Wednesday, June 6, 2018

A Milestone & A Prayer

The Milestone
If you have been reading my weekly sermon posts here, thank you so much for reading!  My sermons are now being posted on our new church website

The Prayer
Today I am inspired by this prayer that I found in the literature I brought home from the CREDO conference last year:

Holy God, be in my mind that I might let go of all that diminishes the movement of Your Spirit within me.
Discerning God, be in my eyes, that I might see You in the midst of all the busyness that fills my life.
Loving God, be in my heart, that I can be open to those I love, to those with whom I share ministry, and to the whole human family.
Gracious God, be in that grace-filled silence that lies deep within me, that I might live in Christ as Christ lives in me.
by: Rev. Canon James C. Fenhagen

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Encouragement and Parakeets

So encourage one another with the hope you have. Build each other up. In fact, that’s what you are doing. 

I don’t remember whether I heard this from a coach on The Voice or a judge on American Idol, but one of them told a contestant that people want to have fun and enjoy the music, and that success comes from making it possible for people to enjoy what you’re singing.  I think that’s true.  If the person is struggling, we struggle with them.  If they’re enjoying their performance, we enjoy it too.

I think this is also true about church.  People want to enjoy God.  God wants us to enjoy him.  The more we encourage one another to celebrate God’s presence together, and we meet Him in those moments, the more there is joy like nothing else, and as a result we are encouraged.

Unfortunately, so often at church (or anywhere else) we’re too worried about offending one another, or getting the words or music right, or whether we’re wearing the right thing, and that takes our attention off of enjoying the One we’re there to celebrate, and keeps us from experiencing the encouragement of God’s love and grace.

To keep focused on encouraging one another, it helps me to remember how I got here, that day I first told someone that I had discovered God in a new way and that I wanted everybody to know how cool God is.  I had let down the walls and let God in more than ever before.  I had expected judgement, and instead I found grace, and love that was beyond what I could imagine.  I wanted everybody to know that same love and grace.

I didn’t know the theology yet, but I was experiencing the Holy Spirit, the encourager, the paraclete.

I can’t resist having a little fun with that word and pointing out what you probably already noticed – how much paraclete sounds like parakeet.  Paraclete is Greek for helper[1], but dictionaries trace parakeet to the Italian word parrocchetto which means “little priest,” or parrucchetto which refers to head plumage.[2] Since many priests wear special hats, I can see the connection.  Parakeets also have head plumage.

We also often use a bird as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, but usually it’s not a parakeet, it’s a dove.  I must say that has always seemed like a bit of a misrepresentation to me.  Doves are pretty and quiet and soft, and sometimes the Holy Spirit’s nudges are like that, but for me that mostly means I’m just not listening enough.  When I am really listening to the Spirit, the blazing fire and loud wind that the disciples experienced when the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost fit so much better (Acts 2).

In the story of Jesus’ baptism, the gospel writers say people saw the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove (Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32), but maybe the term describes the movement more than the actual vision. Doves are white, the color of purity, so I see how that represents God’s goodness and righteousness. Parakeets are colorful, playful, and smart.[3]  God is omniscient…the smartest of smart.  God is joyful….which is like playful. And since we’re made in God’s image and we know how to laugh, we must have gotten that from God, too.  Parakeets come in many different colors,[4] and I am continually amazed at the different hues of God that I discover as I continue to learn and grow.

As birds go, maybe the one that fits even better is the phoenix.  In Greek mythology, this bird lives forever because it is continually reborn.  It dies in flame and is resurrected out of the ashes.[5]  Isn’t this what happens to us?  God refines us in fire like silver or gold,[6] and makes something beautiful out of the ashes.

To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair. In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the LORD has planted for his own glory. (Isaiah 61:3)
Whichever bird works for you, birds remind me of hope because of the poem by Emily Dickinson:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all...

Hope is like a bird, and encouragement is how we help each other to have hope.  There are lots of ways to encourage one another, and the Holy Spirit works in us through all these things.

The word paraclete also means advocate, like a lawyer.  The Holy Spirit intercedes for us, facilitated by the work of Jesus on the cross.  That amazing grace and love we experience as we draw near to God is because Jesus Christ died for us, conquering our sin and obtaining forgiveness for us all.

Today and every day, I pray that you are encouraged through knowing the grace and love of God that we have through faith in Jesus Christ who lives in us through the Holy Spirit, our encourager.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Choosing Now Over Later

This is a sermon I preached on Sunday, May 20, 2018 at United Presbyterian Church in Sterling, KS. 
Listen to the sermon audio here.
Read Acts 2:1-13 & Matthew 9:32-38 here.

Choosing Now Over Later 
Today is the last week in our series Thrive@United.  Each week of this series, there has been a choice. 
We started with “choosing life over death,” maybe a rather obvious choice. Next we chose community over isolation, then fun over drudgery, bold over mild, and frontier over fortress.  Last week we even had the opportunity to put into practice our choice for frontier by going on a prayer walk out into the community.  Now, today we have the choice between now or later.

What are you hearing in the choice between now and later?
My husband Rob heard candy.
Now sounds trendy. “Live in the NOW.”
Now sounds parental.  “I told you to do your chores and I said NOW!”
Now sounds urgent. “We need help NOW!”

In the world of churches, now sounds . . . unusual, doesn’t it?  Because churches aren’t always so good at doing things right now.  We need to do things decently and in order. 
We need to take it to committee.  We need to run it by session, the board.
We need a motion, and a second, and then we need discussion.
We need to work together to make a plan and follow the plan together.

None of that happened on Pentecost. 

By the time the disciples got to Pentecost, they already knew their plans had gone right out the upper room window when Jesus was crucified.  That was in God’s plan, but they hadn’t understood the plan quite that way.  While they’re still trying to figure out how the plan had changed, Jesus was resurrected. 

Then Jesus told them that the next step in the plan was to go out and tell the world about what happened, go everywhere and make disciples . . . but first, wait until you receive power from the Holy Spirit and then go out and tell the world.  So they waited, and while they were waiting, they prayed.

What else could they do?
Jesus didn’t tell them when the Holy Spirit was coming.
Jesus didn’t tell them how the Holy Spirit was coming.
Would they have understood even if he had told them?

On the day of Pentecost, they were together celebrating the Jewish feast of Pentecost, and doing what they had been doing every day – praying.  And that’s when things got a little crazy.

First there was the wind.  Here in Kansas everybody knows about wind.  Wind is strong.  Strong wind is loud.  Really strong wind is really loud.

Then came the tongues of fire, and then everyone began speaking in tongues.  That also was loud.  We’ve been in crowds.  We know how loud they can be.
It was so loud that everyone in the neighborhood came running to see what was happening. 

Nobody planned it.  Nobody sent out invitations.  Nobody made refreshments. Nobody put together a program or arranged for extra chairs and tables.
This was just happening and it was happening NOW. Because sometimes the Holy Spirit does unexpected things at unexpected times in unexpected ways.

Not surprisingly, people had lots of questions.  Why is this happening?  Why are they talking like that?  What does this mean?

Peter didn’t have time to run home to do some exegesis to prepare a sermon to answer their questions and explain the meaning.  In a surprisingly brilliant move, he just stood up and started explaining about Jesus who died and was resurrected. 
Peter knew the scriptures well enough to use them to show that the Prophet Joel had predicted this outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and King David had written a song (Psalm 16) about the resurrection, and though they didn’t quite understand God’s plan from these scriptures before, it is now clear that Jesus, the one who was just crucified, is God’s plan to bring about the salvation of us all.

Hearing all this, the people were amazed, and asking, “What are we to do now?”
Peter immediately had the answer for this question:
“Change your life. Turn to God and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so your sins are forgiven. Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.“ (Acts 2:38 MSG)
He didn’t say, “Go home and think about it.” Or “Go home and pray about it.”  This challenge was for right now.  He kept on urging them to act now.  And that day 3000 people were baptized.

And all the rest of the crowd was left in a quandry, arguing with each other.  Did he say, “Yanny?  Or did he say Laurel?”[1]
Or did he say “covfefe?”[2]

Silliness aside, the first and most important way we “choose now over later” is to turn to God, say yes to Jesus and welcome the Holy Spirit.
There’s no reason to wait.  This is exactly how Jesus began his ministry in Mark’s gospel, telling people that now is the time to repent.
Jesus said: “Now is the fullness of time,” … “and the kingdom of God is near! Turn away from your sins, and believe in the Good News!” (Mark 1:15TLV)
Now is the time to say yes to Jesus.  If you’ve been putting this off, don’t delay any longer. Just say yes.
Choosing now over later means we
1.     Turn to God
2.     Pray
3.     Do
We do put things off.  We can come up with all kinds of reasons.  There’s always tomorrow, right?  Or is there?
The end of all things is near. 1 Peter 4:7
We laugh when we read that because Peter wrote those words about 2000 years ago.  The end of all things wasn’t as near as Peter thought.  On the other hand, how many of the people who heard or read those words have already met their own “end of all things”?

The Holy Spirit prompts us and we need to act.
Do it now – because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. --James 4:14
Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. --Proverbs 27:1
For instance, we might be thinking that one of these days I’ll tell my friend how much Jesus loves them, but that day never comes because he dies of a heart attack.
Sometimes it’s blazingly clear that we need to act now.  If we’re thinking about adopting a dog that’s due to be euthanized tomorrow at the animal shelter, now is the time to get ‘er done![3]

What do you see when you look at a crowd of people?  In Matthew 9, our gospel reading this morning, Jesus looks out at the crowds of people and has compassion for them. He sees people who are ready to hear about God’s amazing love and forgiveness.  He says, “The harvest is ready.”

He saw people looking for a shepherd.  He saw people he loved and wanted to help.  He saw people whom he wanted to know that God loves them.  And so he says, “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.” 
That’s a call to pray. 
1.     Turn to God
2.     Pray
And then
3.     Do
Jesus said to ask God for workers, and then he commissioned the disciples, giving them the authority to heal people and cast out demons, and then he sent them out to tell people about the good news of the gospel. (Matt 10:1ff)
Choosing now means we turn to God, pray, and do.
If we don’t know what to do, we pray until we do. 
If we do know what to do, we pray and then do it.

Do it now – because otherwise we will miss the opportunity to be a part of what God’s doing.

I’ll never forget the first time I realized that I’d missed it.  I had this brilliant idea for a ministry, a way to serve people in the community where I lived at the time.  I knew it was inspired by God, but I hesitated. I wanted to pray about it some more. What if . . .this?  What if . . . that?  When?  How?  It’s ok to think things through, but I got too bogged down in all of that, and the next thing I knew somebody else was announcing their plan to implement my brilliant idea. Because it wasn’t my idea.  It was God’s idea.  And He made sure it DID happen.

It isn’t always easy to know what to do and when to do it. Sometimes it’s very clear.  Like when a kid gets brought into the emergency room barely hanging on to life.  If they waited to find the parent and get permission to treat, the kid would die, so they don’t wait.  They act immediately to make sure the child is stabilized.

Sometimes it’s not so clear and we have to act on faith.  So often we hesitate because we don’t like not knowing what the outcome will be.  We try to see into the future and predict, but only God truly knows, and we need to trust him for the outcome.  To get better at this, it helps to practice.
1.     Turn to God
2.     Pray
3.     Do

This will sound silly, but one of the ways I practice is choosing what to wear in the morning.  I used to waste a lot of time trying this outfit, and then another outfit.  I’d stand in the closet forever trying to make up my mind while the clock just kept on ticking.  So God inspired me to turn to him, ask for help, and go with the first thing I thought of next.  Most of the time I wear one of three colors – black, blue or green.  I have red shirts because I have bought them over the years to wear on Pentecost, Christmas and the 4th of July, but other than that they just sit in my closet.  One morning as I was getting ready to go to a worship conference I was in a quandry.  I didn’t know what to expect going to a place I’d never been before and so I didn’t know what to wear.  The first thing I thought of after I asked God for help was my red shirt. 

I argued.  No, God, please, not the red shirt.  It’s not a holiday.  I didn’t hear a voice, but the feeling I had was a lot like when a parent gets frustrated with child who is arguing.  The feeling felt like this:  “Just wear it.”

So I did.

Guess what the main topic was at the worship conference that day?  Trusting the Holy Spirit.  And I was all ears because I was wearing my Holy Spirit red and I had trusted the Holy Spirit about wearing it. Choosing a shirt is such a little thing, but it’s a little thing that made a big difference in my life.  It’s helped me practice listening and trusting.  We practice with the little things so we’ll be better prepared to handle the bigger things.
  • It’s easy to say that things need to change. 
  • It’s hard to see that what needs to change is us.

Turning to God and praying is always clear and simple.  “Hey, God, help.” 
When we DO know what to do, we’ll need God’s help.  If we do things only on our own, we will fall short and tire out and fail.  We can’t do it on our own. Only God knows what tomorrow will bring, and only God can change hearts.
John 15:5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will [thrive]; apart from me you can do nothing.
We stay connected to Jesus because of the Holy Spirit and we practice listening to the Holy Spirit when we pray.  So I’m asking you today as an exercise of this to keep praying for 40 days.  On your way out today pick up a 40-days-of-prayer booklet.*

Now is the time to turn to God, pray, and do. 
If you know what to do, ask God for help to go do it. 
If you don’t, keep on praying and listening and getting ready to do whatever God has in store for us to do.

Jesus is risen. The harvest is ready.  The Holy Spirit is here. Let’s let him work in us right now so we can thrive as God’s people doing God’s work in the world.
* Stop by United Presbyterian Church, Sterling KS or follow us on Facebook for the daily posting, or send us a message or an email.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Choosing Frontier Over Fortress

This is a sermon I preached on Sunday, May 13, 2018 at United Presbyterian Church in Sterling, KS.  Listen to the audio here.
Read Matthew 28:16-20 here.

Frontier vs. Fortress – These two words are about as different as night and day. 

The word Frontier brings to mind the wild west, covered wagons, cowboys, Daniel Boone, adventure.

The word Fortress makes us think of castles and kingdoms, knights and princesses, dungeons and protection.

These two words refer to two entirely different time periods in history.
This is Warwick Castle, in England, built by William the Conqueror in 1068.[1]  It was a formidable fortress in the middle ages.  Now it’s a popular tourist attraction where people can go pretend to be knights and princesses, or fight dragons. 

Covered wagons are much more recent, from the 1800s, the century during which the people from the East Coast of America moved west across the unexplored frontier.

We’re even talking about two different continents – castle fortresses are mostly found in Europe, covered wagons that explored the frontier were found here in America. 

Though these two words are more like apples and pigeons than they are apples and oranges, we can see that they represent two different mindsets.

The question before us today, as a church and as individuals is this:

Do we choose fortress
Or frontier?

Yes, that’s a Nissan Frontier, a mid-size truck.  One is about protection, the other about adventure.

Which one (frontier or fortress) looks more like Jesus’ words to us from today’s reading in Matthew 28?  Is Jesus saying, “Go, build buildings and make them big and sturdy?  No, he says:
Go, make disciples, baptize and teach, and know that I am with you. 
Jesus calls us to choose frontier.
These words are at the very end of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus’ last words, what we call the Great Commission, are Jesus’ final instructions.  The disciples did go, as we see in the book of Acts, and many people in the 2000 years since have also followed Jesus’ command to go, and because of all of them, we are here today.

Along the way we have also built some fortresses.  We don’t necessarily set out to build them, but we do, both in the way we allow our buildings to be uninviting, and in the way we build walls around our hearts.

It’s hard to see how a place is a fortress when it is so familiar to us, so instead think about a time you went somewhere you have never been before.
·      How did you decide to go there?  What was it like when you got there? 
·      How did you know where to park?  Where to go into the building? 
·      What to do once you got inside?

Have you ever decided to go somewhere and then when you got there the place was so NOT inviting that you changed your mind and went back home? Maybe it was a restaurant or store that looked dodgy.  This happened to us once when we went to visit a church.  We found the place and figured out where to park fairly easily, but it was a challenge to figure out which door to go in.  Once we got inside, we wandered around a bit trying to figure out where to go.  By the time we did find the room where the worship service was happening, we were starting to feel rather unwanted.  The room was dark, the chairs looked pretty uncomfortable, and since nobody had yet even made eye contact, we figured nobody would notice if we left, and so we did.

Going to a church for the first time is a step into the frontier, a journey into the unknown.

Jesus sends us out as pioneers into the frontier.  In high school I was a pioneer. Literally. This is the mascot from my high school.  We were the Simi Valley Pioneers.  This is in California. For those crossing the United States in the 1800s this was the holy grail, the final frontier. In high school, we were encouraged to have “pioneer spirit.” Pioneer spirit is:
a willingness to endure hardship in order to explore new places or try out new things”[2]
Jesus sends us out as pioneers into the frontier of Sterling, Kansas.  Maybe Sterling doesn’t seem like much of a frontier, but it is our frontier.
How do we choose frontier over fortress right here in Sterling, KS?
Jesus tells us to Go.  And every week at the end of worship, that’s what we do.  We go.  We go to lunch.  We go home.  We go to work.  We go to school. 
Jesus is telling us to find some new places to go. 
Jesus is also telling us to go to our usual places with new eyes, and new hearts.  One of the places we have built fortresses is in ourselves.  It’s a normal part of life.  We go out.  We meet people.  People say and do hurtful things.  We put up some walls for protection so we don’t get hurt again.  We stay in our holy huddle where it’s safe.
Or we go out and we see what’s happening in the world and it’s horrible and hard to look at and that hurts.  We don’t know what to do about it, so we put up some walls for protection so we don’t get hurt by looking at those horrible things.  We learn not to see them anymore.

What’s happening is this:  When the Holy Spirit gets to working in us, the Spirit gets us to look at our own comfort and safety less, and to look out for others more, and helps us to more and more see people with God’s eyes.  When we see with God’s eyes, eyes of compassion, we gain empathy and we see people’s pain, and we begin to feel it along with them.  When this happens we’ve crossed into the frontier.  It’s challenging.

Choosing frontier means we go anyway.  

It also means we make disciples.  
We might be saying, “I don’t know how to make disciples.”  The reality is, though, that we do.  We do it all the time, actually.  Whenever we read a book that we really like, or see a movie that is really good, or meet someone who made a big impression on us, or eat at a restaurant with really good food, or see a really good play, what do we do?  We tell people about it.  We make disciples. And books, movies, plays, stores and restaurants live or die based on the amount of “buzz” they get when we tell people about them. 
·      We tell about our experience
·      We tell what was special about it
·      We encourage people to check it out for themselves

It’s the same with telling people about Jesus
·      First we have to be following Jesus ourselves, letting Jesus lead us and transform us
·      Then we pray and watch for opportunities to tell others about our experience
In all of this, we are never alone.  Jesus is always with us. 
 And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 18:20
Do you remember what they always said during the opening credits of Star Trek? 
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. (Gene Roddenberry)
No question, space is a frontier.  But when they say “boldly go where no one has gone before,” they’re forgetting about Jesus.  He was there when the world was made. “He was with God in the beginning.” (John 1:2)  There’s nowhere we can go that he hasn’t already been.  And nowhere we can go that he doesn’t go with us. He says, “I’ll go with you. Let’s go!”  As we go, we need to be talking to him, asking him to show us where to go, who to talk to, what to say, and when to say it. Praying and trusting.
Karl Barth said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

So today we’re going to put this into practice.  We’re going to go out and pray together.
Prayer is a two-sided conversation.  We talk to God and we listen for God.  Today we are going to talk to God and ask God to speak to us and show us Sterling with new eyes, with God’s eyes. 
We’re going to “Prayer Walk” together today.  As we do this, we are seeking to connect in a deeper way with our community, and we are inviting God to speak to us.
·      We are asking God to show us what we have failed to see.
·      We are asking God to give us new eyes to see what has become invisible to us over time, and new ears to hear what has become “white noise” to us.
The act of walking gives our bodies something to do. The walking is a sort of calming distraction so that our minds and our souls can focus on listening to God.[3]

We aren’t ending our worship in the usual way today.  Actually, our worship today does not end.  As we sing our closing song, we’re going to walk as we sing, walking out to the front of the church.  We’ll finish our song on the lawn.  We’ve put a few chairs out there for those who need to sit.  And we’ll pray together for a moment there, and then we’ll go prayer walking. 

As you go out, you’ll find three sets of prayer cards. Three levels of prayer walks.  The green are the shortest, prayers for right here or within a block of here.  The yellow ones take you out a few blocks.  The red ones go beyond that a bit.  Take a card and walk and pray.

When you’re done, you can go home or to lunch, OR if you’d like, you can come back here and spend a few minutes talking about what we experienced and giving thanks to God for this time together. I will be here excited to hear your stories and pray with you.

May God watch over and bless our going out and our coming in from this time forth and forevermore.  (Psalm 121:8)