Atonement: Forgiven…Even If

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 23:32-43

We are more than halfway through Lent.  The days till Easter are numbered; yet, the forthcoming days are some of the most troublesome to walk.  Andrew and I gave up bread – wheat and flour – for Easter this year so that space would be created for us to reflect on what it means to ache for daily bread and not receive it.  As the days proceed we have become hyper aware of how bread-centric our society is.  We have become hyper aware of the increasing challenges facing our neighbors as they struggle to secure food – and nutritious food – for themselves and their families.  We have become hyper aware of our neighbor’s innocence in so many of these predicaments and how our society is so quick to say “pull yourself up,” “make better choices,” “you brought this upon yourself.”

From the cross one criminal rebuked the other saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man had done nothing wrong” (Lk 23:40).  And then later from the voice of the centurion, “Certainly this man was innocent” (Lk 23:47).

The mocking soldiers and scoffing leaders – in a modern translation – could have said to Jesus, “Pull yourself up,” “make better choices,” “you brought this upon yourself” as he struggled on the cross.  Lone were the women who wept at the base of the cross.  They knew who Jesus was, they experienced his compassion and his justice, they knew the scandal of his death.  The women’s teary protest was taken up verbally by two other “outsiders” – a criminal and a Gentile centurion.  People, neighbors, children of God who were always in the direct scope of Jesus’ ministry throughout his ministry witnessed to his innocence as he hung dying.  But their witness did not stop his death.

We can know who Jesus is, experience his compassion and his justice, and know the scandal of his death.  We can also resist his love and his truth.  We can push him away.  We can deny.  We can crucify.

And we do.

As I draw towards Easter I become more unsettled because innocents continue to suffer.  Christ suffered and my neighbors suffer.  It is not right.  It cannot continue.  And if I am going to testify to the beauty of the resurrection, then I must have the courage to stand up to injustice and be a voice alongside the innocent.

I cannot live in a world where the innocent unjustly suffer.  Christ left this world because of it and rose that we would be his helpmates in redeeming it.

Prayer: “O Lord, open my eyes that I may see the needs of others; open my ears that I may hear their cries; open my heart so that they need not be without succor; let me not be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong, nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich.  Show me where love and hope and faith are needed, and use me to bring them to those places.  And so open my eyes and my ears that I may this coming day be able to do some work of peace for thee.  Amen.”*

*”For Courage to Do Justice,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 456.

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New Creation: New Bodies

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Corinthians 5:1-10

My friend Hugh Hollowell is the pastor of Love Wins Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina.  You may have heard of Hugh as he and his church received national media coverage towards the end of last year due to what was affectionately (?) called “Biscuit-Gate 2013”.  You see, Love Wins’ is a ministry of presence and pastoral care for the homeless and at-risk population in Raleigh.  During Biscuit-Gate the city of Raleigh tried to arrest the staff and volunteers and Love Wins Ministries for distributing food to their homeless and at-risk brothers and sisters.  The city of Raleigh is now working with Love Wins in providing space for and fostering dignity among the persons that are fed – physically, spiritually, and relationally.  It’s truly beautiful and an example of the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven.

Thank you, Hugh, for all the ways you and your staff serve these our neighbors.  And thank you, friends and members of Love Wins, for your patience with the rest of us as we slowly and continually learn what it means to actually be church.

As I read the Scripture passage for this week my mind quickly moved to Hugh and the friends he serves.  I wondered how someone who experiences homelessness on a daily basis would read and interpret a text that talks about leaving an earthly home for a heavenly home…when they are without an earthly home all together.  No physical structure exists for them and if one does it is on a temporary basis until another roof can be secured.  Is this passage even relevant?

So I asked Hugh.  And his answer is powerful.

He said initially this community would interpret this passage as “other-worldly” – as in “things will be better when I die.”  Hugh’s challenge – and I would wager his delight – is to transform this interpretation.  I would call the initial interpretation as “escapist theology” – I have to get away from here to get to there because there is better than here and I will be happier there.  Hugh wants to craft this interpretation into something new.  Hugh wants to expose the community he serves to a liberation theology – that God has a preferential and special compassion for the poor (which clashes harshly with the message his folks consistently hear)  and that liberation is essential to salvation as salvation applies to the whole person, not just his or her spiritual needs.

From what are the folk that Love Wins Ministries serves being liberated?  The idea that they are less than.  The idea that they have to accomplish X Y Z ad infinitum to have worth.  The idea that they have to endure only hardships in this life and once they get to the resurrection, life will be better.

No, my friends, no.  You are more.  You are worthy.  You can experience the goodness of the resurrection, of the house built with eternal hands and not human ones, right now.

How many times will Hugh – will I – will you – have to say these words?  Affirm this reality for those in our lives who continue to doubt?  Continue to question?  Perhaps until the time that we all enter into that heavenly dwelling place.  But that is our task.  To teach one another, to be present with one another until these lessons are written entirely, wholly, completely on all of our hearts.  Then the time of teaching will have ended because we all will know.

We do not have to flee this place or wait an undetermined about of time for things to get better.  What we have to do is tune our eyes, tune our behaviors, tune our hands in rhythm with the movement of our God to reveal the construction of our heavenly home within our midst.

It is hard to do.  It is necessary to do.

And it is our joy to do.

Prayer: “O God of every nation, of every race and land, redeem your whole creation with your almighty hand; where hate and fear divide us, and bitter threats are hurled, in love and mercy guide us, and heal our strife worn world.  Keep bright in us the vision of days when war shall cease, when hatred and division give way to love and peace, till dawns the morning glorious when truth and justice reign, and Christ shall rule victorious o’er all the world’s domain.”*  Amen.

*”O God of Every Nation,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 435.

Plot From The Plain: Known

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 6:43-45

This past week I had the privilege to attend a conference on clergy finances. I know – exhilarating topic – but it turned into a conference on clergy health as a whole – personal health, financial health, and spiritual health. Some of the information was new, some of the information was an expansion on knowledge garnered at other times, and some of the information was reiterations of previous lessons.

I admit – in one of the reiterations of previous lessons sessions I initially checked out. What was the subject of that session? Boundaries. I’ve been hearing about boundaries it seems like forever. Boundaries are not walls between myself and others. Boundaries are the means by which I am responsible for myself and accountable to others with whom I am in relationship. Boundaries keep me safe; they state was is acceptable behavior and what is not. Boundaries enable me to stay true and in awareness of my feelings, choices, limits, gifts, loves, and values. I am by no means perfect with boundaries, but as a Wesleyan I believe that I am going onto perfection. I am learning, I am growing, I am holding myself accountable, and I am being held accountable.

As I sat in the session on boundaries I felt the convicting presence of the Holy Spirit settle on my heart as the speaker shared from hers. The lessons that convicted me are these:

1. Setting boundaries and then letting them slip to the back of my mind or out of my mind completely is not acceptable. My boundaries must stay current and fresh in my mind. I must be aware of them at all times so that if my behavior walks too closely to the line or crosses the line I will know in that moment rather than in hindsight.

2. The specific aim of the session was to explore boundaries as it relates to technology – emails, text messages, tweets, status updates, picture uploads, pins, blogs and whatever else is out there as far as social media. The convicting question was this – is the self that you are portraying in and through these media your true self?

Wow.

And as that relates to our Scripture passage this week – is the self you are portraying in and through these media who you want to be known as? Is this self how you want to be known? I believe those are two different but correlative questions.

And again I say…wow.

There is so much that is lost in translation when we connect through technology – context, tone, inflection, sarcasm, emotion, and more. And then there is also so much that can be gained – boldness, passive aggression, outright anger, and more.

There are some things we say via technology that we would never say in person…there are somethings I have said via these electronic means that I would never say in person. I am not perfect, but I am going onto perfection.

When I say these things – is that how I want to be known? Do I want what I say through these forums to conflict with how I am known in person? Or do I want it to be a seamless transition from one to the other?

I don’t want to be a good tree in the flesh that produces rancid fruit experienced in electronic life.

The facilitator joked, “This is my boundary: if whatever I am about to post I would not say in person to my mother or to Jesus, then I will not post it.” The room laughed. I laughed. And then that Spirit of conviction became a Spirit of peace. Jesus knows all my thoughts – Jesus knows my heart on my brightest and on my gloomiest days. Jesus knows and Jesus redeems so that others will know and experience my heart, my true self, as Jesus does.

After this experience I don’t think I’ll be scoffing at reiterations of previous lessons anymore. God knew that I needed this lesson. It went straight to my heart. It led me to take a good long look in the mirror – some of it I liked and some of it God is continuing to work on, work in, and work out. God’s grace is in the boundaries. God’s redemption is in the boundaries.

I’ll be in the boundaries.

Prayer: “Come, all of you, come, bearers of burden, come forward, I will give you rest; don’t wait for long; all of you who are weary, come to me, the Christ Jesus The Lord of all, the Savior, King of humankind. Come, all of you, come trouble-minded, come forward, I will give you peace, the peaceful mind; all of you who are hungry, come to me, receive bread and the water of life, provided by Jesus your Lord.”* Amen.

*”Come, All of You,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 350.

Heritage: Builders of Our Tradition

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 16:13-20

One of the first major milestones in any teenager’s life is driving.  I couldn’t wait to drive.  I remember my parents ordering the driver’s ed manual for me to study for my learner’s permit.  I remember my dad driving me to the bustling metropolis of Dade City to get my learner’s permit.  The DMV was on a hill way above the road and all I could think was…if I get my license, please don’t make me back down this crazy driveway!  I remember my parents insisting, impressing, requiring that my brother and I take driver’s ed in summer school or we would not step within 100 feet of the driver’s seat in the family vehicles.  But my most vivid memory was “the talk” my folks had with my brother and I after we turned in our learner’s permits and received our full licenses.

You know…”the talk”…

Keys in hand they said,

“You do not have to drive.  Driving is a privilege.  It requires responsibility and discipline and maturity.  And if you abuse this privilege, you will lose it.”

Then the keys were passed.

I think this is a pretty standard talk…wonder if you receive it in a script on a page of that elusive parenting handbook I keep hearing about…

In our Scripture lesson this week Peter receives keys from Jesus – keys to the Kingdom of heaven.  And much like receiving car keys, responsibility and discipline and maturity were required to receive these keys.  But in a little different twist, if the followers of Christ abused what they had been given, they wouldn’t lose the keys.  No.  How they treated what they received on earth would be reflected in heaven.

Jesus said, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  We have been entrusted with these keys to open up God’s word and God’s forgiveness to all people.  What we do matters.  What we say matters.  How we say it matters.  And what we don’t say matters.

How we respond to this great responsibility matters.

It has eternal effects.

I am continually amazed as I serve among the Reeves’ community that truly all means all.  I am amazed that Reeves is a community where we have agreed to live into the United Methodist motto of open minds, open hearts, and open doors.  We do not serve free of scrutiny.  We do not serve free of judgment or trial.  But in our service we acknowledge that we have received the keys from Christ.  We acknowledge that abuse has been done with them and by them before.  And we acknowledge our responsibility to stand in the gaps, returning to God’s word and God’s forgiveness for ourselves that we may seek the forgiveness of others.

It is a powerful place to be.  It is a place where I truly believe I am engaging Kingdom work daily.

The keys we hold are a privilege.  A privilege received from Christ’s own hand.  With them we are binding great things for God’s present and coming Kingdom.  And Lord, if in some folly we bind things unfit for the Kingdom, in your grace and in your wisdom, release them.

Prayer: “Lead on, O King eternal, till sin’s fierce war shall cease, and holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace.  For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums; with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”  Amen.*

*from “Lead On, O King Eternal” from The United Methodist Hymnal, 580.

Marinate: Among the Thorns

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 13:7, 22

Yesterday I had the opportunity to gather with a small group of fellow clergy in the Orlando area to discern and brainstorm and craft liturgy for some of our Annual Conference worship services.

(For folks reading this that are not familiar with Annual Conference – it is the annual gathering of United Methodist clergy and lay persons across the Florida Conference, which spans from Key West to the time change line west of Tallahassee, to do the work of the church.  We have plenary business and voting sessions that are punctuated, enhanced, grounded, interpreted, and appreciated through the worship services that precede and follow them.)

Our over-arching desire yesterday was to have the liturgy truly be the work of the people.  Often in liturgy the leader or the one provides a bulk of the speaking and naming of what we are celebrating or offering petitions for while the people or the all have brief admissions.  We want to flip that as much as we can – so the people – the all – have a greater presence in leading the liturgy.

Once we established this structure our focus shifted to the subjects of the liturgy.  Quite simply, we ain’t finished yet.  (Pretty confident we will refrain from using the word ain’t in the liturgy, but I find it fitting presently.)  As Christians, as United Methodists, we are constantly becoming.  As John Wesley would say, we are going onto perfection.  We are not there yet.  We are unfinished.  We are imperfect.  But through God’s grace, leading, and provision each day we are working out our salvation to reclaim the image of God in which we were created.

We paused to draw images into our mind that illustrate our unfinished state:

  • Hunger
  • Poverty
  • Access to quality healthcare and education
  • Struggles with conflict resolution and peace making
  • Judgment, prejudice, and hate
  • Premeditated acts of evil instead of intentional acts of kindness

Our meeting dismissed with each of the team member’s receiving our writing assignments and setting dates of when we would regather.

Our meeting dismissed an hour before the bombs exploded at and near the Boston Marathon finish line.

I drove home to check on one of my four-legged-children that did not have a very good weekend – she ate something she should not have eaten! – and shortly thereafter received a call from a friend of mine asking if I had heard from another friend who was attending the Boston Marathon as the cheerleading section for a runner.  I said no…and immediately my heart sank.  What had happened?  Bombings, he said.

Like a moth to the flame I watched the news coverage from afternoon till late night.  I waited anxiously to hear from my friend Sarah.  She texted around 11pm that she was home and all in her party were safe.  She was shaken but okay.

I give God incredible thanks for her protection and cry out in raging anguish for those who were injured and lost their lives in this senseless act of violence.  I have the utmost respect for the first responders and runners that headed into rather than away from the smoke.  God bless you and keep you always.

It is sadly ironic that hours before the liturgy team was brainstorming specific examples of where we, as an unfinished people, are still in need of God’s grace…and this horrific example came barreling towards us…

My God, we are unfinished.  When will we as a species acknowledge the unfinished-ness and brokenness and instead of amplifying it act in such a way to heal it?  When will we say “NO!” to the bombings and massacres and violence and hate?  When will we truly come alongside the persons who think and scheme and enact these horrors so that they can be healed, we can be healed, and then these evils won’t happen again?  When will the systemic evil be transformed?

My God, I confess to you that I am in the thorns this week.  I am struggling to grow in faith and trust of your word alongside tragic events that seek to choke out my joy.  Lord I recognize that the thorns must grow up alongside healthy seeds because if we remove one we will surely damage the other.  I am unsatisfied with this reality because it appears that the thorns are winning.  With each act of violence and hate and apathy to change or heal the first two, it seems like the thorns are the victor.  In these dark and thorny spaces, God of goodness and God of light, assure me that though sorrow may last for the night joy comes in the morning.  Your joy is coming.  Your goodness will prevail.  Strengthen me to be an instrument of your will and a bringer of your peace.  Deliver me – deliver us – from the thorns.

Prayer: “Can you hear the voice of the children softly pleading for silence in their shattered world?  Angry guns preach a gospel full of hate, blood of the innocent on their hands. Crying Jesus, ‘Help me to feel the sun again upon my face? For when darkness clears, I know you’re near, bringing peace again.'”* Merciful God, hear this the prayer of the children and the agonizing confession that we have failed…as evidenced by our offering this prayer yet again. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Bring your peace. Amen.

*from The Prayer of the Children by Kurt Bestor

Unrest: Mounting Responsibilities

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 25:14-30

This Sunday is Palm Sunday!  Huzzah!  Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem!!!

But I won’t be preaching on that text…where would the fun in that be?  Although…I do have a really great sermon on the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem…everyone needs to hear at least one sermon on a donkey in their life…if you’re interested in that one check back with me on Sunday, April 13, 2014.

*super early sermon planning – awesome*

The text for this week is the Parable of the Talents – easily one of my favorite parables; although, it is a rough one.  The first time I heard it I was absolutely captured by the thought that Jesus could turn to me and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  I remember one of my youth pastors (now we are colleagues – woah!) growing up teaching on this parable.  Alex spoke with such conviction about this parable – to use what we are (what I am!) given by God to the fullest – each and every day – so that we are (I am!) counted among the faithful at the time of judgment.

This message wasn’t to scare us into service – like you better do this or Jesus will getcha!  No.  That wasn’t the message…there were other organizations in town that played that tune.  One even had an event each year called “Hellbound”…imagine a haunted house scenario that groups would proceed through but each “room” was a different spectacle of someone that had unfortunately met his or her demise and didn’t know Christ; therefore, they were Hellbound.  Everything from drive-by shootings to car accidents to substance abuse to suicide to the steps of an abortion clinic.

Rough.Stuff.

Not my cup of…coffee.  (I don’t drink tea.)

We have talents so we can use them to the furtherance of God’s Kingdom on earth.  Not a use ’em or lose ’em mentality.  Not a use ’em or else mentality.  But a use them because God gave them and I am so overwhelmed and excited to receive them that I can’t do anything else!  That kind of mentality.

Each talent we receive from God is an opportunity – an opportunity to act, an opportunity to respond.  And I think the last thing that God wants is for these talents, these opportunities, to be missed.  If we miss them, then they are gone…and that negligence and carelessness is what will keep us from among the faithful.

I think what frightens folks – I know at times it frightens me – is that we receive a talent and that introduces us to an opportunity, but we are hesitant to get started – to jump in with both feet – because we can’t see the end result…where in the world will this take us??  I am sure if God wanted us to know that immediately, God would tell us upon our receipt of the talent.  That we don’t know is evidence that God wants us to trust – to trust God to do what God does – that God gives generously and rewards greatly and invites us to come along in faith.  We don’t know where our feet are going or on what they will land, but God does, and that assurance should be our motivation to get out there, to carpe diem it up, to get dirt under our fingernails, and to serve so as to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Reflection: What talents has God given me?  Am I athletic, an effective communicator, a good listener, an artist, a musician, a dancer, a financer, a hair dresser, a gentle hand, a kind heart, a candlestick maker?  If I struggle to identify my talents, who can I talk to in order to discern them?  How can I use my talents for God’s purposes?  How is God calling me to use my talents?  If I am resisting the opportunities that my talents present me, how can I start to engage them?  Who can hold me accountable to employing my talents?

Prayer: Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.  Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.  Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of thy love.  Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for thee.  Amen.*

*”Take My Life, and Let It Be” from The United Methodist Hymnal Book of Worship, 399.

Re-Enrolling

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Job …

A text from the Book of Job.  So for good measure…you could read it.  It’s just a bit of light reading…promise.

*snicker*

The worship service at Reeves this weekend will be entirely under lay leadership as I am on a little adventure out of town and my Lay Leader is preaching on a text from Job…he has 42 chapters from which to select…that should be fun!

It’s my first Sunday off since the end of September 2012…and I’ll be honest…I’m excited.  I’ll be spending the weekend camping in the great outdoors, breathing fresh air, clearing my head, roasting marshmallows, and releasing the mountains of tension in my shoulders.  And if not releasing…starting to release.  

But a thought before I head out.  I think it’s time I…and we…re-enroll.  

Last night at Bible Study we concluded a series by Ray Vander Laan entitled In the Dust of the Rabbi and Ray asked, “How can we as disciples go and make disciples, baptizing and teaching them to obey if we don’t know for ourselves what Jesus said?”  

If we haven’t spent time in the posture and practice of a talmid, the Hebrew word for disciple by

  • Praying
  • Searching the Scriptures
  • Attending worship
  • Studying alongside teachers

then how are we prepared to speak with integrity before others about joining us in the practices that we do?  We are not in a place to speak from the heart, to speak with and from personal experience, to speak with conviction, to speak with the fruits of faith to so as to move mountains!

And I don’t think we are in that place because, and yes, I’m about to say it, we are lazy.  You. Me. We. Are. Lazy.  

Just like everything else in life – “it” whatever “it” is – is not my primary responsibility.  

How many people come to church, sit in the pews waiting for the preacher or the choir members or the ushers or the Sunday School teachers or the fellowship directors or whoever to make them into the disciples that Christ wants them to be but won’t move one iota to contribute towards that call on his or her own?  

The talmids in Jesus’ day had to be responsible.  That was part of the job description.  It wasn’t an option; this behavior, this lifestyle was expected and required as one’s best offering to their rabbi…and yet we seem to offer Jesus leftovers week after week…

I co-lead a weekly high school ladies Bible study with a friend and colleague in ministry and we always try to come up with interesting ways for the girls to briefly share with us about their weeks.  One session it was describe your week through a food and one of the girls said something like “my week was like half-eaten week old Chinese food that’s been left in your car.”

Is that what we are offering to Jesus when we offer ourselves as talmids?  Is that the level of conviction and commitment we bring and then give to going in his name to make other talmids baptizing them and teaching them to obey?

Perhaps that’s why in a lot of places it looks like the church is just spinning its wheels…

My friends, I am reminded, I am convicted that there is so much work to be done.  Responsibility must be taken.  

As a clergy person I have to commit to equipping the persons I serve with the resources they need to be talmids. I have to stop making up excuses for not teaching resources and creating shortcuts for the persons I serve because it’s easier.  I am guilty of doing things myself because it’s easier to go it alone rather than partnering with another disciple.  Lord, forgive my pride and lead me to come alongside.  

And we all – everyone – have to get into the Word, get into worship, get into prayer, get into study.  

It’s time to get with it.  It’s time to take that responsibility.  

It’s time to re-enroll.