We Are The Church Together

First UMC as it stood back in 1924
First UMC as it stood back in 1924

Just a note: This was the sermon given to our congregation on the final day of worship in the First UMC building.  The members of First UMC are going to worship with their sister church, Palm UMC in Dinuba beginning Oct 5 and so we hosted one final service here as a way of celebrating God’s ministry in this place for so long. 

This is a day of celebration!

A day to look back at all the people of this church have accomplished and to praise God for using us in such an amazing way. It’s a day to reflect on the many people whose lives have been touched because of the ministry that happened here and to give thanks for what we have been able to do within these walls. But I’m sure for many of you it doesn’t feel like a celebration. In fact, it feels like quite the opposite. Instead it’s like we’re saying goodbye to an old friend. It’s hard not to look around and grieve the “might have beens” and reflect on the “what ifs.” But maybe we can take heart in some of Paul’s words this morning. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phones, you can follow along in Philippians 3:7-14. Philippians 3:7-14. Paul’s writing to the church to give them confidence, to give them hope, something we need in these difficult times. Paul’s been imprisoned and many of those who believed in his testimony are losing heart to hear about him being in jail, but Paul is telling them, “No, even this is good news!” He’s trying to encourage them and he tells them to keep the faith. He wants them to be wary of false teachers and braggarts who are telling everyone who will listen about their credentials for teaching about belief in God and he says that he has more reason to brag than any of them! But then he says this.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

First UMC as it stands today
First UMC as it stands today

We are supposed to press on.

Paul writes that he forgets about the things of the past and keeps straining toward what is ahead. He doesn’t care about his success before because it all means nothing to him in his pursuit of becoming a disciple of Christ. To him, that is what matters. Paul’s situation is slightly different than ours because for him, he’s leaving behind a life of worldly success to pursue a life of spiritual success but we can learn from his words because they apply to us as well. If we want to achieve all we can for Christ, we cannot let ourselves be haunted by the past. We have to be willing to leave it behind and embrace the future. Holding on to the past will only hamper our progress. And the best way we can do that is by remembering that it’s the people and not the place that made our ministry a success. It’s the people and not the place that made our ministry a success. The building is simply a vessel, a container for all that has happened here. The weddings, the baptisms, the funerals were all made special not because of these four walls, but because of the people who were present. This place is a reminder of those happy and sometimes sad but meaningful times, but that’s all it is. A container of memories. And leaving this place doesn’t change those memories one bit.

I remember the apartment we had when I was very young.

When I was four years old, my parents and I used to live in Los Angeles near the Coliseum. About five minutes away lived my grandfather and grandmother, the one who gave me cherry cookies and up the road a bit was Golden Chicken, some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. My favorite rib place growing up was only a little ways away, too. Leo’s BBQ. Still one of the best beef ribs I’ve ever had. I used to play almost daily with my friends Brian and Derek. Brian I think lived across the way and Derek lived upstairs. We all were fans of Speed Racer and would act out different adventures of his. We would take turns being Speed since there was one of him and three of us so one of us ended up being Trixie, his gal pal. Not enough good guy roles in the show. There was Speed, Racer X, and Trixie. I hated being Trixie. But we all took turns. My sister Karen was born while we were living there. She used to call me “D.” It was the closest she could get to saying “Craigy” which is what my parents used to call me. Eventually she called me “E” as her language skills developed. She would pull me by the hair and drag me all over the living room, over the sofa and the floor and all over the place. Those were really happy times. I still remember pouring Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder all over my head just so I could see it snow in LA. When I was turning five, we moved to Cerritos where my parents still live today. I don’t often go by the old neighborhood. It’s not as well kept or safe as it used to be and there’s rarely a reason for me to drive past. But when I do, I still have fond memories of the place. I’ll point out the window and say, “Look, Emma. That’s where Daddy used to live.” And we’ll drive on. But leaving wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I’m not friends with Brian and Derek now. Leo’s BBQ gave way to some infinitely inferior place. And I don’t even know if Golden Chicken still exists in that location. But that doesn’t make it any less important a part of my past. But that’s where it belongs. In the past. I love the life I have now. I love the family I have and the friends I’ve made. I love being here with all of you and everyday brings a new set of memories. Yes, we should cherish those places that brought us fond memories, but they are simply places where those memories were built.

The combined families of Palm and First UMC in Dinuba
The combined families of Palm and First UMC in Dinuba

The important part is still a part of us.

The people who changed our lives, the things we did with the people we loved, how we felt when we said our “I dos.” Those things will never change. They are a part of who we are. And as we leave this building and continue to worship God, his work comes with us too. The story doesn’t end here just because we aren’t here anymore. The story of God continues on with us. It happened before we got here and will continue after we are gone. It’s part of what brings us comfort, that we are a part of something greater. Our part is important but not because we are in this place, but because we are faithful to God. YOU are the church, not this building. YOU are the church, not this building. The church was built upon the cornerstone of Jesus and each of you make up the foundation. The foundation isn’t made of bricks and mortar. The walls aren’t made of drywall and plaster. All of it is made from living stones, each one of us. As it says in that classic hymn, we are the church together.  Let us pray.

Creator God, we give you thanks for the nearly 125 years of ministry that happened in this place. We feel so blessed to be able to take part in your amazing work and so pleased we were able to be your faithful servants for so long. We shared some of the stories that make up the history of First UMC, but there are many more that we haven’t shared that are as vitally important as all the rest. Even though a chapter is closing on us, like any good book, we eagerly turn the page and await what comes next! We pray Lord that you will give us direction and clarity about our next steps and we lift up all praise and glory to you Father for the ministry that happened within these walls. We take those memories with us as we continue to serve you in a new way. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Fishing With Dad

When I was little, my dad used to take me fishing all the time.  We used to go lake fishing when I was younger, usually to Anaheim Lake for trout, and then deep-sea fishing as I got older.  I always loved it.  To me, nothing beats a nice, juicy, greasy hamburger while waiting for the fish to strike.  But the best part was just hanging with my dad and reeling in those fish.

My dad having caught one of his own...
My dad having caught one of his own…

I remember one time in particular when he took me to Puddingstone Lake in San Dimas for some trout fishing.  I must have been all of 10 years old at the time.  The fish were biting extremely well that whole day and my dad let me reel in all of them.  He would patiently prepare the poles, stake out the spots, put all of our gear out on the lake shore, bait the hook, and help me cast the line out there.  When the fish would bite, whether it was on my pole or his, my dad would let me reel it in.  In total, we caught 10 fish that day!  I was so proud that as soon as we got home, I yelled to my mom, “Guess what?  I caught 10 fish today and dad didn’t catch any!”

The truth was my dad had more to do with catching those fish than I did, but I got all the credit – and was happy to take it.  But looking back, I realize that I couldn’t have done it without my dad, who never took any of the credit for himself.  He just let me relish in the triumph of those fish.  Our heavenly Father is like that.  He does so much for us and asks for so little in return.  In the end, he simply hopes that we love him, we believe in him, and we share the love and grace he gives to us so freely with others.

This month we celebrate Father’s Day – one of my favorite days of the year.  I am so grateful to be a father myself and I pray often for God’s guidance in my own struggles with parenthood.  I hope that I will leave a lasting impression upon my children as my own father has done for me.  Do me a favor and if you are at all thankful for what your fathers – your earthly and your heavenly one – have done for you, let them know it.   And don’t just wait for Father’s Day to do it either.

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet

The famous jingle - baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet
The famous jingle – baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet

I am proud to be an American.  I’m a sansei or third generation Japanese-American kid and although I don’t love most Chevrolets, I do love baseball, a good hot dog, and apple pie ala mode (remember that commercial?).  More importantly, I love the fact that we live in a country where we can worship freely, we can vote freely, and we can grow up to be President.  So you can only imagine the kind of hurt I felt the first time I heard that awful racist kids’ poem, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!”  I cried.  I was only six years old at the time and in the first grade and I don’t cry very often in public.  I just don’t.  But I cried that day.  And every once in a while, although less often than before, I still meet ignorant people who insult me because of my ethnicity – an ethnicity I am very proud of.  And it hurts.

I remember one time in particular that I was standing on the street corner on the way to high school and this guy leans out of his car window and yells as he’s driving past me, “Go back to China you chink!”  And it made me so mad.  Partly because he was gone before I could respond, but mostly because if you’re going to insult me at least get my ethnicity right.  And even not that long ago while I was a pastor at a small church in Washington, GA, I encountered the same kind of racism.  That cowardly, drive-by-and-insult-you kind of racism that lets me know there is still racial hatred in the world.  I stopped at the local Radio Shack, which also doubled as the local newspaper publisher to get the paper.  The girls were in the car with Cassie as I walked around to the newspaper machine and as I was about to put in my 50 cents, this big shiny charcoal gray pick-up truck came by, and this guy who must have been in his early twenties start shouting out, “Ching, chong, ching, chong,” to me at the top of his lungs out of a rolled down window.  His friends were just laughing behind him.  But unlike that little six-year old that I used to be, I didn’t cry.  I was upset.  Upset that in the 21st century, I would still find the racism I was hoping to leave behind.  Upset that even almost 150 years after the civil war that people still carried around these old prejudices.  Upset that 2000 years after Christ, people still haven’t got the message we should treat our neighbor with love.

But what made me the most upset is that my little baby girl, Emma, is likely to face that kind of racism as she grows up.  I don’t have to worry about Eve, she’s as All-American as they come with her blond hair and blue eyes, but Emma has enough of her daddy in her that she might be the victim of some cruel kid’s joke.  I just wish I could spare her that kind of hatred and fear. Many people are fond of calling America a Christian nation, and if that’s the case we should live up to those ideals.  Bigotry, prejudice, and hatred of any sort just have no place in the heart of a Christian and by extension in the heart of America.  Instead we should replace those feelings and attitudes with ones that more closely resemble Christ who called on us to love our neighbor as we would ourselves.  Prayerfully consider how it is that you can add to the great chorus of those who have gone before to make our country not only what our founding fathers had in mind, but what our Father in Heaven had in mind, too.  God bless us all.

Giving God Meatloaf

Meatloaf, yummy but maybe not the most visually appealing food.

How many of you like meatloaf?

Go ahead.  Raise your hands (I know I’m not there to see it, but I am in spirit).  I love it.  Meatloaf is one of my favorite things to eat.  I have lots of good memories about it.  And of course, no one makes meatloaf like my mother.  Isn’t that true?  Aren’t there just some dishes your mom or dad makes that no one else makes just like them?  Meatloaf is one of those dishes for me.  When I go to a new restaurant if they have it on the menu, I usually order it so I can compare it to the one I used to get at home.  It’s sort of my barometer for restaurant quality.  If the meatloaf is good, the restaurant must be good.  If it’s not…well, I probably won’t be coming back.  But meatloaf is one of those dishes where there are always leftovers.  It’s a leftover dish.  And I like it that way.  As a kid, I used to love making it into sandwiches for lunch.  It was one of the fringe benefits of having meatloaf.  Put a big chunk of it in-between two slices of bread with some mayonnaise on it.  Yum.  The funny thing is even though it’s good enough for me, I would never serve leftover meatloaf to a girl I was dating.  Or anyone for that matter.  And it’s not because of what it is or how it tastes because obviously I love it.  It’s because it’s a leftover.

Now, leftovers might be okay for us, we might even like it, but would you ever serve leftovers to someone who was a guest in your home?  Someone you were hoping to date?  Would you serve leftovers to your boss?  There’s something about leftovers that people associate with being “not worthy of my time.”  Leftovers are for “other people” once we’re done eating what we want.  Leftovers go in the “doggy bag.”  Think about it.  The “doggy bag.”  Because it’s leftover scraps of food that goes to the dog.  Before the invention of the doggy bag, most people wouldn’t even THINK to take the leftover food home.[1]  It was considered in poor taste even as late as the 1970’s.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love leftovers, too.  But there is something about leftovers that people associate with unworthiness.  So the question needs to be asked, “Are you giving God your leftovers?” 

When we give to God, we’re supposed to give from our “first fruits” meaning the first portion of our crops.  This idea comes from the very beginning of the Bible in the story of Cain and Abel.  In that story, God was very pleased with Abel’s offering because Abel gave of the firstborn of his flock.  God was not as happy with Cain because Cain withheld his best from the Lord.  Cain only gave “some of the fruits” to God compared to Abel’s “fat portions of the some of the firstborn of his flock.”  Apparently, Abel gave to God first and only then took some for himself while Cain seemingly did the opposite.  It didn’t matter to God that Cain brought fruit and Abel brought meat.  Each brought as he was able.  What mattered was their attitude and trust in God – Abel had it and Cain didn’t.  Abel recognized that without God he would have nothing and so he first gave back to God the very best.  He trusted that even if he gave it away, that God would provide for him.  Cain, however, did what many of us do.  He held back.  Either Cain didn’t recognize God as the one to whom he owed everything or just wanted to keep the best for himself figuring that God didn’t need it and he did.  Cain didn’t trust that God would give him enough.  And so he took portions for himself first.  The stress on willful giving is found throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments.  The story of the widow’s mite comes to mind or Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  Having the proper attitude is more important than the amount you give.  Too many of us give God the leftovers.

Whether you give to your local church or to the Red Cross or to the homeless guy on the street, give of your firstfruits.  Designate a portion of what you make each month to God and give it away quickly to where you feel God is leading you.  Don’t hold on to it “just in case.”  Put your faith in God and God will look after you.  Giving after all is a sign of thankfulness and in this season of giving thanks we should remember to give thanks first to the one who made our lives possible.

On Having and Being

I like STUFF.

Not for the sake of having it, but there are certain material things I enjoy.  I collect comic books, certain LEGO sets, and Disney pins.  They add to my life in different ways.  Comic books remind me of my dad and the stories, when well written and drawn, are a great diversion from the stresses of life.  I love LEGOs and especially the ones with comic characters, Star Wars, and now The Lord of the Rings.  It’s fun to build something concrete since most of my life deals with things in the abstract or the untouchable.  And I love Disney pin trading!  Certain pins remind me of times I’ve had with my family, others remind me of when I used to work at the Park (Disneyland that is), and I like the camaraderie of the folks who collect.  They are for the most part a great group of people.  But in each of these hobbies, there are some people who turn it into an obsession.  To them, having it all and having it first makes their life meaningful and I think that any time we define our lives by the material things we possess or have we are in grave danger of losing our souls.  We become fixated as much as if we were taking a drug and end up with that same distorted view of life – that it all amounts to STUFF.  We know it doesn’t.  Watch this clip below.  I think you’ll hear some interesting ideas.

The clip above is from the show CSI and when I saw it, it really made me think.

It was from an episode about a woman who suffered from disposophobia or compulsive hoarding.  If you’ve even seen someone like this, or you’ve watched one of those reality shows about it, you know how bad it can be.  Just STUFF everywhere!  Just this constant accumulation of STUFF!  Piles and piles of it in every nook and cranny possible.  And it becomes obsessive to the point where the hoarder doesn’t even realize what’s going on.  They just keep getting more STUFF that most of us would consider junk or trash, but for them there is meaning to it all.  It becomes ridiculous how the hoarder begins to justify every scrap of paper and every piece of food.  It just makes me wonder what in the world drives people to this point.  And then I watch TV.  Or read a paper.  And I can see how we are constantly bombarded by the message that we need more STUFF.  We really do have a society focused on material things.  Our identity is shaped by our possessions.  Our social status, our sense of identity, our acceptance into social circles – all often has to do with “things.”

As the clip said, the philosopher Erich Fromm had a theory that we have two basic human orientations: having and being.

Having and being.  It does seem that our culture is dominated by the “having” orientation, doesn’t it?  But as Ray said in the clip, it doesn’t have to be that way.  WE don’t have to be that way.  To change it, we have to learn to get into the habit of giving, on focusing not on how much we get but on how much we give to others – and not necessarily giving material things either but giving our time and our talents and our resources away for free.  Because by giving, we get rid of the barrier of STUFF between us and God.  We let go of the material world and instead embrace God’s world.  And that’s where God wants us to be.  He wants us to live in HIS world instead of the material world.  He wants us to focus on our relationship with Him and with those around us and that’s hard to do when we are surrounded by a barrier of stuff.  That’s why God talks about all the time.  That’s why Jesus says it’s so hard for the rich to get into Heaven.  Not because they have money, but because they keep getting blocked by all the STUFF in their way.  I’m convinced that the story of the rich young man in the Bible (Mark 10:17-25) is told to us for exactly this reason – to help us understand that the material world gets in between us and God.  That’s why Christ tells us to get rid of it!  So we can learn to rely on God instead of our STUFF.  If the world were filled with people primarily focused on “being” instead of “having” wouldn’t this be a better place?

There’s nothing wrong with STUFF in and of itself.  Like there’s nothing wrong with money in and of itself.  But when we let it take over our lives, we risk the things that are truly important – our family, our friends, our very relationship with God.  All for a bunch of stuff we can’t take with us in the end.