Thursday, December 7, 2017

Prepare the Way of the Lord

"Comfort, comfort my people, says your God..." begins the 40th chapter of Isaiah and the opening lines sung in Handel's Messiah.  Comfort is what we all need in this season that is supposed to bring us joy and happiness.  Comfort is what we need when we see the world around go trying to go to hell in a hand basket.  Comfort is necessary and needful to help us keep our sanity in a crazy, violent world.  We all need a little Christmas to be interjected into our lives so we can live in a way that will bring us peace. 

The people that Isaiah was speaking to in chapter 40 were people in captivity, in Babylonia, people whose ancestors had been taken hostage many years before and they were living there against their will.  Some had decided to make the best of a bad situation and had intermarried with the Babylonians creating the people called Samaritans in the New Testament.  Others, though, had heard the tales of Zion and wept for their homeland, a land that many of them had never seen since they were the children and grandchildren of the original people taken to Babylonia.  They wanted to be free and to be able to go home to live as they desired. 

Finally, the day of liberation came with Cyrus, King of Persia, who conquered the Babylonians and when the dust settled he told the Jews to go home.  It was not that he was so kind and benevolent as it was that he did not want to feed and care for a group of foreigners who did not belong in the land he now had to manage.  So, they were told to return to their homeland and begin to rebuild it so they could live there. 

That is the point of Isaiah 40 where the prophet speaks the word of comfort to his people.  They would receive comfort as they began to make their way to the Promised Land once more, a land where their ancestors once had built a Temple to their God Yahweh, a land where they had walls surrounding the city of Jerusalem, a land filled with good things as they planted and watered and harvested their crops.  So, Isaiah spoke God's Word to them to tell them that all would be well for them as they made their way to go home.

"Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low..." Even the landscape would change (metaphorically) so that their way would be easier to travel.  God would be with them to protect and care for them as a strong warrior and as a shepherd caring for the lambs.  They would find comfort in the renewal of their spirits along the waterways of the Jordan as they made their way home. 

Those are the tidings of comfort and joy we need to hear in our busy world also.  We need to hear words of comfort and joy as we work and do what we want to do in life amid the noise of the tumult and the cry of the sword from rumors of war on almost a daily basis.  We need to hear words of comfort as we learn of wildfires and hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes that can strike at any time, sending us into a spin and wondering what to do.  We need to hear that God is in control and we do not have to worry because our lives belong to God and whatever happens in life God will be there with us and for us. 

We need to share this good news with others also.  Many have no source of comfort in their lives.  They feel alone and abandoned by society.  We need to let others know that God is on their side and God wants to bring comfort and peace to them even in the time of turmoil and pain. 

Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make straight his paths.  Know that God goes before you and others to show you the path that is the best one for you.  As we face the future we can do so without fear because knowing whose we are is as important as knowing who we are.  We belong to God and God knows the future, both for us and for all of humanity.  The earth is the Lord's and all that dwell in it.  Praise God!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"My Lord, What a Morning!"

A yearning to be free accompanies the feeling of the status quo and the dissatisfaction that is part of the human experience.  Humans want to be free to do what they desire to do.  They do not want an authority figure to stand over them and tell them what they must do.  They want to make up their own minds on matters. 

Such was the plight of the people of Israel at several junctures in their history.  They entered Egypt as guests of the Pharaoh due to the influence of Joseph who was elevated to a position of power in the government by Pharaoh himself.  Joseph welcomed his brothers and father and all the people of Israel so they could escape the ravages of famine and hunger.  They were fed and kept by the people of Egypt as long as Joseph was alive.  Joseph died and soon a new Pharaoh arose "who did not know Joseph."  Suddenly, the people of Israel were no longer seen as guests but as threats so they were put to work as slaves.  They were made to work long and hard to bring about the many building projects that Pharaoh envisioned for the land of Egypt. 

The people of Israel cried out to the god of their ancestors whom they had heard about in tales handed down by many generations.  They did not know this god but they hoped he would be the source of their deliverance.  And so it was that a man who was named Moses arose and God used Moses to set the slaves free from their bondage with many miracles and signs. 

So, the people of Israel were out on their own in the land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  It was a rocky and tenuous existence because repeatedly they were threatened by others in the land who saw them as a threat to their own safety and welfare.  The people of Israel became a warring people constantly in battle to protect their land and interests. 

Then, one day the Babylonians invaded their land and destroyed their temple, murdered many people, and took a portion of the population as slaves once again to serve them in their land far away from the land that God had promised Abraham.  The land of Israel lay in ruins and the people who were not killed were held hostage against their will.  Some intermarried with the Babylonians and found a place to begin a family, content to be there.  Others, however, mourned for the loss of their land, their heritage, their freedom.  They cried out to God, as their ancestors in Egypt had done, asking for God to intervene on their behalf. 

"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil--to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!"  (Isaiah 64:1-2)  Isaiah speaks on behalf of these captives and pleads with God to act justly so that the captives may be set free.  Isaiah remembers the times of old when the God of Israel had done mighty things on behalf of God's People Israel.  Isaiah wonders aloud if the reason for what has happened to Israel is not connected to the sinfulness of the people.  He ends his plea with a reminder to God that Israel is God's People and they belong to God.

People who are enslaved often cry out for relief to whoever will listen.  "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down..."  Hurting people want help from a source of help and want their situations to be resolved quickly.  The people of Israel did it when they were in Egypt.  They did it again when they were in Babylonia.  They did it again when Rome ruled over Jerusalem and finally destroyed the city and its inhabitants in A.D. 70.  They were dispersed into all the surrounding nations to live a life of wanderers until finally they had a homeland once again established in 1948. 

This cry for freedom was part of the African-American experience as well as they suffered as slaves centuries.  They too cried out for God to come to their relief and saw that relief coming through a cosmic event that would destroy their enemies and literally wake the dead.  They saw passages such as Mark 13 as speaking to their own plight in life.  A song arose from among them that spoke to their belief that God would work supernaturally for them---"My Lord, what a morning...when the stars fall from the sky."  The stars would fall, the sun would refuse to shine, and the moon would turn to blood on the great and terrible day of their deliverance. 

It must have seemed to some that all those things happened when the War Between the States finally brought about freedom for the enslaved ones on the many plantations of the South.  When the dust cleared and the bodies were buried, the slaves were set free to live as second class Americans until 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was finally passed.  The road to freedom has been a long one for those former slaves but it still continues daily as civil rights must be claimed in the face of racism which seems it will not die, even in the land of the brave and the home of the free. 

People who are enslaved still cry out for freedom and people see the Day of the Lord as a sign of hope that things can be better than they are now.  God is Still Speaking and God's promise of deliverance has not been cancelled.  God is still working to bring about change even in the midst of new that confounds us daily.  O that God would tear open the heavens and come down to straighten out the evils of our day and to bring about the change that is needed.  Until then, God has people who work with God and for God to do God's Will on earth even as it is done in heaven.  If you believe that you are one of those people, then do not give up and do not lose hope. God is still using those who will be God's hands and feet to bring about justice and equity on the earth for those who cry for freedom. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Least of These

"as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me..." said Jesus the judge portrayed in the Last Judgment parable from Matthew 25, the parable of Jesus for Christ the King Sunday for next Sunday.  Jesus painted a picture of the final judgment when the great king would separate the nations, as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.  One group on the left and one on the right as the king makes the judgment about their eternal destiny.  To the one group, the sheep, the king tells them to enter into eternal joy because they fed him when he was hungry,  gave him water when he was thirsty, clothed him when he was naked, took care of him when he was sick, and visited him when he was in prison.  The sheep responded, when did they do all those things for him?  And he responded that when they did those things for the least of these, you did it to me.

Then, the goats on the left are told to go to eternal punishment and the reason why is that they did not feed him when he was hungry or give him water when he was thirsty or clothes when he was naked or care for him when he was sick or visit him in prison.  They too questioned when they did not do those things for him and his response is when they did not do it to the least of these, then they did not do it to him.

The parable takes the issue of Christian Commitment to the level where it involves action rather than just words.  The meaning of the parable is that people who truly say they follow Jesus have to show their allegiance in the way they treat those around them who are in need.  Just telling everyone that you are a Christian is meaningless in the world of Jesus as King.  Doing what Jesus had been teaching in his years of ministry is what truly separates the sheep from the goats.

Who are the "least of these"?  Is it the man holding the sign on the corner when we go to the city, the man we look at and judge thinking that if we gave him a dollar he would just spend it on booze?  Is it the homeless person laying on the sidewalk whom we walk around or on the other side of the street to avoid because we think we may be in danger if we do not?  Is it the man or woman with all the piercings and tattoos that we see and we cannot stomach how they look much less understand why they would do that to their body?  Is it the woman with several children whom we see in the grocery store line using the food stamp card to pay for groceries and we silently pass judgment on her because we make assumptions about the person we think she is?

The "least of these" could be any or all of these and many more multiplied millions of persons in the world that we choose to avoid because the thought of their plight overwhelms us.  We have no idea how to solve their problems or make them feel better or meet their needs.  So, we would just as soon ignore or overlook them entirely. 

We do act to feed people through our local food pantry.  We do give water to the thirsty by giving to causes that bring clean drinking water to the poor throughout the world.  We do clothe the naked by donating our used clothing to charities that provide reasonably priced clothing in good condition to those who need it.  We also help those who are ill to become well again by supporting hospitals and charities that offer low income families reasonably priced health care.  We visit those in prison by writing to them or supporting prison ministries offered by many denominations and spiritual groups. 

So, we do act through society in many ways to alleviate suffering.  But before we begin patting ourselves on the back, perhaps the real meaning of the parable has to do with whom we see worthy of receiving our care and whom we would rather dismiss because they are not part of our particular group based upon a number of factors.  Do we include non-Christians, members of minority groups, illegal aliens, and persons from countries which our government has declared "enemies of the state" as worthy of receiving compassion?  Do we consider getting involved personally in the lives of some who are needy or put aside those thoughts in favor of doing the other options listed above? 

Amy-Jill Levine is a Professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  She spoke at a conference I attended many years ago.  I was very impressed by her biblical knowledge and the fact that she is a Jewish woman who teaches New Testament.  I wrote to her asking her about how to reconcile John 14:6 ("I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.") with the inclusiveness preached by our churches that God will accept all and not just Christians into eternal life.  She wrote back to me and used Matthew 25 as her text of reply.  She said that she did not discount John 14:6 and agreed that no one would go to the Father except through Jesus but she said this did not mean that one had to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior but they had to act as Jesus instructed them to act.  Her use of Matthew 25 is that God will judge us all on the way we act rather than the words we say.  Did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bring healing to the ill, and visit the imprisoned?  Did we act on behalf of Jesus who taught us the way to live or just speak word of affirmation saying we believed in the way of Jesus?  That answer made a lot of sense to me. 

There are many religious groups that demand confession in Jesus as Lord and Savior, and he is to many who call themselves Christians.  Jesus, himself, however did not tell his followers to speak words of support to his heavenly cause but to act in ways that would demonstrate the love of Christ to all in our world.  The King will be the Judge of all and the King will judge fairly and rightly and in love.  Jesus is the King and he is the only one who can truly serve in that role at the end of the age.   

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Put It in a Hole in the Ground

What do you do with something that you want to save and be sure it does not get lost or destroyed through carelessness?  Dig a hole and put it in the ground.  At least that is what the parable of Jesus from Matthew 25:14-30 says someone did with something very valuable.  Those of us who have been in church circles for many years recognize this as the "Parable of the Talents".  If you are not familiar with the story, it goes something like this (paraphrase mine):

A rich man was going on a journey so he wanted to be sure his wealth was protected while he was gone.  So, he called his servants and told them to take care of his riches.  To one servant, he gave 5 talents of gold, to another 2 talents of gold, and to another 1 talent of gold.   (Each talent was worth 10,000 days pay.)  And then the man left on his journey.  So, when he returned, he called the servants and asked for his money back.  They were just the caretakers of the money but the servant who had 5 talents was shrewd enough to invest it and he presented 10 talents to his master instead of 5.  The master praised him and told him he did a good job.  The servant who had the 2 talents also invested the money and presented his master with 4 talents instead of 2.  He also received the praise of his master.  The servant with the 1 talent, though, was afraid of his master and so afraid that he feared if he did not have the 1 talent given to him that his master would be very angry so he dug a hole and put it in the ground for safekeeping.  As he presented it back to his master, he explained this.  Now, instead of the master praising him for giving him back his exact amount of money, he berated him and told him that he should have done as the other servants had and he would be punished for not investing and returning more than he had been given. 

I have always felt sorry for the servant with the 1 talent.  His master had not told him to invest the money and give him a return on his money.  He had just told him to keep the money safe until his return, and he did what was asked of him.  So, why was he being punished for doing what he was asked to do?  The servants with greater sums of money had thought of investing their amounts and doubling the money but this servant simply was a good caretaker of the money and returned what had been given to him.  Should he not at least gotten a gold star or a happy face for what he did? 

The point of the story seems to be that God expects us to use the talents (not money, skills or gifts) we have to enhance the Kingdom of God instead of burying it in the ground.  God has given us many gifts and talents with which to serve God and some who possess gifts or talents use them for God's Kingdom.  They sing and teach and preach and do missionary work and expand God's Kingdom so that others come into it because they have used their talents.  Others, though, are afraid to use their talents.  They are either literally afraid, such as they have stage fright so they cannot talk or sing or teach in front of others lest they shake for fear in their shoes.  Or, they cannot minister to those who are ill or living in poor conditions because they are afraid of germs or illness and think they may catch some disease themselves by exposing themselves to possible unseen dangers.  Fear has kept them from sharing the good gifts God has given them. 

The servant who did not invest his master's money told him that he did not do it because he was afraid of his master.  He knew that his master was hard to get along with and he feared if he lost the money that had been given to him then his master would be angry and would punish him, and that is exactly what happened to him because he did not take a risk. 

So, does God mean for us to stick our necks out and risk what could happen if we invest our talents on God's behalf and for the sake of God's Kingdom OR does he mean for us to dig a hole and fall in it for fear that we may not be able to do what we think we can and we would open ourselves up to public ridicule if we failed?  I think that the parable teaches that God wants us to be brave and have faith that what we do on behalf of God's Kingdom will have positive results. 

Mordecai told Esther in the book that bears her name, "What if God chose you for just such a time as this?"  And today we ask the same question of ourselves and others as we work to bring about peace and justice and love in the world around us.  What if God chose you and me for just such a time as this?  What if we really are the only hands and feet that God has to do work in the world around us?  Will we work on the master's behalf until he returns?   Will we invest ourselves so that we will increase the value of our talents and present them to the master?  Will we just dig a hole and save what we have so that it will be there just as it was given to us?  The decision and the answer is only ours, yours and mine, to give. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Throwing the Baby Out With the Bath Water

I walk two miles each morning around our small town for exercise.  I usually try to get out to walk between 6 and 7 a.m. so I will have time to recover, shower, and have breakfast before going to work.  My walk takes me in front of our local Catholic Church which is usually very quiet and vacant at that time of the morning.  This morning, though, I began to hear their church bells ringing when I was a few blocks away, not the jubilant bells of a wedding or the regular bells calling people to worship or prayer, but mournful bells, one tone, followed about 10 seconds later by another tone, long and slow tones.  This lasted for at least five minutes, I think.  The time was about 6:30 a.m. when the bells began to chime. 

So, when I reached the Catholic Church at 6:30 a.m., I saw cars there and people getting out of their cars to go into the church, in the darkness of this new day.  Not a lot of cars but enough that it made me curious why people would be going to the church at 6:30 a.m.  I thought maybe they were having daily mass but that usually meets in a small chapel north of the main sanctuary.  The church was aglow with lights that made the stained glass windows very apparent.  So, a regular service was about to begin---at 6:30 a.m. on a Thursday.  Again, I was puzzled...what could be going on?

Then, I remembered that today is called "All Souls Day" on the Christian Calendar.  It follows "All Saints Day" which was held yesterday.  In Christianity, All Souls Day commemorates the souls of Christians who have died.  Christians pray for their departed loved ones on this day.  Some people visit the cemeteries where they loved one are buried or light candles in their memories.  So, that solves the mystery.  Those early risers were going to the Catholic Church to pray for their departed loved ones and to remember them. 

Part of me was a bit jealous that the local Catholic priest can get his members to come to church at 6:30 a.m.  I wondered what kind of turn out we would have at our local Protestant church if we had a sunrise service at some time other than Easter Sunday.  I figure I would be there alone, maybe accompanied by a musician if we needed one or by my wife, who goes to a lot of church services "to be supportive" whether she wants to go or not.  Even if the service was held at noon on a weekday, attendance would still be poor if not dismal.  What hold does the Catholic Church have on parishioners that we do not have in the Protestant Church?  Why do faithful Catholics respond to worship opportunities when Protestants shy away from them? 

Maybe it has something to do with the word "Protestant" itself.  When the Reformation began over 500 years ago, the reformers were protesting the things that they considered wrong that were being done by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.  Martin Luther knew of at least 95 things so he wrote them up and posted them on the door of the church attached to Wittenberg Castle, a kind of medieval bulletin board, actually.  People read his list and discussion began.  The fires of Reformation began burning and it spread to other European countries and reformers such as Zwingli, Knox, and Wesley began showing up to also protest what they thought was wrong with their particular form of organized religion in their area.  Add King Henry VIII to the list who formed his own church so he could turn up his nose at the Pope and marry Anne Boleyn after getting the divorce he wanted from his first wife, and religion began to look a lot less Catholic and more Protestant. 

Some followers of the Reformers began destroyed stained glass windows and statues in Catholic Churches and Henry VIII closed all the monasteries and convents and claimed their assets, often destroying their buildings too.  Suddenly being a Protestant was rejecting anything that smacked of or reminded one of the Roman Catholic Church.  So, today Protestants are hesitant to reinstate anything that could be seen as Catholic for fear of edging back toward the thing we pushed away from 5 centuries ago.. 

Another reason why Catholics will go to church at "Dark-Thirty" or midday or in the evening on a weekday, is that Catholics are taught that church attendance is required and not going to church is considered a sin that has to be reckoned with at confession.  Some days, such as All Souls Day, are considered "days of obligation" or as a principal of mine referred to times to meet with him "command performances".  You have to go or suffer the consequences.  Days of Obligation bear even a heavier sin penalty than just regular days. 

Protestants did away with requirements of church attendance when we began to teach that Jesus was our friend and we could have a "personal relationship with Jesus."  Suddenly, we were free to go to church or not go to church.  God would understand our need to be elsewhere and if we attend several times a year, or not, Jesus will not impose his will upon us.  We are free to be as nonreligious as we desire since we know Jesus personally and know that he forgives us for all that we do or do not do.  His grace covers it all and that is all that matters.  So church attendance is optional, if at all. 

Has being Protestant become a form of being little or nothing?  Do we still have belief in being connected to something much larger than ourselves called The Church of The Christian Community?  Do we still need what the Church provides as we worship together?  Do our actions speak louder than our words when it comes to belief when we will allow anything to have higher value or precedence over our dedication to and participation in our local church?  Does it even matter to many of us whether or not the church exists when we do not it as enough necessary or needful to even attend its worship services, whether on a Sunday or not?  Just some questions to ponder as we think about why we are Protestants and why our Catholic neighbors will venture out into the dark to attend a worship service when we find that idea ludicrous.  Or do we? 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Bragging Rights

People all need something to be proud of.  It may be their kids, grandkids, home, car, boat, or country club membership.  People need to have something to drop into conversations such as the college they attended or the company they work for.  Openly bragging about something is not usually accepted by others but quietly slipping it into a conversation is accepted modicum in polite society. 

My wife and I have two children but no grandchildren.  People our age usually have grandkids to talk about and to show pictures of to others they meet.  We have no grandchildren pictures or activities to recall but we can talk about our granddog Kiwi.  Kiwi is a Lhasa Apso and cute as a button.  She is so lively and quick and when she sees us after our not being with her for a while she immediately responds and runs rapidly around in circles and bows at our feet as if to show us how happy she is to see us.  She has beautiful long white silky hair that flows down around her head and toward the floor.  She is so human-like that we are always amazed by what she can do when we are with her. 

Is bragging on a dog equivalent to bragging about a child?  It is if it is your dog.  But is bragging even acceptable in society.  Well, we may need to ask St. Paul for advice about that because he brags to the Church at Philippi about all of his religious and spiritual achievements letting them know that he is very qualified to write to them concerning their own spiritual needs.  "If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; at to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless."  (3:4b-6) 

In other words, Paul brags about all of his religious qualifications that he can rightly claim because he entered the Jewish world as a Jew who had all the right credentials based upon family heritage, training, following Jewish practices, and training, even to the point that he became actively involved in weeding out heresy among them and ordering the deaths of those in the Christian sect whom he saw as opposed to Judaism.  He had every right to be proud of himself as the role model for every good and righteous Jew who lived in his day. 

But, then he met Jesus a mystical, strongly spiritual experience that no one else witnessed.  It had such a powerful effect on who he was and what he did in life that it negated all that he may had rightly claimed as his Jewish credentials and changed him into a Christian who could understand the hesitancy of Jews to embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior and Gentiles who may have thought of all this talk about Jesus as fanciful and imaginary. 

Paul's experience with Jesus Christ made him consider what he had bragged about in his past as "loss" or disposable.  His desire to know Jesus in a real and tangible way superseded his need to carry his credentials around as his membership in the religious community.  "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the share of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death..." (3:10)  Even if Paul suffered in his body, he counted it worthy because it would bring him closer to the reality of the resurrection that Jesus experienced and that he preached would be given to all who would put their belief in Jesus as God's Son. 

Paul was not ready to give up and waste away but he was looking forward to the goal set before him so that he could obtain what was important to him.  He was not content to sit back and bask in the glory he may have achieved but was "straining forward to what lies ahead."  (3:13b)  That is what the Christian life is about, after all, keeping on keeping on, as the old saying says.  We continue to follow the truth we have learned throughout our lives and do what we believe is right to do as we serve God and our neighbors until finally we achieve the goal as we depart this life. 

The Methodists have a word for this process.  It is called Santification.  It means being made more holy (complete or perfected) throughout life until finally we "become" what we have believed when we exit this life and begin the next life.  We do not expect to become perfected here in this life but we continue to press forward toward that goal putting aside the cares of life that may try to weigh us down and look to Jesus who is the author and perfecter of the faith. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Stooping to Conquer

This Sunday is called World Communion Sunday on the Christian calendar of the mainline denominations.  That is the Sunday when we think about and talk about what Christians have in common, about what unites us as Christians.  Sometimes finding something in common that we can all agree on is pretty hard.  We all have our individual ideas and we think that our ideas are the best ideas and ideas of others cannot really be as good as our own.  That is part of human nature, it seems. 

This World Communion Sunday, however, we have a passage from the book of Philippians to set us straight.  This passage does not tell us that our ideas are the best or that we can have a good idea to share with others.  It instructs us instead to "be of the same mind."  Wow--Being of the same mind is  a hard thing to do at times.  It means that people often have to agree on one thing or another and reach some form of compromise, leaving behind what one may think is best in view of what another may need or want or think, if that other is someone we need to assist in bringing about what they need or want or think. 

Paul gives the Church at Philippi some strong words to consider when he tells them, "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others."  (2:4)  In other words, consider what others need over your own needs.  Put aside what you may need at the moment in order to meet the needs of others.  We have all done that.  Our actions on behalf of others are often automatic, without considering if we should or should not assist another person. 

There is a sweet lady that I meet at our local grocery store now and then.  She is bent over with osteoporosis but she still goes to the grocery store to buy the things she needs and takes them to her car by herself.  When I see her ahead of me in the line, I always offer to help her get her things to her car, not because I hope she will give me a tip or because she is some special or popular or well known individual or even because I hope this will put one more star in my crown in heaven.  I help this woman with her groceries because it is the right thing to do.  It is the neighborly thing to do.  It is the Christian thing to do.  And you do the same kinds of things for the same reasons.  I am not SuperChristian because I do it.  I do it because Jesus would have done it too if he had been there. 

Paul says that very thing in the passage from Philippians we will study this week in worship.  "Let the same mind be in your that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave..." (2:5-7b)  Paul was getting at the fact that the pre-existent Christ had every right and reason to just remain in heaven with God but he gave us that right and instead became a human being to be a servant to all.  Paul goes on to tell them his readers and hearers that Jesus in human flesh served and then died even though he did not have to.  He chose to do this for others. 

Paul admonishes the Church of Philippi to put aside their selfishness and arguing (and they were doing a lot of it) and "be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" (2:2 b,c).  If they were to consider the needs of others of greater importance than their own needs, then they would act as Christ had to give of themselves for the needs of others and of the entire Christian Community at Philippi. 

Humility and service is what unites followers of Jesus Christ across the globe.  We care about the needs of others because it is what Christians do.  We care about the needs of individuals because it is what Christians do.  We do for others, not just pray or believe for them.  We act on our faith to make things happen locally and around the world.  If Jesus could serve others and give of himself down to the place where he actually gave up his life then those who emulate him will want to follow his role model of service and sacrifice. 

" out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."  (2:12b-13)  God is at work in the world.  God is still speaking.  God's voice is reminding us that the reason the Church of Jesus Christ exists is to be of service to others so that they will understand that God loves them and wants them to love one another as much as God loves them.  When we show God's love through Christian service, the will and the work of God is done in the world around us. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Love and Fellowship, Forgiveness and Grace

What is the issue that you think is so important that you can form an opinion around that is unmovable for you?  What do you consider so important that it is hard for you to be swayed otherwise?  There are many issues that divide people into different camps and often we judge others based upon the opinions we have formed regarding these issues. 

I grew up in a very conservative denomination.  They had rules about just about everything there was in life.  They made judgments about others based upon whether or not others followed their particular rules.  There were the big rules that they shared with other conservative groups--no smoking, no drinking, no cursing.  This particular denomination, however, went much farther then some--no dancing, no going to movies (what they called "the picture show"), no going to plays, no going bowling, no wearing shorts or other clothing they considered "provocative".  So, when one became a member of this group, one had to sign a pledge card that the new member would pledge not to do any of the things that the group looked down upon.  This group wanted to be sure that its members were of one mind when it came to those things that they did not approve.  So, people signed the card and tried to obey the rules but sometimes the rules were broken.  Then, it was the job of the other members to bring the offender back in line. 

I remember when I was in junior high and our school band had a "band dance".  That was a dance for the band members to attend and there was a record player playing the tunes of the 60s and cold drinks and snacks, a fairly harmless set-up for junior high kids.  There were chaperones and adults stationed around the room and what happened that night was pretty mild in comparison to some things that happen today.  I did not dance since that was forbidden by our church so I sat there and watched as my friends danced.  Some of my friends came up to me and asked me if I wanted to dance to which I replied, " I can't.  It's against my religion" to which they replied, "Oh well, it's against ours too but we are dancing anyway."  So, that made perfect sense to me so I got up and began to do those dances from the 60s that required no one to have a partner--the twist, the frug, the swim---some of you will recall what they may have looked like. 

Suddenly, there stood at the entrance to the band hall, a harrowing figure with a frown on its face--my mother.  She had come to pick me up at the dance and take me home because I did not drive in junior high and needed a ride home.  Boy, did I ever get a lecture on the way home.  I was told over and over again how evil dancing was and why we did not believe in dancing.  I was not one to just accept a rule on face value, however, and asked where in the Bible it says that we cannot dance. (It does not, in case you are wondering).  The stern reply was not to ask questions but just to obey the rules. 

This rebel of a junior high boy could not accept that rule and asked the pastor the next Sunday the same question I asked my mother.  He too told me to obey the rules and not ask questions so I did what any lively young man of 13 would do...I danced and went to movies and wore shorts and said questionable words, but not openly, in secret, in small groups, in places where I had to hide the fact that I was doing those things.  I rarely got caught and it made breaking the rules all the more enjoyable.  It became a quest to see how many times I could break the church rules and not get caught. 

I left that church when I became an adult and never returned to it.  It has changed somewhat over the years, becoming more accepting of society and what some in society like to do (they still frown upon dancing and drinking and smoking and cursing though).  They never quite saw that they were judging others based upon the ideas they had about society.  They preferred to brand people as "sinners" because they did the things they found to be distasteful, even if they were not unbiblical.  They shunned people who broke the rules without regard to being repentant for their misdeeds.  They found discipline to be more important than love. 

What rule or opinion do we hold more dear than loving others who may embrace the ideas or break rules that we think should be obeyed?  St. Paul told the church at Rome to allow others to eat what they wished and go where they wanted even if the individual did not agree with it.  After all, said Paul, what is more important is that we love others and extend welcome to them even if we disagree with them. 

We are all brothers and sisters in Christ.  What we have is a bond of unity that exists in spite of the differences that we may hold.  A modern author named Rachel Held Evans describes it this way: "This is what God's Kingdom looks like: A bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good,  but because they are hungry, because they said Yes, and there's always room for more."  I like that.  It describes well what we are about in our Christian family. 

"Come unto me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."  (Matthew 11:28-30)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and More

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."  (Acts 1:8)

What does it mean to be a witness?  We are all witnesses each day because we all see things and report on them to others.  We tell others about our life experiences so we are all witnesses to what happens in life.   We want to share with others about those things and want others to share with us about what is going on in their lives.  If something happens to us that we think is significant or important, then we want others to know about this event so they will understand its impact on our lives.

That is basically what Jesus was telling his disciples as he was preparing them for the day when he would leave them.  Go, and tell others about what you have experienced during the time I was with you all.  Those were the instructions that Jesus gave the disciples as he prepared to leave and return to heaven.

Jesus' closest friends had experienced many things during the three years of ministry with him.  They had seen Jesus heal many people, raise some people from the dead, and had heard him teach all about the Kingdom of God and what it meant to live in it.  So, Jesus was now leaving them and he was telling them to tell others about what they had experienced and learned while they had been with him.  That is one of the reasons why the New Testament exists.  It is a recollection and interpretation of the stories, experiences, and teachings those closest to Jesus had received during Jesus' earthly ministry.  Bible scholars call this collection "The Jesus Tradition".  We have this collection of memories of Jesus to reflect upon as we decide what they mean to us as we live together in Christian community.

Jesus told his disciples to begin at home and expand from there as they shared with others what they had experienced with him.  Jerusalem was home base for them so they were to begin there and then expand through the region called Judea.  They were even supposed to go to those with whom they had animosity or could not agree, such as the Samaritans.  From there, the world was their parish.  They were to carry the Gospel to all who would listen to them.

We share our Christian experience and witness with others beginning with those whom we know well, letting them know what we have learned so that it may benefit them as it has us.  We use all that modern society has shared with us to share our witness with others...the telephone, email, social media and maybe even the old fashioned method of letter writing to tell our story.  We tell it to those who know us best and we tell it to others in the world who may not know us at all.  Our story is personal to us but it is also global because it is a story of truth and beauty that all need to hear.

The reason we can tell the story to others is because we have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the works that Jesus asked us to do.  The Spirit gives us the courage to act and speak and to do it in a way that will encourage others to listen and learn.  We speak as the Spirit gives us the language to use and we rely upon the Spirit as our source of strength and knowledge.

So, go out and tell the story to all who will listen.  It is a story that needs to be shared with all, beginning with those who know it best and continuing to those who have never heard it at all, even in this modern age of communication sources that astound and amaze us.  

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Lessons in prayer, from a dog

He assume his still posture
two feet from the table.
He is not grabby,
his tongue is not hanging out,
he is quiet.

He wants to leap,
he wants to snap up
meat and blood.
You can tell.
But what he does is sit
as the gods
his masters and mistresses
fork steak and potatoes
into their mouths.

He is expectant
but not presumptuous.
He can wait.
He can live with disappointment.
He can abide frustration
and suffer suspense.

He watches
for signals,
he listens for calls
of his name from above.

At hints that
he may be gifted
with a morsel,
he intensifies his
already rapt concentration,
he looks his god
in the eye
but humbly,
sure of his innocence
in his need,
if his need only.

On the (often rare) occasions
when gifts are laid on his tongue,
he takes them whole,
then instantly resumes
the posture of attention,
beseeching, listening, alert,
the posture of hard-won faith
that will take no for an answer,
yet ever and again hopefully
return to the questioning.

Rodney Clapp, author
Christian Century Magazine
February 12, 2008

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Do You Believe in the Resurrection?

            Can you believe in something that you have never seen?  How do you know that something is true if you have never seen it or experienced it yourself?  Those are questions that some ask in regard to the resurrection of Jesus Christ that we celebrate yearly on Easter Sunday.  Some doubt the resurrection of Jesus because it is difficult for them to grasp how a person who has died can be brought back to life again. 
            Believing in something we cannot understand is not new for modern people.  Even with all the scientific knowledge that exists, there are things that we encounter daily that are hard for most of us to understand.  Each time I flip on the light switch and the lights come on, I am doing something that I do as a repetitive motion but one that is not something I truly understand.  I simply know that, unless the electrical power to the house is not working, when I do it the lights in the light fixture will produce light.  The light bulbs themselves are a mystery as to how they work.  Perhaps Thomas Edison understood how the light bulb worked since he invented them, but for me as an average consumer I only know that if the light bulb is in the light fixture and connected to the electrical lines running through the house, then light will be produced by my action of flipping the light switch. 
            There are so many innumerable other things that we do in life that we do not understand that we have grown accustomed to simply doing them or using them without knowing exactly how they work and that is the way our lives are ordered.  I use a cell phone and a computer daily and I have no idea how simply pushing buttons or tapping a keyboard causes words to appear on a screen that I can print out on a sheet of paper or send electronically to people around the world.  I simply do these things and have faith that it will work unless there is a problem inside my computer or phone that causes it not to work (and I don’t understand how that can be either.)
            So, we all live our lives daily in ways in which we place faith in objects or customs to do the things in life we want to do without understanding how those things work or what causes them to do what we want them to do.  Why is spiritual faith something that operates out of the normal way of life when it comes to belief in something that we cannot explain? 
            When I say that I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that God raised Jesus from the dead in some supernatural way, I can believe in that idea without understanding how it happened.  If I believe that there was a man named Jesus Christ of Nazareth who lived over 2000 years ago in a land we now call Israel and whose teachings make sense for ordering our lives, then why can I not take another leap of faith (who is to say that any historical persons we learned about in school or at church actually existed?  We believe in them because we trust the people who taught us to believe in them.) and say that it is possible that God (another matter of faith—to believe in God takes faith on the part of the believer) could raise Jesus from the dead and bring him back to a spiritual life that is beyond explanation. 
            The celebration of Easter precedes the celebration of Christmas by many centuries.  Persons in the Early Church saw the resurrection of Jesus as one of the hallmarks of what it means to be called a Christian.  The life, teachings, and death of Jesus are vastly important to society and humankind but the resurrection of Jesus sets Christianity apart from other religions because Christians believe that if Jesus was raised from the dead, then we too will experience a spiritual resurrection when we die.   
            I choose to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not because I can explain how it happened but because it gives me hope for the future and purpose in life knowing that this life is not all there is.  I am not wishing for a quick exit from this life because I enjoy life and living but I do not have to be afraid of death or dying because God has prepared something after this life that I believe exists through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 
            Each time I officiate at a funeral I begin with the same words called “The Word of Grace”.  It says, “Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”  Those words of Jesus give me hope that through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all can experience a continued existence after this one ends.  That hope conquers any fear that society’s ills may produce.  We have hope in Christ because Christ has conquered death and our lives are contained in his life so we too will have life beyond death when our time comes.

            May the love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be yours both now and always.  Amen.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Living Water That Brings Restoration and Reconciliation

How thirsty are you?  Do you ever thirst for the truth?  Do you thirst for the peace that calms the troubled heart?  Do you thirst for restoration and reconciliation with God and neighbor?

The theme for this next Sunday, the third Sunday of Lent, is reconciliation.  We will read three scripture lessons that all tell stories of reconciliation and restoration.  First, from Exodus, comes the story of thirsty people in the wilderness.  The People called Israel are wandering in the desert as they make their way from Egypt to Canaan Land.  There is little water in the dry land they are crossing.  They are thirsty and begin to call out to Moses to give them water.  Moses, in turn, calls out to God who tells him to strike a rock and water will gush out of it and sure enough it does, as Moses does what God commands him to do.   Thirsty people drink of fresh cool water gushing out from beneath a rock, a hidden spring that needed to be tapped.

Then, John's Gospel tells the familiar story of the Samaritan woman at the well whom Jesus encounters and asks for a drink of water from her.  She is a troubled woman and Jesus senses her distress, since she is at the well at noon rather than early in the morning when most women came to the well to avoid the midday heat.  Her conversation with Jesus makes her believe he is a prophet and she calls the townspeople to come and see this remarkable man.  Jesus gives her the "living water" she seeks as she is restored to relationship with her community and to the God she seeks to know.

Paul addresses the church at Rome in chapter 5 of his epistle to them and talks about being justified and reconciled to God through the love of Jesus Christ, who gave himself for all humanity.  Jesus' actions have made all justified to God and brought about full restoration of the brokenness of human beings, both to God and one another.  The live and actions of Jesus have brought those who seek restoration into full and right relationship.

Living water is what Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman, the same living water that Paul offers to the early church at Rome.  The living water could only come through the Spirit of God working in Christ and evident in the lives of Early Christians who found a new way of living after Pentecost.  Living water is what modern day persons need also, water that stimulates the human spirit and revives the refreshes the soul.

The people of Israel who were crossing the barren wilderness after they left Egypt and were searching for a home needed real physical water to quench their dry throats and bring them relief so they could continue their journey.  God showed his love and compassion for them as he supplied their needs.  The physical water represented the love of God to them because God heard their cries and responded to their need.

God hears our cries also and answers our prayers, perhaps not always in the way we anticipate but in ways that are for our own good and welfare.  God's love is made known to us through the actions of others who come to our rescue when we need to hear words and see love demonstrated in tangible ways.  We find refreshing streams of water when we need them as we continue to seek God in our daily lives and to gather with God's People regularly to gain spiritual strength and renewal.

How thirsty are you?  How much do you need to know God's presence in your life?  Jesus said, "Come unto me, all you who are heavily laden and I will give you rest."  The waters of restoration and reconciliation are always flowing.  One simply has to come to the waters and receive what God offers to find relief.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Lessons From the Goose

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 27, 2017

Entering the Season of Lent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.