Christian Discipleship

Christian Discipleship is defined in the United Methodist Discipline in paragraph 135.

“The ministry of all Christians consists of privilege and obligation.  The privilege i a relationship with God that is deeply spiritual.  The obligation is to respond to God’s call to holy living in the world.  In the United Methodist tradition these two dimensions of Christian discipleship are wholly interdependent.”

Do we look at Christian Discipleship as a privilege or do we see it as an obligation or do we understand it as both?  The Discipline goes on to explain that it is a privilege to be able to have a relationship with God.  Out of this relationship with God and the experience of his grace comes the obligation to live into our relationship with Christ in the world.

How many of us only see one side of this relationship?  Are we only concentrated on the privilege or the obligation?  We should hold these two things close to our hearts, remembering both aspects of Christian Discipleship.  A true disciple has the privilege of knowing a deep relationship with the triune God we worship and feel our obligation to live this relationship out in the world.  Neither are a burden but a way that grace is experienced and shared.

Defining our End Product – What is a Disciple

Bob Farr, in his book Renovate or Die: Ten Ways to Focus Your Church on Mission, states “When you renovate something, you have a pretty clear picture of what you want the end product to look like.” (p.67)  Without that end product in mind how can you achieve what you hope to achieve.  An athlete already knows what she hopes to achieve.  If a volleyball player has a dream to win the gold in the Olympics that is the end product of her hopes and dreams.  From there she can back up to understand what steps it will take to achieve her goal.

The trouble is I am not sure many churches have an end product in mind.  I do not think many local churches have a goal in mind of a person who joins their congregation.  If I would ask I am sure the answer would revolve around, attend worship regularly, give, and volunteer.  These are not necessarily bad intentions but they are not defined.  Farr’s comment has stuck in my head after reading it and I have been wrestling to come up with what the end product of my congregation would look like.
This past week we accepted into membership a woman who has never been a member of a church.  She grew up catholic but now in her retirement she has decided to become a member of our church.  What is the end product or vision for her as our newest member of our congregation?  As I chewed on this cud I attempted to think what our end product looks like.
The answer is easy a Disciple of Jesus Christ…but how lived out….how do you communicate that in real and tangible ways to a congregation…there lies my sticky wicket!
Our mission has been given to us by Jesus Christ at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” (CEB) This is what we are to be doing but how does a person come into a community of faith and live this out.  What does a true disciple look like?  This would be our end product. 
The words echoed in my head from this last Sunday, “As a member of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness?” (UMH p.38)  Our end product as United Methodists is living out these five areas of discipleship.  A true disciple is one who prays, is involved and present at worship, gives generously of their gifts, both money and talents, serves as God’s love in this world and tells others why.
What would happen to a congregation if everything they did had one of these components in mind?  If every event, worship service, meal, fellowship, small group, mission project, all that this end product in mind, how would this change the congregation?
If someone lived out all five aspects of their membership vows their life and the life of the congregation would be drastically different.  I bet everyone who knew this person would call them a true Disciple, including God.  Dream of a church where every individual worked to live these vows out consistently and with a cheerful heart. 
To get there would we have to reorganize what we did as a congregation?  Rethink what we deem as important?  Renovation would have to take place!

Am I onto something here?  Is this a valid end product?  When I think of what Jesus called his disciples to do, I find echoes of it here in our membership vows.  Do they miss anything?  I would love to know your insights.

My Struggle with Hate

When I started this blog over six years ago I did so as a spiritual discipline during Lent.  It was a time when I could sort through some thoughts, have some fun, and practicing writing.  I had promised that I would be honest and open.  Confession is said to be good for the soul and so let me confess.  The silence on this blog for a while is because I have not been honest and open with what has been happening in my life.  Today I feel like I need to cleanse the soul.
I know to some, as you read this, you will see this as petty.  Some may see it as moronic or may come away reading, “welcome to the real world.”  But, if I am to be open and honest I have to say that hate has gripped my heart for a while.  It has seemed to pass now.  The weight of this realization has help remove this ugly tumor from my heart.  The writing of this post, this confession, this ugly truth, I hope will scrape off any remnant in order for me to move forward.
We have just moved into a new, beautiful parsonage and we are VERY happy.  The happiness is just starting to sink in as my wife and I give ourselves permission to finally breathe.  Our previous place of residence was the result of this darkness. 
I understand the strength hate has as a word but I recognize now that it is exactly what I was dealing with.  I hated my neighbors.  There is a part of me that still does although we have moved 5 miles away from them.  I still have to pass their house as I drop and pick up my son for school over these next 6 weeks.  As I do, I can still feel that bile start to climb my throat.  But I have learned to swallow hard and let it pass.
There were many factors that lead me to this hatred over the last 9 months.  Day 1 of moving into the new parsonage our neighbor took my wife on a guided tour of the property lines.  During this tour flash photography was not allowed but what she learned was a third of what seemed to the casual observer to be our backyard was actually not.  Our neighbor owned it (see picture above) and she made it vitally clear this patch of grass was hers.  It connected her house to her mother’s house (our neighbor on the other side of us).  The parsonage, as I would come to learn, was simply a lawn ornament on THEIR block.
Every day there were part of the family, sisters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, would walk from their above ground pool to their mother/grandmother’s house.  What looked like our backyard was simply an access road for the four wheelers, trucks, dirt bikes and golf carts to utilize.  This road was less than 30 feet from our back door.  Within a week or two of living there it became clear that we were welcome to use our patch of grass called our back yard but we will be watched and whispered about the whole time.  Never really welcomed, merely put up with, tolerated because someone had to live in that lawn ornament. 
The son is what really drove this nuisance to the point of hatred.  On a nice winter afternoon our neighbor’s son decided to ride his dirt bike around the block.  He would start in his grandmother’s yard, ride through our back/their side yard, through his backyard and then on the road around the rest of the block.  Each lap got faster and faster.  I am pretty sure dirt bikes are not made with mufflers, at least whatever model he was driving wasn’t.  My three year old daughter had just lain down to take her afternoon nap, which she desperately needs or else she makes Regan MacNeil look calm.  The loud noise of every rev of the motorcycle was keeping her up.  My wife went outside and very nicely asked the son if he could do that somewhere else because our daughter is sleeping.  He ignored her.  She walked the 30 feet out to him and attempted to catch him on his lap by.  He eventually acknowledged her but then told her off and informed her it was his property and he could do what he damn well pleased on it.  My wife then walked to a building on the grandmother’s property that her daughter (the son’s mother) used as a place of business.  She asked her if she could get her son to stop.  She very reluctantly, and with all the attitude she could muster against my wife, she did.
This incident somehow gave permission for the son to start to do this on a regular basis.  The dirt pile that was located right on our property lines was soon used by him and his buddies as a place to practice with their four wheelers and dirt bikes.  When we would ask if they could take it somewhere else, we were put in our place quickly that we don’t own this piece of property and they can do what they like. 
We had planned on selling the parsonage due to many factors, the major one being that it was sucking a ton of money out of the church.  But on the afternoon in which we would make the decision to officially put it on the market or not I had it out with our neighbors.  The bike riding was getting too much.  I had asked them to take it somewhere else.  They went away for a minute and then came right by.  In a fit of a rage I screamed, “Why are you being such an asshole!”  I regretted my verbal diarrhea but it got his attention.  I walked over and showed him our property lines and informed him that to access this dirt pile, he and his friends insist on playing on, mean they have to drive over our property (about 7 feet) to get to their ‘access road’.  I didn’t care that they walked back and forth.  But this was too much and he needed to stop, if not I was going to call the sheriff.  A deputy came out promptly and walked to the backyard with me.  She informed our neighbor’s son that he needs to stop because if he would wreck on the church’s property our insurance would be liable.  When our neighbor came over yelling and screaming about why the cops were called, the whole time echoing her son’s thoughts.  “WE OWN THIS LAND and we can do whatever we damn well please.  I can rev or make as much noise as I want as long as I am on my property.”  The deputy informed her of the 24 hour noise ordinance in our town, which the son insisted only started at 11pm. 
The next day there was a for sale sign in the front yard of the parsonage, 6 days later it sold for the full asking price. 
In the process of moving out though, things didn’t settle down with the neighbors.  They still did not respect us, or even acknowledge we lived there.  One day, after another altercation over the four wheelers, our neighbor commanded that my wife, “Get the fuck back in your house!”  I would catch the son talking on his cell phone on our driveway or I would find tire treads in the grass, only 10 feet from the house.  Every time I heard him rev that stupid machine I would have thoughts of him getting hit by a car or hitting tree.  He would ride it without a helmet and there was always a lot of cars, it could easily happen.  These were comforting thoughts.  They warmed my insides and gave me a sense of peace as my blood began to boil.  These were the moments when I realized how hard my heart was getting.
When I stormed back into the house to call the sheriff that afternoon, I could hear God’s nagging voice, calming reminding me to ‘love you neighbor as yourself.’  As I paced late one evening listening to anger in my wife’s voice wondering what to do about a teenage bonfire party, I felt God’s nudge, “love your neighbor.”  I joked with her later as we confessed these feelings of hate to each other, that I understood what Jesus was talking about but I wondered if Jesus really knew who our neighbors were!  This, I confessed, is too hard.  It is too much.  Love your neighbor, love THESE neighbors. 
As the weeks progressed and the meetings happened to sell our parsonage and then to actually move out, my temper got worse and my attitude towards people became hardened.  My humor became dark, like The Cable Guy dark.  Then in a moment of peace over dinner my wife looked at me and she said, “I cannot believe how hateful we have become.”  She was dead on.  Hate had entered my heart and was darkening and hardening it.  This wasn’t me.  People who know me know that I am not one who hates and works hard to love like Jesus commands, but this was too much.
Living surrounded by these people, my neighbors, these children of God, was like a noose being tightened around my neck.  One of our friends said it would be cathartic to toss a paper bag of poop into their pool as we left.  We didn’t but it was tempting.  Yet, as we pulled away and left that lawn ornament behind relief started to fill my heart.  Stress has melted away.  Although the bile still creeps up my throat when I pass by, it is easier to swallow back down.  But I still don’t quite know how to love them.  If they were in need, I would help.  I would use all my influence at church and in the city to help. 
I have asked God to forgive my thoughts, those dark dreams and the moments when I stepped outside my normal self and possibly was an asshole myself.  It has been two weeks since we moved and hate doesn’t have a tight grip around my heart as much.  I can see it peek out here and there which tells me this may have lingering effects.  I cannot simply blame ‘those people’ for causing this.  Time, prayer, patience, and discipline will be the keys to getting my heart back. 
I confess it was scary.  I felt dirty and above all sinful.  I pray that did not seep into my ministry and that I was able to compartmentalize that section of my life.  However, I know I am forgiven and I will have to find a time to forgive myself as well. 
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have decided to stick with love.  Hate is too great a burden to bear.”  I understand that now and a burden it is, a heavy, smelly, dark burden.  I’m sticking with love.  Somehow, someway I’m sticking with love.  As Proverbs 10:12 says, “Hate stirs up conflict, but love covers all offenses.”  May it be so.

3 Simple Rules #3 Stay in Love with God – Sermon

John 21:15-17 & 19
3 Simple Rules
Rule #3 – Stay in Love with God
I have the pleasure of doing a wedding in a couple of weeks.  The doe-eyed couple came and sat down on my couch in the office and I asked them about what their plans were for their wedding.  I asked them the question I ask all couples when they come to me wanting to get married.  I ask them, “So why do you want to get married?”  It is a simple question but you would be surprised on how many couples stumble over it.  This maybe the first time someone has ever asked them point-blank why they want to walk down this path.  By the way the correct answer to that question is “because I love him/her and I cannot imagine my life without him/her.”
During my little homily at a wedding I will remind the couple that marriage is hard work.  Marriage is something that is worked on.  We usually have this Hollywood idea about marriage.  We don’t realize that to live with someone for the rest of your life is hard work.  If someone told you that to walk hand in hand with someone for the rest of your life would be easy and that you can boil marriage down to “happily ever after,” is a complete and utter lie.  It takes dedicated, stressful, and at moments almost impossible work to stay in love with someone.  I know a couple that when they are at the end of their rope with their spouse they will look at them and say, “I love you but I don’t like you right now.”
We laugh and we giggle.  You might have chicken winged someone sitting next to because you heard the truth.  If you understood what I was saying and you agree with me then can I get an Amen?  If we all agree that staying in love with a human being is hard work, then why do we think it is easy to stay in love with God? 
There are people in this world that think when you become a Christian life gets real easy.  There are some preachers who sell that idea too.  But the truth is it is extremely hard work.  For the last two weeks we have talked about what it would be like to walk faithfully through life as a follower of Jesus Christ.  As United Methodists we point to the General Rules as a guide on how to live out our faith.  Those rules are; Do No Harm, Do Good and today we talk about, Stay in love with God. 
The more historic way of saying rule number three is “attending upon all the ordinances of God.”[1]  We usually think of ordinances when we think of Home Owner Associations.  It reminds us of a bunch of rules that we are not allowed to do in the neighborhood we live in.  But as Bishop Job put it in his book; “Ordinance is a strange word to our ears.  But to John Wesley, it was a word that described the practices to keep the relationship between God and humanity vital, alive and growing.”[2]
Then there is a list of practices that if we do on a regular basis our relationship with God can stay vital, alive and growing.  If we do these things then we will have the strength and ability to go through life without doing harm and spend it doing good. 
Let me read you what it says in the good book, The 2008 Book of Discipline;
                Thirdly: by attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are:
                                The public worship of God
                                The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded
                                The Supper of the Lord
                                Family and private prayer
                                Searching the Scriptures
                                Fasting or abstinence
There is your recipe for a healthy relationship and the ability to stay in love with God.  It is only that simple.  Like the other two rules, it sounds so simple but it will take a mature, deep and committed faith to live this out.  But these ordinances are important because as we do them we are reminded that God loves us and we fall into deeper love with God.
My youngest sister, Jodie, got involved with a group called Team in Training.  They do running and bike races all over the US to raise money for Leukemia and Lymphoma research.  My grandfather is a lymphoma survivor and Jodie decided to push herself to run a half-marathon in his honor.  She caught the running bug and soon my second youngest sister, Jean, decided to join her.  Now years later she has talked my oldest youngest sister, Julie and my mom to run a half-marathon as well.  (Yes by the way you caught that there are actually four kids in my family and my parents named us [in birth order] Jim, Julie, Jean and Jodie)  Now a half-marathon is 13.1 miles.  I know some people who if they wanted to go run a mile they could hop off the couch and do it without any problem.  But to run 13.1 miles is a little different.  That will take something called training.
We need to do spiritual training as well.  When we do these ordinances we are doing that spiritual training.  Since you are here this morning you are participating in the first way to stay in love God and that is joining in on a public act of worship.  When we gather together to worship God we are professing our love for God.  Who doesn’t want to hear they are loved?  We do this by singing to God our praises, offering up our sacrifices, i.e. money, and we have a conversation with God by going to him in prayer.  We do this in community with one another because Christianity is not a solidary religion, it is a community and so we gather as this community each week to fall in love with God and to express our love for God.
We also need to be reading God’s word.  We either need to be reading it or we need to be reading or listening to people’s opinions on it.  The Book of Discipline states that we need to read or expounded.  Expounded means to present or explain systematically and in detail.  There are these things called commentaries out there that do just that.  Commentaries go through the Bible and give you history, relevance, purpose, background and other meanings on what was written and why.  They can give you insights that you never knew and can take your understanding of scripture deeper. 
John Wesley was listening to the preface to the book of Romans that Martin Luther wrote when his heart was strangely warmed.  One of Wesley’s strongest moments of assurance and grace was felt as he was listening to someone read the Luther’s preface to the book of Romans.  [did you hear that, the PREFACE TO THE BOOK OF ROMANS, YAWN!!!]  God works in mysterious ways.  It is important to hear the opinion of scholars, theologians, church fathers and mothers talk about how they read the scripture.  It can give you insights you may never have dreamed.
The next ordinance is the Lord’s Supper.  In a couple of weeks it will be World Communion Sunday and the whole world will be coming to the Lord’s Table to feast at the heavenly banquet.  Like I have said as we have had communion here, John Wesley saw it as a means of grace.  It is a real and tangible way to come in contact with God.  There are two main ways that happens in the United Methodist Church.  It happens in our sacraments, Communion and Baptism.  If we are going to stay in love with God we need to come in contact with him…we need to feast with him.
The next is prayer, family and private prayer.  I am a firm believer that if you want your children to grow up and know how to pray then you need to mirror that in your own life.  Family prayer is important because it is time take, together as a family, to stop before a meal or before bed and to give thanks, lift up people who need prayer.  It is important because without communication any relationship will fall by the wayside.  You cannot expect to have a deep and committed marriage if you don’t talk.  You cannot raise a child if you never talk with him or her.  Communication is what prayer is all about.  It is telling God about our worries and our praises but then it is also take time to stop and listen for God’s response.  Show me someone with a strong prayer life and I will show you someone desiring what God desires and feeling close to God.
Searching the scriptures sounds a little daunting but it is getting into the word of God to find out the answers you seek.  If you are struggling with something there are pieces of the scripture that can help you out.  If you are struggling with doubt or questions about your faith, then look up the story of Thomas, some of Exodus, or read some of the Psalms.  If you have grief and worry then read Lamentations, Isaiah, the Psalms, or some parts of Matthew’s gospel.  There are ways the Bible can speak to your questions and concerns.  But one way NOT do it is simply open up the Bible and ask God to provide a message to you by stopping on a certain page and then placing a finger down on the page.  I am not saying God cannot work that way, but God gave us brains and the ability to think and so we can look up themed passage in the back of some study Bibles or in Bible Concordances.
This last ordinance is not a favorite among many Americans.  I say this only because it seems to go against our culture’s nature.  Fasting and abstinence are not really things our country was founded upon.  We are a country of plenty and the idea of doing without doesn’t gel quiet right.  How does not eating to connect deeper with God make sense in a culture that can super-size any meal we like?  How does abstaining from something make sense in a culture that says you can have it now if you want it?  They don’t but that is one reason why these can be so powerful to us. 
Let me walk you through the spiritual disciple of fasting.  Fasting is the act of giving up food for a certain period of time or on a certain day of the week or at a certain meal.  I know some people who fast every Ash Wednesday and do not eat anything until after the Ash Wednesday Service.  This gives them the right mindset as they go into the holy season of Lent.  I know others who will give up lunch on Wednesdays and the money they would usually spend on lunch they give to the church’s ministry to the hungry or to a local soup kitchen.  The key to fasting is as you feel hunger you realize how blessed by God you are and remember those who do not eat in our world.  This can give you great insight and a deep way to connect with God.
These are the ordinances, the ways, the spiritual disciplines that John Wesley encourages us to do to stay in love with God.  These are ways we can train our souls to be close to God.  Think about some things that you should have some training with before you actually do it.  Operating heavy machinery?  You need training.  Electrical work? You need training to stay alive!  Driving?  We want people trained how to do that before they get out on the road and there are some people who need to go back and get some more training.  Putting in an IV?  Anyone who has watched or experienced a nurse put in an IV knows that they need to be trained.  If not your arm will be black and blue and it will hurt like the dickens.  If all of these aspects and even more need training than our daily walk with God, the creator of the world, needs training too.
As we walk through life hand in hand with God we will need to push ourselves, train ourselves, motivate ourselves to stay in love with God.  We will have to be in love with God if we are going to be in the world and not do harm and do good.
In today’s scripture the Resurrected Jesus is on the beach and he calls out to the disciples who are fishing.  They have fished all night and didn’t catch a thing.  Jesus tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat.  When they do they catch more fish than they can haul in.  The disciples realize it is Jesus and are overjoyed.  So much so that Peter put on clothes and jumped into the water (we will expound on that scripture at another time).  They eat a breakfast of fish on the beach and then Jesus turns to Peter and asks him three times, “do you love me.”  After Peter answers yes three times, Jesus repeats, “Feed my sheep.”  What is interesting about this text is that it seems to be a throw back to Peter’s denials of Jesus.  How many times does Peter deny he knows Jesus on the night of his trial?  3.  How many times does Jesus ask Peter if he loves him?  3.  Jesus really wants Peter to love him.  He wants to make sure that no matter what will happen in the rest of Peter’s life that he will always love him.  Peter does but Peter also goes through some tough stuff which in the end gets him crucified upside down. 
Jesus wants you to love him as well.  He wants you to go out and feed his sheep too, by doing no harm and doing good.  To love God in a moment is easy.  To stay in love with God through a life time is hard and dedicated work.  The three rules we have gone over these last three weeks will guide us in living out our faith in our daily lives.  It takes a lot of work and a deep faith, but being a follower, believer, and lover of God is never promised as something easy.  Are you willing to abide by these rules and live them out to grow closer to God and to be God’s love for this world?
Let us pray…Teach us today to do no harm, to do good, and assist us so that we may stay in loving relationship with you and our neighbor.  Help us today to be an answer to another’s prayer so that we may be one of your signs of hope in the world you love.[3]  Amen

[1]2008 Book of Discipline, ¶ 103, p.74.
[2] Job, Rueben, 3 Simple Rules. Abingdon Press, Nashville, 2007. P.53
[3]Prayer from the bookmark in the book Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living by Rueben P. Job.

3 Simple Rules #2 Do Good – Sermon

3 Simple Rules
Rule 2: Do Good
John 13:34-35 & Ephesians 2:8-10
When I was planning my preaching schedule for the fall I was not aware yet that homecoming was always the third Sunday of September.  I know now and next year I hope we can have a guest preacher come in maybe along with some great music as well.  Today though we will be sticking with this sermon series entitled 3 Simple Rules.  This is a three week look into the General Rules of the United Methodist Church which are; Do No Harm, Do Good and Stay in Love with God.
Last week we talked about do no harm.  I mentioned that doing harm is reactive, it is how we interact with the people we come in contact with on a daily basis.  If we are to live out the calling God has in our lives then we have to learn to react to life, to people, to situations by first doing no harm.  It can be a hard concept to wrap our heads around and the live out.  The rules sound easy, but like I mentioned last week, it takes a deep, mature and solid faith to follow it daily.  That is the same thing with this week’s rule, do good.
It sounds so simple it is almost silly, do good.  But then you hear a quote that many people attribute to John Wesley, the founder of our denomination, “Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.”  Well then that just gets a little more complicated then doesn’t it.
Where the first rule, Do No Harm, is a reactive stance on life, the second rule is proactive.  To do good means that we do not wait to do good, it should be something that flows out of us naturally and consistently as followers of Christ.  We see that in the scripture passages I read today.  In the John text Jesus says, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Jesus is saying that if we are to be his followers, if we are going to go through the process of sanctification which makes us more Christ-like, then we will have to love like he loves.  Our love for our neighbors should lead us into life and doing no harm should be how we react to life.
We are created for this love.  It is something that is imbedded deep within us that needs to come out.  We have to learn to understand that we are created to love.  The Ephesians text shows us that because in verse 10 it states “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  God has created us in his image and placed in our DNA the ability and desire to love like he loves. 
Growing up I had a hard time swallowing meat.  Some of the tougher meats like pork chops and steak I would chew and chew and chew but never swallow.  I would fake having to go to the bathroom sixty times during dinner and somehow miraculously all that meat that I had packed into my cheeks was gone when I returned to the table.  My napkins were about twelve pounds heavier at the end of the meals with all the meat I tried to hide in there.  My parents would get so frustrated with me but eventually I grew out of it.  Recently I have noticed a trend in our daughter, Campbell.  My parents were over this week and we had some of those steamed whole green beans.  These are a little tougher than the cut green beans tend to be.  Campbell had finished most of her meal but she still had some beans left on her plate.  We encouraged her to eat them and she took a bite or two.  Then I look over and she is still chewing and chewing and chewing.  I asked her to show me the beans and she opened her mouth and showed me a wad of mashed up green beans packed into her cheeks.  My dad busts out laughing and I realize that this apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
I am sure there are moments when you have looked at your children or your grand-children and you stopped dead in your tracks because they were doing something that is just like you.  They had a reaction, they said something in a certain way or gave you a look and you knew that it had to be your DNS shinning through.  I wonder if God has those moments with us.  I wonder if God sees us doing good works and he sees himself in them?  I wonder when we are living out our faith by doing no harm and doing good if God smiles because he knows we are finally getting it and his image is shining through us in those moments.
We have to be careful though.  There is an idea out there that we can earn our way to God’s love through good works.  If we simply pile up more good works verses our bad works then we will be okay when we die.  But that is not true.  The good works we do does not earn God’s love but is an outpouring of the love that God has for us.
Did you all get that, I want to make sure that part is very clear.  As the Ephesian’s text starts off, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”  We receive salvation; we receive justifying grace; through the free, unmerited, unearned grace of God.  It is not something we can earn if we simply do a check list of things.  Salvation is free for all.  Where good works come in, is how we live out this free gift we are given.  Once we know that we are loved by God and crave to be like his son, good works flow out of that.  We do not do good works because we want to earn God’s love but we do good works because we are loved.  It is out of our faith and our love for God and our neighbor that good works should flow freely out of us.
But there are some things you have to give up in order to do these good works like God wants us to.  We have to give up control.  We give up control because God doesn’t define who good works should be for.  His love is for everyone and so our love, our doing good, should be for everyone.  It is easy to do good for those who look like us, act like us, and think like us.  It gets much harder when we are pushed to do good to those who despise us, don’t think anything like us, and look and act nothing like us.  Then doing good becomes really hard.  It becomes really hard because we no longer have control over who gets the good works.  We cannot pick and choose and we love to pick and choose.  But God’s love is for all and God chooses us to be the tools to share that love with the world, so we have to learn to relinquish control and do good to everyone.
At our culture’s core we are a WIFM culture.  WIFM stands for What’s In it For Me.  We want to know the purpose and guarantees of doing good before we do them.  If I help this person out will that person help me out later?  We are comfortable doing good within a certain predetermined boundary that we agree to because then we are not pushed beyond our comfort zones.  We tend to do good as long as we can control it and we can figure out how we can benefit from that act of love.
The truth is that to do good is a direct command from Christ and a serious challenge to all those who seek to follow him.  Doing good can “not be limited to those like me and those who like me,”[1] it has to be for everyone.  We should not have to wait to see if a cause or a person is worthy, it should flow naturally out of our faith in the one who came to save us and them.
But how do we get to a place where we don’t put ourselves first and learn to live as Christ lived?  The best way to do that is to figure out your true-self.  I know that sounded very Oprah didn’t it.  But we are all created by God and we all have the image of God in us.  The good news is though we are all different and have different talents, gifts, and abilities.  What I am good at is not what you may be good at and what you are good at I may be horrible at.  God has created us this way so that as we work together we do the best work possible.  As we find out what our gifts, talents and abilities are we learn how we can do the best good in this world.  When we find our God created self and share that with others, God’s love and good works are done.  Then it doesn’t seem like work, because it flows naturally out of our faith in God and how God created us.
I hope this past week you looked at how you reacted to the people and situations you encountered and asked yourself, “will I do harm by reacting in this way?”  This week I hope you will look towards ways you can share the love of God that is inside you with those of this world, even those who seem not to even be worthy of it.  Look deep inside to see who God created you to be and what he is calling you to do to share his love with this world.  Each week we pray, “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”  We can participate in the Kingdom of God in the here and now, not just in the life to come.  We do so by first doing no harm and second by doing good.  Next week we will learn how we can receive sustaining power to continue these first two rules.  But until then, may you do no harm this week and “Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.”
And all God’s people said…Amen.

                [1]Job, Rueben Three Simple Rules:A Wesleyan Way of Living.  Abington Press, Nashville, 2007, p.36

2 Corinthians 4:3-6 – Sermon – Walking the Walk Part III

2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Walking the Walk: Part III
Today is Part III of this Walking the Walk sermon trilogy.  Two weeks ago we heard from Paul who told us to respect the otherness of people to gain as many as possible for Christ.  Last week we learned we have to be training to be fit as Christians in order to run the race of life that is in front of us and that no matter what we keep moving forward.  Today, on Transfiguration Sunday, we once again hear from Paul but this time from 2 Corinthians.  Here we get another image.  The first week it was an image of a chameleon and last week it was a sports analogy.  This week though we get a lot of talk about light.
There is a lot of discussion about how many letters Paul actually wrote to the Corinthians.  It seems that Paul carried on a lot of correspondence with the churches he started in Corinth.  He wrote at least four different letters, maybe more.  Depending on what scholar you talk too, the passage we read today comes from Paul’s forth letter to the Corinthians.  Some say it may be his third but it depends on whether you believe Paul’s letter of tears is part of what we are reading now or a missing third letter that we don’t have in our Bible.  Which if that is the case it would be Paul’s third letter and not his fourth.  Most scholars believe that this is actually his forth letter to the Corinthians though but we don’t need to get caught up in that debate today. 
Today we need to concentrate on what Paul is telling the people of Corinth and if it has anything to do with us.  There are two basic sections of this piece of scripture.  Verses 3 and 4 talk about those on the outside of the faith and verses 5 and 6 talk about those who are in the inside of the faith, or us believers.  Let’s first look at what Paul says about those on the outside.
Paul says that the gospel is veiled from those who don’t believe it.  Those who don’t believe it are so blinded by the gods of the world that it keeps them away from seeing the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ.  It seems like Paul is saying that anyone who doesn’t understand the Gospel isn’t saved.  They are all still outsiders and only the insiders know what the gospel looks like under the veil.  This seems a little harsh for our modern sensibilities but Paul doesn’t really pull any punches.  In Paul’s time this linear argument makes sense.  It is simply a standard way of presenting an argument.  If this is true then this is true.  The most logical conclusions are the answer.  But that seems really black and white.  We live in a very gray world.  Not everything is black and white.  Hard and fast lines that are drawn in the sand tend to be erased very easily.  So how do we deal with this part of the passage as modern day followers of Jesus Christ?
Let’s take the phrase “god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers.”  This is very relatable in our current society.  How many people in here are on Facebook?  How many use Google as their usual search engine on the internet?  How many have no clue about what I am talking about?  Well for those who spend time on either of these sites you may not realize that your world might actually be getting smaller.  The idea behind the internet is to have the world at your finger tips but the reality is through certain algorithmic filters that sites like Google and Facebook use the world actually may be smaller than it use to.
Let me explain a little bit more.  Eli Pariser gave a TED Talk in 2011.  If you haven’t heard of TED it stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design.  It is a place where ideas are worth spreading.  They have a fabulous website that has thousands of TED Talks about all kinds of subjects.  In the eleven minute talk that Pariser gave he goes on to explain what happened on his Facebook page.  He calls himself more liberal but likes to talk and interact with people who are conservative and moderate in their political views as well.  But he started to notice that his more conservative friends were disappearing from his Facebook News Feed.  What was happening was that he tended to click on status updates and website links of his more liberal friends.  So Facebook, without consulting him, started to weed out the more conservative friends from showing up on his news feed.  Have you ever wondered why you haven’t heard from some of those friends you have on Facebook?   Facebook might have decided they weren’t worth your time in seeing what was happening with them.
Google does the same thing.  Google looks at 57 different factors (whether you are logged in or not) to specifically tailor your search results.  That means if I site down at my computer and you sit down on yours and you on yours and we all search for the same thing, we will all get a different looking search page.  Google looks at what we usually click on, where we are in the world, what computer we are on, and what our browsing history is and then custom makes our search answers.  When asked about this Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, said this, “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”  Paul says, “The gods of this age have blinded the minds of the unbelievers.”  The gods of this age, known as Facebook and Google tell us what we want.  They are limiting our vision to the rest of the world and we may not even know it.  How can we access information about the rest of the world when these filters are up?  How can we know and see God in our midst when our comfortable little world with all our interests, our likes and our loves are tightly around us?  How do we see the glory of God in Jesus Christ who was high on a mountain top far away from our comfort zones if we cannot escape what makes us feel comfortable?
The second part of this text talks to those of us who are believers.  Paul says, “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”  So right after Paul gives us some characteristics of the unbelievers, those who have no clue about the gospel, he gives us guidance on how to preach.  Yes, I used the right word there.  I said us and not me.  We all are preachers.  In confirmation class this week we talked about when we become members of the church we are all ministers of God’s work in this world.  That means that each of us have the responsibility to go out and preach the gospel.  We all have the responsibility to walk the walk of faith by proclaiming, preaching, teaching, reaching others for the sake of the gospel.  We ALL have the responsibility of preaching the gospel to the world.  Are you getting it, we ALL have this responsibility. 
Now some are called to do it weekly at a certain gathering of believers in a building that holds a number of people sitting in uncomfortable benches until those said people are soundly asleep.  Others are called to televise their talks to millions of people who were stopped on the channel because they can’t stand to watch fishing shows or political pundits talk.  These are people we usually think of when the think of ‘preachers.’   But we all are.  So let’s talk about how to become a good preacher.
Before we get there though let me remind you of this light.  This is a 1000 watt work light I use in my garage when I’m working on a car or something.  It provides a ton of light.  When Peter, James and John followed Jesus up the mountain on the day of Transfiguration I don’t think they thought they would be starring into such a bright light. But there, on that mountain top, Jesus turned a brilliant white.  Some gospels said that his face shown like the sun.  Kind of like this.
Now light is a familiar illustration or analogy that is used when we talk about faith and God.  We talk about Jesus being the Light of the World.  During Christmas Eve we talk about this light coming to the world to get rid of the darkness of sin.  Here Paul refers to light around five times in these four verses.  It is common and we are familiar with it.  I like this physical reminder of this light because when I turn it on we have to avert our eyes.  It is painful to look directly at which is exactly what it was probably like for the three disciples up there on the mount of Transfiguration. 
We as Christians should be sharers of this light.  Good preachers are to point to the light and show it in our midst.  But that is not always the case.  Sometime when we preach we do this.  We stand in front of the light.  Yes others know it is on but there is something between them and the light, me or you.  When we make the light about us it is not effective.  This is why Paul says “for what we preach is not ourselves.”  We love to talk about ourselves and there are times when I am sure I have mentioned myself more than I mentioned Jesus when I stand up here.  Our culture of self-made men and women enjoy talking about ourselves and what we can do or what we cannot do.  We tend to make church about us or me or I instead of them or Him.  Paul says we need to get out of the way of the light and we need to truly preach about Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as servants of Jesus. 
Do you know where a servant would stand in relation to this light?  Behind it.  Or they would become so transparent that the light would shine right through them.  That is our goal as followers of Christ.  That is how we can perfectly walk the walk.  We learn how to live our life as such a servant to Jesus that Jesus’ glory shines right through us.  We know people like this and there are some in this church right now.  They have such a heart for Christ that Christ’s light just beams through them.  We are affected by these people because we are moved by the light that shines through them.  It isn’t them but Christ that moves us, inspires us and calls us out to live better lives.
My mom use to have one of those make-up mirrors.  I recently saw some of them at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.  They have a circle of light and in the middle there is a mirror.  On side is just a regular mirror but when you flip it over there is a 10X zoom mirror on the other side.  Bored one day, I looked into one of those mirrors to bring up memories of my childhood.  I was scared to death at what I saw.  I really do not want to see what my nostrils look like magnified by ten.  My pores look like the size of pot holes and my nose hair the size of oak trees.  I realized for the first time that I was growing dark hairs on top of my nose not just in it.  I do not see how anyone can have a good sense of their own body image if they look at one of these things all the time. 
But that is the difference between the light we create and the light from the Creator.  The light we create illumines our world.  We can see where we are, where we are going and what we look like.   But it only shows us what we look like on the outside.  It is still that veiled interpretation of who we truly are.  But the light that comes from the Creator, the light found on the mount of Transfiguration, the light from the Son of God Jesus Christ comes from within.  That light shines through us and shows the world more about whose we are than who we are.
What we as Christians need to realize is that most of the time we need to get out of the way.  When we get out of the way we can free God’s light to transform the world.  There is too much in this world that blinds people from God’s glory.  When we get stuck in our own little cozy world we would never make a journey up to the mountains.  Yet if we walk the walk of our faith, then we can let the light of God’s glory shine out of our souls and into the world to transform the world.  All we have to do is get out of the way.
And all God’s people said…Amen.

1 Corinthians 9:16-23 – Sermon – Walking the Walk Part 1

1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Walking the Walk: Part I
As you can tell by my sermon title this is part 1 of a short three part sermon series I will be doing entitled Walking the Walk. Over the next three weeks I will be concentrating on Paul’s words from his letter to the Corinthians.  In these scriptures we find guidance on how to live out our Christian faith in our daily lives.  We learn ways we can build ourselves up, proclaim our faith to others and respond to normal people out in the world.  What does it look like to walk the walk of the faithful?  Let’s see what Paul tells us today…[Read 1 Corinthians 9:16-23]
This past week I met with some other clergy in Thomasville to plan out our Lenten services.  This year six United Methodist Churches will be coming together to celebrate Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  We gathered together at a local Mexican restaurant and shared some laughs over some sweet tea or diet coke and some good Mexican food.  Later on that day as I thought about what I was going to preach on I laughed at the idea of contrasting that ministerial meeting with another one I attended.
The way the British Methodist Church is set up and organized is that a small group of ministers are in charge of all Methodist churches in a small town.  I had three of the thirteen churches in the Ashton-under-Lynn circuit.  There were five ministers, four ordained and one equivalent to our local pastor to cover all those churches.  It would be like the five pastors who came to lunch that day in charge of all eleven churches within the city limits of Thomasville.  Each quarter the ministers would get together to come up with the preaching plan.  This plan would dictate who preached where and when for the next three months.  As the token American with the strange accent I was ushered around to all thirteen churches during my ten months there.
What made me laugh a little was not how different the polity of our situations was but where our meeting took place.  Both meetings involved food because where two or more pastors gather there is food or at least coffee.  This week our meeting took place in a Mexican restaurant, a popular choice of cuisine no matter where you live in America.  In England we at a pub that was down the street and I think instead of two enchiladas like I had Thursday, I’m pretty sure I ordered bangers and mash for that meeting.  Not only that, but something that made me smirk, was we all had a pint of beer.
As we met I told them how this would never happen in America.  Methodist clergy over there usually wear clerical collars.  So there we were sitting at a table with three out of the five wearing a ministerial dog collar drinking beer at noon on a Tuesday.  Here if ministers were getting together to drink beer they would do it far away from their local congregation and never would do it wearing something that would easily identify them as clergy.  But in England that is never even looked at as weird or wrong.  That is because although we share a similar language the cultures of America, especially the southern “Bible Belt” states and Great Britain are very different.  If we shared a pitcher of cerveza at our meeting this week while we poured over our United Methodist Book of worship, I am sure someone would have said something to someone else who would share it with someone on our Pastor Parish Relations Committees and a meeting would have been called for Sunday.  Our culture here is different.
When Paul is writing the Corinthians he is attempting to smooth out some practical matters of living out this new faith that is sweeping the area because of his mission work.  The passage I read today seems to be linked with the conversation he started back in chapter 8.  In that chapter Paul talks about whether or not it is right to eat meat that is sacrificed to idols.  This is understandable back then.  In the streets of ancient Corinth the market would have been full of people selling the animals that were just offered up to be sacrifices to idols of that Greek culture.  The Christians of that area were wondering if it was okay to eat it.  For example if a sacrifice of a lamb was given for the worship of the Greek god Apollo, it might be burned but then sold for meat later that day.  Say some new Christians were craving lamb chops that night and as they walked in the market they decided to buy them from the lamb that was just offered up earlier that day.  Some Christians believed that if someone did this it meant they were worshiping Apollo.  Others believed it was okay because it was only meat.
Paul in the 8th chapter says, “7 But not everybody knows this. Some are eating this food as though it really is food sacrificed to a real idol, because they were used to idol worship until now. Their conscience is weak because it has been damaged. 8 Food won’t bring us close to God. We’re not missing out if we don’t eat, and we don’t have any advantage if we do eat. 9 But watch out or else this freedom of yours might be a problem for those who are weak. 10 Suppose someone sees you (the person who has knowledge) eating in an idol’s temple. Won’t the person with a weak conscience be encouraged to eat the meat sacrificed to false gods? 11 The weak brother or sister for whom Christ died is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 You sin against Christ if you sin against your brothers and sisters and hurt their weak consciences this way. 13 This is why, if food causes the downfall of my brother or sister, I won’t eat meat ever again, or else I may cause my brother or sister to fall.”  Paul says there is nothing wrong with eating the meat unless it causes some of the weak minded to lose faith in God.  He would rather go without the meat then let a brother or sister lose faith. 
Now in the 9th chapter we hear more of this train of thought.  Paul says “act like a Jew to the Jews, so I can recruit Jews. I act like I’m under the Law to those under the Law, so I can recruit those who are under the Law (though I myself am not under the Law). 21 I act like I’m outside the Law to those who are outside the Law, so I can recruit those outside the Law (though I’m not outside the law of God but rather under the law of Christ). 22 I act weak to the weak, so I can recruit the weak. I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means.”  Paul is like a chameleon who changes with the people he is with to gain as many people as possible for God. 
This passage is so relevant for us in 2012 it is almost funny.  We live in a culture that likes to draw lines everywhere.  Are you Republican or Democrat?  Which ACC team do you root for?  Are you pro-choice or pro-life?  What denomination are you?  What religion are you?  Our culture also drives us to only see those things that we agree with.  If we truly listened to some political pundits, if you are Republican than you should not be hanging out, interacting with or making eye contact with any Democrat because they are from the devil.  It can go the other way as well.  The church has had a history of this.  You don’t have to go far into our past to find Catholics and Protestants killing each other over their religious views. 
How do we live out our faith if it differs from other people we interact with?  If our believes are different than our friends, our families, our neighbors, what do we do?  Paul says we are to be like the other.  We are to act like Jews to the Jews, weak to the weak.  Does this mean that we are to be Democrat to the Democrat and Republican to the Republicans?  Are we to be pro-choice to the pro-choice and pro-live to the pro-live?  Are we to be fans of the Tar Heels when in Chapel Hill, then Blue Devil fans in Durham, Demon Deacon fans in Winston-Salem, and Wolf Pack fans in Raleigh?  There is something weird feeling about it.  It sounds like Paul is asking us to be hypocritical and for us to give into whatever idea the people around us have.
I was talking with a person who went on a trip to Armenia with one of our previous Bishops.  Our conference, through Project Agape, helps the Methodist Church over there and this was one of the trips our Bishop took to see how things were going over there.  While they were there they met with equivalent of their Bishop.  During their meeting there was a lot of laughing and praying.  Then the Armenian Bishop pulled out a special bottle of vodka.  It was one of those bottles that people hang on to only to bring out for special occasions.  It was clear this was a very special bottle of vodka and the Bishop wanted to honor this meeting by offering everyone a drink.  He poured it into glasses and gave it to everyone in the room and everyone drank.  What would have happened if the people from our Conference denied the gift the bishop was offering?  This bottle of vodka that he had been holding onto for years that he finally opened because he wanted to share it with his fellow Christians from America, would he be offended if  they didn’t at least take one drink from it?  It probably would have been offensive because in his culture that bottle was something to be honored and cherished. 
What Paul is saying here is we have to make sure we are looking at the big picture that unites us when we interact with people and not the small stuff that divides us.  The big picture is that everything we do is “for the sake of the gospel.”  We are to win as many people as we can for Christ.  The best way to do this is to look past our little differences.  We are humans created in God’s image and given free will.  Because of this we will all look at the world differently.  We will not all agree on everything.  If we did the world would be boring.  But that doesn’t mean we cannot approach, talk, discuss, worship, and interact with those we disagree with from a sense of love for one another. 
This is what Paul means when he says, “Although I’m free from all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them.”  Yes, our Christological Theology frees us from the law and enables us to do many things.  But we also live within a culture that views the world in a certain way as well.  We can do more damage than good if we try to flaunt our freedom.  Those who may view things differently may be hurt because they do not understand or believe the same thing we do. 
People all over the world see the world differently.  Paul, a Jew who grew up in the Middle East was telling people who were in ancient Greece how to live.  He is giving them the freedom to be slaves for their people.  We in Thomasville, North Carolina have the same mission as those who live in Kenya, or Armenia, or Australia.  We are to hear the Great Commission of Christ, to “therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.”  (Mt. 28:19-20)
In order to do that we must be willing to let our little differences go for the great good of the gospel.  The Gospel is not about our personal beliefs and our personal worldview.  As the book “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren starts off saying, “It is not about you.”  It is about the salvation of the world that came through life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We have to stop meeting people in this world with hate and judgment and starting meeting them with love and understanding.  Different cultures, different languages, different generations, it doesn’t matter how we are different, we need to start with where we are the same.  We all are the children of God made in His image.  We need to heed the words of Paul today and stop being divisive for the sake of ourselves but to do all things “for the sake of the gospel.”
And all of God’s people said…Amen