Saturday, October 23, 2010

Stewardship of Prayer

I want to tell you about a new movement in the church. I do a fair amount of reading each week in preparation for the sermon and to keep aware of what is happening in the Christian world.
The religious world has as many fads and trends as the fashion world, or so it seems. It can be hard to get on-board with a new movement before it has seen it’s day and faded into the recesses of old magazines.

The movement I read about this week has real potential.

The people who began it are from several different denominations. They were all at an ecumenical conference on ‘Living the Deeper Spiritual Life’ and discovered their common interest.
A speaker at the conference was citing some statistics that today’s young people think the best place to find a hypocrite is in church.
-We’ve all see the stories on pastors who turn out to use a church to get money for themselves, priests who abuse children, and we’ve heard the ‘prosperity gospel’ preached again and again.
These stories reinforce the impression that Christianity is about how to get the MOST out of life."
-The Christianity we see displayed on TV and media is often one that makes us cringe. I find myself saddened but understanding of teens who think the one place to find a hypocrite is the church.
This one statistic really struck the founders of the new movement and inspired them to look at their faith practices.
They wondered what they could DO to deepen their faith and strengthen the image the world has of Christian church-goers.

Most of the men and women who founded the movement were current officers of their church boards, leadership councils or sessions. These are the people typically called on to be Stewardship Chair, board chair, or asked to hold some position of leadership.
They wanted to challenge each other to a higher level of spiritual practice so they wouldn’t get so wrapped up in their work for the church, that they forgot about prayer and Bible reading.
Since they had so much in common, they came up with a list of goals that would help them maintain the level of piety or spirituality they desired. This would be the way they stayed close to God and could better listen for God’s call on their life.<
Remember, This movement is aimed at people who do a lot at church so there is an assumption that to be part of this movement, you will hold or have held a church position of leadership (board, deacon, SS teacher) within the last 5 years.
In order to challenge each other, people in this movement commit to reading their Bible daily.
Many have decided to purchase a 1-year or 2-year Bible, which simplifies the reading process and insures you will read completely thru the Bible in the 1 or 2 year period.
-The founders are well aware of the statistic that only 17% of US Christians read their Bible daily. This 1st goal, will ground their practice in the words of scripture.

Being the leaders of the church, they have also committed to tithing knowing it takes funds for the church to exist. (You can tell many of the founders of the new movement have been stewardship chairs.) They even decided to take the original definition of “a tithe” which means 10% of their income and possessions.
Another statistic that troubled them says many Christians give closer to 4% or less of their income. So this group wanted to return to the biblical command to TITHE.
And to eliminate any question about what 10% means, they say in any case where there are questions about tithing ‘gross’ or ‘net’, they promise to give the larger amount.
This “pocketbook challenge” they know will help them be serious about their covenant to the movement. You have to be serious to make a promise like this. (Putting their money where their mouth is?)
A unique practice of this group is the reinstitution of fasting on a regular basis. They remarked that we all know more about Islam these days and hear how Muslims maintain days of fasting, where food is only consumed before dawn and at very minimal amounts during the weeks of Festivals or “Holy Days”.
The founders of the new movement think Christians should return to the older practices of fasting. (This is something they have in common with the early brethren.) So they plan to develop a schedule of fasting days and everyone who joins the group will commit to several days of fasting each year.

The key leadership of the movement also recognizes that they will need interpersonal support to maintain this level of commitment.  So, members within the same town, regardless of their denomination, promise to meet together regularly to pray for each other.
They feel this commitment to each other will strengthen the movement and build ties among the new community of those deeply committed to following Jesus, the Christ every day.
This is quite an admirable group who have begun the movement and the prayer they suggest to any of us who wants to join is this, “'Oh, God, we thank you that we are not like other people—. We fast regularly, read scripture daily, and tithe on all our income.”
Adapted from Luke 18:11-12 (MSG)
And the name of the movement is, The PHARISEE Way.

Now they make very clear, that they know they are not the only Christians in the world. Clearly there are many others who are Christians and they state there is nothing wrong with ‘other folks’. It’s obvious to the new movement that there are plenty of people who really need Jesus in this world. Certainly those who are struggling with addictions, Or who haven’t the resources that allow them time to devote to church work.
They recognize most ordinary Christians can’t take on these promises and they don’t want to burden ‘the average’ believer with such high standards. It doesn’t seem fair to coerce everyone with these strict practices.
They make a point of saying,
“we are the fortunate ones who have been blessed with good jobs and secure futures that allow us to make this kind of commitment to Christ’s church. It’s ok, if ‘you’ can’t all live at this level.”
There are so many people out there whose need for Jesus in their life mean they need the freedom to pray, “'God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.'
Luke 18:13 (MSG) The movement’s first publicity statement says,
“We certainly want these needy Christians to feel included in our churches so we won’t push to impose these standards on everyone. This movement will remain for those who are blessed enough with the time and finances to be able to make this level of commitment.”
It’s quite a movement, isn’t it? What do you think of it?

Are any of you ready to join?

And Jesus said, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Real blogging & desert islands

Do I have time to blog this morning? Good question but I have the urge to do so.

Real blogging, for me, means writing off the top of my head. This is not always a good thing, I realize. The more controlled, somewhat edited manuscripts of sermons are safer content for blogging. But then "safe" and blogging may not go together.

I just read a diverse group of articles in Christian CenturyThe Best of 20 Years from 20th Century Christian Magazine, just from the last issue I received. I now have swirling in my brain, how our brains are effected by internet-type browsing, how the evangelicals want to encourage Israel so the end of the world will come sooner, and a few good words about poetry and scripture. Yesterday I read why we don't need to find 'God's will' for our lives. What would I do without Christian Century?

When I interviewed for my current position I was asked what one book, magazine or newspaper (other than the Bible; a pat answer) would you want if you were stranded on a desert island? I said the Christian Century because not only do I love the main articles, I get to read about the news of the day and hear comments of how others believe it impacts our faith journeys. It may be some of the best thought-provoking material that I read.

Since I just finished prep for this morning's Bible-study on the Mustard Seed parable, I have thoughts of poetic inferences in my head. Now added to it, the ideas that the way we think may be changing, from Nicholas Carr's book and Philip Cary's thoughts on God's will have me realizing that opening up the thinking process in my head may be the most important thing I do when I read.

So can I justify not doing a work-out this morning because I exercised my brain? If only, this kind of exercise would shave off a few pounds...

Monday, October 11, 2010

What It Takes

On Sunday (yesterday) we heard two stories about people who ended up praising God, after being healed by God’s messenger. These men, Naaman and the unnamed one out of 10 people cured of leprosy, recognized God’s power at work in their healing and immediately acted to praise God; one by turning back to thank Jesus and the other by asking for a piece of Israel’s soil to take home so he could worship the one God on what he considered holy soil. And we wonder, how these 2 stories about miracles, a rare disease, and the gratitude of praise speak to us.

It’s easy to feel disconnected from Bible stories like this. Certainly they are good stories, memorable stories, but aren’t they rather remote from our life experiences?

Hansen’s Disease, leprosy, is not a disease we think about much today. And in most stories, the disease defines the people who have it so they are not people who have leprosy, but they are LEPERS. And even though the disease is rare, we still have people in our society who are treated as “lepers”- kept on the outer edges of society & labeled as non-touchables.

Can you imagine have to call out, “Leper, Leper, or Psoriasis, Aids, or Measles” so people would stay away? “Lepers” were required to do so in Jesus’ day. In our world it is more likely for someone else to point out our “leprosy” and it can get ugly. Bullies play this role in schools and neighborhoods. Children and youth along with adults end up victims to someone’s desire to push someone out to the margins and label them a “leper”.

Recently, the news carried the tragic tale of three different young men, bullied for being gay, tortured with emotional abuse and pushed out to the edge, until each took their own life. I think it is imperative that we clearly state to youth and adults that everyone is welcome here, no matter your sexual orientation or any name society tries to put on you as a label – HERE, we are all equal and VALUED children of God.
If the church of Jesus Christ doesn’t make that value clear, then where CAN people turn for acceptance and wholeness?

At conference this weekend, a sample hearing was held to show us what the process will be like at the district ‘listening’ hearings on the query about same sex covenant relationships and the Standing Committee paper on confession and forgiveness. It was just and example of how the process will work, but one young high school girl shared that in her school, the bullying, and name calling is really ugly. People play nasty tricks on anyone who is gay or lesbian, making life miserable and that the lines are pretty well drawn into a warfare everyday at school.

Do you remember how hard HS was? How much harder must it be today, to have that level of hatred played out again and again, instead of acceptance and the joy of good friendships?

I WISH we COULD say that times are different today than in Jesus’ day. I WISH we could feel superior because we no longer require people to call out, “LEPER, LEPER”

I’d like to say, “That was then and this is now.” But we know from these stories from school and universities, that there are plenty of places where “lepers” still exist today.

And have you ever BEEN the person who needed acceptance? Or longed for Jesus to turn and call you by name and make you whole? I wonder what – it - takes to change human society to the point that everyone is accepted and treasured for who they are ?

I believe change of any kind, starts close to home, very close. Change must begin with us.
What does it take for us to accept our own selves, the way God made us? I think the Samaritan who was a leper, is the perfect example for today.

This man had ‘An attitude of gratitude’. As soon as he realized he had been given the gift of wholeness he turned around to give thanks. He falls downs at Jesus’ feet, which is the sign of worship. How is it that only one healed person was able to see “beyond his body to the one who made it whole”?

His Actions of gratitude demonstrate his faith. Remember, it’s not the quantity of faith one has, but just any small amount (even as small as a mustard seed of faith, Jesus has just said) that allows us to respond to life with gratitude and turn to God with praise.

Naaman’s lack of faith, in Elisha and in HIMSELF, almost kept him from being healed. But he had the good fortune to experience the opposite of bulling. Instead of those around him, tearing him down, his servants and soldiers, encouraged him to go do the simple thing of washing, just as he had been told, and SEE if it would work. And it did.

If only the young men who were so lost that they brought life to an end, had been encouraged instead of labeled, and driven out. . If only, someone had cared enough to reach out a saving hand.

That word “save” is a tough one, isn’t it? In fact, the way it is used in some translations of this text has done more harm than good. Either we make “being saved” seem conditional on our faith (INSTEAD OF GOD’S) or we end up judging someone’s life to say they need saving. We all wish that Jesus would make us whole.

What if we DO have a certain amount of power, at least the power to align ourselves with God’s saving action that makes us whole? When the Samaritan demonstrates unrestrained gratitude and he immediately recognizes the healing/saving action of God in Jesus, it’s his attitude that makes THE difference. He was already healed and so were the ones who didn’t come back, but he got to talk to Jesus. He was commended by the man who ‘saved’ his life. Which kind of healed would YOU prefer?

On Friday, I saw a video about the FISH MARKET in Seattle, Washington. Maybe you know about it? It’s a group of working guys, who receive, clean, sell, and package fish.

Normally, it’s not a spectacular job, but it is how they make a living.
BUT, something about THIS group is different. At some point when people ordered a fish, they started throwing it across the counter. Now these are BIG fish so, catching a big slimy fish, is challenging. The market became known as “Flying Fish” for its ‘show’.

Then, when the order was called out, the guys started fooling around and ALL of them REPEAT the order back as a SHOUT. One fish “ ONE FISH” and a fish goes flying 8 feet across a counter and into someone’s waiting arms. 4 crabs, FOUR CRABS… it becomes a show and then everyone started having fun playing. Now customers get into the act and invited to try catching a fish. And more and more customers arrive. After all, if you can buy a fish and have fun too, why not? As for the guys, well, everyone goes to work everyday, but THEY have fun at it. Attitude makes a difference. They love life, their work, and they likely make more money at it too.

Years ago, Norman Vincent Peale spoke and wrote about the “Power of Positive Thinking”. Now there are plenty of downsides to this philosophy along with its upsides. Maybe you, like me have experienced someone who was so “UP” all the time that they could make you ‘gag’ with cheerfulness. Yet, he had a point about attitude making a difference. I have found that my attitude; good or bad, can make my day turn out completely different.

We were in Florida 2 weeks ago. When I go on vacation, it takes me a couple days to unwind and really get into it. So when we got to Florida, our friends put bathing suits on and everyone hit the beach…except me. I just wasn’t ready yet.

I can’t really explain it and I even tried to argue myself down there, but I sat in the room, watching the ocean from a distance and telling myself that I didn’t want to start the vacation with a sunburn, I wasn’t ready for conversation and I just wanted to be alone.

I sat, and let most of the day get away. What I didn’t know was there were tropical storms forming off the coast and each day of sunshine was precious. And I let most of that one get away.

Naaman almost let healing get away. Stubbornness, resentment, low self image, and lack of gratitude are just some of the things that keep us away from the saving wholeness that God desires for us.

The Samaritan had the RIGHT attitude and he is remembered to this day for his response more than his healing.
Professor David Lose challenges us to examine our attitude both toward ourselves and toward God. He said,
“When we look to God, do we see stern judge or loving parent?

When we look to ourselves, do we see failure or beloved child? . .

. .how we answer dramatically shapes both our outlook and our behavior.”
How do you great your day? Is your attitude one of gratitude or resignation?

When you look at the world, do you see others with labels that keep you at a distance or are they fellow children of God, someone that might join you in gratitude and praise for what God gives each day?

OUR Attitude changes the way we see the world and the way the world sees us. Attitude changes the way we interact with the world and THAT is the way people see Jesus in us.

We need an attitude of gratitude to appreciate what God gives us, from hope to healing, to salvation. An attitude of gratitude is what it takes to make individuals into the body of Christ, joined together in praise of our AWESOME GOD.

Charles Cousar Texts for Preaching Year C (Louisville: WJK, 1994) p. 553+

Friday, October 8, 2010

I love pictures of the earth

I love pictures of the earth. Bob Ryan just posted this one because the USA was mostly cloud free. How beautiful it is. If only we could do a better job of being stewards.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Just A Grain of Faith

Luke 17:5-10
17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" 17:6 The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you. 17:7 "Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'? 17:8 Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? 17:9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 17:10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"
(A draft of tomorrow's sermon.)
Fresh tomato, Rotten tomato:
(ripe) “Would you say this fruit is worth having?”
(rotten) What about this one?

We decide value or worth based on what use we can make of the fruit. A rotten tomato is good only for the compost pile. Yet at one time, this tomato was ripe and full of potential. It grew as God intended and developed fully, I just wasn’t around to see it then.
Is the tomato worthless? Even tho it grew as intended just because I wasn’t there to see it or eat it?

I think only God can judge the value of the fruit, knowing that it reached its full potential and it grew just as it should. Once again we find that human perspective falls short of God’s view of value and worth.

In today’s story we might wonder what caused the disciples to ask Jesus to increase their faith? Were they feeling worthless? Their question comes right after Jesus warns them not to lead anyone astray. “Occassions for stumbling are bound to come, (he said) but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. . .(and Jesus told them they must forgive,) “even if the same person sins against them seven times a day and turns back to say, “I repent,” you must forgive.” (Luke 17:1-4)

? What must the disciples have been feeling after IMAGINING a huge stone (millstone) tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea. ?
? What must the disciples have been feeling after being told to forgive and to forgive again?

I suppose they were feeling “worthless” enough that they asked Jesus to “Increase our faith, Lord”.
It is easy to feel ‘worthless’
It is easy to feel ‘worthless’. You know the feeling, don’t you?
that feeling when it seems like you can do nothing right,
the feeling that you will never measure up to God’s expectations
the feeling that you aren’t worthy of church leadership, or even mentoring another Christian
the feeling that Christ “died for your sins” individually and that somehow YOU ALONE were the sole reason for his arrest, crucifixion, and death.

Some branches of Christianity seem to revel in pushing that kind of guilt on their members and it spills over into a generic understanding of Christianity. Seldom do we take the time to examine how the beliefs of early Brethren or even later Brethren theologians viewed Christ’s death or our own sense of guilt related to it. So then how ARE we to feel about our worth as children of God?
Are we merely slaves, required to do what is expected of us? As it says at the end of the text?

“Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 17:10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"

Is this how Jesus meant us to feel?

Although there is a sense that as Christians we can’t expect to be thanked for each gracious thing we do. Following the behaviors Jesus’ set out in his interpretation of God’s law that says, “1st love God, with ALL you’ve got, then love your neighbor as yourself.” Means this is just the way we should live and we CAN’T and SHOULDN”T expect to be THANKED for it.

But we needn’t feel that we are worthless either. Remember we don’t have the same sense of being accustomed to the behavior of slaves and ‘thanks be to God’ for that! God’s view of our value, our worth, is different than a human perspective.

I think the beginning of today’s scripture tells us more about how we feel. We just need some help from the Lord. Even if it is just a little.
A mustard seed is not very big. (pull out the seeds) Describe mustard seed and indicated packets in pews where each person may have a seed.
When Jesus spoke of this particular seed he knew his listeners would know how small a single seed is.

Jesus says that even this very small amount of faith is enough to do great things. Is that as crazy as saying a spoiled fruit is as worthy in God’s eye as the fresh one?
Perhaps we need a different perspective on value.

Fruit is delicious when it is ripe. We all love a ripe tomato, a ripe orange, or a perfect apple – and the bigger the better!

It’s why so many still life paintings are of fruit. A big, ripe piece of fruit can make your mouth water.

Surprisingly, fruit and vegetables can still have worth even when they are shriveled and small. When a pepper gets dried like this one, it is still useful for putting in a big pot of chili and spicing it up.
And, When a fruit is left on the vine beyond its ripening point, its seeds develop fully allowing it to be the bearer of future potential.
Certain Seeds can even be food in themselves. In fact these mustard seeds can be used to make some very sweet BREAD & BUTTER pickles, even as tiny as they are.

If we look at the great potential built into the cycle of life, we find that we cannot determine value or worth merely by the looks we prefer or the stage of life most appealing to us. (HOLD UP ripe fruit.)

Mustard seed faith is not only small faith, it is faith in God and in God’s great cycle of life.
Mustard seed faith is trusting that what we CAN do, however small it seems, will fit into a larger plan.
Mustard seed faith takes the contingency of belief from being centered in our ability and puts it back where it belongs, on God’s plate.

Mustard Seed faith is the beginning of faith.
It allows us to take however much we can believe, whatever little thing we can do and make it enough because of who Christ is and what he has done.

How often have you read a scripture verse about having faith in Christ, and wondered if your faith was big enough? You see we tend to translate these passages as contingent on our ability to believe and when we face part of life where our faith seems very small, or even gone, we think “oh how unworthy I am” but if we read as far as the footnotes, we see that our translation needs adjusting according to the mustard seed principle.
…because of Christ’s faith… means that whatever we face isn’t dependent on the amount of faith WE have, but is only dependent on the amount of faith Christ had.

Therefore we hear Christ’s words, ‘if you have faith, if you only have faith the size of a mustard seed’ well then you can tell a plant, a tree, to pick up and move into the sea. Even a miracle of this size is not impossible to us, because what we lack, Christ has. This is God’s perspective on our worth -
Our faith; our mustard seed-size- faith - is enough.

And we are reminded of this when we lift up a very small piece of bread and recall “the life that was lived and broken for us”.

We are reminded when we pick up the smallest of cups and hear the words, “this cup is the New Covenant in my blood, drink it in remembrance of me”

These small symbols are big enough to remind us of Christ’s faith.

This mustard seed is big enough to remind us that we are enough, - worthy enough, to sit a Christ’s table, and to take on the work he left us.