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Posts Tagged ‘Disciple’s Path’

Gifted

Preached October 13, 2013

Texts:  John 14:15-17, 25-27; Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-13

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In two weeks – on the last Sunday in October – the Protestant Church will celebrate Reformation Sunday.  We don’t generally mark the day much in our congregation, except perhaps to sing the great Martin Luther hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  But it is a part of our history, nonetheless.

The day remembers Martin Luther’s posting of now-famous 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany.  The theses challenged the status quo and called for renewal within the church, and sparked what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation was build around three core beliefs:

  • Sola Scriptura – the Bible is the final Christian authority.
  • Sola Fide & Sola Gratia – salvation is by faith alone, through grace alone – not earned through good works
  • Solo Christo – Jesus Christ is the only intermediary we need to approach God; our relationship with God does not depend on another human person.

This last point is often called “the priesthood of all believers,” drawing on language used in 1 Peter 2:9:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  

Following Martin Luther’s lead (and the teachings of Scripture!), we in the Protestant tradition believe that we can approach God directly. We can pray directly to God, and listen for God’s voice.  We do not have to send a representative, as the Israelites sent Moses up on Mount Sinai in Exodus; God can and does speak to any and all of us “regular people” right down here on the ground.  We have God’s ear.  We are “a royal priesthood…a people belonging to God.”

We have tended to forget, however, the other side of  being a priest.  Moses approached God on the people’s behalf – but he also spoke to the people on behalf of God.  Priesthood goes both ways – carrying people to God, and carrying God to people.

1 Peter recognizes this two-way nature of priesthood:   we are priests “so that we may declare the praises of him who called you…”  And just a little bit further in the passage, it adds:  so that others “may see your good deeds and glorify God…” (1 Pet 2:12).

This means that every one of us – ordained or not, new to following Jesus or lifelong Christian – every one of us is a minister and a priest.  Every one of us has a role to play in bringing the world to God, and God to the world.  Every one of us has a God-given gift to share.

Yet somehow, as the church grew in complexity and bureaucracy, we lost sight of this truth.  Somehow along the way, ministry became “the pastor’s job” and church became a place we go rather than who we are.

You know, I wonder sometimes if God looks at us and shakes his head with the sort of combined bemusement and frustration that a parent feels when a toddler opens a gift and then wants to play with the box instead.  You know what I mean:  when you’re sitting on the floor trying to show a child the lights and sounds of their new toy, and they are more interested in the wrapping paper!

I suspect that is how God feels when we consider church as another place we go, rather than who we are.  I suspect that’s how God feels when he gives us Spirit-inspired gifts, and we fail to use them because “I wouldn’t be good at it,” or “surely there are enough other people to do the job,” or “my life is too full to make time for another committee.”

Thankfully, God accepts that we will be distracted, and continues to draw our attention back to the gifts we have been given.  Jesus told his disciples, “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).

Sometimes the Holy Spirit reminds us of our gifts with that little tug inside whenever we hear about a particular need or ministry.  Or maybe the Holy Spirit reminds us with the passions that rise up in us – passion to feed people, or to care for children, or to bring healing.

This morning, we were reminded again through the membership vows, in which we promise to uphold the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service.  And we were reminded by the words of Ephesians, where it says that each one of us is “called” and “prepared…for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:4, 12).

The Holy Spirit continues to remind us that followers of Jesus – all of us, not just a few – are called and prepared and gifted for service to God, and to the world!  The Bible teaches that when we follow Jesus, the Holy Spirit plants and nurtures within us particular gifts that build up the Body of Christ and point other people toward God.

Some of those gifts are named in Ephesians – gifts of evangelism, telling others good news about God’s love; pastoring and teaching, nurturing the faith of others; prophecy, speaking truth clearly in a world of many meaningless words.  There are other gifts listed elsewhere in Scripture – gifts like:

  • assistance or “helps”, caring for the day-to-day, behind-the-scenes jobs;
  • administration, bringing order to our work together;
  • healing, leading others to wholeness and health;
  • leadership, guiding and equipping others for service
  • discernment, hearing God’s voice in the midst of the clamor of our lives
  • mercy, caring for hurting people with compassion and gentleness
  • giving, joyfully sharing the resources we have
  • hospitality, making others feel welcome and invited in

And the list could continue!  No scholar that I know of argues that the lists of gifts in the Bible are exhaustive; they are examples, but the Spirit may give many other gifts too!

The point is that there are particular gifts that you bring to this Body that are needed for us to “come to maturity” as the Body of Christ in this place and time (Ephesians 4:13).  For our congregation to grow and flourish and multiply – as healthy, mature things do – then each of us must use our gifts in service to others.  Every single one of us has a part to play.

And the best part?  The best part is that when we find our place – when we use the particular gifts God has given us to serve others and build up the Body of Christ – then our service becomes a joy.  It fills us up and energizes us for more, rather than draining our energy away.  It may take a great deal of effort, but it isn’t hard.  We serve naturally and joyfully when we use our God-given gifts.

Next Sunday, on Laity Sunday, we celebrate the gifts that God places in each one of us, and the ways that we come together to accomplish a common mission.  We will share an update on our Miracle Sunday offering and the next steps for our Emerging Vision.  You’ll see the way that some of our members are discovering and using their gifts in leading us toward the future.  And you’ll be invited to discover and use your gifts as we grow and mature together.

The invitation today is to pray through the week about how God is calling and preparing you for works of service in our life together.  Go to a home group (see times and places in your bulletin) and talk about the varieties of spiritual gifts.  Affirm in someone else the gifts you see in them.  And we’ll see you next week!

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Where Your Treasure Is

Preached October 6, 2013

Texts:  Proverbs 11:24-28; Matthew 6:19-33

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51 women are fresh back this morning from the 2013 Women of Faith weekend in Pittsburgh.  It was an event with great bands, musicians, and speakers…with powerful preaching…those girls can preach!

Saturday morning began with preacher Sheryl Brady.  She came out dressed in pink, with streaked blonde hair and high heeled boots.  She was all energy!  She preached, she sang, she shouted, she bounced all over the stage – she brought it!  And she finished to a standing ovation. 

As the crowd found their seats again, the next speaker was introduced:  Billy Graham’s grandson, Tullian Tchividjian (cha-VI-jin).  He came on stage in blue jeans and a black shirt, and went straight to the podium, where he arranged his notes carefully and slowly opened his Bible.  Then he looked up at the crowd and said:  “I want to know whose bright idea it was to put the Presbyterian after the Pentecostal?!”

I have to say, I feel a bit that way this morning!  The preaching and the worship and the music at Women of Faith were inspirational – and made even better by being together with 50 other women from the congregation.  It was a great weekend!

And somehow, I’m supposed to stand up this morning and follow all of that?  And not only follow it, but follow it with a sermon about money?!?  Whose bright idea was this, anyway?! 

Ah, well.  But here we are – three weeks into our Disciple’s Path series, looking at the ways that we follow Jesus in the United Methodist tradition.  In the first two weeks, we considered how we support the church with our prayers and our presence.  This week, we look at the ways we support the church with our gifts – most specifically, our financial gifts.

You know, we said in week one that asking for a volunteer to pray out loud is the fastest way to suck the air out of a room.  Well, let me tell you, the second fastest way is to bring up the topic of money in church. 

There are all kinds of reasons that we feel uncomfortable talking about money.  Here are a few I hear often:  “Finances are a private matter.”  “No one should know who gives what.”  “We wouldn’t want to make anyone feel badly because they can’t afford to give.”  “What I give is between me and God.”  And I could go on…

But here’s the thing, folks.  Money is too important in our lives and our world not to talk about it!  In fact, our resistance to talking about money demonstrates just how important it really is.  A couple of years ago, I heard a speaker challenge the church’s silence on the subject of money with these words: 

“When one finds oneself in the presence of one’s god, the first human response is silence.” 

He went on to describe the ways that people responded to the presence of God in the Bible: 

  • At the burning bush, Moses hides his face in fear (Exodus 3).  
  • When Isaiah has a vision of God on the throne of heaven, he realizes the utter inadequacy of human words and cries out, “Woe to me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6).
  • When Zechariah the priest saw an angel, he learned he would father a son named John – but he couldn’t share his good news because he was struck silent (Luke 1:22).
  • When Paul encountered the risen Christ on the Damascus Road, his eyes and mouth are glued shut for three days (Acts 9).

And so it goes.

“When one finds oneself in the presence of one’s god, the first human response is silence.” That ought to make us think twice when we argue that finances are a private matter, one that shouldn’t be spoken of in church.

So then what should the church have to say about money? 

First, I think we need to admit that money has power over us.  Jesus knew it:  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” he tells his disciples, and us (Matthew 6:21).  Not, “where your heart is, your treasure will follow.”  But, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” 

In other words, the way we use our money will shape our hearts and souls.  We like to think it is the other way around:  we use our money to support causes that we care about.  We “vote with our dollars.”  Our money expresses our heart.

But the Bible warns us that our heart will follow our money, not the other way around.  If we spend our money on excesses that go far beyond our needs, our heart will turn toward luxury and excess.  If we spend our money on things – whatever they are – then those things will be precious to us. 

That is why giving is so important.  The point is not that the church needs money.  The point is that we need to give!  Giving changes us, because our heart is trained to follow our treasure.  Giving loosens the power of possessions in our lives.  Giving may also be the very first step that some of us take toward “loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.”  Sometimes, we give because we love God – but often we give out of obligation and find ourselves falling deeper in love with God as a result.

Let me tell you a bit of how giving has changed our family.  A few years ago, Rob & I attended a fundraising dinner for Imagine No Malaria – the United Methodist effort (working alongside the World Health Organization and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others) to eradicate deaths from malaria on the continent of Africa.  We knew the purpose of the banquet before we arrived:  to raise money for disease-fighting efforts in Africa.  We went knowing that we would be asked to give.  And we discussed, ahead of time, how much we could give.

That night, we heard that a woman or child in Africa dies of malaria every 30 seconds.  We learned that malaria is treatable, and that a combination of proper infrastructure, medicine, education and communication can eliminate the effects of this deadly disease.  We heard stories from people who had contracted malaria while traveling, and how it impacted their lives.  We saw video of mothers nursing their sick children and crying out for someone to help them.

And then the pledge cards were distributed.  And since we had already discussed, in advance, what we were prepared to give, I excused myself for a moment and left Rob at the table to fill in the card.

When I made my way back across the room a few minutes later, he handed it to me and said, “Is this okay?”  I glanced at it, thinking he was asking if he wrote our new phone number correctly, or something like that.

I soon realized that wasn’t what he was asking.  When I got to the “Pledge amount” line, he had written an amount that was SIX TIMES the amount we had agreed upon.  I stared at the number.  I stared at him.  And I said, with a deep breath, “Okay.  If you want to.”

God moved Rob’s heart to give that night, and he responded.  I just kind of came along for the ride.  But here’s the thing:  since we made that pledge, my attentiveness to the needs of people across our globe – but especially in Africa – has multiplied at least as much as our pledge did that night. 

Ten years ago, when I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to go to Africa with my roommate, to visit orphanages there and to gather with other Christians.  I frankly did not want to go.  I wasn’t all that excited about visiting an unfamiliar country, with foreign foods and language and culture.  Africa – Zimbabwe, to be exact – was her passion, not mine.

But now, I’m invested.  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  In the last three years, I have spent time with Zimbabwean clergy who have visited Western Pennsylvania.  I’ve learned more about the political struggles of some African nations.  I pray for peace and health on that continent.  And someday, I will travel to Africa, and I will be honored to visit their churches and share the struggles and the joys of lives so different from my own.  It won’t happen until my kids are a bit older – but I certainly won’t turn down the opportunity if it comes again.  My heart is there, now, because my treasure went there three years ago and my heart has gradually followed.  I have learned to love my neighbor by first giving to my neighbor.

Of course, I should say that we also give to whatever local church we are a part of.  As members of the United Methodist Church, we promise to support this congregation with our gifts, and we do. 

The Bible holds up a tithe – 10% of our income – as an example of faithful giving.  I know that there are all kinds of questions we could ask about tithing.  Do we tithe on our gross or our net income?  Do we tithe strictly to the church, or can we direct some of our tithe to other worthy causes?  What if we can’t afford 10%?  Or for that matter, what if we could afford to give more than 10% – shouldn’t we do that, too?

Those are questions we need to talk about in the church – and you can join in those sorts of conversations in Sunday School and Disciple’s Path home groups.  But beyond all the specifics, this truth remains:  We need to give, because in the act of giving, our hearts are softened toward God and other people.  So we support this congregation with our prayers, and our presence, and our gifts. 

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” 

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Showing Up

Preached September 29, 2013

Texts:  John 15:9-17 & Colossians 3:12-17

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We continue through the Disciple’s Path series this week, talking about what it looks like to follow Jesus, particularly in the United Methodist tradition.  We support this congregation with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.

Last week, we talked about prayer (and hopefully, not just talked about it, but actually prayed!).  This week, we look at the second of the membership vows:  to support this congregation with our presence.

So basically, our question this morning is, “Why are you here?”  What made you get out of bed this morning when you could have slept in?  What made you steer your car here to the church rather than to brunch or to the golf course or to the mall?

I imagine our answers area as varied as we are.  Some of us had to be here!  Some of us wanted to be with friends.  Others enjoy the music, or the beauty, or the food.  For some of us, it’s just what you do – our week wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t start it at church.  Some of us are here looking for answers, or for peace.  And the list could go on.

I have another question this morning, though.  What happens when the reason we came no longer rings true?  What happens when Alastair is away and the choir is small, or when hurt feelings creep in between us and our friends, or when we hear more questions than answers in the sermon?  Why bother with church then?

That is a question that has been asked frequently in recent years, especially by younger Americans.  One 24-year-old woman named Sarah recently wrote about why she, in her words, “lacks enthusiasm for church.”  Among her reasons were these:

  • Because the people who teach me and who ask me hard questions and who I want to live like and learn from are outside of my church.
  • Because I met, or perceived – rightly or wrongly – more hypocrites in the church than I sensed anywhere else. [1]

She also refers to music that feels “simplistic or whiny” and preaching that “didn’t so much make me think as fed me other people’s thoughts.”

And you know what?  She’s got some good points (she makes 22 of them, in total!).  So why bother with church, anyway?

We find one answer, I think, in Jesus words to his disciples in John 15.  The chapter begins with the image of a vine:  “I am the vine, and you are the branches…abide in me, and you will bear fruit…apart from me, you can do nothing.”  We hear in this passage (and rightfully so) the need to remain connected to God.  We hear our soul’s deep need for relationship, for a spiritual life.

To this point, our young author Sarah would agree.  We do have a longing for God – a “God-shaped” hole in us, as the saying goes.  But does abiding in God require us to be in church?  Sarah doesn’t think so.  She writes:

The awareness that my deepest moments of worship will come this afternoon, on a training run in breezy sunshine with my iPod and audio Bible, nags me.

She is right.  We can experience God elsewhere.   So once again – why bother with church?

My answer would be because, frankly, we don’t have much choice in the matter.  If we are abiding in Jesus – if we’re a branch along the vine – then we are side-by-side with other branches whether we like it or not.  God may meet us anywhere, anytime, in any way – certainly.  But when God begins to work in our heart and we begin to walk with God, we’ll find ourselves drawn into relationship with others who are walking with God, whether we like it or not.

We may wish it was otherwise.  We may not have anything in common with these people!  We may not like their style of music or their political persuasions.  We may think they are shallow or hypocrites.  But you know what?  We are still connected to the same vine.

As author Eugene Peterson puts it, “The church is God’s thing, not yours!”  Peterson writes:

You say that you have almost nothing in common with these people.  But isn’t that just the point?  You have nothing in common with them; but God does.  This just happens to be the way that God goes about making a kingdom, pulling all sorts and conditions of people together and then patiently, mercifully, and graciously making something of them.  What he obviously does not do is pre-select people who have an aptitude for getting along well and enjoying the same things.  Of course you don’t have much in common with them.  The church is God’s thing, not yours.[2]

That’s pretty much what Jesus tells his disciples in John 15:16:

You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last.

And why did Jesus choose them – and us?  Because he loves us – and because he wants us to love each other.  To take care of one another.  To watch out for one another.

Jesus knew that abiding in God – staying deeply connected, keeping that relationship with God strong – was not easy.  He knew there were all kinds of things that we might turn to in our efforts to fill that God-sized hole in our hearts – things like busyness, or food or drink, or one unhealthy relationship after another.  Jesus knew there were plenty of distractions, reasons we might loose our grip on faith – grief too deep to carry, pain we can’t make sense of, just plain apathy.

Jesus knew that any leaf along the vine would occasionally need the canopy of protection that other leaves offered.  He knew that abiding in God would require some encouragement and support from other people from time to time.

And so he gave the command:  Love each other as I have loved you (John 15:13).  In his last days with his disciples, knowing he will be leaving them soon, he tells them, “Take care of each other.  Stick together, you’ll need each other.  Love one another.”

Obeying that command is not always easy.  Sometimes it is difficult because we disagree – sharply, deeply.  Sometimes it is difficult because we don’t feel loved ourselves – so how and why should we love others?!  Sometimes, it is just downright inconvenient to set aside our agendas in order to care for the needs of another person.

The author of Colossians knew that caring for one another wasn’t easy – why do you think he wrote, “Bear with one another, and forgive one another whatever grievances you may have against one another.”

And yet, we are called to care.  We are called to love.  And we are called by God to do so as one branch of many along the common vine of Jesus, as part of a community of Jesus followers.

And that means showing up, because while we can do a lot of things from a distance, there are some things that only happen when we are together.  We can’t feel a hug through the computer.  We can’t taste a virtual bread and cup.  We won’t notice that the woman who sits at the other end of our pew was missing for three weeks in a row and might need a phone call.

It also means being willing to move beyond the relative anonymity of Sunday morning worship.  In a crowd of 100, it is possible to slip in and slip out without really connecting with anyone else.  But supporting the church with our presence means actually sharing life together – going beyond the small talk, to really be present with another person.  Abiding together means putting roots down together.

Those kind of relationships rarely happen in Sunday worship.  They require smaller groups – like Sunday School, Covenant Groups, even choir and committees when the members provide support for one another and join in service to others.

Sharing life together means knowing people well enough that we can ask the kind of hard questions that Sarah wrote about.  It means sharing the deep moments of life, and looking past the superficial to know each other’s hearts.  It doesn’t happen overnight, or even in a few days together at a retreat or event (though those are good ways to get started!)  This kind of loving one another happens in the day-in-and-day-out sharing of life that requires us to show up again and again and again, whether we feel like it or not.

There are plenty of reasons for any of us, young or old, to “lack enthusiasm for church” on any given Sunday – or Wednesday, or Saturday, or whenever it is that we gather to share life and learn to love.  We are called to show up anyway – to abide in the vine that connects us to Jesus, but also to one another.

When we do show up, sometimes it feels like we are just going through the motions.  But sometimes, the words of the hymns give voice to our hearts’ longing, or the congregation speaks our faith when we cannot.  Sometimes hearing someone else’s struggles and triumphs helps us in the midst of our own.

But we don’t show up because it helps us.  That part is gift, grace.  We show up because we are connected to the vine, and the vine winds through this real, broken, powerful community of people trying to follow Jesus together.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing… You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last…[So] Love each other as I have loved you.


[2] Eugene Peterson, The Wisdom of Each Other, 26.

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Right Words, or Real Words?

Preached September 22, 2013

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

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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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Walking With

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

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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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