Monday, September 21, 2009

Welcoming Jesus

Dear Friends. The following sermon, 9/20/09, initiates my Action Plan at Smith Chapel to become a more "Outwardly Focused" church, to lead our congregation to a love for the unchurched in response to School of Lay Ministry 2009 (see link). Please help me be accountable to "Welcoming Christ."
Welcoming Jesus
(Mark 9:30-37)
A. Introduction
1. Focus, Focus, Focus. In this passage, Jesus is focused on teaching his disciples on the way to Jerusalem. To set the stage, Jesus has been north of Galilee, in the region of Caesarea-Philippi. There, Peter has declared Jesus as Messiah (Who do you say that I am? “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the one coming into the world.”), and he has begun teaching them that he must go to Jerusalem, be handed over to men, killed, and on the third day rise again. They had no clue. Today’s lesson is the second time he’s told them this. Still no clue. While still in Caesarea-Philippi, Jesus took Peter, James, and John high up on the mountain and there he was transfigured before them, a glimpse of his future glory. God speaks to them saying, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” Still, the real thrust of Jesus’ ministry is a mystery to the disciples. Now he’s on his way to Jerusalem. Jesus has to teach them. Focus, Focus, Focus. He was teaching his disciples. If the disciples don’t get it now, the mission will be lost. Focus.

2. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands.” When we hear these words, we need to hear them from two perspectives: First, Mark is conveying what Jesus was telling his pre-Easter disciples. But second, he is writing to a post-Easter world. Mark is being clear that it is human hands, all of humanity who are responsible for the death of Jesus. Not just Judas, although he is there as Jesus teaches, not the Jews, not the Romans, although God allows them to be instruments, but Jesus is betrayed into human hands, Adam’s hands, Eve’s hands, Rick’s hands, Rosemary’s hands. What we did yesterday, what we will do tomorrow. Post-Easter people, Christ died for all of humanity. He died for you and me.
3. But for the pre-Easter disciples this had to be hard. To be killed! Hung from a cross. For the first century Jews, the cross, the cross was a scandal. Yet Jesus had already taught them, if any want to be my disciples, they must take up their cross and follow me. Sacrifice, submission, was necessary to be a follower of Christ. It was then, it is now.

4. But this passage tells us again that they didn’t get it. Jesus says, “What were you arguing about on the way?” They were arguing about who was the greatest among them! Jesus tells them that whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all. If we are to have ambition, a normal human trait, that ambition must be focused on serving others.
B. Body
1. Then Jesus, the master story teller, the master user of props, takes a child and puts it among them, then puts his arm around the child and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” Welcoming Jesus, welcoming God!
a. Understand, that in the first century, children had little or no social status. They fell somewhere between slaves who had none and women who had but some. Children got no respect. In fact, the regard we provide our children today is probably a Christian teaching that flows from this very passage. But in that day, no status.
b. Jesus says, “One who welcomes a person of no status, welcomes me.” Where have we heard that before? Recall Matthew 25, the story of Christ the King, also called the parable of the sheep and the goats? The people say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you drink? And when was it we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave your clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the King will answer them, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.” The least of these, welcoming one like a child. Welcoming Jesus.
2. Whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all, whoever welcomes one like a child in my name welcomes me. Jesus, destroying the hierarchy of the day (and today) and placing us all in the same circle. Gathering us around Jesus. Then Jesus asking that we make the circle wider and wider. Go, make disciples. Be my witnesses. Welcome one like a child in my name. All of us in the same ever widening circle.
3. I’d like to pause here and talk about us, our circle. Our ever widening. Us welcoming Jesus. How I see Smith Chapel in three to five years.
a. Last week in our meeting after church we introduced two new ministry concepts: Small groups, circles; and an annual or bi-annual neighborhood food drive, serving others. You also received a letter describing the small group series. Now I’d like to give you my vision, how I see this playing out.
b. Let me leap forward to the fall of 2010, a year from now. You’re in the third cycle of small groups. You’re starting to fall into the pattern. In fact, most of you look forward to your weekly meetings. I recall my first Disciple Bible Study: 34 weeks, 2 ½ hours a week, yet I couldn’t wait to get back to my group.
c. The groups include church members, family that may not attend weekly, friends from other churches, neighbors that may or may not attend anywhere, new people that you may want to get to know. All advantages of meeting away from the church. You meet in homes or possibly corner of a restaurant or a meeting room. People will accept an invitation to a home who may not accept an invitation to church.
d. You gather. After greeting, you begin with prayer, maybe recite a Psalm or the words to a hymn. You find the adoration and worship in this setting even greater than you might experience on Sunday morning.
e. You welcome those that are new, who have been invited this week and who have responded, widening your circle. You break bread together as you fellowship and study. In your discussion you hear a new insight, even from one of the new people who may have no background on the topic, but the insight is life changing.
f. Over the course of time you share your lives together, you laugh together, and there are times you cry together and pray together. This is real life and faith.
g. As you close the meeting, you discuss who might be invited to a following meeting. There is always an open chair, always a widening circle. Always an expectation to welcome Christ.
h. You depart, even reluctantly, looking forward to studying and meeting again next week.
4. The seven week session ends. Some of the groups may decide to continue to meet once a month or bi-weekly in the interim between studies. Some may find service projects, nursing homes, food pantry, Festival of sharing, that they want to continue in between. In fact, in getting to know friends and neighbors, new needs of theirs and the community become apparent. You have always been the best at helping your neighbor and you respond.
5. Another session begins the following spring and another the following fall. It may be that the groups have grown and the plan always was to start another group at another time and place to widen the circle and welcome Christ again. A seed group of two couples leaves on group and invites others and another group of six to eight is begun. In five years, what started as 3 or 4 groups is now 6 or 8. Most of the people will never attend Smith Chapel, a few may. They’ll attend other churches, but for some the small group may become the only church they know.
6. In parallel to this, our neighborhood food drive is happening once or twice a year. “When did we see thee hungry and feed thee?” We begin small, dropping off bags and telling folks we’ll be back in two weeks to pick them up. “Oh by the way, we’re a small church and we’re looking for ways to expand our drive, would you like to give a hand?” And we assign a section of road for them and give out them some bags and pick them up. We give them a church brochure to put in each bag and a form to collect names of our neighbors as we go, a name to pray for, a person that we might invite at some future time. All the time we are feeding the hungry, we are welcoming Christ. Each succeeding food drive gets easier and larger as we have developed a call list and assigned roads that we can repeat. The circle gets wider. Smith Chapel becomes important to the neighborhood.
7. Over the course of time a few may extend their faith journey and join us in church, either from the food drives or the small groups.
a. Imagine in 2010, as a result of prayer and study, we ourselves become more faithful and instead of 19 each week, we average 20; and as a result of invitation, one more person
joins—21. Ten percent growth.
b. And in 2011, a net of two more. Now 23.
c. In 2012 and 2013, two families join. And by 2014, five years from now, we’re approaching 30 in worship.
8. We can see ourselves becoming an Acts 2 church (46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (v46-47)).
a. You see, we’re not in this for us, although we may be one of the beneficiaries. We are doing it because we are called to.
b. Through prayer and study, we have gained a vital relationship with Jesus Christ, one that is outwardly focused, one that seeks to ever widen the circle, one that welcomes one like a child, that welcomes Jesus.
c. We’ve become a church that looks at every ministry opportunity as a means of invitation. Because we’ve been sharing our stories together, we’ve more comfortable sharing our faith story with others We seek to welcome Jesus.
d. By the way, small groups and ministries like food drives and others are the very best way to integrate someone into a congregation. Should somebody arrive on a Sunday, and there’s no apparent way for them to participate, to join in, they will probably be gone in week or two. But if instead, we invite them to participate in one our small groups, we expand our circle for them, we will welcome Jesus.
9. That’s 2014. Now back to 2009. I don’t expect that this will happen without some resistance. Even Moses had people grumbling in the desert. It only took 45 days and the Children of Israel were saying, “If only you had left us in Egypt instead of bringing us out into the desert to die.” If Moses had to put up with grumbling I guess I can. But no golden calves. We’ll skip over the golden calves and get to the Ten Commandments, and without breaking the tablets too. Serendipity that we’re starting by studying The Ten Commandments from the Backside.
C. Close.
1. What I’d like to do is keep the vision in front of you. We need to change. Our communities have changed and we need to find a way to ever widen our circle to include them.

2. People of God, the church in America is dying. We’ve missed an entire generation of children. In our denomination, our weekly attendance in America is decreasing 73,000 a year. That’s like closing every church in Kansas and an additional 150 in Nebraska each year. Why, because we’ve been doing church wrong for the past 100 years.
3. Think about this. In the first 300 years of Christianity there were no churches. Christianity was in the midst of the culture. They met in homes and the worshippers increased by 40 percent every decade for those 300 years.
4. In the 18th century the Wesleys looked at the church constrained by the church walls and the church moved to the fields. In America, the great awakening swept across America in homes, in class meetings just like our church began.
5. Since western expansion ended we locked ourselves back in our churches. The depression and the war revived us a little. But by 1960 we’d reach our peak.
6. We need a vision of a church transformed, a vision of a church doing things differently, a vision of a church doing ministry in the midst of our communities.
7. I know the Holy Spirit is moving us to this place. It has been gnawing on me, nudging me for some time. And after I finished up this sermon on Thursday, I found a link to a new survey of the best churches in America published in “USA Today” on Wednesday. Listen to what it says: “The best churches in America are aggressively evangelistic and evangelical, and the very best churches have very intentional systems to move people from sitting in rows to sitting in circles (in small groups).” Hear that word circles, ever widening circles. It continues, “to going out and making a difference in the world.”
8. We need a vision of a church doing ministry differently, of placing ourselves in ever widening circles, and in doing so, of a church that is being servants of all.
9. And a church welcoming one like a child. A church welcoming Jesus. So may it be in your life and in the life of this congregation. Amen.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Outward Focus of VBS

Smith Chapel just completed its most successful Vacation Bible School (VBS) ever, "Praise Him." It comes as we are in the middle of a study of Paul Nixon’s book, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church, and VBS was instructional for us. VBS is Smith Chapel’s best bridge event to the community (to use language from School of Lay Ministry) and is the most outwardly focused ministry we have at Smith Chapel. From it we gain lessons that will aid in broadening other ministries.

From the perspective of Nixon’s main points:

Nixon adjures us to “Choose life over death.” We have one active child at Smith Chapel. Two or three others attend once every couple of months. It would be easy to say that the church is dying. We had 18 children at VBS this year! And listen to this: We had 14 on Monday, 16 on Tuesday and 18 on Wednesday! How’s that? That’s life.

Choose Community over Isolation. We began with cards and personal invitations about two months before VBS. We then mailed out over 600 post cards to mail boxes within six miles of the church. I talked to mothers who sent children on days two and three. They had received the post cards and when others came home excited about their day, they were already aware of VBS and did not hesitate to send their children. Sending 600 post cards is something new to our little church, but it is a decision to choose community. Of the 18 kids, five attend Smith Chapel occasionally, the others have their own church homes. But for that week, Smith Chapel was the spiritual center of our rural community.

Choose Fun over Drudgery. We selected a new venue this year because some of our kids were getting older, and we wanted space to “let it out.” (See Frontier over Fortress.) The kids had a ball and so did we just watching them. Recreation required minimal organization and structure for the kids to have fun. I think we too often choose drudgery when we overly structure play time. We chose fun.

And music time. We had a 14 year old dancer as song leader. While structured, the music was great, and the kids responded. The music spoke to me and music time was fun time.

Choose Bold over Mild. Another way we expanded the ministry of our church was to invite those beyond our walls to leadership roles. Kim led Bible study two days and boldly took the opportunity to declare Jesus as the way and to clearly outline for the kids the way to eternal life. It was as if to say, “Some of these kids may only have one chance to hear the good news. I’m not going to miss it.” She was a wonderful teacher, mild in manner, participative in technique, bold in message! The kids will not forget their study with her.

Choose Frontier over Fortress. For our first four years of VBS, we squeezed into our 30 by 50 building and on rainy days overcame stir craziness by bowling down the aisle with tennis balls and water bottles as pins. This year we moved lock, stock and barrel to a multi-purpose facility a half mile away. It was wonderful. Ministry does not have to be limited to “our” space. I’m hoping that the combination of using leadership resources from beyond our walls and other venues that we can find whole new ways of doing a variety of ministries that would be too much for our membership and resources. Frontier!

Choose Now rather than Later. We began VBS five years ago after a 40 year hiatus at Smith Chapel. There were no longer any children. Five years ago, we had only one. A few members asked why bother? We had 13 kids that first year and have had 11 or 12 each year since. Had we said “later,” we would not have had 18 this year no the experience of life, community, fun, boldness and frontier that has ensued.

At School of Lay Ministry I loved Forum Christian Church’s purpose statement, “Intentionally connecting people to Jesus.” That’s what we were doing this week at Smith Chapel. An outwardly focused church plans every event to intentionally leave a chair open and provide a handful of invitations to every member and beyond. We are on our way to choosing life over death.

“Choose life, that you may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.” Deuteronomy 30:19-20

Monday, June 15, 2009

Somewhere Out There

Somewhere Out There
(Mark 4:26-32 and 1:38)

This sermon is an integration of the lectionary with stories, primarily from Bishop Schnase, from the Annual Conference of the Missouri UMC. We as a Conference are indebted to the wisdom and leadership of Bishop Schnase and are obligated to pass it on with thanks.

A. Introduction
1. After Easter season, after Pentecost, the church enters a new liturgical season sometimes called by different names. It can be simply, the season after Pentecost and it runs all the way to Advent, about December 1st. The Roman Catholic church and others call it Ordinary time. But it doesn’t mean ordinary. It is derived from the word “ordinal” which means numbered. The Methodist church uniquely calls this period after Pentecost Kingdomtide although the dates are not uniformly agreed with. Whether ordinary time or kingdomtide, the color of the season is green, representing growth, growth in the church, growth in the kingdom. And appropriately, the readings in the Gospel of Mark are Jesus’ parables of the kingdom and growth. You might say stories with a backdrop of green.

2. Some of our previous Sunday’s activities have detracted from our readings in Mark so I’d like to review how Mark got us to Chapter 4. Mark is called the “immediate” Gospel. Things happen quickly and the word immediate or immediately are used 40 times in 16 short chapters.
a. Chapter 1 is a series of rapid fire topics and scenes: v 1 tells us of the good news: “In the beginning, the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” (Mk 1:1) By verse 11, Jesus is baptized. In verse 13 he is tempted. By verse 15 he begins his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the good news.” (Mk 1:15)
b. Still in chapter 1 he calls the first of his disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John. He teaches in the synagogue, like one with authority. The scripture notes, “not like the scribes.” Jesus is authority.
c. He casts out spirits. Jesus has authority over the spirit world.
d. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. Jesus has authority over spirits, and he has authority over the flesh.
e. The whole city gathers at the door of the house with their sick and their lame and those who are possessed by demons. Jesus heals them. Jesus casts out their demons. Jesus has authority.

3. Then Jesus prayed. It says, still in chapter 1, “In the morning, while it was still dark, he got up and went out and prayed.” (Mk 1:35) The greatest man who ever walked, Jesus who was part of the Godhead, Jesus who was divine, in fact God, derived his strength, his power, from relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit through prayer. That is good news for us. Jesus went out to a deserted place and there he prayed. We too can pray, we too can derive our strength from prayer.

4. When the disciples found him saying, “Everyone is searching for you,” almost as though he had clarified his mission with God through prayer, he says to them, “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.” (Mk 1:38) “Let us go to.. for that is what I came to do.” Go to, to proclaim the good news. The NIV says, “let us go somewhere.” Somewhere out there. “Let us go somewhere out there to the neighboring villages. Jesus was a ‘go to’ guy, a ‘somewhere out there’ kind of guy. “For that is what I came to do.”
a. And somewhere out there, he healed the lepers and the paralytics; he forgave sins. He proclaimed himself Lord of the Sabbath. He cast out demons. He declared power over Satan himself and began in Chapter 4 to tell the parables of the kingdom.
b. At the beginning of chapter 4, he tells the parable of the sower. He might have begun it by saying, “Somewhere out there, a sower went out to sow.”
c. You know the story, the seeds represent the word of God. Some fall on the path, the birds, Satan, comes and takes them away before they can take root. Some fall on rocky soil and they spring up but they have little root and when persecution arises, they whither and fall away. Some fall among the thorns and the cares of life choke them out.
d. But some, some, somewhere out there, some of the seeds fall on good soil and they hear the word, they respond to Jesus and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, a hundred fold.
5. Jesus, somewhere out there proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God and telling the disciples of the fruit of the good news. And in today’s short parables, telling them that it would grow with great mystery like seed that germinates, we know not how, that sprouts, we know not how, that grows, we know not how, then puts out fruit and creates a harvest, we know not how. He tells us the harvest is the product of going to, of casting seed somewhere out there. God can do mysterious, miraculous things, but he needs someone to go to, to go to somewhere out there.

B. Body
1. The Annual Conference began with music by a group from Church of the Shepherd in St. Charles. The worship leader, a young man named Brandon Salter, told his story. He had grown up in a broken abusive home, no father by six, no mother by 12, on his own by 16. By his early 20s he’d landed in a number of night spots in the St. Charles area playing his guitar, entertaining the crowds. Over a number of months a pastor by the name of Bob Farr would come in and ask if he’d like to lead worship at his church. The last thing he wanted to do. He had not grown up in the church. He knew little about the church, but Bob persisted. Finally, when he was 26 he accepted the job. And at the age of 28 he gave his life to Christ. Today, he’s been married with two wonderful children and here he was leading worship at Annual Conference with 1500 United Methodists. Mysterious. Like the mustard seed cast upon the ground, scattered somewhere out there.
a. God at work in the sowing
b. God at work in the growing
c. God at work in the nesting
d. God at work in the harvesting.

2. Jesus saying, “Let us go to the neighboring towns and villages to proclaim the good news there, for that is what I came to do.” Going to, scattering seed, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, and Bob Farr, the voice of Jesus today, bearing fruit in the life of Brandon Salter, somewhere out there.
a. Bob Farr wasn’t alone. God was at work too, preparing the soil, going before us, what we Methodists call prevenient grace, that grace that nudges us before we even know it. It happened with Brandon Salter, it happens with others too.
b. On Sunday morning, 8 young pastors told how they talked about their faith with others. One, Terry Cook, was older, had come to Christ in his late 30s and was now in his 40s, working as a pastor in a rural setting. He said that two incidents, early in his ministry led him to understand that God was always working mysteriously ahead of him, preparing the soil.
c. Soon after he was appointed to a church, he was called by one of his parishioners and told that they needed to go pray with a man that had just gotten out of the hospital. He was not a church member, but had just had a large tumor removed from his abdomen and he was in need of prayer. They went. He and his driver sat for sometime in the driveway praying before they knocked at the door. The man came to the door clutching a pillow over the area of the surgery. He was known to be an alcoholic that had obviously led a hard life. They went in. As they sat down, Terry felt compelled to ask the man “Do you have a relationship with Jesus Christ?” The man burst into tears. He told them that when he was preparing to leave the hospital, the chaplain had come by and told him to get ready, that within two days two men would come by and one of them would ask him if he had a relationship with Jesus Christ. Grace, God at work in the sowing, God at work in the growing.
d. The second Terry Cook story was similar. He had been appointed to a rural church and soon thereafter was driving down a country road and saw a couple sitting on their porch. He pulled in to introduce himself and asked, “I just thought I’d ask if you have a home church?” They replied, “We were just talking about that when you drove up.” Grace, God at work in the sowing, God at work in the growing. God at work, nudging the birds to make nests in the branches.
e. God going before us. “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” Somewhere out there someone. Terry Cook came along, the ‘go to’ guy, the ‘go to’ instrument of Jesus Christ, nurturing the growth and preparing for the harvest.

3. Monday morning at 8:00 was the Bishop’s teaching session, always a highlight. And before we finished the morning with the fixing of appointments for another year, we heard a sermon by Emanuel Cleaver, one of the top 10 preachers in America, and he showed us why. Wonderful, but it was the Bishop’s teaching hour that I want to share with you.
a. He began by telling us that our system of evangelism, the way we now scatter seed is broken. Our system of opening the church doors and waiting for people to come no longer works. It was a product of post WWII where returning men and women flocked to churches that had been established in the late 19th and early 20th century, the heyday of the Methodist movement, the time we were the shouting Methodists and the evangelists. That system of opening the doors and waiting no longer works.
b. Bishop Schnase remarked that evangelism takes place at the margins, not in the center of our groups, not in the middle of our churches, but at the margins.
Bob Farr had told us a year ago that we always needed to be out there where the people are developing relationships that allow us to make invitations.Bishop Schnase describes this as the margins. He said that we are all in danger of keeping company with people just like us. That it would be especially easy for him to talk to, to associate with only people of faith, with only Methodists for that matter, especially in the job of Bishop. And especially when the Bishop describes himself as an extreme introvert, not a Bob Farr who feels compelled to talk with just about anybody, Bob Farr, an extreme extrovert, the Bishop is just the opposite. Kind of explains why when Bishop Schnase and I meet, there is an exchange of smiles and not much more. Two introverts passing in the hallway don’t have a lot of conversation between them. So how does he stay at the margins during his travels, his major occupation, a traveling man? How does the conversation take place? Bishop Schnase relayed a couple of stories:
c. He often ends up at rental car agencies. The young man filling out the paperwork asked his occupation. Now the Bishop says he never tells anyone he meets he’s a Bishop. Never. If he does, the first reaction is, “Oh, I didn’t know the Methodists had bishops.” The second is, “And what does a bishop do?” He doesn’t want to have to get into a 20 minute conversation trying to justify his existence, so he says, “I work for the United Methodist Church.” In this case the young man said, “I used to go to the United Methodist Church.” After the paperwork was finished, the Bishop asked, “Just out of curiosity, do you still go to church?” “No, my fiancĂ© is a different denomination and we just haven’t settled that yet.” I can hear a pause, then “What kind of music do you like?” “There are a couple of Methodist churches in the area that I might recommend. I think you might be pleasantly surprised.”About that time a man emerged from the back, the young man’s supervisor. Upon seeing Bishop Schnase, he said, “You’re the bishop!” Startled, the mask removed, Bishop Schnase said, “Yes, but how did you know?” “You came and preached at our church earlier in the year.” He went on to recount all of his involvement in and dedication to the church. The bishop then noted, “Did you know that Jim over here used to go to the Methodist Church?” The answer of course was no. They had worked together for three years. Three years. And matters of faith had never arisen. They had never spoken at the margins. Yet, the conversation between the Bishop and the young man had begun by simply saying, “I’m a United Methodist.”
d. The second Bishop story of ministry at the margins: On one of his trips the Bishop got stuck (remember he’s an introvert), got stuck going to a fancy reception at a big hotel. Not his cup of tea. Pastors and their wives from the area were all there. The Bishop was standing outside the circle, kinda’ with his back against the wall when he noticed one of the servers with a tray of hors devoirs doing about the same. Not conducive to long term job growth.Bishop Schnase went over to take a sample. He figured the man to be about 40 and one who had taken the long way around to get there. The server said, “What kind of gathering is this?” In his smooth way, Bishop Schnase said, “What do you think?” “Insurance?” He wanted to reply, “So to speak, long term insurance,” but told him it was a gathering of United Methodist pastors and their wives.” “Oh, I grew up in the Methodist church.” “How did that go for you?” “In trouble all the time.” “Which church?” He replied, said his mother might still be a member there. He hadn’t gone for a long time. “Your pastor is here, part of this group, would you like to meet? But before that, would you like to guess which one it might be?” “That one?” as he pointed to a retired pastor there with a walker. Gives you an indication of how he recalled or thought of the church. “No, no, let me introduce you.” When he introduced him to her, an attractive 35 year old, she caught on instantly to what was going on and wrapped him in delightful conversation.
e. Points? Bishop Schnase would like to be able to say that both these stories had great outcomes. He doesn’t know. But somewhere out there God has prepared a person for conversation, not even an invasive conversation, but one that may begin, “I go to church, church is important to me, church makes a difference in my life.” It would be nice if the conversation might end, “Won’t you join me this Sunday?”

C. Close.
1. Bishop Schnase closed his learning period by asking how we have gone from being the “go to” Methodists, to becoming the “wait for” Methodists? Remember Jesus said, “Let us go to, go to the neighboring towns and villages.” Not “Let’s wait for.” Where did we lose the “go to” instinct that grew the church in the 18th and 19th centuries, that made us known as the evangelists?

2. When the Bishop moved from Texas, one of the things he researched was how Methodism got started in Missouri. It was those Illinois people. Those Illinois people who even before Missouri was officially a territory of the United States, even when the French had declared it illegal to hold protestant services here, came anyway, even when threatened with arrest. They came in boats across the river, the wide river, the deep river, the flowing river, the dangerous river. They held services in the evening and returned back to Illinois before daylight. As soon as the Purchase was complete, they established a Methodist church here as early as 1804. How did we lose our “go to” instinct?

3. Jesus said, “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the good news there also, for that is what I came to do.” And he tells us stories of the kingdom, stories of growth, stories with a backdrop of green. Stories of grace.

4. Somewhere out there, there is a person who has been nudged by grace, waiting for someone to go to them and join in a conversation. One which might end, “I go to church, church is important to me, church makes a difference in my life. Won’t you join me this Sunday?”

5. Now, go to it. Amen.

Monday, June 1, 2009

History: Sermon Given at Smith Chapel's 175 Anniversary Celebration

(Acts 10:34-48)

A. Introduction
1. Good morning, my name is Dikerson Smith and I’d like to welcome you to m
y home and the regular meeting of our Methodist Meeting Society. You see, we don’t have a church building, we meet in homes. We don’t have a church building and that’s fine. Our spiritual ancestors began that way. Some say the mother church had lost its way because once churches were built, it stayed within the confines of the church walls. John Wesley, the founder of Methodist, changed all that when he created meeting societies. The fervor of the church, the purpose of the church, was reestablished when Christianity moved out of churches and back into the homes and hills. When Christianity meets in homes, it is not just about religion, it is about the way we live.

2. And we live with purpose. We know our purpose. If anyone was to ask a meeting society just about anywhere, “What is your mission?” the response would be clear. It is to “Reform the nation, especially the church, and spread Scriptural holiness across the land.” And we believe it. I was told the other day that here in 1834 that one third of all church going people in America were Methodists. That’s a testament to the preachers, circuit riders, lay people, societies, and just plain Methodists all across America. We believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to change people, and He’s changed us.

3. (Take off hat--part of 19th century costume) To step out of character a minute, and I’ll be moving in and out of character quite a lot, I’m not sure how Mr. Smith would have sounded in 1834. There were lot’s of people of English and Scottish decent that settled the area. Still are. But many of them came from Tennessee and Kentucky. In fact, a generation earlier, Kit Carson’s parents had moved to this area from Kentucky. Don’t know what influence Appalachia might have had on the dialect or how much influence there might have been from the Deep South. Suffice it to say, I’ll be talking with good ole Midwestern as best I can.

4. And if you want to know what the folks might have been wearing, a look at a “Little House on the Prairie” rerun might be in order. I’d be wearing bib overalls except I would be able to show off my Pentecost suspenders.

5. (Put on hat.) Anyway welcome to the Smith family home. You all have made a significant effort to get here, harnessing the horse and buggy, riding 30 minutes to an hour. And you’ll be repeating that after the meeting is over. Your faith, your friends are important to you. And it continued that way. Louise’s husband, Charles, told me that when he was two weeks old, that was 1919, his parents bundled him up in the wagon and brought him to church. He attended here all his life. Ollie, I don’t suppose it was much different when your dad was born 50 years earlier, 1873, the family boarding the wagon and off to church or gathering. An hour of preparation and travel before. An hour of travel and putting the horse up after. Your faith was important to you. Still is. That’s why we’ve been here 175 years.

6. The Methodist church grew up in homes as meeting societies, outside of a church, and neighbors of many denominations might have been invited, even a few Baptists. Wesley’s grace-filled, free-will, simple theology had wide appeal. Even after chapels and churches had been built, the meeting societies, those home meetings continued and were essential to the faith. It was around the table that faith was experienced, where Scriptures were learned, where people told the truth in love to one another. In a place like Howard County, Missouri, in 1834, where 25 percent of the population at that time was slave; more than likely it was around the table or in hearing shot of the kitchen, where men and women, slave and free learned faith. It was the Methodist Meeting Society.

B. Body
1. I can imagine the fervor of those who gathered around the table. And although it was 40 years later that this song appeared, as they gathered, something like this might have been sung.
a. (Blessed Assurance.)
b. Let us pray.

2. At this point in the meeting it would have been time for Scripture and exhortation. Remember now, our purpose was to reform the nation and spread Scriptural holiness across the land. I can think of few better stories than the first record of the giving of the Holy Spirit to the gentiles. Peter is called in a vision to go to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, a gentile. Peter takes the opportunity to tell the good news of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:34-48a).

3. The good news of Jesus Christ is for all. The gift of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s presence, God’s presence with us may be the story of Pentecost, but the purpose of Pentecost is the gift of the Holy Spirit to all, all that believe of every nation and race. We see that in this Scripture. And it is with the power of the Holy Spirit that reformation takes place. It is with the power of the Holy Spirit that Scriptural holiness is spread across the land. It is with the power of the Holy Spirit that we come to understand that the good news is for all.

4. Paul tells us that there is no distinction in Jesus Christ, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Ro 3.22); and there is no distinction among those saved by Jesus Christ: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3.28)There is no distinction. “Christ is all and in all.” (Col 3.11b)
a. What great news this was to Cornelius and his household. In his house we had Jew and Greek, commander and servant, master and slave. In them all, Christ is all and in all.
b. And what great news for those of us who gather here in rural America in 1834. There is no longer male or female, slave or free. The Holy Spirit descends upon us all. Christ is all and in all. Glory be to God. Amen.

5. After the singing, Scripture and short exhortation, the conversation around the table got down to the real things in life. Are we living as faithful disciples of Christ in a way that brings salvation to us and witness to others? Are we being true to our purpose to bring reformation to the nation, to the church, and to spread Scriptural holiness across the land? Part of meeting together is to hold ourselves accountable, to watch over one another in Christian love.
a. The first and most important question we would ask of one another is “How is the state of your soul?” In other words, “How are you fairing on your spiritual journey?” Since all of us are in a different place in our faith walk, the answer would be varied as is the advice each might receive to strengthen their souls. How is the state of your soul?
b. All are expected to open themselves to grace. If we want to receive grace, we need to put ourselves in a place to receive it. If we want an apple to drop into our lap, we need to at least walk in the orchard. So Wesley taught we need to immerse ourselves in grace through acts of mercy and acts of piety. Acts of mercy: ways of loving our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the lonely. Acts of piety, ways of loving God, praying, reading Scripture, listening to exhortation, taking communion, fasting, participating in Christian conversation. How are we doing? How are we doing immersing ourselves in grace?
c. A third area of discussion would be “How are we doing abiding by the general rules of societies.?” The general rules, three of them.
d. We had a sermon series earlier this year on Wesley’s Three Simple Rules, based on a book by retired Bishop Reuben Job who based his book on Wesley’s rules for societies. There are a few copies in the back if you would like to explore more (See Jan 2009 Blogs). The rules are to first, do no harm, avoid evil of every possible sort. I’ve always thought it interesting that Wesley chose this rule to be first, do no harm. Harm can almost never be undone. Doing harm can be forgiven, yes; but the consequences of harm can almost never be undone. First do no harm. Have you done harm this week? Have you engaged in any evil practice? Anything by deed or example that might harm the soul of another? First, do no harm.
e. Second, do good. “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 ever you can.” As the Bible says, “Never grow weary of doing good.” How are you doing? Wesley fought hard against what he called the enthusiastic doctrine of devils, that is the practice of only doing good when we felt like it. How are we doing in doing good?
f. The third general rule of societies, in simple terms is staying in love with God. Wesley said “Following the ordinances of God.” After all, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Jesus prayed, Jesus read Scripture, Jesus went to Synagogue to worship each Sabbath, Jesus gave us Holy Communion, Jesus fasted, Jesus engaged in holy conversation with his disciples and others. How are we doing in staying in love with God? The purpose of the meeting societies was to hold one another accountable in Christian love. “What sins have you committed, have you done harm? Let us pray for forgiveness. What good have you done? How can I help? How is your prayer life? What can I suggest?”

6. This sharing and fellowship most took place around a table, most likely as part of a meal or a tradition called the love feast. There was seldom an ordained minister there so that rather than Holy Communion, the tradition of the love feast was used. The love feast reaches all the way back to the house churches in Paul’s day and was revived in Wesley’s time. It’s part of our current Book of Worship but not often used. The love feast was an important part of early American Methodism. I’m sure it was part of the Smith Meeting Society. Rather than communion elements, bread and wine, crackers, sweet bread, some other simple element might be used. As we talk, I’m going to have the kids pass out these rice chex among you. Take one and hold it. We’ll get to it in a moment. They’re glutton free if that is a concern.a. As the sweet bread, or crackers or chex were passed from person to person, praise or Scripture or prayer might be offered spontaneously: Praise, “I will love the Lord my God with my whole heart.” Scripture: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be satisfied.” Prayer, “Gracious God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Spontaneous, simple, heart-felt, maybe even song, “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer’s praise, the glory of our God and king the triumph of his grace.” The Holy Spirit with us in the feast. Think now as you eat your chex, what is on your heart in praise or song or prayer of Scripture? Savor it. What is the Spirit testifying through you.
b. And rather than wine, water, tea or cider might have been used. And as the water or cider was passed, and it might have been in a two handled loving cup, testimony might be given. Where have you seen God at work in your lives or in the life of others this week? What does your salvation mean to you? What has God done in the world this week to reform the nation or to spread Scriptural holiness across the lan? What is your testimony? What do you offer for the uplifting of others as the loving cup is passed?

7. It is now time to pray (hat removed for prayer). For this time, let us pray together the prayer that Jesus taught us. And for this time, let us do so with eyes wide open, with chins up, looking into the eyes of others. Remembering that for Jesus, God was "Daddy," "Abba"; that the heaven where God resides can be as close as the air we breath, as close as our skin; that we have Father who hears our prayers, who listens to us, who meets our daily needs, who forgives our sins when we go to Him. Think about what the words mean to each of us. Let us pray: “Our Father…

8. Now let us lift our voices once again in assurance. (“This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”)

C. Close
1. The meeting is over. (Remove hat.) 175 years have come and gone since the founders of Smith Chapel began meeting in the Smith family home. Such different times yet so many things remain the same. We have the same good news, a God who loves and gave himself for us. We have the same command, to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. We have the same rules, to first do no harm, to do good, to stay in love with God. And we have the same need to share our faith with one another, to hold one another accountable, to inquire as to the health of our souls.

2. We have the same need to reform the nation, especially the church, and the same need to spread Scriptural holiness across the land, maybe even more so.

3. Somewhere out there, to use a phrase of our bishop. Somewhere out there, there is a soul that needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. That needs to know that there is no distinction in Christ Jesus, for all are one in Christ Jesus. That the gift of the Holy Spirit is for all. There is no distinction, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, there is no distinction. Grace, grace is free to all.

4. People of Smith Chapel, today is our birthday, today is the birthday of our church. The greatest gift you can give the church is to be church, is to be the body of Christ in someone’s life. To reform the nation one person at a time, to spread Scriptural holiness across the land one person at a time. Happy birthday church. Now, go and be church. So may it be in all of your lives. Amen.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Fifth Secret: Give More Than You Take

Five: Give More Than You Take
(2 Cor 8:9; Mark 11:1-11; 14:3-11)

A. Introduction
1. Jesus had been traveling for weeks and weeks, maybe months on his way to Jerusalem. And it comes down to this week. While still high on the mountains of Syria, what the Bible calls Caesarea Philippi, way north of Israel, he had told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, be betrayed into human hands, be killed, and on the third day rise again. It had come down to this day: Jesus was entering Jerusalem to give himself to the world, to give himself to you. Jesus was a giver. And two days later we hear the story of Jesus at the house of Simon the Leper and of the woman with alabaster flask and her extravagant gift to Jesus, so extravagant that Jesus says, “Whenever the good news is proclaimed… what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”--then there was Judas.

2. This week we are concluding a sermon series, “Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die.” Today, Palm Sunday, we are discovering the fifth and final and maybe the most important secret to a full and rewarding life: Give more than you take. Author John Izzo concludes his discussion of the secret with this: “When we give more than we take we connect ourselves to a story bigger than ourselves. And in the act of doing so, happiness finds us.” (p 114)

3. We know that the happiness Izzo describes are blessings from God. The Deuteronomist told us “10 Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.” (15:10). Happiness will find you.
And Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (2 Cor 9:6-9). The blessings of God will find you.

4. God made us to be givers. And he modeled how we are to live as givers, how we are to find happiness as givers, how we are to be blessed as givers. It has been so since the beginning:
a. God created the universe for our pleasure and gave us dominion over his creation. We are stewards of his creation. As stewards we are givers, and we are connected to a much, much bigger story. Our stewardship links us to the past and connects us to the future. Giving as stewards of God’s creation connects us to the bigger story.
b. And we are connected also to the “Greatest Story Ever Told.” We are connected to the gift of God’s Son, “who though he was rich, gave of himself and became poor for our sake, so that by his poverty we could become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9) We are connected to the greatest story ever told, the greatest act of giving, the ultimate act of giving, and it models how we are to live and give.

B. Body
1. The Bible talks about the blessings of giving and the dangers of clutching as much as any other topic. Our Gospel stories today are about Jesus, the giver, and Judas, the clutcher. Jesus who said, “13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) Then there was Judas who said, “Give me 30 pieces of silver in exchange for my friend.” Giving. Clutching. “He who sows abundantly, reaps abundantly. (2 Cor 9:6) Giving. “He who sows the wind and reaps the whirlwind.” (Hosea 8:7) Clutching.

2. One of Author Izzo’s wise elders was a barber, Ken, from Iowa. (p 99) Barbers, like beauticians and others that perform personal service, become priests to many, and Ken was a priest to many over the course of 40 years. Ken noted that over the years that he’d attended a great many funerals. He said, “What I have noticed is that there are ten-minute funerals and there are ten-hour funerals. Some people live a life that touches so many people in a positive way that people just want to hang around and talk about that person’s life. Other people live a more self-focused life and this does not seem to happen.” He added, “It seems to me you should live your life as if you want a ten-hour funeral.”

3. What is it that gives life meaning? What is it that makes a life worthy of a ten-hour funeral? What gives life meaning and purpose? Why do some people live full and fruitful lives, lives of meaning and purpose and some not want to live at all?
a. Viktor Frankl was a Viennese psychiatrist who survived the holocaust to include three years in Auschwitz. There he saw people who survived every indignity that one could experience and yet lived, and he saw others who gave up, who did not want to live at all.
b. His search became, why do some people give up and others go on? His answer, published in his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning (Beacon Press, 1959), was that those who believe the world expects something of them have something to live for and find meaning. Those who expect the world owes them something do not. Sounds funny doesn’t it? It seems the opposite of what we might expect. Those for whom the world expects them to give, live to be givers and find meaning. Those who are takers do not.
c. That expectation of giving, that giving could be the care of a child, the teaching of a class, the writing of a book, the creating great art. The giving could be as simple as love for another. But when Frankl’s people knew it was expected of them, they knew they were expected to give love, it gave life meaning and in Izzo’s words, “happiness found them.” I would say they were blessed. “Give liberally…and the Lord will bless you.”

4. We find meaning in giving what is expected of us.
a. Our expectation begins with God. Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment. He replied with an expectation. He said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” (Matthew 22:37-39)
b. We are expected to give love, or as we said in our third secret, the third secret we must discover before we die, we are expected to “become love,” to choose to be a loving person. First to love ourselves, then to love those closest to us, and then to love those we might encounter. All the while we are expected to love God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our minds. We do that by giving him our obedience, by becoming disciples of his Son, Jesus Christ. We are expected to give love.
c. And in return? On of my favorite Scriptures is Luke 6:38, I think because of its imagery. It says: “38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” Give and it will be given to you—good measure—pressed down—shaken together---running over. You will be blessed.

5. Giving to God, loving God, comes in terms of both service and stewardship.
a. One of Izzo’s wise elders from the Jewish tradition told of how he was taught charity, what is called Tzedakah or righteous giving. (p 105) He said his family had several boxes near the entrance to their house, Tzedakah boxes. Each box was for a different charity. Each night when his father came home, he would drop coins in each of the boxes as an example to his family and so they knew what charities they were giving to.
b. Here’s a picture of one kind of Tzedakah box. This one was inspired by the Biblical book of Ruth, sometimes called the “Song of Songs for Charity.” It’s decorated with barley emblematic of the grain that Ruth gleaned from the field of Boaz. The Jewish sages in explaining the book of Ruth say that “More than the owner does for the poor, the poor does for the owner.” Of course we know that Boaz found happiness with Ruth. They were blessed and in giving were connected to a much greater story. They became the grandparents of King David, and of the linage of Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the King of Givers. Through their giving to one another, they became blessed.

6. Author Stephen Covey has been one of my gurus over the years. He has much to say about service and giving. In his book Principle-Centered Leadership (Summit Books, 1990) he talks about how giving of our service and resources frees us:
a. First, it frees us from greed and materialism: He says, “In order to overcome the worldly restraints of unbridled aspiration and ambition, resolve to dedicate our talents and resources to noble purposes and to provide service to others.” (p 53)
b. He warns of an attitude of “what’s in it for me?” (remember clutching) He warns that if we clutch that “we will have no sense of stewardship—the idea that we don’t own anything, that you give your life to higher principles, causes, and purposes.” (p 53) Give, the operative word of stewardship, give.
c. Then Covey tells us, “We should look at every economic transaction as a test of our moral stewardship.” (p 54)
d. If we approach the way we live with humility, believing that we own nothing, but everything we have is a gift from God given to us in trust, we will know that giving is expected of us, and we will give more than we take.
e. Every economic transaction is a test of our moral stewardship--Giving more that we take.

7. Another guru has much to say about giving. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, you’ve heard of him. One of his most famous sermons, “The Use of Money,” 10 pages, fine print, is often summarized as “earn all you can, so you can save all you can, so you can give all you can.”
a. Earn all you can. Of course he means through righteous means. In Wesley’s day, slave trading would be out. Today, human trafficking would be out. Drug trafficking would be out. Anything that harms or diminishes another would be out. Earn all you can.
b. Save all you can. Practice wise stewardship. Every economic transaction is a test of our moral stewardship.
c. So you can give all you can--for it is all God’s. Wesley did not ask for a vow of poverty but recognized that our own and our family’s needs had to be provided for in prudent ways. Then what ever was left we are able to give to the household of faith and to all, recognizing we are God’s stewards.
d. Interesting that Wesley viewed charity in much the same way that Izzo’s wise elders viewed love. It was to be bestowed first on self, then on those closest to us, and finally on those we will encounter. Love and charity. Those words of giving have been together before.
e. We are givers rather that takers in stewardship. We are givers rather than takers in love. We are givers rather than takers in charity.

8. A common thread in “giving more that you take” is the understanding that we are connected to something much larger than ourselves and that gives life significance. We can walk outside and look at the stars as Abraham was told to do, and even in the face of the vastness of it all, making us seem so small, we can say “that too was made for me.” We are connected. We are significant, we have purpose because we are part of a much larger entity. We find meaning as part of that entity by giving. That is expected of us. We are expected to give and by so doing lose ourselves in the vastness of it all, lose ourselves in the greater story.

9. That may be what Jesus had in mind when we said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
a. Takers risk losing their lives.
b. Givers lose themselves in the larger story, connected to Jesus Christ, and receive the blessing of eternal life.
c. Izzo in a television interview said it in another way: “What we take from this world dies with us. What we give goes on forever.” (Biography Channel, 2007)

C. Close
1. Five Secrets: “Be true to yourselves, no regrets, become love, live the moment, give more than you take.” Author Izzo closes his book by telling us it is never too early and never too late to learn and practice the five secrets.
a. Some of the wise elders had seemed to be born with wisdom and had practiced them all of their lives. Others had come late to it.
b. But he says, even if only practiced for a year, “a year lived wisely can erase years of regret.” (p 143)
c. One listener who talked to Izzo remorsefully after realizing terrible regret in the way he had failed to love his family. He empathized with him as he saw tears streaming down his cheeks. Then Izzo recalled and related an old Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” (p143)

2. Jesus told the parable of the laborers in the vineyard that the owner called at different times during the day, one being employed by the owner in the last hour of the day. In the end, their recompense was the same. The best time to give your life to Jesus is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

3. Give more than you take. Be connected to the greatest story ever told. Give you life to Jesus and in so doing the blessings of eternity will find you. Amen.

**Izzo, John. The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publications, Inc., 2008.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Fourth Secret: Live the Moment

**Live the Moment
(Luke 12:22-31, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

A. Introduction
1. Deborah Norville, host of the television show, “Inside Edition,” and born-again Christian since the age of 15, always knew that gratitude was a positive force in her life. So much so that she thought there must be something to the positive impact of gratitude not only spiritually, but scientifically. So she scoured the literature and sure enough she found well documented studies confirming that grateful people were healthier, more resilient, more aware, happier people; and the result was a book Deborah published in 2007 entitled, Thank You Power. In the book she talks of her deeply ingrained habit of each and every day writing down three things that she is grateful for. Her constant awareness of grace (grace, grateful, gratitude), her constant awareness of grace in her life has a positive impact on how she lives. She lives as Paul said,
“16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess 5:16-18 NRSV) “give thanks in all circumstances,” Paul telling us to make gratitude our constant companion.

2. We’re continuing our series on the Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die based on the book of the same name by Dr. John Izzo. Today’s secret is “Live the Moment.” In the book, Author Izzo describes living the moment as experiencing each day with gratitude and purpose. The wise elders that Izzo interviewed for the book had learned to see each day as a great gift and were grateful. In fact, gratitude became for them a philosophy of life.

B. Body
1. Author Izzo quotes from his interviews (p 85): “It all goes by so fast,” and “When I was young, 60 years seemed like an eternity. But after you have lived it, you realize it is but a moment.” He could have been quoting the wisdom of the Psalms: “[our] days are like a handbreadth, [our] lifetime in nothing in your sight” (Psalm 39:5); and our “days are like a passing shadow.” (Psalm 144.4) or from Job: “Our days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle.” (Job 7.6) or the New Testament wisdom of James: “What is your life, for you are a mist that appears for a little while and then you are gone.” (James 4:15)
a. Author Izzo says that “If life goes by so quickly, then one of the secrets to happiness is to get more out of the time we have, to find a way that each moment and each day become great gifts.” (p 85)
b. Live the moment. I think the most significant observation that Izzo took from his interviews is that the “present moment is the only moment in which we have any power.” (p 90) “Living in the present means recognizing that we have no power over the past or the future, none at all.”
c. Now surely we can understand that regret about the past is futile. The Bible tells us to live with no regrets, to cast our burdens on Christ. And, “As far as the east is from the west so far will he remove our transgressions from us.” Our faith calls us to simply put our past in the past. Cast our cares upon. We have no power over the past, and when we casts our care upon Him, then the past will have no power over us. Hear the good news, sisters and brothers, your sins of the past are forgiven. The past has no power over you.
d. And Christ tells us not to worry about the future. We have no power over it: “can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying” (Luke 12:25-39)
e. Author and passionate Italian motivational speaker Leo Buscaglia once said, “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, but it always robs today of its joy.” (repeat) And Jesus said, I think a little tongue in cheek but making his point, “do not worry about tomorrow, tomorrow will have enough worries of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)
f. Recognizing that the present is the only moment over which we have power allows us to live it fully. Fully. I walk our dog Gracie nearly every day. You talk about the present moment, living life fully. My neighbors often comment, “are you walking the dog or is the dog walking you?” There is a lesson there. My aim normally is to get to the end of the walk and back. I take the same walk nearly every day. There and back. For Gracie, every day, every walk is like a brand new experience, like an olfactory Disney World. Every walk is like a new experience. She lives each walk in the present. I just show up and go along. She lives the moment. She is in the present. We need to not only be present in the moment but to live the moment. Not easy to do or I’d be making each walk a Disney World experience too. Easier said than done.

2. How is it that we live life fully? One of Izzo’s wise elders said, “When I was young, they tell you to be in the moment, but you are not sure what that means. Now I know, and it is true at every age, we never know how many more [sunsets] we are going to get to see, so it is important to appreciate each one and each moment as if it might be our last.” (p 89)
a. When we were moving from Connecticut to Missouri, Rosemary and I had a going away dinner with two dear friends. We met at a restaurant in New Haven. All of us had made an effort to get there but it was worth it. After the dinner was over, and as we said goodbye Sarah said, “We need to make the most of these moments, we need to treasure them because when you get to be our age, we’re never certain when you say good-bye that we’ll see one another again.” Sarah at the time was 51 and a picture of health. She died two years later of cancer. Our dinner was the last sunset we enjoyed together. Treat each moment, each sunset like it will be our last.
b. How is it that we can become content to live in the moment? I’ve often thought that Jesus, when he told us to consider the lilies, was painting an undeniable picture of peace and contentment, one we were to be aware of and to drink in. “Consider the lilies… they neither toil nor spin,” be content with the moment, drink in its beauty. He was also telling us that the present moment is gift of grace that we can choose to experience. We can choose to consider the lilies.
c. One of Izzo’s elders (p 93) told him how he had experienced the joy of a sunset but puzzled over the fleeting joy when the sun had gone down. He had suddenly realized that the choice to choose joy was not in the sunset, but within him. Joy was a response to grace that he could choose. He could choose contentment; he could choose gratitude at any time. He did not have to wait twenty-four hours for another external event, another sunset, but instead the choice was within him.

3. When Izzo recognized this, it was radical and potentially life-changing for him. Slowly he began a few simple practices (p 93):
a. Waking each morning and expressing gratitude.
Ever since I heard the interview with Deborah Norville, I try to do that before I even move each morning, my first thought a prayer of thanksgiving for things that happened yesterday or will today or for the important people in my life that God has given me. Many of you know or know of Cathy Cox, worship and song leader at Faith Family. This is what she wrote Friday morning: “On the horizon the sun is rising - morning has dawned - it's a brand new day. As I awaken and my eyes open I yearn to give you praise. And so I drop to my knees in humble adoration with tears streaming down my face. I thank You for another day I get to worship You!” Waking each morning and expressing gratitude.
b. Focusing on the good that happened each day before falling asleep.
c. The third thing for Izzo was: stopping dwelling on the past or future by nudging himself back into the present.
As we experience past regrets or worries we simply nudge ourselves back to the present.
d. And this last one I appreciate: simply practicing breathing in the moments of life, he says, “as if they were precious—as if they were numbered.”
Of course we know that they are.

4. After I had read this paragraph, I went outside, we were heading somewhere, where was not important. As I stood there I was kinda’ blank, not awake. I then thought of Izzo’s practices and nudged myself back awake, into the present. Then I breathed in the street scene that I see every day. Suddenly, the colors became more vivid for me. The yellow car driving down the street was suddenly an intense color. I saw the street in a new way and realized that I could choose almost everywhere to breath in moments of life. I could choose happiness and contentment.

5. Some thoughts on how we make changes. In a closing chapter of the book, Izzo says there is a great gulf between knowing and going, between having knowledge and making the changes that knowledge should dictate. He says that 70 percent or more of people who know they have habits that are damaging, that will shorten or take their lives do nothing about it. There is a great gulf between knowing and going. So how can we make changes that we know we need to make?
Last week when we gave out the card at children’s time, I talked about Dr. Izzo’s thoughts on how we make changes in our lives the most natural way. We do it through awareness and experimentation. The card was to help us be aware of something we wanted to do during the week. In this case the card said, “Love. Stay in Love with Jesus through word and prayer.” One reason we change is because of awareness. The card in our pocket makes us aware as we touch it or take it out to read it, and awareness leads to change. Pray. Pray without ceasing.
a. Izzo used the example of a baby learning to talk or walk as an example of natural learning through awareness and experimentation. Babies don’t do complicated things like setting goals. They become aware. Mommy makes noises, in response they experiment, Mommy makes noises, baby babbles. Over the course of time, when Mommy talks, baby forms words. Change occurs and soon Mommy and baby talking together. Learning a language, one of the most complicated tasks we can ever undertake happens in a natural way. Awareness and experimentation.
b. Izzo suggests that we can remain aware of changes we want to make by putting a simple phrase on a card and putting it in our pocket or purse. We used the “Smiley” card to make us aware that when we greeted people we needed to welcome them into our space with a smile. The card in our pocket made us aware every time that we touched it.
c. In last week’s secret we must discover before we die, Become Love, we said that we needed to do three things, to love ourselves, to love those closest to us, and to love those we encounter. Part of that was loving ourselves, not a narcissistic love, but the kind that recognizes our worth, that we had to believe that we were of value, of worth before we could be of value to others. If we decided that part of loving ourselves was taking care of our health, we might have a card in our pocket that says “Fit and Thin.” Rather than setting goals such as exercise four times a week and eat 2000 calories a day, studies show that we make hundreds of decisions each day that affects our fitness and diet. What we eat, how much we eat, whether to walk, drive, take stairs, etc. People who are continually aware, make the best of their decisions and are more likely to be successful by just being aware of “fit and thin.” And having that awareness impacts the multitude of decisions we make each day.
d. Over the course of this sermon series, we will have passed out five cards. That’s too many to work on at once. Contrary to popular opinion, we humans really are not that good at multi-tasking, especially when we are dealing with change. Izzo suggests we look at one change at a time. Psychologists say it takes three to four weeks to break a habit. It takes even longer to create a new one. If we carry a card with the phrase we choose for 12 weeks, looking at it 20 to 25 times a day, that awareness will lead to the experimentation in our decisions that will change us, then we can go on to the next challenge. But maybe it’s not 12 weeks, maybe it’s 12 months. Or to be “Fit and Thin” maybe 18 months or two years. Fine. But I’ll just practice this one until it becomes part of me.
e. It’s the same with developing the practices of gratitude. Practicing the new habits that bring us contentment and gratitude in our lives is not easy or quick.
f. That’s why we call it practice, those activities that deepen and habituate an attitude of gratitude.

6. Live the moment. Practice the moment. Have as attitude of gratitude and purpose. In fact develop not just an attitude but a life philosophy of gratitude.
a. First, we need to be aware that grace is a gift, a gift we choose to accept or reject. Become aware that grace is a gift, gratitude is a choice. Remember the person who said his joy faded when the sun went down and he suddenly realized that the choice of happiness and contentment was not in external events but within him? Awareness, grace, gratitude. We can choose gratitude.
b. Then make thanksgiving part of your prayer life. Like Deborah Norville, habituate the practice of recalling three or more things that you are thankful each and every day—a prayerful gratitude attitude. It may be especially important to write them down.
c. Third and last, be present in the moment. When regrets or worries try to choke out the joy and contentment in your life, nudge yourself back into the present. Then breathe in the moments of life knowing that they are precious and numbered. Live the moment. Practice.

C. Close.
1. Only if we live the moment can we experience the abundance and joy that Jesus calls us to. Recall these words of Jesus to his disciples and to us from the Gospel of John: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:10-11) So that your joy may be complete.
a. We love in the present, we live in the present, we experience joy in the present, we rejoice in the present, we give thanks in the present. To do all of these meaningful things in life, we must be in the present.
b. Recall that Paul told us: “16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess 5:16-18 NRSV)

2. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. All done in the present moment. Live the moment. Live with an attitude of gratitude. This is the will of God in Christ for you.

3. May you this moment find new life in Jesus Christ and so give thanks for the salvation you find in Him. Live in the present with Jesus Christ, and you will find eternity thrown in. Amen.

**Izzo, John. The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publications, Inc., 2008.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Third Secret: Become Love

Three: Become Love
(Phil 2:1-11; 1 John 4:9-11, 19; John 3:16)

A. Introduction
1. You might call today John 3:16 day in the church. Today is the day it is being read from pulpits all around the world, “16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” in the words of the King James Version that we learned as children. It is the quintessential Bible verse, the one we probably learned first, the one everyone knows churched or unchurched, the one that is sometimes called the whole Bible in miniature. Everybody’s text, the essence of the Bible. “For God so loved the world.”

2. It is the essence of who God is. God is love. It is also who we are in response to God’s love:
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....19 We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:9-11, 19)

3. God is love. And that was manifested in the Passion and suffering of Jesus Christ for us. It was manifested in betrayal, denial, humiliation, thorns, nails, pain and death. It was manifested in the cross of Christ—for you, for me. 16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

4. The love of God, manifested in the cross of Christ. The cross--that picture ought to dispel any romantic, erotic notion of what love is. Love is not a feeling. Love is a choice. God chose to love you. God chose to love me. God chose to love the world and everyone in it. God chose the cross to manifest that love, to show us that there was no length, there was no limit to where he would go or what he would do to demonstrate his love for us, to save us. For God so loved the world.

B. Body
1. We are in the middle of a five part sermon series, “The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die,” and today’s secret is “Become Love,” not just love, but become love.
a. Author John Izzo asked 15,000 people who were the wise elders in their lives? Who was it that had something to teach us about living a full and complete life? From those recommendations he interviewed 235 people from all walks of life and faith from ages 60 to 106. You could have guessed one of the outcomes, that they would say that the secret to a happy and fulfilling life is to give and receive love.
b. But the wise elders went further than that. The secret to a life filled with happiness and purpose was not just to love, but to become a loving person. In other words, become love. Become love.
c. The first thing we need to know to become love is what love is. We learned a moment ago that love is not a feeling. Love is a choice. Stephen Covey says that love is a verb. Scott Peck takes it a step further and says that love is an act of work or courage. Love is not a feeling, it is an act of work or courage.
d. God chose to send his Son into the world. The courage was the cross. The work was our salvation. “For God so loved the world…”

2. Become love. When we become love, we are emulating God and God in Christ. John tells us in his little companion letter to the Gospel of John, 1st John, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another.” And Paul, writing in Philippians tells us part of what we are to do when he says, “5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God (existed as God) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave (a servant), being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”
a. Obedient. Christ was obedient to God, love of God. Love is not a feeling. Love is an act of courage or work. For Christ his love of God was the work of obedience. His love for us was the courage of the cross. In the same way, Christ says to us. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) Obedience, our love of Christ is also the work of obedience.
b. Let the same mind be in you. God loves us and we love God in return.
c. God created us to become love. And when we become love, we are loved in return. It is hand and glove. Love becomes vital to us. Love is one of the secrets to a fulfilling and purposeful life.

3. Author Izzo tells of the interview with David (p 63). David, now in his seventies, reflected on his father’s last days. Family had gathered from all over the world. His father had been a successful man, had accumulated many things, but as he talked, there was no discussion of business or possessions or things that he had acquired during his lifetime. Rather, he surrounded himself with photos of special times in his life—weddings, births, family trips, times with family and friends. Watching his father die, David concluded, “At the end of our lives, when we only have a short time left, love is really the only thing we care about.” Love is really the only thing we care about. God created us to love, to become love. To have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus. Become love.

4. So how is it that we become love? I would suggest that what Izzo is going to tell us now is a practice, something we do over and over again throughout our lives to deepen and habituate our ability to love. Izzo suggests three things, three practices. I would begin with another, and that is remembering daily that God is love and that he first loved us. When we do that, we are prepared for the practices that Izzo suggests.

5. Izzo suggests that we first must love ourselves. That’s biblical, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Yourself. We’re not talking of unhealthy narcissism here, but before we can be of value to others, we have to choose to see ourselves as worthy. Choice. We have to choose to see ourselves, to believe ourselves, to think of ourselves as worthy. How we think of ourselves matters.
a. Psychologists say that we have as many as 50,000 thoughts each and every day (p 67). Each of us are in a non-stop, feverish conversation with ourselves. Most of our thoughts are benign, have little impact on our self-image, but some have the power to damage us. How we chose to think about ourselves is a matter of love, a matter of healthy self-love.
b. Our thoughts can be weeds that choke out the good, or they can be flowers that give beauty to our lives, our self-worth. Noxious weeds, nettles that sting us, or tulips and daffodils that give sparkle in spring. Nettles that sting, flowers in spring (There, a poet and didn’t know it.). But you get the idea. What we think about, what we think of ourselves is a matter of love. What we think about is a choice.
c. Izzo tells a wonderful story from the Navajo tradition (p 69). The Navajo elders say that there is a fight going on within them, like a fight between two wolves, one wolf that is evil and one that is good. The evil wolf personifies anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, fear. The good wolf personifies all that is good in life, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, hope, forgiveness, charity. As the elders tell the story of the wolves fighting within them, the children of the village eyes would widen and they would ask, “But grandfather, which wolf wins?” To which the elders reply, “The one that we feed.”
d. The first practice of becoming love is to feed the right wolves within us, to choose to love ourselves.

6. The second practice of becoming love is act with love toward those closest to us. Love is an act, love is verb. Our greatest happiness comes from loving those around us, but it can be the source of our greatest regrets too.
a. Studies (p 76, 142) show that in the average home we give 14 negative, critical messages to every positive one, planting weeds instead of daisies. That’s for the ones we say we care about the most. What wolves are we feeding? Too often the wrong ones I think.
b. I think we become too comfortable with those we care about the most. We forget that love is work, that love is an act, that love is a verb. Love is a positive verb.
c. The Hindu teachings of love take from the best of the Christian tradition. Ghandi, great Hindu leader of India in the last century was an admirer of Jesus, and my guess is a student of John Wesley too. In an interview (p 77) with a Hindu woman, she described of the teachings from her mother who told her that for all that she meets to do as much good as she can, but in every circumstance, always do no harm. She said, “With everyone I meet, with every word that I say, I guard that I do no harm.” Very Wesleyan.
What if we guarded ourselves to do no harm, especially with those we care for the most?
d. We have the power to change the ratio of negative to positive messages around those that we love and loving people do. Studies show that in happy marriages the ratio of positive to negative communications is 7:1 positive. Love is a positive verb. Practice love with those you care about the most. Practice.

7. The third practice of carrying out the secret to become love is to be loving to those in all our encounters. Jesus would say love your neighbor. The ripple of love is widening, from God, the source of love, the pebble of love dropped into the lake, to self, widening to those around us, then widening further to our neighbor, to the person we might encounter today. All the while remembering that we love because God first loved us. We offer love because Christ first offered it to us. We have the courage to love because of the courage of the cross.
a. Just as we choose to love ourselves, our families, we choose to become love to those we encounter. Lea, a 60 year old African American (p 79) who grew up in the segregated South with the life experiences that could have made her bitter, prays each morning before she leaves her house: Lord, make me open to love from the time I leave the house until the time I come home. Help me so that when I meet those in my path for whom a kind word, a smile, a thank you might be life changing for them, please do not let me be so busy that I will miss it. “A kind word, a smile, a thank you.. please do not let me be so busy that I will miss it.”
b. John Izzo closes his chapter (p 80) on become love with this story that is a witness to the practice of this secret. He told of a young woman whose mother passed away suddenly. On the plane to pay her final visit she tried to visualize her mother’s final moments, did she know how much she was loved? Had her mother died with a sense of deep satisfaction or was there something that caused her to regret? Tears welled up as she thought of the great love her mother had shared with her and others.
When she arrived she went straight to the funeral home where a large crowd had gathered. She had been away from home for many years so there were many there that she didn’t know. She’d ask her sisters and her father who each was. There was one woman sitting in the hall that no one knew. She went to her and asked, “How did you know my mother?”
“I’m sorry to say I didn’t know your mother.”
“Then, why are you here?”
“Many years ago I was going through a very difficult time. I was so discouraged that I was seriously thinking of taking my life that day. I happened sit on a bus next to a women who was deeply engrossed in a book. Half way through the bus ride, she closed the book, set it on her lap, turned to me and said, ‘You look like a person that needs to talk.’ I don’t know why but I opened up to her. When I got home our time together led me to a different decision.”
“But what does this have to do with my mother.”
“I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t even know the name of the woman who talked to me. I didn’t even know her name. When I saw her picture in the paper two days ago, I came here tonight because I did not know your mother. I did not know her name, but my 20 minutes with her saved my life.”
c. Her mother had practiced loving those she had encountered. She chose love as Lea had said in her prayer, to be open to love so that she would not miss the opportunity to change another’s life.
d. The third practice to become love is to choose to love those we might encounter today. To never miss the opportunity that might change their lives.

C. Close
1. Love is a choice that travels a circle with God, neighbor and self sitting on the arc. Love offered travels that circle and as Paul told us in his great love essay. “Love never ends.” It begins “4 Love is patient; love is kind;” and then closes “7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.” Love God offers, love we offer travels that circle returning to us giving life meaning and purpose. When we become love we give love and receive it in return. Love never ends.

2. Love is a choice. In fact many choices. The first is to choose to accept the love that God offers in Jesus Christ. Then the choice to let the same mind be in us that is in Christ Jesus who became a servant, who humbled himself to become obedient for our sake. Not for the sake of himself, but for others. If God in Christ so loved us we ought to love one another.

3. Choose love, practice love, to ourselves, those we care about the most, to those we might encounter who need love. The third secret we must discover before we die is to become love. So may it be in all of our lives. Amen.

**Izzo, John. The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publications, Inc., 2008.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Second Secret: Leave No Regrets

Two: Leave No Regrets
(Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 7:13-14)

A. Introduction
1. Robert Frost (“The Road Not Taken,” 1915) began his famous poem about choosing with “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I’m sorry I could not travel both.” He had it nailed didn’t he? In life we have to make choices. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t enter both the narrow gate and the wide gate. We must make choices, and the choices we make matter.
a. Frost ends with this final verse,
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in the woods, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
b. Sometimes choices are hard to distinguish. If you read Frost’s poem carefully, he tells us the paths were just about the same. He says, “And both that morning equally lay..”
c. Frost also talks of the rationalization that we make that choice doesn’t matter, that we can return someday to take the other path, but then acknowledges that life goes on when he says, “yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

2. Our lives are defined by our choices, sometimes major, sometimes subtle. Have you thought about the choices that you’ve made that clearly define your life, that have made you a completely different person today than you might otherwise have been? What about the choices your parents made that put you in the place you grew up, the schools you attended, the friends you met? I can see all of these choices having an impact on Toni’s life right now. And I can see the roads that diverged in my life that have completely defined who I am today.
a. After my sophomore year in college, I had chosen not to continue ROTC and go into the Army. The deadline has passed. When I got home for the summer, my Dad had several of his friends who had been in the Army talk to me. My other choice might have been to take a job as a petroleum engineer in Bartlesville, OK. Drastic difference.
b. Instead, I chose to take ROTC, they chose to accept my application even after the deadline, and it opened up a whole new horizon for me. Initially, I was only going to be in the Army for three years, but we chose to stay. That led to graduate school, teaching at West Point, managing the development of helicopters for the Army, and that led industry at Sikorsky Aircraft after retirement. One day Rosemary and I were walking down the street in Sydney Australia shaking our heads and saying, “Two little kids from Burke South Dakota.” We thought about the diverging paths that had gotten us to that sidewalk in Sydney.
c. Then there was another choice. We lived a good life in Connecticut. I had a job that I loved, a boss that was we loved. We lived a home that we had built just for us and we loved. Life was good. We would have had a comfortable life. We would have made a lot, I mean a lot more money (enough to have been a significant loss in the stock market the last few months); but we decided to take a risk and come to Missouri. “Two roads diverged in the woods, and I—I chose to take the one less traveled by, and it has made all the difference.”

3. But the greatest, the most important choice I made is one of faith. Just as Dad chose to talk to me about the Army (And I think that was a risk on his part. Have you tried to talk to a 19 year old lately? A risk.), Curt chose to talk to me about faith. Oh, I’d been nudged, but where might I be right now if he hadn’t talked to me about faith? “And I—I took the one less traveled by, and it has made all the difference.”

B. Body
1. We’re in a sermon series, **“The Five Secrets We Must Discover Before We Die,” based on a book by John Izzo, In his research for his book, Izzo asked 15,000 people “who were the wise elders in your life? Who had lived a long and full life and had something to teach us before we died?” From the answers as to who were the wise elders, he chose 235, ages 60 to 106 to be interviewed from all walks of life and all faiths.
a. Last week, we covered the first secret: Be true to yourselves and its corollary: Live life with intention. If you are going to discover what’s true, you have to examine your life, you have to be intentional about it. You have to live life awake.
A good life is made up of a string of good days. We have to ask what makes a good day, what makes a “good tired” at the end of the day? And what causes a bad day, a bad tired, that gnawing fatigue that we experience? What makes them up? And then we need to move away from one toward the other. We can only do that by living life awake, intentionally.
b. Today we talk about the second secret, “Leave No Regrets.”

2. In his research, John Izzo was told over and over again that the greatest fear in life was not dying. It was coming to the end of life and saying, “I wish I had.”
a. Author Kurt Vonnegut said, “Of all the sayings of mice and men, the saddest is ‘What might have been.’”
b. Coming to the end of life and saying, “I wish I had.”
c. Many of the ‘I wish I had’s’ deal with relationships don’t they? Harriet Beecher Stowe may have said it best, “The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.”
d. Regrets.

3. You notice that the regrets were not for words poorly said, or for deeds poorly done nut words and deeds never attempted. Indeed, relationships involve courage. If we are going live a life in which we leave no regrets, we need to have courage. We need to risk words and deeds. Izzo’s wise elders almost without exception said we need to risk more.
a. Until I read this book, I never understood Vonnegut’s reference to “of mice and men.” But he was telling us that life involves courage, the courage to risk.
b. The wise elders told Izzo that it was not to try and fail that they regretted, it was not to try at all, it was not the risk of failure, it was not to risk at all.

4. One of Izzo’s (p 48) favorite interviewees was an 84 year old man named Donald. He had been a shy young man, especially around the opposite sex. Just never comfortable with girls. One night at a college dance he saw the girl of his dreams. She was a popular girl, surrounded by popular girls. And he knew that popular girls blew off shy guys and probably would never give them a dance. But taking a great big gulp, he walked over to her and he not only asked for a dance but told her that she was the woman that he was going to marry. She wasn’t terribly impressed but she danced with him anyway. He said, “I had to pursue her several more weeks before she came to realize it was a dance that would last a lifetime.” His wife of 56 years had died six years before the interview, but Donald said, “There’s not one day that I don’t feel her presence around me.”
a. Such a simple decision made early in life. Yet the decision to risk failure reaching out for what he wanted turned out to be one of the most important decisions of Donald Klein’s life. It shaped who he was. Who might he have become instead if he hadn’t risked failure at that college dance?
b. And we know of stories like that. Last summer I told you of Jessy driving four hours with a ring in his pocket to ask his high school sweetheart, ten years after high school, to marry him. His mom had said he didn’t sleep at all the night before afraid of what her answer might be. He was willing to risk the failure and it made all the difference.

5. How is it that we choose courage? John Izzo (p 52) told of Elsa, a woman in her 70s that had grown up in Germany. After the war, things were difficult in Germany. With no job prospects, no family, nobody she knew at all, she decided to move to Canada and start a new life. She didn’t even know the language. She told Izzo that as risky as it was, that decision had been the turning point of her life.
a. As I read this, I thought of Diana Hill. While Diana was not coming from Italy to America alone, when she chose to marry, she was choosing a new life in a new land among people she did not know. It had to be a risk. It had to take courage.
b. How do you make such a choice? Elsa had great words of wisdom. She said that whenever she had a risk she was considering, she would begin by imagining the highest possible good that could occur by taking the risk. Then would imagine the worst. If she could handle the worst, and the worst of going to Canada was that things wouldn’t work out and she’d have to go home; if she could handle the worst, then she’d keep the image of the highest possibility in front of her—a new life, new friends, finding love, raising children in a new country. These were the highest possibilities and these were the images she kept in front of her.
c. Unfortunately, many of us live our lives quite the opposite way, keeping the image of the worst in front of us and stifling the courage we need to risk.

6. What about risking the most important choice we make in our life, the choice about faith? We might look at the highest possibilities and the worst.

a. What is the highest possible good that can come from a life of faith?
i. First, a personal relationship with the greatest man that ever lived.
ii. An abundant life. “I came that you would have life and it abundantly.”
iii. Simple rules to live by: Love God and your neighbor as yourself.
iv. Forgiveness of sins. By definition the way to live without regret, unshackled by burdens or guilt.
v. And the greatest and highest possibility of all, eternal life.

b. And what of the worst that can happen?
i. Like Elsa, I might have to make some new friends and relationships take time. One of those new relationships is with Jesus. I may have to get to know him. I may have to communicate with him. I might have to pray. Most of all, I’ll have to call him Lord.
ii. I may have to put up with the joy of simple pleasures of life. I may have to choose abundance rather than materialism.
iii. To know whether or not I’m living by God’s rules I may have to take the time to examine my life. I might even have to serve my neighbors at times that are inconvenient.
iv. I’ll have to confess my sins and then turn in a new direction.
v. I’ll have to live with the expectation that heaven exists and that someday we’ll all stand together in the presence of God with rejoicing.

c. Can we live with the worst? Then keep the image of the highest possibilities in front of us: A Christ-centered, simple, abundant, un-shackled life, with the promise of eternity before me. How good is that? It is worth the risk of everything.

7. One of the final chapters in Izzo’s book (p133) is “Preparing to die well: happy people are not afraid to die.”
a. I think more than any other of the secrets, leaving no regrets prepares us best for the end of life. Leave no regrets, to be at the end of life and be able to say, “I’ve had lived a full life; I’ve taken the risks. I may have gambled a few times and lost and in the words of the Moonlight Gambler: ‘Better to have gambled and lost than not to have loved at all.’”
b. We are people of faith. Faith allows us to set our failures and regrets aside, place our burdens, our guilt at the feet of Jesus.
c. Those who cast their cares on Christ can live a life risking the roads less traveled by. They can live life with courage. They can live life to the fullest. And those that live that way can embrace death as a part of life, knowing with confidence that it is the gateway to eternity. A life of faith is a life without regrets.

8. When we live a life of faith, a life of no regrets, we are actually kind to ourselves. There’s a line in Izzo’s book (p 142) that is almost a throw away line that I think is very important. We need to “live our life rather than judge our life.” Live our lives rather than judging our lives.
a. Examination, living wake, laying ourselves out to the Holy Spirit, seeing where we have missed the mark so that we can move closer to the centerline of our life’s path is not meant to be judging, it’s meant to be living. Judging means to diminish us, living means to come alive, to live more fully, to live the secrets more deeply. Living closer to the centerline of the road is living more deeply.
b. When we live our lives rather than judging them, we leave no regrets.

C. Close.
1. Leave no regrets is really about making the best choices. How is it that we make the best choices? “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” How do we choose?

2. Izzo (p 54-55) has two suggestions that I think are priceless. (I used these in Gary and Maria’s wedding but they probably got missed. I think they are especially important for people who make choices together.)

a. The first would be picturing yourselves going to the wisest old person you know, someone who has lived life fully, who has lived and loved. Maybe someone sitting in their rocking chair on the front porch. What they would say about the choice you are about to make? If you can answer that, you may have your answer.
b. Or turn the tables, picture yourselves as that wise old person who has lived life fully, who has lived and loved sitting on the front porch gathering your grandchildren and great-grandchildren around you. Picture yourselves telling your grandchildren about the decision you are about to make. What choice would make the best story? What path, what road would make the very best story that you could tell your grandchildren? And you will have your answer.

3. Rosemary and I chose to move from Connecticut to Missouri to be with Curt and Toni. I can’t imagine what the story of my life would be without being involved with Toni’s life.

4. But most importantly, I can’t imagine the story of my life without Jesus Christ. It is the story that has weaved together all the other stories. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days,” And the very best story.

5. “Two roads diverged in the woods, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and it has made all the difference.” So may it be in all of your lives. Amen.

**Izzo, John. The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publications, Inc., 2008.