Saturday, October 29, 2011

Giving Grace

I have to tell you of a disturbing phenomenon amongst the staff here at Aldersgate. I’m not going to blame the new guy, but ... Well, OK, Chris brought with him a funny little ritual that they used to practice at his seminary (Duke - enough said) where when it was time to pray - for a meal or a meeting or whatever, everyone around the table would sit with their thumbs pointed up, and the last one to get his or her thumbs in the right position would have to pray.

Have to pray. That is what disturbed me. OK, there are lots of ways to identify someone to pray and that one is as much fun as any of them. Don’t want to be accused of being a party pooper, by any means. But it was the underlying assumption that prayer is somehow a bad thing and you need to be quick on your feet, or thumbs in this case, to avoid it, that made me sound like a curmudgeon. (Yeah, Ok, there’s the age thing too, adding to the curmudgeon-ness, thanks for bringing that up!)

Prayer is the center of our faith. It should be the starting point for all of our action, not the last resort. Partially because it is act of communication with God, and partly because it is our participation in grace.

Wait. What? Grace. That’s what I really wanted to talk about here. Experiencing, living, praying and giving grace. It is said that C.S. Lewis walked in on an academic discussion about the distinctiveness of Christianity one day. They were about to decide that there was nothing that set Christianity apart from any of the other world religions, because they were unable to come up with anything that truly marked our faith and set it apart from the rest. So, they put the question to Lewis. He paused only a moment and said, “That’s easy, it’s grace.”

It is what makes us who we are as followers of Jesus Christ. Grace. It is what motivates us to respond with love and joy and hope. Grace is what equips us for living in this world and what it is that allows us to help create a sense of community as we seek out other recipients of God’s grace. It is what we have to offer the world, nothing of our own, but the gifts that come from grace.

Which is exactly what Paul says in a rather convoluted way in our reading for this weekend. It is Paul’s Stewardship Campaign sermon. And like all of us, he talks around it in such a way that you just might miss what it is that he is saying. Take a look:

2 Corinthians 8:7-14, 24 Now as you excel in everything-- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you-- so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. 8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. 10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something-- 11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. 12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has-- not according to what one does not have. 13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. ... 24 Therefore openly before the churches, show them the proof of your love and of our reason for boasting about you.

Got it? OK, here’s the back story. Paul is taking a collection for the church in Jerusalem. The growth was out in the suburbs and the downtown church was suffering. (OK, not exactly, but sort of.) And so he went from church to church asking for mission giving. And the churches responded. Read the first part of Chapter eight and you’ll note that Paul is proud of them for giving and some of them gave even thought they also had struggles.

And now he comes back to Corinth. A church he has struggled with, to be fair. A church with a few problems and some dissension. But he still invites them to give. Which I guess is a precedent for the practice of taking money donated by less than perfect people!

This is how he invites them to participate: Now as you excel in everything-- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you-- so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. Verse 7, sounds like the classic buttering them up before you make the ask. Flattering them before you stick them with the bill.

But that isn’t what he does. The last two words of verse seven are here translated as “generous undertaking.” He wants them to excel, to participate, to enjoy this generous undertaking. But the Greek words are “charis perusseo” which probably translate better, or more directly as this “abounding grace.” The invitation is not to give, but to participate in grace, abounding grace. Which, he then goes on to describe, is what Jesus did for us, by emptying himself, giving up and giving away that we might know glory, that we might know hope and salvation. That we might be able to give grace away, because we have received it.

Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians that he is doing them a favor by letting them give. He knows that they, like we want to know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. And he says I know that grace and not only can you know it but you can live it. Not only can you receive it like a gift, but you can activate it by giving it away, by participating in the ripples of grace that go from person to person, community to community and bring transformation, bring an experience of the Kingdom.

He concludes the invitation by reminding us that love needs proof from time to time, love needs action in order to really be love. At least the love that Christ calls us to. The love that God expresses. Which the most famous verse of all reminds us: John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Which sounds suspiciously like a prayer.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Overcast With a Chance of Rainbows

I’m having real trouble getting started today. Pass it off to still adjusting to trying to fill in for La Donna’s absence (I know, it is only day three and there are lots to go. I start falling apart now and we are all in trouble). Or maybe it was the early morning phone call from a woman who wanted to talk about demons in her house. And then called back later to ask if I was a racist. When I told her I had adopted children from South Korea, she said, “Yeah, that’s just what a white man would say.”

Or maybe it is the fact that I woke up with a sore throat and cough and a long list of things to accomplish and no will to do any of it. I am predicting that if you are reading this at all, it is now quite late in the day. After the wedding at least. Did I mention I also have a wedding this afternoon? Sigh.

Maybe we should just take a look at the verses and see if that can jump start anything. At Aldersgate we are in the third week of our Extravagant Generosity series. Each week we are invited to think about generosity as both a spiritual discipline and a gift of joy. And to do that we look at a few simple verses. This week is no exception. We have three single verses on which to hang our thoughts. I cheated a little bit and expanded one of the readings for worship. So, here is what we will hear together:

Colossians 3:1-4 So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

And with that reading are these two verses: Matthew 6:33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. And – Joel 2:28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

Bishop Schnase says that these verses are about vision, about hope, about looking beyond the moment. More than that, they speak about charting a course, a personal as well as a corporate course. Who are you going to be, and who are we going to be? Those are the questions raised by these verses.

Certainly we are planners, we are hopers. Christ gave a sense of mission. We don’t come up with it ourselves. That’s what Joel says to us. God says “I will pour out my Spirit.” It is given to us, it isn’t self created. It is claimed.

That’s what Jesus was talking about in Matthew, there in the Sermon on the Mount. Verse 33 follows the verses about worry. Look at the birds he says. They are energetic about the right things. They spend themselves, not on worry, but on mission. On being who they were created to be. This not worrying thing is not about lethargy, but about direction. About putting your efforts where they need to be put. About putting your energy where it will bring the most effect. About putting your money where your heart is.

Paul tells us in Colossians that we need to look up, look beyond, look to Christ to find our hope, our meaning, our reason for being. What are you hoping for, hoping to be, hoping to be a part of? Important questions, life changing, course setting questions.

I can’t argue with any of it. And yet in the malaise of a less than perfect day, I’m wondering if there is something else to cling to in these words. I wonder if there is a smaller word for those of us too low down to see the horizon, let alone beyond it. Maybe shifting perspective still works.

In between the first paragraphs of this essay and this one a day happened. Lots of things, good and not so good, and then some that were just things. Yet when all you can see is your own limits, when all you are full of are your own failures or your own emptiness, it is hard to see high enough to set those goals or to dream those dreams.

That’s when you really need to reset your mind. A hard thing to do, I know. But maybe we don’t need to see all the way to heaven in order to find this reset button. Maybe we don’t need to look higher, but deeper.

A few moments ago, Maddie showed up with a tiny cup full of medicine. Having watched her mother ask me a hundred times if I ought to take something for my ailments and then give up and bring me something; Maddie decided to take a short cut and simply brought it to me. And I drank it. It tasted of heaven.

A little while before that, my email pinged. It was a quick word from Africa. The travelers are safe and settling in for bed so that they can get up and worship in that exuberant African expression of joy. It read like scripture.

Join us for worship at Aldersgate and we’ll be back in the big picture. I’ll be right up there with Bishop Schnase inviting us all to aim at heaven, to catch the winds of the Spirit in our sails and set off to where Christ would have us go and be co-builders of the Kingdom in our neighborhood and community.

But for us here, it is a smaller vision. It is a call to see Christ in the everyday, little things that we might overlook unless we look up and pay attention.

Seek the things that are above, they may be closer than you think.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

One Another

Just a short one this week, I promise. My list is long. See this is the practice run for when my wife, La Donna is in Africa. You did know about Africa, didn’t you? This coming Thursday La Donna and a team from the Indiana Conference are going to Africa for three weeks. It is a mission trip, learning trip to Africa University. La Donna has been working with the library at AU for a little while and now is going to go and see if she can help get things set up for her and others to work online. At least that is part of the task ahead of her. You’ll have to ask her what all is involved.

I’m excited for her, and proud of her, and pretty sure we will survive over here with the teenagers and the crazy dogs while she is gone. Pretty sure. Which brings us back to the practice run. She is gone to a UMW event this weekend and we are charged with filling her with confidence that we can handle things while she is gone. So, job one is doing something with the billions of walnuts that have fallen in the yard in this wind we are having. So, I don’t have a lot of time to work on this bible study. A little time since said teenagers are still sleeping at this point. But not a lot of time.

I want to do this well. I want her to feel good about leaving, about trying this new thing and not worried that we will fall apart back home while she is gone. Or maybe just a little. I also don’t want her to feel like we don’t need her. It is a fine line we walk.

That’s the way it is with those we love. A fine line between too independent and not dependent enough. We want them to be confident in our love, but not be burdened by it. We want them to know that they are loved but not be smothered by it. We want ... well, to be honest we almost wish that Jesus hadn’t made it such a big deal. We almost wish that this faith thing had been an internal, belief relationship just between each of us and Him. But no, he had to go and include the whole world and especially those within the community of faith.

John 13:34-35 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Not just a good idea, not just a clue to better living, not just a suggestion for health and happiness, no he made it a commandment. Love one another. And not only that, but also the sign. The sign that we belong, that we are a part of the fellowship, a part of the family. Not by how many bible passages we read, not by the acts of charity that we perform, not by the hours of pew time we put in throughout our lives, the lives of pure moral character - none of that is the sign that we belong to Christ. All of that is good stuff, and stuff we ought to be doing. But the sign is something else entirely, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” It is not about what is inside of you, but what comes out.

How do you show your love for one another? That’s the question in front of us. And who has shown you love like Christ’s love? The question in our Extravagant Generosity series for this week is “Who has in our church family has made a difference in your spiritual life?” Who has been the “one another” for you? Teaching you how to be the “one another” for someone else. For some of those “one anothers” it is the words that you say, for others it is the deeds that you do (like picking up walnuts), for some it is the gifts that you give and for others it is the presence and attention that you give. It is in our plans to spend some time in 2012 talking more about how we do this loving one another thing - as spouses, or co-workers, or neighbors, or friends and strangers. But for now we hear it as an invitation.

Not an easy one, to be sure. Loving takes time, takes sacrifice, takes effort. Especially when we look back and see that what Jesus actually said was not love the best you can, love with what is within you. No, what he said was love as I have loved you.

Wow. Love like Christ loves. I’m not sure I know exactly what all that includes. But at least it has to be another load or two of walnuts.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Life That Really Is Life

“What’s in it for me?” That is the question of our age. Maybe of every age, I don’t know. I don’t think so, to be honest, but I guess it is possible. That there is something of human nature about that question. Something in our DNA, in the very cellular make up of humanness that brings us to ask the ubiquitous question: “what’s in it for me?”

But I doubt it. Yes, there is self preservation and all of that. But this seems more than that. I think it is a product of our consumer culture. Our everything is for sale and the customer is always right mindset that leaks into our Christian life and language. And we begin to think that faith is a transaction. If I do this, then I will get that. If I pray this pray then I will get that result. If I attend worship this many weeks in a row, if I serve on these committees, if I give this much to the church, then ... well ... what’s in it for me?

Now, I know what you are thinking. After a set up like this, I should say that this isn’t an appropriate question. That faith isn’t a transaction and that it isn’t about you or what you can get out of it. And that’s exactly what I am going to say. But first I want to answer the question.

At least that’s what I think Paul is doing in our passage for this week. So, who am I to deny you an answer. So, the question is “What’s in it for me?” And the answer?

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.

Any more questions? You did see it, didn’t you? Right there at the end. “So that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” That’s what’s in it for you, and for me, and for all of us. Life that really is life. Isn’t that something you could really wrap yourself around? Isn’t that something we have all been longing for? Isn’t that work a little effort, and little service, a little transaction? So, you are asking, how do I get it? How do I earn it? What do I have to do to make sure that I’m on the receiving end of that prize?

Nothing. Hang on. Look at the question you are (and everyone else is) asking: What do I have to do to get it? Nothing. You can’t get it, you can’t buy it, you can’t earn it. This is the gift that has already been given to you in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, Paul’s instructions through Timothy here are not about how to get it. You notice he says he’s talking about how to take hold of it.

It is one thing to have it, says Paul, it is quite another to embrace it. To live it to the full. And that is what he wants us to know, that we can grab hold of this life that really is life. So, how do we go about doing that?

Here at Aldersgate we are starting our Stewardship emphasis by reading together Bishop Robert Schnase’s book Extravagant Generosity. So we can’t help but notice how Paul compares a life based on riches with one based on generosity. “The uncertainty of riches,” Paul writes, can’t be a strong enough foundation for meaning and purpose in living. And to that we who have lived through a recession and the threat of a new one can’t help but mutter a cautious amen to that.

Instead, he argues, we base a life in doing good and being generous. The secret of taking hold of this life that really is life is to give it away. At every opportunity. On every occasion. We give it away, with willingness and with joy. We give it away, not keeping score except to note new and better ways to give.

And of course this means more than just money. It means time and talent and attention and effort and personality and ... well ... and money. Jesus spent an awful lot of time talking about your money. More than anything else, except the kingdom of God. Or, as he liked to call it, life. Life that really is life. It is in part what you do with your resources that determines your hold on this life. So a full life, a true life is a life of generosity.

Which means “what’s in it for me?” becomes a whole different question to people of faith. It means not what do I get, but how can I give? It means not what is coming my way, but what can I do for someone else? It means not how can I pile up on my, but how can I pile up on others.

OK, maybe that last line was influenced by the Notre Dame game I’m listening to from the other room. But you get the point. Set your hopes on God, writes Paul, and then you will know riches. Be generous and then you will know life.

Life that really is life.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Drawing Lines

Whew, what a day already. I’m a little bit behind my Saturday schedule. Because I had a funeral and a wedding within the space of a couple of hours. OK, I’ll admit, my greatest fear was that I would get mixed up in all the dearly beloveds. Burying a relationship and seeking vows from an urn. Didn’t happen, thankfully, but I worried.

It was a unique experience, I have to confess. I’ve done multiple funerals, and a day of weddings in the past. But one of each, kind of unusual. I just need a baptism and communion, confirmation to make it complete! Funny you should mention that ... Tomorrow is Confirmation Sunday at Aldersgate. And it World Communion Sunday. And two of our confirmands were just baptized a couple of weeks ago. So, there.
Now, if I was smart enough I would tell you what brings all those things together. I means besides they are all rituals of the church. But as much as I tried, I couldn’t think of a thing. Except that they were all about drawing lines.

Wait, what? Lines. Boundary lines. We were talking about life and of death this morning. We were reflecting on the weaving of a covenant this afternoon. We are redefining family at worship tomorrow. And we are sketching the circle around a table of sacrifice and grace. We’re drawing lines this weekend.

The problem is that we usually see that as a negative. Drawing lines is about limitation, we feel. It is about right and wrong, in and out. Don’t fence me in, we complain, don’t cramp my style, don’t get all up in my grill ... actually I don’t think they say that any more. But you get my point. Drawing lines goes against the great American value of freedom. We put the words “no limits” on the rear windows of our pick up trucks. We wear them on our jeans. It is not just a slogan, it is how we define ourselves, how we understand ourselves.

Yet, in our rational minds we know that boundaries, that rules are good things. And that is why we reluctantly accept them. Like a kid who wants to play late into the night but trudges up to bed anyway, we say that the lines are good for us. Like broccoli, or cod liver oil. Close your eyes, and open up. Here it comes:

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. ... 7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. ... 12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 13 You shall not murder. 14 You shall not commit adultery. 15 You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. 18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die." 20 Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin."

Oh, right. Those rules. Those lines. Got it. Sigh. We suppose it is for our own good. Right?

Well, I have to wonder. Is God one to bring the whole nation of Israel out into the wilderness for a time out? Is this conversation started with a wag of the divine finger and slow shake of the holy head, displaying disappointment and the prelude to punishment? Are these ten words given because the people of God have proved unworthy, have fallen short of the ideal of who they could be, who they were intended to be? Are they being grounded by these words? Restricted, chastened, reproved by the law? Take your medicine, you won’t like it, but it’ll be good for you in the long run.

Or is there something else going on here? What if we took a whole different approach to the lines thing? What if we saw them not as limitations but as definitions? What if we looked at this moment in the history of the people of God not as punishment for less than stellar behavior, but as a gift because of a greater than imagined love?

Sure there are boundaries in the covenant of marriage, but who would call them a punishment? Instead it is a new way of being, a new way of living and loving. We are redefined when we make that commitment to love and to cherish. We make promises that don’t constrain us so much as set us free to love. We aren’t hampered by the lines that are drawn so much as we are encouraged to go deeper and higher, to love more profoundly.

Baptism and confirmation are about making vows to love as well. The lines that are drawn are about finding your way into the fellowship and family of the church. It is about making a commitment to serve and to participate and gather with the community of faith. It is about claiming that in this journey that is life and faith, we acknowledge that we need support, we need companionship, we need a community to surround us as we make our pilgrim way.

Communion draws the lines and invites all to be inside. It isn’t about separation, it isn’t about better than or holier than. It is about invitation and inclusion. It is about welcome and hospitality. It is about a table of grace and finding your way in.

The ten words are not so much commandments that we ought to follow reluctantly or not, as they are descriptions of the kind of people we can choose to be. The people who love God (Words 1 through 4) and who love neighbor (Words 5 through 10). I had a Hebrew teacher in seminary who said we should retranslate them not as “Thou shall” or “Thou shall not” but as description “You are the people who have one God” and “You are not the people who kill and steal and bear false witness.” That is just who we are and who we are not. God doesn’t say jump through these hoops and I will love you. Instead God says my love for you will shape you into these kind of people, this kind of community. “So that your days may be long.”

How long? Into eternity. We drew the lines this morning at the funeral as well. The lines of welcome into the heavenly home. And what we thought was a line, the line that divides life and death, was only a doorway, only a corner to turn, that brings us into a new reality. But the lines of God’s people define us here and there. God announces where the lines are for us to live well now, but also so that we will be at home in eternity with God. So that we will recognize the place when we get there.

And we’ll go on living between the lines that God has drawn.