Saturday, September 29, 2018

"Abundant Opportunities"

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saul, who became Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, September 30th, as we continue our exploration of Abundance, focusing on the abundant opportunities which God gives to join in creating a new world.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  We are committed to acting inclusively because God loves us all.

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

Saturday, September 22, 2018

"Abundant Living"

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

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

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, September 23rd, as we begin our exploration of Abundance.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  We are committed to acting inclusively because God loves us all.

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

Saturday, September 15, 2018

"Work for Justice"

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

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

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

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

“We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”  1 John 4:19-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, September 16th, as we conclude our examination of the four essential principles of Christian discipleship with a focus on “working for justice.”  Before and after the Worship Services, there will be an opportunity to participate in Bread for the World’s “offering of letters” by writing your federal legislators and asking them to protect highly effective anti-hunger programs from spending cuts in the 2019 Federal Budget.

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

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

Saturday, September 8, 2018

"Seek God"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, September 9th, as we continue our exploration of the four essential principles of Christian discipleship.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

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

[i] J. Paul Sampley, Commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 10, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

"Serve Others"

            Last Sunday, we began a new sermon series at Christ United Methodist Church entitled, “The Essentials of Discipleship.”  I understand Christian discipleship to be an inter-related  process of following Christ by learning, experiencing, serving and growing in our faith and deepening our relationship with the Divine.  When we first become Christians, we are beginners in the faith.  But, over time, Christ intends for us to grow deeper in our faith.  Christian disciples grow best through a process that combines “education” and “experience”—that is, learning and serving. 

In this sermon series, we will explore the four core principles for growth and service; that is, “the essentials of discipleship.”  They are:  (1)  Seek God; (2) Act Inclusively; (3) Serve others—both human and nonhuman; and (4)  Work for Justice.  Last week, we looked at the principle of acting inclusively.  This Sunday, September 2nd, we will focus on serving others—both human and nonhuman. 

           The principle of serving other persons runs like a red thread throughout the entire Bible.  Again and again the scriptures proclaim the importance of caring for the physical necessities of other persons.  See, for instance, Leviticus 23:22, Proverbs 14:31, 17:5, 19:17, Isaiah 58:7-10, Deuteronomy 15:10-11, Ezekiel 16:49, 1 John 3:17-18, Luke 12:33, Matthew 19:21, Galatians 2:10, and 6:2   Philippians 2:4, James 2:5, 16-17, and Romans 12:13. 

            Perhaps the most important scriptural passage on caring for others is Jesus’ apocalyptic description of God’s final judgment in Matthew 25: 31-46.  In the first verses, Jesus sets the scene for the final judgment:  “‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.’” (verses 31-33).  The sheep represent righteous people whom will receive salvation, while the goats represent sinners to be condemned.

           In Jesus’ explanation, those who will be redeemed are those who have served and cared for others who needed resources in order to live and flourish, while the condemned are those have ignored the needs of their fellows.  Jesus explicitly mentions 6 needs which people have:  (1) those who hunger; (2) those who thirst; (3) those who were strangers; (4) those who were naked; (5) those who were sick; and (6) those in prison. However, it seems clear that Christ intends for this list to be suggestive and not comprehensive.  For instance, it seems certain that Jesus would also include the homeless, even though he does not explicitly mention them.  The general thrust of these apocalyptic verses is that we are all responsible for one another’s flourishing and wellbeing.

            In these verses, Jesus places himself in the position of those with needs.  For instance, he says:  “I was hungry…I was thirsty…” etc.  Both the “sheep” and the “goats” are surprised that they helped, or did not help, Jesus himself.  They say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…thirsty…?” etc.  Jesus responds by saying, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it [or, did not do it, in the case of the goats] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”  The consensus among Bible scholars is that Jesus is making a universal claim, when he refers to “members of my family.”  That is, any person, regardless of nationality, creed, race, etc. is entitled to receive the basic necessities required in order to live a life that is happy, flourishing, and with dignity. 

           In his commentary on Matthew, the New Testament scholar Eugene Boring observes:  “This is the only scene with any details picturing the last judgment in the NT.  To the reader’s surprise (ancient and modern), the criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ.  Nothing is said of grace, justification, or the forgiveness of sins.  What counts is whether one has acted with loving care for needy people.  Such deeds are not a matter of ‘extra credit,’ but constitute the decisive criterion of judgment…”.[1]

            So, clearly, serving others is an essential principle of Christian discipleship.  Of course, we already knew that.  In the American context, Christ’s call to serve others is understood by nearly everyone—Christian and non-Christian, alike.  At Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, we are probably stronger at serving others than we are at any of the three other essential principles.  Although there is still room for growth, at Christ UMC, we are involved in many “ministries of mercy,” including feeding the hungry, clothing those without sufficient clothing—especially in the cold winter months; other ministries include mentoring children, welcoming and sponsoring refugees, and providing emergency financial assistance.  I suspect that Christ UMC is not unique in this regard.  Most American churches are involved in ministries of mercy to some degree.

             The challenge for the preacher—especially when the text is Matthew 25: 31-46, as it will be on September 2nd—is to identify new perspectives on this very, very familiar text.  To accomplish that this Sunday, I intend to develop two new insights into serving others:

1.      “Serving Others” is not restricted to just “human others,” it includes nonhumans, as well.  Humans have always shaped and modified their environment.  Over the course of history, these manipulations were temporary and more-or-less sustainable.  However, since the Industrial Revolution over 200 years ago, advances in our technology have given humans a previously unknown potential to transform entire eco-systems radically and permanently.  We have misused this awesome power.  Today, we suffer and struggle with ecological problems such as Global Climate Change and increased chemicals in our air and water.

Last week, in our exploration of acting inclusively, we saw that being created in the image of God carries with it the responsibility to be good stewards of the environment (see Genesis 1:26).  In our sacred scripture, there is another important insight concerning our relationship with the environment, as well. 

In the second Creation Story, in Genesis 2, God creates Adam, the first man.  God is so enamored with the new human that God creates a special garden—the Garden of Eden.  When the Garden is completed, Genesis says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)  The verb which we usually translate as “to till and keep” the Garden is the Hebrew word, “ābad.  This is an odd word choice here.  As with many English words, this Hebrew word has several different meanings.  Although it can mean “to till and keep,” that is a tertiary meaning.  The principal meaning of ābad is to “serve” as when a servant serves the King.  I believe that the writer of Genesis used ābad intentionally and that he intended for us to interpret it as to literally serve nature, in order to underscore our God-give responsibility to care for and serve God’s Creation.  So, we should include serving the environment as part of serving others, and thus it is an essential component of discipleship.

2.      “Serving Others” is a “two-way street”.  Of course, those whom we serve receive benefit.  Yet, when we serve voluntarily, enthusiastically, and faithfully, then we benefit, as well.  Serving others can be transformative.  When we serve others, we grow in our faith and our relationship with God.  Similarly, serving others creates good feeling in ourselves and is fundamental to genuine happiness.  In study after study after study, social scientists researching happiness have found that serving others is absolutely fundamental to living a life filled with genuine happiness and flourishing.  It’s ironic, the more we serve and give, the more we receive back.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, September 2nd, as we explore the second essential principle of Christian discipleship.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

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

[1] M. Eugene Boring, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 8, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.