Monday, July 23, 2018

FOCUS: Creating Renewal

Creating Renewal

            This past week I had the privilege of leading the music time at Vacation Bible School. And let me tell you, what a blast! I left for home every night completely exhausted, but also completely refreshed in my soul. Spending those nights singing and dancing with young disciples renewed my faith and replenished a joy that I didn’t know was even missing! But that’s what happens when faith catches fire. Vitality happens. New life happens. You might even call it revival! And that’s what we’re discussing today: how to seek vitality and renewal in our congregations. It’s one of our five areas of focus, five areas that we believe have the capacity to change the world. And I remain convinced that if we seek renewal and revival in our churches, the world will be drawn in to the magnificent and life-giving work of Jesus Christ. Would you read with me…

Acts 2 is sort of like the gold standard for church life. When Jesus told the disciples to stay and Jerusalem and wait for the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, they had no idea what was in store for them. But when that day arrived, it was as if heaven came down on earth. And it changed everything. Immediately the disciples understood that they had received a new mission in life- to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and carry out his ministry into every corner of the world. It meant evangelism, which is simply sharing the news of Jesus in different ways. It meant renewal, in the form of helping the faithful Jewish people understand that Jesus was the fulfillment of their long-awaited hopes. And in many cases, it meant starting from scratch, offering the world a beautiful vision of vibrant faith communities that people couldn’t wait to be apart of.

Now, it doesn’t take rocket science to understand that we live in different times. We know the statistics out there, and even if we don’t know the statistics, all we need to do is look around to realize that church isn’t a compelling option for many people today. But then again, maybe the times aren’t so different after all, because church wasn’t a compelling option in first century Jerusalem, either. Yet that’s precisely where Jesus begins to offer the world a better vision for life through His Spirit-filled disciples. In the middle of a city where everyone has their own thoughts and there own way of doing life, the Spirit gives birth to the Church, and it’s fascinating.

Let’s look at some of these godly characteristics that defined the first church. And they’re godly because only God can do this. Only the Spirit of God can produce a life that looks like this, and the desire to be apart of it. They were devoted to the spiritual life, eating together and praying. Are you devoted to the beauty of a prayer-filled life? Or is it just an “I’ll do it when I need it” type of thing. Renewal happens when we devote ourselves to the work of pray. Everyone was filled with awe. When’s the last time you were filled with awe at the works of God? When’s the last time you believed that God could and WOULD do all that God says he can do? All were together and have everything in common. That’s a pretty radical concept these days. They were together. They were common. I’m sure they had their differences and didn’t always get along, but they moved toward each other instead of pulling away. They sold possessions and property and gave to people in need. Now that’s REALLY Holy Spirit work. To give something up that isn’t life or death for YOU, but might be for someone else…that’s Holy Spirit stuff. And guess what happened? More people came. Revival happened. Lives changed. Every day people were being saved! And here’s the really awesome news: It can happen again. Acts 2 wasn’t the last time God initiated a world-changing renewal movement. God’s also done it with the Methodists; it’s part of our DNA.

A few years ago I stood on the riverbanks of a little community in England known as Pill. It was here that John Wesley would commission some young Methodist preachers to set sail and go start new churches in America and spread the fire of England’s revival to a young country still trying to find its way. The riverbanks were filled with mud, and American was an ocean away, which for me was a clear reminder that bringing renewal and revival isn’t easy, but when we give ourselves over to God, it’s a beautiful mission. To tell you a little more of the story, I wanted to show you on quick video from my childhood. Show Claymation video.

That’s a classic video, isn’t it? Haha. Now be honest with me. Do you think something like that could happen today? Do you believe God could bring about spiritual vitality in today’s culture? And if so, how many of you would love to see that happen today? Count me among those who long to see God usher in a new day of vital churches and vital discipleship. I believe God has rooted us in this particular place and time to start new ministries, to reach new people, to renew our faith and grow the Kingdom of God. And if we believe that God can do this through us, and if we willingly and sacrificially give ourselves over to the One who says, “I’m sending you to the ends of the world,” then generations of people will be saved. But here’s the catch: the work starts in us. If we want our world to change; if we want our communities to know the power of Christ; if we desire our churches to be filled with vitality for generations to come, we must first give the Holy Spirit permission to transform us. And we can begin to do that through a prayerful process known as HOPE.

H is for Hospitality, which is about making room in our lives for others. And the first person we need to make room for is Jesus. When we receive Jesus into our lives, when we make room in our hearts for His presence, we are given new life. The old part of us is thrown out and new life takes over. And we are set free from the power of sin. But we are also set free so that others might find this life. As we continue to make room for Jesus, we’ll quickly discover that Jesus has a knack for putting people into our lives who think, believe and live differently than we do. And in the midst of that discomfort, we’ll have to decide to either shut our doors or swing the gates wide open. Jorge Acevado, a successful pastor was once asked how he grew such a large church. His answer? He prayed for God to send him the people nobody else wanted. And God did! Jesus was so good at welcoming into his life the losers, loners and misfits of the world. And when they were with Jesus, they felt at home. Could people different than us feel at home with us? Could we feel at home with them? What would happen if that prayer of hospitality became our desire? God send us the people nobody else wants. I think God would answer that prayer.

O stands for “Offer them Christ.” This is what sets us apart from other really good, community-based organizations. Our singular purpose is to offer the world what the world truly needs- Jesus. But to offer Jesus to the world, we have to cultivate the type of life that permits Jesus to offer himself to us on a daily basis. In other words, we have to buy what we’re selling; we have to eat the same food that’s been prepared for others. Connecting with Christ on a daily basis is a key to renewing the world. If we’re not growing, if we’re not healthy, then we can’t be trusted with the Gospel. But if we’re growing and listening, God will open up doors for us. A former Bishop used to tell a story of an experience he had in Africa. For years, they tried to start churches and proclaim the good news of Jesus in a particular area, but to no avail. Then they changed their game plan. They started to care for the physical needs of the village, just like Jesus did, offering healthcare and other means to a healthier life. And at long last, they were able to do the soul work of offering Jesus will happen. What was different? The head of the village put it this way: “You took care of our bodies, now we’ll let you take care of our souls.”

P stands for Purpose. With purpose, we’re not talking about a calling or a career, we’re talking about becoming more like Christ. Ultimately, that’s our purpose. In the church, we’re often good at taking first steps, but then we stop. If we want to see revival and renewal, the posture of our lives must be a constant moving in a Godward direction. Bishop Rueben Job speaks to this in a devotional when he says, “Conversion is going on all the time within us and within the world. While the change of turning toward God may seem like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it is in reality a continual process. We may think that we have turned fully toward God; then we discover another dimension of God, and we know immediately that more conversion is possible and necessary if we are to move Godward in all of life.” Would you characterize your life as moving constantly in a Godward direction? That’s your purpose, and I believe it will lead to renewal.

Finally, we come to E, and E stands for Engagement. God won’t bring about renewal and revival if we are a cloistered people hanging out with only people like ourselves; our living faith should make a living difference in our world. Mark Twain once implied that we have to get out of comfortable positions if we want to see true transformation take place. He wasn’t talking about faith, but his point is clear. Here’s what he writes, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” We have to be engaged WITH the world to initiate change IN the world. And it’s only when we engage with the authentic reality of our world that our hearts begin to yearn for a renewed hope that is found only in Jesus.

HOPE is what the world needs. HOPE is what we need. And HOPE is how we’ll get there. Hospitality. Offering Christ. Purpose. And Engagement. These are the birth pangs of revival, the seeds of new birth, and the spark in God’s heart ready to set us ablaze. In the words of the popular refrain, “Come, Holy Spirit, come.” Amen.

*To learn more about HOPE, visit

You Don't Have to Be God

July 22, 2018                         You Don’t Have to Be God     
Jonah 3

            If there’s one story from my childhood Sunday school classes that never failed to attract my attention, it was the old story of Jonah. I was mesmerized every time I heard that God could produce a fish begin enough to swallow a man (and you better believe I thought about that story every time I dipped my feet into the ocean). But as I’ve grown older, I think I appreciate this story even more. Not because of what it says about Jonah, but what it proclaims about God. Now, today’s text begins with chapter 3, which is sort of an odd place to start when you’re reading a book. But for Jonah, and maybe for us, it’s the perfect place to start…because this is his new beginning. Would you read with me…

            Ever since God spoke to Jonah the first time, Jonah has been on the run. And I’m sure that could describe many of us. God called him to go to Nineveh, a city known for its wickedness and evil, a city no good person in his or her right mind would ever go. Nineveh was the last place a Hebrew like Jonah wanted to spend his days. So he ran.  He went down to a place called Joppa, hoping to flee this crazy request from God, hoping to escape to a new reality, one that he could control and manipulate. But we also know that Jonah was hoping to flee from God. He is the picture of disobedience. He wants to carve out his niche on his own terms, spend his days where he wants to, live the way he’s always envisioned. So when told to do one thing by God, he puts on the rebellious hat and does another.  And we know how the story goes. He gets on a ship, the storms whip up and Jonah and the lives of his traveling companions are put at risk. Even so, we read these powerful and hope-filled words: The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.

            If we have in our minds that God only calls and uses certain types of people with certain characteristics that we would deem worthy of holy callings, then Jonah presents us with a holy conundrum. If God requires obedience, then we must recognize Jonah’s initial disobedience.  If God requires faithfulness, then we must come to grips with Jonah’s lack of faithfulness.  And if God requires a heart to be as passionate as His, then we really have a problem. Because Jonah might be passionate, but whatever he is passionate about, it is certainly not Nineveh. God may have a heart for those people, but Jonah does not.  Yet, The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. And this is really the heart of the story.

            No matter how far Jonah strays from God, he’s not out of the realm of God’s good grasp. Regardless of how Jonah has spent the first part of this story, God just keeps on writing new chapters. And no matter how far Jonah runs, God keeps chasing, waiting for that moment to offer a new opportunity. This “second time” word God gives to Jonah is good news for all those who believe we’ve strayed too far.  If Jonah were talking to us, he would sit us down and say,  “you better think again.”  Because over and over again, the Bible shows us examples of people who are called by God to do something, yet none of these people fit into the box labeled “Perfect.”  And many times, God uses people in spite of their obvious flaws, shortcomings and weaknesses. There was Abraham, who was seemingly too old; Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho; and David, who couldn’t hold a candle to the giant Goliath. And now we have Jonah, the disobedient prophet, who doesn’t want to go where God wants him to go. Yet, the word of the Lord comes again.

            When this word comes, God tells Jonah to share a message. But the message to be proclaimed will not be Jonah’s message; it will be the message God gives to Jonah.  There is no one in this service who does not know the danger of speaking the wrong word, or even the right word at the wrong time. The word we are each called to proclaim is not our word; it is God’s.  As soon as we blur these lines and mistakenly believe that this word is our word, we run the risk of proclaiming a message that God does not intend. Every responsible preacher knows that it is not the preacher’s job to somehow “work up a message.”  It is the preacher’s job to show up Monday morning with the expectation that God will give a message throughout the week. 

            Much of our faith can be boiled down to three simple words:  “Just show up.”  But simply showing up is not natural for most of us.  Most of us would rather plan out our steps so that we can avoid obstacles and distractions.  Jonah had no idea how Nineveh would respond to God’s message.  He had now way of knowing whether or not they would accept him, pay attention to him or take his life.  But Jonah wasn’t called to figure any of this out.  He was just told to go. 

            One of the struggles we have is the assumption that somehow we are called to take Jesus into the world. And there are a lot of stressed-out Christians in the world who buy in to this belief.  That’s a burden no human can shoulder and a mission we simply cannot fulfill.  We don’t take Jesus into the world.  We don’t take Jesus anywhere. He’s already there. Before we have the conversation, before we enter in to the tense meeting room, before we go to the mission field, we can breathe a huge sigh of relief- Jesus is already there! And the same is true in Nineveh.  Long before Jonah arrives on the scene, God has already been at work.  Jonah isn’t asked to take God to Nineveh or figure out how to reach the people; he’s simply told to show up and meet God in this foreign land.  

At long last, Jonah finally makes it to Nineveh.  After all the running away, he finally enters the city he desperately tried to avoid and begins to preach: “Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.”  It’s a sermon that leaves a lot to be desired.  There’s not a lot of hope in his message, no option of choosing another way or going a different direction. Jonah simply proclaims the message God gives him:  “Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.”  And it was all he needed to say because Nineveh was ready to hear. From the common citizen to the King, this wicked city called Nineveh, was ready to believe God.  Jonah’s sermon isn’t much, but it gets the job done. The King declares a royal proclamation of fasting, of crying out to God and of ceasing from violence. The hope is that God might take notice, that he might have compassion on them and that he will not do what he had set out to do.  And that’s exactly what happens. God sees the changed ways of Nineveh, hears their cries, and shows them mercy.

            That’s really what the story of Jonah is all about. It’s about mercy and second chances to those who really don’t deserve. It’s about God doing whatever it takes to call back a wayward prophet or a wicked city. In the final six verses, Jonah quietly fades from the picture. That’s because in this story, Jonah is, as Mother Teresa described herself, “a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.”  This story, as well as yours, is all about God. It is God who calls Jonah and says, “Get up.”  It is God who sends Jonah and says, “Go.”  It is God who gives Jonah a message to preach and doesn’t make Jonah rely on his own creative abilities. It is God who sees in Nineveh a people worthy a second chance; and it is God who hears their cries and offers them mercy. It is God and not Jonah.

What is it about Jonah that makes him the ideal candidate to go to Nineveh?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  For various reasons, Jonah looks nothing like the person God would send to turn the hearts of a dying city, but this just might be the point. Only God would have the muster to stick with a disobedient prophet.  Only God would have the courage to send a Hebrew into foreign land.  And only God could have the type of unrelenting compassion on a people so prone to wickedness.  And ultimately this is why Nineveh believes. Though the sound echoing through the air is the voice of Jonah, it is God whom the Ninevehites hear. 

The success of every ministry, every calling and every life can be answered with one question: Was God made known?  Or as John the Baptist once implied, “Did you decrease so that Christ could be increased?”  This is, of course, why Jesus sends us out into the world- not to be Christ, but to make room so that Christ may increase.

To complete the work God calls you to do, you don’t have to be God.  And this is a good thing, because I don’t think any of us would make a very good God. And as Jonah proves, you don’t even have to be very proficient at following God to successfully complete the mission. You don’t have to turn your office into a platform or your lunch break into a Bible Study or make your neighbor into your evangelism guinea pig.  You don’t have to do any of that. You just have to show up, meet God there and believe that in you, through you and maybe at times even in spite of you, God will fulfill His mission of revealing the tremendous depths of his love to the world. Amen. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Focus: Promoting Abundant Health

Currently, we're in the midst of a sermon series called "Focus: Five Areas To Change the World." We're looking at the WPAUMC's Five Areas of Focus. Ministry With the Poor and Developing Principled Christian Leaders will not be available on this blog.

July 7 and 8, 2018    Promoting Abundant Health
Romans 8: 18-28

There’s a story told about a man stranded on the side of the road after his car broke down. He tried everything he could think of to get the car running, but nothing worked. After struggling for some time, a limousine approached and a well-dressed man stepped out and offered to help. He looked at the engine, tinkered for a few moments, and to the owner’s surprise, started up his broken down care. “How much do I owe you?” asked the owner. “Nothing,” said the man. “My name is Henry Ford. I created that care, and I can’t stand to see something I’ve created not do what it was meant to do.” Well today we’re continuing to explore five areas of focus that can change the world. My colleagues have led well the past few weeks, helping us explore the ideas of Ministry With the Poor and Leadership Development. Today we’re launching into our third focus- Promoting Abundant Health, which is really about God’s desire to see creation do what creation was meant to do. I invite you to read with me…

If you’re on Facebook, or maybe you’ve heard through other avenues, you might’ve noticed that I requested prayer for three young missionaries who are currently detained in the Philippines. Now most of the time when we think of missionaries, we tend to think of the work that Dave Peightal and I did in Puerto Rico, rebuilding homes after hurricane devastations. It was good work, and certainly qualifies as “mission.” Or you might think of translating Bibles in little known languages to people groups in foreign countries. But these three young missionaries were sent on a very different kind of mission- they were sent on a fact-finding journey to uncover some of the human rights violations occurring in the Philippines. Essentially, they were there to do the dirty work of bring light to some dangerous and dark practices. And they must’ve found something officials were hoping would not be seen, because since February, they’ve had their passports confiscated, they’ve not been allowed to leave the country, and one of them has been thrown in jail. (UPDATE:Two have recently been released. PTL!)

Now why am I telling you this? And why does any of this matter? Well, it matters because the church is called to care for other people. I want you to hear that loud and clear. The church is called to care for people. When we stop caring for others, we’ve ceased to be the church. The church is a place where God is to be worshipped and disciples are to be made, but the church is also a place where we called to actively love our neighbor. When Jesus is asked about the definition of a neighbor in the parable of the Good Samaritan (you know the story well), he paints a vivid picture our neighbor is defined by the person in need, regardless of where that person lives or what his or her particular need looks or sounds like. And if we’re careful to look at the life and ministry of Jesus, we see that he cares about the entire person- the spiritual side, the physical side, the mental side, and every other side that constitutes abundant life. Jesus doesn’t separate us and compartmentalize us, as if God only cares about the inside and NOT the outside. God cares about it all.

It’s interesting to note that in the first recorded sermon by Jesus in the Gospels, we’re invited into God’s big and spacious heart for people. Led by the Spirit, Jesus’ inaugural address was a bold proclamation that his work, and by virtue of our association with Jesus, our work, is about proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, giving sight to the blind, setting the oppressed free, and reminding the world filled with all these nobodies and forgotten ones and broken ones that God’s favor is upon them. And then he goes and does everything he said. Jesus could preach a good sermon; he could lead an insightful Bible study.  But then he went out and did what he taught.. To some, like blind Bartimaeus, he provided physical healing. To others, like the woman caught in adultery, he offered forgiveness of sins. To others, like Zacchaeus, he became a friend to those nobody else liked. And to others he welcomed them into his presence, and it was as if they received new life. The Good Physician, caring deeply for his patients, keeping them alive, but also leading them to abundance.

Even though Jesus doesn’t actually use the word, there is a word for all of this, and it’s one of my all time favorites: shalom. Go ahead and turn to somebody and speak that word: shalom. Doesn’t that sound good? That’s because it is good. Shalom is often defined as peace, but the better rendering is wholeness or wellbeing. Shalom is experienced when body, mind and spirit are firing on all cylinders, the very building block of a person that make up what we call life, but also the basic pieces of our identity that are prone to despair and decay in our fallen world. Who amongst us doesn’t know the struggle of a body that doesn’t quite work the way it once did? They tell me not to grow older because the body just doesn’t rebound like it used to. Or how about the mind? We all probably know at least one person battling with depression, dementia or suicidal tendencies. The mind is often under brutal attack in our world. And of course, the spirit, the life-giving, inward depths of a person that is meant to reflect the joy and presence of God. It’s often struck down by a world that has lost it’s way. And God cares about all of it, every single inch of what it means to be human, which is why abundant health is one our five areas of focus.

John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist branch of faith, was known for his deep desire to see the Gospel heal in all shapes and forms. He often visited prisoner to encourage the inmates. He was an advocated for education, doing everything he could to ensure children had the opportunity to shape their minds. He even wrote a book called “The Primitive Physick,” in which he sought to offer practical medical advice to those who couldn’t afford a doctor.[1] Isn’t that awesome? That’s our theological DNA! In a letter written to another theologian, Wesley encouraged him to be cognizant of both the spiritual and physical needs of the world. Wesley writes, ““It will be a double blessing if you give yourself up to the Great Physician, that He may heal soul and body together. And unquestionably this is His design. He wants to give you … both inward and outward health.” [2]Dave Peightal and I had the chance to give ourselves over to the Great Physician last week in Puerto Rico. And we discovered that a hurricane can cause both inward and outward devastation. From the outside, our work looked like rebuilding homes and tearing down walls, but as we got to know the people we worked with, we learned that our rebuilding efforts were about so much more. There was a man who was living in his cemented bathroom, because that was the only remaining structure he had left. We weren’t able to build a home for him last week, but we were able to help him take the first steps out of his painful reality. There was the family that had to leave the job site because they couldn’t bear to see all their flood-ravaged possessions be tossed into a dumpster…but they were grateful to have someone else do the gut-wrenching work of tossing away bits and pieces of the only life they’ve ever known. There was the pastor who ended up telling her story around the dinner table, a prayerful hope that she needed to share, even though she was there to serve others. And there was the Bishop of Puerto Rico, simply offering his gratitude for the fact that someone, anyone, had listened to the cries of the people and decided to show up.

To put a fine point on it, that’s what Abundant Health is really all about. It’s about hearing the cries of creation and showing up. The Apostle Paul calls these cries “groans.” And I think that’s good imagery. Even though Romans 8 is all about life, you can’t experience the fullness of life until you enter into the groans. Paul says all of creation groans for the redemption of God. And let me tell you, if the trees could personify after a hurricane, you would see their tears and hear their pain. Those of you who walk and pick up trash from the roads know a thing or two about the groaning of creation. I wonder how creation groans for that glorious, eternal day, and how you might be able to respond right now? Paul says that we also have inward groans, those prayers we lift up, those days when we have nothing left, when we long for that moment when there will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain. Get to know someone’s vulnerability, someone’s story, and you’ll hear the depths of their groaning. I wonder what groans are happening in the person beside you, and how you might be able to respond today? Paul also says there’s a third type of groaning, the one I find to be most interesting: God’s groaning. God groans for creation to be the way He always meant it to be, and God’s heart yearns to make all well again. What does the Lord groan for? For justice, mercy and kindness; to cover this world in the fullness of His love.

Friends, our world cries out for hope and healing. And as one teacher reminds, we have to listen to the groans in the world.[3] And then we need to enter into them. That’s how we promote abundant health. Groans sound painful, and most of the time, they are. But groans are where we find the surprising activity of God’s good and holy Kingdom. In fact, I think we’ll miss out on some really amazing moments with Jesus if we run away from the groans, instead of toward them. Sometimes that looks like a conversation around a table; sometimes it looks like building of a new home. Sometimes that looks like mucking out mud from a basement; sometimes it looks like a fact-finding mission to uncover humanity’s darkest secrets. Sometimes it looks like planting and rooting yourself in a community that needs the best of you, and sometimes it looks like an inconvenient detour when you see a stranger left for dead on the road and you stop to offer whatever you have. That’s the work of the Kingdom. That’s a vision of God’s heart. That’s what we’ve signed up for when we’ve taken upon ourselves the mantle of Christ. Where do you see brokenness in the world today? Where do you see wrongs that need to be right? Where do you see pain or opportunity? That’s where you’ll find the Kingdom of God. Amen.