Friday, February 28, 2014

That "E-Word"

            This weekend (March 1 & 2), we will begin a three-week sermon series entitled, “The Nature and Purpose of the Church in the 21st Century.”  During the series, we will be focusing on three core dimensions of church life:  Evangelism, Service, and Discipleship.

            This weekend we will explore the dimension of Evangelism, or the “E-word” as Martha Grace Reese calls it.  Church researchers, such as Reese, report that most church people have very negative attitudes towards evangelism.  Reese observes that typical first responses to the topic of evangelism include:[i]

Ø  “No!  I don’t want to knock on strangers’ doors and give them some pamphlet.”

Ø  “A televangelist is asking for money for the theme park.”

Ø  “Our pastor gives this boring, annual, muddled sermon…”

Ø  “I cringe at the memories from years when I pummeled people with those embarrassing questions about salvation!”

So, as the church pastor, I’ve really got my work cut out for me this weekend, when I attempt to preach on evangelism. J

            Yet, sharing the good news about how our lives are changed by Jesus Christ is integral to being his faithful disciples.  Our scripture this weekend is commonly known as “The Great Commission” and it appears in Matthew 28: 16-20.  This passage is the ending of Matthew’s Gospel, and it records the last earthly meeting between Jesus and his followers.  The meeting occurs after Jesus’ Resurrection, on a mountaintop. 

            Christ’s very last words to his followers are:  “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

            Since that mountaintop moment, this commission has been handed down from disciples to the next generation of disciples and then to the next and to the next, until it was given to us.  We, too, are to share the good news and make disciples.  In other words, Jesus calls us to evangelism, just as Jesus called those first followers sitting on the mountaintop, listening to him. 

            So, why do most of us have such negative attitudes towards evangelism and find it so hard?  This weekend, I will explain that we find evangelism hard because over time we have moved away from scriptural evangelism into a sociological evangelism that is awkward and un-natural.  I will suggest that we need to re-conceptualize evangelism, returning to a basic scriptural understanding.  In other words, we need to re-discover natural evangelism.
Join us at Meriden United Methodist Church this weekend as we re-discover and explore an easy, natural evangelism that flows out of who we are.  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.

[i]Martha Grace Reese, Unbinding the Gospel, Real Life Evangelism (St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2008), 9-10.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Who's Your Hero?

            This weekend (February 22 & 23), we will be exploring heroes.  Who are your heroes?  What are the essential qualities that a hero must have?  Although the word, “hero,” is common enough, I suspect that most of us have not reflected very deeply on precisely what the characteristics of a true hero are.  Frequently, we use the hero without thinking too deeply about the term.  For instance, I sometimes use the term, hero, in order to be exceptionally complimentary about a particular person.  In those cases, I’ll say, “Oh, I really admire X, he’s a real hero of mine.”  In reality, the term “hero” is a very important term, which should be applied carefully—and sparingly.

            In my message this weekend, I will suggest that a hero must have the following essential characteristics:

1.      A strong moral character that is beyond reproach
2.      Deep love for God, for humans, and for Creation
3.      A passion for justice and a compassion for the vulnerable and the hurting
4.      Courage
5.      Deep Faith

Heroes become our role-models, showing us how God intends for us to live.  We look up to heroes and strive to be like they are.  Even more, heroes inspire us to live nobly, stretching to live lives of the highest ideals. 

            Potential heroes can be all around us; persons whom we know and interact with already.  Heroes may be our parents or other family members, our coaches or teachers, work colleagues or neighbors, Sunday-School teachers or other members of our community of faith.  Concurrently, some of us have heroes whom we have never met.  These heroes may be historical figures or scriptural figures or contemporaries whom we have heard about but never actually met.

            As we reflect on heroes this weekend, I will suggest that we should intentionally choose our heroes.  In choosing our heroes we must choose wisely, selecting persons whose lives we would most like to emulate.  We should also be conscious that those around us may be selecting us as one of their heroes.  In other words, we should conduct our lives as though someone else is looking to us as a role-model and a hero.

            To illustrate my reflections this week, I have chosen an unlikely scriptural hero:  the prostitute, Rahab, in Joshua 2.  Biblical scholars believe that Rahab had turned to prostitution because all of her family, including her father and mother, was living in abject poverty and in danger of losing their home in Jericho.  That is, Rahab and her family were desperately poor and marginalized in society.  Yet, Rahab’s love for her family was so great that she was willing to do anything to keep them together. 

In the story, Joshua sends two spies to infiltrate the city of Jericho and to scout it out for a potential takeover.  When the King of Jericho discovers that there are hostile spies in his city, he sends his soldiers out to find and capture them.  The two Hebrew spies seek refuge with Rahab and her family.  Rahab deceives the King’s soldiers, sending them in the opposite direction, away wfrom here the spies are going to flee.  Then, she helps the Hebrew spies escape safely from Jericho.

Although it is an unconventional choice for a hero, I think that Rahab displays some important qualities of heroes:

Ø  A deep love and care for her family
Ø  Compassion for the vulnerable and a passion for justice
Ø  A deep faith and trust in God

Come, join us at Meriden United Methodist Church this weekend as we reflect on our heroes and on what it means to be a hero for someone else.  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, February 14, 2014

Strength through Weakness

            This weekend’s message concludes a six-part sermon series on how Christian faith can help us become strong, resilient persons.  This weekend (February 15 & 16), our focus will be the Apostle Paul, who was tough and enduring. 

            Paul spent much of his adult life as a traveling evangelist, moving from place to place, proclaiming the Good News about Jesus Christ, and establishing new churches.  As someone who was constantly on the move, Paul suffered from the many hazards and difficulties of travel.  In addition, Paul encountered many people who were not exactly thrilled with his good news that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-anticipated Messiah.  As a result, Paul frequently encountered opposition, hatred, marginalization, and physical violence.

            In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul provides a catalog of all the hardships which he has endured as a Christian evangelist.  These hardships include:

Ø  On 5 separate occasions he has received 39 lashes
Ø  On 3 separate times he has been beaten with a rod
Ø  Once he received a stoning
Ø  Three times he was shipwrecked
Ø  Multiple times he has been threatened by bandits or “false brothers and sisters”
Ø  On other occasions he has been hungry and thirsty or cold and naked

Finally, Paul concludes his catalog by noting that in addition to all of the other hardships, “I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” 

            I suppose that none of us in the contemporary world must cope with the scope and type of hardships that Paul had to endure as a traveling evangelist.  Yet, hardships and anxiety are part of the human condition in every age.  Life is tough.  Even though we may not be able to create a catalog of hardships as dramatic as the Apostle Paul’s, each of us must cope with hardship and anxiety in our lives.  Within our own community, persons struggle with anxiety and many different types of hardships:

Ø  Parents worry about children who are struggling in school or socially
Ø  Children worry about the health and well-being of aging parents
Ø  Some within our midst struggle with a diagnosis of cancer or other illness
Ø  Business owners worry about surviving through really difficult financial conditions—or, the implications of the Affordable Healthcare Act for their business
Ø  Employees struggle to cope with exorbitant demands on their jobs, which they cannot possibly meet
Ø  Others are unemployed and would just like to have a job—any job
Ø  Some of us wonder if we will ever be able to retire, while others are making a difficult transition into retirement
Ø  Some of us grieve over the loss of a loved one
Ø  Some are struggling with a marriage that has become difficult, or they are struggling following a divorce
Ø  Students are anxious about doing well in school

As Christians, we can legitimately ask why does God allow us to suffer through all of these hardships and anxieties?  The theological term for this question is theodicy.  In other words, why does God allow good people to suffer through hardships and anxiety?  We’ve talked about theodicy before, and you know that there are no completely satisfying answers to the question of theodicy.

Paul has an intriguing response to the question of theodicy.  In an unexpected twist, Paul embraces his hardships and anxiety.  After cataloging all of his hardships and anxieties in 2 Corinthians 11, the Apostle Paul steps back and observes, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (v. 30)

In his letter to the Romans, we find Paul once again boasting about his hardships and anxieties:  “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).  For Paul, weakness becomes a source of strength. 

Paul believes that all of his hardships and anxieties must be seen as part of a larger story that ultimately ends with the Kingdom of God.  For Paul, the Reign of God has already been established through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Yet, God’s Kingdom has only been established provisionally; it is not yet fully completed.  As disciples of Christ, we are called to join in God’s Kingdom-building project as junior partners.  First, we are to nurture the Reign of God within our hearts and minds, and then we are work to establish God’s Reign in the world around us.

Viewed within this broader context of Kingdom-building, Paul sees his hardships and anxieties as just part of the growing process.  Paul believes that in the end he will be able to look back and see that he grew as Christian through his hardships and struggles.

What does this mean for us today?  How do we embrace our hardships and anxieties in a way that allows God’s Reign to grow within our hearts and minds?  Come, join us at Meriden United Methodist Church this weekend as we explore how we can become stronger, more resilient Christians by embracing our hardships and anxieties, just as Paul did. 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.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Becoming a Strong, Visionary Leader

What are the qualities of a strong Christian leader?

            This weekend (February 8 & 9), we will explore what makes a strong Christian leader.  To focus our examination, we will look at the Apostle Peter as a case-study.  Peter offers a fascinating example of leadership.  On the one hand, there are times when Peter appears to be an awful leader.  He is sometimes confused, misguided, and cowardly.  Yet, on the other hand, there are times when Peter can appear to be a great leader.  At those times, he is strong, compassionate, and visionary.

            Consider the night in which Jesus was betrayed by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane and then turned over to the authorities for crucifixion.  In the Garden, Peter draws his sword and cuts off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the High Priest.  Jesus rebukes Peter for this act of violent resistance, and it is clear that Peter is completely muddled and confused about Jesus’ understanding of what it means to be the Messiah.  Later that night, Peter shows incredible cowardice by denying Jesus three times.  During these times, Peter appears to be a weak, poor leader.

            Yet, at other times, Peter exhibits strong leadership.  For instance, he is the first disciple to recognize that Jesus is the true Messiah, and Jesus declares that he will be the “rock upon which I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).  Later, after Jesus ascends into Heaven, it is Peter who preaches the first sermon, and Peter is one of the first to be arrested and thrown into jail for his Christian faith.  Along with Paul and a few others, Peter has the vision to see that the Christian Gospel is not just a spiritual reform movement within Judaism, but rather is open to all who come to Christ through their faith.  At these times, Peter appears to be strong, courageous, compassionate, visionary leader.

            In my message this weekend, I will suggest that what we see in Peter is a human person who is learning and growing into becoming a strong, visionary leader.  Great leaders are not born.  Instead, they learn and grow into leadership.  Further, they lead not just with their thoughts and words, as important as that is.  They also lead by their actions and their example—just as Peter does when he is willing to be beaten and jailed for his faith.  Finally, I will suggest that Christ calls all of his followers to be leaders, sometimes.  The most important form of leadership is what we do and what we say and how we live our lives.

Come, join us at Meriden United Methodist Church this weekend as we explore what it means to be a strong, visionary Christian leader.  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.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Judgment, Love, Integrity, and Raisin Cakes

           My sermon series on “Becoming Strong” continues this weekend (February 1 & 2) with a focus on the prophet Hosea and the characteristic of integrity.  When Hosea reaches adulthood, God chooses him to be a prophet, calling the Hebrew people back to faithfulness and righteousness.

            Throughout time, God has called individual persons to serve as prophets.  Within scripture alone, there are many prophets, including Nathan, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, Joel, and Amos.  In all cases, the role of the prophet was to call God’s people back to faithfulness towards God and to work towards establishing God’s Reign on Earth.  In the Hebrew tradition, prophetic work included healing the earth and establishing justice for the poor and marginalized.  

            Within the biblical prophetic tradition, God usually speaks through the words of the prophets.  However, in the case of Hosea, God speaks not so much through the words of Hosea.  Instead, God speaks through Hosea’s actions and through his life.  That is, Hosea’s life becomes a metaphor of God’s message to the Hebrew people.

            The book of Hosea begins with God instructing Hosea to choose a prostitute for his wife and to marry her.  Hosea does as God instructs him, marrying a prostitute named Gomer, and having three children with her.  Yet, even in marriage, Gomer is unfaithful to Hosea, having many adulterous relationships, until ultimately Hosea must divorce her.  After the divorce, Gomer seeks after other men, whom she thinks will provide for her.  But, she can never find anyone else.  Eventually, she sinks to the role of a house slave.   Yet, Hosea continues to love Gomer and he forgives her.  Eventually, Hosea redeems Gomer, buying her back with silver and food. 

            In the story of Hosea and Gomer, it is important to understand that Gomer was not a prostitute in the everyday sense in which we use the term today.  Instead, Gomer was most likely an ordinary Hebrew woman who turned away from her Hebrew religion and embraced another, false religion called Baal.  Baal was a fertility cult, and so it is most likely that Gomer sexually offered herself to men as part of the religious worship of Baal.  In that religious sense, Gomer was a prostitute.

            As suggested above, the relationship between Hosea and Gomer becomes a prophetic metaphor for the relationship between God and the Hebrew people.  Just like Gomer, the Hebrew people are continually denying and abandoning God.  Instead, like Gomer, they seek after the false fertility god, mistakenly imagining that Baal can provide them with riches and luxuries and freedoms beyond their wildest hopes.  Again and again, Baal fails to provide and they find themselves as indentured servants with no freedom at all.  Similarly, God, just like Hosea, continually seeks after the Hebrew people, offering them forgiveness and reconciliation, as well as true blessings beyond measure.  Again and again and again, God seeks after the unfaithful chosen people.

            Integrity grows out of the same root word as the mathematics term, “integer,” meaning a whole number.  Integrity means whole or complete.  As a human characteristic, it refers to a person who is honest and has sound moral character.  In other words, a person with integrity is whole in their actions, without deceit or dishonesty.  Similarly, a Christian with integrity is a disciple of Christ who rigorously and consistently lives their faith.  A Christian with integrity puts their faith into action; it refers to a Christian who “walks the walk, instead of simply talking the talk."  It is not easy to be a Christian with integrity; it is actually very hard.

            Hosea demonstrated great integrity in his faith because he was willing to endure public scorn and humiliation in order to create a prophetic metaphor, calling upon the Hebrew people to return to faithfulness in God.  As a devout Hebrew, Hosea was undoubtedly mortified, when God asked him to marry a prostitute, whom many of his neighbors had probably been intimate with.  One biblical scholar writes that God’s command “must have involved Hosea in a terrible spiritual turmoil.”  Yet, Hosea was willing to live his faith; that is, he was willing to “walk the walk.”

Just as with Hosea, God asks us to live lives of spiritual integrity.  While our challenge may not be exactly the same as Hosea’s, each of face situations where we are tempted to abandon our faith and to live lives that lack spiritual integrity.  Join us for our weekend services at Meriden UMC this week, as we explore challenges to the integrity of our faith and how we can becomes as strong as Hosea.  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.