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.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Difficulty of Grace

Lectionary reading: Romans 13:8-14 (NRSV)

Over the next three weeks, I will preach a series on the difficulties of God's grace that I've entitled, Full: Finding God's Abundance in Our Lives.

When we discover grace, we find that we have more than enough of the things that really matter.

Grace allows us to move past bitter hurts.

Grace allows us to forgive those who have done us wrong.

Grace allows us to love our enemies.

The difficulty comes when we encounter grace and feel as if we are undeserving.  Of course, this may be a necessary feeling so that we do not begin to take God's gifts for granted.  A little humility is an important ingredient for seeing grace for what it truly is.

With apologies to Wayne and Garth, sometimes our response to the idea that "we're not worthy" is to try to earn our way into God's favor.  We end up incorporating a "works righteousness" theology that will always leave us lacking.

Rather than work to curry God's love, we work in response to the love God has already bestowed upon us.  This may sound like semantics but it is crucial in how we understand the human-divine relationship.

Our work for Christ comes out of thanksgiving and gratitude rather than seeking to gain what we already have.

Gifts are often difficult for us to receive.  And as we look at the Romans passage, we see that we become part of the gift to the world when we seek to act out in love.  Love is not an easy thing or a simple thing.  My own capacity to love others is expanded when I seek God out in my life.
It is okay if we are as "busy as a bee" in our love
for others but it is easier to maintain the pace
when we acknowledge God regularly.

This Sunday will be the first of our new 9:45 am worship service in the sanctuary.  I will be preaching at 8:30, 9:45 and 11:00 am in the sanctuary and at 10:50 in Wesley Hall. Trey will be preaching at 7:00 pm in Wesley Hall as he and Matt finish up the series on the General Rules.  This gives a lot of opportunity for worship!  If you are in the area on Sunday, I hope you'll join us!  If you can't make it in person, you can always catch us on Facebook live or replay it later.

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by rumpleteaser via Flicker.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Monday, August 28, 2017

It's One of the Ten!

The upcoming Sunday has sometimes been known as Labor Sunday as a part of Labor Day weekend.  The United States has celebrated Labor Day as a federal holiday since 1894.  It originated as a time when blue collar workers organized for shorter work days and safer working conditions in a time when factory work utilized a greater portion of the work force in this country.

The recognition of the rights of workers pre-dates the urbanization of the USA.  In fact, it is contained in the Ten Commandments given to Moses in the book of Exodus.

Exodus 20:8-11 (NRSV) specifically reads:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.  
Of course, not working each day was a novelty in its time.  If people didn't work, they didn't eat.  As we recognized the need for rest from work, we look to a better motivation than "we're tired!"  This particular commandment spiritualizes rest by tying it to God's example.

Interestingly enough, this commandment applies to children, pre-dating child labor laws.

It applies to their slaves, pre-dating the abolition movement.
The old idiom "Let sleeping
dogs lie" is actually part of the
10 Commandments on the sabbath
if you think of dogs as livestock.

It applies to their working animals, pre-dating the Humane Society.

It applies to the foreigners among them which meant that they couldn't go to eat out at a restaurant on the sabbath that was run by someone of another culture.

In other words, this was a sweeping edict which recognized the need for rest of all living things.  The impressive thing is that we see an equality in God's eyes that humans didn't yet apply to their everyday living.  The Bill of Rights extends from this philosophy of application to all people.

As we celebrate Labor Day this coming Monday, let us recognize its origins actually pre-date the founding of our country.  God bids us to rest.  We don't often think of this as a spiritual need but merely physical.  What does the cycle of rest have to do with our spirits?

Is it possible that we are more likely to implement the fruits of the spirit such as patience, kindness, gentleness or self-control if we are well-rested?

As we worship on Sunday, let us consider God's commandment of sabbath and how we can more deeply apply it to our lives!

In Christ,

Sam
        

Photo by Alex O'Neal via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

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.