True Religion

Posted 9/2/2018

Scripture: James 1:17-27

We live in a world that is far different than the one most of us knew as children or young adults. Growing up, most of us understood religion to be a matter of going to church, believing a certain set of beliefs and being a generally a “good” person. Beyond that, believing certain things (that is, accepting certain “dogmas”) was often a very important part of being a member of a church. Faith was often defined as accepting certain ideas about God, Jesus and the Christian life. And the fact was in those days, most people went to church and at least publicly followed this understanding of what religion is.

However, today’s young people are increasingly dis-affiliating from churches — as church membership and attendance records readily show. The fasting growing segment of the religious landscape today is those who are called the “nones” — that is, those who do not hold any affiliation with any organized religious group. 

It is worth noting these “nones,” while uninterested in joining a church or any other organized religious group, often define themselves as being very “spiritual.” In other words, it is not that they have no interest in spiritual things; it is that they have turned their backs on what they call “religion.” For this group of people “religion” means any organized form of religious community, including their organized system of beliefs (dogmas), and they have no desire to be “religious.” 

This group, and many of our younger generations generally share several other characteristics that impact how they view and relate to churches and what has been traditionally thought of as religion. In contrast to what they see are religion, they see spirituality as being much more about what you do than what you believe. Furthermore, they don’t find their spirituality in any single Christian tradition — or even any single religion’s beliefs. They readily take beliefs from many religious traditions and combine them in ways that make sense to them. For these generations a “personal” spirituality is literally one that they have personally constructed — and it most likely isn’t, and certainly need not be, like anyone else’s.

So, in a world where there seems to be this stand-off between churches and older religious traditions and those who are interested only in what they call spirituality, what are we to make of the notion of religion/spirituality? Is adhering to a given tradition right? Are the new, primarily younger adherents of a “spirituality” that is all about what you do not what you believe right? Do we need to follow a set of doctrines or should we pick and choose what makes sense to us? Just what does make for religion/spirituality? Or to put it more pointedly in what seem to be today’s options, which really defines us as Christians — our adherence to a tradition (that is, what you believe) or what we do?

As we wrestle with this question, and with the current trends concerning religion and spirituality, it may be that James can help us. In our passage for today, James talks about what people who are truly religious/spiritual look like. And in certain ways, that is the focus of the entire book of James (and frankly, most of the content of all the letters in the New Testament).  

As we consider what James has to say, it may be helpful to take a moment and look at the history of the use of James in the life of the church. Among the early Christians (those Christians before there was a more or less established listing of books of the New Testament in the 400’s), James was one of the books that was frequently “questioned,” probably at least partly because of the authority the letter had in heretical circles. And, at the time of the Reformation, Luther also questioned the inclusion of James in the New Testament, calling it a “straw gospel” because of it’s emphasis upon works. However, despite his apparent disapproval of James, Luther didn’t “remove” it for the Bible. Clearly, James has been in some ways controversial within at least early Christian circles and is in some key ways “different” that the other New Testament letters. Yet equally clearly, James was accepted as an authoritative part of the Scriptures.

Having said that, as we see in today’s lesson, James does pointedly do one important thing. He reminds us that truly being religious/spiritual is about what we do — and in James’ case, particularly about how we treat others, especially those within the Christian community.

But ultimately James says there really isn’t a choice between religion being about what you believe or what you do. We are to be “hearers” and “doers.” In other words, the Christian community was formed by their common faith in Christ — what they believed about Jesus. Yet what they believed was also to result in a radical reshaping of what they did. True or pure religion involved “car[ing] for the orphans and widows in their distress, and … keep[ing] oneself unstained by the world. That is, it was to result in relationships of caring and concern AND in what we today might call morality or moral purity.

As I’ve walked through the years as a Christian, I’ve come to agree with James’ approach to “religion.” What we believe matters greatly. Being a Christian means putting your trust in Jesus alone. And it means trusting Jesus as your Savior, not just following him as a good example or great teacher. There is a certain element of what can only be called “tradition” — a core of what we are to believe — that is essential to the life of a Christian. 

Yet, the fact is we believe in and follow a person — not a set of statements about God and Jesus. That means that there really is a crucial element of the Christian life that is defined by how we live. Christian faith is not simply believing in Jesus it is also our doing what Jesus would have us do. Christianity is also about, as Scripture puts is, having our life transformed until our life has about it the qualities and characteristics that defined Jesus’ life.

And, one key place this transformation happens most deeply and most intimately is in our relationships with one another. For Jesus and James, the community of those who followed Jesus related to one another in particular ways; ways that were different than the ways of the world about them.

In Jesus’ and James’ day, one’s life was defined by the social status one held. And, just as is true today, social status was a combination of things like wealth, political influence and educational level. It was pretty much beyond the possible to seriously improve one’s social status — although it was very easy to lose one’s status. Thus, one might move up a bit in social status, with the most influential changing where they stood in the pecking order. But it was rare, if not impossible, for the average person, much less a low status person, to ascend to the ranks of the influential. Furthermore, the relationships between those of differing social statuses was clearly defined and unequal.

This inequality was emphasized by the Roman system of relationships based on patronage. To put it simply, patronage means if you were wealthy or had political influence, you were able to do things to help others. And having helped them, they owed you. Most of the time, the decision to help someone else was based on their ability to help you at some point in the future. People with no influence and no possessions had little hope of finding a patron to help them with the difficulties they faced in life. People with at least some influence (or potential to become influential) and a degree of wealth had a chance of someone with greater status taking them on as a patron. And if you were of high status, with lots of influence and possessions, you would have little trouble finding someone to be your patron. 

To be a patron was to increase one’s status; and the higher the status of those to whom one was patron, the higher your status became. 

In contrast to this system of status and patronage, James insists on the equality of Christians (something we’ll look at more next week). Rather than becoming their patron, James insists on simple care for the poor and socially disadvantaged. In other words, James says our following Jesus radically changes how we relate to one another. 

Thus, James insists true religion, or the Christian faith, is about BOTH what we believe and what we do. True Christian faith doesn’t exist without both. In a world that seems increasingly to separate a core of Christian beliefs and a way of living the Christian life from one another and to loudly proclaim only one of them as true religion/spirituality, the Bible clearly tells us we need both.

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Evangelism: Invitation

Posted 8/26/2018

Scripture: Acts 2:37-42

As we come to the end of our series on evangelism we come to what for many of us is the hardest, and perhaps what feels like it easily could be the most offensive, part of evangelism. That is inviting someone to put their faith in Christ. As we saw in the first sermon on evangelism, one a large part of our reaction to this notion is probably based on our own experiences of how others have gone about this. Often what we have experienced sounds more like a demand than an invitation that we place our faith in Christ. In addition to it feeling like it is a demand, there has also usually been a spoken or unspoken kind of “threat” about what will happen to us if we don’t. Such an approach can leave us rightfully reluctant to engage in thinking about our inviting anyone to put their faith in Christ.

Yet the whole point of our witnessing to Jesus is to give others the opportunity to experience what we have experienced. That means we will inevitably need to include explaining how we began our relationship with Jesus and inviting our conversation partner to begin their own relationship with Jesus. 

Once again, one of the things that helps change the way an invitation to enter into a relationship with Christ so that is differs from what we’ve often experienced is simply to do this in the context of an ongoing relationship. It is much easier to speak of entering into a relationship with Christ in a gentle way when the invitation is issued as part of ongoing conversations in an ongoing relationship, rather than more like a “drive by commit-your-life-to-Christ hit.”

But I think there are some other things that are important in how we might do an invitation to begin a relationship with Christ. I think there are other ways our witness might also differ from what has most likely been our experiences of evangelism. As we think about this, our Scripture lesson from Acts may be able to give us some guidance.

First of all, this passage reminds us that we do need to talk about “what we should do.” It isn’t enough for us to simply share our own experiences of Jesus, we also need to share how the other person can come to have their own relationship with Jesus. While this is not something we will do at the very beginning of a relationship, it is also something we should not avoid doing. We will need to share how our conversational partner can come to have their own relationship with Jesus. 

Yet we need to notice that this sharing happens in the context of a conversation. Peter didn’t just stand up and tell the crowd they need to “get right with Jesus.” He doesn’t just walk up to strangers and start off a conversation with, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus.” He first tells them about Jesus (and what we have in Acts is probably just a very short summary of all he said about Jesus). Then when they ask what they should do, he responds by telling them how to enter into this new relationship with Jesus. 

This reminds us that our invitation — our encouragement that another place their trust in Jesus and begin their own relationship with Jesus — comes in the context of an ongoing conversation. Our sharing this invitation grows, like the rest of our witness, naturally out of our conversation. It isn’t something we push the conversation toward or something we just randomly lob into a conversation. Our invitation needs to grow out of the conversation in a natural way.

The fact is, as we share about Jesus, part of what we will find ourselves sharing is how we came to know Jesus. As we share our life — and about our life — we will find ourselves talking about how we began our own relationship with Jesus. This in itself is a form of invitation, for it opens up the idea for our conversational partner that they too can start a relationship with Jesus. It can even give them some ideas about how to do this.

Yet we may discover that we need to go further than simply sharing our own story in a general way. Often people don’t really know how to enter into a relationship with Jesus. Here is where we can begin to speak about prayer. Not that we have some set “sinner’s prayer” that we urge another to say, but simply that we help others understand prayer as a way of entering into conversation — and thus relationship — with Jesus. Many people feel uncomfortable with prayer because they feel they don’t know how to pray. We can reassure them that there isn’t some set formula they need to follow. They don’t have to be eloquent in what they say. They can simply talk to Jesus.

A second thing we may need to do at this point is to not simply talk about our reading the Bible and how that is a part of our Christian life, but to help the other person actually begin to read the Bible. Here I mean doing very simple, practical things. Let’s be honest, for someone who doesn’t know about Jesus begin reading the Bible as if it were any other book — starting with Genesis 1:1 and reading through until they get to Revelation 22:21 — is probably not a good way for them to begin. While the entire Bible is important, starting out by reading the laws in the Old Testament and some of the stories the Old Testament contains is not the way to help someone who doesn’t really know Jesus begin to know him. 

Instead of leaving them with no idea where and how to start reading the Bible profitably, we can guide them toward reading the gospels first; perhaps suggesting they start with Mark since it is the shortest and so most easily read gospel. We can also share how reading the Bible has helped us develop a closer relationship with Jesus. We can share how the Bible has given us guidance and been important in our growing closer to Jesus. We can even guide them to a Bible Study we know about!

Finally, we can share how being a part of a Christian community — how coming to church — has helped us as a Christian. We can talk about how we receive encouragement and support in our faith by gathering with other Christians. We can tell how gathering together in worship adds something to our relationship with Jesus that simply following Jesus all on our own doesn’t provide. In other words, we can invite them to church not because we need more bodies or more money, but because being a part of church — coming to worship and other activities at the church — feeds us spiritually and enables us to grow. 

Finally, we shouldn’t be discouraged if our friend doesn’t respond to our first invitation. Studies show it takes something like 5-7 invitations for a person to decide to come to church. I’m sure in a similar way it often takes more than one invitation for a person to consider starting their own relationship with Jesus before them to actually do so. So, while we don’t want to be pushy, we also don’t want to stop talking about Jesus just because our friend doesn’t respond to our first invitation. There really is a difference between being pushy and continuing to share about our life and faith!

Inviting someone to put their trust in Christ can feel risky. But it doesn’t have to be something that is done in an aggressive or offensive way. It can be done in the context of our continued sharing in an ongoing relationship. When we do that, especially when we are also engaged in prayer about our witness, we might be surprised at the results!

 

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Evangelism: Sharing about Jesus

Posted 8/19/2018

Scripture: 1 Peter 3:13-22

So far this month in our look at evangelism we’ve considered some of the reasons we don’t do evangelism and some of the reasons to do evangelism. We’ve looked at some guidelines that can help us in doing evangelism. Today we’re going to take some time to consider just how we go about actually sharing about Jesus.

One of the first things to consider when we think about how we share the good news about Jesus is what 1 Peter says. Our passage from 1 Peter provides us some guidance in our sharing, saying we are to “always be ready to make [our] defense to anyone who demands from [us] an accounting for the hope that is in [us]; yet [we are to] do it with gentleness and reverence.” 

Note how Peter first of all says we are responding to what others say to us. As we’ve been hearing throughout this sermon series, in our witness we need to share in a way that fits naturally into the conversation we are having. Witnessing to Jesus isn’t a matter of forcing a conversation to the topic of our faith. It is sharing about our faith when there is a natural opening to do so. 

The second thing to note is the attitude we are to have in our witness. We are to be “gentle” and “reverent.” An attitude of reverence means that we show respect for the other person. This kind of attitude would once again indicate we don’t force the conversation to the topic of our faith. It also implies whenever the topic of faith or Jesus does come up we are to take seriously the other person’s doubts and their questions. 

Furthermore as we do this our sharing should be “gentle;” that is at the very least, a witness that doesn’t include a demand that they must agree with us. Rather, our “gentle sharing” should be a simple talking about our experience with Jesus.

That leads us to the last thing to notice about what Peter says. It is that we are sharing why we have hope. We share about the way in which Jesus has impacted our lives for the good. We tell about how we have encountered Jesus and experienced his help. In witnessing to Jesus we are telling our story of our own hopeful, joyful encounters with Jesus. 

So exactly how do we go about sharing? Scripture indicates we are to share through both our words and our deeds. We share both by what we say about Jesus and how Jesus has impacted our lives and by showing that impact in our way of living. The quality of our lives — and of our life together as a congregation — is one important part of our witness. 

I suspect most of us are much more comfortable with the thought that we share about Jesus through our deeds. We feel at ease helping out with the needs at the local food pantry or assisting a family that has had a crisis. We generally find it rather easy to share the good news of the gospel in doing things that show our love for our neighbor. 

And that is one important aspect of bearing witness. If our lives are no different than the lives of those who don’t believe in Jesus, there really isn’t any reason for others to consider the Christian faith. If our faith in Jesus doesn’t change us in any way, why bother with it? And, as Christians, we know that Jesus said the 2nd commandment is to “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves].” Thus this kind of showing Jesus’ love to those about us in practical deeds is important — even vital to our witnessing to Jesus.

Yet if we stop with only deeds of love, we haven’t really born a full witness to Jesus. Remember Peter says we are to “give an accounting.” We are to tell others WHY we do what we do. We are to not simply live as Christians, but to tell others why we live that way — to speak about the impact Jesus has had on our lives. 

Let’s be honest. If we don’t speak about Jesus as well as show the love of Jesus, how are others to know about Jesus? We may help a neighbor after a fire; but doesn’t the Red Cross do the same? We may help provide food through a food pantry to those in our community who can’t afford enough to eat. But how is that different from government food stamps? There truly are many, many organizations and programs that provide help to those in need in our communities. So if we don’t speak the name of Jesus — if we don’t in some way share WHY we do what we do — how are those who receive our help to know we are doing it because of our love of Jesus and our Christian love for them?

This leads us back to the importance of developing relationships — real relationships of friendship — with those to whom we witness. In other words, our call to witness invites us to not simply provide money to help the family that lost their house in a fire, but to also enter into a relationship with them. We may enter into a relationship with them through phone calls to see how they are doing and what other needs they may have during the time they are recovering from their loss. Over time such calls may lead us into even more ways to connect with that family. As the friendship develops we may discover we are sharing more and more of our life with them, including potentially sharing our faith. To put it bluntly, witnessing encourages us to not just give something (money, food or something else) to people who are in need, but to actually enter into conversations with those we are helping. Conversations about their lives. Conversations that allow us to get to know them as individuals. 

When we do that, when we enter into real relationships, then there is the real chance that the other person will see and wonder about “the hope that is in us.” There is a real possibility that we will be asked about our faith. And there are also real possibilities that we can respond to their concerns not simply with material help but with a sharing of the way in which Jesus has helped us deal with the common difficulties of life they are facing. 

Let’s go back to our hypothetical family that lost their home in a fire. Perhaps as we enter into a friendship with this family we discover that the parents are now having to work a second job to afford to replace what was lost. As we listen to their concerns about the effects of this upon their children, is there any way we can begin to share our experience of Jesus? Have we ever gone through a time when we were concerned about our children? Did we find prayer helped? If so, we can say that. Not that we say prayer will make all the concerns just “go away.” Rather we can talk about how we have experienced the way in which prayer helped us to be less worried, and maybe even enabled us to discover new answers to our concerns.

It is in relationships — in friendships — that we will discover the openings that permit us to speak of our faith. Yet, doing this requires that we do the work of establishing and nuturing friendships, that we be willing to speak of our faith and that we know how to speak of our faith.

This latter aspect — knowing how to speak of our faith — is an area where our Christian fellowship can help us immensely. As we learn to share what God has done in our lives with our Christian friends, as we learn to tell the story of our journey with Jesus in the church, we also are learning how to tell it to others who are not in the church. Sure, there will be differences in what we say. After all, we probably use some “church-y language” here at church that we will want to not use when sharing with others outside the church. But it is here, among our Christian friends, that we practice noticing and talking about where we see God at work and how we experience Jesus in our lives. This is one of the core functions of Christian fellowship — building one another up by helping one another notice where Jesus is at work in our life and our world. 

When we have learned to speak about our experience of Jesus, when we are deeply in love with Jesus, when our lives reflect our relationship with Jesus, we will find ways in which we can share the good news about that relationship with others naturally, respectfully and gently. We will come to know that we really can share about Jesus not only with those who already know him but also with those who don’t. We will become witnesses to the good news of Jesus, the one who has changed our lives in ways that go beyond anything we could possibly have imagined. In other words, we will do evangelism.

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Evangelism: Laying the Groundwork

Posted 8/12/2018

Scripture: John 1:35-45

Last week we looked at what evangelism is — the sharing the good news of Jesus with others — and why we evangelize — because we have experienced something wonderful that we want to share with others. Today we begin to look at some of the “hows” of evangelism.” If we don’t want to use the approaches we have experienced — approaches that may seem “canned,” aggressive or offensive — how do we go about sharing the good news in another way? What are some ideas and practices that can guide us in our evangelism efforts?

One of the first things to realize is that evangelism isn’t a “one and done” kind of thing. It isn’t about “hitting someone up” with a “sales pitch.” It is first and foremost about developing relationships. It is about developing our relationship with God and our relationships with others.

Thus, when we decide to begin thinking about sharing the good news the best place to start is with prayer. Ask God to guide you in your relationships — to perhaps even guide you into a new relationship. Ask for openings when you can naturally share your excitement about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done in your life. Ask God to “fire up” your own spiritual life so you have something new and fresh as well as things from your lifelong walk with Jesus.

Then, after turning your attention to your relationship with God, it is time to turn your attention to your relationships with others. In saying this, I am not saying we suddenly start spending all our time trying to figure out how we can turn a conversation with a friend into talking about Jesus. Rather I am saying we turn our attention to developing real relationships — ones in which sharing about our lives and supporting one another comes naturally. “Converting someone” — or getting someone to attend our church — shouldn’t be our primary goal. Our primary goal is to develop real, deep friendships.

The reality is we too often don’t develop such relationships, even with our neighbors. We nod hello, but we seldom know the cares and concerns our neighbors bear. We’re more than willing to keep those about us at a distance, to remain relatively uninvolved in their lives. That means it is vitally important to recognize the first step in sharing the good news of Jesus is simply the process of becoming friends — real friends — with those about us. 

The truth is too many of us “church folk” limit our friendships to other “church folk.” We don’t spend time really getting to know and become friends with the folk who don’t go to church. We need to be willing to move our friendship circle outside of our comfort zone — beyond those who are already Christians.

As we develop these friendships, we shouldn’t simply assume that others have no interest in hearing about Jesus. While it is inappropriate to forcibly turn a conversation to God and Jesus, it is equally inappropriate for us to forever avoid talking about Jesus altogether. When we have developed a true, deep friendship there will be natural openings in which we can speak of Jesus. 

For example, it may be that your friend begins to talk about their struggles in their marriage. This is a time when you can share how Jesus has helped you in your marriage. This can be something as simple as you have found prayer has enabled you to become more patient and understanding. The fact is true friends share their struggles — and at such times you can share how your faith has helped you in the midst of the struggles we humans all share.

When we begin to speak of our faith, however, we need to do it in an honest way. We need to be ready to acknowledge any objections our friend may have. We need to be ready to take these objections seriously. This means there is a degree to which we need to study our faith if we are to be truly prepared to share it. We need to know what we believe and the kinds of objections that those about us often have to the faith, for example that “old chestnut” that the church is filled with hypocrites. We need to be ready to acknowledge the truth that may lie in their objections as well as have ways in which we can help them move beyond those objections to a new openness to considering faith.

Being prepared to acknowledge another person’s objections to faith also means being prepared to ask questions. Asking questions is a natural part of a friendship — it reflects our desire to really understand our friend. Thus, when someone objects that “I can know God without going to church” one might ask questions such as: In what ways have you come to know God? What have you learned of God from those experiences? Or when someone says, “I don’t believe in God!” you might ask them to tell you about the God they don’t believe in. In asking questions we just might discover that our friend really doesn’t know much about the gospel. They simply have picked up some vague, general things about Jesus — sometimes some very mistaken things. These questions become another opportunity for us to share what we know of Jesus and how we have come to know this.

Finally, it helps if we are able to acknowledge our own fears and doubts. I suspect many of us have at least at once in our lives wondered if the gospel is true. Or we have had a time when we were afraid that we didn’t have enough faith. Or we doubted that God really loves us. It is pretty much impossible to go through life without having fears and doubts, including ones about our faith. There is nothing wrong with sharing those with others; they are most likely fears and doubts they too have or have had. Sharing our fears and doubts is a normal and natural part of friendship — and of our ultimately being able to share the good news. We have come to believe not because we have never had any fears or doubts but because we have found an answer to those fears and doubts in our experience of Jesus.

Developing real relationships — a deep relationship with God and deep friendships where we share our lives. Praying for God’s guidance and then being willing to reach out to become friends with others beyond our Christian circle. Being willing to acknowledge our friend’s objections, and to acknowledge the ways in which those objections may be true. Not assuming others don’t have an interest in spiritual things and so are unwilling to talk about God and Jesus. Being willing to honestly share from our own life — the things that have helped us and the doubts and fears we have or have had. All of these are things that can help us to develop our own “style” of evangelism — one that is true to who we are and what we believe. One that lets us authentically share the good news of Jesus Christ. 

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Evangelism: What's and Why's

Posted 8/5/2018

Scriptures: 2 Corinthians 4:7-17; Matthew 28:16-20

This month we are going to be looking at evangelism. Yes, we are going to talk about that e-word to which we Presbyterians seem to have a genetically based allergic predisposition. For many of us, that is at least partly because we think of evangelism as involving aggressive, and even offensive, behaviors. Our experiences of evangelism tend to be like those I had in college — that of someone accosting you as you are simply walking by with an opening line like, “Have you been saved?”  This opening line is then followed up with a very specific, carefully defined form of gospel presentation and concludes with strong urgings to pray a set prayer, usually called “The Sinner’s Prayer.”

The truth is this kind of evangelism can be, and often is, in some ways aggressive, and even offensive. If you refuse to go along with the pre-set conversational pattern or to pray the required prayer at the end, you may be rather forcefully reminded you are a sinner, forever lost without Jesus.  Yet, no matter how the conversation may go, it always approaches people with an agenda that treats them as if they are simply “notches on an evangelism belt.” It also treats people in a “one-size-fits-all way,” failing to recognize individuality in its pre-set formatting. Finally, it clearly assumes you aren’t already a Christian, and as a result often leaves those approaching you either with the option of challenging your statement you’re a Christian or with no idea what to say. All of those reasons, and others, are, in truth, turn-offs for many of us, discouraging us from entertaining any thoughts of our doing evangelism.

However, the fact is, those techniques aren’t the only way to do evangelism nor do they provide the only definition of evangelism. Personally, I like the definition of evangelism that is based upon something D. T. Niles once said: Evangelism is “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” Evangelism isn’t about accosting others with a demand they listen to a specific gospel presentation. It isn’t a matter of getting someone to pray a specific prayer. It is about developing relationships which allow us to witness to who Jesus is and what Jesus has done in our lives. 

If the negative stereotypes of evangelism we have probably been exposed to can keep us from witnessing, there can two other dynamics that can also do so: Fear and a feeling we don’t know how to witness. Both of those are real concerns, not to be lightly dismissed. 

Talking about something so personal as our relationship with Christ can be frightening. What if the other person isn’t interested? Or even worst, is offended? What if our witness is rejected? What if WE are rejected? 

Yet quite often our fear is based more on our own feelings than on reality. Study after study shows that many more people are more open to hearing about Jesus than we think. We live in a culture that is awash with a search for a meaningful spirituality. Although younger generations have left the church and often proclaim themselves to have no religious affiliation; they are eager to develop a deep, meaningful spirituality. That means they are also generally very open to, and even interested in, having serious conversations with others about God and Jesus when they and their questions and doubts are taken seriously.

And certainly, if all we have experienced are the negative stereotypes of evangelism, examples we don’t want to follow, we may truly be at a loss as to how to go about witnessing to our faith. If we don’t want to witness in the way we have experienced others witnessing, how in the world do — how in the world could — we go about it? What alternative way (or ways) of witnessing do we have?

The truth is, we Presbyterians often seem caught on the horns of a dilemma. We desperately want to have more people coming to church. We want our neighbors and friends who never darken the door of our church (or any church) to come worship with us. Yet we often have no way of effectively inviting them to come. As a result, we continue to rely upon what worked years ago — the hope that our mere presence will lead people to come. Or perhaps we hope that holding some kind of special event will draw them in. The truth is, while those strategies may have worked at least to some degree in the past, studies show they are no longer effective today.

But our problem may involve even more than outdated strategies. If our only reason for witnessing ( or inviting other to church) is simply we want more people in our church building, we honestly are no better than the stereotypical evangelist who is such a turn off to us. We too are treating those to whom we would witness with an agenda that treats them as if they were simply “notches on our belt” - not an “number I’ve saved belt” but a “membership belt.” Surely there are better reasons than putting a notch on a belt — whatever kind if belt it may be — for our evangelism!

And there are. The first good reason for evangelism comes from the simple nature of evangelism, and of discipleship — the fact that what we are doing is witnessing to Jesus. 

Clearly, there are many in this congregation who are adamantly committed to the Packers. For example, when I was interviewing to come here Luann came to the interview all prepared to convert me to the Pack with an entire bag (or bags) full of Packer gear! It may not be the Packers, but all of us have something in our lives which truly excites us. Something we joyfully talk about with others. Something we can barely keep ourselves from sharing with everyone with whom we happen to strike up a conversation. It may be your grandkids. It may be a hobby. It may be one of any number of things. 

Being a disciple — being an evangelist — witnessing to Jesus — simply means sharing our excitement about Jesus just like we might share our excitement about any of those other things. It means having had an experience of Jesus that is so compelling that we can’t help but want to share. It means recognizing that in the gospel we have received a treasure that is beyond all measure, a treasure we simply can’t keep to ourselves. 

Having said that, we will be looking in future sermons at more of the specifics about HOW we go about sharing; but for this morning we merely want to note that one of our motives should be simply the desire to share what is such an important part of our life — a relationship with Jesus. 

I mention this motive first, because it should be the main one that drives our witnessing. However, there is another reason we witness to Jesus. It is that we are commanded to do so. I expect all of us are familiar with what is called “The Great Commission” — Jesus’ command given to his disciples that they “Go into all the world.” The fact is Jesus has told us to go, to bear witness to who he is and what he has done. To share the good news we ourselves had heard and received. We are commanded to share — we are commanded to witness. 

Now as I said, this in many ways should not be our first, much less our only, motive. If we witness solely because we are commanded to, it is too easy to forget evangelism is first and foremost about relationships. When we are motivated only by a command it is tempting to see our faith as merely agreement with a specific set of propositions — accepting a certain group of teachings. Yet the heart of evangelism — the goal of witnessing — is not accepting certain beliefs but the start of a vital relationship with God through Jesus. It is not about agreeing with certain dogmas, but about living a life that is rooted and grounded in a living relationship with Jesus.

When we have that kind of life, when we ourselves have a living relationship that is rooted and grounded in Jesus, how can we help but share the good news we have experienced? When we have come to know the grace of God embodied and given to us in Jesus, how can we help but tell others of this wonderful news? How can we help but be witnesses by sharing with other beggars who are seeking a truly abundant life the good news of the bread of life — the good news of Jesus?

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Foolishness

Posted 7/29/2018

Scripture: Psalm 14

It has been said “Foolishness is doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome.” Fools and foolishness are the subject of many of popular sayings and a subject that often appears in books. Consider these sayings and quotes:

A fool and his money are soon parted. 

“The fool attempts to predict the next big wave while ignoring the tide.” ― Fahad Basheer

“Only a foolish child would go swimming in the river that swallowed his father.” ― Bamigboye Olurotimi

“Foolproof systems don't take into account the ingenuity of fools” ― Gene Brown

“The biggest fool is one who minds the business of others rather than minding his very own” ― Amit Abraham

“A fool can't help but be a fool, but when others follow, he makes a fool of us all.” ― DaShanne Stokes

Scripture has it’s own definition of foolishness — a definition we hear in our Psalm for today: “Fools say in their heart ‘There is no God.’” In the Bible, utter folly is to deny or ignore the existence of God. But this folly doesn’t consist in simply intellectually saying “God doesn’t exist.” Just as in popular thought, where foolishness is revealed in what one does, so folly in the Biblical understanding is a matter of how we live. It is seen in our behavior.

Notice, Scripture doesn’t say foolishness is to have intellectual doubts about God’s existence. Simply wondering about God’s existence isn’t what is in view here. This “say[ing] in [one’s] heart “There is no God” goes to a much deeper level of our existence than mere thought.

In Scripture, foolishness — saying there is no God — is to say we are not accountable to God for how we live. It is to assume that we can do whatever we want to do without any real consequences. It is especially to feel there are no eternal consequences. Such foolishness — such a refusal to recognize that we are accountable to God — leads to an “anything goes” mentality that inevitably invites one to go against God’s moral order.

While we need to acknowledge that what we think — whether we think God exists or not — is important; what kind of God we believe in is just — or even more — important. That is why the point in the Psalmist’s words are not simply about an intellectual assent to the existence of God. As Scripture says in James, even the demons believe in God (James 2:19). Simply believing God exists is not the problem that the Psalmist is addressing.

Rather the real problem — the foolishness of which this Psalm speaks — is found in not believing God provides a moral order by which we are to live. It is found in an “anything goes” attitude. It is found in a failure to accept that there are consequences — divinely ordered consequences — to our actions.

It is this failure to accept the limits God imposes that formed the heart of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. The serpent suggested that God really doesn’t mean it that they will die if they eat the forbidden fruit, rather they will simply “become wise.” That is, the serpent suggested that what God has established as an ordering of creation and the consequences of breaking that order really doesn’t exist. In suggesting they will “become wise,” the serpent suggested Adam and Eve can do as they please without worrying about consequences. 

And so it is with all of Adam and Eve’s descendants. Unwillingness to believe in the God who created us leads us to deny the limits our Creator has placed upon us as His creatures. We become convinced of our own autonomy — our ability to do what we wish and to care for ourselves without any need of God. We become convinced of our own ability to decide what is right and wrong. We live as the serpent suggested we could live. Having eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil we believe we alone can decide what is good and what is evil.

Yet, the truth is, we can’t determine good and evil. Despite our best efforts, we consistently fail in this as the ills and evils we so readily see in our world prove. Furthermore, in the grips of this belief that we can determine good and evil, we no longer seek after God for we believe we have no real need of God.

This is the folly of which the Psalmist speaks. A folly that seeks to define reality and the world by our own terms. A folly that recognizes no limits — that fails to acknowledge we are creatures. Such folly is at its heart simply a failure to acknowledge the Creator.

However, when we acknowledge our creatureliness we discover our need for God and God’s guidance. We know that the world has a moral order — that what we do matters. We acknowledge that we are responsible to God for our actions — that we can’t do anything we want without consequences. 

And in that we discover the wonder of the gospel — that Jesus Christ has come so that our own disobedience might be covered with his obedience and our resistance to God might be overcome by the power of his spirit. In recognizing our responsibility before God we discover, ironically, our true freedom in Christ. A freedom that is not a matter of doing what we want, but of living in harmony with all God’s creation. 

While popular notions of fools and folly provide some good advice, only the Scriptural understanding of folly can guide us into true, abundant life. So let’s put our folly behind us and live with the knowledge of God — which truly is, as Proverbs indicates, the beginning of real wisdom!

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Walls or Temples?

Posted 7/22/2018

Scripture: Ephesians 2:11-22

I remember both times when the culture of the presbytery I belonged to then started to change. We were a large presbytery. Well, not that large in number of churches, but very large in geography. Like most large presbyteries we had a few relatively larger cities — complete with colleges — and a whole lot of rural territory. As you might imagine, we also had a lot of theological diversity in our churches.

When I first arrived, we were a presbytery terribly divided, primarily over allegiances to various members of the presbytery staff. But then the staff left and there was some very intentional work to bring the presbytery back together. All this happened very early in my something like 12 years in that presbytery, and it was something that I was aware of only vaguely since I wasn’t particularly involved in the presbytery structure.

It wasn’t long into that healing process, however, that I found myself becoming involved at the presbytery level. That’s when I began to notice what to me became the hallmark of this presbytery during the majority of my years there. It was something I had never experienced in any other presbytery - Christian unity among pastors with very different theologies. And it showed up in one very obvious way.

Our meetings took place over 2 days. (Remember, I said we were large geographically. Many people traveled 8 or perhaps even 10 hours to get to the presbytery meeting.) After the evening session on the first day, which usually ended about 8 PM, presbytery commissioners would go out together for a bit of evening socializing before turning it. It was something about that time of socializing together that is what struck me.

You see, we might have a very heated debate on an agenda item during the afternoon or evening session. But when that happened it was a given that at the next break in the meeting the individuals who had so vehemently disagreed on the floor of the presbytery meeting would find each other and make arrangements to go out to socialize together that evening. This pattern held for something at least 8 years of my time there. To me, this was a presbytery where everyone was committed to building a temple not walls.

In our epistle lesson for today, we read about temples and walls. In Paul’s day, the walls were between Jews and Gentiles. They were not only social walls that divided people in the world “out there;” they were walls that were dividing people within the church. We read about this division in a variety of Paul’s letters as well as in Acts. 

Within the church there were “Jewish” parties, who felt that continuing to keep the Jewish law (for instance, the dietary laws on what was permissible to eat) and those Gentiles who saw no point in such laws. While we read in Acts that Paul confronted those who insisted on Gentiles keeping the Jewish dietary law, in other places (for instance in Romans) we read about his urging church members to be tolerant of each other’s beliefs and practices. In both cases Paul was saying in essence, “Don’t let what you eat divide you!” 

But Paul goes beyond simply urging tolerance, because he knows that mere tolerance won’t build a community up. He urges that both parties be considerate of each other. That both go out of their way to make sure that the relationship between them isn’t damaged. And that, to me, was the wonder of what I witnessed in that presbytery. 

As I said at the beginning, though, the culture of that presbytery started to change before I left. We had a pastor or two who moved in who began to not seek out those with whom they disagreed. It wasn’t long before an undertone of those who disagreed with one feeling that those “others” weren’t really Christians started to develop.

And, in a nutshell, that’s the problem with walls. When we build walls not a temple, we find it perfectly fine to question the faith and faithfulness of other followers of Jesus because they don’t believe just like us or live out their faith in the same way we do. 

But we are urged in Scripture to build a temple, not a bunch of walls. We are urged to not let all those things that can divide us — beliefs, practices, cultures, ethnicity — to divide us. We are urged to focus on our unity in Christ not our differences in how we follow Christ.

More than that, we are urged to actively work at maintaining our unity in the midst of all our differences. One doesn’t build a temple without work. It takes work to fit the various blocks of stone or brick (the building materials of that day) together. It even may take a bit of cutting and grinding to fit them together properly. In the same way it can take some “cutting and grinding” in our lives to enable us to fit together — a process Paul describes in his letters as a willingness to put aside our own interests in favor of those of our fellow Christians.

The fact is, it is easy to build walls. We can always find ways in which we differ from others; no two of us are exactly alike. It is easy to let those differences lead us into judging one another. It is easy to avoid the hard work of learning to live together with our differences.

Yet over and over Scripture tells us we are to be about building temples not walls. We are to be about helping one another live out our faith in the way that fits our own personality and life experiences. We are to be about living together and sharing our spiritual gifts with one another so that each and every one of us might grow in faith and be stronger in our discipleship. 

As I said, building temples is hard work. It requires we listen — really listen — to what another has to say. It requires that we not make our own faith experiences the standard for judging everyone else’s faith experience. It requires a humbleness that quite frankly isn’t a part of our culture.

It requires a willingness to accept that we might be mistaken. A willingness to reconsider and potentially learn. It requires an openness to discovering there is something we need to consider that we never thought of in forming our belief. 

That it is that commitment to Christ that matters more than our own personal (or denominational) theological understanding. That we recognize while we may have important — even vital — insight to bring to the table, there is none of us who have the whole truth.  

In saying that I’m not suggesting that just “anything goes.” What I am suggesting is that we remain humble about the differences that may exist between us, but very serious about our mutual commitment to Christ. That we take seriously what Scripture says about accepting one another in love. That we listen carefully when Paul tells us, “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Co 12:3)

Otherwise we become quick to build walls instead of temples. We rush to judgments and divide the body of Christ. Instead of thinking the best of everyone (as Calvin urges we do), we start to think the worst of everyone. 

Building walls is easy and it is also what “comes naturally” to us as humans. Yet we are called to build a temple. We are called to do the hard work of allowing ourselves be bound together with others — including others who differ from us, sometimes radically. We are called upon to value our bonds in Christ more than our own individual ways of living out that relationship with Christ. We are called upon to not simply tolerate each other, but to actively work to build the unity we have been given in Christ.

So, which are you doing? Are you building walls or are you building a temple?

 

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Traveling Light

Posted 7/8/2018

Scripture: Mark 6:1-13

What I would pack for a vacation when I was younger was, quite honestly, absolutely ridiculous. For a 2 week vacation I would not only pack a couple large suitcases with clothes and “personal supplies”, I’d pack an entire large box of books (some “fun,” some “serious”) and at least one, or maybe 2, craft projects (normally knitting, crocheting or embroidery projects). There was also a need for snacks — lots of snacks — to eat while driving. And, of course, I’d need to be sure I had enough for both ways. And then there was my dog and all her supplies — kennel, food, toys, dishes, leash…

By the time I was done packing, my trunk would be pretty full, the back seat would be covered, and the passenger seat would also have its fair share of stuff piled up on it. My packing motto was “Be absolutely sure you have everything you might need or want with you.” Loading and unloading the car would require 4 trips or maybe 5, not counting the couple of trips for the dog.

Over the years I’ve learned to travel lighter. Today for that same 2 weeks I pack 1 medium sized suitcase, maybe a couple of books (or perhaps just my Kindle), probably my iPad and computer, a current craft project and the dog with her food and dishes. Loading now requires more like 3 trips, including the dog. If I had to, I could fit it all on the back seat. Yep, over the years I’ve learned to travel much lighter.

Our gospel lesson for today talks about traveling — and about the need to “travel light.” 

The first thing to notice about this lesson is that the call is to travel. Over and over we read in the gospel how Jesus insisted on traveling from village to village rather than staying in one place. It pretty much seems that any time people would try to convince Jesus to stay in a place, that was the point at which he would insist on moving on. Jesus wasn’t one to stay put and wait for folk to come to him (although there were crowds that did that, even crowds that followed him around). In the gospels we read how Jesus kept moving — traveling to where people lived.

And here we read about how Jesus sends out his disciples — putting them “on the road” much as he lived “on the road.” He sends them out to go where people live. He doesn’t want them to stay put and wait for others to come to him — he wants them “out there” — reaching out to folk who might never come to them.

I think this is important for us to notice because all too often, it seems to me, we in the church have had more of what could be called a Field of Dreams attitude. We tend more toward an “if we build it, they will come” attitude than a “go to them” attitude. We gather in our sanctuaries and wonder why people aren’t coming to us to join us here in our worship and mission. We don’t really think about or plan to go out to where they are. We aren’t all that focused on going “out there” — to the places where the folks who aren’t already coming actually are.

Yet the gospels are clear — we are called to “go.” In this passage Jesus sends the disciples out. He puts them on the road to the surrounding villages. He sends them to find people who weren’t, and most likely wouldn’t, come to them. 

And after his resurrection Jesus appears to the disciples saying “Go into all the world.” He doesn’t limit this sending to just the neighborhood any more. He sends us into the whole world — everywhere people are. He sends us to everyone who isn’t coming to us. (And frankly, we all know that’s a lot of people!)

The fact is, Jesus doesn’t call us to stay put in our comfortable church buildings, but to go out there — where people are. To go out to where those who aren’t coming to church spend their daily lives. To go out into the daily-ness and the ordinary-ness of people’s lives.

Secondly, in this passage Jesus is pointed in telling the disciples to “travel light.” He tells them to “take nothing for the journey.” No pre-made sandwiches or bag of snacks to eat along the way. Not even any money to buy a candy bar much less lunch or supper! No second set of cloths, just what they would normally wear in a day. They are to go with nothing but a walking stick and their shoes. Instead of packing along tons of supplies for the journey, they were to trust that God would supply their needs. They were to trust there would be people in the places to which they traveled who would provide them with food and lodging. 

As I indicated, it seems to me we are not all that inclined as churches to set out on the road. And when we do, we tend to not travel all that light. We figure we need our fancy evangelism programs, or an modern up-to-date building with special attractive events, or a bunch of technological gizmos in worship, or any one of a number of other things to attract people. We look to pack all kinds of things along with us — or even use the lack of those things as a reason to never set out.

But what if all we needed to do was to travel? What might happen if we were to actually decide to do what Jesus tells his disciples to do and travel light?

What if all we needed to do was to go out to where people are with just what we normally carry? What if we — our lives and the story of our own spiritual pilgrimage — was enough? What if it were the quality of our relationships with one another — the kind of community we are — that attracts others, not our fancy programs or modern, technologically equipped buildings? What if the call isn’t to carry a carload of stuff with us, but to trust God to provide what we need when we need it?

What if, instead of worrying about some special evangelism program we simply concentrated on becoming friends, real friends, with the neighbors we seldom talk to? What if we were to quietly share what our Christian journey has been or what our faith means to us when there are natural openings to do so in our conversations? What if we simply did what those early disciples did? What if we assumed WE were enough? That we didn’t need anything more than ourselves to carry the good news to those around us?

And what if we were to go to some of our younger people in the community? Despite what we may believe about younger generations, they really do have a hunger for a spiritual life. What if we were to journey with them, not only in our actions but in quietly, humbly sharing our own spiritual journey? What if we were to help them know how they could experience Jesus in day-to-day life by sharing how we have experienced Jesus in day-to-day life?

And notice WHAT the disciples were sent out to do. We are told they went out “proclaim[ing] that all should repent” and casting out demons and curing the sick. In other words, we are called upon to share the good news of God’s kingdom in word and in deed.

I think the other thing we too often do is we limit our sharing the good news of the kingdom to simply sharing it in deed. We think that our helping others is enough of a witness to Jesus. After all, we know we are doing all these helpful things because we are Christians. 

But that’s the point — we know, but do they know? Let’s be honest; there are lots and lots of people who do lots of helpful things for others for lots of different reasons. If people are to know we are doing these things because we are Christian, we are going to have to say that. Otherwise, how in the world will they know we aren’t just another helpful non-profit, like the Red Cross, or a social service agency? If we don’t speak the name of Jesus, how in the world can they know it is because of Jesus that we are doing what we do? That what we do isn’t just a matter of “helping others” but rather our showing the reality of the kingdom of God come into our midst? How are they to know we’re doing what we do because we know Jesus?

Our call is to travel — to get out there where the people who aren’t already following Jesus are. Our call is to travel light — to recognize that WE are what is needed in our travels, not some carload of programs and techniques. Just who we are and how we have experienced Jesus’ presence. Our call is to share — by word and deed. 

The question is are we willing to travel? Are we willing risk trusting God by traveling light; sharing the good news of God’s kingdom through what we do and through what we say?

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Relying on God

Posted 7/1/2018

Scriptures: Psalm 130, Mark 5:21-43

Sometimes life seems to be spinning out of control and we feel ourselves to be at our wit’s end. Perhaps it was a serious medical diagnosis which left you feeling life is out of your control. Perhaps it has happened because you suddenly found yourself laid off or otherwise out of work. Perhaps you feel this way because of a crisis within your family circle or in the life of a close friend. Whatever the cause, all of us experience times when we feel our life is out of control. 

Whatever else we may feel at such times, we almost inevitably feel disoriented, at least for a little while. The world we had relied upon has suddenly become unpredictable — a world vastly different from the one in which we thought we were living. Our lives have been turned upside down and we aren’t sure how to make sense of what is happening. Suddenly everything feels different — and we don’t know quite what to make of it all.

We may also feel angry. We can’t understand why this should happen to ME. What did I ever do to deserve this? It all seems so totally unfair. We may find ourselves lashing out at others — even those who love, support and are trying to help us. 

At such times we are also likely to feel sad and depressed. This only adds to our sense of being unable to cope with what is happening to and around us. Our sadness and depression can be so intense that they make it hard for us to make any plans for the future or to take any action.

When our world goes spinning out of control and we are at our wit’s end, we have a deep need for something to hang onto. When all else in our world seems to have been turned upside down and to be unpredictable, we need something to be an immoveable anchor. We need something — or someone — we know we can rely upon. Our Scriptures for today include several people who found their world turned upside down and experienced that desperate need for something or someone they could rely upon.

“Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord,” we hear the Psalmist say. We aren’t really told why the Psalmist felt so desperate. What we do know is he was experiencing his life as if he were drowning in the midst of the depths of the sea. All we know is that life had become unpredictable, chaotic, even filled with dreadful fear for the Psalmist. He felt himself to be struggling to survive in the “depths” of chaotic and destructive waters. The Psalmist knows his deep need.

In the same way, in the gospel lesson, we read of 2 other people who are desperate — a father desperately seeking the healing of his daughter who is about to die and an unnamed woman who has exhausted not only her finances but also all other possibilities for healing. Both come to Jesus with their deep need. 

And in all three of these cases we discover that they also come with deep faith. The Psalmist doesn’t hesitate in the midst of his desperate situation, whatever it was, to cry out to God, confident that “with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.” The unnamed woman comes to Jesus, confident that simply touching the hem of his robe will heal her. Jairus comes, confident that Jesus will go with him and that he can make his daughter well, restoring her to life. 

In these Scriptures we see that deep need calls for deep faith. A deep trust that God’s in his steadfast love will not ignore us when we cry to him. A deep confidence that God has great power to redeem — and desires to redeem. An abiding assurance that Jesus cares and will act to heal, save and restore. A deep faith that God can and will give us new life even in the face of what seems certain death.

This kind of deep faith trusts in God’s faithful redemption. It has no doubts that God can and will act on our behalf to save. This is not a faith that is unfamiliar with trouble and deep need. It is not a faith that has never experienced difficult times, even desperation. Rather, it is a faith that rises up in the midst of the darkest hours in our lives.

What can we do in our dark hours? When life seems hopeless? What all seems lost? When we have no idea where to turn or who can help? The witness of Scripture is this is a time we can turn to God — confident of God’s care. This is a time we can turn to Jesus — the one who knows our every temptation and sorrow. We can turn to Jesus, who like us, experienced the trials, temptations, disappointments and hurts of life. We can turn to Jesus who has himself experienced the depths of despair. We can turn to Jesus who prayed in Gethsemane with such intensity that he shed drops of blood. We can turn to Jesus who on the cross cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

And we turn to Jesus, not simply because he has experienced the trials, temptations, disappointments and hurts of life — not just because he has shared human life with us — but because this same Jesus is also God-with-us and God-for-us. This same Jesus not only rose, but reigns in power and is in heaven interceding for us. This same Jesus not only showed his love for us in his life and death, he continues to show his love for us as our advocate with the Father in heaven. 

We turn to God in our darkest hours, not because of some vague belief that God cares; but because we have experienced the reality of God’s care expressed in the life of Jesus. A care that reaches even into the depths of our lives — even into the darkest places in which we may find ourselves. When all else in life seems to have given way, we can rely upon God.

And this relying upon God means bringing our deep need to Jesus. Like Jairus, like the unnamed woman, we can come to Jesus in our darkest hours confident of Jesus’ healing, redeeming touch. We can come, knowing that Jesus cares for us — cares passionately. That Jesus cares for us not in a general way, but in a deeply personal way. 

Notice how in this story, Jesus refused to allow the woman to go unnoticed. We may not learn her name, but we do learn that Jesus insisted on having a personal relationship with her. No anonymous healing, despite the fact this seems to be the woman’s desire. No, Jesus insists this be a healing that leads to a real relationship as Jesus speaks to her in tenderness and love. Notice how Jesus insists upon establishing this personal relationship with the unnamed woman even in the face of Jairus’ pressing need. 

Yet this taking time to establish a relationship with the unnamed woman did not lead to Jesus ignoring Jairus’ deep need — even when the report comes that all is now hopeless. Even in the face of death, Jesus invites Jairus into a relationship with himself, saying “Do not fear, only believe.” He continues on with Jairus to his house and there he raises Jairus’ daughter, meeting Jairus’ deep need. 

Jesus takes time for each of us. Time to be with each of us personally in our deepest needs. Time to establish a loving, caring relationship with each of us individually in our darkest hours. Jesus walks with us through the deep waters and brings us out of the depths when we cry to him. Granted, as was true with Jesus, our bringing out of the depths may require our taking up a cross. But the promise is, Jesus reigns for us and he will raise us up, even from the power of death.

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Faith or Fear?

Posted 6/24/2018

Scriptures: 1 Samuel 17:1, 4-11, 32-49; Mark 4:35-41

Experiencing fear is not at all uncommon as some statistics about our fears show:

Something like 9-20% of Americans say they avoid going to the dentist because of fear. 

Something like 25 million (about 7%) of Americans suffer from some form of fear of flying. These people fall into 2 groups: Those afraid of a plane crash and those who are claustrophobic. 

Fear of severe weather was at least a bit of a problem for 73% of those who participated in a survey of mostly college-aged students.

Three to five percent of us suffer from acrophobia — a fear of heights. 

Fifteen million (close to 5%) of American adults fear speaking in public. Those who are affected with this phobia can also develop a fear of eating or drinking in front of anyone, or even of being around almost anyone but family members.

Fifteen to twenty percent of us experience at least one episode of some kind of phobia in our lifetimes. Something like 8.7% of adult Americans have at least 1 extreme fear.

Extreme fear — phobias — can paralyze us. Yet it isn’t just phobias that can paralyze us. There are many other fears that can paralyze us, leaving us unable to make any plan of action. One of those fears that many of us have is fears about the future. Like our fears of public speaking or heights or small spaces, our fear of the future can leave us paralyzed, unable to plan for the future or to respond appropriately to the changes we notice about us.

This latter fear, the fear of the future, is, I believe, a particular problem for churches. We see the changes in society about us. These changes seem to threaten our faith and the life of the church. We become fearful — a fear that often shows itself in our blaming these changes for the decline in church attendance, social problems and whatever else seems to us to be wrong in the world today.

Within the church, we are acutely aware of the dwindling number of people attending worship. We notice the number of people who used to attend “regularly” who now come much less often. We are anxious over the amount of offerings we are receiving. In so many ways our future seems so uncertain. In fact, the possibility of even having a future may seem uncertain. We become fearful and start cutting budgets, programs and outreach.

But just what does Scripture suggest we are to do in the face of the fears we experience — especially those we experience as a church? Our Scripture lessons for today give us some insight into how we can respond to our fears.

The first thing our Old Testament and Gospel passages suggest to us is that we not pretend that real threats don’t exist. We are not called upon to act as if there really aren’t dangers in our world. We aren’t called upon to pretend that the societal trends and trends in the church which cause us anxiety about our future aren’t real. Goliaths really do exist. Serious storms that threaten to capsize our boats are real. Such dangers are not figments of our imaginations. They are not to be dismissed as if they didn’t exist.

The truth is, changes in society HAVE made “church as we have always done it” more difficult to do. There really are a lot more things happening on Sunday that draw people away from attending Sunday morning worship. Our culture doesn’t assume that church attendance is part of being a good citizen anymore, so fewer people consider church attendance necessary. There really are a lot of changes in our society that make church life as we knew it in the heydays of the 1950’s pretty much impossible today. We need to admit these changes are real — and present a challenge to us as a church.

The second thing these Scripture lessons suggest is that we are to respond to these threatening “Goliaths” not with fear but with faith. But such faith isn’t faith in our own ability to resolve the danger or eliminate the threat. It is faith in God’s ability to save. 

In our Old Testament lesson, notice how David says “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” It isn’t the fact David has killed lions and bears before that makes David confident in the face of the threat Goliath presents. It is the fact he has experienced God’s salvation at work in his life in the face of threats before this moment that makes David confident. He is clear — it is God who has saved him from these ferocious animals, not his own bravery or his skill with a slingshot.

In the face of what feel like threatening changes in society about us, we are to have faith — faith in God and faith in Jesus. Like the disciples in the boat, we need to be willing to trust that Jesus is able to handle the situation. That God is big enough to take care of us, even when the boat is filling with water and in danger of capsizing. We need to trust in God, no matter what our circumstances.

Third, we are called upon to step out of simply doing what we’ve always done. The answer to our fears about the future are not found in working harder at doing the same thing yet one more time. It is found in following the leading of God’s Spirit into new ways of being and doing church.

The answer to the threat Goliath posed wasn’t found in the clash of fully armed military men. Saul and the Israelite army were fearful, because all they could imagine was a battle of warrior against warrior — and Goliath was not only larger and stronger, but was much better armed. In such a conventional battle they had no doubt about the fact they would lose.

The answer to Goliath’s threat wasn’t found in David putting on Saul’s armor so he could fight like any other military man. It was found in David going out like the shepherd he was. It was found in a shepherd boy, not a warrior. It was found in David going out with a slingshot and a few stones, not in armor carrying the weapons of war.

Times have changed. Society about us has changed and frankly we too have changed. That means the things we once did are not the answer for today challenges. God calls us to new ways of being the church. God calls us to new ministries. To new ways of showing God’s love to those about us. To new ways of involvement in our community. To new ways of reaching out to our neighbors. 

And we have changed. Rather than continuing to do old things, we need to met today’s challenges with the skills, assets and faith we have today. We need to imagine new ways these can show the love of Christ to those about us. We need to discover the new ways God is calling us to be God’s people in today’s realities.

But to do this we need to take an honest look at what we DO have. 

We may not have the money we once had, but we still have our building. How can we use our building in ways that show God’s love to those who live in our community not just for our own use?

We may not have the young people we once had, but we do have people who have lived life and gained a certain amount of wisdom. How can we use the experience and wisdom we possess as a congregation to respond to the challenges our community faces?

These are just two examples of the ways in which we might begin to think about how we meet the challenges of ministry that we face today.

Yes, we face changes and challenges as a church — lots of changes and challenges. And those changes and challenges  can feel threatening. But we can respond to them with faith and creativity, knowing that God is with us and calls and equips us for ministry in our world of today.

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