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

Monday, July 28, 2014

Sermon (July 27) by Rev. Cheryl Foulk - "Deception"

Today I'd like to mention one of my favorite's from childhood:  Lie Detector by Mattel !    I loved to play this game where you had to figure out who was guilty.   There are 24 suspects on picture cards, and  each card has a clue  about the criminal's physical appearance ( such as “he had a mustache”)  Was this information true?
 You found out by using the plastic Lie detector box. The card was placed inside the box,  and  the pointer would then go to True or False.  If it was False, the bell would ring.  You knew right away whether  the witness was really telling the truth.  If only it was that easy in real life...
Our Old Testament drama  concerning the figure Jacob continues  with more lies and deception.  So far we have seen how Jacob entrapped his hungry brother  Esau out of his birthright. And then we saw how Jacob disguised himself as his brother  in order to deceive his elderly father and get the family blessing.  His brother's hatred for him is so intense that Jacob has to leave town and becomes a fugitive.
 He finds shelter with his Uncle Laban.  Jacob becomes interested in Laban's daughter Rachel. For seven years he has worked on Laban's farm  with the understanding  that he will be given Rachel as his wife.  To Jacob, she is worth all the time and labor.  The wedding occurs and the next day Jacob discovers that things are not as they seem. He had not married his “longed for”  Rachel but married her older sister Leah. ( I'm not sure how this happened, probably had to do with heavy veils!) However done, Laban had tricked Jacob  and switched brides.                             
He justifies his actions by telling Jacob that the local custom is that the older daughter must be married prior to the younger.  And yes, Jacob  can also marry Rachel  but that means 7 more years of working on the  farm.  Jacob now has more debt to pay,  2 wives ( one he chose, one he didn't) and a very untrustworthy father in law.
This story has more twists and turns than any tv drama. When we read ahead, we find that  Jacob's family is caught in layers of  fibs.  Dishonesty seems to color every relationship.                                                                                               
Jacob is not innocent;  we have seen that he  has not always been truthful. His mother ( who aided him in his deception of his father ) has not been honest. Neither have  his wives, or his brother -in- laws, or his father in law. Everyone seems to bend the truth if necessary.
 Down the road, when Jacob himself  is older, he is lied to by some of his children who bring him bloody  clothing and tell him that his favorite child Joseph is dead. In reality, they have sold Joseph to slave traders and he is on his way to Egypt.   What a family...
We wish that we could say that Jacob and his family are an extreme example of deception  but the truth is:  we are all not truthful with others and ourselves.
Have these words ever come out of your mouth: “ I'll be ready in 5 minutes. “
“ Really, I'm fine.” “I'll call you.”  “I mailed the check last week.”  “You look great."                                           
One of the first stories in the Bible  concern Adam and Eve who try to cover up their actions by lying to God.  This seems to be part of our nature: we don't want to admit who we are and what we have done/ or not done  and so we   rewrite our history.
Marilee Jones worked in admissions at MIT for 25 years, eventually becoming the director.  She helped author a book  called Less Stress, More Success  for students and job seekers  encouraging them to be themselves in order to go far.  Sadly, she had not followed her own advice. In 2007 it  was discovered that years ago she had claimed to have several academic degrees which she did not have. She lost her position  and reputation  when the deception was discovered.
Why do we do this? 
 Laban deceived Jacob because he was greedy and wanted to make money at his daughters' expense.  We do it for personal gain.
We don't tell the truth because we don't want to face the consequences, the punishment. This begins when we are small; we deny because we don't want to stand in the corner!
We take a truth detour because we don't want to be embarrassed or shamed. We don't want people to know our true selves. We want to embellish our story which seems inadequate.
We are deceitful because we want to hurt others.
We are less than honest because we want to protect others, or protect ourselves.
Sometimes we are desperate and don't know what else to do to resolve a situation.
And perhaps the most ironic reason for deception is: we want to appear “good”  or “perfect” , as someone without fault, and therefore we lie.  
We use different ways to sugar coat our actions:  “It was only a little white lie”  “I may have fudged a bit”  “I guess I exaggerated”     “I misspoke”   
We may categorize the severity of dishonesty but  it all is harmful to our relationships with others and chips away at our level of trust.
If someone is not honest about the small things, then we wonder about the bigger issues.
Each of us has found how deeply we can be wounded when we discover that a  person close to us has been untruthful.
Jesus helped people to see themselves and their motives truthfully. Let's look at his interactions with Peter.  He told Peter that he was a strong rock in  his character and that became his name.   On the night of the last supper when Peter was boasting that the rest of them could deny Jesus but he never would,  Jesus  pointed to the truth that Peter was just as scared as anyone else in the room  and that he would certainly betray him that very night.  After the resurrection when Jesus appeared at the Sea of Galilee, he asked Peter repeatedly if he loved him. In doing so, he brought Peter to another wonderful  truth: that Peter indeed loved Jesus and he would be sent out to care for Christ's sheep.
Jesus taught that: "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free... So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
We live in a time where deception is not unusual. We have seen it with in business, politics, government, schools, individual lives.  We have become wary of promises  in advertising,  and in all the “facts “ on the Internet.  
We yearn to hear someone simply say  “ I was wrong.”
 As people of God, we stand on the foundation that “ we should not bear false witness.”     Our intention  is to be as truthful with those around us as  we can  and with as much love as we can.
Invite you to engage in some soul searching:  If you realize that you are stretching the truth, why are you doing this?  Why is it needed?  Who does it benefit?  Who do you misrepresent the truth to most often?  Family,  friends, strangers, co workers?
One study reported that people confessed to not telling the truth most often to their friends.  (Why should that be...aren't our friends the ones who  know us the best and care for us most?)
As you evaluate your actions, is there  a  better way that Christ is leading you to?
There is a tremendous weight upon our souls when ever we lie to others and to ourselves.
There is tremendous freedom when we admit to ourselves our sins and weaknesses. There is a great relief when we allow God's grace to shine light upon the shadows in our hearts.
There is hope when we ask for God's strength to help us be more transparent, and to change our habit of saying what we know to be false.
We may not have our own personal plastic lie detector box to help us navigate life, but
each of us through the power of Christ can be a person who is trustworthy,
who speaks with integrity,
and who honors God with their words.   Will you be that person?

The Bible & The Power of Stories

In between worship services yesterday, a church member told me, "I am glad that our church is focusing on Old Testament stories this summer." This person said that this focus helps her to hear again these foundational stories of our Christian faith.

Over the course of my pastoral ministry, I have often preached exclusively on the Old Testament lectionary readings during the summer months. The lectionary which is based on a three year cycle of Old and New Testament readings will take us through an entire book of the Old Testament during the summer months. This summer, it is taking us on a journey through the Book of Genesis.

These scriptures are narrative in nature. They tell the precarious story of God's calling of particular individuals such as Jacob who has been our main focus this summer. Even though we have a worship leader read these stories directly out of the bible while standing behind a podium or a music stand, we should imagine that we are all around a campfire as we hear these stories.

When we are around a campfire telling stories, the stories that are being shared come to life. Likewise, the Old Testament stories would have been told in similar settings. These would have been told from memory with a few nuances thrown in here and there. People would have picked up on the humor and the playfulness that are included in these stories.

"Our faith is also about telling and hearing the funny, sad, joyous, and sometimes tragic stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith who sought to follow God."

In many ways, we have missed out on the art of biblical story-telling in the church setting. I have always enjoyed preaching on these stories because it allows me to become a story-teller. Our faith isn't simply a matter of reciting doctrines and creeds as important as they are. Our faith is also about telling and hearing the funny, sad, joyous, and sometimes tragic stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith who sought to follow God. When we hear these stories, we are reminded that in many ways, they were just like us. We share in their attitudes and emotions as we hear these great stories of faith.

Hearing stories of our faith involves an appreciation in using the right side of our brain, the creative and artistic side. This is not to say that reason or logic is unimportant. The biblical stories of our faith have a way of inviting us to participate in these stories. Sometimes, they cause us to want to scream out with our best Dr. Phil voice, "What were you thinking?!" At other times, they lead us to smile and offer a sigh of relief because God's grace has provided a surprise ending to the situation.

Probably the greatest aspect of these Old Testament stories (and New Testament stories for that matter) is to remember that each individual story is part of the larger biblical story which tells us of a God who created this world and is on a mission to rescue our world from sin and death. Even if you know how this larger story ends (spoiler alert: God sends Jesus to redeem the world), the individual stories that we hear on Sunday mornings during worship invite us to become part of the biblical story drama.

We go to church thinking that we will simply be passive observers. Instead, we hear a story and we find ourselves on center stage. We are now an active participant in the greatest story that has ever been told.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Worship Preview - August 3

Sunday, August 3 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, August 6  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 8th Sunday After Pentecost & Holy Communion

Scripture - Genesis 32:22-31 & Matthew 14:13-21

Sermon - "Life's Wrestling Matches"

Theme - Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being one night who ends up giving him a new name. This encounter leads Jacob to get his life back on track in living out God's purpose. What are the wrestling matches that we face in life? How can they help us to live out God's purpose?

Monday, July 21, 2014

How Big is the United Methodist Theological Umbrella?

The United Methodist Church is known as a denomination of open hearts, open minds, and open doors. Words like pluralism and inclusiveness are frequently used in describing the UMC. I have always appreciated this aspect of United Methodism.

Compared to some other denominations and churches, the UMC prides itself in being open minded about various interpretations of the scriptures and theological perspectives. In other words, we can learn from one another because we all bring our unique backgrounds and understandings to the table.

The Wesleyan quadrilateral which consists of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience is the tool that United Methodists use to explore their faith. We believe that an appreciation of church tradition (how the church has interpreted scripture/social issues over the centuries), rational thinking (reason), and experience (our unique individual understandings) help us to have a wholistic understanding of the scriptures.

For example, I am extremely grateful, that my faith understanding isn't the same as when I started seminary almost thirty years ago. Thanks to an exposure to a wide array of biblical scholarship, a deeper understanding of church history, theological studies and conversations with pastors and friends, and pastoral experiences, my theological understandings have been enriched.

While allowing for a lot of theological perspectives can be a good thing, we also need to be aware of the core beliefs of our faith. Several years ago, I came across this statement of faith of the United Methodist Church. I changed the wording from the plural "we" to the more personal "I."

Do you agree with these core beliefs of our Christian faith? For example, the popular "Left Behind/Rapture" theology is very different from the United Methodist perspective under the "Reign of God" section that God will one day restore all of creation. That's just one example.

So what do you think? Do these central theological beliefs provide you with enough space for your personal theological understandings? How big is the United Methodist theological umbrella?

Central Theological Beliefs
The Trinity:
I believe in one God, who created the world and all that is in it.
I believe that God is sovereign; that is, God is the ruler of the universe.
I believe that God is loving. I can experience God’s love and grace.
I believe that Jesus was human. He lived as a man and died when he was crucified.
I believe that Jesus is divine. He is the Son of God.
I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and that the risen Christ lives today. 
I believe that Jesus is our Savior. In Christ we receive abundant life and forgiveness of sins.
I believe that Jesus is our Lord and that we are called to pattern our lives after his.
The Holy Spirit
I believe that the Holy Spirit is God with us.
I believe that the Holy Spirit comforts us when we are in need and convicts us when we stray from God.
I believe that the Holy Spirit awakens us to God’s will and implores us to live obediently.

Human Beings:
I believe that God created human beings in God’s image.
I believe that humans can choose to accept or reject a relationship with God.
I believe that all humans need to be in relationship with God in order to be fully human.

The Church:
I believe that the church is the body of Christ, an extension of Christ’s life and ministry in the world today.
I believe that the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
I believe that the church is “the communion of saints,” a community made up of all past, present, and future disciples of Christ.
I believe that the church is called to worship God and to support those who participate in its life as they grow in faith.

The Bible:
I believe that the Bible is God’s Word.
I believe that the Bible is the primary authority for our faith and practice.
I believe that Christians need to know and study the Old Testament and the New Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures).

The Reign of God:
I believe that the kingdom or reign of God is both a present reality and future hope.
I believe that wherever God's will is done, the kingdom or reign of God is present. It was present in Jesus' ministry, and it is also present in our world whenever persons and communities experience reconciliation, restoration, and healing.
I believe that the fulfillment of God's kingdom--the complete restoration of creation--is still to come.
I believe that the church is called to be both witness to the vision of what God's kingdom will be like and a participant in helping to bring it to completion.
I believe that the reign of God is both personal and social. Personally, I display the kingdom of God as our hearts and minds are transformed and I become more Christ-like. Socially, God's vision for the kingdom includes the restoration and transformation of all of creation.

The Sacraments:
Through baptism we are joined with the church and with Christians everywhere.
                        Baptism is a symbol of new life and a sign of God's love and forgiveness of our sins.
                        Persons of any age can be baptized.
                        I baptize by sprinkling, immersion or pouring.
                        A person receives the sacrament of baptism only once in his or her life.
        The Lord's Supper (Communion, Eucharist)
                        The Lord's Supper is a holy meal of bread and wine that symbolizes the body and blood of Christ.
                        The Lord's Supper recalls the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and celebrates the unity of all the   
                        members of God's family.
                        By sharing this meal, we give thanks for Christ's sacrifice and we are nourished and implored to go 
                        into the world in mission and ministry.

                        I practice "open Communion;" I welcome all who love Christ, repent of their sin, and seek to live in 
                        peace with one another.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon (July 20) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Chutes & Ladders"

     Do you remember the game, Chutes and Ladders?  It’s been a while since I’ve played this board game, but here’s a quick recap of how it works. 
     You have a game piece, spin the spinner, and hopefully you end up landing on a space that will take you up a ladder so that you can get ahead in the game.  But sometimes, you end up landing on a space that forces you down a chute which is a real bummer.  You don’t want to go backward.
     This simple child’s game encourages players to find where the ladder spaces are on the board and you hope and pray that you will land on the right space.
     It took me a while but I finally bought a ladder that was tall enough to take care of some basic household chores. Without a ladder, it’s kind of hard to get anything done around the house.
     Ladders don’t just help us with projects around the house. They can help us in our faith as well. Sometimes, instead of choosing a ladder that can lift us closer to God we choose a chute instead which ends up spiraling us downward and away from where God wants us to be.
     The story of Jacob from the Old Testament is more a story of chutes than it is of ladders.  Jacob seems to have an uncanny ability to choose chutes over ladders and here’s a quick summary of his life to help us understand the context of our Old Testament scripture for today.
     Many of us are familiar with the story of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau.  It would be an understatement to say that Jacob has been a real pain in the backside toward his own family members.
     Jacob is the guy, who when no one is looking, kicks his golf ball from out behind the tree before hitting his next shot.  Jacob is the guy who lies about his past accomplishments if it will help him get a promotion.  Jacob is the guy who sells you a car without telling you that there’s a problem with the transmission.  Jacob is the guy who stabs you in the back, if it will help him to get ahead.
     Jacob began his cheating ways when he was in his mother’s womb, if you can believe that.  Trying to beat his brother Esau by a few seconds so as to be the firstborn, the scriptures tell us that Jacob grabbed Esau’s heel while they were both in their mother’s womb, but to no avail.  And this is where Jacob got his name, which literally means “heel grabber.”
     And from there, he just keeps on choosing chutes over ladders.  One of the most popular stories in the Bible is the one where Jacob ends up taking advantage of Esau’s extreme hunger one day by exchanging some stew straight up for his birthright. 
     But that’s not all.  Heel grabber tricks his own father who is lying on his death bed by impersonating older brother Esau, and Jacob ends up receiving the blessing that was meant for his brother.
     Now, the problem with heel grabbers is that even though they may get what they want, they make a lot of enemies along the way.  And when Esau found out what his brother did, he set out to kill his own twin brother, Jacob. 
     Jacob’s mother, knowing that things are going to get ugly really fast, tells Jacob to run away and hide out at Uncle Laban’s house.  While on the run, Jacob stops for the night, and finding the most comfortable rock he can, he places it under his head like a pillow.  Jacob’s decisions which involved going down one chute after another, has literally led him to hit rock bottom.
     And the really sad part of it all?  I don’t think that Jacob has any clue how far he has fallen or how bad his decisions have been.  You almost get the impression as you read up to this point, that Jacob probably even thinks that rocks are meant to be pillows.
     One of the striking features of the bible is that nobody, not even people who you would think should know better, are immune from making bad decisions or from allowing themselves to drift away from God.  The bible is a frustrating book to read at times, because just when God’s people seem to be moving in the right direction, somebody messes it all up.
     It kind of reminds me of Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island.  Remember how the Skipper and his crew would be this close from being rescued, and then just before the end of the show, Gilligan would do something that caused them to stay stranded?
     But let’s not just blame Jacob.  We can find many more names of people who like Jacob, make decisions that leave us scratching our heads and shouting out, “what were you thinking?”
     And truth be told, if we really think about it, we’re just like them in many ways.  At times, we too, find ourselves drifting away from God.  Sometimes it’s due to our poor choices and sometimes it’s because…well let’s face it.  Life is hard.  And we just say, “What’s the use? I’ll take the easy way.”
     The problem is that when we choose to take one chute, it’s that much easier to take the next one and the next before we find ourselves in a free fall away from God and our faith.
     A while back, a friend of mine who’s a pastor was talking to me about the importance of taking time out of our schedules to just be with God and to find renewal in his faith.  And he said, “Every time I take time to do be with God in an intentional way, God seems to help me to get back on track again.  And I end up feeling stronger in my walk with Christ.  But for some reason, I allow myself to wander away again from the faith.”  And with a puzzled look on his face, his next words were, “It’s the strangest thing.”
     And I thought to myself, “He’s right.  It is so easy to fall away from God, even when we know what we need to do and to whom we should go.”
      A few years ago, a survey was conducted which included several churches in our country and the purpose of this survey was to determine why it is that people end up drifting away from the church.  And the number one reason it gave was that for many people, they just don’t feel challenged enough to grow in their faith.  The people who leave the church, tend to be the people who want more in their faith, but no one seems willing to help them to go to the next level. 
     And that makes sense.  If you reach one level and plateau, it gets kind of old to just stay where you are. 
     In addition to folks who stray away because they aren’t being challenged enough, there are also folks who are falling away because life has been tough on them.  They’re asking questions like, “Why does God allow bad things to happen”  “Why are you allowing me to go through all of this suffering?” 
      And still, there are others, who like Jacob, simply make bad decisions, sending them down one chute after another until they reach a point where they have fallen almost completely out of a relationship with God.

     But here’s the good news for those of us who have gone down our fair share of chutes.  God never gives up on us.  Just like in our Old Testament reading for today.  Here Jacob is on a cold and damp ground with a rock under his head.  He’s drifting off to sleep and he begins to see something that will mark a turn around in his life.
     He sees a ladder set up on earth.  Not a short ladder.  But a tall ladder that reaches up to heaven.  And not only that, but he also sees angels ascending and descending on that ladder.  And as Jacob is given this unexpected glimpse of God’s presence, God speaks to him and reminds him of a promise that was made to his father Isaac, and to his grandfather, Abraham.  And the promise is that through their family, God will bless the world.
     Sometimes, when we end up going down chutes for whatever reason, we forget the bigger picture of God’s promise that one day the sin and brokenness in our world will be overturned and everything will be made new.  And the way that God is going to reclaim his creation and make everything new is through you and me. 
     So God reminds Jacob of this promise which he had forgotten.  God promises to be with Jacob and also assures him that the covenant will be fulfilled through him.
     Jacob then wakes up from his sleep and says, “Surely, the Lord is in this place.”
     In one of the churches I served, a guy in his 20s whose name was Dave, began attending worship services out of the blue.  All I knew about Dave was that he lived a couple of blocks from the church and that was about it.  So, I got to know him a little better and one day I asked him just out of curiosity, “What was it that led you to begin attending church here?”
     And he told me how he had grown up in the church but then when he got out of school, he just kind of drifted away from God and the church.  He told me how he had moved to this neighborhood because of a job transfer.  He wasn’t married and enjoyed his new home and especially liked relaxing on Sunday mornings in his closed-in porch.
     He said that since moving into his new home, he liked drinking his coffee and reading the paper on Sunday mornings.  And he said, “But every Sunday morning, I couldn’t help but listen to your church bells.  At first, I didn’t think a whole lot about it, but one Sunday morning, it was the strangest thing.  I decided to put my paper down.  I got dressed for church, and I’ve been here ever since.  I feel like I’m back home with God again,” he said with a smile.
     One of my favorite hymns is the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessings.” Robert Robinson who lived in England during the 1700’s wrote the lyrics for this hymn. One of the verses says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, O take and seal it. Seal it for thy courts above.” Robinson was known to backslide in his faith which is why he included those words in this great hymn of faith.
     During one of those times when he had backslidden in his faith, Robinson was sitting next to a woman on a stage coach. This woman was quietly humming this tune. Not knowing that she was sitting next to the writer of this hymn, she asked him what he thought of this hymn.
     Robert Robinson said to her, "Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then."
     This woman responded by quoting a phrase from the first verse of that hymn. She said, “Sir, the streams of mercy are still flowing.” The woman on that stage coach ended up helping Robinson to climb back up the ladder in his faith with God.
     Let’s face it.  We are all prone to wander from our faith. All of us land on chutes at one time or another.  We fall away from God and sometimes it even feels like we’re headed the opposite direction.  But then comes along a ladder and it seems to come out of nowhere. 
     You hear those same old church bells.  You sit next to someone humming a tune.  You lay your head on that cold rock.  And guess what?  We discover that we were the ones who moved.  Not God. Jacob, the one who grabbed his brother’s heel, all of the sudden realizes that God has a grab of his heel.  And God isn’t letting go.
     This God is determined to have his way with us.  Whether we’re on the run or we have drifted away without even noticing, at the bottom of every chute is a ladder and this incredible promise:
     “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised to do through you.  Through you, I am going to change the world!”
     Never expecting that God would ever catch up with you again, the only words that come to your mind are these words of praise…
     “Surely, the presence of the Lord is in this place.”

Sunday Worship Preview - July 27

Sunday, July 27 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, July 30  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 7th Sunday After Pentecost

Scripture - Genesis 29:15-28 & Romans 8:31-39

Sermon - "Deception"

Theme - Jacob and his family are caught in a web of deceptive acts. The story for this Sunday concerns Jacob's desire to marry Rachel, and instead, he was given her sister Leah as his wife. Let's look at deception and its consequences for us. Through God's help, how can we be more truthful in our relationships?