Saturday, December 8, 2018

Who's Gonna Clean This Mess?

I’m just home from Jubilee Christmas at Southport UMC.  It is a glorious morning, involving a lot of work on the part of a lot of people.  Over twenty families from our wider community will have a Christmas to remember because of the generosity and care and hard work of the congregation at Southport.  But it wasn’t just a hand out gifts kind of exercise, it was a make relationships, get to know the folks, go shopping with them, and today the parents or grandparents or guardians were brought in to wrap all the gifts that they’ll be able to give to their children on Christmas morning.  And they carried it all out, along with baskets of food and household items to help enhance the season.  But more than all that, they go out with a new friend, a support, a community if they choose to lean into it, choose to hold on to it.  It’s a great day and I’m proud to be pastor of such caring and hardworking folk.  But truth be told.  It makes a mess.  

Wrapping paper, cookie napkins, boxes and bags and stuff everywhere.  It’s a mess.  Let’s be honest.  A good mess, a seasonal mess.  But still a mess. The mess we’ve made of our house pulling out the decorations as we get ready for another season of celebration.  Not the usual mess, not the hey we actually live here mess, but a new mess, a mess that sometimes makes you wonder if you should bother.  We’ll never get it clean enough, organized enough, oriented enough to satisfy the one who matters.  

 “Mom clean” was our phrase, our standard by which effectiveness of the cleaning moment will be judged.  When the kids would clean their room, they’d clean it to their own satisfaction.  Which is a long way from Mom’s satisfaction.  Truth be told, it is probably a long way from the Board of Health’s satisfaction, but we’ve never really called them in.  

“Mom clean” means that Mom will go in after the cleaning has been done and pass judgement.  Is it good enough?  Is it clean enough? They could spend hours, a whole day cleaning their rooms, but then when Mom says, I’m coming to check, they’ll scurry around, or barricade the door or come up with a hundred reasons why Mom shouldn’t come in.  Or with a hundred protestations as to why clean from their perspective is clean enough.  “No one needs it that clean!” they would claim.  “You’re unreasonable!  Look you can see the floor!”  Where, exactly?  “Right there, there’s some carpet! ...  I cleaned the middle. ... Nobody cares if it is clean under the bed anymore. ... You can see the top of the desk. ...  I found my bed!!”  (Actual statements from when there were teenagers in residence.)  And somewhere, Malachi is chuckling.

Malachi 3:1-4  See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight-- indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.  2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap;  3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.  4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. 

Who can endure the day of his coming?  “You want it how clean?”  Malachi was writing in the post-exilic period, meaning that people had just returned home after being exiled in Babylonia.  The word “Malachi” means “my messenger” - so it might have been that the author was telling his own story.  He was the messenger who was coming before the Lord to call people into right living.  There are still expectations, he says, there are still standards.  God calls God’s people into clean living, whole and healing relationships, service that builds up rather than tears down.  God’s law is still a measure by which ethics, or behavior in community, is judged.  

It sounds like a threat.  Malachi has a supporting part in Handel’s Messiah.  Most of the text of that great choral work is Isaiah and the Psalms.  But there are a few other scriptures tossed in there.  Malachi appears early in the work, setting the stage for the coming of the Messiah.  “The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to His temple,” sings the bass in a recitative, “ev’n the messenger of the Covenant, whom you delight in, behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.”  A recitative is sort of a mixture of speaking and singing; a straightforward, but rhythmic presentation of the text with simpler musical accompaniment.  Sort of a “here it is” approach.  A “get ready” move from one idea to another.  But then, the bass continues in an aria singing “But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth?  For He is like a refiner’s fire.”   An aria is a longer exposition, with repetition and elaborate musical accompaniment.  And a bass voice.  A deep bass voice, Darth Vader deep.  Making it sound ... ominous.  Scary.  A warning or a threat.  “Who may abide?”  Not you, surely.  Not me.

Which is one reason why we choose to skip over Advent and get right to Christmas.  This getting ready thing can be difficult.  Painful.  We don’t like the idea of being washed up with fuller’s soap, whatever that is.  Reminds of me of Lava Soap.  Remember that?  You knew you were dirty if it took Lava to get you clean.  

While we might be able to wriggle out of the fuller’s soap reference due to cultural ignorance, we all know what fire is.  Refiner’s fire - means even hotter.  Burning away impurities.  OK, we might come out better, stronger, cleaner, but still ... Who would choose such a process?  Who can endure the day of his coming?

We can.  That’s the message here.  That’s Advent in a nutshell.  Who can endure?  We can.  No, really.  We can.  Because we are not alone.  Because the one who calls, the one who brings the soap and stokes the fire, is the one who walks with us.  Emmanuel means God-with-us.  

Someone once asked why Malachi talks more about silver than about gold.  Gold is more valuable, isn’t it?  Gold is the best, the top of the line, the ... uh, gold standard.  Yet, silver appears twice.  Well, they argued, silver is more labor intensive in the refining process.  In refining silver, the smith has to stay close.  You can’t put silver in the fire and leave it alone, it has to be attended, you have to stay close enough to watch.  The silversmith has to lean in, risking the heat, wary of the impurities spitting hot molten silver onto exposed flesh.  Jewelers say you can always spot a silversmith by the scars.    

God-with-us.  That is the promise hidden within the threat.  Or what sounds like a threat anyway.  Who can endure?  We can, because God is with us.  In the struggle and in the joy, in the pain and in the celebration, God is with us.  The birth we celebrate at Christmas time is not an ancient remembrance of a long ago event, but a daily promise and a constant presence.  Be born in us we pray.  And fit us for heaven.  Fit us for heaven.

“Mom clean” is the clean that will pass the inspection, pass the judgement of Mom.  That’s the definition.  In practice around here, however, what it really means is the clean that happens when Mom joins in.  Who can endure the day of his coming?  We can, because He rolls up his sleeves and reaches into the corners of our lives where we’ve let the clutter of our brokenness accumulate, convincing ourselves that we were clean enough.  But it doesn’t measure up to His standards.  So, together we set about the business of cleaning, of healing, of repairing.  So that we can present to the Lord in righteousness.  So, that our very lives can be Mom clean, Emmanuel clean.

It isn’t easy, this cleaning process.  It takes time and effort, and blood and sweat and even tears sometimes.  And then you wonder if you’ll ever be clean, if the task of shoveling out the detritus of living in this world will ever be done.  How will we know?  What will be the sign that we are Mom clean?  

The silversmith will tell you that the metal is ready to be worked into shape, to be used for the jewelers purpose when he can see his face reflected.  When all the world gives back the song, that now that angels sing.  That’s when we’ll know.  When our lives shine with the presence of Emmanuel.

Sixteen more days to get Mom Clean.  Excuse me, I’ve got work to do.

Shalom, 
Derek

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Look at the Trees

A dreary start to our December here in 2018.  Pale gray skies, and a drizzle that turns into rain in earnest every now and then.  It’s supposed to be sixty degrees out today.  Yet wet and drippy all day.  Dreich is the Scots term for days like this.  Which pretty much sums it up, don’t you think?  Dreich.  Dree-xch (you have the gargle the last sound in the back of your throat -- "ahch")  Just saying it, you feel it.  Dreich.

I’m sitting here in our study looking out on the lawn where not too long ago we spent hours picking up all the leaves.  But you can’t tell.  It doesn’t look like it.  As the next carpet of crunchy brown has fallen covering the green grass almost completely.  Which means I have to do it all again.  Sometime soon.  If not now, before the snow falls, then in the spring when it’s time to start mowing again.  The problem is that while the trees in our yard are bare, I’m looking across the street at the trees over there.  And there are still millions of the little brown crunchy dudes hanging on the branches.  And I know they won’t fall straight down into my neighbor’s yard, but will waft across the street into my yard.  I wonder if that loving your neighbor thing applies to trees in the fall?  Surely Jesus will give us a pass on grumbling about yard work.  Don’t you think? No, in fact He tells us to look at the trees.  Fig trees and all the trees, He says.  Look at all those leaves, He says to me, you’re gonna have to pick them up.  Yours and your neighbors both!  Look at the trees, indeed.

But is that really why we’re called to be arborists this Advent season?  Watching the leaves fall, being at the ready like Ed Crankshaft come to life from the comic pages, ready to pounce on the single leaf that would dare to litter our lawns?  Or does He have something else in mind?

Luke 21:25-36  "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.  28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."  29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees;  30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.  31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.  32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.  33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.  34 "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly,  35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.  36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." 

I’m not sure how you receive this sort of thing on the First Sunday of Advent.  Sometimes, I think that folks are expecting to hear the preliminaries of the Christmas story.  Maybe an angel announcement, maybe a song of transformation, maybe a dream or a journey or a royal decree.  But certainly not people fainting with fear and foreboding.  I’m not sure I’m up to foreboding.  We just don’t forebode any more.  Do we?

Heck, we’ve got movies about the end of the world that are pretty impressive in their special effects.  And we go to see that for entertainment.   So, if Jesus is trying to scare us, He’d better start doing a better job of it.  

But then, a second look at those verses imply something different.  Maybe it isn’t fear that Jesus is trying to instill.  Maybe it is something altogether different.  Maybe it is the opposite.  And what is the opposite of fear?  Hope.  Look at the trees, He says.  Look for signs of growth even in a dying season.  Look for signs of life even in a dreary landscape.  “Stand up and raise your heads” He says to us.  When it is our natural instinct that when things are going badly, when it is a difficult moment, we want to keep our heads down.  But Jesus tells us to raise our heads.  To look up.  To trust, to have confidence.  To pay attention.

Oh, that’s a tricky one at any time of the year, but with all the distractions of the holidays it is even more difficult.  Pay attention, He says.  But I’ve all these things to accomplish.  I’ve got my lists to fulfill.  Places to go and things to do.  Pay attention, He says.  But to what?  To the end times?  No thanks, the folks all wrapped up in that kind of thing seem a little bit ... odd.  A little bit out of touch.  And frankly seem to have their priorities all messed up.  If the message is take care of yourself, stay clean so that you come out well in the end, I’m not really that interested.

Pay attention, He says.  Advent is a multi-layered time.  There is the remembrance and the desire to recapture the birth of that baby again.  We really want to hear that angel song and believe that if even for a moment, Peace on Earth is within the realm of possibility.  We look back to what has been done for us.  But at the same time the scriptures remind us that there is still a coming on our horizon.  We do look for the coming of the Kingdom, when the lion shall lie down with the lamb, when we will beat our swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hook, when we will study war no more.  There is a Someday out there toward which we lean and for which we hope.  Advent is a looking forward as well as a looking back.

Pay attention, He says.  Look at the trees, He says.  What if there is one more layer?  One more direction, in addition to back and forward.  What if there is an around.  Look around.  Look up, look down, or just look.  “Be on guard  so that your hearts aren’t weighed down...”  So that you don’t miss it.  So that you don’t miss Him.  That’s the amazing thing about this season, there glimpses of the Kingdom that appear when you least expect it.  There are sightings of the Savior in the twinkling of the eyes, in the hesitant thank yous and the gasps of wonder.  In the late night conversations of scattered family members trying to figure out what might be next, there are prayers of hope and of love, an embrace of peace that brings tears to our eyes.  If we pay attention.

Jeremiah says it simply.   Jeremiah 33:14-16   The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness." 

For a branch.  No, a Branch.  Not just any branch.  Not the branches that fall with the leaves that cover the lawn.  The branches from a tree too old to sustain all of them any more, not those dead things.  The branches higher up are still growing, still producing, still reaching for a heaven only trees know how to hope for.  It’s not the dead branch of the past we cling to, we hope in.  It is the new growth.  God will cause - will cause - a Branch to spring up.  There is more to come, more hope to be revealed, more justice to be executed, more righteousness to cover the land.  Like leaves on the lawn.  

Yeah, when you pay attention you see a mess you need to clean up, and that can be tiring.  But you also see life, dying and rising life, enough to give you hope in a dreary season.  Blessed Advent to you.

Shalom,
Derek 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Take Hold of Life

Busy weekend.  Wait.  No, it wasn’t.  Thanksgiving, time off, food and family and dozing in front of the TV while the NFL entertained us again.  Hardly busy.  Maybe we took a walk, or a turkey trot.  Maybe we indulged in some Black Friday kamikaze activities.  Maybe there were dishes to do or decorations to put up.  But busy?  No, not really.

True, but I meant here.  In this sacred worship space.  In this lurching our way through the liturgical year. This is busy space this weekend.  We’ve got Thanksgiving, first of all.  The one most evident before our eyes.  While it isn’t a religious holiday, it certainly has theological resonance, as we are all called to live a life of gratitude not just once a year but always.  It is central to who we are as God’s people.  We live in gratitude to God and to one another, recognizing that we are who we are and we have what we have because of others.  And we are thankful.

As if that wasn’t enough to build a worship experience around, it is also Christ the King Sunday.  Though New Year’s Eve and Day is still over a month away on our calendars, in this worship space it is around the corner.  Advent begins the Christian year.  And since next weekend is Advent, this is the last worship of the year.  And to declare who we are at the end of the year - even as we begin the year in anticipation of the One who comes again - we declare that this is Christ the King Sunday.  The day we pledge allegiance to Jesus as the King of kings and the Lord of Lords. The last Sunday of the Christian Year is a celebration of the head of the family, the authority and the power, the grace and the mercy that flows from the throne upon which sits the Lamb of God, the sacrificed one, the crucified one.  But also the Risen one who serves as the great High Priest, the Judge of the living and the dead.  

Whoa, sounds awesome - in the strictest sense of that word: inspiring awe, a portion of which is fear and trembling, but also an attraction that draws us nearer despite the recognition of that power.  And here’s the amazing thing, the description of that connection, that community is family.  “Wait,” you’re saying (and don’t you love how I supply all your lines in this “conversation”?), “you mean my family - the way we get along or don’t - is the model for how the kingdom community is supposed to be?”  No, of course not.  How silly!  Actually, it is exactly the opposite.  The model for how your family is supposed to function is the kingdom community.

Ooh, now that adds an interesting flavor to the next squabble in the family, doesn’t it?   And is it possible to have a squabble anywhere but within a family?  That’s one of those words only designed to describe familial relations, it seems to me.  But what if instead of a squabble, instead of turf war, instead of a clash of wills, the family was the place where the kingdom values took precedence?  

“OK, smart guy, what does that mean: kingdom values?  What should this family look like, or act like?”  Good question!  Thanks for asking.  Because now we can get to the passage for this week.  I know you thought that we were still in the stewardship series, you thought that we were still talking about generosity.  Where did all this family stuff come from?  Well, from that other community reflecting the values of the kingdom - the church.

Acts 2:42-47  They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.  44 All who believed were together and had all things in common;  45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,  47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. 

I added a couple of verses to those we will read in church.  But I wanted a little bigger picture for us to consider.  What is the church supposed to be, who are we supposed to be?  You say family, but what does that look like?

Here in these six verses in the second chapter of Acts we have a depiction of the church as it was designed to be.  You have to look quick because it doesn’t last long.  Succeeding chapters reflect the troubles that arose as they sought to live out what it meant to be a family in a difficult world.  The values of that world crept in and things like racism and classism brought dissent and ill-feeling into the church.  But for a brief moment, recorded here in this chapter we have a picture of what we are all longing for: the true family.

First of all this was a community that wanted to learn.  It doesn’t say that they took time out to listen to the instructions or the wisdom, but that they “devoted themselves” to it.  It wasn’t just another thing that they had to do it was a focus of energy and desire.  It was a longing to know more, to grow deeper, to be honed as instruments of God.  They were a learning community.

But they also loved each other.  There was a devotion - just as strong as toward learning - to fellowship, to spending time together, to eating together.   But more than that they took care of each other.  They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. (vs.45) They didn’t consider their own needs were met until the needs of all the members of the community were met.  They didn’t consider their possessions to be more important than the welfare of their family.  It wasn’t that they were taking a vow of poverty, that they couldn’t own anything.  Verse 46 says they broke bread at home (and some translations say from house to house) showing that home ownership hadn’t disappeared.  But they elevating caring for people above accumulating riches.  They were a caring community

And they were a people dedicated to worship.  Worship at home and worship in community, corporate worship in the temple.  They knew that the source of their goodness, the ability to act in loving ways came not from their own inner resources, but by depending upon the resources of the Holy Spirit.  They needed worship like they needed food and fellowship and learning.  It was worship that shaped their hearts - their glad and generous hearts.  It was worship that directed their service to those in need, opened their eyes to opportunities to give.  It was worship that made them into the people that they were.  They were a worshiping community.

And it was noticed.  Their character stood out.  Their sharing, their generosity was notable.  Luke says they had the goodwill of all the people.  But he is careful to note that the object of their notoriety was not that good will.  They were directing their praise, their worship toward God.  It wasn’t to be noticed, and yet noticed they were.  Yet not in an “aren’t they cool” kind of way.  It was a tell me more, show me more, I want some of that kind of way.  The Lord added to their number day be day.  It wasn’t a church growth program, it wasn’t an evangelistic ministry, it was the church, the family being generous, being caring, being worshipful, being taught.  That’s what drew them to the fellowship.

They were alive.  That’s what drew the ones on the outside, that’s what made the family appealing. They were alive.  The third dimension of our weekend is that it is the conclusion of our Stewardship emphasis.  And Paul has some advice for Timothy on how to talk about money.

1 Timothy 6:17-19  As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,  19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. 

Take hold of life, that’s Paul’s advice.  Take hold by giving away.  Cling tightly by letting go.  Which sounds like what Someone else said before him.  Take hold of life by taking hold of the family.  The new family, the children of God family.  Those in need, those reaching out.  Take hold of those who gather for worship and who devote themselves to the Word.  Take hold of life by giving it away, freely and joyfully.  Take hold.

Shalom, 
Derek

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Indescribable Gift

The Christmas ads have been running for some time now.  You’ve seen them.  You’ve heard them.  You’re already tired of them.  How does that happen?  How does something as exciting as Christmas - and take that on whatever level you want to take it: cultural, religious, theological, family, ritual and tradition, deep meaning and wondrous beauty, lump in the throat producing, tear in the eye provoking, whatever - but how does something as exciting as Christmas become boring?  Become tedious?  Become “not again!”?

I’ll tell you. Because all that stuff, all those ads aren’t really about Christmas.  They’re about gifts and about giving.  Which is good stuff!  Don’t get me wrong.  I love gifts.  Getting them, certainly (anyone who wants my list, I’ll give it to you!).  But mostly giving them.  I love finding, buying, procuring, making gifts to give to people I love.  I just do. And who could get tired of that?  The giving and receiving of gifts, signs of love and acceptance and being claimed and welcomed.  You don’t have to spend a lot of money to give gifts.  But for them to really do the task intended you have to spend a lot of love.

But, the question for this bible study is this: Have I ever given an indescribable gift?  Or received one?  Now, let’s define terms here.  There have been those occasions when the gift I have given my wife, for example, elicits a raised eyebrow or a puzzled demeanor; a sound of uncertainty or expression of incredulity.  As in “what in the world were you thinking?”  Let’s be clear, it wasn’t indescribable in the strictest sense.  Because this expression was quickly followed by a string of description.  Which, come to think about it, might have been more about the giver than the gift.  But still, hardly indescribable.

What is an indescribable gift?  Why bring it up?  Why set the bar so high that we can’t ever achieve it?  Because that is what it sounds like is going on.  Who in the world trades in indescribable gifts?  Well, Paul says God does.

2 Corinthians 9:6-15   The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.  9 As it is written, "He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever."  10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.  11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us;  12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.  13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others,  14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you.  15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 

The point is this.  Trust Paul to get to the point.  And then trust him to circle around and around it, turn it into a series of metaphors and images, make allusions and then find likes and opposites, and finally throw up his hands and sing a song about it, a song that turns out to be a song of praise to God.  Because, you know, that’s how he deals with stuff.  Important stuff.  Faith centering stuff.  Like God and Faith and Law and Grace and Eternity and Obedience and Money.  Wait, what?  Money?  A Faith centering item?  Well, yes, Paul thought so.  And was quite serious about it.  He talks about giving in these verses.  (In case you aren’t from the Southport UMC Tribe, we are continuing our brief stewardship emphasis.)  He talks about giving abundantly, sacrificially, giving in a way that we notice it.  And he talks about our attitude while giving.  Give with willingness, give with joy, give - he even seems to imply - with laughter.  I know, a bit odd that Paul.  But still, it sounds exciting, it sounds powerful.  It sounds like something we just might want to be a part of.

Especially when he points out the receipts.  Yeah, this is not giving for nothing.  This is about investment and expecting a return.  “You will be enriched in every way.”  Well, we think, really?  In every way?  Surely he meant in good ways.  Surely he meant you will be enriched in every way that matters.  Some sort of proviso, some sort of escape clause.  Otherwise we fall into the hands of those guys who turn God into a divine slot machine, put a little in and bells and lights go off and we get a lot out.  And if the payoff didn’t come this time, put in a little bit more and then do an attitude check.  Payoff is coming.  Surely he didn’t mean that, we think.

And we’d be right.  He didn’t mean that.  But we don’t need to change the words to fit us better.  Instead we change ourselves to fit the words.  Which is always the case, by the way.  We want to shape God’s words to fit us where we are, but our real goal is to shape our lives to fit the Word.  We become givers, we become generous, we learn about sacrifice when God takes over our lives and we walk by the Word, we live by the Spirit, and then we know we are rich.  Because we have received all that our hearts desire.  All.  All that our hearts desire.  We are enriched.  What could be more than all?  All that our hearts desire?  What could that be?  That all, that gift?  That indescribable all?

I went back to Fort Wayne to do a funeral this past week.  It isn’t really our normal practice to return to a former church to perform a funeral.  So I made sure it was ok with the current pastor, and he gave his blessing.  The funeral was for Paul, a man who was my head usher for the whole ten years I was there.  Co-head for part of the time, sharing the responsibility always.  He was a man of faith, quiet, helpful, willing to step up and do what he could.  He loved his wife and family, especially the grandkids and great-grandkids.  They were a gift to him and he was a gift to them.  To his family, to his church and his community.  An indescribable gift.

At the beginning of the month, my siblings and I made our way to Paris, Tennessee, possibly for the last time.  Unless we choose to pass through on our way somewhere else, to stop at the little cemetery in a residential area where Mom and Dad lived for almost forty years.  Now they are remembered with a marble stone and a patch of grass and few bulbs we put in the ground to mark the space.  We visited with a few who spoke of them both, of all that Dad did for the little county seat town in west Tennessee.  He worked with the Scouts, boy and cub both, he lead the county Habitat for Humanity, worked with various churches and numerous individuals, mostly working with his hands, fixing, building, repairing.  He was a gift to that community.  Maybe more than he knew, certainly more than we, his children who lived so many miles away from him, knew.  An indescribable gift. 

We are all so blessed by people in our lives who are gifts beyond description.  When Paul concludes his message on giving, he says that no matter what is in our hearts to give, we’ve already been given more.  We can’t out give God.  Because God has given us so much, so many, resources, yes, but more than that love.  People who love us whether we are worthy of it or not.  People who challenge us, who stretch us, and who shape us sometimes against our will, into what we are yet becoming.  That’s the gift.  That’s what Paul is celebrating in our text for this week.  The family that we are becoming because of generosity, because of our willingness to give.  It’s not really about money, except as the sign that points back to the heart.  We sometimes give our hearts to Jesus, but until it gets to our wallets and our bank accounts, then there is still a part of our heart we’ve kept from Him.  But once it penetrates even into that realm of our lives, then we will know blessing.  Then we will be enriched in every way that matters, in every way that we care about.  Enriched by love, by relationships, by service and caring and giving and helping and healing.  Enriched by life.  The indescribable gift.

Whatever we decide in our heads and hearts and bank accounts to give we should give thanks for the ability to give, be proud to be able to give, but also humble enough to know whatever we intend to give it does not repay what has been given to us.  And to even describe what we’ve been given escapes us.  Our lives are full of indescribable gifts.  Thanks be to God.

Shalom, 
Derek

Saturday, November 10, 2018

All the Good You Can

We paid off a student loan!  It wasn’t a big loan and it wasn’t going to take long even at the usual rate, but we decided to go ahead and get rid of it.  We worked hard to give our kids the best gift we could think of, an education debt free.  If you don’t think that’s a big deal then you haven’t been in the higher education scene for some time.  Our parents gave us that gift a few years ago.  (Well, ok a heck of a long time ago) So we wanted to do that for them.  Passing on that blessing.  Given that some estimates put the current student loan debt nationally at one and half billion dollars and the average (average, mind you) debt per student at just under forty thousand dollars, this is a blessing indeed.  It wasn’t always easy making those payments - especially since both kids chose private colleges, thought they were given some scholarships.  So, we struggled to get the money together, hence the small loan we had to take out for one semester of Maddie’s schooling.  And we had help from La Donna’s parents who had the foresight to set up a trust that we were able to use.  So it was their generosity, both sets of parents, that taught us to want to be generous, that has now blessed our children and will no doubt go on to bless many others as they begin to make their way into the world.

That’s the effect of generosity.  It almost never affects only one.  It is rarely binary, almost always algebraic. Exponential?  One of those big math words anyway.  It expands, and more and more and more are blessed.  More and more and more receive from the gift of generosity.  But it’s not really a math equation.  It’s a faith item, a biblical principle.  It is the secret to life.  To living fully.  The abundant life that Jesus wants us all to have.  

It’s Stewardship time here at Southport UMC.  Everyone’s favorite time of year when we focus on money.  “All that church ever talks about is money!”  I’ve heard that accusation before.  “All they’re interested in is my money.”  I could argue against that idea.  I could point out the months of preaching where money doesn’t enter into the script anywhere.  But frankly, that’s not a positive on my part.  I don’t talk about money nearly as much as Jesus did.  I don’t keep trying to show you just how serious this subject really is.  I keep hoping you’ll pick it up by osmosis.  That you’ll arrive at the conclusion without me having to constantly point it out.  But Jesus knew you’d need more help than that.  So He kept talking about money.  About what you do with it.  About what it does to you.  He talked about it more than anything else, except the Kingdom of God.  And even there the subject lines get blurry.  Blurry because sometimes it sounds like the Kingdom of God is a long way off, and other times He makes it sound like it is all around us right now.  And how we choose to live now, what we choose to do with the things of this life indicate whether we are even aware of that Kingdom or oblivious to the promise that pulses around us.  He doesn’t care about our money, He cares about our souls, our lives.  And what we do with money, with resources, with gifts, with time, with life itself is a sign that we have ears to hear Him when He pleads with us to enter into His Kingdom, to enter into His rest.  To partake of His life.

So instead of budgets and pledges and tithing and maybe the guilt of doing or not doing our share, this year’s stewardship emphasis is about the secret of life.  The abundant life that Jesus offers.  The life of the Kingdom that is ours if we claim it by choosing how we will live.  The secret.  It’s not really a secret.  It has been there from the beginning.  Told to us in bits of wisdom in ancient texts we overlook because of the lack of drama, perhaps, or the overly simple obviousness of it all.  Yeah, yeah, we nod along with these secrets, this wisdom.  We know this.  But do we?  Do we know it deeply enough?  Do we know it as a life changing reality?  Do we know it as the secret to life?  Do we?  And the secret?  Generosity.  Give it away.  Pour it out.  That’s how to be full.  That’s how to have all we need.  Give it away.

Psalm 37:21  The wicked borrow, and do not pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep giving.  

Let’s take a look at some Old Testament Wisdom.  To find this secret being trumpeted loudly.  Psalm 37 is a wisdom psalm of a choice.  There is a choice in how we will live.  We find this choice presented in lots of places. Here it is a choice between righteousness and wickedness.  Well, when you put it like that... OK, set the words aside for a moment.  The choice is not just good and evil, the choice is self or others.  The choice is inward focus or an outward one.  Making room for God and God’s will in our lives or doing what seems right in our own heads and hearts.  It’s a choice we make all the time, every day, every moment.  Sometimes it is a conscious choice, most of the time we just go, following whatever nose is closest.  But Psalm 37 invites us to pay attention and make a choice.  And in the heart of the choice is this idea of generosity.  It is the hinge upon which the psalm rotates.  Give and keep giving.  That defines the Kingdom choice.  Keep giving.

Psalm 112:4-9 They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.  5 It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice. 6 For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever. 7 They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the LORD. 8 Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes. 9 They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor.

Um, what?  Their horn?  Yeah, their horn.  The horn was the symbol for power.  Like a rhino with an impressive horn.  You respect that power and keep out of its way.  But this horn, this power is the power of giving, the power of generosity.  Here the horn is not the horn as a weapon, but the horn as a source of blessing.  The horn hollowed out and filled with the oil of anointing.  The generous are blessed to be a blessing, they pour out and are remembered by how they give to others.  And their generous spirit survives difficulties, setbacks. Their hearts are firm, says the psalmist.  The secret of living an abundant life is giving it away at every opportunity.  Not a secret.  Just hard to remember.  Especially in difficult times.

Prov. 11:24-25 Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. 25 A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.

You can’t talk about Old Testament Wisdom and not look at Proverbs.  So, two quick looks.  First here is a thought in the middle of a whole bunch of statements about the good life.  The wise life.  And it is about how giving comes back.  And hoarding brings loss.  A paradox, it seems, and yet true.  We know this.  Because we are filled up when we can give, when we can help.  We are filled up even when we stumble, or fall short.  It is about living abundantly, which is different than living with lots of stuff.  

Proverbs 22:9 Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.

We all want to be blessed.  We all want to feel the commendation of our God and our community, our family.  But again and again we are reminded that blessing is not about what we get, it is about what we give.  Are we sensing a theme here?  A common thread by which we can stitch ourselves into the tapestry of abundant living.  

Exodus 35:5-9 Take from among you an offering to the LORD; let whoever is of a generous heart bring the LORD's offering: gold, silver, and bronze; 6 blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen; goats' hair, 7 tanned rams' skins, and fine leather; acacia wood, 8 oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, 9 and onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastpiece.

OK, not wisdom literature per se.  But this is the beginnings of the people of God.  Remember, this is Exodus, they are not settled, not at home, they are wandering in the wilderness, have years ahead of the them of who knows what, they sure don’t.  But a call goes out, a call to generosity.  A call to make worship beautiful by giving what is precious.  A call that can then be a way of defining a people, God’s people.  Let those of a generous heart bring the Lord’s offering.  And give that you may be blessed to be a blessing.  It’s a secret everyone knows.

Shalom, 
Derek 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Heads Up

Just a heads up.  There won’t be a Bible Study next weekend.  The first weekend of November is when my siblings and spouses and some of the grandkids will gather in Paris, Tennessee to inter the ashes of my father.  Dad has been sitting on our mantel since shortly after his death.  We had him cremated, as he requested, and will bury him next to Mom in the cemetery across the street from the house they lived in for almost forty years.  It will be a celebration of life and family and love, as well as the sadness of the end of an era and the grief of losing the last parent of our generation.  

We chose this weekend because it is the anniversary of his birth.  He would have been 89 on that Saturday, November third.  The church Dad and Mom attended there in Paris is throwing a Birthday Party reception for us after the graveside service.  My siblings and assorted family members are gathering in a cabin in a nearby state park.  Partly because Dad loved camping and the outdoors, partly because it can accommodate us all, and partly because it will be good to be a family again, even if for a short time.  For the last time.  

Who knows whether we will have occasion to all gather together again?  We can say we will do it, but will we?  We might connect in other ways in this technologically rich world in which we live, but will we occupy the same space again, like we did when we sat on the floor in our footie pajamas and blinked our way through a Christmas morning?   We’re losing something next weekend, a father, yes, but also the glue that held us together, the reason we gathered when we did.  We spent the last however many years gathering because we needed to provide care for Mom, or make decisions about Dad.  Before that it was so that Mom and Dad wouldn’t be alone on Christmas.  So, what will bring us together now?  We can make the effort.  We can pledge to stay connected, to stay close, but given what else is going on in all of our disparate lives, will we?  Can we carry this load along with all the other loads we are given to carry?

Matthew 11:28-30  "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." 

Contextually, Jesus was referring to the burdens placed on the people of God by those in leadership who expanded on the law.  When God gave the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai it was a pretty simple thing.  Ten Commandments carved onto two stone tablets - straightforward, clear and concise, just what we expect from laws!  Right?  Uh, no.  Ever read the simplified tax code from the US Government?  

God tried to keep things simple.  There were laws about how to worship and laws about how to live in community - and what else do you need?  Well, heaped on top of these ten laws were literally thousands of interpretations and applications that also must be followed in order to stay right.  It became so onerous that no one could remember them all let alone obey them.  So, every one lived out of sync with God’s law, at least according to those in charge.  Most people wanted to be right, wanted to follow the law, but it was impossible.  So, they lived with the burden of not being right, not being pure enough to worship, not having access to God, except through those in charge who guarded the gates religiously.  

Jesus came along and said “take my yoke.”  One of the concepts we struggle with in this passage is the fact that there is a yoke to take and that there is rest to receive.  Which is it Jesus?  Yoke or rest?  A yoke implies work, and rest implies ... well ... NOT work.  We like the rest thing, aren’t too sure about the yoke thing, to be honest.  Even if it is easy and light.

Someone called this passage the Great Invitation.  That makes four “Greats” that I can identify.  There is the Great Commission - “Go and Make Disciples” (Matthew 28:19); the Great Commandment - “You shall love the Lord” (Matthew 22:37 et al); the Great Requirement “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8); and now the Great Invitation - “Come to me” (Matthew 11:28).  

But the real question is, to what are we invited?  Is it work or is it rest?  Labor and struggle, or vacation and getting away from it all?  Is this about heaven or about earth?  Yes.  To all that precedes.  Yes.  And no.  The invitation is to a relationship.  “Take MY yoke,” says Jesus, “and learn from me.”  He is inviting us into a partnership, to labor alongside him in the fields of the Lord.  He wants us to take on his spirit, his heart.  He asks of us to be “gentle and humble in heart” as we live and work in this world.  It is not a task so much as a way of living, a way of being alive. 

So, it IS a yoke.  There IS a burden.  But it is a yoke that is easy and burden that is light.  Does that mean that there is no effort here?  That it is something we do without thinking, without straining?  Not necessarily.  “Easy” in this case really means “well-fitting.”  The yoke that Christ offers is a yoke that fits us, it is right for us.  It doesn’t rub in the wrong places and make us sore.  There is effort, there is struggle at times, but it is good effort, it is healthy struggle and we feel the better for it.  The burden of walking in the way of Christ is light because it is right, it is good, it builds us up rather than takes us down.

Christ doesn’t offer us an effortless life, but one that means something.  We don’t get a struggle free life, but one that accomplishes something, and makes a difference in the world.  Those around us are better because we are there.  We are better, happier, more whole.  That is the promise.

Sounds good, but it doesn’t sound like rest to me.  Unless by rest he meant something other than what we first imagine.  Unless he meant something like the antidote to restlessness.  That what he was offering was not so much a sun drenched beach upon which to kick back and nap, but a sense of belonging and of purpose that allows us to know that we are right, we are in sync with our deepest selves and with our loved ones (which is always a bigger crowd than we acknowledge) and with him.  The offer of rest is another way of describing salvation, which has less to do with the gates of heaven and more to with the fields we plow when we are yoked to Christ.   Certainly there is a promise of eternity and an invitation into the presence of God, but that promise and that presence are what make the burden of living so light and what make the yoke of Christ so easy.  We will find, says Jesus, rest for our souls.  Our backs are into the labors of love, our shoulders are bent to the tasks of justice, our hands are busy with the works of kindness, but our souls are at rest.

We conclude our Micah 6:8 series this week.  “Do justice, Love mercy, walk humbly with God.”  This is not, I’ve come believe, a checklist that we can mark off one by one.  Instead it is a formula that only together is it even possible.  Doing justice is a task beyond us, frankly.  It is too big, too intensive, too worldview for our individual minds.  Unless we learn to love through acts of kindness to each and everyone around us.  When we love kindness (and notice it is love kindness, not do kindness.  There is something about the motivation that makes a difference) we begin to do justice.  When we act locally we think globally!  But, then how do we love enough to act kindly to everyone we encounter?  That seems beyond us.  And it is.  Unless we can walk humbly with God.  Not just walk with God.  Many of us want to walk with God, and serve in an advisory capacity, telling God what ought to be done.  But we’re called to walk humbly with God.  Which means first of all acknowledging that God is God and we are not.  Walk humbly with God until hesed, God’s steadfast love, and mispat, God’s desire for justice, begin to rub off on us.  Walking humbly with God is offering yourself to the yoke of Christ.  Walking humbly with God is not about feeling inadequate or shamed, keeping our head down in sorrow.  It is about keeping our heads up that we might see God at work in and through us and then all around us too.  It is to join up in the kingdom building force that does justice and loves kindness because God does that too.  Keep your head up, and see the face of God.

I have walked with my family for my whole life, humbly and not so, I must confess. So, I’ll keep my head up and keep holding on to them as we walk into the future God has in store.  Walk with me. 

Shalom, 
Derek

Saturday, October 20, 2018

If It'd a Been a Snake

I’m heading north today.  Back to a church I served some years ago.  They contacted me a while back and asked if I could come to share in a special celebration.  They built an addition to their building and finally have it paid off and wondered if I would come back and help them celebrate.  Now it wasn’t there, the addition I mean, when I served as associate pastor for a couple of years.  So, my first inclination was to say I’m honored, but why me?  But instead I just checked to see if Doug, my associate here at Southport would be back from his Disney vacation and able to preach at Southport, and then said yes.  I’ll go.  I’ll be a part of the celebration.  Of generosity.  Because I had been a recipient of that generosity.  See that’s where I was serving when we adopted Rhys, our son who turns 25 next week.  Yikes.  And this church blessed me.  Pass on the kindness, that’s what this is about. /it was right in front of me the whole time.

If it had been a snake it would have bit you!  I don’t know where that cliche first came from, but it fits me.  The truth is we all can ignore what is in front of our faces from time to time.  Sometimes we genuinely don’t see what is so obvious to everyone else.  Maybe we are distracted or occupied by deep thoughts of some kind and we simply miss it.  Other times we don’t want to see what is in front of us, we choose our blindness when what is in front of us is uncomfortable or ugly or seemingly beyond our capacity to affect.  We can only take so much of helpless, before we - out of self-preservation perhaps - turn away and try to convince ourselves we didn’t see what we saw.  Or convince ourselves that what we saw was not our responsibility, not our business.

Our cultural fixation on “live and let live” has driven us to turn blind eyes to all sorts of situations, all sorts of needs because we don’t want to “impose” - we don’t want to get involved.  So, we have learned to not see the snakes that are just waiting to bite us.

At least that is what I think is going on here in our Scripture text for this week.  This is a very familiar passage.  So familiar it has become a part of our language.  So familiar that I think we don’t see the snakes that might bite us in the story that Jesus tells us.  Listen again:

Luke 10:25-37  Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  26 He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?"  27 He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."  28 And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."  29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"  30 Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.'  36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"  37 He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise." 

Of course we know the story.  Everyone, Christian or not, has heard of a “Good Samaritan.”  There is even a “Good Samaritan Law” on the books in Indiana and other states to protect someone who stops to help in a crisis situation.  So, it would seem there is very little that would need to be discussed here.  Everyone agrees on this.  Jesus tells the story in such a way that even a lawyer can see what is right!  Sorry, that was mean too.  Some of my best friends are lawyers.  Anyway...

Well, lets take a look at our friend the lawyer.  Which in this case might better be described as a religious scholar instead of what we think of as a lawyer.  Since there was no distinction between religious and secular law in Israel at that time, a lawyer was someone who knew the scriptures well enough to argue for right and wrong.  He was a scholar who had studied the Torah (which is Hebrew for “law”) and was called upon to settle disputes, or to represent the interests of someone wronged.

It is interesting that Luke’s lawyer asks a subtly different question than the ones in Matthew and Mark.  There the question is “what is the greatest commandment?”  Here it is “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  In the end it is the same question, but the approach is completely different.  The former sounds like a religious scholar/lawyer kind of question.  What is greater...? Or “what commandment is first of all,” in Mark’s version.  They might have meant most important or it might have been which is precedent setting - “which law is above other laws” that sort of thing. 

But Luke’s lawyer asks “what must I do?”  Which is the kind of question Luke would hear more clearly.  There is more than a legal issue here.  There is a participation, there is a connection, there is a life direction kind of issue here.  Some have argued that what he was really asking was “what is the least I can do and still get in?”  I don’t know if that can be inferred, but you couldn’t blame him even if it was.  It is a very human kind of question.  “Is this going to be on the test?”  That is how students ask the question.  “Do we have to know this stuff, or are you just talking?”  

He might have been trying to slide by with minimal effort, but I prefer to think that he really wanted to know.  I know Luke says it was a test.  Maybe it was a test with a hidden hope underneath.  Maybe he was put up to the test, but made it a personal quest on his own.  Whatever it was, Jesus took it seriously and turned it around to the questioner.  This was Jesus’ M.O.  He rarely handed things around on silver platters.  He always wanted us to work a little bit.  Maybe with interpretation, maybe with application, but there was always something left to do when Jesus stopped talking.

In this case it was the question itself that came back.  “What do you think?”  My kids hate that, but I do it all the time.  Here the lawyer answered with the Great Commandment.  Case closed.  Jesus gave him lovely parting gifts and it was all over.  

Except the lawyer wasn’t satisfied.  Luke interprets for us: “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” It’s that “justify himself” bit that bugs me.  It bugs me because I do it too.  “I’d like to love my neighbor,” goes the thought process, “but I’m just not sure what’s safe.  I’m just not sure what’s needed.  I’m just not sure for whom I am really responsible.  I’ve got kids, I’ve got a wife, I’ve got my hands full.”  There are rules, you know, how to treat certain kinds of people.  Well, if not rules than expectations, standards.  Help your own first, goes one school of thought.  Charity begins at home.  The lawyer’s lawyerness kicked in here.  He decided to try and divert judgement on his behavior by asking a question for which there was no easy answer.  He wanted to tie this verdict up in court and avoid having to act on it.  At the very least he was hoping for a pat on the back and “well, do the best you can” from Jesus.  Instead he got a story.

You know the story.  You know the way Samaritans were viewed, especially compared to priests and Levites.  You know that Jesus was trying to move the debate beyond an academic justification issue into an “open your eyes” kind of issue.  He was trying to move it from a label and an insiders verses outsider kind of thing toward a taking responsibility for the need in front of you kind of attitude.  This isn’t about changing the world, but about healing the hurts.  In Micah’s words this isn’t doing justice, it is loving mercy.  Both are necessary.  But if we spend all of our time out trying to chase windmills, out trying to make the world a better place for everyone someday, we will miss the opportunity to make it better for one close by right now.  In fact we could argue that without acts of mercy, or kindness, there can be no move toward justice.  If we allow needs to go unmet then we are asking for trouble on a larger scale.  There are needs aplenty, just open your eyes.  If it had been a snake, it would have bit you.

Shalom,
Derek