Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Gates of Hell

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 16:13-20 (NRSV)

Back in the 90's, I was working on curriculum writing for our conference.  We incorporated video clips into some of the worship and this involved the use of VHS tapes. Editing was a lot more time-intensive!
The movie Dracula was a lot more intimidating!

One scene in particular that we used was from the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola film, Bram Stroker's Dracula.  It involved the vampire hunter Van Helsing (played wonderfully by Anthony Hopkins) backing a vampire back into a coffin using a cross and shouting "We are strong in the Lord and the power of his might!"

The idea we used from this clip was the obvious nature of evil in this film.  If we could simply stand overtly against an easily identifiable evil, we would do it.  Yet evil is rarely so obvious.  It is often more subtle.  It comes in the guise of something that will placate our fears or desires.

Evil replaces God on our priority list without us even realizing it.

In the scripture reading, Jesus tells Peter that the Church will overcome evil with the imagery of the gates of Hades or Hell.  We have been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  We have authority to bind and loose.

Okay, this last piece seems a little vague.  What does it mean to bind and loose?  If Jesus is speaking of evil, when would there ever be a good time to loose it on the world?

Binding and loosing is likely referring to the binding and loosing of scripture in the world. Rabbinical tradition would bind specific scriptures to modern day situations such as when Jesus told us to turn the other cheek rather than take an eye for an eye.  Scripture was bound to how we respond to violence.  In last week's lectionary reading, Jesus loosens scripture when he spoke of our words defiling us more than the unclean foods that we might consume.

So our responsibility as the Church is to determine how we apply God's Word to the world and specifically how we stand against the evils of this world.

The litmus test I always use is "Does this application of scripture to this situation increase the love of God and love of neighbor in the world?"  Of course, this is from Jesus who gave these as the greatest of the commandments.

As we gather as the Church, we remind one another that "We are strong in the Lord and the power of his might!"

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by patterned via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

God of Grace or Judgment?

Lectionary reading for Sunday: Matthew 15:10-28 (NRSV)

When I saw the video of the car plowing through the crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, it immediately brought to mind the automobile assault my family experienced in Stillwater almost two years ago.  The commonality for these horrific incidents seems to be a loathing of life.

Adacia Chambers was suicidal when she drove her car through the police barriers and into the crowd during the parade in 2015.  Unfortunately, this loathing for life seemed to cast its shadow upon her neighbors as well.

Now, the nation has been witness to another driver with lethal intent.  The motivation for suspect James Fields, Jr. seems to be racial as he has ties to white supremacy and was ramming a counter-protest of those protesting the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Rather than seemingly random, this loathing of life is more focused toward neighbors with differing ideals on race relations.  The hate toward the other becomes stirred up so much inside that you would seek to engage in terrorist tactics and throw your own life away to make a statement.

As we see the nation look to race relations once more, we find Christians on both sides of the argument.  Many white supremacists claim to be Christian.  I know many congregants who have wondered how someone can claim to follow Jesus and hate other people so vehemently.

I took this picture of the Jefferson
Memorial during our recent vacation.
His words* are especially important today.
I believe it is a matter of how one views God.  Is God primarily a God of grace who loves all people?  Wesleyans believe in God's preceding or prevenient grace which reaches out to all humankind regardless of skin color or even cultural ideals.  To embrace this grace is a realization of our own deficiencies and allows us to connect with our brothers and sisters around the globe.  We see that we are all alike.

But if one has the primary view of God as the God of judgment who is measuring each person's worth by their actions, this seems to make one live in a state of fearfulness.  The realization of human deficiency in this equation doesn't lead to a common dignity but rather a sense of worthlessness with regards to people in general.  So instead of responding with a generosity toward our fellow humans, we have no respect for those we deem as worthless.

When you mix racism which is taught and not innate into the mix, you still may hold a faith in God but now you judge others with a fierceness that stems from self-judgment and ultimately self-loathing.

The lectionary reading for the Gospel this week is timely.  Jesus deals with race issues as Jews and Canaanites clash.  Surprisingly, some interpretation may seem to favor the tribalism so associated with white supremacy until we read it in its context with the preceding verses.  As we witness all of the anger and hatred being spewed on the national scene, we realize the truth in what Jesus says, "it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles."

It is important for us to worship and remind ourselves that we worship a God of grace. This ultimately shapes our lives into generous lives that seek to love all our neighbors as we love ourselves.

I leave you with the hymn lyrics from Harry Emerson Fosdick's hymn, "God of Grace and God of Glory."  As the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, Fosdick was a chaplain during World War I and penned the lyrics for this hymn during the Great Depression.

Here is the second stanza:

Lo! the hosts of evil round us
scorn the Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us
free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.

May God grant us wisdom and courage indeed!

In Christ,

Sam



*Words from the Jefferson Memorial:

"God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Establish a law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state and on a general plan."
  

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Blessing of the Backpacks

2 Corinthians 9:8-9 (NRSV) reads:

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.

As it is written,

    “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
         his righteousness (or benevolence) endures forever.”


This Sunday, we will have a "Blessing of the Backpacks" in worship.  We are getting ready to start with a lot of educational endeavors in Edmond following Sunday's service and it is appropriate to recognize God's partnership in this.

Lots of stuff goes into these school backpacks!
Because Wesleyans believe in Sanctifying Grace, we believe that God wants us to further ourselves in knowledge.  By equipping ourselves in this way, we are better able to help those we encounter.  This allows each of us to become more Christlike.  And so, we do this not by ourselves.  We are not isolated in our efforts to improve.  We don't see ourselves competing with one another educationally.  As the Body of Christ, we believe that all people should pursue and receive education.  In this, we see God working with us, helping us along our way.

This Sunday, the Blessing of the Backpacks will remind us of the spiritual help available to us throughout the school year.  Education is sometimes difficult and we often need strength and courage and endurance.  Sometimes we need to relax amidst the pressure to remember what we know.  God helps us with these tasks and we want to recognize this on Sunday.

If you live in the Edmond area and will have a student (any age or level) in your household, I would encourage you to bring them and their backpacks to worship with us this Sunday (8:30, 10:50 or 11:00 am) and we will begin their year with a blessing!

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by Jillian Kern via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Walking in Faith

Scripture Passage: Matthew 14:22-33 (NRSV)

In 2013, I was leading a small group of seniors at church camp.  The curriculum called for a trust walk where half of the campers were blindfolded and the other half were sighted.  Normally, the sighted campers lead the others around on a flat surface and the blindfolded campers trust that their guides won't lead them into a ditch or a tree or cause them to stumble in some way.

They hadn't made it to the hard
part yet!
Since these were all experienced, savvy campers, I recognized that they had all done trust walks at camp or in youth group before.  In order to convey the point of trust, I challenged them to take the activity to a new level.  The blindfolded were led up a difficult trail up the side of the hill to the cross.  If you have been to Canyon Camp, this was not the normal path that the majority takes to get there.

We came to a chasm that requires you to hug the side of the cliff and to step across. I gave the blind an out and told them that they could take off their bandannas for this part but all of them chose to trust their guides.

Each one of them made it across and eventually took off their bandannas at the cross and felt good about the accomplishment!  The guides took pride in helping them up such a difficult path.  The blind took pride in the trust they put in their guides and in themselves.

This Sunday's passage is the famous passage of Jesus walking on water.  Peter wants to walk out to Jesus and quickly begins to sink.  There is something universal about his experience if we look at facing difficulties.  There are times we have stepped out in faith and felt good about what we've accomplished.  There are also times when we have failed or been insecure and needed God's reassurance and help.  Sometimes they occur simultaneously like they did for Peter!

As we think about the trust walk I mentioned above, this may be a good metaphor for the church.  We all have a need to help one another along life's path.  Sometimes we are the guides and sometimes we are the blind.  But we need each other along the way.  In the midst of all the changes we face, this is one truth that stays constant.  For Christians, we seek to recognize how God is present in this trust walk we are on together.

In Christ,

Sam

Monday, July 24, 2017

Hope for a Glass Half-Full

Lectionary Reading: Romans 8:26-39 (NRSV)

"We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

We review these famous words from the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:28.  They can be daunting when one considers all of the awful things that human beings endure.

We know that all things change and sometimes it is for the better but many times our perception tells us otherwise.

Our human bodies begin to degrade and we spend billions on products to halt this process.  Eventually time wins out and our bodies fail us.  From a Christian perspective, one could take the balcony view on human life and point toward life after death in order to claim that the good would be the heavenly reward.

But getting there can be problematic.  Dementia sometimes takes hold of us along the way from point A to point B and we may rightly critique this statement to ask, "How in the world does Alzheimer's work for anyone's good?"

It is difficult to see the good in many of the
annoyances that life throws at us.  Maybe the
good comes in how we handle them.
In order to preserve the integrity of the Biblical statement, some then claim that the problem lies with the afflicted.  Either some unconfessed sin or lack of faith is trotted out as the culprit for the dementia. What might be a better solution is to admit that Paul is talking in generalities.  We know that when we go with an absolute, we can usually find loopholes in the logic.

I look at Paul's statement and believe that God can work with any awful situation and cause some good to arise.  This is the crux of the crucifixion and the resurrection for me.  I don't believe that God caused the suffering and death of Jesus.  Rather, human stubbornness called for this.  Yet, in spite of humanity's work against God's love in Christ, God shows us that suffering and death do not get the last word.

We are people of the resurrection and this statement of Paul's reminds us to see God at work even in the midst of suffering.  God may grant us the strength and courage to endure hardship and troubles when they come our way.  We see God at work through suffering not as the author but as the rock in the midst of the storm.

This important perspective is one in which we gather together when we worship to remind ourselves of the strength that we have available.  In this, we are working together for good in all circumstances and for all peoples.  Thanks be to God!


Photo by Janet Hughes via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.   


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Bondage to Decay

Lectionary Reading: Romans 8:12-25 (NRSV)

Paul continues in this week's reading concerning the division of the flesh and the spirit.  It seems as if Paul is really trying to hammer home our reliance on the flesh.  This dependence on the body is quite natural for people since we live within our bodies.  They are our homes.

They have needs that force their attention upon us.

Hunger can pull me out of prayer and pain may make it difficult to concentrate on anything substantial.  Another example might be how the bladders of children or youth shrink exponentially during a sermon (okay, that might speak more about the delivery than about our attention spans).

Our bodies restrict us in their limitations.

When I was starting for my 8th grade basketball team, I thought it would be cool to dunk the ball but my size and my athletic ability limited me.

The year before this, I experienced even greater limitation as I recovered from an Achilles heel injury.   I spent about six months recovering - some of the time on complete bed rest and the remaining time on crutches.  For the times I was unable to even get out of bed, it made me consider what a blessing it is to walk.  Being able to get around independently is something I had definitely taken for granted.  Being unable to get out of bed for any of my body's needs also made me keenly aware of my own dependence on the physical aspect of our lives.

As I get older, I discover that I can no longer eat anything I want.

I require more sleep.

I seem to get sick more often than when I was younger.

I am more aware of bodily break-downs that I previously ignored (or simply didn't happen).

Okay, there are a lot of good caption possibilities here.
I really resonated with Paul's description, "bondage to decay" as I recognize my own body's expanding limitations.  At the same time, being adopted by God must be more than just pie in the sky that we look forward to when this life is over.

I'm wondering if a focus on the spirit may not move us past the flesh but might allow us not to be subject to it quite so easily.  Our culture seems to idolize everything young and beautiful.  While most recognize the shallow nature of this, our desire for a fountain of youth seems to continue to capture our attention.

What if the spirit's leading allows us to incorporate our bodies into our selves without becoming slaves to them?

As I finished this blog post, I was actually thinking of rewarding myself with some ice cream.  Hmm.  Maybe I need to spend a little time in prayer instead.

In Christ,

Sam


Picture by Marla J Aleman via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

I May or May Not Be Comfortable with Ambiguity

Lectionary Reading: Romans 8:1-11 (NRSV) 

The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Rome that "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."  This kind of spiritual assurance is helpful as we begin to understand that it is the grace of God rather than any effort on our part that allows us to see our own righteousness.

It is through the incarnation, life, teaching, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we find ourselves right with God.

Each individual may find a different touchstone in Christ with which he or she identifies more than another.  Some may be drawn to Christmas (incarnation) while others may find Easter (resurrection) better defines their relationship.  Still others may find meaning in the disciplines during Lent (suffering and death).  To name it so broadly is to be somewhat ambiguous.

Clarity in communication can be very helpful!
Human beings enjoy certainty.  

If I were to comment, "I heard the woman with the hearing aids," the statement is ambiguous in that it is unclear whether I or the woman use hearing aids.  So clear communication is important.

However, when we entertain the mystery of God, clarity may not be readily available.  

As we deal with God's call upon our lives, it would be nice to have blazing letters in the sky directing us to specific action.  However, the call is likely to be a little more subtle!

Paul becomes a little ambiguous when he states, "if Christ is in you" rather than assuming he is speaking to a congregation where all are "in Christ."  This makes Christians a little nervous as we may think to ourselves, "how do I know for sure if Christ is in me?"

This gets into the doctrine of assurance.  Some speak of knowing the exact moment of your salvation when you accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior.  Other congregations are not as clear and Christians grow up in the church with this identity never questioned.

That is, until someone questions it.

Sometimes the certainty with which Christians tout their own strong relationship appears as if they never have any doubts.  This bravado may actually keep people from living with a stronger faith because they assume that their faith is lacking.  It is better to be honest and let people know that due to the ambiguous nature of faith in an unseen God, there will be doubts from time to time.  We will have questions.  Assurance is nice, but it doesn't mean the same thing for each person.

This is similar to the touchstones we may more closely associate with in our own lives - as you think about these attributes, do you more closely identify with incarnation, life, teaching, suffering, death or resurrection?  

All are helpful, but it is okay to claim the one you favor.  As we each claim something different for our own relationship in Christ, it is good to allow the variety within the Spirit. This comfort with the ambiguity with how we identify as Christian actually may give us more assurance and certainty within the broader setting as the Body of Christ.

And so we can relax in the Spirit as we join in worship with one another, knowing that we each bring a little bit different viewpoint to the table.  Shared understanding becomes fuller understanding.  That gives me greater assurance after all!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by dbowman2001 via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.