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.