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Brood of Vipers: Who, Us?

“When [John] saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.'”  (Matthew 3:7-8, NRSV)

One quality I like in a person is that they tell me where I stand and don’t try to play games with my mind.  Although, I’m really not into the nasty hurtful ways people approach me on certain things.  There are ways to tell someone something without being obnoxious about it.  I suspect John the Baptist might have fallen into the latter category.  He was pretty harsh with the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Sure, there were some corrupt, arrogant, dishonest, scheming men (no women allowed) among them, but they weren’t ALL that way.

Maybe it’s just that, being a pastor, there is the knowledge that I am among church leaders, and I wonder if John would see me in the same way.  With all the scandals that show up about clergy misconduct in the media (and those that go on through the church grapevine), I don’t think clergy are exempt from being corrupt, arrogant, dishonest, or scheming (or at least painted that way).  However, I also don’t want us to all be cast into the same category with the idea that just because some are like that, then ALL of us are like that.

Maybe John is actually addressing the entire company of believers who are led by the Pharisees and Sadducees.  If we were to go hear him speak at the nearest lake wherever we lived, I wonder if the message we might hear from this eccentric, odd, in-your-face prophet for our time is that the Church (meaning all of us in the church) assume that we have a special place in God’s world and are privileged.  Maybe we pass judgment too quickly, act in ways that show hypocrisy, assume too much, neglect to bear fruit – oh, yeah!  Didn’t Jesus say something about bearing fruit?  Hmmm.

We miss the point if we become too important in our own minds, if we think we have the right to judge others, if we fail to be inclusive of others in our churches and in our world.  We have not only the responsibility, but also the opportunity to bring Christ to the world through our actions.  WE are the bearers of the message of God’s love, and it often is WE, the Church, who need to repent and turn our lives around again and again and again.  Faith and growing in discipleship is a process – for a lifetime.  No one arrives at heaven’s gate flawless, but we are made whole in Christ through the grace of God in our lives.  We can work toward wholeness in God’s love in our lives as long as we live. 

John’s message to us is that we need to be alert, watch for Christ’s presence, and we, too, are not worthy to carry his sandals.  However, through Jesus death and resurrection, we receive forgiveness, and in our baptism, we are charged with following Christ, to be his hands and feet in this world.  That’s a tall order.  Maybe there are times when we could be called a “brood of vipers,” but there are also a lot of times when we quietly do the work of Christ in the world.  So, even though there are times when John would be in our faces, I suspect that Jesus would simply say, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  May it be so.

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Getting Ready for Vacation

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  Colossians 3:1-3 (NRSV)

As I prepare to take a two week vacation, I found this passage from this week’s lectionary readings interesting.  There are times when I feel as if I concentrate so much on my work as a pastor that I miss things going on around me.  People are careful not to use foul language when they speak with me, at least in anything church related, so when I go to the grocery store or other stores, I regularly hear the name of Jesus Christ used, but certainly not in prayer.  (An even more repulsive and useless word is the “F” bomb, but that’s another whole story.)

So, maybe I set my mind on things that are above a lot – I mean 24/7 most of the time.  Yet, I see the world’s hurt and pain so clearly in my life and the lives of my parishioners, and regardless of preaching regularly on living counter-culturally, the world’s expectations and socially accepted patterns become the dominant force in the church.  I returned home from a meeting last night that held so much pain about something that had happened in the church – misconduct by parishioner on parishioner – that I’m afraid it will take months – maybe years – to recover. 

I’m not feeling adequate for the task.  We need someone savvy in counseling capabilities or a recovery expert – actually, we have one – Jesus, the Christ.  Scripture once again leads me to Jesus, to the greatest healer of all, and in conversations with several people, we were able to come up with ideas that might help start the healing process and bring the folks back together again.

I also have to remember that things like this take time, and some people will never recover from it in that church context, so they will go somewhere else, or, unfortunately, give up on church all together.  I’m not sure I understand why we can’t get the message to live in the world but not of it, but it’s also clear to me in reading all of Colossians 3:1-11 that these issues aren’t new – they have been around for thousands of years because humanity is often broken and hurting.

Jesus knows about being broken and hurting.  The Good News for us is that he overcame “the world” and can bring healing and wholeness to us, to our churches, to the world through us.  We set our minds on things above in order to understand the power of that kind of love and how it can change the circumstances around us. 

So, I’m ready for vacation in spite of all the work I need to do to get ready (it’s a month’s worth of work to go away for two weeks!).  But there are times when we all need a break from the usual routine in order to refresh and renew, to do something different, so we can keep on keeping on in the ways we live and love in the world.

Jesus took the time to be away, to refresh and renew – we have no greater example than that.  I will not write for two weeks, but I will be busy seeing my family and enjoying God’s beautiful creation.  Thanks be to God.

“Doing” Church

“Christ is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.”  Colossians 1:18 (NRSV)

Recently a young woman pulled her SUV into the church parking lot as I was leaving to ask me a question about using our fellowship hall for an event they were planning.  She said, “We have met before.  My family and I came to church here a couple of times when we were church shopping.”

Church shopping.  I know people do it, and I know they even say it.  But I wonder how the church now has become a commodity to be “priced, compared, and negotiated.”  What does “church shopping” imply?  Does that mean that God is for sale, so to speak?  Does it mean that we are a club people are checking out to see if they want to belong.

Unfortunately, the sense of joining a club has become more of the mindset than finding a place where people can worship God.  I wonder if the disciples fussed at Jesus because he didn’t pick the right hill or the most inspiring surroundings when they would stop for worship and praise.  I wonder if they balked at going to the local synagogue because it wasn’t pretty enough, didn’t have the right music, the priest wasn’t interesting enough, the choir didn’t sound good, the people ignored them, or whatever the excuse might have been.

To answer my own wondering, I suspect it didn’t matter to them where they worshiped because they were with Jesus.  I mean, how cool is that?  To be with God incarnate (even though they didn’t always get it, but then, neither do we!).  Their goal was to pray, worship God, sing to God’s glory, be among God’s people regardless of their surroundings.

Over the last ten years or so (maybe longer), we have heard the complaint that the church is “blah” and outdated.  On the other hand, we hear the message that we shouldn’t succumb to the world’s demands and let the world determine who we are as a church.  We have programs galore that tell us how to improve the church, make it more marketable, bring more people in, help the congregation to be a more spiritual place or a more welcoming place or a more inviting place.

Why can’t we just worship God together – wherever it might be?  Of course, we all have preferences about how that works for us, and what is most meaningful to us, but what we also seem to forget is that we go to church to worship God in the context of the community of faith.  So what if we don’t like that nosey lady who always sits in the back row and looks grumpy or the man who always ushers and tells others how to usher, too.

Most of us are smart enough to figure out that there are different personalities and different ways of seeing things.  Okay, so they DON’T represent God in the best way – do we?  The church is about God in Christ and is empowered by the Holy Spirit – when we let it be that way.  Let’s not forget that Jesus is the head of the church, and we worship him, not each other.  Let’s remember that we come to glorify God, and our own spiritual growth is a result of our faithfulness.  May it be so!

Mary’s Ministries

Mary came in with a jar of every expensive aromatic oils, anointed and massaged Jesus; feet, and then wiped them with her hair.  The fragrance of the oils filled the house.”  John 12:3 (The Message)

Over the past few days, I have been reading commentaries on the passage from John 12:1-8 as I work on my sermon for this coming Sunday.  I’m amazed at the number of “takes” on this story:  educated people who see Mary’s motives in a variety of ways.  She is highly contrasted with Judas, and yet there are some who encourage us to see things from Judas’ point of view and not to vilify him.  I think that’s an important thing to remember – we need to keep in mind the whole picture of the culture of the day, the possible setting at Lazarus, Mary, and Martha’s house for their party.

For example, they would probably not have sat at what we consider a table.  It was probably a low bench type table with cushions surrounding it.  That would put a little different picture of Mary kneeling in front of Jesus to anoint his feet.  But I’m not really focusing so much on the background details as seeking to get a little better picture of Mary of Bethany according to this scripture lesson.

“The fragrance of the oils filled the house” is a reminder of the aromatic oils that were used in embalming.  Maybe they were in their house already because Martha and Mary had buried their brother not that much earlier, and Jesus raised him from the dead, so he is noted as being at the party.  We are familiar with Mary and Martha from Luke 10 where Martha complained that Mary wasn’t helping her in the kitchen and is, instead, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening.  Jesus told Martha that Mary had picked the better part, not saying that Martha was wrong, but saying that we need both balance and action in order to live fully, and we start with our relationship with God.

In the John passage, Mary has chosen to anoint Jesus’ feet which was a symbol of preparation for his death.  Mary showed a lot of courage in this story.  First, she mingled with the men, Jesus and his disciples and Lazarus (and whoever else might have been there) which wasn’t a normal thing for a woman to do.  Second, she touched Jesus openly and in an intimate way.  This was not acceptable in that culture – women did not touch any man including their husbands in public.  Third, she let her hair down – big no-no!  But Jesus saw beyond the societal expectations and convention and praised her for her act of love.

Isn’t every act of discipleship an act of love for Jesus?  We are called to follow Jesus, and when we do, what we do is a way of serving him and sharing his love with others.  Mary is giving back to Jesus which is what we do when we offer acts of love and kindness to others, even those whom we don’t know.

In today’s world, there is a lot of “stink” around, as well as a real lack of courage from those who are part of church communities.  We don’t seem to be bold enough to “get our hands full of oil” and anoint the world with God’s love.  The small courtesies, the times of “paying it forward,” the tolerance of differences, the ability to listen to another, for example, are all products of the love of God in Christ Jesus that beg to be exercised, experienced and shared.  So, may we spread the aroma of our discipleship one house, one church, one person, one congregation, one community at a time so the aroma fills the entire world.  God bless!

Wings of Love

Jesus said, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  Luke 13:34b (NRSV)

When I was growing up and in my teens, my mother used to try to hug each of the four of us:  me and my three siblings.  As children, we didn’t mind so much, but the teen years brought what most teens go through – rebellion and not wanting to hugged by your parents and maybe not even being seen with them.  Somehow that stuck as an adult, and I wasn’t much of a hugger for a long time.  But I had a few friends along the way who taught me that hugging helped me to feel loved and somehow like I wasn’t alone, especially when I moved 1500 miles from home to live and didn’t have family around.

I try to be aware that there are many people who don’t like to be hugged, and, as a pastor, I ask permission before I hug and watch body language and facial expressions.  On the other hand, there are some people who only receive a hug when they come to church because they have no one else.  In one of the churches I have served, there are several people who have no one else in the world – no other family and very few friends because they no longer drive or most of the people who were closest to them have passed away.  These folks want hugs and want to know the touch of a human being.

There is something comforting about Jesus’ imagery of the mother hen drawing her chicks under her wings to protect them.  Of course, I realize that the verses previous to the one quoted above talk about Herod, and Jesus refers to him as a “fox.”  I think Jesus uses the idea of a hen protecting her chicks to demonstrate his great love for all of us – a love so strong that he was willing to die for us.  He gave his life so that we might have life abundant in this world and in the world to come.

It seems to me that the church can provide the same sense of love and comfort to everyone who comes.  I would hope that people who come into our churches would feel the love of God through us, and that we would demonstrate what it means to be part of the life-giving and sharing qualities of our Savior.  If we aren’t offering that, we might want to take a look at what is going on in our congregations.  It’s all about Christ, and that’s where we begin and continue to offer Christ to the world.

Many people have had conversations with me about the “structure” of the church and the hierarchy of the United Methodist Church.  It is constructed in human minds and something that needs to be in place to give organization and order to our church lives.  I agree that sometimes it gets muddy and cumbersome and downright frustrating.  But if it’s the structure and organization of the church that keeps us away, then we have missed the point.  The calling of all churches is to share Christ with the world, so Christ must be the center of all we do.

That is our calling – to the best of our ability.  Let us offer the wings of love – Christ’s wings – to all whom we encounter wherever we are in this world.  It isn’t always easy, and it isn’t even always safe, but it is honest and true.  It will make the world a better place.  Give it a try if you haven’t been doing it already!

Mountaintop Experiences

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met [Jesus].” Luke 9:36 (NRSV)

Have you ever had a mountaintop experience?  If so, it may have been a spiritual retreat week-end, your marriage, receiving special recognition, having children, literally hiking a mountain to the top, walking the beach, a sudden revelation about something, a musical or dramatic performance with lots of applause, a good performance in some sporting event, or any number of times when your life was lifted up and in a really wonderful place.  What did it feel like?  How did you respond?  Then, what happened as you settled back into every day life and routines?  Let down?  Depression?  Disappointment that it hadn’t lasted?

Three of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, John, and James, went with Jesus up a mountain to pray.  While they were there, Jesus was transfigured before their very eyes – a dazzling, bright light coming from his clothes blinded him, and Moses and Elijah appeared in the midst of it to talk with Jesus.  Then a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (v. 35).  The three disciples were speechless at first, and they probably stumbled around inside their heads as to what to do next.  Peter eventually found his voice and suggested that they build booths to commemorate the event – much like we do when we take pictures of special events in our lives.

But Jesus didn’t want that, and God had clearly said to “listen!”  It was an amazing, awesome and awe-filled experience for those three mere mortals!  And as they came down the mountain from this magnificent, indescribable event in their lives, Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone!”  Excuse me?  Don’t tell anyone?  But . . . Jesus, come on, we just saw something fantastic here, and you don’t want us to share it with anyone?  Really?

Jesus knew they couldn’t comprehend the event until after his death and resurrection.  The entire experience was one of affirming Jesus’ identity as God’s Son – as God in the flesh.  So, they needed to see the whole picture before they could begin to share it with some understanding.

And then look at what happened after their mountaintop experience:  they came down the mountain to the same old thing – crowds pushing around Jesus and asking for healing.  It was the same dusty street, the same old, same old work, the same pressures, the same expectations and demands.  What a let-down!  Jesus jumped right into the routine without even missing a beat.  The disciples really DIDN’T get it!

We are like that too at times.  We go on vacation and have a great time, playing, eating, laughing, visiting family and friends, and we come back refreshed and renewed, rejuvenated and restored only to find that the same pile of work awaits us on our desk, the same problems are in our lives, the world is the same (or maybe even worse) than when we took a week or two off.  Rats!  Ugh!

Mountaintop experience, I think, are there for us to appreciate the opportunities we have in all of life.  When we experience God in a new way, we are transformed into new beings although the same on the outside and with our daily routines, we begin to discover the joys in all of life, in our every day, ordinary events and circumstances.  Vacations, mountaintop experiences, times when things are different can help us find ways to better live out our lives as God’s children.

If everything seems drab and tends to drag us down after some kind of wonderful event, maybe it’s worth our while to stop to think about what we learned and how we can bring it with us into our work, at home, in the marketplace, with our families and friends.  What can we take from the experience to make our lives better?  And then how can we help others to make a difference with them?  The mountain top prepares us for the valleys and we need both in our lives in order to live fully.  May you cherish the mountaintops and live in “shalom” in the valleys!  God bless.

Staying Awake When You Want to Sleep

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.  For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.  Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”  Luke 21:34-36 (NRSV)

These words from Luke sound really ominous!  They are a warning to those of us who follow Christ, but what do they really mean?  The scripture for this coming Sunday, December 2, 2012 is from Luke 21:25-36, and it is full of apocalyptic (end of times) warnings.  Are we supposed to be prepared because the end of the world is imminent?  Should we start packing away non-perishable foods and other provisions because we are in for some kind of war?

If we look carefully at the scriptures, and particularly apocalyptic writings, we find the warnings throughout time, across the centuries.  Every era has gone through times when people were sure it was the end of the world because the biblical warnings and signs of the end times were evident.  Yet, Jesus did not return in spite of the signs.  So what are we to think?

While I’m not disputing that the end of times could happen, I also think we can learn something to apply to our lives today – right now – in the present.  If it is true that the signs have been around century after century, decade after decade, then we have a pretty clear idea that those of us who follow Jesus have work to do.  Wars and conflicts are not going to disappear, so the signs will continue.

There are ways we can live actively as the “Jesus followers” in this world.  We have so many ways where we can make a difference in someone else’s life by treating them with respect and honor who they are.  We can choose kind words and a pat on the back even when we would like to say something in retaliation.  We can support someone going through a hard time, donate to food pantries, give our used clothing to those who have nothing, drive a neighbor without a car to a doctor’s appointment, offer to rake or shovel for an elderly person, take someone who doesn’t drive to the grocery store with us, invite a single person who is alone to supper or holiday gatherings, give an unexpected gift to someone with whom we work, send a card to someone who is ill, lonely, or has lost a loved one.  There are any number of acts of kindness we can share with others that can make a difference to them.

Sometimes living prepared – or alert involves living our faith without embarrassment or worrying about offending another person who doesn’t want anything to do with Christianity.  Consistency in the way we live makes a difference and might even plant seeds of wanting to learn more in the other person’s mind and heart.  Of course, only God can convert someone, but we can live and act as “Jesus followers” so that others see Christ in us and want to know him better.

Sometimes its a lot easier to just become a “closet Christian” and give in to other people’s rejection of Christianity or live in the ways the world would have us live rather than in God’s ways.  It’s harder to live a life of integrity, honesty, generosity, and genuineness when the world would have us be all about ourselves.  It’s a difference between selfishness and self-giving for Christ.  We are called to live counter-culturally, and that’s not easy.

As we approach Christmas, maybe we can start with all the opportunities we have to share the Christmas Spirit with others, even if we are not able to give so much financially, we can certainly give of our kindness and concern.  Living for Jesus is challenging, and it means staying alert to seeing the presence of Christ in all things and listening for the guidance of our companion, the Holy Spirit.  Let us put on the eye glasses of Christ this season and every season.  Blessings, my friends!

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