Tuesday, November 5, 2019

How to Be Blessed

The Beatitudes are Jesus parallel to Moses giving the 10 commandments. These eight Beatitudes are Jesus laying out the introduction where it led to his Sermon on the Mount. For All Saints Sunday it's traditional for us to use one or the other of the accounts of the Beatitudes. The actual one in lectionary for today is the one from Luke, which has four, but some words are a little different and it still has eight, but four of them were positive and the others are reversed to the negative. So four Beatitudes and four woes in the Sermon on the Plain.

Preached extemporaneously at Briensburg UMC on November 3, 2019.

So there's some parallel similarities, but just like the King James version being more familiar to me than some others. So the Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount and all is kind of more familiar, I guess, in a way, or we think about it more as the Beatitudes. And it begins with this verse that Jesus saw the crowds and went up the hill where he sat down, his disciples gathered around him and he began to teach them.

So that begins the real blessing, I think. Just think how it would feel to be in this crowd, depicted in the picture here, of people gathered around Jesus to hear him lay out his plan for humanity. His vision for the kingdom of God. We have his law that is recorded later, but you kind of can see as you read the scriptures, that he was mixing that into the whole of his teaching all along, how we love God and love one another, and that we do this the way that Jesus did it. And we follow his example of love, not just any body who has some kind of way of thinking about it, but the example that Jesus set.

So we're following him and we're hearing his teachings, and we're just sitting there and Jesus' feet. Well, what price is he really inviting us to? I think one of the main reasons why this is important for All Saints Sunday is that we're invited to sit there spiritually right now. We're all gathered around the feet of Jesus wherever we are. We don't have to go over there, climb the mountain. Wherever we turn to Christ, we find that he's there and we can learn from him and look at his example.

We can see how he lived out these teachings, the Beatitudes and the teachings that emanate from them in the Sermon on the Mount as they filled them up and fulfilled the Old Testament law and build on that with the new covenant and the New Testament that we share. Not only Christ, but also all those in Christ. We have a small congregation here and yet we're vastly outnumbered by the ones in this room that we see by the ones who are here with us that we don't see.

Who we can feel their presence as they look in on us and as they join us in the spirit, and as Wesley put it, they seen the lamb in hymns above and we in hymns below. Every once in a while I mention that during the time when we'd sing the doxology every Sunday and it says, "praise him above your heavenly host," you know, I could do some visualize several of those people, my mother, different members of the congregation that have come and gone to be with the Lord, other family and friends that have been important in my life. And I can just see them, Cheryl's dad and mom, different ones, you know, just to start, I probably shouldn't of started making a list. Everybody's family and friends, all of them.

It's just a beautiful feeling to know that we are all family. Whether we can see each other or not, that we're present. We have eternal life. They have eternal life. We're all a part of who Christ is, and Christ invites us and everybody into that kind of an internal spiritual fellowship that is not dependent on our physical state. But instead what we're willing to live into, and we see in his life the example of how he lived out those Beatitudes.

Then he invites us to try to do that ourselves and live into those conditions and receive those blessings. So I put on there the word as it appears in Greek, and of course it's all Greek to me, but "makarias" is the word that's translated blessed, and another way is just happy. But it's a supreme happiness that we all are looking for. It's heaven. It's the glory of God, the Chicana glory of God that he invites us into, to live into, and to grow into, which might take an eternity, but he's been around for a long time with his happiness and he wanted us to be as happy as he is. God wants us to be as happy as God is.

So that we would have the fullness of our joy. So that's when we talk about being blessed. It's just Christ is inviting us to the ultimate in his blessings, and blessings that we enter into a little bit of joy and then it just keeps growing and becomes more perfect, throughout all of this life and the life of the world to come.

One of our prayers at the grave side is that we would grow, that the person who has led upside their earthly tabernacle, that now they have returned to God who gave it, and they're going on from strengths to strength in that service to the heavenly kingdom. And another predator that we have at the funerals is that we pray that our beloved will live in perpetual light. And these are all ways of expressing the divine glory of God that is there for us, it waits for us, not just in the life of the next world, but in this life and on into the next life.

We see these as one continuum and we don't... Our body is laid aside and maybe the promise is that one day our bodies will be restored, but whether they're laid aside or whether they're restored, we still are in Christ, and Christ in us. And our life is eternal. And our families and friendships and fellowship that we share is eternal. It makes changes in this life all the time, you know, as people move to another part of the country, and people go through different situations in their lives and all, and then it changes in the next life too.

So there's a lot of ways that we... The way we relate to each other changes according to our circumstances, but it's all one life, a life in Christ. And that Christ is inviting us into perfect blessing. The blessings that we see him expressing in his life and in preaching about in his life. And then each of these Beatitudes has a condition with it, and it's not the kind of condition where it's transactional. It's not something that well you do this and you'll get that.

But it's rather the condition is the condition of your soul, the condition of your relationship with God and with the people around you. This is the condition your condition is in. This is your state of being. What kind of person are you? This is your character. What kind of person are you? How do you relate to the people around you? How do you relate to God? What's important to you in life? Those aren't just transactions that you can turn off and on. Those are like a switch or something. Those are something... Those are that the way you're growing in life, the trajectory of your life, the direction you're headed in, and the condition of your heart and your mind.

What kind of things... How do you think about people? What kind of things are on your mind? What kind of feelings do you have? What kind of thoughts do you have? That's what Christ is getting at and so that requires a lifetime of growth, doesn't it? As we grow into the likeness of him who filleth all in all. The Bible is always calling us and inviting us. Paul wrote, "Whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are pure." And to think on those kind of things.

That's what Christ is inviting to in the Beatitudes. Look at the Beatitudes, see how Christ manifested those in his life and then see how best it can every day be growing into that likeness, and be more like that. Most of them are like contradictory to the ways that we normally think would make us happen. And so that's an extra step of growth because we have to by faith say, well this is Christ and this is how Christ is inviting us, and I believe that and that's what I want to be like and that's why I want my world to be like, so that's what I'm going to grow into. I'm going to work on that and try to become that way.

Then as we become that light, the more we are that way, then the greater the blessings that follow. And we're sort of always on a little continuum, probably somewhere, nobody that I know of is at the very opposite of the Beatitudes. Some seem like they might be for the moment, you know, but they're not really that way, but sometimes we get to thinking that some people are completely the opposite, but nobody's actually completely, they don't think, you know? But anyway, somewhere between the complete opposite, but nobody I know is the complete absolute reflection of Christ either.

So somewhere in there we all find ourselves, and everybody else is in there somewhere too, in that mix, always growing on the spiritual journey. And as we grow into that condition, as we grow into that character, that reflection of Christ, then we also grow into the promises that are included in the Beatitudes. If you're this common person, then this is going to be the kind of blessing that you're going to get out of it. And the more you're... These kind of people that are here, then the more those blessings will... those promises will come to fruition in our lives, is that we live into the promises of God.

We live into the image that God created us in the first place. We're really just becoming who we really are. I guess it's like, you know, we want to be the fullness of who we were made to be, to reflect fully the image of God. That is the image in which the Bible says we were created, male and female. Everybody created in this image, image of God. That's what we're going into, and the promise is we can do this. The promise is it's an invitation and then Jesus goes on in the Sermon on the Mount to kind of explain how, and he goes on in his life to demonstrate how.

The church through the ages, including all our family and friends that have handed the faith down to us, and others through the ages who have handed this faith down to us, the mighty times witnesses have been showing us how, and have been helping us come into the glory and the joy and the victory and the wonder of true happiness.

Then we also have that as part of our opportunity to pass on, not only to the other people around us of this generation, but to the generation and generations yet to follow. They would be a part of that mighty throne. The crowd throughout from history, from eternity upon eternity. We're a part of that. We're just kind of in this little niche in the flow right now.

Charles Wesley on the other hymn wrote about all the mighty number of people that have gone on before. Many have gone on and have already crossed the river. Some are partying now, and some will cross later. That's us. We're in that number.

So that's the Beatitudes that Christ invites us into and it's the same part of the same promise and the same invitation of the great invitation. When he said, "Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, I will give you rest. Come take your yoke and learn of me. For I am meek and lowly and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls."

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Painting: BĂ©atitudes by Joseph Matar,

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Jesus Expects Us to Follow His Example

I have set an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you. John 13:15 (GNT)

I've had the privilege of being involved in different kinds of worship services throughout my life, different contexts, different churches, different denominations, different ways of doing the symbolic foot washing service.

When the Bible tells us about Jesus doing this foot washing, He said that He was setting this as an example of the kind of relationship we're supposed to have with each other, and the world around us.
In John's gospel, it's the bigger part of the Communion Service. In John's gospel, he just mentions that they had the bread and the wine as they had their Passover meal, and then he elaborates on this part of the service they share. The foot washing part of their experience.

[Listen to the audio for this sermon]
preached extemporaneously 
at Briensburg UMC on September 22, 2019.

For many people, the Gospel, and everything that Jesus did gets marginalized somehow as something that's unattainable. Something that was only to make us look bad, only to show how good that God is. And it does show that, but that's not all it is. Sometimes we have a tendency to think, "Well, Jesus did that, but I can't. I'm not even supposed to try."

But Jesus said He was doing this as an example of what He wants us to do, and expects us to do as His followers. I would like to reflect today on one of the meaningful foot washing services I have participated in, and as you share that reflection, perhaps it will touch you as it touched me.

Several decades ago, many more than several, but forty years ago I had the privilege of living for a couple years on the family farm in Tennessee where my father's mother grew up. Her father had three jobs there. My Great Grandfather was a blacksmith in the community, and he was a fireman on the railroad, and he was a preacher. So I got to meet some of the people who were my Grandparent's age who still remembered my Great Grandfather. They told me stories about him and everything, and so that was pretty neat! To live in that community and to worship sometimes with the people that my Great Grandfather, and my Grandmother, and my Grandparents worshiped with.

Several of the smaller churches in the community of that denomination had a tabernacle that they shared, and whenever they had in their Communion Service they would meet up at the tabernacle from all the different churches. And there'd be a whole lot of people. It was like an open auditorium, and they would have a lot of singing, and a lot of preaching, and a lot of food for a dinner on the grounds. Then a lot more singing, a lot more preaching, and a lot more singing. There was lots of singing!

In fact, you know I've told this story about how every once in a while, I'll tell you about this lady that requested for Brother Billy to sing in the garden, and that's where that was. And I still don't know whether she meant, sing the hymn, "In the Garden," or to go outside and sing in the garden, but that's where that was.

As we gather for Communion after the meal and after a lot of singing and a lot of preaching. Then we shared the bread and wine, and then the way they did it was everybody separated, the men to one side and the women to the other for modesty. They passed out basins of water and towels, and then we each took turns getting down on our knees and bathing each other's feet. It's one of the most emotional, spiritual times, experiences of my life. To be with these people that I had learned to respect and love, that we worked side by side with, that we worshiped with, that we struggled with, and we went through things in the community with, and people I looked up to getting down on their knees and washing my feet and I theirs.

Along with the singing came a little shouting and a lot of people hugging each other's necks and weeping in each other's arms. As all this we brought up is that the love and the stresses together and all this washed through the crowd throughout our hearts and minds while we symbolically washed each other's feet.

It's hard to think that you could have that kind of experience with somebody, I mean go outside and not love them even more and then come back together before it all wore off and do it all over again. That's one of the things I love about our time here of passing the peace. When we shake each other's hands, and hug each other, and smile at each other, and talk to each other, and remind each other the love that we share, as Mitch said it that "swells in the room." I love that way you said that in your prayer. So then as we kind of melted back together, all the people back to their places singing some more.

In this Bible passage, the disciples shared that experience in a small group with Jesus being around to wash their feet. You can kind of get a little bit of a sense of that when you think about somebody you look up to, somebody you love, somebody you respect humbling themselves to wash your feet. They got up from that place and then they went outside and they talked and sang as they walked.

They talked about heaven, they talked about love, and they sang hymns the Bible says. They made their way out to where Jesus was being arrested, and giving himself up for us. And Jesus in this room before they left, 
He said, "I've done this to set an example for you that what I've been doing, all of it really, symbolized, all these things that I've been doing, all the ways I've been loving you, all the ways I've been showing you God's love, that's what I expect you to do for each other and for the world around you."

And then He gave that commandment. You know, the lectionary reading for today I think talks about when Jesus celebrated the Great Commandment and said the greatest is that you love God and love one another, and on these two commandments saying all the law and the Gospel, and the prophets.

In this law, toward Gethsemane after the foot-washing, Jesus gave His commandment. He said that, "You are to love one another as I have loved you."

It's so wonderful, isn't it? To think that Jesus has given us an example, and invited us to love one another the way that He has loved us. And that he expects us to do that and that's not something for us to wish we could do, but something for us to learn how to do.

Like the song said, "Teach us how to love one another! Lift us to the joy divine!"

So one of the songs that everyone told me was my Great Grandfather's favorite song, then it had become one of my favorites. "Life's Railway to Heaven." It's about keep your hand upon the throttle and your eye upon the rail, and this is the chorus.

"Blessed Savior! Thou wilt guide us! 
Till we reach the blissful shore,
Where the angels wait to join us, 
in thy praise forever more."

One more thought as we close. Yesterday, I shared a picture on the Internet: "Jesus knew Judas' heart and still washed his feet."

Christ invites us to love each other. Christ invites our family and friends to love each other. Christ invites the world to love each other. That way, right now. 

In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Kingdom of God is Within You

No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’; because the Kingdom of God is within you.” Luke 17:21 (GNT)

Jesus came preaching that a Kingdom of God, and he was saying the Kingdom of God has come not into you, and he would invite the people to be a part of that Kingdom.

Somehow between then and now it became popular to think that God's Kingdom and heaven and everything about what God is inviting us to, is applying to something way off in the distant parts of the universe, or even beyond that universe, and way off in the distant future. But Christ invites us into something that is for us now, a Kingdom that we enter into now, and be a part of now, and that extends then into these other remote places they will not be going for a long time.
[Listen to the audio for this sermon]
preached extemporaneously 
at Briensburg UMC on September 15, 2019.

The expanse of the universe and the life of the world to come, are things that are going on in the future. The Kingdom of God is now, and we're all invited to be a part of it.

And it's in him. They saw must struggle about how if you go off to the highest mountains, God is there down to the lowest depths. Wherever you might go. Paul wrote about how in him we live, and move and have our being.

Then we had Emerson and I tried to memorize this last night, so we'll see how I do. I think Arby, just...
"What lies behind us..." "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us," Emerson.  Praise the Lord and thank you for the prompts.

Well, John wrote in his letter "Greater is he that is in me than he that is in the world." And then in Revelation he wrote that God said "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with people."

So, over and over the Bible testifies to what Jesus is saying right here in this passage, challenging the thinking of those who wanted to put it off somewhere unreachable. Because if it's unreachable, then it's also not a problem, if we don't go into it. And this is kind of a little bit of the argument, if love can't be expressed in its fullness and perfection, then some people think that we shouldn't even try at all.

And what Jesus is saying is "Come on in now, the Kingdom of God is within you. The kingdom of God is among you."  And he invites to be a part of that kingdom now, to see the realities of who we are, ourselves, and who the people around us are. To experience that presence and that joy.

So, the Kingdom of God is the kingdom of love. That's God's law. And there are a lot of ways to look at the Bible and people look at the Bible in a lot of ways. But Jesus taught us to look at the Bible through the lens of love. And if we do that, we're going to have a whole different perspective that we view our whole faith from.

Then, anybody who looks at it from any other perspective. Whatever that may be. Whosoever verses, or whatever opinions, or whatever views that somebody has as they read the sacred pages. If they're not reading them from the perspective of God is love, that the basis of understanding the scriptures is love as Jesus taught. That the commandment of God is to love one another as Christ has loved us. They're going to have a different perspective, and there's really no use in arguing about it. Because they're going to have a whole different approach to the scriptures, which is going to mean a whole different outcome on how you're going to understand. 

So, Christ invites us to this prism: The view of love in every word that we read, in every psalm that we sing, in our prayers, in our fellowship in our evangelism.

I don't know if I told you but I appointed Mitch as our Evangelism Chairperson during the Pride Festival because he was doing such a good job telling anybody about how we love each other here.  So, Praise the Lord. Amen.

In all of that we view love is a central focus there. Because of John 3:16 which we'll study about. Besides, We'll get through the 16th verse. And Leslie, let's remind us of what that is.

"For God so Loved the word that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life."

So with that, God is inviting us to be a part of the kingdom of Christ. Now, it's a kingdom governed by love. There's a verse in a Christmas hymn "Oh Holy night," and it says "Love is his law and peace is this...something" [Love is his law, and his gospel is peace.] Love and peace. and our famous hymn, Oh! for A Thousand Tongues to Sing, a big Wesleyan hymn, has that final stanza that says "Anticipate your heaven below and own that love is heaven."

Just think if everybody loved each other in our whole community around Mashall County the way we love each other here in this room right now. Don't you think the world, at least in Marshall County, would be a better place? And what about our whole country? And our world? So, we want to stand on that. And we don't want to give up a world that we love one another as Christ loved us. How important is that? It makes the difference between the joy and sorrow in the whole world right now.

And certainly we're not the only room where loves is being preached in Marshall County, or around the world. But we're one of them and we believe in it. Amen? And through that love we are becoming more than we are, even just as we reflect on that and think about God's love for us, in practice that love for each other and the world around us, it changes us and it changes the world. Maybe not a whole world overnight-- maybe not us overnight. But it changes things for us to love one another. To try to love one another, even if we're not very good at it. To practice it, and get better. And it brings us into a oneness. That nothing else can bring us into. You can't be one with people you don't love.

So, Paul talks about how we are growing into the stature of the fullness of him that filleth all in all. And he talks about how that is the work of Christ on the cross, reconciling all things to himself. All that unity and oneness can only really come about by love. Any other attempt to do that puts us at odds with each other somewhere, but love brings us into harmony with each other.

We still will be all different, and we celebrate that and go in and instead getting rid of that we celebrate all of our uniqueness. Just think of how that keyboard would sound this morning that there was only one note. It would get a little monotonous if all the keys only had one note. But because it has many and they're all played softly, they come into harmony and you give us some beautiful music. That's what God invites us to. When he invites us to the Kingdom of God. So, he says the Kingdom of God has come nigh until you. The Kingdom of God is near at hand. The kingdom of God is within you. The kingdom of God is among you.  In a way they seem like separate concepts but they're not. The word that is translated in some translations as "within" says "the Kingdom of God is within you," is translated in other translations "the kingdom of God is among you." 

Because that's the definition of word. It's got two definitions "within" and "among" and they're not that quite different. They're part of the same concept that Jesus is talking to us about. But we do have a tendency to think of our relationship with God, and our religion, and our views about the faith, in very personal terms. And we should, it is personal and there are aspects of that that are just very personal. But when we enter into our personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ, we each claim Him as our Lord and savior and some of the things we had in the affirmation faith, we used to walk out from the baptismal covenant.

We see him as our Lord and Savior. It's a very personal thing. It means personally studying the scriptures, learning how to write with the divine word of truth. Going through the feelings that we have, sorting out the thoughts that we have and hearing God speak to us and call us as individuals to "follow Him."
But it's also a "we thing." I'm not the only one that is doing that in this room, am I? Each and every one of us is doing that. Each and every one of us has our personal relationship with God in Christ. Each and every one of us in this whole room has our own experiences and understandings and views and questions, and challenges, and affirmations, and doubts and all the things that go into being a person of faith. Each one of us has those and we share that.

Jesus said, "I am the light." Jesus was talking about that he was light of the world, but then he told everybody in sermon of the mount, "You are the light of the world." Collectively and individually, whether we are together and whether we are apart, the light of God shines through us and into us and we share that.

We share the relationship that we have. That's why I love about the testimony at time and we say about things that God has blessed us with. Then we get to share those joys or while I'm about to pray at times when we share the concerns that are on our heart. Then we share those. It's more than just saying what they are. It's a sharing. Don't we feel that? When somebody tells us about something that's painful going on. We feel that, don't we? We empathize with that and it becomes part of our suffering as well. And when somebody has the blessing and the joy and Knox [newborn baby in our congregation] is born, we feel that joy, we get to share that joy. It becomes as part of our joy, we empathize with that joy, and there's a unity there, isn't it? There's a oneness there. Like family. Like being the family of God. Like being a family. Together.

I think that's part of what Wesley is trying to capture in writing that stanza,  "Anticipating you heaven below and own that love is heaven." Because we're already entering into that heaven.

When we feel those joys, when we share those. That's why we sing Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love." We're all entering into heaven. We've already entered in. When we have that little spark and the leap of faith that makes us, let us jump over that chasm of doubt and just believe, and just love and trust. And as we grow in that, then the kingdom grows within us. And as we all grow in that, the Kingdom grows among us.

And we go out the door in a few minutes, the kingdom -- we'll spread it around wherever we go because everybody we love, everybody we smile at, and everybody we shake hands with gets a little piece of the Kingdom through that contact.

We take Christ, we take his life and take his love. We take his friendship and joy, acceptance and nurture and support and encouragement and all the things that we are experiencing right now in these moments, and we share it with everybody we know in all kinds of little ways. Most of them are not even words. Most of them just the way we connect with family, friends, strangers, whoever else whose paths we cross this week.

Behold, the Kingdom of God is within and among you. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Love Even Your Enemies

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
   Matthew 5:43-44 (GNT)  
 There's a saying going around says, "Break the rules, love everyone."

 When Jesus gave this part of the sermon on the Mount, he broke all the rules. He contradicted the law of Moses, and he contradicted the traditional interpretation of the law of Moses in radical ways.

This is just one place where he did it, so you can tell why it made a lot of the people around him mad whenever he talked, whenever he told people his vision for humanity. When he told people what he thought God meant by whatever God said, and what God wanted for us. This was radical because he contradicted Moses in the Bible. What it said right there in the Bible in plain (not English), Hebrew.

[Listen to the transcript of the audio for this sermon]
preached extemporaneously 
at Briensburg UMC on September 8, 2019.

Jesus contradicted what most of the theological thinking of his day was. He told people, don't do it that way, do it this way. Love even your neighbor, which takes love to a whole new level doesn't normally think about it. Everybody knows it is easy to love the people who love you, who can bolster your career, or throw a party and invite you to it, or do all kind of things like that. But it's a little harder when people, if they don't like you. To still love them.

That takes a little more work, that takes a little more practice, that takes a little more thinking and studying on how best to do that. But that's what He calls us to. I put a picture for this.  I'm doing landmark passages that are landmarks to my own spiritual growth along the way. So today's landmark is about loving even our enemies. I've put a picture there to go with the Bible, and the Book of Discipline because that's kind of what Jesus contradicted, the similar materials from His age in giving these and other things that He said.

The Bible for Jesus was really what we think of as the Catholic Bible today. The Old Testament, including the parts that were removed a few hundred years ago by some of the reformers. It was hundreds of years later before the New Testament was added to our Bible. So He was looking at the law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets and the Psalms that they sang and everything like that, that was the scripture that He quoted from.

It's also in this passage, the scripture He'd known and quoted from, but that He contradicted directly, intentionally. We have the Book of Discipline. Of course, it wasn't around. It's just a couple of hundred years old. It's our Book of Discipline for our church. But they had the Talmud, and they had other materials like that. Theologian's papers. People would write, you know,  things that people would say, and they would get together kind of like our representatives do in general conference. They voted on whatever they thought that the Bible meant, and sometimes one side would win, sometimes the other. It would go back and forth like it does now.

Jesus directly confronted those votes. He confronted those decisions on how the scriptures were being interpreted and applied. Probably the most radical place that he did that was not even here. It was when he said, when he was asked, what are the most important commandments in the whole scripture, in the whole Bible? He said, "Love God, and love one another." Then he added this too now, "On these two commandments, hang all the law and the prophets also." Those two commandments are what pull together and interpret everything that we read in the Bible. Whether it's the law, or whether it's people preaching on the law.

By extension, everything else we talk about, everything else we do as the people of God is to be interpreted by love. That made a lot of people mad. But not everybody, because some people believed in Him, and they followed Him, and His law, and His vision. But it still made some people mad.

It addresses really the way we do things today with the, what we do with the Bible. What we do with not only the Bible as it came about in its original forms, but also the various translations and interpretations and the way we apply the scriptures to our lives. When we do that in love and in genuine curiosity to know what God is trying to communicate to us, the God who loves us, the God who identifies as love. Or some other basis and standard of what we want to say, and what we want it to mean, and what we want to do with it.

People have always, and still do, come up with all kinds of ways to justify some of the most atrocious applications of the scripture that they can imagine. We stand against that. We stand for love. We stand for loving each other the way that Christ has loved us. Fully, completely, unconditionally. Absolutely. Universally.
The Bible that Jesus quoted from Exodus 21, he said, "The punishment shall be life for life. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise." There's some other ones in there if you read before and after that.

Except that right after this, there's another one that he said, that addressed the issue of slavery. He said, "If anybody harms their slave, and harms their eye or their tooth, then the payment that they need to make to that slave is to set that slave free." Freedom will be the price that they pay. Well, I think we're pretty clear on that, but that didn't really happen among our slave holding ancestors.

They came out with a slave Bible, where they just took out the whole book of Exodus. So that the Bible wouldn't say that anymore. They prevented people from being able to read, and were not learning how to read, so that if they did get a hold of a copy of the Bible with the book of Exodus in it, they wouldn't be able to read it! Some people will go to almost any length to suppress the word of God, the true word of God, in order to oppress others.

So that's what Jesus was standing up against, when he said this about... They took this, and they went around talking about all the time the way that we still hear it being talked about. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. The Bible says that, right there. It does. Says about so in the book of Leviticus, that everybody likes to quote. 

Whether they take the ones that they have applied to someone else, and they say, "Oh, those are still valid for today." But the ones that apply to themselves, they say, "Oh, that's in another category, the category of the ones that don't apply today."

That's pretty much the whole basis for deciding which apply and which don't. The ones they want to apply to somebody else, they still apply. I saw on a meme on the internet recently, and somebody had a tattoo of a verse in Leviticus that they wanted to say what God was against, you know? There's only a few verses later that it says don't put tattoos. So that's not the way to decide.

So Jesus was really coming against people, and saying, decide it on this other basis. Decide it on the basis of love, not on the basis of whatever your personal whims are, or what you even, even on the basis of what our delegates vote on. Those are all guidance. In fact, the whole Bible, and all of the body of theology is guidance of people pointing to Jesus, and saying, there's Jesus, find Him, and get into a relationship with Him, and let Him love you. You love Him, learn all about love. Love each other. Love the world around you. Be the people of God loving each other and the world around us, no matter what. Even if they're our enemies.

Segue back to the passage. I think I was still on the passage, but that's where Jesus was doing. He was confronting those notions. Another thing was that in the book of Leviticus, that verse that Jesus lifted out as a basis of interpretation, said thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Well, when Jesus said this about that. You've heard it said, love your friends, and hate your enemies. This was not in the Bible that it said love your friends and hate your enemies. It was the votes of the delegates, you might say. It was the votes of the people who were trying to interpret this. It was the kind of orthodox thinking of the day.

That since the Bible said, (this is the reasoning), since the Bible said love your friends, it must mean also that you're supposed to hate your, everybody else. If they weren't your friends, if they weren't your neighbor, if they weren't your family, if you didn't love them, then hate them. That's the way they applied it. That's the way a lot of people look at it today. Love your friends, and hate your enemies.

But I say to you, love everybody. Even your worst enemies. Especially your enemies. If you do, then you will be able to be called children of your father in heaven. Doesn't that remind you of what he said in the Beatitudes, because really that's his summary as He began, His introduction to Sermon on the Mount, and one of the things He said, "Blessed are the peace makers. They shall be called the children of God."

So He confirms it in His teachings, not only some of the things that were already written in the Bible, which I'm sure He knew because my understanding in Hebrews, call Him the author and finisher of our faith. He knows all about our faith. If anybody, and in fact, the Bible even says, in John, about how that Jesus is the word made flesh, living among us. Living out this whole expression of God, self-expression of God among us. He's demonstrating how we can do that.

What better demonstration of loving our enemy, than when Jesus was hanging on the cross, and forgave the people that were hanging him on the cross? Even when they were torturing him. Sometimes we might think, well, maybe later, after he got over it, he forgave him. No, he forgave them while they were doing it. Oh, later, maybe after they begged him to forgive him. No. He forgave them even while they were in the middle of doing it. He loved them.

That's pretty profound; that's more than what I can really wrap my mind around, actually. But that's the demonstration that he gave of what he meant. That's what the Bible means to Jesus. That's what He invites it to mean to us. It may take us an eternity to work into that and live into it, but that's what we're trying to do here.

In the last verse that Peg read a while ago, said, "you must be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect," in this translation. I think in the translation that she read, "complete as your father in heaven is complete." In the Message version, it says, "live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you." Jesus pointed out that God makes it to rain on the just and the unjust. He shares His blessings with everybody. Good, bad, everything in between.

God loves everybody. God loves the whole world, to send Christ to be our savior. Teach us how to love one another. Teach us how have that joy. "Lift us to the joy divine," as the song says. So live that way toward one another as best we can. The more we do it, the better we'll get at it. Practice love. Practice up on love. Put it to work in our lives. It seems almost obvious that if we can love, the more we can love our enemies, the even better and easier it will be to love our friends, automatically.

The more lovable we become as people of love. So that's what Christ invites us to. So that's why it's a landmark to me, is because it's just one of those things in spiritual realm that really guides us, and shows us the way to being complete and full and fulfilled and happy. In this life, and in the life of the world to come. 

In the name of Jesus, amen.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Communion of All Who Remember

The sacrament of holy communion is one of the landmarks of spirituality in my personal life. Many of the religious experiences I've had have taken place around the table of the Lord. That's where I was saved. That's where I was called to preach That's where I was filled with the Holy Spirit. And many other things that have happened.

Sense of communion and oneness and closeness with my family and friends who have gone on before, others that are scattered around the world. And we emphasize all these things in a ritual of the church. The ongoing love and fellowship that we have regardless of whether we're in the same building or in the same country, or even in this world or the next.

Transcript of the [audio for this sermon] preached extemporaneously
at Briensburg UMC on September 1, 2019.

And the closeness of Jesus himself, the presence of Christ in the sacrament. We have a hymn in the hymnal that isn't a very catchy tune, so it doesn't get sung much, but it's an old Wesley hymn that says that we don't really know how this happens, that somehow this bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ. And we don't get into the arguments that people have traditionally got into and did get into at the time that hymn was written about all of that. We just say that Christ is present here.

In my ministerial training at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, when I went there for the course of study back in the '80s, I was really blessed to have a person who taught about the sacraments, who said that for us as Methodists, it's not so much about what happens on the table as what's happening around the table. What's important for us is what's happening in our hearts and minds and relationships, in our congregation and in the world around us when we share the supper of the Lord and extend that to others.

It's the Lord's table and it's an inclusive table. It has been, that's been a manner of controversy since the earliest days of Methodism. John Wesley broke with the training that he had and the upbringing that he had in this aspect, that it used to be for him very rigid. And there's some funny stories, sort of funny anyway. Funny, but you know, of him being very restrictive of who would be allowed to receive the sacrament from his hand.

But as he continued to minister, then he changed his view. And this new view that the table would be open to everyone became the prevailing view among the Methodists and it continues to this day because John Wesley reasoned that what better place to meet Jesus than at his table. If we're going to believe that Christ is present in the sacrament, then why would we turn anybody away from Christ?

One thing that really stands out to me is that as we highlight this, as the Methodists always have, as a means of grace, one of the great means of receiving the grace of God, why would we ever want to prevent somebody at the times of their greatest need? When people are suffering, when they're struggling, when they're questioning, when they're wondering, when they're trying to work things out, and all this, that's when they need to be here. When they're going through difficulties in their relationships and difficulties in their life and everything that they're doing, that's when they need this sacrament the most. That's when they need the grace, all the grace that we can help them find.

And so, the table is open. We extend that same invitation that whosoever will may come. And the way that I learned it normally in my ... let me word it here in a few minutes. Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him and wish to live in peace with one another. And I always add this, usually add this I should say, regardless of your age or your religious affiliation, or any other circumstances, because for some people it's not very clear if that even means them. Yes, it does. This means you under what circumstances.

When I was a child, before my dad became a preacher, sometimes when my parents would not be going to church that Sunday, I would get dressed, I put on my tie because I was nerdy when being a nerd wasn't cool. And I'd, as a child, go across the road to the church across the way. And one Sunday I went there and they were having communion. And at that church, they passed the elements down the rows. And so they passed the bread down and when it got to the person beside me, they held it up in the air and passed it to the person next to me on the other side, make sure I couldn't reach it. And they did the same with the wine.

Of course, I didn't understand then but I did feel the exclusion. And I feel it right now as I talk about, just as real as it happened last Sunday, as it would have happened last Sunday. And it's been almost 60 years ago.

Two main reasons, I later found out, were because my age, I was a child, and because of my religious affiliation, I wasn't a member of that church. You know, I'd have to say, there's other reasons that people get excluded, a lot of other reasons. And none of them are any good. And so, I lump the rest and say, or for any other circumstance.

It's the Lord's table and Christ is the one extending the invitation. What we're doing is just what the disciples did when Jesus said, and he took the loaves and the fish from the boy and fed the 5,000, he just gave it to them and said, "You feed them." That's what we're doing when we participate. That's our role, to facilitate everybody gathering around the table and having their lives transformed by Jesus into whatever Jesus wants you to be.

Well, there's one sermon. "This my blood which seals God's covenant, my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." Remember it's in the biblical sense. It's more than just recollection. And remember it's in the biblical sense, it's more than memorializing an event or a person. Remember it's in the biblical sense, it's another word for empathy. It is where we live into an experience. Something that might have happened to us, but more often than not, something that happened to someone else, and now I've become a part of our live and we're a part of that moment.

So when Jesus says, "Do this in remembrance of me," he's inviting us to the cross with him. He's inviting us to the moments of ministry with him. And those moments become our moments. Those healings become our healings. The prayers, the meals, the fellowship, the songs, the scriptures, it all becomes a part of who we are.

The night that Jesus instituted the sacrament was a night of Passover for the Jews. And that's just exactly how it's described, when the law was given. When Moses said, "From this day on, you will remember this. You will remember this Passover." And the procedures were given to help them and to facilitate them in reliving this experience, which only one generation lived through. The next generation entered into the Promised Land, and all the rest of the generations following from then until now relived this experience and remember that experience of the Exodus, not because they were there, but because they've been brought into the experience and it has become a part of who they are by empathy, by the sacramental acts that they shared among each other and passed down from generation to generation as we do.

And so, when Jesus extended this one more way, that's what he was extending. And adding to that, "This is my body, this is my blood. It's here for you. Remember me." And so, that's what we do when we remember Christ, remember all of our own personal experiences. But that's just a drop of water in the bucket of all the ... in the ocean, you might even say. Of all the experiences of humanity that we're a part of when we remember in the biblical sense of remembering.

We're one body. When we break the bread, we emphasize this loaf, even though it's just one loaf, when we break this, it's like us being one body. Many as we are, and many as we are, it's not just as many as we are in that room, and it's not just this one loaf. This loaf becomes a part of all the other loaves that are being broken around the world in remembrance of Christ. This becomes the chalice from which all the other chalices are also filled, and we all share together as one body in Christ. The love and the sacrifice that Jesus made, and the invitation that Jesus gives to everybody, "Come unto me all ye that labor and heavy laden and I will give you rest." Bringing us into one body, even if we don't recognize it. Even if others don't recognize it. We're one body in Christ. One faith, one hope, one baptism, one calling, one God and Father of us all. And we share together the blessings of Christ.
We're being transformed and that's far from perfect in the way we live it out and express it. Amen? But that's what Christ is doing in us, is continually working to transform our lives into the likeness of him.

We're participants of the one body. In fact, one of our rituals says that and quotes the Bible where the Bible says that he is made us to participate in the body of Christ. To participate with him, who on the night he gave himself up for us took the bread and wine. We all have many different gifts, but it's one Spirit that gives them and sends us to minister those gifts to each other in a world around us. Like a royal priesthood of believers.

Then Jesus said this, he said, "Do this," and the first thing that comes to our minds, of course, is do this, take some bread, take some wine. But I think he means do this in a whole broader sense. That's the sacramental part, that's the part where we ... that has its own effectiveness of bringing us to the touch-point between the physical and the spiritual. Where "they sing the lamb in hymns above, and we in hymns below."

But as we kind of let our spirit go into that moment, it brings together all the past and all the present and all the future, and invites us to do all of what Christ was doing. Invites us to the fullness. "Do this," and not just some of you, not just one of you, not just a few, but all of us, do all of this that Christ has been doing in our lives and all along.

Think about all the things he did in his ministry. Didn't he send people to do the same things? Not just to have the communion, not just to have a worship service, but to heal the sick. To help the poor. To take care of the people who are suffering around us. To bring good news to people that were not getting any good news like this. To bring the Gospel, bettering the lives of people around us. All of this that Jesus did. Everything you see Jesus doing in the Bible, that's what he's inviting us to do as well. And he's inviting us all to do that.

So as we share the sacrament this morning, I hope that everybody has a religious experience. It's a wonderful time to think about the presence of Christ. And the presence of heaven around us. Wherever God is, heaven is there. Amen? And you know that I can affirm that, wherever God is, that's what the Psalmist said, go up to the highest mountain, down to the lowest, wherever, God is here with us. Christ is present with us as we worship and as we participate in this sacrament.

And so is everybody that's in heaven with him. Our families and friends and loved ones that have gone on before us. Those that used to come here to church but now they've gone on to be with the Lord. And that's a wonderful feeling. To be in communion with each other, with Christ. And to have a permanent relationship that the world didn't give us and the world can't take away.

In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Spiritual Rebirth

Jesus answered, "I'm telling you the truth. No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

 We departed for the summer and maybe for longer, it seems to be going well, from the lectionary that I'm accustomed to preaching on, to preach on spiritual landmarks that are actually just landmarks for my spiritual life, some of the landmark passages that have guided me and have meant a lot to many through the years. This, of course, is one for me, as it is probably for just about everyone. 

Transcript of the [audio for this sermon] preached extemporaneously
at Briensburg UMC on August 18, 2019.

One of the most famous passages in the world, where it tells about Nicodemus meeting with Jesus at night, and Jesus explaining to him that you must be born again, which in turn has become a phrase that's been interpreted many different ways through the centuries, sometimes in ways that are helpful and sometimes in ways that are hurtful.

But it's still there for us to grapple with, to try to understand and to live into, as are all the passages in the Bible. The idea of being born again is one of a new beginning, a new start, and so even with a lot of different theologies taking that in a lot of different directions, it still comes down to something that we experience, something that we decide, something that we're a part of, something that is a change taking place in our personal lives. And not only in our personal lives but our lives of our family and our friends, our relationships, our congregation, and our world.

Jesus reminds us in the description of the judgment picture that he paints, where he separates the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25, that we're not just being looked at as individuals. In that passage he calls it the judgment of the nations. We're looked at collectively. And so the promise of rebirth and renewal and regeneration and refreshing are for us as individuals and collectively. God is doing new things all the time, making new adjustments and new changes in our lives to bring us to the fullness and the completeness of all the glory that he had for us, as expressed in Charles Wesley's hymn Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, where it says, "Crowned and changed from glory unto glory til in heaven we take our place, til we cast our crowns before him, lost in wonder, love, and praise."

And so the concept of spiritual rebirth is a concept of constant change and renewal and new beginnings, day by day, even hour by hour, moment by moment, situation by situation. John, in his letter that he wrote later, one of his letters he wrote later, described more about what it means to be born again, born of the Spirit. When he wrote my favorite Bible verses, I don't know if he meant them to be my favorite Bible verses, but they are. 1 John 4:7 and 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 know God, for God is love."

Our scriptures are filled with all kinds of verses that are quoted for all kinds of things. Our hymns are filled with refreshing stanzas and poetry that applies in so many different ways. But the way that Jesus applied it every time was through the lens of love, and so if anything we understand in the Bible seems out of kilter with the command that God gives us to love one another, then something needs to be changed, but not that. That means that our understanding might be messed up. Something may be wrong with something else. But the law of love stands above all others, and Jesus gave it even as Moses gave it, the great command, and said, "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." He gave us a basis for interpreting everything in scripture. If we don't understand something in that light, then we need to learn a little more about it.

One of our great hymns of our church, number 57 in the hymnal, like a theme song for Methodists all along, O for a Thousand Tongues To Sing, ends with a last stanza saying, "Anticipate your heaven below and own that love is heaven." And Charles Wesley, his hymns reflect that same, in many of the hymns that we sing, that we're called to love. And St. John here says that's what it means to be born again. To be a born-again Christian means now you look at everything through the lens of love. Now Christ's command, "Love one another as I have loved you," is paramount for you and for your life and for your soul and for anything else that you're in charge of, that you will love as Christ has loved.

Romans 12:2 kind of says this in the message, "God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you." We may be more familiar with the King James translation that says, "Be ye not conformed to the world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind." We're called to be renewed in our minds, in our spirit, in our heart, to look at things in a new way and to discover new deeper meanings and ways and to dig a little deeper in wells, look and see what things really mean, look and see what God is really saying to us in the scripture, in the fellowship of the church, in the Bible, in the hymns, in nature, in our relationships and conversations. And let ourselves be renewed, constantly refreshed, constantly growing.

It's an invitation to constant change. It's an invitation to constant discovery and wonderment at all that God has given to us and made us to be. We're created in the image of God, the Bible tells us. In some theological traditions, that has all been tossed out as being just too bad to even consider. But in our theological heritage, the image of God is stamped in the development of the soul of every person. And so the way we look at things is that God is in everybody. Everybody reflects a piece of who God is, something of God. The more we see that, then the more we really see each other as we really are and look past some of the things that are difficult sometimes to look past, in ourselves and in other people, and see the image of God. Permanent, a part of the creation of humanity, in each and every person, regardless of what else may be swirling around and what other thoughts and feelings and beliefs and practices and ideas, for the better, for the worse. Each of us.

The person that stands out to me as really demonstrating that in her life and ministry is Mother Teresa in our generation, because she said that's what she did. She went, and no matter how high and mighty and haughty or how low and poor and impoverished, and everything in between, she said she saw Jesus. Each and every person. What a transforming way to think. Is that a transformation of our minds? Would that be a transformation of your mind if you saw Jesus in every person? You must be born again in that Word for that to even start happening. That's what it means.

So Christ helped us to that, and to where that kind of an attitude where we see each other the way Christ sees us, where we love each other the way Christ loves us, where we see God in each other, that transformation and renewal of our minds. And then when Peter went to see Cornelius, there is a whole story about that with the sheet that came down and the vision and all this, but when Peter went to see Cornelius, and he was talking to them about all these things, about the Gospel, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, he recognized they had the same spirit in them that he had in him and that his friends back home had in them. And he said, "These people have received the same Spirit, just as we also have."

I think that helps us to see that whatever differences we might see in each other or the people around us, around any issue, it's the same Spirit at work within us. What he was driving at was that that same Spirit working within us and demonstrating the power of the Gospel was the proof of the pudding. That's what made it apparent that these were of the same Spirit, when they were ministering the same kinds of gifts, doing the same kinds of things, loving as they were called to love.

And we have all these spiritual gifts that come with our faith, that come with our spiritual rebirth and renewal and growth, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. As we minister those to each other and the community around us, then that kind of overcomes any kind of a verbal argument that we could make. You know, a picture paints a thousand words and things like that. Our actions speak louder than our words. If you have in you the same Spirit that Christ has in him, then the same things will follow in your way. There will be people who are touched with love, people whose lives are being healed. There will be people who are being blessed. There will be people who are being nurtured in the faith.

And so let us minister those spiritual gifts if that's what's in us. If we're really born again of the Spirit, if we're walking after the Spirit and we're growing in the Spirit, then let's minister those spiritual gifts. Jesus went on in this passage, beyond this first part of this conversation, to tell Nicodemus an example from the Exodus. Nicodemus was familiar with that, but there are those who decided to take that story of the Exodus out of the Bible, along with the Revelation and with some other passages of scripture, in their ministry to the slaves in the 1900s, in order to remove hope from their faith.

Jesus went on then to tell about John 3:16. Let's say that together. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life."

That's a promise and an invitation for everyone. We can't be letting that be twisted and abused for oppressive purposes, but we have to stand up for it, the things that are right, and stand against the things that are wrong, stand against the things that are abusive and discriminatory and exclusive and cause suffering and division and pain.

Because then Jesus went right on in the next verse and said that God did not send him to condemn anyone, but to save everyone. And he went on to explain that none of what he was doing was condemning anybody. If there is any condemnation, it's the self-condemnation of those who see the light and choose the darkness. So the conversation with Nicodemus is quite a landmark there. It gives us a lot of food for thought, doesn't it? 

For our spiritual growth for ourselves and for our church and the community, you must be born again.