Monday, February 6, 2017

Sermon on the Mount--Jesus' State of the Union Address?

For the past two Sundays the Gospel lection has been focusing on Jesus' teachings in Matthew's Gospel that we call "The Sermon on the Mount".  Matthew 5 begins with the familiar Beatitudes that list character traits of those who desire to follow Jesus.  It continues with the other familiar passage wherein Jesus says that his followers would be "the salt of the earth" and the "light of the world", two metaphors for how Christians are to relate to others in the world around them.

This week, Jesus' teachings confront the religious leaders of his day as he begins each section with the phrase, "You have heard it said..." and then puts one of their teachings on its head by saying, "But I say..."  These passages are sometimes referred to as Jesus' hard sayings because he confronts the teachings of his day that have to do with how people live.  Those teachings are just as relevant today because they have to do with anger, adultery, divorce, and swearing by oaths, things that all of us hear about on a daily basis as we live together.

Jesus lived in a day when males were dominant over females.  Women were considered to be the property of a man, moving from the house of parents who ruled her life to the house of a husband who provided for her needs.  Our modern marriage ceremonies once contained the phrase, "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?" but such language was removed from the ceremonies of most mainline churches in recognition that women are not property and cannot be given by anyone to anyone else.  Instead, we ask, "Who presents this woman...?"

Women lived with their husbands and were considered to be caretakers of the house and children and the men in the house were considered to be much more valuable than they were.  If a man who cared for a woman died, then she would be considered to be at the mercy of society.  Hebraic law commanded people to care for "widows and orphans" because they were considered to be the most helpless persons in society.  It was the duty of all to care for those who had no one else assigned to care for them.  Immigrants and refugees were also to be cared for by society because they had little to sustain them on their journeys.

Women had few rights and a man could decide to divorce his wife for no reason.  He only had to tell he that he no longer wanted her as his wife and then he could abandon her.  If a man simply tired of having a woman as his wife, he could expel her from his house and she would have no place to go.  Jesus is addressing divorce because it was part of a one sided social system of his day, with only men having the right to ask for a divorce.  Jesus was trying to teach the men of his day that they should have serious grounds for divorce before asking for one because it was not a matter to be considered trivial.

Jesus' social teachings were directed toward society of his day that was grounded in the ancient Mosaic law that moved society from "an eye for an eye" to exacting punishment that would fit a crime instead of promoting chaos and havoc in society.  Before the giving of the law to Israel, bands of people would attack and kill entire tribes or families in retribution for a fault that was done to one person.  The law attempted to make retribution equivalent so that the punishment would not be more severe than it should.

Jesus wanted those listening to him to consider how people should live in relationship with one another, not becoming angry over little things or cursing one another (swearing oaths against others to bring them harm) or desiring what others had including their wives.  Such were common practices in Jesus' day.  Jesus wanted those who would follow him to know that members of the Kingdom of Heaven would be different than those who inhabited earth.  They would strive for higher goals and a better way of living.

Jesus' teachings are just as relevant today as they were when he gave them.  We still have rampant violence in the world around us.  We still have some who wish to exact retribution for every slight.  We still have brokenness in society that needs repair.  Jesus' teachings of love and mercy need to be repeated often in the ears of all who would listen so that grace may heal the wounds of many who have only heard judgment preached by those who profess to be followers of the Prince of Peace.  

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Character Traits of Disciples of Jesus Christ

If you could make a list describing what you thought a Christian should be like, what would be on your list?  We all make judgments about others in which we determine whether or not they are Christians.  We size them up and decide that certain characteristics either include or exclude them from being part of the Christian family.  Sometimes our list is determined by earlier teachings we received from religious teachers or pastors or even from politicians or well meaning relatives.  When the criteria for Christianity is composed by human beings, there will always be a slant or view based upon the beliefs of the one making the list.

In the scripture we will read from Matthew's Gospel, Jesus gives us a list of the kinds of people who are truly his disciples.  We call this list "The Beatitudes" as they all begin with the word "Blessed" which means "happy" or "fortunate"  whose meanings are taken from the Greek word "markarios".
Jesus taught his disciples that those who followed him would be poor in spirit, they would mourn, they would be meek, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and they would hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Jesus said that those persons would receive from God gifts in response to their spiritual longings or qualities.

If someone mourns for a loss or for the world's situation that they can do little about, God will comfort them.  If someone admits that they they are dependent on God (poor in spirit), they will be drawn closer to God.  If someone is meek (agreeable), then others on earth will want to be around them.  Those kinds of persons yearn for God's righteousness to be made a reality in the world around them.  As humble, agreeable people admit their dependence upon God, and hunger for God's righteousness to be made real in their lives, they will not be disappointed.

In turn, such persons live lives where they are merciful, where they are peacemakers, where they seek God's cleansing of their lives, their thoughts, they actions.  These will be called the Children of God.  Sometimes such persons are persecuted by others because of their desire to belong to God's Realm rather than this earthly realm in which we live.  They are often misunderstood or judged by others because they see the world in a way that is not as the majority do.  They may be looked upon as different than others because their lives are in God's stream of bringing about justice and righteousness for those who are despised or oppressed by many in the mainstream.

It is not always popular to stand up for those who are being looked down upon by society.  Most of us would shy away from making a public stand in favor of our views.  We do not want to call attention to ourselves and may stay quiet when it comes to speaking up on behalf of persons who have little power in the face of the powerful.  Perhaps Jesus was preparing his disciples for the road ahead that h he knew would be rough.  Jesus knew that his vision of God's Kingdom was so different from the everyday world in which they lives in the First Century that opposition was going to happen.  He described what God's Kingdom looks like and then warned them that having those blessed characteristics may not be a popular thing among their fellow citizens.

Today, those of us who claim the name "Christian" must evaluate our own lives and determine if we are truly merciful, humble, agreeable people who seek God's righteousness to the point that we hunger for it.  We must determine if God's direction in life is more important to us than the human viewpoint that the majority possess.  We must decide if we can be silent in the face of racism and oppression of minorities or if we will work for a better way of life for those who have few friends to support them.

Happy, blessed, fortunate are you if you can make those traits a goal in your life that Jesus described to his followers in his day.  You will find a desire to be closer to God to be a part of the life that you live daily as you go about your normal way of being.  You will find a satisfaction that cannot come from simply existing but you will have a goal of serving God and neighbor as part of who are you each day that you live.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Bring a Friend to Church--or to Jesus--or Both

There is a story in John's Gospel that we will examine in worship this week that tells the beginnings of Jesus calling the disciples to follow him.  This week, however, we do not see Jesus walking by the seashore calling out for people to learn how to "fish for people".  Instead, we see Jesus just walking by the banks of the Jordan River where John the Baptist continues to be busy with his baptizing business when suddenly John proclaims, "Look, here is the Lamb of God."  Two of John's disciples (yes, he had disciples too) looked up to see who John was referring to and then they wandered off to meet this elusive lamb person.

We do not know the names of both of those disciples but we know the name of one, Andrew, who stayed with Jesus where he was staying after receiving the invitation, "Come and See."  Andrew must have been very taken with Jesus because the scripture then says that Andrew found his brother, Simon, and took him to meet Jesus, telling him, "We have found the Messiah."  Jesus recognizes that Simon has some special aura about him and tells him, "You are Simon, son of John.  You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter)."  Jesus immediately changes Simon's name to Peter better known as "The Rock".

I have always admired Andrew because he was the first person to bring another person to meet Jesus.  Andrew brought his brother to meet Jesus once he had met him and was very impressed by what he learned from and saw in this teacher.  Andrew wanted Peter to know Jesus in the same way that he had learned to know him from his short visit with him.  I have to believe that Andrew was excited about the prospect that he had latched on to the man whom he believed was the Messiah, the Anointed One of Israel, who would bring freedom to the people of Israel.

Most mainline Christians that I know are very shy about telling anyone about their church or their Christian experience.  It may be because they have encountered very zealous Christians who want to tell everyone they meet about Jesus and they have embarrassed many by their enthusiasm out in the public sector where everyone can see them.  Even if it was not out in public, many enthusiastic religious people have strong-armed others into listening to a lengthy testimony about their faith or required others to make a "decision for Christ" right then and there, much like a used car salesman wants a potential buyer to make a decision to buy the car on the spot, lest it get away from them and someone else purchases it.

So, many people who grew up in mainline Christian churches are a bit shy about sharing their Christian testimony with other people.  They may not have the language to do so or feel ill prepared to tell others about their feelings regarding their Christian experience.  So, they do not do this at all.

Jesus' words to Andrew and the other unnamed disciple who asked Jesus where he was staying was direct---"Come and See" and perhaps that is a better way to invite people to know more about Jesus or our church then in words---"Come and See".  It invites them to experience for themselves what you value about going to your church or believing in Jesus.  It invites them to see and hear and relate to the experience you find meaningful for your life.

Friendship Evangelism was a movement many years ago that encouraged people to simply invite their friends to attend their church, with them.  "Come and See" was a good motto for the movement as it expressed the idea that "Seeing is Believing" when it comes to knowing more about an experience that is very personal and unknowable, at least when any personal experience cannot be truly known by another person until that person has the experience for himself/herself.

Invite someone to come to church WITH you, to sit beside you during worship, to gather cues from you as to what we do in church during worship in case they have not attended a church before.  Invite them to stay for coffee during the fellowship hour that follows to get to know others and stay by their side to give them the security that they are not alone in this new and strange place.  Simply be with them and for them as they experience what it means to be part of a Christian community of faith.

"Come and See" may be the only words you need in order to tell someone else what your faith means to you.  

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What Does Baptism Mean to You?

The act of baptism as a rite of initiation into the Christian faith is understood differently from one part of the Christian family to another.  To most mainline Protestant denominations, as well as those of the Roman Catholic faith, baptism is a rite that is done one time in a person's life.  It is not to be repeated because it is seen as a work of God (a sacrament) which does not need to be done again because God's promises to us revealed through our baptism as sure and permanent for our entire lives.  Churches that practice infant baptism, which is done in most mainline denominations and in the Roman Catholic Church, usually link baptism to confirmation which is the teaching of the faith and accepting of baptismal vows by a person when that person becomes a young adult.  In this way, the vows made by parents at the baptism of an infant are confirmed by that infant when he/she has reached an age to understand what the promises made on his/her behalf really meant.

In other churches, baptism is an act that can be repeated many times in one's life.  Instead of being viewed as an act of God toward the one being baptized, it is seen as an act of a human in response to religious conversion or renewal.  Some churches baptize all new members because they see baptism as a rite of initiation into church membership so one must be re-baptized each time one becomes a member of a new congregation.  Others see it as a sign of Christian commitment that is done as one feels revived or renewed in one's spirit.  All of these view baptism as an act that is done by a human in response to something God has done instead of an act of God done on behalf of a human to show God's grace working in their life.

The Early Church wrestled with how much water was required for someone to be baptized.  The dry conditions of the Middle East often did not allow enough water for immersion to take place so the Early Church finally decided that 3 drops of water were all that were required for Christian baptism to be valid, a drop for each of the 3 members of the Godhead.  That may be why so little water is used in baptizing infants or consenting adults in mainline Christianity.  Immersion is accepted in those churches but rarely do people choose it as their preferred method of baptism.

Baptizing infants is linked to the Early Church through scripture passages primarily in the book of Acts that say that when a leader of a household was converted to Christianity, he and his entire household was baptized.  Christian scholars believe that children who were part of the household would also have been baptized along with the adults.  Infant baptism because the accepted rule of baptism in the Roman Catholic Church and was adopted by mainline churches that resulted from the Reformation that practiced sacraments similar to what they had known in their life within Catholicism.  Today, infant baptism is the rule in many churches but older children and adults are given the choice of methods of baptism when they are baptized at an age when they can speak for themselves.

So, what does this mean to Christians who may wonder why we need to be baptized at all?  Baptism is an act that one does to show one's desire to follow Christ and imitate his life.  Since Jesus was baptized then the followers of Jesus are also to be baptized.  Baptism is an act that marks the beginning of the Christian journey through life.  We believe and teach that one receives the gift of the Holy Spirit at the time of one's baptism and the Spirit continues to refill and bless that one to empower and equip him/her for the journey.  Receiving Holy Communion, studying Holy Scriptures, and praying also invites the activity of the Spirit within the life of believers.  Baptism marks the beginning of the walk with Christ.  Then, Christians receive the means of grace to sustain them on their journey of life.

Remember your baptism, and be thankful---we often hear this phrase at a renewal of baptismal vows or when we see a baptism done in our churches.  What it means to us as individual Christians is to be thankful that God has claimed us through baptism and is reviving us daily as we look to God as the source of our faith and strength.

Monday, December 19, 2016

We Need a Little Christmas!

Ah, it's almost here.  Less than a week now until Christmas Day will be here.  We have been waiting with anticipation since November 27 when we first began Advent.  We had Sundays with big attendance, on the first Sunday of Advent and the Sunday when the children presented their play.  That is always a big one---158 in attendance.  Then, we had low attendance Sundays, both shaped by the weather.  First there was the deluge one Sunday and then the freeze last week.  Both dampened and froze spirits and kept many home.

Advent provides this progression through the season leading up to Christmas that helps us reflect upon what we think and believe about the coming of Christ into the world and what we should do in response to this cosmic event.  We heard from Old Testament prophets and considered what they had to say about what it meant to go home at least when you have been far away from home and what the sign would be that would speak of hope for the future, a promise found in the birth of a child.  We stopped to see a loud-mouthed badly dressed man on the banks of the Jordan River shouting to all who would hear that they should REPENT and wondered what he had to do with us.  We considered the plight of a young peasant couple when both of them received news from an angel that they should consider a surprise birth to be a blessed hope, both for them and for the entire world.

Now, we are on the brink of celebrating another Christmas this next weekend, with Christmas Day coming on a Sunday, the day when Christians are supposed to go to church anyway.  What do we do with a holy day/holiday that intrudes into your routine and forces you to break with your normal Christmas routine and substitute a regular Sunday routine in its place?  Do we forget about going to Jesus' birthday celebration because it interrupts our regular routine that is reserved for Santa and his crew?  Does wishing him another good birthday trump sitting around the house in our pj's and sipping hot cocoa or another beverage of your choice?

We need a little Christmas to interrupt our lives and make us think about why we go through the trouble of doing this every year.  Are packages and presents and parties what make Christmas special to us?  Is buying or receiving the best possible gift what really gives this special day meaning?  OR is there a much larger, much more cosmic reason why we need Christmas to interrupt our routine and force us to think about something outside of our normal lives?

Perhaps the Christmas that we need to jar us loose from our normal lives is the one that is the most simple to consider.  Maybe something tiny and innocent and helpless is what we need to make us take notice.  Maybe seeing a peasant couple in the cold night air trying to shelter a newly born innocent one is a stark reminder to us that such ones as these are still with us, on a daily basis wherever we may be.  There are ones among us whom we overlook often who need a little Christmas to be interjected into their lives, and we may be the ones to bring about the Christmas miracle they need.

Advent has come and almost gone.  Maybe it has provided the time and space we need to really understand what it means to us, this year and always.  We NEED a little Christmas in our lives to help us see what is really important in life and how that understanding shapes us into being who we are.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Going Home

Home is where the heart is....
Home is where you hang your hat...
Home is the place where they have to take you in....

What does home mean to you?  Does the word "home" conjure up visions of a place, a real piece of property where you can walk on the acreage and go into the house and experience a feeling of welcome there?  Does the word "home" bring a feeling to you, a feeling of warmth, of welcome, of acceptance?  Are you lucky enough to have a "home place" to visit even if you do not live there, a home place that has belonged to your family for generations past, where a house stands that has historical significance to you and your other family members?

I have know people who can relate to all of the questions asked above.  They have a place to go to where it feels like home.  They have people who still live in houses that have special significance to them or they can see the people on the land where they have visited before even if the house where they once lived is no longer there.  They have a "home place" to return to to think about the past and imagine that it has to do with their future.

I am not so lucky.  I grew up in three different homes and the one that my elderly mother lives in is one where I never lived as a child or young adult.  I have no "home place" to go to.  Even when I go to see my mother in her home, I am a guest there.  I never feel completely "at home" but always feel I must ask permission before I do anything there because it is her home, not mine.

Children who grew up in military families and families with parents who had occupations that required them to move frequently may have this same feeling in their lives.  We often feel like gypsies or strangers, even in places where we should belong.

The people called Israel were strangers in a foreign land when they resided in Babylonia.  They never wanted to live there but their ancestors were kidnapped by the Babylonians and years later the children of those original captives were still stuck in captivity due to the actions of the Babylonian government.  So, they mourned and wept and wished they could be back in the place where they thought they belonged--Israel.

Finally, God spoke through Isaiah to tell them that they would go home, and when they went home, even the very landscape would welcome them as they went home. The wilderness would blossom and the way would be made safe and straight so that they would not get lost along the way.

"And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
(Isaiah 35:10)

They would soon be home, where they belonged, because God would make the way for them to come home, at last.  Isaiah's writings are often idealistic and Utopian because they describe a perfect world where everything works out well.  Deserts bloom.  Paths are made straight.  Valleys are lifted up and mountains made low.  Lions get along with lambs.  Little children have no fear of wild beasts and lead them along to follow them.

Even those who actually did "go home" when Cyrus, the King of Persia, finally gave the order for them to leave after he conquered the Babylonians, found the way hard and rough and found a pile of rubble waiting for them to repair after they made it to Jerusalem.  The Babylonians had pretty much destroyed everything in sight when they had invaded the land decades before.  It was up to Ezra and Nehemiah and others to repair the walls and rebuild the Temple and it took many more decades for that to be accomplished.

But, they were home, where they belonged, back in the holy city of Jerusalem, the city of David, where they felt a spirit that united them and gave them strength to make everything right again.  Home may be all those things that I began with above because when you find your heart is in the same place that you hang your hat, then it may indeed be the place where others take you in when you are there.  You may find the Shalom of God as you settle in to the place where God would have you to be, home, at last.  

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Waiting for a King

The Advent Season is a season of waiting, and we wait in Advent as we wait in the culture for the coming of Christmas.  Each of these is intertwined.  Christians count the days of Advent for the revelation of Jesus to happen in hearts and homes once again.  People in their homes and out in the cities count the days until Christmas Eve so that Santa Claus will come once again and bring them what they have desired to receive.  The two seasons run concurrently because we are Christians who live in the culture we inhabit and we cannot escape this.  It is part of life that cannot be changed because it has been part of it for such a long time.

Waiting for the Messiah to come was part of Jewish tradition also.  The Prophets spoke of one who would come who would set things right.  Life would be changed in such an extraordinary way that even nature would respond so that the animals lived together in peace even as human beings learned to get along also.  This week's reading from Isaiah 11 describes the one for whom Israel was waiting.  He would be wise and strong and be able to help others to see the way they should live by his words and actions.  All the nations would come to him and seek his advice.  People would see him as the glorious embodiment of God.

Isaiah and the other prophets wrote of the one to come but he never came in their lifetimes.  Hundreds of years passed and the people of Israel lived in their land that was occupied and ruled by a foreign power, the Romans.  People still waiting for the Messiah to come but this time their idea of what a Messiah would be like was based on their yearning to be free from the domination of Rome.  They wanted a king who would conquer the Romans and make them a world class power.

John the Baptist became the last prophet to speak of the coming Messiah.  He stood on the banks of the Jordan River and cried out for people to repent and get ready for the coming of the Messiah.  John told those who would listen that the one he was talking about was powerful and would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.  He would do remarkable things that reminded them of the image of the Messiah the earlier prophets had spoken of.  The Messiah that Christians embrace, the man Jesus, was not the powerful ruler the Jews wanted.  He was the gentle teacher that wanted to change them from inside out.  So, John had spoken correctly of the coming Messiah.  He would be the one who would bring change through the repentance that John preached.

It is now the year 2016.  We are still waiting for a Messiah to come and set things right.  The world is still in a huge mess where powers are in competition to see who can be the most powerful and rule the most people in the most demonstrative way.  Nations rail against nations and threaten to destroy us all by unleashing powers that we cannot comprehend or describe.  We need a savior, a Messiah, a shepherd to lead us and bring us into the way of right living.  We all need that one....when will he come?

Or perhaps he has come already....and we refuse to give him the reins to our hearts, wanting instead to be in charge of our own lives instead of submitting to his control.  Will the world be ready when he comes to stay?  Waiting for a king....will this be the day?