Monday, September 21, 2020

Kindness

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 21:23-32 (NRSV)

Today, it seems the height of hubris for a religious leader to question the authority of Jesus.  We sit with the advantage of hindsight and understand who Jesus is and was.  But in that day and age, rabbis didn't just put out a shingle and start teaching others.  Rabbis were first disciples.  They were students under the tutelage of an established teacher.  

You learned how to be a rabbi by observing the habits, scriptural interpretations and emphases that your master followed.  At some point, if you progressed enough, the rabbi would bless you as a student to become a rabbi of your own.

So when the chief priests and elders question Jesus, they are wanting to know, "Who did you study under?"

As we see the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, some scholars think that this represented a disciple/rabbi relationship and that the baptism was John's blessing of Jesus as a rabbi.  They point to the timeline that the public ministry of Jesus begins following his baptism.

So Jesus in turn asks them if they would support John's ministry as authoritative.  Jesus must realize that if they wouldn't support John, they wouldn't support him either.  And so when they refuse to answer, he does as well.

Then Jesus tells them a parable of two sons.  This parable basically warns them of their practice of social standing.  The caste of unclean sinners such as tax collectors and prostitutes are moving ahead of them spiritually.  This would have been insulting to any priest or elder who would have placed themselves in God's favor over the likes of these.  

Notice the posture of this omega wolf - lowest
in the hierarchy of the pack.  Humans have their
own pack hierarchies.

 
For a rabbi such as Jesus, he allows social standing to be overturned.  He was a true egalitarian and the American principles of equality were birthed out of this Christian influence.  To allow someone to repent and lift themselves up to a status equal to yourself is a kindness. It is not easy to do and doesn't come naturally.  

How do we offer this kindness to others in today's society?  Social standing is alive and well in the 21st century.  We still have pecking orders.  How do we allow the kindness of ignoring social strata become a Christian virtue that helps us navigate these chaotic waters?

We'll continue to explore this on Sunday - I hope you'll join us either online or in person!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by The Wasp Factory via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.


Monday, September 14, 2020

Gentleness

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 20:1-16 (NRSV)

Gentleness is described by Paul as a Fruit of the Spirit.  It is a valuable trait to have.  Anyone dealing with horses or dogs understands the need for a gentle hand in working with them.  Are people so different?

By contrast, we seem to value aggressiveness in our society over gentleness.  Aggressiveness is what wins the day in sports.  Now that football season has started, we would never want to encourage our team to be too gentle.  In fact, the opposite is true.  If a team is seen as too "soft" the coach may have some work to do in toughening them up.  In the old days, a coach might keep the team from drinking water in practice to help them learn discipline over the needs of the body.  We have since recognized that to condition players in this manner is actually dangerous and not worth dying over.

Still, there are those who may consider this an unfortunate loss.

Aggression can lead to leadership.  Sometimes we follow the person who "takes" the job.  We may admire their tenacity and willingness to put themselves out there.  These people are sometimes seen as "go-getters."  After all, we don't want to follow someone who's not willing to lead!

Dominating another human being sometimes leads to hurt feelings.  I've stepped on people's feelings many times as a leader - most of the time it was unintentional.  I confess that sometimes in the heat of the moment, it wasn't.  

What does a gentle leader look like?

This dog could easily take this
child in a fight.  His assurance
that there is no threat allows him to be gentle.

I think a gentle leader is respectful of the crowd.  A gentle leader isn't swayed by the majority if he or she believes that they are in the right.  A gentle leader has a quiet assurance that we will all move forward together.

The parable in today's reading shows, I believe, gentle leadership by the owner of the vineyard.  He is willing to risk his reputation among those whom he hired to make sure everyone has enough.  These late arrivals had mouths at home to feed just like everyone else.  The owner is willing to take a stand but he does so without disrespecting those complaining.  

Gentleness is probably needed at home more than usual because we are kind of stuck with one another right now.  There is less getting out and so we are getting to know each other better.  Unfortunately, sometimes our worst traits emerge when we are stressed.  If you have teenagers, they are still jockeying for position and maybe more so as the isolation time stretches on.  Are you allowing them to grow into maturity or freezing them in time while all this is going on?

How do we speak to one another?  Is it respectful?

Would you categorize it as gentle?

To be gentle is not to be weak.  It is acting with an assurance that you can handle yourself.  There is no need to be aggressive because there is most likely not a threat in real life situations.  As we stay connected with God, we recognize that gentleness is a by-product of that connection.  Maybe that's all the reason we need to re-assess its value.

In Christ,

Sam


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


  




Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Generosity

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A 

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 18:21-35 (NRSV)

How quick are we to forgive today?  I think when we have stress in our lives (such is the norm today), then we may be more likely to take a slight from someone than to imagine they are on our side or at least give them the benefit of the doubt.

We may be more likely to build a case against a person than to imagine all of the things we hold in common.  When we start to make the list of the things we like about this person, it is harder to hold that grudge!  It is much more satisfying in the short-term to list their short-comings.  But this is not the Christian example that we have in today's lectionary scripture.

Peter thinks he's going the extra mile by asking Jesus if we should forgive seven times.  He's beginning to get it.  He thinks this will earn him a "Well, done, Peter!  You got this straight from God."

But Jesus surprises him by declaring he's off by a magnitude of at least ten!

It may be that Jesus is giving us a reversal of Lamech's vengeance from Genesis 4:23-24:  
Lamech said to his wives:  
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
    you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
    a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
    truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

Between Jesus and Lamech, which one do we find ourselves following more often?  We name ourselves Christian rather than Lamechian so how do develop this generosity of spirit that we see on display in Matthew's reading?   

This may be a popular justification
but it doesn't help us follow Jesus.

If we are more likely to show generosity when we are in connection with God (as a Fruit of the Holy Spirit), does this mean that when we are working against someone that we are disconnected with God?

I find that if I am outside of the Holy Spirit - or at least not paying attention to it - I am more likely to be a follower of Lamech.  I want to lean into my wrath (and dole it out) rather than to find understanding and common ground.  When we follow the way of vengeance, we begin to draw our circle smaller and smaller - excluding this person and that person.  Pretty soon it is just you and me and I'm not so sure about you!  

This Sunday, we'll be continuing to explore the Fruit of the Spirit as seen through the lens of this particular scripture.  If you find yourself plagued by a lack of generosity of spirit lately, you are not alone.  But as we join together in worship, we may just re-discover it.  That's my prayer for us this week!  I hope to see you in person or online!

In Christ,

Sam

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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Patience

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 18:15-20 (NRSV)

As I assigned various Fruit of the Holy Spirit to the lectionary passages, I decided that this particular scripture was a good one to talk about patience.  You can look at it from both sides.  It would be difficult to be patient with someone who was obstinate in their wrong beliefs or behaviors.  Likewise, it would be difficult to be patient if you thought you were in the right and a group of people from the church were trying to correct you!  I'm not sure which would be more annoying!

Dictionary.com defines patience as "the quality of being patient, as the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like."  While I'm old school and don't like it when you use the root word to explain the meaning, I thought they recovered pretty well!  I think we can be taught to bear provocation.  I think we can also be influenced to be too sensitive to irritants.  I believe stress has something to do with our ability to show patience with a person or situation.  In other words, when I'm stressed out or afraid, I have much less patience with people.

As Christians, our example should be Jesus Christ.  I believe his response to his own suffering and crucifixion showed an immense amount of patience as per the above definition.  The phrase, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" from Luke 23:34 reminds us of the composure Jesus showed on the cross.  How many of us when confronted unjustly in this manner from our enemies (you can picture them) would rather respond, "Father, get them; they're killing me!"

When this is the case, we are setting our minds on human things rather than divine things.

Sometimes rubbing a rock with the word on it
can actually be a good reminder for us!

So how can we show more patience with one another?  I think it is crucial during this time with everything that is occurring.  Since patience is a Fruit of the Holy Spirit, we must immerse ourselves in the Holy Spirit to show the world we are connected with God.  How do we do this?  I think that each person may do this differently.  All of us connect with God in a unique way.  But I also think that today's reading gives us a hint when Jesus says, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."  

When we gather together, we are going to disagree on some things.  It should be expected.  But we also recognize that if we begin to focus on disagreement, we will soon be standing alone.  It is better to focus on that with which we recognize and agree.  The love of Jesus Christ as our witness to the world becomes our focus.  If this was not true, it is much easier to send an offender packing than seeking to work with them in love.

We'll continue to explore this on Sunday - join us online or in person!

In Christ,

Sam


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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Monday, August 24, 2020

Self-Control

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 16:21-28 (NRSV)

Self-Control is one of the Fruits of the Spirit according to Paul.  It seems to be on display here by Jesus who is successfully resisting temptation set before him by one of his disciples.  In fact, he had just praised Simon Peter for successfully identifying Jesus as the Messiah.  He was going to found the church on this rock.

How quickly things can turn around for us!  Now Peter is compared to Satan who tempted Jesus in the wilderness when he was fasting.  Of course, the temptation to avoid "great suffering...and be killed" would be prominent, I would think.  Jesus does later pray to avoid this very fate.  When he goes off by himself before his betrayal, we see this scene:

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”  He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated.  Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.”  And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”  Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?  Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”                        Matthew 26:36-41 (NRSV)

So we see the humanity of Jesus on display in that any of us facing the kind of suffering that was coming to Jesus would be upset about it.  Yet, he is able to move forward and doesn't run from impending captivity.  He could have easily left Judas behind and taken the disciples and fled to many of the surrounding towns where he performed his miraculous healing.  Any of those places would have been glad to hide him from the authorities.

But Jesus practices self-control.  He avoids giving into fear or anxiety and moves past it.  

How do we do better?  Too often, I feel like I'm Peter, trying to talk Jesus out of all the suffering and wanting everything to be okay.  Or worse yet, falling asleep when Jesus needs him for some moral support.  It is harder to be disciplined if we think it involves things we don't like or enjoy.  

For example, I hear that it is much easier to avoid the temptations of snacking if you don't keep a lot of snacks around the house.  Of course, this is theoretical for me.

How do we have self-control to read the Bible rather than the latest article from the web?  How do we have self-control that moves us to prayer rather than streaming another show on our device?

It may be that we have to associate these things with reward rather than tasks or chores to be accomplished.  

We'll continue to pursue this theme in worship on Sunday - join us in person or online and we'll at least exhibit some self-control together for 45 minutes!

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by Blink O'fanaye via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Faithfulness

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

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

Sometimes we hear of great loyalty by our pets.  Specifically, I remember the story of Tommy, a 7 year old German Shepherd dog who accompanied his owner, Maria Margherita Lochi to mass in Italy and was allowed to sit at her feet.  After she died, he apparently showed up for mass every day for two months.  The priest said that he didn't ever cause any trouble and he couldn't bring himself to evict the dog.

We admire this kind of devotion and often speak of it as great faithfulness.  When someone honors their marriage vows in chastity, we speak of them as being faithful to their spouse.  So we may often think of faithfulness as follow-through as if we were staying true to what we said we would do or to a task at hand.  

In today's reading, we see Peter being placed at the head of the church.  Was he being rewarded for his faithfulness?  He is certainly enthusiastic.  He tries hard.  But he goofs up quite a bit in the gospels.  I think that this shows us that faithfulness may also be about good intentions.  We often hear the saying, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."  I think this adage may be telling us that follow-through may be more important than intention.  But from a Christian perspective, I think Peter shows us that intention and action don't always align as we would like.  And so, we remember that mercy is also a part of the Christian walk.  We are forgiven and allowed to start anew.

As we see Peter placed at the head of the church, it comes after his correctly naming Jesus as the Messiah.  Maybe faithfulness is also about spiritual insight - knowing what Jesus would want from us.  This requires faithfulness to studying the things Jesus said and did.  It is only as we deepen our relationship with Christ that we discover the things that Jesus would ask of us.  Otherwise, we may only pretend to follow Jesus as we actually disguise what we wanted to do all along.

This Sunday, we'll continue to explore the theme of faithfulness as it relates to the Gospel reading.  Over the next nine weeks, we'll remain in Matthew's Gospel and look at one of the Fruits of the Spirit.  For review they are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control but we won't necessarily explore them in that order.

These are the higher characteristics that we need to display to the world right now.  It won't hurt for us to think on them for a while!  I hope you'll join us on the journey!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo used under the fair use doctrine.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Running a Marathon

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Genesis 45:1-15 (NRSV)

In most races, it seems there is always
someone younger and more energetic
that is going to pass me by!
I’ve never been a long-distance runner but I remember doing some longer runs in my youth.  As a child, I sprinted out ahead and tried to get in front of the pack only to exhaust my energy and get passed by other kids that were normally slower than me.  I figured out that you had to pace yourself and conserve your energy – measure it out for the whole race.

It may be that many of us have hit that initial wall.  The majority of us knew rationally that COVID-19 could last into the fall.  It was communicated quite a bit.  But how many believed last March that we would be facing these kinds of issues with re-opening schools in the fall?  Somewhere in the back of my head, I had convinced myself that things would be back to normal after the summer.  And so, did I conserve enough mental or emotional energy to deal with the reality?

There are so many industries that are facing difficulties because of the changes.  It is hard to fathom how deeply this has affected the economy.  Of course, this impacts the church.  We don’t think about the church as a business but it has utility bills and salaries as well as other ministry costs to operate.  The mission behind our business is not to make profit but to make the world a better place by introducing people to the Way of Jesus Christ.  Most of the churches that I know operate financially with very little margin for error.

For our church, we have grown and been able to offset the normal losses due to death and moving through new people finding us and eventually joining our church.  For a healthy church, this should be normal in the life of the congregation.  But what happens if we can’t worship without taking safety precautions?  When we first re-opened worship in the Christian Activity Center, we wondered if we would have enough room to safely distance everyone who would come.  We quickly realized that this would not be a problem!  

Most of the congregation continues to engage online which is the safest option.  The majority have stayed away because of health reasons.  Others have remained absent while we insist on masks for worship because they choose not to wear them for likely a variety of reasons.  But for the most part, visitors are not coming in person with the same frequency or percentage that they did before the change.

So church continues to adjust to the difficulties.  We still believe in our mission.   In fact, it may be more crucial with all of the turmoil going on.  So how do we reach people today?

We are going to invite our church to continue to participate.  Our church has done an outstanding job engaging with our online worship on social media.  I mentioned that as people like, comment or share the video, this allows us to “see” who is joining us at church!  And so, if you are a lurker (someone who merely observes but doesn’t engage through liking, commenting or sharing on our church’s worship post), this may be foreign or even uncomfortable for you.  It may be something you are not willing to do.  But your presence is important and this is the way we show up today.  I would invite you to prayerfully consider responding in some way this week.

We are looking at spending a small amount of money (around $20) this week to “boost” our worship post to see if we might reach others in our community.  If you find this distasteful, for comparison, many churches used to spend much more than this on weekly newspaper ads.  But the best way for us to reach more people (and it’s free) is for people to “share” the post through your social media account.  If you need help doing this, please email us at info@fumcedmond.org and we’ll have someone walk you through it!  Evangelism looks different to each generation and we are not going to shy away from it just because it continues to evolve and we find the changes uncomfortable.  Our mission is more important than our discomfort.

I like how Joseph saw his own sense of mission in today’s reading.  He suffered.  He went through a lot of difficulty – betrayal, slavery, accused falsely, imprisonment in a foreign land.  And yet, he saw God’s hand in his life and it buoyed him through the turmoil.  We are going through a lot as well.  Maybe if we see how we are working with God to help others know the love of Christ, it will help us too.  

We’ll continue to explore this scripture on Sunday in worship (online and in person).  If you join us online, I hope to “see” you this week!  May God bless you as you adjust to our marathon.  We’re running this together!

In Christ,

Sam


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