October 28 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Scripture Lesson: Mark 5:25-34
Last week we started a four-week series on being a good neighbor, focusing on the Great Commandment to love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and to love your neighbors as yourself. We learned last week that neighbors are not just generic “anybody’s” but the specific people who live near us and with whom we regularly interact in our community. Our scripture lesson today shows us an example of Jesus interacting with the crowds who gathered to see him as he made his way throughout the villages in the region of Galilee. His neighbors. And we see that when one of his neighbors needed his attention, he stopped and gave it to her. He was willing to be interrupted from his original task in order to give his full attention to someone who crossed his path. So I want to ask you to take a moment to think about someone who has tried to get your attention recently. Maybe it was a family member, a neighbor, or someone in the grocery store or even on the side of the road. Think about that person, and whether or not you made the time you could have made for them. If not, think about how you could have handled that differently. After a moment of reflection, I’ll lead us in a prayer.
PRAYER: Where cross the crowded ways of life, where sound the cries of race and clan, above the noise of selfish strife, we hear your voice, O Son of man. (UMH 427)
Several of us from Maple Grove UMC just returned last night from a conference this past week called “Growing Communities of Love.” We have spent the week learning some new tools for becoming followers of Jesus who love the people in our communities like Jesus loves. One of the things we learned was that in order to develop healthy relationships that center on loving like Jesus, we must be able to give our full attention to others, especially those to whom we want to be a good neighbor. In one of our sessions, we actually practiced being mindful and aware. We started with a raisin, at first looking at it, then feeling its ridges and wrinkles with our fingers, then smelling its sweet aroma, then placing it in our mouths, feeling its ridges with our tongues; then we bit into it and paid attention to the way its texture and flavor changed. Finally, we swallowed it and noticed the way it felt going down our esophagus. After that, we formed pairs and practiced a form of deep listening to each other, paying close attention to what the other person was saying, and practicing the art of listening and being completely focused on the present moment by letting other thoughts that entered our minds just float by without getting distracted. Fortunately, we had several chances over the course of the conference to do this so that we could try to get better at it.
Something unexpected happened to us, though, on the evening of the last day of the conference. Without even meaning to, we found ourselves suddenly paying attention to others around us, so much so that just by acknowledging their presence, we seemed to have given a subconscious invitation to conversation. This started happening in the elevator of our hotel, in the food lines, and then – of all places – in line for a popular ride at Disneyland! And I want to tell you about this last experience because it had a profound affect on all three of us who were there.
Candy, Stephanie and I were getting in line for a Star Wars ride, and saw that we had to wind through several zig-zagging rows of roped off sections to get to the back of the line. The last two young men in line noticed us doing this, and went over to unlatch one of the ropes to make it easier for us to get where we needed to be. After thanking them, we stood in our little clump of three, ready to keep to ourselves as most people do in long lines. And then, something changed. Stephanie noticed a tattoo on one of the young men’s leg and asked about it. They both chimed in to talk about it. Which then led to discussions about work and passwords, and how many passwords one needs these days. After commiserating together for a moment, Stephanie complimented one of them of their Mouse Ears, which were striped with colors of the rainbow, just like the colors on the castle of the Disneyland t-shirt he was wearing. He beamed as he told us how he had finally been successful in getting one, due to the fact that Disney had been selling out of them within a day of getting in a new shipment. Next, the conversation turned to personal questions about where each of us works and lives. Upon discovering we were from Iowa, and they were locals, they asked whether we were there for work or vacation. So I explained that I pastor a church in Iowa and that we were all there for a church conference. “Oh…” one of them said, and I could hear his tone shift to one of guardedness and perhaps even fear or concern.
You see, I know that many of our LGBTQ neighbors, like these two young men, have been shamed by their churches and their families – some of them have even been disowned and kicked out of their homes. So I paid attention to what I was hearing in this change of tone, and chose my next words very carefully. “Yeah, we were attending a conference called ‘Growing Communities of Love,’ because we want to learn how our church can be more welcoming and inclusive of everyone, and how we can make more connections will all the people who live in the new neighborhood that is being developed around our church and make our church a safe space for everyone.” “Oh! That’s awesome!” he replied. And his tone shifted back to that warm and friendly tone he had been using before. After that, each of these young men reminisced about their own churches and youth groups when they were growing up, and things they missed about it. And how they wished their churches had been more concerned about connecting with those who didn’t have a place to connect “back then.”
About that time, the line shifted inside the next room of the building, where a Disney cast member was segmenting off groups for the ride. When she asked the two men, “How many in your party?” They responded, “Five!” One of them turned around and motioned for us to join them. As the first one in line was handed the five pair of 3-D glasses we would need for the ride, instead of just taking one and passing the others down, he came around and personally delivered a pair to each one of us. They had just claimed us as being part of their community! We were stunned, but so happy. So we continued chatting until we were finally seated as a group on the ride. When the ride was over, several rows exited at a time, and the two young men ended up several groups ahead of us as we exited down a long hallway. When we got to the end of the hallway, there they were, waiting on us, to tell us how much they enjoyed meeting us, and to wish us well on the rest of our stay.
Fred Rogers of the children’s TV show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” once said in a commencement address, “When we look for what's best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we're doing what God does; so in appreciating our neighbor, we're participating in something truly sacred." I believe that something truly sacred transpired that night in a line for a ride at Disneyworld. Three people from the Midwest, who had been learning to notice and pay attention to others, happened to meet and begin a conversation with two young men from the LGBTQ community – for those who may not recognize the acronym, that stands for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Community. And when we noticed each other, and made time for each other, willing to get to know something about each other, and to be an agent of God’s welcoming and unconditional love, God’s spirit moved between us and created community – a little piece of heaven on earth.
In Mark chapter 5, Jesus and his disciples were on their way to heal someone else when Jesus noticed someone touch the hem of his robe. There was a crowd of people all around him, with many people wanting to get near the famous Jesus they had heard about. But one woman approaches him in desperate need. Her condition of hemorrhaging would be serious today – most likely requiring surgery. But it was even worse then, when the person with the condition could find no cure, AND would have been declared by the religious community as permanently unclean – similar to a person with leprosy. She would have been forbidden to touch or be touched by anyone! And she would have been shamed and treated as an outcast by her community who believed that such ailments were judgments from God.
When I think about those who were treated as outcasts in Jesus’ day, I can’t help but think about the two young men we met at Disneyland, who are treated as outcasts by many in our religious society today. But we can learn a lot about how to treat them as we look at Jesus’ interaction with the woman in the scripture.
First of all, Jesus was on a life-saving mission to heal the daughter of a well-respected religious leader in town, Jairus, who was fervent in his plea for Jesus to come at once to heal his 12-year old daughter who was to the point of death. Crowds flocked around Jesus, to follow him and witness first-hand the miraculous healing they had only heard about until now. And even though Jesus dropped everything to follow Jairus to his daughter, when another desperate soul reached out in faith to touch him, he noticed. How many of us get so involved in whatever important task that is before us that we completely ignore or block out everyone else around us? When we get into ‘task mode’ do we notice others around us who need our attention? We may think, “we don’t have time to stop.” It seems that that is exactly what the disciples were thinking when Jesus did stop. The disciples wanted to push things along and said, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” But Jesus felt it…his healing power had been used. And he needed to know who did it. So he stopped and looked all around until the woman came forward. (MARK 5:31-32)
Jesus wasn’t offended by this interruption – instead he was open to it. But how about us? Are we? The truth is that because of technology and social media, we are more distracted than ever today. And even though we have more power in our hands to connect with others than in all the other generations before us combined, we – especially our teen and young adult generations – are living in more isolation than ever before. We’re simply not paying attention to the people right in front of us. If you add to that the increasing number of activities that we’re all involved in and the increased sense of busyness overall in our society today, it’s no wonder that incidences of depression are on the rise. Consider again the woman in the scriptures who was not allowed to touch or be touched by anyone – what an extreme example of loneliness. And we are lonely, too – either because of the ways we isolate ourselves, or because of the ways that society rejects those who are ‘different than.’ But Jesus made time for the person right in front of him. He wasn’t nearly as concerned with where he was going, or what he was planning to do in the future, as he was with the person he was with in the present moment.
The next thing I want to point out is that Jesus was approachable. He didn’t close himself off as he journeyed to the next thing – he still created a welcoming sense that invited connection along the way. It didn’t matter that Jesus had important things to do because he always made time to stop for others. In other instances in the gospel of Mark, we see Jesus making time to heal a man with leprosy who comes and begs at his feet for healing, a man with a withered hand who interrupts him while he was praying in the synagogue, and even a man who rushes to the boat as Jesus was stepping off in order to stretch his hand out for healing. Jesus made time for all of those who came to him, especially those who had been rejected or cast out by everyone else, and who longed for someone to touch them and heal them – to make them feel whole and accepted, to feel once again that their life mattered. Jesus was approachable…but how about us? Do we communicate that same welcoming spirit to others with whom we come into contact? Do we take time to make eye contact, or to offer a friendly smile? Do we wave or say hello? Do we dare to begin a conversation, or speak intentionally in a way that lets someone know that they are seen and noticed, that their life matters? That we won’t shame them or judge them? That they are safe with us?
Fred Rogers believed that one of the most important things that needed to be communicated to children at an early age was the idea that they were accepted and loved just the way they are. He wrote a song called, “It’s You I Like” which he sang on many different episodes. One particularly poignant episode was filmed with a boy named Jeff Earlinger, who was wheelchair bound due to a neurological condition, and came on to show other children how an electric wheelchair works. Mister Rogers believed in tackling the serious stuff in life with children – things such as divorce, and war, and death, and even disabilities. After talking to Jeff about his wheelchair, his illness, and some of his doctors and medical procedures, he began to sing this song to Jeff. And then Jeff joined in. He wanted children to know that they were loved and accepted for who there were, just the way they are! In fact, he ended every episode of his children’s program with the phrase, “You've made this day a special day, by just your being you. There's no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.”
Friends, it is a gift when we are able to stop our tasks and take a break from our to-do lists and make time for others. And it’s an even greater gift when the person we make time for, the person we welcome, the person we communicate acceptance and love to is someone that feels they are outcast and unaccepted, unacceptable, and unlovable by everyone else. This story of Jesus healing the woman who touched the hem of his robe demonstrates to us that there are no barriers to the healing and helping power of God. If God’s love meets us and makes time for us right where we are, we must be willing to do the same for others, especially “THE other.”
Last week we thought about how we can meet and get to know our neighbors. We’re working on filling out our Neighborhood map by meeting and learning the first names of the eight neighbors who live closest to us. As we continue meeting those neighbors, I want to add one thing – I want to encourage you to become aware of those you pass by, those you interact with at work, at school, at the gym or at the store. As you become aware of them, think about what you might need to sacrifice in order to give more time to becoming a good neighbor to them. Would it mean less screen time on your phone? Would it mean letting go of attitudes about people with tattoos, or body piercings, or people with a different lifestyle? Would it require you to be less hurried and more patient with the teenagers learning to drive, or the elderly and infirm who don’t move (or drive) at your pace? It might even require that you simplify your schedule to be more available to family members, friends and neighbors. It can be daunting to think about making schedule changes and giving up something, but counselors agree that the first step to a healthier lifestyle is identifying and then acting on the changes necessary. A saying often attributed to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, is, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” Where can you do good this week? Who are the people in your neighborhood who need to know that they are accepted and loved just the way they are?
PRAYER: O Master, from the mountainside make hast to heal these hearts of pain; among these restless throngs abide; O tread the city’s streets again. (UMH 427)
October 21 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Scripture Lesson: Luke 10:25-37
I’ve been reading a book entitled, The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door, written by two Denver-area pastors, Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon. In this book, they describe a gathering by the city’s Christian pastors to meet with and listen to the area’s mayors, city managers and other city officials to try to identify some of the area’s greatest needs that their churches could hopefully address and help with. They wanted to know what the most important thing their churches could come together to do to make a difference in their community. The Denver mayor pulled out a piece of paper on which he had made a list; he began to read several of the things off the list: “I would like to live in a city in which there are no isolated elderly shut-ins, no at-risk children, no single moms living below the poverty level…” He ticked off several other things from his list, then folded the paper and put it back in his pocket. Then he looked at all of the pastors in the room and said, basically, if you could just get all of your people to learn how to be good neighbors, I don’t think we’d have any problems. Ouch. The pastors in the room have written about how convicting that was for them. Here, they had called for a meeting to find out how the church could be an answer to some of the city’s biggest challenges and were basically told, if you could just get your Jesus followers to actually take Jesus seriously about that “Loving your neighbor” thing, I think that would be enough.
They go on to reveal that one of the city managers in the meeting even went so far as to explain that as they look at the data and information across their area, there is no noticeable difference in the way that Christians and non-Christians treat their neighbors. Another ouch! The mayor went on to explain how they get calls all the time from people complaining about the lack of programs to address real human needs inside the city; and so the city tries to address these concerns by starting new programs, but that often, public funding will run out for these, and then the people who might have been helped in some way by these programs are left to go back to their previous realities. What these pastors were hearing and beginning to understand was that if we could convince believers to take Jesus seriously, to love their neighbors, then we could start a movement by which people actually take care of each other out of relationships instead of programs.
When I picked up this book about a year ago, I have to admit that I was convicted, too. As a Christian, and now as a pastor, I’m sure that I still have much to learn about what it really means to love my neighbor the way that Jesus intends. Around the time that I received my appointment to Maple Grove, our country was celebrating one my childhood heroes, Mister Rogers. If you’re my age or older, you may remember his public television show for children, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” This year marked the 50th anniversary of the show, and was celebrated with an in-depth and nostalgic documentary this summer titled, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” If you are too young to recall the television show itself, maybe you know of the new animated show based on one of Mister Rogers’ beloved puppets, Daniel Tiger. And if you know nothing of Mister Fred Rogers, by the end of this series I think you may be just as amazed as I am at the wisdom and insight he shared through the years, especially with children.
So when I realized that I would be pastoring a church which was taking steps to become something new in the midst of a new and growing neighborhood, I knew that it would be important to explore this book from other pastors about a movement of intentional neighboring; and I couldn’t resist sprinkling in some of the spiritual truths I’ve learned from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood along the way.
As we begin today, I’m going to do something that Mister Rogers often did when he was asked to speak to crowd; he would say: “Since you were little, there have been people who have smiled you into smiling, talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving: now, take some time to think of the people in your life who have helped you. Some may be here, some may be far away, some may even be in heaven. No matter where they are deep down you know they've always cared about you. They've always wanted what's best for you and encouraged you to be the best within you. Take one minute to think about them - I'm going to time you.”
[moment of silence]
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
Fred Rogers entered seminary right after college, but dropped out just a year or two later because he felt God was calling him to minister to children through the new invention of television. He hated what he saw was being offered as entertainment to kids, slapping pies in each other’s faces, and other acts which he considered to be dehumanizing and demeaning. So he started working on a children’s program as a musician and puppeteer, and eventually completed his Masters of Divinity over eight years of lunch hour classes. When he began his own program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1968, he felt he had a holy responsibility to communicate right to the heart of children. Even though he never spoke of religion on the show, or identified himself as a Presbyterian pastor, everything he did on the show came out of his deeply held belief that every person was a son or daughter of God, created with sacred worth, and that the most important thing anyone could do was to let children and adults know that they are loved. He said that each day when he entered the studio, he would pray the same prayer, “Let some word heard here be Yours.” He stated in an interview once that he believes The Holy Spirit translates our best efforts into what needs to be communicated to that person in his or her place of need. “The longer I live, the more I know it's true," he says.
We used for our call to worship today the words he sang at the beginning of every show, which invited each person watching to “be my neighbor.” Mister Rogers discovered over 50 years ago the same important truth that Pastors Jay and Dave were learning at their city meeting in Denver – that everyone longs to be known and loved, and that as Christians, our most important responsibility is to make that possible. Mister Rogers’ invitation to “be my neighbor” was an invitation into a relationship. He truly believed that the space between his message on the show and the person receiving it was ‘holy ground’ – a space where God’s Spirit could work. And the message of the Neighborhood was always that “You are special and so is your neighbor.” And that “if somebody cares about you, it’s possible you’ll care about others.” He once pointed to the biblical passage of 1 John 4:9-12 as his central message on the show, to communicate not only that you are loved, but also the importance of being loving. The scripture says, “9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
Being a good neighbor means 1-knowing that God loved us, and loving God in return; 2-accepting ourselves for who God created us to be, and loving ourselves as God loves us; and 3-loving others, specifically our neighbors, as ourselves.
Pastors Jay and Dave explain in their book how we Christians have a tendency to overgeneralize the Great Commandment to love our neighbors, or to think of it too metaphorically, and reduce it to a cute slogan on a car magnet or bumper sticker instead of taking it’s message seriously. In today’s scripture, a man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus asks him how he interprets the law. The man correctly answered, “to love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and [to] love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus responds, “Do this and you will live.” The man likely thought he was already doing that. And so, to justify himself, the man asks Jesus, “but who is my neighbor?” Because, he likely was NOT already loving people the way Jesus intended. So he was looking for loopholes. And it’s likely that many of us look for loopholes when it comes to loving others, as well.
In this instance, Jesus assumed that this man already lived in a tight-knit community like most people did back then – a community of people all from the same tribe, who looked the same and thought the same. And so Jesus told a story about a Samaritan, a person who was ethnically different, who lived in a different geographic area, and who thought and believed differently than this man and other Jews. In this story, it was the Samaritan who turned out to be the good neighbor. And so Jesus was teaching us that loving our neighbor extended to those who are not like you, those who are from some ‘other’ tribe, even those you are taught to hate.
I think we have a tendency to listen to this story and overgeneralize it to say, Ok this means we have to love everybody… but then we look for the loopholes. I love the people I work with, I love the people I'm friends with, I support missions and ministries that support others, and that shows that I love them - and all of that is true! But are there people right in front of you that you dismiss or ignore? How do we learn to be a good neighbor to the people right in front of us - our actual neighbors, those who live in our actual community? Even if they don't look like us, or think like us, or support the same college football team, or political candidates as us?
One of the other things those pastors learned in their meeting with city leaders is that people who have close bonds with people who live around them live longer; that in neighborhoods where people know the first names of those who live around them, crime is down 60%; and that when natural disasters happen & systems are overwhelmed, it is neighbors helping neighbors that recover the fastest. In other words, learning to be a good neighbor not to metaphorical “others” but to your actual neighbors who live close to you, is one of the most important ways that you can live out the Great Commandment to love your neighbors. So this book, The Art of Neighboring, presents churches with a process to help all of us learn how to do a better job of being a good neighbor.
In your bulletin today is a worksheet that looks similar to a tic-tac-toe board. The house in the center square is your house or apartment. So take a moment right now to write your name in the center square. The squares surrounding the center square represent the eight closest neighbors to you – the eight closest homes or apartments. And I’m going to give you a couple of minutes right now to right in the first names of the adults who live there. First names only for now. Go ahead and write them in.
Now, I won’t ask for a show of hands, but how many of you could fill in the first names of all eight squares? If you couldn’t, you’re not alone. The vast majority of Christians can’t do this either. Only about 10% of the people who have been through this exercise in other churches were successful. But your goal for the next week is to learn those names. Yes, really! I want you to take this home today and put it on your fridge or bulletin board, or tape it to your bathroom mirror, and then look for opportunities to learn the names of your closest neighbors this week. I’ll go ahead and tell you up front that this will not be the last time we do this exercise together! If the single most important thing we can do to make a difference in our community is to love our neighbors, by learning to care for each other through relationships instead of through programs, it might help to start by learning their names – even if it’s someone whose name you’ve learned before, but forgot because you decided they weren’t important enough to remember.
The hope is that throughout this series we’ll progress together from the neighborly “wave” as you pass each other entering or leaving the neighborhood, to saying, “Hey, How’s it going?” to saying, “Hey, Ken, how are you?” to saying, “Hey, Ken, could you give us a hand with this?” to saying, “Hey, Ken, was that your daughter I saw visiting this weekend? It must be hard to only see her once a month. How’s that going?” It may feel awkward at first, but there’s no shame in walking over to that neighbor you see in their yard or driveway and saying something like, “Hey, I’m Melody, I live in the green house over there. And I know we’ve met, but it’s been a while since we’ve talked. Can you remind me your name?” Or “Hey, I’m sure you’ve seen me zipping in and out, and I’m really sorry I haven’t been around to say hi lately. How are things going?” Chances are that your neighbor probably feels the same way, and will be relieved that you made the first move.
Now I know that you’re not all extroverts, and that for some of you, the idea of initiating conversation with someone you don’t know well is about as pleasant as the idea of a root canal. So you may have to be creative in the way that you try to get to know your neighbors. Take your spouse or kids with you, and ask them to do the talking – once someone else has broken the ice, it will feel less scary. And as Mister Rogers would say, “I’m proud of you for the times you’ve said, ‘yes,’ when it meant extra work for you, and was seemingly only helpful to somebody else.”
Mister Rogers focused his television show and its messages to preschoolers, and by extension their parents and families. He thought that it was important to instill these messages of knowing you are loved and that you can be loving in return to children at the earliest age possible, when their minds and hearts are still being formed. The truth is that some of us, even those of us who watched Mister Rogers, didn’t believe those messages or lost hope in them once we experienced the ‘real’ world. But our hearts and minds never stop growing, and it’s never too late for us to take these messages to heart. Besides, don’t we make the real world what it really is? Don’t we grownups today have the opportunity to change the very world around us by living counter to the ways the world lives? Jesus thought so – his message for his followers was centered on loving others. This was God's plan for building the Kingdom of heaven on earth - that as people come to know God and experience God’s love, their hearts will turn with love toward the people closest to them, so that when they begin to see your love, they will see God, and will come to know God and experience God’s love, and then turn their hearts with love to the people closest to them… Can you imagine that domino effect now? Can you see how YOU are part of God's plan to build a Kingdom - a NEIGHBORHOOD of love across the entire globe, starting right here with your own community? This kind of love and relationship-building - this kind of neighboring can literally change the world!
May it be so.
When I was appointed to be your pastor this year, I was amazed to realize what God’s Spirit was doing through this congregation called Maple Grove United Methodist Church, that after more than 100 years of ministry as a small, rural congregation, God was giving this congregation a new vision for a new future, in a new community that was springing up all around it. I learned about the steady, faithful ministry of this congregation who has cared for thousands of members over the years, who has held annual pancake breakfast fundraisers for the Bidwell-Riverside Community center & food pantry on Des Monies’ south side, and served countless meals for the Children & Family Urban Movement at Trinity UMC in Des Moines. The people of Maple Grove have a long tradition of seeking out the needs of their Des Moines neighbors and then partnering with other churches and agencies to be the hands and feet of Christ.
Then, a few years ago, the people of Maple Grove begin to feel a stirring, a nudging, that gave them an awareness that something new was on the horizon. There was a sense that God was leading them to take what may have seemed like a huge leap of faith at the time, to build something new. They could see that they were no longer as isolated as they once had been. Maple Grove may have once been the little white church with the red door, way on the outside of Des Moines… but the suburbs of West Des Moines and Waukee were growing closer and closer. New neighbors were building homes and planting gardens and raising their children just a mile or less away. And so, with lot of courage, they took that leap and dared to dream “what if?”
Today is an exciting day on this journey you have dared to take. Look around at what God has been able to build through you! But this is not the end of the journey! It is only a step. We are now transitioning into a new way of being God’s hands and feet, in a new space, and with opportunities to seek out and meet the needs of new neighbors.
I remember the excitement my family experienced when my husband Thomas was offered a new job with a company based in the Des Moines area in 2008. At the time we had moved back to Mississippi after his job in St. Louis had been cut. But he was commuting an hour away, and was missing out on time with the kids, and we knew something needed to change. The new job offer was to manage the Research & Development for a new business industry, and would be located in Arkansas, still a reasonable drive from our families in the South.
So he started the job in February and the kids and I stayed behind to finish the school year and sell the house. In June, the kids and I joined him in a small apartment in Arkansas while we looked for a house there. In August, we had just moved into the house we found when Thomas was told they were moving his job to Des Moines – So the next day we packed the van and moved into a furnished apartment in West Des Moines until we could find a house in Iowa. In October we moved our furniture from Arkansas to Ankeny, IA. And caught our breath. By the time we had finally unpacked and settled in, Thomas was told they wanted to send him to Italy for three years. And so we flew to Italy to research school and housing options, we started getting rid of things we didn’t want to take with us, we started getting moving bids, and in January, we were told, “Never mind.” It was a whirlwind year, to say the least!
I was thinking about that time in my life recently. It was an exciting, new opportunity for my husband and our family, but it was also a time in my life when I felt the most uprooted and the most untethered. It was one long year of transition. I had a conversation with my Spiritual Director about this recently, because I was noticing that I was beginning to notice again that feeling of being untethered, and I can imagine that for many of you here at Maple Grove, you may be feeling that way right now, as well. A transition is a period of time that exists between the already and the not yet. It can be a difficult time to navigate, not quite knowing how to feel or think or exactly what to do. You don’t have the old routines or familiar spaces to rely on anymore, and you haven’t yet established any new ones. In this time of not yet, it’s hard to know what our purpose is, what our tasks should be, or even what our next goals are.
There are many things in our lives that can cause us to feel this way – a new job, or the loss of a job, or even the retirement from a job; a change in relationship or family status, the loss of a loved one, an illness or injury; a new home, the loss of a home; the list could go on. Changing from the already to the not yet can be difficult.
As my Spiritual Director and I talked about that year-long transition I experienced in the past, he asked me what I learned about myself from that time. Well, for one thing, I think I learned that I can get pretty caught up in worrying about the future or grieving over the past that I may miss out on being present for the “right now” as it is happening. That year was a year of a lot of “firsts” for my three children who were young then, and I think that missed the opportunity to engage with them more, and to create even more memories with them during that time. He also asked me what got me through it. And I can say without a doubt that it was my faith. I kept a prayer journal for part of that year. In it, I wrote down my prayers, which were sometimes very hopeful, sometimes thankful, sometimes pleading for things to change, or to be able to go back, and sometimes they were full of anger or despair. But I believe that by pouring my heart out to God in that way, and in searching through prayer and Bible study during that time, that it became for me a sacred time.
Have you ever heard someone describe a particular time in their life as a “thin space?” It’s an expression used first by the Celts, and later other Christians, that describes a place in time in which it feels like heaven and earth collide and we experience something of the Divine. It can be disorienting. It can feel like we’ve lost our bearings, like we’ve become untethered, like we’ve suddenly seen our world or our situation with new eyes. Because out of this confusion comes clarity, and we begin to see a new world, a new possibility – perhaps even a small glimpse into heaven.
There was a particular scripture that I clung to during that time that helped me transcend my situation and reconnect me to a sacred truth. It was Jeremiah 29:11 – “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
Jeremiah is speaking to the Israelites after they have been exiled to Babylon. They’ve had to leave their temple behind, and felt they no longer had a way to worship God. They were feeling untethered, they no longer had their bearings. But Jeremiah comes to remind them that God will be faithful to God’s promises. Meanwhile, Jeremiah tells them to build houses, plant gardens, get married, have children, be a good neighbor, pray for your community and work for its welfare. Be present where you are. Be engaged where you are. Don’t get so lost in the past or so worried or concerned about the future that you forget to live right here, right now.
Friends, we can anchor ourselves to this truth – God has planned a hopeful future for this church called Maple Grove. And look around us today – not just at this building. But look with God’s eyes beyond these walls – to the townhouses and apartments down the street, to the homes and fields north and south of us, to the businesses to our east and west. Let’s ask God to open our eyes to the possibilities before us right here, and right now. How can God help us transcend in this time of transition, from 118 years of being one kind of church, to a new opportunity of becoming a new kind of church. What kind of already, but not yet church is God transforming us to be?
I came across a poem I wanted to share with you today, author unknown:
This is my church. It is composed of people just like me. It will be friendly if I am. It will do a great work if I work. It will make generous gifts to many causes if I am generous. It will bring others into its fellowship if I bring them. Its seats will be filled if I fill them. It will be a church of loyalty and love, of faith and service. If I who make it what it is, am filled with these, Therefore, with God’s help, I dedicate myself to the task of being all these things I want my church to be.
You’re about to hear a song called, “I Dream of a Church.” Inside your bulletin today is a colored card on which I invite you to write your dream for this church. These dreams will be posted to a Vision Board that we’ll be hanging in our conference room. It will help to guide all of the ministry plans and decisions that we’ll make over the next year. So your dream is important in helping us to discover just what the next steps on this journey will be. As we celebrate this step in our church’s journey, let’s dream about the ways God will use us in the next 100 years! Let’s pray:
“Loving God, we thank you for drawing us into community in this congregation that has been a place called home for so many. Inspire us with the lives of those before us, those ancient ones who have lived here in faith and opened up and given away your love to all those who needed it. May you change us with a vision to continue here as a constant presence for those who travel through life, a community of welcome that cares for all, believing into what is still yet to be. Teach us to discern your voice as those before us have discerned your voice, guided by its call and feeding on its promise of life and hope and belonging. May we be moved by your miracle of grace into all the places that make up our community, sharing what you have given abundantly like an ever flowing stream. Call us from our past, through the voices of our ancestors, in the songs they have sung and the prayers they have spoken that have shaped peace within this church, And may we join our voice with their voice, in the one great song of love that will be lived and celebrated yet, throughout this church. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.”
In the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, the American women's 4 x 100 relay race team was favored to win the gold medal. The team featured Marion Jones, a sprinter who had won four gold medals at the previous games in Sydney. The American team was already off to a strong start when Jones took the baton for the second leg of the race. She gained ground as she ran her 100 meters and approached Lauryn Williams, a young speedster who would run the third leg.
Williams began running as Jones drew near, but when she reached back to receive the baton, they couldn't complete the handoff. Once, twice, three times Jones thrust the baton forward, but each time it missed William's hand—she couldn't seem to wrap her fingers around it. Finally, on the fourth try, they made the connection. But by that time, they had crossed out of the 20-yard exchange zone and were disqualified. Everyone knew they were the fastest team on the track. The night before, they'd had the fastest qualifying time. But when they couldn't complete the handoff, their race was over.
That handoff isn't as easy as it looks. It isn't automatic. It's the result of thousands and thousands of practice runs. When we think about the great relay of faith, we must consider the effectiveness of our own handoffs. How are we passing on the story of our faith so that the next generation, and even the generation after the next generation will be blessed? For several weeks now we’ve been following the story of Joseph as we’ve considered our own stories, looking at his life and our own life through God’s eyes. Today, as we finish Joseph’s, we’ll see how his father Jacob makes a handoff to Joseph’s sons, passing on his own blessings to the generation after the next generation.
Hear now God’s Word for us today from Genesis 48:1-16.
After this Joseph was told, “Your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. 2 When Jacob was told, “Your son Joseph has come to you,” he summoned his strength and sat up in bed. 3 And Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and he blessed me, 4 and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers; I will make of you a company of peoples, and will give this land to your offspring after you for a perpetual holding.’ 5 Therefore your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are now mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are. 6 As for the offspring born to you after them, they shall be yours. They shall be recorded under the names of their brothers with regard to their inheritance. 7 For when I came from Paddan, Rachel, alas, died in the land of Canaan on the way, while there was still some distance to go to Ephrath; and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath” (that is, Bethlehem).
8 When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, “Who are these?” 9 Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” And he said, “Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them.” 10 Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, and he could not see well. So Joseph brought them near him; and he kissed them and embraced them. 11 Israel said to Joseph, “I did not expect to see your face; and here God has let me see your children also.” 12 Then Joseph removed them from his father’s knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth. 13 Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right, and brought them near him. 14 But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands, for Manasseh was the firstborn. 15 He blessed Joseph, and said,
“The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked,
the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day,
16 the angel who has redeemed me from all harm, bless the boys;
and in them let my name be perpetuated, and the name of my ancestors Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude on the earth.”
Today, I want you to be thinking of ways in which you may be called – as an individual or as part of this church – to pass on your blessings, your faith, so that the generation after the next generation may be blessed. I’m going to give you a moment to begin to reflect on that, and then I’ll lead us in a prayer.
God of all our moments and all our days, guide our hearts and minds as we consider your Word for us today. May all we say and do here be acceptable to you, our Shepherd and our Redeemer. Amen.
As we’ve followed the story of Joseph, we’ve seen how God has been present with him throughout many twists and turns in his life. From the beginning, when Joseph’s older brothers gave in to their jealousy and fears by throwing him into a pit, then selling him into slavery, God worked through these situations to call Joseph to a greater adventure; and Joseph seems to have sensed God’s presence in his life, and was willing not only to let God take control of his own story, but to become part of God’s story for greater good. Through many plot twists, Joseph endured betrayal, slavery, sexual harassment, and wrongful incarceration; but Joseph trusted the dreams of his youth, he remembered the promises God made to his ancestors, and he had experienced time and again that when a difficult situation arose in his life, that God was able to transform it and use it for good.
Through these experiences, Joseph has discovered who he is meant to be. As we consider the number of chapters in Genesis devoted to telling Joseph’s story – 12 in all – I believe there is much for us as God’s people today to learn from him. I believe that Joseph’s story is lifted up as a representation of what it means to be the people of God, of what it means to live in a faithful relationship with God and God’s people.
Joseph came to understand that he was sent by God to be part of God’s greater story of salvation. In a way, Joseph became a missionary to the very people among whom he had been a slave! Remember that through the ability God gave him to interpret dreams, he was ultimate placed in a position to manage the food supply for all of Egypt throughout 7 years of abundance and 7 years of famine. With God’s help, Joseph devised a plan to store up grain during the time of abundance so that when the famine came, he was in a position to feed thousands of starving people. That reminds me of the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand with just a few loves of bread and some fish. Jesus was drawn with compassion to those who had physical as well as spiritual hunger and thirst. Many times, he used the analogy of hunger and thirst to teach us what it means to be loved by God, and to love others. In John 35:6 Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Today is World Communion Sunday – it is a day when Christians all over the world come together at God’s table to remember our shared story of faith; to remember that like Joseph, we have been rescued and sent; that as we have been fed by the Bread of Life, we, too, have a part in God’s story to continue to find the hungry, the thirsty, the betrayed, the harassed and abused, the incarcerated, and those who suffer anywhere, and to offer God’s story of love and healing. How are we being called and sent today?
Joseph’s story also reminds us that our own personal stories must be part of God’s bigger story. Joseph was placed in a situation to bless others precisely because of his job. It wasn’t through his worship, or Bible study group, it was while he was doing his very secular job. All of us, whether or not we have secular jobs, have secular lives that we live outside of these walls. Where are the places that God is putting you out there in the ‘world’ so that you can be part of God’s mission to seek and save the lost? To pass on your own story of faith? And to be part of God’s bigger story of salvation? And where are the secular places in our community that God might be calling us as a church? People of this community of faith have prayed for years that God would bless our future – that we would not close our doors, but that we would become something new in order to be an effective witness for God in a community that is growing all around us. How, then, will we expand our ministry into this community? Are we ready, willing, to let God write the next chapter of our church’s story? Are we ready, willing, to support new ministries for new people, maybe even letting go of some the things we’ve “always done that way” in order to let God place us in new settings? Or in order to join God’s mission ourselves, and not leave it up to someone else?
One of the most poignant parts of Joseph’s story is seeing the healing and reconciliation that came after Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. This is also part of what it means to be in a faithful relationship with God and with all of God’s people. Letting go of resentment, letting go of bitterness, letting go of grudges; not dividing the world into “us vs. them;” not seeing those who believe differently from you as an enemy; and as Jesus taught us, to love others as you love yourself – even to love your enemies. Last week we talked about how difficult this is in our country today, when we are more polarized than ever over issues of politics. But being part of God’s story means living in such a way that seeks restoration and reconciliation. How is God calling us as individuals and as a church to let go of the past in order to walk into a future with hope? How are we being called to bless instead of punish?
On World Communion Sunday, consider that Christians from many different countries and cultures around the world are all seeking peace and healing and reconciliation today. We are part of a global church, part of a Kingdom that is not bound by politics, or race, or country. After Joseph and his brothers reconciled, he told them to go and bring their father and all of their family, and they would settle in the land of Goshen, part of Egypt. Joseph himself had married an Egyptian woman, and had two sons who were also Egyptian. Some 17 years after Joseph’s family had been living in Egypt, Jacob, whom God renamed Israel, was dying. He called for Joseph, and Joseph brought his two sons. Remember in chapter 41:51-52, we learn that “Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, ‘For,’ he said, ‘God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.’ The second he named Ephraim, ‘For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.’” Jacob, at the end of his life, wants to ensure that the promises God made to him and to his ancestors will be passed on, not just to the next generation, but to the generation after the next generation. So he asks Joseph to let him bless his two sons as his own.
As we come to the end of this story, consider that Jacob and his family have had to flee the land that God promised them because of the famine. They are now living in Egypt as aliens, as strangers in a strange land. But he still clings to God’s promises to make a great nation from his ancestry. So here is Jacob, making these two Egyptian boys his very own! And at the end of his life, he is still looking forward to that future hope God has promised, so he blesses. He wants to do everything in his power to ensure that God’s promises are remembered by his children and his children’s children. Even as Jacob lay dying, his thoughts are about passing on the story; passing on the faith; and he sees an opportunity to increase his odds, so to speak, by widening the circle of his family, and increasing the blessings of those around him.
Next week, we will be consecrating, or setting apart, this new building. It is our opportunity to allow God’s blessings to reach the generation after the next generation. And it is OK to admit that for these blessings to go forward, in a way, there is a part of our story that is ending. But would we hold on to the way things used to be, or the way we’ve always done things, and risk not passing on God’s blessings? Are we ready to move forward with God, letting God write the next part of our story? Are we willing to leave behind the land we’ve always known, just as Jacob and his family did, in order to widen the circle of our family of faith, and to reach new people with new ministries? The generation after the next generation is counting on us, to pass the baton, to give them our blessings. It’s time to make the hand-off so that a new generation can take the baton of faith and run with it!