Saturday, January 24, 2015

In God We Trust?

            This Sunday, January 25th, is the third in a five-week proclamation series entitled, “What Makes the Christian Life Distinctive?”  In this series, we are exploring how being a Christian should make a real difference in the life each of us lives—and, the persons we become.  That is, our Christian faith should make us and our lifestyle distinctive from other well-intentioned people around us.  Our focus this weekend looks at the role of faith, or the trust that we place in God.

            To ground our thinking on the role of trust and how it should make us distinctive from other people, I have chosen the parable of the rich farmer in Luke 12:  13-21 as our scriptural text.  The scripture reading opens with Jesus teaching a crowd of people.  As he is speaking, a man in the crowd asks, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  Apparently this person is unhappy with the way his older brother is executing their family estate.  Jesus declines the invitation to arbitrate between the two brothers.  Based upon what he says, it appears as though he senses that the man’s request is driven by greed. 

            What Jesus says in declining the invitation to arbitrate is this:  “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12: 15)  To illustrate and drive home this claim, Jesus follows up with a parable about a rich farmer.  One season, the rich farmer’s crops produce abundantly and his harvest is so great that he does not have room in his barns to store the crops.  The harvest exceeds his calculations.`

This presents a huge problem for the farmer, who eventually decides to tear down his barns and build much bigger ones.  The rich farmer thinks to himself, “I will do this:  I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And, I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”  (Luke 12:  19)

For Jesus’ audience that day, the rich farmer’s wealth and the abundant harvest would have been signs of God’s blessing and favor.  Note that in the rich farmer’s response to the bountiful harvest, he does not give God any credit or offer any thanks to God.  Neither does the rich farmer share from his wealth with his community, especially those who are poor or marginalized.  Instead, the rich farmer turns his back on God and his community.  He shuts everyone out of his life, so that there is nothing left, except for the rich farmer and his possessions.  The rich farmer begins to trust in himself and his affluence, rather than trusting in God.  He becomes a “practical atheist,” uttering platitudes about his allegiance to God, while living as though there is no God.

This quickly elicits a harsh judgment from God:  “You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:  20)  Jesus concludes his parable with this observation, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:  21)

            Throughout history, many persons have put their trust and faith in the wrong thing.  In Jesus’ parable, the rich farmer erroneously puts his trust in his money and possessions.  Others have erroneously put their trust in political or economic power, their fame, their intellect, their weapons, other people, or science and knowledge. By contrast, what sets authentic Christians apart as unique and special is their faith and trust in God--and God alone.

Come, join us this Sunday, as we explore what it means to put our faith and trust completely in God.  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, January 17, 2015

"Christians Are Perfect (In Love)"

            This Sunday, January 18th, I will continue a five-week proclamation series entitled, “What Makes the Christian Life Distinctive?”  Our focus this Sunday is the role that love plays within the Christian life.  In this series, we are exploring how being a Christian should make a real difference in the life each of us lives and the persons we become.  Consider love as an illustration.  Love is a key value within the Christian life of discipleship.  In John 15:12, Jesus says, “…love one another as I have loved you.”  So, Christians are called to love others.  Yet, loving others is not limited to just Christians.  Other persons from other religions—or, who have no religion at all—may adopt a philosophy of love for others.  So, what is it about Christian love that makes the Christian life distinctive?  That is our question this weekend.

            Our foundational scripture for this exploration is 1 John 4: 16-21.  In verses 19-20 of this passage, we learn the motivation for Christian love:  “We love because God first loved us.  Those who say, ‘I love  God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” 

            For the “Elder,” who wrote 1 John, Christian love for others occurs in response to God’s deep and profound love for each of us.  Writing in The New Interpreter’s Bible, C. Clifton Black observes:  “Throughout 1 John the author has proved conspicuously reluctant to allow any concept of ‘vertical love’—God’s love for us or our love for God—to ride unbalanced without its ‘horizontal’ counterpart—our love for one another.”[i] 

For me, a helpful metaphor is a common water pitcher.  Imagine a water pitcher sitting in the kitchen sink, underneath the water tap.  When the water is turned on, it flows into the empty pitcher underneath the faucet.  As the water flows, the pitcher gradually fills with water until eventually the water reaches the brim and the pitcher is completely full.  As the water continues to pour from the faucet, the pitcher is now filled to overflowing.  Water begins spilling over the rim of the pitcher and cascades down its sides and into the sink. 

Similarly, for Christians, as we grow spiritually in our faith, we begin to appreciate how deep and wide and awesome God’s love for us really is.  Through spiritual growth, we begin to realize that God’s love is greater than we are.  God’s love literally fills us to overflowing, just as the water filling the pitcher in the metaphor.  As God’s love overflows, it spills out to our brothers and sisters.  God’s love pours down upon us vertically, overflowing, so that our love for others flows out horizontally.  We need to be clear that this love of others flows horizontally through spiritual maturity, as we gain a deeper and deeper appreciation for how much God loves us.

Of course, nonChristian persons of good will may also adopt and practice a philosophy of love for others.  But for these very admirable people, a philosophy to love one’s neighbor is a decision, generated from within, by conscious choice and lived out through a steely willpower.  I really admire such persons of good will because maintaining a life philosophy of love for others must require incredible determination and self-discipline.  By contrast, Christians’ commitment to a lifestyle of love is different—even though it, too, can be difficult.  As Christians mature spiritually and begin to comprehend the magnitude of God’s love for each of us, then our love for others becomes simply a gracious response to God’s love for us.  God’s love literally flows through us to those we touch.

In 1 John, the writer captures this point in verse 16, when he writes, simply:  “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  This is a profound distinction within Christian life.  But, there is more.

The “elder” continues in verses 17-18:  “Love has been perfected among us in this:  that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and who ever fears has not reached perfection in love.”  (my emphasis) 

What does it mean to become “perfect in love”? 

To be perfect in love does not mean that we become perfect individuals, without any flaws or shortcomings.  No.  Instead, to be perfect in love means that all of our words and actions are motivated out of a love for others.  That is, our intentions are always motivated by love for others.

Once again, nonChristians, may grow over time, so that all of their words and actions are motivated out of a love for others.  Yet, for the writer of 1 John, there was more to becoming “perfect in love” than simply acting out of a motivation of love.

1 John begins with these words:  “…the blood of Jesus, God’s Son cleanses us from all sin.  If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1: 7b-10)  Sinfulness, judgment, and justice form the backdrop for the writer’s reflections on love. 

Although he recognizes that all persons sin and fall short, no matter how hard we strive to be good persons, the “elder” believes that our sinfulness is literally washed away by God’s flooding, overflowing love for each of us.  Just as a power-washer can be used to wash all of the dirt and grime off the outside wall of a house, so also God’s love powerfully washes us clean from our sinfulness and heals us. 

As we mature spiritually in our faith, and as we become filled to overflowing with God’s love, then we become “perfect in love.”  That is, as God’s love grows within us, then we no longer fear judgment or punishment for all of our wrongdoing and shortcomings because we are confident that God’s love will wash us clean and heal us.  Out of this confidence that we are healed and reconciled through Jesus’ overflowing love, then we become “perfect in love” and the way in which we treat others is solely motivated by love for them--as a result of Jesus' love for us.

Come, join us this Sunday, as we explore what it means to be “perfect in love.”  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] C. Clifton Black, The First, Second, and Third Letters of John:  Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible, 12 volume series, 2003.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

“Why Christians Are More Like Wolves, Than Tigers”

            This Sunday, January 11th, I will begin a new five-week proclamation series entitled, “What Makes the Christian Life Distinctive?”  In this series, we will be exploring why being a Christian should make a real difference in the life that each of us lives and in the persons that we become.  For example, there are many people in my community of Meriden, Kansas, who strongly desire to make good ethical choices, do the right thing, help their neighbors in need, and make a real difference in the world.  Yet, some of those persons are not practicing Christians and they may, indeed, have no faith at all.  What is it that sets Christians apart as being different from these others in our community, who also strive to be ethical and help their neighbors in need?   This is our focus for the next five weeks.

            This Sunday, I will begin this series by focusing on the communal dimension of the Christian life.  Early in my ministry, I had a farmer who was on the membership rolls as an official member of the church that I was pastoring.  However, this old farmer never came to church.  One day, when we ran into each other in a store, he told me, “I don’t believe that I need to attend church in order to be close to God.  Instead, I spend Sunday mornings just walking on my farm.  I believe that I can feel God’s Presence through nature, as I walk my land.”           

            I responded by affirming that we can certainly experience God’s presence and grow spiritually through the awesome beauty and wonder of nature.  “In fact,” I told him.  “I definitely feel closer to God when I am walking in the woods, over sitting in a beautiful chapel, singing hymns.” 

            “But,” I continued, “If you only focus on yourself and never attend—or invest—in your community of faith, then you are missing out on an important spiritual dimension in your life:  the love and support of your community of faith.”

            We humans are social creatures.  We are much more similar to wolves, than we are to tigers.  As a species, tigers are loners, except for when they are mating.    Tigers are solitary.  They hunt, eat, sleep, and prowl by themselves.  By contrast, wolves are pack—or, social—animals.  They live out their lives as members of this social group, called a pack.  Wolves are fierce, assertive animals that take care of their families and community.  They hunt, eat, sleep, and prowl together as a pack.

            Since humans are also social creatures, we are much more akin to wolves than we are to tigers.  The social quality of our nature also extends to and includes our spiritual dimension as Christians.  Jesus never intended for his disciples to live out their faith alone and in solitude.  Instead, he intended for us to band together in groups, or communities, of faith.

            “The Book of Acts” in the Bible, describes the first Christian churches.  These house churches provide a model of what Jesus envisioned for all of his disciples, including us Twenty-first Century followers. Acts 4: 32-37 provides my foundational scripture for the first sermon on what makes the Christian life distinctive.  In this chapter, Luke writes:  “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions.”  In the first churches, newcomers were welcomed into the community of faith with open arms and open hearts. 

The people in the church loved and supported one another.  In the early church, individual members took care of one another, so that no one suffered or was alone.  Luke writes, “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or hoses sold them and  … the proceeds of what was sold…was distributed to each as any had need.”  Just as the wolfpack protects and takes care of its own, so also Christians should be engaged in taking care of one another.

Not only did the first Christians take care of one another’s physical and financial needs, they also cared for one another spiritually.  Luke tells us that spiritual care and growth was the first priority of the Apostles, who had been eyewitnesses to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  He writes, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”  An authentic community of faith should facilitate and enable spiritual growth, for individual members as well as for the community as a whole. 

A true community of faith should also provide loving, supportive role-models, whose lives demonstrate what it means to live as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.  This privilege and responsibility is nicely illustrated in the Sacrament of Baptism.  Immediately after the baptism, members of the community of faith are challenged to help the newly baptized initiates by doing all in their power “to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.”

So, to summarize, the first distinctive aspect of the Christian life is that each person of faith does not journey through life alone, as a tiger on the prowl.  Rather, we have the support and strength and love and role-models of a community of persons who are there for us, to assist and support us as we live lives of faith and flourishing.  Just like the wolf, we are not alone but rather we are part of a pack, which loves and protects and cares for us.

The New Year is a great time to get back into church. If you already have a church, we urge you to attend and support your church this year. However, if you don't already have a church home, check us out at Meriden United Methodist Church, at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas. Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings.  We would love to have you become a member of our “pack” of caring persons who seek to love and serve God.  Join us this Sunday as we explore the communal dimension of Christian discipleship further.

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

"A Clash of Two Worlds"

             This Sunday, January 4th, many churches throughout the world will celebrate the Christian holy day, of Epiphany.  In their celebrations of Epiphany, Christians commemorate the Wise Men coming to Bethlehem to worship and pay homage to the newborn baby, Jesus. 

The story of the Wise Men appears in Matthew 2: 1-12.  The Greek word that Matthew uses in his Gospel to refer to the “Wise Men” may also be translated as “astrologers,” “magicians,” or “sorcerers.”  Biblical scholars believe that the Wise Men were priests in the pagan religions of either Persia (present day Iran) or Babylonia (present day Iraq).  They would have been experts in astrology and dream interpretation.  The Wise Men arrive in Jerusalem, announcing that they have seen a new star in their study of the night skies.  They interpret this new star as the herald of a new king of the Jews.  They have travelled from their homes in the East to simply worship and pay homage to this new king.

In Jerusalem, the Wise Men seek out King Herod, who had been placed in charge of governing Israel by the Roman Emperor.  King Herod was religiously a Jew, but he had gained his power through a military conquest of the Jewish people and he colluded with the Emperor in continuing the subjugation and occupation of Judea by the Roman Empire.  Clearly, King Herod felt vulnerable and insecure in his position of power because the arrival of astrologers from the East left him greatly “frightened,” along with all the other official Jewish leaders of Jerusalem. 

When the Wise Men inquire about the location of the newborn king, King Herod seeks the expertise of the “chief priests and scribes of the people” –in other words, King Herod asks the Jewish religious leaders along with scholars and lawyers.  Drawing from a prophecy in the Hebrew scripture of Micah, these experts inform Herod that the prophets had claimed that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. 

The Wise Men then travel to Bethlehem, where they find the baby Jesus and kneel down to “pay him homage.”  Then, they present gifts to the baby Jesus:  gold, along with frankincense and myrrh—two very expensive aromatic resins—which were all gifts suitable for royalty.  Then, being warned by God in a dream, they return to their home, using a different route that allows them to avoid King Herod.

In Matthew’s account of the Wise Men, we have the clash of two different worlds.  First, there is the world of the Wise Men.  The Wise Men were the scientists of their day.  They studied the stars and were very wealthy.  The Wise Men were also the priestly leaders in the pagan religions of their culture.  Yet, even though they were pagans, the Wise Men still discerned the birth of God’s Son many miles away in a distant country.   Not only did the Wise Men discern the birth of the Messiah, they responded immediately by starting a journey that would ultimately take them to Bethlehem, where they would worship the baby Jesus and give him the best of what they owned.  The pagan Wise Men were looking forward to the ways that God would redeem the world through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

By contrast, King Herod, along with the chief priests, “scribes of the people,” and other Jewish leaders lived in a second world, which was dramatically different from the world of the Wise Men.  Just as the Wise Men, King Herod and the other Jerusalem officials were rich and very powerful leaders within the Jewish faith.  Yet, they were not looking expectedly forward to the time when God would redeem the world through Jesus Christ.  Instead, King Herod and the other officials were very comfortable with the status quo and they were afraid of change.  For Matthew, King Herod and the other officials were religious hypocrites, who proclaimed religious devotion but failed to live out those religious commitments.

The Wise Men were “seekers” and “doers.”  They were still seeking to learn more about the Divine and to deepen their spirituality.  When they found Jesus in Bethlehem, they were “overwhelmed with joy.”  By contrast, King Herod and his officials were neither “seekers” nor “doers.”  Even though they knew exactly where to find the prophesied location of the Messiah’s birth in their sacred texts, they were not interested in seeking out the promised Messiah in Bethlehem.  They didn’t even bother to journey with the Wise Men to find and worship the new Messiah.  Rather than being “overwhelmed with joy” that the Messiah had finally been born, they were frightened that the Messiah might require changes in their lives. 

            In the proclamation this weekend, I will suggest that contemporary Christians can learn a great deal from the Wise Men, as we begin a New Year.  Just like the Wise Men, we must become “seekers,” continually striving to learn more about the Divine and to deepen our spirituality.  That is, we must strive to grow deeper spiritually.  Just as the Wise Men, we must also be “doers,” ready to follow wherever God leads us.  In my message, I will give some examples of what I think it means for twenty-first century Christians to be “seekers” and “doers” in 2015.

The New Year is a great time to get back into church. If you already have a church, we urge you to make a New Year's Resolution to attend and support your church. However, if you don't already have a church home, check us out at Meriden United Methodist Church, 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.