Posted in Coffee, Easter, Easter People, Easter Sunrise Service, Ebenezer, Help Stone, Memorial, Resurrection, Uncategorized

Carrying our Ebenezers Into the World

MATTHEW 28:1-10

28 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Any time an angel appears to someone the first words out of their mouths are, “Do not be afraid.”  What a sight they must be!  All of the Gospel accounts put in different details to their particular accounts.  Some have two angels, some have one, they have different conversations, they have different ordering of things, but they all have one critical thing in common – an empty tomb.  The stone was rolled away.  He is Risen!  He is Risen Indeed!  In my thinking, the Gospels being so different is evidence they are true stories – to indicate the points of view and the particular audiences they were each writing on behalf.  The one we just read has an earthquake, an angel descending from heaven, and the stone rolled away by the angel.  What does the text say about the guards?  The guards “shook and became like dead men.” Ha!  Again, they must be a sight to behold!  The message the angel relayed to the women made them run “quickly with fear and great joy” as they ran to tell the disciples and Jesus, the Risen One, confirmed the angels message on their way.

What a turn of events!  You may have come to this Easter sunrise service bleary-eyed and numb.  There’s not enough coffee in the world to have me wake up like this every morning – mission trip flights and Easter sunrise is my limit.  Don’t you see the women at the tomb were the same way.  Unlike the disciples, except for John, they had watched the crucifixion.  They had lived and were eye witnesses to Good Friday.  They had mourned on Holy Saturday.  Their Savior, their light in the world, their Rabbi, was gone.  They were grieving and numb as they walked to the tomb that day to bring the funeral spices.  Bleary-eyed just like you and me this Easter sunrise service.  Did you know that some states are outlawing those roadside crosses and those flowers you see along the roadways?  We drive by and with a mere glance, we know that something happened here.

Joyce Keeler knows the pain of losing a loved one in a tragic automobile accident. Nearly 30 years ago, her son lost his life on a rural road in Delaware. For Joyce, driving by the site of the accident is still too painful. She avoids it, even all these years later.

Instead, Joyce goes to the Delaware Highway Memorial Garden at the Smyrna Rest Area near her home. Among the trees, shrubs and flowering plants, is a pathway lined with memorial bricks that bear the names of those who have lost their lives on the roads of Delaware. In the center of the garden is a pond with goldfish, frogs, water lilies and a gurgling waterfall. Tucked amid the busyness of nearby highways U.S. 13 and Delaware 1, it’s a peaceful place to remember and reflect. To honor the memory of her son, Joyce sits quietly near the brick that bears his name.

Patrick Bowers, whose 21-year-old son died in a crash in 2008, also frequents the Delaware Highway Memorial Garden. “It’s not morbid or gloomy, not like a feeling you can get at a cemetery,” he says. “It’s a garden like someone would do in their backyard.”

Delaware is one of several states providing alternatives to roadside memorials because traffic safety officers worry they are a dangerous distraction to drivers, and put those who maintain them in harm’s way. In most states, descansos, what they call the memorial sites, are illegal, but officials rarely enforce those laws. When we lived in Florida they used signs to mark the site of a crash. Others have adopted laws limiting the time a memorial is allowed to remain on the side of the road. Still others offer to plant memorial trees at the sites of fatal accidents.

Joyce Keeler much prefers the garden over the roadside memorial.  “Things like that get old, and the flowers fade,” she says. “But this will never go away.”

The very same instinct that drives people to the site of a crash may have carried Mary Magdalene, a close disciple of Jesus, and another Mary, identified a few verses earlier as the mother of James and Joseph, to the tomb early in the morning.

They came not with a handmade cross and flowers, but with oils and spices.

They came not to set up a roadside memorial, but to care for the body of the one they followed, the one who loved and accepted them when no one else did.

They came prepared to do the only thing they could think of to honor the memory of Jesus.

Another Mary, was grieving the loss of her son.  Who could know the agony she endured from Friday to Sunday morning? Even the care she received from the “beloved disciple,” John, her son’s best friend, could not alleviate the sadness and despair.  It’s not likely, that she ever went back to the place where he died. Not much chance she wanted to sit by a cross, like some mothers might do today. The cross on this hill was the instrument of her son’s most cruel and painful death. She’d been there to witness it. Where would she go to remember?

Did she want to erect a memorial?

Did she want some place she could visit and just think about her son?

Did she want to erect a pillar of stones in his memory in his hometown, Nazareth, or in Bethlehem where he was born?

Did she want to post a sign at the site of some of his most famous miracles?

Did she want to turn the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus into a shrine or museum in his honor?

Surely, the thought crossed her mind: “How can I remember my son? How can we all remember him?”

Her people, after all, had a strong tradition of building memorials or Ebenezer’s. If you pay attention to hymns in church, there is one Hebrew term you will remember singing. It’s in the second stanza of… “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The stanza reads:

Here I raise my Ebenezer,
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

“Ebenezer.” A Hebrew word.  Hear the word and your first thought is of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the most famous “Ebenezer” in all of literature: Ebenezer Scrooge.

The prophet Samuel took a stone, set it up and named it Ebenezer.   1 Samuel 7:12 memorably says: “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the LORD has helped us.'” Samuel set up a memorial stone. “Ebenezer” literally means “stone of help.” It was a stone set to commemorate the help the people of Israel perceived had been given them by God in defeating the Philistines when they got back the ark of the covenant. … The Scots Bible translator, James Moffatt, translates it literally: “Samuel took a stone … naming it Helpstone.”

What do all 4 Gospel accounts have in common?  An empty tomb!  Jesus is ALIVE!  Death has been defeated. Love wins.  Our God is the God of help. This is the refrain that breathes through the Bible. The Great God of the Universe, our God has gave us the greatest Ebenezer of all – Jesus – our Cornerstone, as it says in our Psalm this morning.  Our Cornerstone is the greatest Ebenezer that the world has ever known!  The one they thought was in the grave is instead on the move. He’s still calling them to follow him as he now calls to us to follow him.

May we do so.  May we be Resurrection people!  May we embody the love of Christ to all the world.  May we not be afraid to share our Ebenezer’s, the times that God’s helped us on our faith journeys and share them with the world.  I ask that you come as you feel led to get one of these stones, symbolizing the stone that was rolled away.   Symbolizing the Great Ebenezer that God sent us in Jesus, our Ultimate Help.  Symbolizing our Cornerstone in Christ.  I’ll also challenge you to take another stone.  Tell someone in the weeks ahead about Jesus.  Share a story of how he helped you.  Tell a story of how he saved you.  It may be awkward, you may stammer and stutter a bit, but what a blessing, and a Help you would be to someone who doesn’t know our Risen Savior.  We’re Easter people after all!  We are called to share this Good News of the empty tomb!  Jesus is Alive!

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Posted in Amazing Grace, Body of Christ, Communion, Community, Cross, Grace, Holy Week, Jesus, Palm Sunday, Resurrection, Sermon, Uncategorized

Palm Sunday – The One

Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV)

21 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd[b] spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

My mom gives Enoch and Evy all kinds of Christian books.  They have many “my first Bibles,” pre-school Bibles, and “big kids” Bibles.  We actually have two copies of My Very First Easter Story. 

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Oh, though it’s only 2 pages, Enoch and Evy filled in the details.  Evy said it was all about friendship.  Enoch said that it was a horse (some versions say this).  Evy said they had laid the palm branches and cloaks down because they didn’t want Jesus to walk in the mud.

You see, all of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) have this story.  They included different details but the same overarching story.

I have chosen to stick with the Palm Sunday text.  You see the lectionary texts for today give us the options of choosing the Palm text and the Passion text.  I normally do some mixture of the two, however, I wanted to be intentional about sticking to the text and journeying through this week with Jesus.

The hesitancy of pastors is that if people only attend on Sundays, you get the celebration of Palm Sunday back to back with the Alleluias of Easter.  High point.  Even higher point.

You miss why in just 5 days the same people that shouted “Hosanna” and waved palm branches, shouted “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  You miss Jesus ticking off the Pharisees in the temple when he turned over the tables and called them a brood of vipers.  You miss them plotting to kill him.  You miss Jesus’ teaching the disciples you have to be last to be first as they witnessed him washing their and their friends’ feet.  Their Rabbi that they had followed for three years, getting all of his radical dust on them, as he continually flipped the script.  Doing what is always least expected.  Who else would have people waving palm branches praising him and wanting to kill him less than a week later?

He was the One they had waited for.  He was the One whom the prophets foretold.  He is the One Herod was so afraid of that he slaughtered all of those innocent children.  He was the One who preached in his hometown and they said, “Who is this kid?  Is he Joseph’s boy?”  He was the One who called Peter, James and John just a bunch of fishermen and said they were the best of the best of the best as he asked them to be his disciples.  He was the One who cast out demons, healed the paralytic and the hemorrhaging woman, called Lazarus forth FROM THE GRAVE.  He was the One even the wind and the waves obeyed.  He was the One.  Not just Neo from the Matrix or Frodo from the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, but THE ONE.  And the people were PUMPED until … they realized he wasn’t a political or military conqueror.  He was not going to ride in on a float and wave and provide good sound bites.  He was not going to incite a revolt among people groups.  He was not going to be boxed in to a certain tradition.  He was not going to maintain the status quo or social norms.  He came to flip the script.  He came to set ALL people free.  He came to set us free from BOTH sin and death.  He came to set us free from all of the burdens and shackles of this world.

I spent the week talking to Donal Hook about salvation.  He was recounting what Harry said two weeks ago about Jesus wiping the slate clean and I said that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love and we’re all worthy, enough, and chosen.  He said he was like the man saying, “Help my unbelief!” I appreciated his honesty as I relate to the man and the words as well! Remember the story.  It’s immediately after the transfiguration and the disciples are in a tizzy.  In Mark 9:19-24 he says to the disciples, “19 “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.”  24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I believe; help my unbelief.  We had many discussions over the past week and a half.  Most of the time it boiled down to me saying, that’s what’s so amazing about grace!  We have faith that God’s grace is real and ever abundant to cover anything we throw at God. I brought up singing “Amazing Grace” on Sunday night when I visited him, but I was too embarrassed to sing in front of his family, some of whom I had just met, with my off-key voice, but  I ended up singing it on Tuesday with his son Michael and Michael’s wife Marlene and that became our theme song over the last couple of days.  That and Psalm 23.  I frequently have Psalm 23 rolling around in my head as I pray.  It epitomizes to me the fullness of life.  God making us lie down in green pastures, anointing our heads with oil, and as I said to Donal and praying with he and his family, Jesus is the One who walks with us even through the darkest valley of the shadow of death.  Don joined the great cloud of witnesses yesterday and he is at peace and at rest.

You skip right over that lonesome and dark valley when you go from the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday to the glory of Easter and Resurrection.  You don’t get the dark days in between of doubt, fear, frustration, anger.  You don’t get the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus asking God to take this cup from him.  You don’t see, hear, or feel his pain as he’s betrayed, denied, beaten, stripped, crucified.  You don’t get the agony and anguish or the simple humanity of it all, the muck and mire.  He was the Human One.  Not a super hero that could leap over buildings.  He took on the form of a baby, both fully divine and fully human.  He felt everything we feel and even when he was on that cross he was thinking of us as he says, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.

If you don’t journey towards the cross, you miss out on the struggle and the deep pain of what it means to have an Emmanuel – God with us – even on the darkest night of our souls.  To have a savior who suffers right along with us.  Who knows the full extent of our pain and then some…

I encourage you to read the stories this week and meditate on them.  I encourage you to walk this journey towards the cross.  On Thursday we’ll gather here with Isle of Palms UMC for a joint Maundy Thursday service where we’ll celebrate Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.  On Friday we’ll have our Good Friday Tenebrae service.  If you’ve never been to a Tenebrae service, I encourage you to do so.  The word “tenebrae” comes from the Latin meaning “darkness.” The Tenebrae is an ancient Christian Good Friday service that makes use of gradually diminishing light through the extinguishing of candles as scriptures are read of that encompass the entire fullness of Holy Week.  This increasing darkness symbolizes the approaching darkness of Jesus’ death and of the hopelessness in the world without God. The service concludes in darkness and worshipers then leave in silence to ponder the impact of Christ’s death and await the coming Resurrection.  As Bob Goff, author of Love Does says, “Darkness fell.   His friends scattered.  All hope seemed lost.  But heaven just started counting to three.”

I invite us to count to three together as a faith community as One body.  We rejoice with one another.  We weep with one another.  We share in the mountaintops and the darkest of the darkest valleys and that is why it’s so special to have shared in this Holy meal together these past Sundays of Lent.  We have gathered bread, sustenance, strength to face together whatever life throws at us.   When we feel like giving up, when we need a helping hand or an encouraging word, we are there for one another with Jesus ever in our midst.  We live, move and breathe in Christ, our Rabbi, our One with us.  The One who calls each of us worthy, enough, beloved by God.  The One we celebrate when we celebrate this Holy Sacrament of Communion….

Posted in Abide, cactus, Center, Centering, core, energy, katharos, limitations, New Life, roots, seek, spiritual broccoli, spiritual disciplines, stronger, True Vine, trust in God, Uncategorized

3 Simple Rules: Stay in Love with God

We continue today in our series on the “3 Simple Rules,” the guidelines for living the Christian life in such a way that we will actually be changed by God’s grace.  Remember the image we’ve been using: if our sin and spiritual failures are like stumbling and skinning our knees, then we aren’t interested just in a faith that’s like a million band-aids; we’re interested here in a faith that invites us to grow into our spiritual legs so that we fall down less in the first place, so that, by God’s grace, we mature into being able to walk and maybe even run with God. So, the last two weeks we’ve looked at what it means to “Do No Harm,” and then to “Do Good.” That brings us to rule #3 which we’re going to translate a little, but first let’s look at the original text from back in the day:

General Rule #3

“Thirdly: By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are:

  • The public worship of God.
  • The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded.
  • The Supper of the Lord.
  • Family and private prayer.
  • Searching the Scriptures.
  • Fasting or abstinence.

These are the General Rules of our societies; all of which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written Word, which is the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these we know his Spirit writes on truly awakened hearts. If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.”

So the third rule is to attend upon the ordinances of God or, you could say, to observe the spiritual disciplines that help you abide in God.  Bishop Ruben Job, who wrote the book that inspired this series, describes rule #3 this way: Stay in love with God. Stay in love with God. For John Wesley and the Methodists, a list like this, these sorts of things, were the tools of intimately relating to the Lord. They called them the “means of grace” because they’re gifts from God, for the people of God to apply, and God promises that when we put ourselves wholeheartedly into these things, we are guaranteed to meet God’s grace there. God is just waiting there, if only we come looking. So, the Methodists said, let’s go looking, weekly, even daily, through spiritual practice like this.  Seek God.

Psalm 105:4 says, “4Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually.”  If you have not struck up a conversation with God in a while, do it.  I watched the movie The Shack a couple of weeks ago with my parents and I love how the little girl calls God “Papa.”  I don’t think that that would come authentically out of my mouth, but I love the intimacy.  If you’ve not been active in your relationship, it’s going to be a little awkward at first.  There will be starting and stopping, but keep trying and practicing.  Spiritual disciplines are simply about practicing our relationship with God, cultivating it.  It may be like going a first date.  One where you have one of your friends call for what is an “emergency” when conversation breaks down.  Push through.  Persevere.  The conversation, the dance, the relationship IS worth it.  You may be thinking, “It’s easy for you, Pastor.  Sure!  But I don’t have time.  I don’t even know how to pray.  I don’t know see God and I don’t even know if I trust God.  God is an unfair and unjust God.  God doesn’t care about me.”

As Matthew 7:7-11, “‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

Seek – find.  Ask – it will be given.  Knock – door opened.  God is a good God.  God loves each of us with an abundant love.  There is NOTHING that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  As Harry said last week, Jesus wiped the slate clean of any of our wrong doing and we are stamped Child of God.

I think we place our human hang ups on God.  We think God’s a punishing God, keeping a record of wrongs.  We think God is a genie God, a wish fulfiller.  God cannot be boxed in.  God is Yahweh, the Great I Am.  In our Monday Small Group we are reading Bob Goff’s book Love Does and he writes, “I used to think God wouldn’t talk to me, but now I know I’m just selective with what I choose to hear.”  So clean out the ear wax and hear the words of God.  “I love you.  You are bought for a price.  You are fearfully and wonderfully made for a purpose.  Nothing will ever separate you from my love.”  And if you live knowing that?  Nothing can stop you from radiating God’s love to everyone you meet.

Now, the thing is, you may have a hard time connecting to “stay in love with God” with a list like this. They can feel like spiritual chores, or eating our spiritual broccoli, and your love relationship with God can feel like rules and regulations, or something wild and personal and free.   The thing about spiritual disciplines is that they depend on your perspective.  They can either leave us feeling words like, “Boring. Difficult. Unattainable. Guilt” and, in our minds, we relegate spiritual discipline and holiness to only the few, aged maternal or paternal saints who are one-in-a-million Christians, the exception to the rule. Or we look at them like getting to know a friend better or cultivating a relationship with the lover of our souls.  We need to rest in that knowledge and form a core and center in it.  If we lead from our cores, if we act out of our cores, if we live in the live and grace of God that emanates out of our pours…than we will truly take this world by storm and bring God’s kingdom to earth.  If we abide in the vine our core…

John 15:1-11

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he pruned to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Stay in love with God.  Abide in God’s love so that your joy may be complete.  If we keep our eyes and ears open, and our hearts, there’s a lot to this specific way of abiding, and if we’re brutally honest, some of the things that make it most special are the same things that, on occasion, make it really difficult.

First, not all of us at any given time like the idea of being pruned. Even metaphorically. In verses 2 and 3, Jesus describes how, with him, we’ll be pruned and cleansed, and it’s actually the same Greek verb both times, repeat after me: katharos. Katharos. A good English connection is catharsis. A catharsis is an expression of emotions that leaves us feeling deeply relieved. So, for instance, an ugly cry from time to time, whatever inspires it, that physically just cleans out your sinuses and emotionally unloads your burdens; that’s cathartic. Funerals are some of our biggest occasions for catharsis, to get everything out, and start to heal. This is the root of what Jesus says God the gardener does for us as branches in the vine: God prunes, gets the burdensome stuff out, purges the stunted growth, and leaves us whole by doing so. Great news, right?

Unfortunately, not all of us like to be pruned, we don’t always like self-denial, the idea of sacrificing things we’ve grown attached to. We look at God and say, “Can’t I just keep that one part of that one branch? I’ve gotten really comfortable with it. It’ll hurt if you remove that. Can’t I just send out a new branch in that direction, ‘cause I want to do that.” And pretty soon we’re a lot less like a fruit-bearing vine than a wild kudzu – more concerned with consuming in all directions than flowing with full life. Are you familiar with feeling that way? It’s why abiding is tough.

Second, not all of us at any given time really appreciate feeling tied down. Not only are parts of our lives open to pruning when we abide with Jesus, but he also says that we’re confined to the existence of branches. Now, again, sounds pretty great in a sense. Being intertwined with the Vine means having direction, having something to guide us. If you’ve ever ridden through a vineyard, these big gnarly stalks are usually carefully staked in, and supported on trellises, and there’s twine and gear everywhere to keep the branches properly placed to maximize production. It’s this big network of spider-web growth, orderly and efficient, and awesome. Even more, how awesome is it that Jesus is basically saying we get to live off his abundant, true life? Like, the very sap and richness and nutrients of God Almighty flows through the Vine directly into us. Really cool.

What some of us also hear in there is that abiding in the Vine means none of us gets to be a stand-alone plant. Nobody gets to be a towering trunk all on our own. We might start to fear that we won’t get to control our own destiny; or make our own decisions; or be creative and original. What if we won’t get to stand out from everyone else, or take credit for our own glory, or enjoy the spoils of OUR victories? Pretty soon we feel an itch to be, instead of a fruit-bearing vine all “tied up in knots,” a majestic oak that stands alone and knows no bounds. Are you familiar with any of that feeling?  It comes natural. It’s why abiding is tough.

Last, when it comes to abiding in the Vine, a more elusive truth is that not all of us always want to be fruitful.  We don’t always feel like it, don’t always think we’ve got it in us, don’t always appreciate the pressure of bearing fruit. But Jesus makes no bones: why does God prune?  What’s the end-goal of my life flowing through you? So that produce comes forth.  Not what you used to do.  Not the result you got 10 years ago.  I’m here living in you NOW.  Just open your eyes to the possibilities and don’t live in the used to’s of your past.  If we open our eyes to the unimaginable things God wants to do through us, then what can we not do?  What is our limitation? Again, it can sound like the glory of glories that the Lord of Heaven and Earth chooses to use humble old us to accomplish amazing, eternal, life-saving, earth-changing feats of power and love. But as soon as we admit that we have the capacity to bear much fruit for God, all of a sudden it makes me wonder: “So where is all the good fruit then? Why does it seem like I’m not seeing any? What, instead, am I wasting my time on selfishly? What other priorities are driving my life? What if I just don’t feel like dealing with other people sometimes, or putting myself out there, or going out on the limb (vine humor), or doing it all over again? What if I can just never believe that somebody like me could ever do anything to seriously contribute to what God’s doing?” And pretty soon, rather than abiding in a fruit-bearing vine I’d much rather be, say, a nice, self-contained little cactus. Unassuming, inwardly-focused, good to go unto my own survival, sure a little bit prickly but, hey, now God won’t need to worry about expecting anything from me. Are you familiar with any of those ideas, those feelings? Anybody else ever have a little cactus in’em? It’s why abiding is so tough.

What I’m saying is that, for everything that makes a relationship with Jesus sooo good, so unique and powerful and one-of-a-kind on earth, so life-giving and glorious, there’s something that rubs against our sinful nature. There’s a natural drawback, hesitation, and even a sense of “let me run in the opposite direction.” I think these are the same reasons why the spiritual disciplines, the means of grace, as beautiful, powerful, and life-giving as they are, are usually described as confining, boring, and impossible to attain: because they are the ways that we know how to abide, and abiding is tough for our human nature. We would sometimes rather do a thousand other things than these; we’d rather get to these things last if we have time; we’d rather choose all sorts of artificial substitutes over these things, in order to feel like we get to grow what we want to grow, the way we want to grow, as selfishly as we want to do it. Sometimes, the “disciplines” we have to stay in love with God just aren’t that attractive to the part of us that is rooted in the world, but there’s freedom in that as well. Bob Goff writes, “The cool thing about taking Jesus up on His offer [to abide in him] is that whatever controls you doesn’t anymore. People who used to be obsessed about becoming famous no longer care whether anybody knows their name. People who used to want power are willing to serve. People who used to chase money freely give it away. People who used to beg others for acceptance are now strong enough to give love. When we get our security from Christ, we no longer have to look for it in the world, and that’s a pretty good trade.”  That is a heck of a trade.  Not to get our value from the world.  Knowing and trusting God to give us the only value we need.

Y’all, as we close today, this passage isn’t supposed to be bad news. To the disciples’ ears, shortly before Jesus’ death, these words were meant to offer the hope of how they would get to remain in relationship with their beloved Lord and Master. Just listen to how Jesus wraps up in verse 11: I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” The same is true for us. We know that when we pray, when we worship publicly, when we study scripture, when we fast and abstain, we have a chance to meet God, to know God, to be in love with God, and to stay in love. In these practices, God’s pruning helps us slough of the dead things that are draining our life; growing in Christ our Vine means living into holy design; and bearing fruit means taking part in the Lord’s redeeming work. As one of the three simple rules, abiding through the spiritual disciplines, means we are going to work on this together.  The mighty redwood trees of California’s Sequoia National Park are the largest life-forms on Earth; yet it is a rare thing to see a redwood standing alone. This is because the roots of the Sequoia do not extend deep into the earth, as most tree roots do; they snake along just beneath the surface of the soil. So shallow are the redwood’s roots that, when a tree is young, it is easily toppled by the wind.

The redwoods that survive — and that grow to such astounding heights — are the ones whose roots intertwine with those of other trees, forming a great interwoven mass of support. The storms that bluster their way through the valleys of the Sierra Nevada can work no harm on those trees: for they stand strong and tall together, in community.  We will walk with each other spurring each other on to good works.  We will stand stronger together because we are going to create a firm foundation as we all seek to abide in Christ.  We are asking and seeking to become more faithful followers of Christ and the Spirit of Christ will abide in us as we abide in him.  Praise be to God.

 

Posted in 3 Simple Rules, God's love, Harm, John Wesley, Love, repentance, Self harm, Uncategorized, Wesley

3 Simple Rules: Do No Harm

Galatians 5:14-15

14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Today is part two in a 4-part series on the “Three Simple Rules” or the General Rules of the early Methodists. Remember the three rules as Reuben Job states:  Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God.  Last week we introduced the idea that Methodists became a driving force in 18th-century England in large part because this spiritual revival movement was anchored into a system of small groups. Remember what Fred Barnes said, editor of The New Republic, on how it affected England, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implication…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

That’s where our scripture comes in.  Love God and love neighbor.  5 simple words, harder than anything to live out.  How do we love God with all our souls, with all our hearts and with all our minds?  Who is our neighbor?  I think Wesley was getting at that by his hard core belief in personal piety – doing all you can to abide in God and grow in grace and knowledge.  Wesley didn’t believe you should leave your brain at the door.  He was an Oxford don.  He believed what Albert Outler called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral that you had to look at things with Scripture at the base along with Tradition, Reason, and Experience.  But only when he was crossing back over to England from America did he witness the Moravian’s assurance of their salvation while his boat was tossed to and fro on the waves.  You see we are all on a life-long faith journey and we grow in our love of God each and every day.  We live and move and breathe in the Spirit of God and nothing we can do can ever separate us from God’s love.

The next thing is Love of Neighbor.  That’s why Wesley not only believed in personal piety – you can’t just cloister yourself in your own little prayer closet or in an ivory tower.  Jesus calls us to be in the world but not of it.  First we have to be IN it to bring God’s kingdom to earth – love, peace, joy, hope.  Social holiness is aligning your self with the least of these and setting the captives free – whether it be from prisons of their own creation and choices or coming alongside them helping any way you can.

We learned last week the use of small groups reflected the unique theology of the Methodists and the needs of their time. After all, theirs was a time when science and economics, philosophy and many theologies, supported the idea that people are pretty hard-wired in their animal instincts. Some folks, they thought, just naturally have more virtue than others, and overall a “leopard really can’t change his spots.” In other words, for the most part you were either born a good egg or not. From that perspective, it was believed that church should try to deter sin, but more than that its function was to be the channel through which people could be forgiven after inevitably giving into temptation time after time. And, too many times, that forgiveness was only available to the special few who had access to church.

But into this reality came the Methodists, who believed that any sincere follower of Jesus could be a changed person – in terms of one’s decisions, priorities and even behaviors. John Wesley, upheld that Jesus’ death and resurrection weren’t just meant to keep us on this merry-go-round of sin and pardon. Instead, he taught that being born into a new creation means, by the ongoing work of the Spirit, we have the potential for sanctification. We can and should strive to grow in holiness, and try to approach a perfect love for God and neighbor in which our sin doesn’t have room to thrive anymore. Or, think of it this way. I put I don’t know how much Neosporin I put on Enoch’s cuts, itch relief cream on his poison ivy, and a massive amount of bandaids last night.  He is constantly scraped up ALL over the place.  I had my share of scrapes because I was a klutzy, gangly, tom boy.   My knees were always scraped.  My two brothers and I grew up when there were no digital cameras, so how did we take family pictures? We went to the local department store and there would be a kind of pop-up Olan Mills area there. And, as was always the case, one of us at least, two of us most times had skinned knees or bite marks.  Do you relate to that at all?  Did you spend childhood with skinned knees?

Imagine our faith lives like this: imagine that every time we sin and fail and fall short spiritually, it’s like we stumble and skin our knees, just like when we were kids.  John Wesley would say our faith doesn’t just provide an infinite supply of band-aids. Our faith invites us, by God’s grace, to grow into our legs, to learn to walk with God, and maybe to start falling down less in the first place. Do you hear the difference? It’s what blew people’s minds about the Methodist movement. No wonder the Methodist altar call wasn’t just “believe today and be saved” it was, “believe in the Lord, be saved, and join a group today to support you in Christian transformation.”

That’s important to us because these groups, dozens and dozens of them, put their theories to the test, over and over. It was not just a façade to ask people how they were and they would immediately say “fine” and you both would go on your way.  It was, “How well is it with your soul?”  This question became a crucible or incubator for finding out exactly what works in order for Christian disciples to help each other change, to grow together, and be stronger in the faith together.  The result is these three simple rules. Rule #1 is Do No Harm.  I want you to hear it as the time-tested Christian counsel of our spiritual mothers and fathers. Do. No. Harm.

Now, I’d love to know exactly how you receive that as a rule. “Do no harm.” We all have different thresholds for harm, don’t we? For some of us, harm might seem rare or remote, especially by comparison to other places and times. Many of us are stable, secure Americans and spanking our children isn’t even allowed, right? Where’s the harm? For others of us, all we see is harm. In several articles for The Atlantic, psychologist John Haidt proposes that, more and more in America, our only criteria for whether or not something is morally wrong is if harm is caused. That can work alright, but Haidt says it’s also the root of some big problems, like an over-sensitivity on our college campuses if you’re familiar with terms like “micro-aggressions” and “trigger warnings.” Haidt calls the trend “vindictive protectiveness” because, at some point, these efforts to avoid harm end up inflicting harm themselves. My point is that we need a place to start lest this simple rule doesn’t turn out so simple. Let’s read what Wesley said what doing harm was.  First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as:

  • The taking of the name of God in vain.
  • The profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by buying or selling.
  • Drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity.
  • Slaveholding; buying or selling slaves.
  • Fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing; the using many words in buying or selling.
  • The buying or selling goods that have not paid the duty.
  • The giving or taking things on usury—i.e., unlawful interest.
  • Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers.
  • Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.
  • Doing what we know is not for the glory of God, as:
  • The putting on of gold and costly apparel.
  • The taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus.
  • The singing those songs, or reading those books, which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God.
  • Softness and needless self-indulgence.
  • Laying up treasure upon earth.
  • Borrowing without a probability of paying; or taking up goods without a probability of paying for them.

I want you to notice something. They had an exhaustive way of defining harm. It’s robust, probably more than what you had in mind, and if you notice the majority of these fall under “such as.”  You are a free to write your own.  Some of them are more challenging than others.  Can I get a witness?   The “such as’s” are divided into two parts.  The sins or harm we do consciously and those we do unconsciously.   The sins of volition, the harm we cause consciously – making choices because “I want to” or think “I have to.” Like when I have an angry outburst with someone or look at someone lustfully or tell a little white lie or gossip about someone or I don’t pick up my litter. Conscious harm.  It’s just a small, little thing.  No one will know.  No one will know that it was me.  But even those little things do harm and sometimes they do a great deal of harm.  Then there’s unconscious harm which I inadvertently cause just by being naturally self-absorbed or by failing to see the impact of my decisions down the line. Like when I’m a wasteful steward of God’s resources, whether it be food, energy, water, while somewhere someone doesn’t have enough to live. You can argue that this isn’t exactly unconscious, because we all know good and well that our choices have impact, but nevertheless: when we don’t overtly mean to hurt anyone, unconscious harm.

You can see your harm through the lens of individual choices, the harm I personally inflict on myself, others, God’s heart and creation, all by myself. Individual harm. Do No Harm means you’re not hurting one of the least of these or yourself.  Self-harm is running just as rampant as harm to others.  You can take a long hard look at things in terms of the harm that we can only accomplish together. Corporate harm, through immoral group dynamics and institutional sin. The sins of society, of slavery, of economy. If we’re attentive to it, “Doing no harm” includes the conscious and unconscious, individual and corporate.  Reuben Job writes of harm, “Each of us knows of groups that are locked in conflict, sometimes over profound issues and sometimes over issues that are just plain silly. But the conflict is real, the divisions deep, and the consequences can often be devastating. If, however, all who are involved can agree to do no harm, the climate in which the conflict is going on is immediately changed. How is it changed? Well, if I am to do no harm, I can no longer gossip about the conflict. I can no longer speak disparagingly about those involved in the conflict. I can no longer manipulate the facts of the conflict. I can no longer diminish those who do not agree with me and must honor each as a child of God. I will guard my lips, my mind and my heart so that my language will not disparage, injure or wound another child of God. I must do no harm, even while I seek a common good.”

You may be thinking of the ways you do all sorts of harm.  There’s a reason that this is number one. The Methodists realized that in our fallen human state, harm is our natural language. After all, the good farmer in the parable is awfully direct with his servants. He doesn’t say, “Oh, in the midst of the beautiful, fruitful wheat that I’ve planted, another farmer with a different set of strategic interests planted an alternative species.” No, in reference to our sinful produce he calls a spade a spade, or rather a weed a weed, the lifeless stuff that’s hardly worth burning.  If we’re ever going to do no harm then first, we need to have the ability to be real with one another, to paint a distinct, outlined picture of the true state of our hearts.  In the Methodist groups, this happened through confession, and every single week the members knew that their first job was not to hold back but to speak their struggles out loud, before God and one another. It was the first step toward discerning the wheat versus the weed in their hearts, and it’s something we have got to find ways to do together. Holy, honest confession.  Doesn’t it help to say things out loud?  So they’re not rolling around in our heads filled with worry, guilt and fear.  Speaking it aloud casts out fear.  When we confess things aloud, we do so in humility acknowledging we don’t have it all together, we don’t have it all figured out.

What did the Methodists do other than confess each week? They prayed together.  They shared each other’s joys and struggles.  Life together. They set out to connect with one another’s hearts and with God’s heart. The next week they would report in and then hold each other accountable in mutual love when they failed or fell short.  God could speak through their human voices a word of encouragement, challenge, and forgiveness.  They could celebrate together, because they knew exactly what God was doing in their lives by God’s transforming grace.

God doesn’t leave us where we are.  God continues to mold us, shape us, and free us to live lives of transformation.  The old has gone.  The new has come.  Not to be good little Christian boys and girls, not to be sure we’ve stamped our passport for heaven, but to be disciples. To be followers of Jesus who even if they’ve got their knees scraped with sin, God’s grace has enough Neosporin in it to heal anew.

Which brings us to this meal we are sharing together every Sunday during Lent and the transformative power where if we confess the harm we have done to ourselves, to others and to God, God is faithful and just, and will cover a multitude of our sins.  Hear these words anew and afresh as I say them and we will sing our responses today as well as the Lord’s Prayer.

Posted in Community, Covenant, John Wesley, Koinonia, ordination, Personal Piety, Rabbi, Revolution, sanctification, small groups, Social Holiness, soul, Spiritual Awakening, Trinity, UMC, Uncategorized, Vulnerability, Wesley

A New Way

For the past 6 weeks, we have sat at the feet of our Rabbi Jesus.  We’ve learned he calls everyone who is willing to follow.  We have found freedom in the words from Matthew 11:28-30 (NRSV), 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  We have walked with our Rabbi Jesus and have gotten his resurrection dust all over us.  We heard a tremendous sermon basically flipping the script of life as we know it.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Then when the disciples began peppering him with questions we learned about loving our enemies, keeping our promises, and storing up not treasures on earth that moth and rust destroy, but instead storing up treasures in heaven.  These are all powerful lessons that it would take several lifetimes to learn and perfect, but we know we have hope in Christ alone to take our place, to teach us the way, the truth, and the life, to teach us how to do life together in community.

For the next 4 weeks up until Palm Sunday, we’re going to be studying Reuben Job’s Three Simple Rules:  A Wesleyan Way of Living.  It’s based upon John Wesley’s General Rules which are in our Book of Discipline.  The rules are do no harm, do good, and keep the ordinances of God or as Job says, “stay in love with God.”  “These simple rules then and now applied to everyone,” Job said. “No one was left out. No one was too good, too mean, too rich or too poor, too educated, too illiterate.”

Drawing parallels between Wesley’s time and the world today, Job says the feelings of disenfranchisement, doubt and fear are much the same.

“Our world is deeply divided, highly cynical about its leadership, greatly disappointed in its structures and systems that seem so flawed, broken and corrupt, broadly conflicted and gravely afraid of tomorrow.”

With so many hurting, frightened people Job says a radical change must take place. “There are two enormously encouraging truths for us to remember,” Job said. “One, God is with us. God continues to woo us, seek us out, love us, speak to us, enable us and lead us into the future. Second, it has been done before.”

Wesley’s three simple rules transformed women and men and started a movement that became a denomination and transformed a forming nation in North America.

“Today we also need a message that can be clearly understood by persons of every age, every educational and economic level, every condition and circumstance of life,” he said. “And today these three simple rules provide that message.”

Rewind back two thousand years ago to the two great commandments that our Rabbi gave us.

Mark 12:29-31

29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

From day one, Scripture tells us that God is the God of community. First, God is Trinity, this mysterious fellowship of three-persons-in-one. Second, as we hear in the opening pages of Genesis, God describes how we as human beings inherit that communal nature, saying, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” (Gen 1:26). No wonder when Adam finds himself without companionship in the garden, God recognizes “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Last, the entire history of God’s devoted followers, from the very first days until today, is one of covenant-making where the people are united together in intimate relationship with one another and with the Father, Son, and Spirit.

In Moses’ day, that meant a Law that largely focused on how to live in right relationship, and also how to mend those relationships when broken. The Law (and circumcision as a physical sign of initiation) meant that, for the first time, a “people of God” was born – not only of the chosen Hebrews but also of those along the way like Rahab and Ruth and so many others who chose God wholeheartedly. This continued through the centuries, despite periods of rebellion and exile on the part of God’s people, until Jesus’ day. That’s when Emmanuel showed us once again how personal and near God meant to be with us. He spent his entire precious life living among, eating with, and serving whomever he met, whether in crowds or in smaller intimate circles. He called us not just to believe in the idea of him that he would set the captives free and bring liberation to his people, but to follow him in close contact, as a Rabbi, to join the throngs of those following him. The result was a new covenant and a new understanding of “God’s people” as all those who put their faith in the Messiah. In the early church, this meant a powerful focus on living in koinonia or living in sacred community like family (Acts 2:43-47).

These first Christians were bound together not only by their faith but by its consequences. In the Empire of their day, whether one was a Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, Roman citizen or slave, making a Christian profession of faith became a grave risk. The earliest confessions that they made were statements as simple as, “Jesus is Lord.” But to say such a thing was tantamount to treason since the Emperor intended to be the ultimate ruler, savior, and object of worship throughout the world. Those three little words, if found out, could mean a total loss of one’s legal rights, loss of citizenship, forfeiture of property and assets, beating, torture, being sold into slavery, and even death. If one member of a household was identified as a Christian, then every member of the household could be liable to the same punishments. After all, in the Roman world the family unit was a single, legal unit, united together under the head of the household. If one person in the home was a practicing Christian it was assumed that the head of household was as well, and if the head of household was a practicing Christian then that would be true for all. In other words, early Christians had a deep understanding of shared fate, shared victory as well as shared suffering. But this underground movement saw massive growth because a person only joined it if they had a sincere desire, if they were ready to sacrifice all for Christ’s sake, and if they were ready to truly share life together.

Fast-forward more than a thousand years, and this same level of community was scarcely found in the Church. Over time, the Roman Catholic church eventually reached a pinnacle of corruption, so much so that the Reformation was sparked to revive the authentic Christian faith. It took on a unique form in England in particular, thanks to Henry VIII’s scandalous life (if you’ve seen any of pop culture’s recent depictions of the story, like The Tudors, then you know we won’t go into detail here). To summarize, King Henry continually wanted to marry a new woman, but the Roman Catholic leadership continually refused him an annulment or divorce. So what did he do? Henry declared himself King of the church in his own country, seized the Church’s property, and renamed it the “Church of England” or Anglican Church. So what? Well, what do you think are the drawbacks to having a single, nationalized church ruled by the King? Right. All those good “separation of church and state” things go out the window. The church becomes so embedded in school and politics and the economy that Christianity suddenly becomes a pretty mandatory part of society. There are benefits to that, sure. Kind of like growing up in the American South, there’s something to be said for a culture that revolves around church and raises its children in that environment. But there are serious downsides, too. Like having people filling the pews who have little or no conscious faith, who only participate because their parents make them or because everybody else is doing it or because they want to be a part of an exclusive club, and who are familiar enough with the Gospel that it’s lost its fresh appeal and who may have never stopped to wonder whether or not they actually believe in Jesus. They’ve been inoculated against catching a real case of faith, and they don’t even know it. That was the state of the Church of England.

By the 18th-century in England, it had become a place reserved for the affluent and well-to-do in society, who were expected to be present every Sunday and support the Anglican institution, but oftentimes with little or no personal Christian devotion. People were “in church” for a thousand reasons – to network for their businesses, to meet their future spouses or arrange advantageous marriages, to have a hearty covered-dish meal, to reserve their future plot in the cemetery – but few were necessarily “being church” as disciples of Christ. It makes perfect sense, then, that when two young brothers who had been raised in Anglicanism came of age, they decided it was time for some massive changes. John and Charles Wesley recognized that, starting on a personal level, it was time to reclaim “Scriptural holiness” that included the two key ingredients that the English were missing: first, the spiritual devotion of someone who believes fully in Jesus and, second, the kind of Christian service that would actually lift up the lives of those in need. While still ultimately college students, they started a group that became known mockingly as “Methodists” because they seemed too serious, too methodical, about their faith. They were disciplined to daily practices like journaling, fasting, prayer and Holy Communion. They dove into Scripture as a living, authoritative text. They went into the dark bowels of society, like debtors’ prison, not just to speak to the people but to know them and later to help remedy their real-world issues. Then, John Wesley began to preach.

By this time he was an officially-ordained Anglican priest but did what few other dared to do: he took to field-preaching. It meant going in person to the places where the poor, unchurched masses were found – literally in fields, at the shipyards, outside coal mines. Suddenly, the “least of these” heard the Gospel, and heard their own stories in it, and they repented by the hundreds then thousands. They came forward to be saved, and the response was overwhelming. Based on his own experience, John grouped the new converts into small groups, classes and bands, so that salvation wouldn’t be a simple one-time rebirth but rather the beginning to Christian sanctification; and the movement ballooned. Christians were tasting real community for the first time in ages, and it was lighting the spiritual landscape on fire. But that’s not all.

Wesley realized quickly that the people needed to learn how to properly be community together. His journals reveal that, early in the movement, everyone started to notice a problem. His small group leaders would visit the homes of their class members in order to take up the weekly collection, and find their fellow disciples in all manner of spiritual disarray. One man would come to the door stone-cold drunk before 9:00 in the morning. Another woman was found with an “overnight guest” who was a man other than her husband. Another home was torn by domestic violence. In another, the children weren’t being properly fed. In other words, although the masses were converting and joining Methodist groups, the members of the groups weren’t actually sharing life together. They were entertaining one another with superficiality; they were wearing spiritual masks while darker realities lurked behind closed doors. They weren’t confessing to one another, or holding each other accountable. In the end, the Wesleys reshaped the “rules” for their groups. They refocused their efforts on deep relationship and vulnerability. The new question that became the focal point for Methodists, and it was designed to be answered in total honesty every single meeting, was this: How is it with your soul? And if anyone tried to respond with anything like “Pretty good” or “Just fine,” it wasn’t going to fly.  He set up these societies to truly share life together.

Every year at Annual Conference individuals who have felt the call of God to ordained ministry whether that call is to be a deacon or an elder in the United Methodist Church and wishes to be in full membership in the Annual Conference stands up before the Executive Session of the Annual Conference, all the ordained clergy, and has these questions asked of him or her by the Bishop. 1. Have you faith in Christ? 2. Are you going on to perfection? 3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? 4. Are you earnestly striving after it? 5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work? 6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church? 7. Will you keep them? 8. Have you studied the doctrines o the United Methodist Church? 9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? 10. Will you preach and maintain them? 11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? 12. Do you approve our Church government and polity? 13. Will you support and maintain them? 14. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place? 15. Will you visit from house to house? 16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example? 17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God? 18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work? 19. Will you observe the following directions: a. Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. B. Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.

Do you know the General Rules of our church and will you keep them? Just three simple rules. It’s Wesley’s way of expressing the first and second commandment that are in Mark’s text for us today. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all our soul, with all your might, and your neighbor as yourself. Everything else is contained in these two. Rueben Job says that these rules have the power to change the world. “Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God” are ancient simple words seldom put to the test, but words when lived out in this life, could transform the whole earth. We really do live in a world of divisiveness that separates, disparages, disrespects, diminishes, and leaves us wounded and incomplete.

Can you imagine the outcomes of our communities if every United Methodist worldwide would live into these 3 simple rules? If young and old, rich and poor, powerful and weak and those of every theological persuasion in the church would live out these words, we would have a transformed culture, we would together, change the world. Wesley believed this in his day so much that he took this as the blueprint of his societies, fleshed it out, taught it, and expected every Methodist to practice it. I’ve been told that it was the Methodism influence of living out these simple rules that kept England from breaking out in civil war against each other in those turbulent times of the industrial revolution.

“An interesting article was written in a journal called The Public Interest by Roger Starr, a professor at City College in New York. He is a liberal, Jewish Democrat. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

Starr Concluded that there was only one other period in world history that matches the day in which we live. It was 18th century England. There was a problem of addiction – they had just discovered gin alcohol. Families were falling apart, Children were being abused. Domestic violence was rampant.
There were problems of pollution, crime, and violence – problems very much like our own.

When he discovered this, Roger Starr wanted to know what saved England, or brought them out of their situation. And would you believe? This liberal, Jewish, Democrat argues that the only thing that saved England was someone that he had not really heard much about – someone by the name of John Wesley who started a movement called Methodism.

“Now, I don’t even know any Methodists,” says Starr. “I don’t anything about them. But this Wesley started a movement that literally saved England. It was a movement that had profound social, economic, and political consequences and transformed and indeed saved that nation. Maybe what we need to do is to study those Methodists to find out how they did it, and to duplicate what they did back in the 18th century.”

About a month later, George Will wrote and editorial for The Washington Post. George Will is a conservative, Roman Catholic Republican. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

Will wrote, “I never thought I’d agree with anything Roger Starr has ever written. But you know, this liberal has actually got a point. It is that in the 18th century you have the German and French revolutions, and other revolutions around the world; but you don’t have an English Revolution. But they did, you see. It was called the ‘Methodist Revolution,’ because these Methodists turned their world upside down. Maybe what we need to do is to take Roger Starr seriously and look at what was the secret of those Methodists.”

Then he added, “I know this is going to sound strange for me, saying that we need some more Methodists to save the world; and I hate to end the column this way, but does anybody out there have a better idea?”

About a month later, Fred Barnes, editor of The New Republic, wrote an article. Fred Barnes is an evangelical Episcopalian moderate. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

He writes, “Can you believe this? We have George Will and Roger Starr agreeing on something. I can’t believe it! But the more you think about it, they are exactly right. But they forgot one thing. What they forgot was that basically the Methodist Movement was at heart, a spiritual awakening.”

Barnes continues, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implication…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

Even our witness to the redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus loses its authenticity and its power in the wake of so much division and hatred. Those who follow Jesus are asking, “is there not a better way to live with each other?” “Is there not a better way to practice our faith?” a way so simple that none are turned away because of its complexity, and all can practice it because of its simplicity.   These three simple rules are one of the ways we tap into that.  Are you willing to go on this journey of discovery of actually practicing what our Rabbi taught us in a framework that is easy to understand but we will spend a lifetime perfecting?

Posted in Ash Wednesday, fasting, Jesus, Prayer, Rabbi, repentance, Treasures, Uncategorized

At the Feet of the Rabbi – Matthew 6

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

 Concerning Almsgiving

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Prayer

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Fasting

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Treasures

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This is the Ash Wednesday text every lectionary year, probably because it talks about not being showy in one’s faith.  Lenten practices can sometimes be that way.  If you’re talking always about what you’re giving up or you’re talking about the day your fasting or you’re talking about the entire day of prayer, you’ve gotten your reward of those around you, those that you’re bragging to.  Our rabbi is teaching us to do things privately, not with pomp and circumstance.  He’s warning us of getting big heads playing I’m more religious than you are.

It’s not about that.  We don’t volunteer at the Lowcountry Orphan Relief or on work days in Nichols or Sellers or go to Ecuador to get pictures made, though it seems at times like we do, it’s because we want to give what we can or do what we can as we are able because that’s what Jesus calls us to do.  Simple as that.  The Message translation of the Bible seems to get at that idea.  Matthew chapter 6 is titled “The World is a Stage.”  Though I was an English major, I never fancied myself an actress.  Jesus wants us to be real and authentic in our faith.  He doesn’t want a full-fledged Broadway Show, an Oscar winning performance of Saint Narcie and yet the very action is not the thing that gets us into trouble, it’s being pious with the intention of looking down on others.  John Wesley said this, “The thing which is here forbidden, is not barely the doing good in the sight of men; this circumstance alone, that others see what we do, makes the action neither worse nor better; but the doing it before men, “to be seen of them,” with this view from this intention only.”

In his notes, Wesley writes, “In the foregoing chapter our Lord particularly described the nature of inward holiness. In this he describes that purity of intention without which none of our outward actions are holy. This chapter contains four parts, The right intention and manner of giving alms, ver.1 – 4. The right intention, manner, form, and prerequisites of prayer, ver.5 – 15. The right intention, and manner of fasting, ver.16 – 18. The necessity of a pure intention in all things, unmixed either with the desire of riches, or worldly care, and fear of want, ver.19 – 34.”  Let’s get to what our Rabbi was getting at.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

My grandfather was a man like that.  One time my grandmother let slip that he had paid for the carpet all throughout the Greeleyville UMC parsonage.  He helped lots of people, quietly and unobtrusively.

I’ll read you a story by Woody McKay, Jr. called “The Secret Benefactor.”

http://www.chickensoup.com/book-story/41639/the-secret-benefactor

Continuing in Chapter 6, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10     Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11     Give us this day our daily bread.
12     And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13     And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Our Rabbi Jesus teaches us how to pray and gives us a model or example. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes both the practice of a Rabbi teaching the disciples a prayer, and the language of this prayer, place Jesus in the context of others rabbis of his time.   “From the Talmudic parallels (Tosef., Ber. iii. 7; Ber. 16b-17a, 29b; Yer. Ber. iv. 7d) it may be learned that it was customary for prominent masters to recite brief prayers of their own in addition to the regular prayers.”  The Lord’s Prayer as it is now commonly referred to is the world’s most famous prayer of all time.  We would say it in the locker room before basketball games, we said it at the bedside of my grandfather after he died, and I remembered it even after my second brain surgery robbed me of my speech.  Its powerful words could be a whole sermon itself.

Madeleine L’Engle writes this about prayer.

In prayer the stilled voice learns
To hold its peace, to listen with the heart
To silence that is joy, is adoration.
The self is shattered, all words torn apart
In this strange patterned time of contemplation
That, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me
And then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Announcement in a church bulletin for a national Prayer and Fasting Conference: “The cost for attending the Fasting & Prayer Conference includes meals.”  Martha Moore-Keish, a Presbyterian minister, writes, “Our culture does not know what to do with Ash Wednesday. We do a pretty good job with the feasting right before Ash Wednesday, mind you — more and more people even outside of New Orleans celebrate Mardi Gras with beads and floats, and more and more people devour pancakes and waffles at Shrove Tuesday celebrations. Any excuse for a feast is welcome! But what to do with the depressingly titled Ash Wednesday? A few years ago I saw a restaurant sign that summed up our cultural uncertainty about this date on the Christian calendar: “Ash Wednesday Seafood Buffet: All You Can Eat!” …

The paradox of Ash Wednesday, and of Lent, is that we take on particular disciplines — fasting, prayer, service — in order to repent and conform ourselves more closely to the life and death of Christ, all the while recognizing that Christ has already come to us before we sought him. This is the paradox of the baptized life. We have been joined to Christ once, but we spend the rest of our lives trying to live into that union.

Turning to Christ means turning also to all our neighbors who suffer. According to Isaiah, fasting and praying that brings us to act on behalf of these neighbors is the fast that is acceptable to God.”

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Sister Wendy Beckett in The Mystery of Love: Saints in Art through the Centuries  writes, “When I was young, I longed to be a saint. What was I longing for? I think it was for certainty that my life had been, in the most profound sense, a “success” — that great and glorious success that is sanctity. We revere the saints. We imitate them. Theirs is the true and lasting glory. Very clearly, this desire is, unconsciously, as worldly as that of the writer who wants to write a masterpiece or the politician who yearns to be prime minister or president. None of these ambitions has the least to do with what Jesus preached — that lowliness, that love for last place, that readiness to die and be forgotten … . To be concerned with oneself in any way, to watch one’s growth in “holiness” or “prayer,” to be spiritually ambitious, all this Jesus earnestly sets his face against.”

We’re not holy because we know we store up crowns in heaven.  There is not a giant sticker chart for who says the longest prayers or who fasts the most.  We’re holy because Jesus is holy and he calls us to be holy, little by little, step by step.

There’s an old story about a man from the city who was out driving one day, in the country. The signs on the road weren’t very good, and he got lost. So he stopped at a farmhouse to ask directions. “Can you tell me how far it is to the town of Mill Pond?” he asked.

“Well,” said the old farmer, “the way you’re goin’ it’s about 24,996 miles. But if you turn around, it’s about four.”

And therein lies a lesson. If we want to follow our Rabbi we have to repent.  We have to turn around and see him for who he really is — our Rabbi, the example to follow, but more than that we learned last week in the Transfiguration that he is the Great God of the Universe come down in the form of a baby, our Emmanuel, wading through the muck and mire of our sin and reaching down into the mess of our lives to set our feet on solid ground.  Amen?  Our Rabbi Jesus, first proclaimed the Good News with the Beatitudes and that we are to be salt and light in the world and then expounded on the “real stuff,” when the rubber meets the road and when the ship hits the sand.  Real, practical life applications that are certainly not easy to practice but God gives us the grace, strength and courage to go out into the world and our very own hearts to practice what we preach, not in ostentatious ways, but with humility, standing our ground but shirking from the spotlight.  Wesley treated the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount and other passages as “covered promises.” That is, they are commands that we can obey because God provides the grace to empower us to fulfill what is required.  It’s God’s grace freely given.  As we go through the confession of Communion hear the words anew and afresh, search your hearts, see if anything has taken root there – bitterness, fear, anger, doubt, hatred, judgment –  but hear the rest of it as well.  Hear the Good News, “Christ died for us while we were sinners.  That proves God’s love for us.  In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.”  Then hear God, our Creator, Jesus, our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit’s mighty works in the Great Thanksgiving.  We’re going to practice Communion every Sunday of Lent.  I invite you to pray the words…

Posted in Ash Wednesday, Diamonds, Dust, Lent, Sermon, Uncategorized

God works wonders from dust…

As we face our own mortality, it can be scary…ominous even.  But I think we need it.   In this crazy, busy culture we need 40 days to contemplate, pray, and take a step out of the routine.  It is in Ash Wednesday that we are called upon to pause and reflect.  “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” Mary Oliver says about this life “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Ash Wednesday gives us the chance to question our priorities, our motivations, and our own sinfulness.  Dust to dust.

Here’s an old, cute story:

A little boy came home from Sunday school and went into his room to change his clothes. When he emerged he asked his mother, “Is it true we come from dust?”

“Yes, sweetie,” replied his mother, a knowledgeable and deeply religious woman. “That’s absolutely right.”

“Is it true that when we die we go back to the dust?”

“Yes, dear, that’s right. Why all these questions?”

The little boy ran into his room and came out all excited.

“Mom, I just looked under my bed and there’s someone either coming or going!”

It doesn’t have to be scary.  There’s beauty in that the great God of the universe breathed us into life and then because he defeated sin and death, they no longer bind us, even if when we return to dust.  We know that we’re going to return to dust sooner or later.  It’s how we live our lives that matters.  I like how Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran priest, explains Ash Wednesday, “If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and us not knowing what the distance is between the two, well then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and then held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. With these ashes, it is as though the water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the future to meet us here today. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God. Promises which outlast our piety, outlast our efforts in self-improvement, outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”  Promises that tell us if we run fast enough, we just might outrun death.  Say no to the fancy, shiny, new, plastic things of this world and hold tight to the true promises of God.

You see Lent is a time in which we’re seeing our own mortality clearly in our failings, in our sins, but that only points us still more to the One who never fails us and scatters our sins from the east to the west.  Ann Voskamp says this about  giving things up for Lent, “I can’t seem to follow through in giving up for Lent. Which makes me want to just give up Lent.  Which makes me question Who I am following.  Which may precisely be the point of Lent.”  If you’re following Jesus that is the only thing that matters.  Hear me again, if you’re following Jesus that’s the ONLY thing that matters.  If you put your trust in yourself, in your own goodness, or in your ability to exercise self-control than you’re bound for disappointment, however, Jesus will never disappoint.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to give up something or add spiritual practices like a daily quiet time or writing things that you are thankful for or fasting one day a week.  Those are all great additions.  Giving things up like chocolate, caffeine, or social media is meant to symbolize when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days.  Adding things is just what we need before Easter and maybe they will turn into habits.  Just by being intentional this Lenten season, you are practicing a “Holy Lent.”

Jo Ann Staebler in her book “Soul Fast,” says, “In the deep stillness of prayer my soul fasts.  Fasting, at its heart, is turning away from what keeps me from God.  Two things I must leave:  the walls I build around the space that was made to be God’s dwelling; the absurdities I keep in that space, so jealously hoarded.  Taking down the wall that protects the false self I have been building, all these years…risking exposure, emptiness, loneliness.  The fast is silence, ocean-deep and prolonged.  Shard by shard, the wall begins to fall.  Inch by inch, the space clears, and Love lights the shadows.  I come unprotected, and learn that God alone is safety.  I come unaccompanied, and find that Christ alone is Friend.  I come hungry, and receive the only food that satisfies.  In letting go is abundance.  In emptying I am filled.  This is not denial, but freedom.  Fast is feast.”

It doesn’t matter to me what you do, I just want you to be intentional in this Lenten ritual.  As most things in life, what you put into it, is what you’ll get out of it.  It’s only a tool, a ritual, to draw us closer to Jesus when *WE’RE* deep in the wilderness of life.

Hear these powerful words from the artist and poet, Jan Richardson, in her poem “Blessing the Dust,”

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

God can work wonders from dust.  God made you in your mother’s womb.  Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look up at your skies, at what your fingers made — the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place — what are human beings that you think about them . . . that you pay attention to them?”

God can do mighty things through us.  Our Rabbi Jesus can lead us to do some crazy, awesome things as we follow his teachings.  The Holy Spirit can fan the fire to make diamonds out of dust.  God can take your one, wild and precious life and work wonders out of it.

I will say while putting ashes on your forehead.

“God can work wonders with dust.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. Amen.”

 

  •  I read many commentaries, blogs, articles to gather these quotes including this one not directly quoted:  http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2015/2/18/ash-wednesday-meditation.