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.

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