“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Matthew 22:34-40 (July 14, 2014)

From the beginning of time humanity has been trying to figure out

Who is my neighbor?
Who is my neighbor?

what it is that God wants. What is the exact right combination of
words and actions to curry God’s favor.

In the earliest expressions of faith human beings prayed
to many different gods.
If someone was preparing to go on a hunt they prayed
to the god of the hunt or to the spirit of the animal seeking success.

As we began to work the land and make our first fledgling steps into
becoming an agricultural society human beings
prayed to the sun god and the rain god.
If the rain didn’t come it was assumed that you
had angered the rain god and so more extreme rituals were used.

There were household gods to protect our dwelling places
and there were gods that governed the seasons and the weather.

These beliefs were passed on through stories
from generation to generation.
They were used to explain why things happened the way they did
and where we came from.

As patterns emerged and were perceived
and as people began to claim certain gods and rituals
as the personal protectors of their clans and tribes
those rituals spread and the perceived domain of the
gods grew larger.

When the clans and tribes went to war against each other
they sought the blessing of their gods to bring them victory
and of course victory proved which deity was the stronger and
which rituals were required.

God’s changed by region or season.
Using one ritual to please the sun god may anger the earth god and
and bring a curse upon the land.
So the pantheon of deities and rituals became vast and confusing.

Eventually groups of people began to think that perhaps there was
one God that is ruler over all other gods and if that is the case
then perhaps people need only to gain the one God’s favor and
all the rest would fall into line under the one Gods authority.

The ancient Hebrews were such a people.
In the beginning their system of beliefs about the one God were
passed on through stories.
The rituals and prayers of the Hebrews also varied by region.
They worshiped in fields and on mountain tops. In places where the one God had shown favor, or power, they would build altars and offer prayers and sacrifices.

Between the tribes of the ancient Hebrews there was
disagreement over some of the types of sacrifices made.
For instance in one region it was normal to worship by making
raisin cakes. The cakes were eaten and offered to the one God.
In another region the ancient Hebrew clans warred with clans
who worshiped one of the lesser gods. In their worship of that
lesser god they too used raisin cakes.
So the Hebrews at war with the raisin cake eaters of the lesser god
got angry when they saw their fellow Hebrews worshiping
the one God with raisin cakes. It was a mess!

As time progressed their stories got written down.
The Hebrew tribes became a Hebrew nation with a King
and a Capitol.
That Capitol became the center of commerce and of worship for
the nation and making your own altars in the wilderness
was outlawed.
Instead you had to come to the temple in Jerusalem to worship.

The codified law taken from their ancient stories of their
experience with the one God took the form of 613 commandments. By the time of Jesus however the religious elite had
created a legal buffer zone around those commandments with
even more commandments so that you would have to break
several lesser commandments before
you could even get close to breaking a real commandment.
It was an even bigger mess.
Finding peace with and pleasing God had become
a back breaking burden

Then Jesus comes on the scene and starts cleaning house.
The passage we read this morning is part of a larger
section in Matthew that we call the Temple Discourse.
This is really just a fancy phrase for saying Jesus talked a lot
in the temple.
Matthew chapter 21 begins with the triumphal entry of Jesus
into Jerusalem followed by a spirited wiping of the
money changers in the temple.
In verse 23 Jesus enters the temple to teach and here
we get some of the great teachings and parables in Matthew. Interspersed among those teachings are questions from the pharisees
who were hoping Jesus would say something they could use
against him.

They ask him about the tax code of the Roman Empire as applied to
the Mosaic Law.
They ask him about marriage in the after life.
And they ask him what the greatest of the 613 commandments is.

In Jesus two pronged answer to the pharisees he gives us the answer to the question that humanity has been seeking
for thousands of years.
How can we please God?
The answer is love.
Its funny how many times the answer in life is always love.
Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength
and love our neighbors as ourselves.

Millennia of trial and error and bloodshed and tears and
all God wants is our love.

But that is easier said than done.

If I told my family every day that I love them.
If I stood out on the front porch every evening and
shouted at the top of my lungs that I love my family.
If I wore a t-shirt every day that said “I love my Family”
If I tattooed “I love my family” across my forehead
but then, when I went back into the house I ignored them,
or abused them.
They would not believe what I was saying or shouting.
The rest of the neighborhood may think
“wow, that guy really loves his family”
but that would not be the reality.

My family knows that I love them not because of the words I speak
but because of my actions towards them.
Michaela knows I love her because I take the time to do battle
with the monsters under her bed and in her closet.
She knows I love her because I will set down the book
I am reading or pause the show I am watching so that she can tell
me about her day or show me that she can sing my favorite song for the thousandth time.

My mom knows I love her because I take the time to listen to her and
ask her about her day.

Bri knows that I love her because I try take the time to be
interested in her and what she is doing and ask her opinion
and listen to her answer.
And lets face it one of the big expressions of my love for her is that
every once in a while I actually replace the toilet paper roll when it is
empty.

It is the same way with God.
We can shout, and sing, and have all the Christian bumper stickers
we want but those words mean nothing
if action does not back them up.

Acts of love toward God take on a different form.
The way that God receives our love and our service is
different than what we might think.

I remember once,
after moving on from one church as their youth pastor,
I received a heart breaking letter from a couple of my former
students.
The new youth pastor had a different way of doing things and
had removed game time from the schedule and made
youth group all about bible study and prayer.
The students got together and politely asked the new youth pastor to
consider bringing back some of the games because they enjoyed
that part of youth so much.
The new youth pastor got angry, and told the youth
“I am here to serve God, not you.”
My heart breaks for those students still today.
And it breaks for that youth pastor because
that youth pastor has it backwards.

Jesus tells us that we need to love God and to love others.
To serve God and to serve others.
How we go about that makes all the difference.

The very last story of Jesus’ temple talks is
about the end of time when all of humanity is judged.
They are separated into the sheep and the goats.
The sheep get to go to heaven
while the goats get to go to, well, lets just say NOT HEAVEN.

The sheep are told they get to go to heaven
because when they saw Jesus hungry, or thirsty, or sick, or in prison
they took care of him.
The goats get to go elsewhere because
when they saw Jesus hungry, or thirsty, or sick, or in prison
they did not take care of him.
Both groups ask “When was that Lord?
When did you see you like that because we don’t recall it?”
Jesus tells them that whenever you took care of
one of the least of these you did it to me.
And likewise when ever you neglected to care for
one of these you neglected me.

Do you see it?
We love God and we serve God by
loving and serving our neighbor.
And our neighbor is anyone that we meet.
Things like skin color, sexual orientation, or economic status
do not even come into the equation here.
Anyone we meet is our neighbor and an opportunity to fulfill both the
greatest and second greatest commandments.
And if we love God, like we say we do,
with our bumper stickers and Facebook posts
and t-shirts then we really need to make sure
that we are showing God our love by truly loving our neighbors.

Friends, in these few lines from the gospel of Matthew
we have our answer to that age old question of what God
is seeking from us. It is a relationship of mutual love.
God’s love for us is evident all around us if we take the time to look.
God’s love for us is proven in God’s sending of Jesus.
Let us prove our love to God by loving our neighbors.
By finding ways to pour grace and joy into their lives.
That is how we fulfill the great commandment.
That my friends is how we love God. Amen? Amen.

“The [not so] Simple Gospel” Luke 4:16-30 (July 6, 2014)

Good Morning!

Getting a new pastor is a lot like getting a new puppy.
Getting a new pastor is a lot like getting a new puppy.

Now before we get all caught up in a sermon
I want to share with you some wisdom from one of my fellow pastors.
He says that, from the church’s perspective, getting a new pastor
is a lot like getting a new puppy.

That puppy looks awfully sweet and cute,
and he’s full of energy and enthusiasm,
just so very happy to be a part of the family,
to be invited into your house,
ready to love and be loved in return.

And those first days are exciting –
as that puppy brings a whole new rhythm
and a whole new energy into your life.
But then, of course, sooner or later,
that puppy does what puppies do…
and the puppy makes a mess
where you don’t want the puppy to make a mess….
and he doesn’t do it to be mean or mischievous –
that’s just what puppies do.

And that is when you have to figure out, real fast,
what it is that matters most.

I am so excited to be here.
I am overjoyed to be a part of your church family, to be invited in,
and to get the chance to see what God has in store for us.

But friends, sooner or later, I am going to make a mess where you
don’t want me to make a mess.
And I’m sorry. In advance, let me tell you: I’m sorry.
I’m new here. I’m still figuring out how everything goes.

But I also want to remind you that –
with puppies and babies and pastors and churches alike –
sometimes the biggest messes turn into the best stories,
turn into the best opportunities for us to figure out what really
matters most.

And I’ll give you a hint: it’s not our pride.
It’s not our convenience or comfort.
It’s not our carpets.

It’s our calling: to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

If we love first and last;
if we love with a love that is patient and gracious,
a love that hopes all things and believes all things
and endure all things;
if we hold onto the promise that nothing in life, nothing in death,
nothing in all creation is able to separate us from the love of God,
the very source of all our love – – then everything else will come
together, by the grace of God, in the end.

For those of you that may not have guessed yet I am Pastor Mike.
Officially I have been a pastor for precisely
5 days 10 hours and ?? minutes.
Unofficially the calling of pastor has been on my life
for nearly 18 years.

You have already met my daughter Michaela.
Give her just a little time to warm up to you and she will talk
your ears off.
My beautiful wife of 8 years is not with us this morning.
To be honest if you see her here on a Sunday morning
it would be best if you call someone at Ypsi First
and let them know that their pastor has wandered over here.
They will be most grateful.

When you do see her later today you will no doubt notice
that she is more than a little pregnant with our second little girl.

Some of you who have heard a bit of our family’s story will know
that this baby is a special blessing for us – she is our rainbow baby,
our promise of hope and new life
at the end of a devastating storm.

Our son Carl was diagnosed with leukemia at just ten months old,
and I cannot say enough good things about the people at Mott
Children’s Hospital, which became our home for most of last year.

Even though Carl died in November, his love lives on.
He was one of the strongest people I have ever met;
our Carl was quick to forgive, he was quick to laugh,
and quick to love;
some of the very nurses who hurt him the most
became his very best friends.

Carl reminded us that laughter is stronger than pain,
that there is always a reason to rejoice,
and that even though loving means you might get hurt –
love is always stronger than every good-bye,
and love is always worth it…
because in the end, you don’t remember the pain
and the tears; in the end,
what you hold on to, what you carry with you,
what remains with you, is the love.
As soon as Carl was diagnosed my mother, Cathy, left her career
and lifelong home in Northeast Wisconsin and moved in with us
to help us care for Michaela and care for ourselves.
As we regrouped after Carl’s passing we realized that we were indeed a multi-generational family.
Grandma Cathy couldn’t leave us and
we don’t ever want her to. (I’d of never seen that coming as a teenager)

As you may have already seen in the newsletter
this summer we are going to journey through our favorite scriptures. A few of you have already sent yours in and I look forward to seeing
many more.
Some of you have expressed how difficult it is to narrow down a
favorite so I want to expand the call, to give you permission to
share a passage or verse you “really like” – even if you’re not
ready to call it your one and only favorite – and also want to invite you to include scriptures you may have questions about.

Part of the reason we are going to journey through these favorite
scriptures this summer is because those scriptures, inevitably,
connect to powerful stories from our past –
stories that help define who we are as human beings
and as followers of Christ,
stories that span our human experience and
connect us to the divine,
stories that recount tremendous joy
and stories that delve into the memories of our greatest sorrows,
stories that may leave our stomachs sore from laughter and
stories that leave our faces streaked with tears.

I chose this story of Jesus in Luke for a specific reason.
It is one of my favorite explanations in scripture of
what the good news of Christ is but it is more than that.
The gospel writer is telling a story about Jesus.
And in that story Jesus is telling part of the story of Isaiah.
It is a story within a story with in a story.
It is a connection linking Isaiah to Jesus…
and Jesus to Luke and his community of believers
and now to you and me.

The passage from Isaiah that Jesus is reading from describes
what the ancient Hebrews referred to as the Year of Jubilee.
It was written in the law that every 50 years the people would
celebrate this year of jubilee – a time when all debts were forgiven,
all lands that had been sold were returned,
and slaves were set free.
The playing field was leveled.
The reset button was hit.
The game of life started new for that generation of Hebrews. The poor who had nothing due to the decisions of their ancestors
had a chance to start again and try to leave a different legacy for
their children’s children.

So Jesus reads this passage from Isaiah and then
sits down to expound on it and declares that this promise of jubilee,
this promise of freedom from captivity and oppression,
has been fulfilled in their midst.
Essentially Jesus tells them, “Today I am your Jubilee.”

This, my friends, is what you call a plot twist.
Not just any old plot twist either.
Because friends if we are being completely honest Jesus, himself, is
the greatest plot twist in history. (Take that M. Night Shyamalan)

The eternal enters time,
the Creator into the creation,
divinity into humanity.
For millennia God’s intervention came through human agents
like the prophets, priests, and judges –
or in extreme cases, like pillars of cloud and fire.

Here though God enters the scene in the person of Jesus and
declares the ultimate jubilee for the poor, the oppressed, the blind,
and the captive.

With the modern convenience of the internet and rapid communication
across the world it is difficult for me to look at my life and
count myself among the poor, the captive, the blind,
and the oppressed that are mentioned in this passage
as the recipients of the good news.

However we know all too well that those designations
are very much relative.
There are people with more money than they know what to do with
that are among the poorest beings on the planet.
There are those held captive by handcuffs made of glass and plastic
(hold up iPhone) called smartphones.
There are those who are blind to the truth of their need for Christ.
And there are those who are oppressed and rejected simply
because they are different from the rest of us.

Money won’t make you rich,
and freedom doesn’t make you free.
Our ability to truly see, to be wealthy and free,
comes only from Christ and our life lived in connection to him.

The beauty of this plot twist in Luke is that it still twists today.
Jesus still flips the script on the powerful in favor of the powerless.
For us who know Christ and those who have yet to know him the
plot can still twist.

Every day that we wake up,
every breath we breathe and every beat of our hearts,
is an opportunity and an invitation to declare jubilee —
to hit the reset button on how we are going about our lives,
to declare that I will no longer be poor in spirt
or blind to the needs of my neighbor;
I will no longer be an oppressor or
allow my neighbor to be oppressed;
I will not be held captive by devices or possessions.
Now is the time. I will accept my jubilee from Christ.
I will start my story anew. Today is our day of Jubilee!

Friends, this church has a great history.
I am not deluded enough to think that God only started working
in this community when I showed up.
I know that God was at work in this community before
I came here.
Just as I know that God will continue working in this community
long after I am gone.

But we don’t need to be mathletes to see that membership
and attendance have been in decline for a while now,
and I think that it is important that we name
that fact here this morning.
It does no one any good to pretend that we aren’t struggling a bit
as a congregation.

And while it’s tempting to look around and pull out the old photo
albums and sigh,
why can’t we just get back to the good old days, to the way things
used to be? —
the truth is, we aren’t the same people we were a decade or a
generation ago.
The world isn’t the same world it was then;
our neighborhood has changed, our church has changed –
and while that may sometimes bring us grief,
it also brings us new opportunities
to be the people of Christ in the world,
right here and right now, today,
if only we are courageous enough to step out in faith and believe
that God goes with us still, even now.

The same God who was our help in ages past is
with us still and will be our hope for years to come.

We still have breath. Our hearts are still beating.
The plot can still twist.
The poor and oppressed – those who, like us,
are the targets of the good news that Jesus brings –
are right outside these doors and in this neighborhood.

But our goal can’t be simply to fill the pews with people
because we have pews to fill.
Friends, the goal is to reach into our neighbors’ lives and
show them the love and grace of Jesus Christ.
The goal is to make disciples of Jesus Christ
for the transformation of the world.
That transformation starts here. Today. In this place.
We begin to make disciples by committing ourselves to BE disciples,
by following where Jesus leads us, by sharing his message –
by committing to proclaim the Jubilee of Christ for our
community, today.

It will not be easy; things worth doing seldom are.
It will take lots of prayer and hard work,
but if you believe, like I believe,
that God has placed St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
here at the corner of Borgstrum and Ruth for a reason –

if you believe that God is still seeking to proclaim jubilee
to the poor and oppressed in Gault Village and beyond –
if you believe that Christ is still calling people to the new
beginning of baptism and the grace of communion, right here –
then the plot can twist.
Disciples will be made, and the world will change.

Let it be our prayer that the corner of Borgstrom and Ruth
will be an epicenter of that change. Amen? Amen.