Monday, December 3, 2018

I Would LIke to Be Blameless...

Sunday's Lectionary Reading: Philippians 1:3-11 (NRSV)



Growing up, I was taught to watch my mouth.  Cussing was especially prohibited.  There were lots and lots of words that I was not allowed to say.  One time, I ventured into some verbal country that was restricted.  In response, my mom washed my mouth out with soap.  For our younger readers, this meant my mom put a bar of soap into my mouth and made me rub it around until it started to create suds.

Of course, this tastes awful!  Even after rinsing your mouth out with water afterward, you can still taste the soap for a while.  It is considered harmful today and I am not advocating this as a disciplinary method (just to be clear). 

Of course, I professed my innocence!  I was being subjected to an injustice!  I didn’t even know that word was bad – I was just trying it out!

Except that this was not true.  While I wasn’t 100% sure the word in question was on the naughty list, I was probably 90% sure.  I was pushing my luck.

Later when I was in college, I went through a profanity phase.  It was my little rebellion as I was trying to figure out who I was as an adult.  I can remember offending other students in my classes.  They must have been too sensitive!  I was just toughening them up!  My intrusion on their ears was actually good for them, you see.

Essentially, I was putting my own desires (I can talk any way that pleases me) above the common good.  There was no personal responsibility to check myself or to make sure I was not harming someone else.

At the time, I wouldn’t have considered myself guilty of anything wrong. 

Except that I never spoke that way to my parents or grandparents. 

So there was some semblance of knowledge of right and wrong or I would have trod over their feelings as well.  Eventually, I matured and realized that words hold power and some words have the power to offend or hurt.  I (mostly) try to use my language to help and heal now which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

As Paul writes to the church at Philippi in Sunday’s epistle, he wishes for them that their love would overflow with knowledge and insight that would lead to discernment toward the correct action.  In this way, they will be blameless.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be blameless?

To have a “Get out of jail free” card?

In today’s society, it sometimes feels like we are moving away from personal responsibility and replacing it with the outright denial of guilt.  If you are wrong, just don’t ever admit it.

Except somewhere inside you know.

This Sunday, we will look at Paul’s encounters with the church at Philippi.  These certainly influenced his letter and how they read it.  As we prepare our hearts and minds for Christmas, “doing no harm” would certainly keep us from blame better than outright denial.  I hope you’ll join us for worship as we figure out what to get Jesus for his birthday this year!

In Christ,

Sam

Monday, November 26, 2018

Growing in Love Together

Lectionary Reading for Sunday: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 (NRSV)

One of the blessings for me this year was on Mother's Day.  Mom was living in Bradford Village and was close to the end of her life.  We gathered around her after church and she knew each of us.  She was happy to eat the candy that we brought her!  As we continued to visit, I could see her getting tired.  She and my dad were sitting on the couch together and she leaned over against him and fell asleep with her head on his chest as his arm was around her.  You could see that both of them appreciated this quiet moment when they could just be near each other again.  They were companions for the majority of their lives.

They had ups and downs.  There were times when each was exasperated with the other.  There were times when they asked themselves, "Who have I yoked myself with?"  But there were also times when they celebrated the joys of life together that reminded them why they had married in the first place.  Over the years, they grew in love with one another.  After Mom passed, Dad didn't quite last 5 months.  I think it was that when she died, he was ready to go too.  After 63 years of marriage, he may not have been able to adjust to life without her.

As we consider romantic relationships, we hope to have someone that we grow to love completely - someone who really knows us and loves us anyway!

As the Advent season arrives, we find ourselves waiting on Christmas once more.  We may be searching for Christmas gifts for those whom we love.  There are some we love and know quite well but still are not sure what to get!

But if we move to a more spiritual understanding of Advent, we would think about our relationship with Jesus.  It is an odd season as we await the birth of Jesus because he has already been born!  He is with us as the risen Christ even as we look toward celebrating Christmas again.


So much of the time, we hear lamenting over the commercialization of the season.  Sometimes we are the ones doing the complaining!  How could we focus more on Jesus during this Advent?

Does Black Friday shopping ever help us 
in our good will toward others?
As Sunday's reading indicates, Paul bids Jesus to make us "increase and abound in love for one another and for all."  I think about my parents' marriage and how they grew in love with one another through their lives.  I believe that my own marriage is moving in this same direction.  But what about my love for all?  Do I love others more completely than I did last year?  Have I grown distant in how I feel about others - maybe as a result of the polarization that on the rise?

If we are reluctant to answer or are unsure how we feel, I think this is a good time for us to re-examine what we can do to remedy this.  How can we approach our relationships with others like we would a marriage relationship?  The failure of a marriage is when it ends in divorce.  This is a painful ending that I wouldn't wish on anyone.  So how can we weather a relationship when we find it difficult so that we can find our good will deepening rather than lessening?

If nothing else, this would be a good gift to offer Jesus this year.  Join us on Sunday as we strengthen our resolve to follow the apostle Paul's will for our lives for our love for others to abound!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Craig Dugas vis Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

What's a Punch Card?

Lectionary Reading: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 (NRSV)


As Thanksgiving approaches, it is almost time to look toward Christmas.  There will be lots of things vying for our time.  But some things will always win out.  For example, when our preschool presents its Christmas program, I would dare say that it will be the most recorded event in FUMC history!

Our phones allow us to capture remarkable amounts of data that we assume will be around forever.  However, technology is changing so fast, will the file formats become outdated so that they are next to unreadable?  Surely not, we say.  Of course, I still have some old cassette tapes and nothing to play them on.  And if I did manage to get them transferred to CD or DVD, my latest laptop doesn’t even have a drive on which to play them!


Some may have trouble using
this today.  They might ask, 
"How does it take a picture?"
Following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, the National Opinion Research Center conducted a survey of citizen reactions.  They kept it on the latest technology of that time – punch cards for the large mainframe computers.  After 9/11, they wanted to conduct a similar survey but when they went back to look at the data from 1963, they found that there was no way to read it!  They eventually went to an outside source but their machinery was in need of refurbishment before they could access the punch cards.  Eventually, they were able to look at the original research.

There are things that we assume will be around forever.  Of course, this comes from our self-centered perspective because we can’t imagine life changing so radically beyond what we know.

How does that relate to the word we hear from Daniel this week?  He speaks of an “everlasting dominion that shall not pass away” in verse 14 of today’s reading.  As we approach the Reign of Christ Sunday, we interpret this dominion to be that of Jesus Christ.  But just as we ascribe eternity to this reign, churches in the United States are seeing less people active in them.  More churches are closing and most churches will see less people attending this Sunday than they registered for the same Sunday one year ago.

Does this movement away from church belie the statement from Daniel?  Or are we seeing the expression of faith and spirituality change to something different? 

We trust in an everlasting dominion but we must also understand that the expression of it may change to look like something we may not recognize.  How do we incorporate change into our faith while still maintaining what we consider crucial?  I will wrestle with this question all week and hopefully bring some insight to it on Sunday!

In Christ,

Sam

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

Monday, November 12, 2018

Have I Got a Deal for You!

Lectionary Reading: 1 Samuel 1:4-20 (NRSV)

This is a fascinating look at how women were viewed in antiquity within the Middle East.  In it, we see the backstory of the prophet Samuel's mother, Hannah.  Most scholars place Samuel in the 11th century before the birth of Jesus.  The book was likely edited sometime after the Exile but this still gives us a glimpse into gender relationships.

We see the story from Hannah's perspective which is revolutionary in itself.  A woman with no children?  This is problematic as a woman's worth was correlated to how many children she bore.  We see this in verse five as it describes her husband's love for her in spite of the fact that she was childless.  He doesn't seem as concerned about this because he already had another wife, Peninnah with whom he had multiple sons and daughters.

It must have been difficult if you measured worth by children and you had none.  Rather than a supportive relationship between the two wives, they had a rivalry, likely because Hannah was perceived as the favorite even though Peninnah was the one who bore Elkanah his children.

We also see the strong belief that God was the one who allowed women to conceive.  They understood how babies came to be, but this was thought to be a blessing from God.  Deuteronomy 7:14 declares to God's covenant people, "You shall be the most blessed of peoples, with neither sterility nor barrenness among you or your livestock."  Of course, this is conditional upon verse 12's understanding that the people will "heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them."

The difficulty of this theology taken on the surface is that it places the guilt of childlessness upon the couple.  Either the husband or the wife was faithless to God in some way, resulting in sterility.  For a culture that prized large families, this could be doubly disheartening.  Not only might you have a physical reason for not conceiving, you would find yourself distanced from God.  Of course, we can always come up with ways that we could have been more faithful or sins that we might have committed.

Hannah is not the first woman in the Bible to be highlighted in this condition.  She joins some of the great matriarchs of the Bible in Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel.  Each of these was childless and then blessed by God with a son.

If we attempt to bargain with God, shouldn't 
we already be offering these things in the first place?
Hannah bargains with God by dedicating her future son to the service of God.  Since he would not be the first-born male for Elkanah, her husband would not likely stand in the way of this idea.

Sometimes our desires are congruent with God's will.  Sometimes they are not.  We may often have the notion that if we want something badly enough, then we can bargain with God to get it.  This comes most often with the healing of a loved one (or ourselves).  What if we worship more regularly?  What if we increase our prayer life?  What if we read the Bible more faithfully?  Have we given enough money or time?

How do we appropriately understand God's blessings for our lives as grace and not something earned or bargained for?  It's a good question worth pondering together.  I'll be dealing with this more on Sunday morning!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by "haven't the slightest" via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Knowing God

Scripture Reading: Psalm 146 (NRSV)

It is not possible to prove the existence of God from a scientific standpoint.

The photographer titled this "On the 
ontological nature of high winds..."
This is not something that people of faith should worry about.  And this is not a dig against science or those who employ the scientific method.  As a way of measuring and discovering things within our universe, science has carried us to new heights of knowledge.

But how we know sometimes moves beyond the measurable.  Some people have a strong sense of intuition.  Science may say that this way of knowing simply comes from the subconscious acquisition of data.  The brain processes it in ways we may not recognize and so we say that we rely on our intuition.  We may not be able to explain how we came to the answer or decision but we may often discover that our "intuitions" prove correct.

Faith is another way of knowing.  We may come to faith in God through what we read in scripture such as in today's Psalm.  Faith also comes through our experiences of God that may seem mystical in nature.  Some of my most profound experiences of God leave me feeling connected to others (all of creation, really) in a way that transcends my normal existence.

Faith may also be experienced in the traditions of the church.  When we pray the Lord's Prayer, for instance, it may sometimes just roll off the tongue.  We don't think of it much and we can finish it without pondering what we are really saying.  But other times, a phrase of it may come to us unbidden in just the right moment.  Because it is ingrained in us, we can rely on it when life is difficult.

Faith can also be systematic and rational.  It can make sense.  For instance, if we believe that God does indeed love all people, we may discover value in persons that might otherwise seem disposable.  Our faith then drives us to emulate that same love.  This can become more challenging than comfortable.

So while I don't doubt God's existence, I do acknowledge that the way I know God is different from how I would know the temperature or the time (and for those who are young, there used to be a phone number you could call that would tell you both).

This Sunday's scripture enlightens us as a psalm of praise.  But it does more than that.  It shares characteristics of God that Jesus later picks up on.  And if Jesus thinks they are worth studying further, that is good enough for me.  I hope you'll join us on Sunday as we explore our faith together.  And if you do, you may intrinsically know that you made the right decision!

In Christ,

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

Monday, October 29, 2018

When Those Saints Go Marching In

Lectionary Scripture: Mark 12:28-34 (NRSV)

Mark's reading for Sunday is what I consider one of the key passages of the Bible.  Sometimes, we play the game of "God, what is it you want me to do with my life?"  We just want to know.  Just tell us and we'll do it.

Okay...

If you could ask Jesus, what is the most important passage in scripture, this one pretty much wraps it up.  However, loving God with all our being is not original to Jesus.  He gets it from the Shema which is partly from Deuteronomy 6:4-9.

Loving our neighbor is also from the Torah.  It is found in the second part of Leviticus 19:18.  So while neither of these was unique to Jesus, he does combine them in a way that helps us to focus our faith.  It was the original mission statement for the church!

This Sunday, many churches will celebrate All Saints Day and we are no exception.  Within the Protestant tradition, we refer to the saints as those who are in Christ rather than those especially good people who are now deceased.  So within this understanding, we honor and remember those members of our local churches who have passed away since the last All Saints Day was held.

One of our local traditions has been to have cards available to write down special people or relatives who have passed on but were not a member of our local church.  These are left at the altar rail following Communion and we pray for these families.  It is especially helpful for us to share in Communion on this day because of our eschatological understanding of the sacrament.  We are sharing in faith with one another in the congregation but also with all those Christians who share in the meal together.  Furthermore, we extend that understanding to all those Christians who have passed on to the life eternal.  This Holy Mystery, the United Methodist doctrine on Holy Communion states, "We commune not only with the faithful who are physically present but with the saints of the past who join us in the sacrament."  As we share in Christ, we connect one to another.  And so this remembrance is a way that we seek to connect with our neighbors as we love them just as we love ourselves.

Here I seek to walk as my dad walked at 
an early age.  I later learned there was more
to it than this!
As I consider my own saints who have gone on before me, both my parents have passed on this year.  Since they were not members of my local church, I will be writing their names on cards and leaving them at the altar.  Both have epitomized the Christian faith for me each in their own way.  I stand taller and see farther because I stand on the shoulders of these giants that have preceded me.

I hope you will consider this week those who have impacted you but no longer walk this earth.  May we give thanks to God for their examples.  And may we seek to follow as best we can!

In Christ,

Sam
 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Take Heart, Get Up, He is Calling You

Lectionary Reading: Mark 10:46-52 (NRSV)

How we find a relationship with Jesus presents itself in today's reading.  Blind Bartimaeus is a good representation of you and me.  We are generally unenlightened until we are called forth by Jesus to a new life of discipleship.

Of course, this doesn't apply nearly as well when a person has been raised knowing Jesus within a church culture.  It is hard to repent of a lifestyle if that lifestyle has always included elements of worship, study, prayer, service and repentance.  Can you be blind if you have always known Jesus?

Sometimes, we can be so comfortable with our faith that it is no longer challenging and we adapt Christianity to mirror our lives.  In the old days, churches would hold revivals so as to wake people up (or let them see again).  Often, someone other than the regular pastor would be brought in to preach - likely so the preacher could assume the role of the prophet rather than the priest.  

Within these roles, the priest is often the one that brings comfort to the listener while the prophet is the one who seeks to bring transformation.  Of course, no one likes change.  The prophet is likely as not to step on some toes.

My particular role dips back and forth between the two hopefully in a way that moves the congregation forward while keeping the majority from deciding that my style is not too abrasive.  It can be a bit of a tightrope at times.

As we remind ourselves of our vows to give, this is an area where we may all need some movement.  I know of plenty of examples where pastors have flubbed the stewardship message.  It is not too difficult to offend people by talking about money.  And so, many pastors ignore the subject all together because they may decide that it is too risky.  However, Jesus talks quite a bit about money.  If I am to be faithful, it needs to be addressed.



Giving is about our priorities.  When we talk about our priorities in life, we usually rank God first (at least when we're talking in Sunday school).  Then comes family and maybe country or work or school depending upon the person.  But if God were really first in our lives, wouldn't our spending better reflect this?  As we pledge, there may be too many years where our pledge remains the same.  Occasionally, our income may go down and so keeping it the same is a sacrifice as we are giving a greater percentage of our income.  It may be that our resources have largely remained the same in which case, this might also be appropriate.  Most people grow in their earning capacity and so our giving capacity should also reflect this.

One of the most common reasons for a lack of increase has to do with whether or not one likes the pastor.  If the pastor is well-liked, the giving may increase.  If the pastor is not appreciated, sometimes people begin to withhold their money.  Their hopes may be that if the church begins to tank, this will put pressure on the powers that be to send a new pastor.  Unfortunately, people are confusing their gifts to God with gifts to the pastor.  If you go to a restaurant, you may skimp on the tip if the service was bad but you still have to take care of the bill.  And so, if you withhold your gift, it is kind of like giving God a bad tip.

I believe that our gift to God should not be influenced by the likeability of the pastor.  If this is the case, there are always things to be upset about.  The length of the sermon, the color of the carpet, the new programming - all of these variables may or may not please.  God's faithfulness is eternal and deserves better than our gift changing with our mood.

These last few paragraphs were an example of prophetic writing.  As I shift back into the priestly role, I do want to praise our congregation on how we have moved forward in our giving.  Our percentage of e-giving likely leads our conference if not our denomination.  Our percentage of active members who pledge is also outstanding!

This Sunday, I'll finish our stewardship series as we examine our love of our neighbors, ourselves and God.  We've already covered neighbor and self and so this Sunday we'll examine our love of God.  Blind Bartimaeus gives us a clue on grace and our response.  I hope you'll join us on Sunday and I'll do my best not to tromp on any of your toes!

In Christ,

Sam


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