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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Reboot: Ctrl+Alt+del

Lord, help me to focus, hear your truth, and write a message that allows people to encounter you. In Jesus’ name, amen.

John 5
Later, Jesus went to Jerusalem for a special feast.  In Jerusalem, there is a pool with 5 covered porches, which is called Bethesda in the Hebrew language. This pool is near the Sheep Gate.  Many sick people were lying on the porches beside the pool. Some were blind, some were crippled and some were paralyzed. A man was lying there who had been sick for 38 years. When Jesus saw the man and knew that he had been sick for such a long time, Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be well?”
The sick man answered, “Sir, there is no one to get me into the pool when the water starts moving.   While I’m coming to the water, someone always gets in before me.” Then Jesus said, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk.”  And immediately the man was well; he picked up his mat and began to walk.

This man had a dream, “If I could get in the water first, then I would be made well.”  For 38 years he had been sick.  The scripture doesn’t tell us what kind of sick, it tells us others are blind and paralyzed, and simply that this man was sick.  And in that day and time that would have meant he was marginalized and outcast. As someone who was sick, he would have been ritually unclean and as someone who was unclean, he would not have been welcome in people’s homes. They wouldn’t have wanted to have contact with him for fear of being unclean themselves.  He wouldn’t have been able to work, maybe because of his illness and maybe simply because he was unclean. So instead he would have had to beg for something to eat. And he likely longed for healing.  For 38 years he was sick. For 38 years he suffered physically, emotionally, relationally, and probably spiritually.  And because of all that, he had a dream: to be made well. 
I imagine that as he dreamed he didn’t just think, oh I hope to be made well. No, I imagine he played it out in his mind.  I think he imagined himself waking up and feeling great, not struggling with pain or nausea or headaches.  He probably imagined himself going to work with the other men in town, invited to join people for meals and festivals and celebrations. He probably imagined friends and family laughing together, enjoying life.  He probably imagined certain events in their fullness and himself healthy and well in the midst of it all.  He had a dream to be made well.  And in seeking after his dream he saw one way to get there, to get in the pool of Bethesda immediately after it was stirred.  If he got in first, then he would be healed and his dream would become a reality.  It may not seem like a big dream, it doesn’t sound fancy or grand, but when you struggle with your health day in and day out for 38 years, being well would be miraculous. And, being well in a culture of clean and unclean would totally change your life. It would change your relationships. It would change your social status. It would change your privilege. It would change where you could eat, where you could live, where you could relax. Being made well would change everything. 
How many of you have ever dreamed of winning the lottery?  Regardless of whether we buy a ticket or not, most of us have imagined what it would be like to win millions.  I have. I started young. I can remember dreaming of the ways I would spend my millions from elementary school on.  (And in my house my parents weren’t big gamblers, so it was only “worth” buying a ticket if the pot got over $100,000,000)  So, if we won the lottery, what kind of things would we do? 
·         Buy a house
·         Pay off our debt
·         Buy a new car
·         Go on a vacation
·         Help our parents with their expenses
·         Help our children or our grandchildren go to college
·         Buy some new clothes
·         What else?
I don’t know about you, but in doing that math, I rarely even got to a million dollars in expenses….most of the time it was closer to $500,000 when I it was all said and done.  $500,000 of my $100,000,000 million and I had a long way to go to spend all my money. So I started dreaming of helping other people. I wanted to renovate an old apartment building and help the homeless.  I wanted to pay for wells for clean water. I wanted to build schools and educate others. I wanted to grant scholarships for people to go to college.  I could dream up a lot of fun ways to spend the money and none of it had anything to do with me.  I had dreams of having a few nice things, but beyond that, my biggest dream was to bless other people and make a real and lasting difference in their lives. 
Many of us would say our dream is to win the lottery, but really, our dream is to do our list, because with or without the lottery, our list is still there.  If we could actualize our dream without the lottery, would we still want the car?  Or the house? Or the new wardrobe? Or to help our family?  Or to change the world?  Of course!  We all have dreams, and many don’t require a million dollars. 
I imagine our dreams sound a little more like this:
·         If I were thin, then I would love my body.
·         If I could pray like Michelle, then I would pray out loud for other people.
·         If our bills were paid, then we would take that trip to Europe.
·         If I could make sense of the Bible stories, then I would have strong faith. 
·         If life weren’t so hectic, then we would try and adopt.
·         If I didn’t have to work, then I would take the time to build my motorcycle. 
·         I’m sure there are hundreds more….at least one, if not two or three, for each person in this room. 
We all have dreams.  Every single one of us has a dream of doing something or being something or going somewhere IF only our circumstances were different in one way or another.  So, I want you to take a minute, pull out your bulletin, or the notepad on your phone, or your Bible and I want you to write your dream.  IF __________________________ THEN ________________________________.  IF (this changed) THEN (I would live my dream). 
(share around)?
We all have a dream.  Your dream is actually the part that follows your “then”.  The “if” is what needs to change or happen in order to actualize your dream.  For the man at Bethesda, his dream was to be made well, his IF was getting in the pool first.  IF I could get in the pool first, THEN I could live my dream of being well. 
Alright, so focusing back on the scripture and the scene before us, Jesus enters the scene.  He comes to the pool at Bethesda and sees the man there and KNOWS he’s been sick for a long time and so Jesus approaches the man and asks, “Do you want to be made well?”  And the man says, “I try to be made well. I try to get to the pool first, but I’m never able to make it in time.”  And Jesus says, “Get up, pick up your mat and walk.”  Do you hear the tension that’s there?  The man was focusing on the contingency. He was focusing on his IF, not his dream.  And Jesus said, “no, focus on your dream, make it your reality. Get up and be well. Get up and live your dream.” 
Like the man, many of us have our dream. We imagine it. We see it in our mind’s eye.  We garner hope from our dream.  But our energy and our effort is focused on our contingency.  We put our time, energy, and money into our “IF” and then we never live our dream.  In essence, our IF, our contingency, becomes a barrier to realizing our dreams.  The IF consumes us. It gets the best of what we have to offer. And our dream gets none of us.  For the man, the healing power of the pool became his focus.  He spent his days waiting for it to be stirred, clamoring for a chance at healing, focusing on the limits of his illness, but never daring to live his dream before them.  But the truth is, God doesn’t want us spending our lives battling our obstacles. God wants us living our dreams. 
Now of course that’s easier said than done.  Remember, living his dream of being well would dump that man’s world on its head.  To be well would mean not being at the pool every day. It would mean different friends, he wouldn’t be with those who were at the pool, he would be with others at work, or sitting around a table, or sharing in the temple.  To live his dream would change everything in his life: his habits, his expectations, and his norms.  Living his dream would mean a complete upheaval of his life.  Let’s not minimize that truth. But, it’s his dream, so it’s worth it. Right? 
Now, what about your dream?  Do you really want your dream?  Do you want to pray without reservation? Or enjoy financial freedom? Or love your body? Or build that motorcycle? Or have a better marriage?  Or spend your time in missions?  Because God wants you to live your dreams. BUT, living your dreams will change everything. Your habits will have to change, your expectations will be different, and you will have a new normal.  But it will be worth it.  Won’t it? Aren’t your dreams worth it?  Stop focusing on your “IF”, stop putting your time and energy into the barriers and obstacles that are standing in the way of your dream.  Start living your dream.
 Stand up, go out, and live your dream. 

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.