AnticipATE to DedicATE

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table

Don’t let it escape your notice, dear friends, that with the Lord a single day is like 1000 years and a 1000 years are like a single day. The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise,a s some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives.

What does that mean?

If God doesn’t want anyone to perish, can’t God make it so no one will perish?

If God doesn’t want anyone to perish, why do some people persist in making God out to be mean, bloodthirsty, or eager to condemn some people to hell?

If God doesn’t want anyone to perish, Don’t you suppose that guilt you carry around, that voice that whispers to you that you haven’t done enough, or you aren’t good enough, is NOT coming from God?

I hope you’ll listen for the voice of God; especially this time of year. It is hard, because we want to anticipate. What we don’t know we make up and plan accordingly, sometimes with leaving us with deep despair, frustration, and even anger.

Today’s reading in 2 Peter joins Jesus’ teaching in Mark 13 from last week, and fills our over-graphic-induced brains with imaginations based more on Hal Lindsey, Tim Lahaye, and Jerry Jenkins than on scripture.

Sure; there is the fear-invoking, imagination-inducing language of ”But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. On that day the heavens will pass away with a dreadful noise, the elements will be consumed by fire, and the earth and all the works done on it will be exposed.”

But, I hope you noticed, Peter follows immediately with this question: “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be?

Great question, Peter!

“You must live holy and godly lives, waiting for and hastening the coming day of God. He continues in v. 14: Therefore, dear friends, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found by him in peace – pure and faultless.”

There we go: live holy and godly lives, make every effort to be found by him in peace, pure, and faultless. I think a reasonable shorthand for that is “trying to follow Jesus better today than yesterday.”

As we approached Y2K (remember that?), sales in Christian bookstores (that was, for all practical purposes, before Amazon), sales of books and videos about the end of the world boomed.

They rose precipitously again immediately after 9-11.

Now, here’s an interesting thing I hope you’ll help me figure out. Immediately after 9-11, crime rates and suicide rates plummeted. The number of new prescriptions for antidepressants dropped.

Why? The country pulled together to counteract and resist evil.

And what did Christians do? Well, hopefully most of us joined with everyone else and prayed and worked and hugged a little extra.

But we also suddenly bought more books about prophecy and the end of the world.

Why? I believe because we have an anticipation problem. We passively anticipate what God’s going to do, and sit on our hands.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, God’s people had been anticipating the coming of the Messiah for quite some time. and they did so with varying amounts of energy and intensity. Sime nearly paralyzed by anticipation and expectation, others going on with life almost as if Messiah would never come.

But there was this strong stream in Judaism of the day which taught that God’s people were to practice living as if Messiah was coming tomorrow.

Can you imagine Mary and Joseph trekking to Bethlehem – she very pregnant, he likely uncertain exactly what was going on. Yet they proceeded.

Anticipation can paralyze. If I just sit and wait, and make up stuff in my head about what’s going to happen and what isn’t.  But Anticipation doesn’t have to paralyze. Mary and Joseph responded to the good and great news they had been given with a dedication to do what they needed to do.

Anticipation of Christmas expectations can paralyze us. Or they can send us into a downward,darkward spiral. Or Anticipation can draw us toward the wonderful event that we recognize at Christmas. The event that HAS happened, and that can happen again in us and among us.

Today, we want to make sure that anticipation propels us to action. We don’t want anticipation to paralyze us.

For example, like it did me when I was a teenager. And I presume I’m not the only one this happened to. Working up the courage to ask a girl out. Or even just to call her. I’ve heard that kind of anticipation works both ways – that it isn’t gender specific.

I got to re-live all that about 15 years ago, when I found myself single again at around 40.

To my surprise, it hadn’t changed much. Dial all but the last digit of her phone number, and pace my parsonage. Was  I ready for this? Ok, what would I say? “Hi, it’s Steve.” No, too obvious. Everyone had caller id, she’d know it was me!  How about a joke?  Will she like a joke?  Not too funny. Not too corny, either.

Dial the number. Hang up quickly.

Dial the number, actually listen to it ring. Get voicemail, hang up. Realize 2.3 seconds later that she has caller id. Now she’ll get home, see that you called, and that you hung up on her answering machine!

How does this end well?

I don’t know about for you, but for me all that ended well ‘cause I married Rachel.

But has it really ended?

Sure, the anticipation of will she answer the phone, will she go out with me, will she say yes, etc., may be behind us, but oh, the anticipation doesn’t die so easily.

And you know what I’m talking about, whether or not you are married or ever have been or ever want to be. You know because you also anticipate. Make up scenarios in your mind about how things will or won’t work out. Many of us not only run these scenarios, almost constantly, through our minds, but also bring God into the equation.

We make up what we are going to do, what other people are going to do, and what God is going to do. Or what God will think. Or how God will be disappointed.

I don’t know about you, but I had a much easier time on my wedding day picturing an awesome future with Rachel than I did when I was holding my phone, one number away from dialing, wondering what might happen.

Yet, some of us enter marriage with a very similar plan as when we’re summoning the courage to make that first call. Or text. Or WhatsApp, or whatever.

Some of us enter marriage with an expectation that we’ve done this, now it will just happen. We’ll live “happily ever after.” Everything will be awesome. Maybe we watch videos or read stories about the “perfect” marriages and think that’ll just happen to us.

You don’t have to be married more than maybe a week before you see life doesn’t work that way.

A good life, a good relationship, doesn’t just happen. You can’t anticipate your way into it.

It takes work. It takes effort. It requires patience with yourself and with the other.

You have to dedicate yourself to it, to others.

Let’s walk away from anticipation this morning, and move toward dedication.

You see, while 2 people may actually DECIDE to get married, being married isn’t a decision; it is a commitment. A dedication.

A good, healthy marriage requires numerous decisions – thousands over the years, and multiple decisions a day.

Kinda like baptism.

Which brings us to the Gospel reading for the day. Jesus is baptized. Baptism isn’t a decision to get wet. Baptism is a commitment, a dedication, to a way of life. That’s why when we baptize babies, we all commit to doing all we can to

“Surround that child with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others.” We agree – we commit – to “pray for them that they may be true disciples.”

They can’t possibly follow Jesus on their own. Not now, not when they’re grown up, either. Because when they grow up, they start to anticipate, rather than dedicate.

Remember what Peter calls us to do? Live holy and godly lives, make every effort to be found by him in peace, pure, and faultless.

This will take dedication! Which might start with a decision, but one decision is never enough.

John Wesley was challenged by some free-church traditioned people on his support of infant baptism. These were people who practiced “believer’s baptism’ – that people were baptized only after their own profession of faith, not as infants or small children. They asked Wesley: “Do you think they can rely on that experience as a baby so many years later when they are an adult?” they asked.

“No more,” Wesley answered, “than I would say that someone baptized at age 21, who arrives at the age of 30 with no other evidence of God in his or her life, ought to count on that singular experience.”

One decision does not a dedication make. But one decision can be a first step to a commitment, to a dedication. To thousands more decisions along the same way. Eugene Peterson has a magnificent book titled, “A long obedience in the same direction.” The subtitle is “Discipleship in an instant age.” And that was written in 1980.

Instant has only gotten instanter. We need a long obedience in the same direction. We need dedication, not just decision. We need to let go of our anticipation, and follow Jesus.

So I’m going to invite you to do something. Yes, I know, this is just one decision, one action, but it can be the start of a long obedience in the same direction. It can be the start of a dedication replacing a decision. It can be taking up the commitment you made, or that was made for you, at your baptism. It can also be a jump-start. Maybe you’ve been dedicated before, but that’s grown cold. Or distant.

I invite you simply to mark on your connection card that you are interested in moving from anticipATE to dedicATE; from decision to dedication.

We are going to start a process in the new year, an historic, Wesleyan process, that will give everyone who is interested the opportunity to dedicate themselves – their lives – to trying to follow Jesus better today than yesterday.

I hope you’ll consider it.

Yes, Caesar, whatever you say, Caesar

veterans-dayWithin limits, of course.

If you know me at all, you can imagine how confused I was to hear this yesterday at our church’s Veteran’s Day Luncheon:

Note the order here: the nation was telling the churches to celebrate this day.

I reacted, but controlled it. Someone else had the floor. This gave me time to figure my response.

The State doesn’t tell the church what to do!  How dare they? Who do they think they are. The wheels of thought spun inside me, measured by the knowledge that I was surrounded by people, many of whom had served in war, and at least some of whom don’t have exactly the same ecclesiology I do.

As the speaker concluded, she shared that this description of the history of Veteran’s Day came from The United Methodist Church.

My thoughts took an abrupt turn, but not full 180.

Promoting and enduring peace and honoring those who offered themselves to the cause of freedom and justice were certainly worthy values that I could encourage, even lead, my church to uphold.

I’m still nonconstantinian, but I have realized that maybe there is more left to render to Caesar than I thought before yesterday.

Does God agree with you? with me?

20160617_144150In the face of all the many disagreements, and further, in the face of what seems to be a lack of ability to communicate in civil and well-intentioned ways, I thought this morning of these words from Isaiah 55:8-9
My plans aren’t your plans,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
Just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways,
    and my plans than your plans. (CEB)
Do you suppose that when God says, in Isaiah 55, that God’s thoughts and ways are not ours, God is referring to everyone? I have to admit that my usual first read of that passage is that God is referring to my enemy/opponent/anyone who disagrees with me.
 
To be fair, though, I have to admit, though it sometimes takes me a while, that God is, in fact, saying this to ALL of us.
 
(FULL DISCLOSURE: I do not have a second thought on my agenda for which this is the setup. Not that I never operate that way, but I am not this time)

UNwilling

aldersgate

On this day in 1738 John Wesley found his way to a gathering on Aldersgate street. Remembering it, he wrote this in his journal: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street….”

Unwillingly.

At Aldersgate, following a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to Romans, Wesley wrote that his heart was “strangely warmed.” He continued that he did, in that moment – from that moment on- trusted “in Christ, and Christ alone,” for his salvation.

And he went unwillingly.

The salvation for which Wesley trusted Christ from that day forward wasn’t just a warmed heart.  He rarely referred again to that specific event or day or moment, but the life he went on to live changed the world.

Wesley organized small groups to disciple one another.  The practices and disciplined life he had already been living, coupled with the warmed heart, brought many others into the fold of Christ. The small groups, the mutual accountability work done therein, would grow the members into people who followed Wesley’s example and followed Jesus.

Schools and hospitals were founded. Prisoners were ministered to. Some have gone so far as to allege that the Wesleyan revival helped England avoid the kind of bloody revolution France would face.

And Wesley went unwillingly.

In these days following #UMCGC, the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, we have a lot of unwillingness.

In response to much and loud and bitter dissension regarding, primarily, our church’s stance on LGBTQI matters, our bishops have called for a special commission to study the issue and present possible resolutions.

Many of us are not holding our breaths waiting for the conclusions reached by this commission. I, for one, am incredibly skeptical that resolution can be reached between the extremes within our denomination.

But then today I was struck by the word unwillingly.

My skepticism rests mostly on my presumption that many are resistant -no, beyond resistant – dead set against any compromise of their position.

But maybe, at least on this Aldersgate Day, that’s exactly the Wesleyan place to be.

Unwilling.

May all we United Methodists approach our future as unwillingly as Wesley approached the meeting on Aldersgate Street.

Look what happened that time!

What is our product?

weekfive.jpgSermon #5 in our Branded Series. This sermon concludes the series.

Branded

“If I only had a brain….” That’s the earworm that Lee Swann stuck me with last Sunday. Thank you!

Maybe now you’ve got it playing over and over, too. If so, you’re welcome!

I remember growing up watching “The Wizard of Oz,” by Frank Baum, every year when it came on TV. I am young enough to be not really too impressed that some of it was done in color, but we all loved the story.  Though, I admit, for several years I was scared of those flying monkeys!

Not long before I first saw the movie, in 1964, that Henry Littlefield unlocked the secrets of the story.  It was a populist allegory, he claimed, and was written as a commentary on turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th century) monetary policy. The yellow brick road was the gold standard, Emerald City represented the fraudulent greenback, or us currency without the gold standard. The Strawman was the american farmer, the tin man industrial workers, and the cowardly lion William Jennings Bryan.

Littlefield explanation of the story has since been discounted, but that, of course, doesn’t mean there aren’t other versions.

Like the religious version: the yellow brick road is the “way to enlightenment.” The emerald city represents heaven, and each of the main characters a particular version of human temptation or frailty.  The wicked witch of the west, being killed with water that represents baptism.

At least as plausible is the atheist allegorical explanation. There is no real wizard, just a human behind a curtain.

Some of you might like the feminist version. Frank Baum, the author, was son-in-law of a leading suffragist. All the characters who actually have any power in the movie are women.

You might have your own version of what the Wizard of Oz means. You might not – maybe you have never even seen the movie.

We are story-driven people, and our brains are meaning-making machines!  If there isn’t a story, we’ll make one. Where there isn’t meaning, we will make it up and overlay it.

No one tells a story for no reason, do they?  It might not be the most obvious reason, but there is a reason.

Today we remember the story of Pentecost.  You might wonder why we haven’t read the story of Pentecost from the scriptures.  You might not.  The story is in Acts 2.  I could tell you the reason I didn’t have it read is that I love our liturgists and didn’t want to make them read verses 9-11, which read:

Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!         (Acts 2:9-11)

So, here is the story.  You can read the official version in Acts 2.  In fact, please read it sometime today.  Let me know what you think!

The disciples, having recently watched Jesus ascend into heaven, are meeting on the day of Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, a Feast Day on which God’s people gathered to celebrate the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. While waiting, the Holy Spirit shows up and fills them!

Filled with the Spirit, they step before the crowds and start speaking in tongues – languages – so that everyone, all those Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, etc., can understand them!

When you let the Holy Spirit speak through you, a lot less is lost in translation!

When we let the Holy Spirit speak, people will be able to hear us in their own language!

Having never heard anything like this, some of the crowds guessed the disciples were drunk – speaking out of their minds!  

Peter stood up to preach.  He preached; told them the story of Jesus in terms of some of the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible.

“God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day.”

This is the final message of our Branded series.  The premise is that Jesus is, or would be, branded. Branding, you recall, is not just a logo or a jingle, but an image or video or song that connects people (customers) with a story.

On that first day of Pentecost, the telling of God’s story brought 3,000 into the community of faith.

What will you do with this story?

For four weeks we have summarized God’s story. For four weeks we have talked about being made in God’s image – that we ALL bear the brand of God and God’s story, and that God’s story is one of hope and forgiveness and healing and reconciliation. Thus branded, we are, with God, in the business of making disciples; followers of Jesus. To make disciples, we have to be disciples. Last week we talked about getting to know what other people, people who don’t know Jesus and aren’t followers of Jesus, value. I claimed last Sunday, and still firmly believe, that when we practice the patience of listening to other people’s stories, we will learn what they value. By listening to others, we will also earn the right to be heard when we tell God’s story and how it has impacted us; changed us.

So, today, the finale.

Has God’s story changed us?

We are, you see, the product we have to offer.

As Christians, we ought to be inviting others to follow Jesus. To do so with integrity means we have to be following Jesus. We have to be able to say, with the Apostle Paul, “watch what I do, follow my example, follow Jesus the way I follow Jesus.”

Otherwise we are just making up a meaning to someone else’s story.

Pentecost is a grand point in the story where we learn, as Peter says, how to make God’s story our own story. After his sermon, the people ask, “What should we do? Peter answered:

“Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.”

This IS the meaning to God’s story!  And the promise is “for you, your children, and for all who are far away – as many as the Lord God invites”

Our lives, lived as evidence, with evidence, of the Holy Spirit’s work in us IS the product we have to offer!

Flannery O’Connor wrote many beautiful stories.  Most of them are haunting, too. One of my favorites, one that haunts me, is “The River.”

In this story, Mrs. Connin comes to pick up young Harry from his parents, as his babysitter for the day.  Harry’s mom is sick – we learn a little later she is hungover. Mrs. Connin is a committed Christian woman and is excited to take Harry down to the river, where an evangelist named Bevel is healing and preaching.  Mrs. Connin hadn’t known Harry’s name, and asks him what it is, after telling him about this preacher. “Bevel,” Harry tells her.

He wants to please this Christian woman. He wants to find a place in her story.

At the river, she identifies him to the Preacher has having not been baptized. So Harry, or Bevel, is baptized.  It sounds good, too; the life that the preacher describes following baptism is far different from the drab, bleak, miserable life that is Harry’s, or Bevel’s, up to this point in the story.

Alas, he comes up out of the water the same. He is taken home, and sent off to bed, life is the same.

The story ends the next morning, Harry, or Bevel, having taken himself back to the river, and determined to hold himself under the water until he finds that wonderful life the preacher was talking about.

I read “The River” for the first time about 25 years ago. I cried as I finished it. Then I got up and went into my first child, Robbie’s room, where she lay napping. I cried quietly, and prayed. I hope and prayed that she would know God’s story in a way that gave her hope, not in a way that left her so disillusioned that she would drown herself looking for some great, good, place I had promised.

The Christian Hope you and I have to offer is the hope that others can see in our lives.  If it is a hope we tell them about, we had better be willing to live it, too!

This morning’s scripture readings – both shorter than the Acts passage, and both noticeably absent of difficult-to-pronounce Bible names, remind us of the goodness of God’s story, and of the promise of OUR place in it, and our role in sharing it with others.

All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him.     (Romans 8:14-17)

and

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.”

Jesus replied, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves. I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.”   (John 14:8-17, 25-27)

We are baptizing one young woman and welcoming her, another young woman and two young men into membership in the Church this morning.  Not just “our” church, but THE Church.  The church that represents Jesus Christ. The Church in which the Holy Spirit lives and is active.

The Church where God’s story is lived out and lived into.

The Church where our lives are changed as we actually follow Jesus day by day.

Will  you join me in committing to these young people that we WILL “surround them with a community of love and forgiveness ”? Will you pray for them, “that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to faith”?

And you know, don’t you, that really the way THEY will be true disciples is as the see and experience US being true disciples.

We are the product. Our lives, moved and changed by the Holy Spirit are what we have to offer!