“What’s Love Got to Do with it?”

January 21, 2018

Pastor Holly Sortland

From our Worship & Learning Series:  “Happily Ever After?”

This is our third Sunday of our sermon series “Happily Ever After?” in which we are exploring the complicated and often broken characters in the book of Genesis. My hope is that this sermon series will speak to you by showing you that God doesn’t work through perfect people because–as we’ve discovered from our lessons in these last couple of weeks— there are no perfect people!

We began the series by exploring the very  first verses in the Book of Genesis, the creation story. And we learned that God gave everything that he created a great blessing and that all that he created was good! And we as a congregation were challenged to think of the creation story and the story of Adam and Eve in the context of original blessing rather than Original Sin. We were reminded that God created the universe and life on planet Earth as a gift and a blessing for his people.

We were reminded that when Adam and Eve hid from God after they ate the forbidden fruit, God was worried and hollered out for them like a mother does when she loses track of her child at the mall. And you were asked the question, how does your relationship with your family and your relationship with God change when you think of it in the context of original blessing rather than Original Sin? I hope that message brought you a feeling of blessing, even in the midst of family dilemmas or disputes, I hope the sense of Gods’ original blessing has stuck with you these past couple of weeks.

Last week we had the pleasure of hearing from Pastor Kori Lehrkamp.  Pastor Kori preached on the Bible’s first blended family — and that was Abraham, his wife Sarah, and Abraham’s second wife- who was also Sarah’s slave, a woman named Hagar.   Now even though God had promised Abraham that he would have a legacy of children, more children than the stars of the universe, Sarah was impatient. And in the days when there were no fertility clinics or IVF techniques  \available, a woman of a dominant household would ask a subservient woman to bear a child for her.  And so that’s what Sarah demanded of Hagar.   She became pregnant, and suddenly things changed. Maybe Sarah started noticing that Hagar was getting more attention than she was. Maybe Sarah was noticing that Abraham was showing concern for the state of Hagar’s health, or perhaps maybe even Abraham asked Sarah to help Hagar out with some chores due to her condition. And, as Pastor Kori preached and as a story goes in Genesis, Hagar flees the home as she wants nothing to do with a household where she does not feel wanted. But the Lord speaks to Hagar and tells her to return to Abraham’s house and to bear his child. We learned very quickly that the Lord does not forsake Hagar and that he does not forsake the lowly. We’re not told much what happens next except that some years pass and Sarah finally bears a son, the long-awaited beloved boy, Isaac.

And suddenly Sarah’s maternal instincts kick in and she wants nothing to do with Hagar or her boy Ishmael. She wants nothing to stand in Isaac’s way of getting his inheritance. And she demands that Abraham desert Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.   And so they go, Hagar and Ishmael with no water and no food into the hot desert sun and Hagar cannot bear to watch her son die in the heat. But suddenly God speaks to Her and tells her not to be afraid and promises that Ishmael will father a great nation.

And if you come from a blended family…  if you ever felt like the forgotten stepchild or that you were neglected or treated as an outcast by your family, I hope that the story of Hagar and Ishmael is comforting to you. Because it reminds us that even when we feel alone in the dry Desert Valley, God is with us. And as Pastor Kori so  eloquently reminded us last week, we can’t ignore Hagar and Ishmael. The name Isaac– as we know– now means laughter because Sarah laughed when she was told that she was going to bear a son in her old age. And there’s no question that Isaac brought great joy to Sarah and Abraham. But we cannot forget about Hagar and Ishmael, who were treated as the leftovers in the family and thrown out to fend for themselves. We cannot forget them because God did not forget them. And so if you came from a family where you might have felt second best, I hope the story and the image of God asking Hagar to take Ishmael’s hand is healing to you. Because God keeps his promises, even when our families don’t.

Today, we’re going to delve into territory that many pastors and ministers avoid. It’s one of the best known and most troubling stories in the Old Testament.  Our Jewish brothers and sisters call the story “The Akedah” and we call it the binding of Isaac.  It’s the story found in Genesis 22, and it reads as follows:

The Command to Sacrifice Isaac

22 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill[a] his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”;[b] as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”[c]

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19  So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.

Now, after hearing this text, you can understand why it’s not often found in the common lectionary. It is not a pleasant story. It is not a story that we usually teach our children in Sunday School. It doesn’t seem like a story of a loving God, and certainly does not come off as a story as Abraham being a loving parent. The problem that I have always had with this text is this, why would a loving God so cruelly test  his most loyal follower?   And, the question that always comes up with this text is this:   “What kind of a God would ask such a horrible thing?”  And what does this lesson teach us–the Binding of Isaac? That we must do what God Wills us to do even if it harms the sacred life that we love the most? Is obedience more important than living ethically?

We’re going to delve into some of these questions but first in order to better understand the story, we need to understand the concept of child sacrifice in ancient Biblical times. As horrific as it sounds to us today, child sacrifice was actually not uncommon in ancient Hebrew times. The Canaanites, in particular, were rumored to offer their first born child as a burnt offering to the god Baal.  Biblical historians even argue that ancient Hebrew communities participated in the practice of sacrificing their first born children and archaeological findings of  bones from young children support this theory.   And we ask ourselves, how could people do something that to us seems horrifying?   But we have to understand that in these ancient communities, people believed in a God or gods that were full of vengeance.  And if you didn’t offer your most valuable treasure to God, then you would be punished.  And often, the most valuable thing a person had to offer–was their first born child.   If child sacrifice was not uncommon during Abraham’s time, one can  see why it would not be such a shocking request of God to make. But remember God promised Abraham a lineage of children and grandchildren long before Isaac was born. So with Isaac out of the picture, how would this nation of Abraham come to pass?

But if we go back and look at the text carefully, something startling pops out.  Let’s go back and look at verse 5:  5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.

Abraham said “WE will come back to you!”  Not “I, alone”, but we!

 Now, one could argue that he said that because he didn’t want to alarm Isaac as to what was about to happen.  But I think something else is in the works with this scripture.  Abraham goes through the motions. Abraham walks up the mountain, he binds up his son. Abraham raises his knife, and suddenly an angel appears and says “Stop!”  And suddenly Abraham’s eyes are drawn to a ram, trapped in the bushes–and he sees that God indeed has provided the sacrifice. And it is not Isaac!  So now, we have an answer to our question:  what kind of God would ask such a horrible thing of his child?  The answer is–not this one.+  Not this God.  The other false gods throughout the centuries may have required such a sacrifice, a sacrifice of terror and pain, but this God will not.  This is a God who values human life.  This is a God who does not want his people to suffer.  This is a God who keeps his promises.

So–the next logical question is this:  Why did God make Abraham take part of this whole song and dance, this terrifying charade?

The logical explanation is that Abraham had to go through the motions to prove that this God, our one true God, is different.  This is not a God who demands and takes away–this is a God who loves and provides.  He made a promise to Abraham and kept it. He made a promise to Hagar and Ishmael, and kept it.  He made a promise to Sarah–who laughed because the thought of having a child in her 90’s was ridiculous, and yet he kept it.  And that child was given the name Isaac–which means laughter.  No other God stopped a loving father from sacrificing his child, but this God did, because this God is groundbreaking.  This God loves unabashedly.  

And what is required to be in a relationship with this God?  Not murder. Not sacrifice. Not constant fear and guilt, but a God who asks simply of trust, faith and belief.  I think it’s interesting because often the binding of Isaac is portrayed in art with Isaac laying on the altar and Abraham is covering his eyes.  As if Abraham doesn’t want Isaac to see the charade he is putting on.  But I think it also it represents the blind trust that Abraham had in God, and perhaps the blind trust that Isaac had in God as well, because as a teenage boy, Isaac was likely certainly aware of the ritual of child sacrifice in his culture.   But Abraham trusted so much that this God, our God– was a loving God, that he was willing to bind up his son and prepare to do the unthinkable–but he knew that God would stop him.  And in the end, not only did God keep his promise, but Abraham kept his promise too. Because as he told his helpers that journeyed to Mt. Moriah alongside him, he said he and his son would be back down after they worshiped.  And that’s exactly what happened.

So how does this story, one of the most complicated, most debated pieces of scripture apply to our own lives?  

Well, let me ask you this question:  do you ever feel like God is punishing you? Or has there ever been a time in your life when you’ve dealt with an illness, a loss, a divorce, a death–and you’ve thought to yourself–what did I do to deserve this?  And you think back to mistakes you’ve made in your life. Poor choices, people you mistreated, children you punished perhaps to harshly, losing someone’s trust….and you think, “perhaps this is why I am sick, or this is why my husband is sick, or this is why I lost my job or this is why I can’t get pregnant,” and the list will go on and on.

Of all of the lessons to be learned of the Isaac and Abraham story, the most important one is this: our God is not a God of vengeance. Our God is not in the business of punishing people for their mistakes.  And because humans continued to not grasp this–because humans continued to live in fear and run away from God, God sent his only son. In the flesh. To teach us what love really is.  And God showed us that he loved us so much, that he was willing to experience the same suffering that we do. That’s what we’re told in  our scripture in John 3:16  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

God knows what it’s like to suffer. God knows what it’s like to lose a child. God loves us so much that he–the maker of the stars and the universe, humbled himself to become human through Jesus Christ.

So this is what I want you to leave here thinking today:  God is not punishing you. God will never punish you. God will never take something away from you that you so dearly love.  That’s what the binding of Isaac story teaches us.  God is not a God of taking, but our God is a God of blessing.  

And so when you experience tough times, deep pain and grief–please remember this. God is not causing you that pain because of your life choices.  We are not punished for our sins—because often our sins our punishment enough.  God redeems us from our sins and reminds us that we are forever covered in original blessing.

I can’t explain why bad things happen to good people–that’s probably a topic for a different sermon on a different day.  But I can explain why good things happen to good people. Because God is love.  Will you repeat that?

So what’s love got to do with it?

Everything.

Everything.

Even in the notorious and messy scripture like the story we heard today–God shows us that when we trust God, when we believe in God and when we have blind faith in God–love conquers all.  And that’s what love’s got to do with it. Amen.

  + referenced from Rob Bell “What is the BIble?”

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Christmas Eve Sermon

December 24, 2017

“We Are Bethlehem”

Pastor Holly Sortland

 

Tonight, Christmas Eve, as we celebrate the birth of the Christ child, we get to explore the light.  The light that comes not just tonight, but every Christmas–and every day! A light that is ever-present, a light that nothing can extinguish.  

 

A lot of us in this room tonight may be struggling to feel this light, to see it.  Instead, we may be in the shadows and depths of deep grief.  We may be in the midst of struggles in our marriage, or in relationships with family members.   We may be tempted to give into to things that take us further away from Christ’s light–like an unhealthy relationship.  Or a harmful habit.  We might be filling ourselves up with things that only offer us a temporary dose of happiness–new clothes, new toys, or new gadgets.

 

And some of us might have difficulties seeing the light in a broader sense, and we’re worried that our world is headed down a path of darkness.  

 

While this is supposed to be the season of joy, for many it is a season of high anxiety.  In fact, according to statistics, the highest rate of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs prescriptions occur in December.

 

And so for many of us tonight–it can be hard to see the light.  Because our relationships and our spirits and our world seems full of brokeness and cracks.

 

But this is okay. In fact–this can be a good thing, because as some of you may know–it is through the cracks that the light shines through.  And the light is very good! So good, in fact that it is mentioned in the very first lines of scripture, from the book of Genesis which reads:

 

1 When God began to create[a] the heavens and the earth— 2 the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— 3 God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. 4 God saw how good the light was.”

 

God saw how good the light was! And so tonight, as we celebrate the light and the love that the Christ child brings into this world,  I want us to be open to thinking a bit differently about why God sent his Son to earth.

 

About why God became incarnate in the flesh and decided to come and be amongst us.  

 

Because you see, when we so often think about God sending Christ to earth for our salvation only, to save ourselves from our own sins–we often miss another narrative that is woven through the Christmas story. And that is– by God coming to earth in the most innocent, vulnerable form–a newborn infant born to an oppressed peasant girl–God relied on and trusted us to save him.

 

I’m going to repeat that–God depended on humans, the very people who continued to turn away from him —to keep his son alive in the flesh. God took a risk by the sending the Christ child and trusting that people would offer safety and mercy, so that he could grow up to teach us and heal us, and offer us resurrection.  Despite humankind’s history of turning our back on God, God has so much faith in us, so much love for us, that he trusted us with his most precious son.

 

God trusted that people would open up their hearts and offer compassion to the Holy Family, and even defy human made laws in order to ensure that God’s holy light remained in this world.

 

As we heard in the readings from Luke this evening, we are told that Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem to be told that there were no rooms available at the inns.  

 

Now, when we think of “inns” we think of hotels or hostels, but biblical translations offer clues that Mary and Joseph were actually seeking refuge in people’s homes.  And for some reason, the people in Bethlehem didn’t make room for Mary and Joseph.  Except for someone–some mystery person or family, who allowed Mary and Joseph to seek shelter in the place where they kept their animals.  We like to imagine it as a barn or a stable, but what it likely actually was–according to biblical archaeologists– was a place below or beside a home, likely built into a cave like structure.  It would have been cold, damp, smelly and it would not have been well lit. In fact, other than the man made light that Joseph or perhaps that the persons offering them shelter might have offered, there would have been no light at all.

 

But after Mary’s labor pains had subsided, after the Christ child was born–the echoes of the first line in Genesis were once again repeated, but this time God didn’t simply say “Let There Be Light”—God became the light!  In the flesh of a small baby.  And it was up to us as humans to not let this light be extinguished, but  to keep this light burning.  

 

Our reading from Matthew this evening tells the story of the brutal King Herod, fearful of losing power and hearing rumors that the King of the Jews, that the messiah had been born.  And so he asks the wise men, (or magi) to visit the Christ child and to report back to him his location.  But the magi heed the words of the angels and  defy the powerful King, putting their own lives in danger, to ensure that the vulnerable Christ-child’s–to ensure light kept burning.

 

And then we are told the unpleasant and scary part of the Christmas narrative, the ugly part when Herod orders the murders of all infant baby boys under the age of two, and Joseph is warned in a dream to take the baby and Mary to Egypt.  And suddenly, the Christ-child, the savior of humankind, the light of the world becomes a refugee–a refugee at the mercy of others that will let his family into Egypt.  And someone, perhaps several people–showed the holy family mercy. They were safely guided into Egypt away from King Herod’s murderous reign.  

 

You see all along the way in the Christmas story, there are a few good people doing the right thing. Thereby keeping the Christ child alive, and thereby keeping his light to shine in a world of darkness.

 

God trusts us to the right thing. He expects it.  God interrupted this world, God entered this world as a vulnerable child–expecting us to be saviors ourselves. To be protectors of the light and the truth.

 

So my suggestion this Christmas, is that for those of us who can’t feel the light or see the light —is to be the light.

 

Will we give way to fear, or will we take risks to keep Christ’s light burning in this world? And I invite you to ponder this question: if we were in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago, what would be our role in the Christmas story?

 

Will we open our doors to Mary and Joseph?

Will we defy the orders of a King even if it means putting our physical lives in danger?

Will we welcome a refugee family fleeing danger?

 

Because here is the headline, this evening–this Christmas Eve 2017.   If there is one thing I want you to take away from this message, it’s this: we ARE Bethlehem. Christ is born in you and me.  And despite our own circumstances, despite our own suffering–if we close the door on Mary and Joseph, if we follow the king’s order and put the child in danger, if we turn away that refugee family–we are turning away Jesus.  

 

The Christmas story isn’t only about God coming down to earth to be among us in the flesh, it’s about Christians carrying the torch. Carrying the light, from generation to generation.  Because every year we don’t celebrate that Christ came, but every year we celebrate his coming! Because Christ keeps coming and the light keeps breaking in–and it’s up to us to keep that light shining.

 

I remember one Christmas when I was five months pregnant with our second son, and had a 17-month-old in tow, and my husband I were in California trying to catch a flight back to South Dakota so that our son could spend his first Christmas in South Dakota with family, and so that he could be baptized on Christmas Eve.   But a massive blizzard in Denver interrupted our plans, and there was no hope of catching a flight out of San Francisco that rainy December day.  

 

We went from counter to counter hauling all of our luggage, our stroller, and a hyper toddler, but no airline could accomodate us.  We were on our own. And the feeling was that everyone around us was on their own too.  Everyone was cranky and frustrated and stranded, all wanting to get to a destination that was beyond their limits.  I remember sitting down, exhausted and pregnant, wrangling my son as my husband made another fruitless attempt an an airline counter.

 

My eyes started to water and I was on the verge on tears when suddenly, a woman next to met struck up a conversation with me.  She asked me about my son, my pregnancy, and where we were trying to go.  And I shared with her my disappointment that we would miss Christmas with our family, that my son wouldn’t be baptized as planned, and I felt her compassion.

 

And I asked her about her situation.  And I learned that  because of this blizzard that was over a thousand miles away, she too was going to miss Christmas with her grandchildren, including meeting a brand new grandbaby for the first time.   And suddenly, I didn’t feel so terrible anymore.  Suddenly, I didn’t feel that my family was on our own anymore.  This small act of a stranger caring enough to engage me in conversation gave me hope.  She reminded me that my problems weren’t the only ones in the world.  She reminded me that we all have our stories–and that when we share them with others–we begin the work of spreading the light. Of reminding each other that God wants us to look out for each other, just like those people who looked out for for a young, holy family over two thousand years ago.

 

We never did make it back to South Dakota that Christmas, but it was a Christmas I will never forget.  We rented a car and explored San Francisco, we drove our son over the Golden Gate bridge, and visited the famous Grace Cathedral and watched our son run and laugh though the empty aisles among the pews.  

 

And when I look back to that Christmas, I wonder how much different it would have been if I hadn’t had that conversation with that woman at the airport.  Something about her made me optimistic–made me remember that we are all connected.  She changed my attitude–she gave me hope. Just by taking a few moments to talk to me.

 

And so this Christmas, when so many of us are feeling the darkness of grief,  the darkness of stress,  the darkness of loneliness or depression, the darkness or addiction or relationship problems;  I have good news for you. Because in your darkness–if you can’t see the light– know that God is calling you to BE the light.

 

To be that innkeeper that says to the stranger, “yes, I have room for you here.”  

To be the magi that defy the rules of the human authority in order to protect the most vulnerable.   

To welcome the young family at the border that is fleeing death and persecution —to say yes, you are welcome here.  

Or, simply to be the person that approaches a stranger and strikes up a conversation.  Because in these times, which often feel cruel and uncaring, and when decency seems to have fallen by the wayside–now more than ever, we must be the light.  Because like it or not, as Christians, no matter where we live–whether it be Rapid City, or Omaha, or Paris or London, Tel Aviv–we are Bethlehem.

And we are required to do what the people who served the Holy Family did over 2,000 years ago.  To open up our hearts and let the light come in. Not just in December, not just at CHristmas, but every single day.  

So let there be open doors.

Let there be brave women and men willing to defy rules in the holy name of justice.  Let us welcome the innocents who flee from danger. And let us talk with one another. One day at a time. 365 days a year.  Because the Christ child is here, among us!  Let there be light!  Amen.

 

 

 

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“Purple Doors: Having the Faith of Lydia”

November 26, 2017

Pastor Holly Sortland

 

This is our last Sunday of our Worship and Learning Series “The Great Thanksgiving”  in which we’ve explored Biblical characters who do often get little attention but who did great works through the help of God.  We discussed Tabitha,a caregiver of widows who was so beloved that the Apostle Peter resurrected her from the dead.  Last week we learned about Bezalel, the chief architect of the Tabernacle (or house of worship) for the Jewish people, and we learned how the Holy Spirit works through people in our own church, like Aaron Flack and we celebrated one of his paintings.

 

Today, we are learning the story of a woman who is mentioned only twice in the New Testament.   Her name is Lydia. Like Tabitha, Lydia’s story comes from the book of Acts, and Lydia’s story is short but amazing.

 

The scripture is listed on your bulletin cover, so you can read along with me:   This scripture comes from the book of Acts, and is likely written by Luke, the same person who wrote the gospel of  Luke. Luke would have been travelling with Paul at this time, and what we are about to read could be considered an eyewitness account to an amazing conversion.

 

Lydia’s conversion

11 “We sailed from Troas straight for Samothrace and came to Neapolis the following day. 12 From there we went to Philippi, a city of Macedonia’s first district and a Roman colony. We stayed in that city several days. 13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the riverbank, where we thought there might be a place for prayer. We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered. 14 One of those women was Lydia, a Gentile God-worshipper from the city of Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth. As she listened, the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message. 15 Once she and her household were baptized, she urged, “Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” And she persuaded us.”  

 

Lydia in the Bible was one of thousands of minor characters mentioned in Scripture, but after 2,000 years, she is still remembered for her contribution to early Christianity.  Although the information on her is sketchy, Bible scholars have concluded she was an exceptional person in the ancient world.

The Apostle Paul first encountered Lydia at Philippi, in eastern Macedonia.  Paul and his fellow apostles were traveling on a Roman highway, which they came upon after sailing an ocean strait that connected the ancient middle east to Greece.

Lydia was a “worshiper of God,” probably a gentile women who had converted to Judaism. Because ancient Philippi had no synagogue, the few Jews in that city gathered on the bank of a River for sabbath worship where they could use the water for ritual washings.

Luke, the author of Acts, called Lydia a seller of purple goods. She was originally from the city of Thyatira, in the Roman province of Asia, across the Aegean Sea from Philippi.  Because of it’s location near the sea, Thyatira was a prime location for traders of dye– especially purple dye.

You see, Lydia was in a lucrative business. In Lydia’s time, extracting dye was a long and delicate process done from nature and purple dye  was especially expensive. Purple was a commodity and status symbol as the costly fabric was reserved for the elite. Only the emperor wore a toga made entirely of purple cloth. The luxury item was also big business.

Purple dye was expensive because of the difficulty in extracting it. Thousands of mollusks were required to dye a single yard. Purple dye was derived from a gland of a snail called the Murex shellfish. This snail was especially prominent in Lydia’s home town of Thyatira.  It produces a deep blue violet dye that, unlike others, is permanent and won’t wash out.  This celebrated purple dye is cited in texts dating as early as 1600 BCE.   Historians tell us that snails were gathered in autumn or winter and kept alive until a huge quantity had been collected as each shell produced only a single drop of dye. The dye was extracted by crushing smaller shells and piercing larger ones. The milky fluid was then put into brine where vinegar was added and was then left in the sun until the color gradually transformed from a yellowish hue to a deep purplish red. It was then boiled down to further concentrate it.

It took approximately 12,000 shellfish to extract 1½ grams of pure dye. One gram of purple dye was valued more than ten grams of gold and a pound of wool dyed with a favored purple could be sold for 1,000 denarii, a sum that would take a laborer three years to earn. A whole cloak of such material might cost three times that amount.

 

Since Lydia’s husband is not mentioned but she was a householder, scholars have speculated she was a widow who brought her late husband’s business to Philippi.   But regardless of the circumstances that made Lydia a prominent business woman–it’s safe for us to assume that she was a woman of patience.  From what we just heard about the process of making purple dye–we know that she is in a business that doesn’t yield immediate results.  Remember it took 12,000 shellfish to get just 1 and half grams of dye!

So what I think is amazing about this story is how quickly Lydia converted to Christianity.  God “opened her heart” to pay close attention to Paul’s preaching,  which one could call a supernatural gift causing her conversion.

Not only was she  immediately baptized in the river,  but so were the people living and working along with her.  Through this action, Lydia becomes the very first European convert to Christianity that is recorded in the Bible.  

 

But what she does next is even more extraordinary. If you go back to the scripture, it reads that  “Once she and her household were baptized, she urged, “Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” And Luke says “she persuaded us.”

 

Noticed that Lydia didn’t invite Paul and his fellow apostles into her home, but she she urged him. In fact, she almost challenged him.  You see, Lydia’s conversion now put herself at risk, and it put her business at risk, as proclaiming herself a Christian in the Roman empire at this time was quite dangerous.  You can also imagine what people in town where saying about Lydia, an unmarried woman, welcoming strange men into her home.

 

But in a way, it’s almost like Lydia was testing Paul to see if he could really trust  in her conversion.  And the amazing thing is–Paul accepts her invitation into her home without hesitation.  Later in the book of Acts, after Paul and his fellow apostles are arrested and released from prison, they once again seek refuge and fellowship at Lydia’s house.  Lydia’s house has become more than just a place of business or a resting place–Lydia’s house, in a sense, has become the first Christian church in Europe–and it was done with great risk.

While all of this is important to the history of our Christian faith, I want us to instead challenge ourselves on how we can apply Lydia’s story to our own lives.

I’d like to ask you  yourself– when did you convert to living as a Christian?  Some of us may be thinking to ourselves “well, I was born into it,”  but Christianity isn’t something that occurs automatically.  I hope that there is a defining moment in your life when someone said something to you, or when you felt the prayers of others, or when you knew God was working in your life…and I hope that that moment sticks in your mind as a time when you became a Christian.  I hope that everyone here has a moment like that that they can look back upon.  

But if you don’t, if you perhaps feel that your religion is just something that you’ve been going through the motions–then I have good news for you, too.  God has plans for you–and that plan may involve you preaching the good news to someone else.  To remind someone that they are loved and valued.  And when that happens, God spirit might not be making just one, but two converts of Christ. Because you see when we share the good news, we become the good news, and we experience a conversion though God’s love that is only possible when we share it with someone else.

 

I wonder how many people there are in our community–people in our neighborhood, or in our workplace–that are so close to the amazing conversion that Lydia experienced.  You see, the scripture tells us that God opened Lydia’s heart to the words that Paul had to tell her.

And I want to ask you now–how many of you are comfortable enough to evangelize to someone the way that Paul did to Lydia?  

And Paul didn’t just evangelize to Lydia, he also invested in her.  He made her realize that there was a gift available to her that was far more valuable than the purple dye that made her a wealthy woman.  

That there was a gift available to her that would give her more security than financial wealth.  And it was a gift that didn’t require waiting for–it was available to her immediately.  It was the gift of God’s grace through Jesus Christ.   

The Holy Spirit was present with Paul and Lydia that day at the river, just like the Holy Spirit is present here with us.

But the thing about the Holy Spirit and that it doesn’t work alone–it works through people, and it requires courage.  You see, if we decide to be brave enough like Paul and spread the good news about Christ, knowing that the message might be rejected, knowing that it might turn some people off–but we do it anyway–the reward is great.   Because I guarantee you that you will find a Lydia in your life who is right on the cusp of opening her heart up to God.  And this person, this Lydia in your life–might have gifts to offer that could change the world.

We live in world where our faith is either kept quiet–we worship at church, but often we don’t evangelize because we’re afraid that we’re going to be judged, or that we’ll offend someone.  Sadly, in some ways, Christians in America have earned a reputation (especially with the millennial generation) that we are judgemental and unaccepting.  But it’s our job to change that reputation.  It’s our job to reclaim Christianity as the faith that brings the dead to life, that makes the poor rich, that makes the downtrodden righteous, a religion the turns the world upside down.   It’s time that reclaim our faith and to boldly let  others know that God loves them without judgement, that there is nothing that separate us from the love of Jesus Christ.    Could you imagine what the world would like if we were so bold, and so impassioned in sharing our faith that it would want to make someone be baptized on the spot?

So what are we waiting for? It’s time for us to have an open door attitude or maybe in the case of Lydia, a “purple door” attitude—-that we believe so strongly in our faith that we’ll take a risk and proclaim our faith boldly, even if it means the risk of being rejected.  

Because I have news for you all–God doesn’t want us sitting around waiting for him to show up. Can I get an amen?  God is calling us to show up–in fact, Jesus’ last words before he was ascended into heaven were these:  “ the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witness in Judea and Samaria and to all the ends of this earth.”

So as we move into this season of Advent–a time when we wait for God to come into the world as a vulnerable, innocent baby–there is no better time to be Christ’s witness than now.  At a time when our nation and world is so divided by politics, we must be God’s witness.  When there are children in our neighborhood going hungry at night, when there are not enough beds at the homeless shelter, when there is an epidemic of drugs and addiction–we must be God’s witness. And we must be God’s witness now.

I think about the people beyond our walls, and I wonder how many of them of not been baptized, and how many would want to be if they knew that God’s grace was available to them?  So my goal is this–that this Advent season, we look for Lydias. Because I know that there are houses and houses of them.  And wouldn’t it be wonderful if on Christmas Eve, we had some more baptisms here at South Maple? But the thing is–I can’t make this happen all by myself. I may be the pastor, but YOU are all the ministers. So I ask you to be bold like Paul and Lydia.  To proudly proclaim your faith and minister to others. Show them the love and light of Christ and his saving grace. And may God open their hearts to your message. Amen.

 

 

 

 

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Earning a Reputation 

 

A Message on the Remarkable Life of Tabitha from Acts 

November 5, 2017

Part of “The Great Thanksgiving Worship & Learning Series”

Pastor Holly Sortland

Scripture:  Acts 9: 36-43

 

This is our first week of our new sermon series “The Great Thanksgiving” where we’re invited to explore and learn about some important Biblical figures who receive little recognition.  Outside of our sanctuary, we’re invited to do the same–to recognize important people who do important work but are often overlooked.

Today, I am excited to further explore the story of Tabitha. As we just heard from the scripture, the story is rather short. But this morning, we’re going to explore this miracle story and the importance of a woman whom we know little about.

Going back to the scripture, we know that Tabitha  is recognized as a Christian disciple in the community of Joppa.  Joppa is a coastal community in Israel, and it’s where Jonah caught a ship to run away from his task of prophesying to the Godless people of Neviah.  Joppa is also a place where Peter–once known as Simon- and also known as Simon Peter, did quite a bit of ministry. (refer to picture)  Here’s what Joppa looks like today.

We aren’t told a lot about Tabitha. We don’t know how old she is.  We don’t know if she has a family, or if she is married, though it’s easy to assume that she was not married , as family or a spouse are not mentioned when Peter arrives to her house.  But we know that Tabitha has a reputation. We are told that he is greeted by sobbing widows, who are quick to show Peter all of the robes and clothing Tabitha provided for them.  And if you remember from previous sermons, you’ll remember that widows were the lowest on the rung in ancient Judea–they have little if any means to support themselves economically.  Yet Tabitha was called to care for them and live in community with them.  Now, for some–caring for the widows might be looked at a job that was not very prestigious–it was certainly something that the upper-class and elite in society would likely not do.  Remember–the events in early Acts take place in a society that was largely ruled by honor and shame, and to be widowed without financial support or support of a male–but one of the most shameful experiences a person could endure.  

So that fact that Tabitha chose to devote her life to serving them says a lot about her character. It means she put her devotion to Christ before her reputation. And it meant that she lived radically in order to follow Christ.

But aside from this– who was this Tabitha? Perhaps she was a widow herself.  Or perhaps she was a single woman who chose to live her life to serve others, as Christ commands us to do.  The writer of Acts notes that Tabitha actually has two names—her other Greek name being Dorcus.  It’s important to note that Tabitha was known by an Aramaic name and a rGeek name, because it leads us to believe that she was known and loved by the Jewish and gentile Christian communities.  Both names translate to the word “gazelle,” invoking an image of grace and energy.  So perhaps we can assume that Tabitha was a disciple that lived a life of grace and gave to others with a cheerful heart.

Yet of all of things we don’t know about Tabitha, here are the few things that we do know.  

We know that she was immensely loved by her fellow disciples, so much so that they call for Peter–the leading disciple in the area–who was in a community (Lydda) about twelve miles away from Joppa.  But I don’t think they called for Peter to assist for a burial.  No- there is a great urgency in their calling for Peter–which leads the reader to assume that they are expecting a miracle.  

So what we know about Tabitha is that her death would not be tolerated in her early Christian community. Tabitha was someone so loved that she was someone the community could not do without.  Tabitha, who sewed fabric and clothed others, seemed to be the fabric that united this group of early Christian believers.  

So that’s what we know about Tabitha. She was a graceful Christ-filled minister that her community could not do without.

 

We are told that when Peter arrives at the house, he is surrounded by weeping widows. Remember that Peter was ministering in a community that was 12 miles away–so for him to be called and make his way to the house was a 24 mile trip–that would be lengthy journey–at least a day’s time to make by feet or by animal.  So to think that these women who so loved Tabitha held vigil there for at least a day, crying and mourning for their beloved disciple–is an image that instills in the reader just how much Tabitha was loved.

And I wonder how Peter must have felt.   By the time we get to the 9th chapter of Acts, Peter has performed several miracles.  He and the disciple John heal a man who was disabled since birth, and Peter heals another man who was ill with a nerve issue–but he had never, ever raised someone from the dead.

 

So I imagine Peter, probably dusty and thirsty from making this 12 mile journey, and being greeted by a group of mourners who were expecting a miracle.  And just like Jesus did when he resurrected the daughter of Jairus, and just like prophet Elisha did before he resurrected the son of a widow–Peter sends the mourners outside of the building.  

And then, his knees hit the ground.

Peter prays.  And let his prayer remind us that we must never underestimate the importance of prayer if we are expecting a miracle. 

 

And you have to  realize how strong his faith had to be–because he knew what was expected of him, and he knew what the next words would be out of his mouth…”Tabitha Get Up!”  And I wonder if there was moment where Tabitha was still, and Peter was feeling desperate as to what might happen next.  But we are told that Tabitha opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He takes her hand, helps her to her feet, and calls in the widows, and we are told that suddenly Joppa became a community filled with believers.  

 

You see–Tabitha was resurrected because Joppa needed to witness a miracle.  Just as Thomas doubted the resurrected Christ until he could see him with his own eyes, the early Christians of Joppa had to see a resurrection in order to believe in it.

 

So how can the story of Tabitha–the woman who clothed the widows and the poor–how does her story translate into our own lives as Christian men and women?

 

For one, Tabitha’s resurrection should be just as important to us as it was to the community at Joppa. When we read her story in Acts, we become an eye-witness to her resurrection.  A resurrection story that has been told and read by hundreds of generations before us.   

 

Tabitha’s resurrection is a reminder that resurrection is possible for all of us–and it has nothing to do with our place in society.

It has nothing to do with whether we mop floors or perform complicated surgeries.  As long as we love as God calls us to love and serve like Tabitha did–we see that resurrection is available to all of us.

But I also think the story of Tabitha translates into our own lives because it reminds us of how small actions of kindness and generosity can be the greatest form of evangelism.  As I mentioned at the beginning of my message–during this sermon series–we are also being called to recognize, pray for, and give thanks to those in our society who are often overlooked.

If you received our weekly email and follow us on Facebook, you’ll see that this week we are celebrating and praying for a remarkable woman named Sindy. I’ve briefly gotten to know Sindy because I drive through the McDonald’s drive through way too much on weekday mornings, and I immediately noticed something special about Sindy.  She never seemed stressed, she seemed confident and always cheerful in her work, but I could sense that something was burdening her.  I soon learned that Sindy has cancer and weekly chemo treatments that make her quite sick, but yet I see her many mornings cheerfully working her shift.

 

With Sindy’s permission, I shared her story on Facebook, and you wouldn’t believe the amount of positive comments that poured in.  It seems everyone knows Sindy, not because of her illness, but because of her cheerful heart and her willingness to go out of her way and to please each customer that drives though her line.  

 

You see, I think it’s easy for people to look at a fast food worker as someone who does menial work, but was Sindy has shown though her cheerfulness her caring, and her joyful personality–and that she does Holy work.  Her positive attitude can make someone’s day. Her willingness to take the time to make sure that a child gets just the right Happy Meal toy, her willingness to know her customers well enough that she knows their orders by heart–shows that her work is by no means menial.  Her work is prestigious and valuable–and yes, oh yes, her work is her ministry.

I think there are many people in our community, some sitting in this sanctuary–who have a heart like Tabitha and Sindy.  You see–it’s not our labors that define us, but it’s how we labor.  It doesn’t matter if we’re cleaning hallways and toilets, or sitting on the Supreme Court–how we go about our business of serving others is what truly defines us.  Do we do it with regret and disdain, or do we do it with a cheerful heart?  Do we take the time, every day- to remember that each person that we encounter, whether they be a bank teller or a cashier, or even the person whose job it is to give us parking tickets has their own story to tell?

If we change our lens of how we look at them–and if we open our hearts and remind ourselves that God calls us to labor in a way of serving one another–it makes it a lot easier for us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.  To remember that maybe the waitress who was slow getting to our table had a bad morning because she couldn’t find daycare for her sick child.  Or perhaps that clerk was less than friendly to us because he’s in a lot of pain.   And when we respond with understanding and kindness, instead of anger or complaint–the kingdom starts to come.  Jesus’ presence is felt.  Because compassion reminds us that we all belong to each other.

So Tabitha’s story is really a story about resurrecting love.  It’s a story about resurrecting compassion. It’s a story that God calls us to find joy and meaning in our labors–so that we can grow closer as a community of believers.  

I pray that when my time comes and when I am called to journey into the next life, people will mourn for me like they did Tabitha.  That like her robes and shawls, my labors will be proof that I served Christ and my fellow sisters and brothers to my fullest potential.  And that’s my hope for all of you sitting here today.  

 

You see, I think we all need to go out and earn ourselves a bit of a reputation.  A reputation like Sindy has. A reputation like Tabitha. A reputation that we’re someone who will take care of you.  That we’re someone bold enough to ask for prayers. That we’re someone who takes pride in what we do–that we labor with joy. And I want all us to pray this week, as we give thanks for others–I want us to pray and ask ourselves–”what is our reputation?”

 

So I see a bit of Tabitha in Sindy. And I pray that through Tabitha’s story, Sindy is feeling a bit of resurrection. A resurrection through the prayer that is surrounding her. Through the kind words of thanks and appreciation offered before her.  Sindy, I hope you are feeling the love. Just as Tabitha did when her mourners rejoiced in her resurrection, I hope you feel strength and joy though the story of Tabitha, the great disciple.  And may we all feel this strength too.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

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The Great Magician 

October 29, 2017

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 9

Luke 8: 1-3

We often forget that Jesus, our savior, the greatest healer and miracle worker, required financial support.  Jesus and his disciples required resources for their travels, and it’s important enough that the gospel writer in Luke feels the need to name some of Jesus’ financial backers.

According to Luke, women who Jesus had healed in turn provided for him out of their “resources,” including  Mary Magdalene, whom we are already introduced to in earlier gospel lessons–but it’s interesting to note that Mary provided financial backing to Jesus.  Another woman–named Joanna also captures our attention.  You see, her husband worked for King Herod, the oppressor.  She was an upper class woman, but she rebelled against her husband’s beliefs and the authority of her time to give support Jesus.

As part of this powerful household, Joanna would be uniquely positioned to help Jesus with her resources, being both wealthy and having palace connections. She takes a risk and attends to Jesus during his life, and, the Gospels tell us, after his death, she is one of the trio of women who go to his tomb and find it empty.

So it’s interesting to me that it was people who were healed that funded Jesus’ ministry.  Especially Mary of Magdalene–who is often incorrectly portrayed as prostitute or an adulteress.  What we know about Mary of Magdalene is that she was spiritually healed by Jesus and that she was so changed by this healing, that she not only followed Jesus (in the literal sense–we know she was there at the cross), but she  funded Jesus’ ministry too.

Now, I invite us to stop for a moment and to think about what your money goes to.  And I don’t know about you, but when I have to make my payment for the electric bill, or a home repair,  I dread pulling out my debit card.  I am not a cheerful giver when it comes to those things.  And I admit though–when I’m grocery shopping at Target, and I go in only to get laundry detergent, but come out with things that I don’t need, because I couldn’t resist some of the adorable children’s clothes—I get caught up, and I pull out my debit card and I’m not exactly cheerful about paying for the items, but I am satisfied for what I am getting in return.

But I will tell you when I am a cheerful giver. It’s when I write a check out to the church, or one of our missions like UMCOR–because I know that from this gift, like Paul tells us–the rest will be blessed.

A few of us from the church recently attended a stewardship workshop here, and we were asked the question– “what is the number one reason people give to the church?”

People had a lot of different answers– from giving out of guilt, or for tax reasons, but it’s interesting because most people didn’t guess the correct answer.

The number one reason that people give to the church is because they believe in the church’s mission.

They believe in the church’s mission.

So I want to ask you–do you believe in the church’s mission?

Or perhaps a better question to ask is this: do we know what the mission of the church is?

Our mission is to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.

-It means we are led to help people grow spiritually

-It means that through community and prayer, and worship and study, that we heal people from whatever demon is plaguing them, whether it be guilt, or anger, or grief, or depression or addiction.

 

I think the problem is this: a lot of people in our society–especially people in the younger generation–they hear about Jesus’ great works, but they necessarily don’t believe.  They almost view Jesus and the church as something they  can’t believe in because they haven’t  had  their eyes opened to the miracles that Jesus offers us. I think some people don’t view Jesus as a divine healer, but they view him sort of as a magician.

A few months ago, our family was in Minnesota eating at a restaurant when a man came up and asked if he could do a few tricks for our kids.  He pulled quarters out from behind my daughter’s ear, he made a Coke bottle magically appear from his shirt sleeve, and he even lit a bunch of hershey kiss wrappers on fire and they suddenly turned into unwrapped, brand new Hershey kisses.  It was a fun 10 minutes- and I felt obligated to tip him, because for a few minutes, he had our family’s full attention and he gave us some joy.  So we gave him a few bucks and he went on his way to the next table–doing the same tricks for  another family.

 

And while I was happy to give to this man–it was just a one time gift–it wasn’t an investment.  But then I like to imagine–what if it was Jesus that came and sat with our family that night?  What if he performed some healing miracles–what if we saw lives transformed right before my eyes?  Oh let me tell, you–I would give Jesus more than a tip.  I would want to make sure that Jesus got to the next family in the restaurant, and had the means to go to the next restaurant down the road and the next one after that.  I would give Jesus an investment.  Just as Mary of Magdalene, and Joanna and the church of Corinth did.

And so what I’m saying is this: Jesus should be our greatest financial investment.  Because we know that Jesus isn’t some great magician. He is a miracle worker—and the catch is, Jesus expects us to bridge the gap between heaven and earth and help perform those miracles for him.

We just finished our 40 day prayer challenge–and if you did it along with us, if you received the emails, or read the book, or read the daily Facebook postings, I hope that it strengthened you.  I know that strengthened me.  It’s been encouraging to hear from a few people about how this prayer challenge changed them.  One person told me that for the first time in their life, they felt emboldened enough to pray with a stranger.  Another person told me about how whenever they find themselves in a challenging situation, they now walk for awhile in prayer–and they find themselves strengthened.

Through the prayer challenge, I hope that you realized that you should never underestimate the power of prayer–especially when we pray for someone else, because it makes us miracle workers.

I think of those women who funded Jesus’ ministry–the women who were briefly mentioned in the 8th chapter of Luke, and I think about how strong their faith was.  They believed in Jesus’ mission because they experienced it themselves.

In the Gospel of Matthew, before Jesus is ascended into heaven–we are told that Jesus shared these words with his disciples.

Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” —Matthew 28:16-20

 

So my hope is that all of us are here today because we not only believe in this church’s mission, but we believe in Jesus’ mission.

 

So our mission at this church is to believe in the mission so much that we become the miracle workers.  And we believe in the miracles because we experience them ourselves.  Through prayer, through forgiveness, through acts of mercy and justice.  And we don’t believe in this mission only for ourselves, but we do it for children and their children, and the next generations to come.  It’s our job to live our the church’s mission and to show people that God isn’t some great magician.  The Jesus’ powerful miracles aren’t just old tales of smoke and mirrors.  That God sent his son to change the world through us.

 

What would have happened if Paul would have stopped his ministry at Corinth? If hadn’t bragged them up and he hadn’t invited and encouraged them to give joyfully?  Would Christianity have spread as far as it has come today? What would have happened if Mary of Magdalene- who had been healed by Jesus–just went on with her life without investing her life in Christ? What if Joanna, a woman so bold that she funded Jesus behind the back of Herod–what if she just stood by and assumed or expected that someone else would do it?

 

You see, just as Paul was called, and the church in Corinth was called, and Mary and Joanna were called–we here are  being called too. To invest in the miracle of multiplication.  We have a chance to invest in the Kingdom, to be miracle workers here in this life.  So I ask you today–will you invest in the Kingdom with me? Will you turn in your pledge card and give cheerfully from the heart–as we change the world, one person, one pray at a time?

Will you believe and invest in the mission of this church?

So let’s get at it. And let’s do it with joy.  Amen.

 

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My Two Cents

Scripture:   Mark 12: 41-44  

  Luke Chapter 21

 

Oct 22, 2017  -Pastor Holly Sortland

One of the things that I love about Jesus is that he was an observer. He never seemed to miss what was going on around him.  He especially had a knack of observing–and loving–the overlooked in society.

 

Today’s lesson focuses on a widow giving her last two cents to God, and in order for us to truly understand this story, it’s important that we look at what it meant to be a “widow” in ancient biblical times.  The term widow was often used in the Old Testament by the prophets, and it was used more as a description than as a noun.  It was used to describe Israel and other communities at at their worst–a city stripped of its inhabitants and riches was often described as being “widowed.”  And it’s true, that in ancient Judea, to be a widow often meant great hardship. It often meant losing financial and social status, and in a patriarchal society, a widow  had little means to make money of her own.  It’s assumed that widows had no inheritance rights, and they were required to dress in a certain garb to show their place in society.  According to the Jewish laws in Leviticus, a widow could only remarry a male relative from her deceased husband’s side of the family.  If no such relative existed, a widow faced a harsh reality of poverty and loneliness.

And while there are several women and men here today who have endured and are enduring the grief of being  widows or widowers–having lost their spouse–I think all of us here have had times in our lives when we feel widowed as the term was described in the Old Testament. We feel lonely. We might feel lost, or invisible.

So I find it interesting that the Bible uses stories of widows as teaching opportunities.  In fact, if you carefully consider the texts in which the term “widow” is brought up in the Bible, you find that word “widow” is used to alert us that something important is about to happen.  In both the Old Testament and New Testament, widows are the subject of miracles.

We see it in the book of Kings when Elisha brings a dead widow’s son back to life, and then later when Elisha meets another widow and brings about the miracle of multiplication of oil, so that the widow could sell them and have a means to support her family. In  the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ raises a widow’s only son from the dead.  And in the story of the widow Naomi, she is saved by the love and devotion of her daughter-in-law Ruth.  

So if we are used to scripture giving us examples of a widow opening up the door to a miracle, then what can we learn the text that we hear today? What could possibly be miraculous about a widow giving up her last two cents to God?

Could it be perhaps that this woman, thought to be amongst the lowest rung on the social ladder of her time–that perhaps she realized that she didn’t need the coins?  That she tossed her head up to pharisees and the powerful and said, “Here–may I offer my two cents?  Because my faith in God is so strong– that I know that God would provide for me in a spiritual way that would supercede any material items. So here, take my two cents.”

 

You see I envision this widow not as woman whom we should feel sorry for. But as a woman with fierce faith.  

A woman whose action said to the rich and pious, who gave to the temple for show–She said, “You wealthy–you are giving to the Lord nothing but your leftovers, but I am giving him everything that I have. I am giving him my first and my only, and I know that the rest will be blessed.”

 

The widow is not someone whom we should feel pity for–oh no —the widow is a force to reckoned with.  Her tossing of her two coins is a clear sign to those in power that God has a plan for the down and out.  That God has a plan to empower those who are powerless.  It’s as if the widow knows the secret of the Kingdom of God–and it is something that is so very simple.  That the poor will always be with us, and God is with the poor. And I don’t mean the term “poor” in only economic terms–I mean the “poor in spirit” as well.  Because we know that we can be rich with money, but poor in spirit.  And we can poor with money, but rich in spirit.  

But in the widow’s case–through her poverty, she became empowered. She did something bold and brave that the wealthy priests would never do. She refused to transform to the ways of the the world, and she stayed true to  the rules written spelled out from the book of Leviticus.    She gave her first to God.  It was if she was challenging the rich and the pharisees, saying “I dare you to do what I just did.  I dare you to trust God so much that you will give away all your worldly treasures for the purposes of building the kingdom.”

Because she knows that when we give first to God, and we use those treasures correctly, we use them for kingdom building.  We use our monetary treasures to bring about change and healing in a broken world. You see we need to remember that when we give to the church, we’re not really giving to the church–we’re giving to God.

Often, we get in a mentality of giving only we think there is a need.  Let me tell you friends–as long as there are children and parents and elderly and lonely people in our neighborhoods not feeling the loving and transforming power of Jesus Christ, there is always a need.  

As long as there are people grieving and addicted, stuck in an endless cycle of poverty, there is always a need.

When Jesus taught us the Lord’s prayer, he said “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  

Jesus wanted his will to be done here, on earth.  And that will doesn’t happen when we store up our earthly treasures for ourselves.  

I know that realistically, we can’t all be like that brave and bold widow and give every cent that we have to God.  But we can  give enough to bring God’s will to earth. We can do enough to do  kingdom building to this community.  And not just for us, sitting in these pews now–but for the people who will sitting her twenty years from now, and twenty years after that.  

In a way, I believe that we can be like the widow. Because part of the miracle story of the widow is that we are still telling her story.  She is still leading the way.  Jesus pointed her out to the disciples for a reason.  

What if fifty years from now–people will tell the story of when this church, South Maple United Methodist Church–had a great resurrection.   And it became resurrected because  people who gave no dollars, suddenly said, you know what, “I’m gonna start giving a dollar a week.”  And the people who gave five started to give ten, and those who gave ten gave twenty, and those dollars turned into ministries and outreach and tools to fulfill God’s remarkable dream.

All of us sitting here today, including me–have an opportunity to be part of this miracle. To show other churches who might view us as the widow with not much power or with struggling attendance–that we are a force of love to be reckoned with.  That we are on a mission to resurrection. And that nothing will stop us from achieving this resurrection.  Because God is with us. Guiding us to build a kingdom.  Guiding us for thy will to be done.  

Yesterday at Waffle Church we had the joy of baptising a 9-year-old boy. And some of the families that come to Waffle Church struggle financially, but at the end, I am always touched by the children who come in drop in our giving bucket a quarter, or a dollar, or even two cents.  Sometimes of offering is a little over $20, and yesterday, our offering was $6.97.  And if that amount–that $6.97 is multiplied by the 23 weeks that we hold Waffle Church–that turns into $181.22 for our ministries.  That’s more than enough for us to buy portable communion packets to serve to those who are homebound.  That’s more than enough to give our youth an occasional night of fun and fellowship like we had last week, with our youth burger and movie night.  That’s more than enough to purchase supplies for prayers shawls for the grieving and ill. That’s enough for us to do a  social media campaign for outreach to spread the healing news that Christ has to offer.

So like the widow in our scripture reading today, I’d like to offer my two cents.

My two cents is that this church is being called by God to multiply.  My two cents that everyone of us sitting here today can be bold enough like the widow and give a little more.  My two cents is that we are starting to get a reputation around town, as a church where something special is happening.  We are in a resurrection- and folks are starting to take notice. Like Jesus observing that day when he pointed the widow out to his disciples, we are being observed and we are going show others the way.  We are going to show others that we will live out the miracle of multiplication.  That we are going to challenge other churches to be like us. To love each other authentically. To give to God with our whole hearts.  To bring God’s kingdom here on earth, by loving and feeding and making disciples. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

 

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Finding Jesus in the Wounds

 

October 8, 2017

Scripture

Psalm 13  Psalm 94: 1-22  John 20: 24-29 

 

When I awoke on Monday morning, I greeted my husband rather cheerfully.  And he said to me, “I guess you haven’t heard yet about Las Vegas.”  He didn’t have to tell me what happened. I already knew.  The next words out of my mouth were:  “How many?”  He said 50, at least  400 injured.

Through out the day, I had noticed some of my colleagues who are also pastors posting  posting on Facebook “How Long?” quoting Psalm 13. Invoking the sense that we, like the psalmist, feel abandoned by God. The psalmist feels that God has turned away. That God has forgotten him.  And there’s no doubt that the people at the concert last Sunday felt the same. Those who were wounded with bullets, those who watched a family member or friend one moment filled with life and joy–and the next moment, lifeless.  And the first responders who had tend to the wounded and the dead–there is no doubt that some of them were thinking “How Long, Lord?”

And so like many of us here, on Monday I was  filled with grief. And in some ways disbelief. But not disbelief that something so horrific could happen, but disbelief that it keeps happening, and we feel lost as to how to stop it. How do we stop people from committing acts of pure evil?  What has happened within the fabric of our society that people devalue human life so much–that they are willing to snuff  out  precious life in minutes?   

This week I spoke with the Rev. Erick Hernandez.  Some of you may have met him last week, when we he read the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish.  I said to him, “It’s been a sad week. And he was silent for a moment and responded, “People need Jesus.”

People need Jesus.

 And when he said that,  I thought of the scripture we heard from the Gospel of John today. The scripture that labeled the disciple Thomas “a doubter.”   You see, Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when they met the risen Christ, and his grief was so heavy–that he just couldn’t believe that Jesus had risen. He said, “Until I put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”  You see Thomas was probably feeling a lot like the psalmist was.  Feeling abandoned by God. Feeling blinded by his grief.

And then we hear the rest of the story, Jesus appears, and he the very first thing he says to Thomas is “Peace be with you.”  And you can picture the moment in head, or Jesus, taking the hand of his beloved disciple and saying here–“touch my wounds, put your hand in my side. Now do you believe?”

And I think the story of Thomas wanting to see and feel Jesus’ wounds isn’t so much about  doubt, but it’s more about wounds.  You see Jesus comes to us as a wounded healer. He comes to us in the wounds.  

Jesus was executed by a government that feared an usurping of authority.  By people a group of people who worshipped and valued false idols.  They valued money and power and control.  When I think of Jesus’ crucifixion, I think of the words of the prophet Hosea. Hosea was a prophet who had the hard task of preaching to the Israelites when they had turned their back on God. When they broke their covenants and strayed from the Word of God. They began worshipping false idols and succumbing to the cultural norms around them, which included worshipping false Gods–and Israel came in great disrepair.  There was immense suffering.  And Hosea warned the people.  In Hosea 8: 1-4, he says:

“Put a trumpet to your lips!

It’s as if a bird of prey has flown over the Lord’s house,

because they have broken my covenant,

and have not kept my Instruction.

3 Israel has turned away from the good;

the enemy will pursue him.

4 They set up kings, but not through me;

they chose princes, but without my knowledge.

With silver and gold they crafted idols

for their own destruction.”

When Jesus was killed, when he was pierced and wounded, it was done at a similar time, when people turned away from good.  When kings and princes were chosen and placed above God.

And those words from Hosea ring very true today as well.  Because you see, God isn’t turning away from us, but it’s that many in our society are turning away from God.  We have crafted false idols of metal and money–we have become a society that isolates people to point that they commit pure evil.

So I think of Jesus’ wounds.  And I think of the wounds of the  over500 people who are now recovering. Wounds that will become scars that someday they will trace with their fingers, just like Jesus had Thomas do to his own wounds.  And my prayer for those people is that they feel that Jesus is in those wounds.  Jesus is with us in our suffering, in our lament.  Even in our disbelief, Jesus is with us.

And it was because of Jesus’ wounds that Thomas the disciple went from being a disciple locked away in fear and grief–to a believing apostle. A brave apostle who evangelized in a culture that often rejected the message of Jesus.  He evangelized and baptized people for years, before being murdered for preaching the peace of Christ.

Thomas saw and felt the wounds of Jesus- and it were those wounds that made him stop being a bystander in that upper room hidden away from the crowds.  It was those wounds that made his take up his cross, and travel thousands of miles, risking his life, and ultimately giving his life in order to spread a message of peace and love.

We, as a nation, have felt the wounds of Columbine,

of Virginia Tech,

of the movie theatre in Aurora,

in the classrooms at Sandy Hook,

outside of a Synagogue in Kansas City,

in a mosque in Michigan,

in a Bible study in Charleston,

in an office building in San Bernardino,

in a night club in Orlando,

and now at a country music concert in Las Vegas.

And hundreds of places in between.  

And just as Jesus’ wounds were a call to action for Thomas, the wounds the victims from the atrocities that I mentioned above are a call of action to us.  To live as the disciples did.  To be counter-cultural and spread love and compassion in a world that worships power and money.  In a culture that values individuality over beloved community.

So I ask of you–my brothers and and sisters in Christ–to look for Jesus in the wounds. And ask yourself, what do you value?  And if you struggle with that question, our church is here to help you work through it.  To study the word and the psalms and the gospels and to understand that we are still being called to be counter-cultural in a world that values all of the wrong things.  

The good news is–the disciples, and our founder of the United Methodist faith–John Wesley–came up with a method to heal this broken world. A method that if we all lived by, I promise you this bloodshed would end.  It’s in our baptismal vows.  This is what we are commanded to do: We must resist evil. 

We must do our best to engage with people who mentally ill and sick and lonely and drawn to evil.  We must show an example of a life lived like Christ, which means not valuing material things that we think give us protection–because we know that we are already spiritually protected and saved by the love of Christ.  We must remember that we hold a sacred responsibility to remember that Christianity is not a solo-sport.  

And if there is anything I want you to remember today, it is this:  Our  God didn’t cause this evil to happen. God didn’t allow it to happen. The Psalmist asks “How Long, God?”  But I think Jesus is asking that question right back to us. “How long, my beloved Children, how long will you turn your back on me?”

When I decided to prepare a service of lament and prayer, I realized that the service would mark one week since the shootings in Las Vegas. And part of me wondered–is that too much time to let pass?  Because, you see–it seems we’ve fallen into a pattern:

A massacre happens.

We mourn, we grieve.

We debate and argue as to what caused it and how to stop future massacres.

And then we move on.

Until the next one happens.  

 

But then I went back to the scripture from John and the story of Thomas. And I looked at the scripture again and saw that it was one week that had passed since Jesus’ first appeared to his disciples  when he appeared again before Thomas. Jesus appeared to Thomas on the 8th day.  Today, is the 8th day since the massacre in Las Vegas.

And I take this as a sign. A sign of great hope.  To remember that Jesus is in the wounds.

And my prayer is this:  One day, I will get to awake in a world when I won’t have to ask “how many?” in reference to the numbers of lives violently snuffed out.  But we can all awake to a world when we can ask–

“How many prayers were said today?:

“How many children were baptized today? “

“How many people were forgiven today?”

“How many people felt loved today?”    

Those are the questions. God is waiting for us to answer.   Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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“The Lonely Loved”

 

October 1, 2017

Part of our “How to Neighbor” Worship & Learning Series

Psalm 147

Matthew 8:1-4

 

Loneliness is a strange thing, isn’t it?  I remember as a child my first feeling of loneliness. I was in kindergarten. My birthday, August 30th, was right on the cut-off of when 5 -year-olds could be enrolled in school, and my parents thought I was ready. So as a brand-new kindergartener, barely 5-years-old—I was marched off to school with my three older siblings. And I was surrounded by about 20 other kids my age, even more in the cafeteria, and the playground was filled with dozens of rambunctious elementary students, running, fighting, falling, laughing, and playing.  And I absolutely hated it.

And this was back was kindergarten was only a half-day–about 4 hours–but to me, those four-hours felt like an eternity.  Now, in my opinion, I didn’t have the most patient teacher. She was nearing retirement, and her patience was wearing thin. One day, in October, we had an project in which we had to color jack o’laterns.  I will never forget my teacher picking up my jack o’latern, showing it to the entire class, and saying “Children, this is how you SHOULD NOT do your coloring.”  My coloring was sloppy. It was outside of the lines.  And at that moment, in my 5-year-old body–I felt as if my world was shrinking. My face was flushed. Even though I was surrounded by dozens of other children, I felt entirely alone.  More alone than I had ever felt when I was by myself in the living room watching Sesame Street, even more alone than at night time, when I’d lay wide awake in my bed thinking everyone else in the house was asleep.  When my teacher told me that my work was sloppy, that my coloring was outside the lines–I suddenly felt that I was outside the lines. That I wasn’t where I belonged. That I would never be liked.  After that day, I didn’t return to kindergarten for the rest of the year.  I was apparently so upset by the incident that my parents thought it best to let me start kindergarten was I turned 6. So I guess you could say, I was a kindergarten drop-out.

But my story isn’t unique.  I think what’s interesting about loneliness is that it often occurs when we are around other people. If I ask you to reflect for a moment on the your earliest moment of loneliness–I bet it involved a time when you weren’t physically alone at all, but you felt emotionally excluded. Excluded from a conversation. Excluded  at the lunch table.  Often times it comes in other ways. We feel lonely in our marriage, even though our spouse is lying right beside us.  We feel lonely with our kids even though they’re in the next room, or sitting at the table next to us.  We feel lonely at work, even though we are surrounded by co-workers–but somehow, for some reason we just don’t feel understood.  We don’t feel included. We feel alone.

At the time when ancient biblical scripture was written, the word “alone” originated from a Greek word that meant “without a companion.”  Yet, as I just stated above–how can we still feel so lonely when we are often surrounded by companions?

I’ll get to more on that in a moment, but first, I want to get to today’s scripture from the book of Matthew. When Jesus heals the leper.  And to really understand this miracle story, we have to understand the significance of leprosy in ancient Biblical times:

The first healing described in Matthew is that of a man who was hopelessly infirmed. Matthew tells us that this man was a leper (verse 2). Luke tells us he was “full of leprosy.”210 Scholars tell us that the “leprosy” of that day was not the same as the “leprosy” of our time. In my opinion, it was worse. Leprosy was considered a curse, and it is mentioned several times throughout the Bible. Miriam, Moses older sister, was stricken with leprosy for her rebellion against Moses (Numbers 12:9-15). So, too, Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, was stricken for his greed (2 Kings 5:20-27). David’s curse on Joab’s descendants included leprosy (2 Samuel 3:29). King Uzziah was stricken with leprosy because he presumptuously offered incense in the temple (2 Chronicles 26:16-21). Leprosy was about as bad as it could get. It was incurable and apparently deadly.

Leprosy was a kind of living death, with many sweeping implications. One was declared a leper after tests were performed (Leviticus 13). Once declared a leper by the priest, the leper was cut off from contact with society. He had to display marks of mourning, as if for the dead.  He or she had to tear their clothes, uncover their head, and cover their lips. When someone came close to them, they had to yell out, “Unclean! Unclean!” A leper  had to remain outside the village (Leviticus 13:45-46). Naturally, the leper could have no access to the temple, or even to Jerusalem. Leprosy was, indeed, a living death. It could not get any worse.*  In fact, I am going to argue that Leprosy, was loneliness.   Or, another way to put it is–loneliness is today’s leprosy.  If there was anyone without a companion in ancient Judea–it was a leper.

What amazes me about this story in Matthew is how brave this leper was. The courage he felt to overcome the scorn of the crowds–to break all of the societal rules, and to make his way up to Jesus to asked to be healed.  This story tells us two things:   1)The leper’s faith was stronger than his loneliness, and  2)Jesus’ love was stronger than the fear of the crowds.

I have to smile a bit as I read Matthew’s account of the healing of the leper. It seems that while Jesus was in one of the Galilean towns, this leper worked up the courage to approach Him, seeking to be healed. This was far from typical. The man should have kept at a distance. I can almost see the crowd melting away as the leper approached Jesus. Who was going to lay a hand on him to stop him? The people must have stood back, curious to see what would happen next.

The leper prostrated himself before Jesus and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” (8:2). This man had it right. He was right to call Jesus “Lord.” He was right that Jesus was able to make him clean. He was right that the only question was whether or not He was willing to do so. As others have observed, this leper sees that Jesus has authority in Himself. Jesus does not need to pray for the leper; He can heal him.*

So we can hardly surprised to read Jesus’ response, when he says, “I am willing. Be clean!” Can you imagine the gasps which went up from the crowd as Jesus stretched forth His hand? Matthew makes it clear that Jesus purposed to touch this man, a man who may not have felt the touch of a human hand for many years. How wonderfully strange that He who could heal with merely a word chose to heal this man with a word, and a touch! Could you imagine how that man, that leper, must have felt to be touched for by someone?  

I have a friend who eats with people who are homeless every Sunday morning. She helps put on meals near the bike path by Prairie Market. And I once her attest to how much people just want to be touched. To have their hand held. To be given a hug.  There are people in our own community who walk our streets and sleep in shelters or cars, and they go days and days without having people making eye-contact, or even acknowledge them. They are the modern day lepers.

But back to our story from Matthew–Jesus then instructs the man not to advertise what He had just done for him, but rather to go to the priest. Tucked away in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus was a chapter (14) that set down the process by which the priest could declare a cured leper clean. All those years this “sleeper text” lay untouched, unused, because lepers were never declared clean.  It was an incurable disease–it was life sentence of loneliness.   But this day the priest who was on duty had a unique opportunity, the opportunity to see a man who has been healed of leprosy, and who has been cured by One named Jesus. The former leper was to go to the priest so that he could testify to the fact that he had been healed and was therefore clean. The priest was to validate this miracle and give serious thought to what this meant.  So, in summary–Jesus set the stage for the leper to be restored into society. TO be in relationship again.  The leper was born again.  He was made new.

 

Loneliness, one could argue is not the absence of companionship, but absence of relationship. Companionship without relationship equals loneliness.

So how does this story of Matthew translated into our lives today? We know there are the obvious lonely–modern day lepers without companions. We see them in nursing homes as the days and weeks pass and they receive no visitors.  We see them on the street, asking for change–estranged from relationship due to addiction.  And we see them in ourselves–when we are at a family gathering, or even in an intimate setting with a loved one or a friend–but something is missing. We still feel ALONE.  So what is the cure to this strange disease of loneliness?

 

Here is what I think we need to remember:  In order for miracles to take place, there has to be suffering, and in the story of Jesus healing the leper there has to be loneliness.  Loneliness is not a bad thing.

Loneliness is ok: and it’s ok, because once we recognize it–and once we find the courage and faith to ask Jesus to take that loneliness from us–we’ll be healed.  And there is a method to how we do this:

 

  1. We must develop a prayer life. And that is why I am so glad that our church is doinf the 40 day prayer challenge, and why we are doing breakthrough prayer. Because prayer makes us stronger, and if you don’t believe me–try it. Do the prayer challenges.  It will transform you.  You see prayer isn’t about changing God, or casting our wishes upon God, prayer is about changing us.  Prayer is about giving us the courage to recognize what needs changed in our lives, and what needs to be let go.  The leper–despite his circumstances–I think he must have prayed. Because he was a person of faith. Because he had the courage to walk through the crowds and break all of the societal norms to ask Jesus to heal him.
  2.  We need to overcome loneliness is community. As I said earlier, Jesus restored the leper back into society so that he could once again be in relationship with others. Jesus’ willingness to heal a man who had no future, who was thought of as cursed–is a message to us that we must be willing to do the same.  To touch the untouchables, to prayer with the downtrodden, to offer compassion to someone who may have made choices the keeps them cut off from society.

And so often, this restoration of relationship comes through a meal. Last night, we had over 40 people attend our Mac and Cheese social. We cooked together, played together, prayed together.   And through those simple actions, I’d like to think that some of our lonliness melted away. 

Today, let us remember the loneliness of others. The homeless, those in nursing homes, those of us who feel disconnected from their spouses or their family.  Those who are feeling the loneliness of grief. Today, on World Communion Sunday we remember that this loneliness is felt among all people of all nations–loneliness is part of our human condition. It’s something that can’t be avoided. People are lonley all around the world.  But we must not view it as a curse–because Jesus taught us that loneliness gives us an opportunity.  An opportunity to pray, and ask for help from others. In a strange way, loneliness gives us the opportunity to be made a new.

So the next time, someone makes you feel “less than”. When someone tells you your coloring is outside the lines, or when someone makes you feel separated from society– no matter the reason–you remember that leper making his way though the crowds to Jesus.

The next time you feel anxious and overwhelmed, like your failing, when you’re too busy and feel like you’re just treading water to make it though the day, you remember that leper making his way though the crowds to Jesus.

The next time you feel lonely from grief, or like there is distance in a relationship with a spouse or a friend or a family member, you remember that leper making his way though the crowds to Jesus.

And the next time you pass a nursing home, or you see a person on the streets asking for change, you remember that leper making his way though the crowds to Jesus.  And you remember to be strong. And to be courageous. And to pray.  And to ask others for help. Because I promise you, Jesus will answer. Your loneliness will transform into something that will make you new. A new life.  Amen.

 

*Portions of this sermon were taken from Bob Deffinbaugh  Read more at https://bible.org/seriespage/20-leper-gentile-and-little-old-lady-matthew-81-17

 

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 “The Invite List: What Jesus Teaches Us About Embracing the Poor”

Part of our “How to Neighbor” Worship & Learning Series

September 24, 2017

Scripture: Deuteronomy 15:7-8

Luke 14:12-14

 

I want to talk today about throwing a party. Perhaps some of you, many of you have hosted a party before. Perhaps a birthday party or anniversary of retirement party. Or perhaps you’ve hosted a special meal simply for the purpose to show hospitality–to entertain friends.

I admit that I don’t throw parties often, and that’s largely because in a house with four kids, two parents working full-time and a few pets added to the mix, preparing for a party takes A LOT of work at my house. Lots of laundry to hide away, lots of floors to sweep, lots of clutter to do away with.  I admit that there have been times in my life when I have intentionally invited people over because it’s forced to clean up my house.  My middle daughter, Lily, threw a luau party for her friends last spring, and preparing for her guests was so much fun.

Each guest received a goody bag and a lei to wear around her neck, and a flower to put in her hair. Each guest received a special place at the table with food and drink that was thoughtfully prepared by her grandmothers.  We played music to set the atmosphere.  Our goal of the party was to make sure every little girl who came felt special.  And that’s part of the reason we throw parties isn’t it? Not only to entertain, but to show those who we invite that we are putting forth our best for them. We’re offering our best food, our cleanest house, our finest drink.

So I want you to imagine for a moment that you have been granted an opportunity to throw a party like no other. You have access to unlimited fresh cuisine from around the world. You’re given a beautiful set of precious china, the finest drinks, the richest and most exquisite desserts.  So of course, as you prepare for this party, you are tasked to send out invitations. Who would you invite? Picture it in your head, who is on your invite list?

To be invited to a party, well that is something special.  My daughter Pearl received her first birthday party invitation last week, and she is still talking about.

 And if you don’t get an invitation to a party–well–ask any child, and they will tell you that it can be devastating.

We heard in our scripture today–Jesus talking about a party. Essentially, Jesus was talking about your invite list.  So I want us for a moment to stop thinking about parties or special dinners as we understand them, and explore them in context of Jesus’ culture. You see meals, in antiquity were considered “ceremonies.” A daily, predictable ceremony, but a ceremony nonetheless.  And they were ceremonies that took time and dedicated preparation.  

The lamb had to be ritually slaughtered, the unleavened bread kneaded and baked, all prepared according to the rules of food preparation by the Jewish laws in the Torah. There was no fast food, no last minute gatherings.  Meals were expected and ceremonial. Eating together implied that the people who shared  meals shared the same social status and circumstances.  So your social status would depend on who you ate with, where you ate, and how good the wine was. Meals, during the time of Jesus, were often marked by exclusive fellowship.  Meals took place in the context of an honor/shame society, so who you ate with revealed a lot your “place” in society.  It was also a society of repayment; in other words, it was expected that if someone did good for you–such as, offered you hospitality and invited you to a meal, then at some point, you would be expected to return the favor.

So you can see why it would be a little radical for Jesus to say what we heard in the scripture from the Gospel of Luke.

For Jesus to say to his followers, when you throw a party (or host a banquet) to invite people who aren’t your friends. Invite the outcasts, the poor, the lame and the blind, because they can never repay you. This is a big deal–especially given the time that Jesus was living in.  You see it’s not that a poor or lame or blind person couldn’t return the favor–it’s that it would never be recognized or acknowledged in an honor shame society. Because a person’s value was often determined by their gender, class, or social status.  In other words, you would be looked down upon for eating with people who were considered to be unworthy or unclean.  If you were poor in the time of ancient Jewish society, or if you were sick, or blind, it was often thought that you were doing something wrong and bringing God’s punishment upon you.  So why would someone well positioned in society– why would they possibly want to eat with someone who God had a problem with, with someone who had no worth in society?

But yet Jesus called on his disciples to do it. He called for an intermingling of classes, and he promised a reward and a resurrected life.  

And while many things have changed in the 2,000 years since Jesus lived–have they really changed that much?  In some ways, are still living in an “honor/shame” society?  Do the rich eat with the poor? Do the rich live along side the poor? Are the rich in relationship with the poor?  And when I say “rich” and “poor”, I’m not just talking specifically about economic class.  Because there are people today who are financially wealthy–who have every physical need met–but they are living in spiritual poverty and darkness.  

And there are people who have nothing but the clothes on their back, who struggle to keep their heads up in the exhaustion of generational poverty, but who are filled with the spirit of God and love joy.  

Poverty, you see–is often not so much about economics, but it’s the reaction of what happens when we refuse to be in relationship with each other.  You see, when we don’t engage in relationship with our neighbors, when we let our judgments and assumptions get in the way of loving our neighbors, poverty ensues. Physical and spiritual.

And I for one, can’t judge or be angry with people who are often viewed as lazy or “less than” for receiving welfare, because I myself am living off the welfare of God.  And so are all of you.  Do you still have that invite list in your head? I want you to keep it in the back of your thoughts, but first,

I want to share a story about what happens when we change who’s on our invite list.

 

 

I guarantee you that once you start being in ministry WITH the poor, or with those who are economically different than you, you’ll be like Bruno, and you’ll say “I can’t stop.”  Bruno isn’t just feeding those children, he’s building a relationship with them.  He’s investing in them. He’s feeding them the finest food and telling them–you deserve this. Not for anything you’ve done, or haven’t done, but you deserve this because you’re all beloved children of God.

 

And look what happened when Bruno lost his restaurant, his means to provide meals and be in relationship with those kids in Anaheim seemed lost.  But the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke were faithful.  Bruno was rewarded–Just like Jesus said he would be.  And his reward wasn’t a brand new restaurant or some way to make a profit–his reward was being surrounded by community that allowed him to continue to minister with others– not to–but with.

 

You see when we make people the object of our ministry, or when we make helping people a project–90% of the time we aren’t helping them.  But when do ministry together, When we empower people to know that they are beloved by God–we get as much love as we give.  We should never, ever assume that someone who has less money than else, that someone who has made hard mistakes–we should never assume that they don’t have a lesson to teach us. We need to remember that evangelism–sharing God’s love–is a two way street.  The wall street broker who is struggling with addiction, has just as much value in the eyes of God as the woman living a homeless shelter with nothing but a Bible in her backpack.

Bruno, the man with the restaurant,–his reward was his ministry. In a society, where we so often grant power to those with means and finances—Bruno’s story is a modern day illustration of the scripture in Luke 12:14.  Bruno’s story is a modern day illustration of bringing the kingdom of God here on earth. And in that last verse of our scripture–where Jesus says–you will be blessed because the people you invite will never be able to repay you, but you will repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.  Bruno’s story, and the rebuilding of his ministry is a resurrection story. But not only is Bruno himself resurrected,–he resurrects his community.  Those kids who eat the meals are resurrected, the donors and the volunteers are resurrected. In this video, Bruno talks about getting to heaven, but I think his story is a reminder that resurrection isn’t just for the afterlife.  We have the opportunity to bring a resurrection into this life.  And we do that by neighboring and ministering WITH our neighbors, even–especially the poor.  Resurrection is for the living!

I love the quote on the cover of your bulletin, the one from Proverbs that says “the rich and the poor have this in common, the Lord made them both.”

How silly it is that we judge people for being poor, or for being rich…for making questionable life choices or judge them because of the government assistance or tax breaks that they might receive. How presumptuous of us, to judge people that were made by our omnipotent God.

I want to end with a quote from one of my favorite theologians, Richard Rohr. He is a franciscan priest who says this about loving the poor:

“I can’t hate the person on welfare when I realize I’m on God’s welfare. It all becomes one truth; the inner and the outer reflect one another. As compassion and sympathy flow out of us to any marginalized person for whatever reason, wounds are bandaged—both theirs and ours.”

God’s love doesn’t come from judging. God’s love doesn’t come from criticizing or ostracizing. God’s love comes at the table. When we eat with strangers. When we celebrate and love the people that we usually make separate from ourselves.  

 

I’ll end by asking a question.  Do you believe in the words of Jesus Christ?

Then be like Bruno. The next time you see someone who seems down and out and in trouble, reach out to them. Offer them a meal. Better yet, invite them to church. Put them on your invite list. Clean your house. Offer them your best. Because when you welcome the person that society treats like trash–you are welcoming Jesus–and you are opening the door to resurrection in this life, and in the Kingdom to come. Amen.

 

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The Facts of Life: What the Book of Exodus Teaches us About Embracing the Orphans

 

 

Part of our “How to Neighbor Sermon Series”

September 17, 2017

Pastor Holly Sortland

Scripture:  Exodus 1: 15-22;  Exodus 2: 1-10

Orphan isn’t a word that is largely used in the United States anymore. Instead of orphan, we often use the term “foster child” or a “kid who is in the system.”   What do you think of when you hear the word orphan? I immediately almost always think of little orphan Annie, or Oliver Twist, or I think of children from other countries, where large orphanages are still in operation. How many of you remember the show the “Facts of Life?”  I was really young when that show came out, and I remember–to me it seemed like the girls lived in an orphanage (though really it was depicted as a boarding school). But do you remember the theme song “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them all and there you have the facts of life..” and then it with “the facts of life are all about you.”  We’re going to talk more about those lyrics later in my message, but first–I want you to set aside our own idea of an orphan, and to think a minute about what God wants us to think about orphans.

The term “orphan” is mentioned over 40 times in the Old Testament, most usually with the term “widow.” We see it first pop up in the book of Lamentations, where the Israelites are suffering because they have turned their back on God.  In Lamentations, Chapter 5–we hear the Israelites plead for mercy, saying : “Remember, Lord, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace. 2  Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to foreigners. 3  We have become fatherless, our mothers are widows.”

 

In other words, when the Israelites turned away from God- they felt as they were orphans.  But going back further, the original greek word for orphan was “orphanos” meaning “fatherless”–but also meaning someone of those “bereft of a teacher, guide, guardian.”

So when we look at it from that perspective–there is nothing in the definition that says an “orphan” must be a child.  An orphan–in ancient biblical terms, could be interpreted simply as anyone who was without a teacher a guide or a guardian.

In other words, an orphan sounds a little bit like someone who is spiritually lost?

In that perspective, how many of you have felt orphaned?

Perhaps we have been orphaned from a loving relationship, orphaned from safety, orphaned by the break-up of marriage, orphaned by a death of a loved one, or perhaps orphaned by the loss of a job or career– or orphaned from the confidence of knowing that we are deeply loved by God.  I’d like you to reflect for a moment…in what area of your life do you feel orphaned?

 

Now, I want us to go back to the scripture today–the scripture from Exodus and the birth story of Moses. The second part of the Moses story if one that most of us are familiar with-it’s a popular for kids to learn because there is something a little sweet about a baby being snuggled into a basket in a reedy river and then immediately rescued.  Moses’ birth mother put him down the river to protect him, knowing that it was likely that he would be found.  In a way, putting her baby at risk was her only chance to save him.  And we’ll talk about the Moses story a  bit more in a minute, but it’s the scripture from the passage before that that that  I’d like us to focus on.  The one from the very first book of Exodus that talks about those two rebellious Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.  You see, the scripture tells us that the midwives “feared God” so they didn’t follow the orders of the King and kill those infant baby boys.  Fear of God translates from the greek word: theosebeia:–which means reverence and respect for God.  So- we can assume that they were making the choice to save the infant boys not necessarily because they feared God’s wrath, but because they had respect and reverence for their maker.  You see, those midwives knew the difference between a dictator and a guardian. The Pharaoh was a dictator, but GOd was their guardian.  And so, the midwives broke the rules, and lied to those in authority in order to save children.

 

And even more interesting is the fact that the Pharoah’s very own daughter, who is not named in our Bible–who found Moses floating in the basket in the reeds, she knew he was an Israelite baby, in fact she makes that clear right away–and she kept him anyway. The King’s very own daughter–defied her father and broke his rules because she wanted to save a child.  

But the scripture never tells us much more about her. Why would she do such a thing? Why would she risk her own safety–when she was of the most affluent class, and likely had all of her needs met?

Jewish traditions and materials offer more clues into understanding the Pharoah’s daughter.  In fact, according to the Jewish midrash–which is sort of a supplement of oral tradition–The daughter of Pharaoh did not follow her father’s wicked ways, but rather converted and ceased worshiping idols.  The Rabbis found the name bat-yah to be fitting for the daughter of Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, since she (unwittingly) realized the divine plan when she kept alive  the Baby Moses, who would become the rescuer of Israel. The midrash relates that the daughter of Pharaoh received her new name of Bithiah (bat-yah; literally, the daughter of God) from God as reward for her actions.  God told her: “Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son; you are not My daughter, but I call you My daughter.”

So in some ways we have two tales of orphans.  Moses, who was given up by his Hebrew mother for his own safety, and then the pharoah’s daughter–who was was born into a situation (being the daughter of the wicked pharaoh) –one could argue that she too was orphaned from knowing a loving God.

But then the adoption occurs.  Not only the adoption of Moses by the Pharoah’s daughter, but the pharoah’s daughter is also adopted by God.  Like the midwives before her, she had great respect and reverence for GOd, and therefore acted in a way that defied the rules of her time.

 

So what is the one thing in common between all of these women and Moses’ birth? The midwives, Moses’s birth mother, and the Pharoah’s daughter that would raise and love him as her own?  All of those women put themselves at risk in order to do right by God.

Remember I talked about the show the “Facts of Life”–which–we heard before our message—there’s a line in it that I want you to think about. The line that says the “facts of life are all about you,”–but really, I think it should actually be “the truth of life is all about you.”

Because the facts during the time of Moses’ birth is that the Pharaoh feared the Hebrew people and wanted to prevent from growing, but the truth was that God had a plan for his people, and that plan became apparent when God worked through the supposed enemy, the pharoah’s daughter, to save his people.   

 

The facts were that there strict rules in place to kill innocent Hebrew babies, but the truth was that God wanted those children to live.  And the midwives and the Pharoah’s daughter knew that truth and ignored the facts of their time.

So today, I’d like you to reflect for a moment about whether you value truth over fact.  Because we are bombarded with facts and rules and laws.  

But God’s truth is so simple, yet we have such a hard time grasping it, don’t we?

In the evenings, my daughter has a favorite book she likes to read. It’s called “Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls.”   The other night we read the story of a woman named Irene Sendler, who was a Catholic nurse working in Poland in WWII.  And if you don’t know her story, it’s a remarkable one.  Irene smuggled Jewish children who were dying in the ghettos to safety.  She saved 2,500 children. She put them in laundry baskets and packages, and even coffins.  When she got them to safety, she gave them Christian names so that would not be identified by the Nazi authorities, but she kept the birth name of each child in jars, and she buried them under an apple tree–so that the the children could return there someday and know their true identity.  

 

 In 100 days, she smuggled 2500 children to safety.  And I think of those mothers who handed their babies over to Irene, and they must have felt a lot like Moses’ birth mother–sending him down the Nile in a basket.  And  Irene–well, I think she had the same defiant spirit and desire to please God as the Hebrew midwives, and the pharoah’s daughter.

And so I ask you today? Are you willing to do that? Are you willing to put yourself at risk by loving your neighbor in the way that God commands us?

So I ask you–think for a moment–who are the orphans in your life, or here in our own community.  Who are those who are in need of a teacher or a guardian?

I spoke with the principals this week at our local schools in the neighborhood, and I don’t know if many of you knew this–but we can actually become a partner with these schools.  When I asked the principals what they’re greatest needs were, one of them told me– “people.”  He said that they need volunteers and people willing to invest in life of young people.  Are you willing to do that–even if it puts yourself at risk? And when I say risk, I mean you may see or hear things that break your heart.   Anytime you invest in a relationship, there’s a change you’ll get hurt, but it’s a risk that I believe God wants us to take.

God calls us to love and take care of the orphans. That means that if we respect God and revere God, we had better listen.  God is calling us to be the guardians and guides and teachers, not only to children, but to all our neighbors who feel orphaned in some way.  And are we ready to answer that call?  If those midwives were brave enough to lie to the King of Egypt’s face to save babies, then I pray we are brave enough today.  And if that King’s daughter was brave enough to raise that baby Moses out of the water and then raise him as her own, knowing that her father could find out at any time, then I pray we are brave enough.  And if 2,000 years later, a Christian nurse,Irene Sendler could smuggle Jewish children in laundry bags under the eyes of armed guards, then I pray that we can be brave enough to take some small steps today.  

The facts of life might be that we’re too busy, or we have a hundred valid reasons to not be in relationship with our neighbors, but the truth is– God is commanding us to do it.  I pray that we answer that call.  Amen

 

 

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“Hannah Rose: A Feast of Prayer” *

Pastor Holly Sortland

September 3, 2017

Scripture:  1 Samuel 1: 2-10 

Luke 11: 1-20

 

 

Last year, I had the opportunity to hear an amazing sermon on prayer by a well known minister named Rev. James Forbes.  He started his message out by talking about a name.  A lovely name. The name “Hannah Rose.”  In fact–he found it so lovely, that he suggested in his message that this name be given to a baby girl, and that future parents kept it on their list of baby names. Hannah Rose.  

We’re going to talk more about Hannah Rose in a moment, but first I want to share with you something that happened last Sunday.

Five South Maple members and I had the pleasure of participating in a breakthrough prayer workshop last Sunday, along with over 150 other people from the Dakotas conference.  It was an insightful experience, and it reminded us– about the power of prayer. The miracle of prayer. The sacredness of prayer. We were asked the question: do we snack on prayer? Or do we feast on prayer?

I’d like to ask you–

When do you pray?

We pray at church.

Some of us here pray before we eat.

Some of us may pray before sleep.

Some of us here may pray only when we are under desperate measure. Perhaps we can’t get ahold of our loved one–they’re phone is shut off, and we worry.  Or we pray before a job interview, or an important test. Or  we pray when we are ill for healing or a cure. We pray–as we did today, in times of natural disaster.

Prayer, for many of us can be a struggle.  For some us, we believe our prayers of gone unanswered–and that can leave us with a feeling of bitterness towards God. Twenty years ago, I prayed a lot for my dad, whose health was failing. I prayed that God would find a way to heal him so that he would live.  But my Dad despite my prayers, my dad died.. I began to doubt prayer.  I think many of us have had similar circumstances when we ask ourselves, why does God answer some prayers but not others?

There have been other times in my life when I have struggled with the idea of deserving prayer.  And what I mean by that is–why God- should I pray for a concern that seems rather small, like a work issue–or a misunderstanding with a friend? Why should I pray for these things that seem so trivial, when there are children dying, and so many horrible things in the world?  Have you ever grappled with that question?

I chose the scripture today about from the Book of Samuel about Hannah–because I think this very old, famous story–found in the Old Testament–holds an important key into how God expects us to rise to the occasion and feast on prayer.  You see, when we doubt prayer, when we stop losing trust in the power of prayer–we start to underestimate  God.

So I want us to go back and look at the story of Hannah, and put her situation into perspective, given the time and the place that she lived.  

1 Samuel 1:1-9New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Samuel’s Birth and Dedication

1 There was a certain man of Ramathaim,(Rama-thame) from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah. 2 He had two wives; which was common during that time. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

3 Now this man–Elkanah– used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of Shiloh, where there were priests of the Lord present  (Shiloh was the major Israelite worship centre before the first Temple was built in Jerusalem.)

4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed an animal, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion,[b] because he loved her, though she couldn’t bear children. But we can imagine that this was a little humiliating to Hannah. It was as though her husband took pity on her in front of everyone else.   6 Her rival–Penninnah– used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, –she even had the nerve to say to Hannah “God has closed your womb.”  She would chastise her in front of others. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord.[c]  Hannah Rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord.

10 Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give me a child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite[d]until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants,[e] and no razor shall touch his head.” In other words–Hannah is promising that she will give her child up to be raised and trained by the priests in the temple

12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15

But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”

Now I’m going to stop here for a moment–because this passage gives me great respect for Hannah. A woman–who was looked down upon as worthless because she couldn’t have a children.  A woman who was called names and teased by her husband’s other wife.  A woman–was brave enough to pour out her soul in prayer in front of a temple priest.  A woman–who was bold enough to give witness to her prayer before a powerful temple priest.  A woman who admits that she is deeply troubled?

How many of us are willing to admit the times that we are deeply troubled?

This shows that the spirit was working within her though the power of prayer.

And Eli–this priest–who was sort of a big shot–is somewhat taken aback by what Hannah says. He is struck by her conviction. He is struck by her faithfulness.

17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel will grant the petition you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters,[f] ate and drank with her husband,[g] and she was sad no longer.[h]

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

You see, what I love about Hannah is that she was brave enough to know that she needed to feast on prayer-no matter the consequences.

Hannah’s prayer for a son who would one day become a prophet–wasn’t a selfish prayer. Hannah prayed knowing that it may cause her great sacrifice.

I invite you to look at the image on your front bulletin cover.  Notice it says—Prayer- supply all my needs.  Not all my wants.  

The scripture from the gospel of Luke echos this–which we also heard this morning.  RIght after Jesus gives the disciples on instructions how to pray (the Lord’s prayer)—he tells them this story:

 5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

 

Jesus doesn’t say that the man who is knocking will get what he wants—but he says that with persistence, the man will get what he needs–and our needs can be so, so much different than our wants.

While we pray for this church, we must remember that we pray for the church’s needs–not our own wants.

We may want to attract certain families or people to this church–but there may be families that God is calling to this church because they need us, and they need them.

We know what we want–but only God knows what we need.

 

My favorite part of Hannah is that when she rose at the holy site of Shiloh–she poured out her heart to God–she showed her loyalty to God–even though she was unsure of the outcome.  It was a moment of personal transformation for Hannah.

 

But later–when baby Samuel is weaned, Hannah takes him back to the holy site at Shiloh- and hands him over to the temple priest.  She prays again–and that was the scripture we heard this morning. And Hannah isn’t praying selfishly–but she is pouring her heart out.  She is resigning herself to the majesty and the trustworthiness of God.  WHen Hannah gives up this child that she so desperately prayed for–she isn’t grieving–but she is worshipping and rejoicing in prayer–and not just for herself but for everyone.

James Forbes points out:  “The word Hannah spells the same way both ways and seems to suggest that when our own agendas and needs and agendas of humanity are brought together, no matter how depressing, there is a rising situation. It is also true that when anyone of us, in our brokenness, and barrenness, and unfruitfulness, will offer ourselves to Almighty God that God finds a way to lift us and to give us a chance to rise. It happened for Jesus the Christ — as I see Him on the cross, I think of HANNAH — Heaven’s Agendas and Needs and the Needs and Agendas of Humanity are brought together. Even though they put Him into the tomb, He had to rise, for whenever these two are brought together there’s a rising situation.”  

I think back to my life 20 years ago–when I was praying that my Dad would be healed–and at that time, I felt like my prayers were going nowhere.  But Hannah’s story reminds me that even though my Dad died–he was still healed.  Those prayers that I prayed back then, and the prayers that I pray today–and the prayers that you pray today–whether they be for yourself, or for a loved one or a stranger, or for our world–or for our church.  Those prayers are rising.  And God is using them. And like Hannah, who had to be patient and endure years of waiting and sacrifice–we must trust God in the same manner that Hannah did. We must rise to the occasion of prayer.

The Rev James Forbes ended his Hannah Rose message with these words:  “I say to you, brothers and sisters, when I have been down and have offered my brokenness to God, God has lifted me. It is my hope that this very day, for those of you who know brokenness, unfruitfulness, misunderstanding, that you will offer it all to God and let God give you an uplift of spirit and a new outlook on life.

Hannah rose, you ought to rise, too. “*

 

 

*Some of this material is from a Sermon of the same name first preached by Dr. James Forbes in 1988.  

 

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“Let us Go to the Children”

Scripture: 2 Kings 4:8-37

August 27, 2017

Pastor Holly Sortland

 

Yesterday at Waffle Church, I told the story about Abraham and Sarah, and how they were blessed with a surprise in their old age.  That surprise–of course–was the birth of their son Isaac. Born to an elderly couple believed to be barren.  In fact, when God told Sarah that she would surprised with a child–she laughed in disbelief.  And so yesterday we celebrated the fact that God always has the power to surprise us! And we prayed for happy surprises during the school year.  And we remembered that God has the power to make us laugh.  (refer to picture)

 

But I didn’t go much further with the Isaac story yesterday, because for little ones the story of Isaac gets a little grim.  For those of you familiar with the story, as Isaac grows older, God tests Abraham and orders him to take Isaac to a mountain of Moriah and offer Isaac up as a sacrifice.  Abraham painfully obliges, but at the last minute, an angelic messenger stops Abraham.   Now, theologians throughout the centuries have grappled with this passage of scripture.  Why would a loving God cause one of his children to make such a painful and heartbreaking choice?

 

Now, I’m not going to even to try to answer that question today. But, I’m reminding you of that passage not because of the sacrifice asked of Abraham, -but because a messenger stopped him from sacrificing Isaac at the last minute.  God wanted Isaac to live!

 

A less well-known one from the book of Kings, with sharp parallels to the birth of Isaac. A Shunamite woman, after a long period of barrenness – – is told by Elisha, a prophet of God, that she will finally bear a son. She gives birth to the child, but when her son grows up, he is stricken in the field – cries out that his head hurts – and is carried to his mother, where he dies.  

The Shunamite woman lays the child on the bed and goes out in search of Elisha.  Elisha returns to the home, sees the dead child.  And, as the text says:  “He went in, shut the door behind the two of them, and prayed to God.  He mounted the bed, placed himself over the child.  He put his mouth on its mouth, his eyes on its eyes and his hands on its hand, and the body of the child became warm.”  Elisha the prophet saves the child.

So here we have two moral tales surrounding the near death of children. In each the child is saved, promoting a fundamental truth in our Christian faith:  God wants all of God’s children to live.

 

But let’s make that we don’t miss the message of the stories.  In each case, the intervention comes from another with the power to act – God does not specifically intervene.  Elisha saves the son of the Shunamite woman, a divine messenger prevents Abraham from sacrificing his child.  God guides us towards the truth, but our actions are our’s alone. +

 

As I was doing some reading to prepare this sermon, I came across a quote from a middle school girl who was about to be confirmed in her church.  She had an assignment to write about how God works in our lives, and she wrote:

“God is “the force of magnetism that draws the needle toward north, God is the power that draws human beings towards goodness.”

 

God shows us the way.  God can tell us what is right. God tells us what is right.  but the power to prevent  harm, to prevent war, to end famine, to protect children is often in our hands hands.  Perhaps, one could argue that what is lacking these days is not the message but the messengers. +  

 

And I think that our job as messengers is that we must be praying for and serving all of God’s children!

 

And today, while many of our children suffer, we must remember  that we have the tools, the smarts and the resources to end their suffering.   We have the ability to feed all the people on earth, yet children die of starvation.   We have the ability to protect and house children fleeing war zones, yet children die crossing seas and borders.   

 

In our neighborhood, both Robbinsdale Elementary and South Park Elementary are considered Title I schools, meaning that at least 40% of the students live at or below the poverty line.  In fact, 10 out of the 23 schools in Rapid CIty are Title I schools. In South Dakota, nearly 18 percent of South Dakota’s children are food insecure. That’s 4 points higher than the national average.   

 

Is this acceptable to us as Christians?

 

What I want us to get from today’s scripture is this:  God values life. God values the life of children, and we are all God’s children.

 

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grow up?  Stop and think for a moment–what did you want to be.

 

There is a famous quote–that many of you may be familiar with–and the quote is “You can’t be what you don’t see.”   It’s a quote by Marian Wright Edelman.

 

My oldest son–right now, he wants to be a mechanic, because he see’s his dad being one.  My daughter wants to be an inventor–because she is exposed to stories and people who are pushing her to be their very best.

 

So I want you to think for a moment about those children at Robinsdale and South Park, and Horace Mann–where my kids attend, and at all of the other schools where there are at or below the poverty line.  And ask yourself–what are they seeing?

 

Or what are they not seeing?

 

A lot of them are not seeing food in their cupboards.

A lot of them are not seeing sheets on their beds.

A lot of them are not seeing loving relationships.

A lot of them are not being held at night or sang to, or treated to an extra dessert.

 

And so if we can’t be what we can’t see…then our hungry kids aren’t going to grow up being able to feed other people.

 

If we can’t be what we can’t see, our exhausted children are going to grow up never knowing the comfort of a good night’s sleep.

 

If we can’t be what we can’t see, our children who are witnessed arguing and violence and shattered relationships are going to grow up with a distorted view of love.

 

Unless…..

 

Unless we step in like the messenger who stopped Abraham–because God wanted Isaac to live!  Unless we step in like Elisha with the Shunamite’s son and offer healing and turned death into life–because God wanted that child to live.

 

We heard Drew Hook share his witness this morning about foster care.  I want us to watch a story that demonstrates what he said, and it illustrates what it means when we say we can’t be what we don’t see. 

 

 

 

Roosevelt, the man who adopted Caleb said that when he was telling Caleb that he was the greatest, the best, the most powerful, when he was so out of shape that he couldn’t jump over a piece of paper–but he wasn’t lying to him.  He said–it was all faith.  Faith is the substance of things hoped for in the evidence of things unseen.”

 

So what does that tell us that we need to be in our community? We need to be the supplier of hope.  We need to tell those kids who are hungry, who don’t have beds to sleep in, who struggle constantly in the exhaustion of poverty—that they are great. That they are powerful.  That they are the best.  We need to be the evidence of their faith.

 

God doesn’t want us to be bystanders. God wants us to be messengers. God is calling us to intervene!

 

If I could change my sermon title– it would be “Let us go to the children.”  

 

So my prayer today is not only for the children in this church and in this neighborhood, but it’s also for all of you– I’m talking to the grownups now.

Because we’re God’s children too–and God has a dream for us. And that dream might involve us being the giver of faith to someone who desperately needs it.  That might involve you experiencing the joy of relationship by being a mentor–by learning something from someone who is radically different than you.

 

I keep thinking about the group of kids who show up to Waffle Church, and show up to our church to help. They love Waffle Church, they are engaged in the lesson and they want more.  These kids have faith.  

 

And I have faith, and I have a dream.  And I know this congregation has faith—so do you want to hear my dream?

 

We are blessed to have children here–you can see that by today–but what we are lacking is older youth.  I have been talking to people in the school district and the principal at South, and we have an opportunity to start a faith based mentoring and tutoring program–a youth program–here at South Maple one day a week–to minister to the middle schoolers in our neighborhood, and get them involved in the UMC faith.  We’ll be reached out to retired teachers, and anyone else who can give 2 hours a week to be in relationship with these kids.   

Who is with me on this?  Who wants to be in relationship with kids at an age that is hard (middle school is hard)–who wants to watch them grow in their faith–to lend them support, and to perhaps, learn something from them as well? Because let me tell you–a lot of these kids–including the ones who come to Waffle Church–they have as much to give as they have to get!

 

So let’s start praying about how we are going to meet the kids in this neighborhood where they are at.  

 

I’d like to end with the closing prayer on your bulletin.

 

We pray for the children who put chocolate fingers everywhere,

Who like to be tickled,

Who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants,

Who sneak popsicles before supper,

Who erase holes in math workbooks,

Who hug us tightly and forget their lunch money.

Who can never find their shoes.

And we pray for those

Who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire,

Who can’t bounce down the street in a new pair of sneakers,

Who are born in a place we wouldn’t be caught dead in.

We pray for children who want to be carried and for those who must,

And for those who don’t have a second chance,

For those we smother and spoil,

And those that will grab the hand of anybody

Kind enough to offer it.

For all these children, Adonai, we pray today, for they are so precious.  Amen.+

+  Poem and sermon material by Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit http://www.betham.org/sermon/prayer-children (Adapted.)

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“Just Say Yes to Encouragement”

Scripture:  Romans 1: 11-12
Hebews 10: 24-25

August 20, 2017

Pastor Holly Sortland

 

 

I am so excited that we are developing a “Just Say Yes” culture here at South Maple UMC.  These past four weeks, we’ve explored saying yes to the Holy Spirit, yes to our personal calling–which means understanding our spiritual gifts, and saying yes to spiritual growth.  And finally, today–we are exploring what it means to be a community of encouragers—of what it means to “say yes” to encouragement as followers of Christ.

And this morning, we’ll see how being “encouragers” not only changes the way we that we do church, but it also changes our perspectives and helps us to love our neighbors, in a time where it often seems that love it lacking.

I want to start by going back to the scripture from Hebrews.  And the words are powerful.  The apostle who wrote the book of Hebrews, whom most Biblical scholars believe to be the Apostle Paul, uses the language “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”  Provoke.  That’s sort of a strange choice of  words isn’t it?

In fact, if you look up the word “provoke” in the dictionary, it is often attributed with a negative definition: It defines “provoke” as to “stimulate or give rise to (a reaction or emotion, typically a strong or unwelcome one) in someone.  Synonyms for the word “provoke” include goad, spur, sting, prod, egg on, incite, rouse, stir, move, stimulate, motivate, excite, inflame, work/fire up, impel.

Now those are some strong words.

And when I hear those words, I come to a quick realization that they describe the society that we are living in.  If you turn on the news, or log onto Facebook or Twitter, you will see a lot of goading, and spurring, and stinging and prodding and inciting and inflaming.  But in a lot of  cases, we’re goading and inciting and inflaming out of hate or fear–and we’re certainly not out of love.

When was the last time you goaded or spurred or prodded someone to love?  

When was the last time you goaded or spurred or prodded someone to do good deeds?   

When was the last time you goaded or spurred or prodded someone into ministry?

And let me turn that question around:

When was the last time someone goaded or spurred or prodded you into ministry?  And what was your response? DId you say yes and regret it? Did you say no and regret it? You see one of the reasons that knowing our own spiritual gifts is so important, and why I’ve been encouraging you all to take a spiritual gift assessment is because if you know your gifts–and you say to yes using them–you will find great joy, and you will produce great results.

Jesus was the greatest encourager.    And that’s what Jesus was constantly doing in his ministry.  He was healing, giving people strength, restoring them back into society, and giving them heart–in essence, he gave them encouragement.

You know one of the things that I love most about Jesus? He was always, always finding the good in people.  Even, especially, the people who seemed the most flawed.  The corrupt tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lepers, the lowest of the low, and the highest of the high. Jesus always found the love in them.  So what if we did that? What if we assumed that we’re not all out to get each other–but really–we’re just like everyone else–trying to make it by?  What if we assumed the best of each other?  What if instead of criticizing, or complaining, or thinking of all of the things that could wrong when we try new ministries, or–a new way or being in community with others—what if we just offered encouragement instead?

And this can be a very hard thing to do.  There are many churches out there today where it can be hard to be an “encourager” because people have been part of a church culture that  reacts to new ideas with  comments like–“we can’t do it that way, or “we’ve never done it like that before,”  or  “This is the way we’ve always done it.”  And when that is the standard response in the culture of a church, new ministries cannot grow.  People cannot feel unleashed to to start ministries when they are always met with “we’ve never done it that way before.”   But the good news is–we have ministers in this church (and when I say ministers–I am talking about all of you)…we have ministers in this church who are willing to try new things. To take some risks. To let the Holy Spirit lead us out into our community.

Now, being an “encourager” in our regular lives (outside of the church) can be even more difficult–especially when we are inundated in a culture of naysayers, criticizers, and provokers of intolerance.  It is hard to encourage others when all we see around us is people tearing other people down. Especially if we see them doing things that we disagree with. Especially if we see them doing things that we think are un Christ-like. It’s much easier for us to react out of anger or fear or judgement, than it is for us to act of patience and love.  

As I mentioned in my prayer–there is a lot of tension in our country. So how we can we be encouragers to people who will think we have nothing in common with?  How can we be encouragers to people who we so strongly disagree with–we don’t even want to engage with them.

True, authentic Christian encouragement, as Christ lived it–requires us to cross the aisle.  Encouragement is not empty words or vague purposes. True encouragement involves something more profound. It steels people against despair. It emboldens them in their following of Christ. . . . Encouragement literally means ‘to fill with courage and strength of purpose, to hearten, to give heart.’”  It means provoking people into love, which sometimes can be unsettling. Because when we haven’t known authentic and healthy love in our lives, when our picture of love is distorted by our past wounds, we need to be provoked.  We need to be encouraged to take up our crosses and delve into the risky business of healing and loving though the holy spirit.

It requires us to engage in relationship with people we might not agree with.  If you unfriended someone on Facebook because they disagreed with you politically, or if you’re not speaking to a friend or a family member because you’re feeling hurt from a heated conversation– check yourself, and reach out to them in love.  Because we must remember that we are not our bumper stickers, we are not our Facebook posts or our twitter feeds.  We are called to be encouragers though Christ.   God has given us these amazing lives–this wonderful gift of life. And I refuse to believe that God wants us to spend our lives in fear of each other.  In fear of trying new things.  In fear of failure.  God wants us to be encouragers.

Through the power of encouragement, God is asking us to check ourselves and to cross the aisle.  Because when we do this–when we  set aside our pride and our judgements, we when and act like Jesus did–and reach out to those who disagree with us– amazing things happen–healing happens.

Now crossing the aisle in that situation was risky. It could have ended in violence, or conflict–but it ended in reconciliation.  It ended in prayer.  It ended with encouragement.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he was living in Greece. He told the Romans, “I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”

Amazingly, Paul had never ever step foot in Rome when he wrote them that letter.  Yet his love for the Roman Christian community flowed through his words and you can feel the eagerness of Paul’s call to be in ministry, with people who were complete strangers.  Paul was encouraging and offering love to a group of strangers–but the amazing thing is–they really weren’t strangers, because Paul knew that this group of Romans were followers of the Way. Followers of Jesus, of love and truth.

And so if Paul could offer this encouragement to a group of people he had never met, I am excited and overjoyed by the possibilities that we can offer to our community.  While there is so much ugliness in this world, so much division and violence, there is also so much hope.  And there is so much ministry we can do here on our little corner–in this beloved community on E Indiana Street.

Jesus wants us to be encouragers. So, are you ready to answer some questions:

Are you willing to provoke someone to love?

Are you willing to provoke, to goad, to spur, to prod someone into doing good deeds?

Are you willing to provoke, to goad, to spur to prod someone into ministry?

Are you willing to cross the aisle, and offer Christ filled encouragement to someone you think you have nothing in common with–someone you think has no potential for change?

And are you willing to be changed by the provoking and prodding love that Christ has to offer?

Are you willing to be provokers of the Holy Spirit?

When we do this–we we commit to be encouragers for Christ, we begin to see the fruits of what Martin Luther King Jr called  a “Beloved Community.”  And when we commit to be encouragers–we see the fruits of reconciliation; the fruits of redemption; and this is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.… It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of people .

I am so excited to be goaders and provokers of love with you here at South Maple UMC, because in our little corner, in our little church, we can change our world. One person at a time, one conversation at a time, one prayer at a time.  We should all be  so excited and blessed to be encouragers of love. Amen.

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“Grow Where You are Planted”

August 13, 2017

Pastor Holly Sortland

Scripture:  Ephesians 4:11-16

 

 

Today is the third Sunday of our Worship series “Just Say Yes!”

 

We’ve discussed saying “yes” to the Holy Spirit, last week we discussed saying “yes” to exploring our spiritual gifts, and today–we are going explore the importance of saying yes to growth.  Spiritual growth on a personal level, and spiritual level as a church in a community that has many, many needs.  And growth requires relationship.  It is something that requires community.  Growing in spirit is not a solo sport.

Because you see, if  we walk this faith journey alone, we tend to make excuses and compile lists of reasons for not taking risks and trying new things for the purposes of Christ.

To fully use the gifts, talents, and passions the Holy Spirit is empowering in us, we must continue to grow in the knowledge and love of God. When we study the word of God, When we worship, when we pray, when we serve, and when we are held accountable by other followers of Jesus, we grow in the grace of God. 

 

There must be intentionality in our faith development. Each new experience of Christ centered study and community will strengthen us to use our gifts and to answer our calls to

ministry. We will mature into the likeness of Christ.  And it will compel us  to serve more, love more, and risk more.

Are you connected to the supporting ligaments of the body of Christ ? Are you in a small group or an accountability group with other followers of Jesus Christ who can

encourage and challenge you in your calling? Are you growing closer to God and others right now?

 

We’ll come back to those questions in a moment, but first, I want you to do some imagining.
Imagine a church that invests incredible energy in helping people discover their callings and use their spiritual gifts for building up the church.  Last week, we talked about how everyone is called to serve in different ways. Some respond by participating in ministries initiated by church staff and leaders. Others form

ministries together with those who share common passions or interests. Others notice unmet needs in the community or world, and they initiate ministries, inviting others to help. We saw that last week in the videos that we saw about the little boy who lost both his parents, yet he gave out toys to strangers on the street just to make them smile.  We saw it in the story of bridge bread–where one man, a businessman, was inspired by a Bible class to start a baking ministry to help people without homes.  And in both those stories–involving the little boy and the man–those stories had one thing that had to happen.  They both had to trust that God would provide. And God did provide–in the smiles that the little boy produced and in the bread that the homeless men and women produced.  God is the great provider. And sometimes, oftentimes, we tend to forget that.

 

Do you trust God more than you trust yourself?

 

I would say–if we are honest–most of us would answer no to that question–and most churches would answer no to that question.  And it’s easy to understand why.

Often times, churches cling to old ways of doing things–in days when people just showed up to church, because being part of a church was being part of a community.  But that has changed now.  Most people within a two mile radius of our building don’t regularly attend a church.  They might identify with a denomination or attend on Christmas or Easter–but they are not truly being transformed within a faith community.  It could be due to income status, or all sorts of other distractions in our crazy, modern world–but we are living in a time when most people aren’t actively seeking our churches.  But I tell you what they are seeking out:

They are seeking out community, they are seeking out acceptance.  They are seeking out a place where they can heal their pain. And they are seeking out a place to grow. `And that place might not look like a building to them–it probably looks more  like a relationship.

 

And so, when we say yes to growing, we are really saying yes to being in relationship with our neighbors.  And that might look a little different than the way church has been traditionally done.  It might not look like traditional Sunday school classes–but it might look more like Waffle Church.  It might look more like small groups sprouting up—meeting in our church at various times and places–and not always on Sundays.  It might look like doing youth ministry after school by offering kids a safe place to eat some pizza, to help them with their homework, and learn about God.

Last week, I shared the story about how a group of kids in our neighborhood stopped by our church asking for a drink of water, and they ended up helping us paint the fellowship hall.  Those kids showed up three other days last week asking if there was anything they could help us with at the church.  So they helped me fold bulletins, they delivered fliers around the neighborhood with our District Superintendent–and then on Saturday–they showed up for Waffle Church–with several of their cousins.  These kids are hungry for relationship.  They are hungry to be invested in, and they might not know it yet–but they are already becoming ministers in Christ.

 

When Jesus ministered to people, he didn’t sent out invitations for people to join him in the synagogues.  He did some teachings there yes—but most of what he did was done outside of religious buildings.  Jesus brought church and relationship to the streets.  Jesus was constantly on the move, because he knew that spiritual growth came from relationship.  So if we want to think and love like Jesus–we need to be thinking about how God wants us to bring Jesus back to the streets.

 

God gave us this amazing gift of life–and we humans have been given imagination and ingenuity and often times, we forget who are maker is.  And what that happens, we lose trust. We get  in the  habit of planning for scarcity rather than prosperity.  And we do that, we turn inward and we lose connection with community.

 

I want us to think of this neighborhood as our garden. And when we say yes to growing in God’s love, we are saying yes to trusting that God will provide what we need. God will provide the soil, God will provide the water. God will provide the love.  And we need to provide the trust.

 

Have you ever heard the phrase “you can’t duck tape fruit to a tree?”  

That you can’t duct tape fruit to the tree; real fruit grows from being planted in ripe compost and calls for investments of time and nurturing. It’s hard, but anything good is hard—real transformation happens from the inside out.  People’s hearts don’t get nurtured by fake fruit. We get nurtured by authentic relationships. And then we start to grow.  And that growth leads to a capacity for co-creation. The patient co-creation eventually leads to sweet, sweet fruit. This not applies to us on a personal, spiritual level–but it also applies to us as a church.

 

So–we need to start trusting God that we can grow that we will grow–we don’t need to duck tape fruit to the tree because if we trust God more than we trust ourselves, God will provide the fruit.  God will grant us growth.  

 

I want to show you a story about a church a church that started saying ‘yes’ to taking some risks–and not surprisingly, God’s work became apparent.

 

 

 

The excuses of the people are all too common when avoiding change and newness; we are too small, too old, too tired, we’re too busy and there is not enough money. Yet with the hopeful and encouraging leadership of Rev. Will, they joined forces with the four other local churches and forged a new way of being church to their broader community. By taking a risk and learning together, they said Yes to God. Now their church no longer remains silent and closed but helps (almost 950 people) at a free food pantry and 350 people monthly at a thrift store. Lives are being blessed and a church is growing in the grace of God. If Rev. Wills had started listing all the reasons not to do this new ministry, the people of Sturgeon United Methodist Church would have said “No”.

 And by saying “no”, they would have claimed human possibilities, not God’s possibilities.

 

And I am so, so encouraged by this congregation’s willingness to say “yes” to God’s possibilities– to say yes to new endeavors.  To yes to Waffle Church, to say yes to Journey Renewal, to say yes to hosting Love, Inc—and I know that there are lots more opportunities to say “yes” in the future.

And one of the things I’d like you all to start praying about is saying “yes” to being part of a small group study.   Because small groups keep us accountable to growth, on a personal level–and in the larger church.   A woman from a UMC church in Texas who regularly participates in small group studies says this:

“‘Each time I leave a Bible study session, I feel encouraged to do things I was fearful to do before. We always end up talking each other into things—to speak up at work, to forgive a sister, to visit someone who is grieving. We know these are the right things to do. But we need a nudge.’

Community fosters accountability.  It allows us to be  the voice of Christ to each other.”

So here are my questions for you this morning:

 

Are we a growing church?

 

Are we a church that trusts God more than we trust ourselves?

 

Are we a church that believes that God will provide?

 

Are we a church that is going to grow gardens in our neighborhood, make disciples of our children, and feed people–both physically and spiritually?

Do we believe that God provides?

 

One of my favorites parts of the Bible is John 20: 11-18

Jesus appears to Mary

11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” 

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).  (CEB)

 

Out of all the people she could mistake him for–Mary makes Jesus as a gardener.  I like to think this is because Jesus was a grower, he was a producer, and he wants us to do the same. He wants you to produce real fruit.  To seek out love over hate, forgiveness over grudges, mercy over judgment.  Jesus wants us to grow where we are planted. And we are planted here, in this church, in this neighborhood, in this city.  And he is calling us to be made new.  So let’s do what Jesus tells us to do. Let’s plant. Let’s grow. Let’s love. Let’s grow our church.  Amen.

 

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“Just Say Yes to Your Calling”

Smilemakers & Breadbakers

 

Scipture:  Acts 11: 19-30   Matthew  16:24-25

Pastor Holly Sortland

August 6, 2017

 

 

God calls everyone to service and ministry. Your calling, your purpose is where the gifts the Holy Spirit has given you meet the needs of the world. This calling will demand something of you. This likely requires us to say “No” to some selfishinclinations. It means wholeheartedly saying Yes to Jesus and following where he leads. It will sometimes be a physical and spiritual picking up of your cross, because it means recognizingthe places in this world that break your heart and doing something about it.   

This is what Jesus tells us in the scripture we heard today from Matthew  16:24-25–when Jesus says “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. And we’re going to explore this a little later in my message when we watch the story about a man who had to give some things up in order to fully use his God-given gifts.

The other scripture we heard this morning was from the Book of Acts–which is basically the storybook of the early church–of how people practiced Christianity when there were no churches, only houses and synagogues–and following Jesus was done outside of the building walls.  And it was risky business.  Remember last week–we talked about how the Holy Spirit calls us to do risky things.  We noted that if we are doing Christianity right–it is risky business!

In fact– I want to share a story about something really cool that happened the other night.

Some volunteers and I were painting the fellowship hall on Friday evening–and I left the back door open to get some air flow.  Now, this is something that I would not usually do when I would be alone at the church, but since there were several of us there–I didn’t find it too risky.  A couple of hours into the painting we hear some voices upstairs.  A group of kids–ages 10-14 were out riding their bikes and asked for a drink of water.  They saw that we were painting and I told about our plans to launch Waffle Church. The next thing I knew, they left to go home and ask their parents if they could come back and help us paint.  And so they did! You see, just by the act of having our door open–we found some people to be in ministry with—kids, in fact, who for some reason or other felt a calling to come paint with us.

 

When we are called by God, in can come in unexpected places and at unexpected times. The early disciples in Antioch were the first to be called Christians. The church in Antioch was proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to Jews and Gentiles, and the number of believers was growing. When they heard of a need in Jerusalem, when they heard that a drought was coming–they responded with generosity. And it order to understand what a big deal this was–it’s important to note that Antioch and Jerusalem     were about 300 miles apart–and in ancient times–that was quite a journey.  It was quite a risk. So for these early Christians, to be ready to travel and help their brothers and sisters in need so far away–was a pretty amazing feat.  You see, serving is part of our DNA and is key to our calling as followers of Jesus. Often Christians use the language of “called to ministry” too narrowly, applying it only to those people who pursue full-time Christian service in some form of ordained, licensed, or certified ministry.   But every Christian is entrusted with the work of ministry through their baptism and profession of faith.  God’s call shapes us in small ways every day.  We saw that in the children’s message video–where one little boy felt called to to turn his grief and sadness into joy by making people smile.  Although it wasn’t blatantly stated in that video–that little boy was following Christ. He was ministering to his community at 6-years-old.

 

 

 

 Seeking to follow Christ affects how we relate to our families, what kind of friend and coworker we are, the sort of neighbor and citizen we become. God calls us to build up rather than to tear down, to foster justice rather than to treat people unfairly, to help those in need rather than disregard them.*

Today, we break bread and celebrate Holy Communion. So I think it’s fitting today to share a story about one man who turned his spiritual gift of running a business–being a good businessman–in making bread that is transforming lives.  And it’s all because he had a dream.  A dream that God gave him. 

 

Lafayette Park United Methodist Church is an urban local church in one of the oldest parts of St. Louis. Rev. Kathleen Wilder led a Bible study on ethics and poverty. She was not even sure anyone would attend, but over twenty faithful church members attended and were inspired. Upon her return, ministries were born and already in the works to bless others. One man who attended the study had a heart for the homeless, (the man we saw in the video)and God gifted him with generosity of time and spirit. With his talent as an entrepreneur, he dreamed of making bread with the homeless. This is how Bridge Bread was born.

 In order for this extraordinary ministry to begin a number of things had to occur: One man had to believe God was speaking to him, and he had to understand his gifts, talents, and passion. Remarkable things happen when people answer their calling and people are there to support and encourage them.  And he had to pick up his cross–he had to make some personal sacrifices.  He could have started a bread making business on his own–he could have kept the profits.  But God gave him a dream.  And God gave him a gift.  And God gave him a calling—and he answered it.  God reminded him that he is a minister!  

 How many ministers do we have today, in this room–in this church?  I may be the pastor–but you are the minister. I answered a calling–but guess what–God is calling you, too!

 

Our kids–who are out in children’s church making prayer flags for our community—they are ministers! Our UMW women, the people who sing in our praise team and share their music–the people who clean our church–they are ministers.  You are a minister!

 So we need to tell our children, as soon as they are old enough to walk, as soon as they are old enough to talk–that they are minister.  Ministry and our God-given gifts have nothing to do with our age, or ability, or even our past mistakes. Our God-given gifts are in in our DNA as Christians,–we just have to take up our crosses to use them and discover them.

So–I want to you ask you…

Is God calling you?  

Are you a minister in Christ?  

Are you going to tell all God’s children, no matter their age–from 2 to 100 that  God is calling them?  

Are you going to remind yourself, and your children and your grandchildren that ministry doesn’t require a robe or a stole, or a degree in in seminary?   

Are you going to remind yourself that answering your call only requires us to accept the grace that God gives us?  It requires us to make some sacrifices–to get a little uncomfortable–to do the risky business that the Holy Spirit is calling us to do?   

Are you going to keep praying and dreaming and listening for God’s call?

Let’s be breadmakers, and smile makers. Let’s share our God-given gifts and answer our call. Let’s make some church, and today, let’s share some bread.  Amen.

 

*Taken from “Just Say Yes” by Bishop Robert Schnase 

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33 Days as a Mother– Saying “Yes” to the Holy Spirit.

Pastor Holly Sortland

July 30, 2017

Scripture:  1 Corinthians 12: 1-7

This is the beginning of our new sermon series– “Just Say Yes”!  It’s based from the book by the same name by Bishop Robert Schnaise, who asserts that churches often get consumed in a culture of “no.”  A culture of not wanting to change things.   My hope for this sermon series is that it will unleash you for ministry—to be encouraged and emboldened, equipped and sent out. Unleashed means to set free, to unbind from restraint, to set loose!

Churches that unleash people for ministry rethink their operations, focus on the way God calls everyone of every age to ministry.  They create a culture of Yes, of cultivating God’s call to diverse expressions of ministry.

They expect people to have good ideas for ministry, and they realize that new ideas can come from anywhere or anyone. Growing churches eliminate unnecessary obstacles–which means sometimes “saying yes” to the spirit means saying “no” to something else.  Sometimes when the spirit is leading us in a particular direction–it means we might have to leave old ideas and notions behind.  We give birth to new ministries, sometimes we have to let go of things that aren’t bearing fruit.  Ministries–like people and churches have  a life-cycle, and we need to be willing to move and change as the Holy Spirit calls us.

The core principle of this series is that growing churches say “yes” to ideas and changes that declining churches say “no” to. When you encourage and unleash a congregation, when we get past the point of change being uncomfortable, the growth for Christ will be incredible!

So, in this “Let’s Say Yes” worship series-We are going to focus on four things:

  • Saying Yes to the Holy Spirit
  • Saying Yes to Your Calling
  • Saying Yes to Spiritual Growth
  • Saying Yes to Encouragement and Community.

And I am so excited today to talk about saying “yes” to the Holy Spirit.  And, if we are going to say “yes” to it–we had better have an understanding as to who or what the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit can be confusing.  One night, about five years ago- I was leading the youth ministry at Canyon Lake, when the discussion of the Holy Spirit came up.  And boy–did the youth have a lot of questions!  Questions like:

“Is the Holy Spirit separate from God?”

“Did God create the Holy Spirit?”

“Why do we refer the Holy Spirit with the Father and Son as three in One?”

I was grateful at that time to have not had the “pastor” title-so that I could refer those questions onto the senior pastor.

The Holy Spirit: We often see it depicted in Christian symbolism as a dove, or fire, or water, or the wind. And today, in the children’s message, I added glitter and feathers to the mix–making even more complex!

Yet, the Holy Spirit and its relationship to God isn’t as complicated as some try to make it.  I’d like to examine the Holy Spirit through the lens of our faith as United Methodists.  Our founder, John Wesley, described the following as the Holy Spirit as this:

“A fountain of love”

“A revealer of truth”

“A bearer of New Creation”

“Assurance of our Salvation”

Scripture is here to guide us in our understanding of the Holy Spirit and its relationship to Jesus.  I invite you to look at the first few verses in the Gospel of John, where John writes:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Later in the Gospel of John, in the eighth chapter, the pharisees question Jesus’ identity,  and Jesus answers by saying  I tell you the truth,’ ‘before Abraham was born, I am!’

So in essence Jesus is giving us clues that he has been with us since the beginning of creation–since before creation. John gives us a great sense of Jesus being with us eternally. So if that’s the case–how does this help us get a better understanding of the Holy Spirit?

Later in the Gospel of John –right before Jesus is ascended into heaven he tells his disciples this:  25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate,[d] the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

So here we have Jesus alluding to what’s going to happen on Pentecost–which was when a great wind came across Jerusalem, people were filled the spirit and able to understand one another in different tongues and languages.  We celebrate pentecost as the birth of the church.

The Holy Spirit is our advocate. The Holy Spirit is here to remind us that of Jesus’ great commandment, which is to love God, love others and make Christ followers of the world.  Notice, Jesus doesn’t say that God would create the Spirit–he said that God would send the spirit.

I believe the gospels–especially Luke and John hint to the fact that just as Jesus was with us in the beginning, so was the Holy Spirit, and so was God.  So here we have three in one–different but the same.

God. And we know God is love.  Jesus is God—-or–love–in human form, sent to earth to establish a relationship—and the Holy Spirit is the advocate. The Holy Spirit is our companion. The Holy Spirit—as I like to think of it, is God’s imagination pushing and nudging us to do the work of Christ.

Now that we’ve addressed who and what the Holy Spirit is–the next question is—how do you know when the Holy Spirit is calling you?

I’m going to throw a wrench into things and tell you that often times–most of the time– the Holy Spirit is calling you out of your comfort zone.  And the reason that the Holy Spirit often calls us out of our comfort zone is because Jesus taught us that love and healing come from relationships.  And relationships require us to be vulnerable.  They can be messy–even painful.  The Holy Spirit is calling us to take risks.

Christianity, if we are doing it right is a risky business– can I get an Amen?

I want to share a personal example of how the Holy Spirit–even though I didn’t recognize it at the time–was leading in the creation of our family.

In a couple of weeks, our  family will celebrate a special day.  August 17. This is our oldest son’s Adoption Day.  Eleven years ago, we brought Francisco home to our little house that we rented in the foggy fishing village of Morro Bay, CA.  It was the day that we became a family.  The day that I became a Mom. I tell Cisco that it was the happiest day of my life.  And it was!  

Cisco loves to hear the story of his Adoption Day.  I provide as much detail as possible.  I tell him about  the tall palm trees in the front yard of his foster home, the hallway that we walked down to get to his room….how happy he was when he first saw us.  So happy in fact that he squealed and laughed and bumped

his head hard on his crib! But he didn’t cry a tear.  And then he wrapped his arms around my neck and

I will never forget how hard he hung onto me.  And how hard I hugged in back. It was like we were telling each

Other “I’ve been waiting for you. The wait is over!”

 

(Pastor Holly & Cisco on their Adoption Day).

Before we brought Cisco home, Eric and I were being called to be parents, but it just wasn’t happening for us. So we started to look into adoption, and we realized the need for homes for thousands of beautiful children in foster care.  

Now, when we started the adoption process– People would say “you’re brave”–it’s risky to adopt a child from foster care.  Aren’t you concerned about all of the unknowns?

And let me tell you I was scared–scared that it could fall though. Cisco was born with a heart condition, and I was scared that his medical conditions could get worse, scared that they would be a lot challenges in our future.  But the thing is–I knew in my heart that God was calling me to be a mother, calling Eric and I to make a family. Had we not not “said yes” to taking risks–we would have been saying no to the Spirit.  

Two weeks later, after we brought Francisco home–I learned I was pregnant.

I know many of you have heard these types of stories happening a lot. But I believe in my heart that the reason I didn’t get pregnant earlier was because Cisco was our first child. He is the son God chose for us, and we are the parents God chose for him.  I don’t want to imagine our lives or Cisco’s life had we decided to say “no” that day that we were sent Cisco’s picture.   You see–just like Jesus said in the Gospel of John–we were not alone. The Holy Spirit was with us–guiding our journey in becoming a family.

I am so glad that I said “yes,” when the Spirit was calling me.  I want to share with you another story about another mother who said “yes”–and it was a yes that came at a cost.

Do you wonder what would have happened if Brenda would have said no?

But she didn’t–and look at the joy and the love she and her daughter shared–and that joy and love–even though it came with pain, will never leave her.

 And it reminds me that God sent his own son–for us to love and cherish–even though God knew there would be a cost.  Saying “yes” to the Spirit is risky–but is it a risk worth taking.

These are the things I want you to remember:

  1. The Holy Spirit is real.

It is present in this room. It is as real as these pews, it is a real as ice cream, and feathers and glitters.

  1. The Holy Spirit has given you a gift. Aren’t you excited to find out what it is? Just as I had a box for the kids in the children’s message–we all have a gift too–and the Spirit is here to help us find out what it is!  On the back of your bulletin–you are invited to to visit the UMC’s website and take a short, spiritual gift assessment.   You are also all invited to pick up a hard copy available in the lobby.  This is a tool intended to help you discover the gifts that God has given you–and to explore how the Holy Spirit is guiding you to use those gifts.  The Holy Spirit is calling you to say “yes!”  

Our scripture from today, from first Corinthians, reminds us that we all have gifts–and that they are given to us by the same Spirit.  And Jesus sent the spirit to guide us–so how will we answer the Spirit’s call?

So–when the Holy Spirit is nudging us and guiding us–how will we answer?  “Yes!”

When the Holy Spirit is pushing us to get out of our comfort zones, when the Spirit  wants us to get involved in risky business–the risky business of loving with limits–how will we answer?  

“Yes”

When you are invited to explore your God given gifts, to reflect and pray on them–how will we answer?     “yes!”

And when you are asked to use these gifts– whether it be to evangelize through word or action, or visiting the homebound, or writing cards for those who are lonely, or singing and playing with children, or cooking, or building giant “say yes” centers (like Steve and Pinky Horner did)…or whether it be cleaning things  or maintaining things–or  sometimes just listening to someone who i hurting.  When the spirit is calling you to do this –how will we answer  “yes!”

So tell your children and grandchildren–there may be no ghosts–but there is the Holy Spirit–and the Spirit is alive in this church! The Spirit is sticking to us, like feathers in the air and glitter in our hair.  The Spirit is calling us. Let’s answer it!  Amen.

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“The Rose of Jericho”

Pastor Holly Sortland

July 23, 2017

  Isaiah 35: 1-10   John 7:37-39  

 

Sermon series:  “Imagine”

Today I will share  our last message in our “Imagine” series, and I as prayed about what to preach about–the heat and the dryness really got to me.  It’s been hot here in Western South Dakota. The grass is brown, the flowers are wilting, our energy bills are going up–and the heat has a way of changing us.  

Heat makes us a little cranky.  

It makes us irritable.  

It makes us feel parched.

It makes us thirsty.

And so I found it fitting today, as we imagine the future of our church that is deeply rooted into this community– to imagine the new life that living water brings. I want us to imagine the new life after the drought!

Drought.

Heat can really get to us, can’t it? In the spring, I spend a lot of time planting flowers, and I love the evening ritual of watering them every night, and when they start to wilt in the heat, I love to see them almost immediately spring back to life after I water them.  And this past week, while I was away studying in Chicago–I was worried about my flowers. Every year I grow to love the roots that I plant in the soil–and the miracle of their blooming.  The need for water is apparent in all of God’s creation–from plants to animals, and especially to our own bodies. There was a time, a few years ago–when our family visited the zoo in Omaha. We had an amazing time, but it was very, very hot. And  very, very humid.  And the trip was somewhat expensive–and in an attempt to cut down costs, I did something that wasn’t very smart. I hadn’t planned ahead very well and packed a lot of water, so I bought water for kids, and drank very little myself.  And as the heat started to get to me–my mood changed.

I wasn’t quite as cheerful.  

I wasn’t amazed by the giraffes or the monkeys, and even the giant tuna in the much cooler aquarium portion of the zoo didn’t spark my interest.

My kids had an amazing, quite funny  interaction with a gorilla though the glass window–but I didn’t feel present in enjoying that moment.  As I got hotter,  the world around me blurred and my thinking got foggy—but strangely enough–I didn’t feel thirsty. I felt nauseated and my head throbbed and pounded—but I didn’t think water would help– in fact, the idea of drinking something made me feel sicker. I just wanted to get someplace cool.And I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was working my way up to a bad case of heat exhaustion.  I needed water, but all I wanted was to feel cool. My lack of water that afternoon blurred my thinking. It blurred my reasoning.  It blurred how I experienced the environment around me.   It blurred how I reacted with others–including the people that I love the most.  My body had a nasty, physical reaction to a lack of water.

We know what happens to us physically when we go too long without water–but today, I invite us to think about the spiritual consequences of living our lives without a different type of water.  What happens in our lives when we neglect to take the Living water that is offered to us through Jesus?  

Well, in order to answer that question–we need to understand what Jesus means when he offers us living water. Living water is mentioned in scripture twice in the Gospel of John.  The first time is in the fourth chapter when Jesus asks the Samaritan woman at the well for a drink, and then and then offers her living water:  and then again in John 7–which we heard today, when Jesus shouts to the crowds He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive.”

But what is Jesus talking about–when he mentions this living water? I think the simple answer is that Jesus is offering us grace. And this is a good time to reevaluate your life by asking yourself, do you feel like there is a drought of grace in your life?

Just as I was feeling that day at the zoo—I wasn’t enjoying the beauty of God’s creation around me…I was exhausted, and hurting, and looking to be filled by something that wouldn’t make me better.  I lacked patience with my kids, I was short with those that I loved most.  I was unable to see the joy that was springing up before me.

How many of you have been there? How many of you feel like that now?

Life is draining. Life can be dry, and scorching. Illness can drain us of our energy. Relationship strains leave us thirsty for companionship–and sometimes, we’ll seek that companionship in the wrong places.  The stress and business of our lives—from work, to doctor’s appointments, to kids’ activities, to meeting other people’s expectations—and sometimes– our loneliness–all of this starts to dry us out. We start to feel parched.  And the things is—just like what happened to me when I went too long without water, is that once you pass a certain point, it is difficult to know what you need to keep you alive.  And just as there was plenty of  water available to me that day that that I got overheated—there is plentiful amount of God’s grace and living water available to all of us.  But sometimes—we need someone else to point it out to us.  We need someone us to offer us that drink.

In the children’s message, I talked about the resurrection plant–it has various names, but often it is referred to as the “Rose of Jericho.”  It is  called the “Rose of Jericho” because of where it is found–mainly in the middle east.  And–it’s found in an area where Jesus lived and ministered.  

 

The gospels state that Jesus passed through Jericho where he healed a blind beggar.

Scripture:

The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus

46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher,[a]let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

This man followed Jesus on the way.  And  I like to picture Jesus–walking the dry, dusty roads of Jericho–probably with these plants at his feet.  These plants that though some mystery–really never die.

Science tells us some about this mysterious plant, the of Jericho. After the rainy season, the plant dries up, dropping leaves and curling branches into a tight ball, and “hibernates”. Within the ball, the fruits remain attached and closed, protecting the seeds and preventing them from being dispersed prematurely. The seeds are very hardy and can remain dormant for years. Wetted again in a later rainy season, the ball uncurls and the plant wakes up from its dormant state, which causes the capsular fruits to open to disperse the seeds. If water is sufficient, the dispersed seeds germinate within hours. A fraction of the seeds are dispersed in the vicinity of the parent plant by raindrops hitting a spoon-like appendix on the seeds. The seeds have a sticky coat that helps them adhere to the soil.  And they grow a new.   What I love about this plant is that no matter how dry they get, no matter how crusty and dead they might seem, they are revived by water.  


I think often times in life, we can feel like that Rose of Jericho–dried up, quenching for something to renew us, blowing in the wind and feeling like we don’t have roots.

But just as the Rose of Jericho  will always respond to the water, our spirits will always respond to God’s grace.  Notice that when I described the Rose of Jericho and how it survives, it is stated that the fruits always remain, even when the plant is dried up. And if water is sufficient–the seeds with disperse and germinate within hours.  

If the water is sufficient.  Does that remind you of something? God’s sufficient grace!  And when we recognize God’s sufficient grace that is offered to us—we start spreading seeds.  We start to germinate.  We start to multiply.

You see– even when we feel parched, and thirsty, in the midst of a drought with no hope—we need to remember the living water. The water that gives us new and miraculous life.  And we need remember that it is offered to us by Jesus, every day.

There are thousands in our community who are spiritually dehydrated.  And they are disoriented.  And they are filling themselves up with things that don’t quench their thirst.  Things like bad relationships and addictions. And they need to be told the good news!  There is life after drought—because just like the Rose of Jericho–our spirits always respond to God’s grace!

The scripture from Isaiah is prophetic.  And if you look at the texts–it comes in a rather strange spot.  The previous passage in Isaiah talks about a lot of gloom and doom. About punishment and dark days to come.  About a lot of suffering.  But then–out of the blue–and out of context, the prophet Isaiah surprises us.  He gives us hope though imagination.  He reminds us that something big is coming.  That the wilderness will be glad, and that it will rejoice and blossom. Isaiah has the desert bursting with life, water is flowing.  There is renewal.  Isaiah interrupts the gloomy doomsday preceding passages and promises us a surprise instead.  It’s the same surprise that Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman at the well, to all those who would listen.

So let’s be reminded today–that our symbolic desert is lying in wait. Something big is coming with the rain.  New life will burst and blossom here–in each of us–in this life and the next.  And through this church!  But we can’t expect the thirsty to find us on our own—we need to be out there, offering them living water.

That hot day in June, when I found myself so ill from heat exhaustion at the Omaha Zoo, I remember being in the gift shop and there was cold water in coolers right by the register—but I didn’t think to buy one. My body was so dry that I needed someone to lead me there.

God is leading our church. God is renewing us like the Rose of Jericho when it is glorified with water.  And our church must get out in the community to lead others.  To offer them the same glory and love that Jesus offers to all of us.

Sometimes  we need the dryness to appreciate the feeling of renewal. We don’t feel the joy and the release of relief in new life unless we’ve been through a period of spiritual drought. When we feel alone. Alone in our depression, or stress of family and relationship issues.  And it’s the living water that renews us.

If you are sitting here today, feeling dried and parched, disoriented and dehydrated by life–Jesus’ living water is here. Come drink it!

If you are exhausted by illness, if your body aches, if you are tired and sore–Jesus’ living water is here.  Come drink it!

If you are stuck in a cycle of depression or addiction, or negative thinking and drowning in loneliness-Jesus’ water is here.  Come drink it!

If you are struggling with a relationship, with a spouse, or a child, or a friend or a co-worker–Jesus’ water is here.  Come drink it!

If you are worried about the future of the church–if you are concerned that we are stagnant and caught in a period of drought–Jesus’ water is here–and we need to tell others to “Come drink it!”

We need to tell others to come drink it–because we know the mighty power of God’s grace.   We know that God’s grace can heal, we know that God’s grace can bring new life–and we know that this water is something not to be kept just amongst ourselves.  We must offer it to others.   

And so my brothers and sisters–it may be dry outside, but this morning, we are wet with the Holy Spirit.  We will come alive again with the water Jesus offers to us, through our baptism–and through the grace that is with us each day before we awake.   Come, drink the water, remember your baptism and be blessed.  And hold hope in the promise that something big is coming! Our church will bloom and germinate and God’s living water will  flow out into our neighborhood like the waters described in Isaiah.

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“A Fistfull of Dandelions”

Jeremiah 29:11-13    Luke 18:15-17

Pastor Holly Sortland

July 9, 2017

 

 

I invite you to take a moment and think about your earliest childhood memories.  Close your eyes and try your best to focus on your earliest memoty. Perhaps one in particular sticks out more than others?   I don’t think I can pinpoint one memory that sticks out for me more than others, but I have a cluster of memories.  I remember growing up as a little girl in the southern Black Hills.   My dad was did environmental assessment work for the Silver King Mines, and he was always out in nature, and always bringing creatures home to share with us:   a Praying Mantis…horned toads…the occasional snake, which my mother loved.     

I remember myself with fistfulls of dandelions!  I made bouquet out of them,  smoshed them on the sidewalk and discovered  that they made a sort of yellow ink.  I squeezed them to discover that they oozed some sort of strange milk. And my favorite part was blowing the seeds of one that lost its petals, and making a wish.  How many of you remember as a child bringing dandelions to people you loved?  How many of you have had a child bring dandelions to you?  

Another memory I have as a child involves a helium balloon.  I was about 8 years old and my sister and I were bored one summer day. So we decided to send a message around the world.   We wrote a note with a message on it about ourselves, our return address, and asked whoever  found the message to write us back. We realeased the balloon and imagoned who would find it.  Someone in China or France perhaps?  We waited, and then forgot.  

But then–amazingly, a few weeks later, we received a letter in the mail. Someone had found our balloon–and guess where they lived?

About three blocks away.  

 

A kid–who was about our age–wrote back a long letter all about himself.  And he sounded like he could really use a friend.  My sister and I wanted to send a message across the world, but it turns out–there was someone who wanted to receive our message who lived just a few minutes away from us.  You see, sometimes we want to change the world, and the best way we can do that is by getting to know and love your neighbors down the street.

So- the question today- is, how does coming to God as child, as Jesus calls us to to do in the scripture from Luke that we heard today–how does this help us transform the world and build God’s kingdom?   

First, I want us to better understand the Jesus’ calling to us when he asks us to come to him as children–and to do that it’s important that we understand the role of children in Jewish society at the time that Jesus lived.  

According to Jewish historians,  the principle of the innocence of children is alien to the Old Testament.  While children were not held responsible for sin even up to nine years of age,  it was believed that the concept of the evil impulse is there from conception or birth. Interestingly in Scripture, the idea that a child is “innocent” doesn’t appear until Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  And even then, Paul seems to focus more a child’s “foolishness” and naivety rather than his or her intrinsic value a beloved child of God.  

While children were prized by parents — male children especially — in ancient Jewish society they were largely ignored as unimportant. They weren’t  considered worthy of much adult attention outside their families.

So you see, what Jesus did–by rebuking his disciples and insisting that the children come to him–he is once again was reminding us that he has come to love the lowly.  The ones who are ignored.  The ones we look at as messy, a nuisance, as having nothing to offer.  And Jesus doesn’t stop there.  Not only does he invite the lowly to come to him, but he tells us that we must BE like them in order to enter the kingdom.

So what does this mean–to become like a child?

Think of how a child comes to you.  How they come up to the altar during the children’s message.  They come with no posturing of worthiness, with no pretense that they are better than someone else.  They just come as they are. Sometimes without shoes, or with snow boots in the middle of summer–but they come just as they are.  And we love that!

Second, and I believe this is key in our discipleship–is the fact that children believe they can change the world. The sky is the limit.  For the young child, there is nothing keeping them from being an astronaut, or a super-star or a race car driver, or the President.  And likewise, there is nothing keeping them from changing the world as a loving disciple of Christ!   

Let me give you one example.   This is Hannah Foust–and teenager who I had the opportunity to hear speak at the National UMC Youth Conference in Orlando last year. As a United Methodist sixth-grader in Indiana, she saw a video about the desperate need for clean water in Burkina Faso and knew God was calling her to help.

 

“When I first learned about Burkina Faso, I instantly felt a responsibility to help the children there, like I was their sister,” she told General Conference delegates.

She set out to raise funds for clean water wells, and inspired other United Methodists to join the effort. Two years later, Foust and those she’s inspired have raised funds for 16 water wells–enough water that is literally providing living water to thousands of people.

Children, like Hannah–have the capacity to harness a fearless faith–the one that Jesus invites us to live out.  So today, I’d like us to look at the some issues closer to home.  Where are the wells that need to be built in our own community? In South Dakota, in Rapid City, right here in our own neighborhood?

What is Jesus calling us to do, as his children, with his children, living right here, blocks away from us?  And notice that I used the word “with” instead of “for.”  Because you see, it’s easy to do something for someone.  To donate food. To donate clothes, to donate money. But Jesus isn’t about doing things “for”–Jesus is about doing things “with.”

It’s one thing to donate food to a food pantry, but Jesus is actually WITH us, when we sit down with people. When we listen to their struggles, when we acknowledge their pain.

When Jesus says “let the children come to me,”—he wasn’t planning on doing anything for them–he was planning to be WITH them.  And that’s his lesson for us.

As most of you know by now, I have four kids–and they are always asking for things. The latest toy, or download, or fidget spinner.  But those aren’t the things that my kids value. My kids value my time. My hugs. My kisses. My songs.

So when we think about the need of ALL God’s children, I invite us to think about the needs here in our community, all around us.

 

Let’s look at the facts that we too often ignore:

  • Nearly 15% of families in South Dakota  live at or below the poverty line.  
  • Nearly 40% of the state’s school-aged children qualify for free and reduced meals.  And I have to tell you– I was one of those kids growing up that benefited from those reduced meal programs.
  • Violent crime is also on the increase in Rapid City.  From 2006 to 2011, aggravated assaults increased by 100 %, and as many of us who have been following the news this week–violence continues to be a threat to life in our community.

A woman  was murdered not far from us at a gas station on Mount Rushmore Road earlier this year. On of the perpetrators in that crime was also a juvenile.   Last month, a retired school teacher was killed by a violence crime–here in Robbinsdale–in our community. 

Do you wonder for a moment about these young men who were involved in the crimes–some of them still teenagers — do you wonder if they knew that they were loved by God?  

And that they are still loved by a God, even in the wake of their actions?  

Often times, it is so easy for us to hear these stories and count our blessings.  To say “this is not our problem.”  To blame these evils on poor parenting, the evils of drugs and addiction, or even political differences.  But now comes some news that we may not want to hear:  Jesus Christ and his gospel  permanently take away the notion that suffering children (and we are ALL children) are not “our” problem.  Whether we like it or not, we are all connected.  All of us are affected by violence and a lack of community.  We may not personally know them or have relationships with them, but we are still affected by the ugliness of their actions–because we are all one body in Christ.

And when we realize that, when we follow Jesus’ lead and live in ministry with each other, rather than “for” each other—the kingdom comes.  We see that in the scripture that we heard today from Jeremiah–and I’d like to put that scripture in context for you. 

You see once again the Israelites found themselves dominated and without freedom.  They were under the rule of the Babylonians, and once again–likely finding themselves hopeless.  But the prophet Jeremiah says:

10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.”

God told the Israelites to make community where they were out.  To stay true to their principles, even in the face of adversity.  And God told them that he had great plans for them–for a future of hope.

 Sometimes I think we feel a little like the Israelites during the Babylonian domination.  We don’t feel free. Or loved, or chosen. We feel trapped within our walls of worrying about our families, or our health, or our finances or our relationships.  And we become indifferent to our neighbors.  But God has a plan for us. And that plan is community. That plan is relationship.  

Holocost survivor and theologian Elie Wiesel said this:  “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”  

Jesus tells us time and time again, that when are  indifferent to the poor and the lowly–we will ultimate pay a price.  That’s what he’s telling us when he tells the disciples to not hinder the children who viewed as unimportant and a nuisance. The kingdom of God is hindered when our children suffer. It’s hindered when we start getting comfortable within our own walls, when we start to blame others for the harm that this inflicted on the body of Christ.  

Are we here at South Maple UMC, ready to build wells in our own community–to dream like a child–like Hannah Faust, and build wells within our own community?     

And before I go on, I have to say that we already have a wonderful start!

I know that this church is passionate about missions, and we are already doing so much to be the hands and feet of Christ.  From serving the missions meal, to our Clothe-A Kid projects to the work that the UMW does–Jesus’ heart for mission is strong in this church.

And so, I am asking all of us here today, as a congregation–as the body of Christ– are we ready to take the next step?  

To not only provide love and service for our neighbors, but to provide love and service  with our neighbors?

Are we ready live out the love of Jesus by letting go of our pretenses and embrace new families and children with an openness  that not only do we have something to offer to them, but they have something to offer us?

Are we willing to actively embrace our community? Are we ready to share a meals across the street at South Middle School with families receiving a free meal through the summer food program?  

Are we ready to volunteer to embrace the dozens of families who visit our church every Tuesday night at Love. Inc?  Are we ready to build wells with them, to engage in relationship and community with them…To share in the love of Jesus Christ? Are we willing to be the light for those children, God’s children, who are wandering a dark path? Are willing to be mentors, to share our time and our love as the gospel requires us to do?  

Are we ready to fight the evils of poverty and hunger and violence in our own neighborhood? By getting out and building relationships with more people, buy inviting them to join our loving church community–to work with them, in ministry, even when it might make us feel a little uncomfortable?  

And this is why I am so excited about Waffle Church coming to South Maple.  Because there are children in our community who are in desperate need of a love. Of an adult who can instill some confidence.  Of the transforming grace that Jesus has to offer.   I think of all the people–all of children–in our community who are suffering–who may be heading down a path of darkness and violence, because there are things blocking their path that keeps them from seeing the light of God’s love.  Are we ready to get out there with them, do help clear that path? To help them see that they are all precious, beloved children of God?

 

Waffle Worship – Making New Disciples from Dakotas UMC on Vimeo.

 

As I said earlier, Jesus tells us to enter the Kingdom as children in all of the synoptic gospels.  Although I ready from the Gospel of Luke today,  I really love what Jesus does in the Gospel of Matthew.  As the disciples are foolishly arguing over who is the greatest among them, Jesus calls a child to him, put him on his knee, and tells the disciples that “unless they change and become like children, they will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  He goes on to say that whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me.”

 I believe in my heart that wonderful people at South Maple Church are ready to take the next step in building the kingdom. Instead of asking people to come to us–we must find them, work along side them–and if we are really doing ministry from the heart, we’ll learn that not only can we change the world but that if we really want to transform in Christ’s love-we will let God’s children of the world change us.

I remember feeling disappointment one day, as a young child, when I heard someone talk about Dandelions as a weed.   When I heard that, dandelions began to lose their magic.  A weed, after all, was something that was unwanted, that was pesky, that needed to be removed.

But the fact is that dandelions actually have amazing medicinal uses that have been used by people for thousands of years; their stems are packed with iron and calcium and they are crucial in maintaining our dwindling bee population–as bees rely on their for pollination.  While many of us have been conditioned to view dandelions as a pesky weed, in the circle of life- they are actually a miraculous plant.

There are things right here in our community–children, families, elderly on the fringes–who have intrinsic values and something to offer to us.    And like a child who sees the intrinsic value a fistful of dandelion, Jesus calls us to open our hearts and our minds –to build community–to love and offer his unexpected grace without pretenses,  with humility and willingness to accept people as they are.   

So with the imagination of a child, I’d like to end in a unison prayer, and it is the meditation that is listed on your bulletin:

 

Something new is coming,

something incredible,

beyond imagination-

Something

Promised!

And the love is

filling us up

and tipping us over

with its force.

And us, breathless and blown,

rolling and tumbling down

the mountain

flung and spinning

out from the Center of that splendor.

Jesus’ Words,

imprinted

on our souls like a stain from a dandelion..

And the angels saying, Get up. Get going! 

Amen+

+https://theprayinglife.com/2012/05/ (adapted)

Images courtesy of Google images

 

 


“Let’s Make Some Church” Pastor Holly Sortland 

Scripture:  Isaiah 41: 17-20;   Matthew 16:13-18

July 2, 2017

 

As your new Pastor, I suppose you want to know a little bit about me.  And so–as my husband will tell you, I really like to talk about myself–I will indulge you.  And I’ll start with some more recent history.

Last month, at the Dakota’s Annual Conference in Bismark, I was surprised and humbled to be awarded the Harry Deman Award for Evangelism, largely in part of a ministry that I started at Canyon Lake UMC called “Waffle Church.”  You will be hearing a lot more about Waffle Church in the coming weeks–but as you can imagine, it involves eating waffles.  And praying, and singing, and learning about loving others the way that Jesus loves us.  

But getting back to the evangelism award–let me tell you–that is something that years ago I would have never, ever imagined to be in my future.

I was someone who ran from “evangelists”–I was agnostic, largely unchurched, and pretty suspicious of organized religion.  I was one of the  many, many, people who were skeptical about church–people who can’t imagine being part of a faith community because they think it’s judgmental, boring, or backward thinking.

But as Bishop Bruce Ough told us at Annual Conference last month, we need to expect the Holy Spirit to surprise us.  And I love to hear and tell stories about how the Holy Spirit can surprise us!

We are going to have lots of time together–and I look forward to sharing the many ways that the Spirit has surprised me, but I’d like to start with another woman’s story.

Ann Lammot is one of my favorite authors and I drive a lot of inspiration from her.  She let Jesus in to her life when she was in a very dark place.  She was raised by atheist parents, and she often thought herself too independent to conform to religious beliefs. She was also an alcoholic, and in a cycle of drug addiction and destructive relationships. Her father had just died, and she was living in a sail boat in the San Francisco bay.  You could say that she hit “rock bottom.”   (And I’m telling you Ann’s story, because I want you to imagine all of the other “Ann’s in our community.

One night, in the midst of her alcohol use and depression, she began to notice a presence in her living room.  She noticed it again the next night. Someone, or something, was sitting in her recliner offering her a sense of peace. She knew it was Jesus.

In her book “Traveling Mercies” she writes, “This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition born of fear and self-loating… But then everywhere I went I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk and then it stays forever.” Finally, “I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.”

My own life story wasn’t quite as dramatic as Ann’s.  Despite my reservations about church, there were many times in my life when Jesus was at my door.  The earliest time that I remember truly feeling a sense of God’s love was when I was about 7-years-old. There was a special VBS at a church in our community by a traveling group of Baptists. It was a week long event and for the first time in my life, I felt a sense of love from people other than my family. I will always remember that one of the women leading the VBS gave me a big hug on the last night, and she told me that she loved me.  And…She was crying. No one outside of my family had ever shown me that type of love before. You see through the love that woman showed me–she made me feel worthy.

And as small as I was, I felt like she invested in me. And that woman, who I think was named Brenda–didn’t know it at the time, but she was talking to a future minister.  She didn’t know it yet–but she was planting the seeds of resurrection in me.

You see the amazing thing about resurrection is that is never done.  And it begins every day, by asking ourselves, “Who is God calling us to be in relationship with?”  Who is God calling us to invest in? Every day brings a new opportunity for relationship.

And this church has so much opportunity for relationship with the people in these houses in Robbinsdale.  In the kids that go to school across the street, and down the street, for the teachers that work so hard to give those kids an education.  For the parents who are working one, two and sometimes three jobs to put food on the table—people who are struggling, and they don’t yet know the strength that comes from Jesus Christ.

I think about the people in this congregation that I’ve met so far, and I am honored that a few of you have already shared your stories with me.  Stories about loss and grief.  Stories about battling illness both mental and physical.  But not just sad stories, joyous stories too. Stories about babies soon tobe born, stories about family reunions and special anniversaries, funny stories about pets.

And then again–I think about the all of the people in these houses surrounding this church–and I wonder, what are their stories? And I can guarantee you that their stories are a lot like ours.  They are grieving. They are hurting, and they are experiencing joy and they are celebrating.  

And I think–do they know that God is beside them–in their pain and in their joy–guiding them along the way? What would their lives look like if they knew how much God loved them and valued them?  What if we–as God’s people–shared that good news with them? And what would sharing that good news look like?  This is something that we’ll be exploring in the next few weeks as we kick-off our summer worship series, called “Imagine.”  And we are invited to imagine the amazing future that God has in store for us–for this church, for this community, and ourselves.

When you walked in this morning, hopefully you received a card–the card is something that I want us all to be doing, and it’s called “Breakthrough Prayer.”  Breakthrough prayer is special–because it requires us to trust in one another. It requires us to trust that our brothers and sisters here at church will be praying this prayer together.  Twice a day–at the same time.  The prayer is simple:

“God, we lift this to you with our prayers:  Please do what we cannot do ourselves.  Change what we cannot change ourselves, including you changing us–without limits! Amen.”

In this prayer, we are putting our trust in God, in God’s infinite imagination that dream up miracles that we can’t even begin to perceive.  I hope that you all noticed the meditation on the cover of your bulletin–and I put that there as a reminder that God’s hands are at work on everything in this world–even–especially this church!  So as we do our breakthrough prayer every day, twice a day–we are invited to humble ourselves to trust in GOd.  That GOd is calling us to do new and exciting things. That God is calling us out to love our neighbors, to befriend the lonely, to feed the hungry, and to rejoice with the joyous.

God is calling us to remember that the comeback is always greater than the setback.  

God is calling us to make some church.

And so- my brothers and sisters in Christ.  I have a lot to learn about South Maple.  I have a lot to learn about the families that have stayed here though the decades and know the history of this beautiful church.  There are a lot of things about this church that I don’t know.  But there you tell you what I do know:

This church might run on a tight budget, but the people here are open and wide to the power of prayer!

This building may be in some need of some repairs, but the people her trust that Jesus is preparing a place for the people in our community outside our walls who are desperate to feel the word of the Holy Spirit.  

This church may be down in attendance, but it is high on faith and perserverance! 

So speaking of faith, I’d like to end by sharing with you an amazing story about a little girl who had a dream.  Not only did she have a dream, but she had the faith to go with it.  Let’s watch:

 

As we prayer our breakthrough prayer–and put our trust in God to change things–I pray that God will give us the blind faith of that little girl. That girl who had such faith in that horse horse with no pedigree, in a horse that he dad wanted to get rid of–even when everyone doubted her, that girl had faith. And if that inexperienced, underdog or “underhorse” could do what he did because of that little girl’s dream, and that little girl’s faith–imagine what this church will do! Imagine the people whose lives will change because they feel the love of community and the joy of relationship with God and others.  We might feel like the underdog sometimes, but my money is on us.

The scripture that was from the Gospel of Matthew this morning is one of my favorite pieces in the Gospel of Matthew, because in just those few sentences, Peter is recognizing a miracle.  You see at the time, Jesus didn’t have the giant crowds of followers–he only had a few committed followers, who were far from perfect.  Yet Peter was able to recognize that Jesus was the one–the son of the living God.  And Jesus made Peter a promise–the promise that nothing–not even the powers of death would destroy his church.  And today, Christianity is the largest religion in the world, and it all happened because Jesus’ earliest followers had faith.

Now, I became a disciple–and began discipling others–and my call to ministry came later in life- but I know in my heart that somewhere in our community is a young girl like I was.

Without a church.  

Without a prayer.

Without knowing that there is a love offered to her that is so transformative, so healing, that it will make all things new.  

Without knowing that she is the daughter of a King and a God that goes with her and before her.  And the question is–are willing to do the glorious work of telling her this good news?  

Are you ready to make some church?