Sunday, September 29, 2013

COUNT THE COST by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

These 10 statues are on the façade over the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London. They are statues of 20th century Christian martyrs. If you are like me, you know some of them, but you would have to be quite an expert to know all of them. I got quite an education this week learning about some them and their stories. 

5th from the left is probably the most familiar to us: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who of course was assassinated in 1968 leading the civil rights movement here in the United States. His fight for racial justice cost him his life.
Perhaps you know the man to his right, Oscar Romero. He was the Archbishop of El Salvador in the late 1970’s during a tumultuous time in that country. The Catholic Church was standing up for the poor and was being persecuted by the Revolutionary Government Junta. Priests and nuns were being attacked; churches were being raided on a regular basis, because they stood with the poor. Romero was assassinated while celebrating Holy Communion in 1980.
Second from the left is someone I had never heard of: Manche Masemola, a young girl, born in 1913, who was a member of a native tribe in South Africa. Christian missionaries came to her village and she was converted to Christianity at the age of 14. She wanted to be baptized with her cousin but her parents did not approve. Her parents took her to a tribal spirit priest. They were afraid of this new religion. They beat Manche to death before she was baptized. Her mother denied the murder for 40 years but was later baptized herself. Manche was declared a martyr by the Church of South Africa.
All the other people who are honored with these statues have similar stories: their choice to follow Jesus cost them their lives. Now, most of us will never have to face a life or death choice as followers of Jesus. 

But Jesus did say that being his follower does have a cost. One day he was with a group of folks and he said to them: If you want to follow me, you have to let go of your family and even yourself! “Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.” 

You see, in Jesus’ day, the family group, or the clan, was everything. People actually married within the clan, like a 3rd cousin. So Jesus was saying: being part of my movement means you are part of my clan now. You have to leave your old family behind and your loyalty is with ME. Now, if the whole family comes along with Jesus, that would be fine. But if they don’t, then the person just has to leave them behind. You have to be “all in” with Jesus.

Then he explains what it means to “count the cost.” You need to think this thing through. Don’t make a commitment unless you are really all in. You don’t start building a house unless you plan out what materials you have, and unless you are sure you have the money not only for the foundation and the walls but for the roof and for the furniture that goes inside. Once you start something, you have to finish it. You have to count the cost and be ready to follow through.

Another good analogy for us might be this: don’t bring a child into this world if you are not prepared to feed and clothe that child, and care for the child for 18 years. A baby is a big responsibility. Count the cost. Kids are expensive: $241,080 to raise a child born last year for 18 years, according to a Deptartment of Agriculture report. And that does not include college. 

Jesus concluded with this little gem: 33 “Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple.

Hmmm. So Jesus wants us to give up what we value: our time, our money, perhaps even our very lives, in order to follow him. 


Why would we do that? Why would we follow Jesus? If you ask those martyrs hanging over the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, I believe they would say they gave their lives because they believed in what they were doing. Martin Luther King Junior saw people who were suffering as a result of injustice: grown men and women who were not being paid a fair wage for a hard day’s work. He saw people who were being denied the right to vote, and black children who were being denied the same education as their white peers. He knew that Jesus would not sit by and watch that happen and so he put his life on the line. Oscar Romero did the same thing: he stood up for the poor in El Salvador who were being oppressed by their own government. Manche Masemola heard the story of God’s love revealed in the life of Jesus and she wanted to be baptized. She just wanted to be baptized and be a follower of Jesus. That was her only crime – her only risk. And she gave her life because of that choice. 

Well, I know that today, at least, you may not feel like you are being called to put your life on the line to be a follower of Jesus. I hope that none of us will ever have a gun put to our head or be beaten to death because we choose to follow Jesus. But that does not mean Jesus does not ask for us to be “all in.” We can choose to take risks every day to show great compassion and to work for justice because we follow Jesus.

I heard a story this week about 19 year old Joey Prusak, a manager of the Dairy Queen in Hopkins, MN. He had a chance to do some justice and show some compassion, and it had a cost for him. It cost him $20 and one customer at his Dairy Queen. It could have cost him some public ridicule. This is what happened. 

Joey was working the counter. “He was helping a blind man at the counter when his customer dropped a $20 bill as he was paying. Prusak saw the woman behind his customer stoop down and scoop the bill up. He says he thought she was going to return it to the blind customer but what she did next made Prusak angry:

“I expected her to be like ‘Oh, sir, here you go.’ But she just stood there and watched him walk by and she then put it in her purse.”

“When the woman approached the counter, Prusak asked her to return the money. She refused, lied and said it was hers, that she had dropped it. They had words. Exasperated, Prusak told the woman to either return the money or leave the store because he was not going to serve someone so disrespectful. She stormed out.

“Prusak proceeded to serve his other customers, apologizing for the fracas. When he was done, he found the blind customer and gave him $20 out of his own pocket. He tried to be unobtrusive but another customer had seen the whole thing. She filled out a comment card, praising Joey and writing that she would forever be a Dairy Queen customer. The note made it to corporate headquarters. Prusak got a phone call from company owner Warren Buffet:

“’He called and thanked me for being a role model for all the other employees and people in general. I was just doing what I thought was right. … Ninety-nine out of 100 people would’ve done the same thing as me.’”

Joey did a good thing. He went out of his way to make things right. He did all that he could to hold the woman accountable for her actions. He took money out of his own pocket to help the blind man. Yes, it cost him something. He even tried to keep his good deed from being seen by others. He did not do it because he wanted credit. 

Some people, who are cynics, might have condemned his actions: “don’t get involved.” “Mind your own business.” I’m sure the woman who took the money wishes he had minded his own business. On the playground at school he could just as easily have been bullied for his kindness. In this case, he was commended.

How about you? What would you have done?

How about another situation: Have you ever heard someone make a racist or ageist, or homophobic comment and you just let it pass because it would COST YOU SOMETHING TO say something about it? Have you ever seen someone do something harmful to the environment and you remained silent because it would COST YOU SOMETHING TO say something about it? 

How about this one: have you ever seen your friend being a bad parent and you decided to mind your own business because it would COST YOU SOMETHING TO SPEAK UP?

Have you seen a friend drink too much and then drive home but you did not speak up because it would COST YOU SOMETHING TO SPEAK UP?

I could go on and on. You could too.

It costs us something every day to really follow Jesus. To live with deep compassion for every human being we encounter costs something. To make choices for justice in every encounter and every situation costs us something. It’s hard to live for Jesus all the time.

But that’s what he demands. “Anyone who won’t shoulder their own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.”

So why do it? Because God sent Jesus to make a way for us. Jesus has all the compassion in the world for us. Jesus seeks justice for us. No doubt about it. We are in this together. Jesus knew the cost and Jesus did not back down. And because he loves us, we have the power to be strong too. We can be compassionate even when it is hard. We can call for justice even when it is unpopular. We can follow Jesus and together we can change the world. Amen.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ask For What You Need by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

About four years ago, when The Village was getting ready to launch weekly worship and open up for business (the church business) at our original location over at Monroe and Central, a small team of dedicated servant leaders and I were working hard to get everything ready. There were 22 people on the Launch Team working on seven different ministry teams just to get our wonderful small church off the ground. We were spread pretty thin. I was still managing the finances. Thankfully, the UCC Association was writing our checks at the time, but I had to do the day to day work with the finances. I was doing lots of fund raising at the time, and had been for about 18 months, asking for people to invest in this great start up. So there were lots of donations to track. We had some grant money and because we were about to launch we were burning through money like crazy. And I was trying to keep track of all of that on these excel spread sheets.

Two things you need to know about me: 1) I am a big picture person. So details are not my thing. I am not the person you want handling the financial details of your church. I can do it, but I’m not good at it. 2) I was busy enough trying to be the pastor, doing the things you want your pastor to do, and I simply did not have time to be the office manager/bookkeeper/bill payer. 

I have a vivid memory of my head in my hands sitting in my desk right around Christmas time after we launched in Oct 2009, head in hands, crying. I prayed to God: “Please, I don’t have money to pay an office manager. I know that in other church plant situations that people walk into a church and believe in the vision and they offer their gifts and their time. God, I need a servant leader who will work without pay, for awhile, as our office manager. Because soon I am going to lose my mind.” 

I knew I could not go on like this much longer or I would go crazy. I needed help. I had a prayer team for The Village at that time and I asked them to pray too. 

A week or two later, on a Sunday morning, a woman visited our church alone. She came up to me after the service and told me that she had been attending another new church start but her church was closing. She was looking for a new church and said she liked our church and thought she would like to make The Village her church home. She asked how she might help. She said she had experience running power point at her old church, (ok, that could be a helpful) that she had run a business, and I am really good at doing office work. (Bingo! and Hallelujah!)

An answer to prayer! That person was Shelly Savory. She is still with us today as our Office Manager. She worked for free for two years. She was happy to do it as her service to our community. Finally, in 2012 we were able to start paying her a tiny stipend for her very hard work each week. 

I am convinced that Shelly found her way to us because we prayed for her and she prayed for us. You see, she also needed a church home. She had never gone to church as a single person. She had gone through a divorce and it was hard for her to look for a church alone. She prayed that God would lead her to a church that would give her a family and we have been that church for her.  The Village is her family and she added her family to that family over the following years and vice versa. 

This is the message, perseverance in prayer does work. When we experience it, we need to name it and give thanks for it.  Our scripture for today (Luke 11:5-12 for those following along on the web) follows after the one from last week. Last week, we found Jesus’ disciples asking him how to pray. He gave them a model prayer that we know as the Lord’s prayer. Then he gave them a bit more instruction about how prayer works.

He talked about persistence.
5-6 Then Jesus said, “Imagine what would happen if you went to a friend in the middle of the night and said, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread. An old friend traveling through just showed up, and I don’t have a thing on hand.’
“The friend answers from his bed, ‘Don’t bother me. The door’s locked; my children are all down for the night; I can’t get up to give you anything.’
“But let me tell you, even if he won’t get up because he’s a friend, if you keep knocking and waking all the neighbors, he’ll finally get up and get you whatever you need.

Then Jesus gives the words that are perhaps most familiar:
“Here’s what I’m saying:
Ask and you’ll get;
Seek and you’ll find;
Knock and the door will open.

Then there is this kind of odd little bit about eggs and snakes and spiders:
10-13 “Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This is not a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your little boy asks for a serving of fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? If your little girl asks for an egg, do you trick her with a spider? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing—you’re at least decent to your own children. And don’t you think God who conceived you in love will give the Holy Spirit when you ask?”

I think Jesus says this to make a point that God wants to answer our prayers. God wants us to have what we need. Of course God wanted me to have help with paying the bills for The Village and doing the office tasks I am not suited to do. Of course God wanted Shelly to find a church home that would be a family for her. 

Ask and you will get it.  Seek and you will find.  Knock and the door will be opened.  This is what Jesus says happens when we pray. 

Now I know, some of you are out there asking the obvious question: why doesn’t God answer all of our prayers in the way we want them to be answered? I can’t tell you that. I may be a pastor, but I am still a human being. Some of these questions we won’t get an answer to in this life. Sometimes the answer to our prayer is “no,” or my least favorite “wait.” Often times, when I ask for one thing in prayer, God leads me down another path. It is not the path I thought I wanted, but God shows me something good in the new path, sometimes better than what I originally wanted. 

What is important is that we keep asking. We keep the communication open. God certainly can’t answer our prayers if we are not persistent in letting God know our needs. 

Theologian David Lose writes this: the Asking is what is central to prayer “Because it affirms our fundamental dependence on God. … When we ask God for something in prayer, we acknowledge both our need and God's goodness.” We need God.  That is what prayer is about.

When my prayer team and I prayed for an office manager and when Shelly prayed for a church we were all saying to God – “we can’t find these people and these things on our own. We need you to do your holy matchmaking. We need you to bring us together.” And God found a way to do that – because, after all, God is God.
When we pray, we are saying to God – we need your help. So I wonder – what about you? When has God answered your prayer? When did you seek something and find it because you prayed? When were you persistent in prayer, and in God’s time, you got your answer? 

Would anyone else like to share an example?  In worship, one of our members shared her story of surviving Stage IV Cancer through prayer.  Another member shared finding the Village from an hour away.  Still another found the love of her life down a path she never expected.  A teacher in the midst of contract negotiation, reminded us all of a truth even in the Rolling Stones music, you can’t always get what you want, but you do get what you need. 

One of the things that has been crucial for me is knowing that other people are praying with me. Remember I told you that I have a Prayer Team for The Village. These are folks, outside of the church, all across the country (some of who get our messages this way) that I could e mail (and I still can) when I need support for something going on with the planting of The Village. They are friends of mine who believe in the power of prayer and who are committed to our work here. I specifically asked them to pray with me when I was overwhelmed in those first few months of us launching. I asked them to pray specifically for an office manager who could take those responsibilities off my place. They did, and God sent us Shelly. 

So, I have an invitation for you today.  Remember the invitation from Jesus is this: “Ask and it will be given to you.”  But you have to ask, and be persistent.
Right now, think of something that you need in your life – something that you cannot make happen on your own – something that you can only do with God’s help. You need God to make this thing happen. 

Now, I’m going to give you a few minutes. You can pray about that thing. Or you can turn to one other person here. And ask them to pray for you. If you are comfortable praying out loud here together that would be great. But what would be even better would be this. Ask that person to pray for your thing over the coming days and weeks – and be persistent with you – as long as it takes until you get an answer to your prayer. Exchange phone numbers or e mails so you can text or do whatever works for you to keep in touch. This is a big commitment, I know and this is completely voluntary. But I invite you to consider doing this for one another. This is what it means to take our prayer to the next level, and to dig deeper as a community. 

So that is the invitation. Ask and it will be given. You can take some time to pray silently.  Or you can turn to someone near you and share with them what you are asking for and you can decide to be in this together and be persistent with one another, and keep in touch until you get an answer.   You can even do it on our Facebook or Blogger pages if you are not able to join us in person.  We love reaching beyond the corner of Conant and The Trail, whatever ways we can. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Teach Us to Pray by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

Are you comfortable praying out loud with other people? If not, you may have something in common with this guy. Let’s watch.
*** play video.
Lots of people are uncomfortable praying with another person, or in front of a group. When I married Kurt, his grandmother always said the prayer at the family Christmas dinner. She did a lovely job. But over the years, somehow I got asked to do the prayer, because I am a pastor. We seem to have this idea that pastors are the professional “pray-ers.” Grandma is also getting up there in years and I think there is just no one else in the family that feels that comfortable praying in front of a big crowd, so they always ask me. I don’t mind doing it. But if I had a chance to be with them more than once or twice a year, if I were their pastor, I would say: you can all pray. We can all pray. Anyone can pray.
You don’t have to go to seminary to pray. Obviously. Jesus invites us all to pray every day.
But even his disciples felt unsure about how to do it. Most of you hesitated when I asked if you like praying out loud.
Do you ever wonder: how should I pray? My prayers don’t sound like the pastor’s or like my grandfather’s or like my mom’s. Well, of course they don’t; and God does not expect them to. Just as we celebrated the wonderful diversity of the Body of Christ last week, God welcomes the diversity of our prayers.
Jesus’ disciples came to him one day and one of them asked: “Jesus, teach us how to pray.” You see, they wanted to communicate with God. They wanted to know how to pray. At least some of them had grown up going to the Jewish synagogue. Certainly they had prayed before. But they sensed that Jesus came with a fresh new approach to this God thing and so they were hungry to learn everything from him. They knew when he was tired and needed to restore his soul, he would go away to a quiet place. Presumably he would pray there.  He would pray to God to fill up his well.  They wanted the inside look at Jesus’ prayer life. They knew he was like this (hold hands palms together) with God, at one. They wanted that sense of intimacy and peace and they had a sense that prayer was the source… the place where Jesus filled his well when he felt dry and weary.
So Jesus gave them an example of a prayer. We have turned it into a crafted piece of poetry that we sometimes repeat without thinking: “Our father who art in heaven, HOWARD BE thy name…”
But when Jesus said it, he wasn’t expecting them to repeat the same prayer every day. He was simply giving them an example. “Start like this, call God something intimate, like Abba, which means Daddy. Then say, you are holy. Reveal your holy presence to us. Then ask God for sustenance – your daily food. Ask God to make you a forgiving person, and to forgive you. And finally ask God to keep you safe from turning to evil ways.”
That was it.
Be aware of the holiness of God. And then pray for three main things: 1) sustenance. Ask God for what you need. Notice that it was not about luxury or comfort, it was about what was necessary for well-being. 2) relationship. Ask God for forgiveness and to help you forgive. Jesus knows that we are people who need to be forgiven. We are imperfect people. So every time we pray we need to clear things up with God and we need to remember that we need to, in turn, forgive others. 3) safety. Keep us safe from harm and from evil. This is a big one. This is when we ask God to keep us on track. There are some evil forces in this world over which we have no control. There are natural forces and people who will do us harm. But there are also choices we can make for evil and for good. Asking God to help us, means that we are asking God to help us make choices away from evil when this is in our power. We ask God for the power to resist evil. 
This is a good prayer. God you are holy. Give us what we need. Help us stay in relationship with you and others by forgiving. And keep us safe from evil, from making really bad choices.
You see, when Jesus answered the question from his disciple his answer shows that prayer is really quite simple. We don’t need to make it hard.
Prayer, mostly, is about relationship. The importance of prayer is getting into and staying in relationship with God. Think about it this way. If you are in a relationship with someone, you generally stay in contact with that person, right? Now, of course, there is the old friend who you may not see for years, and you can get together and it’s like you never missed a beat. But that is unusual. For the most part a relationship means communication.
For example, if you are dating, and you want to consider someone as a potential life partner, then you expect that person to make time for you, right? If they keep being too busy at work to see you and you feel like you are always the one calling or texting and you never hear from them, you start to feel like this is not a relationship, right?
Well, God gives us this beautiful world as God’s phone calls and texts to us. God gives us the Bible as God’s love letters to us. And God is waiting to hear from us. God wants us to pray, so that God can hear what is on our hearts. Prayer is our relationship with God.
Writer David Lose says: prayer is not really about the outcomes, it is about the relationship ( When we pour our hearts out to a good friend, it’s not like we necessarily expect that friend to fix everything, we just want to know they care. Sometimes we just need to vent. In letting it all out, we feel better. Often we find clarity about what we need to do next when a friend just listens to us.
It’s the same way with prayer with God. We know something of God’s heart because we have studied scripture and we have learned from one another in Christian community. God speaks to us through one another. When we pray, and pour out our hearts to God, God’s response comes to us in our own insights into the situation.  When we ask God to help us with a situation, we are asking God to act in our lives. What we are also doing is asking God to influence us. We are asking God to change us. I wasn’t the first to say it but it is something I rely on: prayer doesn’t change God; it changes the person who prays.
Another thing about prayer is that it attunes us to God. It helps us bridge the gap between our faith life and our daily life. When we pray every day, we are asking God to be connected to every part of our lives. We ask God to bless our hopes and to calm our fears. We invite God into our lives.
Anne Lamott is one of my favorite writers. She has a fairly new book about prayer called: Help, Thanks, Wow. She says these are three simple prayers essential to coming through tough times, difficult days and the hardships of daily life. We can say to God “help, thanks, and wow.” So, the best way to learn to pray truly is to practice, so I am going to invite you now to turn to a neighbor and practice praying. But first we are going to model the praying for you using these three words.