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,


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.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Failing the Test

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

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

The story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac is a story that elicits a lot of feelings from a modern reader.  It sounds different if you read it while empathizing with Abraham over if you read it from Isaac's perspective.  Did they ever talk about this experience again together?

How would that conversation go?  Um, Dad, do you remember that time you tied me up and placed me on that pyre?  When you raised the knife, were you really going to do it?

If you were raised a Christian, you may not have thought about how this story sounds to people outside the faith.  It raises an important question, "Does God really test us in the faith where life and death hangs in the balance?"  What if Abraham had refused?

In today's society, what would happen to a father who tied his son to an altar over a stack of wood prepared for a fire and then raised a knife as if to kill him?  At the least, any children would likely be removed from the home.  Does this mean that God no longer tests us in this way?  Or does it mean that Abraham was misinterpreting the test to begin with?

If we explore the idea of tests of faith, could the Coronavirus be a test of faith?  I don't mean that God has sent it to kill nearly half a million people around the world so that we might be tested.  But with the circumstances being what they are, is our faith tested by crisis?

Do we grow closer to God or find our relationship more distant?

If it's a test of survival, such as in Abraham's case, survival of his lineage, how are we faring?

Testing is not so bad if you know the
material but curve balls can be brutal.
Am I adequately feeding myself, clothing myself, and finding medical care for myself during this pandemic?  Most people would include their immediate family in gauging how successful they've been.  What about more distant family?  As a Christian, how do we define family?  We take baptismal vows to help each other within the Body of Christ.  Does this mean our immediate congregation, those of our denomination or the much wider group calling themselves Christian?

As a Wesleyan, I believe in Prevenient Grace and so understand that God loves all people and is reaching out to them whether they believe it or know it, regardless of their response.  Does this make them in some sense my brothers and sisters?

If this is a test of faith, how have I responded to the least of these?  And who would be the least in this scenario?  If I am not among the least, do I have greater privilege than they do?  Should I be examining my life?  How am I spending my time?  

If Jesus commands me to love my neighbor, have I done things to protect them within my means?  Have I worn the mask to prevent possible illness in others?  Have I distanced carefully?  Have I avoided large groups so as to limit the possible contagion?
Have I spent enough time in prayer?  Have I asked God for release from this illness?  Not for myself but for all those afflicted?  Today?

I could add more questions.  The point in my asking questions is that one could always do more.  One could always be more faithful.  If you haven’t failed the test, we can always ask more questions until you do.

This is how some people honestly see God.  God is waiting for them to make a mistake.  To slip up.  To commit a sin.  Then they hear God saying, “I knew you were a screw up.  Look at you.  Pitiful.”

This week’s scripture from Genesis gives an early understanding of how people of faith understood God testing them.  What can we learn from it?  What does it teach us about God?  What does it teach us about second chances?  What does it teach us about our commitment to God?

I'll be preaching on this scripture passage on Sunday and exploring some of these questions.  You can join us at our campus in the Christian Activity Center at 8:30 or 11:00 am and we ask that you register your attendance in advance so that we'll have enough space.  We'll also continue to offer worship online and hope that you'll join us there if that is a better option for you right now!

In Christ,


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

Monday, June 15, 2020

Jesus Creates Change

Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 10:24-39 (NRSV)

I spent a lot of time studying Family Systems Theory developed by Murray Bowen and expanded for religious context by Edwin Friedman.  Much of my doctoral thesis was based on this work. 

One of the teachings of systems theory helpful to remember in a time like this is that systems resist change.  I tried to show in my sermon, "The Spirit of Truth" on May 17th how race relations since the Civil War were slow to change in the United States.  There has been active resistance against the changes brought on by the emancipation of the slaves and the Thirteenth Amendment.

But for the most part, the resistance to change isn't conscious.  It often comes by the majority in subtle ways that may appear to be adoption on the outside but inside continues to fight the change because they may not be comfortable with the new reality.

Friedman tells us that when a leader attempts to institute a change, that one should actually expect sabotage from those being led.  Friedman writes in A Failure of Nerve,
"Eventually I came to see that this 'resistance,' as it is usually called, is more than a reaction to novelty; it is part and parcel of the systemic process of leadership.  Sabotage is not merely something to be avoided or wished away; instead, it comes with the territory of leading, whether the 'territory' is a family or an organization."
This doesn't mean that people are out to get the leader or that they even are aware of their work against the changes, but rather it seems to be how people function in systems.  It is something to expect.  In fact Tod Bolsinger, in his book, Canoeing the Mountains, claims that you haven't truly succeeded in making a lasting change until after you've survived the sabotage.  How many things have we "tried" at the church only to go back to the way they were? 

So as we see all of the changes that have taken place in our society recently, it would not at all be surprising if people were experiencing some change fatigue.  This fatigue may come through our subtle resistance to what we've been experiencing. 

For my own experience in dealing with COVID-19, I wear a mask when I go out in public spaces.  Yes, we have started to re-open but it is possible to continue to spread the disease as we have seen in the rise in Oklahoma cases over the past few days.  The last two restaurants I visited were strange experiences for me.  One was in rural Oklahoma after we had spent some time outdoors as a family.  We stopped in to get some take-out and there was no distancing and I was the only one in the place wearing a mask.  The other was an Edmond restaurant where we decided to eat on the patio.  We had to go through the restaurant to get to the patio.  I noticed the same behavior as at the rural location regarding precaution.

The risk is still present.  Why the lackadaisical response to safety?

I think it involves resistance to change.  We don't like to wear masks.  They are uncomfortable.   We don't like to distance ourselves.  Human beings are social beings.  So we may claim that this is all overblown and there is no real danger.  This doesn't come as a rational response but as an emotional one.  Of course, emotional responses are valid and sometimes they move us to action more so than rational responses but we also need to understand that they are sometimes based on what we want to be true rather than what we know to be true.

I must admit that when I was the only one wearing a mask, I could feel the eyes of everyone on me.  I felt a little bit like an Amish person driving my horse and buggy to town.  But I continued to wear the mask.

So as we gather for worship on Sunday, we will wear masks even though much of Oklahoma has forgone this device.  As I mentioned in our expectation video, the mask is really more about concern for the neighbor.  What does Jesus say about his expectation of the treatment of our neighbors?
"So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you."                       John 13:14-15
This is the example of service - to be in service to one another.  And so, while social distancing prevents us from washing one another's feet (I know you're disappointed), we can put on the mask which may be uncomfortable in order to keep the most vulnerable among us safe.

Save a Grandma, Wear a Mask!

So I imagine that there will be some resistance to this change.  Both of the medical doctors that I've spoken to in our congregation strongly encourage the wearing of the masks.  We're not telling you that you have to do it outside the church building (although it is a really good idea in public), but if you really don't want to wear it in our public worship, I would encourage you to continue to worship online at home with us. 

Jesus does tell us in Sunday's gospel reading that we are to take up the cross and follow him.  So in retrospect, wearing a mask is not that big of a deal.  That being said, I do expect there will be some resistance to this.  But I expect the movement of the Holy Spirit and the compassion we have learned from being followers of Jesus to overcome it.

I am looking forward to seeing our congregation again.  I am a social person and it has given me a lot of anxiety to be isolated the way we have.  And when the time comes to put away the masks, no one will be happier than I.  We all hope to get back to normal.  Sunday will be a good step to get there.  I just don't want us rushing into anything that will harm some of us.  So if you disagree with me that is fine, just know that my stance comes out my love in Christ for each of you.

In Christ,


The Photo is from a campaign to sell masks by Glendale UMC in Nashville.

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.

Bolsinger, Tod.  Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.  Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2018.

Friedman, Edwin H.  A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.  New York: Seabury Books, 2007.

Monday, June 8, 2020

We're All in the Same Boat

Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Lectionary text: Romans 5:1-8 (NRSV)

I’m not privileged.

I have no special status.

No one has helped me.

I don’t owe anything to anyone.

I have pulled myself up from my own bootstraps.

I haven’t had an advantage that others didn’t have – in fact, I can name several ways that I was disadvantaged growing up and have overcome it.

When I was getting ready to attend college, my parents were going to help me with the cost of tuition.  We had a family business dealing with software for the oil and gas industry.  When I was starting college in the fall of 1986, oil had fallen from $27 a barrel to less than $10 a barrel.  Sound familiar?

I remember my parents coming to me and telling me that while they would help as much as they could, paying for college was going to be up to me as our business was barely hanging on.  So I managed to graduate in four years and came out with only a few student loans that I paid off before going on to get my master’s degree (which I also paid for).

I could easily have folded and said it was too hard.  I pressed on.  

I could have easily blamed the economy and quit.  I endured.  

I could have gone into deep debt but I lived frugally in order to have a brighter future.

Let’s all give it up to me!

Well, the details of this story are all factual but they only tell part of the story.  I was privileged to have two parents in the home that supported me throughout my childhood.  It was a stable home and I was never mistreated nor did I worry about my parents splitting up.  I was privileged to have parents that instilled in me a sense of hard work.  I was able to creatively work my way through school to lessen the debt load because I had parents who modeled a can-do attitude.  I was privileged to even want to pursue education because I was born to parents with college degrees (dad also had a master's) who set an expectation for higher learning.
Beyond these privileges, I have always been in the racial majority.  This is an advantage that is difficult for those who haven’t experienced otherwise to understand or comprehend.  What does it mean to be the only one of your race in a social setting?  What if there were historic social inequalities that remain hidden just beneath the surface?  What if I had to second-guess my relationships with those of the majority race because of past slights I had experienced?

I don't even want to
get started on this sign!
This week’s epistle reminds us that we are all sinners.   Yet, we all receive the grace of God in Christ Jesus.  We are privileged to stand before God blameless – not because of anything we earned but because what we’ve received in the love of God.  If I can stand on this privilege, I must do so with humility, recognizing that we are all in this together.

This may be a crucial step for Christians to take in order to recognize our brothers and sisters who may be hurting because of injustices built into a system where people have not received the same treatment under the law.   It may be a matter of gratitude.  I am grateful for the blessings – earned and unearned – that I have received.  If we can’t develop a sense of thankfulness, we will end up entitled – maybe like I portrayed myself in the first part of the blog.  I think the apostle Paul would say that a sense of entitlement is deadly spiritually.  

I don’t think it will help us as a society either.

Join us for worship on Sunday as we continue to unpack this text together.  I'll try to bring more humility and less entitlement!

In Christ,


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

Monday, June 1, 2020

Reactions against the System

Scripture Reading: John 13:1-5 (NRSV)

I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, just months after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy within the United States.  Although Minnesota had less diversity than it does today, there was still racial tension that touched our family.  This is to say that the current crisis was not born overnight.

I preached on May 17th a sermon detailing some of the history of racial injustice in our country.  As we find ourselves embroiled with protests surrounding the treatment of African-Americans in our nation, there are many people who don't know what to think.  Certainly, the murder of George Floyd on May 25th was horrific.  And it comes after other recent well-documented racist crimes in our country.

As I mentioned in the sermon, I believe that the tension of the coronavirus keeps us from observing our normal boundaries.  When human beings are under anxiety, they are often not on their best behavior.  If a person has racist tendencies, these may not come into play during a normal day.  But if there is undo stress in their lives, a racist act may be perpetrated.  This doesn't excuse or validate any act of racial injustice or violence.  It simply helps us understand why we may have been seeing these more frequently.

It is the same reason you are more likely to see signs of domestic abuse during times of stress.

As we look at family systems theory, we remember that all systems seek balance or homeostasis.  This balance can be healthy or unhealthy.  As we look at racial disparity in our country, we can see that it didn't just crop up overnight.  We have seen a slow arc toward equality for African-Americans in the United States.  The laws we have passed have helped to remind us of the equality needed.  But unfortunately, laws can have little teeth if they are not embraced by the majority in specific locations.

So it should be no surprise that we have a ways to go with regards to racial justice.  Many in the white community acknowledge that our country has a problem with racism but find the rioting, vandalism and looting that may accompany protesting dulls their appetite for justice regarding race.  It may be important to see these more troublesome aspects as a consequence of injustice.  Think of a boiling pot untended.

And just as a person under stress may act upon racist tendencies where they would normally observe boundaries, we can see the same anxiety move a person pushed to the edge to lash out.  If a person feels that there is no hope, they may want to burn it all down.  Then they feel that we are now on the same playing field.

As Christians, how do we respond?  

Within John's Gospel referenced above, we remember Jesus washing the feet of his disciples who would not be seen in his day as his equals.  He then invites us to keep this mentality regarding the rest of the world.  Jesus specifically gives us the new commandment,    
"Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."  (John 13:34b)
This doesn't mean that we allow violence to take place indiscriminately in response to the hopelessness and rage of the situation.  Rather, it means that we take the stance that we prevent the inequalities from happening and continuing in the first place.  We seek understanding and follow it with compassion seeking to bring lasting change for the better.

In this Christians seek God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

We haven't always followed through with this if we are to be honest with ourselves.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" wrote in 1963, 
"I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
White leadership is often quick to quote Dr. King, acknowledging him as someone they respect and admire.  I read these words and they sting my pride because I have also remained silent perhaps too many times when an injustice didn't interfere with my own comfort.  I hope to never utilize Dr. King's words or movement to keep intact the status quo if the norm that I want to maintain is unjust.

I don't think keeping some people disadvantaged economically or maintaining different access to the rights guaranteed by our Constitution is the way to serve our neighbors.  It is not American and it is certainly not Christian.  

But we are a resurrection people.  This allows us to find and offer forgiveness to one another.  This allows us to move beyond repentance and on to reconciliation.  May it be so for us this day and every day.

Let us pray:

O Holy God, open unto me light for my darkness, courage for my fear, hope for my despair.
O loving God, open unto me wisdom for my confusion, forgiveness for my sins, love for my hate.
O God of peace, open unto me peace for my turmoil, joy for my sorrow, strength for my weakness.
O generous God, open my heart to receive all your gifts.  Amen.

Prayer by Howard Thurman, Civil Rights leader, 20th Century

Photo by David Geitgey Sierralupe 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.