Monday, October 15, 2018

I Know What's Best For Me (and Maybe You Too)!

Lectionary Reading: Mark 10:35-45 (NRSV)


Many have the drive to lead.  Not everyone has the capacity!  Sometimes you don’t find out until after a person is leading whether or not he or she actually has the ability to do so effectively.  There is a sense in successful companies today that you should not stigmatize failure but should actually allow people to crash faster so that you can move on when something doesn’t work.  This will hopefully foster innovation.


I can think of many services, programs and classes that I’ve instigated that are no longer running.
Sometimes following the leader can get 
you into trouble if you can't swim!
Some of these had a small season of success before dying out.  Others never took off the ground.  I always appreciated congregations for allowing me to try though.  Sometimes we struck gold!

I think we appreciate leaders who will look out after our best interests.  We want to be able to trust them with our livelihood.  If a leader lines his or her own pockets before helping the constituency, we often think less of this person.
James and John are seeking positions of glory.  If one thinks about being at the right and left of the Messiah, these would be earthly leadership positions.   You are not looking toward the heavenly kingdom but one that would be established right here on earth!
  

Jesus quickly fills them in on what true leadership looks like.  You serve those for which you are responsible.  Ugh.  That is not near as glamorous!

When Jesus has glory and power and leadership offered to him when he was tempted in the desert, he is able to turn it down and point to God.  We get the idea that if we are serving God, we are serving others too. 

And yet, is all ambition wrong?  What if you have a natural gift to lead others?  How can we strive for leadership while at the same time staying humble? 

Whether or not we are leaders, we all have some type of autonomy.  We self-govern.  Most people at least believe that they know what’s good for them.  And yet, how many times do we make ourselves miserable?  If we love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we might really do them some harm!

This Sunday, I hope to explore what it means to love ourselves in a way that is healthy.  How do we enjoy the life God has given us to the fullest?  I hope you’ll join us in person or online!

In Christ,

Sam

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

Monday, October 8, 2018

Am I My Neighbor's Keeper?

Lectionary Reading: Mark 10:17-31 (NRSV)

One of my favorite shows when I was pretty small was Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.  It came on right as I got home from preschool and I would watch it while my mom fixed me lunch.

He always opened the show by coming in and changing into his more relaxed outfit including some comfortable shoes all while singing his opening theme song.

I think the line that stuck with me was, "I always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.  I always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you."

Fred Rogers taught some important lessons about being a good neighbor such as how it is better to build someone up rather than tear them down.  It is more helpful to point out what a person is good at than to highlight their weaknesses.

"I think those who try to make you feel less than you are - that's the greatest evil," Rogers said in the film, Won't You Be My Neighbor?

I wonder if this is what Jesus perceived to be the fault in the rich man in today's reading.  Maybe he kept all of the laws just like he kept all of his money - to put himself above others.  To truly relate and follow Jesus, he would have to set aside his wealth which became a barrier.

Unfortunately, he couldn't do it.

We don't often imagine that people could turn down Jesus.  When he calls the disciples, they seem to drop everything and follow - almost as if Jesus has this magical sway over them.  But the man in today's reading shows us that this is not the case.  He freely rejects Jesus.

What does it mean for Christians to be neighborly to one another?  How do we love our neighbors as we love ourselves?  As we become more connected online, we also seem to be less connected with the people who inhabit the homes around us.  It could be that we are only really interested in being neighborly with the people who have more in common with us.

As we think about our Christian stewardship, it is interesting that the money we give to the church goes to help us fulfill our call to be good neighbors.  While we can't pay someone to be a Christian for us, we can support ministries that change the lives of people we won't even meet.  Maybe this is how we can be the neighbors that Fred Rogers always wanted to have!

In Christ,

Sam
 

File photo posted via Flickr.com by Rogelio A. Galaviz C. through the Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

But I Was Waiting for Jesus!

Scripture Reading: Mark 9:30-37 (NRSV)

What do you imagine Jesus to look like?  Most of us will think back to paintings we have seen from our childhood.  Jesus might be praying in the garden or carrying a sheep (although there isn't any evidence that he was ever a shepherd).  Some of us picture him standing at the door and knocking!

I don't remember any pictures of him being clean-shaven (he was most likely bearded).  He is also in fairly good shape in all of the portrayals.  In some he might be thinner (which was also more likely for a peasant in that age and locale) but you never see him overweight.  You may not have even imagined a larger Jesus but Matthew and Luke both agree that some called him a glutton in his day so I suppose it is possible.

In a class in seminary, I saw how Jesus was portrayed in art throughout the world.  While he seems to be blond and blue-eyed in America, I have seen him as black, Asian or Native American.  What any of these do is speak to the incarnational aspect of Jesus.  Jesus is God-incarnate.

Jesus is someone we can simultaneously identify with and yet, gives us the best example of what our human potential holds.

This incarnational aspect is broadened by Jesus himself when he begins to identify with other categories.  In the Judgment of the Nations in Matthew 25, Jesus connects his followers with the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and imprisoned.  We begin to see people in these conditions as in need of our help because who wouldn't want to help Jesus?

Our ability to place God on the cross means that this incarnational ministry is willing to suffer rejection and violence.  God is somehow present with us when we are suffering.

Today's reading in Mark also has an incarnational aspect.


Where do we see Jesus today?
Children are identified with Jesus.  It is important to note that we hold children in great regard in our culture today.  This was not so in first century Palestine.  It is a definite contrast for his disciples arguing over who was the greatest.  Many would overlook a child because this association might actually lower your status in the eyes of the community.  So when Jesus says that welcoming a child is the same as welcoming him, it is shocking.  He might as well have dropped a rattlesnake in their midst when he presents to them a child.  Okay, this last is an exaggeration but you get the point I'm trying to make!

I like the idea of serving Jesus in theory.  I'm not sure I serve Jesus as concretely as he states that I am able.  It is easy to let the homeless shuffle on by as I declare, "I'm saving this place at my table for Jesus!"  How do we identify Jesus with the vulnerable?  Isn't solidarity with the outsider a part of the betrayal and death of which Jesus speaks in today's reading?  We are there some of the time but not all of the time.  So what does the incarnation mean when we are on the inside?

We'll continue to examine Mark's Gospel in worship this Sunday.  I hope you'll join us if you are in the vicinity!

In Christ,

Sam


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


Tuesday, September 11, 2018

I Didn't Sign Up for This!

Lectionary Reading: Mark 8:27-38 (NRSV)

I prefer to know what is expected of me in advance.  When someone has a sales pitch, they often want to make small-talk first in order to soften me up.  Once we've established a friendship, it will be harder for me to turn them down (in theory).  I'm not such an easy mark though.

Once, Sheryl and I somehow got signed up for a time-share pitch in Mexico.  We both went into the pitch adamant that we were not purchasing anything.  They worked on us and showed us around.  They took us to a nice breakfast and they had comped us with tickets to various excursions.

They tried to get us to participate by writing down the things we were looking for in a vacation.  Since this was past the time limit they had originally given us, we were no longer playing around.  They even had two sales reps playing the "good cop, bad cop" routine with us.  We would not be coerced or shamed into buying!  The rep playing the role of the good cop mentioned to us when we were alone, "I've never seen anyone with a blank sheet of paper before!" indicating their inability to move us toward a purchase.


While this may be unethical to waste their time knowing that we were not going to go through with it, I will say that they were very pushy to get us into their resort to begin with!  We were very up front about our intentions so they shouldn't have been surprised that we kept to our word.  So I guess, let the seller beware!

Sometimes the main thing gets diluted!
As we read today's scripture, we see that Peter seems to have buyer's remorse when he finally realizes what discipleship under Jesus is leading him toward.  I can hardly blame him.  If you were looking for glory, fame and honor tied to an earthly kingdom and then found out that you might end up dying, you might be a little disillusioned as well!  Peter may have been thinking, "This is more than I bargained for!" or "I didn't sign up for this!"  Jesus is speaking a bit cryptically when he talks about saving and losing our lives.

It seems as if the spiritual life is not as straightforward as the material world.  Sometimes I wish it was.  In the material world, I can make a purchase and know what I'm buying before I get it.  I know how many hours I'll have to work to earn the money for that purchase.  As far as my investment of time and work, I can estimate if it is worth the effort.

But how often do we really make these calculations?

What does it mean to follow Jesus?

What does it mean to follow Jesus today?  There is no physical manifestation and so it is much less tangible to us than it was for Peter.  What are the rewards?  More importantly, what are the costs?

I hope you'll join us as we consider these questions together in worship on Sunday!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo used from Flickr.com via Creative Commons.


Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Talking Past Each Other

Lectionary Reading: Mark 7:24-37 (NRSV)


I’ve served as a mediator several times in my life for people.  Usually, it is because I am the pastor of both parties but sometimes it has been for ministerial colleagues. 

Sometimes we silence those
who need to be heard.
The difficulty of communication that oftentimes calls for a mediator is that when we are emotionally charged, we often talk past one another.  It becomes difficult to hear the other person because we are defensive and feel that what they are saying will somehow be costly for us to acknowledge.  This occurs in family dynamics quite often.
It feels like a win when we can have real communication take place.  One of the functions I perform is to repeat back to the person speaking what I think I hear them saying.  If I got it correct, I ask for a response from the other person.  We try to avoid blaming language with absolutes such as “You always…” or “You never…” because this stirs up the emotions and puts the person on the defensive rather than getting to the heart of the issue.  A good mediator is really a referee that keeps things in check by stating, “These are the rules that we will play by during this conversation.”  Then I sometimes have to call a foul if someone violates the rule and ask them to restate it in another way.

I find out more often than not that when we can get to the heart of the issue, reconciliation is possible.  This doesn’t mean that agreement takes place but it does mean that people feel heard and thus respected.

At first glance, we see two somewhat unrelated stories in today’s lectionary reading of Mark.  But as we look further, we may see how a connection is made.  Jesus and the disciples fail to hear the Gentile woman when she is first encountered.  Yet she seems to redefine the mission to include her sick child as well.  They hear her and Jesus allows her to redefine it by healing the child.

Then we see Jesus heal a man who is deaf and mute.  Now that he can truly hear, he begins to proclaim the good news.  It is a miraculous story but it can also be an allegory for Christian discipleship.  We must really hear (connect) with Jesus before we can really proclaim the message.  And according to the first story, hearing may include leaving our assumptions about others at the door. 

This goes along with the old adage that before we open our mouths to speak, we should listen.

I look forward to preaching on this passage on Sunday!

In Christ,

Sam

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

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

What is the Bigger Picture?

Lectionary Reading: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (NRSV)

We hear a lot of frustration with our political system being ineffective.  It is difficult to pass legislation that is clean.  In order to get this vote or that vote, you must agree to certain riders that benefit individual states rather than the country as a whole.  I was more vocal in my dissatisfaction until I started attending The United Methodist Church's General Conference as a delegate.

In 2012, I was astounded at the amount of time we spent amending the rules.  It seemed to go on all evening.  We finally adjourned and the next day we would begin to vote on all of these amendments.  These were not changes to our Discipline which would move us forward as a global church.  These were debates over how we would treat each other in the limited time we were conferencing.  In my past experiences, we never had time to finish all of the work proposed and so I felt the clock ticking.

The next morning, I went to the microphone and proposed that we postpone indefinitely all of the amendments to the rules that were before us.  This would effectively make them go away and so we could simply vote on all the rules as presented by the committee.  I was actually in favor of many of the changes that were proposed but I was willing to go with the presented rules in order to have more time for the important work of dealing with all of the legislation written by United Methodists from around the world.  I felt that as a delegate, I must be a good steward with the time allotted.  These members had paid our way to serve on their behalf and so it seems that we should attend to as much legislation as we possibly could.
Some trees are so interesting,
they prevent us from seeing the
overall forest.

One of the arguments was that we should not just rubber stamp what the committee has approved.  I agree when it comes to legislation for the church.  However, I felt that the rules committee had overall developed a good way for us to conference together.  My proposal passed 491 to 367.

Sometimes we need to look at the bigger picture.  We need to prioritize.  All human beings get caught up in this - we see it reflected in our Gospel reading.  Jesus seems to recognize this as the Pharisees were so concerned about purity laws that it was leaving people in the dust.  Many of the common daily laborers would not have been able to observe all of the cleanliness laws.  In an effort to distinguish themselves from the Roman occupiers, the Pharisees cut out a wide swath of society who would like to be faithful but unable to comply on a daily basis.  

When the law of purity supersedes the law of love, Jesus seems to remind us that what God really wants us to pay attention to is how well we interact with one another.

I'll be looking at this passage on Sunday.  If you are out for Labor Day weekend, we'll have a video archive online for you to check out!

In Christ,

Sam

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Universal Access to God

Lectionary Reading: 1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43 (NRSV)

King Solomon is particularly gracious in today's reading.  Within the last few verses, he names Gentiles (foreigners not of Israel) and implores God to hear their prayers.

It is done for a missional purpose - so that all people may come to know God.  If other people see the power of God, they, too, will want to revere God.

Even though it is more comfortable for Solomon - if all worshipped God, there would be less trouble for Jews in the world - there is a graciousness that would make friends of strangers rather than see them as enemies to be destroyed.  

This goes against the territorialism that was rampant among humanity at the time.  Each geographic region had its own gods and deference was given to the gods of a conquering country over those of a defeated country.  This is as simple as liking the winning team.

Solomon understands the blessings that God has bestowed upon his country and wants to extend these blessings throughout the world so that the worship of God may spread across this same world.  The remarkable movement in this logic is that he doesn't ask God to smite his enemies but rather convert them.

It is similar to the quote from Abraham Lincoln: "Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?"

Territorialism usually occurs when we are afraid of losing what we have.  It comes when we are fearful of the stranger and it sometimes turns ugly when we perceive that someone or some group is going to usurp our way of life.  One can look at the post-Civil War lynching of African Americans as an example of a dominant group refusing to allow another group to gain economic or social traction in their region.  


At times, even the seemingly harmless practice
of using prayer beads has come under critique.
Sometimes territorialism is religious.  In 1980, Dr. Bailey Smith, of Del City, Oklahoma and President of the Southern Baptist Convention, set off a firestorm when he declared to the SBC that God did not hear the prayers of Jews.  This set up quite a debate at the time with many Southern Baptists disagreeing with Dr. Smith.  HIs claim was that if a prayer was not in the name of Jesus, it was ineffective.

More recently, a similar controversy among Christianity and Islam occurred when Wheaton College professor Dr. Larycia Hawkins was suspended because she made a public claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  Her wearing of the hijab during Advent in support of unity likely contributed to the suspension.  Interestingly enough, Dr. Hawkins also has an Oklahoma connection in that she received her Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma.  

What does it mean for us today to pray in the spirit of Solomon that those who are dislike us in so many ways would have their prayers answered?  Is there a perceived danger in this?  If my enemy prospers, will I then be diminished?  

It is hard to be gracious in this matter.  If it were easy, I suppose, world peace would already be at hand.  And yet, I do pray for world peace so maybe this is a good subject to examine.  I hope you'll join us for worship this Sunday either in Edmond or on the web!

In Christ,

Sam

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