Sunday, September 30, 2012

Message: Fan the Good Flames by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

   I don’t like to use political stories, but I’m going to use it one more time.  Because, we live in a swing state.  Did you know that?  I hear tell from some of my friends who do not live in a swing state, that the Presidential candidates are not visiting their towns every few weeks like they are visiting NW Ohio. I also hear tell that some media markets are not getting nearly as many political ads as we are getting. Hmm! I had no idea.

    Some of us wish that once we vote early next week, that somehow that would cause the TV ads to disappear from our TV’s. Wouldn’t that be nice? Lots of people tell me that the especially hate the negative ads where one candidate tells us the bad things about the other candidate. We wonder, why do they all have to use negative campaigning?  Why can’t you be positive and get elected in this country?

    Now, my husband happens to be trained in campaign management. And he will tell you that the reason the candidates use negative ads, is because they work. It is sad but true (the husband agrees, but we can change the world).

    I wish, I wish I had the ability to snap my fingers and change human nature.  I wish I could make the whole world more prone to focus on positive rather than the negative.   The fact is that they use those negative ads because they do work.   I wish I could make us focus on that positive.

    And you know, when I think about it I believe that is one of the main messages that Jesus came here to give us. He came to tell us, to quit focusing so much on being critical of one another, think about it.   He came to tell us to do good with humility, and to trust that God will notice and God will join us in fanning the flames of what is good, and God will multiply our good works. God wants to multiply the goodness.

    You see this is my personal metaphor for ministry. When I see someone doing something positive in their life, doing something good.   I love to fan those flames. If you have ever built a fire, out camping, or maybe in a fire place, you know that there can come a time when the fire begins to die out. Maybe there are just a few embers left. This is like a time in our lives, when we are discouraged. We need some direction. We are beaten down, or just worn out.

    But something happens. Something triggers just a little flame. I don’t really know the science of fire, but I think some oxygen mixes with the heat and a flame ignites (science geek husband  - Oxygen + Heat + Fuel). I do know that if you fan those flames the fire can get bigger. If you add more fuel to the fire, some nice dry wood, and more oxygen then the fire can grow from those tiny embers to a blazing fire again. I love to fan the flames in your lives. That is my calling in life as a pastor, to fan those flames.

    Well, Jesus had a conversation with his disciples once and he was telling them that their job was to fan the flames of anyone who wanted to be part of this movement. That was part of being a disciple.  They were to look for that little spark that might ignite into a passionate Jesus follower.

    But you see, his disciples were human beings, like us. They were imperfect people, so they did not always get it right.  Any imperfect people out there?

    In the first part of scripture that we read to you today (Mark 9:33-42 for those following along at home) there was this little scene.  Jesus catches his disciples having a conversation about who was the greatest.   Are you kidding me?  It was all about status. All about competition. Sound familiar? You see they lost track of the goal to help encourage lots of passionate disciples. He had to remind them of what is important. It is not about being the most important disciple. It’s not about putting one person down, so that you can feel superior. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

    You don’t get ahead in this world by doing good and then bragging about what a great Christian you are -- putting yourself above others. And you sure don’t please God by speaking badly about your opponent. We please God by being humble, and being the best follower of Jesus that we can be.

    So then we come to the heart of today’s story. The disciples say: “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn’t in our group.”  I bet they wanted Jesus to pat them on the back for that.

     That is like us saying, “That church does not deserve to be a church because they don’t do things the way we do things.” Ouch! That sounds familiar,
doesn’t it? Sometimes we can get a little high and mighty around here. Because we really do think The Village is better than most other churches. We are proud of our church. We think we’re the best church.
    Listen to what Jesus says to that kind of thinking: “Don’t stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.”

    So, if someone is trying their best to do something good, they are a friend of Jesus, and they are a friend to us.  We are on the same side and we need to fan their flames. They may be a bit awkward in how they do it. They may not have a cool band like us. They may not let you bring coffee into their worship space. They have mostly older people. But if they love Jesus, and they are trying to spread compassion in the world, then they are with us. We need to remember that. It is not our place to judge them.

    There may be more churches out there that are with us than we think.  Yes, I know some of us have been hurt by the judgment of some well-meaning church folk. I am not trying to diminish that. But let’s not let the hurtful actions of some, cause us to cut ourselves off from our Brothers & Sisters in Christ.

    Instead let’s be people who focus on the good. Let’s join in, and work WITH those who do good. Let’s do good with humility, because Jesus says that God will notice. And I believe that God will fan the flames alongside of us and multiply the good that will come.

    Jesus said, that when someone is giving even a cup of cold water in his name, then that person is on his side.  Do you know what disappoints me? It disappointments me when I see Christians bickering with one another, when I see us being so critical of one another. It happens from church to church, from denomination to denomination, and it even happens within a local congregation like The Village.

    What!   What did she say? Do we have bickering here at The Village? Yes. For example, when we first opened up we had some differences of opinion about whether or not we should have white or black table cloths out in the hospitality area. And sometimes we have differences of opinion about the music. Some people like a song the band plays and other people don’t! Imagine that. Some people think having a Village kids program is so important that we should pay to have leaders for it, and others wonder why we don’t just keep the kids in here with us and save some money!  I hear tell there are even some people that don’t like every decision the pastor makes! Say it isn’t so! Differences of opinion at The Village!

    These sorts of things are just the sort of things that can split apart a community. You’ve seen them if you’ve been a part of a community for more than a month. That is why this passage of scripture is so important. Think about some of the things I just listed, in light of our scripture for today.  “Jesus, there are some people casting out demons and they are not part of our group.”

    Jesus asked his disciples: Were you just arguing about who is the most important? Jesus’ response was clear: It’s not about us, and who is first and who leads and who decides how we do things. It’s about all of us putting Jesus first, and putting ourselves last. It’s about looking for ways in which the love for God is being acted out in the word, like the action of giving a cup of water for someone who is thirsty.

    Look for an ember of compassion or kindness and then fan those flames. Don’t worry about who got there first, or whether the person did it the way you would have done it.  It doesn’t really matter what color table cloths we have.  If you see Jesus in a person, if you see God’s goodness in a person, then encourage them. If you know someone has claimed to be a follower of Jesus and they are trying, then don’t beat them down with negative energy. Fan those flames!

    We are all in this together. This work of being a Christian community is hard enough. But there are enough negative forces in the world already. We need to pull together.

    The message of Jesus is clear: “If [s he’s] not an enemy, [she’s] an ally.” Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice. When we do good, with humility, God will notice. God will join us in fanning the good flames and our good works will multiply.

    I’ve invited one of our members of The Village community to come tell her story now. Kelly Phillips is going to tell a story of situation when someone gave her an opportunity to do good. She did; and as she showed compassion, God fanned the flames and the blessings just kept multiplying.  Kelly shared this story with us:

It started when My friend asked me for help. She needed compassion and because of the situation we both shared, of course I gave it to her.  That situation was being the victim of sexual assault.  Because of going through that, I was able to show her compassion, to give her encouragement and be there for her.
Then I saw how strong she was.  Her strength, gave me the opportunity to be strong.  Her courage not only inspired me, but fanned the flames inside of me.  Thanks to that I was able to turn this dark time into something positive and to share that with others.      Kelly did not worry about whether or not she was qualified to help her friend. And she certainly did not judge her friend for what happened to her. She showed compassion. And God blessed them both.   Giving Kelly a new career and way to serve.

    As a result, God created space for Kelly to be strong enough to deal with her own situation and now she has found a calling to work professionally in this career.

    When has God given you an opportunity to fan the flames for good, and how did God help you fan those flames so that the goodness could multiply in that situation?  If you’ve not had a place where the embers of the flames are fanned, find one.  There are many places out there.  One is at the corner of Conant Street & The Anthony Wayne Trail, Sundays at 10:30 AM. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Take Up Your Cross by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

We had an interesting conversation at the dinner table this week. My son Jamie asked this: “Are you not supposed to talk about religion WITH politics? Or are you not supposed to talk about either one?  I just don’t get it.” We explained that in polite social situations some people think you are better off avoiding talking about religion and politics because they tend to be controversial.   We kind of had a good laugh.

    But with a mom who is a pastor and a dad who is working on a political campaign we NEVER avoid these two subjects. Then the two kids had a little fun wondering what their life would be life if they had two parents who had nothing to do with religion or politics. I think it had something to do with Kurt being a plumber and me having a flower shop.

    We talk about religion and politics at our house a whole lot of the time. Our values drive our passion about both. Which is why today’s scripture is so important to me. You see Jesus tells his disciples that his work is ultimately going to get him into so much trouble with the religious and political authorities and that will lead to his death. The stakes are high.  He asks them if they are really prepared to go with him down that road. You see, today’s scripture is not about the peace and happiness we receive when we decide to follow Jesus, it’s about the sacrifice he demands of us. This thing we call discipleship has two sides.

    It reminds me of a saying we had when I was in seminary. Our job as pastors is this: to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Sometimes you are both the afflicted and the comfortable, aren’t you? And after 22 years in ministry, I have to say that pithy little description of ministry isn’t a bad description. So some weeks my job is to comfort you and some weeks my job is to afflict you. I spend quite a bit of time and energy giving comfort to people during times and seasons of affliction; through sorrow and challenges in life. On the other hand, as a pastor who takes seriously the call to follow Jesus, I find myself often in a position to challenge the comfortable status quo.

    I speak the truth to those with the power, who are usually those who are more comfortable. I also challenge all of us who are blessed to give up what we have and be generous so that those who have less can be comforted. I challenge us to be sacrificial, to live simply so that others may simply live.

    You may remember that last week’s message was on healing. We heard a story about a woman who was bold to ask for healing for her daughter. I asked you to think about what affliction you have. What demon or habit you have that you suffer with, that you want God to take away. We prayed and asked God to release us from our suffering. I asked you to be bold and ask God for help wit this.  Because I believe the God wants to take away our burdens.

    Well then look what happens, just one chapter later (Mark 8:27-38 from The Message for those following along on the internet), Jesus is talking to his disciples and says this: Don’t run from suffering, take up your cross, embrace it.

    Why would he say this? Because when we follow Jesus it is not all sweetness and light, right? There is some sacrifice required. Anyone ready to sneak out the back door yet?  Jesus went to the cross for our sake. And so, if we are in this movement with him, there will be some sacrifice required of us too.

    I believe this is where politics comes in. Now I am not a political scientist, but I believe one definition of politics has to do with who gets what and how they get it and who decides how they get it. (I’m sure my husband will correct me later. And from Kurt, pretty close for a woman who doesn’t have a degree in political science with an emphasis on Campaign and Interest Group Management.  Politics is who gets what, when. )

    Jesus says that when we follow him we have to let him lead and this is his way:
“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?”

    We know from reading other stories, that Jesus talked a great deal about those who have much, sharing with those who don’t have so much. Some might call that socialism or taxation, I just call it, following Jesus. He says right in this scripture that if we try to get everything we want, we will lose ourselves. Has that ever happened to you.  We will lose our souls. I want to tell you a simple story about some teen agers discovering that.

    I want to take you back in time. I was a young pastor in my first church as a youth minister in Cincinnati. It’s around 1992. I am one of the staff on the West Ohio Conference Youth Ministry trip to New York City. We are taking Juniors and Seniors in high school to visit the General Board of Global Ministries in New York and to visit mission sites in New York so they can see the United Methodist Church in action.

    One morning when we have a break, I take a couple of the girls to a department store shopping. One of them wanted to buy a prom dress. It was really exciting to think that she can go home to small town Ohio with a prom dress from New York City. She tries on a beautiful pink dress. It is perfect for her, and she buys it. She is so happy.

    Later that afternoon we go to Harlem and we work in a soup kitchen. We have to ride on the subway to get there. We get off at the wrong stop and so we have to hike across Harlem to get to the right place.  We got to the church, and we get our instructions. Some of the kids serve food to the people at the tables while other kids work in the kitchen. We look at the faces of the men, women and children who come into this soup kitchen for a meal. They looked tired. The director of the place meets with us and tells us how many hundreds of people they feed each week, and how much money they need to do their work. She tells us how many people they can feed with such a small amount of money because they go to a food bank to get the money. But it is still hard to make ends meet.

    We go back to our hotel. We travel in family groups because it is easier to travel in groups. When we meet back at our hotel, in a meeting room for our debrief session for the night, we find out that one of the groups had to wait in the train station. There was a delay because there was a knife fight in the train station.

    When it comes times to do our evening devotional and sharing, one of the boys stands up and says this:
“I came here this week, with a wad full of money in my pocket.”  And he reaches into his pocket and throws his money on the floor in the center of the room. He says: “I know most of you did too. We came here with money to buy souvenirs and clothes and other stuff. But now that I have seen how some people live, I can’t do it. I can’t keep this money for myself. I want to give my spending money to one of the projects we have visited and I challenge the rest of you to do the same.”

    And one by one I watched as those teen-agers started emptying their pockets and talking about how the week had changed their lives.  They became disciples of Jesus that week. Their lives were transformed. They learned about sacrifice. Most of these kids lived really comfortable lives.  They had NO affliction in their lives. But they saw pain that week in NYC. They saw Jesus, and they will never be the same.

    You see, one day, Jesus asked his disciples, “Do you really know what it means to follow me?”He said, “They are going to kill me. My life is one that ends in suffering and death, but then I will rise. Today, It’s time to choose your path,”  And then he said, “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, take up your cross, 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.”

    So how do we follow Jesus? How do we follow?  How do we embrace suffering and go to the cross with Jesus in 2012? I believe we engage in the political process. We are coming up on an election day in November. I am not going to tell you who to vote for. That is not my place as your pastor. But I am going to tell you to be an informed citizen and vote. And I am going tell you to be engaged in the political process.

    Jesus spoke the truth to power, he spoke the truth to the Government. It got him into trouble. He did it anyway. He would have broken all those rules of polite conversation about not discussing religion and politics for fear of offending someone. Why would we not talk about those things that are most important to us?  I don’t get that. The end of this scripture is the best part:
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.”
Well, if you put it that way.

    I believe God would want us to choose our candidates and then work for them. If your candidate is working for your values give hope to the oppressed, to feed the hungry and give a voice to the voiceless, then why would we not shout from the rooftops, instead of not making waves?

    There are other ways to sacrifice and follow Jesus too. We can direct our resources to help those who are in need. Many of us live pretty comfortable lives compared to the rest of the World.; some of us are struggling in this economy compared to the rest of America . Jesus challenges us to share our resources of time and money to help those who are afflicted with poverty. Next Sunday we are taking an offering to help the Seagate Foodbank. There are hungry people right here in Toledo who need our help. Yes, it demands sacrifice on our part. Toledo Area Ministries is asking every member of every congregation to give $1 to this offering. I am asking you to sacrifice and give more.

    We can do this.  The Seagate Food Bank needs that money.  There are hungry people that need that food here in Toledo.  There are people here at the Village who are getting that food.  And we’re going to help with this.

    Perhaps you are hearing God calling you to do something new in your life to serve in a way that is sacrificial. If so, I encourage you to pay attention to that voice speaking to you. It probably will not go away. It will get stronger. I would be happy to meet with you to talk more about it.  Pay attention to that voice if you are hearing it.

    Jesus’ question is clear. Are we really ready to follow him and do we really understand what that means? This is not an easy road. It means other people may think we have made a wrong choice. Following Jesus means sacrifice of some personal comfort so that others will have what they need. Other people have made sacrifices in their lives to get you where you are.  It’s not easy.  But let’s do it anyway. Because we know, in our hearts, it’s the choice we want to make.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Be Bold in Your Asking by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

    I watched some of the political convention that was on television this week (so did Kurt this week, he took the picture that is with this post). Now as a church, we are not supposed to be partisan. I respect whichever political party you may be a part of. We are not going to go there today. But I was struck by the pictures of the crowds this week. The diversity of humanity was amazing. If you watched the convention, did you notice that? There were people of all ages and races. It was the salad bowl of America’s citizens. And the speeches were all about how folks care about bringing everyone one along, until everyone has certain basic things like housing, jobs, education and healthcare. We won’t be satisfied until everyone has those basic needs met. The message, as I heard it, seemed to encapsulate the best of Jesus’ theology. The beloved community of God is a community where everyone receives blessings and everyone is cared for.

    Well, in today’s scripture, we find a fascinating story, where a bold woman actually stands up to Jesus. She pushes him on the question of whether or not God’s blessings are for everyone. This encounter comes a bit early in Jesus’ ministry. Maybe he was still growing in his understanding of the fullness of God’s grace and love for everyone.

    Here is how the story goes. Jesus has traveled to a part of the country that is pretty far from Galilee where he lives. We think he is trying to get away for a break. He goes to Tyre. He goes into a house where he thinks he won’t be found, he wants to get some rest. This is an area where it’s mostly Gentiles, not Jews.  The Jews consider the Gentiles unclean.  The Jews are his people. The Gentiles are everyone else. The Jews don’t associate with Gentiles. They are “unclean.” Jesus thinks he can relax and lay low here, but word of his healing power has spread farther than he thought.

    There is this woman, a Syrophonecian woman, born in the Phonician part of Syria. She was a Greek and a Gentile. Her daughter has some kind of demon or affliction and she comes to Jesus and she begs, she begs Jesus to heal her daughter.

    Jesus is downright rude in his response. This is the first time we ever hear Jesus refuse someone who asks for healing. And his words are not kind:   "Stand in line and take your turn. The children get fed first. If there's any left over, the dogs get it."  The dogs!  Yep! He calls her a dog.

    Sweet, kind, compassionate Jesus calls a woman with a sick child a dog!  Now, I do not how this woman has the gumption to stand up to Jesus, but she does. She shoots right back at him with this: "Of course, Master. But don't dogs under the table get scraps dropped by the children?"

    She was fast.  I wish I could have a comeback like that. She will not let go.  She is a mother, and she WILL get healing for her child. You have seen the movies right? And heard the stories, about people with sick children who will do anything get help for their children? Sell the house. Walk across hot coals. We will do anything for our children.

    So this woman said to Jesus: “Hey, wait a minute! I thought God’s healing power and transformative love was for everyone?” I’ll take the scraps, I’ll take anything.  It’s as if the woman slapped Jesus in the face and HE GOT IT!

Of course! Of course, everyone is included in God’s family, your child is healed.
Of course, your daughter is healed. “Your daughter is no longer disturbed. The demonic affliction is gone." She went home and found her daughter relaxed on the bed, the torment gone for good.

    I love this story, because it shows the humanity of Jesus. For a minute, even he failed. He forgot that when God says EVERYONE, God means EVERYONE. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even being a “dirty Gentile”.  But when a mother reminded him, Jesus GOT THE MESSAGE. He remembered. And he healed the daughter of the woman.

    Jesus would have looked out on that convention floor this week, at the diversity of humanity and said, “Yes, all those people are my people, and they all need jobs, and health care, and all of their children need the best education possible.” ALL OF THEM. They all need the transformative love that God has to offer. So this is what that scripture has to say to us. We can’t be afraid to be BOLD to ask for what we need. God’s promises are for all of us.

    What do you need? The political parties are talking about big things – and systems – and the way to solve problems at the organizational level. And those things are really important. And here at The Village we care about justice and we work together to make the world better for every person.

    But Jesus also came into the world, to show God’s healing love to individual people. That is what that unnamed woman in the story reminded Jesus with her bold words. Jesus said to her, “One thing at a time, woman. I’m tired. Can’t I take care of the Jews first, and then I will get to the Gentiles.”

    But she did not care about categories of people. She just cared about her daughter who had some kind of affliction; a demon of some sort that controlled her life. She looked him in the eye and said, “Everyone needs God’s healing.”  Everyone individual needs healing. 

    And Jesus knew that of course, she was right. She told him what he already knew. But he was tired. He had had a long day. He wanted to rest. But she reminded him of what he came to this Earth to do. God’s healing power is for everyone.  There is no time to wait.

    So I ask you again: what do you need from God?If you were that woman, and had the chance to walk right up to Jesus and ask him, what would you ask for?

    Because you see, you don’t have to wait. That little girl could not wait. Her mother could not wait. They needed healing that day! That is why the woman was BOLD to ask Jesus.

    What is your affliction? What is your demon? Some of us have negative thought patterns that weigh us down. Some of us have habits or addiction that we just can’t break without God’s help. Some of us are lonely and discouraged, and we can’t get past it. Some of us are grieving and we need to put that behind us and step into a new life.  Some of us have afflictions that are not so obvious, but we still have something in our life we would like God to change.

    We can be bold, like the unnamed woman in today’s story, and Jesus will listen to us. God wants to heal us. God wants us to live free from these weights, these burdens and these afflictions. Do you believe me?  You look a little skeptical. God wants to give us hope. God wants to give us strength to live new lives.

    It may take some time, but when we give our afflictions over to God, the weight can be lifted from our lives. We can live in the freedom that comes from knowing that God loves each one of us, and heal us, not just some of us – ALL OF US.

    I want you to respond to this message with a ritual.  You can do it at home or where ever you are.  Think about what your affliction is.  Then hold it in your hands. Pack it like a snow ball in your hands. Close your eyes and just squeeze that burden hard between your two hands and feel the weight of it.  Just feel the weight of what that thing is.

    On the count of three we are all going to raise our hands to the ceiling and be bold to release our afflictions. ONE, TWO, THREE, give up now. “Be healed. Accept the power God gives you to walk in freedom and to live as God’s beloved people. Let it be so. Amen.”