Monday, December 28, 2020

What Kind of Normal Would You Like to Get Back To?

Second Sunday after Christmas, Year B

Lectionary Scripture: Jeremiah 31:7-14 (NRSV)

I love to get away and visit new places.  There is something special about finding the beauty in different places and cultures whether that be natural landmarks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon or human-made architecture such as the Space Needle or the Washington Monument.  I like trying food from different regions and finding local restaurants that offer unique flavors native to that area.  But even on vacation, I will eventually tire from all of the "new" and "different."  Even when it is fun and exciting, I will find that I'm ready to go home.  

Lots of people have experienced this.  Sometimes it can apply to people visiting your home.  As an amateur genealogist, I have read old stories of ancestors that took extended stays with their kinfolk.  My first thought was "how did they keep their jobs?"  These were not wealthy people that didn't need to work.  Sometimes with regards to our relatives, we hear the phrase, "I'm glad to see them come and glad to see them leave."  This doesn't mean that we don't appreciate the visit but it has more to do with the idea of getting back to normal.  

Human beings function well with routine.  We do well when things go as expected.  While describing something as "routine" often has a negative connotation, people actually thrive with a normal structure.  There is less stress involved.  We sleep better.  Our diet is better.  We are more likely to get regular exercise.  We are also more likely to tend to our spiritual lives with prayer, Bible reading and worship.

So as we see the advent of vaccine distribution, we can anticipate getting back to normal after the worldwide disruption of the coronavirus. But what will this "normal" look like?  Our pause has been going on for so long that we may find that some of what we would classify as a regular part of our lives is not returning.  

As we begin life post-COVID-19, there are a lot of things we'll enjoy doing again.  Simply interacting with others without the worry of "am I going to make them sick" or "are they going to make me sick" would be helpful.  Talking to people in person while seeing the entirety of their faces will be healing for us.  Singing the hymns of our faith while standing shoulder to shoulder will give us a lift that we may not know we needed until we actually get to do it.

This is what I missed and look
forward to its return.

As we look at the reading from Jeremiah, we see a good word to a people who were in exile.  They were a people who had known the stress of being invaded by a foreign military and seen loved ones killed.  Then they were forcibly removed from the land they knew.  These were the people who wrote in Psalm 137:4, "How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?"  I like in verse 9 of today's scripture where it states, "With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back" indicating that this is an emotional return where support is needed.  Weeping comes when we joyfully recognize we are home.  Weeping also comes when we recognize and confront the turmoil that we've endured.  We've been through a real thing and it has been stressful.

I feel more akin to Jeremiah than I did before the pandemic.  I've certainly had it easier than he did.  We as a people in the United States have not experienced the same level of trauma that they went through.  But for what we have known, it has been uncomfortable.  And for some, it has been just as devastating.  It is not our preferred reality.

So what do we want?  What should life look like?  

According to Jeremiah, it looks like a watered garden where no one languishes.  Both young and old know joy.  Life should normally let us trade our sorrows for gladness.  This should be a model for our church.  If we share this dream, we can make it real.

We'll continue to examine this theme as we worship online together on Sunday.  We are continuing to hear of an increasing number of positive cases within our congregation so please be safe.  We are nearing the finish line and we will get through this!

In Christ,

Sam


Picture by Trey Witzel of the 11 pm Christmas Eve service at First United Methodist Church of Edmond from 2018.  Used with permission.  Maybe in 2021, even the two front rows of this late service will be filled!

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.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Christmas is Coming!

Christmas Eve

Lectionary: Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)


As we approach Christmas Eve, I recognize that things are going to be different this year.  This will be the first time in I don't know how many years that I'll be in bed before midnight on Christmas Eve.  It is not something I relish as the worship on this night really defines Christmas for me.

As I look back on all the various services we usually offer, I see that it is kind of a grueling schedule.  We would see lots of people and their families - some of which we hadn't seen for a long time.  But they might show up on Christmas.  Worshipping together makes Christmas special for so many families.

At home, we try to worship together as a family each Sunday morning at 11 am.  We access our service through YouTube on David's Xbox.  This way we get a good picture and good sound.  Kyla (who sings and plays violin in the recorded service) usually nitpicks her presentation.  I try not to nitpick my own errors.  Sometimes our dog Pepper will distract us by doing something cute.  It is not perfect but then worshipping in person has its own idiosyncrasies.  Errors are made when we're there "live" and distractions can also abound.

One thing I really miss about the lack of in-person worship has been Holy Communion.  Minus a few times on zoom, we haven't been able to offer it since March.  It has always been a staple of the Christmas Eve candlelight service.  This year, we'll have a time of drive-by Communion at our church.  It will be on Christmas Eve from 2 to 4 pm.  There will be single serving elements set out on a table for you to receive.  I will consecrate them prior to this time and will be standing just inside the glass doors.  I'll offer a silent prayer of blessing for each family that comes by.  We will also have candles available if you would like to pick one up for each family member worshipping with you for our online service.  It will launch on YouTube at 4 pm or will launch as a "live" service on Facebook at 7 pm.  The service is then available on either platform for whenever you would like to watch.  Some die-hards will pull it up at 11 pm which is their normal time to worship on Christmas Eve!  So if you watch it after dark, we would encourage you to light your own candle at home and sing "Silent Night" with us to end the service with the electric lights out!

I always wonder how many services we should offer.  Our sanctuary is not as big as other churches who average what we do.  So on special days like Christmas Eve and Easter, we usually have more demand for our space.  Next year, I hope that we'll be able to gather in abundance.  I think our demand will be significantly higher just because it is something we've been denied.  So while we will miss gathering in person this year, let us make a pledge to not take for granted what we have.  I don't begrudge the present but rather I look forward with hope to a future.  This seems to sum up Advent for us pretty well.

On Sunday, we'll worship again in the morning (or you may later but that's when it's first available).  We'll have a service of lessons in carols.  It will be bittersweet because this will be Rev. Trey Witzel's last Sunday in worship with us as our associate pastor.  Trey's journey has intersected with mine for many years, starting at Canyon for church camp when he was an adolescent (he didn't have the impressive beard back then).  I was fortunate enough to be his candidacy mentor and then his senior pastor when he came back from seminary.  I knew it was just a matter of time that he would be moved - the bishop and the cabinet are always watching out for young talent!  But it has been a privilege serving with him and I'll miss our interaction throughout the week.

As I ponder the Christmas story anew this year, I'm reminded that there were no traditions that got upended that first Christmas.  It was new for Joseph and Mary.  It was new for the shepherds.  It was even new for the angels.  There was nothing to be disappointed about.  This is helpful to me as I think about this year.  Christmas is not about where I worship or celebrate.  It is not about what I did or didn't receive or even about what I gave.  It is about celebrating the Christ child born into the world.  The joy that I receive from this realization shouldn't sit and stay with me.  Rather it should be passed along.

We may have to be creative this year in how we do the passing.  But at least we won't be in a rut!

Merry Christmas!

Sam


The picture is of First United Methodist Church of Edmond where I serve and was taken by Jana Gray, one of our church members.  I like the fat snowflakes she got in the picture - it really speaks to me of Christmas!  Used by permission.


Monday, December 14, 2020

When it Takes Extra Strength to Do the Right Thing

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B

Lectionary Scripture: Romans 16:25-27 (NRSV)

Every child goes through a learning curve.  After you learn to speak, the lessons become more subtle.  We learn how to fit in with traditions and customs that may seem mysterious to a child.

I can remember angering my family members right before Christmas one year.  When I was three or four, my siblings were both teenagers and sometimes teens assume that everyone is at the same place they are developmentally.  I knew that Christmas was exciting - we had a Christmas tree and it was decorated with so many interesting objects.  There were wrapped presents under the tree - some with my name on them.  I was told that I couldn't open them until Christmas morning.  This may be where I learned to spell my name - incentive is a good teacher!

At some point, after much cajoling, I wormed the details out of some of the gifts my sister got the other members of my family.  It was so cool to know what was inside those wrapped presents.  I just knew they would love them.  So I told each person what they were getting.  I just knew this would make them happy and I couldn't wait until Christmas morning.

Amazingly, this backfired for me.  I didn't really understand the delayed gratification that came with waiting to open the gifts.  The nuance of surprise was lost on me.  But I did get that I had done something wrong.  I had betrayed a trust.  No one seemed very happy - even the people who got to discover what they were getting!  Yes, I was not very old, but these are the instances where we begin to learn how we are going to get along with each other.  I learned that part of the fun of Christmas was the anticipation for the actual day.  Of course, adults sometimes forget that time is relative and for children, waiting for Christmas involves a much larger percentage of their lifetimes.

There is a certain excitement that
only comes with the anticipation!


But this is also part of Christian discipleship.  We must each learn what it means to put off short-term pleasure for something that is even more lasting.  As we await Christmas this week, we reflect upon our own lives and see how this is true.  We often make sacrifices of what we want for the good of others or the gain of the whole.  It is part of our faith.

Paul mentions this in his doxology to the Romans in this week's epistle reading.  We don't have to wait to see what God got us this year - it has already been disclosed to us.  So God grants us the strength to be faithful.  This is good because it is not always easy.  Sometimes we are willing to shortchange people around us as long as we are getting what we want.  Of course, this is antithetical to the spirit of Christmas!

The strength we receive from God gives us the ability to be obedient to this faith.  We are getting extra-strength to do the right thing.  Of course, you know what I'm talking about.  As we share with relatives, friends and extended family members this year, there will be opportunities for your to bite your tongue.  Granted, there may not be as many chances this year due to the isolation we are experiencing but there will be phone calls, texts and emails.  

As I think about it, maybe we're all still on a learning curve!

For this Fourth Sunday of Advent, we'll continue our exploration of this passage of scripture.  Our words that I have chosen to focus on for Sunday are strength and obedience.  We could probably use more of both right now.  I hope you'll join us online for worship!

In Christ,

Sam


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


Monday, December 7, 2020

Giving Thanks for Tests?

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

Lectionary Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 (NRSV)

I look forward to the return of all the ways
we normally find joy as we celebrate Christmas!

We're approaching the Third Sunday of Advent.  Of course, after this, it seems like a rush to Christmas.  This year, it will be different.  It has been already.  I miss singing together but I especially miss singing the Christmas carols with a full congregation (and yes, I know that strictly, we should wait until Christmas Eve but that is another conversation).  The point is that we are on a different approach to Christmas.

The Third Sunday of Advent is often the "Joy" Sunday and you may have grown up with a pink candle for this particular day.  Our scripture reflects this with the beginning words, "Rejoice always."  As our restrictions (voluntary or involuntary) mount again because of the rise in cases and deaths, this may be an unrealistic expectation.  We have members of our congregation that currently have the coronavirus.  We have lost members from it and other members have lost family members and friends from it.

It seems rather obtuse to ask people to "give thanks in all circumstances."

But as the apostle Paul asks us to test everything, it seems that he means for us to filter out the bad and hold onto the good.  Can we give thanks for the seclusion?  Only if we use it productively as a time of spiritual growth.  Can we give thanks for illness?  Only if we recognize our ultimate dependence on God during these times.  Can we give thanks for the death of loved ones?  Not usually (unless they were ready to go after a life well-lived), but we can give thanks for a life that we loved - we are thankful for the time we had with them.

So I've tried to focus my own growth.  After my sermon series on the Fruit of the Spirit this fall, I started reading Galatians 5:22-23 (among others) to begin my day.  I wrote this prayer based on this scripture and also utilize it as I begin my day:
Gracious God, make me more loving today - in both giving and receiving love. Give me the ability to find and sow joy each day. May I have peace of mind, body and spirit, such that I become a peacemaker to conflict I encounter. Help me to be kinder to my neighbor in my thoughts and deeds. Grant me a more generous spirit in my perceptions of others so that I may be more ready to share the resources you have entrusted to me. May I be faithful in my daily walk with you, O God, as I seek to love you and my neighbor more fully as Christ has bid me. And as I do trod upon this earth, may I do so gently, leaving places and situations better than I found them. And when those things that are adverse to your Spirit rise up in me, give me the self control to pause and find a better path. I pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, who breathed the Holy Spirit upon us. Amen.
As Paul concludes in today's scripture about sanctification, it means that we are asking God to partner with us in our quest to become more Christ-like.  If we don't try to meet God half-way, this ideal becomes less likely for us.  And if we are not working on our spiritual lives, it may be that we'll rejoice less and complain more - no matter the circumstance.

We'll continue to explore this in worship on Sunday - I hope you'll join us online!  And I give thanks for the technology that allows us to continue to worship together in our isolation.

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Funk Dooby 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.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Is It Better to be Right or Righteous?

Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

Lectionary Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-15a (NRSV)


As we wait for Christmas to come this year, we likely won't be going to office parties or school parties.  We won't be Christmas caroling or attending pageants.  Even our shopping may be subdued as we have to think twice about going to a crowded mall or store.  It may be easier to drop the item in a virtual cart and enter the credit card numbers.

This particular epistle has to do with waiting on the return of Jesus to the world.  Many in the early church thought the second coming would happen quickly.  Thus, we have the famous line in verse eight reading, "with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day."

As we wait, now we are also waiting on a vaccine.  It seems that we are also waiting for a new earth but not in an eschatological sense.  When we do begin to share the vaccine, things will not go entirely back to normal, as much as we would wish for this to be so.  But whatever happens, I hope that we can make righteousness the norm as verse thirteen projects.

In order to make this happen, I think we have to make sure that we don't confuse righteousness with being right.  I know that I love to be right.  Who doesn't?  But sometimes we can choose to be right and not care about who we leave in our wake.  When this happens, being right becomes idolatrous and has very little to do with righteousness.  

The letter asks us to strive for peace.  As I think about being right or being righteousness, I find that the latter may have more to do with striving for peace than the former.  But as I think of peace, I think of Christmas and the peace we can all find no matter what has tried to disrupt it.  The peace of Christmas will come if we strive for it.

And as we think about gift giving, we must ask the question, "What are you getting Jesus this year?"  It is his birthday, after all.  This would not be a bad time to mention our pledge drive.  Making a financial commitment to Christ through the church can be an important part of righteousness because it means that I am putting my money where my belief is.  I am declaring to the world that our faith is important enough to fund significantly.  As we consider all the frivolous things we buy, a pledge to the church should be high on our list to get Jesus for his birthday!

But I also remember the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus asks us to leave our gift at the altar and first go and be reconciled with our brother or sister.  Then come and give the gift.  

So it seems that Jesus may consider striving for peace very important.

Maybe allowing Jesus to work in me, moving me toward peace with my neighbors - that is the gift he really wants.  Of course, I could always get him both!

This Sunday, we will continue to voluntarily restrict our worship to online only so that we do our part to lower the curve and allow the hospitals and medical staff to get a handle on the case load.  If you are ill or have a loved one who is ill, please email us and we'll include the names on our prayer list.  As we unfortunately see our prayer list growing, this may be a good time for reconciliation and peace in your life.  It is good to remember that Jesus will not abandon us to face this task alone.  Maybe that realization and task is more about Christmas than all the parties or shopping.

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by zalgon 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.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Traditions on Pause

First Sunday of Advent, Year B

Lectionary Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (NRSV) 

I love Thanksgiving!  As I remember Thanksgivings past, I think fondly of our trips to my grandmother's house on a small farm in Houston, Missouri.  One of my favorites growing up were her green beans.  That may sound odd for a child but these were definitely a southern recipe!  Sheryl found her recipe card - this was written down by my mother and I'm appreciative that Sheryl kept and found it.  If you try it out, you will thank me, but only if you have a sweet tooth!

This year, my guess is that your Thanksgiving will be the most sparsely attended celebration dinner of your life.  It certainly will be at our house.  The pandemic has brought a lot of restrictions to us and these have had mixed reactions among people.

Some are battening down the hatches and limiting contact.  Others are careful while continuing many of their activities.  Still others are trying to maintain their lives as close to how they were last year as possible. 

Most families have a mix of all of these types of people.  It will make for a different Thanksgiving for sure.  If you gather with extended family, it will only be the latter two categories getting together as those who are distancing the most will not be in attendance.

While this is sad for family traditions, I am thinking more along the lines of pausing rather than missing our traditions.  In the church, this will be the First Sunday of Advent.  This is always a time of excitement as we look toward Christmas.  Of course, it also has a lot of traditions.  We will continue to offer online worship even as we have paused worship in person.

This will allow us to consider what Christmas really means to us.  How do we understand incarnation in isolation?  I will be exploring the epistles from the lectionary during Advent as we adapt to a different environment for Christmas.  For this week, I focus on Paul's statement that God continues to be faithful to us and calls us to fellowship within the Body of Christ.  How do we make this work during a pandemic?

I hope you'll join us sometime online.  Our worship will be released on Sunday morning but you are welcome to engage anytime!

Blessings to you and have a Happy Thanksgiving and a contemplative First Sunday of Advent!

In Christ,

Sam


Monday, November 16, 2020

Does God Have a Preference?

Reign of Christ Sunday, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 25:31-46 (NRSV)

Maslow's Hierarchy of Need shows the basic needs
at the bottom.  Notice that hunger, thirst and clothing
occupy the first level.  Health is under Safety while
being a stranger would fall under Love and belonging.
Imprisonment would fall under Esteem.  All of these
must be addressed before we get to spirituality
which would fall under Self-actualization.

I have an older sister and brother in my family of origin.  Of course, there are a lot of similarities with each of us.  All three of us have a sense of humor and enjoy a good laugh.  We are all fairly tender-hearted when it comes to someone in need.  Each of us is fairly stubborn as well and tend to dig in if we feel that we are being pushed around.  

But we are each different from the others, too.  My sister is the most conservative theologically and politically (ironically, she lives in Washington state) while my brother is the most liberal with these areas.  That leaves me in the middle (no surprise, that I often had a peacemaker role in the family according to my psychological profile).

We were raised by the same parents who expressed the same values with each of us.  Birth order studies tend to show that we'll likely adopt varying personality traits depending on where we fall in the line-up.  Overall, I think my parents wanted us to make a difference in the world.  They wanted us to be happy but I always had the idea that we were to leave this world better than we found it.

As I think about what God wants from us, I would think that it is something similar.

Parents are not supposed to show a preference for their children.  Theologically, we also believe that God loves all of us equally.

But does God "like" some of us more than others?

This can get into dangerous ground in the sense that if I say I'm preferred over you, I can rationalize putting myself over you.  This was how the Nazis justified their genocidal behavior.  So we need to treat lightly here.

This Sunday, the church calendar ends up on the Reign of Christ Sunday.  This is the last Sunday of the Christian year before we begin the First Sunday of Advent the week after.  So we think about what Jesus would really want from his followers.  What does this ideal Christian world look like?  Does Jesus have a preference?

We see from the scripture reading that Jesus seems to be the most concerned about the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.  Of course, we can get philosophical and declare that all of us are hungry, naked and imprisoned in some form or fashion.  But he seems to be speaking temporally here.  

As a parent, if your child were any of these things, you would not be happy.  You might even give more of your resources to alleviate these conditions over the children who were doing well.  This doesn't mean that you love them more.  It means that there are certain conditions that are not part of your will for them.

So it is with God.  

And how will God alleviate these conditions?  It seems that we have no farther to look than a good mirror.  It doesn't even matter what your birth order is.

We'll continue to explore this passage on Sunday so I hope you'll check back with us.  I do love you all but my preference is for you to join us in some way for worship (preferably online if you are particularly vulnerable)!  I believe that aligns with God's preference as well!

In Christ,

Sam


The photo is used under the Creative Commons license referenced from the following:  McLeod, S. A. (2020, March 20). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html


Monday, November 9, 2020

He Was Kind of Right

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSV)

To be cut off from others
is not a pleasant condition.

Here we have another troubling parable.  Large sums of money are divided to three servants to handle.  We are told that they are doled out by individual ability, and we see that the two with larger sums are able to double the money left in their care.  The servant with the least ability doesn't lose his charge but returns it whole to the boss.  

The two successful servants are rewarded.  The third servant is punished with an image of end-times harshness.  He is cut-off from his peers and dwells in outer darkness where there seems to be endless grief and remorse.  What would have happened if he had lost any of that money?

He did receive the lesser sum according to his ability.  But we also see that the servant thought pretty harshly of his master.

Is this a chicken and egg scenario?

Did he underperform because he was expected not to do as much?  Isn't that why he was given less?

Or did he underperform because he was afraid to take any risks due to his own prejudice of his boss's character?

Regardless of the reason, the servant was kind of right in his estimation of his master.  He is a harsh man and the servant was right to fear him.

Does Jesus intend for us to see the master in this parable as God?  The master's character doesn't fit with how Jesus describes God.  Within the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us not to worry about our lives because God is watching out for us.  Jesus tells us to take our needs to God in prayer, reminding us that God will grant us good things.

So maybe we need to re-examine what the talents represent.  

What is it that if we don't multiply, we lose?

What is it that if we hide it away, it wanes and disappears?

Could Jesus have indicated that the talents represent love?

As we are free to love those around us, we find that the love we have increases.  The more we love others, the more we find love in abundance.

If we are unable to invest love in the world, if we hide it away, we may find that the little we have is gone.  Why do others seem so much happier when we are unable to love?

We'll continue to explore this on Sunday during worship.  I hope that you'll remember to invest some time in loving others this week - I bet you can think of someone who can use a kind word or action.

In Christ,

Sam


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



Monday, November 2, 2020

Is This the Time to Build Character?

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 25:1-13 (NRSV)

As Christians, our understanding is that
we open ourselves up to God working through
us to bless our country.

This week we may (or may not) find out the next president of the United States.  Will Donald Trump be re-elected?  Will Joe Biden prevail in his attempt to unseat the incumbent?

My guess is that you have a pretty strong preference between the two.

We have people on both sides of the aisle in our church membership.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ and yet it seems that the distinction between red and blue political orientation may be softening our love for one another.  This brings up a theological question, namely, is our loyalty to political party greater than our loyalty to Christ?  If so, isn't this idolatrous?  

Today's lectionary reading is the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.  The lectionary was slated long before either candidate was running for president so this is not a cheap shot at your politics!  As we read the parable, it tends to make Christians uncomfortable.  After all, shouldn't the wise share their oil with the foolish?  That would be the compassionate thing to do.  And so we get a sense that Jesus is talking about something else entirely.

If the oil is representative of the good deeds you have done in your life, I can't take credit for what you have done as much as you might like to share it with me.  I will have to do my own good deeds.  This is not a works righteousness issue in that we find our salvation in Christ rather than in what we've accomplished (or not accomplished).  But there is a learning curve to doing good deeds.  The mere act of doing something selfless for someone else changes us in fundamental ways.  Spiritually, we move in a more Christ-like direction.

My parents would tell me that doing good deeds is character building.  And so the wise bridesmaids may have wanted to share their oil but they couldn't.  As much as I would like to, I can't build your character.  Only you can do that!

So as our country moves past the election, there will likely be a lot of anger from those who didn't prevail.  There will be a lot of resistance and my prayer is that it will remain nonviolent.  This may be an opportunity for character building on both sides!  How does the winning side listen to the concerns of those who didn't?  There is a lot of passion.  We've seen it in the massive voter turnout and that's during a pandemic!  So how do we channel this passion while reminding ourselves of our common values?  How do we hold together as a country?  

It starts with you (and me).  Each of us has responsibility to engage with dignity and respect.  If I do not, I lose my integrity as a Christian.  This begins at church when we see those who may have voted differently.  And before you make assumptions that someone sees it like you do, it may be better to assume the opposite.  After all, we want to be counted among the wise.  So walk gently with one another this week and in the weeks to come.  Even if your toes get stepped on.  

Character doesn't come cheap.

In Christ,

Sam


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


Monday, October 26, 2020

Humility vs Hypocrisy

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 23:1-12 (NRSV)

"Do as I say, not as I do."

Parents may say this to their children.  It may be that they tell their kids to go to bed at a set time when they stay up later.  The kids want to know why they get to stay up later.  The parents then have to explain that children require more sleep than adults.  Then their children head to bed grumbling.

Later, when the children are teenagers, they may call out other behavior that seems especially hypocritical.  It seems the best instruction is from a person with the integrity to live out their beliefs.

Jesus seems to be the first on record of saying this although it was surely not original with him.  I observe this because hypocrisy didn't originate in the first century but has been around as long as there have been human beings.  

Matthew's gospel has a strong theme against hypocrisy running throughout.

Jesus states in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:1:    

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Jesus goes on in this sermon to point out how three spiritual disciplines of the day were misused: charitable giving, public prayer and fasting.  He indicates that if we are doing them to enhance our social standing before others, then we are doing them wrong.

He returns to this idea in Sunday's reading.  The phylacteries were the containers of the Shema that Jewish people were commanded to display.  Evidently, the Pharisees were making theirs ornate as a gross display of their piety.  The fringes were displayed on the prayer shawl of a teacher and were commanded from Numbers 15:38:

Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. 

Jesus must have also worn this as a rabbi as we saw earlier in Matthew 9:20:

Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak,

But the length of the fringes must have also been a way to show one's holiness - at least outwardly.  It may have been accepted by the people of that day as a sign of one's devotion to God.  Jesus is more interested in how we practice what we preach.  He deflects the title of teacher seemingly because he doesn't want his disciples to fall into the same trap of seeking after honor as the Pharisees.  Instead, Jesus wants his followers to be life-long learners.

To adopt this attitude does take some humility.  What does it mean to accept that we do not know everything?  That we still have things to learn?

I hope that I will continue to learn my entire life.  I hope that I have the humility to learn from all of those around me.  I hope that I can avoid the hypocrisy that sometimes plagues us as human beings.  I'll try to do as I say!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Trish Gussler 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.

Monday, October 19, 2020

All You Need is Love

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 22:34-46 (NRSV)

"All You Need is Love" was a single released by the Beatles in the summer of 1967 and it epitomized the peace movement in the sixties.  When I first heard the song, I took the lyric, "love is all you need" to be something I received.  As a child, maybe I was more of a consumer of the love of others toward me.  I was lucky to be the recipient of a lot of love.

Sometimes we're not so sure
about our neighbors.
But as I read today's scripture and reflect on the Greatest Commandment by Jesus (as Matthew records it), I recognize that love is something that only increases in our lives if we give it as much if not more so than we receive it.  

As the apostle Paul tries to keep the early church in Corinth from fracturing into separate camps, he extols the virtues of loving one another and declares that it is greater than even faith or hope for our life together.

It is interesting that the scenario in which Jesus finds himself in today's reading is not one where his opponents have an enormous amount of love for him.  It could be that the Pharisees were interested in trapping him (previous verses lead us to this conclusion).  Likely, when they ask about the greatest commandment, their focus would be on one of the purity laws that took so much of their interest.  Commentator Matthew Henry suggests that they might have been looking for a determination between the law of circumcision, the law of Sabbath or the law of sacrifices.  

Instead, Jesus reminds them of the Shema as he quotes from Deuteronomy 6:5:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

Then we see him include the love of our neighbor as supplement to the Shema.   He includes the last part of Leviticus 19:17-18 which reads:

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

As Leviticus indicates this love was originally prescribed for our kin - our people.  It was utilized to lessen tension among a people that needed to be united in order to survive in a hostile environment.  But Jesus expands this understanding of neighbor in Luke's version of the Greatest Commandment as the lawyer asks Jesus to clarify the definition of "neighbor".  Jesus does this by telling us the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Although they lived in adjacent territories, Jews and Samaritans would not have interpreted this text of Leviticus to refer to one another as "neighbors".

So Christians are stuck blessed with an expanded understanding of loving one another.  

The letters of John define God as love and further bind the tenants of the Greatest Commandment together by stating in 1 John 4:21:

The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

For United Methodists (and other Wesleyan denominations) John Wesley's General Rules, written in the first half of the 18th century, are expressions of the Greatest Commandment.  The first two, do no harm and do good, help us to love our neighbors.  The final one, attend all the ordinances of God (prayer, worship, Bible study, etc.), help us to love God with all our being.  

For the church I serve, our mission statement comes directly from the Greatest Commandment.  It is "connecting people with God and neighbor" which helps remind us of what we are really about.  For some, connection with God leads to a love of neighbor and for others, the relationships we have with our neighbors help us to further see God. 

We'll be exploring Matthew's lectionary text on Sunday.  I have faith that it will be helpful so I hope you'll join us and would love it if you would invite someone to explore it with you!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Vicki Lackey 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.




Monday, October 12, 2020

Can I Have a Little Peace?

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 22:15-22 (NRSV)

Political maneuvering is on stage in today's reading.  The context of this scripture is that Jesus has been in the temple teaching.  He's been telling parables that call to light the hypocrisy of the chief priests, elders and Pharisees.  They would like to do away with Jesus but they are afraid of the crowd.

So they are trying to turn the crowds against him with the question of taxes.  It is fascinating and a little humbling to realize that taxes have always been present in political wrangling!

If Jesus sides with non-payment, he could get arrested by the Romans and the Pharisees can wash their hands of him.

If Jesus sides with paying taxes, he could stir up the wrath of the zealots in the crowd who were against this foreign intrusion.  Then the Pharisees could orchestrate a stoning while seeming to stay neutral.

When Jesus asks them to produce a coin in the vicinity of the temple, this is the whole reason for the money changers in the previous chapter.  Roman money should have been removed from the temple and thus the profitable enterprise that Jesus disrupted.  When he calls upon them to produce a coin, the Roman emperor was self-deified.  This was blasphemous for them to have.  His example reminds them (and us) that we are stuck together.  Their presence is everywhere.  So how are we going to get along?  Pay the taxes so you don't face jail (or worse).  But pay to God the larger portion.  

What does God require?  Micah reminds us justice, kindness and humility.  

It is a transformation of our lives - more than any earthly tax.

If we take this transformation seriously, it will overcome our enemies.  As Abraham Lincoln apocryphally queried, "do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?"

Dogs also practice politics


As election day approaches in the United States, we see a lot of political maneuvering.  I wish we had a law that prevented political ads from maligning the other candidate.  It would be nice just to hear what a candidate stands for than what they stand against.  Then the constituents could decide which figure inspires us more.  Which vision for our country will get us where we need to go?

I would also like to hear how a candidate will work with others who disagree.  Polarization is not serving us well in congress.  As it increases, so does our disfunction.  What does it mean to pray for peace in our world today?

What does God require?  The larger portion.

I look forward to wrapping up our series on the Fruit of the Spirit as they relate to the Gospel lectionary readings as we think about peace this Sunday.  We'll release worship online on Sunday and would love to have you join us anytime!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by This Year's Love via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.


Tuesday, October 6, 2020

I'm Outraged!

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 22:1-14 (NRSV)

Okay, this was a bait and switch.  I'm really writing about joy as one of the Fruit of the Spirit listed by the apostle Paul in Galatians.  But no one wants to click on an article about the things that bring me joy.  It is more satisfying to find out about what has ticked me off.

You may want to know if I share your values on the latest news.  Are we disgusted by the same things?

Outrage has become the American drug of choice.

As we have isolated from one another during the pandemic, we are having more conversations with people with whom we agree and less conversations with those we don't.  This tends to further polarize us as we find ourselves in self-selected echo chambers.  Algorithms in internet platforms such as Facebook or YouTube also tend to show you what you like.  The more clicks you make means the more ads they can sell.  So while we have been unable to socialize normally, we have doubled down on our social media.  Only, we shouldn't pretend that this is the same as physically gathering with our friends.

And the changes we have experienced are stressful.  We are not in our normal patterns or routines.  And while you may appreciate wearing your pajamas to worship on Sunday afternoons, the interaction with people who see the world differently has a value that we may have overlooked.

And so we have unwittingly turned to outrage to calm us.

This sign may make you
feel deficient for remaining calm.


This rather dystopian thought signifies the relief from the stress that we're all seeking.  If I see something that I don't agree with, can I express it in forty characters or less in such a way that will strike a chord with you?  If I word it in just the right way, you'll be outraged too!  And it is equal opportunity outrage.  A political leader can comment and spark the controversy.  We may agree with him or her and be outraged alongside.  Finally, they are telling it like it is!  I'm glad someone finally had the courage to say what everyone was thinking!  Or we may disagree and our emotions may boil just as quickly.  How dare they say this thing?!?  Can you believe a person would actually come right out and say this in the open?

It seems that we're staying in a constant state of being stirred up.  This is not healthy for individuals and it is certainly not healthy for a nation of diverse people.  As Americans, we have more common ground than that which divides us.  We are just not being reminded of it.  As Christians, we have even more common ground because it is shared in the belief that God is the one who helps us realize it.

What does it mean to celebrate joy in the midst of chaos?  This Sunday, I examine Matthew's parable of the wedding banquet.  It may not seem very joyful at first glance and in fact, it may seem to lean more toward outrage.  I do think joy is present and I hope to expose this theme within my sermon on Sunday.  I would invite you to join in - we all need to detox from the outrage for at least a little while!

In Christ,

Sam


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


Monday, September 28, 2020

Love

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 21:33-46 (NRSV)

This parable may not evoke ideas about the love of God among us.  It feels much more judgmental in nature - God is expecting more of us than we are giving.

It is hard to interpret this parable if you haven't read Isaiah 5:1-7 first.  In this particular passage, Israel is likened to a vineyard.  We see the similarities to the parable of Jesus in that the vineyard is well-tended in both passages.  Both note the presence of a watchtower showing that there is oversight.  In Isaiah, we see disappointment in the fruit of the vine.  Then we have the reveal in verse seven that the vineyard was in fact, the people of Judah and Israel.  God has an expectation of justice and righteousness but has found the opposite.

In the parable that Jesus tells, we see that the tenants aren't passing on any of the profits of the vineyard to the owner.  In fact, the owner's collectors are harassed and even killed.  We see further that even the son of the vineyard is not respected.  We can see that a hard rain is gonna fall to quote Bob Dylan.  

Jesus tells us that "the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom."

This is a parable for every age.  The apostle Paul reminds us that the Fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  

Love is at the top of the list.  

We should periodically check to see
what kind of fruit we're producing.

If we are not producing love for one another, we will be supplanted by God for those who will.   We have been given an expectation and we must live up to it.  It should reflect the character of the Christian community - even when it's hard.

There have been times in my life when I've failed to match the love of God for others.  I've usually been fairly self-righteous about justifying my lack of love.  At these times, I've made Jesus into my image rather than conforming myself to Christ.  Fortunately, we have repentance available.  A person who is unable to repent is stuck because the self is lifted up as the idol rather than God.

We must begin to reflect the character of the owner of the vineyard.

So we circle back to love.  Maybe this parable has more to do with love than a first glance indicates.  If you join me on Sunday for worship, we'll explore a little further.  With all of the opportunities to engage online, there's no reason not to!

In Christ,

Sam

 

Photo by Jennifer 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.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Kindness

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 21:23-32 (NRSV)

Today, it seems the height of hubris for a religious leader to question the authority of Jesus.  We sit with the advantage of hindsight and understand who Jesus is and was.  But in that day and age, rabbis didn't just put out a shingle and start teaching others.  Rabbis were first disciples.  They were students under the tutelage of an established teacher.  

You learned how to be a rabbi by observing the habits, scriptural interpretations and emphases that your master followed.  At some point, if you progressed enough, the rabbi would bless you as a student to become a rabbi of your own.

So when the chief priests and elders question Jesus, they are wanting to know, "Who did you study under?"

As we see the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, some scholars think that this represented a disciple/rabbi relationship and that the baptism was John's blessing of Jesus as a rabbi.  They point to the timeline that the public ministry of Jesus begins following his baptism.

So Jesus in turn asks them if they would support John's ministry as authoritative.  Jesus must realize that if they wouldn't support John, they wouldn't support him either.  And so when they refuse to answer, he does as well.

Then Jesus tells them a parable of two sons.  This parable basically warns them of their practice of social standing.  The caste of unclean sinners such as tax collectors and prostitutes are moving ahead of them spiritually.  This would have been insulting to any priest or elder who would have placed themselves in God's favor over the likes of these.  

Notice the posture of this omega wolf - lowest
in the hierarchy of the pack.  Humans have their
own pack hierarchies.

 
For a rabbi such as Jesus, he allows social standing to be overturned.  He was a true egalitarian and the American principles of equality were birthed out of this Christian influence.  To allow someone to repent and lift themselves up to a status equal to yourself is a kindness. It is not easy to do and doesn't come naturally.  

How do we offer this kindness to others in today's society?  Social standing is alive and well in the 21st century.  We still have pecking orders.  How do we allow the kindness of ignoring social strata become a Christian virtue that helps us navigate these chaotic waters?

We'll continue to explore this on Sunday - I hope you'll join us either online or in person!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by The Wasp Factory via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.


Monday, September 14, 2020

Gentleness

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 20:1-16 (NRSV)

Gentleness is described by Paul as a Fruit of the Spirit.  It is a valuable trait to have.  Anyone dealing with horses or dogs understands the need for a gentle hand in working with them.  Are people so different?

By contrast, we seem to value aggressiveness in our society over gentleness.  Aggressiveness is what wins the day in sports.  Now that football season has started, we would never want to encourage our team to be too gentle.  In fact, the opposite is true.  If a team is seen as too "soft" the coach may have some work to do in toughening them up.  In the old days, a coach might keep the team from drinking water in practice to help them learn discipline over the needs of the body.  We have since recognized that to condition players in this manner is actually dangerous and not worth dying over.

Still, there are those who may consider this an unfortunate loss.

Aggression can lead to leadership.  Sometimes we follow the person who "takes" the job.  We may admire their tenacity and willingness to put themselves out there.  These people are sometimes seen as "go-getters."  After all, we don't want to follow someone who's not willing to lead!

Dominating another human being sometimes leads to hurt feelings.  I've stepped on people's feelings many times as a leader - most of the time it was unintentional.  I confess that sometimes in the heat of the moment, it wasn't.  

What does a gentle leader look like?

This dog could easily take this
child in a fight.  His assurance
that there is no threat allows him to be gentle.

I think a gentle leader is respectful of the crowd.  A gentle leader isn't swayed by the majority if he or she believes that they are in the right.  A gentle leader has a quiet assurance that we will all move forward together.

The parable in today's reading shows, I believe, gentle leadership by the owner of the vineyard.  He is willing to risk his reputation among those whom he hired to make sure everyone has enough.  These late arrivals had mouths at home to feed just like everyone else.  The owner is willing to take a stand but he does so without disrespecting those complaining.  

Gentleness is probably needed at home more than usual because we are kind of stuck with one another right now.  There is less getting out and so we are getting to know each other better.  Unfortunately, sometimes our worst traits emerge when we are stressed.  If you have teenagers, they are still jockeying for position and maybe more so as the isolation time stretches on.  Are you allowing them to grow into maturity or freezing them in time while all this is going on?

How do we speak to one another?  Is it respectful?

Would you categorize it as gentle?

To be gentle is not to be weak.  It is acting with an assurance that you can handle yourself.  There is no need to be aggressive because there is most likely not a threat in real life situations.  As we stay connected with God, we recognize that gentleness is a by-product of that connection.  Maybe that's all the reason we need to re-assess its value.

In Christ,

Sam


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


  




Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Generosity

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A 

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 18:21-35 (NRSV)

How quick are we to forgive today?  I think when we have stress in our lives (such is the norm today), then we may be more likely to take a slight from someone than to imagine they are on our side or at least give them the benefit of the doubt.

We may be more likely to build a case against a person than to imagine all of the things we hold in common.  When we start to make the list of the things we like about this person, it is harder to hold that grudge!  It is much more satisfying in the short-term to list their short-comings.  But this is not the Christian example that we have in today's lectionary scripture.

Peter thinks he's going the extra mile by asking Jesus if we should forgive seven times.  He's beginning to get it.  He thinks this will earn him a "Well, done, Peter!  You got this straight from God."

But Jesus surprises him by declaring he's off by a magnitude of at least ten!

It may be that Jesus is giving us a reversal of Lamech's vengeance from Genesis 4:23-24:  
Lamech said to his wives:  
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
    you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
    a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
    truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

Between Jesus and Lamech, which one do we find ourselves following more often?  We name ourselves Christian rather than Lamechian so how do develop this generosity of spirit that we see on display in Matthew's reading?   

This may be a popular justification
but it doesn't help us follow Jesus.

If we are more likely to show generosity when we are in connection with God (as a Fruit of the Holy Spirit), does this mean that when we are working against someone that we are disconnected with God?

I find that if I am outside of the Holy Spirit - or at least not paying attention to it - I am more likely to be a follower of Lamech.  I want to lean into my wrath (and dole it out) rather than to find understanding and common ground.  When we follow the way of vengeance, we begin to draw our circle smaller and smaller - excluding this person and that person.  Pretty soon it is just you and me and I'm not so sure about you!  

This Sunday, we'll be continuing to explore the Fruit of the Spirit as seen through the lens of this particular scripture.  If you find yourself plagued by a lack of generosity of spirit lately, you are not alone.  But as we join together in worship, we may just re-discover it.  That's my prayer for us this week!  I hope to see you in person or online!

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by brett jordan 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.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Patience

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 18:15-20 (NRSV)

As I assigned various Fruit of the Holy Spirit to the lectionary passages, I decided that this particular scripture was a good one to talk about patience.  You can look at it from both sides.  It would be difficult to be patient with someone who was obstinate in their wrong beliefs or behaviors.  Likewise, it would be difficult to be patient if you thought you were in the right and a group of people from the church were trying to correct you!  I'm not sure which would be more annoying!

Dictionary.com defines patience as "the quality of being patient, as the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like."  While I'm old school and don't like it when you use the root word to explain the meaning, I thought they recovered pretty well!  I think we can be taught to bear provocation.  I think we can also be influenced to be too sensitive to irritants.  I believe stress has something to do with our ability to show patience with a person or situation.  In other words, when I'm stressed out or afraid, I have much less patience with people.

As Christians, our example should be Jesus Christ.  I believe his response to his own suffering and crucifixion showed an immense amount of patience as per the above definition.  The phrase, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" from Luke 23:34 reminds us of the composure Jesus showed on the cross.  How many of us when confronted unjustly in this manner from our enemies (you can picture them) would rather respond, "Father, get them; they're killing me!"

When this is the case, we are setting our minds on human things rather than divine things.

Sometimes rubbing a rock with the word on it
can actually be a good reminder for us!

So how can we show more patience with one another?  I think it is crucial during this time with everything that is occurring.  Since patience is a Fruit of the Holy Spirit, we must immerse ourselves in the Holy Spirit to show the world we are connected with God.  How do we do this?  I think that each person may do this differently.  All of us connect with God in a unique way.  But I also think that today's reading gives us a hint when Jesus says, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."  

When we gather together, we are going to disagree on some things.  It should be expected.  But we also recognize that if we begin to focus on disagreement, we will soon be standing alone.  It is better to focus on that with which we recognize and agree.  The love of Jesus Christ as our witness to the world becomes our focus.  If this was not true, it is much easier to send an offender packing than seeking to work with them in love.

We'll continue to explore this on Sunday - join us online or in person!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by M Cheung 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.


Monday, August 24, 2020

Self-Control

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 16:21-28 (NRSV)

Self-Control is one of the Fruits of the Spirit according to Paul.  It seems to be on display here by Jesus who is successfully resisting temptation set before him by one of his disciples.  In fact, he had just praised Simon Peter for successfully identifying Jesus as the Messiah.  He was going to found the church on this rock.

How quickly things can turn around for us!  Now Peter is compared to Satan who tempted Jesus in the wilderness when he was fasting.  Of course, the temptation to avoid "great suffering...and be killed" would be prominent, I would think.  Jesus does later pray to avoid this very fate.  When he goes off by himself before his betrayal, we see this scene:

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”  He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated.  Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.”  And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”  Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?  Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”                        Matthew 26:36-41 (NRSV)

So we see the humanity of Jesus on display in that any of us facing the kind of suffering that was coming to Jesus would be upset about it.  Yet, he is able to move forward and doesn't run from impending captivity.  He could have easily left Judas behind and taken the disciples and fled to many of the surrounding towns where he performed his miraculous healing.  Any of those places would have been glad to hide him from the authorities.

But Jesus practices self-control.  He avoids giving into fear or anxiety and moves past it.  

How do we do better?  Too often, I feel like I'm Peter, trying to talk Jesus out of all the suffering and wanting everything to be okay.  Or worse yet, falling asleep when Jesus needs him for some moral support.  It is harder to be disciplined if we think it involves things we don't like or enjoy.  

For example, I hear that it is much easier to avoid the temptations of snacking if you don't keep a lot of snacks around the house.  Of course, this is theoretical for me.

How do we have self-control to read the Bible rather than the latest article from the web?  How do we have self-control that moves us to prayer rather than streaming another show on our device?

It may be that we have to associate these things with reward rather than tasks or chores to be accomplished.  

We'll continue to pursue this theme in worship on Sunday - join us in person or online and we'll at least exhibit some self-control together for 45 minutes!

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by Blink O'fanaye 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.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Faithfulness

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 16:13-20 (NRSV)

Sometimes we hear of great loyalty by our pets.  Specifically, I remember the story of Tommy, a 7 year old German Shepherd dog who accompanied his owner, Maria Margherita Lochi to mass in Italy and was allowed to sit at her feet.  After she died, he apparently showed up for mass every day for two months.  The priest said that he didn't ever cause any trouble and he couldn't bring himself to evict the dog.

We admire this kind of devotion and often speak of it as great faithfulness.  When someone honors their marriage vows in chastity, we speak of them as being faithful to their spouse.  So we may often think of faithfulness as follow-through as if we were staying true to what we said we would do or to a task at hand.  

In today's reading, we see Peter being placed at the head of the church.  Was he being rewarded for his faithfulness?  He is certainly enthusiastic.  He tries hard.  But he goofs up quite a bit in the gospels.  I think that this shows us that faithfulness may also be about good intentions.  We often hear the saying, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."  I think this adage may be telling us that follow-through may be more important than intention.  But from a Christian perspective, I think Peter shows us that intention and action don't always align as we would like.  And so, we remember that mercy is also a part of the Christian walk.  We are forgiven and allowed to start anew.

As we see Peter placed at the head of the church, it comes after his correctly naming Jesus as the Messiah.  Maybe faithfulness is also about spiritual insight - knowing what Jesus would want from us.  This requires faithfulness to studying the things Jesus said and did.  It is only as we deepen our relationship with Christ that we discover the things that Jesus would ask of us.  Otherwise, we may only pretend to follow Jesus as we actually disguise what we wanted to do all along.

This Sunday, we'll continue to explore the theme of faithfulness as it relates to the Gospel reading.  Over the next nine weeks, we'll remain in Matthew's Gospel and look at one of the Fruits of the Spirit.  For review they are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control but we won't necessarily explore them in that order.

These are the higher characteristics that we need to display to the world right now.  It won't hurt for us to think on them for a while!  I hope you'll join us on the journey!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo used under the fair use doctrine.

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.