Friday, October 31, 2014

"We Are Not Alone"

            I am back after taking some time off for vacation and then continuing education.  I return to the pulpit on a very special Sunday.  This weekend Christians around the world will celebrate “All Saints Day,” a day set aside to remember and give thanks for friends, family, and other loved ones who have died.   At Meriden United Methodist Church we celebrate All Saints Sunday by reading the names of our loved ones, with a chime ringing after each name has been lifted up.  The names of our deceased loved ones are read as the congregation receives Holy Communion, reminding us of God’s promise that we will all be reunited in God’s Kingdom.

            My message this weekend, as we remember and give thanks for our loved ones, will be grounded in Hebrews 12: 1-3.  I deeply treasure the book of Hebrews and especially this passage.  However, in order to fully understand and appreciate this passage, we must understand its placement in the sweep of the overall argument in Hebrews. 

To fully understand Hebrews 12: 1-3, we must begin with the previous chapter, when the writer provides this definition of faith:  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  He continues in 11: 2-3 by observing, “Indeed by faith our ancestors received approval.  By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” 

From this point forward, to the very end of Chapter 11, the writer piles example on top of example of the faith of our ancestors in the faith.  For instance, he reminds us of the faith of Moses and the Hebrews, when he writes:  “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so [without faith] they were drowned.” (v. 29)

In Chapter 11, the writer of Hebrews goes on and on and on, giving example after example after example of the faith of our spiritual ancestors from the Bible.  Then, our passage from the 12th chapter begins triumphantly with “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…”.  

At this point, the writer of Hebrews adopts the intriguing metaphor of a distance race, such as a road race or a cross country race.  He suggests that living faithfully as disciples of Christ is akin to running an endurance race.  To put it together, verse 1 goes like this:  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” 

For the writer of Hebrews, we do not run the race of faithful discipleship alone.  No, we are surrounded by this crowd of spiritual ancestors, who have already completed the course but are watching us run.  This “cloud of witnesses” are not passive, disinterested spectators, either.  They surround and uplift us as we run our course of faith, pulling for us to run with endurance to the very end.  And, we know that we can successfully complete the course because this crowd of spiritual ancestors has already completed the course through faith.  We know that we can complete the course because they have already completed it.
In my message this Sunday, I will suggest that the crowd of spiritual ancestors watching us run our races is not restricted simply to the characters from the Bible.  Instead, I will argue that our loved ones are also part of the “cloud of witnesses”—that deeply engaged crowd of spectators—who are actively pulling for us –and offer us inspiration—as we run our course.

For the writer of Hebrews, we can take encouragement and inspiration from the “cloud of witnesses” who watch us run.  Yet, as he continues in verses 2-3, he calls upon us to look to Jesus as our role model for what it means to live faithful lives of discipleship.  Further, the writer emphasizes the quality of endurance, as essential if we are to remain faithful and not grow weary. 

We can see this quality of endurance modeled in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As the writer exhorts us in verse 2, we are to look “to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of God.”

Come, join us this Sunday, November 2nd, as we remember and celebrate the lives of our friends, family members, and other loved ones—and, as we reflect on the assurance that they have joined the “great crowd of witnesses” who surround and uplift us, as we run with endurance the race of faith that is set before us.  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, October 10, 2014

"Did He Really Mean That?"

            This Sunday (Oct. 12th), I will complete my sermon series on “Building Stronger Relationships.”  Over the course of this seven-week series, we have looked at a diversity of relationships:

Ø  relationships within our Families
Ø  relationships with our Friends
Ø  relationships with Ourselves
Ø  relationships with God
Ø  relationships with Nature
Ø  relationships with Strangers

This week we conclude by looking at relationships with our enemies.  This is a very rich topic and there are several different directions that we could take and explore.  For instance,  we could examine the relationships that we have with enemies of the United States, such as our fear and hatred of the enemy terrorist group ISIL. 

            Of all these diverse options, I have decided to focus our reflections at the personal level. In other words, how do we build stronger relationships with our personal enemies or rivals.  Throughout this series, we have focused 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?

So, basically, our concern this coming Sunday will be what kind of relationships does God expect us to have with our personal enemies and rivals?  What kind of relationship does God expect us to have with those persons who have wronged us; or harmed us; or cheated us; been our bitter rivals at work or in our families or in our communities?

            My reflections this weekend will be based upon a portion of Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.  Specifically, we will be reflecting on Matthew 5: 43-48.  This scripture contains these words by Jesus:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

            For some who are new Christians, this saying by Jesus may be unbelievable—literally.  Does Jesus really mean that we are to love our enemies!?!  For others who grew up in the church, this saying may be so familiar that we no longer take it very seriously.  In our worship this week, I am going to ask everyone, both new and long-established Christians, to try and hear this saying for the first time.  I am going to ask that we let Jesus' admonition to sink in and that we take it very seriously.  If we do that, then most of us are going to find ourselves questioning; asking, “Does he really mean that we are to love our enemies!?!”

            I am convinced that before we can build stronger relationships with our enemies we must first hear Jesus’ saying again for the first time.  On Sunday, we will ask why Jesus thinks that it is important to love our enemies.  What we will learn is that Jesus calls upon us to love our enemies because God already loves and cares for our enemies.  It is important that we come to see our enemies as God sees them, as beloved sons and daughters.  Just as with strangers, we must develop the ability to see the face of Jesus in the face of our enemies. 

            And, there’s more.  Jesus reminds us that as his followers we need to live our lives differently from the everyday norm.  As his followers, we are to live as “resurrection people” who are sons and daughters of God, confident that in the end God will prevail and God’s Reign will be established on Earth -- and death shall no longer threaten us.   

And, there’s even more than that.  Come, join us this Sunday, Oct.12th, at Meriden United Methodist Church, as we explore what it means to “love your enemies” as disciples who are called to begin living as a resurrection people.  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, October 4, 2014

"On Seeing Jesus in the Face of the Stranger"

            What kind of relationship does God expect us to have with strangers?

            Over the past six weeks, I have been exploring different types of relationships in my Sunday morning proclamations.  In this sermon series, I have been asking how we can build stronger relationships across the myriad types of relationships that we maintain.  In past sermons, we have reflected on relationships with families, friends, ourselves, God, and nature.  This Sunday, October 5th, I want to focus on our relationship with strangers. 

            One aspect of post-modern American culture is that we regularly encounter and interact with strangers.  This is true regardless of where we live, even in small towns, such as Meriden, the small town where I live.  Even if we live in a small village—where everyone literally does know our name—most of us range beyond our homes into more populated areas for work or shopping or entertainment.  Encountering strangers is part of daily, social interaction.

            It’s human nature to fear strangers.  Television shows, movies, and many novels are replete with creative stories of how strangers can hurt us.  Parents of small children have special cause for concern, and most parents are constantly warning their children to beware of strangers.  But, what kind of relationship does God call upon us to have with strangers?

            There are several interesting stories in the Bible that could provide models for the type of relationships with strangers that God calls upon us to have.  See, for example, the story of the prophet Elisha and the wealthy woman of Shunem in 2 Kings 4, or the story of the prophet Elijah and the poor widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17.  There are other stories, as well.  However, for this week I want to focus on the story of Abraham and Sarah and the three men in Genesis 18: 1-15.

            At the beginning of Chapter 18, the reader learns that the three men are actually God, two angels.  But, throughout the story neither Abraham nor his wife, Sarah, realize the true identity of the three strangers.  As the story begins, Abraham is sitting in his tent in the wilderness in the hot, middle part of the day.  Suddenly, three men appear.  Instantly, Abraham leaps from his tent and rushes out to greet the strangers.  As was the custom in his culture, Abraham bows in front of the strangers and welcomes them.  Then, he immediately brings water for them to wash and sets about preparing food and drink for the strangers. 

Abraham is not cheap in his hospitality, either.  He has Sarah prepare cakes from the highest quality flour and he prepares a meal featuring a veal calf, which would be the best meal he has to offer.  As the strangers eat the meal set before them, Abraham stands by, attentive to their every need.  Later, God promises Sarah that she will have a child, despite the fact that she is older and well past her reproductive years.  Then, Abraham helps the three strangers with directions as they set off for their ultimate destination.

Perhaps in this story Abraham and Sarah provide the paradigm for how God intends for us to treat all strangers.  Abraham and Sarah respond with immediate hospitality, when the three strangers come up to them, out of the wilderness.  They are respectful and attentive to their needs.  They do not hold back in their hospitality, but rather provide the best of all that they have.  The strangers are welcomed, cared for, and affirmed with respect.

Of course, the reader understands that these are no ordinary strangers.  Instead, we know that the strangers are really God and two attending angels.  But, what if we looked for the divine in the faces of the strangers whom we encounter?  How would that change and shape our relationships with strangers?

The great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, has a wonderful short story that illustrates my point.  Entitled, “Where Love Is, God Is,” the story tells of an old shoemaker, named Martin.  Martin lives by himself in a basement apartment because his wife and children have all died.  One night Martin has a dream in which God informs Martin that God will visit him the following day.  The next morning, Martin sits by his window, repairing shoes as he awaits God.  Throughout the day, Martin has several encounters:

Ø    It is winter and he watches an old man, Stepanitch, shoveling snow from the sidewalk across the street. Martin decides to invite Stepanitch into his apartment to warm himself up and share some food and hot drink.

Ø    Later, Martin sees a young woman with a baby outside in the cold.  The woman does not have a coat.  So, Martin invites the woman to come inside with her baby in order to warm herself and share some food and hot drink.  Before she leaves, Martin gives her one of his coats.

Ø    Finally, Martin sees a young boy trying to steal apples from an older woman.  An argument between the two ensues.  So, Martin goes outside to mediate the dispute and share love and compassion for both the boy and the woman.

Despite these interactions, God never visits Martin that day.  Bitterly disappointed, Martin prepares for bed, when he has another vision.  In the second vision, Martin perceives the divine in the face of the old man, Stepanitch; in the faces of the young woman and baby; in the faces of the boy and older woman.  Martin realizes that God had, indeed, visited him that day—not once, but three times.  Martin also realizes that in extending hospitality on these three occasions he was also accepting God.

            In this fable, I believe that we learn the key to building the stronger relationships with strangers that God intends.  That key is to perceive Jesus in the faces of the strangers we encounter and then to act, accordingly.

Come, join us this Sunday, Oct. 5th, at Meriden United Methodist Church, as we explore the implications of striving to see Christ in the faces of everyone whom we meet.  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.