Saturday, November 18, 2017

“Give Thanks to the Lord”

We are approaching the end of my reflections on “God’s Vision for the Future of the Church.”  Over the past several weeks, we have discussed how the future Church must shift from an “attractional” model of ministry to a “missional” approach.  And, we have focused on visioning a new future for the Church.  There are two remaining topics which I would like to discuss, before bringing this series to a close:  (1) gratitude towards God and (2) the destructive role of negativity in undermining our capacity for vision and faithfulness.

As we approach Thanksgiving, it seems appropriate to reflect on gratitude this Sunday, November 19th, while deferring negativity to the following Sunday.  To guide our reflections on gratitude, I have chosen two passages of scripture.  The first is from 1 Chronicles 16: 23-36.  This passage occurs after King David has successfully moved the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Obed-edom, the Gittite to Jerusalem. 

In Jerusalem, King David has set up a tent to house the Ark of the Covenant.  Ultimately, the Jerusalem Temple will be constructed as a permanent home for the Ark.  After the Ark of the Covenant has safely arrived in Jerusalem and been placed in the tent, King David holds an exuberant religious celebration for the safe arrival of the Ark.  Our scriptural passage in verses 23-26 contains part of the thanksgiving poem offered up that day.

Biblical scholars remind us that this thanksgiving poem draws elements and inferences from Psalms 105, 96, and 106.  The poem has four stanzas:[i]

1.      A call to Israel to praise God (verses 8-22)
2.      A call to praise God throughout the earth (verses 23-30)
3.      A call for cosmic praise (verses 31-33)
4.      A call for Israel to not only praise but also pray to God (verses 34-36)

In what follows, I will focus on the last three stanzas. 

In our passage, the chronicler begins by calling on all peoples from all over the earth to praise God.  He says: 

Sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Tell of his salvation from day to day. 
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. 
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised…” (verses 23-25a). 

In the chronicler’s perspective, God is the Creator of all the world.  Therefore, it follows that God is God for all people on earth.  So, the poem continues with a comparison of God with all of the other gods and idols which other people worship.  At this point, the chronicler observes, “the Lord made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his place” (verses 26b-27).

In the next stanza (verses 31-33), the chronicler broadens his scope beyond humankind to include all of Creation.  This scope includes not only living organisms—all plants and animals—but also nonliving creation as well, such as rock formations and seas.  He writes: 

“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice,
and let them say among the nations, “The Lord is king!” 
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it. 
Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord,
for he comes to judge the earth.” (verses 31-33)

In the final stanza, the chronicler calls not only for praise of God, but he also prays that God will continue to look after the people and that the people will always be grateful to God, giving thanks for all of God’s blessings.  He writes, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever” (verse 34).

I really appreciate this poem because I believe that the chronicler very skillfully interweaves the themes of gratitude, praise, and service, or faithfulness, to God.  In the chronicler’s perspective, we begin by simply pausing and counting all of the blessings and gifts, which we have received from God.  These gifts include even life itself.  In response to God’s love and generosity, we praise God.  Our praise is free and genuinely given.  Then, in response to God’s love for us, we commit ourselves to working for God, to help further and eventually establish God’s Reign on Earth, recognizing that God loves all peoples and, indeed, all of Creation.  That is, God’s Reign is identifiable because it promotes peace, justice, and love for all peoples—and, indeed, all of Creation.

Our second scripture from Colossians 3: 16-17 extends these themes suggested by the chronicler.  Our passage from Colossians is provided below:

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Again, the themes of gratitude, praise, and faithfulness are interwoven.  The writer begins by encouraging the Colossians to be guided and sustained by the teachings of Christ.  Further, they are to teach and admonish one another.  The teachings of Christ are to transform the Colossian Christians into different persons, with a different world view and lifestyle that is much better than their previous lives.  Out of gratitude for Christ, they worship and praise God.  The writer summarizes by encouraging the Colossians to do everything “in word or deed” in Christ’s name.  And, in everything—“in word or deed”—they are to give thanks to God through Christ. 

            Taken together, these two scriptural guides lift up two important forms of thanksgiving and gratitude to God.  We begin by simply acknowledging how generous and gracious God has been to each of us.  Then, first, our gratitude should be expressed in our worship, as we praise God.  In fact, these two passages assert that thanksgiving should be a major, integral part of all true worship of God.  Then, secondly, our thanksgiving towards God should be expressed in a different worldview and lifestyle.  We lift up thanksgiving to God in all of our “words and deeds,” which are done in faithfulness to God, as we seek to help build the Kingdom of God on Earth.

      If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 19th.  Join us as we explore what it means to be fully thankful to God through our worship and our everyday life.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.



[i] Leslie C. Allen commentary on “The First Book of Chronicles,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 3 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM version.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

“Dream with Jesus – And Live”

            This week we continue our reflections on “God’s Vision for the Future of the Church.”  Over the past several weeks, we have looked at the statistical decline experienced by the institutional Church in the U.S.  We have also discussed how the future Church must shift from an “attractional” model of ministry to a “missional” approach.  This Sunday, November 12th, we will look at “Vision” from a different perspective.  The question I would like for us to address asks, “What is Jesus’ Vision for the Future Church?”

            To guide our reflections on Jesus’ Vision for the future Church, we will use the story of Zacchaeus the “chief tax collector” in the Gospel of Luke 19:1-10.  To truly understand this passage of scripture, we must begin with a look at the social and political context of Jesus’ ministry.  At the time of Christ’s ministry, the people of Israel were conquered and oppressed by the Roman Empire and its legions of soldiers.  From the Roman perspective, the land of Israel was just a backwater country to be taxed and exploited.  And so, the Romans taxed everything.  There were indirect sales taxes, tolls for roads and the use of various public goods, tariffs, customs fees, taxes, taxes, and more taxes. 

Collecting all of these taxes required a great deal of time and energy, so the Romans came up with an ingenious scheme.  They co-opted entrepreneurs from among the Jewish people themselves to collect all of the taxes.  These Jewish entrepreneurs were called “chief tax collectors.”  Each was given a region of the country and told how much revenue they needed to raise from the various tax schemes for the occupying Roman Empire.  The “chief tax collectors” then hired others to help them and they collected the taxes.  Now, the Romans never offered the “chief tax collectors” a salary or any form of payment for this service.  Instead, it was just assumed that the “chief tax collectors” would lie and cheat their fellow Jewish countrymen and make a profit by over-charging on the taxes.

Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector for the area around the town of Jericho.  Naturally, he was widely despised by everyone in Jericho.  Put yourself in the shoes—or, rather sandals—of someone living in Jericho.  Here is a man who has betrayed his own people and his own country by openly collaborating with the occupying Romans.  This man has probably cheated you on all the taxes that you owe to the occupying Empire.  And yet, even if he has cheated you, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—that you can do.  If you refuse to pay the amount of taxes, then they will simply summon a nearby Roman soldier who will beat you to a pulp—or, worse they will make you watch while they beat up your daughter or your mother or your grandfather.  And, finally, here is a man who is extremely wealthy, while you are struggling just to feed your family the bare minimum amount of food.  Just like the people in Jericho, you would hate Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus was very, very, very rich.  We can assume that he lived in one of the largest houses in Jericho.  He wore the finest clothes; he ate the best foods; and he drank the finest wines.  All of his physical needs were met in abundance, and he still had more money to spend.  But, Zacchaeus was not happy; his life was empty of meaning and joy.  Despite all of his luxurious material possessions, despite all of the fine food and beautiful clothes, Zacchaeus was not happy; that is to say, Zacchaeus was not flourishing. 

            One day, Zacchaeus heard about a new teacher, a rabbi, whom people said could teach him how to have happiness and live a life of meaning and fulfillment.  So, Zacchaeus went out to see this wise, new rabbi as he passed through Jericho.  Of course, the crowd around Jesus was so great that Zacchaeus could not get a glimpse of Jesus.  And so, lifting up the hems of his rich, flowing robes, Zacchaeus ran ahead of the crowd and climbed up in a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus.  Biblical scholars tell us that in Israel at this time, it was considered humiliating for a grown man to run and climb trees.

            So, we can imagine how all of the crowd began to mock and poke fun at the hated Zacchaeus, as he ran down the street and climbed up into the tree.  But, Zacchaeus did it anyway.  Zacchaeus humiliated himself because he just wanted to see Jesus; he just wanted to see this new rabbi who might be able to help him live a full and joyful life.  Zacchaeus humiliated himself, but then Jesus honored him.  When Jesus got to that sycamore tree, he looked up and said:  “Zacchaeus come down out that tree now because I am going to your house for dinner.”  Jesus had lots of dinner options that evening.  He would have been welcomed in any house in Jericho that day; people would have served him their best food.  However, Jesus chose Zacchaeus.

            The Bible doesn’t tell us what went on at the meal that night.  We don’t know what Jesus said to Zacchaeus.  But, we do know that at the end of the evening Zacchaeus promised to give half of his wealth to the poor and to repay fourfold anyone whom he had defrauded.  And, we do know that Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

            But, here’s the question:  Why did Zacchaeus promise to give away all that money when he was having dinner with Jesus?  As I said above, we really don’t know what Jesus and Zacchaeus talked about that night.  However, I think that we can probably infer that Jesus encouraged Zacchaeus to dream with him about a new life, with new priorities and a new lifestyle.  Rather than focusing so much on accumulating more and more wealth, I suspect that Jesus encouraged Zacchaeus to focus on something much bigger than material possessions.  I believe that Jesus encouraged Zacchaeus to dream boldly and be willing to take chances.  I believe that Jesus encouraged Zacchaeus to dream about investing himself in Jesus’ dream for him.  That is, Zacchaeus re-committed his life to dream with Jesus about a world in which God’s Reign becomes completed—and to imagine himself as working with Jesus to establish God’s Reign.

            In his song, “Untitled Hymn,” contemporary Christian musician Chris Rice has a verse that goes like this:

O, and when the love spills over
And music fills the night
And when you can't contain your joy inside, then
Dance for Jesus
Dance for Jesus
Dance for Jesus and live!”[1]


            I really appreciate “Untitled Hymn” and especially this verse.  However, I would add another verse that encourages all Christians to “Dream with Jesus and Live!”  I believe that Jesus encourages each of us to dream and envision a better world, where God’s Reign is established; where we live in peace and justice with one another—and sustainably with the rest of Creation.  Further, I believe that Jesus calls upon us dedicate our lives, both individually and as faith communities to work as God’s co-creators in establishing the Divine Reign.  I believe that Jesus encourages us to dream boldly and be willing to take some chances.  This quest to establish God’s Reign is a decision to re-orient our priorities and our lifestyles, so that building God’s Kingdom becomes the central commitment in our lives.  When we make that commitment to this vision, then we will truly live.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 12th.  This Sunday, we will reflect on what it means to “Dream with Jesus—and Live.”  We will also be honoring and recognizing all of the 50-year members of our church.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 
Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.



[1] Chris Rice, “Untitled Hymn” (2003), on his album, Run the Earth, Watch the Sky, accessed online at https://www.google.com/search?q=chris+rice+untitled+hymn&oq=Chris+Rice+&aqs=chrome.2.69i57j0l5.10819j0j8&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8, 4 November 2017.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

“Grieving with Hope”

            This Sunday, November 5th, is “All Saints Sunday,” a Sunday we set aside in the Church to remember and celebrate our friends and family members who have died.  This can be a bittersweet worship service.  On the one hand, we may be sad, as we grieve and lament the loss of our loved ones.  On the other hand, we may be joyful, as we recall pleasant memories of shared times with our loved ones.  We can also be joyful, as we recall—and, perhaps, re-affirm—the conviction of the Christian faith that death is not the termination of our existence, but rather our transformation into a far better existence as New Creations in Christ Jesus.

            Our reflections on the “All Saints Sunday” will be informed by a passage from the Apostle Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians.  To fully appreciate this scriptural passage, it is important to recognize that the early Church just assumed that Jesus would return to earth very shortly after his Ascension into Heaven (see Acts 1:6-11).  In other words, they thought that the parousia—a Greek word, referring to the Second Coming of Christ—would occur within their lifetimes. 

            As time went on and the parousia did not immediately occur, some of the earliest Christians began to die.  As a result, their friends in the faith began to worry about what had happened to these first Christians, since they had died before Christ returned.  In his letter, the Apostle Paul seeks to comfort and re-assure the Thessalonian Christians.  Our passage begins with these words:  But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).  So, rather than hopeless grieving the loss of their friends who have died, the Apostle Paul wants to offer the Thessalonian Christians hope in the midst of their sorrow and grief.

            And, what is this hope which Paul seeks to give the grieving Thessalonians? 

            Paul writes, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died (v. 14).  The hope which the Apostle Paul has is that the deceased will be resurrected when Christ returns to earth.  Death is not the termination of our existence, but, rather, a transformation of our existence.  For Paul, the resurrection of the dead is not wishful fantasy.  Instead, he is convinced that those deceased Christians will be resurrected at the end time.  Paul bases his assurance of everyone’s resurrection on the Resurrection of Christ on Easter morning. 

For Paul, the Resurrection of Christ marks a climatic tipping point in cosmic history.  The Resurrection of Christ divides the Old Age, characterized by sin and death, from the New Age, when God’s Reign will be fully established and all of Creation will be transformed.  Paul sees the Resurrection of Christ as God’s reassurance and guarantee of our resurrection at the parousia.  That is, the Resurrection of Christ marks the cosmic in-breaking of God’s Kingdom.  For Paul, God’s Reign has begun, but is not yet fully established.  Eventually, God’s Reign will be fully established and all of Creation will be transformed into New Creatures.

Paul’s assurance that God’s Reign will be fully established in God’s good time gives him confidence that the Thessalonian Christians will ultimately be reunited with their friends and loved ones who have already died.  So, Paul offers these words of reassurance in his letter:  “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.”  (v. 15) 

Paul believes that this Second Coming of Crist will be awesome and powerful.  So, in the verses that follow, he resorts to apocalyptic images,[1] common to his time and culture, to describe the parousia.  Paul writes in verses 16-17 that:

1.      God will announce the parousia with a “cry of military command” to charge into battle
2.      God will announce Christ’s Second Coming with “the archangel’s call”
3.      God will announce the end of the word with “God’s trumpet.”

Still using apocalyptic images common to his time and culture, Paul describes how God “will descend from heaven” and how those who have already died will be resurrected.  Then, those who are still alive “will be caught up in the clouds” together with those who have been resurrected “to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”  Finally the passage ends with Paul urging the Thessalonians to “encourage one another with these words” (v. 18).

            Surely these words from Paul’s letter must have offered much comfort, healing, and joy to the Thessalonian Christians who grieved the deaths of their friends and loved ones.  Again, to reiterate, for Paul the Resurrection of Christ was the guarantee and the assurance that we will be resurrected in the end-time. 

But, can these words offer the same comfort, healing, and joy to us today, as we commemorate our loved ones on All Saints Day?  Afterall, the Apostle Paul was a pre-scientific man writing at a time when superstition was rampant in his culture.  We know that the resurrection of the dead runs counter to the laws of science.  For contemporary Christians living in the twenty-first century, what is the basis for believing in the eventual resurrection of our friends and family?

One possible response to this question has been suggested by the Christian theologians John Polkinghorne and Robert Russell, both of whom are also physicists.  In his book, The Faith of a Physicist,[2] Polkinghorne focuses on God’s role as Creator.  From a Christian perspective, God creates in two ways.  First, God was active as Creator of the world at the beginning, creating the world out of nothing (or, in Latin, creatio ex nihilo).  Second, God’s work of Creation continues, even up to the present.  That is, God is continuing to create (in Latin, creatio continua). 

At this point, Polkinghorne suggests that God may also be engaged in a third form of Creation; a form which he terms, creatio ex vetere—that is, literally, Creation from the old.  What Polkinghorne is suggesting here is that God is continuing God’s creative work by healing and redeeming the old creation and making a New Creation, as suggested by the Apostle Paul.

Building on the earlier work of Polkinghorne, Bob Russell observes that modern scientific cosmology posits the possibility that there is more than one universe.  In fact, within modern cosmology, there are many proposals for “multiverses,” that is, the existence of multiple universes.  String theory, which is one branch of contemporary physics, even proposes that there may be multiple universes, some of which have up to eleven space-time dimensions, as compared to the four space-time dimensions of our universe.  These scientific theories also hypothesize that each unique universe would probably have its own unique laws of nature, which were different from other universes.

            Russell then writes, “God must have created [our] universe such that it is transformable, that is, that it can be transformed by God’s action.  In particular…God must have created it with precisely those conditions and characteristics which will be part of the New Creation.”[3]  Russell goes on to suggest that it may be part of God’s redemption plan to change the laws of nature at the parousia, such that the resurrection of the dead would no longer be counter to the new, transformed laws of nature. 

            Putting the two theologians’ ideas together, we could suggest that God continues God’s creative activity, working now to redeem and transform the world into a New Creation.  As part of that redemptive creation, we believe that at the end-time God will transform the world so that our resurrection from the dead as new creatures in Christ is consistent with the new, transformed laws of nature.  The Resurrection of Christ at Easter thus marks that turning point in cosmic history, which points ahead to a future time, when we, too, will be resurrected. 

This perspective fits with what Paul writes to the Thessalonians.  The Resurrection of Christ marks that turning point from the old age to the new age, and the Resurrection serves as God’s reassurance and guarantee of our resurrection at the end-time. 

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 5th.  This Sunday, we will remember and celebrate the lives of our friends and loved ones who are dead.  We will also reflect on the Apostle Paul’s reassurances to the Thessalonians that Christ’s Resurrection serves as God’s reassurance and guarantee that we, too, will become new creatures in Christ and be resurrected at the parousia.

Christ UMC is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

        Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.



[1] “Apocalyptic language” refers to descriptions of the end of the world that may be either momentous or catastrophic.
[2] John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist, Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 1996).
[3] Robert John Russell, “Resurrection of the Body, Eschatology, and Cosmology:  Theology and Science in Creative Mutual Interaction” in Cosmology, From Alpha to Omega:  The Creative Mutual Interaction of Theology and Science (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 2008), 308.