Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Bragging Rights

People all need something to be proud of.  It may be their kids, grandkids, home, car, boat, or country club membership.  People need to have something to drop into conversations such as the college they attended or the company they work for.  Openly bragging about something is not usually accepted by others but quietly slipping it into a conversation is accepted modicum in polite society. 

My wife and I have two children but no grandchildren.  People our age usually have grandkids to talk about and to show pictures of to others they meet.  We have no grandchildren pictures or activities to recall but we can talk about our granddog Kiwi.  Kiwi is a Lhasa Apso and cute as a button.  She is so lively and quick and when she sees us after our not being with her for a while she immediately responds and runs rapidly around in circles and bows at our feet as if to show us how happy she is to see us.  She has beautiful long white silky hair that flows down around her head and toward the floor.  She is so human-like that we are always amazed by what she can do when we are with her. 

Is bragging on a dog equivalent to bragging about a child?  It is if it is your dog.  But is bragging even acceptable in society.  Well, we may need to ask St. Paul for advice about that because he brags to the Church at Philippi about all of his religious and spiritual achievements letting them know that he is very qualified to write to them concerning their own spiritual needs.  "If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; at to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless."  (3:4b-6) 

In other words, Paul brags about all of his religious qualifications that he can rightly claim because he entered the Jewish world as a Jew who had all the right credentials based upon family heritage, training, following Jewish practices, and training, even to the point that he became actively involved in weeding out heresy among them and ordering the deaths of those in the Christian sect whom he saw as opposed to Judaism.  He had every right to be proud of himself as the role model for every good and righteous Jew who lived in his day. 

But, then he met Jesus Christ...in a mystical, strongly spiritual experience that no one else witnessed.  It had such a powerful effect on who he was and what he did in life that it negated all that he may had rightly claimed as his Jewish credentials and changed him into a Christian who could understand the hesitancy of Jews to embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior and Gentiles who may have thought of all this talk about Jesus as fanciful and imaginary. 

Paul's experience with Jesus Christ made him consider what he had bragged about in his past as "loss" or disposable.  His desire to know Jesus in a real and tangible way superseded his need to carry his credentials around as his membership in the religious community.  "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the share of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death..." (3:10)  Even if Paul suffered in his body, he counted it worthy because it would bring him closer to the reality of the resurrection that Jesus experienced and that he preached would be given to all who would put their belief in Jesus as God's Son. 

Paul was not ready to give up and waste away but he was looking forward to the goal set before him so that he could obtain what was important to him.  He was not content to sit back and bask in the glory he may have achieved but was "straining forward to what lies ahead."  (3:13b)  That is what the Christian life is about, after all, keeping on keeping on, as the old saying says.  We continue to follow the truth we have learned throughout our lives and do what we believe is right to do as we serve God and our neighbors until finally we achieve the goal as we depart this life. 

The Methodists have a word for this process.  It is called Santification.  It means being made more holy (complete or perfected) throughout life until finally we "become" what we have believed when we exit this life and begin the next life.  We do not expect to become perfected here in this life but we continue to press forward toward that goal putting aside the cares of life that may try to weigh us down and look to Jesus who is the author and perfecter of the faith. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Stooping to Conquer

This Sunday is called World Communion Sunday on the Christian calendar of the mainline denominations.  That is the Sunday when we think about and talk about what Christians have in common, about what unites us as Christians.  Sometimes finding something in common that we can all agree on is pretty hard.  We all have our individual ideas and we think that our ideas are the best ideas and ideas of others cannot really be as good as our own.  That is part of human nature, it seems. 

This World Communion Sunday, however, we have a passage from the book of Philippians to set us straight.  This passage does not tell us that our ideas are the best or that we can have a good idea to share with others.  It instructs us instead to "be of the same mind."  Wow--Being of the same mind is  a hard thing to do at times.  It means that people often have to agree on one thing or another and reach some form of compromise, leaving behind what one may think is best in view of what another may need or want or think, if that other is someone we need to assist in bringing about what they need or want or think. 

Paul gives the Church at Philippi some strong words to consider when he tells them, "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others."  (2:4)  In other words, consider what others need over your own needs.  Put aside what you may need at the moment in order to meet the needs of others.  We have all done that.  Our actions on behalf of others are often automatic, without considering if we should or should not assist another person. 

There is a sweet lady that I meet at our local grocery store now and then.  She is bent over with osteoporosis but she still goes to the grocery store to buy the things she needs and takes them to her car by herself.  When I see her ahead of me in the line, I always offer to help her get her things to her car, not because I hope she will give me a tip or because she is some special or popular or well known individual or even because I hope this will put one more star in my crown in heaven.  I help this woman with her groceries because it is the right thing to do.  It is the neighborly thing to do.  It is the Christian thing to do.  And you do the same kinds of things for the same reasons.  I am not SuperChristian because I do it.  I do it because Jesus would have done it too if he had been there. 

Paul says that very thing in the passage from Philippians we will study this week in worship.  "Let the same mind be in your that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave..." (2:5-7b)  Paul was getting at the fact that the pre-existent Christ had every right and reason to just remain in heaven with God but he gave us that right and instead became a human being to be a servant to all.  Paul goes on to tell them his readers and hearers that Jesus in human flesh served and then died even though he did not have to.  He chose to do this for others. 

Paul admonishes the Church of Philippi to put aside their selfishness and arguing (and they were doing a lot of it) and "be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" (2:2 b,c).  If they were to consider the needs of others of greater importance than their own needs, then they would act as Christ had to give of themselves for the needs of others and of the entire Christian Community at Philippi. 

Humility and service is what unites followers of Jesus Christ across the globe.  We care about the needs of others because it is what Christians do.  We care about the needs of individuals because it is what Christians do.  We do for others, not just pray or believe for them.  We act on our faith to make things happen locally and around the world.  If Jesus could serve others and give of himself down to the place where he actually gave up his life then those who emulate him will want to follow his role model of service and sacrifice. 

"...work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."  (2:12b-13)  God is at work in the world.  God is still speaking.  God's voice is reminding us that the reason the Church of Jesus Christ exists is to be of service to others so that they will understand that God loves them and wants them to love one another as much as God loves them.  When we show God's love through Christian service, the will and the work of God is done in the world around us. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Love and Fellowship, Forgiveness and Grace

What is the issue that you think is so important that you can form an opinion around that is unmovable for you?  What do you consider so important that it is hard for you to be swayed otherwise?  There are many issues that divide people into different camps and often we judge others based upon the opinions we have formed regarding these issues. 

I grew up in a very conservative denomination.  They had rules about just about everything there was in life.  They made judgments about others based upon whether or not others followed their particular rules.  There were the big rules that they shared with other conservative groups--no smoking, no drinking, no cursing.  This particular denomination, however, went much farther then some--no dancing, no going to movies (what they called "the picture show"), no going to plays, no going bowling, no wearing shorts or other clothing they considered "provocative".  So, when one became a member of this group, one had to sign a pledge card that the new member would pledge not to do any of the things that the group looked down upon.  This group wanted to be sure that its members were of one mind when it came to those things that they did not approve.  So, people signed the card and tried to obey the rules but sometimes the rules were broken.  Then, it was the job of the other members to bring the offender back in line. 

I remember when I was in junior high and our school band had a "band dance".  That was a dance for the band members to attend and there was a record player playing the tunes of the 60s and cold drinks and snacks, a fairly harmless set-up for junior high kids.  There were chaperones and adults stationed around the room and what happened that night was pretty mild in comparison to some things that happen today.  I did not dance since that was forbidden by our church so I sat there and watched as my friends danced.  Some of my friends came up to me and asked me if I wanted to dance to which I replied, " I can't.  It's against my religion" to which they replied, "Oh well, it's against ours too but we are dancing anyway."  So, that made perfect sense to me so I got up and began to do those dances from the 60s that required no one to have a partner--the twist, the frug, the swim---some of you will recall what they may have looked like. 

Suddenly, there stood at the entrance to the band hall, a harrowing figure with a frown on its face--my mother.  She had come to pick me up at the dance and take me home because I did not drive in junior high and needed a ride home.  Boy, did I ever get a lecture on the way home.  I was told over and over again how evil dancing was and why we did not believe in dancing.  I was not one to just accept a rule on face value, however, and asked where in the Bible it says that we cannot dance. (It does not, in case you are wondering).  The stern reply was not to ask questions but just to obey the rules. 

This rebel of a junior high boy could not accept that rule and asked the pastor the next Sunday the same question I asked my mother.  He too told me to obey the rules and not ask questions so I did what any lively young man of 13 would do...I danced and went to movies and wore shorts and said questionable words, but not openly, in secret, in small groups, in places where I had to hide the fact that I was doing those things.  I rarely got caught and it made breaking the rules all the more enjoyable.  It became a quest to see how many times I could break the church rules and not get caught. 

I left that church when I became an adult and never returned to it.  It has changed somewhat over the years, becoming more accepting of society and what some in society like to do (they still frown upon dancing and drinking and smoking and cursing though).  They never quite saw that they were judging others based upon the ideas they had about society.  They preferred to brand people as "sinners" because they did the things they found to be distasteful, even if they were not unbiblical.  They shunned people who broke the rules without regard to being repentant for their misdeeds.  They found discipline to be more important than love. 

What rule or opinion do we hold more dear than loving others who may embrace the ideas or break rules that we think should be obeyed?  St. Paul told the church at Rome to allow others to eat what they wished and go where they wanted even if the individual did not agree with it.  After all, said Paul, what is more important is that we love others and extend welcome to them even if we disagree with them. 

We are all brothers and sisters in Christ.  What we have is a bond of unity that exists in spite of the differences that we may hold.  A modern author named Rachel Held Evans describes it this way: "This is what God's Kingdom looks like: A bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good,  but because they are hungry, because they said Yes, and there's always room for more."  I like that.  It describes well what we are about in our Christian family. 

"Come unto me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."  (Matthew 11:28-30)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and More

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."  (Acts 1:8)

What does it mean to be a witness?  We are all witnesses each day because we all see things and report on them to others.  We tell others about our life experiences so we are all witnesses to what happens in life.   We want to share with others about those things and want others to share with us about what is going on in their lives.  If something happens to us that we think is significant or important, then we want others to know about this event so they will understand its impact on our lives.

That is basically what Jesus was telling his disciples as he was preparing them for the day when he would leave them.  Go, and tell others about what you have experienced during the time I was with you all.  Those were the instructions that Jesus gave the disciples as he prepared to leave and return to heaven.

Jesus' closest friends had experienced many things during the three years of ministry with him.  They had seen Jesus heal many people, raise some people from the dead, and had heard him teach all about the Kingdom of God and what it meant to live in it.  So, Jesus was now leaving them and he was telling them to tell others about what they had experienced and learned while they had been with him.  That is one of the reasons why the New Testament exists.  It is a recollection and interpretation of the stories, experiences, and teachings those closest to Jesus had received during Jesus' earthly ministry.  Bible scholars call this collection "The Jesus Tradition".  We have this collection of memories of Jesus to reflect upon as we decide what they mean to us as we live together in Christian community.

Jesus told his disciples to begin at home and expand from there as they shared with others what they had experienced with him.  Jerusalem was home base for them so they were to begin there and then expand through the region called Judea.  They were even supposed to go to those with whom they had animosity or could not agree, such as the Samaritans.  From there, the world was their parish.  They were to carry the Gospel to all who would listen to them.

We share our Christian experience and witness with others beginning with those whom we know well, letting them know what we have learned so that it may benefit them as it has us.  We use all that modern society has shared with us to share our witness with others...the telephone, email, social media and maybe even the old fashioned method of letter writing to tell our story.  We tell it to those who know us best and we tell it to others in the world who may not know us at all.  Our story is personal to us but it is also global because it is a story of truth and beauty that all need to hear.

The reason we can tell the story to others is because we have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the works that Jesus asked us to do.  The Spirit gives us the courage to act and speak and to do it in a way that will encourage others to listen and learn.  We speak as the Spirit gives us the language to use and we rely upon the Spirit as our source of strength and knowledge.

So, go out and tell the story to all who will listen.  It is a story that needs to be shared with all, beginning with those who know it best and continuing to those who have never heard it at all, even in this modern age of communication sources that astound and amaze us.  

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Lessons in prayer, from a dog

He assume his still posture
two feet from the table.
He is not grabby,
his tongue is not hanging out,
he is quiet.

He wants to leap,
he wants to snap up
meat and blood.
You can tell.
But what he does is sit
as the gods
his masters and mistresses
fork steak and potatoes
into their mouths.

He is expectant
but not presumptuous.
He can wait.
He can live with disappointment.
He can abide frustration
and suffer suspense.

He watches
for signals,
he listens for calls
of his name from above.

At hints that
he may be gifted
with a morsel,
he intensifies his
already rapt concentration,
he looks his god
in the eye
but humbly,
sure of his innocence
in his need,
if his need only.

On the (often rare) occasions
when gifts are laid on his tongue,
he takes them whole,
then instantly resumes
the posture of attention,
beseeching, listening, alert,
the posture of hard-won faith
that will take no for an answer,
yet ever and again hopefully
return to the questioning.

Rodney Clapp, author
Christian Century Magazine
February 12, 2008

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Do You Believe in the Resurrection?

            Can you believe in something that you have never seen?  How do you know that something is true if you have never seen it or experienced it yourself?  Those are questions that some ask in regard to the resurrection of Jesus Christ that we celebrate yearly on Easter Sunday.  Some doubt the resurrection of Jesus because it is difficult for them to grasp how a person who has died can be brought back to life again. 
            Believing in something we cannot understand is not new for modern people.  Even with all the scientific knowledge that exists, there are things that we encounter daily that are hard for most of us to understand.  Each time I flip on the light switch and the lights come on, I am doing something that I do as a repetitive motion but one that is not something I truly understand.  I simply know that, unless the electrical power to the house is not working, when I do it the lights in the light fixture will produce light.  The light bulbs themselves are a mystery as to how they work.  Perhaps Thomas Edison understood how the light bulb worked since he invented them, but for me as an average consumer I only know that if the light bulb is in the light fixture and connected to the electrical lines running through the house, then light will be produced by my action of flipping the light switch. 
            There are so many innumerable other things that we do in life that we do not understand that we have grown accustomed to simply doing them or using them without knowing exactly how they work and that is the way our lives are ordered.  I use a cell phone and a computer daily and I have no idea how simply pushing buttons or tapping a keyboard causes words to appear on a screen that I can print out on a sheet of paper or send electronically to people around the world.  I simply do these things and have faith that it will work unless there is a problem inside my computer or phone that causes it not to work (and I don’t understand how that can be either.)
            So, we all live our lives daily in ways in which we place faith in objects or customs to do the things in life we want to do without understanding how those things work or what causes them to do what we want them to do.  Why is spiritual faith something that operates out of the normal way of life when it comes to belief in something that we cannot explain? 
            When I say that I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that God raised Jesus from the dead in some supernatural way, I can believe in that idea without understanding how it happened.  If I believe that there was a man named Jesus Christ of Nazareth who lived over 2000 years ago in a land we now call Israel and whose teachings make sense for ordering our lives, then why can I not take another leap of faith (who is to say that any historical persons we learned about in school or at church actually existed?  We believe in them because we trust the people who taught us to believe in them.) and say that it is possible that God (another matter of faith—to believe in God takes faith on the part of the believer) could raise Jesus from the dead and bring him back to a spiritual life that is beyond explanation. 
            The celebration of Easter precedes the celebration of Christmas by many centuries.  Persons in the Early Church saw the resurrection of Jesus as one of the hallmarks of what it means to be called a Christian.  The life, teachings, and death of Jesus are vastly important to society and humankind but the resurrection of Jesus sets Christianity apart from other religions because Christians believe that if Jesus was raised from the dead, then we too will experience a spiritual resurrection when we die.   
            I choose to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not because I can explain how it happened but because it gives me hope for the future and purpose in life knowing that this life is not all there is.  I am not wishing for a quick exit from this life because I enjoy life and living but I do not have to be afraid of death or dying because God has prepared something after this life that I believe exists through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 
            Each time I officiate at a funeral I begin with the same words called “The Word of Grace”.  It says, “Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”  Those words of Jesus give me hope that through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all can experience a continued existence after this one ends.  That hope conquers any fear that society’s ills may produce.  We have hope in Christ because Christ has conquered death and our lives are contained in his life so we too will have life beyond death when our time comes.

            May the love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be yours both now and always.  Amen.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Living Water That Brings Restoration and Reconciliation

How thirsty are you?  Do you ever thirst for the truth?  Do you thirst for the peace that calms the troubled heart?  Do you thirst for restoration and reconciliation with God and neighbor?

The theme for this next Sunday, the third Sunday of Lent, is reconciliation.  We will read three scripture lessons that all tell stories of reconciliation and restoration.  First, from Exodus, comes the story of thirsty people in the wilderness.  The People called Israel are wandering in the desert as they make their way from Egypt to Canaan Land.  There is little water in the dry land they are crossing.  They are thirsty and begin to call out to Moses to give them water.  Moses, in turn, calls out to God who tells him to strike a rock and water will gush out of it and sure enough it does, as Moses does what God commands him to do.   Thirsty people drink of fresh cool water gushing out from beneath a rock, a hidden spring that needed to be tapped.

Then, John's Gospel tells the familiar story of the Samaritan woman at the well whom Jesus encounters and asks for a drink of water from her.  She is a troubled woman and Jesus senses her distress, since she is at the well at noon rather than early in the morning when most women came to the well to avoid the midday heat.  Her conversation with Jesus makes her believe he is a prophet and she calls the townspeople to come and see this remarkable man.  Jesus gives her the "living water" she seeks as she is restored to relationship with her community and to the God she seeks to know.

Paul addresses the church at Rome in chapter 5 of his epistle to them and talks about being justified and reconciled to God through the love of Jesus Christ, who gave himself for all humanity.  Jesus' actions have made all justified to God and brought about full restoration of the brokenness of human beings, both to God and one another.  The live and actions of Jesus have brought those who seek restoration into full and right relationship.

Living water is what Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman, the same living water that Paul offers to the early church at Rome.  The living water could only come through the Spirit of God working in Christ and evident in the lives of Early Christians who found a new way of living after Pentecost.  Living water is what modern day persons need also, water that stimulates the human spirit and revives the refreshes the soul.

The people of Israel who were crossing the barren wilderness after they left Egypt and were searching for a home needed real physical water to quench their dry throats and bring them relief so they could continue their journey.  God showed his love and compassion for them as he supplied their needs.  The physical water represented the love of God to them because God heard their cries and responded to their need.

God hears our cries also and answers our prayers, perhaps not always in the way we anticipate but in ways that are for our own good and welfare.  God's love is made known to us through the actions of others who come to our rescue when we need to hear words and see love demonstrated in tangible ways.  We find refreshing streams of water when we need them as we continue to seek God in our daily lives and to gather with God's People regularly to gain spiritual strength and renewal.

How thirsty are you?  How much do you need to know God's presence in your life?  Jesus said, "Come unto me, all you who are heavily laden and I will give you rest."  The waters of restoration and reconciliation are always flowing.  One simply has to come to the waters and receive what God offers to find relief.