Posted by: KBH | September 30, 2014

The Best Kind of Character

This is a sermon done for Sunday, Sept 28, 2014 – on Philippians 2:1-13.

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My mom likes to tell this story about when I and my brother and sister were little and we had all gone out to a restaurant one evening.  It was one of those ones that had a buffet line, and my mom got up midway through to take my sister (she was about 4 or 5 at the time) to get her dessert.  My brother immediately objected to her having to accompany my sister, saying, ‘but you let me go by myself!’  My brother – he must have been 9 or 10 – had been particularly himself that day, so my mom replied, ‘I wasn’t worried about you – you’re so mean no bad guy would want you!’  To which my brother thought a moment, then said with some excitement, ”Maybe he’d want me as his sidekick!” 

We all grew up – are growing up – listening to stories that tell us about good guys and bad guys, stories that teach us right from wrong, show us the kind of people we’re meant to be.  And most of us (with perhaps my brother being the exception) end up wanting to be one of the good guys – the knight who slays the dragon, the princess who saves her sister, Wonder Woman, Superman – we want to be the heroes.  And the wonderful thing about fairy tales and all of those great stories and fables we read as children is that they each teach us something about the kind of person we need to be to become those heroes.  Whether it’s through learning lessons of compassion, patience, responsibility, charity, or whatever else, these stories show us the virtues we’re meant to have through the example of their characters.

Our passage today is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Philippi was a Roman colony and many veterans of the Roman army tended to live there – issues of social rank and status, respect, and authority would have been important in the daily lives of the Philippians.  Paul is writing to the church there, not because he wants to condemn them for anything huge (which he does do in some of his other letters to churches), but more because he wants to check in with them – to thank them for all the good they have been doing, to encourage them to continue following his teachings, and to point out some of the ways they might be slipping.  And the greatest possible problem he sees has to do with that sticky issue of authority and disunity – those traits that the world around them was encouraging.  So Paul decides to do what humans have done forever – he tells the Philippians a story – a story that can show them what sort of people they should be, a story that gives them a hero, a story that they know very well.

Paul recites a few verses – verses that we now believe were a part of one of the earliest hymns, songs, about Christ – verses that tell of Christ’s humility – how he was equal with God and still chose to become human… and not just any human, but a servant to all he met.  A human who ended up dying a harsh death on a cross, betrayed and rejected by all.  Through these verses Paul reminds the Philippians of what they already know – that Christ emptied himself of all of his status and power and chose instead to become a human in order that he could save humanity from itself.  Christ took on all that humanity had to offer – the good and the bad – so that humanity could take on all that God had to offer.  Paul didn’t just give the Philippians some dry lecture on how they should act – he showed them, gave them a character example through the life and work of Christ.  He reminded them of what they knew by heart – that even in the midst of any squabbles they might be having, Christ crucified was at the center of everything.  Christ crucified is the story that guides our every waking moment – both as individuals and as a community.

And underneath it all, Christ crucified tells us something amazingly profound about God.  Because these verses don’t end with Christ left on the cross, they don’t end with Christ laying in the tomb.  These verses end with Christ raised up – glorified – Lord of heaven and earth and everything under the earth – the entire cosmos recognizes Christ as victorious over death and ruler over everything, great and small, throughout the universe.  And God exalts Christ in this way because Christ crucified is what shows us the very way, the very essence, of God’s being.  Christ’s actions on this world did not contradict his divine nature – not at all!  They, instead, reveal it to it’s fullest!  God’s character, God’s very being is revealed in Christ’s actions – his actions of humility and selflessness and, ultimately, love for all of creation.

And the beautiful and frightening thing about this is that Paul tells the Philippians – Paul tells us – that we, we!, are to have the same mind that is in Christ.  We, who are most certainly only human, are to have the same mind -— the same thoughts, the same desires, the same character —- that is in Christ… that is in God!  We are meant to be the representatives of Christ in this world – and it’s a world that needs Christ so much.  Aside from all of the pain and suffering throughout the world, there are so many people who are seeking – something – in our own community.  I spoke of some who I’ve met earlier in the service, and we’ve all met people like them in our coworkers, friends, family – these are ordinary, every day people, who truly want to know, for whatever reason, at whatever level, what it means to be a Christian. 

And every word, every action, every look, that comes from us will be seen as a representation of Christ.  It’s a sobering and a humbling and really quite honor-ing thought.  Everything we say or do shows our character, and our characters are meant to be like Christ’s.  The story of Christ crucified points us to who we are called to be – both individually and as a community.

And a part of the good news is the very fact that we don’t have to rely on our own human selves to accomplish this – it would be impossible through our own will and actions to ever come close to having the same mind that is in Christ.  But instead, Paul reminds us here, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  We call this – this God working in us – the action of the Holy Spirit.  We call this God’s grace – God’s amazing grace.  God’s grace is what takes us, shapes us, changes us, opens our eyes to see the ways God is working in our lives and in our world.  God’s grace guides our actions, it molds us to work for God in the lives of others.  God’s grace shapes our very beings.  And God’s grace is never ending.

I was at a Bible Study last week and the question was posed – how much do you need God?  They told us to imagine some sort of line on the wall, with the worst person we could think of – maybe Adolf Hitler – on the bottom, and the best – maybe Mother Theresa – at the top.  And then they asked us to place ourselves on that line… we all fall somewhere on that spectrum, and some days are probably much better than others,  but the point is – regardless of sinner or saint, everyone on that line is in need of God’s grace.  Those at the top feel it just as strongly, if perhaps not more strongly, than those at the bottom. 

To put it another way:  I’ve been trying to go to the gym lately – it’s not really my thing, but I’d like to develop good habits – and one of the things that’s always held me back is that I just don’t feel ready to actually join a gym, or to go to a class – can you see me trying to do Zumba? But as one of the trainers pointed out when I got there, everyone here was once a beginner. The reason why people look so fit now is because they kept going.  And so even though I feel like an idiot trying to do the weight machines or trying to keep up in the ‘Core’ class, I’m trying to make myself go.  Because if I wait to miraculously improve on my own it’ll never happen.  I need that training that comes through example and experience.  And even when I get to the point of trying the Zumba class or the cycling class – I’ll never be finished.  I’ll have to keep on training my body for as long as I live.

And that whole experience of joining a gym is very similar to what many of us feel as Christians, or what many of our brothers and sisters in the world who aren’t here feel – that we’re not good enough to come.  That we’re not at that level  yet where we’ll fit in enough to really participate.  That we’ll just need to wait until our lives are a bit better before we start our training.  But the thing is, everyone on that spectrum needs that training that is God’s grace – Mother Theresa needed it just as much as Hitler.  We need it just as much as our parents, as our children, as our pastors, as our worst enemy. 

So how do we go about finding this grace? 

Well, the good news is that we’ve already got it!  God is already working in us, whether we can see it or not, God is already present in and around us.  And it is Christ crucified who brought that to us – Christ crucified showed us the extent of God’s love.  There’s an old song that says, Oh how I love Jesus, Oh how I love Jesus… because he first loved me.  Christ’s love is not only an example to be followed, but it is the very reason why we seek to follow him. 

Why do we love heroes?  Because they show us a nobility and a wisdom and a selflessness that we all wish we could have – that we all long to have.  Why do we love Christ? Because he shows us that divine character that we are all called to have.  And the very thing that enables us to follow him – when Christ’s love – grace – lives within us, shapes us, we are given the ability to love as Christ loved, to have that mind that is in Christ.

And so we tend to think – well what do I do now?  What actions can I take to get me closer to Christ?  But I don’t know that those are really the right questions at all.  While actions are important, ultimately our actions come from our character – our very being.  It’s not just about what would Jesus do?  It’s more about what would Jesus be?  And that question comes to each one of us in a different way.  That question is something that we each need to pray about individually.  What is God saying to you in this passage?  What does the life of Christ mean to you?  What does the death of Christ mean to you?  What sort of person is God calling you to be? 

Heavy questions at the end of a pretty heavy sermon… But these questions are not meant to condemn or to criticize – far from it!  These questions, questions we will all be trying to answer for as long as we live, are meant to encourage us.  Regardless of where we are on that spectrum, we should all be constantly seeking to listen to what God wants for us – for who God wants us to be.  And we can all be assured that God’s grace is what will get us there.  God’s grace is what will allow each and every one of us to live as representatives of Christ in this world.

I believe we each have a calling placed on our lives. A purpose, a direction, a vocation we are meant to live out. Each person’s passions and gifts will be different, but underneath all of our individual goals and aspirations is the one underlying reason of our being, the one thing that shapes our character to be more like Christ.  We are all called to live for God. To live for each other. To know ourselves as children of God, as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all called, regardless of our differences, to love one another. Love is at the center of all that God is and of all that we are meant to be.  Christ’s own character has proven that to us.  And Christ’s love is what gives us the grace to find our own way of being. 

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Posted by: KBH | August 26, 2014

Growing Like Weeds

Once upon a time there was a pig named Wilbur. And unfortunately for Wilbur he was a pig. And being a pig meant that one day someone was going to want to turn him into bacon. Well, Wilbur lived on a farm, and he had a lot of animal friends. One day, when he was starting to get really worried, he heard someone tell him not to worry. And the next morning he saw that, above his head in the doorway of the barn, there was a huge spider web with the words, Some Pig, on it! The farmer was amazed and started to have second thoughts about turning Wilbur into bacon. Every night, the spider who owned the web – Charlotte, would spin a new web with new words to describe Wilbur – ‘terrific,’ ‘radiant,’ ‘humble’. Even though she was one of the smallest animals on the farm, it was her work – night after night, that saved Wilbur’s life.

Most of us have probably read or seen the movie about Charlotte’s Web, and today I want to talk today about another story that’s a bit like it – Jesus’ parable about the mustard seed. A parable, first off, is more than just a fable or little story that tells an obvious lesson. A parable is meant to make us think. It’s meant to help us understand some of the mysteries of God one little bit at a time. Parables are more complex than they may first appear, and you can return to them again and again and always learn something new – like rereading your favorite book, or rewatching that wonderful movie. Though this parable is pretty short, it gives us a few different lessons about the kingdom of God, which is itself a pretty mysterious concept.

When we hear that phrase, ‘the kingdom of God,’ we sometimes think that Jesus is talking about heaven – that he’s talking about what things will look like after we die. While that’s true, it’s not the whole story. Jesus is also talking about the way things should look on earth, both now and in the future. Every Sunday, we pray for God’s kingdom to come on Earth as it is in heaven in the Lord’s Prayer, and God has given each of us, along with the entire Church, the job of helping to work toward that future.

So back to this parable of the mustard seed: First off is the most straight forward lesson: the kingdom of God can grow from the tiniest of seeds into a plant large enough to provide a home for the birds. This is one of God’s trademarks – a sort of Cinderella story that has played out time and time again: the nation of Israel grew from the faith of just one man, Abraham; David, though he was the youngest of his brothers, became Israel’s greatest king; Jesus’ disciples were all ordinary working men who had no special religious training, and yet he chose them to be the foundation of his Church; the Church itself has spread out from a handful of followers to a movement that has shaped nations. The Church, which now has too many members to count, didn’t start out in large stadiums packed with people, or in large auditoriums with standing room only, or even in full synagogues. The Church started out as a group of friends gathering together to share a meal, join in study, and to worship God. And that’s how the church has continued, starting small, growing just one person at a time, one relationship at a time. And I think that’s how God likes to do things – God uses small, humble beginnings to prove that it is divine, and not our own human, power that is responsible for the miraculous growth.

There’s also another layer to this parable: if Jesus had simply wanted to talk about God’s power to make the small great he could have used any number of seed varieties as his example – any tree would do. In fact, the Old Testament – the scriptures Jesus’ listeners would have known well – contains many references which compare Israel and other nations to majestic trees – I mentioned the Psalm a few weeks ago which talked about becoming like a fruitful tree planted by the water. And there are passages that compare God’s people to trees like the Cedar, which provide shelter for the birds and animals in their shade. So why, out of all of his options, did Jesus choose to use the mustard seed?

I didn’t know this until a few years ago, but the mustard plant in Israel is a far cry from a majestic tree. It’s actually more like a really large weed – I’ve heard it described as being a lot like all of the kudzu that grows throughout the south. The mustard weed is the sort of plant that likes to invade a farmer’s fields, choking out his crops and spreading like wildfire. The birds of the air do nest in its branches, but they’re not particularly wanted by the farmer either. In fact, the birds are drawn to the mustard plant because of its seeds, which they eat, and then they in turn spread more seeds as they fly over the land. Mustard plants bring birds which spread more plants which bring more birds. It’s a never-ending cycle. It’s all the farmer can do to try and keep the seeds from taking root in his fields – once they have, they become harder and harder to remove the more they grow and the deeper rooted they become.

Jesus was teaching a crowd that was used to hearing the future of Israel compared to a mighty tree, sort of the equivalent of our Giant Sequoia – and he gave them the kudzu-like mustard weed instead. There’s too big of a difference for that to not be significant! Jesus is making the point that the kingdom of God is not necessarily something that’s physically grand and majestic – instead it’s small and humble, but with the power to spread out and take over all that has come before it. It doesn’t work by force, but by obstinate persistence. People do recognize that it’s useful: mustard is a spice and can be used for medicine, after all, but people want to keep it isolated, away from their nice, orderly rows of crops. But the kingdom of God can’t be contained. When the seeds are scattered they grow where they fall, and the kingdom doesn’t care if it disrupts and takes over the orderly life it falls onto. The kingdom of God attracts people from all walks of life: the birds of the air, some of whom we may not be all that excited to see, but they are the ones who will take the seeds and spread them to new and unexpected places.

Jesus wants us to recognize that the kingdom of God is not something we can control. It’s not a nice neat sapling we can grow and trim to fit our needs. Instead, the kingdom exists to overturn our expectations, to take over our safe, ordinary lives and to transform us bit by bit into the kind of people who can go out and spread the seeds in our homes, our towns, our nations, and our world. The kingdom of God tends to start small – from humble beginnings, in places and from people we wouldn’t expect. What’s more, the kingdom of God is persistent. It’s messy, noisy, disliked, irritating, unstoppable – sometimes we may not understand it or particularly want it around, but God’s kingdom will flourish wherever it lands, and we have to be willing to accept that and even embrace it, regardless of how it may threaten to change our normal routines.

And though the mustard plant is invasive and persistent – even though it does take over everything, it’s always important to remember that it does start small. And that’s how Christianity has always grown best – starting small. The disciples we read about in Acts certainly didn’t start out as kings and conquerors. In fact, many would say that the grander Christians became in society the more they lost their sense of Christ’s original purpose of sharing the good news. Instead, though, the disciples and apostles started out small. They gathered together after Jesus’ death and resurrection, meeting in an upper room with one another to share a meal, to talk about the things they had witnessed, to worship God. From their small circle they felt compelled to share the good news of Christ with others – they planted those small seeds that would eventually reach throughout the earth.

Our Methodist tradition also started very small – with one group of friends, students and professors at Oxford, meeting to talk about what it looked like to follow God. Meeting with other people, sharing their stories, sharing their ideas – they formed such a connection that they couldn’t help but want to start other similar groups wherever they went. Over time, the Methodist structure developed, and one thing that made it distinct was that they required everyone – everyone – to be a part of a small group. They felt that everyone needed to have that group where they could meet with one another, to join in fellowship and study, and to hold each other accountable to growing in their relationship with God and with their neighbor. Those small groups became the seeds that started the growth of thousands of churches across the world.

Starting small and being persistent. Those are two of the qualities that make the kingdom of God so powerful. But underneath both of those are the relationships that we have with God and with one another – those are the roots that those tiny seeds plant and those are things that make us strong.

We are each called to live as constant reminders to the world of the hope we have in God’s love and in the bright future God has promised us. The kingdom of God is like that spider diligently spinning her web because she loves the pig she wants to save. It’s like kudzu, or a mustard plant, slowly and persistently working its way into the soil, molding the shape of the land – taking over every aspect of our lives and growing our desire to live for God and for one another. Enabling and encouraging us to spread God’s kingdom across the world. So let us all try to live like mustard seeds – working in small but persistent ways to develop our relationship with God, to spread Christ’s love with one another, and to share the kingdom of God with everyone we meet.

Kuzdu

 

Posted by: KBH | August 12, 2014

Thirsty?

My sermon from last Sunday.  Scriptures are Psalm 1 and John 7:37-39.

Imagine:  It’s a warm, but not too warm, spring day – one of the first truly warm days of the year.  You decide to go for a walk along one of your favorite paths.  You head down the bank toward the river – as you get closer to the water, the trees close in around you – lush, thick, green, beside you, and above you the leaves rustle in the breeze.  The smell is rich and earthy, with the sweet scent of daffodils and azaleas and the tangy odor of wild onions growing under the trees.  As you walk, the water keeps you company, always beside you, rippling, flowing.  Birds sing around you, ducks swim by the bank, turtles sun themselves on rocks by the water’s edge, the occasional boat full of laughing people rows by.  All of creation seems to be alive and at peace – fed by this ever-flowing stream – this water that brings life and growth and happiness.

That’s the picture I see in my head when I read the first psalm – ‘Happy are those… whose delight is in the law of the Lord.  They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.’  ..  They are lush and fertile and alive.  They are rooted and drink deep of the refreshing waters.  They provide shade for birds, and squirrels, and humans.  They provide fruit for the delight of all creatures.  This psalm gives us a beautiful image of what life can be like for the people of God, for us – if we do one thing. 

It tells us that the people who are like these trees, the people who are truly happy, are those people who ‘delight in the law of the Lord, who meditate on God’s law day and night.’  Now, I don’t know about you, but when I first read that I thought, gee, that sounds horribly boring. Why would I want to meditate on a list of rules?  What’s so exciting about the law?  But looking into this a bit deeper clarifies some things.  First, the word ‘law’ doesn’t really just mean the rules and regulations – the word comes from the Hebrew ‘Torah’ and it means all of God’s instructions and teachings.  Basically, this person loves to study and to delight in learning about what God has to say.  And that’s the second thing – to meditate, to delight, means just that – to truly find happiness.  This person doesn’t just read or study Scripture out of a sense of obligation, it’s something they truly love to do.  And that still sounds kind of difficult, if you ask me.  It’s great to say that we’re supposed to delight in all of this reading and meditating, but, if you’re not an academic, then how is that supposed to even remotely sound appealing?

I’ve heard it explained a different way.  Have you ever had a major crush on someone?  Most of us have… It’s a pretty standard high school (and even later) experience…  There’s this great thing that happens when you’re really interested in someone else but you just don’t know how they feel about you… you start to pay attention.  You start to analyze every little thing – every time you see them, ‘were they looking at me?’ Every time you hear from them, ‘Was there a special tone in their voice?’ Every letter or text, ‘What does that message, that phrase, that word mean?’  And then, oh when you know that they really do want to be with you as much as you want to be with them – ah well, that’s when love begins, and every time you communicate you wish it would never end.  You crave those moments, those phone calls, those letters from your beloved, and your delight is in them.  Your delight is in the one you love and everything that reminds you of them fills you with joy.   

Basically, this psalm, this beautiful image of a tree flourishing next to a flowing river, is what our life is like when we delight in God – when we’re so in love with God that God becomes our only focus. 

It’s no coincidence that, in our second reading, Christ offers his followers the gift of living water – flowing, fresh, water that gives life.  That water is the Holy Spirit – God who comes to each one of us, flowing through our lives, changing us, wearing away our rough edges, refreshing us, quenching our thirst.  And like physical water, the more we drink the more we thirst for it; as we become more and more accustomed to recognizing the flow of the Holy Spirit, the more we seek out that relationship with God.  And that relationship with God becomes our roots, always seeking to go deeper, anchoring us to give us strength when the storms come. 

  So how do we actually grow those roots?  Well we can’t root ourselves – we don’t plant ourselves by those streams.  But roots grow towards water, and the stronger our relationship with God, the more time we spend with God, listening to the Holy Spirit, the stronger our roots will become.  John Wesley had some basic rules that he asked all of the early Methodists to follow: 1) Do no harm. 2) Do good. 3) Stay in love with God.  Now the first two are pretty self-explanatory, but the third is interesting – stay in love with God?  That goes right back to that earlier question – how do we do that?  Well, that phrase, ‘stay in love with God,’ is actually a more recent interpretation of what Wesley actually said – his rule was to ‘tend to the ordinances of God.’ You see why the new interpretation was needed.  What he meant by that was that we should all, in addition to doing no harm and doing good, also devote ourselves to things like worshiping God, studying the Scriptures, taking Communion, prayer, fasting, and other things we call spiritual disciplines. 

Most of you know that I have a dog, Loki, who I spoil more than I should.  Whenever we come inside from playing or taking a long walk, Loki is always so geared up – he’ll either rush to his toys to continue playing or he’ll roll around on the floor or he’ll just collapse on the tiles to try and cool off.  In this heat, I’m always worried he’s going to get overheated, but he never seems to want to go drink his water, even though I know he must be thirsty.  And so I noticed one day, when he was just panting and having a hard time cooling off, that when I asked him, ‘Loki, do you want some water? Why don’t you go drink your water?’ he sort of remembered that oh yeah, he was thirsty!  He got up and went and drank half a bowl – it just took some reminding that the water was there and that he really did want to drink it.  He got so distracted by everything else that he didn’t even think about what he really needed. 

I think we have a similar problem.  We get so distracted by everything going on in our lives, by the habits and practices we’ve always had, that we forget that we’re thirsty.  We forget that we need to be planted by that flowing stream, that we need to be filled with God’s Spirit, in order to be who we are meant to be.  And it’s absolutely essential that we spend time doing these things – praying, studying Scripture, spending time discussing and reflecting on God with others.  We need those things to be replenished and to grow.  To be happy is to find our delight in meditating on God’s law day and night – to be happy is to find our source of refreshment in God’s living water. 

Psalm One doesn’t stop by talking about the happiness of those who delight in God – it also shows us the other side of the coin.  It describes the others, what life is like without God.  It paints a picture of those who are dry – not drinking God’s water, not rooted.  Blown around by all the winds of persuasion in the world, following the wicked, the sinners, going further and further from God in all of their distraction.  Becoming lost, like chaff blown in the wind.

We all go through dry periods – periods when we lose sight of God.  Days, weeks, even months or years of doubt and uncertainty, when our lives seemed ruled by anxiety, grief, and stress.  But even in those times it’s important to remember, to know, that God’s stream hasn’t dried up at all!  Even though life sometimes seems to get in the way, God still wants us to be rooted, to fill ourselves with that water.

And that’s where those spiritual disciplines – those habits – come in.  Prayer, study, fasting, meditation, worship – they exist for a reason.  They help us to grow closer to God and to remember that God’s well never runs dry.  They help us to wash away the bad habits of the past, to get rid of the stale moldy water we’ve been relying on, and to become refreshed – to begin to grow our roots deep.

Part of what makes the church the church is that it is a space and a people where we can find God.  Where anyone can come and feel as though they too can be planted by God’s flowing stream.  It’s not just about the programs and the activities, though those are helpful, it’s about being a place and a people where God can so fill us with the Holy Spirit that we can’t help but to share that overflow with others – individually, as a community, throughout the world.  We should have such a relationship with God that we delight in every small taste, every sip, of God’s goodness.  We should be so in love with God that we can’t wait to learn more, to spend more time with God.  And building that kind of relationship takes time and commitment.  Even the great Angel Oak on John’s Island started out as a tiny acorn – but now everyone who sees it marvels at its strength!

And the wonderful thing, the good news, is that God wants to have that relationship with us.  God wants to be present with us, each one of us.  We know this because of the love Christ showed to each of us when he chose to die on the cross for us, even without having our love in return.  God loves each one of us and seeks us out – individually – and works to draw us, to root us, deeper and deeper into a relationship where we can be constantly refreshed by God’s living water.

I want to challenge each person here – regardless of who you are and what you think your relationship with God might look like right now – I challenge you to begin doing one more thing in your daily life, to starting one more practice, that will lead you closer to God.  It may be through joining a Sunday School Class or a Small Group, it may be through getting together with some of your friends or coworkers in a regular time of prayer, it may be through reading the Bible together as a family, it may be through setting aside 10, 15, 30 minutes a day to spend alone with God.  It may simply be taking the time to pray, right now, for God to work within you.  For God to plant you next to that flowing stream.  For your spiritual life to become lush, green, fertile. For you to become like a tree planted by streams of living water – water that is, at its source, God’s love.  A love that fills us to overflowing and makes us bear fruit – that enables us to share that love with the world. 

That stream of God’s love is always flowing through our lives.  Whether it’s on the surface or feels like it’s buried miles underground, it’s there. God wants us to be planted near that stream – God wants us to find our strength from it, to be filled with the sweetness of it, to overflow. God wants us to thirst for that relationship. And God wants us to share that love, that delight we have found, with all the world.

River Wear in Durham, UK

Posted by: KBH | July 24, 2014

Moving…

I’ve been on James Island for about a month now – just enough time to have gotten over the initial moving and unpacking rush and to start settling into my new life here in Charleston, SC.  I’m also starting to settle into my new anxieties – the protection of the initial busy-ness is starting to wear thin, and those little worries are starting to poke their heads through:  Will I make new friends here?  Will my dog be ok in this new apartment?  Will I ever be able to make it onto the James Island Expressway without using a GPS?

What have I gotten myself into??

My morning devotional the other day was on Matthew 10:7-15, where Jesus tells the 12 disciples to go out into the world proclaiming the good news.  He tells them not to take anything with them – no money, no extra clothes, no food – nothing.  The disciples are supposed to rely on the hospitality of those they meet and are to trust that God will provide for them wherever they may end up.  Thinking about this passage got me to thinking about my own situation – like the disciples, I’m in a new place.  Like them, I’m here not knowing exactly how things will turn out, or even what direction my path in ministry will exactly follow.  Like them, I need to trust in the hospitality and friendship of those I meet along the way and expect that God will be present through every new situation – turning all things to work for the growth of God’s ministry. 

Thinking about where I am now, and all of my worries, has got me remembering the other times in my life when I’ve jumped (or been thrown) into a new situation.  In every situation, regardless of how dark the path seemed ahead of me, and even when I couldn’t see it in the moment, I’ve never been left alone.  Last summer in particular made me extremely aware of just how much I could truly depend on other people – the ridiculous generosity of my friends, and of people I barely knew, proved to be a saving grace for me.  Their hospitality shines out in my memory obscuring all else. 

Thankfully, I’ve already received an amazingly warm welcome from everyone I’ve met here.  I can trust that being in this new place will be a positive experience, not only because of the evidence I’ve already seen here, but also because of the evidence I have from looking at the ways people have helped me through past experiences. 

One thing that’s really great about Jesus’ instructions to the disciples, though, is that he doesn’t guarantee that they’ll find such hospitality.  He doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be welcomed or even tolerated – and we know that that’s often been the case in Christian history.  What he does tell them, though, is that they shouldn’t let that bother them.  If they aren’t welcomed, if they can’t seem to make headway in trying to tell people the good news, they should just ‘shake it off’ (literally) and keep on going.  Jesus doesn’t promise us instant success or that we’ll be guaranteed an enthusiastic welcome.  But he does promise that God will always be with us – even when trying to navigate the ridiculously confusing streets of downtown Charleston. 

Posted by: KBH | July 12, 2014

“Tell Me a Story”

As a part of this blog, I’ll be posting the texts of the sermons I write.  This is my first one at Bethany, given June 29, 2014.

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I have a box buried somewhere in all of my things that contains all of the little treasures I’ve accumulated over the years – a memory box.  And every time I prepare to move to a new place, I inevitably find myself rummaging through that box, sorting through the old ticket stubs and museum pamphlets, faded exam books, notes passed behind the teacher’s back, letters from pen pals long forgotten, the occasional certificate of some accomplishment.  But my favorite things, the things I save till last and then spend hours reading, are my old journals.  Now, I was actually pretty bad at keeping journals when I was a kid, but I do have several that I started and kept, however briefly, over the years, and re-reading them is everything from hilarious to kind of sobering.  The excitement of going to Disney world, the horror of missing school (I was one of those kids), that first unrequited love that so clearly meant my life was over, those special events when I was sure I’d hit the high point of life and everything would be downhill from there.  It’s amazing the sorts of things you forget, the people and places that once had such a huge meaning, the joys and the trials that just fade over time.  And yet reading those journals again showed me just how much of an impact those childhood, and some of the more grown up, dramas and excitements had on my life.  Seeing those records from long ago helped me remember where I’d come from.

My story has been constantly shaped by the people I’ve met and learned from over the years.   I remember, as a child, going to my grandmama’s house to stay for the weekend.  And she would always take me with her to church on Sundays.  Now I was an extremely shy child and could not be talked into going to the Sunday School class with the kids my own age, since I didn’t know any of them, so my grandmama would take me with her to her class.  And I still remember sitting around the table with those ladies, treated like one of them, as they talked about whatever scripture lesson was being taught that day, and shared their own life experiences and how those experiences related to what they were learning about God.  And as we left church, my grandmama would tell me about each of her friends in that class – I could see just how much that community meant to her, and I knew that she prayed for each person there and that they each prayed for her.

When I got older, I drifted away from church for a while, but found it again when I went to university – I almost stumbled into campus ministry, and the years I spent there changed my life.  It wasn’t the bible studies or the sermons that did it, though they were important, it was the people.  It was being welcomed into a community where I could learn, where I could ask questions and talk about my faith, where I was gently (and sometimes not so gently) encouraged to take on leadership roles.   Those years helped me to see my relationship with God as something that didn’t just have an impact on my own individual life, but as something that would connect me with others – through mission or church groups or just talking with friends in coffee shops.  And when I saw some of my friends choosing to go into ministry, I started to wonder if that might be a calling placed on my own life.

In the five years since accepting that calling, I’ve been amazed at the number of people who’ve entered my life to teach me and help me grow in my faith.  And these aren’t just professors and mentors, though I’ve had many of those, but people who’ve just come up to me and said something profound in a moment when I most needed to hear it, or friends who’ve been such shining examples of hospitality or love or faith that I couldn’t help but start to want to grow in those areas myself.  And then there are those people who’ve put me in really hard places – people who’ve challenged me: intellectually, spiritually, emotionally.  And I wonder if those people, the ones I’d sometimes think I might have been better off without, I wonder if those people are the ones who’ve caused me to grow the most.  Because I’ve learned most strongly through the years that God works through every part of my life, the good, uplifting parts and the bad parts that make me want to run away and never look back.  Over the years I’ve come to the realization that, while I’ve found my relationships with other people to be the most significant part of my story, it’s the shape that all of those individual interactions taken together that has changed me the most.  I’ve come to see the ways in which God – the Holy Spirit – has worked through those people and through my experiences to help me grow in my own faith and understanding.  How God has used every part of my life, from the time I was small to now, to help shape me to be the person I am today.

I’ve kept a more legit journal for the past five years or so, one that I reread quite often.  There’s something about seeing how much I’ve changed, about seeing the way my story has progressed over even such a short period of time, that I find really comforting.  It’s like being reminded of how I’ve made it through past anxieties and setbacks can somehow change the way I think about the present. And about the future.  I can see when I read back over that journal, over my story, how the ‘plot line’, so to speak, has developed.  Seeing where I’ve come from can help me understand where I am now and where I’m hoping to go.

Our scripture passages today both talk about another story, the story of the history of the Israelites, who were God’s chosen people.  The passage from Acts gives us a sort of highlights reel of the Israelites’ story, full of individual moments and people – some good, some bad, some momentous, some seemingly insignificant.  Many of us, like many of those people Paul is talking to, grew up learning those individual stories – the story of Abraham, the story of Moses, the story of David.  And yet, if you listen to what Paul is saying as he lists them all in one go, it’s not really any of their stories at all, is it?  Because he says, “The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors…”, God gave them their land, God made David their king.  And God is the one who chose to send a savior – Jesus who is God.  The story of the people of Israel, one that includes hundreds of years of ups and downs, thousands of lives spent in service to and in rebellion from God, that story is God’s story. 

The other day I was reading that monologue by Shakespeare,

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts”

You know how it goes.  And I saw this cute picture on Pinterest that said, “If all the world’s a stage, then God must be the stage manager.”  And I think there’s something to that metaphor, but it’s more than that – God isn’t just the stage manager or the director or even the playwright, God is the main character through and through.  All the rest of us, all the rest of people through history, with all of our own individual stories, we’re really just like extras compared to God’s major plot line.  God who creates, God who redeems, God who sustains:  God who acts.

And there’s something hard in thinking of life, of history, that way, because it means that our individual lives, all of our daily/monthly/yearly struggles – they’re so small in comparison with God, in comparison with what God has been working to do since the dawn of time.  And yet there’s also something amazingly comforting about knowing that this – that everything that ever was and is and will be – is all a part of God’s story.  And it’s knowing that we, that each and every one of us has a place in that story.  Our individual stories do hold importance – not only for our own lives, but because we are all connected through God’s working in us.  Just as God acted in the lives of Abraham, Moses, David, the apostles, God is continuing to act in our lives.  And a part of our task is to recognize that, to recognize the importance of sharing our story, of sharing God’s story with those around us, of helping others to understand their own place in God’s story. 

The Psalm this morning talks about the importance of teaching – of teaching the future generations what God has done in the past.  And “future generations” doesn’t just mean children – by no means are these only children’s stories!  In Acts, Paul is speaking to both Jews as well as Gentiles – Paul is sharing the story of Israel, God’s story, with everyone he meets, regardless of whether they’ve heard it before or not.  And the wonderful thing is that, by telling the story, Paul is allowing those people who have never heard it, all those people who aren’t literally descended from Abraham, to become a part of Israel’s story – to understand that they too are a part of God’s story.  It’s through sharing that story as it was initially shared to us, through our relationships with other people – all a part of the same story – that we move that story along.  It’s about recognizing the ways that God moves in each of our lives and then taking that movement and using it to propel our own actions and interactions in everything we do.

Think for a moment of your own story.  Think of those people and events – those moments – that have shaped your life, have brought you to become the person you are today.  Whether good or bad, can you see the work of the Holy Spirit in them?  Do you have hopes for how God might work through them even now? 

This church, this community, it also has a story.  It has a history made up of the relationships, the events, the moments that have taken place here.  Each of those things, great and small, are connected into God’s grand story.  My hope is that we can all listen to the ways in which God has worked through the story of this place, and through our own individual stories, and so let God guide us into the future.  My hope is that we can help each other to listen for that story – that we can take a step back from our own side stories and allow God to take center stage.    

One of the wonderful things about Christianity is that we’ve been told how the story will end – and it’s a very happy ending!  That ending is what gives us faith and hope.  And all of our individual hopes are built up by the faith and the encouragement and the hopes of others – something we can in turn share to those around us.  Think of your own hopes for your life, for this church, for this community, this world.  How can we take those hopes and show them to not just be a part of something small and intimate, which of course they are, but a part of something much greater?  Let us look to the future, seeing our roles as secondary to God’s, who is the main character in an epic story that stretches across time and space, connecting all of us and making us all sharers in that great hope of salvation in Jesus Christ.

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