Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bible Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear in Sunday School: Our World is GOD’S Village

This week at the Village, we continued our series of Bible Studies You Probably Didn’t Hear In Sunday School. And, stay tuned for next week’s one, cause we’re going to cover some of those scriptures that use to say that you can’t be gay and Christian. Because here at The Village we believe you can be gay and Christian and sometimes people wonder if we’ve thrown out the Bible. We have not. So next week, Cheri’s gonna deal with some of those sticky biblical passages.

But today, it’s the story of God’s generosity, and God’s sense of fairness, and the idea that this world is God’s Village, it all belongs to God; we are just tenants. We are not really privy to all the reasons why things are the way they are. And sometimes our idea of fair is not God’s idea of fair. And guess what? That’s ok. And anyway, it’s God’s world so God gets to decide.

Our Story in worship today was from Matthew 20, the story of the Vineyard and the workers. In today’s story, a parable by Jesus on the Kingdom of God, an owner of a vineyard sends his estate manager out to hire workers. He goes to the town square, where you hire day laborers. At 7 AM, he hires a bunch of laborers, promising to pay them a $1 a day (in “The Message” paraphrase version anyway). He goes down again several times at 9 AM, Noon, 3PM and finally at 5 PM. Each time, they are promised a dollar for their labor. At 6 PM, the owner has the line up and the manager begins paying them, last hired to first.

The last hired get their dollars, and the first hired get excited. If they’re getting a dollar for an hour worked, we must be getting more. But wait, they all get a dollar. They start grousing. The owner’s response, “15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

We usually read this story from the standpoint of the worker who worked all day, in the hot sun and only got the one dollar they agreed to in the morning. Instead, maybe we should switch to the person who came in and worked for an hour and still got the days wages. What a gift that would be. Imagine the feelings you would have, joy, relief, gratitude? Also imagine what reasons the workers who came at 5 PM might have had for coming then - e.g. they just lost another job, they had trouble getting going, they had transportation problems, they have a disability, they were drunk, but decided they needed to turn their life around. Can you imagine how blessed you would feel.

Compared to the rest of the world, we in this country do get a whole day’s worth of blessings in an hour. Our family is even more blessed than most in America, which is easily demonstrated by a day a week ago. Our kids go to private school, privilege number one. We have two cars, privilege number two. Cheri was driving them the about seven minute drive home and Jamie began repeating his favorite phrase of late, “I’m bored”. Cheri’s reaction was, as is mine lately as well “you have a Ninentendo DS, a Wii, and Xbox and a netbook waiting at home, along with a pile of toys, you’ll survive”. Forget Haiti, there are tens of thousands of people in Toledo who are not as fortunate as we are, a church planter and a do gooder lawyer with student loans I’m still paying.

To understand just how blessed we are in this country, our kids read a book today describing the world as if it were a village made up of 100 people. Love books that make statistics that easy to understand. So, repeating that in worship was great for me. Cheri read us just a few of these stats. So, if the world were a village of 100 people, only 30 would have enough food to eat. 20 would be severely malnourished and 50 would not have reliable sources of food and be hungry at sometime. Of the 100, 83 would have access to safe water in their homes or within a short walking distance; 17 spend a large part of the day just getting safe water. Of the 100, 57 have access to adequate sanitation, public or household sewage; 43 do not and of the 73 people over age 15, 64 can read at least a little, but 17 cannot read at all; of the 36 school aged villagers only 30 of them attend school. If the money in our village were divided equally, each person would have about $9000 US a year. But it is not divided evenly. The richest 10 people in the village have over half the money; the poorest 10 people have only about $1 a day.

Some of us hearing the sermon or reading the blog are struggling to pay our bills. We may have lost jobs; we have overdrawn our bank accounts, had to cut back on spending. Some of us may have lost our homes to foreclosure; or may be unemployed right now. And I don’t want to minimize that. And yet, compared to some other places in the world, we still live in a country where there is clean water, and public sewers. There are shelters where you can stay warm in the winter. They may not be nice, but we don’t have many cases of folks freezing to death in Toledo. We have schools, they are not great, but at least we have them. WE ARE THE GUY IN THE STORY WHO WORKS ALL DAY AND GETS PAID A FAIR WAGE. And sometimes we may get “ouchy”, when someone who does not seem to be deserving, gets some generous gift, but really, we need to get over ourselves, we could have it so much worse.

The Vineyard owner in the story, and his actions, are a sign of how God turns our expectations of fairness upside down. It’s like God wants to keep us off balance, just a bit. Because God is in charge of what’s fair. It’s not for us to decide when God can be generous. We never know when we might be on the receiving end of God’s generosity. So it’s also not our place to judge others when they are on the receiving end of that generosity. And when God puts us in a position to bless others, I think God smiles when we do so without question and without judging whether the person is deserving of our help.

Isn’t it wonderful to be on the receiving end, and to get more blessing from God than we deserve. God loves to give us better than we deserve. It’s called grace. God’s way is the way of generosity. So if we are followers of Jesus, then we are also called to be generous. We can’t worry about what’s fair. God decides what is fair. We are so blessed. So now, as a faith community called The Village Church, how will we respond?

We have the value of service in our community, and the value of showing compassion for people living in poverty. What is your passion? We are ready to form some ministry teams to serve in our community. We have already being doing some ministry – at St. Mark’s with their community meals; and with Family Promise and their meals and overnight housing for families. We have begun talking about some summer work trips. It’s time for us to form some ministry teams, to get some plans on the table, some dates on the calendar and some feet on the ground. We won’t worry about who is deserving – we will just concern ourselves with giving our time to help others.

One of the ways to discover where your passion is for ministry is to ask yourself this question: what breaks your heart? We are so blessed and there are many people out there in the world that are hurting. We can’t help them all so we need to focus our work. We’ll need to choose some particular projects as a starting place. Sometimes asking the question: what breaks your heart – is a way to focus. Is it children? Hunger? Healthcare? Homelessness? Addiction? Human trafficking?

Take some time right now, you’ve got a minute, you’re reading a blog for crying out loud, and think about your dreams for how we might be in ministry in our community and beyond in the next few weeks, months, and years. If you want to, share as a response to this, what you are willing to do, only share the things that YOU ARE WILLING TO DO, not what you want other people to do.

As for me, I’m going to help get a new faith community that believes it’s obligation is to change the world, off the ground. I’m going to train people to do the powerpoints and sound. I’m going to train people to do marketing and outreach. I’m going to train people to greet others at worship. Then, I’m going to help be parts of teams that feed the hungry, restore homes in broken parts of the world like New Orleans (yes, they’ll be rebuilding for years more) and Haiti (ditto). What’s your way of spreading the generous gifts you’ve been given?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bible Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear in Sunday School: W W J D by Cheri Holdridge

Most of us have probably walked through a situation like this at one time or another. You are on a busy downtown street. You have a destination ahead. An appointment. A store you are trying to get to. A lunch spot. And then you pass a homeless person, begging for spare change. For many of us the situation makes us uncomfortable. If you work downtown, maybe it’s routine for you. You have a regular response. You always just walk on by. Or you always drop a few coins from your pocket as you rush on. Some of us wonder, if the person is really homeless or if it’s just a scam. I gotta tell you I rarely think it’s a scam, because really, who is gonna spend their day like this unless they really need the money?

Well a few years ago, this phrase became popular WWJD, “What would Jesus do?” People still wear t-shirts and bracelets asking the question WWJD? The UMC even has a video that we’re going to show you now, that gives a spin on this scene, when walking by a homeless person: WWJD? “What would Jesus do?” It’s not a bad question to ask ourselves in most situations.
We’re going to look at a Bible story together today, and see just exactly what Jesus DID DO. Because, if we are going to “Follow Jesus, and Change the World” which is our vision here at The Village, then is makes sense for us to learn as much as we can about how he acted in various situations, right?

When we pick up our story in Matthew 15, verse 21, Jesus is tired and needs to get away. He’s been with the crowds. He’s been hassling with the religious leaders, the Pharisees, about the laws about unclean food. He has told them this: basically it makes no difference what you put in your body, it’s what is in your heart that matters. So he wipes out all their complex laws about what a good Jew can and cannot eat. This is one of the main things that separates the Jews, (the chosen people of God), from the Gentiles, (all those other wretched folks). With one fell swoop, Jesus throws out their traditions about food and cleanliness laws.

Well, I guess he knows he’s in trouble; he’s worn out from all this rabble rousing – so he gets out of town – actually gets out of a region where lots of Jews live, and travels to Tyre, which is a Gentile area. He’s trying to hide out – get away for a little retreat time – some time to rest – and recover – to get ready to serve God some more. He thinks he’s found a house where the folks won’t bother him.

But Jesus is met by a woman with a demand, “Heal my daughter, she is possessed by a demon.” Jesus is spent. Even the son of God needs to get refueled sometimes, and this woman comes and wants him to do something that takes lots of energy: HEAL her child. How dare she ask him to do this anyway? She is not a Jew. She is not one of God’s chosen people. And so Jesus and his disciples try to brush her off. Doesn’t she know he has better things to do – more important people to care for?

It’s like someone trying to crash a party at the White House. Doesn’t she know you have to have your name on the list to get through security? No can do! That’s why those folks have body guards. Jesus had the disciples around him to protect him from the likes of her. But this woman does not follow the protocol. She just walks right in. Who does she think she is? She is one uppity woman!

But then Jesus SHOCKS us with his response.

"I've got my hands full dealing with the lost sheep of Israel."
25Then the woman came back to Jesus, went to her knees, and begged. "Master, help me."
26He said, "It's not right to take bread out of children's mouths and throw it to dogs." (from “The Message” Bible)

WOW! He calls her a dog!! Is that what Jesus would do??

And she comes right back at him. The nerve of her!

27She was quick: "You're right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master's table." (“The Message”)

This is the most outrageous dialogue in the entire New Testament. Then the most amazing thing happens:

28Jesus gave in. "Oh, woman, your faith is something else. What you want is what you get!" Right then her daughter became well. (“The Message”)


Now just stop for a moment, and imagine yourself in this position. You ask Jesus for something. He says, you don’t deserve it – there are others are ahead of you in line. And you have the nerve to say: I WANT IT ANYWAY, JESUS. EVEN THE DOGS GET SCRAPS. You see, I’VE BEEN LISTENING TO YOU, JESUS, AND TAKING YOU SERIOUSLY.

She actually throws Jesus’ words and values right back at him. How Bold of her! And Jesus. . . Jesus respects her boldness. . . and rewards her! He praises her faith. And he gives her what she asks for.

This is SUCH an amazing story. I LOVE THIS STORY. You never heard this story in Sunday School did you?

What does this story say to us?

The story shows us, that even Jesus, even Jesus at times, had to be stretched. You see he was fully God and fully human. And so, in this case, his human side was just a little bit stronger, for a moment, and he had a blind spot for the thing his godly side would do. He had to be pushed to act out of his godly side. You see, in this particular moment, Jesus was tempted to limit his mission. He wanted to keep things manageable. So, he thought, I’ll just focus on the Jews, for now. He says to himself: First things first. Let me save my people first – the people I’m close to. Let me stay in my comfort zone. THEN we’ll get around to those unclean Gentiles. Oh sure I know I just told the Pharisees they should not be so closed-minded about the food laws, and so judgmental. But I’m tired. I came here to rest and this woman is really annoying. God, can’t you give me a break, just this once?

Poor Jesus. It seems that even he had a blind spot. But then his own message of grace for everyone came right back to haunt him. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
And so this bold woman – this audacious MOTHER – who loved her child and who was fighting for her child’s life – she challenged Jesus to live by his own words. Don’t you just love a righteous mother? She PUSHED JESUS. And he LISTENED. Jesus LISTENED to the woman. He listened to her when she reminded him of his own message. She pointed out his blind spot to him: God’s grace is for everyone, even the Gentiles. Jesus, you were tempted to cut corners. You know better.

I love this story. Because in this story, even Jesus almost fails to do what we all know Jesus would do. Isn’t that something? We ask: What would Jesus do? And it’s almost as if Jesus might not measure up to his own standards. (That’s why this is one of those stories you probably didn’t hear in Sunday School.) But that audacious woman reminds Jesus – and he comes around. He says: “Woman, your faith is great. Your faith is something else.” And right then, at that very moment, her daughter was healed.

What a wonderful story. Jesus listened to the woman. He was changed. And God’s way prevailed.

So, my friends, I wonder what this story says for us today. It’s a story that turns our preconceived ideas upside down. Jesus was all about stretching folks. He was stretching the Jews to see that their laws about insiders and outsiders were keeping them being close to God. But then when Jesus was tired, and did not have energy for the outsider, she had to push him and remind him – but you said – you are here for everyone.

Here at the Village – we like to push the boundaries. We love that UCC invitation – “whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.” So far, we are doing a great job of welcoming folks. We are creating a welcome space here for folks that don’t feel welcome in many other churches in town. Good for us! Let’s pat ourselves on the back. If Jesus walked in here, I think he would give us a high five.

BUT, I just wonder, if the woman in the story walked in what would she say? What blind spot do we have that she would uncover? Who would she challenge us to see that we are missing?

As you look around this room right now, what is the most obvious, most basic category of people that is under-represented? Who is missing?

MEN. On any given Sunday at The Village, we have way more women here than men.

Most churches in America have more women than men. 61% women 39% men according to one study. And fewer than 10% of U.S. churches are able to establish and maintain what can be called a vibrant men’s ministry. Midweek study groups generally draw 70-80% female participants. Well, so far we are normal. . . very normal. I guess we could congratulate ourselves. But our goal has never been to be normal. Most of those normal churches are not very healthy. So, I say we can do better.

Does anyone out there believe that men need God any less than women do?

Hmm. . . do we think men are searching for meaning and direction in their lives just like women?

How about this, do men deal with grief, addiction, disappointment, feelings of self doubt?

Anger, the need for forgiveness and reconciliation? Healing and conflict resolution?

Do men need the things we say we value here at the Village? Authentic relationships? Balance in their lives? Opportunites to show compassion for people living in poverty and a chance to follow Jesus and change the world? Do men want to change the world – or is that just a woman thing? I don’t know, but I think I know some men who want to change the world.

Well, then, I believe we, like Jesus, are going to need to take a look at this blind spot we have. Because here is the thing: it’s a fairly agreed upon organizational theory and business principle that a system produces what it’s designed to produce.

For example, if a school produces highly functioning students, then that system is set up to do that. By the same token, if a school produces students that can’t read, then the system is set up to produce students that can’t read. Now if you have an all white church in an all black neighborhood, there is something in the system of that white church that keeps that church white. They may tell you they are open to having black folks, but the system, and the results tell us otherwise. By the same token, if most U.S. churches have more women than men, then we have not yet figured out how to have churches that meet the spiritual needs of men.

Now look around this church. We have LOTS more women than men. We are a new church, about 3 months old today. We are still setting up our systems. We are not set in our ways yet, my friends. We have lots of opportunities. We can try new things. We don’t have any traditions yet. But it won’t take us long to get set in our ways. So today, I am putting forth a challenge. Let’s learn from this wonderful story of the audacious woman and Jesus, and Jesus’ blind spot. He almost let his blind spot for the Gentiles keep him from healing that woman’s daughter. But she demanded that he listen, -- that he listen to his own message – his message of grace for EVERYONE; and her daughter was healed.

I am inviting us to pay attention to our blind spots. We are going to have lots of them – but one I have identified for us today, is our ability to be a spiritual home for men. There are some things that are keeping us from doing that well. We need to find out what those things are. I don’t have the answers. I have some hunches. But this is going to take some work. We can start by listening to the men who are here about their experience of the Village, and their ideas about how we can reach men. The next thing we can do is to ask ourselves, how many men have each one of us invited? And finally we can ask: what activities or ministries have we offered, specifically with men in mind?

As we plan our activities and ministries over the next months and the next year, I challenge us to ask ourselves, what are we doing to make The Village welcoming and relevant to men and to women? And I ask you to join me, in asking God to keep us honest, just like the woman in the story kept Jesus honest. We all have blind spots. Even Jesus. Even Jesus had to be challenged to see what he could not see. We are off to a great start here with The Village. We are providing a spiritual community for people who were not welcome in other places. But we can’t get complacent. Just as Jesus had to listen and learn, we need to do the same. So, let’s ask God to help us. As we move forward, may God help us pay attention to all the people God wants us to reach, so whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you will be welcome here at The Village Church.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bible Stories You Probably Didn't Hear In Sunday School: Compassion for the Alien by Cheri Holdridge

I got the text message at 4 p.m. yesterday.

“Sam died.”

I had been waiting for confirmation all week. Like most of you, I have been watching the news from Haiti, about the devastating 7.0 earthquake that hit on Tuesday, leveling much of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Some of us have been glued to the TV, asking ourselves, “Why?” Why would God let this terrible disaster of nature hit one of the poorest countries on our planet, where there is already so much human suffering? How much tragedy can one tiny island nation be expected to endure?

But for me, the story has a face, which makes it personal. Sam Dixon. Sam was a United Methodist pastor, like me. He was from North Carolina. He had a wife, four daughters, and 2 grandkids. Sam happened to work for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in New York City. Sam was the head of a very special part of the Board called UMCOR – The United Methodist Committee on Relief.

I remember learning about UMCOR when I was not much older than my daughter Rebecca. UMCOR is very focused in its purposes: hunger relief and providing clean water, extending health care, and giving emergency relief and long term disaster recovery. In my church in Abilene TX, I remember hearing a story from a military family that lived in the Philippines during some natural disaster there, I don’t know when, back in the 70’s, and they said, UMCOR was there, on the ground, BEFORE the Red Cross. Over the years, as a United Methodist I have come to be very proud of this arm of our church. UMCOR staff and volunteers are brave and efficient. They work hard. They get there first, and they stay LONG after the Red Cross and FEMA and other governmental agencies leave. When the Village begins to take mission trips to places like New Orleans or Mexico or maybe to Haiti one day, we’ll be working with folks from UMCOR in all likelihood.

Sam Dixon had a passion for Jesus and for the ministry of feeding the hungry and caring for those who are suffering. Being the director of UMCOR was the perfect place for him to use his gifts to serve God. He just happened to arrive in Haiti, on the day of the earthquake, I think (maybe it was the day before). He was there to work on expansion of some health programs there. He was about to have lunch at the Hotel Montana when the quake hit. He was trapped with 5 other mission staff. 4 were freed after two days. Sam and another man, Clint Rabb, had their legs caught under a beam and we’re told that while rescue workers tried to free them, they passed the time telling stories and singing hymns. Clint is now in a hospital in Florida in critical condition, but Sam died there in the rubble. [We got word later in the day that Clint had also died.]

For those of us who knew Sam, and those of us, like me, who feel so connected to the amazing work of UMCOR across the world, it has been a roller coaster week. We waited for 55 hours, to hear that Sam and the others were alive. Then, continued to wait. . .and to wonder if they would get out safely. And whatever the outcome for Sam, I knew there were tens of thousands who had already died. And I, like you, grieved for them.

But Sam was my face in Haiti – my personal face on this tragedy. I did not know Sam well – but I knew him well enough to know that he died putting his trust in God, and knowing that he had a life well lived. He gave his life to help people like us, in this new little church in Toledo, help people in Haiti who are trying to pick up the pieces from an earthquake today. We will take up an offering later today for Haiti. Every penny we give will go directly to UMCOR, for clean water, medicine, food, tents, whatever is needed to start rebuilding lives in Haiti. All of the administrative costs are paid through other funds. That’s one of the great things about UMCOR. (If nothing else, this disaster gives us a chance, as a new church, to learn some important things about what it means to be connected to the bigger church. And by the way, our United Church of Christ partner denomination has similar mission agencies and partnerships; I’m just choosing to talk about UMCOR today because of Sam.)

So let me turn, then to our scripture for today. The scripture was chosen because I was originally going to preach about immigration, to tie in with Kurt’s “West Wing” study series that starts Wed. night. This is one of those weeks, when the sermon plan get shifted because of world events – but actually, the scripture still fits. Interesting how that works.
We are continuing our series this week on “Bible Stories you Probably did Not Hear in Sunday School.” Now, if you went to Sunday School growing up, you probably all heard the text from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, chapter 5. Anyone know what famous text is found there? The 10 commandments. What follows then is a long speech that Moses gives, elaborating on the law. Most of us, I would guess, have spent very little time reading that longer version. But our text for today comes at the conclusion of Moses’ speech. He sort of sums things up one last time: “So what do you think God expects from you?. . . Love God and serve God with everything you have. Cut away the calluses from your heart. . . . God doesn’t play favorites, God makes sure the widows and orphans are cared for. God makes sure the foreigner has food and clothing. . . . Remember when you were the foreigner – and treat the foreigner with loving care” (summary, selected verses, from Deut, 10:12-19, The Message translation).
He reminds the people of Israel, whom Moses led out of slavery in Egypt just 40 years before – you were just slaves yourselves. Just one generation ago. You were the foreigner –the outsider in a strange land. You know how it feels. So cut those calluses from your heart – and show some compassion. Compassion is God’s way. Love God and serve God with everything you have. Moses says: If you can’t remember all 10 commandments, or the long speech I just gave you – just remember this. Remember what it felt like to be an alien in a foreign land – who was treated miserably. And never treat anyone else like that. Instead, make sure the foreigner among you has food and clothing.

Now, I could have used this scripture to begin to wade through the complicated morass of the United States’ immigration, and a Christian response – but we are going to save that for another day.

The message is simpler today, because we all experienced the human tragedy of an earthquake in one of the poorest nations on the planet this week. What is God’s response to God’s people? Love me. Love me and serve me in every way that you can. Remember when you were the alien, or the outsider, and treat the alien with compassion.

At the Village we hold on tight to the value of compassion. If you go to our web site, you will see our core values you Compassion one of three big ones listed there. We are going to face some complex justice issues in our world. Some tough choices, but this scripture gives us a simple message to hold onto: Love with compassion. When someone feels like an alien to you, and you really don’t want to love them, and don’t know how to love them, try to remember what it felt like to be treated like an alien yourself. Then dig deep down inside, and treat that person with compassion.

Now, I want to close with my own story of being the alien. And you’ll know why I’m telling this story when I get to the end. Because, you see, we all have the experience sometime, somehow of being the outsider in this world, don’t we? I am sometimes the outsider right inside the church of my origin. I was born a United Methodist, daughter of a UM (United Methodist) pastor and his wife; I’ve been a UM for 46 years. But sometimes when I gather with my brother and sister UM’s I am an alien, because I believe that you can be gay or lesbian, or bi, or transgender, and be a faithful Christian. I even believe you can be gay and be in a committed same- gender relationship and be an ordained minister. Oh, and to some of my brothers and sisters in the UMC that makes me an alien, let me tell you.

A few years ago, I was at an event in San Diego, called the School of Congregational Development, an event sponsored by two agencies of the UMC. I was there representing a sort of renegade group of United Methodists, called Church Within a Church. I was one of their national leaders at the time. The event was focused on congregational development and church planting. The group is interested in planting churches that are fully inclusive of GLBT folks, and also has the commitment that the UMC ordain gay folks. You can imagine that we were sort of “on the edge” at that conference, but we were welcomed there. The staff person of one of the sponsoring agencies, went out on a limb, and welcomed us. In fact, he went so far as to let us register as vendors, because we brought a display about our organization. That staff person welcomed us: aliens in the UMC, who dared to stretch the boundaries, and challenge the church to plant churches where everyone is welcome and where there might even be gay pastor. He even let us put up a display that said so.

That staff person was Sam Dixon.

Sam died this week amidst the rubble of the Hotel Montana, working to bring health care to the poorest of the poor. But when I was the alien, an outsider, Sam welcomed me. And in doing so, he said that all of us are welcome in the Church of Jesus Christ. No exceptions.
That’s what it means to be part of what we call a connectional church – this church- The Village – is connected to a larger church – the United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ. We may not always agree on everything. But we keep pushing one another, and we learn together. Sam worked with me and my friends to invite some congregational developers and church planters to expand their boundaries, and let me tell you he took some HEAT that week. Folks did not like our participation; and in fact, in the end, they pressured Sam to take down our display. That was devastating to me. I wondered if I could stay in this church of my youth; I felt like a complete outsider.

But Sam did all he could to stand up for us, and to let our voices be heard. He did it for Jesus. Because scripture tells us: “God doesn’t play favorites. You must treat the foreigner, (the alien, the one who is different) with the same loving care. Remember when YOU were the foreigner.”
So this is what I hope we will take from today’s text: every one of us feels like the foreigner at one time or another. But God still loves us. God offers us compassion. And this is what God asks in return: that we treat one another the same way. Whoever is the stranger, or the alien to you and to me, God asks us. . . No, God demands – that we treat that person with the same loving care. Compassion for the alien. Compassion is what we get, and compassion is what we give. Sam gave it to me, and by extension, to you. He died giving compassion. And as The Village we’re going to keep living that value of compassion. So, let’s get started.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bible Stories You Probably Didn't Hear In Sunday School: Be Bold

I’ve got to warn you, we’re starting a new worship series at the Village. We are going to focus on the “Bible Studies You Probably Didn’t Hear in Sunday School”. So, we’re going to be going into sometimes uncharted, sometimes controversial territory. I know, dear frequent readers, you’re shocked (“sarcasm hand in the air” is what we say when we’ve said something sarcastic like that and are not sure people know we are using sarcasm).

Our Bible story this week is from the Book of Jeremiah. The Israelites were on the verge of being conquered, AGAIN. Surprisingly, as God’s chosen people, they do spend a lot of time losing (then again so do the Lions, Bengals, Browns, Indians, Tigers, etc so were used to rooting for the frequent loser around these parts).

This time, they were about to be conquered by the latest, big, bad boys on the block, the Babylonians. Jeremiah was a prophet, or as Lupina put it so well last week, one of God’s Blackberries (sending us messages, trying to keep us on track, etc). He knew the Israelites were going to lose and be taken into exile. Yet, when he was given the chance to buy the family farm he did. He knew that life was going to return to that place, that homes, farms, vineyards would be rebuilt. As a bold move of witness to that future, he bought the land.

Jeremiah’s act not resonating with you. Imagine that Canada is not our friendly neighbor to the north, but a superior enemy, snarling on the leash keeping it from overrunning us. As you hear on CNN that they will be invading and taking us to work in Canada, you’re given the opportunity to buy the ancestral family farm in Waterville. The world’s wisdom, is that you need to get out of Northwest Ohio as quick as possible with all the money & things you can carry. But God wisdom, sent to you in visions, is that we’ll be back and someone needs to make a grand show of faith in that. God’s logic is not always our logic.

Kristen & Misty are friends from our old church, Central UMC. They were married years ago. For their honeymoon, they did not do any of the typical things; no cruise, no tropical beach, no shopping get away. Nope, they spent their honeymoon at an orphanage in Africa helping care for babies & children with AIDS. They love kids, having careers working with kids, and they could think of no greater express of their new commitment.

They subsequently left town for school and work, moving to Nashville. As they settled in, they followed their calling and adopted a child. Then came a second child. Then came a third, single child. Now, the logic of our world might be that would be enough. Even with one working, one stay at home Mom, that should be enough However, these two are just not guided by our logic. So, when they were called about adopting a group they loving call “The Fab Five” a group of five siblings, they didn’t really pause.

Adding five kids, all with special needs, in need of a special home, is not the logic of our world. But thankfully, it’s Kristen & Misty’s logic. Common sense would be to take your time in adding five to a family, but again, God’s logic is not our own, and this eight child family that Cheri got to visit on a recent trip, is thriving together. Then again, our friends tend not to follow what is thought of as “common sense”.

Our friend Mike Slaughter is the pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, just north of Dayton. When Mike came to Ginghamsburg, there were about seventy members and they had just gotten indoor plumbing in the decade before his arrival. Mike was fresh out of school and ready to change the world. He definitely was not looking for the little country church in the farm fields north of Dayton as his place to start.

Mike tells a story of going out into the field and praying, something to the effect of God get me out of here, NOW. Mike says God’s response was something like fine get me a few thousand people worshiping here, and you can go. Mike made a series of bold moves, some growing the church, some temporarily shrinking the church, but in the end, thousands indeed came to Ginghamsburg, and still do. Bold moves often result in bold changes. A group of us from the Village will be traveling to Ginghamsburg later this year so we can learn from their successes and failures.

But Mike and the Ginghamsburg Community’s boldest move was yet to come. They were poised to create their mega sanctuary. At present, to get to the thousands in attendance mark, they have five worship services at their main campus, along with many others elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong, the current site is huge and holds hundreds at once, also including a youth center that is larger than anything this side of Cedar Creek in Toledo. But they were ready to take the next, big step with a huge space. But they didn’t. God had different ideas for the church.

They said no to spending millions on a new facility and focused on creating more, smaller worship experiences. At the time, they weren’t exactly sure why. They decided to focus on people, not a building. Later they found a reason why, the Sudan and specifically the Darfur region. Darfur, for those of you who don’t know, is a region in Africa that was once it’s own independent region, but is now part of Sudan. It is in the midst of an over six year, very bloody and dangerous war. As you can imagine, if an area is in the midst of a war, the state of the people is not good.

Until recently, there was no United Methodist presence in Darfur. But Ginghamsburg set it’s sites on that problem. They began a series of Christmas campaigns reminding everyone that Christmas is not our birthday’s but Jesus’ Thanks to that, and at least in part the decision to focus on people not building they have raised unbelievable amounts of money. But they went beyond that. Lots of churches use checkbooks to fix problems. Mike takes teams over there every year. This is a very dangerous place to be, but Mike doesn’t follow the wisdom of our world, but God’s. Thanks to that, there are thousands of people alive today who would not be otherwise. Then again, thanks to a team from Ginghamsburg, we were able to open the Village on time too, so they don’t just help overseas.

You might think the Village is a bold move, but it’s not Cheri’s and my first. We’ve taken several chances in our marriage, starting a new church from scratch, starting a new worship service with five hundred dollars and a handful of volunteers. But the one most like Jeremiah’s was in Cheri serving Central UMC. Central United Methodist in Toledo is over one hundred years old. In it’s hey day, over 750 attended worship at Central in a weekend. But, unlike the other UMC in the neighborhood, Central did not move with it’s population. It stayed in the neighborhood. In 1999 it was in need of a turn around pastor as 750 was down to a faithful few dozen who thought that the news of a new pastor meant their closing.

Cheri was ready for a change, not because she didn’t love her prior church, but because she was very pregnant with our first child Becca and wanted to go to less than full time in the town in which I worked. In exchange for a 40%+ pay cut, Cheri was going become the pastor at Central. Beyond a new job, adding a child, we were also going to buy a home. This while my job was in upheaval, I’m talking lawsuits to determine if my firm continued or not. So, off we went to our first introduction as a couple (in the United Methodist Church, you are appointed by the Bishop to your next church. The church and the Pastor are introduced. As the Bishop and their advisors have prayed long and hard, you don’t say no, generally).

As we arrived at the District Superintendent Bob Ball’s home, he and his wife would take us to the church to meet it’s leaders, he met us at his door. Bob said words that made mine and Cheri’s heart sink. “They’ve just faxed me their budget for next year and I’m deeply troubled by it” are not words you want to hear as you are about to buy a house, have a child, and deal with a possible job transition for the other spouse. Bob continued with “I’m not sure how they plan on paying your salary”. So, now, as we played with my paycheck, added a child, and a mortgage, we could be losing her greatly reduced check.

To make things more exciting, we went to the church and realized that the building we thought was Central was not Central but another church. Not the modern, accessible sanctuary we had mistakenly thought was Central. Finally, after a funny start to the introduction (where Cheri went to the bathroom, many months pregnant, leaving ½ of those present unsure whether I was the pastor to be or her), we got down to talking about Cheri taking over as the Pastor. Our friend Liz certainly sealed the deal of my fear by pointing out that the kids who attend the church’s after school tutoring program were reminded that the gangs colors came off when they came into the church. Did I mention these were elementary school kids and that the love of my life, mother of my soon to be first child, was going to have to be the director of that program for awhile to balance the budget?

Oh, yeah, and the house we were going to buy, was TWO blocks or so away from the elementary school where the gang colors had to come off. Yeah, get me out of this situation is what the world’s logic would say. Thankfully, we had just studied Jeremiah in a bible study Cheri and I were attending. God was setting me up, in a good way. So, when Cheri said, are you ready to make this happen, my answer was strangely “Yes”. I’m a personal risk taker, but spouse and child, well the word “overprotective” has been used about me.

Jeremiah, Mike & the Ginghamsburg community, Kristen & Misty didn’t do these amazing things on a human whim. All of them had these wonderful things given to them as ideas from God. Mike prayed in a field and elsewhere. Kristen & Misty not only prayed and studied, but they also acted and listened. Even Cheri & I were in a small group where the story from today came up.

Do you know what your bold thing might be? We have glimpses of our next big things as a community at the Village, but know our members and supporters will come up with more. And, of course, God likes to surprise us with new ones. If you don’t know what your next thing will be, get involved in a small group that prays and studies the Bible. We’ve got two starting on Wednesday January 20th. I will be hosting a drop in series using the TV show the West Wing to discuss issues of faith and morals. Kristen Taylor will be leading an Introductory Bible study. Come join us, and learn how God wants you to “Be Bold”.

Monday, January 4, 2010

THE BEGINNING OF THE PARTY - Guadalupe Villalpando-Stewart

What a season of party after party we just finished. This is a season in my family that we actually go from party to party because in one week we have Elizabeth’s birthday, our anniversary, my birthday and then Christmas. Because we are a bi-cultural family, we celebrate on Christmas Eve as Mexicans and on Christmas day as Americans. With all this party happening, I have learned that there are 3 seasons in a party. (For people like me that have this structure mentality it help us to maintain our sanity)

A season of preparation and getting ready. When you call your friends, prepare the menu, plan how the party is going to be, where, Americans will plan the beginning and the end time, Mexican we will plan sort of a beginning time, with no end time.
A season of celebration. That is the event itself. When you are running all over with a present in your right hand, a plate with mash potatoes for your guests in the left hand and you are pulling the chair with your left foot, to sit the great-grand father and walking like if you were in a war zone to avoid stepping on the children who are running faster and they are hyper for the amount of extra sugar that they get.
A season of re-integration. It is when you already clean all of the left-over, people are gone, presents are open and you are sitting in the floor of the living room with the “Happy New year cards” . Many of these cards say beautiful things like “ I wish you a happy new year and May God be with you in this new year of your life” or “Blessings in this new year of your life” I love that…. I love to see those happy wishes and blessings for you or your relative for each of the days of that new year of life.

We are in that precise moment of re-integration today in relationship of celebrating Jesus’ birthday. We had Christmas, we had the Christmas Eve worship, the Christmas day gathering, dinner, presents. We celebrate New Year and now we are in Epiphany… the moment of re-integration. It is like today we are opening the Card from God for us that wishes us a good year…. The one that we celebrate the Birthday for is giving us a good wish card.

What is God promising to you and me in this year, in this time when we are “back to normal”? Are we going to make it? Is it going to be a good year?

What does the card says for us?
1. There is a promise. Isaiah is a prophet, these are the guys who are like God’s blackberry for people--- Look at this example. Here is Isaiah talking to the people of Israel. This nation has been in pain, in confusion. They were taken as slaves to a different country. This is called Exile. Why? Israel was behaving like when all of us get to a time in life when we do things that we know in our gut feeling that we should not be doing. It is harmful. (Methodist we call that previenient grace, wives call it the look. You know that look the one that you give your spouse to say are you kidding, you can’t be serious) For that reason, their city was destroyed. Think about what it could mean to be out of your city for 39 years, and you hear that your city is just a bunch of broken walls and rocks… Now, think about the identity of those in the Exile… the only behavior and identity that they knew was as a slave.

In this environment of confusion and struggle there is a promise: A promise of Hope. God’s blackberry called Isaiah says “Darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you”
Now, I am not sure what do you understand by that phrase “The Glory of GOD” Usually I have seen definitions almost as a passive action, like if God is just there. I see the Glory of God very different.
There were some movies called “The Lord of the Rings” Do you know what I am talking about?”
IT is about a guy who needs to take a ring to a specific place because the ring was a bad influence in people. But to do that, many battles needed to happen.
One of the battles impresses me: There is this army of semi-human, semi animal looking creatures (needed dental work) attacking people
It is almost overwhelming to see the amount they are. You can not see the floor of this, actually darkness covering the area. The people, good people, are fighting with all of what they can, but they are not winning, until in the distance, there is this man surrounded with a light who is coming to help with a huge army behind him. When they approached the enemy, a strong light came upon the place, to the point that the enemy could not see and gave the advantage to this man and his army to win the battle. That is how I see God’s glory working for the people of Israel for you and for me. Glory of God means: – the active presence of God among His people.
Our God is not just sitting passively looking to you and to me in our difficulties, problems and concerns, but He is coming with His Strength, love and power to show you, I am with you, You are not alone and I have power.

How is our environment today? Can we say that we are not in darkness in 2009. What is the message that we have today through our society? If we watch T.V. for 5 minutes. It does not matter if is a commercial, a program or the news, it is evident that people are searching for meaning. We are trying to make sense of our lives here. The problem is when we have tried to fulfill that meaning through resources that are limited.
Work hard so you feel fulfill – what if you get sick
Buy stuff – and when the bill comes
We can not deny the reality of living in a world that is difficult and oppress.
Even closer, how many of us stands up in front of the mirror and if we were able to see inside, we can see like a wall in our heart where we have received many negative messages that have shaped who we are now: Through people around you “Why you are not like your brother?” “ I am ashamed of you” Through your self “ I am ashamed of my self” “ If I was different, that will be better” and we walk in this world believing it and accepting it.
The people of Israel stop believing that they were the people of God and instead of relying in their God, they relied in their own decisions and desires that brought them to the pain of disconnect their lives to the real powerful and strong people of God that the Lord created them to be. In our case, we believe the lies and sins that this world tell us as well as the sins and lies where we get involved in our own lives and we feel… hopeless and confused.
Here is when we can hear: The GLORY OF THE LORD is here.
How can we be sure about it? What is our warranty, sign to believe that God’s presence is here. Through the Light…

2. There is a Sign: “For your light has come” says Isaiah. And God fulfill his plan at that time delivering the people of Israel, but it did not stop there. This is the Highest manifestation of God’s glory: Jesus Christ. It is Himself becoming flesh. Let’s walk together in time. From that baby Jesus that we just celebrate, he becomes this man who is also God and says: I am the Light of the World. This is the way where you and I can see clearly the Glory of the Lord among us. Our hope relies in a strong God who is clear and very direct in showing us His love. There is a unique characteristic for the Christians about our God compared to any other being who calls himself or herself a God: Our God is the only one who offers His life for us. He is the only God who is approachable and understands us. That is why I became a Christian. God was close to me and not ready to show my mistakes but to tell me that he understand and the evidence of that is the Cross…… The Cross brings us the opportunity to remember that our God, Jesus Christ, is a God who understands our moments of feeling with physical pain, rejected, lonely, etc because he experienced in the cross. Therefore, he can walk that with us.
The World does not promise an easy life, but Jesus promised “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." John 16:33

As a parent guiding a child in love, we have God guiding us, protecting us and confronting us in love to one place: where our lives are fulfilled. Our light is a light who guide us to the fulfillment of our lives. What do we do with it? Receive it!!!!
Even before you are aware, you will be living the statement of the Village, “Change the World” It will be a consequence that even before you know it, you will be doing it without noticing.

Today you receive a card from God… He is telling you that there is hope in this world. There is hope in your life through a very concrete and real testimony: Jesus Christ, the Light of the world. Receive it and Arise!!!