Sunday, January 20, 2013

We Offer a Spiritual Oasis

"We Offer a Spiritual Oasis" Sermon
January 20, 2013

We have a new mission/vision statement for our church, adopted this past Fall...  So we're spending some time getting to know it...  An important part of sharing the mission and vision is all of us understanding it, being able to say it, and deciding to live our ministry and faith lives according to it.  Because if we can't do that...  Than what's the point of having the statement?

So, our new Mission statement is on the front of your bulletin:  "The Vision of the people of St. Paul's United Methodist Church is to be a spiritual oasis.  Inspired by God's love, we: offer a spiritual oasis, teach one another to serve, and reach out to encourage others to know Christ."

Here's how I am working to memorize it:  The vision is to be a spiritual oasis.  We do this by Offering.  Teaching.  Serving.  Reaching.  (I'm horrible at memorizing, so breaking it down helps me...)

Today, I get the pleasure of unpacking "oasis" a bit more...  And looking at what it means to offer our oasis to others.  "Inspired by God's love, we offer a spiritual oasis..."

So, what's an oasis?  According to some online dictionaries, here are a few snippets of definitions:  "a pleasant or peaceful area in the midst of a difficult, troubled, or hectic place or situation;" "something that provides refuge, relief, or a pleasant contrast;" "a situation or place preserved from surrounding unpleasantness: a refuge;" "a fertile or green spot in the desert or wasteland, made so by the presence of water;" "a place of shelter or sanctuary." 

So there's a start, and we had some very nice volunteers offer to decorate the altar this week - helping us visualize one way of looking at oasis...  We've got the green lush plants, the blue of water, sea shells and flowers - all images of life and refreshment, especially from a desert perspective!  But I'm curious...  When you think of oasis, what do you think of?  I'm guessing we have a lot of different ideas...  So, let's yell some out...  What comes to mind when you think of oasis?

For me...  It's a peaceful sanctuary.  Candlelight.  A place where I can be myself.  A place where I can let down my defenses and cry out, seek support, or simply be me, with no fear of rejection or judgment...  A place of refreshment, being given what I need, cared for...  This can be found on vacation - in the Redwood Forest, in a rainforest fog, on the ocean at sunset; or in my living room, in a small group with trusted friends, at the dinner table with old friends...  Here in this church.... 

Oasis, in many ways, is a state of mind in our busy world...  It's a way of connecting to and relying on our faith - in the midst of unpleasantness.  It's trusting in God for the refreshment of forgiveness and grace when things aren't going so well.    A place in our heart - sacred, secluded, and safe from all of life's turbulence. 

David spoke in the Psalms about seeking a refreshing relationship with God - finding that safe place of renewal within God's hands, liking it to the protection of a mama bird's wings hovering over her young...  Representing warmth, refuge - a safe place of trust and protection.  A place secure enough to let God in...

Our Vision statement says that we seek to be a Spiritual Oasis.  Our church, not just us as individuals.  An oasis to each other and to the outsider.  What does that mean?  For a whole church to be an oasis in our world?  A place of refuge, hospitality, relief, and life? 

Our scripture verse for the next couple of weeks is Jeremiah 29:10-14...  Found on page 731 in your pew Bible...  It reads:

"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.  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.  Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile."

I really like how the translation, The Message, words it:

"This is God's Word on the subject: "As soon as Babylon's seventy years are up and not a day before, I'll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home (relief).  I know what I'm doing.  I have it all planned out - plans to take care of you (hospitality), not abandon you (safety), plans to give you the future you hope for (life).  When you call on me, when you come and pray to me, I'll listen (sanctuary).  When you come looking for me, you'll find me (refuge).  Yes, when you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I'll make sure you won't be disappointed." God's Decree.  'I'll turn things around for you.  (relief)  I'll bring you back from all the countries into which I drove you' - God's Decree - 'bring you home to the place from which I sent you into exile (refuge).  You can count on it."

God is saying, "I'll be your oasis - but you have to look for me, to want me, to seek me."  I keep imaging one of those old cartoon clips, where the characters are lost in the desert, parched, tired, sun burnt, crawling across the landscape, searching for any bit of water...  Looking, desiring, desperate with need...  I think that's a good metaphor for many of us in our lives today...  And a way to think about - if we're all so in need of a peaceful, pleasant, relieving, life-filled place of refuge, shelter, growth, and sanctuary in the midst of our crazy lives - what can the church do to be that oasis?

I think the church should be an oasis for the lost and weary seeking refreshment, renewal, and rest in their lives. The church should be the tree under which we can find shade in the midst of conflict, chaos, and struggles.  The church  should be the rock, on which we can sit and refresh and hear God's voice, guiding us where to go next.  The church should be the river which we drink from to revive our parched spirits and souls.  Our society offers a lot of choices, a lot of busy-ness, a lot of influences that take us away from the centeredness of living in God's Spirit - and the church should be a place where we can come to be refreshed, to experience the hospitality of God's love, to find refuge from a desert world...

Have you ever read the book, "The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho?  It's one of my favorites.  It's about a boy who travels through the Egyptian desert in search for his "personal legend."  There's a part where he is traveling through the desert with a caravan, not really knowing where they are headed, and the journey is going on and on and on...  Through the yellow desert.  And then...

"The boy couldn't believe what he was seeing: the oasis, rather than being just a well surrounded by a few palm trees - as he had seen once in a geography book - was much larger than many towns back in Spain.  There were three hundred wells, fifty thousand date trees, and innumerable colored tents spread among them.

"'It looks like A Thousand and One Nights,' said the Englishman, impatient to meet the alchemist.

"They were surrounded by children, curious to look at the animals and people that were arriving.  The men of the oasis wanted to know if they had seen any fighting, and the women competed with one another for access to the cloth and precious stones brought by the merchants.  The silence of the desert was a distant dream; the travelers in the caravan were talking incessantly, laughing and shouting, as if they had emerged from a spiritual world and found themselves once again in the world of people.  They were relieved and happy.

"They had been taking careful precautions in the desert, but the camel driver explained to the boy that oases were always considered to be neutral territories, because the majority of the inhabitants were women and children.  There were oases throughout the desert, but the tribesmen fought in the desert, leaving the oases as places of refuge.

"With some difficulty, the leader of the caravan brought all his people together and gave them his instructions.  The group was to remain there at the oasis until the conflict between the tribes was over.  Since they were visitors, they would have to share living space with those who lived there, and would be given the best accommodations.  That was the law of hospitality."

Well, will you look at that?  Images of an oasis as:  abundant, life-giving, filled with joy, renewing, full of the Spirit, relieved, peaceful, a place of refuge...  One commentary said that the fact that the trees are date trees - fruit-bearing trees - hints that the boy's stay at the oasis will be fruitful...  Another sign of an oasis?

 All of this and with its own law of hospitality...  The guests are given the best.

There's also the sudden change in surroundings - from the harsh desert which is physically and emotionally dramatic (like our daily lives sometimes), to a place where all needs are met...  A place where the characters can focus on their own concerns - let down their guard, eat, drink, and talk...

Another of my favorite lines in this chapter, was thought by the Alchemist (kind of the wise sage of the book).  He thought, "Maybe God created the desert so that man could appreciate the date trees..."  He's thinking this as he watches the new travelers arrive at the oasis, another description that we should pay attention to:

"The times rush past, and so do the caravans, thought the alchemist, as he watched hundreds of people and animals arriving at the oasis.  People were shouting at the new arrivals, dust obscured the desert sun, and the children of the oasis were bursting with excitement at the arrival of the strangers.  The alchemist saw the tribal chiefs greet the leader of the caravan, and converse with him at length."

If we are truly a spiritual oasis in our world...  How do we greet the strangers that stop by?  Are we welcoming, overjoyed with excitement?  Are we offering our best?  Or do we simply say a courteous hello and welcome?  If you notice in the reading...  It wasn't just the tribal chiefs that welcomed the newcomers - everyone did!  Everyone, from the youngest kids, to the men, to the women - all had a role in helping the strangers to feel welcomed into the oasis.  The kids cheered.  The men helped unload and take care of the animals.  The women provided food and drinks...  and I'm sure, their own tents.  Throughout the book, you see places where it's the elders that spark the deep and meaningful relationships that bring life to day-to-day life.  Everyone plays a role.  No one sits on the sidelines.  That's what community is.

As we think about who we are as St. Paul's Church, as we think about becoming an oasis, and offering an oasis  - not only to each other, but to those still outside the doors - needing to know what grace might look like in their lives.  What does that mean?  How do we offer refuge to someone who may not know what refuge can be like?  How do we offer peace in a world that doesn't always value peace?  How do we offer the joy of God's love, relationships, and forgiveness to those who maybe don't know what they are missing out on?

If we want to be an oasis and offer an oasis - we need to know what we're offering, who we're offering it to, and how to go about it...   We need to do some soul-searching.  We need to know what gifts and abilities each and every one of us can bring to the community - and can share with our new friends.  We need to realize that there's no bench to sit on the sidelines...  But that we're all needed in providing this gift to our world.

The question is - what do you get out of this sacred place?  What kind of oasis do you experience when you walk through those doors?  And how can you welcome someone else in to it?  What is one thing you could do, to share and offer our oasis with someone outside of our doors?

I'd like to offer us a minute or two of reflection time...  To ponder these questions.  If you feel comfortable enough - share your ideas on the blue card.  I'd love to personally follow-up with you and see if we can come up with a way for you to share your gift with those around us - to offer an oasis...  Maybe it involves cooking, praying, visiting, a love of youth or children, driving, greeting, who knows?  But if there's something you love about being here - that offers you a sense of "oasis" - how could you help someone else to feel the same?  And if you have no idea?  Take a moment to ask God to show you...  You never know how the Spirit may nudge you...

Isaiah 35:4-7 has a wonderful description of a sense of "oasis":

Energize the limp hands, strengthen the rubbery knees.  Tell fearful souls, "Courage!  Take heart!  God is here, right here, on His way to put things right

And redress all wrongs.  He's on His way!  He'll save you!"

Blind eyes will be opened, deaf ears unstopped, Lame men and women will leap like deer, The voiceless break into song.  Springs of water will burst out in the wilderness, Streams flow in the desert.  Hot sands will become a cool oasis,

Thirsty ground a splashing fountain.  Even lowly jackals will have water to drink

And barren grasslands flourish richly.

We all have a place in the oasis...  We all have a spot within God's kingdom.  And truth be told - we all have a role to play as well.  The images of oasis we offered today, all included a community of people coming together to care for each other and welcome the stranger.  Pastor Penny can't do this by herself.  Her and I together can't sustain an oasis...  But when we all say, "here's what I love about this place, and here's what I'm willing to do to offer our oasis to someone else?"  That's how we live...  Inspired by God's love.

Will you pray with me?

Gracious God, we come to you today as people who are weary and tired, sometimes overwhelmed with life and all the things that press and confine us...  We come to worship, in this sacred place, in order to remember that we are yours, to be filled by your spirit, forgiven by your grace, and loved as we are.  We thank you, God, for all the ways you offer us an oasis - for all the times you've been our refuge and relief, our peace and comfort.  Help us to remember those experiences and to think about how we - each of us - may be willing to offer oasis to others.  Help us to see in ourselves the ability, the courage, and the desire to be your hands and feet in our world.  In your name, we pray.  Amen.