Saturday, October 13, 2018

Sermon Sketches: Joshua 24:1-18 ~ Promised Land Living: Remembering

When our oldest child, Jesse, was just a toddler, we began a tradition at birthdays: we would tell “the story.” We would tell the story of the day/night our child was born. Jesse’s begins, “Your Nana was visiting to help Mom with the new baby. That Monday evening, Mom was upstairs, tired from cleaning the kitchen all day....” Meg’s begins, “Dad was at work at the college, and Mom was getting her morning shower when all of the sudden....” And, Andrew’s begins, “We decided to go out for supper because Mom had determined that all the shelves in the kitchen needed to be re-papered...that day! The kitchen was still a mess when we left for Cracker Barrell...” Now, even though our children are all adults, after we’ve had the cake, they will urge us, “Tell the story, tell the story....” And we do.

Joshua and the people of Israel are about to take up permanent residence in the Promised Land. They have come through the wilderness. They have battled hunger, thirst, depression, and armies. God has brought them to where they are, and Joshua reminds them of this. You see, they are about to make it to their goal. They are about to settle in. And, if they don’t remember where they’ve come from, they won’t remember who they are. If they don’t remember how they got to this place, they may not remember who to worship in the future. So, Joshua tells them the story...again. Listen to the story:

Joshua 24:2-13

They are where they are because God has been with them. They are free from the slavery of Egypt because of what God has done for them. They are in this new land—new to them—and they are taking up residence without having to build, reaping harvest without having to plant...all because of the work of God. Then must remember the story if they are going to live well in this land.

How often do we remember our story—our story as a congregation? Where did we come from? How did we get to where we are today? What and who made possible this congregation, this sanctuary, the ministries of this church? Listen to a story:

1749 – The city of Camargo is established on the southern side of the Rio Grande by Jose de Escandon.
1751 – A flood ravages the town of Camargo, and many residents move to the north side of the River. This new settlement is first called Rancho Carnestolendas, then Rancho Davis...and eventually Rio Grande City.
1848 – The north side of the River becomes territory of the United States after the Mexican-American War.
1859 – Henry Clay Davis, founder of the newly established Rio Grande City, requests a minister from the West Texas Conference, and Rev. Oliver Adams is appointed to the “Brownsville-Rio Grande Circuit.” Methodists meet in homes for prayer, singing and Bible-study.
1875 – The first Methodist pastor is appointed to Rio Grande City—Rev. Clemente Vivero. Methodists continue to meet in homes for services.
1878 – Land is purchased for a sanctuary--$75!
1882 – A sanctuary is built; an identical sanctuary is built for the Mexican Methodists in Camargo.
               Doors – Left for the men to enter and right for the women to enter!
               Bell – forged in 1856; purchased for the congregation by Mr. J.P. Kelsey
1917 – First parsonage built next to church.
1943 – Two-story annex constructed (during WWII) – educational space.
1947 – First bilingual Methodist service initiated – English-speakers still meeting in homes are invited to join Spanish-speakers.
1950 – Brick parsonage built next to church.
1972 – Dr. M.J. Rodriguez dies and his family (members of the church) sell the Rdz. Mem. Hospital to the church for $8000 – Education Building.
1974 – Third parsonage built (the “old parsonage.”)
1979 – Congregations splits—primarily Anglo members leave to form new congregation in the Southwest Texas Conference. St. John UMC is born.
2007 – Church purchases Palm Circle home—fourth parsonage.
2009 – Congregation celebrates sesquicentennial – 150 years.
2015 – English-language conference (Southwest Texas Conference) and Spanish-language conference (Rio Grande Missionary Conference) unite to form the Rio Texas Conference.
2016 – Administrative Council closes the Methodist Day Care and converts Education Building into the Methodist Community Center
·       Wesley Nurse Program – serving the underserved
·       Community Counselor – counseling services for individuals, couples, families
·       Nuestra Clinica del Valle – health-related services for community
·       Driskell Health Care – program for first-time mothers 
2019 - ....?

Two things strike me as I look over this history, a history compiled by our beloved Mrs. Olga Saenz. First, our ancestors in the faith did whatever was necessary. They built the Annex during WWII because there was a need for educational space. This was during a time of rationing, a time of scarcity. But, the need was there, so they built it. In 1974, they built the ‘old parsonage’...and do you know how they paid for it? They held a big dinner every November—someone donated a small cow to be slaughtered and cooked; members brought all the veggies from their gardens—and by selling these food-plates, they paid for it.

The second thing I see (or don’t see) are all the years that aren’t mentioned, all those years when nothing ‘notable’ happened. Very important things were happening in those years. On our timeline, we have 14 or 15 years mentioned...of the 159 years of our history! What happened in those other 144 years? I’ll tell you: the people called Methodist gathered, and they prayed, and they worshiped, and they gave, and studied Scripture, and they encouraged one-another, and they invited friends and neighbors to know God and to know this congregation, and they worked, and they painted, and they repaired, and they witnessed, and they loved, and they cared. In short, they were the Church...everyday, everywhere they went. Oh...and they? They is we. This is our story.

Joshua called the people to remember who they were because they were about to dive into the daily business of life. They needed to remember who and Whose they were. Before they got there, they needed to make a conscious decision about their identity. Before the tribes separated and when to their assigned holdings, they needed to remember their common identity.

Before stepping out into any grand endeavor, it would do us well to remember who we are and where we have come from. Before that young person goes off to college, maybe Mom and Dad should sit down and tell them the story. Before that young man or woman goes off to serve in the armed forces, parents should sit down and tell the story. Before that little one gets on the bus for that first day of school, that would be a good time to tell the story. Then evening before that son or daughter makes those wedding vows, that’s a good time to tell the story. And, today, as we stand before 2019, it was a good time to tell the story.

While there is no assigned time in the church calendar for remembering our congregational story, what if we determine that on second Sunday of October every year we will tell the story; we will remember who we are and Whose we are? And then, on this day each year, the minister will read aloud the words of Joshua—those powerful, decisive words:

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
And all the people will respond:

“Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We, too, will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”
We will honor and remember our story and all of those who have gone before us.

Still, my brothers and sisters, this story—the Joshua story—is only the beginning. We have another story to tell as well—the story of our encounter with Jesus, like the story Paul told that we heard in our New Testament reading this morning (Acts 26:1-18)—but, that story must wait until another day.

Let us remember today what God has brought us through and this moment that God has brought us to. And, let us endeavor to go forward faithfully in this place of promise as God’s people. Someday, years from now, someone will be here telling our story...and it will be their story. Let's give them a good story to tell!


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Sermon Sketches: Genesis 19:3-8a ~ God's Promises: A New Identity

We continue to leap through the grand story of God’s people in the Old Testament. From Abraham a few weeks ago, we jumped to his great-grandson, Joseph the dreamer, in Egypt. Joseph eventually becomes one the of the leaders of Egypt and his family—those brothers who sold him into slavery and his father—all join him there (by the way, those dreams all came true.) Time passes, the government changes, and soon the favored people became the disfavored people—the people of Abraham, the children of Jacob, became slaves. God calls Moses to lead the people to freedom, and back to the land of promise. At the beginning of the great exodus, God carries the people through the Red Sea and destroys the Egyptian army that is in hot pursuit. Today, we find God’s people and their leader, Moses, at Mt. Sinai—that symbol of God’s presence.
Do you ever find yourself wanting to be someone else, to be someone different from who you are? Perhaps we've all fantasized at times about moving far away and making a clean start, getting a new identity. God, too, wants to give us a new identity. It's not that God made a mistake in who we are--we make the mistakes. Perhaps we could say it better like this: God wants to remind us of who we are and of the amazing relationship we can have with our Creator.

Our focus is Exodus 19:5-6: Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

We find here one of the several “If..., then....” promises of God, found throughout Scripture, promises that are predicated on our activity, our attitudes, our behavior. Some of God’s promises are conditional.

Of course, we know some things are unconditional in this world—
  • God’s love for us.
  • A parent’s love and care for their child (or, this should be unconditional.)
  • Our Christian disciplines and holy habits—we do these regardless of God’s response, or should.
  • The proper execution of our jobs—we do what we’re hired to do...regardless of feelings, people, etc.
But, a lot of things in this world are conditional. In the freshman composition course I teach at the local community college, the grades are conditional— “If you show up and do the work, you will pass the class.” Promotions in the work-place are usually conditional— “If you meet the standard and go beyond, if you put in the hours, if you bring in the money, you will be promoted....” Sometimes, we do have conditional relationships— “Hey, Bro., can I borrow your amazing ‘flower-power’ t-shirt for the concert in the park tomorrow?” Bro: “Sure, I guess so...if you cut the grass for me this afternoon.” And, of course, even those unconditionally loving parents can be conditional— “Dad, can I borrow the car?” Dad: “If you clean your room, take out the trash for your mom, and make a ‘B’ on that Math test tomorrow, yes.”

About those conditional promises: Often times, people—parents, bosses, teachers—are striving to instill positive disciplines in those seeking favor. They want to teach us that nothing is ‘free’ in life. They have good intentions, but we tend to want everything for nothing. Others simply want to control and manipulate—to get what they can out of us. So, what is God up to here? What is this conditional promise about?

“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

When I give my college students that beginning-of-the-semester promise—if you show up and do the work, you will pass the class—I am not promising to actually do anything myself. I’m making a declaration of what the results of their own actions will lead to. I do not say, “If you show up and do the work, I will pass you.” Rather, I say, “ will pass the class.” This is a conditional promise that seeks to establish behaviors that will result in something positive for the person who embraces them. And, God seems to be speaking in the very same way:

     “...If you obey..., will be....”

It’s not, “I will make you to be....” Rather, you will simply be this because of your obedience and covenant keeping. Your doing these things will result in something positive. You will become something different for having done these things. In fact, if you do these things, we--God and human--will have a new relationship, and we humans will have a new identity--treasured, priests, holy nation.

Of course, Moses takes this back to the people, and they—with the best intentions, I’m sure—say, “Yeah! We’ll do it!” And, as we follow the story of these people, all through the wilderness wanderings, they continually renege on the deal...a practice they carry on through the conquest of Canaan, the Kingdoms...all the way to the dissolution of Israel. A kingdom of priest and a holy nation they never really became...because they could not or would not live up to the conditions of the covenant.

But, that is not the end of the story. In fact, God did get that kingdom, that nation.

In the New Testament, Peter writes, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy" (I Peter 2:9-10).

So, God just did it, just made it happen anyway? What about the conditional covenant? Well, none of that changed. To this very day, the condition is still there, “If..., then....” So how does this work?

Romans 8:1-3 provides the answer: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Granted, Paul is a bit thick in his writings at times, but the clarity of what we find we find in vs.3-4 is unquestionable: “ sending his own Son...condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us....” In other words, God has allowed Jesus to be the one who obeys and keeps covenant in our place and gives us the privilege becoming “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.”

Again, we aren’t made to be these so we can sit back on our chosen, royal, holy and special back-sides to enjoy our 'specialness;' we are made these things so we can “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are made into this people, priesthood, nation so that we can declare God’s grace, love, forgiveness and mercy to a world starving for forgiveness, love...for a second chance.

So, how many of us are living into our identity? How many of us live as chosen, royal, holy and special people? I wonder if many of us are not living like the almost-broke, aimless fellow on the streets who doesn’t know he’s been given an inheritance, title, lands and more. Worse, we know we’re children of God, and we still choose to live aimless, loveless, empty lives.... Today is a good day to change that!

Christ has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. On this World Communion Sunday, we come to the Table to remember—and to celebrate!—the love of God shown to us through the Son, Christ Jesus our Lord...and may it be a time we determine to live into our God-given identity.