Monday, October 15, 2018

10-14-18 “WHY Me? WHY Now?”

10-14-18  “WHY Me? WHY Now?”

   In this series we’ve been exploring the question WHY; WHY do we do the things we do, as individuals and as the church? And using Simon Sinek’s concept of the Golden Circle, we began with Jesus’ WHY, as described in Luke 4, where he said,  
 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.

   WHY did Jesus do the things he did? Because The Spirit of the Lord was upon him; the Lord had anointed him. That’s his WHY, his vision statement. 
His mission, HOW he lived into that vision, was described in the verses that followed: 
[He came] to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

The details then - the WHAT that flowed from the WHY and the HOW - reveal that Jesus did most of that preaching, proclaiming, and liberating while either eating with or healing people. Those two activities consumed the biggest part of Jesus’ ministry.
   So as we next sought to understand the WHY, HOW, and WHAT of the church at large, we found the WHY expressed in Jesus’ Great Commandment - to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves; the HOW in the Great Commission - to go and make disciples in all the world; and the WHAT from Luke’s gospel that we’re to be as extravagantly generous, or as prodigal, with others as God is with us, and that we do that, as Jesus described in Matthew 25 when, as he put it,
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

   The larger church’s vision and mission, then, are congruent with, flow naturally from those of Jesus Christ, as we would expect. So it follows that The United Methodist Church, as a denomination, has a Vision Statement as well: To Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World. A disciple is a follower, one who strives to be Christ-like in how they live their life, seeking to do what Jesus did. Why? For the transformation of the world. And is there any doubt that the world needs to be transformed? 

   And as we shared last week, Crossroads also has a Vision and Mission statement. Our Vision Statement reflects the vision of our denomination as our WHY, then follows with our Mission Statement that describes our WHAT. And as I reminded you last week, you’ll find this printed on the top of page 3 of our Worship Folder every week. Let’s read it together again this week:
Our Mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, by feeding all God’s children - body, mind, and soul.”

   You can see that the first part is the same as that of our denomination - which makes sense. It is congruent with, flows naturally from that of the denomination, which flows from that of the church universal, which flows from that of Jesus himself. As disciples our vision, our mission, our calling must be 
in alignment with our Source, which is Jesus Christ. So our missions, our ministries, and our outreach must flow from Jesus Christ as well.
   The second part is our Mission statement and it describes our HOW: by feeding all God’s children - body, mind, and soul. That’s how we feel we are called to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation world; by feeding the bodies, minds, and souls of all the people God sends our way. In order to be true to our WHY, the HOW and WHAT must be consistent with it - they must flow from the WHY. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Now, the word “buy” suggests something like a business transaction, which is unfortunate, because the church is not a business. People may consume religious goods and services, some people may be consumers of the ministries we provide, but if they don’t understand WHY we do what we do, it’s unlikely that they will ever become disciples who share in the transformation of the world that we are called to help bring about. And the same can be said for us.

   So what does this look like for us? Well, since healing and feeding were Jesus’ two primary actions, it makes sense that they should be priorities for us as well. 
Last week we talked a little about the eating and feeding part as we shared together in communion, not only with one another, but with millions of our sisters and brothers in Christ around the globe on World Communion Sunday. And I shared with you that, beginning in November, we would launch a new dinner table worship based on the dinner table ministry of Jesus, resurrected from our former Community Meal, called “Dinner With Friends at Crossroads Cafe.” And unlike the community meal, the focus of which was feeding bodies, Dinner With Friends seeks to holistically feed body, mind, and soul by reimagining the dinner table ministry of Jesus and the early church in our own time and for our own community. 

As I shared with you last week, 70+% of people in the U.S. and our community hold a secular worldview with no spiritual or religious faith upon which to build or guide their lives, often leaving them feeling lost in the larger world. Jesus’ WHAT - to go and make disciples - is intended to seek out the lost and surround them with the healing love of Christ. That is what we hope to do through this new thing. But that’s not all we’re doing, because that only addresses part of the equation.

   A few weeks ago we invited you to participate in a Congregational Health Survey. Understanding that we are to be part of Jesus’ ministry of healing as well feeding, we began to explore what that might look like for us; that survey was the first step. The health issues, concerns, and interests that you shared as being part of your daily living are also reflected more broadly in our community and society. We invited our friends from Ohio Health, our United Methodist affiliated hospital system, to help us explore what a health ministry here at Crossroads might look like.
   And while it is certainly our desire to address your needs as you outlined them in the surveys, we are also called to be a healing presence in the community. 
And there are two different tracks we could pursue in a health ministry. The first looks at what new things we might do to make a positive impact on the health of our congregation and our community. Providing regular blood pressure screenings was one of the first things that came to mind. To that end, we’re pursuing donations of blood pressure cuffs. Many of you expressed an interest in either exercise, yoga, or tai chi classes. So one of our friends from Ohio Health is reaching out on our behalf to try to find someone who could do that for us. 
   Another new thing, that would be fairly easy for us to do, would be to lay out a measured walking track around our grounds and encourage people to become more active by taking walks around our grounds and tracking their steps. So there are three new things we’re initially looking into. The second track would be to explore how we might do some of the things we already do in new, healthier ways. For example, at our worship planning retreat a couple of weeks ago, instead of just providing donuts, we also provided fruit. And wouldn’t you know - the fruit was more readily consumed than were the donuts. So what if we looked at what we feed ourselves when we have gatherings like that, or potlucks, and provided some healthier alternatives? What if as part of our food pantry, or as a teaching time to follow our Dinner with Friends, we offered classes on healthy cooking, managing diabetes, or making healthy food choices at the grocery or pantry? These are all easy little adjustments we can make that can go a long way toward bringing healing and wellness to our congregation and our community. But that said, we’re also working on one big project right now as well. 

   By a show of hands, how many of you or someone in your family, has a history of heart disease, or other cardiovascular issues? Between those of us here today who have raised our hands and those who use our building throughout the week: Kiwanis, AA, Al-Anon, the Ukrainian congregation and others, we have many, many people in our building each and every week who are susceptible to heart attack. With that in mind, we are pursuing a grant, and will be doing some fund-raising as well, in order to obtain an Automatic Electronic Defibrillator for the church in case of cardio emergency and to train people in its use. The time required for an EMT squad to arrive once 9-1-1 is called could be too long; we want to be able to act as quickly and as completely as possible.
  Now, it may seem like an awkward pairing for you, but having shared with you last week about our new Dinner Church ministry, and this week about our new Health ministry, at the end of worship today we’re going to ask you to prayerfully make your financial commitments for next year to support these and the other ministries we provide here at Crossroads. But in fact, it’s not as awkward a pairing as you may think, because our giving to the church is not so much a financial issue as it is a faith issue, a spiritual issue. God has provided everything we need - maybe not everything we WANT, but everything we NEED. 
God’s is an economy of abundance, not of scarcity. 
   A few recent examples to back that up. I shared with you a few weeks ago how the new sign out front came about. The sign, the money needed for the sign, all just kind of dropped into our laps without any budgeted funds having to be used. That is surely a literal sign of God’s abundance and blessing, is it not?
  The new GaGa Ball pit we dedicated last week - a gift from God that grew out of our ongoing relationship with and support for the Scouting ministry here. 
The playground in which it is located is the gift of another Eagle Scout project from years ago. A sign of God’s ongoing abundance.
   That AED I told you about earlier? We’re working on obtaining a grant and will be doing some fund raising to help cover the cost of that, but a church member approached me with a pledge of $500 toward the cost if the grant doesn’t come through or doesn’t cover it all.
   And after I shared with you about the renewal leave I’m taking in January and February to address my own spiritual health, yet another member stepped up and graciously provided the funding needed so that neither the church nor I were financially encumbered. These are all living and breathing signs of the abundance God shows us when we just show a little faith.

   Healing isn’t just about physical health and wellness, though. Our mental, emotional, and spiritual health is also vulnerable. Sometimes that from which we need healing are not the things that a prescription can clear up or therapy can resolve. Anger, fear, alienation, awkwardness, addiction, faithlessness, judgmentalism, greed, and Sin all require something other than the latest pharmaceutical we see advertised on TV or watching a few episodes of Doctor Phil in our pj’s while downing a pint of ice cream. Spiritual healing often begins with a decision - a decision to take our spiritual dis-ease to God. It is in the moment in which we confess our own powerlessness - not an easy thing to do - and choose to trust in and rely on God, that healing often begins. But that can be a hard first step to take.

  The Epistle of James, in the New Testament advises this,
If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve. (James 5:14-16, CEB)

   We all have that thing that eats at our Spirit in the same way a cancer eats at our body. We may not want to admit it out loud, but we know it’s there, God knows it’s there - we hear it in our words, we see it in our actions, we give it life and power in our feelings and our attitudes. Something unhealthy, maybe big or perhaps small, is gnawing at our souls.  So today, near the end of our service, as we come forward to make our financial commitments before God for next year, there will be an opportunity for you receive an anointing with oil, a blessing from God through the presence of the Holy Spirit, for whatever it is that keeps you from fully trusting in God, for healing from whatever is chewing on your soul, or whatever seems to be holding you back from experiencing the blessing and abundance that God wants you to know as a beloved child of God.

  Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (which, by the way, includes our own transformation) by feeding ALL God’s children - body, mind, and soul. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable unto you, O God, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

10-7-18 “WHY THE CHURCH”

   Do you ever get lost?  If it weren’t for the GPS in my phone I might be lost all the time. Unlike some people, I have no natural sense of direction. Most times I couldn’t tell you north from south, east from west, and odds are if I tried, I would be exactly 180 degrees wrong. It’s just how I am. 
   Growing up in Madison, IN on the Ohio River, you just always had an innate sense of where the river was - it was a natural and obvious landmark. 
The river was ALWAYS south. And with the streets of that historic old town almost exclusively laid out in a grid of numbered streets that ran east to west and named streets that ran north to south, you ALWAYS knew where you were. It was nearly impossible to get lost. 
   As a teen, I had to drive myself to a doctor’s appointments in Louisville, KY, about an hour away. The first time I went - well before GPS or Google Maps - I made my way without any trouble, saw the doctor, and prepared to make my way home. Knowing where the river was - that natural and obvious landmark - I began my trip home. It was forty-minutes later, as I saw signs for Ft. Knox, KY, that it dawned on me that in KY, the river was ALWAYS north, not south, and that I had driven nearly an hour in the wrong direction. It was the first of MANY such occurrences for me over the years.
   In the scripture passage April read for us earlier, Jesus tells two stories about “lostness:” a shepherd who loses one sheep and leaves the 99 behind in order to find the lost one, and a woman with 10 coins who loses one, and did whatever necessary to find it. And Jesus compares the joy that each of these felt in finding what was lost to the joy felt by God when a person experiencing “lostness” is found as well.  Then he tells another story, one that is familiar to all of us. We know it as the story of the prodigal son. 

Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
“When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 

He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! 
I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 
I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” So he got up and went to his father.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 
Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’
Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 
But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

   So, do you know what the word “prodigal” means?  
PRODIGAL - characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure; recklessly spendthrift

   Well, that certainly describes the son doesn’t it. He was wasteful and reckless with his money and with his relationship. Here’s what I mean by that. 
The father’s assets weren’t sitting in a bank somewhere; he didn’t have a money market account, a 401k, or stocks and bonds. The son’s inheritance would have been tied up in his father’s land, crops, and livestock. 
In order to give his son his half of the inheritance, he would have to have sold off half of what he owned. So, there’s that difficulty. But even worse, in telling his father that he wants his inheritance now rather than when the father has died, he’s basically saying to him, “I wish you were dead.” Nice kid, huh?
   But wait - there’s more! Because that’s not the complete definition of prodigal - there’s a second part: yielding abundantly, luxuriant, extravagantly generous. That sounds like how the father treated the son doesn’t it? He was certainly extravagantly generous towards this son who had rejected him, dismissed him, even wished him dead. In this story, the son represents us, the father represents God.
   And Jesus’ point in telling this story is that is how God is with us. Regardless of how we’ve treated God, regardless of what we’ve done with the gifts we’ve been given, regardless of how wasteful we’ve been with the blessings we’ve received or the relationships with which we’ve been blessed, God is abundant, luxuriant, and extravagantly generous in how God treats us, in how God loves us. No matter how lost we’ve become in how we’ve lived our lives - God will welcome us home, prepare the fatted calf, put rings on our fingers and bells on our toes to show us how much God loves us IN SPITE of how we’ve treated God. THAT is prodigal. That is the nature of the God who is love. As Paul said in Romans, “there is NOTHING, NOTHING, that will separate you from the love of God. NOTHING! No matter how LOST, how far south in life you may headed or how lost you may feel, God will not let you go. God, in God’s grace will always, always provide the landmarks you need to find your way home and greet you with open arms. And what is the most prominent of those landmarks? God’s people; the church.  

   Christian pastor and writer Vernon Fosdale says the role of the church is to lead the greatest rescue mission ever conceived. We live in a world that, by most accounts, has lost its way. If you don’t believe me all you have to do is watch the news. This is a world that, in so many ways, is lost. 
   The message we find in these three stories from Luke’s gospel is that the church, as the disciples of Jesus Christ, as the hands and feet of God, is called. 
But more than called, we are compelled, to pursue the lost with the same or greater urgency that we would exhibit if we had lost our sheep, our coin…or our cell phone. Think about that - most people, if they lose their cell phone, or their wallet, or their credit card, will immediately stop what they’re doing, wherever they are, and upend their home, their car, their office, wherever, until they find that lost phone, wallet, or card. The role of the church, Jesus suggests, is to be just as driven, just as urgent, in reaching out to those who have lost more than a piece of technology or a piece of plastic - but have lost their joy, who have lost their sense of blessing, who have lost their family, their friends, even their faith. We don’t have to be a raging sinner to be lost. Maybe you’ve just lost your job and your world is upended. Maybe you’ve lost your spouse or a child and you’re totally lost about what life looks like now. Maybe you or someone you know is newly divorced, have recently relocated, or have just received a difficult diagnosis - there’s all kinds of “lostness” in the world. And the mission of the church is not to judge, but to reach out to the lost and welcome them in. 
   So, understanding that the prodigal nature of God is to pursue the lost at any and all cost, and that God’s plan for the church is to do that work, let’s put this into the context of our larger series. Last week we considered what is OUR why. If we look at Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle diagram, the church’s WHY, it’s vision, can be clearly seen in this passage from Mark 12:28-31, where Jesus is asked,

“…Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

   The WHY of the church is found in what we know as the Great Commandment - love God and love neighbor. WHY do we do what we do? Because we love God and we love our neighbor. Now, some would say, no, it’s the Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all the world. But that’s not the WHY, that’s the HOW. We show our love of God and neighbor by going and making disciples BECAUSE we first love God and love our neighbor, and we love them both too much to leave out those mired in “lostness.”  

   And you remember, the outer ring of the Golden Circle, the WHAT, well these are the details, the things we do. Where can we find those? Well, from Luke we learn that we’re to be as extravagantly generous with others as God is with us. And in Matthew 25 Jesus tells us that we are doing that when, as he put it,

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

   And when his followers pushed back about when they saw him hungry, and thirsty, and sick he replied, 
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

   That, my friends, is the WHY, the HOW, and the WHAT that we are called to as the church. And I share this because many, many churches seem to have forgotten God’s WHY of loving God and loving neighbor and instead have fallen into a divisive way of deciding who’s in and who’s out, who’s deserving and who’s not - like the older brother. And as a result, the church is dying. And that’s not just my declaration. I shared with you last week that several of us attended a workshop a few weeks ago where these statistics were shared about the church at large:
  • 85% of churches in the U.S. are either stalled or in decline.
  • 14% of churches are growing only by transfers. That is, people leave one church and go to another.
  • Only 1% are growing by new people coming into a relationship with Christ. 1%. 
  • And that equates to 96 churches closing in the U.S. every week and 50 pastors leaving the ministry EVERY DAY. 72% of the U.S. population holds a secular worldview, not a spiritual or religious worldview.       That is, nearly 3 out of 4 people have no faith tradition of any kind that impacts how they live and look at the world, a figure reflected in our immediate community as well. 
   So, what are we to do about that? If our mission is to reach those who are in some way lost, and they make up 70+% of the people immediately around us, how are we to do that? Well, what if we tried doing what Jesus did, and what the early church did?
   I’ve shared with you twice now what theologian John Dominic Crossan said about how Jesus spent his time: either feeding people or healing people. 
We see Jesus eating in the homes of tax collectors life Matthew and Zacchaeus, and feeding thousands of people in those miracle stories, and we remember that two travelers’ eyes were opened to who Jesus was after a journey to Emmaeus when Jesus broke bread with them.  Acts chapter 2 tells how the church, after Pentecost, grew and spread throughout the known world as a church that met, not in sanctuaries but in peoples’ homes, gathered around tables. The early church, in the Apostolic era, the time of the Apostles, was a dinner church that gathered around tables as Jesus had, and told people the stories of Jesus. People gathered, they had dinner together, heard Jesus stories from the Apostles, prayed, sang songs, and shared in the Eucharist. In the Apostolic era the church reached out, went out to the community to spread the love of God. 
It was only hundreds of years later, after the church had grown from a few hundred to a few million people, and became the official church of the Roman Empire in what is called the Christendom era that the church began to resemble what we now know as church, with huge, ornate church buildings and the model moved from one of being sent to an attractional model of church. The early church, the simple church, the church as it was first created, was built around dinner tables and Jesus stories. 

   We’ve hosted a community meal here at Crossroads for many years. And for a time it was a well-attended monthly outreach mission to our community. And we have many volunteers who have given much of their time, talent, and energy into supporting that ministry.
 But if you look around our community there are meals like that all over the place. And because of that, in part, attendance at our meal has diminished over time. Some weeks, the volunteers outnumber the community members at the meal. Several volunteers, in fact, have come to me in recent months and said, “we need to do something about the community meal.”
   Our vision and mission statement as a church is printed on the top of page 3 of your worship folder and on the screen. Would you read that with me, please.
   Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, by feeding all God’s children - body mind, and soul. 

   WHY? Because we love that prodigal God and we love our neighbor. HOW do we show that? By making disciples of God’s son Jesus Christ, so that this world sinking in “lostness” might be transformed, so that those who feel lost know that God is desperately seeking God’s beloved children. WHAT do we do to achieve that? We feed people, body, mind, and soul. 
   The workshop that I have referred to several times over the last few weeks was called The Dinner Church Encounter, and it was all about reaching out to the lost in our own community by going back to the basics, to the very birth of the church in the Apostolic era, and learning from them. I’m excited about this, I think our team is, and I hope you will be as well. Our community meal, as we have known it, has ended. But with every death comes resurrection - that is a core belief of Christians. What is being birthed will help people understand our why, because people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Say that with me: people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. 

   Beginning on Wednesday November 7th we will be hosting a monthly, “Dinner with Friends at Crossroads Cafe,” our new dinner church experience. 
Unlike the community meal, this will not be an outreach ministry like the Community Meal, it will be a new worship experience based on Jesus’ table model that the church first used over 2000 years ago. We will still feed bodies here, just as the community meal did so well for so long, but at the same time we will also seek to feed minds and souls by sharing together in the stories of Jesus with our neighbors as we reach out to share the love of Jesus with them as it has been shared with us. 
   A typical evening will open with a prayer, then we’ll gather around the table for a full meal together, we’ll have live music, maybe some art being created at the same time, we’ll have a time to share a story about Jesus - not a sermon, just a story and some thoughts and questions for reflection and sharing around the table. We’ll have something special for the kids as well. We’ll take time for prayer, sing a song or two and then share in communion. Initially we’ll gather monthly as we work out what this new thing looks like, but our hope is that sometime after the first of the year Dinner with Friends will become a second weekly worship service focused on reaching out to the 70% of our neighbors who don’t currently have a church or a church family. 

  This is Jesus’ desire for us as a church as well. 
In Revelation 3:20, Jesus says, 
20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

   We will love God and love our neighbor by feeding all God’s children, body, mind, and soul. This is the first of the two new ministries that I told you last week that we are excited about. Next week I’ll share with you about the other. They are related to one another, while being distinctly different at the same time. As I said, I’m excited about both of these and I hope you will be as well.
   As we seek to hear and live into God’s call, our WHY as a church, next week we will also invite everyone to prayerfully consider how we will live into our WHY as disciples through how we support the mission and ministry of the church with our financial giving for 2019. We don’t believe that we need a long, drawn out stewardship campaign with guest speakers and all of that to inspire you to support the work of the church. We’ve been doing good ministry here for a long time, thanks to your generosity. And I trust that, thanks to your ongoing and growing generosity, that we will continue in even better ways. 

   Jesus desires to meet us at the table. Today, World Communion Sunday, we come to the table with our brothers and sisters in Christ from around the world to celebrate and remember the extravagant generosity of the prodigal God who loves us more than we can ever know, who seeks us out in our lostness, and calls us to seek out others in that same gracious love with which we have been welcomed. Let us prepare our hearts and minds to be cleansed and to be fed by the God who is love. Amen.  

Monday, October 1, 2018

9-30-18 “Start With Why”

9-30-18 “Start With Why”

   Art Linkletter famously offered, “Children say the darnedest things!” With their innocent statements or their simple questions, children have the power to stop a parent or grandparent cold in their tracks. With one word they can get an adult to do nearly anything, to offer nearly any treat or surprise, in order to avoid this dreaded trap. What is that snare? 
The question, “Why?” 

Why, mommy? Why daddy? Why?
Why is the sky blue, why is the grass green?
Why don’t bugs get out of the way of the car windshield?
Why do people get sick? Why do people die?
Why is my skin this color and her skin that color?
Why is poo brown if we eat green vegetables?
Why do I have to go to school?
Why is so-and-so mean to me?
Why, why, and because why?

   Studies show that the average 5 year old asks 144 questions a day - that’s one every 5 minutes, so it’s always good to have an escape route for this line of question when they begin to wear on us like some Sesame Street version of a Chinese water torture - the incessant drip, drip, drip driving us stark-raving mad. 
   WHY? Why do we do what we do? Why do we say what we say? It’s a question that, when we drill down deeply, reveals our values.  Knowing our WHY helps us to understand the deep-seated values and beliefs that underly our actions.
   Business consultant, author, and motivational speak Simon Sinek has made a career out of helping people and organizations explore their WHY. 
Several years ago he did an 18 minute video Ted talk called “The Golden Circle,” in which he explained the importance for an organization or business, and particularly for leaders, to understand their WHY, and what a difference it makes. Here’s a brief version of Sinek’s presentation. I have posted the full-length Talk on our church Facebook page and encourage you to watch it in its entirety.

   Why is this important for us? What difference does this make for a church? The church is not a business and should not act or be run like a business, but there are some things we can learn from the business world. 
What does any of this have to do with Jesus, with the Gospel?

   In Luke chapter 4, Jesus emerges from his time in the wilderness, a period of deep spiritual reflection and contemplation where he wrestled with and discerned his call and the direction of his life and ministry. After that time, our scripture says, he returned to his hometown of Nazareth, went into the synagogue, read from the scroll of of Isaiah, and announced to all who were there, and to the world, his WHY.
   The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.
   He reads from Isaiah 61, discerning that those words of the prophet were to guide his life, his ministry, his sacred vocation. These words, he says, have been fulfilled in your hearing. WHY does Jesus do the things he does in his ministry? Because the Spirit of the Lord was upon him - God had anointed him - God had set him apart for this purpose. That sentence was the first utterance of Jesus’ Vision Statement - WHY he did what he did. 
WHY? Because the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. 
WHY? Because God had anointed him, had set him apart. God had given Jesus a vision, a mission to fulfill. 

The rest of the passage describes his HOW:
[God] has sent me to preach good news to the poor, 
    to proclaim release to the prisoners 
    and recovery of sight to the blind, 
    to liberate the oppressed, 
    and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

   There, in that brief passage near the beginning of Luke’s gospel, is revealed Jesus’ Vision and Mission Statement. A Vision statement describes the WHY, a Mission statement describes the HOW. How will Jesus live into his WHY? By preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.
   So, how does all of this fit together in Jesus’ ministry? Clearly, Jesus’ language here is at least somewhat symbolic even as it is also specific. For example, he says he will preach good news to the poor. 
Well, preach is very specific, we know what that means, but what is “good news to the poor?” That’s a little fuzzier isn’t it? What’s good news to one may not be to another. If Jesus had said, “I’m going to provide a place for the homeless to sleep,” that’s good news if you’re homeless, but not so much if you have a home but have no food. So, “good news” can be a relative term. 

   Centuries later psychiatrist Abraham Maslow would develop what was known as the “hierarchy of needs,” that suggests that the most basic needs that we must satisfy first are physiological and safety needs: food, clothing, shelter, safety, and health. Those primary needs must be met to some degree before the higher level needs of love, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization become important. That is, you don’t care about how much status or recognition you receive if all you can think about is how hungry you are, that you have no place to sleep, or that you can’t afford to go to the doctor for your illness. Good news is a relative term. 

   Likewise, Jesus’ claim that he’s going to proclaim release to the prisoner did not mean that Jesus would lead a massive jail break, like in the movies. So what does this mean? What prisoners is he talking about? Prisoners to what? 
   Recovery of sight to the blind? Well, Jesus certainly restored sight to blind people throughout his ministry - all of the gospels attest to this fact. But that isn’t the only kind of blindness that Jesus is talking about. He referred to the Pharisees as being “blind guides,” at one point - did he mean they literally could not see, or was he speaking metaphorically that they couldn’t see or understand who he was and what he was doing?  A large portion of Mark’s gospel, framed by two stories of Jesus healing men who were blind, is a metaphor about how many people, including the powers-that-be, were blind to who he was and what he was doing. 
   He next said in his WHY statement that he would liberate the oppressed. It’s easy to understand WHO the oppressed are but how was he going to liberate them? Did this mean, as some thought, that Jesus was going to raise up an army and overthrow Roman rule? If so, he failed miserably. But we know that that’s not what he was talking about here - he was speaking symbolically about liberating them into the Kingdom of God.
   And what is this declaring the year of the Lord’s favor? This is something that would have held great value for the people of Israel but is largely lost on us. 
The year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee Year as it was called in the Hebrew Bible, was part of the Law of Moses detailed in the Book of Leviticus that declared that every seven years all debts were to be forgiven, all slaves were to be freed, all lands were to be returned to their original owners, and that it was to be a year of sabbath-taking, with no sowing or reaping from the fields so that the land, too, could rest. All of which sounds really good news, unless you’re a lender, a rich landowner or a slaveholder, then not so much.

   And of course the HOW then leads to the specifics - the WHAT. The WHATS are the very specific things that are part of the HOW that we do because of the WHY. Theologian John Dominic Crossan has written that if you look closely at the ministry of Jesus you see that, more than anything else, WHAT we see Jesus doing primarily are two things: healing people, and eating with people. Those two activities make up the bulk of the stories we read in the Gospels. They were Jesus’ WHAT.
    So, when we think about Jesus’ WHY in terms of the Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, we can see that his WHY is in the center - it guided everything he did throughout his ministry, it came directly from God and guided his life. The HOW we see in terms of what he says in Luke:by preaching good news, by proclaiming release to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, by liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. The WHAT then, are what we see happen in the specific stories of and about Jesus. His WHATS are consistent with and flow directly from, his WHY and HOW.
   And many people in the Bible are only interested in the WHATS. We read story after story of people who came to Jesus to be fed or to be healed and then we never hear from them again. Remember in Luke’s gospel Jesus heals 10 lepers and one returns to thank him. “Were not ten healed?” Jesus asks. Jesus is surrounded by people who are interested primarily, if not exclusively, on the WHAT. They are religious consumers, not disciples. 
   The disciples, on the other hand, they’re fully invested in the WHY. Oh, they’ve seen the WHATS, they’ve witnessed healings, and great feedings, and great catches of fish, and all the rest, but they’re buying Jesus’ WHY. When Jesus asks, “who do the people say that I am,” the disciples say that the people think he is Elijah or John the Baptist, or another prophet. When Jesus asks, “Who do YOU say that I am?” Peter replies, “you are the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one.” Peter embraces Jesus’ WHY. In Simon Sinek’s words, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it?”

  “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it?” I don’t know if I’ve ever shared fully with all of you my WHY? Why I became a pastor? What it means to me be called? And called to what?

   I grew up in the church. My parents were very active in the church. Even after my father died we remained very active in the life of the church. One of my early memories, as a 7 or 8 year old, is of coming home from church on Sunday, and while Mom fixed lunch for us, I would line up stuffed animals on the couch in the living room, turn an ottoman on its end as a pulpit, and preach to them from our Bible. Later, I sang in the choir, was in the youth group, and was the first youth representative to serve on our church council. My first paying job was as a custodian at our church. I was all in. The pastor family when I was young were friends of my parents - they socialized together outside of church. Later in my teens, I was close to our pastor, he might even have been a father-figure for me in the absence of my father. 

   As an adult in church, I was very active. I sang in the choir, was a youth group leader for several years, was involved in most book and Bible studies and did three years of Disciple Bible Study. I served in nearly every leadership position or committee within our United Methodist congregation. I did all of this while I was managing stores for Kmart, while my mother was dying of cancer, while I went through a divorce, while I changed careers, began a new life, and eventually remarried. And while I did all of these things in the life of the church, there was always this nagging feeling that God wanted something more.

   One Sunday morning Lynn and I were getting ready to go to church and Robert Schuller was on TV. There was a guest speaker that morning who had written a book called The Dream Giver, the premise of which is that God has planted a dream within each and every one of us, a calling, and that some people realize that and live into it and others never do. Well, thinking about that nagging feeling I had had, I bought the book and quickly read it. It was then that I came to realize that God had been calling me into ministry since I was a child and that I had denied it, deflected it, and deferred it for decades. I knew then that God was calling me into ordained ministry. 

   I came to know something else as well. As I went through seminary it was a huge transformation in my faith. I’ve shared with you before, using a house built of blocks representing my faith, how at one point I found my entire belief system in a pile of rubble, from which I had to rebuild it. And I did rebuild it so that it was even stronger than before. But I also came to understand this additional aspect to my call. My call into ministry was to do things differently. I had seen all the statistics about what was going on in the church universal and in the United Methodist Church. The workshop that some of us attended a few weeks ago updated us on some of those same sad specifics:
  • 85% of all churches in the U.S are in decline
  • 96 churches close every week
  • 50 pastors leave the ministry every day 
   Albert Einstein is credited with having said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. I understood, through much prayer and discernment, that my call into ministry was to break that pattern, to not do things the way they had always been done, to do things differently, to be different, because the way things “had always been done,” wasn’t working any more. 

   That was the call I received from God. That is the call that was affirmed by my District Committee on Ordained Ministry, by the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, and by the Bishop when he laid hands on my and told me, “Take thou authority.” That was my WHY. That was the WHY with which I began ministry ten years ago. And this is where this message takes a different turn from where I originally intended to go today.

   I now serve on that District Committee on Ordained Ministry, hearing the testimony and call stories of ministerial candidates who believe that they have heard God’s call into some form of credentialed ministry. This Tuesday, as I sat in one of those meetings listening to candidates share their call stories and exhibit their fire and passion for ministry, it affirmed for me what I already knew: that I no longer felt that fire the way they feel it; I no longer breathed the passion with which they breathe. The fire is not out, the breath is not gone, but it isn’t what it was a decade ago when I sat where they sat.

   You all received a letter last week informing you that I would be taking a time for spiritual renewal leave in January and February of next year. The reason for that is simply this - I need time to stoke that fire. I need time to rekindle that flame of passion for ministry that God worked so hard, for so long, to light within me. I don’t know when the fire began to dwindle, I can’t point to a moment that the passion began to ebb, I just recognize that that is where I am. I came to understand why 50 pastors leave ministry each day and why it’s so hard to live into a call like that. I realized that the spiritual disciplines that I know are so important and that I have preached to you about so many times, had gradually become less and less a regular part of my life. 
I realized that my prayer life had become less and less about my listening for God and more and more about my making demands of God - if it happened at all. My reading and study of scripture had become limited to what was needed to prepare for sermons and Bible studies, there was no time given for my personal growth or faith. All of this was taking its toll on my spirit and on my health, and was effecting how I approached ministry. And in some ways it has effected how I’ve been with some of you. The Staff-Parish Relations Team noticed it, as well, and made mention of it in my annual evaluation this year.

   I realized this over a year ago and first approached Mike, our Staff-Parish Relations Chair, about my need for some time away. The letter you received was not something that just came up recently - we’ve been working on how to make this happen for quite a while. And some of you have come to me to express your support and your concern, and I truly appreciate that. 
I know you are a loving and caring people - you’ve shown that love to us many times, not the least of which when our family suffered a tragic loss nearly four years ago. And I love you for that. I know, though, that there are questions that you have. I know that there are rumors going around, as well, and I want to address some of those too.
   No, I have no plans on leaving ministry. I want to rekindle the spark that God planted in me. I know how to do it - I know what I need to do - I know I need help to do it. But just as you would not attempt to perform maintenance on your automobile while you’re driving it down the highway,  I also know that I cannot do this spiritual and emotional work of renewal while I also tend to the day-to-day responsibilities of being your pastor. Wiser people than I also realize that to be the case, which is why our Book of Discipline provides for paid renewal leave for clergy, for up to 6 months at a time if needed, but for at least one month every four years and one week every year. 
   Why is it a paid leave? Because our denomination doesn’t want pastors who know they need this time of spiritual, emotional, or physical renewal to not pursue it because they can’t afford to take time away unpaid. 
I don’t know the broader statistics for this, but within our own Capitol Area South District at least one pastor has committed suicide in the last couple of years - conference and denomination wide the numbers are much greater. Fifty pastors leaving ministry every day is over 18,000 each year. I’m not interested in being a statistic, I’m interested in being a pastor. And I want to be the best pastor that I can be for all of you, and I know that right now I’m not. And I know that some of you are thinking, “Well, Duh!”

   One of the concerns that Mike and I shared, and that was shared by the Administrative Board, was about how could we afford to do this. How could we afford this paid leave and also have someone come in to lead worship and preach on Sunday and also handle the pastoral care needs that the congregation will have. That is the part that took so long to figure out. Now, there are rumors going around that this is going to cost the congregation tens thousand dollars or more. That is simply not true. Rev. Danny Dahl is filling in for two months, preaching and leading worship and providing pastoral care, for a total of $1,000.00. That money will be paid in part by me, through a reduction in one part of my compensation, and in part out of our 2019 budget. That’s why this leave is happening in January and not now - so that we could plan for it and budget for it. The total expense to the church, over and above what the church would normally spend will be $500.00. 
   The question was also asked as to why this came to the congregation as a decision already made by the Administrative Board, and why you weren’t consulted on it before a decision was made. Very simply, this is at its root a personnel issue. It’s literally a pastoral care issue. In your workplaces, if someone needs to take a medical leave or family leave, it’s not put to a vote of the employees. The personnel department handles it. In the United Methodist Church the personnel department is the Staff-Parish Relations Committee. 
This decision, as called for by the United Methodist Book of Discipline, was handled by those tasked with doing that within the United Methodist system, with the approval of the Administrative Board and the full knowledge and support of the District Superintendent.

   Now, these and other questions were raised at our Administrative Board meeting this week. And I would like all of our Administrative Board members and leadership team who are here to please stand. I hope you appreciate the work that these people do. These are some of the hardest working, most dedicated people I know. These are among the most self-less, self-giving people I’ve ever worked with. These are people who have answered God’s call in their lives to serve in various capacities in order to serve God and to serve you in this place. Each and every one of these people gives generously of their time, their talents, and their treasure - all are either tithers or are moving towards being tithers - because their WHY is based on their love of God, their discipleship of Jesus Christ, and their love for you. I would go into battle with any of these people, knowing full well that God was with them. These are what disciples of Jesus Christ look like. These people have my fullest support and my utmost admiration, respect, and love. And I hope you will give them your support as well.  Thank you.

   So, we have over three months before I will begin my leave. If any of you have any questions, I am happy to answer them for you. I’m trying to live into my WHY. We start with WHY, in this issue as well as in our faith and ministry, because it speaks to our beliefs and our values, to God’s call in our lives about who and how we are supposed to be. Next week we’ll continue to explore how we, as a congregation, can live into our WHY in how and what we do to live into and support our vision and our mission. We have two new ministries that we’re kicking off soon that I’m excited tell you more about them as well. 

   I love being your pastor, and I want to be the best pastor for you that I can be. No, I’m not like other pastors that you’ve had in the past - I’m not supposed to be. But I want us - together - to do the best ministry that we can. To do that, we have to know our WHY and live into our WHY, and our WHY must be in alignment with the WHY of Jesus Christ. That’s where we’ll go next week. Thank you. Amen.