Friday, December 5, 2014

“What Do You Hope to Accomplish by Fasting?”

            It is late afternoon on Friday and my day-long fast is almost completed.  I haven’t eaten since breakfast and I can tell it.  For the last several hours, my stomach has growled and turned and growled some more.  I feel slightly light headed.  I am really hungry.  Just a few more minutes and I can end my fast, with dinner.

            Earlier today I told someone that I was fasting all day.  The response was incredulous:  “Why on earth are you doing that?”  “What do you hope to accomplish?” 

            This all began last Sunday on the “First Sunday of Advent.”  In my sermon, I described the season of Advent as a time of preparation for the celebration of the Messiah’s birth at Christmas. I explained that historically in the Church this Advent preparation included fasting, confession of our sins, and penance. 

Then, at the end of my message, I committed to fasting during the day on the three Friday’s of Advent, December 5th, 12th, and 19th.  Then, I challenged my congregation to join me in fasting—or, if they didn’t feel as though they could fast, to give up something else which they really enjoy or depend on for Advent.  Of those who have shared with me, most are giving up something instead of actually fasting—and, that’s ok.  I’ve been interested to hear what people are giving up.  The things sacrificed vary from that Southern delight “Moon pies” and RC colas to staying up really late.

But, the question remains: Why fast or give up something?  What do we hope to accomplish? 

As I explained last week, “I like to think about our time of preparation during Advent as a journey that ultimately leads to the manger and baby Jesus on Christmas Eve.”  It is a journey of preparation—spiritual preparation—before celebrating Christmas and the birth of the Messiah.  For Christians, Christmas marks that tipping point in the history of humanity and, indeed, the history of the cosmos.  It is the tipping point when absolutely everything changed.  It was that moment of transformation, when God became incarnated in a particular person, the baby Jesus.  Nothing has been the same, ever since.  The entire world has been transformed by the awesome, incomprehensible love of God.

Traditionally, this spiritual journey of preparation for Christmas has been characterized by three words:  confession, lamentation, and penance. 

Of course, there is a second preparation for Christmas going on all around us in secular culture.  We live in a popular culture that takes the Christmas season very seriously.  For retailers, the Christmas season is the single most important time of the year.  So, all around us, popular culture is preparing for and celebrating a different type of Christmas.  This secular Christmas can also be characterized by three words:  partying, feasting, and shopping.

There’s quite a dramatic difference between the two preparations and observations of Christmas. 

As a Christian, I perceive a fatal danger with the way popular society observes Christmas.  The danger is that we can become so caught up partying, feasting, and shopping that we lose all perspective on why there is a Christmas in the first place.  We can forget or overlook or fail to appreciate this radical transformation of humanity and the world by the awesome, incredible love of God for each of us. 

The example I used last week went like this:

“Think about it this way:  Have you ever been in a thunderstorm or a snow storm that knocked out the electricity in your house.  If you are like me, there comes a point where you start to realize just how much you take electricity for granted.  The power goes out and it’s dark, so you stand up and walk over to switch on the light, only to remember the power is out.  So, frustrated, you turn on the television to get a report on how long you will be without power, only to realize the television won’t work because the power is out.  Then, you decide to make a cup of coffee, only to realize that the coffee maker won’t work because there’s no electricity.  Perhaps, you decide to find someplace that still has electricity.  So, you go out to the garage, only to realize the garage opener is powered by electricity.” 

If we only follow the path of popular culture, then we will, indeed, forget or overlook or fail to appreciate the significance of that first Christmas.

Now, we cannot escape the popular culture which dominates and defines contemporary life.  To switch metaphors, American popular culture is the ocean and we are all mere fishes swimming and living in that ocean.  We have no better chance of living independently of American popular culture than the chances of a fish living out of the ocean. 

In reality, each Christian takes two journeys of preparation during the four-week Advent period.  On the one hand, we must participate in the Christmas of popular culture.  On the other hand, as persons of faith, we must participate in the historical spiritual preparation of Advent.  As Americans living in contemporary society, we take these two journeys simultaneously.  On the one hand, we cannot escape joining in the partying, feasting, and shopping of popular culture.  On the other hand, we must also engage the spiritual preparation of confession, lamentation, and penance.  It is a both/and.  This is good.

So, what do I hope to accomplish by fasting?  I hope to be spiritually prepared to celebrate the birth of the Messiah and to appreciate it as the tipping point it really was, when everything about the cosmos changed, including my puny little life.

The pain from the emptiness of my stomach is miniscule when compared to the sharp hunger pains of children and their families around the world.

The faint headache and light-headedness brought on by my fasting is miniscule when compared to the suffering of my Savior on the Cross, or the suffering that occurs in the world, including the damage that we wreak upon Creation.

Yet, even though the suffering and inconvenience of fasting for a few hours is miniscule, I believe that it will help me spiritually prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the transformation of the world. 

What do I hope to accomplish by fasting?  I hope to gain perspective and appreciation.

If you live in our area and do not have a church that is your home, come and join us at Meriden United Methodist Church.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"The Journey Begins In Lamentation--and Hope"

            This coming Sunday, November 30th, marks the beginning of the season of Advent on the Christian Calendar.  Advent is that four-week period of preparation, leading up to Christmas and the celebration of the Messiah’s birth.  But, how should we “prepare” during Advent?  Historically in the Church, Advent was a time for fasting, confession of our sins, and penance.  Of course, sacrificial and penitential acts seem diametrically opposed to the “preparation” for Christmas that goes on in the secular, popular culture all around Christians.  In the popular culture “preparation” for Christmas seems characterized by feasting, partying, and shopping.

            As Christians, how do we prepare for Christmas?

            From a Christian perspective, our preparation for Christmas should center on internal, spiritual preparation, even though I acknowledge that there is much physical preparation that we might do, such as baking cookies and decorating our homes.  Although I do not think we are required to strictly follow the old Church tradition of sacrificial preparation, we might begin by looking at how those Christians prepared, spiritually, and why they chose those methods.

Each year during Advent, there are traditional scripture readings, which are suggested as the foundational texts for preaching.  One of these suggested texts for this Sunday is Isaiah 64: 1-12.  The form of literature which this scripture passage takes is that of Lamentation.

            Most contemporary persons don’t spend much time reflecting on, or doing, lamentation.  From a Christian theological perspective, Lamentation is passionate and usually vocal expression of regret and sorrow and grief brought on by the recognition—and confession—of our sins and failings.  Although it is not an important component of our contemporary life, lamentation is a prevalent theme in many sections of the Bible and it was an important component of Christian spirituality down through the ages, until the modern and post-modern periods. 

What can we learn about spiritual preparation for Christmas through a passage of the Bible devoted to Lamentation? 

Isaiah 64 can be divided into three sections.  The first section (verses 1-5a) is basically a recollection and reminder of how in the past God was powerfully active and present in the lives of the faithful.  This section is addressed directly to God.  Remembering how God revealed God’s Self to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt, the prophet writes, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” (v. 1) 

Implicit in this section is the admission by the prophet that, for the people of his day, God has become “hidden,” or absent.  The people of God are separated from God.  If we are completely honest, couldn’t the same claim be made about many people around us?  Isn’t it true that there are many people around us, who do not experience God’s presence in their lives?  Many of us in the church could push even deeper and admit that sometimes it feels as though God has hidden from us and we do not feel God’s presence within our lives.

In the second section of this chapter  (verses 5b-7), the focus shifts to a collective confession of how far the people have strayed and how greatly they have sinned.  In an extremely graphic metaphor, the prophet confesses, “We have become like one who is unclean and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth” (verse 6).  Literally, the prophet says that our actions have become as unclean and reprehensive as a used menstrual cloth.

While most of us would not use such a graphic image, isn’t it true that all of us today have sins and shortcomings and failures that we are ashamed of?  Like a dark hood that terrorists use to cover the head of a captive, so also our sin and our shame blot out the brilliant light of God’s Presence and Love in our lives.  Our sins and shortcomings create a barrier that separates us from God.  At this point, this lamentation is complete.  All is darkness and despair.

Yet, there is always hope with God.  And so, the third section (verses 8-12) form an appeal to God for mercy and rescue.  The third section begins by reminding God of the special relationship that God has established with us; a special relationship that was established at the very beginning.  The prophet writes, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay and you are our potter; we are the work of your hand.” (verse 8; my emphasis)  Despite all of the bad that we have done; despite how hidden God is from us; despite how angry God is, the Prophet reminds God of God’s love and special relationship with us. 

So, the lamentation ends on a note of hope:  “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?  Will you keep silent and punish us so severely?” (verse 12)  There is hope that God’s love is so deep and so powerful that all evil will be overcome and we will be reconciled with our Creator.

            For Christians, the source and focus of that hope is Jesus Christ. 

            I would suggest that there is great insight in the old Christian traditions of making confession and penance—and, lamentation—central for their spiritual preparation for Christmas. 

Think about it this way:  Have you ever been in a thunderstorm or a snow storm that knocked out the electricity in your house.  If you are like me, there comes a point where you start to realize just how much you take electricity for granted.  The power goes out and it’s dark, so you stand up and walk over to switch on the light, only to remember the power is out.  So, frustrated, you turn on the television to get a report on how long you will be without power, only to realize the television won’t work because the power is out.  Then, you decide to make a cup of coffee, only to realize that the coffee maker won’t work because there’s no electricity.  Perhaps, you decide to find someplace that still has electricity.  So, you go out to the garage, only to realize the garage opener is powered by electricity. 

As Christians we can slip into the habit of taking Christ for granted, just as we do electricity in our homes.  This is the great liability of allowing popular culture, with its emphasis on feasting, partying, and shopping, to solely dictate how we experience Christmas.  In order to truly appreciate how lucky we are to have Christ in our lives, we need to spend some time in confession and lamentation and penance.

I like to think about our time of preparation during Advent as a journey that ultimately leads to the manger and baby Jesus on Christmas Eve.  The prophet Isaiah tells us that this spiritual journey should begin with lamentation—and hope.

Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings.  Come, join us this Sunday, November 30th, as we begin a spiritual journey that ultimately ends at the manger in Bethlehem. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Does the Apostle Paul Really Condone Slavery?"

             Just as it is now, the American Church was deeply divided 160 years ago.  Whereas the contemporary American Church continues to struggle with questions of human sexuality, 160 years ago the divisive question was the moral legitimacy of slavery.  That is, well-meaning Christians were deeply divided over whether a faithful Christian could legitimately own other human persons and support the institution of slavery.

            On the one side, there were many well-intentioned Christians who believed that slavery was a moral abomination and serious sin, which could lead to God’s wrathful judgment and damnation.  These Christians drew heavily from the Bible to support their opposition to slavery.  For instance, they argued that Genesis 1:27 clearly establishes that all human persons possess the divine image because each of us is “created in God’s image.”  Further, they noted that in his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus taught that we should “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44).  Later, in 1 John 4:20b-21, we read:  “…those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this:  those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters.”

            On the basis of these scriptures and others, many Christians in the mid-nineteenth century concluded that if all persons are created in God’s divine image and if we are to love all persons, then slavery must be inherently evil from a Christian perspective.  Today, this understanding appears obvious and beyond doubt.  However, in the mid-1800s, it was far from less obvious.

            There was a second Christian perspective which held that the institution of slavery was compatible with Christian teachings and that faithful Christians could own slaves.  Christians who held this perspective also drew heavily from the Bible to support their acceptance of slavery.  For instance, they cited Colossians 3:22, which says, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord.”  This verse seems to justify and legitimate slavery.  Similarly, Paul’s Letter to Philemon, a slave owner, seems to condone slavery as acceptable for faithful disciples of Christ.  In this letter, Paul never condemns slavery as wrong.  Instead, he urges Philemon to welcome back Onesimus, a runaway slave, without harsh punishment. 

            This Sunday, November 23rd, I will be preaching on the Epistle to Philemon.  This message will be the first in an occasional series of sermons entitled, “Struggling with Difficult Passages in the Bible.”  The question that I am bringing to Philemon is this, “Does the Apostle Paul Really Condone Slavery?”

            In approaching this question, we must begin by recognizing that slavery in the Roman Empire was very different from the slavery that existed within our own country before the Civil War.  Roman slavery was not based upon race or nationality, as in the antebellum South.  In Rome, slaves were primarily prisoners taken during a war.  So, slaves could be Celts, Germans, Greeks, or any other nationality that lost a war with the Roman Empire.  Some Roman slaves were highly educated, performing important jobs, such as that of teacher, bookkeeper, or physician.  Slaves could be set free by their owners, and frequently this happened out of respect or friendship that developed between owner and slave.  At the same time, slaves who ran away or rebelled could be severely punished by whippings or other forms of physical torture.  Re-captured slaves might even be executed by means of crucifixion. 

            Paul writes his letter to Philemon on behalf of a runaway slave named Onesimus.  In the beginning salutation of the letter, Paul identifies Philemon as a devout Christian who hosts one of the early “house-churches” in his home.  Paul informs Philemon that Onesimus has converted to Christianity, since he ran away.  Onesimus has really helped Paul during a time when Paul had been arrested and thrown into jail.  Despite his assistance, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, who remains his legal owner. 

            At the same time, Paul pleads with Philemon, asking him to accept the return of Onesimus kindly.  Rather than beating or executing Onesimus—which is his legal right—Paul  asks Philemon to forgive Onesimus and to treat him as a “beloved brother” in the faith.  Paul also implies that Philemon may want to set Onesimus free. 

            So, the question remains:  “Does the Apostle Paul condone slavery?”  It is true that in his letter to Philemon, Paul never condemns slavery as an immoral institution.  It is also true that he never says owning slaves is incompatible with Christian discipleship.  So, by implication, it would appear that Paul condones the institution of slavery and faithful Christians owning slaves.  Yet, this conclusion is actually very superficial and we should dig deeper.

            We tend to read our Bibles from within our own historical, socio-economic context.  As twenty-first century, American Christians we live in a context where there is an accepted policy of religious tolerance.  But, further, we live in a society where Christianity remains the largest, most influential, and most dominant religion.  In this country, contemporary Christians’ legacy includes historical moments, such as Prohibition and the Civil Rights movement, when Christians profoundly shaped public policy, according to their faith. As result, we are perplexed and disturbed because Paul does not just come out and condemn slavery in his letter to Philemon.

            It is easy to forget that Paul was writing in a dramatically different historical, socio-economic context.  In Paul’s context, Christians were a small, marginalized sect without any political clout at all.  Scholars date the writing of Philemon as occurring between 55-61 CE, which was just 3-9 years prior the first great persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire under Emperor Nero in 64 CE.  Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus all lived under threat of persecution for their faith, and Paul had been imprisoned for his Christian faith at the time he wrote to Philemon.  So, in a way, it was pointless for Paul to condemn slavery, given his context.

            Yet, that does not mean Paul condones slavery, either.  Rather, than protesting the public policy of slavery, Paul does something else which was very interesting and extraordinarily powerful.  Recognizing and acknowledging Philemon’s legal right to own and discipline Onesimus the slave, Paul asks Philemon to acknowledge and embrace a higher standard of behavior—the standard of Christ.  Paul asks Philemon to recognize Onesimus, not as his slave, but rather as his brother through their mutual faith in Christ. 

            Rather than making an ethical argument against the institution of slavery, Paul proposes a transformation in relationships because of Philemon’s Christian faith.  As the highly regarded Biblical scholar Raymond Brown observes, Paul challenges Philemon, “a Christian slave owner to defy conventions:  To forgive and receive back into the household a runaway slave … to go farther in generosity by freeing the servant; and most important of all from a theological viewpoint to recognize in Onesimus a beloved brother and thus acknowledge his Christian transformation.”[1]


            I think there are several lessons for twenty-first century Christians, living in a post-modern world, to learn from Paul’s Letter to Philemon: 

(1) We cannot read our Bibles, assuming the same historical, socio-politico-economic context.  The Bible must speak to literally millions of Christians who live across the centuries in very different time periods and vastly different contexts.  We must dig deeper to understand the context that existed for the person writing and for the first audience of the text. 

(2)  We contemporary, American Christians have an obligation and a duty to be good stewards of our American citizenship and the privileges which we have received.  Our society faces many critical public policy issues, including accessible healthcare, environment, immigration, and poverty.  God calls us to speak to these issues from our hearts of Christian faith—even if we cannot speak with a unified Christian voice.  This is prophetic witness and we must embrace it.

(3)  In addition to prophetic witness, Christ calls us—just as Christ called Philemon—to an even more radical transformation of our personal relationships.  To live out our relationships as though God's Reign has already been established throughout the world.

Come, join us this Sunday, November 23rd, as we struggle with this very difficult passage.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.


[1] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York:  Doubleday, 1997), 506.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"A Harvest of Righteousness"

            Recently I have been studying the various manifestations of “being a church” within the broader umbrella of “Emergence Theology”.  There are some pastors and Christians thinkers today, who believe that we need to re-think what a church is.  For these Christians, the “traditional model” of being a church is no longer viable.  In their assessment, the “traditional model” does not effectively reach unchurched persons for Christ and it no longer empowers its constituents to faithfully serve God.  As a result of their assessments, emergence theologians and pastors are actively seeking new models of being a church, with revolutionary structures of organization and new, more meaningful forms of worship.

            By contrast, my pastoral setting is solidly in the “traditional model” of church.  Yet, I have never believed that there was just one single way of “being a church.”  I believe, instead,  that the organizational structure, forms of worship, missional approach and methods of inviting others to Christ should be tailored to the needs and particularities of a specific context. So, I have been interested in learning more about the emergence church movement, hoping that there were some idea and insights that we might adopt and adapt in our solidly traditional model.

            Some of this reading and reflecting on emergence theology has raised an important question for me:  “What are the essential characteristics of any faithful church, regardless of whether it is “traditional” or “emergent”?

            In my message last Sunday (November 9th), I identified four characteristics that are essential for every Christian congregation:

1.      A viable Christian congregation must provide a safe and secure sanctuary where individual persons are free to be themselves without shame or pretense.  Further, a Christian community of faith must provide opportunities for everyone to find a place and meaning.

2.      A viable Christian congregation must provide spiritual nurture to all of its members.  This spiritual nurture should enable everyone to grow spiritually and to mature in their faith.

3.      A viable Christian congregation must create missional opportunities so that its constituents can move out and make a real difference in their neighborhoods, communities, and even in the global context.

4.      A viable Christian congregation must be willing to take risks for Christ, in order to advance the first three characteristics.  Instead of saying, “We’ve never done it that way before,” the operative question should simply ask, “What is God calling us to do next?”

In my sermon this Sunday (November 16th), I want to continue this exploration of what it means to be a faithful Christian disciple in our contemporary, American context.  My scripture this Sunday is one of my favorites:  Philippians 1:  3-11.

            In reality this passage of scripture is a love letter from the Apostle Paul to the churches of Philippi.  Paul begins this passage with gratitude and joy, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you…”  (Philippians 1: 3-4). 

            Paul’s joy and thanksgiving for the Philippian Christians is grounded in their history together because the Philippians  have shared “in the gospel from the first day until now.”  Incidentally, some biblical scholars believe that at least part of this “sharing in the gospel,” refers to the Philippians willingness to provide financial assistance to the Apostle Paul, especially during his time in prison.

            At the same time, Paul is well aware that the Philippian Christians are still very much “a work in progress.”  God is not done with the Philippian church just yet.  As Paul writes, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (v. 6)  God is still working within the Philippian church, helping them to grow spiritually and mature in their understanding of faith.

            Paul is supremely confident that the Philippian Christians will continue to grow spiritually and mature in their faith because he sees the Philippian Christians as forming a special, spiritual, Christian partnership with him.  This spiritual partnership includes not just Paul and the Philippians, but it also includes God.  In this partnership, Paul and the Philippians experience both joy and tribulations, as they work with God to establish God’s Reign on Earth.  Paul describes their partnership with these words, “For all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” (v. 7b)

            At the same time, there is a hint of bittersweetness in this love letter to the Philippian Christians.  This letter is written at a time when Paul is in prison, awaiting trial for his preaching.  Paul suspects that they must continue in the partnership of the Gospel without his presence.  So, Paul concludes this love letter to the Philippians with a prayer and a blessing:

“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” (vv. 9-11)

I think that when he uses the term, “harvest of righteousness,” Paul is referring to the totality of the life of discipleship and faith.  For each individual disciple, it includes growing spiritually, as well as reaching out in ministry to heal a broken, conflicted, hurting world.  For individual churches, it also includes providing a safe and secure place where everyone can be themselves and find place and meaning.  For both individual disciples as well as congregations, this harvest of righteousness can only be produced when we are willing to reach out beyond our comfort zones and take risks in order to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus Christ.


Come, join us this Sunday, November 16th, as we explore the implications within our own specific context for sharing in the gospel and producing this “harvest of righteousness.”  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Friday, October 31, 2014

"We Are Not Alone"

            I am back after taking some time off for vacation and then continuing education.  I return to the pulpit on a very special Sunday.  This weekend Christians around the world will celebrate “All Saints Day,” a day set aside to remember and give thanks for friends, family, and other loved ones who have died.   At Meriden United Methodist Church we celebrate All Saints Sunday by reading the names of our loved ones, with a chime ringing after each name has been lifted up.  The names of our deceased loved ones are read as the congregation receives Holy Communion, reminding us of God’s promise that we will all be reunited in God’s Kingdom.

            My message this weekend, as we remember and give thanks for our loved ones, will be grounded in Hebrews 12: 1-3.  I deeply treasure the book of Hebrews and especially this passage.  However, in order to fully understand and appreciate this passage, we must understand its placement in the sweep of the overall argument in Hebrews. 

To fully understand Hebrews 12: 1-3, we must begin with the previous chapter, when the writer provides this definition of faith:  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  He continues in 11: 2-3 by observing, “Indeed by faith our ancestors received approval.  By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” 

From this point forward, to the very end of Chapter 11, the writer piles example on top of example of the faith of our ancestors in the faith.  For instance, he reminds us of the faith of Moses and the Hebrews, when he writes:  “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so [without faith] they were drowned.” (v. 29)

In Chapter 11, the writer of Hebrews goes on and on and on, giving example after example after example of the faith of our spiritual ancestors from the Bible.  Then, our passage from the 12th chapter begins triumphantly with “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…”.  

At this point, the writer of Hebrews adopts the intriguing metaphor of a distance race, such as a road race or a cross country race.  He suggests that living faithfully as disciples of Christ is akin to running an endurance race.  To put it together, verse 1 goes like this:  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” 

For the writer of Hebrews, we do not run the race of faithful discipleship alone.  No, we are surrounded by this crowd of spiritual ancestors, who have already completed the course but are watching us run.  This “cloud of witnesses” are not passive, disinterested spectators, either.  They surround and uplift us as we run our course of faith, pulling for us to run with endurance to the very end.  And, we know that we can successfully complete the course because this crowd of spiritual ancestors has already completed the course through faith.  We know that we can complete the course because they have already completed it.
In my message this Sunday, I will suggest that the crowd of spiritual ancestors watching us run our races is not restricted simply to the characters from the Bible.  Instead, I will argue that our loved ones are also part of the “cloud of witnesses”—that deeply engaged crowd of spectators—who are actively pulling for us –and offer us inspiration—as we run our course.

For the writer of Hebrews, we can take encouragement and inspiration from the “cloud of witnesses” who watch us run.  Yet, as he continues in verses 2-3, he calls upon us to look to Jesus as our role model for what it means to live faithful lives of discipleship.  Further, the writer emphasizes the quality of endurance, as essential if we are to remain faithful and not grow weary. 

We can see this quality of endurance modeled in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As the writer exhorts us in verse 2, we are to look “to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of God.”

Come, join us this Sunday, November 2nd, as we remember and celebrate the lives of our friends, family members, and other loved ones—and, as we reflect on the assurance that they have joined the “great crowd of witnesses” who surround and uplift us, as we run with endurance the race of faith that is set before us.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Friday, October 10, 2014

"Did He Really Mean That?"

            This Sunday (Oct. 12th), I will complete my sermon series on “Building Stronger Relationships.”  Over the course of this seven-week series, we have looked at a diversity of relationships:

Ø  relationships within our Families
Ø  relationships with our Friends
Ø  relationships with Ourselves
Ø  relationships with God
Ø  relationships with Nature
Ø  relationships with Strangers

This week we conclude by looking at relationships with our enemies.  This is a very rich topic and there are several different directions that we could take and explore.  For instance,  we could examine the relationships that we have with enemies of the United States, such as our fear and hatred of the enemy terrorist group ISIL. 

            Of all these diverse options, I have decided to focus our reflections at the personal level. In other words, how do we build stronger relationships with our personal enemies or rivals.  Throughout this series, we have focused on the following three questions:

Ø  What kinds of relationships does God intend for us to have and maintain?
Ø  What kind of relationship-partner does God call us to be?
Ø  How can we be faithful to God in the manner that we live out our relationships?

So, basically, our concern this coming Sunday will be what kind of relationships does God expect us to have with our personal enemies and rivals?  What kind of relationship does God expect us to have with those persons who have wronged us; or harmed us; or cheated us; been our bitter rivals at work or in our families or in our communities?

            My reflections this weekend will be based upon a portion of Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.  Specifically, we will be reflecting on Matthew 5: 43-48.  This scripture contains these words by Jesus:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

            For some who are new Christians, this saying by Jesus may be unbelievable—literally.  Does Jesus really mean that we are to love our enemies!?!  For others who grew up in the church, this saying may be so familiar that we no longer take it very seriously.  In our worship this week, I am going to ask everyone, both new and long-established Christians, to try and hear this saying for the first time.  I am going to ask that we let Jesus' admonition to sink in and that we take it very seriously.  If we do that, then most of us are going to find ourselves questioning; asking, “Does he really mean that we are to love our enemies!?!”

            I am convinced that before we can build stronger relationships with our enemies we must first hear Jesus’ saying again for the first time.  On Sunday, we will ask why Jesus thinks that it is important to love our enemies.  What we will learn is that Jesus calls upon us to love our enemies because God already loves and cares for our enemies.  It is important that we come to see our enemies as God sees them, as beloved sons and daughters.  Just as with strangers, we must develop the ability to see the face of Jesus in the face of our enemies. 

            And, there’s more.  Jesus reminds us that as his followers we need to live our lives differently from the everyday norm.  As his followers, we are to live as “resurrection people” who are sons and daughters of God, confident that in the end God will prevail and God’s Reign will be established on Earth -- and death shall no longer threaten us.   

And, there’s even more than that.  Come, join us this Sunday, Oct.12th, at Meriden United Methodist Church, as we explore what it means to “love your enemies” as disciples who are called to begin living as a resurrection people.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

"On Seeing Jesus in the Face of the Stranger"

            What kind of relationship does God expect us to have with strangers?

            Over the past six weeks, I have been exploring different types of relationships in my Sunday morning proclamations.  In this sermon series, I have been asking how we can build stronger relationships across the myriad types of relationships that we maintain.  In past sermons, we have reflected on relationships with families, friends, ourselves, God, and nature.  This Sunday, October 5th, I want to focus on our relationship with strangers. 

            One aspect of post-modern American culture is that we regularly encounter and interact with strangers.  This is true regardless of where we live, even in small towns, such as Meriden, the small town where I live.  Even if we live in a small village—where everyone literally does know our name—most of us range beyond our homes into more populated areas for work or shopping or entertainment.  Encountering strangers is part of daily, social interaction.

            It’s human nature to fear strangers.  Television shows, movies, and many novels are replete with creative stories of how strangers can hurt us.  Parents of small children have special cause for concern, and most parents are constantly warning their children to beware of strangers.  But, what kind of relationship does God call upon us to have with strangers?

            There are several interesting stories in the Bible that could provide models for the type of relationships with strangers that God calls upon us to have.  See, for example, the story of the prophet Elisha and the wealthy woman of Shunem in 2 Kings 4, or the story of the prophet Elijah and the poor widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17.  There are other stories, as well.  However, for this week I want to focus on the story of Abraham and Sarah and the three men in Genesis 18: 1-15.

            At the beginning of Chapter 18, the reader learns that the three men are actually God, two angels.  But, throughout the story neither Abraham nor his wife, Sarah, realize the true identity of the three strangers.  As the story begins, Abraham is sitting in his tent in the wilderness in the hot, middle part of the day.  Suddenly, three men appear.  Instantly, Abraham leaps from his tent and rushes out to greet the strangers.  As was the custom in his culture, Abraham bows in front of the strangers and welcomes them.  Then, he immediately brings water for them to wash and sets about preparing food and drink for the strangers. 

Abraham is not cheap in his hospitality, either.  He has Sarah prepare cakes from the highest quality flour and he prepares a meal featuring a veal calf, which would be the best meal he has to offer.  As the strangers eat the meal set before them, Abraham stands by, attentive to their every need.  Later, God promises Sarah that she will have a child, despite the fact that she is older and well past her reproductive years.  Then, Abraham helps the three strangers with directions as they set off for their ultimate destination.

Perhaps in this story Abraham and Sarah provide the paradigm for how God intends for us to treat all strangers.  Abraham and Sarah respond with immediate hospitality, when the three strangers come up to them, out of the wilderness.  They are respectful and attentive to their needs.  They do not hold back in their hospitality, but rather provide the best of all that they have.  The strangers are welcomed, cared for, and affirmed with respect.

Of course, the reader understands that these are no ordinary strangers.  Instead, we know that the strangers are really God and two attending angels.  But, what if we looked for the divine in the faces of the strangers whom we encounter?  How would that change and shape our relationships with strangers?

The great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, has a wonderful short story that illustrates my point.  Entitled, “Where Love Is, God Is,” the story tells of an old shoemaker, named Martin.  Martin lives by himself in a basement apartment because his wife and children have all died.  One night Martin has a dream in which God informs Martin that God will visit him the following day.  The next morning, Martin sits by his window, repairing shoes as he awaits God.  Throughout the day, Martin has several encounters:

Ø    It is winter and he watches an old man, Stepanitch, shoveling snow from the sidewalk across the street. Martin decides to invite Stepanitch into his apartment to warm himself up and share some food and hot drink.

Ø    Later, Martin sees a young woman with a baby outside in the cold.  The woman does not have a coat.  So, Martin invites the woman to come inside with her baby in order to warm herself and share some food and hot drink.  Before she leaves, Martin gives her one of his coats.

Ø    Finally, Martin sees a young boy trying to steal apples from an older woman.  An argument between the two ensues.  So, Martin goes outside to mediate the dispute and share love and compassion for both the boy and the woman.

Despite these interactions, God never visits Martin that day.  Bitterly disappointed, Martin prepares for bed, when he has another vision.  In the second vision, Martin perceives the divine in the face of the old man, Stepanitch; in the faces of the young woman and baby; in the faces of the boy and older woman.  Martin realizes that God had, indeed, visited him that day—not once, but three times.  Martin also realizes that in extending hospitality on these three occasions he was also accepting God.

            In this fable, I believe that we learn the key to building the stronger relationships with strangers that God intends.  That key is to perceive Jesus in the faces of the strangers we encounter and then to act, accordingly.

Come, join us this Sunday, Oct. 5th, at Meriden United Methodist Church, as we explore the implications of striving to see Christ in the faces of everyone whom we meet.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Spiritual Dimension of Our Relationship with Nature

          For many who follow the Jewish calendar, this has been a momentous week, as Wednesday marked the beginning of a “Sabbatical year.”  A Sabbatical year occurs every seventh year on the Jewish calendar.  Established by God, one of the principal intents of the Sabbath year is to provide a time of rest, renewal, and recovery for wildlife in general and agricultural soil in particular. 

            One of the scriptural passages that establishes the Sabbatical year, and explains God’s rationale for requiring it, occurs in Leviticus 25.  Here’s a portion of the chapter that explains the sabbatical:  “…but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for the Lord:  you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.  You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine:  it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.” (25:4-5)

            This Sunday (Sept. 28th), my message will be grounded in Leviticus 25, as I continue my sermon series, “Building Stronger Relationships.”  In the first sermons in this series, we have explored building stronger relationships within our families, with our friends, with ourselves, and with the Divine.  This weekend, we will examine building a stronger relationship with Nature.

            I should note that Christian clergy rarely preach from the Biblical book of Leviticus.  There are some good reasons for this.  The major focus of Leviticus revolves around rules for the Jewish people.  Much of the book is devoted to instructions concerning the proper procedures for conducting rituals; maintaining proper ritual purity; correct administration of the Temple; and regulations regarding the appropriate sacrifices for atonement.  None of this seems especially relevant for twenty-first Christians living in the post-modern United States.  As a result, most of us Christian clergy rarely—if ever—preach on Leviticus, and it consequently gets marginalized within the scriptures.

            Despite these difficulties, I will suggest in my proclamation this Sunday that Leviticus actually has a lot to tell us twenty-first century Christians about our relationship with nature—if we approach the text appropriately.  The key to interpreting Leviticus is to recognize that it is all about holiness and, for Leviticus, holiness means “separateness.”   God is holy, which is to say that God is separate from humans in two different senses:  First, God is separate from the rest of Creation because God is immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, and completely other than humans and other creatures.  Secondly, God and humans are separated by a moral gulf because of human sinfulness.

            Leviticus is also about human holiness, and this has implications for its first audience:  the Hebrew people.  In the first place, the Hebrew people have been separated, or set apart, from others as God’s Chosen People.  In choosing Israel, God has created a royal priesthood who will be responsible for helping to heal and repair the world.  As God’s Chosen People, the Hebrews must live ethical lives that are defined by maintaining right relationships in all areas of life.  Thus, an important focus in Leviticus is spelling out proper moral and legal procedures for living.  These procedures define right relationships in terms of family, community, worship, commerce, and nature. 

Leviticus 25 spells out what God intends as the right relationship for humans to have with nature.  As we saw above, treating nature with respect and creating regular opportunities for nature to rest, renew, and recover are at the heart of a right relationship with nature.  But there is more.  Later in Leviticus 25, God clarifies even further the human relationship with nature:  “…for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.  Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.” (verses 23-24)  God is very clear.  Humans are short-term tenants on this planet, which ultimately belongs to God—and not to us.  Yet, even as short-timers, we are still responsible for the care and redemption of nature.

Of course, there is an obvious concern about the feasibility of God’s plan for giving the land a sabbatical every seventh year.  The central question comes down to this:  “If no crops are planted every seventh year, how will there be enough food to feed all the people as well as all of the livestock in the subsequent eighth year?” 

Actually, God addresses this concern in Leviticus 25.  God’s basic response to this question is simply this:  “Trust me.”  God promises to provide enough surplus to carry faithful communities through the years without planted crops.  God says, “I will order my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it will yield a crop for three years.”  (verse 21)  God promises not just enough surplus to get by, but rather God promises a bountiful harvest so that there is enough food to carry through into the eighth and ninth years, after crops are being planted and harvested again.  It turns out that maintaining a right relationship with nature, is the same as maintaining right relationships with family, community, worship, and in commerce.  Ultimately, all of these relationships flow out of a right relationship with God:  maintaining a right relationship with nature flows out of faithfully trusting in God’s love and providence.

This makes our relationship with nature a spiritual relationship.

Yet, on the contrary, we live in a society where environmental issues have become politicized.  On the one hand, there are individuals such as Tom Steyer, who vowed to donate $50 million in political contributions this year to support candidates committed to addressing global climate change.  On the other hand, there are the “change deniers” who see vast leftwing conspiracies among scientists and question their motivations, when they report scientific evidence confirming climate change.  Yes, the environment has definitely become politicized.

We Christians are called by God to be different.  We are called to holiness.  That is, we are set aside as God’s chosen people.  Our relationship with the divine should shape and mold our other relationships, including our relationship with nature.  Regardless of our politics, whether we are Republicans or Democrats or Independents, our relationship with nature should transcend our political perspectives. 

Our relationship with nature should be shaped and informed by the realization that each of us are just short-term caretakers of wondrous beauty that ultimately belongs to God.  We are entrusted with redeeming nature.  Ultimately, our relationship with nature is spiritual because this relationship grows out of our relationship with God.  That is what Leviticus 25 has to teach us.

Come, join us this Sunday, Sept. 28th, at Meriden United Methodist Church, as we explore the implications of what Leviticus 25 teaches us concerning our relationship with nature.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.