Sunday, February 22, 2015

It's All About The Journey

Gen 12:1-5a Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother's son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent

Lent is a 40 day journey with Jesus as he helps us understand his ministry and his call on our lives.

Traditionally, the reading for the first Sunday of Lent is the Gospel story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.

Mark 1:9-15
 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

Mark gives the briefest report of the story --- never telling us the details of the temptation that Jesus faced in the dessert.  The other Gospel writers add a great deal to the story.

Regardless --- the story is our starting point for this Lenten journey --- a journey in which we too will be tempted and pulled off course. 

But also a journey in which we can learn a great deal.

Dr. John Sylhavey was once called the most brilliant man in America.
He was a professor of History and Philosophy at Harvard for 35 years.
Dr. Sylhavey grew up poor.
He fought in World War 1,
and afterwards he did some of the first mapping of Alaska and then he worked his way through school.
He acquired 2 bachelors degrees,
3 masters degrees,
and 2 PH.D.'s!
Dr. Sylhavey wrote 36 hooks in his career, and composed 2 operas.

In 1965, just as he was about to retire, he was asked to address the graduating class at Harvard. This is what he said:

I am now an old man. I am at the end of a long and hard career of teaching. And I am amazed that you would ask me to speak to you, you who are just starting out. But here is what I have to say.

For over 20 years most of you have been climbing the creaky ladder of American Academic Institutions. In that time you have read thousands of pages of text. You have written and re-written hundreds of papers. And now you are about to go out into the world, and you ask me what you should know. What you should know is this: THAT YOU DON"T KNOW ANYTHING AT ALL.

You ask me how I know? I know because I have spent many years in Academic Institutions; I have read millions of pages of text, and written a few myself I have tried to understand what I need to know, and yet know, as I finally leave my post, I realize that I don't know anything compared with what I really need to know.  My job, and your job, tomorrow and every tomorrow is to begin to learn what it is that I really need to know in life.

Amazing, how simple, and yet how profound. Here is a man who was one of the most learned men in America, and yet he says that he is not yet done --------- as a matter of fact he would say that he is only beginning!

If we are honest, isn't that really true with all of us?
I know that has been true in my life!

Thirty years ago when I graduated from The Duke Divinity School --- with my hard earned and hard won Masters of Divinity, I thought that I had learned it all --- certainly all that I needed to know --- and I was ready to inflict that learning on the world.


I found myself serving a basically rural church just outside Plymouth, Indiana.
                                           How does one minister to a church that has no desire to grow or have new people attend, but are happy paying the bills and doing their thing?

After four years I was asked to start a new church
                                           I had no clue about how one starts a new church

When they asked me to start the church I was asked to start a "traditional United Methodist Church" that would attract young people.

As you can guess, that model didn't work very well. So after a year and a half, we shifted to a "contemporary model" of worship ---> do you think I "knew" how to do that? --- I didn’t have a clue!!

During that time — I read everything I could get my hands on — I went to every seminar I could — trying to figure out how to reach young people. 

In the process I met Lyle Schaller, the Church Growth Guru. 
He was fascinated with some of the things that we were doing, and used Celebration as a case study for a seminar he lead.  He also wrote of Celebration Church, and its young upstart pastor in a couple of his books and articles.

After six exciting years I left Celebration,
my precious child -
that I nurtured and helped give birth to,
that I sat up many sleepless nights with as it went through (and I went through) the growing pains of childhood. 

I was sent from there to serve a church and manage a staff at Simpson, a
large transitional church in downtown Fort Wayne --- and did I know what I was getting myself into ---- had I learned enough?

After three heartbreaking years of trying to convince a dying church that God had something more for them — and realizing that I could not re-create my experience in Warsaw; I was sent here. 

To a church that was on the verge of GREAT THINGS. 
A church that is full of Christians who are looking for ways to put their ministry into action. 

Had I learned enough?

In the past seventeen years we have done some amazing things together:
                                           more than doubled the budget
                                           added staff — including an associate pastor
                                           added and grown all kinds of awesome ministries
                                           Built our fellowship hall
                                           getting ready to add a columbarium

Did I have a clue how to lead you through most of that? 

NO, but I read and studied and tried to stay one step ahead of you.

I am constantly aware of how much learning I have yet to do!

I really appreciate Dr. Sylhavey's when he said: “My job, and your job, tomorrow and every tomorrow is to begin to learn what it is that I really need to know in life.”

What I have learned so far on my journey is that learning is something that we never finish.

If we stop learning, our journey is over.
Cut short! 
Robbed of reaching its full potential.
Learning is the never ending cycle and challenge of life!

Just as it is with learning —> so too it is with Christianity!

Our Christian journey is a continual process of learning and experiencing the power and the fullness of Jesus!

Too often we see being a Christian as a state of BEING.

Being a Christian thus falls into the same category as:
I am right handed,
I am getting grey,
I am a man

I am a Christian

but Christianity is not, nor can it be, a state of being.

Being a Christian is adopting a certain lifestyle.

Too often we view Christianity as merely subscribing to a set of beliefs.
I believe in the constitution of the United States, therefore I am an American;

I believe Jesus died for my sins, therefore I am a Christian.

Some take it even farther;
I believe in adult baptism in flowing water by immersion, therefore I am a TRUE Christian.

Or, I believe that one must speak in tongues or be slain by the Spirit, so I am a true Christian.

BUT, Christianity is not simply believing the right things.
It is not just subscribing to some set of beliefs.

The point of Christianity is not to arrive at some knowledge, nor even to arrive at some state of maturity, nor even to arrive in heaven!

The point of Christianity is the journey that we find ourselves on as we strive to experience the fullness of Jesus Christ.
As we strive to be Christ like!

Christianity is not some destination --- it is a JOURNEY

And I know of no one inside of this building, or even outside of it, INCLUDING MYSELF, that has arrived!

Christianity is a journey--- filled with struggles, trials, temptations, disappointments, joys and sorrows ---> accomplishments and failures.

Being a Christian means being part of a journey that sometimes sees us taking one step forward and two steps backward --- one success and two failures --- Sometimes we gain ground, sometimes we slip and fall --- but always we are on the journey!

Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament illustrates this perfectly.
“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘GO from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.’”

Go, God says. Pack your things and be off. 
Go to the place that I will show you.
Forget the maps, forget the travel guides, GO!

Trusting when God says go, is awfully scary!
I know!

There have been times in my life where God has said very clearly to me; GO.

Nine years ago I was blessed by receiving a Lilly Endowment Renewal Leave Grant.

Because of your generosity and the generosity of the grant I was able to take three months and reflect, renew and listen to God’s voice in my life.

It was an awesome time
As a family we were able to take a trip to Hawaii celebrating Jessica’s graduation from High School and the beginning of her college career at Butler

I was able to attend Duke Divinity School’s Annual Lecture series

I was also able to attend Golf school --- it didn’t help!

And certainly one of the highlights was the month I spent --- by myself --- in Israel.  It was amazing!

As I left for my three months we had a great celebration --- but as I walked out the door I left with all kinds of questions ---

I left questioning my faith,
who God is and who Jesus is in my life.

Those of you who read my blog got to see some of the questions that I was --- and continue to wrestle with.

I had become disillusioned with the institutional church, and I questioned whether I could continue as a part of that system --- a wrestling match that has gone on for the last nine years.

God and I spent many hours wrestling in the desert together. 

I came back with more questions than answers to be honest

Questions that I have wrestled with mightily up until very recently

Often times we do not get a clear vision as to the direction that our journey is to take.

But, nevertheless, we are all called to the journey.

Dr. James Dobson says:
All too often we expect to see God's leading like the headlights of a car -- providing direction way out in front of us! In reality, God's leading is like a flashlight, dispelling the darkness in our midst and providing direction in the present.

On our journey often we consume too much energy yearning for and expecting a bright beam of light — and we refuse to move until we have it -- and we MISS the guiding light of Christ in the present, at our feet, leading the way every day of our lives.

Christianity is a journey, and the point of the journey is the journey

We need to learn to look for the unexpected in life instead of always anticipating what hill we must climb, or next hoop we must jump through.

Look for the unexpected--- for therein lies the Holy moments of life!
          Believe me --- I have come to figure that out

Experience the journey rather than simply moving through life thinking that you know it all — thinking that you have arrived, because the truth is — we all have more to learn -- we have only just begun!

To be a Christian means that we are involved in the here and now --- today.

Not pine-ing for that day of reckoning when God will set the world straight.

Jesus didn't teach us to sit down and think we have it all together and wait for eternity --- Jesus tells all of us to GO!

Mat 28:19 - 20 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

But as I say all of this, we have got to quit being so obsessed with getting from here to there!

We have got to quit looking at the end of the journey and missing out on what is happening right here and now.

When we look that way --- we are miserable, because we can never fully get there.

The point of the journey IS THE JOURNEY! 

People who put all their hope on an afterlife and fail to see the beauty of God's creation in this life --- have missed the entire point of being a Christian.

Do you remember when you were a child and were on a trip and you would ask your parents a question that went something like this: "Are we there yet?"

Compare the agony and the unending nature of that trip with a trip that you have been on and traveling was the trip.
The traveling was an adventure in and of itself! 
Which trip would you rather go on today?

If we don't involve ourselves in the journey--- if we are continually asking: ARE WE THERE YET?, when it comes to our Christian journey ---> then the journey becomes of absolute misery and our walk with Christ is an illusion.

BUT when we are able to involve ourselves in the journey itself, we find ourselves engaged with the living Christ and we find beauty and meaning in life.

Remember what God said at the end of every day of creation: IT IS GOOD!

Let's not forget that, because the beauty of God's creation can carry us through those moments when our journey is going through those valleys that the Psalmist called the valley of the shadow of death!

Jesus is constantly calling us to look at today.
To quit focusing on the illusory signs of tomorrow.
To embrace the gift of today, to experience Jesus presence in the here and now.
Experience Him as we journey today.

The problem is, when we are always looking somewhere in our future for our fulfillment, we miss the presence of the Christ in our midst --- the presence of Christ in the present!

The point of our Christian journey IS THE JOURNEY'

Over this season of lent, I want to examine this concept that being a Christian means that we are fellow travelers and with that in mind I want to examine how we can make our journey the best it can be.

The point of Christianity is the journey that we find ourselves on: It is a never ending journey

The point of the journey is the journey--the ways in which we encounter Christ along the way --- thereby continually experiencing the fullness of Christ in new ways.

None of us know it all!

None of us have arrived.

May we all open ourselves to experience the present as we continue our journey with Jesus Christ as our guide!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Tears and New Life

One of the things about being human is that we are known to break down every now and again and have a good cry

Some of us are even known to cry at the drop of a hat --- as the expression goes

But not everyone
Big Boys Don’t Cry is the unwritten rule that seems to be drilled into us by society.

Do you remember Dan Rather --- that hard hitting news anchorman for CBS? 

He was known for his aloofness and the fact that nothing could rattle him.

But shortly after 9/11 he appeared on the Letterman show and people were shocked when talking about the attack he began to cry.

Big Boys Don’t Cry

But they do . . .

I cry over everything --- it is embarrassing.

And I try hard to cover it up.

Commercials – I cry
Plays --- I cry
Anything sentimental --- I can’t help it

At the Wedding on Sunday, the brides brothers were betting how long it would take before the dad began crying --- watching him struggling to hold back his tears --- well, it brought tears to my eyes.

The truth is a lot of us cry

Kids cry when their feelings are hurt
          When their mom leaves them with a babysitter
          Or when a teacher scolds them for being disruptive in class

We cry during arguments
          At the loss of a loved one
          When watching a movie
          When listening to a song
          When a thought runs through our minds
          When we win the lottery
          When our children do us proud
          When our child gets married --- or when they don’t

We cry tears of revenge
          Tears of empathy
          Tears of pleasure
          Tears of pain and anguish

The bible is full of stories filled with tears
          Abraham weeps when Sarah dies
          Joseph bawls when he meets Benjamin
          David cries at the death of his son Absalom
          Jesus, in that famously short verse weeps over the death of Lazarus

Some, I will cynically add, seem to have the ability to cry on cue when it benefits them.
          I imagine, we can all think of people that this is true about

But why all this crying ---- and what does it have to do with Ash Wednesday?

Today marks the beginning of lent --- the season of the church year that invites us to journey through the darkness of Jesus persecution and death to his resurrection.

The prophet Joel invites us to cry
          To cry tears of repentance

Divine judgment is on its way and God --- speaking through Joel says to us: “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning”

This coming day of the Lord is terrifying to the people of Joel’s day --- but God is offering them an opportunity to return to a relationship with God --- return through tears of repentance

But --- Joel says --- these tears must be authentic

God isn’t interested in our crocodile tears --- or in weeping designed to manipulate others.

God is interested in weeping that accompanies authentic change of heart
          Weeping that leads to repentance

To repent is to literally turn your life around and walk in a new direction
It means to turn away from sin --- whatever is keeping us from God --- and turn toward God’s way and love

“Return to the Lord, you God,” begs the prophet, “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

It is here that our crying gets complex

Crying is not only a sign of sorrow over our sins ---  but it can also be an expression of joy over God’s goodness.

Joel reminds us that we are invited to turn toward a gracious and forgiving God --- not toward a vengeful and punishing God.

God is:
          Full of goodwill
          Showing the love of a mother for her child
          Slow to anger
          Waiting patiently for repentance
          Full of steadfast love

Just think of the parable of the Prodigal son
The prodigal goes off to a distant country
Squanders his fortune in dissolute living
And THEN he repents
By that I mean when he hits rock bottom he decides to turn himself around and return to his father.

Lloyd Ogilvie, chaplain of US senate from 1995 – 2003, reminds us that although this story is commonly known as “the parable of the Prodigal Son” it really ought to be called the “parable of the prodigal God” 
Think about it ----
The father represents God in the story and the father is really the prodigal

Prodigal of course means: one who spends or gives lavishly and foolishly

God is the one who is extravagant --- lavish --- unrestrained --- maybe even foolish in his love

The Good News, of course, is that God’s forgiveness knows NO boundaries
His joy knows no restraint
God runs to meet us
God puts God’s arms around us --- kisses us and welcomes us home

What Joel wants us to remember is that our crying ---- whether happy or sad --- should result in changed behavior.

Joel says: “rend your hearts and not your clothing”
Change your insides and not just your outsides
Make sure your fasting and weeping and mourning are part of a new walk --- not just a new talk

What Joel is really speaking out against is hypocrisy
People who say they are repenting --- turning around --- but fail to do it

Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that repentance is not complete until confession and pardon lead to “penance”
Penance being a set of actions that allow community to be restored

“Just for a lark,” she suggests, “image going to your pastor and confessing your rampant materialism, your devotion to things instead of people, and your isolation from the poor whom Jesus loved.”

Picture yourself confessing, with tears, all those things that you have done to rip the fabric of your community

She goes on:
“Then imagine being forgiven and given your penance: To select five of your favorite things --- including perhaps your Bose radio and your new Coach book bag --- and to match them up with five people who you know would turn cartwheels to have them.  Then on Saturday, put your lawn mower in your trunk, drive down to that transitional neighborhood where all the old people live and offer to mow lawns for free until dark.”

I hope you are noticing that none of this is what you might call “standard punishment”
None of it is designed to inflict pain on you

Instead it is penance --- which is for the purpose of showing that your life is now turned around and that you are devoted to repairing relationships and restoring community.

If you find yourself crying over your lost radio --- just remember ---- when you weep in the process of true repentance, you’re crying the tears of new life.


Tears have long been thought to bring life to the dead.

Long before scandal plagued politicians (and religious leaders) learned to turn on the tears in a desperate attempt to save their careers --- people were making strong associations between crying and the restoration of life.

When, in the Egyptian tale, Isis finds her brother Osiris dead --- it is her tears that bring the dead god Osiris back to life.

The Mesopotamians have similar stories

And the Bible reminds us again and again the link between tears and new life.

Psalm 126 says:
May those who sow in tears
    reap with shouts of joy.
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy

Those who go out weeping,

And of course Jesus tells us the same thing:
Luke 6:21 (NRSV)
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

At the Last Supper Jesus reminds all of us:
John 16:20    (NRSV)
Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.

          They are linked in the promises of our faith

This Lent --- believe that if you return to our gracious God with all your heart --- with fasting, weeping and mourning, then we can discover a fullness of life that we have never known before.

If we turn our lives around --- work hard for the restoration of our relationships and our community we will know a joy that we never thought was possible.

Our tears will lead us to resurrection life!

And that is something to cry about!!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Service is the Next Step

Matthew 5:10-12   (NRSV)
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Proverbs 31:8-9   (NRSV)
Speak out for those who cannot speak,
    for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.

If we want to experience REVIVAL in our lives, in our church, in our community and world it requires that we begin to look at the world differently

For me, it requires a return to innocence

A letting go of trying to be in control of everything around me and putting my trust --- putting my faith --- in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of Jesus and Peter and Paul.

We have talked these last few weeks of what that means.
          Our need to turn back to God
Revelation 2: 5a    (NRSV)
Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first
          Our need to seek holiness
1 Peter 1:16   (NRSV)
as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
          Our need to fully embrace the GIFT of grace
Ephesians 2:8   (NRSV)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God
          And finally to live out what Wesley called "Works of Mercy"

John Wesley believed that as one journeys through the "means of grace":
          Prevenient Grace ---- Justifying Grace ---- Sanctifying Grace
the proof is found in how we choose to live, love and interact with the world.

Adam Hamilton writes:
Too often, Christians have thought that the goal of faith is to be born anew and cultivate a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ."  Wesley considered this goal to be an essential part of the Christian life, but he also believed that focusing solely on one's personal relationship makes for an incomplete faith --- narcissism masquerading as Christian Spirituality.
He goes on and says:
As Christians, our salvation is FROM narcissism, indifference, sin and death, and it is FOR good works.

Wesley agreed with Paul who, in our passage from last week reminded us that we were made for good works.  Do you remember?
Ephesians 2:8-10   (NRSV)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Works and faith are inseparable

The key, however, for Wesley and Paul and for us is making sure we keep them in the proper order.

Works, doing good deeds, acts of mercy --- are always to be a response to faith ---- a response to the Grace that God has shared with us --- not a way of earning God's love.

Do you remember what Wesley said the goal of the Christian life was?
          SANCTIFICATION ---- being made perfect in Christian love
That for Wesley, and for us --- should be the goal of our Christian walk.

And do you remember what Sanctification looks like?
          Loving God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength
          Loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself

There was a second way that Wesley described sanctification, and that was through what we often call the Golden Rule. 

That second great summary of Jewish law that is found in Matthew's Gospel
Matthew 7:12   (NRSV)
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

For Wesley ---- the Golden Rule should be evident in our lives as we move toward sanctification.
          We should experience what Paul called the Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians
Galatians 5:22-23   (NRSV)
the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

But it should also manifest itself in "Works of Mercy"

Now if we were to go back and look at Roman Catholic theology we would find that there are 14 defined works of mercy
          Seven are what they call "corporal acts of mercy"
          Seven are spiritual works of mercy

Wesley spoke of all of these and other acts of mercy in which we INTENTIONALLY care for and assist others who are in need.

The corporal acts of mercy are drawn from Jesus parable of the Sheep and the Goats
Feed the hungry
provide drink for the thirsty
clothe the naked
care for the homeless
visit the sick
minister to the prisoners
bury the dead

The Spiritual Works of mercy are:
instructing the ignorant
counseling those who doubt
admonishing sinners
bearing wrongs patiently
forgiving others willingly
comforting the afflicted
praying for others

It is through these acts of mercy that God is working in and through our lives

Revival --- personal and communal --- is found in living out those acts of mercy.

One of the things that Wesley really challenged us on is to make sure that we truly loved God with our WHOLE head, heart, soul, strength

Wesley understood that most of us struggle with loving God with ALL OF OUR BEING
Most of us are usually pretty good at either loving God with our heart or our head, but loving with both seems to be a challenge.

Every week I come across more and more news articles, surveys and polls that are showing that when our young people head off to college that more and more of them (than ever before) are turning away from organized religion.

I read those articles and frankly I am not too surprised.

Christianity like the rest of our country has become more and more polarized

Fundamental Christianity has established a pretty clear --- TAKE IT OR LEAVE it stance on many social issues.

And our young people are taking them up on the offer and leaving.

I am shocked by the things that people post and say on places like FaceBook and Twitter --- it seems often that we feel like loving God completely means it is OK to speak with venom against those whom we disagree.

And I see, and hear to many of the young people who have grown up in this church, and other churches throwing up their hands and saying: "I don't need it!"

But do you know what the craziest thing is . . .
          While they don't GO to church --- they are actually BEING the CHURCH

They are living out those acts of mercy
          They are filled with compassion and caring

They are engaged in serving others and trying to make a difference in the world --- trying to make the world a better place for EVERYBODY

How are you doing at doing at loving God with your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength --- and at loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself?

Monday night Nancy and I were at a TradeWinds Bowling event.

What makes this event special is that the sponsors who come out to bowl only bring out three people for their team.
That is because we add a consumer to be the fourth member of each team

We call it a Fundraiser --- but that really isn't what it is all about.

It's about you and me getting to meet and interact with some very special people

We served pizza and pop and gave out a few prizes.

But the night was all about new friends.

This was Michael's first day at TradeWinds --- he moved into a group home that morning.

Keith when he came to TradeWinds would not communicate with anyone.
Today he struggles to speak --- and he is very hard to understand
But the week before he was telling me about going bowling and the next day after the event --- he told me about how much fun he had

But the highlight for me was Sara
Sara is one of those special people who is FILLED with joy
One of her nicknames is giggles --- because she loves to giggle
At one point during the evening she came up to me
threw her hands in the air and said
"This is the best day of my life"  and then as an afterthought she added "Up till now"
Because EVERY DAY --- Every moment is the best day of her life!

Let me ask you:
          Who was blessed that night?

The truth is --- when we forge those kinds of relationships --- when we live in service to others --- we BOTH are blessed!

I came across the most amazing story this week.
It was probably on someone's facebook page --- and I often don't click on things that people have shared on their page --- but for whatever reason --- this time I did.

It was a story about two young wrestlers in Georgia --- and I wish I could show you the video, but I couldn't get it to work.

Demetrius de Moor's father was killed in action in Iraq.

Demetrius is an up an coming Wrestler and he was busy preparing for the second most important wrestling tournament in Georgia each year.
The most important --- is of course the State Finals --- but the oldest running wrestling tournament in Georgia is the South Metro Tourny.

Michael Lind is also a wrestler --- he is a member of his HS wrestling team
          He loves the sport but has never participated in an actual meet.

Michael's coach went to Demetrius' coach to see if someone on their team would be willing to wrestle against Michael.

Demetrius volunteered.

Of course, what made the match interesting was Michael suffers from Down's Syndrome

Demetrius could have creamed him, but instead he wrestled with him and he forced Michael to earn a hard fought victory.

It was the greatest day in Michael's life.
But maybe not surprisingly ---- also in Demetrius' life.

Because he learned the most important lesson --- it's not about winning or losing --- there are some things that are more important.

If you were to ask Demetrius who won that day --- he would tell you he did!

But what really shocked me was reading the comments people wrote about the video.

While 90% were amazed at what Demetrius did --- there were quite a few who took exception that he "let" Michael win.

Our heads know that it was crazy --- but when we temper our heads with our hearts --- when they are really working in tandem we know that what Demetrius did was an act of grace and mercy!
Demetrius didn't let Michael win
Michael let Demetrius win!

So, how about you?

How are you on the journey toward perfection?

If you haven't started, I invite you to take a moment RIGHT NOW and invite Jesus into your head and heart.
Ask Jesus to help you love him FULLY --- and to love your neighbor like you love yourself.

If you do that --- you are well on your way toward perfection!

Sunday, February 08, 2015

It's All About Grace

It’s All About Grace

Ephesians 2:8-10   (NRSV)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Two weeks ago we talked about the difficult concept of HOLINESS.

I define holiness --- for a Christian --- as living "in Christ" and I shared with you some question that you can use to ask yourselves every day --- in every situation that will help you "live in Christ"

How does this action, word, thought affect my relationship with God?
How does this action, word, thought affect God’s ability to love others through me?
How am I fitting God into every aspect of my life for God’s sake?
Is God a major factor in everything I do, say, think, and feel?

If we can all learn to do that --- to ask ourselves these questions --- the world (or at least our corner of the world) will be a much better place.

But the key to being able to ask those questions --- or at least ask them without them shaming ourselves into a set of behavior --- is to know and experience GRACE.

Grace is another of those tough concepts

Foremost --- Grace is a FREE GIFT
          If you hear nothing else from me --- hear this: GRACE IS FREE

Most of us seem to understand that concept with our heads
          We can verbalize that it is free
But most of us have a hard time embracing it with our hearts

That is precisely the problem that John Wesley had.
          He KNEW that grace was freely given by God
Unfortunately --- his heart often acted like it was something that one had to earn.

And until Wesley's Aldersgate experience --- that is exactly how he seemed to live.  Trying to do everything he could so that he could earn God's grace and so that you could as well.

The Greek word Charis --- which is translated into English as Grace is used 148 times in the New Testament.

The way the word is used in the New Testament it means:
an act of kindness, an expression of selfless love that is completely underserved and given without any expectation of reciprocity

When Paul uses the word in his letters found in the New Testament we see that for him GRACE has two distinct meanings.
          1.       a quality of God's character
          2.       a work of the Holy Spirit to help us become all that God intends us to be

I want to take a moment at look at these two ways that Paul had of understanding Grace and then we will look at how John Wesley understood it.

For whatever reason, many of us have become convinced that God is an angry God who is out to judge us and get us. 
          A God who is never satisfied with our sinful selves.
          A God who is always disappointed in us.

But that is not the way that Jesus describes God.

For Jesus God is love.
          God is a father who searches for a lost sheep or a lost son
          God is a friend of the least --- the prostitute, the poor, the drunkards
For Jesus --- God is a God of great mercy ---- a God of compassion --- a God of second, and third and fourth chances.  A God who NEVER gives up on us.

God is a God of GRACE --- not a God who is out to get us.
Grace IS God's character --- selfless and undeserved love

But not only is Grace God's very character --- Paul also sees grace as God's work in our lives through the Holy Spirit.

Though this God draws us closer.
God forgives us and transforms our very lives.

Grace is more than simply defining God's character --- Grace is an action word describing God's active attempt to build a relationship with us

When John Wesley talked about grace --- he spoke about it in three different ways.

You might even say that he identified three different types or forms of Grace
Prevenient Grace
Justifying Grace
Sanctifying Grace

Most of you are probably familiar with these three types of grace, but I want to take just a few minutes and walk us through them

They are somewhat sequential --- in other words --- we move from one type of Grace to another along our journey.

It all begins with PREVENIENT GRACE
While Wesley really didn't come up with this idea --- he is the one who really brought it to the forefront

Prevenient grace is the idea that God is working in our life whether you know it or not --- whether you are a Christian or not.
          God is reaching out to you with love and acceptance

We choose whether we accept this grace or not --- but God is constantly trying to woo us into a relationship with God

JUSTIFYING GRACE according to Wesley is what we experience when we say YES to God --- when we learn to put our trust in Jesus and recognize what Jesus has done for us.

This form of grace is what we experience when we come to understand that sin no longer has dominion in our lives. 

It is the grace that begins the process of freeing us from those things that hold us back from being the people God wants us to be.

Wesley, and the New Testament talk about this grace in terms of being born again --- it is the new beginning that we experience when we give our lives to God.

Wesley said:
"it is that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it into life: when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness."

Prevenient grace is what makes us able to hear --- to see --- to begin to respond to God's love. 

Justifying grace is what comes when we say YES to God. 

When we allow God to become first in our lives.  This is the new birth that the Bible talks about.

Paul put it this way in his letter to his friends at Corinth:
2 Corinthians 5:17   (NRSV)
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

In many ways, Justifying Grace is really the beginning of our relationship with God.

Prevenient grace is very one sided --- but when we accept a relationship with God we begin to see all that God has in store for us --- all that God has done for us.

God desires to help us become better people
          less selfish and more selfless
The holiness that I spoke of last week

This journey really begins to take shape when we experience justifying grace.

We begin to mature in our relationship.

And as we move toward holiness we experience the third form of grace that Wesley spoke of and that is SANCTIFYING GRACE

To be sanctified is to be made holy

Wesley suggested that we experience sanctification when we live the Jesus Creed.

When we love God completely with our heart, our soul, our mind and our strength --- and when we love others as we love ourselves.

Remember what Paul said as he described the goal of sanctification in our scripture passage this morning.
Ephesians 2:10   (NRSV)
we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life

Early in his life Wesley did not understand that GRACE was a free gift --- that it wasn't something that you earned --- until he had his life changing experience at a Bible Study that was being held at Aldersgate Street in London.

The year was 1738, and Wesley, fresh from the disaster in Georgia was in a state of despair.  He wanted the kind of faith that he saw in his Moravian friends --- but everything he DID to get it seemed to leave him empty.

I am going to let Wesley describe the experience to you.
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart.

Wesley prior to that May night in London always was trying to "prove" himself to God.

The sad truth is that when we create a God who judges us by a set of rules --- we can NEVER live up to it.  We never can image that God is satisfied with us.

What Wesley finally figured out --- and wants to share with us --- is that God --- out of God's great love for us has taken the initiative to be in a relationship with us. 
We can call that salvation if we want --- but God is the one who initiated it. 
And our lives are to be lived in grateful response to that love.

Wesley believed that as we grew in grace we open ourselves up to the work of the Holy Spirit which is seeking to sanctify us.

Wesley spoke of "the means of grace" and by this he meant our doing things to make ourselves more open to the work of God's justifying and sanctifying grace in our lives.

Wesley in various sermons spoke of many different practices that can help us along the way --- none of them are too surprising
·         prayer
·         scripture reading
·         receiving holy communion
·         public worship
·         fasting
·         abstinence
·         serving in mission and ministry with others
·         reading books on the Christian life
·         walking in silence in the woods
·         spending time in small groups with other Christians

My hunch is we can all add to that list the ways that God speaks to us and helps us live a more holy life.

But there must be a caution here.

If we are not careful we can turn these practices into rules. 
They must always be a response to God's love --- not an attempt to find it

Finding it is all about opening out eyes to the presence of God that is already there.

The goal of the Christian life is to move along the spectrum of grace
          Prevenient Grace --- Justifying Grace --- Sanctifying Grace
Seeking to become holy --- like God is holy

Wesley developed this theological understand as a response to John Calvin.

Calvin argued for the idea of double predestination.
Double predestination claims that God chose those who would be saved and those who would be damned before they were even born.

The choice was unconditional --- by that I mean God chose the elect and the damned solely by divine will --- not upon anything that people would do or not do in their lives.

Wesley struggled with this idea because he believed that if God predestines some people to eternal damnation based on nothing they have done and solely on God's divine will --- then God is unjust --- and for Wesley God could not be unjust.

So he rejected this idea.

Wesley believed that the spirit is working in everyone and he called this PREVENIENT GRACE

Wesley would argue that we could chose to accept this grace --- or choose to reject it.

This is why Wesley developed such a passion for "lost" people.  He wanted to make sure that they had their eyes open to the spirit's working in their lives so that they could choose to follow Jesus.

Grace is hard.

We all struggle with it.

Most of us want to try and earn God's love because that is how we think the world --- and God works.

We seek to prove ourselves worthy of God's love and continually find ourselves coming up short.

I was ordained at Lake Junaluska, a United Methodist campground in the mountains of Western North Carolina.  It is truly a beautiful place --- and the experience was life changing for me.

I roomed with a fellow Duke Divinity student at the annual conference session that we were ordained at in June of 1985.

Brent was a lot like me --- trying to figure out what God wanted to do with us.

The night before we were ordained, we stayed up late talking in our hotel room.

Brent told me that he had struck a bargain with God
          He would become an ordained minister if God would love him

What Brent didn't understand at the time was that God already loved him.
          There was nothing he could do to earn it
          All he had to do was accept it.

Stop trying to earn God's love

Accept God's grace and grow in your relationship with God