Archive for September, 2013

Right Words, or Real Words?

Preached September 22, 2013

Texts:  1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, Matthew 6:5-8


When we take membership vows in a United Methodist Church, we vow to support that congregation with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness.  Today we talk about that first vow:  to support this congregation of the United Methodist Church with our prayers.

Prayer is a funny thing.  Most of us do it – whether we go to church or not.  Actually, many more of us pray than go to church.  Pew Forum research suggests that 8 of 10 adults in the United States pray regularly,[1] with 6 in 10 saying they pray daily.[2]  Among younger Americans – 18 to 29 – only 20% believe going to church is important, but more than 60% say they pray at least weekly.[3]  The Wall Street Journal even reports that most people who claim “no religious” also say they pray regularly.[4]  And of course, you know the bumper sticker that says, “As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in schools.”

Clearly the church does not have a corner on the prayer market!   Author and storyteller Walter Wangerin, Jr. says in his book Whole Prayer:  Speaking and Listening to God,

Prayer will never rust for want of use.  People will pray.  There are so many terrors in the world that, spontaneously, they will pray.  So much remains unknown…[there is] sickness and sorrow, hungers of mind and heart and body, anxieties and frights…people will pray.[5]

But then Wangerin goes on to ask:

But of all who pray, how many pray poorly?  How many grow restless over a period of time and despair of prayer – not because the thing itself is ineffectual, but rather because their practice of the thing is cheap and incomplete?[6]

Prayer is a funny thing.  Many of us do it, but few of us feel we do it well.  Trust me on that one – few of us feel like we do it well. Think about it – is there any faster way to suck the air out of a room than to ask for a volunteer to pray?  Feet shuffle, heads duck, eyes wander.  Prayer in those moments seems like a pop quiz for which we know we are unprepared.

When prayer comes up in conversation – as it sometimes does in this job! – you tell me that you don’t know how to pray, or that you can’t pray as well as someone else.  And folks, you aren’t alone. A recent poll says only 16% of clergy are content with their prayer life![7]  We don’t have it figured out either.

So we vow to support the church with our prayers.  And pray, we do – the majority of us, every day!  But yet we lack confidence that we do it well.  Did I mention prayer is a funny thing?

Wangerin suggests that the reason prayer seems so odd, so familiar and yet so foreign, is that the last we learn of prayer, most of us, is in our childhood – the rote bedtime and mealtime prayers of children, and the simple, spontaneous cries of childhood needs.  This isn’t actually a problem – for children pray well, knowing their dependence on others for help and the give-and-take of asking and receiving.  Learning about prayer in our childhood is a good, healthy thing.

The problem is that, as we grow to adulthood, we become quite used to our independence, and impatient with admissions of weakness or need.  It is harder, many of us would say, to accept help than to offer it.  Our stubborn self-reliance prevents us from continuing the comfortable, continual rhythm of conversation with God that we learned in our childhood, when we were more willing to ask for help, and then trust that it will come.  In our adult life, prayer becomes, instead, about saying the right words, using the right language, appearing competent and eloquent.

It becomes, in other words, about doing it right – which takes us to Jesus’ words in Matthew 6.  Jesus draws a contrast here between hypocrites who pray with flowery words from the street corners, and those who pray quietly to God in the stillness of their own home.  Jesus confirms our grown-up suspicions:  there are wrong ways to pray, and right ways.

Upon first glance, it is easy to assume that the contrast of wrong and right is between public and private prayer.  In the context of Matthew 6, though, Jesus’ focus is more on the attitude of the heart – it is a contrast between blustery bravado and childlike trust.

The word translated hypocrite quite literally means “stage actors” or “people wearing masks.”  Its connotation is not intentional deception, but more of a false piety, or we might say, “putting up a good front.”  But God doesn’t want us to hide behind stage makeup.

What God desires, Jesus tells us, is the kind of real-life honesty that comes behind closed doors, in the intimacy of our own home.  Don’t pray with your game face on; pray the raw realness of life.  Use words when they come, but don’t worry about getting the right ones.  Wangerin reassures:

We may talk as we are able…ponderous religious phrases are fine.  But so is lousy grammar fine.  We may babble or roar or weep or sigh…fine!  And we may speak with any part of our beings:  spoken words…physical gestures…kneeling, bowing, curling into a posture of helplessness, laughing out loud and clapping our hands.  There may occur in our hearts a warm intensity of love, a holy suffusion of tenderness.  These speak too.[8]

It isn’t whether the words of prayer are spoken out loud or silently that matters.  Or for that matter, whether they are written or drawn or screamed or breathed.  We do self-guided prayer retreats here at the church during Advent and Lent, and there are opportunities to walk our prayers through a labyrinth, to draw our prayers, to kneel, to write, to sing.  There are many different ways to pray.

It isn’t right words that matter, but real words. Honest words.  Authentic words.

And then, when we have spoken, it matters that we listen.  Actually, Wangerin says there are four distinct parts to prayer:

  • We speak – God listens – God speaks – We listen

When we cry and sing and speak and write our prayers, and then move on thankful for the cathartic opportunity to get that off our chest, we’ve missed the point of prayer.  When we shout our prayers from the street corners and then assume the prayer is over, as if a curtain has come down on the show – they we’ve missed the point of prayer.

Whole prayer – complete, real prayer – really only happens when, as Wangerin says, we complete the circle by listening for God’s response.  If we speak, we can be assured that God will listen and respond.  We speak, God listens, and God speaks – the first three parts of prayer come naturally.  But, Wangerin says, “Without our truly listening, prayer will seem to have failed because communication, remaining incomplete, did in fact fail.  The circle stayed broken, and love was left unknown.”[9]

I said at the beginning that most of us pray, but don’t feel like we pray well.  I suspect it is this listening part that we feel most insecure about.  How, exactly, do we listen for God’s voice?  What does it sound like?  How do we know it is God?

There are a few specific answers to those questions:

We know, often, by reading the Scriptures.  That is why, if you are following along in A Disciple’s Path, you’ll see that prayer and Bible Study are combined in a single chapter.  They really are two sides of the same coin – pouring our heart out to God, and then listening through the words of Scripture for God’s response.

We also hear God’s voice, God’s answer, in the words of others, the circumstances of life, the deep-seated convictions of our own spirit.  Wangerin says that “all the elements of creation and all the details of human experience can be the elements of the divine response.”[10]

So we learn God’s voice in Scripture, and we hear it through our reason, our tradition, our experience.  But mostly, we learn God’s voice through practice.  By actually praying – including making time to listen.  Paying attention.

We can practice prayer alone in our rooms, as Matthew 6 says.  We can also practice it in small groups, as the disciples did when they gathered in Acts.  And we pray for ourselves, those we love – but also for the church, our leaders, our world.  Prayer expands our vision.

In the context of our membership vows, our promise is specifically to uphold this congregation with our prayers.  That means being connected enough to the life of the congregation to know our corporate needs, and talking to God about them.  And it means shaping our life so that we can listen for God’s voice not only on our own behalf, but also on behalf of the community.

When we live in that kind of prayer together – rejoicing always, praying continually, giving thanks in all circumstances – then the words of 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 will be true of us:

The God of peace [will] cause us to be completely dedicated to him, and keep our spirit, soul, and body intact and blameless at our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming.  The one who calls [us] is faithful and will do this!

We speak – but that is only the beginning.  Then God listens, and God speaks!  Praise be to God!  Will we listen?


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Guest post by Rev. Dean D. Ziegler
Preached on August 25, 2013 at Coraopolis United Methodist Church
Texts: Gen. 50:14-21 & Matt. 18:21-35


If God asks you to do a thing, you can be sure that doing it will bring you life, even though it may feel for a time like you’re dying. Forgiving is like that. Forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins others commit against us, Jesus taught us to pray. It is one of the hardest tricks in the book!

There are three ways this petition has been translated down through the centuries. Forgive us our debts, forgive our sins and forgive our trespasses. While it might be interesting to unpack the subtleties of each term, let us simply say that in spite of the various emphases, they all come down to the same thing: we need forgiveness, and we are commanded to forgive. That is what we will focus on this morning.

Aren’t you glad God forgives your sins? Of course! But why, oh WHY, did Jesus put that tiny, two-letter word, “as” in there? Forgive our sins AS we forgive sins others commit against us. That’s conditionality. Turns out, Jesus has definite opinions about this. He told a terrifying parable about a man who was unforgiving towards a fellow debtor, and forfeited, as a result, the forgiving of his own debt. Jesus stated flat out that if we will not forgive others, God will not forgive us.

Now immediately we have a problem because that flies in the face of a teaching we hold critical to the whole salvation message, namely that God, in Jesus, forgave us unilaterally and unconditionally, BEFORE we even acknowledged our need for it or could do anything to justify it. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly” Paul explained in Romans 5. This same Jesus, looking down from the cross into the hateful, very UN-forgiving faces of his enemies prayed that his Father forgive them, “for they know not what they do.” He did not pray “Father, make them forgive before it’s too late so that they can have a chance later to be forgiven by you.” No, Jesus died for still-sinning sinners, not for self-reformed sinners.

So how do we reconcile these two? Does God declare unconditional, unilateral forgiveness for the human race at Calvary, then contradict that elsewhere by saying, “Ha, just kidding. No forgiveness for YOU unless you have first forgiven everybody else who has wronged you.” Clearly, there must be a better answer than to see this as a flat-out contradiction.

In fact, there’s a single interrelated spiritual reality. Here is that reality: only with forgiveness can there be life. Forgiveness is the only way to stop the runaway train of sin’s evil force and offer a way out of impossible situations. There is no double standard. As we relate to God, so we relate to others. Jesus here strikes dead the notion that we can somehow humbly, gratefully receive forgiveness from God but proudly and coldly refuse it to others.

If God put forth forgiveness as the only way to deliver fallen humanity out of death into life, then we have no other hope of entering life than to do as God does. Annie Dillard once wrote,

“You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to see the stars, you will find that darkness is required. The stars neither require it nor demand it.”

If you want abundant life, real life, you have to accept the conditions. You have to accept the terms. Want forgiveness? Learn to forgive.

I hope this morning that no one here would be so foolish as to say you do not want God’s forgiveness. But forgiving those who have sinned against us – that’s much harder! Let see then how this difficult task is an open door to life and freedom.

First of all, we must say that forgiveness is for real sin. I tip my hand here in favor of praying “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who SIN against us.” “Debts” and “trespasses” can suggest relatively minor issues. But sin always sows death. Sin sows death – in relationships, in families, in communities, in society, even in the earth itself. What we receive from God, is forgiveness for real sins: brutality, deceit, betrayal, violence, abuse, murder, greed, cowardice, disrespect, abandonment – you name it – all the appallingly down-and-dirty things we humans regularly do.
We cannot avoid the corresponding truth that forgiving others must mean forgiving real sins as well – it will mean forgiving acts of rage, brutality, and greed, deceit, dishonesty, violence, adultery, abuse, abandonment, torture, murder – all the appallingly down-and-dirty things other human beings do to us.

Now it’s right about there that our feelings seize up. Because there’s another belief we cling to and that is the idea of justice – the scales of justice must be balanced. We feel that. We believe that. We need that for the world to make moral sense at all. Is forgiving a just thing to do? How can that be fair?

I want to recount for you the story of a man’s crisis of forgiveness that will force us to wrestle with the question of its rightness. The story is of Simon Wiesenthal, a Jew from Poland imprisoned by the Germans in WWII. P. Yancey summarizes his story in, What’s So Amazing About Grace,” drawing from Wiesenthal’s own book, The Sunflower.

Here is a man who watched his grandmother shot dead by Nazi soldiers on the stairway of her home while his mother was carried away, a man who ultimately saw 89 of his relatives die at the hands of the Nazis. He himself had tried to commit suicide when he was taken captive. Wiesenthal survived not only his suicide attempt, but improbably, the war itself. Consider this man’s experience: On a bright, sunny day Wiesenthal’s prison detail was cleaning rubbish out of a hospital for German casualties when a nurse approached him. “Are you a Jew?” she asked, then signaled him to follow her. Apprehensive, Wiesenthal followed her up a stairway and down a hall until they reached a dark, musty room where a lone soldier lay, covered in bandages. White gauze hid the man’s face, with openings cut out for mouth, nose and ears. The nurse disappeared, closing the door behind her to leave the young Jewish prisoner alone with a dying Nazi. The wounded man was an SS officer, and he had summoned Wiesenthal for a confession. “My name is Karl,” he said from within the bandages. “I must tell you of this horrible deed – tell you because you are a Jew.”

Karl began his story by reminiscing about his childhood faith, which he had lost when he was in the Hitler Youth Corps. He later volunteered for the SS, served with distinction and had recently returned, severely wounded, from the Russian front. Three times as Karl tried to tell his story in weakened voice, Wiesenthal pulled away as if to go. Each time the soldier reached out to grab his arm and beg him to stay.

He wanted to talk about something that had happened in the Ukraine. In a town, abandoned by retreating Russians, booby traps killed 30 soldiers in Karl’s unit. As an act of revenge, the SS rounded up 300 Jews, herded them into a three-story house, doused it with gasoline, and set it afire. Karl and his men encircled the house, with guns drawn to shoot anyone who tried to escape. “The screams from the house were horrible,” he said. “I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothes were alight. By his side stood a woman, no doubt the mother. With his free hand the man covered the child’s eyes—then jumped into the street. Seconds later the mother followed. Then from other windows fell burning bodies. We shot….

All this time Wiesenthal sat in silence, letting the German speak. Karl went on to describe other atrocities, but he kept circling back to that young boy with black hair and dark eyes falling from a building, target practice for the SS rifles. “I am left here with my guilt,” he concluded at last. “In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are. I only know that you are a Jew and that is enough. “What I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn’t know whether there were any Jews left…. I know what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.”

Silence! … Two strangers all by themselves, caught in the crisis of forgiveness. A member of the super race begged to be forgiven by a member of the condemned race. Wiesenthal tells us what he did. “I stood up and looked in his direction, at his folded hands. At last I made up my mind and without a word I left the room.”

Wiesenthal survived the concentration camp. But he could not forget the SS trooper. He wondered for a long time whether he should have forgiven the soldier. He wrote to rabbis, theologians, philosophers, priests – anyone who might have insight and asked them all the same question: “Did I do right or wrong?” But Wiesenthal did not put the question just to the theologians and philosophers, but to every reader who picks up his book. Here are the closing words:

Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong? This is a profound moral question that challenges the conscience of the reader of this episode, just as much as it once challenged my heart and my mind, There are those who can appreciate my dilemma, and endorse my attitude, and are others who will be ready to condemn me for refusing to ease the last moments of a repentant murderer.

The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision. You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, “What would I have done?”

Of 32 distinguished writers, religious thinkers and philosophers only six could bring themselves to say he should have offered forgiveness to the repentant man. One philosopher wrote, I think I would have acted the way you did – refused the request of the dying man…. One cannot, and should not go around happily killing and torturing and then, at the last moment, simply ask, and receive, forgiveness. The easy forgiving of such crimes perpetuates the very evil it wants to alleviate.

Cynthia Ozick, a novelist, was even more blunt… Often we are asked to think this way: vengeance brutalizes, forgiveness refines. But the opposite can be true. Forgiveness can brutalize…. The face of forgiveness is mild, but how stony to the slaughtered…. Let the SS man die unshriven. Let him go to hell.

Philip Yancey writes, “In a world of unspeakable atrocity, forgiveness seems unjust, unfair, irrational.” And so it does. When we forgive someone, we give up our right to get even. We suffer the wrong with no hope of balancing the scales of justice and we willingly, no, willfully get on with living in spite of the pain unfairly suffered.

This seems almost too much to do or ask. Why should we give up our hatred, our contempt, our power – the energy of our anger – when our lives have been so deeply disrupted by unfair suffering? And yet, the question haunts. Is it right NOT to forgive? Jesus gave his answer and without qualification urged it upon us. “Forgive, just as you are forgiven.” “How many times, Jesus?” Peter once asked, “as many as seven, the perfect number?” “No, Peter – SEVENTY TIMES seven”. Oh.

But what of the question of fairness? Without discounting the profound evil suffered by innocent victims of psychopaths, or even incredibly selfish family members, former friends, or betraying co-workers, we must consider that the question of fairness cuts both ways. Yancey puts forth the simple question, “Which carries a higher cost, forgiveness, or unforgiveness?” In, Forgive and Forget, Lewis Smedes says, “Forgiveness is God’s invention for coming to terms with a [broken world]. Our sense of fairness tells us people should pay for the wrong they do. But forgiving is love’s power to break nature’s rules.” What if forgiving is the fairest alternative a victim of undeserved suffering has got?

Consider the alternatives: Vengeance leaps to mind. Revenge – balance the scales of justice! But in real life, the scales of justice can never be balanced. Most losses are permanent. Loss of a friendship, loss of trust, loss of reputation, loss of a marriage, loss a loved one in a crash caused by a drunk driver.

Whatever hurts we did not deserve, usually they are irreparable. It’s an impossible goal to right the scales. If we wait for justice before we can have a future, we will wait forever!

What about the emotional satisfaction of retaliation? Well, it certainly feels good for time. But it’s a recurring itch that is never quite satisfied. Taking revenge never really helps us to not hurt anymore. In fact, revenge seems to keep the hurt in the forefront of our lives. We want the “SOBs” to pay – again, and again! And that usually brings new hurts because of counter-retaliations and escalating rounds of aggression. Lew Smedes nails it. No one ever gets even in the pain game because no two people in the history of the world ever measured pain with the same scale.

The greatest fool’s quest ever set out upon is the quest to “get even.” In the Middle East, Russia, Egypt, Africa, in America’s race relations, in family feuds – we see round after round of hostility that have, sometimes, hundreds, if not thousands, of years of history behind them. Each new atrocity points to a former atrocity somewhere in the past that is now, the new attackers claim, only being avenged.

Is forgiveness more unfair than a virtually unending succession of oppressions, uprisings, counter-oppressions, wars and reinforced hatreds? Perhaps the strongest argument for forgiveness is the alternative, a permanent state of unforgiveness.

Is forgiving fair? In the end, forgiving is the fairest of all possible responses, because it sets people free. It puts a stop to endless rounds of payback. It also allows us to get on with life and lay aside the heaviness of a perpetual victim identity. “I’m the one who was cheated so cruelly! I’m the one who was attacked and wounded so viciously!” Which translates all too often into, “I’m the one who has no future now because of what happened to me.” When we forgive, we buy back our future. We rescue it from an unchangeable past, unchain it from an irreparable loss. Forgiving in the end is fairest of all to the victim because of its creative power to move us away from past pain. (Indebted to Smedes and Yancey here)

Forgive and forget? You don’t really forget. But you remember in a new and different way! That action is at the very center of our faith in the sacrament of communion, which in turn calls to mind the Jewish celebration of Passover.

There is unfair pain all over the landscape in both stories – the Exodus and Calvary – but it is not the unfairness that we focus on as we remember. No, what we memorialize is how God delivered us alive out of it all! The miracle we celebrate in remembering is our survival and renewal! In spite of what happened, because of God’s power and grace, we have a future and a blessing! That was Joseph’s discovery when he considered his brother’s cruel betrayal and abandonment. God worked in spite of his brothers’ sin against him. Forgiving forces us to “live higher”.

Do you need God’s forgiveness this morning? No doubt. All of us need forgiveness daily. Thank God we are forgiven and set free through God’s amazing grace.

Do you struggle to forgive someone this morning? Know that in forgiving, you do not condone or excuse the sin. You do not step up for more abuse when you forgive. But you do rise to life by trusting yourself to God’s care even as our Lord Jesus did on the cross.

Forgiveness has great power. It may or may not lead to reconciliation. But it can set the forgiver free, if not the forgiven, and possibly both.

Is there a work of forgiveness that you still need to accomplish?

Are you able to enlarge your frame of reference and trust God to be your keeper and refuge?

Will you claim, by faith, the goodness and blessing that God is ready to work in you in spite of what has happened, and focus on that in your life?

Ask God to empower you to forgive!

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Walking With

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Preached September 15, 2013
Text: Philippians 3:10-14, Mark 12:28-34


Yesterday morning, I hosted a meeting of the Board of Ordained Ministry for our United Methodist Annual Conference here in Western Pennsylvania. The “BOM” as we call it has a number of jobs related to clergy evaluation and credentialing, but one of our most exciting roles is to receive new candidates for ordained ministry.

The best part of interviewing candidates for ministry is hearing their stories – listening to what God has done in their life, and what God is doing right now. When the Board finishes a weekend of interviews, I am absolutely exhausted – but also renewed and encouraged by the faith stories that were shared and the faithfulness of God in so many different lives.

I remember, too, when I was going through the ordination process myself. You don’t get far in the process without becoming comfortable with telling your “call story,” as they refer to it. You tell that story – the story of God’s faithfulness in your life, and the ways you’ve experienced God’s calling or God’s leading – to your own local church; to the District Superintendent; to your assigned mentor; on your seminary applications; to the District Committee; to each other in seminary; and finally, two or three or five years into the process, you tell it to the Board of Ordained Ministry. By then, you’ve told it so many times that you can mutter it in your sleep.

Except – except that you really can’t, because it is a continually developing story. Each time you tell it, there is a little more to add, a little more that you are learning as you walk further down that path of faith.

My own call story – which is really just one piece of the broader story of faith that we each could tell for ourselves – always began with growing up in a parsonage. Going on hospital visits…teaching the kids when I was just a young teen myself…youth retreats and mission trips…

It continues through my college years, when I said I wasn’t going to be a pastor, but then realized one day that my interests – my double-major in psychology and communication, with a minor in religion – looked an awful lot like a pastor’s profile. Huh. What to make of that?

Then there was my first job after college, public relations, successful – I traveled with the CEO on the corporate jet for goodness sake! – but couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted to be more involved in people’s lives, wanted to help people live well rather than just helping them spend money.

When I started seminary, that’s pretty much where my call story ended. It didn’t have a clear direction or an obvious end point. Maybe something like hospital chaplaincy. Maybe.

In seminary the calling expanded, unfolded. I heard women preaching for the first time that I remember. I knew female clergy growing up – but I don’t recall ever hearing one of them preach! Hearing a women’s voice from the pulpit for the first time was part of my call story. So was coming to realize that I really preferred the theology classes over the counseling classes – maybe chaplaincy wasn’t quite the right fit after all. The Holy Spirit continuing to work, to shape, to lead.

Maybe academic, teaching…but found it was too detached, too theoretical for my way of thinking…

This guy dragged me to Chicago… ☺ …and would you believe it, I found I really loved urban ministry…and liturgy…and teaching in the local church…maybe an associate pastor position, where I can teach and lead but not really have to preach every week…

When I interviewed with the Board of Ordained Ministry, that was pretty much where my call story ended. If I were to continue the story today, it would include the unexpected call to be a solo pastor here, rather than serving first as an associate, as I expected, and it would include the ways that I am learning about God and faith as I live into marriage and parenting. My faith story continues – as does yours – throughout my life.

The Disciple’s Path series that we are following through the fall this year is all about sharing those faith stories. It is about learning what it looks like to walk a path of faith that continues throughout our lives, and sharing that journey with one another along the way.

Discipleship – following Jesus, learning to love God and love our neighbors – is not something we do, and then we’re done. It is a journey that is marked by particular waypoints – baptism, conversion, confirmation, membership, for example – but these are not the goal of the journey of faith; they are not the destination. A lifetime of walking with Jesus is the goal. A lifetime of loving God and loving our neighbors, as Jesus describes in Mark 12.

We use different language to describe that goal. Some of us can tell about the moment of our conversion, for example. For others of us – myself included – conversion is not so much a moment as a process, a gradual unfolding, until one day you wake up and realize it is happening. Some of us, as I have done, tell of a sense of calling. You might not feel comfortable with that language, but maybe you could tell of fulfilling your passion, or using your gifts, or doing your duty, for God.

Whatever the language, it is the endpoint of walking fully with God and one another that matters. That’s what being a disciple of Jesus – a follower of Jesus – means at its core: walking with God and one another in love.

In A Disciple’s Path, they define a disciple as a

“follower of Jesus whose life is centering on loving God and loving others” (A Disciple’s Path: Companion Reader, p. 20).

The emphasis is on the word “centering.” It is not centered – as if it one’s life is fully, completely focused toward the center – but centering, recognizing the need for “lifelong, …continuing transformation by the grace of God.”

John Wesley used language of “going on to perfection.” In the Methodist tradition we speak of grace that leads us to perfect love. We speak of prevenient, justifying, sanctifying grace. God’s grace goes before us – prevenient grace, that is present in our lives long before we even recognize it. God’s grace makes things right – justifying grace that restores us to right relationship with God and each other. And God’s grace continues to guide us, make us more loving – sanctifying grace, that keeps working on us, growing us, shaping us into better people, more fully the people God created us to be.

Some people use the metaphor of a house to describe prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace. Prevenient grace, the metaphor goes, invites us up onto the porch. It is the sidewalk that leads us to the house, the welcome mat at the door. Justifying grace is the doorway we step through when we enter the house – the place where we go from “outside” to “inside,” from “enemy of God” to “friend of God.” And sanctifying grace happens in the rooms of the house, in the living, cooking, eating, sleeping, sharing life together that goes on within the house.

It’s not a bad metaphor. We could also borrow the athletic language that the Apostle Paul uses in Philippians, when he says, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me…” (Phil 3:14). Using that language, we might think of grace in terms of running a marathon. Prevenient grace would go before us to clear the path, justifying grace qualifies us to run the race, and sanctifying grace urges us on to the finish line. But all of it – from start to finish – is an expression of God’s deep love for us – God’s love that, as the saying goes, “loves us just the way we are, and too much to leave us that way.”

Whatever language we use, this fall we have opportunity to share the journey of faith together. Some weeks ago, there was a news story of a Marine who came alongside a 9-yr-old boy during a 5K race. The boy was struggling to finish the race and had fallen well behind his original running buddies. He asked the Marine, “Please, sir, would you run with me?” and the Marine responded by slowing his pace and shortening his gait to run beside the boy, encouraging him on to the finish line.

Sometimes, walking with one another can make all the difference. I think that’s a pretty good description of discipleship, really: walking with God and one another. As United Methodists, we do that by sharing some common practices: prayer, being present in worship, giving of our gifts, serving others, and witnessing to our faith. Those are our membership vows in the United Methodist tradition – we commit our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. And those are the practices we will look at more in depth over the coming weeks.

For now, though – I encourage you to review your own journey of faith this week, and to share it with someone else. Use whatever words come most naturally – but don’t be afraid to tell what God is doing!

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Following Jesus

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September 8, 2013

Text:  Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Luke 5:27-32


How many of you have heard of TED talks?  TED is an organization that shares “ideas worth spreading” through short, memorable lectures on just about any subject you can imagine.  The talks are given live at conferences, and shared for free on the Internet at TED.com.

Those who know of TED talks – have you seen the talk by Derek Sivers called, “How to start a movement”?[1]  Sivers describes – in less than 3 minutes – how a social movement begins.

He uses a video clip to illustrate his point.  At the start of the video, people are gathered on a hillside, lounging on blankets or walking along with bags slung over their shoulders.  It has the feel of a beautiful summer day on a college campus or at a public park.

At the center of the screen a man stands, shirtless, on the grass.  People continue to walk by, spread blankets, lounge on the grass.  And then the man in the center begins to dance, right in the middle of the crowd.  It is a goofy, awkward dance, arms waving over his head, turning in circles.  People glance his way, and a few hastily gather their things and walk away.  Sivers points out, at this point, that a leader has to have the guts to stand out, be willing to look ridiculous and be ridiculed for it.

But then – another man jumps up and joins in the dance.  The leader isn’t quite so alone anymore.  Here Sivers points out that the “first follower” has a crucial role – he is the one who shows everyone else how to follow.  “The first follower,” Sivers says, “is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.”

After that, it doesn’t take long for another person to join in, and another, and another.  The leader no longer stands out, as the dance grows; new dancers imitate the first followers, and the dance morphs and changes as more and more join.  Before long, the whole crowd has become one big dancing mob, seemingly having the time of their lives.  A movement has begun.

Sivers uses the dancing crowd to illustrate principles of leadership in the business world, and to demonstrate the “tipping point” at which an idea takes root and spreads.

When I see the video, though, I can’t help but think of the invitation that Jesus gives to his disciples:  “Follow me.”  I think this silly little video of a dancing crowd is a pretty good illustration of what it means to follow Jesus in a world that values getting ahead, being successful, and being in charge.

Jesus certainly didn’t have a problem with the “courage to stand out and be ridiculed” piece of being a leader, did he?  Everything he did and said set him apart from the world around him:  Blessed are the poor.  I have come not to be served, but to serve.  Take up your cross.  Unless you become like the least of these…you shall not see the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus’ message is far different than the world’s message of bigger, better, more.  And Jesus friends – the ones he chose to hang out with – weren’t the successful, powerful types, either.

In Luke 5, Jesus offers the invitation, “follow me,”  and then goes right on into a tax collector’s house and sits down at the table with unclean, socially outcast people that most of us would never be caught dead with in public.  Follow him there?  I don’t think so!  The religious people – the good, church-going folk – were appalled!  I can hear the conversation now:  Inappropriate. Ridiculous.  Scandalous!

But Jesus was confident in his mission:  “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

So he issued the invitation:  Come.  Follow me.  Repent.

That’s a big call, for so few words!  And Levi – along with Peter, James and John earlier in Luke 5 – show us what it looks like to answer that call.  “Levi got up, left everything behind, and followed him” (Lk 5:28).  And the others, “as soon as they brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus” (Lk 5:11).

We are here in a Christian church some 2,000 years later because Jesus invites us into relationship with God – and also because Peter, James, John and Levi accepted the invitation to follow.  We are here because we felt God tugging at our hearts, and also because a neighbor invited us somewhere along the way.  We are here because the Holy Spirit planted seeds of faith in us, and also because our mothers or fathers or grandparents talked to us about faith the way that Deuteronomy 6 instructs God’s people to do with their children.  We are here to follow Jesus, and also to share our faith journey with other followers.

At the end of Sivers’ TED talk, he concludes by saying, “If you really care about starting a movement, have the courage to follow and show others how to follow.”  That’s what we are to be about as Christian people – following Jesus with courage and conviction, and showing others how to follow too.

This fall, we begin a study called, “A Disciple’s Path.”  It invites us deeper into relationship with Jesus – invites us to follow him more closely, more fully.  And it does so by inviting us into relationship with one another, so that we can follow together.  That’s why we are asking you to not only be here on Sunday mornings, but join a home group for six weeks, where you can build relationships and learn to follow together.  You don’t have to “drop everything” to join a homegroup, but I hope you’ll at least find a couple hours a week to be together with other Jesus-followers this fall!

While the “A Disciple’s Path” curriculum is newly published, its content isn’t really new.  It comes right out of our Methodist roots, when John Wesley organized followers of Jesus into small groups that cared for one another, read the Bible together, prayed together, and served the community together.  Out of these small groups, a movement began that eventually became The Methodist Church.

The Methodist movement was not a separate “religion” as I sometimes hear (“What religion are you?”).  It was thoroughly Christian, seeking to follow Jesus alongside Anglican, Catholic and Protestant Christians.  What was unique, though, was the way that John Wesley and the Methodists devoted themselves to authenticity and connection through meaningful relationships; to making a significant difference in the community, to understanding faith holistically as both personal and social.

In the early days of the Methodist movement, Wesley said:

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.[2]

There are those who fear Wesley’s words have come true – that churches in America today “only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.”  There have been times, in our own lives personally and as a congregation, when that has been true of us.

We continue to believe, though, that church really does matter.  That following Jesus changes the way we live our lives, and raise our children, and live in our communities.

As a congregation, we are praying and talking and planning for the next movement of faith that God is inviting us into.  We believe God is inviting us to be a part of something new – of a new movement of faith that, consistent with our Methodist heritage, fosters authentic, connected relationships; is significant to our lives and communities; and understands faith holistically.  You’ll be hearing a lot more about those four values – authenticity, connection, significance and wholeness – in the weeks and months ahead.

The first step, though, is to renew the “doctrine, spirit and disciplines” of our faith, and to “have the courage to follow and show others how to follow” Jesus.  Won’t you join us on that journey?

[2] Dated August 4, 1786.  From “Thoughts Upon Methodism” in The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, Volume 7.

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Preached September 1, 2013

Texts:  Matthew 6:13, Psalm 121


Today we end our series on the Lord’s Prayer with the final line of Jesus’ prayer in Matthew 6:  “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Of course, the final line that we recite is actually, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever,” – but that line is not included in the Biblical text in either Matthew or Luke, the two places where this prayer appears in Scripture.  This doxology – a churchy word for spoken or sung praise to God – seems to have been added to the prayer by early Christians.  There are Latin manuscripts of the New Testament that include it – but the earlier Greek text does not.  Original or not, it has been part of this prayer for centuries, and is widely used today – recited in unison by Protestant churches like ours, spoken only by the priest in Orthodox traditions, and attached to an entirely different prayer in the Roman Catholic tradition.

So…a bit of textual history there for those who “geek out” on such things.  (To borrow a term from Nate, our new associate pastor.)

But to return to our main text for today:  “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

This is, textually, the most complex phrase of the Lord’s Prayer.  The complexity centers around the translation of two Greek words:  the word translated “temptation,” which can also mean test, trial, or experiment; and the word “evil” which may refer either to evil in general, to a particular evil person, or to a personal Devil.

Taking into account the nuances of these two words, some believe this line refers quite literally to a time of trial before the courts of Rome, asking God to deliver Jesus and his followers from evil and oppressive rulers.  Others believe Jesus is giving his disciples permission to ask God to escape the kind of testing that God asked of Abraham (by commanding the sacrifice of his son Isaac) or Job (who lost his family, health and possessions in what seems to be a grand experiment between God and the Devil).  And still others argue that Jesus means, “Don’t give us more than we can handle, God; when you test us, at least keep us from being swallowed up by evil.”

So there are multiple layers of meaning to this line:  Keep us out of the corrupt courts; don’t mess with us by experimenting with our lives or faith; or, “when the hard times come, don’t let them swallow us whole.”

Underneath these layers, though, this petition that Jesus taught to his followers really means one simple thing:  Please, God, keep us safe!  It is a plea for help from God, help specifically in the face of things that threaten to overpower us.

In fact, the whole Lord’s Prayer is really pretty simple. Jesus teaches his disciples to depend on God for sustenance (daily bread); for relationship (forgiveness); and for safety (deliver us).  Jesus teaches his disciples to pray about the basics in life, the essentials.  Prayer doesn’t need to be complicated; it doesn’t need to use fancy words or address deep, complex issues.

As Anne Lamott says, prayer is basically calling out, “Help.  Thanks.  Wow.”

Help, she argues, is the first and most basic prayer we can pray.  She describes our desperate need for God to deliver us from the trials and tests of life:

It is all hopeless. Even for a crabby optimist like me, things couldn’t be worse. Everywhere you turn, our lives and marriages and morale and government are falling to pieces. So many friends have broken children. The planet does not seem long for this world. Repent! Oh, wait, never mind. I meant: Help.[1]

I find that last line revealing:  “Repent!  Oh, wait, I meant:  Help!”  The call to repent suggests that the testing or trial is our fault somehow, that it is our responsibility.  It isn’t so much that God leads us into temptation, but that we find it ourselves.

It reminds me of a team-building activity my kids did at camp this summer:  lined up along a rope, blindfolded, follow where the rope leads.  Requires trust that the guide won’t lead you into trouble.  But one boy – a bit older than the other kids, probably a bit too confident in his own abilities – kept getting ahead – walking too fast, pulling the rope instead of letting it pull him – and he got into trouble.  He ran into the person in front of him, he tripped over a rock, he stumbled into a tree.  It was his own fault – he wasn’t led there, but he ended up there anyway.

As the book of James says:

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. (James 1:13-14)

“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” may sometimes mean, keep us safe from ourselves!  That is how The Message paraphrases this verse:  “Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil…”

Lamott would say that it is just fine that the trials we ask to be delivered from are really of our own making.  She writes:

There’s a lot to be said for having really reached a bottom where you’ve run out of anymore good ideas, or plans for everybody else’s behavior; or how to save and fix and rescue; or just get out of a huge mess, possibly of your own creation.

“And when you’re done, you may take a long, quavering breath and say, ‘Help.’ People say ‘help’ without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.”[2]

Jesus teaches his disciples to turn to God when they reach bottom:  deliver me, God.  Help!

The Lord’s prayer assumes as a given that there is evil in our world.  We may encounter it as hatred or abuse of power, or as systemic injustice; or it may come from within our own hearts; but it is there.  The Lord’s Prayer leaves us no room for denying evil, pretending it doesn’t exist.

But nor does it allow us to wallow in it.  Yes, life is hard.  Yes, it will sometimes overwhelm us, like a wave knocking us off our feet.  But God protects us.  Ask for it.  Pray it.  “Lead us not into testing, but deliver us from evil.”  In other words, “Help, God!”

By God’s grace, the prayer “help” gives way to “thanks.”

Thanks, Lamott writes, is the prayer of relief that help was on the way. … It can be [the] pettiest, dumbest thing, but it could also be that you get the phone call that the diagnosis was much, much, much better than you had been fearing. … The full prayer, and its entirety, is: Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you.

It’s amazement and relief that you caught a break; that your family caught a break; that you didn’t have any reason to believe that things were really going to be OK, and then they were and you just can’t help but say thank you.[3]

And then, sometimes, when we least expect it, help and thanks break into praise.  “Help, God; deliver us!” breaks forth into, “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever!”

Wow!  Breathe in the beauty of creation, the joy of relationship, the love of God, and say, “Wow!”  This prayer has a reverberation to it, Lamott says – wowowowowow – and “The pulse can soften us” like the rhythmic drumming of massaging hands on sore muscles releases the tightness.[4]  Wow is the prayer of wonder, and “Wonder takes our breath away, and makes room for new breath.”[5]

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.  Help!  Thanks!  Wow!

[1] Help Thanks Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott (Riverhead Books, New York:  2012), 11.

[4] Help Thanks Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott (Riverhead Books, New York:  2012), 83.

[5] Help Thanks Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott (Riverhead Books, New York:  2012), 81.

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