Worship Where You Are

The Worship Where You Are blog contains what we think of as "first drafts" of the sermon for each week.  They are prepared mid-week for people who might not be able to be present on Sunday morning but wish to still participate in the worship experience.  They contain scripture, the sermon text, a few questions to ponder and a closing prayer.  May they help you in your faith journey.

I Am a Praying Church Member

Romans 12

Living sacrifice and transformed lives

12 So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. 2 Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

Transformed relationships

3 Because of the grace that God gave me, I can say to each one of you: don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you. 4 We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function. 5 In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other. 6 We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. 7 If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. 8 If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful.

9 Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.

18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord.20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. 21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

We are probably all guilty at one point or another of uttering the parking lot prayer. “God, just give me a spot near the door please.” If we have not done that than we likely have fallen prone to the bargaining prayer. “God, if you just let me have this pony (insert object of desire here) then I will never miss church again.” As noble as we all probably like to think ourselves, we are guilty at one point or another as seeing God like a giant vending machine where we insert our prayers and offerings and expect something we want to drop out of the slot. This is human nature, but it is not what we are talking about when we talk about the need to be a praying church member.

In his book, “I Am a Church Member,” Thom Rainer focuses on the need for members of the church to pray for the pastor. He outlines the many struggles of being a pastor and he highlights the pressure a pastor is under. All of this serves as a reminder to the readers of the need for us all to be praying for our pastors. While I do not disagree with his arguments I think it would be a little self-serving of me to spend a whole sermon talking about why people should be praying for me. I also think it would be another way of limiting the power of prayer. When I think about praying church members, I don’t just think about them praying for me, but prayer at so many levels.

As we talked about getting ready for this worship service, the worship team started thinking about all the different accessories that we have in the church when it comes to prayer. There are Catholic rosaries and Protestant rosaries (I am a proud owner of a United Methodist one). We have prayer shawls and prayer blankets. Candles and “singing bowls” can be used to help us in our prayers and books of prayers abound from formal ones put out by denominations to books written by individuals reflecting their own prayer life. All of these things are tools that help us in the practice of praying.

When it comes to prayer there is the inward tendency to think of ourselves and our needs. Even as a pastor, I tend to be self-interested in my prayers. Not that my prayers are simply for me, but that they come from my own interests. I pray for church members and I pray for their friends or relatives because of their relationship to me. What I am not as good at is praying for people who are not connected to me or for people who might be considered my enemies. Granted, I do not really have a long list of enemies, but still, my prayers are rarely for them.

Last week I shared the JOY acronym as a way of helping us to be uplifting. I think it can also apply as we think about our prayer life. When we pray we should pray in the same order, Jesus, Others, Yourself. When we do that, I think we have the potential to turn our prayers from business transactions with God into much more of a relationship. By using this structure, it helps us to avoid the temptation to only turn to God about our needs and wants, but instead be listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit and thinking about the needs of others as much as ourselves.

It is good to start first in our prayers by talking about God. You can do this in a lot of ways. Often the Psalmists start by praising God. We do not do this because God is vain and needs to hear how awesome God is. We do it because it helps us remember how awesome God is. Praying first about Jesus can also be a form of surrender. We start by praying for what Jesus wants to happen in the world. We pray for the Holy Spirit to come into our lives, our families, our church, our community. We pray about what Jesus would want for us, for our leaders, for our nation. We can also start by taking some time to listen for what God wants to say. For prayer to be relational we need to let both sides have a say in the conversation.

Next, we pray for others. Again, I want to stress that in my mind this is more where we pray for our enemies or those we see as different than us. If you are born and raised Republican, pray for Democrats. If you are a peace-loving hippy, pray for members of the NRA. This is also a good time to pray for our leaders and I would argue the leaders of others. Does anyone not think that the world would be better if the Holy Spirit was stirring in the heart of Kim Jung-un (leader of North Korea)? When we pray for people other than ourselves, we also need to make sure that the prayer is still not about ourselves. For example, praying that your neighbor would stop playing his music so loud when you are trying to sleep is not really praying for your neighbor. Praying for others means praying for them as people, as children of God, as just as beloved and important as we are. When we pray for others first it reminds us of the fact that we are meant to live in community and be in relationship not just with God, but with God’s creation and God’s people.

Finally, it is important to pray for yourself. When Jesus gives the great commandment to love God and love neighbor, he likes it to love of self. If we do not love ourselves we will not have anything to give to others. It is good to pray for ourselves. I believe that when we start first with praying for God and then praying for others, by the time we get to ourselves the petty stuff will have gone away. It is hard to pray for God’s will to be done in the world, to pray for our leaders that they might be moved by the Holy Spirit, and then to also ask God for that pony we have always wanted. Part of the transformative power of prayer is how it opens up our hearts and minds to be in connection with God and it changes how we think of things.

“Devote yourself to prayer.” This is Paul’s charge to the Romans and to us. We need to be devoted to prayer. It is too easy to forget that prayer is one of things that makes the church so different from business or other non-profits. We believe that through prayer greater things can happen then we can imagine or understand. We pray because it puts us in touch with the divine and opens us up to seeing the world through God’s eyes. Prayer is a way of getting past ourselves and our own inward focus and instead seeing our part in the world. Prayer is how we remain a connected and vital part of the Body of Christ and it is how we live into our work as members of the church.

Questions to Ponder:

What is your preferred time for prayer and reflection?

When is a time you have tried praying for your enemies and what happened?

Who is someone in your life who you look to as a model of a praying church member?

When is a time that God answered your prayers and what happened?

Fourth Pledge (taken from “I Am a Church Member” and modified from singular to plural):

I am a church member.

I will pray for my pastors every day. I understand that our pastors’ work is never ending. Their days are filled with numerous demands that bring emotional highs and lows. They must deal with critics. They must be good spouses and parents. Because my pastor cannot do all things in their own power, I will pray for their strength and wisdom daily.

I am a Uplifting Church Member

Romans 12

Living sacrifice and transformed lives

12 So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. 2 Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

Transformed relationships

3 Because of the grace that God gave me, I can say to each one of you: don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you. 4 We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function. 5 In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other. 6 We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. 7 If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. 8 If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful.

9 Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.

18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord.20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. 21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

In the third chapter of “I am a Church Member,” Thom Rainer shares the results of a survey his organization did of churches. They found that inward-focused churches had some common behavior patterns to them: worship wars, prolonged minutia meetings, facility focus, program driven, inwardly focused budget, inordinate demands for pastoral care, attitudes of entitlement, greater concern about change than the gospel, anger and hostility, and evangelistic apathy. I would be lying if I did not say I think some of those hit a little close to home for us. While we do not exhibit all of those traits in our congregation, I perhaps see a little too much of us in them.

I wanted to start with this observation because I think it is really the bad news that we need to wrestle with. We are a more inwardly-focused congregation than we need to be and than we want to be. Our core values are to be centered in Christ, committed to each other, AND called to serve the world. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In both our mission and our values we see a preference to being outwardly focused and yet we struggle with it. In his book “Winning on Purpose,” John Edmund Kaiser remarks that this inward pull is like gravity. Any church if they are not careful will find itself drawn back to inward habits. There are two problems with this. The first is that some of those traits described by Thom Rainer are not really fun ones to have. The other problem is that the purpose of the church is not be inwardly focused, but instead to be focused on others. We are supposed to be making disciples and transforming the world.

The heart of the Christian faith is servant ministry. Rainer observes that the word servant appears 57 times in the New Testament and the term serve appears another 58 times. Not only that, but over and over in his teachings, Jesus emphasizes the importance of servant ministry. We hear it in Matthew 25 when he chastises those people who did not serve people in need. We hear it when he chastises the disciples for wanting to be the greatest and reminding them that they must first become a servant. We see it in his own death, where he lays down his very life in service that we might be saved. Christianity is rooted in the idea of letting go of ourselves, dying to ourselves, so that we might have new life in Christ.

As I thought about how to frame this chapter I chose to focus on a more positive word, uplifting, to frame our thinking. Servant ministry is all about being uplifting of others. We lift people up when we offer them milk through the milk program. We lift them up when we help out with hurricane relief. We lift our children up when we teach them about the Bible and the story of God’s unending love for them. Our whole ministry is about how we lift people up in this world and how we lift them up into the next world as well.

My undergraduate school, Beloit College, gives out an award every year at graduation. It is called the Blue Skies award. It was started by a college president who wanted to do more than just recognize good scholars at graduation. The Blue Skies award is given to someone who exemplifies “good cheer, a good-humored perspective, and saving grace in the conduct of daily life on campus.” I remember very well the person who won the award the year before I graduated. I do not really know her, but her smile and her positive outlook was so infectious that despite my only occasional interactions with her, fifteen years ago, I can still remember the joy she brought with her to campus. Out of curiosity I looked up who won the award in my year and as soon as I saw the name I remember who it was. Muyiawe had such a great personality and was so friendly and kind. He brought the cheer, humor, and even that sense of grace with him into any room.

I lift up is example from my past up because I think it is a reminder of what it is to be an uplifting person. An uplifting person is a servant, who naturally thinks about others and who cares about those around them. An uplifting person reaches out to help people in need and creates a sense of welcome whether it is through their words or their actions. When we talk about being an uplifting church member this is what we mean.

Becky Fordyce shared with me a really cool acronym that she was teaching our youth. JOY: Jesus, others, yourself. It is a reminder to think first of Jesus, then of others, then of yourself. The fact is, if you follow this acronym I think you really will find joy. It is a great way of thinking about what servant ministry looks like.

I have not said a lot about Romans 12, and yet I think this idea of being uplifting and being a servant is interwoven throughout the text. It comes in the reminders to love each other, to serve each other, to be on fire for the Lord. It also comes in Paul’s reminder about vengeance. Being a servant becomes really powerful when we practice it not on our friends, but on our enemies. When we extend love when someone else is expecting hatred, that is when it becomes truly transformative. People expect to be treated well by their friends and family. People do not expect to be treated well by their enemies. How great is someone’s shock when rather than lashing out at them in return, you instead extend a hand of peace and love.

Being an uplifting church member means finding ways to respond to others first and foremost with grace and peace. Paul reminds us that evil can be defeated when we are good. It is through our love and our kindness that we can change the world. We do it when we reach out in missions. We do it when we support each other. We do it when we lift each other up as members together in the Body of Christ.

 

Questions to Ponder:

What does “being uplifting” mean to you? What words, images, or people come to mind when you think of it?

What are things we do as a church or society to celebrate people who are uplifting or who are good servants?

When is a time you have responded with love and kindness instead of hatred or revenge when you have been wronged or hurt?

What can you do to maintain an attitude of JOY (Jesus, Others, Yourself) in your daily life?

Second Pledge (taken from “I am a Church Member”):

I am a church member.

I will not let my church be about my preferences and desires. That is self-serving. I am a member in this church to serve others and to serve Christ. My savior went to the cross for me. I can deal with any inconveniences and matters that aren’t my preference or style.

I am a Unifying Church Member

Romans 12

Living sacrifice and transformed lives

12 So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. 2 Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

Transformed relationships

3 Because of the grace that God gave me, I can say to each one of you: don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you. 4 We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function. 5 In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other. 6 We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. 7 If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. 8 If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful.

9 Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.

18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord.20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. 21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

It could easily be said that whenever two or three are gathered, there will be four opinions present. In 2012, legislation was introduced at General Conference, the world-wide body of The United Methodist Church. The purpose of the legislation was for United Methodists to agree that we are not of one mind when it comes to the issue of human sexuality. The legislation failed. We could not agree that we were NOT of one mind. Least we think that this is all the fault of the church, we only have to look at the current debates in culture and the recent debates about the NFL, healthcare, and so many other issues to be reminded that this is just an incident of the church reflecting the larger culture. We have a hard time right now as a country coming to an agreement on anything.

If you are like me you are probably tired of it. I know that there are people who get energy from conflict and debate and arguments. There are even times that I would probably consider myself one of those people. I love a good healthy discussion. Still, I am tired. I suspect that a lot of us our tired. We are tired of having to be drawn into sides on every issue that comes up. In the end, I think most of us just want to find a way to get along.

The 12th chapter of Romans is a great text for us to be studying in light of these challenges. Over in over in this passage, Paul exhorts the Romans to find ways to set aside their disagreements and remember that “We are one body in Christ and individually we belong to each other.” He also reminds them, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is.” Paul is telling them, and he is telling us, that it does not have to be this way. While the world wants to fight and disagree and pulls a part, what God wants is for us to be drawn to each other. We are meant to love our neighbors just as much as we love God and we love ourselves. It is through this love that we are able to be the one body in Christ that we meant to be.

In his book, “I am a Church Member,” Thom Rainer highlights the importance of being one in the body of Christ. He uses the language of unity. As church members, we must strive for unity as a community. He lifts up the church at Ephesus as an example of a church that Paul saw exhibiting this trait because they loved not only Christ, but all their fellow church members. Like a great team, a church is so much more powerful when everyone is working together.

Working together sounds great, but the reality is that it is hard. As I highlighted at the beginning, we all know that once you start getting more than one person, you start seeing differences of opinion. Working for unity means that each of us must find ways to set aside our own values and desires and work for the needs of others. Unity occurs when we are all able to see and understand things from other people’s perspectives. It happens when we put what is best for the group a head of the personal desires of any one person.

In my own experiences I have seen how hard unity can be. I have been a part of several groups that needed to achieve consensus on something and seen how hard that can be. Achieving healthy consensus comes when everyone is able to express their own views and opinions but also able to set them aside. When I was in student government in college, I was a part of a group that had to select one person to represent us. There were three of us that were all sure that we would be the best person to do this. We went in circles for literally hours debating how to resolve this. None of us was ready to make a move towards consensus and unity. In the end, the other two people both were able to express that if they were not going to be the person, than I would be the best person. We achieved consensus when people were able to put aside what they wanted and think about what might be best in general. I think it is only fair to note that in hindsight I recognize that I was not the best person to be chosen from that group. Perhaps if I had been better at the time of setting aside my own views the group would have made a better choice.

Making a move towards unity is hard. It requires trust in the group. By being willing to set aside your own preferences you are trusting that others will do the same thing. We have all been a part of that difficult conversation about where we should go to eat. Usually in the groups I am a part of, we are arguing because none of us want to decide. Imagine, however there was one person who always wanted to go to the same restaurant. If every time you gave in it would get old really fast. True, healthy unity requires a trust that everyone will move toward that middle and that everyone will work to set aside their own preferences and work for something better.

In Game Theory, there is something called a zero-sum game. Essentially, it means that there are winners and losers and the amount people win by is balanced out by the amount others lose by. Monopoly is an example of a zero-sum game, so is football. In fact, a lot of traditional games and sports are that way, so much so that we can forget there are other ways of doing things. There has been a trend recently in board games to create cooperative games. These are games in which all players work collectively and win or loss together. Instead of competing against each other, the players are competing against some outside element that provides a threat of loss. An example of one is Pandemic, where players work together to save the world from the spread of virulent diseases. You win when the diseases are all cured and you lose if the diseases get too out of hand. How we think about unity in the church and unity in the world is really influenced by whether we see ourselves in a zero-sum game, where your gain must come at the expense of my loss, or whether we see ourselves as cooperatively working together.

I believe that we as Christians are called to live like we are all in this together. I believe that we are not a part of some zero-sum game where there can be only one winner. Instead, I think we are all on the same team, God’s team, and we are all working for the same thing, to build the kingdom of God. We might see it differently, we might talk about it differently, and we might love different aspects of God’s kingdom than the people around us, but that does not mean we do not all love and want the same thing.

Bishop John Hopkins, a former Bishop of Minnesota, shared some observations in the church during his retirement sermon. He remarked about the fact that in the church we can seem to get worked up about the simplest of things, like the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. No one cares that much about the color of carpet at Target or the color of the tiles at Cub. Why do we fight about the colors at church? We fight because we care. We fight because that carpet is not just any carpet, it is the carpet in the church and it is a part of something sacred. It represents how we feel about God.

The key to being a unifying church member is to remember that the source of our frustration is also our greatest hope. We fight and disagree so passionately in the church because of how much we care about the church and how much we care about God. This is not something trivial like a football team or what store we like to shop at. Church is sacred and it touches at our very heart, our very soul. To be a unifying church member we need to remember how much these things mean to us, and also to remember that at our core we all want the same thing, we all want God’s will to be done.

Questions to Ponder:

How do you react when people around you disagree about something?

When is a time when you have set aside your own preferences for “the good of the team?”

What can you do to work for unity in the church?

What hurts are you still caring from relationships in the church and how can you work to forgive them? Who might have been hurt by you that you need to ask forgiveness of?

Second Pledge (taken from “I am a Church Member”):

I am a church member.

I will seek to be a source of unity in my church. I know there are no perfect pastors, staff or other church members. But neither am I. I will not be a source of gossip or dissension. Once of the greatest contributions I can make is to do all I can in God’s power to help keep the church in unity of the sake of the gospel.

I am a Functioning Church Member

Romans 12

Living sacrifice and transformed lives

12 So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. 2 Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

Transformed relationships

3 Because of the grace that God gave me, I can say to each one of you: don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you. 4 We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function. 5 In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other. 6 We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. 7 If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. 8 If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful.

9 Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.

18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord.20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. 21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

For the next six weeks, we are going to be studying two different texts. We will be looking at the 12th chapter of Romans and reading it alongside the book “I am a Church Member” by Thom Rainer. We will be doing so in an effort to help us better understand how we are all a part of the Body of Christ and how we can create the kind of church community that God calls us to be. It is a part of our congregational effort to be a community of love and celebration. We are looking to Paul’s wisdom and teachings to help us be better disciples of Christ.

When Paul is writing to the Romans, Paul is speaking to a church he has neither founded nor visited. He writes, not in response to their context but instead out of his own context. Paul is writing after having visited the church in Corinth in the hopes that his travels will take him to Rome soon. His writing from Corinth is significant in my mind because it helps us frame what he is thinking about. The church in Corinth is one that Paul founded but then returned to after it had numerous struggles with internal fighting. When Paul writes to the Romans it is hard to imagine he does not have the struggles of Corinth in his mind. In fact, we see some of the same echoes in Romans as we do in 1 Corinthians. It is in 1 Corinthians that we are told that each of us is a member of the body and like the eye, the ear, or the hand we all have important roles to play. Paul uses similar language in Romans 12 when he talks about the different gifts that we bring to the Body of Christ.

Sometimes translating the wisdom of scriptures across cultures can be hard. It is important to remember the context that Paul is writing in and to not bring all our 21st century American perspectives to the situation. We live in a society that believes in social mobility and a personal sense of identity. I am a pastor because I believe I am called to be a pastor. My brother is a lawyer because he believes that he is called to be a lawyer. While the jobs of our parents probably informed our decisions, they did not define them. While the social status of my parents was a benefit in becoming who I wanted to become it also did not dictate it. This was not always the case. It used to be that you largely took the job your parents had. If they were farmers, you were a farmer, if they were a miner, you worked the mines, and if they were a potter than you were a potter. We still see that in the legacy of last names such as Miller or Smith, a reminder that people were defined for generations by their profession.

When Paul writes to the church in Rome, he is in writing to a people who are defined by their roles in a way that we are not. People were largely born into their positions and given rights and privileges based on those roles. If you were lucky to be born a Roman citizen, you were better than those who were not citizens. If your position was considered an honorable one, you were treated with respect. If you held the job of a commoner than you were not given the same rights and respect. When Paul talks about gifts, in many ways he is challenging this notion. He is telling people something they have not always heard. He is saying that they are valuable. He is saying that all gifts, not just some gifts are worthy of honor and praise in the Body of Christ.

Do we hear that message enough today? We all have gifts and we are all valued. Each of us an important part of the Body of Christ. Too often I think that message gets lost. We focus our attention on only certainly gifts and value only certain people. We give credit to doctors but forget about the nurses that help them. We look at the heads of companies and laud them for their success but neglect the hard work of those who are employed by them. We celebrate people for being fast, smart, rich or beautiful, but not always for being sensitive, caring, accepting, or wise. Even in the church we fall into this trap. We can be really good at celebrating some gifts but forget about others. God needs people to preach and people to pray, people to speak and people to listen, people to cook and people to clean. We all have gifts and we are all valued.

What does that mean for us as members of the Body of Christ? It means that we need to use our gifts to do God’s work. Last week we talked about how each of us has been called by God. We all have been gifted in different ways and the Body of Christ will only function if we all use our gifts. When we hold back our talents then the church is limited in its actions and the Body will stumble. Sometimes the gifts we give can be as simple as showing up. Not all our gifts are glamorous or impressive, but they are all important.

What gifts do you have that God wants you to use as a part of the Body of Christ? If our church is to succeed in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then we all need to be using our gifts together. In “I am a Church Member,” Thom Rainer insists that we all need to be functioning church members. Membership in the church is not about privileges but instead about responsibilities. We have a responsibility to do our part in the Body of Christ. Membership in the church is not about what we get, but instead about what we are able to give. What Paul reminds us in Romans is that we all have something to give. Some of us have been gifted with the ability to preach, if so we need to preach. Some of us have been gifted with the ability to pray, if so we need to pray. Some of us have the gift of time, the gift of money, the gift of ideas, the gift of hard-work. Whatever gifts we have, we need to use them in order to build God’s kingdom. In order for the Body of Christ to work, we all need to be functioning members.

Questions to Ponder:

What does it mean to be a church member?

What responsibilities should be expected of church members?

What does our church do to celebrate the diverse gifts that we bring to the Body of Christ?

What could it do to celebrate those gifts?

How do you use your gifts as a member of the Body of Christ?

Pledge (taken from “I am a Church Member”):

I am a church member.

I like the metaphor of membership. It’s not membership in a civic organization or a country club. It’s the kind of membership given to us in 1 Corinthians 12: “Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

Because I am a member of the body of Christ, I must be a functioning member, whether I am an “eye,” an “ear,” or a “hand.” As a functioning member, I will give. I will serve. I will minister. I will evangelize. I will study. I will seek to be a blessing to others. I will remember that “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).

Called

1 Samuel 3

Samuel’s call

3 Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. 2 One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. 3 God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the Lord’s temple, where God’s chest was.

4 The Lord called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.

5 Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.

6 Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”

(7 Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)

8 A third time the Lord called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. 9 So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.

10 Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”

Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”

11 The Lord said to Samuel, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle! 12 On that day, I will bring to pass against Eli everything I said about his household—every last bit of it! 13 I told him that I would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about—how his sons were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. 14 Because of that I swore about Eli’s household that his family’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering.”

15 Samuel lay there until morning, then opened the doors of the Lord’s house. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.16 But Eli called Samuel, saying: “Samuel, my son!”

“I’m here,” Samuel said.

17 “What did he say to you?” Eli asked. “Don’t hide anything from me. May God deal harshly with you and worse still if you hide from me a single word from everything he said to you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.

“He is the Lord, ” Eli said. “He will do as he pleases.”

19 So Samuel grew up, and the Lord was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail. 20 All Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was trustworthy as the Lord’s prophet. 21 The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh because the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh through the Lord’s own word.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

Confirmation Sunday is a big day in the life of the church. It is a time when we gather to celebrate the faith of young people who are ready to claim for themselves the vows spoken at their baptism. Confirmation plays an important role in my own faith journey. Ironically it serves both as a marker for my own lack of faith as it does for my faith. I remember as a young child, probably early elementary age sitting in the balcony the sanctuary and watching the confirmation service. I remember listening to these professions of faith from the ninth graders and wondering what happens if you get to that age and you did not believe in God. At that point, I wasn’t sure about God and so I had a profound respect for those people who were able to claim their faith. A few years later, I experienced God’s presence while at church camp and my whole perspective shifted. My own confirmation was a profound moment for me when I experienced the Holy Spirit flowing through me as my pastor, parents, and mentor laid their hands one me.

Today we are celebrating the three women who are ready to claim their faith for themselves. In The United Methodist Church we often do infant baptisms. We do this because we believe in prevenient grace, the idea that God’s grace is at work in our lives before we are even aware of it. We also believe in justifying grace, that time when we claim for ourselves the salvation that is offered to us through Jesus. Today, these three women are claiming that grace for themselves and it is something to celebrate.

As I reflected on what scripture to read for this service I settled on the story of Samuel’s call. It is a story that is familiar to a lot of us because it makes a good Sunday school lesson. It involves a boy and children do better when they can sympathize with one of the characters. In the story, Samuel is called by God in the middle of the night. At first, he thinks it is Eli, his mentor and so he goes to him, but eventually, with Eli’s help, he realizes that it is God calling. He listens to God’s call, but still struggles. The message he is asked to give is a difficult one. Again, with the help of his mentor, he is able to live into the call.

I believe that each of us is called by God. Maybe it is not as dramatically as Samuel. I know it was not that way for me. We are also not all called to the same thing. Some are called to be preachers and others, teachers and still others, builders. Each of us has gifts that God has given us and that God has called us to use. We have heard God whispering in our dreams. We have heard God’s call echoed in the wisdom of friends. We have heard God’s call burning in our hearts. God has a purpose and a call for each of us.

A story that came to my mind while I was thinking about this sermon was the story of the Lorax. It is a children’s story by Dr. Suess. It tells the story of the Oncler who angers the Lorax when he chops down a magical Truffula tree. Despite the warnings of the Lorax, the Oncler continues to chop down trees until he has destroyed them all and he is left in a wasteland. As the Lorax leaves he gives a simple word, unless. The story is being told by the Oncler to a young boy and as he finishes telling he says that at last he has figured out what that word means. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better it is not.” He then proceeds to give the last Truffula seed to the boy and entrusts him to plant and care for it that maybe one day new life and restoration would be possible.

We don’t have magically Truffula seeds in the Christian faith. Instead, we have the word of God. This is the seed of our faith that we plant in the hearts of the next generation. At confirmation, we give each student and Bible so that the word of God might grow in their hearts as well. We are charged with passing on our faith so that the whole world might be transformed.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead once said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed it is the only that that ever has.” I might change that to say “committed Christians,” but I believe strongly in the sentiment. I believe that as Christians we are tasked with changing the world and we believe that with God’s help it is possible. In fact, the mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We find the same charge over and over in the Gospels as Jesus challenges the disciples to go forth to the ends of the world. He gives them some pretty awesome responsibilities too. At one point, he says whatever is bound on earth will be bound in heaven. At another point, he charges them at whatever sins they forgive will be forgiven and whatever sins they don’t forgive will not be forgiven. He is giving them a great deal of power.

As disciples today, we have that same responsibility. We are all called by God in different ways to transform the world. We have each been entrusted with a role to play in God’s work in the world. Now it is up to us to echo Samuel as we say “speak, your servant is listening” and as we say “hear I am.”

Questions to Ponder:

What was your confirmation experience like?

How have you felt God calling you in your life?

What keeps you from responding to God’s call?

 

Prayer:

God, you call each of us into ministry in unique and special ways. You have spoken and your words burn in our hearts. Give us the wisdom and courage to hear and respond to your call. Help us to be faithful disciples of you as we go about your transforming work in thee world. Amen

Faith Like a Child

Matthew 18:1-7

Greatest in the kingdom

18 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

2 Then he called a little child over to sit among the disciples, 3 and said, “I assure you that if you don’t turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Those who humble themselves like this little child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Falling into sin

6 “As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and be drowned in the bottom of the lake. 7 How terrible it is for the world because of the things that cause people to trip and fall into sin! Such things have to happen, but how terrible it is for the person who causes those things to happen!

 

Matthew 19:13-15

Jesus blesses children

13 Some people brought children to Jesus so that he would place his hands on them and pray. But the disciples scolded them. 14 “Allow the children to come to me,” Jesus said. “Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children.” 15 Then he blessed the children and went away from there.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

This Sunday is Rally Sunday. From what I could learn, the history of Rally Sunday goes back at least one hundred years. It has always been used as a way of rallying the troops for the start of the church program year. After a summer off, it is a chance to bring everyone together to celebrate and get excited about what is happening in church. Churches would have children parade up front by class. While I have not been able to verify it, I remember hearing about how churches would even then parade out into the community.

After a busy summer that often pulls us away from church, it is good to take some time to rally together as a church community. Sunday morning is an important time for Christians. It is a time that we set aside specifically for God in our week. We use that time to praise God for where we have experienced God in our lives. We use the time to open us up to how God is at work in our lives. We use the time to learn about God. It is how we strengthen and grow in our faith. It gives us fuel for the week to come. Through Rally Sunday we are able to reenergize and make God central again in our week.

While Rally Sunday is for everyone, it is also a time that we specifically celebrate our children. There are lots of reasons to celebrate our children. We do it because we love them. We do it because we know that they represent the future. We do it because Jesus lifts them up as an example to all of us on how we are supposed to be. Our children are important to us and today is a day that we seek to remember that.

Children come up over and over in Jesus’ ministry. They are a focal point of his healing power on several occasions. They also serve alongside him, such as the little boy who provides his bread and fish to be used in the feeding of the 5,000. They also serve as teaching examples such as the two passages we read today in Matthew. It is clear from both his words and his actions that children are important to our understanding of God. There is something about being a child that is helpful for all of us in our faith. If we can have that child-like faith we will be able to better understand God and we will be able to enter into God’s kingdom.

What is it about children that is so special? Children possess a lot of different qualities. They have an innocence to them that many of us adults like. While they can be as selfish as the next person, they are also far more willing to share what they have with others than many adults. They also possess an ability to believe in the world around them. They see things simply as they are and yet are also able to imagine them to be something far more than that. This openness to new possibilities makes it far easier for them to see the ways that God works in the world than those of us who are burdened by our own hard-earned knowledge of the way the world works.

I think our knowledge is that stumbling block that Jesus talks about. It is the barrier that often comes between us and our faith. We have learned too much about the world and we let that knowledge block out what God wants us to know about the world. What have we learned? We have learned shame and selfishness. We have learned that we are different from each other and have made those differences to matter. We have learned that people are not good but evil. We have stopped seeing the world in terms of what is possible but instead in terms of what is not possible. We do not think of sharing our lunch with others because we know it can never be made to feed so many. Our own experiences have become a barrier to what God hopes to do in the world and they cause us to stumble.

We need to find ways to unlearn some of what we have learned. Children bring an innocence that many of us adults have lost to cynicism. Instead of thinking the best we think the worst. Instead of imagine what is possible we think about what is not possible. Instead of believing in God we believe in ourselves. We need to return to that child-like attitude when it comes to our faith. We need to believe in the best, in each other, in ourselves, and in God. We need to think less about what we know and instead believing in what God offers us.

I wish I could verify its accuracy because I love the idea that Rally Sunday is not just about gathering together in the church, but also this idea of the church parading out into the community. We are not going to literally parade out into the community today, and yet instead we are blessing our children and sending them out. We know that as they go back to school our children are taking not just their backpacks with them, but their faith as well. They are a part of how we as a church are at our work in the world. They are ambassadors of our faith that are going forth into the world.

I think this is another way that all of us could be more like children in our faith. We could all do a better job of taking our faith with us into the world. We could do a better job of not compartmentalizing it to Sunday, but letting it inform our daily lives. How do we take our faith with us into the workplace? How are we sharing our faith, not just by our words, but by our actions? We are the hands and feet of Christ when we are teaching, healing, building, and serving, whether it is a school, hospital, or a fast food restaurant. Do we feel like God goes with us as well?

We are all supposed to take our faith out into the world with us. We rally together on Sunday morning not because this is the time that we can uniquely experience God. Instead we rally together so that we can have the strength to take God with us out into the world. We need this Rally Sunday because we have lost our child-like faith. We need this Rally Sunday because we have let our lives get cluttered with all the adult things of life, our busy schedules, our personal needs, and our own desires. Instead, we need to reclaim that child-like innocence as we seek to once again be followers of Christ. We need to find the ways that we can come before Christ again like that little child, ready to learn and ready to love. We need to take that faith with us as we go into the world.

Questions to Ponder:

What does child-like faith look like to you?

What stumbling blocks do you have in your own faith?

What can you do to bring God with you out into the world each week?

 

Prayer:

God, help us to be like children, believing that through you anything is possible. Help us to see the stumbling stones we place before others in front of our own feet as well. Take away those obstacles that we might rush to be at your side. Empower us to take the love we experience in you and share it with the world. Amen

Wisdom of Wesley: Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisons

1 Corinthians 8

Meat sacrificed to false gods

8 Now concerning meat that has been sacrificed to a false god: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up. 2 If anyone thinks they know something, they don’t yet know as much as they should know. 3 But if someone loves God, then they are known by God.

4 So concerning the actual food involved in these sacrifices to false gods, we know that a false god isn’t anything in this world, and that there is no God except for the one God. 5 Granted, there are so-called “gods,” in heaven and on the earth, as there are many gods and many lords. 6 However, for us believers,

There is one God the Father.
        All things come from him, and we belong to him.
And there is one Lord Jesus Christ.
        All things exist through him, and we live through him.

7 But not everybody knows this. Some are eating this food as though it really is food sacrificed to a real idol, because they were used to idol worship until now. Their conscience is weak because it has been damaged. 8 Food won’t bring us close to God. We’re not missing out if we don’t eat, and we don’t have any advantage if we do eat. 9 But watch out or else this freedom of yours might be a problem for those who are weak. 10 Suppose someone sees you (the person who has knowledge) eating in an idol’s temple. Won’t the person with a weak conscience be encouraged to eat the meat sacrificed to false gods? 11 The weak brother or sister for whom Christ died is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 You sin against Christ if you sin against your brothers and sisters and hurt their weak consciences this way. 13 This is why, if food causes the downfall of my brother or sister, I won’t eat meat ever again, or else I may cause my brother or sister to fall.

 

 

Thoughts on the passage:

Here is something to think about, if you are “one in a million,” that means there are 7,500 people like you in the world. There are over 1,000 people like you in China alone and another 1,000 in India. Even in the United States there are still 300 people like you. Suddenly being one in a million doesn’t sound quite as special. As our population continues to grow and our horizons expand it is easier and easier to start to feel like our actions do not make a difference in the world. The tension we have to hold is that while we can feel small and insignificant, each of us is precious to God and each of us can make a difference in our world.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul takes a moment to address the reality that what we do does have an impact on the people around us. What Paul is specifically addressing is the tension that was arising because of differences within the cultural practices of Christians. Many Christians were Jews who had come to accept Christ. Their Christian faith was not so much a conversion from Judaism but a natural evolution of their faith. For them, many of the traditional cultural practices such as keeping kosher were still important. This include the prohibition of eating meat sacrificed to idols. For others, what you ate was not nearly as important. They saw such meat not as something sacred or profane, but just as food. Paul is reminding this second group that while they might be justified in their beliefs, what they do has an effect on the people around them. Their choices and their actions are bothering their fellow Christians. It might not seem like a big deal to them, but to others it is having a profound effect and Paul wants them to stop.

In our final week of specifically looking at the teachings of John Wesley, we are examining not a sermon of his, but rather one of his other writings. In addition to his preaching and teaching, Wesley wrote a lot about issues of the day. In “Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisions,” Wesley looks at some of the economic challenges facing England. His focus is on the lack of grain for feed and food and therefore the rising costs. Not surprisingly this scarcity has a more profound effect on the poor who are already struggling to get enough food.

Wesley examines the problems and makes a number of suggestions. In each instance, he looks at a problem and shows how it is having an effect in other ways. For example, some grain prices are rising because rather than being used for food it is being used for alcohol. Another example is how the importing of thorough-bred horses from France for wealthy land-owners is causing a shortage of feed for other work horses. Over and over what is clear is that our actions have consequences not just for us but for those around us. Nothing Wesley says is particularly profound or something that an economist would not have been able to see. What motivates Wesley however is the economic effect of our actions are those who are most in need. If we fear God, as Wesley would hope we do, then we should be motivated to action.

The reality is that the more people there are around us, the less sense we have of our effects on others. It is easy far easier to feel alone in the midst of a crowded metropolis than it is in a small town, even if there are a million more people around you. I have seen this effect for myself in my life. When I was in Chicago, you did not smile or say hello to people, somewhat out of fear, but also because there are so many people that each individual gets lost in the crowd. When I moved to Baxter for my first appointment I was struck by how often we ran into people we knew out in the community. I had not had this experience living in the Cities. It might be because the Cities are so big that you do not run into people, but I think the other reason is that in the Cities we do not expect to run into people. I say this because I am still struck by how often I have gone to the State Fair or a baseball game and run into people from the small towns in greater Minnesota where I am serving. I think what is really the case is that in a smaller community we get used to seeing people rather than crowds and we can know people but we cannot know crowds.

While he does not say it explicitly, I think that Wesley is making the case that we need to see people rather than crowds. We need to remember that our actions have a real impact on people, even if it is people we never know or see. We need to think of them as people and not as a part of the faceless crowd of 7.5 billion people who share God’s earth with us. We need to listen to Paul when he reminds us that our actions may be received differently by the people around us and what might not be bad for us could be bad for others. Our goal is not only what is good for us, but what will benefit all of God’s children.

Maybe it goes without saying, but I will share again the story of a boy and the starfish. The boy is walking alone the beach and taking stranded starfish and casting them back into the ocean. There are thousands of starfish on the beach and the boy has only been able to put a few back in the ocean. When he is asked what the point is, he says that while what he is doing is not make a difference on the grand scheme of things, he is making a difference for the few starfish he has saved.

We cannot change the world on our own. There is nothing that you or I can do with our limited actions today or tomorrow to reverse climate change, to solve the problems of peace in the world, or to end global poverty. We are like that boy on the beach, we can make a difference to the people around us. Our actions can matter, especially when they are combined with the actions of others. Small actions of kindness can have huge ripples.

If you are still not convinced of the effects an individual can have, think about traffic. Imagine a bunch of cars driving down the highway at high speeds. One car taps on their breaks, just long enough for the car to slow and the lights to come on. The ripple effect of this single car slowly will permeate backwards, causing congestion as the cars behind react by breaking as well. One small action can have a big effect in the right circumstances.

As Christians, we are called to think about the effects of our actions. It can come in obvious ways, like being polite in our behavior and showing love to our neighbors, but it also comes in more hidden ways. In his writings, Wesley reminds us that our choices have economic impacts that are felt by far more people than just ourselves. What we do has an effect on others. Where we invest our money has an effect on others. Sometimes our actions do not have the desired effects we want either. We talked last week about packing food for starving people in the world. There are times that such packed food can be essential to the survival of people, such as following a disaster or drought. There are other times that is can have a negative effect. The abundance of food being shipped to Haiti and provided for free has had the adverse effect of limiting the ability of Haiti to grow economical. There is no need to grow food because well-intentioned Christians in the United States are giving it for free. Our efforts to help starving people may actually be contributing to it.

Knowing what to do is hard. There are times we can try our best to do the right thing and like in the case of Haiti, end up hurting rather than helping. We should not get depressed and stop trying. It is just a reminder that we need to keep trying and we need to keep being intentional about what we do. Does it take more time? Yes, but as Paul reminds us, our actions have effects for others as well. Our goal is not merely our own comfort or our own salvation, but the comfort of all and the salvation of all.

Questions to Ponder:

What is something you do that has a positive impact on those around you?

How could you be more deliberate in what you buy to benefit others?

How do you find ways to see others not as part of a crowd but as children of God?

Prayer:

God, as we look around us we see in each other’s faces your divine spark and your love. Help us to remember that we are connected together as a great web of humanity and as your family on earth. Bless us as we seek to be more mindful of each other and our needs. Help us to see the ways that our actions have ripples that can help or hurt your children. Forgive us when we fail and turn us always back towards your love and grace. Amen

Wisdom of Wesley: the Lord's Prayer

Matthew 6:1-15

Showy religion

6 “Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

2 “Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. 3 But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing 4 so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.

Showy prayer

5 “When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. 6 But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.

Proper prayer

7 “When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. 8 Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask. 9 Pray like this:

Our Father who is in heaven,

uphold the holiness of your name.

10 Bring in your kingdom

so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven.

11 Give us the bread we need for today.

12 Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you,

just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.

13 And don’t lead us into temptation,

but rescue us from the evil one.

14 “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins.

 

 

Thoughts on the passage:

The Lord’s Prayer is often one of the first things we memorize in our faith. Even many non-Christians know some, if not all of the words. While we have some disagreements on the language, like sins vs. trespasses and how many “evers” we need at the end, this is a prayer that is known by everyone. We say it every week in our church and yet the danger is that we get so use to the words that we stop actually listening to them.

John Wesley did a series of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, which spans several chapters in the Gospel of Matthew. One of those sermons, or discourses as he called them, was focused on this passage from Matthew we read today. In it he looked at the meaning behind this prayer that Jesus taught us. As I read his discourse and thought about the prayer, I was reminded just how much is packed into those seemingly simple words we speak each week.

Wesley felt that there was great meaning in the Lord’s Prayer. He felt it contained everything we could ask of God and everything we should ask of God. He even took it further, stating that there was nothing we should desire that we would not ask of God.

“We may observe in general concerning this divine prayer, first, that it contains all we can reasonably or innocently pray for. There is nothing which we need to ask of God, nothing which we can ask without offending him, which is not included either directly or indirectly in this comprehensive form. Secondly, it contains all we can reasonably or innocently desire; whatever is for the glory of God, whatever is needful or profitable, not only for ourselves but for every creature in heaven and earth. And indeed our prayers are the proper test of our desires, nothing being fit to have a place in our desires which is not fit to have a place in our prayers; what we may not pray for, neither should we desire.”

This idea of Wesley’s really struck me: “What we may not pray for, neither should we desire.” Think about the Lord’s Prayer for a minute. We ask God to give us our daily bread. I take this as broader request for God to give us what we need to be sustained. Sometimes I think it is easy to lose track of what that really means. For many of us, we have far more in our lives than what we need to just sustain ourselves.

Over the summer, members of our congregation have taken part in a couple of different food packing events. These events gather large numbers of people together to pack complete meals that are meant to be used by people in need around the world. One of the events was sending food to Somali which has been ravaged by famine and drought. Another event packed food to be used right here in our own community. What is striking to me is the nature of the food that is packed. While it contains the essential nutrients, it is not a very exciting look meal. It contains everything we need to eat, but probably not everything we want to eat.

For people like me, who love food and never say no to dessert, that distinction between what we need and what we want is a familiar one. My own waistline is a testament to how often I default to those wants rather than the needs. Maybe that is why I find Wesley’s statement so powerful and so challenging. How much do I align my desires and my wants with what my needs are or what God’s wants and desires are for me?

Another place we see this same tension is when it comes to money. We all know that money cannot buy happiness and so being rich is not going to make us happy. At the same time, we all also know that we are not rich. The reason for this is simple, we all know people who are richer than us. The reality however is something quite different. According to Care International, my salary is enough to put me in the .2% of people by income in the world. I might not feel rich, but compared to the rest of the world I am.

Interestingly enough, there have been studies on this question about money buying happiness. In fact, the truth is, money does buy happiness. Studies have found that there is a strong correlation between how happy a person is and their income. Money however can only buy so much happiness. Once a certain level of income had been reached, more money did not necessarily mean more happiness. The point where that correlation stopped, $10,000 a year. In case you are wondering, $10,000 a year would still be more than 83% of the world.

Where does this leave us? Well for me, with my big television to watch the Vikings, my faithful old Prius to get me to work, and ample selection of books to read, clothes to wear, and food to eat, it leaves me feeling a little guilty and a little convicted. I have no problem asking God each week to give me my daily bread, but when I look at what I have, it is far more than just what I need. So what can I learn from this?

First, I know that I need to do better at thinking about what I have and how it is connected to God. I have been doing some financial planning recently and so have been thinking about what my needs are in retirement. Like most people, it is fun to imagine what I might do in retirement such as travel and to think about the money that I might need to do that. In order to get that money, I start thinking about what I need to do to save that money. Pretty soon, I have a great plan put together about how I am going to provide for my retirement. What I have done though is forget about God. I have a created a plan for how I am going to provide my own daily bread and left God out of the occasion. Now I am not saying I should not save for retirement and just trust that God is going to provide. I would argue that God is already providing for my future daily in the money that the church pays into my pension plan and in the salary the church gives me that I use to save for retirement. All I need to do is remember that all of this is not because of me, but it is a part of God’s providence.

Second, I need to ask myself those hard questions about what is it that I really need. A member of my youth group in my first church went an entire month eating only a cup of rice each day. He did it along with two friends to raise awareness, and raise funds, for starving people who had only a single cup of rice to eat each day. While he would not suggest such an experience to others, it is a powerful reminder of how much we have than what need. While we all need more than just a cup of fortified rice to survive, what I need is probably less than what I have.

The reality is that God has given me more than I need. I have been praying for my daily bread and God has given me an abundance. I could use this to satisfy my own desires, or I could use this to God’s work and God’s glory. If I think of it as my money, then I know what I will use it for. If I think of it as God’s gift, then I will be better at using it to benefit more than just myself. When I can do that, then I will be able to better align my desires with God’s and say with more conviction, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

Questions to Ponder:

What is your daily bread that you need in your life?

How do you see God providing for you in your life?

What challenges do you face in aligning your needs and your desires with God?

Prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever. Amen

Wisdom of Wesley: Christian Perfection

Philippians 3:7-21

7 These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8 But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9 and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. 10 The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11 so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.

12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. 15 So all of us who are spiritually mature should think this way, and if anyone thinks differently, God will reveal it to him or her. 16 Only let’s live in a way that is consistent with whatever level we have reached.

Imitate Paul

17 Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. 18 As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. 19 Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. 20 Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

“The greatest single cause of atheism today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and then walk out the door and deny him with their lifestyles. This is what an unbelieving world finds simply unbelievable.” These are the words of Brennan Manning, a Christian writer and priest. In many ways, they echo a sentiment that exists in our culture and our world. For many people, there is a dissonance and disconnect between the professed faith of Christians and our actions. People know that the fundamental message of Christ is one of love and grace and yet too often they see Christians who do not exhibit that love and grace in their lives.

One of the more controversially topics that John Wesley dealt with was on this question of Christian perfection. At its heart the question is this: how are our lives transformed as followers of Christ? Wesley’s own views on this subject were evolving. Earlier in his ministry, Wesley staked out a more extreme claim. He believed that once a person was saved that they were no longer able to sin. Through the grace of God and Christ’s death, a Christian is transformed and so is perfect in Christ. He clarifies that this perfection relates to sin, not an inability to make mistakes. Christians are capable of math errors or doing things wrong, but through grace they are not able to sin. His argument, made in the sermon “Christian Perfection” is largely based in the claims of scripture, that a person who has a new life in Christ will no longer sin.

Over time, Wesley’s views on this subject evolved. Given the abundance of good people who fail to live into perfection, this does not seem surprising. It does not seem too hard to see how even those of us who have had a transformative experience and have given our lives to Christ can still fall into temptation. Unfortunately, Christians are far from perfect. Wesley comes to recognize this later in his life and his views change.

One of my favorites phrases from Wesley is “moving on to perfection.” Every ordained United Methodist Clergy takes a vow that we hope to be made perfect in this life. While Wesley realized that conversion did not equal perfection, he still staked a claim that perfection was possible and should be sought after in this life. He believed that through God’s grace we could be perfect. Our lives then become a process of seeking after this perfection.

In doing so, I think Wesley is echoing the sentiments of Paul that we see in his letter to the Philippians. Paul both acknowledges his own fallen state and yet at the same time, thanks to God’s grace believes that he can seek after perfection. He challenges others to join him in this quest. Paul holds onto a tension that requires human effort towards perfection but still acknowledges the need for Christ to be at work in that transformation as well.

What Paul and Wesley understand and many in our culture do not is that Christianity is not about being perfect, but instead about seeking after perfection. The belief is not that as Christians we are perfect like Christ, but rather our goal is to seek to be more like Christ. We know that such perfection is not possible on our own, but instead requires God’s grace. Despite the perception, Christians are not holier than anyone else, but we seek to be. Not because we want to be better than others, but because we want to be more like Christ. Not because we need to be perfect to get to the next life, but because we have already been promised perfection in the next life and we want to live into in this life.

Christianity is a religion for broken people. Christianity is a religion for people who know that we cannot do it on our own. What the world often forgets is that the church is a mirror of the world. The same temptations, the same personalities, all of those things that exist in the world exist in the church. The difference between the church and the world is that we are not okay with it. We have come to recognize and acknowledge our brokenness. We have come to know that we are not as we should be and we want help.

This is where Christ comes in. Christ is the lifeline that we grasp after in our lives. We seek Christ because we know that without him we are lost. We know that we need Christ because we have been drowning without him. We have tried to be perfect, we have tried to do it on our own, and in the end, we have all failed. We have all fallen short. We have all sinned. We all need God’s grace to enter into our hearts.

The moment of our baptism is not the moment that are made perfect. For Paul and for Wesley, it is the moment that such perfection becomes possible. When we are baptized we accept the grace and love that God gives us. We reach out and take the hand that God has been offering to help us up. Now we stand, not on our own feet, but carried by Christ. Now, when we seek perfection, it is not through our own actions, but with the grace of God, and with God we know that anything is possible.

So, what are you doing to be made perfect in Christ? The challenge for Christians is to take that next step. Once we have seen our brokenness and we have asked for God’s help, what are we doing next? Paul challenges us to set aside our past and let go of our failings. Now instead we are supposed to seek after that call that God has placed in our hearts and reach for Christ who goes before us.

God has saved us and God has called us. We are not a perfect people. We are broken and we are human. Yet, through us, God is seeking to be at work in the world. Let us open ourselves up to be instruments of God’s peace and God’s grace. Let us take on the challenge and seek to be like Christ. It is in Christ that we can be made perfect, thanks be to God.

Questions to Ponder:

What does Christian perfection mean to you?

Who is someone who lives a faithful life that you might seek to emulate?

What challenges do you face in aspiring to be more like Christ?

Prayer:

God, you love us, you challenge us, and you forgive us. Give us the strength to respond to that call you have for our lives. Give us the courage to turn from our brokenness and accept your grace. Help us to know that all that we do is made possible through the grace and glory of your son, our savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen