Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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Isaiah 53

Redemptive Suffering:  By His Bruises We Are Healed

March 20, 2016  Palm Sunday Maple Grove UMC

People ask, especially during Holy Week:  Why did Jesus have to die?  And if you ask the question that way, you often wind up with an answer that sounds like this:  Because humans sinned, and because there has to be a price for sin, and because we humans can’t pay that price ourselves, therefore God’s Son had to die to pay the price for us.  That’s become the standard answer to the question, "Why did Jesus have to die?"  Admittedly, there’s a kind of logic to it.  But that was not the way early Christians asked the question.  They didn’t start with a philosophical question about what had to happen.  They started with a fact—the fact that Jesus, the one they’d called Lord and Messiah . . . the fact that Jesus, the one they loved . . . was dead.  And their question was:  How are we going to make sense of that?  How can we go one and find something good in the suffering of Jesus?

To wrestle with those questions, the early church turned to Isaiah 53, which we just read together.  That scripture was written centuries earlier, but it reminded them of Jesus.  And you can see why.  It says, "He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering" and again, "He was despised and afflicted, but did not open his mouth."  They did not have to try to answer their questions from scratch.  In Isaiah 53 they had a difficult, yet deep and rich resource to draw from.  Walter Brueggemann has said that Isaiah 53 is one of the most important intellectual breakthroughs in the history of the world.  Isaiah dares to say that people can be healed by the suffering of others.  Isaiah’s good news to the exiles of his day is that God can use the suffering of one person, or a group of people, to create newness for all people.1  "By his wounds," Isaiah says, "we are healed."  And the good news the early Christians found is that God can use the suffering of Jesus to create newness, to bring forgiveness, to heal the power of sin and death for all people.  Talk about unusual healings! 

Before we explore this redemptive suffering of Jesus, I want to point out that this idea of one person suffering for the good of others may not  be as unusual as you think.  In Exodus 32 Moses pleads with God to forgive his people, and if you won’t, Moses tells God, take my name out of your book as well.  Moses is willing to suffer a terrible consequence with and for his people.  Mother Teresa took on the suffering of the dying poor in Calcutta and carried them in her heart.  Gandhi was imprisoned many times and undertook long hunger strikes to free his people from oppression.  And bringing it closer to home, what parent would not willingly bear any suffering in order to protect their child from harm?  I don’t mean these are exactly the same as what Isaiah describes or what Jesus did, but you see that people can, in fact, be healed by the suffering of others. 

One problem with asking the question this way--"Why did Jesus have to die?"--is that it backs God into a corner.  It takes something Jesus did out of amazing love and something God did out of amazing creativity and turns it into a matter of duty and fate.  So many answers to the question, "Why did Jesus have to die?" make God sound cruel and demanding and full of wrath, and if we know anything about God, it’s that God is love.  And so many answers to that question turn Jesus into little more than a victim of sacrifice.  And if we know anything about Jesus, it’s that he was no victim.

Jesus didn’t die because otherwise God couldn’t forgive us—God can forgive anyone God wants to forgive.  Jesus died because he relentlessly sought justice and stood up for the poor and marginalized, and he was willing to pay the price for that.2  And in Isaiah 53 the servant did not suffer instead of his people—everyone suffers—he suffered with and for the healing of his people.3

"By his wounds we are healed," says Isaiah.  And just as Isaiah discovered that God was present with them in the suffering of exile, so the early Christians discovered that God was with them in the suffering of Jesus on the cross.  Beyond our understanding, this was the costly way God chose to heal the world.  What the early Christians saw when they turned to Isaiah 53 was not some angry God demanding punishment, but a new understanding of God’s power.  Paul Hanson points out that the servant in Isaiah 53 does not accomplish God’s purpose through violence or force, but through gentleness.4  And in the same way, Jesus does not win our salvation through violence or force—he did not come with harsh words and guns blazing; he won our salvation through the costly path of nonviolence, by bearing our burdens and crying our tears.

Why did Jesus have to die?  Well, I don’t know that he had to die.  But since he did, how can we make sense of that? How can we find meaning in the death of Jesus?  With the early Christians, let’s turn to Isaiah and his astonishing idea that people can be healed by the suffering of others.

Isaiah’s poetry, Brueggemann suggests, can’t be reduced to a rational formula, to what theologians call a "theory of the atonement."6  It works more at the level of the heart than the head.  We are not told how one person’s guilt and pain can be borne by another.  We don’t learn how the suffering of one makes healing possible for another.  We are only told that it is so—that by his wounds we are healed.  It is certainly important to think about that, to ponder how it is so.  But it is even more important just to let it be, to accept the costly healing Christ offers, and to respond with gratitude and awe.  By his wounds we are healed—that is the redemptive suffering of Christ. 

1 Walter Brueggemann, Disciple: Becoming Disciples Through Bible Study, video for session 12. 

2 See Daniel Berrigan, Isaiah: Spirit of Courage, Gift of Tears (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 154-55.

3 See Daniel P. Bailey, "The Suffering Servant: Recent Tübingen Scholarship on Isaiah 53," Jesus and the Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 and Christian Origins, ed. William H. Bellinger and William R. Farmer (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1998), 240-41.

4 Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Interpretation (Louisville : John Knox Press, 1995), 165-66.

6 Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville : Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 145-46.


John 21:15-19

Healing Is a Chance to Redeem Yourself

March 6, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Since our worship series is called Unusual Healings, you might be wondering: where was the healing in that gospel story?  Peter isn’t lame like the man in chapter 5, or blind like the man in chapter 9, or dead like Lazarus.  What’s Peter need to be healed of?  Lots of things.  But at this moment, Peter needs above all to be healed of denying Jesus--not once, not twice, but three times.  Peter, who earlier had claimed that he would lay down his life for Jesus, now won’t even admit to knowing Jesus.  That’s what Peter needs to be healed of. 

In a word, Peter needs to be healed of his failure.  And I wonder—have you ever failed?  Or what may amount to the same thing, have you ever felt like a failure?  As a Christian, as a student, as a friend, as an employee, as a parent or son or daughter—have you ever felt like a failure?  I don’t know what it’s like in your profession, but here’s some statistics about mine:  1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month due to burnout or contention in their churches, and for every 20 pastors who go into ministry only one retires from the ministry.1  Failure is an occupational hazard.

Have you ever failed, or felt like a failure?  If so, you stand with Peter in the ranks of the people Jesus loved most.  If so, you have tasted what James Fowler has called "the sacrament of defeat."2  If you have ever failed, you are in need of the kind of healing Jesus offers in the gospel today.  Let’s call it redemption. 

In these Unusual Healing stories from John, Jesus never simply announces that someone is well.  Rather in each of the stories, Jesus expects the person being healed to participate in their healing.  The lame man has to get up, pick up his mat, and walk.  The blind man must go to the pool of Siloam and wash the mud off his eyes.  And Lazarus has to obey Jesus and come out of the tomb.  And in today’s story, Jesus doesn’t just say, "Oh Peter, I know you denied me, but don’t worry about it."  He doesn’t even say, "Peter, I forgive you."  What Jesus does is give Peter a chance to participate in his own healing; Jesus gives Peter a chance to redeem himself.

"Simon, son of John," Jesus asked, "do you love me more than these?"

"Yes, Lord," Peter replied, "you know that I love you."

"Feed my lambs," Jesus said.  Again Jesus asked him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?"

And again Peter replied, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."

"Tend my sheep," Jesus said.  The third time, Jesus asked, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?"

"Lord," Peter complained, "you know everything; you know that I love you."

"Feed my sheep."

For every time Peter had denied him, Jesus gives him a chance to say, "Lord, I love you."  And each time Peter states his love, Jesus is repairing the holes in Peter’s broken spirit.  Love is a necessary part of healing.  But as important as love is in Peter’s redemption, Jesus knows that feeling love isn’t all it takes.  Peter doesn’t just need to be granted healing, he needs to participate in his healing.  He doesn’t just need to be given redemption, he needs a chance to redeem himself. 

In the book about forgiveness that we studied last Lent, Desmond Tutu says that "[a] big part of asking for forgiveness is making amends," doing something about it 3 AA knows this too.  Step 8 says, "Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all."  We need more than forgiveness; we need a chance to redeem ourselves.

My first semester in seminary other students and I served as chaplain interns at a hospital.  Early in my time there, a nurse asked me to visit a woman about to die from cirrhosis.  I spent about an hour with her in pleasant conversation, and I felt pretty good about myself.  Later I reported to my share group about that visit and the leader asked me, "Did you talk to her about dying?" 

"No," I said, "it didn’t come up."

"Well," he, "it sounds like she gave you several clues that she wanted to talk about dying.  Why didn’t you?"

I thought about that.  "Afraid," I said.  And suddenly I realized that my visit had missed the mark.  I experienced that "sacrament of defeat."  Now the leader could have said, "Well, that’s all right, Glenn.  Get ‘em next time."  Or he could have had me write a reflection paper about my fear of death.  But here’s what he did:  He said, "My pager tells me that she’s still alive.  Why don’t you go back to her room right now and ask if there’s anything else, anything maybe harder or deeper she might want to talk about."  I went.  And she did want to talk—about her own fear that was mixed with gratitude, about her regrets and how she hoped God still loved her.  She wept, and I wept, and she prayed for what she said was the first time in years.  In the spirit of Jesus, that teacher gave me a chance to redeem myself.

For a while my father had an old pickup that he parked on the grass behind our shed.  And when I mowed the lawn, I always asked him to move the pickup so I could mow underneath it.  But one time—after all, I was learning to drive at the time—I decided to move that pickup myself.  I wasn’t used to driving a stick shift, though, and so focused was I on the clutch and giving it just the right amount of gas, that I didn’t pay attention to where I was backing, and I ran over one of the wheels of the lawn mower.  I had to go tell my dad what I’d done.  My dad took it to the shop and straightened the axle—never said a word.  The wheel worked okay, but was still a little wobbly—enough to remind me of my failure, of that "sacrament of defeat." 

The next time I mowed, I went in and asked my dad to move the pickup.  He started to get up, then reached in his pocket and tossed me the keys.  Never said a word.  He didn’t need to.  I knew what he was doing.  In the spirit of Jesus, he was giving me a chance to redeem myself.

And here’s how Jesus does that:  every time Peter declares his love, Jesus gives him something to do—Feed my lambs, Tend my sheep, Feed my sheep.  In having a purpose in life again, in getting to do something important and meaningful for Jesus, whom he had let down, Peter was more than forgiven, he was redeemed.

Here’s what I want you to take home with you today:  not that you have to earn God’s love and forgiveness, but that to be well requires that you participate in your own healing.  And that the chance to redeem yourself is always at hand—to feed Christ’s sheep, to reach out to your neighbors with food, and caring, and friendship.  In having a mission in life, in getting to do something important and meaningful for others, you can be more than forgiven, you are redeemed. 

Ever since Maple Grove served a meal last October for homeless folks at Broad Street UMC, I’ve been hearing from people that they’d like to do more of that—maybe serve a meal at Broad Street again, or at CRC, or maybe right here at Maple Grove.  People are hearing Christ’s call to feed his sheep.  I want to give you an opportunity today to express your interest in Maple Grove preparing a meal on a regular basis and eating with hungry neighbors.  There are easels with large sheets of paper—one here in the sanctuary and another in the lobby.  If you put your name and contact info on one of the sheets, someone will get back to you.  Putting your name there doesn’t commit you to anything, and I’m not ready to commit to any particular kind of meal.  But I’m hearing the call to feed Christ’s sheep, and I know how wonderful it is to do something important and meaningful for others.  To feed Christ’s sheep is a chance to be not just forgiven, but redeemed. 

1 J.R. Briggs, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014), 46

2 See Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 143.

3 Desmond Tut and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 186-87.


John 9

Healing as Gift and Problem

February 21, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

This story of Jesus healing the blind man and last week’s healing story both have surprising things in them

  • Last week in John 5 Jesus asks the man, "Do you want to be made well?" And we’d expect the man to shout out, "Yes, yes, that’s what I want."  But you’ll remember, that’s not what he said.  He said, in effect, "Yes, but . . . ."  He was ambivalent.  Part of him wanted to get well, and part of him preferred to stay sick.  Surprised?
  • Here in John 9 Jesus makes a blind man see.  And we’d expect everyone to rejoice with him.  You’d think there would be alleluias and high fives all around.  But there’s not.  In response to his healing, this man’s family, his neighbors and the religious leaders respond only with suspicion, anger and fear.  Surprised?

It turns out that in the Bible, and in our world today, healing is not only a gift, but also a problem. 

First, how healing—and in particular, how receiving sight—is a gift.  John never says that this man had faith in Jesus and that’s why he was healed.  The truth is, this man had no idea who Jesus was.  And the man never even asked to be able to see.  The healing is all gift; it’s grace and only grace.  Remember, the message of the gospel is that we don’t get the healing we deserve; we get the healing that God so graciously bestows. 

One of the gifts in this story is how Jesus challenges the connection people make between sin and our sickness and suffering.  Right off the bat the disciples ask Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born bind?"  In other words, when they encounter someone with a condition of some kind, their first thought was not to help the person or love the person, but to figure out whose fault the condition is.  And throughout the story, the religious leaders continue to assume the man was blind because was, in their words, "born in sin."  This may seem like archaic thinking to you, but Maple Grove member Nancy Foulger, who is a nurse, says that people in the hospital think this way all the time.  They ask, "What did I do that made this happen?  Why is God angry with me?"  Apparently it’s not as archaic as we might think. 

But Jesus will have none of that way of thinking.  He says that what caused the blindness doesn’t matter; what matters is what he’s going to do about it.  And surely that’s almost always true.  What causes our sickness or suffering doesn’t matter nearly as much as what we’re going to do about it--or better yet, what we let God do about it.  What a gift it is not to have to be blind and feel responsible for our blindness, what a gift not to have to a heart condition and blame yourself for it, what a gift not to have to have an addiction and have to feel guilty about it.  What a gift it is to ask instead, "So, what can I do about it?"  Or better yet, "What will I let God do about it?"

You might think that what gets healed in this story is the man’s eyes.  Well, yes, but that’s not the main thing.  In the Unusual Healings study, Adam Thomas suggests that in that culture this man was probably pigeon-holed all his life as "the blind man."  That’s all anyone allowed him to be—"the blind man"--so that over time his entire identity got wrapped up in his blindness.  But Jesus heals him of that notion.  The man was, Thomas says, a whole person when he was blind, but in Jesus he knows he’s a whole person and gradually he gains the confidence to let other people know he’s a whole person.2

Maybe you too have your identity wrapped around something in your life.  Maybe you’re always "the shy one," or "the angry one."  Maybe you’re "drop-out" in the family or "the poor widow," "the black sheep" or "the goody two-shoes."  Well, maybe you are, and maybe you need to be healed of some things.  But meantime, in Jesus you’re already a whole person.  What a gift it is to know that.  And what a gift to know that I may not be perfect, but in Jesus, by God, I am a whole person.

In this story, the man’s physical eyes are healed.  But more than that, he comes to see who Jesus is, and who he is himself.  When the religious leaders keep pressuring the man about whether Jesus is a sinner or a prophet and exactly how is sight was restored, the man finally says, "Look, I don’t know any of that.  All I know is one thing:  I was blind but now I see." 

The one thing I know, one woman said, is when I was going through my divorce, I hurt so much I couldn’t sleep or eat, and I was so filled with hate I couldn’t think, but somehow I got through it, and I’ve come to see that the way I got through it was Jesus.3  One thing I know, someone said to me this week, is that even though my grandma is dying, she’s going to be with God and we’ll be together in heaven some day.  What a gift it is to be able to see not everything, but the one thing that really matters.

Being healed, being able to see, is a gift.

  But unfortunately in the Bible, and in our world today, not everyone sees it that way.  You’ll notice that not one person in this whole story rejoices with this man.  No one pats him on the back. No one throws a party.  No one even sends him a card.  I wonder why that is?

Most blatantly, the religious leaders object because Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath.  And on the Sabbath they were to do no work, not even healing unless it was an emergency.  And this man had been blind all his life, he wasn’t even asking to see—surely Jesus could have waited till the next day.  And where did those rules come from?  Well, from the Bible, of course.  But Jesus didn’t believe that the rules in the Bible were put there to hinder us from healing or loving or doing justice.  But the Pharisees were not the last ones to use the rules in the Bible to try to hinder people from healing and loving and doing justice.  Not everyone is happy with breaking the rules, even when it’s for healing or loving or justice.

Why is it that no one rejoices that the man can see?  I suspect, in part, it comes down to that old truth that change—even good change—is hard.  After he could see, this man’s neighbors all of a sudden couldn’t even recognize him.  Some of them said, "Yeah, I think it’s him."  And others said, "I don’t know—could be someone who looks like him."  What’s going on?  It’s not like the man grew a beard or put on a wig.  He could see—that doesn’t change his appearance.  But something had changed, and it threw them for a loop.  John Stone wrote a short poem called, "Tree":

I was used to you

and your countable


What is this sudden

bursting into leaves?4

Change—even good change—is hard to adjust to.

Family systems theory has a concept called homeostasis.  Homeostasis means that every family, every organization, has a tendency to maintain its status quo and that every person in the system plays a role in maintaining that status quo.  It doesn’t mean the system is healthy, only that it functions that way and tends to keep on functioning that way.  One of the problems with homeostasis is that when someone who has been unwell starts to get better, it upsets the whole system.  The family has found a way to function with that person being sick; it doesn’t know how to function with that person being well.  And so the system—mostly unconsciously—tries to keep that person sick.  It’s their role in the system.  And you can probably begin to see why change is hard, and why not everyone is happy when someone is healed. 

There are all sorts of ways that we see problems instead of gifts, even in the church.  Richard Lischer writes that in his church one of the pillars of the congregation stopped to tell him he’d been "born again." 

"You’ve been what?" Lischer asked.

"Yes," the man said, "last week I visited my brother-in-law’s church, the Running River of Life Tabernacle, and I don’t know what it was, but something happened and I’m born again.

"You can’t be born again," Lischer said, "you’re a Lutheran.  And you’re the chairman of the board of trustees."  Not everyone rejoices when God changes lives.

In her novel Revelation, Peggy Payne tells of a Presbyterian minister who has a vision, a revelation from God.  One afternoon while grilling steaks in the backyard, he hears the voice of God speaking to him.  It changes his life.  And the rest of the story tells the price he pays for that revelation.  Do the leaders of his congregation rejoice with him?  No, they send him for psychiatric evaluation and put him on administrative leave.5  Not everyone rejoices when God changes lives.

There are all sorts of ways that we see problems instead of gifts, even in the church. 

  • A pastor from a more conservative denomination recently told me about the irate mom who stormed into his office saying, "I can’t believe you’re letting that woman teach my child’s Sunday school class!  Didn’t you know, Pastor, that she’s divorced?"

"Yes," he replied, "I knew.  But isn’t she loving the children?  Isn’t she teaching them about Jesus and how to pray?" 

"That’s not the point," the woman shouted.  "Don’t you know what the Bible says about divorce? 

  • And somewhere else a woman new to her church started an after-school children’s program.  The kids sang songs, they learned Bible stories, they had a nutritious snack.  A whole crowd of kids started coming every afternoon.  But then church members started grumbling, "Did you take this program through the Education Committee?  Did the Administrative Council vote to approve it?  Rules are rules," someone told her.  And she got discouraged and quit. 

Here’s what I believe:  God is healing all the time.  All the time God is giving sight to blind eyes.  All the time God is giving new life.  In fact, as Adam Thomas puts it, "Each one of us is being healed.  Right here.  Right now."6  That part is up to God.

The only question is this:  With all this healing going on, will we see it as a gift . . . or a problem?  That part, well that is up to us.

1 See Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2012), 563.

2 See Adam Thomas, Unusual Healings: Leader Guide, Unusual Gospel for Unusual People (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 28-29.

3 Richard Lischer, "Acknowledgment," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (March 3, 1999), 245.

4 John Stone, "Tree," The Smell of Matches (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1972), 50.

5 Lischer, 245.

6 Adam Thomas, Unusual Healings: Personal Reflection Guide , Unusual Gospel for Unusual People (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 8.


John 5:2-15

You Have Been Made Well

February 14, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Yes, but . . .  Essentially that’s what the sick man said when Jesus asked if he wanted to be made well.  Yes, but . . . 

I’ve heard that answer myself.  "Are you ready for surgery?" I ask people.  Yes . . . but.

I once asked a couple during pre-marital counseling, "Do you want to get married?"  I wasn’t sure.  "Yes . . ." she said. "But," he said.

I might ask you, "Do you like coming to church?"  And if you were honest, you might say, "Well yes, but . . ."

There was a man who had been sick for 38 years.  And every day for 38 years he would make his way to a certain pool.  The legend was that whenever the water in that pool would stir, the first one in would be healed.  I don’t know if that was really true, but every day people came—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.  So let’s see--every day for 38 years would be

13,870 times.  That’s how many times this man had come to the pool.

One day Jesus came and saw the man lying there and asked, straight out, "Do you want to be made well?"  You’d think the man would immediately shout, "Yes, yes, of course I want to be made well!"  But that’s not what the man said.  He said, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I’m making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me."  What he says, in other words, is:  Yes, I want to be well.  But I have these very good reasons why I’m not." 

I wonder, why is this man so unsure about wanting to be made well?  Why is he ambivalent about being healed?  After all, he knows—we all know—that there’s a high cost to staying sick.  If picking up his mat and being healed leads to life, then staying on his mat must lead to a kind of death.  When we resist the goodness God wants to give us, we grow listless, bitter, hopeless.  Staying on the mat, not consenting to be healed, forces us to deny our dreams and the longings that only a well self can fulfill.  Yes, there is a cost to not saying "yes" to being made well.

So why didn’t the man just say "yes"?  Why don’t we all?  Well, because there is also a cost to saying "yes."1  To be healed would change the man’s life, and change—even good change—is hard and scary.  When you let God take hold of your life, you relinquish control of your life.  If the man became well, he’d suddenly have responsibilities, his excuse to lie on his mat all day would be gone.  After all, he must have thought--I’m used to this mat, I’m used to people’s pity and scorn, I’m used to feeling sorry for myself.  It’s what I know.  Can I really risk getting well?

Jesus asked, "Do you want to be made well?"  And the answer isn’t as simple as it seems.  Yes, but . . .  he answers.  I get it.

If you read the commentaries, this man is characterized in a wide variety of ways.  Some people think the man is a victim—a victim of religious leaders who leave people unwell to keep them coming back, or a victim of people pushing ahead of him to get to the pool.  Others think he’s just a whiner who won’t help himself.  Some people think he’s just lazy, while others think that all he needed was one good friend.  It’s always hard, isn’t it, to know when to pat somebody on the head and say, "There, there," and when to tell them pick up their stinking mat and walk?  When is someone’s suffering is their own fault and when is it just something that happened to them?

And this story has an answer to those questions.  The answer is:  it doesn’t matter.  Jesus never asked why the man had been sick.  And the man doesn’t somehow have to earn his healing.  John never says the man had faith and that’s why he was healed.  In fact, even though Jesus asked him if he wanted to be made well, the man never even asks to be healed.  This healing is all grace, all the way down.  Jesus doesn’t heal him because of anything the man does or fails to do; Jesus heals him because he can, because the man needs it, because Jesus’ mission is to give abundant life.  The message of the gospel is that we don’t get the healing we deserve; we get the healing God so graciously bestows. 

That’s one message of this gospel story.  Here’s another:  the time to be well is now.2  After 38 years of being ill, after 38 years of lying helplessly on his mat, when Jesus comes this man’s waiting is over.  There is no waiting for the water to be stirred.  There is no waiting to be first in line.  There is no waiting for the Sabbath to be over, as the religious leaders insisted.  The man is talking about obstacles to wellbeing, about why healing hasn’t happened yet; Jesus is talking about how it’s already happened.  The time to be well is now.  Get up, pick up your mat, and walk.

Now, we need to be careful with this.  Often our healing is not quite so complete nor so sudden as it was for this man.  It’s easy to grow impatient with people who remain unwell for a long time.  We think, and sometimes we may even say, things like, "Why don’t you just stop drinking?" or "Why don’t you watch your diet better?" or "Why don’t you just get out of that abusive relationship?"  And the person probably thinks, "Gee, I never thought of that.  I’ll do that tomorrow."  But might there be a way, gently and positively, to let people know that we don’t get the healing we deserve, we get the blessings God so graciously bestows, and that the time to be well is not some day, it’s now.

Being well also does not always mean being cured, or getting everything we want.  Gerrit Dawson, a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina, tells how when his kids were little, he was so busy, rushing from meeting to meeting, always being called to the hospital or some emergency.3  One week he got down in the back and today’s scripture happened to be his daily devotions.  So he prayed and expected to be made well, to be able to get up and walk.  But that didn’t happen.  And he worried about all the things he wasn’t getting done.  But during those days that Gerrit was down in the back, his children noticed that he wasn’t able to run around the way he usually did.  They could find him any time they wanted him.  He would sit still and read to them or talk with them for hours on end.  And they were delighted.  He realized that God had given him the healing he needed most, that at least for a time, being well did not mean his back getting better.  Being well meant spending precious time with his children.  Of course, whether to accept that gift of precious time or fritter it away worrying about other things—that was up to him. 

The person I have known who understood this most deeply was Bill Croy.  You will remember that once he received that diagnosis of ALS, Bill did not ask people to pray for him to be cured.  And so far as I know, no one with ALS has ever been cured.  But Bill did ask people to pray for him to receive the miracles of faith and inner strength, that he might be at peace and bear witness to the power of love.  And even though after a time Bill never physically walked again, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, he was well every day.   And he knew it, and we got to know it too.

The way John tells the story, Jesus told the man to get up, pick up his mat and walk.  And he did.  He walked away without even finding out who had healed him.  Then later, after the religious leaders had fussed about him healing on the Sabbath, Jesus found the man again, and repeated, "You have been made well!"  The commentaries debate about why there was the second meeting between Jesus and the man, why Jesus told him to be well and then told him again that he had been made well.  But I think I know: there is something inside us that wants to be made well, a part of us that cries out "Yes!" when Jesus asks, "Do you want to be made well."  But there is also something inside us that doesn’t want to be made well, a part that is scared and resistant to change.  We forget what Jesus can do, we get focused on the obstacles and problems, we think of all the reasons why we’re not well.  So Jesus comes back and reminds us:  "See," he says, "you have been made well. . .   Don’t forget," he says, "you are well."

Here is the message of the gospel:  we do not get the healing we deserve; we get the healing God so graciously bestows.  And the time to be well is now.  So let Jesus say his words to you:  My friends, you have been made well.  Oh, I don’t know if your disease will be cured today.  I don’t know if your back will feel better tomorrow.  What I do know is that there is this deep well of wellness at the heart of your life, and you can claim it any time you choose to.  So whenever you’re tempted to give up or to feel sorry for yourself, hear what Jesus says:  You have been made well.  And whenever you get focused on the obstacles and problems, hear what Jesus says to you:  You have been made well.  Whenever the old life, the old fear, that old helplessness calls out to you, claim the words that Jesus says:  You have been made well.4

So to make a good beginning of Lent, will you repeat after me?

I have been made well.

I have been made well.

By the love of Jesus Christ,

I have been made well.


1 The cost of saying "Yes" and "No’ is borrowed from Esther Armstrong and Dale Stitt, "Do You Want to Be Healed," Journey to Freedom (28th Edition, June 2001), 3.

2 See Mary Hinkle Shore, "Poolside Healing," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (May 1, 2007), 20.

3 Gerrit Scott Dawson, Writing on the Heart: Inviting Scripture to Shape Daily Life (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1995), 35.

4 See Dawson, 34.


Acts 3:1-10 / Luke 19:1-10

TRANSFORM:  Life-Changing Relationships

January 31, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

The mission of Maple Grove is first to be an open community of Christians.  And we are!  The vision, then, where we want to go with that mission, is to be invitational.  How will anyone know we’re an open community unless we say to them the three magic words:  Come and See?

  The mission continues:  we are an open community of Christians who love God.  And we do!  But we don’t want the best years of our faith to be five or ten or fifty years ago.  The vision is to grow, for all of us to commit to an ever-deepening relationship with God.

And the mission statement concludes: we are an open community of Christians who love God and serve our neighbors.  And we do!  We have over 75 ministry teams and more than 1000 individual service commitments for 2016.  The vision, then, where we’re going with that mission, is to transform, to ensure that both our own lives and the lives of the people we serve are changed.  And that happens through relationships. 

In Acts 3 a lame man asks Peter and John for a handout.  They don’t give him that.  But what they do instead is to look at him intently—that is, they take time to see him as a human being with feelings and strengths as well as needs.  They touch him and share with him the healing love of God.  Giving money is important.  But seeing and touching and loving—these transform.

Zacchaeus, a tax collector who had become rich by cheating people and collaborating with the enemy, climbed a tree to see Jesus.  There are so many ways Jesus could have responded to Zacchaeus.  He could have judged and criticized him.  He could have shouted a message of forgiveness from afar.  Instead, Jesus invited himself into Zacchaeus’ home; he spent time with him.  And Zacchaeus’ life was changed forever.  Relationships transform.

Thom Stevenson, who sings in our choir and leads our Reconciling Ministries Team, had a vision for a nonprofit called Chefvet, a workforce development program for disabled veterans.  For two years he’d been worried and stressed about finding the right building for his program.  Then last August he took some food from Feed the World Sunday to Faith on 8th homeless shelter.  And he was greeted there by a homeless veteran in a wheelchair.  And suddenly Thom felt, "This man’s waiting on us to care about him, to see him as a human being."  We focus so much on needs and obstacles that we lose sight of the faces of the people in front of us.  Now Chefvet is piloting its first group of vets through culinary training and social supports, and it is based at . . . Faith on 8th.  Buildings and funding and business plans matter, but relationships transform.

Bob Hirst has faithfully led Maple Grove’s usher teams for years.  The offering always gets collected.  Bulletins always get handed out.  Anything we ask for is meticulously cared for.  Bob does all that.  But that’s not the main thing Bob does.  The main thing Bob does is connect people with each other.  These usher teams stay together for years.  Team members check on each other when someone’s not here, they pray for each other, they solve life problems together.  What Bob demonstrates is that details matter, but relationships transform. 

The enduring mission of our church is to serve our neighbors.  And we do!  The vision, where we’re going with that mission, is to transform, for both our own lives and the lives of the people we serve to be changed.  And that happens through relationships.  That’s the vision. 


Philippians 3:10-13, 4:8-9

GROW:  This One Thing I Do

January 24, 2016

William Sloane Coffin, who was chaplain at Yale, "used to look around impatiently at the alumni returning for class reunions and mutter . . . ‘They look back on their student days and say, ‘Ah, bright college years!  Those were the best days of our lives.’  The trouble," Coffin concluded, "is they’re right."1  Coffin’s point, I think, is not that our teens and twenties, howver we spend them, shouldn’t be exciting and memorable.  His point is that throughout our years life should continue to grow richer and deeper and ever more precious. 

So it is with our love of God.  We talked last Sunday about our church’s mission and vision.  The enduring mission of Maple Grove is first to be an open community of Christians.  And we are!  We are friendly, tolerant, welcoming.  The next step, then, where we’re going with that mission, is to be invitational—to cultivate a culture of invitation to Christian community.  How will people know we’re an open community unless we say the magic words:  Come and see.

The mission statement goes on:  we are an open community of Christians who love God.  And again, we do.  And where we want to go with that mission, the next step is to grow.  We don’t want the best years of our faith to be five or ten or fifty years ago.  The vision is for all of us to commit to an ever-deepening relationship with God.

And so today we turn to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, where he says of his relationship with God:  "Not that I have already . . . reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own."  He goes on to write, "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."  Our love for God is never static and never exhausted, but there is always more, and more, and more of God to love.  We press on toward the goal.

Which means that we are forever leaving behind where we’ve been and who we’ve been, for the next step in our love of God.  In his commentary on Philippians, Fred Craddock points out Paul’s testimony in chapter 4 is not the standard one about "my life was worthless and I was wallowing in sin, but then I found Jesus and now I’ve seen the light."  What Paul says is more like, "My relationship with God was deep and meaningful, but I left all that behind, and now through Christ my love for God is deeper and more meaningful still."2  It’s easy to grow complacent in the spiritual life, to get stuck in a rut, to be content with the faith of our childhood (or our 20s . . . or our 70s).  But the vision is to grow, ever and always to fall deeper and deeper in love with God.

Now this spiritual growth takes place in lots of ways and lots of places—in your reading and personal devotions, through music and the arts, in counseling and friendships.  All of life is filled with the glory of God.  But it only makes sense that the church would be all about helping people grow in love of God.  In fact, one of the most influential church leadership books of recent years says that what a church is is a "straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth."3  Now I would want to say that a church is more than that—the church is also a center for feeding the hungry and comforting the grieving, the church is an outpost of social justice.  But if the church is not a "straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth," what is it? 

We have many of the components of such a process here at Maple Grove: 

  • A Disciple’s Path for new members, which focuses on prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.
  • Covenant Bible Study to get people acquainted with the Word
  • Strengths Finder to identify what you’re good at and what your passio is
  • The Wellbeing book study to help put God’s love at the center of every aspect of your life.
  • And Wellbeing "Connection Groups" for support in specific areas of life
  • Church-wide Lenten studies, including Unusual Healings starting next month, so we all grow together
  • We Spy God to keep your eyes open for where God is at work around you.
  • And I could go on and on.

So many of the components of a spiritual growth process are in place.  What we want to do now is to make these components more strategic.  How can you know where to get started growing spiritually?  When you’ve finished one class or experience, what’s next?  What are the opportunities beyond Maple Grove to spread your wings?  I want to line things up in a way that helps everyone grow from you are to the next place spiritually--as Paul put it: "to press on toward the goal."

I want to share with you today three insights about spiritual growth from Philippians 3 and 4. 

      1. According to Paul, spiritual growth is about both thinking and doing, it’s both cognitive and behavioral.  Here’s how Paul puts it:  "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." That’s the cognitive part. 

What you think about is what you’ll become; what you’re looking for is what you’ll tend to find.  There’s no surer way to be bitter and unforgiving than to think bitter thoughts and nurse a grudge.  And there’s no surer way to be kinder and calmer than to surround yourself with positive people and envision peace.  It’s the power of positive thinking—not that positive thinking always changes your circumstances.  But positive thinking changes who you are in the midst of those circumstances. 

But spiritual growth is about more than thinking—it’s also about doing.  Paul writes:  "Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you."  Find someone whose faith you respect, and do what they do.  If they volunteer at a food pantry, then you find a way to serve the poor.  If they do devotions and prayer every morning, you find a daily spiritual practice.  If they take a deep breath and stay calm in stressful situations, you take a deep breath and stay calm.  One way to be more spiritually mature is to act more spiritually mature.

So that’s one thing:  spiritual growth is about both thinking and doing.

      1. Consider the role of suffering in spiritual growth.  Paul writes:  "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings . . ."   It is out of sorrow and crisis that we are strengthened.  I don’t mean that God sends or causes suffering, only that suffering forces us to rely on deeper resources.  I talked with someone recently who was going through an almost unimaginably difficult experience.  But she told me, "I thought I was just broken, but it turns out I’ve been broken open."  That’s what I’m talking about.

There are at least a couple reasons why crises can be occasions for learning to love God more.  One is that crises force us to reevaluate what we believe.  When a loved one dies, when we struggle with depression, when prayers seem to go unanswered, we look at our beliefs and ask, "Do these still work for me?"  What works in our 20s may not work in our 50s, and our 80s may require a whole new perspective.  Suffering causes us to let go of ideas that no longer help us and find deeper truths.

But crises work on more than our ideas; they also work on our trust of God.  Sometimes it’s not until we simply have to that we give things to God, that we place ourselves and our loved ones in God’s hands.  One writer said that in a crisis, "you may feel, at least at first, that you are losing control of your life.  To that [he says], ‘Good for you.’"4  The more you learn to let God love you, the more God can love you.

    1. Finally, according to Paul spiritual growth is about focus, knowing what’s most important.  He says, "this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead."  This one thing I do.  You go deeper with God not by doing more things, but by doing one thing, the thing God has for you. 

In the movie City Slickers, Jack Palance plays a wise old cowboy on a dude ranch where city guys, like Billy Crystal, come to deal with their mid-life crises.  Palance says, "You all come out here about the same age.  Same problems.  Spend fifty weeks a year getting knots in your rope then . . . then you think two weeks up here will untie them for you.  None of you get it.  (Long pause.)  Do you know what the secret of life is?

Billy Crystal says, "No, what?"

"This," Palance says, holding up his finger.

"Your finger?"

"One thing.  Just one thing," Palace says.  "You stick to that and everything else don’t mean [nothing]."

Billy Crystal says, "That’s great, but what’s the one thing?"

"That," Palance says, "is what you’ve got to figure out."5

So what’s you one thing, my friends?  Above all else, what is God calling you to do and to be?  What will bring you greatest joy and let your light shine brightest?  Oh, your one thing may change over time.  For a while it may be raising your kids.  For a while it may be your prayer life, or forgiving others or caring for the needy.  But if you want to love God more each day, don’t do everything, do the one thing God is calling you to do right now.  "This one thing I do," Paul says.

Your richest, deepest love of God is still ahead of you.  The mission is to love God, but the vision, where we’re going with that is to grow, to commit to an ever-deepening relationship with God.  That is the one thing. 

1 Richard B. Hays, "Eyes on the Prize," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (March 11, 1992), 273.

2 Fred B. Craddock, Philippians, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 58

3 Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2006), 67.

4 Bob Buford, Half Time: Moving from Success to Significance (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 36.

5 Quoted in Buford, 80.



John 1:35-46

INVITE:  Come and See

January 17, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

The church leadership has been reviewing our mission and vision statements.  I know—I hear from folks who do this kind of thing at work and many would rather have a root canal than work on mission and vision statements.  But I’m not one of those people.  It is empowering, it unleashes our gifts to have clarity of mission and vision. 

The mission, in a few words, is your purpose, above all else what God has called you to do.  Maple Grove’s mission statement is fourteen words long—it’s on the front of the bulletin and many of you know it by heart.  Say it with me:  We are an open community of Christians who love God and serve our neighbors.  That’s our mission.

The vision, then, is where we’re going with that mission.  The vision is what it will look like when we faithfully live out our mission.  The mission pretty much stays the same year after year.  Ten years ago Maple Grove was an open community of Christians who love God and serve our neighbors, and years from now we’ll still be an open community of Christians who love God and serve our neighbors.  But the vision changes as circumstances change; as we achieve goals, we get to cast new ones.  The vision is what we most need to do right now to be faithful to our mission. 

The vision arises out of the mission.  The mission says: We are an open community of Christians . . .  Yes, we are.  We are friendly, tolerant, welcoming.  The next step, where we’re going, is to be invitational—to cultivate a culture of invitation to Christian community.  How will people know we’re an open community unless we invite them?  More on that in a minute.

The mission statement goes on:  Who love God.  Yes, we do.  And the vision is to always be growing in that love—to commit to an ever-deepening relationship with God.  More on that next Sunday. 

And the mission statement concludes:  and serve our neighbors.  Again, yes we do, with 75 ministry teams.  The vision, then, is for that service to be transformational, for it to change our lives and the lives of the people we serve.  More on that in two weeks.

The best Bible story about invitation is today’s Gospel reading from John 1.  Two of John’s disciples start following Jesus.  When Jesus sees them he asks, "What are you looking for?"  It’s a deep question:  In following Jesus, when you pray, in coming to church, in the secret places of your heart, what are you looking for?

They reply, "Rabbi, where are you staying?’’ It sounds like an odd response until your realize that the word "staying" can also be translated "to abide."  Not just "Stay with me, Jesus," but "Lord, with me abide."  They’re not asking Jesus what his address is.  They’re asking, "Jesus, what is your life like?  Where are you grounded?  Where is your heart’s home?"

"What are you looking for?" Jesus asks.

"Where are you abiding?" they ask in return.
And then Jesus says it:  "Come and see."  Come and see, he invited.  And they came, and they liked what they saw.

The next day Jesus called Philip to follow him.  Philip in turn found his friend Nathaniel and told him about Jesus.  Nathaniel was skeptical.  He asked, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  Philip didn’t argue with him or scold him for his prejudice.  He just said, "Come and see."  And Nathaniel came and saw, and he became a disciple too.  "Come and see" are the first and most important words for a culture of invitation.

For two years in a row, Administrative Council has set goals around invitation.  Last year we worked to make our events more invitational, and we did a good job with that.  This year the goal is more personal.  For all of us--you and me, personally--actually to invite people to Maple Grove.  Here’s the way it’s stated:  for everyone to invite at least one person to a church event in 2016.  It’s that simple, or perhaps, that hard.  In support of that goal, Administrative Council has formed a new Invitation Team, led by Cliff Wiltshire, to track our progress and equip and inspire us to invite.  Some ideas are:

  • Having Maple Grove members tell their stories of how someone invited them or how they in turn invited someone else
  • Offering a training event to give us confidence in talking about faith and church
  • Sharing ideas about various ways of making invitations—personal conversation, a hand-written note, Facebook, etc.
  • And of course surrounding all these efforts with prayer.

When a church makes it a goal to reach out and invite others, there are always objections on the one hand and barriers on the other.  For example, you’ll hear objections like this:  Before we go inviting other people to church, first we ought to take care of the people who are already here.  Or this:  Instead of inviting others, we ought to be focusing on fixing up the building, or having more Bible studies or, well, you fill in the blank.  The reason I know all these objections get made is that I have made them all myself!  I can answer those objections, of course, but that doesn’t stop me from making them.  If we focus only on caring for people who are already here, of course eventually we will be the best cared-for eight or ten people in town.  And if we focus only on fixing up the building, we’ll have the fanciest empty building in town.  And what about all those people out there who desperately need the support, the friendship, the encouragement, of this church and our God?  So yeah, I make those objections.  But deep inside I know we need to care for one another, tend to our building and invite others into the loving community we all long for.

So what are the barriers to inviting others?  What makes it hard for us1?

    1. For one thing, there are so many bad examples out there of how to invite people to faith.  We don’t want to come across as pushy or judgmental.  And the way not to come across as pushy or judgmental is . . . not to be pushy or judgmental.  Let’s take our cue from John 1.  Jesus doesn’t warn people what will happen if they don’t follow him—he just invites them to come and see what it’s like to be with him.  Philip doesn’t imply there’s anything wrong with Nathaniel—he just invites him to come and see what Jesus is like.  None of them try to persuade others to believe anything—the invitation is to an experience, a relationship.  "The first word" of invitation, David Bartlett says, "is not ‘The Bible says . . .’ but ‘Come and see.’"1


  1. Second, people are often afraid to talk about God and church for fear of offending someone or making a relationship uncomfortable.  I feel that myself.  But on the one hand, everything that matters involves some risk.  If you were in need of love and support, wouldn’t you hope someone would take the risk of reaching out to you?  But on the other hand, if you know someone is not ready to hear about God and church, pray and wait till they are ready.  And if you know you’re not the person they’ll listen to, pray and think about who they might listen to.  The goal is not confrontation but invitation.
  2. Finally, people don’t feel qualified to invite others.  People think, "How can I invite someone else to church?  I’ve only been here a few times myself.  or  I don’t have any Bible verses memorized.  or  I wouldn’t know how to answer their questions.  But an invitation is not a lecture.  You don’t have to be an expert--Philip had only just met Jesus when he invited Nathaniel.  It only takes three words—Come and see.

A pastor in North Carolina tells this story: "I was leaving the church one evening as the AA meeting was breaking up.  I noticed a man [in the parking lot] and introduced myself.  He sighed and told me how long he had intended to ‘get back to church.’  I invited him to worship, and he launched into the story of his life, a familiar string of regrets and loss and addiction.  As I was walking to my car, he called after me, ‘Did you mean what you said?’  ‘About what?’ I asked.  ‘Did you mean I could come to this church?’  Driving home," the pastor says, "it occurred to me that he felt he wasn’t [worthy] enough to come to church.

"I never saw him again," the pastor concludes.  "I wish my response to his question had been more direct.  I wish I had simply repeated the words of Christ.  I wish I had said, ‘Come and see.’"2

I expect this dynamic happens a lot.  People are wondering, do you really mean that I can come to this church--that my kid with special needs can come here?  Well, come and see.

Even though I’m not sure what I believe, or if I believe anything at all, I can still come to this church?  Come and see.

Even though my gender identity or my sexual orientation is judged by other churches, I will be welcome here?  Come and see. 

Even though my life is a wreck, even though I don’t know Jesus from Genghis Khan, I can come to this church?  All you’ve got to say is, Come and see.

In your bulletin is a card with some things to reflect on and write down.  First, think of someone who invited you to church, or to a support group, or to be part of a sports team, or anything that became important in your life.  Think about how glad you are that person took the time to invite you.

Second, think of one person you might consider inviting to Maple Grove.  You don’t have to promise to invite them or anything.  Just write down the name of one person you might, at the right time, think about inviting here.

And then write down just one sentence about each of these questions:

    • What difference does God/Jesus make in your life?
    • How has church been important to you?

I’m going to give you a few moments to write and reflect.  No one’s going to collect these.  They’re just to help you get started in this culture of invitation.

The vision is not just to welcome, but to invite.  And soon there will be new people all over this sanctuary.  And people will wonder, "How did all these people come to be here?"  And you know what the answer will be:  We invited them, of course.

And the invitation takes only three words.  Say them with me:  Come and see.  And again:  Come and see.  And one more time:  Come and see.

1 David L. Bartlett, "Come and See," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (January 2-9, 1991), 11.

2 Mark Ralls, "The Other ‘H’ Word," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (January 11, 2005), 16.


Wellbeing: Being at Home with God

John 15:4-9 and 10:10

Sunday January 10, 2016

When I met Charles, he was a man in his early 50s.  An engineer at the university.  He had Type 2 diabetes and was enrolled in a research study at my practice site.  I served as his coach - although I am not sure he really needed one.  His blood sugars were always exactly in the middle of his goal range.  And his blood pressure and cholesterol levels were always on target.  Accept for one autumn day in 2003.  We downloaded his blood sugar numbers for the past month from his meter and there was one single spike in his levels recorded on a Saturday evening.  He asked me, "Do you know when that was?  It was the night of the Wisconsin/Ohio State football game (which we lost).

Charles, like many of the people I know who have conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease, taught me there is more to living with chronic diseases than tracking numbers, more than knowing all the right things to do and not to do, and how a label like diabetes, heart disease or cancer can change the way you experience life.  They taught me that being healthy and being well are not necessarily the same thing and that we all can have wellbeing no matter what the circumstances.

Just like peace is much more than the absence of conflict, wellness is

much more than the absence of disease.  A person can be healthy –that

is be absent of disease – but they may not be well or have wellbeing. 

Likewise a person may not be healthy – that is they may suffer from

disease – but they may have wellbeing. 

According to Dr. Scott Morris 1, founder of the Church Health Center in Memphis,

 "Wellness embraces the joy of living,  then acts in a way that allows for thriving in happiness, love, and closeness to God."

We live in a world that tends to separate the care of our mind and body from the care of our souls. We seek healthcare to manage disease and we seek the church to nurture our faith.  But much of what impacts our wellbeing lies somewhere in between – things like our emotions, our relationships, our finances, our careers, the neighborhoods we live in.  And often we feel that neither the church nor our healthcare system acknowledges or embraces how important the integration of all aspects of our lives is on both our health and our wellbeing.

Our God-centered Wellbeing Team has wrestled with what an integrated model for God-centered Wellbeing would look like.  After much reflection on healthy living and wellbeing models that already exist, our team has drafted the model for God–centered Wellbeing on the front cover of your bulletin.   We see four overlapping wellbeing spheres: Personal, Relationships, Calling, and Community.

Our personal sphere is impacted by many things including our spiritual, emotional, physical, and financial wellbeing.  Each can separate us or bring us closer to God. Each can consume us or guide us to abundant living. 

The relationship sphere focuses on our relationships with God and all those around us - rather that be family or the cashier at the grocery store – and focuses on how all relationships have the power to influence our overall wellbeing.  Relationships shape our expectations, desires, and goals. This sphere focuses on having love in our lives. 

The Calling sphere looks at what we do each day. Studies show that our work has one of the highest impacts on our wellbeing.  We chose "calling" for this sphere since for many, our personal mission within or outside of our career may be where our wellbeing rests.  A child at play, a student in the classroom, people at work, and all those following their passion influence the world we live in. Think what that world would look like if that influence became more God-centered.

And we learn through the fourth sphere that we cannot be well unless the community in which we live is well.  That may mean safe streets for walking and playing, healthy food sources, and good drinking water or it may mean strong schools for every child and opportunities for work for every person and freedom from hate or it may simply mean a safe community of support in which each one of us can connect with at least one person to share, to grieve, and to celebrate together.

In the book Wellbeing: Five Essential Elements 2Tom Rath and Jim Harter share

"Wellbeing is about the combination of our love for what we do each day, the quality of our relationships, the security of our finances, the vibrancy of our physical health, and the pride we take in what we have contributed to our communities.  Most importantly, it’s about how these five elements interact." 

As part of their research they found that 66% of people are doing well in at least one of these areas with only 7% thriving in all.  Since they all interact or overlap with each other, we are limiting what we receive from our lives when we over emphasize one area and dismiss another.

Rath and Harter also state

"Although these elements are universal across faiths, cultures, and nationalities, people take different paths to increase their individual wellbeing.  For many people spirituality drives them in all these areas.  Their faith is the most important facet of their lives, and it is the foundation of their daily efforts."

That is the foundation – the center of our Wellbeing model. 

Jesus said "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me."……

 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love." Or as other translations say "remain or stay in my love". Or my favorite "make yourself at home in my love".

Jesus is telling us, we can’t bear fruit – we can’t be well – unless we abide in him.  Unless we make ourselves at home in his love.   The transforming love of God is what permeates all four spheres of our model and brings wellbeing to all aspects of our lives and to the lives of those around us. 

As Jesus said in John 10:10  "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."  Jesus brings healing and wholeness to our minds, bodies, spirits and relationships.  For Jesus, salvation is about this life as much as it is about eternal life.  It is about the power of grace in every corner of the broken and wounded places in our lives.  Salvation is about integrating God’s transforming love into our personal lives, our relationships, our calling and our communities.  It is about us all having wellbeing  in this life as well as the next.

So what are you looking for in 2016?  Where would you like to feel more at home with God?  Where are you seeking God-centered abundant living?  Is it in one of the four spheres on the wellbeing diagram? 

Or perhaps it is in finding a way to re-center and integrate God more fully into all aspects of your life. 

Or is it simply coming home to God.  Being present in each moment of God’s grace.  Letting go of all the "oughts and shoulds".  Removing the emotional clutter and just resting in the arms of His love.

In Matthew  Chapter 6 Jesus said "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on…. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well."  Jesus is telling us we do not need to face this world on our own.  Seeking God as our center – Making God our home – will bring the abundant life God planned for us.

I believe part of that plan is the opportunity to make human connections to walk with us on our journey.  When we asked you last November where Maple Grove and God had helped you make changes in your life during 2015, many of you answered -  through the support of  church friends and the acceptance they find in the Maple Grove family, through worship and study groups and by experiencing the power of prayer and the vastness of God’s love.   Companions on the journey are a reflection of God’s light on our lives.  We would like to think of Maple Grove as that safe, secure place where people come and feel they belong, feel they can make that holy connection.

In your bulletin our 2 covenant cards that are exactly the same.  One is for you to keep.  One is for you to bring forward at the end of the service today.  In a moment, you will have the opportunity to write on your cards.  This is your opportunity to commit to a covenant with God to seek more God-centered wellbeing in your life. 

And you may also check a box on the back of the card to be contacted to learn more about a human connection opportunity for your journey.  Some of these human connections meet as groups periodically to share.  Others gather around education.  Some are designed to connect people with similar experiences.  You may also suggest a new group or a new process.  We invite you to integrate relationship and belonging into your covenant.

The God-Centered Wellbeing Team has created a mission statement which is also on the front cover of your bulletin.

It states: We are committed to creating a faith community where together we support one another on our journeys toward God-centered wellbeing for all of God’s people.

As part of our commitment to God-centered wellbeing we want to

  • move beyond wellness towards wellbeing
  • move beyond isolating our faith towards integrating it into all aspects of our lives
  • move beyond our personal health towards the wellbeing and unity of our community

We invite you to join us on this journey.


  • Dust and Breath


    1. by Kendra G Hotz and Matthew T Mathews
  • Wellbeing:

Five Essential Elements


    1. Tom Rath and Jim Harter




Hebrews 10:19-25

Holding Fast

January 3, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a spiritual genius in the 1700s.  He was a practical theologian—a people’s theologian; he and his brother Charles invented a whole new kind of church music; and he started what today we call small-group ministry, bringing people together outside o worship for Bible study, prayer  and support—that’s where lives are changed.  Wesley realized that the spiritual life ebbs and flows, and that if we are not mindful, our relationship with God, like any relationship, grows strained and distant. 

One of the things Wesley did to counter that was to have annual Covenant Renewal Services.  Typically held around the New Year, this service was an opportunity for people to take stock of their life, to reflect on their relationship with God, and recommit themselves to following Jesus Christ. 

Centuries earlier, the writer of Hebrews in the New Testament was also a spiritual genius.  Though called an epistle (or letter), Hebrews is more like an extended sermon, a message of hope and encouragement to Christians grown weary of serving and suffering.  Now I’ll be the first to admit that there are things in Hebrews I find unhelpful.  For example, its emphasis on animal sacrifices doesn’t do much for us in the 21st century.  And its idea that God sends suffering to test our faith is not one I accept.  But the spiritual confidence of Hebrews and its description of Jesus as our friend and guide—those are words I need to hear.  "Therefore," Hebrews says, "lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees."  That’s what the Covenant Renewal Service is all about.

The original readers of Hebrews were worn down by persecution, not just unkind words or a lack of respect but actual violence against Christians.  We don’t experience that here, but it’s easy anywhere to grow weary in our faith.  In his commentary on Hebrews, Tom Long admits that we get tired both in worship and tired of worship.  It’s not only, he says, that the sermon may ramble on for a tad too long [though that has been known to happen]; . . . the weariness . . . is deeper, a jaded sense that nothing of real significance happens here.  movies, he says, have better drama; the pool club has people just as friendly; the park has a nicer view; and sleeping in on Sunday is more restful.  What’s more, he goes on, nobody at the movies or the park is going to hand you a pledge card or ask you to teach the junior high Sunday school class.1  It may not be these exact things that get to you.  But everybody gets tired of something in living out this Christian faith. 

The question is what to do about that.  Where does renewal come from?  Well, here are four things that Hebrews 10 suggests:

    1. First, we renew our faith together.  The scripture begins, "Therefore, my friends . . ."  But it might more accurately be translated "Therefore, my brothers and sisters."  I have to have my relationship with God and you have to have yours and we can’t do it for each another.  But neither do we have to do it alone.  When we isolate ourselves, that’s when faith burns out.  Faith is meant to be lived in community.
    2. Second our faith is renewed when we claim our baptism and feel deeply God’s mercy and forgiveness.  "Let us approach" God, Hebrews says, "with a true heart in full assurance."  "Sprinkled clean," it calls us. That God loves us fully no matter what is freeing and energizing.  I invite you to revel in God’s love and forgiveness today!
    3. Third, Hebrews says that renewal involves deeds of compassion and mercy to others--not because we have to prove ourselves or earn God’s love, but because we have been so blessed that we cannot help passing the blessings on.  We are most alive spiritually when we are serving others.
    4. And finally our faith is renewed, Hebrews says, when we "hold fast to the confession of our hope" in God.  In other words, the answer to spiritual apathy is not some new style worship or reorganizing the church, and the answer is not to knuckle down and try harder.  The answer is God--holding fast to the hope we have in God.2


That’s what Hebrews would have you do when your faith grows weary and you feel distant from God.  And what Wesley had people do was Covenant Renewal.  Covenant is one of the Bible’s primary words for our relationship with God.  God made a covenant with Noah never again to unleash the waters of chaos, and the sign was a rainbow.  God made a covenant with Abraham to give him countless descendants and some day the Promised Land, and the sign was circumcision.  God made a covenant with Moses—God would be their God and they were to keep the commandments.  And finally in Jesus, God made a new covenant with all people, a covenant of salvation and forgiveness, and the signs are baptism and Holy Communion.

The word covenant comes from an Assyrian word for "shackle," like handcuffs or chains.  It is a binding relationship, which can feel harsh and oppressive.  But what we find out, when our faith needs renewal, is that only in being bound to God are we truly free.  Only in being able to count on God being there for us no matter what, can we pick ourselves up and do the next thing.  In the words of the late David Lowes Watson, in renewing the covenant "we willingly agree to be bound in a moment of strength, so that in a moment of weakness we cannot be unbound."

So thanks to Hebrews and thanks to John Wesley, you’re in for a treat today!  Today is the opportunity to lift your drooping hands and strengthen the weak knees of your faith.  Today is the day to renew your relationship with God.  Hold fast to your hope, my friends, and let yourselves be bound to God here this morning so that when hard times come you will not and cannot be unbound.

1 Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 108.

2 For all of this, see Long, 3 and 104-8.              

3 David Lowes Watson, Disciple: Becoming Disciples Through Bible Study, video 34.                                                      


John 1:1-5

Light in the Darkness

Christmas Eve 2015 Maple Grove UMC

I was standing outside a restaurant one time waiting for a friend, when a guy came up to me and I heard him say, "Do you have the light?"

Hmmm, I thought, do I have the light?  I’m not sure.  Is that a philosophical question?  Was there something on the menu there called ‘the light?’  Was this some new slang phrase I didn’t know?  I was about to ask him what he meant, when I saw him pull out a cigarette, and I realized he hadn’t asked me if I had the light; he was just asking for a light. 

But it’s a great question:  Do you have the light?  Let me tell you a story. 

Yeas ago—before cell phones—two boys drove to a high school basketball game one cold January night in rural Kansas, where I grew up.  On their way, they encountered a detour on the state highway—bridge work, the sign said.  The detour took them by way of other state routes more than twenty miles out of their way.  So on the way home, they decided to make their own, hopefully much shorter way around that bridge.  They knew that roads in Kansas are laid out in a grid pattern, a road every mile on the mile.  So they ignored the detour signs and turned onto a side road just before the bridge, figuring to take the next road parallel to the highway, cut back over, and shave twenty minutes off the trip home.

What the boys hadn’t reckoned on was that meandering creek.  The bridge on that state highway was the only bridge over the creek for miles around.  Once off the highway, they were on an unlit gravel road that wound along the creek for mile after dark mile.  After fifteen or twenty minutes, they decided they should turn around and take the detour after all.  Which was when the car ran out of gas.

The boys knew enough to understand that at this hour, they would likely sit there all night without another car passing by on that God-forsaken road.  They dreaded the thought of walking all the way back to the highway where someone might find them—in this cold they may well be frostbitten by the time they got there.  But there was nothing else to do, so off they trudged, in the dark, in the cold, and not a little afraid.

At the first crossroads, though, one of them spotted light from a farm, it looked to be a half-mile or so away.  They debated.  What if no one’s home?  Then we’ve added another mile to get back to the highway.  But a light that close was too much to resist.  As they walked, the light loomed larger and brighter until it led them—no, not to Bethlehem, but it might as well have been, as far as they were concerned.

The old farmer and his wife were in bed, but came to the door.  She turned the furnace up to warm the boys and gave them sandwiches and cocoa, while he filled a five gallon can with gas and got the keys to his pickup.  On the drive back to their car, he asked, "Trying to make your own detour, were you?"

They mumbled, "Yes, sir."

"Ain’t no quicker way than just follow them signs," he said.  "You’re lucky we left the light on.  You’d have froze solid by the time you got back to the highway."  The old man wrote his phone number on a slip of paper, and handed it to them along with two quarter for the pay phone.  "Now you boys call your folks when you get to the Four Corners store," he said.  "Then call me, so’s I know you made it all right."

"But it’ll be midnight by then," they protested.

"Just call," he told them.  "We won’t sleep till you do anyhow."

In the darkness, a light is hope.  In the cold, a light is saving warmth.  And when you are lost and sore afraid, a light can be the difference between life and death.

To a people who sat in darkness, the prophet Isaiah dared to speak of light.  To a people dispersed by warfare, exiled to Babylon, broken of heart and weary of spirit, Isaiah said, "Arise, shine, for your light has come."  And as one writer put it, "If it happened once, it can happen again."1

And happen it did.  In introducing Jesus, John’s gospel says, "in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."  This word ‘shines’ is the first present tense verb in John’s gospel.2  The light of Christ is not something that shone once upon a time, and the light of Christ is not something that will shine some day in the future.  The light of Christ is shining, right now and always and forever, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

This does not mean, of course, that the darkness isn’t real.  Isaiah acknowledges the rod of the oppressor and garments rolled in blood, and John’s gospel was written under the brutal Roman occupation and in the context of a bitter division among believers.  And Jesus himself noted that some people prefer the darkness, so their evil deeds aren’t exposed" (John 3:20).  Neither are we naïve about darkness—we know all too well its power in our world.  Which is why we look and long for the light.  The poet Wendell Berry summed it up:  "It gets darker and darker," he says, "and then Jesus is born."3

The light of Christ of Christ means many things in our lives. 

  • The light of Christ helps us see the world through eyes of justice and love.  A rabbi asked his students, "How do we know that the night is over and the dawn is coming?"  The first student says, "When it is light enough to tell the difference between a dog and a sheep?"  The old rabbi shakes his head.  The second student says, "When you can distinguish between a grape vine and a sycamore tree?"  The old man shakes his head again.  Finally the rabbi says, "It is when you can look into the face of a stranger and see a member of your own family.  At that moment the dawn that is coming."4  For Christians, that is the light of Christ in our eyes.
  • The light of Christ shining in the darkness keeps our fears at bay. Right now our nation’s fears are focused on terrorism and mass shootings.  Those are serious things, to be sure—our hearts go out to all those affected by such atrocities.  But the truth is, there’s always something to be afraid of.  And fear drives our worst, our most divisive responses.  How many times does the Bible say, "Fear not!"  The darkness of fear is dispelled by the light of Christ.

"Darkness," wrote Martin Luther King, Jr., "cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.5  King was right, of course.  O come, light and love of Christ.

The light of Christ helps us see the world with eyes of justice and love.  The light of Christ dispels our fear and anxiety.  And finally, the light of Christ is something to gather around.  You know, a light in the darkness is almost irresistible.  In the middle of the night, someone turns the kitchen light on, and before long half the family is gathered there, sleepless but not alone.  And just try staying away from a bonfire in the darkness of a campsite.  We may not be able to generate our own light, but we can sure rally around it when we see it.

A friend of mine once compared Christians gathering around Jesus to moths fluttering around a porchlight.  It’s an interesting image but in my pessimistic way I said, "Yes, but those moths wind up dead the next day."  To which my friend replied, without skipping a beat, "Yes, but what a way to go!"  Fluttering, gathering, rejoicing around the light of Christ—what a way to go!.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

There are, I know, Christmas skeptics—people who come to church on Christmas Eve because it’s lovely, because it’s a tradition, or just because grandma makes them.  But the birth of God’s son to a virgin in a manger seems, well, far-fetched, a made-up story for the sentimental or irrational.  "Who knows," asks Frederick Buechner, "what the facts of Jesus’ birth actually were?  As for myself," he says, "the longer I live, the more inclined I am to believe in miracles. . .  But of course," he adds, "that is not the point, because the Gospel writers are not really interested primarily in the facts of the birth but in the significance, the meaning of that birth, just as the people who love us are not really interested primarily in the facts of our births but in what it meant to them when we were born and how for them the world was never the same again."  Could it be that the light of Christ started shining in just this way, with a virgin birth in a manger in Bethlehem?  You know, I want to say, "Sure, why not?"  And I encourage you to open your heart to that possibility.  But however it came about, the light is shining in the darkness.  So come and gather ‘round.

"How do we find out for ourselves," asks Buechner, "whether in this child born so long ago there really is the power to give us a new kind of life in which both suffering and joy are immeasurably deepened, a new kind of life in which little by little we begin to be able to love even our friends, at moments maybe even our enemies, maybe at last even ourselves, and God?"  Well, he says, "Adeste fidelis."  That is the only answer there is.  If you want to see if it’s really ture, O Come to the manger, all ye faithful.  And O come to the manger, all ye who would like to be faithful if only you knew how.  O come to the manger, all ye who walk in darkness and hunger for light.6  O come and gather ‘round its light.

So the lighting of our candles here this night is not just a ritual; it is an act of faith and hope, a defiance of the power of darkness, a gathering together ‘round the light of Christ.  When we light these candles from the light of Christ, we are saying to the darkness: "We beg to differ."7

For years now I’ve been looking for that smoker who spoke to me outside the restaurant.  And what I want to say is this:  "Yes, I have a light.  In fact, I have the light, the light of Christ which shines in the darkness and the darkness has not and will not overcome it."

O come, my friends.  O won’t you come and gather ‘round the light that is Christ.


1 Kathleen Norris, Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century (January 15, 2008), 23.

2 Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 23.

3 Quoted in Ann Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 39.

4 Quoted in Agnes W. Norfleet, "John 1:1-9," Interpretation (October 1997), 406.

5 Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (1963),, accessed 12/11/15.

6 Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 52-55

7 Quoted in Margaret Silf, 2011: A Book of Grace-Filled Days (Loyola Press, 2010).


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