Love is a Mix Tape: Believe

This message was shared at Centerville United Methodist Church in Centerville, IN on Sunday, June 28, 2015.

This has been a whirlwind week in our nation! We saw the decisions from the Supreme Court affirming the Affordable Care Act- signifying that all people should have access to health care…which, by the way, is something strongly advocated for by the United Methodist Church. Then, the Supreme Court made a vote on marriage equality. Bishop Coyner wrote an article this week in response to this ruling saying that United Methodist should be advocates of fairness for all.

While I know some of you are upset by the ruling, I’ll remind you that the Supreme Court ruling does not mandate or require churches or pastors to perform any weddings.

Then, on Friday, President Obama delivered a powerful eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney focused on grace at all times.

We may not agree with the Supreme Court rulings. We may not “like” President Obama. However, as Christians, we are called to set aside our political agendas and respond with love and grace. John Wesley, founding father of the Methodist movement, encouraged us to do no harm. Let me ask, are we doing no harm as individuals and the Church in regard to our LGBT sisters and brothers? Are we extending love and grace in our words, actions and Facebook posts? We all need to remember, we can see what others post and like on Facebook. I’m afraid that a lot of what I’ve seen from my Christian brothers and sisters this week has been laced with judgment and hate, rather than love and grace.

In the midst of this environment, I’ve been working on a sermon for our “Love is a Mix Tape” series focusing on doubt, questions, love and grace. Here in our midst, we have people on different sides of the affordable care debate, we have people on different sides of the marriage debate, we have people on different sides of the political debates and some are probably upset that I’ve mentioned President Obama; we have people on different sides of the Jesus debate. For some of us, we question the faith of those who have a different point of view on these issues (how can she be a Christian and believe that?). It seems appropriate that, this Wednesday at 10am in our “Making Sense of the Bible” study, we’ll be talking about issues of human sexuality.

So, in the midst of this environment, we have with us this morning some gathered who are firmly grounded in their faith. This morning, there are some who are searching and seeking, doubting and questioning, struggling or have thrown in the towel on faith. Some of us don’t really know if we believe.

If we are human, there are times we will experience doubts, there are times we will have questions. In some Christian circles, doubts and questions are discouraged and seen as a threat. Me, I think doubts and questions can be great tools…in fact, they could be vessels of grace and mercy. This is called faith, not absolute certainty.

When I was serving as a youth pastor, I used to love entertaining questions from students: Could God make a burrito so BIG even He couldn’t finish it? Could God make a rock so HEAVY that even He couldn’t lift it? They weren’t serious questions. Yet, they ushered in conversations about the nature of God.

The band Mumford and Sons, have a song on their latest album called “Believe”. The lyrics say, ‘I don’t even know if I believe anything you’re trying to say to me. So open up my eyes, tell me I’m alive.” This morning, wherever we are on our journey of faith, whether we are firmly grounded and “standing on the promises” or whether we are doubting the state of our salvation or question our faith, maybe our prayer should be that God would open up our eyes and remind us that we are alive!

Doubts and questions are not the enemy of faith. Doubts and questions can actually lead to a deeper faith. Again, maybe in the midst of our questions and doubts, we should pray, asking God to open our eyes.

Christian author Philip Yancey wrote that, “Inquisitiveness and questioning are inevitable parts of the life of faith.  Where there is certainty there is no room for faith.  I encourage people not to doubt alone, rather to find some people who are safe “doubt companions,” and also to doubt their doubts as much as their faith.  But it doesn’t help simply to deny doubts or to feel guilty about them.  Many people, after all, have been down that path before and have emerged with a strong faith.”

When it comes to our faith, we tend to doubt in three general ways: We doubt ourselves, we doubt others, and we doubt God.

We doubt ourselves and our salvation- We look in the mirror and see ourselves as we are and so we wonder “am I really saved? Am I really a Christian? How can it be? I am a horrible wretched sinner – yet God extends grace and love. Is my faith real? I thought I was saved, but I’m not perfect? So, was my profession of faith a lie? Was my salvation just self-deception?” We’re not alone in this…John Wesley, in light of his humanity, would question the state of his salvation. He, like we sometimes are prone to, struggled with and worried about the state of his salvation. Yet, in the midst of our doubt, God extends grace and love.

We doubt others and their salvation- We look at other “Christians” and because of their politics, because of their lifestyle, because of their education or socio-economic class we wonder if they are really Christian. Or we question their stories. We question and doubt their experience of God. If they don’t worship like us, if they don’t believe like us, if they don’t vote like us, then they aren’t truly Christian. We doubt entire congregations and denominations because of differences of theology, politics, and opinions. I’m guilty of this- I look at statements from Franklin Graham and John Piper and Pat Robertson and say, “Those nut-jobs don’t speak for me!” That’s not love and grace, is it? We doubt and question others when we, as Christians, say, “I love God, but that person is scum. What that really says is we are the ones in danger of not being Christian because, as Jesus would challenge the religious folks of his day, you can’t love God and hate your neighbor. Yet, in the midst of our doubt, God extends grace and love.

We doubt God- One of the most common questions we have is “why God”? “Why did God allow this to happen? Why is God punishing me? Why did my co-worker get the promotion and I got a flat tire?” Or, in those times of doubt we’ll question whether or not God took his grace away. We’ll question the process of salvation- “so, God just gifts us with love and grace and my response is to accept it? I don’t have to earn it?” Yet, in the midst of our doubt, God extends grace and love.

The good news is that this is not the end of the journey. Doubts, questions, and uncertainty are not the end of the story.  God’s love and grace is always being offered to us…if we need assurance, God will give it to us…We just have to pay attention, to listen for God, to look for God, and when it comes, respond to God.

Our salvation is an ongoing process- it’s not a pray a prayer and we’re done- we are continually offered love and grace and given opportunities to respond to love and grace by loving God and loving neighbor. In response to God’s love and grace, we are to extend love and grace – to become vehicles of God’s love and grace.

And, yet, even when we find that blessed assurance, we sometimes doubt and question. Don’t worry…we are not alone. John the Baptist had moments of doubt and questions, as we heard in the passage from Matthew 11:1-7. This is the dude that baptized Jesus and told others, “Here’s the one you’ve been waiting for”, due to life’s circumstances began to wonder, “So, are you really the one?”

Mark 9:14-24– “Yes, I believe…help me with my unbelief.” He was desperate to believe. He was convinced he believed. And, yet, he was aware of the struggle. This passage is often used to support the “believe and receive”, prosperity Gospel of –” if you just have enough faith, God will bless you”. Listen, sometimes we believe and we don’t receive according to our expectations. The danger in this proclamation of “believe and receive” is that we are prone to doubt or reject our faith when we don’t receive.

When we waiver, when we struggle with certainty, we’re not alone…John the Baptist…the man who said I believe, but still could feel a bit of doubt (help me with my unbelief)…Wesley…We’re not alone in our uncertainty, our doubt, our questions.

We may question, doubt, or refuse it- but God never stops extending love and grace to us. Then, where love and grace is offered, we have to respond…we respond by growing in holiness…by loving God in a way that manifests itself in loving neighbor.

We should concern ourselves with striving towards perfection – even in doubt- because the act of striving towards Christian perfection (“are you going onto perfection”) – is transforming. Striving towards perfection, as a response to God’s constant offering of love and grace, can transform our doubts and questions.

President Obama spoke about God’s continual offering of grace and our need to respond to that grace during his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney – “The Bible calls us to hope. To persevere, and have faith in things not seen”

In speaking about Pinckney he stated, “He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the ‘sweet hour of prayer’ actually lasts the whole week long – that to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation; it’s about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.”

On his reflections on grace, Our President Obama said, “According to our Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God – as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other – but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift. We don’t earn grace. We’re all sinners. We don’t deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway. And we choose how to receive it. It’s our decision how to honor it.”

Doubt and questions are not the enemy of faith. Fear might be an enemy. Rejecting God’s love and grace might be an enemy. Failing to respond to God’s love and grace might be an enemy.

President Obama, much like John Wesley and Jesus and Peter and Paul, urges us to respond to God’s grace. God is continually offering us love and grace. When we encounter doubt and questions, the best way to respond is to accept God’s love and grace and strive towards holiness, to strive towards perfection – that in our pursuit of holiness we will encounter God, that we will receive that blessed assurance, and learn to live lives of faith where we truly love God and love our neighbor.

In the midst of faith, in the midst of doubt, in the midst of rejection, God continually offers His love and grace. We should respond to that love and grace by accepting that love and grace, and then extending that love and grace to all.

Love is a Mix Tape: One Love

mix tape bannerAt Centerville United Methodist Church, we are launching our summer worship series, “Love is a Mix Tape”. The idea for the series came from a book by Rob Sheffield, who is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone magazine.

How many of you are old enough (or young enough) to remember the mix tape? In the 80’s and early 90’s, if a boy wanted to express his feelings for a young lady, he would attempt to craft the perfect mix tape. One of my favorite movies, “High Fidelity”, shows the pain-staking process of piecing together the perfect mix tape. You couldn’t just start off with Lenny Williams “Cause I Love You”. You had to ease into it!

For you young folks, the mix tape is like sharing a playlist. Basically, you decide the message you want to convey and find songs to communicate that message. Now, sometimes the mix tape was used to express ones love. Yet, there were instances in which the mix tape was used to let you know the relationship was over. No one ever wants to receive a mix tape where the first song is War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends” or Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love”.

Throughout our “Love is a Mix Tape” series, we’ll be using Scripture and music to help set the stage for sermons on worship, doubt, unity, forgiveness, and more. We’ll use rock, folk, and country songs. This morning, we’ll be exploring the topic of worship. And, to launch our message on worship, we’ll hear Bob Marley’s “One Love”.

But, before the video, I have some quick business to take care of. Today is Father’s Day! So, that means that father’s get to do whatever they want to do, right? Therefore, in the spirit of Father’s Day, give me just one second…In fact, why don’t you watch this video while I get some things together. (While the video is playing, I will exit the sanctuary, change into shorts, sandals, grab a lawn chair and can of Ale8-1 in order to get more comfortable because, after all, it is Father’s Day)

Now, that’s better and feels more appropriate for Father’s Day! While Bob Marley was a Rastafarian, this song really gets to the essence of worship.

“One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel all right”

“Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right”

Part of worship is getting together to give thanks and praise to the Lord. Often times, a bi-product of our worship together is that we will “feel all right”. When we give thanks and praise to God, we experience peace, comfort, joy, rest, and assurance.

In the Church, we often talk about “passionate worship”. One understanding of passionate worship is that everything we say, think and do has the potential to be an act of worship. That also indicates that every  we say, think and do has the potential to not be an act of worship. So, that means we have two choices when it comes to everything we say, think, and do: sin or worship.

Worship is about ascribing worth to something. In the case of Christian worship, we ascribe worth to God. When we work, eat, drink, sleep, and play in a way that bring God glory and honor, we worship. When we work, eat, drink, sleep and play in a way that dishonors God, we sin. It really can be that black and white. We either sin or we worship. In many ways, whether we sin or worship comes down to our heart and our attitude.

Worship is so much more than our hour long gathering on Sunday mornings. Our worship isn’t just the corporate gathering, but also our private and personal worship in our daily lives. But, just for a minute, let’s talk about the hour long gathering on Sunday mornings.

Some believe that in order for our worship to be pleasing to the Lord, it has to be perfectly reverent and serious. Laughter is often frowned upon. We believe the pastor needs to wear a robe and stole or at least a suit and tie. The congregation needs to be well dressed and the children need to be well behaved. Listen, I believe part of the reason I’m still in the church is due to the fact that when I was a kid, I was allowed to be a kid. I was the one crawling under the pews, playing with his Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant action figures during the sermon, and skateboarding in the parking lot (or fellowship hall if it was raining or snowy. So, if these reverent and serious expectations aren’t met, it certainly isn’t worship. Therefore, folks with this expectation are often disappointed when “this guy” is around.

Some believe that we have to sing certain songs or it really isn’t worship. If we don’t sing a particular song, our worship just doesn’t hit the mark. (examples from churches and camp) Or if our songs don’t fit a particular style of music it certainly can’t be worship.

Some believe that the prayers in worship should be eloquent, wordy, and lengthy in order for our worship to be pleasing to God.

Some believe that worship has to be in the sanctuary, on a particular day, and a particular time in order for it to be true worship.

We could go on and on about what folks believe has to take place in order for our worship to truly be worship. Some of our differences of opinion on worship help explain the existence of the plethora of denominations around the world. Yet, all of these things are really just personal preferences.

Worship is more about our hearts and minds connecting with God than whether or not we sing a certain song, in a certain style, in a certain location, at a certain time, with a certain dress code. I’m pretty sure God doesn’t really care about our personal preferences. God might actually want us to try some new and different things in order to stretch us, grow us, and challenge us. If we’re simply doing the same routine we’ve been doing for years, we probably are just stuck!

For a number of years, we’ve experienced “worship wars” in the Christian church…people arguing about the style of music. And, get this, people have divided churches and driven out leaders because of musical preferences. Some believe one style to be superior to another. One side will say, if there isn’t an organ it isn’t worship. The other side will say, if there isn’t a band, it isn’t worship. One side will say the words of certain songs are empty and childish. The other side will say that the words of hymns are complicated and no one really understands them anyway (what’s an Ebenezer anyway and why would we raise it?) It’s really ridiculous the lengths we’ll go to in order to hold onto our personal preferences. (Elkhart Trinity- drums/organ/new drums story). God doesn’t care if we’re singing Charles Wesley, Chris Tomlin, Johnny Cash or Bob Marley, as long as our hearts and minds are connecting with Him!

We can experience powerful moments of worship in extremely formal, traditional settings.

We can experience powerful moments of worship in extremely informal, contemporary settings.

We can experience powerful moments of worship in the car, in the office, on the beach, in the middle of the mountains, wherever we find ourselves. And, we shouldn’t discredit the ways others worship, but be thankful they have found a way to connect with God.

But, back to that one hour on Sunday that we refer to as corporate worship. Sometimes we reduce our concept of worship to the singing portion of our gathering. When we join together we should sing with joy and passion as we truly think about the meaning of the words we sing. If we took a picture of congregations across the US during the singing portion of a church gathering, people would probably make the generalization that Christians are joy-less and grumpy! bored 1

I’ll be honest…one of the most difficult roles of a pastor is to sit in front of the congregation as we sing together and keep a straight face. It’s hilarious to sit and front and watch congregations sing. We’ll sing songs like “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God” with a frown on our faces, then we’ll sing a song about the brutal death of Jesus with a big smile!

John Wesley, founding father of the Methodist movement, gave some rules for singing: (in hymnal)

  • Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.
  • Sing lustily, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it being heard, then when you sing the songs of Satan.
  • Sing modestly. Do not bawl, as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
  • Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
  • Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

Worship is about honoring and praising God in all we say, think, and do. It’s not the songs we sing. It’s not that one hour on Sunday morning. It’s everything we say, think, and do.

Col. 3:15-17 

Can we find joy in all we do? Can we find ways to honor and praise God in all we say, think and do? As Christians, we should be known for our joy, our hope (even in times of trouble), and our love. That’s worship! Worship is all about our One Love, Jesus Christ, so, let’s get together and feel alright!