One of the many questions I presented in the sermon yesterday was, “How do we live with others who let us down?” That’s the dilemma of each character in yesterday’s parable (Luke 15:11-32). The younger son let the father and the older son down with his departure and wastefulness. The older son let the father and younger son down with his refusal to forgive the younger son’s decisions and celebrate his return. The father let the older son down by being quick to forgive or by being overly generous or by giving the younger son what he hadn’t given the older one (or some combination thereof).
It should come as no surprise that repentance was the theme of the day in worship yesterday. It is Lent after all. There’s never a wrong time to be invited to repent (John the Baptizer didn’t wait until Advent or Lent to do so – he didn’t know there would be such seasons), but repentance is certainly a part of this time of year.
I’m writing this special edition of Words from Will before the conclusion of General Conference or the close of voting on the school referendum. By the time you read it, we will likely know the results (www.umc.org can fill you in on the UMC’s vote).
Yesterday’s youth-led worship services were the perfect antidote to the unrest in our community and denomination. For all the alarming vitriol that has tainted the public discussion over the school referendum, we experienced the gift of talented and wise and joyful youth worship leaders. It was a visible reminder that they are giving us their best and deserve our best in return. For all the angst about what will come out of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference when it concludes tomorrow, we were reminded that the heart of it all is following Jesus who, as we were reminded by their challenging gospel lesson (Luke 6:27-38), commands us to love our enemies, to give and forgive generously, to not judge or condemn, acts that Jesus both demanded and demonstrated.
Beginning tomorrow, 864 voting delegates of the worldwide United Methodist Church will gather in St. Louis for worship, prayer, and deliberation. It’s what our denomination calls “General Conference” (GC) and is the only official decision-making body for the UMC. Normally GC meets every four years. In the last meeting (2016), it was determined to have an additional GC for the express purpose of addressing the United Methodist Church’s policies regarding human sexuality.
If one wanted to make a Biblical argument for what’s commonly called “Prosperity Gospel” (and plenty do), all he or she needs to do is select the blessings and ignore the woes. They can lift up the “If/then” passages of the Bible – if you do this, then you will be blessed – while ignoring the scriptural evidence that life is more complex than computer programming. If Genesis, Job, and Ecclesiastes don’t make the case for the unpredictability of blessings and woes, check out just two of Jesus’ comments on the subject: Luke 13:1-5 and John 9.
This Sunday’s gospel lesson, Luke 6:17-26, is one that should give people like me pause. Compared with nearly everyone in the world, I am rich. I can’t tell you the last time I was truly hungry and there has never been a time when I had to wonder about having a sufficient meal. I laugh more than I weep. And, for the most part, people seem to speak well of me. What am I to make of Jesus’ list of woes for people like me? People like us. Should we aspire to be poor, hungry, mournful, and hated? Do we just dismiss Jesus’ strong language as hyperbole?
The old saying “Hindsight is 20/20” is only true if you take the time to look back. Without reflection, hindsight is blind. Sometimes it takes years for clarity to come, but if we are willing to reflect, we will almost always see some good that came out of something we didn’t understand at the time.
Sunday’s scriptures can easily fall under the heading of “Call Stories.” Isaiah 6:1-8 presents an other-worldly scene with flying creatures and the reverberation of “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” Overwhelmed by God’s glory and by his own unworthiness, Isaiah responds to the wild scene and God’s open question, “Whom shall I send,” with “Send me!”
If it surprises you that Jesus would disturb people to the point of them wanting to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:14-30), you may have forgotten that that wasn’t the last time people attempted to kill him. You also may have forgotten the last time you had a difficult discussion with people you love and respect. It’s easy to dismiss some talking head on television as an idiot or mean-spirited or whatever when all they are to you is a caricature of a position with which you disagree. It’s far more difficult to let go of a strong word or criticism or different point of view when it’s someone with whom you spend time, work or worship alongside, share vacations or even homes. The closer the person is, the deeper the comment is felt and the longer it lingers
A prophet announces things. Sometimes those things are about what is to come, often based on what has already occurred. (It didn’t take a crystal ball for Old Testament prophets to predict that Israel would drift away from God – there was a well-established cycle of drawing near and fading away across the centuries.) Too much emphasis has been placed on the prophets’ reputation for announcing messages about the future. A primary job is to announce what is the current reality – that’s the form of Jesus’ prophecy in Sunday’s gospel reading (Luke 4:21-30).
Some of us scoffed Sunday at the very idea of being in worship for 6 hours (as was the crowd in Nehemiah 8:1-12). Only later did it occur to many of us that we were at Central for 6+ hours that day doing the Lord’s work. No one stood in the same place for hours on end. No one continually read and interpreted scripture like a holy filibuster, but the church leaders were together aiming to get the year off to a good start.
Our college chaplain prayed the same prayer of thanksgiving every time the offering was presented in worship. It’s a version of 1 Chronicles 29:14b. He’d pray, “All good things come of thee, O Lord. We give thee but thine own.”
Our church joins many around the world in singing a similar sentiment each week: Praise God from whom all blessings flow. We sing that as we return to God a representative portion of the good, the blessings that have come our way by God’s grace.
Jesus initiated exactly one act in Luke’s gospel prior to the Father proclaiming, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). That one act was not a pleasing act to Mary and Joseph. He cost them three days of worry by remaining at the temple while they began their return to Nazareth (Luke 2:41-52).
Here’s your pop-quiz for today: How many sacraments does The United Methodist Church recognize? You got it: 2 – Baptism and Holy Communion. Enjoy quizzes? Take this one about the UMC’s beliefs about baptism: http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/united-methodist-baptism-quiz.
One way we describe sacraments is to say they are those things that Jesus did and commanded us to do. He was baptized (Luke 3:15-22) and he commanded us to baptize (Matthew 28:16-20). He communed and commanded us to – “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:14-23).
There are t.v. “specials” and websites aplenty to satisfy our interest in “Where are they now?” If you want to know what happened to your favorite teenage star after the show ended or what happened when the bright lights and big money of major sports faded, the information is out there. I’d like a similar (if less salacious) follow up on some Biblical characters. Where did the rich man go after Jesus told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor and follow him (Luke 18:18-30)? Did he sell any and give some? How much? Did he ever meet back up with Jesus and follow? What was next for Mary Magdalene after Jesus’ ascension? And, more related to yesterday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 2:1-12), what did the magi do after they left Bethlehem having knelt before Jesus?
The following is a prayer from The United Methodist Book of Worship (#294). It’s intended use is New Year’s Eve or New Year’s. Sometime in the next 24 hours (now is a perfectly fine time to do it!), make space to pray the prayer attentively. Rather than just reading the words or saying them aloud, pause on them – what are your new desires? What are your old fears? Etc. Let them lead you into reflecting on the good and bad of the year behind you and on what you hope to make of the year ahead. Reflect on God who is in the midst of all of it and will continue to be. Let the prayer lead you into prayers of your own.