Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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John 1:1-5, 8:12; Matthew 5:14-16

Jesus Is, No Wait, We Are the Light of the World

July 17, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Today’s gospel readings say that Jesus is . . . no wait, they say that we are the light of the world. Which it is? Is Jesus the light of the world? Or are we the light of the world? And the answer is: Yes. Both!

Let’s start with Vacation Bible School’s theme—Jesus is the light of the world. The kids learned that Jesus gives us courage, hope, direction and power. I can use some of that. How about you?

Now, when we say that Jesus is the light of the world, we are also acknowledging that darkness is real; otherwise we wouldn’t need his light. The theme for Bible School was "Cave Quest." In part, I suspect, that theme was just a good excuse for us to do some really cool decorating (I hope you got to see the cave hallway downstairs and the cave entrance to the chapel). In part, it was an opportunity to learn about some interesting animals that live in caves--such as salamanders, glow worms and bats--and to experience the science of geodes and echoes. But ultimately cave was a metaphor for darkness, because caves really are dark. And so sometimes is our world, and so, sometimes are our lives. The first words of the Bible are: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep." Darkness, it seems, is not only real but original; light has to be created by God.

Yes, darkness is real. Just turn on the TV--violence and killing only increase in Afghanistan and Iraq despite years of trying to bring order. Police officers live in fear, and African-Americans live in fear, and it’s hard for us even to talk to each other across our divisions, let alone heal them. Darkness is real. Just this past week alone I walked a family through the grief of a funeral, I talked to a man who’d fallen off the wagon after more than a year of sobriety, I visited a woman whose depression is so severe she can’t take care of herself, and my own brother can move and speak in only the most limited of ways. Darkness is not only real, it’s close.

That’s why we need the light. One of the best ways to be reminded that the light is still shining is to spend some time with children. I got to spend time with your children here this past week. And it was marvelous! I have learned about myself that I am constitutionally unable to stop myself from crying when children sing about Jesus. So here I was every night this week, with my own daughter leading the children in singing I Have Decided to Follow Jesus. Just bring me the whole box of Kleenix! Yes, the darkness is real, but I’m here to tell you, as long as children sing about Jesus, the light is still shining.

As I listened in on one Bible School session I overheard a little boy say, "I’m not afraid in my room, because I’ve got bunk beds and God." What more do you need than bunk beds and God? The light is still shining.

I’ve probably shared this poem with you before, but I shamelessly share it again. It’s a true story and it’s called "Jesus Light":

It was a gag gift

or meant to be—

a nightlight in the shape

of Jesus

his sacred heart exposed

like a patient half-way

through a bypass.

But my daughter, two and a half,

laid hold of him and took

him to her room

and there he abides with her

shining heart and all.

And each night her litany

of prayer includes Mommy

and Daddy, and Rachel

and my Jesus light.

He doesn’t give a lot

of light, this four-watt Jesus—

enough to read by in a pinch

and keep the monsters under the bed.

But he’s there

all night

every night

friend to the fearful

sacramental plastic

gift of the Father’s unfailing grace.

O sweet daughter

may it ever be so:

the light shines in the darkness

and the darkness has not overcome it.

You know what? There has been some real darkness in the 19 years since I wrote that poem. And you know what else? The light of Christ has shone through it all.

Otis Moss III is a black pastor in Chicago. Rev. Moss serves a prominent church and was outspoken about racial justice, and early in his ministry there he received death threats and people said they’d bomb his church. The stress made it hard for him to sleep and one night he heard a noise in the house. He got up check it out. "Like a good preacher," he says, "I grabbed my rod and staff to comfort me"--my rod and staff made in Louisville with the name Slugger on it. "I looked downstairs, and then I heard the noise again. I made my way back upstairs and peaked in my daughter’s room. There was my [six year-old] daughter Makayla dancing in the darkness—just spinning around, saying, ‘Look at me, Daddy.’

I said, ‘Makayla, you need to go to bed. It’s 3 a.m.’

But she said, ‘No, look at me, Daddy. Look at me.’

And she was spinning, barrettes going back and forth, pigtails flying. I was getting huffy wanting her to go to bed, but then God spoke to me. ‘Look at your daughter! She’s dancing in the dark. The darkness is all around her but it is not in her.’"1

The darkness is real. But so long as children dance in the dark, and so long as we will dance with them, the light is shining still.

We all need light for our darkness. And if you have found light somewhere else or from someone else, I have no need to take that from you. But the light I know is the light of Jesus who gives us hope and courage, the light of Christ who offers direction and power. His light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

All of that, my friends, is good and true, but it’s not all there is. The light of Christ does not shine just for me nor does it shine just for you. The light of Christ is always for us to share with others in their darkness. You remember that Jesus said not only, "I am the light of the world," but also, "You are the light of the world." As Jesus gives us hope and courage and direction and power, he wants us to pass them on to others.

Now, we have to be careful with this idea of being the light of the world because pride so easily sneaks in. We think, Oh, if we’re the light of the world, maybe we should point out where we think other people are wrong. Maybe we should show them the one true way to live, our way. Maybe we should tell them how much better our religion is than theirs. The trouble is, people tend not to experience those things as light! If it’s not a kind word, if it’s not a loving action, if it’s not helpful to others, it’s probably not the light of Christ. Yes, we are the light of the world, but we need always to be careful that the light we share is truly the light of the Christ of love.

Darkness is real, and so are hopelessness and fear, so are feeling lost and helpless. The darkness is all around us, it is true, but not in us. So dance and sing, my friends, love and care for others, feed the hungry and befriend the friendless, so the darkness will not be in them either. Yes, Jesus is . . . no wait, we too are the light of the world. Let it shine!

1 Otis Moss III, "Dancing in the Dark: Preaching the Blue without Despair," The Christian Century 132/24 (November 25, 2015), 22-25.

 

Luke 10:25-37

Jazz Sunday Conversation

July 10, 2016 Maple Grove

This is Jazz Sunday, and one of the ways jazz works is that you have the same theme and the same progression of chords, but first the saxophone will play with that melody, and then bass will riff on it a while, and then the piano will improvise on that same tune. A jazz piece is always rooted in the same theme and chords, but you never know exactly where it’s going to go.

So today we’re going to try a jazz sermon, or rather, a jazz conversation on the theme of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. First the priest and the Levite will take it for a while, then the Samaritan will play a few bars, and finally the beaten man will take us home. We’ll all be rooted in the same story, but who knows exactly where your conversations are going to go. And in between each conversation, the band will do its thing.

The Priest and Levite

The priest and Levite have taken a lot of criticism over the years—and for good reason. They were looked up to in their community, they had the opportunity to help a man in need, and they simply didn’t do it. I’d like to humanize them a bit, however. Even though they did not stop to help, they may well have had several very good reasons. Some scholars suggest that if the beaten man were bloody or worse yet, dead, touching him could have rendered them ritually unclean and unable for a time to do their priestly duties. Whether that is true or not, there are other reasons not to stop and help a man along the road. Maybe they were busy, running late to help an aged parent or on some crucial errand for God. Maybe they were scared that the beaten man was a set-up, and once they stopped robbers would jump out and beat them too. Maybe they’d already stopped to help three others that day and were just worn out. Maybe, even though they wouldn’t want to admit it, they just didn’t want to get involved.

The priest and the Levite didn’t stop to help a man in need, right in front of them. I’m not saying I approve of the way they acted. I’m just saying, they may have had their reasons. So here’s your first question for discussion around your tables: What reasons have you had for not helping someone in need?

The Samaritan

The last words Jesus says about this story are, "Go and do likewise." Go and do what the Samaritan did. And what did the Samaritan do? He had compassion for the man, he bandaged his wounds, he took him in his own car to a place where he could recover, he paid for his care, and he promised to come back in person and check on him. In other words, he didn’t just help the man from afar. The Samaritan spent time with the man, touched him, formed a healing relationship with him. Maple Grove’s mission statement includes three words: Invite, Grow and Transform. And the description for Transform says to form life-changing relationships while serving others. That’s what the Samaritan did.

Jesus says first that the Samaritan had compassion for the beaten man. Many of us feel compassion for others. Fewer of us go ahead and do what the Samaritan did: form life-changing relationships while serving those in need. "Which one," Jesus asks the lawyer, "was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" And only one answer is possible. It’s not about emotion or knowledge, it’s not about being liberal or conservative, it’s not about religious doctrine or having a good reputation. The one who was a neighbor was the one who did something, who took the time and the resources and the risk to form a life-changing relationship with someone in need.

We know the right answer, don’t we? It’s the doing that’s hard. And we do neither God nor ourselves any favors if we read this story today and talk about this story today, and don’t change our lives. So here’s your question: What is one concrete way that you can go and do likewise? What is one specific way you reach out and form a life-changing relationship with someone in need?

The Beaten Man

I once read that you can tell the main character in any parable by who is mentioned first. Read some parables and see what you think. Even though we call this the Parable of the Good Samaritan, listen to how it begins: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. . ." Sure, Jesus is inviting us to ponder how we are like the priest and the Levite. And sure, he’s challenging us to go and do as the Samaritan did. But the main character is the beaten man. Could it be that who we really are in this story isn’t the priest, and not even the Samaritan, but the beaten and helpless man, forced to rely on the compassion of a despised Samaritan?

I suppose you know something of the feelings Jews in Jesus’ time had about Samaritans. Their hatred of Samaritans was part ethnic, part historical, part religious. They hated Samaritans. So here’s how it might have been: the beaten man looked up from the ditch only to think, "I’d rather die than let that dirty Samaritan be my neighbor." Could it be that Jesus was suggesting that we are in no position to decide who is and isn’t our neighbor, because sooner or later, we need them all.

I’ve got a photo from The Columbus Dispatch, November 30, 2014, of OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett writhing on the ground with a freshly broken ankle, and kneeling over him, gently touching him in prayer, is Devon Gardner, the quarterback from that team up north. Quite possibly J.T. Barrett thought, "I’d rather lie here and suffer alone than be prayed for by someone from Michigan." But in Jesus’ story, we don’t get to decide who our neighbors are.

So here’s your last question: If you were in trouble who is the last person in the world you’d want to have stop and help you?

That’s your neighbor.

 

 

2 Kings 5:1-14

Healing Is the Answer

July 3, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

1. In the Old Testament, a prophet is someone who:

  1. Leads prayers in the temple
  2. Reminds people how God wants us to live
  3. Predicts the future

2. Elijah got the best of the prophets of the god Baal by:

  1. Bringing fire from heaven to light a sacrificial fire
  2. Walking on hot coals without being harmed
  3. Making a bush burn without being burned up

3. Elijah fed a poor widow and her son

  1. By turning stones into bread and serpents into fish
  2. By giving them a miraculous catch of fish
  3. By making their flour and oil not run out

4. Elijah confronted these rulers because they had a man killed in order to take his vineyard:

  1. David and Bathsheba
  2. Ananias and Sapphira
  3. Ahab and Jezebel

5. Elijah heard God’s voice in

  1. A powerful wind
  2. Silence
  3. An earthquake

6. As Elijah was being taken to heaven, his successor Elisha asked for this:

  1. Access to Elijah’s hidden fortune
  2. Elijah’s sword and shield
  3. A double share of Elijah’s spirit (Answers at the end.)

You could preach any number of sermons on today’s Old Testament story. I shared with the children how in a story about generals and kings, it’s a little slave girl who sets things in motion. That would preach. There’s also a message in this story about healing and ego. Naaman was offended that Elisha didn’t come out to meet him in person. He was offended by the trivial thing Elisha asked him to do. He almost let his pride prevent him from accepting the healing that was at hand. And so it is with our salvation. You can’t earn it or pay for it; there’s nothing hard to do for it. Will your ego allow you accept a salvation that you cannot deserve and that any fool can have? That would preach too.

But the message I want to give this morning has to do with the sort of person it is that Elisha healed. I can just hear the conversation. Elisha tells people that by the power of God he was able to heal a man of leprosy.

"Oh, who was it?"

"Naaman."

"You mean Naaman, the Syrian general? Naaman, public enemy #1 who has defeated us in battle and killed our fellow citizens?"

"Yeah, that’s the one."

"Do you mean that dirty dog was right here in Israel, and you could have killed him, or held him for ransom, or tortured him for information?"

"I suppose I could have, but I healed him. I sent him home with all his money and fresh clean skin." Probably not the most popular thing Elisha ever did. Jesus ran into the same trouble. He started his healing ministry in Capernaum, which was said to have a large non-Jewish population,1 and when he got back home to Nazareth they wanted him to do some miracles for his own people for a change. But Jesus told them, "There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." And talk about offended--the people tried to throw him off a cliff. Being kind to foreigners and loving our enemies has never been popular; still isn’t, if you watch the news.

So why did Elisha do it? Why heal the enemy’s #1 general? Well, he says, it’s so the foreigner would know there was a prophet in Israel. And after he’s healed, Naaman come to believe in the God of Israel. In other words, Elisha heals this foreigner to establish God’s reputation, to show the world that God’s healing is the answer.

At the end of WWII the United States did a surprising thing, perhaps unprecedented in the history of the world. In the European Recovery Program—usually called the Marshall Plan after the Secretary of State—the US spent today’s equivalent of $120 billion to rebuild not our own country, but the devastated economies of other countries, including the equivalent of $13 billion to help Germany. What an astonishing thing to do—to spend billions of dollars to help rebuild a country that just tried to destroy us. It would be unthinkable in today’s political climate. But it gained the US international goodwill for decades to come, a lasting reputation for healing.

I once served an inner-city church where we faced frequent vandalism and graffiti. Almost every week someone would break a window or paint vile words on our sign. We tried a kind of neighborhood watch, we called the police, but nothing helped.

About that time a guy from the Catholic church around the corner asked if he could do an after-school basketball program in our church’s little gym. Nothing formal, just let kids drop in and shoot around for a while. When I took the request to the Trustees, most of them wanted to say ‘no.’ One woman asked, "Do you really want to take those kids who are vandalizing the outside of our building and let them ruin the inside too?"

"No," I said. "I just want to let kids have a place to play basketball. . . In the name of Jesus." Reluctantly, they voted 6-3 to allow it.

And I’m here to tell you, that we did not have any more graffiti or vandalism for two years after that. Why? Because we had a new reputation among neighborhood teenagers. Healing is the answer.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. There were times when Israel had to go to war against Naaman and his Syrian forces. Elisha healed him when Naaman came and asked for healing, not while he was waving his sword. And the United States didn’t offer the Marshall Plan while Germany was still fighting, and we didn’t hand spray paint to the kids on their way into the gym. Healing is not the only answer that’s ever needed. But it is the answer that’s needed most, and the one we often seem most reluctant to give to foreigners and to enemies. Elisha wanted Israel’s God to have a reputation, and healing was the answer. It still is.

  1. See Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 63.

1)B 2)A 3)C 4)C 5)B 6)C

 

2 Kings 2:1-14

Change Is Hard But Possible

June 26, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

The chariot and horses of fire come between Elijah and Elisha, and by the time Elisha can see again, Elijah has been spirited to heaven in a whirlwind (thus the song, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"). Elijah’s mantle, symbol of prophetic authority, falls to earth and Elisha picks it up. And whatever it was that had made Elijah so special, Elisha receives a double share.

For two reasons, I have a soft spot in my heart for this story. One has to do with the way retiring pastors are recognized at annual conference every year. One of the—usually older—retiring pastors faces one of the—usually younger—newly ordained pastors. A stole, representing Elijah’s mantle, is placed on the new pastor’s shoulders, as the retiring pastor says,

I transfer this mantle from our generation to the young

indicating thereby

that the responsibilities and dedication of the older generation

will be caught up and carried on by the young,

and the spirit of today’s Elijahs will rest upon today’s Elishas.

The young pastor replies, often tearfully:

We who come after you take up the mantle which falls upon us.

May we inherit a double share of your spirit. 1

It is a beautiful and moving moment, the transfer of responsibility and authority from one generation of leaders to the next. It seem so perfect and so easy up there on the stage—some gracefully bowing out while others respectfully take their place.

The only thing is, the next day you have to get up and go home, back to your church, where you discover that it is not quite that easy, that the transition of authority doesn’t happen that quickly or gracefully. All of a sudden district superintendents get all these calls from Elishas because the old Elijahs keep coming back for weddings and funerals. And they get calls from church members because the new prophet isn’t what they were looking for and, besides, can’t begin to fill old Elijah’s shoes.

There’s the old joke: how many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb? 13—one to change the light bulb and at least a dozen to stand in the parking lot and remember how good the old bulb was. Transition is not easy, is it? That’s what this story is about. Transition is messy and disruptive and heart-wrenching . . . and inevitable. This is true not only for pastors and churches, but in all of life. A aunt or uncle or parent dies and suddenly, ready or not, you are matriarch or patriarch of the family. Your boss moves or gets promoted, and now your job is different, precarious. One of our daughters had bad dreams for weeks when we changed babysitters. Change is hard.

And yet the Bible is shot through with transitions in leadership. Abraham gives the blessing to Isaac, who passes it on to Jacob. No one could live up to Moses, but Joshua still had to lead the people into the Promised Land. It takes very nearly a civil war, but King David is succeeded by his son Solomon. And Jesus spent his earthly ministry preparing a group—the church—to do for the world what he had done for them. This transition from Jesus to church was, and remains, a rocky one.

Elijahs bow out and Elishas rise up. The message is that change is hard but possible. Change is hard but by the grace of God, it is possible.

From this story we can see three places where the transition from one leader to the next can get blocked:

 

    1. The transition gets blocked if the old prophet won’t let go of the mantle. Elisha could not have picked up the mantle unless Elijah had let go of it. This is why there is a rule that when pastors leave a church, they don’t visit that church for at least a year, and they don’t go back to do weddings and funerals. The new pastor can’t pick up the mantle unless the old pastor lets it go.

And letting go of the mantle can be hard. Could that be why Elijah leads Elisha on that wild goose chase from Gilbal to Bethel to Jericho to the Jordan—because he wasn’t ready to let go? When I left Maynard Avenue Church after a dozen years, they just about had to pry the office keys out of my tight, clenched hand. Long-time leaders often say they want the younger folks to take over, that they’re tired of wearing the mantle all the time. Only when the younger folks do pick up the mantle, they often get told, "That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it!" I talked to an elderly man recently and for the first time he was letting his kids plan the annual family reunion. I asked how things were going. "I’m biting my tongue, pastor," he said, "biting my tongue." It is hard to let go of the mantle, and that can block a healthy transition. Change is hard, but by the grace of God, it is possible.

 

    1. Another thing that blocks transition is when people won’t follow the new prophet. Even though Elijah is gone and Elisha has already picked up the mantle and parted the water, the people still want to look for Elijah. "Maybe he’s still around here somewhere," they say wistfully. "Maybe he’ll come back and help us one more time." Elisha tries to tell them: "Don’t bother looking for him; he’s gone." But they insist on looking. They need some time to grieve for the old prophet, and they’re not quite ready to listen to this whipper-snapper Elisha.

Oh, they warm up to him eventually. But he has to earn his stripes. And they have to learn that change is hard but possible. Transition is blocked until the people are willing to follow the new prophet.

Rev. Cean Wilson, who was once a pastor here at Maple Grove, told how when she started at one new church, an elderly woman looked at her and said, "But who will do our funerals?" She just couldn’t envision anyone but the old pastor leading their funerals. Cean stayed at the church for several years and loved the people, and when it was time for her to move, that same woman looked at her and said, "But when you leave, who will do our funerals?" We’ve got to learn to follow the new prophet. Change is hard but possible.

 

  1. Finally, th transition of leadership is blocked if no one picks up the mantle. What would have happened to God’s people if Elisha had decided not to pick up Elijah’s mantle? What if he’d said, "You know, that mantle looks a little heavy, kind of burdensome. Let’s see if someone else might pick it up." As a pastor, this always worries me, even though God has never let me down. In the first church I served, the long-time secretary retired and moved out of town. And when she set her mantle down, I could have cried. All right, I did cry. She had held that church together through several pastors and I didn’t see how we could make it without her. But do you know what God did? God provided someone, a new member, who said, "Why, I’ll pick up that mantle. I called her Elisha for a while. And the truth is, there were things Elisha did better even than the old Elijah.

Bob Skinner was Finance Chair here through some difficult years. He was dedicated, skilled and positive. When Bob had to rotate off Finance Committee, I lost sleep. I worried, what if no one will pick up that mantle? But do you know what God did? I made one phone call, and Brad Hughes is an amazing chair of finance.

Soon Barb Harrison will step down as Chair of Trustees after getting us through three roof projects, a couple of sanctuary updates, countless electrical and HVAC problems, and now a capital campaign. It’s a big mantle. I worry about what will happen when Barb sets it down. But what do you supposed God will do?

There are always mantles lying around a church—mantles for teaching children’s Sunday school and leading youth ministry, mantles for doing maintenance and repairs, mantles for visiting the sick and for inviting new folks to come. The mantles are many. One may have your name on it. Healthy transition is blocked when the old prophet won’t let go, it’s blocked when people won’t follow the new prophet, and it is blocked when no one will pick up the mantle. Change is hard, but with enough Elishas around, it is possible.

A while ago I mentioned that I have a soft spot in my heart for this story for two reasons. One is its place in the service for retiring pastors. The other is this: at my father’s funeral, now sixteen years ago, I rose to say that as far as I was concerned my father’s defining characteristic was his soft heart. He had compassion on the poor and rejected, he apologized well and forgave easily, he almost never raised his voice or held a grudge. My father’s mantle seemed heavy, his shoes too big to fill. And ever since, my prayer has been: "Oh, my father, my father. May I inherit a double share of your soft, soft heart."

Change is hard, but by the grace of God, it is possible.

1 "A Retirement Recognition Service," The United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 736.

 

1 Kings 19:1-13a, and 1 Kings 19:13b-17 (with Hosea 1:4)

Still, Small Voice of God and The Bible Corrects the Bible

June 19, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

What a story! There is so much in it. At one level this is the story of the beleaguered Elijah trying to run away and resign from the position of prophet; but God won’t let him. It’s also a message about burnout and a kind of recovery. But what I want to focus on today is that "sound of sheer silence," or as the version I grew up with puts is, that "still, small voice" of God. The commentaries say that this almost untranslatable phrase is a combination of the Hebrew words for "sound" and "silence"—it’s contradictory, paradoxical, mystical.

Before the silence there was a violent wind, but the Lord was not in the wind and Elijah stayed hidden in his cave. And there was a terrible earthquake, but the Lord was not in the shaking of the ground, and Elijah stayed hidden in his cave. And there was a raging fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and the prophet stayed in his cave. And then, finally, silence. . . And Elijah knew, he just knew. He wrapped his face in his mantle and stepped out of his cave.

Life is full of wind and earthquake and fire. And so often we seem to prefer noise and drama to silence—we schedule our lives so full there’s no time to sit, if there’s a moment’s down time we have to piddle with our phones, and the TV is always on in the background. Perhaps only after the thunderous noise has died down can we hear the still, small voice of God.

And now I’m going to practice what I’m preaching. I’ll be quiet now for a few minutes, and I invite you to be still and listen for what God may be saying in the silence. There’s an index card in your bulletin in case you want to write down something that comes to you, but it’s not a requirement. After three or four minutes, Greg will start playing, and that will be your cue to turn in your hymnal to the beautiful, meditative song, "Near to the Heart of God," No. 472. But don’t fiddle with your hymnal just yet. Simply listen in the silence for the still, small voice of God.

A time of silence is observed

That still, small voice of God would have been a wonderful place for this story to end. But unfortunately the story doesn’t end there. What Elijah hears from God—or what he thinks he hears—is a message of violence and destruction, to anoint and bless Jehu and Elisha to go on a killing spree against King Ahab and his family. And in 2 Kings 9 and 10, that’s exactly what takes place.

And in 1 & 2 Kings the Bible reports this violence as triumphant, as the will of God. But it’s important to note that this is not the only thing the Bible has to say about this killing. As you can see on the screen, a few generations later, the prophet Hosea says that the killing Elijah blessed and that Jehu carried out was not God’s will at all, but was a thing of shame, something to be punished. And Hosea is in the Bible too. There’s more than one thing going on in this big and difficult book called the Bible.

Too many people think the Bible only speaks with one voice, that everything in the Bible is eternally and timelessly true. That if the Bible condones violence, then violence must be okay. And if the Bible seems to judge and condemn certain kinds of people, then we must also judge and condemn them. But sometimes even the Bible corrects the Bible, and surely for us Christians every verse of scripture has to be read in light of the all-inclusive love of Christ who gave his life for all people.

The Bible is not one timeless truth. The Bible is in conversation with itself. The Bible has a conversation about which is more important—faith or works, what should marriage and family look like, what is the best way to show reverence and respect for God? I found this teaching in a little book by Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, called Being Christian. In it Williams says that this moment where Hosea corrects 1 & 2 Kings is an important recognition that "it is possible to grow in understanding and to think again about the past."1

And isn’t that what we need to do after what took place in Orlando last week—to grow in our understanding and to think again about our past. To use the Bible—or the Quran—to justify violence or vengeance of any kind is to draw on the worst of our religious traditions, not the best. It’s not that there isn’t violence in the Bible—of course there is, but that violence has been corrected by the fearless and tender love of Christ. And to use the Bible to judge or exclude certain kinds of people is to miss the point of Christ’s coming. Again, it’s not that there isn’t judgment and exclusion in the Bible, but they are corrected by Jesus when he says, "Come to me, all you—not some but all--who labor and are carrying heavy burdens" (Matthew 11:28) and they’re corrected by Paul when he says, "There is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

Yes, there is violence and hatred in the Bible, just as there are violence and hatred in our country and violence and hatred n my own heart when I see what that man did. But let’s let the Bible correct the Bible, and let’s ask Christ heal our hearts so that we can change and heal our country.

 

1 Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 38.

 

1 Kings 21:1-20b

My Enemy the Prophet

June 12, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

This story has three main characters. We’ll look at them one by one. First, there’s the king, Ahab, who wants a vineyard belonging to a man named Naboth. You can see why the king would want that particular piece of property. It was right next to the king’s house, a convenient place for a garden; it would give him some room to breathe and expand. The king was willing to pay market price or make a fair trade for the property. He wasn’t trying rip Naboth off or anything. He just wanted that vineyard.

But here’s the thing: the king was not entitled to Naboth’s vineyard, not at any price. Under Old Testament law it was critically important for inherited land to remain within the family and within the tribe. So the king is asking Naboth to betray his family by selling that piece of property, and the king is trying to extend his influence into a tribe he didn’t belong to, which could upset the whole structure of Israel.1

So the story begins with the king assuming that at the right price, anything is for sale. The story begins with the king wanting something that simply isn’t his to have.

Here’s a question I invite you to reflect on: have you ever wanted something that wasn’t yours to have? Have you ever wanted something, got it, and found out it wasn’t good for you to have it? Find a person or two or three seated near you, and just turn in your seat and share about that question. If sharing with others isn’t your cup of tea, the ushers have pencils and paper, so you can spend a few moments jotting down your reflections. Either way, here’s the question: Have you ever wanted something that was not yours to have or wasn’t good for you to have?

So the first character in the story is King Ahab who wants something he shouldn’t have. The second character is the queen, Jezebel, who is all too happy to get what the king wants, no matter what it takes to get it. Jezebel, the foreigner, represents a non-Israelite, an unbiblical, understanding of power, in which kings are above the law, or perhaps better put, kings are the law. In Jezebel’s understanding the king can do whatever he wants, take whatever he wants, kill whomever he wants. And if the king won’t do it, she’ll do it for him.

Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has suggested that Ahab may not have been an evil man. He knew what the Bible said, that is, he knew how God wants people to live. But he also heard this other voice, the queen’s voice, telling him something else, something attractive and flattering. And he was, as Brueggemann puts it, "double-minded, unwilling and unable to choose between a Torah tradition he is supposed to know and an acquisitive alternative that suits him better."2 He’s listening to more than one voice, and his inability to choose the right kvoice is his undoing.

So here’s your second question: How do you know which voice to listen to? How do you know who will lead you astray and who will keep you on the right path?

So one main character is the king who wants something that’s not his to have. The second character is the queen, who is all to willing to get what he wants, no matter what it takes. The third character is Elijah, the prophet, whose role is to remind people, even the king, how God wants us to live. Telling the king he’s done wrong is a courageous and dangerous thing to do. At the end of the story, Ahab says to Elijah, "Have you found me, O my enemy?" And Elijah says, "I have found you," and proceeds to tell the king the consequences of his wrongdoing.

When the prophet, for that matter, when anyone, points out where my life has gone astray, how I am not living the way God wants, it feels like they’re my enemy. Anger and defensiveness rise up inside me. Who are you, I think, to talk to me like that?

Of course, the prophet is not really an enemy, but a very special kind of friend. Not everyone has the moral authority of the prophet to speak a hard word into another’s life. It’s not with everyone that I have the kind of relationship that allows me to listen to them when they speak a painful truth. But we all need someone who will be Elijah for us, our enemy the prophet, or rather, that special kind of friend who can remind us how God wants us to live.

So the final question is this: Who has been Elijah for you? Who has told you a hard truth, something that perhaps made you angry and defensive at first, but that you surely needed to hear? Who has been thR person for you?

Well, that’s it for today—My Enemy the Prophet. Next week we’ll be back in the sanctuary and Elijah will hear the still, small voice of God, and the Bible will correct itself.

1 Marvin A. Sweeney, I & II Kings, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 249.

2 Walter Brueggemann, "The Preacher as Scribe," Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, ed. Anna Carter Florence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 15.

 

1 Kings 17:8-24

The Prophet as Ambassador of Abundance

June 5, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Here’s what the children learned last Sunday. Maybe you’ll repeat it after me this morning:

A prophet is someone who reminds us

How God wants us to live.

So last week Elijah reminded us, when it comes right down to it, when you have to choose and the stakes are high, always put your trust in God—not anyone or anything else, but in God. Today Elijah is an Ambassador of Abundance, reminding us that there is plenty for everyone and the key to abundance is sharing.

Here’s the story. There’s a famine in Israel, and God sends Elijah to a poor widow in Sidon. He asks her for a drink of water, a precious commodity during a drought. She went to get it and he added, "And how about some bread to go with it." The widow replied, "Give you some bread? I don’t have any bread. All I’ve got is this handful of flour and a few drops of oil. I’m getting ready to make one last meal for my son and me, before we starve to death. Give you some bread?"

But Elijah is the Ambassador of Abundance. He says, "Don’t be afraid." Why don’t you repeat that one after me: Don’t be afraid. "Share with me first," he said, "and the flour will never run out and the oil will never run dry." And that is exactly what happened.

Now you might say that the abundance in this story—the flour and the oil never running out—you might say it was a miracle. And it is, in that we can’t say exactly how it happened. The problem with calling this a miracle, though, is that it’s not unusual in the Bible. In fact, with God miraculous abundance is not the exception; it’s the rule.

  • The Garden of Eden, our original home, was a place of goodness and plenty, the way God intended life to be.
  • When Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years, God fed them manna every day. It fell from the sky and they would eat, and then the next day it would fall again. But if they tried to store it up, it rotted. God’s abundance is always plenty, but never for hording.
  • When faced with 5000 hungry people, the disciples despaired: "Better send them away. We don’t have enough." But Jesus said, "Wait—what do you have?"

"Five loaves," they said, "and a couple of fish."

"Will you share them?" Jesus asked. A bit reluctantly, they did. And everyone ate, and there was more food left over than they’d had to start with. Sharing unleashes the abundance of God.

  • Acts 2 tells how the early Christians sold their possessions and shared with each other. This kind of sharing wasn’t easy. Not everyone did it; one couple even lied about it. But when they did it, the result was that familiar miracle—no one was in need and everyone had enough.

Elijah is an Ambassador of Abundance. And he’s in good company—the Bible is full of them.

Samuel Wells points out how odd it is for Elijah to ask a starving widow for something to eat.1 It’s seems almost rude. Why does he do it? Because he respects her dignity. Everyone has something to offer. The Ambassador of Abundance doesn’t give people stuff; he gets people to share what they have and it becomes enough for all.

Wells also teaches that this story is more about faith than facts. The prophet does not wave a magic wand and suddenly everyone is a millionaire. Sometimes we have to share as though we have enough even when there doesn’t seem to be enough. That’s why Elijah said, "Don’t be afraid."

When the prophet asks a starving widow for something to eat, he is asking her to see the world a whole new way. It is, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, "a summons to leave the fearful world of scarcity and to practice the world of abundance in concrete ways."2 The Ambassador of Abundance doesn’t give us stuff; he asks us to share our stuff, to leave our fearful, grasping world for a miraculous world of plenty.

So how might an Ambassador of Abundance call us to share our last morsels of bread? How can we leave the fearful world of scarcity and practice the world of abundance?

I knew a guy in seminary. His wife found herself unexpectedly pregnant during his second year. My friend was in school, racking up loans. His wife felt too sick to go to work some days and was losing pay. And he knew enough about how much it costs to raise a child to make him nervous. Every night he lay awake worrying about money. Every time he needed to buy even some little thing he’d ask himself, "What if we don’t have enough? What if we don’t have enough?" Two things happened to change his fear: (1) His fellow students—dozens of us—took a collection that paid for all the cribs and carseats and stuff that babies need. And (2) his pastor advised him that every time he asked that fearful question—"What if we don’t have enough"—to answer himself with a different question—"Yes, but what if we do have enough?" And of course, somehow or other, they had enough. But what really changed was his faith, the way he looked at the world. His pastor was an Ambassador of Abundance, summoning him to leave his world of fear for the practice of abundance.

A couple of years ago, Maple Grove’s Stewardship Team was meeting to plan the fall pledge campaign. We were trying to set a financial goal for the next year. We knew it had to be high enough to meet the church’ needs, but we feared if it was too high people would grumble and feel overwhelmed. We went around the table sharing various desperate ideas, until finally Cathy Davis said, "We’re coming at this the wrong way." She asked us to get up and move to a different physical space to symbolize moving our hearts and minds to a different spiritual space. She prayed for God to replace our fear of scarcity with a trust in God’s abundance. We breathed deeply, and set a high goal. And then you all surpassed that goal. Cathy Davis was our Ambassador of Abundance, overcoming fear with prayers of abundance.

The same is surely true for our life together as a nation. Whenever we try to improve our schools or provide health care for the poor or save the world from climate change, people will say, "We just can’t afford to do that." Now the truth is we may not have the political will or consensus to solve these problems—liberals don’t like conservative ideas and conservatives don’t like liberal ideas. But the truth is, we have the resources to solve any problem we set our hearts and minds to. What we need is an Ambassador of Abundance to summon us out of our fearful scarcity and invite us to share.

Jesus was an Ambassador of Abundance. In Mark 8 he says, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." What we fearfully grasp gets away from us; what’s truly ours are the things we give away.

St. Francis was an Ambassador of Abundance. In his famous prayer we say that it’s in dying we are born to eternal life, it’s in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it’s in giving that we receive.

Abundance is a miracle, but in God’s economy it is not the exception, but the rule. And abundance is unleashed by the simple act of sharing.

 1 Samuel Wells, Learning to Dream Again: Rediscovering the Heart of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 100.

2 Walter Brueggemann, "Disciples of the Great Connector," Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, ed. Anna Carter Florence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 72.

 

1 Kings 18:20-40

Trusting God in a Multicultural World

May 29, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Elijah was not only a wild, hairy, scary, miracle-working man, he was a prophet. And in the Bible prophets are not people who foretell the future; they are people who tell the truth. They call kings to account for their actions and remind the people of God’s covenant. Elijah appears mysteriously in 1 Kings 17, in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 800s BC, and is called Elijah the Tishbite. Some scholars think that means he was from a town called Tishbe in Gilead, others think it’s a word meaning "stranger" (and he was strange!), and no one really knows.

Elijah is an important figure for Jews in part because 2 Kings reports that he never died, exactly, and centuries later Malachi prophesied that God would send Elijah again before the day of judgment. Jews invoke Elijah’s name every week at the end of Shabbat and every year reserve a place at the Passover table for him. He is for them a symbol of hope and deliverance.

Christians have a connection to Elijah too. The gospels portray John the Baptist--another wild, hairy, scary man—as Elijah come to prepare the way for Jesus, calling King Herod to account and telling people to repent.

Today’s story about Elijah and the prophets of Baal is exciting, but troubling—troubling in some obvious ways, but if we dig a little deeper, perhaps also troubling in some very personal ways.

Let’s face it—this story includes two of the biggest problems in our world today:

  • First, there’s Elijah’s religious intolerance ("My God’s better than your god"). We know how much trouble that attitude can cause.
  • And then there’s sacred violence ("I’ll kill you if you disagree me").1 Elijah doesn’t just banish the prophets of Baal, he doesn’t even just kill them, he "slaughters" them.

I’m wanting to suggest to you that if there’s something to learn from Elijah, it’s not those two things.

So if not intolerance of other religions and if not violence in the name of God, what do we take from Elijah? In a book about violence in the Bible, Philip Jenkins suggests that since these stories were written down hundreds of years after the time of Elijah, they are really more legend than history. They’re not meant so much to describe what happened as to communicate a message. "What’s the core message?" Jenkins wonders. Here’s his suggestion: "The imagined war against outside people and customs symbolized a rejection of anything that distracts or separates…people…from God."2

So what distracts us from God today? What threatens to separate us from the God who loves us? Well, we don’t often face a choice between God and Baal, but we do sometimes have to choose between God and work. And every weekend people choose between God and sports. The last poll I saw had God in about fourth place—behind football, basketball and soccer and just ahead of baseball and hockey. Again, our real decision is not between God and Buddha, but we do have to decide if our ultimate trust is in God or guns. Few of us waver between God and Allah, but how many of us are torn between God and the almighty dollar?

"How long," Elijah asked, "will you go limping with two different opinions," that is, between loyalty to God and loyalty to, well, anything else? And all of a sudden, this story is troubling in a very soul-searching way.

Now we all know that our choices in the real world usually aren’t as stark as Elijah makes them out to be. You can’t simply choose between God and money, because we all need money. But there’s a line somewhere, isn’t there, between having money and money having you, between enjoying possessions and being obsessed with possessions. And we don’t have to choose either God or sports. But there’s a line between being worshipers of God who like sports, and being worshipers of sports who are fond of God. And of course there are people who need a gun—solders, police officers, armored car drivers. But our country’s love affair with guns has become, don’t you think, obsessive, perhaps even idolatrous.

How long, Elijah asked, will you go limping along with divided loyalties? Yes, we live in a world of gray areas, of overlapping loyalties. But Elijah forces the issue in uncomfortable ways. To fail to choose God wholeheartedly is, in a way, to choose Baal.3

When it comes right down to it, Elijah is asking, who will light your fire? When the altar is ready and the wood is wet, when you’ve got to make a decision and the stakes are high—whom will you trust to light your fire? God, or something else?

This past Thursday evening I sat in a hospital room at St. Ann’s, where Sara Barbary was in palliative care, her family gathered around to pray and to say goodbye. And when it came right down to it, whom do you suppose they were calling upon in that hour of need, where do you suppose they were putting their trust when their wood was wet and the stakes were high? In their money or their job? In weapons or force of any kind? In the Bengals or the Buckeyes? No, no, they weren’t limping along with two different opinions. They were choosing the Lord. And sad as they were, I saw God keep their fires burning bright.

When it comes right down to it, Elijah insists, when you simply have to decide where you loyalties lie—always choose God. Choose God.

1 See Edwina Gately, "’If the Lord is God, Follow Him’: Elijah and the Prophets of Baal," Journey with Jesus, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20130527JJ.shtml, accessed 5/16/2016, 1.

2 Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (2011), 242. Quoted in Gately, 3.

3 See Richard Nelson, First and Second Kings, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1987), 121-22.

 

Matthew 22:34-40

Confirmation: Rite of Passage or Step in the Journey

May 1, 2016

We have a lot to do today—we’ll hear something each youth discovered during Confirmation, we’ll give them Bibles and blessings, and they will serve us Holy Communion. But first let me say three things, very briefly, to all you parents and adults out there, and then three things to the Confirmation kids. First, to you parents and adults (and kids can listen in):

  1. This year’s Confirmation class marks a shift for our church, or perhaps more accurately, this is the year the shift became too big to ignore. This year a majority of kids in Confirmation told us they are choosing not to be confirmed …or they would choose that if their parents would let them. Which means that Confirmation has lost its power as a cultural rite of passage, for kids if not quite yet for their parents.

Which is sad and maybe troubling in some ways. But I remember my own Confirmation class—five 13 year-old boys and one poor 13 year-old girl. We had a pretty good time together. But for the other four boys, Confirmation was a rite of passage all right—a rite of passage right out of the church! When they finished Confirmation, they’d done their religious duty and made grandma happy, and they were done with church. If that’s all Confirmation is, maybe we ought to just let it go.

But that was then, when most people still went to church, or at least wanted people to think they went to church. Now most people don’t go to church and no one cares, so we can change Confirmation from a cultural rite of passage to a counter-cultural opportunity. Instead of coercing kids into doing what everyone else is doing, Confirmation can now give kids a chance to be different from everyone else, to take a stand, to cast their lot with the Jesus of justice and love and community. Will you join me, you parents of younger kids, will you join me, people of Maple Grove, in no longer leaning on kids to conform, and instead equipping them be different for Jesus?

2. At Pub Theology last week, Doug Davis posed the question, "Is doubt the opposite of faith, or is doubt part of faith?" That one’s easy: the opposite of faith is fear; doubt is part of faith. These Confirmation kids have openly expressed their doubts, their questions, their hesitation. Is God real? Is Jesus the best way to know God? Does the church have anything positive to offer? So parents, help your kids not to spiral down into worry, fear and cynicism. But live with their doubts. In the end, doubt strengthens and sharpens our faith.

3. Finally, for you adults: if there’s been a shift in Confirmation, it’s because there’s been a huge shift in our culture. In the absence of cultural pressure to go to church, people who don’t want to go . . . don’t. Part of our job is simply to accept that new reality. But the other part of our job is to find ways for church to remain relevant to young people. That means developing a certain "cool factor" and presenting the gospel in ways young people can relate to: screens and technology are necessary, short-term service opportunities are popular, it takes different kinds of music, and it means entering that world I may never understand, social media. We have to not only be okay with that, but encourage it. Maple Grove has made a few hesitant steps in those directions; more will be required.

But above all, being relevant to young people means simply being in relationship with young people, or to use the words of Jesus, to love them as we love ourselves. Duane Casares meets with a group of 20-something young men, most of whom have little or no interest in what we do here on Sunday mornings. But they talk about their lives, they help each other be better people, and Duane’s always there for them. I don’t know if they’d use the word, but there’s an old-fashioned term for what Duane and those guys do. It’s called "church." It’s a whole new world, my friends, and we’ve got to learn how to be Christians in it.

Now a few words to you Confirmation kids.

    1. This new kind of church I’ve been talking about—it’s up to you to create it. The world doesn’t really need another sports or entertainment star (though I’ll come see you if you get famous!). And things like advances in medicine and technology will take care of themselves—there’s money to be made there. But a caring community of spiritual practice, that feeds the hungry and teaches us how to forgive—the world desperately needs that, and love will not take care of itself.

Sometimes people say that our youth are the future of the church. But that’s only part of the truth, and the less interesting part. More importantly, youth are the church right now. And we social media-ignorant, "cool factor"-deficient adults can’t create a church that’s relevant to you. Only you can do that. But here’s my promise: I’ll do it with you. And Maple Grove is game for almost anything. So don’t give up on the church and don’t check out. Make the church whatever you want it to be—it’s yours now.

2. As important as your decision whether to be confirmed or not is--and I know how many of you wrestled with it—faith is not a one-time decision; it’s a life-long journey. A ‘yes’ to Jesus today may become ‘maybe’ later on. And a ‘no’ to Confirmation today, may become an enthusiastic ‘yes’ soon.

For those who are fortunate and do their spiritual work, there comes a time when questioning what you believe just isn’t as important as it is right now. There’s a Zen Buddhist story about a woman who when she was young saw the trees as trees, the wind as wind, and the moon as the moon. As she grew older she began to ask herself why the trees grew as they did, why the wind blew from the four corners of the Earth, and why the moon waxed and waned. Everything she saw posed a question, and all of her time was spent pursuing answers. Then there came a time when the trees were again just trees and the wind was again the wind and the moon was again just the moon.1 Questions and doubts come and they go--sometimes they are not so much answered as they are simply lived through, let go of, transcended.

So whether your answer today is ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ whether your experience of church is lively and fresh or deadly dull, don’t give up on the journey. Faith is for the long haul. Regardless of whether you’re saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ today, someday you’re going to need something like church—I guarantee it.

3. Finally this: we spent a lot of time in Confirmation pondering what you believe. But here’s my best word about that: focus more on learning to love well than on believing the right things. That is what Jesus meant when he summarized all the law and prophets in two commandments—love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbor as yourself. Rules and beliefs exist to help us love well, not the other way around.

And if you are going to focus on one of Jesus’ commandments more than the other, focus first on loving your neighbor—your family, your classmates, the needy who live nearby. Bible scholar Douglas Hare says, "Love for neighbor… [teaches] us how to love God."2

Now, kids, you might think that I’m giving you the easier thing to do—loving people rather than believing in God. But trust me, it’s much easier to believe in God than it is to love your neighbor well. We learn to love God by loving the people around us. So do the hard and wonderful work of loving the people around you, and I assure you--everything else will fall into place.

1 See Chet Raymo, The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1992), 153.

2 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 260.

Matthew 22:34-40

Confirmation: Rite of Passage or Step in the Journey

May 1, 2016

We have a lot to do today—we’ll hear something each youth discovered during Confirmation, we’ll give them Bibles and blessings, and they will serve us Holy Communion. But first let me say three things, very briefly, to all you parents and adults out there, and then three things to the Confirmation kids. First, to you parents and adults (and kids can listen in):

  1. This year’s Confirmation class marks a shift for our church, or perhaps more accurately, this is the year the shift became too big to ignore. This year a majority of kids in Confirmation told us they are choosing not to be confirmed …or they would choose that if their parents would let them. Which means that Confirmation has lost its power as a cultural rite of passage, for kids if not quite yet for their parents.

Which is sad and maybe troubling in some ways. But I remember my own Confirmation class—five 13 year-old boys and one poor 13 year-old girl. We had a pretty good time together. But for the other four boys, Confirmation was a rite of passage all right—a rite of passage right out of the church! When they finished Confirmation, they’d done their religious duty and made grandma happy, and they were done with church. If that’s all Confirmation is, maybe we ought to just let it go.

But that was then, when most people still went to church, or at least wanted people to think they went to church. Now most people don’t go to church and no one cares, so we can change Confirmation from a cultural rite of passage to a counter-cultural opportunity. Instead of coercing kids into doing what everyone else is doing, Confirmation can now give kids a chance to be different from everyone else, to take a stand, to cast their lot with the Jesus of justice and love and community. Will you join me, you parents of younger kids, will you join me, people of Maple Grove, in no longer leaning on kids to conform, and instead equipping them be different for Jesus?

2. At Pub Theology last week, Doug Davis posed the question, "Is doubt the opposite of faith, or is doubt part of faith?" That one’s easy: the opposite of faith is fear; doubt is part of faith. These Confirmation kids have openly expressed their doubts, their questions, their hesitation. Is God real? Is Jesus the best way to know God? Does the church have anything positive to offer? So parents, help your kids not to spiral down into worry, fear and cynicism. But live with their doubts. In the end, doubt strengthens and sharpens our faith.

3. Finally, for you adults: if there’s been a shift in Confirmation, it’s because there’s been a huge shift in our culture. In the absence of cultural pressure to go to church, people who don’t want to go . . . don’t. Part of our job is simply to accept that new reality. But the other part of our job is to find ways for church to remain relevant to young people. That means developing a certain "cool factor" and presenting the gospel in ways young people can relate to: screens and technology are necessary, short-term service opportunities are popular, it takes different kinds of music, and it means entering that world I may never understand, social media. We have to not only be okay with that, but encourage it. Maple Grove has made a few hesitant steps in those directions; more will be required.

But above all, being relevant to young people means simply being in relationship with young people, or to use the words of Jesus, to love them as we love ourselves. Duane Casares meets with a group of 20-something young men, most of whom have little or no interest in what we do here on Sunday mornings. But they talk about their lives, they help each other be better people, and Duane’s always there for them. I don’t know if they’d use the word, but there’s an old-fashioned term for what Duane and those guys do. It’s called "church." It’s a whole new world, my friends, and we’ve got to learn how to be Christians in it.

Now a few words to you Confirmation kids.

    1. This new kind of church I’ve been talking about—it’s up to you to create it. The world doesn’t really need another sports or entertainment star (though I’ll come see you if you get famous!). And things like advances in medicine and technology will take care of themselves—there’s money to be made there. But a caring community of spiritual practice, that feeds the hungry and teaches us how to forgive—the world desperately needs that, and love will not take care of itself.

Sometimes people say that our youth are the future of the church. But that’s only part of the truth, and the less interesting part. More importantly, youth are the church right now. And we social media-ignorant, "cool factor"-deficient adults can’t create a church that’s relevant to you. Only you can do that. But here’s my promise: I’ll do it with you. And Maple Grove is game for almost anything. So don’t give up on the church and don’t check out. Make the church whatever you want it to be—it’s yours now.

2. As important as your decision whether to be confirmed or not is--and I know how many of you wrestled with it—faith is not a one-time decision; it’s a life-long journey. A ‘yes’ to Jesus today may become ‘maybe’ later on. And a ‘no’ to Confirmation today, may become an enthusiastic ‘yes’ soon.

For those who are fortunate and do their spiritual work, there comes a time when questioning what you believe just isn’t as important as it is right now. There’s a Zen Buddhist story about a woman who when she was young saw the trees as trees, the wind as wind, and the moon as the moon. As she grew older she began to ask herself why the trees grew as they did, why the wind blew from the four corners of the Earth, and why the moon waxed and waned. Everything she saw posed a question, and all of her time was spent pursuing answers. Then there came a time when the trees were again just trees and the wind was again the wind and the moon was again just the moon.1 Questions and doubts come and they go--sometimes they are not so much answered as they are simply lived through, let go of, transcended.

So whether your answer today is ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ whether your experience of church is lively and fresh or deadly dull, don’t give up on the journey. Faith is for the long haul. Regardless of whether you’re saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ today, someday you’re going to need something like church—I guarantee it.

3. Finally this: we spent a lot of time in Confirmation pondering what you believe. But here’s my best word about that: focus more on learning to love well than on believing the right things. That is what Jesus meant when he summarized all the law and prophets in two commandments—love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbor as yourself. Rules and beliefs exist to help us love well, not the other way around.

And if you are going to focus on one of Jesus’ commandments more than the other, focus first on loving your neighbor—your family, your classmates, the needy who live nearby. Bible scholar Douglas Hare says, "Love for neighbor… [teaches] us how to love God."2

Now, kids, you might think that I’m giving you the easier thing to do—loving people rather than believing in God. But trust me, it’s much easier to believe in God than it is to love your neighbor well. We learn to love God by loving the people around us. So do the hard and wonderful work of loving the people around you, and I assure you--everything else will fall into place.

1 See Chet Raymo, The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1992), 153.

2 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 260.

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