Monday, January 20, 2020

Called to Repent

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 4:12-23 (NRSV)

Last week, we saw John's version of how Jesus called Andrew and Peter to be disciples.  This Sunday, we'll look at Matthew's.  While they seem very different, a Gospel harmony might suggest that John's story came first and then was followed by Matthew's.

This would make sense for why they immediately left their nets and followed Jesus.  This was not their first encounter.

As Matthew tells it, Jesus was already preaching and teaching that the Kingdom of Heaven had come near.  It was a message of repentance.  I like to think that these disciples had heard him preach.  Andrew had already spent a day with Jesus according to John.

So they had evidently heard enough.  They dropped everything and followed him.

Jesus continues to preach and teach throughout Galilee.  He proclaims the good news of the kingdom and cures every disease and sickness among the people.  In an era where medical assistance was hard to come by, this would have put quite the exclamation point on his proclamation!

What is interesting is that the call to repentance precedes the call of the disciples and the healing of the multitudes.  When we tie repentance with healing today, we can get into rough waters theologically.  For instance, I knew of a woman who was dying of cancer.  Her pastor told her to repent of her sins and she would be healed.  This was not helpful for her final days.

But is there a tie between repentance and healing?

To repent is to change one's mind.  It is to change one's heart.  It is to change one's behavior to match the new way of thinking and being.

I've been on both sides of this bed
many times in my life but much more
often looking down on the patient.
When I was diagnosed with high blood pressure in 2016, I had to repent of certain things according to my doctor.  Americans like their meat and I am a good American!  And while I still eat more meat than I actually need, I mostly keep it to fish and fowl these days.  I try to get regular exercise before going to the church.  I also now use a CPAP machine for my sleep apnea so that I will get more quality rest at night.

Are there other things concerning healing of which we need to repent or change our ways of doing things?

As a pastor, the largest number of anxieties faced in our congregation are health-related.  Even those who have insurance tell me anecdotes of being unable to receive the care they need.  They may have to wait for prescribed tests in order for the red tape to clear.  They may be released from the hospital too soon and relapse.  They may need medications that are not covered in their prescription plan.

When I first got my CPAP machine, I found that wrestling between insurance and what the company was trying to charge me was likely doing the opposite of what was needed for my high blood pressure!

As I hear people stress about their medical care, and as I pray for their healing, I wonder to myself, "Is this the best we can do?"

What I do believe is that as Jesus proclaims good news for the kingdom of heaven, it is coupled with him curing every sickness and disease among the people.  It may be that wholeness and health are what we would equate with the kingdom of heaven.  I certainly don't imagine any need for hospitals in heaven, do you?

If this is the case, how do we help God's kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven?

We all may need to repent or change our thinking about our current practice regarding wellness in our country today.  What would it take for both sides of the aisle politically to work together on medical reform?  One thing I'm sure of is that illness is not partisan.  We'll continue to explore this scripture as we examine the call to repent on Sunday!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Jim Sorenson via flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.



Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Called to Faith

Lectionary Text: John 1:29-42 (NRSV)

We are now well-into the Season after the Epiphany.  This season is book-ended with the Baptism of the Lord and his Transfiguration.  One of the themes is the call of the disciples.  As modern disciples, I will continue to explore how we are called to various dimensions of faith as we seek to grasp a direction from scripture in our lives today.  Last week, we looked at being "Called to Witness" and this week, we will look at being "Called to Faith."

John was the same age as Jesus (according to Luke).
How would you imagine him hanging out today
 with two of his disciples?
Within Sunday's text, we see the echos of the ministry of John the Baptist.  He is the one who baptizes Jesus and "prepares the way of the Lord."  Luke informs us that John is actually a cousin of Jesus.  This makes us scratch our heads a little because today's reading has John stating not once but twice, "I myself did not know him."  Within that culture and time, it would have been incredulous to not have met a relative living in the region. 

We must remember that John's Gospel was written more for doctrine than for historical account.

It is possible that John (the author, not the Baptizer) has him make this claim with intent to the faith rather than relational knowledge.  We see that John the Baptist never follows Jesus as a disciple even though he was a witness to the Holy Spirit's descent upon Jesus.

But in today's text we do see two of John's disciples leave their old master behind and follow Jesus.  As disciples of John, it is possible that they were also witnesses to the baptism of Jesus.  One of them remains unnamed but the other is the fisherman, Andrew.  He is responsible for bringing his more famous brother Peter to faith.  This account varies some from how Mark (the first recorded Gospel) shares it.

What is fascinating to me about this account is how all seem to point to Jesus.  John, who is not a disciple, points to Jesus.  He twice refers to him as the "Lamb of God."  This symbolism is rich in Christian history and you may have heard the Latin translation "Agnus Dei" sung in worship before.

The older tradition of Holy Communion (found in A Service of Word and Table IV in the Hymnal) utilizes this as we sing together:
O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.  O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.  O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.       
Andrew then also points to Jesus as he is the first (in John's account that is) disciple to declare that Jesus is the Christ (the Messiah).  Each seems to be faithful in their own way.

This is similar to us today.   All are called to faith.  We each may respond in ways that are unique to our place and time.  So how do we interpret this for our lives?  And how does our interpretation point to Jesus?  We'll continue to explore this on Sunday as we worship together!

In Christ,

Sam

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


Monday, January 6, 2020

Called to Witness

Lectionary Text: Acts 10:34-43 (NRSV)

This Sunday is the Baptism of the Lord Sunday in the liturgical calendar.  We remember our own baptism in the context of that of Jesus. 

When Christians are baptized, they experience dying to sin and newness of life.  If one is immersed, this is symbolized by being taken under the water (akin to being put in the ground) and brought to resurrection as one rises (new life).

Christians receive the Holy Spirit and are initiated into church membership (the Body of Christ).

Do you think this dad is remembering his baptism?
The boy may have a calling.
In 2008, I remember when we voted at General Conference to add "witness" to the list of how United Methodists would show faithfulness to the local church along with "prayers, presence, gifts and service."  Some of the rationale for adding witness was due to the losses in membership the church had undergone.  It was part of the overall trend in Christendom in the United States.  By adding witness, it was thought that we would remind ourselves of our call to share our faith which would strengthen our church.

This Sunday's reading reminds us that God chooses us as witnesses.  According to Acts, Jesus appeared not to all people but to those whom God has chosen.  Within the context of our baptism, we become the modern witnesses to the resurrection.  We are the modern "chosen." 

As we receive the Holy Spirit in baptism, this puts us in relationship in a unique way.  We become a part of something larger than ourselves.

How do we witness to our own sense of forgiveness and new life we find in Christ?

How do we witness to the transforming grace of God in our lives?

How do we witness to the significance of baptism?

This Sunday, we will remind ourselves that we are called to witness.  We will explore in worship how this continues to be a significant part of the Christian story.  Our story is part of a much larger narrative.  It is a blessing to come together and remind ourselves of our part to play.

In Christ,

Sam


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

Friday, January 3, 2020

Does the Latest Plan of Separation Pass Constitutional Muster?

There's a lot of news circulating around the upcoming split of The United Methodist Church since a plan and a press release hit the internet today.  As a delegate to the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, I wanted to briefly weigh in on what is being said.
I wonder if this is what we look like to the rest of the world?

The plan is a general outline and is not legislation which should give more specifics.  Even when we see the actual legislation, it may be amended at General Conference.

This is one plan among a wide variety of plans of separation to be considered at General Conference in May.  It may gain traction to be examined first but it may not have the votes to pass.  If it doesn't pass, other plans will be scrutinized.  It is possible that no plans of separation will pass.  

This plan will be submitted to the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church so that they can consider whether or not it is in line with the Constitution (currently paragraphs 1-61) of the Book of Discipline.  If not, it requires a greater threshold to enact:

"¶ 59. Article I.—Amendments to the Constitution shall be made upon a two-thirds majority of the General Conference present and voting and a two-thirds affirmative vote of the aggregate number of members of the several annual conferences present and voting,"
So not only would it require the General Conference to pass it by 2/3, but it would then go to all of the Annual Conferences across the globe for a 2/3 ratification.  If this is the case, it would likely not be enacted until 2021.

If it does pass as we see it outlined, what would the Oklahoma Conference do?

Would it vote to become a part of the new Traditionalist denomination or would it remain within The United Methodist Church?  It is unlikely that we would consider it at the 2020 Annual Conference in May since it would occur so soon after General Conference.  We would likely consider either constitutional amendments if needed or a decision on denominational affiliation sometime in November of 2020 at a special called session.  If Oklahoma seeks to go to the new Traditionalist denomination (assuming legislation passes as proposed), it would need a 57% threshold for approval by all of the clergy and laity members of the Oklahoma Annual Conference.

After a determination is made, local churches may then choose to vote if they don't like the way the annual conference voted.  If they largely approve of the decision of the annual conference, no vote is required.

While we wait to see actual legislation on this, we do have the proposals from other plans of separation.  Many of them try to operate outside of the constitution which is easier to pass.  However, I'm not sure any separation legislation is currently constitutional.

In the preamble to the Constitution, the Discipline states, "The church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world, and its very dividedness is a hindrance to its mission in that world."

Article Six then reiterates this thought:

"¶ 6. Article VI. Ecumenical Relations—As part of the church universal, The United Methodist Church believes that the Lord of the church is calling Christians everywhere to strive toward unity; and therefore it will pray, seek, and work for unity at all levels of church life: through world relationships with other Methodist churches and united churches related to The Methodist Church or The Evangelical United Brethren Church, through councils of churches, and through plans of union and covenantal relationships with churches of Methodist or other denominational traditions."

While this may not be enough to keep a plan of separation from taking effect, it also could be.  It depends upon how the Judicial Council rules.

As a systems theory thinker, I don't believe it is helpful to hold someone in relationship that doesn't have a sense of mutuality about the covenant.  But at the same time, I think we should understand the seriousness of separation and stand in repentance if we acknowledge that it is the best way to move forward.  Sometimes a little space may be required for us to work together more closely in the future.

Fragmentation has been a part of church history since its inception.  It is fairly normal when considering the scope of the last two millennia.  But I don't think it is something we should ever take lightly and maybe the seriousness of separation should require a higher threshold of voting.  Maybe it should require annual conferences to weigh in on it.

I do believe that God will continue to work through the various expressions of Methodism that arise from whatever is passed.  But my hope is that we are not merely reflecting the polarization that is spreading through the United States and the world at large.  If that is the case, then we are deluding ourselves that we are separating for missional purposes when the reality is that we have failed to engage in the hard work of loving one another.

Please pray for our leadership and our process!

In Christ,

Sam


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

Monday, December 23, 2019

Confirming Christmas

Lectionary Reading for Christmas Eve: Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)

I think it is difficult to re-read the Christmas story without bringing our own history to Bethlehem with us.  By this I mean that we all have some experience with Christmas - traditions, memories, songs, family, etc.  All of these things color the nativity in ways we may not even realize.

One of our assumptions may be that Mary really had it all together. 

She was the faithful one that responds to the angel Gabriel's announcement of her impending pregnancy: "let it be with me according to your word." (Luke 1:38b, NRSV)

She would have heard of her husband Joseph's dream concerning her child - we are assuming that he told her of it and his confidence in the strange situation.

But even the most prominent of religious experiences have a way of fading. 

We may doubt that we had them at all.

They may seem more to us a "fragment of underdone potato" to quote Charles Dickens than an actual encounter with the divine.

Is it possible that Mary had her own doubts about the parentage of Jesus at times?

I think that with her being human, the answer would certainly be "Yes!"  This doesn't mean she wasn't faithful or didn't also have times of great assurance.  It simply means that the religious experience is not part of our everyday life.  It is difficult to categorize and easier to explain away.

So when the shepherds came and related to her about what the angels had said about her baby, Luke says that she was amazed.  At first glance, we might think, "Well, shouldn't she have expected this?"

But she treasured their words and pondered them in her heart.

It is nice - even for the mother of the Lord - to have confirmation of what she knew to be true.

Their story validated her understanding of who Jesus was for her.  You can almost hear her whisper, "So it is true."

I'll be preaching on this passage at Christmas Eve.  There are lots of opportunities to celebrate with us.  I'll share the story at 4 pm (family friendly service), 7 pm and 11 pm while Trey will be preaching at Guthrie at 6:30 pm and in Wesley Hall in Edmond at 9 pm.  While we can't leave our assumptions completely behind as we come, I would invite you to see the story with new eyes once more.         

As we share in the carols and fill our space with candlelight, may it confirm Christmas once again for you!  And as you leave the church to go home, my hope is that you'll treasure the Christmas story and ponder it in your heart!

In Christ,

Sam

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Christmas Spirit in Music

This Sunday, I will be singing my sermon rather than preaching it!

I'll not be singing any solos but I will be joining with our choir to present the Christmas selections of Handel's Messiah.  I have joined with the tenor section of various choirs in my life to give our best effort for this majestic piece.  One of my favorite memories was being home from college on Christmas break and joining my parents and my brother in the adult choir at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church.

The three Powers men sang tenor and my mom was the lone alto from our family.  It was one my parents' favorite pieces to sing and if they were not singing in it each year, they marked a special spot on their calendar to attend.

As I listen to the power of the words sung with such dynamic intensity, I still get chills.  One of my favorite parts is the chorus, "And the Glory of the Lord" where we sing "and all flesh shall see it together" and then respond, "for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it."  There is such a declaration in this simple phrase when sung in parts by the choir that it seems to brook no doubt or argument - at least in the moment!

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, wrote in his journal on August 17, 1758:
I went to the Bristol cathedral to hear Mr. Handel's Messiah. I doubt if that congregation was ever so serious at a sermon as they were during this performance. In many parts, especially several of the choruses, it exceeded my expectation.
This was a mere 16 years after its premier.  It has gone on to become very popular and is one of the most performed choral pieces in Western music.  We will share this work in each of our three sanctuary services on Sunday morning at 8:30, 9:45 and 11:00 am.  I know that there are some within our congregation that are just not moved by music and would rather hear a sermon.  Fortunately, Rev. Trey Witzel will be preaching at Worship on Hurd in Wesley Hall at 10:50 and I would encourage those who are in need of some great preaching to worship there this week!

The light shines in the darkness, and the 
darkness did not overcome it.  
John 1:5 (NRSV)
I would also remind you that we will be gathering on December 24th for our various Christmas Eve services.  At 4:00 pm, we will have a family-friendly service in the sanctuary.  Come a little early to view the live nativity before entering the sanctuary (only at this service).  At 7:00 pm, we will have our adult choir singing.  At 9:00 pm, we will meet in Wesley Hall for Worship on Hurd's Christmas Eve service and at 11:00 pm, we will feature our handbells as well as our Spirit choir from 9:45 am.  At Guthrie, we will worship at 6:30 pm.  In each service, we will feature Holy Communion (all friends and family are encouraged to fully participate in the Open Table).  As we partake in the sacrament together, we will be singing the great Christmas carols of the faith.  Each of these services will also end with the lighting of each person's candle as we sing "Silent Night" to close out our worship together.

I hope that you will put these services on your calendar this year - they will enrich your celebration of Christmas!  And we would encourage you to invite someone you know to join you!  I think sharing in worship together by creating memories that last will help the Christmas Spirit to endure for you long after we have finished putting the decorations away!

In Christ,

Sam

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

Monday, December 9, 2019

But I'm Good at Grumbling!

Lectionary Passage: James 5:7-10 (NRSV)

This is the time of year when I can't believe that we are staring the Third Sunday of Advent in the face.  How could it be?  The season is going way too fast and I still have way too much to do!

As a child, December just crawled along.  It seemed as if Christmas would never arrive.

Now, it rushes along like a freight train and there is no use trying to slow it down.  Best to just enjoy the ride and enjoy the wind in my face!

The letter of James also looks toward the coming of the Lord.  

He is speaking more of the Parousia or Second Coming of Christ rather than the observance of the birth of Jesus at Christmas.  This is sometimes called the Second Advent which is fitting since both have to do with waiting.

Sometimes we put more preparation into the gifts
we give than into our relationships with those we love.
If we apply this scripture to our own waiting for Christmas, the theme seems to fit.  I especially like when James reminds us not to grumble against one another.  Sometimes when I'm stressed, this is what I do best!

When we have anxiety in our lives, we may not have permission to take it out on the source.  If it comes from our boss or our teacher or someone with authority over us, it may not be appropriate to grumble directly at them.  So our grumbling may come out against others we know.  Unfortunately, our family members often get the brunt of our anxiety.

Pastors sometimes experience this during funerals or funeral preparation.  People outside the church that are involved with a loved one's passing may be feeling anger at their loss.  Sometimes this anger is directed at God (often subconsciously so) and the pastor makes for a good stand-in.

Being aware of this and ready to receive it without responding in anger is important.

There are other times when I receive the brunt of someone's anger over something and I may not respond with the same grace.  It could be that this may come more from left field and I'm caught off guard.  Many times when we are attacked, we defend ourselves by biting back rather than taking the time to analyze where this might be coming from.  As we encounter relatives over the holidays, this is a sometimes common occurrence in larger families.

What if we patiently asked ourselves from where their stress may be originating?

Sometimes we need to pray for patience.  This is not necessarily some random prayer.  The way we find our help is to think about those people who try our patience the most.  You likely know who they are and could come up with a list without thinking very hard about it!

So in praying for patience, what if you prayed for each of these people on your list?  What if you asked God to show you what is stressing them out?  What if we tried to understand them better?

It is far easier to grumble about them.  We can readily find allies in this cause.  After all, we are in the right, are we not?

But does this help us capture the spirit of Christmas?  Does it make our holiday bright?  Does it increase peace in our world?

As I step on your toes, please know that this topic has already bruised my own!

I hope you'll join us for worship on Sunday as we worship together online for your convenience or in Edmond or Guthrie.  I believe that you'll find it helpful to your preparation for Christmas!

In Christ,

Sam


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