Sunday, June 17, 2012

Covenant: Let’s Work Together by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

    When we talk about God and God’s people, it does not get much more basic than the word “covenant.” This ancient theological word used to describe our connection to God goes all the way back to the first book of the bible, all the way back to Genesis and it just keeps popping up over and over again.

    The Hebrew Testament is filled with covenants between God and God’s people. You probably remember the difference between a contract and a covenant, but in case you did not grow up in Sunday School, here is the difference: Contract – between two people, and either person can break it if they can’t get the other person to do their part.   Covenant is between God and us- and even if we break it, God does not break it.

    And so in our Psalm for this week, Psalm 105:1-15, 43-45 (from The Message) for those following along on the web, we have some praise for God and we have the psalmist giving thanks for this covenant relationship with God.

Our God, is
      in charge of the whole earth.
   And remembers the Covenant—
      for a thousand generations God has been as good as God’s word.
   It's the Covenant God made with Abraham,
      the same oath sworn to Isaac,
   The very statute established with Jacob,
      the eternal Covenant with Israel,
   Namely, "I give you the land.
      Canaan is your hill-country inheritance."
And then later:

 43-45 Remember this! God led the people out singing for joy;
      God’s chosen people marched, singing their hearts out!
  God made them a gift of the country they entered,. . .

This covenant is good stuff. This is powerful. This is DEEP relationship that keeps us going through HARD times. We need some of that in times like these.

    So, in the church, we also use language of covenant to talk about our relationships with one another as a covenant body. In the church, that is as individual churches bound together in larger denominations and ultimately all together into one big Christian church. There is, after all, only one church. That is the church of Jesus Christ. One of the things I really like about the United Church of Christ is that we are founded on that premise. The UCC is called a united and a uniting church.  It was founded back in 1957.  We are a denomination, founded with a union of two denominations, who were each previously formed by the union of two earlier traditions. It’s all about coming together and focusing on our unity in Jesus.  Each individual congregation has autonomy to have their own by-laws but we are also connected through a convenant relationship.

    As you know here at The Village, we are connected to two denominations, both the UCC and the United Methodist Church. The UMC uses the language of connectionalism to talk about the covenant. We talk about the connectional church when we show that every local church is connected to the ministry of other churches in a geographical districts and conferences. We believe that in these covenant relationships, when we come together in Holy Conferencing the body of Christ grows stronger. There is a sense of spiritual accountability. We can also do more to affect positive change in the world when we pool our resources together.

    Remember that airplane we told you about last week?  If not, Gaston Ntambo operates a ministry in Africa that flies supplies to the people of Africa and shuttles the sick to places of relief and care.  However, his current plane uses fuel unavailable in his country.  So, from time to time he has to fly to another country to get fuel, with scary individual gas cans turning his plane into a flying bomb from time to time.  But we want to get him a plane that will last longer and run on the fuel in his country. 

    Our goal was $500,000 from the West Ohio Conference. We raised  $986,754.00 in cash, plus $37, 500 in pledges at Annual Conference for a total of $1,024,254.   It was an amazing moment when we did this. 

    Gaston Ntambo writes: We will honor all your sacrifices by using this airplane effectively as a tool in North Katanga, Tanganyika and Tanzania Annual Conferences, to reach out and spread the good news and the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.  

    Now we have a perfect tool that we can use to reduce malaria victims.  A child does not have to die every 60 seconds from malaria.  We are happy and encouraged to partner with the program Imagine No Malaria all because of your support and because we now have the necessary equipment.

    In conclusion, you touched and changed my life with your mission work when you sent me my very first pair of shoes at 9 years of age, Today you are sending me home with a perfect  airplane to go and make a difference for our people. Thank you for believing in us and for saving North Katanga Wings of the Morning flight ministry.

    I am proud of my United Methodist Church and our God is an awesome God and he is on the throne because I never thought in all my life that I could ever say that I am going shopping for an airplane, but here we go!
Gaston Ntambo  Wings of the Morning Pilot

We at the Village got to be a part of that.  It was a small part of it, we are a small, young church.  But we played a part in that. 

    I want to tell you what this idea of covenant and connection has meant for The Village.  Both of these denominations have also been funding us since 2008.
Grants from UMC and UCC
2008    $30,000   
2009    $91,500   
2010    $86,666   
2011    $73,332   
2012    $37,832   
2013    $6,667   
TOTAL    $325,997   
You are hearing this because of their investment into the Village. 

    Now I just spent most of the past week at denominational conferences of the UMC and the UCC. Part of the time was spent hearing about how these two denominations, like every other mainline denomination out there, are struggling right now. Both are trying to restructure because our huge organizational systems are not working. The reports from the United Methodist General Conference in Tampa a few weeks back were dismal and the work at re-structuring were terribly discouraging. Countless hours and dollars were spent and we came out of the meeting with no plan for a new structure. At the UCC Ohio Conference yesterday we heard some fairly concerned reports about deficit spending.  If we don’t figure out a way to do it differently, we would be out of money in a year or two.

    However, in the midst of this both of these entities have set aside money for missions and for planting new churches, like The Village.  Our church, and others like us, are a sign of new life. WE ARE A BEACON OF HOPE.  Sometimes I get discouraged about our progress at times.  But we are a place of hope for these denominations.  Because, in times like these, we are growing and doing risky things. 

    Everywhere I went, people asked how we are doing and they wanted to hear stories of our ministry. Two seasoned pastors who have become regular supporters of The Village each handed me checks for $250 each.

    At the UCC meeting yesterday, the keynote speaker was encouraging folks to take some risks with worship and especially with music. He was really pushing folks to get outside their comfort zones. Kristen and I sat there smiling because most of what he was talking about are business as usual around here. We were feeling really good.  We really are making a difference and we really are becoming a model church in Ohio and others want to hear about what we are doing. They have invested time and money in us, and now we can help them learn to reach generations, and segments of the population that many of our churches have long neglected by both of our denominations.

    This is what it means to be part of the covenant community, my friends. They have invested in us. We all invest in mission work together in Africa, and right here in our own community. And together, we are changing the world. And so, we grow stronger our financial feet, we will be asked to contribute more to our two denominations. There are funds that both the UCC and the UMC have. These are called covenant funds. The UCC calls it “Our Church’s Wider Mission.” The UMC apportionment fund is broken up into several funds including “Church World Service” and a few others. We contributed a token amount to those last year, but as we grow into self sufficiency we want to move to putting a tithe of our own giving back into those covenant funds. This is part of the covenant.

    You see, we all work together because we all belong to God. God gave our ancestors the land and promised to be their God. They had a covenant. And we are the inheritors of that covenant. Our part of the covenant is to be God’s people, and to care for the land and for all the people who live on it. That’s why we buy airplanes to deliver medical supplies and to transport sick people in Africa to health clinics. And that’s why existing churches have given money to plant The Village Church. We are all connected to one another.

    There are hundreds of United Methodist and United Churches of Christ that we are connected to in covenant in Ohio, and even more across the world. All those churches are a sign of the strength of the covenant. 

    God is blessing us. God never backs out on God’s part of the covenant.  That’s the most important part of the message of today.  We may fall away. Our human institutions and systems may strain under the weight of irrelevancy. But the strength of our relationship with God is never broken because God holds on to us. We can always return to our covenant to be God’s people. This church, everyone of you, this community,  is a beautiful sign of that covenant. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

It Takes A Village To Change The World: We Are Blessed by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

    An accomplished academic theologian, a German named Meister Eckhart, wrote in the fields of theology, psychology and philosophy in the 14th century. His writings influence leading theologians still today in the 21st century. He was also much appreciated for his practical sermons which he preached in the common language of the day. It’s a bit hard to believe, isn’t it? I am not an expert in the teachings of Meister Eckhart by any means but I know a well known quote attributed to him which I love. He once said: ”If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is "thank you," that would suffice.”

    The words “Thank You” are powerful.

    Perhaps you have been praying the Psalms since I invited you to do that a few weeks ago during my message about “Opening Ourselves to God.” I can post the link again on our website, with the daily plan for praying the psalms. Just reading one Psalm each morning or one Psalm at night, it is a great way to kick start your prayer life. There are many, many psalms written with the theme of saying “thank you” to God. And I think this is why, the writers of the Psalms were people deeply connected to God, and they knew what Meister Eckhart knew: “Thank you” is a powerful prayer.

    Let’s look more closely at today’s Psalm, number 67:
           God, mark us with grace and blessing! Smile!
           The whole country will see how you work,
            all the godless nations see how you save.
            God! Let people thank and enjoy you. 
            The people ask God for permission to give thanks
             and to enjoy God.
             Let all people thank and enjoy you.
             Let all far-flung people become happy 
            Then they ask, can’t the people who are far flung be happy
            and give thanks?
            and shout their happiness because
            You judge them fair and square,
          you tend the far-flung peoples.  You tend the far flung people.
         That is the best part of this whole psalm. This is about US; we are
          the people living on the edges. God tends to us and we have the privilege of saying
         “thank you  ” God.
           God! Let people thank and enjoy you.
           Let all people thank and enjoy you.
           Earth, display your exuberance!
           You mark us with blessing, O God, our God.  We are blessed!
           You mark us with blessing, O God.
            Earth's four corners—honor God!

God even tends to us, the far flung people, those of us living on the edge, also known as the members of the Village Church community.

    Do you feel blessed? Do you wake up every day feeling blessed? Do you go to sleep every night counting your blessings? It seems really old fashioned to say “count your blessings.” But a few years ago some woman made all kinds of money with books on the best sellers list just telling us to live with gratitude. “Keep a gratitude journal,” she said. “Before you go to bed each night,” she said, “Get out a blank journal and list five good things that happened that day, or five things in your life for which you have to be thankful.” She even sold her own blank books called “Gratitude Journals” and made more money! What a deal!

    She could have just told us to read the Psalms! She struck a chord with us. She understood that being grateful and saying “thank you” to ourselves, or to God, for our blessings will help keep us centered.

    She could have just reminded us to do what our parents did with us when we were little children. Say your bed time prayers and say thank you God. I do this with Jamie every night. He says thank you for the same things: “Thank you God for mom, dad, Becca, Jamie.” (Yes for some reason, he thanks God for himself. I guess it’s good to have good self esteem.) Then somehow because he’s a practical child and he learned how to stream line his prayers he usually just says this: “Thank you for food, water, shelter, air and everything good, give us a good night’s sleep and a good day tomorrow.” That pretty much sums it up. He has been saying that same prayer every night for years. If, God forbid, Jamie were taken away from us, kidnapped or something awful like that, I believe he would feel the presence of God with him, and somehow he would find a way to be thankful for something, and to know that God is with him. He’s been praying that prayer for as long as he can remember.  He knows what it means to be thankful. 

    Being thankful is a learned behavior. We can choose to be thankful. It’s a practice we can nurture within ourselves. I know this because people can learn to write thank you notes. Some people take the time, still, to write hand written thank you notes for things like graduation gifts and wedding gifts, and just when you do something that really makes a difference to them. And those notes of thanks mean something to the recipient.

    My first year in ministry, a wise pastor friend told me to do this.   I have saved in my office a file folder of thank you notes I have received over 22 years as a pastor. And when I get discouraged I pull out that file, to remind me of why I am doing this work.  Here it is, 22 years worth.  And every so often I pull it and remind myself on why I do this. 

    We can never say thank you enough.  Today, I am inviting us to give thanks to God for our blessings. God is the source of every good gift in our lives, because God is the creator of the universe. God gives life to everyone of us. God is the source of all wisdom and creativity. God is the source of all love. God is the source of our giftedness and of our wealth. God blesses us, so that we can bless one another.

    The psalmist says: God, let all the people thank you and enjoy you. So let’s do that. Say thank you to God today. Right now, take a piece of paper out, and write down five reasons why you are thankful, and then carry that piece of paper with you. And the next time you get discouraged take that paper out, and read it, and add five more things to the list.

    Let us be thankful.
“God! Let people thank and enjoy you.
      Let all people thank and enjoy you.
 Earth, display your exuberance!
      You mark us with blessing, O God, our God.”