Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Power of Trust

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSV)

I've seen creativity shut down in groups plenty of times. 

Someone may come up with a creative idea that is a little too creative.  It seems unfeasible and not realistic for actual implementation.  And so the idea is sneered at, laughed at, scoffed at.  At worst, the presenter of the idea is ridiculed. 

The creative person doesn't add any more to the group process after this point.  Their voice has been effectively silenced.

As group dynamics go, there are certain rules to brainstorming sessions.  One of the primary rules is that when brainstorming, there are no stupid ideas.  Everything, even the most ridiculous, gets written on the board. 

To ease anxiety, we let people know that just because something is written down, doesn't mean that it will be adopted.  Brainstorming is not the time for critique.  It is the time for thinking outside the box.

The great thing about ridiculous ideas is that they may spur thinking toward something different and new that is not ridiculous.  It is just unique.  I've also seen this happen time and again.
Learning to swim takes a lot of trust but the
end result is very rewarding!

The reason that the rule of "no stupid ideas" is so important is that it gives permission to be a little silly.  We can laugh with the person in delight but never in derision at the person.  This creates an atmosphere of trust.  When we begin to trust one another, we pull in a variety of viewpoints.

Otherwise, the loudest voices always dominate because they shut down quieter thoughts.  In a group process using brainstorming, the less vocal participants are given time and permission to share their ideas.  The experience and outcomes are always richer when the entire group enters into the process rather than hearing from only a minority.

This Sunday's gospel reading is a well-known parable for many dealing with the owner entrusting money to the servants.  As you read it over, how does a lack of trust stifle the creative use of the money with the third servant? 

As we continue to examine gratitude and thanksgiving this Sunday, I will be preaching on this parable with the examination of how trust and thanksgiving intertwine.  I trust that you'll join us if at all possible!

In Christ,

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

Prioritizing Our Lives

Sunday's Lectionary Reading: Matthew 25:1-13 (NRSV)

I never liked the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.  It feels more like a morality play than a parable.  It has a ring to it of The Little Red Hen or Aesop's The Ants and the Grasshopper.

There is nothing wrong with a good work ethic. 

There is nothing wrong with rewarding effort given.

The apostle Paul even states that "anyone unwilling to work should not eat." (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

Of course, he is referring to Christians simply waiting on the second coming of Jesus.  They believed that the end was near and yet Paul was practical enough to know that the idle should not rely upon others bending their backs on their behalf if they are able-bodied.

The difference for me in this parable is that it follows along nicely with a works righteousness theology which doesn't always fit with the idea of grace. 

Works righteousness is what we would like to see in the marketplace where work would be valued appropriately.  But it may not be what we would like when it comes to our spiritual lives.  This is because we may have a deep and underlying sense that we could be doing better. 
Okay, I have my moments but I'm not this bad!

I'm often the lazy cat saying, "Not I" when asked to help plant the wheat.

I'm often the grasshopper whittling away my time while others stockpile for winter.

And I'm often the foolish bridesmaid who is looking to my friends to see if they have any oil to spare for my lamp. 

I can easily identify with those who are left on the outside looking in.  It is hurtful imagining Jesus saying to me, "I do not know you."

Because I believe compassion and grace are core components of Jesus Christ, I am forced to look deeper into my interpretation of this parable.  It seems that we are looking at priorities.  For Matthew's gospel, the oil may indeed reflect good deeds.  This parable asks us, "What do we realize spiritually through our participation in good deeds?"  And conversely, "What are we lacking in perception when we remain idle in works for others?"

As we continue to look at thankfulness as an overriding theme in worship, this Sunday I'll be preaching on "The Priority of Thanksgiving" as we look together at this gospel reading.  As always, there will be four opportunities for you to hear it on Sunday morning - and more if you livestream our Facebook feed or watch it later at your leisure.  Trey Witzel will be preaching at the Late Night service at 7 pm and I would encourage you to drop in if you miss Sunday morning!

In Christ,

Sam



Monday, October 30, 2017

A Month of Thankfulness

Lectionary Reading for Sunday: Matthew 23:1-12 (NRSV)

We associate quite a bit with November.

Sports fans think about Bedlam which usually occurs during the month and fans of the Cowboys and Sooners usually pay a little more attention to the hype in the upcoming week.

For the shoppers, there is Black Friday, when the retail stores finally get into the black for the year financially.  This usually involves lots of lines, lots of sales, and more than a little bait and switch for the big box stores.

For Oklahomans, pecans usually begin to fall this month and can be collected for some tasty snacking (or pies if you are crafty in the kitchen like my mother-in-law).  I am reminded of these because we have several pecan trees on the church property.

Nature lovers enjoy the fall foliage turning brilliant colors.  The leaves used to change in October but that month seems to be warmer now.  I know because I swam in an unheated outdoor pool more than once within the last couple of weeks.  So November has become the month for seeing all the variations of orange, red and yellow.

Some thanksgiving activities are a little bizarre
but amusing nonetheless!
Aside from all of these things, I think most Americans associate November with Thanksgiving.  Children perform in plays involving pilgrims.  Turkeys abound and we usually feast with family.

Growing up, we spent a lot of Thanksgivings in Houston, Missouri.  My mother's mother lived there and we had all of the usual suspects on the menu: turkey, ham, green beans (hers were better than any I ever had), sweet potatoes, hot rolls (I liked to put the cranberry sauce on mine) and of course, dessert.  Pumpkin pie was always a staple during this holiday with a lot of Cool Whip dolloped on top!

I have pretty good memories associated with all of these things.  I am grateful for my family as they shaped me in important ways.  They taught me gratitude and I try to maintain a grateful attitude. 

This month, we will look at a sermon series on thanksgiving.  Being thankful has all kinds of benefits.  We are happier when we count our blessings.  We are healthier too.  Being grateful deepens your relationships and allows you to go father in your career.  So how do we develop thankfulness?

This month, we will be looking at the gospel of Matthew from the lectionary and this particular Sunday, we will examine how thanksgiving takes humility.  It also happens to be All Saints Sunday (another thing the religious may associate with November) and we will remember our loved ones who have died in the past year.  Our gratitude should extend to these friends and family whom we appreciate and whom we miss.

I hope you'll take the time to join us for worship if you're in town.  We now worship at 8:30, 9:45 and 11 am in the sanctuary and 10:50 and 7 pm in Wesley Hall - five chances to cultivate your thankfulness!  And of course, if you miss them, you can check out our livestream on Facebook which can be engaged at any time.  I'm looking forward to a November where we realize our many blessings! 

In Christ,

Sam
 

Photo by Pinke' via Flickr.com.  I first felt sorry for this poor animal but the photographer claims that the dog actually likes dressing up because he knows he'll get treats.  Used under the Creative Commons license.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Presence of God in the Midst of Suffering

I am one who has seen affliction
    under the rod of God’s wrath;
he has driven and brought me
    into darkness without any light;
against me alone he turns his hand,
    again and again, all day long.
                                     Lamentations 3:1-3 (NRSV)

This word from Lamentations speaks not of how we imagine the character of God but of the despair that human beings sometimes feel.  Jeremiah or a prophet close to him speaks of the emotional and spiritual void following the destruction of the capital city of Jerusalem and God's Temple which resided there.  These are words which most human beings unfortunately experience in some form or fashion as none of us escape suffering unless we refuse to love.

I suppose that people who have been hurt may refuse to love others for fear of being hurt again.  Ultimately, our loved ones will leave us as we pass from this life to the next.  It is painful and inevitable.

But when tragedies strike, such as the recent hurricanes or earthquake, we are left reeling knowing that we could have been dealt this tragic blow but somehow escaped.  The recent mass murder in Las Vegas is an unfortunate punctuation of suffering for an already hurting world.

One of the common threads of inquiry surrounding the Vegas shooting is the search for meaning.  Right after it occurred, even though the shooter likely took his own life, we begin to seek out some kind of rationale.  Was he connected with terrorist activity?  Was he a violent person?  Did he have a history of mental illness?  What was his motive?

The flags flying at half-mast
remind us that we are
a people who care for others.
What we are trying to do is to solve the "why" behind this tragedy.  Human beings like order and when someone acts irrationally, it disturbs us in profound ways.  If a grudge against country music fans were somehow determined, it wouldn't change the horrible act but it would allow our brains to cope with it more easily.

As we seek to cope with all this recent tragedy, one of the ways that is common is to disengage.  We try to ignore it and hopefully it won't touch us.  When we do this, we become more akin to the priest or the Levite in Jesus' parable than to the good Samaritan.  Rather, the Christian call is to compassion.  We seek to offer a helping hand to those in need - even if it is just a shoulder to cry on. This is exhausting but we do so because it is needed in a hurting world.  We realize that it could just as easily be us weeping.

As we continue to pray for those suffering - as we continue to give toward those seeking recovery from natural disasters - we become a part of the resurrection story with which we view the world.  We may not understand why tragedies happen but we can understand our response.

Our narrative fits with the author of Lamentations who moves from despair to hope later in the chapter:

I called on your name, O Lord,
    from the depths of the pit;
you heard my plea, “Do not close your ear
    to my cry for help, but give me relief!”
You came near when I called on you;
    you said, “Do not fear!”
You have taken up my cause, O Lord,
    you have redeemed my life. 

                                       Lamentations 3:55-58 (NRSV)



Monday, September 25, 2017

World Wide Worship

This summer while traveling, our family worshiped at Southminster United Church of Canada in Niagara Falls, Ontario.  It was not the largest congregation we've ever attended.  In fact, we were 4 of the 34 in worship that morning.

My interest in this particular congregation was our common ties to Methodism and Wesleyan heritage.  The United Church of Canada was formed by merging four Protestant denominations in 1925, one of them being the Methodist Church in Canada. In fact, the United Church of Canada remains a member of the World Methodist Council. Since I am serving on this council in the present quinquennium (and since there are no United Methodist Churches in Canada), I thought it would be helpful to worship there.

It was a nice experience but not so different from small United Methodist churches that I've attended. To be fair, I didn't anticipate the Canadian worship to be drastically altered from what we do in Oklahoma.

A more varied experience was when Kyla and I stopped in to a Methodist Church on St. John's Island back in 2015.  They handed us percussion instruments along with the bulletins when we entered the sanctuary.  We had a good time of island style gospel singing to open worship!  Later in the service, the pastor asked if there were any other clergy in the congregation.  I was one of three present that day and he called us all forward.  I was invited to pray for people in the congregation as was happy to do so. Then I helped him serve Communion to the congregation which was one of my highlights of the trip (yes, but I am called to do this!).

This was not my first experience in praying for people of another congregation.  I have done so in Methodist Churches in South Africa and Mexico.  I can tell you that while our cultures may differ in a lot of ways, our needs in prayer are very similar.

Bishop Hayes is praying for a local woman in South Africa.
Part of the South African experience involved a hike to see The Pinnacle Rock in Graskop, South Africa.  While we were there, some of the local women found out that Bishop Hayes was an episcopal leader and an impromptu prayer service broke out!  Bishop Hayes was glad to pray for them as requested and I took a quick photo.  I think their trip to the mountain top included unexpected blessings!

All of this reminiscing is to remind us that we will be celebrating World Communion Sunday on October 1st.  This is especially moving to me as I imagine Christians all around the globe gathering for this holy meal.  Not all of us get along theologically but we are brothers and sisters nonetheless.  Even though we may have differences, we have far more in common than we would consider at first glance.  This Sunday recognizes our common heritage and faith.  It is rather impressive to kneel at the altar rails while realizing that people are praying in the same way in different languages in a wide variety of settings all over the earth.  Some of the prayers may be of a very different style but the basic content remains surprisingly similar.

I hope you'll find a place to worship and receive this Sunday and remember your brothers and sisters around the world!

In Christ,

Sam

Monday, September 18, 2017

Frustrated by Grace

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

This may be my favorite parable of Jesus.  It has the surprise or twist ending that is so characteristic of his stories.  The parable hasn't lost any of its difficulty when told to a 21st century audience either.

I still find it vexing.

Most people put think of themselves as having a good work ethic.  And so it is easy to imagine that we would be one of the first people picked on the owner's first round-up.

Field picking is hot, backbreaking work that
would not likely yield generous feelings
if you are perceived as a slacker. 
As the parable progresses, we do not sympathize with the late arrivals but with the people tired from a hard day's work.

When the less than full-timers are bestowed with equal pay, it is shocking because we can easily imagine how we would feel.  It would not be a happy feeling!

As we think about the story, we recognize that this would not be a sound business practice for a landowner to employ on a regular basis.  And so this story must have deeper meaning as it relates not to human practice but to God's economy.

Grace doesn't make sense in an environment where we measure ourselves by our productivity.

So how do we embrace this grace not only for ourselves but in order to give it away to others?

I'll be exploring the idea that we can't fully realize grace until we begin to see it available for others on Sunday as the final sermon in the series, "Full: Finding God's Abundance in our Lives."  I hope you'll join us if you're in the area - maybe we can be vexed together!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Bread for the World via Flicker.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Accountability versus Judgment

Lectionary Reading: Romans 14:1-12 (NRSV)

“United Methodists lead with grace, not with judgment.”

This particular sentence was the first chapter in a series entitled, “What’s Different about The United Methodist Church?” by the former Oklahoma Conference bishop, Bruce Blake.  It came out twenty years ago in 1997 when I was still fairly new to pastoral ministry and many churches across our conference used it in preaching and teaching.

It is an idea with which I agree and would say effectively categorizes the identity of our denomination.  My early childhood years were spent in the Assemblies of God which emphasized holiness to a different degree than most current United Methodist churches. By holiness, I mean seeking right living (righteousness) as a part of being a follower of Jesus Christ.  This is different from self-righteousness which is a separate issue (but a danger or temptation to all who seek right living).  

The particular Assembly of God church where we attended was fairly judgmental in nature which was designed to keep people from sin.  I can remember various times from my childhood when I went home from church afraid for my salvation rather than assured. This is not the healthiest spiritual state for a five-year-old.  I’m not sure the fear increased my faith but it did increase my anxiety.  In comparison, the Assemblies have just as many problems with sin as United Methodists in my experience (or any other denomination for that matter).  Both of us have our share of stout disciples and our share of back-sliders.

I write this to let you know that sometimes my perspective may be reactive to my negative encounters of a judgmental church.  I often err on the side of grace.  I do this so that people may experience the welcome invitation that Jesus Christ offers for the journey of faith we all undertake.  

But one of the real problems of leaning so heavily on grace is oftentimes a lack of commitment.  If there are no real expectations or if the lack of commitment can be easily overlooked or forgiven without any consequences, then real problems begin to develop.

Sometimes the churches that emphasize grace turn Jesus into this nice man who just loves you and doesn't really ask for much in return.  He’s going to pick you up and brush you off and offer an encouraging word.  There are many times I need this and you likely do as well.  But if there is no direction for our life of faith and if we place our commitment level somewhere beneath our other pursuits in life, it shouldn't surprise us when people fall away from the church.  

This is not the kind of accountability I need!
Sometimes we remove all accountability to get away from being too judgmental. Conversely, sometimes we become too judgmental in the guise of accountability.  This becomes difficult as we seek to share God's grace with others.  We want to meet people where they are.  But at the same time, we encourage people to put away their sins.

This Sunday, I'll be discussing this particular tightrope as we continue the series, "Full: Finding God's Abundance in our Lives."  I hope you'll join us if you don't have something better to do (okay, that last line was sarcastically judgy)!

In Christ,

Sam
  

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