Thursday, November 30, 2006

a moment of silence

On Monday morning NBC declared that there is now a "civil war" in Iraq, between the Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities. And of course there has been a backlash about the use of language, most likely due to the conjecture, in months and years past now, that the worst case scenario would be civil war. Now most commentators seem to say we are there, and military leaders concur, among them Colin Powell. The worst case scenario is upon us: it is a civil war. It is no longer about us.

At the end of the News Hour with Jim Lehrer this evening, there was an honor roll of those who have recently died. This honor roll is presented when the bodies are identified and photographs are available. The men (tonight they were all men) are shown, without commentary, with only their age and place of residence. And so the faces are before the viewer, in silence.

My impression in watching tonight's group of twenty men was that they were very young, many of them still in high school yearbook dress; many of them were hispanic; many were from the rustbelt, and a number were from the south.

It is sad to see these lives now ended, and of course there faces are an interruption amidst the talking heads who spin the war: is it a civil war or not? will it affect the next election or not? It is obvious that two religious movements within Islam are at war, one violent act following another, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. For the twenty, the terms are not so important, only that we acknowledge their sacrifices, among their fallen brothers and sisters: 2881 U.S. now dead since the war began in March, 2003, 2400 dead since the capture of Saddam Hussein, 21,700 wounded.

I wonder: what if we printed their faces on the covers our newspapers and magazines? What if we filled our public spaces with crosses, representing their lives? What if their flag-draped caskets could be photographed and kept as a symbol before us, rather than a ribbon bumper sticker.

In the silence, I see the young faces, and I pray that God will somehow intervene. That is my prayer, this Advent, and my hopes are grounded in the coming of the Prince of peace.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

the legacy of the saints (mark 12. 28-34)

One of the core teachings of Jesus is about the greatest commandment: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. It relates to the church's observance of All Saints.

This core teaching helped the followers of Jesus to know what they might aspire to: the ideal. We call these followers of Jesus “saints”. I have come across a couple of definitions of the word “saint”. One definition has it this way: a saint is a someone who lives out the meaning of a single verse of scripture.

The saints remind us of Paul’s listing of the fruit of the spirit in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

The saints remind us of Paul’s meditation on the virtues in Philippians: whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

The saints remind us of Paul’s instruction to the believers in Colossians: put on compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another, and if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other…clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.

The saints remind us of the teaching of the prophet Micah in the Old Testament: What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.

But there is another dimension to what it means to be a saint, and here I am speaking not of any kind of ecclesiastical dogma, but of what the scripture itself calls every one of us to be and to do. A saint is someone in whom the love and light of God transparently shine through.

Last summer Pam and I were at a conference of clergy and we made a connection with another Methodist pastor who was there, whose named is John Fanestil. John lives in San Diego, and he had recently written a book, entitled Mrs. Hunter’s Happy Death. It is a wonderful book about how some people approach death not only with acceptance and peace, but with a sense of glorious anticipation, even as they are aware of all that they will leave behind. His research began with narratives of eighteenth century men and women, whose “happy deaths” were recounted in Methodist magazines, and continued in the experiences of those with whom he has been privileged to know and serve.

I thought of John, and his book as I prepared for today, and as I thought of some of those who had experienced “happy deaths”. I was sitting in the hospital room with one of our members and she was eating a late lunch, talking about how good the food was in the hospital (people rarely do that)……and she remarked that this particular day was Herman Nicholson’s birthday, and she would not have the chance to call him and wish him a happy birthday.

Then she talked about how different all of the Providence ministers had been, and I remembered that on another time she talked about she and her husband would often have Sunday lunch with Doug and Bobbie Corriher, I had known then when I first began in the ministry, and she mentioned how grateful she was for all of her pastors. I realized in that moment that I was being given a gift. I remembered, driving away, some words of one of my professors: when real ministry happens, it is never quite clear about who is helping whom.

That evening I wrote something briefly about that moment, just so I would have it, in my journal.

“Our large congregation is composed of many people, with varying interests, temperaments, needs and callings.

One of the most influential holds no particular position or role, and yet she is one of our most prominent members.

She has difficulty breathing, due to age and declining health, and yet her voice is heard loud and clear, especially by the people who are called on their birthdays.

She is a frail person, and yet there is within her a deep inner strength. She has watched a number of very different pastors come and go over the last forty-seven years (she joined our congregation in the year that I was born), and she is appreciative of them all, seeing only their strengths and disregarding their limitations.

She has overcome a number of personal and family crises in her own journey, and yet her great concern is most often about the needs of others.

She has an absolute love for her local church, and a great desire to be in worship, and yet being present is becoming less and less frequent.

Her name is spoken with awe and reverence by those who know her, and yet her posture is always one of profound humility.

She is a living example of how one individual can change the lives of countless people.

She is a saint because the love and light of God shine transparently through her”.

She would have been slightly embarrassed by the attention and even the adoration. It was not in her nature. But she was a saint.

The Methodists had a word for the process toward the ideal, toward sanctification, toward a happy death: sanctification. Sanctification was nothing more than love of God and love of neighbor…this was one of the ways John Wesley defined sanctification, and he commented that most people were sanctified shortly before their deaths. It is there that our commitments, to God and to each other, are most clear for all of us to see.

I think of the saints who passed in our own congregation this year. A daughter of one of those whom we will name commented: “Without her presence, her love, her encouragement, I don’t know where I would have ended up”. The son of one of those whom we will name said, of his father, “he was a builder, he worked with his hands, he could make or restore anything, but his workmanship is most clear in the lives of his children and grandchildren…he has shaped us”.

The saints are those who love God and their neighbor. In Methodist language, they are going on to perfection, to the life God intends for all of us. Often this gets worked out in the practices and habits that form us: we love God through worship and prayer and study, we love our neighbor through service and inclusion and generosity.

And of course they can’t be separated, love of God and love of neighbor, Jesus held them together in his teaching, and his earliest followers, who struggled as we do to live these teachings, did as well. John wrote in his letter to some of the earliest churches: those who do not love their neighbor, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have never seen (4. 20).

The saints do come to a kind of clarity about all of this. They make peace with God, and at times they even possess a desire to be in God’s presence, in eternity, in heaven. They forgive and make amends and express gratitude and give their blessings to those who will continue in this life. It is good that the church sets aside one day, All Saints, to remember the importance of the saints in our experience, for they are the very ones who have put us in a place to worship God, who have taught us the scriptures, who have prayed for us, who have included us, who have served us, who have given themselves to and for us.

Through them we learn the great commandment not as a theory, but as a lived reality. Again John, writing to the earliest Christians; after stating a doctrinal position, that God is love, he goes on: “No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God’s love abides within us”.

I don’t perceive of myself as a morbid person, but on All Saints I am put in touch with mortality, my own mortality, the mortality of friends, mentors, family, heroes.

I think of Cecil, who died this year in an automobile accident. Cecil and Pam were members of a church that I once served, a wonderful church where, for a time, the youth ministry was a mess, there was no other word to describe it, everyone divided, many quick to criticize the others, I remember sitting down with Cecil and his wife over lunch and his saying, “we will be glad to help”. A saint.

I remember the great preacher William Sloane Coffin, whom I heard preach at the Riverside Church in New York City when I was a college student, perhaps the greatest prophetic voice of his generation. A saint.

I remember Herman Nicholson and Doug Corriher, whom I have already mentioned, former ministers of this church, whose leadership certainly helped Providence to be the church that it is today. Saints.

I think of other saints: grandparents and friends, teachers and neighbors, heroes from a distance, and stretching back, I think of John and Charles and Susannah Wesley, I think of the apostles and prophets and martyrs. Maybe even now you are thinking of a saint in your own life, Someone who taught you the great commandment--to love God and to love your neighbor--someone for whom the love and light of God transparently shine through.

Mostly I think of the saints whom we will name out loud. And when I gather with you in the holy communion, it will indeed be the communion of saints, in anticipation of the great banquet that Jesus promises, and in anticipation as well of the great homecoming, where we will gather with the saints at the river, that flows from the throne of God.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

how to avoid a deer collision

Even if you live in an urban environment, like we do, this is helpful information. Read it all.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

thanksgiving 2006

So we were invited over by good friends in the church to celebrate Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. We slept in, then ate a breakfast of whole grain 100% french toast and turkey bacon and light sugar free syrup (do you catch the trend here)...then I took a walk outside at the Harris Y, and noticed, in leaving, that the Christmas tree folks were getting the parking lot ready for tomorrow, and a spread of Christmas trees...

And then we went over to feast with our friends, engaging in the deadly sin of gluttony, too much food really but it was phenomenal, then we all played a game (maybe it's called "Cranial"), then I watched some of the NFL game, noticing that there mantra seems to be "give thanks, give back", and then I remember from the Observer a comment post-Katrina that the NFL gives almost nothing to charity, making enormous profits but constantly urging their fans to give to charity...along the way I took a brief nap...

Both daughters are home for the holidays, which is truly the greatest cause for thanksgiving just now, our older daughter flourishing at Chapel Hill (she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa earlier this I engaging in the deadly sin of pride), our younger daughter seems to be rocking along in her senior year of high school and taking her time in the college search, still a couple of applications to complete, some already in, one school heard from. They are watching "Grey's Anatomy" tonight with friends, a series I that I have not become involved with, nothing wrong with that...

Tomorrow there will be a couple of hospital calls to make, and a contact with a family that has experienced a death, but the office is closed, so the pace slows down, and I will avoid the mall crowds like the plague. Finally, I am getting my Christmas cd collection together, and am going to put them all on my ipod shuffle, the girls tell me that I can do this, and I probably can, but it will be infinitely easier once they return. So I will wait...

And so the Thanksgiving holiday brings with it some rest, and some homecoming, and some football and a great deal of food, and friends, and less traffic, and cause for gratitude in the midst of it all. And beyond it I am looking forward to the observance of Advent and Christmas, the parties, the services, the candles, and the stuff in the culture, the bowl games ( I would like to see Ohio State and Florida in the BCS Championship), and the larger, more serious matters that are moving toward resolution ( I am praying for an end to the war, for our sakes and for the sake of the people of Iraq), and along the way gratitude will be transformed into hope, once again, for a new Jerusalem, for a new creation, for the coming of the Messiah, the One who will preside at a great feast, for the Prince of Peace.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

everything belongs to God (mark 12. 38-44)

It’s Stewardship season, and the gospel is a teaching of Jesus about money. I realize it’s a subject that is greeted with resistance, that produces anxiety, that raises our stress levels at times. “Oh no”, I hear someone saying. “Another sermon about money”. Another stewardship campaign. Another appeal. I knew I should have slept in this morning, but it was Daylight Saving’s Time and I woke up anyway! And if you’re not saying something like this, maybe the thought lies just beneath the surface.

I’ll get to the teaching of Jesus in a moment. It’s a short teaching, and we have some time to look at it. But first I want to do something else. Recently I was with a group of people and we were asked to recall our earliest memories about money. It was fascinating. What is the earliest learning you can recall about money, what was it? We thought for a moment, and then the hands shot up. What is the earliest teaching about money that you can remember?

“Don’t eat it, it’s dirty”, someone said.

Money doesn’t grow on trees”.

“A penny saved is a…penny earned”.

“We’re not made….of money”.

“Money won’t buy happiness”.

“Never a borrower or a lender be”.

As I listened to these sayings, many of them ingrained in my own experience, all of a sudden I was a little boy, listening to my parents, or grandparents, or great grandmother. I was struck with how similar these teachings are: they all speak of money and scarcity, money and fear, money and danger. They are all warnings!

Now our own kids have grown up in a different age. Ask them what they’ve learned about money, and they are likely to say, “you press a few buttons and it comes out of a machine…you just tell the machine how much you need!”

But for most of us, we have these early childhood memories about money, and most people will tell you that one of the most difficult changes we make, as adults, is unlearning lessons from early childhood.

All of which is to say that we don’t come to the teaching of Jesus as blank slates, we don’t read the scripture in a vacuum. It is a little story, only four verses, this brief teaching of Jesus. They are receiving an offering at the temple. The rich make their contributions. Then a poor widow comes along. As one commentator reminds us, the two words are redundant: poor and widow. Widows were the most vulnerable people of the time, along with orphans, there was no safety net. She puts in two copper coins. Sixty-four of these coins would equal one day’s wage.

Jesus sees the woman, and what she has done. He reflects on it, the contrast between rich and poor, large donations and small ones. The poor widow has put in more, Jesus says. They gave out of their abundance. She gives out of her poverty. She gives everything she has.

In the kingdom of God, everything is reversed:

the last become first, the poor are blessed,

the greatest are servants, those who mourn are comforted,

the dead are raised.

Everything is reversed, turned upside down. God comes into the world, not as a child of Herod, but as the son of Mary and Joseph. God overcomes death not by military expansion, but through a cross. She has put more into the treasury, Jesus says. And maybe the disciples are standing there, wondering, "more…two coins…more?" They don’t get it!

Jesus is teaching a lesson that differs from our early childhood education about money, but it also differs from the worldview of the disciples. He is teaching them and us that everything belongs to God, and that every gift is important, no matter how large or how small.

In the Kingdom of God Jesus is always reversing things. We see scarcity. He sees abundance. We think it’s our money. He imagines that it is actually God’s money. We value the large gifts. Jesus pays attention to the smallest gift. Jesus is always reversing things, always turning things upside down.

And so the church approaches life, possessions, relationships, priorities, money in a way that is sometimes, maybe often, maybe always in contrast to the world. This is our witness. This is our gift.

Anne Lamott is a gifted writer who has experienced one of the most unusual conversion experiences of our time. In an essay entitled “Why I Make Sam Go To Church”, she acknowledges that her son Sam is the only child that they know who goes to church. None of his friends attend church, and he is usually not that crazy about going himself. But they go. “How can I make him go?”, she asks. Her response: “Because I can. I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds”.

After a life of addiction, and abused freedom and intense personal pain, Anne Lamott met Jesus, and she wandered into a little church. “I was at the end of my rope”, she said later, “and they tied a knot for me, and helped me hold on”. Isn’t that a wonderful definition of salvation? When Anne announced, during worship that she was pregnant, the congregation cheered. And then they began to bring her casseroles for her freezer, and clothing, and then they began to slip her money.

All of these folks, for the most part, were living pretty close to the bone, many on Social Security, and they would stuff bills in her pocket: tens and twenties. Among them was a woman named Mary, who would bring plastic baggies filled with dimes.

Her response, with a lump in her throat: “Thank you”. When Sam was five days old she took him to church. After that, she said, she became known as Sam’s driver. The people adored Sam and claimed him as their own. Isn’t that what we do whenever a child is baptized among us? Sam grew up to be a little boy, and he would always see Mrs. Mary at church, and she would always hug him and she would usually give him a bag of dimes.

In the essay, Anne next tells of an experience where Sam is invited, and then uninvited to spend the night at a friend’s house. It is one of those cruel things that children sometimes do to other children. What can a parent do? Anne told Sam that she would pray. Sam said that would be ok. “Just pray to yourself”, he said to his mother. Anne knew how to pray, and she also knew that the next morning they would be going to church.

She didn’t know that Mary would be there, with a bag of dimes, but there she was. Anne writes, as the essay concludes:

“It had been a long while since her last dime drop, but just when I think we’ve all grown out of the ritual, she brings us another stash. Mostly I give them to street people….Mary doesn’t know that professionally I’m doing much better now; she doesn’t know that I no longer really need people to slip me money. But what’s so dazzling to me, what’s so painful and poignant, is that she doesn’t bother with what I think she knows or doesn’t know about my financial life. She just knows we need another bag of dimes, and that is why I make Sam go to church”. (104-105)

A small gift, as Mother Teresa would say, but given with great love. Who notices? Well, Jesus notices, and he asks his disciples to notice. Everything belongs to God. Every gift is important, no matter how large or how small.

Many scholars believe that the story of the widow’s offering is counterbalanced by another teaching of Jesus, two chapters earlier, his encounter with the rich young ruler (Mark 10. 28-31)

The rich young man is hesitant.

The widow is extravagant.

The rich young man is measured.

The widow is generous.

The rich young man cannot fully give his life to Jesus.

The widow gives everything she has.

Maybe many of us find ourselves on a continuum, between these two stories of the rich young man, who cannot bring himself to give, and who goes away sad, and the widow, who gives everything that she has.

Money can be a curse, or a blessing.

Money can heal people or destroy them.

Money can bring people together, or divide them.

You see, those early childhood teachings about money were partly true, but not the whole truth. Here’s the simple point. As we discover a faithful way of living, we begin with the affirmation that everything belongs to God. Every message that you hear, every commercial that you watch, every magazine ad that you read, every radio pitch that you hear, will make a claim for the opposite: it’s your money, you earned it.

But a different truth emerges as we discover a faithful way of living: everything belongs to God. And once we are on that journey, we begin to pay attention to the gifts that are all around us.

I received a letter from a beloved member of our church last week. She would not be able to make a pledge. The path of her life has been affected by the end of a marriage that she did not choose, and this has had a ripple effect in lots of areas. She was grateful to the church for the fellowship, for the worship, for her Sunday School class. But she would not be making a pledge. She hoped I would understand.

I read this letter, more than once. And I responded to it personally. Of course I understand. But as I re-read that letter I began to ask myself: “What is God saying to me in this letter?”, I came to the sense that I needed to say something else to her: you still have a gift, it may seem small or inconsequential by the world’s standards, it may not be what it once was, but, in the Kingdom of God, it may be the gift that Jesus sees, and honors and blesses.

It is not the amount that is important. It is that we give everything. It is really not what other people think about our giving---it is our response to the call of Jesus: deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me. And of course the good news is that he does for us what he calls us to do: he gives his whole life for us, everything he has, on a cross, for you and me, and that is something many of us also learned early in childhood too, his gift, his life, for us, for you and me, a sign of God’s faithfulness, an expression of God’s amazing grace.

Everything belongs to God.

Every gift is important.

Sources: Thanks to David Bell, Director of the United Methodist Church’s Center For Christian Stewardship (, for the exercise on early childhood memories about money. Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

nickel creek anticipates hiatus

I first saw Nickel Creek at Merlefest, a few years ago, where they absolutely stole the show, and in a sense it was a passing of the torch from one generation to the next. Chris Thile, the mandolinist, was so astonishing that I imagined this must have been what it was like to see a Jimi Hendrix and Jaco Pastorius in concert. I later saw them with my older daughter and a friend of hers at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem, and they were innovative, fresh and totally engaged with their craft and the audience.

I was saddened, but not surprised to learn recently that they are taking a break from each other in late 2007. This from their website ( see links to the right, which will also refer you to a review in Billboard Magazine):

"Dearest Listener,

After seven years of extensive touring in support of three records (seventeen years as a band), we've decided to take a break of indefinite length at the end of 2007 to preserve the environment we've sought so hard to create and to pursue other interests. It has been a pleasure to write, record, and perform for you through the years and we'd like to heartily thank you for your invaluable contribution to our musical lives.

Yours, Nickel Creek (Sean, Sara, and Chris)"

Chris Thile has a solo cd out now, and Sara (the violinist) posted this soundtrack on her "myspace"...she has great taste in music:

1. Don't Do it - The Band
2. Jolene - Dolly
3. Don't Pass Me By - The Beatles
4. I Ain't Got Nobody - Bob Wills
5. Sin City - The Flying Burrito Brothers
6. Blizzard of 77 - Nada Surf
7.Where Will I Be - Emmylou Harris
8. I've Always been a Rambler - Gene Autry
9. Kapten Kapsyl - Vasen
10. It Takes Time - Glen Phillips demo
11. Long Hard Road - Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
12. Black Star - Radiohead
13. Everyman a King - Randy Newman
14. Supposed to Make you Happy - Tift Merritt
15. John Riley the Shepherd - ?
16. Blue Shadows on the Trail - Roy Rogers
17. A shot in the Arm - Wilco
18. A Living Prayer - Alison Krauss and Union Station
19. Do Wacka Do - Roger Miller.

I imagine that the three of them will continue to record music (solo), and that each will continue to enrich the music of the other. Nickel Creek's genius was in the improvisational nature of their bluegrass, which owed as much to Miles Davis as Earl Scruggs. I admire their maturity in recognizing that something pretty wonderful has happened through them, and this path may be the way of not only preserving the music and the friendships, but also freeing them to move into the future.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

higher power

There's A Higher Power (Ira and Charlie Louvin)

when burdens seem to overcome there's a higher power

whose faithful and refuses none there's a higher power
then why ask men to help you through there's a higher power,
they're helpless pilgrims just like you there's a higher power
let's sing it shout it walk it talk it there's a higher power

lay down your soul 'cause jesus bought it. there's a higher power
amen amen there's a higher power amen amen there's a higher power
those men have built these mighty guns

they've built these automobiles that run
but brothers and sisters mark this down
they can't build you no heavenly crown
go tell them people lost in sin.

there's a higher power,
they need not fear the works of men.
there's a higher power
believe in him who rest on high.
there's a higher power
unless they do they'll surely die.
there's a higher power
let's sing it shout it walk it talk it

there's a higher power
lay down your soul 'cause jesus bought it.
there's a higher power.

As recorded by Buddy Miller, Universal United House of Prayer

jeff foxworthy on becoming a redneck

The conversion experience, how one becomes a redneck, by my fellow native Georgian Jeff Foxworthy: "You sit in the back pew or two in the church on Sunday morning, and you make change when you put our offering in the plate. You listen as the choir sings five verses of "Just As I Am", actually the choir hums a couple of verses...then you eat fried chicken for lunch, and then you watch football....that's how you get started"....

And then: "How do rednecks engage in gossip?" "They put it in the form of a prayer request". And one more insight: "Rednecks have discovered that they can say anything about another person, as long as they conclude with 'Bless their hearts'".

Pretty funny, and pretty dead-on :-)

Monday, November 13, 2006

i have other sheep...

Last week I spent three days in Austin, Texas, which must be regarded as one of the most interesting towns on the planet. I was there with a research group of pastors who are involved in a project with the Center of Theological Inquiry (see link to the right). I am completing an essay on the "Teaching Pastor in the Wesleyan/Methodist Tradition" for a future publication. Other papers, on topics ranging from preaching to intercession to social ministry to pastoral visitation were shared. It is an amazing group of men and women, from Bangor, Maine to Tallahassee, Florida, from Princeton, New Jersey to Spokane, Washington. As a United Methodist I'm in the minority, but that is okay.

The most memorable experience I had I Austin took place on election night. Kinky Friedman was a candidate for Governor of Texas, and in fact he did receive ten percent of the votes, which is, to my mind, pretty astonishing. Since his election party was a five minute drive from the seminary where we were housed, this seemed to be a bit of history that could not be overlooked. And so five of us piled into a car and drove to the site.

When we entered, in fact there was Kinky Friedman, smoking a cigar and commenting on politics, the election, and life in general. I purchased a ballcap for our older daughter, who is a real political animal, and also picked up a few bumper stickers. For a twenty-five donation to the Haiti Mission, I will mail you one. They will only increase in value, over time. One of the bumperstickers reads "My Governor is a Jewish Cowboy".

At any rate, Kinky provided me with some much needed humor that night, and had done so earlier in the campaign, with his commercial entitled "The Good Shepherd". As Jim, my Congregational pastor friend comments, 'I will never think of John 10 the same way again".

Watch it here..

Thursday, November 09, 2006

serving beyond ourselves (mark 10. 35-45)

It would be easy to take off, in a reflection on this passage, with the idea that I know all about service, I know all about the scripture, and I am going to try to coax you, inspire you, guilt-tip you into serving. I have heard a few of these sermons, and I confess I have preached a few of them. I have arrived, over time, at a different conclusion.

I have come to believe that people are created with a natural desire to serve others. Our first instinct is to be generous and giving. You and I were created in the image of God, a God whose nature is self-giving. What is the scripture verse that the guy used to hold up at every football game, every golf tournament, every basketball coliseum? For God so loved the world that he gave…

It is God’s nature to give. The Book of Genesis teaches us that we are created in the image of God. If God’s nature is to give, the scripture is equally clear that it is the nature of Jesus to serve: The son of man came not to be served but to serve… (Mark 10. 45)…and to give his life.

We can be clear at the outset: it is fundamental to the nature of God the Father and God the Son to be giving, to be serving. And the overflow of this character is the Holy Spirit, the comforter, the encourager, the advocate.

We are here this morning, most of us, because or we have some interest in knowing this God, or we have come to know this God, or maybe we want to be a part of what this God is up to in the world.

Again I am convinced that this is a primary instinct within us, we are wired for this. We want to connect with this God. If God is giving, we want to give. If Jesus is a servant, we want to serve. If the Holy Spirit is encouraging, we want to encourage.

This first instinct, this internal wiring, is also our highest calling: to live a life that pleases God, that honors God, that praises God, that glorifies God, that bears witness to the love of God.

Yes, along the way, we do get sidetracked. Our relatives James and John show us this path. We begin by wanting to know more about God, wanting to follow Jesus, and then, the next thing we know, we want to be in control of an institution, to sit in the seats of power, to judge others.

At the beginning maybe it is all about God, but over time it can become all about us. And so we worry about who gets the credit, or who takes the lead, or who is in control. We are not bad people. We just lose our way. We take a wrong turn. It’s called sin.

One of the definitions of sin in the middle ages was cor incurvatum, the heart curved in on itself. James and John were afflicted with this sin: let us sit at your right hand and your left hand, in your glory…

Sometimes we get separated from the mission and we become more concerned with things that really aren’t so important. It happens, but it doesn’t have to be our destiny. And so, as I read this teaching of Jesus, I am also reflecting on a series of questions: How can the bad news of this passage become good news? How do we get back to our primary instinct, to our highest calling: to love God and to love our neighbor? How do we get reconnected with the mission of God?

Tip O’Neill, a famous senator of a generation ago, had a saying: all politics is local. In my adult life, in twenty-five years of ministry, I have come to believe that all mission is local.

When I began in the ordained ministry, missions was something that a third party did. One group, on one side of the world, heard about another group, on the other side of the world. Or one group, on one side of town, learned about another group, on another side of town. How did they come together? A third party. A missionary went to that far away place, and we prayed for them. This was, and is good. Or a denomination sent a newsletter about life in that exotic locale, and we subscribed to the newsletter and read it. This was, and is good. Committees and boards were formed to make decisions. Some of us have served on these committees and boards. This was, and is good.

But the mission of God has changed, morphed into something different. All mission is now local, whether it is Charlotte or Cap Haitien or the Catacombs, whether your lifestage finds you parenting a child or caring for an adult or encouraging a friend in who is in the midst of a crisis. This is all mission, and all mission is local. Not that the mission is just here, but it has to be something we can see, smell, taste, touch.

Over time, this has come pretty clear for people, in the church and in the world. A year ago Katrina hit the gulf coast. It was devastating. And because most of us have access to televisions, we saw it, it all of its raw power and fury and destruction. We were here, and the people were there. How did we connect?

Well, you might think that one connection would be governmental. We pay taxes that support agencies, agencies that were established for just this purpose, to help people in times of crisis. It soon became clear that the government was not very helpful---blame the political party of your choice. And so people searched for ways to bridge the gap between those in need and those who wanted to give.

People do have a primary instinct to give. They are at their best when they are giving to others. And so people, people in this congregation, shared their time, their money, their expertise, they shared meals and holidays and their homes, they traveled long distances to be a part of God’s mission. A group will go to the gulf to do Katrina relief in two weeks. Maybe God has been calling you to make that journey.

It did not happen in a top-down way, from the government to the people in need, and it did not happen in a top-down way, from the denomination to the people in need. Neither the denomination nor the government was very helpful.

It happened in the lives of people. All mission is local. It is not top-down. It is from the bottom-up. I have learned over these years that people are very suspicious of institutions, especially institutions that were created to help people. For the most part, people often have good reason not to trust institutions. Over time these institutions become more concerned with rules and regulations, policies and procedures than the mission itself. Over time these institutions lose sight of their mission. They lose their way. Like James and John, they are more concerned with their place of power and prestige. I have fallen victim to this disease. Maybe, at some point along the way, you have too.

The good news is that God does not operate with us in a top-down way, with the answers and the judgments coming down from on high. If this were true, Ken Callahan has suggested, “Jesus would have been born in a mansion or a castle”. No, the apostle Paul continually reminds us, the gospel is a scandal. And the shock of it is found in this wisdom teaching of Jesus. Whoever wishes to be great among you must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all.

This seems odd. And yet, deep down, we know this wisdom to be true. We have experienced it.

Over these years I have spoken at a number of memorial services, sometimes for close friends, sometimes for active church members, at other times on behalf of people I might not have known, or individuals for whom the church was not very important. Whatever the differences, each service has its own dignity and meaning.

I am struck, in thinking over these services, about the recurring themes. Some of these people have accomplished a great deal, but the accomplishments are never more than a minor part of the story. Some have held important positions. These are noted only in passing. What is remembered? How the person gave, how the person served, how the person encouraged.

Could it be an accidental that these qualities---giving, serving, encouraging---are the very qualities of the God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? And could it be that as our lives become more giving, more serving, more encouraging, we are discovering God’s purpose for our lives?

This is the basic reason for the church’s existence: to connect with God and the mission of God. And so the question must be asked: how is the church serving beyond itself? This is not just a theoretical question. Some see the church as an entertainment center, a multiplex of offerings to meet the demographic needs of a changing world. Others see the church as a group of people who must be separated from the sins of the unrighteous. One way of seeing the church leads to competition, every church fighting for market share. The other way of viewing the church leads to isolation, and finally irrelevance.

The church needs to be relevant enough to connect with the real hurts, hopes and hungers of people: loneliness, poverty, illness, shelter, education, meaning and purpose. And so the mission we offer is connected to these real hurts, hopes and hungers.

But there is more here than relevance, and more here than meeting the needs of people. In a post-Christian world, we cannot assume that people know what we are doing and why we are doing it. That is why we tell the stories of Jesus. Sometimes the connection is as simple as reflecting on the profoundly good news that “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”.

A faithful way of living connects the mission of God with the story of Jesus.

We are entering into an age when people are more religious than they have ever been, but they know less about Jesus than they ever have. A faithful way of living calls us to rediscover who Jesus is, where he is in the world, what he wants us to do with our lives. If that sounds like an old revival sermon, so be it. Someday you and I will give an account for the life we have lived: was it one of love, service, encouragement? Did we recognize the Jesus of Matthew 25 (When did we see you? I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was a prisoner and you visited me, I was hungry and you fed me…Did we multiply our talents or bury them in the ground (Matthew 25)? Did we have the same mind and pattern of life that was in Jesus, who emptied himself and took the form of a servant? (Philippians 2)

Here’s the paradox: A world saturated with religion truly wants to see and know and follow Jesus. The problem with many of our models of church is that Jesus was not an entertainer, and he was not isolated from the sinners of the world. That is what New Beginnings on Wednesday nights is all about: a time to reflect on Jesus as the starting point of a conversation between seekers and disciples.

At its best, the church connects the mission of God with the story of Jesus. We give a cup of cold water and we name the name. We hold together the great commandment with the great commission.

The church discovers a faithful way of living when it serves beyond itself. People discover a faithful way of living when they serve beyond themselves. And then people discover a faithful way of living when the tell the story of Jesus.

Deep down, we all know that this is why we are here, not only inside a church today, but on this planet. This is why the Christian faith stirs within us, resonates deep within our hearts. We want our lives to mean something.