Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sharing Our Story With Our Neighbors

Today was the day - the day that would end my incredibly busy week!  And what a fun morning it was!  I led worship today - message and all - and it went well.  Since so many people have been asking for copies of the message, I thought I would post it here...  I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments - feel free to post them!

Sharing Our Stories: With Our Neighbors

Sermon: October 17, 2010

"Light. What words come to mind when you think of the word “light?” Yell them out!  (The altar area was covered with all kinds of different kinds of lights - lamps, lanterns, candles, flashlights, headlamps, etc.)

What inevitably happens when light enters a situation? When light is shed in a dark space? When light is figuratively “shed” on an issue? CHANGE. So many of these ideas, that came into your minds when you thought of the word Light, are so easily attributed to God, too. Earlier this week, as I attended a conference on Counseling Teens in Crisis, Kevin Harrington – a psychologist and presenter with Youth Leadership - stated, “God is light – and God is change. When we know God, we can’t help but be changed…” It’s true, isn’t it?

Yet, as I started thinking about it… I realized we are all lights as well – sharing the brightness of God with others. Our families, friends, neighbors…

So I brought all these different kinds of lights with me today – simply to illustrate one point. Every one of these sources of light emits brightness and radiance. Every one of them has the power to change the darkness into light. But… Every one of them does it in a slightly different way… A candle burns hard and bright until it has no more to give – or it glows with soft warmth emitting a gentle change. A lamp – brightness re-enforced by the power it gets from an electrical outlet – it relies on power outside of itself to make change. A lantern – typically used outside in a gathering of family and friends – inviting, unthreatening. A fluorescent lamp – typically seen in the workplace – steady and true. A flashlight – looks for a particular place to shine, the place where light and hope are needed most. And a headlamp… Ha ha ha. My husband, Mike, is going to laugh at me putting this on in church. I think the only time I’ve ever worn the headlamp is when we’re camping and I’m going to the outhouse… and need to make sure there are no bugs, no spiders, and no critters in that space! Sometimes… a light changes us or a situation by diminishing fear and illuminating our current surroundings in a way that gives us a sense of peace.

As we’ve begun talking about sharing our stories, sharing our faith with those around us… we’ve heard the murmurings. We know it’s an uncomfortable topic for most people – especially us Methodists. We get it. But just because a topic is hard to talk about, doesn’t mean we get to run from it. It’s been a focus of the nation-wide Methodist church for a couple of years now – as it should be. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, was a huge evangelist! Think about the stories we know about him – he traveled over 250,000 miles in his lifetime, on horseback(!) preaching the word to anyone who would listen (often in open fields, often twice a day). He had good news to share with people who were oppressed and had nothing to hope in – and he gave it to them! Wanna know something else about John Wesley? Something you might find comforting? He didn’t believe that your “conversion” happened in one moment… He believed getting to know God was a process – that took time – and often occurred through relationships with other believers. You may get to the point where you say “yes” to God for the first time – or you may help someone else get to that point – but getting to know God from that moment on, was a life-long journey…

Even John Wesley didn’t see evangelism as the scary thing we tend to think of today. So stay with us – stay in the conversation. Open your mind and hearts as we continue to talk about sharing our faith – and ask God to show you how you can “do one small thing” to share God’s love with someone in your life…

As I was preparing for this sermon this week… I was looking for words of hope, myself. You see, for people who work in the church – we can talk about faith and God all day long… with church people, of course. But send us outside those doors, tell us to talk to strangers – and we’re as uncomfortable as you. As Pastor Penny often says – often the things we share with you in the message, are the same things we need to be hearing and challenging ourselves with, too. So I as I read the scripture for today – know that I took these words to heart as well!

Our Scripture text comes from the book of 1 Thessalonians, chapter 2: 6-8.

From The Message:
“Even though we had some standing as Christ’s apostles, we never threw our weight around or tried to come across as important, with you or anyone else. We weren’t aloof with you. We took you just as you were. We were never patronizing, never condescending, but we cared for you the way a mother cares for her children. We love you dearly. Not content to just pass on the message, we wanted to give you our hearts. And we did.”

How did Paul, Silas, and Timothy win over the Thessalonians? Bullying them with authority? Judging them and their lives and guilting them into a better life? Yeah, no. They cared for the people of Thessalonica like a mother cares for her children… They loved them. They were gentle with them. They walked beside them. They talked about their lives - shared their stories… They became friends – and gave them their hearts.

This is evangelism – in its gentlest and most loving way. Any one of us could do this.

And so I’ve been thinking - how? How do we share the love of God with our neighbors? And yes – neighbors can mean just about anyone – literally. Co-workers, postal workers, gas station attendants, the person in front of me at the grocery line checkout… Homeless people, children at the park, people in prison, politicians (to continue last week’s discussion)… Yes – anybody and everybody can be considered our neighbors… But this week, I was thinking about my actual neighbors. The people on my street. There are 19 townhomes on my street. We’ve lived there for 5 years now, and I know 3 names – and they are all little kids that adore my husband and my dog.

Our culture these days, especially if you live in townhomes, is to come home from work and close the garage door without ever waving to a neighbor, never walking to the mailbox, or sharing a cup of flour. And I fall into it, too. I stop at the mailbox when I’m leaving for work or coming home – so I never have to get out of the car! If I need a cup of flour or a stick of butter… I go to the store quick. There is no sense of community or “neighbor”hood where I live. So how on earth am I supposed to share my faith – much less my life – with the people who live the closest to me?

Well… When I started working on this sermon, I decided I needed to do something about this. I’ve been reading some wonderful books about living our faith life… about sharing our stories… about reaching out to those around us… and I realized if there’s one area of my life I’m really missing the boat – it’s with my neighbors. The people who actually live ON my street. So I started praying… and praying… and thinking… And I kept coming back to what a wonderful experience our UNICEF Carnival was last year. All kinds of people came, stopped in for some games and goodies, wore their costumes – it was non-threatening and fun. Easy to come and go… and so I asked my husband if we could do a little Halloween cook-out on our street this year. Send invites to the 19 houses on our street, say we’re going to be grilling apple brats, we’ll have some warm apple cider, some pumpkin cupcakes – and candy to anyone who comes in a costume! Stop by as you’re coming or going… But stop by and say hi – let’s meet our neighbors!

Sounds simple. Easy. No problem. Yeah, right. This is SO not my thing. I’m shy. I like hanging out with people I already know. I’m one of the people on our street who comes home and closes the garage door right away. The idea of throwing a neighborhood shin-dig scares me more than a Halloween haunted house. Why? No idea. Seems silly to be scared. But I am. We worry about what people think of us. We worry about being rejected. We worry about offending someone. We worry about the neighbors that already don’t like us – SHOWING up! Now what? We worry… We worry… We worry.

It’s human nature. And that’s ok. But it’s also ok to take a risk, to trust in God, and to give something new a try.

Am I going to preach the love of God, standing on a giant pumpkin in the middle of our street? No. Am I going to hand out Bibles to everyone who stops by? Uh. No. Will I draw frosting crosses on all the cupcakes? Not a chance. I just want to take a moment to shine a light. To learn some names. To laugh a little and hope that we become better neighbors…. We bought our pumpkins this weekend – they will be carved with candlelight glowing – soft and warm – from within. Maybe we’ll have lanterns lit – hinting at the fun of a family party. Street lights will shine down – emitting a “safe” refuge from the unknown… Who knows? Depending on my costume, I might wear the headlamp to remind me of my own surroundings and give me a sense of peace…

My hope? Relationships will begin. Walls will begin to come down. We’ll begin to know and love our neighbors – and through that relationship, begin to share our lives and our stories…

Do I expect all of us to try this same experiment? Of course not. Like all the lights that fill the altar area today – we all have our own ways of casting God’s light on the world. Maybe you fight really hard for social justice through the ministries or organizations you volunteer with. Maybe you’re an amazing care-giver to the people in your life that need a hand to hold, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen. Maybe you’re that one person at work that makes all the other employees feel truly valued in what they do. Maybe you haven’t found where you fit in yet, but you have the resources to support important ministries… We’ve talked many times in the life of the church about each one of us having special gifts or talents that we can use to give more life to the church… But guess what? You can use those same gifts outside of the church – to help people know God, too.

Where is God prompting you to try using your gifts? What one small thing is God calling you toward – to share the loving and grace-filled God with someone else who may need the good word?

It’s been really interesting as I’ve been continuing to learn about what evangelism is – and isn’t – the groups of people I’ve never thought of needing to reach out to. When we first begin this discussion – we typically think of the “un-churched” – and only the un-churched. And we think, because of the circles we are in, that we probably don’t know many people who have never gone to church… But my challenge to you, as you think about the people that surround you everyday – your “neighbors” – how many have walked away from the church (and maybe God) because they’ve been hurt by the church? I know I have quite a few of those people in my life – and it pains me to be a part of the institution that offered them such pain… But what if I could be that person that continued to love them, that continued to remind them of the grace that only God can give, that continued to walk with them in the faith – and hope, for them, that one day they will feel called back into the community of faith. I’m not being pushy, not being forceful, no guilt or shame, just making sure that when they want to ask questions or vent hurts – I’m there to listen and to love them… Hoping I can represent a faithful community that will accept them and love them, too – when they are ready.

It’s about relationship. It’s about continuing to shed light on the situation – and on the fact that God loves them and offers them grace whenever they need it. It’s about being gentle and true. That’s the kind of evangelism I can get behind. That’s the kind that will, yes, force me out of my comfort zone sometimes – but will also help me acknowledge what God is doing in my life as I continue to tell and share my story of faith.

Two more quick stories – both of which happened on Friday night. After a long, crazy, busy week, Mike and I decided to head downtown to one of our favorite places for dinner and some music. The café was crowded, so we waited for a seat at the bar – a PERFECT opportunity for getting to know your “neighbors”! The opening band started – and began a set of all songs relating to the sun. Sun, as in up in the sky – not Jesus. Although that would have been a cool surprise! I liked the upbeat, positive message in the songs and the band was pretty good, if not a little quirky… But after they were done, they announced they were giving away their CDs for free that night. Well, we were quick to get in on that! So yesterday, I was driving around town, and one of the first songs on the CD has the lyrics that say something to the effect of “the sun shines down like the grace of God, and it’s our job to give it away…” I thought, wow – this is perfect for my sermon! They were doing evangelism and didn’t even know it! Here they were, singing about light – the ultimate light – the sun! They gave away free CDs, making me more likely to give it a listen… Then, through a song reminded me of the grace of God… and that I too, should give it away! They’re singers – they gave it away through their music. Their light is shining bright!

The second story came from the same café… as we were sitting at the bar, we began talking to the couple next to us – getting to know them in the soft, warm, unthreatening light of candles (atmosphere makes a difference!). By the second band, we were calling one another friends, exchanging contact information, and hoping to find another time to meet up with one another – striking up a relationship. Things were going well… Life was good, the night was fun. Until they asked me what I do for a job. Yep. When you work for a church, sometimes it’s better to keep that to yourself until the other person knows you really well – flaws and all. Otherwise, they assume you and God are best friends and you can’t possibly live a normal and fun life. But they asked, so I told. The woman was immediately pretty cool with it, but the man got really quiet… My prayer at that moment was that I had represented myself in a way that made me human, warm, friendly, non-judging, and simply someone who lived the faith myself… and would always be open to talking about it… But would not force it on him. All I was looking for was the start of a friendship – conversation could come later when the timing was right.

When the woman “contacted” me on Facebook yesterday, I peaked at his profile as well and saw that he stated his religious views as “atheist.” Who knows? Maybe this person was put in my life for a reason? Maybe I get to be one more seed planted in his life toward knowing God? Maybe not. But who am I to assume either way? All I can do is live with the gifts God gave me, be the person God made me to be, and shine my God light wherever I go.

Light changes things. God’s light changes lives. We have the remarkable opportunity to be a part of those life-changing interactions. We get to use who we are, what we’re good at, and the experiences we’ve already had with God to deepen relationships, make friends, and share God’s love with the world. It will take time, it may take many people to plant those seeds, you may not be “the one” who transforms a life – but you may get to play a huge part! You may never know… But God is counting on us to help those who are lost remember that they are loved and adored by their creator. What a gift to be that messenger – in whatever way you can. Figure out one way to shine your light – today!"

Things I am thankful for today:

1.  My week is finally over!
2.  It's fun writing a message when you feel the Spirit working in you and those around you!
3.  The chuckles when I put on the headlamp...
4.  Lunch with Mom at Teresa's.
5.  A LONG nap!
6.  A beautiful fall day for a drive to Eau Claire.
7.  Dinner with Kelsey!
8.  Dozing off during "Brothers and Sisters."
9.  Continued contact with the couple we met this weekend!
10.  Looking forward to a WHOLE day off tomorrow!


Emily said...

Nice one, Megan. :) We need to come hear one of these in real life sometime. XO

Jill said...

i loved reading this, megan - thanks for sharing it :)

Mom said...

This was a wonderful message Megan!! I am so proud of you!!!

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