5 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
18: be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Today is not the day for long sermons: it is rather the time for catching up with people we have not seen for a while / for sharing our summer stories / and enjoying the last of the days of summer.
I am going to teach us a tagline used by the United Methodist Church: Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors. These are the three the headings to my sermon:
Do you remember the moment you fell in love: that moment when someone special touched your heart?
- It might have been your first love in Grade school. Or maybe you fell in love with that great love of your life.
- It might also have been the moment that your grandchild was placed in your arms
- It might even have been the moment when you held a puppy or a kitten.
We all know of moments when our hearts were opened up to the experience of love.
John Wesley, the man who began the Methodist movement, had such a moment in his life: He records in his journal that on May 24, 1738 his heart was “strangely warmed”. This description is something we can all identify with – a moment when our heart opens up to the emotions of loving and being loved.
This is a cornerstone of our United Methodist Church: we are people of open hearts. Ephesians 5:2 says: “walk in love, as Christ loved us”.
We are people whose hearts are open to receive the love of God.
And we are people whose hearts are open to sharing that love with everyone who meets us.
Let me tell you a Story: of a moment in my life when as a young man serving in the military, I learned something new about God: I was a new recruit and the sergeant came into our barracks and asked who had a drivers licence. And I was the idiot who put his hand up. That sergeant handed me a broom and said “Here – drive this around the camp chapel”. So there I was – resentfully sweeping out the chapel – when I had an overwhelming experience of God’s love for me. There was no service with great music, no carefully staged moment of spiritual blessing, and no great preacher: just me and a dusty broom: but God’s love touched me.
Let me be clear: I was not expecting God to show up! But God opened my mind to hear a call to a new chapter in my life – a call which led me out of the military, and which became the beginning of my life as a Methodist Pastor.
Ephesians 5:20 invites us to “give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Let us be willing to embrace everything that comes our way: and maybe, while we are sweeping up the remains of our day – we will discover that God’s love is holding us.
The second building block of our United Methodist faith: to have an open mind. Be open to learning new things. Be ready to grow and mature in your faith.
And in the same way – let us be open to allow other people their own encounter with God. God comes to each person as God chooses: let us open our minds and be willing to discover God at work in ways we do not expect.
We welcome everyone who wants to worship God. This is deep within our bones as United Methodist People: it began when John Wesley was a preacher in England. At that time the church was divided into superior people and inferior people. Everyone paid for their seat in church – the more expensive seats in the front, and the seats for the poor at the back. As a result, people in front were the royalty, and the wealthy – and the people in the last row were the poor. John Wesley brought people out of the gutters of London into church – and discovered that those who could not pay for their seats were not welcome because there was nowhere for them to sit.
So he took his church services out into the fields. The Methodist people met in parks, and in graveyards, and in coal mines: because John Wesley said that Christian worship should be open to all who want to worship God. Ephesians 5:19 invites us to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart”
The last building block of our United Methodist faith is that of “Open Doors”. Everyone is welcome to worship.
Let me close with this thought: if you have felt welcome here – then your understanding is shown in the way you welcome other people.
The fact is:
“You will never look in the eyes of someone who God does not love”
This church is not a liberal church, or a conservative church
We are not an old people’s church or a young person’s church
We are not a white church or a black church
We are God’s church – and everyone is welcome to join us
Because we have open doors.
Jesus did not chase people away – and neither will we”.
So the United Methodist Church has a byline: Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.
What Is True Freedom?
Romans 6: 12-23
This is the time of the year when Americans pause to celebrate freedom. July 4th is seminal to American culture – and is possibly the one national holiday observed by everyone. From 1776 to the present day, July 4th has been celebrated as the birth of American freedom from British colonialism.
So what is freedom? Is it fireworks, parades and concerts, family gatherings and barbecues? Of course it is – the freedom to gather together and to share the joy of family, and of nation is to be celebrated. And I want to congratulate you on your Independence Day.
There are some would want to point to deeper meanings – such as the freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment: the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, a free press, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government.
And some might pause this weekend and reflect on the ways in which American freedom has become hotly contested territory: there is disagreement about the freedom to read books, or to learn all of America’s history – or the freedom to select who get admitted to educational institutions.
Today I am wanting us to pause and reflect on freedom: but more specifically on the way followers of Jesus understand freedom. We will go to the teaching of the Apostle Paul: I want us to spend time in Romans Chapter 6. I will read from Eugene’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Message.
12-14 That means you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Don’t give it the time of day. Don’t even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time—remember, you’ve been raised from the dead!—into God’s way of doing things. Sin can’t tell you how to live. After all, you’re not living under that old tyranny any longer. You’re living in the freedom of God.
“You’re living in the freedom of God.”
St Paul writes these stirring words : you are living in the freedom of God! The apostle Paul wrote these words to the Christian church in Roma from the Greek city of Corinth in AD 57, just three years after the 16-year-old Nero had ascended to the throne as Emperor of Rome. His predecessor, Emperor Claudius, had expelled Jews from Rome, but now they were returning. Amongst these were Jewish Christians, who returned to the churches they had founded, only to discover that Gentile Romans had become the new leadership. So Paul is faced with complaints about the way some wanted to take away the freedoms of others:
They probably sounded something like this:
“We founded this church – and these newcomers want to deprive us of our freedom of worship. Tell them to worship the way our founding fathers designed it.”
And then the reply – “Well we also follow Jesus – and we have our own unique (non-Jewish) culture, and these returning Jews want to take away our freedom to be Gentile followers of Jesus.”
I wonder what we might have said in reply to them.
Some might say: “Well just start another church. Have one Jewish Church and have another Gentile Church – where you are each free to practice your own culture in the way you are most comfortable.”
If you read all the way through Romans Chapter 6 you will hear Paul’s reply: he does not say divide yourselves into separate parties. Instead, he says that there are two kinds of life: a sinful life, and a life set free from sin.
The sinful life is a life of bondage, where human emotions control you and lead you to judge the worth of other people according to your own sinful standards. You will spend your time deciding the worth of others by using the standards of your culture and upbringing. Paul is emphatic in his response: Romans 6:19:
19 I’m using this freedom language because it’s easy to picture. You can readily recall, can’t you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing—not caring about others, not caring about God—the worse your life became and the less freedom you had? And how much different is it now as you live in God’s freedom, your lives healed and expansive in holiness?
Paul says: You have been set free from such sin – now live differently.
Paul writes further in the Letter to Romans about how we can move from judgement, to living by faith. This is a way of living that trusts that Jesus offers us a better way of living – one that trusts the power of God’s love to hold us all in community, irrespective of the culture that gave birth to us. True freedom is being transformed from the old judgmental way of life – to a new Grace-filled way of life.
Paul says that the problem with culturally separated churches in Rome is that you will continue to look down on each other. Instead, worship together – and learn to love each other’s cultures. Be set free from your prejudices about each other because Christ has set you free.
22-23 But now that you’ve found you don’t have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way! Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.
Isn’t this amazing – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus sets you free from the old, judgmental way of life. Remember those words of St Paul: “You’re living in the freedom of God”
Allow me to offer this teaching from the Apostle Paul to us this July 4th. When we celebrate Freedom – may we who are followers of Jesus discover the Grace to be more than our own culture, or language group, or political party. Let us discover the Grace to be free to celebrate the lives of other people who live in this country – people who are not like me, but who are nevertheless my neighbor, or my colleague, or one who buys at the same store as I do. True freedom is when I am able to let go of my narrow, sinful boundaries, and discover the Holy Spirit leading me to respect all who live here as fellow human beings – whether Republican or Democrat / gay or straight / Black or White or Latino or Asian / East-Coast, West-Coast or Mid-Westerner: we are all the beloved children of God..
I close with another quote from the Apostle Paul: this time not in his letter to Rome – but taken from another letter he writes these words about freedom:
For you have been called to live in Freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13)
Intro: There is a story from the Bible that is traditionally read today - the Sunday after Pentecost. It is Matthew 28: 16-20, a story that contains doubt, authority, a difficult theological concept, and reassurance. So let us read it, and then I will unpack these four verses:
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[b] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28: 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted Matthew captures the mood of the disciples – they worship Jesus, even while they had their doubts..
• When Jesus gathered those disciples, he did not first interrogate their beliefs to make sure that they had got everything right.
• He did not ask them to reassure him that they were confident they could do the job before he sent them into the world.
• It was not even a condition of discipleship that they first be sure of everything they believed:
Following Jesus allows space for doubt. We can be a disciple – even while we bring our question, and things that make us unsure. It is our questions that open up space for our spiritual growth.
Matthew 28 tells us that it is these unsure, hesitant, doubting disciples are commissioned by Jesus to go and make disciples.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples (Matt 28:18)
This word “disciple” is derived from the Latin discipulus – a student. We are told that the disciples of Jesus are turned into teachers, sent to raise up new students. The disciples still have doubts and questions – which I noted as the essential tools for further learning - but this does not prevent them from passing on their faith. Because discipleship does not depend on having the right explanations, or saying the correct Creed, or belonging to the best church:
Our Christian discipleship is based in hearing Jesus say to us: “Go… in the Name of God”. This is the one key idea that holds all this together: the disciples are sent “in the name” of God. This is a deliberate term. Throughout history, people in authority have sent messengers to speak on their behalf: the messenger from the King would announce a message in the village square “in the name of the King”. This message is not the words of the messenger – but is instead said with the reputation and the authority of the one who sent the messenger.
So those who follow Jesus are sent “in the name of God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit” to share our faith: This faith is rooted in a relationship….a relationship with The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. My Christian faith begins at the moment that I discover that God loves me with the same passion that a Good Father loves his newborn baby; this relationship is modeled on the life and teachings of Jesus the Son; and it is nurtured and strengthened by the power of the Spirit of God. So when you and I follow Jesus – let us intentionally call ourselves “disciples” of Jesus: we do not know everything, we have our doubts and our uncertainties, but we have been sent by Jesus to share the Gospel.
This brings with it both Good News and a Challenge:
The Good News is that we have space for our doubts and our imperfections – because the message does not depend on us being perfect: the message belongs to God. We speak a message of the Love of God for the people of this world. Let us never remain silent because we are overcome by our fears, or our weaknesses, or our failures. Because the God uses imperfect vessels to carry a perfect message.
The Challenge in this: we cannot become arrogant about the message. Matthew 28: 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. The message of God’s Salvation is not my message! It does not belong to me. There is no room for me to think I am superior or more righteous than others – just because I have the message of Jesus. I am heartbroken by how easily Christians preach the anger and the retribution of God – mostly often aimed at other people. We import our own cultural prejudices into our faith and make it appear that God hates the same people that we do! John 3:16 tells us that “God so loved the world that he sent his son”…Jesus came to love the whole world – and yet we are so slow to speak (and demonstrate) the love and compassion of God towards all people. God loves everyone – without exception. In this month of June hear me clearly: God loves the LGBTQI community. Let us distance ourselves from the unkind prejudices of our national culture – and show love to all people.
And then the concluding promise: Matthew 28: 20 “, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We do not do this alone. Not only do we go in the name of Jesus – but God goes with us.
Matthew 17 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. 3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son,[a] with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
This is a well known story in the life of Jesus: Jesus goes up the mountain to pray, taking Peter, James and John with him. This is a really, really amazing experience for the disciples, who have their faith renewed by what became a deeply spiritual event: it is so deeply moving that they not only hear the voice of God, but they encounter the founding fathers of their faith – Moses and Elijah. It is such an amazing spiritual experience that Peter says – “Lord it is good to be here: let us stay in this moment” – well he actually said “let us put up tents” , but this means, let us stay here where it feels so good.
Such moments are precious – We even have a saying in the English language for this: we speak of “Mountain-top experiences”.
This was not the only such experience for the disciples:
On the day of Pentecost they were part of a huge crowd of people who were blessed by the Holy Spirit and experienced the presence of God. And lives were changed. And the new Jesus movement took off. Acts Chapter 4:31 tells of a revival service where the Holy Spirit fell on people and lives were changed. And again in Acts 10, and in Acts 19 - and in many, many moments since then: our Methodist history records the Holy Spirit taking hold of the heart of John Wesley, and him describing this as his “heart being strangely warmed”. Subsequently there were Methodist revival meetings where the Holy Spirit took hold of the meeting and people’s lives were changed. And in the history of this country there are countless stories of revival meetings where the Spirit of God changed people’s lives. In fact right now there is a revival service taking place at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky: here is a report of what is taking place:
A chapel service in Hughes Auditorium started on Wednesday, February 8th and has not yet ended. In the days since there has been an organic rotation of public confessions and repentance, worship (of all sorts), proclamation (preaching and testimonies), prayer, and public scripture reading.
So today we remind ourselves that God offers moments of deep spiritual blessing: and I would like to leave two thoughts with us:
1. Let us never become tired of seeking the presence of God.
God longs to bless us – God has done so in history, and God continues to do so today. Let us pray for Spiritual revival in our church. And I am speaking of a deep, refreshing, spiritual renewal. This is more than getting the right songs together, or getting the best preacher, or having the best words in prayer: this is about pausing in our busy lives to give time to the Spirit of God. Listen to these words from the Asbury revival:
In our hurry-filled, over-scheduled Western American culture whose obsession with productivity, achievement, and consumerism has saturated every corner of life, life has simply ground to a halt in this little corner of Kentucky so that people can prioritize spending time soaking in the manifest presence of God
Let us pause for a moment and think about this. Why do we allow ourselves to think that everything has to be compressed into the limits of time? I am inviting us to pray that eternity would break through into our time-bound lives, and God’s Holy Spirit bless us abundantly.
2. Let us never become tired of seeking to serve God
Spiritual revivals have consequences. God does not bless without a greater purpose in mind:
I want you to understood the spiritual principle of blessing and service: You are blessed – because God preparing you to become a blessing in the live of someone else.
The story we read about Jesus and his disciples on the mountain top – comes in two parts: Part One is the blessing and Part Two is the purpose of the blessing: Let me take us back to the story we began in Matthew 17: Jesus and his disciples came down the mountain….
14 And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, 15 said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” 17 And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon,[b] and it[c] came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly.[
Jesus had work to do: there was a distressed father who asked Jesus to pray for his son…. Note this one thing: Jesus did not say “Don’t bother me now: can’t you see that I have just spent time under the anointing of God”
This is because Jesus understood the principle of blessed to be a blessing. He was in the presence of God – because God wanted him to bring the presence of God to others. We discover that Jesus comes down the mountain and brings the healing presence of God with him – and everyone in the crowd is blessed. It turns out that this moment on the mountain top is more than just healing this boy. It becomes a key turning point in the life of Jesus: he comes down the mountain and sets his face towards Jerusalem: he knows that he has work to do at the temple – work that would lead to his arrent, and his trial and his conviction and execution. And the release of the greatest blessing of all: forgiveness and healing for all humankind.
This is the way of God – to bless people so that they can become a blessing:
• On the day of Pentecost people were blessed – so that they could witness to Jesus in Jerusalem, and in Judea and to the ends of the earth
• People were blessed in a prayer meeting in Ephesus – so that they could resist the insults of the silversmiths and establish a Christian church
• John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed – so that he would be ready to lead a revival movement across England in the 18th Century
• The people worshiping God at Asbury theological seminary are being blessed – not because it feels great, but because God has work for them to do
And so I challenge us to pray for revival here in Brookings. Remember it is dangerous thing to pray for blessing, because God will take us seriously and open new doors to service. But we who follow Jesus dare not look away from all that God has in store for us. God wants to open new opportunities to become a blessing to our city.
Let me conclude: with a personal opinion: Holy Spirit revived hearts are hearts of love and compassion:
• Holy Spirit revived hearts do not threaten to prosecute a doctor who is trying to care for a woman whose life is in danger because of her pregnancy.
• Holy Spirit led people do not threaten parents with the law when they are trying to figure out how best to love their transgender child. Transgendered children, and gay children, are also God’s children. And the deserve our love and compassion – not judgement and legal threats of politicians.
I am praying that revival can take place here: that God would soften our hearts. This will allow us to let go of our bitterness, and our need to judge others, and our mean spirited opinions. And set us free to offer all people the love of God – without exception.
Intro: John the Baptist is a figure that captures my imagination: before the television reality show Survivor – here is the original winner of survivor. He lives off the land – by eating wild honey and insects. He sleeps in caves and dresses in animal skins. And he preaches the Word of the Lord in the desert.
What is surprising is that people arrive to listen to him:
They have to travel 45 miles east of Jerusalem – and this is not welcoming terrain: To the east the city looks down on the Dead Sea and across the Jordan River to the arid mountains of Moab. And there at the river in the wilderness, is a preacher who looks like a Wildman. Why would anyone go to listen to him:
Luke gives us a clue: 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
John preaches Good News. And the people are in desperate need of Good News – because they lived very difficult lives: here are people taxed by a Roman oppressor, and taxed again by the temple leadership. Here are people who are trapped in the political schemes of King Herod (who is a local tyrant), and Joseph Ben Caiaphas the Chief Priest (and an astute politician), and Pontius Pilate, the Roman authority.
And John is preaching Good News at the river. And at this point we discover John teaching an important thing about good news – John says that we cannot get to the good news by ignoring the bad news. John speaks of the difficult things of life: He speaks of some people having more than they need while others have nothing; he notes tax collectors extorting the people, and soldiers using their military domination to rob people. And he tells them to change their ways:
"Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." 12 … tax collectors: "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." 14 Soldiers: "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
This is absolutely not how our culture works: we live in a world that likes to speak of the good things: this is the season of a “Jolly, holly Christmas” and “ merry festive greetings”. And in order to have a Happy Holiday - we resolutely ignore the bad stuff. This is even more pronounced here in the mid-west: what is called “Midwest niceness”. Be nice and sweep the bad stuff under the carpet. John teaches us something different.
1. Speaking about Good News does not deny the bad news.
John does deny the bad news. But, says John, there is Good News, because Christmas is coming. Well he does not say it like that : here are his actual words: One more powerful than I is coming: Jesus is on his way.
We live is a culture that has been persuaded to think that in order to be happy – we must not speak about the difficulties: not so says John: name the difficult stuff, and then discover that God is with us. Let me be clear: God does not take the difficult stuff away. Far too many preachers seem to suggest that following Jesus means that we will not have any more difficult stuff in our lives. God does not save us from our mistakes, or our stupidity. And God does not prevent the challenging stuff coming our way. But here is the Good News: God accompanies us through the difficult stuff to the other side. And for this reason we can speak about the Bad News and ask God to be with us and help us turn Bad News into Good News.
2. Speaking of Good News offers an opportunity for a New Beginning
John is preaching at the Jordan river: he could have chosen to preach in Jerusalem – but instead he travels 45 miles East to the Jordan River. This is a significant place: because he is preaching at the place where the children of Israel had crossed this River to enter their promised land 1000 years earlier. And John is inviting the nation to begin again. In essence he is saying: “Come and cross the Jordan again. Come to the river and start over. Be baptised as if you were not born Jewish – and cross the river into your promised land.” This is the good news says John: you can begin again. And at this point John helps us all to understand that in order for Good News to happen – we must speak about the bad news: The Word of God for those who have become accustomed to living unaccountable lives:
In a sentence: Do not use your power to make yourselves rich at the expense of others. If you have more clothes than you need and see someone who has nothing - then share what you have so that you both have enough. Do not use you position in government to get rich off the poor; and if you are in the military – do not use military office to get advantage for yourself.
Here is the Good News, says John: if you live your lives generously, and with compassion for the weak and the poor – you will discover that God is with you. In the light of this I invite us to expect Good News this Christmas.
Too often in our lives, we don’t expect Good News. Yet here we are, invited to not only know there is Good News intended for us – but invited to participate in it. We are invited to live with a sense of expectation: to shout aloud because our God is with us. We have a Christmas word for this: Emmanuel – “God is with us”. This is the core truth of Christmas – that God has come to live with us: and it is this that will lead us to reform our selfish ways in preparation of the coming of the Lord. We are to share our hearts and lives with one another, to show love and kindness to all people, and in so doing to become the Good News of Christmas. I close with the example of someone who made the presence of God visible around him:
José Mujica, was the President of Uruguay between 2010-15. He chose to live on his modest farm instead using the majestic Presidential residence, and drove his old car instead of using a Presidential cavalcade. Because of his simple living, he became become a topic of discussion around the world during his tenure as President.
But here is my point: he understood what he needed for his life: and so donated around 90 percent of his $12,000 a month salary to charities that benefited poor people and small entrepreneurs.
The joy and love of Christmas come alive in our acts of generous kindness. I am inviting us to be God’s sign of Christmas in our community.