Sunday, July 29, 2012

Who Do They Say That I Am? By Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

     Today we are receiving members into The Village Church, not our confirmation class, adults who have become a part of our community. People are making a commitment to Jesus and to this community of faith. We just read a scripture where Jesus talked to his disciples about what it meant for them to make a commitment to them, and we’ll get back to that scripture in a moment.

    Because I’ve been spending some time with our Confirmation students, who are all in middle school, I’ve been thinking a bit more about the pressures of being a teen ager in our world. Some of you have raised teenagers, and others are contemplating raising teenagers some day.  You see, Kathy and Katie and I are having conversations with these young people about our spiritual journey, because we want to give them tools. They are entering a crucial stage in life where the choices get harder and harder.

    Think back for a moment to high school. You remember high school, don’t you? When we are in high school, we enter a time when our peers have way more influence over us that our families. We being to choose which pack we will travel with. I’m not sure what they call the groups these days. In my high school in Abilene Texas, these were some of the groups:

·    there were the ropers, (the ones who were cowboy boots and hats and dipped snuff),
·    there were the dopers, you can probably guess what they did
·    the cheerleaders and the jocks, (they were all about style and image)
·    the band geeks, (that was my group), similar to the speech and drama team folks,
·    an overlapping group was the Christians who went to First Baptist Church. That was the big youth group in town.     
That was the Cedar Creek Church of Abilene Texas.

    I went to St. James United Methodist Church. We were the tiny little liberal church on the  other side of town. You’re not surprised to hear I went there, are you? I was the President of the youth group. I once interviewed the youth pastor at First Pastor of First Baptist and he explained to me why they did not believe women were called to be pastors.  We had an interesting conversation about that.  I agreed to disagree with him. (But I digress.)

    Back to the teen-agers. They make decisions about what group they will be in. As parents we hope and pray they will make good choices. There comes a point where we have to give them some freedom. We have some power over them, but we also have to start letting them make some choices.

    Free choice is the human condition. God created this way. We are not puppets. God, like a parent, has many hopes and desires for us, but God allows us to make choices. God, even more than the best parent, will always forgive us when we make bad choices and give us another chance when we mess up. (Sometimes parents are not so forgiving. We call this being a human being.)

    In our scripture for today, Mark 8:27-38 (The Message) for those following along from afar, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who are the people out there in the crowds saying that I am?” He knows that folks are talking about him. He knows he is a powerful leader. He is like the most popular kid in the high school times 1000. But remember not everyone loves the popular kid. Some of the groups hate the popular kid. So, Jesus was checking out the mood of crowds. He wanted to know what they were saying about him.

    People were not quite “getting it” about who he was. Some thought he was John the Baptist or Elijah or another prophet.  Then came the important question. Jesus pushed his own disciples. “OK, guys, you have been with me for awhile, now. Who do you say that I am?”

    Peter had an answer. Now you have to remember that Peter was one of his closest disciples. But Peter was also known for being sort of a hot head. Peter boldly and bravely proclaims: “You are Christ, you are the Messiah.”

    This was huge. I have got to think that it made Jesus really happy to hear Peter say these words. But right away Jesus tells them to keep this quiet. Because he knew what was coming. He warns them about the suffering that is to come.  "It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religion scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive." He said this simply and clearly so they couldn't miss it.
 32-33But Peter grabbed him in protest. Turning and seeing his disciples wavering, wondering what to believe, Jesus confronted Peter. "Peter, get out of my way! Satan, get lost! You have no idea how God works."

    The mood changes so quickly. Jesus goes from being gratified that Peter recognized him as the Christ, to scolding Peter harshly. He sees that Peter can’t take the truth. Then Jesus goes on with some really hard teaching.

    Those of you who are going to join the church today, well, I have to be honest so I want you to listen to this part carefully. I want you to know what you are getting into. This is serious stuff when we say we want to follow Jesus.
"Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You're not in the driver's seat; I am. Don't run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I'll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?
 38"If any of you are embarrassed over me and the way I'm leading you when you get around your fickle and unfocused friends, know that you'll be an even greater embarrassment to the Son of Man when he arrives in all the splendor of God, his Father, with an army of the holy angels."

    Jesus is saying that giving our lives means we are all in – 100%. We can’t hide our association with Jesus, when our friends challenge us. “So you’re one of those Christians.” Because the world will have their own understanding of what it means to be a Christian, and we don’t have any control over that.  We know what it means.

    And there will be some suffering. Loving the people God loves means that we will sometimes suffer. You see, the world does not always want us to be that kind and generous. Because it challenges THEM to be kind and generous when they don’t want to be.

    “All you need is love” is a great song – in theory.  But when you start trying to live that out IT GETS MESSY.  It’s like we’re back in high school, and we get to choose which group we want to be in. And we have a choice. Are we going to join the Jesus group?

    Now for a moment try to take away all your bad stereotypes of bad religion. Leave those at the door. We don’t have time for that today.  This is The Village.  This is just us and Jesus.  You know who Jesus is.

    The world is sort of like high school. There are all those other choices out there: the popular folks who are all about status, the ones who are turning to drugs to cover up the pain. There are the ones who are just going home and watching the home shopping network and reality TV to get away from everything.

    And then there is us. We are following Jesus and changing the world! But the stakes are high.  Because you see Jesus will ask us to speak the truth to injustice and not just look the other way.  Are you ready to do that, to speak the truth to injustice, to stand up for those who don’t have a voice?

    Jesus will ask us to be generous with our money and help people who have less than we do; he’ll ask us to sacrifice some of our comfort so that everyone can have basic healthcare and unemployment benefits and so there will be enough food to go around.

    And Jesus will ask us to care about this earth and make better choices about the cars we drive and about our own consumption so that the Earth is not destroyed by global warming. Jesus will demand that we suffer some discomfort and some ridicule, so that our children and grand children in the future will have a better life.

    When Jesus asked his disciples: Who do you say that I am? He was asking them: what are you going to say about who I am and who you are by your choices and actions for the rest of your lives?

    And that is what we need to ask ourselves today. That is what we are asking our new members today. We are about to ask them some traditional questions that have been asked of persons who have joined Christian churches for centuries. We are going to ask them to reaffirm their faith.

    The questions are really quite wonderful.  Let me give you a little preview of a couple of them.

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the powers of evil in this world, and repent of your sin?

Sounds a little old school doesn’t it?  Now on one level, this is simply saying that we will resist making choices for evil in our personal choices. But on another level, this means that we will work again evil and wickedness in the world. This means that when we are baptized and when we agree that we want to follow Jesus, we are promising actively to work against forces of evil.

    The next question follows right along with it:

Do you accept the power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

You know, we have been talking about the struggle within our own United Methodist Church, because our church does not yet fully accept gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender persons into leadership in our church. Some local churches, like The Village do. But the whole church, has not come around on that yet.

    When we read these vows, It seems that we are actually living out our baptismal vows when we work towards this justice. Because we believe LGBT people are suffering from injustice and oppression by our own denomination. We are actually living out our baptismal vows to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

    We are following Jesus, and changing the world.  So, Jesus is asking us, will we follow him? Even if it means we may suffer the consequences of conflict? That is what he was asking his first disciples and that is what he is asking us. We all get to choose what groups we will be in, just like teen-agers who are maneuvering the difficult waters of high school and the choices of what groups to join. Jesus is asking us: if you say that you are my follower, who do you say that I am with your actions?

    Today, a group of people are making the bold step of becoming members of The Village Church and reaffirming their commitment to Jesus. Let us celebrate with them. And let us all consider how we might deepen our commitment to Jesus and change the world.

    Do you have a place where you can boldly resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?  Where you can change the world as you follow Jesus’ example and teaching?  If not, come check us out.  We’re at the Maumee Indoor Theater (at the corner of Conant Street & the Anthony Wayne Trail) Sundays at 10:30 AM and out in the world the rest of the week.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

God is Still Speaking by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

   We had another tragedy this week.  A gunman armed with an assault rifle, a shotgun and a pistol and wearing a full suit of tactical body armor, a helmet and a gas mask set off two smoke bombs before opening fire in the dark theater early on Friday morning, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others.  People who just wanted to see a movie at it’s first showing.

    One of the victims was Matt McQuinn who moved to Denver from Springfield Ohio last November.   We will never really know why the gunman did it. Maybe he snapped. Maybe he had a mental breakdown. People are fragile.  We know that.
    Now we mourn as a nation, like we have mourned many times before. We reflect on the fact that there are no guarantees. We would do well to wake up and receive each day as a gift and a blessing, and not take anything for granted.  We have been here before.  We know that life is a blessing as is every day of it.

    Our first response as followers of Jesus is compassion: compassion for the victims, their families, the survivors who will undoubtedly suffer from shock and recovery for a long time to come. We even dig deep down inside and try our best to have compassion for the alleged shooter. He is perhaps the most broken person of all in this situation. We know as Christians we are called to have compassion for him.

    What is going on in our world, that any child can grow up and turn into such a cold and calculating killer? Honestly, I think we all have some responsibility to understand why our world has come to this sort of violence all too often. We need to ask God’s forgiveness on us all as a human race. But our first response is to mourn together and to express compassion for those who suffer most directly.

    But of course, very quickly we start to get angry and fearful. When will this happen again? Will this happen to someone we love. The social media sites were burning up with debates about gun control and the usual arguments. I got into some of that myself. A friend of mine intervened on a thread on my FB and said there will be plenty of time for this, let’s just take a breath for today, and mourn together as a nation. I had to agree.

    But here is the thing. In times of crisis, we need tools to guide our conversation in civil conversation. As followers of Jesus, we are engaged in our world. We want to do something, don’t we? When something like this happens, it pushes us to get to work, putting our faith into action to prevent these horrific events from happening again. We want to know how we can impact society for the good.  It is what Jesus would do.

    After all, our vision statement here at The Village says, “We are followers of Jesus and we can change the world.” So we are called to take a serious look at hard situations like this and consider how we, as a society, can order our life together differently so that we can get different results.

    The Confirmation Students learned something about discernment this week. They learned that when John Wesley and his early followers were trying to discern God’s will for their lives, they would turn to four sources for guidance:
·    Scripture
·    Tradition
·    Experience
·    Reason
This tool for spiritual discernment has been named the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (it has four sides for those for whom geometry has faded a bit). Now, we always start with scripture. It is primary. But we read scripture through the lens of the tradition of the church, through our own experiences in the world, and through the use of our minds using reason.

    One denomination has had a marketing campaign saying: “You don’t have to leave your mind at the door” to come to church here. That would be an argument for using the brains God gave us as we read and interpret scripture in each generation and context. We also know that sometimes the church has had a tradition for a long time but then our own experience bumps up against that tradition and causes conflict.

     For example, for a long time the church had a tradition that women were not allowed to be pastors. The church tradition said that women were not gifted as pastors, but then women started saying: we are experiencing God calling us to be pastors. And congregations started saying: we are seeing in women the gifts and graces for pastoral ministry. Logic tells us that it would not make sense for God to give women these gifts if God did not want them to be pastors. There were scriptural passages that had been interpreted, in their cultural context, to say that women should not be leaders in the church. But when we re-read those in the context of the day, and allowed ourselves to consider another reading, through the lens of our experience and our reason, we came to another conclusion and discerned that yes, we believe that God does call women to be pastors.  And one by one denominations started calling women pastors.  And the world has not ended now, has it?

    CAUTION: Now, this reading of scripture and engaging the tradition of the church, while bringing our own experience and reason to the table, needs to be done carefully and in community. Somebody could walk in here today and say my tradition says “X” and we could follow that.  But we need to take time because as you can imagine, people can be all over the place in how we interpret scripture based on our own experience. That is why there are so many different kinds of churches.

    The scripture for today comes from the Gospel of John (John 1:1-5 for those following along from afar). There are four Gospels in the New Testament. The Gospels are stories about Jesus. Each one is written with a different perspective. This one is the most symbolic and poetic and the most symbolic and theological in its writing. It starts with this image of Jesus being the WORD:

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

To me, it’s a wonderful metaphor to say that God came into the world, in the form of a human being because God wanted to EXPERIENCE what life is like for us. It was like the WORD of the God, the scripture or the truth, came smack up against human experience. This wonderful introduction to John’s Gospel tells us that we cannot help but interpret the Word of God through our own experience.  The way we find our way – find our light, is when we allow God’s Word, to come into our experience of life.

    So, what does this mean for us?   Every day, we keep listening to God, and looking for the connections between the Word of God and our life experience.  This brings me to the other story I want to tell you today. It explains the “God is Still Speaking” image you have been seeing all day.

    The story begins with a pastor named John Robinson, born in England in 1575. He was planning to be a priest in the Church of England but he became increasingly dissatisfied with the Church because it was looking more and more like the Roman Catholic Church. The Puritans had formed by this time and he found them more to his liking. He became one of their leaders and when they fled to Holland for religious freedom he went with them.
    Among his main teachings were these ideas:
 (1) The necessity for an enlightened, scholarly ministry who lived with their people and served as their teacher.
(2) The central importance of an educated laity who could read, study the Bible, and think for themselves.
 (3) Independence of the local church from king and bishops. The people were the church. The people had the right to run their churches, choose their ministers and lay leaders. Their aim was a free church where men could speak their minds and seek new truth.
(4) Reform of the church from control by crown and bishops, and reform from corruption and superstition.
From  from “Our Pilgrim Heritage” written by Rev. Dr. Robert Merrill Bartlett

    When the time came for many of his people to leave Holland, travel to America on a ship called the Mayflower, he preached a sermon to them. There is a famous quote from that sermon where he tells them: “I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.”

    The Puritans helped created the Congregational churches which became the United Church of Christ.  This quote is now being used by the UCC as our brand: “God is still speaking.” We also use a quote from Gracie Allen, comedian from the 1930’s and 40’s: “Never put a period where God puts a comma.” This is why the comma has become the trademark of the UCC.

    What we are trying to say by the brand is that God continues to create; and to reveal truth to us. The relationship between God and God’s people is not static, is it moving and growing. We don’t have to be afraid that God changes like the wind and bounces from one extreme to another. But we can trust that we can grow in our understanding of God. As the world changes, God can respond to us in new ways and reveal truth and light to us in ways we could never have imagined in another time. God can speak to us in new situations. God can help us with situations and circumstances that may not have been going on at the time the Bible was written.

    Now, let’s go back to the beginning of today’s sermon.  God is still speaking. And this week we had a tragedy in Colorado.  What does this mean for us?
It means that we need to trust that as followers of Jesus, God can give us the tools to discern how to respond: first with compassion, but second with action to We can’t be sure today what that action might be.

    I can tell you that our United Methodist Board of Church and Society put out a statement on Friday, reminding us The United Methodist Church considers it a priority public health issue to prevent firearm-related death and injury, and that we have already passed a Resolution on Gun Violence. The Statement offers suggestions for work congregations can do, such as encouraging Congress to reinstate the ban on sale of military assault weapons to civilians. (Source: These are recommendations that have already been made by our brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church, who have prayerfully considered scripture, tradition, experience and reason. They offer their work to us for our consideration. I will put their full statement on our website this week.   We are not bound by this work, it is there for us to consider.

    This is what it means to be part of a connectional church, with the United Methodists and the United Church of Christ. When we need help discerning some of these complicated issues, there are other people connected to us in our church who have already spent lots of time carefully considering many of these important issues. They are people with similar values to ours.

    The Confirmation Students had a chance to meet some of those folks this week when they went on a field trip to Cleveland and Akron to visit the UCC National Office and to visit the Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church. And they had a chance to share their stories with us in worship.

        Our Confirmation class shared their experiences about their confirmation trip. Tanner shared about going to the Freedom School in Cleveland, where inner city kids learned and got conflict resolution skills and fun dancing. Jolee shared about going to the Reading Group at the Freedom School, writing poetry and sharing their poetry.  Becca shared about going to UCC National Office in Cleveland and going to the  Amistad Chapel, a beautiful room which honors what the UCC did to help the people who were slaves rescued from the slave ship Amistad, she also talked about what the staff does.  Quinn spoke about how you can  sponsor a child for $25 per month, but here, unlike the TV commercial ones, all of the money goes to the child, not a penny to administrative costs.  Max then shared about the Methodist Jurisdictional Conference in Akron.  They attended a worship service with handbells and a person doing sign language, they actually illustrated Scripture with big puppets, including the story of Jesus walking to Emmaus, and the Bishop who preached said his prayers in all of the languages present.  The kids had a great experience and learned a great deal.

    Let me close with this.  When tragedy hits, it is hard on all of us. It may shake our faith. But it is out of adversity that people of God come together to change the world. I don’t believe God causes these things to happen so we can learn from them. Human brokenness caused this tragedy. But as human beings, who love God and who follow Jesus, we are called, then, not to bury our heads in the sand, it is better for us to come together. We have a rich tradition, we have scripture to guide us, and we have our experience and our minds to make good decisions together. God gives us these tools so that we can engage the world and make a difference.  WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE.  So let’s live out our vision. Let’s follow Jesus and change the world.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Grace Part Two: We Walk Through The Door by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

    When two people have had a disagreement, and they settle things, I’ve heard them say: “are we alright?”  We want to make things right when they have been wrong. To make things right, or justified, is the theological concept; and it has to do with grace.  When we are justified with God, it means we are right with God.

    Last week we talked about grace. I told you John Wesley, who is the founder of the Methodist movement, talked about three stages of grace, or three movements of grace in our relationship with God.

    And we use a house as a metaphor to talk about these stages of grace:
1st one is the porch – this is when God is inviting us into a relationship.  God is trying to get our attention. We might go years walking by God’s beautiful house with an inviting porch and we never stop to say hello, but God is still there inviting us in.
The 2nd stage is the front door – this is when we walk in the door. We decide that yes, we want to accept God’s offer of God’s grace. We want to live in God’s house.  We accept God’s offer of grace. 

    Now I did not tell you the theological words last week because the first one is in Latin and most people can never remember it. But I told it to the Confirmation students this week, so I will tell you today. It’s called “prevenient grace” which means the grace that comes before we even know God is present. This is the grace at work in a child’s life before a child even knows God, and the grace at work in an adult’s life who also does not know God’s love and grace, who is resisting God or has not developed a relationship with God yet.

     The second one is called “justifying grace.”  It’s where/when we decide to make things right with God.  Where we get  into a right relationship with God.  We want to line our lives up with God.  We recognize that as humans, left to our own device, we will sin, and so we need to line ourselves up with God.  Even when we walk through the door, and join others in this walk as Christians we still sometimes make wrong choices, but we do try to walk through the door and try to live in God’s way.

    How many of you know the song “Amazing Grace”?
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.
Despite being an old song, this is one that still resonates fresh with us now.  It was written by John Newton in 1779. He was a slave trader, that converted to Christianity, and stopped trading slaves. Sometimes it is just that simple! A person is doing something horrible like selling other human beings into slavery.

    We walk through that door, we say I’m going to line up the choices of my life with God.  I am going  to give my life to the way of Jesus, and  turn away from some action that is not lined up with God’s desires for us and for the world. And we have a new life.

    Some of us in this room may have had, (or may need to have) just such extreme a conversion experience. When you walked forward for the first time, and were baptized as an adult, or made a profession of faith and joined a church, or gave your life to Jesus, you may have been leaving behind a life that was clearly not lined up with God. For others, the shift may have been more subtle. Some of us are good people, raised in families where there was no extreme departure from God.  But there came a time when consciously chose to say: “I want to love God, and follow Jesus, starting today.”

    Now I want to be clear today, that at The Village we are respectful of people who practice other religions. There are other ways to connect to God besides Christianity. But here, we focus on Jesus. Jesus is the way we know best, and so if people want to grow deeper in a relationship with God, here are The Village we are going to invite people to know God through Jesus, because we can’t do everything.

    And what we want to do best here, is to invite people to move beyond more than just casually good people, or good citizens.  There is more to it than that.  We have a story to tell the world, and it’s a good one. It’s a story of life transformation. And there are people are there who want to know God. They want and need something deeper in their lives.  Do you hear the difference?  People want to be more than just good people.  They need a deep connection to God in their lives. They want more than just a set of good values.

    You know this and I know this.  We want to know that the One who made the world love us. We want to know that when we feel bad about ourselves, God still loves us. We want to know that God forgives us and that we can make things right with God because God is always ready to make things right with us.   To give us a new start.  That is justifying grace – the grace that is  ready to forgive us and make things right again. All we have to do is walk toward God and God is standing there at the door with open arms. But we do have to make the move.

    Until then, we are still out on the porch. God is waiting for us – trying to get our attention, calling for us to come into the house. But there comes a point where we have to do something.  We have to walk through the door.  Until then we are out on the porch.   A relationship takes two, right?

    Our scripture from Romans (Romans 5: 1-11 from The Message for those following along from afar) talks about what it means to us when we enter into this relationship with God. Let’s take another look at that passage:
 1-2By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that's not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God's grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.
It sounds so freeing doesn’t it? When we decide to take a step of faith, and move toward God, we discover that God has moved toward us too. And then it’s like we are living in these wide open spaces. There is great freedom in knowing that we belong to God and that God loves us. It gives me freedom to stand up to people who try to make me feel like I am not worthy. Because I know that I am valuable to God.   You can try to tell me I’m not worthy, but you are not God. 
 3-5There's more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we're hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we're never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can't round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

    I call this, the “trust God” part of the relationship. When we decide to live our lives, lined up with God, then we just have to trust God. Those two words have carried me through so many challenges.  I think about other Christians who have gone before me, those I have read about in scripture and more modern saints, and I know that God takes our challenging times and uses them to make us strong.

    So the question for today, from this scripture is this: have we fully walked through that door? Or are we still lingering on the porch?

      Maybe you said “yes” a long time ago, but today you just feel like you are going through the motions. Maybe you want to have your life lined up with God’s desire for your life, but if you really pause to look deeply at your actions, you know that they are really not consistent with what you know to be the way of Jesus? Or maybe there is just one area that is a problem. Some segment of your life that you are trying to keep separate from your Christian life? We have mostly all been there. We think, “I can just have this little area where I cheat a bit. After all, I’m mostly a good person.” But you know, it’s really not working.

    I believe we all want grace in our lives. We all want to experience God’s amazing love and forgiveness. But sometimes we hold ourselves back from God. Or sometimes we try to hide one part of ourselves or our lives back from God. When we do that, God suffers, But we suffer even more. God is always looking for us. God and God’s prevenient grace – the grace that goes before, the one that is always out there looking for us – to surprise us and sneak up on us, well, it will keep sneaking up on us and surprising us.

    But then, in the second place, it’s up to us, to take a step and make things right. The justifying grace, is ours to receive.  It’s our step toward God. We have to walk in the door of God’s house and say, “Here I am. I want to leave the old, yucky, broken stuff at the door. I want to live with you.”

    And then great thing is this – God is always ready to say – “Come on in. You are forgiven. You are my child and I love you.  No matter how many times we step back out on the porch or into the neighborhood.  This is your home too and I’ve been waiting for you. What took you so long?”

    So, what are we waiting for? Let’s walk in the door, into the house.  Do you need a place where you can find that door?  Well, one of many is at the corner of Conant Street and the Anthony Wayne Trail in Maumee, come join us.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

GRACE: GOD INVITES US ONTO THE PORCH by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

    Way, way back in the old days, when a young man wanted to initiate a relationship with a woman, (and back then those were the only types of relationships we talked about), it was called courting. From the beginning of time, there have been rules of mating, as you know, some formal and some informal. But back in the old days, a man would come calling and often the couple would sit on the front porch. It was a way to talk and get to know one another, in a public place under the watchful eye of the family. It was a way to keep things at a certain superficial level when things were early in the relationship.

    We are just sitting on the front porch, having some lemonade, enjoying some pleasant conversation. We are not serious yet. We are just getting to know one another. If we want to take this to the next level we will come into the house for a family dinner and go through the grilling from the parents. We will sit on the couch and try to steal a kiss after the parents to go bed. Eventually after we go in the house, we might start planning a life together, and make a real commitment. But out here on the porch, it’s still casual. We can still make a run for it, if we decide we don’t want to be here with this person.

    John Wesley, the father of the Methodist movement, used a house as a metaphor to talk about the stages of our relationship with God. Grace is the church word we use for God’s love and God’s powerful force for good in our lives. John Wesley said that there were three stages of grace.  Stage One, is the porch.

    Imagine that you are walking by this house. This house is God’s love. It represents the relationship that God wants to have with us. God wants us to have a home with God.   God is trying to get our attention with the porch.

    It’s pretty nice, huh? But you know what we do. We keep walking by. Or more accurately, we drive by, fast, without even noticing. We are too busy. We know God will always be there. So we wait until we have a crisis. Then we think to ourselves, now where was that beautiful house, with the pretty porch?

    God spends 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 365 days a year trying to get our attention to say: ‘I want to be in a relationship with you. I want to love you. I want to lavish you with attention.  And I want you to love me.’

    God is like a potential life partner who is wooing us, but we don’t even pay her the time of day because we are too busy with school or work or something else.
It’s like this story from the Old Testament that we heard today. Yeah, I know it’s a story about shepherds and none of herd sheep for a living. But this is how the story goes (Ezekiel 34:11-16 from the Message translation for those following along on the web):
11-16 "'God, the Master, says: From now on, I myself am the shepherd. I'm going looking for them. As shepherds go after their flocks when they get scattered, I'm going after my sheep. I'll rescue them from all the places they've been scattered to in the storms. I'll bring them back from foreign peoples, gather them from foreign countries, and bring them back to their home country. I'll feed them on the mountains of Israel, along the streams, among their own people. I'll lead them into lush pasture so they can roam the mountain pastures of Israel, graze at leisure, feed in the rich pastures on the mountains of Israel. And I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. I myself will make sure they get plenty of rest. I'll go after the lost, I'll collect the strays, I'll doctor the injured, I'll build up the weak ones and oversee the strong ones so they're not exploited.
That means God is not even staying in the house or sitting on the porch waiting for us. God is all over the place – trying to find us. Wherever we are, feeling discouraged, or lost, or weak or exploited, God is coming to us – wooing us into a relationship.

   You see here is the thing. We all have a connection to God because God is our creator. Even people who claim to be atheists, are connected to God, because God made them, and us. And so even when we don’t believe in God, God believes in us.

   And even when we go for years without praying, or coming to Sunday worship, God is paying attention to what is going on in our lives, because we are God’s children.  Every one of us is God’s beloved child.  EVERY ONE.

   Do you think when a grown child does not call her mother for 25 years, that the mother forgets her child? She might say she does, but I don’t believe it. Not a chance. A mother never forgets her child. She never stops caring. And God never forgets us.   That is grace.

   That is grace at work in our lives, even when we are not paying one bit of attention to God. God still loves us.
    You see, sometimes we claim that we are blessed because we pray. We have a connection to God because we love God and serve God. And of course, I think we have a much better life for us when we choose to have an on-going connection to God. Our lives will have more meaning; and we’ll be more prepared when those really hard challenges of life come along. We are blessed when we pray because we experience connection to God.

   But I also believe that when we forget God, we will still experience blessing – because God wants to get our attention. Think about it. Think about how much someone wants to get your attention, when they have a crush on you, and you have not given them then time of day. Then imagine how much more God, our creator, must want our attention. Because every one of us it God’s own child. God loves us so much more than someone who has a passing crush on us.

   So, when you take a drive this week, or better yet, a walk, and you see a beautiful porch, I hope you will stop and consider this. God is on that porch, calling to you – asking you to come on the porch and recommit yourself to be in a deep relationship with God. We’ll talk a little more about that deeper state of grace next week.

   For today, I want to invite us to respond to this message by remembering some of those times when God got our attention. And we’re going to have a brief time of sharing.

   Can you think of a time in your life when you were not really living in God’s house? You might be there now: a time when you were resisting God, or just not paying much attention to God. But God, in God’s grace was trying to get your attention.

   God was on that porch waving to you, trying to call to you to come on over and have a cup of coffee and chat awhile. Maybe God sought you out for a blessing at a time when you were not expecting it, and you can only explain it by pointing to God’s grace.  Have you experienced a moment of this? Think hard, God can be subtle and use some unusual things and people to reach us.

   If you need a place to look for that nice house with the porch, we’re here.  We’ve got comfy seats, we’ve got lemonade, no porch swing, but that’s a little old school anyway.  Come join us Sundays @ 10:30 at the corner of Conant Street & The Anthony Wayne Trail in Maumee.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

SACRED MEAL by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

  Today is a great day in the life of The Village Church. We are starting our first Confirmation Class. Six middle school students will be spending the next 3 months meeting with me and Kathy Keller and Katie Wineland learning about Jesus and about what is means to be a disciple. I want to ask you all to pray for them. So for the next few weeks  I’m going to preach for the next few weeks on some of the basics of our Christian faith. I don’t think is will hurt any of us to get a refresher course. Today we are starting with Holy Communion.

    I want to start by telling you a story,the year is 1987.   I am 24 years old and a student at Candler School of Theology. I have just taken a new job as the Children and Youth Pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church located right in the heart of downtown Atlanta. It’s Sunday. I have just finished leading the youth Sunday School class.

    It’s all high school boys. Some of them are white kids who ride in from the suburbs with their parents who come to the church. And some of them are African American kids who get to the church somehow, on their own, because since they were little, one of the women in the church started bringing them there. This is their home. They come from poor families. They come alone.

    We are in worship and I am sitting alone that day. When it comes time for communion in this church they don’t have ushers that guide you up, you just go up when you are ready and kneel at this long curved altar rail at the front of this huge old sanctuary. There are only about 90 of us in a sanctuary that could probably seat 800.

    When it’s time for Communion at Trinity, The preacher makes the invitation: “These are the gifts of God for the people of God.” And I make my way up to receive. I kneel. And then I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn to see Tony, age 15, smiling at me anxiously. He says, “Is there room for me here?” “Of course,” I say, and he joins me; and we are served that sacred meal together.  It’s a sacred moment.

    That day, I understood what it means to come to the table, and commune with God. You see, I felt alone that day, in that big old church, with no family there, and I wonder if Tony felt alone too. But he trusted me and together, we did not have to feel alone. At God’s table, we came together.

    Everyone was welcome at that table. That church, Trinity in Atlanta, is a wonderfully diverse church, like this one. In fact, it became my vision of church through seminary. There were times I was not so sure, really, that I could conform enough to be a United Methodist pastor. But Trinity was a church on the edge and I decided that if Trinity could be a United Methodist Church, then I could be a United Methodist pastor. It was kind of an unusual church.

    Trinity UMC is a church where EVERYONE is welcome.  Trinity had a homeless shelter in the basement and a soup kitchen where about 400 members of Atlanta’s homeless population were fed every Sunday afternoon. I learned about an open table where everyone is welcome at Trinity United Methodist Church. I shared many sacred meals both in that sanctuary and in the basement at the shelter. There were really no lines between the two ministries; the lines were blurred, as they should be.

    The lines were blurred a bit like we blur the lines when we welcome anyone who comes into our doors here, and we share some food before and after worship, and we share a sacred communion meal during our service on many Sundays. There is a reason why the words communion and community come from the same root. They are both about connecting: connecting us to God and to one another.

    We know that there is something special about food, right?  When we want to celebrate and connect with friends and family, do we ever do it without food?  We share a meal. When we are trying to help ease tensions between two people or groups of people who are in conflict, we know that getting them to sit down for a meal together can begin to ease the tension and create space for reconciliation.

       The sacred meal we know as Holy Communion takes all of this a few steps deeper. That’s why Jesus gave us this meal.

    In the church, we have actually raised this meal to a level we call a Sacrament – a sacred event. In the protestant church, that is in our branch of Christianity, where The Village stands with the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church, there are only two sacraments: baptism and holy communion. There are other rituals and practices that are important to us, like confirmation, marriage and ordination of clergy. But there are only two that we call them sacraments. We separate these two out is because of what a powerful place they play in Jesus’ life.

    The common definition of a sacrament is an experience when we have an outward sign that points to an inward grace. That means we have some tangible, physical sign of to remind us that we are being touched by God’s grace. In baptism the physical sign is the water. We will talk about baptism another day.

    In Holy Communion the physical sign is the bread and the wine (or grape juice which is what we use). When we eat the bread and drink from the cup we believe that we are changed by God’s grace in a sacred and mysterious way. It’s a powerful experience. Some days it may feel more powerful than others. But we participate in this sacred meal week after week, because we want to open ourselves up to God’s power to come into our lives, our whole lives, body, mind and spirit, and change us.

    So today we walked through a few of the traditions of the service of Holy Communion as we do it, as a teaching moment.  The first thing we want to remind everyone that everyone is welcome to the table at the Village. 

·    The service includes confession. Every Sunday when we gather we want to acknowledge that we are not perfect and we need God.  But we take it further and it’s in our Village Statement we read each week.

·    From the United Methodist Book of Worship: “All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive.”

·    Some churches have a formal passing of the peace during the service. We tend to do this informally in the way we provide a place of welcome and reconciliation. Sometimes we do it at the end of the service too.

·    The bread because it is one loaf, and the wine, because we share from one cup, symbolize that we are all part of one body, the body of Christ, the church. We are Jesus’ hands and his heart living in the world.  And while the formal ceremony talks about wine but we know we have people in recovery in our midst so to honor them we use grape juice.  We then dip our bread into the cup, in a process called intinction.  We also remember that by breaking the bread that Jesus gave all for us, not taking an easy way out, but sacrificing all to show us a way to live and to give us eternal life.

·    The invitation is given to come to the table. We include a prayer of thanksgiving. The pastor gives thanks appropriate to the occasion, remembering God’s acts of salvation and the institution of the Lord’s supper, where Jesus gave us this meal,  and invokes the present work of the Holy Spirit and concludes with praise to the Trinity.

    Today, we used a quote from our scripture (I Corinthians 11: 23-26 from the Message translation for those following along from afar):

 “The Master, Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, took bread. Having given thanks, he broke it and said,
   This is my body, broken for you.
   Do this to remember me.
    After supper, he did the same thing with the cup:
   This cup is my blood, my new covenant with you.
   Each time you drink this cup, remember me.What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again”

    Do you have a community where you can share a meal like this?  Where can share who you are and let others share with you?  If not consider The Village Church, we are at the Maumee Indoor Theater, at the corner of Conant Street & The Anthony Wayne Trail in Maumee Sundays at 10:30 AM and out in the world sharing what we have the rest of the week.