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Riverside, California
Studying scripture and preaching the Word to draw us into deeper understanding and more faithful discipleship.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Pastor's (final) Epistle

This is the letter/sermon I wrote to share with my congregation at Wesley UMC in Riverside on my last Sunday as their pastor. 

Dear brothers and sisters in the faith,
First and foremost, I give God thanks for you.  I give God thanks for your faithfulness, your love, your welcoming spirit, and your generosity of heart. 
While our time together seems like only a brief moment in time, it has been worthwhile time spent doing kingdom work, and for that I give thanks as well. 
You are a healthy church full of faithful disciples seeking to understand and follow the will of God in your lives.  And that truth makes you a healing church as well. You have been a place of physical, emotional, relational and spiritual healing for many in our midst.  You have been a place of refuge for those who have been wounded by other churches and other Christians.  You have been a light and a reminder that Christians are good, that we seek to be loving, gracious, and welcoming.  And though sometimes we have stumbled in those ways, sometimes we have been challenged by the quirks and habits of one another, and sometimes challenged by the circumstances and choices of the stranger, you keep trying.  You always go back to a place of faithfulness and ask what God is asking us to do. 
You are a curious people, full of questions and commentary! It’s a beautiful thing. The Bible is meant to be our light and our life source and to be that in our lives, it has to be explored, known and understood.  Questions make that possible.  So study the scriptures and ask your questions.  Challenge the tough passages. Don’t dismiss them as irrelevant or outdated, but look to understand their original and deeper meaning so that you might hear God’s truth for your own life.  Fall in love with the Word of God.  It is the best story book out there.  There is history, intrigue, war stories, stories about the underdog, stories of heroes and heroines, poetry, stories as curious and odd as a sci fi novel, and even a bit of romance. And all of those stories come together to tell the story of God in our history and in our midst.
Some of you worry about asking your questions. You’re afraid to reveal your doubts. You think that doubts mean you lack faith.  Please don’t be anxious.  Doubts don’t equate to a lack of faith.  Doubts deal with understanding, sometimes heart understanding, but mostly with head knowledge.  By probing around and asking questions, you will dig deeper and create a stronger foundation for connection with God and with others. You will be better equipped to deal with the hard questions, the challenging scriptures, and life’s situations that cause your world to crumble.  You may still hesitate about asking your questions, you’re worried something might crack, something might shatter.  You are right, but not in a bad way, asking questions and digging deeper will break the Bible and your faith wide open.  It will be bigger and it will be better. I have that confidence because I’ve doubted. I’ve asked questions. I’ve dug around and broken things apart.  And while some of that felt scary, in the end it made me stronger.  It made me more confident in my faith because I knew what I believed and I knew why I believed it.
So keep asking questions and being in conversation with one another.  You do not all believe alike.  You are not at the same place in your journey.  You are not the same politically or theologically and some people find that as a reason to fight in the church.  Instead, you have found it as a place to nurture one another, learn from each other, and grow in your own beliefs.  Keep it up! Utilize each other’s experiences, faith, and understandings of the Bible and of God to grow and be grown. 
It has been my gift and my privilege to be your pastor.  You have welcomed me into some of the most holy, sacred, and vulnerable places of your lives.  You have confessed, you have grieved, and you have revealed yourselves to me; and I do not take that lightly.  What you have shared I hold in confidence; it was holy sharing.  I am grateful for time spent sharing over meals, in coffee shops, in my office, in the sanctuary, and in the parking lot. 
God has been revealed to us over and over again.  We have prayed and learned to pray together.  We have prayed for and seen God’s healing work in our lives.  We have witnessed miracles in our midst, some that were instantaneous and others that took place over time.  We have battled our demons together.  We have fought our pride, our anger, our self-doubt, depression, fear, anxiety. We have rebuked them in the name of Jesus and prayed for joy, peace, and hope to infiltrate our hearts.  
I hate to acknowledge that this is our last day together.  I hesitate to say goodbye, mostly because it forces me to acknowledge the reality that I will not be with you week after week.  Friends you have shared your lives with me and blessed me in the growth and formation of my own life and family.  I will miss sharing with you. I lament the moments we will not spend together.  My heart breaks because I will not be here to comfort you or care for you when your loved ones pass. I won’t be here to help you say goodbye to those you love or to walk with you as you learn to journey without them.  I won’t be here to celebrate new babies and new relationships and new adventures.  And yet, the message that has been my truth since the beginning of my time in ministry 14 years ago, continues to be true and real.  Ministry is not about me.  It’s about God.  And in my times of doubt and struggle, I have been reminded that it’s not about me. It’s not about my ignorance or my lack of experience. It’s not about my naivete or my quirks. It’s about God.  And as long as I allow God to work through me, then God’s work will be done.  And the true is same today.  As I stand here proud of what we have done together, the projects that have been completed and the lives that have been affected, I am reminded, it’s still not about me.  It’s about God and what God has done through us and in us as the community of faith. 
And while I will definitely miss sharing those moments with you and seeing your smiles and soaking in the love in your hugs, your growth as disciples, and the love you share isn’t about me. It’s about God.  What we have done we have done for God.  Where we have struggled, we have done so to grow in God.  Where we have been challenged, it is by God’s truth.  And whether it’s me, or anyone else here as your pastor, it should always be about God. 
Pastor David is preparing, even now, to come and be your pastor.  He has prayed for you. He has imagined your life in ministry together.  He is excited to be a servant of God working in your midst.  I thank God for David, for his talents, for his calling, for the richness of his experiences, for the things he knows that I do not, and I pray for him as your leader and you as his congregation.  He is a trusted servant and I pray that you are a tremendous blessing to one another.  I pray that you listen for God’s leading and move into the future God has called you to together. 
Beloved community of God, I pray that God pours out a tremendous anointing of the Spirit upon you and that you are a light and witness in this community about the grace, love, and welcome of our God.  I pray you continue to witness, in word and in deed, about the marvelous and redeeming work of our Lord.  I pray your eyes stay fixed on God that you may strengthened and grow to do things beyond your imagination, all for the sake of the kingdom. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Parable of the Talents part 2

Matthew 25:14-30
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Six years ago on my first Sunday, there were 2 homeless men sitting out on the stairs before worship.  And someone came to me and shared that he had asked the men to leave, in essence so they wouldn’t be a bother to the church people.  I asked if he had invited them into church and he said no, and I suggested that maybe the next week he could invite them in.  And he did.  And so David and Allen sat in the back of the church for service.  And the next week they returned, and then again and again and again. 
As the two men became more and more comfortable sitting in worship and getting to know people, many folks in the church became more and more uncomfortable.  They weren’t sure we wanted “those kind of people” here.  They weren’t sure what other people would think if there were shopping carts sitting out front.  It was a struggle.  Allen would sleep in the gazebo and we definitely weren’t sure that was acceptable.  So the trustees began talking and discussing what to do about the homeless. And we were regularly reminded that we weren’t dealing with “the homeless” we were dealing with Allen and David.  We weren’t dealing with an issue, we were dealing with people.  And though we struggled and though there was never 100% consensus, we kept growing in the ministry we were doing.  We started inviting folks to join us for Sunday breakfast.  Bonnie and Cesar were cooking for a Family Camp fundraiser, and since there was food available anyway, we thought we might as well invite those who were particularly hungry to eat too.  Soon others were sleeping on campus as well.  And we were regularly reminded that it wasn’t the homeless we were dealing with. It was Mona and Ed. It was Jimmy and Carlos. It was Cuca and little Allen (not the same as the first, but a short jovial man who grew on you instantly). 
The discussions and debates continued.  We wondered if we were really helping.  We wondered if we were enabling behaviors we didn’t support.  And we were learning stories and getting to know people trying to help in a myriad of ways.  Soon we offered showers.  After all, we had the means, and there was a need, so we opened another set of doors to help these new visitors. Not soon after, or maybe even before, Betty Jones asked if she might offer a Bible study.  She’d go outside to where they sat and congregated and share the Word of God with them.
Each ministry stretched and grew and changed.  Allen became a liturgist, reading scripture on Sunday mornings and eventually joining the church.  Bonnie and Cesar began feeding more homeless folks and people in need than church members at Sunday morning breakfast that it stopped being a fundraiser and became entirely an outreach.  Betty continued teaching the Bible and she and others helped coordinate the showers and started doing clothes and hygiene supplies too.  Emaline and others offered to take clothes home for individuals and wash them.  Some folks cleaned showers. Some folks washed towels. Some folks cut potatoes. Some folks washed dishes and others wiped tables.  Jimmy and Carlos and Mona also started coming to worship.  What began with 2 grew to serve many.
We’ve grown a lot and been stretched a lot in these ministries.  We’ve also had our struggles.  Many folks were fearful as they stepped around sleeping bags leaving an evening meeting.  Others were angry that this wasn’t the atmosphere they wanted coming to church on a Sunday morning.  We battled against drinking on campus.  We have had more than a few conversations with the fire department, police and EMTs.  We have written and rewritten rules.  We have put people on notice, others have had to have a period of probation with the hope that they might be willing to adhere to the rules at the end of it. There have been messes of all kinds and a laundry list of other items that have made us scream, cry, laugh, and shake our heads.  We have discussed and re-discussed wondering if we were making any difference.  And somehow the answer of whether or not we should do this ministry with “these people” has stayed the same, yes, we should.  Yes, it makes a difference. 
After 17 years on the street, Allen moved into permanent housing. After more than 6 months on the street and some severe health struggles, Ed found a place to live.  Mona went into rehab.  Carlos, after nearly losing his life, became sober.  Some of our friends, including Cuca and little Allen, and Allen Anderson have passed.  And while we don’t celebrate that, I celebrate that they weren’t alone when it happened. I celebrate that they knew the love and care of community before entering heaven.  There are other stories of these friends who have struggled for a lot of reasons finding jobs, finding hope, entering a recovery program, getting sober, finding a safe place to live, and knowing that this place is a safe place for them to come, for a hot meal, and a hot shower, some clean clothes, and people who care. 
At the outset, we were worried what shopping carts on the front lawn might say about us as a church.  I’m not sure what everyone in our city thinks, but I know there are a whole lot of people, hundreds and hundreds of them, who see them and know this is the place that helps. This is the church that cares.  This is the place where you don’t have to have it all right in your life in order to walk through the doors. 
When I look at this journey, I see the story of the talents.  We have taken what we have been given: a good kitchen, with plenty of space to serve and eat, a bathroom with a shower, closets and hand-me-down clothes and shoes and towels, and a lot of loving people who care about others and we have been faithful.  YOU have been faithful.  You have used your gifts of hospitality, cooking, generosity, grace, love, forgiveness, tolerance, and compassion and you have blessed people.  And in blessing a few, God has entrusted you with more. And in being faithful with that, God has entrusted you with even more than that. 
Some days, it could be easy to be frustrated.  Some days it can feel like all we do is give and all others do is take.  Some days we wonder what we get out of this.  A few years back when we went from a handful of folks to a couple of handfuls, we weren’t sure we could handle serving more people.  And someone even commented, “They’re only going to invite their friends!”  It was stated as a potentially negative thing, and if we couldn’t find the resources to help, it could have been.  And yet, with some perspective, it’s a blessing, a truth that should be proclaimed from a group of people living as the body of Christ.  The work and ministry we do here should make us, and anyone else WANT to invite our friends.  I wish everyone would invite their friends.  Because it means that what we are doing makes a difference. What we are doing matters.  What we are doing is worthy of inviting others to be a part.  
Some of you are a bit anxious about the future, particularly in the next couple of months.  You’ve been fearful of the change, and all that it brings.  Some of you are skeptical.  Others of you are so very Methodist at your core that you just shrug off another change in appointment.  =) 
I want to reassure you and remind you of how very faithful you have been as the body of Christ.  Not just in ministries of outreach with the homeless, though the evidence of those treasures and talents are quite clear, but in all kinds of ways.  You have been faithful. You have been prayerful. You have listened to God’s leading, even when it took us in a hard direction.  We have been pruned back, and new growth has come forth.  You are the body of believers. You are the core here.  To use an analogy, you are the tree that has grown tall and strong with deep deep roots in this place. You have weathered many storms and born much fruit. You have gone through seasons where you were malnourished only to receive extra nutrients and water in later years and been more fruitful than ever. Others of you have been grafted in, coming from another tree, but getting tied in and connected here and becoming part of this tree, bearing your fruit and growing together in ministry. 
As your pastor, it is my honor to help cultivate this tree, the body of Christ called Wesley Church.  It is my challenge to see what needs to be pruned and cut back so that new growth might arise.  And it is my joy to celebrate the amazing harvest of fruits that you bear.  Fruits of joy, patience, kindness, compassion, charity, hope, faith, love, gentleness, and even self-control.  As your pastor, I am not the tree, you are.  I am here to nurture and help you grow, and it has been an ultimate gift to me to be a part of this chapter in your journey together.  And I am proud to pass my responsibility to another talented cultivator.  Pastor David will come with different nutrients to offer. He may help you bear new fruits in addition to growing larger sweeter fruits.  And, he will also have the challenge of seeing other areas that need pruning so that there might be even better healthier growth in the future. 
Friends you have been faithful with a little and then more and now much.  God is sharing even more with you so can be faithful with much much more. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

But Who's to Blame?

John 9 Living Bible (TLB) (redacted)
9 As he was walking along, he saw a man blind from birth.
“Master,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born blind? Was it a result of his own sins or those of his parents?”
“Neither,” Jesus answered. “But to demonstrate the power of God.
Then he spat on the ground and made mud from the spittle and smoothed the mud over the blind man’s eyes, and told him, “Go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. So the man went where he was sent and washed and came back seeing!
His neighbors and others who knew him as a blind beggar asked each other, “Is this the same fellow—that beggar?”
Some said yes, and some said no. “It can’t be the same man,” they thought, “but he surely looks like him!”
And the beggar said, “I am the same man!”
10 Then they asked him how in the world he could see. What had happened?
11 And he told them, “A man they call Jesus made mud and smoothed it over my eyes and told me to go to the Pool of Siloam and wash off the mud. I did, and I can see!”
12 “Where is he now?” they asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
13 Then they took the man to the Pharisees. 14 Now as it happened, this all occurred on a Sabbath.[a] 15 Then the Pharisees asked him all about it. So he told them how Jesus had smoothed the mud over his eyes, and when it was washed away, he could see!
16 Some of them said, “Then this fellow Jesus is not from God because he is working on the Sabbath.”
Others said, “But how could an ordinary sinner do such miracles?” So there was a deep division of opinion among them.
24  For the second time they called in the man who had been blind and told him, “Give the glory to God, not to Jesus, for we know Jesus is an evil person.”
25 “I don’t know whether he is good or bad,” the man replied, “but I know this: I was blind, and now I see!”

This is a beautiful story that shows a variety of ways we get distracted from seeing God at work in our lives.  Here is a man who was blind from birth. He was never able to see.  Never.  There was no accident, no injury, just blindness.  And after years of blindness, and begging to survive since he wouldn’t have been able to work, Jesus takes spit and dirt and cures him; he restores his sight.  A miracle took place and this man’s life was transformed.  That’s the point of the story.  The description of the healing is repeated FOUR times!
 What took place is a big deal, but ultimately, the others in the story aren’t focused on that.  They are distracted by other things.  First, we have the disciples.  The disciples are worried about why this man is blind in the first place.  And there is an Old Testament passage that says the consequences of your sins will be passed down from generation to generation.  So, they assume that’s what happened. Someone sinned and he’s suffering the consequences.  Technically, the disciples are asking a legitimate question. It sounds odd to us, but for them it was simple.  And they wanted to know, if he was born blind, was it his sin or his parents’ sin?   And reasonably, if he was born blind, then it must have been his parents’ sin, or maybe his grandparents’.  The disciples know there must be someone to blame; they want to know who.  But Jesus doesn’t answer their question, not like they expected.  He instead says, “Neither”.  The blindness doesn’t come as punishment for sin. Instead, it gives us the opportunity to see God’s power.  We can see God at work. 
But that explanation then begs the question, “So is God making the man suffer with blindness so that God can later be glorified?” 
No, that’s not the point either.  If we get stuck there, then we become stuck just like the disciples, we only keep trying to find someone to blame for the blindness.  But we miss the point of this story of Jesus healing the man if we keep focusing on why the man is blind in the first place and lose sight of the fact that Jesus healed the man with mud and spit.  Jesus healed this man.  Jesus performed a miracle.  Jesus touched him and healed him and changed him forever. 
We finally get the disciples on board and understanding the miracle of what took place, and we have to deal with different dissenters.  The Pharisees got hung up on Jesus healing the man, wondering just who gave him the right to do such a thing. And Jesus didn’t just heal without proper authority, but he did it on the Sabbath.  And we all know you can’t work on the Sabbath.  (well, you know, they couldn’t work on the Sabbath, but we can…)  Jesus was a rule breaker.  The Pharisees were so bothered by Jesus’ supposed disregard of the rules that they couldn’t see the miracle that just took place before them.  Jesus refused to play by the rules.  And since it didn’t happen the *right* way, it was a problem.  Who cares if the man can see? Who cares if he can work? Who cares if he can be a part of the community again?  Jesus was unconventional. He broke the rules. And we all know that rule breakers certainly can’t be doing God’s work.  Except, Jesus didn’t really break the rules.  The Pharisees saw that healed on the Sabbath, and they considered that work.  But they’re too focused on the letter of the law.  From other scriptures where Jesus healed on the Sabbath, we can see a similar issue.  And if we look at the 4th commandment, we are reminded “to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.”  The Jews defined that as not working.  But here’s the thing, what’s the point of Sabbath?  Is the purpose of Sabbath to prevent us from working?  No.  Not working only goes to serve the purpose of Sabbath.  The purpose of Sabbath is to restore us.  Sabbath is meant to give us a time away from work, a time of rest, SO THAT we might be restored in mind, body, and spirit.  Sabbath is redemptive, not prohibitive.  And if we understand that the purpose of Sabbath is to bring us back to wholeness, then we can see that healing on the Sabbath is really a fulfillment of the law, and not rejection of it. 
So if this story isn’t about God’s punishment, restrictions, and the consequences of our sin, then what is it about?  It’s a story about God’s grace.  Grace is God’s free gift to us. It’s something we cannot earn and something we do not deserve.  And God expects nothing in return. Grace is free.  It’s given free and clear.  No expectations. No strings attached.  God is not a God of wrath against our sinfulness but instead a God of grace and redemption. 
I know it sounds weird, but sin opens the door so that we might come to know God’s grace.  Yes, there are consequences for sin. No we shouldn’t go out and sin just so God has more opportunities to show us grace.  Grace transforms us. It changes the shape of our lives.  It makes us different.  The man in this story was touched by grace, a gift freely offered by God, something he didn’t earn or necessarily deserve, and his first transformation took the form of sight. But having sight literally changed the way he encountered the world.  And he would have been able to work. And he would have been restored to the community.  His whole world changed in a matter of minutes.   The impact of what Jesus did for him changed him forever and the only response he knew to take was to follow Jesus. He wanted more of that life. He wanted more of that grace.  He was made new by grace. 
We have the same opportunity to be touched and affected by grace, not because grace is a reward for sin. Not because God doesn’t care what our sins are. God cares very much because God knows our sins will only serve to destroy us.  God wants us to be people of grace. People who receive grace and people who offer grace.  Grace marks us. And when we receive that gift from God, it comes to define us. 
We have the temptation, like the disciples and the Pharisees, to get hung up on other things.  We can become too focused on the nature of sin, and the just consequence, that we miss the point entirely.  God’s objective in our lives is redemption. We are meant to be restored. We are meant to be renewed. We are meant to be transformed.  But to encounter that, we have to receive the gift of grace.  We have to be willing to let Jesus intervene on our behalf. 
At the beginning of Lent, I preached about miracles.  We looked at our need for God to do a miracle in our own lives.  Some of us prayed for financial stability. Some of us prayed against an addiction. Some of us prayed for restoration of a relationship.  Some of us prayed for courage to share our faith. Some of us prayed for our children.  Some of us prayed for our parents.  Some of us prayed for our spouses.  Some of us prayed for our world.  We all acknowledged our need for God to intervene in our lives and do something that seemed impossible.  Some of us have seen God’s response already. We have witnessed a miracle.  We have received God’s gift of grace and been transformed.  Others of us are still waiting and praying fervently.  Others of us got distracted.  We got hung up on the details. We became too focused on figuring out the why of our circumstances, like the disciples, that we became blind to the possibility of a miracle for ourselves.  And others of us, like the Pharisees, could only see the reasons Jesus shouldn’t do such a thing in our lives.  And we got hung up. We got distracted.  But God is calling us back to the possibilities. God is calling us back to grace. God is calling us back to the miracles.  Why?  Because God is a god of grace and redemption, not one of consequences and restrictions. God wants to bless you. God wants to restore you. God wants to bring wholeness to your life. 
Let us pray.