Monday, November 11, 2019

Instilling Hope

Lectionary Scripture: Isaiah 65:17-25 (NRSV)

Many people may not know that I'm not a native Oklahoman.  While I've lived most of my life here, I was actually born in Minnesota and lived there for the first six weeks of my life.  My parents then moved to Oklahoma so I decided to go with them.

I do root for the Vikings in the NFL but haven't given much thought through the years to the Golden Gophers of the Big 10.   It may have been because they were never very good (okay, no shots at the Vikings here).  I did watch them beat Penn State on Saturday and jumped on the bandwagon.  It was fun to celebrate with their fans because they haven't had a lot to cheer about.  They are 9-0 for the first time since 1904.  They may not make the playoffs or even the Big 10 championship but at this point, they have a shot.

Their fans can dream with more possibility (and probability) than most seasons!

They have real hope.

What does it mean to instill hope in people?

I think it is a powerful thing - it is no small thing at all.  When that hope can translate to people's lives for things that make a solid impact - much more than rooting for a sports team - it begins to bring about the world God is seeking.

Our faith reminds us that we partner with God in our interactions with the world.  We are supposed to offer compassion and help to people because our faith reminds us to look at the world through God's eyes.

I remember working on a house in Mexico.  It was not one that we would think twice about here in the United States.  It had no electricity or running water.  It didn't have carpet.  But it wasn't down in the dust.  It kept the wind and rain out.  The woman we built it for was sweeping out her new floor as we drove off for the last time.

She seemed to have a sense of pride in this simple chore.  Her future would look differently because of work that we did.

It was powerful work - no small thing at all.

Isaiah speaks of a new future for God's people.  We see them returning from exile to a land from where their ancestors hailed.

Isaiah lines out a new future for God's people and when we see the lion lying down with the lamb, we move into imagery that allows us to see beyond the literal.   A person can look at the history of the Jews and understand that there has been further weeping and cries of distress in Jerusalem no matter what verse nineteen says.  What we are looking at is a vision of the preferred reality for God's people.

We'll continue to examine this passage in worship on Sunday.  How are we living into a world that reflects Isaiah's message?  How does our church incorporate this into our life together?  How do we offer hope?

I invite you to join us as we explore these questions together!

In Christ,

Sam


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

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

God Grant Me Capacity

Lectionary Reading: Psalm 17:1-9 (NRSV)

One of the great truths is that systems resist change.

I say this a lot.  

I try to say it as a reminder to people who are dealing with large changes in their lives.  I may also be saying it as a reminder to myself.

We are a culture in the midst of change.  Change occurs faster than we can keep up with.

For example, the first iPhone was released just 12 years ago in 2007.  

Now 81% of Americans own a smartphone.


So as we seek to keep up with the changes swirling all around us, we seek stability in our lives.

For many, they look to the church to be the stabilizing force that resists change.

However, we are seeing change come to the church from the outside.  At a recent district meeting, Rev. Dr. Rockford Johnson, the Crossroads District Superintendent, identified five adaptive problems that the church is facing.  Adaptive problems are different from technical problems in that we may not have the immediate expertise to deal with them because they are new and wide-reaching.

These adaptive problems are:

1)  Digital Church - as people consume more online, how do we provide access to spiritual seekers and form meaningful relationships?

2)  The Shifting Population Dynamics Regarding Age - the Baby Boomer generation is retiring (and dying).  They are not being replaced by the next generations at the same rate.  What does the church look like in the pews in 10 years?

3)  Diversification of the Mission Field - Oklahoma is racially diverse.  This hasn't always been the case - just ask Charles Barkley what his perception was of Oklahoma City a few years ago!  Our United Methodist churches do not reflect our neighborhoods.

4)  Growing Disinterest in Church - as I mentioned in my sermon on Sunday, society at large is more likely to view the church as obsolete rather than significant.  Younger people are not returning to church to raise their children with the same numbers as they once did.

5)  Civic and Cultural Divide - we are seeing a worldwide polarization taking place.  We seem to be forcing people into a binary choice regarding politics today.  This either/or mentality has bled into the church.  I often regard the church as one of the last places where people of differing viewpoints gather voluntarily to spend time together and have relationships with one another.  What happens to our country (and world) if churches begin to self-select along these same kinds of lines?

Whew!  Are you tired yet?

The difficulty for congregations is that while we face all of these problems (which seem to be interrelated), we may not have the capacity to handle the adjustments we need to make.

When we are facing problems of our own (creating loss and anxiety for us), we have less capacity to engage in adaptive work.  If you have lost a loved one and are grieving, your capacity is diminished.  If you are dealing with family conflict, your capacity is diminished.  If you are having difficulty at work or financial problems at home, your capacity is diminished.  In facing all of this, Christians often look to the church for stability which is normal.

The problem for the church is when it makes an idol of this stability.  We forget the call of God upon our lives to love those people who may even be rejecting us.  We may cry out to God for help and God may remind us to look outside ourselves.

Sunday, we'll be wrestling with this idea from the Psalmist.  We cry out to God to save us from our adversaries.  How does this work from a Savior who picked up a cross?

I believe that our worship actually enhances our capacity for change.  I hope you'll join us either in person in Guthrie or Edmond or digitally at a time of your choosing!

In Christ,

Sam
 

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






Monday, October 28, 2019

Expressing Grief

Lectionary Reading: 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 (NRSV)

As I've led various presentations with different church groups lately, they have all had similar themes.  The church has experienced loss as it has experienced change.

Change in and of itself may not always be bad.  Sometimes we need to change our lifestyles to become healthier.

Many people have to adjust their diet as they age because they are burning less calories.  I've had to make this adjustment several times as my metabolism slows down.

But even change that is good for us means a loss of some kind.  For me I eat a lot more turkey burgers than beef burgers these days.  My taste buds prefer cow but my blood pressure cries fowl!

Some expressions of grief give us a sense of peace.
For our church, we have experienced changes due to technology.  Projection is a part of most congregations these days.  Music continues to change in worship - even in traditional worship services.  Sermons seem to be getting shorter.  Okay, so maybe not all changes are experienced as loss!

One of the most telling changes we express within the life of the church is the loss of our loved ones in a funeral service.  We grieve and it is important for us to recognize that our lives are diminished without them.

The church has another way of acknowledging this beyond the standard memorial service.  We celebrate All Saints Day each year on the first Sunday of November (technically the day falls on November 1 but we make allowances).  We light a candle during worship for each church member that has passed away since the last All Saints Day.  As we celebrate Holy Communion during that service, we recognize that they are communing with us in the church eternal.  This can be a powerful moment of healing for people.

One of our other expressions of loss in our local setting is to provide a card for those in attendance.  They may write the name or names of others who have also passed away who may not have been members of our church.  Then when they receive Holy Communion, they leave the card on the altar rail as their commemoration.  In this we are thankful to God for their being in our lives.

Grief is a difficult thing.  Since I lost both parents in 2018, I recognize more acutely the times when it sneaks up on you unexpectedly.  But I also know that to pretend I am not grieving is to cover up something that needs my attention.  I think when we ignore our grief, we do not properly honor those we loved.

Paul writes that we give thanks to God for the church at Thessalonica.  Their faith and love were increasing.  We also give thanks to God for those who have shaped us in faith and love.  May ours continue to increase as well as we express our own loss and share it before God.

I believe this time of remembrance will be especially healing for me this year as I hope it is for you!

In Christ,

Sam


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

Monday, October 21, 2019

I'm Humbler Than You

Lectionary Reading: Luke 18:9-14 (NRSV)


Within the scripture today, the reversal of the righteousness of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector would have been astounding within first century Judaism.

Because we have grown up with this parable, it is not so shocking for us today.

We have come to accept humility as one of the traits that at least Christian leadership should exhibit.  Well, technically, all Christians should show humility but at the very least the clergy should make an attempt.

There are still some strands of Christians who embrace the more judgmental attitude reflected by the Pharisees.  When you see a preacher lashing out against sin that he stands above (women may do this as well but most of the denominations that emphasize this style of preaching do not ordain women), it doesn’t reflect the kind of humility shown by the tax collector in the parable.  To include oneself in the sin that is being exposed is more likely to get people to identify with their own vulnerability to it.

Have you ever seen a pastor that preaches a lot of 
judgment participating in ceremonial foot washing?
I'm sure it happens but I believe it's rare
compared to those that emphasize grace.
And yes, this whole caption is ironic.
If I throw stones against you for something that doesn’t bother me, I elevate myself above you in righteousness.  As we both remain “in Christ” I fail to connect that our righteousness is equal regardless of our faithfulness with regards to this particular sin.  It is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ that affords our righteousness before God.  This doesn’t mean that right behavior or faithfulness in the face of temptation is not important.  But it does mean that these are always responses to the grace we’ve received.

“How do we lift each other up?” becomes the Christian response to sin. 

And if we are really not bothered by this particular behavior?

In other words, “What if I really am empirically better than this person with regards to this sin?”

It may be that we need to confess our own weaknesses.  To come to a place where we all recognize that we struggle at times with who we are called to be seems to be what Jesus is calling us to acknowledge within today’s parable.

I hope you’ll join us on Sunday as we continue to wrestle with this scripture in worship!

In Christ,

Sam

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

Monday, October 14, 2019

Bloom Where You're Planted

Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 (NRSV)


Sheryl and I made our way to First United Methodist Church in Duncan in 2006 to celebrate the 100th birthday of Reverend Phil Wahl, pastor emeritus of that church.  He had been serving in some type of pastoral role in that congregation since 1968 and Sheryl had grown up with him as her pastor.  We didn't know if he would recognize us or not when he saw us but he called each of us by name.

His greater gift was to not only recognize people but to really know them.

He asked us several pointed questions that indicated he not only remembered our faces but knew what we were about.

There were some great stories about Rev. Wahl through the years.  He was famous for driving over the speed limit wherever he went and most people learned to get out of his way!  I heard a story that he told the church secretary to call the highway patrol:

"Tell them I'm headed to Oklahoma City to visit people in the hospital so don't stop me for speeding."

There were various times he ended up in the hospital himself.  The great thing about him was that he wouldn't stay in bed while he recovered.  He would move from room to room, visiting others who were there in need of prayer.  He definitely bloomed where he was planted!

His attitude exemplifies the scripture from Jeremiah today.  Jeremiah tells the people who have been forcibly removed from their homes to not only prosper but to help their new nation prosper.  What does it mean to pray for a place when you don't necessarily agree with their philosophies?

Can we find a greater good?

This Sunday, we will explore this important scripture in an age and culture where we are so partisan as to consider it anathema to seek the good for our opposition.  I hope you'll join us as we grow in faith together!

In Christ,

Sam


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

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Power of Touch

Scripture Reading: 2 Timothy 1:1-14 (NRSV)

There is a longing that people have to be touched.  It is ingrained in us from our birth.  In fact, premature babies that end up in natal intensive care units are found to grow and improve more rapidly with gentle touching and skin-to-skin holding.

Watching Trey hold Sloane at lunch on Sunday reminded me of how my own children touched my face so often when I held them.  Touching is fundamental to us.

When both of my children were born, I was able to wash them for their first bath.  I remember gently holding them and gingerly putting the cloth on their skin.  I think I probably took a long time for the task because I was afraid that I would be too rough!

This picture reminds us that joyous
experiences are even better shared!
My own parents gave me plenty of hugs growing up and as they grew older in recent years, I realized that they needed the hugs from me.  Prior to their deaths, it was important to see them and touch them each day.

As I think about how we ritualize touch, I remember my wedding day.  When we join hands in the ceremony, it is a formal acknowledgement of the relationship.  At the end of the ceremony, the permission to kiss publicly is a declaration that this romantic touch is now validated and even encouraged by society.

As an ordained pastor, the bishop laid hands upon me.  Bishop Blake implored as he did so, "Samuel, take authority as an elder to preach the Word of God, to administer the Holy Sacraments and to order the life of the Church, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."  

Today when praying for someone in the hospital, we touch the person with whom we are praying for healing.

In the scripture reading today, we hear the importance of the laying on of hands.  This is done to rekindle the sense of mission in the people of God.  In verse seven, we shrug off cowardice and replace it with power, love and self-discipline.  But this comes within the Christian community.  It is done when we hold hands and create a circle of prayer together.  This binds us together.  This clarifies our purpose.  This allows our mission to continue through the generations.

I hope you'll join us on Sunday as we worship together.  My hope is that you will renew in yourself your own sense of power, love and self-discipline which are life-giving!

In Christ,

Sam
 

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

There's Your Sign

*For the next few weeks, we will look at the lectionary passage from the previous week.

Lectionary Scripture: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 (NRSV)
Oklahoma got hit with a double whammy when we experienced the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression in the mid-1930's.  When drought set in and the dust storms were more common, the decreased prices for agriculture and livestock forced many Oklahomans to migrate west to California.

Land was not worth much and was often abandoned.

Even years after the drought had ended, dust storms were still common.

Sheryl's grandparents returned to Oklahoma after living in Vermont for a number of years in the 1940's.  They lived in the Panhandle in Guymon and her grandmother told about hanging wet sheets over the doors and windows when a dust storm blew through.  This would help them breath a little better but there were still layers of dust to be cleaned after it blew through.

Years later in the mid-1990's, when I was appointed to Drummond in the north central part of our state, I can remember dust storms blowing through the town.  We had clothes lines in the backyard and would sometimes hang sheets to dry.  Once the red dirt turned them pink!  You learned to bring them in if you didn't want to redo your wash.

In our scripture today, we see Jeremiah looking to redeem land.  His problem was not environmental but rather a foreign military power besieging their gates.  The effect on land price was the same.  It was worthless.

Yet Jeremiah is invited by God to redeem the land.  This was a family option instilled by the covenant to keep a family from losing their ability to make a living.  He has the option to buy his cousin's land.  He does so publicly with great show to make a statement.  This was a sign act.  It was done to indicate hope in a future that only God could provide.

It was a statement that God was still present even though appearances spoke to the contrary.

What kind of sign acts do we make today?

I would say that attending worship is one such sign act.  We gather together even when the culture at large is beginning to abandon Sunday morning worship.  We are declaring that God will have a future here after all.  In doing so, we offer encouragement to ourselves and to one another.

This Sunday, we'll continue to explore this passage as we celebrate World Communion Sunday together.  This is one of my favorite days of the year as we recognize our solidarity with other Christians around the globe.  I hope you'll join us as we embrace the hope that God gives us!

In Christ,

Sam


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