Tuesday, April 17, 2018

When You Say Nothing at All


"When You Say Nothing at All" is a country song written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz. It is among the best-known hit songs for three different performers: Keith Whitley, who took it to the top of the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart on December 24, 1988; Alison Krauss, whose version was her first solo top-10 country hit in 1995; and Irish pop singer Ronan Keating, whose version was his first solo single and a chart-topper in the United Kingdom and Ireland in 1999. (Wikipedia)

Think of a time where you knew that you were loved, that you felt cared for...Isn't it interesting that we most often have that assurance not through someone's words they tell us, but the presence they share with us? I can think of many instances where it was not what I said, but what kind of presence I shared with someone that made a difference. I often joke that half of my job as a pastor is simply to show up and know that God beat me to the spot; that God is already there. It is not very funny anymore, because it has been so true.

Psalm 23 illustrates this.

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2     He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3     he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
    for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.

This says nothing about the shepherd saying anything; this psalm shares what the shepherd does to show care for the sheep.

And John 10: 11-18 tells us what a "good shepherd" is like.

Raymond Brown translates kalos, which is translated "good" in the passage, as “I am the model Shepherd.” So "good" may not mean "good" to the sheep, but "good" as in the shepherd is "good" at shepherding. This shepherd shows us how to do it, that is, by laying down our lives for the sheep. 

A good shepherd is not concerned about salary, reputation, or success of the sheep. Jean Vanier puts it this way:

“To become a good shepherd is to come out of the shell of selfishness to be attentive to those for whom we are responsible, to reveal to them their fundamental beauty and value and help them grow and become fully alive. It is not easy really to listen. It is not easy to touch our own fears. It is a challenge to help others gradually accept responsibility, to trust themselves. When people are weak or lost, they need a shepherd close to them. Little by little, however, as they discover who they are, the shepherd becomes more of a friend and companion.”

Becoming like Jesus means becoming a good shepherd: putting away our own desires, our need for success, our own reputation, and noticing the need for care around us. To follow Jesus as his disciples is to both be the sheep in need of this care, and the shepherd that, in turn, cares like the shepherd does.

*Prayer:

O Thou, in whose presence my soul takes delight,
on whom in affliction I call,
my comfort by day and my song in the night,
my hope, my salvation, my all!

*O Thou, in Whose Presence, The United Methodist Hymnal Number 518

In Christ,

Jack

My thanks to Rev. James Howell who has much more to say about this topic, and does so highlighting the ministry of presence and care of the shepherd in his blog this week
(https://jameshowellsweeklypreachingnotions.blogspot.com/2018/01/what-can-we-say-come-april-22-easter-4.html)

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Belong, Behave, Believe: In Defense of Doubt


It is no secret that the mainline church is dwindling in numbers. Part of the reason for this is that the Church seems largely "behind" the cultural and societal trends regarding involvement in particular communities. Gone are the days where you find community and belonging only in the area directly around you: your neighborhood, place of work, or other places that require minimal effort to get to. In short, with the advancement of vehicles and technology, we really do get to choose where we belong.





I say that to say this: in the Church's heyday, where the trend of finding the church on the corner and finding belonging there, there was a general process that someone went through. First, they'd attend the church out of a sense of obligation, at least initially. Within the first few months, typically, you'd attend the new member class and learned what the church believes. At the end of the class, you confessed to believe that stuff too. In those first few months, you also learned how to behave in the church: what we wear, what music we use, when to stand and when to sit...And then you joined. You belonged. So that was the process: believe, behave, belong....


....and Jesus flipped the script. On Easter morning, he did not give Mary a treatise of doctrine to believe. Only after he said her name "Mary..."  did he tell her what to do, to go and tell the disciples that she had seen him. Jesus' "formula," then, is belong, behave, believe. God gives us a sense of belonging by creating us and calling us to new life through Jesus. Only then does our life begin to change (we start to "behave") and we are brought to faith. We belong to God, our life changes, and we are confronted with who God is, bringing us to belief.

This week, we come to a post-resurrection passage in John 20: 19-31, where Jesus comes to meet the disciples in their fear and confusion. Thomas, knowing that he belongs in relationship with Jesus, is seeking confirmation in his faith when asks to see Jesus' wounds from the cross. His faith is confirmed. Thomas is often ridiculed or looked unfavorably upon because he "doubted," but I disagree. Doubt is part of the process of believing. He is not doubting as if he does not believe, but discovering his faith and belief in Jesus again.

Because we belong to God, we have been called by name and loved uniquely by God, we can come to God in hopes to affirm our belief or seek a way out of our doubt and confusion. This is good news.

As you ponder what this means for you, I invite you to engage with this song/prayer.





In Christ,
Amen.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Palm Sunday: What Happens When You Assume?

Palm Sunday is upon us. Christians all around the world will remember and celebrate Jesus coming into Jerusalem. For Jesus, this was the beginning of the end; he knew this journey would lead him to the cross. But for those present on the road with him into the city, this was an occasion to celebrate! They spread cloaks on the ground and waved palm branches in the air and yelled shouts of "Hosanna!" (Mark 11:1-11)

The word "hosanna" has its roots in Hebrew and made its way into Aramaic (the language Jesus probably spoke) and Greek. People have been saying it for a LONG time. It means "help us" or "save us." So when they shouted this as Jesus traveled to and entered Jerusalem, they were asking for a savior. Today, we ask ourselves: in a world of violence, injustice, greed, pain, and suffering how do we wage peace, hope, healing, gratitude, and love? I imagine that the people who first shouted "Hosanna!" were crying out for the same thing.


You may have heard the joke about what happens when you assume...you make a...donkey...out of u and me. Both the Romans and the Jews did a lot of assuming. They assumed they knew what Christ meant when he promised to bring the kingdom of heaven. Jewish zealots were eager to spill Roman blood and take their roles in a new Davidic monarchy. Pharisees and Saducees were concerned about their religious leadership. Centurions were ready to ensure that  the "peace" that existed between nationalities within the Roman Empire was maintained, no matter the cost.

Jesus came, proclaiming that the kingdom of God was near, and people assumed they knew what he meant. They were eager to make sure their expectations about this new covenant were met, beginning with the crowds. The people of Jerusalem poured out into the streets and shouted this word, "Hosanna!" This was not the first time the people of this city shouted this word; nearly 150 years prior to this occasion, they same exclamation was shouted as a family called the Macabees assisted a revolution that drove the Roman occupiers out of the city. They ruled there for a while until the Romans came back and installed puppet Hebrew kings (like Herod, who attempted to find and kill Jesus when he was born). "Hosanna!" they called out to the Macabees. "Hosanna!"they called out when Jesus came..."Save us, king of Israel!"

But Jesus did not come to drive the Romans out. He did not come to conquer the city. He inspired a different kind of revolution. Jesus introduced another way, another kingdom. The only blood that was spilled from his revolution was his own, on the journey to his own death on the cross. Jesus began a revolution of grace, forgiveness, hope, and love.


*Prayer:

God, whose fingers sculpt sun and moon
   and curl the baby’s ear;
   Spirit, brooding over chaos
      before the naming of day;
Savior, sending us to earth's ends
   with water and words:
startle us with the grace, love, and communion
   of your unity in diversity,
that we may live to the praise of your majestic name. Amen.

*Worship and Song Worship Resources, 21.

In Christ,

Jack

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Covenant: Vows

In Jeremiah 31:31-34, God has a relationship-defining conversation with the prophet Jeremiah, who is a spokesperson of the Israelites in exile in Babylon. In High School, me and my friends would call this a "DTR," an occasion in which a couple would have a conversation where they would "define the relationship." It was time, in this DTR, to label the relationship: are we dating? boyfriend/girlfriend? going steady? Where are we as a couple?

So God has a DTR with Jeremiah and the Israelites. God says "I don't want to be just friends, I want to deepen things, I want to take things to the next level. The covenant I am making with you will be a covenant whose codes are not written in stone, but on your hearts." God wants a more personal relationship with the Israelites. "I will write this covenant on your hearts; and I will be your God, and you shall be my people."

The word "religion" comes from the Latin verb religare, which means "to connect, to bind together." So my faith, your faith, the Church's faith, our relationship with God, are not about getting ourselves or others to fall in line with a set of doctrine. Religion and faith is not about getting anyone to fall in line with a proper way of doing things. What this faith, this religion, this community, this covenant with God is all about is to get us, not to fall in line, but to fall in love. This is not entirely romantic, but there is an element of that as God reveals and sticks to God's promises. God loves us, and we can fall into that love by living as if this promise by God is indeed on our hearts. It is part of us.

*Prayer:

O God of our Hearts
You yearn to be so close to us
that we can know you in every breath,
in every hope, in every relationship.

Meet us here today and
teach us to recognize
the covenant of justice, peace and love
you have written on our hearts.

So may our desires become your desires,
our work become your work,
and our community
the place where you are sought and found.
In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

~*taken from “O God of Our Hearts: Prayers for the Fifth Sunday in Lent,” written by Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey and the Rev. Susan A. Blain.

In Christ,

Jack


Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Gospel in Miniature

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." Martin Luther once said that John 3:16 is "the gospel in miniature."  It is one of the most well known verses from the whole Bible, let alone the gospels. I have seen it on signs at Super Bowls, billboards, church signs, and out of the mouths of new Christians and long-time ones too. It might be the gospel in miniature, but there is nothing else small about it.


Scholars have debated it, but it seems as though the words in John 3: 16-21 come from John the evangelist himself, not Jesus. Here, the author of the gospel is reflecting on a crucial conversation between Jesus and "a man of the Pharisees" (part of the religious authority who contended with Jesus) named Nicodemus. They have this conversation about what it means to be "born again" in the beginning of chapter 3, and then the evangelist John begins to reflect on what he has learned from this interaction.

I will admit that to comment on these verses, John 3:16-21, is quite humbling. Here, I am encountered with, much like the author, the awesomeness of God, the love of God. These verses can stump my speech and take my breath away.

If we agree with Luther that John 3:16 is the gospel in miniature, perhaps we would agree with him when he says "If I were as our Lord God, and these vile people were as disobedient as they now be, I would knock the world in pieces." But God "so loved the world..." God's foolish, blundering, wayward, sinful world...and God cannot bear to leave it in its troubles and disasters, but has done all that God can do to save it. God gave us Jesus. God can not, will not, let us go. We have given God every reason to, and yet God has remained our God. God has remained faithful to us, and given us eternal life. That life begins now, no matter how deep in sin or shame you are. And it continues forever.


"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." (John 3:17)

Come to Jesus, for the first, tenth, hundredth, thousandth, or millionth  time, to be saved.


*Prayer:

Dark is the stain that we cannot hide.
What can avail to wash it away?
Look! There is flowing a crimson tide,
brighter than snow you may be today.

Grace, grace, God's grace,
grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
grace, grace, God's grace,
grace that is greater than all our sin!

*Grace Greater than Our Sin, The United Methodist Hymnal, 365

In Christ,
Jack


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Contracts and Covenants


So, how are you doing with the Ten Commandments? Some of these are easy to follow: do not murder, do not steal...but how about using the Lord's name in vain? Uh oh...someone cut me off in traffic yesterday and, well, maybe these aren't so easy to follow after all...working on the Sabbath and and coveting our neighbor's car or high-tech gadget seems like a way of life these days. The truth of the matter, is that we have failed to keep these commandments. We are human, and we fail. If these commandments are part of the contract that we must keep in order for God to remain or God, well, God would have moved on centuries ago to seek out a new species to be God over!

Contracts, in a legal sense, are formal agreements based on mutual benefit. They are awesome for employee situations or business transactions. You put out what you put in and everyone wins.

Thank you God for not giving us a contract to sign and date and, inevitably, break. What God has with us is a covenant to be our God. To love us and forgive us. To lead us and walk with us through life. God gives us a promise. We have been reminded of that here at GMUMC and if you have been reading this blog, through the reminder of the rainbow after the great flood. In the covenant that God gave to Noah, God says "As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you...that never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." God promised all humanity and all the earth to protect and not destroy it. Like in a marriage, a covenant is a soul-binding promise from one party to the other. 

God still expects us to seek to live in joyful obedience to God. This isn't necessarily a "free ride." As evidence of living into the love and grace of God, the obedience to these commandments, summed up by Jesus to love God and love neighbor as yourself, should be lived out. If you know God loves you but are still driven to murder or steal, for example, that is a sign that you are not living into the fullness of God's love for you. When you are, I do not think that you could be driven to take a life or steal from someone. 

And when we fail, God is still our God. God still loves us, protects us from sin, and desires us to be in relationship with God. 

So if you feel like you're a good person and don't ever break any of the commandments, think again. Realizing that you fail can remind you just how much God loves you and forgives you. This can deepen your relationship with God. If you feel like you are nothing and have nothing to offer, think again. God created you and made you a child of God. God has given you the chance to live in joyful obedience with God. And when you follow a commandment, God is pleased with you, for this is a sign of your love of God and desire to live in covenant relationship with God. 

Prayer*

Change my heart, O God, make it ever true. 
Change my heart, O God, may I be like you. 
You are the Potter, I am the clay; 
mold me and make me, this is what I pray. 
Change my heart, O God, make it ever true. 
Change my heart, O God, may I be like You.

*Change My Heart, O God, The Faith We Sing, 2152 

In Christ, 

Jack

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Covenant: Promises We Can't Keep

Christians around the world the world are embarking on week 2 of Lent, and here at GMUMC we are journeying through the season together as we explore God's promises to us. The "parable" (so to say) of the Monks and the Stone Soup come to mind. I invite you to read and reflect on it....

 Stone Soup by Jon J. Muth



Three Monks traveled along a mountain road. They talked about cat whiskers, the color of
the sun, and whatever else came to mind. “What makes one happy?” asked the youngest monk.
The old and the wisest monk said, “Let's find out.”

The monks found themselves gazing down at the rooftops of a village below. The monks
knew the village had been through many hard times and villagers had even become suspicious of
their neighbors. The villagers worked hard, but only for themselves. They had little to do with one another.

When the monks came down, the villagers disappeared into their houses and no one
came to the gate to greet them. Even the windows were closed tight. The monks knocked on the
doors but there was no answer. “These people do not know happiness,” they all agreed. “But today we will show them how to make stone soup.”

They gathered twigs and made a fire. They placed a small tin pot on top and filled it with
water. A brave little girl who had been watching came to them. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“We are making stone soup and we need three round, smooth stones,” said a monk. The
little girl helped the monks find three perfectly round stones. “These stones will make excellent soup,” said the oldest monk. “But this very small pot won't make much.” The little girl ran home to get her mother's big pot. “The three strangers are making soup
from stones,” she said.

The monks poked the coals. As smoke drifted up, the neighbors peered out from their
windows. They found the monks, the fire, and the large pot in the middle of the village very
curious, indeed!

One by one, the villagers came out to see just what this stone soup was. “Of course, old-style stone soup should be well seasoned with salt and pepper,” said the young monk. “But we have none.” “I have some salt and pepper!” said a villager and disappeared and came back with spices. The old monk took a taste. “The last time we had soup stones of this size and color,
carrots made the broth very sweet.” “Carrots?” said a woman from the back. “I may have a few carrots!” And she returned with as many carrots as she could carry and dropped them into the pot.
“Do you think it would be better with onions?” asked the other monk. “Oh, yes, maybe an onion would taste good,” said a farmer. He left and returned in a
moment with five big onions. He dropped them into the bubbling soup. Something magical began to happen among the villagers. As each person opened his or her heart to give, the next person gave even more. The monks simply stirred and the pot bubbled. At last, the soup was ready. The villagers gathered together. Everyone sat down to eat. They had not been together for a feast like this for as long as anyone could remember.

After the banquet, they told stories, sang songs, and celebrated long into the night. Then they unlocked their
doors and took the monks into their homes and gave them very comfortable places to sleep. In the
gentle spring morning that came the next day, everyone gathered together to say farewell. “Thank you for having us as your guests,” said the monks. “You have been most generous.” “Thank you,” said the villagers. “With the gifts you have given, we will always have plenty.
You have shown us that sharing makes us all richer.” “And to think,” said the monks, “to be happy is as simple as making stone soup.”


Genesis 17: 1-7 and 15-16 is a story about God filling the empty hearts and souls of Abram and Sarai with a promise. The promise is so important that God marks it by changing their names to Abraham and Sarah! I invite you to read the passage in your own Bible, or here .

Abram and Sarai felt that they were empty pots, too. God filled them with a promise that God fulfilled. This promise had little to do with them, and everything to do about God. All they had was their faith, which for me symbolizes the stone that the monks began with. I learn in this passage that it is in God's nature to bless.

No matter how small you feel, how little you think you can offer God, or even your community, it is in God's nature to bless you. Somehow, someway, God is still in the picture. Even in our world today, where God seems absent at times, God is still here. God will still keep the promises of protection (Genesis 9:8-17); to be our God.

*Prayer:

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with thee;
Thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not;
As thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.
Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed thy hand hath provided;
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

*Great is Thy Faithfulness, United Methodist Hymnal, 140.

In Christ, 

Jack