Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Style Points! Greater Blairsville's Got Talent

May 26-May 27         Style Points!
1 Corinthians 13: 1-8, 13     1 Samuel 17: 32-40

            Today we continue our journey into the spiritual gifts, discovering the talent God has given to us. And I hope you’ve been learning a lot and enjoying this series. We began a few weeks ago with a sermon on rediscovering our God-given purpose, then last week we looked at 4 important pieces of advice when operating out of our gifts. Today we add another layer to this topic with a conversation about style, because God not only cares deeply about what we do, but also deeply about what we do.

            Last Saturday, much of the world was smitten with the most recent royal wedding. Many people were glued to their tv’s or devices as they watched Prince Harry and Meghan Markle say their “I do’s.” And it was a beautiful wedding, full of all the pomp and circumstance that you would expect of British royalty. But there was someone else who stood out that day, someone beyond a prince and his new bride: an American Episcopal Bishop by the name of Rev. Michael Curry. And Bishop Curry grabbed the reigns of this moment and made his mark. In his sermon, Bishop Curry preached on love, which is and understandable topic for a wedding. But this was not the ordinary “lovey-dovey” sermon we’re used to hearing. Instead, Bishop Curry preached on the type of transformational that love breaks down barriers, sets people free and carries within it the power to create change. And then he relfected on these words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way."[1]

            Of all the words we could use to describe our Christian faith, I don’t think there’s any better word than love. We could talk about holiness or righteousness, but love just seems to be the right word. And that’s because God knows a thing or two about love. When we hear the ancient writers talk about God, they talk extensively about love. Sure, they talk about power and miracles and authority and strength, concepts that give us hope and comfort in this world…but love is different. We read in 1 John that God is love. Not power, not authority, but love. God IS love. Which is something that demands our attention!  

            It’s impossible to look at the Bible and not conclude that love is God’s preferred style. When God does what God does, God does it in love. It was love that moved God’s heart to offer our world the beautiful gift of Jesus Christ. And out of love, Jesus poured his energy into blessing our sin-sick selves. And ultimately, that’s what people were drawn to. They were drawn to and transformed by God’s love. Now, there is no denying that Jesus was able to do some pretty incredible things- he healed the sick, made the blind to see- but those acts, as amazing as they were, were not enough to convince the world to follow. It was love that made a lasting impression, and it is God’s love that continues to be the most powerful force for good in our world.  That’s the style we’re meant to have- the style of love. And style matters! Without love as our style, without love as the armor we wear into spiritual battle, we’ll lose the war before we ever begin.

            Sometime we can fall into the trap of just getting the job done. And I understand that. In a time-sensitive culture, we don’t always take the opportunity to think about how we do what God has called us to do. But we need to challenge this way of thinking. If we think style doesn’t matter, if we think we can just go about our daily business in any manner, maybe King David would change our minds. When the giant Goliath provoked the Israelites to fight, not a single man would take the bait. Not even the reigning King named Saul. They had all the equipment they needed. Armor, spears, shields, but they also had fear. And out of the crowd a young shepherd boy shook off whatever fear he had said he would go and fight. He didn’t look the part. He was too small, too young, and lacked in military training. But he insisted. King Saul put his own armor on David, but that armor wasn’t his style. It didn’t fit. He couldn’t fight Goliath in somebody else’s armor. He couldn’t attack the enemy the way others would attack. Because style matters. So young David shed his old style, and he put on his devotion to a God who he knew would NOT let him down, and slayed the giant. Gifts are important. The tools we carry into this divine/cosmic battle are significant. They are God-given. We should never downplay them, whether they’re five smooth stones or sword or shield. But God also cares deeply about our style. Let me say it again: God cares deeply about our style.

            Bob Goff is one of the most influential Christian activists of our time. For 25 years, he used his leverage as a lawyer to fight child sex trafficking and resource African countries with training and material necessities. But it almost didn’t happen. Goff struggled with his entrance exams and was not accepted into law school, but he persevered because of an intense love for God. Here’s what happened next, as recounted by reporter Marci Seither: “Without an acceptance letter, Bob walked into the school of his choice a week before classes started and introduced himself to the dean. He acknowledged his poor LSAT score, but explained that he needed to become a lawyer to make a difference in the world. The dean politely turned him away, but Bob was persistent. He sat on the bench outside the dean’s office—and waited. “You have the power to let me in,” Bob told the dean when the man passed by the bench. “All you have to tell me is, ‘Go buy your books.’” For two weeks Bob waited for a chance. Finally, the dean stopped in front of the bench and said, “Go buy your books.” Live every other lawyer before him, Bob Goff got the skills and degrees required for his profession, but they would’ve been meaningless if he hadn’t been dressed in love.

Are you dressed in love? When you walk out the door every morning, is love the armor you wear? It makes all the difference in God’s eyes. We can have the best of what the Holy Spirit offers, says Paul, but without love as our style, without love as our defining trait, it really doesn’t count for much. We can offer the world the greatest skills and talents, we can have all the supernatural gifts in our lives, but without love, transformation will remain a dream instead of reality. Even if we have the faith move mountains and the wisdom to understand the depths of the universe, we’re nothing without love.

As Paul wrote to his beloved church in Corinth, he must’ve been disheartened by what he saw. This was an extraordinarily gifted church, full of talent and potential oozing all over the place, lacking nothing; Yet they lacked the very characteristic of the One who had saved them. They had God-given power, but power can turn into abuse when love is absent. They had God-given influence, but influence can turn into intimidation when love goes missing. They had God-given authority, but without love, authority can morph into domination and oppression. They had God-given relationships, but without love, even the healthiest relationships can grow testy, then dry, then silent. And the scariest of all? They had God-given status as friends and servants of God, but without love, we can forget who serves whom.

In the 1960’s, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, a priest by the name of Peter Scholtes was looking for a song that would transcend race and class and bring people together. He couldn’t find one, so he decided to write his own. And out of that Chicago atmosphere came a song that I think Paul would’ve been a fan of: “They’ll Know We are Christians By Our Love.” Not our gifts, talents or works, but by our love. We can have the greatest armor in the world, but the giants we face in this world, and the giants we face in ourselves, are not defeated by the best armor or battle gear; they’re eventually brought to their knees by love. We can speak with the tongues of angels, preach with the power of the prophets, sing with the heavenly choirs, heal the sick, comfort the dying, build the holiest of churches, care for the poorest of the poor…Yet it is love that God says is the greatest of them all.

So how are you doing with love? Really, how are you doing with love? Because love matters. Love is God’s preferred style, the very source from which all of God’s good and miraculous works stem. And it’s meant to be our style as well. This is why we’ve been given two great commandments, which we probably need to recite every day: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. This is how an old world becomes new again. As Dr. King said, “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way." Are you ready to be a person of love? Let’s love well, because when love is the energy behind our good works, and when love is the spring from which our Spirit-giftedness flows, those big, old, scary giants will fall. Amen.


Sunday, May 20, 2018

You've Got Skills- Greater Blairsville's Got Talent

May 19 and 20, 2018           You’ve Got Skills!      
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-14

Today we continue to explore the topic of spiritual gifts, one of the many ways God equips us to continue the holy work started by Jesus. Last week we looked at purpose and were reminded that we’ve been created to reflect the character of God. Today we explore the ways God intends to make that happen. I invite you to read with me…

I don’t know about your early church experience, but growing up in my small church, we did a lot of singing, especially in Sunday school. You can ask any of my Wildfire youth and young adults- that love for singing has carried over into my ministry, and the sillier the song, the more likely we are to sing it! We sang a lot of growing up because my church seemed to subscribe to the idea that theology is better caught than taught. And I learned a lot that way. But I was really taken aback when my former pastor tried this on for size and preached a 4-week sermon series on country music. Now, you have to know something about my family. I know we live in a sort of transplanted Nashville, but country music was a big no-no in our household. It wasn’t even considered music. To speak of Willie Nelson, George Jones or Reba McEntire was akin to uttering the worst of 4-letter words. We just didn’t have a place in our musical hearts for country music, which is why I was so surprised when a song from this genre impacted my faith.

When I was in seminary, Rodney Atkins came out with a song that prepared me for ministry and parenthood. I had yet to lead a church, and I wasn’t even engaged, but this song was a funny reminder that I would soon be leading others, and those watchful eyes would often do and say what I did and said. In the song, Atkins sings about riding in the truck with his 4-year old, who suddenly blurts out a 4-letter word that begins with an “s.” And when asked where he learned that hideous word, the 4-year old simply said, “I’ve been watching you, dad.” And I want to be just like you.”

For three years the disciples watched Jesus, who was preparing them to be just like him. Every word he said, every miracle he performed, every action he took, they watched and took it all in. And at times they would even imitate him, not knowing that Jesus was slowly forming them in those moments to be a part of his plan. They listened intently to his heroic plan to save the world from itself and restore us back to the Father. And they genuinely longed for their broken world to be made new. And then Jesus dropped this little line on them from John 14:12: Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 

Whoa! That’s a pretty bold statement, isn’t it? The disciples will do greater things than Jesus? Now that seems pretty impossible! I mean, can you even begin to comprehend that statement? Most of the time we have no idea what to do with that, so we get ourselves off the hook by saying, “Well, you know I’m not Jesus,” or “I’m just a human,” but Jesus doesn’t let us off that easily. He wants to stretch our faith. He wants us to see who we are when we give our lives to him and to see that we are God’s plan A, and there is no plan B. You see God’s plan was to put a part of himself in each of us, through the Holy Spirit, which means the work of Christ is no longer reserved for the single human being named Jesus, but the work of Christ is now multiplied throughout the living organism known as the Church. And friends, this is you. As a single human being, Jesus could only be in one place at one time, but if part of him lives through every heart that believes in his name, his impact would spread like a raging fire! This was the beauty of Pentecost. You might say that when the Holy Spirit was given on Pentecost, some of Jesus’ DNA was poured into the disciples. And when you receive God’s Spirit, that same DNA is poured in to you!

If there’s one thing I really want you to know today, it’s that you are more important than you realize. You carry a significance in your life that has spiritual power, an inner treasure that God has placed upon you, a treasure that needs to be discovered. There’s giftedness to every one of you, not because of who you are, but because of Jesus Christ, who is on a mission to redeem and restore a broken world. And part of that treasure is what we call the spiritual gifts. This is how Jesus invites you to come alongside his work.

Spiritual gifts have been very controversial over the years, and a bit confusing, to boot. But of utmost importance when talking about spiritual gifts is the word gift. These are unique talents and skills that can’t be achieved by human means; they are the work of God’s Spirit. They aren’t learned, worked for, or earned; they’re imparted as the Spirit fills us, for the dual purpose of bringing glory to God and building up the church unto maturity. We’ve read about some of those gifts in the past few weeks, but I thought you might be interested in having some references. There are a couple places where the gifts are listed in Scripture. Now, these aren’t exhaustive, and God certainly has the right to change the lists as He sees fit, but for our purposes today, I’ll point you to these passages: Romans 12: 6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:1- 28, Ephesians 4. I’d invite you to spend some time exploring these gifts. You can also Google them to find out more.

When you look at those passages, you’ll find over 20 gifts listed in Scripture, and each one offers a unique contribution to the work of Jesus Christ in the world. One of the leaders who preached extensively on the work of the Spirit was the Apostle Paul, Paul has some pretty important things to say about spiritual gifts. In fact, when he writes, he says this, “I do not want you to uninformed.” Because these gifts are part of the way God has uniquely wired YOU to build up God’s Kingdom. And so I wanted to share Paul’s advice with you today. Here are for things we each need to know about spiritual gifts:

First, every spiritual gift stems from the same source- the Spirit of God. It is the Holy Spirit who determines which gifts are imparted to whom. As we read last week, some are called to be pastors, others teachers. Some are gifted to serve in an administrative function, while others are fitted to lead out in front. There are many gifts, but the same Spirit. And this is important, because some gifts don’t seem as “spiritual” as others, but if each is handed out by God’s Spirit, then they each carry a holy significance. Your gift might best be used out in the public eye in a very clear leadership role…or your gift might best be used behind the scenes or behind the desk. It really doesn’t matter. If it’s a spiritual gift, it’s from the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, there are a variety of gifts. As I said earlier, there are over 20 gifts and no person is meant or expected, to have all of them. That would kind of defeat the purpose of God’s “multiply and conquer” technique, wouldn’t it? Some of the gifts look a little more supernatural than others (like tongues and miracles); some of them take on a behind the scenes nature (like helps), but their diversity is meant to be reflective of a God who loves and functions in diversity.  When we talk about God, we are talking about Creator (or Father), a Redeemer (or Son) and Sustainer (or Holy Spirit). Different emphases, diverse ways of talking about. Yet they each help us understand more fully the power and identity of God. As a follower of Jesus, it is my belief that you’ve been given at least one spiritual gift, and when you operate out of that gift, you help each of us better understand the work of Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, spiritual gifts have been given for the common good. Bruce Bugbee, in his book, Network, says the two primary functions of spiritual gifts are the glory of God and the edifying of others. These gifts are not meant to be hoarded or protected, but shared with others. And let me tell you, when you share your gifts with me, especially gifts that I don’t have, I feel the closeness of Jesus Christ. I had the privilege of attending the Happy Time preschool graduation ceremony on Friday. In her opening address, Mrs. Stuchal took a few moments to thank all the people who helped this year. Some stopped in to read, some planned events, some offered support, some offered their decorating skills and so on. Mrs. Stuchal knew that without their help, Happy Time would’ve struggled this year. When we contribute our unique gifts, we become the blessing we were created to be.

And finally, spiritual gifts are meant to help the church live into the identity of the “Body of Christ.” You see, the church is meant to be a “unit,” which implies an intentional working together. Quite simply, this means that we need each other. And that can be hard to admit. We may not always like each other or agree with each other or even want to be in the same room as each other, but in order for our church to be everything God dreams for us to be, you and I need to operate out of our unique giftedness. Because that’s God’s design. We were created for each other, to help each other, and there’s no other way around it. I can’t be fully who I was meant to be without you, and you can’t be fully who you were meant to be without me. Together, and only together, are we the body of Christ. When you are filled with the Spirit of God, you are given a Kingdom-building gift of the Spirit. This is how you were wired to serve Jesus. And in this church, nobody else can employ that gift in your manner and style. It is uniquely yours. You are called to imitate Christ. But you are also called to do the great things Jesus did, and when you use your gift in tandem with the Body of Christ, the light of Jesus Christ shines brightly in the midst of our world’s darkness! So what do you say we do some great things in the name of Jesus? What do you say we all put our pieces together and complete the puzzle? Because that’s the only way it’s going to happen. Jesus doesn’t want to do this without you, which means you are more important than you know. Amen.

Monday, May 14, 2018

No Auditions Necessary - Greater Blairsville's Got Talent

No Auditions Necessary        May 12 and 13
Scripture: Ephesians 2 and 4

Today we’re beginning a new sermon series on spiritual gifts. There are over 20 spiritual gifts listed in the Bible, and today you’ll find an activity that will begin to teach you about those gifts. We thought it might be a fun way to help you learn. But teaching on spiritual gifts must always be framed as part of our larger purpose and calling. So that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Let’s read.

A well-known blog editor had an idea: She would try out for the hit show “America’s Got Talent.” Like many of us, she’s watched the dreams-coming-true performances from people who just want to make it in the world and wondered if she could be one of them. So she set out on her journey. It was a long day. She waited in line for hours, with young and old hope-filled contestants, each awkwardly practicing their unique talent until their name was called. But one by one, they were sent home, their American dream dissolving into the American disappointment. Nobody from that day’s auditions received a call back. Every single one of them was told, “Thanks for showing up, but you’re not what we’re looking for.” Except for the blog editor. She was asked to hang back and told that her stand-up comedy routine was pretty funny. And even though she didn’t make it, that affirmation was enough. She had been noticed, and in America, she wrote, is the best you can hope for. The best you can hope for is to get noticed. [1]

When I read that story, something struck a chord in me. We all have a desire to be noticed, to be recognized, to be seen, because we want our lives to count. And so we live life as one big audition, trying to convince others, and ourselves that my life matters, that my life has purpose. I see this everyday in my house. When I praise one of my girls for something they’ve done, undoubtedly the other one will say, “Look at me. Look at what I can do. I’m just as important.” But what my girls don’t know is that I’ve always seen their significance, and they never had to do anything to prove it.

This is one of the hardest pieces of theology to wrap our heads around. We are people of grace, which means that our significance is determined more by God’s activity than by ours.  We sing a lot about grace, talk a lot about grace, but to embody this idea that God willingly loves us with a love that is underserved is quite the challenge. We’re used to proving ourselves; we’re used to working for what we want and need; we’re conditioned to study, sweat and grimace just so we can pass the test, cross the finish line, get the job and make it in this world. But here’s the good news: Long before we put in any effort, God had already spoken significance over our lives. Listen to what God speaks to the prophet Jeremiah: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." Jeremiah wasn’t even a glimmer in his mother’s eye, yet God had his finger on him. And all Jeremiah could do was receive this promise, this life, as a gift from God.

It might not always seem like it, but from the moment you were conceived, and even before that moment in mysteries I can’t even begin to comprehend, God had his finger on you. Ephesians calls this “God’s handiwork.” Another translation puts it this way: “You are who God created you to be.” You hadn’t even proven yourself yet, and God was still circling your name, calling you, dreaming of fulfilling beautiful purposes in you and through you. And when we live out our purpose, our God-given potential, there is rejoicing in the heavens and transformation on earth. So let’s talk a little bit about purpose.

Purpose is a buzzword in our world. Everyone’s searching for it; everyone’s trying to nail down an answer to the age-old question “What on earth am I here for?” And for good reason: we want our lives to count. There are no shortage of self-help books, ideas and entire careers that try to help us answer that question. But most of the time, we start at the wrong place. Let’s look again at Ephesians. Paul writes, “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” So what’s this have to do with purpose? Everything.

You see, more often than not, our conversations about purpose usually start with the unholy trinity: me, myself and I. We ask questions like, “What am I good at? What skills do I have? How do I fit in? What do I like to do? It’s a very me-centered driven way of thinking. And that’s understandable because we live in a culture that places a premium on the individual’s quest for meaning and identity. We spend thousands of dollars we spend the rest of our lives paying off for a degree that we hope points to purpose. We buy things we don’t need because we hope they’ll reveal something deep about why we were born. We stress out over what we’re good at and what we’re not because we know we only have one shot to live. But faith invites us to frame our understanding of purpose differently. Because if life truly is a gift from God, and if we truly are God’s handiwork, then my purpose and your purpose doesn’t begin with us; it begins with God. The question for us is no longer, “What is my purpose,” because purpose is found in Christ. Now the question we ask sounds like this, “What is the purpose God desires to achieve through my life?”

So what does this mean? How we go about discovering God’s purposes for us. Well, at the very least, it means “good works.” This was meant by God to be our way of life. Paul says that God prepared us for good. We’ve been created to do good, because God himself is good. William Barclay, an old theologian, implies that there’s something wrong with a faith that doesn’t produce good works because that’s simply not God’s design for his creation. We are meant to reflect the character of God, and God is self-giving Love. God blesses, lifts up, heals and makes new. God sets free. God carries burdens. God fills our cups. And quite simply, that’s our purpose.

I was spending some time with the Lord the other morning, reading some Scripture, when Joanna came in and filled up my coffee cup. And that little act blessed me and set the course for the day. She had had enough coffee that day, she didn’t need any more, but there was extra. So she filled up my cup. Whose cup are you filling? That’s a question about purpose. If the only cup overflowing is yours, you’re probably missing out on something really important. But when you reach out to fill another’s cup, you are fulfilling God’s destiny for your life. When you give your life away, you will find purpose.

Purpose is what Rachel, an up and coming young track and field participant, found in a stranger one day. As a sophomore on her high school track and field team, Rachel had just run the race of her life. But a timing mishap forced a re-run, and her second attempt resulted in a last place finish. Bursting into tears, Rachel sought out a friend to console her, not wanting to be alone as she looked back at what she thought would be one of the worst days of her athletic career. As it turned out, that moment became one of her best sports experiences ever –thanks to another runner who gave her one of his medals. "It's not the fact that I didn't get a medal or first place in the league that I'll remember," Rachel said, "it's that somebody noticed and that someone cared enough to make my day by giving me something that meant a lot to them. "That's what I'll remember forever." That one simple gesture transformed a horrible moment into a good one. I’d call that “purpose.” [2]

I don’t know anything about this young man’s faith, but I think it’s safe to say that his gesture has a lot to teach us about our own. When we give our lives to Jesus, something deeper than making a heavenly reservation happens to us. We become a part of Jesus. We become a part of his body, his life, and in a way, we are joined to his hip. All of which is to say that his purpose becomes our purpose. And what exactly is God’s purpose? John 10:10 puts it nicely: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the fullest.” God’s purpose, our purpose, is to live in a way that helps others come to life.

“The best I can hope for is to be noticed.” Those were the words I mentioned earlier from the wannabe America’s Got Talent contestant. But that’s the same yearning that many people are crying out for today. To be noticed. To be seen. To be wanted. And in Christ, they are. In Christ, all of creation has a God who has given his best for them. And your purpose, brothers and sisters, and my purpose, is to join Jesus in his life-giving mission. That’s how God wants to use you! And the best news is that God has already called you to do this holy work, and he’s already given you everything you need to be a part of his plan. There are no special skills required, no education requirement, no extensive training or extraordinary faith. Just a willingness to say, “Yes” to filling the cups Jesus brings your way. Just a willingness to let Jesus grab a hold of your life and fulfill his purposes in and through you. So are you willing? This will be the greatest adventure of your life, and you will never have to worry about purpose again. Friends, we have a dying world that needs our “yes” to God. God has already given His “yes” to you. Will you give God your “yes” in return? Amen.