Monthly Archives: August 2014

What’s Your Superpower? – Children’s Message on Romans 12:1-8

What do you think your superpower is? Everybody has one, but sometimes we forget to use the one we’re given! Do you know someone who does a really good job of teaching you things? They know how to keep it interesting, and they answer your questions – sometimes before you even ask! They just seem to know how to make learning fun and you can remember what they teach you? That person has a gift of teaching.

Do you know someone who is really good at encouraging you? No matter how bad you feel about yourself, this person can always help you see what’s good in you, and how God is working in your life. They help you cheer up when you are discouraged, and they always make you want to try harder. That person is an encourager; it’s their superpower.

Or maybe you know someone who is really kind. They are always doing nice things for other people, and they never seem to get mad or angry – that person’s superpower is kindness.

So what’s your superpower? You may not know it, but you are already developing a special gift that has been given to you by the Holy Spirit. This week, I’d like you to pay attention to the way God might be using you, and see if you can figure out what your superpower is. You can ask God to show it to you, and then be on the lookout for things you find yourself doing that might be God working through you. The church needs all kinds of people with all kinds of gifts, especially you and the superpowers you have! Let’s pray…

God, help us to notice when you are working in us and through us to show love to other people. Help us pay attention to the superpowers you have given us through the Holy Spirit, and help us to use our powers for good, so others will come to know you. Amen.

 

Gifts that Differ – Sermon on Romans 12:1-8

No one seems to know who first said, “The problem with living sacrifices is they keep crawling off the altar,” but in today’s reading, the Apostle Paul encourages us to stop crawling away and start really living, as we devote ourselves to following Jesus. Maybe people cringe from offering themselves because our idea of a sacrifice is pretty gory, and always fatal. Or maybe it’s because people focus on what they will lose as they offer their sacrifice. But Paul asks us to consider a different meaning for the word “sacrifice.” He calls us to remember that the root of this word is the same as the word “sacred.” Instead of thinking of a sacrifice as something we have to give up or give away or kill, Paul invites us to recognize that true sacrifice means setting apart something as sacred or holy, and that thing we are to make holy is ourselves, our whole selves. Hear the word of the Lord as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter 12, verses 1-8:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. – Romans 12:1-8

Paul tells us, in remarkably concise language, what it takes to be transformed into Christ-likeness, rather than conformed to this world. Through the renewing of our minds, we are able to know God’s good and perfect will for us, and become “living sacrifices.”

Our transformation begins the moment we claim Jesus as Lord, and continues throughout our lives. We aren’t talking gory death here, but full and abundant life, dedicating to God our entire will and being. But in order to be transformed into Christ-like people, we must also fight against the urge to conform to the world around us.

Even churches struggle with this pull toward worldly conformity. In our eagerness to be accessible, to be inviting and welcoming, churches often try to look and act as little like “church” as possible, making themselves attractive to those for whom the word “church” has negative meaning. As they strive to accommodate the needs and desires of worldly people, these churches sometimes find themselves offering faith as a commodity, rather than a life-giving source of deep joy and transformation. Paul reminds us that our transformation requires an entire mindset change. We have to start thinking differently in order to grow into our new identities as children of God.
And that mindset requires some humility.

By God’s grace, Paul writes, don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think. In other words, don’t get puffed up, but think of yourselves with modesty, according to the faith God gives you.

Our transformation develops right thinking about ourselves in relationship to God and others. Following Jesus changes our thinking from being self-centered to being God-centered. Instead of putting ourselves first, we recognize our place in the body of Christ, and live into that purpose and function with humility.

Because each part of the body is necessary to the whole, and we are connected to one another through Christ, though our functions may be quite different from one another. I often say that we can be believers in isolation, but true discipleship happens in community. Our part in the body connects us to all the other parts of Christ’s body, the church. We depend on one another to make the body function as it should.

But the gifts we bring, the parts we play in the church’s work, are all different. Paul lists seven examples here, but he identifies at least 20 among his letters to Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus. While it isn’t an exhaustive list, the gifts of prophecy, ministry, teaching, encouragement, generosity, leading (which may really mean administering finances, or being a benefactor), and compassion, are all examples of good gifts, used well. This brief list is not given in any particular order of importance, either. It is simply an illustration of the many ways we work together for the kingdom of God.

So why don’t we talk about these gifts of the Spirit more often? Why don’t we work, as a church, to help people develop their spiritual giftedness? Authors Dan and Barbara Dick explain that most churches depend on structure-based ministry. They determine what needs to happen to keep the institution alive, and then seek church members who can fill those needs. But this approach no longer works, partly because our society no longer trusts institutions of any kind, and individualism has taken prominence over community. But what might happen if we refocused our energy toward developing the gifts that God has already placed among us, and then structured our ministry around that giftedness, instead of looking for the gifts we need to maintain the status quo?

Dan and Barbara Dick tell us, “Gifts-based ministry focuses on the people – their gifts and passions and their sense of call and Christian vocation.”[1] The beauty of developing a gifts-based church is that all gifts can be used in many ways, but their purpose remains the building up of the church, and the equipping of the saints for ministry (Eph 4:12).

The primary mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The Minnesota Conference has identified three gospel imperatives to accomplish this mission:

  • Grow in love for God – nurturing and strengthening personal Christian faith
  • Reach new people – welcoming them into the family of God
  • Heal a broken world – live out our calling to be salt and light to a world that needs some good news

As we work toward these goals, our gifts are not delegated to one gospel imperative or another. Rather, we all use all our gifts to address all the tasks of ministry. Everything we do as a church should line up with the ultimate goal of making disciples for the transformation of the world. We nurture faith and love for God, we reach new people, and we help to heal a broken world by exercising the gifts God has given us.

Our gifts are the “superpowers” God has given us to do ministry in this time and place. These spiritual gifts are not only to be used for the benefit of others, however. They are for our own benefit, too. Our gifts also draw us more closely into Christ-likeness, transforming each of us into what God created us to be. When Paul says, “use your gifts to equip the saints for every good work” I sometimes think we forget that we who have been given these gifts are those saints being equipped for ministry.

Dan and Barbara Dick write, “All too often, we are working rather than worshiping when we sing, read, or serve in church. How glorious it would be if we could be truly filled with holy fire in our mission and ministry, if we could trust in that power and allow God to use our spiritual gifts, … to build up the body of Christ and prepare it to be the church in the world.” (22)

Exercising our gifts isn’t something to do just when we feel like it. Serving Christ isn’t a hobby or a way to use our spare time to make us feel better about ourselves. Using our giftedness is how we follow Jesus. Director of Ministry for the Minnesota Conference, Cindy Gregorson often says that she would like to eliminate the word “volunteer” from church vocabularies. When we volunteer, it implies that we are using our discretionary time and energy in an optional activity. Following Jesus is a 24/7 endeavor that requires a completely transformed mindset: there’s nothing optional about being a disciple of Christ.

Dan and Barbara Dick write, “When people who are gifted, graced, and equipped for every good work choose to live and work and grow together in community, the church is fulfilling its mission and call to love God and love neighbor through faithful discipleship.”[2]

So what gifts do you possess? What special superpowers has the Holy Spirit given you for the building up of the church and the equipping of saints for ministry? Today, you are going to have an opportunity to discover your gifts. The ushers are passing out some spiritual gifts inventory forms, and I invite you to prayerfully give attention to learning how God has gifted you – not so we can figure out which committee to assign you to! – but so you can begin to develop your unique gifts in service to God, which is your spiritual worship. If you aren’t a paper/pencil type, and you would rather complete a spiritual gifts inventory online, you can go to our church website and find links to several different assessment tools. I’ve tried them all, and had similar results from each, so I’m pretty sure you’re safe in choosing any of them. Some websites give you more information about each of the spiritual gifts on the inventory, so you may want to explore those sites to learn more about your particular gift set.

Then I invite you to do something that will dramatically impact the life of our church. I invite you to tell us what your gifts are. You can do it anonymously, if you’re still afraid the nominating committee is going to use this information to put you to work. But it might be an eye-opener to discover what gifts we have among us, where our strengths as a congregation lie, and how God might be calling our church into ministry through the gifts that have been given to us.

So, I’m giving you a homework assignment. This week, discover your gifts, and learn something about them. Pray daily for God to show you how to use your gifts. Then come to church next week, prepared to write the name of your primary gift (with or without your own name – doesn’t matter) on a card that we will collect.

I am eager to see how God has gifted each of us. I am more eager to see how God will transform us individually, and as a church, through the renewal of our minds, so that lives might be changed, and together we might discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. Amen.

[1] Dan and Barbara Dick, Equipped for Every Good Work: Building a Gifts-Based Church, 19.

[2] Ibid, 20.

Grafted In – Sermon on Romans 11

This week, as events unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, I was struck by the difference on social media between the responses of my white friends and my black friends to the death of Michael Brown. Here in New Ulm, where pretty much everyone is white, you may not have paid much attention to the news from Ferguson. It may not have seemed relevant to our mostly German community. But as I read today’s scriptures over and over, they kept pointing me back to the news, and particularly to the pain and frustration my black friends were expressing as the week wore on. Not just the tensions in Ferguson, but the tensions in Gaza and other parts of the world all seem to come back to the fact that we, as human beings, don’t do a very good job of living together peacefully.

In our Old Testament reading today, Joseph’s revelation to his brothers might seem like a happy ending, but we know the rest of the story. Joseph brings his whole family to Egypt, and 400 years later, their descendants will struggle under Egyptian oppression. The Gospel Lesson tells us of a Canaanite woman who convinces Jesus to help her daughter, but she has to overcome Jewish prejudice against Israel’s earliest enemies in order to do it. And in our reading from Romans today, we will hear the Apostle Paul wrap up his own argument in the Gentile/Jew debate. No matter where we turn, it seems, the Bible keeps playing the race card.

When scripture collides with current events like this, we cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand and pretend we don’t see it. Maybe you think the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has little or nothing to do with you, and the aftermath of his death may seem like a mess you’re glad is happening there, instead of here. Maybe you think we’re a long way away from that St. Louis suburb. On the other hand, our readings today might just be telling us, to paraphrase one of my Facebook friends, that Ferguson is nearer to New Ulm than we think.
Here’s the word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.

 

If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.”  That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. … 

…  for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. (Romans 11:1-2, 16-21, 29-32)

“Has God rejected his people?” Paul has to ask this question because, apparently, some of the Gentile Christians in Rome thought God had disowned Israel, and Gentile Christians had become God’s chosen people in Israel’s place. But this isn’t true, Paul tells us. Salvation is for all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.

Paul defends his point by reminding his readers that he, himself, is a Jew. If God had completely rejected his people, Paul wouldn’t have had a chance. Yet, here he is, a Jew and a follower of Jesus. Just because the nation of Israel had rejected God, it didn’t mean that God would break his promise. Jesus had told the woman at the well “salvation is from the Jews,” after all (John 4:22). If not for the Jews, Paul tells us, there would be no gospel story. There would be no good news. God has not rejected his people.

Paul goes on to describe salvation history using an olive tree as an example. It was common practice to prune out branches of an old tree that had borne well for many years, then graft in younger branches from an uncultivated tree to get the old tree to bear again. The strong root of the old tree would support the new branches as they fused with the established tree. “You Gentiles are like those new branches,” Paul says, “but don’t get cocky. You depend on the strong root of Jewish history, not the other way around.”

And this is where scripture collides with the events of this past week, as hateful words flew, and violence escalated in Ferguson, MO. You see, Emperor Claudius had kicked the Jews out of Rome, but Nero had repealed that edict when he came into power a few years later. While the Jews were absent, Gentile Christians in Rome had continued to grow in numbers and influence. To some extent, when the Jewish Christians were allowed to return to Rome, they came back to a church in which Gentile Christians had taken over, and had begun to see themselves as more privileged than the Jews. There may have even been evidence of a particularly troubling heresy that rejected the Old Testament and Judaism completely. It’s no wonder that Paul’s words are strong here, as he warns against arrogance. When addressing people of privilege, it sometimes takes strong language to expose that assumption of privilege for what it is: oppression.

The thing is, people who live privileged lives don’t usually see that we have freedoms others can only dream about. We take for granted that others will assume we are clean, honest, and dependable. We might even look down our noses a bit at people who don’t appear to be any of these things. When I stroll down the aisles at Walmart, I don’t have to worry about keeping my hands out of my pockets. I don’t have to” watch my step or practice what to say when – not if – the police pull me over.” But I know people who do. And I can tell you that my life of privilege makes their lives harder. Not because they have to work harder or be smarter or do more to get the same recognition I get, but because when I blithely go about my business without a care in the world, I’m creating a world that doesn’t care. And that is not what Jesus calls me to do.

“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable,” Paul writes. God has called all his people to himself, no matter what ethnic tribe they claim, no matter what social standing they have, no matter how rich or poor they are. And since we are all called as disciples of Jesus Christ, it follows that I may be rubbing elbows with another disciple who doesn’t look like me or smell like me or think like me or act like me, but we are in this thing called faith together, as brothers and sisters, united in our love for God and for one another.

None of us is any better or worse than any of us. We each have our part in the story. Paul writes, “Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” (vv30-32)

If the Jews had not rejected Jesus, there would have been no reason for Paul to reach out to the Gentiles with the good news of God’s saving love. If the Gentiles had not responded to that good news, there would have been no way for the Jews to see that God’s love and mercy is available to everyone. In Greek, “mercy” is the last word in verse 32. What would it look like for mercy to be the last word, the ultimate gift we might offer to one another, regardless of our differences?

As the governor sent in the State Highway Patrol to take charge of security in Ferguson, tensions relaxed a bit, but were raised again when the governor announced a curfew “until further notice.” Video footage released by the police identifies Michael Brown as a suspect in a robbery that took place earlier on the day he was killed. But the police officer who shot Michael Brown was not aware of the robbery. The details are muddy, and a grand jury will start sorting them out in the next few days. No matter who did what, or where the blame lies for protests that turned into riots, complete with military-style response from police, the last word needs to be mercy. Mercy is all we can ask, and all we can offer.

It’s unfortunate that the final verses of chapter 11 are not included in today’s lectionary reading, because Paul offers us a song of praise to conclude this section of his letter. He’s said everything that needs to be said about Jews and Gentiles having the same access to God’s grace and forgiveness. The only thing left to do is give God thanks for his goodness, to praise him for being God. Next week, we will move on to Paul’s instructions for recognizing and using our spiritual gifts. If you’ve ever wondered what spiritual gifts you possess, you’ll want to be here! But in the meantime, let us join with the Apostle Paul in giving glory to God. Hear the last four verses of chapter 11:

 

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

 

Beautiful Feet – Sermon on Romans 10:5-15 

August 10, 2014

5 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” 6 But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or “Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”  – Romans 10:5-15

 

How do people come to know Jesus is Lord? Paul has been struggling with this question throughout his letter to the Romans. He has explained how the Law was established to unite us with God, but the Law can’t save, because no one can obey it completely. The purpose of the Law, Paul tells us, is not to tell us what to do. The purpose of the Law is to refer us to Christ, who has arrived and is present with us now. Jesus completes the work of the Law, by making us right with God.

Paul has carefully explained how Gentiles have been included in the promise God made to Abraham, allowing them to become children of God. And Paul has lamented that his own people, the nation of Israel, have failed to see that Jesus is the very Messiah they had been waiting for. It isn’t the Law that saves, but faith in Jesus the Christ.

Now Paul draws on his extensive knowledge of the very Law Christ fulfills to remind his readers that God’s good news is very near – it is in their hearts and on their lips. Paul loosely interprets several verses from Deuteronomy 30:

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the depths, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” …. 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it…. 19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.

Paul is saying that this promise from Moses, given at the end of his life, to the Israelites just before they were to enter the promised land, is for all, and what Moses is promising is Christ. The Word that is in your mouth and heart is the good news that Jesus is Lord, and God raised him from the dead. We are saved through faith in this good news.

“Jesus is Lord” was one of the earliest confessions of faith in the Christian church. It not only negated Caesar as “Lord” but affirmed that Jesus was God incarnate. It’s a radical confession for us today, as well. Asking Christ to rule over us goes against every cultural norm to take charge of our own lives, to focus our energy on satisfying our own desires.

“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” Paul writes. There is no distinction between Gentile and Jew – all must believe and confess to be saved. The Law has been completed, and all who have faith are welcome in the Kingdom. God has done the work, and brought the good news near to us.

What does it mean that it’s near to us? It’s right under our noses! On the tip of our tongues! It’s the word we share when we tell others about what God has done in our lives to change us. It’s that “E” word that most mainline Christians don’t like to use: evangelism.

Maybe evangelism makes us uncomfortable because we take too much responsibility for the salvation of others. But it is not up to us to save the world. God has already done that. It is up to us to believe that this is true and live as though we believe it. So, if God has already done the heavy lifting through the work of Jesus Christ, what is our part? What does it mean to ‘confess with our lips’ and ‘believe in our hearts’?” Our part is certainly more than private holiness, and delivering soap box sermons on the street corner isn’t what Paul has in mind here, either. What the apostle is urging is a life of inward and outward integrity, a life based on faith.

Kyle Fedler writes, “The Christian faith creates an entirely new geometry. The circle of believers that was once defined by its boundaries, the law, is now defined by its center, Christ. The attention to who is in and who is out is no longer the focus. Rather, the focus is on the One who calls and claims, redeems and loves. We are called to start in the center and live as though the circle is infinite – which of course, it is.”[1]

Yesterday, a couple of us attended a training workshop for leading an Alpha course here at First. Alpha has often been described as “Christianity 101” or a way to invite others into conversations about faith. It’s an evangelism tool that has changed hundreds of thousands of lives around the world, and it starts with the question, “If you could ask God anything at all, what would you ask?” As we listened to the story of Alpha unfold, I was reminded that evangelism is about introducing others to Jesus. We are not responsible for the outcome of the introductions; that work belongs to God.

So, how do people come to know Jesus is Lord? It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You can’t call on the name of the Lord unless you believe Jesus is Lord. You can’t believe unless you’ve heard the good news that Jesus is Lord. You can’t hear the good news unless someone tells you how Jesus is Lord. You can’t tell someone how Jesus is Lord unless you go to them. In other words, evangelism is discipleship, and discipleship is evangelism. Sharing Jesus is following Jesus, and following Jesus is sharing him.

In her early book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lemott confessed to a prayer life that consisted mainly of “Help! Help! Help!” and “Thanks! Thanks! Thanks!” Several years later, another book showed how her faith had grown. The title offered a third prayer that Anne had added to her repertoire. That book was called Help Thanks Wow. This week, Anne Lamott posted a story on her Facebook page that reflects an even deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. She calls it her “fourth great prayer” and again, it’s a single word: Okay.

Following Jesus means saying Okay, Lord, I will make you be the center of my life. Okay, Lord, I will go where you send me. Okay, Lord, I will look for ways to tell others about the ways you have changed me into a new person by loving me beyond my comprehension. Okay, Lord. I’m yours. And when we say “Okay,” we open the door for God to use us to bring in his Kingdom.

If you believe in your heart … the early Methodists would always begin their “classes” or small group sessions with this important question: “How is it with your soul?” Early Pietists, who met in similar groups called conventicles, asked a similar question, “How goes your walk with the Lord?” Believing in your heart describes a personal and deep relationship with God that only comes through consistent prayer and Bible study. But it is not something we do in isolation. “How is it with your soul?” and “How goes your walk with the Lord?” can only be asked by others in the community of faith, who walk with us as faith develops in the very core of our being.

If you confess with your lips … we tell others how God has changed our lives, and invite them to consider how God might change their lives. Do you think that’s too hard? Let me tell you how you are already doing it.

This week at the Brown County Fair, more than 70 families took advantage of our Diaper Depot and Feeding Station. We showed those families that God loves them by providing something they needed.

This week, the task force formed to establish an emergency shelter for displaced single mothers and their children gave the project a name. It will be called NUMAS Haus. Community partners have joined the task force, including the superintendent of New Ulm Public Schools, and the director of Brown County Family Services. If funding comes through, we could begin renovation on our vacant house in January, with services beginning as early as March. You made this possible by stepping forward in faith. Can you even imagine the message this sends to our community? By our very presence and participation in this project, we are telling New Ulm that we care about the needs of homeless families, that we love them as Christ loves them.

Next week, children will gather for two evenings of learning about Jesus in Vacation Bible School. In a couple of weeks, we will once again serve a meal through Food for Friends. Our youth recently served as the hands and feet of Christ in Sioux Falls. All of these activities are ways we tell the people around us that we belong to Christ, that we have said, “Okay, Lord.”

Last week, I received this letter:

“Dear Members of First United Methodist Church
I have been a member of a Methodist Church for 64 years – But have never experienced such a feeling of being welcomed as I did Sunday July 27th. My great granddaughter 4 years old, was given the children’s bag – right off – she really used it. Thank you. We were helped to a pew with plenty of room for the three of us – lots of space …. to move about and not distract anyone. At least 4 people came and greeted us before the service began. Then at least 4 people invited us to join them for fellowship time – Bill insisted. Thank you so much, and God bless you all.”

That’s a powerful affirmation that God is moving among us, changing us, so that others lives might be changed through us.

You will hear much more about a new initiative in September, but you should be aware that the Minnesota Conference of the UMC is refocusing its efforts to start new churches and revitalize existing congregations through the Reach, Renew, Rejoice campaign. We can be part of this movement. We already are part of this movement.

As we confess our faith in Christ Jesus as Lord, by telling our own stories of God at work, and living out lives of faithfulness, we are changed. And as we are changed by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ calls us to share that good news. It’s part of being a follower of Jesus. Evangelism is discipleship and discipleship is evangelism. Whether we share that good news by telling others what God has done for and in us, or by showing God’s love in action, we are the messengers Christ sends to a hurting world.

“How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?
And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?
And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?
And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?
As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Amen.

[1] Kyle D. Fedler, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, 328.

Children of the Promise – Sermon on Romans 9:1-8

Bruce and I traveled to Boone, Iowa this week, to ride the scenic railway. We splurged an extra five bucks to ride in the two-level, air-conditioned first class car, and it was worth five dollars to sit above the trees we passed, as we looked out over the Des Moines River valley. The Iowa Railroad Historical Society only owns about 12 miles of track, so we had a 10-minute layover at the end of the line, while the engine disengaged from one end of the train, passed us on a siding, and re-engaged at the other end of the train to take us back to the station. During this break, we were encouraged to change sides and reposition the seats so we could see what we’d missed during the first half of the ride. As we headed back over the Des Moines River, I was suddenly reminded of this passage from Romans we are about to read. One side of the train faced a beautiful river valley, with lush cornfields tucked between high hills covered in dark green forests. The other side of the train faced piles of dead trees that had been uprooted during the spring floods, and other evidence of the devastation those floods had caused. One side of the train looked out on a fruitful valley teeming with life. The other looked out on destruction and death. What you saw depended, in large part, on which side of the train you found yourself.

Last week, we heard one of the most beautiful and uplifting passages in all of scripture, Paul’s declaration that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Today, we look out the other side of the train. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter nine, the first eight verses.

am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For  could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.

This is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.

The letter to the Romans has often been used to promote the erroneous idea that Paul thought God had rejected the Jews, because they had rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Nothing could have been further from Paul’s intention. Paul’s lament here in chapter nine opens a new train of thought that will continue through chapter 11, and Paul’s focus turns from the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God to the more troubling question, “What will God do with the Jews, his chosen people, who have rejected his promised Messiah, Jesus?” These three chapters really serve to clarify that the promises of God to all God’s people will be kept. God is faithful. One commentator[1] says the key to this passage is in verse six: God’s word has not failed.

This isn’t about tearing the promise away from one ethnic group and handing it over to another. It isn’t about paying the Jews back for killing Jesus – remember that in every single gospel account of Christ’s crucifixion, it is the Romans, not the Jews, who killed Jesus. “Just because you have been included in God’s family as children of the promise,” Paul tells his Gentile readers in Rome, “don’t look down on your Jewish cousins.” God will be faithful to honor his promises to the people he set apart. God’s Word is sure, even for those who don’t want to hear it. But the fact that his own people have chosen not to hear the good news is very troubling to Paul.

Paul expresses his deep anguish by repeating himself in stronger and stronger language. Since Paul was well trained in scripture, it’s not surprising that his lament follows the poetic structure of many psalms crying out to the Lord. That Hebrew poetic structure, called parallelism, repeats an idea to give it emphasis. Just look at the first two verses: “I am telling the truth, I am not lying, my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit.” Paul isn’t defending his own integrity by affirming his honesty three times; he’s “swearing on a stack of Bibles” to make a point. Piling “great sorrow” on top of “unceasing anguish” adds to the poetic despair Paul feels for the people of Israel, his own flesh and blood.

Anglican theologian N. T. Wright explains Paul’s grief like this: “He was like someone driving in convoy who takes a particular turn in the road and then watches in horror as most of the other cars take the other fork. They think he’s wrong; he thinks they’re wrong. What is worse, he really does believe that the road he has taken is the only road to the fulfillment of God’s great promises. What will happen to them? Why did they go that way, ignoring the signs that made him take the other fork?”[2]

To put it another way, Paul has been desperately trying to get his own people, the descendants of Abraham, to stop looking at the dead debris left behind on the riverbank after the floods have receded, and turn to see the broad vista of a fruitful valley that beckons from the window on the other side of the train. But they won’t stop looking at the dead trees piled in the dry mud. And it grieves Paul’s heart.

It grieves Paul’s heart because he knows that they got it wrong. They thought God’s promise was for a people, a select ethnic group, but God’s promise was for the whole world, to be fulfilled through the nation of Israel in the person of Jesus Christ. Paul weeps over this mistake, and would go so far as to give up his own salvation, if it would make any difference at all.

The point is not that the Jews should be rejected because they rejected Jesus. The point is this: “Who means so much to you that you’d be willing to give up your own salvation so they could come to know Christ?” In other words, whose distance from God breaks our hearts, and what are we willing to do about it? Is your heart burdened for someone, maybe in your family or your circle of friends, who needs Jesus? Does it bother you enough that you would, like Paul, offer yourself in their place?

And if they are worth that kind of sacrifice, aren’t they at least worth telling about Jesus? If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking, “But I don’t know how to do that. I’m not comfortable talking about faith with people. I don’t want to offend them.” Would you rather see them spend eternity separated from the God who loved them enough to send his own Son to die for them?

To be a good witness, you don’t have to sit people down with a Four Spiritual Laws booklet and force them to pray the sinner’s prayer. You only need to invite them, just as you would invite them to dinner, to join you in following Christ with all the rest of us.

Remember a few weeks ago, when we heard the Great Commission? Jesus commands us, as his disciples, to make disciples. “Go, baptize, teach,” Jesus says. Making disciples is a process that involves reaching out to others, including them in the fellowship of believers we call the church, and then spending the rest of our lives on earth together, learning how to be more and more like Jesus. It isn’t the same thing as mentoring. You aren’t sharing your own wisdom and expertise with someone who knows less than you do about following Jesus. It’s walking together, encouraging one another as we seek to follow our Lord. It doesn’t take a theological degree or years of Bible study to make disciples – the original twelve had no theological training at all – it just takes the deep desire to follow and obey Jesus, and the willingness to help someone else do the same.

This week we will have an opportunity to share God’s love at the Brown County Fair, through our Diaper Depot and Feeding Station. If you haven’t already signed up to serve as a host, welcoming parents and making sure the station stays well stocked and inviting, there is room for you to put your name on the sign up sheet in the narthex. We particularly need hosts to help on Friday, since it’s “Kid’s Day” at the Fair. Or maybe you’d like to help with Vacation Bible School next week, introducing children to Bible stories, or helping them with craft projects or music. Chris B. would love to talk with you if you can be a disciple by making disciples. There are other ways you can follow Jesus by inviting others to follow Jesus. Pray for God to point you toward a person who needs to draw closer to Christ, and invite that person for coffee or a walk. Be present. Ask God to let your mundane conversations become holy ones, as you seek to share Christ’s love with others. Paul writes, “it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise [who] are counted as descendants.” We are those children of the promise. Let’s help others turn from looking at death and destruction, so they can see what lies on the other side of the train, and become children of the promise, too. Amen.

[1] Kyle D. Fedler, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, 306.

[2] NT Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 2, 3.