Saturday, May 26, 2018

“Prevenient Grace: Standing on the Front Porch”

This Sunday, May 27th, we begin a three-week series on the Christian understanding of grace.  (I will preach on the first two Sunday’s, while my colleague Pastor Beth Menhusen will preach the third sermon in the series.) 

Our English word, “grace,” comes from the ancient Roman world and the Latin word “grātia.”   Originally, this Roman word had three different meanings: 

1.      A pleasing quality.  This carries over today when we use the word, “grace” to refer to someone who is skilled in movement, as when we refer to a person who is a graceful dancer.

2.      Gratitude or thanks.  Sometimes, today, we may use the word, “grace,” to refer to a prayer of thanks before a meal.  For instance, I have a cousin in North Carolina, who before a meal, always asks me, “Richard, would you say grace?”

3.      Favor or goodwill.  This is the definition of grace that we will focus on during the three-week series. 

Within the Christian faith, the word, “grace,” takes on a special meaning.  Simply stated, Grace is God’s free and unmerited love, which seeks out every person and assists us in developing a loving relationship with the Divine.”  Grace is pivotal within Christian thought because it forms the grounding for our understanding of God’s relationship with human persons—and with all of Creation.  United Methodist Bishop Kenneth Carder thoughtfully elaborates on the Christian conception of grace, when he writes:

“Grace pervades all of creation and is universally present. Grace is not a gift that God packages and bestows on us and creation. Grace is God's presence to create, heal, forgive, reconcile and transform human hearts, communities and the entire creation. Wherever God is present, there is grace! Grace brought creation into existence. Grace birthed human beings, bestowed on us the divine image, redeemed us in Jesus Christ and is ever transforming the whole creation into the realm of God's reign of compassion, justice, generosity and peace.”[1]

Grace is especially critical for United Methodists because of how it was experienced by John Wesley, our founder.  Already an ordained priest in the 18th century Church of England, the early Wesley was still uncertain about his own personal salvation.  Until one evening in 1738, when he went reluctantly to a Christian meeting on Aldersgate Street in London.  During this meeting, Wesley had a life-transforming experience of God’s grace. 

He describes the experience in his daily journal:  “About a quarter before nine, while he [the leader] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ. I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death."

Wesley’s experience was so profound that he believed in order to fully appreciate how wonderful and awesome God’s gift of grace was, we must conventionalize three completely distinct types of grace:

1.      Prevenient Grace.  Prevenient grace is God’s initial love, which seeks us out and invites us into a loving relationship.  It is God calling us—even luring is—into a relationship.

2.      Justifying Grace.  With justifying grace, God gives us the confidence and courage to completely put our faith and trust in God.

3.      Sanctifying Grace.  After we have entered into a relationship with the Divine, sanctifying grace is God’s nurture and encouragement as we grow in our relationship with the Divine.

In each of the sermons in this series, we will reflect upon one of the types of grace which Wesley identified.  This Sunday, May 27th, we will focus on prevenient grace.  To ground and inform our reflections this Sunday, I will be preaching on 1 John 4:7-21.

In the first part of this passage (vv. 7-12), the writer makes two profound points.  First, “love is from God” (v. 7).  In other words, love, itself, is defined by God’s love for us.  Secondly, God has already reached out in love to each of us through the crucifixion of Christ.  As he writes in verse 10, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  This is the essence of prevenient grace.  It is that God has already reached out to each of us in love, seeking to establish a relationship, from the moment were born.

In the second part of this passage (vv. 13-21), the writer develops his concept of God’s love for each of us, even further.  He notes that we can be assured of God’s love because the community has received a share of God’s own Spirit.  We partake of God’s Spirit and experience God’s love for us.  Since God is love, “those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (v. 13).  For the writer, this experience of abiding in God’s love is not static and unchanging.  Instead, it is dynamic as we grow deeper in our love of God.  Further, in response to God’s love for us, we—in turn—love one another.   

God’s love for us is so deep and so profound that God never gives up on us.  From the moment we are born, God seeks to establish a loving relationship with us.  God never stops seeking us, even if we rebuff God and turn away.  This is the essence of prevenient grace.  Prevenient grace is God’s work in our lives before we have entered into a relationship with God.  Prevenient grace is God calling us and luring us to enter into a relationship with God. 

This understanding of prevenient grace is nicely illustrated by my Christ UMC colleague, Pastor Bob Neben, in his understanding of infant baptism, which we acknowledge and celebrate in The United Methodist Church.  He writes,

In Infant Baptism we declare that God loves this baby even before the baby can understand anything about Jesus and God's love.  Baptism symbolizes the fact that God loves us from the moment we are born until we die.  … God loves our children even though the baby cannot respond to God.  In many ways God adopts every baby at birth and as a child grows and matures, God hopes the child will love God in return and strive to follow the example of Jesus Christ in living their lives.”

  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, May 27th, as we explore God’s profound love for us, demonstrated through prevenient grace.  Since this is Memorial Day weekend, during our worship service we will also lift up those who died for our country in our prayers.  In addition, all Veterans worshiping this Sunday will receive a red poppy, which is an international symbol commemorating those who died in war.  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] Kenneth L. Carder, “A Wesleyan Understanding of Grace,” Interpreter Magazine, November-December 2016.  Accessed online at, 19 May 2018.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

“A Tale of Two Churches”

          This Sunday, May 20th, is Pentecost Sunday:  the Sunday when we remember and celebrate the birth of the Christian Church.  The story of the Church’s formation is recorded in the Bible in Acts, chapter 2.  Prior to his Crucifixion and Resurrection, Jesus had promised the disciples that after he was gone, God would send the Holy Spirit to be with them and continue teaching them.  So, Acts 2 opens with the disciples and other followers experiencing the fulfillment of Christ’s promise that God would send the Holy Spirit.  The first Christians experienced the Holy Spirit as a “tongue of fire” coming upon each of them.  They began to laugh and shout and speak with great joy.

            Apparently the disciples caused quite a commotion because they attracted a large crowd of curious onlookers.  In trying to understand what was going on, some of the onlookers speculated that the Christians were intoxicated.  So, the Apostle Peter stood up and delivered the first Christian sermon.  At the end of his sermon, 3,000 onlookers were baptized and became Christians.  These first Christians felt that their lives had been transformed.  They were no longer the same.  Then, the writer of Acts records this account of the first Church:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread [together, with each other] at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Have you ever wondered what it must have been like to be part of that first 3,000 people, who converted to the Christian faith?  How would it have been different than being in our church today? 

            To be sure, there are many important similarities between the first Church described in Acts and the contemporary American Church.  Here are three of the most important similarities:
1.      Studying the teachings of the scriptures.  In several passages in Acts, the early Christians are described as devoting “themselves to the apostles’ teaching…” (v. 42).  Of course, the apostles have long since died, but most contemporary churches still offer many opportunities to study the scriptures, including what the apostles wrote, in Sunday-School, as well as in Bible studies at other times during the week.

2.      Devoting themselves to prayer and worship.  Acts reports that the first Christians spent much time in prayer and worship.  At that point in time, the first Christians were more of a spiritual reform movement within Judaism, rather than being a separate religious faith.  Since they lived in Jerusalem, “they spent much time in the temple” (v.46).  Similarly, contemporary Christians spend time in prayer and worship in their churches.

3.      Sharing in food and fellowship with one another. One of the common denominators of most contemporary churches is that we really like to eat together and spend time with one another.  If you want to gather a large group of church people, then it helps to have a potluck dinner as part of the program.  Food and fellowship.  Similarly, we learn from Acts that the first Christians really enjoyed eating and spending time together.  In our scripture reading above, Luke, the writer of Acts, notes that the first Christians “broke bread … and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (v. 46).

These are clearly very significant similarities which we share today with those early Christian converts in the first Christian church.  At the same time, there was one huge difference between the first church and our contemporary churches.  This major difference concerns financial support for the church.

In his description of finances within the first church, Luke, the writer of Acts, essentially describes a religious commune.  He says that the early Christian converts would sell all of their possessions and goods.  Then, they would bring the proceeds from their sale and give this money to the first church, so that they could use the funds to care for everyone who had financial needs.  As the first church grew, it soon became necessary to designate a finance committee to oversee the fair distribution of these offerings (see Acts 6:1-7).

In the twenty-first century, most of us do not live as a religious commune.  Of course, many of us do contribute financially to our church.  However, most of us do not contribute very much money in proportion to our wealth.  Some of us do not contribute any money at all to our church, even though we expect our church to support us when there is a crisis in our lives.  I think that’s the major difference between then and now.

The first Christians gave sacrificially and extravagantly to support their church.  They literally sold all that they had and gave it to their church.  Then, they trusted that their church would support and take care of them.  By contrast, American Christians give a minuscule amount of money in comparison.  Even someone who tithes—that is, gives 10% of their income—is making a small contribution in comparison to the early Christians who gave everything which they owned to the church.

Why did they do that?  Why did the first Christians give so much more generously to the church?  After studying this scripture, I think that there were two reasons why the first Christians were so much more generous, than we are in the twenty-first century:

                                  a.   Sacrificial Giving.  They deeply loved their friends in the first church and they knew that their contributions would be used to take care of the physical needs of their dear friends.  In this regard, biblical scholar Robert Wall makes an interesting observation about attitudes within the first church.  He notes that they saw themselves as a fellowship of believers:  “a fellowship of believers shares more than common beliefs and core values; they display a profound regard for one another’s spiritual and physical well-being as a community of friends.”[1]  They were willing to give sacrificially because they wanted to serve God and help their friends.  They knew that their contributions would be used to help their friends and do good in the world, so they gave sacrificially—they gave everything they had.

                                 b.   They had stopped trusting in themselves and their own financial resources.  Instead, they had learned to trust completely in God. It is part of human nature to rely upon oneself for the resources which we need in order to survive and even flourish.  We tend to trust ourselves above all else.  That’s what makes financial giving to our church so difficult.  When we give to the church, then we retain correspondingly less money to take care of our own needs—and wants.  Within each of our minds, there is this persistent question:  “What happens if I give this money and then, sometime down-the-road, I have an emergency and need extra money to avert financial disaster?”  The first Christians did not worry about this question.  They already knew the answer, “God will provide.”  Whenever a Christian—from any era—learns to trust God completely, then they are freed to give more generously.  The first Christians had a deep faith and they were growing even more in their faith.  Therefore, they were willing to give generously. 

There is much that we can learn from this difference with those first Christians when it comes to how we financially support our church.  Perhaps we need to study the first Christians more, in terms of how they used their financial resources and what their attitudes were about money.

      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, May 20th, as we remember and celebrate the birth of the first church in Jerusalem.  Consider wearing red to our service this week because red is the liturgical color of Pentecost.  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] Robert W. Wall, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 10, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

Friday, May 11, 2018

“World’s Okayest Mom”

            This weekend our society celebrates “Mother’s Day,” a time to recognize the love, sacrifice, and dedication that mothers make on behalf of their children and families.  Many people look forward to Mother’s Day—or, Father’s Day in June—as a joyful time to celebrate and thank their mother, or father. 

Yet often, in our drive to recognize our parents, we praise them to the point of putting them up on some impossibly high pedestal.  On Mother’s Day, we develop some sort of amnesia that allows us to totally ignore our parents’ human frailties and flaws.  At least for the day, our mothers become perfect in every way.  To illustrate this point, consider the following verses from a poem, which I found on the internet: 

“Since the moment I entered this world,
You have cared for me like no other.
There is only one word to describe you,
That is in every way a perfect Mother. …

Your warm touch is one of a kind,
So gentle to send me to sleep.
Your voice is of an angels [sic]
A beauty only you deserve to keep.”[1]

When most mothers and fathers are completely candid with themselves, however, we must acknowledge that we are far from the perfect parent described in these verses or other, similar verses in a thousand different Mother’s—and Father’s—Day cards.  The truth is that most of us parents feel inadequate and mistake-prone most of the time.

There is a great deal of uncertainty and silent anxiety in parenting in the twenty-first century.  As parents, we are constantly trying to balance giving our children both the freedom and the structure that they need in order to become happy and mature adults.  As Christian parents, we are constantly trying to balance the sharing of our Christian values while also respecting our children’s need to experiment with values promoted by a secular society, which is sometimes hostile to religious faith.  As parents we are constantly trying to balance protecting our children and keeping them safe, while simultaneously allowing them to experience some failure, which is required in order to become responsible adults. 

There are no magical formulas for this balance.  Instead, it is an ongoing series of decisions made in a fog of uncertainty and worry.  Frequently, we parents get it wrong.  We tilt too far to the side of freedom and then over-compensate by tilting too far to the other side of structure. 

Our failures at maintaining proper balance are compounded by our multiple human flaws and failures.  Sometimes we get angry and say things to our children that we should have never uttered.  Sometimes we get preoccupied with work or finances or life and we aren’t really listening when our children are sharing something vitally important to them.  Sometimes we just forget or do something else that is … well, human.  We parents are not perfect, just human persons.  Most of us are trying to do our best as parents.  Actually, the parents which scare me the most are those parents who actually believe everything that gets written on Mother’s—and Father’s—Day cards.  The ones who actually believe that they deserve to be on the pedestal.

In the Church, we believe that God creates every single person for some form of ministry.  Each of us is a unique person, with our own special portfolio of talents and gifts for different types of ministry.  These different ministries are quite diverse, including music, teaching, justice-making, hospitality, administration, and building—to name just a few.  Some types of ministry are specialized, while other types are generalized ministries that all of us are called to practice. (See Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12). The ministry of prayer is one of those types of generalized ministry that we are all called to practice.

I have come to see that parenting is also a form of ministry.

I also believe that parenting is one of those forms of generalized ministry.  It is not a specialized ministry reserved only for biological parents.  Instead, we are all called to be engaged in the ministry of parenting because it is that important and that demanding.  No two biological parents can ever responsibly raise their children without a lot of help from family, friends, teachers, choir directors, coaches, Scout or 4-H Leaders, counsellors, the occasional stranger—and many, many others.  One of the most important dimensions of the local church is that it provides a community of persons who are engaged in the ministry of parenting.

Of course, everyone engaged in the ministry of parenting is flawed and makes mistakes.  That’s why I love Paul’s analogy of a clay jar in his second letter to the Corinthians.  He writes, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” (2 Corinthians 4:7-9).

Of course, when Paul penned these words to the Corinthians, he was thinking about his own special ministry as a traveling evangelist.  Even though Paul has been given this special ministry as an evangelist and Apostle, he recognizes that ultimately the ministry belongs to God.  God has given this special ministry to Paul for a short time.

As he writes these words, Paul is remembering all of the persecution and dangers that he has experienced as a missionary.  Yet, the Bible is timeless, intended to speak to all peoples in all times and places—from the first Christians in Paul’s day to twenty-first century Christians as well.  So, Paul’s words also apply to each of us in our various ministries as parents.  Even though we are flawed and make mistakes as parents, we are not alone in our ministry.  God is with us, guiding and strengthening us, and working through us in our ministry of parenting.

Just as the Apostle Paul before us, God has given to each of us this ministry of parenting for a short time.  But, ultimately, the ministry belongs to God and not to us.  Of course we are flawed and make mistakes, but despite our frailties and imperfections we know that ultimately God will make all things right.

Come and join us on Mother’s Day this Sunday, May 13th, as we recognize our Mothers and as we celebrate this special ministry of parenting, which God gives to each of us.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Nicola Steel, “A Perfect Mother,” accessed online at, 9 May 2018.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

“A Compassionate Father and an Angry Brother”

            This weekend, May 5-6, I will be preaching a dialogue sermon with Beth Menhusen, the Associate Pastor at Christ United Methodist Church.  Our focus will be Jesus’ parable of the “Prodigal Son” in Luke 15: 11-32. 

            The typical approach to this parable focuses on the prodigal son and how his father forgives him and welcomes him back into the household.  This is an important and well-grounded interpretation of the parable.  However, in our dialogue sermon, Beth and I will suggest that an equally important focus is frequently overlooked:  the reaction of the older son to his younger brother’s return and how the father responds to the older brother.

            A key element in interpreting this parable is the context in which Jesus tells it.  This parable is told in response to criticism that Jesus is spending entirely too much time with sinners and tax collectors.  The criticism comes from Pharisees and scribes.  So, the parable appears in a context in which Jesus’ critics have set up a dichotomy between two different types of people:

1.      On the one hand, the sinners and tax collectors are the outcasts of society; the marginalized.  The sinners have failed to keep the Jewish Laws, thus becoming ritually unclean and unable to participate in the religious life of their community.  The tax collectors are businessmen who have betrayed their people by colluding with the occupying Roman Empire.  They collected taxes on behalf of the Romans and were notorious for cheating their fellow countrymen in order to enrich themselves.

2.      On the other hand, the Pharisees and scribes were the elites of society.  They kept the Jewish Law in even the smallest detail.  Consequently, they were ritually clean and were always welcome in the synagogue or Temple.  In fact, they were the religious leaders of the Jewish community.

So, the context for the parable is the dichotomy between different types of people:

the law-abiding versus the sinners
the ritually clean versus the unclean
the elite leaders versus the social outcasts

There are three main characters in the parable of the prodigal son: 

                                   a.            the Father, who represents God.
                                  b.            the prodigal son, who represents the socially outcast sinners
                                   c.            the older son, who represents the elite social Pharisees and scribes

In the parable which Jesus tells, neither of the sons is in a right-relationship with the father.  For Jesus, a right-relationship means humbly and simply accepting the boundless love which the father has for both sons.  Because of his love, the father seeks out both sons in order to repair their relationship and become reconciled.  The younger son sees and confesses his sin to his father, thus receiving forgiveness and reconciliation. 

However, the older son is a moralist.  He mistakenly believes that he deserves his father’s love because he has been obedient and loyal to his father.  The older son becomes extremely angry when he learns that his father has thrown a party to celebrate the return of his long lost younger brother.  The older son adamantly refuses to join the party for his younger brother.  When the father learns about his older son’s reaction, he immediately leaves the party and seeks out the older son, inviting him to come and join the celebration.  The father says to his older son, “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”  The older son can enter into a right-relationship with the father and his younger brother by simply joining the party.

Jesus ends the parable at this point.  He does not say whether the older brother joined the celebratory party for his brother or if he remained outside, boycotting the party.  It is at this point that Beth and I disagree.  I think that he joined his brother’s party and was reconciled, while Beth believes that he remained outside, unreconciled with his brother.

Whereas it is important to focus on the younger brother and his reconciliation, it is also important to focus on the older brother as well.  In our sermon, Beth and I will suggest that most of our hearers are more like the older brother in the parable.  That is, most church goers are already seeking to be faithful to God in our lives and our actions.  So, like the older brother, we are called to simply accept God’s love and reconciliation, rather than counting upon all of our good works and faithful actions.  As the parable suggests, this is not always easy.

Further, for us older brothers, the biggest challenge may well be accepting and reconciling with the prodigals in our contemporary society.  So, in the proclamation, we will also be thinking about who are contemporary prodigals whom we need to forgive, accept, and love.

Come and join us this weekend, May 5-6, as we reflect on the parable of the prodigal son and what it means for us, today.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  This Sunday is “Marathon Sunday.”  Since many of the streets will be closed for the marathon on Sunday, we will offer an additional worship service.  So, this weekend we have worship services

On Saturday, May 5th, at 5:30 pm
On Sunday, May 6th, at 8:30 and 11:00 am

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