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Learning Each Other’s Songs

Yes, friends, it’s true. I didn’t preach a sermon this week. We had a “hymn sing” at First UMC New Ulm, and it was not like any hymn sing I’ve ever experienced, I can tell you. For one thing, it was hard to hear the congregation actually singing.  For another, we discovered that we don’t really know each other’s songs very well. What is near and dear to the heart of one may be totally new to someone else. It makes us a little nervous to sing songs we don’t know – which may be one reason why the volume level was pretty low as we bravely muddled through the unfamiliar.

We had plenty of opportunities to share. In fact, there were more songs and hymns listed on the chart paper at the front of the sanctuary than we had time to sing. As you might expect, most of the favorites came from the Methodist Hymnal.  As you might also expect, a number of selections from our own “Songbook” of collected worship songs made it to the list. What surprised me was the relatively few number of songs chosen from one of the denomination’s “more contemporary” songbooks, The Faith We Sing. But what really surprised me was the number of songs that were noted on the list, but no one seemed to actually know. When I asked for a show of hands on one of these, only one person claimed familiarity - presumably the person who wrote it on the list before worship began.

What does this tell us about the songs we sing together in worship, and what we value about those songs? Sadly, it means we don’t know each other’s music, and after years of worshiping together, we haven’t bothered to learn what our fellow worshipers find … worshipful. It isn’t a matter of having different musical tastes, or even different theological approaches to singing our praise. It’s a matter of failing to listen to each other with our hearts wide open. And if we aren’t listening to one another’s heart songs, how can we expect to hear God’s voice, singing into and over our lives?

We’re doing this again on August 31st. May God open our throats to sing with gusto, and may God open our hearts to hear one another’s songs with delight instead of fear, so we can sing along with each other as brothers and sisters who worship a living God, a God who sings, who delights in singing.

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The Spirit Is Life – Sermon on Romans 8:1-11 July 13, 2014

When I was growing up in southeast Kansas, I was certain that our state was at the center of the United States. Whenever I looked at a map, there it was, right in the middle. Then I moved to Missouri. It’s right next door to Kansas, so I didn’t move very far. As I taught fourth grade music classes, I ran up against something called Missouri State History month every year, and that meant setting aside the music curriculum for a few weeks, while students learned “The Missouri Waltz,” “Fifty Nifty United States,” and a poem that begins like this…

“I’m from Missouri, the Show Me State,
Right in the middle of the forty-eight…”

Now, which is it? Is Kansas in the middle, or Missouri? Well, the answer kind of depends on where you come from. As we move deeper into Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find ourselves approaching the very center of his theology, the heart of his argument. In this case, it doesn’t matter where you come from. What matters is where Paul is leading us, as his careful writing brings us to the main point he wants to make.

Here’s what we know so far, from the first seven chapters:
God’s righteousness has been revealedin the midst of human sin. Whether Jew or Gentile doesn’t matter: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (3:23). Paul’s point is that righteousness does not come through the Hebrew Law, but through faith alone. Even Abraham came to God’s righteousness by faith (4:3). In fact, the Law does not have the power to make us righteous, because its purpose was always to show us our sin. Sin has been our problem ever since Adam, and we are all condemned to death because of it. But there is hope. In chapter six, Paul says we are buried with Christ in the waters of baptism, and we are raised to new life in Christ. Last week’s reading told of a battle between the law of God and the law of sin. As human beings, we are bound by the law of sin, and we cannot obey God’s law even when we want to. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul writes. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin (Romans 7:22-23). ”

This brings us to chapter eight, which opens with the strong word, “Therefore.” Paul has reached the point in his letter where we find the real meat of his message. Because of everything that has gone before, we are about to learn what Paul thinks is most important as we move forward into our life as Christians. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Rome.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. - Romans 8:1-11

In mathematics, there are a couple of little symbols that Paul could have easily borrowed for this passage. They both consist of three dots, in the form of a triangle. The triangle with a broad base at the bottom and the small tip at the top stands for the word “therefore.” If you flip it upside down, the same triangle of three dots means “because.” As Paul sets out his central idea, and then explains how he has come to this conclusion, his explanation is filled with ‘becauses’ to support his ‘therefore.’ And what is the central idea? It’s the heart of the gospel message: you are not condemned if you are in Christ Jesus.

Paul has spent seven chapters explaining why we should be condemned, under the Law. Sin condemns us. We aren’t just talking about our little individual sins, the ones we ask forgiveness for before we fall asleep at night, if we remember. Paul means Sin with a capital S. The Law was given to God’s people because of Sin, but the Law could never save us from Sin. In fact, Paul tells us, the Law condemns us to death by making us aware of our sinfulness.

Yet Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It’s as if we have been found guilty in a court of law, and we know that the punishment for our crime is the death penalty, but when the judge pronounces our sentence, we hear, “You are free to go.”

It’s more than a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. It’s more than having all the charges dropped, or having our sentence commuted to time served plus parole. We are not condemned, after all. We have been found to be in the right, instead. How can this be?

Paul says, it is because we are in Christ Jesus. So, what does it mean to be in Christ? It means that the law of sin and death no longer rules us, but the law of the Spirit of life in Christ has set us free. How did this happen? Through the Cross of Jesus Christ, Paul tells us. God has condemned the sin that condemns us. Paul has been making this point in nearly every chapter. God sent his own Son – which means God came in person (he didn’t send a substitute) – “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (v. 3) to deal with sin once and for all by condemning sin in the flesh.

Flesh is a word we need to understand clearly, for all this to make sense. The contrast Paul gives us here is not between body and spirit, but between flesh and Spirit. Paul is not talking about our bodies, but what we choose to do with them. The Common English Bible translates the word for ‘flesh’ as ‘selfishness,’ and this might be a better way to think of it – when we are focused on ourselves, our attention turns away from God, where it should be. We become our own idols. We serve our own desires, and this is sin, which leads to death. Listen to verses 4 – 8 from the CEB, and see if this helps Paul’s argument become clearer.

Now the way we live is based on the Spirit, not based on selfishness. People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit.The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t.  People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.

People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God, Paul writes, and if that were the end of the message, we would be doomed. “But that’s not you!” he goes on. Thanks be to God, that’s not who you are!

You are in Christ, because Christ’s spirit lives in you. Christ’s spirit lives in you because you are in Christ. Back in chapter 4, Paul reminds us that Abraham had faith, and God credited it to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:3). That word righteousness is a big word. It means acceptable to God, found to be ‘in the right.’ It’s the very opposite of ‘condemned.’ Being in Christ Jesus is more than agreeing with ideas about Jesus, it’s more than being loyal to Christ or even trying our best to follow Jesus. Being in Christ is a new way of being, an entirely new system of living that is centered on Christ and surrounded by Christ. Instead of self-focused lives doomed to death, we have been changed, and are continually being changed, into what theologian Karl Barth calls, the “impossible possibility.” Barth writes, “The negation of sin is not a possibility among other possibilities, but the possibility beyond all other possibilities … and we possess [this], the impossible possibility of walking after the Spirit.” (Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 282) Eugene Peterson puts it this way in The Message: “It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s! (v 11).

Therefore, you are no longer condemned. You are in Christ. You are changed.

On Thursday, I attended a district gathering, led by our District Superintendent. As he spoke, he reminded us of our purpose as Christ’s church. Everything we do, he said, needs to be grounded in this goal: that lives will be changed. That’s what Paul is writing about here. Being in Christ means being changed, being transformed into a “little Christ,” to borrow a term from C. S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, 171). When we wipe off a table after a Wednesday night meal, or hand out a bulletin on Sunday, or pick up a bit of trash that blew into our parking lot, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we move our youth ministry into the main building of our church campus, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we serve a meal at the Salvation Army in Mankato, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we set up a place for parents to change a baby’s diaper at the County Fair, we do it so that lives will be changed. And as we do these things, with this goal in mind, we bear witness to the Spirit that is alive in us, the very Spirit of Christ Jesus.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free.”

If you haven’t stepped into that freedom yet, I invite you to do so today. If you are still struggling under the weight of your own sin, know that Christ died so that your sins could be wiped out – not just forgiven, but completely destroyed. It’s time to step out of the old life and into the new one, a life of joy and peace. Then you can join us in saying to others who long for something more, “Welcome to First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, home of the uncondemned, home of those who are in Christ, because Christ is in us. Welcome to First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, where lives are changed.”  Amen.

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Traveling with Flat Jesus – Part 2

JULY 10, 2014
While we were on our way to Chicago, a couple of First UMC kids were on their way to Wisconsin Dells for a little family fun time – and of course, Flat Jesus went along, because he is with us always! (And apparently, Flat Jesus knows all the words to all the songs in “Frozen” to sing along in the back seat…)

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Meanwhile, we headed north, toward Green Bay, WI. No matter which NFL team has your allegiance, Flat Jesus cares about each one of us, so stopping by Lambeau Field should not be taken as an endorsement of the Green Bay Packers over any other team. (One of my friends asked if Flat Jesus could curse the field as he once cursed a fig tree in Matthew 21:18-22. I had to remind my friend that Jesus said we should love our enemies - Matthew 5:43-45 - and Jesus is always with each of us, even Green Bay fans.)

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From Green Bay, we drove north to Two Rivers, WI, which is right up the road from Manitowoc (pronounced MAN-uh-twok), home of the Maritime Museum. We toured a WWII submarine there, and Flat Jesus really got interested in the model boats and the fishing nets on display. I guess he kinda misses his time with Peter, Andrew, James, and John, as they fished together on the Sea of Galilee.

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While we were in Two Rivers, we stayed at a place that has its own miniature golf course! Flat Jesus liked the lighthouse a lot – it reminds us that he is the Light of the world, and that he told us we should let our light shine before others, so they can know how much God loves them. This was one of those places where a stranger came up to help us take the picture, and we got to tell the story of Flat Jesus to our new friend and his kids. Sharing the story of Flat Jesus was a lot of fun. Our new friend said, “That is so cool!” I hope he remembers that Jesus is with him always, too!

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We also stopped at the Wood Type Museum,

2014-07-01 12.14.58and Flat Jesus was glad to see his friend, Flat Gutenberg.  2014-07-01 12.14.36  Johann Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press, so Bibles could be printed for everyone to read.

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After we walked on the shore of Lake Michigan (the water was cold, but we did get our feet wet! You can’t see Flat Jesus in this picture, but he was definitely with us) we drove to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and stayed for a few days with family who live there.

Flat Jesus had fun walking on the water (again!) 2014-07-02 16.39.41 and diving off the swimming platform.2014-07-02 16.40.37 He even went sailing with Bruce one afternoon. As we left Crystal Falls, it was raining, but Flat Jesus stayed with us.

Be sure to send me your Flat Jesus pictures as he travels with you this summer. Whether we see him or not, whether it’s raining or sunny, Jesus is with us always.

Here’s one last picture of Flat Jesus, back home at First UMC – come see him this Sunday! Worship is at 9:30 am. See you then! – Pastor Jo Anne

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Traveling with Flat Jesus – Part 1

Note: this post comes from the webpage for First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, MN, under “From the Pastor’s Desk.” 

You know the children’s book, Flat Stanley? Well, this is the same idea.  Only this time, instead of mailing a picture to different places,  the children of First UMC each received a picture of “Flat Jesus” to take with them through the summer. They were invited to color in the picture, maybe even cut it out, and take the picture wherever they might go. Heading to Grandma’s house? Bring Flat Jesus along! Going to summer camp, or on vacation with the family? Flat Jesus is there! Children were encouraged to have someone take a picture of Flat Jesus at each location, and send me the photos by e-mail or Facebook.

It might be difficult to see in the photos, but across the bottom of each Flat Jesus are the words, “I am with you always!” from the Great Commission (Matthew 28:20). The whole idea was to remember that Jesus goes with us wherever we go, and will always be with us, no matter what. Isn’t that a great promise?

Since teaching by example is something Jesus did, and I want to be like Jesus,  I decided to kick off the summer with my own Flat Jesus itinerary.  I headed off to Chicago to be ordained to Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Covenant Church (how I ended up in a Methodist church is a different story for another day!) and took Flat Jesus with me for the journey. After ordination, my husband and I took a few days of vacation before returning to New Ulm.

We learned along the way that total strangers really like helping to take pictures of Flat Jesus, once they hear the story. It was a great way to meet people, and to share the Good News of Jesus with people we might not otherwise have talked to. Here’s where we went, and what we did, remembering that Jesus is always with us, no matter what.

When we got to the hotel in Chicago, the first thing we did was check into our room…

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Then we took a walk to find something to eat. There was a Mexican restaurant nearby that had a great chips and salsa bar – we chose a few different kinds of salsa, and Flat Jesus liked them all!

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After supper, Flat Jesus sang really loud during the worship service!

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The next day was full of meetings, and Flat Jesus thought those pictures would be pretty boring for you, so I won’t post them here. But he was there, believe me! When the delegates voted to approve the 83 ordination candidates, he was very happy!

On Friday, Flat Jesus stayed with us as we took my mom and my sister to eat real Chicago pizza at Lou Malnati’s. On Saturday, he had to check out the ordination stoles during a break in the rehearsal for the ordination service. Then he graciously posed with Donn Engebretson and me – Donn was the Vice President of the Evangelical Covenant Church the year I served on the worship planning team for our midwinter conference, and it was a blessing to learn that he would be the one laying hands on me during ordination. This is all I have time to post right now – I’ll let you see where we went after Chicago tomorrow! Peace, Pastor Jo Anne

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Flat Jesus checks out the stoles, which were each made by my friend, Vicki Twigg.
83 stoles – that’s a lot of sewing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dying to Live – Sermon on Romans 6:1-11

June 22, 2014

Last week, as we heard the challenge of the Great Commission to make disciples by going to them, baptizing them, and teaching them, I urged you to think about the idea of baptism as a means for enfolding others into the family of God. In today’s reading, we will take another look at baptism, this time through the eyes of the Apostle Paul, as we begin a journey through his letter to the church at Rome. That journey will take us through the summer, so it might be a good idea to start with some background information as we begin.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is an interesting book on many counts. For one thing, Paul didn’t know these people yet. Paul’s other letters were addressed to churches he had started, nurtured, and left in the hands of able leaders. But at the time Paul wrote this letter, he had not yet traveled to Rome, so instead of writing to follow up on a church he had planted, Paul was writing to introduce himself to Christians who did not yet know him, or his teachings.

But Paul had a pretty good idea of what was going on in Rome. He knew that a group of Jewish Christians had been pushing the Gentiles to observe Jewish laws, and he knew that convincing the church in Rome to depend on grace alone would require a carefully worded message. So Paul took care to clarify his own theology for the Christians at Rome, in preparation for the teaching he would provide when he finally arrived.

The resulting letter to the Roman church is a dense theological treatise. In fact, it’s a good example of what Peter meant when he wrote about his “dear brother, Paul,” saying, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:14-16). Two thousand years later, we are still chewing on some of Paul’s ideas. Imagine, then, what it must have been like to receive these teachings for the first time, and how radically strange Paul’s ideas of sin and grace might have seemed to the early Christians who read his letters to each other.

Paul states his main idea early on, and then presents his response to those who might disagree with him in the rest of the letter. Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written,The one who is righteous will live by faith” (Rom 1:16-17).From this bold statement, Paul explains and defends his view of grace for all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.

In chapter five, Paul describes how Adam’s original sin has enslaved us all to death, but that in Christ, we have been made right with God by grace alone. In Adam, all of us became bound to sin, and the Law only made things worse. Then Paul throws in a twist as he moves into the heart of his argument: “but where sin increased, grace multiplied even more,” he writes.

Paul must have anticipated that this radical idea would have raised some questions among his readers, so he kicks off a diatribe to end all diatribes, answering those questions as thoroughly as he can before they can even be asked. Chapter six opens with Paul’s central argument about grace as God’s free gift. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter six, verse 1-11:

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But ifwe have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

What then are we to say?  …
Paul must love this rhetorical question, because he asks it a lot. In his letter to the Romans, it appears half a dozen times, at key turning points in Paul’s argument. “So what do you think?” Paul asks, “Should we sin more so we can experience more grace?” In his diatribe, Paul answers his opponents’ arguments by carrying them to the extreme, in order to prove them wrong.

The group that was causing the most trouble in Rome consisted of Jews who still viewed righteousness as something to be obtained by being born Jewish, and doing good works by following the law. Paul argues that God’s grace is available to all who believe, and that it is through faith alone that we become righteous.

Paul imagines his opponents answering this argument with one of their own: doesn’t free grace just promote free sin? If God’s grace is so free, so all-encompassing, and there is nothing I can do to earn it, why bother being good?  If God is going to forgive me anyway, why not just go on sinning to my heart’s content? In fact, doesn’t it make sense to sin more, so that God can forgive me more?

Certainly not, Paul tells us. It is precisely because we have chosen to align ourselves with God, and not with sin, that we have been changed.

And this is where baptism comes into the picture.

“We have been buried with him by baptism into death,” Paul writes, “so we might walk in newness of life.” Baptism is more than a simple rite of passage. It marks a radical change in identity. The old, sinful self is buried in the waters of baptism, and what comes up out of the water is a new creation. Just as the children of Israel walked into the Red Sea as runaway Egyptian slaves, and walked up out of that sea as God’s own nation, so we are called to walk in newness of life, set free from our slavery to sin.

So, what then should we say? What does that mean for us?

It means that Christ’s death was a one-time event, and he will not die again. If we are baptized into that death, we are also baptized into Christ’s resurrection to new life. I cannot say “new life” enough! We have been united with Christ in something completely new. Remember that Christ’s resurrected body was not his old body; even his closest friends did not recognize him at first. In the same way, our baptized selves are not anything at all like our old, sinful selves.

And yet, we often do not live like we have this “new life.” We stay stuck in patterns of behavior that ignore the fact we have been made into completely new people, children of the living God. Paul thought the Roman Christians were acting as if sin was a good thing, reasoning that the more we sin, the more God forgives us. Theologian David Bartlett summarizes Paul’s answer in two parts: “You’ve got to be kidding!” and “Be who you are.”

Be who you are. You are not just washed clean in the waters of baptism. Baptism has drowned your old sinful self and given you a new identity. Live into that new identity as Christ’s own. You have died to sin, so stop acting like it rules you. Bartlett continues,

“When Christians are told to “remember our baptism” that does not mean so much remembering the time and the place or who were the sponsors or who performed the sacrament. It is a way of saying: Remember who you are; you have died to sin and now you live a new life in Jesus Christ. It is a way of saying: Be who you are.
“Remember your baptism” also means, “Remember who you belong to.”  (David Bartlett )

“What then are we to say?” Are we to chime in with the “I’m Ok You’re OK” culture  and claim that, since God accepts us just the way we are, there is no need to change? Do we subscribe to the notion that sinning is actually good, because it creates more opportunities for grace? Or do we recognize that in becoming a follower of Jesus, we move from one kind of humanity, steeped in sin, into the very life of Christ? Because this is what Paul is saying, friends: since Christ is our model, whatever is true of him is now true of us, too. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We have died to sin, we are risen to new life with and in him, and when he comes again, we will be ready to join him in eternal glory. What part of that would you not want to claim as your very own?

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright tells us, “Living in accordance with a change of status requires that you recognize it and take steps to bring your actual life into line with the person you have become. … Once you are baptized, of course, you can try to shirk or shrug off your new responsibilities. You can pretend you don’t after all have a new status. … But what you can’t do is get unbaptized again.” (N.T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: Romans Part 1, 102.)

The passage ends with a bit of a hymn that was apparently known to Paul, and perhaps known already to the Christian communities in Rome who first received this letter. When he writes, “We know that…” (verse 9), in a way he’s really inviting his hearers to join the song:

Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again;
Death no longer has dominion over him.
The death he died, he died to sin, once for all;
But the life he lives he lives to God.

Then Paul adds his own verse to the song, and this must have been a powerful addition for those Christians in Rome, to hear these new words being sung to them, as they are to us:

So also consider yourselves dead to sin,
and alive to God in Jesus Christ.

When Paul says, “consider” he isn’t asking you to think of yourself as dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ. He isn’t asking you to ponder this reality as an abstract idea. No, the verb translated here as “consider” is really a bookkeeping term. Other translations use the term “reckon” and we could just as easily use the word “calculate” to understand what Paul means here. When you calculate a sum of numbers, you come up with a new number, but it isn’t really “new” – it was there all along; you just didn’t know what the total sum was until you calculated it. Add it up, Paul says. You have already been reckoned dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus. It may be hard to believe the answer you get when you do the math, but this is the reality. we need to be who we are, redeemed children of God, and we need to start acting like it.

Sin has no hold on us any longer; it’s time to let go of it. New life means living into new habits and behaviors, new ways of thinking and relating to people. It means living into our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. Let it be so.

 

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Making Disciples – Sermon on Matthew 28:16-20 (Trinity 2014)

When I was very young, I held a black-and-white view of truth. Right and Wrong formed two sides of the coin I called Truth. As I grew older, I discovered that many questions do not have simple answers. Shades of gray appear between the rigid extremes of black and white. So I decided that Right and Wrong might be neighboring sides on a many-faceted sphere – a Disco Ball of Truth (hey, it was the 1980s).

But that view didn’t hold up, either. Eventually, I began to realize that God’s truth often holds in tension two or more realities that seem to oppose one another. We call this “paradox.” The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant. Christ died to conquer death. God is One, and God is Three Persons, each distinct, yet all three are One. It’s a paradox, a mystery. And we celebrate that mystery today, on Trinity Sunday.

Trinity Sunday is an unusual day in the church year, in that it is named after a doctrine instead of an event. It was a doctrine that took some hard work to hammer out, because the early church fathers had difficulty finding words to express this mystery of the faith. While we may find it difficult to understand the mystery of the Trinity, we certainly have no trouble at all experiencing it. It’s a relationship, and as much as the word “relationship” has been overused to talk about romance, there really is no better word to describe God in Three Persons. We worship and serve a relational God, a God who desires to be in loving relationship with each of us, just as Father and Son and Holy Spirit are in loving relationship with one another.

It would be easy to get stuck on Trinity Sunday trying to explain this unexplainable aspect of God’s identity, if we focused only on the one verse in the Gospel that hints at a doctrine of the Trinity. But, to be honest, at the time Matthew wrote his story, that doctrine had not yet really taken shape. And the mention of three persons in today’s passage is really only a small part of a much bigger idea. Hear Matthew’s version of the final words of Jesus to his disciples, as we find them in chapter 28, verses 16-20. Hear the Word of the Lord.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

Eleven disciples went to Galilee. Judas had not yet been replaced, and his absence was a reminder to all of them of their own betrayal, their own failure to stand by Jesus during his trial and crucifixion. They went to Galilee. This is where the ministry had begun. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, he calls it “Galilee of the Gentiles” and this is significant, as Jesus gives his final instructions to share the good news of God’s saving grace with all people. But it’s the second verse of this passage that catches my attention: They worshiped him, but some doubted.

The Greek grammar here is not very clear. We could translate this phrase in several ways, and they would all be as valid as the NRSV. It could mean, “all worshiped, but some of them also doubted,” or “some worshiped while others doubted” or “they all worshiped, and they all doubted, too.”

Doesn’t that sound like us sometimes? Don’t we come to church so we can reinforce our faith by worshiping, because doubt seems to creep into our minds so often? Maybe doubt seems too strong a word. In fact, the term here is used only one other place in the New Testament, in the story of Peter walking on the water (Matthew 14:31) – he was fine as long as his eyes were fixed on Jesus, but when he looked down, he started to sink  - because he doubted.

The word used here is not an expression of disbelieving, so much as being undecided, or uncertain. The disciples were sure that Jesus was God, worthy of worship, but they weren’t sure what this was supposed to mean, or what to do with this new awareness. Isn’t that what our doubt looks like, too? We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, sure, but we get stuck wondering what to do or which way to go as we try to live out our faith. We come to church to worship the God who created us, who saves us, who stays with us, and at the same time, we flounder in uncertainty. Like the disciples, we worship and we doubt.

But notice what Jesus does. He comes to the disciples, where they are, in their worship and their uncertainty. And he offers them something completely unexpected. He doesn’t say, “Oh ye of little faith.” He doesn’t reprimand them or tell them to go get their doubts figured out and come back later. He sends them, with four absolute statements, and a charge so powerful we now call it the Great Commission.

Let’s look at those four absolute – or “all” – statements, as Richard Beaton calls them, for a moment. The first establishes Jesus as the one who holds “all authority in heaven and earth,” restoring the unity of heaven and earth that was present at Creation. The second is a reminder of the promise to Abraham that all nations will be blessed through his offspring: “Go make disciples of all nations,” Jesus says. Then Jesus adds, “teach them to obey all the things I taught you,” and finally he promises to remain with his followers through all time. Christ answers our uncertainty with these certainties: All authority, among all people, with all Christ’s teaching, for all time. Christ answers our indecision with a command and a direction.

The primary task Jesus sets before his disciples – and that includes us – is disciple making. Remember in the Creation story how God said, “be fruitful and multiply?” This is the same command, only now Jesus is not talking about physical reproduction, but spiritual multiplication. All the other commands he gives in the Great Commission feed into this one thing we are to do: make disciples of Jesus Christ. Make disciples of all people, he says, by going everywhere, baptizing everyone, and teaching everything I taught you.

As a follower of Jesus, wavering between worship and indecision, my first reaction to this command is to play the theme music from “Mission Impossible” in my head while I ask, “How, Lord?!” But the answer is right there in the mission. The formula for making disciples is short and simple: go, baptize, teach. Let’s break it down a little bit.

Go to all people. When I was growing up, we recited the King James Version of the Great Commission every week in the Girls’ Auxiliary of the Women’s Missionary Union of First Southern Baptist Church. The goal was clear – we were all being called to go to Africa or South America as missionaries. Almost all of us failed at that. There may have been one or two of us who made it to Mexico for a week or two of “missions” but most of us never went to a foreign country to share the gospel. While I am certain that Jesus fully intends for some of us to go far away to introduce good news to people who have never heard it, I also am convinced that we have a mission field right here at our own doorstep. There are people in our own back yard who have never heard the good news that Jesus loves them.

According to the Mission Insite demographic study provided to us through the Minnesota Annual Conference (your apportionment dollars at work), 85% of the people living within a five-mile radius of this building do not consider it important to attend religious services. More than half of the people who live here in New Ulm do not consider themselves spiritual persons, and only about 18% think that faith is an important part of their lives. We who value our faith and participation in church are obviously in the minority. We don’t have to travel very far to make new disciples. We only need to step outside the door.

Go baptize people, Jesus says. Now, he isn’t encouraging us to see how many people we can arbitrarily get wet. There is no magic in the words, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and the ritual of baptism itself has no saving power. When Jesus says, “baptize them in the power of this three-fold Name,” he is offering baptism as a symbol of that enfolding love we experience as members of the Body of Christ. Jesus is asking us to include, to embrace, to accept all people and welcome them into the family of God. He isn’t just talking about the people whose skin color is different from ours, he’s talking about the people whose habits and education and lifestyles are drastically different from ours. He’s talking about the poor and powerless, the sick and the hungry. Baptism is a symbol of being included, of being made a part of the whole. Just as in the sacrament of Communion we who are many partake of the one loaf, so in Baptism we who are many become one in Christ – just like the Trinity we invoke as we pour water, we are invited into the mystery of being made one, though we are many.

Go baptize people and teach them all the things I commanded you, Jesus says. This is the true meaning of the word ‘disciple’ – it means student, or intern. Just as those early disciples learned to do the things Jesus did by walking with him day after day, so we are invited into that life-changing, day-by-day walk with Jesus, doing the things Jesus did.

Theologian Dallas Willard writes, a disciple of Jesus is not necessarily one devoted to doing specifically religious things as that is usually understood.I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life. Note, please, I am not learning from him how to lead his life. His life on earth was a transcendently wonderful one. But it has now been led. Neither I nor anyone else, even himself, will ever lead it again. … I need to be able to lead my life as he would lead it if he were I.My discipleship to Jesus is … not a matter of what I do, but of how I do it. And it covers everything, “religious” or not.

When Jesus sent out the 70 (or72) disciples ahead of him (Luke 10:1-12), their job was to heal the sick, and proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand. They did the things they had seen Jesus do, except for one thing. Jesus was the only one who taught the people, as he followed his followers to the places they went. Jesus was the great Teacher, the Rabbi. Now, at the end of Mathew’s gospel, he sends his disciples, his interns, out to teach as well as heal and proclaim the Kingdom of God. There are no half-measures in being a Jesus Intern. Teach them to do all the things I commanded you, he says.

And what are those commands?

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Be a servant if you would be great. Suffer the little children to come unto me. Take care of the widows and fatherless. Spread my love around to people you don’t think deserve it, just as I have lavished my love on you, who do not deserve it. On this Father’s Day, this Trinity Sunday, let’s look at what it might mean to go, to enfold, and to teach, as we make disciples here in New Ulm.

Dr. Kara Powell has written a book called Sticky Faith, offering an approach to youth ministry that strives to keep kids connected to their faith during their teens and early twenties, when they are most likely to question, to express doubts and uncertainties about faith and the church. This approach works to connect young people with a web of at least five adults who are deeply involved in each young person’s life. That’s hard to do when youth ministry is assigned to a small handful of adults, and youth ministry activities happen away from the rest of the church. This summer, we hope to change the pattern of “out of sight, out of mind” that sometimes gets associated with our young people. This summer, we are moving youth ministry back into this building. Over the next few months, we will re-purpose the two rooms in the basement nearest the ramp door on Broadway, and turn them into a youth ministry center. This week, many of our young people gathered for a planning and brainstorming session, and they have some great ideas for making those two rooms into a welcoming spot for teenagers and young adults, a place where we can begin to enfold them into the life of the whole church.

This move will mean that the Youth Coordinator’s office space will move downstairs, freeing up a room just off the narthex for a main-level nursery. Having a nursery that is visible from the sanctuary offers a welcome to families with young children who worship with us, creating another way we can enfold new disciples into the family of God. When we look like kids matter to us, as they did to Jesus, we will be one step closer to making disciples, and being disciples.

So, then, what do we do with the house now known as the SRC? God has dropped an opportunity into our laps that I want to share with you today, and I ask you to pray diligently with me about this possibility.

Over the past few months, the pastors in our local Ministerial Association have been talking with County Social Services about needs in our community. One need that often flies under our radar is that of homeless families. We don’t think of homelessness as being a problem here, because it doesn’t look like the homelessness we see when we go prepare meals at the Simpson Shelter in Minneapolis, or take Food for Friends to Mankato. But it’s real, and it affects school age children in our community. There currently is no homeless shelter or transitional housing of any kind in our entire county. This means that, if a family becomes homeless, they must go to 30 to 75 miles away to find shelter. For school age children, this means pulling them out of school – which in some cases, is the one place they find safety and stability – and starting over in a new place in the middle of the school year. It means losing all the social connections they have built with friends and family. This can be devastating to a young child’s development. Last year, there were 16 documented homeless children at the elementary school. We have about that many kids on an average Wednesday night here at First. Think about that.

Homelessness seems like a problem that is too big for a church of our size to tackle. We don’t have the resources to run a homeless shelter, we don’t have the staff to administer such a program. But we have a house that will soon be vacant, and we have a desire to follow Christ wherever he may lead us, as we go, baptize, and teach to make disciples.

A couple of weeks ago, the director of an organization approached the ministerial association with a proposed joint project. If they could provide the counseling and case management piece of a program to help homeless single mothers get on their feet, while their kids get to stay in local schools, could we come up with a place to do that ministry together, as an ecumenical venture?

We have a house that will soon be vacant, but it needs a lot of work. We don’t have the resources to renovate it on our own.

“But there might be grant money available from United Way,” one pastor said, “and I sit on their board.”

“And there might be some resources from Lutheran Social Services,” another pastor said, “and I know who to call.”

“And we might be able to get some advice from other ecumenical groups who have done something similar,” said another pastor. “Let me do some research.”

“There is a property manager in town who might be able to help us get families settled in affordable longer-term housing, once we get them into the program,” another pastor said.

Suddenly, we had a draft of a mission statement, and some goals to help us narrow the purpose of this project. It’s still in the very formative stages, but the Trustees and the Church Council voted this last week to continue the conversation, and explore how we might use our soon-to-be-vacant house to provide ministry in cooperation with other churches here in our own backyard.

Right now, this is what the project would look like, should we decide to participate in it:

The Getting Families on their Feet Project would provide transitional housing and services for single-mother families, leading them to self- sufficiency.

Goals would be to:

-Allow children of displaced single mothers to remain with their families while staying in local schools, avoiding disruption of academic and social connections
-Provide counseling resources to single moms as they strive toward self-sufficiency
-Provide safe short-term (4-6 weeks) placement in temporary shelter/housing to establish participation in the program
-Provide safe longer-term (2-6 months) placement in transitional housing while support, counseling, and job placement continue
-Assist single-mother families in establishing self-sufficiency while allowing children to remain connected to school, friends, and family

We would start very small, maybe only a couple of families at first, to work out the bugs of the process. I emphasize that we would be working with single-mother families of school age children only. Certainly there are others who could benefit from such a project, but we want to keep it manageable, and we want to focus on helping children, who are the most vulnerable members of our community. Please pray about this, and talk to me if you have questions. The conversation will be continuing, and we have much to discern if we are to participate in such a bold venture.

Jesus claims all authority, then gives it to us, his interns, to go to all people, enfold all of them, teach all of them, making all people “Jesus Interns.” It seems like a Mission Impossible, but this mission, should you choose to accept it, carries with it a huge promise. “Look,” Jesus says, “I am with you through all time, even until eternity has reached its completion.” We do not have to do this on our own. In fact, we’d better not try to. The Holy Spirit continues Christ’s work in us and through us, until eternity is complete. Christ is with us. Amen.

 

 

kidsatpentecost

Children’s Message for Trinity Sunday

Today is Father’s Day. Wave at your dad.  What do you usually call him?  What does your mom usually call him?  How about your grandpa and grandma, his parents? Just like your dad can have three different names, depending on how he is related to the person calling him, God is known to us in three different ways that all depend on how we relate to God in a specific instance. For example, we often think of God the Father, because that’s what Jesus called him, or sometimes we think of the Father as the Creator, like we heard earlier in the story from Genesis that starts out, In the beginning, God created… And we also think of Jesus as God’s Son, or  – if we look at  his relationship to us – we might call him God the Redeemer or Savior.  And last week, we celebrated another way God is present with us, as God the Holy Spirit. Remember how the disciples received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost?  Sometimes we call the Holy Spirit our Comforter or Sustainer. Three different ways we recognize God, but it’s all just One God.  As you look around the church you may notice symbols in groups of three – that’s to represent the three ways we know God, and we call it the Trinity. So today, when you get bored, try looking around for things that are in groups of three, and you can tell me during coffee time what you found, okay? Let’s pray.

God our Maker, or Savior, our Friend, help us to know you and love you, no matter what we call you. We pray in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.