Sunday, June 26, 2016

We are Community by Dr. Pat Groves (with an assist by Kurt Young)

 I have been thinking about church lately:  about our church and more generally what church is, or should be.  My theological and religious beliefs have changed over time, as I have shuffled through the messages I received as a young child in the church.  At least, I no longer believe that red letter words in the Bible are Jesus words verbatim!

I grew up in the fifties.  As a kid, I spent most of my weekends at my grandparents’ home outside of Temperance Michigan.  They lived on about 10 acres, with a large garden, maintained by a tractor!!!!! There were woods and a creek, the ideal place for a little dyke to develop her outdoor skills.  Every Sunday morning, I would crawl out of bed, cold as I waited for the coal furnace to kick up its heat!  I would force myself to put on my dress and prepare myself for the early service at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.  The church was small and even though it was 8:15 AM, there were a lot of folks in the pews.   There were even more folks, I assume, at the later service.  More people came, the church became crowded, and the New St. Paul’s was erected at the edge of town.  More people came.  They sang hymns to music played on an expensive organ and brought money to pay off the mortgage for that new temple to God.  At the end of the service, they went home, prayed some, and enjoyed their black and white TV, big cars, and appliances that the 50’s brought to their lives.

When I was at home, my parents sometimes took me to an EUB church (my dad’s dad was an EUB minister).  That church was packed with people, even more people than at my grandparent’s church.  They also prayed and gave thanks for all their 1950’s stuff.  The Lutherans have a lot of rules, and since I mostly went to the Lutheran church, I pretty much thought the rules were not only created by God, but maintained by him also.  In the Lutheran church, you do not take communion until you are in Junior high and have been confirmed.  Confirmation meant that you had learned the rules and could recite them from memory.  In the EUB church, communion was open to all.  Of course my parents expected me to eat that bread and drink that juice.  What was wrong with these people?  They were in church but they did not follow God’s rules!  No one told me that different churches had different theological views about things like communion and baptism and that God was pleased with all the ways in which we honor and praise him.  I really thought God would punish me for drinking from that cup.

As I got old enough to strike out on my own, probably about 8, I went to the Lutheran church in my neighborhood with my best friend.  That was God’s church and I felt safe there.  No one shoved bread in my face before they knew I was certifiably confirmed!  This church was a small church packed with people.  That church grew and a beautiful, big expensive replacement was build.  A new expensive organ was implanted, but the same old lady from the little church played it.

I loved the church.  I was confirmed.  I went to Luther League.  I said my prayers. I played softball. I went to church dinners.  That is what Christians did.

When I got to college, I started to think of the church as a place where people went to make themselves feel better than other people and a place where massive amounts of resources were dumped into buildings.  Couldn’t that money be better spent?  I stopped going to church.

When I got involved in social justice groups in the community, I met Chet Chambers, a United Methodist pastor.  I began to get an idea of what the church could be:  a community of people who came together to worship and to reach out to those who are marginalized in our world. 

When Cindy and I came back to the church, we became United Methodist.  A far cry from the Lutherans with all the rules.  We do have the book of discipline, so I am not totally far from home.  I like the flexibility of the Methodist and UCC Churches.  Both denominations let the people think for themselves.  We have a set of core beliefs, but there is latitude within the boundaries.  Most United Methodist churches do sprinkle baptisms, but there are some who actually do immersion.  Just because I said that does not mean we should go that direction here.  We would have to do it in the parking lot with a kiddie pool.

So, after that rambling, I think I have the idea somewhere in my psyche that church should be a big building full of people with hymns and organs.  I sometimes look around me on Sunday morning and think that our church is too small.  We do not have enough people to bring in lots of money to do more mission work and not enough people to praise God loud with our songs, actually our songs should be hymns, the old ones.  

After going to see Paul Nixon talk about Weird church, I have been looking at my biases and trying to rethink my ideas about church.

Eric Law, who helps churches with all kinds of congregational dysfunction, has written a book called Holy Currencies.  He talks about Grace Economics.  The idea is that when you are in mission with people there needs to be an expectation that those who are receiving will give back in some way.  St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Downtown Toledo is developing a Free Store.  Those people who need clothing or food will also help with the ministry in various ways.  Developing a give and take relationship with those we serve helps to empower people and take away the idea that there is a giving class and a taking class.  We are working together and all giving our talents to the ministry.  We need to think about this idea as we move forward with our development of ministry projects.  

We need money to pay our bills and we have a pretty lean operation here.  Our pastor is part time, we pay rent for our space, but we do not have building maintenance or a lot of other costs that we could have even with a rental facility.  Eric Law suggests that we will give more if we realize that our giving contributes to our own wellness as well as the wellness of others.  Perhaps we should identify how our church does or can contribute to our own wellness.  Are there needs that we could meet to enhance the wellness of our body?  We have had a prayer group and we have Pub theology to feed us spiritually.  Do we need other groups for our spirit or for our bodies and minds?

We come together on Sunday morning to worship.  We say we believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, but if we mean that, we will take the next step.     We will work hard to become the community that is truly the living body of Christ in our world.  The body of Christ for each other and to those outside our circle.  If we develop groups to feed our needs and ministries that put us in relationship rather than putting us in the constant giving only mode that leads to the gas tank running empty, I think we can do a lot as a small body of Christ.  As our scripture tells us, we do not need a lot of folks.  Two or three people and the spirit helps us to heal and create.  I do not think that means that the spirit is not present with one of us, but that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  The body of Christ as a community is much more powerful that what each individual brings to the table.  It reminds me of our Stone Soup campaign.  When you throw a bunch of veggies in the pot and simmer it for a few hours, comes out as something way better than simply a bunch of hot veggies!

At conference, there were presentations about new church starts.  Most of these were small communities, with a specific mission focus.  It was an outreach to an underserved group of people.  There was no interest in building huge buildings with high steeples.  Just a place where people could meet to connect and to become the body of Christ.  In the presentation with Paul Nixon, we heard about the Black Cloister Brewery.  The Brewing Company in downtown Toledo supports a small community of young Lutherans.  They gather for worship and mission in the taproom.  They are young and do not have a lot of money, so the brewery profits keep their community viable.   This church speaks to the need for community and spiritual development of the young people among us.
Paul Nixon in his book, Weird Church addresses our cultural change around church.  Those of us who grew up when everybody went to church are confused by the current trend to stay away from church.  When I was a kid, our school music repertoire included Christian hymns.  Faith of our fathers, Christian Christmas Carols.  The assumption being that we were all Christian.  Now people are leaving church or have never attended church.  But Paul Nixon reminds us that there is still a deep interest in spirituality and also a desire for community in people today.

Churches that offer real community are attractive.  The small group can easily offer community if the members are willing to take the risk to develop intimacy.  I think we need to take a look at this issue in our church.  People decide to leave our community and do not feel the need to talk to anyone about the fact that they are separating from the community.  I might see a person at the grocery who has not been to church for a while and she says, Oh, I decided to go a different church or not go to church at all.  I was mad because Pat offended me in her sermon.  Or no one visited me when I was in the hospital.  I say, you were in the hospital?  She says:  Yes, I did not tell anyone that I was having surgery.  We cannot offer help if a person does not feel safe enough to let us in our life.  Whose fault is that?  It is easy to put it off on the other, but are we building barriers to open communication and intimacy?  We all need to do much more than say good morning to each other.

Do you remember Spyder?  I often think of him.  He was a kind and gentle soul and he loved his kept skunks.  He once told me about all the varieties of skunks.  Who knew?  Spyder used to come to church and then he stopped.  He was in a care facility and we did not know.  He was in hospice and we did not know.  I ask God to forgive me for not pursuing his absence.

I think we get so used to people leaving that we just take it for granted when they disappear.  Oh, well, another one out the door.  I am not happy when I try to connect with someone and then they just walk away.  

Community means connection.  Community means family.  Community means we are the body of Christ in the world. 

If I am offended by someone, even our pastor, I have a responsibility to say something.  Often there is a misunderstanding that can easily be addressed.  Sometimes there may be a more serious matter that cannot be resolved.  As community, we will never all be of one mind on everything.  We can disagree and still come together in love. 

By the way, I mentioned that our pastor is part time.  She cannot meet all our needs all the time.  She could not do that even if she was full time.  As a community, each member must take responsibility to reach out, to be vulnerable, and to use our talents to move the body in a positive direction.  

I hope we can all work together to create a community that speaks by action of our love for each other and for those around us.  A community that is generous in giving in all kinds of ways.   Remember:  The spirit is in our midst and we are the body of Christ in the world.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Bold Forgiveness by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

You know how in your family, people have favorite stories they love to tell, but everyone has their own version of the story, some with wildly different perspectives? One person makes one point with the story and another person makes a different point with the story. Neither is wrong; they are just remembering from their perspective. Today’s gospel reading is an example of one of those stories. A version of today’s story is told in all four gospels but in Matthew, Mark and John, the story comes later in Jesus’ life and the anointing is seen as preparation for Jesus’ burial. In Luke’s gospel, the one we heard today, the story comes earlier in Jesus’ ministry and the focus is on forgiveness.
There are two main characters in this story, besides Jesus. There is the woman who is unnamed. This often happens in the Bible. Women were not seen as important enough to be given a name in the Bible.  All we know about this woman is that she has a reputation as a sinner. Then there is Simon, who is a Pharisee. A Pharisee was a deeply religious Jew who followed the law to the letter. They thought themselves to be righteous men.
As the story goes, Jesus comes to the home of Simon for dinner and the woman crashes the party. She just waltzes in with her alabaster jar of ointment. She starts weeping, so much that she uses her tears to bathe Jesus’ feet. Then she dries his feet with her hair. No respectable woman would have her hair down, by the way. This was another sign that she was a sinner. Then she kisses his feet and anoints them with the ointment.
Simon muttered to himself, in a judgmental way: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known whom and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”
Jesus, of course, always knows what’s going on in the room so he responds to Simon with a parable.
“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
The other guests at the party, presumably other Pharisees, are taken aback and say, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
The woman is forgiven. She is forgiven much. Jesus’ forgiveness for her is bold. And she responds with gratitude. Her gratitude is palpable. She throws caution to the wind and barges into another person’s house. She is a known sinner. We don’t know what her sin is, but presumably the people in her village know. But she does not care. She must see Jesus. Some think she must have seen him earlier and he had already forgiven her. That’s why she was so bold to come into this house and bless Jesus with her tears and with her ointment.
She reacts the way we hope we will act when we realize that we are forgiven. There are no perfect people. We all make mistakes. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. We can beat ourselves up over them. Or we can admit our mistakes to God and ask for forgiveness. God always stands ready to forgive us. That is God’s way. The woman reacts with gratitude and love. I hope that we react with gratitude and love too. I hope that when we realize we are forgiven by God that in our own way we will bless God. I hope that with our tears of joy we will bless Jesus.
Jesus uses the parable of releasing someone from a debt to talk about forgiveness. David Lose writes this of forgiveness: “Forgiveness at heart is the restoration of relationship. It is releasing any claim on someone else for some past injury or offense. That’s why the analogy to a debt works so well. Forgiveness cancels relational debt and opens up the future. … Forgiveness also gives you back yourself. You see, after a while, being indebted, owing others, knowing yourself first and foremost as a sinner -- these realities come to dominate and define you. You are no more and no less than what you’ve done, the mistakes you’ve made, the debt you owe. When you are forgiven, all those limitations disappear and you are restored, renewed, set free.” (Source:

Being forgiven sets us free. I don’t know about you, but I want to be set free from the bondage of my mistakes. I don’t want to be weighed down by all the things I’ve done wrong. The unnamed woman is set free from her mistakes. She is forgiven by Jesus. So are we.
Now what of Simon? Simon and his friends judge Jesus for forgiving the woman. Who does Jesus think that he is? And we judge Simon don’t we? We fall into a trap. We fall into a trap of judging the one who is judging others. And in this way, we fall into sin again. Truth be told, Simon does not even think he needs forgiveness. He is such a righteous man, he thinks he is without sin. That’s why he and his friends are taken aback when Jesus forgives sin. They don’t need anyone to come into their house and forgive sin. They are blameless.
Friends, Simon teaches us that we all need forgiveness. I remember a time when I was in high school. I was going to a lot of youth retreats and church camps. Sometimes the preacher would preach about how we needed to turn away from our sin and give our lives to Jesus. I was a goody two shoes in high school. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear that. (Actually I had my rebellious stage when I was in seminary. I was a late bloomer. But that’s a story for another day.) Anyway, I was a good kid, no smoking, no drinking, no sleeping around. So when the preacher said I needed to leave my sin behind, I was a bit like Simon. I could not think of anything big I needed to change.
Of course I was na├»ve. Or arrogant. I’m not sure which. Perhaps my sin was pride. Like Simon, I did not see that I needed forgiveness. But of course I did. We all need forgiveness.
How about you? For what do you need to be forgiven? Some of us carry around bags full of old sin. We let it stink up our house. We let it drag us down. We carry it around for years, for decades. The message of this story is: we don’t have to carry it around. Jesus forgives us. Some of us have fresh sin. It is raw. The newness of it makes us tear up when we think about it. In fact, we are still caught by this sin. We want to keep doing it. But on the other hand we want to stop. Jesus forgives us and wants to give us the strength to stop. Some of us have mundane sin. It does not really hurt anyone else, but it hurts us, and it hurts our relationship with God. These are sometimes sins of omission, things we fail to do that we mean to do. Jesus forgives us for these sins of omission and wants to help us do the things we mean to do.
What is holding you back? What is keeping you from receiving Jesus’ forgiveness? Are you like Simon, unable to see your sin? Or is it just something familiar that you are used to holding on to? You don’t know what you would do without it.
Let me give you an invitation. Give it all to Jesus. Give him your mistakes, your brokenness and your sins. Be free. Be forgiven. And then live with gratitude and love, like the unnamed woman in the story. She blessed Jesus, because she was free. Jesus forgives us boldly. So let us receive that forgiveness. And let us live boldly in freedom. Amen.  

Sunday, June 12, 2016

GOD USES UNLIKELY PEOPLE by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

(To start, in worship we watched the Destinies Discussed Scene from Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens.  It’s chapter 28 if you have access to the DVD or Blu Ray.  Where Han Solo, Rey and Finn meet with Maz Katana at her cantina.  Maz has lived a long life and she knows people. She can read them from their eyes and she sizes up Finn instantly.  These are the eyes of a man who wants to run, she correctly states.  And if you want to see this scene and the whole movie for free on the big screen, for the first time or one more time, join us this Friday at 7 PM).  

Finn is one of the pivotal characters in the film Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He has been a storm trooper with the First Order. They are the bad guys. Finn was kidnapped from his family and trained to be an unquestioning soldier for the First Order. In his first battle, he refuses to shoot his weapon at all, then he sees his friend die. Soon thereafter he escapes from the First Order. 

When we pick up the story with the clip I just showed you he has met up with Rey, a brave young woman who is trying to help the Resistance; those are the good guys. Rey and Finn are joined by Han Solo. You know he’s a good guy. He’s been around since the first Star Wars movie. Han Solo takes them to see his friend, Maz Kanata, to ask for her help. In this scene we learn that Finn is not so brave. He has been pretending to be a part of the Resistance. He is just a scared AWOL storm trooper. He wants to get as far away from this fighting as possible. But Rey needs his help. She sees something in him. She sees his bravery. She sees the good inside of him. 

But Finn only wants to run away. He is scared. A little later in the day, after our clip ends, Finn comes back. The fighting begins and he wants to help his friend Rey. He begins to find his courage. Spoiler Alert: by the end of the movie he becomes a hero for the Resistance.

Finn has some similarities with Moses. Moses was also not raised by his own parents. Though he lived in Pharaoh’s house with plenty of luxury, he was living with the tyrant king who was making the lives of his people miserable. All the other Hebrew boy babies had been killed by Pharaoh when Moses was born. Moses was only saved because of his mother’s savvy.  So both Finn and Moses lived in countries of unrest. 

Moses was called upon to be a leader to do good for the suffering people, in much the same way Finn was called, and Moses said “No,” just like Finn. Moses was afraid. He used excuses about how he did not have the skills. He could not speak eloquently. No one would listen to him. Moses said, “Why me? I’m nothing special. Why would the people listen to me? I don’t even know your name.” (if you want to hear the whole list of excuses, and are reading from afar, we read Exodus 3: 1-17 in worship today).

But God would not hear any of it. God responded to each one of Moses’ lame excuses. As you probably know from your Old Testament history, Moses became a great leader of the people and said to Pharaoh: “Let my people go.” And eventually Pharaoh did let them go; he let the slaves be free. Of course then Pharaoh chased them with an army and God had to set them free by parting the waters in the Red Sea. But God saved them. Then they wandered in the Wilderness for 40 years but eventually God led them into the Promised Land. Moses was the one who led them there. But at the beginning Moses did not want to be a leader. He felt ill equipped. 

Just like Finn, Moses was afraid. He wanted to run in the opposite direction. But God would not hear of it. The mission would not hear of it. They both had a job to do that only they could do. It was the purpose for which they were created for.

What is your purpose? What is God calling you to be and do? You see God uses unlikely people to achieve God’s purposes. This past week at the Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church we heard all sorts of stories of God using ordinary people to achieve God’s purposes. We have been part of the Imagine No Malaria Campaign. Bill Gates is partnering with the United Methodist Church to eradicate malaria from Sub-Saharan African. When this campaign began a few years ago, 4 children died every 2 minutes. Now only one child dies every 2 minutes. That may still seem like too many children. But imagine that 3 children are living every two minutes who would not have lived without this campaign. Our church contributed several hundred dollars to the campaign thanks to our youth who had a car wash (saving the lives of as many children as are in our youth group) and thanks to our Christmas Offering one year. The West Ohio Conference contributed more than 3 million dollars over three years’ time. That was unlikely people coming together to achieve God’s purpose.

You may not think God has a purpose for you but God does. Your job is to discover that purpose. One way to discover your purpose is to pray. Pray every day and listen to God. Don’t just talk. Listen. Ask God what God has in mind for you and then wait and listen for God to respond. It’s hard to wait. I know. I am an impatient person. 

Another way to discover God’s purpose for you is just to try things. Try something new. Get out of your comfort zone and do something to make a difference in the world. Volunteer with an organization that is doing something with people you care about. We talked about this last week when we asked “When does your heart break?” If you know when your heart breaks, there are probably other people whose hearts break over the same thing. There is probably an organization that is doing something about it. Find that organization and volunteer with them. 

Now I can hear some of you are saying, “I don’t have the gifts or the skills. I don’t know where to start.” Neither did Finn or Moses. But they dove right in. Moses had no education, no formal training for how to be the leader of a nation. He resisted God because he did not think he had what it takes to do what God was asking him to do. But God promised to help Moses. With every one of Moses’ objections, God had a response. When Moses first said, “Who I am to save your people?” God said, “I am with you.” That’s a big deal. Whatever we are called to do, we don’t have to do it alone. God will be with us, giving us strength and wisdom. 

Then Moses said he didn’t know what name to give for God when the people asked him. God have that now famous answer: “I Am who I am.” God is the great “I Am.” 

Then Moses said, “Suppose they won’t believe me or listen to me?” God then gave Moses three signs in order to show them that he had special powers given by God. He had a staff he could turn into a serpent; he could make his own hand leprous and then healed, and he could turn water into blood.

Then Moses said, “I am not eloquent enough a speaker to do this task.” And God said Moses would take his brother Aaron with him. Aaron was an excellent speaker and would be part of Moses’ team for this purpose. 

Moses ran out of excuses and finally accepted God’s call upon his life. You see, call is everything. If you are called, God will give you what you need in order to live out that call. Or God will show you the way to learn what you need to know. Or best yet, God will send along other people to be a team to accomplish the task with you. You don’t have to do everything. Moses had Aaron, and other leaders who assisted him.

God uses unlikely people to achieve God’s purposes. So what does God have in mind for you? What is God calling you to be and do? Whatever it is, it is your unique purpose. Only you can discern it. Others can encourage you along the way, but your call is yours to claim. Whatever it is, I urge you not to resist. Don’t be like Finn. Don’t be afraid of your call. Lean into it. God created you with particular gifts and with a unique purpose in mind. Trust God. Be the person God put you on this earth to be.