Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Luke 6:20-31: The Sermon on the Plain

The gospels of Matthew and Luke both have similar sermons referred to as the Beatitudes or The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew) or the Sermon on the Plain (Luke).  While there are subtle differences between the two accounts, they are, in general, very similar.  The purpose is to address suffering in this life, and to help us to persevere until the life to come.  The most obvious difference between the two accounts, in my opinion, is that Matthew tends to "spiritualize" the passage, while Luke sees the human condition amongst the hearers as more concrete.  For example, Matthew says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," while Luke says, "Blessed are you who are poor."  Many biblical scholars believe that Matthew's account was written for a wealthier audience which would not relate as well to the concept of a sermon that blesses the poor and that looks down upon the rich.  Luke's gospel, on the other hand, may have been written for more the working class, as well as women, widows, and those with disabilities.  While I tend to prefer Luke's way of remembering the words of Jesus, I feel they are both equally strong passages of Scripture which offer a message of hope to those who suffer in this lifetime.

This coming Sunday is Halloween, or All Hallow's Eve, a day commemorating the end of summer.  This holiday is the day before the Christian festival of All Saints' Day, a time to commemorate those who have died in the Faith.  According to Roman Catholic tradition, All Saints' Day celebrates the Beatic  Vision of those who have died.  The Beatic Vision is the direct seeing of God, where we no longer rely on faith, but we see God face to face.  Beatic vision--sounds similar in root to beatitudes.  That seems fitting to me.  Beatitude means to have a sense of blessing.  Beatic vision means to see God face to face.  What greater blessing is there then that?  The end of our Christian lives brings us into the presence of God!

Notice that I said the end of our Christian lives brings us into the presence of God.  I did not say that the purpose of our Christian lives brings us into the presence of God.  Meeting God is the end of the journey, not the purpose of it.  Too many times people lose sight of this; they believe they practice and live their faiths in order to come into God's presence.  When that happens, we miss the joy of the journey; we miss the real reason for living our faith.  We are called to live our faiths in order to bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth, as it is in heaven.  If our focus is only on what happens when we die, we miss the opportunity to help people see the presence of God in our everyday lives.  We miss the opportunity to minister, to share faith, to help others grow in God's grace.  Our Christian lives should be about living to create a legacy, in order to help people grow.  The legacy is not one of us, per se, but is the legacy of guiding others to the beatic vision.  That is what it is to be brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.  We offer aid to those who suffer in whatever means we are able to, but more important, we offer hope about what comes at the end of the suffering of the world.  We don't cause people to fear death, nor to come to death too hastily; yet we teach people to realize with joy that their is a beatitude, or blessing at death, which is a new birth and the opportunity to stand in the presence of God.

This All Saints' Day, let us not remember those who have attained the beatic vision with sorrow.  Instead, let us look with joy at how they have written the legacy of Jesus Christ on our hearts and the hearts of others.  Let us celebrate the many who have come to know Jesus Christ or come to know Jesus Christ more fully through the way they lived their lives.  Then let us follow their examples in the way we live our lives, that we, too, may write his legacy on the hearts of others.  Let our goal be to help others find Jesus Christ in this life; for when we do, we will be able attain the beatic vision not just for us, but for those whose lives we allow God to touch.  Then we can truly say, "Thanks be to God!"

Friday, October 22, 2010

More on Prayer

I recently visited a church and found myself both bothered and entertained by the "Minister of Spirituality."  Are not all ministers to be ministers of spirituality?  Isn't that the basis of our faith?  For this man, one of his duties included the pastoral prayer.  His prayer lasted at least 10 minutes, and seemed like even longer.  The theme of the prayer appeared to have little to do with interceding on the church's behalf to offer their petitions to God, and more about correcting the sermon the senior pastor had just given.  It was a showdown in which the prayer was preaching his own sermon based on the theme the other preacher had followed.  He danced and strolled along the stage as he prayed, leading to the entertainment.  I could not keep my eyes closed as I watched him perform, and I felt like he wanted us to see him, anyway. This time had much to do with him, and little to do with God, worship and prayer.

I do not offer a pastoral prayer in my church, in part because I've heard too many prayers that were like the one mentioned above.  The intent seems to be mere performance at best, and sometimes downright gossip at worst.  At times the pastoral prayer sounds more like an excerpt from A Prairie Home Companion then a conversation with God.  Prayer is not intended to be showy.  Rather, prayer is intended to be conversation with God.  The pharisee who bragged about being different from the sinner was not concerned with God in his prayer; he was concerned that people see him and how good he was.  His prayer was a performance intended to make him look good in front of others.  In fact, the best prayers often are the ones that don't have flowery or spiritual words.  They come from the heart with simple, everyday language.  One of my favorite references to prayer comes from Paul, who says, "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express."  (Romans 8:26)

How do you pray?  Are you concerned about what others will think when you pray?  Are you embarrassed by your wording and phraseology?  If so, then you may want to rethink your prayer life.  Don't worry about impressing others with you prayers; worry only about God.  And remember the role of the Spirit in prayer, to interceded on our behalf with sighs too deep for words.  Let your prayers be between you and God only; do not worry about what others think.  When you let go of the human aspect of prayer, then the Spiritual aspect takes over and you commune with God, and you experience God communing with you.

Grace and peace,


Monday, October 18, 2010

Musings of a Methodist Minister: Luke 18:9-14 Why Bother with Prayer?

Musings of a Methodist Minister: Luke 18:9-14 Why Bother with Prayer?: "What is the purpose of prayer? For some it seems to be a way of getting things. We pray for healing from illness or for the end of financi..."

Luke 18:9-14 Why Bother with Prayer?

What is the purpose of prayer?  For some it seems to be a way of getting things.  We pray for healing from illness or for the end of financial hardships, or for stability within our relationships.  When we pray like this, it is as if we believe that God makes us suffer so that we will beg God to do something for us.  Is this really the nature of prayer?  And if it is, then why doesn't God always answer us?  Is God too busy to hear all the prayers that are offered?  I have heard it said that "God always answers prayers, but sometimes the answer is 'no.'"  How does God choose which prayer to answer?  Is it the person with the most faith?  Or the one who prays the most often?  Perhaps God answers the prayers of the ones who give the most money to their church.  Or maybe, prayer is not about getting what we want from God.

While watching a televangelist one morning, I heard him say that if you worship correctly, God would give you what you want.  Proper worship meant watching his program, and setting up a direct debit of 10% of your income to go to his church each week.  And to show that this worked, he had a couple on that spoke of how they wanted a new car, so they worshiped for it.  They attended the church via their satellite dish and sent their drafts off with due diligence.  And it worked.  The man's mother was killed in a very bad car accident.  The family hired a great lawyer, and got a multi-million dollar settlement because of her death.  With the settlement they were able to buy a new car and sent a tithe to the church.

If I were to worship or pray for something, I am not sure I would find it comforting that God killed a family member in order to help me get it.  Does a loving God kill innocent people in order to help out other people?  If that were the case, then I don't think I would want anything to do with that God at all!

In fact, there is only one real thing to ask for from God, as far as I can tell, and that is forgiveness of sins.  Hear this parable of Jesus:

Luke 18:9-14  He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:  "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.'  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

Prayers of petition, I believe, should be about recognizing our need for God, especially our need for the forgiveness of sins.  The tax collector went away justified because he asked God to forgive him of his sins, and God did.  Prayer is not about bragging on who we are or what we have done.  It is not about asking for things, for material gifts.  It is about our relationship with God, and as Christians, it is about our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  It is about keeping us centered in our recognition of what we truly need from God, which is not the material or physical things of this world, but the spiritual gift which prepares us for the next world.  Prayer is about communion with God.  Communion:  a common union.  Through prayer we have that common union with God.  And God, like the father of the prodigal son, welcomes us into that union every time we ask God to.  God always answers the prayer which asks that our sins be forgiven.  And the answer is always a resounding yes.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Genesis 32:22-31

32:22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  32:23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  32:24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  32:25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  32:26 Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."  32:27 So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob."  32:28 Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed."  32:29 Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him.  32:30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."  32:31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Jacob was a trickster.  The youngest of 2 twins, we are told he came out grasping the heel of his brother, Essau.  He was a momma's boy, favored by his mother for his good looks and his skill in domestic affairs.  He also was very much like his mother's brother, Laban, another deceitful man who would trade whatever he had to make a quick buck.  Jacob had stolen his brother's birthright and blessing, and was forced to move away in order to escape Essau's wrath.  He went to spend time with Laban, where he became wealthy and where he also found himself crosswise with family, this time with Laban.

The passage above comes from Jacob's escape from Laban and return to his home.  He and Laban had sworn an oath not to pursue each other any longer, as long as each stayed on their designated side of the desert.  Now the question was how to work things out with Essau.  How do you approach a brother you've never gotten along with, whom you have stolen from, and whose favor you now need for your survival?  This thought must have been heavy on Jacob's mind as he moved across the wilderness toward his home.  All Jacob knew was wrestling with people.

So it should come as no surprise that when Jacob stopped for the night he found himself in a wrestling match.  This time he was wrestling with an apparent stranger, a man who seemed to attack for no apparent reason.  Some have referred to the man as an angel of God, but Jacob believed he was wrestling with God himself.  The wrestling was fierce and went on through the night to daylight.  In the midst of the chaos the stranger pokes Jacob's hip, causing it to be dislocated.  Yet Jacob did not stop wrestling with the man, and kept a tight hold on his opponent.  The man demanded that Jacob release him, yet Jacob refused unless he first received a blessing, perhaps because he was still worried about seeing his brother, whose blessing he had stolen from their father.  The man asked Jacob his name, and Jacob responded.  The man then said, "You are no longer Jacob, but Israel, for you have now wrestled with God and with men and have prevailed."  The man already knew Jacob's name, but he wanted to hear Jacob say it; he wanted Jacob to acknowledge that he was one who wrestled with everyone around him, as his name suggested.  The man then gave his blessing to Jacob and went on his way.

What happened there on that evening?  Why did Jacob have to wrestle with God?  Why was his name changed?  This is a coming of age story.  We might say that Jacob grew up in this event.  The name change was a gift from God, allowing him to return home to his brother in peace.  The limp from the dislocated hip was a sign of maturity or old age; people seem to have more difficulty getting around as they age.  Yet with that age there is often wisdom, which Jacob seems to have received with the blessing.

Have you ever wrestled with God?  I think we all need to do this to grow in our faith.  Too many times we are afraid to challenge God, to spiritually wrestle with God.  We have a feeling that it is wrong and will make God upset.  Yet we never really grow in a relationship until we challenge it.  We need to push the boundaries and see the response.  Wrestling with God is a necessary part of our faith journey.  In fact, we would not even be here to talk about our faith if Jacob had let go of his opponent.  We owe it to ourselves and to God to wrestle spiritually.  If we don't, we will never really get to know God.  But if we do, we will receive God's blessing!

So go, and wrestle with God!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, continued

As I prepared to preach on this passage of scripture last Sunday, I began thinking about Bill.  Bill started coming to church shortly after I started my second stint at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church, the church I now serve.  I knew his name and knew he was on the rolls, but had never met him until he showed up one Sunday.  He was a friendly man, very pleasurable to visit with, and seemed to have a good faith.  He owned a car dealership right across from the Boys & Girls Club I worked at, so one morning I walked over to visit and have a cup of coffee. Bill informed me that he had stopped going to church because he and a former minister did not get along.  But he was back, now, not because there was a new minister, but because he decided that he needed his church home more then he needed to be in a disagreement with the minister.  Part of me, honestly, was nervous about someone who had left the church over a conflict with a minister, though Bill came across as very sincere and genuine, and his like-ability far outweighed my concerns.

Within the past year, I believe, Bill has been diagnosed with cancer of the lungs and throat.  I've visited with him at church and after church several times since his diagnosis, and have always been amazed at how positive he is about life.  After a few visits, I asked him what his prognosis was, and Bill told me that his doctor told him he could have as much as 2 years to live.  He did not cry, shake or show much emotion about the news, though it was obvious that he was aware of what he was saying.  He immediately started talking about what had been good in his life.  He talked about his children and his grandchildren.  He spoke of friends, including one he had invited to the church and who had become quite active.  He would speak of his illness when I asked him questions about it, but his illness was not what was most important in his life.  And in all the conversations, Bill would talk about God and the church.

I look forward to my visits with Bill.  With each time I see him, he helps me to grow in my faith.  He is more of a spiritual leader for his minister then his minister is for him, and for that I give thanks to God.

In 22 years of ministry, I've been around many people who have received news that they were dying.  I say dying instead of terminally ill, because as Christian people, I feel we need to claim death--that is the only way we can enter into the next life.  In that time, I've noticed that there are 3 typical responses to news that one is dying.  The first is to give up.  This is typically the response from people who are at best weak in their faith, and at worst have no faith at all.  Their feeling seems to be that God has inflicted them and is punishing them, and they chose to simply quit living.  Their deaths are often quick, and also often painful, both physically and spiritually.

The second response tends to be from those who know about faith, even pronounce their faith, but really do not know how to live their faith.  The response of this group tends to be a belief that they can beat the illness and cheat death.  They live like they are not sick, and often their positive attitude even extends their lives beyond that doctors' prognosis.  However, in the vast majority of cases they still succumb to death in the end, and even question why God did not take their suffering away.  Their deaths can cause them to be spiritually alone and isolated, wondering why God did not save them from death.

Then there are people like Bill, who know that death is a part of life, and that it is a necessary part if we want to participate in the resurrection and entrance into God's kingdom.  He does not ignore his death, nor does he linger on it.  Instead, he remembers the life he has lived, continues to live life to the fullest he is able, and he inspires others to grow in their faith.

When the people of Judah were taken into exile, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, telling the people they would be captives for a long time.  In fact, they would be in exile for at least 2 generations, according to God.  In other words, many would not live to see a return to Judah.  But Got spoke in a positive way, not focusing on how they would die in Babylon, but instead focusing on how they should live in this foreign land.  He talked about them growing gardens and eating their produce.  He spoke of finding wives and husbands.  He challenged them to have children and grandchildren.  And God told them to seek the welfare of these foreigners, and to pray for them to God, that in their welfare would be Judah's welfare.

So live your lives, even when you have cause to suffer.  Follow Bill's example.  Know that yes, the suffering will pass, but how you live determines whether this suffering makes you spiritually live or die.  Be people of faith, not just saying you have it, but living it.  And in all things, seek the joy of God.  After all, when death finally does set in, it leads us to new and everlasting life through Jesus Christ.  Live your faith, and show others how we can overcome suffering by seeing the good, that is, the presence of God all around us.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

29:1 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

29:4 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

29:5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.

29:6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.

29:7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Growing up on the Delaware River in Titusville, New Jersey, I remember hearing the story of the Presbyterian minister who lived in the manse on River Drive.  Once, the rains came hard and the river swelled, filling, then overfilling its banks.  The waters came to the porch of the manse, and the fire department drove by, telling the old minister that he needed to evacuate.  However, the man would not leave, saying, "The Lord will provide, the Lord will provide."  Hours later, a rescue boat greeted the man at his second story window as the flood waters continued to rise rapidly.  "Come with us to safety, reverend."  Yet again he replied, "The Lord will provide.  The Lord will provide."  The last the man was seen, he was on the roof of the house, ankle deep in water, holding on to the chimney for dear life.  This time the rescuers came via helicopter, but he refused to go, saying "The Lord will provide.  The Lord will provide."

Now the man found himself at the entrance to the pearly gates, much to his surprise.  He was met by the Lord, himself.  Indignant, the preacher rebuked God, saying, "Where were you?  I had faith you would save me?  How could you turn your back on me?  Why didn't you help me?"  God looked at the old man and said, "I tried!  I sent a fire truck, a boat and a helicopter!"

Sometimes we are so focused on the idea of God that we miss the truth of God.  The people in Jeremiah's time had been warned that their lack of sincerity in worship would lead to the fall of their nation, that they would become exiles in a foreign land.  Yet they continued on through their selfish ways, continuing to have the form of religion without the function of faith.  Babylon was knocking at their door, and had destroyed everything in her path.  As this fierce nation began its siege on Judah, only part of the city fell.  Some of the people were hopeful, believing that God had caused the aggressor to stumble.  Those who were not displaced by the attack felt that God was pleased with them and had delivered them. 

Yet Jeremiah knew better.  He knew the stopped attack was only temporary.  God had been speaking through him for some time, warning Judah to turn from her ways, warning that a foreign power would destroy her.  So he spoke again, hoping the people would understand the veracity of their situation.  He told them to build gardens in this foreign land, to marry and have children here, then to marry off their children in the land of Babylon.  In other words, he told the people they were going to be there for a long time.

However, prophets also offer hope.  He told the people that despite the fact they would be foreigners in a foreign land, the time would come when they would be able to return home.  While their action brought them into this situation, God's act would deliver them at the right time.

I like this.  Too many times people think they can just pray away a situation.  We all have been where the people of Israel were at one time or another, whether it was self-induced or the result of actions beyond our control.  It might have been the death of a child or a spouse, or the destruction of a relationship.  It might have been the result of losing contact with God or turning to additions to fill our spiritual voids.  Whatever it is, though, this much is true:  when we keep our eyes on God, God brings us home.  It may not happen right away, but it does happen.  God's desire is for the creation to be good.  God does not want for us to suffer.  God wants us to have life, and to have it abundantly.

Now, in this world, sometimes we do not have that abundant life.  But in God, through faith in Jesus Christ, we know that there is a life to come where we cannot suffer, where we have that abundant life.  In that place, there are no more Babylons, no more sins, no more suffering.  Like the people of Israel who were in Babylon for the long haul, we are in this life for the long haul.  We need to make the most of it.  We need to live for the good that is here, and fight against the injustices that are around us.  We need to live life focused on God, rather then focused on the suffering that sometimes separates us from God.  We must do this because, like the people of Israel, we are going to be returned home.  We just need to live our faith.

Don't be like the people of Israel or the minister who fell victim to the flood waters.  Believe in God, believe in his Son, Jesus Christ.  Through this belief, you will find that God will bring you home.  Thanks be to God!

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-13)

I've been writing a blog about training for a marathon ( for the past several months, and have enjoyed this quite a bit.  I've made reference to sermons a few times, as I am also a minister, and have decided that I would start a preaching blog, as well.  While I hope readers get something out of my musings, I am doing this for me, as it helps me to process my thoughts during the sermon preparation process.  In a somewhat humorous twist, however, I am starting my sermon blog the week before taking a vacation, so the sermon will not be preached.  However, I have to start some time, so here it goes.

I tend to preach from the New Revised Common Lectionary, a 3-year, multi-denominational guide for ministers.  For each week, there is a reading from the Old Testament with a complimenting Psalm, a New Testament Reading, and a Gospel Reading.  There is somewhat of a theme most Sundays, and some ministers use multiple texts on a given Sunday.  I, however, tend to focus on just one, and it is usually not the Psalm.

For the week of September 19, 2010, the text I would have chosen is Luke 16:1-13, sometimes referred to as The Parable of the Shrewd Manager.  In this passage, Jesus tells the disciples about a dishonest man whose boss finds out that he has been squandering the boss' money.  So, as any good boss would do, he calls the manager in for an accounting.  The manager, believing himself to old for manual labor and too proud for welfare, decides he needs to do something, and do it quickly!  So, he calls in all those who hold accounts with him, asks what they owe, cuts that amount in half, and makes the debtors happy.  The boss, hearing of this, is impressed by the man's shrewdness and his attempt to get into the good graces of his debtors.  You see, even though the property owner was likely losing money in the process, he was impressed at the resourcefulness of the manager.  And in fact, he may not have been losing money, anyway.  As the manager, this employee had a right to charge extra for goods, similar to charging interest, as a way of making money through the deal, so he may have been doing nothing more then cutting his losses to get back in the good graces of the boss and the debtors.  Whatever his mindset, the man was working hard to secure his future, either with those who owed him money or with his boss.

Jesus ends the parable by making a strange comment:  "for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.  And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes."  Is Jesus saying, then, that we should be dishonest with our transactions?  Is he really telling us to make friends for ourselves with dishonest money?  I am not sure that this is the case.  In fact, I believe that what Jesus is saying is that not that we should be dishonest with money, but that we should learn from those who are.  They are looking to their future, trying to find ways to secure a safe haven for themselves, making friends through deals.  What do we, as "honest" Christians do to secure our future?

The simple answer has to do with how we live in the present, as well as how we prepare for the future.  It is, in a manner of speaking, a parable about asking for forgiveness.  The manager is asking the forgiveness of those whom he overcharged in the past by cutting their debts in half.  In so doing, he is securing his future with those whom he has sinned against.  Jesus' response is that if the dishonest manager is smart enough to ask for forgiveness to keep himself from digging ditches or going on welfare, how much more should we be willing to ask for forgiveness to secure our eternal glory?  Jesus is saying to the people that the children of the world, i.e. the non-followers of Jesus, are less proud and more willing to act rightly to secure their futures then are the children of the light, who are supposed to be humble!

Where are you?  Are you like the shrewd manager?  Are you looking to your future in this life by manipulating your earthly accounts?  Or are you like the so-called children of the light, who simply believe that Jesus will take care of it all?  Or are you perhaps somewhere in-between, realizing your sin and asking for God's forgiveness, securing your salvation in the future?  We do this not to earn our salvation, but in response to our salvation.  The difference between the shrewd manager and us is that it costs us nothing to secure our future, save belief in the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ.  What a small price to pay for an eternity of peace!