Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Giving Is Transformational"

            Why do we give money to the church?

            Do we give out of a sense of duty or obligation?  Do we give as a sort of investment, expecting that God will reward us with unexpected income or power?  Do we give as a sort of eternal investment, reasoning that God will reward us by reserving a special place for us in Heaven?  Do we give money, with the idea of paying our membership dues for the church, just as we pay membership dues for the golf course or some other club?  Do we give to the church out of hope that somehow the church will use some of our contributions to help those in need?  Do we give to establish God's Reign here on Earth?

            I believe that the Apostle Paul has some important insights into why and how we should give money to the church.  Throughout much of his missionary travels, Paul sought to receive a collection of money that would be given to the Christian Church in Jerusalem.  The Jerusalem Church had an important need for financial assistance, due to the large number of poor and marginalized persons that it was trying to help.  Throughout his letters to churches he had founded, Paul lifts up this special collection for Jerusalem and asks the churches for financial support.  I think that there is a great deal of wisdom in the Apostle Paul’s appeals for financial assistance.

            One of those passages is 2 Corinthians 9: 1-11, which will serve as the foundational scripture for our services this weekend.  Paul begins this passage with a metaphor:  “The point is this:  the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”(v. 6) Then, Paul offers a three-point guideline for giving (v. 7):

1.      Each person must follow their own heart in deciding how much to give the Church

2.      We should not give out of a sense of obligation or under compulsion

3.      Rather, we should give cheerfully because “God loves a cheerful giver.”

Then, Paul observes:  “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (v. 8) Here, it seems to me that Paul has a brilliant insight.  When I think back on my own personal history of giving to the Church or to charities, the force that causes me to hold back on my contribution—or to give less—is fear.  The fear is that in a future crisis I might really need that money or those possessions.  I’m afraid that I will regret my own generosity.  This fear can become paralyzing so that we give little or nothing at all.

Katharine Hayhoe observes, “When we act out of fear, we are thinking of ourselves.  But, when we act out of love, we think about our neighbors.”[i]  When I am afraid that I might not have all that I need in the future, then I am stingy and unable to be generous out of love.  Yet, the Apostle Paul reminds us that we need to have faith.  We need to trust that God will provide us with all that we need in abundance, when we share and give generously to the church or those in need. 

(A caveat is important here:  Some Christians have mistakenly misinterpreted this and similar scriptural passages to say that, when we give to the Church, God will reward us by showering us with money and many material possessions so that we will become very rich.  This school of thought is called “prosperity theology.” It is based on a flawed and incorrect interpretation of these passages.  Scripture does not say that God will make us all millionaires as a reward for giving to the Church.  Rather, these scriptures say that God will provide us with what we need so that we can put away our fears and give joyously, knowing that God will take care of us.)

Paul doesn’t promise that we will become millionaires if we give to the Church or to the poor.  But, when we give with glad and generous hearts, Paul says that God will bless and transform us.  He writes, “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity…”.  God will not enrich us with just material possessions, rather God will transform us, providing us with a joy and happiness that is much deeper and greater than the happiness of having material things—as nice as they are.  When one person gives with a glad and generous heart, then two persons are blessed:  the donor and the recipient.  To reiterate, giving with glad and generous hearts transforms us so that we grow closer to God and live joyful lives of flourishing.

Join us this weekend (May 3rd  & 4th), as we explore how giving can be a transformational experience, drawing us closer to God and enabling us to experience genuine happiness and flourishing.  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] Katharine Hayhoe, “Climate Change Evangelist,” a video talk available online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/blogs/secretlife/environmental-science/katharine-hayhoe/ .

Saturday, April 26, 2014

"Caring for Creation"

This weekend (April 26 & 27), we will be celebrating Earth Day.  The theme of our services will be “Caring for Creation” and our principal scripture reading is Genesis 1: 27-31.  Part of this scripture says:

“So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”

            Since this passage of scripture is part of the larger story of creation in Genesis 1, it frequently gets caught up in the sometimes bitter debate among Christians and nonChristians, concerning the implications of the theory of evolution for religious faith.[i]  While questions of science and faith are critically important in their own right, these few verses make a major contribution to Christians’ understanding of our relationship with nature—and, our relationship with God.

            As persons of faith, it is essential that we understand what these verses say about our relationship with nature and our relationship with God. 

            It is so important that we bring the right questions to this text. Yet, even when Christians do ask this text about our relationships with nature and God, they frequently misinterpret what these verses say about our relationships.  A case in point is the recent book, A Climate for Change, by Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist who is also an evangelical Christian, and her husband, Andrew Farley, an evangelical pastor.  In their interpretation of Genesis 1: 27-31, Hayhoe and Farley write:

“If we’re honest, there is really nothing here [verses 27-31] beyond be fruitful, increase, rule over the animals, and eat anything you want. Furthermore, if we conclude that there is an ecological mandate for today within this passage, then we must equally conclude that our mandate is to have more and more children and to increase the world’s population.  This would, in turn, contribute to more climate change and environmental issues, not diminish them.”[ii]

            When we faithfully interpret the scriptures, it is important to ask about the context of those persons who first read a particular passage.  We need to ask ourselves, what would the first persons have thought about, as they were reading this passage of scripture—or hearing it read—for the first time.  To faithfully interpret the scriptures, we need to take seriously how the first readers would have understood the passage.  Although well-meaning, the problem with Hayhoe and Farley’s interpretation is that they do not examine how this passage would have been heard by the first Hebrews.

            Biblical scholars remind us that the first Hebrews to read this passage were living in a context in which they were surrounded by the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures.  Both cultures were ruled by a king.  In these cultures, the king was described as possessing the divine image of that culture’s god.  That is to say, the king possessed the “divine image” of their gods.  As someone possessing the image of the divine, the king was the divine representative on Earth.  For the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the king was supposed to care for all of the citizens, as well as the country’s environment.  Biblical scholars refer to this understanding in Egypt and Mesopotamia as the “royal motif.” 

            The first Hebrews reading Genesis 1: 27-31 would have interpreted this passage within their context, surrounded by the countries of Egypt and Mesopotamia.  They would have understood God as saying that all people are created in God’s image—not just the king or ruler.  Further, they would have understood God as saying that everyone is responsible for caring for one another and for nature—not just the king.  To be created in God’s image is both a privilege and a responsibility.

            When we take into account how the first Hebrews would have read and interpreted this passage, then Genesis 1: 27-31 offers profound answers to two of the most important questions concerning life:

1.      What is the relationship between human persons and God?  God sets humans apart from the rest of creation as being special and different.  In this special relationship, God makes humans stewards of the rest of God’s Creation. 

2.      What is the relationship between human persons and nature?  God gives humans dominion in verse 28.  However, dominion does not mean domination, as when one wrestler dominates another.  Instead, dominion refers to the charge that someone has to care for another.  Thus, the human relationship with nature is one of stewardship, reflecting the love and care that God has for all of Creation.

Come and celebrate Earth Day with us this weekend.  We will reflect on our special relationship with God, as well as our special calling to be good stewards of God’s beloved Creation.  At the end of each service, you can even plant some flowers outside our buildings.  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 at both services because God loves us all.

[i] For a discussion of evolution and Christian faith, please see my previous blog, “Can I Be a Christian and Also Accept Evolution,” posted on 17 January 2013 and the follow up posted on 24 January 2013.
[ii] Katharine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley, A Climate for Change, Global Warming Facts for Faith-based Decisions (New York:  Faith Words, 2009), 126-127 in the NOOK edition.  (Italicized emphasis in the text.)  (Note that their claim that this passages permits us to “eat anything you want,” is also a misreading of verse 30, where God says, “I have given every green plant for food,” which the vast majority of Biblical interpreters agree refers to a restrictive vegetarian die.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Transformed! ! !

Doubt disturbs us.

            It seems that a basic component of the human condition is the need for certainty and stability in our lives.  We want to know what is going to happen to us—even if it is bad.  As much as possible, we also want to have control over our lives.  Doubt creates uncertainty and instability.  It undermines our sense of control.  Doubt is very disturbing.

            This weekend is Easter, when we celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection and ultimate victory over death.  People will flock to churches for Easter services, but for different reasons.  Many will gather to worship from a deep conviction and certainty that Jesus’ Resurrection marks God’s ultimate victory over death.  However, some will gather with much less certainty.  Although it is usually unspoken, these others will harbor doubts about Easter and Jesus’ Resurrection. 

Just as their more certain brothers and sisters in Christ, those who doubt want to believe and accept Jesus’ Resurrection and the promise of resurrection for all of his disciples.  It is just that Jesus’ Resurrection seems so fabulous and so awesome that it is hard to believe.  It is, literally, news that’s too good to be true.  Doubt disturbs us.  Christians with doubts rarely share them on Easter Sunday because they’re afraid that raising their doubts about the Resurrection will disturb others and ruin their Easter celebrations.  So, they keep their doubts to themselves.

In addition, I suspect that some Christians keep their doubts to themselves because they are embarrassed and ashamed.  Perhaps they believe that they are not very good Christians because of their doubts and questions.  At this juncture, it is important to point out that all four of the Gospels report that some of Jesus’ disciples and other followers experienced doubt when they learned of his Resurrection. 

In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus’ disciples meet him on the mountain following his Resurrection, “they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17)  In Mark and Luke, the disciples doubt Mary Magdalene and the other women, when they report that Jesus has been resurrected (Mark 16:11 and Luke 24:11).  And, of course, in John we have the story of “doubting Thomas,” who said:  “‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’” (John 20:25)  Doubt is very much an integral part of the Easter story.

I have a special fondness for Easter skeptics because doubt has been a frequent companion during much of my journey of faith, as well.  Just as my more certain brothers and sisters in Christ, I have longed to embrace the Easter story without reservations; without doubt.  Yet, despite my deepest longing for a clear faith, unencumbered by doubt, I have still wrestled with doubts about the Resurrection.  Afterall, there are no scientific paradigms to explain how someone can be brutally tortured (literally to death) and then be resurrected.

Doubt disturbs us.  Still, in my spiritual pilgrimage, I have learned that it pays to acknowledge our doubts; confront our doubts; and struggle with our doubts.  It is never easy and frequently unpleasant to struggle with religious doubts.  Yet, I have discovered that my Christian faith has deepened and matured through acknowledging, confronting, and struggling with my doubts about the Resurrection.  As we celebrate Easter this weekend, I have no doubts about Jesus’ Resurrection.  My Christian faith is clear and strong and certain. 

Let me tell you what has been important for me in prevailing over my doubts concerning the Resurrection: 

I think that most Christians get Jesus’ Resurrection confused with someone being raised from the dead.  Of course, the Gospels do have accounts of Jesus raising persons from the dead.  In John 11, Jesus raises his good friend Lazarus from the dead, even though Lazarus had already been buried in a tomb.  The other three Gospels all tell the story of Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus from the dead (Matthew 9: 18-26, Mark 5: 21-43, Luke 8: 40-56).  And, Matthew records that when Jesus died on the cross, “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” (Matthew 27:52)  Presumably, all of these persons who were raised from the dead eventually died again at the end of their biological lives.

Resurrection, however, is qualitatively different than being raised from the death.  In the stories of someone who is raised from the dead, the person is not substantively changed.  Instead, their biological life has simply been extended.  By contrast, Resurrection is not a biological extension; rather it is a transformation.  This realization that Resurrection is qualitatively different than being raised from the dead was a huge breakthrough in my own struggles with doubt.

For me, it was important to see Jesus’ Resurrection as part of the overarching story of God’s Creative work in the universe.  All Christians are familiar with the Creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2.  These chapters remind us that God created everything in the universe and judged it to be very good.  Yet, it seems to me that we Christians sometimes forget that God’s creative activity is not limited to just the beginning.  Actually, God continues to be active in Creation, down through the ages.  God continually creates and redeems.

Ultimately, all of Creation is in God’s hands.  God will redeem Creation and make it new.  The New Testament Book of Revelation says:  “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…[and God said], ‘See, I am making all things new.’”(Revelation 21: 1-2, 5) 

In God’s New Creation, the old will be transformed. 
Just as through metamorphosis, the caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly;
          just as through hatching, the egg is transformed into a chick;
              so also, through God’s redeeming, creative work,
                      all of Creation will become transformed  into a New Creation. 
When viewed within the over-arching story of God’s creative activity, Jesus’ Resurrection clearly marks the beginning point of this transformation process.  It is through Jesus’ Resurrection that God confirms and guarantees our own, eventual transformation into a resurrection people.

Nicole C. Mullen expresses the same spiritual insight very powerfully in her song, “Redeemer.”  Part of the lyrics go like this:

Who taught the sun
Where to stand in the morning
Who taught the ocean
You can only come this far
And who showed the moon
Where to hide till evening
Whose words alone can
Catch a falling star

Well I know
My redeemer lives
I know my Redeemer lives
All of creation testifies
There's life within the Christ
I know my Redeemer lives
The very same God
That spins things in orbit
Runs to the weary
The worn and the weak
And the same gentle hands
That hold me when I'm broken
They conquer death to bring me victory

Now I know
My Redeemer lives
I know my Redeemer lives
Let all creation testify
That there's life within the Christ

Doubt does disturb us.  But, I have also become a stronger, deeper Christian by struggling with my doubts about the Resurrection. 

Come and celebrate Easter with us this weekend.  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 at both services because God loves us all.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

From "Hosanna!" to "Crucify Him!"

            This weekend marks the beginning of Holy Week, as we remember the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a humble donkey.  The story appears in Matthew 21: 1-11.  As Jesus begins riding the donkey towards the City of Jerusalem, a large crowd of his followers begin to cut palm branches and wave them, shouting:  “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  These words come from Psalm 118:26 and they are part of the psalms sung at the Jewish Passover Feast.

            Jesus’ followers spread their cloaks and palm branches along his path, creating a “red carpet effect” as he rides into Jerusalem on the donkey.  The shouts and singing of Jesus’ followers begin to draw an even larger crowd of spectators, who come out to see what is going on.  The celebration goes viral, as more and more people come out and join the parade.  By the time Jesus enters the city walls of Jerusalem, a mass of people are processing with him, singing and shouting.  When the city residents come out into the streets to see what is going on, they are told:  “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

            Events occur in rapid succession during the days immediately following Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Jesus stirs things up, by going into the Temple and driving out the money changers who had turned a sacred place into a commercial enterprise.  Jesus celebrates the Jewish Passover Feast with his disciples in the Upper Room.  And, later that night, he is betrayed by one of his own, Judas Iscariot.  Jesus is arrested.  By Friday morning, Jesus finds himself standing in front of the Roman ruler, Pilate, accused of insurrection. 

The story continues in Matthew 27: 11-23:

            Pilate was not stupid.  He realized that the Jewish leaders were accusing Jesus out of jealousy because of Jesus’ popularity. So, Pilate sought a compromise that would appease the Jewish leaders but also allow him to release Jesus.  On Friday morning, he brought Jesus out in front of the Jewish leaders.  By now, a huge crowd of people had amassed to see what would happen to Jesus. 

            At the Passover Feast in Jerusalem, there was a custom that the Roman ruler would pardon one Jewish prisoner and set him free.  So, Pilate gives the amassed Jewish crowd a choice:  He could release Jesus or a hardened criminal named Barabbas.  Now, Barabbas was a notoriously evil man, so the choice should have been clear—or, so Pilate thought.  The crowd should have clearly chosen to have Jesus released.  Yet, out of their jealousy, the Jewish leaders stirred up the crowd to ask for the release of Barabbas.  Pilate is stunned.  When he asks the crowd what he should do with Jesus, they all shout, “Crucify him!”

            The juxtaposition of these two stories from Holy Week raise a profound question.  It is almost certain that some of the same people who joined in the parade during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem were also in the crowd standing before Pilate.  It is almost certain that some of the same people who shouted, “Hosanna!” also shouted, “Crucify him!”  Why was that?  How could the same people be part of both stories?

            In our service this weekend, we will explore this question.  And, rather, than looking back in judgment upon the residents of Jerusalem, we will also explore an even deeper question:  Would we have acted any differently, had we been in the place of those people?  Might we have also shouted both “Hosanna!” and “Crucify him”?  In our exploration, I will suggest that we can know religious truths with our intellect, but not always live that religious truth with our hearts.  Part of faithful Christian discipleship is to grow spiritually, so that our faith becomes something that we live as well as something that we intellectually know. 

Come, worship with us this weekend.  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.  This Saturday, my message is on the topic of this blog, “From ‘Hosanna!’ to “Crucify him.’”

Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.  Rather than preaching this Sunday, our Choir will be presenting their Easter cantata, “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power”

Everyone is welcome and accepted at both services because God loves us all.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Preparing for Our Resurrection

In two weeks we will celebrate Easter, the most important day of the year for Christians.  Easter is a time for unbounded joy and hope.  It is a day for unmitigated joy as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and ultimate victory over death.  It is also a day of great hope because of Jesus’ promise that his disciples have also been guaranteed resurrection and victory over death.

            Traditionally, the six weeks leading up to Easter are set aside as a time of preparation for the events of Holy Week and Easter.  In the Church, we call this six-week period, Lent.  Much of this period of preparation focuses on repentance, confession, and penance.  It is the season when, “We give up something for Lent,” such as chocolate.  I believe that this Lenten period of critical self-assessment and penance is vitally important for our spiritual health and for continued spiritual growth. 
Yet, this Lenten preparation seems more focused on the events of Holy Week, than on Easter.  That is, the Lenten preparation seems to focus more on Jesus’ crucifixion than on his resurrection.  The penitent character of Lent reminds us that on Good Friday it is our sins and shortcomings that nailed Jesus to the Cross.  While I believe that this penitent character of Lent is vital spiritual preparation, I wonder:  Is it enough?    As important as all of the repentance, confession, penance, and self-sacrifice of Lent are, I have begun to perceive they are not fully adequate as preparation for Easter.
How do we fully prepare for Easter and the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection?  How do we prepare for our resurrection? 
I believe that the story of Jesus resurrecting Lazarus (John 11: 1-45) provides some important insights into how we should celebrate Easter and prepare for our own resurrection.  This weekend (April 5th & 6th), we will explore this story in our worship services.
Lazarus lived in Bethany, along with his two sisters, Mary and Martha.  All of them were close friends with Jesus.  As the story opens, Lazarus has become seriously ill, and his sisters send word to Jesus, asking that he come to Bethany and heal Lazarus.  Jesus purposively delays responding to their request, telling his disciples, “‘this illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’”  By the time Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, Lazarus has already been dead for four days.  Nevertheless, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, as Lazarus walks out of the tomb, still draped in his funeral clothes.
            In this story, Jesus provides us with three insights into preparing for our resurrection.  The first two insights appear in his conversation with Martha.  Jesus says:  “‘Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’”  In this statement, Jesus provides advice on how Christians should die and how we should live.
            First, Christians can face the prospect of their own mortality confident that, in Christ, death does not mark the termination of our existence.  Instead, death marks a transformation, in which we will be transformed into God’s New Creation at the end time.  My favorite metaphor for this promised transformation is the metamorphosis process that caterpillars go through to become butterflies.  Just as the hairy, nose-to-the-ground caterpillar is dramatically transformed into the beautiful, soaring butterfly, so also Christians can face death confident that God will transform us just as dramatically into a New Creation. 
             Secondly, when Jesus tells Martha that “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” he suggests a new way of living in the here-and-now:  We are to live as a resurrection people, confident of our ultimate destiny in Christ.  This suggests that we should live life with joy and gusto and confidence and faithfulness.  For most Christians, really living as resurrection people represents a major transformation in how we live and approach things.
            The third insight from Jesus comes just before he raises Lazarus from the dead.  Just before acting, Jesus pauses to pray.  This prayer is a prayer of thanksgiving, where Christ gives thanks for his relationship with the Creator.  So, also, as resurrection people, we should constantly live with thankful hearts for our relationship with God—a relationship which nurtures and sustains us in this life and promises even more in the life to come.
Come and join us this weekend, as we explore more deeply what it means to prepare for Easter and for our resurrection.  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.
Two exegetical notes about John 11:
1.      The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is not a resurrection story.  While Lazarus is raised from the dead in the account, he lives out his biological life and then dies again.  By contrast, Jesus' resurrection is not a temporary postponement of death.  Instead Jesus' resurrection and the promise of our own resurrection is ultimate victory over death, forever.
2.      When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has already been dead four days.  As Gail O’Day points out in her commentary, “According to popular Jewish belief at the time of Jesus, the soul hovered around the body in the grave for three days after death, hoping to reenter the body.  But after the third day, when the soul ‘sees that the color of its face has changed,’ the soul leaves the body for good.”[1]  The fact that Lazarus had already been dead for four days indicates that he was really and truly dead—no mistake had been made as to his death.  For the contemporary reader, this would rule out “near death experiences,” such as described in Heaven Is for Real and Proof of Heaven.[2]

[1] Gail O’Day, “John,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 9 (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1996).
[2] Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent, Heaven is for Real:  A Little boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson, 2010) and Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven:  A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife  (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2012).