Saturday, March 17, 2018

"Reconciliation"


            Over the past weeks, we have focused on “Reclaiming Sin, A Biblical Guide.”  Although popular culture has largely abandoned the concept of sin, I have claimed that recognizing and acknowledging our sin is still crucially important.  The first, essential step towards eventually achieving forgiveness and reconciliation is to acknowledge and confess our sins. 

We have defined sin as the rupture of essential relationships.  Each of us lives in an interconnected web of relationships that include our relationship with the Divine, our relationships with other persons, our relationship with Creation, and our relationship with ourselves.  When we do things to rupture, or damage, one of these relationships, then we sin. 

We have used Bible stories to reflect on the reality of sin as the rupturing of various relationships.  We have looked at the following stories:

1.      The story of Eve, Adam, and the Forbidden Fruit, Genesis 3
2.      The story of the woman caught in Adultery, John 7:53 – 8:11
3.      Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5: 1-11
4.      David and Bathsheba, 2 Samuel 11 & 12 (Sermon preached by Beth Menhusen)

This Sunday, March 18th, we will shift our focus.  Instead of reflecting on the reality of sin as a rupturing of relationships, we will examine a story of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.  This is the story of the woman who anoints Christ with precious oil.  All four Gospels include this story, but we will focus on Luke’s account, which has a different emphasis than the other Gospels.[i] 

According to Luke, Jesus is invited to the house of Simon the Pharisee for a banquet.  During this time period in the Middle East, the host and his guests at a banquet would recline on pillows, leaning on their left arms while eating food from a mat with their right hand.  In this position, their feet would be stretched out behind them, away from the mat.

While the dinner would only be served to invited guests, it was customary for uninvited locals to come to the house and stand around the courtyard and inside walls of the house, listening to the conversation at the table.  Banquets, such as this, were usually filled with wit and wisdom.  Sometimes guests engaged one another in a contest of riddles.  So the uninvited would come to the event to enjoy the conversation and entertainment.

One of the uninvited that night was a woman, whom Luke describes as “a sinner.”  Most scriptural scholars agree that she was most likely a village prostitute.  This woman had come to see Jesus.  She stood behind Jesus as he reclined at the banquet table.  She begins to weep and her tears fall down on Jesus’ feet.  Eventually, she lets down her long hair and begins to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair—thus, washing Jesus’ feet.  Then, she takes an alabaster jar of ointment and anoints the feet of Jesus. 

Now, it is very important to recognize that from the cultural perspective of the first century, the woman’s expressions of love and gratitude were highly sexualized actions.  Touching a man’s feet, as well as a woman letting down her hair in public, carried heavy sexual connotations.  Finally, the fact that the woman was a prostitute suggests that she was ritually unclean.  By touching Jesus’ feet, she would have also made Jesus ritually unclean.

Simon, the host for the evening, sees the actions of the woman.  Although he doesn’t say anything out loud, Simon thought to himself, “If this man [Jesus] were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 

In the spirit of the evening festivities, Jesus poses a riddle to Simon.  He says:  “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,[ii] and the other fifty.  When they could not pay, he canceled the debts of both of them.  Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon responds that the debtor who owed the greater debt would love the creditor more.  Jesus affirms that Simon has answered correctly.  Then, Jesus points out three significant differences between Simon and the sinful woman:

1.      When Jesus arrived at Simon’s house, he was offered no water to wash his feet, as was customary in their culture.  Yet, the woman has washed and dried Jesus’ feet with her hair.

2.      When Jesus arrived at Simon’s house, he was not greeted with a kiss, as was customary.  Yet, the woman has kissed his feet continuously.

3.      Simon has not used oil to anoint Jesus’ head, which was an important component of good hospitality.  But, the woman has anointed his feet with ointment.

To summarize, Simon has failed miserably at being a good host for Jesus, while the woman has exemplified excellent hospitality to Jesus, the guest of honor at the banquet.  Referring to the woman, Jesus continues:  This woman’s “sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.  But the one to whom little is forgiven loves little.”  Then, Jesus tells the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”

In his reflections on this story, the Biblical scholar Alan Culpepper asks, “Does love lead to forgiveness, or is the ability to love the result of being forgiven?”[iii]  I believe that the answer is “both.”  We are speaking here of reconciliation and healing of relationships.  When we love someone, we are more likely to forgive them because we desire to repair the loving relationship which has been ruptured by sin.  Sometimes, both persons in a ruptured relationship have contributed to its damage.  Therefore, we seek to forgive—as well as to be forgiven—in order to repair the relationship.  

Complementarily, when we rupture a relationship, but experience forgiveness, then we are more likely to love that person in the future.  And, as Jesus points out to Simon, there is an irony in love and forgiveness.  When we have significantly damaged a relationship and, yet, experience forgiveness and healing, then we develop an even deeper love in response to the healing and reconciliation that comes to us.

      If you live in the Lincoln 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, March 18th, as we explore healing and reconciliation.  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] In Matthew, Mark, and John, the anointing of Jesus by the woman foreshadows his crucifixion and burial.  In Matthew, Jesus says, “When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.”  By contrast, in Luke, highlights the relationship between love and forgiveness.   Scriptural scholars hypothesize that there may have been two similar stories of women anointing Jesus with oil, accounting for the difference in emphasis between Luke and the other three Gospels.   
[ii] In the economy of first century Israel, a denarii was worth a full-days wages for laborers.
[iii] R. Alan Culpepper, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 9, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

"David, Bathsheba, and the #MeToo Movement"

       This Sunday, March 10th, we continue our Lenten Reflections focusing on "Reclaiming Sin; A Biblical Guide."  This week, we will focus on the story of David and Bathsheba, as recorded 2 Samuel 11-12.  Preaching this Sunday will be Beth Menhusen, Associate Pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln. 

        I will be returning to the pulpit next Sunday, March 18th, reflecting on the story of the woman who anoints Jesus' feet with costly perfume, found in Luke 8:36-50.


If you live in the Lincoln 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, March 11th.  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.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

“Greed, Deception, Death”


                 On the church liturgical calendar, we are in the season of “Lent,” a six-week period of spiritual preparation, leading up to the celebration of Easter and the Resurrection of Christ.  This spiritual preparation includes prayer, confession, repentance, atonement, and self-denial. The focus is on our mortality and our need for forgiveness and healing.  We believe that this six-week focus will help us to re-calibrate our lives and more closely align ourselves with the ministry and example of Jesus Christ—before we celebrate his Easter Resurrection.


During this Lenten season, our worship themes and proclamations are focusing on “Reclaiming Sin:  A Biblical Guide.”  I believe that popular culture has largely abandoned the concept of sin.  Instead, of taking responsibility for our sinful actions, popular culture encourages us to try and explain away sin as not really our fault.  In this series, we are reflecting upon stories of persons in the Bible who sinned; the consequences of that sin, and whether they received forgiveness and reconciliation with God.  We will discover that recognizing and acknowledging sin is a first and essential step towards eventually achieving forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. 

I believe that it is important that we begin by defining what “sin” actually is.  For our focus during Lent, we have defined as the rupture of relationships.  Each of us lives in an interconnected web of relationships which include our relationship with the Divine, our relationships with other persons, our relationship with Creation, and our relationship with ourselves.  Let me provide some examples of how sin can occur in each of these four types of relationship.

            1.  Relationship with the Divine.  God seeks to be in a loving relationship with each individual person.  In our relationship with the Divine, we must put God at the center of our lives.  We sin when we displace God and seek to put ourselves at the center, pushing God to the margin of our lives.

            2.  Relationship with Others.  God intends for us to be in community with other people.  We have a responsibility to care for others, insuring that they have a fair share of resources and opportunities to flourish in their lives.  We sin when we privilege our interests and ourselves over the common good.  For instance, greed is sinful because it subverts the common good so that we can have more stuff.  This ruptures our relationship with others. 

            3.  Relationship with the Environment, God’s Good Creation.  We humans are created in the image of God, which entails special privileges and responsibilities.  One of our most important responsibilities is to be good stewards of God’s Creation.  As stewards, we have a special relationship with the Creation, and we have a special responsibility to care for it.  When we fail to be good stewards of Creation by polluting or degrading the environment, then we are guilty of a two-fold rupture.  First, our relationship with Creation is broken and this is sinful.  But, secondly, since we are created in the image of God, our relationship with God is damaged, as well.

            4.  Relationship with Ourselves.  We have a special relationship with ourselves.  When we fail to take care of our physical bodies; or, when we fail to be true to ourselves in what we say or what we do, then we rupture our relationship with ourselves and this is also sinful.

            This Sunday, March 4th, our scriptural focus will be the story of Ananias and Sapphira from the Acts of the Apostles 5:1-11.   Ananias and Sapphira were a married couple, who became some of the first Christian converts and joined the Church in Jerusalem.  They were fairly affluent because they were landowners.  Although not required by the Apostles, many of the early converts to Christianity sold all of their possessions and donated the proceeds to the church.  In effect, many of the first Christians elected to live together in a commune, sharing all of their material resources together, as any had need.  For instance, just before the story of Ananias and Sapphira, the writer of Acts includes the story of Barnabas, who “sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:37).

            Ananias and Sapphira belonged to the same social class as Barnabas.  However, unlike Barnabas, they did not give the full proceeds from a sale of property to the Apostles.  Instead, they held back some money, while giving the remainder of the sale to the church.  Yet, in donating their money to the church, they claimed that it was the entire amount of the property’s sale price.  That is, they lied to the members of this early Christian commune about how much they earned from the sale of their property. 

After some time, the Apostle Peter discovers their deception and confronts Ananias.  In this confrontation, Peter points out that Ananias and Sapphira were not required to sell their property; neither were they required to give the proceeds from the sale to the church.  Instead, the offering to the community of faith should have been free and un-coerced.  Yet, Ananias and Sapphira gave the contribution grudgingly.  And, they lied about how much money they had from the sale.  Then, Peter tells Ananias, “You did not lie to us but to God!” (Acts 5:4d). Peter’s harsh judgment terrifies Ananias and he falls down, dead.

Several hours later, Sapphira returns to the commune.  She is unaware that her husband has died.  Peter asks Sapphira about the sale of the property, giving her a chance to confess her sin and set the record straight.  Instead, Sapphira decides to continue the deception—not realizing that Peter already knows the truth about the sale price.  Once again, when Peter confronts her about the deception, Sapphira drops dead on the spot.

Whenever I read the story of Ananias and Sapphira, I find it very easy to get sidetracked by their sudden deaths at the feet of Peter.  What sort of power did Peter wield over the early church?  Were Ananias and Sapphira just so overcome by guilt and fear that they simply collapsed and died?  While it is easy to get sidetracked by their deaths, I believe that it is important to set aside the how of their deaths occurred and focus on what the story of Ananias and Sapphira can tell us about sin and discipleship.

Remembering that we have defined sin as the rupturing and damaging of various relationships, Ananias and Sapphira damaged two different relationships when they held back some of the money from their land sale.  First, the couple were greedy.  As we observed above, greed is sinful because it subverts the common good in our relationships with others.  We are greedy when we decide to privilege our desires and pleasures over the legitimate needs of other persons.  As noted above, from a Christian perspective each of us has a responsibility to insure that others have a fair share of resources and opportunities so that they can flourish.  When we hoard money and possessions, after our own basic needs have been met, then we are greedy.  This is exactly what Ananias and Sapphira did, when they held back some of the sale proceeds from the community.  In so doing, they fractured their relationship with other members of the church, and this was sinful.

As bad as their greed was, their second sin was even worse.  As Peter points out, Ananias and Sapphira also tried to deceive God and their fellow Christians.  They lied to Peter and the others about the actual sale price of the property.  Trust is an essential component in our relationships with God and other people.  If I cannot trust someone, then it is hard to be in a mutual relationship of love and support—until trust is built up.  In their deceit, the greedy couple undermined the trust and thereby ruptured their relationship with the Divine and the other members of their community.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira has some important lessons to teach twenty-first century Christians about our relationships with the Divine and others.  This story should cause us to pause and wonder whether we are guilty of the same sort of greed and deceit that informed their decisions.  Are we, perhaps, not generous enough towards others who are struggling just to have the basic necessities in life?  In what ways do we sometimes try to deceive God?  And, what can we learn about our own contributions to the church or to charities?  Ananias and Sapphira gave out of a sense of duty and obligation, rather than giving out of love and joy.  In so doing, they prevented themselves from experiencing the Presence of the Divine in their act of giving.


      If you live in the Lincoln 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, March 4th, as we explore what we can learn from the story of Ananias and Sapphira.  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.




Saturday, February 3, 2018

“Finding God In the Midst of Doubt”

            This Sunday, February 4th, I will resume my focus on “Finding God in Everyday Life.”  I believe that we sometimes have difficulty experiencing the Divine in everyday life because we are not actively seeking God’s presence in the ordinary.  Over the past few weeks, we have been exploring the ways in which we can become more open and sensitive to God’s presence in our everyday lives.  This week our focus shifts somewhat as we explore finding God in doubt.  In these circumstances, we may be actually searching for God—or, at least seeking some fleeting evidence of God’s existence.  Yet, despite our best intentions, God seems aloof or—perhaps—absent altogether. 

We begin to doubt God’s existence.  Or, we encounter the hypocrisy, greed, and sinfulness of God’s Church and the self-proclaimed faithful who call themselves “Christians.”  Under these circumstances we begin to question whether or not a God of love and peace would tolerate such apostasy.  Since God seems to tolerate specifically anti-Christian attitudes and behaviors in the Church, we question whether there really is a “God.” 

            This is a difficult exploration, which is not easily presented in a worship setting.  I have struggled with how to develop this question in a sermon.  Ultimately, I decided that the best I can do is to simply tell my story of doubt and then how I re-claimed my Christian faith.  I grew up in a small Southern town which was religiously quite homogeneous.  Everyone in my small town was either Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist.  There were really no other options—just these three mainline Protestant denominations.  Further, pretty much everyone in town attended one of these three churches; there was a sparse handful of people who did not regularly attend one of the churches.  So, as I grew older, I did not really question my Christian faith that deeply.  I just more or less took it for granted.

            After graduating from high school, I matriculated to a very diverse, cosmopolitan university.  In that context, I quickly encountered people who were religiously very different from me: Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, as well as agnostics and atheists and persons exploring indigenous spirituality.  I soon developed friendships with other students who had very different faiths—or, no religious faith at all. 

Over time, I began to see my Christian faith differently.  I took advantage of the University’s Department of Religion to study other religions.  Jainism, in particular, made an impression on me.  Some of my studies challenged my faith, such as the claim by Karl Marx that “Religion is the opium of the people.”  Some of my new friends were not at all hesitant to critique my Christian faith.  I became acutely aware of how Christianity falls far short of the lofty ideals taught by Christ Jesus.  For the first time, I began to see clearly the hypocrisy, greed, and sinfulness rampant in the Christian Church—and especially among many Christians who proclaimed—even bragged about—how devout they were.  I began to doubt whether God even existed.  By the fall semester of my Sophomore year, I had become an atheist.

            For the next three semesters, I was something of an atheist.  Oh, I continued to dabble in religion.  I took some more college courses.  I especially loved ethics.  There were also those occasional moments when I had a deep spiritual experience, which didn’t jibe with my intellectual position of atheism.  For instance, sometimes when I was running in the forest, I would be overcome with a spiritual feeling of being in harmony with Creation.  These were small, first steps back to my Christian faith.

            The big step came when a professor suggested that I read Gustavo Gutierrez’ book, A Theology of Liberation, which had just been translated into English.  Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest who had a doctorate in theology, argued that God makes a preferential option for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized people within our midst.  Although God loves all people, God makes a preferential option for those who are suffering the most, just as a parent will devote extra care and attention to a sick child, temporarily elevating the sick child and their care above their other healthy children.  Building upon this theological claim about God, Gutierrez argued that faithful followers of Christ must give special attention to those who are hungry, homeless, poor, or oppressed.  This attention could not simply be acts of charity, as important as these acts are.  Instead, Christians must analyze and work for structural change in the socio-economic system which held the poor and exploited down.

            For me, A Theology of Liberation was transformative.   It offered me a bridge back to the Christian faith.  I began to see that Christianity did not have to be a trite, clich├ęd opium, which kept us from focusing on what is really important in life.  Instead, it offered a lifestyle and an avenue for genuinely changing the socio-economic structures so that justice, abundance, peace, and love all grew and flourished.  Gutierrez’ book helped me see Christian faith from a completely different perspective:  not as an “opium for the people,” but rather as a potent, potential force for peace, justice, and the flourishing of all persons—and of Creation.

Gradually, little-by-little, my faith began to be restored.  However, it was not the same Christian faith as my childhood.  Now, my faith was much deeper, much more fully examined, much more nuanced, much more mature—and, much stronger.  Looking back on this process, I can see how much my Christian faith grew as a result of my doubt.  More profoundly, I can see how I experienced God in the process; not in a manipulative way, but rather as never abandoning me throughout my journey of doubt.

As I grew through my reclaimed Christian faith, I began to read passages of scripture from a different perspective.  One of the more dramatic shifts in my perspective occurred in my reading and understanding of Isaiah 6:  6-8.  In this chapter, we hear the “call story” of how Isaiah was called by God to become a prophet:

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

Now, instead of reading this text as just the account of how God called Isaiah to his prophetic mission, I began to see this as a question which God was asking me.  That is, literally, God was asking me:  “Whom shall I send?  Richard, will you go?”  And, I saw myself replying, “Here am I; send me!”  And so, I moved from doubting God’s existence to believing that God had given me a special call to help with the work of establishing the Kingdom of God.  As my faith deepened over the years, I have come to see that God’s call is not restricted to just Isaiah—or, just me.  No.  Instead, God calls each of us to the task of establishing God’s Reign by working for justice, peace, and the flourishing of all Creation.  Each of the faithful has a special, unique role to play in creating the socio-economic structures needed so that everyone experiences justice, abundance, peace, justice, and love.

      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, February 4th, as we explore how we can experience the Divine in everyday life.  In addition, to my proclamation, others from our church will share how they experience the Divine through parenting, how they experience the Divine even in the midst of doubt, and how they experience the Divine through their work as an attorney.  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.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

“Giving Is Transformational”

            This Sunday, January 21st, we continue our focus on “Finding God in Everyday Life.”  I believe that we sometimes have difficulty experiencing the Divine in everyday life because we are not actively seeking God’s presence in the ordinary.  Over the past few weeks, we have been exploring the ways in which we can become more open and sensitive to God’s presence in our everyday lives.  This week, we will focus on “Finding God through Generosity.”  Our reflections will be informed by the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Corinth.

            The first theological dilemma encountered by the early Christian Church concerned the status of Gentiles, or non-Jews, who wished to become Christians.  Initially, Christianity began as something of a spiritual renewal movement within Judaism.  However, as the Gospel began to spread beyond Jerusalem, a growing number of Gentiles wanted to become Christians.  This raised an important theological question:  Was it necessary for Gentiles to convert to Judaism, before being welcomed into the new Christian churches?  This was a critical question, especially for Gentile men, who would have to go through the rite of circumcision in order to become a Jew.

            The Apostle Paul met with the other Apostles and church leaders in Jerusalem to resolve this dilemma.  After much prayer and discussion, they agreed that Gentiles could become Christians directly—without first converting to Judaism.  That is, the Christian Church would be united, receiving both Gentile and Jewish persons.  It was agreed that the Apostle Paul and his colleagues would focus their missionary work on the Gentiles, while some of the other Apostles would stay in Jerusalem and focus on the Temple and Jews.  At the end of this first Jerusalem Council, the Apostles remaining in Jerusalem asked Paul and his colleagues to “remember the poor” in Jerusalem.

            Paul readily agreed to their request to help the poor in Jerusalem.  He interpreted this request as an opportunity to raise money from the churches which he had already established in other cities.  So, he began to write letters, asking these predominantly Gentile churches to receive a special collection, which he would pick up and take back to Jerusalem.  For Paul, in addition to helping the poor in Jerusalem, this collection also symbolizes the new reciprocal partnership between Jewish and Gentile believers in the rapidly growing Christian Church.

            In our passage of scripture this week, Paul writes to remind the Corinthian Church about this collection, which he will be coming to pick up in the near future.  As part of that reminder, Paul writes these words:
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;

Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians also provide a basis for our understanding of how we should experience the Divine through generous giving. 

            Paul begins by reminding the Corinthians that “we reap what we sow.” That is, when we give generously, we shall also receive generously back from God.  In the next verse, Paul continues by laying down three guidelines for the Corinthians to follow in deciding how much to give:

1.      They should not give reluctantly, but gladly
2.      They should not feel under compulsion, but voluntarily
3.      “God loves a cheerful giver.”

Essentially, Paul calls upon us to give freely and voluntarily and cheerfully.

            In verse 8, Paul continues, “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.”  In this verse, Paul reassures the Corinthians that they should not fear making a gift for the poor in Jerusalem because God’s grace will surround and support them.  That is, God will move within their lives to insure that they have adequate resources in order to share abundantly in the “good work” of helping the poor. 

In more theological terms, the Apostle reassures that God’s grace—that is, God’s assistance—will be present to help and empower the Corinthians in making a gift.  Further, Paul urges the Corinthians to share abundantly.  To share abundantly may require the Corinthians to make sacrifices in order to give.  Yet, the Apostle is convinced that God’s grace will sustain even sacrificial giving. 

In verse 9, Paul quotes from Psalm 112:9.  In this quotation, Paul connects God’s grace with God’s justice.  Grace once received from God also requires that we work for justice.  In working for justice, Christians unite with God as God’s created co-creators—or, junior partners—in working to establish the Kingdom of God here on Earth.

Finally, in the final verses (10-11), Paul reassures the Corinthians that God will enrich them because of their generosity.  “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity…” (verse 11a).  While it is tempting to interpret these last two verses as providing scriptural warrant for “prosperity theology,” this would actually be a gross misunderstanding of the Apostle’s intent.  “Prosperity theology” is a shallow and flawed misunderstanding that Christians can guarantee health and wealth for themselves through faith and making large donations to churches and other religious causes. 

The Prosperity doctrine misunderstands what Paul means when he promises the Corinthians that God will enrich them in every way.  Instead being enriched through money and material goods, Paul is referring to being enriched through a greater experience of God’s love and closer relationship with the Divine.  In other words, Paul claims that when we give generously and joyfully, then we will experience a closer relationship with the Divine through our generosity.  For Paul, this closer relationship with the Divine will transform our lives, as we experience a richness and closeness 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, January 21st, as we explore how we can experience the Divine through generosity.  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.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

“What Martha Can Teach Us”

            Our current worship theme at Christ United Methodist Church focuses on “Finding God in Everyday Life.”  Although the Divine is always present in our lives—even in the everyday routines which we have—we sometimes find it hard to experience God in our everyday lives. 

            I believe that we sometimes have difficulty experiencing the Divine because we are not expecting to encounter God in everyday life.  In other words, we are not actively opening ourselves to God’s presence in the ordinary.  Over the next few weeks, we will examine and reflect on ways in which we can become more open and sensitive to God’s presence in everyday life.  Our focus this Sunday, January 14th, will be exploring ways the Divine is present in our work of volunteering. 

            According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 62.5 million Americans volunteer some time to various organizations each year, with 33% of persons volunteering to help religious organizations.[1]  These approximately 62 million people comprise 25% of the overall population.  Another organization, the “Corporation for National Community Service,” estimates that the typical volunteer averages “32.1 volunteer hours per person, per year, which comes to 7.9 billion hours of service, the equivalent of $184 billion.”[2]  In addition to supporting our church or religious organization, we also volunteer for educational and youth service, community and civic organizations, environmental groups, and hobbies, in addition to a whole host of other causes and endeavors.

            From a Christian perspective, volunteering to help support our church or other groups, which are dedicated to the betterment of humanity and the environment, are important means of serving Christ and establishing God’s Reign here on Earth.  Volunteerism is important, especially in the church which depends upon volunteers to support and strengthen all of its ministries.  However, the question I want to examine this week is how we experience the Divine when we engage in volunteer activity—either in the church or the broader community?

            To ground and guide our examination of this question, I will be drawing from the story of Christ’s friends, Mary and Martha.  Since the story is short, I have included all of it below:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

In addition to this story from the Gospel of Luke, the two sisters also appear in the Gospel of John (see 11:1-16 and 12:1-8).  Taking these stories together, Martha comes across as something of enigma.  In our story from Luke, Martha appears about what is truly important.  Whereas, in the stories from John, Martha is depicted as a woman of great faith and discernment.  Let’s take a deeper look at Martha.

In the story from Luke, Jesus arrives unexpectedly, seeking a place to rest on his journey to Jerusalem.  Martha immediately welcomes Jesus and his entire entourage of disciples and friends into their home and assumes the role of host.  While Martha scurries about caring for the various needs of her guests, Jesus sits down and begins teaching his disciples.  Mary also “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”  In sitting at the feet of Jesus, Mary takes the usual place for one of the disciples and, in so doing, violates a clear social boundary of the time.  As the scholar R. Alan Culpepper observes, “By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary is acting like a male.  She neglects her duty to assist her sister in the preparation of the meal, and…is bringing shame upon her house.”[3]  Yet, Mary is so captivated with the teachings of Jesus that she doesn’t care.  She just wants to absorb as much as possible.

As she continues to scurry about, caring for the needs of her many guests, Martha’s frustration with her sister begins to grow and grow.  Eventually, Martha can take it no longer and so she appeals to Jesus, asking that he tell Mary to do her fair share of the work.  Instead of taking Martha’s side, Jesus reprimands her, saying:  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Perhaps it’s because I was the oldest child in my family, but there is a part of me that really identifies with Martha.  I feel as though Martha comes off badly in this passage and that not even Jesus properly appreciates her work of hospitality for him and his entourage.  Can you just imagine the scene, if Martha had sat down beside Mary at the feet of Christ and listened intently to his teachings?  There would have been no water for Jesus and his entourage to wash their feet after a long, dusty journey on the unpaved road.  There would have been no food or other refreshments for the entourage to enjoy after their long walk.  Heck, the visitors may not even have known where to go to relieve themselves after their long journey.  So, Martha in her scurrying about provides important resources for Jesus and her entourage.

While Martha does not come across well in this story from Luke. She fares much better in the Gospel of John.  In John, Martha is depicted not just as a good friend of Jesus, but also as a woman of great faith.  In John, chapter 11, Lazarus, who was the brother of Martha and Mary, becomes sick and dies before Jesus can reach their home.  When Jesus draws near to Bethany, their village, Martha goes out to meet him.  Revealing her deep faith, Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” (Verses 21-22)  Then, Martha adds this conviction, “…Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (Verse 27)

As noted above, Martha appears as something of an enigma in the two gospels.  On the one hand, Martha appears to have a very superficial faith in the story from Luke, where she obsesses on her domestic chores of hospitality, while losing sight of the opportunity to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from his teachings. Yet, on the other hand, in the Gospel of John, Martha has a deep and mature faith in Jesus as the Messiah.  Who is the real Martha?  I believe that we should view Martha as the woman depicted in the story from John, with a deep, mature, discerning faith.  If this is so, then we can ask what happened to Martha in the story from Luke?

Let me suggest a theory.  I believe that in the Lukan story Martha saw her hospitality as a duty or obligation to be fulfilled, rather than as an opportunity to experience God’s presence.  Rather than being open to experiencing God through her work of hospitality, Martha “was distracted by her many tasks.”  As she became obsessed with the work of hospitality, Martha also became resentful of her sister, who was sitting at the feet of Jesus, enjoying being in his presence and listening to his teachings.

I believe that the same thing can happen to each of us when we perform volunteer work.  Regardless of how good and important our volunteer work is intrinsically, our attitude remains critical.  If we see our volunteer work as a means of fulfilling duties or obligations, then we close off the possibility of experiencing the Divine in the volunteering, just as Martha when she hosted Jesus and his entourage.  However, if we approach volunteer work as an opportunity to serve the Divine by establishing and furthering the Reign of God on Earth, then we simultaneously open up ourselves to experiencing the Divine through our volunteer work.  The Divine become present through our volunteer work.

      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, January 14th.  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] Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor, “Volunteering in the United States,” accessed online at https://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.toc.htm, on 11 January 2018.
[2] The “Corporation for National Community Service” is cited by Marc Johnson, “America Does Not Have Enough Volunteers” in “The Huffington Post,” 31 January 2016, updated 31 January 2017, accessed online at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-joseph/america-does-not-have-eno_b_9032152.html, on 12 January 2018.
[3] 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, January 6, 2018

“Finding God in the Cold, Cold Winter”

Happy New Year!!

            As we begin 2018, our worship focus at Christ United Methodist Church will be on “Finding God in Everyday Life.”  The spiritual basis for this exploration is a claim that the Divine is always present in our lives, even in the everyday routines which we all have.  However, many of us rarely experience God in our everyday lives, although we do experience the Divine in worship or in those life altering moments, such as the birth of a child or death of a parent.  Why is that?

            Our guiding thesis in this series is that we do not experience the Divine in everyday life because we are not expecting to encounter God in everyday life.  In other words, we are not listening for God to speak in our ordinary affairs; we are not open to experiencing God’s presence in the mundane.  So, the goal of this series is to help us hone our openness and sensitivity to God’s presence in everyday affairs.  We begin this Sunday, January 7th, by examining how to become more aware of God’s presence through nature—even in the cold, cold winter, which we are experiencing.

            The scriptural grounding for my reflections on this week has been Psalm 19: 1-6:
“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.  Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.”

I remember twenty years ago, when the comet Hale-Bopp was so evident in the night skies over the United States.  To see this astronomical marvel most vividly, a friend and I took our children camping at Pt. Reyes National Seashore in California.  When the sun set and darkness was complete, we walked down to the beach, built a fire to keep warm, and spent a good deal of time gazing up into the night sky at Hale-Bopp.  Our view of the comet remains vivid to me, even 20 years later.  
           
            With the comet brightly splashing light across the night sky, I simultaneously felt two remarkable feelings.  First, I was mindful—in a new way—of how small and insignificant we are in the grand universe—and, how awesome God truly is.  Secondly, I experienced a new and special closeness to God the Creator that evening.

            Perhaps the psalmist had a similar experience, gazing up into the desert night sky centuries ago.  Perhaps the psalmist was first overcome—as I was—with the awesome glory of God manifested by the heavenly bodies on a clear, starry night sky.  To paraphrase his thoughts into the conceptual framework of contemporary scientific cosmology, our Earth, our sun, other planets and stars, galaxies, nebulae, black holes, and novae all manifest the glory and greatness of God the Creator.  Through Creation, we also see God’s rich creativity and ingenuity, from the tiniest quark to immense galaxies and mysterious black holes. 

            Secondly, in viewing its magnificence, perhaps the psalmist also experienced God’s presence through Creation.  Perhaps—as with me—the psalmist experiences a special closeness to God as he gazed up at the night sky.  For the psalmist, this experience of God’s presence is constant, “from day to day” and “night to night,” all of Creation proclaims, although not with human language.  Left implied is the psalmist’s understanding that we must open ourselves to Creation’s unique forms of manifesting God’s presence.

            At the end of our passage, the focus shifts to the sun which rises and sets each day.  Biblical scholars remind us that, in the ancient world, the sun was an object of religious worship for many of the nations surrounding Israel.  In implicit contradiction of the sun as a deity, the psalmist asserts that the sun is a created object, just as all of the other astronomical bodies in the sky.  Rather than viewing the sun as a deity, the psalmist depicts the sun as manifesting the majesty of the true God, whom all of Creation worships and glorifies.  Instead of being a deity, the sun points to the glory of the Creator and becomes an instrument through which we can experience the true divine Creator.

            Psalm 19:1-6 provides a strong scriptural warrant for experiencing the presence of the Divine, when we lift our gaze to the night sky or trace the course of the sun on its journey each day.  But what about experiencing God’s presence here on our home planet, teeming with an abundance and diversity of life?  In our worship this Sunday, January 7th, I will suggest that God’s presence can always be experienced in the nature of our home planet—even, now, in the middle of a cold, cold winter here in Nebraska and many other parts of the United States.

      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, January 7th.  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.