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.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Lessons From the Goose

Lessons from the Goose (taken from an anonymous source):

1. As each goose flaps its wings it creates an "uplift" for the birds that follow.  By flying in a "V" formation the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.
Lesson: People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.

2. When a good falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone.  It quickly moves back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front of it.
Lesson: If we have as much sense as a goose we stay in formation with those headed where we want to go.  We are willing to accept their help and give our help to others.

3. When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into formation and another goose flies to the point position.
Lesson: It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership.  As with geese, people are interdependent on each other's skills, capabilities and unique arrangements of gifts, talents, and resources.

4. The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.
Lesson: We need to make sure our honking is encouraging.  In groups where there is encouragement, the production is much greater.  The power of encouragement (to stand by one's heart or core values and encourage others with those same values) is the quality of honking we seek.

5. When a goose gets sick, wounded, or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help protect it.  They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again.  Then, they launch out with another formation to catch up with the flock.
Lesson: If we have as much sense as geese, we will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Entering the Season of Lent

February is almost gone and with its departure will begin the Christian season of Lent.  It starts this week on March 1 which is called Ash Wednesday.  That is the first day of Lent, the official start of 40 days of fasting and prayer, piety and solemnity, devoting oneself to contemplation, meditation, and reflection on one's own spiritual condition.  This practice dates back to the days of the Early Church where it was customary to observe a time of preparation for those who were going to be baptized on Easter Sunday morning.  The time of preparation allowed the new converts to Christianity to consider what they were going to do because baptism was a serious undertaking.  In a world where Christianity was often outlawed, then becoming a Christian was literally a life or death matter.

Lent was also a time when those who had been separated from the Christian Community or persons who had committed serious sins could be reconciled and restored to the Church by penitence and forgiveness.  The entire congregation was reminded of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the need we all have to renew our baptismal faith.

Modern day Christians are invited to consider the Lenten Season to be a time of self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and doing good deeds for others.  People are encouraged to read and meditate on God's Word and to take the time to be more devoted to regular and faithful attendance to worship services.

The beginning of Lent is similar to the beginning of a New Year.  It gives people a chance to make a new start.  If people had made resolutions at the end of the last year and have already forgotten them or broken them, then Lent provides a chance to begin again.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent and a church service is often held during which worshipers come forward to receive the mark of ashes on their foreheads as a sign of their repentance.  Ashes has been a sign of repentance that dates back to ancient Israel.  When persons wanted God to know their sincerity in obedience to God's commands, they would sit in ashes and put on clothes made of sackcloth and cover themselves with the ashes.  Getting down to the lowest level of society in this way provided a visual that the person repenting was sincere.  Today, we receive only a smudge of ash on our foreheads but that small mark is representative of our sincerity that we want to have as we begin the season of Lent.

Then, there are six Sundays in Lent where we hear the ancient stories from Israel's history about the fall of humans, the lives of the patriarchs, and the acts of the prophets in addition to the ministry of Jesus as he made his way toward Jerusalem where he would give up his life for humanity.  Those six weeks help to prepare us for what we will encounter during Holy Week when we recall Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, his Last Supper with his disciples, and his death on the cross.  Silence falls on Saturday as we await Jesus' resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday morning.

We recall anew these stories year after year to remind us of God's mighty acts of salvation in Jesus Christ for all people.  It is important to our experience as Christians to be engaged and involved in our faith community during the Lenten Season in order to fully appreciate the story of Jesus' death and resurrection from the dead.  We are all encouraged and urged to be present in worship for each Sunday in Lent as we hear the stories and reflect upon their meaning for our own lives.

Will you devote yourself to practices of faith and love for the weeks of Lent?  Will you do deeds of mercy for others and acts of piety for your own spiritual fulfillment?  Will you consider fasting from a food or practice that you find dear for the season of Lent so as to connection with Jesus' story of his own temptation and testing?  If you will consider making this a "Holy Lent" through these Christian practices, then your Easter Celebration may be more meaningful this year than in years past because you set your mind on things above for a season in order to be more fully human at its end.