Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sermon for November 28, 2010

Reflections

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again -- rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon. Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God's peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. And now, dear brothers and sisters, let me say one more thing as I close this letter. Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned from me and heard from me and saw me doing, and the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:4-9

I’ve been struggling this week to find the right words for today. I have a lot I want to tell you before I leave TCC, and I have also dreaded having to stand in front of you all to say my goodbyes. Instead, let me tell you some stories. I want to tell you about two of my grandparents.

My grandfather was named James Elton Hudson, and he was born in Jerico Springs, MO to a farming family. Sick of the country life, he enlisted into the Navy and fought in the submarine service in WWII. He left MO at 18 years old and vowed that if he lived through the war, he would not return until he had made a success of himself. After the war, he and one of his Navy buddies moved to CT and started their own contracting business. By the time I came along, their business was quite successful. He built condos and office complexes. After he made a success of himself, he did return to MO. He actually got his pilot’s license and flew out there in his own plane, landing in the bumpy cattle fields with his new bride beside him. The new bride didn’t know that while my grandfather was visiting, she would have to stay inside with his mother and learn how to cook big farm dinners in the sweltering Summer heat. She made meat, ‘taters, and pies while James Elton was out in the fields doing “man stuff” with his father.

My grandfather was a mysterious man to me. He never said too much, but when he did speak, we listened. I’ll never forget the time he caught my cousin and me on the roof of his barn. When we finally came down, he was ready for us. He told us that if he ever caught us up there again he would kick and blister our behinds. I believed him. His care could be ferocious. But he could also be tender. In the face of family tragedy, he would stop and listen to his kids. He was also a stubborn man. Every carpet and blanket in the house had cigarette burns, which attest to his bad habit of falling asleep while smoking in bed. Mostly, I remember him sitting at the head of the dinner table for hours, listening to the chatter and laughter of his family, smoking cartons of cigarettes (True Blues), drinking coffee with two saccharine tablets, eating Velveeta and smoked sausage, and looking impassive.

He never took care of himself, and when his health deteriorated, we all took turns begging him to do something. He waved us off with shake of his head and a pass of his hand – always with the lit cigarette that made long wisps of smoke curl around his head. He said he was fine. So, in 1993, when Grandpa died of a sudden heart attack on the front steps of his house, we realized that he wasn’t as fine as he thought. In the pain-filled weeks after his funeral we realized that his business wasn’t as fine as we thought, either. He left the family a half a million dollars in debt. Banks started foreclosing on all his properties, including the house. To make it worse, it was discovered that some of the debt was from the financial support he gave to the family of a woman with whom he was having an affair.

All these years later, there is still so much I don’t know about Grandpa’s life. I do know that I had many chances to try to make it right with him while he was still alive, but it never happened. Maybe it was his nonchalance. Perhaps it was my fear of him. It doesn’t matter. The moment is gone. He died when we weren’t ready for him to go, and I never really took the chance to say goodbye.

My grandmother was named Lorraine Teresa LaRose Hudson, the daughter of French Canadian immigrants. She never enjoyed robust health. She and her siblings faced cancer and other health problems throughout their lives. But that never stopped them from enjoying their weekly poker games. She grew up near the tobacco fields of northeastern CT to a poor, stern parents. Her mother was a fierce lady who was always old to me. We called her Meme. I’ve confessed before, everyone was terrified of Meme. I still remember meme beating my cousin for making a runny bowl of tuna salad. Meme died at 103 years old. Despite her meanness, she lived with my grandparents for as long as I can remember. Even though Meme could make life difficult, my grandmother still managed to find some joy in it all. My grandmother was a nurturer. In fact, I never called her grandma. I called her Mom. We all did. There was my mother, and then there was Mom–my grandmother. Mom just seemed to understand me. Sometimes she was sympathetic. Sometimes we disagreed, especially on politics. The wonderful things about Mom was that she always welcomed people into her home. She functioned as a Mom to all of us. Her kids, grandkids, neighbors, family friends. Her house was always busy, and always full.

Mom died on October 31, 2002. With congestive heart failure at 72 years old, she was told that she needed surgery or her heart would eventually shut down. She elected for the open heart surgery. Her heart pumped fine after the operation, but other organs began closing down and she was eventually put on life support. By the time I got there she was unresponsive. In a drug-induced coma, she laid on the hospital bed, swollen beyond recognition, surrounded by machines and tubes and weeping relatives. With her children and grandchildren standing by her hospital bed, Mom was taken off life support. 15 of us were there in her room, holding her and each other, crying, and praying as she died.

And yet, at her death I felt some peace. I had been with her two weeks earlier, and I extended my stay because I just knew that this was my last time with her. As I drove her to doctor appointments, we talked about her family and her memories of her sisters and brother who had died before her. I asked her if she had the choice between dying on a hospital table or dying at home surrounded by her family, which would she choose. She chose surgery and she knew the risks. We shared our appreciation for one another, and found some strength in one another. So when she died, as sad as I was, I knew that I could let go. I new she was going to die, and I had a chance to prepare. And I said what I needed to say. I made peace with her death because I can look back on Mom’s life and see all that was good, and beautiful, and praiseworthy. I am thankful that we were part of each other’s lives. I still think about her a lot, and I hope that all the good and wonderful parts of her life live on in me.

I guess I’ve been getting in touch with my own grief as I begin to say goodbye to you all. I’ve been allowing myself to experience sadness and anxiety over my decision to resign. And I’ve been thinking about Mom and Grandpa – my grandparents. I think about death. Letting go. Saying goodbye. In a sense, my departure feels like a kind of death to me. Not a sudden death where a loved one is suddenly snatched away, but the kind where you’re told how much time is left before the end arrives. And knowing that, I want to make sure that I say what I need to say before I go.

I have been changed by knowing you. I have been transformed by a church family that has been warm, generous, and loving. I have been changed because we took the risk of being vulnerable with each other. At least I know I did. There was a point in my ministry – a number of years ago – when I thought to myself, “Matt, you can keep professional distance and be effective but aloof, or you can invest yourself in relationships.” I chose the second option. I chose to get to know you and let you know me. I did it because I think that’s how we allow ourselves to be transformed by God. We give each other all the respect and love it takes until we can see the image of Christ in one another. Vulnerability is about sharing our woundedness with one another. That’s what Jesus did for us. Of course, when you share such love and vulnerability it makes it harder to say goodbye. But I would rather leave knowing that we shared significant relationships rather than having treated you as my professional clients and you have treated me as a figurehead.

You have let me into your lives – to mourn with you, to party with you – just to live life together with all that life throw at us. Thanks for laughing with me – or at me – when I forget to let the choir sing or skip something in the bulletin. Thanks for putting up with my scatterbrained forgetfulness. Thanks for not taking it personally when I’ve done something that you didn’t like. Thanks for helping me learn – and for learning with me along the way.

I am thankful to our God, and I will continue to reflect on all that is good, lovely, excellent and praiseworthy about you all. In some of my sadness over leaving, I am learning to make peace. I can look back on our life together and see all that was true, honorable, and right. I am thankful that we were part of one another’s lives. I think about you all a lot, and I hope that all the good and wonderful parts of you will live on in me.

I will miss this sanctuary. In this sanctuary I have wrestled with God and wept and laughed. I have preached and listened. I found solace and have felt my heart break. I have been filled with joy. I have felt scared and stretched and ill at ease. I have been welcomed. I have been blessed. I have met God here, so many times and in so many ways. I have sat in silence in here. I have blessed marriages and said many final goodbyes. I have taken — and offered — the bread and the wine here I have felt the presence of Jesus here.

I will miss the people who make this place special. II have made mistakes and said the wrong thing and hurt people. I have been forgiven. I have felt stretched to my maximum. a times I’ve felt frustrated, misunderstood, and attacked. Other times I’ve felt nurtured, supported and encouraged. No matter what, I’ve found that my heart has grown bigger.

One of the reasons we’re leaving TCC is because Chris and know that we need a different kind of community in which to raise our family. There is another reason. Over the past few months, I’ve become convinced that there is something especially sacred for me to do in Silver Spring, MD. I have some more learning and growing to do as a pastor, and I need to be responsive and responsible to that calling.

I think the sadness of leaving is worse when we become afraid of saying goodbye. I know that’s how it is in my life. I think life takes on a new quality when we are able to let go of our fears. I would rather have a place for us to be able to continue to share our wounds. I think when we do, we begin an important process together. As we do, I think God’s presence and peace with come.

If you have things you need to say to me, give me a call or come visit. I want to know what you are thinking and what you’ve observed. If you are sad or angry and you want to tell me, please do. If you are overjoyed you can tell me that, too. Say what you need to me. Ask questions. And I promise I will just listen without judging or getting angry or hurt. I’ll give you honest answers and be a friend.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sermon for November 14, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Boundaries

Would you ever eat a snake? There’s a story in the Bible about the apostle Peter and a snake. God shows Peter a vision of a banquet coming down out of heaven. In the vision there’s a snake and a bunch of reptiles on a picnic blanket and God tells Pete to kill himself some and have a bite. I don’t know if anyone here has ever eaten snake before. Some people say it tastes like chicken. In case you’re interested, I scoured the Internet and found a recipe for an East Texas fried rattlesnake dinner that contains all four food groups.

1. Bake a chocolate cake. This is the 1st food group.

2. Fry two pounds of bacon in a cast iron skillet. Bacon is the second food group. Leave ½ pound on the drainboard to munch on while you’re cooking, and put the rest in the fridge.

3. Go outside and find a big rattlesnake. Kill the snake. Nail its head to a tree.

4. Go in the house, skin and boil six large potatoes. Go back outside and cut the snake down the middle being careful to not ruin the rattles. Cut the skin away from the head. Pull down hard and steady. Lay the skin in the sun to dry and instruct the dog to leave the snakeskin alone. Slice the snake meat into half-inch thick patties. Pour a lot of flour onto two plates, and scramble three eggs in a bowl.

5. Put black pepper and some cayenne pepper into the plates. When you think you have enough pepper, add some more. After all, you’re about to eat a rattlesnake. Dip the meat into the plates of flour and then gently lay the battered meat into the hot grease. If done correctly you’ll not get burned. If done wrong, you’ll learn.

6. Leave the meat in the grease until it’s brown on the bottom, then turn it over. Meanwhile, fork-test the potatoes. If they’re done, drain off the water, add a stick of butter (3rd food group) and some milk.

7. Put two cans of peas in a big bowl with a half stick of butter. Put the bowl in the microwave and nuke them.


8. Leaving the fire low, slowly sprinkle the left over flour into the left over grease and scratch it around until the flour is cooked. Slowly add whole milk, while squishing out the lumps. Don’t add too much milk. The final consistency resembles grayish-brown wallpaper paste. This process takes some practice, but eventually you will scratch through the lumps and have the fourth food group: gravy.

9. Take the peas out of the microwave and the bread out of the oven. Put everything on the table. Call everybody to eat. Feed them fried rattlesnake while you eat mashed potatoes, gravy, peas and chocolate cake.

The outdoorsmen of the world tell us that snakes, alligators, racoons, possum, squirrels -- all that stuff is tasty when it’s prepared correctly. I’ve only had the raccoon, and I wasn’t a fan. Kind of slimy. Apparently, Peter was disgusted by it all. Maybe Peter just didn’t have a good recipe.

In the first century, the great question facing the church was about boundaries. Who could be in and who must stay out? Where would the lines be drawn that would determine who should hear the gospel and who would not? Believers assumed that God’s recipe was limited to those who followed the commandments and rituals of Judaism. The first great learning of the early church was that God’s recipe had more ingredients in mind -- it was more inclusive than even the most devout believer could imagine

The church started out as a Jewish sect. Its members were men and women who called themselves Jews. They worshiped like Jews, and they had an encounter with a Jew named Jesus Christ who expanded their ideas of who God was. The early followers of Jesus didn’t hang out with anyone who was not Jewish. It was against the law to be in contact with Gentiles. A Jew considered it unclean and idolatrous to eat a gentile’s food. The early Christians kept kosher homes and obeyed the Jewish laws, and the law said that no Jew was allowed to eat things like pigs, or reptiles, or certain species of birds or shellfish. So, you can imagine how horrified Peter must be when he receives a series of messages from God. First he is told to eat unclean animals. Then he’s told in a vision to go to the home of a man named Cornelius who is a gentile AND a Roman army officer. Cornelius is doubly defiled. Peter goes to this man’s house and tells him the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Cornelius and his entire household are immediately filled with the Holy Spirit and they convert to Christianity. This blows the minds of the good Jewish followers of Christ. It is unbelievable to them that God’s love would actually reach out to unclean, heathen gentiles. Peter is called to task before the other Apostles; and this is what he says. His speech comes from Acts 11.
“I was in the town of Joppa, and while I was praying, I went into a trance and saw a vision. Something like a large sheet was let down by its four corners from the sky. And it came right down to me. When I looked inside the sheet, I saw all sorts of small animals, wild animals, reptiles, and birds. And I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat them.’

“‘No, Lord,’ I replied. ‘I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure or unclean”’

“But the voice from heaven spoke again: ‘Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.’ This happened three times before the sheet and all it contained was pulled back up to heaven.
“Just then three men who had been sent from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were staying. The Holy Spirit told me to go with them and not to worry that they were Gentiles. These six brothers here accompanied me, and we soon entered the home of the man who had sent for us. He told us how an angel had appeared to him in his home and had told him, ‘Send messengers to Joppa, and summon a man named Simon Peter. He will tell you how you and everyone in your household can be saved!’

“As I began to speak,” Peter continued, “the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as he fell on us at the beginning. Then I thought of the Lord’s words when he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ And since God gave these Gentiles the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to stand in God’s way?”
When the others heard this, they stopped objecting and began praising God. They said, “We can see that God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.”
This episode changes the course of history. The church is no longer for Jews only, but for all people. God reminds people that the boundaries of the Kingdom reach farther than they could ever dream. This is why we can sit here and call ourselves Christians today. Sometimes, though, I feel that we’ve gotten into the habit of excluding others from the work and ministry of the church. Sometimes our anger towards others gets in the way, or people come into the church who make us uncomfortable or afraid. I think we all need a reminder of who the church is, and what we are called to do.

Healthy churches learn to expand their boundaries in order to include people in what God is doing. People need to know that they are loved, even when they are unlovable. One way to do this is to tell people the simple truth that God loves everyone. This doesn’t mean that God just loves those who are popular, or good looking, or the ones who have it all together. It means that God loves those whom the world labels as ugly or incompetent. For the early church, God’s love was extended to those who were seen as low-lifes; the poor and oppressed, the lame, and even the Gentiles. You see, the church is not supposed to be a club for people who have it all together. The church is for “rejects.” It is a place where people who have been isolated from God can come and hear life-saving news. The church is a place for people with real pain to hear words of healing and hope. This place is here because all of us have been unfaithful, unworthy, undesirable and unsure, but because of Christ we have never been unloved.

An inclusive vision of the church means that we commit ourselves to preaching and teaching the message of God’s love restlessly. We don’t do it out of pride. We don’t do it to swell our membership roles or bank accounts. The message that people both inside and outside this church need to hear is that God loves you and every person with equal passion and devotion -- that God has made the immensity of divine love known in Jesus Christ. People will never hear this life-saving message if we don’t tell them, and we can’t tell them if they are not welcome among us. Who will invite others in and tell them just how much God loves them? It can’t be just me, or just a few individual random people. If we want to see the church have an impact in our families and in our community, it can begin with each of us being personally committed to telling others about how God changed our lives, and how God longs to include all people in transforming love.

God needs us not only to tell, but to show God’s love. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel to all the world, and if necessary, use words.” Words alone can be empty and meaningless, unless they are backed with actions. For instance, what does a visitor see when he or she attends worship here? Do we look bored and fidgety, or do we show that we are engaged in actively worshiping our Savior? If we look like we can’t wait to get out of here, then our actions might show that we are here just out of mere routine. If we act like we love God and enjoy the presence of God and one another, we confirm that our faith has actually had an impact on our lives. The truth is that our neighbors, our families, our children, and even complete strangers are watching you, and they want to know if all this talk about Jesus and church really makes a difference in your life. The church can become an inclusive community when we back up our words with integrity-filled actions.

In 1999 a little church in Decatur called Oakhurst Baptist Church was ejected by the Georgia Baptist Convention for a variety of issues having to do with Biblical interpretation and inclusiveness. In the 1960's this congregation had taken a stand against segregation and had lost two-thirds of its members. In the 1980's the church opened its doors to the homeless, who have been welcomed and have worshiped there ever since. In fact, the pastor tells of the time when he and his young son were visiting another church facility and his son asked, “Dad, where do the homeless live here?” He assumed that you could not have a church without a place for your homeless friends. One day, when the congregation was much in the news, a member of the church, a developmentally disabled young man named John, saw a TV camera and hurried over to offer to be on television. The reporter extended his microphone and asked, “Tell me, John, what do you like about this church?” John grinned and answered, “They love everybody here.”

I have visited similar churches. I think of a church I know that regularly opens its doors to the homeless and developmentally disabled. On any given Sunday you may have business professionals, professors, group-home residents, and homeless people all worshiping together, praying for one another and celebrating each other’s lives. Another church I know sends out what it calls its “Worship Wagon” to drive to the homes of elderly people and others who can’t get to church. They are driven to the worship service and returned home afterwards. Churches like these realize that we are not fully the body of Christ until everyone is included.

Don’t you want to be part of a church that changes the lives of others by modeling love and devotion? Who will invite others in and show them the love of Christ? Who will seek out those who are different from us, those who are disabled or lonely, or hurting, or socially diverse, and show them that we care, that we love, and that we believe in them, because God cares, loves and believes in them?

Do we want to see the church to have an impact on the culture around us? Do we want to see people’s lives touched by God? If so, it means being committed to living God’s vision of an inclusive church. It means more than mere friendliness or hospitality. It means being personally responsible for telling all people about God’s love, and showing them love in action, even if it stretches our comfort zones . . . even if it challenges our faith.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sermon for November 7, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Nurture

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important. Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct. Galatians 6:2-6

Let’s talk about the ostrich. Did you know that the ostrich doesn’t sit on her eggs to incubate them? She will lay them in desert, kick some sand over them, and then run away to insure her own safety. Not what we would call a nurturer. The mother ostrich, in fact, has become the symbol of the careless mother. The book of Job says this about the ostrich: “She forgets that a foot may crush them, or that a wild beast may break them. She treats her young harshly, as though they were not hers; her labor is in vain, without concern, because God deprived her of wisdom, and did not endow her with understanding.” [Job 39:13-18]. Yet, despite all this bad mothering, the ostrich lays the largest, most beautiful and perfect egg of all. I got thinking about ostriches and I began to wonder if sometimes we see ostrich syndrome in our culture. We look around and see members of God’s beautiful creation, left to fend for themselves in a hostile world. When I think about nurture, I think about Eddie.

I met Eddie in a Boston suburb. He was sixteen years old. His hair was dyed raven black and his nose, lips, and ears with festooned with silver rings. His personality deflected all happiness. Eddie saw the world through dramatic and disturbed eyes, and he carried around with him a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook. He was living in a divorced home, and he had little daily contact with his parents. Not only that, the mother had a new boyfriend. Not only that, the mother and the new boyfriend lived in the same house with Eddie, and Eddie’s siblings AND Eddie’s father. Eddie told me that his parents didn’t care where he was or what he did, as long as he wasn’t dead. You might think this is typical teenage exaggeration, except for the fact that I rarely saw Eddie’s parents. Eddie was in charge of taking care of his siblings. It’s not that he cared about his siblings as much as he was afraid of what his father would do to him if anything bad happened to one of the younger ones. Eddie’s father was a violent man who believed that the best way to raise a kids was to smack ‘em every once in a while. Even though Eddie carried a lot of responsibility for his and his family’s well-being, he had no conscience when it came to his own actions. Like his dad, he wouldn’t think twice about hurting another person who got in his way. He was always worried about betrayal and rejection, so he excluded himself from gatherings of his peers. He preferred to spend his precious little free time listening to Death Metal and fantasizing about what he would do when his court probation was over. His plans included getting revenge on all who hurt him, beginning his parents. I asked him once what his siblings would do without his care when he graduated from high school. He answered with a deadpan growl, “If I graduate, that’s their problem, not mine.”

It’s mother ostrich syndrome. The parents are too busy beating each other up to think about their obligation to raise their young. So, lack of nurture continues the cycle. Eddie became part of the rhythm of non-nurturing parents who allow their children to be eaten alive by bad choices. Psychologists say that parents with low-control and low-acceptance of their children, like Eddie’s parents, produce children who struggle with problems like delinquency and drug abuse. How does the church nurture Eddie? What do we, the followers of Jesus, do to love Eddie and help him experience abundant life in Christ?

Maybe Eddie’s story is too extreme. Let me tell you about Meg. Meg is a widow with four grown children. She loves them fiercely and would give them the world if she could. As a mother, she believes that it was best to let kids make their own choices when it comes to their faith. Meg is part of our country’s non-practicing Christian culture. She believes in God, but couldn’t tell you what God means to her personally. She believes people should go to worship, but she herself won’t go and sit with all the hypocrites. She firmly believed that when her children grew to adulthood, they would choose their own spiritual path, and she didn’t want to bias them or shove religion down their throats. Do you know what her children believe today? Nothing, really. They feel awkward, uncomfortable, and unwanted in church services, so they participate only rarely. Now Meg’s children have children of their own, and the cycle continues. I sometimes wonder of Meg is satisfied with the choices she made.

How does the church nurture Meg and her family? What do we, the followers of Jesus, do to love Meg and help her experience abundant life in Christ?

Is the church a mother ostrich sometimes? Jasmine might think so. Like many teenagers, Jasmine got caught up with the wrong crowd. Her language was vile. She smoked and drank and loved the weekend party life in the basements in town. Many of the troubled kids at school could sense Jasmine’s street smarts and wanted to hang out with her. Jasmine had one friend who was different. Teresa was always friendly to Jasmine and seemed to glimpse the real person beyond her bad-girl vices. Jasmine eventually started attending worship services at Teresa’s church. They went to youth group together, and Jasmine loved it. She even started going out with a guy from the youth group. Life was starting to look good for Jasmine. But she had a very hard time giving up her old habits. One night Teresa called Jasmine crying. “What’s the matter?” Jasmine asked. Teresa sobbed, “There are a bunch of people at church who don’t want you coming to youth group anymore. They think you’re a . . . bad influence.” “Why, because I smoke,” Jasmine defensively replied. “It’s more than that. They say it’s how you dress. They think it’s too suggestive. Some people have complained about your language, too. Even my parents are concerned about our friendship. Really, Jasmine, some of the people you hang out with are kind of scary.” Three weeks later, Jasmine dropped out of church and youth group, and started behaving worse than before.

Sometimes the church is so concerned with outward appearances, we forget that God nurtures the heart and changes the inside first. We become like parents who are authoritarian figures: high in control and low in acceptance. Psychologists say that this kind of parenting can produce offspring who are at risk of compromising themselves to find acceptance from anyone with a better offer. How can the church nurture Jasmine? What do we, the followers of Jesus, do to love Jasmine and help her experience abundant life in Christ?

Today’s reading from Galatians reminds me of what it takes to be nurtures in an age where many are left as spiritual and emotional orphans. There is more to life than just taking care of our own needs while ignoring others’. In Galatians Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2). Paul’s assumption here is that we all have burdens that God does not want us to carry alone. You know, some people try to. They think it is a sign of stoicism not to bother other people with their troubles. The Bible says that the opposite is true. You and your problems are not a hardship to your brothers and sisters in Christ. Lightening another’s load is an act of truest love which requires involvement in the troubles of others. The fact is, sometimes there are burdens which are too heavy for one person to bear alone. I think our nation is waking up to this fact as we struggle through the effects of terrorism in our country. Nurture means loving enough to help someone carry their load. Nurture also means we need to accept the help of our sisters and brothers when it comes.

Nurturing the children of God means not running away from the messy, uncomfortable situations we see around us. The truth is, as many of you know, there really is no escape. Nurture means that I’m going to do what I can to help you claim your identity in Christ. Part of being a nurturer means that I’m going to give you every resource you need in order to know the saving love of God. It also means that I’m going to do whatever I can to help equip you to live out your faith in the world. Think about it. What would it look like if the church showed God’s love to the Eddies, Megs and Jasmines in our midst, and put them in touch with the Life-giver? What would it be like if we helped one another put on the armor of God for the daily battles ahead? We would declare to the community that we are a vital church that values abundant life over slow, spiritual death.

Healthy churches nurture people. For instance, at TCC, we nurture our children and youth Our Christian Education program is only meant to be a support system for what you are doing at home. Your home is the number one influence in the life of your child. The average church has a child for 1% of his or her time. The home has him 83% of your kids’ time and the school for the remaining 16%. This does not minimize the need for churches and schools, but it establishes the reality your home is 83% of your child's world and you only a brief amount of time in life to make the most of it.

Do you kids and grandkids see you pray? Do your kids observe you worshiping from your heart? Do they see you as a person of compassion? Do they see you asking for forgiveness when you’ve blown it? Do your kids ever hear you openly and honestly talk about your own faith journey with the living God? Do our children see us modeling compassion with each other? Do they see us taking care of our community and being stewards of the earth? Let’s model these basic behaviors to our children.

We also need to ask ourselves: How do we nurture one another as we live our lives together as the church? A lot of people here today are hurting. Your burdens are heavy, but no one will ever know. It is hard to risk vulnerability. We don’t want to be pitied or looked down upon as weak. It is our job to care for one another. How about making a commitment to reach out to one person today with a warm greeting and a smile of caring? How about, going up to someone and saying, “I’d like to pray for you today. Is there anything I can pray for specifically?” How about praying for someone live and in person? How about a hug, a letter of encouragement, a random act of kindness? Paul reminds us to do good to all, especially to the family of believers.

How do we nurture people whom we wish would just go away? A holy man was engaged in his morning meditation under a tree whose roots stretched out over the riverbank. During his meditation he noticed that the river was rising, and a scorpion caught in the roots was about to drown. He crawled out on the roots and reached down to free the scorpion, but every time he did so, the scorpion struck back at him. An observer came along and said to the holy man, “Don’t you know that’s a scorpion, and it’s in the nature of a scorpion to want to sting?” To which the holy man replied, “That may well be, but it is my nature to save, and must I change my nature because the scorpion does not change its nature?”

There is always going to be someone in the church who stings you. It part of living in community. Paul reminds us that we don’t have to sting back. We live by the law of love, not retaliation. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Don’t be proud but be willing to associate with people of low position.

I could tell many more examples of people who need the nurture of the Body of Christ. I could also tell you stories of people who have come through incredible hardship by relying on the support of the church. The point is, we have something real to offer each other. When we are attentive to how we nurture, we create a church home where people meet Christ, and are given what they need to follow him. I encourage us find ways to nurture one another, and also to take the risk of being nurtured by others. We need it right now. And the world needs us.

Sermon for October 31, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Experiential

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge. The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have.1 Cor. 12:4-11

Did you know that God gives us the equipment we need when we are called into service? Today we are going to talk about how God equips us with everything we need in order to join God at what He’s doing around us.

A man named Carl Bates wrote the following words: There came a time in my life when I earnestly prayed: “God, I want your power.” Time wore on and the power did not come. One day the burden was more than I could bear. “God,” I asked, “Why haven’t you answered that prayer?” God seemed to whisper back this simply reply: “With plans no bigger than yours, you don’t need my power.”

How would you measure our congregation’s spiritual impact? Do we clearly demonstrate our core values in compelling ways? Is there an irresistible quality about us? Sometimes I think we have pretty low expectations of what we can be spiritually. Sometimes we don’t realize that God has a God-sized task for us to do. So much of what we do around here has been going on for so long, it’s almost done automatically. It’s natural for us to become content with the programs and ministries that we’ve always participated in.

I’m sensing a new wind blowing at TCC. I’m getting that sense that some of you who’ve been coming here for years want more out of church than a place of Sunday morning worship and education. It’s not so much dissatisfaction with the church, but a yearning for something more. People are committing themselves to acts of service. People want to release worship from its strict formality. Hearts want a place where we can come as we are and know we will be accepted and wanted. They want a church that calls every single person, young or old, man or woman, single, married or committed, to be equipped and sent out to impact our community for Christ. People want a church known for its quality of caring, and its uncontainable eagerness to reach out to those in need. I think it’s exciting.

Here’s the problem. People come up to me and say, “Pastor Matt, wouldn’t it be great if our church had a way to reach out to shut-ins or college-age kids, or unchurched youth, or people who are down on their luck? And we could really use a way to greet and follow up on visitors, and reach out to new potential members. We could also use adult Bible studies and new volunteer opportunities to engage our membership.” Many of you have great ideas for how to reach out with God’s love . . . to which my response is, “That’s a great idea! Go ahead and start your dream ministry, and I will do what I can to support you.” So the great ideas never get started. Instead of being a church that is a ministering community, we often settle for being a community gathered around the minister.

I understand people’s frustration. It’s not just an expectation that the leadership is supposed to do all the work. I think some of you have a gnawing desire to reach out to others. God has placed a certain person or a certain group on your heart and mind. You can picture the God-sized transformation that can take place. You just can’t get it out of your head. But, at the same time, many feel unprepared or unequipped. Insecurity and doubt creep in, and the fire gets extinguished until someone more experienced or talented comes along to light it up. I feel the same way sometimes. I get into situations where I feel way over my head, beyond my expertise and knowledge–beyond my life-experiences. Yet God still asks me to minister to people in those situations. It can be scary. We have all these spiritual gifts that Paul talks about, but we don’t have the skill to use them. In our congregation, there are people with gifts of wisdom and knowledge. There are some with gifts of faith and others with gifts of healing. There are some with the gift of generosity and others with a talent for taking prophetic stands for justice. And many of us are too uncomfortable to put these spiritual gifts to use.

It may be helpful to look at the life of Solomon. Listen to this story from his life.

Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and married one of his daughters. He brought her to live in the City of David until he could finish building his palace and the Temple of the Lord and the wall around the city. At that time the people of Israel sacrificed their offerings at local places of worship, for a temple honoring the name of the Lord had not yet been built.

Solomon loved the Lord and followed all the decrees of his father, David, except that Solomon, too, offered sacrifices and burned incense at the local places of worship. The most important of these places of worship was at Gibeon, so the king went there and sacrificed 1,000 burnt offerings. That night the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream, and God said, “What do you want? Ask, and I will give it to you!”

Solomon replied, “You showed faithful love to your servant my father, David, because he was honest and true and faithful to you. And you have continued your faithful love to him today by giving him a son to sit on his throne.

“Now, O Lord my God, you have made me king instead of my father, David, but I am like a little child who doesn’t know his way around. And here I am in the midst of your own chosen people, a nation so great and numerous they cannot be counted! Give me an understanding heart so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong. For who by himself is able to govern this great people of yours?”

The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for wisdom. So God replied, “Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people with justice and have not asked for a long life or wealth or the death of your enemies— I will give you what you asked for! I will give you a wise and understanding heart such as no one else has had or ever will have! And I will also give you what you did not ask for—riches and fame! No other king in all the world will be compared to you for the rest of your life! And if you follow me and obey my decrees and my commands as your father, David, did, I will give you a long life.”

Then Solomon woke up and realized it had been a dream. He returned to Jerusalem and stood before the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant, where he sacrificed burnt offerings and peace offerings. Then he invited all his officials to a great banquet. -- 1 Kings 3:1-15

I get the sense that Solomon must have felt the same way we do. In this story, Solomon has a God-sized task to do. He’s called to rule with justice over God’s chosen people, succeeding his father David, the highly popular and adored king of Israel. Leadership is a God-sized task that Solomon feels totally unprepared for. What does Solomon do? Let’s look more closely at the text.

Solomon acknowledges his need. He’s honest about his limitations and his lack of human ability to properly fulfill what God had calls him to do. At this point he could have given up, “Thanks, but no thanks God. Maybe you should find someone else more capable. It’s not that I’m unwilling. I just don’t know what to do. Call me in a few years.” But Solomon never backs down from his responsibility to obey God. Instead he does something decisive...

Solomon prays according to God’s will. In a dream God says, “Ask whatever you want, and I will give it to you.” Solomon was given carte blanche by the hand of God. He could have had anything. “God, give me money so I can expand my influence. Give me power so people will respect me. Kill all my enemies so we will have peace.” But no, Solomon says, “Lord God, please give me wisdom to govern your people and lead them in doing right.” Solomon prayed for exactly what he needed to fulfill the God-sized task he had been given. As a result...

Solomon received what he needed from God. And because he aligned himself with what God wanted from him, God gave him the money and power as an added bonus. And then something important happened...

Solomon worshiped. Solomon’s response to God’s goodness and generosity was to publicly praise the Lord. Unbridled worship is what one does when one has experienced the power and grace of God.

You may be saying to yourself, “So what?” What does this have to do with me?” Well, let’s make it practical. Healthy churches have an experiential quality about them. They use their varieties of gifts to live out the good news. So, if you feel like God is leading you into a specific form of outreach through this church, don’t be afraid. I am actually praying for it to happen. Perhaps you feel God calling you to begin a neighborhood Bible study, but every time you think about it, you get a nervous, queasy feeling. You feel like you don’t know enough about the Bible or you don’t know how to talk about your faith to other people. Maybe you have felt the Lord asking you to get involved in a social justice issue, but you don’t know where to begin. Maybe you have a great new of way of connecting church members to small groups. I want this church to be a place where you are resourced to fulfill your mission. I’m not going to do it for you. God already has a big list of things for me to do right now. If God has given you vision for a way to reach out, then I’m guessing that God wants you to do something about it. Be strong and courageous, and follow up on it.

Here’s what I recommend:

Like Solomon, acknowledge your need before the Lord. Don’t be afraid of your limitations. You are a human, and you are limited, but God can do awesome thing through you as you yield to the Spirit.

Pray and ask God what he wants from your life. Ask specifically, because I believe God will answer specifically. If you need help discerning what God is saying, make an appointment to come talk with me, and we will listen together.

If you see God moving in your life, if you hear God speaking to you, or of you feel God calling you to a specific outreach, don’t do anything. As someone once said, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Before you plunge in, sit on it for two weeks.

If, after two weeks, you are still excited and eager about what God would like to do through you, talk to me or a member of an appropriate Board or Committee, and we will help get it moving.

And if God is moving in your life in the way I’m describing, I’m going to be excited with you, and celebrate God’s goodness to the church.

On this All Saints / Reformation Day, I think we are ready for our own reformation. We get so busy funding programs and maintaining traditions. But, tradition serves no purpose unless we are also willing to step outside of that tradition to think about what kind of church this need to be.

Be the church in which all who enter in know of God’s consuming love that will never let us go. Be the place where we can come and be reminded that God knows us each by name. Be the church that experiences the Spirit equipping you for service.

Be the church that’s not afraid of change. Be the church that is able to see where God is moving and knows how to join in. It’s a church that calls forth men and women, parents and grandparents, single people, youth, and children who are equipped and sent out to revitalize families and communities. Be the church that gives people tools to raise their families in faith . . . the church where people are encouraged to reflect God’ s Spirit at school, work, and home. . . the church that sends adds value to the lives of other people.

Be the church that is so vital to the community that it would be missed if it was no longer around . . . a church so blazing in its worship, its quality of caring, it’s eagerness to reach out to those in need, that it can be seen by all and not contained

A healthy church is an experiential church -- a church whose people understand that life is a journey, characterized by experience, learning, personal growth, opportunity, challenge, success and failure, joy and sadness. An experiential church appreciates the opportunity rest and renew their energy and strength, but they always move on to embrace the next phase of their life, whatever those may bring. An experiential church trusts God to equip all God’s people with the gifts of the Spirit!

Sermon for September 16, 2018

A Journey and a Return After this, the Lord chose 72 more followers. He sent them out in groups of two. He sent them ahead of him int...