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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Look Before You Leap

"Look Before You Leap" a sermon by Dr. Wesley SK Daniel.

July 28, 2013 sermon by Dr. Wesley SK Daniel at West Des Moines United Methodist Church

Monday, July 22, 2013

Why is Prayer Essential

Sermon @ West Des Moines United Methodist Church, July 21, 2013 by Dr. Wesley S. K. Daniel

Sunday, July 14, 2013

That Good Samaritan Story

Luke 10:25-37 as told by Lego people

Listen here:

         So, the Good Samaritan story. This is kind of a tough one to preach because I bet all of you could preach a sermon on it. Sermons about loving your enemy, about caring for those who are hurting, about doing the right thing even when it’s hard or inconvenient. And you’d all be right; the story of the Good Samaritan points us to all those things. They would all be really good sermons, but all sermons you've heard before. So what am I supposed to preach about?
Truthfully we live in a world where this story has lost its impact, where we can hear this story and not be uncomfortable or moved to change. You know when I lived in Chicago I took the train to work every day. And my route to work hit at least 4 beggar hot spots. My train station, the train itself, the stop I got off on and Michigan Ave. where I worked. I probably passed at least 4 or 5 people asking for money every day. And I helped 3 of them. 3 out of probably 300. I had easily rationalized to myself that I couldn't help everyone, so it was better not to really help anyone, I knew that there were organizations designed specifically to help people in their situation and reasoned that they should really just go to those places. And I got jaded, I once bought a man a pair of shoes. He had made flip flops out of cardboard in the winter and his feet were a mess. I saw him a lot because he would sit right outside of WaterTower place, this huge mall and when I took the bus, the stop was right in front. So I bought him a pair of shoes, and socks, don’t forget the socks! I gave them to him and he seemed so pleased and I felt so good. Until the next day I saw him with his cardboard flip flops asking for money again. It’s really easy to walk on by after that, it’s really easy tunnel our vision and just not see it any more. We just don’t see it anymore.
          Although we’re all pretty familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan, it’s not the only story going on in today’s scripture and I think, I pray that this other story will give us new insights into the Good Samaritan.
          The story starts with a lawyer, an expert in the law, asking Jesus a question. One of the main jobs of a lawyer is to ask questions. I know this because  I loved Mock Trial when I was in middle school and high school and one of my favorite parts was cross examination when I got to ask the witness for the other side questions. The great part about it was that I never asked a question I didn't know the answer to. Not once. My main goal was to get the witness to say what I already knew. And God forbid they said something that I didn't expect, because I was ready to prove them wrong. I only asked questions that I knew the answers to, so that I could get the answers that I wanted. And scholars would say that is what this lawyer is doing too based on Jesus’ response. The lawyer asks: “what do I have to do to inherit eternal life” and Jesus turns it around and asks him “what’s written in the law?” I mean, you’re the lawyer, the legal expert, what does it say? And the lawyer does know the answer, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” And he’s right, he knows it, Jesus knows it, but the lawyer doesn't stop there. He knows who God is, but he doesn't have a definition of neighbor. So he asks, “and who is my neighbor?” The lawyer is looking for the legal definition, something he can use as justification at the pearly gates if he has missed helping one of his neighbors now and then. I think ideally he’d like Jesus to really spell it out, Fredrick Buechner suggests something like this:
"A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one's own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever."1
          That would be really helpful, not just for the lawyer, but for us as well. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, God does not always give us a list of do’s and don’ts, what’s right and what’s wrong. Sure there are lists and there is right and wrong, but over and over again, Jesus challenges what was believed to be absolutely right or wrong in favor of doing what’s right or wrong in God’s eyes. And that very often causes us a lot of discomfort. We’d much rather have a firm definition, just like this lawyer, so that we too could be sure we toe the line and stay on God’s good side. But that’s not what Jesus offers, Jesus offers a story instead. Jesus is inviting the lawyer, inviting us to experience what it’s like to be a neighbor. Jesus refuses to give us a black and white definition of neighbor, but instead calls us to experience it, to feel what it’s like to be a neighbor. And guess what? It doesn’t seem to be all rainbows and unicorns.
          Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, someone who this lawyer probably despised, someone considered to be completely beyond his social, cultural, ethnic group. I would imagine it would be like the Taliban for some, or maybe Anti-Christian groups in Africa. We are not just talking about the guy at work that we don’t get along with, Jesus is picking out someone way more disliked than that. Now if Jesus could have easily made the Samaritan the one who was attacked and showed the lawyer that the Samaritan was his neighbor, that if he were to come across a beaten up Samaritan you should help him out. While that’s true, Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus doesn’t make the Samaritan the victim, he makes him the hero. He makes puts the person or group of people that you despise the most into an example. Not just an example of a good and righteous thing to do, but somehow as the key to eternal life.
          I’m not sure how to convey to you the radicalness of this story. We’ve heard it so many times that I know it’s hard for me to imagine what story Jesus would tell us today in its place. We can imagine the Taliban or any other terrorist organization, we can think of that person at work that we don’t get along with, but somehow for me it still doesn’t quite come across as radical as what Jesus is really saying. I know we were all shocked, scared, confused and angry after the Boston Marathon bombing. We knew people that live there, people who were running the race, we heard the stories of the victims on the news. There was a real righteous anger flowing through our country. And then I started to see on Facebook a call to pray for one of the bombers, the one that was still alive, the one that was in the hospital. And all of a sudden I was pulled so strongly in two directions. I searched my mind for an argument that would allow me to continue to be angry, to comfort myself with the knowledge that one day he too would face God. I reasoned that God would want us to be angry, to speak out against violence against his children, to stand up to those trying to make us live in fear. God does not want us to live in fear! I thought that sounded pretty good, and you know, I still believe it, but God is not a God of one emotion, of one way, of one response. God is a God of possibilities, of black and white and shades of gray; our God is a God of justice, but our God is also a God of mercy and love. And I can’t deny God’s call for us to love and pray for our enemies and I couldn’t deny the fact I believe that that person who had committed such a horrible, horrible act, is a child of God. And it almost makes me sick, I have a physical reaction to that reality and what that means to a follower of Jesus.
And I wonder if it was like that for the lawyer. I wonder if he walked away with a lump in his throat or a sinking feeling in his stomach. Because it was that radical.
          Now I can pray for the Boston Bomber, the Taliban, people I don’t get along with, I can include them as my neighbors if they’re ever dying of the side of the road. I will call 911. But I have a sneaky suspicion that while we should absolutely include these persons in our definition of neighbor and treat them as such, that’s not all of what Jesus was really trying to show the lawyer and it’s not really what he’s trying to show us. What Jesus did by telling this story, what Jesus did by making the hated the hero, is not an attempt to help us define neighbor, but to help us to see our neighbor. It’s about seeing. The priest and the Levite saw the man as a burden, an inconvenience, a hassle, a waste of time. The Samaritan saw him as a neighbor. When we look at people, how do we see them? You can call everyone and their mom your neighbor, but when you look at them, do you SEE them as your neighbor?  Can you think of the person, the type of person that you would pass by? Someone who is a burden, an inconvenience, a waste of time? Someone that you believe deserves to be where they are. Whether that’s in a homeless shelter or in rehab or on the street or in prison. How can we begin to see those people as our neighbor? How can we possibly change the way we see the world?
          Some of you may be familiar with a man named Shane Claiborne. Shane lives in Philadelphia and at one point there was a lot of anti-homeless legislation and he reportedly prayed about what he should do about it. What is a follower of Jesus to do in this situation? I want to share with you a little bit of his story today as told to Fredo Villasenor.2
Shane and his friends prayed for inspiration on how to deal with the problem of the anti-homelessness legislation. They were inspired by Luke 14, where Jesus teaches how to throw a party: by inviting those that are not invited to anyone else’s party.
They invited their homeless friends to Philadelphia’s LOVE Park, one of the places where there was a no-feeding and no-sleeping ordinance in place. They held a worship service, complete with the serving of communion bread. They ended by sleeping in the park together, about 100 people total.
Shane said, “We did that night after night for lots of weeks and then, one night at about midnight when all of us were falling asleep, the police were ordered to come in and to arrest us.They swarmed in from all sides and they handcuffed us and took us to jail and we were charged for disorderly conduct. For sleeping.”
The group of activists fought the charges in court. Believing that the Holy Spirit would give them the words to defend themselves, they chose a homeless man with no background in law to represent them. And although his defense was as simple as standing up and saying to the judge, “Your honor, on behalf of the group,  I’d like to say we believe these laws are evil and wrong,” they won.
“The judge ended up saying, ‘You know, what’s in question is not whether or not these folks broke the law; what’s in question is the constitutionality and the rightness of the laws that we are passing in this city,’And he said, ‘If it weren’t for people who broke the unjust laws, we wouldn’t have the freedom that we have.’
The judge said that they were freedom fighters, not criminals; and he found them all not guilty on all charges.
Just this past year, Philadelphia again passed an anti-feeding ordinance. Claiborne and his co-activists challenged it by hosting public picnics. They brought a Catholic theologian to court to argue that feeding the poor is a sacrament.
He said, “We believe that we are feeding Jesus, and it is a violation of religious freedom to say, ‘You cannot do one of the most fundamental acts of human compassion, to feed someone who’s hungry,’
In one instance, their lawyer said, “We are not willing to come before God, and when God says, ‘Did you feed me?’ we’re not going to say, ‘Sorry, our mayor wouldn’t let us.’
The no-feeding ordinance has since been declared a violation of religious freedom by a federal judge.

He saw these people as his neighbor, really saw them as his neighbor and treated them as such. I think more than the rules about who is and isn’t our neighbor and how far we ought to go in serving them, what the scripture for today shows us, is how to look for, how to truly see everyone as our neighbors. Admittedly, it’s not easy, but God never promised us that. Friends God does promise to be with us through it, to work in our hearts and minds through the Holy Spirit to help us to see, help us to love and help us to serve. We have to open ourselves up to the ways God wants to change our hearts and minds. It might not be changes that you want to make, it might involve some pretty radical stuff, but we can trust that it’s for our good and it’s for the good of God’s creation and God’s kingdodm. I pray that you think about how you see others this week, who you consider your neighbor. I pray that God will open your eyes and help you to see better. And I know that God will continue to empower you not just to love your neighbor as yourself, but to really see them. Amen.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Stubbornness and Healing

2 Kings 5:1-14 NRSV
The Healing of Naaman
5 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.[a] 2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”[b] 4 So Naaman[c] went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 5 And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 6 He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”[d] 7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?[e] Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”
8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy![f] 12 Are not Abana[g] and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Listen here:

I want to share a picture with you this morning. Take a good look. I realize that the black eye might be the first thing you notice, but do not miss the creative hair cutting on the bangs. Believe it or not, this is me a few years ago and I was known to be a bit of a stubborn child. Actually a lot stubborn and I think my family tried to put it in a positive light by calling it “strong-willed.” And it often landed me in situations like this one. I’m sure none of you can imagine that and I’m even more sure none of you have had experiences with people like that. When I think about it now I bet there were hundreds of times that my parents, or relatives, or teachers or bosses or husband said to themselves, “Why is she making this so difficult?” “Why won’t she just listen and do what I tell her?” “Why is she being so stubborn?”
Well in the scripture for today we encounter a guy that I would consider pretty stubborn, Naaman. We learn early on that Naaman is a military leader of sorts; he’s a mighty warrior, he’s well respected not only by those he commands, but by the king as well. He has physical strength, political favor and military success, he is in a great position. Except for one thing. He has leprosy. He is a leper. The original language this was written in, the Hebrew, puts it this way “And the man was a great man – leprosy” And leprosy wasn’t just a physical problem at this time, it creates a social problem for him as well. He is unclean, potentially shunned from his community, he wears this defect on his skin wherever he goes. This is a big problem than can affect all of the other things he has going for him. He’s in a tough position.
This situation isn’t all that uncommon today. You’ve heard the saying that cancer or any other illness doesn’t discriminate. I bet we can all think of examples of powerful people, privileged people, people who have resources and clout but become the victim of a terrible illness, or a terrible accident or an unexpected life change. And they’re powerless, all of the things they’ve done to maintain a certain life none of it can’t save them, none of those things can’t fix it. Like Naaman no matter how much power, wealth, prestige they seem to have, they become powerless.
So in Naaman’s story all of a sudden we have this servant girl, who’s not just any servant, she is actually an enslaved captive of a military raid done by Naaman’s army. So he and his army had essentially kidnapped this little girl and brought her back to be a slave, to serve his wife. But this girl, this slave potentially has the answer, she knows how to get him out of this bind. She tells her mistress, Naaman’s wife that if he just goes to Samaria, there’s a prophet there that will heal him. And the tables are really turned here, Naaman who is powerful in almost all aspects of his life is powerless to heal himself from this illness. And this little slave girl who is essentially powerless is all aspects of her life, holds the key to his healing. I doubt that Naaman would have ever looked to that little girl or asked for her opinion about how he might be healed; I imagine he was actually pretty desperate to be taking her advice in the first place. I think about how often we only look to certain sources for information or guidance; we always want the expert opinion, the best in the field. But here we see that God chose this little, seemingly powerless girl to bring hope and healing.
So to Naaman’s credit, he listens. Maybe he’s desperate to try anything, maybe he had heard of a prophet in Samaria too, but either way he listens, he jumps at a chance for healing. Now the king also has an interest in getting one of his greatest military leaders healed as well so he sends Naaman off with gifts and letter to the king of Israel. Hopefully a nice letter and some bribes will help the king of Israel forget that this king and this warrior had ransacked their country not too long ago. So Naaman sets off in royal style to Israel.
So he gets there, gives the letter to the king, he reads the letter, rips his clothes and says “Am I God? to give death or life?” Now the king’s reaction seems a little odd to me. I mean it’s a little melodramatic doesn’t it. No need to tear your clothes buddy, just a little friendly request. But this letter potentially sets the king up for failure, the king thinks that Naaman’s king is try to give him an impossible task so he can fail at it and beat him up again. It seems like another dead end to Naaman, he traveled all the way to Israel desperate for some help and the king does not seem to be in a position to help him. But that’s not what happens.
What happens is Elisha enters the picture. Elisha is an important prophet in the Old Testament, he is a connection between the people of Israel and their God. Now I imagine that during this next part of the story Elisha is just working away on prophet stuff in his house, barely looks up and says dryly, “Tell the king this: ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel’” and then goes right back to his work. So somehow this gets back to Naaman and he heads over to Elisha’s place, finally about to get his healing, finally done with this nightmare. He arrives with his chariots and horse all the pomp and circumstance. And do you remember what Elisha does? He sends his servant out to talk to him. He doesn’t come out himself, I imagine he’s busy with prophet stuff, he doesn’t even send out a prophet in training, he sends out a servant to talk to the great and mighty Naaman. And he tells him that it’s real simple, just head on down to the Jordan River, wash yourself seven times and you’ll be healed. Have a nice day.
Sounds great, super easy, he’ll even get to go home with a bath, right? Wrong. Naaman is mad, really mad, the Bible says he went away in a rage, a rage. But why? He had the chance for healing, the chance to get what he came for. Elisha didn’t ask for something unreasonable, for money, or power or a diplomatic truce. Why won’t he do what Elisha tells him? Why won’t he make this easy on himself? Why is Naaman being so stubborn? Healing is right in front of him, it’s so close. It reminds me of horror movies which I generally don’t watch, but there always seems to be a scene where you want to scream “don’t go into the basement! Don’t open that door! Turn around and run!”  But they never do. And it makes me frustrated with Naaman, I would just tell him that if he can’t follow directions then he doesn’t deserve healing, he doesn’t deserve to get better, serves him right to wallow in his leprosy.
Now you see the Bible tells us that Naaman was mad because Elisha didn’t do what he expected. He didn’t conform to his expectations for healing. Naaman thought that he deserved a big ceremony, some laying on of hands, some holy words, maybe a big flash of lightening to cure him of this disease. But that’s not what he gets, he gets a servant telling him to take a bath, no 7 baths. How dare he! Who does he think he is sending that servant out here? Doesn’t he know who I am? Doesn’t God know who God’s about to heal! Forget this, I’m going to go back to my country, wash myself in our rivers, I don’t need this.
Does that sound familiar or am I the only one that is that stubborn? It’s kind of painful right. It might even sound a little childish. Luckily Naaman is not hopeless because once again the powerless come to bring the powerful to healing. Naaman’s servants level with him: “Look if he had told you to do some elaborate thing, you would have done. So why is it so hard for you to do this easy thing and be healed? What’s the hold up? Why are you being so stubborn?”
I think we know what the holdup is, don’t we? It’s us. It’s our expectations, it’s our preconceived ideas about how and when God should do God’s job. If it doesn’t fit into our ideas, our limited possibilities for healing and wholeness then we’re not taking it. Get back to us God when you’re ready to do things our way, we’ll just sit her a little longer in our own filth. Jesus asks a man in John 5, “do you want to be healed?” Do we want to be healed? Of course! Do we want to be healed however God will heal us? Ummmm maybe not. Naaman experienced healing from unexpected sources, through the slave girl, through his servants, through the river in a land that he terrorized and ultimately through a God who called him to let go. A God that calls us to let go, to be open to wisdom and healing from unexpected place, from the powerless, but a God that always makes a way.
So do you want to know how I got that black eye? I will admit first that I had a self-hair-cutting problem as a child, but I am allowed to have scissors again. But really, my stubbornness got me that black eye. We were pretty much forbidden from going into my grandma’s attic, it was just a storage space with just beams on the floor. Which made it all the more awesome in my tiny mind, so one day my cousin and I decided we were going to explore the attic. I was determined, stubbornly clinging to the idea that there was something magical that I was missing up there and no one could tell me different. So we got up there, it was dark and hot, but there was a light coming from a little window with the exhaust fan in it. And this is where the horror movie reaction should kick it. No, don’t do it, stay away from the fan, turn around and run! And of course I did nothing of the sort. Instead I stuck my face in that fan and got quite the black eye.

We do this you realize? We stick our faces in the fan when we know it’s going to hurt. We deny ourselves the possibility of healing because we’re concerned about how it’ll look to other people, or what it’ll do to our social standing or who we’ll have to apologize to or how we’ll have to change the cozy little life we’ve built for ourselves. Do you want to be healed? Do you really want to be healed? The good news is that God is prepared to heal us, heal us from physical, emotional, relational, spiritual, environmental illness in our lives. And the even better news is that most of the time, most of the time, it doesn’t take the shape or form of what our little minds can imagine. So what healing are you looking for? What have you been asking God to change in your life? Today I want to challenge you to listen to the story of Naaman, and listen to what we would say to him: Why are you making this so hard on yourself? Why are you being so stubborn? Healing is right around corner, it’s so close. God is ready willing and able to heal you, you just have to do it God’s way. It may not look like you expected, and it may not be what you would have planned, but you can be healed, you can. You just have to let go, be open to the possibilities and let God do God’s thing. These are not just words for Naaman, these are words for us today. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Pastor Jen Hibben 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Pastoral Letter to West Des Moines United Methodist Church

July 2, 2013

Dear Church Family,

Like many of you, I was deeply saddened to hear the news of nineteen courageous fire fighters who tragically lost their lives attempting to fight raging wild fires in the state of Arizona this week. As the area was evacuated and hundreds moved away from the fire, these brave servants went to the fire in hopes of saving homes,
wildlife, and people.

I am writing today to call our church family to be in deep prayer for the families who lost their loved ones through this event that has caused so much destruction and suffering. My heart breaks for these families. Please pray that God will heal their hearts, in his time.

I was reminded of couple of Scripture passages found in the book of Isaiah, Chapter 43 and in the book of Daniel, respectively: "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze." Although this Scripture passage speaks about the eternal protection and safety of our souls in God's loving arms, it gave me moments of pause and reminded me of the fragile nature of our lives and how fleeting are the days of our lives on this earth. We are reminded in the book of Daniel, we are to place our trust in God's goodness, mercy and eternal faithfulness, which endures forever, regardless of tragic of circumstances in life.  Our faith is often tested by fire (figuratively and sometimes even literally).

Beth Moore in one of her studies says, when God’s people face fiery trials there are three ways to handle it: 1) We can delivered from the fire and our faith is built; 2) We can be delivered through fire and our faith is refined; and/or 3) We can be delivered by fire straight into God’s arms and our faith is perfected!

May God give us the grace to live our lives as those who are ready to die, and when our lives here on this earth are done, may we go forth to live eternally with God, as those who have courageously gone before us.

Please join me in prayer for the families of the fallen heroes. If you are led to give monetary donations you may consider giving to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), C/O. Yarnell Hill Fallen Fire Fighters Fund, P O Box Drawer 498, Emmitsburg, MD 21727. This is a non-profit organization that offers programs to honor U.S. fallen fire fighters and assist their families and co-workers. You may also give directly to our church with this special designation and we will make sure your gifts are sent to the families.

Have a safe and blessed holiday weekend.

Lead Pastor

West Des Moines United Methodist Church