Friday, January 24, 2014

Are We Strong Enough to Forgive Anything?

            This weekend (January 25th & 26th), I continue my sermon series on “Becoming Strong” by examining the story of Joseph, who was one of Jacob’s 12 sons.  The life of Joseph was fascinating.  Most of us know that, when Joseph was still a youth, his father gave him a very extravagant coat of many colors.  This special attention which Joseph received from his father made his brothers very jealous.  And, their jealousy was exacerbated by Joseph’s dreams, which consistently depicted them bowing down before him in submission.

            Eventually, an opportunity presented a great temptation for the brothers to put Joseph in his place and get rid of him.  The brothers were out in the field for several weeks, pasturing the family's flock of sheep.  Jacob sent Joseph out to check on his brothers, to make sure they were doing alright.  When the brothers saw Joseph approaching on the horizon, they concocted a plan to overpower him and throw him in a pit.  Later, they sold him into slavery, and he was taken to Egypt.

            As a result of miraculous interventions, as well as his own talents and tenacity, Joseph was able to eventually rise to a high government position as the second most powerful person in Egypt, after the Pharaoh.  Joseph was able to do this because he interpreted the Pharaoh’s dreams, in which God was warning the Egyptian leader of a coming famine.  Joseph explained to the Pharaoh that Egypt would experience seven years of super abundant harvests, followed by seven years of famine.  As a result, the Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of building up Egypt’s storehouses with surplus grain during the first seven years, so that there would be enough food for the seven years of famine.

            The famine was widespread, impacting countries throughout the region, including the area where Joseph’s family was living.  Eventually, Jacob was forced to send his remaining sons to Egypt, in order to purchase food from the storehouses managed by Joseph.  Ultimately, when Joseph saw his brothers, waiting in line to purchase grain, he invited them to his palace for lunch.  At the meal, Joseph revealed who he was to his brothers and then he forgave them for their terrible act of selling him into slavery years before.

            We live in a modern culture which praises and promotes vengeance, when someone has been wronged.  Acts of violent vengeance are frequently celebrated in films, television shows, and other forms of popular culture.  Yet, Jesus encourages us to reject acts of vengeance and, instead, to forgive:  “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6: 14).  And, when asked how many times we should forgive another person, he responds “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18: 21-22).  In other words, we should forgive another person as often as is necessary.

            It actually takes a lot more strength to forgive someone, rather than taking vengeance.  And, forgiveness offers a type of liberation to both the perpetrator and the victim of a wrong.  In my message this weekend, I will show that the capacity to forgive is an integral component for becoming a strong person.

I encourage you to attend our weekend services at Meriden UMC this week, as we explore the story of how Joseph forgave his brothers, as well as contemporary stories of heroic forgiveness.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  We have two worship services each weekend:

Ø  Our contemporary service starts at 6 pm on Saturday evenings.
Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Friday, January 17, 2014

No-Holds Barred Wrestling: Jacob versus God

            This weekend (January 18th & 19th), I will continue with the second in a series of six sermons that examines how Christian faith can help us become strong persons.  This weekend we will be looking at the story of Jacob, who wrestled with God; see Genesis 32: 22-32.

            In this story, Jacob is camping all alone, beside a river.  During the night, a man wanders into his campsite and challenges Jacob to a wrestling match.  Jacob and the man wrestle for the rest of the night, with neither able to pin the other—or, even gain an advantage.  As the wrestling match progresses, Jacob realizes that he is wrestling with God.  Jacob and God continue to wrestle, and it becomes clear that neither will prevail against the other.  In frustration, God strikes Jacob on his hip socket, effectively hobbling Jacob.  Yet, even with the pain from the hip injury, Jacob continues to maintain his hold on God.

            The two wrestlers continue competing, until the first, rosy rays of sunlight begin to appear on the horizon.  At that point, God asks Jacob to let him go.  (When making this request, God is really thinking about Jacob’s well-being because God knows that if Jacob sees God face-to-face, God’s overwhelming glory will kill Jacob.)  Yet, even with the risk of death, Jacob vows to continue his hold on God, until God blesses him.  Ultimately, God blesses Jacob, and the two end their wrestling match.  As the sun continues to rise, Jacob is once again all alone.  He gathers his gear, crosses the river, and continues his journey, limping along with his injured hip.

            The story of Jacob wrestling God is a fascinating story, raising many questions.  For instance, how was Jacob able to stay in the ring with God?  Why did God take a human form, which was not able to overwhelm Jacob and pin him to the ground? 

            While this is a very rich text, with many facets, I intend to focus my message on the fact that Jacob became a stronger person through his wrestling with God.  Although most of us will never physically wrestle with God as Jacob did, many of us do wrestle with God, figuratively.  Some of us intellectually wrestle with aspects of our faith.  Some of us spiritually wrestle with life challenges and we wonder why God allows certain hardships to occur in our lives.  Some of us wrestle with certain aspects of who God is, or what God has done.  Many of us wrestle with questions about God and our faith.

            Many Christians believe that we should never wrestle with God.  Instead of wrestling with matters of Christian faith or difficult challenges in our lives, they believe that we should simply accept Church doctrine with a simple faith and trust that God knows best.  That is, we should simply trust with a blind faith and avoid having to wrestle with God.

However, the story of Jacob suggests that it is appropriate to wrestle with God.  Indeed, sometimes God may challenge us to a wrestling match because God thinks it will be good for us, as evidenced by God challenging Jacob to wrestle.  The “take home” point of this story, then, is that when he wrestled with God, Jacob emerged with a stronger faith and a special blessing from God. 

Basing my conclusions on this story of Jacob, I will affirm the goodness of wrestling with God’s challenges.  And, I will share some stories of myself and others who have wrestled with God and emerged—as Jacob did—with a stronger faith and special blessing from God.

I encourage you to attend our weekend services at Meriden UMC this week, in order to hear about how Jacob and others have wrestled with God, in some form, and been strengthened and blessed in the process.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  We have two worship services each weekend:

Ø  Our contemporary service starts at 6 pm on Saturday evenings.
Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Speaking Truth to Power

            This weekend (January 11th & 12th), I begin a new six-week sermon series on how Christian faith can help us become strong individuals.  Of course the word, “strong,” can have multiple meanings.  If you type it into Google Images, the search engine will return with various images of physically powerful people.  Physical power is one of the core meanings of “strong.”  When we use the word in this way, it describes a physical attribute or characteristic of a particular person.  Someone is strong; another person may be fast or agile or weak.

            In contrast, my sermon series will not focus on strength as a physical attribute.  Instead, I will focus on strength as a psychological, emotional, and spiritual quality.  In this sense, strength is that quality which empowers a person to persist in spite of set-backs, failures, accidents, hardships, difficult challenges, severe threats, and disappointments.  Strength is synonymous with courage, tenacity, persistence, and endurance.  Since strength in this sense is a very abstract term, the sermons in this series will focus on strong men from the Bible. 

            This weekend we will explore the strength of the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12: 1-13.  In this passage, God sends Nathan to confront King David.  David has used his royal power to coerce a woman named Bathsheba into an illicit sexual affair.  When Bathsheba becomes pregnant, David again uses his royal power to indirectly kill her husband, Uriah, who is a soldier in the army of Israel.  At that time, Israel was at war with the Ammonites.  So, King David orders Joab, his General, to withdraw during the battle in a strategic way designed to expose Uriah to certain death.

            Even though he has been sent by God, Nathan is wary as he enters the palace to confront the King.  So, he begins by telling King David a parable, which induces David to condemn himself and his actions.  David’s self-condemnation provides the opening for Nathan to deliver God’s judgment concerning King David’s misuse of his political power to gratify his own sexual lusts.

            In the story of Nathan, we can gain a new perspective on the role of courage in becoming strong persons.  Because of his courage, Nathan was able to speak truth to power.  Each of us today must sometimes find the courage to speak the truth to power. 

There is an element of social justice in speaking truth to power.  Christ calls all of his disciples to help establish God’s Kingdom here on Earth, and certainly working for social justice is a major part of building up God’s Kingdom.  So, advocating for social justice is an integral component of being a true follower of Christ.  In my message this weekend, I will focus on human trafficking as an example of a critical social justice issue that contemporary American Christians must address.

Yet, there are other aspects of speaking truth to power.  Each of us must sometimes confront the powers in our lives and the lives of our loved ones.  For instance, we may need to confront a doctor or a supervisor or someone else with power.  Sometimes, the power that we must confront is not another person, but rather a system or an addiction/dependency in our lives.  Alternatively, we may be the person with the power, who is confronted by someone else.  Using the story of Nathan and David, I will explore how God expects us to faithfully speak truth to the powers in our lives—or, how to respond when we are the person who has power and is confronted by someone speaking the truth to us.

I encourage you to attend our weekend services at Meriden UMC, in order to see how I develop these elements of Christian courage for speaking the truth to power.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  We have two worship services each weekend:

Ø  Our contemporary service starts at 6 pm on Saturday evenings.
Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.



Friday, January 3, 2014

What Christians Can Learn from the Wise Men

            This weekend (January 4th and 5th), we will celebrate, “Epiphany,” when the Wise Men visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.  (See Matthew 2: 1-12.)  According to the Gospel of Matthew, Wise Men from the East saw the star of Jesus and followed it to Israel.  When they first arrived in Israel, they went to Jerusalem and asked King Herod where they might find the new-born King of the Jews.  The Wise Men’s inquiry greatly troubled Herod and many others because Herod was, actually, “King of the Jews.”

            King Herod asked the biblical scholars of the day where the Messiah was to be born and they responded that he would be born in Bethlehem, citing the Hebrew book of Micah 5:2:

“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
              are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
              for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
                                                                                                        -- cited in Matthew 2:6

After learning of the prophecy from King Herod, the Wise Men set out for Bethlehem, where they found the baby Jesus.  On entering the house where Mary, Joseph, and the young child were staying, they immediately bowed down and paid him homage.  They also gave three presents:  gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Then, being warned in a dream, they returned to their home, without informing Herod of where they had found the new-born Messiah.

            The Wise Men were foreigners, from Persia (contemporary Iraq) or Babylonia (contemporary Iran).  In their own country, these men would have been wealthy and powerful because they belonged to the priestly class and were experts in the occult; in other words.  Biblical scholars suggest that the wise men were highly educated in astrology.  Although it has fallen into disrepute since then, astrology was a well-respected science at the time of Jesus’ birth. 

            So, the Wise Men were wealthy, powerful foreigners, who were ‘scientists’ of their day and followed spiritual practices that were radically different from the Jewish faith.  They could not be more different from Mary and Joseph—and everyone else in Israel.  Yet, these Wise Men were “seekers” and “doers.”  They were still seeking to learn more about the Divine and spiritual truth.  When they saw the Messiah’s star in the sky, and recognized what the star signified, they dropped everything they were doing, made the necessary preparations and then set off on the long, arduous journey to see the new Messiah.  When they found Jesus in Bethlehem, they were “overwhelmed with joy.”

            By contrast, King Herod and his religious advisors were neither “seekers” nor “doers.”  Even though they knew exactly where to find the prophesied location of the Messiah’s birth in their sacred texts, they were not interested in seeking out and worshiping the promised Messiah in Bethlehem.  So, instead, the Wise Men travelled by themselves to find and worship the new Messiah in Bethlehem.  Rather than being “overwhelmed with joy” that the Messiah had finally been born, they were frightened that the Messiah might require changes in their lives.  King Herod even plotted the death of God’s promised Messiah.

            In the proclamation this weekend, I will suggest that Christians can learn a great deal from the Wise Men, as we begin a New Year.  Just like the Wise Men, we must become “seekers,” continually striving to learn more about the Divine and spiritual truth.  That is, we must strive to grow deeper spiritually.  Just as the Wise Men, we must also be “doers,” ready to follow wherever God leads us.  In my message, I will give some examples of what I think it means for twenty-first century Christians to be “seekers” and “doers” in 2014.

            The New Year is a great time to get back into church. If you already have a church, we urge you to make a New Year's Resolution to attend and support your church. However, if you don't already have a church, check us out at Meriden United Methodist Church, at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.

We have two worship services each weekend:

Ø  Our contemporary service starts at 6 pm on Saturday evenings.
Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.