Sermon: Stories of the Saints

slide-5-communion-of-saintsHere is today’s sermon from Shiloh United Methodist Church in Stanton, KY. We are doing a series based on material from the United Methodist Church Disciple Ministries regarding the saints. In the UMC, our understanding of saints is not the same as our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. We believe that saints are all of those who lived for Christ and have gone on to their reward in glory.

This sermon is based on verses from Joshua 24 where the prophet tells the people that they can not serve two gods and to choose carefully who they will serve. He begins by relating the story of Abraham and how they, as a people, came to be through his lineage. The stories we weave as disciples are important and can also reflect on all believers. Thus, it’s important for us to make our story the best one it can possibly be.

I hope you find some hope and inspiration in these words. May God bless you and yours. – Jonathan

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 (NLT)
Then Joshua summoned all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, including their elders, leaders, judges, and officers. So they came and presented themselves to God.

2 Joshua said to the people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Long ago your ancestors, including Terah, the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River,* and they worshiped other gods. 3 But I took your ancestor Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him into the land of Canaan.

14 “So fear the Lord and serve him wholeheartedly. Put away forever the idols your ancestors worshiped when they lived beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord alone. 15 But if you refuse to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Or will it be the gods of the Amorites in whose land you now live? But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.”

16 The people replied, “We would never abandon the Lord and serve other gods. 17 For the Lord our God is the one who rescued us and our ancestors from slavery in the land of Egypt. He performed mighty miracles before our very eyes. As we traveled through the wilderness among our enemies, he preserved us. 18 It was the Lord who drove out the Amorites and the other nations living here in the land. So we, too, will serve the Lord, for he alone is our God.”

19 Then Joshua warned the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy and jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. 20 If you abandon the Lord and serve other gods, he will turn against you and destroy you, even though he has been so good to you.”

21 But the people answered Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!”

22 “You are a witness to your own decision,” Joshua said. “You have chosen to serve the Lord.”

“Yes,” they replied, “we are witnesses to what we have said.”

23 “All right then,” Joshua said, “destroy the idols among you, and turn your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.”

24 The people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God. We will obey him alone.”

25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day at Shechem, committing them to follow the decrees and regulations of the Lord.

Last week we began a series on saints, but not the ones from New Orleans or ones who we might celebrate on certain holy days. We began to hear about the saints, ultimately all of those who are in Christ and have gone on to their reward and those who are currently in Christ and will go on to glory someday. We heard about the clothing that a saint might wear – how do we identify them? The white clothing placed on them by Christ certainly does much to show us who these people are – their everyday way of living. Today we hear their stories. What do we hear about from the saints? What ist their story?

There is a song that came out several years ago that contained these lines: “What’s your story about his glory? You gotta find your place in his amazing grace.” Recently I heard this song again for the first time in several years and I began to ponder these words. On first look, I have my faults. Every single day I do things that perhaps at the time I don’t realize are displeasing to God. This could take the form of anything from being rude to someone or not doing something that I know God would want me to do as a disciple. But I also know that I love Christ and I seek to grow in his grace every single day, to do better than the day before, to continue to be transformed into a completely new creation. I desire nothing but Christ and to walk in the Holy Spirit. My goal is perfection and I am, as John Wesley asked his pastors when they were being ordained, earnestly striving for and going on to perfection. But how I live my faith – the outward everyday testimony that I give – tells a story that will be my legacy. I hope to make it a good one.

Here’s a question that’s good to wrestle with from time to time: If I were to depart this world for glory right now, would my story as a disciple of Christ be one that’s worth being shared by others? Every single one of us will be remembered in some way by the people we leave behind. Another sure thing is, some will remember us differently. Some will remember us for the way we made sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving or for the way we told jokes around the fireplace on Christmas Eve. Some will remember that we did some heroic thing one year in a blizzard that kept everybody and everything frozen in place for a week. These, of course, are examples of the good things that someone might remember about us. Let’s hope there are many more of these sorts of stories than the other kind.

A saying that is popular among those in sales is that it can take a very long time to gain a customer but only a very short time to lose one. Likewise, it can take someone years to obtain a good reputation while it may only take a split second to have a bad one. The bad stories that may be recalled about someone after they have departed, unfortunately, can outweigh the good one. We have all seen it. Someone with a bad reputation can die and all some people will talk about is how much of a jerk they were, how badly they treated their spouse, beat their kids, did drugs, or any number of other things. Nevermind that that person could have once saved a building full of school children from a fire, it will be the vices and other bad things that will be remembered the most. Research has proven that negative events and traits can have a larger impact on our memories than positive ones. This may seem counterintuitive but the numbers do not lie. We tend to remember the bad stuff and forget the good stuff.

This is why it’s all the more important for every one of us who are in Christ to strive every single day to leave a positive legacy and to make sure that the story told about us is the best that we can possibly make it. Not only will this story reflect our life but can also reflect on all disciples of Jesus Christ.

Stories are exactly what we are reading about in this passage from the prophet Joshua. Of course, by the time Joshua is talking to the people about their stories as we pick up his story this morning, it has likely been well over three centuries since Abraham had lived and died. His name and some of his stories had been carried forward through the ages. But the first thing Joshua wants to tell the people about their ancestor as he is about to finish his work among them is that Abraham was not always connected to the God they knew as their God. He had served other gods, as his family before him had.

And the second thing he wanted them to know about Abraham’s story was that first our God made a choice, and then Abraham did. Our God chose to call this man who was not serving our God, and Abraham chose to pay attention and devote his life to following where our God led him. God acted first. God called. Then Abraham forsook all other allegiances and followed.

That’s our story, too, isn’t it? John and Charles Wesley would call this preventing, or prevenient grace. Before we were even trying to pay attention to what our God was calling us to do, even before we couldpay attention to such things, God called, and kept calling.

For many of you, you heard that call and you followed. You made a pledge at your baptism, if you were older, you would renounce all other allegiances, and serve Jesus as Lord, accepting the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression. And over the years, you’ve learned what it means to rely on grace to keep you connected to God and to others in the body of Christ, the church, and to serve as Christ’s representatives in the world.

This is our story. We were serving other gods. We were following our own way. Even if we were “good Christian people” and “in the church,” and for some of us, even if we were confirmed and meant it at the time, we still hadn’t completely broken all those prior allegiances. Just being “in the church” may not really have been enough of an influence to do what the church promises to pray for us at every baptism– “that we may become true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”

Hear this good news. God keeps calling. The Spirit keeps striving. Prevenient grace is still very much a thing! Even when our story is that we’re ignoring God, God doesn’t ignore us. Indeed, God is calling us toward the fullness of life in Christ even then, even when we’re actively serving other gods or ends.

Hear this even better news. We don’t have to keep ignoring God’s call and God’s promise. We can “choose THIS day whom we will serve.” And in making that choice, our story can become more like that of those robed in white.

Joshua told the people an ancient ancestor story to speak of a God who made them a people –in effect–out of nothing, out of no prior allegiance.

They responded with their allegiance to their God who had done something even more remarkable than that. It would have been enough if God had simply called Abraham and given him descendants. But their story was their God did more. Their God delivered these descendants from slavery and cruel oppression at the hands of the Egyptian empire, brought them through a long journey, and enabled them to settle in a new land. Their God wasn’t just out to get them started, but to see them through whatever would come and work for their good. How could they not pledge sole allegiance to their God?

That’s the story of the saints, too. It’s our story. Some of us may have found ourselves caught in literal slavery and cruel oppression from others. Racism and white supremacy still exercise sway among us. Some of us may struggle with other forms of slavery and oppression such as addiction or other diseases beyond our apparent control. Probably all of us have struggled with patterns of selfishness or habits or actions or attitudes that destroy our relationships with God and neighbor and ourselves. And in our struggles, we may forget the best news of all. God really is out to save us.

God is out to save us.

And save us to the uttermost.

The story that we proclaim and that we weave for ourselves must be one worth telling and remembering. This is especially vital in the age in which we find ourselves. As I mentioned a few moments ago, we all have other gods whom we have been serving and at some point, those of us who have taken membership vows have professed before this or some other congregation that our allegiance is first and foremost with the risen savior Jesus Christ. What we see playing out in certain circles around us is nothing short of evil and idolatrous. We are more polarized than ever and we are also in a place in our nation’s history where we see many people throwing away what they know is morally correct and in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ for the sake of political gain. We are seeing people use scripture to justify everything from racism to pedophilia. We are seeing people equate allegiance with this or that politician or party with being a Christian. It makes my soul ache to know that such is the story that we are collective weaving about the witness of the church of Jesus Christ in the United States. Political gain and the setting aside of morals for the sake of political clout is not why Christ died on the cross. This is not why our veterans offered themselves up for us and why some gave literally everything they had. We can do better than this, we must do better.

As we write the story of our lives and our witness, we must make sure that if nothing else is said about us, it is proclaimed that we placed God above all other things in our lives, period, full stop. That means that we must do everything that we can to serve him and to take every single opportunity to show others the love of Jesus Christ as often as we can. In the sermon titled “The Use of Money” John Wesley said, “Employ whatever God has entrusted you with in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree . . . to all mankind.” Do we do all the good that we can, in all the ways that we can, in as many places as we can, to as many people as we can, for as long as we ever can? And when we fail to do good and we cause some kind of harm, do we make amends by confessing, repentance, and amends to the person we have wronged? This is how we make our story as a saint one worth telling. Above all, we love God and then we love all people as Christ loves them. Leave a lasting legacy, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… Amen.

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Pension Reform At What Cost?

Matt Bevin, Kentucky’s governor, has been riling the dander of many people as of late with his proposed pension reform plan. Under the plan, public employees – including teachers, police offers, firefighters, road department employees, many EMS providers, and much more – would be moved from the current pension plan to a defined-contribution plan that would work like a 401(k) retirement plan. Governor Bevin and supporters say that this will end Kentucky’s considerable debt and underfunding that has occurred under the current pension plan. Opponents, of which I am one, argue that this bill breaks promises made to the Commonwealth’s public employees and will reduce retirement benefits. I will take it a step further.

Governor Bevin’s proposal is immoral.

Nevermind the fact that the proposal being passed around Frankfort includes language that ends the legal requirement of school districts to provide any paid sick days per year for our educators. Nevermind the fact that current language also takes away line of duty death benefits from a significant portion of Kentucky’s current law enforcement personnel and all new hires. Nevermind the fact that such defined contribution plans have limits on contributions and are tied to a volatile stock market. This plan is immoral because it breaks promises made to generations of employees who have filled our schools, government offices, ambulances, fire trucks, police cars, and road crews with the best and the brightest to serve the citizens of Kentucky. The message being conveyed is that the short-term and long-term well being of Kentucky’s public workers does not matter and that the governor seems them as expendable.

This is immoral.

And let’s not forget that Governor Bevin thinks that you and I, Joe Q. Public, are not smart enough to get how such things work and what needs to be done. Governor Bevin stated:

The people who do not have the sophistication to understand what’s at stake, but will bear the brunt of it, are the ones that are going to suffer if people like us who get it, who are willing to fight for it, don’t step up.

Governor Bevin would do well to know that we are smart enough to understand what’s going on. Here’s what else we are sophisticated enough to know: We understand that promises should be kept. We understand that the people who are the ones who will shape the future of this state, who provide for the safety of all of us, and who ensure that our infrastructure is maintained at the best possible levels matter and should be looked after. We are smart enough to know that something much be done in order to shore up the state’s retirement fund but we also are smart enough to know that gutting the pension plan and replacing it with something that simply is not in the best interest of the people is what should be done.

Perhaps Governor Bevin lacks the sophistication to understand that the people elected him and the people can also vote him out.

For my wife and I, this is personal. She is an educator who wants to have a secure future. I am a former paramedic who ministers to those who continue to work on the streets every day to ensure that the best out-of-hospital healthcare is provided to Powell County, Kentucky. We are also taxpayers who want our money to be used wisely and in ways that will benefit the employees that our taxes go to the pay the salaries and other benefits of.

But perhaps more importantly as Christians, we have a responsibility to see that people are cared for. Taking away their retirement and other vital benefits is not getting that job done. As a disciple and especially as a pastor I have a responsibility to name and fight that which is an injustice. If this does not fit the nature of an injustice that is repugnant to anyone’s morals, I don’t know what does.

One early sign we see of this being a bad idea is the sheer number of teachers, school administration, and other public employees who either have retired or will before the end of the year. We are about to see a crisis in our classrooms the likes of which no one has ever imagined. If you don’t believe me, ask any school employee. They will tell you of people within their districts who either have retired or will very soon. In other words, Kentucky’s teacher shortage is about to grow exponentially. And that’s just in our schools. This does not include the firefighters, police officers, and others who are taking the same action.

Kentucky is about to be in a real mess.

I call upon our representatives in Frankfort to work against this bill. I would also love for our clergy in Kentucky to fight against this injustice and to pray for its defeat. We must stand with our public employees, especially our teachers and public safety workers. This is simply not in the best interest of the Commonwealth.

It’s Time For Some Tough Love

widetableFriends, it’s time for a dose of reality and some tough love. First of all, I am sick and tired of all the bruhaha over NFL players kneeling, standing, not standing, staying in the tunnel, staying in the locker room, or whatever they choose to do. My social media feeds have been filled with nothing but reactions for and against the actions that NFL players, coaches, and owners took or did not take in response to President Trump’s remarks calling for the firing of NFL players who protest during the national anthem (the fact that he used language that I would rather he didnt is another story). There has been great passion displayed by people arguing on both sides of the issue, a passion that I admire and find very commendable.

I just wish we would show this much passion about things that actually matter.

One thing I have noticed during my existence in this world is that we tend to display lots of passion about sports, politics, and which celebrity is pregnant this week. However, that same passion is rarely placed where it is actually needed. Our priorities are all messed up. We care about things that have absolutely no bearing on the greater good of the world and care little to none about suffering, oppression, and the other things that we really should be so passionate about. While we (collectively) have been pouring our energy into what an athlete does or does not do during the national anthem, here’s what I did not hear much about.

  • The entire island of Puerto Rico – very much part of the United States as they are a territory – is without electricity or communication. Most of their houses have been severely damaged or destroyed. Their supply lines are all but completely shut off. They are in desperate need of aid and it may take years for the Puerto Ricans to recover. The damage has been described as “apocalyptic.” On top of all of that, a dam was heavily damaged and is likely to completely fail.
  • A mass shooting in Antioch, Tennessee at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ killed one and wounded six others, mostly older people who had gathered for worship. The local media reports say that if an usher had not intervened to fight the shooter, the situation could have been much worse. One of the wounded is their pastor, Rev. Joey Spann, and he remains in critical condition. It’s unknown what the motive of the shooting is.
  • People in Florida, Texas, and other places impacted by recent hurricanes are continuing to recover from the damage sustained during those storms. People are still living in shelters and many have no homes to go to.
  • Homelessness still exists, children are still going hungry, people are still addicted to drugs and alcohol, and families are still being torn apart due to these addictions and much more.

As long as these things are in existence, I simply don’t have time to worry about what someone does or does not do when the national anthem is played. And, frankly, if you’re a Christian… Neither do you.

The Old and New Testaments are rife with teachings about caring for the poor, seeking justice for the oppressed, loving our neighbors, and being kind but it seems like we ignore those things. We expend so much time and energy on petty political differences when we could be putting our energy into much more productive endeavors. If we used that energy toward ending hunger and homelessness, those issues would be gone tomorrow. If we used all that energy to working to end drug and alcohol addiction, the number of lives changed for the better would be astounding.

If you are a Christian and spend more time behind a keyboard or holding a smartphone using it to argue political ideology than you do working on things that break God’s heart, you’re not in line with the teachings of Jesus (I include myself in this rebuke). Does that sting? Good, it should.

We need to do better by using our passion and energy toward things that actually matter. In ten years, I can promise you that what an athlete or a team choose to do during the national anthem will not have one bit of bearing on anyone’s’ life. In ten years, we likely won’t even remember that this was a debate. But in ten years, someone could have a better life or even be alive in the first place because you put the phone down and invested in your energy into something – or someone – that actually matters.

And if you’re a Christian, that’s your duty as a disciple.

Sermon: The Apostle’s Tale – Groaning

Note: This is, more or less, my sermon from this morning’s worship service at Shiloh UMC in Stanton, Kentucky. Last week I began a series called The Apostle’s Tale which mostly is based on readings from Romans 8. This series was designed to go along with readings from the Revised Common Lectionary from a few weeks ago but I was doing another series and began this one late. It worked out perfectly, as this sermon dealt with our responsibility as disciples in light of the suffering and evil in the world. Perfect timing. I hope you receive encouragement and food for thought.

 

Romans 8:12-25 (NIV)
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[a] And by him we cry, “Abba,[b] Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[c] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to all ages, nations, and races?

Last week, we began this series with a backdrop of dystopia using examples from The Hunger Games and the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale. We also touched on the dystopia all around us, a world where there is much fear and violence, always an “us” versus “them” mentality. We talked about people being oppressed and some people having while others go without simply because of issues such as social class, race, and any number of factors. At least to some extent, dystopia is all around us and, unfortunately, is not just the stuff of books and movies.

We have been seeing some of this play out over the last few days. The North Korean government has made threats of a nuclear strike against Guam and on the mainland of the United States.Kim Jong Un claims that his government is working on specific plans and once it’s completed he will sign off on it and that will be all that’s needed to launch a strike. Allegedly a nuclear warhead can be rocketed toward Guam and be there in 14 minutes. Because of these threats, there has been much anxiety and fear in Guam and elsewhere, mainly at not knowing whether North Korea is truly capable of launching such an attack or if they would actually have the moxy to make such attempt. And, “What if they do and they do it?” Fear. Dystopia.

Yesterday we saw a little piece of dystopia play out with the racial unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in what I feel is a true expression of evil. Violence irrupted and a few people have even lost their lives, ultimately because of racism. Neo-nazis gathered to protest the removal of Civil War monuments and also rallied against the acceptance of other races other than white. Let me very clear: Racism is evil. Violence with racism as the root cause is evil. Racism is incompatible with Christian teaching and should not be tolerated within the church. And yet, so many of these groups claim to be Christians, they claim that they are doing work for God, and they claim that the Bible endorses the enslavement of blacks and calls them evil. Their views are contrary to scripture – scripture does not say any of that. Their actions and words, while they may have the right to hold their opinions, are evil. It’s dystopia playing out on the news.

As Christians, we often feel that we should somehow be exempt from having to experience the evils of the world. Evil is really hard to avoid but we try anyway. We hide ourselves with whatever we think will shield us and we try to pretend that it isn’t there. This really is the complete opposite of what we should do. We can lament and say, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to me because I have Jesus and therefore I don’t have to endure it.” But we see that Paul tells is that part of being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ means that we don’t look away from the suffering going on in the world. We simply can’t. We must acknowledge it and call it what it is. We must confront the sufferings head on.

So how do we do this? How do we keep our eyes on Christ and yet make sure that we see the evils which are happening in the world for what they truly are, something that simply should not being ignored? We do this by joining in God’s sorrow over the state of this world. We join in and take our place in the chorus of all of God’s creation as it groans. The groans are caused by the long pains of labor as God’s promised kingdom is birthed.

I remember a particular call when I ran when I was an EMT. I was working in Mississippi and had not yet enrolled in paramedic school. In fact, I had not been an EMT for very long at all. When the dispatcher called us she was obviously very upset when normally she was calm and professional. I won’t go into the details of the call for a lot of reasons but I will say that it was… gruesome. The patient was in terrible shape and severely disfigured. It was difficult to look at him but I had to force myself to. I had to care for him. I had to look at him and his injuries. Thankfully this was toward the end of my shift but the rest of it was spent in a daze. The sight that I had to force myself to observe was completely overwhelming. When I got home, I was physically and mentally exhausted. I simply had nothing left to give and I ended up sleeping most of the day… Well, when I couldn’t see his face in a dream. That was the price I had to pay but I had no choice. I had to force myself to take it all in and provide the best care I could for him.

Life is like that sometimes. Sometimes the reality that we simply must force ourselves to take it and to not ignore is so overwhelming that it takes all of our energy and we simply have nothing left to give.

Those of us who claim Jesus as Lord must pay attention to the goings-on in the world but we also need to make sure that we acknowledge the suffering and evil as well. We may want to ignore it and try to shield ourselves from it but we shouldn’t and, let’s be honest, we can’t. We can’t turn out backs on the suffering of our neighbors. We can’t turn our backs on heroin and opiate addicts. We can’t turn our backs on the homeless. We can’t turn our backs on the poor. We can’t turn our backs on racists and other bigots. We can’t turn away from threats from North Korea and other entities who seek to do our country harm. And we can’t turn our backs on people within our own borders who wish to do harm to our country. We must acknowledge. We must look. And we must act, even if that action is simply praying for God’s guidance and wisdom.

Paul tells us this – he tells us that we must look upon and acknowledge those places where the most pain and the most groaning by all of creation is happening. But here’s the tricky part, the part that we don’t tend to like: We must join in the suffering. We have to take the pain of others on ourselves and bear it. And even when we don’t see hope, we must never, never, never give up. When the enemy tries to drag us away and distract us from the suffering of the world, we have to dig our heels in deeper and stand our ground. We must be patient, we must remember that God is good and God is working to bring about his kingdom and that day will be here sooner than we think!

It’s natural to wonder where all of this evil and suffering comes from. A common question is “where did all of this come from? How did it start?” It seems to be counterintuitive to God’s intention for the world. And, really, that’s because it is counterintuitive to God’s original plan.

John Wesley talked about this in one of his sermons. He wrestles with the question of how it can be that God provides for all of creation and yet there is suffering.

Ultimately, he chalks it up to original sin. He begins by noting that God created human beings in God’s own image of perfect righteousness and love and gave humans dominion over all of creation, especially those lesser animals, or “brutes” as Wesley names the non-human animal kingdom. The difference between humans and brutes, for Wesley, is that humans alone were endowed with the capacity to obey their creator. Thus endowed, God’s original intent was that humans would ensure that no beasts under their care suffered: “All the blessings of God in paradise flowed through man to the inferior creatures, as man was the great channel of communication between the Creator and the whole brute creation,’ Wesley writes.

Unfortunately, as we all know, human beings messed up the transmission of those blessings in an irreversible way. This has affected not only all humans, but all the creatures under humanity’s care. Wesley laments that there is no way to know what suffering creation has endured because of original sin. All we know is that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; not only creation but we ourselves”

This is why we have evil. The downside of free will is that one is free to commit evil acts if we so choose – that is, if the enemy can fool us into thinking that we should do these things. This is why the neo-nazis and the dictators of the world are allowed to make their threats, shout their vulgar racial slurs, and to drive their cars into groups of innocent people.

Christians are not people of isolation. We simply can not and should not hide ourselves from the suffering of the world and simply remain in our bubbles. Maybe you’ve seen the movie, about the boy who was so sick that he could have absolutely no contact with the outside world? He literally had to live in the bubble. I feel that we Christians often hide ourselves in our bubbles to try and ignore the evil of the world but Paul tells us that we simply can’t do that. Christians are not bubble people! We can’t ignore evil and hope that it will go away because, at least until Christ returns, evil isn’t going anywhere. We must acknowledge it. We must name it. We must feel pain with each other and with our neighbors. We must join in the collective groaning of the world rather than ignoring it.

I want to remind us about the words that we heard last week after we confessed our sins just before having Holy Communion last week: “Hear the Good News! Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. This proves God’s love for us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” And we celebrate that because of Christ, we have been set free from the law of sin and death.

This IS the good news of Jesus Christ! As the women would say in The Handmaid’s Tale, “Praise Be!”

But being saved from eternal suffering does not give us a pass to avoid the suffering of God’s creation. Rather, we are called to join with Christ in his suffering, just as we will also join in Christ’s glory.

I want to read the baptismal vows one more time. I want you to ponder them one more time. Are you all in and do you truly affirm these vows or are they just words?

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to all ages, nations, and races?

If you do, say “amen.”

The Journey to Perfection

92aba00b06181159f052f909ec08e648-john-wesley-gospelI came to Mississippi to have my yearly meeting with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry (DCOM) where my ordination candidacy resides. On my way down from Kentucky, my car started having some trouble and it’s currently undergoing automotive surgery, therefore I have been spending some extra time down south. As I obviously was not going to be preaching at Shiloh today, I decided to worship at First UMC in my hometown of Philadelphia, MS. Their associate pastor, Rev. Ryan McGough, preached on the account of Nicodemus’ journey of faith as described in John’s gospel. One of the points Rev. McGough made was that, like Nicodemus, our faith journey is much more than a moment in time, it’s a life-long process of being perfected in the image of Christ.

When I was in paramedic school I was in the midst of my field internship shifts. I was so ready to be finished and to finally be a medic. I was riding with a crew from a rural service one day and I expressed these sentiments to my preceptor. He said, “Paramedic school gets you ready to pass the written test and to pass the skills check off. Getting through paramedic doesn’t make you a paramedic. When you get your gold patch, you are then a paramedic. But that’s all you are. From there, the real education begins. You will have a choice to make: Do you want to be a paramedic or a good paramedic? One will get you a job but the other will make you a better provider every shift and you will advance. Maybe you will go on to be a critical care medic or maybe even an instructor. But know this: The journey to being a paramedic doesn’t take long. The journey to being a great paramedic is a marathon, not a sprint.”

I’ve said such a few times myself and I will maintain this forever: The process of sanctification is a lifetime process, it does not occur overnight. Salvation is much more than a moment in time in front of an altar rail at a church or tent revival, it’s a journey with Jesus that we all take together as one body of Christ. Salvation is not as simple as punching our fire insurance card, it’s something we have to be invested in for the long haul. It takes faith in God to work in our lives, patience, and persistence.

Perfection in Christ has no express lane.

Persons who are being ordained as Deacons and Elders in the United Methodist Church are asked a series of traditional questions that John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and every bishop since have asked ordinands. One of them is this: “Are you going on to perfection?” Saying that one is “going on” to Christian perfection indicates that this is no one-time thing. This is a process. If you think that one sin too many is going to keep God from loving you, that’s just not true. As Rev. McGough said today, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Persist! Go on! You can do this through the strength of Christ!

Hugh Freeze and Christian Hero Worship

 

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Photo Credit: Deadspin

If you are in tune with the college football world and have been anywhere near a TV, computer, or smartphone then you already know what happened to Hugh Freeze. Coach Freeze is now the former head football coach at Ole Miss. So, there really is not any need to rehash the events because you probably already know all about it. Commenters from all corners were quick to pounce on Freeze. I do feel that we should remember that Coach Freeze is a broken human being just like any of the rest of us and he is as much in need of a savior as you and me. He is a child of God and we should absolutely be praying for him and his family right now. While I made my share my snarky comments (one of my weaknesses is getting too caught up in the Mississippi State – Ole Miss rivalry), I do feel that we should all remember that prayer is the most appropriate response from any of us right now.

I also feel that this points to a major weakness within the Christian church, especially in the more evangelical realm. We tend to celebrate Christians who are famous and we put them on a pedestal. More often than not, it’s the ones who are put on a pedestal who take a major fall. There are exceptions to this rule (at least as far as we can tell) but many who we tend to lift higher than others in the kingdom have been set up for a major moral failure or even worse. Unfortunately for Hugh Freeze, he is just the latest in a long line of famous Christians who have been celebrated and next thing we know we are left asking questions about their integrity and whether they were even faithful disciples in the first place.

Here’s what I know about people like Hugh Freeze, Tim Tebow, and other people who are famous and Christian: They are human, they are broken, they are in need of a savior. In other words, they are just like me and you. We run the risk of being profoundly disappointed when we hold human beings to such high standards that we tend to do in these situations and then a fall from grace occurs. The pressure of being held to such high standards alone can be enough to make someone vulnerable to temptation.

The fact that they are famous does not make them special in the eyes of God. They do not have special standing with the Father due to the fact that a lot of people know who they are. Yes, a famous person can be used of God to spread the good news of Jesus Christ but here’s the thing: So can any one of us. You and I have the same capability, in the ways that the Spirit has gifted us, to do some major work for Jesus Christ. Just imagine how much would be accomplished for the Kingdom if we stopped expecting others to do the work of God and instead allowed ourselves to be used.

We don’t have to be someone like Hugh Freeze or Tim Tebow to be effective for Christ.

We also face a profound danger when we lift famous Christians so high up: We run the risk of idolatry. Whether we are talking about a person or a cell phone, we can be so in awe that we can end up toeing the line between profound respect and worship of that person or thing. This is not something that we set out to do but this trap is an easy one to fall into. We must be careful when we hold people in such high esteem to not cross the line into idolatry.

I believe that God does smile when someone uses their platform to bring glory to His name. I believe that it’s right to be proud that a brother or sister who has a powerful voice willingly uses their position to tell people about Christ. But we must remember that all people have the unfortunate common trait of being imperfect and in need of Christ. We also should remember that while such people may be of God, they are not God. We must be careful to keep the Main Thing the main thing.

And when one of the famous among us in the church has a fall, let us be quick to offer the love of Christ rather than ridicule. I include myself on the receiving end of this advice.

“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” Romans 3:23 (NLT)

#CurrentUnitedMethodism Is Alive

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Photo Credit: Joe Iovino

Another week, another UMC-related hashtag, but this is one that I can get behind with full force.

The rumors of the UMC’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Last summer when I went on my Wesleyan Pilgrimage with the UMC’s Discipleship Ministries, I met Joe Iovino. Joe is a web content manager with United Methodist Communications (UMCOM), which means he oversees and contributes a lot of the articles and other electronic publications of the UMC and UMCOM. Joe has felt a lot of the same frustration I have in the seeming obsession of so many of the church’s best and brightest in what a new Methodist movement may look like in the #NextMethodism discussion. Like me, Joe feels that the church needs to be about God’s business now instead of pining away for something new, and he feels that there is need to highlight the good things that UMs are doing right now. Also, like me, Joe disagrees with those who have seemed to give up on the church and are ready to throw it all away as dead and useless.

Joe has begun a conversation that I feel is an important one to have, much more important than giving in to the distractions that the enemy can use to derail the work that we should be doing now. I want to contribute to that conversation in hopes that several others will join in and that we will help the world and our well-meaning colleagues to see that there is work to be done now, there is much more to be done now, and that we are wasting our time and potentially giving in to a trap set by Satan to keep us from doing that work.

One of the tenants of any Wesleyan, but especially United Methodists, is putting our faith into action. I want to share stories from two churches: My own and one pastored by my friend and mentor Rev. Phil Bradley.

Shiloh United Methodist Church is the church that I am appointed to. Shiloh is located just outside of the city of Stanton in Powell County, Kentucky. Powell County has one of the highest rates of poverty and drug use in the Commonwealth and arguably in the nation. Powell County can be a tough place to do ministry but there is also so much greatness everywhere and, at the risk of being biased, among the people called United Methodist. Shiloh participates in the county’s ministerial association and we were the host church for this month’s Praise in the Park, an ecumenical community worship service held in a city park. 200ish people enjoyed some great food, heard some amazing music, and heard of how we are all united in the one gospel of Jesus Christ. Our Backpack Blessings backpack and school supply drive is underway which will culminate in the donated backpacks, donated supplies, and school items of Shiloh’s students and school staffers being prayed over at an upcoming worship service. The donated supplies will be taken to the schools throughout the county to be given to students in need. Additionally, we are in the midst of a heatwave and Shiloh is opening its fellowship hall as a cooling station and offering water, fellowship, and the love of Christ.

This is faith in action. This is #CurrentUnitedMethodism.

My friend and mentor, Phil Bradley, is wrapping up his first month as the new pastor of Bardstown (KY) United Methodist Church. Last weekend, a young man named Tariq Armour drowned in a tragic accident. Tariq was a beloved member of the community and the death was devastating to many, especially his friends at Bardstown High School. Bardstown UMC opened their doors to the student body and to the community for a grief counseling session facilitated by professional counselors, as well as teachers and administration from Bardstown High School. Bardstown UMC showed the community that they were loved and that they were grieving along with them. Most importantly, Bardstown UMC shined the light of Christ into the darkness of grief and showed one and all the love of Christ.

This is faith in action. This is #CurrentUnitedMethodism.

These are just two examples of how United Methodists are ministering and moving right now. There is much work to be done. I say again, the enemy can use our denominational struggles to distract us from the vital work that we have to do now. I simply will not allow myself to give in to that trap and to concentrate on a future that may or may not even materialize.

#CurrentUnitedMethodism is strong, alive, and being used of God for his work. Our church will be even stronger if we resist the temptation to throw it away and instead work as we have been commanded to do.

Are We Almost or Altogether Christian?

“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” – Brennen Manning

For the last few weeks, we have been doing a sermon series called The Words of Wesley. I am preaching a few of John Wesley’s sermons but they are somewhat shortened and are in modern language as opposed to the “King James” English that Wesley used. Today’s sermon was “The Almost Christian” where Wesley discussed the attributes of one who is an “Almost Christian” and one who is an “Altogether Christian.” Wesley’s message can be boiled down to say that the Almost Christian seems to be doing everything that a Christian ought to do – going to worship, appearing to reject sin, even praying, etc. – but they lack a sincere faith. A sincere faith and desire to truly serve God are what separate the Almost Christian from the Altogether Christian. In other words, Almost Christian looks and even sounds Christian but they are merely going through the motions for nothing because they lack faith.

In preparing for this sermon, I began to think of cultural Christianity. I have written about this before and how I long for the day when cultural Christianity is dead. I still long for that day. It was not that long ago – and somewhat this is still the case – that churches were filled with people who were only there out of expectation or as a means of material or political gain. Using the name of God for personal gain is nothing new but, as I wrote in my previous article, there was a time when one could suffer in business and politics if they did not attend any church or even the right church. If we take a good, hard, and honest look at why so many people attended worship services in the so-called “good old days,” we find that personal gain was a major motivation.

‘Merica.

Wesley’s sermon makes one take a good, hard, and honest look at their spiritual life to decide if they are truly an Altogether Christian. Toward the end, Wesley asked the congregation gathered at St. Mary’s Church in Oxford, England that day a series of questions. For me, this one is the one that really strikes to the heart of whether or not one is an Altogether Christian.

The great question of all, then, still remains. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Can you cry out, “My God, and my All”? Do you desire nothing but him? Are you happy in God? Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing?

So much of what certain people who proclaim Christ engage in can be perceived that the answer to the question above is a resounding “no.” There are so many among us who are using the name of Christ as a means to gain political points. We have church choirs singing political propaganda songs under the guise of a worship anthem. We have an extreme end of a certain political party who insist that they are the only ones who are the true Christians in the political realm.

They may say this but the way they treat the poor and the marginalized say otherwise.

I don’t intend to go off on a political tangent but I do want us to think about whether we are truly part of the church and claim the name of Christ strictly as a means of personal or political gain. If we do the right things, say the right words, and have no motivation other than looking good than we are maybe an Almost Christian (if we are anywhere close to Christian at all). But if our motivation is nothing but the glory of God and we desire nothing but Christ, if we can truly ask ourselves the question above and shout a resounding “yes!” then we are an Altogether Christian.

So are you Almost a Christian or are you Altogether a Christian?

Lessons From The Hunger Games

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A map of Panem from the Hunger Games books, as seen at the Hunger Games Exhibition in Louisville, KY.

Jessica and I spent some time in Louisville, KY for a short get away. Wednesday before we came home, we went to see an exhibit of The Hunger Games movies at the Frazier History Museum. If you didn’t know, Jennifer Lawrence is from Louisville so it makes sense that this exhibition is right up the road from us. Some of the background information told of how the author, Suzanne Collins, came up with the idea for the books. It began when she was watching coverage of the Iraqi military action and she began to ponder how media coverage of violence desensitizes people to the true suffering involved in a war. For the storyline, she incorporated elements of Roman history, specifically the oligarchy and the violence of the battles to the death of the gladiators.

An argument could be made that this is also a reflection of modern society.

We simply can not deny that much of our current society reflects that of ancient Rome. Much of the political power is held by the wealthy, who are in the minority. We only care about our own comfort, our own well-being and as long as we are comfortable nothing else matters. We are oblivious to the suffering of those who are in poverty (and even having the audacity to say it’s entirely their fault), who are marginalized, and who are embattled in addiction. We have reality shows that keep us sedated, news coverage that exposes us to so much violence that we learn to tune it out, which crosses over into real life. We pout over our first world problems like not having the latest phone and forget that people in places like North Korea and Iraq are in fear of their lives on a constant basis. We indulge in excess of all sorts and waste enough food to feed many small countries while children all over the world hope for a bowl of rice. We also do all of this with a straight face while many of us claim to love Jesus and what he teaches, yet we would turn someone away from our churches because their sin is different than ours or because they are not dressed “appropriately.”

We are Panem.

In Revelation 3, we read the words of Jesus to the Church of Sardis:

“I know all the things you do, and that you have a reputation for being alive—but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what little remains, for even what is left is almost dead. I find that your actions do not meet the requirements of my God. Go back to what you heard and believed at first; hold to it firmly. Repent and turn to me again.” Revelation 3:1-3a (NLT)

The American church claims that it is strong and, in many ways, this is correct. However, the American church is also very weak in its witness. We have equated our faith to God to the level of our patriotism. We have equated our relationship with God to how large our houses, bank accounts, and SUVs are. We have forgotten/ignored that Jesus was not a caucasian with perfectly maintained brown hair and blue eyes but rather was a Middle Eastern Jew who looks nothing like us. Many of us still look at Christianity as simply doing what is expected and going through the motions of being in a pew on Sunday morning rather than truly having a life of reconciliation and transformation. We treat our neighbors as sub-human while demanding respect for ourselves (and count any perceived disrespect as “persecution.” We also do not truly acknowledge the cruelty and brutality of his death and instead look at it as something “dignified” if we even truly believe it at all.

The question could be asked if it’s too late for the American church to make a turnaround. In small ways, it already is.  We do have devoted disciples who truly live out their faith and who do more than simply go through the motions. They believe the gospel of Jesus Christ and proclaim it not just with their words but also their Christ-like love. Jesus provided such encouragement later in Revelation 3.

“Yet there are some in the church in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes with evil. They will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.” Revelation 3:4 (NLT)

I believe there is much good in the American church but we definitely need to do better. The worst thing one who claims to love Christ can do is to simply go through the motions. Let us not be so desensitized and self-absorbed that we are oblivious to the reality right outside our front doors and beyond the walls of our church buildings. Let us also not be arrogant enough to think that the level of our discipleship is tied to material wealth. Let us not call ourselves Christians unless we are actually prepared to live out our faith, instead of simply wanting our fire insurance.

The people of the Capitol in The Hunger Games were so sedated by excess that they had no idea of the suffering in the outlying districts. Hypothetically, if they were aware they likely did not care. The American church is, unfortunately, the same in some ways. A lot of churches do amazing things but there are others that are so wrapped up in “doing” church that they have no interest in being the church. Where does your congregation fall? What are you doing – what are we doing – to not only proclaim Jesus with words but also with our living?

Are we the church or are we just playing church?