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!
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!
Mark 1 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4 John the baptizer appeared[e] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with[f] water; but he will baptize you with[g] the Holy Spirit.”
The Baptism of Jesus
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved;[h] with you I am well pleased.”
The Temptation of Jesus
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news[i] of God,[j]15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;[k] repent, and believe in the good news.”[l]
Jesus Calls the First Disciples
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
The old adage, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” apply as to how I wanted to start the new year with you in the study of God’s Word. I wanted to start off strong on New Year’s Day in our study of the Gospel of Mark, looking at the first 11 verses. I wanted to continue today and cover verses 12-20. Alas, these plans have not worked out well so far, so let’s try Plan B!
My invitation for you is to join with me in studying Mark’s Gospel as we begin this year, and continue that study through Easter. Every Sunday between now and then, I wanted us to focus our conversation and study around this ancient book that is still so very relevant for our lives today. My invitation is for us to use N.T. Wright’s Mark for Everyone as our resource. We have a number of hard copies available at the church. You may purchase one of these for $10 any time at the church office or next Sunday. Or, you may download the book on Amazon Kindle for about the same price. I think this book is going to help in our study greatly.
For those who weren’t able to be with us on January 1, let me briefly re-state what I shared that morning. If you look at the beginning of Mark, you notice something quite interesting. First, there is a statement that functions as a title of sorts for the book, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This is a statement that identifies Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, at the very beginning of the story. The irony is this: no one really gets what that means for Jesus to be the Christ for the rest of the book. The disciples don’t correctly understand what that means. The Pharisees don’t get it. The Sadducees don’t get it. None of the religious authorities, nor any of the people who were looking for the Christ, get it. The people who follow Jesus around and see what he is able to do don’t get it. Indeed, the demons are the ones who seem to get it right. And Jesus consistently is telling them to keep quiet. The next correct understanding of who Jesus really is doesn’t come until Chapter 15, as Jesus is dying.
The second item of note to share is this: there isn’t a birth narrative in Mark’s Gospel. Scholars have pondered why that is so. Luke’s Gospel, which was probably written years after Mark’s Gospel, and used Mark as a source of material, is the one that gives us the familiar story of shepherds and angels and mangers. Mark either didn’t know the story of Jesus’s birth or chose not to include it. Instead, he begins first with the title statement and then quickly and abruptly moves to the introduction of John the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus. John is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, that one will come to pave the way for the Messiah, to call the people to a response of repentance and a ritual water cleansing called baptism. Repentance means to re-orient one’s self away from the brokenness of life marked by sin and to a new life marked by the cleansing spirit of God found in Jesus. John’s proclamation is that he can only cleanse with water, but in Jesus, God is going to bring the fire of the Holy Spirit and baptism will be understood differently.
Then Mark tells us that Jesus himself came to the river to be baptized by John. Notice how little Mark tells us about the event. Other Gospels tell us so much more. But Mark simply relates that as Jesus comes out of the water, the skies are violently ripped open, and he hears the voice from God that says, “This is my Son, whom I love: with him I am well pleased.” This simple statement is profoundly important to us though. Our understanding is that as we identify with Jesus, God’s favor is with us. In the Baptism we experience in churches today, Baptism is the initiation into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Whether that Baptism occurs in infancy or adulthood, we believe that identifying our life in Jesus is essential.
One of the questions I asked on the first Sunday in January related to this. Where do we find our identity? Do we find it in our professions, our work? Do we find it in our last names, through our family heritage? Do we find our identity in our abilities or hobbies? I suggested that all of those things, the work, the family, the abilities, are temporary. The only way that we can stay grounded in our identity is to understand that in Baptism we are baptized into Jesus and there we find our true self. In our Baptism, we can always find ways to connect to that voice that spoke to Jesus and then echoes in our ears. Being baptized into Jesus says we too are the beloved of God and he is well pleased with us.
This morning we were going to then pick up at verse 12, with the story of the temptation of Jesus. This is an odd story, isn’t it? As soon as Jesus is baptized and hears the voice of affirmation from God, he is “driven” by the Spirit into the wilderness. I read in Wright’s book that this strong word “driven” is akin to compelled, in very strong terms. Once in the wilderness, he is tempted by Satan and was “with the wild beasts.” Mark doesn’t tell us the nature of the temptations. Matthew and Luke give much more detail. What sense are we to make of this temptation story?
The way I understand this story is from personal experience. There have been a number of times in my life when I have had spiritual experiences. These have come at retreats, on mission trips, and in other intentional places of worship. You know about those as surely you have had your own experiences. You come out of those experiences feeling so close to God, your spirit is rejoicing and you feel like you are on top of the world. However, inevitably, the re-entry into the world is hard. The “real” world means dealing with difficult people, fighting traffic, paying bills, among all of those things that suck the life out of us. Like Jesus, we face the temptations of the Satan, finding that our only source of help and hope is in the God who affirms his love for us, the voice we hear in our Baptism. Staying connected to the One who gives us our identity is the way we fight the temptations of the Satan.
This coming Sunday I am hoping to offer reflections on the next part of the scriptures. Jesus steps onto the stage of human history and announces that he is inaugurating a new Kingdom. As a matter of fact, study of the Gospels reveals that Jesus talks more about the nature of this Kingdom than any other subject. It is quite worthy of our study. I hope you will join us if you are able. If you are not able to join us, maybe you will consider watching via our website.
My hope and prayer is that as we engage in this study together, God will bless us with renewed spirit and stronger faith. May the Christ, the Son of God, be with us all.
One of my favorite sayings is, “To fail to plan is to plan to fail.” The older I get the more I recognize the validity of this saying and how true it really is. Most of the good things in life don’t just happen. There is a sense that we have to plan the right things into our lives to accomplish our objectives.
This is true especially of our finances and the ways we plan to spend our money. If we aren’t careful, money seems to flow out at a faster pace than it comes in. Useful tools like budgeting and savings are important to stay healthy financially.
This is also the reason we ask that you give to God, through the ministry of Huntersville UMC, and plan that giving accordingly. We recognize that if we just give to God what’s left over after we spend on everything else we likely won’t be able to respond as we would like. The scriptures remind us of the importance of contributing to God’s work in response to what God has provided. The hard part is actually making the giving to God a priority over some other worthwhile things. I am convinced that the value of the work God is doing here is worthy of the support you can offer.
This church is investing in God’s work as never before. We are actively seeking to expand our outreach and bless others. Using the tools and gifts God has given, we are reaching hundreds of people each and every week through Loaves and Fishes, Not Here Ministries, Room in the Inn, Preschool, Nifty Needles, MOPS, Hispanic/Latino worship, Youth groups, Children’s ministries, UMAR, and so many more! Lives are being transformed and blessed, and your support is the reason we are able to do so! We recently received an email, right after the Fall Community Extravaganza. The writer of the email expressed great appreciation to the church for that event, and others like it, in which we were part of God’s good news being shared. The writer noticed that we are making a difference in this community and felt it! I am so encouraged by this and know you are too!
Thank you for your support of Huntersville UMC and the work God is doing here. We ask that you prayerfully consider what that support will be moving forward into 2017. Estimate of Giving cards will be available starting this Sunday. May you find great joy and blessing in hearing and obeying God’s call to be active participants in his saving work in the world!
Grace and Peace,
Paul B. Thompson
By now many of you are receiving reports via the news media about the Keith Lamont Scott shooting that took place in Charlotte last week that explain some things we did not know then. The shooting set off a firestorm of protest, some peaceful, some violent, and we watched on television or experienced it in person, all of it deeply gripping emotionally. As it turns out, there was so much more to the story than was originally reported and known. The reactions of many certainly did not wait on all the facts to emerge.
While there is still much to learn about the situation, it is apparent that Mr. Scott had some history of violent behavior. Whether the police knew his history prior to the confrontation or not, we do not know yet. What has ensued is, once again, a case of folks jumping to conclusions before the facts are known amid a climate and mistrust that permeates our political, economic, and social fabric. This is, indeed, a sad, sad story, one that leaves many of us feeling angry and frustrated and with a deep sense of despair, wondering if anything can change.
My fear is that once again we will retreat to our natural sides, become satisfied with our version of the story that we can perceive, and simply go on with our lives, not really learning anything from this situation. It will be relatively easy to place the blame on others and ignore the deeper issues. I hope and pray that we will do better than that. Is this a moment in which we can summon the courage and the conviction to really deal with these issues we have?
When I was young, I was small for my age. I loved sports and spent so much of my time shooting baskets, playing catch, and throwing and kicking a football. I was passionate about playing any sport and loved competing. There were several instances in playing organized sports that I was looked over because of my size. Coaches and other players would automatically assume that because I was smaller I couldn’t be effective. It was a constant battle for me because I wanted to play so badly, but often felt left out and judged inadequate because of perceptions rather than results. That feeling of being looked at as inferior frustrated me and left me angry. Sometimes those feelings of anger pushed me to try harder to prove myself, but sometimes it also took all the joy out of playing. I have come to learn that anytime someone feels “inferior” or “less than” it is a horrible feeling and leads to broken relationships.
I don’t know how it feels to be black. I can’t imagine what a black person, especially a young, black male must feel when they walk down a street in a “white” neighborhood. But, having a sense that they are judged as “dangerous” or “suspicious” must sting. I recognize that when any person feels looked down on or is judged inferior based on something they have no control over, it must be infuriating. Because of the vestiges of racism that have existed and still exist we continue to struggle and find ourselves in the same turmoil over and over. Now, in the aftermath of the police shooting of Mr. Scott, frustrations boil over, ground is re-staked, and relations regress rather than progress.
What, then, shall we do? Several folks have stated that while they recognize we ought to do “something”, we don’t really have a clear path forward. Answers are hard to find. I would like to offer some possibilities.
Along with some clergy in our area, we are engaging in difficult yet promising dialogue. Ironically enough, we met to discuss race relations the very afternoon of the Scott shooting (prior to the reports coming out). Even before the shooting, some of our black clergy brothers were expressing their deep concerns over the relations between the police and the black community in Charlotte. They spoke passionately about their experiences of feeling left out and left behind, stigmatized by their experience of being black in a world that sees them as suspicious. We have planned another conversation in October that we hope will be both honest about our feelings and yet still maintain our deep connection in the faith.
Some of us here have dreamed for a few years now of a “partnership” that would emerge from the work that Justin Stewart and others have begun. That work that is called “MAD HOOPS” and “Not Here Ministries” offers possibility that we might build on the trusting relationships that have developed over the years, capitalizing and building on them. My hope is that we might bridge the gap that exists, both learning from these young men and women about their experiences and sharing the gifts we can bring. These gifts we might offer include help and direction with finding a path that leads to the fulfillment of their dreams of education and success in a chosen endeavor. Wouldn’t it be great if we could learn from them and they learn from us? Wouldn’t it be great if we could broaden our understandings of our shared humanity and we could all benefit?
And so, what, then, shall we do? The one thing I don’t want us to do is give up. The hope I have is that God will take this tragedy and create something beautiful from it. That tends to be the way that God works. The cross and the resurrection of Jesus give us a model and a template for how these things work. Let’s not stay on Good Friday and remain dead to possibility. Instead, let us move to the hopefulness that new life and resurrection emerge even from the most trying of circumstances. That will do. Yes, that will do.
It’s a journey of only 2 miles or so from Ranson Road, the old location of Huntersville United Methodist Church, to here, the new location on Stumptown Road. Is it true that in some ways we are still making the move of those 2 miles some eight years later?
Do you remember the life of Huntersville UMC back at the old location? Many of you will because you have been a part of this church for that long. You remember the crowded hallways, the cramped quarters, the unique architecture, the feel of that place that you remember as your church home. You remember with fondness (and maybe a sense of longing), because it was a place that nurtured your faith, provided the space for your Baptisms and celebrations of Holy Communion, offered children’s meetings, youth groups, and the like. Maybe it was a place that hosted the funeral service for your loved one. You remember the McCorkle House and trying to host “Room in the Inn” when there wasn’t much room to host. When the church started talking about buying land and moving to a different location, you knew it was time to do something to have more space for ministry, but maybe you weren’t quite ready to let go of the old space?
But all signs pointed to a new place to become the space of Huntersville UMC. When the church purchased the property on Gilead Road, across Interstate 77, you paused. When the town of Huntersville kept throwing up road block after road block to building a church building in that place, maybe you shared in the frustration over the long delay. When, finally, the decision was made to sell that property and God seemed to be opening up a new, 30-acre tract on Stumptown Road, right in the middle of growing neighborhoods and rapid development, maybe you felt a little more encouraged?
Then, in 2006, after years of talking and planning, it was time to commit. The church needed to raise a LOT of money, about $1.4 million! It seemed like an impossibility, but the money was pledged. Construction began, finally! Do you remember the excitement, the work, the planning, the dreaming about what it would be like to have this new church home available to do SO MUCH MORE?!
Were you here for those early days of holding services in the new location? What a major transition it was, from the quaint confines of the old Sanctuary, to worshipping in a multi-purpose/basketball/playground/Worship Center! I’m sure those early days were challenging in getting used to the new space and finding comfort in the new surroundings. More than a few of you were a little discombobulated I’m convinced.
Are you familiar with the old adage “timing is everything”? If that statement is true, the timing for the church’s move into the new location couldn’t have been much worse. The beginning of the “Great Recession” began in December 2007. Not since the beginning of WW II had our country’s economy experienced such a difficult environment. As the church made her move to the new building in April 2008 the economy was weak and getting weaker. Financial institutions especially were hit the hardest. Many folks in the church who worked for “Wells” or “BOA” were adversely impacted. The money needed to support the church’s ministry in both paying for the building and supporting the work of the church was hard to come by. Difficult decisions had to be made, and staff was cut. The joy and excitement of this grand new tool for ministry was giving way to a feeling that it was now a burden.
Pastor Billy Rintz, a wonderful, faithful leader left after many years of leadership. Byron Alexander, the Associate Pastor, left as well. Further changes were necessary and forthcoming. Much of the energy and excitement generated in moving to the new location was tempered by these new realities. The journey from Ranson to Stumptown was becoming a painful, difficult journey and in some ways doubt and fears about the long-range viability of the ministry here was in question.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Many of the ministries dreamed of and planned for in the move were thriving: Loaves and Fishes, Room in the Inn, the new HUMC Preschool, UMAR and others! The new building and location were providing space and opportunity for the expansion of these vital ministries. God’s hand was in it all, blessing and meeting the needs of nearly 10,000 clients to the Loaves and Fishes food pantry during the height of the Recession. New ministries were beginning such as MAD Hoops and MOPS. Even in the midst of the struggle, God’s faithfulness has been evident and increasingly clear.
So, here we are, ten (10) years after the beginning of the Capital Campaign to raise the money for the project and over eight (8) years after the move. We have experienced a time of struggle without question. But, here we are now, not only having survived but now ready to THRIVE! There is fresh, new optimism and hope that not only can we continue to celebrate what God has done among us already, but also begin to dream God’s dream about what he has in store for us next! With new, fresh faces in leadership and a renewed commitment to God’s work, our future is bright and getting brighter by the day. Yes, the long and winding road of the 2 miles from Ranson to Stumptown has seemed like a 40-year sojourn in ways, but just imagine what the future will be! Can we celebrate what God has done in and through us since the move and re-commit ourselves to God’s work in this new land? Oh yes, we can and will! And by the grace of God we can grow and flourish in this new soil God has planted us in for this time and season. To God be the glory for the great things he has done and is doing!
Over the next number of weeks, I will be preaching a sermon series called ‘Vision’ that I believe God has laid on my heart. It will be a time of looking back over the last few years of ministry here and reflecting on the years to come. I believe God is calling on us to take a fresh look at where we are and where we are to be next. We have to think about letting go of some things and taking on some things. We have to not be afraid of change and not be afraid to FAIL! We have to remember who we have been and hold on to what we know is important to God. We must be willing to risk ourselves in developing new relationships and new ways of being. There is much to consider and ground yet to be ploughed.
Join us for these next number of weeks as we remember where we have been and as we, together, cast a vision for where we are being called to go. The long and winding road from Ranson to Stumptown is a fascinating journey and gives us much to ponder. The journey of 2 miles began with a single step of faith and now is the time to take the next step.
(Remember the sermons are always available on our church’s website http://www.humconline.org).
Grace and Peace,
Paul B. Thompson
In Between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection:
“He descended into hell”
As we continue this summer’s sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed, we come to the part of the statement of faith that lies at the core of our faith. This Sunday we will consider the words of the creed that say, “he was crucified, dead and buried. The third day he rose from the dead. . .”
Nothing is more at the heart of followers of Jesus than to contemplate Jesus on the cross, and then to celebrate his being raised from the dead so that we might be raised to new life with him.
However, there is a part of the Apostles’ Creed that is not used in most recitations of the statement in our church today, but has long been a part of the historic confession. It is Jesus “descended to the dead”, or other translations say “he descended into hell”. In our United Methodist Hymnal, we have two versions of the creed, one that omits the phrase and one that includes it. This Sunday, as part of the sermon on the death and resurrection of Jesus, I’d like to also address this statement and how it might shape our understanding of God’s work in Jesus.
There are two scriptural references that spark this phrase, “he descended to the dead”, to be included in the creed. The first is from Ephesians 4:7-10 (NRSV),
“7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.8 Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.”9 (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended[a]into the lower parts of the earth?10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)
Here is a reference we believe to a reality in between the crucifixion and the resurrection, Jesus entered into the abode of the dead and/or “descended into hell”. Another passage that seems to echo this belief is from I Peter 3:18-20 (NRSV),
“18 For Christ also suffered[d] for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you[e] to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.”
This Sunday we will try to connect our creedal statements together and grapple with the meaning for us today as we confess the death and resurrection of Jesus with what happened in the period in between. I invite you to come and decide for yourself. Did Jesus’s death and resurrection mean salvation even for those who had died before he was born, without knowledge of God’s work in him? Come Sunday and bring an open mind to think about what it is you really believe as you say the Apostles’ 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!