Thursday, September 1, 2016

Discipleship, Acceptance, and Choices

Every once in a while the Lectionary gives us three readings for a particular Sunday when all three main readings follow a similar theme.  This is one of those weeks.  It is Labor Day weekend so I don't know how many people will be in worship to hear these scripture passages read and a sermon based on them given but we will share the Good News with whoever comes to listen.

Perhaps it being a holiday weekend makes these readings even more appropriate because the theme that they have in common is on Discipleship or what it means to actually follow in the steps of the one that we claim calls us to be Christian.  Maybe a holiday weekend reveals in a way the priorities that many of us have in our lives. Where will we be on Sunday in a holiday weekend?  What will we be doing on Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m.?  (That is when we have worship.)

The reading from Deuteronomy is one of those passages where the speaker in the text is challenging the hearers to make a decision as to what they will do in response to the covenant renewal ritual that is happening once again.  "See, I have set before  you today life and prosperity, death and adversity, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances,  then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess."  (Deut. 15:16)  One long sentence lays out the choice the people of Israel have to make.  Follow and serve the LORD and enjoy life and prosperity or turn to other gods and find ruin.  This reading is about all choice and the choice that is given to the listeners seems cut and dried.

Then, the Gospel lesson is from Luke 14 where Jesus is talking to a crowd of potential followers and his words are harsh.  He is trying to let them know that the cost of following him may not be easy.  He tells them to choose whether they can truly follow him, above anyone else and all else, or not.  He says they have to put him first, above "father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself..." (Luke 14:26)  The cost of discipleship is one that requires dedication before all other relationships.

Jesus does not stop there though.  He also says the cost of discipleship requires one to love him without regard to the possessions that one may have.  "So, therefore, none of  you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."  (Luke 14:33)  Putting one's relationship with God above what one owns is another costly measure of discipleship, Jesus would teach.

Jesus gave two examples from life of people who had to count the cost of the decisions they would make.  If one were to build a tower, then he would need to know in advance if he had enough resources to finish it before beginning to build or open himself up to ridicule from others for having a half-built structure.  Also, if one were a king who wanted to wage war against another king, he would need to consider if he had enough troops to conquer the enemy or else he should ask for a peace treaty.  Decision making requires careful consideration of the consequences of the decision.

Finally, the epistle reading this week is from the book of Philemon, one of the shortest books in the New Testament.   It is a letter written by Paul to a wealthy member of the early church who had a slave named Onesimus who had run away and whom Paul had taken in to the quarters where he was being a house prisoner.  He was asking Philemon to accept the runaway slave back, but not as a slave, but as a brother and fellow Christian because that is what he had become during the time he had been with Paul.  Paul wanted to just keep Onesimus with him but knew he had to return him to Philemon but with this letter asking for Philemon to forgive Onesimus for running away and to accept him as a fellow Christian and not as a slave.

Again, there are decisions to be made.  Paul decided to write Philemon and risk offended his friend by interfering in his personal business.  Paul also decided that he loved Onesimus too much to let him return to his owner and risk physical punishment and perhaps even death.  He wanted Philemon to make the decision on his own to be gracious to this runaway slave although he states in the letter that he could order him to do the right thing based on his authority as a leader in the Christian movement.  The epistle does not give a conclusion to the matter but allows the reader to reflect upon it and think about what it may mean to our own lives.

Decision making, serious matters, things we all encounter in our lives.  Do we take that job that will require uprooting our family and moving far away from home because it offers a better salary or an advanced position?  Do we join the military because we think it is the right thing to do to serve our country and provide a better way of life for ourselves?  Do we marry a person that we have reservations about because all the preparations have been made and we think we cannot back out?  Do we continue to go that school or university where we feel lost or oppressed or overwhelmed because it is expected of us by someone we know?  Do we speak up on the behalf of someone we know who is being abused or mistreated by a person or a social system or keep quiet so as not to cause trouble?  All are serious matters that need much personal reflection and prayer.

Jesus and Paul and the writer of Deuteronomy instruct us to consider the choices and make a good choice based upon what we know about the life and teachings of Jesus and the commandments God gave to the people of Israel to follow and the wisdom contained in acts of kindness and generosity.  Then, to decide, after prayerful consideration, and trust that God will be with us in the decision we make.  Decision making is not always easy but we know we do not make our decisions totally alone.  We are informed by the experiences of others on the journey of life as well as the Spirit of God that speaks to us and for us in our times of trial.  When we ask for wisdom, we will always receive it.  The answer we receive may not be the one we were seeking, but it will be the one that is best for us.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Hospitality--The Strangers Among Us

Who is a stranger?  Are they the people around us that we do not know?  Yes, that is one kind of stranger.  Many of us are surrounded by people we do not know daily as we conduct our business and travel here and there.  We may seldom even pay attention to others around us as we do what is needful daily.  So, strangers are everywhere, it would seem, and we pass by them and may not even recognize their presence.

What if a stranger comes into our personal space?  What if someone we do not know asks something of us?  It may be simply asking the time of day or directions to an unfamiliar place but many times we encounter others whom we do not know and we form an opinion of them based upon our interaction with them.  We may have even been a stranger to others if we have traveled and have needed assistance.  We may have asked others to perform tasks for us as we tried to negotiate unfamiliar territory.

My wife and I love to travel and we have been to Europe several times.  We have driven in the United Kingdom where they drive on the other side of the road as opposed to how we do it.  It always seems odd to drive on the left instead of the right and I have had times when I have nearly gotten involved in accidents because of my ignorance of their system.  They have those traffic circles which they call "roundabouts" which cause no end to terror or distress when one is trying to negotiate them.  How does one know where to get out of the circle once you enter it?  That was a question that plagued me as we traveled so I asked a woman we knew who lived there how to successfully negotiate the circle without getting into an accident.  She laughed and explained how the circle works and told me to think of each road leading away from it as an exit.  She said to determine which exit to take and then to steer in that direction.  Her advice was "right on" and the next time I entered a roundabout I thought about the exits and was able to drive onto the road that would take me to the place where I wanted to go.  How easy it was to understand what to do when it was simply explained.

Interacting with others is easy when one understands that each of us on this planet are in relationship with everyone else.  We all exist to be involved in the lives of everyone else around us.  Our involvement may be on a surface level or we may just be "on call" to others as we all try to negotiate the world around us.  When someone else asks something of us, then we determine if we can be of assistance to them or if we need to direct them to others who may be able to help them more then we can.  Extending hospitality to others may involve being creative in our world so as to not put ourselves in harm's way or to become so involved that we cannot reasonably meet our own needs.

Hospitality to strangers often happens as others visit our homes or churches where we worship.  In our homes we offer strangers the necessities of life (food, water, rest) and in our churches we offer the same things but in spiritual ways as well as material ways.  We invite strangers to feel at home as they rest in our worship spaces, to participate in worship as they feel they are able, and to join us in fellowship after our worship to share a drink and a conversation.  We attempt to be inclusive so that all feel welcome despite the differences that may exist between strangers.  Hospitality crosses the divisions that are apparent as we welcome others into our space and venture into theirs.

"Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."  (Hebrews 13:1-2)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Was Blind But Now I See

We have been studying the lives of the composers of hymns this month in order to gain a new appreciation both for their lives and for the music they left with humanity as a legacy.  Isaac Watts was our first hymn composer, dating back to the first of the 18th century.  Then, Charles Wesley was next, about fifty years after Watts.  Next Sunday, we will jump a century ahead to sing and talk about the hymns written by Fanny Crosby.  She was a remarkable woman, writing around 5000 hymns but doing so while being totally blind.

Fanny Crosby composed the words to many hymns that have become favorites to Christians over the years.  "Blessed Assurance,"  "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,"  "I Am Thine, O Lord," and many others have been sung for well over a hundred years now by Christians in many denominations.

Crosby was celebrated in her own day for her gospel hymns, but she was also very publicly involved with New York City's rescue mission and other benevolent efforts.  She rubbed shoulders with Grover Cleveland, Dwight Moody, Jenny Lind, and P.T. Barnum.  She was praised as a gifted Protestant woman, beloved and treasured by those who knew her.

Her hymns reflect the mood of the era in which she lived and her concern for social issues which plagued industrial America.  We will think about her life and the legacy she provided through the music she shared during worship the next Sunday.  

Monday, August 1, 2016

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

The hymn as we know it in our usual style of Christian worship dates only to the eighteenth century in England when a man named Isaac Watts decided that the chanting or singing of psalms only was causing great boredom and much sleeping during worship services in England.  Watts was a member of a dissenter church, following after the lead of his father, who refused to become an Anglican minister and was persecuted for it until finally freedom of religion was granted to all in English churches.

Isaac Watts as a young man often sat in the worship services in the dissenter church (Congregationalist) where his father was a minister and observed the worshipers present either sleeping during worship or looking so bored that they would rather be any place except where they were.  Isaac complained about the rote chanting or singing of psalms and how he could think up better music to be sung and his father challenged him to do so.  So, that very day, Isaac Watts composed his first hymn (Behold the Glories) and it was sung during worship the following Sunday.

After that experience, Watts composed a new hymn for each Sunday, most based upon one of the 150 psalms or another scripture passage.  The hymn would not be known by the worshipers in the service so Watts would try to teach them to sing it using "line-singing" which was common in worship in that era.  The leader would sing a line and the congregants would sing the same line.  Each line would be repeated until finally they had sung the entire hymn.  It was still not as lively as in the future when Watts' hymns would be published and played by organists and sung by worshipers during worship services but it was a step ahead of the rote psalm singing they had been experiencing up to that time.

Isaac Watts was the first person to compose and publish hymns written in English for worshipers in England.  He lived between 1674 and 1748 and wrote several hundreds of hymns.  We will sing a few of his hymns this Sunday in worship as we consider his life and his impact on Christian worship.  Did you know that he wrote "Joy to the World" which we sing at Christmas?  What if we sung it this Sunday on the first Sunday in August?  How would that make you feel?  What if you knew that this Christmas hymn is based on Psalm 98?  Would Christmas feel different to you?

We begin a 4 part sermon series this Sunday based on hymn writers who have influenced the church over the centuries and whose hymns we have come to love.  This Sunday we will sing the songs of Isaac Watts and think about his life and influence and give thanks for how these songs help us offer praise to God during worship.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Rich Fool

When I was growing up, I was forbidden to call someone "a fool".  My mother had a very literal interpretation of the Bible and there is a verse in the King James Bible that says "...whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire."  (Matt. 5:22)  So, if we called anyone a fool, we would get called onto the carpet and have to repent because it is there in plain red type (Jesus' very words) that anyone who calls someone else "a fool" is in danger of hell fire.  My mother wanted to be sure that I did not go to hell for the words I said so she was the word censor in our house.

I strayed away from her literal interpretation of the Bible and in modern times have occasionally used the word "fool" to describe someone.  I normally do not use that word directly to the fool I intend to label but behind his or her back as I talk about them to someone else (another sin I rack up).  The reference to someone as being a "fool" or "foolish" seems to describe someone's lack of common sense and misunderstanding of a situation or the world in general.  I think that if we use the word cautiously and do not do it to someone's face or hearing then perhaps the use of the word "fool" is acceptable in a non-King James' world.

Besides God, God's-self uses the word to describe a human in our Gospel lesson for next Sunday from Luke 12.  Jesus tells the parable about "The Rich Fool" (see there is it again, Jesus using the word this time) in response to a request from someone that Jesus order a brother to give another brother what he deserves from an inheritance.  Jesus does not do what the person requests but instead tells him a parable about a rich farmer who had so many possessions that he had nowhere to store them all so he decided to tear down his barns and build larger barns so as to store all he had.  Then, he congratulated himself on all he had and told himself to take it easy and eat, drink, and be merry.

God's voice is heard in the parable and God (again) calls the man a fool and says that he will face the judgment and then what will happen to all of his possessions.  Whose will they be after he is gone?

This parable is not about the danger of having riches.  It is not about being rich versus being poor.  It is about values and generosity and making right choices when it comes to possessions.  Jesus and the Early Church were supported by people of all income levels, rich and poor.  Sometimes, a wealthy person would host Jesus at a meal.  Sometimes wealthy people allowed Church services to be held in their homes as the Early Church emerged.  Jesus valued all persons and did not preach against people having wealth.  He taught against people being self-centered and not sharing with others who have little.

The rich farmer was a fool because he thought only of himself and never of anyone else.  He did not even think of those who worked for him who grew the crops and built the barns.  He most likely had slave labor and considered them his property also.  So, he thought all he had was because of his own doing and he could benefit from all of his possessions and take it easy on his forever retirement plan.  What he forgot was that he would not live forever.  He would one day die and then who would benefit from what he owned?

Giving away part of what we own is part of what it means to be a good steward of what we have.  We have all been abundantly blessed beyond our capabilities.  We have been given good health, strength in our bodies to accomplish our tasks, and a support group of friends and relatives to cheer us on to great things.  What we have accomplished is in part due to all these benefits so it is only natural to return part of what we have to bless others who have little.  We do this in many ways--through our church as we give our tithes and offerings, through charitable organizations, and through reaching out to those in need whom we recognize in the world around us.

Thank God for those who have generous hearts and who give so that others will be blessed.  When we keep all we have so that only we benefit from our blessings, we turn inward.  When we share what we have, we turn outward and toward God.

John Wesley urged his followers to "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can."  Words to live by both in his time and in the world in which we live.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why Bother to Pray?

That is a question many people ask as they try to sort out what prayer is and how prayer works and does prayer actually do anything for anyone.  Is God really concerned with what goes on in our lives or is God just the "watch-maker God" as some have said in the past, creating the product and then standing by to see what happens as it works?  That question has been pondered through the centuries and, as is true with many faith issues, it seems to be a matter of faith.  Do you believe in a God who cares about humans and desires to act on behalf of humans or do you not believe at all or believe that God is but God does not really care?

That is part of why the Gospel lection for this next Sunday is so important.  It contains the prayer that many of us say weekly in worship, the prayer we call "The Lord's Prayer".  It also contains a short teaching story, perhaps you can even call it a parable, and a teaching passage about the nature and character of God.

Jesus was involved in his own prayer time when his disciples asked him to "...teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples."  (Luke 11:1)  What follows through verse 4 is what we call The Lord's Prayer, containing all of it except the conclusion that was added later by the Church during its history.
Each phrase of The Lord's Prayer deserves its own sermon or posting but suffice it to say that many consider it to be a complete summation of the needs of the one doing the praying and an opening of one to God's will for one's life.  Praising God, asking for one's daily needs to be met, asking for forgiveness as one attempts to forgive others, and asking for God's guidance to avoid the many trials of life are petitions that touch each part of human life.  Then to pray the parts that are not found in Luke's Gospel add even more meaning to the pray we say together in worship weekly.  "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is done in heaven" opens the one praying to the completion of God's intent in both the life of the pray-er and the world in general.

Then Jesus tells a story about a man who has settled down for the night with his household when suddenly a friend knocks on his door asking for food.  The drowsy sleeper at first tries to tell the seeker to go away giving him the reason that everyone is already in bed.  The friend will not be deterred though, needing some bread to offer a guest so as not to be rude.  Jesus concludes that even if a person will not grant the request of a friend simply because one is a friend, the person will grant the request so as not to be bothered further.

Then, Jesus teaches his disciples to ask for what they need.  God will give them what they need because God is good, as earthly parents should be, giving good gifts to children such as fish or eggs and not bad things such as scorpions or snakes.  Jesus concludes that if earthly parents can give good gifts to their children, then why should humans think that God would not give good gifts to God's children.  He sums up the passage with idea that God is always willing to give what is needed through the action of the Holy Spirit in the lives of humans.

So, if one believes that God exists and one believes that God is good to humans and wants them to have what is good for them, then why shouldn't humans ask God for what they need, relying on God's wisdom to grant requests according to God's will and intent?  (Remember in the Lord's Prayer--"thy kingdom come, thy will be done...")  Prayer is the thing we do when we want to include God in our lives after we have done all we can do and seem to be at the end of our own resources, so we pray and ask God to intervene.  Perhaps Jesus is teaching that a relationship exists between humans and God much like the relationship between parent and child and that relationship includes the giving of good gifts between parent and child.  The relationship should be enough reason to talk to God even as we talk with humans with whom we have a relationship.

God does not promise to give humans everything they ask for.  God promises to give humans what they need for daily living.  What we think we need and what we actually need to survive creates a giant chasm that often blocks our relationship with God.  Even when we think what we needs is best for us or others for whom we pray, God seems to know best what we need.  Trusting God to act according to our needs may be the biggest test of faith in an invisible God for it involves giving control over to another and humans rarely like doing that.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

Keeping a Balance

"Marsha, Marsha, Marsha..."  Most of us remember that chant of a name from the television program The Brady Bunch.  Poor Marsha was always getting into a pickle and sometimes out of frustration someone would say her name repeatedly and with a certain tone.  It seems that when one's name is said in a certain fashion that it carries more meaning or weight, such as when a parent uses a child's first and middle name to call them.  That often means that someone is in hot water.

Jesus loved to visit with his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  They lived at Bethany, only a few miles down the road from Jerusalem, but it must have seemed light years away from the noise and confusion of the big city to Jesus.  He could simply be their friend and could sit with his feet up and enjoy socializing with people who accepted him for who he was.

The Gospel lesson for next Sunday from Luke 10 has a vignette of a visit from Jesus to the home of his friends.  The two sisters were in the house tending to the needs of Jesus and perhaps preparing a meal for him.  Lazarus is not mentioned in this story.  Perhaps he was gone on a journey or taking care of chores somewhere away from home.

The story says that Martha is busy with the many tasks that needed to be done so that Jesus could be properly entertained.  Perhaps she was cleaning or cooking a meal.  Her sister, Mary, however was simply sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to him talk.  The text does not tell the content of the conversation.  Maybe he was telling her stories about his ministry or just talking about life in general as two friends often do.  Martha noticed that Mary was not helping her in the chores that needed to be done and complained to Jesus about it.

"Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her to help me."

Jesus, instead of coming to Martha's rescue, gently challenges her thinking.  Here comes the repeating of her name as he does it..."Martha, Martha..."  We do not know the tone of Jesus' voice but I can imagine that he is weary from his ministry and perhaps there is a slight weariness in the way he addresses her.  "...you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of one on thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."  (Luke 10:41-42)

Jesus was trying to tell Martha that she had been busily working around the house making sure that everything was perfect for Jesus as the honored guest she thought he was.  She wanted to be sure that all of his needs were met and that everything was to his liking.  Jesus, however, wanted only one thing--to rest and sit and talk with his friends.  Whatever they ate and whatever the house looked like was not important to him.  His relationship with these friends and the opportunity to be with them was much more important than those extraneous factors.

Can't you just sense Martha's despair after hearing these words of Jesus?  She had expected him to come to her rescue and command Mary to get into high gear and help with the chores.  Instead, he defended what Mary had chosen to do and commended her for sitting with him and talking.  Mary was giving her full attention to her friend and also did not care about other factors.  She simply wanted to be with her friend whom she loved so much.

The example of the two sisters in this story are a metaphor for life for many of us.  We have to have a balanced life, full of activity to take care of the chores of life but also must include times of simply sitting and resting and meditating on what is needed to give us emotional and spiritual strength.  There is a reason we have a Sabbath built into our week each seven days.  God chose to be busy in the task of creation but then rested the final day to admire what he had created.  God commanded the people of Israel to follow the same pattern as they lived their lives.  To this day, devout Jews set aside the seventh day of the week as a day of rest and worship and being with family.  It is too bad that many Christians have decided that their Sabbath is not needed and instead they can spend it busily doing chores or activities that they can do any other day of the week.

Sunday is the day of rest for Christians because they honor the resurrection of Jesus and follow in the pattern of early Christians who met on the first day of the week instead of the seventh because Jesus rose from the day early on Sunday morning.  Sunday just has a different feel about it.  It is as if nature and even society are inviting all to pause and rest and worship on this day.  People need rest, and reflection and community...all these are found in gathering with others on the day of worship set aside by Christians.

Many in society today say they do not need to go to church in order to be Christians.  Even members of churches neglect to go to church because they do not feel the need to be with other Christians regularly on the day of worship.  Perhaps Jesus would say their name gently, wearily, admonishing them with love, the way he always does, guiding them into reconsidering so that they can be refreshed, renewed, and encouraged in spirit by being part of something much larger than themselves that they cannot find anywhere else in the world around them.

"Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." (Matt. 11:28)