Sunday, March 31, 2019

Extravagant Reconciliation


The prodigal’s extravagantly wasteful living was completely overshadowed by the parent’s extravagant forgiveness and love and acceptance.
 Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.

“We had to celebrate and be happy, because your brother was dead, and now he's alive. He was lost, and now he has been found.” (Luke 15:32 GNT).

 We're looking at our scriptures throughout this Lenten season through the theme of being loved, not judged. There is so much when we look at it through that lens stands out about how open, and free, and complete the father's celebration, and happiness, and joy was in having this relationship restored.

The son came prepared to confess all his sins, but the father just went right past that and said, "Grab a ring and robe. Restore this son of mine to his former position." As fast as he saw the son, the forgiveness was as complete as it could ever be. Our sins are cast from us as far as the east is from the west, buried in the deepest water, never to be brought up again.[i] That's so evident in this passage, when you look at it from the standpoint of the father and his running out to greet the child and bring him fully back into the fellowship of his family.

There are two other parables right before this that have a similar theme. One is the parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus finds the sheep that is lost and rejoices and celebrates because the sheep that was lost is now found. The other one is the parable of the lost coin. The woman has lost this coin and turned the house upside down looking for it. When she finds it, she rejoices because she has found that one coin that was lost. Now, in that context, this person who was lost is found and restored, and the celebration becomes tremendous. Without judgment, but only with love.

Now, there was judgment on some people's part. His brother wasn't too happy, but the father straightened him out, because the brother was wrong in the judgments he was making and the viewpoint that he was carrying. It was just wrong, and the father had to correct him. It wasn't because the brother was wrong about everything, or that he was mean as a person or anything. He was looking at it from another point of view, and he needed to have his vision adjusted a little bit. He needed to be straightened out on that one point.

As extravagant as the prodigal's spending had been, as wild and thoughtless as he had lived his life, it was all overcome completely by the extravagance of his father in forgiveness, and reconciliation, and celebration, and rejoicing, to the extent that the rest just washed out. It was just gone. There was nothing there left but love, and rejoicing, and happiness. That's what God invites us to and calls us to is that kind of love for each other and for the world around us, that our love for one another, including everyone around us when we leave this room reflects the love we have in this room, of full, and free, nonjudgmental, receiving the people around us with joy.

When our paths cross with somebody, we should recognize that God is in that crossing. God brings us into connection with each other. We need to receive each other and the people around us in holiness and in love, knowing that everybody we cross paths with is another person God loves, that Christ gave his life for, that God loves extravagantly.

We need to realize that about ourselves, too. The love that God has for us is not metered out and measured. He just pours it all out on us. Any one of us can think that at any time, and feel that, and recognize that God loves me. God loves you. God loves all the people that we meet, in such a way that he even would give his own son to be our savior. That's extravagant love. He cares about us in those ways. That's what Christ was up to on Calvary, reconciling all things to himself at whatever cost it might be.

The messages are all about welcoming. They're all about reconciliation. They're all about breaking down the barriers between us, being in love and charity with one another, with each other, and with everybody else around us. We're finding ways to not only be breaking down the barriers but building the bridges that need to be built from heart to heart and mind to mind, and even the celebration. It all comes to rejoicing, and celebrating, and being so glad.

When that connection is restored, it's an invitation to everybody to come home. Come home, and you will be welcomed and received graciously, and with joy, and with happiness. That's the kind of people that we want to be. That's the kind of people that we want to be around, the people that are glad to have us around, and we're glad to be with them, and they're glad to be with us.

Through all of this, God restores us to what God created us to be in the first place. His companions, his children, his family, and restores our sense of family, and unity, and joy that we were made to have from the beginning.

Now, the thing that blocks that the most is when we judge instead of love, when we decide that we need to make some kind of distinctions as to who we're going to love, and who we're not, and who is welcome, and who isn't. When we do that, we don't just hurt other people, but we heart ourselves, as well. We lose something of ourselves, as well. The invitation is, come home, and bring everybody with you. Bring the whole family together.




[i] Psalm 103:12; Micah 7:19; Hebrews 8:12.


Transcript of the sermon preached extemporaneously at Briensburg UMC on March 31, 2019.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Briensburg is 1,000th Reconciling Congregation

Briensburg is blessed to be #1,000 😇
See the full press release
Excerpt from the article:
Briensburg United Methodist Church in Benton, KY, became the 1,000th Reconciling Church on Friday, March 29, 2019. 

“Briensburg UMC hopes to amplify the message that even smaller rural churches like ours do not stand alone in our resolute affirmation that God loves everyone,” says Rev. Bill Lawson, who serves as Briensburg UMC’s pastor. “To the UMC, we point out that God continues to demonstrate the reconciling work of Jesus on the cross by manifesting the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the ministries and relationships of LGBTQ Christians. To all LGBTQ Christians, we absolutely welcome and need your full participation and leadership in our congregations.” 

Friday, March 15, 2019

What is Unity, Anyway?

If we're going to work for unity, it seems reasonable to have a defined yet flexible framework for what would constitute acceptable forms.

Perhaps the clearest Biblical challenge to work for unity, along with a description of the spiritual oneness to which we are called, comes from Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. The imagery of the Bible provides us with an understanding of what unity is and its importance to God. Yet, the shape of unity is left ambiguous in the Scriptures, perhaps intentionally.  Maybe, as with many of our other deeply held convictions based on our various understandings of the Bible, our quest for unity is expected to be forged in the crucible of love.

Unity is a reflection of love. As our love grows in similarity to that of the Trinity, we align our differences like harmonious chords formed from distinctly different notes. The more diversity we share, the richer our music becomes. Our richest relationship is with God, in whose image we are created yet who remains infinitely different than us in so many ways.

To the extent we can tolerate each other's differences, our love and unity can be perfected.

Unity is a gift we give each other. Unity is a relationship where we love, accept, and protect each other, even while advocating opposing views. Unity is the state of being reconciled with each other into one accord by reorienting our relationships around the love we share.
How wonderful it is, how pleasant,
    for God's people to live together in harmony! ...
That is where the Lord has promised his blessing—
    life that never ends.  (Psalm 133:1 &3b GNT)
( ...for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore. (Psalm 133:3b KVJ) )

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

What I Heard at this Retreat

Fresh off the "Fearless Dialogues" clergy spiritual life retreat, I heard a desire for unity despite deeply held opposing convictions regarding inclusiveness. 

We all practiced our listening skills, intentionally seeing and hearing each other more deeply. We were challenged to especially focus on seeing and hearing the people with whom we enter a 36" space for at least 42 seconds. We were encouraged to reach out and create opportunities to engage others in ways that create spiritual space for meaningful dialogues with less fear. It seemed like everyone was very supportive of each other and sincerely cared about each other's thoughts and feelings.

All with whom I interacted expressed great love for Christ, other people, and the Bible. I saw and heard and felt the effects of the Holy Spirit moving among us. We shared holy conversations, Holy Communion, holy singing and preaching and prayer. During breaks, some of us remembered previous times of ministry together, talked about our current church and family situations, and enjoyed being together regardless of our stances on inclusiveness.

I left feeling loved. I left feeling certain that no one will change their views about inclusiveness on the basis of argued points, including me. Our convictions are shaped over a life time of experiences. I left feeling certain that we can create spaces of unity for each other. We can see and hear and respect each other's experiences. We can advocate for structural changes that enable us to continue as "One Body in Christ" without expecting each other to back down from the things we believe in. Standing up for and strongly advocating what we believe in can be done in ways that strengthen, rather than destroy, our unity in the love of Christ.

Of course, those who oppose unity probably would not have chosen to attend this kind of retreat. That leaves me feeling challenged less to change anyone's mind about inclusiveness and more to change minds about unity.  I do sympathize with the sense that it would be easier for us to break up than find our way to stay together. But some of us would rather do the heavy lifting and see if we can stay in love and charity with one another regardless of our deeply held opposing convictions. That kind of change will come only through our "Fear-less Dialogues," one prayerful conversation at a time.





Monday, March 4, 2019

Listen to What JESUS Says


A voice came from the cloud and said, "This is my Son, whom I have chosen. Listen to Him."
(Luke 9:35 GNT)


Jesus is the primary voice in the scripture, really among any voices that we have. We're always surrounded every day, and more and more with the technology of today, we're just constantly hearing all kinds of voices telling us all kinds of things, calling us in all different directions, interpreting everything in all these different ways.

And while they're really interesting, they can also be confusing, and then it's difficult sometimes to know what voices we should be listening to and what ones we should be kind of filtering out, and what voices we should be contradicting and speaking against. And what we should just let go to the wind.

In this passage, the emphasis on who to listen to is on Jesus. When God said, "Listen to Him," it can be read with a lot of different inflections, but God said, “This is my chosen one. This is the Messiah. This is my Son.” It wouldn't be very long after this Transfiguration ‘till Christ would give Himself for us at Calvary. And so when John says listen to Him, that's where the emphasis really has to be. Of all the voices that you're going to hear, listen to Him. Understand or follow or connect all the rest of the voices according to what Jesus says.

One of my favorite music groups is the Moody Blues, and one of my favorite songs that they have is the Minstrel's Song, and one of my favorite phrases in that song is, "Listen to the one who sings of love, follow our friend, our wandering friend. Listen to the one who sings of love; everywhere love is around."

There's a meme that started circulating on the internet, a cartoon type of sketch of Jesus talking to a bunch of people with their Bibles, and He said, "The difference between us is you interpret love according to the scripture, and I interpret the scripture according to love." I think it's probably circulating among the Methodists right now because of the conversations that we've been having around General Conference and around inclusiveness. Everybody's pretty much kind of having to go to our corners over that way -- which way is the right way to listen to Jesus. Do we listen to Him and interpret everything according to what He said, or do we put it all in a big pool and interpret what He said in the light of everything else in the Bible. Jesus gave us the great commandments that Moses gave and lifted those up as the basis of interpreting all of the scriptures.

In Matthew 22:36-40, when He said, "The greatest commandment is to love God, and the next greatest one is to love one another." And then he said, "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets also." That's the Bible.

And often in Jesus' teachings, He would say, "You have heard it said in the Bible," referring to passages in the Bible, and He would say, "But I say this." Or when He was challenged about something, "Why did you do that? The Bible says you can't do that." He never relinquished His authority, even over the scriptures, which we continue to affirm to be His word, the word of God.

If you were reading a book and then you say, "Well I read that book and it means such and such," and you're talking to the author of the book and he says, "Sorry, that's not what it means," who would be right? You would be right that you thought that's what it meant, but the author would be right in what it really meant to the author when they wrote the book. So if you get something out of it differently than that, then the reconciliation has to happen somewhere. That's kind of where we are I think in our Methodist churches. Everybody has to decide where the reconciliation will be. Will it be our opinions? Will it be other views? Will it be other voices in the Bible? Will it be what we hear Moses saying or what we hear Paul saying? Or will it be what we hear Jesus saying?

If we hear what Jesus is saying and we listen to Him, then all these other voices, we won't be ignoring them. They'll all be falling in line. They'll all become clear. The whole Bible, it just becomes a whole new world for us when we listen to it and read it through the eyes of its author, through the eyes of love, through the eyes of Jesus. And it becomes even I think, to me, it becomes even more important and even more central when we do that when we put Jesus first.

He said, "If I be lifted up, I will draw people to me." (John 12:32). We put Him first, and His understanding first. Then everything else will fall in place. I think He might have even said that in another way when He said, in the Sermon on the Mount, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added as well" (Matthew 6:33). The priority, then, is the teaching and example of Jesus. He gave a new commandment as the sign that we are truly His followers, and it was the very thing we're talking about, that we love one another as Christ has loved us.

By that, everybody would know that we're His disciples. And by that discipleship, we would view the world and the scriptures through His way of understanding them. We're His disciples, first and foremost. Whatever else we are, whatever organization we're a member of, whatever church, whatever groups, whatever networks, whatever else that we are a part of, whatever even our national citizenship or the jobs that we have or the hobbies or families or anything else in our life, if Christ is first and His commandment is first, then everything else will fall into place around love. And it will rise, or it will fall, or it will change, most of it will just change. It'll all still be there; it'll just change to conform with the love of God in Jesus Christ. And that changes our witness.

Jesus spoke of being Himself being a witness with his conversation with Nicodemus. He identified himself as the one who came down from heaven and is still in heaven and is sparing testimony to the things that He has already experienced in heaven. A lot of times, we think about Jesus as the one who came from heaven and went back to heaven. He knows the way. When we take Him as the way, the truth, and the life, that's a part of what it means. He'd been there, 'cause that's where He came from, and that's where He went back to, and that's where He's taking us all. And He alone knows the way.

A lot of other people claim that their way is better than His way, and everybody has the right to weigh these out and choose, but Christ invites us to follow Him and His way, the way of love, the way of His teachings, and His example of forgiveness and acceptance and love and mercy and healing. And all of that's born out in the transfiguration, where they were on earth, and they were in heaven all at the same time. And they were visible to each other, the people on earth and the people in heaven. Not just the ones that had died, not just Moses, or not just the one that had been taken up in a fiery chariot and didn't die but went to heaven, Elijah. Not the one that came down from heaven and was in heaven, Jesus, but also Peter, James, and John who had not died, they had not been taken away in a fiery chariot, but there they were on the mountaintop with the others. And that's why we refer to our mountaintop experiences.

I had one on this day 41 years ago at 4:30 in the afternoon. And I felt completely overwhelmed and enveloped in the love of God, inside and out. And ever since by faith, I saw that stream, God flowing [inaudible 00:08:45] supply, redeeming love has been my thing and will be until I die. And that's what God wants for us. He wants us to dwell in [inaudible 00:08:54], living on the mountaintop. He wants that for us. He wants us to feel like shouting even if we don't want to, but feel like it. He wants us to walk around with joy in our hearts and smiles on our faces, with our mind free and filled with a peace that passes understanding and joy unspeakable, and full of glory. He wants us to see the angels ascending and descending. He wants us to have all the visions and all the glory and all the happiness and joy of heaven right here and now. At least what we can handle of it.

And he wants us to handle a little bit more every day, and we just step into it. Take it as it comes and walk into it one step at a time and little by little, joy by joy, [inaudible 00:09:37], precept upon precept. Or as one of our hymns says, "Change from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise." (Charles Wesley, Love Divine AllLoves Excelling).

That's our witness. Then when we are filled with that joy, that's our witness. When we feel Christ living in our hearts and walking among us and empowering us, that's our witness. As we ascend to where Christ has already ascended and invites us and is preparing a place for us, and I will come again, bring you with me. That's not just like later, that's now. We're on our way now. And a bunch of our songs. We do that song, but I'm gonna try to remember another song right now. We have so many hymns to go to. It's about our relationship with God, with each other, with the world around us.

From the cross, Jesus said, "Father forgive them." (Luke 23:34). That's our bearing that even under the harshest treatment we love. That's our choice, to respond in love. That's His spirit moving within us to make us feel that way, make us want to do that. The spirit that empowered Jesus to rise from the dead, Paul said, is the same spirit that is in you, quickening your immortal body, empowering you to love as Christ has loved, empowering us with these spiritual gifts that we might serve and enjoy and minister to one another through these gifts and to the world around us.

So I close with my favorite verse from 1 John 4:7-8. "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Those who do not love do not love God, for God is love."

Transcript of the sermon preached extemporaneously at Briensburg UMC on March 3, 2019.