Friday, December 20, 2013

Duck Dynasty

Please quit sending me invitations on Facebook to "like" pages supporting Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson.  Please quit assuming that, since I am a Christian, I agree with what he said.  Please quit believing that, as a pastor, I believe the same way he does.  I don't.

First, let me get all of the "political correctness" out of the way.  Yes, Phil Robertson can say anything he would like without risking being thrown in prison.  And that is what the first amendment protects against.  But if we look back through history to the men who drafted the Constitution, we will see they were in a different situation that we face today.  They had lived through a period where saying anything against their king would land them in jail - or worse.  They wanted to prevent that from happening again which is why they began our government providing protection to those who would speak out against the leadership of our country.  That is why those who desire to can clog up Facebook feeds with "president-bashing" posts - regardless of which president they are bashing.  Were that first amendment not in place, there would be a whole lot of people heading to my hometown of Leavenworth, Kansas for a nice, long visit with a wardrobe of black and white stripes with nicely stenciled numbers on the chest.

Through the decades, our society has morphed that amendment and broadened it to extend - and excuse - anything that anyone says.  And that's fine.  But here's what the first amendment doesn't protect us from.

Our behaviors, our words, our decisions ALL HAVE CONSEQUENCES!!  Phil Robertson has the right to verbalize what he believes.  And his bosses have the right to reprimand him for doing so.  The problem is that we've become a society that refuses to take responsibility for our actions.  We're always looking for "a way out" of messy situations that we get ourselves into instead of owning up to what we've done, apologizing and taking our medicine.  So to those shouting that Phil Robertson can say what he wants and have first amendment protection, I reply "not really" -  at least when it comes to dealing with the fall out of what he said.  Man up, Phil.

Now that this is taken care of, let's look at what he said. Unfortunately, Phil voiced his beliefs on two hot button topics in our society: Homosexuality and racism - a double whammy!  It was all offensive - to gay and straight alike.  But here is what offends me the most - and what makes my job as pastor even harder.

I'm not going to try and deny what the Scriptures tell us about homosexuality.  I will say that I am still working on my understanding of them.  Now in my earlier days of ministry, I would have been right there with Phil for two reasons.  First, that was what I was taught in my church - a conservative, evangelical tradition like it appears - at least from what he said - that Phil comes from.  Second, I didn't know any LGBT people - I hadn't listened to their cries of "Why am I like this?" and "Why did God make me this way?"  I hadn't held someone's hand as they cried because they had been kicked out of their house when they told their parents they were gay or because they lost their best friend when they came out.  This is why I now struggle with what the Scripture tells us - because beforehand, I wasn't looking through God's eyes of love.

Here's my second struggle. Most Protestant Christian traditions (so basically, everyone who's not Catholic) believe that sin is sin is sin:  There are no "degrees" of it.  Sin is abominable to God - no matter what it is.  So, if we've embracing the theory that homosexuality is a sin, it's no worse than adultery or lying or gossiping or . . . you get the idea.  Why then do we focus on the sin of homosexuality?  Is it perhaps because it's not one that we have to face?  Scripture tell us to quit focusing on the speck in someone else's eye while ignoring the log in our own.  I'd better get my own sins under control before I start bashing other people for theirs.

My final struggle is this:  Anyone who tries to claim that someone won't get into Heaven is assuming the role of God.  God decides who goes; it's His party and He can invite anyone in that he wants to.

My job as a pastor is to love people and share with them the message of God's Word.  It isn't to tell them that they have no chance of getting into Heaven because of their sins: If that's the case, then I won't be there, either.  My duty is to help them learn to love God so that His transforming Holy Spirit can work in their hearts.  That is the only thing that changes us.  Those hearts certainly won't be transformed by someone saying, "You've got no chance!"

So no, I won't be signing any support Phil Robertson petitions or liking any Facebook pages.  I also won't be bashing him either because he deserves the mercy and grace that seem to be lacking from his statements.  I will instead, try to figure out how we can harvest all of the time and energy vested in this ridiculousness and put it toward more productive issues like taking care of the needy and feeding the hungry.  That seems a much better use of my time.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Black and White and Gray All Over

Black and White and Gray All Over

I have found myself thinking lately about colors. Well, two in particular:  Black and white – and how those colors relate to our lives.  I find myself wondering about living in a world of black and white because as I get older, and hopefully a bit wiser, I find more and more gray in this world. 

There can be a danger in living in a world of black and white. Black-and-white people are very certain of the blackness and whiteness, of their lives and everything must fall into one of those two colors. And if other people don’t categorize everything as black or white, then they are wrong. 

Unfortunately, this world of black or white seems most prevalent in our religious culture.  “There is only one correct way to have a relationship with God.” That’s the black-and-white world.  And the people of that world spend their time trying to convince others that they are right. We fight with each other about who is more correct instead of uniting and realizing that, just perhaps, there might be more than one path to God.

The problem with the black-and-white world is that it is about rules: A person follows them or they don’t. But where does that leave the person? In the Christian tradition, we are called to care more about people than about rules. If, in our black-and-white world, we condemn a person for not following the rules, we fail to show them the love and grace of God.

Living in a black-and-white world can be an attempt for us to try and make decisions for God – decisions that are not ours to make. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah tells us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor our ways his ways. God’s ways and thoughts are higher than our thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9) It is not our job to point out the rules and call a person out if they don’t follow them. It is our job to love. That’s it.

What if people in their black-and-white world took some advice from a clergy colleague of mine?  Rev. Caela Simmons Wood asked her congregation to come to every conversation with these four words in the back of their head: “I could be wrong.” That’s caring more about people than about rules. That’s living in shades of gray instead of living in black and white. 

So today, embrace the gray! Love people more than rules. Put aside your pride and be willing to admit that maybe you could be wrong. And see how many people you can touch with God’s love.

Rev. Amy Seifert
Assistant Pastor
Shepherd of the Hills United Methodist Church
St. George, UT

Sunday, August 5, 2012

When Christians Get It Wrong: Science & Politics

When Christians Get It Wrong
Christians, Science and Politics

When Michael and I were deciding which one of us would tackle the topics of our latest sermon series, he asked if there were any that really spoke to me.  We had already decided to tag team the topic of homosexuality and the final topic of the series – when Christians get it right.  I said that I would like to tackle the topic of when bad things happen.  He said that he would introduce the series and take different religions and then suggested that I tackle the sermon on science and politics.  THE BIG CHICKEN!!!

Two big, hot button topics – especially right now in light of this being an election year and the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson – the god particle.  Like I said – the big chicken!

Well, I think I’ll tackle the one I think will be less likely to get tempers flaring – Science.  For some Christians, science is a mortal enemy of faith.  After all, if science is able to prove how things came into being and how things work, what use is there for our faith, our creation stories, our belief that God is in control of the universe?  And conversely, if a person puts all of their energy into science, how can they acknowledge that there is a God that can’t be seen or explained?

The battle of science vs. faith is a long one.  After all, it was June 22, 1633 that Galileo was labeled a heretic for his preposterous idea that the earth moves around the sun and not the other way around.  Today of course, we know that Galileo was correct and not only does the earth revolve around the sun, but that there are potentially millions of other galaxies out there.  Now, I don’t know about you, but having this knowledge certainly hasn’t shocked my faith – it hasn’t wavered or changed anything.

And yet for some Christians, this is a battle that they feel they must continue.  After all, if the so-called God particle has been located, that means that God didn’t create everything, doesn’t it?  How sad it must be to have such weak faith that the words Higgs Boson can destroy it.  How sad it must be to have that much fear that one’s faith can be destroyed simply by a scientific discovery.

It’s a good thing that God is not threatened by science!  I don’t think that God is threatened if science is able to explain how he went about creating.  I wonder if God is actually saying, “Let’s see if they can figure this one out!” 

Last year when the choir went to Rome, we were able to tour the Sistine Chapel and see the beautiful artwork that Michelangelo painted on the ceiling.  Our tour guide was able to showcase the chapel and explain many things about it.  Now, how did he paint the ceiling?

Laid on his back on the scaffolding, right?  No!  We found out that he actually stood and cocked his head.  Does the fact that the ceiling wasn’t painted the way we thought it was negate the impressiveness of the art?  Not at all!  In fact, it make a person appreciate it even more – because standing there with his necked crooked back had to have been far more uncomfortable for Michelangelo that laying on his back!

In much the same way, scientists act as the tour guides of God’s creation.  By helping us understand God’s handiwork, they add to the majesty and glory of creation that can leave us with a greater sense of awe about the One who created it all to begin with.  Or it can even prove God’s existence.  Here’s His eye as taken by the Hubble telescope.  Don’t believe me?  Here is his other eye!  OK, OK I’ll quit joking around.  But then again, maybe it really is his eye!

The other side of this story is that Christians often misinterpret or misunderstand the biblical creation stories.  They read and interpret them as historical texts – science books if you will – instead of the poetry that they are.  The stories were not written as lessons in biology or physics.  They were written to say that behind all the magnificent beauty of creation, there is One who created.  The creation stories were not meant to teach us how God created, but that God created. 

Christians get it wrong when they see science as a threat to faith or when they try to make the Bible a scientific textbook.  They get it right when they see science as a companion to finding knowledge and truth.

OK, let me get ready for the next one!

Politics is a topic that I avoid.  Period.  You won’t hear me talk politics from the pulpit.  You won’t even see it on my Facebook page. You won’t hear my sharing my political beliefs and opinions - first, because it’s just too dangerous:  If I share my political theories, I have the potential of alienating perhaps as many as half of the congregation.  Second, it’s not my job as a spiritual leader of a church to tell you what I think about the political climate or if I think the president’s – whoever it is at the time - latest legislation is good for our country or not.  Third, the church is under pretty strict restrictions as to what we can and can’t do in the political arena and be able to keep our charitable status.  When I speak as a pastor of a church – this church – I can’t run the risk or doing or saying anything that could get us in trouble.  So it’s easier just to avoid it completely rather than run the risk of doing something I’ll regret later.

The unfortunate thing is that many of my fellow clergy and fellow Christians do not abide by these same rules.  And the result of this has manifested itself in the following ways.  We have people believing that a person cannot be a democrat and a Christian: in fact, some people even believe that a person’s political views will keep them out of heaven. 

There is no doubt that when it comes to politics, some Christians say and do things in the name of God that are the antithesis of the Gospel.  In fact, Adam Hamilton received a note from a parishioner that said,

“We have close friends who are passionate about their politics. They regularly profess their strong Christian commitments, but somehow have a blind spot when it comes to how they react to views and opinions of those with whom they differ.  When we get close to that political arena, I have trouble sensing any Christian love or tolerance of any perspective but their own…”

When you think about our political system and how it works – or doesn’t work – there are some biblical aspects to it.  And they aren’t good.  Because, in essence, politics is about power: who has it, who doesn’t, who wants it and who wants to keep it.  And whenever there is a power struggle, no good can come from it. 

Slander, gossip, malicious talk, mean-spirited rhetoric, disrespect – these are just a few of things that come out of our political system. 

Jesus wasn’t a democrat or a republican.  In fact, Jesus had some strong words for the politicians of his time – the Pharisees and Sadducees.  The Sadducees were the wealthy and powerful in Jesus’ day.  They held the majority of seats within the Sanhedrin – the ruling council of the time.  They were more concerned with politics than religion – concerning since they were also the religious rulers as well.  These men were the chief priests and the high priests.  They didn’t relate well to the common man.  The Pharisees, in contrast, were mostly middle class.  They were the minority in the Sanhedrin but wielded a great deal of power because they had the support of the people.  These two groups – these two political parties, if you will – were in constant opposition to each other.  History shows that they came together in solidarity for one event – the crucifixion of Christ.

If we turn to Matthew 16:5-12 we learn that Jesus was wary of the political leaders of the time. In fact, the people that Jesus had the most problems with were the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
  When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them,   "Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." They said to one another, "It is because we have brought no bread." And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, "You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!" Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
 No, there was definitely no love lost between Jesus and the politicians of the day!

Now, I’m not saying that we as Christians should have nothing to do with politics.  But, as Christians we do have a moral and spiritual responsibility not to slander or send out what we believe to be correct political statement or opinions that support our own political agenda.  And we definitely have a responsibility to not let our political beliefs become too closely associated with our faith.  Of course, our faith plays a role in what we believe to be correct politically.  But if those political beliefs superceede what we believe and know to be correct as Christians, we have a HUGE problem.  When we lay aside our Christian ethics or God’s call to love our enemies, choosing instead to engage in slander and mean-spirited partisan politics, we have a HUGE problem.  That’s when we get it wrong.   We get it right when we work for justice imparted with grace, truth and love.

Christ probably doesn’t care about your political views.  What we know he cares about is how we treat people.  Do your political views and how you share them reflect this?

What God Wants - What I Want Part 2

1 Samuel 11:1-15

Those who follow college football – and those who don’t – have been following the saga of Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State football program when allegations of his sexual abuse of children came to light.  The investigation and grand jury that resulted showed that the scandal went deeper and longer than most people would have realized.  Head football coach Joe Paterno and Penn State administrators were found to have barely addressed the problem at best and covered up the abuse at worse. 

Just a few days ago the NCAA handed down sanctions against the university that stopped just short of killing the football program.  The school will have to pay $60 million dollars – the average annual yearly income the program brings.  The football program will have a 4 year ban on any post season activity – bowl games.  All game victories since 1998 will be vacated which includes 6 bowl game wins and 2 national championships.  And the program will have to reduce 10 scholarships immediately and eliminate 20 over-all. 

Joe Paterno’s coaching record is also affected by these sanctions.  With the vacating of the games, he loses the number 1 rank of most wins, going from 409 to 298, and now becomes the 12th overall winning-est coach.  And, of course, we shouldn’t forget his bronze statue being removed from Beaver Stadium.

All because somebody – ok, a lot of somebodys – did something wrong.  There’s more than enough blame to go around.  There’s Sandusky, who abused little boys.  There’s Paterno who, seemingly more concerned about his football program than the lives of children, either did nothing or not enough to report Sandusky’s actions.  There are administrators at the school, other Penn State coaches – plenty of people who were drawn into this unholy mess.

But there will continue to be fallout from this.  I’m not just talking about victims who have yet to come forward – and believe me – there will be more.  Sandusky didn’t just wake up one day in 1994 and decide to become a pedophile!  What about the young men who were recruited to play football at Penn State.  The program that they were promised, no longer exists.  What about the programs at the school that depend upon the revenue the football program brings in?  $60 million is a lot of money to be used for education.  What about Bill O’Brien who became the head coach last November when Paterno was fired?  He has to try and keep a program together facing the possibility of team members leaving the program, trying to recruit new players in light of a scandal and without the ability to be able to promise them a national championship.  Yes, the effects of this mess will be long coming and long reaching.

All because people made the choice to do something wrong – to do something God tells us not to do.

And this is where we find King David today.  This is one heck of a mess he’s gotten himself into.  And everything he did was wrong:  adultery, lying, manipulation, even murder.

Let’s take a minute to remember what we talked about last week.  Often times what we want to do isn’t what God wants us to do.  Either it doesn’t fit into God’s timing or his plans. Or what we plan to do isn’t really for God’s glory but our own.  And it is that very reason that led to the events in today’s scripture. 

Remember, David is riding pretty high on the hog right now.  He’s achieving military victory after victory.  He believes that God has blessed him and rightly so.  But then his ego gets in the way and he really starts to think that he can do no wrong.  He sees a woman – a married woman – that he desires sexually and goes about making it happen.  His one moment of putting what he wants above what he knows is right changes the course of people’s lives.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that when God tells us not to do something and we do it anyway, things are probably not going to end well.  But instead of coming clean about what we’ve done, we try to clean up the mess ourselves – as if that’s going to go any better.  And we find ourselves exactly like David.

So now that David has committed this sin, he has to find a way to cover it up.  (And you thought political sex scandals were just a recent phenomenon!)  No one can find out!  is what David thought.  And he began to enlist people to help him do this.  Of course, he started out enlisting people to help.  After all, he sent someone to bring Bathsheba to him.  Surely, this person had some idea of what David had in mind.

After Bathsheba had returned home and discovered she was pregnant and sent word to David, he sent Joab to bring Uriah to him.  He tried to manipulate Uriah several different ways to entice him to go home and sleep with his wife, making it seem as if he had fathered the baby.  Apparently, people hadn’t begun the practice of trying to decide who the baby looks like, mom or dad, and wouldn’t have noticed if the baby bore no resemblance to Uriah.  And finally, when those plans didn’t work, David used Uriah, sending him back to battle with his death sentence in his own hand. 

Yes, the choice of one man certainly had vast consequences beyond himself!  And it’s easy for us to see that – from the outside looking in.  Yet, when we make a boneheaded choice against God’s will, we do the same thing.  “What can I do to take care of this?”  Or “How can I cover this up?”  Or “How can I fix this?”  And we seek to enlist the help of people we trust. If I had a dollar for every time I’m approached to help fix a problem that I didn’t create.  I’m not talking about counseling someone and helping THEM figure out a solution.  I’m talking about people who expect me to solve the problem.  “Amy, you need to call so and so because they’re acting really weird.  What I’m not telling you is that I’ve really ticked them off so they have a right to act weird around me and I can’t call them myself.  But you call them and find out what’s going on.” 

When we can’t figure out a way to cover up what we’ve done, we panic – just like David did.  He heard those words, “I’m pregnant” and immediately went into “How do I fix this” mode.  When we panic, we don’t think rationally.  We start coming up with all of these ideas that may seem like they’ll work, but in reality have disaster written all over them.  I mean, deciding to essentially murder Uriah after he wouldn’t return home.  Does this seem like David was thinking rationally?  Or does this seem to be the action of a desperate man?  Of course, you know the answer.  And yet, we fall into the same trap as David when we panic. 

When we’re trying to hide a poor choice that we’ve made, we do everything we think will work to keep our secret.  Well, everything except the one that will work which is to admit what we’ve done and accept the consequences of OUR choices.  We aren’t thinking rationally and we don’t realize that our actions are probably not going to cover anything up.

Then we find our lives out of control – much like David did.  There were two things in this situation that were in David’s control: whether or not he slept with Bathsheba and his ordering Uriah to the front lines of the war.  The rest of the events were beyond his control. And when things feel out of control, we do whatever we think we have to get things back under control.  In David’s case, it was ordering the assassination of Uriah.  The problem is that the more David did to try and get control over the situation back, the more out of control things got.  Sure, once Uriah had been assassinated, one problem was solved.  But how many more did that act create?

The hope that comes out of this story of King David is God’s promise to give us another chance.  If we were to continue reading this story, we discover that the baby that was conceived from David’s & Bathsheba’s adultery died in infancy shortly after he was born.  All of that conniving, all of that plotting, that one poor choice made by David in a moment of weakness, didn’t work and  continued to have effects months later.  It was the death of that child that brought David back to God.  And David received mercy and forgiveness and was given another chance.  We later learn that David and Bathsheba conceived another child – Solomon who was considered the wisest king to have ruled.

God wants the best for us but he also wants us to listen to him.  Like most parents, he has good reasons for telling us what to do – reasons that we don’t always understand.  But he gives us the choice to obey or not. 

When we think we know better – or at least just as good – as God (There’s that original sin, again) we see just how much we don’t.  Like David, we panic and come up with ways to keep our sins hidden.  And just like David, we sometimes have to be brought to our knees to be able to bring us to our senses – and bring us back to God.  We repent and we try to better next time.

Doing better next time doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to sin and mess up any more.  But it does mean that instead of trying to hide it, we confess it and hand it over to God to handle – in his perfect way.  He is able to make beauty rise from ashes, to make something good come from something bad.  We have to give up our control, trust him and allow him to do what he does so well. 

So the choice is yours?  What will it be?  Amen.

What God Wants - What I Want Part 1

1 Samuel 7:1-14a

We’re heading to the Old Testament for the first of a two part series on What God Wants: What I Want.

In today’s text, King David is riding a big high.  He has been named the King of all of Israel.  He’s just achieved a huge military victory: he and his army have defeated the Philistines and brought the Ark of the Covenant back to Israel.  He is thinking that there is nothing he can’t do.

So how is he going to top all of this?  He sets a new goal of building a house for God.  “I am living in a house of Cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”   He didn’t think it was right that he was living in a house while the ark – the symbol of God’s presence on earth was shoved in a tent.

Now certainly this is an honorable goal.  None of us would want to think of God living in worse conditions than we are.  The prophet – and David’s friend – Nathan tells David he thinks it’s a good idea before he consults with God.  And why would he need to?  This just seems like a win-win situation for everyone.

The problem is that God says “No.”  He says that he’s going to continue to bless David but David wasn’t going to be the one allowed to build God’s temple.  We, of course, know that David’s son Solomon would be the one to do that.  But why didn’t God allow David to do it.

There are a couple of different reasons.  One could be that by Solomon building the temple, David’s kingdom will be established forever.  Another is that David was surrounded by so much war and bloodshed that God didn’t want him building it.  1 Chronicles 22:8 says, “But the word of the LORD came to [David], saying, ‘You have shed much blood and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house to My name, because you have shed so much blood on the earth before Me.’”

Scripture doesn’t tell us what David’s reaction was when he heard the news from Nathan that he wasn’t supposed to build God’s temple.  We do know that he obeyed God.  But I wonder – did he sulk?  Did he throw a fit?  Did he try to rationalize with God – if you just let me do this,…?

Sometimes we can be like David.  We come up with a great idea.  And we convince ourselves that God really wants us to do it or that we’re doing it for God.  But then God tells us “no.”  What do we do?

It can be difficult to hear the answer no and even more difficult to accept it.  So we try to convince ourselves that the answer really isn’t no.  I mean, why would God tell us “no” when we are trying to do something for him?

There are several different reasons.  The first is that your plan doesn’t fit into God’s timing.  When we look at this story of David today, we can see that God had a timeframe for when he wanted the temple built.  And it wasn’t right then. 

Scripture backs this up.  We’re probably familiar with Ecclesiastes 3 that tells us “ For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”  Perhaps less familiar is Habakkuk 2:3 which says, “For there is still a vision for the appointed time. If it seems to tarry, wait for it:  it will surely come, it will not delay.”   Think of all the times that angry mobs were after Jesus to do him harm.  How many times could Jesus have been killed?  But he wasn’t – until it was the right time – God’s right time.

The second reason that God tells us know when we want to do something is that whatever we want to do doesn’t fit with his plan.  Not only must things happen in God’s time: They must happen according to his plan.  Jeremiah 29:11 tells us that “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  If your plan doesn’t mesh with God’s plan, you aren’t going to be successful.  You’ll hit roadblock after roadblock after stumbling block.  And the funny thing when we wonder why we aren’t being successful, we never stop to consider that perhaps God doesn’t want us doing what we’re doing.
We think, “Well, I must not be doing something right” which is, in essence, our pride talking.  But that’s a whole other sermon for another time.

But here is the biggest reason I think that God tells us “no” when we have big plans.  We really aren’t doing it for God’s glory.  We’re doing it for our own. 

We’re warned about this is Philippians.  2:3 says, Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  The problem is that we’re really good a deluding and convincing ourselves that what we are doing is for God.  We get an idea and we convince ourselves that it is what God really wants us to do.  And like David, the ideas are honorable and seem like the right thing to do. 

But the danger with our delusion is that it ISN’T what God wants:  it’s what we want.  And when we start doing what we want, we are taking God’s role upon ourselves.  We fall into that original sin of wanting to be like God.  Remember how the serpent was able to tempt Adam and Eve?  He told them that if they ate of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, they would be like God.  Well, they bit and we’ve been biting ever since.

Our desire to do what we want – to be like God, if you will, makes it all about us.  If I start a program to help homeless people, I’m doing what God wants.  After all, he told us to take care of people like this so I must be doing his will.  And if this program really gets going, people will respect me.  I’ll be important because I started this wonderful program.  People will seek me out wanting my ideas and my opinions.  And all because I’m doing God’s will.

Let’s examine what happened to a couple of biblical characters when they did God’s will – according to what they wanted.  Samson.  A Nazarite – one of a group of people who were separated out to be especially holy unto God all the days of their life.  Quite the ladies man.  He worked out.  Had long flowing hair.  He didn’t exactly follow God’s path for his life.  Kind of thought that it was all about him and what he wanted to do.  Remember what happened to him?

What about Moses?  Now, what bad thing could I find to say about Moses?  We find it in Numbers 20.  The Israelites are still wandering around in the desert.  And they’re still complaining about the same old stuff: nothing to eat, nothing to drink.  God tells Moses to take his staff, strike a rock and water would come out of the rock.  Well, that’s what Moses did – sort of.  Oh, he did strike the rock with his staff and water did come out of it.  But then he lit into the Hebrews.  Listen you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock? (10) 

What’s the big deal? Who could blame him?  I mean, he’d been listening to the griping and complaining from these people ever since they left Egypt.  But it was a big deal to God. Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.  One careless moment, a few choice words, and the promised land was no longer available to Moses.

Need a New Testament example?  Look at Paul – or rather, Saul.  Persecuting Christians, thinking that it was God wanted him to do.  After all, they weren’t following the law.  They were following this criminal Jesus – this blasphemer.  And he was rather important because he was doing it.  But God made it abundantly clear – or maybe it’s better to say abundantly dark – that what Saul was doing wasn’t for God’s glory but his own when he struck him blind on the road to Damascus.

So what happens when we are so blinded by what we think God wants us to do that we can’t see that it really isn’t?  That’s when we need someone – a Nathan – to come in and tell us.  First, God is going to try and tell you himself.  There will be roadblocks, problems, and issues that should serve as signs to us.  But if we don’t listen, he’ll send a Nathan.  Nathan will say things like, “Are you sure this is what you’re supposed to do?” or “I don’t think this is a good idea.” or just flat out ,”No, don’ t do this!”  Do you have a Nathan in your life?

When Nathan –or God, if we listen – comes and tells us “no” we have to swallow our pride and back. That’s not fun to do.  But we’ll save ourselves a lot of pain, grief and fruitless efforts if we do so.  We have to trust that if God wants something done, he will accomplish it in his time and with his plan.  And you have to accept that it might not involve you.

Once we do this, we can focus on what God is really telling us to do.  Amen.

Next week we’ll talk about when we go ahead and do what God tells us not to do.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Mark 1:21-28

A new teaching with authority!  Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?  Anytime authority is mentioned, it can bring to mind grandiose visions of power or fearful thoughts of submission.  And yet, our lives, our societies and our world work because there is authority in it.

So what does it mean to have authority?  Authority is defined as the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control command, or determine; a power or right delegated or given; an accepted source of information, advice, etc.

In other words, a person can have authority over someone like a parent over a child, a supervisor over an employee or a police officer over a civilian.

Or a person can have authority over something – a person who is very knowledgeable in a subject matter is called an authority. 

Authority can be a funny thing.  Some people who think they have it, don’t. Like our friend here.  Some people who think they don’t have it, do. There’s usually someone who is more authoritative above you who knows more than you do.  Just when you think you are an authority, you may find that you aren’t. 

That’s what happened in today’s Scripture.  The people who were in the synagogue when Jesus began to teach were used to being taught by teachers who had pretty good knowledge of their subject matter.  Then Jesus showed up.  It’s kind of hard to call yourself an authority on the law when the author of the law arrives to teach the class.  And, as it turns out, the scribes weren’t quite the authorities they thought they were.  But I digress.

Now, as if teaching with authority wasn’t enough, Jesus seals his authority in the eyes of the people by casting out an unclean spirit – a demon – from a man.  That was not something folks were used to seeing from their religious leaders.  And the ironic part of this exorcism is that the demon recognized Jesus as the Holy One – the Son of God – while none of the Hebrews in the synagogue did – not even Jesus’ disciples.

Now you may be asking, “What does this have to do with me? I’m certainly not a Biblical authority.  And there’s no way I can perform an exorcism.”

Perhaps not, but Jesus calls us to love and care for others.  He calls us to make disciples of all nations.  And he gives us – all of us – authority to do it by one simple method.  He lives within us. 

If you are a baptized follower of Jesus Christ, if you have accepted Jesus or found Jesus, if you’ve been saved – whatever language you’re accustomed to – your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit and because of that, a part of our triune God lives within you!!

That is powerful!  That is authoritative!  You must only embrace that authority that already lies within your heart.  But in order to do this, you need to have an understanding of what authority is – and what it isn’t;  what authority looks like – and what it doesn’t.

Once there were two men who were asked to recite the 23rd Psalm.  One was a trained stage actor; the other was an old, feeble minister.  The actor went first.  He began to recite the familiar words, using his training to give a powerful performance.  His deep baritone voice held the audience in rapture as he spoke with inflection and emotion. When he finished, the audience rose to their feet in thunderous applause.

When he had sat down, the minister slowly rose to his feet to render his version of the Psalm.  His voice was not as large as the actor’s; his delivery not as profound.  He stumbled over a few of the words.  Yet when he was finished, there was not a dry eye in the audience. 

The actor was able to explain the dramatic difference between the two recitations.  He said, “I know the Psalm.  He knows the Shepherd.”  Knowing the shepherd is what made him an authority.  You must know the shepherd.

Authority means stepping up to the plate at all times.  It doesn’t matter if it’s convenient or not.  It doesn’t matter if it’s acceptable to who is hearing it.  It doesn’t matter if it causes a ruckus and gets people angry.  It doesn’t matter if it’s in your comfort zone or not.  Taking authority means doing what needs to be done no matter the cost.

Jesus’ message is challenging:  It was for him and it is for us.  The message calls for a drastic change in how we do things, in how we relate to others and how we live our lives.

Finally, authority commands us to image a new world.  We’ve all heard what we are supposed to do: Love your neighbor, care for the least, the last and the lost, show mercy to all.  People aren’t tired of the message – the message is eternal.  People are tired of the old ways of thinking about the message.  We all know the words but something is lacking between hearing the words and doing the deeds.

We need authority to begin thinking about a new world – to use our imaginations in a new way.  It takes imagination to create communities of healing.  It takes imagination to offer everybody the opportunity to live as a child of God. Some people don’t respond to the old ways of doing church – our ways of sharing Christ with the world.  We have to be creative and do something different.

But before we all jump on board and get excited about taking authority, we need to remember one thing – the most important thing about authority.  It comes with accountability.  Those with authority must have accountability – otherwise it’s dictatorial.  We read in the gospels about the leaders who “lord their authority over others.”  Having authority doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want with no questions asked of you like the biblical rulers did.  That makes you a Pharisee.  Luke 12 tells us that “everyone to whom much is given, much will be required and to him whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”   That more is accountability.

What is accountability?  Let’s first look at what it is not.  It doesn’t mean you have to justify every decision you do or don’t make.  It doesn’t mean that you must consult with everyone before a choice is made.  It doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be supportive of your leadership at all times.

Accountability means that, because of your authority, you will be held to a higher standard.    It means that your fellow leaders expect you to give your best for the cause and if you don’t, they will want an explanation as to why you haven’t.  It means when you behave badly, they will call you on it.  It means that when you do things that are not in the best interest of the church or you start doing things for your own glory and reasons, you will have to answer for actions.

This is a picture of me this past June at my commissioning ceremony.  After the 14 of us who were commissioned as elders or deacons were asked several questions,   Bishop Elaine laid her hands on each of our shoulders and said, in my case, “Amy, take authority as a deacon to proclaim the Word of God, and to lead God’s people to serve the world in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

This is not something that can only be done by clergy.  You don’t have to wear a robe to share God’s love.  Today, I say to you all, take authority as a child of God to proclaim the Word of God by sharing his love wherever you can, whenever you can, in all the places you can.

We follow the One whose authority cannot be silenced.  Use that authority to make a difference for and in God’s kingdom.  Amen.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What is worship?

“But Amy, that’s not worship!” were the words that came from my congregation member’s mouth.  It was one of those moments where I wish I hadn’t been in such shock that I could have engaged my mouth to say something in reply.  Instead, I just stood there looking at this person with a dumbfounded expression on my face.

A group of us had been talking about different styles of worship.  One person said that a really contemporary style of worship – one with guitars and keyboards and the like – just didn’t satisfy him.  Another person said that different styles of music and worship services appeals to a lot of people and he mentioned a southern gospel group that occasionally stops and performs at my church.  It was at this point when the words above were spoken, suggesting that a concert performed by this group is not a form of worship.

I wonder if there has been a topic argued about more within church walls than this one:  What defines worship. defines worship as “reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred.”   Webster defines it as “a service or rite showing reverence for a deity.”  But these definitions don’t help solve the problem.

I tend to define worship as “having an experience with God.”  It’s a time for those of us who call ourselves sons and daughters of God to come before the Creator of the universe to give thanks for everything that we have and all that we are.  It’s a time for us to lay our empty vessels before God in order that they can be replenished so that we may go out and share God’s love with the world. It’s a time for us to connect with God.

For some of us, this means having “high church” with clergy, wearing vestments, leading the congregation in liturgies, a choir singing and a pipe organ playing.  For others, this means a more casual atmosphere with the clergy wearing street clothes while a band of guitars, keyboards and drums plays in the background.  Is one of these styles a more right – a more correct – way to worship?  Who am I to say if how a person experiences God is right or wrong?  

What I do believe to be wrong is this:  People who believe that their way of worship is the only way to worship.  Why can we not see that there is a multitude of ways to experience and worship God?  The God I worship is not so minuscule that only one way of worship is acceptable.  If one’s worship is heartfelt, then God is worshipped – no matter what the style or setting.

We can see the results of the insistence of what worship is or isn’t.  “That’s not worship” is seen in the decline of United Methodist – and other mainline denomination – churches for the last 40+ years.  “That’s not worship” has resulted in a smaller number of young people in our pews.  “That’s not worship” will be our downfall!

So while one particular style of worship may not be right for us, it doesn’t mean that style is nullified in the eyes of another person – or in God’s eyes.  We can’t go around defining worship for anybody else except us because in doing so, we could be keeping someone from having an experience with God.  I know I don’t want that hanging over my head.  Do you?