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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

When the King Comes, God is With Us

Good morning. So 10 days until Christmas! Who’s excited? I know that realization might inspire a variety of reactions this morning. I'm going to guess that for all of the kids that is awesome news. I'm going to guess for some of the rest of you it’s a mix of excitement and anticipation, seeing friends and family, celebrating traditions; and dread. Maybe it's because like me, you still have presents to get, or because this is the first Christmas without a loved one, or because you're not sure what Christmas will look like this year, or because you know what Christmas will look like this year and it's not good. I think that mix of emotions, that mix of reactions is a pretty good representation of what Advent is like. Excited anticipation mixed with a little worry, fear and uncertainty.
Today we're continuing this sermon series on what happens when the king comes. We've talked about when the king come there's light and peace and today we're going to talk about how when the king comes, God is with us, Immanuel. We've been reading from Isaiah these past weeks, and as we know Isaiah was a prophet who was telling God's people what God had to say. We've talked about what Isaiah said about the king that was to come and the vision of how things would be when the king came. And today's text talks about a sign that will show that the king is coming. 
This week understanding the background of what was going on with the characters in the text is really important. We’ve talked about the not-so-good situation that the Israelites were in, but Isaiah's prophecy about this king to come happens while there is a war threatening the kingdom of Judah. The king at that time was King Ahaz, and he is trying to figure out what he should do to save his kingdom. They are not a military powerhouse, they don't have strong allies, they don’t have favors to call in, the odds are against them and Ahaz is worried that they're going to be completely wiped out if they don't get this right. He's getting pressure to join alliances, but he realizes that he and his country will basically be a pawn. There really isn't a clear solution, just a sense of impending doom. So in today's text King Ahaz talking to Isaiah and Isaiah tells him not to worry or fear, easier said than done right? So then Isaiah tells him that he's supposed to ask God for a sign. Now Ahaz tells Isaiah that he doesn't want to test God, honestly it probably seems like a trap since testing God was not something that you were supposed to do. But Ahaz isn't really that pious, he's actually scared of what God might tell him or what the sign might be. I imagine that his situation must have been so overwhelming that he was pretty much paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. There didn't seem to be any good way out of the situation so asking God for a sign might just be more than he could handle at that point. So Isaiah figures this out and tells him "fine, you won't ask God for a sign? God's going to give you a sign anyway, whether you like it or not." And here's the sign: a young woman will have a baby and name him Immanuel and this child will be the sign that things will get better for the Israelites. Probably not what Ahaz was expecting, and you know what, it doesn't really help his situation at that point!
I wonder what we do and what we should do when we're faced with overwhelming situations in our lives. I've thought a lot this week about what we do when things aren't going well in our lives. This past week we've experienced an unexpected death in our congregation, mourned the death of Nelson Mandela, suffered another school shooting while remembered the anniversary of the Newtown shootings, and all that on top of the anticipation, excitement, stress and anxiety of the holidays and everything else going on in our lives. I don't know what else you have going on in your life, but this can be a pretty overwhelming time.  
I imagine that's a little bit what like King Ahaz felt, just plain overwhelmed, so weighed down by the circumstances in our lives that we can't imagine what to do next. One morning this week I was watching the news and I saw a segment about the Newtown shootings and they had the father of one of the little girls who was killed write a letter to himself. 

 I imagine that none of us would know how we could make it through such a tragedy, until we have to go through it. I can only imagine that it's probably the most overwhelming thing in a person’s life, and I imagine that we would all be asking some of these same questions.
Sometimes these situations, whether they are a death, a betrayal, abuse or tragedy, are so overwhelming that we are scared to ask God for a sign too, too scared to ask God those questions that we have. We worry that we might be scared and even more overwhelmed by the way God might respond. I tried to list this week all the bad things that can happen in our lives for which we wish we could ask God for a sign or an answer. Everything from disappointment to illness to abuse to war. There's a lot of times where we just want to ask why? Why God? Why would you let this happen? How are we going to make it through this? How we will survive? And as I thought about all those things that happen in our lives, as I thought about all of questions we have for God, all of the times we wish that God would just explain to us what the heck is going on, I began to think more and more about God's sign, God's answer to Ahaz's overwhelming predicament. 
God's sign to Ahaz is a little confusing, a little vague and it probably didn't make immediate sense. How is this baby who's not even born yet going to solve the very real immediate problem that Judah was going through? God doesn't give Ahaz a secret weapon to defeat those who were threatening them. God didn't take away the threat or the tumultuous situation, no David and Goliath this time. God didn't even explain to him how it was all going to work out in the end. God said, I'm giving you Immanuel; I will be with you. The answer to all your questions, the fix for all this is my presence. 
Now we jump ahead to Matthew and see that he interprets this text to make a connection to Jesus. Matthew wrote his gospel specifically to Jews, so they would have been familiar with this text from Isaiah and been able to make this connection too. The writer believed and we do too, that we can better understand Isaiah because we now know who he was talking about and we can see how Jesus fulfilled his prophecy. Now you'll notice Mary didn't name her baby Immanuel, but that doesn’t negate Isaiah’s prophecy, the name Immanuel has a deeper, more profound meaning, especially when we connect it to Jesus. It isn't his given name, or the name he was called or went by, but it is who he is. Because Immanuel, whether you spell it with an I or an E, means God with us. We believe that in the truest sense that Jesus was and is God with us, Immanuel. Now we don't know for sure if Ahaz "got it" or if any of this made sense for him, but God's sign to him is a sign to us too.
I wouldn't doubt that sometimes we wonder, especially during Advent, how this baby who's not even born yet going to solve our very real and immediate problems? How the heck is Jesus going to solve my problems? And the truth, much like in Ahaz's case, is that God is not necessarily going to solve your problems. The answer to your problems is not always going to be clean-cut and easy to swallow. The more funerals I do, the more tragedy and injustice that I witness, the more convinced I am, that I will never have the answers, I will never be able to give families an explanation of why their loved one died, and any attempt at that will never be satisfying. I won't be able to explain why injustice and evil and poverty are allowed to exist and I know now if I try it will never be true or satisfying. I know that we want answers, I know we want to be able to explain and fully understand why life is the way it is, but we can't. We want to be able to navigate the ups and downs and questions and heartaches of life, but the more we try, I think the more unsatisfied we are. God knows that. I think that God knows and God gives us the same answer he gave King Ahaz: Immanuel, God is with us. While all of our attempts at answering the tough questions of life aren't satisfying, God's presence is. While we crave understanding and explanation, a little deeper is the desire to just feel God's presence. God's presence doesn't necessarily solve the problem or take away the hurt or pain or grief, but it somehow satisfies. It brings that peace that passes understanding that we talked about last week, and somehow it's enough.
So what is the thing right now in your life? What are you looking for a sign for? What question have you been trying to answer? And what if God's answer is just Immanuel? That God is with you? My prayer for you all this week is that whether you're going through something right now or not, you will in the future, that through all the questions and doubts that God's presence will be the overwhelming answer, that even though it won't make sense, that God's presence will be enough, will be satisfying your longing. And isn’t that what Advent’s about, isn’t that what we’re waiting for? When the king comes, God is with us. God's response to the way this world is, the pain and heartache and sin is simply God's presence. No quick fixes, no once and for all miracles, no detailed plans for fixing it all, but Immanuel, God with us. Amen. 

Pastor Jen Hibben 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

When the King Comes, There is Peace

So welcome to the second week of Advent. Today you saw that we lit the candle of peace; last week's candle represented hope and this week we focus on thepeace that Christ brings. You know the journey of Advent is meant to be a time for us to anticipate and to wait for the coming of Jesus, to anticipate the changes that he made and continues to make in our lives and in the world. This waiting, of course, is not unique to us. We see in the reading from Isaiah today that the Israelites were waiting too, waiting for a kingdom that was better than the one that they had, waiting for a king that was better and greater than any king they had before. Our waiting in Advent helps connect us to the waiting of the Israelites, the waiting for the Messiah, the waiting for the kingdom of God. Last week Dr. Daniel talked about how when the king comes there is light. He gave us an idea of how life would be different for us when we live in the light of God that’s ushered in by Jesus. We can imagine what it's like to live in darkness, some of us probably know what it feels like, and some of us probably feel like we're living in darkness right now. So we can imagine the need, the deep desire to live in the light, to have the light of God illuminating our lives. 

And today I want to talk about peace; about how the Israelites waited for a king to come, a king who would bring peace and wonder about how we too are waiting for peace in our own lives...

You know we're fortunate to live in a country and a time that is not characterized by war, or foreign occupation, political, social or religiousoppression. Truthfully those things exist here and some experience them more so than others, but we cannot deny that we enjoy lives of comfort and freedom and relative peace especially compared with our brothers and sisters around the world. The people of Israel were not so fortunate in the time of the prophet Isaiah.Although they were God's chosen people they had experienced war, oppression, maltreatment and discrimination and exile. Their situation was pretty bad and they were desperate for change, but they were stuck waiting. And as we see in the scripture for today, Isaiah gives them a vision of what things will be like when change comes, when the King comes. He describes a king that is better than they can imagine. They thought that King David was awesome, but this king is going to be way better than that, the perfect king. And at this point the Israelites are pretty desperate for a good king, a king that will restore them to glory, or at the least justmake things better. I imagine that when Isaiah describes this king, the Israelites areon the edge of their seats with desperationalmost salivating, if you can salivateover something that you're not going to eat. This king Isaiah describes is wise and understanding, strong, righteous, filled with the spirit, fears the Lord, judges with equity and a preference for the poor and oppressed and that destroys evil. Just what they need. But what Isaiah says in the reading for today is that this great kingdoesn't come alone, the king brings with him a kingdom, a kingdom of peace. Where the wolf and the lamb, the calf and the lion and the fatling, the leopard and the kid, babies and dangerous snakes all co-exist without the fear; /where natural enemies rest and play together. /The king does not just bring himself, he brings a kingdom of peace. 

Obviously in Isaiah's time the Israelites didn't know about Jesus per se, they didn't know who this king would be. We as Christians can look back at this scripture and say that there is a clear connection to Jesus and that Jesus is in fact this king and does in fact bring the kingdom of God to earth and with that, peace. Now we talked a few weeks ago about the fact that the kingdom of God is alreadyhere, but not fully here yet, that we still have a ways to go to make the whole world look like the kingdom of God. So much like the Israelites, I wonder what peace looks like for us. Like the stereotypical Miss Americas of the world, we can hope and pray and dream about world peace, but what does that look like? What would it mean for there to be real peace and how does Jesus bring that to our lives? 

I think one way is that the king brings peace to our hearts. I’m convinced that we have to experience God's peace in our own lives in order to understand better what peace really is. Jesus talks about a peace that passes understanding, and I think that if you've experienced God's peace, you know what that means, but you probably can’t describe it either. Those of you who have lost loved ones, butsomehow feel a sense of God's presence and peace; those of you who have lost jobs, but somehow didn't fear the future; those of you who have experienced pain, and hurt and anger, but somehow didn't become bitter, somehow were able to forgive; it doesn’t seem possible, but it is. You all know that peace that passes understanding. This is not a peace that we can manufacture for ourselves, Jesus said it is not peace in the way that the world knows or experiences peace. There are plenty of people who are searching desperately for this kind of peace and look to drugs or alcohol or gambling or sex or food or fill in the blank. They’ll tell you that they don’t find a peace that passes understanding. It’s only when God enters our lives, our space, our hearts and minds, that there's peace; /a peace that’s not dependent on circumstances. And that experience of peace allows us to make it through things we didn't think we could, and that experience of peace inspires us to help others have that experience too, and that experience of peace gives us a glimpse into the kingdom that we can share with the world. When the king comes there is peace in our hearts. 

And when we have God's peace in our hearts, we can have peace in our relationships. When the king comes into our relationships there is peace. You know the holidays can be a really difficult time of year for people who have broken relationships; this is the time of year that a lot of us feel that desperation for peace in our relationships. With parents or siblings, or children, or friends, coworkers andneighbors and especially with God. Those broken relationships, the strain of those broken relationships robs us of peace. One of the main problems for the Israelites was their broken relationship with God. They believed that once they had a new king, the king God had chosen, that there would be peace. But God knew better, God knew that they just didn't need a new ruler, they needed a healed relationship with God. So God sent Godself in the person of Jesus not only to bring peace in the ways they understood peace, but to bring peace to their relationship with God. God sent Godself to fix the relationship. When we talk about the king bringing peace to our relationships, first and foremost that's our relationship with God. But once we have peace in our relationship with God, God can bring that peace to our relationships with others. Part of the peaceful kingdom that Isaiah describes is the change in relationships between natural enemies; wolves and lambs, lions and calves, babies and poisonous snakes. Their relationships, usually ones of predator and prey are made peaceful; fear, violence, intimidation, tension are gone. If you think of those broken relationships in your life, isn't that what you want too?Freedom from the fear and tension, the feelings of hostility and anger? The opposites of peace. When we give God permission to work in our hearts and in our relationships we can have that peace. I'm not saying that relationships will be instantly restored, but I do believe that God will make a way for there to be peace.Because when the king comes, when the king enters our relationships, there is peace. 

And when the king comes there is peace for the world. Like I said, this might seem like a lofty aspiration, a pie in the sky goal, it might seem impossible, but it is part of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of the king we're talking about today, the kingdom that Isaiah describes. I know that it's hard to imagine how we as individuals, as a church, as a community can be a part of world peace, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't be trying. We don't have to start with a country across the world, when we talk about peace on earth, we mean everywhere and that includes West Des Moines, Iowa. What can we do as a church in our community, our state, our country, our continent and in all the world to bring a little more of God's peace? The United Methodist Church has been working tirelessly on a campaign called Imagine No Malaria. The goal is to eradicate the disease by providing mosquito nets, a simple and effective defense against the disease. I try to imagine the fear, the tension, the anxiety that might go with laying down to bed every night and wondering if tonight I’ll get bitten by a Malaria-carrying mosquito. I can’t imagine what that’s like, but I can imagine the relief, the peace that would go with that threat being eliminated. You heard earlier that we’re raising money to help provide adequate housing both here in Des Moines and in El Salvador through Habitat for Humanity. Can you imagine the fear and unrest of not always knowingwhere you’re going to sleep at night? Of wondering if your children will have asafe place to sleep at night? Can you imagine living in a house that at any time could be destroyed by the elements? That’s made of whatever you could find? Now imagine the sheer relief, the sense of peace you would feel to suddenly be given safe, functional, comfortable housing? That’s a huge sense of peace, and those ARE things that we can participate in. I think that we get mixed up easily thinking that world peace only has to do with a lack of military violence. I definitely think that’s part of it, but it’s not all of it and it’s not the only thing we need to be aware of or working on. World peace looks people not having to live in fear, fear of abuse, violence, starvation, oppression, discrimination, deportation and the list goes on. As followers of Jesus, and subjects of this king, citizens of the kingdom of God, we have a role to play in peace. We are to be a part of bringing more and more of the kingdom to earth; and when the king comes there is peace in the world.

I’m not sure where you fit into this today, yesterday and tomorrow might be different too. Do you need peace in your own heart? we probably all do; do we need peace in our relationships? you bet; do we need peace in the world? Without a doubt. God calls us to ALL of these things, not just one, but today my prayer is that God has pointed one out to you, that God has said to you, “you know what that’s like don’t you?” That God has said to you “doesn’t that sound good?” And for all of you who have heard God today, and for those of you who will hear it tomorrow, or the next day or the next, I want you to know this: /The king is coming, / the king is coming and when the king comes, there’s peace,/ there really is peace. Amen.

Pastor Jen Hibben

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

More Blessed to Give


Malachi 3:6-10

Common English Bible (CEB)

I am the Lord, and I do not change;
        and you, children of Jacob, have not perished.
Ever since the time of your ancestors,
        you have deviated from my laws
            and have not kept them.
Return to me and I will return to you,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
But you say,
    “How should we return?”
Should a person deceive God?
        Yet you deceive me.
But you say,
    “How have we deceived you?”
With your tenth-part gifts and offerings.
You are being cursed with a curse,
        and you, the entire nation, are robbing me.
10 Bring the whole tenth-part to the storage house so there might be food in my house.
        Please test me in this,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
See whether I do not open all the windows of the heavens for you
        and empty out a blessing until there is enough.[a]

Some of you know that while we lived in Chicago I worked for the Archdiocese there, which is the Catholic church, and I had a co-worker there whose job included calling a lot of different churches to set up appointments and check on different things. And she told me one day that she had called this particular church, said the standard, “hi, this is Regina, how are you?” And to her surprise the woman on the phone without missing a beat said, “I’m blessed and highly favored how are you?”  She really wasn’t sure what the right response to that was so she just said, “ummm good, I guess.” She was really taken aback by this woman’s response and had no idea how to respond, we usually don’t think much about it and just “I’m good, how are you?” So this kind of became a little bit of a joke, I’d ask Regina how she was doing and she shoot back “blessed and highly favored.” I told my husband about it and whenever something good happened to us he’d say  “We are blessed and highly favored!” And although most of the time we were joking, there was at times this sense of surprise at the blessing or gift God was giving to us.
          I thought a lot this week about what it means to be blessed and what it meant when Jesus talked about being blessed. I think we use the term blessed a lot, maybe without thinking deeply about what it means. I feel like being blessed is the new way that people say “lucky.” I don’t think it’s a bad thing because it recognizes that whatever the blessing is, wasn’t pure luck, but somehow connected to God. It acknowledges God’s work in our everyday lives and conveys a deeper sense of gratitude for whatever it is. I see on Facebook daily people saying things like “I’m so blessed to have such a wonderful spouse, he or she did XYZ for me.” Or “We’re so blessed to live in a country where we are free.” Or “The barista at Starbucks accidently gave me a venti when I ordered a tall, I’m feeling blessed!” We feel blessed, we say we’re blessed when good things happen to us, when we’re thankful for things or people or circumstances in our lives. When Josh and I moved back here from Chicago, we really believed we were blessed to both have jobs, and even more that those jobs were close to the house that we already owned, and even more that our house was close to our families. All of those circumstances made us realize that it wasn’t our good fortune or hard work that made those things all happen, but that God was orchestrating all of those things together, to bless us. When we say that we’re blessed, I think most of the time we’re giving credit to and responding to God’s unmerited love and care for us. We see the blessing, not as something we’ve earned or deserved but a gift from God. I think this is a good understanding of being blessed and I want you to keep that understanding in your mind as we talk about how Jesus talked about blessings or being blessed.
          The title of today’s sermon comes from the book of Acts where the disciples quote Jesus as saying “It’s better to give than to receive.” For me this is one of those sayings that I would gladly tell you that I wholeheartedly agree with, I can even give you examples of when this has been true in my life. But if I asked you if you would rather have me give you this $100 bill or pull out your wallet and give me $100, I’m guessing you’d probably rather be on the receiving end, right? You’d at least think pretty hard about it. And if not I’ll be standing at that back of the sanctuary after church collecting your $100 that you really, really want to give to me. It’s not that we don’t agree with Jesus, but we don’t always fully live it out. We might apply it to certain aspects of our lives, but maybe not so much in others. At our church in Chicago, when they would have their new member meetings they would talk about tithing, giving 1/10th of our income to the church and why we as members of the church are expected to do that. And I remember the pastors talking about how they would so often get questions afterwards like “So about that tithe thing, could I just give 10% of my time instead? Does that count?” The truth is that yes 10% of your time should be given to the church, but that’s in addition to your money, in addition to your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness. That’s not a very popular answer, but our commitment to God doesn’t just apply to one area of our lives. When we talk about stewardship we are talking about money, don’t get me wrong, but we’re really talking about all of the resources that God has entrusted you with.
          There’s another place in the Bible where Jesus talks about being blessed. He says “blessed” so many times in this sermon that we call it the Beatitudes. Beatitudes just means “happy” “fortunate” or “blissful” in Latin; so there’s your Latin lesson for the day. And truly I tell you it is better to give a Latin lesson than to receive one. Amen. (just one example!) So anyway in the Beatitudes Jesus outlines who is blessed, and he starts each statement with “Blessed are…” and the gospels each put this a little differently but here’s a summary: Blessed are the poor, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who weep, the meek, those who are hungry, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted, when others hate you and he says in Matthew: “Blessed are you when people revile and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you.” I’m not seeing people on Facebook or in their Christmas cards talking about how blessed they were this year because they mourned, or because they were persecuted or because they were hungry. Most of these things do not give us that sense of being blessed we talked about in the beginning. These things don’t illicit in me that sense of God’s unmerited love and care for us. It would make me feel tired, beaten down, sad and discouraged, maybe even abandoned, but not really blessed. But Jesus says over and over again, “Blessed are… blessed are..”
What Jesus does is he takes what our idea of being blessed looks like and turns it upside down. He was saying "Look, I know that you think that being blessed looks like living a comfortable life, not having problems or heartache or enemies, but that's not really being blessed, that's not what I'm talking about, that's not the real deep, life-giving, faith-strengthening blessing that I have in store for you. The way the world understands being blessed is not how I understand being blessed. It's too shallow, too easily disrupted, too dependent on things outside of you. Being blessed in the kingdom of God is different." 
Thankfully Jesus doesn’t just say all these people are blessed and leave us guessing why. He says things like, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are the peacemakers because they will be called children of God.” The blessing isn’t in the circumstance, being poor or grieving or keeping the peace, but in how it helps us to connect to God, to experience God’s love and care for us, to be in a more perfect relationship with God.
This is the same principle when we talk about it being more blessed to give than to receive. It's not the way that the world understands being blessed. Most people equate blessings with receiving, with accumulating, with increasing your wealth, your resources; but I’m not convinced that’s the only type of blessings that God offers to us. This is not how the world experiences or understands being blessed, but it is how Jesus talks about it. And because this is the way that Jesus talks about it, and because we’re followers of Jesus, I believe this is how God wants us to understand being blessed too. There’s a deeper wisdom here. It’s not something that I can logically explain to you, I can’t prove it to you, but I can challenge you to experience it, to live it out and prove it to yourself.
The scripture reading today from Malachi is maybe one you're heard before, maybe not. Malachi was a prophet and prophets tell people what God has to say to them. And in this reading Malachi was telling this community that they've gotten off track, that they're cheating God and one of the main ways that they were cheating God was by not tithing. They had started to withhold a little bit, keep a little more for themselves and God takes note. God sends Malachi to get them back on track because God wants them back, God wants to bless them. So God says to them: Bring the FULL tithe to the storehouse. The FULL tithe. Please test me in this, see if I don't throw open the windows of heaven and empty out blessings until there is enough. Test me, see if I don't make good on my promises. Do you know that this is the only time in the Bible that God tells us to test God? How many times do we hear, “do not test the Lord your God”? Jesus even refuses to test God when being tempted by Satan. But here, here when God is talking about our tithe, not just our money, but our time, our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, our witness: the FULL tithe, God says, "test me, put me to the test, please, I dare you. See if I don't rain down blessings, see if I don't do what I say I'll do." 
I do believe that God blesses us in the ways we understand blessings; by providing us more than what we need, by surprising us with miracles, and even by giving us tangible things that we want or need, but I also believe that God calls us to understand being blessed as more than just those things. God wants us to understand that even when we don’t feel blessed, when we’re poor or mourning or being persecuted, that God is working to bless us in deeper ways those tangible, circumstantial things. Those blessings, the blessings that Jesus calls blessings are the ones that will grow our faith, increase our trust in God and lead us to a better relationship with God.
So I know that I may have scared you off from wanting to be blessed in the way that Jesus talks about it, I know that you probably just want the kind of blessings that the world considers blessings. That’s ok, me too. But when it comes down to it, we, as followers of Jesus need to take it a little further; because God says we’re supposed to; because there’s a very good chance that what God has for us is better than what we have planned for ourselves. So I’m going to challenge us all today, to take God’s words from Malachi very seriously and to test God. To offer our FULL tithe to God, to dare God to prove Godself to us and see if we aren’t more blessed by the giving of our tithe. I want you to seriously consider tithing, even if it’s only for 3 months, just to test God. I want you to take this risk, to go on this adventure of trusting God more and expecting, expecting that God will bless us more than we can imagine.
There are countless stories of people who have begun to tithe, to give to the church, maybe against their better judgment, and have found that God has truly blessed them. I wish I knew all of you better so that I could share your stories today. They might be like the family who was on a tight budget, but took this tithing challenge at their church, and then suddenly their computer crashed. They didn’t have any extra money to fix it or get a new one. And randomly, for no apparent reason, their neighbor came over with an extra computer that he had and just gave it to him. Or the family whose check engine light came on, they figured that it would probably cost $200-300 to fix, just about the tithe for that month. They decided to tithe it and when they took the car into the mechanic he couldn’t find anything wrong with the car. We had a pastor who would tell the story about how his uncle who owned a used car lot was a faith tither, most people wouldn’t expect it of him, but he was. And when he retired and his son took over the business, his son didn't tithe and all sorts of things started to go wrong, so he went to his dad and told him what was going on. His dad asked if he had been tithing, and the son said no, so he told him to find the nearest church and go tithe immediately, he didn’t care which church. Miraculously, he did and things turned around for the business. All of these stories, all of your stories of giving to the church are testaments to God’s love and care for us. And while we wouldn’t hesitate to say that they were blessed by the tangible resources that God provided, I’d argue today that the true blessing was their increased faith, their renewed trust in God and their ability to more fully participate in the ways that God is working in the world. So I invite you, I encourage you today to seriously consider your giving for the next year, I encourage you to put God to the test. I don’t make many guarantees, but I do guarantee if you test God in this, that we’ll be telling your stories next year about how much more blessed you were to give than to receive. Amen.

Jen Hibben, Associate Pastor

Monday, November 11, 2013

I Am a Church Member...Gary

See our other "I Am a Church Member" posts herehere and here

A famous person once said that 80% of success is showing up. In describing what church membership means to me there might be a tendency to reminisce. After all, I received my third grade bible from this church, achieved my Boy Scout God and County Award through this church and went through my 7th Grade confirmation class after which I was confirmed as a member of this church.

I have been and am still on numerous committees and boards. I have sung hundreds of solos and sung with three decades of choirs and small groups, all with this church. I have performed with the Last Supper Drama for 10 years now. I have sung for the women at the Mitchellville prison on behalf of this church.

I have seen major and minor additions, renovations and alterations of the physical appearance and structure of this church since I was a child.

I have taught Sunday school, both for children and adults and lead small groups with this church since 1986. I know of at least two parents out there in the congregation who were in my first 6th Grade Sunday school class.

I have attended a lot of weddings, funerals and baptisms and sung at quite a few, here in this church.

There have been a lot of potlucks, friends Christmases and Easters. I have worked closely many different pastors over the years, who were and are all wonderful people, by the way.

So, I have shown up. I have also lived in other places and have been associated with a few other churches besides WDMUMC over the years. I tried to “show up” there, too. All of this reminiscing is fine, but it really does not define membership or its meaning to me. I hope I am more than the repository of personal and corporate memories, or even more than, perhaps, a source of some maturing wisdom.

These various things about me “showing up” are certainly part of my path with Christ. Being a member is work, it is time, it is sometimes committing resources.

But being a member of this church is not about me or any one of us. Being a member is a chance to be part of something bigger, a legacy, a larger family of millions that started a long time ago and will continue long after we are gone.

We need each other. Jesus knew that. Jesus taught that. The church, as a community in faith, is vital to our world. This church right here is vital to this community and the larger world community. Together we affect the world around us for the better. Day by day, week by week, year by year.

We are all searching, trying to touch the face of God. I have found that I cannot go that journey alone. I have found that I cannot see what it means to follow Christ without you all.
WDMUMC has made a difference in my life to help grow closer to Christ and to further the work of Christ. Being a member has its costs, but, oh, what a return!

Gary Norton, WDMUMC member

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I Am a Church Member...Dotty

We continue this week with reflections  about what it means to be a church member as we study I Am a Church Member as a church.  This week's post comes from Dotty Thurston, our volunteer Director of Care Ministries. Dotty's fingerprints are all over this church as she has volunteered to paint and decorate spaces like the Cafe. Dotty's words here are only matched by her deep commitment to service in the church and the world. 

Jen Hibben, Associate Pastor

There is only one reason that I am a church member.I love our Lord and Savior - that’s it!I love Jesus and I need to think and do whatever I can for him, in the hope of being with him someday.In saying that, being a christian and pledging myself to membership means I have committed myself to God - it is a promise to God that I will honor the church - the Body of Christ.Wow that’s so powerful! - a commitment to God! 
So how do I do that?
I come to church - not only do I come to church but I prepare myself, my heart, toreceive anything God wants to teach me. I try to clear my brain calendar, the busyness of my life, and give God my time to worship Him.  
So how do I honor the Body of Christ?I give of my service - I volunteer in the Care Ministry here. I visit our members in thehospital and sometimes in retirement communities, I participate in bible studies, and serve on various committees and so on. I give whatever talents I may have.Some of you have some pretty incredible talents like singing in the choir, leading the children, maintaining our building, while some of you prepare and serve meals to others nourishing a body at least one more day. I am so blessed for all the things you do for others - by example you show that you are a member of the body of Christ. Sorry to say, none of those are my talent but... I do paint walls. I have painted lots of walls in this church. And oh yes, much to my teammates chagrin, I play softball. It’s a funny sight. Our service and talents big and small are appreciated and needed to maintain this body. 
So how do We Honor the Body of Christ?Stan and I give of our gifts.Stan and I enjoy being a part of giving to the budget. Yes, you heard me right - we are cheerful givers. But like Jeff Butler said a couple of weeks ago, sometimes it can be painful. I remember times in my life especially in my 20’s and 30’s it was hard andsometimes nonexistent. But today I am a cheerful giver. And I see the bounty of the fruits, the money you and I give throughout this church and beyond our walls. I can only hope that we are pleasing to God in what Stan and I are able to do.
I also Honor the Body of Christ through my conduct.Do you have this book yet? You need to read it. Thank you to those for bringing this to our attention. This book should shake you up a little bit and it will.....IF you take it seriously....and IF you are a part of the body of Christ. It calls out our behavior! If we love God, we must behave in a certain way. Membership calls on us to ALWAYS work together even when we have differences of opinions.We must love one another, even the unloveable. That can be a tough one but not so if you truly want to be in the Body of Christ. Membership means everything I do and say, is based on a biblical foundation of love - Everything! Putting it another way - Every thought, every action reflects our attitude towards God. I’m going to say this again - Every thought, every action reflects our attitude towards God! Here’s another tough one according to this book - When you become a member, you actually give up your preferences when you join. Pastor Jen preached about this last week. Do you have an agenda or want a certain way of doing things. According to this book, you are to give it up to be a part of Christ. Otherwise, you and I intentionally break up the body. We go against Christ. As a church member, my motives should not be to get my preferences or my way because as a servant of God, I am supposed to be last, and not first.As Pastor Jen said last week......We will never find joy in church membership if we constantly seek to do things our own way. 
Lastly, as a member, I pray for our pastors. The spiritual leaders hand picked by God!Let me give you some statistics.
  • 1,700 pastors leave the ministry each month
  • 90% of pastors report working between 55-75 hours per week.
  • 70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
  • 80% say being a pastor has had a negative affect on their families.
  • 50% of pastor’s marriages end in divorce.
  • 80% of seminary graduates will leave the ministry within the first five years.
Consequently, only 10% of ministers will actually retire as ministers.Guess what is the root cause of these statistics? You and me.On page 49 of this book, it says “the devil sees the pastor as a threat, and one of his highest priorities is to take him down and take him out” Guess who Satan uses to bring down a pastor - You and me. 
So who’s soldier do we want to be - God’s or Satan’s. Please pray as the book says, for our pastors. 
So why am I a church member?One reason, as I said, because I love the Lord and I have a commitment to Him.to serve and not be servedto love you when you are unloveable and because I want you to love me too.to behave in a Christ like way in every thought and action so God knows what I thinkof Him.And to protect my pastors, this church - the body of Christ.Please be a soldier of God with me.Serve.....love.....behave.....and protectTogether, let’s be the best members we can be.

Dotty Thurston

Monday, October 28, 2013

I Am a Church Member...Mike

As we continue with our church wide study of I Am a Church Member, Mike Powers, a member here at WDMUMC has agreed to share with us some of his thoughts and perspectives about church membership. Mike has been active in many areas of church life, from the finance committee, to coordinating our huge Meals from the Heartland packaging event to joining us on our mission trip to Costa Rica. I know you'll enjoy Mike's thoughtful perspective!

Jen Hibben, Associate Pastor 

I appreciate the opportunity to share some of my thoughts about being a member of the West Des Moines United Methodist Church.  I have a couple of perspectives.  First, I am a relatively new member as my wife Libby and I joined the congregation a little over two years ago.  I realize that most of you have been here a lot longer than we have but in our relatively short period of time here we have both come to view our membership as a true blessing for us. 
Secondly, while I have tried to be actively engaged as a member here, I will tell you that was not the case for me in my prior experience at other churches. So I can provide a comparison of the two different levels of involvement.Maybe a good place to start is an explanation of how it came about that Libby and I joined the West Des Moines United Methodist Church.   Having moved to West Des Moines from Naperville, Illinois, we looked to transfer our membership to a Methodist church in the area.  Libby selected this as the first one to visit.  This is not the closest Methodist church to our house but I think she picked this one because it had been around a long time and seemed to be the traditional kind of church that we were used to.  We did not know anyone who attended here but it seemed like a good place to start.We came one Sunday and everyone we met was really friendly.  After service, Paige handed us a gift bag along with two free tickets to an omelet breakfast that, as luck would have it, was being held right then downstairs.  Not being one to turn down a free meal, especially an omelet breakfast which is clearly a step-up from the usual church pancake breakfast, we accepted the offer.
Before breakfast was over we had talked with a dozen or so church members, and we did not see the need to visit anymore churches.  Then and there we knew we had found our new church home.  Libby and I joined MITS-WITS, and we were welcomed with open arms.  It has been a great experience for both of us to get to know the members of that class and to get involved in helping to organize some of the social and program events there.  We are very grateful for the great friendships we have with the MITS-WITS members.  And I might add if you are looking for a Sunday school we meet every Sunday at 9:50 am for an hour in the Wesley Center.Shortly after joining MITS-WITS, the church started its program of small groups and we were approached about joining a group that was forming.  We agreed to join and that has also led to stimulating book studies, fulfilling projects, social gatherings and a close bond of friendship among all of the group members for which we feel very blessed.  One of the unique experiences that our group had was building rocks and walls out of an odd assortment of materials for the Easter dramas.With Libby’s recent ankle surgery and hospital stay, we have received an outpouring of prayers, encouraging words and not to mention delicious food from so many of you.  We were very touched by your concern.  You truly have become our Iowa family and we love you for caring so much about us.
I mentioned earlier that I have become much more involved here than I had at previous churches.  You may ask, “Why?”I grew up attending a Catholic grade school in a small town in southern Illinois and went to mass on a daily basis for eight years as the good sisters that were running the school did not view daily mass attendance to be a topic for debate.   Like many things that are imposed upon you as a youth, once free of the obligation as an adult I resisted embracing the church for a long-time.
Libby grew up in the same hometown with a more positive attitude towards church and she recruited me into the Methodist church shortly after we were married.  I did go to services most Sundays but I begged off when invited to become more involved.
So what is different now?I think that whenever you undertake a major life change such as moving to a new city it is natural to stop and take stock of your life—particularly as you get older.  When I moved here things were going well but there seemed to be something missing in my life.  I sensed that I should do more to help others and on a deeper level I felt that I was lacking a meaningful relationship with God.
Therefore, instead of saying no as I previously would have done, I said yes to joining a Sunday school class and to joining a small group and to serving as a day manager at the state fair and serving on the Finance and Stewardship committees.  In January, I plan to join the church’s mission team to Costa Rica.
My only regret now is not having said yes sooner.  By agreeing to become involved, I was able to enjoy experiences that made me feel so good and wanting more.  Some of the highlights over the last two years:·         Going to Edgewater for Vespers and talking to the residents and sharing their appreciation for being able to participate in that service.
·         Being part of a team working at the church’s state fair stand and having people come up and say how they make it a point to visit our stand every year because of the high quality and friendly service and could we please take a prayer back to the church for one of their loved ones for whom they had great concern.
·         Facilitating a student panel on bullying at MITS-WITS last February and seeing how eager and articulate our high school age members were in making their comments to a packed room in the Wesley Center.
·         Watching members of this congregation raise the necessary funds and come together on a Saturday morning to package over 67,000 meals for starving people.
 Investing a little bit of my time has produced an abundant return.  That investment of time has also opened my heart and mind to being more receptive to the messages delivered during the Sunday services along with the discussions we have in MITS-WITS and in our small group.  So my advice to those of you who may be a less active member such as I was, look for an opportunity to get involved.  You are never too young or too old to start and I think you will be amazed as to how it will make you feel.
Being involved with some of the church’s committees has also given me an appreciation of the many challenges that the pastors and staff face to ensure that the church can continue to fulfill its mission.  I greatly admire their dedication and devotion.  Even with our help it is far from an easy job.  Without our help it is an impossible one.  We all need to pitch in and do our part.  The good news is that by helping the church you are really helping yourself in many ways.  I can vouch for that.For many of you, doing your part is what you have been doing--and then some. That is what has made this church such a special place.  I am so impressed by how through your generous nature, both in time and money and compassion, this church can help so many people in important ways through its ministries.  My involvement with the Meals From the Heartland project opened my eyes to that this year.
Thank you for that generosity of spirit and thank you for accepting Libby and me into this church family.  Let’s continue to make the good things this church is known for happen by working together in a spirit of cooperation and let’s always be mindful of the instructions of the Apostle Paul in Colossians 3:12-15 and  “…clothe [our]selves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of [us] has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave [us].  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts, since as members of one body [we are] called to peace.”

Mike Powers

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Fall Festival!

Yeah, I kind of felt like that too Harry.

Today was one of those days for me. You know the kind, when nothing seems to go according to your plan? Dentist appointments are a good way to start of those kinds of days. Rain most of the day is a good way to keep that vibe going. Your baby getting sick in the afternoon really ups the ante. And not to be outdone, late afternoon, you know, when you're trying to gather the million things a baby needs and get out the door, late afternoon has been keeping the surprise of your dog running away. And not just running away and not coming back, running away, rolling in cat excrement and then coming back. (Not sure which is worse). Late afternoon also held a hosing down your cat-poop-cover dog when you're already late. You know, just one of those days. 
Where's Waldos?

I have to say, as excited as I was about Fall Festival, the rest of my day sure tried to get in the way. It caused me worry that people wouldn't come because of the rain. It caused me to worry that it might not be as much fun without the bounce house. It caused me to think that some how my crazy mixed up day would mess up God's plans to show up. As I was driving in between taking my baby to the doctor or trying to get back to church to work on the things I left to take him, I prayed that God would surprise me, that God would prove me wrong. I can't say that I had a lot of faith that God would actually do that though. But God's pretty good at proving me wrong.

Egg and Bacon, mmm

As I walked from my car to the church (about and hour later than I had hoped to be there) I saw a couple other families walking there too. I didn't know any of them, I was a little surprised. I came down to a completely packed Heritage Hall full of people I did and didn't know. We had to open up the Wesley Center and I was a little more surprised. Thinking that everyone was inside waiting for Trunk or Treat to start, I was surprised when the crew asked me to go see how many more people were outside (we were running out of hotdogs). When I went outside I was even more surprised to see that the parking lot was full of families already trunk or treating! We wouldn't have even all fit in Heritage Hall AND Wesley Center. (I ran to get more hotdogs :)) We had just as great of a turn out as last year if not better. Just like last year, there was this energy, this excitement about what was going, about the neighbors we were meeting and the fun we were having. I have my thoughts about what was really going on (HERE), but the heart of it was that God was real and active in our midst and we were participating in God's work. 

Elmo participating in God's work

As much as I love the night of Fall Festival, some of my most favorite parts are hearing the stories about what happened that night. Ways that God surprised us or touched our hearts or opened our eyes a little bit wider. 


Gene faithfully manned the parking lot, helping people find the correct parking, making sure that those who needed handicap parking got it and making sure kids were safe. At one point he told a driver where the parking lot we were using was and how to get to it from where he was trying to park. But the driver had already been there and told Gene that it was completely full, there were no more places to park there. 

Dia de los muertos trunk!
I also met a woman who had a fabulously decorated trunk, if you were there I bet you know the one. A member of our church introduced me to her and explained that she wasn't really connected to our church, but had seen the sign for trunk or treat, prepared her trunk and came over. We weren't even expecting her, but God brought her right into the middle of Fall Festival! I smile thinking too about the way that member treated her and celebrated her trunk and invited her to come be a part of what's going on at our church. 


There's a neighborhood family that I met last year at Fall Festival and I've seen them around a couple times since then. The first time that we met they were a little hesitant and unsure about me (can you blame them?) and the church. Since then they've come over to support Gigi's lemonade stand, chatted with me and even asked about LifeTree. So tonight they came right on over in costume, knew that this was a safe place and that they knew someone right away. I'm so thankful just to witness stuff like that. 

So what are your stories from Fall Festival? Did you have a crappy day like me that got turned around? Did you expect God to show up like God did?

Check out all the great photos HERE!

Jen Hibben, Associate Pastor

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

In Seeking To Reconcile We Find God

Sermon at West Des Moines United Methodist Church on October 20, 2013 by Dr Wesley S.K. Daniel

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"In Seeking Direction We Find God"

Sermon at West Des Moines United Methodist Church on October 13, 2013 by Dr Wesley S.K. Daniel