Saturday, August 11, 2018

"The Two Queens"

           After spending much of this summer examining and reflecting on our favorite hymns at Christ United Methodist Church, we turn our attention this Sunday, August 12th, to the Book of Esther in the Hebrew scriptures.  We will spend two weeks reflecting on Esther.  The first Sunday, we will explore the first two chapters of the book.

            It’s important for Christians to remember that the Bible is not a single book, a single piece of literature.  Instead, the Bible is more of an anthology, with many different types of writings, including history, poetry, biography, and theology.  The Bible includes a hymnal; it includes wisdom literature, apocalyptic literature, love stories, and short stories.
            Remembering this diversity, we should approach the Book of Esther as a written, fictionalized short story.  It would be a mistake to assume that Esther is intended to be read as a historical piece.  It is not.  Rather, the author of Esther intended that we read it as a short story, more of a parable, which contains important insights and encouragement for living faithfully during times of great difficulty, when we may have little power or control.  That is, we should read Esther, asking how this parable can teach us to live faithfully as God’s people.

            The story of Esther is set during the time when many Jews are in exile from their homeland, living under Persian rule.  The Book of Esther is set in the city of Susa, one of four capitals for the vast Persian Empire, and it occurs during the reign of King Ahasuerus.  It tells the story of two Jewish immigrants: the young girl, Esther, and Mordecai, her cousin.  Mordecai has risen to a high position within the King’s Court.  The first two chapters in the Book of Esther tell the story of two queens.  

Vashti is the first queen, as the story begins.  However, she soon falls out of favor with King Ahasuerus.  The King has spent a long week of feasting with all of the townspeople from the capital of Susa.  He has used this feast, as well as a previous banquet, to show off all of his wealth and power.  On the seventh and final day of this citywide banquet, King Ahasuerus gets a little inebriated from drinking too much wine.  In his tipsy state, the King sends for his Queen to come and appear before all of the men, wearing her royal crown.  King Ahasuerus sends for Queen Vashti because she is so breathtakingly beautiful.  He wants to show off his beautiful wife to all of the men, who are feasting and making merry.

            However, when she receives the message to appear before all of the men, Queen Vashti replies, “No!” and she refuses to come.  Vashti’s rejection outrages Ahasuerus.  After consulting with his advisors, he decides to depose Vashti from her throne and exile her from the royal palace.  Soon, King Ahasuerus begins searching for a new wife and queen. 

The King’s servants fan out throughout the empire, searching for beautiful young maidens who might interest the King.  It is important to note that the young girls have little choice in the matter.  If they are chosen by the King’s talent scouts, then they are taken from their families and placed in the women’s quarters of the palace.  The young girls spend a full year under the care and tutelage of the King’s trusted servant, Hegai.  Then, after this year of preparation, the young maidens were given one night to spend with King Ahasuerus and “audition” for the role of his wife and Queen. 

            Ultimately, Esther wins this contest and becomes the new wife and queen.  On advice from Mordecai, her cousin, Esther keeps her Jewish heritage a secret from the Royal Court.  Chapter 2 then concludes with a story about Mordecai.  One day, when he was at his usual place, sitting by the king’s gate, he overhears a plot by two of the King’s servants to assassinate King Ahasuerus.  Mordecai tells Queen Esther of the plot, and she informs King Ahasuerus.  As a result, the assassination plot is exposed and the two would-be assassins are captured and hanged on the gallows.

I call these first two chapters, “The Two Queens,” because both Queens Vashti and Esther are strong women who must speak truth to power.  Yet, in the circumstances of the Court, neither woman has much personal power.  Vashti is summoned at the whim of a drunken King.  King Ahasuerus doesn’t really love or care for Queen Vashti.  Instead, King Ahasuerus objectifies Vashti.  She is simply his personal property, and King Ahasuerus seeks to show off his wife in front of the other men at the party, as though she was a prize horse. 

As a young maiden, Esther is given no choice in whether she wants to marry Ahasuerus and be the Queen of Persia.  Esther and all of the other maidens were ripped from the arms of their families by the King’s servants.  Then, they were forced into a ridiculous contest to see who could best please the King.  Ahasuerus did not care about them personally.  He did not even bother getting to know them personally.  Instead, he objectified them, giving them just one night to demonstrate how well they could physically please him.  The maidens were not persons, so much as objects of pleasure for the King. 

While both Vashti and Esther were powerless in their relationship to King Ahasuerus, they both chose to speak truth to his power.  Yet, the way in which they spoke truth was very different because their contexts were very different.

On the one hand, Vashti makes a statement by refusing to go to the King, when he summons her.  Given her context, Vashti must step outside the political system and work against the system to bring about change.

On the other hand, as we will see in more detail next Sunday, Esther makes a statement by going to see the King, even though he has not called for her.  Given her context, Esther must work inside the political system, using the system itself to bring about important change.

Hearing the story of Esther in August 2018, one cannot help but think about the #MeToo movement which has spread throughout our society for the last year.  The #MeToo movement is a social movement intended to demonstrate the widespread—yet, predominantly unreported—occurrence of sexual assault and harassment, primarily perpetrated against women but also, occasionally, against men, as well. 

Just as Vashti and Esther, all of the women who have come forward as part of the #MeToo movement were sexually degraded and objectified.  Again, just as Vashti and Esther, all of these women initially felt powerless to speak because they were in a hostile and threatening context.  Many women were afraid that they would lose their job and friends, just as Queen Vashti does in our story.  Yet, through the #MeToo movement, victims of harassment, assault, and sometimes rape have found a voice and begun to speak truth to power.

Whenever someone speaks truth to power, they are being faithful to God.  We know that every single person is created in the image of God.  Any form of degradation, harassment, or assault is sinful in the eyes of God because God loves each of the victims, with a love which is greater than the love of a parent for a child.  God aches for the victims of degradation and injustice because all victims are also God’s children.  And, on Sunday, I will suggest that God becomes angry when followers of Christ fail to oppose injustices, such as sexual harassment, assault, and rape.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, August 12th.  In the proclamation, we will reflect on the two queens in The Book of Esther and how God calls on us to work for justice through the #MeToo social movement, as well as through additional channels.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

“The Good Life”

            This weekend (August 5th) we conclude our summer focus on favorite hymns of the Christ United Methodist congregation with a reflection on the beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace, ” by John Newton.  The frequent visitor to this blog may recall that earlier this summer the clergy at Christ UMC presented a three-part proclamation series on the Christian understanding of “grace.”  In the initial sermon of that series, I defined grace as “God’s free and unmerited love, which seeks out every person and assists us in developing a loving relationship with the Divine.”  I went on to suggest that “Grace is pivotal within Christian thought because it forms the grounding for our understanding of God’s relationship with human persons—and with all of Creation.”  I believe that John Newton shared a similar understanding of grace, when he penned the first verse of his hymn:

            “Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound
  that saved a wretch like me!
              I once was lost, but now am found;
              was blind, but now I see.”

            As an 11-year old, John Newton embarked upon a seafaring career by joining his father as a ship’s apprentice.  However, as a youth and young man, Newton was very unruly and rebellious.  Eventually his disobedience got him pressed (drafted) into the British Royal Navy.  Rather than reporting for duty, Newton deserted in order to spend more time with Polly Catlett, the love of his life.  However, there were still consequences for deserting and Newton eventually worked out a deal in which he joined the crew of a slave ship, where he began a career in the slave trade.

            Newton’s attitudes did not change with his new circumstances.  He continued to be difficult and obnoxious, openly mocking the ship’s captain and getting into disagreements with fellow crew mates.  Eventually, Newton was sold into slavery on a plantation in Sierra Leone.  After several months, his father intervened on his behalf and Newton found his way back home to England.

            During this period of his life, Newton was an especially profane man, having already denounced the Christian faith of his youth.  He was fond of mocking others for their faith and denouncing the concept of God as a fairy tale.  Newton continued working as a sailor.  In March 1748, the ship, on which Newton was serving, encountered a severe storm while in the North Atlantic.  As the ship was violently tossed about, Newton began praying, asking God to spare him and the rest of the crew.  This crisis produced a conversion experience for Newton.  He believed that God had a plan for his life.  When the ship finally landed ashore, Newton began making plans to marry Polly, which he did two year later.  Despite his conversion experience, Newton continued working in the slave trade, eventually becoming the captain of a slave ship.  However, Newton found it increasingly difficult to leave Polly and return to the sea.

            Eventually Newton left the sea and obtained a position as a customs agent.  Now permanently on land, Newton and his wife became active church members.  Newton began reading and studying theology.  Ultimately, he was ordained as a priest in the Church of England.  His first pastoral assignment was as the curate (Associate Pastor) of the church in the village of Olney.  Working with William Cowper, a layperson, Newton began a series of weekly prayer meetings for his new parish.  Either Newton or Cowper would try to write a poem for each prayer meeting.  Most of the poems written by Newton focused on themes of God’s grace, Newton’s love of Jesus, and the joy he found in his Christian faith.  “Amazing Grace” was shared as a poem at a prayer meeting on January 1, 1773.  It was later set to music and became the much beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace.”  (Later in life, Newton became an adamant absolutist, working with William Wilberforce to eventually make slavery illegal in England.)

            The words of “Amazing Grace” convey a profound sense of confidence in God’s abiding grace—and a feeling of peace and well-being emerging from that confidence in God’s grace.  This confidence in God’s grace seems especially pronounced in verse 3:

            “Through many danger, toils, and snares,
              I have already come;
              tis grace have brought me safe thus far,
              and grace will lead me home.”

This confidence in God’s grace established a feeling of peace and well-being in verse 4, which follows:

            “The Lord has promised good to me, ‘
              his word my hope secures;
              he will my shield and portion be,
              as long as life endures.”

Fundamentally, I believe that the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” is about the joy and peace of mind which arises from fully accepting God’s grace in our lives.  So, my proclamation on Sunday, August 5th, will draw from Philippians 4: 4-9 as the foundational scripture:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
            This passage comes at the very end of the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Christians at Philippi.  As he is closing his letter, Paul ends with some last-minute instructions to the Philippians.  He begins by encouraging them to open themselves to the joy of accepting God’s grace, writing:  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”  For Paul, this experience of joy is more than a temporary emotion of happiness or a superficial cheerfulness.  Instead, Paul envisions a deep and lasting sense of unmitigated joy which can only come about through a deepening relationship with God, as we accept God’s grace.

Then, in the verses that follow, Paul lays out three core requirements for genuinely experiencing the joy of God’s grace.  These three requirements are:

1.      Fully Trusting God.  In order to feel the full joy of Christian discipleship, Paul encourages the Philippians to let go of their worry and anxiety about life and the future.  In her reflections on this passage, the British Biblical scholar Morna Hooker observes:  “It is sobering to remember that Paul was in prison, facing a capital charge, when he wrote this letter.  And that was not his only problem, for his responsibility for the churches was a constant concern (2 Cor 11:28).  Moreover, the people to whom he was writing were unlikely to be living comfortable lives.  Most of them were poor, many were slaves, and few of them would have know the meaning of security.”[1]  Hooker goes on to observe that for those of us living today in relative wealth, there is a profound temptation to put our trust in our savings and possessions; yet, this only leads to greater worry and anxiousness.

2.      Gratitude to God.  The second requirement in order to experience the deep and lasting joy of God’s grace is to maintain a grateful heart, being thankful for all that God has already given to us.  In verse 6, Paul encourages us to include thanksgiving in every prayer and supplication to God.  The importance of gratitude toward God permeates Paul’s letter to the Philippians and, indeed, most of his letters.  God has already given us so much:  our lives, our planet with all of its beauty, God’s deep love for us, our family and friends, our community of faith, as well as so many individual gifts.  Our gratitude for all that God has already given to us should shape our attitudes and outlook on life.  As contemporary social scientists have documented in countless studies, gratitude is fundamental for genuine joy.

3.      Discipleship.  In verses 8-9, Paul moves from the attitudes of trustfulness and gratitude to the lifestyle of a Christian, which is characterized by following in Christ’s footsteps.  Verse 8 provides a list of virtues, including: truthfulness, honor, justice, purity, etc.  In verse 9, Paul encourages the Philippians to continue “doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.”  For Paul, the lifestyle of a Christian is not that of a passive spectator.  Instead, we are called into a junior partnership in which we accept God’s invitation to join in the work of establishing God’s Kingdom—internally, in our hearts and lives, and externally in the world by sharing the Gospel of God’s love for all Creation; by showing mercy to those who do not have enough; and by working for justice in this world.

Taken together, for Paul, fulfilling these three requirements enables Christians to experience the joy of God’s grace; that is, the good life.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, August 5th, as we reflect on the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” and the joy of God’s grace.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Morna D. Hooker, Commentary on Philippians in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 11, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

“Creatio ex Vetere”

          We continue our tour of favorite hymns this Sunday, July 29th, as we reflect upon the Hymn of Promise, written by Natalie Sleeth, and a scripture passage from the Book of Revelation 21: 1-7. 

            Hymn of Promise is a relatively new hymn.  It was originally written and performed in 1985 as a choral anthem for a festival concert, celebrating Sleeth’s music.  Natalie Sleeth was a native of Evanston, Illinois.  She began studying piano at age four.  She continued studying music as she grew into adulthood.  Ultimately, she graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts with a Bachelor’s degree in music theory, piano and organ performance.  Sleeth composed both texts and music.  Over the course of her career, she wrote over 200 choral works for all ages; much of her anthems were composed especially for children.  Sleeth received honorary doctorates from West Virginia Wesleyan (1989) and Nebraska Wesleyan (1990).[1]

            As Natalie Sleeth records, she wrote Hymn of Promise at a time when she was “pondering the ideas of life, death, spring and winter, Good Friday and Easter, and the whole reawaking of the world that happens every spring.”  She was inspired by an idea from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “in my end is my beginning.”  This idea forms the beginning of the third stanza.  Shortly after the hymn was composed, Natalie Sleeth’s husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  He requested that the hymn be sung at his funeral, and it was.[2]

            The hymn begins with several metaphors which Christians frequently use to describe and understand the Resurrection of Christ and the promise of eternal life:

In the bulb there is a flower;
in the seed, an apple tree;
in cocoons, a hidden promise:
butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter
there's a spring that waits to be,
unrevealed until its season,
something God alone can see.[3]

            The Resurrection of Christ and the promise of eternal life lie at the heart of Christian faith.  As the Apostle Paul writes, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, [then,] we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19)  Although I do not have space to explore all of them in this blog post, there are several different, authentic Christian understandings of human resurrection and eternal life. 

However, for the service this Sunday, I have decided that the best perspective for Hymn of Promise is a scriptural view of resurrection and eternal life as physical and bodily.  It is a view that conceives of eternal life as part of God’s promise to redeem all of Creation at the end-of-time.  So, this Sunday, I will pair reflections on Hymn of Promise with a scriptural reading from the Revelation of John 21: 1-7:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.” (NRSV)

            In this text from Revelation, the promise of resurrection and eternal life is fulfilled at the end of time, when God redeems humans and all of Creation.  The Book of Revelation envisions a physical resurrection, as our bodies are transformed with all of Creation into a New Creation.  The passage begins with an eschatological (end-time) vision, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband.” 

            The vision continues.  It is not just a new heaven and a new earth which emerge.  Also, a new Jerusalem—the holy city of God—comes “down out of heaven from God.”  But, there’s even more.  God comes from the heavens down to the earth, to make God’s home “among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them.”

            Just pause and think about that for a moment.  God will come and dwell with us and all of Creation on earth.

            God will no longer be distant…aloof…transcendent.  No.  God will be with us in a more intimate, immanent manner than we have ever experienced before.  God loves us so much that God chooses to live with us in the New Earth. 

            From this point, the vision moves to a description of eternal life:  “God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away,” and a new Creation—a new universal Order—has taken their place.

            What are we to make of such an extraordinary vision of the end-time?

            I really appreciate the interpretation provided by John Polkinghorne, a British physicist and theologian.  Polkinghorne begins with the most basic aspect which we know about God; that is, God’s love.  In reflecting on the first person of the Trinity—God as Creator—Polkinghorne suggests that God’s creative activity is always informed by a kenotic love.  The word, “kenotic” comes from Greek, meaning an emptying or freely self-limiting.  So, Polkinghorne’s claim is not just that God loves human persons and all of Creation.  Rather, Polkinghorne writes that God’s love is freely and voluntarily self-limiting so that humans and all of Creation have greater freedom.  Polkinghorne writes:

“I am proposing…that God interacts with the world but is not in total control of all its process(es).  This act of creation involves divine acceptance of the risk of the existence of the other, and there is a consequent kenosis. …It arises from the logic of love, which requires the freedom of the beloved.”[4]

To elaborate on Polkinghorne’s insight, God’s love for human persons and all of Creation is so great that God voluntarily limits God’s Self so that Creation—especially human persons—have full freedom.

            Yet, God continues to be active.  In our understanding of God as Creator, Christians understand that, in some fundamental manner, God was actively creating at the beginning of time.  We speak of God’s creative activity as creatio ex nihilo – which is Latin for “creating out of nothing.”  Within Christian tradition, there has also been an understanding that God’s work of creation does not end with initial creation.  Instead, Christian belief holds that God continues to be active in the world, continuing to create; in Latin, God creatio continua—God continues to create.  Polkinghorne suggests a third way in which God the Creator works.  Using Latin terms, Polkinghorne suggests that God creatio ex vetere—that is, that God creates from the old.  He writes:

[T]he old creation is God’s bringing into being a universe which is free to exist ‘on its own,’ in the …space made available to it by the divine kenotic [self-limiting] act of allowing the existence of something wholly other; the new creation is divine redemption of the old.”[5]

Polkinghorne proposes that God’s work as Creator continues to this third type of creation, creation ex vetere.  God creates from the old.  In other words, God redeems human persons and all of Creation.  This is what the prophecy means in Revelation:  When God creates a new heaven and a new earth, God is redeeming the old humans and, indeed, the old Creation.  Through God’s redemptive love, we become transformed into new creatures.  We are resurrected to eternal life as new creatures through the power of God’s abiding love for us—and, all of Creation.

In the third stanza of Hymn of Promise, Natalie Sleeth expresses our Christian conviction in these words:

“In our end is our beginning;
  in our time, infinity;
  in our doubt there is believing;
  in our life, eternity.
  In our death, a resurrection;
  at the last, a victory,
  unrevealed until its season,
  something God alone can see.”

            God is freely self-limiting in this world, so that humans may experience full freedom.  This sets
the task for God to work towards redeeming the world.  Thus, God’s Reign—that is, God’s Kingdom—
is not fully established until the emergence of God’s New Creation at the end-time.   At first blush, 
it may appear that all Christian disciples need do is to wait around, passively, until God’s redemption is
completed, and God’s Reign is fully established at the end-time.  
            However, as the Biblical scholar Christopher C. Rowland cautions, Christ does not intend for 
the faithful to sit around as spectators, waiting on the God’s Reign to be established.  No.  Christ invites
us to join with him as junior colleagues in the work of building God’s Reign.  Reflecting on Revelation 21, 
Rowland writes:
“The [new]city may be from heaven, but humans can be the means of channeling God’s grace
 into it.  So we have here some support for the notion of ‘building the kingdom [of God].’  It is
 not all left to some eschatological [end-time] miracle.  Human agents infused with the Spirit in
 the new creation may contribute to that future reign of God here and now in the midst of the
 debris of the old world.”[6]
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, July 29th, as we reflect on Natalie Sleeth’s Hymn of Promise and God’s kenotic love, which is active in our lives and in the world.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] The biographical background material for Natalie Sleeth is drawn from “History of Hymns:  ‘In the Bulb There Is a Flower,’” by C. Michael Hawn, provided by Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church, accessed from their webpage,, 27 July 2018.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), No. 707.

[4] John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist, Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 81.

[5] Polkinghorne, 67. Polkinghorne footnotes Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (Norwich, UK: SCM Press, 1981), 105–14, and also Moltmann, God in Creation (Norwich, UK: SCM Press, 1985), chapter 4.

[6] Christopher C. Rowland, Commentary on the Revelation of John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 12, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

“Gardens as Intersection Points for the Sacred and the Everyday”

            This Sunday, July 22nd, at our 8:30 am service, we continue our reflections on favorite hymns.  During this series, we have explored some of my congregation’s favorite hymns and the scripture which undergirds them.

            This Sunday we will examine the hymn, In the Garden.  The first verse and refrain go like this:

“I come to the garden alone
  while the dew is still on the roses
  and the voice I hear falling on my ear,
  the Son of God discloses

 “And he walks with me,
   and he talks with me,
   and he tells me I am his own;
   and the joy we share as we tarry there,
   none other has ever known.”

This hymn was written by C. Austin Miles in 1913.  Miles was an American song writer, credited with writing 398 songs, as well as the music for 8 more. 

            For most of my life, I have imagined that the garden reference in this hymn was to a beautiful and well cared for residential garden—or, perhaps to a beautiful municipal garden.  Afterall, many people feel especially close to the Divine in peaceful garden settings.  A garden can offer an intersection point, where the sacred and profane meet in natural awesome beauty and quiet tranquility.   Some of my most profound spiritual experiences have occurred in the awesome splendor of nature, generally – and of gardens, in particular.

            However, as I researched this hymn in preparation for the series, I was surprised to discover that the attributed scriptural foundation for this hymn is the story of the empty tomb and Christ’s Resurrection on Easter morning; specifically, John 20: 11-18:

“But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.”

Of all scriptural stories about Jesus’ resurrection, I believe that this resurrection story is the most poignant and personal.  In their exchange, we see a special intimacy between Mary Magdalene and Jesus; it is the close, affirming relationship of student and teacher.  Mary turns and see Jesus, but she does not recognize him at first.  It is only when Jesus speaks here name, “Mary!” that suddenly Mary recognizes Jesus.  And, she responds with a Hebrew term of endearment for a beloved rabbi or teacher:  “Rabbouni!”

Gail O’Day has noted that, in the Gospel of John, an important theme is Jesus’ glorification, or exaltation.  This glorification consists of his death, resurrection, and ascension.  In the fourth gospel, the metaphor for Jesus’ glorification is to be “lifted up.”  In all three moments, Jesus is “lifted up.”[1]

1.      Jesus is lifted up on the cross.  Unlike the other gospels, which see Jesus’ crucifixion as a shameful defeat in need of explanation, for the Gospel of John the crucifixion begins his glorification.

2.      Three days later, on Easter morning, Jesus is again lifted up through the Resurrection.

3.      Finally, after 40 days, Jesus is lifted up at the Ascension, when he ascends into Heaven.

Although the exchange where Mary Magdalene recognizes the resurrected Christ is a beautiful, intimate, poignant moment, the pivotal verse comes just after that, when Jesus tells Mary to go and proclaim the good news of his resurrection and ascension to his disciples and other followers.  Jesus instructs her to go and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”  This “double-identification” formulation (“my Father and your Father, my God and your God”) confers a new relationship upon Christ’s disciples and followers. 

            Gail O’Day nicely underscores the crucial importance of this call:  “Through Jesus’ ascension, the believing community receives a new identity.  His ascension is the confirmation that the believing community now knows God as Jesus knows God, that Jesus has opened up the possibility of new and full relationship with God.  The intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with God the Father…now marks the believing community’s relationship with God.”[2]

            I observed earlier that a garden can offer an intersection point, where the sacred and profane meet in natural, awesome beauty and quiet tranquility.  For me, then, it is not surprising that this pivotal moment in Mary Magdalene’s relationship with Jesus occurs in a garden.  Similarly, it is in this same garden that Jesus proclaims his great victory—his glorification – and how this includes the believing community.  Because of Christ’s three-step glorification, his disciples enter into a new relationship with God—a relationship of love, joy, and intimacy—and therefore we gain a new identity as beloved by God.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, July 22nd.  During our 8:30 am service, I will reflect on the hymn, In the Garden, and its message that we have entered into a new relationship with God and have been given a new identity as God’s beloved.    However, I will not be preaching at our second service at 11:00 am.  That service will be a celebration of our church’s Vacation Bible School (VBS), which was just completed.  At the 11 am service, the proclamation will be provided by the VBS kids.  Come and join us at either service at Christ United Methodist Church, located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Gail R. O’Day, Commentary on the Gospel of John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 9, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[2] Ibid.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

“When Sea Monsters Praise God”

              After taking some vacation time last Sunday, I return to the pulpit this Sunday (July 15th) at Christ United Methodist Church.  This weekend we continue our sermon series on the congregation’s eight favorite hymns.  Each Sunday the proclamation focuses on one these top hymns and the scripture which undergirds it.

This Sunday, we will focus on the hymn, How Great Thou Art.  For my proclamation, I have paired this hymn with Psalm 148.  In the Book of Psalms in the Bible, there are several different types of psalms for use in different situations.  This psalm is a hymn of praise, which the early Hebrews would use liturgically, in communal worship.[i]  The structure of psalms of praise is usually threefold:

1.      An opening invitation to praise God.
2.      Reasons for praising God.
3.      A recapitulation of the invitation to praise God.[ii]

Psalm 148 begins with a simple, straightforward invitation:  “Praise the Lord!”  However, the scope of the psalm’s invitation is extended beyond the expected people of Israel—or, even human persons in general.  Instead, Psalm 148 extends the scope of invitation to all of Creation, both living and non-living alike.  That is, Psalm 148 calls upon “everything that is…”—that is, everything that has being—to praise God.  This extended invitation is divided into three parts. 

The first part of this elaborated invitation focuses on praising God from the heavens by the beings and objects that inhabit the heavens.  Verses 1-6:

Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord from the heavens;
   praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
   praise him, all his host! 

Praise him, sun and moon;
   praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
   and you waters above the heavens! 

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
   for he commanded and they were created.
He established them for ever and ever;
   he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.” 

Notice that both animate and inanimate heavenly bodies are invited to praise God.  Animate beings, such as “his angels” and “all his host” are invited to praise God.  Similarly, inanimate creation, such as sun and moon and shining stars are invited to praise God.

            When I hear the first verse of How Great Thou Art, as presented in The United Methodist Hymnal, I am reminded of Psalm 148 and its invitation for all heavenly bodies to praise God:

“O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
  consider all the worlds thy hands have made,
  I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
  thy power throughout the universe displayed.”

Then, the refrain:
“Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;
  how great thou art, how great thou art!
  Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;
  how great thou art, how great thou art!

In the second part of this elaborated invitation to worship, the focus of Psalm 148 shifts from the heavens, down to the earth.  Verses 7-10:

“Praise the Lord from the earth,
   you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
   stormy wind fulfilling his command! 

Mountains and all hills,
   fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
   creeping things and flying birds!” 

Again, as with the heavenly invitation in verses 1-6, the invitation to praise God is extended to both animate and inanimate Creation.  Notice how closely these verses mirror the Creation story in Genesis 1:  “sea monsters” (Gen. 1:21) “all deeps” recalls “the deep” in Genesis 1:2.  Similarly, the invitation to “fruit trees” is mirrored in Genesis 1:11, while “wild animals and all cattle, and creeping things” reflect Genesis 1:24.  Finally, “flying birds” invokes Genesis 1:21.  As with the heavenly invitation, so also the invitation for the earth includes inanimate Creation, “fire and hail, snow and frost, [and] stormy wind.” 

            This invitation to the earthly realm is also reflected in the hymn, How Great Thou Art. From verse two:

“When through the woods and forest glades I wander,
   and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
   when I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
    and hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze;”

Then, the refrain:
“Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;
  how great thou art, how great thou art!
  Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;
  how great thou art, how great thou art!

            In the third and final part of its extended invitation to praise God, Psalm 148 finally shifts its focus to humans.  Verses 11-12:

“Kings of the earth and all peoples,
   princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
   old and young together!” 

In these verses, the psalmist is very careful to be inclusive.  All peoples are invited to praise God.  Men and women; old and young; the powerful leaders and everyday folk, alike.  Everyone is invited to praise God.

            In its final two verses, Psalm 148 shifts to the second component in the normal structure of a hymn of praise.  In these verses, the psalmist gives reasons for praising God:

“Let them praise the name of the Lord,
   for his name alone is exalted;
   his glory is above earth and heaven. 
He has raised up a horn for his people,
   praise for all his faithful,
   for the people of Israel who are close to him.

In verse 13, the psalmist urges all of Creation, including humans, to worship God because of God’s sovereignty.  God has created all that there is, both animate and inanimate life.  And, as Creator, God rules all of Creation.  In the psalmist’s vision, all of Creation praises God in its own manner; that is, its own voice.  Further, as Biblical scholar J. Clinton McCann, Jr. points out:  “Because God rules the cosmos, God’s praise is incomplete without the participation of every voice, human and nonhuman, in heaven and in earth and in all creation.”[iii]

            The third component of a hymn of praise—the recapitulation of the invitation to praise God—appears at the end of the psalm (verse 14b).  Here, the psalmist recapitulates his simple, introductory invitation to all Creation to “Praise the Lord!”

            The hymn, How Great Thou Art, originated as a poem written by the Swedish poet Carl Boberg in 1885.  In describing his inspiration for the poem, Boberg describes a summer thunderstorm which came up very quickly.  He and his companions had to hurry for shelter before the rain began.  However, the storm was short-lived and soon the sky began to clear.  Now, safely at his home, Boberg opened a window facing towards the sea.  From the open window, he heard birds in the forest and church bells ringing in the distance.  And, this was the inspiration for his poem.  Several years later, the poem was set to an old Swedish folk tune.

            Over the years, new verses were added by others and the hymn evolved.  In The United Methodist Hymnal, verses 3 and 4 were added by the British Methodist missionary, Stuart K. Hine. 

He wrote verse 3, after visiting a Ukrainian village.  While in the village, Hine was going to visit the home of a Protestant Christian couple, Dimitri and Lyudmila.  As he approached the house, they heard Lyudmila reading from the Gospel of John to a house full of visitors.  Many of the visitors were dramatically moved by the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and the promise of forgiveness.  So, in response to the reading, these visitors began to verbally repent from their sins.  Not wanting to interrupt, Hine stood outside the house.  But, as he waited, Hine wrote down the phrases which he heard the penitents uttering.  These phrases became the third verse.

“And when I think that God, his Son not sparing,
  sent him to die, I scarce can take it in;
  that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
  he bled and died to take away my sin;  (Refrain)”

            The fourth verse was inspired by another experience which Stuart K. Hine had.  Towards the end of World War II, he visited a Russian refugee camp in Sussex, England.  In the camp, he met a man who had been separated from his wife.  The man explained that before their separation, his wife had been a Christian, but he himself had not.  After the separation, the man experienced a conversion to Christianity.  Now, he longed to be re-united with his wife, so that he could share his newfound faith with her.  However, he doubted that he would ever see his wife again.  So, instead, he looked forward to that time when they would be re-united in heaven and share eternal life together.  After hearing his story, Hine penned verse 4:

“When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
   and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
   Then I shall bow in humble adoration,
   and there proclaim, my God, how great thou art!  (Refrain)”

            While the verses added by Stuart K. Hine and others are important, the hymn How Great Thou Art is one of my favorites because of Carl Boberg’s original words and the way they mirror and promote the expanded invitation from Psalm 148 for all of Creation—both animate and inanimate—to praise God.  (Similar invitations are included in Psalms 8, 96, 98, and 104. 

By expanding the invitation to all of Creation to praise God, Psalm 148 and the hymn, How Great Thou Art, transform our attitude towards the rest of Creation.  Rather than seeing the rest of Creation as belonging to humans for the taking, this broadened invitation reminds us that all of Creation belongs to God who is sovereign and that all of Creation joins humans in praising God in their own voices.

            Psalm 148 and How Great Thou Art  have the effect of elevating the rest of Creation to the same level as human persons in the sight of God.  All of us are God’s good creations and our praise for God is incomplete when the rest of Creation cannot join with us. 

There have been times in history when Christians have forgotten this important insight from the psalms.  Some critics actually hold Christianity partly responsible for the environmental degradation which has occurred since the Industrial Revolution.  In his famous essay, Lynn White, Jr., who was a devout Presbyterian himself, wrote that “Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt” for the present ecological damage[iv] because Christian scripture and tradition place humans at the center of creation and give them dominance.

While White’s observation may be historically valid, it clearly comes from a misreading of scripture, such as Psalm 148, as well as other passages.  Interestingly, another verse, penned by the British missionary, Stuart Hine, addresses White’s concern.  Although the verse was not included in The United Methodist Hymnal, it probably should have been:

O when I see ungrateful man defiling
This bounteous earth, God's gifts so good and great;
In foolish pride, God's holy Name reviling,
And yet, in grace, His wrath and judgment wait.

Then, the refrain:
“Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;
  how great thou art, how great thou art!
  Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;
  how great thou art, how great thou art!”

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, July 15th.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] In addition to hymns, or songs, of praise, there are other categories of psalms, such as psalms of lament, royal psalms, and prophetic exhortation psalms.

[ii] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., Commentary on the Book of Psalms in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 4, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (10 March 1967): 1203-1207; reprinted in Louis P. Pojman, ed., Environmental Ethics, Readings in Theory and Application, 2d ed., (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998), 19.