Saturday, August 30, 2014

Family Relationships: Acceptance & Forgiveness

This Sunday, I’m beginning a seven-week sermon series on “Building Stronger Relationships.”  In this series, I want to ask questions, such as the following:

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 way that we live out our relationships?

We begin this series by looking at relationships within the family.  Usually, when we hear “family relationships,” we think about the relationship between parents-and-young children, or the relationship between parents.  These are definitely important family relationships.  However, I would like to point out there are other important family relationships as well.  Consider, as illustrations, the relationship between grandparents-and-grandchildren, the relationship between parents-and-grown children, or the relationship between adult siblings.

            In order to broaden our scope in thinking about family relationships, I’ve decided to base my message on the biblical story of two adult brothers in the book of Genesis:  Jacob and Esau.  The story of Esau and Jacob is one of betrayal and estrangement, before they reconcile and accept one another. 

            The betrayal occurs when the two brothers were young men and Isaac, their father, was old with failing eyesight.  Rebekah, the boys’ mother, initiates an underhanded scheme.  Through this scheme Jacob purposely deceives Isaac and gains a special blessing which bestows all of Isaac’s accumulated property and power upon Jacob—even though Isaac had intended to give this special blessing to Esau.  When Esau discovers that Jacob has betrayed him, he becomes so enraged that he threatens to kill his brother.  Fearing for his life, Jacob moves to another country, far away from Esau’s wrath.

            Years go by.  The two brothers live separately, but each prospers in their setting and each become rich, affluent men.  Although Jacob stole Esau’s blessing, each brother is blessed by God.  Eventually, Jacob decides to move his family and all of his possessions back to his homeland.  My biblical text for the proclamation is Genesis 33: 1-17, which is the story of Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation.  As he approaches his homeland, Jacob sends a sizable peace offering to his estranged brother, Esau.  This peace offering includes much livestock, including goats, cattle, camels, and donkeys.  Meanwhile, Esau goes out to meet Jacob with 400 men.

            After years of estrangement, the two brothers are reconciled when they see each other again.  Esau, the brother who was betrayed, runs to Jacob and embraces him, weeping with joy.  At first Esau refuses Jacob’s gifts of livestock, but eventually he accepts them when Jacob explains that they are gifts of thanksgiving for their reconciliation as brothers.  Jacob also explains that God has richly blessed him in his life, poignantly saying:  “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor.” (Genesis 33:10)  Ultimately, the two brothers decide to settle in different regions, but the important point is that they have accepted each other for who they are.

            When we think about family relationships and the three questions I delineated above, it seems to me that the story of Esau and Jacob underscore the importance of two vital commitments.  First, in any family web of relationships, there is likely to be relationship-partners who find themselves in conflict, if not actual estrangement.  When that happens, God calls upon us to forgive and reconcile. 

Secondly, members of our family sometimes will be different from us, with different ideas, different opinions, and different commitments.  Rather than trying to re-shape these family members into our own expectations, we must learn to accept them for who they are—not whom we would like for them to be.
Come, join us this Sunday, August 31st, 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, August 23, 2014

“The Most Important Thing You May Ever Do”

            What is the most important thing that you will ever do in your life?  Think about it.  Is the most important thing success and accomplishment in the work that you do?  Is the most important thing making money?  Or, is it how well you love and take care of your family?  Is the most important thing excelling in a game or hobby?   Is the most important thing having time for leisure or travel?  What is the most important thing that you will ever do in life?

             This week, I want to suggest that one of the most important things we can do in life is to invite another person to church and help them establish a meaningful spiritual life with Christ.  Think about it. 

Imagine that you knew someone who did not have a deep, spiritual life.  Perhaps this person was struggling with a job loss or an addictive, compulsive behavior or a divorce or the death of a loved one and that individual would be really helped by the support of a church.  Or, perhaps that person was not struggling at all; instead, they were gliding through life, doing well.  Yet, even though things were going well, this individual lacked spiritual depth in the enjoyment of their life.  Think about much this person could benefit by renewing the deep, spiritual dimension of their life through a relationship with Christ in a community of faith.  Think about it.

As Jesus’ disciples, we know how deeply and profoundly our lives can be transformed through our spiritual relationship with Christ.  When we encounter huge challenges in life or deep disappointments or tragic losses, we are sustained by our spiritual relationship with Christ.  Alternatively, when we experience important accomplishments or great joys, these satisfactions are enriched through our spirituality.  Our ability to flourish through good times and bad is enhanced and blessed through our relationship with Christ and our church.

If our Christian faith brings joy and flourishing to our lives, shouldn’t we be interested in sharing that faith with others?  Jesus seemed to think this was extremely important.  In fact, his last earthly instructions to the disciples were simply to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations… .” (Matthew 28:19a)  Inviting others to establish a deeper spiritual relationship with Christ is at the very core of what it means to be a Christian.  It is integral to discipleship.  Some call this process of invitation, evangelism.

Unfortunately, evangelism has acquired a reputation among many American Christians.  When many of us hear the word, “evangelism,” we get tense and nervous.  We think about being asked to go house-to-house, knocking on doors and essentially making “cold calls” in which we encourage complete strangers to attend our church.  Or, we think about handing out pamphlets to complete strangers, giving our “testimony” and asking strangers if they “know Jesus”.  Yuck!  For most of us, the very thought makes us very uncomfortable.  As a result, “evangelism” is just an awful concept and task, which we don’t want any part of.

Still, Jesus calls upon us to share the good news; he calls upon us to evangelize.  As a result, my message this weekend (August 24th) is about “evangelism”.  In this message, I am going to propose a biblical evangelism.  That is, the type of evangelism which we see unfolding when Jesus calls together his twelve disciples.  My message is based upon the scripture, John 1: 40-51.

In this passage of scripture, the future disciple, Andrew, hears Jesus speaking and becomes convinced that Jesus is, indeed, the long-awaited Messiah.  So, Andrew tells his brother, Peter, who also becomes a disciple.  Continuing the story, we learn that Andrew and Peter’s neighbor, Philip, becomes a disciple.  Philip tells Nathanael, who is a friend, that Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited Messiah.  At first, Nathanael is skeptical.  He asks, “‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’”  Rather than arguing with Nathanael, Philip simply invites him, saying, “‘Come and see.’”  Later, when Nathanael sees and talks with Jesus, he also becomes a disciple.

In the scriptures, evangelism does not involve going house-to-house or handing out pamphlets on a street corner.  For the most part, sharing the gospel in the scriptures does not involve talking with strangers at all.  No.  Instead, evangelism is simply inviting those persons whom we know already—family members, friends, neighbors, classmates, colleagues from work, and others—to simply “come and see.” 

In our social networks, each of us knows persons who do not have a church home, where they can feel welcomed, secure, and supported.  Some of these persons are struggling with life’s challenges and disappointments, while others are gliding through life.  It doesn’t matter.  Everyone can have a happier, more flourishing life through developing further the spiritual dimension of our lives.  Isn’t that what we want for our family, our friends, our neighbors, and everyone else who is important to us?

Come, join us this Sunday, August 24th, 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, August 9, 2014

"Who Are Our Neighbors?"

            What is it about human nature that is always inducing us to draw distinctions and make boundaries between different persons?  Why is it that we feel compelled to create categories that divide people into separate groups?  We are always dividing persons into “us versus them” categories.  For instance, there is “Jayhawks vs. Wildcats;” Democrats vs. Republicans; the unchurched vs the churched; whites vs blacks; Christians vs. Muslims; conservatives vs. liberals; patriots vs. “un-Americans;” natives vs illegals; “men are from Mars” vs “women are from Venus;” etc. 

It seems as though an inherent characteristic of what it means to be human is this insatiable drive to separate and categorize.  This weekend (August 10th) in my message, we will be exploring a scripture passage that focuses on this innate human drive.  The passage begins with Jesus explaining that the requirements of faithfulness to God can be summed up in loving “‘…the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10: 27). 

 Jesus’ summary raises a boundary question:  “‘…who is my neighbor?’”  That is, where do we draw our lines?  How do we categorize?  How do we divide neighbor versus not-my-neighbor?  Jesus responds to this boundary question with a parable—the famous parable of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10: 29-37).

Now, at this juncture, I should note that I consider the parable of the Good Samaritan to be one of the most dangerous passages of scripture within the entire Bible.  It’s dangerous because it is so familiar, and it is so familiar because the parable itself is so powerful.  Everyone—both Christian and non-Christian alike—know the basic gist of the Good Samaritan parable.  The story is so powerful that it has become a common image in popular culture.  There are Good Samaritan hospitals, Good Samaritan businesses, Good Samaritan RV camping sites and even a Good Samaritan ointment. 

The story of the Good Samaritan is so ubiquitous in our culture that sometimes when we hear the parable we don’t pay attention.  That’s a problem because when we don’t pay attention, we may not fully grasp this parable in its full depth. 

Jesus uses this parable to answer that boundary question.  It turns out that for Jesus, our neighbor is not determined by geographical proximity or cultural similarity or religious rightness.  Instead, the boundary question is determined simply by need.  Our neighbor is simply the person or group who need our help.  It could be the neighbor across the street who has been diagnosed with cancer; or the kid in our local school whose family can’t afford school supplies; or the town across the state which is recovering from a flood; or it could be the subsistence farmer half a world away who is struggling to feed and educate his children.  For Jesus, need establishes the neighbor relationship.

Sadly, we live in a world where there is profound and massive need.  In a sense, we have many, many “neighbors” as understood by Jesus.  The very scope of neighbors in need can seem overwhelming.  It is tempting for us to throw up our hands and give up.  Since we cannot meet everyone’s needs and fix everyone’s problems, it is tempting to not even try to help.  But, that would be a misunderstanding of the parable and what Jesus calls us to do. 

In the parable, the Samaritan does not completely heal the beaten and injured man.  Instead, he bandages his wounds and offers first aid.  Then, he gets the man to an inn where he can receive further assistance.  Jesus calls upon us to do what we can to help, even if we cannot completely fix every problem.

In the Church, we sometimes use the word Mission to refer to the Good Samaritan’s ministry of love and service.  Come, join us this Sunday, August 10th, at Meriden United Methodist Church, as we explore how God may be calling us to Mission, understood as a ministry of love and service.  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.
(Note:  Next Sunday, we will welcome Pastor Bob Sutton to preach at Meriden UMC.  Consequently, I will not be posting a blog.  Watch for my next post the following week of August 18th.)

Saturday, August 2, 2014

“The Man Carrying a Jar of Water”

          This Sunday (August 3rd), my community of faith will celebrate “The Lord’s Supper” (or “Eucharist”) as we do on the first weekend of every month, as well as during other special worship services throughout the year. 

But, why do we celebrate this "ritual" every month?

            The Lord’s Supper is described in all three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26: 26-29, Mark 14: 22-25, and Luke 22: 13-20) as well as in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (11: 23-26).  In my message this Sunday, I will use Mark’s account to explore why we celebrate the Eucharist each month.

            All of these scriptural passages describe Jesus as instituting The Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist) as part of his celebration of the Jewish Festival of Passover with the disciples.  Mark begins his story with the disciples asking Jesus, “‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’” (Mark 16: 12).

            Jesus responds by sending two (unidentified) disciples into Jerusalem and telling them to look for a man “carrying a jar of water.”  Now, in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time, the sight of a man carrying a jar of water would have been very startling because carrying water was usually a task fulfilled by a woman within each household.  At any rate, the disciples are to follow this man back to his house. 
              At the house, they are to ask the head of the household, “‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’”  Jesus reassures the two disciples that the house owner will then show them an Upper Room, which will be ready for them to make the Passover meal preparations. 

            In order to fully understand The Lord’s Supper, it is important to remember that the Jewish Passover celebrates the Israelites escape from bondage and slavery in Egypt.  The Passover celebration was a very important and meaningful religious observance for Jesus and all of his followers, who were all devout Jews.  The Passover consists of special foods and a liturgy which is followed during the meal.  According to historians, the celebration of the Passover in Jesus’ time would have taken a form similar to this:

A.    Preliminary Course  A word of declaration, with a preliminary dish (an appetizer) consisting of greens, bitter herbs, and a sauce of fruit puree.  The first cup of wine is shared.

B.     Passover Liturgy.  Here the story of the first Passover and the Israelites escape from slavery and bondage in Egypt is shared, beginning with these words:  “A wandering Aramean was my father…”  The second cup of wine is shared.

C.     Main Meal.  Grace is spoken over unleavened bread, and then a meal is shared.  The meal consists of the Passover lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs, with fruit puree.  The third cup of wine is shared.

D.    Conclusion:  A fourth cup of wine is shared.

In Mark, when the two disciples go into Jerusalem, sure enough, they find a man walking through the street, carrying a jar of water.  They follow the man and find this Upper Room, just as Jesus had predicted.  There, they prepare the Passover meal.  At the time for the meal, Jesus and his disciples gather together in the Upper Room.

During the Passover meal, Jesus takes a loaf of bread, blesses it and gives it to his disciples, saying:  “‘Take; this is my body.’”  Then, he takes a cup of wine; after blessing the wine, he offers it to his disciples, telling them:  “‘This is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many.’” 

In The United Methodist Church we recognize The Lord’s Supper and Baptism as sacraments.  Both sacraments are established in the Bible and we are encouraged to practice them as part of our spiritual lives.  A sacrament is an outward, visible, and physical sign of an inward and spiritual gift or assistance from God. 

When we celebrate The Lord’s Supper, I frequently feel especially close to Jesus.  Usually, a warm glow fills my heart and soul, as though Jesus is embracing me in his loving arms.  I become strongly reassured that I am not alone in this dark, mysterious universe. Instead, I am always warmly embraced by the love of Jesus for me personally and I am convinced of Paul’s claim in Romans that nothing, not even death itself, can ever “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (see Romans 8)  I sometimes feel Jesus’ presence as though he is right there beside me as we celebrate The Lord’s Supper. 

This is why we celebrate The Lord’s Supper:  it allows us to be healed from all that separates us from the love of God and to re-connect with the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives.  The Lord’s Supper should not be a ritual that we periodically go through.  Instead, it is a spiritual—sometimes mystical—connection with the love and presence of Jesus which is already present in our lives, even if we sometimes turn away from it and disavow this source of flourishing and of life, itself. 

But, there is more.

The Lord’s Supper is also that spiritual moment which points us to the future and reminds us of our ultimate destiny; that moment when Jesus will keep his promise to the original disciples as well as all of his followers.  As recorded in Mark, Jesus says:  “‘Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’” (Mark 14: 25) 
The Lord’s Supper never ends.  Instead, it always points the way forward to the “eschaton,” the time when Jesus will come again; when God will transform us and everything else into a New Creation; and when God’s Reign will be fully established.  At that time, Jesus will join us and all of his disciples at a heavenly banquet and celebration.

Come, join us this Sunday, as we explore and celebrate The Lord’s Supper.  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.