In the Gospels when someone asks Jesus to have mercy on them they are asking Him to share of himself, that they might be made whole.  As one body of Christ, and as a part of the larger body of Christ, that is our calling, God’s vision for our church.

A little over a month ago Jenn Lebow began Mercy Mondays on her blog.  I have been meaning to join in ever since but this week’s prompt really got me thinking.  She asked about groups or organization who are spreading mercy.  This, of course, made me think of Bethany, and whether or not we are spreading mercy.  I thought about God’s vision for our church and realized that sharing mercy, in the Gospel sense, was really what it was all about.  But are we following God’s vision for us?

The answer is a “Yes and…”  Yes, we have people sharing the gifts and experiences God has given them.  “And” we are going to continue to get better at doing so.

“Yes” we had a member talking about his past struggles, sharing how the mercy of this congregation has helped him have another chance.  “And” others will learn to share how they have experienced mercy because of him and his sharing.

“Yes” we had a member share the ministry he experienced with prisoners, how through these imprisoned men God spoke to him and showed him what freedom looked like.  “And” because of his sharing others have started seeking their own freedom.

“Yes” our doors have opened for the homeless, both literally and spiritually.  “And” they have had the chance to find themselves, and helped me find myself.

That’s the great thing about being an organization of mercy, the mercy cycles back around, and continues to spread out.  It grows, so fast that we think it will have to stop soon.  In fact, it can be scary thinking that it will.  But it doesn’t.  It just spreads, going wider and deeper all at the same time.

I’m realizing that “Yes” we are an organization the acts out mercy and holds mercy as a core value.  “And” we will continue to grow in that mercy, allowing it to deepen us as it widens to draw others in.

No, this is not about how to turn your child into a Scrooge.  It is also not about how selfishness has creeped into our society and turned us into Scrooges.  This is about a different kind of Ebenezer-the Hebrew kind.

The Hebrew word Ebenezer means a “stone of help.”  There are places where the root of the word, Eben meaning stone, is used as a way to remember an experience with God.  In the book of First Samuel, Samuel takes a stone and places it at a certain place to mark “this is how far God has brought us.”  In Genesis Jacob erects a stone at Bethel to remember that God was in that place and he did not know it, after seeing the angels ascending and descending a ladder in his dreams.  These stones of help are landmarks on their journeys of faith.

Unfortunately raising Ebenezers is no longer a spiritual practice.  I say unfortunately because this could easily be one of our most practical, life-giving and discipling practices.  Even the unintentional shadows of landmarks that make their ways into our lives are often helpful.  When we look at pictures or artifacts from a particular point in our lives we find that they have the power to point us back in the right direction.  But because they lack intent their power is not often realized, and we find ourselves simply reminiscing about a better time rather than finding our way again.

Before I get to what I think this spiritual practice should look like I want to briefly explore the primary reason it is both necessary and difficult in the modern world.  We are not good at taking time nor are we good at reflecting.  We are an activity- and productivity-based society, and even when we do slow down it is to be entertained.  This makes us very pragmatic and allows us to produce more than all of human history, but we don’t often consider the collateral damage, and we are willing to ignore what might otherwise be considered questionable means.  This cycle keeps us from reflection while simultaneously convincing us that reflection is unnecessary/impossible.

So here’s the spiritual practice: Be aware of times when God was in this place but you did not know it, times when you face a difficult choice and you tried to follow God, and times when you recognize that you could only have gotten there by God’s help.  When you know one of these things has happened go find a stone and mark it in such a way that it will remind you of that moment, that decision and of God’s faithfulness.  Raise an Ebenezer, make a landmark that can point you right when you get lost.  Keep raising Ebenezers, marking them for each distinct experience.

Imagine what your life might look like if you did this.  Imagine if every time God showed up in an unexpected place or way you had a reminder that God is not bound by our limitations.  Imagine if every time you had to make a difficult or confusing decision you had landmarks to help guide you.  Imagine if every time you were tempted to take the easy route or give up you had a reminder of what God has done in your life before.  Imagine if every time you thought you were beyond redemption you had a reminder of God’s grace.

Try it out, raise an Ebenezer and see what it can do for you in your journey of faith.

When you pass by that woman sitting in the median with a sign reading, “No job, three kids, nothing to eat, please help” what do you think?

If you’re like me you wonder whether or not she actually needs help, has three kids, could find a job if she wanted to. You wonder if she is really a drug addict, or, if she is in need of food why she appears to be overweight. If you are a little more generous than me you might wonder how she ended up in the situation, or if a few dollars is really going to make any kind of difference. For most of us the natural inclination is to at least critically assess the situation before deciding whether or not we should help. But why?

Why is our natural inclination when we see someone holding up a sign asking for help to critically determine whether or not they really need help, or if they are worth our help? We don’t want to be used or taken advantage of. There may be some other reasons, but we really don’t want to be taken. We are taught to be wary of those who would try to use us, take advantage of us or con us out of what is rightfully ours. And so we ask these questions in order to avoid being taken advantage of, as a kind of defense mechanism. And, usually, if we ask the questions long enough the light will turn green before we get the chance to help.

There are plenty of legitimate and valid reasons for these questions as well, but this particular reason is a lie. It’s a lie that we tell ourselves both to protect ourselves/what’s ours and assuage our own guilt. The idea that being used is a bad thing is antithetical to a life well lived, especially from the standpoint of faith. We all want to be useful, we all want to have something to offer to someone. The reality is not that we don’t want to be used, it’s that we want to dictate the terms by which we are used.

The problem with this is that we may not always know how we can best be useful, where we might be most useful or to whom we might be most useful. We are likely to miss out on wonderful chances to do some real good in the world because we want to be in control of our usefulness. Thus, many moments and opportunities are squandered, not because there was just nothing to be done, but because we were more interested in our own control and desires than in doing good.

This is where the art of being used comes in. Rather than seeking to be useful, which tends towards our desires and controls, we should seek opportunities to be used. We should look for chances where we can say, here I am, what can I do. When we do this God can speak, God can help us see, know and do things that we otherwise might have missed. This is the art of being used – recognizing the beauty of taking a chance to bring forth goodness rather than only doing something that has been rationally decided upon.

Back to that woman in the median. Maybe I am asking the wrong questions. Maybe we all are. Rather than trying to deduce something we could never actually know and then acting based on that deduction maybe we should be asking: What can I do? How can I be used? Whether it is our money, our time or even just just a kind smile and a wave, we just never know how we can best be used until we are there and we ask.

Maybe we should remember another story about someone beside the road needing help. Others passed by, trying to deduce the cost and reward of being useful and just kept walking. But the Good Samaritan asked a different question: How can I be used?

I love an unexpected noise or moment in worship.  Whether it’s a baby crying, a pencil being dropped or an unplanned silence, I think that these are as important to our worship as all of the planned stuff.

I know that there are many people who don’t feel this way, and I understand why some people don’t appreciate what could be considered a distraction or even a disruption.  This is a valid point of view.  It’s not the only point of view, though, and I think that when this point of view wins out we lose as much in our worship as we may gain.  In fact, how we feel about random noises and mistakes in worship probably says a lot about how we feel about worship in general.  This is not bad or good, just something we should be aware of.

If we think unexpected noises and moments in worship are a distraction or a disruption then our focus in worship is likely more on order, organization and a well executed production.  There are right ways to worship in this mindset.  There are many elements of our worship that fit into these categories, and they can be very edifying.  The recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, responsive call to worship, most of how we do communion and the offering, congregational singing and how we are seated all point to order, organization and production.  These are good, but can be restrictive.

On the other hand, if we enjoy unexpected noises and moments in worship our focus in worship is likely more on energy, expression and participation.  There are different ways to worship in this mindset.  There are some elements of our worship that fit into this style, and they also can be very edifying.  The sharing of joys and concerns, the children’s moment, some congregational singing and sometimes the sermon point towards expression and participation.  These are good, but can create chaos.

So what are we left with?  One way of worshiping is particularly restricting while another is particularly chaotic.  Is the correct answer to try to balance both, what we are doing in our current worship service?  Do we have the balance right or do we need to change it some?  I feel like there is a third way somewhere.  Not a  compromise between the two but a way that embraces the best qualities of order and expression, of organization and energy, of production and participation.

I am not certain how we do it, but I am certain it will take a lot of effort, involve a lot of mistakes, and not everyone will like it all the time.  I am also fairly certain that there will be markings if we are doing it right.  First, we will find freedom, which is what Jesus said He was sent to bring.  We will find connection with and places within the Body of Christ.  We will find new ways for people to use their unique gifts to worship.  We will find the deep beauty of ancient elements of worship like the Doxology, Gloria Patri and Lord’s Prayer.  Worship will become something all who are there are a part of, even the babies making noise.

I’m crazy.  Maybe not certifiably insane, but crazy.  I first realized this when I was 16 years old and have not yet seen much evidence that would convince me otherwise.  I’m okay with this, because I’m pretty sure Jesus was too.

Have you ever paid much attention to what Jesus said and did according to the Gospel writers.  I mean, really paid attention to it.  There was this guy who was blind and he asked Jesus to help him, so Jesus bent down, picked up some dirt, spit in it and rubbed it on the guys eyes.  It kinda worked so Jesus did it again.  And the guy could see.  Another guy told Jesus that he had followed all of the commandments but wanted to be sure that he would enter the Kingdom of God.  This guy was rich, and Jesus told him to sell all he had, give the money to the poor and then follow Him.  Another guy, this one with leprosy, asked Jesus to heal him, which Jesus did, and then He told him not to tell anybody what had happened.

Jesus did so much crazy stuff that His family started to worry about Him and tried to bring Him home in order to protect Him from Himself.  I think we, as in most Christians, tend to be like Jesus’ family, trying to mute His craziness, giving “context” to some of His more out there teachings.  We do it by making the stories of His more ridiculous actions more about how miraculous they are, not about how weird they are.  He  wasn’t telling everyone to sell all they had and give it to the poor, just the rich young ruler because Jesus knew he had a greed problem (thank goodness he was the only one with a greed problem).  He didn’t want word to get around about the healing because everybody would have tried to stop Him from His real purpose, being crucified.  Who cares how he did it, the blind man could see!

I think one of the biggest disconnects for someone unfamiliar with Jesus is in reading the Gospels and then seeing Christians who seem completely normal and assimilated to society.  It doesn’t matter how many Not Of This World stickers or shirts we buy and display, we are of this world.  The idea of branding ourselves as Not Of This World is, in fact, Of This World.  Actually living out Jesus’ teachings like loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us, that’s crazy.  And, really, it’s just easier to put on a t-shirt that says something than it is to live it out.

But, in the thinking of our society, Jesus was crazy.  If you think that I just picked and chose a couple of random stories to prove my point, think about the most important choice Jesus made.  He voluntarily went to the cross to provide forgiveness to the very people who were killing Him.

And I’m beginning to think that my problem isn’t that I’m crazy, it’s that I’m not crazy enough.  My main shortcoming as a disciple of Christ isn’t that I occasionally sin, that I’m not always nice, that I’m not productive enough or that I don’t lead enough people to God.  Sure, all of those things are shortcomings, but they are byproducts of the main shortcoming.  Jesus told us that in order to follow Him we should take up our cross.  My main shortcoming is that I’d have to be crazy to follow Jesus, and I’m just not that crazy most of the time.

I am rich beyond measure.  I have so much that I will never run out of and I can give away freely without concern for the future.  Ministers aren’t supposed to be rich, but I am – just not in the traditional sense.

Sunday, June 3rd, was one of the most difficult days  in the life of Bethany and as difficult a worship service as I have ever led.  We lost a wonderful man who added a great deal of life, energy and love to our congregation far too early.  We mourned our loss, prayed for his wife and their daughter and all those who were also mourning.  We remembered him and sought to learn from the example that his life left for us.  At the beginning of the service and again at the end of the service we paid each other in the currency that matters most to churches, the currency I realized makes me rich, the currency Tom used with people and with animals (he was a veterinarian), hugs.

You may wonder how hugs are a currency but I am starting to wonder how we have never seen them as such.  The American currency is the dollar, a representation of monetary value or worth.  There is nothing that makes a dollar worth anything other than the fact that we all recognize it as what it is meant to represent.  Well, if a dollar is a representation of monetary worth then why can’t hugs be a representation of human value and worth.  Not just hugs, but any kind of physical act meant to convey love, grace, comfort, and hope.  Shouldn’t this be the currency of the church?

It’s kind of funny and kind of sad that we have thousands of books on money espousing so many different theories all based on a system that is purely a human construct.  But we don’t have much in the way of books on hugs, or even the importance of physical gestures of caring.  At the end of the day, though, we mourn those who offered those kinds of gestures, we most miss those who were most adept at showing love, at using this different kind of currency.  Sure, the rich and famous get the big headlines, but the impact is not as deep, except with those they knew and loved and those who knew and loved them.

Jesus was asked a question about paying taxes and responded by saying that that which is Caesar’s should be rendered unto Caesar.  It seems to me that He was saying that coins were valuable to Caesar and the Roman empire but they were nothing more than a construct, they were false and unimportant.  If Caesar wants the coins, then give them to him, because there are things that are more important.  Then they asked, if this doesn’t matter what does?  Jesus said, Love.  Love the Lord your God with everything, and love your neighbor as yourself.

We will miss Tom because of his love for us, for children, youth, adults and for all of God’s creatures.  He traded heavily in this currency.  It is also a currency that is always left behind, in limitless amounts for all who need it.  All we have to do is think about the sound of his walking stick, his big grinning face and those long arms opened wide for a hug.  He was rich, as we all are, when we trade in that currency.

I am a preacher, which is probably the least important thing I could do at a church or as a Christian.  I didn’t always think this way, in fact my personal email address begins with imapreacher because I used to think it was the most important thing I could do.  But, I’ve come to realize that preaching alone is indeed the least important thing I do.

This past Sunday we had a young man baptized, recognized two high school graduates, celebrated the announcement of our new secretary, cheered a marriage celebrating it’s 68th anniversary and had three new members join.  That’s a pretty fantastic Sunday for our little church.  Guess how much of it happened because of my sermon on Sunday.  Guess how much of it had little to nothing to do with any sermon I have preached since arriving at Bethany nearly three years ago.

Paul wrote that within the Body of Christ the least important members are given the places of honor, while the most important members are often the least honored.  We make a big deal about the sermon, the quality of a preacher and the importance of the sermon to the worship service, but I think Paul is dead on with his assessment.  That place which has become most honored, the preacher, within the Body is actually of less importance while those that aren’t as honored are of far more importance.

I’m not trying to beat myself up or degrade what I do, as a pastor I know that much of what I do is important.  As a preacher, though, the words don’t mean as much as I had once assumed they would.  The reason for this is that words are easy.  It doesn’t cost us much to speak words.  There are some times when that is not true, sometimes words require us to take a chance and to be willing to face consequences.  Most of the time, though, words by themselves are hollow and relatively ineffectual.

The way that we live, on the other hand, has consequences, influences and results that words alone can never have.  How we use our lives, our time and our talents all requires far more of us than words, and therefore they have a much greater effect on those around us.  Actions and lives have real, tangible effects, as well as real, tangible costs.  They go deeper in the life of the person doing the living and the acting, and they go deeper in the lives of those they touch.

The three men who joined the church on Sunday, as well as the one who was baptized, were all deeply influenced by a man who lived out his faith.  Tom Fore was a great friend and a great example of service and love to all three and it is because of that influence, more than anything else, that the three of them joined this Sunday, the day after Tom’s funeral.  Tom spoke many words in his life, in fact he preached a couple of times here at Bethany.  But more than anything else he lived a life that showed deep faith, huge amounts of love and abiding joy.  And that speaks volumes.

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