Nourished by God

February 18, 2018                 1st Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9:8-17            Mark 1:9-15               John 6:35 -40

Well, we have begun our forty days of the Lenten journey. This year I found a really neat Lenten preaching series based on the I AM sayings of Jesus. Now there are eight I AM sayings, and there are only five Sundays in Lent, so we are not going to get to all of them, but we will be getting to most of them, and you can look up the others. In fact next week I will have a cheat sheet for everyone so that if you miss a week you will be able keep up.

Why are the I AM sayings important? Because they give us clues to the nature of God and Christ, and our relationship to God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. So as we talk about bread, light, doors, shepherds, and the resurrection, we’re going be talking about ourselves and our journey of our God connection.

Also every other week we will be having a short communion that is connected to the theme of the week. Some of you might find this to be strange, after all as Methodists we usually have communion only once a month. But actually in the Methodist church there is no rule about when you are supposed to have communion. Communion has always been a matter of availability. John Wesley actually encouraged people to have communion everyday, if they were in a place where a minister gave a daily communion service. He believed that communion connected us personally with God, and that it could be a touchstone to a person’s spiritual development.

Spiritual development is a journey that moves both outward and inward. During Lent we are supposed to examine ourselves on the inside, find out what is blocking us from getting close to God, try to get rid of it, and then try to come closer to God by applying our faith outward into the world. The more we see inward the more we see outward. The more we apply our faith outward, the deeper our faith develops inward.

If anyone is getting dizzy at this point don’t worry, the actual process doesn’t happen at a pace to make you sea-sick. In fact sometimes I feel that my personal spiritual development is moving at glacial speed. But it is interesting that if I look backward over a length of time I can see how I have become a little less agitated about things, and more tolerant of stuff that I would have condemned a lot more quickly. On the other hand I see injustice a lot more clearly than I used to.

But before I talk about Jesus as the bread of life, I would like to talk to you about a great exercise that I came across for Lent. This is from the health coach Ian K. Smith. Mostly he coaches physical health, exercise, and diet, but he has a neat system to help you get rid of bad habits and adopt new ones. He calls it the 1-1-1 process. Break one bad habit; add one good habit; and improve one good habit. For instance you might say that you will stop eating chocolate, start to walk a mile a day, and eat more vegetables than you already do.

But you can apply this to your Lent journey as well. What is a bad habit that is keeping you from connecting to God? What is a good habit you can add that will get you closer to God? And what is something that you already do to get closer to God that you can improve on just a bit more?

But before you decide what you want to do for your Lent 1-1-1 process let’s look at this week’s I AM statement. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Bread was the basic food of Jesus time. When you combine grain and water you get a type of protein called gluten. Besides gluten there are a lot of other nutrients in bread as long as you keep the grain whole. The complex carbohydrates in bread could sustain someone for a day’s work and provided needed calories. In a time when protein was scarce, bread provided a basic food that allowed people to get nutrition with readily available ingredients.

So when Jesus says that he is the bread of life he means that his teachings and system of spirituality are going to provide us with what we need to nourish our relationship with God. Connecting with God is not a one-shot now-we’ve-got-the-connection. Like eating bread daily we need to nourish our relationship with God every day. In the Gospels Jesus wasn’t just wandering around Galilee talking to people, he was training people in prayer, showing them how active mission work could change their attitudes and lives, and getting people to practice forgiveness and tolerance. I am sure that he was having his disciples pray everyday, and having them examine the scriptures and discuss how they could be applied in their lives.

One way for us to nourish our relationship with God is to pray. When we are children we think that prayer is something magical. So we pray for things like puppies or a new bike. But as we get older we learn that prayer is a purposeful focusing of our energy on something that we are thankful for, or something that is needed for us, or something that concerns us.

Sometimes what we pray for are nouns – people, place, and things. Dear Lord, thank you for my job, help me to pass my next exam, and please help my sister through this difficult time. But sometimes we pray about our attitudes. Dear Lord, thank you for helping me to keep calm, help me to have a good attitude at work, and help my neighbor find happiness as she tries to stop drinking. Either way you are focusing your energy on being a certain way and helping certain things to come to pass. What we pray for is put at the front of our minds so that we pay attention to it and get our minds to work on solving it. And at the same time we invite the Holy Spirit to connect us with what we need from the world to get the job done.

Another way to nourish our relationship with God is through mission. Now mission doesn’t need to be an overseas project. The word mission comes from the Latin word missio, meaning to send. Basic mission is sending your energy out into the world to help someone.  When we help someone we establish a relationship with them. Maybe your mission is to call one person a day who you feel might like to have a conversation. Maybe your mission is to sit with someone in a nursing home. Maybe your mission is to teach someone how to knit. Maybe your mission is to teach someone how to make fishing lures. It doesn’t matter. Each of these missions has as a common denominator the creation of a relationship with someone.

The three commandments are all about relationships. We are supposed to have a loving relationship with God, with other people in the world, with ourselves, and with Christ. All we really have are our relationships. So our mission in the world should be to improve those relationships, and make them be more loving, anyway we can. When we nourish our relationships with each other we also nourish our relationship with God and ourselves.

            But there is an important second part of the statement: Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Humans have a heart that hungers to understand our place in this world and the meaning of life. Some people look for their meaning in work, some in romance, some in hobbies; there are a million ways to look for the meaning of life. But Jesus says that if we follow his practice of love, and work on our understanding and relationship with God; if we connect with God, through prayer and worship, and work on our relationships through mission, then our hunger for love is fed and our thirst for understanding is quenched.   What we need to remember is that it’s an everyday feeding and quenching that will sustain and nourish us all our lives.

For Lent I am going to try to give up my bad “not enough” habit. That’s the one where I say that I am not smart enough, or don’t know enough to do something. It’s a perfection problem and it sometimes stops me from even trying to do things or connect with people. I’m going to instead try to put on a good habit of “I am able to be good enough.” Not perfect, but able to get things done and I’m going to ask the Holy Spirit to help. And I’m going to try to improve my habit of organization by praying out my day to make it more God centered and relationship centered when I organize it in the morning. These are going to be my 1-1-1 habits.

This is my Lenten Discipline. Yours can be whatever you feel you need to work on, just try to make it connect more with God in the way you need to.   Keep praying, keep looking for mission, and keep improving your loving relationships. And you will be nourished by the bread that is that is the Grace of God and Christ.

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Our Time to Reconnect with God

February 14, 2018                Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17              2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10         Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

This is a really weird year for the Lent/Easter season. Today Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day and Easter is going to be on April 1st or April Fool’s Day. The last time this happened was in 1945, which was 73 years ago. I said to someone yesterday that at least Valentine’s Day is a Saint’s Day, although there are canonical disagreements as to which early-church-priest named Valentine we are honoring. But April Fool’s is just an outright pagan holiday – I’m going to really have to put my thinking cap on to somehow figure out how to connect it with Easter.

But here we are today celebrating the beginning of 40 days of fasting along side chocolates and roses. But actually we needn’t worry too much because, despite the outward appearance of ashes and prayers for our sinful natures and our hopes that God will help to make us better people, essentially, like Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday and Lent are about LOVE.

You see God loved us so much that he sent Christ into this world to show us how much he loved us.

First of all, God loved us so much that he wanted to give us the ultimate reassurance that He understands us. Let’s face it God is huge, God is powerful, God has a lot of important things to deal with. I for one really hope that right now He is in the middle of some very bad conflicts in the world and working with individuals who can make them more peaceful. But here am I, in Sharon, CT, just a simple person, with a few problems, but none of them really earth shattering. Still they sometimes overwhelm me and I would like a little spiritual help, now and again. But really compared to THE BIG STUFF they are so insignificant. And does God, with all the BIG STUFF, really get my small little stuff that I have to kick around everyday?

Ok – that is where Christ comes in. Jesus wasn’t born in a palace with a lot of privilege and servants; he was born to some very nice but pretty ordinary people. They certainly weren’t wealthy, they didn’t live in the center of power, they were just ordinary people. Jesus grew up as an ordinary Jewish boy from a country town. He played with other kids, did his Torah homework, helped his father in the shop, attended the local festivals, saw people born, grow old, and die. He experienced all the emotions we experienced. Love, joy, frustration, and grief.

God knew what is to be ordinary but it’s sometimes hard for us to grasp that – so to prove to us that He gets us he sent Jesus to live with us as a human. Because of Jesus’ time living a regular life I know that God understands my ordinary life. So even little ordinary me, and regular old you, can pray to God about our simple problems and ask God for help, because He KNOWS first hand, through Christ, what it means to be human, and that sometimes we just need some help!

The next thing is that God loved us so much that he decided to help us out with our problems of redemption. Never mind how insignificant my daily problems are; sometimes I don’t feel like I am a good enough person to pray to God and ask Him for help. Half of our redemption was when he traveled with the imperfect-like-us disciples and taught us how to live and be holy in this world. This doesn’t mean that we are holier than the rest of the world, it means that we can live connected to God in this world, even with our imperfections. The other half of redemption is the forgiveness of those imperfections. That of course is the story of Easter, which is where Lent ends up.

But in the middle of the ordinary life of Jesus as a regular person, and the extraordinary life of Jesus as the healer, teacher, and prophet and sacrifice, is this transition period of Lent.

Jesus needed a time to go from one to the other. To get rid of the stuff that he no longer needed from the ordinary part of his life, and to take on or get ready for the healer, teacher, prophet, Messiah part.   He needed to get himself ready to really bring the love of God into his own life in the powerful way that it would reach into ours.

Jesus did it in a very traditional way – he fasted for forty days and nights in the desert. And we know that He confronted three big temptations: the temptation of material comforts, the temptation of power, and the temptation to turn away from God.

For Lent we are supposed to be turning away from our temptations in life, and traditionally we give up a tempting something as a part of our Lenten disciple. We should be giving up something that gets in the way of us connecting with God, but I think that sometimes we do “Lent Light.” Like we give up chocolate.

Now look I’m not judging any of you. Maybe you DO need to give up chocolate for Lent because eating chocolate elevates your blood sugar so much that you turn into this snappy overly emotional person who ends up yelling at their family and friends. If that is the case please DO give up chocolate for Lent because chocolate is not helping you love your neighbors as you love yourselves.

But what we really need to think of giving up are those nasty parts of ourselves that make us not nice people to be around. Or those nasty parts of us that make us not like ourselves. And often those aren’t things – those are attitudes – and attitudes do not like to be given up because they have often served us well and kept us safe sometime in the past, and we don’t know what we would do without them.

If I don’t hang onto my super cynical attitude how am I going to keep myself from getting hurt? If I’m not cynical about life that means I have to start being nice and caring about life. And being nice and caring signals to people that you are giving them an invitation to walk all over you. So I think I should just hang onto my super cynical attitude because I know that it sort of works, even though a lot of my friends don’t like to go out to movies with me because they say I’m too cynical about the movies, and I ruin the experience for them. Hmmmmm!

You know what? Today we are going to be putting ashes on our foreheads and I’m supposed to say: “Remember that you are from dust, and to dust you shall return.” Kind of gloomy – but on a side note I saw a cartoon today of a combined Ash Wednesday-Valentine’s Day Card. It had someone surrounded by hearts with a smudge on their forehead, with the caption: Remember, you are dust and ashes, but you are LOVABLE dust and ashes! Yes, our lives start as nothing and someday we end as nothing but in between, right here and now, we have the ability to live as a lovable something. And like Jesus who changed from an ordinary person into the healer, teacher, prophet, Messiah, we can change from our bad-attitude that gets in the way of connecting with and loving God, other people, and ourselves, to a person with good-attitudes that helps us to connect with and love God, other people, and ourselves.

And the good thing about those ashes and remembering that you start as nothing means that you can try get back to that nothing and start over again. You’ve got forty days to work on that reworking and reconnecting.

So I’m going to offer you the challenge of getting rid of one bad attitude this Lent and to find a good attitude to replace it. Maybe your attitude has to do with material possessions and security. Maybe your attitude has to do with maintaining power. Maybe your attitude is that you just don’t think that God is an important part of your life. Whatever it is, nail it to the cross and, in recognition of Valentine’s Day, ask Christ to come and change your heart. Ask Him to help you live a new positive attitude that will connect you to your family, friends, neighbors, and world around you with more of God’s and your love.

If you do then everyday during Lent is going to be Valentine’s Day!

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Our Not-So-Hidden God Connection

February 11, 2018                 6th Sunday of Epiphany

2 Kings 2:1-12            2 Corinthians 4:3-6                 Mark 9:2-9

So today is Transfiguration Sunday, the day that Jesus goes up to the top of the mountain, meets Elijah and Moses and starts to glow with his inner power. One of the companion readings for this Gospel story is the event where Elijah gets taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Elijah is accompanied by his disciple Elisha, who is granted double the portion of Elijah’s power after he goes; and Jesus is accompanied by Peter, James and John, who all become strong figures in the church after Jesus is resurrected.

All through the Bible there are stories like this of people encountering God. Abraham talks to God regularly and has lunch with angels. Jacob sees the ladder and wrestles with God. Moses sees the burning bush and a number of other manifestations of God. Jeremiah sees God’s back. Daniel sees a full on vision of the heavenly realm. Ezekiel sees a wheel and has an encounter with an angel. Mary and Joseph talk to the angel Gabriel. Paul encounters Christ.

And those are just the big encounters. The Bible is packed with people encountering God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit; big and little encounters all through the book.

I used to love those stories as a kid.   They’re mysterious, and dramatic, and really exciting. When I was a little I wanted so badly to see a fiery chariot or a wheel, or see angels on a ladder. I thought that talking to an angel would be a cool conversation. I’m not sure if I really thought about what I would say to the angel – I just thought it would be really cool to talk to one.

So this week I was remembering my very young childhood desire to talk to an angel, or have one of those crazy close encounters with God, when I decided to look underneath the stories and see if there were any conditions that lead people, or allow people, to have these encounters.

Now I have to make a clarification – In the Bible an encounter like this is not the same as a calling from God. A calling is when God says to a person: Okay, you are going to be one of my prophets, or ministers. The chariot and the transfiguration are direct encounters with the embodiment and manifestation of God’s power.

So let’s mine the two stories for some clues.

In the story of Elijah, the prophet, and Elisha, his disciple, knows that he is going to be taken up to heaven. Our story starts out with Elijah telling his disciple three times that he doesn’t gave to go with him on this final journey and that he can stop at a certain place, but each time Elisha says that he’s not going to give up and continues to go with him, even though there is a certain element of danger to be with him.

Ancient Hebrews believed that it was really dangerous to encounter God face to face. You had to be ready for it. Even in the Temple of Jerusalem, which was the safest place for everyone to encounter God, there was the innermost sanctum, which only the designated high priest, who had gone through a lot of training to be ready to encounter God, could go into. The inner sanctum was considered to be so sacred and dangerous that when the priest went in to say the prayers they would tie a cord around his ankle, so that just in case he collapsed, because the holy encounter was too much for him, the lesser priests could pull him out without the risk of going in after him. We might laugh at this image but you’ve got to wonder if it was an action born out of necessity because it had happened with dire consequences.

Elijah was okay – he had already had a few encounters with God close up and personal. Elisha was only a disciple. But Elisha was willing to take the risk and keep going to get to a possible place to encounter God.

That’s like Peter, James, and John. They were willing to follow Jesus. They had experienced some encounters with Jesus and his miraculous healing abilities. Jesus led these three disciples up the mountain to this experience and revelation of who Jesus actually was and a vision of his full power. Jesus probably felt that of all the disciples these three, at this time, could handle what was going to happen. It is also important to note that the disciples didn’t hold back. They said yes to going forth to an encounter with God, even if they didn’t know what they were going to encounter.

So it seems that two conditions that we need for a God encounter are the willingness to follow God, and the willingness to take a risk into something new.

Then in the stories you get to the actual encounters. In Elisha’s case it was suddenly seeing a fiery chariot taking his mentor up to heaven. In the case of Peter, James and John, it was seeing Jesus transfigured and seeing him talk with Moses and Elijah. In both of these stories there is a breaking through of the eternal, divine realm into our time-driven, mortal existence. There is something unusual that happens, that is very real to the person involved, but if you tried to explain it logically it seems like it couldn’t have happened.

Looking back from our modern, logical, age these encounters seem like fairy-tales. Part of assumption is that ancient people were somehow more gullible and believed in magic and fairy-tales more than we do. But actually, although there were people who believed in magic and fairy-tales, there were also people who were very pragmatic, from established empirical schools of thought, who would question any of these stories as hallucinations or hoaxes.   This is why Jesus tells his disciples when he heals people, or in this case when he comes down off the mountain, not to tell people about the miracles that they had encountered.

Remember two weeks ago when I talked about the criteria of true prophets and false prophets? There were a lot of scam artists roaming around the ancient Roman world.   We encounter one of them in the Book of Acts, chapter 8, when the magician Simon offers Peter money for the ability to heal with the power of the Holy Spirit. Simon of course is a con-artist who only joins the disciples because he wants to learn how they do their tricks of healing, which are so much better than his. I think that Jesus knew that if he became too well known for his miracles too quickly that there would be a lot of controversy and questions, which is why he wants to keep himself a bit under the radar.

To experience an unusual encounter with the divine you have to stay in it – you can’t run away from it. Elisha shouts an acknowledgement of the chariots and watches his mentor disappear, and the disciples don’t run away and also offer to build booths for the two great prophets and Jesus. The intention wouldn’t have worked, since you can’t tie down a divine entity to this world with a house, but there was an attempt at participation in the encounter. When we get into an encounter with the divine we can’t brush it off we have to participate in it somehow and make ourselves an active, not a passive, part of the encounter, even if it’s in a small way.

The final factor in the God encounter is that they are so different, and are so certainly real for those people involved in them, that they change because of it.

Elisha was granted double the power of Elijah. We didn’t read this part, but when he returned he takes his cloak, rolls it up and hits the river Jordon and it separates so that he can cross it. We don’t know how Peter, James, and John were changed. The Gospels are more concerned with illustration Jesus’ story. But we know that Peter founded the Christian community or the early church, and tradition has it that James and John were both intense and fearless preachers for Christ.

When we encounter God we have to also accept how we are going to be changed and, like Elisha, we have to act on our change in order to solidify it. It is through action that we change our lives and ourselves moving forward. It is not enough to experience a new talent or idea; to make it last, and make it your own, you need to apply it to your life.

We are coming up on Lent, and all of us are probably thinking of what we will do to honor God during that time. Ask yourself: Are you willing to follow God into the risk of something new? Are you willing to hang around and see how it goes? And are you willing to apply what you learn to change your life?

Encountering God can be a scary business, but remember, like the disciples you have Christ on your side. Take the risk with Christ and you might experience something wonderful.

 

 

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Making Christ Your Meaning

February 4, 2018       5th Sunday of Epiphany

Isaiah 40:21-31
          1 Corinthians 9:16-23             Mark 1:29-39

The reading today is one of my favorite passages from Isaiah. Besides the beauty of the poetry, it encompasses some fundamental truths about our relationship with God. The prophet scolds us, assures us, reveals God’s glory, reveals our own doubts that keep us from God, and brings us into a relationship with God that is glorious and meaningful.

Isaiah was written before, during, and after the war with Assyria. The Assyrian army swept down from the area that we know as Iraq and conquered a huge amount of the mid-east.   At this time the Kingdom of David was divided into two countries: Judah in the south, and Israel in the north. The Kingdom of Israel fell but the kingdom of Judah survived because a plague wiped out the Assyrian army. The Assyrians were still pretty strong so the Judeans negotiated to pay a tribute to the Assyrians, and they were left alone for another 100 years, until the Babylonians finished what the Assyrians started.

You can imagine with the fall of Israel, and the threat of the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah, that the culture which considered themselves to be “the chosen people” would feel a lot of uncertainty about their place in the universe. Isaiah is trying to wrestle the people away from a human centered view back to a God centered view in order to broaden their perspective and comfort them.

But when I read this piece, I read this as an answer to the uncertainty that we all go through with our own connection to God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. We all have moments of wondering if there is any real meaning to life, if in fact there is truly a God, and if any of the good that we do has any effect in the world. This piece of poetry is given to us to be used at a point in our lives when we are plagued with doubts and feel that we are no longer connected to God.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? Those first lines were a reminder to the Jewish people that they had learned about God’s existence through their upbringing, and all through their laws and their culture. In our modern age God is not as prominently taught as He was back then. Today God stands next to the theories of the big-bang and evolution.   But the foundations of the earth throws us back to the creation of the universe. It reminds us that once there was nothing, and now there is something. That is true whether you give creation to an intelligent life-force or a cosmological chain of events.   To us as Christians, this creation of something that we exist in was created by God. I have tried on the idea that this existence is random chance, but when you look at how many factors had to come together to create the universe – never mind the conditions for life to grow, evolve and flourish on this planet – for me that stacks the argument towards an intelligent life-force. So this line reminds me that the foundation of my existence is God.

It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.      Isaiah is trying to give us some perspective on who we are. People who have power, like princes and rulers of the earth, think that since they do have power they are all that and more. But Isaiah says, “Okay imagine that you are standing on a rock and you are looking down on an ant or grasshopper colony. That is what we look like to God. Pretty insignificant. We can be stepped on and not even missed. And not only that, you can’t tell who is the king ant or prince grasshopper from way up there. None of us are any bigger or smaller than the other. That is how God sees us. So get over yourself.”

Because: Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. Yes, we have a mixing of metaphor here, but the poetry is pointing us to our innate desire to construct and make a physical mark on our environment. But God sent Christ to teach us that this is not the way to go. Look at Herod the Great: Massive taxation and building projects all over the territory of Israel. Is one of them still standing? Not really. What endured was a movement of practicing love through Generous Regenerative Acts of Compassion Everyday, taught by a carpenter’s son from Galilee.

To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.  When we lift our eyes from our man-made comfort zone we see not only how small and insignificant we are, which can be a blow to our egos, but also we start to see how inter-connected we are to this great creation that God has put into. All of the raw material that we use to make our wonderful society was given to us by God.   And each of us is intricately connected to others in how we use that material to create.

Think of the shirt you are wearing now. You bought that shirt in a store from someone who unpacked it, hung it on a rack, and sold it to you. They got that shirt from a delivery person, who got it from the company where it was sewn by another person. But that material was woven by yet another person, and the thread came from another person who made it from the cotton that was grown from a seed, which was created by God and planted by a farmer. Granted, today a lot of that movement is automated, but someone is running the automations. Including you, at least seven people are involved with your shirt, plus God.

We are not the independent creatures we like to think ourselves to be. And yet, we can feel very alone in this world, which can make us feel very cut off from God. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”?   That line speaks of the times when I really have a hard time feeling that God sees me or even cares about me and what I do. I mean: I am this insignificant little ant or grasshopper that looks like all the other ants and grasshoppers. Why should God notice me?

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. This might seem to be a repeat of the we-are-all-insects but it is actually an introduction to the opposite. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

            God does see us: Even when we are weary and exhausted He sees us. God doesn’t see any of us as greater or smaller but he does see each of us, and cares for each of us. And if we lift up our eyes and reach out to Him, He will reach out to us and give us the strength that we need.

Last month I took a leadership course and part of the course was dedicated to getting us out of our ego-zone – that place where we have created ourselves to be the center of everything — and to see that all that ego really means nothing, because all of the stories we tell to give drama and meaning to our lives is mostly constructed by us. But then someone asked, “But if it doesn’t mean anything, then what’s the point?” Then the instructor said, “When you make “It doesn’t mean anything” the meaning of life, then life means nothing. But if you make your life not your ego and drama, but something bigger and more wonderful than you, and you declare that you are going to live into that wonderment, then you begin to create a life worth living.”

What could be bigger and more wonderful than God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit? What could be better than living a life of love and compassion?   What could be more meaningful than passing on the message that God loves you no matter how messed up you are? What could be more important than healing people who are hurting?   What could be more fulfilling than passing on something that that has endured for thousands of years and will still endure down through generations: The faith of living in God, and with God.

So come to the table today and connect with Him. Make Christ your meaning and you will be lifted up like eagles into His glory.

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Following God’s Lead

January 28, 2017                   4th Sunday of Epiphany

Deuteronomy 18:15-20          1 Corinthians 8:1-13               Mark 1:21-28

The book of Deuteronomy is mostly a series of Moses’ final speeches to the twelve tribes of Israel before they enter the promise land.   Besides summing up the history of the Jewish people to that point, Moses gives instructions on law and customs, and warns the Hebrews that they shouldn’t follow other gods.

In some ways the book is a little sad because Moses and the Hebrew people know that he is dying. I am sure that the people were already feeling the uncertainty of losing of their leader who had rescued them from Egypt, and their prophet who had spoken before God for them. With Moses’ death would they lose their connection with God?

But then Moses assures them: The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. He goes onto say that God promised that He would put His words into the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that God commands. And that the people should pay attention to the prophet and do what he says.

But God also conveys a warning about false prophets.

You see, if you’re a person in a culture who believes that prophets are divinely sent and inspired, you would be open to exploitation by anyone who decided to use the character of a prophet for their own advantage. Prophets could come from the rich, poor, or middle class, and there wasn’t really any set criteria of who could and couldn’t be a prophet. Some prophets were educated and from priestly families, like Jeremiah, some were ordinary people, like Amos. You didn’t get a diploma or a license for this.

Also, there would always be people who would claim to be prophets, but who would just be yes men for the ruler. “Oh, yes, your majesty. As your prophet and I can tell you that God approves of you raising taxes. Those peasants are leading far too comfortable lives, and you need to fund your army.” There are examples like that all through the history books in the Bible.

So it was really up to the people to figure out if someone was a false or real prophet. So God over the ages, set down a few rules about prophets that people could follow.

First of all the prophet is not allowed to represent any voice other than God. If you tried to speak in the name of Ashara, or Horus, or any of the other gods floating around the region you weren’t supposed to be believed, in fact you were supposed to be beheaded.

Second, the prophet couldn’t just spout off anything he wanted to. God specifically says that if what the prophet predicts doesn’t come to pass then you can label that person as a false prophet. Of course there is a problem with that. God’s time is not always our time. The Messiah was prophesized by many people over many centuries. Sometimes absence of happening doesn’t invalidate the prophesy – it just means you need to wait for it.

Third, some prophets, are associated with miraculous events. Moses parted the sea, Elijah brought down fire on a wet bull sacrificing it to God, Elisha multiplied bread to feed an army.  Not all prophets performed miracles, but this would be another element for people to look for, and would give a prophet more credibility.

The final rule is that the prophet should be speaking against things that cause oppression and disassociation from God, and for things that connect us to God. Jeremiah and Isaiah are always preaching about the corruption of the government, and how faithful actions of the people will save and heal the nation and culture.

God didn’t just say: I’m going to send you prophets – believe in them. He invites us to actively examine people who claim to be prophets and decide for ourselves whether or not they are credible. Through out the Bible people examine the prophets, and if they are speaking for God, their prophesies are coming true, they are performing miracles or achieving things out of the ordinary, and they are promoting a connection to God and speaking against oppression, then people would accept them.

Now when Jesus started his ministry he knew this criteria and he knew that he was going to have to prove himself by it.

We know that Jesus started out as a teacher who was preaching and teaching the Hebrew texts to people in the context of how they could apply it to their lives. Jesus also preached about the future in the coming of God’s Kingdom and how we could help in its creation. So with these two criteria he very quickly became known as a possible prophet. Then Jesus began to heal people so his prophet credibility really shot up. And of course Jesus was always preaching about how we should connect ourselves to God, and he was living his preaching through his actions.

Now while I don’t think that all of us can predict the future in a prophetic way, I do think that we should apply these criteria to our leaders and to ourselves, as a way to evaluate how we are doing in our lives.

First of all, when we speak do we speak with God’s love? Think of how often we hear people say unkind or even nasty things about other people, or how often we might do that ourselves. I’m not talking about legitimate concerns, like when I point out to someone that they have gotten a fact or action wrong. Or perhaps when I explain to someone that a person has dyslexia, and that’s why they don’t read well. I’m talking about gossip and complaining about people, without any empathy for what that person might be going through. God’s love doesn’t mean that we blithely accept when things are wrong. It does mean that we try to empathize as a way to figure out how to make them go right. Jesus told us to take the fault out of ourselves before we criticize others. That requires patience and balance, something we all need to be working on at all times.

One of the things that we need to be patient about is God’s Kingdom. We are told that we participate in its building with our actions of Grace, but often we become discouraged when it seems that nothing really changes. We can become very overwhelmed by the larger picture, especially when it is so negative. There are times when I really don’t watch the news because it’s all bad stories. It’s not very balanced because they are not showing the good stories of people who are out there making the world a better place. Newscasters don’t report for every bad story a good story about someone who did something meaningful and helpful or that 5 million people had a really good day today. Sometimes we need to ignore the negativity-large and try to be patient, keep working on the kingdom, and have faith that our actions are impacting this planet for good.

Admittedly most of us do not posses the miraculous powers of healing, but we do posses the ordinary powers of healing, and they can be quite powerful. Acts of kindness add up. Three acts of kindness a day would be 1,095 acts a year. You can keep increasing it by however many you like, but all of those acts ripple out into something. The miracle happens when you inadvertently do the right act of kindness that someone needs to turn their life around and make it better. Remember you never know how or when your act of kindness is going to make an impact. Just leave it in God’s hands and let him work with it.

Finally are we helping people get closer to God?   Most of us don’t like to talk about their faith because we feel that we are imposing our views on someone. It’s interesting that I don’t mind talking about how much any other experienced changed my life, or think that explaining why an event gave me a new viewpoint is an imposition. The problem comes when I talk about my faith as if the other person should have that same viewpoint or experience. There is nothing wrong with me acknowledging how my connection to God strengthens my own life, and leads to my actions in this world if that is how I want people to understand me. I just need to keep a clear eye and understand where other people are coming from at the same time.

God encourages us to be critical about His prophets and not take them at face value. He also wants us to be critical of our own lives and not take them at face value. He wants us to deepen our understanding and connection with Him and the world we live in. That’s why he sent the prophets, and that’s why he sent Christ. God invites you to examine what you see God doing for you, and what you are doing for God. And as we do that examining we will see where God is leading us.

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Those Who Heard the Disciple’s Call

January 21, 2018                   3rd Sunday of Pentecost

Jonah 3:1-5, 10        
1 Corinthians 7:29-31         Mark 1:14-20

Methodism has always had, two prime components, spiritual development and social mission. When John Wesley started the Holy Club at Oxford the students would study the life of Jesus and then take what was in the scriptures and apply it to the world. It gradually spread out from Oxford into a movement within the Anglican Church. Besides attending church, you really only had to do two things to be in a Methodist society: Attend the Methodist classes, where you developed your own holiness, and do mission out in the world, where you applied your holiness in Christ’s name. The idea was to live your life as Christ’s disciple.

Today we read about Jesus calling his disciples. In Mark, Jesus is walking along the shore when he sees Simon/Peter and his brother Andrew, then James and John, and tells them to follow him. The lack of hesitation on their part, gives us the impression that Jesus was just walking up to people and somehow mesmerizing them into following him.

But that disregards the first part of our passage where Mark says: after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” So we can assume that Jesus was in the neighborhood of these four disciples preaching.

I am sure that before Jesus called these young men that they had heard him preach. Preaching in those days was more of a question/answer session. People would sit and ask questions of a teacher, and the teacher would then answer questions. Often the teacher would end their explanation by throwing back a question to the students, in order to expand the conversation. First-century people reading the Gospel would have understood this technique of give and take, and would have also considered the questions behind his preaching.

I believe that the disciples had probably listened and talked to Jesus before he came to the shore where they were fishing. The decision to follow Jesus wasn’t a spontaneous one, it was one that they had considered, and when Jesus asked them to join him, they were ready to say yes.

But what did that YES mean? We know they traveled with him, listened to his teachings, and were trained to continue Jesus’ teachings. But I have no doubt that the disciples were learning the duel actions of discipleship: Evangelism, giving the message, and mission, building the Kingdom. I say this because we know that the Book of Acts speaks about a community that was already in place and functioning shortly after Jesus died and was resurrected. So I want you to consider that while Jesus was preaching the Kingdom, he and his disciples were also building the Kingdom through the creation of new communities that were following his teachings. Communities that were focused on feeding and clothing the poor, providing a place for the widows and displaced, healing the sick, and visiting those in prison.

That was not much different from what early Methodists were doing.

The Methodist movement found fertile ground in America because many of our early settlements were created to be Christian communities. Communities interested in seeing that all people would have a chance to live a life of prosperity with the equality and justice that was found in the Bible. America was a place where people felt that they could start from scratch (And the settlers were literally starting from scratch) and create a society that wasn’t overlaid with all the corruption and class distinctions that was engraved into European society.

So an important focus of the early American culture was mission within their communities. In fact most of the town minutes from the 17th and 18th centuries started with the item on their agenda of: Are there any of the poor in our community who are in need of assistance? Can you imagine starting a town meeting in the 20th century with that? Let’s not talk about salaries, the parks, or the budget; let’s talk about the people in our community who are not doing well and see if we can figure out what we can do to help them. Think of how that changes the conversation. At the beginning of our nation, mission was central to the immediate community. It’s probably why Methodism, with its emphasis on spiritual development and mission, was so readily received even before our independence.

Of course Methodism isn’t the only denomination that was involved in mission. What is unique about Methodism is that in the 1800’s it made a big push outward in mission, from the community, to the country, and then the world. And I mean a big push. Everything from universities, to hospitals, to nursing homes. Incidentally, did you know that the Sharon Health Care center was originally a Methodist nursing home? Did you know that there are approximately 85 Methodist Universities and Colleges in America? I wasn’t able to find out how many hospitals – too many websites – but I’m pretty sure there is at least one in every state.

You might ask, what made Methodism different from other denominations, who were also pushing out the mission envelope, but not quite as expansively as Methodists? The answer is: Methodist Women. Now this is not to take away from Methodist men, who were all working very hard as well. But Methodist women really became the force behind fundraising for programs that were specifically for women and children.

In the early 1800’s most churches had “women’s circles” for prayer and to raise awareness and money for local missions. They were called Cent Societies and were very popular with membership dues of a cent a week/52 cents a year. The male leaders of the church were quick to warn the women that they should stay within the bounds of praying for the heathen and raising money for the men to administer and disburse. But they liked the fact that the women were very capable of raising money for their use. For the most part the societies reassured the men that they didn’t seek to challenge male authority, and for many years they didn’t. But the women in those groups were learning how to run meetings, keep records, raise money, organize events, write letters, and publish appeals in missionary journals. In short they were learning activities that would ultimately result in the unwomanly behavior that some men in charge feared.

But then there was a breakthrough. In Boston, during 1869, we find two missionary wives, Mrs. Louise Parker, a current missionary from India, and Mrs. Clementina Butler, who had previously served in India. Mrs. Butler was a regular speaker at meetings describing the difficult conditions of women in India. Mrs. Parker was on a health furlough and had succeeded in opening a school on her mission house verandah. But she, and other wives in the field, felt that they needed full-time women workers and Mrs. Parker had returned to America determined to find them. She believed that the only way to accomplish this was to have “Women work for women,” since she had tried in vain for years to acquire money from the parent mission board (consisted of men) for the education of girls and had failed. On March 23, along with Mrs. Lewis Flanders, the three women presented the idea of a separate, women’s missionary society to the women of Methodist Churches in the Boston area. A week later a constitution was formed and adopted; “For the purpose of engaging and uniting the efforts of the women of the Church in sending out and supporting female missionaries, native Christian teachers and Bible women in foreign lands,” and The Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS) was born. Which eventually became the UMW.

Six months later, after intense fundraising, the WFMS sent two single, female missionaries, Isabella Thoburn and Claire Swain to India. Isabella founded a woman’s school and college, and Claire a hospital for women. Incidentally both of these institutions still exists.

It should be noted that those uppity church-women of the mid 19th century of the WFMS had some very interesting inner connections. If one compares the lists of trustees and faculty for the Newbury, Concord, and Boston Methodist schools with the list of founders of the WFMS one discovers that while the husbands were founding Boston University, the wives were founding the WFMS. The first WFMS president was Mrs. Bishop Osmon C. Baker, whose husband was the theological professor at the Newbury Biblical Institute and the Methodist General Bible Institute. The New England Branch’s first president was Mrs. Rev. D. Patten, wife of the theological professor at the Concord Institute. Even Mrs. Butler and Mrs. Parker, those two missionary wives, were supported by their husbands, who had no illusions about the needs of women overseas and what a male missionary couldn’t do for them and what a female missionary could. Unlike many of the stuffy men in America those two men knew the limitation of male missionaries and why females missionaries were needed and invaluable.

This is only part of our mission legacy. But what can we do in our present day to honor the part of discipleship that calls us to do Christ’s work in the world? In this year, let us truly think of what is needed in our communities and how we can be in mission to them. Jesus is speaking to all of us, and our work in His world, is how we answer back.

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Gifts and Graces

January 7, 2018         Epiphany & the Purification of the Lord

Matthew 2:1-12          Mark 1:4-11

This year, because of how the calendar falls, we celebrate both the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord on the same Sunday; two events that happened probably about twenty-eight years apart from each other.   The reason why I say twenty-eight years and not thirty is because scholars consider that the wise men visited Jesus about six month to two years after his birth.

We actually don’t know how many wise men visited Jesus. The scriptures say that the magi were plural, not singular, so it’s quite possible that the number was anywhere from two to three, four, or even ten. But we settled on three because it matches the three gifts.

The gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil. Traditionally for Christ we say that Gold stands for his royalty and divinity, Frankincense for his healing and his priestly life, and Myrrh for burial. These symbolize Jesus as the Son of God, a king, a healer, a priest, and our savior through his sacrifice.

But I got to thinking about those gifts in a different way. What do they mean for us, and our own spiritual life? And how do they help us to connect to God?

Let’s start with gold. Gold has always been considered to be one of the most precious of metals because of its rarity. It became associated with divinity and eternity because it doesn’t tarnish, like silver and other metals, so it was usually used to decorate statues or holy relics, such as the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, gold, along with frankincense and myrrh, was recorded as the offering that King Seleucus II Callinicus dedicated to the god Apollo at the temple of Miletus in 243 B.C.E.  Gold as something divine isn’t restricted to the Middle East – cultures all over the world have used gold to represent royalty, divinity, and eternity.

But gold also represents earthly wealth and prosperity. It represents a good life, a life of purity and good work. And yet it can also symbolize the dark side of wealth, which is ill gotten gains, greed, and exploitation of power. The love of gold is often someone’s downfall, such as in the story of King Midas.

But the duality of gold, both as divine and earthly power, and as prosperous and exploitative power, reminds us that as humans we need to live in an awareness of how we can touch the divine with our wealth and work by using them to build God’s Kingdom with our generous acts of compassion and charity, or how we can become separated from God by putting the pursuit of wealth and power at the center of our lives for only our own security and well-being.

Wealth and power mean nothing unless they are used. We have the choice to use them positively, with God, for the world, or negatively, with only and for only our own power, at the expense of others. When you choose to work with God, he’s going to work with you to help the world. When you choose yourself, you’re sort of on your own.

Frankincense is a white resin or gum that is obtained from a tree, usually grown in the area of Arabia and farther east. It was not native to the region of Israel, so obtaining frankincense was costly. It’s highly fragrant when burned and was therefore used in worship, where it was burned as a pleasant offering to God. So through it’s ancient use in temples frankincense became a symbol of holiness and righteousness for many religions.  Knowing this you can see that this gift was precious in both meaning and value. The gift of frankincense is an acknowledgement of Jesus’ priesthood, setting him apart from a typical king and making him a priest/king.

But it was also considered to be a powerful medicine. Traditional healing suggests frankincense for anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritic abilities. Because we now can analyze the properties of substances like frankincense resin and its essential oil, we now know that it helps both inflammatory illness and promotes antimicrobial reactions. Researchers at Cardiff University have demonstrated that frankincense has an active ingredient that can inhibit the inflammation that breaks down cartilage tissue and causes arthritis pain. This study validates traditional uses of frankincense as an herbal remedy to treat arthritis in ancient communities. I am sure that the magi knew of frankincense’s healing properties when they presented it to young Jesus.

I think for us that the gift of frankincense can also be a reminder that we need to worship and connect to God, and that worship and prayer has healing properties for us. It has been proven that people who practice private and public worship, even if they just sit quietly and meditate for 10 minutes a day, will reduce their blood pressure, have less anxiety, and be more focused. Worship helps us to connect to God, not just when we are worshiping but also when we are going about our daily lives. St Francis of Assisi’s once said that everything he did was an offering to God, and that anyone’s life can be holy if we decide to dedicate what we do to the work of God and Christ in the world.

Myrrh was the most bittersweet of the gifts. It had been imported to Egypt for many centuries for embalming rituals, and the practice filtered out through the surrounding areas making it the herb connected with death and burial. It is also a product of Arabia, and was obtained from a tree in the same manner as frankincense. It was also the spice that was sometimes mingled with wine or vinegar to form a drink called gall. This was the drink given Jesus when He was about to be crucified, as a stupefying potion. Myrrh symbolizes bitterness, suffering, and affliction. Jesus would grow to suffer greatly as a man and would pay the ultimate price when He gave His life on the cross for all who would believe in Him.

But while the Middle Eastern regions used myrrh ceremonially for burials, the Far East, where the magi came from, was using it for healing purposes. Ayurvedic medicine, which dates back thousands of years, used myrrh for wound healing, digestive health, and to balance women’s issues. China used myrrh for wound healing and to slow bleeding. With this in mind, one wonders whether the Magi were bringing another powerful medicine for him to use.   It’s worth noting that frankincense and myrrh together – both used in temple rituals – comprise a synergistic antimicrobial combination.  While Jesus’ makeshift cradle were filled with aromatic substances, they were also fighting disease and protecting the baby.

It might seem to be a little cruel of the magi to bring an embalming ingredient to Jesus just after he was born. But death was a much more prominent part of life in Jesus’ day than for us. About half of all children born at that time didn’t live to the age of five. Of the adult men and women who survived into adulthood, half of them died from disease, accidents, and war by the age of 35. It wasn’t that people couldn’t live into an old age beyond the age of 50, but only about 50 percent of the population had that chance.

The warning that Jesus himself gives in Matthew 25:23: Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour, is not just a warning about his second coming it is also a warning about our personal reckoning that we will have with God when we die. It’s just as relevant to us because none of us know our day or hour. Jesus was telling us to make every moment count, and to live our lives to the fullest with God. How many of us put off our own personal spiritual development because we think that we have plenty of time for that later? Like, after we retire, or maybe next month when things aren’t too hectic I’ll get around to my Bible study. It’s something to think about the next time you put off praying, worshiping, or reading the Bible.

The magi’s gifts of personal connection with the divine, and God’s work of prosperity, healing, worship, salvation and holiness, are also the gifts that God gave to us through his son. Through them we experience His grace in our lives.  In this new year let us reach out with those gifts to our family, friends, and community by applying them in our lives to live in God’s kingdom.

 

 

 

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