Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

I wonder what Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, would say if he was alive today.  Not only did he claim that “the world is my parish,” but he also argued the validity and necessity of interpreting the world through the Bible, claiming that he preached with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  Though the bulk of his sermons focused on a myriad of theological topics, he had much to say about wealth, economics, and the plight of the poor.  As a preacher in the Wesleyan tradition, it does indeed feel natural to, like Wesley did, interpret the world through the Bible (and the teachings of the Church).  But in 2018’s world of extreme partisanship and drastic change, in which social and political norms are in radical flux, and those changes are perceived most often through tribal loyalty rather than dispassionate analysis, interpreting the world through the Bible and church teaching has become difficult and dangerous.

The trouble has nothing to do with the source material.  In fact, our Bible’s venerable prophets would be as busy as ever today.  Just today, in fact, the president of the U.S.A. gave an interview to the U.K.’s Sun newspaper excoriating the British Prime Minister, only to claim later in the day, while standing next to the Primer Minister, that he had not uttered any criticism at all.  Such an action by the leader of the U.S.A. begs a reflection on the sin of deceit, the very first one demonstrated in the Bible.  But should I do so, with a call to my congregation to seek a more excellent way of truthful public discourse by our leaders and representatives, I will alienate and surely anger those I pastor who support our president.  The sin will become less relevant than my apparent partisanship.

For the record, I don’t care who is in office or which party they belong to.  If their behavior fails to honor their leadership position or their decisions cause harm, then I will be critical of their behavior or policies.

But the question remains: How do I, as a preacher in the Wesleyan tradition, speak to issues that surround and affect us today and yet continue to be pastor to those whose loyalties and perspectives would be offended by my preaching?  To let anything get in the way of preaching Christ and the Gospel is wrong.  Yet Christ is not divorced from the world.  If we as Christ-followers are to be relevant to the world, then we must engage with it and, if needed, call out that which ought not to be or could be better.  After all, as  United Methodists, we are in the business of “making disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.”

I don’t have an answer, so I guess I will continue to do as I do now by preaching along the razor’s edge.

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Text:  Mark 6:53-56
People immediately recognized Jesus and ran around that whole region bringing sick people on their mats to wherever they heard he was.

So far, Jesus had performed exorcisms, healed many sick people, fed 5,000+ people, calmed two storms over the Sea of Galilee, ate with tax collectors and “sinners,” and baffled people with parables.  Along the way he had preached the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom.  He had become famous in Galilee and crowds flocked to see him, but they did not come to Jesus to hear him preach or learn the finer points of their religion.  They came bringing their sick hoping for healing.

Today’s reading is grounding.  It reminds me that as fascinated as I am by Christian theology, Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology, that fascination is rarely shared by the people I serve as pastor.  Rather, their interests are more down to earth and practical.  They want to know how to live as people of good character who do good in the world, find strength and guidance for the day, and healing in times of suffering.

I have sometimes groused that it seems that too many people come to Christianity and church for free therapy.  They want to an uplifting experience that makes them feel better.  But the stress and anxiety brought on by national and world events over the last year or two have made me more aware that life can be difficult and our need for healing frequent.

Jesus never groused about people coming to him for healing.  He responded to them, not with theologically-centered sermons but with compassion by healing them.  He met needs no one else could meet.  We who serve as pastors would do well to get our heads out of our “-ologies”, offer Jesus’ healing to individuals, and lead our congregations to do works of compassion that bring healing to our world.

Text:  Mark 4:35-41    “Even the wind and the sea obey him!”

Today’s reading–an account of Jesus calming a storm that was swamping the boat he and his disciples were in–resonates at a variety of frequencies.  Maybe the one with the most amplitude is that of the chaotic noise of the world in 2017-2018.  I’ve not lived through a time that has felt more turbulent and chaotic.  Current events have gone from a continuum with “that’s interesting” on one end to “who cares” on the other to constant exhausting tension.  It’s like moving from recognizable melody and harmony to a screeching mix of white noise, thrash-metal, and screaming punk.

Today’s reading reminds us that no matter how chaotic the world around us gets, our God is still the one who brings order.  When the Pauline writer of Colossians 1.17 tells us that “[Jesus Christ] existed before all things, and all things are held together in him,” he reminds us that Christ is Lord over the Universe.

These reminders alone do not offer comfort if our expectation of God’s sovereignty is that God will magically or instantly calm the storms of our time and one day we’ll wake up to a world in which all the big problems have disappeared.  God doesn’t work that way.  Jesus calmed the storm from the back of the boat because he was in the boat at the time.  Today, it’s not Jesus in the boat but the Body of Christ, commissioned by Jesus to continue his ministry in the world.  It is we who are parts of the Body who need to stand up and do what we can to calm the storm . . . and there is a lot more we can do than we are doing.  We may not be able to order the wind and waves to obey us, but what might the world around us be like if we –

  • kept strong in our faith in God, especially by doing those things that keep us close to God: prayer, Bible, worship, fellowship with other Christians (important: this step makes the following ones possible)
  • decreased the volume of our own response to the world’s chaos, thus being a low-anxiety presence for everyone else
  • intentionally find constructive ways to address the things we are passionate about (constant shouting, trolling, inflammatory tweeting, and so forth do little but to raise stress levels)
  • interact with others with flexibility and grace, whether face to face or on social media

 

Text:  Romans 15:7-13

“So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory.”

On the eve of Epiphany Sunday, which will be highlighted by worship that features Holy Communion, today’s reading strikes an encouraging, energizing resonance (like the last part of Pat Metheny’s “(Cross) The Heartland” from American Garage, where the major progression melody blows back in).  As a UM church, our communion table is an open table.  The default is welcome to the table, which is different than many other denominations which insist on membership before one can participate in communion.

The point of this is not to criticize other denominations’ polities.  Each has developed their own approach to the sacraments that fit within their own larger ecclesiology.  So be it.

Paul’s admonition to welcome, simple and obvious as it sounds, was controversial.  Among fellow Jewish Christians, there was a parochial exclusivity that insisted on becoming a Jew first, then one could follow Christ as a disciple rather than a fringe follower.  Paul renounced and denounced this, and eventually won his argument (see Acts 15), but surely pockets of resistance among the Jewish Christian conservatives of his day remained at the time he wrote to the church in Rome.  So, as he had done so many years earlier in his correspondence to the church in Galatia,  Paul called for unqualified openness and welcome using Christ himself as the model.

Whether at the communion table or at the church door (or anywhere we gather), how can we not open our arms to any and all who seek God through Jesus Christ?

Text:  Luke 21:1-4

Jesus noticed a poor widow pitching two copper coins into the collection box on the wall of the temple treasury.  The only evaluation he made was that unlike wealthy donors who gave from their spare change, the widow gave all she had to live on.

This set off alarm bells.  I’ve known too many elderly people, mostly widows, who were preyed upon by all manner of charitable organizations seeking donations.  I suspect many of these organizations target the elderly due to their perception that they are soft-hearted, have money in the bank, and may likely have a touch of dementia compromising their judgment.  Some of the worst are dodgy para-church organizations claiming to help poor children.

Was the poor widow observed by Jesus a vulnerable victim?  The temple hardly needed the widow’s meagre wealth and yet she felt obligated to make her donation.  The cynic within me is quick to blame the temple’s leadership and bureaucracy with targeting those who should have been protected from further impoverishment.

The only commentary Jesus made was to mark the contrast between the widow’s huge economic sacrifice and the paltry and painless display of piety by wealthy donors.  Surprisingly, he made no value judgment about any of the donors but left it up to listeners and readers to ponder.  He neither gave praise to the widow nor criticized the wealthy.

I easily understand the wealthy donors giving their pocket change–it was easy.  I wonder about the widow.  Maybe she was victimized by a coercive sense of religious obligation.  Maybe she knew exactly what she was doing and in faith gave the best she could expecting that God would work things out for her.

During a time of the year when so many hands are outstretched hoping for gifts, I want to believe the widow was giving her last coins in love and faith, but . . . I just don’t know.

Text:  Luke 19:12-26

. . . The readings are NOT getting any easier!

I need to read this passage every time I want to sit back, soak in, and do nothing else with that warm’n’fuzzy,  comfortable, and satisfying feeling of spiritual fulfillment that can come from reading a favorite Bible passage or being present for an uplifting worship service.  It’s all well and good to have a feel-good and/or profound experience through my spirituality, but such an experience is not meant to be merely taken in, like watching a movie or eating a pizza. There is always the need to answer the unspoken but ever-present question, “So . . . now what?”

As much as we want or claim our faith, church, and especially worship to be counter-cultural, we are more often than not driven more by the culture of consumerism that shapes us. If we’re honest, we have to admit that sometimes we’re into spirituality and worship for what we get out of it, and we sometimes get a bit cranky when we don’t get out of it what we expect or want.  Moreover, we can forget that spirituality and worship are not therapy.  Worship, especially, is not about you and me (fill in the blank: Christians worship ___________ .  If you filled in anything other than “GOD” please see your pastor, confess your idolatry, ask God for forgiveness, and sign up for remedial Christianity).

The problem with turning our spirituality and worship inward is that through them God gives us an abundance we should grow and share.  Like the good servants in Jesus’ parable, we’re called to invest the blessings of our spirituality, BIble reading and study, worship, and prayer into spreading the love of God and Good News of Jesus Christ around our parts of the world.  Especially with worship, when we merely consume the experience, we become like the servant who hid his master’s money, doing nothing with it. Don’t know about anyone else, but I want to be reckoned a good servant for sharing the abundance God gives me every day.

Howsabout you?

Text:  Luke 17:26-37

It will happen.  No preview of coming attractions (suitable for all age groups).  No series of announcements in bulletins and newsletters.  No email or text blast.  No notification on Facebook, Twitter, et. al. social media.  “Thy kingdom come” will be answered without fanfare or pomp and circumstance.  Without warning, the old, established, comfortable for some, hard-scrabble for many, reality will be gone, transformed into God’s new reality.  The prophetic imagination that throughout the Bible offered views of an alternative reality to our own will be itself realized.

Are we ready?
Can we let go the old?    What will we be giving up?
Are we willing to embrace the new?

Today’s reading, with its recollections of Noah and the flood, the fiery end of Sodom, and vultures gathering around a corpse, has a fearsome tone.  God’s kingdom will come and all the broken-world stuff we cling to, but which dominates and plagues our lives, will be swept away, and with it all those unwilling to let go.  For the really scary bit is that we will not simply wake up one morning in the new kingdom but be confronted with the new reality that calls us to give up all the ways we live high on the hog at the expense of others and the health of our planet, all the ways we inflict violence in the name of national interest and security, all the ways we profit from injustice, all the ways we take it upon ourselves and our churches to judge who is loved and who is condemned by God.  In other words, we will be confronted with giving up our lives and gaining Christ and kingdom or saving our lives as they are and losing everything.

We had better get ready.
We had better be able to let go the old.
We had better embrace the new.

After all, it’s not just some delusional Camelot but the Kingdom of God and God is good!