Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Why Not Start a New Year with Worship?

Unfortunately for American pastors, Christmas falling on a Sunday means that New Year's Day also falls on a Sunday as well.  For those that ring in the new year at midnight, this makes it a little difficult to rise and shine for church the next morning.
Eating black eyed peas on New Year's Day
is supposed to bring good luck.  Keeping our
eye on good consequences usually means
a little more effort on our part though!

Within the Methodist tradition, John Wesley would often encourage his churches to hold Watch Night Services on New Year's Eve which would sometimes last three hours or more.  These were a type of covenant service that allowed for the participants to renew their faith before God and one another in the coming year. These would also be held on New Year's Day.

Within Methodism, we understand that sometimes people fall away from the faith.  They quit attending as regularly and may discover other pursuits on Sunday mornings.  This was commonly referred to as backsliding in the 19th century and is a term still used today but not as frequently.  It involves our ability to turn from God and move along our own path.  Those Christians of Calvinist persuasion would say that there is a perseverance of the saints that prevents those of real faith to backslide.  It means that backsliders never had real faith in the first place.

Of course, this means that outsiders are interpreting your faith for you.  How do they know if your faith if real or not?  I do know that backsliding comes to me in all kinds of ways.  I've had plenty of times in my life when I didn't exercise as faithfully as I might. Did these lazier times diminish the work that I put in when I was more determined? Within an understanding of free will, we recognize that change comes to human beings all the time.  Renewing our covenant is about recognizing that I do need God's help to become a more regularly faithful person.

This Sunday, we will celebrate a Wesleyan Covenant Service at 8:30 and 11:00 am in the Sanctuary and at 10:50 am in Wesley Hall at First United Methodist Church of Edmond. It won't be our most crowded service due to the intersection of the holiday but it will undoubtedly be very meaningful for those who come (and it will be an hour, not three!).  I will be preaching on Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 and my sermon title (with a nod to Chicago) will be "Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?"  Many blessings to you as we close out another year.  May we renew our faith and may it give us strength for the coming year.

In Christ,

Sam


Photo used via Flickr.com under the Creative Commons license.
  

Sunday, December 18, 2016

What Are You Doing This Weekend?

During Sunday school, we had a good discussion on various Christmas traditions.  Some are overtly religious such as going to the Christmas Eve Candlelight service while others could be perceived as fairly secular like shopping for presents or looking at Christmas lights.

There is no good Biblical rationale for celebrating the birthday of Jesus on December 25.  In fact, there have been celebrations during this time of the year that pre-date not only Christianity but also recorded human history.  Pagan festivals were celebrated during the darkest time of the year near the winter solstice when the sunlight was at a minimum.  These gave hope that the longer daylight would eventually begin to return. 

Mistletoe was originally a sacred plant used
by European druids before being re-appropriated
as a Christmas tradition!
Some claim that the observation of Christmas merely replaced pagan celebrations such as the Roman cult of the Sol Invictus or unconquered sun.  However, this should not keep us from celebrating during this time of year or even enjoying traditions that have been co-opted such as the Christmas tree.

The story of the Incarnation fits very well with the celebrations following winter solstice that observe the return of the sun.  Both have to do with hope coming during a time of darkness.

Christianity, by celebrating the Incarnation of God, gives us an understanding of the love of God which penetrates the human condition.  As God comes in the flesh as Jesus Christ, we see from the story of the death of infants at the hand of Herod that God is made vulnerable in a world where suffering is very real.  While he escapes this immediate danger to his life, we see that it does catch up to him at the cross.

But this suffering and death is never the end of the Christian story.  Even these are transformed in the Christian worldview.
 
And so we celebrate “God with us” at Christmas.

We recognize that this story transcends culture as it relates to all people because all people are in need of hope.  All people struggle with darkness.  All people need the light of the world!

If you are in the Edmond area this coming weekend, we will celebrate with candlelight worship.  We will have a special live nativity this Friday (Dec 23) at 6 pm followed by Worship on Hurd, our contemporary worship service in Wesley Hall at 7 pm.  On Saturday (Dec 24), we will have three separate Christmas Eve services at 4:00 pm (which will be geared more toward children), 7:00 pm and 11:00 pm.  Then on Christmas Day we will combine all of our Sunday morning services at 10:00 am in the sanctuary.  This will be a "come as you are" service for a more relaxed feel that morning as we celebrate Christmas together as the body of Christ.  Nursery is available for all of these worship services except for the 11 pm service.  The sermon and worship will be unique on Friday, Saturday and Sunday so for those who like to collect the whole set, there's something each day of the weekend.

If you have someone you would like to invite, this may be a great way for you to share your faith with them.  After all, we all need hope!

In Christ,

Sam

Photo from Flickr.com, used under the Creative Commons license. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Pride

Pride can be a tricky thing.

Pride may keep us from admitting defeat and spur us on to overcoming adversity.

Animals definitely exhibit a sense
of pride in their accomplishments.
Pride may allow us to exceed others’ expectations of us.

Pride can let us lift up the successes of a loved one’s achievements.

So we can see how it is a positive trait.

But at the same time, pride may keep us from accepting help when we need it.

Pride may cause us to take a joke more personally than intended.

Pride may keep us from reconciling with a friend.

This Sunday’s lectionary reading is Matthew 1:18-25 which is the story of Joseph seeking to dismiss his betrothed because Mary is with child and he knows the baby is not his.

In any relationship today, if there is perceived infidelity, pride becomes wounded and it becomes very difficult for the relationship to recover.  Joseph, however, dreams about Mary and sees the truth.  He re-commits to their relationship and will serve as the earthly father to Jesus.

Even with the dream, I think it would be difficult to serve in this role.  When they moved to Nazareth, would Joseph claim Jesus as his own child or would he try to tell people that Jesus was the son of God?  How believable would that be?  

Joseph would have had to wrestle with his pride over paternity if he told the truth of the relationship.  He might feel as if he were being unfaithful to God if he didn’t. 

Jesus later learns not to let pride hamstring him as he handles criticism with polish.  Did he learn this from Joseph? 

This Sunday, we will finish our series, “Preparing for Presence” (I can’t believe this already the fourth Sunday of Advent) as we look at how the Incarnation may help us choose compassion over prudence.  My sermon title will be “Pride Can Be a Lonely Road.” 

In Christ,

Sam


Photo via Flickr.com, used under the Creative Commons license.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Evangelism and Confirmation

Boston Avenue United Methodist Church
As a two-time winner of the Denman award for Evangelism in the Oklahoma Conference, I have been asked to share the formula or program I use to have larger than average numbers each year for professions of faith of both youth and adults.  As I remember my own profession of faith, it was made at a Sunday morning worship service at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa following my confirmation class.  I remember taking these classes on Sunday afternoons when I was in the 6th grade.  I learned about the Christian faith and we had to jointly develop our own affirmation of faith to explore what we believed.  We used this creed in worship on the Sunday we were confirmed.

When I became a United Methodist minister, the bishop ask me the vow, “Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?”  I took this seriously and have offered confirmation classes every year I have been in ministry.  I have found that there are always families in the communities I’ve served who have been interested in their children learning more about the faith, taking the vows for themselves and receiving baptism if they never have.

Confirmation service in 2001
I have moved the classes to the Sunday school period.  This is important in that I emphasize to the class and to the parents the importance of regular worship.  Our expectation is that the student attend not only the class but worship as well.  Occasionally, you have a student or parent who has a pattern of only attending Sunday school and while this may be all they are willing to commit to at this point in their lives, the rhythm of regular worship is a vital part of becoming a full member of the church.  It is less likely for the student or family to skip worship if the classes are held during Sunday school.  Inviting the confirmands to serve as liturgists or to help the pastor serve the elements during Holy Communion are important ways for them to grow in their faith during this time. 

I utilize twelve class sessions.  We begin in January when many families are ready to make a new commitment to regular worship and learning in their lives.  They experience this regular pattern together and for twelve weeks, they attend both Sunday school and worship.  Some Christian educators prefer a longer confirmation time of 15 or 20 weeks and some go for a full year.  I’ve found that for people outside the church who are new to the faith, twelve weeks is just long enough to be a significant commitment but not too long to scare people away.

We offer adult confirmation classes at the same time.  Since I am at a larger church, I am fortunate to have an associate pastor to lead this.  He leads the parents or other interested adults in the very same material during Sunday school each Sunday morning.  If these parents went through confirmation themselves, it has likely been years since they have studied this material.  This is helpful as a time of faith renewal for the whole family.  Parents can have conversations during lunch after church about what they each learned in class that day.  I often find with a  class of fifteen to twenty students that we have at least a few parents who are not members of our church and some who have never made a profession of faith or been baptized.  During the confirmation worship service, the parents are invited to renew their vows along with their children.  Many of the parents will join the church during this time with their children, making their own profession of faith and even being baptized alongside one another if they have never received this sacrament.

For smaller churches, I would advise inviting the Lay Leader or some other adult leader of the congregation to teach the adult classes.  Some years a new adult Sunday school class is formed from this group after the twelve weeks together.  We also invite other adults to act as mentors to our confirmands.  They share with them throughout the confirmation time notes of encouragement and may see them in worship and even help out with youth fellowship for an evening or two, arranging with the confirmand these outings.  This is helpful in the faith formation of our adults who serve as well as to give our youth a larger comfort and connection within our congregation. 

Our 2016 class at the cross at Canyon!
We take several field trips on Sunday afternoons or after school throughout the class period.  Because I serve in an urban setting, field trips are easier than for a rural church.  However, the road trip would still be a helpful thing for the class to bond if you live farther away.  Visits can be made to various extension ministries which show some of the different ways we interact with the world as United Methodists.  On the confirmation Sunday, we take an afternoon hike at Canyon Camp to show them this wonderful United Methodist setting for ministry but also to let them be comfortable with the facility as we hope to return with them later in the summer for one of our week-long church camps.  We sometimes invite other youth on these field trips who have already experienced the confirmation classes themselves in order to help our new confirmands feel comfortable in the youth group.  Membership in the church means being active and the youth group is the most natural way for our confirmands to continue to grow in their faith as they move on to sanctification!

We market our class.  We keep a database of all families who visit throughout the year and contact those who have youth.  There are always families on the rolls that we haven’t seen for a while who have children the appropriate age.  We make our best attempt to invite all of these through letters, emails and calls to participate in this wonderful time of faith formation.  Other avenues that may be available in your community would be to invite members of the Scout Troops that may meet in your churches.  Some middle schools publish class directories and if you can acquire one for your church, you can send a letter to all the parents in your community.  Social media is a wonderful tool that will let you market your ad to parents in your setting for very little cost.  Ask the students you’ve enrolled to see if they have friends who do not attend church who they would either invite themselves or be willing to let you invite on their behalf.  Since we offer ours in January, an emphasis during the announcements before the Christmas Eve worship service is especially helpful.  There are many people in every community with a school who have experienced confirmation in their youth but have fallen away from regular church attendance.  Sometimes your letter or contact will serve as God’s prevenient grace, nudging them back to the community of faith.

That is it.  I love Easter and Christmas Eve but Confirmation Sunday is my favorite worship service of the year.  It has become a time of celebration in the churches I’ve served for the entire congregation.  As an ordained elder who has vowed to instruct the children, what a joy it is to share our faith with others who need it at this critical juncture in their lives.  I can’t imagine what my middle or high school years would have been like without my faith lived out through my church home.  Although I made plenty of poor choices in those years, I know that my faith kept me on the right path, knowing what was expected of me as a faithful Christian.  Sharing this faith with others who are beginning in middle school is life giving.  It renews my own faith and renews the church.  If you are a pastor or lay member of a congregation reading this, I would encourage you to begin planning for your own confirmation class for your church.  It is never too late to start!


Picture of Boston Avenue via Flickr.com, used under the Creative Commons license. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

What Kind of a Winning Team is This?

This Charlie Brown Christmas tree
may be more Biblical than
at first glance.
The Third Sunday of Advent is on the way.  The lectionary’s Gospel reading is Matthew11:2-11.  As we continue with Matthew’s passages dealing with John the Baptist (to help prepare the way of the Lord), we see John asking Jesus if he is the Messiah. 

Jesus responds with a message about helping the blind and the lame.  He also mentions the poor.

This is not exactly a recipe for a successful revolution.

If you want to overthrow a government, you should be courting friendships among the rich and the powerful.  Political allies would be nice as well.  How about some dinners with some foreign dignitaries?  Okay Jesus, let’s see who is on your event calendar for your next meal.

Um, the lepers?

Jesus has some work to do if he’s going to become any kind of Messiah.

As we Prepare for Presence this Advent, this may solidify our understanding of the Kingdom of God being substantially different to earthly understandings of kingdom. 

The Incarnation keeps connecting us with people that we would unconsciously avoid.

At the very least, people in need are not people that we seek for advantages in life.  Their friendships are not cultivated for our gain.  Maybe this is helpful for us to contemplate.

As we look to the coming of Christ in our lives again this Christmas, what kind of Messiah are we looking for?  One clue is that ours is not born in a palace but rather a barn.

In Christ,

Sam

Photo used via Flickr.com under the Creative Commons license.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Balance Between Confidence and Repentance

Townshend shown smashing his guitar
which violently celebrates assurance.
This may also show the need for reflection!
Robert Frost once said, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”  I wonder if Pete Townshend of The Who was thinking about this quote when he wrote the Baba O’Riley lyric, “I don’t need to fight, to prove I’m right.  I don’t need to be forgiven.” 

The Townshend quote seems to speak about self-assurance and may have been influenced from the anti-war movement of the late-1960’s and early 1970’s.  I think it challenges basic ideas of worth and value from that era.
 
It also simultaneously supports and opposes Christian theology:

  Violence is not necessary when debating ideas. 

   Forgiveness is necessary by everyone.

This speaks to me of balance within the Christian tradition.  Christianity would certainly support self-assurance as lifted up by Frost (and Townshend).  We speak of being made in God’s image.  The psalmist writes that human beings are “a little lower than the angels.” (Psalm 8:5)  We seek to become Christ-like in our actions within the Wesleyan tradition.

Yet, we also recognize that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  The doctrine of original sin places humanity in a state where all people are in need of God’s grace.  I have argued that evolutionary science agrees with this stance with the idea that the reptile brain or more primitive brain that is present in mammals contains the fight or flight mentalities that people revert to when stressed.  In other words, science points out that we all have selfish tendencies that we need to overcome.    

So I would argue that in order to become more Christ-like in our actions, we do need forgiveness.  More importantly, we need repentance.  While confidence is important to achievement, confidence without reflection is dangerous.
 
As I continue to preach on “Preparing for Presence,” what does the Incarnation have to do with repentance?  Our lectionary reading for the Gospel is Matthew 3:1-12 and John the Baptizer certainly emphasizes the need for our repentance.  How does this help us to prepare for Christmas?

My sermon title for Sunday will be “Yes, I’m Okay and You’re Okay.  But Not All the Time.”  We’ll broadcast it via Facebook live or you can review it later on the church’s Facebook page if you can’t join us in person.  My hope is that the sermon won’t cause you to lose either your temper or your self-confidence!

In Christ,


Sam


Photo by Heinrich Klaffs [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, November 21, 2016

If Only Cool Whip Could Cover My Sins

Thanksgiving will be here before we know it. 

That's about half of the amount of whipped cream
that Sheryl likes on her pumpkin pie!
My son, David, and I have a tradition that we’ve started where we bake a couple of pumpkin pies.  They are the opposite of baking from scratch in that we buy canned pumpkin along with a frozen pie crust.  We call it “Dump, Bake, Done” in that we dump all the ingredients in a mixing bowl, pour it into the pie crust, bake it and then we are done. 

Let’s face it, when you slather a warm piece of pumpkin pie in cool whip, the best piece of pumpkin pie you ever had was probably not all that different from the worst piece.

It also has the added teasing bonus of driving David’s sister Kyla crazy in that she has baked from scratch before and insists that we aren’t doing it right!

Following Thanksgiving will be Black Friday when the retailers go in the black.  Of course, now you can start shopping Thursday night if you don’t mind making people work on Thanksgiving.  I’ve done the Black Friday thing before, waking up super early to get to the big box store.  While some people may really enjoy the competitive shopping and make this an annual rite, I've discovered it's not for me.

All of the feasting, wrangling with relatives and Christmas shopping leads us to the first Sunday of Advent over the weekend.  This year, I’m preaching a four-week series entitled, “Preparing for Presence” as we think about the doctrine of the Incarnation.
 
The first Sunday’s lectionary reading is Matthew 24:36-44 and it deals with the unexpected intrusion of God in our lives.  It has kind of a negative connotation.  I know many people who defend it, saying, “If you are right with the Lord, you have nothing to fear.”  Of course, many of these same people often espouse a dim view of humanity and a high regard for our capacity to sin.  So according to them, while it might not be difficult to get right with the Lord, it is often difficult to stay right with the Lord. 

So while the connotation of this passage is often seen as negative, could there be a silver lining to an unexpected visit?  As we think about preparing for the presence of God during Christmas, maybe we need to think about how we treat one another.  I know that many will want to think about this after Thanksgiving but respect and civility is not lost on our relatives.  Hmm.  Maybe David and I will not loudly proclaim “Dump!”  “Bake!”  “Done!” so enthusiastically around Kyla this year.

In Christ,

Sam

Photo via Flickr.com, used under the Creative Commons license.  

Monday, November 14, 2016

The End of the (Christian) Year is Already Here!

Well, we are already to the end of the year.  I know, you're thinking, "We haven't even celebrated Thanksgiving yet!"

And of course, you're correct.

Liturgically, the Christian calendar ends this Sunday with "Reign of Christ" or "Christ the King" Sunday.  As we tell the story of Jesus in worship throughout the year, we are getting ready to begin again, looking toward the birth of Jesus with the four Sundays of Advent.  So at the end of the Christian year, we look toward how Jesus is Lord of all creation at the end of time.

As we finish with Year C, we've been looking primarily at Luke's Gospel (we do jump around with John's Gospel in each liturgical year).  We will begin Advent back in Year A with the emphasis on Matthew.  But we have to finish first with Year C and this week's reading will be Luke 23:33-43.  For those who don't have the Bible memorized (I realize there are a few of you) or don't have time to click the link, this is a recount of Jesus on the cross.  He's having a conversation with the two bandits crucified with him.

Did I mention that this is Reign of Christ Sunday?
Altötting, Panorama Kreuzigung Christi von Gebhard Fugel, Detail

This may seem like an odd passage to emphasize. Out of the whole of Luke's Gospel, this is the one we feature for how Jesus is in charge of the universe?

If it were me and the leaders were mocking me, I sure wouldn't forgive them of their sins.  Or if a bandit kept taunting me, I would have a quick word of rebuke in response. Yet Jesus remains silent.

Maybe he is in charge after all.

He doesn't let his outrage or vengeance rule over him.  He doesn't force belief on those around him.  They have a choice to behave - just as we all do.

Yet, Jesus gives the example of one who serves the world, giving his very life.  I think this shows that God was not the one who demanded the sacrifice in order to forgive. Jesus forgives them before he's even dead.  This shows us that human beings demand blood from time to time.  In that time, a sacrificial culture linked blood sacrifice with forgiveness.  Christian theology showed that if this is what people needed to accept forgiveness, then God is willing in Jesus Christ to die as the sacrificial lamb (O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me.).

Of course, the resurrection adds to the suspension of evil and injustice winning out.

We see resurrection taking place even here on the cross.

With God's help, I can forgive those who injure me.  I have this wonderful example of a Lord who is not worried about accolades.  He doesn't even feel the need to defend himself because love is stronger than hate.

That's a reign that is difficult to comprehend.

But it is a reign I can get behind.

Happy New Year!

In Christ,

Sam


Picture by Allie_Caulfield from Germany [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, November 7, 2016

Make America Great Again or Stronger Together?


This is a difficult time in our country.  No matter who wins the presidential election, there will be a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Congress will likely continue to stall out with regards to legislation as it becomes increasingly difficult to work across the aisle.  

There are lots of negatives in this election cycle and the system seems broken.

Yet it is a privilege to live in this country.  We have freedoms that are guaranteed to us by law.  We have the right to vote on leadership who will represent us – even if our particular choice does not prevail.

We have the freedom to worship as we choose.

In our weekly staff meeting, we addressed the rending of our nation’s morale over this election.  The question was posed, “As we acknowledge the political divide in our country, what are things you think the church could do to help the nation heal?”

We had some good discussion but unfortunately, we didn’t come up with any revolutionary programs that would be a magic fix. 

We did remind ourselves that Christians are a people who are respecters of others – even if they have differing views.  We encourage civil discourse.  We cast a vision for people who think differently to come together under God.

Within worship, when we pray a prayer of confession, we acknowledge that none of us gets it right all of the time.  Furthermore, we recognize that God’s grace is freely available to all human beings.

Regardless of political persuasion, most Americans want security and freedom.  They want possibilities and potential.  They want these things for their loved ones.  They want satisfaction for a job well done and they want the work they do to make a larger difference in the world. 

These are things that Christians want as well.  Only we don’t just want them for ourselves or our family members.  We want them for all people because we are taught to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  This is what allows us to help with the healing of our nation. 

This Sunday, we will look at the lectionary passage from Isaiah 65:17-25.  It is very timely, I believe and I hope you’ll take a moment to read it.  Join us as we continue to lead our community in both “making America great again” and being “stronger together.”  After all, these may only be political slogans and we may be jaded by our leadership but the people make up the character of a country.  If we decide to make them our reality, we may find the leadership is trying to catch up to the people!

I hope you'll pray for our country and our elected leaders (no matter who wins) - that you'll pray for our church and our people!

In Christ,


Sam

Photo by Memphis CVB via Flickr.com, used under the Creative Commons license.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Remembering Those Who Have Preceded Us in Death

The final scene in Titanic always bugged me.  Rose, the 101 year old main character, dies at the end of the movie after a full life with career, children and grandchildren.  As she makes her way to the afterlife, she enters the ship again and it is transformed its former glory while those who died aboard her are all waiting for her to join them.  Jack, her love interest aboard the ship, is there to greet her and they embrace and the movie ends.

Now this romantic end shows that Rose and her true love do find each other even if they were kept apart for the past 80 years.  This is sentimental and it is kind of nice to think about them ending up together since we really skipped her eighty years without him.  What bugs me about this is that her life with her husband, children and grandchildren seemed to pale in comparison to the few days that she spent with Jack. 

In reality, we know that infatuation can come quickly but true love that lasts over a lifetime includes dealing with conflict, overcoming difficulties and continuing to get to know each other as we grow and change throughout life.  Love at first sight might be romantic but love that builds over a lifetime is actually more substantial. 

This film ending may also cause some to wonder about Heaven and what will it be like.  What If a person is widowed and then remarries?  Which person will you encounter?

The Sadducees inquired to Jesus about this very question in this week’s lectionary passage, Luke 20:27-38.  Jesus responds that the next life will be very different.  This in itself is not a very comprehensive answer and begs more questions.  Will we recognize our loved ones?  Will they know us?  Will we look like we did when we were younger?  Or more importantly, will we look like we imagine we did when we were younger?  Do we continue to experience the five senses that make up so much of our input? 

As Christians, we believe that a person's light
continues to shine in Christ after death.
This Sunday, we will also observe All Saints Day which occurs every November 1.  We will light a candle in worship for those church members who have died in the past year.  We will also have time in the worship service to remember those loved ones who were not members of our church but who remain near and dear in our hearts.  The sermon title will be “Children of the Resurrection” and if you are in town, I hope you will join us at 8:30 or 11 am in the sanctuary or at 10:50 am in Wesley Hall.  It should also be available online if you can't join us in the flesh!  

In Christ,

Sam

Photo used from Flickr.com via Creative Commons license.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

What if Jesus Was Short?

This Sunday's lectionary reading for the Gospel is Luke 19:1-10 and is the story of Zacchaeus.  Within this story, Zacchaeus is a tax collector who is already on the outside of polite society from his profession.  He was trying to see Jesus but couldn't because of the crowd surrounding Jesus and also "because he was short in stature" (verse 3).  Then he climbs a sycamore tree and they have a conversation when Jesus passes by.

But what if Jesus was the one "short in stature"?  The crowds surrounding a shorter man would make it just as hard to see him.

Does this idea make you uncomfortable?

This face of Jesus was the result of the forensic science of
Richard Neave.  It is an average appearance of men
during the time and region of Jesus.  It also goes
against the grain of most of the paintings we see today.
I remember first discussing this in seminary.  We've so long attributed this to Zacchaeus that it becomes almost impossible to question.  After all, those who grew up in the church likely sang "Zacchaeus was a wee little man" at some point in childhood, permanently cementing his height in our minds.

We often unconsciously designate height with leadership.  If you are shorter, you must command a greater charisma in order to lead others.  This is not fair but seems to be the way human beings operate.

If we are uncomfortable with a short Jesus, what does that say about us?  If we look at the average height of people in Galilee during that period of time, an average man would have been a couple of inches above five feet.  So regardless of which person the adjective describes, Jesus would still be short by today's averages.

If this makes us question our assumptions (or our difficulties overcoming them) in what we imagine Jesus to have looked like, this may help us understand this particular passage.  After all, he sees something in Zacchaeus that others do not.  This often translates personally to the idea that Jesus understands us more fully and can see our potential.

We can find hope in this and strive to be more than we currently are from a spiritual, moral and ethical standpoint.  But we can also seek to look at others with this optimistic gaze of Jesus.  Can we see potential within each person - even those we would normally write off?

I'm looking forward to preaching on this text.  If you are available on Sunday morning, I hope you'll join us at First United Methodist Church of Edmond at 8:30 and 11:00 am in the sanctuary or at 10:50 am in Wesley Hall!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo from an article of Popular Mechanics magazine from December 2002. 
 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Humility Shows Strength

This Sunday's lectionary passage for worship is Luke 18:9-14.  It is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and Jesus tells it when the righteous were looking with contempt upon others.

Within the cultural realm of Jesus, Pharisees would be seen as righteous because they were the ones who knew scripture.  They interpreted it and followed it.  Their interpretation brought about expectation.  If they followed it, they expected others of their faith to do as they did.  Woe to the one who fell short of their ideals.

As you can see by the picture,
Tax Collectors are still not
a popular lot.  Imagine if
they were collecting them for a
foreign occupying government!
Conversely, tax collectors were those people who knew the community and worked for the occupying gentiles.  They profited at the expense of their fellows while helping to fund the soldiers that were often viewed with suspicion at best.  They knew the community but wouldn't have been welcome in the community.

So when Jesus lifts up the tax collector as justified in the parable even over the Pharisee, this would have been a reversal over the common thinking. What lifts him above is not his devotion to scripture.  It would not be his occupation or how he lives his life.  What elevates him in the eyes of Jesus is his humility.

Real humility is a source of strength.  One who is insecure has difficulty giving credit where credit is due.  One who is humble can see and identify the gifts present in others.  This is how God sees us. God continually uses flawed people in scripture to accomplish great things.  God uses them in spite of the flaws.

Each of us has our problem areas.  We each have our strengths.  Being self-aware of both allows us to thrive because we rely on what we do well and look for help to compliment those places that are not as polished.

I know that I need to practice my own sense of humility more often - especially when my insecurities rear their ugly heads.  But when I do place myself on an equal playing field, I am acknowledging God at work in the world through all kinds of people.  And when we can see this, we may be closer to the Kingdom of God.

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Stephen Melkisethian via Flickr.com, used under the Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Heart Faith and Head Faith

What does it mean to be in relationship with Jesus Christ?
Kneeling before God in prayer
is often a private experience.  Sometimes it
is difficult to relate or explain.

This means different things to different people.  I suspect that if you were to ask ten different Christians what their relationship looked like, you would get ten different answers.  All of us share many similarities as human beings but we are also unique. 

Most people have relationships with their parents.  There are similarities with each of these relationships that you could identify but each one would also have its own imprint that would mark it as different from others.  It is not surprising that we should have different, unique spiritualities.

When my mother was eleven years old, she went down for an altar call with about seven others in her church.  They were praying at the altar, seeking to be saved.

She told me, “We were on our knees in the front row.”  I asked her if they had kneelers but she said they didn’t back then.  Mrs. Downey was their lay pastor who led the services in that little country church in Houston, Missouri.  Preacher Howard would come around once a month but the other Sundays were led by Mrs. Downey.  Mom recalls the account:

“We were praying the prayer that Mrs. Downey taught us and eventually everybody got up but me.  I didn’t feel any different after I had been praying and I was disappointed.  It was embarrassing to be the last one left.  Mrs. Downey talked to me and told me that sometimes you don’t feel it – sometimes you just have to take it on faith.” 

Then she said, “I wasn’t satisfied which was why I had stayed there praying so long.  But that came later.”

According to Myers-Briggs, people have a preference for being more of a “thinker” or more of a “feeler”.  Those that are more thinkers would respond more to their relationship with Jesus Christ as a profession of belief or faith.  It is something to which they logically assent.  Feelers are more likely to have a change in their hearts come over them.  They feel different and this experience is their assurance.  Neither is better than the other.  Neither is more authentic.  God reaches us in different ways because we are each made differently.

This Sunday, we will examine Jeremiah 31:31-34 which is a famous passage on God’s New Covenant with God’s people.  This passage speaks of “write it on their hearts” which indicates speaking to the feelers but it also states, “they shall all know me” in reference to teaching which may indicate speaking to the thinkers.  We’ll explore how we are “Connecting our Lives” in worship together.  I hope you’ll join us at 8:30 am and 11 am in the sanctuary or at 10:50 am in Wesley Hall.  As we come together – thinkers and feelers and those somewhere in the middle – we make up the rich tapestry of faith that transforms us and transforms the world.

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Jess Robinson, used under Creative Commons via Flickr.com

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Recognizing the Blessing

It’s early October which means that Thanksgiving is the day after tomorrow.

Okay, time doesn’t quite go by quite that fast. 

Or at least it shouldn’t!

In Germany, Erntedankfest is a harvest festival
 that includes worship services.
Thanksgiving is an original American holiday but other countries also observe festivals where gratitude is the emphasis.  The Koreans have a similar holiday known as Chuseok that pre-dates our Thanksgiving.  It is actually also similar to our Memorial Day in that Korean people seek to honor their ancestors on this day and often visit the grave sites of family members. 

My own family traditions for Thanksgiving have changed through the years.  When my grandparents were living, we would gather there for the holiday feast with uncles, aunts and cousins.  My mother’s mother lived on a farm and before they retired, the vegetables came from their garden.  The milk was fresh from the cow.  It was much richer than what we normally bought at the store!  My grandmother always prepared multiple desserts too.  Her rhubarb cobbler was my favorite – I liked the tart flavor and you couldn’t get it just anywhere.  I also enjoyed her green beans.  They tasted so good and were different from any others I’d ever had.  When I finally asked my mom about how Grandma prepared them, she told me that she boiled them with sugar!  No wonder they had a distinct flavor!

At Thanksgiving, my Grandma would always pray.  As a child, I appreciated the vigor in her prayers much more than the length.  But I miss her and would be happy to hold off on eating to hear another one.

This Sunday may be a little early for thinking about Thanksgiving but it is never too early to think about gratitude.  The lectionary reading for the Gospel is Luke17:11-19 which contains the story of Jesus healing ten lepers.  Only one returns to give thanks and that one is a Samaritan! 

I often hear that people vehemently oppose (in others) the sense of entitlement that we sometimes develop.  Nobody likes it when someone assumes too much.  No one thinks highly of the person that doesn’t acknowledge the help they received in hard-fought success.  So how do we keep this from creeping up in our own lives?
 
On Sunday, I will be preaching a sermon entitled, “Connecting our Orientations” as I continue the series, “Connecting MORE people with God and Neighbor”.  I will seek to show that when we orient ourselves in gratitude, life and spirituality become more fruitful.  If you are unable to join us, I hope that you will think about those who have shaped you for the better in your life and give thanks to God for their influence.

In Christ,

Sam


Photo used under Creative Commons via Flickr.com.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Response to Grace

On Monday, our staff discussed bad experiences with church giving or pledge campaigns.  

It was mentioned that some congregations engage in 2nd or 3rd offerings.  In other words, the ushers counted the offering and if there wasn’t enough, they passed the plate again!  This practice assumes that people held something back the first time.  On the positive side, it recognizes that the congregation covenants together to support the church budget.  But woe to the visitor who attends and finds themselves in a kind of offering ping pong between the pastor and the congregation!
 
Other bad experiences happened through the pony express pledge drive.  The tradition of this is to pass the pledge “saddle bag” from family to family until it comes back to the church.  However, it had always gotten held up at one house or another.  And so, this person had instructions to wait at each house until the pledge was given and then they moved on to the next house!  Needless to say, it was a little awkward for the delivery person. 

One old practice I had heard of was that the congregation posted what each family gave on a bulletin board in the church.  Another person had heard that only the top five givers of each week were posted.  This can quickly devolve into power politics in the church.  Our giving becomes a kind of merit where we count ourselves better than others before God.

So what is a theology of giving that fits with Wesleyan theology?

Our giving is not to make us feel guilty.  Our giving is not to earn a seat at the table.  Our giving is certainly not to show up our neighbors in the congregation!

When we pray before a meal, it is from
thankfulness that we have something to eat.
It is a response to what we are receiving.
Our giving is ultimately a response to the grace we have received. 

It is done out of thanksgiving.  It is done out of the realization of blessing.  It is done through the sense of being caretakers and stewards of this world with which God has entrusted us.
And so, within the church, we pledge an estimate of what we will give to God because of the grace we recognize that we have been given.  It is a healthy response.

A pledge drive for a church is healthy.  Some antagonists to pledging say that we should take whatever we get on faith.  However, as United Methodists, we are methodical.  We appreciate data.  We believe that making informed choices is smarter than making uniformed ones.  God gave us our brains to use to bring about the transformation of the world!  We often pray something about “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

A pledge allows the church to more greatly fulfill God’s mission.  We make it in faithfulness as a percentage of the income we expect to receive in the coming year.

This year, First United Methodist Church will celebrate the theme, “Connecting More People with God and Neighbor”.  This celebrates our vision and acknowledges our growth.  We’ll look at the Gospel reading for this week, Luke 17:5-10, and the specific theme will be “Connecting our Expectations”. 

I hope that you’ll join us at 8:30 or 11:00 am in the sanctuary or at 10:50 am in Wesley Hall and we'll trust that you gave what you intended the first time!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo used through the Creative Commons license through Flickr.com.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Looks Like Wheat to Me...

Is it part of a fairy ring or a noxious fungus?  We do
look at mushrooms in a variety of ways.  
Our lawn is slowly going Oklahoma native.  We don't put any kind of pesticides on our grass and we don't fertilize it either.  And if I am being totally honest, I don't water it either.

I allow the natural rainfall and the dew that likely comes from our neighbors watering to slake the thirst of our lawn. Nature has begun to take its course.

We have some interesting weeds coming up and a great variety of grasses.  This gives the lawn an unkempt uneven look.  If you look at our street, one of these things is not like the other!  As a concession, we do try to keep it short so that it at least looks manicured.

Merriam-Webster defines a weed as
a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth; especially: one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants 
 So weeds are really about perspective.

Jesus told a parable about weeds and wheat.  It is really a story about people.  In the parable, we are told to leave the weeds alone and that God will decide which one is which.  In our zeal to pull up the weeds, wheat can get pulled up right along with it.  What this means is that when we make a strong effort to punish or exclude the "wrong kind of people", innocent people accidentally fall under our wrath.

Interestingly enough, Merriam-Webster also defines a weed as
an obnoxious growth, thing, or person
It really is about perspective.  We are more likely to tolerate obnoxiousness if we know or love the person.  Sometimes it even becomes amusing.  Most of the time it is still boorish but we are more likely to cut them slack.

From a Christian perspective, we wonder how we can extend greater perspective (and thus greater hospitality) to those we encounter.  Not just to those visiting us in the pews (which I would hope that we would be really nice to) but to those outside the church walls as well.

It becomes routine for us to accept the neatly manicured lawns because of expectation or societal norms.  But what if God looks at that weed differently?  What if we look again and see that it really is wheat?

In Christ,

Sam

Monday, September 12, 2016

But Jesus Wants Me to Cheat!

Okay, I really don't believe this and I would guess you don't either.

But if you took a literal reading of the parable of the dishonest steward from Luke 16:1-13, this might be your conclusion.  This parable has a manager of accounts who is being dismissed from service because of his incompetence.  He then proceeds to cheat his master by reallocating the accounts so as to provide himself favor among colleagues after he is let go.

Having a story about someone who cheats to procure favor is not that unusual in the human experience.  What is unusual is the reaction of his boss in the story.  He is actually praised for his craftiness!

Jesus then sums up the story with a real head-scratcher in verse 9 (NRSV):
"And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes."
Jesus is not telling you to acquire ill-gotten gains but that would be the literal interpretation of what he said.

This story shows us as much as any verses in the Bible that all of us bring a lens of interpretation to scripture.  United Methodism gives us a good tool in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral for theological interpretation.  While John Wesley did not actually use this term or express it systematically like this, Wesley scholars such as Albert Outler in the 20th century noted that these were the methods that Wesley employed for his own interpretation.

So to interpret this scripture by using the Quadrilateral, we would use scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

An obvious scripture reference might be "Thou shalt not steal."  As one of the ten commandments, this sets in our minds that Jesus must be talking figuratively here.

Christian tradition refers to the teachings of the Church throughout history.  We might look at Wesley's notes on this particular passage as a part of our tradition.   Wesley's take on verse nine is more spiritual in nature rather than a literal reading.

Our reason allows us to see that taken as a literal story, it makes no sense.  No business owner would ever praise a servant for embezzling from him.  And those with whom he cut a deal wouldn't hire him because they know he's dishonest.  It would also likely keep them from being able to do future business with the rich owner.  So our reason moves us to look for a deeper, more subtle meaning.  We can see at first glance that this is not as cut-and-dried as the Good Samaritan.

Part of the common folklore concerning education
is that when we cheat, we are only cheating ourselves.
This could be seen loosely as tradition or
one might also say it falls under reason or experience.
Finally, our experience refers to Christian experiences that we've had of God's grace in our lives.  However, since we are believers in preceding grace, it becomes difficult to separate secular and religious movements in our lives.  I know what it is to be cheated.  It was not an experience that I would seek to emulate toward others as an ethical or moral person.

So we can surmise that this parable means something deeper.  Jesus doesn't want us to cheat.  Many think that this parable goes in line with those from chapter fifteen: lost sheep, lost coin, lost son/brother.  We see from these that God's economy of grace is based on God's generosity rather than merit. What if we interpret this particular parable in this light?

I'll be preaching on this in worship this Sunday (for better or worse)!  If you can't join us at 8:30, 10:50 or 11 am, you can catch it online through Facebook live at 11 or find the video on our church page after the service ends.

In Christ,

Sam


Picture used under the Creative Commons license via Flickr.com.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The World Is My Parish

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed this to be true.  His efforts at strengthening the faith in both those who professed Christianity as well as those who claimed no relationship with God surrounded the globe.  Much of this work was done following his death by followers who took up his methodical approach to Christian discipleship.

At one of the services, we
were told to take a selfie and
share via social media, "People all
over the world, join hands, start
a love train!"
Today the largest expression of Wesleyan faith, The United Methodist Church, spans the globe with churches in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. Our global gathering happens every four years at General Conference which happened earlier this year in May.  Our membership is at about 12.5 million members worldwide.  However, there are other Methodist denominations that are Wesleyan that are not a part of our denomination.  All of these make up over 80 million members worldwide and truly span the globe with churches in all of the six populated continents.

These Wesleyan churches began to gather in conference in the late 19th century and continue to meet for the World Methodist Conference once every five years.  I just returned from the 21st World Methodist Conference hosted in Houston, Texas where the theme was One: God, Faith, People, Mission.  It is always rewarding to meet new brothers and sisters who share similar ways of being Christian around the planet.  I had decided to attend this conference following the wonderful experience I had in Durban, South Africa in 2011 where the last one was held.  The next World Methodist Conference will be in 2021 in Sweden.  If you are interested in joining me, I would love to share more information with you.

The World Methodist Conference is overseen by the World Methodist Council, a body that is made up of 80 Wesleyan denominations from 134 countries.  For this quinquennium (a period of five years), I will serve as a delegate on the council.  I attended my first meeting on Sunday and Monday and look forward to sharing ideas with others from such a variety of cultures and places!

Of course it is good to be back to my local church.  I will be preaching on Luke 15:1-10 from the lectionary and my sermon title will be "An Economy of Grace".  If you miss it, you should be able to catch it on our church's Facebook page as we have started using Facebook live and our services are archived there.

In Christ,

Sam

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

What the Open Table Says about God's Grace

I caught the tail end of an interview with Tom Hanks on Fresh Air yesterday.  He started speaking about all of his various exposures to different denominations including Catholic, Mormon and Nazarene.  Currently, Hanks is Greek Orthodox.

He mentioned his difficulties with each brand claiming that they had it correct:

And every single one of them were presented to me as the only way to go. This is - we are the only ones that have this right. And when you have had four versions that are very, very different from each other of this brand of spirituality and theology, and four of them have all said we're the only ones that matter. Well, you kind of think at the age of 13, 14, well, you know, it's not the only one.

One of the things that I appreciate about The United Methodist Church is that we are ecumenical.  We believe that God is working through our church but we also would claim that God is at work through other churches as well.  We see God at work beyond our own walls.  

This comes from following Wesley's understanding of prevenient (preceding) grace.  If God is at work in our lives before we realize or understand it, then God is at work in others' lives before they know it as well.  God who is active may work through a variety of ways.  As a pastor, I may have an appeal to some in my preaching while others may find me lacking.  They may find greater meaning in another preacher's sermons.  This is not threatening but natural that God would speak through a variety of people in a variety of ways because we are all created differently.

This sense of God seeking us out no matter where we are in our faith journey is a primary reason we offer the open table for Holy Communion.  By this, I mean that all are welcome to receive.  This differs from some denominations that restrict the Lord's Supper to only those who are members of their church.  The restriction is because the sacred nature of the meal is seen as presented for the faithful (those who have taken the proper vows and bring the proper understanding).  The wider nature of the meal may be lost on those who are not believers.

Our open table looks at it differently.  John Wesley thought that this sacrament was a converting ordinance meaning that people could come to faith in Christ through receiving the elements.  If God is drawing all people into relationship, then what better way to come to faith then to commune with the Body of Christ?  The open table reminds those who are members that God's grace is available to all people.  This theology is missional in that we are renewed in our belief that God is working beyond our own walls.

The next time you receive Holy Communion, may it be a reminder that we are also sent out beyond our walls to share God's grace with the world!

In Christ,

Sam


Picture used via Flickr.com through Creative Commons.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Extraordinary Love

"...we can say with confidence,

'The Lord is my helper;
    I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?'”

                        Hebrews 12:6 (NRSV)


Of course, people can do lots of horrible things to us.  They betray us and lie about us. They harm us in ways that can be substantial.  

Unfortunately, we learn our lessons well.  If someone hurts me, I may not trust them again.

If I encounter enough people who harm me, I may develop a wariness for people in general.

Some call this practical and it may be to an extent.  


But this is not how God sees people.


One time, after preaching a funeral, one of the children of the deceased came to me afterward, clearly upset, and exclaimed, "That was not how I knew her at all.  You painted too rosy a picture, pastor."

I usually don't speak of a person's ugliness at a funeral, even if it was pretty characteristic. Because no matter how bad a person was, there is good in them too.  Of course, with some people, we may have to hunt a little longer!

After a fit of anger, I often regret my behavior. How
often do we let circumstance dictate our response?
But when a person is in Christ, God forgives their sins and sees them as righteous. And so for a funeral, I am preaching about them as God sees them.  

One might say, "But, you're not telling everything you know!" and this would be correct.  Revealing all we know for the world to see is usually not a kindness and it rarely corrects behavior that is problematic.  Especially if the person is deceased!

The author of Hebrews asks the question, "What can anyone do to us?" and when it comes from a position of faith, we answer with confidence, "nothing!"

Even though this is not always true, it is paradoxically true because our faith moves us beyond injury.  What else is the ability to forgive?  God allows me to rise above my wounds.  They no longer define me.  Once I allow them to define me, I become a victim.  
Injured.

Pitiable.

But in Christ, we are strong enough to love a world that is much of the time unlovable. We can do it because the Lord is our helper.  With God's help, we don't even have to wait until they die!  And so we keep trying to love in spite of the hurdles.  And even as I tremble with fear, I will rise up and proclaim, "I will not be afraid."

May it be so for you.

In Christ,

Sam


Photo from Flickr.com, used under the Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Defining God

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.
                                                                                                   Hebrews 12:28-29


One of the most difficult tasks I have is to identify God at work in the world today.  This is difficult because in a way, this is defining God.  I recognize that I am limited.  I am shaped by my environment, my culture, and my family each of which are not mutually exclusive.

As a preacher, I have to be aware of bias.  Am I reshaping God in my own image?  Does God care about the things that I care about or do I care about the things that God cares about?  Although this question seems like it ventures into the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, it is actually a little more profound.  My hope is that I continually allow myself to be shaped by God even when it is difficult.

For instance, when we started Worship on Hurd at 10:50 am, it would have been a lot less work for us to simply continue with what we were doing.  Traditional worship comes more easily to me.  It would be easier to only have one worship space.  It would be simpler to have only one worship style.  One bulletin.

Offering different musical styles requires different leadership as well.  This means more people to work with.

So if God were not part of the equation for me, we would have two services in the sanctuary (I realize that this statement is highly ironic).  However, God calls us to reach out with our faith to all people.  In order to be effective in this and to effectively utilize the space we just built, I felt that God was calling us as a congregation to offer something new.  This doesn't mean that our sanctuary worship was broken.  It doesn't meant that it is ineffective.  It does mean that we recognize that God creates a diverse humanity.

Sometimes, we remake God into our own image.  This is the height of idolatry.  All people participate in this from time to time - we repent of it. We repent of trying to put God in a box.
Sometimes our theology looks a lot like a "selfie"

A box that we are comfortable with.

A box that is not so dissimilar from who we are at this very moment in time.

A box that when we gaze inside looks more like a mirror than a window.

Worship requires that we look through the window.  We look at the mysterious, infinite God.  We try to define God in snippets and bits of experience and revelation as it relates to the biblical witness.  And then we invite God to change our own natures and behaviors to fall more in line with the mystery.

This Sunday, we'll continue to see how our faith is a source of strength to us through Hebrews 12:18-29.  How could God as mystery be a source of strength?  We'll share in this together at 8:30, 10:50 or 11 am!

In Christ,

Sam



Photo used under the Creative Commons license via Flickr.com