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?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Advent Begins this Sunday!!!

Happy New Year!!!!!  No, this is not a very early New Year's wish.  The First Sunday of Advent is the beginning of the Christian Year, so this Sunday is like New Year's Day of the Christian Church.  We begin a new phase of our three year lectionary cycle so we are now in Year A, back at square one after traveling through all of the cycles and this year we will have Matthew as our main Gospel of focus.  All that many not mean much to the average church goer but for pastors it makes sense.  We are beginning again on our travel through the Christian Year.

The First Sunday of Advent marks the season of waiting, watching, and hoping for the return of the Messiah.  Advent offers us a two prong perspective--we wait for the Messiah to come at the End of the Age (whenever that may be) and we wait for the Christ-Child to come once again into the manger on Christmas Eve and into our hearts daily.

Advent reminds us of the familiar stories connected to the birth of Jesus, taken mainly from the gospels of Luke and Matthew.  Those stories give us two perspectives taken from the points of view of Mary and Joseph as they hear the good news of the birth of the Messiah.  Of course, at first it is  not good news to them.  Mary is a teenage unwed mother and Joseph is her fiance who is considering calling off the wedding because he thinks she has been unfaithful to him.  Luckily, God intervenes and both are convinced that this is a special gift sent by God to the world.

This week's readings are not as cheery or holiday mood inducing.  Matthew gives an apocalyptic portrayal of destruction coming to Jerusalem with the warning to "stay awake" and "watch" and "be ready" because you do not know when it will happen.  Paul warns the church at Rome to "wake from sleep" and to live honorably because the end could be near.  Isaiah is not as foreboding, however, and promises that a day is coming when throngs of people will stream into Jerusalem learn the ways of peace, putting their weapons aside in favor of farming implements.  All of humanity will learn to walk in the light of God.

This First Sunday of Advent prepares us for the future.  The end is coming, indeed!   One day God will right every wrong and all will live in peace and safety.  We do not know when that may happen but we are to be ever vigilant, on guard, watching for the signs that will point us toward this reality.  It also teaches us to watch and wait, and stay busy doing what Jesus taught us to do while we wait.  Jesus did not want people just to sit and wait idly while the rest of the world evolves into evil and sinfulness.  He taught us to minister to those who needed us and to spread the good news of his love throughout the world.

The revelation of God's grace may not happen in a large dramatic way in our lifetimes.  It may take eons before it comes to pass, but we are urged to be on guard and ready, for we do not know when it may happen.  God's vision of peace and harmony among the nations is something that only God can make happen but we are God's messengers of peace and until it is a reality we are to be proclaiming that vision for all to see with eyes of faith.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Zusammengehorigkeitsgefuhl- What does it mean to you?

The German language contains many compound words that are tongue twisters to be sure for those of us who are native English language speakers.  Some words are fairly easy to pronounce and we often have fun with them bantering around the few German words that we may know.  Each year our community has a festival that has a German name--Gedenke!  In German it has a pronunciation of something like "Guh-dunka" but our little Texas town chooses to call it "Guh-dinky".  It translates into "remembrance" or "thankfulness".

The word that I put in the title to this blog posting is a real German word.  It is a long compound word that has a meaning of "togetherness, communal spirit, or sense of a common bond".  It is the feeling one gets from being part of something much bigger than what we are alone.  I learned about this word from reading an article that our son had written for the latest edition of the magazine for which he is editor, Zymurgy, which is the journal of the American Homebrewers Association.  David has been editor of that publication for almost a year and it provides informative and interesting information to people who brew beer at home, perhaps in their garage or basement.  The journal gives recipes for brewing, announces events for homebrewers to attend, and features articles that appeal to people who love beer and like to brew it.

David's most recent article in the latest edition of this magazine concerns German words and the meaning they have because he is fascinated with German words and is bilingual in German.  He spells out that long German word given above and says, "It's the sense of inclusion and kinship you feel from being part of a group."  Being part of something much larger than who you are alone definitely has a feeling that goes with it.

Many of us have known the feeling of what it means to belong to a church, to be part of the local body of the worldwide body of Christ.  We belong to a church because we need that connection that we cannot get alone.  We may claim our Christian experience on an individual level but that experience is made real in relationship with other Christians who share a vision of the world that we embrace.  We may search for a place where we "belong" as a Christian, where we "feel at home" and settle on a place where we enjoy worshiping and fellow-shipping and working beside other Christians.  We experience that Zusammengehorigkeitsgefuhl each time we are there with others.  It cannot be experience alone, by ourselves.

This shared experience is something that we must support in many ways if we value it.  We ask members to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, and service and to be faithful members of this local congregation.  Without members fulfilling their vow to be faithful and to give of themselves in their time, talent, and treasure the church will not be able to continue into the future.  This week at our church is Stewardship Sunday, when we think about what it means to be faithful in our vows toward our church and to be good stewards of all the gifts that God has given us.   If you are a member, we need you to be present.  If you are thinking of being a member, we need you too.  If you are not a member, you are very welcome to come anytime and worship and fellowship and work with us.  God's Kingdom is wide and large and includes all who will be included in it.