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Continuing the Work of Jesus

holy spirit J

Jesus said:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

This week we turn to the ministry of Jesus. It reminds us that the point of God coming in Christ at Christmas was not just to proclaim, “Look. Here I am!” It was to bring about the transformation of the world.

This week a friend of mine on Facebook, Tim Larson who is a pastor in the Detroit area, posted this poem by the great Howard Thurman:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.”

Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas,” 1985.

What starts at Christmas with the coming of Jesus is the ongoing work of building the kingdom of God – working to bring life, especially the weakest among us. We are now the body of Christ and the same Spirit is offered to us, even promised to us in baptism. What Jesus begins, is ours to continue.

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The New Covenant – Healing Human Hearts

Jeremiah 31

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:34)

What a timely text! As the elections have now concluded and the questions about “What now?” set in for people on both sides of the outcome, Jeremiah’s words come at an opportune time for us. Much of the election rhetoric has been in the tone, “If you knew what I know, you’d think like I think!” Many of us have wanted to “teach the other side a lesson.” Christians were divided by camps. Progressive Christians tended to vote one way. Evangelical Christians voted the other. Many mainliners were more split. All claim to follow the same Jesus but somehow both sides seem to only see part of him. Blinders are as prevalent as sight itself.  Often the rhetoric between Christian camps was, “That’s not my Jesus!” It was its own form of us feeling the need to teach each other and finding ways to “know the Lord” to chastise people who had somehow become our enemies – while still being sisters and brothers in Christ in the eyes of God.

The text above tells us why. People are filled with iniquity. The reality of sin has loomed large in the election rhetoric. Often we have been super-aware of the sin of the other side and blind to our own. Jesus talks about this as noting the “speck in our neighbors eye while ignoring the plank in our own.” While discernment is crucial, often judgment has been thrown around by people who are urged not to be judge. Forgiveness and healing seem hard and distant.

Ultimately, this verse reminds us that it is God’s power to transform and forgive all of us from the inside (changing our hearts) that gives us hope. The recent election should remind all of us that we still need that. Perhaps that will be enough to help all of us become more like the people God hopes and promises we will be.

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Surprisingly Close to Heaven

Kingdom-of-God

When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  Mark 12:34

The response above is the end of a dialog that Jesus has with one of the Jewish leaders, a scribe who has asked Jesus a question. The conversation has centered on the Great Commandment. This famous pairing of two Old Testament directives lies at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. In short: we are to love God with everything we’ve got. And we are to love others as we love ourselves. Jesus let’s us know that this is what lies at the heart of life when we live like God hopes (and promises) that we will.

Jesus’ response reminds us that getting this is transformational. In the process, we are “not far from the kingdom of God.”

Life in God’s kingdom is neither life in this world nor otherworldly. It is this luminous place where earth and heaven somehow touch. Things in the world don’t work as if the world is in charge but rather act in sync with God’s desires. So, it isn’t exactly “here” but it definitely isn’t “there.” The kingdom comes so close as to be in the midst of the world in which we live.

In the Celtic tradition, such places are called “thin places.” They are tied to geography – some places seem to be places where people repeatedly experience the wall between heaven as earth as being very thin.

But Jesus isn’t talking about a thin place. This isn’t geography. Jesus is talking about living a “thin life.” In other words, when we see that love stands at the heart of life and then love God and others out of that insight and commitment, our very lives become thin places. Heaven breaks in quickly and without much notice. A hungry person finds a meal, two friends who have become estranged make up, tough decisions are made and turn out well, addicts find hope and freedom from the things that hold them captive. It is love that stands at the center of the kingdom of God and it is love that stands at the center of the Christian life. When that happens, heaven and life become intertwined in life giving and surprising ways.

Be loved by Jesus. Share love with others. Do so and you too will discover that “you are not far from the kingdom of God.”

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Lighting a Candle for Peace

Peace Candle

 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
(Luke 2:14)

This week’s Thursday Thought is a bit different. While most of these focus on ideas that point us forward to worship through our Bible texts for the week, this week we focus on worship through another way. We want to talk about the flame we will use this week and for the rest of Advent. The flame in our sanctuary candle has been relit with fire that has been spread directly from the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a site to honor the place where Jesus was born.

Last Tuesday, the Bethlehem Peace Flame was brought to Zion United Methodist Church in Hampshire. Congregations from around the area were invited to come, light a lantern from that flame, and bring it back for use in their own place. Marlene drove out to Hampshire and brought the flame back for us. Each week for the rest of Advent, we will light our altar candles and the Advent Wreath from this flame. The flame is spread around the world as a way of lifting up a message of peace. The candle we light this week, the second candle on our wreath, is the candle of peace.

We live in a world of violence where peace is elusive. Wars and threats of wars are in many places. Arguments about how to help or not help refugees who are victims of these wars raise emotions and anger. Mass shootings this year in our own country are now at numbers that average more than one per day this year. We long for peace at home, abroad and everywhere.

The birth of Jesus brings with it the promise of coming peace. That peace starts within each of us as we trust Jesus to bring us life and put our hope in him. That peace spreads as we live, not like the rest of the world, but as followers of Jesus and people who bring a message of peace and live out of that commitment in our own lives.

Are you hungry for peace in your life and for our world? This week we light the wreath with a prayer for peace. We do it with fire that has traveled around the world from Bethlehem to help us join people all over the world in this prayer.

Jesus is the “Prince of Peace.” Come, Lord Jesus!

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Face to Face With God

Wrestle With God

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”   (Genesis 32:30)

“Peniel” in Hebrew means, “face or vision of God.” It is a word that refers to having had a face to face encounter with God. This was something seen as rare and even dangerous in Old Testament times. God’s holy otherness was so different than our worldly selves, that anyone who encountered God face to face was likely to die. Later in the Bible, when Moses sees God on the mountain, he has to shield his face from others because just the residual radiance on his face might be enough to harm someone else. Wow!

But this story is one place where that fear of God is challenged. Jacob dares to meet God, wrestle with God, and even he is surprised that he has somehow endured the test. Naming the place “Peniel” is his way of honoring the encounter and lifting up his experience. You can encounter God face to face and live to tell the story!

The story is a reminder to us that God is willing to stay with us even when we challenge and wrestle with God. We often struggle to figure out what to do when we have a difficult issue. Some people even counsel us not to challenge God – whatever happens must be God’s will. Yet this story reminds us that whatever our mindset about what God is or is not doing, being honest and forthright with God – even arguing or wrestling with God, is something God can take and may even bless.

Of course, Jesus takes this episode (that is viewed as unusual) and makes it normal. In Christ, all of us see God face to face and encounter God in the flesh. So in Christ, all encounters with God have a new sense of being face to face for all of us.

So whatever you are wrestling with in your own life, and however you sense God’s role in it, don’t be afraid to spend time with God and push back a bit. God can handle your arguments and respects what you are going through. Getting closer to God is a good thing. And if you believe God can bless you in the midst of whatever you are going through, don’t be afraid to ask. You may come out the other side of the encounter surprised at your own “Peniel” experience and be able to tell of a time when you encountered God face to face and lived to tell about it.

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For everything there is a season

Ecclesiastes 3

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

This is one of the most famous verses in scripture. Not because it is often turned to but because the song by the Byrds made it famous and is still played often on classic rock stations de cades after it hit the charts.

It would be easy to dismiss it is pop theology as a result. But there is a crucial insight in this verse and in the chapter that it introduces that is a key to leading a meaningful life. In the flow of things, there is a time for just about everything. That includes the good and the bad, beginnings and endings, planting and harvesting, war and peace. There is a time for everything.

This is part of the variety that we both enjoy and puzzle about as human beings. Life comes at us, sometimes at seemingly breakneck speeds. We are yanked from thing to thing, often experiencing emotion after emotion as a result. One thing happens and we rejoice and it feels like life is good. Something else happens and we are wracked with grief and it feels like we will never be whole again. Some of these things are in our control and we make them happen. Other things simply come along and we feel out of control.

Later in the chapter the author makes his key point. All of these things happen because they are all part of the created order and all the fruits of the things we do as human beings. They are part of life and they are important. As a result they are fleeting things that come and go.

On the other hand, the writer says, I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; (Ecclesiastes 3:14). Remembering that God works within an eternity that is far bigger than our temporal existence puts all of the things in our lives back in perspective. At any moment we may be soaring like an eagle or crawling like a worm. But these are important parts of our lives that are but a moment in the span of eternity.

“For everything, there is a season…” may be true. But trusting in the persistent faithfulness of God is always in season.

 

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The Importance of Invitation

Magnify the Lord

O magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together. (Psalm 34:3)

The Psalmist can’t contain the excitement. Deep inside was a passion that demanded to be given voice and a desire for anyone and everyone who was within earshot to join in.

Faith is by nature invitational. We are called and claimed by a God who has come down to us, shared life with us and even died at our hands. That same God has been raised again and continues to come to us as the risen Christ, reminding us that even death can’t stop God from loving us. When we encounter such a God, like the Psalmist, there has to be a sense of awe and amazement. When that bubbles inside us with passion and energy it wants to find its way out. We long to not engage this God alone but to have others join us in celebrating what only God can do. So we are called to invite others to join in.

One of our guiding principles is that when you see us at our best you will see us “inviting all to join in God’s work.” God’s desire for the world to look like heaven extends beyond the church. But the church is called to be on the front lines of that work and to bear witness to the promise and the work of God. A key part of being in the church is our role as ambassadors for Christ, representing Jesus and his work to the world around us. And just as Jesus started his work by inviting the disciples to join in, we continue to the work of Jesus by inviting others to join in, too. A growing church has people who invite and even bring others to worship with us. The most effective congregations also have people invite people to join them in all sorts of things, from Sunday worship to service activities and excitement throughout the week.

So, as you reflect on the God who loves you and has claimed you in Christ, make time to take stock of all that God has done and all that God is doing. Let yourself be filled with awe and gratitude. Then invite someone you know to come to worship with you, join us as we work on a Habitat for Humanity house, help with Soup Kettle or some other way to connect them to something you think matters to both you and God. The resulting invitation may add another voice to the chorus of praises lifting up God and bring a smile to God’s face. It may allow someone you know to encounter the God we meet in Jesus and be amazed, too. That may be cause for celebration since faith prefers to not praise God alone, but invites others into the work and praise of a God who loves us and has shown us that love in the person of Jesus.

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Tempted?

Temptation

“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1)

We often pray the Lord’s Prayer when we are together as a congregation. Some of us pray it frequently in our personal devotional life as well. The words are familiar to many of us. Perhaps too familiar. We often fail to take the time to reflect on things that we know well.

In the Lord’s Prayer one line says, “Lead us not into temptation…” We probably take that phrase for granted – if we think about it, why would God lead us into temptation in the first place? Doesn’t God want us to do the right thing? What would possibly inspire God to lead us to consider doing the wrong thing?

Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. It is not the devil’s doing that he is there. It is the Spirit’s direction that puts Jesus in this position. Here, Jesus will discover what he is made of and remember what is most important. He will draw on nearly thirty years of learning the scriptures and participating in worship at the synagogue. And he (and the devil) will see what he is made of.

This story doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Jesus is tested using the very scripture passages that he has been taught – but twisted in a way to encourage him to lose sight of who he is. But he remembers and in so doing, sends the devil off defeated.

How are you doing at developing deep roots into God’s gift of life? Worship, scripture reading, prayer and shared conversations with other people of faith form a foundation for living that allows us to remember who we are when it gets harder. It is easiest to say we are a Christian when we say the Lord’s Prayer on Sundays. But that foundation allows us to be better disciples all week long – perhaps even when things get tough.

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Micah 6:8

Micah 6 8

God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

At the heart of our faith, we are to devote our lives to the things that matter most to God. God will not be bought with gifts or piety or religious activity. What God wants most is for our hearts to care about the same things that God cares about. Where there is injustice we are to work for justice. Where there is isolation and loneliness we are to bring kindness and mercy that restores relationships. And we are able to see these things and sustain this work because we humbly pay attention to our relationship with God.

That puts this week’s capital campaign and stewardship emphasis in perspective. Martin Luther was very clear on why we give what we give. We do not do it to appease God or to offer God what God wants. God is God and the whole creation is available. No, there is nothing we can give God that God actually needs. We give out of gratitude to the things that matter to God. We do so to make the world God loves be more filled with the love that God has for the world. Ultimately, Luther said that if we love God we show it by loving our neighbors.

This week, we ask all of us to pray about our giving to the work of the church. That includes both the ongoing work of the church to provide worship, education, service and more to the both the local community and to members of the church. That work continues to be stretched by current resources and we need to continue to grow the base for this work by asking if God is calling us to grow a bit in our giving in the coming year.

We are also asking for an extra mile effort from people. We know that God has called us to welcome all people to the life of the church and to its work. That commitment has been regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, etc. But we have not been able to say that about people whose mobility has been limited by disabilities. As a congregation our hearts felt the injustice needed to be corrected. We believe that God is calling us to think with kindness on the people who cannot come for soup kettle, community events, worship, a friend’s funeral, or other things that happen in our space. And as we humbly listened for God’s voice we heard God say, “You can do this.”

Please walk humbly with God and listen for God’s voice in your own life with regard to these important works. Together, if Zion can strengthen its resources and also accomplish the Handicap Entrance project, we will be poised to continue to the important work of Jesus Christ for many years to come.

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For All The Saints

All-Saints-Day-candles

“For all the saints, who from their labors rest…”

The above line is the opening line of the hymn For All the Saints that we will sing at both services this week. It is a modern classic, written in the last few decades but in words and melodies that resonate deeply with people of faith. It is one that is as expected on All Saints Sunday as Silent Night is on Christmas Eve.

All Saints Sunday is a way of celebrating the communion of saints. That line in the creeds is not about some sort of super-Christians. It is about ordinary people, joined to Christ in baptism, and having an impact on the world God loves in their day in and day out activity. These are the people who changed our diapers when we were babies, taught us right and wrong and about God’s love, and did the things needed ot keep God’s world running. Many of these people have now moved on from life with us. But in death we remember that they are still alive in Christ and celebrate the impact they have had on us.

For each of us, this day also raises a question: What kind of saint will I be remembered as when I have died and left this life? As we remember with both pain and fondness those who have touched us, someday we all hope that someone will remember us and give thanks for who we have been. Are we generous, caring and compassionate people? Are we faithful and dependable in the way we live? Could people look at us and see a glimpse of Jesus who is always with us?

Take time this week to reflect on those who God has used to shape your life. And then take time to reflect on your own life and the legacy you are creating right now.