October in worship

Ever since most people were farmers, who relied on an annual fall harvest for most of their income, October has been a time when churches talk about giving. Lots of pastors hate talking about money, perhaps because they learned as children that money is private thing, not to be talked about. I learned that as well, but I’ve changed my mind. Money is a measure not only of how much we possess, but also of who we are and what matters to us. So it’s definitely important enough to preach about! I’m not going to spend the weeks of October talking about money, actually: I’m going to talk about the character of faithful people, in five messages:

October 2: Thankful

Psalms 138 and 136 tell stories of God’s goodness and faithfulness, and like many of the Psalms, they do something we’re not all good at doing: they praise God! The beginning of praise is recognizing what God has done that is good and life-bringing, as Paul points out in 1 Thessalonians 1:3-4.

October 9: Generous

Here we are in the most powerful nation, with food always available on the supermarket shelves, and yet we all, to some degree or another, are hoarders, in fear that tomorrow will not provide our daily bread. Is it an irrational fear that stifles our generosity with our time, our money, our love? Or something deeper? Philippians 4:10-20, 2 Corinthians 9:5-12.

October 16: Committed

Colossians 2:6-12 tells us to live in Christ the same we received him–which was with open hearts and a willingness to go all in, serving the God who loves us. Ephesians 2:17-22 describes us as a temple, dedicated and standing firm for God. How are you doing according to these measures?

October 23: Sacrificial

Often it seems as though being a Christian should fit into a couple of hours on Sunday morning. That’s not the biblical picture at all! What have you given up for Christ lately? Galatians 6:14-18; 2 Corinthians 12:8-10; 4:7-11.

October 30: Joyful

Need more joy? Giving is one of the best ways to find joy, in the connections that we make, stretching our lives into others. Romans 15:5-13 is a reminder that a joy-filled life is founded on giving.

October 30th will also be our “Pledge Sunday.” We’ll have a celebration for the day, for all that God does for us. You’ll be receiving a separate letter about that.

September

It’s the month of buckling down. Noses to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel, hands to the plow, and all that. That passing madness that was summer will fade from memory in a blur of homework, late lawn-mowing, early raking, and all sorts of responsible things. It’s also a time of new beginnings: not only does school start, but September 16th is the most common birthday in America.

If summer is a time when we get outside and feel the presence of God on a lake or a trail, then fall is the time for seeing how to bring that experience into our ordinary lives. How can we import wonder into our everyday world? How can we bring spiritual refreshment into the stale routine? Clearly lots of spiritual self-help writers have had their own noses to the grindstone, for there are plenty of books out there on everyday spiritual practices.

New practices are great, but I want to caution you against simply adding spiritual practices to your daily to-do list. You need to make room for it first, which probably means letting something else go. And since you are a hands-to-the-plow sort of person, you have a hard time doing that. In fact, you’re so busy that we’re not sure where you found the time to read this far!

So for all you September people, with your shoulders hard against the wheel, the first spiritual discipline I want to suggest is this: quit something. Believe it or not, someone else can handle it. Discover that you are not indispensable. And the second discipline is this: don’t fill up that tiny space in your life with something else–not TV, not games, not socializing: nothing. And then slow down just a bit. Now, if you still need to create time for the important things (prayer, exercise, eating right, for instance), go crazy and quit something else. Don’t feel bad about it. You can tell your friends that this is a spiritual discipline. They’ll get jealous, and wonder where you got the time for something they desperately want. Time with God.

Jeremy

Fasting together

This suggestion was given to me just before the potluck yesterday. Some folks have impeccable timing! Here’s the suggestion: the church should fast together. For those of you not up on your church words, fasting is not eating, on purpose, and for a reason. It is something hardly to be mentioned when we’re not ten yards from the dessert table, and when the pulled pork is ten yards the other direction! What a moment for recognizing the truth, though. We are truly surrounded by food, and our minds revolve around food all the time.

Meanwhile…

  • “Some 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. That’s about one in nine people on earth. The vast majority of the world’s hungry people live in developing countries, where 12.9 percent of the population is undernourished.” (UN World Food Programme)
  • And meanwhile 48.1 million Americans are “food-insecure,” (feedingamerica.org) including too many here in Albion.
  • And meanwhile, our souls are flabby, in need of spiritual exercise. We are spiritually starving even when we are presented with weekly spiritual food, when prayer is always a thought away, when study and meditation are free of charge to anyone. We follow after an incredible tradition of spiritual discipline, from Moses to Ezekiel to Jesus, to Perpetua, Ambrose, Benedict, Francis, Teresa of Avila, Hadewijch, John Wesley, Anna Howard Shaw, and on and on.

We are quick, perhaps too quick, to say that fasting is not for everyone. I am clearly a poor practitioner. But some people should not fast: pregnant women, the infirm, those whose blood pressure or sugar are too low to be safe, or who are suffering with disease that threatens their well-being.

I am doing what the prophet Joel recommended: “Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD.”

Fasting is a focal time to cry out to the Lord, and to join our spirits together more profoundly in prayer. We need to run together, and not give ourselves excuses. This fast is not for the benefit of First United Methodist Church: it is for the benefit of God, who receives all the glory. This fast is not only for people of First United Methodist Church: it is for all who hear the call to give ourselves completely to God, to listen and respond.

The tricky thing about beginning a spiritual exercise is a lot like physical exercise: the more we do it, the more positive we get about doing it. What started off seeming like a hard challenge becomes merely our beginning point. When we know that we have come closer to God’s will; when we notice that we have reached a spiritual turning point in our community and our church. I believe that we can begin our spiritual exercise of fasting with two days at a time, every week, fasting until 6 p.m. Some of you will be ready for whole days immediately. We can work our way to wherever God calls us.

I hope you will tell me how it’s going. Report in on your spiritual exercise regimen, and let’s talk about what the Lord is showing us day by day. Let us be a spiritual church!

Food

IMG_1165There’s just something about food, that brings us together. Food never stops being part of our church life.

Women United had another cooking class Monday night, and it always manages to do far more than just teach nutrition and kitchen skills. When people are side by side in the kitchen, a special kind of community happens. Nobody gets left out, and there’s something everyone can do. And then we sit down and eat together.

Bruce Chilton proposed that the really distinctive thing about Jesus’ ministry was that he would eat with people in their homes. He took the chance of a meal to give a special blessing. Gathered together, they discovered the community harmony that makes God smile. To the little man up the tree, Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, I’m eating at your house today!” It turned into a life-changing time for Zacchaeus, and Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to this house!” He told stories about wedding feasts and dinners where everyone is invited. His first recorded miracle was to keep the party going when the wine ran out! Repeatedly he feeds large crowds of people, and he also gathers with his disciples around food: in the upper room for a Last Supper, on the shore of the lake for grilled fish, and in the homes of those who invited him in. Clearly, Jesus just loved to have people get together and eat! Why else would our most frequent sacrament be to reenact a meal?

Maybe that’s a lot of freight to put on a potluck, but there it is. We’re having one about every month, and Sunday lunchtime is our next one. We usually start a little before noon, because we’re out of worship around 11:20. Show up and feel the joy of getting together. Make God smile.

Move-in weekend

The traffic light is back on across from Wesley Hall. The parking lots are full again. As soon as their rooms are put together, students will be crossing Hannah Street to Baldwin, running in packs past the park, and, of course, desperately trying to find the right group of friends, to last four years. And classes, of course.

We get a pretty good view of this from the church. We’re practically across the street from Wesley, in the great big brick building attached to the college’s own Goodrich Chapel.

Like you, we’d like to make some new friends among all the new folks coming to town this weekend! It’s really not just that we want you to come and worship with us at 10 a.m. on Sundays, though that’d be great. It’s really that we want to be there for you, as you make some big steps in your life. We’ve got people who’ve been there, who’ve seen other students come and go over the years, who know a lot of what you’re going through. We’ve got open-minded people who welcome everyone, who’ll take you out to lunch, who’ll take the time to talk, to be friends and extra family for you. We have acoustic worship, thoughtful discussions, Bible studies, and potlucks (there’s one coming up next Sunday, the 28th, after worship).

You might have left your home town behind for the semester, but this is our home town, and we want to welcome you.

Taking sides?

Oh yeah, everyone’s doing it! Politics is in its full swing for the next eighty days, and we skid toward the end of another presidential election. You’ve probably heard pundits analyzing every play, counting the insults and tactics. What details you’ve heard depends, of course, on where you get your news.

The advantage of politics, like sports, is that now and then we get to call a winner. That event gives everyone a chance to go back in their locker rooms for a day, and wonder what to do differently next time. But most of us will still be on the same sides after the game is over. Most of us had already decided what side we were on before the candidates lined up, before the primaries. Most of us have been on our various sides for a long time. The reason is not that we are persistently foolish. It is that we believe our values matter, and most of our values were established sometime in high school or earlier. And our values differ.

It would be interesting to see how we would vote if we could simply choose between abstract values, instead of dealing with messy personality and stories. How would you choose between education and national security? Between jobs and the environment? This particular election, like the last few, have asked us to choose between two different views of America: it’s getting better, or it’s getting worse. The past was better, or the future is better. Diversity is a path to peace, or a path to destruction. We need to be tough, or we need to be prudent. These differences are profound, reaching into our deep experience and personality. We can’t possibly make rational decisions about such sweeping choices, because our souls resonate with one or the other, and that’s all there is to it.

Starting this week, we start a new series of messages about arguments–six profound, soul-stirring arguments that got to the heart of people long ago, and still haven’t left us alone. We’ll be kicking back into our sermon discussion time following worship, in the conference room. We’ll be taking sides, and identifying where our souls come down among so many choices. Come for the conversation!

Jeremy

Assumptions

There is a small extremist minority group within Islam, called the Wahabi, that is condemned by the vast majority of Muslims. I want to tell you a little story about them, because it can tell us something about Christians in the world.

Recently I watched a YouTube video from England. A British woman was checking out a protest by a group of Wahabi (very conservative) Muslims, working at engaging them in conversation, and trying to understand what they were about. As in America, there had been a couple of episodes of police conflict with Muslims, and the community was understandably upset.

As she engaged a few people in conversation, this woman was shocked to hear things said directly to her by the people with whom she struck up conversations. A fully veiled woman asked what man she was trying to seduce, since she was dressed in a red dress with no head-covering. She was told, “You look naked to me.” She heard the crowd chanting, “Police go to hell!” and asking about it, she was told that British law is wrong, and the only right thing would be for the country to follow Sharia law. She also was told repeatedly, and by a cleric, that everyone besides true believers were going to hell.

The woman who was asking questions was entirely taken aback by these messages. She couldn’t understand how anyone could think that their own way of thinking was the only possible right way. She couldn’t understand a mindset that no place for tolerance, acceptance, or respect for one another’s beliefs.

Please understand: this is a minority group among Muslims, condemned by most Muslims. The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful, tolerant, and respectful of the societies in which they live. Wahhabism is the official religious approach in Saudi Arabia.

I was also recently reminded that people who are not Christian have perceptions of us that are not entirely different from this woman’s perceptions of Wahhabis. They are offended that Christians claim to know something about God. Even to talk about God in very general terms seems offensive. And to assume that our culture is Christian is an insult. Why do people feel this way? How can I express greater tolerance, and how can I soften the hurt that Christians have perpetrated over the years?

The first step might be to acknowledge where Christians have gone wrong. There are some Christians who are a lot like the Wahhabis. They claim to have absolute answers to almost every question, they condemn everyone who disagrees with them–sometimes with soft earnest voices, and sometimes with loud hateful protests. They have tried to take political power and overturn the separation of church and state. And they believe that the rest of us are going to hell. I have spent plenty of years trying to counter the negative stereotype of Christians that comes from these extremists.

But it is not only the extremists who give Christians a bad name. We do it ourselves when we blithely assume that everyone else does, or should, think the way I do. We weaken the reputation of Christians when we paper over the problems of society and community with vague prayers and platitudes, and then don’t do anything about mending the hurts of the world. We turn people against God when we take the disagreements between Christians, and make them into gossip and public whining.

I am proud and pleased to serve a congregation that is trying to do better all the time. It is our constant task to spread so much love and service, that the worst people can say of us is that we are too kind, and foolishly generous for Christ.

Worship through August and September

 

Hospitality

Beginning July 31, we start preparing ourselves to welcome back college students and others, with a three-week series on Hospitality.

 

July 31: Prepare (Mark 6:30-44)

Jesus put his followers on the spot when he told them to get dinner for a crowd of thousands. They had the usual complaints: we’re not prepared; we can’t afford it; can’t they just go home? Churches use the same sorts of complaints when people arrive looking for either spiritual or physical sustenance. But if we’re not prepared, maybe we should change that, and change the whole conversation with Jesus.

August 7: Welcome (Matthew 25:31-40)

Jesus paints a picture of a final judgment, and in the middle of the story is perhaps the most difficult demand: welcome the stranger. This is harder than we think precisely because we have a hard time putting ourselves in the head and heart of a person who’s not just like us. The demand to welcome is a requirement to stretch our imagination. Ready?

August 14: Walking Together (Luke 14:12-24)

OK, so you’re pretty good and walking up to a stranger and making conversation–maybe. Well, how are you at inviting that person into a longer faith relationship? Where are people going to find the invitation to walk in a shared path of discipleship, if not from you? Are you ready to change a life, and be changed in the process?

 

Arguments in the Bible

The Bible is not simply a group of texts that share the same truths and points of view. The Bible is intentionally a collection of disagreements and arguments about the very foundations of faith, life, and community. Beginning August 21, Jeremy begins a six-week series on some of the most profound arguments that the Bible has handed on to us. We’re invited to join the conversation–and maybe take sides!

August 21: North and South

From Jacob (Genesis 35:1-10) to Jesus and the Samaritans (John 4:9-11, 21-24), the history of people in Palestine was divided between two group of people, who were usually two nations, and sometimes despised each other. The roots of the story (2 Kings 17:4-6; 17-24) shape a thousand sensitivities and perceptions over the years, including our own.

August 28:Prophet and Priest

This one never goes away: it’s the struggle between maintaining order and purity (a priest’s job) and crying for justice (a prophet’s job). Readings from Amos 4 and 5, Isaiah 56:10-12, Jeremiah 7 and 26. Is there a way to keep these two things in tension?

September 4: Purity and Power

When it came time to restore the Temple and Jerusalem, the question was whether we should start including everyone in worship, or only some people. As usual, it depends who you ask, and what their motives are. Readings from Ezra 10, Nehemiah 10, and Jesus’ hard saying about religious teachers in Matthew 23:28.

September 11: Jew and Greek

Right at the beginning, Christians were arguing about who can be included, and what they have to do to fit in. Breaking down boundaries is the story of Acts. But can’t these Christians get along? Acts 7:51-53; 13:44-52.

September 18: Law and Grace

The other great big early Christian argument was this one: how do I get to heaven? Is it what I do, or what I believe? Oh, and is heaven the big goal? Readings from James 1:22-27, Mark 10:17-27, and John 3:14-18.

September 25: Knowledge and Wisdom

Jesus had a lot to say about wisdom, and he wasn’t the only one. Some people think of Jesus mostly as a teacher of wisdom, but others say that we are supposed to be innocent and foolish. How does this work exactly? Readings from Luke 11-12, Philippians 3, Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 1-2.

 

Hospitality time

August is an important month in the life of our church. We expect to welcome another huge crowd for vacation Bible School on August 8-11. Throughout the month, we welcome back our friends who have spent their summer traveling. All the school programs start to ramp up, with sports and band camps. First-year college students move in on the 19th, followed the next two days by everyone else, and classes start on Monday, the 22nd. So we might see a student or two on the 21st for worship, and a few more on the 28th (except those who make a trip home for all the things they forgot).

All of these August happenings are hospitality opportunities for the church, which probably explains why I’m preaching specifically about hospitality on July 31, and August 7 and 14. I want to make sure we’re ready.

The rest of this message was originally written for folks who are already “church people.” So if you’re just checking us out at the moment, I hope you’ll understand… and maybe you’ll think about becoming one of those crazy church people sometime!

Preaching is all good and well, but sooner or later we have to do a few things! We’re going to start by practicing on college students, and then hopefully grow this to include anyone who comes to the church for the first time. So, here are the things for which I need volunteers between now and then:

  • Make a strong commitment to befriend one college student. This means:
    1. providing them a Sunday lunch, perhaps at your home, at least once a month while they’re here at school.
    2. knowing their name, and using it, and inviting (not obliging) them to sit with you.
    3. knowing their birthday, and what’s important to them.
    4. contacting them if they’re not at church, saying you missed them (but not guilting them!)
    5. For everyone’s wellbeing, make sure you’re not alone with a student at home or in your car. Invite someone else as well!
  • Keep those monthly potlucks coming! Encourage students and all our guests to invite friends on days with potlucks!
  • As we did last year, I hope that the college will share with us a list of students to whom we can send a welcome card. So we’ll need writers!

As Lois Fennimore has done a good job of telling us: hospitality is everyone’s job! One of the things we’ll talk about this month is the skill of having a better conversation with someone you’re meeting for the first time. That’s not an easy thing to do, and it doesn’t come naturally to me, even after twenty-one years as a pastor! But it’s good for God and for the community if we can work on it a bit.

God bless you!

Jeremy

Community Vacation Bible School

cave-quest-vbs-logo

August 8-11, 5:30-8 p.m. each day.

At First United Methodist Church.

A shared ministry of First UMC, Lewis Chapel AME Church, and several other congregations.

We’ll be following the Cave Quest VBS plan this year, and as always, kids begin the evening with a meal. VBS is always free, and tons of fun.

If you’re interested in helping, please stay tuned for an organizational meeting coming soon. We’re sorry for the short notice on dates: summer has a lot of unexpected responsibilities and activities to work around for everyone involved. But we still hope to beat last year’s record for attendance, with a total number over 200! We have service as well as learning opportunities for every age, from 4 to senior citizens.

Please be there. It’ll be awesome!