Friday, October 24, 2014

Sideways Glance

Sermon preached on October 19, 2014
Texts: Exodus 33:12-23

            “God.”  It is amazing how three simple letters put together in this way can be so powerful.  Some think this combination of letters is a meaningless symbol, or a word pointing toward nothing that really exists.  If polls are any indication, these folks are in a minority.  For most of us, “God” is a word that denotes a reality.
            For Christians, God matters.  There is no Christian faith without God.  Even the theologian who in the 1960s wrote a book entitled The Gospel of Christian Atheism, and was rather famous for being part of the “death of God” movement which made the cover of Time magazine, which meant more then, than it probably does today, even Thomas J. J. Altizer who wrote about the death of God continues to write and think about God.  The primary calling of the theologian is to name God….  While silence is now the primary path of the theologian, particularly silence about God, this is a silence which I have ever more deeply and comprehensively refused, for I am simply incapable of not naming God. (Living the Death of God: a theological memoir, xvii-xviii).  Whatever Altizer meant by the death of God, he continues to struggle with the reality of this God.
            And for followers of Jesus, we are incapable of not naming God.  Jesus spoke often of God, and of “the kingdom of God.”  Jesus makes little sense outside of some notion of God, and for Christians one of our affirmations about Jesus is that in him, we know something more about God.  The theologian Marcus Borg, in his book about God, writes, “As a Jesus scholar, I have found it impossible to say very much about Jesus without also talking about God” (The God We Never Knew, vii).
            God is central to Christian faith, and we look to the Bible, and especially to Jesus, to try and understand more about who God is.  When we do that, though, we discover that the God of the Bible, and the God of Jesus is a God of the glimpse, the soft breeze, the gentle touch, the sideways glance.  I appreciate how theologian Marjorie Suchocki writes about “the whisper quality of God’s creative word.”  It can easily be drowned out by the sheer weight of the past with which and through which it must work.  It is clothed in the past, even as it bespeaks a future, and it leads us not through extraordinary leaps and bounds, but most often through a quite ordinary faithfulness in the midst of things.  God’s word is hidden incarnationally in the world.  It is a whisper. (The Whispered Word, 6)
            God is present everywhere and at all times, but the presence of God can be elusive, hard to name.  God’s presence is the soft breeze.  God’s voice is the whisper.  Seeing God is the glimpse, the sideways glance.
            One biblical story that speaks about this so eloquently is the one we read this morning about Moses.  To set some context: the people have been led to freedom from Egypt.  They are making their way to the promised land, but not without some hiccups along the way.  They have complained about food and drink.  They have gathered around Mount Sinai, and Moses has ascended to speak with God and receive commandments.  In his absence, the people decide to create a god, a golden calf.  Moses comes down the mountain, and breaks stone tablets with the commands when he sees what the people have done.  God and Moses continue to have conference, however, this time in Moses’ tent.  That’s where today’s scene takes place.  Moses and God are conversing, and Moses asks to see God’s glory.  God tells Moses that he has found favor and that the request will be granted.  The scene is filled with some tenderness and some humor.  No one can see the face of God, so God passes by, covering the face of Moses until God has passed, then taking away his hand so Moses could see his backside.
            God is a God of the glimpse, of the sideways glance.  God can be a little cheeky, pun intended.  As with Moses, our own speech about God, our own experiences of God, have an indirectness about them – the glimpse, the glance, the breeze, the whisper.
            Writer Patrick Henry is helpful to me here, when he writes about the grace of “a God of surprises.”  The grace of this God is mysterious, sneaky.  Some Christians chalk things up much too easily, much too quickly to the grace of God….  I trust God’s grace, but hesitate to identify it in particular places.  It often blindsides me, regularly catches me off guard, seldom hits me square in the face.  When I know the grace of God, it’s nearly always after the fact, usually long afterward. (The Ironic Christian’s Companion, 1-2).  God touches our lives in surprising ways.   God can be a little saucy, can be bold, can be playful – in short, a little cheeky.
            Part of our task as a church is to help each other see God at work in our lives and in our world.  Part of our task as a church is to help each other be more open to the Spirit of God in our lives.  This is how we love each other into life.
            So where are some of the places we help each other see God, feel God, know God – even if it is a glimpse, a sideways glance?  For many of us, the songs of the church, traditionally called “hymns” from the Greek word for “song of praise,” are places where we glimpse God.  Last week Ron Yardley led a discussion of the hymnal and he collected some favorite hymns.  We are going to sing some of them in a bit.  For some of you, they will provide a glimpse of God.
            For others, the traditional language in some of the songs of our faith can be a barrier to connecting more deeply with God.  Perhaps one of the tasks of the church is to help re-vivify some of that traditional language, to help make it so it can speak to us, to make it a conduit for a sideways glance of God.  Yet we also need to acknowledge some limits to some traditional religious language.  In his book written following September 11, 2001, Rowen Williams, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote this:  Last words.  We have had the chance to read the messages sent by passengers on the planes to their spouses and families in the desperate last minutes; and we have seen the spiritual advice apparently given to the terrorists by one of their number, the thoughts that should be their minds as they approach the death they have chosen….  The religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words that murderers are saying to themselves to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime.  The nonreligious words are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about – the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged. (Writing in the Dust, 3).  Perhaps the failure of some of our traditional religious language to connect deeply with life and with love is a reason communities of faith are struggling these days.  I will admit that sometimes a secular song helps me glimpse God even more vividly than a purportedly religious song.  Music, in itself can help us get a sideways glance at God.
            So where else have there been some God-sightings and grace happenings?  The English poet William Blake, in his poem “The Divine Image” wrote, “Where Mercy, Love and Pity dwell/There God is dwelling too.”  Acts of kindness give me glimpses of God and recently the great potato giveaway was a kind of glimpse of God.  The Ruby’s Pantry organization had potatoes they wanted to distribute, on short notice.  One member of our local committee was excited by the opportunity.  I was concerned.  This was to happen early in the week of our Roast Beef Dinner.  Would all the potatoes be gone by Thursday?  I was going to be out of town the day the potatoes were to arrive, and so was not going to be any help.  The potatoes came, and they went quicker than anyone might have imagined.  People are being fed.  A sideways glance toward God.
            Renewed connections can be glimpses of God.  Last week, a young man who had been a part of the youth group I led when I was a youth pastor in Dallas contacted me.  It turns out that he is now in seminary, and part of what he wanted to do was tell me that I had been an important part of his spiritual journey, even though he told me he would have described himself as an atheist while he attended youth group.  A sideways glance toward God.
            Poetry often helps me hear the whisper of God, though I know it has the exact opposite effect on some.  A well-turned phrase or image in a poem penetrates to the depth of my heart and soul.  Here is a Mary Oliver poem I bumped into the other day.
Who Said This?    (Red Bird, 58)
Something whispered something
that was not even a word.
It was more like a silence
that was understandable.
I was standing
at the edge of the pond.
Nothing living, what we call living,
was in sight.
And yet, the voice entered me,
my body-life,
with so much happiness.
And there was nothing there
but the water, the sky, the grass.

Perhaps that’s often how we get a glimpse of God, are granted a sideways glance, hear the whisper, feel the gentle breeze – as something whispering something that was not even a word, more like a silence that is understandable. 
            Where are you glimpsing God?  Where is God inviting you toward a sideways glance?  How are we helping each other catch glimpses of God, hear God’s whisper?  Amen.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Worrying About Worrying

Sermon preached October 12, 2014

Texts: Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

            Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
            Don’t worry, be happy – is this the heart of the Christian message?  Can we boil down Christian faith to the power of positive thinking?  Is Christian faith all about the “law of attraction” - the belief that "like attracts like" and that by focusing on positive or negative thoughts, one can bring about positive or negative results?
            “Don’t worry about anything.”  “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  There it is, right in one of today’s Scripture readings.  Accentuate the positive.  Don’t worry about anything.
            Then we read the parable Jesus tells, and it gives us everything to worry about.  “The kingdom of God may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”  The story goes that the king sent slaves out with invitations, but there was no response.  He sent others out, but again, the invited guests refused.  Some made light of the invitation.  Others, for quite unknown reasons, took the reminder badly.  They mistreated the slaves, even killing a few.  The king responds with rage and with force.  He sends troops out to destroy the town of those who killed his slaves.  This is pretty grim stuff.  It also has a bit of the theater of the absurd to it.  I would think it would be better not to be invited to any party thrown by the king.
            Anyway, having wiped out the first set of guests, but still having all this food prepared, the king sends slaves out with another message for another audience – and how excited do you think those slaves were to go?  The new audience is anyone who will listen, and they are invited to the wedding banquet.  The slaves do their job well.  The banquet hall is full.
            So there is a happy ending – don’t worry about all that sorry stuff earlier.  Be happy that there is now a banquet.  The story has one more twist.  Someone in the banquet hall is not dressed properly.  The king spies him and has him removed, bound hand and foot – “thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  I told you, it would be better not to ever be on this king’s guest list.
            Don’t worry?  What if you get this invitation, but treat it too lightly, or misunderstand the invitation and become kind of hostile about it?  Bad news for you.  Or what if you arrive at the wedding, but somehow missed the memo about the dress code, maybe because, after all, you just got the invitation?  Bad news for you.  What in this story can be compared to the kingdom of God?  Is God like this king, a king perhaps with some anger issues?  Better watch out, then!  Don’t worry?! Maybe worrying is something like not being properly dressed at the wedding.  Now I have to worry about worrying?
            How in the world do we reconcile these two dramatically different Scripture readings for today?
            Let me suggest that if we are trying to make God like the king in the story Jesus tells, we are missing the point.  The story is about decisions and about the consequences of decisions.  Those first invited to the wedding banquet miss it all because they ignore the invitation, or are too busy to respond, or even get peeved for being interrupted in their lives.  Some just plain react badly.  Their actions have consequences.  Their actions enrage the king who responds with fury.  The king’s response has consequences.  He wipes out many of the invited guests, but he is left with all this food.  He has to extend the invitation to others.  This has consequences, good consequences for these newly invited guests - yet not for all of them.  One has arrived without his wedding coat, and that has consequences.  The king throws him out.
            Actions have consequences, sometimes even irrevocable consequences.  I have been thinking about the incident in Superior now a couple weeks old.  Five young people, ages 17 and 20 decide to steal money from another twenty-year-old, someone who apparently sold marijuana.  A 17 year-old young woman, a straight-A student according to her attorney, is the driver and she sets the 20 year-old drug dealer up.  A gun is used in the robbery attempt, and it discharges during a struggle, killing the 20 year-old being robbed.
            Decisions have consequences, sometimes irrevocable consequences that have the feel of outer darkness to them.  Selling drugs is no reason to be killed.  At the same time, selling drugs tends to put one in more contact with people who use violence.  I am not blaming the victim here.  He did not in any way “deserve” what happened to him.  The likelihood of something bad happening to him increased when he decided to sell drugs.  The five charged with his murder have irrevocably changed their lives and the lives of their families, and the lives of the family of the man they killed.  Outer darkness.
            Thankfully, most of us don’t have to deal with murders in our family.  For, us, too, though, decisions have consequences – some good, some not so good, some may even have the feel of outer darkness.  Cruel words spoken leave scars, even when forgiveness if offered.  Decisions at one point in life limit some possibilities in the future, though they may open up other possibilities in the future.
            Attuning to the kingdom of God, God’s dream for our lives and our world, means recognizing the seriousness of our decisions, and it means trying to figure out where we are being invited into something new and joyful.
            That is pretty weighty stuff, the stuff of a lot of anxiety and worry, but there is another dimension to consider.  All our deciding occurs within a wider ecology of grace.  Jesus tells a story that gets our attention about the consequences of decisions and about paying attention to invitations.  The story ends pretty sadly, one person thrown into the outer darkness.  But this can’t be the end of the story, at least not for our lives.  Listen to these words from Psalm 139: Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold fast.  If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
            In the ecology of grace, there really is no such place as the outer darkness, or at least there is no such place of outer darkness that is beyond the reach of God’s grace.  Decisions matter.  Their consequences are irrevocable.  Yet in grace, God never gives up on us.  God is always inviting us again into newness of life.  God invites us to weave the consequences of our decisions in the direction of new life.  For those five young people, nothing they do will ever bring back the young man they were responsible for killing.  They will have to live with this the rest of their lives.  Grace is the opportunity to move forward to make the best out of tragedy, to turn lives around, to do the good that might be possible.  Even such outer darkness is not without the presence of God, is outside the ecology of grace.
            The same is true for each of us.  We have made decisions.  They have consequences – some beautiful, some maybe more brutal.  We’ve missed the invitation to live differently, distracted by other things in our lives.  We have not developed the gifts that are within us, arriving sort of undressed for the occasions life offers.  God does not give up on us.  New invitations will arrive, new opportunities for growth, for love, for doing justice, for kindness and compassion.
            We live in an ecology of grace, and when we pay attention to that, a different life is possible – a life of rejoicing, of gentleness, of prayer, of cultivating peacefulness in our lives and in our world.  Decisions have consequences, and we need to take that seriously, but when we also know that God works in our lives, whispers in our souls, offers new beginnings, we don’t have to live in a constant state of anxiety that we will find ourselves cast into some place outside God’s ecology of grace.  Our lives need not be marred by constant worry.
            Living out of grace is not a straight line, a one-way escalator up.  There will be hiccups and failures along the way.  We will grumble instead of rejoice.  We will be harsh instead of gentle.  We will do things that don’t lead to peace.  What we cannot do, is put ourselves outside the ecology of grace.  We can be inattentive to it.  We can mess it up.  There is deep sadness in that, and people may be hurt by our inattentiveness to goodness, but God will not give up on us.
            Bishop Bruce Ough, the United Methodist bishop for Minnesota and the Dakotas tells the story of James Forbes.  James Forbes was the pastor of Riverside Church in Manhattan, a very prominent church in the United States.  Forbes was a prominent preacher.  Anyway, because of his skills and his fame, Forbes was often invited to speak, and often found himself on airplanes.  As is often the case, he was asked three basic airplane questions – Where are you from?  Why are you traveling – business of pleasure?  What do you do?  Forbes said he became a little tired to the kind of conversation stopper telling people he was a pastor caused.  My experience is that when I tell people I am a pastor I often get conversations about people’s church experience – here’s what I like about my church, here’s why I don’t go to church anymore, would you do this if you were a pastor, and do you think we are living in the end times.  Anyway, Forbes wanted to think of something else.  He prayed and pondered, and was inspired to offer a new way to describe his work.  Excited, when he flew next he waited for the question.  Where are you from?  Why are you traveling?  What do you do?  Raise the dead.  Forbes said this was a conversation stopper, too, but it was at least more interesting.

            We live in an ecology of grace where God continues to work in our lives to raise us from the dead, to love us into life.  That work of God, that invitation from God never goes away, no matter what decisions we have made in the past.  We can always start now to pay attention to new ways of thinking, to live in more life-giving ways.  We can be part of God’s loving others into life.  The decisions we make matter, and the decision to pay more attention to God’s Spirit and to live differently in the ecology of grace matters.  But there is no place where our decisions can take us that moves us outside that ecology of grace.  About that, we never have to worry.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Counting Past Ten

Sermon preached October 5, 2014

Texts: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Matthew 21:33-46

            Christians around the world are celebrating communion today.  It is World Communion Sunday, a day when we are invited again to hear a call to the Church to be the universal and inclusive Church.  The day was first observed by Presbyterians in 1936, and was adopted as a day to be celebrated by the Federal Council of Churches in 1940.  Shortly thereafter, the Methodist, Evangelical and United Brethren churches adopted the day in their church calendars.  It has become a time when Christians in every culture break bread and pour the cup to remember and affirm that we are united in Jesus the Christ, that finally the church belongs not to us, but to Jesus. Christians celebrate the communion liturgy in as many ways as there are congregations.  I am going to be leaving right after worship to help with another celebration of communion this morning.  The church where I was confirmed, Lester Park UMC, is celebrating both World Communion Sunday and its 125th anniversary.  I was asked if I could be there to help with communion.  My apologies for leaving so quickly today.  If this is your first Sunday with us and you wanted to say “hello” I hope you’ll come back and do that.
            World Communion Sunday is a wonderful celebration, but we need to acknowledge that the unity of the church is not fully realized.  Even within our United Methodist Church there are some deep disagreements about how to read our shared stories in the Bible, about the meaning of those stories and Scriptures for issues such as human sexuality, peacemaking and war, how to deal with poverty.  Beyond our denomination, the church is divided over many questions.  Should clergy be able to marry?  Should women be allowed to be clergy?
            Amid all these differences, how might we describe the core of Christian faith, something that draws all of us together, even if we may debate a host of other issues?
            I sometimes hear people say that part of the core of faith can be found in what we call “The Ten Commandments.”  We read them just a bit ago.  They seem pretty crucial, pretty important.  Yet even here, there have been some disagreements about how we should express their importance.  Some of you may remember that at one time there was a granite display of The Ten Commandments on city property.  When it was moved, yard signs sprang up around the city with the Ten Commandments on them.  It was almost as if you should put such a sign in your yard if your were really committed to the faith.  My guess is that Christians disagreed about that, too.
            There are a few issues with the Ten Commandments as the core of our faith, though.  Does the prohibition against making idols prohibit religious art?  Some have thought so.  Is the essence of God that God punishes the children for the iniquity of the parents – oops, we didn’t read that part, did we?  What might it mean to take God’s name in vain, to make wrongful use of it?  We sometimes have reduced that to a prohibition against cussing, but is that really among the most important things for our lives?  How are we doing with the entire Sabbath day thing?  How does it fit in a society dramatically different from the agricultural society of ancient Israel?  The last commandment about coveting is certainly important, but it groups together houses, livestock, and wives.
            The Ten Commandments are important, but they need some interpretive work.  Yet there is an even more pressing problem with looking to them as the core of our faith.  It can make of our faith a simple checklist.  We can begin to think that this is all there is.  If only we do x, y and z, then we have this Christian faith thing down.
            Now rules matter.  They help us remember to do the right thing and they help us pay attention to each other.  Yet at the heart of Christian faith is relationship and responsiveness, rather than rules.  Rules are important, but they do not encompass everything about relationships or all there is to be a responsive and responsible person – responsive to God and to other persons, responsible to God and for our own growth and actions.
            At the heart of Christian faith is relationship with God, a God who we often know in whispers, in glimpses, in soft breezes and gentle touches.  In a footnote to Exodus 20:4 in one of my study Bibles, I found this: The prohibition against making idols limits our ability to tie God down or to reduce God to something we are comfortable with. (Discipleship Study Bible)  Of course, for Christians, we believe we see God, know God best in Jesus, but it is a Jesus whose story is told four times with different nuances, and none of these tellings is exactly what we would think of as a biography.  The stories of Jesus are told as parables more than as example stories.  Example stories generate great rules.  George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, but told the truth about it to his father.  Don’t lie.  Abraham Lincoln walked miles to return a library book on time.  Keep your promises.  The stories of Jesus are much more difficult to turn into simple example stories.  Even with Jesus at the heart of Christian faith, the God with whom we are in relationship in Jesus remains a God known in whispers, glimpses, soft breezes, gentle touches.
            That doesn’t mean can never say anything meaningful about God, and God’s presence in our lives.  A couple of weeks ago, I went to the hospital to visit Bill Wolden.  It was a Friday, a day I don’t usually go visiting.  Walking down the hall at Essentia I ran into a woman I have known for many years.  I was her parent’s pastor at Nashwauk United Methodist Church.  I asked here what brought her to the hospital.  Her dad.  I told her I would stop by after visiting Bill, and I did.  I visited with Ken, his daughter and his wife.  I prayed with Ken.  We prayed for Ken the next Sunday in church.  Ken died this past Monday.
            What brought me to the hospital at just that time?  Pure coincidence?  Maybe, but maybe also something of the serendipitous grace of God – there seems something here of the whisper of God, a glimpse of God, a gentle touch from God, a soft breeze of the Spirit.
            This God with whom we are in relationship in Jesus Christ is a God of adventure, of serendipity, a God who is often up to new things.  Finally, that is the message of the sad, violent story Jesus tells.  The problem with the tenants is that they could not see goodness.  They could not respond appropriately to the good.  They clung to a sense that everything in life is zero-sum, rather than be open to the possibility that a vineyard owner could be gracious and treat them well.
            At the heart of Christian faith is the God of Jesus who loves us into life and who invites us, in turn, to live in such a way that we love others into life.  This kind of responsive, relational living cannot be fully determined by a rulebook.  Christian faith is not finally a simple checklist.  We need to be careful not to over-define or over-confine lest we find ourselves trying to tie God down or reduce God to something we are comfortable with.  God’s Spirit is too wild and adventurous for that.  God’s grace is too serendipitous for that.
            Christian faith is a relationship with and a response to this God of Jesus Christ who continues to love us into life and who, in turn, invites us to love each other into life, and somehow gathering together around communion makes us more responsive.  We celebrate that today with Christians around the world.  Amen.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Stir It Up

Sermon preached September 28, 2014

Texts: Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:28-32

            Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Stir It Up”
            The late Bob Marley was a pioneer in Jamaican reggae music.  The song “Stir It Up” is a song about stirring up love.  It is a love song.  I am guessing that it may not be exactly the kind of love song you would play for your sweetheart, but….
            James Bond is a romantic figure of another sort, a figure who, played by different actors has had a place in our popular culture for a number of generations now.  No matter who plays the title role, there never seems to be a shortage of attractive women nearby.
            One well-known fact about James Bond - and by the way, do you know that the writer who created the James Bond character, Ian Fleming, also wrote the children’s story Chtti, Chitti, Bang, Bang? -  one well-known fact about James Bond is that he liked vodka martinis – shaken, not stirred.  I am not an expert on vodka martinis, you will be glad to know, but I am guessing that Bond liked his martinis that way because he believed the drink shaken brought out its best flavors.  I am not going to ask for a show of hands of those who have tested out this theory personally.
            Bringing out the best.  That’s what God wants to do in each of our lives, bring out our best.  In Romans 12, as rendered by Eugene Peterson in The Message, we read, Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.  That’s what God does in us.  That’s what God’s Spirit is doing in us, bringing the best out of us, developing well-formed maturity in us.
            The past couple of weeks, I have preached in various ways about God’s grace.  On our Celebration of Welcome, or CoW Sunday, I said, The good news is that God’s arms are always open late, and open early, open till the cows come home.  That’s grace.  Last week, I said, God offers love freely and generously to all, and never gives up offering it.  God’s love is not something we “deserve” except in the sense that we all deserve to be loved, which really means that we need some sense of being loved in our lives to become the full and rich people we can be, to become our creative best.  Grace is God’s constant offer of that love.  But then I also said, To be held, this is grace.  We are held in God’s embrace.  And just a quick word – this being held by God changes us, transforms our lives.  This is what today is about, the transforming power of God’s grace and our response to that.
            God’s love reaches out to us always.  This is grace.  To be embraced by God’s grace is to be on a journey of change and transformation.  God is always working to bring out the best in us, develop well-formed maturity in us.  But we are not simply passive participant in all of this.  God’s Spirit moves in our lives, and we are invited to respond.  The Spirit sings in our hearts, and we add our voice.  The Spirit dances in our Spirit, and we have to move, to.
            This idea that God’s grace transforms is one of the touchstones of the Methodist stream in the Christian tradition.  Not long ago, when I was looking something up to help with a paper being written for our United Methodist denomination on the nature of the church, I stumbled across a sermon John Wesley, the person to whom Methodists trace their beginnings in Christian history, I stumbled across a sermon Wesley preached on Philippians 2:12-13.  In that sermon I discovered these words, “Stir up the spark of grace which is in you now.”  (“On Working Out Our Own Salvation” in John Wesley’s Sermons: an anthology, 491)
            Stir up the spark of grace that is in you now.  In Philippians 2, Paul is writing to a group of early followers of Jesus, people trying to live the Jesus way.  He is encouraging them on the journey.  What he asks of them seems rather audacious.  “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  He goes on to write, just a bit later, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you; enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
            The story Jesus tells in Matthew is a story extolling people to stir it up, stir up the grace that is in you now.  It is a simple story about two brothers whose father asks them to go work in the family vineyard.  One says, “No,” but goes and works anyway.  The other says, “Yes,” but does not follow through.  The one who actually did something, who actually stirred it up, is the positive example in the story. 
            Stir up the grace of God that is in you now.  In our lives, we should be actively praying, actively reflecting, acting out our best understandings of what love asks of us in our relationships, in school, at work, in our community, in our world, acting out our best understandings of what reconciliation, compassion and justice ask of us as components of love.  We are not merely passive recipients of God’s grace, but active participants in God’s work of bringing well-formed maturity into our lives.
            I would say, however, that sometimes when we become too complacent, I think God’s Spirt blows into our lives to shake things up, to stir things up.  Sometimes the Spirit nudges us if we are being too cautious, too careful, too timid.  Sometimes the Spirit of God is a Spirit of inner restlessness, inviting us to pray more fervently, think more creatively, dream more imaginatively, and act more courageously.
            We need to ask ourselves often, each of us, How is God stirring in my life right now and how should I be stirring it up in response?
            As a church community, a community on the Jesus journey we should often ask, How is God stirring in our life together, and how should we stir it up in response?
            Stir up the grace of God that is within you now.
            This week I heard two stories about people who have stirred up the grace of God that is in them.  New York Yankee Derek Jeter is retiring this year from baseball.  Jeter has been a well-respected athlete.  He has not been involved in scandals.  He is the longest serving captain of the New York Yankees.  He is known for his hard work and dedication.  He has not always been the flashiest player.  He is not known for hitting mammoth home runs.  He is known for his high quality play over time.
            Thursday night was Derek Jeter’s last baseball game in Yankee stadium.  The Yankees are not going to be in the playoffs, though their opponents, the Baltimore Orioles are.  Jeter had driven in the go-ahead run in the seventh inning, but the Orioles tied the game in the top of the ninth.  In the bottom of the ninth, with a runner on second base, Derek Jeter came to bat.  He hit the first pitch into right field, the runner on second came home to score the game-winning run.  Derek Jeter stirred up the grace that was in him one last time, and it was magic. (
            Not all of us have that kind of spark of grace, but sparks of grace can be quieter.  Thursday, Charles Osgood profiled a man from Brooklyn.  A man named James Robinson.  Robinson has spent his life saving lives.  At age 74, he's a retired emergency medical services captain who's now teaching other people to save lives in a tough part of New York City.  James Robinson trains people who want to become EMTs - or Emergency Medical Technicians. He's co-founder of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps - where they are trained to expect the worst.  Robinson: "Your job is to try to resuscitate them, bring 'em back to life - and then let the emergency room work on 'em."  The community in which Robinson works is one where shootings and stabbings happen often.  Over the years, Robinson has trained more than a thousand kids.  He says,
"I want to teach them how to save a life, instead of taking a life - and they could be anything that they want to be."  One person he taught was Isaac Rodriguez.  He used to sell drugs - but thanks to Robinson, he's now training to be an EMT.  Isaac Rodriguez:
"This place woke me up. Seeing so much positive is like, 'I want to do that, too - I want to be a part of that...'"  At least nine out of ten students pass the state licensing exam - and get fulltime jobs as an EMT. Some come back to volunteer and help train recruits.  Robinson gives not only time, but also his money. He uses his pension and reverse mortgage to pay for 85 percent of the program - donations cover the rest.
  When asked why he does what he does, though he is not a wealthy person, Robinson replies, “I don't think that I could do nothing else. Everybody has a mission in life. And I didn't realize my mission in life until I actually got into it."  (
            God is at work in you, stirring, shaking.  Sing with God’s Spirit.  Dance with God’s Spirit.  Work with God’s Spirit to stir it up in your life.
            When we do this, we will not only be our best, we will not only develop well-formed maturity, but Jesus will shine through.  Amen.