Sunday, April 22, 2018

Choosing Community Over Isolation

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, April 22, 2018 at United Presbyterian Church, Sterling, KS. Listen to the audio here.
Read Acts 2:42-47, Luke 24:25-32 here
I want to read you a poem by Robert Frost.  It’s one of my favorites.

Mending Wall[1]
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast…[2]
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each…
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Good fences make good neighbors. And yet, in Acts 2, we see people breaking down
fences, sharing everything.  We typically read this scripture and hold it up as the example of the perfect church.  We talk a lot about the “Acts 2 church.” It’s a beautiful, idyllic picture.  They are devoted believers, filled with awe.  They are always together.  They share everything.  They are glad and sincere, and they are growing. They are the beloved community.

There are no fences in this picture, and yet they are getting along fabulously.  They are still in their honeymoon phase as a fellowship.  Just like the first year with a new spouse, or the first year with a new pastor.  But as we read on in Acts, and in the rest of the New Testament, we see that it wasn’t long before things started to fall apart.  I find it encouraging, actually, to read 1 and 2 Corinthians and see that many of the problems we have in churches today are practically the same as the problems they were having in the early churches.  It’s easier in the beginning to get along, but as time goes on, the real work of community happens.

Early on in my life I learned a valuable lesson – if we take the time to talk to one another about our issues, we’ll be able to understand one another better and then everything will be fine.  But it’s not always quite that easy.  And so it sometimes is just easier to build fences.

Or walls.  It’s a practice that has lasted through history.  Millions of people go to China to see that great wall. They began building it all the way back in the 3rd century BC. It’s 13,000 miles long and was built to protect the people of China from being attacked by people they referred to as “barbarians”.[3]

There’s another ancient wall in Great Britain called Hadrian’s Wall.  It was built in AD 122 very near the border between England and Scotland in anticipation of the first visit of the Roman emperor Hadrian.  This wall is 80 miles long.  There’s no good record of why it was built, but historians think it was probably built to keep out the attacks of the people they referred to as “barbarians.”[4]

We may not have walls like these between us and our neighbors.  If we do have fences here, they’re usually to keep our pets or livestock in rather than people out.  But we still build these kinds of walls around our hearts.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says Frost in his poem. He muses that it might be elves or nature that keep knocking stones out of the wall.  In our hearts, though, it’s the Holy Spirit.

That’s why last week, our first week in this series called Thrive@United, we talked
about how we choose life, how we choose to allow the Holy Spirit to work by saying yes to Jesus, by continually talking to God, and by moving when the Spirit says move.
The Holy Spirit is vital because it’s the Holy Spirit that keeps us connected to our source of life, Jesus Christ, and it’s the Holy Spirit that helps us see one another through God’s eyes.  It’s the Holy Spirit that gives us eyes of grace.  It’s the Holy Spirit that helps us to choose community over isolation.

Before we talk more about that, let me ask you, how many people does it take to build a wall?  It depends how deep you stack them.

We choose community over isolation because God knows how we’re made and he knows that we need to. . .
Be together.
Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. –Hebrews 10:25
I know I’m preaching to the choir in some ways with this one because you are here.  Today you chose to come to worship and in doing so you chose community over isolation, and many of you make that choice faithfully every week.  Thank you for being here.  It makes a difference that you are here. The Holy Spirit works among us when we are gathered together, and especially when we pray together.
Jesus says in Matthew 18:20 “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Where two or more are gathered, God is there, and his presence brings joy, and therefore that joy is multiplied when we’re together.  Shared joy is double joy.”[5]  
People are not always good at being together. That’s why the Bible is so full of instructions for us about how to be better at being together. Let’s look at a few of those.

Be listeners.
To answer before listening is foolish and shameful. Proverbs 18:13
James says it, too.  “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (1:19)

One of the reasons we sometimes avoid getting together with other people is that we don’t know what to say and so it’s awkward.  Here’s the perfect solution: Listen first.  In seminary, in the class on pastoral care, this verse from Proverbs was the one thing the professor wanted to make sure we always remembered.  He made us recite it at the beginning of every class.  It was on every exam.  Say it with me…
Similarly, when we get together, we need to…

Be encouraging
Another reason we avoid getting together is that people say hurtful things to one another.  Sometimes on purpose, and sometimes not.  If we listen more than we speak, we avoid that.  Another way we avoid that is to be careful about what we say.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. –Ephesians 4:29
We thrive when we receive encouragement, but we shrivel when are criticized.  It can be easier to be critical than encouraging. That’s why I often include this verse in my prayers.  God, guard my lips…

Another important part of making community work it to...

Be forgiving
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. -- Colossians 3:13
We have a hard time being forgiving if we don’t accept it for ourselves, so we need to accept forgiveness, so we can pass it on.  Plus, it’s circular.  Jesus said…
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.  Matthew 6:14-15
Have a face of grace.

When Thomas Jefferson was president, he and a group of companions were traveling across the country on horseback. They came to a river that had left its banks and washed the bridge away. Each rider was forced to ford the river on horseback, fighting for his life against the rapid currents, and face the very real possibility of death. A traveler who was not part of their group hesitated to attempt it, and instead to stopped to watch. After several had plunged in and made it to the other side, that traveler asked President Jefferson if he would carry him across the river. The president agreed without hesitation. The man climbed on, and shortly thereafter the two of them made it safely to the other side. As the stranger slid off the back of the horse onto dry ground, one in the group asked him, “Tell me, why did you select the president to ask this favor of?” The man was shocked, admitting he had no idea it was the president who had helped him. “All I know,” he said, “is that on some of your faces was written the answer ‘No,’ and on some of them was the answer ‘Yes.’ His was a ‘Yes’ face.”[6]
A yes face is a forgiving face, a face of grace. Let’s ask God to help us have yes faces.

Be available.  
This week, I’m asking you to choose community.  Choose to be available to the Holy Spirit leading us to grow in the way that we are connecting with other people, growing in our relationships with people in this church and in our community.  Here are some ways we can do that:
1.     Join a small group. 
a.     There’s one starting this Tuesday night led by Arn Froese and Andy Giorgetti about reading the Bible in light of contemporary issues.  It’s a great opportunity to have conversations about what’s going on in our world and in our lives in a safe environment.  If you would like to go to that, please let us know on the yellow card along with your name and email address so that we can put you on the list for that group.
b.     There’s another opportunity starting in a few weeks on Sunday evenings led by Ginger Reed.  This group will be studying a book of the Bible.  If you’d like to be on the list for that group, let us know on the yellow card.

There are others opportunities in the works, and there will continue to be, because this is a very important part of growing together as God’s beloved community.
In both our scripture readings today, food is an important part of how people connect, just like it is in the church.  In Luke, it is not until Jesus eats with the two men that they recognize him.  Here’s some ways to put food into the equation.

2.     Invite someone to coffee or lunch
a.     Ask God to help you decide who to invite.  It might be someone inside the church that needs your encouragement or would be good encouragement to you.  Or it might be someone outside the church who doesn’t know Jesus or is struggling to follow Jesus.  Pray about it and see what name comes to mind.
3.     Coffee Time
a.     Starting in May, I’m going to be hanging out at Broadway Market on Thursdays.  Come join me and let’s get to know each other better.
b.     Or if you’d like to meet with me at a different time or place, put a note on the yellow card and we’ll set something up.
4.     Make Eye Contact
a.     It sounds so simple but it’s an important step in choosing community, but if we aren’t intentional we don’t do it. When we’re among other people we often avoid eye contact, but if we will make eye contact, we are speaking volumes to them.  We are acknowledging that they exist and are not invisible.  We are respecting them as fellow humans.  We are opening the way for further contact – maybe just a hello, maybe more.

Four good ways to start choosing community and to work on being together:
being listeners, being encouraging, being forgiving and being available. 

I love this question that Henry David Thoreau asks in his book Walden:
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”[7]
That miracle happens through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us, working among us, working through us, drawing us together, and helping us to be like the beautiful community in Acts 2, helping us to see with God eyes, eyes of grace.

 “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” -Romans 15:5-6

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Choosing Life Over Death

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, April 15, 2018 at United Presbyterian Church, Sterling, KS.  Listen to the audio here.

Read John 10:7-10 and Deut 30:15-20 here.
Today we start a new series called Thrive.  It’s a word that isn’t in the Bible.  But the idea is there. . . in the scriptures we just read and in many others. One of the most prevalent images of thriving in the Bible is the tree…and this would be a really good place to make a pun, but instead I think I’ll just leaf it alone.

Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17 both give us the picture of thriving as a tree planted by a river that sends its roots deep so that it stays connected to that life-giving water, and so it continues to thrive even when there is drought.

That same image of trees by water is found in Genesis in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:9-10) and in Revelation 22:2 in the New Eden at the end of time. The standard for thriving in the Bible is that we grow and “let our roots grow down into [Christ]” (Col 2:7) and bear fruit, the signs of the Holy Spirit working in us – fruits like love, joy, peace, patience (Gal 5:22-23).

We are called to thrive – as individual Christians and as a group of Christians.  We are given new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit living in us.  “God intends every servant of the Resurrected Christ to be a servant of life.”[1]  We are called to choose life, to choose to thrive, to say yes to God’s work in us and to God’s leading.  This will sound harsh, but sometimes, instead, we choose death by saying no to God, no to Jesus, no to the Holy Spirit.
The key to abundant life is the presence of God, the Holy Spirit, who lives in us through our trust in Jesus. In our reading from John today, Jesus says, “I am the gate.”  The way to abundant thriving life is through saying yes to Jesus. Will we go through the gate? We get to choose.  Life or death?

Choose life.

We choose life by saying yes to Jesus.
We say yes to Jesus in a lot of different ways.  The most obvious is what we say when we profess our faith in our church services in our baptism vows, and in our membership commitments.  We are asked,
Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world? I do.
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love? I do.
Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love? I will, with God’s help.
We say yes, of course.  And this is an important step.  We say it in our minds.  Hopefully we also say it in our hearts.  We are saying yes in a general way.  We aren’t thinking about the specific implications of this.  But the basic yes is still important.  The core question is, “Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”  If we are choosing life, we say yes to Jesus.

Sometimes it’s not so clear what Jesus is asking, or that it’s Jesus asking.  Or fear gets in the way. Or what God brings us doesn’t look like we were expecting. That’s what happened when the Israelites got to the Promised Land the first time.  None of them had ever been there, but they’d probably been hearing about it from their parents and grandparents.  God had first promised this land to Abraham.  Abraham had lived there, along with his son Isaac, and his grandsons Jacob and Esau.  Jacob’s twelve sons had lived there, too, until they moved to Egypt because of the famine.  Now, 400 years later, their descendants are finally getting to go back there.  God had told Moses what to expect. 
The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. –Exodus 3:7-8
If you look back at the genealogies in Genesis, you’ll see that the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites are all the relatives of the people in Egypt.  They are second, third, fourth, fifth, twentieth cousins, but their family trees are all connected.  Coming into the promised land should be like one great big family reunion, one great big homecoming, and maybe that’s what they were expecting.  But when the scouts go take a look and report back to the rest of the people that have crossed the desert from Egypt, they don’t see the land as being very welcoming.  They say. . .
“the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large.” –Numbers 13:28
Moving in to the Promised Land looks scary and challenging and Israel feels small and powerless, and although God has promised to help them and to give them this land, they say, “No thanks, God.”  And so, because they refused to trust God and follow his lead, God told them they would die in the desert instead of getting to live in the Promised Land.  And they wandered in the desert for forty more years, until all of that generation of people had died. They, in effect, chose death.  When we get to Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy that we read from today, it is their children who are now getting ready to enter the Promised Land.  Moses is giving them advice and encouragement. Don’t be like your parents.  Trust God and obey God’s commandments.  Do this and you will live.  Don’t do this, and you will die.  We know that everybody dies, but some people live dead lives.  That’s what Moses wanted to stop them from doing.  So he says, “choose life.”  Say yes to Jesus.  Even when it’s challenging and scary.

Saying yes to Jesus can be about big things or smaller things.  Somebody asks us to do something that doesn’t fit with our plan for the day, or our plan for the next week, and so we say no, just because it’s not what we had in mind.  But what if it was Jesus asking?

Choosing life means saying yes to Jesus.  It also means talking to him.
I will talk to God
Praying has become the cliché Christian thing to do. That’s unfortunate because praying is the most important thing to do, the thing that we need to always do more than anything else.  Saying yes to Jesus is a prayer because prayer is talking to Jesus.  Prayer might seem like some big formal thing because when we pray together in church or in meetings we make it a big formal thing, but it’s really not.  It can be just a few words, or even no words.  It’s simply how we keep on connecting to Jesus.  It’s a vital part of choosing life. 

Here’s how really important prayer is.  In Jesus advice and encouragement to the disciples on that last night before he was arrested and put to death, he tells the disciples:
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit [thrive]; apart from me you can do nothing. - John 15:5
If we stay connected to the vine, to Jesus, we will thrive.  But if we don’t, we can’t do anything. 
·       Remain in me. Stay connected to Jesus.  Choose life.
·       Otherwise you can do nothing.  Death.

Prayer is how we keep on aligning our hearts and minds with God[2] It is helpful to put God in our calendars.  I have a regular God meeting time every morning.  I make it a priority so that it sets the tone for my day.  The danger for me, for all of us, is that we then get to thinking that once that time is over, our time with God is done for the day. Like a job. Clock in. Clock out. 
It’s not.  God goes with us throughout the day.  Every step we take, every decision we make can be a little God meeting all day long. We get to choose whether we’re doing things on our own or we’re doing them with God.  We can be like Israel looking at the Promised Land and say, “No thanks, God,” I can’t do that, or we can say, “I’m trusting in God’s strength and God’s power.  What do you think, God?”
The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. –Romans 8:6
Jesus came so we could know the fullness of life lived with the continual awareness of God’s presence.  Apart from him, we can do nothing.

Choosing life means saying yes to Jesus, talking to God, and . . .
Moving with the Holy Spirit [I will move with the Holy Spirit.]
Movement is life.  Let me tell you a funny story . . .
Three friends die in a car accident . . . and attend an orientation in Heaven. An angel asks, "When you are in your casket and your friends and family are mourning you, what would you like to hear them say about you?"
The first guy says, "I would like them to say that I was a great doctor and a loving family man."
The second guy says, "I would like them to say that I was a caring husband and a schoolteacher who made a huge difference to kids."
The last guy says, "I would like them to say – OMG LOOK, he's moving!"[3]

Movement is an important sign of life.  One of the big reasons that prayer has become cliché is that we don’t take the next step.  We don’t take action. We don’t move. Movement is an important part of choosing life. We say yes, God, I’m going to talk to you about this, but then we leave it at that. Or we take action but we don’t take a moment to talk to God about it first.  We separate prayer and action, instead of doing them together. 

The passage we read from John 10 this morning is part of a longer speech in which Jesus is trying to explain to the Jewish leaders how he himself is the key to breaking through spiritual blindness. He is the good shepherd and the sheep hear his voice and they know his voice so they follow him.  He is the gate, the opening through which we have access to God.  He is the key to knowing God’s presence in our lives.  Through faith in Jesus, we have the Holy Spirit’s powerful presence with us 24/7.  It’s the Holy Spirit that is our God translator, helping us to hear and understand God’s word, and God’s guidance. It’s the Holy Spirit moving in us that makes us thrive.

Thrive is a clinical term…a medical diagnosis.  When a child is not growing, or not growing as much as children normally do, the medical diagnosis is “failure to thrive.”[4] When a doctor diagnoses that a child has failure to thrive, one of the treatments is intensified feeding.  Super nutrition.  When a soul isn’t growing, that’s what a soul needs too.  Soul food.  More Jesus.  Jesus is the living water that feeds our souls.  More soul food, more Jesus water, means more prayer, more Bible, more connecting with the things in life that feed our souls . . . saying yes to the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
It might sound like I’m saying that saying yes means that everything is going to go well and be easy.  That has not been my experience.  Saying yes to Jesus was been wonderful in so many ways, but it’s also been hard because Jesus wants us to be better, to be more like him, and that takes some work, work that takes all of our lives.

Over the next six weeks, we’re going to look more deeply into how we thrive as God’s people and how we make sure nothing is getting in the way of thriving.  There will be lots of different actions we’ll be called to take over the next six weeks, but today, I’m asking for your commitment to choose life over death – to say yes to Jesus, to keep talking to God, to move with the Holy Spirit.  If you are making this commitment today, would you let us know? 

Write in the comments below: I’m choosing life. 

Over the course of the next six weeks, keep talking to God about this, keep praying for our church.  

  • Pray for me as your pastor, and I’ll be praying for you.  
  • Pray for the session and deacons and committees meeting to lead us.  
  • Pray for one another as we all seek to thrive in God’s presence together.  
  • Pray for God to be present among us, as he already promises to be, and for us to hear and trust and follow in all the ways God is leading us to be his people in this place and time in big and small ways.
This week I’ve been hearing in my head the song by Lionel Ritchie, “Hello.”[5]  It slowly dawned on me that this could be God.  “Hello.  Is it me you’re looking for?”

Maybe you know this song enough to know that it’s a guy watching a girl walk by and she doesn’t even notice he’s there, but he would really like to get together with her.  He doesn’t know how to get her to love him, so he starts by saying, “I love you.” I know it’s not an exact parallel, but there are some striking similarities.  God has given us free will, and because of that he respects our right to choose. But he’s right here with us all the time, watching as we try so many ways to find happiness, as we make ourselves so busy doing the things we feel we need to do to find fulfillment. 

Hello.  Is it me you’re looking for?
God knows the answer to that.  It is him we’re looking for, we just don’t always realize it.
God says, “Hello.  Is it me you’re looking for?
I can see it in your eyes
I can see it in your smile
You're all I've ever wanted, and my arms are open wide…”
To help us choose, God says, “Let me start by saying, ‘I love you.’”
It is God we’re looking for, and it is God who gives us life.
The key to thriving is the presence of God, the Holy Spirit, that we have by trusting Jesus. 
We get to choose.  Life or death?
Jesus says, “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of. --John 10:10 Message Version
To help us choose, God says, “Let me start by saying, ‘I love you.’”
Choose life. 
Say yes and thrive.