Tag Archives: acts of mercy

How does our church interpret Christianity?

Sermon given on Sunday, November 12, 2017:  We lost one of our members at the age of 97 this week, and while preparing for the funeral, I could not get rid of the lessons that she taught our community.  Please understand that the audience knew Ms. Bonnie very well, but any reader may insert those people in your own lives who you know are true Christian models.

 

Spending the week reminiscing about Ms. Bonnie lead me to thinking about her model of Christianity, and that lead me to thinking about how our congregation models or interprets Christianity. Using the term ‘interpret’ may not seem appropriate, but our lives reflect what we believe. Our actions are stronger than our words.

All week long, Ms. Bonnie’s life has been reviewed by most all of us in the church and the community. The fact that she had not lived among us for the past few years did not matter. Ms. Bonnie is entwined with those who make up the Chilhowee community.

The adjectives/descriptions shared about Ms. Bonnie included words that create pictures in our minds of this incredible woman: pioneer spirit, servant, worker, gardener, country, leader, teacher, mother, grandmother, friend, neighbor, selfless, giving, and the list continues to grow. These words are filled with compliments and are worthy qualities for any of us to work towards.

For our congregation, we can add to the list of qualities that she was a 71-year member of our church family. She never missed church unless she was sick or away from home. She was a tireless worker for all the activities in the church, and the only time we witnessed her unhappy was when we tried to surprise her for her birthday—you don’t fool Ms. Bonnie!

Ms. Bonnie lived Christianity boldly, and we were fortunate to have witnessed her demonstration. What better time than today to reflect on how our church models or interprets Christianity too. What stories would others tell of our church? What adjectives, titles or descriptions would others use to tell about our church?

At first I thought maybe we could describe the church as a Mary-style or a Martha-style, but then that might not be too clear. The scripture tells us that Mary was an eager listener to Jesus and would put aside any traditional, female roles in order to sit at his feet and listen to his words. Her sister Martha was more traditional and was concerned with all the appropriate tasks involved in providing for a visitor’s needs whether it was food, rest, comfort, and maybe even overnight arrangements.

[Luke 10:38 As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. 40 But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”

41 But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! 42 There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” The NLT]

Defining our church as a ‘Mary’ or a ‘Martha’ really is not possible. We are a church and not a person. Therefore, I stopped and considered what other way could the church be identified, and I turned to John Wesley. He grouped certain behaviors into two categories: acts of mercy and acts of piety. I mulled over those two terms and considered whether that would be a reasonable way to evaluate the church.

First, does the church demonstrate acts of mercy. To answer that one has to know what acts of mercy are. The list that Wesley outlined includes:

  • Individual Practices– doing good works, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison, feeding the hungry, and giving generously to the needs of others
  • Communal Practices– seeking justice, ending oppression and discrimination (for instance Wesley challenged Methodists to end slavery), and addressing the needs of the poor [Accessed on November 10, 2017, at http://www.umc.org/how-we-serve/the-wesleyan-means-of-grace]

This list covers a great deal and has given United Methodist a reputation of being active for social justice.

            Ms. Bonnie certainly did demonstrate acts of mercy. How many in the community learned how to cook and to sew as she taught these skills through 4-H? How many families received the gifts of fresh food from her gardens? How many times did Ms. Bonnie step up to fix clothes or a meal or reach out to others in need?

            Does our church demonstrate grace to others through acts of mercy? Individually is not the question, but as a community do we seek justice, work to end oppression or discrimination, or address the needs of the poor?

            This is a tough question to answer. One way we can answer in the affirmative is that we have diligently paid the district and state apportionments. The United Methodist Church has a connectional approach to working with other congregations to affect change in a range of different areas. Paying the apportionments does demonstrate the church’s efforts to address the needs of others beyond our immediate community. Sadly, the financial health of our church may limit the extent of our connectional works of piety for the first time in the past decade or longer.

The second group of behaviors that Wesley identified was the acts of piety. These behaviors are more closely aligned to the ‘Mary’ style of Christian practices than the ‘Martha’ style. These behaviors are identified on the UMC’s website, too:

Individual Practices – reading, meditating and studying the scriptures, prayer, fasting, regularly attending worship, healthy living, and sharing our faith with others

Communal Practices – regularly share in the sacraments, Christian conferencing (accountability to one another), and Bible study. [Ibid.]

            Again, Ms. Bonnie demonstrated an understanding of the individual practices of piety, but does the church do so. On the surface(pardon the cliché) , the answer is yes. The sacrament of communion is available on a regular basis, and baptism is offered upon request. But no one inside or outside the church’s congregation can judge whether the church as a group fully incorporate the acts of piety honestly. Only God, Jesus his son, and the Holy Spirit—the Triune God—can judge the integrity of the church’s acts of piety.

            The individual acts of piety include a personal list of practices that may be available through Sunday School and Ladies Aid, but is that adequate. Should the church provide more opportunities or assistance for the practices of these acts of piety? A ‘Mary’ style church would place the priority on these acts of piety, often referred to as discipleship when in district or conference meetings.

The church year is winding down, so considering how our church interprets Christianity is a timely task. Review what the mission is for the church and the goals for the upcoming year. Maybe we should ask ourselves “What would Ms. Bonnie do?” We can honor her by exemplifying the stewardship and the acts of mercy and piety she modeled.

[Titus 3:Once we, too, were foolish and disobedient. We were misled and became slaves to many lusts and pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy, and we hated each other. But—

When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit.[a] He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior.Because of his grace he made us right in his sight and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life.

This is a trustworthy saying, and I want you to insist on these teachings so that all who trust in God will devote themselves to doing good. These teachings are good and beneficial for everyone.

Do not get involved in foolish discussions about spiritual pedigrees[b] or in quarrels and fights about obedience to Jewish laws. These things are useless and a waste of time. 10 If people are causing divisions among you, give a first and second warning. After that, have nothing more to do with them. 11 For people like that have turned away from the truth, and their own sins condemn them. The NLT]

Closing prayer

Dear God, Father Almighty,

 

We mourn the loss of one of our family,

But let us remember her

By following the model of faith

She exhibited in all that she did.

 

Help us to demonstrate

The Christian qualities

That Paul listed in his letters

To the early churches and disciples.

 

Help us to follow Wesley’s practices

Both the acts of piety

and the acts of mercy

as we work together in your name.

 

May we recognize your presence

Through the power of the Holy Spirit

As we make decisions individually

And communally to love one another.

 

In your name, the Father, the Son,

And the Holy Spirit, amen.

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What a Difference Faith makes!

given on Sunday, August 7, 2016

Scripture connection: Hebrews 11:1-16, NLT

11 Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation.

By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen.

It was by faith that Abel brought a more acceptable offering to God than Cain did. Abel’s offering gave evidence that he was a righteous man, and God showed his approval of his gifts. Although Abel is long dead, he still speaks to us by his example of faith.

It was by faith that Enoch was taken up to heaven without dying—“he disappeared, because God took him.”[a] For before he was taken up, he was known as a person who pleased God. And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.

It was by faith that Noah built a large boat to save his family from the flood. He obeyed God, who warned him about things that had never happened before. By his faith Noah condemned the rest of the world, and he received the righteousness that comes by faith.

It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in tents. And so did Isaac and Jacob, who inherited the same promise. 10 Abraham was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God.

11 It was by faith that even Sarah was able to have a child, though she was barren and was too old. She believed[b] that God would keep his promise. 12 And so a whole nation came from this one man who was as good as dead—a nation with so many people that, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, there is no way to count them.

13 All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. 14 Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. 15 If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. 16 But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Key questions: Why difference does faith in God make in my life?

  • What does faith look like?
  • How do I develop faith?
  • How does faith change my life?

 

Reflection: What a difference faith makes!

             Surely you have noticed that it is August and there is something decidedly different about this August—it is as green and colorful as though it were still May, right after the April showers when everything looks bright green with an array of rainbow colors glowing in the sunlight.

August in the Midwest typically looks quite different—brown, brittle grass. Tired, worn out gardens usually struggle with little color left from the annuals planted around the walks or in flowerpots. The only thing that seems to do well is the spindly okra soaking up the sun and thriving on very little water. But not this year. This year our late summer world is green and colorful.

What a difference God’s rain and sunshine make in our world today. Farmers and gardeners know that planting seeds is an exercise in faith. The conditions that surround the seed and seedling are critical to the entire growing process. During the growing season, conditions vary dramatically, but somehow the majority of seeds does germinate, grow, and mature. The yield varies depending on the quality of the growing conditions that nurtured those crops to fruition.

Faith is much like the seed we place in the ground. Faith begins as a tiny little idea that dropped into our lives at any time. Sometimes the seed is planted by accident and sometimes it is carefully, lovingly placed by parents who know the difference faith makes in one’s life.

Yes, faith makes a difference in our lives; what type of difference depends so much on the circumstances, the challenges, the failures and the successes. Faith becomes a powerful force yielding the greatest reward imaginable—salvation and the life eternal alongside Jesus Christ and a host of faithful souls including those who have made a difference in our earthly journey.

In Hebrews, the definition of faith is given: Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. The verse is used so repeatedly that it has become a cliché and possibly has lost its value as a life-changing principle. Still, faith makes such a difference in the quality of one’s life.

Unfortunately, many cannot identify faith in their own lives and struggle to figure out what makes life journey fruitful. The Old Testament stories that are included in Hebrews 11 provide evidence of how faith supports even the most faithful during the most difficult trials. The stories begin with Cain and Able and continue through even the books of the prophets.

Still understanding faith today is difficult. Because faith is not a product that one goes to a store or gets on line to purchase, faith sometimes fails to be planted in our lives. Maybe our parents did not plant faith’s seed because they were not equipped to plant and nurture that seedling. Perhaps the parents did plant the seed, but then the environment or circumstances interfered and the seed of faith sat fallow, not germinating but remaining as a faint promise.

Today faith is evident around us even though many argue that is not. Evidence of faith may not sound like the Old Testament or even the New Testament stories, but they are listed there, too. Consider the stories of the woman who had such strong faith in Jesus’ healing power that all she wanted was to touch his robe in order to heal. And her faith did heal her. Lazarus’s family believed and Jesus raised him from the dead.

Even the circumstances of the Last Supper paint a picture of how the brutal ending of Jesus’ life fueled the earliest Christians to band together and carry God’s message forward. Those disciples who shared the bread and the cup with Jesus certainly had their faith challenged, but despite the negative growing conditions, the church did grow.

Faith is essential to the quality of our lives. Faith is a seed sitting there just waiting to grow. We need to know that we are equipped to nurture that faith and encourage it to grow to fruition so God can harvest it when the growing season ends.

How does faith grow? The directions are sprinkled throughout the Bible. We must read and study the Bible in order to fertilize our faith. John Wesley was educated and still he struggled to understand how faith operated. His own brother served as an agent of change for Wesley. John and Charles were both raised in the church, and it took Charles’s recommendation to continue in reading the Bible and praying. And John did. He placed himself into a disciplined environment and continued his ministry right up until his personal moment of enlightenment referred to as his Aldersgate Moment when he felt his heart ‘strangely warmed.’

Life is going to challenge each and every one of us in ways that we cannot predict. Watching the Olympics opening ceremonies, I was reminded how unifying the games can be. The inclusion of a team of refugees is a testimony in faith. The discipline of Olympian athletes is often a quality reflected in their lives whether on or off the competition. The discipline carries them to the finish line and the refugees maintained that discipline even when they had no country, no alliance.

We have the tools to grow faith, we just must be disciplined enough to do it. Wesley explained that we are to practices the acts of piety and the acts of mercy to develop the fruitfulness of faith. We are to join in fellowship with other Christians to worship, to pray, and to serve together.

Faith is knowing that God is with us throughout the challenges in our lives and trusting that we will receive the ultimate reward. Faith is knowing that we can manage the ups and downs in life because God is with us always.   Faith takes work but it is easier to do when working together with others who believe.

Today we join together at the table to renew our connection to God through the bread and the cup. We are practicing the very same methods God taught the first disciples to strengthen our faith. May the ancient words from scripture, from the liturgy, from the hymns, and from those around us so we may find the peace, the joy, and the contentment that enriches our faith-filled lives.

Closing prayer:

Dear loving Father,

Thank you for the words of encouragement shared in the Bible.

Thank you for the guidance of the faithful surrounding us.

Thank you for your patience as we struggle to understand faith.

Fill us with the Holy Spirit as we share in the bread and the cup.

Fill us with the joy of knowing your grace and your love.

Fill us with the courage to battle the challenges to our faith.

May we take our faith and use it to share your grace with others.

May we demonstrate our faith so others may see it in action.

May we lead others to identify the power of faith in their lives, too.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen

 

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Mission Control: Jesus & Us

Scripture connections: (from the Common Lectionary for Year C)

  • Joshua 5:9-12
  • Psalm 32 (UMH )
  • 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
  • Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

Reflection:

Years ago, a movie about a mission’s failure came out—Apollo 13—that provided a breath-taking account of how a mission doomed to failure was salvaged by two teams working together yet separate. The spacecraft circling the moon was doomed to failure if a solution was not found. NASA’s Mission Control frantically working to find a solution on earth with the Apollo 13 crew working within the confines of their own craft circling the moon kept in communication while searching for redemption.

The mission came so close to utter failure with the loss of an American astronaut crew looming. There was no giving up. There had to be a solution. At that time, there was no shuttle between earth and space; only oral communication linked the two physical settings. NASA may have been the creator of the mission, but it took all the teams in the control center and in the spacecraft to assure the mission succeeded.

During the past few Sundays, the mission God established for his chosen people arose out of the need to shut down the evil that existed. His creation was an entire world, but only one people successfully practiced faithfulness—the ancient Israelites. God needed a solution so he turned to Abraham and his descendants to serve as God’s messengers to spread the good news and transform the world.

The centuries recorded in the Old Testament includes the good versus evil conflicts that demonstrate God’s efforts to keep evil from spreading. The mission remained constant, but the efforts were inconsistent. Even the warnings from the prophets did not provide the lasting change God was seeking. The Old Testament concludes and God’s mission is in crisis.

In the Apollo 13 mission, failure was not an option nor is God’s mission. For thousands of years, by human standards, the mission was failing, repeatedly. God could no longer wait for humans to complete the mission. Time had arrived to fulfill the prophets’ warnings—a savior was needed.

The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are four different records of God’s personal solution to prevent his mission’s failure. God intervened by joining his chosen people on the earth he created. He was born as Jesus of Nazareth.

Why? Why would God decide he personally had to intervene and to teach his people what the mission was and how to accomplish it? Why?

In the Christopher Wright’s study, the problem is the world was evil, as evil as Sodom and Gomorrah; and the temptation to sin continued to grow. Scripture readings this week focus on God’s forgiveness, and the commentary develops the arguments for Jesus to intervene:

  • Joshua 5:9-12 emphasizes that God keeps His promises: the Israelites leave Egypt, are fed manna until they can produce their own food crops in the new, promised land.
  • Psalms 32 tells us that nothing is better than forgiveness.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 explains that forgiveness transforms one’s life and that by accepting forgiveness there is an inherent responsibility to share that experience with others—another words to accept God’s mission to share the good news.
  • Luke 15:1-3, 111b-32 is the recognizable story of the Prodigal Son; a parable that illustrates the importance of reconciliation with God; even the most broken relationship with God can be forgiven.[*]

 

Today’s world continues to be evil filled. The faithful seem forlorn with how to carry the mission further. American society no longer seems to reflect the faith-based principles upon which it was founded; instead society has shifted to a more-secular, legalistic base that complicates the simplicity of God’s one commandment—love one another. The free will of man places self-centered life before a God-centered life. This shift makes it so much easier for Satan (evil) to take control. Humans are again living in a Sodom-and-Gomorrah-like world.

How does one resume a God-centered world? Begin with confession. One must acknowledge that God is not the center of his or her life. When life seems comfortable and no major problems are interrupting daily life, losing sight of God and his law is easy. When life around us gets busy and Sunday morning arrives, going to worship loses out to a few more hours of rest and relaxation.   When finances become tight and the only solution seems to be work more, the practices of one’s faith lose priority.

In the lectionary’s commentary, sin is defined

“in biblical terms, [as] a condition from which none of us is free (Rom. 3:23); it is also a self-chosen act, like knowing the good and not doing it (James 4:17).[†]

 

Sin breaks the relationship with God, and identifying our sin must happen before God forgives you. Wright separates sin from forgiveness:

. . . “the ache deep in our hearts that comes from recognizing the hurts inflicted on ourselves or others that litter the landscape of our lives.[‡]

 

An ache—in other words we find ourselves hurting because of sin. Additionally, what we did has hurt our own self and/or others in the process. The action may have been only once, but maybe it is ongoing. Once we identify the cause of the ache, confession begins the return to a God-centered life.

Confessing one’s sin is not a quick, one-time fix. Once we confess our sin, then God expects us to return to the faithful practices that John Wesley referred to as the acts of piety and the acts of mercy. Confessing is simply step one in re-establishing a relationship with God, one that returns us to his mission to reclaim his creation from evil.

Is returning from sin possible? Absolutely. With God, it is possible. God forgives us as long as “[we deliberately release] the claim we have on another [focus]. “[§] God and his mission must be the focus. We must deliberately return to God by following the very teachings provided by Jesus as preserved in the four books of the gospel.

God did not give up on his mission. During the thousands of years that passed since he identified Abraham and his descendants to take control of God’s mission, God did not reach its ultimate goal. God’s concern that the mission would fail led him to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament by the birth of Jesus.

The four books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell the story of Jesus’ birth, ministry, and resurrection. God’s mission is retold and the team is identified to spread the gospel of the good news forward—in time and in new locations.

The movie Apollo 13, illustrates how teamwork between Mission Control and the crew can successfully solve a problem. God needed an earthly team to fight evil, so he selected Abraham and his descendants. In the end, he stepped onto the earth to work with the earthly team as Jesus.

Today, we are Abraham’s descendants because we accept Jesus, also a descendant, as our redeemer. He lived on this earth, teaching and modeling how to be God’s co-worker on this earth.

To be part of the earthly team, we can find success as long as we deliberately confess our sins, return to the teachings of Jesus, know the story that we are to share, and then do all we can to see that God’s mission continues.

[Let us now join in the Responsive Reading, UMH 766, Psalm 32, as our confession of sin as we share in the Service of the Word and Table, UMH p. 12.]

 

Closing prayer:

Dear God of All,

As we open our hearts to you,

help us to deliberately name our human errors.

As we listen to words of scripture,

help us to find the guidance we need to live God-centered lives.

As we work hand in hand as a team,

help us to share your story in words and ways others hear.

As we continue through the season of reflection,

help us recommit ourselves to your mission. –Amen.

 

 

[*] (Wilson 2012) p. 86.

[†] Ibid, p. 87.

[‡] Ibid, p. 89.

[§] Ibid

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