Saturday, December 19, 2015

What Mary Can Teach Contemporary Christians

          This coming Sunday, December 20th, at Christ United Methodist Church we will remember and celebrate Mary, who was the mother of Jesus.  As we hear the familiar story of Mary as narrated in The Gospel of Luke 2, I am going to ask our community of faith to focus on one central question:
         What can Mary teach contemporary Christians about our relationship with God and discipleship?
            Luke begins his story with the angel Gabriel’s visit to Nazareth, where he finds Mary and tells her that she has been chosen by God to be the mother of the Messiah.  Mary is described as “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.” (Luke 2:27)  At this juncture, we need to be careful.  A marriage “engagement” at the time of Mary was significantly different from contemporary customs.  According to the customs in Mary’s time, a bride was already considered legally married at the time of her engagement, even though the bride would continue to live in her parents’ home for a year, following the engagement.  As biblical scholar Alan Culpepper explains in The New Interpreter’s Bible:
       “Although Mary has not yet married, she was betrothed.  According to ancient customs, the marriage would have been arranged by her father.  She would live at home for a year after her betrothal.  Then the groom would come to take her to his home, and the wedding celebration would last for an entire week.  Legally, the marriage was sealed after the engagement.  Thus, if Joseph had died before the wedding, Mary would have been considered a widow.”
            Although as Christians we tend to elevate Mary and put her on a pedestal as the mother of Christ, the reality is that Mary was not a very special person at all.  She was not a powerful queen or rich celebrity or highly educated scientist.  Probably, the most distinctive thing about Mary was how ordinary she actually was.  In fact, Mary underscores how ordinary she is, when she tells her relative, Elizabeth, God “has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”  Further, Mary lived in a small, very ordinary village, far from the financial, cultural, and governmental centers of the age.
            Even though she is just a normal, ordinary teenage girl, God has chosen Mary for a prestigious and awesome role.  This is the first thing that Mary can teach us about our relationship with God and about discipleship:  God chooses ordinary persons for extraordinary tasks.  This is an important truth about our relationship with God.  God works through the lives of ordinary people to establish God’s Reign and fulfill God’s Divine purposes here on Earth.  I believe that all of us “find favor with God.”  That is, I believe that God has a special purpose and goal for each of us in our lives.  Only Mary was chosen to be the mother of Christ, but each of us is chosen by God for some special purpose.
            There is more about being chosen by God for a special task.  When we look at the arc of Mary’s life after her exchange with the angel Gabriel, we realize that “finding favor with God” does not result in prestige or power or wealth or prosperity.  There is a misguided Christian theology, called “prosperity theology,” which teaches that when we are faithful to God and support our church, then God rewards us with material prosperity and power.  However, this theology is not biblically based and is a false teaching.  All we have to do is look at the experience of Mary the mother of Christ.  Rather than wealth and power, “finding favor with God” resulted in added responsibility, extra work, inconvenience and the pain of giving birth.
            The angel Gabriel announces to Mary that God has chosen her to “conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” ( vv. 31-32)  We can be pretty certain that Mary was not planning on bearing the Messiah.  Afterall, she was engaged to Joseph and they were not yet married and not at all ready to start a family.  Joseph and Mary had made plans to live their lives together as husband and wife, as normal persons with regular jobs.
            This is very important.  Through the angel Gabriel, God asked Mary to go where she had never considered going and to do something which she had never even dreamed of doing.  Yet, after hearing Gabriel, Mary’s response is straightforward:  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  This is the second thing that Mary can teach contemporary Christians about God and discipleship.  Sometimes God asks us to do something which we have never even imagined doing, and faithful disciples respond with the words, “Here am I; send me.”
            After the angel Gabriel departs, Mary decides to go and visit her relative Elizabeth, who lives “in the hill country.”  When Luke describes Mary and Elizabeth greeting one another, he describes a speech which Mary makes to Elizabeth, in which she paraphrases the Hebrew scripture 1 Samuel 2:  1-10.  Known as the “Magnificat” by Christian theologians, in this paraphrased speech Mary proclaims her deep and absolute trust in God, beginning with these words:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
      Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
For the Mighty One has done great things for me,
       And holy is his name.”  ( vv. 46-49)
The third lesson which we learn from Mary is to put our complete trust in God.  Mary trusted God to guide her in a new and unexpected direction.  Mary trusted that God would be with her and that she would not be alone.  Mary trusted that God would give her wisdom and discernment.  Finally, Mary trusted that God would protect her and promote her well-being.
            So, to summarize, Mary offers us three profound lessons about God and our relationship with God:
1.      God achieves amazing accomplishments through normal, ordinary people.  Finding favor with God does not necessarily result in prestige or wealth or power or prosperity, but God has already chosen each of us for some special purpose. 

2.      Sometimes God asks us to do something that we’ve never imagined ourselves doing.  When this happens, faithful followers of Christ respond:  “Here am I; send me.”

3.      We need to put our complete trust in God, who chooses us and calls us to amazing adventures.
Come, join us this Sunday, December 20th, as we celebrate Mary and seek to learn what she can teach us about our relationship with God and about Christian discipleship.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Also, consider joining us for:

Ø  Blue Christmas Celebration, Monday, December 21st, 6:30 pm. This is a special service of healing & hope for all who are stressed, lonely, grieving, or hurting during the holidays.

Ø  Family Christmas Celebration, Thursday, December 24th, 4:00 pm.  A service designed for families with small children, and concluding candlelight with “Silent Night, Holy Night”.

Ø  Traditional Candlelight Christmas Eve Service, Thursday, December 24th, 7 pm  A traditional service featuring Christ Church Choirs, with my homily entitled “It,” and concluding candlelight with “Silent Night, Holy Night”.

Ø  Moravian “Lovefeast” & Candlelight Service, Thursday, December 24th, 11 pm  A traditional service, featuring the “Moravian Love Feast” and special music ensembles, and concluding candlelight with “Silent Night, Holy Night”.

(For more information about our Christmas services, see our website:

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Blog Hiatus

Since I normally use this blog to work out and introduce my weekly sermons at Christ United Methodist Church, I will not be posting this week or next.  During our next two worship services, we will be led by the Children's Choir (December 6th) and the Chancel Choir (December 13th), as they perform their Christmas cantatas. The blog will resume the week of December 14th.  Please watch for a special posting regarding Christmas.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

“The Journey Begins in Lamentation and Hope”

            This coming Sunday, November 29th, marks the beginning of the season of Advent on the Christian Calendar.  Advent is that four-week period of preparation, leading up to Christmas and the celebration of the Messiah’s birth. 

            As Christians, how do we prepare for Christmas?

Historically in the Church, Advent was a time for fasting, confession of our sins, and penance.  Of course, sacrificial and penitential acts seem diametrically opposed to the “preparation” for Christmas that goes on in the secular, popular culture all around Christians.  In the popular culture “preparation” for Christmas seems characterized by feasting, partying, and shopping.

            From a Christian perspective, our preparation for Christmas should center on internal, spiritual preparation, even though I acknowledge that there is much physical preparation that we might do, such as baking cookies and decorating our homes.  Although I do not think we are required to strictly follow old Church traditions, we might begin by looking at how those earlier Christians prepared themselves, spiritually, to celebrate the Messiah’s birth and why they chose those methods of preparation.

To ground and frame our exploration of spiritual preparation for Christmas this Sunday, I have chosen a text from the Hebrew scriptures, Isaiah 64: 1-12.  Biblical scholars believe that there are different genres of literature in the Bible, such as history, poetry, theology, etc.  The form of literature which Isaiah 64 takes is that of Lamentation.

            As a Biblical genre of literature, Lamentation is a passionate and usually vocal expression of regret and sorrow and grief brought on by the recognition—and confession—of our sins and failings.  Although it may not be an important component of contemporary life, lamentation is a prevalent theme in many sections of the Bible, and it was an important component of Christian spirituality down through the ages—at least until the modern and post-modern periods. 

What can we learn about spiritual preparation for Christmas through a passage of the Bible devoted to Lamentation? 

Isaiah 64 can be divided into three sections.  The first section (verses 1-5a) is basically a recollection and reminder of how in the past God was powerfully active and present in the lives of the faithful.  This section is addressed directly to God.  Remembering how God revealed God’s Self to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt, the prophet writes, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” (v. 1) 

Implicit in this section is the admission by the prophet that, for the people of his day, God has become “hidden,” or absent.  The people of God are separated from God.  If we are completely honest, couldn’t the same claim be made about many people around us?  Isn’t it true that there are many people around us, who do not experience God’s presence in their lives?  Many of us in the church could push even deeper and admit that sometimes it feels as though God has hidden from us and we do not feel God’s presence within our lives.

In the second section of this chapter  (verses 5b-7), the focus shifts to a collective confession of how far the people have strayed and how greatly they have sinned.  In an extremely graphic metaphor, the prophet confesses, “We have become like one who is unclean and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth” (verse 6).  Literally, the prophet says that our actions have become as unclean and reprehensive as a used menstrual cloth.

While most of us would not use such a graphic image, isn’t it true that all of us today have sins and shortcomings and failures that we are ashamed of?  Our sin and our shame blot out the brilliant light of God’s Presence and Love in our lives.  Our sins and shortcomings create a barrier that separates us from God.  At this point, this lamentation is complete.  All is darkness and despair.

Yet, there is always hope with God.  And so, the third section (verses 8-12) forms an appeal to God for mercy and rescue.  The third section begins by reminding God of the special relationship that God has established with us; a special relationship that was established at the very beginning.  The prophet writes, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay and you are our potter; we are the work of your hands.” (verse 8; my emphasis)  Despite all of the bad that we have done; despite how hidden God is from us; despite how angry God is, the Prophet reminds God of God’s love and special relationship with us. 

So, the lamentation ends on a note of hope:  “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?  Will you keep silent and punish us so severely?” (verse 12)  There is hope that God’s love is so deep and so powerful that all evil and dirtiness will be overcome and we will be reconciled with our Creator.

            For Christians, the source and focus of that hope is Jesus Christ. 

            I would suggest that there is great insight in the old Christian traditions of making confession and penance—and, lamentation—central for their spiritual preparation for Christmas. 

Think about it this way:  Have you ever been in a thunderstorm or a snow storm that knocked out the electricity in your house.  If you are like me, there comes a point where you start to realize just how much you take electricity for granted.  The power goes out and it’s dark, so you stand up and walk over to switch on the light, only to remember the power is out.  So, frustrated, you turn on the television to get a report on how long you will be without power, only to realize the television won’t work because the power is out.  Then, you decide to make a cup of coffee, only to realize that the coffee maker won’t work because there’s no electricity.  Perhaps, you decide to find someplace that still has electricity.  So, you go out to the garage, only to realize the garage opener is powered by electricity. 

As Christians we can slip into the habit of taking Christ for granted, just as we sometimes take electricity for granted in our homes.  This is the great liability of allowing popular culture, with its emphasis on feasting, partying, and shopping, to solely dictate how we experience Christmas.  In order to truly appreciate how lucky we are to have Christ in our lives, we need to spend some time in confession and lamentation and penance.

I like to think about our time of preparation during Advent as a journey that ultimately leads to the manger and baby Jesus on Christmas Eve.  The prophet Isaiah tells us that this spiritual journey should begin with lamentation—and with hope.

Come, join us this Sunday, November 29th, as we begin a journey of spiritual preparation that will ultimately lead us to the manger and baby Jesus on Christmas Eve.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

What the Widow Knew

            This Sunday (November 22nd) I will conclude my three-sermon series on gratitude. In this final sermon, I will focus on the importance of giving back to God out of gratitude.  The story of the “Widow’s Offering” in Mark 12: 41-44 will form my foundational scriptural text.  
            In this story, Jesus and his disciples visit the great Temple in Jerusalem.  In the Temple, they go to the “Court of the Women” where the Temple treasury is located.  It is at the Treasury that people stop to make their financial offerings to God by dropping their money in one of 13 treasury chests, called Shofars.  
            Jesus and his disciples sit down, across from where the Shofar-chests are located.  This was usually a good place for people watching.  Frequently, rich members of society would deposit large sums of money.  However, as the various people came and deposited their offerings, a poor widow meekly crept up to the treasury and deposited two small copper coins, which together were worth about one penny.  Two such coins were practically worthless in the economy.
            However, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.”
            We can imagine that Jesus’ disciples were initially perplexed by his observation.  Surely, Jesus had witnessed the vast sums of money which the wealthy had placed in the treasury.
            Jesus responds by observing, “For all of them [the rich] have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
            When we reflect for a moment, there are really just four reasons that persons contribute to charitable organizations, such as religious institutions:
1.      Out of a sense of duty, obligation, or guilt.
2.      To honor or glorify themselves or another person.
3.      Out of a sense of gratitude
4.      Because they believe that their gift will make a difference
Obviously, it is better and more desirable to give out of a sense of gratitude—or, because we believe that our gift will make a real difference improving the condition of the world.
Come, join us this Sunday, November 22nd, as we explore the relationship between gratitude and giving back to God.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Gratitude for Church

           This Sunday (November 15th) I continue my sermon series on gratitude. In the second of these three sermons, I intend to speak from my heart, focusing on why I am grateful for Christ United Methodist Church, where I serve as the Senior Pastor.  My reflections will be grounded at the beginning of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 1: 3-11. 

            Most of Paul’s letters—including his letter to the Philippians—follow the standard format for letters written at his time.  The beginning of the letter included four standard parts in the following prescribed order:
      1.      Information about who the writer (or writers) of the letter are
2.      To whom the letter is addressed
3.      A formulaic greeting
4.      A Thanksgiving (or Blessing) of the person or persons to whom the letter is addressed.
Philippians 1:  3-11 contains part 4 of the standard letter beginning, which is the thanksgiving and blessing for the Christians in the church of Philippi, to whom the letter is addressed.

            Just as in my message this week I intend to speak from my heart concerning my gratitude for Christ Church, so also the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippines is intensely personal and filled with gratitude:  “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.”  (vv. 3-5)  Paul’s thanksgiving for the Philippines is extravagant and intensely personal.  In the typical thanksgiving, the writer thanks the person to whom the letter is addressed.  But, in this passage note that Paul switches his thanksgiving from the Philippines.  Instead of thanking the Philippines, Paul gives God thanks for the Philippines because of their sharing in the gospel, “from the first day until now.”

            The theme of joy resounds throughout Paul’s letter to the Philippines.  As biblical scholar Morna D. Hooker notes in her commentary for The Interpreter’s Bible.[i]  The noun for joy and its cognates, translated as “to rejoice” and “to rejoice with” appear 14 times in the letter.  At the beginning of his letter, Paul introduces the theme of joy by noting that he constantly prays with joy for the Philippines. 

            Paul gives thanks for the sharing, or partnership, in the gospel by the Philippines in verse 5.  Further, Paul is confident that God “who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (v. 6).  Paul’s use of “partnership” introduces a rich image, with multiple senses.  But, in this context, Paul is referring to a large financial gift that the Philippines gave to Paul.  Paul probably used their financial generosity in several ways.  First, in the time of the New Testament, prisoners needed pay for their own food and upkeep, even while in prison.  So, Paul used part of their financial gift to pay for those costs of food and other incidentals while he was in prison, awaiting trial. 

             However, secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Philippines have contributed generously to an offering which Paul gathered to help poor Christians and widows living in Rome.  Through their generous financial contribution, Paul states that the Philippians have become partners in the gospel; their financial contribution helps make them a partner with God in ministry.  That is, the Philippians have made a financial investment in God’s Kingdom. 

              Paul is certain that the Philippians will receive a bounteous return on their financial investment in God’s Kingdom.  He continues:  “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (vv. 6-7)  It is clear that the Philippines are in partnership ministry with God, not only through their financial investment, but also through solidarity in prayer for Paul and in sharing with Paul in God’s grace.
            This portion of the letter concludes with Paul’s blessing for the Christians of Philippi:  “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (vv. 9-11).
            As he begins this intercessory blessing on behalf of the Philippine church, Paul makes an unusual juxtaposition.  Normally, we think of love as an emotion, as opposed to the rational—seemingly emotionless thinking processes of the brain.  Yet, here Paul develops an understanding of love as being in a mutually reinforcing, growing relationship with knowledge and rationality.  Paul asks that that the Philippines love of God will lead them to great knowledge and insight into who God is and how God calls upon them to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  Then, Paul hopes that this greater rational knowledge and insight will increase and deepen their love for God.  
In essence, Paul describes a positive feedback loop:  The Philippines growing love will stimulate them to use their minds to learn more and grow in their insight into how God intends for them to serve God, which in turn will deepen and enrich their love for God, which will lead back again to greater knowledge and insight into what God calls us to be and do as Christian disciples.
Paul is certain that this reinforcing feedback loop will cause the Philippine Christians to grow ethically, becoming morally more pure and blameless, while also growing into a closer relationship with Christ Jesus.
Obviously, this is a very rich and provocative scriptural passage.  Come, join us this Sunday, November 15th, as we explore this passage and how it might provide a system for ongoing spiritual growth in Christ Jesus.  Also, join us as I explain how I see important parallels between the church in Philippi and Christ United Methodist Church, which is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] Morna D. Hooker, Commentary on Philippians in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 12.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

"The Grateful Leper"

            This Sunday (November 8th) we begin a new sermon series on gratitude. In the first of these three sermons, I want to focus generically on all that God has given us.  As we reflect on gratitude this week, I’d like for us to focus on this question:  In what sense is gratitude a reflection of our Christian faith? 

            The story of the 10 lepers healed by Jesus offers an interesting framework for our reflections on gratitude.  The story begins with Jesus, along with his disciples and other followers, traveling along a road.  As they enter a village on the road, they were approached by a group of 10 lepers.  In the New Testament, the word, “leper,” is a generic term that can refer to a range of dermatological conditions which disfigure the skin and features of an individual person, and which also can cause intense physical pain.  Some of these ailments are fairly contagious. 
R. K. Harrison speculates that in Luke 17, the leprosy referred to was most likely a form of vitiligo, also known as leukoderma.  This skin disorder is characterized by smooth, white patches which disfigure the skin, caused by a loss of the natural pigment.  Harrison speculates further that this condition may be psychogenic--that is caused by psychological trauma, or disorder, rather than having a physical origin.  Finally Harrison suggests that, if this condition was indeed psychogenic, then Jesus’ love and attention may have provided the emotional stimulus for the healing which takes place in the story.[1] 
Regardless of the actual dermatological condition suffered by the 10 lepers, the disease made them social outcasts because of concerns that the condition was contagious and due to the fact that a person with leprosy was considered religiously unclean within Judaism.  So, lepers usually lived in “colonies,” isolated from others. 
Luke tells us that the 10 lepers approached Jesus and his entourage, taking care to maintain the religiously prescribed distance from non-infected persons.  The lepers called to Jesus, saying:  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  As Alan Culpepper notes:  “The call for mercy would ordinarily have been a request for alms, but … it is possible that the request for mercy should be understood as a request for healing.”[2] 
Of course,Jesus responds to the lepers’ plea with healing.  He tells them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests” (v. 14).  Jewish law dictated that someone who was healed from leprosy was required to go and show him- or herself to a priest, so that the healing could be verified and the healed person could be welcomed back into the community.  By instructing the lepers to seek out a priest, Jesus implies that he will heal the lepers in the process.  And, as the lepers made their way to the priest, they were healed and made whole.
What happens next is very interesting.  When one of the lepers realized that he had been healed, he turned around and immediately returned to Jesus.  However, the remaining nine never returned to Jesus and we are left to assume that after showing themselves to the priest, they returned to their families.  When the one leper returned to Jesus, he praised God, “with a loud voice,” and then “prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked Jesus” (v. 15-16a).  At this point, Luke, the gospel writer, introduces a surprising new twist by telling us that the grateful leper was a Samaritan (v. 16b).
In the Bible, the Samaritans were despised by Jews.  Although both Jews and Samaritans shared a similar faith and similar sacred texts, they disagreed bitterly over how to interpret God’s Holy Word and the implications of that interpretation for how they lived their lives.  For the Samaritans, Mt. Gerizim should be the center of worship, whereas for the Jews the center of worship was the Temple in Jerusalem.  The animosity between Jews and Samaritans was so great that Jews avoided all social contact with Samaritans, including simply talking with them, due to their fear of becoming ritually impure. 
            So, it is a special, ironic touch that the lone leper who returns to thank Jesus and praise God is not a Jew—but, rather, a Samaritan.  The story of the 10 lepers concludes with Jesus asking three rhetorical questions:  “Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean?  But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (vv. 17-18)
            As noted earlier, this story of the 10 lepers offers a profound framework for our reflections on gratitude as an expression of faith.  We live in a culture which strongly promotes self-reliance and taking care of ourselves.  While there is nothing wrong with this cultural value per se, there remains a danger that in striving for self-reliance, we begin to take credit for all of our accomplishments without acknowledging that we greatly benefit from a supportive social network and a generous God.  We begin to take for granted the many gifts that we have received from God, including the gift of life; all of our intelligence and talents, as well as our physical strength and stamina.   We take for granted the support of our family and circle of friends.  Even the drive to focus and work hard is not something that we do by ourselves, rather it is a gift from God.
            Reflecting on the story of the 10 lepers, the biblical scholar Alan Culpepper writes: 
“This story also challenges us to regard gratitude as an expression of faith.  … Faith, like gratitude, is our response to the grace of God as we have experienced it.  For those who have become aware of God’s grace, all of life is infused with a sense of gratitude, and each encounter becomes an opportunity to see and to respond in the spirit of the grateful leper.”[3]
Come, join us this Sunday, November 8th, as we explore gratitude and how it should become an expression of our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Protector.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.



[1] R. K. Harrison, “Leprosy,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1962), vol. 3: 111-113.
[2] R. Alan Culpepper, Commentary on Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9.
[3] Ibid.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

"Healing Grief"

            This Sunday, November 1st, is “All Saints Day,” the day traditionally set aside to remember and give thanks for friends and loved ones who have died this year—or, in years past.  In the historical Church, these departed friends and loved ones were referred to as “saints.”  In our worship services at Christ United Methodist Church, we will recognize and commemorate  our “saints” by ringing a bell after we lift up the name of each departed friend or loved one.  As part of our All Saints Day service, I will focus on the grieving process that we experience when we lose someone to death and how that grieving process can bring healing.

            The scriptural reading that I have chosen for our worship service is the 23rd Psalm.  Down through the ages, to persons living at many different times, from very different cultures, and speaking very different languages, the words of the 23rd Psalm have been a special source of strength and comfort at times in loss and grief. 
            This beloved Psalm begins with a simple confession:  “The Lord is my Shepherd.”  In the ancient world of the psalmist, kings were understood to serve as shepherds of their constituents.  So, by declaring that God is his shepherd, the psalmist professes his loyalty to God and his intention to live under God’s Reign.

The kings were responsible for stewardship of the land, while also taking responsibility for the flourishing and well-being of their subjects.  Thus, the psalmist continues with this metaphor when he proclaims that God “maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters” (vs. 2).  Just as the sheep trust their shepherd to find pastures with green grass for nourishment and plenty of water for drinking, so also the psalmist trusts God to provide life and security for those persons who are faithful.  In verse 3, the psalmist says that God “restoreth my soul.”  In other words, the psalmist is saying that “God keeps me alive.”
              In verse 4, the psalmist continues by noting that even in the most life threatening situations, God is with us and we have nothing to fear.  The shepherd’s rod and staff, which are used to herd and drive the sheep in the right direction, are re-assuring for the psalmist because these shepherd’s tools indicate that God is guiding us and keeping us safe from the hazards of the road, which seem to be all around us.

In verses 5-6, the final two verses of the psalm, the metaphor shifts from portraying God as the protective, caring shepherd to an image of God as the gracious host. 
            In verse 5, God prepares a table for the psalmist, “in the presence of mine enemies.”  The tone and confidence of the overall psalm suggests that the table is laden with a sumptuous feast which God has prepared.  And, indeed, the psalmist’s cup is filled to overflowing.  This image of a rich and extravagant feast is reinforced by a rich oil which is used to anoint the psalmist’s head, just as we might luxuriously rub lotion on our bodies--or anoint our bodies with perfume.  The phrase, “in the presence of mine enemies,” indicates that the psalmist is confident that he feasts under God’s protection and that God will keep him safe and secure.

The psalm concludes in verse 6 with the observation that “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” and that God the ever-gracious host will welcome the psalmist to stay in God’s house forever.
             We frequently associate the 23rd Psalm with funerals and its words have always offered comfort and healing to those who grieve from a loss.  Yet, note that the redemptive and healing power of this psalm for those who grieve rests on four core theological convictions about God:

1.      God reigns as ruler.  Despite our losses and griefs, God is ultimately in control.

2.      God is a loving and gracious God who provides good things for those who are faithful.  This graciousness of God is depicted in both metaphors.  In the image of the shepherd, God provides green grass and cool water for the sheep.  In the image of the banquet host, God spreads a sumptuous table with plenty of food and drink.  Further, those who are faithful to God are cleansed and anointed with rich oil.

3.      God provides protection and security from all that threatens us with harm.  Again, this is depicted in both the shepherd and host images of who God is.  As the shepherd, God’s rod and staff keep the sheep safe from wandering where it is unsafe.  As the gracious host, God can prepare the luxurious table in the presence of the psalmist’s enemies because God offers protection against any harm that the enemies may wish to inflict.

4.      Even in the face of death and loss, all will be well through God’s care and protection.  As verse 6 says so eloquently, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
              This beloved psalm strongly underscores our conviction that ultimately we receive healing from our griefs and losses through God.  Yet, I will suggest in my sermon that God invites us as Christians to enter into a junior partnership as co-healers for those around us when they experience profound loss.  In other words, I will propose that part of discipleship is to serve as co-healers for those who grieve.

Of course, before we can serve as co-healers, we must first understand what grief is and what the mechanics of grieving are.  As it turns out, we can observe several stages of grief through which persons usually go.  Although there are different ways to categorize these stages of grief, in my sermon I will focus on and develop the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross five-stage model for understanding grief.  With the help of Andrea Ruiz, a trained and licensed counselor, we will describe these five steps and suggest methods for promoting healing at each of these stages.  The five stages are:

a.       Denial and Isolation
b.      Anger
c.       Bargaining
d.      Depression
e.       Acceptance
            Come, join us this Sunday (November 1st), as we commemorate our deceased loved ones on All Saints Day, and also explore how we can be co-healers with God for those living loved ones who grieve deaths and other major losses.  Christ United Methodist Church, is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

"Leadership and Spirituality"

         This Sunday (October 25th) I will conclude my six-sermon series on “Christian Leadership.”  Recall that throughout this series, I have encouraged us to broaden our conventional understanding of leadership. 
Instead of thinking of leadership as the sole privilege of the “person in charge,” I have suggested that we look for leadership opportunities in the many different roles that we have.  For instance, leadership should include the role of parents with their children; the role of older siblings with their younger brothers and sisters; the role of schoolchildren on the playground or the classroom; the way we conduct ourselves at work; the way we treat our neighbors; the way we treat those who are marginalized and suffer from a lack of housing, food, or medical care; and the way in which we engage other members of society.  When we broaden our view of leadership to include the possibilities that exist in our various roles and relationships, then it is clear that God calls all of us to be leaders much of the time in our various roles. 
As we conclude this series on leadership, there are two remaining topics which need to addressed:
1.      Coping with the sometimes overwhelming challenges of Christian leadership and the persistent fears that we are inadequate to meet those challenges.

2.      Recognizing and embracing the possibilities that Christian leadership presents for spiritual growth.
To address these two remaining topics, I have chosen Isaiah 6:  1-8 as my foundational scripture this week.  This passage contains the story of how Isaiah was called to become a prophetic leader of the Hebrew people.  This passage has remarkable parallels with similar scriptural passages that describe how God other leaders, including Moss (Exodus 3:1 –4:17), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1: 4-10), and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1-3).  Together, with these and other scriptures, Isaiah 6: 1-8  forms a special genre of Biblical literature, called “vocation” or “call” passages. 
In his analysis of Isaiah 1-39, the biblical scholar Gene Tucker notes: 
“Since prophets in Israel had no ‘official’ standing comparable to that of, for example, priests, their right to speak in the name of the Lord was open to question.  The vocation reports were their responses to such challenges.  They [prophets] were not only entitled but also compelled to speak because God had called them to do so; they had not sought their role [as prophets], but it had been thrust upon them.”[i]
Isaiah experiences his call in the form of a vision.  In this vision, Isaiah finds himself in a strange place with unreal, six-winged creatures, which he calls “seraphs.” 
As the vision unfolds, Isaiah orients himself and realizes that he is in the Holy Temple in God’s awesome presence.  When Isaiah begins to fully appreciate where he is—and, whom he is with—he becomes overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy.  Isaiah says, “Woe is me! I am lost [dead], for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (v. 5)
But, Isaiah is not dead.  One of the seraphs flies to him with a burning goal from the altar.  The seraph touches the burning goal to Isaiah’s mouth.  This act has the effect of purifying Isaiah, as the seraph explains when it says:  “Now that this [burning coal] has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” (v. 7)
Just then, Isaiah hears the voice of God, saying:  “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?”  Now, that Isaiah has been prepared through the purification by the burning coal, he willing volunteers to become God’s prophet, as he says:  “Here am I; send me!” (v. 8)
Just as Isaiah felt overwhelmed, so also most of us, at one point or another, feel overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy when it comes to being a Christian leader:
a.       As elected church leaders, we may feel overwhelmed by our inadequacies when faced with difficult challenges in leading a committee, work group, or entire congregation.

b.      As parents and grandparents, we may feel overwhelmed by the complexities of leading our children and grandchildren through the challenges posed by contemporary American culture.

c.       As neighbors or employees, we may feel completely overwhelmed by a difficult neighbor or co-worker whom it seems is impossible to please.
Isaiah overcame his feelings of inadequacy when he was purified by the seraph.  For Isaiah this purification with the burning coal gave him confidence that he was not acting alone.  Instead, Isaiah recognized that he was acting on behalf of God, as God’s servant.  God would use Isaiah the servant as a channel for God’s own message and God’s own actions.  When Isaiah discerned that he was not alone in his role as a prophetic leader, then his feelings of inadequacy for the task evaporated into thin air.
            In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul uses a different metaphor to express the same conviction; that God is working with us and through us.  In 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in earthen jars, so that it may be made clear [to us] that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”  Regardless of how overwhelming our feelings of inadequacy in the face of leadership challenges, this despair will surely evaporate into thin air, when we decide that, instead of relying solely on our own abilities, we will trust God to work through us as Christian leaders.
            Similarly, when we open ourselves as Christian leaders to God, then Christian leadership becomes an avenue through which we experience an authentic spirituality.  Human persons are constituted by this fascinating synergy of different dimensions which converge within us, playing off of and interacting with each other.  These dimensions include the physical, the rational, the emotional, the social, and the spiritual.  By spiritual, I mean that dimension of who we are that strives for relationship and connection with the Divine.  I believe that God intends for us to enter into a growing relationship with the Divine, which draws us into a closer and closer and more intimate connection.  However, human persons do not necessarily grow closer to God.  Our shortcomings and guilt may block our ability to enter into relationship with the Divine.
            In Isaiah’s vision, he verbalizes his feelings of guilt so powerfully when he exclaims, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips. …”  Yet, this despair and inadequacy brought on by his sense of guilt and unworthiness also presents an obstacle in Isaiah’s relationship with the Divine.  His purification through the seraph’s burning coal not only purifies and prepares him for prophetic leadership, it also opens and enhances the spiritual dimension of his very being.
            In the spiritual dimension of leadership, our commitment as Christian leaders should facilitate spiritual growth – and (vice versa) our spiritual growth as Christians should inform and enhance our leadership.  That is to say, when we provide Christian leadership through our roles and relationships, that leadership experience should also help us to grow spiritually closer to the Divine.  There’s a synergy here.
            Come, join us this Sunday (October 25th), as we conclude our exploration of Christian leadership by exploring the spiritual dimension of leadership.  Christ United Methodist Church, is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] Gene Tucker, “Commentary on Isaiah 1-39,” in the New Interpreter’s Bible, 2002, accessed on CD-ROM.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"Successful Failing"

            We continue our exploration of “Christian Leadership” this Sunday, October 18th, by focusing on how good leaders think about failure. 

            Failure is an integral part of life.  Regardless of how hard we try; regardless of how smart we are; regardless of how well prepared we are, all of us experience failures throughout our lives.  And yet, even though it is inevitable, most of us try to avoid failure as much as possible. 

            Failure can be a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, failure can be very negative.  Afterall, failure frequently comes with dire consequences that we would prefer to avoid.  Even worse is the fear of failure.  Many people allow their fear of failure to grow and grow, until it takes over their lives.  An unchecked fear of failure can become paralyzing.  We can become so dominated by this fear that we are afraid to step out and try something new.  We become so afraid that we are going to fail that we never take a chance; never make an investment; or never seek to grow.  We become imprisoned by our own fears of failure.

            On the other hand, failure can be very positive.  Sometimes we can learn and grow from our failures.  There is a story about Thomas Edison, which illustrates this point.  Edison and his associates were trying to develop a better battery.  After 9,000 attempts which all failed, one of his associates said, in frustration:  “Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work … you haven’t been able to get any results?” 
Edison, with a smile on his face, replied:  “Results! Why, man, I have a gotten a lot of results!  I know several thousand things that won’t work!”[i]  We can learn, mature, and grow from our failures.  At the same time, the fear of failure can also be positive, if it motivates us to try our hardest at whatever we are doing.
The Apostle Peter provides an excellent case-study in how to rebound from failures, learn from these failures, and then succeed in the future.  The four gospels paint an interesting portrait of the type of person that Peter was.  He was a talkative extrovert, who was very positive and optimistic.  Peter was clearly a natural leader, who quickly became the spokesman for Jesus’ band of disciples.  Jesus, himself, came to recognize Peter’s leadership skills.  In Matthew 16, Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is.  Almost immediately, speaking for all of the disciples, Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v. 16).  Jesus is impressed with Peter’s insight and he tells Peter that he will become a leader of the early Church (vv. 17-19).
Yet for all of his strengths, Peter also has a very serious personality flaw:  Peter is just incredibly impetuous; he is always putting his foot in his mouth.  This occurs several times in the gospels, but perhaps the most serious instance occurs on the night in which Jesus was betrayed, arrested, tried, and condemned to death.  During his last moments alone with his disciples and followers, Jesus tries to prepare them for what is about to happen.  Peter impetuously interrupts Jesus and says, “Lord…I will lay down my life for you.” 
With what I imagine was great sadness, Jesus rebukes Peter:  “Will you lay down your life for me?  Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows twice [at dawn], you will have denied me three times.”  (John 13:  36-38)  Of course, that is exactly what happened.  Later that night, while Jesus is being questioned by the authorities, Peter decides to warm himself by a nearby fire.  It is there that he does, indeed, deny Jesus in three separate conversations with different persons. 
That threefold denial of Jesus represents a major failure by Peter.  He fails as a leader of the disciples and other followers of Jesus.  Even worse, Peter fails to keep his promise of ultimate loyalty to Jesus. 
The next day, Jesus is crucified and buried, but three days later, on Easter morning, Jesus is resurrected.  Following his resurrection, the four gospels record many different instances in which the resurrected Christ appears to different followers.  One of those instances occurs at sunrise by the shores of the Sea of Tiberias in Galilee.  After spending the night fishing in their boats, the disciples see Jesus on the beach.  When they come ashore, they find that Jesus is preparing a breakfast of fish and bread for them.  Jesus invites them to come and eat.  Essentially Jesus and the disciples have an early morning fish fry on the beach.
When the breakfast is over, Jesus turns to Peter and confronts him about his threefold denial.  Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”  Can you imagine how utterly awful Peter must have felt?  Here he was, the acknowledged leader of the other disciples; a leadership role that Jesus had confirmed.  Yet, of all the disciples, Peter is the one who had denied Jesus over and over and over—three times. 
Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
To which Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs.”
This exchange is repeated twice again, for a total of three times—corresponding to the three times that Peter had denied Christ.  Each time Peter affirms his love for Jesus, and each time Peter is told to care for Christ’s sheep. 
It is important to recognize that Jesus does not reject Peter because Peter had made this awful mistake.  Instead, Christ offers Peter an opportunity for atonement and healing.  Then, in calling upon Peter to care for his sheep, Jesus encourages Peter to resume the leadership role that he has had among the disciples.  (See John 21: 1-17)
After Christ’s Ascension into Heaven, Peter becomes one of the strong, visionary leaders of the early Church.  At Pentecost, when Christ’s followers receive the Holy Spirit, it is Peter who takes the lead by preaching the first Christian sermon, which results in the conversion of 3,000 people. (See Acts 2.)  Later, when the early Church leaders meet in Jerusalem to decide whether non-Jews can be included in the Church, Peter is one of the visionary leaders who argues persuasively for welcoming everyone who seeks to follow Christ.  (See Acts 15:  6-29.)
To summarize, Peter learned from his disastrous failure and grew to become a powerful, visionary leader in the early Church.
            As Christians, we believe that God has given each of us a unique portfolio of special gifts and talents, which we can use to make a real difference in the world and to establish and build God’s Kingdom.  We can make the world a better place by using our special gifts and talents at home, at work or school, and in our community.  Gathered together as the church, God calls us to this work of Kingdom building, collectively using our gifts and talents, through service and witness. 
Whether as individuals or collectively as the Church, God does not intend for us to be paralyzed by fear of failure.  Actually, doing nothing because we fear failure is evidence of an acute lack of faith.  God calls upon us—both as individuals and as churches—to step out in faith, trusting that God will provide.  Will we sometimes fail?  Of course, we will experience failures.  But, failure can become important building stones for success in the future.  We can learn and grow and mature from our failures.  This is just as true for churches as it is for individual persons.
Come, join us this Sunday (October 18th), as we continue our exploration of Christian leadership by learning about successful failing.  Christ United Methodist Church, is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] Reported by the Quote Investigator.  See, downloaded 15 May 2014.