A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Friday, April 29, 2011

Pastor's Letter - May/June Circuit Rider Newsletter

First Lap of New Crossroads Fund Drive Begins Sunday, May 15!

      Imagine this:  five years from now, in the spring of 2016, our church will be crossing the finish line of paying off our Crossroads facility mortgage.  What a great time of celebration that will be!  And this race to victory all begins on Sunday, May 15 on Commitment Sunday!

     On May 15, we will be offering our completed “Faith Forward to the Finish Line” financial commitments for the first lap of our five-year fund drive.  The first lap is from June, 2011 to May, 2012.  For each of our five laps (years), we will be invited to make a new financial commitment to move us on to victory.

     Since early March, several videos have been shown during our worship services to help us see how our Crossroads facility is a valuable resource in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world.  To view these videos online, go to my web blog at www.pastorrobert-nikos.blogspot.com and on the left hand side, click on “Crossroads Campaign.”

     The videos highlight some of our many Crossroads events which include bible studies, worship, Second Saturday outreach, Creative Ministries, Wednesday Fellowship Dinners, emergency shelter for displaced families, Vacation Bible School, community organization and United Methodist district and conference events, funerals, wedding receptions, concerts, Easter egg hunt and activities, speakers, recreation, weekly youth ministry, and partnering with Grace Church.

     As we consider what our financial commitments will be for the first lap of our final five-year fund drive, I invite us to pray this simple prayer each day:  “Lord, what would You do through me to accomplish Your will in my church?”

     Start your engines!

Pastor Robert

Key Dates

Ø  Week of May 9 – Congregational Mailing of Commitment Cards
Ø  Sunday, May 15 – Commitment Sunday (Offering Our Commitment Cards)
Ø  Sunday, May 22 – Celebration Sunday (Sharing of Commitment Results)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bible Study Summary - Sunday's Upcoming Scriptures

Here at Lancaster First UMC, I am privileged to be part of two weekly bible study groups that study the scriptures for the upcoming Sunday worship services.

May 1st Sermon – “Happy Birthday, King James Version!”
Psalm 23
-          God’s care is sufficient for our every need.
-          God provides rest, guidance, protection.
-          Instead of enemies pursuing the psalmist, he/she is being pursued by goodness and mercy!
II Timothy 3:14-17
-          Verse 16 – A better translation is “breathed” and not “inspiried.”
-          1) Teaching 2) Rebuke – When we stray from God’s will. 3) Improve 4) Train – Helping us to be fully human.
Luke 24:13-27
-          Emmaus road story
-          Take a poll – which of Luke’s story is your favorite?  The prodigal son story or the Emmaus story?  Both are great!
-          The couple on road may have been husband/wife.  This is a good story for couples as they think about their faith.
-          Cleopas probably wondered if the stranger was a spy.  It took courage for him to share the details of their relationship with Jesus of Nazareth.
-          They were devastated because they had hoped Jesus would lead Israel to freedom from the Romans.
-          This is another example of how the scriptures show that the disciples recognized and didn’t recognize Jesus in his resurrected body.
-          This passage helps us to see the connection between Holy Communion and the reading of scripture.  We need both.
-          When has your heart burned within you when you realized the presence of the risen Christ?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A King James Version Miracle

This Sunday, our church will be celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Version.  We will be reading each scripture passage from the KJV rather than the New Revised Standard Version which is the version we have in our church pews.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited my mom and was able to sort through some old items in her attic.  To my delight and surprise, I stumbled upon a small leather bound KJV bible with s snap-on cover.  It's in great condition and my mom's signature was on the first page.  My mom has her own personal bible that she uses everyday, so this bible was more of a  keepsake for her.

Since I knew that we would be celebrating the anniversary of the KJV on May 1st, I received permission to bring this bible back home with me to read during worship.  Yesterday, as I was visiting folks throughout the day, I took this bible with me and read from it.

While this serves as a nice little story of the fortunate timing of me discovering my mom's KJV so that I could use for our May 1st Sunday, there is another little miracle on all of this.

During one of my visits, I opened to the first page of this bible to show my mom's signature to the person who was with me.  My eyes glanced to the opposite page where my mom had written this scripture reference - Luke 24:13-32 which is the Emmaus road story.

The miracle is that this is one of the scripture passages we will be using during worship this Sunday!

In that moment, I could understand why the disciples in the Emmaus story upon recognizing the risen Jesus said, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?"

My heart is still burning.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sermon (April 24) - "This Day in History"

     A couple of months ago, I was listening to an interesting news story on the radio about “The Most Boring Day” in recent history.  The day they were talking about was April 11, 1954.
     And they went on to say that on that day, nobody famous died.  Nobody famous was born. Nothing newsworthy happened on that day.
     William Tunstall-Pedoe, a University of Cambridge trained computer scientist claimed that his super computer program has determined that the second Sunday in April of 1954 was the most boring day since the dawn of the 20th century.  He backed up his claim by saying that after a computer analysis of more than 300 million facts done by a search engine called True Knowledge which he invented, that nothing great happened on that day. 
     The closest thing of any noteworthy news on that day was the birth of a famous Turkish author, but that’s about it.  Oh, and there were also elections held in Belgium that day. 
     When pressed if there was anything else that might have happened on that day, William Tunstall-Pedoe did say that there was an exhibition game between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians who would go on to play in the World Series later that year.
     I couldn’t help but laugh as I listened to this news segment, because the reporter who was interviewing this scientist tried as hard as he could to see if there was something that might have happened on that day.  So it appears that April 11, 1954 might take the prize as the most boring day of our modern era.
     By the way, was anyone here born on April 11, 1954?  Good!
     The evangelist John tells us that on a particular day in history, something so amazing happened that changed the world forever, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.   The problem is that none of us were there to experience that world changing day.  
     This is one of the reasons why I have empathy for those who find it difficult to believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened.   I mean, if none of us were there and without the advantage of modern day reporting to cover such a story, what would lead people today to actually believe that such an event happened?
     If it helps any, the Gospel writer John is concerned about that same question.  It’s like John anticipates the struggles, the disbeliefs, and the questions we will have when presented with the news that Jesus has risen from the dead. 
     Yes, we have heard of stories of people dying and coming back to life.  But this is different.  Jesus didn’t just die and come back to life, only to die again some day.  Jesus died and rose again in a new body, not to ever experience death again.  What an audacious claim!  If true, this would be the only time in the history of the world that such a thing has ever happened.
     If you were a Jew in the first century, you might have believed that a day would come when all of God’s people would rise again together for a general resurrection of the dead.  But you wouldn’t have ever thought that this could happen to one human being in the middle of history.
     Believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ isn’t just a problem for us post moderns.  It would also have been beyond comprehension for people in the first century.  Far from trying to cram religion down our throats, John reports on the Easter story by showing us how those first followers of Jesus responded to this amazing news.
     Mary is the first to discover that Jesus’ tomb is empty.  But this doesn’t lead her to an Easter faith right away.  The empty tomb only adds to her sadness over the death of her friend, Jesus.  From the empty tomb, she frantically runs to tell Peter and another disciple that someone has stolen Jesus’ body.  As an old saying of the French Foreign Legion has it: "When in doubt, gallop."  And that’s what Mary does.
     When she gets to Peter and the beloved disciple, she no sooner gets her story out of her mouth, than they too, break out running. They are both running toward the unknown; legs pumping, breathing hard, faces flushed, running toward the empty tomb, running toward the gaping hole in the universe of human expectation left by the absent body of Jesus.

     But gradually, John tells us, instead of simply running toward the tomb, they also begin to run against each other. Turning their eyes away from the finish line and glancing enviously at each other, the adrenaline kicks in, and the mad and mutual dash turns into a foot-race. The companions in sorrow become competitors on the track, Peter versus the other disciple, the pressure of the contest pushing their aching muscles to the limit as they rush along, vying for God knows what.

     And only God knew what they were striving for in this mad dash to the tomb.  But think about it.  Why is everyone in this story running? At one level, of course, the answer is obvious. Mary, Peter and the beloved disciple would probably say that the reason why they have greeted this first Easter with instantaneous wind sprints is because of the fear and the excitement of it all, because they sensed intuitively that the moment was filled with electricity, uncertainty, and urgency.

     Like people who have been startled by a sudden, sharp clap of thunder on a clear, blue day of sunshine, they didn’t immediately know exactly what had happened, but they spontaneously responded by jumping up and letting their feet fly. Whatever it meant that the tomb was astonishingly empty, it surely meant they could not sit still, so they ran.

     But that doesn’t explain why Peter and the beloved disciple suddenly turned their jog into a track meet. If one pressed them a bit, they might sheepishly confess that they were running not only because they were excited and awestruck but also because they were -- might as well admit it -- rivals. They started running out of exhilaration, but then competition between them took over, and they wanted to beat each other to the tomb.

     All through John's Gospel, Peter (the leader of the disciples) and the beloved disciple (the one who seems to be closest to the heart of Jesus) are natural rivals for center stage. When they heard Mary's word and began running, no doubt all that mattered to them initially was the news that the tomb was empty; but as they ran, the old rivalry clicked into place, and, matching stride for stride, it began to become important as to who would get there first.

     But even this doesn’t plumb the depths of their running. They may be running because they are excited, and they may be running because they are rivals, but the writer of John sees something much more profound in their footrace. John believes that these two disciples are not merely racing toward a vacant grave; though they do not yet know it, they are running toward the future, toward the resurrection, toward a radical new way of life. When they started running, they were the pupils of a dead teacher; by the time their running is done, they will be the disciples of a risen and living Christ.
    Why is it important to know that the beloved disciple won the race to the empty tomb? Why is John concerned to report that this disciple took a running jump and became the first human being to leap across the chasm between the old and dying age and the dawn of a new world of God's triumph? The reason is that the beloved disciple is first, not only in foot speed, but first also in the way he came to believe. His way of believing in the resurrection is in John's view, the primary and essential way of believing.

     Others will come to belief, but not like the beloved disciple. Mary will believe when she actually sees the risen Christ and hears him call her name. The other disciples with the exception of Thomas, will believe when Jesus appears to them saying, "Peace be with you." And as for Thomas, he will come to belief when the risen Jesus comes to him and offers to let him touch his hands and his side.

     But the beloved disciple is different. He believes when he sees ... nothing.  He doesn’t see Jesus; he doesn’t touch Jesus; he doesn’t hear Jesus call his name. He just peers into the empty tomb and believes. In other words, the beloved disciple, unlike the others, believes in the resurrection in the light of Jesus' absence. He has no evidence, save the emptiness. He has no proofs, no photographs, no scorched places on the earth caused by a burst of resurrection energy. He doesn't even have straight the biblical background on all this. All he has is an empty place where the body of the one who loved him used to be. But it is enough: "He saw and believed."

     Now we can understand why, from John's point of view, it was so important to record who won that footrace to the tomb. John wants us to know that the very first believer in the resurrection, the forerunner of all Easter faith, came to belief in precisely the same way that you and I do – in not seeing the risen Jesus. The risen Jesus has not appeared to us in a garden and called our name. The risen Jesus has not found us and stretched out his wounded hands for us to touch. The Easter faith is not only "He is risen!" but also "He is not here."  The resurrection of Christ means the absence of Jesus of Nazareth, and the beloved disciple was the first to know that, and the first to believe.

     "Blessed are those who have not seen," Jesus said, "and yet have come to believe." By this, he means us of course, and the beloved disciple, who believed though he did not see.

     The beloved disciple believed in the resurrection when he saw the empty tomb, not because he was a mystic or a psychic but because he knew and trusted Jesus. An infant will cry out in fear when his mother leaves her sight, but eventually there comes a day when the mother goes to the next room, out of the infant's sight, and yet the child is not afraid and does not cry. The mother's love has moved from being only an external reality to being an inner certainty. The child now trusts that the mother's absence is not abandonment, but a different expression of love. Just so, when the beloved disciple saw the empty place where his Master had been, when he realized that Jesus was out of his sight, he did not fear abandonment.  Jesus' love had become for him, an inner certainty, and he bet his life on the wager that this absence was another and even higher expression of Jesus' love.

     In John Updike's A Month of Sundays, there’s a parable about how the Christian faith is indeed, an improbable wager on the impossible possibility. In one episode, a group of men are playing a variation of poker. In this game, each person is dealt several cards, some of them on the table face up and the others concealed in the hand.

     In one round, the main character, a man named Thomas, has been dealt a very strong hand, and he decides to bet heavily. As Thomas keeps sweetening the pot and raising the stakes, all of the other players drop out one by one, intimidated by Thomas' hand, that is, all except one player, a stutterer named Fred.

     Curiously, Fred appears to have a poor hand; his cards showing on the table are as quoted in the book, "nondescript garbage." Astonishingly though, he keeps up the betting pace, calling and raising Thomas at every opportunity. Thomas is puzzled since his own hand is a poker player's dream. It isn't absolutely perfect -- he is holding one poor card -- but other than this single little flaw, his hand is virtually unbeatable. Why does Fred keep on betting against such odds? Why doesn't he fold?

     When the time comes to lay down the cards though, Thomas is shocked to discover that Fred has the winning hand. When he compares Fred's hand with his, Thomas realizes that there was only one card in the whole deck that could have made Thomas the loser, and that was the one bad card that Thomas had hidden in his hand. If Thomas had held any other card, he would have won, and won big. In other words, Fred was betting everything -- everything -- on the tiny chance that Thomas held this one losing card. Dumbfounded, Thomas thinks to himself: Fred had stayed in when only one card in the deck could have made my hand a loser to his. Two truths dawned upon me:

     He was crazy. He had won. He had raised the stakes not on a reasonable faith but on a virtual impossibility; and he had been right. "Y-y-y-you didn't feel to me like you had it," he told me, as he raked in his winnings.

     The beloved disciple goes to the tomb and finds it empty. No body, no visions, no explanation. Just a vacant tomb. This is a poor hand, to be sure, and the world has much stronger cards showing. But the beloved disciple wagers everything anyway. He bets his life on a virtual impossibility, that Jesus' absence was the sign of a new and radiant presence, that Jesus had been raised from the dead. There is but one combination of cards that could make him a winner, and he stakes everything on that possibility. Now we know two truths about him: He is crazy -- a fool for Christ -- and he has won. Jesus has indeed been raised from the dead.

     And so we believe today too. Not because of proofs or evidence, but because the beloved disciple knew and trusted Jesus and we do too. The beloved disciple told the story of the empty tomb and the risen Christ to others and they believed it as well. Then they told the story to others, and those others passed this surprising and wonderful news along, down a great chain of believing all the way to us. And we wager everything.

     Clint Tidwell is the pastor of a church in a small southern town, and one of his blessings -- and one of his curses -- is that the 80-year-old owner and still-active editor of the local newspaper is a member of his congregation. The blessing part is that this old journalist believes Tidwell to be one of the finest preachers around, and wishing the whole town to benefit from his sermons, he publishes a summary of Tidwell's Sunday sermon every Monday morning in the paper.

     The curse part is that this newspaperman, though well meaning, is a bit on the strange and eccentric side, and Tidwell is often astonished to read the synopses of his sermons. The man owns the newspaper; nobody dares edit his columns, and the difference between what Tidwell thought he said and what the editor actually heard is often a source of profound amazement and embarrassment to Tidwell.

     Tidwell's deepest amazement and embarrassment, however, came not when the newspaper editor misunderstood the Sunday sermon but to the contrary, when he understood it all too sharply and clearly. It was early on the Monday morning after Easter, and Tidwell, in his bathrobe and slippers, was striding out the carport door to retrieve the Monday newspaper. The paper was lying at the end of the driveway and as Tidwell approached, he could see that the morning headline was in "breaking news" sized type. What could it be? He wondered. Had war broken out somewhere? Had the local bank failed over the weekend? Had a cure for cancer been discovered? As he drew close enough to focus on the headline, he was startled to read the words, "Tidwell Claims Jesus Christ Rose from The Dead."

     A red flush crept up Tidwell's neck. Yes, of course, he had claimed in yesterday's sermon that Christ rose from the dead, but honestly, was that headline news? What would the neighbors think? I mean, you're supposed to say that in church on Easter, aren't you, that Christ rose from the dead, but that's not like saying that some person who died last week had risen from the grave, is it? Suddenly, as he looked at the screaming headline, what had been a routine Easter sermon had Tidwell feeling rather foolish.

     Indeed, it is foolish -- the foolishness of the gospel. Those who gather on this Easter Day to sing and say that "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" do so, not because we have proved anything philosophically, discerned some mystical key to the Scripture, or found some unassailable piece of historical evidence. We believe in the resurrection because the beloved disciple, the forerunner of all Easter faith, believed and passed the word along all the way into the present, prompting frail folks, like Tidwell and like us, to say what we believe: "I believe in Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried. On the third day he rose from the dead.”

     And we are left wondering…Dare we believe it? Dare we wager everything on it?

Easter Sunday Collect/Prayer

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sunday Worship Preview - May 1

May 1- (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, May 4 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Happy Birthday, King James Version!"

Features - 2nd Sunday of Easter, Holy Communion

Scripture - Psalm 23; II Timothy 3:14-17; Luke 24:13-27 (All to be read from the  KJV)

Theme - Monday, May 2nd marks the 400th publishing anniversary date of the King James Version of the Bible.  This Sunday prior to the anniversary offers us the opportunity to reflect on the significance of God’s Holy Word for our daily living.  Happy birthday, KJV! 

The Gospel of Matthew (Easter)

We reach the conclusion of our lenten cyber bible study on the Gospel of Matthew with this video on Easter.

I appreciate the video's reminder that the first people to hear the Gospel of Matthew were already followers of Jesus. Even if we already know the end of the story (the tomb is empty), N.T. Wright suggests that we read the gospel again, this time reflecting on what it means to live out Jesus' teachings in the context of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus.

Happy Easter!

Holy Saturday Prayer

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so may we await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

A Collect for Fridays

Collect of the Day: Good Friday

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sermon (April 21) - Maundy Thursday

Show and Tell and Serve

A popular form of education in the lower grades for many years has been what has been known as, "Show and Tell." It has invaded some pulpits as well, and preachers will do object-centered sermons; they hold or employ some particular item easily seen and understood by the congregation in order to gain attention and hopefully, make a point that will be remembered.

It was something of that nature Jesus was doing on the night of the Last Supper, as it is recorded for us by the evangelist John. In some ways, it comes as a surprise to us just as much as it did to those early disciples. We may even find ourselves as scandalized by it as was Peter.

We are of course, expecting what we get in the other Gospels, the tradition of Jesus taking bread and wine and sharing them with the others in remembrance of him. John doesn't even tell us about that event at all. Rather, he tells about something that happened at the meal, not reported by the other three evangelists. He tells this remarkable story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.

Why did Jesus do it? I suppose he wanted to show and tell them something about himself and something about themselves.

First, something about himself. It is not clear precisely when this event occurred in relation to the passing of the bread and the wine, because John says Jesus did it "during supper." In any event, the foot-washing is another way for Jesus to show the disciples what it meant to give his body and blood. It was an act of service which no one else could or would do.

Jesus and the disciples had walked the long way from Bethany and their sandaled feet were dusty. The basin and towel were there to be used by the servant appointed for the purpose, but there was no servant, and it was evident, if feet were to be washed, one of them would have to do it. That was a lot to expect from a bunch of guys who, only a few days previously, had been quarreling about who would have the chief seats in the kingdom! In their pride, they preferred that all, including their Master, should eat unwashed, rather than any one of them doing the job. In their pride, they failed not only to minister to one another, they failed to minister to Jesus himself.

I wonder if Jesus was sorrowfully exasperated with them, the way parents get with children when they stubbornly insist on their own way, even to their hurt. Had he talked and talked for three years for nothing? What more could he say? How could he express the message of the love of God any more vividly? What good would more words do if they still did not understand or apply what he had been saying? So Jesus must have decided an object lesson was in order. He would act out his teaching. He would show them, in a specific way who he was and what his teaching was all about. He, who had come from God and was about to return to God, would wash their feet.

In the breaking of bread, Jesus said, "This is my body, given for you." Now he quite literally uses his body to show the attitude of humility and service that was part of his mission as the Son of God. As God laid aside the divine glory in the incarnation, so Jesus lays aside his garments to do the work of a slave. He was showing and telling them something about himself: that humility is one of the characteristics of God.

Funny we never think of God as being humble. Maybe because humility is another of those words that has had a bad press. Humility doesn't mean eating dirt. It means you have enough confidence in who you are that you can recognize yourself even when you are dirty. It means you can risk the dirt because your appearance does not have to be defined by the cosmetics of pride. God is like that. The God who lived among us in Jesus Christ is like that. While the disciples may still have been thinking about the chief seats in the kingdom, the God who made them was washing their feet.

Jesus also sought to show and tell us something about ourselves as well. He tells us when we participate in his body and blood, we also become the foot- washers of the world. The servant is not greater than the master. A new commandment I give you that you love one another.

When we present-day disciples of Jesus Christ come to eat at this Table, it is appropriate to examine ourselves as to whether we are thinking about the best seats or the opportunities for service. The Holy Meal itself should be a reminder of our call to serve the needs of the world. In the early church, people didn’t show up at worship and find the communion elements all prepared in advance and waiting for them. No one had cut the bread into neat cubes and poured the wine or grape juice into those individual antiseptic shot glasses. They brought their bread and wine with them and presented them at the time of the offering, for theirs was largely a trading commerce where people dealt in kind. So the priest would take enough of the bread and wine to be used for the communion, and the rest of it would be distributed to the poor of the community.

Participating in the communion of the body and blood of Christ automatically meant being involved in ministering with Christ to the needs of the world. As Christ gave his body and blood for the world, we are called to give ourselves. As he washed the feet of his disciples, so we are called to outdo one another, only in serving and showing honor to one another. Jesus has given us, has shown us, an example of what we are to be if we are to follow him in the world, if we are to presume to partake of his body and blood in this holy meal.

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so Jam. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Sometimes I think we take the Sacrament of Holy Communion for granted, especially for those of us who have been brought up in the life of the church. I hope we will always consider this Sacrament as a high honor and a precious privilege, to share with the saints in all ages around the banquet table of the Lamb. But remember, please, those saints deserve the name of saint because they went with their Lord all the way. And how could they do any other when they once tasted and saw the Lord was good? They were set free to be humble. Their spirits could soar into service.

A preacher once took his congregation on an imaginary tour through the museum of the New Jerusalem. He told about what he saw there: a widow's mite and the feather of a little bird; some swaddling clothes, a hammer and three nails, and a few thorns; a sponge that had once been dipped in vinegar and a small piece of silver; a common drinking cup which had a very honorable place. Then he asked the attendant: "Have you not got a towel and a basin in your collection?" Can you guess the answer? "No, not here. You see, they are in constant use."

They are in constant use - by us. Because Jesus has shown and told us what it means to love and to serve.

Maundy Thursday

Collect of the Day: Maundy Thursday

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Gospel of Matthew for Lent (Holy Week)

Bible Study Summary - Sunday's Upcoming Scriptures

Here at Lancaster First UMC, I am privileged to be part of two weekly bible study groups that study the scriptures for the upcoming Sunday worship services.

April 24 Sunday Sermon – “This Day in History”

Acts 10:34-43
- Telling the Gentiles about Jesus
- After the resurrection/ascension of Jesus, the apostles shared the good news of Jesus by telling stories. These stories emphasized 1) God’s covenant with Israel and 2) Had Jesus at the center.
- In this passage, the apostles are telling the Jesus story in Caesarea which was a Gentile city. The apostles are fulfilling the commission Jesus had given them before he ascended to his throne.
- The story of Jesus even when told to a non-Jewish community (gentiles) always involved telling the context of God’s covenant with Israel.
- Why was a gentile like Cornelius receptive to this particular story? 1) The Jesus’ message in and of itself is powerful because it’s about how Jesus is King of the world 2) It’s a message of peace and not of violence 3) God has chosen us to live out this good news 4) God welcomes all people to be part of his kingdom.
- Upon hearing this good news, the Holy Spirit comes upon Cornelius and he believes. This is a significant story because it shows that there are no ethnic or cultural barriers with God. All are welcome!

John 20:1-18
- John is very good at connecting the story of Jesus and the crucifixion/resurrection account with the Genesis creation story: 1) Creation of humans/Jesus before Pilate 2) God rests/Jesus’ body placed in tomb 3) First Day of Creation/New Creation
- Mary Magdalene is the first apostle. She was the first to see the risen Christ.
- Mary tells the disciples and they run to the tomb. There is a lot of running in John’s Easter account!
- The burial cloths are folded and neat in the tomb, as if the body hadn’t been unwrapped but had simply disappeared! Archeologists have found only one other tomb with burial clothes left in a neat way like this. Because of Roman revolt, the family didn’t have time to remove the bones from the tomb.
- The empty tomb points to new creation and the launching of a new world. Jesus’ resurrection was a surprise to the disciples because it was supposed to come at the end of time with the rising of all of God’s people at once.
- Focus of sermon – The other disciple saw and believed even though he didn’t actually see Jesus’ resurrected body. What does it mean for us to believe in Jesus’ resurrection since we haven’t seen the risen Christ?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Holy Week Worship Preview

Maundy Thursday:
April 21 - Noon & 7:30 P.M.
Sermon - "Show and Tell and Serve"
Features - Maundy Thursday & Holy Communion
Scripture - Exodus 12:1-14; I Corinthians 11:23-26; & John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Theme - On Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, we remember the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. What can we learn from this story so that like Jesus, we too can show and tell and serve?
Good Friday:
April 22 - Noon & 7:30 P.M.
Congregational Reflection - "Proclamation of the Passion Story"
Features - Good Friday
Scripture - Luke 22:14-23:56
Theme - A member of our church will tell the story of the passion of Christ in a very moving and dramatic way.

The Gospel of Matthew for Lent (Week of April 17)

During the season of Lent, the 40 day period leading up to Easter Sunday, "The Big Read" led by New Testament scholar, Dr. Tom Wright offers several videos to walk us through the Gospel of Matthew. These videos are under five minutes in length and offer very solid biblical scholarship to help us understand Matthew's particular understanding of who Jesus is.

As a resource during this season of Lent, I invite us to take just five minutes out of our schedules to watch the video and allow this to be a vital resource during our Lenten journey. The reason the focus of these videos is on Matthew's gospel is because Matthew is the primary gospel used in worship for this liturgical year.

I invite comments, thoughts, discussions, questions throughout this lenten cyber study. A link to these videos will also be posted each week on the facebook page of First United Methodist Church, Lancaster, Ohio.

New Crossroads Fund Drive - Red Cross Emergency Shelter

Sermon (April 17) - "An App for That: Pilgimage"

During this season of Lent, we have been focusing on several different spiritual disciplines or spiritual apps that are meant to help us to become more fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. All of these disciplines that we have looked at during these six weeks; fasting, observing the Sabbath, Prayer, Holy Communion, following the Christian calendar, and Pilgrimage, are time tested and tried and true ways of helping us grow closer to God.

Today, we look at the spiritual app of pilgrimage. In his book, “Sacred Travels: Recovering the Ancient Practice of Pilgrimage,” Christian George reminds us that pilgrimage is one that is practiced by the major world religions. Muslims travel to Mecca. Buddhists to Mount Kailash, Hindus to Kedarnath, Jews to Jerusalem. Christians to Rome.

One of the central themes of Lent is that God calls us to go on a journey with Jesus which eventually takes us to the cross, but then also to the glorious empty tomb and the celebration of Easter.

Many of the Psalms are known as Psalms of Ascent which were psalms that the people of God would have sung as they made their pilgrimage from wherever they lived to the city of Jerusalem. One of those Psalms is Psalm 121. Picture many families after walking several miles, all of the sudden looking up and in the far distance seeing for the first time the Temple in Jerusalem situated high on a hill leading the people to break out into song, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

The story of the bible is a story of God’s people being led on a journey, a pilgrimage. God is not static. God is always on the move. Remember, the first two letters of “God” spells the word, “go” which is very appropriate since God’s people have always been a pilgrim people who journey from place to place seeking to extend God’s blessings to the people and places they visit.

I Peter 2:11 picks up on this theme of pilgrimage when it refers to those who follow Jesus Christ as aliens. The word, “aliens” is sometimes translated as strangers. And if you follow the translation of that word from Greek to Latin, we actually get the word, “pilgrim” in English. I Peter 2:11 is referring to those who follow Jesus as pilgrims.

So what are the ways that the spiritual app of pilgrimage can make a huge difference in our lives? Well, I think there are basically these four ways:

Number one – Going on a spiritual pilgrimage can help us appreciate God’s creation. Many of us like to travel and I’m sure that right now, you can think of at least one breath taking moment that you will never ever forget. It was that awe inspiring and beautiful.

The second way that a spiritual pilgrimage can deepen our relationship with God: It helps us to see God’s involvement in human history. When we read the bible, we read about events that are located within history and historical events. In fact, Luke, who wrote one of the four Gospels, was known as a 1st century historian who with great detail describes the events of Jesus’ day.

And even after the biblical witness, there have been countless numbers of saints who have done incredible things as people of faith. It’s when we visit these places where they lived and ministered that we gain a deeper appreciation for the historical time period in which they lived.

A third way is that a spiritual pilgrimage can be a way to challenge our faith. While some spiritual pilgrimages can take us to the height of God’s beauty, there are also some sites that can challenge our faith and our preconceived notions about who God is and what that means about who we are.

A fourth way that a spiritual pilgrimage can deepen our faith: It can help us to be more faithful in being followers of Jesus Christ. By spending time in places where Christians have faithfully lived and served, their example inspires us to also follow Christ at all costs.

And then, this fifth way: Since spiritual pilgrimages often are done in groups, they have a way of deepening relationships. Travel has a way of forging memories that will last for a lifetime, memories reminding us of the adventure we shared together as God’s people.

As I’ve been thinking about this spiritual app of pilgrimage over the past several weeks and how it can help us to grow in a closer relationship with Jesus Christ, I came up with three different types of pilgrimages that we can take.

The first kind of pilgrimage I thought about is a long distance pilgrimage. In his book on pilgrimage, Christian George shares several long distance pilgrimages over the past several years that have had a huge impact on his Christian faith.

Over the next few minutes, let’s go on a virtual pilgrimage to some of these holy sites that Christian George mentions in his book. I’ll share his personal reflections on each of his pilgrimages. We don’t have a lot of time to stay at each site so don’t blink or you might miss it.

First stop, Canterbury, England. This is the site of Canterbury, Cathedral which continues today to be the central location for the Arch Bishop of Canterbury and serves as the central location for the world wide Anglican Communion.

It was at this spot on a cold December day in the year 1170, that Thomas a’ Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, knelt before angry knights who had been given orders by King Henry II to have him killed because he had spoken out against the king.

Thomas a’ Becket was kneeling in prayer upon the altar when the knights stormed into the cathedral. “I am prepared to die for my Lord” he whispered. After striking him several times with their swords leaving him for dead, one of the knights famously said, “We can leave this place. He will not get up again.”

After the martyrdom of Thomas a’Becket, amazing things began to happen at Canterbury Cathedral including incredible healings and miracles all near the tomb of the martyred archbishop. Word began to spread about what was being reported and before too long, hordes of pilgrims during the past 800 years have been visiting this site.

In the Middle Ages, Canterbury Cathedral became the most popular pilgrimage site rivaling even the great sites in Italy, Spain, France, and Israel. Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales was inspired by the enormous popularity of the pilgrimage to Canterbury during his day.

Christian George made his pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral in 1995. He was especially moved by the twelve beautiful stained glass windows that tell the story of Thomas a’ Becket’s life. Those windows left a lasting impression on him and caused him to think how he was allowing his life to reflect the beauty of God to the people around him, just as Thomas a’ Becket did through his faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

Next stop – Skellig Michael, Ireland. Approximately 500 years after the birth of Christ, Christians came to Skellig Michael and built a monastery on its summit. This was during a time when it was popular for Christians to follow the example of St. Anthony who was a Christian pilgrim who had retreated to the African desert to preserve the Christian faith which at the time was being contaminated by secularized Roman society. Anthony gave himself to a life of discipline, meditation, and solitude.

Irish monks of the sixth century did not have a desert to flee to, but they did have an ocean. Skellig Michael was the most distant island of the known world, the last bit of earth one could stand on before falling off the edge.

This is the mountain that Charles Lindberg saw from his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis as he was making his non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in May of 1927. He was surprised by how enormous it was, jutting 700 feet out of the water. The name, Skellig is an Irish word, for “rock.” Lindberg barely avoided a collision with this mountain while in flight.

In 2004, Christian George made his pilgrimage to this Irish monastery located at Skellig Michael. It was a dangerous journey for him and he does not recommend this pilgrimage because of the risk that is involved in climbing up the steps of the mountain.

Taking a boat to the island was an adventure in and of itself. Choppy waters made the way to the island very difficult but looking back to the shore, Christian could see the many shades of green of Ireland’s landscape.

The captain of the boat then pointed out Skellig Michael. The enormity of this mountain overwhelmed him. Skellig Michael is the top of an underwater mountain, rising like a phoenix from its ocean ashes.

In A.D. 825, Viking Norsemen from Scandinavia also arrived at this mountain and after hiking up the side, they kidnapped the abbot of the monastery and starved him to death. They also stole their possessions.

During the Middle Ages, Skellig Michael served as a lighthouse for the world. During a time of high illiteracy, this is where the monks translated the scriptures and preserved the Christian tradition. They worked in rooms called scriptoria, engraving the Gospels not only in words but also with art. This is why the Irish are known for having “saved civilization.”

Reading Christian George’s dangerous climb up the side of Skellig Michael made my palms sweaty as I felt like I was climbing with him. Listen to what he says: “A thousand year old stairway took us to the top of the island where the monastery was located. 600 cracked and weathered steps held us to the hills – not an easy climb. At times, the path was only two or three feet wide and when wet, it was extremely slippery. One little accident, a slight slip of the sole, and the poor pilgrim would get an up close look at the sharp rocks hundreds of feet below. I would have been less concerned about falling off the cliff were it not for the 30 mile an hour wind gusts that slammed into us at all the wrong moments. At times, I actually crawled on hands and knees up the rigorous slope. Better safe than sorry.”

When Christian George and his group finally arrived at the top, they explored the six beehive huts, the two chapels, and an ancient overgrown cemetery. Christian George stood there wondering how those monks could have ever withstood the cold of winter and the constant threat of the Vikings. As he walked into the roofless rocky chapel, he felt a common heritage with the hermits who had worshiped in this room. He felt their fears were his fears. Their creeds were his creeds. Their Christ was his Christ.

The next pilgrimage destination – Rome, Italy. Christian George made his pilgrimage to Rome and St. Peter’s Basilica in 1999. He arrived to participate in the annual patron feast of Saints, Peter and Paul. Saint Peter’s square was packed with people.

It was a pilgrimage that helped him to appreciate what Catholicism has contributed to Christianity. Even though Christian George is a Protestant, this trip gave him a sense of shared unity with brothers and sisters from another Christian faith tradition.

He climbed the Spanish Steps, saw the Trevi Fountain, ate Italian ice cream near the Coliseum, visited the Pantheon, the Roman forum, Trajan’s column, the Arch of Titus, and many, many other sites. Since both Peter and Paul had walked the streets of Rome, it was humbling to think about the beginning of the early church.

We don’t have time today to visit Christian George’s other pilgrimage sites like Wittenberg Germany and the Reformer, Martin Luther; Assisi, Italy and St. Francis; Isleham, England and the great preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon; Buchenwald, Germany and the concentration camp of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Long distance pilgrimages can be a wonderful way to grow in our faith.

Penny and I have hosted a group trip to England to retrace the life and ministry of John Wesley and to Italy to visit the holy sites of the Christian faith. I led a group to the Holy Land back in 1995 which made a huge difference in my reading and understanding of the scriptures.

Since it’s been a while since Penny and I have led a long distance spiritual pilgrimage, and in celebration of our church’s upcoming bicentennial year, we would like to invite you to consider joining us on a trip to England to visit the places of John Wesley and the early Methodists. We’ll be in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Bath, Worcester, Gloucester, Coventry, Epworth, Stratfford, and Oxford. This trip will be in July of 2012. More information about this trip will be available in the next month or so.

In addition to long distance pilgrimages, there are also what I would call short distance pilgrimages like spiritual retreats. These can be as short as one day, an overnight, a weekend, or even longer. There is something about getting away from our familiar surroundings and spending that time with God. Some of the most meaningful spiritual moments in my life have occurred at a church camp or at a retreat. It was at a weekend retreat when I heard and responded to a call from God to enter into the pastoral ministry.

Many of you have had similar experiences of drawing closer to God through a retreat experience. It might have been an Emmaus weekend which is a three day weekend held at a nearby setting or another type of retreat or conference in which that time away made a huge difference in your faith journey.

In addition to long distance and short distance pilgrimages, there is also what I would call, pilgrimages of the heart. These are closer to home type of journeys. The church year provides us opportunities to go on these kinds of pilgrimages. This Lenten season of 40 days has served that purpose and we are about to enter one again as we begin Holy Week and reflect on the last days of Jesus’ life. Palm Sunday is the beginning of that journey, the conclusion of Jesus’ long pilgrimage throughout the gospel account.

These are the three pilgrimages that can help our faith stretch and grow. Long and short distance pilgrimages and pilgrimages of the heart.

Like many pilgrims who had gone before him, Jesus, upon arriving at the crest of the summit, would have been overtaken by the beauty and majesty of Jerusalem as it glistened by the rays of the sunshine.

Jesus enters the city by riding on a young donkey and as he heads down in the Kidron Valley, the crowds wave their palm branches, spread their cloaks along the road for him, and begin to sing another Psalm of Ascent, this time, it’s Psalm 118. It’s a song of victory, a hymn of praise to the God who defeats all his foes and establishes his kingdom at last.

Hopefully everyone received a palm branch as you came into the sanctuary this morning. In the Middle Ages, spiritual pilgrims would arrive to their homes waving palm branches, which signified that they had been on a spiritual pilgrimage to a holy site.

As we leave from worship today, I hope that our palm branches will remind us that we are all called to go on a pilgrimage whether it be for a long distance like Rome, Italy or a short distance, like an Emmaus weekend at Camp Akita, or the journey we are about to make this week for Holy Week, as we journey with Jesus to the cross and to the empty tomb.

Martin Luther from the 16th century once said, “If I rest, I rust.”

Lao Tzu from 500 B.C. said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

If you’re looking for a way to make that first step, there’s an app for that. And it’s called Pilgrimage.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sunday Worship Preview - April 24

April 24 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, April 27 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "This Day in History"

Features - Easter Sunday

Scripture - Acts 10:34-43 & John 20:1-18

Theme - Easter is about a day in history that changed the world forever. In his telling of this “day of all days” John highlights the faith of the beloved disciple who was able to believe in the resurrection of Jesus even before he had encountered the Risen Lord face to face.

Palm Sunday Prayer

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dave's Deep Thoughts

Here's Pastor Dave McDowell's weekly devotional that he sends out to members of his church. Dave is my brother and serves as the Music Minister at Stewartstown UMC in PA.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder,
then please tell me that I am not going blind!

I love the season of spring.
I love to watch as plants and trees
begin to bud and bloom.
I love the sound of the first lawn mower
and the smell of freshly cut grass.

I love the shade of green
that is only revealed in nature
when the tree leaves first reveal themselves.

I love the sounds of baseball
and the smell of hot dogs grilling.

I love the smell of Easter flowers
and the taste of coconut on an Easter cake.

I love feeling the first warm breeze
that replaces the chill of winter.

I love ignoring the coat closet
as I exit the house.

I love the daylight that is present when I awake,
and is still accompanying me into the evening.

I love spring.

As a child,
I grew up on a working farm,
and there was another sure sign of spring.

That would be the manure spreader.

In farmspeak,
it is also referred to as the #*!# kicker.

It is the piece of farm equipment
that distributes the manure collected in the barn throughout the long winter
onto the thawing spring fields
to fertilize the ground.

Now the #*!# kicker
is not the most elegant pieces of farm equipment.

It lacks the majesty of the red Farmall tractor.
It lacks the largeness of the grain harvester.
It lacks the brute strength of the plow.

It is not exactly the first piece of farm equipment
that captures the inquisitive attention of a 10 year old farm child.

But it is an important piece of life on the farm..

When the #*!# kicker is out in the fields
doing its thing,
anyone with a sense of smell knows it is spring.

One only needs to take a deep breath
to know that soon the crops will be
pushing their way up through the soil.

Because of its humble purpose,
the #*!# kicker is often a dirty, dull looking piece of equipment.

That's what I thought.......
until last week.

As I was driving through the countryside,
I was enjoying the feel of one of those early days of spring.

I had the window of the car down,
and the radio turned up high.

The daffodils had started to bloom,
and the sun was warming this little section of the world.

As I came over the crest in the hill,
the tune that I was humming
was interrupted by a sight that I had never seen
in all my days on the farm.

It was a #*!# kicker,
but it was painted in pastel colors of teal and yellow!

Now I must confess
that I have never seen a pastel painted #*!# kicker before.

It's somewhat unusual.

It's like meeting a tall leprechaun,
or a beauty pageant contestant with bad hair.

It just doesn't fit.

Now I must admit that I like the color, teal
but I'm not so sure about it on farming equipment.

After all,
it's still a #*!# kicker,

Okay, maybe a #*!# kicker designed for South Beach,
but it still does the same thing.

Perhaps a cornpicker would look good in mauve,
or a baylor would be stunning in fuchsia.

But it's still just farming equipment.

We sometimes like to make things
look better than they really are in our lives.

We put flowers and plants around our septic tanks.
We part our hair differently to cover a bald spot.
We choose clothes to hide our less than perfect physiques.

But the deficiencies are still there,
there are just hidden.

As we approach Holy week,
we approach a God who not only knows fully our deficiencies,
but embraces them and nails them to a cross.

No attempt to paint this cross in pastels,
it's not meant to be pretty.

But it's meant to change us,
and give us access to that which is indeed beautiful.

Oh, the bald spot might still remain,
and the extra pounds might still show up on the scale,

but when we come before Him willingly, as we are,
He makes all things beautiful.

And that's far deeper,
then a thin coat of paint.

May you journey to the cross and empty tomb
during this upcoming week,
and know that He continues to change those who are willing,
from what we were to what we will be.

How lovely on the mountains are the feet of Him
who brings good news,
who announces peace and brings good news of happiness,
Who announces salvation and says to Zion,
'Your God reigns!'
- Isaiah 52: 7

Bible Study Summary - Sunday's Upcoming Scriptures

Here at Lancaster First UMC, I am privileged to be part of two weekly bible study groups that study the scriptures for the upcoming Sunday worship services.

Sunday Sermon (April 17) – “An App for That: Pilgrimage

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
- This is a lectionary reading with Palm Sunday references. (Verses 26-27)
- Verse 25 “Save Us” is translated as “hosanna” in the New Testament.
- This is a Psalm that pilgrims to Jerusalem would have sung in celebration that God will one day set up his kingdom on earth. It is known as a Psalm of Ascent.
- A person who comes to the Temple to give thanks for deliverance.
- Verses 10-14 – Could this person be a king?
- Verse 22 – View by New Testament writers as a messianic reference.

Luke 19:28-40
- Pilgrims would travel to Jerusalem for Passover and climb up the gradual mountain which leads up to the city and the Temple.
- Luke’s main theme is Jesus’ pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem. This is the climax of the story in terms of Jesus reaching his destination. The question for us is, “What’s going to happen now that he has arrived?
- Jesus rides on a young donkey to fulfill Zech. 9:9, a messianic text.
- The disciples catching on to what Jesus is doing, spread their cloaks to help emphasize this messianic expectation. The crowds pick up on this theme and sing Psalm 118, a pilgrim song.
- Where are we on this story? Are we celebrating Jesus arriving as King? How will we feel when this parade ends in a cross? Are we prepared to be a people who join Jesus in combining the pilgrimage of celebration with the pilgrimage of the cross?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Discovering Your Spiritual Gifts

The United Methodist website has a link to help us discover our spiritual gifts and how those gifts might help us in participating in a ministry through the church. The link explains what spiritual gifts are and provides a spiritual gift assessment that only takes a couple of minutes to complete. Following the assessment, it will show what your top spiritual gifts are.

Every new member class at our church spends time completing a spiritual gift inventory during one of our sessions together. It's a very helpful tool which encourages us to put our faith into action through the life of the church.

Every fall, our church sends a "Prayers, Presences, Gifts, Service, & Witness" stewardship commitment form to the people in our congregation to complete in preparation for the upcoming calendar year. For "service" we provide a list of over one hundred ministry opportunities. By knowing what our spiritual gifts are, we are better able to choose ministries that line up with how God uniquely created us to serve in ministry.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Gospel of Matthew for Lent (Week of April 10)

During the season of Lent, the 40 day period leading up to Easter Sunday, "The Big Read" led by New Testament scholar, Dr. Tom Wright offers several videos to walk us through the Gospel of Matthew. These videos are under five minutes in length and offer very solid biblical scholarship to help us understand Matthew's particular understanding of who Jesus is.

As a resource during this season of Lent, I invite us to take just five minutes out of our schedules to watch the video and allow this to be a vital resource during our Lenten journey. The reason the focus of these videos is on Matthew's gospel is because Matthew is the primary gospel used in worship for this liturgical year.

I invite comments, thoughts, discussions, questions throughout this lenten cyber study. A link to these videos will also be posted each week on the facebook page of First United Methodist Church, Lancaster, Ohio.