Monday, April 19, 2021

Marks of Resurrection

Lectionary Scripture: 1 John 3:16-24

"All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them."

This is the verse immediately preceding today's reading.  It refers to Cain murdering his brother Abel and makes the jump that hate equals murder.

This is a tough scripture and John juxtapositions it with the love that Jesus has for us.  Rather than taking life, Jesus lays down his life for us.  I'm reminded of Thomas asking to see the marks in his hands and side.  These places of wounding mark Jesus as authentic in his eyes.  Thomas may have even seen the wounds inflicted from a distance.  

They become marks of resurrection in the risen Lord.

Sometimes we have our own marks.   If we are in relationship, we usually gain scars along the way.  Most relationships require us to forgive somewhere or they would have already ended.  There are likely also places we can recall where others had to forgive us as well!

Some places are trickier
to move into than others.
In order to be sincere, our love must take some kind of action.  We can talk a good game but when push comes to shove, we've got to show up.  I can remember being newlyweds headed to graduate school together.  Sheryl and I arrived in Atlanta with our U-Haul full of all our belongings.  We had to park it on a hill and our apartment was then on the second floor - who doesn't want to help move furniture up stairs?

Our neighbors could have hidden in their apartment - but they helped us move our junk up the stairs.  Luckily we didn't have a couch with a hide-a-bed in it.  But it was still a lot of work.

Later, we tried to help others move when the opportunity arose.  I remember one neighbor in particular that we helped move (he had a lot of stuff) and when it came time to help us, he was nowhere to be found.  Sometimes this happens and we may even feel a little used.  

But if love becomes transactional, we may start looking for more gain than what we put into it.  This is a recipe for becoming a user in a relationship rather than a giver.

The example of Jesus is that we give and do not count the cost.  While we may end up giving more than receiving, I don't think this is really true.  If I try to take advantage of someone, I find myself diminished rather than enriched.  It's strange how life works that way!  It may be that we need to consider the people we have forgiven as our own marks of resurrection.

I hope you'll join us as we continue to explore this theme on Sunday.  We'll gather online as always although this will be our last preproduced Sunday before we go back to live-streaming.  We meet in the sanctuary at 8:30 and 11 am and have an outdoor service at 9:45 am (featuring our band).  This Sunday, we will be confirming (finally) our 2020 class of youth at the outdoor service if you would like to support them (but you'll need to bring a blanket or lawn chair).  I'm looking forward to a wonderful Sunday and this will be my first one fully vaccinated!

In Christ,

Sam


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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Moving Forward as the Church

There has been a lot of talk recently about the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the Global Methodist Church as they have made recent headlines in the Oklahoman.

I want to point out some important facts about The United Methodist Church as I have been ordained to uphold the order of the church and have represented our denomination through the Oklahoma Conference delegation since 2004.  As a recent appointee to become the next Crossroads District Superintendent in July, I also represent United Methodists across this region as well as our conference.

The General Conference is the only organization that has the authority to pass legislation that would allow any kind of formal exit to a different denomination.  Currently, local churches may leave the denomination if they work out an agreement with the annual conference Board of Trustees.  This is because all United Methodist property is owned by the annual conference where it resides.

There is a trust clause in the deed of all United Methodist property that states this.

One of the other sticking points for leaving would be for a congregation to continue to cover the pension payments for all the years of clergy who served their church.  Most annual conferences will come up with a dollar amount that is fair.  This ensures that these churches are paying their fair share for services received through the years (and those of us who are remaining are not stuck with their bill).

For longer than I have been in ministry, there have been groups that have sought to remove the trust clause from the Discipline which is our governing document.  There have been a variety of reasons for leaving the denomination.  The latest seems to revolve around how we are in ministry with LGBTQ persons.  

Currently, our Discipline does not allow for same gender weddings or for clergy who are in a same gender relationship to serve.  The penalties for violating these policies come through the annual conference and there are places within United Methodism which ignore this language.  In other words, the feeling in those regions is that these behaviors are not punishable.  Others in more conservative regions disagree.

I know of no public violations of these policies within the Oklahoma Conference.  No one is currently on trial in our conference for these violations.

Some in our conference feel that violations in other annual conferences are too close for comfort.  They are seeking to leave (with others) to start the Global Methodist Church.  Currently, this denomination does not yet exist.  There is also movement to start a more progressive denomination called the Liberation Methodist Connexion.  So far, I've not heard of any Oklahoma churches seeking to join this denomination.  The United Methodist Church remains in the center.  There is no guarantee that any legislation will be passed that will pave the way for an easier exit toward any other denomination.

General Conference has been postponed due to the pandemic to August of 2022.  Because we have delegates attending from Africa, Asia and Europe, it would be impossible to gather at this time.  Because of our rules (and time zones and translation issues and sheer size), we are not able to gather online.  How quickly the world can successfully vaccinate will largely determine whether General Conference is able to meet in 2022.  

I have always been outspoken in my desire to stay within The United Methodist Church.  Even though not all agree about this particular issue, there are far greater things that we accomplish together.  When I have worked on ecumenical groups that seek to bring denominations together, we never start with the things on which we disagree.  

As we move through a pandemic, we have seen a lot of division occur.  The election, race issues and how we respond to the coronavirus have all been things on which we have polarized as a country.  Not being able to worship together as a whole and not being able to sit down with one another in Sunday school makes it easier to go our separate ways.  We have had some in our congregation choose to leave because they believed that I was too lenient on the matter of how we should be in ministry with our LGBTQ siblings.  I would be naïve if I thought that the issues I mentioned above did not also contribute.  However, I try to lead with grace as a pastor and this has always been how I would prefer to characterize my ministry.  I wish those who seek to find other places of worship blessing.  I give thanks for the gifts and talents they shared with us.

When we lose people over any issue, it is always difficult.  We grieve and sometimes those who are left behind feel like this position was more important to them than our relationship.  As we see emails and groups trying to pull others away from The United Methodist Church, this is the easiest time to sow division.  We aren't able to meet as we normally would.  

When we walk the road together,
we find strength for the journey.
I have faith that we will hold together.  The love of Christ allows me to stay in community with others who both agree and disagree with me on a wide variety of issues.  As a group seeks to divide over any issue, when they find that they are finally free to determine their own future, it is often the case that they start looking for the next fight.  This doesn't happen on purpose.  If the system is geared toward critique and blame, it is hard to simply set these notions aside after a separation occurs.

The harder thing is often to stay in relationship with one another, but as we consider that we will be reunited in heaven, it makes sense to me that we should seek to work out our disagreements here.

I'm proud of our church.  I'm proud of our denomination.  I would seek for others to be in Christ with us through our Wesleyan understanding of grace.  This Sunday, we'll continue to share in faith through our Easter series, "Abiding in the Resurrection" on First John.  My sermon title is "What if the Sin Just Sneaks Up on Me?" and is based on 1 John 3:1-7.  I would invite you to join us!

In Christ,

Sam


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

Monday, April 5, 2021

But You're Still A Bigger Sinner Than I Am

Lectionary Reading: 1 John 1-2:2

One of the things (among many) that I will miss about preaching in a single church setting will be the ability to look at one book of the Bible over many Sundays.  If you've followed my lectionary devotions, you can tell that I enjoy exploring the various themes that the authors project across an entire work.

I believe that the individual books of the Bible are richer when we can ingest them as a whole.

That being said, I will enjoy looking at the first letter of John over the Easter season which will carry through seven Sundays ending with May 16.  My series is entitled, "Abiding in the Resurrection" and we'll explore how our lives are influenced by our resurrection faith.

Is there less judgment if 
this is part of a contest?
This letter is actually more of a sermon or essay rather than an epistle.  Scholars think that it was written after John's Gospel and likely from a different author.  The targeted audience was dealing with church schism and were likely experiencing a variety of teaching - some of which questioned the physical presence of Jesus in the flesh at any time in his life (not just post-resurrection).  Of course, the physical presence is important to our theology of God knowing our short-comings and difficulties as mortals.

Evidently, some of these false teachers were claiming to be without sin.  This is a judgmental attitude that also belies the ability to relate to others.  Rather than approaching one another with humility, as if we are on a level playing field, we may look down upon those whom we feel are spiritually inferior to us.  So the author whom I'll refer to as John reminds us that a person making this claim is a liar which, of course, is a sin!

The need to place ourselves above our peers is part of the human condition.  It doesn't seem to be a part of what God calls us to be but that hasn't kept people from engaging in this behavior throughout Christian history.  And while some might begrudgingly admit to past sins, we might like to rank ourselves as less odious in God's eyes!

This Sunday, I hope that you'll join us for worship as we continue to explore this theme.  We'll gather in the sanctuary at 8:30 and 11 am and we'll also gather outside at 9:45 am across the street next to the Wesley Foundation building on the lawn.  We appreciate everyone signing in prior to the service for reservations!  We'll also continue to offer the safest option which is online worship via YouTube or Facebook!

I look forward engaging with you in one way or another on Sunday!

In Christ,

Sam


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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Daily Devotion for Easter 2021

Scripture Reading: Philemon

I've enjoyed working through the earliest letters of Paul starting with 1st Thessalonians and then moving to Galatians and then ending with 1st and 2nd Corinthians.  Of course, there is always debate over which was the earliest and how we might ascribe a chronology to the epistles.  But this particular order worked out to cover each of these four letters by looking at one chapter each of the forty days of Lent.  

While I didn't cover Sundays this year, I usually wrap up the series on Easter Sunday and so I thought I would look at Philemon on Easter since some scholars place it next in order.  The fact that it was only a chapter seemed to lend credence to this idea as well!

How are broken shackles an
image of the resurrection?
As we look at Philemon, it definitely has some important themes of resurrection which coincides well with Easter.  Paul is writing to Philemon who is likely a member of the church at Colossae with a rather specific request in the faith.  It seems that Philemon's slave Onesimus has made his way to Paul and become a Christian.  Paul is sending Onesimus back with the instruction that he would no longer be a slave but a brother in Christ.  

Here Paul is asking Philemon to put the theory of Galatians 3:28, "there is no longer slave or free...for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" into practice.

Paul is willing to cover any cost but also emphasizes Philemon's own debt to him by stating, "I say nothing about your owing me even your own self."

And in case Philemon is having other thoughts about how he will treat Onesimus, Paul lets him know that he's going to be coming for a visit.  He doesn't state explicitly that things better go the way he has laid them out but it is pretty easy to read between the lines!

As we consider a living resurrection faith on Easter Sunday, Paul's letter to Philemon shows us practical value.  Our idea of a risen Lord is put into reality when we conform to his teachings and find our own freedom in bringing love and respect to places in the world where they are absent.  

Onesimus finds resurrection in his own physical freedom - he is no longer a slave.  

Philemon finds resurrection in granting freedom to Onesimus and seeing him as a brother in Christ.

Paul finds resurrection in the guidelines he lays out - they were surely followed or this letter would have been destroyed rather than copied!

How is resurrection present in your life today?  Where might you add life to the world around you?

Prayer for the day:

Living Lord, we know in our hearts how we should treat others.  But often our heads justify lesser behavior.  As we celebrate Jesus risen from the dead, this reminds us that suffering and cruelty are not the final word.  Help us to see that our participation in them is a denial to the resurrection faith that we claim.  May you rise again in our lives so that our actions might reflect resurrection for all.  We pray these things in the name of the risen Christ.  Amen.


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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Daily Devotion for Lent 2021 - Day 40

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 13

We conclude our time with Corinth today as Paul looks toward another visit.  The fact that we have these letters at all gives us an indication that perhaps this visit went well.  

For the church, we must continue
to ask ourselves, how do 
we make room for one more?
What is interesting is that Paul uses his opponents dependence on the Law to his advantage.  His quotation about charges being sustained by two or three witnesses in the first verse refers to Deuteronomy 19:15.  This is a reminder that many times those who stress that you are breaking this or that point in scripture are often not adhering to other parts of the Bible.

Paul, like any parent, hopes that his spiritual children will discipline themselves according to the faith that he has set out for them.  Paul's letter may be like the phone call from the parents letting the teenagers know that they are on the way home: "We expect the house to be in order when we get home and the chores we laid out to be finished."

Paul's advice is timeless: "Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith."

In case we miss what this should be, he sums it up in verse 11: "Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you."

In this day and age of going to our separate corners (so that we can come out fighting), Paul is reminding us that being in Christ is primary above our differences.  Christians like United Methodists who are ecumenical believe that ultimately, a great variety of denominations shall dwell together in Christ in the life eternal.  All of the differences - whether they be political or doctrinal - seem insignificant on the death bed.  Many times at this point, we see old grievances fall away and we want to die in peace.  The God of love and peace is truly in these moments with us.

I think what Paul is trying to accomplish is for us to live in peace.

That seems to be a worthy goal for us as we wrap up the Lenten season and await the Resurrection.  

How will we show Christ to be alive in us?

Prayer for the Day:

Loving God, we have journeyed with Paul during this Lenten season.  We have seen how he was a man of faith and a man of conviction.  But we also see how he was driven by love.  Help us to love you more fully - where trust comes more easily.  Allow this to drive our love for all your children in ways that let your peace reign.  We pray these things in the name of Jesus the Christ.  Amen.


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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Friday, April 2, 2021

Daily Devotion for Lent 2021 - Day 39

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 12

Heaven may be about perspective.
Shoe Heaven for me would
mean I don't have to shop for them!
Here we have this fascinating reference to one experiencing a vision or revelation of Christ.  The phrase "caught up to the third heaven" is assuming a spiritual enlightenment but we have no reference to this type of language in any of Paul's other letters or in the rest of scripture for that matter.  

Most scholars believe that he is speaking of himself as verse seven indicates "to keep me from being too elated..." and I tend to agree.  I wonder if this might refer to his Damascus conversion but since Luke wrote about this quite a while after Paul's death, it lacks the detail we would like to make a definitive connection.  

William James, in his landmark work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, shares that one of the hallmarks of a mystical experience is that it is ineffable or hard to describe.  This certainly fits as Paul is not even sure if this displacement was physical or immaterial.

James also states that a mystical experience has a noetic quality where the recipient gains special knowledge or insight.  Paul certainly finds this as he states he "heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat."

Paul sees his thorn in the flesh as a consequence from this vision that will keep him humble and grounded.  It is difficult to know whether this was a physical malady or if it was an actual person who Paul saw as a particularly difficult opponent.

We could probably relate to either one.  If we have a physical ailment that pesters or plagues us, we might pray for relief and still find it persistent.  If we have a person that seems to be adept at getting under our skin, we might also pray for refuge from this person and yet find our orbits continuing to pass too close for comfort.  

Can we re-tell the story in a new way?  Is there something positive that can come from this - possibly a little humility when dealing with life?  Maybe a little perspective?

As we look at this on Good Friday, it may be that re-imagining our own suffering can be done without as much complaint on our part!

Prayer for the Day:

Gracious God, we would seek to know you more readily.  We may long for a special experience that is powerful and distinct.  Yet, we also know that consistency in our prayer life is probably more important and likely has more impact on us in the long run.  Help us to find meaning in things that may be mundane or even troubling.  We pray these things in the name of the Crucified One.  Amen.


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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Daily Devotion for Lent 2021 - Day 37

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 11

Paul is expressing his tension in dealing with other apostles who are opposing his teaching.  He is a little disgruntled with the Corinthians in that he accuses them of wavering back and forth in verse four.  In their defense, it would be difficult for them to know who is legitimate and who is false.  Both groups were likely very sincere in their beliefs.  

It seems to come down to an age-old issue theologically: as followers of Jesus, are we more concerned primarily about purifying ourselves before God or are we more concerned primarily about being a light to the nations?  You can have a primary focus and still include the other so they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

But for Paul, if our primary concern is light to the nations, we are trying to reach mostly Gentiles.  Some of their cultural differences make it important to jettison circumcision and dietary laws.  Those who are interested in purity state that anyone coming to faith in Christ must follow these important rites and practices.  There is something about the discipline of behavior that can help us spiritually.

But if these rites and practices become a stumbling block for people to hear the good news, Paul is ready to set them aside.  This is what lessens him in the eyes of so many of the faithful.  When he mentions that he has "received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one" it is a referenced to Deuteronomy 25:3 which prescribes the maximum number of lashes:
Forty lashes may be given but not more; if more lashes than these are given, your neighbor will be degraded in your sight.

We endure what it takes
for those we love.
So Paul got whipped with forty lashes minus one so that the person administering the punishment doesn't accidently lose count and go against the law!  I'm sure Paul would have told them, if you forego the lashes altogether, this would absolutely make sure you didn't break this law.  Paul writes that at the time he was penning this, he had already been given this five times!

He lists a litany of things that he has already endured for the sake of the gospel.  As we move later into Holy Week, we are reminded of the suffering of Jesus.  Paul's imitation of Christ makes for a good résumé that would be hard for the "super-apostles" to match.  Paul seems to be saying that this is how you should be able to tell the difference in authenticity! 

People come to know the good news in a variety of ways.  There are ways that each of us are especially suited to share.  Is there a particular way for you to share the love of Christ with the world that you wouldn't care what you had to endure to share it?


Prayer for the day:

Gracious God, we confess that suffering is not something we would ever seek out.  In fact, when we are honest, suffering often works as a deterrent for lots of our behaviors.  When it comes to the important work in the world, we ask that you would give us courage.  Let us stand up for those who can't stand on their own.  Let us be the voice for the voiceless.  We pray these things in the name of Jesus.  Amen.


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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.