Sunday, May 28, 2017

Upward and Onward

They still didn’t get it. Even after all this time. Even though Jesus had been with them for years. Even though Jesus had taught them and trained them and showed them the way. Even though Jesus had been raised from the dead. Even though Jesus was resurrected from the grave and spent another 40 days giving them instructions. Despite ALL that Christ had done, the disciples still did not understand. They did not understand  – or perhaps they just refused to accept – that “their political aspirations were not Jesus’ primary agenda.”[i] Being a national hero was not Jesus’ primary goal. Jesus came to do God’s work. He came to fulfill God’s purposes. (Luke 24:44-48)

And the disciples were cool with that. In fact, they were totally on board with that plan. Jesus was the Savior that God had promised. “Excellent! We’re with you, brother. Just like Moses, you have come to rescue our people. You are going to overthrow the evil powers that rule over us, and you are going to be the new king of Israel. Sounds great! We thought you were going to take over the throne when you rode into Jerusalem on the donkey. Kind of surprised us when you got arrested instead. And it sure looked hopeless when they hung you on a cross. But, hey, you are with us now! And you’re talking again about the coming of the kingdom. Sounds great! When is it going to happen? When are you going to take over? When are you going to restore Israel to greatness? When will we be the ones with the power?”

Jesus told them bluntly, “That is not your concern. It is not for you to know WHEN God’s kingdom will be established on earth. That is God’s business. You’ve got your own business to tend to.”

The people of Israel had always been a bit narrow-minded. They forgot that God’s promise to Abram was that all people would be blessed through Abram. He would be blessed so that he could bless others. (Genesis 12) And Isaiah had told them that the temple of Israel was supposed to be a temple for ALL nations (2:2).  “[The people of Israel] were passionate about being God’s people in God’s land but often neglected God’s mission and justice.”[ii]

No more, Jesus said. “You are going to receive power all right. The power you will receive is the Holy Spirit. And when you are filled with the Spirit of God, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and all over Judea and Samaria…. In fact, you will be telling people about me all the way to the ends of the earth.”

And then he was gone. Jesus gave his followers a glorious vision of the future, and told them to get to work. And then he was lifted up into the heavens. And the disciples just stood there with their mouths hanging open. Ironically, many Christians today spend all their time looking up to heaven, waiting for Christ’s return. But the message of the angels is clear: Why are you standing there gazing up into sky? Look out at the world. There’s a LOT of work to be done!

According to a recent article by the Associated Press, Memphis is one of the poorest big cities in the United States and one of the most violent. Last year, 228 homicides were reported, and, so far this year, there have been another 84 killings. In fact, the overall crime rate in Memphis is 7 percent higher this year than last, but the number of police officers has dropped.[iii]

Clearly, there is still a lot of kingdom building work to be done right here in Memphis. But where do we begin? How do you figure out what God is calling you to do next?

The first step is prayer. Before you do anything else, take time to pray. What else can you do when your leader is taken up into heaven right before your very eyes? What else can you do when the bottom falls out of your world? What can any of us do when our foundational relationships disappear? Or when the wind and waves blow our lives away in an instant? “Before Christ’s followers could advance they would have to retreat, to an upper room, for prayer and empowerment.”[iv]

They say there is a shrine in the French Pyrenees where people go to pray for healing. A war veteran who had lost a leg appeared at the shrine sometime after World War II. As he hobbled his way alone the street to the shrine, someone said, “Look at that silly man! Does he think God is going to give him back his leg?” The young man overheard the remark and turned toward the speaker and said, “Of course I do not expect God to give me back my leg. I am going to pray to God to help me live without it!”[v]

The veteran knew that he needed to spend time in prayer, gaining strength and insight, before going on to face this new stage of his life. The disciples also needed to spend time in prayer before going on to face a new stage in their lives. But that time of prayer would soon be followed by action. Disciples of Jesus Christ do not stand around, gazing at the sky, hoping that God will come and deliver them from their circumstances. Instead, they pray for guidance and power and then they go forth, full of the Spirit, to do God’s work.

Sometimes people think it is the pastor’s job to do the work of the Church, and all the members have to do is write checks. But that’s not true. Everyone who claims to follow Christ is called to share his love everywhere they go. And there are a lot of ways to do that.

Lou and Dottie Riedlinger were serving as greeters at their church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when they realized that their congregation was reaching out to a lot of different people, but not to veterans.[vi] So Lou, an 82-year-old veteran of World War II and the Korean War, and his wife started an Armed Services Support Ministry. They started by raising money to purchase phone cards for the troops. In four years, they raised $11,000, which was enough to purchase 2300 phone cards. Then they turned their efforts toward a nearby veterans’ hospital. In addition to collecting underwear, socks, chewing gum, and crossword puzzle books for the patients, Lou and Dottie organized a group to make lap blankets for patients who are confined to wheelchairs. Others make cards, which Lou delivered to the hospital.

There are countless ways to be a witness for Jesus Christ. This church is a witness when we give to the Lenten World Hunger Offering, to Grace Place, and to Congo Women Arise. We are a witness when we participate in the Boy Scout Pancake Breakfast and read to toddlers at LaPetite Academy. You are a witness every day at school and on the job when you obey your teachers or boss and work hard and do your best. You are a witness when you play fair on the golf course, in the board room, or at the dinner table. You are a witness to the kingdom of God when you take up special offerings for flood victims and give to Golden Cross. You are learning to be an effective witness for Jesus Christ when you attend Sunday School and mid-week Bible study. You are a witness when you invite friends to come with you to church, to First Sunday Lunch, or to Trunk or Treat.

There are countless ways to be a witness for Jesus Christ, so let’s pray for discernment and open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit because it will take all of our creativity, all of our hard work, and every bit of power we’ve got to take the Good News to every home, every school, every neighborhood, all around the world. We can’t just stand there looking up at the sky. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

[i] “Preaching Helps for May 5, 2005—Ascension Day, Years A, B & C” was developed by the staff of the Center for Worship Resourcing of the General Board of Discipleship and is published on the GBOD website at Posted April 11, 2005. Downloaded May 7, 2005.
[ii] “Abandonment? No Way!” a sermon on Homiletics Online. Author not named. Downloaded May 11, 2013.
[iii] Crime statistics were reported in “Attorney general warns gang members: ‘We’re targeting you’” by Adrian Sainz. Published May 25, 2017 by the Associated Press. Posted online at Accessed May 27, 2017.
[iv] “Preaching Helps for May 8, 2005—Seventh Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday, Year A” was developed by the staff of the Center for Worship Resourcing of the General Board of Discipleship and is published on the GBOD website at Posted April 14, 2005. Downloaded May 7, 2005.
[v] “The Proper Focus of Prayer.” Illustrations Unlimited. James S. Hewett, editor. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1988. P. 421.
[vi] The story of Lou Riedlinger is told in “Veteran Dedicated to Vets,” which is a video that was produced by the United Methodist News Service and published on their website at on April 15, 2013. Accessed May 27, 2017.

Monday, May 22, 2017

To an Unknown God

If there was anything the Athenians knew something about, it was gods. They had spent hundreds of years thinking about and talking about and asking questions about gods. Hard questions. Questions like: Who made the world? Who was the first human being? What happens when we die? Some of the smartest people in the world had contemplated these questions. And, to the Athenians, it was obvious: their lives were controlled by a group of super beings they called gods. It was gods who ruled the earth. It was gods who ruled the sea. It was gods who ruled the mountains, the rivers, the sky… everything. The Greeks believed that these gods sat on Mount Olympus and controlled every aspect of human life: travel, hunting, beauty, love, weather, fate. You name it. The gods were in control.[i]

The Greeks thought they had figured it all out. They identified these gods. Named them and attributed them with great powers. Clearly, the people of Athens knew something about gods.

They knew about gods, and they worshiped gods. Their city was filled with temples and altars. In fact, Athens was the heart of pagan culture.[ii] It was the home of Pericles and Plato. Pericles was the brilliant general, orator and politician who transformed a bunch of alliances into an empire and led the people to build the Parthenon, which was a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena.[iii] And Plato was the brilliant philosopher who expanded on the teachings of Socrates, who was famous for his relentless questioning.[iv]

So, after centuries of questioning everything, the people of Athens had come to believe that success and failure in life depended on whether or not the gods were angry with you. If you had a good crop, for instance, that meant the gods were on your side. If there was a drought, then you had somehow managed to insult one of the gods. The Greeks knew what pleased and dis-pleased human rulers so they figured it was much the same with gods. Doesn’t everyone like to be praised? Worshiped and adored? Don’t we all like to receive gifts? So the people of Athens prayed to the gods and offered up sacrifices, hoping to please the gods and stay on their good side.[v]

The whole notion of worshiping many different gods may sound strange to those of us who have been taught that there is only one true God. But idolatry is more than worshiping a statue. “Idolatry occurs when we begin to value anything more than we value God.”[vi]

And, let’s face it, we value a lot of things: Careers, family, independence, beauty, youth, success. We have sports heroes, war heroes, and comic book heroes. There are music icons, fashion icons, and movie stars. Some people even love politicians, poets, and plumbers!

“Now, wait a minute!” you say. “Sure, we value these things. But worship them? That’s a stretch, don’t you think? They’re not really gods….” And you may be right. But I tell you what. If you really want to know how much something means to you, try to give it up. Or better yet, have someone else try to take it from you. Or even just change it a little. You will find out quickly how much it matters. Whenever we spend more time thinking about some hero than we do about God, that is idolatry. “If our every thought is about the latest gadget or our personal appearance, that’s idolatry. If the first priority in our lives is our family, even that’s idolatry.”[vii]

When God said, ‘You shall have no other gods before Me’ (Exodus 20:3), He wasn’t just talking about the imaginary deities that seem so ridiculous to us today. He was talking about anything that usurps His place as number one in our hearts.”[viii]

 So we have Tiger football, cell phones, and the Pioneer Woman. And the Athenians had Zeus, Hera and Aphrodite. And they worshiped them religiously.

The Athenians knew about gods, and they worshiped gods. But they still had that little nagging voice somewhere deep inside that whispered, “Something is missing.” And they were right.

Paul sees it the moment he enters the city. Paul, you may recall, was once a leader in the Jewish community, and, when he first heard about Jesus, Paul did not believe. In fact, Paul did all he could to stop people from following Jesus. Until Jesus stopped Paul right in his tracks. A light from heaven flashed around him, and, for a short time, Paul could see nothing at all. Then Jesus sent someone to heal Paul. After that, Paul was dedicated to Jesus.

Paul went from one town to another, telling everybody he could about Jesus. But people don’t like it when you start messing with their gods, so Paul had been forced out of one city after another. Finally, he ends up in Athens, where he intended to wait for his co-workers, Timothy and Silas. But Paul sees that the whole city is worshiping idols, and he just can’t keep quiet. So Paul goes to the synagogue and to the marketplace (two places where he knew he would find people) and starts telling them about Jesus.

“Paul faced a challenging audience in Athens. It was a cultured, educated city that was proud of its history.”[ix] There were Jews in Athens, and Gentile people who had converted to the Jewish faith. But there were also a lot of pagan philosophers who loved to talk about religion.

The Epicureans worshiped pleasure. Their chief purpose in life was to enjoy a peaceful life, free from pain, disturbing passions and superstitious fears (including the fear of death). They did not deny the existence of gods, but Epicureans believed that the gods had nothing to do with folks like you and me.[x] The Stoics believed that everything was a god and that god was in everything. So they believed that all things, good or evil, were from god and should not be resisted.[xi] We can find fault with these theories, but at least the people of Athens were searching for the truth. They wanted to know God, and they felt led to worship. Bishop Will Willimon says, “…their impulse to worship is right even if the objects of their worship are wrong. They at least know that something else is needed to make sense out of life, to give coherence to the world.”[xii]

So they were willing to listen to what Paul had to say. His message was new to the Athenians. It was different, and that intrigued them. They liked to learn and to argue and to question. So they invited Paul to preach at the Aeropagus. He goes, and this time, he changes tactics slightly. In the past, when Paul had preached to Jewish people or to Gentile converts to the Jewish faith, he would begin by looking at the Hebrew scriptures and showing how they pointed to Jesus. But the people in Athens are not familiar with the Old Testament. So Paul begins his message with general references to religion.[xiii]

“In all things you are very religious,” he says. And though it sounds good, it was not necessarily a compliment. True. There were temples everywhere. And the Athenians loved their festivals and sacrifices and prayers. Paul had even found an altar that was dedicated “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.”

It seems that 600 years or so before Paul arrived in Athens, a terrible plague had come upon the city, taking many lives. Then a man named Epimenides had an idea. He released a flock of sheep in the town, and wherever a sheep lay down, the Athenians would sacrifice that animal to the god that had the nearest shrine or temple. But, if a sheep lay down and there was no shrine or temple nearby, the Athenians sacrificed the sheep to the Unknown God. This way, they hoped to please any god that they may have somehow managed to overlook. Paul tells them this Unknown God is the Creator.[xiv] The Athenians believed that, if you denied the existence of a god, you might very well be punished.[xv] They already believed in lots of gods, so they are willing to hear what Paul has to say about his god.

It has been said that every single person is created with a God-shaped hole and only God can fill it. The people of Athens certainly had a longing to know God. By paying attention to the world around them, the Athenians had learned a lot about God. They had learned that God is smart. Smarter than they were. They had learned that God is powerful. More powerful than they were. And they had correctly surmised that God is involved in human affairs.

But there is so much more to know about God.

If you think God is some superhero sitting way up in the clouds, arbitrarily making decisions just to monkey up our lives, then you really don’t know God at all. Paul tells the Athenians, “This Unknown God that you worship … that is THE God. The Almighty. The Creator. The one who made all things. You and me and every blade of grass and every cloud in the sky. The Creator made it all. Not because God was bored. God loves us, and the Creator went to a lot of trouble to create this world for us to enjoy. And that longing that you have to know God, that IS God. God loves you, and the Creator wants you to know and love God. So God sent his son Jesus to be the one sacrifice, the one gift, that could make any and all of us right with the Almighty God. But some did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, so they killed him. But Paul’s God, the Creator, was so powerful that, after three days, God raised Jesus from the dead.

There were some in Athens who made fun of Paul. Others were curious and wanted to know more. And some believed. Friends, we live in a world where people are searching for something to believe in. Something that can make sense of life. Like the people of Athens, their experience of the world can convince them that there really IS a God. Don't you get a sense that God is present and powerful and wise when you look up at a sky full of stars? We can learn a lot about the Creator by looking at the creation. But if the world is ever going to know Jesus, then we who know him must introduce him to those who do not know. Some will laugh at us. Others will be curious and want to know more. But some will join us and believe. Isn’t that worth any risk?


[i] The information on Greek Mythology was written by staff and published in 2009 on the website at Publisher A+E Networks. Accessed May 19, 2017.
[ii] William H. Willimon. Acts: Interpretation. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1988. 142.
[iii] The information on Pericles was written by staff and published in 2009 on the website at Publisher A+E Networks. Accessed May 19, 2017.
[iv] The information about Plato was written by staff and published in on the website at. Publisher A+E Networks. Accessed May 19, 2017.
[v] Pollard.
[vi] The definition of idolatry was written by the staff of the United Church of God and published on the Beyond Today website at Copyrighted 1995-2017 by the United Church of God.
[vii] United Church of God.
[viii] United Church of God.
[ix] David Guzik. “Commentary on Acts 17:4.” David Guzik Commentaries on the Bible. 1997-2003. Accessed May 19, 2017.
[x] Guzik.
[xi] Guzik.
[xii] Willimon, 143.
[xiii] Guzik.
[xiv] Guzik.
[xv] The information on Greek religion was written by John Richard Thornhil Pollard and published on the Britannica website at Copyrighted 2017 by Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. Accessed May 19, 2017.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Why Church?

Ask any young person why they do not attend church, and they are likely to tell you that they don’t see the point. According to a the Barna Research Group, 30% of all millennials believe church is not important. Either they believe they can find God elsewhere, or they think church simply is not relevant to their lives.[i]

But this week after 7 tornadoes ripped across East Texas, killing four people, injuring dozens more and causing untold property damage, United Methodists showed up with cleaning kits, tarps, lumber and screws to shore up damaged buildings.

And in Zimbabwe, erratic rains and successive droughts have hit the country hard, and the prison farms have not produced enough food to properly feed all the inmates. So the UMC has donated more than $1,300 worth of food to female inmates at Chikurubi Prison. But the Church is giving more than money. They also plan to start a Holistic Horticultural Training Program for the female inmates so they can learn new skills and hopefully, in time, rejoin society and live as law-abiding citizens.[ii]

In Pearsall, Texas, the Rev. Liliana Padilla is cooking up breakfast tacos every Sunday morning for neighbors who don’t usually attend worship. Everyone who comes gets free tacos (or oatmeal and pancakes, if they prefer) as well as a devotional message, Bible study and prayer. And that’s all before the regular worship service at 11 am.

And right here in Shelby County, Heartsong Church welcomed members of the Memphis Islamic Center into the sanctuary for nightly prayer services back in 2010 because construction had not yet been completed on the new mosque. Seven years later, the two faith communities are launching a new joint venture known as Friendship Park, where they hope people will come together and build friendships that cross the lines of ethnicity, religion, race and gender.

Capleville UMC just hosted a job fair for recent high school grads and unemployed adults. And, this summer, our very own UMW is bringing a mobile mammography unit right here to Windyke because lack of access is one of the primary reasons that women do not get screened for breast cancer.

How’s that for relevant?

More and more, UM churches are taking an active role in society. In fact, in 2008, our denomination adopted an initiative called the Four Areas of Focus, which encourages every congregation to engage in ministry with the poor; improve global health; develop principled Christian leaders; and create new and renewed congregations.[iii]

“This is not just a program,” says Christian Alstead, bishop of the Nordic-Baltic Area. “This is our way of being as United Methodists.”

And the Council of Bishops, which met last week in Dallas, is urging every congregation to stay focused on that mission. “The church needs us to be accountable to the mission and ministries that transform lives for Jesus, our risen Christ,” Bishop L. Jonathan Holston of the South Carolina Conference said in his address to the council.

Alstead agrees. “…one of the ways of keeping unity is to remain focused in mission.”

It certainly worked for the very first followers of Christ. Acts 2:42 tells us that the very first converts to the Christian faith were very focused in their work. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

They knew what they were about. They had a purpose. A reason for being. And that held them together. In fact, it drew them together. They had a deep longing to know more about Jesus. And, since he had ascended to the Father, the only way the new converts could learn about Jesus was to spend time with his apostles. They were the ones who had heard Jesus’ sermons. They were the ones who had spent the most time with him. They knew what he believed and how he behaved. They were the ones Jesus had trained. Jesus had called them and trained them to carry on his ministry. His spirit was with them.

So, if you wanted to know Jesus, the best way was to spend time with his people. And so that’s what the new converts did. Acts tells us that they were all together, and they shared everything. They were so committed to the way of Christ that they sold their possessions and gave it all to the community. No one made them do it. God did not command it. They wanted to. They were so full of love for God that they did not hold anything back. They gave God all they had. And that commitment carried over to their relationships with one another. They gave God all they had, and they gave each other all they had. If anyone, anyone in the group, had a need, the others met the need. They wanted to help, and they did help.

That commitment grew as they spent time together. They worked together. They worshiped together. And they ate together. And when they gathered, they praised God and shared the stories of Jesus.

And it’s no surprise, really, that much of that worship took place around a table. In the Jewish tradition, “when the blessing is said at the table, the table becomes a holy place and eating together a sacred activity.”[iv]

It is certainly a place where bonds are formed. Yesterday, as we gathered together for pancakes, I watched as friends swapped war stories and women mobilized themselves for ministry and children played, and together we all worked to create a safe place where young men can gather and be molded into leaders.

That’s why we gather. That’s why we come together as a community. That’s why we need church.

“We learn to live by living together with others….”[v] Sure, we can encounter God anywhere. The Almighty God, Maker of Heaven and Earth, is not confined to the four walls of this or ANY building. But being a disciple of Jesus Christ is more than a one-time encounter with God. It is following Jesus. It is knowing him and following him day by day.

And Jesus laid down his life for us. He gave up everything for us. So, if we are truly following him, we will lay down our lives for one another. (1 John 3:16)

That is the paradox that Thomas Merton speaks of in his book No Man Is An Island: “We become ourselves by dying to ourselves. We gain only what we give up, and if we give up everything we gain everything.”[vi]

That’s probably the real reason why more people do not attend church. Because dying to self is not the most comfortable or convenient or common way to live. We would much rather live for ourselves. Do what we want, when we want to. But following Christ means dying to self and living for others. And, Lord knows, that is hard work.

It is hard work because, as Merton notes, we all have weaknesses and deficiencies. None of us is perfect. And we are all so very different. But that is exactly why we need each other.

“It is because of [our weaknesses AND our differences] that we need others and others need us. We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in himself for the lack in another.”[vii]

In his first letter to the Corinthians, The apostle Paul described the church as a body, with every member serving a different function. Merton says that, because we are all members of Christ, “What I do is also done for them and with them and by them. What they do is done in me and by me and for me.”[viii]

That, of course, is where things get tricky, because, as John Wesley once observed, we do not all think alike, and we do not all walk alike. But he was convinced that we CAN love alike. We can all love God, and we can all love one another. And we can encourage one another to be more loving and to do good works.[ix]

Where we disagree, Wesley encouraged people to hold fast to their beliefs but with the knowledge that none of us are perfect and we might in fact discover some day that we were not always right. And "they" were not always wrong. Peter, Andrew and Paul himself made their fair share of mistakes, but Jesus, the Good Shepherd, did not give up on them. He loved them. He truly loved them. He loved them with a love that is looooong suffering. He was incredibly patient. And kind. And faithful. He never stopped praying for them or teaching them or encouraging them. He pushed them to be better. To love more and give more.

And we are called to do the same.

[i] “What Millennials Want When They Visit Church” was published March 4, 2015 at Downloaded May 6, 2017.
[ii] Kudzai Chingwe. “Church in Zimbabwe donates food for female prisoners.” Published May 3, 2017 on The United Methodist Church website at Downloaded May 6, 2017.
[iii] The information on the Four Areas of Focus and last week’s meeting of the Council of Bishops was written by Sam Hodges. “Keeping focused on Four Areas of Focus” was published May 3, 2017, on The UMC website at Downloaded May 6, 2017.
[iv] Wiliam H. Willimon. Interpretation: Acts. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1988. 41.
[v] Thomas Merton. No Man Is an Island. New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955. XII.
[vi] Merton, XVI-XVII.
[vii] Merton, XXI.
[viii] Merton, XXII.
[ix] Wesley, 93.