Sunday, August 28, 2016

Invite all to the Table by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

We all play this game in one form or another. We count up the points. We keep track. Because we must not get behind in the game. We must always stay ahead in the game. This is the game: You bought me lunch last time, I must buy lunch this time. You invited us over for dinner last time, it’s our turn to invite you over for dinner this time. You gave me a birthday gift so I MUST give you a birthday gift of equal or greater value. I can’t look cheap. You took me to see a show. So I must take you to an even better show sometime soon. 

It’s all about transactions. We’ve reduced human relationships to value laden transactions. This mind set comes from the idea that we live in a world of scarcity. There may not be enough to go around, so I must not be beholden to anyone. 

But what if we believed there was enough? Then we could treat one another with a sense of abundance. 

Jesus lived with a sense of abundance. He came along and turned our thinking on its head. He said that when you give a dinner, you should not invite people who might invite you in return so you will be repaid. Don’t invite your friends and relatives. Invite people who can’t repay you. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed. You will be blessed because they cannot repay you. You will know the feeling of abundance. You have so much to give that you can give without any thought of what you will get in return. “You will eventually be blessed in the resurrection,” Jesus said. 

The idea is to stop counting and start blessing. To stop counting and start blessing.  What kind of freedom would there be if we could just bless others, rather than thinking about what we might get in return? 

School has started this past couple of weeks. Can you imagine how wonderful it would be if children could offer friendship to one another without worrying about what they will get in return? No worries about status or the pecking order. They could just see someone who looks lonely and offer to sit with them in the lunch room. Children would look around on the playground for the child who has no one to play with and they would include that child for games. When it’s time to form teams for projects, no one would be left out. People would just naturally include everyone. This is what it means to bless one another in the way Jesus calls us to bless one another. 

When I was a child, my dad worked a lot of nights. Mom and I would sometimes go out to eat. I would always notice older people sitting in the restaurant eating alone. They looked so lonely; it made me sad. What would have happened if mom and I would have decided to share our table with one of those lonely people? Just think of the conversations we could have had, hearing about their lives and what they had experienced. But we missed out, because the social convention does not allow for strangers to offer to sit together in restaurants. It would be weird. We stayed in our world of scarcity, thinking we did not have enough time to share. But what if we had imagined our lives of abundance, with plenty of time to share with those older people. What a blessing it might have been if we had broken social convention and offered to sit with one of those lonely, older people. 

At Pride yesterday, we people of The Village did our best to offer hospitality to people attending Pride. We probably spoke to a couple hundred people. I am sure of one thing. I am sure there were people who attended Pride who avoided the “church booths.” They avoided us because they are skeptical about churches for good reason. Churches have not, as a whole, been hospitable toward gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Churches have not shown an abundance of blessing toward LGBTQ people. So I imagine there were some hurt feelings yesterday as people saw church tables at Pride. “What are THEY doing here?” “Are they here to draw us in, and then condemn us?” 

But of course we tried to be there with sincere hearts of openness. We offered a cup of cold water to drink and a place to sit and rest under a tent in the shade. We offered hospitality. And at our best, we did not expect anything in return. Of course, I would be lying if I did not say we hope that we might get some new visitors to The Village because of our efforts yesterday. But more importantly, we wanted to offer healing and friendship. Our efforts were not based in a theology of scarcity but rather in a theology of abundance. There is room at the table for everyone. All are welcome. 

Jesus said, “When you host a dinner party, don’t invite people, thinking they will give you something in return. Rather, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” 

Jesus wants us to open our hearts to people who are in need. What does this look like in Toledo, Ohio in 2016? It means being a church that welcomes all people without judgement. I have seen people come to worship here who would be judged in other some other churches: people covered with tattoos, people with old tattered clothing, transgender people, and people who tell us they are struggling to recover from drug and alcohol abuse. For the most part, I have been proud of us as a congregation. We have welcomed all people and treated all with respect and dignity. 

When it comes to this table, we do not make any judgements. This is an open table. We say this every time we celebrate Holy Communion. Everyone is welcome to come to this table. There are no tests to see whether or not you are worthy to come. This is the table of grace. This is the table of God’s blessing. Everyone is invited to this table. 

Do you realize how important that is? We receive God’s grace every time we come to this table. In the form of bread and juice, we receive Jesus’ body and blood given in sacrifice for us. We are reminded that God loved us so much that God gave God’s own child so that we might know the fullness of God’s love. This table is a symbol of God’s acceptance of us. 

There are no scorecards at this table. No one is keeping track of what social obligations you owe. This is the table of grace. This is the table of abundance. At this table there is enough. At this table YOU are enough. 

In a little while we will celebrate Holy Communion. When we do, I want you to remember that Jesus welcomes everyone to this table. He calls us to welcome everyone to our table. This is our call – to be the church that welcomes everyone. So let us never exclude anyone from this table. Let us go out to find the poor, the lonely, and the oppressed, and let us bring them here. All are welcome at this table. This is the table of abundance. Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Doing the Right Thing by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

On April 12, 1963, a group of bishops and other religious leaders in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote a public statement aimed at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the Civil Rights Movement. In their letter these religious leaders called for the “outsiders” to leave Alabama. They called the demonstrations “unwise and untimely.” They said that their cause should be “pressed in the courts” and not “in the streets.” Among these writers was a Methodist Bishop. (source:  Simply put, they wanted Dr. King to take his non-violent civil rights demonstrations and leave Alabama.
In response to this statement, Dr. King wrote his now famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He had been arrested for demonstrating and was serving his time. He wrote a powerful letter about why the movement for racial justice could not wait any longer. He talked about what it means to break the law in the name of what is right. He wrote: “there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’" (source:
He went on to say: “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” (ibid).
You see, Dr. King understood that sometimes you had to break the law in order to do the right thing. He learned this from Jesus. One day Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. He saw a woman with a deformity. She was bent over and could not stand up straight. She had been that way for eighteen years. Can you imagine being bent over for eighteen years? Jesus walked over to the woman and healed her. Just like that! It was a miracle. The woman began praising God. The people were amazed. But the leader of the synagogue was indignant. Jesus had broken the law. No one must work on the Sabbath. Healing was considered work. Work was meant to be done on six days only, but the Sabbath was reserved for rest. The leader of the synagogue scolded Jesus.
Jesus said: “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
Jesus broke the law. It was an unjust law, in his mind, and so he broke it. He did the loving thing. He healed the woman. His act reminds me of a saying from Martin Luther King Jr., “The time is always right to do the right thing.”
I hope as a church, we will remember this: The time is always right to do the right thing. I want to tell you a story about this. It’s a Village history story. On the first day The Village opened, for our very first worship service, lots of new people showed up. One person in particular, I remember. Her name was Edie. Edie was 60 years old and was a person just beginning her transition as a male to female transgender person. Edie was introduced to me after the service by someone who had been sitting with her during the service. Edie said she had read an article in the newspaper about The Village and how we are an LGBT welcoming church. She said, “Do you really mean it about the T part? Are you transgender welcoming?” I said, “Well at my last church I had lots of gay and lesbian people. I have to confess that I did not have any transgender people but if you will come to The Village I will do everything I can to make this a welcome place for you. I may make some mistakes along the way but I will do my best.”
Edie said that we needed a transgender support group in NW Ohio because the closest one was in Columbus. I told her I had been on the Board of Equality Toledo and we had been talking about this. I said if she wanted to start a support group that The Village would help her. Long story short, we started the first Transgender Support group in NW Ohio and 25 people came to the first meeting. That group is still meeting. They meet at Sylvania United Church of Christ now because we no longer have a building where they can meet. But they are still going strong.
Now, I need to tell you something about us starting that group. It cost us some things. At the time I was trying to get some other churches to give financial support to The Village because we were a new church start. Starting a transgender support group really put us out there on the edge in 2009. It made some of our potential partner churches uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure we lost some potential funding because of starting that group. We also got an article in the newspaper about how we started that group. It was great. It helped the group find new members. However, it marked The Village as the place that loves transgender people. Around the same time, my husband borrowed The Village to have a scout event for Jamie’s scout troop from his school. One family did not want to send their kids to a scout meeting at our church because we welcome transgender people. I can’t be sure, but I imagine that there were people who considered coming to worship here and were scared away by the fact that we welcome transgender persons.
But I’m not sorry we started that group. We did the right thing. It’s always the right time to do the right thing. We are a courageous church. This is something we can be proud of. To this day, transgender persons are welcome here. We are one of the only churches in NW Ohio that can say that. We welcome people who need a church home. This is what it means to be church, my friends. We break the rules. Just like Jesus did. 
So what about you? What is God calling you to do? Who is God calling you to love that it’s unpopular to love? One of the projects The Lead Team is looking at The Village getting involved with is Promise House. This is a project to help homeless teens, many of whom are LGBT. These teens get kicked out of their homes because their parents do not accept them for who they are. They end up on the street. Perhaps this is a ministry you are called to work with. It takes courage to work with homeless teens. They are hurting. They have lots of problems. They need to know they are loved by God but many of them have rejected God because they have been told that God has rejected them. Maybe you’re being called to work with Promise House.
I wonder what else God might be calling The Village to do next? Is there some group of people on the margins that we are being called to love? Perhaps it’s immigrants? Or people in prison? There are so many hurting people in the world. It takes courage to reach out. But it’s always the right time to do the right thing.
People told Dr. King to wait. They told him to be patient. But he was not patient. He wanted justice now for his people. We could have told Edie to wait. We could have told her it was too risky to start a transgender support group in Toledo. But we said “yes.” Because we saw a need and wanted to be part of the solution.
I will be leaving you soon as pastor. But you will be beginning a new season of life as a congregation. I believe God has new vital ministry in store for you as The Village Church. You have shown that you are a courageous church that takes risks.  Nothing held Jesus back from doing the ministry he was called to do. And nothing will hold you back. So listen to God in these coming weeks and months. Listen with courageous hearts. And when God calls you to do the right thing I know you’ll be ready to say “yes.” Say “yes” to God’s call upon your life as a congregation.
Let’s respond to this message by praying together.
God, Give us vision to be the church you call us to be. We have been courageous in the past and as we move into a new future we want to continue to be bold and courageous. Show us the people you want us to serve. Give us focus for our next ministry. We know it’s always time to do the right thing so show us the next right thing for The Village Church. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

RUN WITH PERSEVERANCE by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

We’ve been watching the Olympics at my house. Have you? We love the swimming, the gymnastics, the beach volleyball, the diving. But I feel so sorry for those divers because of the algae in their pool – yuck!  On Thursday night, twenty year old Simone Manuel made history as the first African-American woman to medal in an individual swimming event. She set at Olympic record in the women’s 100 meter freestyle. When she finished the race and looked up at the board the look on her face was one of shock as she realized she has won the gold. She was not favored to win. When she was interviewed shortly after the race, she gave all the glory to God. Simone is clearly a young woman of faith. She has worked hard to achieve her goals. All these athletes train hard. They talk about how they miss other events at school: prom, homecoming, football games, all because they are at the gym or the swim club working out. But they persevere. They have a goal. To be the best they can be. To be the best in their chosen sport. And when they get to the Olympic Games it is all worth it. The look on Simone Manuel’s face said it all. Run, or swim, with perseverance, and you will reach your goal. 

In this letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2 for those following along from afar), the writer is also talking about perseverance. He reminds us of the history of the people of Israel: how they passed through the Red Sea on dry land when the Egyptians were drowned. How they encircled Jericho for seven days and the walls fell down. Do you remember those stories? The people of Israel were living as slaves in Egypt. God sent Moses to Pharaoh and Moses said, “Let my people go.” Pharaoh refused so God sent plagues of frogs and locusts and thunderstorms and boils. Finally Pharaoh let them go but then once they left Pharaoh sent an army after them. In a dramatic scene God parted the Red Sea to save God’s people. Once the Israelites were safely across the Sea, God sent the water back upon the Egyptian army. This is a story of God’s faithfulness to God’s people who had faith and persevered. They did not give up. They stayed with Moses for forty years in the wilderness on their journey to the Promised Land. 

In our scripture for today, the writer, then talks about the great cloud of witnesses: “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” That’s quite a list.  

These leaders faced obstacles, but they did not give up. They were not perfect, by any means. But they were faithful. They saw a goal set before them, and they worked toward that goal. They put their faith in God and God did not disappoint them. 

You probably have your own cloud of witnesses: people who have gone before you in the faith who have inspired you. Who are they? Did your parents teach you to pray and to put your trust in God? Did a friend in school encourage you in your faith? Perhaps a youth leader or a Sunday School teacher? Maybe it was your spouse who modeled for you a life of faith. Maybe there are great leaders from history whom you admire. They encourage you to follow Jesus. Picture that cloud of witnesses in your mind right now, those people who have encouraged you. Give thanks that those people modeled faith for you and have encouraged you on your journey. 

But friends there are times when we want to give up on the race that is set before us, don’t we? We get discouraged. There are so many bad things that happen in the world. We hit obstacles. How can we put our trust in God? I am sure there were times when those great leaders in the Bible got discouraged. They wanted to give up. Moses wanted to give up before he even started. He told God he was not worthy to lead the people. He was not eloquent enough. He did not have the skills to be a great leader. But God had other things in mind. And so Moses reluctantly agreed to be God’s servant leader.  

Do you think those Olympic athletes ever faced challenges? How many times do you supposed the gymnasts fall off the balance beam while learning a new skill? How many times do the hurdlers hit the hurdles they are trying to jump over? But they persevere. Because they have a goal out in front of them. 

Do you have a goal? What is your goal? Is there something left in your life that you really want to accomplish? What is it? Have you asked God to help you? Do you have an obstacle that is getting in your way? What is that obstacle? Have you asked God to help you overcome that obstacle? 

God will help you. God will send you friends to help you. God will send you coaches and mentors to help you. God will send you that great cloud of witnesses to give you wisdom. Whatever race you are running, if you persevere, you will get to the finish line. That is the promise of today’s scripture. We can set aside any weight that is weighing us down. And Jesus who is the perfecter of faith will come along beside us and run the race with us. You are not alone in your race. Jesus is with you. God is with you, running the race with you. 

We’ve heard and seen some inspiring stories come out of Rio de Janeiro and the 31st Olympic Games. But I love this story from the 1992 Olympics. Derek Redmond was running the race of his life. He was a medal contender. But he tore a hamstring part way into the race. Not one to give up, he was determined to cross the finish line. His father came out of the stands, and helped him across. This video says it all. Derek Redmond’s father is like God in this story. God comes alongside us, when we are weak, and can’t get across the finish lines of our lives. God sustains us and carries us through. Put your trust in God. God will get you through any race you run.  Run your race with perseverance. Let’s watch the video.