“It’s Not Despair; It’s Deliverance!” Psalm 91 (August 17, 2014)

Suffering. Decay. Entropy. It is a universal constant.image Like death and taxes suffering is an inescapable part of our human experience. At some point we all experience it. A child who falls out of a tree and breaks her arm suffers. A parent who loses a child suffers. When marriages end there is suffering. When a teenage romances fall apart there is suffering.

People suffer from the ravages of time. People suffer from improper ratios of chemicals in the brain. People suffer in war. People suffer loudly and people suffer silently. When I received this scripture from Betty I wanted to run in the opposite direction. I wanted to ask her to pick something else, anything else because this scripture seemed too difficult for me to preach on. And I know what you may be thinking. Why? What’s hard about this scripture? Its all about how God will protect us and keep us safe and sound. Well, that’s exactly why it is so hard. Because we see good, God fearing people, suffering every day. Because good people who love God suffer calamity and catastrophe. Because innocent babies get cancer. Because my baby got cancer. Because when we turn on the news it is obvious that suffering and evil run rampant in the world and it seems at times that God has forgotten all about the promises of Psalm 91. I wanted to run so far away from this passage. But then I had a thought, suffering IS universal, since we all experience it every day, even if a lot of it is only through High Definition screens, perhaps I am not the only one who finds this scripture difficult. I do my best not to over burden my sermons with big flashy theological words but on this occasion, for this scripture it is warranted. Plus expensive theological terms are fun to impress your friends with at parties. The theological word we are talking about today is: Theodicy. Go ahead, say it with me: Theodicy. Very good! Essentially theodicy is a theological math problem. We run into when it comes to the existence of suffering and evil in the world. We believe that God is good. We say it every Sunday. God is good (all the time) and all the time (God is good). Another belief that most hold is that God is all powerful. God created the heavens and the earth. God is God because God is the most powerful being in existence. So theodicy begs the theological math question: If God is all powerful, and God is always good, then how come suffering and evil exist? And now that I have planted that in your head I have to apologize because this math problem does not have any good solution that I can give you today. If I could give you one I would. But this is a question that has been debated by theologians smarter than me for centuries. Most have theories, but none that really answer the question of why suffering and evil exist. In the light of this problem Psalm 91 can come across as false. God’s protection against enemies, and physical pain, and even internal pains like terror can’t possibly be true because we all experience those things. If we are to take Psalm 91 at face value then there are only two conclusions. Number one: none of us are successfully living, dwelling, or abiding in God’s shadow, or God’s fortress. We are not staying put under God’s protective wings as we should. In short, perhaps, we don’t believe hard enough. We suffer because we don’t posses enough faith. The second possibility would be that the promise of God’s protection for those who, live, dwell, or abide in him is simply not true. We suffer because, in fact, God is not good God doesn’t, or can’t, or won’t take care of us, no matter what Psalm 91 says. I don’t know about you, but I find both of those answers difficult to swallow. Since we believe that God is good, and therefore not lying in Psalm 91, then perhaps we have to dig a bit deeper into what this Psalm is actually talking about. Before we dig too far it is important to realize that the Psalms are essentially the United Methodist Hymnal of the ancient Hebrews. The Psalms are not a covenantal or theological text. They are more like a book of songs or poetry and therefore not meant to be entirely literal. So, just as we should be careful before building our worldview on the notion that, so long as we keep rowing our boats, “life is but a dream” or before we start to literally believe that “hope is a thing with feathers” or before we find ourselves disappointed because, although we wished on every star we could find, anything your heart desired didn’t come to you, and your dreams didn’t come true. We recognize that poetry sometimes uses images and language to talk around an idea, to make a point, rather than making literal promises or statements about how the world works. A lot of scripture is like that too, especially the psalms. These are poems, songs of faith, intended to convey the same kind of hopefulness that comes with singing, say, “When you wish upon a star” or “Somewhere over the rainbow” a longing and a belief that things can work out, that life can be better than it is, that all isn’t lost, but there is always hope, no matter what our critics may say. But taking those words literally can get you in trouble… if you spend your whole life trying to fly “over the rainbow,” you just might miss out on all the beauty and love and joy in the world where you actually live. It’s the same with the Psalms. In fact, When we read the story of the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness we see Satan try to trip up Jesus with a verse from this very Psalm. “Throw yourself from the top of the tower Jesus, God has given his angels so that you won’t even stub your toe.” The tempter said, “Take it literally. Jump off the tower.” But Jesus knew better and so do we. Jesus knew that putting God to the test was a fools errand. Not only that but Jesus knew that suffering was part of life. And we certainly can’t accuse Jesus of not having enough faith! No matter how much faith I have in God I am not going to stick an apple on my head and let someone shoot an arrow at me. I am even less likely to try walking over lions or sticking my legs anywhere near snakes. It just isn’t going to happen. So as we start to look at Psalm 91 as poetry then we need to begin to look for what theme or overarching point the poet is trying to make. In this case I see the theme of the poem as being able to find a refuge in God no matter what circumstances we may be encountering. When we abide in God’s shadow our souls will find refuge from the storm. I remember towards the end of Carl’s life I was finding it extremely difficult to pray. I was angry because, on some level, passages like Psalm 91 were how I believed God worked. It wasn’t fair. I’m a pastor, my wife is a pastor, we are most definitely on God’s team. This shouldn’t be happening to us, or anybody. But it was. And it didn’t matter how many thousands of people were praying for a miracle. It didn’t matter how much any of us believed that God could heal Carl. Carl was dying. My son was slipping away and there was nothing I could do about it. All I knew was that my compulsion was to pray, but at that moment I didn’t know how. I had no words other than to beg for my sons life. To make desperate bargains with God that I knew were going to be fruitless. In desperation I reached out to a seminary professor of mine asking if there were any books that could help make sense of this all for me. That could help me learn to pray in the midst of all the suffering. We spent a couple of hours on the phone all the while I cried and cursed my inability to fix the situation. I poured out my heart and my pain to my professor and when it was over he told me “Now, go find a quiet place and tell God what you just told me.” And I did. And I still do. Because in that moment I was reminded of the truth of prayer, of why we pray. It is not to curry God’s favor. It is not so that God can grant my wish like some kind of divine genie. We pray because prayer is a real, tangible, expression of our connection to God. In prayer we connect with the divine. The finite touches the infinite and in that ability to touch and connect with God we are blessed. The connection is the blessing. The connection is the miracle, because in it we realize what the poet who penned Psalm 91 was trying to get across to us: that regardless of how the world may be collapsing around us, God is with us. All we have to do is speak and we are connected to God. And if we cannot speak all we must do is think, focus our thoughts on God and we are connected. When we pray we are embracing the reality that we are not alone in our suffering or in our joy. We are recognizing that when we hurt God hurts with us. When we cry, God cries with us. When we suffer, God suffers too. We are still going to hurt, and suffer, and grieve, but we never have to go through any of it alone. That night, in Carl’s hospital room, as he slept one of his last peaceful nights of sleep I prayed. And I didn’t pray for God to save my son, or to lessen our suffering. I poured out my pain and my fear. I poured out my anger and despair. And I found deliverance. I found relief in finally understanding that I was not alone, that God was with me in my suffering and God could handle any pain or blame I had to throw. One of the terrible things pain does is isolate us. We struggle to see beyond our hurt; we have a hard time imagining things can get better… and when we look around us, it’s very easy to feel like we are very much alone. No one else can feel what we’re feeling. No one else can walk the road for us. No matter how loved we know we are, suffering still makes us feel like we are very much alone. This is where we need to lean on the refuge spoken of in Psalm 91. This is where we find the protection of God. We can rest in our faith, in our prayer and connection to the divine knowing that God has suffered in all ways that we can suffer, and more than that God is with us in our suffering. We are not alone. Even when we suffer, we are not alone; God has not abandoned us, but God is still with us and will keep us in his loving-care, no matter what we may face. And, for whatever reason, when we realize that we are not alone in our suffering, that suffering diminishes, even if only for a short while, we find relief. We find deliverance. We find hope. Suffering and evil are part of life. And I cannot give you a good answer as to why the good and powerful God we serve does not wipe suffering and evil off the face of the planet. I have my theories, we can talk about them some other time, but they bring little comfort. What I can tell you is what the poet of Psalm 91 is telling us: God is with us. When our world is crumbling around us. God is with us. In our most intense moments of joy. God is with us. In our most tremendous suffering. God is with us. We are not alone. God is with us! Amen? Amen.

“Blinded By The Light” Matthew 7:1-5 (August

There was a young couple who moved into a new neighborhood. image
Each morning they would eat breakfast together
and look out the kitchen window.
And each morning, while they ate their breakfast,
their neighbor set about hanging her wash on a clothesline to dry.

The young wife commented to her husband one morning
saying “That laundry isn’t very clean.
Either she doesn’t know how to wash it correctly
or she needs to change brands of soap.”
Her husband looked on but didn’t say anything.

This same scenario played itself out a few more times
with the young wife making the same comments
about her neighbors not so clean laundry.
Until one morning when it all changed.

The young wife came to breakfast and remarked
“Look at that! Her laundry is so clean.
I wonder who taught her how to do that?”

“No one” replied her husband.
“I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.”

Passing judgment is a dangerous thing, isn’t it?
The words we hear from Jesus this morning are familiar ones.
Even people who do not associate with any form
of Christianity know this passage,
or at least the part that is fun to quote “Judge not lest ye be judged” they even like to throw in the “ye”s of the Old King James for effect. Most of the time thought this quote from Jesus is taken completely out of context, even in Christian circles.

Addicts, when confronted by friends about their additions
will often spout the “Judge not” of this passage to try to get their
friends to back off.

Or if someone within the church is living in open and flagrant sin
and they are confronted by a pastor or church leader
will often pull out the good old “judge not”.

The truth is, We all judge things every day.
We make judgments about whether we like certain restaurants
or certain foods at those restaurants.
We make judgments about
who it is we are going to spend our time with
and what we are going to spend our time doing.
We make judgments about where to go to school,
or church, or to the doctor.
It is simply not possible to go through life
without judging things in one form or another.

Jesus is not trying to tell us
to give up on making the judgments that are necessary in life. Rather Jesus is giving us the tools to exercise good judgment.

The judgment that Jesus wants us to avoid
in this passage is the condemnation kind of judgment.
The kind of judgment where we decide
that because a person doesn’t look like, talk like,
dress like, act like, or believe like us that they are no good,
condemned, cast out into the outer darkness,
or at least further away from our awesome light.
The kind of judgment that says: I am better than you;
or even – thank god, I’m better than you.

This judgment of condemnation hurts
not only the person being judged
but the person or church doing the judging.

Let me give you an example.

A long, long time ago on a peninsula far, far away
I was young and stupid and freshly graduated from my ultra
conservative bible college.
I returned to my home town and began working in churches
with youth and young adults.
At one of our gatherings another young pastor
from another church in the area showed up.
I determined quickly that this pastors theology
was nothing like my own,
and according to what I had been taught
in my ultra conservative school, it was heretical. It was WRONG.

I immediately started pulling away
from any ministry event or opportunity that would
expose my youth or young adults to this pastor and his horrible,
heretical theology.
I did not want them influenced or seduced by the dark side.

After a couple of years of growth on my part
and realizing that the world does not function well
when we are all polarized by our
differences I ran into this pastor at a coffee shop.
I still didn’t want to associate with him
but I felt I owed him an apology
for being so judgmental towards him.
Several cups of coffee and miles of conversation later
we became friends.
We did ministry together. He wasn’t a heretic.
He loved Jesus just like I love Jesus.
Some of our peripheral beliefs were different sure,
but that didn’t mean we couldn’t worship together
or be in community with one another.

My condemnation of his theology

nearly lost me one of my best friends from that period of my life.

A friend who could challenge me
and help make me a better follower of Christ.

Jesus doesn’t want us to judge like that.
It is far too easy to surround ourselves only
with people who think and live and look and act just like us
but when do that, when we sit smugly
in our comfortable little bubbles,
convinced that we already know all we need to know,
certain we have it all right
– and happily condemning all those folks getting it wrong –
well, it is very hard for our faith to grow.

And that isn’t the kind of life Jesus calls us to,
nor is it the kind of life Jesus modeled himself.
Instead, when we see something that doesn’t seem right,
or seems like sin,
or simply something we don’t completely understand
– before we spout condemnation –
Jesus wants us to first judge ourselves,
do some self examination.
We are to discover our motives and our reasons
for thinking the way we are thinking
about that person or situation.

Judge not, lest ye be judged
– it is a reminder that ultimate judgment belongs to God,
a reminder that – as like as not –
we ourselves might be the ones getting it wrong.
That’s why Jesus says,
before you try to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye,
better take care of the log in yours.
He doesn’t say, if you see a neighbor sinning, run the other way.
He doesn’t say, if you see a brother or sister
going the wrong way, hit them upside the head with a bible,
make a lesson out of them,
make sure they know they’re going to hell.
He doesn’t say, wash your hands and steer clear.
He says – well, he implies – that part of how we love our neighbors
is by helping them put right what is wrong in their lives
by helping them take care of their “speck,”
whatever it may be.
But we have to do so humbly,
realizing we ourselves are just as dependent
on God’s grace as they are
– we have to start from a place of honesty and humility…
before we go about fixing every body else,
we’d better take a good look at our lives first.

The reality is that none of us are as pure as we think we are.
None of us has their entire act together.
None of us are in a position to judge someone else.
That is why we must always be looking
for the log in our own eye especially before we
try to dive in and clear the speck out of our neighbors eye.

Consider, just for a moment, our polarized political system.
Each side so entrenched in their rhetoric
that neither even stops to question whether
what the other is saying has value or not.
If the opposition said it then we have to disagree with it.

Both sides try to play the Christian base like a fiddle.
Democrats shouting at Republicans
calling their views unchristian and
Republicans striking back with the same.
Neither of them stopping for a single moment
to truly consider their own positions in the light of Christ
nor giving any real thought to the other side through Christ’s eyes.

Such is the state of our political world in recent days
and it just seems to be getting worse.
Both parties with giant logs in their eyes yelling
about the others specks.

No one is right all the time;
no one is purely good or purely evil.
The truth is seldom black and white
our lives are lived in the gray area in between.

It is easier to judge others, to condemn them,
than it is to look to your self and take care of your own issues
because that means admitting that you have them.
Admitting to yourself and to others that you are not perfect.
That, like the rest of humanity, you have imperfections
that you would rather cover up and forget about than deal with. Or better yet throw someone else’s imperfections
into the spotlight to take away from your own.

The brilliance of Jesus, in this case,

is that when we actually do what he tells us to,
when we take stock of ourselves,
examine our imperfections,
deal with the logs in our eyes,
then, and only then, will we possess the humility and the grace
to truly be able to help our neighbor with their specks.
We will understand the pain and frustration associated with
removing these things from our lives
and be abler and better guides for them.

It is not for us to condemn others.
It is for us to examine our own hearts.
To work, and toil to rid our lives of the debris
that clouds our view of Christ.
In doing that we will free ourselves.
Free ourselves from distorted vision.
Free ourselves from misjudging others.
Free ourselves to see the pain and suffering
of our neighbors and actually do something to help.
Amen? Amen.

“Trust Fall” Psalm 62:5-12 (August 3, 2014)

Once upon a time, in jolly old EnglandUnknown
there was a gameshow called, I’m not even joking, Golden Balls. There were several rounds between multiple players.
Each round added money to the pot and eliminated
opponents until it got down to the final two going
for all the prize money.

The very last round is called “split or steal”.
It’s based on an old psychological experiment,
designed to see whether people would trust each other
to work for the common good,
or whether people would look out first and only for themselves – if, instead of sharing, they would adopt an
“If I can’t have it, no one can” attitude
even knowing their greed might mean no one
gets anything in the end.

In the game, the contestants each have two
golden balls in front of them.
One has the word “split” written in it and the other “steal”.
Each contestant will choose to split or steal the prize.
Once they choose the ball
the contestants reveal to everyone their choice simultaneously.
If both choose to split, then the prize money is split between them.
If one chooses split and the other steal,
then the one who chose steal gets the entire prize.
If both contestants chose steal – if both tried to take everything –
then no one wins anything.

The tricky part is before they choose
they are given the chance to talk to each other openly.
Remember these are complete strangers.
Each contestant tries to convince the other to choose split
because – they promise – that is what they are going to do.
This happens in every episode.
Both parties emphatically beg each other to choose split
so that they both win. On occasion it happens.
Both are trustworthy and honest and walk away
with half the prize money.
But it wouldn’t be an entertaining show
if that was how it always happened.
Let me show you a clip from one episode where
100,000 pounds or about 170,000 dollars was on the line.

The second clip I want to show from the game has
received some internet buzz.
There is about $22,000.00 on the line and
one of the contestants employs a strategy
that has never been done on this show before.
You can tell by the reaction of his opponent
just how odd this strategy is.

When we chose to trust someone we are always taking a risk.
We can laugh and cheer at games like Golden Balls
because all that is really on the line is prize money.
At worst you walk out with what you had walking in
and perhaps a little embarrassment.
But what if there was more at stake?
When we see someone taking advantage of trust,
it can cause us to harden ourselves against trusting others. Strangers, friends, church members… it doesn’t matter;
every time we experience a break in trust,
it gets a little bit harder to trust again.

How many times are we out driving to go to the store
or to work and we see a stranger on the side of the road
with a cardboard sign asking for money?
How many times do we feel compelled to stop and
give them something?
I can tell you, for me, it’s very tough to convince myself
that that person is being truthful about their situation.
The trouble is most of the time we fail to realize
that we are basing our judgments on our own past experience
not this individuals current situation.

Trust is tricky when it comes to strangers.
We do well to be careful… but we also do well to, when in doubt,
err on the side of generosity and good faith… because:
Times are tough and people are in need.
Jesus wasn’t joking when he said
“The poor you will have with you always.”
We cannot ignore the possibility that the person seeking
our help is truly in need.
I don’t know about you but I can live with being fooled;
I couldn’t stand being cruel.

Sometimes it is even difficult to trust the people that we know –
sometimes it’s actually even more difficult, isn’t it?
We develop specific comfort levels with the type of personal
knowledge that we are willing to share with one another.
I will share only this much about my life and no more
because it is too painful,
or too embarrassing,
or people would think less of me if they knew this.
To a very select few your life may indeed be an open book,
while to others there are entire sections of your life
that you deem off limits,
because you don’t feel you can trust them with
that kind of personal knowledge.

The church is a good example of this as well.
We are good about sharing surface things or good things,
but when it comes to admitting that there
are messy areas of our lives that we need prayer for
or accountability for, we shut people out.
We all want to pray for and support each other
but we are certainly wary about airing our own
dirty laundry or accepting help even when
it’s help we genuinely need.
We don’t want people to look too closely
and realize that our lives are just as messy as the next person.

We come into church thinking that we need to look
like we have it all together or people might think
we aren’t good enough to be here.
We fail to trust each other with our burdens,
because we think those burdens are unique and ours to bear alone.

This kind of thinking, however,
does not even come into play when we are talking
about trusting God which is what the psalmist
is writing about in our scripture today.

When we speak of trust – in people or in God –
we are really talking about faith.
Not faith as in a list of specific beliefs
to which we give some form of intellectual assent,
but rather faith as that in which we place our fullest confidence.

When we place our confidence or trust in people,
or money, or stature, or power, we are eventually, assuredly,
going to be disappointed.

When we place our confidence in God, however,
we are never disappointed.
In fact we find that God is with us in the good times and bad.
God walks with us through the valley of the shadow,
and draws us toward realizing our full potential in Christ.

Our confidence, our faith in God means
we can trust that in our darkest hours
or in our moments of profoundest joy, we are never alone.
We are forever connected to the only one worthy
of our absolute trust and confidence,
the only one who will never let us go or let us down.

We do not have to strategize and plan
to find a way to get God to be on our side.
We do not have to play split or steal with God,
to hide our true motive, to hold ourselves back,
or to try to “get” God before God “gets” us.
Because we know that God has proven who God is
and what God is willing to sacrifice to be with us.
God chooses us. God places confidence in us.
Even though God knows that we are going
to choose to “steal” on occasion, God chooses us,
and God forgives us, and God loves us all the same.

We all have plenty of reasons to mistrust strangers.
We have all been betrayed by friends.
Even the church, for all its good intentions,
has let us down at times and sometimes in really big ways. But we must remember that none of those are God.
None of those are the Creator who chose
to come down and dwell with us and die for us;
proving God’s love for us.

Our trust in God is never misplaced.
No matter how vulnerable we may feel,
no matter what we are facing,
no matter how much pressure we feel to keep
putting on a happy face – we can be real with God.
God is big enough for our questions;
God is big enough to handle our failures and our doubts;
God is big enough to take even our anger, our grief,
and our heartache – to let us be ourselves,
our real selves, exactly who we are,
with all our fears and all our scars,
with all our hopes and wildest dreams
God loves us, just as we are, so whoever, wherever we are,
we can trust ourselves fully to God.

Trust is still a struggle,
especially when we have been hurt before.
Forgiveness is never easy, but you find,
when you do forgive, it’s not about excusing the other person
it’s about setting yourself free,
giving yourself permission to let go of the hurt they caused. And on behalf of the churches who’ve hurt you,
on behalf of the pastors and church people
and neighbors and friends
who’ve meant the very best and yet
betrayed your trust in painful ways, let me say:
I’m sorry. We’re sorry. We are only human, too, and sometimes –
sometimes we get it wrong.
But please, don’t let our failures in God’s name
keep you from trusting the God who loves you,
always, who forgives us and welcomes us
and loves each one of us – failures and hurts and all.
And so this week, may you find your heart softening
to the plight of strangers as you begin to forgive
the broken trusts of your past,

may you find your openness to friends increasing
as you trust in God as the champion and protector of your heart,

and may you find your faith in God growing
as you step out in faith as children of God,
confident in God’s love. Amen? Amen.

 

Newsletter

UnknownWelcome to St. Matt’s UMC online newsletter! In the link below you will find helpful information about upcoming events as well as the highlights from previous ones. If you would like to submit an article to the newsletter or have suggestions for future topics for the pastor feel free to contact the church office via email: saintmattsumc@gmail.com

 

 

Sept-Oct 2014

July-August 2014

“Old is The New New” II Corinthians 4:8-9;16-18 (July 27, 2014)

It is no secret that the Church in North America BACK TO BASICS
has been in decline for several decades.
This steady drop in church attendance and affiliation
is not unique to United Methodists
but has been experienced by most mainline denominations
in the U.S.

The experience is so widespread
that entire industries have sprung up
around the idea of church growth.
There are seminars and work shops
and small group curriculums
any and all gimmicks you can think of
designed to help you increase attendance and membership
in our local congregations.

About 20 years ago the mega church movement began.
Churches like Willow Creek, Mars Hill, and Saddleback
developed the concert model of worship.
People came in droves because Sunday morning
was like going to a rock concert and the messages from the pastors were “seeker sensitive” never getting too heavy
or asking too much of those in attendance.

This model of worship, as I said, brought in thousands of people
but at its core had a glaring problem
that the leadership in those churches
have only recently began to recognize.

You see amidst the awesome music
and the catchy t-shirts and messages
that left hearers feeling warm and fuzzy on the inside
those churches forgot that
we were not called to go into all the world
and make church attenders.
It isn’t enough to make Christian consumers or fans of Jesus.
We are called to go and make disciples.
To bring people the message of God’s love
and to teach them to walk with Christ.

Mega churches are not alone in forgetting their calling though.
Even we United Methodists have had our bouts of trial and error.
A few years back every where you went in Methodist circles
we had pamphlets and commercials about
how we need to “ReThink Church”
and the “10,000 doors” campaign.

Anybody remember those?
The whole idea was that every point of contact we have
– every one of us, every day – is a potential “door” to the church,
an opportunity to connect people to Christ.
A lot of flyers were printed up and some thinking
and rethinking got done but most of those 10,000 doors
have never been knocked on.

And I want to be clear.
I am not trying to say that all of these things are bad
or not worth trying. The Church saw a problem
and reacted to it and tried new things
and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
So long as those new things never obscure the old thing.
The old thing being our calling to make disciples,
to love God, and to love others.

Our selection of verses from 2nd Corinthians this morning
speaks of how the church is afflicted but not crushed,
persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed.
It goes on to tell us that all of that hardship and affliction is nothing
compared to the eternal glory that we share in Christ.

Right in the middle though, sandwiched in there in verse 16

is where I would like us to focus.
Because its too easy to get bogged down
on the negative afflicting and crushing of verses 8 and 9
and to be honest that just gets depressing.
And likewise if we focus too much on the future glory
of verses 17 and 18 well, as an old friend once told me
you “Don’t [want to] become so heavenly minded
that you’re no earthly good.”

Because the vast majority of our lives
are lived in the in between:
struggling with the despair, trying to hold on to hope
and it’s a hard place to be.

So right there in verse 16 we read
“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature
is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”

When life is hard… We do not lose heart.
When we are struggling… We do not lose heart.
When even the church seems to be falling apart around us…
We do not lose heart.
We do not lose heart, because even then
when it seems like death and decay and despair have gotten
the upper hand we remember that ours is a God of resurrections,
a God who restores our souls and renews us, day by day.

Friends I truly hope that I am not the first person to tell you this
but if I am this may come as a shock to you.
There is no great praise band, or catchy slogan,
or sign, or dynamic pastor, or amount of cleaning
and updating of the church that is going
to cause people from the community to flock through these doors.

There is no gimmick.
I don’t have any magic wand or magnet to draw people here.
But do not lose heart.
There is more at work than meets the eye.
Though out outer nature is wasting away,
our inner nature is being renewed day by day.

No gimmicks. Just the gospel.
God still changes lives. That’s where our hope is found.

I have had the opportunity to share my story with a few of you
but most could probably guess that I have struggled
with my weight for most of my adult life.
I tried all the miracle weight loss drugs and the fad diets.
For a time I even considered one of the weight loss surgeries.
Then it happened. I finally discovered the secret.
The magic bullet for losing weight.

I lost over 120 pounds in the course of two years.
You want to know what it was that finally helped me
to lose all that weight? A healthy diet and regular exercise.
I know! It can’t be true right? That’s just an old wives tale.
The experts have been trying to sell us that one for years
but I stand here to tell you that diet and exercise
are the key to weight loss. It wasn’t easy.
It was a lot of hard work and sweaty days at the gym.
But it worked.

So what happened? I know right.

I think back on it every day and wish for those good old days
when I only had to go to the big and tall shop to buy hats.
So what happened? In short, I lost heart.
My son was diagnosed with leukemia.
He was afflicted, and I was crushed.
I felt abandoned. When he passed away I was nearly destroyed.
I lost control and I lost heart.
Its probably better to say my heart was ripped out, not merely lost.

This happens in the church too.
Events and circumstances beyond our control
cause us to lose heart. We forget to renew ourselves.
We opt to dream of the good old days
when the pews were full but we forget what it was that got us there.

You see the discipline of exercise and healthy eating
that I had learned and thrived on in the early days
were exactly what I needed to get me through the hard days.
But I forgot that. I let myself go. I made excuses.

We all do it. We make excuses.
The church is no different because the church is us.
We forget to reach out because we are too busy licking our wounds
and expecting the world to come to us.
We cling to the idea that its not our fault because
“The neighborhood has changed.
The world’s not like it was in the good old days.
I’m too old to make a difference.
I am too young for people to take seriously.
But this is the way we have always done it. It’s too hard to change.”

Folks the answer to the question of church growth
is not about the latest gimmick or guru.
There is no magic pill or 30 minute outreach video
with special guest star Tony Robbins.
Church growth happens in much the same way it always has.
We love God and we love our neighbors.
It’s as easy – and as hard as that.

Now how we love our neighbors can take many different forms.
It can be through Vacation Bible School, bible studies,
small group meetings, and Sunday morning worship.
But it is just as likely, if not more so,
in this day and age for it to take place at backyard barbecues,
birthday parties, and simple invitations of friendship
to those around us.
But none of that will matter if we do not take advantage
of the renewal offered to us by God.

I lost heart when Carl passed away
and it has taken me most of the past 9 months
to pick my heart back up and stop losing it.
That’s not to say that I pick it up everyday.
I have to make a choice to get up and trust
that a healthy diet and exercise are going
to work to help me lose weight again.
Somedays, to be honest, I don’t make the right choice.
But I can tell you that the days that I make the right choice
are starting to overshadow the days
that I make the wrong one.

I am making the choice to be renewed day by day and we,
as a church, need to make the same choice.

John Wesley, you might have heard of him,
one of the founding fathers of Methodism,
believed that the Christian life was summed up
in the idea that we are to love God and love others.
He took those two areas of love and broke them down
further into Acts of Piety and Acts of Mercy.
This is for Christians the common-sense, hard-work,
life-changing equivalent of exercising and eating right.

Acts of Piety are the things we do to care
of our own relationship with God.
Things like prayer, communion, reading the scriptures,
and discussing the things of God together.
The Acts of Mercy are the things we do to love and care for others
and help them to discover a relationship with God.
Things like visiting the sick, giving to the poor,
and volunteering to help the less fortunate.
Together, Wesley called these things the Means of Grace.
Or the different avenues by which we can experience God’s grace.

When we feel as though we are losing heart
the thing that we need most is grace
and it is through these channels of piety and mercy
that we find a most ample supply.

So that means as we move ahead and seek to love God
and to love our neighbors we must reconnect
to the grace God supplies.
We need to take a little more time to read our bibles
and discuss our faith journey with each other.
We need to connect with God’s people more than we have been.

Because before we can hope to give God’s love and grace to others
we must remember to partake of it ourselves.
We must allow God to renew us as we look into his word together,
as we pray together, as we grow together in God’s love.
Then we can fling open the doors
and find those in need of Christ’s love.
We can give it to them freely from our abundance
because we will once again be connected to the source
from which all love, grace, and mercy abounds.
Amen? Amen.

“The [fear and] Wonder Years” Psalm 139:13-16 (July 20, 2014)

For the past couple of years Michaela has been going tumblr_m46szsKwZ01qbatwqo1_1280
to some excellent pre-kindergarden classes and has had a blast.
This year she will be starting Kindergarden and
she could not be more excited.
The only concern she has is that she doesn’t know anyone yet but
with the rate at which Michaela makes friends that concern will end
about 2 minutes after she walks in the door.

Michaela is excited.
Michaela’s daddy on the other hand is a little scared;
and not for the reasons you would think.
I am not scared because her going to school means
she is growing up so fast.
That happens, I have made my peace with it.

What scares me is that sooner or later
the voices of her peers are going to start to say things.
Things that they cannot take back.
Things that my little girl, and make no mistake
she will always be my little girl,
they will say things that she will carry with her for the rest of
her life.

She has spent the first four years of her life under our care.
She constantly hears from us about how smart she is,
how creative she is, how strong, how beautiful.
She hears that she is loved and worthy of love.
She hears that she is special, one of a kind, a beloved child of God.

But soon the voices of Bri, Grandma Cathy, and I will
not mean as much to her as the voices of her friends and peers. She will start to hear that she isn’t special, or beautiful, or smart,
or loved.
And what terrifies me is that I know she will
start to believe those voices.

I know this will happen because it happens to us all
in some way shape or form.

During our lives we hear all kinds of voices speaking all kinds of words
towards us. Sometimes the words are words of life.
Words that lift our spirits and help push us towards the 
 realization of our potential as human beings and as followers
of Christ.

And then there are the voices that speak words of death.
The words that crush our spirits and tear at the core of our being. Words that leave destruction in their wake.
Words that are difficult to recover from.

Because eventually, if you hear them enough,
the voice that shouts words of death the loudest
becomes your own.
You buy into the lies that people have told you about yourself and
you see them as true.

That is what I fear for Michaela.

That negativity will take root, and those insults will become part of
what she sees when she looks in the mirror.

A little over 16 years ago I graduated from Marinette High School in
Marinette, Wisconsin
Now you need to understand that Marinette is about
as far away from the big city as you can get.
We are talking small-town…
Small enough that I can remember when we got our first McDonald’s,
and our first Walmart,
small enough that cow-tipping was a viable option for Saturday
night hi jinks.
My Grandpa Carl was the head custodian of my high school
until the mid 90’s and two of my Aunts still teach there today.
We all found out the day after graduation that one of our classmates,
who missed graduating because he failed a couple classes,
had decided to load up his hunting rifles,
and come to graduation and start shooting faculty members and
students and then take his own life.
Thankfully someone heard about his plan and he was arrested a few
blocks away from the school.

Now fast forward to 2010,
at that same school in the same small town,
where both of my Aunts are still teaching, a student,
distraught about his girlfriend breaking up with him,
pulled out a gun in one of his afternoon classes and
held the entire class hostage for several hours.
Eventually he released the students and teacher unharmed but
when the police entered to arrest him he used the gun
to take his own life.

You have to wonder what it was that these two young men saw in
the mirror when they woke up in the morning.
What lies they had been told that they believed about
themselves and what life had in store for them.

It can happen to any one, any age, any where.
The darkness gets so big that we can’t imagine anything bigger,
anything else.
Those young men became so caught up in the drama and pain of the
moment, that they believed pain and heartache were the natural
state of things.
Any good that had happened in their lives was forgotten.
Any hope for the future being brighter was over shadowed by
the belief that the words of death spoken to them by others
and by themselves were true.
They could no longer see the fundamental truth of our creation:
that is that each life has purpose and potential.

Kathy chose Psalm 139 as one of her favorites because for her it
was a reminder of that truth.
That regardless of the circumstances of our birth or
what situations find ourselves in.
Regardless of the negative words and feelings we convince ourselves
of there is a greater truth.

This Psalm does not simply speak of God as our creator.
That while in the process of creating the universe God plopped
us into place.
No this scripture speaks of God creating us with the same intimacy
as a mother who knits booties in anticipation of new life.
The same intimacy as a sculptor who creates by shaping
clay with their bear hands.
We are being told that God knows us on a level that
we cannot even fathom.
God knows us down to the smallest molecule.
And I think this is both fearful and wonderful.

Fearful, because the god of the universe knows all about me –
at my very best, and at my very worst.
Wonderful, because the god of the universe,
who knows all about me who helped to knit me together,
hasn’t given up on me, but loves me still.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Think on that for just a moment.
Push aside every negative thought you have about your life,
your body, your intellect and think
“I am fearfully and wonderfully made”.

You were created with purpose, with love,
and with infinite potential stored within every atom of your being.
And not just your being, but the being of every person.
And this is a hard lesson to learn.
Because just like I fear that someone will speak words of death to
Michaela that she will someday believe
I fear that she will speak similar words of death to someone else. It’s easy to do… Sometimes we don’t even realize or pay attention to
the impact our words and our love can have on another person’s
soul.
Even I fear that I will speak words of death to someone else.
That I will be an instrument of lies that robs people from realizing
their purpose in Christ.

We see this idea played out time and time again in the
New Testament.
Jesus steps into the lives of the last, the least, and the lost
and performs miracles with his words and presence.

Do you remember the story of Zacchaeus?

Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector in Jericho
who could not see over the crowds when Jesus was walking
through town and so he climbed up into a tree just so
he could catch a glimpse of Jesus.
When Jesus saw Zacchaeus he called to him by name and told him,
in front of everybody, to come down from the tree
because they were going to have dinner
together at Zacchaeus’ place.

This was all kinds of unheard of for religious leaders in Jesus day.
Zacchaeus was a Jew but also a tax collector for
the Roman Empire.
In that day tax collectors were notorious for overcharging
the people so they could line their own pockets and
Zacchaeus was apparently well known for his well lined pockets. For Jesus to acknowledge him, let alone have dinner with him,
was not something a respected Rabbi would ever do.

Yet he does it.
And people grumbled about how Jesus was
hanging out with sinners.

Do you remember what happens next?
What Jesus does?
Jesus cast the tax collecting demon out of Zacchaeus right?
NO! Of course not.
Jesus just went to Zacchaeus’s house and Zacchaeus
declared, unbidden, that he was going to give half of his
possessions to the poor and repay those he defrauded four
times what he owed them.

Until Jesus called up to Zacchaeus
the tax collectors narrative was stuck.
Nobody saw him as anything except a traitor who consorted
with the enemy and stole from his own people.

Jesus saw him for who he was.
A beloved child of God.
Known by God as he was knit together in his mother’s womb,
fearfully and wonderfully made.

We read a lot of miracles in the bible and we think that
there are magic words or huge amounts of faith required to
make a difference in lives.
But here, Jesus demonstrates that acknowledging someone
in a positive way
and that is what it did by announcing he was going to Zacchaeus’
house
changed, fundamentally, who Zacchaeus thought he was.

It was not walking on water,
or changing water to wine.
This was deeper.
This was the divine power to change the course of a human life on
display.
A power that we all possess.

Our words and actions speak volumes to those around us.
They can create and build up or tear down and destroy.

We all possess a deep need to open our ears to the
words of life found in the scriptures and
found in those around us.
And we all need to ask ourselves,
before we open our mouths or move our feet,
are these words or actions going to bring life or death
to those who hear them;
and if death, then we need to be still and we need to be silent.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Like our creator we hold in our words the power of life and death,
the power to build up and to tear down.
The power to make a difference in the world,
the power to change the world,
even if it is one life at a time. Amen? Amen.