Encourage, Nurture and Communicate

Luke 18:15-17 (18:16), Mark 10:13-16 – August 6, 2017

Luke 18-16 Jesus, children, stained glass

“Compassion: Encourage, Nurture and Communicate”

Encourage, nurture and communicate. These are three strong action words! Why on earth do I have these three verbs, or action words, as the title of my sermon today? Especially in the middle of a summer sermon series on compassion?

Our gospel reading is from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 18. This is a situation where the disciples are being really thick-headed. By forbidding young children and babies to get close to “their” Rabbi Jesus, the disciples are definitely not being compassionate. In fact, this is an unkind and unfeeling act. Sadly, we know this kind of unkind, unfeeling behavior is typical of the disciples on much more than one occasion. It might even be typical of followers of Jesus today—this behavior may be even typical of people we know in our own neighborhoods.

Encourage, nurture and communicate. Those are action words that sound like Jesus. What’s more, I suspect the disciples might chase us away from Jesus if we act in that way, too. Encouraging others; nurturing and communicating to others, in love and friendship, showing others the love of Jesus. Are the disciples really so thick-headed and dense that Jesus has to rebuke them? I am afraid so.

We are going to go back two months, to the middle of June. In the Wednesday midweek bible study, we took the opportunity to begin crafting a revised mission statement for St. Luke’s Church. Using the excellent book The Path by Laurie Beth Jones, the bible study members and I went through a series of exercises and steps to winnow through the different types of words and phrases which might often be listed in mission statements.

Our first puzzle piece in the revised mission statement was to find some action words, or strong verbs, that describe what we as a church have been doing among ourselves in the past, and what we wish to do in the present for those inside and outside the church, for outreach.

In other words, we focused on our church’s unique gifts and background, on our passion. What are we passionate about, as a church? If our mission holds no passion, we won’t go much of anywhere. The word “enthusiasm” comes from the Greek words “en” and “theos,” which mean “in God.” What are we enthusiastic or “in God” about? [1]

Let us take another look at our Gospel reading for today. What were the people in our Gospel text for today excited about? Reading from Luke 18: “15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for Him to place His hands on them.” The parallel passage in Mark also mentions people bringing “young children” to Jesus.

Do you hear? Parents and even grandparents were excited to have the Rabbi Jesus place His hands on their children. They wanted Jesus to bless their children! That’s what they were passionate about! That’s what they were enthusiastic about!

How can we—as a family of faith—take what most excites us and use it to change things in our neighborhood—in the nation—in the world?

Every mission requires action. Action words are verbs. The bible study looked at a long list of action verbs. We kept our church and what we are good at in mind, and, what we wanted to see our church do in this neighborhood, too. We figured out the three most meaningful, purposeful and exciting verbs out of over 200 action words that referred specially to our particular church and what we are good at. That is puzzle piece number one.

And, yes. That is where encourage, nurture and communicate fit in. These action words are the words we chose as meaningful, purposeful and exciting words for St. Luke’s mission.

Turning back to our Gospel reading for today, we need to examine the thick-headed disciples and their hasty halt to the babies and children who wanted to come to Jesus. What were the mistakes the disciples made? How can we do better, today?

Let’s take our three action words. I would like to ask you: can we as a congregation encourage people to come to Jesus? Can we encourage children, young people, adults and seniors to come to Jesus? Our second action word is nurture. Can we nurture each other in the love of God within this church building? How about nurturing others who are not in this family of faith? And third, we can all communicate God’s love, every day. Not only within the church, but outside. On the street. In our homes. To everyone we meet.

To continue with the story of how we built the mission statement piece by piece, the bible study examined what we stand for, as a congregation—as a family of faith. What principle, cause, value or purpose would we be willing to defend…devote our lives to? For example, some people’s key phrase or value might be “joy” or “service” or “justice” or “family” or “creativity” or “freedom” or “equality” or “faith” or “excellence.” What is St. Luke’s Church’s CORE? What is the most fundamental value/purpose for St. Luke’s Church?

Again, we went through a whole list of meaningful and worthwhile phrases and values. The bible study talked about a few of the ones we found most important, and came up with three finalists: integrity, faith and welcome. This is puzzle piece number two in our mission statement.

What exciting possibilities are open to us, as a congregation?  Someone asked Laurie Beth “What if I come up with the wrong mission statement?” When she asked him what his current mission statement was, he didn’t have one. She told him, “Well, whatever you come up with will be 100 % more accurate than the one you have right now.” A good mission statement will be inspiring, exciting, clear, and engaging. It will be specific to our congregation and our particular enthusiasms, gifts, and talents. [2]

Let’s go back to the thick-headed disciples, who just did not get what Jesus was trying to get across to them. As Luke mentions, “15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them.” Can you imagine a follower of Jesus kicking someone out of the youth group? Or telling someone they are not welcome in a bible study or a men’s breakfast? Or, at service on Sunday morning? Can you imagine someone at our church doing something like that?

This is one big reason why integrity, faith and welcome were so important to our mission statement. We considered integrity, faith and welcome to be St. Luke’s Church’s CORE, or the most fundamental value or purpose for St. Luke’s Church.

Which brings us to puzzle piece number three. Who is important to us, as a family of faith? Which group or cause excites us? Who do we want to come alongside? We in the bible study chose three groups that we most want to reach, or feel the most empathy for. We can impact these in a positive, meaningful way: children, families and individuals.

What was our Lord Jesus’s response to the disciples? “Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Jesus valued children and young people. Society as a whole did not think very much of children at all. Certainly not in His time, and not so much in ours, either. Worldwide, the position of children and young people is not high—especially of pre-teen and teenage girls, and women, too.

It is imperative that St. Luke’s Church reaches out with the Love of God to children, families and women, too.

How can we reach out in love, to those inside the church, and out?  Reach out with God’s Love, that overarching, undergirding base, the end-all and be-all to everything? We can reach out through loving words and actions, good works, food pantries and other service projects.

Jesus had a compassionate, one-sentence mission statement, which He states in Luke 19:10. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” That is what He gave His entire life to. St. Luke’s Church’s compassionate mission statement is: to ENCOURAGE, NURTURE and COMMUNICATE in INTEGRITY, FAITH and WELCOME to children, families and individuals through loving words/actions, good works, food pantries and other service projects.

Are we serious about our mission? God willing, we shall be. Now, go and do likewise. Encourage, nurture and communicate God’s love in integrity, faith and welcome. To everyone we meet.

 

[1] The Path, Laurie Beth Jones, (New York, NY: Hachette Books), 49.

[2] The Path, Laurie Beth Jones, (New York, NY: Hachette Books), 64.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Faith, Birth from Above

John 3:1-17 – March 12, 2017

Jesus and Nicodemus, JesusMAFA

“Faith, Birth from Above”

Got faith? Really, do you have faith in anything? Perhaps, faith in electricity, to keep the lights and appliances working in our houses. What about faith in our doctors, or in the medical profession in general? Some people would say “yes” and others “not so much.” How about faith in the Chicago sports teams? That kind of faith is getting more and more difficult to keep up.

What about in our Scripture readings today? We have already heard about Abraham, and how he had faith in his God. In each reading, we have a person in our list of faith recipients. A person who tried to have faith and trust in someone or something outside of themselves.

Let’s take a closer look at Abraham’s situation. Reading from Genesis 12: “Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Everything the Lord was saying sounded strange and unfamiliar. God did not even name the country where Abram was supposed to go.

Turning to John 3, Eileen and I acted out the encounter Nicodemus had with the Rabbi Jesus; let’s remind ourselves of that situation. “Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Nicodemus was trying to have faith in someone or something, but faltering. That sounds a lot like us. Don’t we hesitate and falter sometimes, when trying to have faith?

“Jesus answered Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

This is a real puzzle for Nicodemus.  Added to that, Nicodemus had heard Jesus a number of times, thought He was right about a lot of things, but still was cautious.  Put yourself in Nicodemus’s situation. How would you like to be a big-shot teacher of Israel, well known not only among the common people, but also with his colleagues among the Pharisees? He brought his questions to Jesus at night when no one would see him and maybe make fun of him. [1]

Perhaps we are in a similar position, too, where some of us here are cautious or hesitant about finding out more about Jesus. For sure we are in the same boat as Abram: we don’t know quite where we are going, or where this new land really is.

This whole trusting-Jesus-business requires some faith.

Another way of looking at this is that we need to find a new perspective, too, like the Apostle Paul said about Abram in Romans, our New Testament reading today.

Leaving everything familiar to begin a new life? Going to an unknown land, you don’t even know where it is, or how far away? Look, Abram is not coming back. This is certainly no there-and-back-again journey. This is no pilgrimage, either.

I was fascinated to learn some things from one of the commentators. “On a pilgrimage, one sets out to a new place or a holy place to learn something and return where one came from with some new insight for living back home. Abram’s is to be a permanent relocation, something far more like the experience of the millions since Abram who have immigrated to other countries, including the vast majority of the population of the current United States or at least their ancestors.” [2]

I know some of you here are familiar with computers. You might even know how to “reset” or “restart” your computer with a CTRL-ALT-DEL move on a Microsoft Windows®-based computer. Maybe that was what Nicodemus really wanted to do. (It does get frustrating, being uncertain and unsure, not knowing where on earth we are going!) Let’s look at the situation from Jesus’s point of view. Jesus wanted to bring Nicodemus into a whole new world. He started talking about a new birth, or birth from above.

A sermon website I go to from time to time had a superb illustration. (I’m sorry, but I don’t know the name of the anonymous pastor.) “When I was a country pastor trying to get directions to a farm that I had never been to before, if the directions were complicated, the directions sometimes began with “you can’t get there from here.” It was their way of saying that starting from a different place would make the trip easier. Sometimes the best spiritual advice is like that — in order to get to life in the kingdom/reign of God, we have to start from a new place, a reborn place in our lives; and that we can’t get there (to the kingdom) from here (our life of sin apart from God). Nicodemus has trouble thinking that you can start from a new place, that you can’t take along all the history and baggage of the past — “how can these things be?” (vs. 9)” [3]

In computer terms, it is almost as if Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has to “reboot” — that he can’t run his program any more because there are too many error messages flashing in his life. We need, and God is ready to supply, an entirely different operating system.

Too true! Jesus offered the cautious Nicodemus more than a new perspective. It’s a new birth, and whole new world. And, how is he able to reach it? By faith, that’s how.

When God called Abraham, Abraham left everything he knew to move to a place that had not been named.  That is brave and bold.  That takes faith.

All that faith business is centuries in the past. Nicodemus lived when Jesus lived, and Abram lived a lot of centuries before that. What does all that have to do with today? With modern life, and with us here at St. Luke’s Church? Don’t we hesitate and falter sometimes, when trying to have faith? Today, Jesus would tell us the exact same thing.

Some people treat our relationship with God as something we earn by what we do, by “being good” or at least “not being bad” on the basis of some checklist of good or bad behavior. Have we reduced a life of discipleship to Jesus to morality and status instead of actual faithfulness to trust Him and follow where he leads every day? [4]

When we gather together our courage and go to see Jesus under the cover of darkness—like Nicodemus—He welcomes us. He enters into a relationship with us. We are in the same boat as Abram: we don’t know quite where we are going, or where this new land really is.

What about when we get to the end of that lifelong journey, and cross the River Jordan? There will be a welcoming party when we arrive in the Promised Land, for sure!

My original question at the beginning of the sermon: got faith? This whole trusting-Jesus-business requires some faith. The best part is that Jesus will help us. He understands our difficulties. He is patient, and will walk with us as we journey towards that new land. He’ll be right by our side in the valley of the shadow. Step by step, we strive to have faith in God.

What a Savior. What a Friend we have in Jesus. Amen.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/02/year-second-sunday-in-lent-march-16-2014.html 

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/second-sunday-in-lent4#bow

[3] http://desperatepreacher.com//bodyii.htmhttp://javacasa.com/resources/dps_form_results/jon3_1.htm

[4] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/second-sunday-in-lent4#bow

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

(Thanks so much to the good folks at UMC Discipleship.org! I am following their Lenten series. Their online Lenten sermon notes and worship helps are invaluable.)

Generous with Our Faith

“Generous with Our Faith” – March 29, 2015

Jesus raising Lazarus John 11

John 11:25-27

Some people strive to be punctual. Even, early. My grandfather was like that. If he wasn’t fifteen minutes early for an appointment, he would consider himself late! Then, some people have a more fluid idea of time. They see a more relaxed framework of the spectrum of late- versus-early. These come down at different points on this spectrum. And then, we have Jesus.

Our Gospel reading is quite long today, from the 11th chapter of the Gospel of John. I wanted to read this whole passage in the context of this sermon. At the beginning of the reading, we have Jesus and His disciples, some distance from the town of Bethany, where His friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived. Let me set the scene. I will be using the awesome, modern version of the Gospel, translated by Eugene Peterson, called The Message.

1-3 A man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. This was the same Mary who massaged the Lord’s feet with aromatic oils and then wiped them with her hair. It was her brother Lazarus who was sick. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love so very much is sick.”

When Jesus got the message, he said, “This sickness is not fatal. It will become an occasion to show God’s glory by glorifying God’s Son.”

5-7 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, but oddly, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed on where he was for two more days.

 

Here’s the situation in Bethany. We receive quite a lot of information here! Jesus was very close to all three siblings, to Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Lazarus became very sick! So sick, that his sisters sent an emergency message, a call for help, to Jesus. The request to Jesus has been made. A sincere request, made by the loved ones of Lazarus. I suspect we all can relate to this earnest request. We’ve made similar prayers from time to time. Any number of us have sent SOS messages to Jesus, too!

Jesus made mention of showing God’s glory through Lazarus’ sickness. Obviously, He made this comment to His disciples, and I suspect to whomever else was there, listening to Him, at the time. And, as was often the case with Jesus and some of the cryptic things He said, people just did not understand what He meant, at the time. Back to Jesus:

After the two days, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.” They said, “Rabbi, you can’t do that. The Jews are out to kill you, and you’re going back?” 11 Jesus replied, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. I’m going to wake him up.”

12-13 The disciples said, “Master, if he’s gone to sleep, he’ll get a good rest and wake up feeling fine.” Jesus was talking about death, while his disciples thought he was talking about taking a nap.

14-15 Then Jesus became explicit: “Lazarus died. And I am glad for your sakes that I wasn’t there. You’re about to be given new grounds for believing. Now let’s go to him.”

Jesus knows. I mean, Jesus really knows the situation some miles away. His disciples are confused, and at first think Lazarus is just asleep. But, no! Is this a major complication, or what? Sure, there are miracles all over the Old and New Testaments, but miracles of healing, or of feeding large groups of people. Not of reversing death itself! And, especially, after several days!

On top of the disciples’ confusion at the words and behavior of Jesus, Jesus wants to go back to Bethany, which is a town just down the road from Jerusalem. “Jesus, You can’t go there! The Jewish leaders are going to arrest You. Probably try to kill You, too!” Jesus goes anyway.

17-20 When Jesus finally got there, he found Lazarus already four days dead. Bethany was near Jerusalem, only a couple of miles away, and many of the Jews were visiting Martha and Mary, sympathizing with them over their brother. Martha heard Jesus was coming and went out to meet him. Mary remained in the house.

We see Mary and Martha, in the house of mourning. Two very different women, mourning in two very different ways. Many of their friends and acquaintances are with them, too. Sympathizing and mourning with them, as was the custom of the time. Martha goes to meet Jesus while her sister stays put.

21-22 Martha said, “Master, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now, I know that whatever you ask God he will give you.”

23 Jesus said, “Your brother will be raised up.”

24 Martha replied, “I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time.”

25-26 “You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?”

27 “Yes, Master. All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who comes into the world.”

What a statement! What a testimony! Even though Martha is distraught at the death of her dear brother, she still has deep faith. As we’ve just heard, she states that her brother will be raised in the resurrection at the end of time. What does Jesus say? He does her one better.

I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Did you hear? Did everyone hear these words of faith? Words of hope? Words of new life? “The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live.” And then Martha responds again, with great faith. “All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

I could preach a solid sermon on this statement of Martha’s, alone. This ringing declaration, these great words of a rock-solid faith were made at such a devastating time for Martha. On top of everything, in the middle of mourning her brother, we can see that this is not just an intellectual admission or assent for Martha, but heartfelt belief. But wait, there’s more! Much more!

28 After saying this, Martha went to her sister Mary and whispered in her ear, “The Teacher is here and is asking for you.”

29-32 The moment Mary heard that, she jumped up and ran out to him. Jesus had not yet entered the town but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When her sympathizing Jewish friends saw Mary run off, they followed her, thinking she was on her way to the tomb to weep there. Mary came to where Jesus was waiting and fell at his feet, saying, “Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33-34 When Jesus saw her sobbing and the Jews with her sobbing, a deep anger welled up within him. He said, “Where did you put him?”

34-35 “Master, come and see,” they said. Now Jesus wept. 36 The Jews said, “Look how deeply he loved him.”

37 Others among them said, “Well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying? After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.”

We can tell, from these few scenes in the Gospel, that Martha, Mary and Lazarus had a close, intimate relationship. Mary even fell at Jesus’ feet, sobbing. Saying, “if only! If only You had been here!” The words of deep, gut-wrenching emotion are here, too. “Jesus wept.” We know that Jesus felt with Mary and Martha! We can see from this account that Jesus felt so badly and grieved with them, even though He knew what He was intending to do!

How often do we get into a situation where we have the opportunity to come alongside of someone who is devastated, a friend, a relative. Grieve alongside of them, and walk with them down that sorrowful road of mourning, loss, anger, anxiety. Grieve over the deep pain and loss in the reality of death. That’s why I think Jesus cried with Mary. And with Martha, and with the rest of the mourning people. Back to Jesus.

38-39 Then Jesus, the anger again welling up within him, arrived at the tomb. It was a simple cave in the hillside with a slab of stone laid against it. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”

The sister of the dead man, Martha, said, “Master, by this time there’s a stench. He’s been dead four days!”

40 Jesus looked her in the eye. “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41-42 Then, to the others, “Go ahead, take away the stone.”

Practical Martha. “Master, by this time there’s a stench. He’s been dead four days.” Wouldn’t that be something you might think of, too? I probably would have thought of it, too.

They removed the stone. Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and prayed, “Father, I’m grateful that you have listened to me. I know you always do listen, but on account of this crowd standing here I’ve spoken aloud so that they might believe that you sent me.”

43-44 Then he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And he came out, a cadaver, wrapped from head to toe, and with a kerchief over his face. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him loose.”

45-48 That was a turnaround for many of the Jews who were with Mary. They saw what Jesus did, and believed in him.

 

Because of this display of resurrection power, because Lazarus was brought back to life, we see that many believed that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah! The Son of God!

Let me ask: what do you believe? Do you think Jesus was just a great man? Did He preach great sermons, and live an exemplary life? Or, do you think Jesus was a prophet of God? A miracle-worker, like the prophets of the Old Testament, or like the Apostles? Or, the third option. Or—do you think Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah? The Son of God? As Jesus Himself said, the Resurrection and the Life?

Hear the words of Jesus! “The one who believes in Me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in Me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?” Just as Jesus asked Martha so long ago, He is asking us, today, too. Can we respond with Martha, “Yes, Master. Yes, Lord. I believe.” With great faith. “All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus is asking. Do we, really, believe?

Jesus was generous, giving life abundantly to Lazarus. Can we do any less in our lives? We are encouraged to be generous with our faith! To believe Jesus. To take Him at His word, and to trust in Him. Like Martha. Like Mary. We find out that we can believe Him, we can trust Jesus when times are hard, difficult, through storms and suffering. We are also happy to trust Jesus when times are happy, when everything is going our way. Whatever is happening in your life today, can you believe Jesus? Can you be generous? Believe the good news of the Gospel. Have faith! Believe Jesus!

 

Thanks to Eugene Peterson for his wonderful translation The Message. I read most of John chapter 11, around which I have interwoven this message. “Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.”

@chaplaineliza

Thanks to the kind friends at http://www.40acts.org.uk – I am using their sermon suggestions for Lent 2015. #40acts Do Lent generously!

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. Thanks!)