Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sermon, "Meet Jesus," Mark 2:1-12

Sermon 10/14/18
Mark 2:1-12

Meet Jesus

Last year, I was compelled by a book that I read as part of our district Pastoral Leadership Development group called Simple Church by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger - I’ve mentioned it to you before. In it, they talk, among other things, about how in our desperation to try to keep people interested in and connected to our churches, we have so complicated things with events and activities and programs, that we have no clear message for people about how they’re actually supposed to become disciples. The mission of The United Methodist Church, and thus of this particular United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Since it is our mission, our purpose, everything we do should be able to point us to our mission. Activities and programs that are nice or fun but don’t actually help us in the work of making disciples who change the world? Well, they really don’t make sense for us. But if our mission is making world-changing disciples, what is our plan for doing that? Do people who attend this church, who call this church our faith home, know what they should be doing to fulfill the mission? Simple Church suggests that most churches are not very good at this part - having an intentional discipleship plan that simply and clearly communicates to everyone how they might go about living out the mission.
I’ve suggested to you - in our leadership teams, in our newsletter, and you see it now in our bulletin every week - that our intentional discipleship plan could be summed up in three simple parts: Meet Jesus, Follow Jesus, and Serve Jesus. Now, just coming up with a memorable slogan does not mean we have a plan. But I’m hoping that if we can capture the vision of disciple-making that helps people to meet Jesus, follow Jesus, and serve Jesus, we can begin to flesh out what the details of that would look like in our congregation. How will this church help folks meet Jesus? What does it look like to become a follower of Jesus and how can our ministries support that happening? What does it mean to live a life of service in the name of Jesus, and what opportunities can we support to help folks to do just that? Over the next three weeks, then, we’ll be looking at each component of our intentional discipleship vision, and digging deeper, exploring together.
Today, we start … at the beginning, with the most basic, and in some ways the most challenging part of our plan: Meet Jesus. Have you met Jesus? Who in our community needs to meet Jesus? How do we help folks who come here to meet Jesus? In what ways do we make it possible for folks to come here to meet Jesus? What would you do to make sure someone else could meet Jesus? To help us think about these questions, we turn to the gospel of Mark.
Our scripture text for today takes place very near the beginning of Mark’s gospel. As I’ve shared with you before, Mark rarely shares things with a lot of details if he can possibly say something in fewer words. The pace of his gospel is practically frantic. So it’s worth noting that Mark’s version of this event - Jesus healing a paralyzed man - is longer than in Matthew and Luke where it also appears. Mark, for once, gives the most details. After a preaching and healing tour through the region of Galilee, Mark says that Jesus has returned to his home in Capernaum. We don’t often think of Jesus at home, but that’s where Mark says Jesus is as this scene unfolds. Once people find out he’s home, they start crowding in at the house to see and hear him. After all, he’s been building a reputation. He can fix people, and he speaks in a new way, with a new kind of authority, about God and the scriptures. They want to meet him. They want to see if what they’ve been hearing is true.
In particular, a group of people seems to want to get their friend to meet Jesus, and they want this to happen very much. We’re not sure how many in the group - but there are at least 4 who are carrying their friend who is paralyzed, presumably hoping that Jesus will be able to heal him. The crowd is so thick, though, that they can’t even get in the door of the house. This, however, does not deter them. They simply take the man to the roof, dig through it, and lower the man down on his mat before Jesus that way. If Jesus is surprised, we don’t hear about it. Instead, he seems to be impressed. Mark tells us “when Jesus saw their faith,” Jesus tells the man that his sins are forgiven. Hear that again - on seeing the faith of the friends who brought this man to Jesus, Jesus announces that the man’s sins are forgiven. We aren’t told that forgiveness is what the friends or the man came seeking of Jesus. We’d assume that they were there for physical healing for the man. But what they get is a promise of forgiveness.
The rest of what happens is secondary - at least for our focus today. Some of the scribes - who are also hanging out at Jesus’ house - question in their hearts at how Jesus can possibly say something so presumptuous as “your sins are forgiven.” They consider it blasphemy. Forgiveness of sins is something only God can offer, and they do not believe Jesus to be God. But Jesus, perceiving their inner dialogue, calls them out. “Which is easier?” he wonders. “To forgive sins? Or to just heal this man and tell him to walk? But,” Jesus says, “just so you know that I can forgive sins …” Jesus then commands the man to get up off his mat and walk home. The man does exactly that. And everyone praises and glorifies God, saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this.”
As we think today about meeting Jesus, I want us to zero in on the extraordinary measures this group of people went to so that the paralyzed man was able to meet Jesus. When have you wanted to meet someone so much? When have you been so passionate about making something happen? When have you been so committed to making something happen not for you, but for someone else?
I’ve been thinking about times I’ve been passionate about something, or dedicated enough to something that others wanted to know more, times when I’ve been able to invite others to share in something that meant a lot to me. Recently, I’ve been re-watching the TV series LOST. Were any of you LOST fans? Lost is probably my favorite TV show ever. It follows a group of survivors of a plane crash as they try to make sense of their new life on an island full of mysteries. Back when LOST was on, starting in 2004, I must confess that I was unlikely to schedule any church events that might interrupt my viewing of LOST. I read weekly recaps of the episodes so I could follow all the latest theories about what was happening next and what different events on the show might mean. I was, well, a little obsessed. And I told people about it. I think I was the first person in my family who started watching LOST, but by the end of the series, I’d convinced everyone else to watch too. Along with some friends. And some church folk. And probably some strangers. I just loved it so much, and I wanted everyone else to like it too. Somewhere in the midst of my LOST obsession, I wondered - have I ever been as good at encouraging others to meet Jesus as I have been at getting them to watch LOST? Can I say what I say of LOST: I just loved it so much, and I wanted everyone else to like it too? Sure, convincing people to watch a TV show is both an easier commitment and a less threatening, personal topic than persuading someone to follow Jesus Christ. But the question pulled at me.
Or, I think of ways in which my life demonstrates my commitment to the things I believe. Many of you have probably talked to me, at least a little bit, about the fact that I’m a vegan - I don’t eat any animal products. Going into all the reasons I’m a vegan isn’t usually a conversation I initiate, even though it might seem like something you’ve heard me talk about. It’s just that eating is part of our everyday life, and so you’ve probably been around me at some function that involved food, and you’ve probably seen that I wouldn’t eat some things that others are eating, and naturally, people start asking questions. Or, I’ve had to let someone know that I eat a vegan diet so that they could feel prepared - when I started at the church, or when I visited someone for dinner, or when I ordered meals for an event. Or you’ve witnessed my excitement over a new vegan product or dish. People are naturally curious when they see someone doing something different than what many others are doing, and so, over time, I end up having a lot of conversations about veganism. I can’t say that I’ve influenced as many people to become vegan or vegetarian as I’ve convinced to watch LOST, but it is, of course, a bigger level of commitment, and, since many people tend to get opinionated when it comes to what we eat and why, I often even deflect the vegan conversation if I can. Despite those barriers - the commitment, the complex topic - I know people who have started changing their own diets because of me. It’s a good feeling. But the point is, in this case, unlike my LOST viewing, my influence isn’t even primarily impacting people because of what I say, my influence is because of what I do. It’s not because I’m talking about animal rights all the time, it’s because every day I live out my choices in what I do, what I eat. So, again, I try to make the connection. If I want to help people meet Jesus, am I living in such a way that demonstrates the difference Jesus makes in my life? Would anyone look at my life and my choices and my way of being and want to ask questions about what it is that drives me? Centers me? Guides me?    
The first step in our discipleship process is helping folks meet Jesus. There are lots of ways we can help folks meet Jesus, and I want your input and ideas about the best ways we can do that here, whether folks connect with us through worship, or starting out at RipIt, or starting out helping with We’ve Got Your Back or serving at the Friday lunch program - we have so many opportunities to invite people to connect. But do we have the will? The commitment? The desire? Are we passionate about Jesus? Has Jesus changed the way we live? How much do we want to make sure others meet Jesus too? I think of the friends of the man on the mat. A group of people that was willing to carry him from who knows where, and then persist through the crowds, and then take him to the roof and then dig through the roof and lower him to the ground. It was their faith, not the faith of the man himself, that is life-changing for this man. It is their faith that causes Jesus to respond as he does.
What would you do to make sure someone else was able to meet Jesus? Who do you wish could have the life-changing experience of being brought before Jesus and hearing the words, “your sins are forgiven”, or experiencing the healing power of Jesus from their pain and hurt - and what would you do to make that happen? I worry that sometimes our expectation for how people will meet Jesus is that they will care for that part of their spiritual journey themselves. Certainly, for some people, this happens. Some people seek out Jesus on their own, and I think that’s pretty amazing. But for this man, at least, he needed a group of friends to get him there. I worry that we’re sometimes expecting our friends who are broken and hurting and metaphorically like this man on a mat to get themselves to Jesus without our stepping up to grab a corner and help clear a path to Jesus.
For some of us who have grown up in a community of faith, who have been nurtured as disciples of Jesus since before we could talk or walk, it is hard to wrap our heads around meeting Jesus for the first time, because it seems like we’ve always known him. That’s certainly my own personal experience. Although I can turn to some meaningful moments in my faith development where I made an intentional deepening of my commitment to follow Jesus, I grew up with Bible stories, with church attendance as the core of my family’s rhythm of life, with the hymns we sing deeply embedded in my memory. When did I meet Jesus? I don’t ever remember not knowing him. I’m thankful for the foundation that I have, which has served me well in immeasurable ways over my life.
But there’s a downside, or at least an area that needs careful attention if you feel like you’ve always known Jesus. It can make it more challenging to feel the urgency in helping other to meet Jesus. Since Jesus has been a “given” in my life, I can sometimes forget the life-changing impact Jesus has had. And in turn, then, I’m less likely to give all my time and energy to carrying my friend’s mat to Jesus’s feet. That’s why sometimes that best disciple-makers, the people most excited about getting others to meet Jesus are those who just met him themselves. They still remember what it was like, meeting Jesus, and what it was like, without that core of faith. If you, like me, friends, met Jesus long ago, I want to encourage you, challenge you to really think about how your life has been shaped by knowing Jesus. Think of the gifts that have come into your life because of having Jesus at the center of your being. If you can’t get in touch with the impact Jesus has had on your life, it will be hard for you to convince anyone else that Jesus matters, and hard for you to convince yourself that you’d carry mats and dig through roofs to get others to the feet of Jesus. We’ll talk some more about how we do that - how we stay in touch with Jesus - over the next two weeks. (First UMC only) If you are new here, or you’re just learning about who Jesus is, or what this church thing is, please know that I am - and we are - so thankful that you are here. And we’re ready to learn from you too, as we can learn from the passion and hope, the seeking and searching, the growing that marks your getting to meet and know Jesus. I hope that we who have met Jesus, recently, or so long ago that we can’t even remember the details, can demonstrate the passion, the commitment, and the changed lives of our own that will help us carry others to meet Jesus.
A group of people carried a man to meet Jesus - and his life was never the same. The man was healed, and his sins were forgiven, and people praised God because of what they had witnessed. What would you do, friends, if the people in your life could experience what this man did? What would you do to help someone meet Jesus? May we live in such a way that Jesus might say of us: Their faith has changed your life. Amen.  

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sermon, "Building Community: Hindrances," Acts 11:1-18

Sermon 9/23/18
Acts 11:1-18

Building Community: Hindrances

We have some family stories in our collective knowledge that we love to tell. If you spend a lot of time with us, we will tell you about how my big brother Jim used me as leverage to stand up when he was six and I was a newborn, making my mother quite anxious indeed. We will tell you - or at least my mom will tell you - about the note I got home from my sixth grade teacher saying that I was doing a much better job at not correcting him in class all the time, even though my mom never got the first note that was sent home - which I have no recollection of receiving… We will tell you lots of stories about Tim and Todd as toddlers, born 14 months apart and always getting into trouble together, like when Tim, who we’d nicknamed BamBam, tore the lining of the playpen infant Todd was in and pulled him out and dragged him underneath the buffet table that now sits in my dining room, causing my mom to wonder how her children had disappeared when she stepped out of the room for two minutes. We will tell you stories about my mom getting lost in a number of different situations. We will tell you stories about my grandparents, stories that we’ve told and retold so many times that my younger cousins, who were really too young to remember some of these things about my grandpa on their own, know the stories well enough to feel like they were there. When new people start to become part of our family, like my sister-in-law Jen, or Emma, who will become my sister-in-law in less than two weeks now, part of the way we welcome them into the family is by telling them these stories. I can tell you stories about my mother or my grandparents as young people, even though they happened before I was alive, because I know them by heart. And we don’t even need new people around to have an opportunity to tell these stories. We tell them to each other. We tell them when we get together for holidays and celebrations, or when we’re sitting at the hospital bed of a sick family member, or when we’re just hanging out. We all know the stories, and we tell them to each other anyway.
I’m guessing that many of you could say the same thing about your families, your stories. What are some of the stories that you tell over and over in your family? (Pause for sharing?) Why do we tell these stories over and over? What makes us repeat these stories? (Pause for suggestions?) We tell these stories, I think, in part because they just bring us joy in remembering. We tell them because we want our loved ones who have gone before us to be alive to those who have come after. I want my niece and nephew to know what kind of man my grandfather was even though they never met him. We tell them again and again so that we don’t forget. We want to remember. And we tell these stories because they’re identity stories. They tell us and tell others about who we are. We tell stories that highlight the character of the people we’re sharing about. We tell stories that remind us of the nature of our family - how we stick together, how we persevere, how we’ve stayed close to each other. We tell our stories, again and again.
Today, as we continue thinking about Building Community as we journey through the book of Acts, we come across an example right within the text of a message being delivered, a story being told over and over. Our reading comes from Acts 11, but Acts 11 is really a retelling of everything that happens in Acts 10, so we’ll start there. In Acts 10, Luke, the author, tells us that there is a man named Cornelius in Casearia who is a centurion in the Italian Cohort of the Roman Empire. He’s a Gentile, that is a non-Jew. Luke describes him as a devout believer in God who gives alms generously and prays constantly. But he is not Jewish, not part of the covenant between God and the Israelites. One day, he has a vision where God tells him to send for a man named Simon Peter. And so he gathers a small team and sends them off to find this Peter.
The next day, Peter is waiting for his meal to be ready, and spends some time in prayer on the roof of the place where he’s staying. And he falls into a trance. He has a vision of a large sheet, like a tablecloth we might think, lowered down from heaven, and on it are many kinds of food, all kinds of food that would be forbidden for Peter to eat according to the Torah, the law of Moses that represents the covenant between God and the Jewish people. And as the sheet is lowered on all this food that is considered unclean, Peter hears a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter responds, “No Lord - I have never eaten anything unclean!” But the voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” And then this scene is repeated two more times. Peter, Acts tells us, is “greatly puzzled” by what he’s seen.
And right then, the men sent by Corneus arrive. Prompted by God, Peter goes with them back to Cornelius’s home in Caesarea. When he’s there, he tells them what he’s figured out from his vision: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean, and so I came, even though it violates the law for me to share in your home in this way.” Peter shares with them the message of Jesus, starting with these words: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” While Peter is preaching, the Holy Spirit comes to everyone present. And Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” They are all baptized as followers of Jesus, and Peter stays with them for several days.
At the start of our text for today, word has spread that some Gentiles have accepted the word of God, and everyone wants to know how it happened, and specifically, why Peter ate with and stayed with people who were Gentiles. Peter explains to them step by step, and we get a repeat of everything that just happened in the previous chapter. As he finishes his story, he concludes, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” At first, the apostles sit in stunned silence. But finally, they praise God, realizing: “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
I don’t think we can fully understand the mind-boggling radicalness of the idea that people could become Jesus-followers without first becoming part of the covenant of Judaism. It makes sense to us that you can become a Christian without becoming a Jew because we have done so for thousands of years now. But this was not at all clear to the apostles, the first followers of Jesus. Jesus himself was Jewish, and he spent most of his ministry preaching and teaching among Jewish people. He was very critical of some of the practices of the religious leaders in his tradition, but he spoke of himself as a fulfillment of the law and prophets that are the heart of Judaism. Peter and the other apostles aren’t opposed to Gentiles becoming Christians. They just can’t envision someone becoming a follower of Jesus without adopting the same religious practices that Jesus himself did. When Paul comes along in the book of Acts as a newly converted follower of Jesus, and he suddenly wants everyone to let Gentiles be followers of Jesus without adopting Judaism, it seems preposterous. Deciding whether or not Gentile followers of Jesus need to become part of the covenant tradition of Judaism is the major struggle of the early church, and it permeates the book of Acts and the writings of Paul.
So, this story of Peter and the unclean food and the decision to baptize Cornelius and the others even though they are Gentiles who have no plan of adopting Judaism gets repeated. Peter’s vision is repeated, and the story is repeated, back to back, because is it so important. This realization - that God’s Holy Spirit is in the Gentiles as well, that they too have received God’s word, and that the apostles should do nothing to hinder these Gentile believers from embracing Jesus - it’s a watershed moment that shapes Christian identity forever, and Luke rightly feels it can not be emphasized enough. He wants to tell the story over and over to make sure we get it, to make sure we don’t forget, to make sure that we don’t hinder Gentiles who are making their way to Jesus.
He’s right to think folks will need reminding. In Paul’s writings elsewhere in the New Testament (see Galatians 2), we find evidence that Peter didn’t always stick to the lesson that he learned here. When confronted again with other influential church leaders who thought that adhering strictly to the practices of the law was an important part of following Jesus, Paul says that Peter reverted to refusing to eat with Gentiles. The place of the Gentiles in the church is an issue that divides Peter and Paul and the other apostles for many years, and they have to “agree to disagree.” But eventually, it doesn’t matter anymore. Because the gospel of Jesus, the good news of God’s redeeming love and grace has already taken hold among Gentiles, and Gentile Christian communities grow and grow.
Maybe we wonder: how could Peter change his mind again, when he had this vision from God? How could he have gone back to separating himself from Gentiles? And yet, we do the same. We forget. We fall out of the good habits we try to cultivate. We forget the way we felt when we were sure of God’s message, God’s call. That’s exactly why we need to tell our stories, why Luke tells this same story back to back, why God shares the vision with Peter repeatedly. We have to remember our identity, and remember the nature of the God we serve, remember that the message of Jesus will not be hindered, when somehow, like Peter, we forget.
As followers of Jesus, we have to make sure that we don’t add requirements and expectations to the message of God that are from us, not God, and try to pass them off as God’s ideas. We need to be careful that instead of trying to help folks follow Jesus, we don’t end up implying that they’re supposed to follow us, and what we do and how we behave. Unfortunately, for a long time missionary work conflated the accepting Jesus with accepting the culture of the missionaries. When I visited Ghana when I was in seminary, for example, the first worship service our trip leaders took us to was an Methodist church in the capital city. The service used prayer books from the British Methodist, and people wore clothing traditional to the British Methodist and Anglican traditions, and the liturgy, the order of service, was exactly replicated from the British Methodist tradition. Our trip leaders wanted us to see what it looked like when missionaries not only shared the gospel, but also attached their culture and practices along with the gospel. This tying together of cultural practices with the gospel messages is something many Christians have been working hard at recognizing and changing. For example, many of you know that Don and Glenda Schuessler have been part of mission trips to Cambodia in the last couple years. The team they’ve worked with has really increased its focus on making sure that Cambodian Christian leaders are the ones who are ready to serve and love and teach any people who become followers of Jesus as a result of their time there.
But making sure we don’t hinder God’s work among new followers of Jesus goes beyond missionary work. It is a message we all need to hear, because we’re still stuck on thinking: if you don’t live your life in the same way I do, you can’t or shouldn’t have access to God in the way I can. I don’t think we think we think that! But our actions and attitudes sometimes say otherwise. We think: If you want to follow Jesus, if you want to be a disciple, if you want to have God in your heart, it also means that you have to do XYZ - these other expectations that we’ve attached to being a follower of Jesus. Maybe we have clear ideas that Christians should speak in certain ways, or listen to certain music, or attend certain groups, or wear certain clothes, or vote for certain candidates or policies, and so on. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have some expectations about what it means to follow Jesus. But we need to be very aware that what matters are God’s expectations, not ours. We need to be very careful that we aren’t hindering the work of God, and that we aren’t attaching requirements to the good news that come from us and not from God. God is way better at extending grace, mercy, love and forgiveness than we are, thanks be to God, and we need to let God decide how to do that work. The last thing we want to do is hinder someone else getting to God. We’ve talked about that before - how seriously Jesus speaks against that, and how frequently the New Testament warns against being a stumbling block for others on their path to God.

God shows no partiality. God has given the gift of the Holy Spirit in places that are unexpected. And God has said that only God will decide what is clean or unclean. Who are we to hinder the work of God? In our hearts, I know we don’t want to. But sometimes we need reminding. And so we tell ourselves our story: this story from Acts that Luke so wanted us to know by heart. We tell ourselves the stories of the scriptures, that start with us being made in God’s image, each one. We tell ourselves the story of Jesus, so that we remember who he is and how he loves, and so that others come to love him like we do. We tell ourselves the stories of the times we forgot, so we remember to remember. And as we tell the story - God’s story - we praise God - because God has given the gift of repentance that leads to life even to us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, September 21, 2018

A Sung Communion for World Communion Sunday: For the Beauty of the Earth

For the Beauty of the Earth: A Sung Communion Liturgy for World Communion Sunday
Tune: DIX, 77.77.77 (“For the Beauty of the Earth,” UMH 92)

Gather, friends, from far and near
Gather, friends - you are welcome
Come to the table, join the meal
God invites us, every one.
Sing together, voices raise to our God this song of praise.

Lift your hearts up to the Lord!
God, we lift our hearts to you.
Give to God your thanks and praise.
It is right to give our thanks.
Sing together, voices raise to our God this song of praise.

God, you made us out of love,
Each one different, yet like you
We’re one people, all the earth
Many nations, many-hued
Sing together, everyone! Tell the world what God has done!

Though we are one, we’ve built up walls,
Nurtured fears and pain and strife,
In our anger, turned away
From the gift of God-breathed life.
Holy God, we turn to you. We repent and start anew.

So you sent your holy child,
Come to share your reign on earth
Breaking all our barriers down
Teaching us our sacred worth
Jesus Christ, God’s gift of grace! At the meal we take our place.

Jesus shared a meal with friends
Took and blessed and shared the bread
“This, my life, I give to you
Remember when you eat again”
We remember, we give thanks, for the meal of love and grace.

Jesus took a cup of wine
Shared with friends fruit of the vine
“In this cup forgiveness find,
Gift of mercy, gift divine.
We remember, we give thanks, for the meal of love and grace.

Pour on us your Holy Breath.
Pour your Spirit on these gifts.
Make them into Christ for us.
Make us Christ for the whole world.
God of all, to you we raise this our song of grateful praise.

Text: Beth Quick, 2018.
Creative Commons License
A Sung Communion Liturgy for World Communion Sunday: For the Beauty of the Earth by Rev. Dr. Beth Quick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.