LISTENING FOR GOD

August 28, 2016

Union Avenue

A few weeks ago at one of our Urban Mission Inn dinners, a couple of us realized we were sitting at a table with a brother and a sister. And we marveled because they were so absolutely endearing to each other. They were acting very respectful and loving. It made us smile and honestly wonder about our own siblings and the other families we know well. But then – after a bit – we saw some sibling rivalry and discord. This, too, made us laugh and undoubtedly relax in assurance that we do understand normalcy in families!

Healthy congregations are like families. At times they can be THE most loving, supportive, encouraging, helpful, and definitely mission oriented. At other times they can be the most contentious, rift building places that turn people away and off! How do we make sure we can be the former and not the latter? How can we keep the even and loving keel? How can we ALWAYS be listening for God? And how can we be speaking the words from God that will build, stretch, create and transform this world to be ever so much more God-like?

There is an “in-between” place that families and congregations need. Gooey with love vs. contentious are not the only spectrums. Another one is absolute inertia. This is when we want to be a part of a community … to listen … to receive appreciation … to accept what we are given … but with absolutely no investment. This will neither build a community, nor will it build us!

The energy of being contentious and knowing what we want and how to get it – is good … when it is tempered. It is very important that we know ourselves, what we believe, how we should be involved with others, and how to share. We step over the line when we forget that EVERYONE has that right and privilege and not one of us has the only or best way.

Community – true community – is understanding that every person is unique … every person has the right to believe as they do … every person acts differently from anyone else … and every person has been created this way by the God who can hold us all together!

What we cannot do is bully each other and claim that one person knows all … or that one way is THE BEST and ONLY way. Community – and the family of God – means listening to the incredible variety of thoughts, ways to understand issues, ways to serve, and ways to be in ministry … and then either staying with where we have stood in the past or being able to change because of the challenge of another person. But listening respectfully and sharing fully is very important for a true and rich community that can serve well.

Fear in our world has grown way, way too much in the recent years. I was a hitch-hiker in earlier days … and I picked up hitch-hikers. I do not do that today. People my grandmothers age have told me they would put food on their back porches for homeless people to come by and eat … every day. I seriously doubt that many folks do that anymore. With the mass murders all around the world, the incredible use of mind-boggling drugs, the increase of threats and stealing … how can we honestly “show hospitality to strangers”? How do we know – how do we trust – how can we rely that being hospitable is safe?

Very unfortunately, that fear has seeped into our church communities as well. We are afraid of truly revealing who we are to each other – because ‘what if someone won’t like us?’ … or what if I cannot go along with the beliefs of another … or what if I get angry over what that other person says. That is the fear we can release IF and WHEN we are honestly listening to God.

As our scripture says: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’ Well, yes, there are a myriad of things that people can and are doing to others – but ultimately living with the assurance that we are listening to, feeling the spirit of, allowing the love of God to capture us, empower us, enliven us … there is honestly nothing that another can do to ruin us.

Within the life of our congregational community we need to share what inspires and challenges us about our worship. Sunday morning services are NOT about respectability or ways that we have always done things. Worship needs to be about our love and imitation of Jesus who was fully alive, creative, loving and challenging. Jesus was NOT afraid …so let’s not be afraid to think about how to enliven, change and grow our worship experiences to feed us ever so much more – because all of this would be good listening to God!

And after worship, we always have time for a bit of fellowship with each other. Perhaps it would be good to look around and try to get to know some people who are NOT your best friends. Perhaps strike up conversations that will challenge and grow you. Again, try NOT to continue to live in the fear that we might not agree with others, or they might not agree with us. THAT does not matter. The growth is to hear different views and know there is NOT just one way. That is honestly listening to God!

And then we will be even more ready to re-invest seriously in ministry … where we can show hospitality to strangers … where we can extend ourselves to those who are fraught with some sort of prisons in their lives … and to those who are in seriously non-functioning relationships.

God gives us an amazing amount of power to listen – to heal – to love – to care for the hurting of this world … when we release ourselves from the fear of being known and allowing ourselves to know others.

Diversity is God made … God given … and God inspired. May we open ourselves to listen to the amazing diversity that God has created in this world!

GOD’S TIMING

August 21, 2016

Union Avenue

The world is constantly changing … every day … in every corner … with every person being born and every new idea being created. And yet, I would imagine that there have ALWAYS been individuals who fight that change every step of the way. It is ever so much more comfortable and easy to KNOW assuredly that what we did yesterday, last year, 10 years ago can be repeated and we do not need to alter our ways – just because of the evolving world around us.

Church is changing. Right now there is an incredible shift in mainline church. Sunday worship attendance is reduced in most congregations. Age of members is shifting. Ability to be heavily involved within the life of congregations has changed. This, however, does NOT mean that the church is dying. It only means the church is changing and we all need to embrace that, let go of some of the ‘former ways we did everything’ and look for the new ways to BE church. And our best example to follow is Jesus!

Jesus broke the rules of his faith and religious community so, so many times. He allowed women to travel with him … and to serve with him. This seeps into our scriptures so we can be assured that it probably happened ever so much more than we have read. Jesus also touched people who were unclean and ill. This definitely was not allowed in his time. He touched a leper, a dead boy, a women who was hemorrhaging …oh my!!! And in this morning’s passage he healed someone on the sabbath which obviously infuriated the leader of the synagogue.

But very thankfully, what Jesus has taught us over and over and over is nothing about rules … but much more importantly how we are to care for God’s people in this world. THIS is the heart of our faith.

The Jewish tradition of sabbath is a great idea. I honestly try – some weeks – to take a day in which I rest, read, recoup. It is a very helpful and enlivening possibility. When I was growing up, Christians lived the sabbath on Sundays. Very few stores were open … there were never baseball games, soccer games, or even football games. We went to church, had family dinners and rested. Those of you who are in your 30s and 20s and younger cannot even fathom those days. Life has changed. Now we often have competing sports events with worship … there are meetings and classes and any number of events held on Sunday mornings … probably none of which we are going to be able to change or go back to the ‘old way of respecting Sunday morning church’.

None of this needs to ruin who we are as God’s people … what we need to be doing as the faithful … and how we can continue to be church! God’s timing is not about any of our rules, schedules, timelines, or getting all of our activities done correctly. God’s timing is all about serving the people we meet who are in need. And that is what God would have US be about! Jesus taught all of us this by involving women in his work, touching unclean people, and breaking the sabbath laws. In all of those instances Jesus did not abide by the rules … but was abiding by the aches of people who were presenting themselves to him and who needed him.

So, how can we move our lives so that we can follow Jesus and his example? Our Outreach team is reorganizing itself and will be challenging every one of us to get involved in their ministry this year. One of our new XPLOR residents is going to be helping challenge and invite us into this work. If we all are the faithful of this community, we can let go of many of the ‘shoulds’ of the past and reconsider how we can simply aid … feed … assist … love … care for … the people who need us within our community and then extending beyond into this hurting neighborhood and world. THAT is church. THAT is what Jesus has inspired and challenged us to do. And that will be the timing that God needs us to be conscious and caring of.

Let me name some of the ways we might get going:
every week we take non-perishable food to Memorial Boulevard Christian Church. That congregation is located in a much more desperate and challenging place than we are. They serve meals to the homeless; they give out food to the street people; they have built showers for folks to use during the day. If every one of us brought two items of food every Sunday and put it in our baskets, we would be helping in a significant way many people who are living on the streets of St. Louis.
we have been nurturing young people and adults for several years through our Urban Mission Inn and the XPLOR program. We have now completed the major season of the Inn and had wonderful connection with these young people and our congregation….but our new XPLOR residents are about to arrive. Consider, please, being a very special friend to one of them – inviting them to your home for dinner, taking them out to places in St. Louis, encouraging them and talking to them weekly ….helping nurture them as they discern where and what their lives are leading.
soon (actually THIS Thursday) we will re-begin our Thursday morning handing out of donuts on Union Blvd. This has been an awesome way to share with people that we are alive and well at Union Avenue. Consider joining that donut brigade just to wave and share a happy day with people driving and walking by.
we were challenged several weeks ago by one of the staff at Doorways. He suggested that volunteers could play games, help with food, tend to the people living at Doorways – all of whom are living with HIV or AIDS.
Westminster, Pilgrim and Union Avenue are searching for ways to become much more involved within this neighborhood – whether it is having conversations to help draw together the north and south … whether to become a tutor at Soldan High School … or a myriad of other ways we might get INTO this neighborhood rather than just residing and worshipping here.

These are just a few of the ways we can serve the needs of others. Your creativity and challenge could elicit ever so many more possibilities. Let’s start talking … sharing … and inspiring each other to truly become involved in the timing of God to reach out and touch, heal, love the hurting people of this world.

Union Avenue

The unknown author of Hebrews was writing this letter to people who were honestly about to give up their Christian faith. Judaism was their heritage but they had become believers in Jesus with some very great hope. However, life was tough and no great miracles were happening to them. So they were honestly thinking they should go back to their heritage.

The author of Hebrews is trying to assure them this would NOT be a good plan and in fact, was helping them understand what are the honest promises of God.

This is truly an important letter for the church to read and take very seriously today. The incredible upheaval of our world, the violence that is ever-present adds to the questioning of many – what does the Christian faith say … how does the Christian faith help … why do we gather as Christian communities if we cannot bring the miracles of hope into this world.

So, truly: WHAT ARE THE PROMISES OF GOD???

The writer believes that faith allows us to endure … endure everything. He starts by talking of incredible miracles – passing through the Red Sea and NOT being drowned … watching the walls of Jericho falling … understanding that a prostitute did not reap hardship or annihilation … and he goes on with many other important stories and names. But then he also reminds his readers about the difficulties and devastations of life before his last great claim about Jesus … who, for the sake of joy – endured the cross, disregarded its shame and is now seated with God.

Is this something we want … can live for … can endure the hardships of life for … even would consider?

When we get to experience miracles I think we celebrate – and celebrate greatly. And those miracles we got to experience would undoubtedly move us to sing praises to God.

But there are moments that we might not call miracles – but very special times when we first meet a newborn child … when our children provide unexpected praises of love … when we are served by others … and when we just experience the richness of a new day and beautiful sunrise or glorious moon. For many of us, these moments bring praise, glory and thanksgiving to God.

And then we try to live through the calamities of what is happening in our world … the massive killings … the hate crimes … the accidents that occur on highways and take lives … the hurting people who are so negative … the frustrations of our work places … the poverty and homelessness that we know is ever-present … the boredom of some days … and the work at trying to figure out what needs to come next in our lives.

How do we make it through all of these big and small frustrations? How can we continue to give God glory and praise and know that we are being loved?

And what can the church of Jesus Christ claim when the miracles are minimal and the atrocities are more overwhelming?

Discouragement within the church is big now … but this is something we share with the early Christians. Defining our faith – and NOT basing it on the great miracles of life – is difficult, but oh so important. The promises of God are that we are never, ever alone. We have each other … we can remember the history of others … but most importantly we have God: the presence of God. And even though we might not experience jubilation or reward or miracle or even words that make sense from God every moment of the day … we can count on the presence and reassurance of God being with us.

Prosperity and blessing do not automatically come to those who are either good or who believe. Unfortunately, this promise has been one of the most devastating of the church in recent times! Faithfulness does not exempt us from hardship …nor does it shove us into total joy. What faith in God does for us, however, is to allow us to know we are never, ever alone. The presence of God is always filling us, challenging us, leading us, helping us get over our own errors as well as forgiving others. The presence and promise of God allows us to see the MUCH bigger perspective of life without getting caught in the little caveats of distress.

The promises of God can be counted on … because they are all about presence … the presence of each other and the presence of the spirit of God that can be trusted. The promises of God are not about events that will make us happy … celebrations that will bring us riches … or miracles that will bring us everlasting joy.

The promises of God are much more long lasting than any of the immediate joys we could name. Additionally, the promises of God include the work and service and love that we take on to surround and fill others. This will not only bring joy to God, but fill us with the everlasting joy of the community of faith that is ever so important.

May we find richness in the promises of God’s presence. May we extend that richness to others as we continue to build our own faithfulness.

FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN

August 7, 2016

Union Ave

There is a great deal of fear in our world today. Though some will claim it is because our 24 hour news casting alerts every minute of every day … we also see the statistics of how murder, crime, terror strikes have increased significantly. There is MUCH that adds to our fear! So how in the world can we hear, accept and internalize this:
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom?!? Telling us to NOT be afraid is a bit simplistic. We need to dig a bit deeper into this passage to understand the HOW of not being afraid… as well as trying to frame these words into our present-day concerns.

Jesus is first of all talking about possessions and money. Get rid of them, he says. This is a very important first step! OK! I sincerely doubt that we will do that …nor do I believe I can preach that absolutely fully.

BUT, the less we WANT to have, the less we NEED to have. The less we NEED to have, the less we NEED to fear. The less we need to FEAR, the more we understand that a life of giving allows us to live fully. Most of us – in this congregation – have good places in which we live, enough food to care for our bodies, vehicles that get us around … adequate resources to allow us full lives. Stockpiling more and more, however only adds to the fear that we will never have enough. One of Jesus’ major teachings was how we can give ourselves to each other … and that giving is certainly about resources but also about our gifts of life – the gifts of helping, of loving, of caring, of teaching, of enfolding, of enabling, of encouraging. Those incredible resources we have within our lives are NOT to be kept for ourselves – or even for just our families and close friends. They are to be shared with the whole world – to strangers, to people we do not know, to others we consider not like us.

And when we are able to give of THOSE resources, our fear that we do not have enough will lessen considerably. Instead of thinking we need more and more and more, we will begin to understand we have ever so much to give and give and give and we are constantly being replenished by the God that is ALWAYS feeding us.

Jesus’ second teaching in this passage is about always being ready … always understanding what we can give rather than what we are expecting to receive. This image of servants getting the house ready for their master (doing what they have been trained to do)….but then, instead of doing their work, the master has THEM sit down …he dons the apron and cooks them dinner. This is God. When we are ready …when we know what our gifts are and we are ready to give them out freely and are giving them out freely, they will NOT be depleted. Rather, God will sit us down and give us ever so much more …so that we can continue to give and give and give. This is what:
‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’ really means.

We need not worry IF we are giving out the gifts we have been given … if we are sharing with others everything we have been taught of love, of generosity, of kindness, of leadership, of faithfulness, of justice.

But the world in which we are now living is fraught with fear. How can we – as people of faith – work with Jesus’ words and teaching to move to a much more healthy realm?
As citizens of the United States of America we have a wondrous history, but also one that has been fraught with some very unfortunate pieces. We have tried to overcome these but we honestly need to try harder because they have not and cannot be erased. They can, however, be attended to so that we might learn.

The treatment of the people who inhabited these lands before us are well known. Not only killing them but putting them on reservations is hardly something that Jesus would have taught us. This is more ‘taking away from’ than giving ourselves in love.

And then when we brought Africans to our shores to serve as our servants and slaves was just a repeat of earlier times.

In the last year we have had great debates over the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign where many people continue to claim that ‘All lives Matter’. Yes, all lives matter – and that is the message from God … but in a time when we – and I am talking now about people with my skin color – have over years and years and years been intolerant of people with a darker skin pigment, been satisfied with segregation, been willing to allow travesties, discrimination, injustice and have raised fear …it is way over the time when we need to claim over and over and over that black lives do matter. the only way we will get to a much better place is when we recognize what we have done – and not only ask forgiveness – but begin to constantly work on making this a better world of love, care, generosity for ALL people. And the first people we need to attend to are those who have been severely hurt, compromised, and shackled with fear and agony because of their color.

The ONLY way fear will be released from the people whom we have hurt over the ages is when we (the perpetuators of those hurts) understand what God is calling us to do. Jesus taught us over and over that the way God works is through us. Magic does not happen with God miraculously changing the world. God works through us … within us … challenging us, feeding us, encouraging us. Our fear in this world will be diminished when we (as God’s people) take on the food that God gives us to love, to break down barriers, to encourage.

God is giving us the kingdom WHEN we are willing to work with God … to be challenged and inspired by God … to listen to and respond to the way God wants us to give out of the resources (not just money and possessions) but the love that God feeds into our lives.

This is how we will be able to reduce the fear in this world today.

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