Seeking the Kingdom of God in Times of Anxiety

I worry a lot.

I worry about trivial things, such as whether it is possible West Virginia University will ever win a national title in anything beyond rifle. I worry about my family, such as whether we can find adequate care for Noah’s needs. I worry about things that involve the ministry of the church, such as whether we are being faithful in our common mission as United Methodists of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

There are times when being worried about something is necessary, such as when we are concerned for our family’s needs. That is true to a point, because sometimes we allow our natural worries about life’s concerns consume us. Worrying that consumes us can bring us into to a state of anxiety, which can hinder our lives by controlling our thoughts, actions, and perspectives upon the future.

I believe we are in a time of anxiety in the United Methodist Church about what may happen in February at the called General Conference. As we get closer to the called conference, we have allowed the natural concern for the church move us into a state of tension and anxiety.

This tension and anxiety is centered on several elements. It is focused on the issues of human sexuality (which we will begin conversations on later this month). There is also tension surrounding what the General Conference may decide and how it will affect our community. We are focused on the unknown.

I know this anxiety and I have experienced it myself. There have been moments when I’ve felt my own anxiety about what will happen come February. My conversations with friends and family can easily turn towards General Conference and the back-and-forth dialogues that are taking places on social media in the perspective caucuses of the church.

None of this is helpful. None of this has been helpful in my own life. None of this is helpful for us as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Jesus reminds us of this in Matthew 6:25-33. He says there is nothing that can be added to our lives through worry and anxiety. We can only cripple our lives when we are consumed by worry and anxiety.

When we think about the life of the church there is nothing that can be gained towards our mission of making disciples if we are worried about the unknown. The only thing that happens when we worry is it leads us to fear, distrust, and discouragement about where God is leading us. None of these are values that are helpful for the mission of the church today or in the future.

What is helpful is to find the places of hope and to seek the kingdom of God. It is the life Jesus invites us into when we are filled with worry and anxiety. In Matthew 6:33 Jesus says it is the kingdom of God that should be our focus and not things that can easily distract and consume our lives.

It is not always easy to do this. That is because when we focus on our worries and anxieties all we see are the negatives. The kingdom of God’s focus for us can get lost through our concerns about what is wrong. When all we see are the negatives we lose sight of the work of the kingdom in our midst and where God is leading us.

We are at our best when our primary focus is not on our worries and anxieties – as real as they may be – but on where God is leading us as a community to be the hands and feet of Christ. The main thing of making disciples of Jesus Christ must be our primary concern. When we take our eyes off of this and place it more upon the concerns of the moment we lose sight of the people Jesus calls us to love – the hurting, the lost, and the forgotten.

The kingdom of God is here. We are a part of God’s kingdom and called to live into the realities of God’s leading, even as we await what may happen in February. No matter what happens in February there will be work of sharing love, planting seeds of hope, and extending grace to the people of Princeton. As long as there are people who need to know God’s love there will be work for the church to do in our community.

Let us make our focus the work of sharing God’s love and seeking the kingdom of God. Nothing can be added to our church and witness by worrying about what may happen. When our focus, though, is on the kingdom of God we will see the possibilities of sharing God’s love all around us and the work that needs to be done to let our community know, truly, that God loves them and so do we.

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Extravagant Generosity Day 22: Matthew 6:33

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. (NLT)

One of my favorite hymns is “Seek Ye First,” which is a song that is centered around the theme of Matthew 6:33 to seek the kingdom of God above all things.

What does Jesus mean by this? Jesus means that the kingdom of God is our first obedience. We are called to be people of God who seek after the things of God before any and all things. The motivations of God should be the motivations for ourselves, our families, and our ministries.

This plays out in some very challenging ways that cuts against what we would like and what God desires for us.

For instance, we are called to seek the kingdom of God before our own needs and agenda. The desires of God comes before our own personal desires for ourselves, our families, and our churches.

We are to seek the kingdom of God before any and all political reality. We are called to be citizens of God’s kingdom and not strict disciples of our favorite political party or ideology.

We are called to seek God’s kingdom in our efforts for justice and peace, instead of seeking justice and peace that so often reflects the war-minded focus of our civilization and culture.

We are called to seek God’s kingdom in offering forgiveness in the ways that Christ offers forgiveness to us.

Seeking God’s kingdom is about seeking Christ in all things and before all things.

Life is not about us. It is truly about seeking God, serving God, loving God, and loving others. How are you living into this today?

Sunday’s Sermon: Welcome the Outsider

We have all seen and enjoyed the classic movie “Forrest Gump.” It is the classic movie of a young man who has some mental disabilities and is trying to make it in an ever-changing world.

One of the movie’s memorable scenes takes place when young Forrest attempts to find a seat on the school bus. It was Forrest’s first day of school. Even though Forrest had lived in his hometown his entire life, he is an outsider who is trying to fit in where there was already established communities and friendships. Forrest unfortunately finds seats that looked open were not really open. Students responded to Forrest with glaring looks and the uninviting words of “seat’s taken” or “you can’t sit here.”

Forrest was given a message no one wants to hear. He was not welcomed into the pre-established communities. The students were in no hurry to welcome him into their circle of friendships. It is really to that community’s disadvantage they didn’t welcome Forrest. As we know, Forrest was a caring and generous person who gave complete devotion to those he cared for. Who wouldn’t want a friend like Forrest in their life? Just imagine how their community would have been strengthened had Forrest been welcomed to sit with them.

That’s not just a statement that analyzes a great movie scene. I think it also speaks to us. What would change in our circle of friendships if we allowed the Forrests of our lives into them? What would happen if the outsider become one of us?

This is what I want us to reflect on as we examine our Gospel passage from John 7:1-10. As we do so, what I want to say and encourage you in is to always reach out and find ways to welcome those who have no community. This goes beyond inviting someone to church. It means to welcome those who have no community, the outsider, the Forrests among us, to be part of our community and friendships.

Luke 7:1-10 may not seem like a passage where we can make this statement. On the surface level, this passage tells of when Jesus heals a Roman officer’s servant in Capernaum, who was suffering from a life-threatening illness. However, when we go deeper into the passage we see there is more to this interaction. It is truly a passage where Jesus reaches out and welcomes an outsider into the community.

The outsider in this story is the Roman officer. He was a Centurion. In the Roman Empire, a Centurion was a military officer who had authority over approximately 100 soldiers. Centurions were known for their integrity. Most of the references to Centurions in Scripture are generally positive. This includes Luke’s mention in Acts 10 of Cornelius, who became the first Gentile to decide to follow Christ.

In today’s Gospel reading, Luke is very complimentary of this particular Centurion. He is someone of deep compassion for his sick servant. He is also someone who has heard of Jesus. This perhaps meant that the Centurion had heard reports about Jesus and was trying to wrestle with what this meant for his life. Though Luke uses positive terms to define the Centurion, this doesn’t take away from what the Centurion represented for Luke. He was an officer of the very government that was controlling the people of Israel. He was also likely a Gentile, which, according to the laws of the time, meant that he would not have been welcomed into the community unless he was willing to enter a long conversion process.

This Roman Centurion was not “in” the community. He was an outsider. For this reason, I believe the Centurion represents something that is going on in our culture today. All around us there are people who are hungry for the Gospel, are wrestling with who God is, but feel like an outsider with no community or place to go. They wrestle with the same questions we wrestle with, but they feel as though they have no place to go for strength or support. On any given Sunday, roughly 82 percent of our commonwealth are not in church. They are people we know: Farmers, bankers, mechanics, teachers, business leaders, co-workers, friends, family, and the person who bags our groceries at Kroger. They are searching, seeking, wondering, and questioning who this Jesus is and are looking for a place to belong.

Just like the Centurion, sometimes these very same people reach out to the community looking for answers or help. The Centurion reached out for Jesus knowing that within him is the power to heal. He knew Jesus had authority from heaven to do the wondrous and sought him out with the help of Jewish elders. When Jesus nears the Centurion, Luke says he sends some friends to stop him and to tell him only to speak a word of healing. He humbled himself before the Lord and offered an expression of faith. The Centurion recognized Jesus’ authority to heal comes from the power given to him from the Father. He trusted in Jesus’ word knowing it had the power of God.

The Centurion felt unworthy to be in Jesus’ presence. This is why he sent the Jewish elders and his friends to meet with Jesus and speak for him. However, they felt he was worthy to be in Jesus’ presence. The Jewish elders express to Jesus the virtues not of the servant but of the Centurion. They say he is a man worthy of Jesus’ help. We can assume that the Centurion’s friends likely agreed. The elders say this is because of the Centurion’s love for the Jewish people and that he helped to build a synagogue. In the eyes of the Jewish elders, the Centurion’s good deeds were reason enough for Jesus to help him. It was a position based on what the Centurion had done instead of who he is and desired to be. The Centurion was welcomed by the Jewish elder because of what he had done for them.

We in the church can be like the Jewish elders. The temptation is real for us to define entrance into our communities based upon what someone has done for us. Sometimes our actions articulates a message that says we welcome someone only if certain  “requirements” are met. These might be to have an acceptable job, come from a good family, or dress in a certain way. When we place unspoken requirements upon an outsider in order for them to join our community, what we are really doing is placing a boundary between us and them. Welcoming becomes a tradable commodity when the invitation to join our friendships is only extended when someone does something for us.

Jesus’ welcome is something entirely different. He goes to the Centurion and reaches out to him. In responding to the Centurion’s desire for his servant to be healed, Jesus reaches out to the person who was outside the community and who represented much of what was wrong about the times Jesus lived in. He looked within the Centurion’s heart and saw him for he truly was: A Child of God who was seeking to understand what it meant to follow Jesus. Jesus even takes the Centurion’s statement of faith and says he had not seen any like this in all of Israel. The Centurion, the outsider, understood what many in the community struggled with. That is that Jesus is God.

Jesus welcomed and encouraged the Centurion in his faith and brought him into the community. He healed the servant, but just as important he made the outsider welcomed in the kingdom of God. This is significant because it paved the way for the Gentile ministry Luke will describe in Acts. Those who were once on the outside are now welcomed into a relationship with the Father and the community of the church.

When we think back to that scene from “Forrest Gump” what Jenny does for Forrest reflects what Jesus did for this Centurion. Jenny saw Forrest for who he was and welcomed him into her community. That community was strengthened by what Forrest was able to bring to it. There were no pretenses or requirements. All that existed in their relationship was a desire to grow with one another.

Could you imagine if we welcomed the outsiders around us in the same ways Jesus welcomed the Centurion or Jenny greeted Forrest? All around us there are people who are hungry, seeking, and yearning for a community that will welcome and encourage them in our common journey to grow in Christ’s love. Jesus has given us the way forward. As our communion liturgy reminds us, all who love Jesus, repent of their sin, and seek to live in community with one another are invited to the table of fellowship. Imagine if this was our guide as we seek to welcome all people into our communities and be Christ’s hands and feet each day.

Jesus has welcomed everyone to the kingdom and into the fellowship. Our call is to go out and be those who welcome others, unconditionally, into our hearts, lives, and communities. There are no outsiders in God’s kingdom. There are only those who are seeking community and need the church, to welcome them and say, “yes ‘you can sit here.’”

Sunday’s Sermon: A Culture of Love

One of my favorite television shows is “How I Met Your Mother.” I enjoy watching Ted Mosby’s ongoing story to his children about how he met their mother. Ultimately, what the show has focused on is how a close group of friends became a family.

The show is entering what could be its final season in September. There are several episodes I love to watch when they come on. That includes a special episode from its second season. The entire season focused on how Marshall and Lilly, two of Ted’s best friends and roommates, reunited, after separating at the end of the first season, and got married. Their wedding is a two-part episode with the second part titled “Something Blue.”

The focus is on the events leading up to the wedding, including Ted’s break-up with Robin, another main character in the series. One of the scenes shows the friends gathered in Ted’s apartment. They are working on a list of “overused wedding cliches” for Marshall and Lilly to avoid, such as dancing a conga line and doing a photo slideshow. The joke is these cliches end up part of the wedding. As the friends discuss the list, Barney, the show’s lovable womanizer, enters and suggests 1 Corinthians 13. After Marshall recites the passage, the entire gang pans it and the passage is placed on the list.

Perhaps we have placed this passage on our own list of “wedding cliches.” Much in the same way as the group of friends from “How I Met Your Mother,” we approach 1 Corinthians 13 as if it only speaks to the love between a man and a woman. This passage is most often read during the wedding ceremony as the picture of what “true love” looks like. Because of this, it is one of the most recognizable passages of Scripture. Paul’s words are familiar to us regardless of what translation of the Bible we use. Think of the prose of Paul’s thoughts beginning with verse 4: “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

It is simply beautiful. What Paul writes may, indeed, be a wonderful expression of what should define a marriage. Too bad that is not Paul’s focus is in this passage.

By seeing 1 Corinthians 13 as only a description of romantic love, we limit what Paul is truly trying to tell us. It has been disconnected from its context and the depths of Paul’s thought. Paul’s expressions of love cannot be limited to just marriage. Sure, his thoughts are applicable to this area, but they go deeper than that. Marriage should be defined by love that is patient and kind, among other identifiers, but so should our entire lives. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 cannot be limited to a context that is appropriate for this passage. Paul is specifically addressing situations that were occurring in Corinth and continue to plague our churches, where something was missing in their devotion and fellowship. With these words, Paul gives us a deep picture of what it means to follow Christ. The way of follow Christ, Paul says, is to be defined by love.

This path of a life defined by love goes along with what Paul has been said throughout 1 Corinthians. Paul’s thoughts on love are not disconnected from the entire letter, but are central to his thoughts in 1 Corinthians and in all of his writings. Love must be our guide. It is an appropriate follow up to what he says in 1 Corinthians 12.

In that passage, Paul writes that we have various gifts, or talents, that God has given us. He also says we are connected to each other as the body of Christ. This is crucial to understanding what Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul is reacting to a situation in Corinth. The people there believed that because they had these gifts or that they did some great things that they were special in their fellowship with Christ. Paul will have none of this thinking. Gifts and our actions do not define our walk with Christ. Love must be the ultimate definition of what it means to follow Christ.

Paul walks this out beginning with 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. He lists some of the same gifts that he mentions in 1 Corinthians 12. What Paul says is that doing these things is not enough. Love must be a part of our ministry, lives, and acts of giving. Paul is alerting us to the fact that the absence of love limits the potential of our gifts and acts of service. No matter what good we do in our lives, if it is not done in an attitude of love something is missing.

Paul is speaking to specific attitudes in Corinth, but we can bring this forward to our time. When we pray, if we do not do so out of our love of God then we are missing something. If we give to the poor because it is an “expectation,” and not because we want to show our love to the “least of these,” then something is missing. If we try to help someone through a difficult situation and do not show love, then we are not helping the individual. No matter how good our intention might be, if our acts and life are not lived in a posture of love then we are missing the point.

We are also missing the nature of who God is. The biggest definition we can use about God is this: God is love. This is the definition we see throughout Scripture. It is love that led God to create this world. It is love that led God to continue caring for humanity, even after it has been disobedient. It is love that led God to send Christ. God is truly love.

Paul builds on this and gives us the beautiful words we see in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. He is building on the characteristics of God’s love and calls each of us to be defined by these things. God’s love is patient with humanity, so we are called to be patient with others. God’s love is kind, so we are called to be the same to those around us. The love of God is everything and more that Paul describes in these words. Paul could keep going and add in other descriptions, such as hospitality and giving. Paul isn’t intent on building a lasting definition, but only a glimpse of the quality of love and the ways we are to as we love others.

It is a quality that should define who we are as followers of Christ. We’ve seen what happens when love is not what defines us. When we are defined by anger, hostility, resentment, frustration, greed, power, or anything else, we are fall short of the beauty of God’s love. As followers of Christ, we are to reflect the love of God in our relationships with others, whether it is with members of our families, the people in our communities, or the person whom we may never meet. If we are not defined by love, then we are distorting the message of the Gospel that has love as one of its key aspects.

It’s also the only thing that will never fail. God’s love will never fail. Everything else will fade away, but the love of God, the presence of Christ, will return and last forever. The kingdom will come and our love of others points to this moment. Even more, the things we do in this world are for a moment. The gifts we share with others are for a specific moment. Love has no expiration date. It can lead to moments of transformation and reflection in someone’s life. It can also serve as a reminder of Christ’s love when someone is struggling in their life. Nothing that we can ever give is more important than sharing the love of Christ with those who need to feel that they are loved.

Of course, love is not easy. We all struggle with loving people. There are people in this world who are difficult to love. If we were honest, there are times when we are difficult to love. When it is difficult to love, ask the Holy Spirit to guide your heart to be loving. Take the challenging step to ask God to transform your heart so that you can be love to someone who needs to be loved. Even more, ask God to transform you so that you will be able to be loved. The Spirit is our guide to love others and to be loved ourselves.

God’s love calls us to a life of love. It reminds us that we are loved and in return we are called to love others. In a world that can be so often defined by hostility and bitterness, being a people who are defined by love might be the most important witness of Jesus Christ that we can share with others. Our communities and our world need to see people living as a people of love.

As we conclude, I want you to take a moment to reflect. Most likely, there is someone that you know who needs to know that they are loved. There is probably someone who you need to love better in your life. Maybe it is someone you know and maybe it is someone you only met for a second. Perhaps, maybe you need to be a person more defined by love than the attitudes of this world. Whoever it is as we prepare to pray, give that person, or yourself, over to God. Ask God to define for you what it means to love that person or yourself, so that you may reflect God’s love.

Take this all in. We can be a community defined by love. You can be a person defined by love. It is not hard. All that is asked is that we reflect the same love that characterizes who God is and how God relates to us. Love is important and it is central to the kingdom of God.

If we get love wrong, then we’ve missed what it means to be the church and followers of Christ.

Sunday’s Sermon: You Are a Priest!

Good morning, priests!

Caught you off guard, didn’t I? This does not seem like a normal greeting nor a normal sermon introduction. A good morning wish is not uncomfortable for us, but that word attached to the end may be. Call us friends. Call us family. Call us brothers and sisters. But, a priest? What in the world am I thinking by calling you and me a priest?

When we think of a priest perhaps we likely think of a specific pastoral office, most common in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. Priests lead a parish, officiate the corporate worship service, and consecrate the elements of the Eucharist or Holy Communion. They intercede to God on behalf of a congregation. You might even be familiar with the robe – or alb – priests wear in worship.

Priests continue in the tradition set by priests during Biblical times. In those days, priests were went to God on behalf of others and a community. They offered sacrifices and taught what it meant to be obedient to God. This interpretative duty would be shared with the scribes following the Exile. Keep this in mind: Priests in Biblical times were not always ordained.

Most likely you wouldn’t think of yourself as a priest. There is several reasons for this. You are not ordained and have not attended seminary. You may feel uneasy going before God on behalf of others. You might argue this is solely the pastor’s role. The pastor, serving as a church’s pastoral and professional staff, is called to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for seeking God on behalf of a community, caring for the congregation’s spiritual needs, and seeking the spiritual growth and discipleship of a community of faith.

That is a lot of work. It is important work. It is work and a calling that I cherish. But, I am not alone. I am not alone in having the privilege of doing this important work. I am not alone in going to God on behalf of the community. I am not alone in caring for the spiritual needs of our congregation and community. I am not alone in seeking the growth of our churches, numerically and spiritually. Indeed, I am not alone, because we are all the priesthood of believers. We are all priests.

The theology of the priesthood of believers was foundational during the Protestant Reformation. Beginning on Oct. 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church, the Protestant Reformation brought new life and energy to the Christian movement. It also brought us back to the roots of our faith, by attempting to challenge some misguided practices during the Middle Ages. Among Luther’s many views was this idea of the priesthood of all believers. Prior to Luther, it was believed that only a priest could seek God or communicate with God for a community. Luther disagreed. Developing a theology based around 1 Peter 2:4-10, Luther argued that a priest was not the only person who could seek God on behalf of a community. The entire church has this calling. All members of the community of faith are called to be priests to one another. We are all called to seek God on behalf of the community and care for each other’s needs. In his article entitled “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility,” Luther writes that we “all have spiritual status” thus we “are all truly priests, bishops, and popes.” In other words, each of us are united by our common love of Christ and called to serve in response. There is nothing that makes a pastor spiritually different than a lay person. Because of this, we are called to care for each other and serve Christ in Christian love.

How can Luther support this? How can John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, argue this as well? How can we live into this idea of all of us being priests?

It is because of our faith in Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:4-10 expresses this. Peter writes of God building a spiritual temple, or house, in which Jesus is the cornerstones and we are part of the building process. Peter is making a kingdom observation by using a metaphor that would have been known to the world at that time. The Greco-Roman culture placed a major emphasis on the house. A household was the center of the culture, with the father serving as the primary figure. The household included a variety of people. Peter writes that when we accept Christ, we are adopted into a new household. That is the household of God. It is a household that centers on the Father’s love and one that makes room for the community to worship and proclaim the love of Christ, through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Our baptism is our entrance into this new household. Catherine Gonzalez writes that in baptism we leave one house and join another household. When we receive this “outward sign of an inward grace,” we become members of God’s household, the Kingdom of God. Our baptism brings us into this “new family” and “consecrates” for our kingdom lives as witnesses of God’s love and grace.

Baptism grants us participation in God’s house with Jesus being its cornerstone. Any house needs a good foundation and the cornerstone is the first stone likely set in the foundation. It is what sets the entire foundation. The proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ is the centerpiece, the cornerstone, of the Kingdom of God. In saying this, Peter uses language from Isaiah 28:16. Isaiah wrote that the “true cornerstone” would renew the people. Jesus’ life and ministry was intent on bringing all people back into a relationship with the Father. This is true renewal. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus became the cornerstone of the kingdom. He is what holds it together. All of Scripture prepares for the fact that God is building a house, a kingdom, and Jesus, the Son of God, is to be the cornerstone of this new house.

Our entrance into God’s house, the Kingdom of God, comes with responsibilities. This is true in our own families. Each of us have responsibilities to care for the basic needs and development of our households. Some of these responsibilities are small, such as taking out the trash, while others are major and important, such as earning a decent living to provide for the family’s basic financial needs. One of the responsibilities each of us have is to care for the family. In our families, we are each responsible for each other’s well being.

This is true in God’s household. As members of the household of God, we are all members of God’s family. We have responsibilities to our Christian family and the household of God. This is where the concept of the priesthood of believers comes in. Because we are members of the household of God through our baptism, we are called to care for God’s household and the family. We are blessed with the calling to care for one another, to assist one another, to be a witness of God’s house to the world, and to share the love of Christ with all. This is the role of a priest that we are all called to preform.

It is not the calling of one, or a few, to care for the needs of the community of faith, but it is the calling for us all. Clergy and laity must serve side-by-side in their respective participation as the priesthood of believers. We are all representations of the church, which is the ongoing mission of Jesus Christ in the world. How we live out our participation as priests will be different and unique based on how God has called us. That being the case, there are some commonalities we all share in our common ministry as priests.

We each use our individual gifts and talents. As we’ve mentioned before, each of us are gifted in certain ways that prepare us for kingdom work. It is by using our our gifts and talents that we are called to serve God in community. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12 that each of us are equipped to share in the work of the body of Christ. No one gift is more important than the other. All spiritual gifts are able to be used in our callings as priests. The gifts we have can share the message of Christ, can witness to Christ’s love, and serve the kingdom by serving the least in our communities. How you have been gifted is how God wants you to serve in the Kingdom.

We are also called to care for the community as priests. This is both the community of Christians and the community beyond the walls of the church. As priests, we are called to give care to those in our communities. We are a family – a collection of brothers and sisters in Christ. Because of our mutual identity in Christ’s love, we seek God on behalf of each other in prayer. We are also a loving presence to those in our community and care for their spiritual, emotional, and personal needs. Each of us are to look after one another as a family.  In our modern world, we have gotten away from seeing the church as our family, but we must return to our identity as seeing the church – the fellowship of believers – as our most important social identity.

There is also a part of this with how we are for the community at large. We are all called to be witnesses who seek God on behalf of our community. The call of the entire congregation is to pray, care, and reach out to the community as witnesses of God’s love and the desire for all to be in a relationship with Christ. Truly, our identity as the priesthood of believers calls us to look beyond ourselves and look to the basic need – spiritual and physical – of those around us as an expression of Christian love.

The fellowship of Christian believers reminds us of our identity as priests. For too long, the church has proclaimed that clergy are the only ones who can seek God, who have an obligation to care for the community, and who have a special gifting to do just that. This mindset has led to the situation we face today. That is a professionalization of the clergy and laity who see their only role in the community of faith as that of a consumer who purchases religious goods. This is a wrong mindset. We are all equal in our baptism and equal in our identity with Christ. Though our callings are different, we are equal in the calling to share in the witness of Jesus Christ as kingdom citizens, who care for the needs of our community, and who seek God on behalf of others.

Let us be priests, then, in our community here at Mackville and Antioch and throughout the world.

Sunday Sermon: Kingdom Fruits

Freedom is a word we often talk about this time of year, especially during celebrations for the Fourth of July. At picnics and fireworks presentations, we likely talked about the freedoms we have as Americans. This is important for us to honor.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we know the true source of our freedoms. Freedom does not come from government. A government institution, no matter its composition, is not the creator or grantor of freedom. Our freedoms come from God.

Freedom is central to our faith in Jesus Christ. By our faith in Jesus Christ, we become recipients of grace and can experience freedom in our lives. Grace allows us to experience freedom from our sin and allows us to live as followers of Christ, as people of the Kingdom of God, each day. We are no longer bound by the chains of our sin, but live in the grace and hope that comes from our faith in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

How, then, do we live with this freedom? The way we answer this question, as individuals and as a community of faith, says a lot about how we desire to live as Kingdom people and as a Kingdom community. Each of us represents the Kingdom of God in our lives. Our church is a representative of the Kingdom of God in our communities. As followers of Christ, the way we live our lives is one way we witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world. How we live our lives is how others will interpret and see the Kingdom of God and the message of Jesus Christ. Central to this is how we use the freedoms Christ has given us. The question for us, today, is this: How will our freedom from God guide us? Will we use it as a free pass to live and do as we please, or will it inspire us to live lives of deep devotion and discipleship?

We could ask it another way: Will we produce fruits of the flesh or fruits of the Spirit?

Producing fruit is a key metaphor that is found throughout the New Testament. Jesus uses this metaphor on several occasions. One such example is Matthew 6:15-20. In this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that a good tree, a person or community that is in deep relationship with the Father, cannot produce bad fruit. However, someone that is a bad tree, a person or community that refuses to walk with Christ, cannot produce good fruit. These are the trees that are to be chopped down. They will not inherit the Kingdom of God, as Paul suggests in our passage today from Galatians 5:16-2. Those who do not produce good fruit will not experience the Kingdom of God. How we live our lives, as individuals and as a community, indicates the types of fruit we are producing. The life we live comes out of our character and who we are in the depths of our soul. What guides our life will produce the fruits of the life we lead, which are what others experience when they interact with us.

Paul writes in Galatians 5:16-26 that there are two options for people and communities to follow and allow to shape our character. One option is to live by the ways of the world and to live according to how we would desire to live. Paul says this path is the path of living by the flesh or our sinful nature. There is a second choice we can chose. We can live by the guidance of the Holy Spirit and follow in the ways of the Lord. This is what Paul suggests by saying we are to live by the Spirit. These are competing ways of life that are at odds with each other. The ways of the Spirit are counter to the ways of the flesh, and vice versa.

The way Paul writes of these two options for life it is as if we are standing at a crossroad and are to contemplate which is the better path to take. At a crossroad, we are given two roads, or paths, to take. The two paths are not the same and will take us to different destinations. The experiences we will meet on these paths will be different, and they will shape our lives. Choosing the wrong path has serious implications. You cannot chose the wrong path and expect to get to where you hoped you were going. Thus, the choice we make here, at this crossroad of life and how we will experience God’s freedoms, is important.

One option is the path of the flesh, or our sinful nature. The path looks easy and has few challenges. It has few obstacles and the road is paved and well maintained. But, when you look closer you see some of the road signs indicates that the path is filled with opportunities to “fulfill your wildest dreams,” to “have it your way,” and to “live the high life.”

Paul speaks of this path in Galatians 5:17. This path is characteristic of a life that is counter to the ways and desires of the Holy Spirit. It is a life of self-wants and self-desires. When we take this path, we take the freedom we receive from God and use it as license to indulge in our own self. We do what we want to do. When we live for the flesh, we want things our ways, by our time, and by our agenda. It is all about me. To be honest, we have probably all journeyed on this path in our lives. We might even be on it today. There have been times and moments where we have lived counter to the ways of the Spirit.

We know the kind of life this path produces. It produces fruits of the flesh.These are characteristics that corrupts the goodness of God’s creation and the way God has made us. We take the good things of the world and use them for our own gain and indulgence. The list Paul gives, beginning with verse 5:19, is filled with things that none of us desire be known by. However, each of us can think of times when these fruits have been more characteristic of who we are or how we interacted with others.

Fruits of the flesh are produced when we have abandoned our First Love and ignored our relationship with Christ. These fruits come out when we live lives that are counter to the known will of God. When there is sin in our life, these are some of the fruits that we produce. Jealousy, idolatry, anger, bitterness, or anything of the other fruits of the flesh, comes out when we are not in a true and deep relationship with Christ. These fruits prevent us from experiencing the depths of the love of Christ and prevent us from truly witnessing the Kingdom of God in our lives.

There is a second path at this crossroad of God’s freedom. This one seems a little more challenging. The path has a few more hills and obstacles to traverse. It is certainly not an easy path. There are bumps all over the road. When we start to wonder who would take this path, we start to notice some of its signs such that read, “hope,” “peace,” “holiness,” and “love.”

The difficult path is the path of following the ways of the Holy Spirit. To be obedient to the Lord’s desires is difficult and challenging, because it calls us to look not for ourselves, first, but to seek first God’s desires. It may not be easy, but this is the path that leads to the Kingdom of God.

By choosing this more difficult path, we are making the choice to be led by the Holy Spirit. This is an act of obedience. We are recognizing the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and are desiring that the Spirit guides our steps and places us in the situations that God needs and desires us to be in. When we take this path, we use our freedom as an act of dedication and obedience. We are giving our lives and our communities to the Lord as an act of faith in response to our forgiveness. Indeed, we are making the conscience choice to follow in the precepts and desires of the Lord when we take this path.

This path produces, Paul says, fruits of the Spirit. These fruits, of course, are counter to the ways of the flesh. They are our what defines us when we are led by the Spirit. No longer are we living for ourselves, but we are living for Christ and in changes us in the depths of our soul and produces something beautiful in each of us and our communities. When we follow the ways of the Spirit, we become defined by the fruits of the Kingdom. We become people who are loving to others. We have more joy in our lives. We live at peace with one another. We are more kind to each other. There is a sense of goodness about us. We are faithful in all things. We are gentle and we are able to live with an element of self-control.

These are not just individual fruits. Indeed, kingdom fruits can are also characteristic of a community that purposely choses to walk together and follow the ways of the Lord. When a community of faith, the local church, makes the choice to follow the path of the Spirit, it is defined by these Kingdom fruits. Our churches should be known as loving, joyful, peaceful, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and a group who can control our desires so that we are living for the Kingdom. When communities produce Kingdom fruits, it is a beautiful thing and a hopeful thing in a world that desperately needs to hear the people of the Lord believe and live out the hope of the Lord. Kingdom people and Kingdom churches should desire to produce fruits of the Spirit.

Our freedom from God allows the grace to chose the path we will take for our lives. This is what it means to have free will. Today, imagine that you are standing at a crossroad of freedom. You have been given two paths. As a community, we have been shown two paths to live. One path is a path of self-indulgence that leads to spiritual and physical destruction. The other is a path of faith and obedience to the Lord, which leads to holiness and the Kingdom of God.

What path are you taking? What path are we taking? Will you, will we, be known as people who are on the pathway of the flesh, or will you, and we, be known as people who desire to live for the Spirit and produce fruits of the Spirit?

Sunday’s Sermon: Kingdom Citizenship

Yesterday, 43 of NASCAR’s best drivers raced the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta. To be honest, I didn’t make it to the end of the race before going to bed.

I grew up loving the sport, and still do. Most Sundays after church, I would watch the races with my grandfather. We both pulled for Dale Earnhardt, which did not sit well with the rest of my family who supported Ford drivers. My passion for the sport was such that after graduating from Journalism school my goal was to be a NASCAR writer for a major publication. I never achieved that goal, except for covering one race and interviewing several NASCAR drivers at different appearances. I’m not disappointed in this.

One thing has always interested me about the sport. It’s not how fast the cars go, though it is impressive, or how a driver’s quick reflexes can avoid a major accident, which shows their athleticism. There is something else. It is that you do not have to struggle to find out a driver’s loyalties. They are very clear. A driver’s loyalties are painted all over the cars they drive and the fire suits they wear. Every interview is filled with references to a driver’s loyalties, which are appropriately referred to as “sponsors.” In mentioning their sponsors, a driver and the sponsoring company seek to create an emotional response in the fan. They want the fan to be loyal to that specific product. For instance, if Tony Stewart is loyal to a certain restaurant it is desired that a fan might want to take their family there too.

This is an extreme example of loyalties, but we are familiar with the idea. We all have loyalties or things we are passionate about. Just like a NASCAR driver has sponsor loyalties, our passions advertise something about us and who we are. Loyalties are things we are passionate about or are devoted to. They can define who we are and how others view us. Unlike a NASCAR driver, someone may not be able to tell where our loyalties lie. We do not wear them publicly for all to see. Or do we?

Our loyalties are more obvious than what we may realize. Let me take a moment to show you some of my loyalties. As I do, I invite you to think about the loyalties in your life. For starters, I am loyal to Apple. I own several Apple products, such as an iPhone and MacBook. I am loyal to West Virginia University, because it is my alma mater. I am loyal to Kentucky, because it is where I plan to serve God. I am loyal to Diet Coke, because I believe it tastes better than Diet Pepsi. I am loyal to money, because without it I cannot put food on the table or gas in my Nissan or Hyundai. I am loyal to the Bible, because it is the written Word of God. I am loyal to the Book of Discipline, because it contains the structure for the United Methodist Church. I am loyal to the Kentucky Annual Conference and Frankfort District, because it is our conference and district and I am a firm believer in connectionalism. I am loyal to my theological heritage as a Wesleyan, and the heritage of the entire church. I am loyal to my calling as a servant, pastor, prophet, leader, and teacher in the church. I am loyal to family. I am loyal to my wife. I am loyal to my friends. I am loyal to God.

That is a lot of loyalties. You probably have a lot of loyalties, as well. On their own, our loyalties are not bad. They are a part of who we are. However, our loyalties come with a cost. They can dominate and define us to the point where it blinds our vision, blinds our discipleship, and makes us into what Paul describes as an “enemy of the cross of Christ.”

Today, we begin our second section in our focus on the Kingdom of God. In June, we defined the Kingdom of God. Admittedly, we only scratched the surface. We will continue to define the Kingdom of God as we move forward. This month, we will look at what it means to live as Kingdom People who are representatives of the Kingdom of God to those around us. We will start by thinking about what it means to be Kingdom citizens. To do so, we need to look at Paul’s comments in Philippians 3:17-4:1.

In Philippians, Paul is writing a “thank you” note to the church in Philippi. The church had donated to his missionary efforts. Paul is also addressing some specific issues that exist in this proud city, especially since he knows he will not be with them. Philippi was a Roman city that has roots dates back to Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, who founded the city in 356 BC. Marc Anthony established it as a Roman colony in 42 BC, and it likely became a place where Roman military veterans lived. This gave Roman citizenship status to the Philippians. Residents received special benefits from Rome and was treated as a “Little Rome.”

The Philippians were proud of their citizenship status. This comes across in the letter. It likely led to a relaxed lifestyle, which led Paul to consider them as “enemies of the cross of Christ.” The way they lived was counter to the message of the Gospel, which was the message Paul gave them. For the Philippians, there focus was on the world and not on God. They lived as if they were god. It was about their desires. It was about their wants. It was about their ideas.

The church in Philippi was more devoted to the world than to God. Paul said this would lead to their destruction. Worldly things do not carry hope or salvation. They only destroy us and make us want more of it. When taken to extremes, the things of the world kill our faith and make us focused on anything but God. The Philippians were not imitating Paul by following the Gospel. Instead, they were imitating Rome by living as a Roman would.

Does this sound familiar to us? The way we live our life is a reflection of how we view God. The life we lead shows whether we are living as “enemies of the cross of Christ” or as Kingdom citizens. This is true for all of us. Even though we are here today, even though we read our Bible, or say our prayers, or do any other “means of grace,” it is all for not if the life we lead is more defined by the world than by a deep relationship with Christ. How we lead our life indicates what we believe is important. If the life we lead has no connection to the faith we proclaim, then we are making a conscious and public decision to live as an “enemy of the cross of Christ.”

At the beginning of the sermon, we talked about our loyalties. We have a problem if our loyalties become more important to us than our faith in Christ. We are no longer defined by the realities of the Kingdom, but the realities of the things of this world. If your devotion to your career becomes more important than your faith, you are living as enemy of Christ. If your loyalty to your family is more important than your faith, then you are living as an enemy of Christ. If your devotion to country or a political party is more important than your faith in Christ, then you are living as an enemy of Christ.

We could continue all day. When we live as enemy of Christ, we are saying the message of Christ has no affect our lives. We make a public statement of saying Christ words are not true to me, because I chose to not live by God’s desires If we are saying this by the life we lead, how do we expect to inspire others to know and live for Christ?

My friends there is hope. There is a better and deeper way to live. It is to live in the reality of the Kingdom of God as a Kingdom Citizen. Paul alerts us to this higher calling in 3:20, when he calls all of us to live as citizens of heaven. Paul is telling us there is a higher lifestyle than what the world teaches us. Something that is much greater than their Roman citizenship or, for us, our citizenship in a consumeristic and idolatry-driven culture. That is to be Kingdom citizens.

What does it mean for us to be a Kingdom citizen? We do so by living in a deep relationship with Jesus Christ. Our heart’s content must be to seek a deep relationship with Christ that defines  every core of our being. Christ must be the object of our devotion and our love. All other loves and devotions must be defined by our love of Christ and our secondary to this love. Some of our loyalties may become less important and some may become more important, but they all become secondary to our devotion to Christ.

As well, we must be willing to live as strangers in the world. That seems like an odd description, but it is a message we see throughout Scripture. We are called to live as if we are not native to this world, but as if we from some other place, which we are. We are Kingdom citizens. Kingdom citizens live in the world, but are not defined by the world. We are defined by our relationship with Christ.

When someone sees us, they should be able to tell that there is something different about how we live and act towards others. Followers of Christ are called to live in a distinct way that is often counter to the ways of our culture and world. Our faith calls us to live holy lives that inspires others, by our words and actions, to do the same. When people see us, our hope is that not that they will see an American, a political partisan, or even a fan of a certain team. We hope that they will see Christ working in us and through us.

In a moment, we will partake in Holy Communion. As we do, I invite to you to inspect your life. How are you living as a follower of Christ? Are you living as enemy of the gospel that you desire to live by? Is there something that you are too loyal to, or defined by, that it prevents you from following Christ? If there is, lay it at the altar, symbolically, as an act of repentance and a desire to truly live in a deep relationship with Christ.

Friends, no one in our community will know the deep and meaningful love of Christ if we are living as enemies of the cross. No one will know how deep, how powerful, how forgiving, and how live giving Christ’s love is if we are more committed to being defined by this world than by Christ’s grace. As well, we will never experience the true depths and graces of Jesus Christ if we are too committed to the ways of the world.

Let us take on Kingdom Citizenship and be defined by the gospel, to be defined by grace, and to be defined by holiness. Let us make those are definitions and our loyalties.  Let us truly live as Kingdom Citizens today and tomorrow.