Monday, November 23, 2020

Traditions on Pause

First Sunday of Advent, Year B

Lectionary Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (NRSV) 

I love Thanksgiving!  As I remember Thanksgivings past, I think fondly of our trips to my grandmother's house on a small farm in Houston, Missouri.  One of my favorites growing up were her green beans.  That may sound odd for a child but these were definitely a southern recipe!  Sheryl found her recipe card - this was written down by my mother and I'm appreciative that Sheryl kept and found it.  If you try it out, you will thank me, but only if you have a sweet tooth!

This year, my guess is that your Thanksgiving will be the most sparsely attended celebration dinner of your life.  It certainly will be at our house.  The pandemic has brought a lot of restrictions to us and these have had mixed reactions among people.

Some are battening down the hatches and limiting contact.  Others are careful while continuing many of their activities.  Still others are trying to maintain their lives as close to how they were last year as possible. 

Most families have a mix of all of these types of people.  It will make for a different Thanksgiving for sure.  If you gather with extended family, it will only be the latter two categories getting together as those who are distancing the most will not be in attendance.

While this is sad for family traditions, I am thinking more along the lines of pausing rather than missing our traditions.  In the church, this will be the First Sunday of Advent.  This is always a time of excitement as we look toward Christmas.  Of course, it also has a lot of traditions.  We will continue to offer online worship even as we have paused worship in person.

This will allow us to consider what Christmas really means to us.  How do we understand incarnation in isolation?  I will be exploring the epistles from the lectionary during Advent as we adapt to a different environment for Christmas.  For this week, I focus on Paul's statement that God continues to be faithful to us and calls us to fellowship within the Body of Christ.  How do we make this work during a pandemic?

I hope you'll join us sometime online.  Our worship will be released on Sunday morning but you are welcome to engage anytime!

Blessings to you and have a Happy Thanksgiving and a contemplative First Sunday of Advent!

In Christ,

Sam


Monday, November 16, 2020

Does God Have a Preference?

Reign of Christ Sunday, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 25:31-46 (NRSV)

Maslow's Hierarchy of Need shows the basic needs
at the bottom.  Notice that hunger, thirst and clothing
occupy the first level.  Health is under Safety while
being a stranger would fall under Love and belonging.
Imprisonment would fall under Esteem.  All of these
must be addressed before we get to spirituality
which would fall under Self-actualization.

I have an older sister and brother in my family of origin.  Of course, there are a lot of similarities with each of us.  All three of us have a sense of humor and enjoy a good laugh.  We are all fairly tender-hearted when it comes to someone in need.  Each of us is fairly stubborn as well and tend to dig in if we feel that we are being pushed around.  

But we are each different from the others, too.  My sister is the most conservative theologically and politically (ironically, she lives in Washington state) while my brother is the most liberal with these areas.  That leaves me in the middle (no surprise, that I often had a peacemaker role in the family according to my psychological profile).

We were raised by the same parents who expressed the same values with each of us.  Birth order studies tend to show that we'll likely adopt varying personality traits depending on where we fall in the line-up.  Overall, I think my parents wanted us to make a difference in the world.  They wanted us to be happy but I always had the idea that we were to leave this world better than we found it.

As I think about what God wants from us, I would think that it is something similar.

Parents are not supposed to show a preference for their children.  Theologically, we also believe that God loves all of us equally.

But does God "like" some of us more than others?

This can get into dangerous ground in the sense that if I say I'm preferred over you, I can rationalize putting myself over you.  This was how the Nazis justified their genocidal behavior.  So we need to treat lightly here.

This Sunday, the church calendar ends up on the Reign of Christ Sunday.  This is the last Sunday of the Christian year before we begin the First Sunday of Advent the week after.  So we think about what Jesus would really want from his followers.  What does this ideal Christian world look like?  Does Jesus have a preference?

We see from the scripture reading that Jesus seems to be the most concerned about the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.  Of course, we can get philosophical and declare that all of us are hungry, naked and imprisoned in some form or fashion.  But he seems to be speaking temporally here.  

As a parent, if your child were any of these things, you would not be happy.  You might even give more of your resources to alleviate these conditions over the children who were doing well.  This doesn't mean that you love them more.  It means that there are certain conditions that are not part of your will for them.

So it is with God.  

And how will God alleviate these conditions?  It seems that we have no farther to look than a good mirror.  It doesn't even matter what your birth order is.

We'll continue to explore this passage on Sunday so I hope you'll check back with us.  I do love you all but my preference is for you to join us in some way for worship (preferably online if you are particularly vulnerable)!  I believe that aligns with God's preference as well!

In Christ,

Sam


The photo is used under the Creative Commons license referenced from the following:  McLeod, S. A. (2020, March 20). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html


Monday, November 9, 2020

He Was Kind of Right

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

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

To be cut off from others
is not a pleasant condition.

Here we have another troubling parable.  Large sums of money are divided to three servants to handle.  We are told that they are doled out by individual ability, and we see that the two with larger sums are able to double the money left in their care.  The servant with the least ability doesn't lose his charge but returns it whole to the boss.  

The two successful servants are rewarded.  The third servant is punished with an image of end-times harshness.  He is cut-off from his peers and dwells in outer darkness where there seems to be endless grief and remorse.  What would have happened if he had lost any of that money?

He did receive the lesser sum according to his ability.  But we also see that the servant thought pretty harshly of his master.

Is this a chicken and egg scenario?

Did he underperform because he was expected not to do as much?  Isn't that why he was given less?

Or did he underperform because he was afraid to take any risks due to his own prejudice of his boss's character?

Regardless of the reason, the servant was kind of right in his estimation of his master.  He is a harsh man and the servant was right to fear him.

Does Jesus intend for us to see the master in this parable as God?  The master's character doesn't fit with how Jesus describes God.  Within the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us not to worry about our lives because God is watching out for us.  Jesus tells us to take our needs to God in prayer, reminding us that God will grant us good things.

So maybe we need to re-examine what the talents represent.  

What is it that if we don't multiply, we lose?

What is it that if we hide it away, it wanes and disappears?

Could Jesus have indicated that the talents represent love?

As we are free to love those around us, we find that the love we have increases.  The more we love others, the more we find love in abundance.

If we are unable to invest love in the world, if we hide it away, we may find that the little we have is gone.  Why do others seem so much happier when we are unable to love?

We'll continue to explore this on Sunday during worship.  I hope that you'll remember to invest some time in loving others this week - I bet you can think of someone who can use a kind word or action.

In Christ,

Sam


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



Monday, November 2, 2020

Is This the Time to Build Character?

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 25:1-13 (NRSV)

As Christians, our understanding is that
we open ourselves up to God working through
us to bless our country.

This week we may (or may not) find out the next president of the United States.  Will Donald Trump be re-elected?  Will Joe Biden prevail in his attempt to unseat the incumbent?

My guess is that you have a pretty strong preference between the two.

We have people on both sides of the aisle in our church membership.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ and yet it seems that the distinction between red and blue political orientation may be softening our love for one another.  This brings up a theological question, namely, is our loyalty to political party greater than our loyalty to Christ?  If so, isn't this idolatrous?  

Today's lectionary reading is the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.  The lectionary was slated long before either candidate was running for president so this is not a cheap shot at your politics!  As we read the parable, it tends to make Christians uncomfortable.  After all, shouldn't the wise share their oil with the foolish?  That would be the compassionate thing to do.  And so we get a sense that Jesus is talking about something else entirely.

If the oil is representative of the good deeds you have done in your life, I can't take credit for what you have done as much as you might like to share it with me.  I will have to do my own good deeds.  This is not a works righteousness issue in that we find our salvation in Christ rather than in what we've accomplished (or not accomplished).  But there is a learning curve to doing good deeds.  The mere act of doing something selfless for someone else changes us in fundamental ways.  Spiritually, we move in a more Christ-like direction.

My parents would tell me that doing good deeds is character building.  And so the wise bridesmaids may have wanted to share their oil but they couldn't.  As much as I would like to, I can't build your character.  Only you can do that!

So as our country moves past the election, there will likely be a lot of anger from those who didn't prevail.  There will be a lot of resistance and my prayer is that it will remain nonviolent.  This may be an opportunity for character building on both sides!  How does the winning side listen to the concerns of those who didn't?  There is a lot of passion.  We've seen it in the massive voter turnout and that's during a pandemic!  So how do we channel this passion while reminding ourselves of our common values?  How do we hold together as a country?  

It starts with you (and me).  Each of us has responsibility to engage with dignity and respect.  If I do not, I lose my integrity as a Christian.  This begins at church when we see those who may have voted differently.  And before you make assumptions that someone sees it like you do, it may be better to assume the opposite.  After all, we want to be counted among the wise.  So walk gently with one another this week and in the weeks to come.  Even if your toes get stepped on.  

Character doesn't come cheap.

In Christ,

Sam


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


Monday, October 26, 2020

Humility vs Hypocrisy

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

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

"Do as I say, not as I do."

Parents may say this to their children.  It may be that they tell their kids to go to bed at a set time when they stay up later.  The kids want to know why they get to stay up later.  The parents then have to explain that children require more sleep than adults.  Then their children head to bed grumbling.

Later, when the children are teenagers, they may call out other behavior that seems especially hypocritical.  It seems the best instruction is from a person with the integrity to live out their beliefs.

Jesus seems to be the first on record of saying this although it was surely not original with him.  I observe this because hypocrisy didn't originate in the first century but has been around as long as there have been human beings.  

Matthew's gospel has a strong theme against hypocrisy running throughout.

Jesus states in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:1:    

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Jesus goes on in this sermon to point out how three spiritual disciplines of the day were misused: charitable giving, public prayer and fasting.  He indicates that if we are doing them to enhance our social standing before others, then we are doing them wrong.

He returns to this idea in Sunday's reading.  The phylacteries were the containers of the Shema that Jewish people were commanded to display.  Evidently, the Pharisees were making theirs ornate as a gross display of their piety.  The fringes were displayed on the prayer shawl of a teacher and were commanded from Numbers 15:38:

Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. 

Jesus must have also worn this as a rabbi as we saw earlier in Matthew 9:20:

Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak,

But the length of the fringes must have also been a way to show one's holiness - at least outwardly.  It may have been accepted by the people of that day as a sign of one's devotion to God.  Jesus is more interested in how we practice what we preach.  He deflects the title of teacher seemingly because he doesn't want his disciples to fall into the same trap of seeking after honor as the Pharisees.  Instead, Jesus wants his followers to be life-long learners.

To adopt this attitude does take some humility.  What does it mean to accept that we do not know everything?  That we still have things to learn?

I hope that I will continue to learn my entire life.  I hope that I have the humility to learn from all of those around me.  I hope that I can avoid the hypocrisy that sometimes plagues us as human beings.  I'll try to do as I say!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Trish Gussler 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, October 19, 2020

All You Need is Love

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 22:34-46 (NRSV)

"All You Need is Love" was a single released by the Beatles in the summer of 1967 and it epitomized the peace movement in the sixties.  When I first heard the song, I took the lyric, "love is all you need" to be something I received.  As a child, maybe I was more of a consumer of the love of others toward me.  I was lucky to be the recipient of a lot of love.

Sometimes we're not so sure
about our neighbors.
But as I read today's scripture and reflect on the Greatest Commandment by Jesus (as Matthew records it), I recognize that love is something that only increases in our lives if we give it as much if not more so than we receive it.  

As the apostle Paul tries to keep the early church in Corinth from fracturing into separate camps, he extols the virtues of loving one another and declares that it is greater than even faith or hope for our life together.

It is interesting that the scenario in which Jesus finds himself in today's reading is not one where his opponents have an enormous amount of love for him.  It could be that the Pharisees were interested in trapping him (previous verses lead us to this conclusion).  Likely, when they ask about the greatest commandment, their focus would be on one of the purity laws that took so much of their interest.  Commentator Matthew Henry suggests that they might have been looking for a determination between the law of circumcision, the law of Sabbath or the law of sacrifices.  

Instead, Jesus reminds them of the Shema as he quotes from Deuteronomy 6:5:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

Then we see him include the love of our neighbor as supplement to the Shema.   He includes the last part of Leviticus 19:17-18 which reads:

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

As Leviticus indicates this love was originally prescribed for our kin - our people.  It was utilized to lessen tension among a people that needed to be united in order to survive in a hostile environment.  But Jesus expands this understanding of neighbor in Luke's version of the Greatest Commandment as the lawyer asks Jesus to clarify the definition of "neighbor".  Jesus does this by telling us the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Although they lived in adjacent territories, Jews and Samaritans would not have interpreted this text of Leviticus to refer to one another as "neighbors".

So Christians are stuck blessed with an expanded understanding of loving one another.  

The letters of John define God as love and further bind the tenants of the Greatest Commandment together by stating in 1 John 4:21:

The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

For United Methodists (and other Wesleyan denominations) John Wesley's General Rules, written in the first half of the 18th century, are expressions of the Greatest Commandment.  The first two, do no harm and do good, help us to love our neighbors.  The final one, attend all the ordinances of God (prayer, worship, Bible study, etc.), help us to love God with all our being.  

For the church I serve, our mission statement comes directly from the Greatest Commandment.  It is "connecting people with God and neighbor" which helps remind us of what we are really about.  For some, connection with God leads to a love of neighbor and for others, the relationships we have with our neighbors help us to further see God. 

We'll be exploring Matthew's lectionary text on Sunday.  I have faith that it will be helpful so I hope you'll join us and would love it if you would invite someone to explore it with you!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Vicki Lackey 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, October 12, 2020

Can I Have a Little Peace?

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 22:15-22 (NRSV)

Political maneuvering is on stage in today's reading.  The context of this scripture is that Jesus has been in the temple teaching.  He's been telling parables that call to light the hypocrisy of the chief priests, elders and Pharisees.  They would like to do away with Jesus but they are afraid of the crowd.

So they are trying to turn the crowds against him with the question of taxes.  It is fascinating and a little humbling to realize that taxes have always been present in political wrangling!

If Jesus sides with non-payment, he could get arrested by the Romans and the Pharisees can wash their hands of him.

If Jesus sides with paying taxes, he could stir up the wrath of the zealots in the crowd who were against this foreign intrusion.  Then the Pharisees could orchestrate a stoning while seeming to stay neutral.

When Jesus asks them to produce a coin in the vicinity of the temple, this is the whole reason for the money changers in the previous chapter.  Roman money should have been removed from the temple and thus the profitable enterprise that Jesus disrupted.  When he calls upon them to produce a coin, the Roman emperor was self-deified.  This was blasphemous for them to have.  His example reminds them (and us) that we are stuck together.  Their presence is everywhere.  So how are we going to get along?  Pay the taxes so you don't face jail (or worse).  But pay to God the larger portion.  

What does God require?  Micah reminds us justice, kindness and humility.  

It is a transformation of our lives - more than any earthly tax.

If we take this transformation seriously, it will overcome our enemies.  As Abraham Lincoln apocryphally queried, "do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?"

Dogs also practice politics


As election day approaches in the United States, we see a lot of political maneuvering.  I wish we had a law that prevented political ads from maligning the other candidate.  It would be nice just to hear what a candidate stands for than what they stand against.  Then the constituents could decide which figure inspires us more.  Which vision for our country will get us where we need to go?

I would also like to hear how a candidate will work with others who disagree.  Polarization is not serving us well in congress.  As it increases, so does our disfunction.  What does it mean to pray for peace in our world today?

What does God require?  The larger portion.

I look forward to wrapping up our series on the Fruit of the Spirit as they relate to the Gospel lectionary readings as we think about peace this Sunday.  We'll release worship online on Sunday and would love to have you join us anytime!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by This Year's Love via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.