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
"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Sunday, August 12 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, August 15 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)
Sermon - "The Life of David: How Do You Want to Be Remembered?"
Features - Season After Pentecost
Scripture - II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Theme - The story of David helps us to reflect on a time in his life when he made bad decisions which led to some very painful consequences. We try to make sense from these sad and tragic stories in the Bible. Thankfully, God remains faithful in spite of us!
Sunday, July 29, 2012
Sunday, August 5 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, August 8 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)
Sermon - "The Life of David: Seeing the Real You"
Features - Season After Pentecost & Holy Communion
Scripture - II Samuel 11:26-12:13a
Theme - It's not easy for us to see who we areally are. Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that we are someone other than who God created us to be. Thankfully, God provides ways for us to see who we really are so that we can begin anew with God.
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
So far during our summer sermon series on the life of David from the Old Testament, we have learned a lot about this man after God's own heart. As we prepare for the home stretch of this sermon series, David is a great example of what it means to be a faithful follower and leader for God.
David has taught us to not allow outward appearances to get in the way of serving God, to know that there is no giant in our lives that is too big for God and for us to handle, that when we experience a loss we can grieve with hope, to do whatever we can to seek unity among God's people, to express our appreciation of God's grace through dance and celebration, and to know that anything we give to God is in response to what God has already given to us and will continue to give us.
This Sunday, will be the first time that David will teach us what NOT to do because of his adulterous affair with Bathesheba and the killing of Uriah. Since David did so much good but also sinned greatly, how do we reconcile these two sides of who David was?
It's interesting that the news about iconic football coach, Joe Paterno's concealment of Jerry Sandusky's crimes has surfaced almost exactly when this sermon series begins to focus on David's very poor decisions. I will do my best to not highlight more than what is needed between these two prominent figures but there is an interesting comparison to be made.
Timothy McGettigan, a professor of sociology at Colorado State-Pueblo helps makes sense of the rise and fall of iconic figures by stating, "What we do in a lot of cases - and mass media helps with this - is if people do noteworthy things, they tend to get a great deal of media attention, and that builds on itself and creates what is known as a cult of personality. What we do in a lot of ways with the mass media is take people who have done exceptional things and make them a larger than life character, and then we do things like naming things after them that sort of enshrine their uniqueness."
The problem is that when they don't live up to this image and we have statues made in their honor during their lifetime, the more outrage we will feel at the events that have transpired. Statues that were meant for eternity will be abruptly torn down.
Even with David's many sins as we will begin to see in our sermon series, King David's statue still proudly stands in a museum in Florence, Italy. I wonder if the casual observer of that statue is aware of David's terrible sins when they gaze upon it. The statue stands because David also did a lot of good for God and for God's people. But it also stands because it was built centuries after he died!
This is why professor McGettigan offers this advice: "The best rule for naming any physical thing is to make sure that they are dead and gone, and some universities have rules that you have to wait five years after a person passes away before you name anything after them. I think that's a good idea."
I am one to agree that Paterno's statue needed to come down immediately. It would be a mistake to take it down only to satisfy our own feelings of hypocrisy due to how we have fed into the cult of the Joe Paterno personality. I hope the statue was taken down to help in the healing process, but also as a sobering reminder that every human being is flawed and we all need to be accountable for our actions.
And the good news is that God's grace is available for all who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
A very kind couple in my church who live on a farm dropped off perfectly ripened peaches at our house this week. Peaches are my favorite fruit. The problem with fruit is that there is usually a small window of shelf life in eating them at just the right time before they go bad. Or you can have the opposite problem and eat them too soon when they don't taste very good.
I've been thinking how fruit is a very biblical image. We are called to be fruitful by living out our faith so that we can see tangible results of God's transforming work in our community and world. Just like I can't imagine not having any fruit in my diet especially during the summer months, it's difficult to imagine the church not having any fruit since we are called to live out our faith and make a difference in our world.
When we don't live out our faith, we miss out on being the fruitful people that God has called us to be. Without a little patience, we are sometimes like that hardened peach that still needs to soften. It takes time to be the people we have been created to be. And sometimes, we wait way too long to step out in faith. The time is "ripe" for a new ministry and to take on a new spiritual opportunity, but we wait too long and miss the opportunity, kind of like eating a peach that has started to spoil!
In the heart of the summer, God calls us to be fruitful. We are invited to allow the "fruit of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22-23,) love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control to be evident in all that we say and do. Remember, you're a peach! Be fruitful!
And that's not just a warm and fuzzy thought!
Saturday, July 21, 2012
Sermon - "The Life of David: O, What a Tangled Web We Weave"
Features - Season After Pentecost
Scripture - II Samuel 11:1-15
Theme - David is viewed as a great man of faith but today’s reading reminds us that David had another side that was resistant to being the person God had called him to be. When faced with temptation, are we open to receiving God’s grace to help us make the right decisions?
Like many of you, I sometimes struggle with what to buy for people when it’s their birthday or for Christmas. There’s a feeling of accomplishment when you think of that perfect gift to give to somebody.
But isn’t it disheartening when you forget to buy someone a Christmas gift? Or if somebody buys you a gift and they give it to you like a couple of days before Christmas and then you’re left with a dilemma. “Would it be tacky if I buy this person a gift? Obviously, they’re going to know that any gift I give to them is only because they bought me a gift.” And we wonder what we’re going to do in that situation.
Gift giving isn’t always easy.
Someone in my family used to always get me something religious for my birthday and at Christmas. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with religious things.
And yet, how many praying hands book ends does a pastor need? Or how many bible verse wall plaques are one too many? I think I have every Chuck Swindoll and Max Lucado book that’s ever been published.
And then we have the problem of buying for someone who seems to have everything. These are the people who tell you, “Oh, you don’t need to get me anything.” They think they’re being modest and polite, but it really just makes it that much more difficult for you as the gift buyer. It would be so much easier if that person would just say something like, “You know, I could use another set of praying hands.”
What do you get for someone who seems to have everything?
And what can you and I possibly give to God? Have you ever thought of that? What appropriate gift can we give since God is the creator of everything there is?
About 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, King David had a tremendous desire to give God a gift. He was living during a period of Israel’s history where things have really settled down and the nation of Israel was at peace with her enemies.
David was aware of God’s goodness and love. And he wanted to express his gratitude to God for all of these blessings. And one day, he thought to himself, “What would be a nice gift for God? What does God need?”
As he looked around at his beautiful house of cedar, the thought came to him that the Lord should have a nice house like this. And so David consulted the prophet Nathan that he wanted to build the Lord a Temple.
Nathan likes the thought of this, and tells King David, “That’s a wonderful idea. I suggest you begin working on getting that gift idea right away.” But there ends up being one important snag in this whole new home for God idea. The Lord tells David and Nathan, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Why would the Lord turn down such a nice gift? If you know the rest of the story, it ended up being David’s son, Solomon who built the Lord a Temple. But why didn’t the Lord want it to be David?
Our scripture reading from II Samuel tells us why. It was because the Lord still had another very important gift to give to David. Instead of a house for the Lord, the Lord wanted to give David a house, not a house of cedar which he already had, but a house or a kingdom that would last forever. How’s that for trading places? The gift giver, David, becomes the gift receiver!
And this gift of an everlasting kingdom was not only to bless David and his family, but was also a gift for the whole world, because it would be through Jesus Christ, a descendent of David that God’s kingdom would be established forever, a kingdom of God’s love, grace, and righteousness.
David’s desire to build the Lord a Temple was well meaning and from the heart. But it didn’t come close to the gift that the Lord wanted to give David. It can be a struggle to think of what gifts we might give to God, the God of all creation.
Many of us put an offering in every Sunday morning. Does God want our financial gifts?
Or maybe we attend worship and serve in a ministry through our church. Wouldn’t these be considered our gifts to God? Does God want us to offer our time and our physical presence as gifts?
Well yes, but…
I heard a Christian once say, “You know, my wife and I follow the biblical principle of tithing our income and giving it to the church. Since we both make decent incomes, that check to the church each week is a pretty big chunk of money. Ten percent of our income is bigger than our car payments and we have nice cars.”
And then he went on to say, “But when I stop to think of who God is and how Jesus Christ has changed my life, it makes my check to the church look so puny in comparison.”
I think this person is on to something. Our gifts to God and the church are meant to be expressions of our gratitude for all that God has done. Our gifts to God and the church are never meant to earn God’s favor or to pay back what God has done for us. We can never do that.
When we put our offering in the plate, I often feel like the man who, in a hurry to go to the church picnic, quickly grabbed a bologna sandwich and ran out the door. Each family was asked to bring their own food to eat. The man with the bologna sandwich sat next near a family who had this incredible spread of fried chicken, potato salad, and apple pie.
And here, this man sat with this meager bologna sandwich all by himself. The family, noticing this man sitting by himself said, “Hey would it be ok if you share your sandwich with us and we’ll share our food with you?” This man came with a bologna sandwich, and received so much more.
On a beautiful fall day, just about the time when the leaves were finally beginning to turn colors, I went for a run on the bike path. It was a memorable autumn day with blue skies and sun rays shining through the leaves of the trees.
It was just one of those moments that I’m sure you have experienced as well, where you just say to yourself, “God is so unmistakingly present in this moment.” And as I was running, I couldn’t help but to think of how God is so gracious to us.
What gift could I give to God in that moment as I was taking in God’s beautiful creation? I smiled as I thought about the absurdity of trying to write a personal check to the church as I was running, even though it’s what I felt like doing in that moment to show my appreciation to God.
I even thought about the impossibility of signing up to serve in a ministry area as I ran on the bike path, but I usually don’t carry a church commitment form with me when I work-out. After I was done humoring myself, a more serious thought came to me.
There was really only one thing that I could realistically do as I ran through that splendid display of God’s beauty. I whispered some psalms of praise to this wonderful God who blesses us again and again and overwhelms us with his grace even when all that we have is the sweat on our brow and our running clothes.
Bob Buford, the author of a best-selling book, Half Time, tells the story of receiving a phone call from his brother, Jeff on the evening of January 1987. His brother called him to let him know that Bob’s son, Ross, along with two of Ross’s friends had attempted to swim the Rio Grande River.
“I think we have serious trouble,” Jeff told him in a voice that meant it. “Ross is missing in the Rio Grande.” He told him that the Texas Rangers were coordinating the search for Ross.
And so Bob flew down to the Rio Grande Valley to join in the search, arriving by daybreak the next morning. Bob, a very wealthy man hired airplanes, helicopters, boats, trackers with dogs, anything money could buy.
By three o’clock in the afternoon, Bob looked into the eyes of one of the trackers and knew that he would never see Ross again in his life. He remembers walking along limestone bluff perhaps two hundred feet above the muddy and treacherous river, as frightened as he has ever felt.
He thought to himself, “Here’s something you can’t dream your way out of. Here’s something you can’t think your way out of, buy your way out of, or work your way out of. This is,” he thought, “something you can only trust your way out of.”
And then he prayed, “Dear God, somehow, give me the ability to accept and absorb whatever grace people might bring to me at this terrible time. Amen.”
As the search for Ross continued, God’s grace surrounded Bob. The search team ended up finding his son four months later about ten miles down-river.
As horrifying and sad as this experience was, Bob also experienced the gift of God’s grace and in ways that he had never experienced before. Close and silent embraces from friends, letter and phone calls of concern and empathy, and gifts of meals prepared and brought to his home were much-needed signs of God’s love.
In that moment when Bob was at a loss for what to do, God’s gift of grace is what got him through that very tragic time in his life. Even with all of his wealth and fortune, that was nothing in comparison to the gift that God provided Bob and his family in their darkest hour.
God offers us gifts that money can’t buy; gifts of forgiveness, grace, guidance, comfort, love, beauty, and salvation. Like David, we offer to build God a house. We bring our offerings and the best that we have, even if it’s only a bologna sandwich.
We bring it all to God. And he gives us so much more. David teaches us that you just can’t out-give God.
Thursday, July 19, 2012
Bishop Gregory Vaughn Palmer was assigned as Episcopal Leader of the Illinois Area of The United Methodist Church Sept. 1, 2008. He will become the Episcopal Leader of the West Ohio Area on September 1, 2012.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pa., Bishop Palmer is a “child of the church,” the son of the Rev. and Mrs. Herbert E. and Charlotte Sue Hewitt Palmer. Bishop Palmer’s father is a retired United Methodist pastor; his mother (now deceased) was a school teacher in the Philadelphia Public School system. Rev. Herbert Palmer and his wife Peggy reside in Philadelphia.
Bishop Palmer received his undergraduate degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and the Master’s of Divinity degree from Duke University Divinity School, Durham, N.C. Baldwin-Wallace College, Iowa Wesleyan College and Simpson College have all awarded him honorary degrees.
Ordained a deacon and probationary member in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference in 1977, Palmer was ordained an elder in full connection in the East Ohio Conference in 1981.His pastoral career includes pastorates at Granville-Vance UMC’s and Durham Asbury Temple UMC in North Carolina; East Glennville UMC and Werner UMC in Cleveland, Ohio; James S. Thomas UMC in Canton, Ohio and the United Methodist Church of Berea, Berea, Ohio. Palmer also served as district superintendent of the Youngstown District of the East Ohio Conference.
In 2000, Palmer was elected to the episcopacy by the North Central Jurisdictional Conference. He was assigned to the Iowa Area where he served until assuming responsibilities in the Illinois Area. Bishop Palmer served as president of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry from 2004 to 2008 and president of the Council of Bishops from April 2008 to May 2010.
Bishop Palmer and his wife of 34 years, Cynthia, are the parents of two grown children – Monica, a middle school Special education teacher in Charlotte, N.C. and Aaron, who is employed at a financial planning software company in Charlotte, N.C.
Mrs. Palmer is an honors graduate in religion of Duke University. She is a Senior Sales Director with Mary Kay Cosmetics. She has served as a Director of Christian Education, as staff of several Community Action Agencies focused on Welfare to Work projects. She is an outstanding student and teacher of the scriptures and has a strong interest in women’s leadership development.
Tomorrow, the new Bishop of the West Ohio Conference will be announced. Bishop Ough, who has served our conference the past twelve years has finished his third term and will be assigned to a new area in the North Central Jurisdiction. Bishop terms are four years and Bishop Ough has served us for three terms. The Book of Discipline does not allow for a fourth term.
Bishops oversee an area such as West Ohio and have the responsibility of appointing each United Methodist Charge with a pastor to provide leadership in equipping the people to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Bishops are aided in their responsibility with District Superintendents who are appointed to geographical areas in the conference. Pastoral appointments are on an annual basis and begin on July 1st. Typically, decisions on pastoral appointments are made between January and May of each year.
The Greek word for Bishop means to oversee and so Bishops oversee the spiritual direction of the conference they are assigned. One of Bishop Ough's distinctive changes for our conference over the past twelve years has been to equip pastors to share in the ministry of overseeing the spiritual needs of our conference through the formation of clergy cluster groups. Every pastor is expected to participate in a clergy cluster in which pastors support one another in their ministries.
My clergy cluster consists of pastors in the Lancaster and surrounding area. This geographical cluster allows us to not only support each other in our individual ministries but to also find ways to share in ministry together. My cluster serves as my small group. This past January's Marty Ford Concert to raise money to help prevent and treat drug addiction was sponsored by my cluster. Our plan is to find more ways for our churches to share in ministry together.
Recently, I was at a United Methodist Church located in a different conference and like our conference, they will be assigned a new Bishop September 1st (the starting date for Bishop assignments.) Speaking with one of their District Superintendents, I asked him if he was ready for this transition. He said, "Our present Bishop has worked hard to encourage the local church to be creative in starting new ministries to reach more people for Christ. We're a little worried that our next Bishop will take us in a totally different direction and wipe out any progress we've made over these years." I could sense his nervousness as he shared this concern with me.
Just like congregations are concerned who their next pastor will be, pastors are on the edge of their seat waiting to hear who our new Bishop will be. Regardless of who is announced, we are called to pray for our Bishop to lead us in our church's mission. I have already invited whoever the new Bishop will be to preach at our church on Sunday, October 21st. If the Bishop's schedule allows for this to happen, our congregation will have the opportunity to offer our welcome and words of encouragement that day.
Visit back tomorrow when I provide a blog post on who our new Bishop will be. I type this as I sit on the edge of my seat. :)
Sunday, July 15, 2012
Saturday, July 14, 2012
Sunday, July 22 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, July 25 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)
Sermon - "The Life of David: Trading Places"
Features - Season After Pentecost
Scripture - II Samuel 7:1-14a
Theme - II Samuel 7 focuses on David’s desire to build God a house. God has other plans. God wants to build a house for David instead! God’s gift of grace is always more than we can ever expect.
Friday, July 13, 2012
After reading through the Freeh's report regarding the sex abuse cover-up over the past several years at Penn State University, here are some of my thoughts in moving forward:
First, the positives out of this very tragic story:
- This independent report clearly identifies where the university got it wrong. The people who should have acted in responsible ways didn't, including a legendary football coach. A lot of blame goes to a lot of people including the Trustees but the focus is on how the president, business administrator, athletic director and head football coach failed the university. While this is very tragic and sad, at least the cover up has been exposed according to this independent investigation report's point of view. It's a lot more difficult to make corrections when you don't know or refuse to know all the facts.
- The report indicates that the university has been proactive in making significant policy and procedural changes to help prevent something like this ever happening again. It's interesting that it's often the institutions that have experienced something tragic like this and have learned from their mistakes that become positive examples for others. I have no doubt that over time, Penn State will become a much stronger university for the lessons that have been learned from all of this.
- Even though so much harm has been done and the victims will carry scars for life, this tragic situation at least has shined a spotlight on the terrible problem of child sex abuse. While child abuse is in the news everyday, the shock of this happening at Penn State has reminded all of us that people in power need to always be accountable.
- The defensive blog posts by biased Penn State supporters needs to stop. I bleed blue and white, have idolized Joepa since I was a toddler, but there is no longer any room for defensiveness. The report speaks for itself. Deal with it. Move on. You do the university much more harm by ignoring the facts and not living in reality. Yes, celebrate the good things that Coach Paterno has done like the high graduation rates and emphasis on academics, but also come to grips that the man failed the university in a big and tragic way when they needed him the most.
- I agree with my brother. Take down the Joe Paterno statue in front of the stadium a.s.a.p. and replace it with a plaque that contains the words of the Penn State school song, "May no act of ours bring shame to one heart that loves thy name, May our lives but swell thy fame, dear old State, dear old state." Have the plaque be dedicated to all victims of child sex abuse. Right now, the statue of Coach Paterno is a detriment to future healing.
- Even with all of the important changes Penn State has made, I still worry that something like this cover-up can happen again. Appropriate policies and procedures cannot replace human beings making the right decisions in representing the institutions they are serving. The janitor still needed to tell authorities that he saw a high profile assistant football coach abusing a child. Coach Paterno should not have encouraged the athletic director to not report Sandusky to the police. The athletic director, business administrator, and president should have alerted authorities when they first heard about Sandusky's abuse of children. By not acting, they knew they were doing the wrong thing, but they did it anyway. Hopefully, the additional policies will help prevent something like this happening again, but it still comes down to people doing the right thing.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
[Mom and my family surprising me in 2003 at my 40th birthday party at Xenia: First United Methodist, Xenia, OH. I love this picture.]
The McDowell family thank you for all of your cards, kind words of sympathy and prayers at the death of my mother on June 9. It meant so much to us to know that we weren’t alone during that very difficult time.
All four of her children were able to be by her side the week she passed away in Stewartstown, PA overlooking her family farm. At one point, we gathered around mom to each thank her for being a great mom and to offer our good-byes to her.
When it was my turn, I told mom that she was the reason I was a pastor. When I was in High School, mom encouraged me to serve with her on a visitation ministry in the church. Together, we visited shut-in members in their homes. We would have some conversation, read scripture, and pray with the person we were visiting. Eventually, mom encouraged me to make these visits on my own which I enjoyed doing.
Thanks to that visitation ministry, mom taught me how important ministry is in the church. She planted a seed that led me to accept God’s calling to pursue ordained ministry.
As I reflect on this memory, I am reminded of what a privilege it is to serve in ministry together. When we reach out to others in the name of Christ, God's blessings are multiplied and lives are changed, including mine.
Sunday, July 8, 2012
This past winter, I finally got around to reading the book, “1776” by David McCullough. It’s a book that focuses on that very important year when our colonies were fighting for independence from Britain.
This book reminded me of just how divided we were in our cause for freedom. Sure, there were many who were tired and angry over British rule, but there were also many people who remained loyal to the British cause. Even beyond this major division, there was a lot diversity among the different colonies. Each colony had its own identity, its own history, and its own needs and perspectives. It was quite a challenge for our founding fathers to bring us together as one united people.
When it was time for our new nation to select a permanent location for our capitol, they didn’t choose Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, or New York. Choosing any one of those cities would have been showing favoritism to one colony or region. So they ended up creating a new city that would be a symbol of our new nation. Washington D.C. became the wise political solution for promoting unity among so much diversity.
Like our country’s founders, the leaders of Israel faced the same challenge in trying to unify a people of so many diversities and backgrounds. In our summer focus on the life of David, today’s scripture from II Samuel is the story of David becoming King of both the southern and the northern tribes of Israel.
David had been serving as king of the southern part of Israel but the northern part was being ruled by a different king. And these two regions of Israel were at constant war with each other. This was not the unified Israel that God had intended for his people.
And this was the Prophet Samuel’s greatest fear when the people of Israel had first approached him about wanting to be like the other nations and have their own king. This is one of those, “I told you so” moments. Thankfully, there are a couple of heroes in our passage of scripture today who were brave enough to step out in faith for the sake of bringing unity to a divided nation.
The first hero was actually some of the leaders who belonged to the northern tribes of Israel. They were somehow able to put aside their animosity with the southern tribes and make the journey into their territory to meet with David.
This was a very risky political move on the part of these northern leaders. Their political approval ratings probably took a nose dive when this trip was first announced. But they were more concerned with unity than they were with any political fall-out for doing such a thing.
When they arrived to Hebron, they gave David credit for leading the people following Saul’s death. And for the sake of unity, these northern leaders anointed David to be the king for both the northern as well as the southern tribes.
So, the first hero was this group of leaders who risked everything to acknowledge David as King.
And the second hero in this story is David himself. David could have continued his rule right there in the city of Hebron in the southern territory which would have been the easy thing for him to do. But instead of alienating the northern territory, he strategically chose a neutral city, a Washington D.C. type of city to be the new capitol for a unified people, a city that had neither southern or northern connections. And that city was Jerusalem.
But there was only one problem. The city of Jerusalem was controlled by the Jebusites, which were a people that Israel had never been able to defeat. Defeating the Jebusites and claiming Jerusalem as the new capitol of all of Israel would be a symbol of this new unity of Israel. This is one of the reasons why David was such a great leader. Not only was he a man after God’s own heart, he also had a heart for the unity of God’s people.
But David’s brave decision to conquer Jerusalem would not be easy. The Jebusites were a very confident people and they boasted that the walls of the city were so strong that the city could even be defended by the blind and the lame.
David’s plan was to not enter by the walls but to out-smart them by entering through the water shaft which he and his privately paid soldiers ended up doing and they were successful. And this is why the city of Jerusalem is also known as the City of David.
David, along with the leaders of the northern territory who put unity ahead of politics are the heroes of this story from II Samuel. It was because of their heroic actions, that God’s people became a united people again. They were now one nation under God.
Some of you might have watched the HBO movie “Game Change” which gives one perspective on the selection of Sarah Palin for the GOP vice-presidential slot in the 2008 McCain campaign. Those on the political right seem to be convinced the movie was too hard on Palin. Those on the political left are certain it was too easy on her.
While that debate might be the focus for some, I am more interested in a scene from that movie that I believe connects with our story about David and the importance of unity. The scene comes toward the end of the movie which corresponds to real events from early October in 2008.
In a town hall meeting in Lakeville, Minnesota, presidential candidate John McCain took the microphone from a supporter who had referenced then Senator Barak Obama as an Arab. After taking it, he responded, “No, ma’am. No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen whom I just happen to have serious differences with on fundamental questions.
Rather than attempting further to exploit divisive and inaccurate partisan bickering, McCain sought to refocus the discussion. John McCain helped to remind us that the question was not who was a real American, but it was instead about ideas and policies and that’s where the discussion belonged.
That scene in the movie was a highlight of what makes our country so great. Even though we are a nation of many differences, opinions, and ideological views on the direction our country should go, we are to remember that we are still one nation under God. We just don’t need to tear each other down to get there.
Several years ago, I served a church that faced a very difficult decision. We were trying to discern if we should consider merging with another United Methodist congregation that was not that far from us.
Our two churches were about the same size and we thought that if we would bring our resources together and become one congregation that we would be more effective in our ministry and outreach. Leaders from both churches served on a joint task force and after several meetings, research, and a lot of prayer, the recommendation was to merge.
So we had a joint congregational meeting to vote in which both churches were present. Our District Superintendent presided at this meeting which was held in the sanctuary of the church I was serving.
After our joint task force made their presentation and their recommendation for our two churches to merge, we voted. We decided that for the motion to pass, we should have both congregations vote separately. Instead of a simple majority, we recommended approval to be 2/3 for each congregation.
I remember this like it was yesterday. We distributed the ballots and the people voted with a simple, yes or no. Since it would take a while to count the ballots, the District Superintendent led us in a time of singing. I felt God’s presence as our two congregations sang together. There was a spirit of unity. The sanctuary was filled. I remember thinking that this was why the task force was recommending the merger. This was a taste of what our two congregations could do together as one united church.
When the counting of the ballots was completed, the District Superintendent invited the joint task force to face the congregation. He thanked them for all their hard work, their long hours, and their many prayers. Everyone applauded. I was so excited. God was about to do a new thing among our churches.
Finally, the District Superintendent was ready to announce the results of the vote. He began with the other church and said that they voted 78% in approval of the merger, well above the 2/3 required. There was some light applause but everyone knew that there was still one more church.
Everyone was on the edge of their pew waiting with anticipation. The eyes of the task force members were turned toward where the District Superintendent was standing. I think I saw a few crossed fingers in the group. Finally he announced the results that my church had voted only 54% in favor, short of the needed 2/3 approval.
My heart sank. And I’ll never forget the look of disappointment on the faces of those faithful task force members who had given so much of their time, energy, and hard work over the past several months. These faithful church members who didn’t know each other very well before our meetings had started, were now close friends in the Lord.
Tears streamed down their faces as they sought to maintain their composure. After the District Superintendent closed our time with prayer, the spirit of excitement that had filled the sanctuary just moments before had all of the sudden evaporated. And many of us were left in heart ache.
That week, I remember feeling so bitter and angry toward my own congregation since we were the ones who voted it down. I was thinking not so pleasant thoughts. If there was any time that I would become a hell, fire, and brimstone preacher, that upcoming Sunday would have been it! I remember feeling like I didn’t want to even be a pastor anymore and I’ve always loved being a pastor. Politics got the best of me, I guess you could say.
And then this evil thought came to me during that week. As pastor, I have a lot of power. I get to stand up in front of people and say things. I could shame them and tell them how we had just missed out on a golden opportunity to be a stronger church. At the least, I could drop subtle hints in my sermon to let them know of my displeasure.
But here’s what really happened. God softened my heart that week. Slowly, but surely, God allowed me to be angry, but then reminded me to use my authority as a pastor for good. In my prayer time that week, God was telling me that something really good was going to come out of this disappointment in my ministry.
And so, that Sunday morning during the welcome and announcement time of worship, I named the elephant in the room and I said how many of us had participated in the vote earlier that week and that the merger proposal had been defeated. And I said how easy it will be to look at each other as a “yes” vote or as a “no” vote. But I said, that’s not who we are. We are one body in our one Lord. We are not a “no” or a “yes” people. We are so much more than that. We are brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
Do you know that it was only a couple of months later that things began to really happen in our church? They let me put a video screen in the sanctuary. They voted yes for a new contemporary worship service. It was like they gave me a blank check and said, “Let’s do whatever it takes to grow the church right here, pastor.” And we did. We experienced significant growth from that point on. But we did it together, not as a divided body of Christ but as a united body of Christ. God was right. Something good was going to come out of thee most disappointing time in all of my pastoral ministry.
And this is why David is a great man to follow in these summer months. He’s my hero. He, along with those leaders from the northern territory of Israel knew that unity was essential if they were to move forward as the people of God.
And isn’t it interesting that because of David’s desire for unity among God’s people, that the last verse from our scripture reading today says, “And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.” When you and I seek unity among God’s people, great things can happen.
One of my favorite quotes comes from St. Augustine which John Wesley, the founder of Methodism took to heart in his work and ministry. It goes like this. “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
May it be so.
Friday, July 6, 2012
Sunday, July 15 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, July 18 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)
Sermon - "The Life of David: Dance, David, Dance!"
Features - Season After Pentecost & Vacation Bible School Children Special Dance Music
Scripture - II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Theme - When David danced as the ark of God was brought into Jerusalem, he was unashamed to do this because of the deep joy and gratitude he felt toward God. Are you willing to express your gratitude to God even if others might consider you foolish for doing so?
Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of The United States of America won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Sunday, July 1, 2012
Sunday, July 8 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & NO WEDNESDAY SERVICE ON JULY 11 DUE TO VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)
Sermon - "The Life of David: One Nation Under God"
Features - Season After Pentecost
Scripture - II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Theme - There are two heroes in our story of David for this day. These heroes helped Israel to experience unity as God’s people. In what ways is God calling us to bring unity where there is division?
On a late Saturday afternoon this past February, I was scrolling through my twitter page, and read the breaking news that award winning singer Whitney Houston had died at a Beverly Hills hotel. When I read this news, I remember feeling great sadness that someone who had touched so many lives with her music had died in the prime of her life.
I thought about her battle with drug addiction and her troubled marriage with singer, Bobby Brown. And even though I wasn’t the biggest Whitney Houston fan, I did appreciate her music and watching her and Kevin Costner in the movie, “The Bodyguard.” On one hand, I felt grief and sadness for her but on the other hand, I felt a lot of disappointment that she didn’t take care of herself due to poor choices in her life.
There’s a phrase that is used to describe people who on one hand, have done a lot of good but who also have caused a lot of pain. And to varying degrees, this phrase describes every single person. The phrase is, “The ambiguity of the human condition.” The word, “ambiguity” means doubtfulness and uncertainty. This phrase reminds us that there are times in our lives when we don’t live up to who we are meant to be.
A friend of mine who is a retired United Methodist pastor told me about a time when he officiated at the funeral of a man who died in the prime of his life. During the funeral service, he told me how he shared several good things this person did during his life, like how he was a loving husband and father to his family.
When they were at the cemetery for the committal service, a family member interrupted the service and said, “He was no saint. He was mean and hurt a lot of people.” That was a very awkward moment for my pastor friend. He allowed this man to share his feelings and did his best to acknowledge him so that a bad situation didn’t get even worse.
This pastor didn’t lie about this man because he really did a lot of good things. But of course, at a funeral, you don’t focus on the negatives, mainly the positives.
We could share many examples of people who have died and who have left us with a sense of grief and mixed emotions.
But let me offer two more examples. The deaths of Saul and Jonathan from our Old Testament reading this morning.
When David received the breaking news that Saul and Jonathan had tragically died in battle with the Philistines, his heart was broken and in his deep grief he shared these now famous words, “How the mighty have fallen.”
During these Summer Sundays, the Old Testament lectionary readings focus on the life of David, one of the most fascinating figures in the entire bible. David was known as a man after God’s own heart. He did amazing things for God and for the people of God but he also experienced many challenges and valleys along the way. We can learn a lot from the life of David.
Today, David teaches us how to grieve.
Here’s a little context to set the stage of where we are so far in following the life of David. Saul, who in our scripture reading this morning was killed in battle has been serving as Israel’s first king.
Saul got off to a good start in his reign as king. He is introduced to us as someone who was very king-like. He was tall, strong, and not someone who was looking for personal power. Saul was out searching for one of his father’s donkeys one day when God chose him to be the first King of Israel. Saul had a natural ability to lead, was a mighty warrior leading the Israelites to victory over the Ammonites, and the spirit of the Lord was with him.
So far so good, right? Well, things begin to unravel for Saul. His demise begins when he disobeys clear instructions from the Lord and those instructions were to not go to battle against the Philistines until the prophet, Samuel arrived to offer a sacrifice to God. Saul was impatient.
Even though Saul continues to lead the Israelites in battle, he again disregards the Lord’s clear instructions to not spare the life of the enemy king. Because of his disobedience, an evil spirit is set loose to torment Saul and unknown to him, God chooses a new king whose name is David.
Just when you think things can’t get any worse for Saul, he begins to sink into insanity and paranoia. He seeks to kill David and chases him all over Judah.
While Saul is leading the Israelites in battle with the Philistines on Mt. Gilboa, they overtook Saul and his sons, one of whom is Jonathan, David’s best friend. And there on the battle field, they were both killed. Knowing that he was surrounded, Saul actually fell on his own sword. Israel’s first king is now dead.
When David receives the news of Saul’s death, the man who had tried to kill him, you’d think that he would have rejoiced or felt relieved. But it’s the opposite. David grieves, not just for his best friend Jonathan who had been killed, but for his enemy, Saul as well.
Today’s scripture is the grief or the lament that David expressed in light of this tragic news. It’s actually a poem or a funeral dirge if you will, to help David express his deepest anguish over what had just happened.
Grieving over Jonathan, we can understand, but why on earth would David have been heartbroken over the news of Saul’s death, the man who had tried to kill him numerous times?
Maybe my friend’s words come into play here. “The ambiguity of the human condition.” For all of Saul’s bad qualities, poor decisions, and paranoia, he was still the King of Israel which in and of itself, commanded respect.
And even though Saul had a tragic ending on the battle field, he was a mighty warrior whose bravery at least saved Israel from total defeat. And because of Saul, Israel was able to move a little closer to freedom from foreign enemies and have a more stable empire.
These stories that we find in the bible remind us of how complicated and messy life can be sometimes. This is one of the reasons why people are drawn to the bible because our lives like these biblical characters can be complicated and messy as well. Even David, who we put on a pedestal and revere, will have his moral failings which will lead to negative consequences for himself as well as the people he was leading. But we’ll save that for another Sunday this summer.
For now, we learn how important it is to grieve. Grieving is what helps us to express our feelings so that we can receive God’s healing love as we move into the future. When we don’t give ourselves time to grieve, we end up separating ourselves from the One who can make all things new, the Lord.
What grief is the Lord calling you to express? What recent grief or loss have you been experiencing? Grief isn’t always about the loss of a loved one. It can be over the loss of a way of life that is no longer available like the loss of a job or the loss of a relationship. Whatever your loss might be, know that the God of Israel, the God of David is here for you to comfort and console you and to give you a future with hope.
Many of you are aware that my mom died three weeks ago. She had dementia for the past twelve years, but I was still surprised when I received a call from my brother to come home as soon as possible because it was now just a matter of days.
I got that call just before I was about to lead a worship service at one of our nursing homes that afternoon. My brother and I cried over the phone, as we were still in shock over the news. After we hung up the phone, I was trying to wipe away the tears from my eyes. I remember saying a little prayer, “God, help me to get through this worship service. Help me.”
When I was walking into the nursing home, my hands were shaking and I remember feeling such an emptiness in my heart in that moment. I continued to pray, “Lord, help me. I need you.”
One of the nurses met me at the door and said, “Oh, I hope you don’t mind but these youth are here from another church visiting with the residents so your worship service will be a little delayed. Is that OK?” My prayers were already being answered. I would have a little more time to compose myself before starting the service.
I watched off to the side as these youth were bringing great joy to the residents. That brought an unexpected smile to my face.
And then God answered my prayer again. Before the service, I ran into a couple from our church, Bob and Marilyn Jepsen. Bob was there for some rehabilitation following his surgery. I shared with them about the news of my mom and together, we offered a prayer for God to surround my family with comfort and peace. I knew I wasn’t alone. A sense of God’s presence surrounded me. From there, I was able to lead the worship service. God really does help us to grieve.
The funeral service for mom was a true celebration. We laughed. We cried. And we offered mom back to the Lord.
You know, I don’t know if I would have made it through these past three weeks without you. You were there the day I got the call to come home and you prayed with me. You were there the day of her funeral through those beautiful flowers you sent to my home church. You were there through the hundreds of sympathy cards, facebook messages, e-mails, and phone calls. You helped me to grieve with hope.
There is such a thing as good grief when we offer to God our deepest longings and anguish, and in return, we receive God’s comforting love.
David didn’t face his grief alone. He knew that God was with him and that the deaths of Saul and Jonathan were not in vain. Hope and new life are possible even in the midst of the ambiguity of the human condition.
I watched about half of Whitney Houston’s four hour funeral service on CNN this past February. It was a service that included deep expressions of grief and heartache reminding us of David’s poem. “How the mighty have fallen.”
But…But in the great tradition of African American worship, it was also a service of incredible joy and hope. The music was phenomenal and the good news of Jesus Christ was passionately proclaimed.
Even though one of the mighty had fallen, and the ambiguity of the human condition was so much part of Whitney’s life, New Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey taught the world how to grieve with hope.