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“The Pursuit of Love”

This is a sermon I preached during Lent at Wesley United Methodist Church in Concord, NH on 25 March 2012. I have been wanting to post it, yet it took me some time to do so. May any truth in it help you to pursue love on your journey of faith.

Primary Text: John 3:14-17; Secondary Text: First Corinthians 12:4-7
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:14-17 CEB)

Ceara has a new phrase that she started using a week or so ago, and while the phrase makes us smile, the timing of when she chooses to use it started me thinking. She will say something like,”I draw a picture, that make mommy happy.” Or, “I get shells at beach for you daddy, that make you happy.” Now, it is not that Courtney and I are unhappy or walk around the house sulking all the time. Rather, she chooses to use this phrase when we start doing the three-count. Some of you know the three-count: “Please put on your shoes one, please put on your shoes two…” Maybe it is her attempt to avoid being placed in timeout… Our response is usually something like, “What will make mommy and daddy happy is when you obey.”

Please don’t get me wrong, we like the pictures and the shells, yet we want her to learn to obey. I wonder if she thinks that maybe we won’t love her and she wants to do something to make it up to us or to earn back our love. We make sure that we let her know that we love her – no matter what, and that is a choice we have to make multiple times each day.

But what does ‘Love’ mean to a 2 1/2 year-old?
What does ‘Love’ mean to us?
What does it means that God loves us?

Love can be an ambiguous word at times, and it can mean different things to different people.
Society portrays “Love” as an ecstatic feeling that just hits us, makes us starry eyed, and causes us to do crazy things. Sometimes the World tells us that Love is an outside factor over which we have no control. It is erratic and unpredictable. So, one minute we can ‘fall in love,’ and the next minute we are ‘out of love’ as feelings wane. Sometimes we see Love used as a commodity in our world in that people either give it or withhold it based upon performance.

As Christians, though, we have a bit of a quandary because we are commanded to love.
It is no different today than it has been throughout history, which is why the story we belong to as Christians can make such a significant difference in this World.

In scripture we hear the command: Love God, Love Neighbor, Love Enemy. But what does it mean to love God with our heart, soul, and strength? Does the love of neighbor and love of enemy look the same? Does the evidence of this mean that we issue ecstatic, spontaneous proclamations of, “I Love You!” to God, Neighbor, and Enemy?

I want to suggest to you the Apostle Paul’s words, “The pursuit of Love,” – a pursuit which affects and determines other emotions and actions. I am not saying that Love as an emotion is a negative thing. In fact, saying, “I love you,” to convey deep care, emotion for, and connection to someone is a good thing. Nor am I saying, “Choose to Love.”

Rather, I am saying that the pursuit of love is a choice that transforms us. This transformation can determine our actions – and sometimes in ways that we may not necessarily be able to explain, yet in ways that we can witness their effects and witness to their effects. In this way, maybe society has it right, because love can cause one to do crazy and, at times, unpredictable things. For example, pursuing love can cause people to do the crazy and unpredictable actions of forgiveness and reconciliation. In Wesleyan language God’s choice to pursue love for us and work transformation in our lives continually is called sanctifying grace.

John chapter 3 begins by talking about transformation. It tells how transformation occurs in ways that we cannot always understand or explain, yet in ways that demonstrate real evidence – just like the wind. We cannot see it or totally explain it, but we can feel the wind or watch the effects of the wind – from the slight rustle of leaves to fallen trees; from coolness on our skin to chasing our hats across parking lots.

Today’s scripture follows this portion on transformation with John mentioning Moses, the Israelites and their sin and healing (a story found in Numbers 21), and likening Jesus to the serpent on the staff, which, when the people afflicted looked at it, they were healed. This is a seemingly obscure reference, yet one which John uses to foreshadow the extent to which God will pursue love for us.

God So Loved The World… Does God have emotion for us? For Creation?

I would like to think yes.

Scripture is the story of God’s love for all of Creation. In this story we see the emotions of happiness, anger, jealousy, and sorrow – just to name a few, and we see the pursuit love expressed as grace, redemption, transformation, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

We see in God’s human form, in Jesus, the range of human emotions and feelings, yet that is not all. In Scripture we witness that God has made a choice for Creation – for all of us – for each of us. As Christians we experience and we witness to God’s choice for us. A choice to forgive; a choice to do whatever it takes; a choice to go to the cross in order to reconcile and be in a relationship with us, and not to give up on that relationship no matter how much we have failed and probably deserve to be dropped.

The World’s predictable way of dealing with sin is condemnation and guilt. However, God’s love responds unpredictably by redeeming and reconciling. That is Love! This is the Good News – that God chooses to pursue love for all of creation.

But still, what does the pursuit of love mean for us?

First Corinthians has some great descriptors and evidences of love. If you have been to more than five weddings chances are pretty good that you have heard this read – even if it is a non-Christian wedding – because this is a beautiful piece on love. Those who are Christians may say something similar to “a reading from the love chapter in First Corinthians.” Those who do not wish to have God and the Church involved may say, “A reading from Ancient Semitic Poetry…” The point is that even the World recognizes there is something unique about God’s love even if they are not willing to name it as such.

I invite you to listen to this possibly familiar passage: “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t joyful with injustice, but it rejoices with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.”

This is a beautiful list, yet notice that none of the descriptors of love are sentimental feelings. These descriptors are choices people make. Choices made possible for us because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. In choosing pursue love differently we allow God to transform us – to sanctify us. Loving like First Corinthians 13 witnesses to the possibilities of living differently in this world. Pursuing love bears witness to the power of God to transform us because God pursues us in love. God pursues this world in love, and we bear witness to this by pursuing love in the way we live every day.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry he told the disciples and the crowds the trajectory of his life – the cross and the resurrection – and they didn’t seem to understand him. He spent three years with people who didn’t seem to get his message or receive him, and many of whom end up wanting him dead. Jesus’ journey to the Cross entailed pursuing love each and every day – choices that transformed this world.

Sometimes Lent is described as, “Journeying with Jesus to the Cross.” We are a bit more than halfway through the Lenten Journey – In what situations do each of us need to pursue love in the ways that we Love God… Love Neighbor… Love Enemy…? Pursuing Love is a choice we must embrace each and every day, and sometimes multiple times each day.

The bad news is that we can’t do it on our own. The good news is that we don’t need to do it on our own, because God wants to helps us. God wants to do transformational work inside each of us. When we allow sanctifying grace to work in us, then we no longer need to live out love strictly as an emotional feeling in the flesh.

The feeling of falling in love is nice. Yet to pursue love – each and every day and, at times, in spite of circumstances – is hard, and it is the best thing we could ever do.

In John’s Gospel we hear: “God so loved the world…,” and another way to translate this is: “God loved the world in this way…” God loves Creation so much that God does the unpredictable and crazy act of becoming human living among us, dying, resurrecting, ascending, and promising not to leave us alone but to come as the comforter to stay with us until Christ returns in final victory.

Later in John’s Gospel we hear Jesus’ words, “As the Father has loved me so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” (John 15:9)

We love because that is what Christians do. We love because God loves us. We love, yet not by having gooey feelings for people at home or at work or in the store or on the street. Rather, we love by choosing to feed, to clothe, to visit, to stand in solidarity with others, to speak truth – just to name a few things.

Pursuing love drives us to engage our World when we may not feel like it – it drives us to give of our time, treasure, and talents when we may not feel like it. Pursuing love helps us to engage in Missions – here or abroad – through prayer, giving, or going. Pursing love can lead us to forgiveness and reconciliation when we have lists as long as our arms of reasons why we are justified not to forgive and not to reconcile.

Jesus invites us to pursue love like he does. When we choose to join God pursuing love for this world we participate in God’s holy work of healing this world, and that is Good News.
Amen.

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“Strange, but Authentic” – a sermon for Fallston UMC on 4Dec20111

Here is a link to the audio of the sermon that I (Dan) preached at Fallston UMC in Maryland last Sunday. Follow this link, and look for December 4th. I will post the manuscript (not transcript) in the next post.
PEACE ~ Dan

http://www.fallstonumc.org/devotional/

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“Strange, but Authentic” – the manuscript for a sermon for Fallston UMC

Here is the manuscript of the sermon that I preached last week (4 Dec 2011) at Fallston UMC in Maryland.

A sermon for Fallston UMC 4Dec2011 – Texts: Mark 1:1-8 and Isaiah 40:1-11

Today is the 2nd Sunday of Advent. It is also known as John the Baptist Sunday, and after the reading of the Gospel this Morning it becomes clear why…Advent is a time of preparation, and who better to talk about preparing the Messiah’s way than Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist (Well, perhaps Mary – but she is next week…)?

We actually have two passages this morning. One is the Mark passage that we heard, and the other is an Isaiah text that Mark quotes.
Isaiah reads, “the voice of one crying out: in the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD.” when I read this it made me pause and think, “Why is it significant in Isaiah to prepare the way in the wilderness – on the edges of the cities, on the edges of what is known and safe – in places of unknown – in places where faith seems less certain yet more necessary… What does it mean to prepare for God in these places?”

Isaiah is talking about preparing the way from exile to restoration. It is preparation of a way for the journey of reconciliation.
Is.40:3-5 – valleys raised up and mountains laid low, uneven land leveled and rough places made plain… This is hard work – it is impossible work, actually, and it was done by God. Israel just had to walk in the way…

In Mark, with John the Baptist, this preparation starts with repentance. Repentance – means turning around – it means REPRIORITIZING the way we live to give God all… This begins to prepare the way for God.
– It gives us a clue to how God works. It gives us a clue about grace as it preludes the cross and resurrection of Christ… The hard work of reconciliation back to God – the impossible work, actually – has already been done by God

Mark 1:4-5
In Mark, we are told that people from all over the countryside and ALL the people from Jerusalem went to the wilderness to confess and be cleansed. This is odd, because in Jewish tradition at the time, one would wash oneself in a ritual washing to symbolize the need for forgiveness. But with John the Baptist things are different. Here, the prophet is performing the ceremony. EVERYONE (so it says) went out to him, and yet John says (in essence), “what I have done is not sufficient, for one will come after me who will do even more. This is a ritual washing in water for forgiveness, yet One will come and baptize with the Holy Spirit for perpetual forgiveness.”

In Mark, it’s only after we hear how popular John is that we are told more about Him. Before we hear the description, though, if we can erase what we know or what pictures we have seen of John the Baptist, then we might come up with new images. If you were hearing this story for the first time, and you heard that this man shows up on the outskirts of town proclaiming some message and ALL the people from your town were going out and people from all over the region were coming to see him… What would you expect to see? Maybe that wagon rolling up to the outskirts of town with some slick-haired, smooth-tongued salesman selling his magic elixirs, or gizmos, that will make people younger, smarter, and more attractive (and a discount if you buy all three at once 😉 )
Today, it may be that person on QVC or in a Bowflex ad or on a Viagra commercial or … Something that offers true fulfillment, true happiness, and true purpose. These things that seem too good to be true are packaged so pretty that a few of our acquaintances buy into it (and if we are honest, maybe even we, ourselves do at times)… If we are honest then we will acknowledge that each of us have run after something other than God for help, for healing, for wholeness. In marketing today, packaging is everything… And it was no less true back then. God knows what will entice and intrigue people… God also knows what will truly make us whole. God knows what will truly fulfill us, help us, and heal us. Yet rather than sending a smooth-talking, nice-looking man telling people how to look better, feel younger, and act smarter, God sends a “sweaty-toothed madman” dressed in camel skins and eating locusts. John the Baptist is strange, but authentic. He points to something – someone – beyond himself. John the Baptist says, “I’m not the great savior – he is still coming. I’m just trying to get you ready.” Unlike the salesman who is out for profit and personal gain, God’s prophet is not interested in profit. Rather he wants to see people reconciled back to God.

Now, people from all over the region were coming out for John to wash them. Yet the Irony is that if anybody needed a bath, then it was John… Camel-hair, locusts and honey, living in the wilderness… It reveals that God wants faithful, not flashy. God wants sincere, not slick. God wants authentic, not arrogant.

The point is that John stood out. He was strange because he was living an alternative way – on the fringes of society. Yet people went to the fringes – to the wilderness – to prepare the way for God to come unto them.

Then, Mark 1:1-8 ends with a mystery. John the Baptist says, “one is coming after me – the messiah is still coming…” and people didn’t know who it was nor for whom they were supposed to prepare the way. But we’ve read the Gospel of Mark. We know that John the Baptist is talking about Jesus.

So, what does “prepare the way in the wilderness” mean for us this Advent? We know that Jesus came. Jesus as Emmanuel – as God with us – is not a mystery, at least in that we know who it is. So what is our mystery? In communion we proclaim the “mystery of faith” that, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” So what does it mean for us this Advent that Christ will come again? And do we even need to figure out when and how, or is there a more pressing question – what difference does Emmanuel make for us and for our world today? Emmanuel meant one thing when people could see, touch, hear, and smell him. Emmanuel will mean another thing when, as our communion liturgy says, “he returns in final victory,” especially because that implies that people will once again be able to see, touch, hear, and smell Jesus. But what about in the “now and not yet” ? I believe that we have been given another sense in this time of “now and not yet” – Jesus has given us another gift – a practice – where we can taste Jesus. Yes, it tastes a lot like bread and juice to us. In other parts of the world Jesus can taste like wine or rice or currant juice… Or wafers that taste like cardboard or… The point is that tasting Jesus in bread and juice makes a difference for us and helps us to prepare a way in our wildernesses for His return.

Where are our wilderness spaces – the places of uncertainty or fear? The places where forgiveness is needed – both given and received? Where are the places where we feel our faith is tenuous yet we know it is precisely there that we need a bold faith – those places where we echo the prayer from the Gospels, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!”
Dealing with these places – acknowledging them, sharing them, confessing them, forgiving them… prepares us to receive the gift that is itself God.

This is where the power of missions and the power of service comes in, because missions and service are the work of the Church. As the Church, we are the Body of Christ in this world. God has invited us to join in His holy work of healing the world by being his emissaries – his ambassadors. Through our presence, actions, and words people can touch, see, and hear God. Maybe more importantly, though, is that through us people can be touched, be seen, and be heard. As Christians, God invites us to live strange but authentic lives. We “go” into places outside of our routine, beyond our comfort zone, at the edges of our control, and we serve others. We encounter a non-controlled environment. We see things from a new perspective, with new eyes and with fresh hearts. We go outside of the things that are normal – like our church walls – and find God in new ways. This could be asking someone – at work or at the store – “How are you?” and actually mean it. This could be going to soup kitchens. Maybe going to the soup kitchen is easy, yet going it is going to our next door neighbor that we have to see everyday that is a fringe for us. Or maybe it means joining this church’s team that is going to Haiti.

Closing
The Good News in Isaiah is restoration from the Babylonian Exile, and the Good News in Mark is restoration from the Garden Exile – a return to right relationship with God. Israel returned to Jerusalem and lived in a now and not yet of waiting for the Messiah to come. The Church lives in a now and not yet of awaiting for the Messiah – Christ – to come again.
“Preparing the way in the wilderness” is a way for us to live until the “not yet” arrives.
God wanted to restore Israel, not just so that they would feel better about themselves, yet rather so that they could live into their destiny to be light to the nations.
God wants to restore us, and not just so that we can feel better about ourselves.
God wants to restore us so that we can live into our destiny that we are to be disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world!
God wants to restore us so that we can share the Good News that the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation – the impossible work, actually – has already been done by God, through Christ, because God values us beyond worth and loves us beyond measure.
God wants to restore us so that we can live strange but authentic lives.
How do we do this? Well, that is missions.
Alleluia. Amen.

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“The ‘Begats’ and the ‘Be-Leavers'” – A Sermon for Chews UMC

A Sermon for Chews UMC 24 October 2011 – Matthew ch. 1

“The Begats and The Be-Leavers”

About a month ago I saw this Norman Rockwell painting of a family tree, and the image has stuck I my mind ever since then. At the top, Rockwell painted a sweet-faced innocent looking toddler. Then he painted the parents – who looked normal enough. Next in line he painted both sets of grandparents, one looking a bit refined and the other set a bit rough-cut. The great-grandparents of one side looked to have settled the frontier while the other set looked like those who tended the shop that supplied the explorers. The branches become more and more telling, and after seven generations Normon Rockwell roots his family tree painting in a buccaneer and pirate queen. He does not try to mask or paint a nice face – literally – on what appears to be a dodgy family history.

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It reminded me a bit of my time in Afghanistan in 2002 when I learned that lineage is vitally important across Afghan culture. So important, in fact, that a boy could be stopped at any time and asked to name his father, grandfather, etc. out to seven generations – and if he didn’t know the names, then he could be beaten.

I know the names of three generations. I know that Clarence, on my dad’s side, knew Babe Ruth – I have a picture of them together. I know that Flaviano, on my mom’s side, arrived in America on a boat from Italy. Beyond that, I don’t know.
How hard is it to learn just seven names? But are they really just names? I think if those names – the people those names represent – were different, then I would be different.

I grew up thinking the “Begats” (as we called them) in Matthew 1 were boring. Yet there are stories in these “Begats”. There are stories in these names.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah & Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Boaz…

One thing that struck me as odd is the way the author chooses to write the names. The author is beginning the story of Jesus – the Messiah. Yet like Rockwell and his buccaneer, the author does not gloss over the grittiness and scandals that occurred along the way. For example, the author could have just written, “David begat Solomon.” Or, he could have written, “David was the father of Solomon by Bathsheba,” hoping those unfamiliar with this sinister story may have thought she was just another of the king’s wives. So, in the story of the lineage of the Saviour of the world, why does the Gospel of Matthew say, “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah”? Why is it necessary to remind the readers of the faults and failures of the fore-bearers?

One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, has written, “The journey of any one of us is in some ways the journey of us all.” And I think this holds true for these stories as well. The stories represented in these names are stories of courage and stories of obedience. They are stories of sin and shame and redemption. The stories of some of these people who are seen as heroes and pillars and examples of God-followers reveal that to be loved by God and to be used by God and to be chosen by God one does not have to be perfect. And in this way they are our stories, aren’t they? I wouldn’t mind if people told certain stories about me – the ones of courage and hope, obedience, faithfulness, and sacrificial love. And I would prefer the stories of my shortcomings, sin, and screw-ups be overlooked or swept under the rug.

Yet the “begats” remind us that, as Christians, what makes our stories good – what makes them worth telling – are not our actions of faithfulness vs. faithlessness or our successes outweighing our failures. Rather what makes our stories good is that we are valued beyond worth and loved beyond measure by God who promises to make all things new in Jesus Christ. What makes our stories worth telling is that no success will earn more of God’s love and no failure will exclude us from God’s love.

While these “begat” stories have themes familiar to the stories of our lives, these stories can also remind us of more than our own stories. These stories remind us of God’s story, too, because these stories – and our stories – cannot be fully told without mentioning God’s boundless grace, God’s amazing faithfulness, and God’s unfailing love towards us.

So, how are you allowing God to make your life story Good? How are you allowing God to be praised when something seems successful? How are you allowing God to redeem and restore that which seems tattered, broken, no-good, painful, and shamed?

The stories in the “begats” go beyond holding similar themes or providing metaphors for how we live. These “begats” are the stories of the Church. These “Begats” are the stories of our lineage -literally. There are no insignificant people in God’s story of redemption. I’ve heard it put this way, “Christianity exists today not because of the few famous people from history – Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, etc. Rather, Christianity exists today because of the nameless and faceless faithful followers of Jesus.”

Last week I attended a worship service at Global Ministries, and a portion of the service took time to have a memorial role call – the names of those in Methodist missionary service who passed on in this past year. Unfortunately, I knew none of the names, and I knew none of the stories. Yet I know that God used these people in the great story of redemption of all Creation. It made me wonder what people will think of when they hear my name read on that role in the future. Will they even be able to distinguish it from the other names or will they blur together in two-and-a-half pages of other faceless people? Does it even matter?

The following day I attended the commissioning service for 10 missionaries in First UMC of Flushing, NY – a Korean congregation. We heard that in late 1800s the first Methodist missionaries went to Korea, which was only a few years after the first Christian missionary to Korea had been burned alive because of his beliefs. And to think that 150 years later a Korean Methodist church hosted a commissioning service for 10 more Methodist missionaries. What amazing change and transformation took place because people attempted to live faithful lives even though they were not quite sure of the results or the effects of how God would use their lives for the Body of Christ decades later.

Here at Chews you just celebrated your 200th Anniversary. Yet, I had not heard of Chews UMC until three months ago when I met a guy named Wil Wilson at the Global Ministries Young Adult Missionary Training in New York. He told me how supportive this congregation had been of him entering missionary service. That led to a conversation with Pastor Bill about a time to come and share with y’all, and it excited me to hear the stories around Wings of the Morning and Missions Sunday and all of the various people that made today possible.

It started me thinking, “20 years from now I wonder how many people will tell stories to their congregations in Africa about how their lives had been in danger and if it had not been for the help of the an airlift they would have died? Or, how many will tell of how their lives had been changed by a mentor, whose life itself had experienced transformation while a student years before at a campus ministry in Fargo, ND where he/she met God in a new way through some guy named Wil?” Each of you will have played a part in those stories whether or not those people know you by name. That is amazing!

This is why Chews UMC remains a vital member of the body of Christ, and why each of you are vital to Chews. More than that, however, by supporting Wil and by supporting Aviation ministry, you are supporting Global Ministries missionaries around the world. By supporting them you are strengthening the Body of Christ around the world.

God invites each of us into His holy work of healing the world, and in so doing God calls each of us as “believers” to go – to be “leavers” – and support the believers around the world. There are many ways to go – to leave our comfort zones. For some it may be sacrificial giving to Wil or Wings of the Morning ministry or writing a letter to them to say that you are praying for them on a specific day each month. It may look like going to the food pantry and being a vessel of God’s compassion and love with those who are struggling to make ends meet. Going may look like smiling at the clerk in the store and acknowledging his or her presence in this world. Or maybe it means talking to that “weird” co-worker that everyone else ignores. And for some, it may mean physically going to another place in the community or in this world. I don’t know, but God knows!

What we see in this list of “Begats” are those who strived to live follow God faithfully. They relied upon God’s grace and faithfulness to accomplish the work of Creatin’s redemption because of their greatest success and in spite of their worst failures. We don’t know how God will use the stories of our lives in the lives of others to transform the world. Yet we can know this: God is faithful and good, and God will use us – our stories – in their entireties of success, failure, grace, pain, redemption, and love. God will use us for the Kingdom and to strengthen the Body of Christ in this world because God loves us. And that is Good News. Alleluia. Amen.

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