Tag Archives: Greatest Commandment

God’s time constantly amazes me

 

Consider this:  Every night I read a devotional that is published annually.  The writings must be done at least two years prior to my reading the entry.  Such is the publishing process.

 

Now, consider God’s timing. Over and over I am reminded that God’s time does not match my since of time.  There is no way to explain it, but my experience keeps telling me to just accept it.

 

On Saturday, October 27, 2018, the Jewish faithful joined together in worship at their synagogue in Pittsburg.  With no warning, the Sabbath was interrupted as hate spewed upon the faithful.

 

The senseless act of hate certainly is not part of God’s timing.  I am sure that the venom that lead this one individual to attack these faithful is not part of God’s plan; rather, it is an example of how human choice can become twisted by evil.

 

And as a Christian, I empathize with the pain that the Rabbi and his members, and the community of Pittsburg.  I do not know such hatred it my life nor do I ever want to.  But, as one who believes the classic line—love always wins—I hurt for those affected by this tragedy.

 

Why, then, do I find God’s sense of timing so amazing?

 

Back to my personal practice of reading the Guidepostdevotional each evening—remember these words must have been written two years ago:

 

Romans 12:18(NIV):  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

 

As I read that introductory verse, I realized that God’s timing was in place again.  And I continued to read.  The devotional, which I am including here, was needed to help me understand how to manage the hatred of the day’s events, even though it was several states away:

 

“I grew up in a politically aware family.  Political arguments were a part of life in our household, especially between my liberal mom and my conservative dad.  We debated everything and were never afraid to say what we believed, loudly and proudly.  We subscribed to three daily newspapers and two news weeklies.  My parents never went to bed until after the 11:00 p.m. local newscast.

 

“Lately, though, our national discourse has grown increasingly rancorous, even toxic.  People are’nt just wrong or misguided—they’re evil and nefarious.  We vote our fears rather than our convictions.

 

How did we come to this?  It’s not altogether new.  Jesus joined the human race at one of its great boiling points.  Jerusalem was a hotbed of political strife.  Imperial Rome was an oppressive occupier of Jewish lands and ruled from afar with a merciless hand.  Herod and his family were ruthless and corrupt.  Revolution was in the air and violence was ever far. Nazareth was poor and overpopulated an crime-ridden.  The Zealots were already plotting insurrection. 

 

It was into this roiling political cauldron that Jesus deliberately came, had planned to come at this exact moment since the very beginning of time.  His message of peace for all humankind was a rank political contradiction.  His command to love one another was an historical absurdity.

 

Yet it was the message that endured through the ages, the gospel of love and not hate, of peace and not strife.  The word of Jesus still prevails, then as now.  I have to listen closely to hear the eternal message of a peace that surpasses all understanding.  (Written by Edward Grinnan)

 

Not only did God’s timing provide this devotional on a day that was racked with emotional pain, it is at the end of the week that political strife continues to build in our country.

 

God’s timing will never be understood within my human lifetime, I suspect; but I do think that God’s timing is a reality.  I struggle to turn over my sense of timing to God.  I struggle to accept blindly the power of God.  But, I continue to follow John Wesley’s acts of piety—worship, pray, study scripture, and partake in the sacraments.

 

The accompanying prayer with the devotional also deserves repeating:

 

God, Your peace is beyond human comprehension.  Teach us not to hate, but to disagree as brothers and sisters, not enemies. 

 

Thank you to Edward Grinnan, to Daily Guideposts 2018, and to God.  Your words are timeless and so needed at these difficult times.

 

None of us has any idea when another violent act will interrupt our lives, but God’s law remains the simplest, most comprehensive law:

 

37-40 Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”  –Matthew 22:37-40 (the Message)

 

And from the NRSV, Matthew 22:36-40

 

36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

 

The version one reads does not change the message.  One reads the words that speak to them.  For myself, I read several, and one I like is the NLT:

 

37 Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’[e] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[f] 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

 

The message or the lesson or the direction that is provided in this passage never changes.  Love God.  Love one another.  If all our decisions are made and checked along these two premises, there would be no need for the violence, for the political strife, the man-defined boundaries between our neighbors.

 

Sadly, evil exists. And humans do have free will, free choice, and ability to make decisions for themselves.  All of us, then, are living in a world that hinges on the decisions of one and another.  We must make decisions the best we can, but I believe God’s laws are the filters through which I chose to make decisions.  I, too, join in Grinnan’s prayer:

 

God, Your peace is beyond human comprehension.  Teach us not to hate, but to disagree as brothers and sisters, not enemies.  – In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.

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Are you a Gallatian?

given on Sunday, April 27, 2014

Easter Sunday I posed the question: Who are you? If we were doing a formal introduction, the only thing that matters is your name; but if you are asked in a job interview who you are, that question takes on an entirely different purpose. Today, the first Sunday after Easter, asking who you are takes on another purpose.

During those earliest days after Christ’s crucifixion, the disciples must have found themselves asking who they were over and over. If someone else asked them, I doubt they knew how to answer because behind that question would be the ‘other’ question—are you one of those Christians or not?

Today there is not sense of fear in answering that question, but in the years, decades, even centuries after Christ’s crucifixion, the faithful struggled to know exactly who they were. Paul certainly had to learn who he was the hard way; but once he accepted Christ, his life as a missionary defined him.

Let’s meet the Galatians. Galatia was a strip of land between the northeastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea with coastal mountains on both sides. Paul traveled through Galatia several times. His footpath was on the northern side of the coastal ridge, and a few times he traveled the sea and through Pamphylia to reach Galatia.

Consider a journey along the roads of Louisiana or Mississippi to put that into perspective. Galatia was part of the trade zone around the Mediterranean so news traveled quickly in that region. Paul established a church in a region filled with different cultures and ideas swirling around that church. The risk of failure had to be huge.

The good news Paul shared is that the old laws no longer were necessary if you accepted Christ. With that acceptance came the one law to replace all others: Love one another, as you would have others love you. Just imagine the sense of freedom that creates! After living thousands of years trying to keep all the laws that the Jewish leaders kept making, now only one to remember, one rule by which to live.

Today we might not realize how cumbersome the Jewish laws were, but we know how governments over-complicate life with legislation. Christianity has one law by which to gauge all actions and decisions–personally, professionally, as parents and as neighbors. True freedom comes with true faith.

Paul’s awareness of Galatians and hearing the latest news lead him to write the letter. Galatians were struggling against the Judaizers, who were Jewish Christians trying to maintain all the old Jewish laws versus the one commandment Jesus taught. The Judaizers even wanted to force new Gentile Christians to undergo circumcision.

In Galatians 1, Paul writes:

I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ.[c] You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.

 

The news of the Galatians’ church alarmed Paul. When we read Paul’s letter, do we hear him talking to us, too? Are we Judaizers or are we the new Christians holding strong to Jesus’ one commandment? Do we need to read Paul’s letter as one who needs “correction” or are we reading it for confirmation of our new beliefs?

Ask yourselves again, who am I? This is the first Sunday after Easter and here you are. Is returning Sunday after Sunday a routine or does it fulfill that spiritual need within you? Working through the week away from the church’s sanctuary can wear down one’s spirit or resolve. The Galatians were no different than us. Paul probably expected some challenges to the Galatians’ faith, but he was extremely concerned that they were simply no longer trying to be good. He had to review even his own experience to get the point across:

17 But suppose we seek to be made right with God through faith in Christ and then we are found guilty because we have abandoned the law. Would that mean Christ has led us into sin? Absolutely not! 18 Rather, I am a sinner if I rebuild the old system of law I already tore down. 19 For when I tried to keep the law, it condemned me. So I died to the law—I stopped trying to meet all its requirements—so that I might live for God. 20 My old self has been crucified with Christ.[e] It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.

 

Attending worship services is part of the discipline needed to maintain the freedom from the law that the Judaizers were trying to force the newest Christians to follow, even if they were Gentiles. Is this one of today’s problems for Christians?

Falling into a comfortable routine and not wanting to work on maintaining a close, personal relationship with God. Any freedom that we have must be maintained. Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection is a model for us today as much as it was during his lifetime and Paul’s lifetime. We have to work to be good. Attending Sunday worship is one behavior that is more than a simple, safe routine. It is a practice to keep one grounded in God’s law.

Who are you, then? Are you a quiet follower or are you an active doer?   Paul, we know, was certainly not a quiet person. Here was one of the most outspoken, anti-Christian religious leaders doing all he could to erase the fire Jesus was lighting during his ministry. But Paul was no Judaizer; he found freedom from the old law and spent the rest of his life making disciples of Christ.

Paul did not quietly state his argument. In Galatians 3, he tells them exactly what he thinks:

Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? Have you experienced[a] so much for nothing? Surely it was not in vain, was it?

 

Paul’s frustration leaps off the page no matter what translation one reads. He is so passionate about how the old Jewish laws are no longer necessary if one has accepted Christ.

For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”[e] 12 This way of faith is very different from the way of law, which says, “It is through obeying the law that a person has life.”[f]

13 But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing.

 

You are a Christian, a 21st century Christian. Do you continue to maintain you faith? Are you making your life’s decisions through the faith filter or a law filter? When you are introduced, does is Christian one of the descriptors attached to your name?

While listening to K-Love this week, a new song registered in my brain. Immediately I wanted to share it because it speaks so loudly to this very idea of who we are. I am sure Paul would use the same words while talking to the Galatians or any other Christians—from the Apostles right up to us today:

Take away the melodies,

Take away the songs I sing.

Take away all the lights,

All the songs You let me write.

Does the man [person] I am today

Say the words You need to say?

 

Chorus

Let them see You in me

Let them hear You when I speak.

Let them feel You when I sing.

Let them see You,

Let them see You in me.

 

Who am I without Your grace,

Another smile, another face?

Another breath, a grain of sand

Passing quickly through Your hand.

I give my life as I am offering it.

Take it all; take everything.

 

Chorus

Let them see You in me

Let them hear You when I speak.

Let them feel You when I sing.

Let them see You,

Let them see You in me.

 

With every breath I breathe,

I sing a simple melody;

But I pray they’ll hear more

Than a song in me, in me.

 

Chorus (first musical interlude then 2Xs)

Let them see You in me

Let them hear You when I speak.

Let them feel You when I sing.

Let them see You,

Let them see You in me.

(musical interlude then add: Let them see You in me.)

 

The hymns we sing are our prayers. When we hear a prayer like this one, we hear Paul teaching the Galatians. We hear Jesus teaching the disciples. We discover that the generations continue to struggle knowing who Jesus is and how they and us can live our faith daily. Do not give in to Judaizers. Do not keep your faith silent or hidden. Do not get trapped into a routine that does not feed to your soul.

Accepting Christ means knowing that he died for our sins and that we are to follow that one commandment above all else. We live our faith openly each and every day so that when are introduced, Christian is one descriptor that everybody sees in you.

Closing prayer:

Dear God,

In all that we do, we want others to see You.

When we make decisions for our families,

for our communities, for our farms and jobs,

We need to see You .

 

Are you a Galatian?

April 27, 2014

 

Easter Sunday I posed the question: Who are you? If we were doing a formal introduction, the only thing that matters is your name; but if you are asked in a job interview who you are, that question takes on an entirely different purpose. Today, the first Sunday after Easter, asking who you are takes on another purpose.

During those earliest days after Christ’s crucifixion, the disciples must have found themselves asking who they were over and over. If someone else asked them, I doubt they knew how to answer because behind that question would be the ‘other’ question—are you one of those Christians or not?

Today there is not sense of fear in answering that question, but in the years, decades, even centuries after Christ’s crucifixion, the faithful struggled to know exactly who they were. Paul certainly had to learn who he was the hard way; but once he accepted Christ, his life as a missionary defined him.

Let’s meet the Galatians. Galatia was a strip of land between the northeastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea with coastal mountains on both sides. Paul traveled through Galatia several times. His footpath was on the northern side of the coastal ridge, and a few times he traveled the sea and through Pamphylia to reach Galatia.

Consider a journey along the roads of Louisiana or Mississippi to put that into perspective. Galatia was part of the trade zone around the Mediterranean so news traveled quickly in that region. Paul established a church in a region filled with different cultures and ideas swirling around that church. The risk of failure had to be huge.

The good news Paul shared is that the old laws no longer were necessary if you accepted Christ. With that acceptance came the one law to replace all others: Love one another, as you would have others love you. Just imagine the sense of freedom that creates! After living thousands of years trying to keep all the laws that the Jewish leaders kept making, now only one to remember, one rule by which to live.

Today we might not realize how cumbersome the Jewish laws were, but we know how governments overcomplicate life with legislation. Christianity has one law by which to gauge all actions and decisions–personally, professionally, as parents and as neighbors. True freedom comes with true faith.

Paul’s awareness of Galatians and hearing the latest news lead him to write the letter. Galatians were struggling against the Judaizers, who were Jewish Christians trying to maintain all the old Jewish laws versus the one commandment Jesus taught. The Judaizers even wanted to force new Gentile Christians to undergo circumcision.

In Galatians 1, Paul writes:

I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ.[c] You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.

 

The news of the Galatians’ church alarmed Paul. When we read Paul’s letter, do we hear him talking to us, too? Are we Judaizers or are we the new Christians holding strong to Jesus’ one commandment? Do we need to read Paul’s letter as one who needs “correction” or are we reading it for confirmation of our new beliefs?

Ask yourselves again, who am I? This is the first Sunday after Easter and here you are. Is returning Sunday after Sunday a routine or does it fulfill that spiritual need within you? Working through the week away from the church’s sanctuary can wear down one’s spirit or resolve. The Galatians were no different than us. Paul probably expected some challenges to the Galatians’ faith, but he was extremely concerned that they were simply no longer trying to be good. He had to review even his own experience to get the point across:

17 But suppose we seek to be made right with God through faith in Christ and then we are found guilty because we have abandoned the law. Would that mean Christ has led us into sin? Absolutely not! 18 Rather, I am a sinner if I rebuild the old system of law I already tore down. 19 For when I tried to keep the law, it condemned me. So I died to the law—I stopped trying to meet all its requirements—so that I might live for God. 20 My old self has been crucified with Christ.[e] It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.

 

Attending worship services is part of the discipline needed to maintain the freedom from the law that the Judaizers were trying to force the newest Christians to follow, even if they were Gentiles. Is this one of today’s problems for Christians?

Falling into a comfortable routine and not wanting to work on maintaining a close, personal relationship with God. Any freedom that we have must be maintained. Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection is a model for us today as much as it was during his lifetime and Paul’s lifetime. We have to work to be good. Attending Sunday worship is one behavior that is more than a simple, safe routine. It is a practice to keep one grounded in God’s law.

Who are you, then? Are you a quiet follower or are you an active doer?   Paul, we know, was certainly not a quiet person. Here was one of the most outspoken, anti-Christian religious leaders doing all he could to erase the fire Jesus was lighting during his ministry. But Paul was no Judaizer; he found freedom from the old law and spent the rest of his life making disciples of Christ.

Paul did not quietly state his argument. In Galatians 3, he tells them exactly what he thinks:

Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? Have you experienced[a] so much for nothing? Surely it was not in vain, was it?

 

Paul’s frustration leaps off the page no matter what translation one reads. He is so passionate about how the old Jewish laws are no longer necessary if one has accepted Christ.

For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”[e] 12 This way of faith is very different from the way of law, which says, “It is through obeying the law that a person has life.”[f]

13 But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing.

 

You are a Christian, a 21st century Christian. Do you continue to maintain you faith? Are you making your life’s decisions through the faith filter or a law filter? When you are introduced, does is Christian one of the descriptors attached to your name?

While listening to K-Love this week, a new song registered in my brain. Immediately I wanted to share it because it speaks so loudly to this very idea of who we are. I am sure Paul would use the same words while talking to the Galatians or any other Christians—from the Apostles right up to us today:

Take away the melodies,

Take away the songs I sing.

Take away all the lights,

All the songs You let me write.

Does the man [person] I am today

Say the words You need to say?

 

Chorus

Let them see You in me

Let them hear You when I speak.

Let them feel You when I sing.

Let them see You,

Let them see You in me.

 

Who am I without Your grace,

Another smile, another face?

Another breath, a grain of sand

Passing quickly through Your hand.

I give my life as I am offering it.

Take it all; take everything.

 

Chorus

Let them see You in me

Let them hear You when I speak.

Let them feel You when I sing.

Let them see You,

Let them see You in me.

 

With every breath I breathe,

I sing a simple melody;

But I pray they’ll hear more

Than a song in me, in me.

 

Chorus (first musical interlude then 2Xs)

Let them see You in me

Let them hear You when I speak.

Let them feel You when I sing.

Let them see You,

Let them see You in me.

(musical interlude then add: Let them see You in me.)

 

The hymns we sing are our prayers. When we hear a prayer like this one, we hear Paul teaching the Galatians. We hear Jesus teaching the disciples. We discover that the generations continue to struggle knowing who Jesus is and how they and us can live our faith daily. Do not give in to Judaizers. Do not keep your faith silent or hidden. Do not get trapped into a routine that does not feed to your soul.

Accepting Christ means knowing that he died for our sins and that we are to follow that one commandment above all else. We live our faith openly each and every day so that when are introduced, Christian is one descriptor that everybody sees in you.

Closing prayer:

Dear God,

In all that we do, we want others to see You.

When we make decisions for our families,

for our communities, for our farms and jobs,

We need to see You .

 

In the times we go out to play,

traveling, shopping, playing cards, fishing and more,

Let others see You in our ways.

While at work at a job site or in our homes,

We need others to see You in us.

 

Guide us in ways to show others Your way.

Guide us in ways to say we are Christians today. –Amenalatian?

the times we go out to play,

traveling, shopping, playing cards, fishing and more,

Let others see You in our ways.

While at work at a job site or in our homes,

We need others to see You in us.

 

Guide us in ways to show others Your way.

Guide us in ways to say we are Christians today. –Amen

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Easy or Hard?

given on Sunday, June 2, 2013–based on preparing for Annual Conference where the theme will be “Praying Hands and Dirty Fingernails

Praying Hands & Dirty Fingernails:  Easy or Hard?

 

Five days from now Annual Conference convenes.  I recognize that the value of this meeting seems distant, unimportant, or maybe even detrimental in some ways.  Yet, as United Methodists, the Annual Conference is a time to review, to be accountable, to renew each church’s commitment to the Greatest Commandment and the Great Commission.  The theme this year is “Praying Hands & Dirty Fingernails.”

Stop and think about that combination of images for just a moment . . .(pause) . . .and now put yourself into the picture.  Do you have praying hands?  Do you have dirty fingernails?  Do you have both praying hands and dirty fingernails?  Or, sadly, do you have neither?

John Wesley did not separate these two images; he felt it was one in the same.  He also developed the structure to keep members accountable to their Christian responsibilities.

Annual Conference is all about God’s greatest commandment and his commission.  Annual conference is Wesley’s method of accountability to God.  Bishop Schnase’s leadership keeps our Missouri churches on task, and this year an added element of preparation appeared in our inboxes—“21 Days of Prayer.”

This three-week study came to my attention a little later than it should have because I was closing out the school year.  My focus was simply to make sure the students graduated and then to look forward.  My secular world collided with my spiritual world, even though I believe they work together to fulfill my Wesleyan purpose.

As school wound down and I cleaned up a room and moved into a new position, I began to let go of the school year and look ahead to the new church year—at least the conference’s church year.  I began reading the materials that are sent out and signing up for the various workshops and projects so I could be prepared.  And, I stopped to read the “21 Days of Prayer.”

First, I must apologize for my lack of pastoral responsibility.  The past two weeks, I should have shared this study with you and ready to introduce the final week of the study today.  But, with that aside, let me share some of the phenomenal words that are in this study.  Rev. Jenn Klein, from the Country Club United Methodist Church in Kansas City, wrote the study based on the Bishop’s book, Remember the Future:  Praying for the Church and Change.

All Christians are to follow one simple commandment that I have repeated over the last five years:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’  –Matthew 22:37-39, the Message

Following this commandment should make life so simple, but in our world, it seems nothing can be simple.  And Rev. Klein wrote it in just a slightly more expansive manner for the study:

“The Great Commandment tells us to love the Lord our God with our full selves; with our mind (intellect), heart (emotions), soul (intuition and divine instinct) and body (physical).  We are also to love others as ourselves.”

Her expanded explanation for each element–mind, heart, soul, and body—makes the commandment more than a statement; it makes it an internalized, comprehensive action—a lifestyle.

Over the past several years, I have tried to describe how being a Christian is a lifestyle.  I know you recognize that idea, but I simply must state it again.  A lifestyle is a way of living that comes automatically; there is no need to write out a specific plan of action or to prepare for the day’s event consciously to live as a Christian.  A lifestyle reflects who you are down to your innermost living cell.

Of course, a Christian lifestyle appears out of sync in today’s society, at least on the surface.  We are living side by side with a secular world that demands more and more un-Christian like behaviors.  The demands from our work world push our ethical standards to a point we become bitter, angry, and stressed not only mentally but physically.  We reach a point that we want to just quit everything because it seems we are demanded to live in a manner that does not match our beliefs.

The Bishop’s book acknowledges this, and then provides a Wesleyan viewpoint to help us continue maintaining a Christian lifestyle:

John Wesley modeled acts of piety and acts of mercy and taught that both are essential to our life in Christ.  The words piety and mercy sound curiously quaint today, perhaps even stirring negative responses.  Piety brings to mind self righteous, sanctimonious arrogance.  And no one wants to be at the mercy of anyone else.  Mercy connotes weakness, dependence, surrender.

Personally, I agree with the Bishop.  Today’s world has twisted the concepts we were taught in the 20th century, even clear back to the 18th century when Wesley began his ministry.

Yet we are living in the 21st century.  We cannot change that fact and we seem to have made many adjustments to the secular lifestyle that suits us.  The problem is that we are not making the adjustments in our Christian world to maintain the Wesleyan standards for the disciples of Jesus Christ that we profess we are.

Quoting again from the Bishop’s book:

Sometimes we act as if our living in Christ and leading the church require us to emphasize piety to the exclusion of mercy or to choose ministries of mercy at the expense of congregational vitality.  This presents an unhealthy and dangerous dichotomy.  It forces us to ask ourselves.  “Which kind of Christians are we?”  Are we those who seek a deeper spirituality in the changed heart that comes through worship, sacraments, prayer, the Scriptures and fellowship?  Or those who pour ourselves out through ministries of service and justice, helping people to rebuild their lives, and offering hope to a hurting world?

Is not that true?  His words sting; and I want to feel better.  Unfortunately no one can force anyone else to do something they are unwilling to do.  It takes modeling.  It takes valuing.  It takes understanding.  It takes God to open our hearts, our minds, and our hands to maintain a Christian lifestyle.  It takes God to do the same in non-Christians, too.

Here again comes a quandary:  How can our dwindling, aging populations continue to develop vital congregations?  Acts of piety and acts of mercy may be the actions Wesley demanded, and those same two types of acts are still needed today.  The Bishop quotes Martyn Atkins, the general secretary of the British Methodist church who says,

“Acts of piety and acts of mercy are like two wings of a bird; without either one, we cannot fly.  . . .  Following Christ involves praying hands and dirty fingernails.”

Yes, there is the theme of annual conference.  The Bishop connects Wesley’s images of a Christian lifestyle with this explanation:

We can’t evangelize hungry people without giving them food, and offering food alone never completes the task God gives us.  . . . vital congregations include not only a focus on the means by which people grow in Christ together but also an emphasis on ministries that reach into the community and world to serve in Christ’s name.  We cannot separate the two.  These feed each other.  Every faithful and fruitful congregation practices both acts of piety and acts of mercy.

That last line sets up the accountability tools.  To remain a vital congregation, an honest evaluation needs to be completed.  The checklist is simply the acts of piety and the acts of mercy written down and then logged by the congregation.  What proof does the church right here, right now have to show God that his Commandment is being fulfilled and his Commission is the congregation’s driving force.

Over the next two weeks, I challenge each one of you to create such a document.  List the acts of piety and write down what you do regularly that Wesley would approve.  Follow that with the list of acts of mercy you support or do personally.  Be honest.  I know the economy is often a limiting force, or maybe it is physical health that creates some limit.  But unless we can demonstrate our Christian standards, we must admit we are not a vital congregation and we have work to do.

Here is the first step during the conference week:  Prayer.  Make a conscious decision to pray for the church.  One of the different types of prayers available to us is the Prayer Knots.  Most of us would equate this with the Catholics’ use of a rosary, but there are some differences.  With your bulletin, you have a set of 8 knots on a cord.  Each knot is for a specific question as listed in the bulletin.  Add this prayer format to what you typically do in order to be more focused in your talks with God.

  • Knot One:           The first is this,
  • Knot Two:           You shall love the Lord your God
  • Knot Three:         with all your heart,
  • Knot Four:                  and with all your soul,
  • Knot Five:                  and with all your mind,
  • Knit Six:                  and with all your strength,
  • Knot Seven:         The second is this,
  • Knot Eight:         you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Rev. Klein offers a few other questions to consider after repeating this prayer twice:

  1. What word or image grasps your attention?  This is God’s word for you this week.
  2. What response, thoughts, insights were stirred within?
  3. How have you experienced the love of God?
  4. How might you be able to help another experience God’s love?

For five years, the one concern voiced over and over is how can we do that when we are so tired and so few.  Over these five years, I have seen the congregation’s attendance go up and down.  I know some swells are seasonal, as are some drops.  Some are temporary; some are not.

Over these five years, the acts of piety are maintained during worship, but seldom outside of that one hour.  The acts of mercy follow traditions primarily, but the traditions change.  New acts tried may fail first, but tried again may thrive.  The old acts continue, but do they grow?

During the next two weeks, use the prayer knots or cord and evaluate the vitality of your own faith, but also the vitality of our congregation.  It is not easy, but it is necessary.  In two weeks, let’s have an honest conversation that identifies a purpose and a goal for keeping the healthy balance of the past with the present.  A purpose and a goal that create a vital congregation.

Dear God,

Thank you for providing our congregation

the strength of history and the durability of now.

Guide us as we pray for our congregation,

our community, and our members.

Help us to be honest with our evaluations.

Help us to reflect upon the words

from the Bishop, Rev. Klein, Wesley,

and so many of your other disciples.

Use our time apart to build us up

so we can continue to keep your commandment

and to carry out your commission.  –Amen

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Breaking Sin’s Code Part 4: DONE.

 

Okay, done.  Sin’s code is broken.  Malachi never really mentioned the word ‘sin,’ but he certainly told the people of Israel that they failed to keep the commandments, especially the first one—have no other God before me.  True he outlined how the priests had failed and then how the people failed, but the major points boil down to two:

1.    Have no other God before me.

2.    Return to God and God will return to you.

The faithful simply must stay focused.

Staying focused on God is not difficult unless you are susceptible to other influences.  Yet there are methods to use that provide strength against those sinful influences—worship together with other faithfuls, serve God, study the Word, give your best to God, and listen to God.  (If those sound slightly familiar, remember the Bishop Schnase’s five fruitful practices:  radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, extravagant generosity, and risk-taking mission.)

The parallel cannot be ignored between Malachi and the Bishop’s advice.  We must practice following the commandments in a manner that demonstrates that we are God’s children.  This unlocks the mystery as to why Malachi was the last prophet before John the Baptist arrived.

The faithful were few in number, but they were still faithful.  Malachi’s prophecy was for everybody, but who followed his advice was heeded by such a few.  God told the people that they must return to God if they wanted God to return to them.

For 400 years, God did not speak to the people.  400 years!  That is almost five lifetimes, two American histories, four centennial celebrations, eight golden anniversaries, 16 silver anniversaries, or 40 decades.  Humans measure time; God’s time has no boundaries.  Still, he was quiet for 400 years.

Malachi’s closing words were meant to encourage the few faithful who were indeed listening.  The first two verses certainly show a division between the faithful and the unfaithful:

“You can be sure the day of the LORD is coming. My anger will burn like a furnace. All those who are proud will be like straw. So will all those who do what is evil. The day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD who rules over all. “Not even a root or a branch will be left to them. 2 “But here is what will happen for you who have respect for me. The sun that brings life will rise. Its rays will bring healing to my people. You will go out and leap like calves that have just been let out of the barn.

Two very different images are shown, but images the people who lived in a farming-based culture could clearly understand.  As faithful followers in today’s world, the farming-based images continue to work.  There is little doubt what Malachi was saying, even to us today, nearly 2,500 years later!

Reading Malachi’s prophecy today is just as relevant to us as it was in 430 BC.  We are still to follow God’s commandments.  True, Jesus brought the Greatest Commandment:  Love God, love one another.  Is that not what Malachi is saying?  Doesn’t the Greatest Commandment supersede or incorporate all the Ten Commandments?

For 400 years, the faithful hung on to God’s words.  The faithful did all they could to maintain the commandments.  For them, Malachi was sharing a prophecy filled with hope, with the promise of life eternal and to meet God face to face.  For those who did not follow the warnings, there was no hope for eternal life, for seeing God’s face.  All there was to look forward to, according to Malachi, was the furnace and they would burn like straw burns.

The prophecy ends with where chapter three began—with the promise of sending a messenger.  Everybody was familiar with Elijah and the relationship he had with God.  The promise from Malachi that the prophet Elijah would come before he himself would come.  The words are hopeful and fearful:

5 “I will send you the prophet Elijah. He will come before the day of the LORD arrives. It will be a great and terrifying day. 6 Elijah will teach parents how to love their children. He will also teach children how to honor their parents. If that does not happen, I will come. And I will put a curse on the land.”

The purpose of the messenger was to prepare even more faithful people to meet God.

Chronologically, we turn the page—we begin the New Testament story, another key to breaking sin’s code or hold. #

# # # #

Picture life now, 400 years after Malachi has spoken.  What has changed?  Not much, that is true.  The faithful are still faithful; they are still waiting for the next messenger or prophet.  Are they ready?

After studying Malachi and considering the chronological list of the books or stories of the New Testament, we see that both Matthew and Luke present the arrival of John, the Baptist, as the arrival of Elijah.  The timeline in Malachi is being revealed:  Return to God and God will return to you.

The faithful had broken sin’s code and had succeeded to stay focused on God to the extent that God was ready to return.   Halleluiah!

This is where we reach into the Greatest Story to be told.  We have the written report through two different sets of eyes as to what happened next.  Both Matthew and Luke begin with the birth and ministry of John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus.  To follow the work of John the Baptist is to see the fulfillment of Malachi’s as well as Isaiah’s prophecy.

Listen to the story of John the Baptist in both Matthew and Luke: Matthew 3:1-12 In those days John the Baptist came and preached in the Desert of Judea.

2 He said, “Turn away from your sins! The kingdom of heaven is near.”  . . .

3 John is the one the prophet Isaiah had spoken about. He had said,  “A messenger is calling out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord.    Make straight paths for him.’” (Isaiah 40:3)

4 John’s clothes were made out of camel’s hair. He had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.

5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all of Judea. They also came from the whole area around the Jordan River.

6 When they admitted they had sinned, John baptized them in the Jordan. . . .

7 John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing. He said to them, “You are like a nest of poisonous snakes! Who warned you to escape the coming of God’s anger?

8 Produce fruit that shows you have turned away from your sins.

9 Don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘Abraham is our father.’ I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham even from these stones.

10 The ax is already lying at the roots of the trees. All the trees that don’t produce good fruit will be cut down. They will be thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water, calling you to turn away from your sins. But after me, one will come who is more powerful than I am. And I’m not fit to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

12 His pitchfork is in his hand to clear the straw from his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into the storeroom. But he will burn up the husks with fire that can’t be put out.”

Luke 3:3-18

3 He went into all the countryside around the Jordan River. There he preached that people should be baptized and turn away from their sins.  . . . Then God would forgive them.

4 Here is what is written in the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. It says, “A messenger is calling out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord.     Make straight paths for him.

5 Every valley will be filled in.     Every mountain and hill will be made level. The crooked roads will become straight.     The rough ways will become smooth.

6 And everyone will see God’s salvation.’” (Isaiah 40:3–5)

7 John spoke to the crowds coming to be baptized by him. He said, “You are like a nest of poisonous snakes! Who warned you to escape the coming of God’s anger?

8 Produce fruit that shows you have turned away from your sins. And don’t start saying to yourselves, ‘Abraham is our father.’ I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham even from these stones.

9 The ax is already lying at the roots of the trees. All the trees that don’t produce good fruit will be cut down. They will be thrown into the fire.”

10 “Then what should we do?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “If you have extra clothes, you should share with those who have none. And if you have extra food, you should do the same.”

12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” John told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” John replied, “Don’t force people to give you money. Don’t bring false charges against people. Be happy with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting. They were expecting something. They were all wondering in their hearts if John might be the Christ.

16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But One who is more powerful than I am will come. I’m not good enough to untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

17 His pitchfork is in his hand to toss the straw away from his threshing floor. He will gather the wheat into his storeroom. But he will burn up the husks with fire that can’t be put out.”

18 John said many other things to warn the people. He also preached the good news to them. The choice of words in both is so nearly alike one cannot argue their authenticity.  The message continues that of Malachi.

1.    Have no other God before me.

2.    Return to God and God will return to you.

What does this offer the faithful today?  The same message, only this time it is even simpler because there are not eleven rules and examples, there is one: Matthew 22:36-40 “Teacher,” he asked, “which is the most important commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your mind.’ (Deuteronomy 6:5) This is the first and most important commandment. …

Remember this commandment; follow the words of the prophets, the disciples, and the church leaders even today.  As long as they are following the words of God, sin’s code will be and is and will always be broken.

Dear Holy God,

Thank you for the words of your prophets,

for the teachers, for the leaders, and for your Son.

Thank you for the wisdom of simple laws

to guide us in our lives.

Thank you for the promise of eternal life

and of meeting you face to face.  –Amen

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Telling the story: Cain & Abel

given on Sunday, January 8, 2012

Telling the Story:  Cain & Abel

 

Background:  We are moving into a calendar time known as the Sundays after Epiphany:  January 6, 12 days after Jesus’ birth, the day the Wise Men arrived.  The Christmas Story now becomes the story of Jesus’ development into the man with a new message. 

         One of the questions that has floated around in the back of my mind is why do we need to study the Old Testament once we have accepted Jesus as savior?  The more I studied the Christmas Story, I found myself thinking about how a tiny infant would be raised.  The Old Testament was the primary teaching tool for those of the Jewish Faith, and Jesus was born into a Jewish household.  He was educated with the Old Testament.

         The priests, who were the teachers, too, relied on the Old Testament stories to teach the young people the proper rules for living within the faith community as well as the secular community.  In the local culture, the secular world was structured around the Jewish faith.  Even though Jesus was God, the physical human form had to be developed and to be accepted within the community; Jesus had to grow up just like the other kids in the community.

         Looking back at the Old Testament Bible Stories understanding the culture and the educational style is the lens through which various Bible stories will be studied.  One goal is to connect the lesson from the Old Testament to a lesson in the New Testament.

Just what lesson does the Cain & Abel story teach?

Based on Genesis 4:1-15

         How can a story of one brother murdering another brother in cold blood have any positive lesson for Christians today?  Surely we do not need to hear another violent story; there is enough murder and mayhem on the nightly news, on the various drama TV episodes, and in the movie theaters.  Why this story?  How can it possibly provide us any value when the Christmas story is one of love?

The answer may lie in a verse from Mark.  As the New Testament reveals the story of Jesus’ life, the lessons in the gospels focus on one overarching theme:  love one another.  In Mark 12:30-31 the connection may provide the key:

29-31Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.”  (the Message)

Cain and Abel were the first two children of Adam and Eve.  They were born after the couple ate the apple and were kicked out of the Garden of Eden.  Regardless of one’s understanding of the creation story or the sequential record of humanity’s development, the Bible stories provide a primary textbook for how to live and how not to live.  In Genesis 3 and 4, the story teaches how sin separates humans from God.

Adam and Eve failed to follow God’s law, and they were forced into the real world.  As they began their family, they experienced all the same battles families do now:  the need for the basics:  food, shelter, and clothing.  To provide for those needs, the men took various roles to work for those needs while the women continued to meet the needs by cooking, making clothing, and maintaining the homes.

Living in community, the personalities of family and non-family members differed and greed gets in the way.  The problem may have a different look in the 21st century, but it is the same problem that has created conflict throughout human history.

Cain worked as a farmer; he tilled the land and raised crops.  Abel was a rancher, so to speak.  He raised livestock rather than till the land.  The products they produced were different so the comparison of their gifts to God seems to be the source of conflict.  Cain provided an offering to God of some of his produce while Abel provided the best meat he raised.

The various interpretations of the offering agree that this is where the conflict begins.  God expected only the best to be offered, not just some of the gleanings.  The fourth verse provides readers the difference in God’s acceptance of the offerings:

Cain brought an offering to God from the produce of his farm. Abel also brought an offering, but from the firstborn animals of his herd, choice cuts of meat. God liked Abel and his offering, but Cain and his offering didn’t get his approval.

The reaction of Cain is the same as a similar experience is for us today:  he became angry.  Whether the trigger for anger is greed—Abel’s offerings were more valuable—or whether it was jealousy because Abel found more favor in God’s eyes than he did, anger took over.

As young children, early Jewish laws were taught from the Old Testament text.  Jesus, just like his peers, went to Temple for teachings and the story was used to teach them the right way to live.  The murder of one brother over the quality of the offering seems petty; yet it demonstrates that sometimes emotions boil up and lead us to make bad decisions.

Today, just like in the beginning with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and other related family members in the Old Testament, violent reactions occur over the same issues:  greed and jealousy are at the top of the list.  This week in our own metro area, the news has reported murders, robberies, and vicious behaviors that echo the Bible stories of conflict.

Have we learned any lessons?  Hopefully we have, but we need to check ourselves against the guidelines or the commandments that Jesus taught and are recorded in the New Testament.  Mark’s inclusion of the greatest commandment:

“The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.

If Cain had provided the best of his labor to God before anything else was done with his harvest, would the story ended differently?  We cannot second-guess the scripture, but we can learn the lesson.

In our lives today, are we offering God our best?  Are we passionate about our love of God?  Are we sincere in our prayers?  Do we put forth our best in using our intelligence and our energy?  Do we come to worship with the zeal that God is the basis of our lives?  Do we come to thank him for his love, his faith, and his guidance?

Cain did not.  Cain freely decided to murder his own brother out of jealousy and/or greed.  Cain sinned.

And what is the rest of the story?  Sin lead Cain to a frustrating, unhappy life.  Not only did he struggle, but also so did his family.  God did not strike Cain down; but when He did talk to Cain, he continued to show unconditional love despite his sin.

God’s punishment is that the land, where Abel’s blood was shed, would no longer produce well for Cain.  The result forced Cain to become a homeless wanderer trying to find a way to provide food, shelter and clothing.  And . . .

13-14 Cain said to God, “My punishment is too much. I can’t take it! You’ve thrown me off the land and I can never again face you. I’m a homeless wanderer on Earth and whoever finds me will kill me.”

God did not follow Cain’s behavior and kill him, no eye for an eye, or tooth for a tooth.  No . . .

15 God told him, “No. Anyone who kills Cain will pay for it seven times over.” God put a mark on Cain to protect him so that no one who met him would kill him.

God demonstrated to Cain what we are to do—he turned away from the sin, punished him, but then protected him.  There is a paradox of sorts in the story, but looking at God’s actions through the New Testament teachings one can see the application of the Greatest Commandment:  ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment  . . .

The story of Cain & Abel might first appear to be one to avoid, but if we look deeply into our personal history and our personal lives, I suspect there is a ‘Cain & Abel’ story hidden within our own lives.  Yet, it is how we deal with our sins that makes Jesus’ story so extremely important.  When we accept God’s grace, work to understand how Jesus was born, lived, and died for us, and then live our faith honestly, then we know that God’s unconditional love will provide us forgiveness and eternal life.

If Jesus can learn from the Old Testament Bible stories, then we can, too.  If we sin as Cain did, we can still turn to God and ask forgiveness.  God loves us.  Jesus loves us.  Do we love God so much that we can follow his example and love those who sin against us?  Remember Jesus’ Greatest Commandment:

29-31Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.”  (the Message)

As we depart today from the safety of our church, let us remember that the stories are there for us to use.  Let us go out and tell the stories so others may understand God’s love.

Dear Loving Father,

Today we hear the Old Testament Bible story

Of Cain murdering his brother Abel.

Let us find the lessons you want us to know,

Let us live the lessons we learn, and

Let us tell the stories to others

So they may also find the joy in Christian living.  –Amen

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