Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Eve Message

The Christmas season can at times be marked by various quests for perfection
The perfect Christmas present
The perfect Christmas decorations
The perfect Christmas feast
The perfect Christmas eve service
When these quests are marked by a sincere desire to bring joy and love to all around us, we can affirm and celebrate this.  Indeed, I think most of us try to go out of our way to be a little nicer, a little more loving, during this Christmas season.
But there can be a dark side to this quest to get everything and everybody just so...
We can begin to feel inadequate.  
Begin to become obsessed with perfection, become harried, run all over town
We beat ourselves up
Begin to feel inadequate.
So, when we begin to think about the Christmas story, the idea that God came to earth to be with us, it can seem a little overwhelming, unbelievable even.
With all that is going on in the world, with all of my faults, could God really have sent his son into this world for me?  Surely, there are people far more important, far more influential, far more Christlike, whom God is coming to on this day.  
I think there is no one who would have protested more, no one who might have felt more inadequate, than the cast of characters we see in Luke’s nativity story.
Let’s take them one by one:
-  She was likely 13 or 14 years old.
-  She was engaged to a man she likely barely knows
-  All of a sudden, she finds herself pregnant.
-  Now, she is an unwed mother
“She must have been scared.  She was very humble, a poor little girl.”

Yes, she did have an angel come and explain it to her, but can you imagine what her life must have been like during those nine months?
Can you imagine the looks she might have received from the people in the community.  People doing math, trying to add up the months, seeing if whatever story Mary told really fit the situation.  I mean, how is she supposed to explain this.  
“Oh, no, I didn’t cheat on Joseph.  An angel came to me, made me pregnant even though I am a virgin, and said my son is the Messiah.....Wait, where are you going?  Why are you laughing”
So who knows how she explained herself.  Did she hide?  Did she have anyone who believed her?  Imagine the shame she must have felt in these months.  I doubt she would have felt like she was worth of God coming to her.
Here he is, engaged to be married, only to find his fiance is pregnant.  Now Joseph certainly knows that the child isn’t his.  Here is how the scripture tells it:
“When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
So, notice, Joseph finds out long before any angel comes to explain it.  Can you imagine the emotions he must have felt?  Rage.  Betrayal.  Humiliation.
When he discovered this, he could have had Mary stoned to death. It would have been perfectly legal, and within his rights.  In fact, that would have been considered to be the righteous thing to do.  But, Joseph is apparently a generous man, and so he just decides to divorce her instead.  However, before he can act, Joseph too receives a visit from an angel.  He is convinced he should stay with Mary, but again, can you imagine his life in the months to come?
Before the angel had a chance to visit, did Joseph tell anyone about his disgrace?  If people were doing the math about Mary, certainly they were doing the same with Joseph.  Do you think he might have been teased, his manhood questioned, by those who suspected he wasn’t the father?  How emasculating of an experience.  What shame he must have felt.  I doubt he would have felt like he was worthy of God coming to him.

At the bottom of the socio-economic world of first-century Palestine, the shepherds have no right, no expectation, no hope in the world of being touched by the divine.
“Shepherds were often despised as thieves unfit for more respectable occupations.  Their testimony was not allowed in court nor their presence in polite society, so shepherds found their place on the outskirts of towns.  They were largely shunned by the mainstream population.”
“They were alone, abandoned by everybody.”
As people who work with animals and outside of villages, you can imagine that they likely smelled quite ripe.  Even the peasants in the towns would have looked down upon them.  When they did have to go into the cities, can you imagine how they must have felt?  The people sneered at these country rubes.  People would cross the street to avoid interacting with, and especially smelling, these roughnecks who were the lowest of the low.  What shame they must have felt as they went about their lives.  I doubt they would have felt like they were worthy of God coming to them.
And yet, wonder upon wonders, it is to the unwed mother that Jesus is born.  It is to the humiliated fiance that God will entrust his son.  It is to those who are considered so unreliable that they can’t testify that God entrusts with his message to proclaim.

God coming to perfect people?  Heavens no.  I imagine that those who do think they are perfect, might be too caught up in themselves to even notice when God breaks into the world.  No, God breaks through into this world to bring light and life to all people.  And thus, we declare that “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Right now, here and today, God is breaking into this world.  Christ is coming to bring light to whatever dark places there are in your life.  Jesus is here to be with you, exactly how you are.  If you feel like God is distant, if you feel like it is hard to sense the divine, if you feel like you are lost or are ashamed to be found, know that God is seeking you out, waiting to break forth into your life.  Like Mary, and Joseph, and the shepherds before you, God is seeking to bring you in to his divine work.  Through you, on this day, and in the weeks and months to come, Jesus is seeking to become flesh and to live amongst us.  If we allow ourselves to go through the pangs of birthing new life, we will see his glory, the glory of a father’s only son.  And our lives, and our world, will be filled with grace and truth.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The real spirit of Christmas

We in the church, and especially in American culture, do not do lament well.
We like our happy endings.
We are uncomfortable being in the vicinity of pain.
This is compounded at times by the Christmas season.  Whether it be the ads that play on tv, the holiday themed movies, the family gatherings, even, at times I must admit, our worship services around advent, we have a tendency to accentuate the positive.  Now their is nothing wrong in celebrating the joy of the Christmas season, except when it implies that everyone else has to feel the same way:

No, you can’t dread getting ready for the big family gathering...get in the Christmas spirit.
No, you can’t dread trudging through the shopping a happy giver.
And, above all else, don’t bring down our parties by expressing grief.  Don’t mention that you just don’t feel into it.  Don’t mention how tears seem to be just below the surface.  Don’t mention how much you feel the loss of your wife, husband, parent, child or friend.  Just let it go unsaid.
When we go to scripture, we, myself included, gravitate toward the Gospels.  We want to hear the good news- that Jesus loved us, that Jesus died for us, that we have a place in our Father’s house.  That indeed is good news, but it doesn’t necessarily mean eternal happiness and bliss.
There is a false gospel that gets preached all too often.  It’s one that says if we are just faithful enough, only good things will happen.  It implies that the world works as some kind of cosmic reward system where nothing bad happens to believers and where God punishes those without enough faith.
This kind of a message ruins people’s faith; it destroys lives.
It implies that when tragedy happens, you are either not being faithful, or God is just cruel.
Cannot accept this fake gospel-  this cheap alternative to what God has revealed to us.
That is that “God is with us.”
In our pain, suffering, etc.
And thus, our tradition, the one that extends beyond our contemporary culture’s tendency to deny or deflect from pain and suffering, actually gives it prime place in our scriptures:
Psalm 6:4-7
4 Turn, LORD, and deliver me;
   save me because of your unfailing love.
5 Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
   Who praises you from the grave?
 6 I am worn out from my groaning.
   All night long I flood my bed with weeping
   and drench my couch with tears.
7 My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
   they fail because of all my foes.
This ancient prayer calls out for deliverance.  In the Christmas season, we proclaim that that deliver has arrived.  When, God saw our ancestor’s pain, God came to earth in the form of Jesus to be with them.  Jesus came as God immanuel-  or, God with us.
Jesus wept-  with and for-  us.
Jesus suffered-  with and for-  us.
Jesus loved-     with and for-   us.
This is the good news, the real Gospel.
If you are someone who still is feeling an acute since of grief, I want to tell you that God has come, and continues to come, to be with us.  And he’s coming to be with you exactly as you are.  No forced smiles.  No need to cover up the running mascara.  No need to fake any emotion.  All you need is to be; to dwell within God’s loving arms.

If you’ve emerged from that most sensitive stage, or if you are caring for someone who is experiencing grief, I’d encourage you to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Go, and be with them.  Not as someone to take their pain away.  Not as someone determined to wake them up out of their grief.   No, just go and be with them.  Demonstrate Christ’s love by sitting with them, holding them, giving space as needed.  But be present.  That is the greatest gift you can give this Christmas season.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Coming without power

John 3:16-17-  "This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.”
John 3:16 may be among the most well known texts in all of scripture.  For years, you couldn’t watch a football game without seeing a sign referencing it.  Though it is a much beloved passage, it might seem odd to highlight it in the midst of Advent.  You might rightfully ask yourself, did I forget Christmas was coming?
Truthfully, before today I have never considered how it might relate to the coming of Jesus.  I have associated the text mostly with the need to believe something specific about God.  However, I’m afraid I might have missed the point.  The verse isn’t so much about us as it is about revealing the character of God.  
When God felt that humanity had drifted from its intended purpose, the Creator did not wipe us out in a flood.  The Almighty did not send an army of angels to bring us in line.  The All Wise One did not even compel us to follow the Divine will.  No, when the gap between God and humanity became frightenly wide, God did not exercise power but choose to become powerless.  Jesus came as a baby, someone entirely dependent on his parents.  He became subject to fear, pain, grief, and all of the more difficult aspects of human life.  Jesus indeed came to set the world right again, but he did so by demonstrating that we are to live as people who enter into loving relationships with God and our neighbors by giving up our power and privilege.
In this Christmas season, may we follow Christ’s example.  May we seek to reconcile with those family members who may have become distant.  May we reach out to our neighbors, even those who get on our nerves, and be the love and peace of Christ for them.  May we seek to shape our lives so that with ever fiber of our being, our love will help us to set our the entire world right again.
Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Reflections on the Book of James

Our Sunday morning study finished the book of James. One of the last two questions asked was, ““What did you learn and what will you remember?”” Here are some comments:

““The Sunday morning adult class has completed James. Something I will remember about James is the second chapter verses 14-26 giving examples supporting faith without works is dead. Our class had already discovered the idea of faith in action and had our ideas reinforced.””

"With so much to do and so little time to do it we all look for short cuts. Our adult Sunday School class has found wonderful "cliff notes" on having a closer relationship with the Holy Spirit. It's the new testament book of James."

Have you studied this book before?  What inspiration did you draw from it?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Ruth's Love Gift Box

Our Wednesday 10 am Bible study invites you to participate in a little project that we have conceived as a result of our study of the book of Ruth. It came about as a result of our consensus that Ruth was primarily about LOVE and was attempting to show us that when we love, we put our neighbor's welfare before our own-- i.e. Ruth's sacrifice of everything familiar to serve and take care of Naomi.

As the story came about because of a famine in Judah, we felt the urge to show our love for people in a similar situation today. What better example of this can we find than the one in Haiti as they are now plagued with Cholera on top of hunger and the devastation of the horrific earthquake there this past January? Thus, we decided that responding to this epidemic would be our No. 1 priority! In the next few weeks, we will make available to anyone interested a "Ruth's Love Gift box" that you can take home and keep someplace convenient. We would ask you to make an over-and-above gift of ALL your pennies, nickels, and dimes each day until our summer break. We will gather up this offering the last Sunday of the month starting with December and forward it to the United Methodist's Committee on Relief's Haiti Emergency fund. This money will go to support relief and development efforts due to the emergencies in Haiti. If you would like a box or have any questions, please contact any member of our class or the church office.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Finding a Dwelling place in Mission

John 14:2 “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus recognizes that his predicted death is a disconcerting message to his disciples.  He assures them that no matter where they go, he will already have been there preparing the way.  This should prove to be a great source of comfort for us.  We can be assured that when we or our loved ones pass from this life to the next that Jesus will be there making all things ready.  We can go with the confidence that we will be greeted warmly and there will be a place for us.  But this should not be seen as merely a future promise- after all, this world belongs to God just as much as the next.  

The immediate implication for us is that we need not fear whatever calling God puts upon our hearts.  Whether we are called individually to ministry with the poor, the sick, our community or the world, we can rest confidently that Jesus is already preparing the way for us.  I learned the truth of this last year when I participated with a community meal ministry.  My role was to serve as host, to greet each person warmly and to be available for prayer and conversation whenever it was desired.  Though this made me nervous as I can actually be shy at times when dealing with strangers, the warmth and joy I found in those I was helping to serve gave me confidence and strength.  I could see Christ’s Spirit all ready at work within our guests and I realized I just needed to find a way to participate with the work that was already being done.

Somewhere, Jesus is preparing a place for you to engage in ministry.  It may be among the poor, the sick, our community, or the world, but I can assure you that our Savior is already there at work.  But we too must be prepared to make a place for the ministry that is to come.  We need to make a place where we can through prayer and discussion to determine the specifics of where God is calling you.  This will require us to make space in our own lives both to listen and to serve.  But I can assure you that when we find the dwelling place in ministry that Jesus has prepared for us, we will find ourselves at home in God’s house.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bullying- Another deadly stumbling block

Matthew 18:6-   ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 
In recent weeks, reports have abounded about children and young adults who have taken their lives as a result of being bullied.  Though the most recent rash of suicides dealt specifically with those harassed because of their sexual orientation, we know that children are targeted for all sorts of reasons.  Any teen who looks a little different, acts a little strangely, is of a different race or religion, or simply doesn’t blend into a crowd is subject to this kind of dehumanizing treatment.  Why the upsurge in such violence?
Though it would take a sociologist years to truly answer the question, I fear that children are merely following the example of the “adults” who are around them.  As I write this during election season, our airwaves are filled with political advertisements that seek to tear apart the opposition.  Each side slanders the other and the cycle spins out of control.  Even in our churches, the debate over critical social issues like war and peace, abortion, and sexuality can devolve into name calling and treating the other as enemy.  When we feel the need to beat each other up to win in political or theological arenas, is it any wonder that our youth follow suit and engage in destructive activities?
Jesus provides a stark warning to those who choose to follow him.  When our sins of action or inaction lead teenagers and children down a path of violence instead of peace, we no longer stand with God but stand against God.  As Christians, we should discuss the controversial political and theological issues of our day.  No matter what the hot button issue is, we are obligated to come together as a community and seek God’s will for our lives.  But we must do so in a way that embraces difference and dissent.  We must not tear down the other simply because they believe God leads them in a different direction.  When we as adults can learn this lesson, we will demonstrate to the little ones around us that following Jesus means to be both passionate about one’s beliefs while remaining open to seeing our savior at work within the other.  Only then will we answer Jesus’ call to remove the stumbling blocks of those around us.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Worship Testimonial

Dear Friends,

For me, going to church in the 50’s and 60’s was all about the quest for the “Sunday School Pin” signifying perfect attendance. That pin was in jeopardy many a Sunday as we nearly didn’t get there for one reason or another! There was one bathroom for six of us and one of us either could not find our shoes or our boots or my sister, the drama queen, was having a meltdown. Mother would put the roast in the oven and set the timer right before we all piled in the freshly washed car. Every Sunday brought new challenges in getting to church and then getting home after the service. I can say after all this each of us received at least two perfect attendance pins.  One thing for which I am grateful is the importance my folks placed on getting us all to church every week.

Now I attend church pretty regularly. I do not much care about perfect attendance and although I am not always in the most receptive state of mind I am always thankful to be there! I find that if I lift my eyes off of myself I create a place in my heart for God and he will speak to me. As I reflect on my faith journey I am conscious of how intricately woven regular worship is in the continuation of this faith journey and spiritual growth. God meets me where I am and reminds me that I am not the center of the universe and if I am open to God’s prodding he will enable me to recognize what is central.

The past several years have presented some personal challenges for me and as I worked through those times I was profoundly touched by the generous gift of prayer and kindness. You are my friends with whom meals are shared, songs are sung as well as laughter and sadness. How wonderfully rich and intimate that makes worship for me! In contrast I think how one dimensional our faith journey would be without each other in this worship experience.

Our Church is rich with projects needing to be done and plans to be made for the future. It is a place of powerful activity and a place of restful comfort. It is a place where friendships begin and grow and a place where we mourn the loss of those very dear. Most importantly it is a place where we can continue to build that ever widening community of faith with one another.

See You All in Church 


Monday, November 15, 2010

Small Group Testimonial

For my Family of Faith at Independence UMC,

My faith life has grown through intentional faith development using small group studies such as Disciple Programs, an Emmaus Walk, corporate worship and reading and studying the Bible in the Sunday morning class with other adults.  I hunger for a relationship with God.  These activities at IUMC have led me to Him.

No other small group has been more vital than the Sunday morning study.  It has been in existence for 11 years.  My brothers and sisters in class listen, hear, apply, love and act on the Word.  Our current study is the book of James.  What is important about his teaching on wealth is that all of us are accountable for how we use what we have.  We should not hoard wealth but be generous toward others.  A couple of years ago all of us from our class were very excited during a worship service when the pastor opened the sermon stating, “I don’t know why I’m preaching about life after death . . .” and our class had just discussed the topic that morning.  That was twenty minutes we were close to God.  We asked with sincere hearts and received answers from Him.

Our church has deepened my faith.  Because of that I want our church to succeed, to grow and lead others to God.  Another intentional faith development using small group is our book club.  The first book, FIVE PRACTICES OF FRUITFUL CONGREGATIONS, reads, “Pledge campaigns are about mission, spiritual growth and relationship to God.  Stewardship efforts deepen prayer life, building community, unite people with purpose, and clarify mission.  People feel strengthened and grateful to serve God through giving.”  I’m feeling this and pray you do too as we consider how IUMC has an effect on the depth of our faith.

With a sincere heart,

Judy P

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Stewardship Testimonial

Dear Friends:

I started my walk with our Lord in the year 2000 when a friend re-introduced me to the man named Jesus. I actually didn’t know much about Him but I was intrigued and so I began to seek.

One of my first questions was, “If I accept Him into my heart, what will He want in return?” He answered, “To believe.” One of my next questions was, “How do I know what God’s will is for my life?”

One area of His will is very clear. He’s very serious when it comes to offerings and tithes. In fact, He seems quite stern in Malachi 3:8 when He asks “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings.”

In Malachi 3:10 He further tells us to “Bring all the tithes into the storehouse that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.”

When Pastor Jared asked me to give a testimonial about tithing, I struggled with what to say. So I asked God to give me a word. He said “Freedom”. Something about Jesus setting you free. And I said, “hmmmm, I’ll have to look that up.”

There it was in John 8:36: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

So that’s the answer. That, among other things, is what He is giving me. Freedom.

I knew that tithing would be at least one thing I could get right. So I said, “Okay, Lord, I’ll do it because I love You.” It was a struggle, mostly inside me. I tried to make excuses. I thought about all the “things” I wanted until I looked around at all the “things” I had. I determined that my money could be put to far better use than what I would do with it.

Suddenly, I’m less cluttered. I’m not hanging on so tightly. I’m more open to possibilities, challenges, opportunities and even those pesky changes that come along. It’s a process, but it has increased my faith.

I believe,

Marilyn S

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mission Service Testimonial

When we asked the mission committee for a volunteer to write a testimony about how they incorporate mission with their faith life, they decided they would rather share several testimonies rather than just one.  Thus, we’re pleased to share with you three testimonies about how mission enriches their walks with God.

Christine Z-

“Our role in mission work is to fill a need when we see it.  The food banks do a wonderful job and I am happy I can help there.”

 Tess F-

“Mission work became real to me when I learned about CROP. Five cents would buy a packet to purify a container of water. It often saved the life of a refugee who barely made it to a camp. Blankets could be provided for many families for twenty dollars. Even the cost of building a well was within my budget. I knew that the money I donated became a part of a larger sum and used where it was needed most. However, I couldn’t help feeling at night that someone was a little warmer and in the morning some young girl was in school because there was a well and she didn’t have to walk miles to get water for her family.”

 Susan K-

“Mission work adds to the experience of attending church. It gives a great way of fellowship with fellow church members. Meeting other members from other churches and with people in need. I have learned that people in need are very much like anyone I already know. I was made aware that I could very well be in their position. I have only encountered people in need as humble and very much appreciative. I’ve been impressed with friendliness and graciousness of people receiving meals. Working at the food bank, I have met people who regularly (weekly) volunteer, I have met people old and young. I don’t see the recipients of the food that I work on at the food bank, but I find myself thinking about them as I work and prayerfully consider what life is like for them. The two hours that I work there, the time goes quickly. It just feels really good to be a small part of such a worthy organization. I know the need is great for the services the food bank provides. It is just a good, satisfying feeling and working with other volunteers is simply rewarding. It is the joy God wants for us in this life. It is a joy to help others in need and to realize the blessings we have to share with one whom could very well be us.”

Commitment Sunday will be on November 21st.  Please pray about the ways God is calling you into mission in this coming year.

Pastor Jared and the Outreach Committee

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Commitment Season

This is the first in a series of letters relating to our commitment campaign for 2011:

One of the things the autumn season brings about in the life of the church is a focus on Stewardship.  It is fitting that the start of the programmatic part of the church year include such a focus because it is one of the first things that scripture itself addresses.  After God created the world, God created humanity in the image of the Divine.  Because we hold this image, we are given special responsibility to tend to the world that has been gifted to all of creation-  “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth" (Genesis 1:28, The Message).  When we acknowledge that all that we receive is a gift from God, we are then called to use that gift to bring about the fullness of all aspects of life.  Be it the spiritual life, an ecological life, or an economic life, we are called to use our resources wisely and generously to bring about the life abundant.
            However, when it came time to plan this initial Stewardship campaign, I kept feeling called to widen my range of vision.  Rather than simply calling for a recommitment of our financial stewardship, I felt it vital that we reaffirm the whole of our faith walk here at Independence United Methodist Church.  As such, I set about looking for models of a more holistic “commitment campaign.”  In doing so, I came across the membership requirements for Church of the Resurrection UMC in Leawood, KS.  This church, led by Rev. Adam Hamilton, has been one of the fastest growing Methodists churches in the country.  All who desire membership must commit to the following:
  • To worship regularly.
  • To continue to grow in your faith by participating in a small group study.
  • To serve God with your hands, by volunteering in service to the congregation and the community and world.
  • To give in proportion to your income.
In the next few weeks, we will be sending out testimonials from various members of our congregation about the vital role each of these areas plays in their life.  You will also receive a pledge card that will allow you to make commitments in each of these four areas of your faith life.  On November 21st, we will be having at least seven new members make a commitment to the faith life of this church.  On that Sunday, I’ll ask you also to make a commitment as your return your pledge cards.  As we rededicate our selves and our faith life, I look forward to seeing the ways in which God will bring a new sense of vitality to all who make their church home at Independence UMC.
God bless you in your prayers and discernment,

Pastor Jared

Monday, August 16, 2010

Creating a mess of the perfect opportunity

Isaiah 5:1-7

Psalm 80

Luke 12:49-56

In both Isaiah and the Psalm today, we see an image of God as a vineyard keeper. Now, the process of growing and tending to grapes, of selecting and fermenting the fruit of the vine until is produces a luscious wine may be lost on most of us. But it would not have been lost on an ancient Hebrew audience. Ancient Israel was a rich, arid country and thus well suited to the task. And yet, they knew that cultivating a vineyard was demanding and tedious work because it took a long time to bring a vine to maturity. “Vinedressers must be dedicated, patient people, not unlike shepherds. Both are dealing with living things that follow their own laws of growth, which the ones tending cannot really control. They must be willing to forgo their own comfort in the face of long hours and inclement weather." 1

So while this image may not be as familiar to us, what a beautiful and accurate description of God- both then and now. God had certainly put in long and tedious hours with his people Israel. God had transplanted the Jewish people out of Egypt where they had been oppressed. He had listened to their cry when they feared starvation in the desert. He had led them to a fertile land where they could live in prosperity. Indeed, the scripture makes clear that God had set up the perfect conditions- the stones had been cleared, the vines planted, the watch tower built, the vat dug, shade provided, irrigation- accounted for. There was no loose end that God had not accounted for. In its description, it sounds like a new Eden- a paradise where all was perfect.

Having created the ultimate setting to which life could flourish, God turns over the vineyard to his chosen people. Imagine being handed a successful business, a livelihood where if you but follow instructions, you are guaranteed to profit. You’d be excited right? And yet, when God leaves the tending of the vineyard in the hands of the chosen people, God returns to find the paradise trampled. The well-manicured fields are now overgrown. The hedges left in disarray. The grapes crushed beneath the tracks of wild animals.

What had happened? How could the people have gone so wrong? How could the perfect situation have been turned upside down so quickly? Luckily, this is one parable that the scriptures give us a direct explanation. In Isaiah, chapter 5, verse 7, “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” The full turn around that took place is made even more poignant in the Hebrew- the word for cry, tse'aqah, is particularly important and revealing. “When God’s people were being victimized by Pharaoh in Egypt, their response was to cry” or tse’aqah to God for help. This is a famous phrase in Exodus that Isaiah is using for a purpose- The people of Israel have recreated the oppressive conditions of Pharaoh’s Egypt- only this time it is their leaders and actions that have followed a system that created victims who cried out to God for their help.

So, why do they not tend the vineyard? Why do they not follow the will of God? God created the conditions by which the people could flourish- why not follow through? We can speculate about human nature, about the persistence of evil, about the oppressive economic and political systems of those ancient days. But, perhaps the more poignant question to ask is, given those same conditions, given that same vineyard to tend, how are we doing?

I don’t know about you, but if I suddenly inherited a vineyard, I’d make a mess of it. It sounds as if it requires considerable patience, never-ending attention, and a green thumb that I’ve never managed to develop. Amidst my crazy schedule and at times non-stop life, where on earth could I find the time to care for it? I might be able to squeeze caring for the garden in for the first few weeks, but eventually my attention would stray so that the vines would wither and the yield would dry up.

In these last few weeks, many of you know that we’ve been having a series of coffee chats so that I could get to know you better through some small group discussions. Thank you for taking the time to host or attend one. By the way, if you couldn’t make it, next week I’ll have a signup sheet for one last coffee chat that will take place here at church the last week of August. But one of the consistent struggles that I heard people express was how busy they were and thus how difficult it was to fit more activities, including those in the church, into their busy schedule. Now the reasons for the business varied, including those who were already ensconced in a number of church activities, but finding time without dropping from exhaustion was nearly a universal concern.

Theologian Richard Gaillardetz, in Transforming our Days- Finding God amid the noise of Modern Life, argues that one of the quintessential features of western culture is the desire to control and manage time. He points to the myriad of devices that are advertised as time savers, the prevalence of microwave meals instead of those prepared from scratch in the kitchen, and the constant need to be digitally connected as ways in which society tries to control, take back and conquer the ever moving clock. He continues that in today’s society, the new normal is a kind of hyper-reality in which any time spent at rest or in leisure is considered to be wasted, or at the very least, boring.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Gaillardetz isn’t saying that we should try and turn back the clocks and ignore modernity, but simply to consider the tradeoffs that are occurring so that we might use timesaving devices to create more space rather than pack more into every minute. For instance, I have both a “smart” cell phone and an Ipod that allows me to organize my time and stay connected to the world. I can always get my email, be available by phone, and know my schedule. This frees up my tendency to double schedule and helps aid my brain in remembering tasks and appointments. But, it also creates in me an urge to constantly check the news, my email, and the events of the world in any free moment I have. It even can intrude into my face-to-face conversations as I habitually check my email or news updates and ignore what is right in front of me. In essence, I allow the timesaving device to consume more time and effort rather than create more space and leisure.

I think one of the more interesting parts of the vineyard analogy are the duel roles in which we play. Yes, God gives us a vineyard to tend and we hold the very real potential of destroying it. But, we are also part of creation, this vineyard that God himself is trying to tend to. We are the fruit of that creation that God wants to flourish, we have to take time to- and I know I’m starting to take this too far- to ripen on the vine. We have to give time over for prayer, study, reading, meditation, some form of quietness in which God can intrude in our lives and expand our range of vision. The time to do this can be difficult in our modern lives, but without it, we can become self-centered and exhausted.

But as people created to be vinedressers, we must find the time to care for those around us and the world in which we live. We must take the time to serve in mission so that we might help those who are struggling to get by in the world. We must be patient and supportive of those who struggle with the grief and to actually be present with them as they go through the healing process. And we must make space for those whose doubts and ideas may not conform to our understanding of God’s will in the world and be open to give both them and ourselves time to grow so that we might reach new understanding. If we fail to do this, the part of creation that we can touch will inevitable wither and go into disarray.

Today we have an opportunity to renew our pledges as God’s vinedressers. We have the honor of baptizing Kody. As part of this process, we will make several pledges. First, we will vow to renew our own baptismal commitment in which we declare ourselves to be children of God and set out to live out our lives in accordance with the divine will. And second, we vow to be an extension of Kody’s family, one that will take the time to ensure his best interests and to help him as he grows. We will have to commit the time to teach Kody in our Sunday schools. We will have to support him as he grows and cheer him on. We will have to help his family create the perfect environment so that he too may go forth to tend fields of his own. This is a difficult commitment. We are signing up for many years worth of work. But it is a mission to which we are called. It is one of the purposes for which we were created. Let us take the time to do so so that God need not come in response to his or the wider world’s cry.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Judgment and Justice

Scripture Texts for Sunday, August 8th.

Isaiah 1:1-20

Psalm 50

Luke 12:32-40


Justice and judgment. These are the two concepts that are central to the three scripture passages, and in many ways, central to all of scripture. And yet, they are concepts that people are not often comfortable talking about- at least not to talk about them together. Depending on the theology and ideological leanings of the church, often times only one of the two J’s get preached. In one church, you may hear quite a bit about God’s judgment for those sinners who fail to submit. You may hear about the wrath of God and repenting before it is to late. But, often times, little is said about the present injustices of the world; or, at the very least, little may be done to actually bring about change.

In the other church, you may hear quite a bit about seeking justice for the poor and impoverished on this earth. You may hear about seeking the common good and working to enact change in society. But, often, little is said about God judging individuals for their failure to follow the will of God, and less is said about the possibility of eternal punishment.

If I make a confession, I would probably tend toward the second camp rather than the first. But, neither message is a complete reading or understanding of scripture. Justice and Judgment cannot be separated if we are to truly understand God, the Bible, and specifically the scripture passages in front of us.

Though the passages in Isaiah and Luke take place hundreds of years apart, in many ways the people are facing similar situations. In both places, Jerusalem is central to the understanding of God’s plan. In the center of Jerusalem sits the temple where God is said to be most present in all of the earth. People stream from all over the world to give their sacrifices at the temple to honor God. However, Jerusalem and the temple are under dire threat by foreign invaders. In Isaiah’s time, the immediate concern is the powerful Assyrian army. The Hebrew people had been split into two nations at that point, Judah and Israel, and Israel had already been completely overthrown. Judah itself was ravaged so thoroughly that only Jerusalem remained fully under Jewish control. Likewise, Israel in the time of Luke was under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Here, they did not even retain control of Jerusalem, the chosen people, the ones to whom God made a covenant, were completely at the mercy of these invading armies.

This prompted considerable concern. How, if they were God’s chosen people, could this have been allowed to happen? After all, the people had built the temple according to the vision David and Solomon received. The people sacrificed according to the regulations laid out in the Torah. But, despite their piety, God rejects their sacrifices because they are hollow. They worship God with their lips, but they allow injustice to fester throughout society. For this, Isaiah says, they will be judged. Jesus asks, will they be ready to face the son of man when he comes back?

Because I struggle with the issue of God’s judgment, I wanted to take some time to explore exactly what that means. The bible seems to refer to two types of judgment. One is the type of judgment that is to occur at the end of ages. This is what tends to capture the contemporary imagination. How many have ever seen a movie or read a book that purports to describe what God’s judgment will be like at the end of the world? Or, that describes how and when God will judge us in the afterlife? There is no question that the Bible makes reference to some kind of ultimate judgment, though theologians throughout the centuries have disagreed on what and when that judgment will be. But the judgment referred to in Isaiah and Psalms is a different kind. It discusses a type of judgment that occurs within the earthly life of its listeners. It describes how real world events will occur that will punish those who fail to follow God’s command. The Assyrian army that defeats Israel is claimed to be operating according to the God’s will. This claim will also be made about the Babylonian army that eventually takes Jerusalem and destroys the temple.

So, how then are we to understand this worldly judgment? Does this mean that every time a nation loses a battle, every time a hurricane hits, that this is God’s will? I am probably not alone in being uncomfortable with that. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans several years ago, I recall that Pat Robertson claimed God had sent it to punish the United States for allowing abortion to occur. I scoffed at his claims, but is he justified based on this reading of Isaiah? On a wider reading of scripture?

Though there are many theories as to how God’s judgment on earth functions, I think they can largely be divided into three categories. The first is that God actively seeks to punish those who fail to bring about justice here on earth, or; that God’s protection is withdrawn from those who defy him. This certainly seems to be the position in the parts of the Hebrew scripture that show God striking down those who commit evil. Now this can be scary in the parts that refer to a vengeful God. But, if God is active in this way, then God could also provide direct comfort, healing and relief to those who are obedient. There is certainly some justification for this understanding. One note of caution, however. Even if we were to accept this explanation, that does not mean that we can claim to understand exactly when and why actions are occurring in the world. We claim too much if we can say that an earthquake occurred for such and such reason. This assumes a far greater knowledge of the divine then we can humbly assume. However, this also means that we have to grapple with difficult issues like the Holocaust. Are we really ready to claim that it was God’s will for it to occur?

But, this is not the only understanding that is possible from scripture. Indeed, in the book of Job, Job loses his wealth, his family, and his health even though he has always been a righteous man. When his friends try to explain that God is punishing him for being a sinner, Job protests that they are wrong. By the end of the book, God appears and condemns Job’s friends for making these claims. However, when Job challenges God to explain why this has occurred, God responds that this is not for any human to question. It is only God who has the perspective of the entire world; thus we could never understand God’s actions if we tried. This seems to be a middle ground claiming that while God may act, we as humans have no way of understanding where, how or when. Under this understand, we would shy away from making any claim on God. Though God might have acted, we would never make a statement that “God desired for someone to die so that they might be in heaven.” To say this is to make a claim to understand the workings of God.

The third way to understand God’s judgment on earth is called natural law. This means that God has set up a world where cause and effect operate according to a certain set of rules. For instance, if I were to through this book, the rules of gravity say that it will eventually drop and fall. Furthermore, if I hit Ted down there while throwing it, he’s going to have a predictable reaction of being upset with me. Do I need to test this theory, or can we just assume Ted doesn’t want me to hit him with a book? The point is that we live in a world that is predictable, through so complex that we can often misunderstand the effect of the actions we might take. So, on the plus side, this would resolve the issue about a loving God actively punishing people. We can say that God always wants us to do good, influences us to make the best decisions possible, but does not actively intervene. This too has basis in scripture- in the book of Esther, humans are at the center of the action. Though they operate morally according to what they believe God wants them to do, God does not intervene at the time of crisis but instead leaves things in the hands of humanity. Furthermore, in the New Testament, it is clear that many righteous people, including Jesus himself, face the natural consequences of challenging the powerful Roman Empire- they are executed. They were not punished because of what they did wrong, but the response of the empire to their challenge took a somewhat predictable route.

So, why take this detour into trying to understand God’s judgment? Partly because I think we often struggle with the issue of why bad things happen. If we take the time to explore just how God functions, it can help us in a time of crisis. But, I think it’s also important to point out that multiple ways in which scripture understands God acting. Rather than allowing one particular understanding of God to become entrenched, scripture actually encourages dialogue and preserves disagreement. Thus, no person should be able to claim an absolute understanding of God that cannot be swayed, but we must instead follow our fathers and mothers in faith in being open to how different perspectives might challenge and enrich our understanding of God.

This brings us to the second J- justice. When we talk about justice in the Bible, we can generally all agree in theory to the demands- we believe in humility, we can applaud Isaiah’s call to “do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” We might squirm at the command to “sell our goods and give alms,” but we at least applaud the theory. But what happens when we try to talk about justice in the here and now. Well, it gets us into sticky concepts like health care, immigration, welfare, unemployment, abortion, world hunger, torture, and issues of war and peace. Given the volatility on these issues, we are sometimes tempted to remain silent. In fact, in the psalm, God says that when the people committed injustice, they thought he would remain silent like they usually did, but instead, God speaks. If we are to mold ourselves in the divine image, it means we must not be silent about issues of injustice.

But, how do we do that without treading on to sticky issues where many of us will disagree? Won’t discussing these issues mean disagreement and possible discord within the church? My answer to that would be- yes, absolutely. It is much “safer” to say that such and such is a political issue and has no place in the church. But, God is not a God of the church. God is lord of all of creation. When we say that Jesus Christ is Lord, we are not saying he is lord of our prayers, of our singing or of our sermons, but of our entire lives. So we must not be silent on these issues; and we must not avoid them simply to keep the peace.

But, what we can do, is come at them with a bit of humility. If the writers of scripture are content to leave multiple interpretations of the work of God’s judgment, might we be open to the expression of multiple understandings of contemporary issues of justice? If my understanding of God can be enriched through multiple viewpoints in scripture, cannot our understanding of immigration, abortion and the like be enriched through really and truly listening to those with different opinions?

Now, I can be as guilty as the rest. When I get going on issues, my mind and ears can shut out others. But we’ve got to try. If we can’t figure out how to talk about these things as Christian people who love one another, what hope is there for the rest of the world? How can we answer God’s cries for justice if we refuse to talk, or listen? Let us see if we can make this church a place where we can talk and work for God’s justice. Otherwise, our inaction will lead us to the point of dealing with God’s judgment- in whatever form that takes.