Sermon at West Des Moines United Methodist by Rev. Dr. Wesley SK Daniel on Memorial Day, May 25, 2014.
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Thursday, May 22, 2014
I recently attended a seminar on cultural diversity where the leader opened up with an “icebreaker exercise” in which every participant was dealt one playing card face down on the table in front of them. We were then instructed to pick the card up without looking at it and hold it against our forehead so that everyone else would know what the card was but we would not. While holding the card in this manner, we then circulated about the room. The kicker was that if you came upon an individual that was holding a face card you were to treat them as a great friend. If the card was between a six and a ten you were to simply treat them politely and if the card was anything else you were to make it known to them that you did not want to associate with them. As someone who was dealt a four, I soon found myself as someone that everyone wanted to avoid.
Although the exercise was relatively simple, the lesson it taught was far from trivial. As one who had the misfortune of having been dealt a low card, I was shunned by every other person in the room. If the exercise had continued beyond the short period of time that it did, I surely would have appreciated someone breaking the rules and coming to talk to me.
Now obviously walking around with a four of clubs on my forehead and having people pretend to not talk civilly to me for five minutes is probably a hurdle in my life that I can overcome. But what if the thing that sets someone apart from others has more serious consequences.
The question that each of us needs to answer is: By what set of rules are we going to play this “real” version of the game? It can be quite tempting to follow the “icebreaker” rules and ignore the less fortunate choosing instead to focus our attention inwardly. This approach can be all the more enticing when the people in need may look, think or act differently than ourselves.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor who serves what many would call a “non-mainstream” urban congregation in Denver and she wrote a very insightful book describing her own faith journey entitled “Pastrix”. (Caution to those who may choose to read the book as the language may range in some instances from PG-13 to R.) In the book, her husband, who is also a Lutheran pastor, commented that “…every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.”
Our church last week wrapped up its second annual campaign to feed starving people around the world in cooperation with Meals from the Heartland. In doing so, we were able to significantly increase the amount of funds raised and the number of meals produced above the levels of our first campaign and beyond what we had reasonably hoped to achieve this year. Reaching the number of meals that we did was certainly gratifying as what it means most importantly is that more people who are starving will now be able to get something to eat.
But the numbers are also a mark of the generous sacrifice of time and money by a whole lot of people who refused to draw a line between themselves and others. The support of the congregation for the fundraising activities of the campaign was both broad and deep and I will never cease to be amazed by the tireless efforts of the members of our planning team. To top it all off, on the day of the event over two hundred people showed up on one of the first nice Saturday mornings following a rather challenging winter to package meals in a crowded room for complete strangers. This cannot be described as anything but an act of love!
All of which should go to erode at least some of the cynicism about our fellow humans that seems so prevalent today. To be in the packaging room that Saturday and seeing Cub Scouts and 4-H club members alongside grandparents and people of every age in between, working with such fun and enthusiasm, was to know that goodness exists and can prevail in this world.
If you find yourself being dealt a card in life that you wish that you could discard but can’t, have faith that God can lead you to people who want to help you. As the Meals from the Heartland campaign showed, we can all make the world a little better place by simply following Jesus’ command in Matthew 7:12 “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” That is, after all, the real icebreaker.
Mike Powers, WDMUMC member
Sunday, May 18, 2014
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Listen to the full sermon here:
So I've been thinking a lot this week about what being a Christian community looks like, how it’s different than other kinds of community. I've been part of church my whole life, which is probably the Christian community we all claim, but I've also spent a considerable amount of time working at church camps, which if you've worked at one, you know it is most definitely a community as well. I started when I was 14 as a junior counselor and pretty much spent at least a week a summer, but usually more, working at camp until I finished college. And I was remembering this week a seminary student who camp to work at camp one summer because he wanted to be a part of an intentional Christian community. And that's pretty much code for some type of communal living situation, usually a lot like what we see talked about in our scripture for today. Now he's a really smart guy and he probably knew what he was getting into, but as I thought back on what I imagined that he experienced, I can't help but think that that community did NOT live up to his expectations of an intentional Christian community. As great as the people that we worked with are, we are all human and we really didn't look much like the community Luke is describing here in Acts. Now I have plenty of stories to back that up, but the miracle, if you will, is that regardless of our humanity, God still worked in and through us all to positively impact and changes the lives of children that summer.
Will you pray with me? God this morning we come to hear from you, we want to know what you have to say to us and to this community. Would you open our hearts and minds that we can hear you? Will you speak clearly to us? Will you show us how to build a community that makes a difference? Amen.
So our scripture for this morning comes from the book of Acts, which we believe was written by Luke, and tells us what happened after Jesus ascended into heaven, so sometimes we call it the Acts of the Apostles. So just to give you a bit of backstory here, right before the passage that we read today, the Holy Spirit came down, something we call Pentecost, a group of people in Jerusalem had a powerful experience of God, Peter preaches to them, tells them about Jesus and thousands of people respond. And as a result the BUILD a new type of community. And so what we're reading about today is what that Jerusalem Christian community looked like.
A lot of this doesn't seem like such a big deal right? We do a lot of these things: teaching, fellowship, praying, eating together, taking communion, these are built into the way that we operate as a community. I'd even argue that we too are doing signs and wonders in our community. Feeding the hungry through Meals from the Heartland, Child and Family Urban Movement and The Eddie Davis Center, by creating a safe place for children in our preschool programs and Children's ministries. Those are modern-day signs and wonders and they really help define what Christian community is about. But let's be honest this gets real tricky when we get to v. 44 and 45 when Luke starts talking about holding all things in common and selling possessions and distributing the proceeds. Because frankly what they’re doing is re-distributing wealth, generally we as humans are not big fans of that, especially if we are the ones with the wealth. If we were to advertise this type of community, I think many of us would buy in up to that point, it all sounds good until Jesus tells you to sell your stuff right? Truthfully I can help you out, I can offer you a few outs, a few ways around that being some type of requirement for a faithful Christian community.
But I want us to pretend, I was us to suspend our fears about what that would mean and consider why this community was like that and how things would look different if that type of community existed today. Just for the next 10-12 minutes, don't fight it. Actively try not to find a way out, not to discredit this, not to start listing the ways that this is impractical and just imagine what it might have been like. When we’re done today, you all have the option to go right back to the way things were before. Although I don’t think that’s why you’re here today.
First off we have to understand how this seemingly crazy concept of community came about. The reason I gave you a quick summary of the back story here is because I want to emphasize that all of this is a direct result of a powerful experience of God. This happened because this group, this community had a powerful experience of God. This is a response to experiencing God in a new and powerful way. Got that? OK. I don't believe that this group of people got together, sat down and analyzed the best way to form an authentic Christian community. I think as a result of this experience they were actively aware of their need for community and a new way of living as a community. They NEEDED a community in order to live faithfully, because they could not go back to their old way of living after having this experience of God.
And that experience shaped the values and the culture of this community. So the things we read about, the teaching, fellowship, praying, eating together, communion, the sharing, the selling of possessions, the redistribution of wealth, were the things that that community felt convicted to do. That experience of the Holy Spirit lead them to believe that this was how they should live together. If you've heard me preach before you know that I like to talk about the kingdom of God, and how we are supposed to be making the world around us look more and more like the kingdom of God. That’s exactly what I think these early Christians were doing. For them this set up of community was a huge step towards living out the kingdom of God, this community that they created looked more like the kingdom of God to them than the communities they had been a part of before.
Can you imagine? Having an experience that changed you that much? Totally turning your life upside down? Feeling so strongly about something that you dive in head first into a new and totally countercultural way of life?
Many of you know that we’re just starting this sermon series about spiritual makeover to go alongside the makeover we hope to do the friendship room. And no matter where you consider yourself on your spiritual journey, we could all use a little making over. So we look at this scripture today, and we have to wonder how this might affect our spiritual makeover, what might this tell us about our spiritual makeover. And I think one of the main things we can learn is that we don’t do this alone. Just like these early Christians, we don’t do this alone because it all starts with an experience of God. We don’t do any of this without God working in our lives. Now we’re probably not going to have the same experience as these early Christians in Jerusalem, in fact nobody else had that experience after them. Since that time, throughout the rest of the history we have in the Bible, we see that God began to work in less dramatic ways we could say. The truth is that just being here this morning is proof that God is working in your life. We try every Sunday to create an atmosphere where people can come and experience God, an environment where we’re safe to open ourselves up to whatever God would want to say or do in our hearts and lives. We can’t make that happen, we don’t create an experience of God, but we can be open to it. So what’s a meaningful, powerful experience of God that you’ve had. It doesn’t have to be a miracle, but it can be. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic emotional experience, but it can be. It doesn’t have to be a drastic turning point in your life, but it can be. It can also be a moment when you felt deeply loved, or when a piece of scripture felt so true to you, or when you realized that a lie you’d believed about yourself wasn’t true, or when a song really resonated with you, or it could be when you became a parent, when you realized that we don’t have all the answers and that maybe there’s something bigger than all of us at work. God works in lots and lots of ways. I wish that over the years I’d kept better track of those times in my life, that I had a book where I could look back and remind myself of all the ways that God has spoken to me. And I wish even more that I’d been more aware of all the times I missed those things too. One of the most memorable experiences for me was when I felt called into ministry and I know I’ve shared that story before, but in that moment I was just overwhelmed by the truth that God had a specific plan for me and that regardless of my faults and failures and serious doubts that God wanted to use me for good. I think that experience is so memorable because it was one of the first times that I could say, without a doubt that God was speaking to me. Because Lord knows I would not have concocted that plan for myself. We see today that that’s where the beginning of the church started, with a clear experience of God, not alone.
One of the major dangers of Christianity is that we have these experiences of God and we think that’s the goal. That having an experience of God is the point of being a Christian. But it’s not. Those experiences of God, while they may make us feel great, while they may have value in and of themselves are meant to launch us into action. We are supposed to DO something about those experiences. Sometimes it’s specific things like, become a pastor, or stop a destructive behavior, or call up a friend or family member. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, and I think most of the time, what we’re supposed to do, what we want to do, is to help others experience God. Experience God’s love, experience God’s grace, experience God’s acceptance, experience God’s forgiveness, experience God’s healing. We want people to experience those things because we know what that’s like. We come together as the church to create an atmosphere where people can have those types of experiences. We pray for each other so that more people might have those experiences, we teach so that more people might have those experiences, we share Holy Communion so that more people might have those experiences, we spend time together so that more people might have those experiences, and friends we share our resources so that more people might have those experiences. That’s what we read about in this chapter of Acts, a group of people who had an experience of God and who shaped their community around that experience and those who were not yet there. And the last verse we read today says: “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” More people did have an experience of God and this community grew.
Now if you’ve been a part of this church for a while, this story should sound familiar. People having an experience of God, coming together as a community to build something incredible for those who had not yet come. That’s us, that is what we’re celebrating, remembering and claiming as we renovate the friendship room. That over 60 years ago, a community of faith that had an experience of God came together, for teaching and prayer and fellowship and eating together, but they were also convicted to share their resources, to put them together and to build not only a building, but a community for those who had not yet come, space and community to have a life-changing experience of God. If you haven’t heard the story before, the way I understand it is that West Des Moines United Methodist Church had outgrown its current building in Valley Junction and so the congregation had gotten together to talk about what to do next and how they would raise the money for a new and bigger building. And I think one of the best parts of the story as it’s been told to me is that Peg Lavere stood up, told the pastor to sit down and shut up, and went on to tell the congregation just how they were going to build this community, this building. The next day the pastor got a call from the bank wondering why all of his members were there taking out loans. Their experience of God, their desire for others to experience God and their strength as a community of faith prompted them to do something incredible. And this year we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the day that members of that congregation walked from one church in Valley Junction, to where we are today. And you know what day by day, month by month and year by year the Lord has added to their number those who have been saved.
This is our legacy, church, this is a part of our DNA. But those who have gone before us didn’t do it alone and we don’t either. We know that God is the originator of all of this, that this all starts with our experience of God, as individuals and as a community, God builds with us. And as a community, we know that we don’t do any of this in isolation. I’d dare to say that our community is not just those who are members today, those who are sitting here today or any Sunday, but that we are also accompanied by a great cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before us, and those who have not yet come. The most important thing about this makeover of the Friendship Room is that it is creating a space for those who have not yet come. A welcoming space, a safe space, a space where we give God free-reign. We are undertaking the renovation of the Friendship Room so that others might have a powerful experience of God. God has moved in our hearts and lives so that we can impact the lives of others. We don’t walk on this spiritual journey alone, friends. We don’t undertake our spiritual makeover alone. We don’t undertake this project alone. We don’t build alone, friends. We do all this with the companionship of each other, those who are with us now and those who have gone before, but more importantly with the companionship of God. Amen.
(c) Jen Hibben 2014
(c) Jen Hibben 2014