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We’re so glad you found our website. Whether you’re visiting us from another part of the world, or from right here in the Huntersville, North Carolina area — welcome!

We’re so glad you found our website. Whether you’re visiting us from another part of the world, or from right here in the Huntersville, North Carolina area — welcome!

Pastor Paul's Blog

"I Believe...": A Sermon Series on The Apostle's Creed

“I Believe. . .”
A Sermon Series on The Apostle’s Creed

 

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;*
the third day he rose from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic** church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
*traditional use of this creed includes these words: “He descended into hell.” (UMH 881)
** catholic here meaning “universal”

 

How familiar are you with these words? Some of us have known and memorized these words from as long as we can remember. Others of us are not familiar with these words and have some serious questions as to the meaning of these phrases. And some of us say these words with little or no thought as to what we are actually saying. Where are you in this conversation?

I did not grow up reciting creeds in my religious upbringing. I was in my 20’s before I was really exposed to the creeds as I started attending a United Methodist Church. Later, in Seminary, the weight and value of this confession of faith and others like it began to take hold.

 Who wrote “The Apostle’s Creed”? Well, probably not the original apostles. Like almost all of the sacred writings of our faith, there is a long and somewhat complicated development of the forms we use. It seems that the early church that was forming in the years after Jesus’s death and resurrection were attempting to develop faith summary statements in the form of hymns and faith confessions. Some of these found their way into scripture even. But the current form of our Apostle’s Creed seems not to have been solidified until the 8th century. Over the next centuries, it has found its way into the worship life of the Western churches (Roman Catholic) and later into Protestant churches.

 In the sermon series that begins June 12, we will look at the meaning and application of the creed phrase by phrase. I believe that there is great importance to these statements of faith and look forward to re-introducing them in this sermon series. I would welcome questions and comments about the content of the creed. Please don’t hesitate to send me an e-mail and I will try and answer your question in the sermon. If you think about it, please invite a friend to come and see if getting down to the basics of the faith will inspire us to ignite a new spirit of sharing what we believe and trust to be true.

 I’ll hope to see you Sunday!

Following the Rules

 

Not long ago I was at an event, a public event. The next thing I know the room empties, except this one man. He is aware of my role as Pastor of a United Methodist Church. He doesn’t know me, but he takes the opportunity to “correct” me regarding what I can only guess is his issue with what he perceives United Methodist Pastors preach. In so many words he challenges me, “You guys talk about grace, but you know, there’s no forgiveness without repentance!” I just kind of stood there, dumbfounded. My perception was that I was being admonished for being “soft” and he was setting me straight on the true nature of how God really works in the area of grace, forgiveness, and salvation. I didn’t respond to him at the time. I have pondered this interaction since.

 

I grew up being taught that following the rules was important. I am a rule follower (for the most part!). Following the rules is important because it provides stability, consistency, and order to an otherwise chaotic world. Not only in the “real world” of laws and legislation, but more so in the faith community, we are bound by covenant commitments of rules established for the good of the whole. Much of my upbringing was shaped by good people who were firmly convinced that being good rule-followers was the most important aspect of their response to God. What you put into your body, what you watched or read, and who you spent your time with was a defining word about your relationship with God. Good people who genuinely wanted to please God acted in such honorable ways.

 

The older I get and the experiences I have re-shape some of my thinking in this area. When I read the Gospels and learn more about the teachings of Jesus and study them with a more discerning eye, I discover not a religion of “don’ts” but of “dos”. While I am still absolutely convinced that the whole of the Bible’s teaching is inspired and relevant for the world today, I do find an important nuanced thread that runs from beginning to end. That nuanced thread is that people are more important than policy to God. It is a fine line that I struggle with.

 

Do you remember the story of David and the “shewbread” or priestly bread he eats which violates the rules of the faith community? Jesus uses this example from I Samuel 21 in confronting their hypocrisy when the Pharisees complain about Jesus’s disciples plucking heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath. In the following discussion as found in Matthew 12:4 we hear Jesus quote, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” and elsewhere, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (NRSV) While there is much to be debated and discussed about the nature of the Law and God’s expectations for following it, the over-arching sense I receive from Jesus and his teachings is this: people matter to God and the rules we follow must begin with that understanding. The Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 5:14, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (NRSV) Later in Galatians, Paul talks about confronting those who offend when they break the rules but doing so “in a spirit of gentleness.” Again, the strong sense I get is that while the rules remain important to the life of the community, relationships matter most to God. As expressed in Matthew 18, the plan for working through the differences and the offenses we find in each other is formed around the idea that relationships are important to God and the good of the community, not finding a way to cast people aside who offend the rules.

 

All of this weighs on my heart and mind these days especially. With General Conference coming up we United Methodists will engage in rigorous debate about the subjects of human sexuality, homosexual marriage, and the place of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender people in the church. The tension and the rancor are evident even weeks before the event. It almost feels like a “showdown” is looming.

My perception is that people on one side of the debate believe that the other side cares only about the rules. They try and cast them as dogmatic, fundamentalists who are “Pharisees” at heart. I don’t believe that is the case, no, not at all.

The other side insists that people who advocate for the rules to change regarding our LGBT community are lacking in scriptural foundation and simply not listening to God’s Word. I don’t find that to be the case either.

 

As someone who often finds myself in the “center” of such debates, I believe there is a better way to engage in this debate and focus on relationship strengthening rather than tearing each other down and our denomination apart.

As it turns out, repentance is really necessary in this equation of forgiveness and grace. It is necessary for me to respond in repenting to God for me to be able to engage in right relationships with others. I must repent of my insistence on being right and allow God to work through me. I don’t need to defend God’s honor or God’s rules. I simply need to love people and be willing to humbly engage in the hard, difficult, often painful work of living in the community of faith to which I have been given. God must surely desire our show of mercy for each other rather than our tearing each other apart.

 

I would ask that you join me in prayer, in an act of repentance, in which we turn to God and make sure our hearts are in the right place leading up to this critical meeting for the future of our church.

Living By The Sword

In the 26th Chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew the writer tells of the events that occurred during the night just before the crucifixion of Jesus. He first tells of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, of his disciple’s inability to stay awake as he prays, and the earnestness of his prayer that the cup of death he is about to drink not be the way for him, the way of the cross.

As Jesus finishes speaking the final words of lament to his disciples, Judas, another of the disciples, leads a “mob” to come have Jesus arrested. The mob was composed of the religious leaders and their minions. These were people who represented the religious/political order of their time, and they were angry that Jesus was calling them on their hypocrisy and revealing their falsehoods. With their clubs and swords they came to end his intervention in their sordid world, arresting him, silencing him, killing him.

Matthew records that one of Jesus’s disciples, identified as Peter in other Gospels, brandishes his weapon and strikes, cutting off the ear of the Chief Priest’s servant. Jesus angrily, I believe, tells Peter to put his weapon away. “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword”, Jesus says. He goes on to say that he could call on the legion of angels to protect him, but that is not the way God has destined things to be for him. The way Jesus proceeds is to embrace that this is the way of God, to accept the way of suffering and offer his life as a redemptive work from God.

Those words of Jesus ring in my ears as I contemplate the events unfolding before our eyes in this season of political turmoil. “Live by the sword, die by the sword” has become a common expression used to convey a powerful truth: embracing violence as a way of living means that violence is likely the way we shall come to our end. Violence begets violence, and no one escapes these harsh realities. Brandishing swords of hostility leads to more of the same.

I get that there is anger and frustration in our world. In many people’s minds the world has changed, and none for the better. What many counted as unthinkable has become a cold slap of reality. Many foundational principles have been re-shaped, and the pace of change of culture seems exponentially faster than ever. Anger and frustration are the gut responses for many folks. Candidates, and certainly one in particular, have recognized this anger and frustration and have seized it as a way of connecting with the populace. Angry and violent rhetoric spews forth and incites action and reaction, and the spiral continues in our world into this abyss of hostility and hatred one for the other.

This is not the way of Jesus, and it should not be the way of His followers. We are called to love our “enemies”, to bless those who persecute us, to pray for those who would harm us. We are called to be light in the darkened world. Light brings truth and exposes falsehoods. Light doesn’t kill and maim, it pierces the darkness and draws out the forces arrayed against God’s ways and illuminates the right way. As my favorite seminary professor once explained, “Jesus did not defeat the sinful and violent reactions of this world by bringing more violence against it. Instead, he soaked it up and forgave it, and said we should do the same.”

The way of violence should not be the way of a people who have had to fight and even die for the freedoms and rights of expressing even differing viewpoints. Many have offered their lives on the altar of sacrifice for this country that we might be able to disagree without hurting or killing each other. As Americans, we hold that our right to express our thoughts and ideas without fear of retribution from those who oppose us is of such importance that we put it first in the priority list of our rights. The vitriolic, hate mongering rallies and equally destructive protests do nothing to solve our issues. They serve only to divide, and as we know “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” The enemy is certainly celebrating our current state of dividedness.

I know that what I am stating will not necessarily be received well by others. I may be accused of being “political” and “weak”, not understanding the reality of our world today. But I am convinced that the timeless message of Jesus and his message of non-violence and love are exactly what the world needs to hear ever more clearly today. Let’s put our swords away. Let’s try to resolve our differences peacefully by listening to what the other’s are saying, not shouting them down. The way of Jesus is not easy, but it is the way of life. In a heated political climate, it is essential that we hear it and heed it. The alternative is to die by the very swords we brandish.

Tears & Faith

The Common Denominator

We don’t like to talk about it. It’s not polite conversation. In fact, it is downright awkward. Sometimes we joke about it so that we don’t end up talking too seriously about it (like what’s the two sure things in life? _____ and taxes). The thing we don’t like to talk about is, you guessed it, death.

But it is important that we talk about it. It really is our common denominator. We will all die. Some die at a ripe old age, but others do not live that long. Some die of “natural causes”, others die from tragic accidents in cars and airplanes, in lakes and rivers, in mines and factories. Many die after long, difficult struggles with disease, others are living seemingly healthy lives one moment and are gone the next. And for the most part we don’t get to choose how we end up dying, or shouldn’t.

This Sunday we are going to continue our sermon series on “Fearless: The Courage to Question” and we are going to talk a bit about death. It is a subject around which there are many questions, difficult questions. We will talk about a rather controversial passage from the Gospel of John. In the 11th Chapter of John is a story about a death, the death of Jesus’s friend Lazarus. It appears from a careful reading of the story that Lazarus was more like a brother to Jesus than a friend. Lazarus’s two sisters, Martha and Mary, were like Jesus’s sisters. And when Lazarus is sick and dying, the sisters send for Jesus, believing he can help Lazarus and heal him before he dies. And you get the impression that when Jesus hears of Lazarus’s sickness he doesn’t stop what he was doing and rush the two miles to Bethany where Lazarus lives. Instead, he delays, and in the delay Lazarus dies.

When Jesus finally does arrive, Martha greets Jesus, then goes and gets Mary. Both of them seem to imply the same thing in their conversation with Jesus. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!”, they cry. They raise an important and complicated issue. Where is God in the midst of our struggles with the death of people we love?

Have you ever lost someone you loved dearly? I’m thinking we all have. I have. Several people who were especially near and dear to me have died. I confess that I have pondered the question implied in Mary and Martha’s conversation with Jesus. Where were you, Jesus? If you had been here, my loved one wouldn’t have died.

In the story of Lazarus’s death, as Jesus sees the sister’s grief and deep sadness, John records that Jesus wept. I don’t think there is another portion of scripture that records tears as Jesus’s emotional response. But here, John says he weeps. Curious, isn’t it?
So Sunday we are going to talk about death. We may get emotional as this is certainly a subject that touches us deeply and speaks to our emotions. You may be angry about someone’s death. You may be still grieving and deeply saddened. You may have blocked out your feelings on the issue. All of these responses are “normal.” I’ll invite you to come Sunday with whatever emotional response you have. My conviction is that God is able to handle whatever emotions we bring with us. My hope is that we can find a way to ask our questions about death and the presence of God in it, and ask our questions in a way that leads to peace and wholeness.

If you would like to, bring a picture or other reminder of a person you are missing in your life. Be ready and willing to own your feelings associated with death. Be ready to ask the tough questions like Martha and Mary did of Jesus, and see what response we may find.

I’ll hope to see you Sunday.

If You Could Ask God One Question, What Would It Be?

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of preparation the church observes in anticipation of Easter. The season is called Lent. It is a season of 40 days, not including Sundays, that invites those that will to commit to a time of deep reflection and spiritual practice, concluding we believe in a joyous and triumphant celebration of God’s work in us at Easter. In our Christian tradition, the season of Lent it is often a time of denying of ourselves, the giving up of certain things, or of taking on things, or challenging ourselves by the taking on of things like the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and the commitment to study the scriptures more faithfully and intentionally. On Ash Wednesday, we begin this journey toward Easter with a somber, meditative service of worship in which I take ashes, make the sign of the cross on the forehead of the parishioner, and tell them they are going to die: ”Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” and/or “ Repent, and believe the Gospel.” Those words are also spoken to me. We are not really comfortable thinking about our own death, and therefore there is often this awkwardness I feel on this night. The awkwardness comes from my own struggles with death and dying, and often is written on the face of the person as I draw this sign of death on them, the sign of the cross.

This year, I am feeling a deep sense of dis-ease. I am increasingly aware that many of the Church’s typical responses to life’s challenges, (i.e. the reality of death, the questions of good and evil), can be unsatisfactory. This year, I feel a profound uneasiness with church doing “business as usual” and “just going through the motions.” Cliché’ and pithy answers aren’t doing it for me. I’m looking and seeking for something deeper, and I think those around me are as well. I’m committing myself to going deeper, to wrestling with some of the more difficult questions that are asked of our faith, and not settling for the pat answer.

And so, what about you? Are you willing to ask and grapple with some tough questions in the weeks ahead? Here is what I’m asking the folks in my church to do: “If you could ask God one thing, what would it be?” I would welcome your question. Send it to me in a way that is comfortable for you. The folks at Huntersville UMC are going to be given the opportunity to write their question of God on a puzzle piece to be fit with lots of other pieces to form a large puzzle. I’m going to incorporate the questions into sermons and blogs over the next few weeks. I fully understand that I AM NOT GOD and won’t be able to begin to search the depths and magnitude of God’s mysteries. But, I have faith that if we ask and are willing to journey with God and the community of faith in the spiritual disciplines as described above, God is willing and able to speak into our hearts and minds answers that prove satisfactory. It will be the journey and process of grappling that deepens our trust and reliance on God.

I hope you have a holy Lent and I look forward to hearing from you.

September 10, 2015 - Creation Faith and Science

Creation Faith and Science 

 

Have you ever wondered about or struggled with the tenets of the Christian faith versus the claims of science?  You know the Bible says, “In the beginning God created...", but science and the theory of evolution that are taught in schools are often seen as conflicting with our scriptures.  How do we hold on to our faith and still live in this scientific age?

This Sunday we will be talking about this dynamic.  Over the next number of weeks we will continue this conversation around the Biblical record on the Great Flood, the miracles of the Bible such as the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and other famous incidents, the belief in Resurrection and our belief in life after death. 

I hope that you will invite family, friends and neighbors to join us for this series.  I believe that you will find this series both informative and uplifting as we wrestle with the teachings of the Bible and the world around us.  God is ready to meet us and bless us on our journey of faith!