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

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Update on the Jesus/Wife Coptic Papyrus Fragment

Evidently, things are beginning to unravel regarding the coptic papyrus that vaguely referred to Jesus having a wife.  At this point, signs are definitely pointing to a forgery and possibly a modern forgery.  It's a shame that we live in a culture that is fascinated by conspiracies (ie - Jesus had a wife) but when they are shown to be highly doubtful, this new information doesn't appear on the cover of Time magazine.  

For a brief update, Dr. Craig Evans, a New Testament scholar shares this information on the topic.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Sunday Worship Preview - October 14

Sunday, October 14 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, October 17  (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Extravagant Generosity: Declarations of the Heart"

Features - Season After Pentecost; 4th & Concluding Sunday of Church-Wide Extravagant Generosity Study; & 2013 Commitment Sunday

Scripture - II Corinthians 8:16-24 & John 3:16-21

Theme - What motivates you to be generous? Can you hear God saying to you, "Well done, good and faithful servant?"

Sunday Worship Preview - October 7

Sunday, October 7 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, October 10 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Extravagant Generosity: Visions & Hope from the Heart"

Features - Season After Pentecost; 3rd Sunday of Church-Wide Extravagant Generosity Study; & World Communion Sunday

Scripture - Joel 2:23-28 & Matthew 6:26-33

Theme - What are the visions and hope God has in mind for the church? On this Sunday, we will celebrate the preferred future that God has in store for us.  A positive vision for the church always leads to extravagant generosity.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dave's Deep Thoughts - In Loving Memory of Dr. Thom

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.
I first met him my first year out of college.
He had quite a reputation
Anyone who was serious about singing
knew of Dr. Thom.
When I took my first position as a school teacher,
I found myself within ten minutes of his home and teaching studio.
I decided that this was a person I needed to meet
so I called him and arranged for a vocal analysis.
I walked into his Victorian home
deep into the heart of Amish country
fully intimidated by this man
who was a vocal coach to opera & Broadway singers.
What I could not see
was that this was the beginning
of a 33 year coaching relationship and rich friendship.
His studio was filled with stacks of pedagogy books and songbooks.
Photos of well known singers
from the past and present
graced the walls.
Singing that first song in front of him
was more terrifying than
singing in front of a thousand people.
When my song was done, He spoke.
He spoke kindly.
He spoke with great insight.
He spoke as though he had known me for years.
He spoke as though I was his son,
because he considered me (and all his students)
as his vocal children.
To those that we ourselves would go on to teach,
he considered them his vocal grandchildren.
He was a man of great wit.
5 years later when I relocated back to my hometown,
I mentioned in my next lesson that it took me
ninety minutes to reach his studio as compared to the
ten minutes in my first years with him.
Within a few minutes,
he let me know of a student who was
flying in from Germany to take a lesson.
Lesson learned.
My living circumstances changed
several times during the next 5 years
but I was able to remain a part
of his teaching studio.
Bi-weekly trips into Manhattan
to his New York studio when I lived on Long Island......
Summers home from grad school in California,
I would return to his studio.
An hour with Dr. Thom
was not just about singing.
Through the years,
he would come to know about my family,
my work,
my hobbies,
my stresses,
my joys & disappointments,
my faith.
And I came to know much about him.
It didn't take long to know that
Dr. Thom lived out of a deep well of faith.
A scripture would be cleverly
thrown into a teaching situation.
We encouraged each other
through the death of parents.
When I took a two year break to build my home,
he would email me with encouragements.
When he underwent surgeries following an auto accident,
I would send cards and emails to speed his recovery.
This past summer,
my dear friend and teacher Dr. Thom died
suddenly of a heart attack,
one week after my last lesson.
When I heard the news,
something inside me felt like it died.
That is,
until the memorial service.
Three weeks later,
in his church, 4 blocks down from his home,
600 friends and students from across the country & world
came to honor the man
who had so profoundly touched their lives.
Many wonderful words were spoken,
but there was no greater tribute
then when his vocal children arose,
and collectively sang a version of the 23rd psalm,
without rehearsal.
The voices soared throughout the sanctuary
and ultimately to the heavens
as the legacy of Dr. Thom revealed itself.
We meet people who touch us and shape us
into being persons we could not otherwise have become.
Those who are wise
realize when we have met such a person,
and have longingly dipped into the well of that person's spirit,
that we are sent to do likewise.
Dr. Thom,
I thank you for all that you were and are in my life.
Lord, Jesus,
I thank you for blessing our lives
with such people,
so that we may go and humbly do the same.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
for Thou art with me.
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
Thou annointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Psalm 23

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Remembering Rev. Peter Cartwright - 1785 to 1872

Today (September 25) is the death anniversary of one of the greatest of all Methodist circuit rider preachers, Rev. Peter Cartwright.  One of the reasons he is one of the most celebrated of all early American frontier preachers is because of his autobiography which he wrote toward the end of his life.  I even found this book on Kindle version.  For more information about him, click on this link from a previous article and this previous sermon that I delivered at the Lancaster Campground.

Here are some highlights of this remarkable man's life and ministry in proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

-         Methodist Circuit Rider Preacher, 1785 – 1872 (B-day & Death in September)
-         Born in VA and died in Illinois
-         Converted at Methodist camp meeting at age 16 in KY.  Became preacher in 1802. Ordained by Francis Asbury.
-         Was the circuit rider for the Lancaster, Ohio Methodists in 1806 (12 years before the founding of the church.)
-         Was part of the 2nd Great Awakening baptizing 12,000 converts
-         Lost to Abraham Lincoln for US Congress seat in 1846.
-         Autobiography is what has made him most famous Methodist Circuit Rider.  This includes several incredible stories that leave you laughing, crying, and appreciative of Methodists preachers and the challenges they faced during that time period.
-         Called himself “God’s plowman.”
-         Helped found Illinois Wesleyan University.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Meet Our New West Ohio Bishop, Gregory Palmer - Saturday, Oct. 13

On Saturday, October 13, at 10:00 am, clergy and laity are invited to gather at the Grove City UMC, 2650 Columbus St, Grove City for a worship service led by the GCUMC Praise Band. Bishop Palmer will preach. Following worship there will be a Q & A time with the bishop.

At the close of the morning activities, a lunch will be served (financial donations will be received for the lunch). All laity and clergy in the district are invited to participate in the lunch. Reservations are due by October 5. Click here to make reservations for the lunch or call the district office at 614-222-0600.
NOTE: Our church is honored that Bishop Palmer has accepted our invitation to preach at our October 21 Bicentennial Homecoming Sunday worship services.  Our Capitol Area South District Superintendent, Rev. Barb Sholis will also be participating.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Sunday Worship Preview - September 30

Sunday, September 30 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, October 3  (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Extravagant Generosity: Relationships from the Heart"

Features - Season After Pentecost; 2nd Sunday of Church-Wide Extravagant Generosity Study; & Third Grade Bible Presentation

Scripture - Deuteronomy 6:1-6; Philippians 4:8-9; & John 13:31-35

Theme - Who are the people who have made a spiritual difference in your life? When we think of the eternal impact people have had on our spiritual lives, we want to be a blessing to others and participate in God's extravagant generosity.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Did Jesus Have a Wife? Gnosticism & the New Testament Understanding of Jesus

There has been a lot of media attention regarding a fourth century Coptic papyrus that Harvard Divinity School professor, Karen L. King claims is evidence that Jesus had a wife.  Click on this article to read more about this discovery.

At the center of this debate is the question about the prevalence of gnosticism in early Christian thought.  Most mainline bible scholars agree that ancient documents related to gnosticism such as the Gospel of Judas which offers a distinctively different view of the life of Jesus came much later after our present New Testament canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John. In my readings of gnostic literature, this understanding seeks to remove Jesus from his Jewish context and instead place him in an "enlightened" context.  For a good summary of gnostic theology and thought, this link is helpful.

Dr. Ben Withingerton, New Testament professor at Asbury Seminary is quoted in the article link above and he offers this countering information about the fourth century gnostic Coptic papyrus discovery:

"The unclear origins of the document should encourage people to be cautious, said Bible scholar Ben Witherington III, a professor and author who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He said the document follows the pattern of Gnostic texts of the second, third and fourth centuries, using “the language of intimacy to talk about spiritual relationships.”

“What we hear from the Gnostic is this practice called the sister-wife texts, where they carried around a female believer with them who cooks for them and cleans for them and does the usual domestic chores, but they have no sexual relationship whatsoever” during the strong monastic periods of the third and fourth centuries, Witherington said. “In other words, this is no confirmation of the Da Vinci Code or even of the idea that the Gnostics thought Jesus was married in the normal sense of the word.”

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dave's Deep Thoughts - Baseball's Biggest Problem: Mascots

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.
You can buy me some peanuts,
you can even buy me some cracker jacks,
but I DO care if I ever come back.
I really do like baseball.
It's not my favorite sport,
but it's the perfect sport for summer.
You can listen to a game on the radio
while mowing the yard or washing the car.
And on a beautiful summer night,
the baseball park is a great place to be.
That is, except for the mascot.
You know that guy in the fantasy costume .....
The one that conveniently stands on the top of the dugout blocking your view of the game.....
The one who bounces through the crowd high fiving little children
as you pick up the scent of fur and body odor on a 90 degree day......
Yeah, that guy.
I have no problem with the 4th inning race between ketchup, mustard, and relish (bet on mustard).
I can be entertained when a platoon of masked perogies drag the dirt after the 5th inning.
I can even guess who ends up with the baseball
as three crabs play catch me if you can.
But people dressed up in fantasy outfits freak me out.
As a child, I was once trapped in a railroad car on a hot spring day
with a sweaty six foot Easter bunny who wreaked of cigarette smoke on an Easter egg ride.
As far as I was concerned, Peter Cottontail could keep on hopping.......
that is hopping away from me.
At amusement parks,
puffy birds, panda bears, chipmunks,
and all types of action figure come up to me
to either try to dance with me, rub my head, or engage me in pretend sword fights.
And don't even get me started on circuses and clowns.
Try to tweak my nose one time Bozo,
and I can't be held responsible for my actions.
Going to a major league game isn't so bad.
It's a big place so there are plenty of places to hide.
But go to an intimate minor league game and there you are,
you, maybe 1,500 friends, and the mascot.
Just try to escape from Baxter the Bobcat.
You can run from Homer the Polecat but you cannot hide.
And Manny the Manatee has no sense of personal space.
A few years ago, I went to a minor league game,
eagerly looking forward to a relaxing evening and a good game.
What I got was Wally the Warthog.
It took all of ten minutes inside the ball park
till Wally wanted to fist bump me in the french fry line.
For those like me with mascot phobias,
there is one safe harbor in a ballpark ....
the public restroom.
For obvious reasons,
mascots aren't able to effectively use the facilities.
And so when Wally wanted to pinch my cheeks,
I bolted for the the men's room.
I enjoyed 5 pleasant innings watching the hometown Warthogs take it to the Flying Squirrels
Then out came Wally,
armed with his air cannon.
Mascots are one thing.
Mascots and weaponry.....
now it's gone too far.
Wally had time to blast 10 Tee shirts into the crowd
10 shirts
1500 people
and me.
Why am I always the lucky one?
Wally fired and I took it in the chest.
Let me say an air cannon from 12 rows away,
is no laughing matter,
especially when you are holding a full beverage cup.
It was hard to tell in my stunned state,
but I think Wally flexed his furry biceps after taking me down.
Why am I so uncomfortable around mascots?
I think it is because I know that underneath all the layers of pretend,
there is a real person inside.
Now if we are honest,
most of us have an outer layer
that covers the inner self.
Some find it easier
to live much of life showing only the outer layer.
Others have learned
to reveal more of the inner person
in safe settings, with people they trust.
Then there are the few
that have learned that the fullest life
is the life lived with the inner self available to all.
As Jesus was approaching the time
to give up His life for the salvation of mankind,
He went to His Father in what is known as His priestly prayer.
One of the central thoughts in this prayer
is that of being known...
Jesus known to His Father
and Jesus known to His disciples.
In Biblical expressions,
to know conveys many levels of thought.
Sometimes it means to know one sexually,
but it can also refer to the intimacy of knowing someone
at the deepest level of their spiritual being.
Jesus affirmed this relationship with His Father.
He prayed for a world that did not receive Him for who He was.
He prayed for His disciples who knew where He came from,
but He knew that there was more for them to know,
and that would come after His death and resurrection
through the power of the Holy Spirit.
That same Spirit is present for believers today.
The Father wants that intimate relationship with us
and for us to share that with each other.
Jesus gave us access to that intimacy.
The Holy Spirit invites us to live in that intimacy with each other.
No need for furry costumes,
no funny names,
no shows.
And asmuch as I dislike mascots,
I choose to want to know those who know Him,
and to be known by them.
May it be so with you also.
Oh, the tee shirt was from a championship year 4 years prior.
Now that's a prize worth keeping.....
Father, I want those You gave me
to be with me, right where I am,
so they can see my glory, the splendor you gave me,
having loved me long before there ever was a world.
Righteous Father, the world has never known You,
but I have known You, and these disciples know
that You sent me on this mission.
I have made Your very being known to them-
Who You are and what You do-
And continue to make it known,
so that Your love for me might be in them
exactly as I am in them.
John 17:25-26

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Live Stream of Bishop Palmer's Installation Service - Sunday, September 16, 4 P.M.

Click on this link to watch the live streaming of the installation service for our new Bishop of the West Ohio Conference, Gregory Palmer today (Sunday) at 4 P.M. at Church of the Messiah in Westerville. The service is open to the public to attend as well.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Friday, September 14, 2012

Just Pray

We had just concluded a late summer three mile run on a beautiful central Pennsylvania mountain pass.  I was bent over huffing and puffing with my fingers clutched to my knees when I heard my brother talking.

At first, I thought he was saying something to me.  I looked over at him to respond and noticed that he was looking above the tall pines into the clear blue sky talking.

"Thank you, God!  Thank you for this day and this beautiful place.  Thank you for giving us parents who loved the mountains.  Thank you, God!"

His prayer was out of the blue and caught me off guard.  It was one of the most sincere prayers I have ever heard.  It was as natural as breathing.  God's beautiful creation prompted him to just start praying out loud.

Over the centuries, Christians call times like this, "responding to promptings of the Holy Spirit."  My brother was overwhelmed with God's grace in that moment, so he did the only think he knew to do.  He started talking to God.

When you look into a crystal blue sky in the middle of God's majestic mountains, just pray.  When you are looking into the eyes of a newborn baby, just pray.  When you listen to a voice message from a friend you haven't heard from in a long time and who was an important part of your spiritual journey, just pray.

Just pray.   Out of the blue.  Just pray.  This is what Christians do when they are prompted by the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sunday Worship Preview - September 23

Sunday, September 23 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, September 26  (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Extravagant Generosity: Ministry from the Heart"

Features - Season After Pentecost & Beginning of Church-Wide Extravagant Generosity Study

Scripture - I Timothy 6:17-19 & Mark 9:30-37

Theme - What do you love about our church? Sharing and good works result in vital caring ministry. When we think about all of the ways that our church is involved in so many incredible caring ministries, we are even more motivated to support these ministries through our extravagant giving.

Dave's Deep Thoughts - An Early Surprise Birthday Party

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.

I've heard that sometimes
the inmates are running the asylum,
but what if they run it better then the out mates?
Three and a half months ago, when my brother and sister were in town,
they wished to go visit our aunt in her care facility,
as she was celebrating her 91st birthday.
I mentioned to them that a dear member of our home congregation
also lived in that facility.
While speaking about her,
I mentioned that this dear lady, Elsie,
was going to turn one hundred years old.
And so off they went.
On their way, they stopped and picked up candies,
cards, and balloons.
When they arrived at the facility,
my brother noticed Elsie in the social activity room
along with many other residents.
Now this facility sponsors many activities
for its residents.....
bingo, show and tell, crafts to name a few.
If there is one rule in the asylum,
is that unless you can upstage bingo..
don't mess with the social activities hour
Undaunted, into the room they marched.
Happy 100th birthday Elsie! they cheered
as the balloons swayed from side to side.
Now Elsie is still as sharp as a tack,
and although her hearing has failed her in her later years,
she has learned to read lips quite well.
My brother and sister looked up
to the stares of the 80 and 90 year olds in the room.
Elsie was staring too.
My brother assumed that Elsie was having trouble remembering him.
Elsie, it's Robert. I grew up in church with you.
We just wanted to wish you a happy 100th birthday.
More stares.
Tough crowd, particularly in the month of June.
Memo to self......
don't mess with a senior citizen who is
waiting for B5 to be called.
It can get ugly real fast.
Robert tried to hand Elsie her balloon
but instead she said....
It isn't my birthday.
My birthday isn't till September!
It seemed that everyone in the room
was aware of this fact except for my brother and sister.
The heads of all the octogenarians and nonagenarians nodded in agreement.
Now 100 years is something to celebrate.
Ninety-nine years, nine months and twenty two days ???
not so much.
Now my brother is used to speaking in front of large groups of people,
but this time silence was speaking the loudest.
Well, here's your balloon,
my brother offered as a peacemaking gesture.
If there was such a thing as a care facility bouncer,
this would have been the time for him to step in.
Finally, the social activities director
wishing to get back to the business of bingo,
and wishing to help my siblings save face,
stepped in as the voice of reason.
Why don't you drop it off in her room?
It's just across the hallway.
My brother and sister slithered out of the room
the inappropriate balloon trailing them,
and the stares of the multitude ushering them out.
After depositing the misinformed balloon in Elsie's room,
my siblings went to my aunt's room
to give her her birthday balloon and card.
They told my aunt about the mishap.
It's not Elsie's birthday.
That's in September,
my 91 year old aunt reminded them,
as if they needed to hear it one more time.
Apparently only those over the age of 80
had gotten the memo.
After visiting my aunt,
my brother and sister headed down the staircase to the exit.
But instead of choosing the exit door,
they walked into a resident's private room.
My guess is that after my siblings assault on the care facility,
posters of the two of them were placed on the bulletin boards
asking residents to call security if they were ever seen on the property again.
Sometimes we just get things confused.
A comment about someone who was going to be turning 100,
turns into an immediate birthday celebration.
A door to the outside world
is really a door to a private space.
Our culture often depicts those living out the last years of life
as useless, confused, and burdensome.
But the Scriptures see it quite differently.
Those who have lived many years
are people with wisdom,
with stories and insights to share with the next generations.
None of us know the number of years that we shall live on this earth.
What we do know is that we are to value each day and year
so that we use them wisely.
This is how the Lord speaks it.....
So teach us to number our days,
that we may present to Thee a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:2
My siblings can be confused,
particularly when I offer them a vague comment.
But we all can be confused, whether we are nine or ninety nine.
But give me a person who lives each day
as a day closer to giving account of their life to God,
now that's a wise person.
Elsie will celebrate her upcoming 100th birthday this Sunday with family and friends.
I am sure that my brother and sister will forget to come.
Happy Birthday Elsie!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Comic Relief in the Bible

Often times, we view the Bible as a book that is difficult to read and so rooted in ancient history that it is almost impossible to understand except for a few passages here and there.  But the more we read the bible, the more we realize that some things never change!  The bible is a masterful literary book, inspired by God to help us continue to grow in our faith journey.

A case in point is my daily devotional reading from Job chapter 32 this morning.  You probably know the story of Job.  He is a righteous man who is set up to see if he will give up his faith if bad things happen to him for no reason.  Job is actually a book to explore the theme of trying to understand why bad things happen to people who didn't do anything wrong.

In the course of this story, some friends of Job offer him so not so helpful advice and opinions as to what he needs to do or understand regarding his suffering and how to make sense of it.  Again, the book of Job reminds us that some things never change since people, including close friends will often use worn out cliches to explain away complicated problems and deep theological questions.  If you have ever struggled with why bad things happen to you and have found the shallow advice of well meaning acquaintances to not be helpful, this story of Job becomes your story.

In the midst of this long story of Job, another of his friends, the youngest of them, Elihu finally gets the courage to speak up and offer his two cents beginning in chapter 32.  Before he offers his thoughts, he makes a big deal about why he hasn't already spoken.  It's because people who are older are usually far more wise and have more helpful things to say (which is generally true, but in the case of the story of Job, they have only offered shallow answers to this point.)

So, it appears that there might be a breakthrough in this long story.  Perhaps the answer to this complicated question as to why bad things happen to the righteous will come from an unlikely source, a young adult who doesn't have a lot of life experience.

Wrong!  Enter the comic relief of this young buck who thinks he has the answer and he basically says that Job should accept the fact that he'll never figure this out and that God will not speak to him anyway.  Imagine this guy's surprise when immediately after he offers his long speech to Job, which wasn't helpful anyway, God actually does speak to Job!   God's timing is perfect!  When God started speaking to Job, I would have loved to have seen the facial expression of this young man.  Priceless!

The point of Job is that instead of settling for easy answers as to why bad things happen, we need to continue to trust in God in the midst of our questions.  And we need to remember that it's often our presence that is most helpful for people who are going through difficult times.  Sure, our words can be important, especially words of comfort, but we need to be cautious about relying on shallow answers.

This is an example of how the bible isn't so difficult to read after all.  It even uses comic relief to speak a relevant word to us living in the 21st century just as it did for people over two thousand years ago who were wondering about the same difficult and complicated questions that we continue to face today.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sermon (September 9) - "Are You a Believer?"

     Our scripture from the letter of James begins with a question.  And it’s one of those questions that isn’t meant to be answered because the answer should be obvious.
     The question James asks is, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”  Now, obviously James is writing to people who do believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.  It’s not like he’s sending this letter to an atheist organization.  He’s sending it to a community of believers, to a people who see themselves as Christians.
     I think I sense a little sarcasm in this opening verse of chapter two.  Kind of like the question, “Is the Pope Catholic?”  We all know the answer.  Of course the Pope is Catholic.  Of course we believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.  Of course! Of course!  “Where are you going with this, James?  You know who we are.  Quit playing games with us. I was baptized and confirmed in the church.  Why, I even was ordained. I can show you my ordination certificate if you give me time to find it.  What do you mean if I really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? I give to the church.  I’m in worship most Sundays.  The Nominations Committee called to serve on a committee and I said yes.”
     It’s a little unnerving when someone questions if we really are who we say we are. 
     I was visiting in a hospital one day.  I went to the ICU waiting room where I used the phone to call back to the nurse’s station to get permission to enter through the door.  “Who are you?” she asked in a not so polite way.  “I’m clergy to see so and so,” I said.  “Well, just wait.  I’ll meet you at the door.”
     By the tone of her voice, she seemed suspicious of me.  I didn’t know what to expect as I stood there waiting for the door to open.  And when it did, this nurse came up to me, noticed my clergy badge which was clipped to my suit jacket, and took me by surprise by giving me a hug.
      And she said, “I wasn’t sure if you really were a pastor.  Lately, we’ve been getting a lot of people who claim to be clergy and they come back here and they end up disturbing the other patients and the medical staff so we’re trying to be careful who we let back here.  Thank you for wearing your clergy badge.  You’re a real pastor!”
     See, I told you.  I’m a real pastor!
     How do you know if someone is a real Christian?  Do they have to wear a badge or attend church for so many years or serve on thirteen committees?
     This is one of the key reasons that James wrote this letter.  He wants us to really stop and think about what it means when we say that we believe in Christ.  And so we get this troubling question.  “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”  And James spells this out in greater detail by saying, “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges?”
     There’s something really wrong about saying we’re Christians but not living out what it means to be Christian.  There’s just something really wrong about that.  And for James, it is in how we care or not care for the poor. We might be able to point to a time when we were saved but the true test of our faith is in how we relate to each other.  This is how we know if we believe in our glorious Savior, Jesus Christ as James puts it.
     To be honest, this scripture makes me very uncomfortable.  I have always preached that we are saved from our sins by God’s grace and not by our own good works.  We cannot work our way into heaven.  Salvation is something we receive, not earn.  And yet here in this scripture, James is emphasizing that it’s in our doing and through the living out of our faith that shows if we really mean it when we say, “I’m a Christian.”  For many, the letter of James is the most controversial book in the New Testament since later in this same chapter he talks about faith without works being dead. 
     The great Protestant Reformer in the 1500’s, Martin Luther was very uncomfortable with this letter as well.  He called it the straw epistle, meaning that it lacked the substance of the other books of the New Testament that emphasize more of God’s free gift of salvation.
     And yet, I’m one of the first to be embarrassed when something is on the news about Christians who act in very unchristian-like ways.  Think of some of the televangelists who divert funds from donors to pay for their lavish lifestyle. 
     Or even closer to home, think about our denomination’s General Conference which met this past spring in Florida to discuss some very controversial topics.  Sharing differences of opinion is one thing but doing so in very uncharitable and demeaning ways is something entirely different.  Unfortunately, we had our share of uncharitable comments at this conference.   Every year, our West Ohio conference meets up at Lakeside, Ohio and we have several microphones where people can come and share their opinion.  Often times I cringe at the hurtful words that are spoken when the same point could have been made with a more Christ-like spirit.
     James is reminding us that our words need to match our behavior.  Our theological views need to be consistent with how we relate to one another, and especially in how we relate to people who are different from us.  James is thinking specifically about socio-economic differences.
     One of our members told me about a time when she stopped by here at the church.  She met one of the folks who was here for a lunch we were serving that day.  This person told her about the problems she was dealing with in her life.  When this church member invited her to come into the sanctuary with her to pray, she declined and said, “Oh, just look how I’m dressed.  I can’t go in there looking like this.”  When this church member told me this story, she said, “How sad that this woman didn’t feel worthy enough to come into our sanctuary because of what she was wearing.”
     You know, whether we want to admit it or not, most of us live in these little bubbles defined by our employment, our educational background, and our race.  And yet, we worship and serve a God who loves the whole world regardless of our differences.
     Whenever I have to go to the BMV to renew my driver’s license, I’m usually in a long line of people waiting my turn.  I’m sure we are a good cross section of the people in our community.  Some of us are well to do. Some of us are poor.  But these differences do not stop us from being in the same line. What would it look like if the church mirrored the people who are waiting in line at the BMV?
     I served a church in Toledo that hosted the largest AA meeting in the entire city.  Every Tuesday evening, the parking lot was filled with some cars parked up and down the street as well.  As I would walk through the parking lot to get to the church entrance, I would see a BMW parked next to a beat up Ford Escort.  There would be a new mini-van parked next to a Ford truck with mud all over its sides.  Addictions are not confined to one socio-economic group.  They impact all segments of society.
     A friend of mine who began serving at a United Methodist Church in an affluent suburb of Columbus met with different groups of church members and asked them this question, “What are the biggest needs facing this community?”  Drug addiction was by far the #1 issue.  Sounds like our community.  Sounds like a lot of communities in central Ohio.  The church needs to stand with those who are addicted, with those who are struggling, and with those who are worried about where they are going to sleep at night.
     James says, “When you don’t show favoritism and seek to come alongside of those who are different from you, that’s when you truly believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”
     About five years ago, I visited a rapidly growing church which is known for their radical hospitality on Sunday mornings.  They offered a hospitality seminar led by their church volunteers who serve in this ministry.
     The woman who heads up their hospitality ministry began by saying that they weren’t always a very welcoming church.  She said that several years ago, a local newspaper reporter was doing an undercover story on how well churches welcome new people on Sunday mornings.  The reporter went to several churches incognito including to their church. 
     This reporter came to their church wearing worn out clothing, nothing like what most of the congregation was wearing that day.  As the reporter walked through the large fellowship area where the congregation was gathered for donuts and coffee, not one single person spoke to him.  When eye contact was made, church members would quickly look the other way and continue their conversation.
     About a week later, the newspaper ran the article.  As the pastor was reading this article, he began to realize that the reporter was writing about his church without saying the name of the church.  The article described the church as a large, predominately white, middle to upper class congregation with a large fellowship area in a certain section of the city.  After a few more details that fit the description of his church, he realized that the reporter was referring to his church.  Here he thought that his church was a very welcoming church, but they evidently had a lot of room to grow. 
     Determined to not accept the status quo of mediocre hospitality, the pastor and some key leaders got together and to make a long story short, this church is now known for their outstanding hospitality ministries.  And it all began because the church became painfully aware that their faith didn’t match their actions.  Sometimes we need to be reminded of James’ words to us.  Do our faith and our actions match up?
     One Sunday morning during worship this past spring, I mentioned about our pastor’s discretionary offering to help people in need.  We receive this separate offering on the first Sunday of each month when we celebrate Holy Communion.
     An elementary age girl who was listening to my announcement told her mom that she wanted to give all the money she had been saving to this offering.  I think it was $15.  Wanting to help people in need, she put her money in the pastor’s discretionary special offering envelope.  On the envelope, she wrote, “for homeless people.”
     During that week, we got a phone call from a woman who was living at the Lighthouse here in town which provides shelter for women and children who are victims of domestic violence.  When this woman left her husband who had been abusive to her, she also gave up her home to get out of that violent situation.
     She had a full-time job and all she needed were some extra funds to help her leave the Lighthouse and rent an apartment.  That little girl’s $15 was used to help this woman and her two boys begin a new life together.
     I had baptized this girl a few weeks before all of this.  As she stood in front of our congregation, I remember asking her if she believed that Jesus Christ was her Lord and Savor and she said, “Yes.”  
     I guess she meant what she said.