Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Running a Marathon

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Genesis 45:1-15 (NRSV)

In most races, it seems there is always
someone younger and more energetic
that is going to pass me by!
I’ve never been a long-distance runner but I remember doing some longer runs in my youth.  As a child, I sprinted out ahead and tried to get in front of the pack only to exhaust my energy and get passed by other kids that were normally slower than me.  I figured out that you had to pace yourself and conserve your energy – measure it out for the whole race.

It may be that many of us have hit that initial wall.  The majority of us knew rationally that COVID-19 could last into the fall.  It was communicated quite a bit.  But how many believed last March that we would be facing these kinds of issues with re-opening schools in the fall?  Somewhere in the back of my head, I had convinced myself that things would be back to normal after the summer.  And so, did I conserve enough mental or emotional energy to deal with the reality?

There are so many industries that are facing difficulties because of the changes.  It is hard to fathom how deeply this has affected the economy.  Of course, this impacts the church.  We don’t think about the church as a business but it has utility bills and salaries as well as other ministry costs to operate.  The mission behind our business is not to make profit but to make the world a better place by introducing people to the Way of Jesus Christ.  Most of the churches that I know operate financially with very little margin for error.

For our church, we have grown and been able to offset the normal losses due to death and moving through new people finding us and eventually joining our church.  For a healthy church, this should be normal in the life of the congregation.  But what happens if we can’t worship without taking safety precautions?  When we first re-opened worship in the Christian Activity Center, we wondered if we would have enough room to safely distance everyone who would come.  We quickly realized that this would not be a problem!  

Most of the congregation continues to engage online which is the safest option.  The majority have stayed away because of health reasons.  Others have remained absent while we insist on masks for worship because they choose not to wear them for likely a variety of reasons.  But for the most part, visitors are not coming in person with the same frequency or percentage that they did before the change.

So church continues to adjust to the difficulties.  We still believe in our mission.   In fact, it may be more crucial with all of the turmoil going on.  So how do we reach people today?

We are going to invite our church to continue to participate.  Our church has done an outstanding job engaging with our online worship on social media.  I mentioned that as people like, comment or share the video, this allows us to “see” who is joining us at church!  And so, if you are a lurker (someone who merely observes but doesn’t engage through liking, commenting or sharing on our church’s worship post), this may be foreign or even uncomfortable for you.  It may be something you are not willing to do.  But your presence is important and this is the way we show up today.  I would invite you to prayerfully consider responding in some way this week.

We are looking at spending a small amount of money (around $20) this week to “boost” our worship post to see if we might reach others in our community.  If you find this distasteful, for comparison, many churches used to spend much more than this on weekly newspaper ads.  But the best way for us to reach more people (and it’s free) is for people to “share” the post through your social media account.  If you need help doing this, please email us at info@fumcedmond.org and we’ll have someone walk you through it!  Evangelism looks different to each generation and we are not going to shy away from it just because it continues to evolve and we find the changes uncomfortable.  Our mission is more important than our discomfort.

I like how Joseph saw his own sense of mission in today’s reading.  He suffered.  He went through a lot of difficulty – betrayal, slavery, accused falsely, imprisonment in a foreign land.  And yet, he saw God’s hand in his life and it buoyed him through the turmoil.  We are going through a lot as well.  Maybe if we see how we are working with God to help others know the love of Christ, it will help us too.  

We’ll continue to explore this scripture on Sunday in worship (online and in person).  If you join us online, I hope to “see” you this week!  May God bless you as you adjust to our marathon.  We’re running this together!

In Christ,

Sam


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


Monday, August 3, 2020

Selling our Relatives

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Genesis 37:1-28 (NRSV)

I remember getting a bite to eat at the Garage waiting for the Thunder game to come on.  It was Wednesday, March 11 and Sheryl and I finished Bible study and headed over to watch.  Then we saw them cancel the game and we heard that one of their opponents on the Jazz had tested positive for the coronavirus.  The NBA Season was cancelled soon after that.

We then heard that the NCAA basketball tournament would be played without fans.  Then we heard that it wouldn't be played at all.  

The shutdown across the country was right behind and we've been on hold ever since.

Families have been spending more time together and this has been a positive thing for many.  

Of course, the close proximity can also be difficult.  Sometimes tempers can flare as our normal schedules have been displaced.  

I can remember as a very young child, my mother would sometimes know that it was time for a friend to go home.  She would say, "I think you're getting tired of each other since you've been together all day.  You don't want to ruin your friendship."

There are times when our loved ones can even be too much of a good thing.

Many families were looking forward to going back to school.  Our daughter Kyla mentioned that she's never so looked forward to the start of a semester!  It's not that we've had a bad time together - it's just that we hope the return of school will signal a sense of being closer to normal.

Unfortunately, "normal" is not available yet.

There may even be more quarantines if the case-load gets out of hand for hospitals.  We were warned about this at the beginning by infectious disease specialists but that was months ago.

So how do we strengthen each other rather than drive each other crazy?

Sometimes love needs a break!
Sometimes our family members can be a bit much.

In Sunday's reading, we see how Joseph's brothers were ready to sell him.  At first, they were going to kill him but one of the more rational brothers talked them into sending him into slavery instead.  So we can see that he had family looking out for him!

Of course, as we read the story, we can also see how Joseph was a bit much.  It's possible that he needed a little humility in his life.  

That may be something we can think about.  As I hold up this story as a mirror to my own life, I reflect on my close relationships and wonder if I could also use a dose of humility.  There may be times when my family members may have wanted to trade me off to some wandering Midianites.  

Joseph's brothers were feeling threatened.  Daddy loves Joseph more than he loves us.

So as we consider our own families during this time of stress, maybe we need to emphasize and communicate to our family members that we love them very much.  A little assurance goes a long way.  Maybe if you can say it a little more often, they'll take the sticker price off of you.

We'll look again at this scripture on Sunday - I hope you'll join us online for worship.  And if you're going a little stir crazy, grab a mask and join us in the Christian Activity Center at 8:30 or 11 am!

In Christ,

Sam


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

Monday, July 27, 2020

Wrestling with Reality

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Genesis 32:22-31 (NRSV)

I've always liked the story about Jacob wrestling with God.  It has an earthiness to it with two men trying to dominate one another physically.  It also has a fantastical feel to it - as if it is almost dreamlike.  It can be allegorical in that we all wrestle with difficulties in the dead of night.

How many times have you ever had trouble sleeping because you were struggling with something?

It is interesting that Jacob asks for the wrestler's name but doesn't get it.  There was the notion from antiquity that said that if you knew the true name of a supernatural being, you would have power over that being.  We see that God doesn't comply with this request but God does bless Jacob.

There is also the strongly held belief that mortals are extinguished when they experience the fullness of God - see the face of God.  Bowing in prayer today still comes out of the idea of respect and deference to the divine - something greater than ourselves of which we should be somewhat wary.

Jacob is pleasantly surprised that he has not only survived the encounter, but he actually received God's blessing.  However, it should be noted that the encounter wasn't totally without cost as he walks away from it limping.

This reminds us that growth and maturity often come at a price.  To think that we can get through life unscathed may be somewhat naive.  

What does our wrestling look like today?  It may be that we are wrestling with all of reality as we seek to adjust to a present that is so different from what we knew just six months ago.  We wrestle with one another as we make these adjustments.  Sometimes we walk away with respect for one another but I think that a lot of the time the wrestling just leads to greater division between us.

A new poll taken by the Cato Institute shows that greater number of Americans are reticent to share their political opinions today than even three years ago.  This occurs across the political spectrum with only the extremely liberal as non-anxious about their expression.  This shows that our society as a whole may be growing more polarized and divided as tolerance for political variance wanes.

While on vacation last week, I listened to a podcast on reality.  It spoke about how people see things differently and their ideas shape their responses and actions.  They focused on a town in Minnesota where some people began feeding black bears.  These animal enthusiasts believed that when we lead with respect and carefulness, the black bears will peacefully coexist with us.  Some of the other residents believed that if the handouts were to dry up, the tenuous peace might end in humans being attacked.  Both groups became pretty adamant about their beliefs.  How do these differing groups shape the town response to wildlife control in their immediate urban setting?  Someone isn't going to be happy.

It made me wonder if we have become more entrenched in our views than we were before.  Today, we can set up an echo chamber through selected news media whether by cable television or internet.  We only hear the viewpoints with which we agree.  We only hear the other side cast in a negative light.  We don't stop and ask the question, "Why does my friend believe so differently?"  In other words, what do they get out of it?

Sometimes the reasons are supplied by the outlets.  

I don't think liberals hate America or freedom.

I don't think conservatives are malicious racists who want to keep others unlike them from succeeding.

But if we listen to voices that declare this, we do have difficulty then respecting the differing beliefs.  

You may want to stay in your 
weight class when wrestling.
If we believe the worst about others, it is easier to shut them out of our lives.  When this happens, we strengthen the echo chamber in which we live.  We can then visit with one another but very little wrestling will occur.  If it does, it is mostly harmless and we don't get much out of it.

But if we can wrestle with those who are different with a sense of respect for them, we might find that we are blessed by the encounter.  Yes, you might go off limping but the wider worldview is likely worth it.

I'll continue to wrestle with this text and these ideas in our worship on Sunday.  I'll try not to strike you in the hip.

In Christ,

Sam


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

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Surprising Parables

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary reading: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 (NRSV)

The Parable of the Mustard Seed is often boiled down to great things come in small packages.  This interpretation is influenced by a second reference to the mustard seed in Matthew's gospel, namely, chapter 17, verse 20:
He <Jesus> said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
But the parable from today's reading has a different connotation to it.  If someone sowed mustard seed in your field that already contained a specific crop, you would not be thrilled but would be angry (it sounds very similar to the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat).  One reason for your displeasure in that day is that you would now be out of compliance with the Law.

Leviticus 19:19 mentions specifically, "... you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed" while Deuteronomy 22:9 supports this measure:
"You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed, or the whole yield will have to be forfeited, both the crop that you have sown and the yield of the vineyard itself." 
It may be that the kingdom of heaven
defies our attempt at order.
But here we have the kingdom of heaven being compared to some kind of subversive action.  It ends up benefiting all creation (well, at least the local birds) rather than just the landowner.  This reminds us that God's care extends beyond us.  Jesus also mentions this in the Sermon on the Mount, in chapter 6:26a: "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them."

Rather than the idea of small things leading to greatness, this parable would have surprised early listeners with its context.  The kingdom of heaven is like something wild that we can't control.  It has benefits but it may be somewhat frustrating. 

We'll continue to look at this parable as well as the others in the reading in worship on Sunday.  It will be good to be back in the pulpit after some time away and I hope to see you in church or online through your comments or reactions!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Shaine Mata 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, July 12, 2020

Helping God Out

Sometimes the weeds are so obvious!
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (NRSV)

The parable of the weeds and the wheat causes us to stumble sometimes.  We want a clean field.  We don't want weeds taking any precious moisture needed by the growing wheat.  If things are orderly in the field, the rest of our universe becomes more orderly.  It is easier to deal with.

Yet, Jesus tells us to leave the weeds alone.

Don't bother them.

Well, why not?  We can easily identify them at an early stage - when they are easy to root out!

Jesus says to leave them.  We might uproot the wheat in our zeal to take out the weeds.

I think what it really means is that when we find an eye for the weeds in life, we may become more interested in pulling weeds than in nurturing wheat.  And the more we look for weeds, the more weeds we seem to see.  

Is that wheat or a weed?  It could be wheat.  Hmm.  Better not take a chance.  Pull it up.

Of course, Jesus is talking about people.  We don't really know the hearts and minds of people.  We don't know what God thinks about them.  But we think we do.  We're just helping God out a little.  God, we'll pull these weeds now and you won't have to worry about them later.  Oh, don't bother thanking us, we're glad to do it!

This also assumes that people are fixed - that they can never change.  Once they head down the wrong path, they are lost forever.  This kind of thinking would take out most of the disciples of Jesus!

How can we apply this parable of Jesus to our lives together today?  I'm sure you've never written anyone off as hopeless, have you?  No, of course I haven't either.  Maybe if we nurture a weed, it will begin to look like the wheat.  Of course, that's foolish thinking.  Weeds can't become wheat.  That would take a miracle.

Hmm.

Join us as we continue to explore this parable in worship on Sunday!

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by alh1 via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.


Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Retreat is Good for the Soul

I'll be preaching this weekend but not in the pulpit at Edmond First UMC.  Rather, I'll be preaching outdoors, in an informal setting at Canyon Camp for our Family Camp there July 10-12.  It will be a time of retreat for families who will have their own cabin assignments.  We will be distanced throughout the camp so that there will be much less likelihood of exposure.  Much of the weekend will be unstructured but we will have spiritual activities in which families may engage (or not) at their own pace.

The labyrinth at Canyon is one place where people may engage in a spiritual walk as they pray.  We have a long history at Edmond First UMC of utilizing the labyrinth and there is an outdoor labyrinth on the UCO campus near the chapel if you would like to walk one either by yourself or with your family.  You can also utilize the picture and trace your finger along as you pray at home.

A labyrinth is not a maze in that there is only one way in and one way out.  It is a spiritual walk where we try to pray as we walk.  Often as we walk to the interior, one might focus on one’s own spiritual journey – an inward focus.  As you reach the center, you might give over the things you have prayed to God.  Allow them to be released.  As you walk back out, it is time to focus on the world around us – an exterior focus.  Pray about the wider world and your neighbors in it.

Because we walk with God, we are always changed when we walk a labyrinth.  We are different people when we come out than when we entered, even if just a little bit.  We try to observe silence as we walk it – children can think of it like the quiet game.  This respects the process and respects your neighbors as they experience it too.  Families can walk it simultaneously and don’t have to wait for someone to reach the middle before starting.
  
As we think about COVID-19, there have been a lot of changes in our lives.  One focus of the inward prayer might include the following questions:

What things have you missed the most since the isolation began in March?

If things got back to normal, what is one of the first things you would like to do?

It is okay for us to mourn changes.  Let God know what is making you sad.

God allows us to face all kinds of trouble in life.  Pray for strength for the journey ahead.  Imagine God raising you up on eagle’s wings and giving you resolve to roll with the punches.

In the middle:  Ask God for the resolve to take whatever may come.  Ask God for the ability to find joy in life even though it is different.

As you exit the labyrinth, here’s possible foci for your prayer:

As you have been in isolation, some of our relationships have suffered.  Who have you missed seeing?  Pray for their well-being.  Are you comfortable sharing with them that you prayed for them?

Which people are worse off than you?  Pray for them as well.  Ask for God’s presence to be real in their lives.  Be open to how God might be leading you to make a difference in their lives.

Sometimes a pause like this allows our society to reset certain practices.  Are there any practices you believe need to change in the world today?  If you can’t think of any, ask God to open your mind to some possibilities and remain in the silence for a while.  If something has come to you, make a mental note to discuss this with your family or someone close to you after the walk.

If you go through as a family, I would invite you to process your time together with the following questions after everyone is through:

What’s something you prayed to God about missing?

Who are some of the people you prayed for?  Are you going to let them know?  If so, how?

What changes could you imagine?  Is there anything you would like to do about them?

If there is one thing you could do to make life a little better for someone during COVID-19, what would it be?

This is one example of what we'll be doing this weekend.  There may still be room to sign up at okcamps.org/2020-family-camps/ if you decide you would like to go (assuming you're reading this prior to the retreat!).  But even if you can't, I would encourage you to gather with your family (or meet someone with masks for an outdoor outing) at the labyrinth on campus which is walking distance from our church parking lot.

We will still offer worship at church on Sunday.  Please make your reservations in advance!  We will also have online worship as well.  So whether you get away to our campground or retreat at home, I would invite you to spend some time with God on Sunday!

In Christ,

Sam

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Rest for your Souls

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 (NRSV)

Many people may empathize with this feeling
even when we haven't done anything strenuous.
Sunday's reading of Matthew is much more popular than other passages.  Two weeks ago, the lectionary has Jesus uttering gem:

"whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me."                                                                  Matthew 10:38 (NRSV)

In contrast, Jesus tells us this week,
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.                                       Matthew 11:28 (NRSV)
Same person.  Even the same Gospel writer.  When held next to one another, which would you choose? 

Of course, context is important.  People that hold scripture up side-by-side without it, often miss the larger, wider point.  In today's reading, we see Jesus speaking to his disciples.  He's frustrated by the fact that many people may come to "ooh and aah" over his miracles but fail to take repentance seriously (check out verses 20-24 that are left out of the lectionary reading for some reason).  We can see this frustration in the first part of the reading.

Jesus must be wondering, "Why are people so obtuse?"  to somewhat quote Shawshank Redemption.  It's as if Jesus gives us an easy way to go but people stubbornly choose the hard way.  It may be how we are wired.

In his book on teenage boys, He's Not Lazy, Adam Price tells the following anecdote about one of his patients telling him the following:
"Whenever I have a paper to do, I tell myself, 'I'll let future Colin worry about it.  You can trust him.'  Then, the night before the paper is due I say, 'That past Colin is such a jerk.'"
We can smile at this story because we've all got a little Colin in us.  How do we willingly choose the easy path of Jesus?  What does this path even look like?  We know that discipleship is not easy.  It requires a lot of reading, praying and then acting upon what we've read and prayed about.  So how do we engage?  Especially when:

We are weary. 

We are heavy laden. 

We would like some rest that is untroubled.

I hope to explore this idea through our worship service on Sunday.  If you are joining us in person at Edmond, we would invite you to register ahead of time.  If you are joining us online, we would invite you to check-in your presence in some way by making a comment for others to see.  My hope for this sermon is not to just trot out some simple answer that may seem trite like, "Just pray more" which really translates as "Be more faithful."  We'll see what I come up with.  I'll try not to leave the sermon writing up to "Future Sam" even though we can all trust him!

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by Dennis Tai 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.