Monday, July 26, 2010

If God's mind can change, why can't ours?

Scripture for July 25th, 2010

Genesis 18:20-33
Luke 11:1-13

Sermon

These two texts raise a myriad of issues. Both set out to describe an interaction between a particular human and God. In the first, Abraham inquires as to whether God will truly destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if righteous people can be found. The second has the disciples asking Jesus how to pray to God. Jesus does provide a model prayer, but after goes deeper by describing just how God responds to prayer.

These texts bring up such questions as “Is there a right way to pray?” Others may raise the issue of unanswered prayers. Some may be troubled by the violence that follows the Genesis passage. And, of course, why are Sodom and Gomorrah being threatened anyway? These two villages tend to be brought up in hot button topics regarding sexuality these days. What’s true here?

All of these are vital questions that many of us have and continue to wrestle with. As you know, in the first few weeks of August, we’ll have a time to come together in small groups and discuss our hopes and dreams. I’d like to hear if some of the questions I raised are burning in your hearts. We can discuss them in those smaller settings, or talk about how we can explore them further.

But, there is a more fundamental issue that I think we have to get to first. In the first passage, Abraham is showed to negotiate with God. In the second, Jesus describes that just as an annoyed neighbor will respond to you if you knock persistently, God will respond if you pray fervently. Do you see what is in common here? Its really a radical idea- in both instances- God reacts, God responds, God…. changes.

Now, maybe that doesn’t strike you as a particularly radical concept. But for much of the history of the church, one of the central theological ideas about God is that God is unchanging. The idea went like this- God is perfect. We as God’s creation are imperfect. Thus, if we affect God or cause God to change in anyway, God would then be imperfect. The assumption was that humanity, no matter how fervently we prayed, could never affect God’s chosen course of action. In fact, every single Sunday, we make that declaration here. Take a look back at the words to the “Praise Response” in our bulletin. When we sing something regularly, sometimes we stop paying attention to the message that is there. So, lets say it together one more time- “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. Amen.”

Did you catch it? Who sees what I’m referring to? “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.” One way of reading that is to say that God or God’s plan was set out in the beginning, continues now, and goes into the future unchanged. Our first hymn, Great is Our Faithfulness, said this even more explicitly. At the end of the first verse, it says - “Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not, as thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.”

So, do you see the dilemma here? On the one hand, we have two passages of scripture that seem to strongly imply that God’s mind can be changed. But, we have other theology, which is backed up with other scriptures, saying that God never changes? Which one are we supposed to believe? Gee, I was hoping one of you might come up with the answer.

When it gets into things like the exact nature of the character of God, we have to admit we are getting into murky territory. We are finite individuals who can barely remember what we ate for lunch yesterday while God is responsible for the whole universe- how exactly are we supposed to say what God is like from our perspective?

Well, as Christians, we hold the Jesus Christ is the definitive revelation of God. Thus, if we are trying to solve a problem like this, Jesus is almost always the best place to start. So, real quick, lets analyze a couple of the best-known stories of Jesus and see whether it falls on the side of “unchanging” or “affected by humanity.”

Can someone throw out a story about Jesus? And let’s make it actually about Jesus, and not one of the parables.

(The first story the congregation shared was that of the birth of Jesus on Christmas. Given that Jesus had been born as a child and grew into an adult, he obviously demonstrated change. Furthermore, any baby and child will respond to those around him or her, and thus we put this story in the camp of “affected by humanity.”)


(The second story the congregation shared was that of Jesus welcoming the children. When the children approached Jesus, he did not ignore the children and go about his business, but instead took time to bless and care for the young ones. Again, we put this story in the camp of “affected by humanity.”)

So, we can see that Jesus did not stand stoically when people were in need, Jesus responded.

Well, we could go much deeper with this, but Jesus certainly responded to the needs of those around him. If Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, we would have to speculate the Creator does indeed respond at some level to the needs of creation- to our needs.

Does this mean the idea of an unchanging God has no value? No, I would say that one could draw out some characteristics of God that never change. Jesus’ love for those around him never wavered- even when they disappointed him. So I think we could affirm that at the very least, God’s love for creation remains never changing. But, I think we could say that how God expresses that love is determined in part by the expressed and felt needs of the object of God’s love- mainly us.

So, if we can affirm that God is capable of changing, or perhaps more precisely, responding, the passages make more sense. Abraham is concerned about the loss of innocent life and fervently expresses this. God’s love of Abraham and all of humanity is such that God agrees to alter the course per the new agreement. It shows that God’s love remains the same- but God’s mind is open to change.

The openness to change; the willingness to alter course based on new events; the ability to go in new directions- I think I know now why proplr prefer to talk about God as never changing. Because if God can change, it might mean we have to also.

If there is one thing that I think is a universal feeling amongst humans, its that we tend to get set in our ways and get upset if things start changing. Now, some of us may adapt more readily then others, but I would be surprised if there is anyone who hasn’t had the experience of reacting negatively to an unexpected change. We’ve had our fair share of that in this country- whether it comes to issues of race, gender, religion or any other type of divide, it takes generations to work through the issues that have divided us. However, this last week has shown us that despite its difficulties, change is at times possible.

You may have heard in the news about Shirley Sheppard, an African-American woman who up until Monday worked for the US Department of Agriculture. Shirley grew up on a farm in the deep South and suffered through the sins of segregation and racism. While still a teenager, she had to live through the brutal murder of her father by a white man. Even though there were several witnesses to the crime and the identity of the killer was well known in the community, justice would never come for her family. Devastated by the experience, Shirley made a commitment to stay in the south and work to help poor black farmers like herself overcome the barriers of racism. Let’s hear in her own words about that experience:

(For the sake of time purposes, I had to take excerpts from a 45 minute speech.  Because taking excerpts is exactly what caused this contraversy, I've also included the video of the entire speech at the end so you might judge for yourself the context of the remarks)


video

Understandably, Shirley’s experience of deep hatred of racism had scared her. Given her traumatic experiences, who could blame her for feeling some bitterness toward white people. And yet, when she sent this white couple to a white lawyer, she found that injustice still reigned as the poor farmers were taken advantage of by the lawyer. Discovering this, she worked to find a lawyer who would help to save their farm. The story continues:


video

Shirley Sheppard grew. She discovered that the hatred that she had experienced had scarred her vision. She set out with the goal of only helping black people. But, in her own words, by remaining open to God, she discovered she had been put on this earth to help all poor people who were being taken advantage of. This is a courageous story of being open to the radical will of God; being open to the changing of one’s heart and mind.

However, if you have been watching the news on this story, you will know that the revelation of her growth was not received with praise. Earlier this week, Shirley Sheppard was fired from the USDA when a blogger released a highly edited version of Sheppard’s telling of this story that left the impression that she actively discriminated against white people while working for the USDA. It cut out all reference to her growth and her new understanding. As the edited tape went round the media, she was forced to resign.

The person who edited that tape was engaging in what is now a commonplace game of “gotcha.” As more and more people put their thoughts and experiences online in public forums, they are finding that mistakes made years ago can catch up with them. One way to react to that would be to try and seal off all information about yourself as best is possible in this digital age- its an understandable reaction in a way. But it implies a belief that who we were in the beginning is who we are now and who we forever shalt be. It implies that growth is irrelevant. It implies that someone must forever be perfect if they are to be a good person.

We as Christians need to bear witness to something else. We don’t live as people who believe that God created us perfect- we believe instead in a God whose grace allows us to overcome our imperfections. We believe in a God who measures us not by our weaknesses, but by our willingness to be open to the new experiences so that we might discover God’s will. Rather than bunkering down and trying to hide our imperfections, rather then trying to imply that we have been and forever shall be in the right, what a witness it would be if we could expose our weaknesses to the world and demonstrate how God is helping us to overcome them. But that involves something difficult- it means admitting that at some point, you might have been wrong.

Now, I may hate admitting I’m wrong more than anyone else here, but I recognize the power in it. It can be humiliating at times; it opens one up for scorn. But it does provide a witness. The second part of the Shirley Sheppard saga is evidence of this. Though Sheppard was quickly condemned and fired early in the week, by the end of the week the full story had emerged. When people realized that Sheppard’s story was one of admitting failure rather than persisting in ignorance, they quickly and surprisingly did an about face. People from the left and right of the political spectrum admitted their errors and demanded that Sheppard be given her job back. Everyone from the president on down apologized for their error and sought to make it right. Now, let’s not kid ourselves, not everyone was so open to admitting their error, and even those that did quickly went back to casting blame on either side for the incident, but for one brief moment, elements of the right and left were united in contrition and changed their minds based on new information.

What about us? Where do we stand? Do we tend to cling on to our rightness, or are we open to the ways in which God’s grace is working in our own lives to help us to grow? Personally, I’ve been in enough arguments to know that the desire to prove one’s rightness is strong, and I would argue, nearly universal. Find the slip of paper in your bulletin. If you’ve lost it, raise your hand and an usher will bring you one. I’d like you to think for a moment if there is something you are holding onto. It might be an argument that you had with a loved one in which you insisted on being right. It might be an incident where you treated someone poorly because they were different. Or it might be the anger you are holding onto because you were mistreated. Take a second to write down a word or two about that experience you are still holding on to.

When you are ready, we’ll have a time where we can let that go. Where we can give the incident up to God, admit our failings, and thank God for the ways in which the experience provided us an opportunity to grow.

Full Shirley Sheppard speech:

Monday, July 19, 2010

Why such good service?

Scripture Texts for Sunday, July 18th

Genesis 18:1-10a

Luke 10:38-42

Sermon

I’d like you to think for a moment about the warmest greeting you ever received. Who were you visiting? Where were you? How did they greet you? What did you feel like when you knew they were happy to see you? Hold on to that thought.

Rob and his wife Vickie were in Portland to visit friends. Though Rob and Vickie led a church back in England, they were not what you call prototypical churchgoers. Rob sported numerous tattoos, often wore black rock t-shirts and typically sported a Mohawk. Needless to say, they often received strange looks when visiting a church. One Sunday morning, they were running late and arrived at their friend’s church while the service was already in full swing. When Rob and Vickie slipped in the back, there was no telling the greeting they might receive. When they walked in, their friend was in the midst of playing drums for a praise song. As soon as she saw them walk in the door, she immediately dropped her drumsticks in the middle of the song, ran down the aisle and greeted them with a huge hug.1 Never had they been made to feel so welcome.

Have you ever felt unwelcome? Have you ever walked into a room and instantly sensed that you shouldn’t be there? How did it feel to be so rejected so thoroughly? What did they do to make it clear your presence wasn’t desired?

A young woman who was on the fast track toward a business career decided she wanted to put off her business plans so that she might work with inner-city young people. She was hired by a church where the ethnic mix was challenging, and within a few weeks was working with gang members who she successfully convinced to attend a bible study. A few weeks later, the pastor accidentally interrupted one of the Bible studies. He sat down and spent a few minutes talking with the gang members. As he left, one of the guys said, “Hey, I like that guy. Let’s go to church this Sunday.” The youth worker decided to seat them in the balcony rather than with the congregation downstairs. When the minister came out and announced the giving of the peace, one of the gang members spontaneously stood up and yelled, “Hey, dude, you are cool!” The congregation turned around in shock. After the service, the youth worker was told not to bring the gang members back to the church until they learned how to behave inside a church. When she insisted on the need to reach these youth where they were, she was subsequently fired.  (Messy Spirituality, 60-61)

Two churches. Both confronted with people radically different from them, and yet seeking to know God. One church helps them along on their journey, another slams the door. I’d like to say the first story is more typical then the second, but sadly churches are sometimes no better then the rest of society at welcoming the outsider. Though we may think welcoming people is easy; experience says that it is one of the most difficult things for a church to do well. It can at times be a painful process that stretches our generosity to the limits, shoves us out of our comfort zone, and can cause us to make sacrifices having no idea of the outcome.

Today’s reading from Genesis demonstrates the great lengths that Abraham went to to show good hospitality. There could probably have been no worse time for the guests to appear outside Abraham’s tent. Scripture says they arrived in the heat of the day. Since this story talks place in the midst of the Sinai desert, it would have been north of 100 degrees. Think of sitting on your porch in the middle of august…. and now add twenty degrees. Furthermore, Abraham is just recovering from surgery. In the previous chapter, he had just finished sealing his covenant with God by circumcising himself, his boys, and all of the male servants. And yet, despite the heat, despite the pain, when three guests come across his tent, he immediately runs, bows at their feet, and offers to provide food and drink. What could cause him to be so kind to these strangers?

First, Abraham was following the customs of his culture. Abraham and his family lived in tents so they could move with their herds as they grazed in the desert. Nomads in the Middle East then, and still today, rely on each other’s hospitality to survive. Because you never knew when you might find yourself wandering in the desert dying of thirst, you were expected to care for all others who came across your path. Being hospitable was a survival strategy- if all only cared about themselves, few would likely survive.

And yet, Abraham goes far beyond custom with his actions. Though he would be expected to offer bread and water, he delivers far beyond expectation: he tells his servants to prepare the best flour to make bread, and he slaughters one of his best calves for the guests and serves them milk and curds. Now- let’s remember he is in the desert there is no wal-mart that he can go to to restock- he is giving something precious up. His hospitality goes beyond what anyone could expect.

Why would he be so exceedingly generous? The text doesn’t say, but if we look deeply we might be able to get some insight. One answer would be if he immediately recognized whom he was serving. If we knew we were serving God, wouldn’t we be on our best behaviors? The text does say that when the three approach, Abraham addresses the leader as “My Lord.” Furthermore, the three individuals may make us think of the Trinity. Could it be that Abraham thought all along that he was serving God?

Actually, probably not. If you have a Bible near you, pull it out as I want to point something out. First, it was actually the custom of the people that day to greet their guests in that fashion. It would be as if I said “Good day, Gentle sir” to every person who walked in my door. Ok, a bit odd to us, but unremarkable to Abraham. Furthermore, the word he uses does not appear to be the Hebrew word for God. Take a look at verse 1, do you see how it has the word LORD in all capitals? That is the way in which scholars translate Yahweh. But in verse three, the same word lord appears in lowercase. This is the way in which English speaking biblical scholars differentiate between the godly use of the term Lord and the more general use.

Furthermore, the presence of three makes it unlikely that the author would be referencing God. Though thinking of God as trinity may be commonplace to us, the authors of Genesis would never have envisioned God that way. The idea of the triune God was not worked out until long after Jesus as scholars tried to understand how both God and Jesus could both be divine while saying there is only one God. Since Jesus had not yet been revealed, the presence of three people or spirits wouldn’t be the authors’ way of hinting that it was God.

Well, if he didn’t know it was God, might he have a different reason- could he of hoped for a reward? Notice that after receiving the hospitality, the visitor tells Abraham that Sarah will bear a child. Now this is exactly whom Abraham has desired, and it is what God had promised. But, there is no evidence that Abraham knew it was coming. In fact, in verse 5, Abraham says that after serving his guests, he expects that they will pass on. He is expecting nothing from those he serves. They won’t join his community; he’ll likely never see them again. He doesn’t know how they will use his generosity- he doesn’t even know if the “deserve it.” He simply gives because that is how he was raised, and because that is who he has become as a follower of God.

We had the opportunity to do that this week. On Tuesday night, we hosted a group of youth who were participating in the Reach Out camp. Now, we as a congregation know reach out because some of our members went to it as kids, sent their kids, or served as adult staff for one reason or another. So, unlike Abraham, we obviously knew something about the people who were coming. But, like Abraham, it is likely we may never see or hear from the students we hosted again. What did we gain? Nothing tangible from serving them. In fact, we probably will pay a touch more for our electricity, and many generous people gave food. But, we had the opportunity to serve those who had been out working in the heat of the day helping our neighbors up in Cleveland. Who knows what will become of these youth? We served them not because we expected a reward, but because that is who God has raised us up to be as a people.

Often times when we talk about hospitality at church, it’s in conjunction with trying to boost attendance. We want to be hospitable because we want people to join our church community. Now, there is nothing wrong with trying to make visitors feel welcome; and there is nothing wrong with hoping people can find a church home amongst us. In fact, the outreach committee has been working on a comprehensive plan about how we can make our visitors feel welcome and how we can express our desire for them to come again. That is part of the reason we’ve been pushing everyone to wear their nametags and to sign the attendance book- its just one more way to make someone who is new comfortable.

But, we make a mistake if we are gracious hosts to people in order to increase attendance. In many ways, I might be the most prone to this mistake- since my role is to help lead this church and to seek the ways in which God is calling us to serve this community. I too can get caught up in seeing things through the perspective of numbers. I can talk about, and I have talked about, being hospitable so we can get new members.

But, my friends, this can be a path fraught with danger. What happens if we become the most welcoming place in the world, and yet people don’t join our church? Will we become frustrated with going through the difficult process of always being welcoming and nice? Might we resent those who we are nice to but fail to respond by joining? If we launch a major effort toward welcoming and don’t immediately see the results, will we abandon it entirely? I’d like to think I’m better then that, but I know its too easy to feel frustrated and give up.

We must instead be welcoming people because it is part of our core DNA. We must welcome people not because we expect a reward or because we think that they are special, but because we know that God is calling for us to be kind and to love each person as they come into our midst. We must show this kindness, open our doors, because that is who God has raised us up to be. We must care and listen for people simply because we want to be with them, right there in that moment. I think that is what Jesus was getting at when he told Martha he wouldn’t rebuke Mary for sitting with him. Martha was thinking of all the things she needed to do to prepare for Jesus. Mary just wanted to be with Jesus; to sit with him, to listen. Though Mary and Abraham did it in different ways, both were motivated by a sincere desire to love and serve their guests. Abraham’s guests needed food- Mary’s a listening ear. May we be bold enough to be like Abraham and Mary- taking time even when it isn’t convenient, finding out what the other’s need, serving even when we aren’t sure we have enough; simply because of the love God has shown us, and because we want to be able to show that love to others. Amen.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Choosing Prayer

Scripture Text for Sunday, July 11th, 2010.

Colossians 1:1-14

Sermon

When possible, I always like to lift the veil over what is going on in church. Why do we pray this particular prayer, who made this decision, why are we looking at this particular text? A number of Christian denominations came together to work out a common scripture schedule. This way, the church could live out its unity by having Christians throughout North America think, pray, and preach from the same set of scriptures each week. The schedule is designed so that in a three-year cycle, each church will cover the most important parts of the bible.
Though I don’t always use lectionary to pick the texts for Sunday morning, it generally is my starting point. Each week, we are presented with four different options of texts to preach from. Normally, I spend Monday morning reading, praying and researching the texts to try and figure out where our focus will be.

This week, in addition to the passages from Luke and Colossians, we had the option of portion of the book of Amos and Psalm 82. I was excited upon reading the texts because each dealt with the issue of God being angry with God’s people for failing to enact justice in their land. One of my deep passions is that we as a church and individual Christians must care deeply about the treatment of others. We need to care about the sick, the hungry, and the poor. We need to care about people of all lands, friend and foe alike. Furthermore, that care needs to extend beyond sympathy or charity so that we attack the very sinful structures that malign all of God’s creation.

Because Monday was a holiday, I left it there and went about enjoying the day. However, something kept tugging at me about the decision. As much as I wanted to preach on social justice, I began to wonder if this was really the message God wanted me to bring to this community on this particular Sunday. Faced with this discomfort, I went back to the suggested texts. When I had read the selections from Colossians the first time, I had quickly dismissed it. It’s just the beginning of a letter where Paul is greeting the people and telling them he is praying for them- not much there. But, whenever I started to work on the other texts, my mind was continually drawn back to the issue of prayer...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

It's not about me (or you!)

Scripture Texts for Sunday, July 4th, 2010.

Galations 6:1-10

Luke 10:1-9

Sermon
When I was beginning to think of my first sermon here, my mind filtered through the many pieces of advice I’ve been given over the last few years.


-It's traditional for the pastor to give the story of their calling

-Yet, don’t just focus on the pastor, cause it’s not all about me.

-Bring out the text, stay true to the scriptures, it will keep you on the straight and narrow.

-First impressions are everything; make sure you wow them on day one.

-Make the first sermon a “typical” sermon; if you pull out all of the stops on week one, they’ll be disappointed from then on.

-Lay out your vision from the start- there is no better a time when you have a congregation willing to listen.

-Don’t lay out a grand plan- this is a time to listen, not to impose your vision.

And perhaps the most important piece of advice, given to me by a youth who will remain nameless on this past work-mission- “whatever you do, don’t be boring”

So much to accomplish…so little time. But if you hang in with me for the next two hours, I’ll try to get through it all. Nervous laughter….that’s precisely what I was going for.

When in doubt, a good habit is to start with the scripture, so that’s the direction I’ll head today. In our Gospel passage, we come upon Jesus appointing others to carry out the ministry he has already begun. Up until now in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ work has primarily been about establishing who he is and giving glimpses through word and action of the coming kingdom of God. Having done so, Jesus then calls for those who will join him in mission.

Our text today talks about 70 who responded, but gives almost no details of their lives. Unlike the 12 disciples, these 70 are nameless, faceless workers who set forth with a ministry of healing, proclaiming all the way the coming kingdom of God. When looking at a piece of scripture, it’s sometimes helpful to think about what is not there. Who are these people? Where did they come from? Did they have lives that they left? Families who counted on them? Were they religious scholars, trained in doing ministry? Unemployed peasants who had little to lose by following Jesus? Or rich, powerful landowners who could afford to get away and leave the daily work to the servants? When the 70 return, they report that they were wildly successful- that they even made the demons dance to Jesus’ tune. And yet, despite this raucous success, these 70 disappear from Luke even before the chapter ends. Why? What little we know about Luke reveals him to be a details oriented individual, someone who claims to have examined all the reports of eyewitnesses, how could he have not found anything more about them? Did they not exist? Is this just a different type of parable? Or is there something else going on?

I’m going to let you hang on that question for a bit. Here we are, trying to figure out what is going on with a bunch of anonymous missionaries, and I’ve yet to properly introduce myself. Some of you may know by now that I grew up in the Westside suburbs of Cleveland, have an undergraduate degree in music, worked in finance for American Greetings, and then attended seminary for the last three years prior to coming here. But that is just the locations on the journey; it doesn’t really explain why I ended up here.

I grew up in a family that was quite active in a congregational church. I attended Sunday school, youth group, choir, mission trips, board meetings, doing just about all the things one can do in the church. And yet, as I look back on it, I’m not sure exactly what role Christianity played in my life. While I did a lot of church things, prayed and made the same declarations as most church people, I’m not sure how much of that really ever seeped in. Now I wasn’t a hellion or anything, I was a good student and did the things I was supposed to do. (By the way, my parents are here today, along with several long time friends, so you can feel free to see them for a rebuttal after the service). I only now recognize this is a bit of a foggy time because when I got to college, I found a moment of clarity.

We had chapel services each Wednesday on campus. Because this was a time when both faculty and students came together in worship, the chaplain often used the time to be more creative and get into some meaty issues. In the spring semester, he began a series called “The Things we don’t talk about in church” Each week, the service focused on things like slavery in the bible, race, gender, sexuality, etc. One particular Sunday, we heard from some Christians about the pain they had felt when for one reason or another, they were turned away from a church. In listening to these people’s testimony, it finally occurred to me that what we do, what we believe in church affects real people in real ways. To simply go because it was what we do; to simply mouth belief because everyone else did; these actions could have profound consequences in people’s real lives. Thus, I began a journey of continually striving to take seriously what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. How could I live my life in a way that reflected my faith and honored the purpose for which God had created me?

This journey took several twists and turns. One thing that working for American Greetings did for me was provide the kind of economic security while leaving me time to explore music, theology, travel and any other place to which I felt led. After about 2.5 years working in the corporate world, I determined that it was time to seriously consider a calling into ministry- a calling that had been in the back of my mind for sometime. Not knowing how to go about this process, I asked my Uncle, a Lutheran minister, and my former chaplain to give me a book list through which I could begin to explore my faith deeper. I found that no matter how hectic the day, I always felt most at peace doing this studying. I took this as my confirmation that I should attend seminary.

Now, by this time, I had joined a Methodist church, but I was not entirely certain what it meant to be Methodist. If I was going to be a pastor, I certainly needed to figure out soon if that would be in Methodism or someplace else. It wasn’t until half way through seminary, when I took Methodist history, that this finally became clear to me. Among John Wesley’s many innovations, his commitment to social justice, his desire to move beyond the walls of the church, being in community with the poor, was the idea that true spiritual growth takes place in community. Thus, one of the first requirements of the Methodist movement was that each individual commit to meeting weekly (in addition to Sunday morning, mind you), where they could honestly explore where they were in their faith life, what things they were struggling with, and the problems they observed in their communities. It is this process that helped them to grow into the people God had created them to be. This growth was infectious. You see, many people in Wesley’s day had abandoned the church. They saw it as irrelevant to daily life and full of a bunch of money loving hypocrites. But, among the Methodists, they saw a people who truly cared for the poor in their midst. They saw a people who addressed their real life situations. And they saw a people deeply committed to changing those things in their life that were not in line with God’s will...

Joining a Ministry, already in progress

2 Kings 2:13- He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan.

When I was commissioned for ministry at this past Annual Conference, I had the great privilege of participating in the passing of the mantle ceremony. In it, a retiring elder and I kneeled in front of the gathered congregation as the bishop gave the mantle to the elder who then placed it on my shoulders. This signified that the responsibility for ministry had passed from one generation of clergy to the next.

Considered in isolation, receiving this mantle could imply a tremendous burden. Generations of clergy have taken up the cause of Christ, who am I to declare that I am ready to follow in their footsteps? We know that for a number of years many congregations have been in numerical decline, who am I to think I can reverse that? However, these are exactly the wrong questions. If I see ministry as some lone endeavor, I’ve already started down the wrong path. The ministry we will do at Independence is not dependent on me, but is shaped by God and built on the hard work of the generations that have come before.

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Work-Mission trip to Boonville, NY. I was able to join with a ministry that had begun 14 years prior by Pastor Jan Yandell and has been continued with lay leadership in many of the years since. By joining in with ministry that was already in progress, I had the opportunity to witness the healing that youth in our congregation and others were accomplishing. With every house painted, ramp built, tear shed and laughter shared, we were able to move the world one step closer to the Kingdom of God of which Jesus spoke.

As we enter into this new phase of ministry, let us all come together and build upon the work of previous generations. Let us dream anew about the work we may accomplish in this community. Let us listen to the Spirit, so that we might join in with the work of God…already in progress.