Coming This Sunday (10/8/06)

Jerusalem_cross_logo This Sunday, we will continue the sermon series on "The Method in Methodism" as we look at the "rules" that John Wesley saw as essential to understanding and living out Christian faith. While we often chafe at rules that seem prohibitive, the "rule of discipleship" is designed to help us live a balanced and healthy spiritual life. Join us at 9:00 or 10:30AM for worship or check in to the sermon audio when it is posted by Monday (sorry about last week…due to an oversight the sermon didn’t get recorded, but the text is listed below as a blog post).

On another note, our missions team is conducting a free winter clothing drive this Saturday so if you have any clean and serviceable clothes to donate, please bring them by the church by Friday afternoon. It’s one way that we can serve our community.

How About Some Good News for a Change?

This week has brought a great deal of human tragedy before us: school shootings in Colorado and Pennsylvania, the debate over legalizing torture, religious violence, images of war from Iraq and elsewhere, more images of refugees and victims of injustice in Africa, and leaders being caught in immoral conduct. While we could argue that it’s "just another week" and shake our heads, turn the newspaper page or switch the TV over to a Seinfeld rerun, as Christians we need to be reminded that evil in this world is real, but need not dominate our thoughts.

I received my bi-weekly issue of The Christian Century this afternoon and a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu caught my attention. In an interview in the Dallas Morning News, Tutu said, "The media tend to inundate us with rather unpleasant news. We have the impression that evil is on the rampage, is about to take over the world. We need to keep being reminded that there is a great deal of good happening in the world. Ultimately, good prevails."

Rather than wringing our hands or shaking our heads at the evil in the world, perhaps we should be focusing more on increasing good wherever we find ourselves–to bring a bit of heaven into the life of earth. We can’t fight evil by simply perpetrating more of it–evil can only be overcome when it is pushed out by good. Jesus proved this on the cross, so maybe its time for his followers to start believing it!

The Method in Methodism – Part II (10/1/06)

The Method in Methodism: Part II

Outward Signs of Inward Grace

            Amazing grace—it’s good news in any language!

            It’s the language of grace that I want us to learn today as we continue our series on Methodism. In fact, if you were going to sum up Wesleyan Methodist theology in one word that would be it: grace.

            What is grace? Theologically speaking we can define it as “God’s unmerited favor” – the fact that God loves us in spite of ourselves. If we define sin as that which breaks our relationship with God, then grace is God’s response—offering us a new relationship at God’s own initiative.

            John Wesley’s theology was rooted in his understanding of God’s grace being available to all. No one was excluded from God’s love and favor and that all a person needed to do was respond to that grace and grow into a new relationship with God. This was not a unique view, but it certainly was a point of contention in theological circles of the time. Catholic theology always had always said that God’s grace was mediated through the sacraments of the Church and in no other way. When the Protestant Reformation occurred, some like John Calvin, for example, said that God’s favor had been predestined—that some are born as the “elect” while others are “damned” for eternity right out of the box-regardless of affiliation. A Calvinist view of salvation, for example, is concerned about an event in the past—the moment when God saved you.

            Wesley’s understanding of grace, however, was about relationship. That while some relationships can be characterized as “love at first sight,” more often a relationship grows over time as one party woos the other. The response to that grace is not pre-ordained, but a choice. We can choose whether or not to love God, just like we would choose to enter into another kind of relationship. For Wesley, salvation was less of an event and more of a process—not “where have you been” but “where are you now.”

            Wesley said that there were three basic movements of God’s grace extended to us by God. I hope that you’ll commit these to memory because we’ll be talking about them throughout the rest of the series.

            But before we get there we have to define why God’s grace is so needed. In Wesley’s view, humans were created for relationship with God and given God’s favor. He called this “original righteousness”—humans were made “good” and given dominion over God’s creation. God’s love was lavished on human beings at creation. But these humans chose instead to be gods themselves, using their free will to reject God’s love (after all, love is only authentic when it is chosen!). That rejection of God and serving oneself are what the Bible calls “sin” – from the Greek word “hamartia” that literally means “to miss the mark.” Human sin separates us from God in a seemingly irreparable breach. We see it all the time all around us—people acting more and more in self-interest, rejecting God and choosing only that which is for themselves.

            Despite human sinfulness, however, God did not give up on the human race. In fact, says the Gospel, God came among us in the person of Jesus Christ to repair the breach himself—to overcome the spiritual death that results in our separation from God and to offer us a new way of being in relationship with him. We call that movement of God toward us “grace.”

            The first movement of God’s grace is what Wesley called “prevenient” grace or “the grace that goes before.” God’s grace and love, in other words, are offered to us even before we know it and respond. Prevenient grace is essentially God’s calling to us, God wooing us, God wanting to be in relationship with us. God loves us in spite of ourselves and our sin and wants to repair the brokenness that sin causes.

            But God’s prevenient grace calls for a response. In order to repair that broken relationship, a new start is necessary. This is the second movement—justifying grace—where a person responds to God by confessing their sin, turning toward a new way of life, and seeking God’s forgiveness and offer of wholeness. Justification means that God transforms us, gives us a “new birth,” a new relationship, a new standing before God. The grip of sin is released and we are given a fresh start. Think of “justified” as “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned.

            Now a lot of Christian theology tends to stop here. Once your sins are forgiven you are “saved” and so it really doesn’t matter much what you do after that, so long as you are prepared to go to heaven when you die. That’s not what the Scripture really talks about. Rather than getting people into heaven, the scriptures are more about getting heaven into people. That’s what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer (on earth as it is in heaven). The goal of being “born again” is not to stay a spiritual infant, but to grow into faith and deeper into a relationship with God. For Wesley, salvation wasn’t a static event, but the process of growth—a process called “sanctification.”

            Sanctifying grace is the process by which God transforms us, renewing in us the image of Christ—the image of God we were to have from the beginning. Sanctification is the process of emptying ourselves and our desires and being filled with the heart of God. We participate in that process through the “means of grace” – through the disciplines of prayer and study, worship and meeting with others who are growing in faith. The word that Wesley used for this movement of grace is “going on to perfection” (which is the phrase that got him in the most trouble). Perfection in this sense is not perfect performance, but rather perfect love—that our intentions and actions are all designed toward honoring and representing God with our lives.

            In fact, the Greek word teleos is variously translated as “mature, perfect, complete.” The goal of the Christian life, for Wesley, was not simply waiting around for heaven, but growing into mature people of faith who are representatives of God’s kingdom of grace that is breaking into this world. As Paul would say in Philippians 3, we are “citizens of heaven” that colonize the earth—not seeking so much to go “home” to heaven but to bring the best of heaven here.

            Methodist Christianity, therefore, is very much focused on the present—where are we now in our relationship with God? How are we representing the character of Christ in this world? What are we doing to grow in maturity and love?

            One way to illustrate how prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace work together is to understand it as a house. Prevenient grace is the porch, where we meet God. Justifying grace is the door through which we are welcomed into new relationship and sanctifying grace is the process of being made at home in the rest of the house, where we become more and more like the chief resident.

            This week we celebrate world communion Sunday and it gives us an opportunity to talk about the Wesleyan Methodist understanding of grace drives our sacramental life. In the United Methodist Church, we celebrate two sacraments – baptism and holy communion, both of which reflect our theology of grace.

            John Wesley said the sacraments were “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” – tangible signs that point to something going on inside of us. The water of baptism represents life itself—new birth, that which sustains life, cleansing and renewal. While some Christian traditions emphasize baptism as a response to God, our tradition goes a bit further and says that baptism represents and acknowledges what God is already doing in us—making us part of a new family called the church and giving us new life.

            One of the reasons we baptize infants is because of our understanding of God’s prevenient grace. It’s an acknowledgement that God is at work in the life of a child even before the child knows who God is. It’s a sign that they are part of our family, part of God’s family. It expresses more that present relationship made possible by God’s grace rather than eternal salvation. Because baptism in our tradition is a sign of God’s initiative, we only do it once because God’s grace is always good!

            At the same time, baptism can be a sign of justifying grace. When we baptize an adult who had made a decision to follow Christ, we recognize that God has been at work in their lives through prevenient grace, but also that through this person’s repentance and faith and God’s faithfulness they are now being washed clean by God’s grace. No matter what age one is baptized, the sacrament is a sign of new relationship in the present, a new start.

            But while baptism is the sign of a new relationship, communion is the sacrament that sustains the relationship for the long term. The bread and cup represent many things, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for us being the primary remembrance. In the liturgy of communion we remember or “re-embody” Christ’s sacrifice for us and celebrate the grace we have been given.

            In holy communion, all the stages of grace are present. We celebrate open communion, which means that anyone who seeks to know Christ is welcome. As a sign of prevenient grace, God’s grace given to all, communion serves as an invitation for people to go deeper into their relationship with God. We celebrate an open table because we believe that someone coming in off the street who may not have any knowledge of God may in this sacrament find the whole story of God’s grace and love available to them. As we like to say, it’s Christ’s table and that means Christ sets the guest list! Children can share, too, because they are not excluded from the grace of Christ.

            At the same time, communion is a sign of justifying grace—a recognition that Christ’s sacrifice enables us to be forgiven from sin and begin a new life. Christ’s body broken and blood shed for us paid the penalty for sin and his resurrection gives us the hope of new life. When we take this meal, we acknowledge that we are in need of change and reconciliation with God, so we come humbly knowing that we come only at God’s invitation and not because we are worthy.

            But communion is also a sign of sanctifying grace—the grace that enables us to grow deeper in our relationship with God. It is the family meal, celebrated with others who follow Christ around the world. It is strength for the journey, a constant reminder of who we are and whose we are.

            To be a Methodist is to recognize the power of God’s grace, God’s reach toward us in love. God wants to make us whole, give us new life, remake us in his image. God has gone to great lengths to offer that grace, even offering himself in Christ.

            The question for us is how we will respond to that grace, for it only becomes transformational when we embrace it. We can choose to receive it and live according to it or continue on our own. God does not force us to love him.

            But when we choose to follow Christ, when we choose new life, great things can happen to us individually and collectively—we can be God’s instruments for bringing the beauty, wonder, and grace of God’s kingdom into this world even as we await it’s final transformation when Christ return. To borrow from Leonard Sweet: “Our job is to make earth look more and more like heaven, so that when Christ returns it’s not such a culture shock!”

            But let’s make that grace personal. Where do you find yourself now in relationship with Christ? Have you heard God’s call to you in prevenient grace, but maybe you’ve been resisting it? Do you desire to live a new life made possible by justifying grace—a new birth and new start? Or have you been living fairly comfortably in the knowledge that you are forgiven, but haven’t grown in your faith—that you haven’t been “going on to perfection?”

            Today is a great day to take stock of where you are in relationship to God. As we come now to sharing communion together, I invite you to reflect on these things and spend some time in prayer. What has God been saying to you? How will you respond?

World Communion Sunday

This Sunday is World Communion Sunday, celebrating the sacrament with Christians around the world. I hope you’ll join us for worship this week, which will feature colorful flags from many different nations, some different languages in our liturgy, songs by both our choir and praise band, and communion together in both services. I’ll be continuing the sermon series on "The Method in Methodism" with a look at God’s grace revealed to us in the sacraments. It’s going to be a festive Sunday, so I hope to see you there!

This morning I’d invite you to pray with me for the folks of Bailey, Colorado who experienced another Columbine-type shooting in their high school. My foster brother, Chuck, is a reserve sherriff in that county and was on the periphery, helping out with this terrible tragedy. In this world where danger and terrorism seems so prevalent, we can only pray and work for God’s peace.

Why I Do What I Do

     One of my best friends here in town is Pastor Jeff Louden, my Lutheran colleague. When I was appointed here in July of 2003 (more than 3 years ago, can you believe it?), Jeff was at the door after the service to greet me and welcome me to town, stopping here before going to serve his own congregation that morning. Since then we have met together often for coffee or for chili at the Mid Mountain Restaurant at Park City Mountain Resort during the ski season, just to share our joys and struggles in life and ministry. Everyone should have a friend like this with whom they can be brutally honest (and who is not afraid to tell you when you are, well, full of it!).

     Jeff is also an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School and spends a few weeks each summer leading young adults and training them in wilderness travel and ethics in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. After returning from this summer’s trip, he shared with me a piece that was written by another instructor a few years back that he reads at the end of every course. It’s a little essay titled, “Why I Do What I Do.”

     The writer describes the various reasons why he loves his job—from learning to live simply, to physical health, to relationships, to his understanding of life being shaped by time in the wilderness. In a world where so many people tend to gripe about their jobs, this little essay speaks volumes about the joy that one can find when they feel like they are fulfilling their calling.

     Jeff and I met for coffee at Starbuck’s one morning and were talking this over. We got to thinking that it would be a great exercise for us to think about jotting down our own list of “Why I Do What I Do” items as a celebration of what it means to be in ministry. I started working this out during my morning devotional time and while I’m far from finished, there were a few things that leapt to mind:

    1. I believe that I’m fulfilling my calling more than doing a job. As one of my seminary professors once put it, “When God calls you to ministry, he’s not doing you a favor.” Sometimes, that feels true—just ask the biblical prophets who often got skewered by people to whom they were trying to bring good news. The flip side of that, though, is that when God calls you, God also equips you. When you are called, tasks choose you rather than you choosing the task and everything from preaching on Sunday to emptying the garbage cans after Wonderful Wednesday has meaning and value because it is part of the larger picture. I believe that I’m called to be here and to serve in ministry. I rely every day on God to equip me to do that well.

     2. I have the privilege of being involved in the significant moments of peoples’ lives.

I was recently officiating at a wedding for one of my former youth group kids. We are close to her family, she babysat our kids, and we have been on mission trips and in Bible studies together. To be present and facilitate her marriage wonderful young man was a real gift to me. Every time I baptize an infant, work with a family through grief, and even greet people on Sunday I am reminded that my ordination and presence is designed to be representative of God in those important, life-altering moments. There are times when I don’t represent God as well as I should due to my humanness getting in the way, but somehow God’s grace gets through anyway in spite of me. It is a special privilege to be with people when it matters.

     3. I get to bring God’s Word to a congregation each week. Much of my week is spent thinking—thinking about scriptural texts and what they mean, thinking about what God has to say to our world, thinking about how to convey God’s truth in a new and life-giving way. Unlike a guest speaker or religious pundit, I get to bring what God is showing me  to the same congregation every week where we can all wrestle with these words, be convicted by them, receive grace through them, and have our lives changed by them in relationship with each other over time. As I look out at your faces every Sunday I am reminded that God’s Word is not something that can be peddled, as Paul once said, but something shared within a community of faith. For me, Sunday morning is where God’s Spirit and Word and our listening ears meet together. I love that whole process and I am always amazed that God can use me to bring his Word. Sometimes I don’t know how God does it, but I do know that God’s Word, as it says in Isaiah 55:11, shall never return to him empty!

     Well, those are just three that I thought of and I know that there are more. Writing out “Why I Do What I Do” is a great exercise for shifting the focus off of ourselves and our desire to do “something better” in the future and instead look to the joy and satisfaction of being right where we are. I encourage you to try it: take an afternoon or an evening with a good pen and a clean sheet of paper and write down all the reasons and benefits of doing what you do, be it your profession, your parenting, or something else that gives you joy. Perhaps you’ll begin to see things differently!