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.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Becoming Accountable to God

            This Sunday (Sept. 21st), I will continue my series of messages on “Building Stronger Relationships.”  In the first three sermons, we have explored building stronger relationships within our families, with our friends, and with ourselves.  This weekend, we will examine building a stronger relationship with the Divine.  Throughout this series, I have wanted us to focus 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?

My scripture for this week is the “Parable of the Sower” in Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23.  In this parable, Jesus describes a farmer who goes out into the field to plant his crop.  He sows the seed by scattering it into the field. 

As he scatters the seed, some falls upon a pathway, where the soil is packed hard and worn by foot traffic.  This seed was quickly eaten up by birds.  Other seed fell on rocky ground, which did not have very deep soil.  This seed quickly germinated and sprang up, but it was soon scorched, withered, and died because there was no room to put down deep roots for moisture and stability.  Still other seed fell in an area where there were a lot of weeds and thistles.  This seed began to grow, but it was quickly choked out by the weeds and thistles.

Despite these failures, some seed fell in the good, rich, deep soil.  This seed germinated, sprouted, put down deep roots, and flourished.  The plants from this seed produced grain in large quantities of hundredfold or sixtyfold or thirtyfold. 

When Jesus finished the parable, the disciples were baffled by what it meant.  So, after they were alone, Jesus explained the parable in verses 18-23.  The sower of the seed refers to Jesus himself and the seed represents the word and teaching of Christ.  As Jesus explains, the seed that falls upon the path refers to those who hear the word of God but are confused and do not understand. 

The seed that falls on the rocky ground signifies those who initially hear the word of God with great joy, but then lose their faith and fall away when they learn that being a follower of Christ is not always easy and requires sacrifice.  While the seed that falls among the thistles and weeds represents those who hear the word of God, but then their spiritual lives are choked out by other activities and distractions, such as “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth"(v. 22).

Finally, the seed that falls in the deep, rich soil refers to persons who hear the word of God and allow it to shape who they are.  The good soil refers to those who have a strong relationship with the Divine.  It refers to those who are growing in their faith and have a strong spirituality.

One of the most important aspects of this parable is the inevitability of the bountiful harvest of grain.  In both the parable (v. 8) and Jesus’ subsequent explanation of the parable (v. 23), there is the assumption that God will provide a bountiful harvest:  thirtyfold or sixtyfold or even a hundredfold.  God will provide.  The only question is whether each person who hears the parable will be part of the harvest.  Ultimately, this is a question about our accountability to God.

As hearers of the Good News, will we provide rich soil so that God’s Word can take root and grow within us, enriching our lives with a strong spiritual dimension?  Or, as hearers of the Good News will we offer nothing except a hard path or rocky dirt or soil infested with thistles and weeds?  In other words, do we have a strong relationship with God?  Or, do we allow confusion or difficulties or distractions to interfere with our spirituality?

The key to building a strong relationship with the Divine is making ourselves accountable to God.  To have a strong relationship with the Divine we must make that relationship a priority in our lives and we must work on our relationship with God through prayer and meditation and study and sacrifice and commitment.  It is not always easy, but it is always worthwhile because we will never be fully happy and flourishing without a strong, vibrant spirituality.


Come, join us this Sunday, Sept. 21st, at Meriden United Methodist Church, as we explore the spiritual practices for a stronger relationship with the Divine.  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 13, 2014

"Becoming Our Own Best Friend"

            As I continue my sermon series on “Building Stronger Relationships,” this weekend (September 14th) I want to focus on building a stronger relationship with ourselves.  Our relationship with ourselves is complex and there are many different foci which I could choose for this weekend.  Ultimately, I decided to focus on the self-directed guilt and shame that most of us afflict upon ourselves. 

Brené Brown, an American professor, who has studied shame in American culture, observes that “shame is an unspoken epidemic in our culture.”  Further, she claims that men and women experience shame differently because of differing cultural expectations.  Women find themselves in a cultural web of “unobtainable, conflicting expectations” of who they are supposed to be.  Shame manifests itself as not being able to measure up to this impossible standard.   Alternatively, for men, shame occurs whenever they are perceived as being weak.[i]

Shame is paralyzing and deforming.  It prevents us from becoming the strong, joyful, flourishing persons that God intended.  Brown elaborates by noting that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, aggression, and eating disorders. 

But, where do we find this personal courage to open ourselves up to vulnerability in order to demolish that debilitating shame?

My reflections this weekend will be grounded in John 7:53-8:11.  This passage is usually known as the story about “the woman caught in adultery.”  It begins with some Jewish religious leaders who bring a woman caught in adultery and make her stand in front of Jesus.  They ask Jesus if he agrees that the woman should be stoned to death for her sexual indiscretion, as called for in the Hebrew law.  The scriptural passage makes it clear that these Jewish religious leaders are using the adulterous woman to set a trap for Jesus.  For them, this woman is nothing more than a pawn in a theological chess match with Jesus.

When Jesus finally responds to his interlocutors, he says:  “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Slowly, one by one, beginning with the eldest, Jesus’s theological opponents dissolve back into the crowd and slink away.  Eventually, the only person before Jesus is the woman caught in adultery.  With all of her accusers gone, Jesus says to the woman, “I do not condemn you, either.  Go your way and from now on do not sin again.”

It’s hard to over-state the guilt and shame which the woman caught in adultery must have felt, within that historical context.  It’s conceivable that as she stood before Jesus this woman was stoical—or, even defiant.  However, I think that when most of us try to imagine this scene, we picture the woman as sobbing hysterically and perhaps even physically quivering in fear and humiliation.  We can barely imagine the relief and joy that she must have felt, when Jesus forgave her and offered her healing from her brokenness of shame and guilt.

But here’s the thing:  Jesus offers us the same forgiveness and healing in our brokenness of shame and guilt.  Through our Christian faith, we should be able to tap into this love and healing which Jesus offers to us.  Over thirty years of ministry, I have noticed that the person whom many of us have the hardest time forgiving is ourselves.  Yet, regardless of what we have done or who we have become.  Regardless of how despicable we have been.  Regardless of how far short we have fallen from being the persons whom we aspired to be.  Jesus is willing to forgive us.  Jesus was willing to die for us.  So, if Jesus is willing to forgive us, then just perhaps we can find a way to forgive ourselves, as well.

In her research into shame, Brown has discovered that a tripartite cocktail of secrecy-silence-judgment fuel shame.  The antidote to this lethal cocktail, according to Brown, is empathy and the ability to share our vulnerability.  Interestingly, Brown claims that the ability to be vulnerable is “our most accurate measure of courage.”  For Brown, vulnerability is not weakness; vulnerability is strength.  Brown claims further that vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.

As persons of faith, Christians have a special source of strength to be vulnerable.  We know that even when we are vulnerable, God still loves us and watches over us.  Through his life, ministry, and crucifixion, Jesus provides a model of how vulnerability can be a form of strength and courage.  Through his resurrection, Jesus provides the ultimate guarantee that no matter what happens we will prevail through God’s love and care. 

By tapping into God’s love and care, we can become our own best friends.  Through our faith, we can banish shame and guilt – and we can become strong, joyful, flourishing persons, just as God intended.

Come, join us this Sunday, September 14th, at Meriden United Methodist Church, as we explore further what it means to be our own best friend.  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.

[i] Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame,” TED Talk, available online at, accessed 4 September 2014.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Building Stronger Relationships: True Friendship"

            This is the second installment in my sermon series on “Building Stronger Relationships.”  As noted last week, I want to focus on the following questions in this series:

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?

Whereas last weekend we began the series by exploring family relationships, this Sunday, September 7th, I want to concentrate on the relationship between friends.  In his book, Nicomachean Ethics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle explores the concept of friendship in great depth.  In his analysis, Aristotle identifies three different categories of friendship:

1.      Friendship based on utility.  These friendships arise because both persons get something out of the relationship.  For instance, two business owners may cultivate a friendship because they depend upon one another’s business in order to be successful in their own business.  Their friendship may include things such as occasional social activities together, remembering one another’s birthdays and anniversaries, and small gifts or cards at Christmas time.  Yet, the grounding for their friendship is utility—what they get out of the relationship.  For instance, if one business person decides to retire, then the friendship would dissolve.

2.      Friendship based on pleasure.  In these cases, friendships arise because the two persons derive joy and pleasure from one another’s company, based upon each other’s looks or wit or some other quality.  For example, we might say to ourselves, “I must invite X to my Halloween party because she always tells funny stories and we will all enjoy ourselves, if she comes.” 

3.      True Friendships.  For Aristotle, there was a decided superficial quality to the first two types of friendship, which led him to propose a third type of friendship that we might call, “true friends.”  True friendships contain the first two types of friendships.  In other words, true friends are mutually beneficial to one another and they bring each other joy and pleasure, as well.  Yet at the same time, there is a deeper, more enduring dimension to true friendships.  For Aristotle, true friends bring out the best qualities in one another and they help one another to be good persons and to develop a virtuous character.

Even though Aristotle lived at a different time and in a completely different social context, I have always appreciated his analysis of friendship.  True friends are more than flatterers.  They are honest and sometimes they tell us what we need to hear—even though it’s not what we want to hear.  True friends are also loyal.  That is, they remain faithful to our relationship, regardless of how badly things are going for us.  For Aristotle, there is a complementarity in true friendship, where each friend makes the other one a better person.

           One of the best examples of true friends is the story of David and Jonathan in the Bible.  Their story occurs in 1 Samuel.  Jonathan is from royalty; he is the son of King Saul, who was the first king of Israel.  By contrast, David comes from a much humbler family background.  Yet, David proves to be a great warrior.  We first meet David in 1 Samuel 17, when he saves the day for the Israelite Army by defeating the Philistine giant, Goliath, in hand-to-hand combat.  After the Israelites rout the Philistines, David joins the army.  Over time, he rises to the rank of General in the army.  During this same time, David and Jonathan develop a deep friendship, which would meet Aristotle’s criteria for a true friendship. 

           Jonathan’s father, King Saul, has a love-hate relationship with David.  On the one hand, Saul really appreciates David’s fighting ability and his leadership skills.  With David as their leader, the Israelite Army becomes very successful, winning battle after battle.  On the other hand, Saul feels threatened by David’s success.  During the victory celebration after one battle, for example, the women sing: 

“Saul has killed his thousands,
And David his ten thousands.” (1 Samuel 18: 7)

           Over time, I believe that Saul becomes mentally ill.  His mentally illness manifests itself in sudden outbursts of extreme violence.  By 1 Samuel 20, David has begun to fear for his life, and he shares his fears with his friend, Jonathan.  At first, Jonathan is skeptical of David’s concern, but eventually Jonathan begins to wonder.  The two friends decide to check out David’s concern with a sort of experiment.  David decides not to attend a major festival, which  he would normally be expected to attend.  If King Saul notices his absence and questions where David is, then Jonathan is to explain David’s absence as the result of a family commitment. 

           At the festival, King Saul does notice David’s absence and he asks where David is.  When King Saul hears Jonathan’s explanation of David’s absence, he becomes extremely angry.  At the same time, King Saul sees through his son, Jonathan, and perceives that Jonathan and David are colluding together.  This causes King Saul to also become angry with his own son.  He tells Jonathan, “For as long as the son of Jesse [David] lives upon the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established.  Now send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.” (2 Samuel 20:31)

           In his heart, Jonathan realizes there is some truth to his father’s words.  If he lives, David will ultimately become king instead of Jonathan.  Yet, Jonathan and David are true friends.  So, instead of betraying David, Jonathan actually helps him to flee from King Saul’s wrath—even though the act of saving his friend means that ultimately Jonathan will never become king himself. 

           As noted above, the story of Jonathan and David is a perfect example of true friendship as understood by Aristotle.  The two friends are fiercely loyal to one another; they are honest with one another; and they make each other better persons.  But, the relationship between Jonathan and David has one other quality, as well.  The two friends are willing to make sacrifices for one another—even to the point of being willing to sacrifice their lives or, in the case of Jonathan, a willingness to sacrifice the opportunity to be king.  Going beyond Aristotle, I would argue that sacrifice can be an important element of true friendship—provided that the willingness to sacrifice is mutual and for a higher good.


Come, join us this Sunday, September 7th, at Meriden United Methodist Church, as we explore further the qualities that help us to be true friends.  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.