the way is always agreeable or that everyone will be joyful when you find Jesus. Blessed, he says, is anyone who takes no offense at me."

Are you looking for Jesus? He’s wherever the hungry are fed, wherever the disabled are accommodated, wherever bodies and spirits are cared for and healed, wherever people find new life. That’s where we can look for Jesus.

And what if others are looking for Jesus--where might they look? You may know that the New Testament considers John the Baptist to be the prophet Elijah, preparing the way for Jesus. Barbara Taylor tells this story about Elijah. Jews have a tradition of setting a place at the Passover feast for Elijah, the prophet who is to bring them the good news that the Messiah has come. At a poignant moment in the service, the door is flung open for Elijah and everyone looks with anticipation. For thousands of years that door has been opened, and for thousands of years all that has entered has been the wind.

One Hasidic story tells of a pious Jew who asked his rabbi, "For forty years I have opened the door for Elijah every Passover, but he never comes. What is the reason?" The rabbi answered, "In your neighborhood there lives a very poor family with many children. Call on the man and propose to him that you and your family celebrate the next Passover at his house, and for this purpose provide for him and his family everything needed for the Passover. Then on Passover night Elijah will come."

The man did as the rabbi told him, but after Passover he came back and said that he still hadn’t seen Elijah. The rabbi answered, "I know very well that Elijah came on Passover night to the house of your poor neighbor. But of course you could not see him." And the rabbi held a mirror before the face of the man and said, "Look, this was Elijah’s face that night."4

If others—perhaps the lame or blind, perhaps the stranger, the spiritually wounded, the poor—are looking for Jesus, show him to them, won’t you?

1 See Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 126.

2 Song lyrics by Mark Lowry and Buddy Green.

3 Long, 125.

4 Barbara Brown Taylor, Mixed Blessings (Atlanta: Susan Hunter Publishing, 1986), 57.

 

Matthew 24:36-44

Looking for Jesus? Then Stay Alert!

November 27, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Advent is the season of four Sundays leading up to Christmas and it’s all about looking for Jesus, making our way to Bethlehem to find a baby in a manger. But every year the lectionary—the assigned scriptures for every Sunday—throws us for a loop. Every year Advent begins not with that baby in a manger, but with grizzly old John the Baptist talking about taking care of the poor and the sick and with bewildering words about the Second Coming. On our way to Bethlehem we wind up looking for Jesus in some unlikely places.

Are you, perhaps, looking for Jesus? This Advent series is especially for two different sets of people looking for Jesus. In the first place, it’s for those who may be looking for Jesus, but don’t really expect to find him—because they think Jesus is too old-fashioned, too judgmental, maybe just too religious for them. If that sounds like you, then pay attention to these Advent Gospel readings—Jesus may turn out to be exactly what you’re looking for. But this series is also for those of us who think we know all too well where to find Jesus—in the safe, comfortable, private religion we grew up with. Well, no doubt Jesus is there, but the Gospels suggest that Jesus is in a lot of other, less comfortable, places too.

Are you looking for Jesus, my friends? Let’s turn to the Gospels and look together.

Advent begins with Jesus saying, "About that day and hour no one knows. . . Two people will be in the field and one will be taken and one will be left. . . And like a thief in the night, the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." All this talk of the Second Coming—even when it’s Jesus doing the talking—makes many Methodists—how can I put this?—uncomfortable. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga has admitted: "We live in between the first coming of Jesus Christ and his second coming, and most of us feel a lot better about the first one."1 Partly, he suggests, that’s because the first coming is about a baby, and we know about babies, and so we know how to "domesticate" Christmas. We have figured out how to manage Christmas so the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay doesn’t threaten anyone.

But the second coming, Plantinga says, is different—full of urgency, of endings and beginnings and everything changing. The second coming is something we clearly can’t manage or domesticate, we get to vote neither for it nor against it, there’s no way to know how many shopping days may be left until the Son of Man returns.

It is unsettling in a way. And some of the images Jesus uses are pretty jarring—Noah’s flood, a thief breaking in, two people together and one is taken and the other left. When I was a child, I was taught that this was about the so-called "Rapture," when believers would be beamed up to heaven and everyone else left behind. Most biblical scholars, however, think Jesus was referring to the Roman secret police sweeping through villages and disappearing people. In other words you want to be left, not taken.2 But either way, it’s not exactly a sleepy bedtime story.

But even though Jesus uses unsettling images, to shake us out of our complacency, it’s important to remember whose return the second coming is. It’s not a devastating flood that’s coming, not an actual thief, and certainly not the secret police. His coming may be unpredictable and uncontrollable like these things, but it’s Jesus who’s coming. The Jesus who gave his life for us. The Jesus who forgave those who hung him on the cross. The Jesus who said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." That’s who’s coming back. We may not know when to expect Jesus, but we do know what to expect from Jesus—mercy and love and forgiveness.

So if you’re looking for Jesus, this Gospel reading is not telling you to "Be afraid," but rather "Stay alert!" Unless, of course, you’re living in a way that would disappoint Jesus. And even then, the lesson isn’t so much "Be afraid" as simply, "Live a different way." I’ve told you before about my first grade teacher, Mrs. Rucker. A couple of times a day, Mrs. Rucker would go to the classroom door and announce, "I’m going to step out for a few minutes. When I get back, I want to see everyone sitting at their desk and doing their work." It wasn’t until years later I put it together that Mrs. Rucker smoked and was stepping out to light up. But as soon as Mrs. Rucker closed the classroom door behind her, all heck would break out. We would play basketball into the trashcan, and soccer in the coatroom and leap from desk to desk. And always, on a rotating basis, one student was assigned to watch the door. That student would open it a crack and peek out, and as soon they saw Mrs. Rucker coming down the hall, would shout, "Teacher’s coming!" and by the time Mrs. Rucker walked in, everyone would in fact be seated at their desks doing their work.

One day it was Lori’s turn to watch the door. But she didn’t get out of her seat. "Lori," we said, "hurry up and watch the door, so we don’t get in trouble. And she said, "You wouldn’t need anyone to watch the door and no one would get in trouble if you all just sat at your desks and did your work." It appears that Lori had been reading Matthew’s Gospel.

One of the things that strikes me is the ordinariness of being ready for Jesus. It’s not about doing grand and heroic things. It may be as simple as staying at your desk and doing your work. Leadership guru John Maxwell says, "What matters most is what you do day by day over the long haul. . . The secret of our success is found in our daily agenda."3 You don’t have to leave your job and go off into the desert to find Jesus. You can find Jesus in the midst of your daily routine, if only you will stay alert.

At the same time, we can become just a little too comfortable in our routines. In the Gospel reading today, Jesus finds fault with two sets of people for not being alert: the contemporaries of Noah and the owner of a house that’s about to be broken into. They are judged, Calvin Chinn has pointed out, not for some terrible sin, but for settling too comfortably into business as usual—eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, taking the house for granted.4 In that article I mentioned earlier, Cornelius Plantinga notes that the more comfortable and self-satisfied we become, the less we tend to look for the kingdom of God. "Thy kingdom come," we pray, but we kind of hope it won’t, at least not right away.5 If you’re looking for Jesus, you’ve got to stay alert! And one way to stay alert is to experience a little need and discomfort—if not your own, then someone’s.

You know how hard it is to stay alert, don’t you? You make it to your lunch appointment, spend the afternoon keeping the boss happy, get stuck in traffic and forget to get that gallon of milk so you’ve got to circle back to the grocery store. Then you get home and the kids are crying, or the dog has made a mess, there are five messages on your phone. Once you’ve dealt with all that, it’s dark already. The sink is full of dishes, The news is on—God, not news. Tonight is the night you were going to try to balance the checkbook. Instead you turn the TV on to something mindless, surf the web and drink a couple of those things that help you get to sleep.6 And if Jesus was anywhere in all that—and he probably was—he came and went without notice. Are you looking for Jesus? You’ve got to find a way to stay alert.

Someone once complained to the Buddhist master Achaan Chah that there wasn’t enough time for spiritual practice in his monastery because there were so many chores—sweeping, cleaning, greeting visitors, building, chanting, and so forth—and Achaan Chah asked back, "Is there time to be aware?" Everything we do in life is a chance to be alert.7

Today you may have an opportunity to forgive someone or to continue to judge and despise them. Today you may a chance to go to an AA meeting or not. Today you will have an opportunity to be kind, to stand up against injustice, to spend time with someone who’s lonely or mistreated, and just to sit quietly for a while and breathe deeply . . . or not do those things.

Are you looking for Jesus? Then stay alert!

1 Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., "In the Interim: Between the Advents," The Christian Century (December 6, 2000), 1276.

2 See, for example, Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004), 178.

3John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 23.

4 Calvin Chinn, "November 27: First Sunday of Advent," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (November 9, 2016), 20.

5 Plantinga, 127.

6 The scenario is inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor, "God’s Beloved Thief," Home By Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999),7.

7 In Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 291

 

 

Psalm 126

Between Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving

November 20, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

So what do you think? What is the mood of this psalm? I assume most people would say something like . . . joy. Anticipation. Gratitude. That’s why I chose it for Thanksgiving Sunday. It’s a happy psalm, right? I always thoughts so; in fact, I still think so. But Old Testament scholars classify this as a psalm of lament. Why is that? you might wonder. Well, right in the middle of the psalm is this verse: "Restore our fortunes, O Lord." Restore our fortunes, O Lord: it’s a prayer for deliverance. Which means that something has gone wrong, that help is needed, that in other words this is a lament.

But it’s a certain kind of lament, isn’t it? It’s not a whiny lament, not a let-me-go-into-great-detail-about-how-bad-I-feel kind of lament. Rather it’s a cry for deliverance that calls to mind God’s faithfulness in the past and that envisions the good God is going to do. Lament does not have to be hopeless or bitter. Rather lament is an opportunity to remember times of thanksgiving past and to anticipate times of thanksgiving to come. Some of the time we’ve just been delivered from trouble and therefore actively giving thanks to God. Much of the time we can remember that deliverance, but we are again in need of some kind; and so we’re lamenting in a way, we’re praying, we’re envisioning God’s new deliverance. We live, in other words, between thanksgiving past and thanksgiving to come. And that means no matter how bad things get, Thanksgiving is always on the way.

Let me point out to you a few wonders of the poetry in Psalm 126:

  • Note the artful shift in verb tenses from past to present to future. The psalm begins in past tense, "When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion (that is brought the exiles back from Babylon), we were like those who dream." Past tense—looking back at what God has done. Suddenly in verse four, it bursts into present tense, "Restore our fortunes, O Lord!"—right now, present tense. And in the final verse we taste the future tense: "Those who go forth weeping . . . shall come home with shouts of joy." That’s the movement of the psalm, the movement of our lives—from deliverance past , to present prayers for help, to a future of joy once again. We live between thanksgiving and thanksgiving.
  • Notice that in this psalm, no reason is given for its lament. We don’t know why Israel feels threatened or what they need to be restored from. It simply says, "Restore our fortunes, O Lord." That vagueness makes this prayer anyone’s prayer, it makes this lament everyone’s lament. We can all pray this psalm. We all live between thanksgiving and thanksgiving.
  • The psalm compares the community’s fortunes to the watercourses in the Negeb—that is, to streams in the desert. Sometimes they are lush and full, at other times painful and dry. There is an ebb and flow to life—sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. We may not like, but we learn to live with it in faithfulness.
  • And then there’s this lovely image: "Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy!" Our tears don’t just water the earth, they actually become seeds which later sprout into joy. Be not afraid to plant your tears of sorrow, so that in God’s good time you can have a harvest of joy. We live between thanksgiving and thanksgiving, which means that no matter how bad things get, Thanksgiving is always on its way..

We can learn to tell the stories of our lives in this way, as living always between thanksgiving and thanksgiving. The people of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt and danced and sang for joy. Then they wandered in the wilderness for forty years and lamented. Then God led them into the Promised Land and they gave thanks. But in Judges we learn that even in the Promised Land life was full of enemies and trouble, and they cried out for deliverance. God raised up King David to unite and protect them and they gave thanks. But his successors were often weak and idolatrous, which finally resulted in the Babylonian exile, and O how the people lamented. But God restored the exiles to Zion—that is, God miraculously brought the exiles back from Babylon--and their mouths were filled with laughter. But hard times followed . . . And on it goes. We live between thanksgiving and thanksgiving.

My own mother was born in 1929, her parents’ first child and there was much thanksgiving. But the Great Depression came her childhood was filled with dust and deprivation, and they lamented. Finally the Depression lifted and granddad got a good job, and their mouths were filled with laughter and plenty of food. But then came W.W. II with its rationing and its grief. But soon after she married my dad and started a family—sweet thanksgiving. Then came a son with Down Syndrome, and prayers and concern. But you know things were fine and thanksgiving returned. And one day my dad died, a long lament for my mother. But she emerged from that and gave thanks again for grandkids and good work to do. And on it goes. We live between thanksgiving and thanksgiving.

So here’s what I want to ask you this Thanksgiving Sunday: can you tell your own story as a series of thanksgiving and laments, and thanks -giving and laments? What would be your great laments? And how has God restored your fortunes?

And one last question, if we live between thanksgiving and thanksgiving, where are you in the story right now? What are you thanking God for right now? Or . . . what deliverance are you envisioning to thank God for in days to come?

We live between thanksgiving and thanksgiving, so that no matter how bad things may get, Thanksgiving is always on the way.

 

2 Kings 6:15-17

More with Us Than with Them

November 6, 2016 All Saints Sunday Maple Grove UMC

This Old Testament reading is part of a larger story. The king of Syria has come to believe that the prophet Elisha is spying on him, or more like Elisha can read his mind. Elisha seems to know where the Syrian army will be before the Syrian army knows, and this inside information has led to victories for Israel. So the king of Syria sends some people to take care of Elisha. In fact, he sends a whole army to take care of Elisha.

Elisha is holed up with one unarmed servant in a place called Dothan, which is surrounded by Syrian horses and chariots—they’re everywhere. The servant naturally is terrified. "Alas, Master!" he says, "What are we going to do?" But Elisha is cool as a cucumber: "Don’t be afraid," he says, "There are more with us than there are with them." And Elisha prays, "O Lord, open his eyes that he may see." And when the servant looks again, the hills are filled with chariots and horses of fire. Not in any typical way, but there were more with Elisha than with the entire army of Syria.

What kind of story is this? It’s not the kind of story about which we ask, "Did this really happen?"1 I mean, probably not, in just the way 2 Kings tells it. But on another level, this story happens all the time. Let me tell you what I mean.

We often find ourselves in the place of Elisha’s servant: frightened, outnumbered, so aware of danger everywhere. We look around and the forces gathered against us seem overwhelming. We feel that way, perhaps, on All Saints Day, both personally and collectively. We’ll read the names today of twenty-three souls, but it may be just one of those names that sends your life reeling, or the name of someone not on this particular list at all. And you may feel alone and helpless. A candle is such a fragile light, when all you want is to see that person once again.

And we feel it collectively. Year after year there are long lists of names. And some of us can look around and remember who’s not here now, and some have been here long enough to remember when the pews were filled in a way they no longer are. The United Methodist Church has been declining my whole life. The traditional church is kind of up against it these days, and like Elisha’s servant, it’s easy to feel weary and beleaguered.

All of that is true, in its way—I don’t dispute it. But only let Elisha pray, and look again: and the hills are filled with horses and chariots of fire. Look again and our hearts are filled with the presence and love of our dearly departed. Look again and the church is filled with those whose names we’ve read but whose spirits are with us still. Yes, it’s easy to feel alone and overwhelmed, but only let Elisha pray and look again: there are always more with us than there are against us.

Only let Elisha pray and there on those hills around us, why, there’s Lloyd Fisher still tap dancing and Twyla still leading the social concerns. There’s Kathleen Shaffer making blankets for babies and there’s Chalice Taylor cheering the choir on. And there’s Newton Fritchley still preaching like these new guys never will, and there’s all those faithful souls in the 1940s who built this sanctuary we worship in today.

Here’s what I believe: I believe those horses and chariots were there all along; the servant just didn’t see them until Elisha prayed. And I believe we too are always surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; we just don’t always see them until the prayer is prayed. There are always more with us than against us. So let us pray: Open our eyes, Lord, that we may see. Open our eyes, Lord, that we may see. Amen.

1 See Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 67.

 

Luke 19:1-11

Generations of Generosity: Lived in Faith

October 30, 2016

When our daughter Rachel was little, she’d make a grand, dramatic entrance into a room filled with people, wearing hot pink and sparkles, dance and sing like Brittney Spears, take a deep double bow, and then look around with mock bashfulness, and say, "Why is everyone looking at me?" She was hungry for attention, and she got it.

I’ve always wondered if there wasn’t a little bit of Rachel in Zacchaeus. Here’s a notorious man, wearing his fancy chief tax collector clothes, in the middle of a big crowd, climbing up to the top of a tree. And when Jesus calls him out, Zacchaeus looks around and says, "Aw shucks, did you mean me?" Zacchaeus too was hungry for something. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus "was trying to see who Jesus was," and we’ll get to that in a minute. But as much as Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was, I expect he wanted Jesus to see who he was too.

Have you ever played hide-and-seek with very young children? Oh, they want to hide, sort of, in the same two places over and over. But mostly they just want to be found. And so wherever they’re hiding, they’ll always leave an arm or a foot sticking out, and if you pretend not to see them right away, they’ll start making noises or calling out your name. I think there was something inside Zacchaeus, I suspect there’s something inside all of us, that just wants to be found by Jesus.

Zacchaeus, Luke tells us, "wanted to see who Jesus was." But he was too short. That’s why he had to climb up in that sycamore tree. You know how it is. You find just the right seats at the movie, right in the middle, about two-thirds of the way back. You settle back into those comfy seats, and then somebody 6’5" comes and plops down in front of you.

But being short isn’t the main thing that can keep you from seeing who Jesus is. Some of us are too busy to see who Jesus is. There’s work and there’s going back to school and soccer and the house at the lake—we’re too busy to see Jesus. Some of us were just not raised knowing how to see Jesus, or we’re too cool or too intellectual to want to be seen with Jesus. Some of us are just too grouchy or too fearful to want to see anything new or different in Jesus. Lots of things can keep us from seeing who Jesus is.

Not only was Zacchaeus short, however, he was also a tax collector; a chief tax collector. Now I understand that if someone at a social gathering announces they work for the IRS, they might not be the most popular person at the party. But at least IRS agents collect taxes for their own country. In Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, tax collectors collected taxes for the Romans. The Romans brought in thousands of soldiers to harass and keep the people down, and then charged them taxes to pay for these soldiers. Tax collectors were the worst sort of people—collaborators with the enemy. What’s more, the Roman assigned each tax collector an amount of money they had to raise from a certain area, and anything they could raise above that amount was theirs to keep. So Zacchaeus was not just a collaborator; he was a blood-sucking collaborator who’d become rich by selling out his own people.

And this Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was. He wanted Jesus to find him. Somehow deep inside he knew there must be more to life than cheating people and making money. He knew there must be some other way to live. He suspected there must be something out there called forgiveness and maybe even love, and somehow or other he knew that Jesus was where to find them. Here I am, Jesus! Come and find me, Jesus. I want to see who you are, and I want you to help me be the person I believe I can become.

As you know, Jesus does find Zacchaeus. And as you know, Jesus asks him to come down. And then Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. One writer has suggested that Jesus’ invitation sounds like one child saying to another, "Hey, let’s go play at your house!"1 And so Jesus and Zacchaeus ate and played and talked. And for Zacchaeus everything--and I mean everything--changes. For wherever Jesus enters, generosity is close behind.

In his response to Jesus, Zacchaeus uses only two verbs. The NRSV has them as "I will give," and "I will repay." But more literally the Greek says, "I give," and "I give back." Zacchaeus’ first response—in fact, so far as we know, his only response—to Jesus coming into his life was to give. He gives half of everything he had to the poor, and for restitution to anyone he’s cheated, he promises to give back four times the original amount. This is not a polite gift made out of guilt or social convention; this is a gift grounded in gratitude, the offering of a changed mind and touched heart. Wherever Jesus enters, generosity is close behind.

Now I want to ask you a question at this point in the story: how do you suppose Zacchaeus felt, having made such a lavish gift? Well, Luke does come out and tell us how Zacchaeus felt, but we can infer from the story. This is a party; it’s Celebration Sunday at the Zacchaeus household! There is no indication that Zacchaeus gives grudgingly or out of guilt. His life has been changed by the love and acceptance of Jesus, and he is set free to give joyfully and with excitement.

This is both a biblical and a psychological truth. Jesus famously said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." But a microbiologist named Hans Selye has proven it scientifically. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on stress and he coined the term altruistic egoism. It means that giving to others is a way of taking care of yourself. He reports the outcome of his studies this way: "those who earn the goodwill of their neighbors are dramatically better off psychologically and physiologically than those who are looked upon as selfish and greedy.2 In other words, giving is good for you! Jesus knew that. Zacchaeus joyfully discovered that. And that truth is always there, waiting for us to claim it.

There is, unfortunately, a flip side to this truth. If giving brings joy and salvation, not giving brings sadness. Just a few verses before he tells us about Zacchaeus, Luke tells about Jesus and the rich young ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The man says, "I’ve done all that." Jesus says, "There’s one more thing you can do: sell everything you’ve got and give the money to the poor." And when he heard this, Luke tell us, the man became sad. And that’s how the story ends: with sadness. No generosity, not joy.

Years ago I had a relative. I’ll call her Agnes. Agnes’ husband struck it rich. He became a multi-millionaire back in the 1960s, when a million dollars was a fabulous amount of money. But he wasn’t nice to her—in fact he was abusive to her. And over time, the family saw Agnes less and less, she grew thinner and thinner, and eventually got cancer and died. When the family got together to go through her possessions, they found rooms filled with brand new clothes, never worn, the tags still on them. As a way of coping with her stress and disappointment, she shopped. And what she bought, she kept. And in her keeping, she became sad beyond all telling. Just imagine how Agnes’ life might have changed if only she’d given all those clothes away. She could have provided free clothing to every poor woman in her city for years. How much fun it would have been to give it all away! But she didn’t, and that’s how her story ended. And more than thirty years later, I can still feel the sadness of it.

Here is Luke’s point, I believe, in putting these two stories so close together: we sometimes talk about giving as a sacrifice, by which we mean something painful, something that costs us dearly. But Luke is suggesting that giving is joyful and saving; it is not giving that turns out to be painful and costly.

So where are we in this Generations of Generosity campaign?

  • We’ve been sharing the list of projects we hope to do. Admittedly many of them aren’t all that thrilling: leveling sidewalks, repairing roofs and mortar, replacing old electrical circuits and getting reliable heat in the education wing. Not exciting, exactly, but I think we all know these things have to be done.
  • We’ve been praying our prayer: Lord, what do you want to do through me?
  • And now we’re about ready to hold those commitment cards in our hands. They were mailed out on Friday; you’ll probably get them tomorrow. Most of us have mixed feelings as we hold these cards in our hands. There is a Christmas song that tells about "tidings of comfort and joy." Well, commitment cards bring, for many of us, tidings of discomfort and joy. Oh, there’s joy all right—joy at being blessed to be able to give, joy at doing something together that none of us can do alone. But there’s also discomfort as we ponder just how God might answer that prayer: Lord, what do want to do through me?

Now I understand that not everyone can participate. I’ve received some lovely letters from people saying we’ve moved to a retirement community and don’t really have any money of our own any more. But we love Maple Grove and will keep supporting the annual budget as long as we can. Or we’re expecting another child and childcare is all we can afford right now, but we love Maple Grove and will keep doing the best we can. Thank you for those notes. Other people won’t participate because they’re unhappy about something at church or about something in their life. And that’s okay—everyone gets to make up their own mind.

  • But here’s where we are. We’ve been trying to see who Jesus is, and more than anything, we want him to come and find us. We’ve climbed up in a tree because we know deep inside there’s more to life than what we’ve seen so far. And it turns out Jesus wants to come to your home. The Lord Jesus wants to come into your heart, into your life. And you wonder, if I let him in, will I have to give something? Or maybe you worry, if I let Jesus in, will I have to make a painful sacrifice? And the answer is: No. No, you won’t have to give anything at all. But you sure will want to. And the result will be: joy. Joy and celebration. Wherever Jesus enters, generosity is close behind.

1 Paul D. Duke, "A Festive Repentance: Luke 19:1-10," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (October 18, 1995), 957.

2 See Bob Buford, Half Time: Moving from Success to Significance (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2

 

Luke 11:9-13

Generations of Generosity: Revealed in Prayer

October 16, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

We are in the middle of this series about our "Generations of Generosity" campaign, and today’s message is called "Revealed in Prayer." When it comes to prayer, some people will tell you, "Be careful what you expect from prayer because you may not get it." At the same time, other people will warn you, "Be careful what you pray for because you just might get it." We’ll talk about both of those concerns today.

This fall, as we always do, we’re asking you prayerfully to consider how God is leading you to support the ministries of our church by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness. I hope you’ve received the stewardship packet in the mail. On November 6 bring both your annual and capital campaign commitment cards to worship and together we’ll dedicate them to God. Please note that there’s a new place on this commitment card to share that you’ve invited someone to Maple Grove this year, which is one of our goals this year and a way of supporting our church by our Witness. What’s more, there’s still time to make that invitation before November 6!

This year, in addition to our annual pledges, we’re asking everyone who can to make an additional three-year commitment to the Generations of Generosity capital campaign, to fund long-term, major, repairs and improvements to this building. You should be receiving, most of you by email--a brochure outlining the priorities and projects in this campaign. I want you to hear this: if your circumstances don’t allow you to make an additional financial commitment at this time, please continue to support only the annual budget and feel good about that. I know that a capital campaign may sound more exciting than the annual budget, but we’re asking that support of the capital campaign be "second mile" giving, an additional sacrifice on top of your regular generosity to the church. Okay?

Something very special will happen here next Sunday. We are going to be celebrating all the ministries of our church (we’ve listed over 150 ministries sponsored or hosted by Maple Grove) and in a simple and heart-felt way we’re going to share how God is changing lives right here all the time. You’ve probably never seen anything quite like it and you won’t want to miss next Sunday.

Last week we looked at the importance of being "grounded in gratitude" and heard about that Samaritan who when he was cured of leprosy came busting back to Jesus, praising God and thanking Jesus with all his heart. We can all be that one--so before we get to today’s focus on prayer, let me share with you a small sampling of the gratitude cards we received las Sunday. You’ll find all the cards in the lower lobby. I tried to select cards that are representative of many people’s responses.

I am most thankful for . . .

*My family and the fact that clean water comes out of my tap

*The love that is so present in so many hearts

*Family, friends, health (and health insurance, someone else adds)

*The people of Maple Grove and all that goes on here,

as well as the opportunity for me to grow and share my faith.

And cookies!

*Being called a child of God.

*That my kids are happy, most of the time.

What I love most about Maple Grove is . . .

*When I walk through the doors, it always feels a little like coming home.

*It’s bringing me back to Jesus.

*A church and pastor that accept me for who I am and my partner.

I love this church!

*That although we may think differently, we love alike!

*The church takes the time and spends the energy to ministry to children.

*Music, music, music!

The prayer that we’re being asked to pray for this campaign is: Lord, what do you want to do through me? I hope you know this prayer by heart. Say it with me: Lord, what do you want to do through me? What I love about this prayer is that it brings together two things that too often get separated: Christian spirituality and Christian action.

In this endlessly violent and unjust world, there are Christians who have grown weary of only praying. Every time, for example, there’s school shooting or hate crime, our leaders call on us to pray, but no changes are made to background checks for gun purchases or to our mental health system. Until it happens again, and we’re called upon to pray again, and again nothing changes. There’s actually a book that came out a couple of years ago called Never Pray Again and it’s subtitled Lift your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get to Work.1 I understand the concern behind this book, but I don’t share its understanding of prayer. Prayer is not the enemy of Christian action; prayer is what prompts and guides Christian action.

The gospels catch Jesus at prayer before every important action he takes: before his baptism, before he chooses the twelve disciples, before he tells them about his suffering and death, prior to the Transfiguration, and of course in the Garden of Gethsemane before he goes to the cross. And in today’s Gospel reading Jesus assures us that God hears and attends to every prayer we pray. Walter Wink, one of the great Christian activists of our day, is also a strong believer in the power of prayer. Prayer, he wrote, "changes the world and it changes what is possible to God."2 Prayer really changes things. But our capital campaign prayer—Lord, what do you want to do through me?—suggests that the first thing prayer changes is me and what I’m willing to do for God.

That, I think, is where the phrase--be careful what you pray for, you just might get it—comes in. Be careful when you pray, God, please change the hearts of young people today, because God may choose to do just that, through you. And be careful when you pray, God, please make sure our church building is in good condition, because God may choose to do just that, through you.

But just as the gospels often catch Jesus at prayer, the gospels are also clear that Christians are to participate in the kingdom of God, that Jesus’ followers are people who do the things he did. Christians, therefore, are people who welcome strangers, who care for the sick, who cry out of justice, who love our enemies. When the disciples were concerned about the hungry crowds and wanted to send them away, Jesus said, "No, you give them something to eat." God certainly has been known to do things for people, but more often God does things through people. Maple Grove’s Trustees have been praying for years for God to provide for this grand old building. Well, God has decided to do it, and this Generations of Generosity campaign is how God is going to do it. Lord, what do you want to do through me? That is the perfect convergence of prayer and action, or in this case, of prayer and generosity.

Here’s a story about this convergence of prayer and generosity. It’s a story about Monica and Bill Tenney. Bill several weeks ago started praying our prayer—Lord, what do you want to do through me? And as he would pray that prayer, he’d write down a number, the amount he felt called to give to the capital campaign. And the more Bill prayed, the higher that number got. One day Monica looked at the number Bill was writing down and immediately told him, "Bill, stop praying!" The moral of the story is that prayer really changes things, especially ourselves, so be careful what you pray for. Lord, what do you want to do through me? (By the way, Bill, Monica gave me permission for both of you to tell that story!)

I want to conclude this morning by acknowledging that this prayer really is about our capital campaign and how God will lead each of us in deciding how to support it. I have been praying this prayer every day for several weeks, and sure enough Carolyn and I have decided to give an amount to the capital campaign that feels uncomfortably high for a family with two kids in college at the same time. But it’s also important to know that this is not a prayer only about a capital campaign. Lord, what do you want to do through me? is a fantastic prayer for every aspect of life. And here’s what else has happened since I’ve been praying that prayer. Three or four times recently, I’ve felt the urge to reach out to an old friend or a Maple Grove member I haven’t talked to for a while. Such deep and uplifting conversations have resulted. Could I have reached out to those people any time? Of course, but I didn’t. Prayer changes things. And since I have been praying this prayer, I have changed a long-term habit that was not good for my health. Could I have changed that habit any time in the past ten years? Of course, but I didn’t. Prayer changes things.

I can only imagine all that is going to happen when a whole church is praying that prayer together! Will you say it with me one more time: Lord, what do you want to do through me?

1 Aric Clark, Doug Hagler and Nick Larson, Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get to Work (Chalice Press, 2014).

2 Walter Wink, "Prayer: History Belongs to the Intercessors," Sojourners (October 1990), 13.

 

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