Monday, October 17, 2016

Self-Righteousness vs. Humility

Many years ago I worked with a fellow pastor on a large church staff.  He was the senior pastor and I was an associate pastor, one of about four who were supposed to assist him in doing his job.  He came to this church after serving several other large church positions.  We had heard good things about him, how he prayed with people who had concerns and urged participation in spiritual endeavors.  All the staff were excited to receive him as the new senior pastor, after having served under a somewhat wimpy pastor who read his sermons weekly in a very dry, monotone manner.

The day came for the arrival of the new senior pastor and we all lined up, as if we were the Von Trapp kids waiting for our father to give us his orders for the day and, after being greeted by the new senior pastor and sent on our way, we regrouped and began to talk about our new boss.  Everyone wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt but we all had feelings about meeting him that we could not describe.  Was he genuine in his actions and attitudes toward us or was it all just a facade that covered up for something else?

Over the period of the next months and years we would discover that this man had few social skills and knew very little about how to approach the staff who worked for him or even the church members whom he served.  He had a pompous air about him that came out in the way he talked, dressed, carried himself, and directed others in what to do.  We came to hate attending staff meetings because invariably this man would direct his hidden wrath toward one or more members of the staff during this meetings which could go on for a long time.

Soon, the work environment had changed where there were small groups talking here and there and the sense of unity that we had experienced earlier had been dissolved.  One day the senior pastor asked me to come into his office to visit with him.  I dreaded this invitation because we had had two previous encounters which had not be pleasant.  On this day, though, he seemed a bit subdued.  I sat down in the chair across from him and he sat behind his desk.  He began to talk about his time there and then asked me, "How do you have such a good relationship with the staff?  I have seen you among others and you seem to relate to them well.  How can I relate to them as you do?"  I answered and, I am not making this up--he wrote down the words I told him.  I said, "Just be yourself."  He said, "Just be myself?"  I replied, "Of course, who else could you be."  He paused and wrote on the pad he had in front of him, "Be" and his name.  I was nonplussed.  I could not believe that a grown man who was the senior pastor of this large church had to write himself a reminder to be himself.

You see, who he was was not someone to emulate.  He was full of pride and self-righteousness, very confident in his history of being a good "church manager" but he was not someone who was easy to get to know. He would never let his guard down so that others could truly know the real person who was him, deep down inside.  To do so would have been a terrible threat to him.

The passage from Luke for this Sunday features a story that Jesus told about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector who went to the Temple to pray.  The Pharisee told God how good he was and how valuable he was to God.  The Tax Collector hung his head and begged God for forgiveness.  He could not even look up when he considered what a sinner he was.  Jesus said that the Tax Collector went away "justified" because of his humility.

Being "full of yourself" is something we encounter daily in the world in which we live.  We see politicians, city and state leaders, and even a pastor now and then who are "full of themselves."
They think that the way they are and present themselves is the same way the rest of us act.  They cannot see that their self-absorption is so far out of line with the norm that it is ridiculous.  Every once in while when we meet up with such people, we secretly wish that life would take them down a notch or two so they can see themselves a bit more like other see them.  Perhaps their ego is their guise that they use for cover from accepting the real person that they are.  Maybe they are actually very insecure and that outward covering is their protection from considering the way they really would like to be.  Maybe they are like that senior pastor who asked me how I could get along with others on the staff and when I said, "Just be yourself" he had no idea what I meant.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Never Giving Up on Justice

There is a small little parable in Luke 18 where Jesus teaches his disciples about the necessity to pray always and not give up.  He uses two characters in his story who represent the most powerful and the least powerful persons in Hebrew society in his day---a judge and a widow.  The judge held the most power because with his word he could order someone to do something and bring about justice in situations where it was desperately needed.  The widow was the least powerful person in society because her merit, worth, and stand in the community was always connected to a man.  Her husband, her son, or some other male relative determined her income and her status.  So, when a woman lost her husband and if she had no other male relative to speak up for her, then she was dependent on society for her living and few would come to her aid if she were in distress. 

So, Jesus tells a story about a widow who asked a judge to free her from oppression by another in society. At first, the judge refused to listen to her but she returned again and again until finally he gave in, not because of his fondness for the widow or her cause but because she bothered him too much.  He was wearied by her asking for the same thing over and over again so he finally gave her what she wanted just to get rid of her. 

Jesus concludes the parable by telling his disciples never to give up but to pray constantly and ask God for what they would need.  He tells them that God "will quickly grant justice" to those who ask.  Then, he concludes by asking the question, "And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"  A strange question perhaps but one that asks us, "Do we give up when we pray and work for justice to be done in the world or do we continue to ask and work and make something happen that will bring about justice in our broken world?" 

I have written to my senators and congressmen about issues only to receive a form letter reply which stated that they were glad to hear from me but it made little difference what I said.  They were going to do what they wanted regardless of what I said.  I tossed the letter in the trash and said, "Oh well, I  tried."  What would it take for me or you to not stop with writing a letter and instead get on a plane or train or bus and go to Washington or Austin to speak directly to our representatives and let them know we are serious about what we wrote to them about?  Why do we give up when we receive an answer that shoots down our ideas by someone we have elected?  Why do we not speak truth to power as Jesus did?  Perhaps we have been convinced by someone that "you can't fight city hall." 

Jesus was teaching his disciples that he would fight city hall and Caesar and anyone else he needed in order to bring about what he believed in for the world he would die for.  He gave his life for what he believed in and rose again to bring about a new life for all.  Today, we risk little of the harm that Jesus did when we speak up for our beliefs but we are hesitant to do so because we avoid conflict.  Perhaps it is time to pray and work for justice to be done in our world if we truly believe that the prayer, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" is possible.  Heaven on earth may not exist today but God's Kingdom will come one day in the future.  Will we do our part to make earth a bit more heavenly in our lifetimes? 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

God of the Exile

My wife and I just returned from a two week vacation in eastern Canada where we visited Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick.  This is our fifth visit to that region and our third time to stay at a wonderful cottage on the Bay of Fundy.  For a week we relaxed and had coffee on the porch while watching the tide come in go out, making the little fishing boats in the cove rise and fall with the tide while the seabirds flew and squawked and entertained us.  Who knew that it could be so relaxing just to watch water and nature?

We also explored the region, visiting places we had discovered on earlier trips to the area and finding new ones.  One place we enjoy visiting is called Grand Pre, Nova Scotia.  It is in the Annapolis Valley where they grow a tremendous amount of apples and grapes and where many wineries have popped up over the past few years.  Grand Pre is also the home to the Acadian Visitor Centre where one can learn about the legacy and history of the Acadian people who came from France in the 1600s to settle the land and who were expelled by the British in 1755.  Visiting the museum and seeing the dioramas that depict the events of the history of the Acadian people is informative and interesting but it is also a bit heartbreaking.

The Acadian people worked hard to improve land that was  not livable by building a system of dykes and walls that drained the land of its water and they were able to make the land fertile to grow much to support their colony.  They built villages and churches and schools and created a wonderful place in which to have children and live peaceably.  Then, in the early 1700s, the British and French fought for control of this part of Canada and the British eventually won.  They felt threatened  by the Acadian people because of their ties to France and demanded that they sign a loyalty oath to the British government and the King.  The Acadians obeyed and signed the oath even though some objected.  That was not enough for the British military, however.  They decided to make the Acadians leave the area so they confiscated their land and loaded them all on ships, as they watched the soldiers burn their villages and all they had created in that good land.

Families were often divided in the shuffle or boarding the ships.  Some ships left to return the residents to France resulting in two shipwrecks that killed many of the Acadians.  Other ships left to put them out in the British colonies, only to have the British citizens who lived there not accepting them so those Acadians began the long and dangerous journey to go to the only place on the North American continent still in firm control of the French--Louisiana!  These brave people traveled by horse and wagon, walked, and even went by boat to go to the place where they thought they could feel accepted and free.  When they reached Louisiana, they found others who spoke their language and who understood their plight.  They found land and settled in the lowlands again, this time in hot and swampy lands rather than cold and marshy lands.  These people eventually became Cajuns, a corruption of the word "Acadian" and today their descendants live in south Louisiana and are proud of their heritage.

I think about these brave Acadians each time we visit Nova Scotia and when we have gone to the deportation site on the beach on the Bay of Fundy, I can use my imagination to picture those poor souls who were forced to leave the land they had worked so hard to create.  They became exiles as they watched their burning villages go up in smoke.  They had no idea where they would land or where their new home would be.  They were outcasts longing to find acceptance, peace, and home once again.

Exile comes to all of us during our lifetimes.  Sometimes it is physical exile as we leave one address and move to another.  At other times it is the exile of illness or job loss or death or a loved one or economic disaster or rejection by those whom we had trusted to be our friends.  The exile we experience places us in a state of distress that leaves us confused and feeling alone.  We may wonder if anyone truly understands us or what we are feeling as we go through these experiences.

Our scripture texts for this week describe three scenes of exile.  Jeremiah writes to those exiles in Babylonian captivity encouraging them to have good lives, to marry and build houses and find meaning while they are away from the home they long to return to.  Jesus ministers to 10 lepers, outcasts and exiles from society, and he brings healing to their lives.  One leper returns to give thanks for his healing, and he is a Samaritan, an exile in the eyes of the Jews at that time.  Paul writes to his friend Timothy, encouraging him to be a good pastor to those in the church where he serves, a house church that no doubt was feeling stress because of the persecution of Christians in their time.  These secret worshipers were exiles in the Roman land in which they lived because they could not admit that they were Christians or they would face persecution and possible death.

God speaks and is revealed in these three passages as the God of the Exile, the one who cares for those whom others cannot care about.  God is the God of those poor Jews who were forced from their homes by the Babylonians as they, much like the Acadians, watched their city being burned as they marched toward uncertainty.  God is the God of those lepers and all who are ill, whose days are numbered, whose health is their stigma, and especially for those unaccepted by society who may also be ill.  God is the God of those who are persecuted because of their faith tradition, regardless of what it may be.  There is only one God who is God and Father of us all.

We will think about this God who accepts and heals and cares for the outcast this Sunday during worship.  We will give thanks to the God who loves us and takes us in when no one else will.  We will rejoice in God's love and grace and praise God's majesty.  Will you join us on this Sunday in God's House?    

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.