Friday, October 19, 2018

On Study Leave

Hello everyone.  I am on Study Leave for two weeks.  So, there will not be a blog post this week or next.  Check out my post the first of November.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

"Abundant Resources"

This Sunday, October 14th, I will conclude my proclamation series on Abundance at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.

             My first focus in this series was on Abundant Living, where we saw that Christ intends for his disciples to live full, abundant lives filled with peace, hope, and joy.  My second focus was on Abundant Opportunities, which occur when God invites us to become created co-creators in God’s ongoing work of creation and redemption.  Expressed another way, they are those opportunities when God invites us to become junior partners in establishing God’s Reign here on Earth.
Last week we examined Abundant Giving.  God has already given to us so graciously and abundantly.  From the beginning, God created humans in the Divine image and then sought to establish loving relationships with us.  Out of love, God became incarnated in the human person, Jesus of Nazareth, teaching us how to live—and then suffering crucifixion and death to demonstrate the awesome scope of God’s love for each of us.  In response to God’s love for us, we are asked to give abundantly.  When we give abundantly in response to God’s love for us, then we clear the way for abundant living. 

We will conclude this series on abundance by reflecting upon the Abundant Resources which God makes available to us for the work of redeeming the world and establishing God’s Reign.  In my proclamation, the story of Jesus sending forth 70 of his followers to engage in ministry, will center our thinking on abundant resources:

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.  Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.  Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’  (Luke 10:1-11)

            In this scriptural passage, Jesus recruits 70 of his best followers to be in ministry.  Jesus tells the 70 that the harvest is plentiful, but the harvesters are few.  And, Jesus suggests that they ask God to send out more harvesters into the ripened fields.

            By Abundant Resources, I mean the many followers of Jesus Christ and all of the resources and abilities which they possess for establishing and expanding the Kingdom of God, as God’s created co-creators. 

            Each and everyone of us is called into some form of ministry by Christ.  The 70 were sent “ahead of him” to prepare the way for Jesus in towns, which Christ would visit.  They are sent in pairs.  Jesus instructs them to travel lightly, carrying no purse, no bag, no sandals.  In other words, Jesus’ 70 followers are to rely solely upon God’s Providence, rather than relying upon material possessions or other forms of human assistance. The 70 are to greet no one on the road.  In other words, they are to go forth on their mission with a singleness of mind, focused only upon proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

            Whenever they enter a house, they are to offer peace to the household which offers them hospitality.  Whenever they enter a town, which welcomes them, then they are to accept what is offered to them.  Jesus calls on the 70 to be exclusively focused on ministry, caring for the sick and proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near to the village.  When they are rejected, then they are to move own, shaking the village dust from their feet, and proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near the village—even if that village has rejected God.

            The point is this:  Each of the 70 followers was called to be in a partnership of ministry with Christ.  The 70 responded to Christ’s invitation and used their resources and abilities to prepare the way for Christ and begin establishing the Reign of God.  It was a specialized ministry.  Similarly, each of us are called by Christ to some form of specialized ministry, which draws upon our unique constellation of gifts and abilities.  When we respond to the invitation to be in ministry, then we join in the work of redeeming the world and establishing God’s Reign.

            God has not finished with us, just yet.  God has not finished with Creation, just yet.  God continues the work of Creation, moving now to redeem the world, preparing for the breaking in of the New Creation—or, as described in the Book of Revelation, “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1)  God has abundant resources for the completion of this redemption, including all of the disciples of Jesus Christ.

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, October 14th, as we conclude our exploration of Abundance.  This Sunday, I will focus on the special gifts and opportunities which our community of faith has for joining as created co-creators in the work of  redeeming the world and establishing God’s final Reign over earth.  That is, I will suggest to the Christ UMC congregation that we are part of the abundant resources that God has available for God’s work of redemption and transformation.  Further, I will assert that perhaps God has called this congregation for just such a time as this.  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.  We are committed to acting inclusively because God loves us all.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

"Abundant Giving"

            This Sunday, October 7th, at Christ UMC-Lincoln, we will continue our proclamation series on Abundance.

Our first focus was on Abundant Living, where we saw that Christ intends for his disciples to live full, abundant lives filled with peace, hope, and joy.  We saw that in order to achieve an abundant life, we need to (1) be satisfied with a sufficiency of possession; (2) live with generosity; (3) depend upon family, friends, and others for security; (4) focus on authentic abundance through gratitude, positivity, inter-personal relationships, helping others, and pursuing deep meaning in life; and (5) maintaining a deep commitment to discipleship. 

Our second focus was on Abundant Opportunities, which occur when God invites us to become created co-creators in God’s ongoing work of creation and redemption.  Expressed another way, they are those opportunities when God invites us to become junior partners in establishing God’s Reign here on Earth. 

This week we will examine Abundant Giving.  To help us reflect on abundant giving, I will draw from the Apostle Paul’s insights in 2 Corinthians:
So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion.
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.  (2 Corinthians 9:5-12)

            The Apostle Paul had a vision for the new churches which he established.  It was a vision of reconciliation and commitment, a bonding of all communities of faith who cared for one another, shared with one another, and worked together to serve God.  One central component of his vision was a collection of money, which his Gentile churches would collect to be given to the poor in Jerusalem.  For Paul, this collection was a way for the Gentile churches to express their appreciation to the Jerusalem church for its willingness to welcome them as brothers and sisters in faith. 

            Paul begins this part of his letter to the Church in Corinth by reminding them of their earlier promise to give abundantly to this special gift of appreciation for the Jerusalem church.    Paul continues by elaborating on why all Christians should give abundantly toward God.  He begins with a metaphor from farming.  A farmer who sows his seed sparingly will also reap sparingly, whereas a farmer who sows abundantly will also reap abundantly. 

Similarly, for Paul, when Christ’s disciples invest grudgingly in ministry for God, then in the future they will receive sparingly from the Divine.  By contrast, Christ’s disciples who invest wholeheartedly and generously into serving Christ, will also receive abundantly from Christ.  Paul then follows up on this observation by essentially providing three guidelines for the Corinthians in their monetary gift to the Christians in Jerusalem:

1.      Each church member should decide for themselves how much to contribute to the offering for the Jerusalem church.
2.      No church member should give reluctantly or out of a sense of obligation.
3.      Each church member should give cheerfully and graciously because that is what God intends.

Continuing, Paul shares his conviction that God has the ability to provide each of us with every blessing that we need in abundance.  God provides us with everything which we need, so that we, in turn, will be able to give and share abundantly in every good work, which God calls us to do. 

Underlying Paul’s view of abundant giving is that all of Christ’s followers have a duty and an obligation to serve others and work for justice.  Believers must do good works.  From a Christian perspective, God has already given to us so graciously and abundantly.  From the beginning, God created humans in the Divine image and then sought us out in love.  Then, out of love for us, God became incarnated in the human person, Jesus of Nazareth, teaching us how to live—and then suffering crucifixion and death.  In response to God’s love for us, Christ’s followers must do good works.

Later, in verse 10, Paul elaborates.  Again, referring to the metaphor of the farmer sowing seed, Paul suggests that it is God “who supplies seed” to the farmer, so that the farmer may have an abundant harvest.  It is God who provides the means by which we earn a living and acquire material possessions.  Continuing the metaphor, Paul suggests that God will “multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest…”.  That is, God will increase our material possessions. 

But, then note what Paul says next:  God will increase the “harvest of your righteousness.”  Here, righteousness means either justice or benevolence.  In other words, Paul claims that God may increase our material possessions, so that we can give even more than before.  This claim reminds me of the John Wesley dictum, “Earn all you can.  Save all you can.  Give all you can.” 

Paul continues in the next verse by noting that the Corinthians “will be enriched in every way for your great generosity…”.  This observation returns us to our first reflection on Abundant Living.  By giving generously and abundantly to the offering for Jerusalem, Paul claims that abundant living will be available to the Corinthians.  As we saw previously, one of the central keys to abundant living is “to live with generosity.”
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, October 7th, as we continue our exploration of Abundance.  This Sunday, as we build upon the Apostle Paul’s vision for his ministry and the churches which he established, I will ask members of the congregation to reflect on their visions for the future of Christ United Methodist 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.  We are committed to acting inclusively because God loves us all.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

"Abundant Opportunities"

            Last Sunday we began a new proclamation series at my church in Lincoln, Christ United Methodist Church.  This new series focuses on “Abundance.”  We began the series last week by exploring the question, “What is an abundant life?”  This Sunday, September 30th, we will shift our focus to the question, “What abundant opportunities does God give us?” 

            By Abundant Opportunities, I mean those opportunities where God invites us to become created co-creators in God’s ongoing work of creation and redemption.  Expressed another way, I am referring to those opportunities when God invites us to become junior partners in establishing God’s Reign here on Earth.  In this view of Christian faith, each of us is created with the imago dei, the image of God.  God loves each human person and seeks to enter into a loving relationship with each of us.  God intends for this loving relationship to grow deeper and stronger, just the loving relationship between two individual persons.  For Christians, this loving relationship is mediated through the life, teachings, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

            These abundant opportunities can take many different forms, including serving others, working for justice, acting inclusively, and sharing the good news of God’s love with those who haven’t heard it or don’t yet understand it.  Both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible contain many stories of individual persons who were specifically called by God for a special opportunity to share in God’s ongoing work of creation and redemption.  We refer to these particular types of stories as call stories.  During our worship service this week, we are going to look at two particular call stories:  (1) the story of Jonah in the Old Testament (or, Hebrew Scriptures) and (2) the story of Saul, who later became the Apostle Paul in the New Testament.  Let’s look at these two stories in more detail: 


Quite frankly, Biblical scholars don’t know what to make of the Book of Jonah.  Just as the Hebrew books of Esther, Ruth, and Job, the Book of Jonah is not intended to be a factual historical account.  Biblical scholars have speculated that it might be intended as folktale, parable, satire, or even a Hebrew midrash text.  Yet, Jonah does not fit precisely into any of these categories of scriptural literature.  One thing which is certain is that the Book of Jonah is filled with sarcastic humor and literary exaggeration.  For instance, the city of Nineveh is said to be a three-day walk from one side to the other, which would be about 50 miles.  Most modern cities are not that large.  In her analysis of the text, Phyllis Trible concludes, “In its richness, complexity, and distinctiveness, the book of Jonah resists the categorizing endemic to genres.  …Perhaps the best interpretive efforts allow Jonah freedom to move among genres.”[1]

            The Book of Jonah opens with God calling upon Jonah to become a prophet and journey to Nineveh to call the citizens to repent from their wickedness.  Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria in the Hebrew scriptures.   When Jonah hears God’s call, he immediately books passage on a ship heading in the opposite direction, fleeing west towards Tarshish, instead of heading east towards Nineveh.  In other parts of the Hebrew scriptures, Nineveh is portrayed as being an especially evil city.  Further, a Hebrew prophet in a foreign land faced greater risk and was especially vulnerable to retribution from the natives.

            Almost immediately, God causes a huge storm to come upon Jonah’s ship.  The wind  blew ferociously and the wooden ship threatened to break apart.  The sailors began praying to their respective gods.  They also began desperately throwing the ship’s cargo overboard.  It is not clear why they threw the cargo overboard.  Perhaps they were trying to lighten the ship’s hold so that it could more easily ride out the storm, or perhaps the cargo was an offering to their gods for mercy.  Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the ship’s hold and fallen into a deep sleep—almost a trance.  The ship’s captain discovers Jonah and awakes him.

            Back on the stormy deck, the sailors are busy casting lots, trying to determine which one of them has so angered the gods.  The cast-lot points to Jonah and so the sailors question him.  Jonah confesses that the Hebrew God is angry with him because of his disobedience.  He suggests that the only way for the storm to abate is for the sailors to pick him up and throw him overboard, as they have already done with the cargo.  Jonah makes it clear that he will not jump overboard himself.

            Jonah’s request that the sailors throw him in the sea puts them into a double jeopardy.  On the one hand, if they do as he asks and throw him into the sea, they will be responsible for his death.  They understand that murdering Jonah will bring harsh punishment upon them from the gods.  On the other hand, if they don’t throw Jonah overboard, the Hebrew God will eventually capsize the boat and they will drown.  At first, the sailors try to row their ship to the shore.  When that doesn’t work, they ask forgiveness from God and ultimately toss Jonah overboard.  Immediately, the sea becomes quiet and the sailors understand that God has heard their prayer and forgiven them for tossing Jonah overboard.

            What make appear at first blush as an altruistic sacrifice which Jonah makes in order to save the lives of the sailors is actually a selfish desire to commit suicide, upon deeper reflection.  At this point in the story, Jonah has tried to avoid God’s call to him in three ways.  First, he tried to run away from God’s call physically, by taking a ship in the opposite direction from Nineveh.  Secondly, he tried to avoid God’s call psychologically by going into a deep sleep in the ship’s hold during the storm.  Finally, he tries to avoid God’s call by essentially attempting suicide.  Yet, even here, Jonah is foiled by God. When he lands in the stormy waters, he is swallowed by a large fish, where he stays for three days.  On the third day, the fish vomits Jonah up on the dry land.  Then, God calls Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s prophetic word of judgment and justice.  This time, Jonah complies and begins going in the right direction towards Nineveh.   

Saul, who became Paul

            Whereas Jonah rejected God’s Call and physically ran off in the opposite direction, in the New Testament the Apostle Paul accepts the Call of Christ and dedicates the rest of his life to fulfilling the Call by becoming a missionary, proclaiming the Good News to Gentiles and Jews alike.  Here the account of Paul’s Call as described by Luke in the Book of Acts 9:1-6.

 "Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”

In the scriptures, a bright light and sometimes thunder frequently indicate a moment when God meets and calls a prophet, see Exodus 19:16; Ezekiel 1:4, 28; and Daniel 10:6.  Saul (later Paul) is well aware of these passages from the Hebrew Scriptures.  So, he immediately falls to the ground, expecting to hear God speaking with a special message for him.  Imagine Saul’s surprise when he hears the voice of Jesus, the very person whose follower he has been arresting and persecuting!

            Yet, Saul is very attentive to the words of Jesus.  When Jesus speaks to Saul, he confirms that he has risen from the dead and that he is the long-awaited Messiah.  Jesus is not just another dead pretender.  No.  Instead, he is the real Messiah.  Saul is blinded by the brilliant light.  So, after Jesus’ brief instructions, he must be led by his traveling companions into the city of Damascus, where he begins a three-day period of fasting and prayer.

            At the end of this three-day period, Christ appears in a second vision to one of his followers, name Ananias.  Jesus instructs Ananias on where he can find Saul in the city.  Then, he asks Ananias to visit Saul and pray with him so that Saul may regain his sight.  At first Ananias objects because he fears Saul.  He says, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem’” (Acts 9:13).  However, Christ reassures Ananias, telling him: “‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name’” (Acts 9:15-16)

            So, Ananias goes to Saul and prays with him.  Saul receives his sight back.  Saul soon leaves Damascus for Jerusalem, which is where he must begin his response to God’s Call. 

            The Call Stories of Jonah and Saul could hardly be more different.  Whereas Jonah rejected God’s Call and tried to avoid God, Saul accepted God’s Call and worked very hard to fulfill God’s mission for him—willingly sacrificing and suffering in order to serve God.

            Call Stories are not limited to the distant past.  God continues to call each of us to join in the work of helping to establish God’s Reign here on Earth; of joining in God’s work of continuing creation and redemption.  God calls individuals and God also calls communities of faith.  There are abundant opportunities to become junior partners with God.  Perhaps God is calling you …

  • To work for justice, peace, and reconciliation; helping to heal what divides us as a society
  • To feed the hungry, find housing for the homeless; care for the sick and lonely; welcome the stranger; care for those with dependencies, and be good stewards of God’s Creation.
  • To share the good news of God’s deep and profound love with those who are spiritually desperate and searching.  
            The question for each of us is simple.  When God calls us to a special opportunity to help in redeeming the world and establishing God’s Reign, how will we respond?  Will we be another Jonah?  Or, will we be another Saul?

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, September 30th, as we continue our exploration of Abundance, focusing on the abundant opportunities which God gives to join in creating a new world.  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.  We are committed to acting inclusively because God loves us all.

[1] Phyllis Trible, Commentary on the Book of Jonah in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 7, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

"Abundant Living"

This Sunday, I begin a new sermon series at Christ United Methodist Church, focusing on Abundance.  Jesus told his disciples, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10b)  But, what does Jesus mean by “abundant life”?  We begin our series by exploring this question. 

            What is an abundant life?  In his parable of the “rich fool,” Jesus provides a negative description of abundant living.  That is, he uses the parable to demonstrate what is not abundant living:

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘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, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)

            In his reflections on this passage, Alan Culpepper, a Biblical scholar, observes several problematic attitudes which the rich farmer displays throughout the parable:[i]

1.      Preoccupation with Possessions.  Dr. Culpepper notes that the rich farmer is completely preoccupied with his riches and does not think of God, until God interrupts his reverie to pass judgment at the end of the parable.

2.      Greed. The rich fool has no sense of responsibility or connection with others.  It never occurs to him that he might be able to alleviate hunger, suffering, and perhaps even death, by sharing his surplus crops with the poor and needy around him.

3.      Security in Self-sufficiency.  In the parable, the rich farmer does not need anyone else.  He is completely self-sufficient.  He does not need family, friends, or a community of support.  He believes that he can provide for himself through his farming.  And, he takes full credit for his skill at farming.  He does not recognize that his bountiful harvest was dependent upon additional factors beside his skill, such as rain, sun, and the rich soil.

4.      The Hollowness of Hedonism.  The rich fool’s vision of a good and happy life is limited to indulging his desires and maximizing his own pleasures.  It is a vision centering on individual consumption of goods and services.

5.      Practical Atheism.  While the rich fool may claim a deep faith and acknowledge God’s existence, he lives his life as though there is no God.  God makes no discernible difference in the way he leads his life.

We can extrapolate from Christ’s negative description of abundant living in the parable of the rich fool, by focusing on the opposite of the five attitudes delineated above. 

A.    Satisfaction with Sufficient Possessions.  Rather than being preoccupied with what we own and have, in a genuinely abundant life we are satisfied with sufficient possessions and resources needed to keep us comfortable and healthy.

B.     Generosity.  For Jesus, the abundant life is characterized by generosity and care for those who have physical needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare. When we give with glad and generous hearts, then ironically our own lives become even more abundant.

C.     Security through Depending Upon Others.  Instead of relying only upon ourselves for security, Christ’s vision is that our security and support comes from our families, friends, community of faith, and God.

D.    Focus on Authentic Abundance.  Psychologists and other social scientists who study abundant living have developed significant research, indicating that gratitude, positivity, strong inter-personal relationships, a strong sense of meaning, and helping others are critical for abundant living.

E.     Deep Commitment to Discipleship.  Rather than living our lives without acknowledging God, as the rich fool did, Christ calls upon us to place God at the center of our lives and commit ourselves to faithful discipleship of seeking God, acting inclusively, serving others, and doing justice.

For Christ, the above attitudes form the five keys to authentic abundant life.  Through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection, Christ has demonstrated what we must do in order to live life abundantly.

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, September 23rd, as we begin our exploration of Abundance.  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.  We are committed to acting inclusively because God loves us all.

[i] R. Alan Culpepper, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 9, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

"Work for Justice"

             Over the past few weeks, we have been looking at the four principles of Christian discipleship, which will guide my church, Christ United Methodist, as we move into the future. Jesus calls each of us to love and follow him as his disciples.  Following Christ involves an ongoing process of learning, experiencing, and growing.  When we first become Christians we are beginners in the faith.  But, over time, God intends for us to grow deeper in our faith and in our relationship with Christ.   I believe that Christian disciples grow best through a process that combines “learning” and “doing.” 

In this series, we have already examined the core discipleship principles of (1) seeking God; (2) acting inclusively; and (3) serving others—both human and nonhuman.  This Sunday, September 16th, we will conclude by looking at the fourth and final discipleship principle:  working for justice. 

What is justice?  The meaning of justice may vary, depending upon the context in which it is used.  For instance, retributive justice concerns consequences and punishments when someone has injured another person or caused them harm.  Frequently, we think of retributive justice in terms of the court system.  However, our focus this Sunday is on a different form of justice:  distributive justice.  That is, the just distribution of the goods and services of society.  So, with these refinements, the question becomes, “As Christians, how do we define “distributive justice?”

For Christians, the starting point for defining justice must begin with the human relationship with God.  As we saw several weeks ago in our examination of the principle of “acting inclusively,” each person is created in the image of God.  In Genesis 1:27 it is written, So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  Every single person bears the divine image of God in their very essence. This divine spark, or image, indicates how deeply God loves each one of us.  In response to God’s personal love for us, God requires that we love one another.  As the writer of 1 John observed:

“We love because he 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.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”  1 John 4:19-21

When we truly love someone, then we want the very best for that person.  We want that beloved person to be happy and to flourish in life.  Thus, from the Christian perspective of love, distributive justice occurs when every person in society has the opportunities to flourish in their own particular way.  A flourishing human person needs the freedom to choose and develop their own vision of the good and happy life.  In order to flourish, a person needs the resources, such as education, to develop to the best of their abilities and to strive towards realizing their life plan.  Persons also require freedom, sufficient leisure, and the opportunities to participate in the civic and political life of the community to the degree that they choose.  Finally, in order to flourish, persons need the opportunity to become self-sufficient and provide for themselves, rather than being dependent upon a paternalistic handout.  This enables a person to live with dignity, which is essential for human flourishing. 

            Unfortunately, these minimal conditions are not met, either around the world or even in the United States—the most affluent society in human history.  Consider these facts:

  • In the United States, 1 in 8 Americans lives with food insecurity
  • Approximately 13 million children live with food insecurity. 
  • At Christ UMC in Lincoln, we have witnessed the extent of food insecurity firsthand with our food pantry.  Over the past two years, the number of hungry whom we help each month has increased from 50 people a month to over 1,000 persons a month.
  • Globally, there are approximately 815 million people suffering from hunger.

Christian disciples are challenged by this huge injustice in our world.  Many persons do not have the resources to live happy and flourishing lives of self-sufficiency and dignity, as God intended.

            Here, an important distinction needs to be made between the discipleship principles of serving others and working for justice.  While serving others by caring for their physical needs is a critical ministry, frequently it does not address the structural causes of poverty.  Those whom we wish to help are caught in a recurring cycle of poverty and dependency.  At Christ UMC, we see this pernicious cycle of poverty all the time at our food pantry as some people come to us in need of food, again and again, each month. 

            Many Christian congregations are great at serving others and they think that is all that they are required to do as disciples of Christ.  However, Christ calls us to do more.  Our responsibility is not some easy minimum.  No.  In his Letter in the New Testament, James writes, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:14-16)

            If we truly love and care for those who do not have the resources to flourish, then we cannot be content with simply feeding someone for a day—or, a month.  Instead, to genuinely love and care for those in need, we must help them become fully self-sufficient and able to flourish.  This is what working for justice is all about.

            I want to propose that there are two distinct categories of working for justice:

  1.  Micro-justice, empowering and resourcing individuals.  Micro-justice focuses on helping the poor develop the skills and vision to become fully self-sufficient and to flourish.  It could mean providing training or a program which empowers the poor and marginalized to take responsibility for helping themselves and becoming self-sufficient.  An example of this type of micro-justice is the “Bridges out of Poverty” program, which Christ UMC provides through our ministry at ConnectioN Point.  “Bridges out of Poverty” helps impoverished persons and families develop skills to apply for and keep a job, develop a household budget, and other abilities needed in order to rise out of poverty and become self-sufficient.  There’s an old Chinese proverb, which says:  “Give a poor man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and feed him for a lifetime.”  We can think of micro-justice as teaching someone to fish.                                                                                                                                                     
  2.  Macro-justice.  Macro-justice focuses on the social, political, and economic structures which disempower the poor and keep them in poverty.  Macro-justice involves working to change unjust laws or public policies that marginalize and disempower people.  Other examples would include organizing a boycott of certain companies because of their business practices.  If we think of micro-justice as teaching someone to fish, then macro-justice involves tearing down the fence, which restricts access to the fish in the community fishpond. 

 The discipleship principle of working for justice includes working as hard as we can for both micro-justice for individual persons and macro-justice for our society—and the world.  This is especially true for American Christians.

As American Christians, we live in a society that has historically valued our Christian convictions and perspectives.  Although our Founding Fathers rightly separated “Church and State,” the reason for this separation was to insure that no particular religion or denomination was privileged and promoted in a dominant role over other faiths; that is, there would be no “state religion.”  The Founding Fathers’ intent was not to prevent citizens from speaking about public policies from their religious convictions.  On the contrary, they also recognized the importance of religious perspectives in the public discourse, which grounds our democracy.  Therefore, as American Christians, we have a special opportunity and responsibility to be good stewards of our American citizenship, by speaking up and participating in the public discourse.  We have a responsibility to work for justice.

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, September 16th, as we conclude our examination of the four essential principles of Christian discipleship with a focus on “working for justice.”  Before and after the Worship Services, there will be an opportunity to participate in Bread for the World’s “offering of letters” by writing your federal legislators and asking them to protect highly effective anti-hunger programs from spending cuts in the 2019 Federal Budget.

   Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 each Sunday morning in our Sanctuary.  This Sunday, we will offer a third, alternative and contemporary worship service at 9:45 am in our Family Life Center.  This additional service will be a “preview worship service” as we prepare to launch a regular, third service in the near future.

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

Saturday, September 8, 2018

"Seek God"

            “Pilgrimage” is not a familiar concept for most Protestant Christians.  However, it seems to me that the concept of “pilgrimage” is central to fully grasping what it means to seek God.  Usually, pilgrimage refers to a geographical journey of great spiritual significance.  For instance, many Christians have taken a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, while many Muslims go on Hajj, a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca.  A pilgrimage does not always have to be a physical journey, however.  One can take an interior pilgrimage within one’s mind, without leaving home.

            At the very least, the concept of spiritual pilgrimage serves as an excellent metaphor for what it means to Seek God.  Over the past two weeks, we have been exploring the four “Essentials of Discipleship.”  They are:  (1)  Seek God; (2) Act Inclusively; (3) Serve others—both human and nonhuman; and (4)  Work for Justice.  We began by examining what it means to “act inclusively” and then to “serve others.”  This Sunday, September 9th, I will focus on seeking God, and next Sunday we will conclude by exploring what it means to work for justice.  Together, these four principles form the essentials of Christian discipleship.

            To fully appreciate the significance of Christian discipleship, it is important to recognize that Christianity is not a “spectator sport.”  Some people misunderstand this fundamental point about Christianity.  They mistakenly believe that all they need to do is become a member of a church and they are automatically and permanently a Christian disciple.  But, this is a colossal misunderstanding and indicates an infantile faith.  Instead, the scriptures assert that Christian discipleship is a lifelong process in which we grow and mature in our faith.  Through this process, our relationship with the Divine is enriched and deepened. 

            This misunderstanding of what it means to be a Christian was widely shared by the Corinthians addressed by the Apostle Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

"And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?"  
(1 Corinthians 3: 1-3)

In this passage, Paul adopts the metaphor of human growth from infancy to adulthood to describe the process of growing in our relationship with the divine.  In what must have been a stunning and brutal statement for the Corinthians to hear, Paul calls them spiritual infants; that is, spiritually immature Christians.  Their spiritual immaturity is indicated by the incessant jealousy and quarreling among them.  Given their spiritual immaturity, Paul can only feed them milk and not solid food.  In other words, Paul can only give them basic, introductory teaching in the faith because of their spiritual immaturity.  They are not yet ready for more advanced teaching.

            In his analysis of this text, the Biblical scholar J. Paul Sampley observes, “Other letters allow us to see that Paul does, indeed, think of believers as moving from their starting point as babies in Christ toward greater and greater maturity.  The life of faith is a life of growth, of maturing, of growing up.”[i]  Even Paul himself does not claim to be a fully mature Christian.  Instead, he continues to grow and mature in his faith, as well.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12)

            Christian disciples are always “works in progress.”  We never reach that final destination, where we can say that we are completely mature in our faith and can grow no deeper in our relationship with the Divine.  No.  Instead, as with the Apostle Paul, we can always mature further in our faith—and our loving relationship with God can always grow deeper.

            Another perspective is the metaphor of spiritual pilgrimage, which I suggested at the beginning of this blog post.  When we become disciples of Christ we embark upon a spiritual pilgrimage.  Step by step, we grow in our faith and our relationship with Christ.  With each step, we mature, moving from the milk of infancy to the solid food of a fully grown adult in Christ.  Yet, this pilgrimage never reaches a final destination.  We can always grow deeper and deeper in love with God.  We can always deepen our vision of what it means to be a true follower of Christ.

            This spiritual growth is always intentional.  And, the growth occurs through both “learning” and “doing.” 

1.      Learning. Spiritual learning includes prayer, study of scripture and other spiritual writings, and worship.  We have Christ himself as a model of this process of intentional learning.  For instance, the Gospel of Mark records that early in his ministry, Jesus got up “in the morning, while it was still very dark, … and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35; see also Mark 6:46).  Jesus was intentional about setting aside time for prayer and meditation with God.

2.      Doing. Complementing learning is doing.  We grow and mature in our faith through serving God.  This action-oriented spiritual growth certainly includes serving others and working for justice –two of the four core principles of Christian discipleship.  But, it also includes working and serving our community of faith.  Through our service to our church, we open up and experience new avenues to grow.  We mature in our faith and grow deeper in our relationship with God.

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, September 9th, as we continue our exploration of the four essential principles of Christian discipleship.  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] J. Paul Sampley, Commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 10, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.