Monday, January 23, 2017

Gone Fishing

The Church has left the building.
Literally. All over the country, churches are bypassing the pews and taking the gospel out into the streets. And into parks. And schools. And coffee houses. Wherever they might find a crowd. They have gone fishing.
Actually, Jeffrey St. Clair has gone kayaking. The pastor of Mandarin UMC in Jacksonville, Fla., loves the sport, but kept being put on waiting lists for kayaking trips. So he started his own group. On Saturdays, groups of 35-70 join him for an adventure in the water. They begin with prayer, scripture and a brief message and then head out to see fish, eagles, dolphins and sunsets. And along the way, they talk. About life and faith. ("Kayaking with Jeff" by Christine Kumar was published in Interpreter Magazine January-February 2017)
And Kingswood UMC in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, has gone online. About three years ago, Chris Spaeth was prepping for the annual church rummage sale, and she invited a community group of disabled adults to help. Their presence touched many hearts. So Spaeth decided to expand the project. Instead of opening a thrift store, donated items are stored in a trailer on church property and offered for sale online. Proceeds are being used to provide job training skills in computers, retail and marketing to people with disabilities, to people who are unemployed, and to immigrants. ( "New Online Thrift Store Offers Bargains and Jobs" by Anne Marie Gerhardt was published on the Northern Illinois Conference website in August 2012 at
And Urban Village Church in Chicago has gone to street corners. For several years, that congregation has celebrated Ash Wednesday by taking six teams of three or four people to public places across town. Throughout the day, they mark crosses of ashes on the foreheads of passersby who otherwise might not have worshipped that day. The Rev. Brittany Isaac says, “We were having conversations with folks that we wouldn’t get to have if we stayed inside the church. One woman, a single parent, was struggling with elderly parents. The burden that she was carrying she would never have gone to a church to talk about.” But she received the ashes while she was out doing her usual business. Then she came back and brought her elementary-aged kids, and they received ashes, too. ("Ash Wednesday-Takin' It to the Streets" was published in Interpreter Magazine 2012)
“Follow me,” Jesus says. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
Mission and evangelism, that’s what the church is all about. Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That is our whole reason for being. But sometimes we make mission and evangelism seem so much harder than they really are. We act as if only very special people can do God’s work. But that’s not true. Jesus calls US. Jesus calls all of us. Sometimes we think we don’t have anything to give. No special talent or great wisdom or much money. “I’m nothing special,” we say to ourselves. “I’m no evangelist. God can’t use me.”
But when Jesus started his ministry, he did not call the prettiest or the smartest or the richest. He called the people who were THERE. He called the people who were there. Jesus was walking beside the sea, and he saw fishermen on the docks. So Jesus called fishermen. He called rough, stinky, uneducated fishermen. He said, “Hey guys, you wanna come with me?”
There is NO special qualification to be a disciple. You do not have to have a college degree. You do not have to have years of Bible learning. You do not have to be particularly holy or good or special. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ, all you have to do is follow. Did you hear that? To be a disciple of Jesus Christ, all you have to do is follow Jesus. All you have to do is get up off your seat and on your feet and go where Jesus leads you. And, sure, that might lead you to Timbuktu, but it might just take you to the nearest convenience store. Or to the bowling alley. Or to the place where you get your nails done. And you were already headed there anyway. Right? Mission is not about where you go. It is about who you follow. It is about your willingness to follow. It is about your willingness to follow Jesus and do what he wants you to do.
When Jesus started his ministry, he called a bunch of fishermen. And you know what he asked them to do? Fish. Fish! Jesus asked fishermen to fish. Jesus asked the people who were THERE to do what they ALREADY knew how to do. Jesus asked the people who were AVAILABLE to do what they were already GOOD at. The only difference is that Jesus asked them to come and do it WITH him. Jesus gave them a REASON to fish. Jesus gave them a PURPOSE.
I started seminary KNOWING that I was called to ministry, but I really was not sure what KIND of ministry God was calling me to do. I thought it might be youth ministry. Or counseling. I really was not sure. I just knew that God was calling. But one Easter morning, we were sitting in worship, and a brass ensemble was playing, and everybody was singing, and my heart was filled with joy. And suddenly, I KNEW! I LOVE worship. I love everything about worship. The music. The people. The scripture. Even a sermon. I love to hear a good sermon. Just like that, I knew what I was called to do. I was called to do the thing I loved most to do. For me, that was worship.
God called me to preach. God called me to share the good news of Jesus Christ. And, yes, part of that call is to share God’s word with you, to build up the body of believers. But part of that call is also to the world. To take the good news to those who have not heard it yet.
But I am not the only one who is called to share the gospel. EVERY Christian is called to follow Jesus. And EVERY Christian is called to share God’s love. But there are so many ways to do that.
Rod Pierce knows how to take good care of his dog, Snickers. So when the company he works for downsized and Pierce took a big pay cut, he worried about being able to take care of Snickers. Pierce was able to work it out, but the experience led him to wonder how OTHER pet owners provide for THEIR animals when money is tight. He shared his concern with the youth of his church, and they decided to host a Pets in Poverty Fair right there at St. Andrew UMC in Toledo, OH. The church collected more than 3,500 pounds of dog, cat and other animal food. They also offered information about good pet care. And they even provided medical care for wounded animals. The food and cash they raised went to a local animal shelter. ("Caring for Pets - and Their Owners" was published in Interpreter Magazine 2012)
The people of St. Andrew UMC have gone fishing. They know pets. They love pets. They are good at taking care of pets. So they are taking what they know and sharing it with others in the name of Jesus Christ.
The church has left the building. They have gone fishing.
Folks, it is time for St. Mark’s to bait some hooks. It is time for us to go fishing. We have been so blessed. God has poured out love on us for years! And God expects us to share that love with others. And we do that, in lots of ways. Supporting the food pantry at Capleville. Welcome baskets for Golden Cross. Reading team at LaPetite Academy. We have opened our doors to a Boy Scout troop and Cub Scout pack. Hosted the community Easter Egg Hunt and Trunk or Treat. And that’s good. It’s REALLY good. And I am very proud of you and all that you do for others. But I think we can do more. I’d like to see us get more involved with the people in our community. That doesn’t mean that I think we need more programs. Everybody has ENOUGH to do. What we have is good, and it’s working. We have planted a lot of seeds. But now it’s time for us to find ways to tend the seeds we have planted.
The Scouts have been meeting here for years now. Do we know any of their names? Do we know where they go to school? Or what their dreams are for the future? So… what if we formed a Scout adoption program? Each of us gets the name of one of our Scouts and starts to pray for him, maybe get him a pack of beef jerky for his next camping trip, send him a note of encouragement every now and then? What if we invited the Scouts and their fathers to come to the UM Men dinners? What if we hosted a Father-Scout picnic in June?
These are just ideas. Some possibilities for us to consider. There is no shortage of need. The potential for ministry right here in Windyke is astronomical. There’s a whole world of hurting folks out there. People are drowning in sin and fear and confusion. You know that. You SEE that. These folks are your friends and neighbors, your family. We don’t have to go LOOKING for people who need a Savior. We just need to throw out a lifeline to the people around us who are already calling out for help. Cause that’s what it means to fish for people.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Come and see

They were looking for a hero. That’s why they were with John. He was clearly a man of God. His teaching and preaching were powerful. They were inspiring, challenging, and full of hope! He seemed to know something. He seemed to know something that no one else knew. He knew the Messiah! The long-awaited King of Israel! Their hero!
For 400 years, the people of Israel had waited and waited and waited. God had promised them a redeemer. God had promised to save them from their enemies. God had promised to make them a great nation once more. But year after year after year had passed, and there had been no savior. One generation after another had come and gone without ever seeing God fulfill the promise. There had not even been a PROPHET for 400 years. And, suddenly, there was John! Wandering around in the desert and calling out to people to repent. Get ready! Make way! The Messiah is coming!
The religious leaders challenged John. “Are you saying that YOU are the one?” “Oh no!” John replied. “I am not the Messiah.”
John was not the Messiah. And he was not Elijah, although he had a lot in common with the Old Testament prophet. Many many years before John was born, King Ahab had ruled the 10 northern tribes of Israel. But he did not observe God’s laws. In fact, Ahab married a woman who worshipped a false god, and then Ahab built an altar to that false god in the capital city, which, of course, made the one true God very very angry. So God sent Elijah to confront the wicked king and call the people of Israel to turn back to the Lord. Which is what John was saying now. But that did not make him the reincarnation of Elijah.
No, John was not the Messiah, and he was not Elijah. And he was not the end-time prophet. He was the forerunner. The prophet Isaiah had once told the people of God that someone would come before the Messiah. Someone would come to prepare them for the coming of the Lord. And that someone was John!
The religious leaders were not convinced. “Well, if you’re NOT the Messiah,” they asked, “if you are NOT the one who will save us from our sin, then why are YOU baptizing people?”
Baptism had long been a religious practice for the people of Israel. It was a symbol of their devotion to God. A sign that they had acknowledged their sins and were determined to turn their lives around and obey God’s laws. But no religious group had given John the authority to conduct baptisms. He was doing what God had called him to do.
“You think this is something,” John told the accusers. “Just you wait. I’m baptizing people with water. It’s a symbol. But there is one among you who is far greater than I. Heck, I’m not worthy to even untie the thong of his sandals!”
And then, lo and behold, the very next day, Jesus came! And John told everyone around, “There he is! This man is the Lamb of God! This is the one who takes away the sin of the world. This is the great man I was telling you about. This is the Messiah! Our savior! Our hero! When I baptized this man, I saw the very Spirit of God come down upon him! The Spirit is with him! I’m telling you. I saw it with my own two eyes. It’s the truth. This IS the Messiah! This is the one we’ve been waiting for!”
The Bible doesn’t tell us what happened after that. Maybe some listened. Maybe not. But the next day, John was standing with two of his students when Jesus walked by, and John shouted out, “Look! Here is the Lamb of God!”
And those two students understood what John was telling them. This was the hero they had been looking for. So they followed him! They had to see for themselves. Is this really the one?
Jesus turned and saw the two men following him, so he asked, “What are you looking for?” And they said, “Well, we were wondering where you are staying.” And Jesus says, “Come and see. Find out for yourself.”
So they did. They went with Jesus. They saw where he was staying, and they decided to stay there, too. They spent the whole day with Jesus. Just hanging out with him. And, apparently, that was enough to convince them because at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Andrew went to find his brother, Simon Peter, and told him, “We have found the Messiah!” And then Andrew brought his brother to Jesus. So he could see, too. And they both decided to stick around. Spend more time with the Lord. It was a decision that would change their lives forever.
 That’s what happens when we spend time with Jesus. We are changed. He washes away the sin of the world. How does he do it? Come and see. You can’t really know if you are looking on from a distance. You have to come close, like Peter and Andrew did. Spend some time with the Lord. Spend time in his presence.
They were lucky enough to be able to hang out with the Lord, just like brothers. They would spend three years together. They would work together and eat together and go fishing together. They would talk. They would talk about everything! They would share everything. Secrets. Successes. Failures. They would celebrate the birth of children and grieve the death of loved ones. They would help each other through tough times. Jesus would come to know everything about them, and they would come to know him.
They would see his strength and power and wisdom. They would see his compassion and patience and commitment. They would see Jesus as an obedient son, following his mother’s instructions to help some friends when they ran out of wine at their wedding. They would see Jesus as an angry protester, driving peddlers, salesmen and money changers out of the temple. They would see Jesus as a risk-taking reformer who would offer unvirtuous women, hopeless sinners, and countless lost causes a second chance at life. They would see Jesus frustrate the proud and arrogant and lift up the weak and vulnerable. They would see him walk on water, feed 5000 people with five loaves of bread and 2 little old fish, and bring the dead back to life. They would see. They would see it all! They would even see Jesus suffer the abuses of an unjust legal system. And then they would see him die on a cross like a criminal. But they would also see him rise up to live again in victory!
They would see it all. As they followed Jesus. As they spent time in his presence.
People today are still looking for a hero. We will look in all kinds of places and to all kinds of people. Politicians. Preachers. Physicians. Athletes. Academics. Armies. Musicians. Moguls. Monks. We will search and search and search, desperately trying to find someone who can help us find our way out of the mess we have gotten ourselves into.
But the savior we seek is right here among us, just as he was thousands of years ago on the banks of the Jordan River. Jesus is our savior. Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the one who takes away the sin of the world. How does he do it? Come and see. You have to come and see. You have to see for yourself. You have to spend time with Jesus. Through prayer. Bible study. Worship. Fellowship with other believers. Serving others. Jesus invites us to come and see.
But be warned: It’s a decision that will change your life forever. That’s what happens when we spend time with Jesus. We are changed. He washes away the sin of the world. How does he do it? Come and see. You can’t really know if you are looking on from a distance. You have to come close, like Peter and Andrew did. Spend some time with the Lord. Spend time in his presence. And you will be changed. It may not happen right away. It might! Your life might change in a moment. God can do that. One thing you discover when you spend time with Jesus is that God can do ANYTHING. God can give sight to the blind, compassion to the heartless, and hope to the hopeless. God made us, and God can CHANGE us. God can make a saint out of every sinner. Sometimes, it happens in a moment. And for that we say, “Thank you, Jesus!” But it may happen slowly. As we walk day by day, moment by moment, side by side with Christ.
God can make a saint out of every sinner. But it only happens when we spend time in the presence of the Lord. So come and see.
Jesus is the answer for the world today. Above him there's no other. Jesus is the way. 2X
If you have some questions in the corners of your mind
and traces of discouragement and peace you cannot find.
Reflections of the old past, they seem to face you every day.
There's one thing that I know for sure. Jesus is the way.

I know that you got mountains that you think you cannot climb.
I know that your skies have been dark. You think the sun won’t shine.
In case you don’t know I’m here to tell you that the word of God is true
And everything that he promised I tell you he would do it for you.[i]

[i] Andrae Crouch. “Jesus is the Answer.” Published online at Downloaded January 12, 2017.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The heavens are opened

My dad taught me to swim. I don’t know why it was my dad. My mom was a stronger swimmer. She had taken classes in college and often practiced different strokes in the pool at the apartment complex where we lived in Parkway Village. But it was my dad who taught me to swim.
Things began well. Dad taught me to “breathe” underwater, then how to float, and, finally, to swim. Then it was time to take a dive. At that point, all the trust that I had gained in my father – and in myself – just disappeared. It came whooshing out like air from a busted raft! Horrific images filled my vision every time I stood at the edge of the pool and looked down into the water. Seemed like all I could see was concrete, and I quite well what happens when a body hits concrete! Dad realized we would have to progress slowly. VERY slowly. We could start, he said, by jumping in feet first. But I wouldn’t even do that!
I couldn’t tell you how much time we spent – my dad and I – stuck in that one spot. Dad stood in waist-deep water, holding out his arms, and saying, “Trust me, baby. I’ll catch you.” And I stood obstinately at the edge of the pool and slowly shook my head, “No.” But my dad refused to give up on me. Oh, he got frustrated alright! He got exasperated and downright mad even. But he did not give up on me. And he did not let me off the hook. He KNEW I could do it. And he was determined to prove it to me, too.
Slowly, it began to sink in. My dad had not let me drown when he was teaching me to stick my head under water. He had not let me sink to the bottom when he was teaching me to float. And he had been there to hold me up when I was learning the breaststroke. Dad had proved to be reliable. He even seemed to know what he was talking about! So, chances were pretty good that he would not let me hit the concrete floor of that pool now. So, after what must have been about a hundred false starts, I finally gathered up my courage, took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and jumped! And Dad caught me. He was faithful. He had waited me out, and he was there to catch me, just as he had promised. As I shook the water out of my eyes, I remember my father’s voice, calling out from far overhead, “Way to go, Jody Lynn! I am SO proud of you!” It is a moment I will never forget.
So much was wrapped up in that one moment! When I took that leap of faith, I came to see how much my Dad loved me because he was there for me and he believed in me. He believed in me when nobody else did. And he was proud of me! He proudly proclaimed to everybody who would listen that I was HIS child. And, with that kind of love and confidence behind me, I felt like I could do ANYTHING!
That’s what baptism is all about. It’s about being claimed by God. It’s about the heavens opening up as you realize, perhaps for the first time or maybe for the millionth time, just how much God loves you.
That’s how it happened for Jesus. He was a grown man, and he came from Galilee one day to his cousin John, who was baptizing people in the Jordan River. Needless to say, it is an important event. It is so important that all four gospel writers tell us about the baptism of Jesus, but the facts of the story change, depending on who is telling it. In Matthew’s gospel, we are told that Jesus has just come up out of the Jordan River when a voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Can you imagine how it must have felt to hear those words? “This is MY son. I LOVE him. And I am so very proud of him.” Surely, every child lives to hear those words. “This is MY child.” To be claimed. To be given an identity.
Jesus was one of those kids who probably grew up being a little bit confused about his parentage. Even if Mary and Joseph had always claimed Jesus as their son, surely he must have heard the rumors. About Mary getting pregnant before the wedding. And the claim that she had not had sex until after Jesus was born. That, somehow, the child conceived in Mary was from the Holy Spirit. Scripture tells us that Jesus was wise beyond his years, but, still, that’s a lot for a kid to take in. It’s a lot for GROWN-UPS to understand. So you just figure, if Jesus was human, like us, and grew, like us, then there MUST have been times in his life when he wondered, “Who AM I REALLY?”
Surely there were times when Jesus had an inkling, a feeling, some level of awareness that he was God’s child. You know Mary must have told Jesus about Joseph’s dream and the star and the wise men and all the scripture that was fulfilled when he was born. But, still, there’s nothing quite like hearing the words, “This is MY Child! Oh, how I love him! I am so very pleased with him.”
Matthew tells us that, when Jesus was baptized the heavens were opened, and of course they were! The awareness, the insight, the understanding … to suddenly be able to see yourself as GOD sees you! Precious! Beloved! Chosen! Could anything be any better than this? It must have been a huge moment in the life of Christ.
It is a huge moment in anyone’s life. Sometimes, it happens all at once. The heavens are opened, and there’s a big, blinded by the light, sudden realization that YOU are God’s beloved child. That God loves YOU so much that he sent Jesus into the world to save YOU from sin. But, for a lot of us, especially those of us who have been raised in church, hearing the stories of Jesus over and over, the heavens may happen slowly over time.[iii] It may not even happen in worship. You might be at camp or a Christian concert or in Vacation Bible School when the heavens are opened and you realize that God truly loves YOU.
Or it may happen in a more ordinary and unexpected way.[iv] Maybe you’re out looking at the stars one night and the heavens are opened and God speaks peace right into your heart. Or you’re holding your first grandchild and the heavens are opened and your heart is flooded with a profound sense of love and joy and gratitude. Or maybe you’re standing by the side of a loved one’s grave and the heavens are opened and you realize that there is indeed life beyond death. The heavens can be opened in many different ways and at many different times in our lives. God can speak, and we can be converted more than once. Because conversion is about changing. And the love of God, which is recognized in our baptism, isn’t just planted in us. It takes root and continues to grow.[v]
That’s what happened to Fayette.[vi] Fayette was a homeless woman who lived with mental illness and lupus. Years ago, she found her way to Hobson UMC in Nashville, where she joined a new members class. The pastor, a woman named Janet Wolf, told the class that baptism is that holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it will NOT come undone. That really grabbed Fayette’s imagination. Time and again, Fayette would ask the class, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” The class learned to respond, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh yes!” Fayette would say, and then the class would go back to its discussion.
On the day of her baptism, Fayette went under, came up spluttering and cried, “And now I am…?” And the whole congregation sang, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold!” “Oh, yes!” Fayette shouted as she danced all around the fellowship hall.
Two months later, the pastor received a phone call. Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. The pastor went right away. From a distance, she could see Fayette pacing back and forth. When the pastor got to the door, she heard, “I am beloved….” Fayette turned, saw the pastor, and said, “I am beloved, precious child of God, and ….” Then she caught sight of herself in the mirror. Her hair was sticking up, blood and tears streaked her face. Her dress was torn and dirty and buttoned wrong. Fayette started again. “I am beloved, precious child of God, and ….” She looked in the mirror again. Then she declared, “… and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!”
Fayette got it. The heavens were opened, and she truly understood that God loves her. One of the most profound songs of the Christian faith is a simple children’s tune. “Jesus loves me, this I know.” But there are so many people who DON’T know. They have NOT heard. For them, the heavens have not opened. They are closed. They have no idea how precious they are to God. And the sad is truth is that they do not know because we have not told them.
When we join the church, we promise to serve as Christ’s representatives in the world. Jesus came so that we might know just how much God loves us. For many of us, the heavens HAVE been opened. We have heard the voice of God calling our names and saying, “This is my child. Oh, how I love you!” And the Spirit has been poured out on us, just as it was poured out on Jesus! So we know the truth. And we have the power! We have the power to open up the heavens for others.
We have the power. Will we use it?

[i] Baptism and Confirmation. Claim the Name: Confirmation Teaching Plans. Crystal A. Zinkiewicz, senior editor. Nashville: Cokesbury. The United Methodist Publishing House, 2000. P. 126.
[ii] Zinkiewicz, 126.
[iii] Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser. “The Heavens Are Opened- Preaching Notes.” Published on the United Methodist Discipleship Ministries website at Downloaded January 7, 2017.
[iv] Chesser.
[v] Chesser.
[vi] The story of Fayette’s baptism is told by Janet Wolf in a story entitled, “Chosen for…”which is published in Companions in Christ: Leader’s Guide. Stephen D. Bryant, Janice T. Grana, and Marjorie J. Thompson, eds. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2001. Pp. 36-37.