Monday, October 14, 2013

Foundations of Belief: Experience

Foundations of Belief:  Experience
Oct. 13, 2013
A youth reads (from The Message):

Romans 8:15-17...  This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life.  It's adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike "What's next, Papa?"  God's Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are.  We know who he is, and know who we are:  Father and children (Parent and child).  And we know we are going to get what's coming to us - an unbelievable inheritance!  We go through exactly what Christ goes through.  If we go through the hard times with him, then we're certainly going to go through the good times with him!

Isn't that an awesome text?!  Today we're talking about yet another "foundation" of life as a Christian, and as a Methodist...  One of the aspects of how we discover and live out what we believe:  Experience.  And what a better depiction of the experience of God in our lives, than:  adventurously expectant?  God's Spirit touching ours and confirming who we are?  knowing we may go through the bad times - but we're also certainly going to go through some good times - all the while with Christ?  "What's next, Papa?!"

In our tradition as Methodists, we have this foundational way of looking at all beliefs and decisions...  It's commonly referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral...  Big words to say there are four ways to approach figuring out what we believe.  John Wesley proposed that we first look to Scripture - the most important avenue to belief.  What does the Bible say?  Second, Tradition.  What does our Christian past say?  Our Methodist past - and current doctrines?  Then, what does our personal Experience reveal to us?  And lastly, Reason. 

Last week, our guest preacher, Pastor Lyndy Zabel touched on the foundation of Tradition - highlighting the tradition of the United Methodist Church to go out into the world!  That's part of our past - present - and future...  A desire to live out the commission to "make disciples of Jesus Christ."  We may not do it the same way that we used to - we've learned from mistakes and celebrated the successes of the past - but we've also begun to make adjustments for what mission will look like in the future...  All while maintaining the tradition of reaching out to those who don't already know Christ, and serving them with love and compassion...  Tradition takes the story of scripture and brings it to life in ways that make it a visible, living presence in our world... through our choices and actions.

When we're looking at a big decision - in our personal life or our communal life - how does our Tradition play a role in bringing God's word to life?

So that was the first part of the "Quadrilateral" discussion...  Today we jump into another aspect - Experience.  When John Wesley talked about "experience" he didn't mean any old life experience we had - he meant "our real-life encounters of "God-with-us" in our ordinary, everyday life."  Our Book of Discipline describes the Quad this way...  "Wesley believed that the living core of Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by Tradition, vivified by Experience, and confirmed by Reason."  Vivified?!  The definition of vivify is to make more vivid, more alive, renewed with life...  Which reminds me of our text for today:  [Life with God is] adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike "What's next, Papa?" 

We're not talking about any old experiences...  We're talking about the times when we have felt graced by God and led to faithfulness.  When we have let that faithfulness lead us to doing the good works that grace others with God's love...  In those moments, the abundant joy that God desires for us shines through our lives - and witnesses to others.  Does that mean these experiences have to be bigger than life?  Profound?  Momentous, mountain-top, once in a lifetime events?!  Gosh, I hope not.

These God moments, when we feel the Spirit at work in our lives, can be the small, quiet whispers of grace... of forgiveness.  The nudges that are so easy to see as coincidences - that we can't help but look at again.  It can be that feeling that something is missing... and must be sought out.  Maybe it's an answered prayer or a person that steps into our path at exactly the right moment...  These moments - they're signs of life.  A life lived paying attention to what God is up to.  A life alive with the hope and promise of what comes next...  Knowing we are God's children - forgiven and free.  "What's next, Papa?"

So what does all this have to do with our theme of "building an oasis"?!  Well, let's look first at what this means for our personal lives...  It may start with taking the time to think of - and notice - the God moments in your life.  It's easy to say, "oh, I don't have any of those..."  But seriously, what draws you to God and faith if you haven't had any interactions with God?  If you've never felt forgiven, never felt loved, never felt God-with-you?  Something has drawn you to a life of faith...  What was it?  As I thought of my own moments this week, while brainstorming and praying, and writing this sermon - my first thoughts were of my life in the church growing up...  The grace I was shown as a little kid, going up for the children's sermons - hoping and praying the pastor wouldn't ask me a question!  As a shy kid, children's sermons were pure stress for me!  Yet, our pastor always knew to let me just sit and listen...  As I got a little older, I joined the church choir and learned what it was to sing my praises to God!  I could stand with the others, our voices blending, and be heard - yet not singled-out.  And yes, even as a kid, I think I felt God's presence when we sang together...  In junior high and high school, I started reading scripture during worship and occasionally helping with the sermon time.  Surprisingly, this was an avenue of grace that helped shape who I am today!  It didn't matter if my voice quaked, if I skipped a word, if my hands shook the lectern...  Each time I did it, I gained a little more confidence - and our congregation was always nothing but supportive and encouraging!  Grace was shown to me through others...  In senior high, I began going on mission trips and serving at Simpson Shelter here in the Twin Cities.  These experiences of serving others - looking them in the eyes, hearing their stories, standing with them in their pain - and joy, joining hands in prayer...  These experiences changed my life.  I heard God's whispers through the people I served.  I felt God's presence in the breaking of my heart.  I felt God's nudges to do more.  And I would ask, "What's next, Papa?"

Those are the just the moments from my childhood...  The moments in recent years contain memories of praying with some of you...  listening to our youth share their questions and lives with me...  (This past Wednesday night held one of these moments!  Our discussion turned in a direction I wasn't expecting and after several minutes I realized how deep we had gone - and that only God could have been instigating that!)  Moments in the sweat lodge on Rosebud Reservation during a mission trip.  Being prayed over by this congregation when my health was in question.  Waking up in the middle of the night with our baby kicking and punching my ribs...  New life.  Vivifying my own life - and making me wonder, "What's next, Papa?"

What are your moments?  Where has the Spirit of God been revealed to you?  When have you had moments of realizing that life is more than a timid, grave-tending life?  But a life of expectancy and joy?  A life of love - to be shared?  When Wesley speaks of this Experience piece, he says it's those moments when we know we are forgiven...  And he thinks we should be on the lookout for these moments every day - every hour even! 

So on the personal level, of building a spiritual oasis within your own personal life...  When is the last time you experienced God?  Don't skip over this question...  Please.  It's so important!  When was the last time you felt God so close, you wondered, "What's next, Papa?"

Our next question takes us to "what does this Experience piece have to do with building an oasis as a faith community?"  Oh goodness...  It has all kinds of implications!  Our personal experiences - especially when shared in community -  help us to understand who God is and how God works in the world (Reason) and breathes life into our reading of Scripture and in how we live out our Tradition. Experience is the Holy Spirit’s work in, with, and through us that gives life and meaning to the good news of God as we reach out beyond our doors. Holy experiences - when noticed - allow the Spirit to work in us to make faith vital and life-giving - vivifying our faith so we can share it with others.

So, why is this lens of Experience important for us as a community?  Because noticing our God moments energizes our faith - makes it real again...  It puts God and Spirit center in our lives and makes us want to share our stories!  And when we share those stories - we build up the community of faith.  We inspire and encourage one another.  We set an example of what it means to live expectantly...  touched by the Spirit... knowing who we are in Christ.  Isn't that what our faith communities are supposed to be about?!

It's nice to come on Sundays and see our friends...  Sit with them and greet them, have coffee and talk about our weeks...  but we can do that anytime and anywhere.  Being a faith community means coming together to live adventurously expectant, asking, "What next, Papa?"

It means greeting our neighbors - both those we know and those we don't - with "I'm glad you're here.  Welcome home."  And maybe, "where did you see you God this week?  today?  this morning?"  It means we take the time to notice God in our own lives - and talking about it.  It means we build up the community by stepping forward.  If we're living an adventurous faith - it means jumping in, getting dirty, actively looking for new experiences to meet God halfway!  It means that when the faith community is seeking to be a presence in our neighborhood - we get in there and see where God is in that calling.  And let me tell you - we have all kinds of opportunities for this in our little oasis!

Today, we are going to Neighbor's Inc following worship - to tour the new facility and see all the many, many ways this organization serves our neighbors in Dakota County.  And not just take a peek out of curiosity - but with an open heart and mind, listening to the nudges of the Spirit, open to "What next, Papa?"  How can I roll up my sleeves and share my experiences of Your love and grace with more people?  What's next for our church, God, in the ministry of Neighbor's Inc?  How do we build an oasis so big and so wide, that we stretch into all of Dakota County, through Neighbor's Inc?  But we have to leave the pew to do this...  Checks and cash are great - and very needed...  But they don't bring us experiences of God's grace...

In a couple of weeks, our Children's Ministry Team is hosting our first ever Trunk and Treat.  We'll be bringing our cars to the church, with our trunks decked out with decorations, we'll be wearing costumes, handing out candy, playing games, doing crafts...  Families will bring their little kids - also in costumes - to come trick-or-treating to the cars...  We're all inviting friends and family, neighbors, kids from this neighborhood...  It's a safe and fun way to celebrate a fall tradition that can be scary and confusing.  It's a way for us to say, "our experience of God's grace gives us each joy and love for our littlest ones - and our faith community is here to share that joy and love in a fun way!"  But here's the thing - for this to be a success, it can't be just the seven members of the Children's Ministry Team bringing their trunks.  Building an oasis takes our community members remembering the God moments from your childhoods...  from your children's childhoods...  It takes looking back and remembering when other adults made time for you and your kids - and showed God's love through their time and energy.  It takes remembering encounters with adults who made you feel loved, and valued, and made you smile - and want to come back to church (because it's a good place to be).  It takes looking at our personal experiences of God's love and grace, in order to see how we can continue to build up our spiritual oasis - inviting others in...  Trunk and Treat may seem like a silly idea.  I get it.  But it's worth a try...  Somewhere along the line we were open to a nudge towards this idea...  Now we need the support of our community to make it happen.  But it takes searching your heart and getting out of the pew, maybe getting your hands dirty, maybe getting a little silly...  And maybe opening yourself up to a whole new experience of God's love - when you see that big grin on a kid's face as they add another piece of candy to their loot, or win another game, or create their masterpiece of a craft!

We build our oasis...  when we remember our own experiences of grace, use them to share our stories, and jump in with both feet in ministries that share that love with others.  And we do that as a community - working together and asking the question, "What's next, Papa?"

Lastly, we come to the question, "what does our experience have to do with the question about building in the physical sense?"  If we were to decide to build - or renovate - or change - our actual physical building...  What does our experience have to do with this?  Now, before we go any further - remember, this is about our experience with the Spirit of God...  Not budgets, not contractors or architects, not getting what you wanted or being disappointed that you didn't get what you wanted...  This is about sensing God's Spirit...  Listening for God's voice in the conversation.  Recognizing where God has blessed us - and where God has led us... 

It's realizing that God doesn't want us, as a faith community, to live a timid, grave-tending life - but an adventurously expectant one!  Once again, looking at our own experiences of God's presence - where have we felt it in the community of St Paul's United Methodist Church?  Where is life being vivified here?  Where are we inspired to go from here?  Do our experiences of this community inspire us to sit in the pew...  only ministering to each other?  Or have we felt the Spirit in meeting new friends...  teaching, nurturing, and encouraging others to come into this oasis?  Have we experienced God's grace when we hear the new babies gurgling during worship?  Kids laughing and singing?  When we learn something new about our relationship with God through a small group or education offering?  When we sing, or play bells, in praise of God - or when we listen to these blessings?  If we have experienced God's grace here...  What do we do with that experience?  Do we hold it close to our own heart?  Or do we ask God - if you've blessed me with the presence of St. Paul's UMC, how can I help bless others with this community as well?  And how does this question of what we do with our building play into this calling?  What is your big dream for our church?  What do you hear God whispering - what dream is God putting on your heart?  "What's next, Papa?"

The story of God is vast!  We read through scripture and we see life after life after life changed by experiences of God's presence and grace...  But the story doesn't end with the Bible.  The story is alive and well - today, in my life, and in yours!  When we take the time to live adventurously expectant - and noticing those "God moments," marking them - sharing them - celebrating them - we are living into the grand story!  When we share the stories with one another and get off our butts and out the door to share God's grace and love, with those who don't already know the bigger story - we make St. Paul's UMC a part of the grand story!  We become the oasis of hope we wish to be - and we believe God is calling us to be!  And yes...  Even in the question of what to do with our building...  we take into account our experiences of holiness and ask God, "What next, Papa?"

Because isn't that the most important question of all?  To live adventurously expectant, confirmed in our identity as God's own children...  What's next, Papa?  For me?  For our community?  For the ministries we could dream of doing...?

Instead of ending with a prayer today...  I'd like to offer you a few moments to take out your blue card, and on the back, at the bottom, is a place that asks, "Where have you experienced the Holy Spirit in your life?"  I told you earlier - I wouldn't let you skip over this question!  Jennifer will play some music...  I invite you into a time of reflection...  It all starts here...  Where have you experienced God?              ...

Your job this week, is to share this story - or another - with one person.  If that seems a little scary or intimidating - give me a call, or stop in to see me - I'd LOVE to hear your story...  Remember?  That's one of the ways I experience God's grace...  Through the stories of others...  So, in this coming week - God bless you and your stories...  and may you continue to ask, "What's next, Papa?"  Amen.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Barnabas the Encourager

"Bible Characters You've Never Met Like This:
Barnabas, the Encourager" Sermon
August 18, 2013
"Unusual Characters of the Bible" Series

Can you believe our summer sermon series of characters you've never really thought much about...  Is almost over?!  It's been fun, hasn't it?  Learning about people we may never have even heard of before?  Some dark stories, some rather interesting tales, and some that are just plain uplifting?  Today, we get to talk about one of the uplifting ones.  I had heard his name before - and knew a little bit about his place in the story...  But that's about it.  Turns out, he's a pretty interesting guy!

I'm talking about Barnabas.  But wait - his name was Joseph, or Joses, to begin with...  The apostles gave him the name Barnabas!  And we'll see why in a moment.

Here's a little bit about him:  Barnabas first shows up in the book of Acts.  He's selling his land to help provide for the new Christian community (remember, the book of Acts is where we see the church be born - and the community of believers truly living in communal ways).  The new church in Jerusalem was in need of money - and Barnabas stepped right up to help out! 

That was just the beginning...  The name "Barnabas" means "the encourager" - can you imagine being so encouraging that Christ's followers would give you such a name?! 

One of the first accounts of Barnabas' generosity of spirit has to do with a man named Saul - later changed to Paul.  We've all heard of him, right?  We know him as one of the most influential missionaries in the early church - and the writer of many of the books of the Bible.  Much of what we know and teach about living a faith-filled life came from him...  But we also know, he didn't start out that way.  In his days of being "Saul" he was known for being a horrible persecutor of Christians.  The worst.  When he had his "a-ha!" moment with God and literally "saw the light" - he became a true believer, and leader in helping others to come to know God as well.  But coming back to Jerusalem wouldn't be easy.  He needed to reconcile with the church after ruining so many of its believers' lives. 

How does one do that?!  Well, you find a friend to vouch for you.  And he found Barnabas.  In Acts 9 we learn Barnabas was at his side as he once again faced those who had faced his wrath or had friends or family members who had suffered under his actions.  But Barnabas spoke to the apostles and verified Paul's story of conversion.

And his support and encouragement of Paul didn't end there.  Barnabas explained how strongly Paul had preached in Damascus.  Eventually, Paul was accepted within the church - but would it have happened without the friendship of Barnabas?  Would our whole story of faith had been changed - if Barnabas had not encouraged and supported both the church - and this new believer?

Acts 11: 22-24 describes Barnabas as he went to check on the new church in Antioch, trusted by the leadership in Jerusalem to begin giving encouragement and direction to the new believers there, here is what it says:  "As soon as he arrived, he saw that God was behind and in it all.  He threw himself in with them (the new believers), got behind them, urging them to stay with it the rest of their lives.  He was a good man that way, enthusiastic and confident in the Holy Spirit's ways.  The community grew large and strong in the Master."

"He was a good man - enthusiastic and confident in the Holy Spirit's ways."  He jumped right in with the new believers - walking alongside them in the new journey of faith - inspiring, teaching, encouraging them along the way!  He excelled at sharing his life of faith with others.  Always living up to his name...  Understanding what God was up to - and serving God in the way that fit for him.  Encouraging new believers; encouraging one of our greatest missionaries - and working alongside him on many journeys; and even teaching a young "Mark" who later became responsible for the Book of Mark!

God used Barnabas in seemingly small ways - but accomplished big things for the early church.  His nickname of "the encourager" flowed from living in the love of God.  How many people came to know God's love and light in their lives because of this one man - not only through his preaching, but also through his encouragement and example?

Was Barnabas perfect?  No - of course not.  None of the followers of Christ mentioned in the Bible are.  Just like you and me.  Yep - you got it.  Not perfect.  But still an example to all of us!

So how can we be "encouragers" in our lives - at home, at work, at church, in the community?  Because, let's face it, our world could use a little more encouraging!  There are so few people these days who take the time to not only be polite and friendly - but to go the extra step and encourage us in our days...  And how often do we REALLY take the time to encourage others?  But isn't that how God calls us to live?  A lifestyle of kindness?

One quote I read about Barnabas said, "When this man appeared on the scene in the early days of the church, he stepped out of obscurity doing good; and when he stepped off the stage a few years later, he exited doing good as well.  In fact, the Bible's record of this man's life and ministry reveals him as a man who had a heart to do good to all those with whom he came in contact."  A lifestyle of kindness.  A huge impact on the world around him!

It turns out, depending on what translation you read, Barnabas' name takes on slightly different meanings...  Encourager.  Consoler.  Comforter.  Helper.  From the stories I've read - I think he fit all of these things...  But doesn't it make you think?  If my friends were to rename me, based on one of my strengths...  What would they say?  Would it be a strength that is helpful to those around me?  Or would it be, "Clorox-wipe addict"?  You laugh, but we have clean kitchen counters!  I would hope it's something more meaningful than that...!

What name would your friends give you?  In what ways do you impact the world around you - out of the love of God in your own life?

Maybe we could take a cue from Barnabas and work on being encouragers - in one way or another, using the gifts God has given us - in our own lives.  How could we all work on being more encouraging - on earning a name we would be proud of?

First, maybe we could reach out a little more.  This could mean talking to people we don't know.  It could mean holding a door for a stranger.  Doing a random act of kindness - buying a coffee for the next person in line.  It could even mean taking a risk and standing up for someone who needs a friend.  (Remember Barnabas and Paul?) 

It's so easy to get wrapped up in our own little lives, the day-to-day frustrations and successes - that we forget to stop and look around.  At a doctor's visit last week, I was rushing out of the pharmacy, anxious to get home, and almost walked right past a little boy sitting in the waiting room, alone.  He had a wet towel wrapped around a bloodied arm and was talking to himself about how bad things shouldn't happen to little boys...  In my rush, I almost didn't even notice him!  But I heard that voice and turned my head - and asked if he was ok and where was his parent?  His mom came running in from parking the car and we exchanged smiles and I was on my way...  But all the "what ifs" raced through my head...  Had anyone else stopped to talk to him?  Comfort him?  Or do we all just think it's none of our business and float on by?

What about at church?  We think of church as that one place in the world where all should be accepted and loved - and noticed and cared for.  It's the place we come to belong when the rest of the world has been harsh and cold.  Do we take the time to greet and encourage those who are new?  Those who aren't a part of our close circle of old friends?  Does every person who walks in our door feel they've been welcomed home? 

Learning to reach out - outside the doors and within our church.  This is one of the ways God calls us to encourage others.  Does this describe you?  Is this reflected in your life of kindness?  There are plenty of people in need of a friend...  Could you encourage one?

Second, in our reaching out, maybe we could encourage other believers just a little more.  Barnabas was known for offering encouragement to the new believers - in many different communities!  He was excited about what God was doing - and wanted to encourage others in their new faith journeys. 

How often do you take the time to encourage other believers in their walk with God?  Do you take the time to encourage others in the church - for all the ways they help our community thrive?  I know each and every person sitting in this space - at this moment - has probably said or done something kind for another believer this week...  We have loads of encouraging words and actions within us!  Are we using them to uphold this faith community and help it become even more vital and spirited by our presence?  Or are we someone who chooses to find fault with everyone else's actions - who tends to overlook the good that is happening, and instead spread doubts?  I know when I'm discouraged about something, I can easily turn into that person, too...  It's important to keep ourselves - and each other - in check.  Spreading negativity never helps a faith community...  But asking questions, seeking clarity, having the conversations that lead to understanding?  Those can lead to great encouragement! 

Encouraging other believers - inside the church, especially.  A great way to spread the love of God - and in turn, to help the ministries of our church broaden and deepen with excitement and life!

Third, reaching out is sometimes accomplished by encouraging the discouraged.  How often has life handed you lemons - and people just shook their heads and walked on by?  Later in the book of Acts, we see that Paul, Barnabas, and Mark are getting ready for a missionary journey.  Mark is fairly young at this point, and for some reason, decides not to go...  He returns to Jerusalem instead.  Paul didn't like that at all...  Later, Paul and Barnabas are preparing another journey and Barnabas wants to give Mark a second chance - but Paul says no.  So they part ways.  Paul ends up taking Silas one way, and Barnabas and Mark go another...

This may not seem like a huge deal - but by giving Mark a second chance, Barnabas was able to encourage him in big ways!  We don't hear from Barnabas again in the scriptures - but because of Mark's journeys, and probably his time with Barnabas , he goes on to give us an account of the life and ministry of Jesus!  All Barnabas did was give him a second chance - encouraging the discouraged.

How many times have we been the one to be discouraged by life?  The loss of a job, the endless string of "bad luck," a broken relationship?  And how many times have people washed their hands of us during those terrible times?  Or - even more telling yet - how many times have we done that to others?

The thing is - God calls for us to not look away or walk away, or gossip about another's misfortune...  God calls for us to reach out in love and humility and help each other find encouragement in grace and friendship.  It's easy to judge when we don't understand, when we fear, and when we doubt...  It's harder to hold out a hand and help the other up.  But that's what encouragement looks like. 

Encouraging others by giving a hand, a second chance, and offering grace.  That's what God calls us to be about.

So, to be true encouragers in our faith life - first we reach out.  But what then?  Then, we reach up.  It's not about just making friends and making the people around us feel good - it's also about partnering with God in what God is up to in our world!  We have an opportunity to use our gifts and talents to further God's work in our community! 

The first thing we learn about Barnabas is that he is a man who gives of himself - freely.  He gave not just of his time and talent, but also his land - he used even his material goods to serve God in big ways!  Now, I'm not saying we should sell all we have and give it to the church...  But we can take a closer look at our lives and all the blessings we have, and make more careful decisions about how we give of our time, talent, and gifts - so that we don't leave it up to a small few to carry on the work of faith...  When we all pitch in, we encourage each other and we are able to spread the love of God farther and wider than ever imagined!

Another aspect of reaching up in our role of encouragers, is to not keep quiet!  When Barnabas sees all the good God is doing in Antioch - he tells people!  He refuses to keep the stories of God's blessings to himself!  I don't know about you - but I LOVE hearing how God is working in the lives of the people around me.  I love hearing where God has nudged you into new beginnings - or away from harm.  I love seeing the surprises of the Holy Spirit working in your lives - and taking the time to notice them in my own life... 

We need this kind of communication today!  We need to encourage each other in noticing God's movement today and here - it's too easy to become complacent in our faith...  To get bored.  To just come to church on Sundays, hear some nice music and a good story, share some coffee with a friend, and go back to "normal" life...  Where's the excitement in that?!  There are too many people willing to tear down the church in our world today - too many people ready to criticize our short-comings.  If only they got to hear the stories of hope, miracles, and joy that come out of our lives of faith as well!  And there are plenty of those stories - things that happen in all of our daily lives...  The signs of a God active and present in the world today - we just need to notice and share the stories!  That is great encouragement!

Barnabas felt the call to follow the Spirit and be actively involved in God's work - and that changed his life forever.  From that moment on, Barnabas made a difference wherever he went...  And we can, too.  It doesn't matter where we are, what we do, who we're with - we can choose to be encouragers for God.  We pay a little more attention to those "nudges," we take a little more interest in those around us, we give thanks for the blessings - and pray for help when we're challenged, and we share the stories of where we see God at work in our lives.  It's really not a harder way to live - it's just a little different...  A little less focused on ourselves and little more focused on spreading God's joy.  It's a choice on how to live - and one we can all make, no matter our current life situation.

...So we've reached out as encouragers, and we've reached up - what's left, but to reach in?  Maybe we need to back up just a bit and remember that the first step to being able to encourage others, and share God's movement in our own lives - is to build up our own faith lives!  We all need to start with ourselves - filling our own spiritual needs, heck!  Even recognizing our spiritual needs - before we can help fill others up.

So how do we fill ourselves up?  Worship is a start...  Prayer is good.  Fellowship with other believers is great - especially when we can share our faith stories, our questions, and our doubts - and encourage each other.  But you know what I've found to be the most effective for me?  (And trust me, it's not nearly as engrained and automatic as I wish it was...)  Reading scripture.  Seriously.  It's not as outdated and removed from real life as we'd all like to think...  And if you find a translation that works for you - it's not as hard to understand as we like to think either.  This summer, especially as I've prepared for these sermons, I've LOVED reading the stories of people that are a lot like me.  They've had ups and downs.  They've had bumps and bruises.  They've had good, encouraging friends - and horrible ones that lacked any sense of tact or humbleness!  They've worked hard for the glory of God - and sometimes they've turned their back on God...  And yet, in every instance, God has been there.  Guiding them.  Loving them.  Forgiving them.  Bringing them back into the fold.

When I read these stories it's a reminder - not just that God is good and yada yada yada.  But the examples of people that remind me that even when I'm not good - God is still good.  Even when I mess up - God is still there.  Even when things seem hopeless - God is surrounding me with hope and love.  These reminders are what helps me to live a life of faith - and one that is strong enough to share that encouragement with others.  These stories are what keep me going when the world seems to fall apart.  They help me to stay out of the valley of self-pity and anger - instead they encourage me to live knowing that God is with me and everything will be alright in the end (what's that quote?  If it's not alright, it's not the end?)

Barnabas - the encourager.  A name given to him because of the way he lived his life - selflessly, freely, in the Spirit, always helping, teaching, consoling, comforting...  I love it.  In so many ways, his brief story can teach us how to be better followers of Christ, better encouragers in the world.  His example teaches us to Reach Out (outside of ourselves), to Reach Up (seeking God in all we do), and to Reach In (building on our own faith in real and tangible ways). 

If your friends were to re-name you...  What words would describe where you are today?  And what are the words you wish to aspire to?  This was something I enjoyed pondering this week...  Write them down.  Put them somewhere you will see them every day.  And start seeking ways to encourage yourself - and in turn, those around you.  Can you imagine what would happen - if each one of us here today, decided to do just a little better?!  We could be known for being that church where you always walk away "encouraged."  And what a legacy that would be!

In the words of  Alfred Tennyson:

"Come friends, it's not too late to seek a newer world..."

Will you pray with me?

Gracious God, we thank you for yet another example of a true follower of you - one with so many things to teach us.  Thank you for Barnabas and his open and loving heart.  Help us, Lord, to be more like him.  Help us to see beyond our own insecurities and troubles - and instead, look more to those around us and how to encourage them in your love.  Help us to walk closer with you and trust in you with our lives, noticing the places you work with love and care.  For we know you're there, God - we just need to open our eyes and hearts a little wider!  Thank you, Great Encourager.  In your name, we pray, Amen.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Job's Unwise Friends

"Bible Characters You've Never Met Like This:
Job's Unwise Friends"
Sermon, July 21, 2013
"Unusual Characters of the Bible" Series

So, for the summer, we're checking in with some of the characters of the Bible - our ancestors in faith - who are a little less known...  Maybe you haven't heard their names before, maybe you don't know their stories...  And maybe since we don't talk about them a lot we think we have nothing in common with them...  But as we've been learning this summer - I think, as human beings, we have a LOT in common with them!  The flaws, the quirks, the surprisingly redeeming qualities...  Even in these little known stories, we can see glimpses of ourselves - and glimpses of God working through some difficult circumstances.

Today we get to venture into the Book of Job.  Have you ever read the entire book of Job?!  I highly recommend it!  Especially, from "The Message!"  A couple of weeks ago, I started preparing for this sermon and spent a day in my office reading the story - and found myself laughing out loud at some of the passages - and running into Pastor Penny's office - "Can you believe Job said THIS?!  And his friends actually said THIS?!"  It read like a soap opera...  One where you hiss and cheer and gasp at the scandalous things said!  If you have time today or this week - take a gander.  Read it.  It's entertaining - and you get a glimpse at some remarkable faith, through Job, in the midst of horrible trials...

But today - we're focusing on Job's friends.  Oh dear.  At some points, I thought "friend" was a pretty inaccurate word...  But, we've all experienced friends being "helpful" in unhelpful ways...  And we've probably said the wrong things and shown concern in poor ways, too.  So, Job's friends give us a chance to take a look at what friendship means, how to be a good friend, and certainly how to be a friend of faith.  Especially in times of trial and struggle.

So, let's start with what exactly is happening with poor Job...  If you'd like to follow along, we're starting with chapter 1, v 1.  Here's an intro into who Job is:
1-3 Job was a man who lived in Uz. He was honest inside and out, a man of his word, who was totally devoted to God and hated evil with a passion. He had seven sons and three daughters. He was also very wealthy—seven thousand head of sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred teams of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and a huge staff of servants—the most influential man in all the East!

4-5 His sons used to take turns hosting parties in their homes, always inviting their three sisters to join them in their merrymaking. When the parties were over, Job would get up early in the morning and sacrifice a burnt offering for each of his children, thinking, “Maybe one of them sinned by defying God inwardly.” Job made a habit of this sacrificial atonement, just in case they’d sinned.

This is Job:  Honest.  Devoted.  Passionate.  Father.  Wealthy.  Influential.  Thoughtful.  Careful.  Protective.  Seemingly, a good man...  But then things change...  Reading at verse 6:
6-7 One day when the angels came to report to God, Satan, who was the Designated Accuser, came along with them. God singled out Satan and said, “What have you been up to?”

Satan answered God, “Going here and there, checking things out on earth.”

God said to Satan, “Have you noticed my friend Job? There’s no one quite like him—honest and true to his word, totally devoted to God and hating evil.”

9-10 Satan retorted, “So do you think Job does all that out of the sheer goodness of his heart? Why, no one ever had it so good! You pamper him like a pet, make sure nothing bad ever happens to him or his family or his possessions, bless everything he does—he can’t lose!

11 “But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away everything that is his? He’d curse you right to your face, that’s what.”

12 God replied, “We’ll see. Go ahead—do what you want with all that is his. Just don’t hurt him.” Then Satan left the presence of God.

13-15 Sometime later, while Job’s children were having one of their parties at the home of the oldest son, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys grazing in the field next to us when Sabeans attacked. They stole the animals and killed the field hands. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”

16 While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said, “Bolts of lightning struck the sheep and the shepherds and fried them—burned them to a crisp. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”

17 While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said, “Chaldeans coming from three directions raided the camels and massacred the camel drivers. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”

18-19 While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said, “Your children were having a party at the home of the oldest brother when a tornado swept in off the desert and struck the house. It collapsed on the young people and they died. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”

20 Job got to his feet, ripped his robe, shaved his head, then fell to the ground and worshiped:

21 Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    naked I’ll return to the womb of the earth.
God gives, God takes.  God’s name be ever blessed.
22 Not once through all this did Job sin; not once did he blame God.
Job lost his livestock, his wealth, his position in society, his servants, occupation, children...  Satan would take his health next...  Job would be struck with terrible sores - ulcers and scabs that itched so badly he used broken pottery to scrape himself.  He'd go to sit on the trash heap, among the ashes, as he felt lower than low...  His wife's response?

His wife said, “Still holding on to your precious integrity, are you? Curse God and be done with it!”

10 He told her, “You’re talking like an empty-headed fool. We take the good days from God—why not also the bad days?”

Not once through all this did Job sin. He said nothing against God.

At this point, Job doesn't even really have his wife by his side...  He's lost everything.  Except...  A few friends?  His friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have heard the news of their friend's recent misfortunes...  They leave their homes and fields to come and offer support...  They've probably traveled several days to be with Job - and they start off as wonderful friends!

11-13 Three of Job’s friends heard of all the trouble that had fallen on him. Each traveled from his own country—Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuhah, Zophar from Naamath—and went together to Job to keep him company and comfort him. When they first caught sight of him, they couldn’t believe what they saw—they hardly recognized him! They cried out in lament, ripped their robes, and dumped dirt on their heads as a sign of their grief. Then they sat with him on the ground. Seven days and nights they sat there without saying a word. They could see how rotten he felt, how deeply he was suffering.

They start out well...  Who of us doesn't crave someone to hear of our suffering and "show up?"  Who of us doesn't want a friend to be with us in our sadness and fear?  These friends dropped everything, came to Job, couldn't believe the extent of his suffering - and joined him in it.  The definition of "compassion" is to "suffer with."  At this moment of the story, these friends are true examples of compassion.  For seven days and nights, they sat with Job, in silence - just "being" with him.

Think of your darkest days...  Did you have someone willing to "just be" with you?  Do you wish you had?  Have you been able to do this for someone else?  Sometimes...  That's all we need.  And it's the biggest gift we can give...

Unfortunately, the story of Job's friends doesn't end there.  I wish it ended on this high note!  But alas...  Like me.  Maybe like you.  Job's friends weren't perfect.  Maybe not even as wise as we would have hoped...  They each made the mistake of opening their mouths.  Multiple times.  Oops.  Talk about ruining the whole mood!  But this is where I can relate...  How many times have I opened my mouth - hoping to help and heal - and only making the situation worse?  Yep.  I've done it.  Maybe you have, too?  Let's take a look at Job's friends as they try to "help" him out of his suffering...
1-6 Then Eliphaz spoke up:  “Would you mind if I said something to you?  Under the circumstances it’s hard to keep quiet.  You yourself have done this plenty of times, spoken words that clarify, encouraged those who were about to quit.  Your words have put stumbling people on their feet, put fresh hope in people about to collapse.
But now you’re the one in trouble—you’re hurting!  You’ve been hit hard and you’re reeling from the blow.  But shouldn’t your devout life give you confidence now?  Shouldn’t your exemplary life give you hope?"
Eliphaz starts out well enough...  Telling Job what a great person he has been - helpful and kind, trusting and faithful - you should be able to have hope, right?  Unfortunately, Eliphaz continues...
7-11 “Think! Has a truly innocent person ever ended up on the scrap heap?  Do genuinely upright people ever lose out in the end?  It’s my observation that those who plow evil and sow trouble reap evil and trouble.

...Don’t blame fate when things go wrong, trouble doesn’t come from nowhere.

Eliphaz confronts Job three times...  Each time, insinuating that God is mad at Job and Job better darn well figure out what he did and ask for mercy!  (Nothing like a friend telling you God is mad at you, right?!)  Job didn't think much of Eliphaz's insights...  Here was his response...

When desperate people give up on God Almighty, their friends, at least, should stick with them...

...You pretend to tell me what’s wrong with my life, but treat my words of anguish as so much hot air.  Are people mere things to you? Are friends just items of profit and loss?

"You treat my words of anguish as so much hot air..."  Bildad then takes his turn...  Once again, confronting Job three times.  Bildad's theory is Job's misfortunes are his fault - naturally!  These bad things must be happening because you have become a bad person.  So stop talking all this "I'm innocent" nonsense!

Bildad says, "How can you keep on talking like this?  You’re talking nonsense, and noisy nonsense at that.  Does God mess up?  Does God Almighty ever get things backward?  It’s plain that your children sinned against him—otherwise, why would God have punished them?  Here’s what you must do—and don’t put it off any longer: Get down on your knees before God Almighty.  If you’re as innocent and upright as you say, it’s not too late—he’ll come running; he’ll set everything right again, reestablish your fortunes." 

Yikes!  Zophar decides to give his input three times as well...  Telling Job that he must be being punished - and probably deserves so much worse!  He thinks the only way to make things better, is if you turn your life around for once and for all and quit sinning.  Then, God will make your life whole again.  Job didn't like this take either - and let Zophar know it!  Job says...
I’m sure you speak for all the experts, and when you die there’ll be no one left to tell us how to live.  But don’t forget that I also have a brain—I don’t intend to play second fiddle to you.  It doesn’t take an expert to know these things.
I’m ridiculed by my friends: ‘So that’s the man who had conversations with God!’
Ridiculed without mercy :‘Look at the man who never did wrong!’ 
After each attack from Job's "friends" - Job feels the need to say 'why are you treating me this way?"  And he even goes so far, sometimes, to tell his friends what would help...  What he would do to be a good friend to them...  But do they take the hint?  Not so much...  Job goes on...
I’ve had all I can take of your talk.  What a bunch of miserable comforters!
Is there no end to your windbag speeches?  What’s your problem that you go on and on like this?  If you were in my shoes, I could talk just like you.  I could put together a terrific harangue and really let you have it.  But I’d never do that. I’d console and comfort, make things better, not worse!
... Now listen to me carefully, please listen, at least do me the favor of listening.
Job's friends, dropped everything, came, suffered with him...  They started out so well.  But in the end, it was clear they came from their "perfect lives" where all was well and couldn't relate or even try to understand Job's perspective...  We tend to do that - don't we?  We tend to see a friend's suffering and want to explain it away - want to make "sense" out of it, want to know the "why."  Instead of simply sympathizing, we decide to analyze - making the world black and white, good and bad...  Which in the end, can break down relationships and community.  If we can explain another's suffering - then we can avoid falling into it ourselves.  This may be helpful to those of us on the outside - but not to the suffering friend...  Instead, it comes across as being judged.  The last thing we need when hurting!
Jesus, himself, wanted none of this philosophy...  We see it in the story of the blind man, John 9:1-3.
1-2 Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”

3-5 Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.

Jesus, instead, urged his followers to stop judging people, to stop jumping to conclusions...  Because sometimes the hardest thing is realizing that not everything is black and white...  We have to live in the uncomfortable middle ground of not knowing the "why..."  (For our own lives - and those of our friends!)

I read a great quote this week by author, Richard Rohr...  He said, "What I believe is that the character, the very heart, of biblical faith is not to reach resolution and not to gain closure, but to live without resolution...  and to be okay with that."

Ahhhh...  My life in a nutshell.  And,  I think, my way of being a friend...  And my favorite part about my closest friends...  When we can put away the need to know why, the need to be right, the need to fix...  and just "be" with our friends in their heartache...  That's when God is fully present!  Eugene Patterson writes that suffering is a mystery (for sure) - and that Job comes to respect the mystery.  Beautifully put...

By now, most of you know that Mike and I are expecting - I realized this week that I can't really hide it anymore (even if I wanted to!).  So if you hadn't heard the news - you might have been wondering by now...  It's true!

This is a very unexpected surprise for us...  After ten years of marriage, many miscarriages, two ectopic pregnancies, and a diagnosis of cervical cancer - we truly thought kids were not in our future.  For a while we decided not to even try - due to the possible risks a pregnancy could pose to my health...  And then when a few healthy years went by and we decided to casually try - we knew there would be no forcing it.  No in vitro, no hormone therapies, no surgeries, no nothing - if it wasn't meant to be, we were ok with that.  We were ok with "living in the mystery."  We knew full well that God would find other ways for us to live full, meaningful lives - and make a difference in the world with God's love.

But that doesn't mean there weren't days of sadness and drear.  Every time a friend would tell me that she was pregnant...  Every visit we'd make to a hospital to visit a new born...  Every birthday party, picnic, holiday celebration with nieces and nephews, god-kids, and friends...  Every Mother's Day and Father's Day.  Every Christmas and Easter...  All of those days that centered around family and children brought a little ache.  Watching my husband, Mike, play with the little kids in our life - his eyes sparkling and his excitement and energy - that was hard, knowing he may never get to play that way with his own...

We all have things in our lives we struggle with - sadness, grief, frustration.  We have the things that grab on, hold tight, and make us wonder "why me?"  Reading Job's laments...  I knew some of that pain.  I knew some of that need to ask "why?"  To challenge God.  To let God know that yes, I am disappointed and little angry at the circumstances.  Job made sense to me.

But the friends...  The friends I don't get.  And I don't get how some of the people in my life behaved the same way...!  As the years went by, and Mike and I weren't having kids, we weren't the kind of couple to talk about this openly.  It was our story to share with each other.  And since, in the biggest way, we were ok with what ever happened, we didn't wear our sadness on our sleeve.  We chose to find joy in the places where we could - in the kids here at church, in friends' kids, in family.  And that was ok for us.

But, once in a while...  A friend or family member - I'm sure with the best of intentions - would make a comment, speculating why we didn't "want" kids...  Speculating what we must have done wrong to not "get" kids.  What had I done to have so much bad luck in the health department?  I must not have been taking care of myself...  And on and on and on.  Just like Job's friends, we had friends who wanted to explain the problem; figure out the "why;" make it "fit" their view of the world...

Some of the things assumed and said were more hurtful than people probably realized...  And while I may not have made a big deal out of it - looking back, the comments put a small wall up in our friendships.  There were times I felt judged for something that was so far out of my control, and times I felt like other people made my struggle a black and white issue, or a good person bad person thing.  The funny thing?  I never felt that myself about our journey...  I was content living in the mystery...  Knowing there might never be a resolution. 

The good news?  I had some pretty fabulous friends through this all, too!  I had friends willing to hear the latest doctor reports with me - offering hugs, tears, and words of love and comfort.  I had friends that reminded me where God was through the sad days - and rejoiced with me when I felt God on the good days!  I had friends who believed in redemption - and that good comes out of every situation - and who were willing to help me find the good when I couldn't see it.  I had friends who would just be with me and listen.  I had friends who had experienced similar heartbreaks - and knew how to share their stories of wounded hearts with me.  I had friends who knew that hardships very rarely make any sense - and therefore didn't try to explain my problems away.  I had friends who "showed up" when I needed them - and were there when there were no answers to give.

Job's friends taught us a lot about what friendship is about.  They gave us a glimpse at what we can do - and what we shouldn't do!  In Eugene Patterson's intro into the Book of Job, he summarizes the teachings of friendship beautifully...  Hear what he has to say...

In our compassion, we don't like to see people suffer.  And so our instincts are aimed at preventing and alleviating suffering.  No doubt that is a good impulse.  But if we really want to reach out to others who are suffering, we should be careful not to be like Job's friends, not to do our "helping" with the presumption that we can fix things, get rid of them, or make them "better."  ...When we rush in to fix suffering, we need to keep in mind several things.

First, no matter how insightful we may be, we don't really understand the full nature of our friends' problems.  Second, our friends may not want our advice.  Third, the ironic fact of the matter is that more often than not, people do not suffer less when they are committed to following God, but more.  When these people go through suffering, their lives are often transformed, deepened, marked with beauty and holiness, in remarkable ways that could never have been anticipated before the suffering.

So, instead of continuing to focus on preventing suffering - which we simply won't be very successful at anyway - perhaps we should begin entering the suffering, participating insofar as we are able - entering the mystery and looking around for God. In other words, we need to quit feeling sorry for people who suffer and instead look up to them, learn from them, and - if they will let us - join them in protest and prayer.  Pity can be nearsighted and condescending, shared suffering can be dignifying and life-changing.  As we look at Job's suffering and praying and worshipping, we see that he has already blazed a trail of courage and integrity for us to follow.

The good news?  Job's story has a happy ending!  God admits that Job has remained living in the center of God's will; his friends are told to make sacrifices to atone for their judgmental attitudes; Job retains his faith and light that he is able to share with those around him; and Job is blessed with an even fuller life than he had before!

And yes, it looks like my story is on its way to a happy new beginning, too!  (But one thing I know...  Through it all - whatever may come my way - I'll be surrounded by wonderful friends - who make the mystery of life, the mystery of faith, the mystery of God's love - all worth the ride!)

Will you pray with me?

Gracious God,  we thank you for the story of Job - for his respect of the mystery and his example of following you in even the direst of circumstances.  And yes, we thank you for his friends - for the ways they did well, and for the lessons we learn from where they went wrong.  Help each of us, Lord, to be better friends.  Help us to "be" in the moment, to listen, to comfort, to share in the suffering - and not try to fix it.  Guide us in how to be compassionate and in how to use our old wounds as we help heal a friend's.  Bless all of our friendships as we go forth today, Amen.