Saturday, August 25, 2018

"Act Inclusively"

            This Sunday, I begin a new sermon series at Christ United Methodist Church entitled, “The Essentials of Discipleship.”  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, Christ intends for us to grow deeper in our faith.   

I believe that Christian disciples grow best through a process that combines “education” and “experience”—that is, learning and serving.  In this series, we will explore the four core principles for growth and service.  They are:  (1)  Seek God; (2) Act Inclusively; (3) Serve others—both human and nonhuman; and (4)  Work for Justice. 

We begin this week with “Act Inclusively.”  To act inclusively means that as a community of faith, we welcome and include everyone, regardless of age, color, disability, ethnic origin, family status, gender, political beliefs, race, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation.  To act inclusively means to welcome and include everyone, with no exceptions. 

This principle of Christian discipleship is grounded in many places in scripture.  For instance, 1 John 4:16b says, “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  Since God = love, to live lives that are filled and directed by love means that we also abide in God.  And, when our lives are filled and directed by love, then we have established the conditions under which God chooses to abide in us.  That is, God cannot be an intimate part of our lives, unless our lives are filled and directed by love.  This is because God is love.  Since God is love, God does not abide in the hearts and lives of persons who are filled with hatred. 

The writer of 1 John considers love of others to be a process in which we continually grow in our capacity to love.  It is this scriptural understanding of love as an ongoing growth process which grounds the claim by John Wesley that one can become perfected in love. Although Wesley, who was the founder of Methodism, never believed that one would ever become completely perfect—never making another mistake—in this life.  He did believe that some people could nurture and grow God’s love in their hearts so much that they always spoke and acted out of a love for the other person—even if they made mistakes of judgment due to human sin and finitude.

The writer of John 1 concludes this chapter by observing:

“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.

That is, we love others in response to God’s gracious, undeserved, and unmerited love for us.

            Another scriptural grounding for the discipleship principle to act inclusively comes from what the scripture says about each and every human person.  Each of us is created in the image of God:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So, God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”        (Genesis 1:26-28)

It is common for contemporary Christians to assume that the “image of God” must refer to a certain human characteristic, such as our rationality or our ability to vocalize.  However, most Biblical scholars caution against that interpretation.  Instead, they point out that in many of the kingdoms surrounding the ancient Israelites—such as Egypt and Mesopotamia—the ruler was seen as possessing the image of that culture’s god.  For the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the god-king was responsible for insuring the safety and security of the citizens and their land.  Further, the god-king was responsible for insuring that social justice was carried out, especially in regard to those who were weak, vulnerable, and exploited.

Scholars note that in Genesis this “royal image” is democratized.  It is not just an individual ruler who is responsible for caring for creation and working for justice.  Instead, from a Judeo-Christian perspective, all persons are responsible for being good stewards of nature and working for justice.  From this perspective, God chooses to share power with humans, even when we sin and fall short of God’s expectations. 

A careful study of the Hebrew words reveals that the Hebrew verb translated into English as “having dominion” must be understood in terms of “care-giving, even nurturing, not exploitation,” while the command to “subdue the earth” refers to agricultural cultivation.[1]  The most faithful interpretation of having dominion and subduing the earth is to realize that humans are to relate to nature in the same way that God relates to humans.  We are to love and care for nature, working to maintain a sustainable and clean environment.  When God blesses humans, “God gives power, strength, and potentiality”[2] for this responsibility of caring for Creation.

Taken together, these two scriptural passages—along with many others in the Bible—provide a strong mandate to act inclusively, welcoming and including everyone within our community of faith and our individual lives, regardless of the unique characteristics which make them different from us.  There is a profound strength in our diversity as a community of faith.

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, August 26th, as we begin our examination 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.  We are committed to acting inclusively because God loves us all.

[1]Terence Fretheim, Commentary on the Book of Genesis in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 1, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[2] Ibid.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

“‘For Just Such a Time as This’”

            This Sunday, August 19th, is our second week focusing on the Hebrew Book of Esther.  As we observed last week, we should approach the Book of Esther as a written, fictionalized short story.  It would be a mistake to assume that Esther is intended to be read as a historical piece.  It is not.  Rather, the author of Esther intended that we read it as a short story, more of a parable, which contains important insights and encouragement for living faithfully during times of great difficulty.  That is, we should read Esther, asking how this parable can teach us to live faithfully as God’s people.

            The story of Esther is set during the time when many Jews were in exile from their homeland, living under Persian rule.  The Book of Esther is set in the city of Susa, one of four capitals for the vast Persian Empire, and it occurs during the reign of King Ahasuerus.  It tells the story of two Jewish immigrants: the young girl, Esther, and Mordecai, her uncle. 

            Last week, we explored the first two chapters of Esther, learning how Esther was chosen as the new queen of King Ahasuerus and how Mordecai uncovered and exposed a plot to assassinate the King.  The assassination plot was foiled, but Mordecai received no recognition or thanks for his central role in exposing the would-be assassins. 

As Chapter 3 opens, we are introduced to the fourth main character in this story, Haman, the Agagite.  Just as Mordecai, Haman is a foreign immigrant to Persia, who has risen up through the ranks in the palace to become a high court official.  Historians tell us that, at this point in history, the Persian Empire was very cosmopolitan, with many different peoples, and it was not uncommon for foreigners to obtain high positions in society.  Ultimately, Haman is promoted to the very top of the palace hierarchy, second only to King Ahasuerus, himself.

Soon, a conflict begins to brew between Haman and Mordecai.  Mordecai refuses to bow down when Haman passes by the king’s gate.  It is not clear why Mordecai refused to bow before Haman.  There is nothing in Jewish law which prohibits bowing before a superior.  Over the centuries, various biblical scholars have speculated on the reason for Mordecai’s refusal to bow and show respect.  While these are interesting hypotheses, there is nothing in the scripture itself, which explains Mordecai’s actions. 

At first Haman does not even notice Mordecai’s disrespect, but soon his servants called this daily affront to his attention.  Once Haman learns that Mordecai is not bowing when he passes, Haman becomes furious and he begins to plot his vengeance.  Here’s how the Book of Esther describes what happens next:

“When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was infuriated. But he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.” Esther 3:5-6

Obviously, Haman’s reaction is completely disproportionate to the offense.  He magnifies a silly, personal provocation from Mordecai into a vendetta of genocide against an entire ethnic group.  Haman’s exaggerated reaction would be comical, if it were not for the fact that he actually has enough power to make his threat of genocide a reality.

            Haman marches into the King’s court and lays out his complaint.  Without identifying the Jews, Haman tells King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them” (Esther 3:8). 

            Then Haman offers a bribe to King Ahasuerus.  He promises to donate 10,000 talents of silver, if the King will grant him permission to exterminate all of the Jews throughout the vast Persian Empire.  Sidnie White Crawford, a biblical scholar, notes that this was an absurdly large amount of money:  approximately the equivalent of 375 tons of silver.  As a point of comparison, historians estimate that the annual income of a Persian king in this era would be around 14,560 talents per year.  Essentially, Haman offered King Ahasuerus a bribe worth nearly 7 times his annual income!![1]

            Without even bothering to determine the identity of the race which Haman wishes to destroy, King Ahasuerus quickly accepts the bribe.  The appropriate political decrees are drafted and sent throughout the vast Empire.  All Jews—men, women, children—are to be executed and their property is to be plundered by their enemies and executioners.  A date is set for this sentence to be carried out; approximately 12 months from the time in which the death degrees were first pronounced.

            Haman will carry out vengeance upon all of the Jews because of the minor slights of a single Jew, Mordecai.  King Ahasuerus has received a humongous bribe and, yet, he is so indifferent he does not even know which group of people is to be slaughtered.  Reflecting on this scene, the scholar Sidnie White Crawford writes, “Because the Jews are perceived as different from the Gentile (whether Christian or not) culture in which they live, they often have become the target of bigotry from the majority population.  This bigotry can take the form of active hostility, like that of Haman, or passive indifference, like that of Ahasuerus.  Most people choose the path of indifference, but the result is the same:  the destruction of innocent human beings.”[2] 

            After learning about the edict authorizing the destruction of the Jews, Mordecai contacts Queen Esther and urges her to intercede with King Ahasuerus on behalf of her people, the Jews.  At first, Esther refuses.  There is a law in the Persian Court that only those invited by the King may enter the inner royal court.  The penalty for approaching the King without a summons is death.  The only exception to this penalty occurs if King Ahasuerus were to raise his golden scepter to the individual entering without an invitation.  Esther has not been summoned by the King for 30 days.  Therefore, Esther is afraid that approaching the King is too risky for her.

            Mordecai does not accept Queen Esther’s excuse for not speaking with King Ahasuerus.  Instead, implying that perhaps the Divine had a role in elevating Esther to the throne, Mordecai replies, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14c).  Esther resolutely agrees to petition the King, saying:  “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16b).

            After preparing herself, Queen Esther approaches King Ahasuerus’ inner court.  Here is how the Book of Esther describes the scene:  As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his favor and he held out to her the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the top of the scepter. The king said to her, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom” (Esther 5: 2-3).

            At this point, Esther has been Queen for around 5 years.  She is no longer the shy, young girl whom King Ahasuerus originally married.  She has grown and matured over the years.  She now understands how the royal court operates and, more importantly, she knows how to influence and persuade King Ahasuerus.  So, Esther does not immediately tell King Ahasuerus that she has come to seek a reprieve for the Jews.  (At this point, King Ahasuerus does not even know that Queen Esther, herself, is a Jew.)  Instead, Queen Esther manipulates the situation for a few days before inviting King Ahasuerus and Haman to a special banquet in her chambers in the palace.

            At the appropriate time during the banquet, Queen Esther springs her trap.  Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated” (Esther 7:3-4a).

            King Ahasuerus is flabbergasted.  He asks Esther who has threatened her in this manner.  Then, Esther, probably pointing a finger at Haman, says:  “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” (Esther 7:6)  King Ahasuerus is enraged.  A swift and deadly reversal occurs.  King Ahasuerus quickly strips Haman of all his power and then executes him, along with all of his sons.  Then, new royal decrees are written, essentially reversing the decrees which Haman had bribed King Ahasuerus to proclaim earlier.  Queen Esther has astutely played the political game and saved the Jewish people from a terrible genocide. 

            The story of Esther is a marvelous and compelling story.  Space requirements preclude me from describing some of the fascinating subplots within the story.  Yet, is the Book of Esther anything more than just a very captivating story of a woman who astutely plays the game, despite her lack of real political power?  Does it have anything to say to twenty-first century Christians?

            Sidnie White Crawford, who has focused much of her biblical research on this book of the Bible, writes:  “The book of Esther, with its theological underpinning of belief in the providence of God manifest in human events, also offers a message of hope to other minorities living in majority cultures, such as African Americans in the white-dominated United States.  To those who are oppressed the book gives a message of active faith and hope in the face of threat…Further, the book of Esther teaches that in every situation God is able to work through willing human agents (not by miraculous intervention) to ensure that justice is done.”[3]

            Certainly, the Book of Esther offers hope to all who suffer from racism, marginalization, and oppression.  But, what about contemporary Christians who are not victims of prejudice and violence. 

What does the Book of Esther say to those of us who are not victims?

In their book, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, Bruce Birch and Larry Rasmussen identify four ways in which the Bible can serve as a resource for moral life.  The third avenue they identify is when the Bible provides theological perspectives which focus the church’s response to ethical issues.  As they develop this response, they observe:  In its diversity the Bible provides a complete range of theological viewpoints, no one of which can be called the biblical theology, but all of which might be made available as appropriate contexts for ethical response in a given set of circumstances.”[4]  Expanding on this observation, they note that sometimes Christians who are in dominant social positions need to interpret their Bibles as calling on them to help those, who suffer violence, by working for justice.

Many white Christians living in the United States do not suffer from prejudice, violence, racism, or marginalization.  This is certainly true for most of my congregation at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.  For us, the Book of Esther offers a challenge to actively oppose injustice and violence.  Further, Esther suggests that we may need to pay special attention to the rising threat of genocide in our country.

Genocide starts with language.  Over the past 100 years, we have seen over and over around the world how genocide grows out of a language which dehumanizes the other group.  The Nazi Holocaust; the 1994 Rwanda genocide; the 1992-1995 Bosnian genocide; Saddam Hussein’s genocide against Kurds, all provide just a few examples.  Using language, one group gradually comes to see the other group as sub-human.  Once the opposing group is characterized as less than human, then the permission is given to exterminate them because they “are just animals.”  When this happens, genocide can occur.

Currently, we do not have the conditions for genocide in the United States.  Yet, there are troubling developments which suggest genocide may be on the horizon, if we are not vigilant in our opposition to the marginalization, denigration, and violence perpetrated against certain groups. In our current political climate, we have a leader who routinely uses de-humanizing language to undermine and intimidate his opponents.  Others have followed his example.  In addition to the erosion of civil discourse, there is another troubling sign:  the rise of white supremacists and other groups who denigrate and attack persons of color as well as others—as happened in the Charlottesville tragedy a year ago.

For Christians who belong to the dominant groups within society, the Book of Esther teaches that we must actively oppose hate-speech which denigrates others and undermines their humanity.  We must actively oppose racism in the form of white supremacist groups and others.  We cannot be indifferent as King Ahasuerus was.  Words matter.

Of course, when we stand up in active opposition to racism and hate-speech, we also take risks.  We risk being expelled from our assumed, dominant position in society.  We risk losing our jobs, our friends, our status quo, maybe even our families.  Yet, just as Esther who took the risk in order to save her people, so also those faithful to God must take the risk in order to oppose and stop our country’s slow slide towards genocide.  As with Esther, perhaps God has called us “for just such a time as this.”

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, August 19th.  In the proclamation, we will reflect on the Book of Esther and ask how God calls us “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.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Sidnie White Crawford, Commentary on Esther in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 3, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bruce C. Birch and Larry L. Rasmussen, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, revised and expanded edition (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Press, 1989), 184.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

"The Two Queens"

           After spending much of this summer examining and reflecting on our favorite hymns at Christ United Methodist Church, we turn our attention this Sunday, August 12th, to the Book of Esther in the Hebrew scriptures.  We will spend two weeks reflecting on Esther.  The first Sunday, we will explore the first two chapters of the book.

            It’s important for Christians to remember that the Bible is not a single book, a single piece of literature.  Instead, the Bible is more of an anthology, with many different types of writings, including history, poetry, biography, and theology.  The Bible includes a hymnal; it includes wisdom literature, apocalyptic literature, love stories, and short stories.
            Remembering this diversity, we should approach the Book of Esther as a written, fictionalized short story.  It would be a mistake to assume that Esther is intended to be read as a historical piece.  It is not.  Rather, the author of Esther intended that we read it as a short story, more of a parable, which contains important insights and encouragement for living faithfully during times of great difficulty, when we may have little power or control.  That is, we should read Esther, asking how this parable can teach us to live faithfully as God’s people.

            The story of Esther is set during the time when many Jews are in exile from their homeland, living under Persian rule.  The Book of Esther is set in the city of Susa, one of four capitals for the vast Persian Empire, and it occurs during the reign of King Ahasuerus.  It tells the story of two Jewish immigrants: the young girl, Esther, and Mordecai, her cousin.  Mordecai has risen to a high position within the King’s Court.  The first two chapters in the Book of Esther tell the story of two queens.  

Vashti is the first queen, as the story begins.  However, she soon falls out of favor with King Ahasuerus.  The King has spent a long week of feasting with all of the townspeople from the capital of Susa.  He has used this feast, as well as a previous banquet, to show off all of his wealth and power.  On the seventh and final day of this citywide banquet, King Ahasuerus gets a little inebriated from drinking too much wine.  In his tipsy state, the King sends for his Queen to come and appear before all of the men, wearing her royal crown.  King Ahasuerus sends for Queen Vashti because she is so breathtakingly beautiful.  He wants to show off his beautiful wife to all of the men, who are feasting and making merry.

            However, when she receives the message to appear before all of the men, Queen Vashti replies, “No!” and she refuses to come.  Vashti’s rejection outrages Ahasuerus.  After consulting with his advisors, he decides to depose Vashti from her throne and exile her from the royal palace.  Soon, King Ahasuerus begins searching for a new wife and queen. 

The King’s servants fan out throughout the empire, searching for beautiful young maidens who might interest the King.  It is important to note that the young girls have little choice in the matter.  If they are chosen by the King’s talent scouts, then they are taken from their families and placed in the women’s quarters of the palace.  The young girls spend a full year under the care and tutelage of the King’s trusted servant, Hegai.  Then, after this year of preparation, the young maidens were given one night to spend with King Ahasuerus and “audition” for the role of his wife and Queen. 

            Ultimately, Esther wins this contest and becomes the new wife and queen.  On advice from Mordecai, her cousin, Esther keeps her Jewish heritage a secret from the Royal Court.  Chapter 2 then concludes with a story about Mordecai.  One day, when he was at his usual place, sitting by the king’s gate, he overhears a plot by two of the King’s servants to assassinate King Ahasuerus.  Mordecai tells Queen Esther of the plot, and she informs King Ahasuerus.  As a result, the assassination plot is exposed and the two would-be assassins are captured and hanged on the gallows.

I call these first two chapters, “The Two Queens,” because both Queens Vashti and Esther are strong women who must speak truth to power.  Yet, in the circumstances of the Court, neither woman has much personal power.  Vashti is summoned at the whim of a drunken King.  King Ahasuerus doesn’t really love or care for Queen Vashti.  Instead, King Ahasuerus objectifies Vashti.  She is simply his personal property, and King Ahasuerus seeks to show off his wife in front of the other men at the party, as though she was a prize horse. 

As a young maiden, Esther is given no choice in whether she wants to marry Ahasuerus and be the Queen of Persia.  Esther and all of the other maidens were ripped from the arms of their families by the King’s servants.  Then, they were forced into a ridiculous contest to see who could best please the King.  Ahasuerus did not care about them personally.  He did not even bother getting to know them personally.  Instead, he objectified them, giving them just one night to demonstrate how well they could physically please him.  The maidens were not persons, so much as objects of pleasure for the King. 

While both Vashti and Esther were powerless in their relationship to King Ahasuerus, they both chose to speak truth to his power.  Yet, the way in which they spoke truth was very different because their contexts were very different.

On the one hand, Vashti makes a statement by refusing to go to the King, when he summons her.  Given her context, Vashti must step outside the political system and work against the system to bring about change.

On the other hand, as we will see in more detail next Sunday, Esther makes a statement by going to see the King, even though he has not called for her.  Given her context, Esther must work inside the political system, using the system itself to bring about important change.

Hearing the story of Esther in August 2018, one cannot help but think about the #MeToo movement which has spread throughout our society for the last year.  The #MeToo movement is a social movement intended to demonstrate the widespread—yet, predominantly unreported—occurrence of sexual assault and harassment, primarily perpetrated against women but also, occasionally, against men, as well. 

Just as Vashti and Esther, all of the women who have come forward as part of the #MeToo movement were sexually degraded and objectified.  Again, just as Vashti and Esther, all of these women initially felt powerless to speak because they were in a hostile and threatening context.  Many women were afraid that they would lose their job and friends, just as Queen Vashti does in our story.  Yet, through the #MeToo movement, victims of harassment, assault, and sometimes rape have found a voice and begun to speak truth to power.

Whenever someone speaks truth to power, they are being faithful to God.  We know that every single person is created in the image of God.  Any form of degradation, harassment, or assault is sinful in the eyes of God because God loves each of the victims, with a love which is greater than the love of a parent for a child.  God aches for the victims of degradation and injustice because all victims are also God’s children.  And, on Sunday, I will suggest that God becomes angry when followers of Christ fail to oppose injustices, such as sexual harassment, assault, and rape.

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, August 12th.  In the proclamation, we will reflect on the two queens in The Book of Esther and how God calls on us to work for justice through the #MeToo social movement, as well as through additional channels.  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, August 4, 2018

“The Good Life”

            This weekend (August 5th) we conclude our summer focus on favorite hymns of the Christ United Methodist congregation with a reflection on the beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace, ” by John Newton.  The frequent visitor to this blog may recall that earlier this summer the clergy at Christ UMC presented a three-part proclamation series on the Christian understanding of “grace.”  In the initial sermon of that series, I defined grace as “God’s free and unmerited love, which seeks out every person and assists us in developing a loving relationship with the Divine.”  I went on to suggest that “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.”  I believe that John Newton shared a similar understanding of grace, when he penned the first verse of his hymn:

            “Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound
  that saved a wretch like me!
              I once was lost, but now am found;
              was blind, but now I see.”

            As an 11-year old, John Newton embarked upon a seafaring career by joining his father as a ship’s apprentice.  However, as a youth and young man, Newton was very unruly and rebellious.  Eventually his disobedience got him pressed (drafted) into the British Royal Navy.  Rather than reporting for duty, Newton deserted in order to spend more time with Polly Catlett, the love of his life.  However, there were still consequences for deserting and Newton eventually worked out a deal in which he joined the crew of a slave ship, where he began a career in the slave trade.

            Newton’s attitudes did not change with his new circumstances.  He continued to be difficult and obnoxious, openly mocking the ship’s captain and getting into disagreements with fellow crew mates.  Eventually, Newton was sold into slavery on a plantation in Sierra Leone.  After several months, his father intervened on his behalf and Newton found his way back home to England.

            During this period of his life, Newton was an especially profane man, having already denounced the Christian faith of his youth.  He was fond of mocking others for their faith and denouncing the concept of God as a fairy tale.  Newton continued working as a sailor.  In March 1748, the ship, on which Newton was serving, encountered a severe storm while in the North Atlantic.  As the ship was violently tossed about, Newton began praying, asking God to spare him and the rest of the crew.  This crisis produced a conversion experience for Newton.  He believed that God had a plan for his life.  When the ship finally landed ashore, Newton began making plans to marry Polly, which he did two year later.  Despite his conversion experience, Newton continued working in the slave trade, eventually becoming the captain of a slave ship.  However, Newton found it increasingly difficult to leave Polly and return to the sea.

            Eventually Newton left the sea and obtained a position as a customs agent.  Now permanently on land, Newton and his wife became active church members.  Newton began reading and studying theology.  Ultimately, he was ordained as a priest in the Church of England.  His first pastoral assignment was as the curate (Associate Pastor) of the church in the village of Olney.  Working with William Cowper, a layperson, Newton began a series of weekly prayer meetings for his new parish.  Either Newton or Cowper would try to write a poem for each prayer meeting.  Most of the poems written by Newton focused on themes of God’s grace, Newton’s love of Jesus, and the joy he found in his Christian faith.  “Amazing Grace” was shared as a poem at a prayer meeting on January 1, 1773.  It was later set to music and became the much beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace.”  (Later in life, Newton became an adamant absolutist, working with William Wilberforce to eventually make slavery illegal in England.)

            The words of “Amazing Grace” convey a profound sense of confidence in God’s abiding grace—and a feeling of peace and well-being emerging from that confidence in God’s grace.  This confidence in God’s grace seems especially pronounced in verse 3:

            “Through many danger, toils, and snares,
              I have already come;
              tis grace have brought me safe thus far,
              and grace will lead me home.”

This confidence in God’s grace established a feeling of peace and well-being in verse 4, which follows:

            “The Lord has promised good to me, ‘
              his word my hope secures;
              he will my shield and portion be,
              as long as life endures.”

Fundamentally, I believe that the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” is about the joy and peace of mind which arises from fully accepting God’s grace in our lives.  So, my proclamation on Sunday, August 5th, will draw from Philippians 4: 4-9 as the foundational scripture:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
            This passage comes at the very end of the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Christians at Philippi.  As he is closing his letter, Paul ends with some last-minute instructions to the Philippians.  He begins by encouraging them to open themselves to the joy of accepting God’s grace, writing:  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”  For Paul, this experience of joy is more than a temporary emotion of happiness or a superficial cheerfulness.  Instead, Paul envisions a deep and lasting sense of unmitigated joy which can only come about through a deepening relationship with God, as we accept God’s grace.

Then, in the verses that follow, Paul lays out three core requirements for genuinely experiencing the joy of God’s grace.  These three requirements are:

1.      Fully Trusting God.  In order to feel the full joy of Christian discipleship, Paul encourages the Philippians to let go of their worry and anxiety about life and the future.  In her reflections on this passage, the British Biblical scholar Morna Hooker observes:  “It is sobering to remember that Paul was in prison, facing a capital charge, when he wrote this letter.  And that was not his only problem, for his responsibility for the churches was a constant concern (2 Cor 11:28).  Moreover, the people to whom he was writing were unlikely to be living comfortable lives.  Most of them were poor, many were slaves, and few of them would have know the meaning of security.”[1]  Hooker goes on to observe that for those of us living today in relative wealth, there is a profound temptation to put our trust in our savings and possessions; yet, this only leads to greater worry and anxiousness.

2.      Gratitude to God.  The second requirement in order to experience the deep and lasting joy of God’s grace is to maintain a grateful heart, being thankful for all that God has already given to us.  In verse 6, Paul encourages us to include thanksgiving in every prayer and supplication to God.  The importance of gratitude toward God permeates Paul’s letter to the Philippians and, indeed, most of his letters.  God has already given us so much:  our lives, our planet with all of its beauty, God’s deep love for us, our family and friends, our community of faith, as well as so many individual gifts.  Our gratitude for all that God has already given to us should shape our attitudes and outlook on life.  As contemporary social scientists have documented in countless studies, gratitude is fundamental for genuine joy.

3.      Discipleship.  In verses 8-9, Paul moves from the attitudes of trustfulness and gratitude to the lifestyle of a Christian, which is characterized by following in Christ’s footsteps.  Verse 8 provides a list of virtues, including: truthfulness, honor, justice, purity, etc.  In verse 9, Paul encourages the Philippians to continue “doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.”  For Paul, the lifestyle of a Christian is not that of a passive spectator.  Instead, we are called into a junior partnership in which we accept God’s invitation to join in the work of establishing God’s Kingdom—internally, in our hearts and lives, and externally in the world by sharing the Gospel of God’s love for all Creation; by showing mercy to those who do not have enough; and by working for justice in this world.

Taken together, for Paul, fulfilling these three requirements enables Christians to experience the joy of God’s grace; that is, the good life.

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, August 5th, as we reflect on the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” and the joy of God’s grace.  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] Morna D. Hooker, Commentary on Philippians in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 11, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.