Who’s In, Who’s Out?

Part 1 of our new sermon series on Methodism and other Christian religions titled “My Slice of Christianity” inspired by Adam Hamilton’s Christianity’s Family Tree

Mitt Romney brought the Mormon faith to the forefront when he ran for President

Mitt Romney brought the Mormon faith to the forefront when he ran for President

23,000,000 people can’t be wrong!

Or can they? Roughly, that’s how many Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons there are in the world today. 23,000,000![1] The number is actually higher, probably closer to 23.5 million people. Popular thinking often leads us to believe that if a bunch of people believe in something then it must be true and 23.5 million people is a lot of people. But we know truth and belief are two different things. The confederacy at the time of the Civil War had 5.5 million free people (and 3.5 million slaves), but that didn’t make slavery alright.[2] Numbers can be impressive, but they don’t divulge the truth. If you ask the average person, they would probably say that Mormons are Christians and probably most would say followers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians even if they think some of their practices are strange. And for sure, if you asked a member of either religion if they are Christian they would certainly say they were. But does that make them a Christian?

Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t make you a Christian.

I’m fond of the saying, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you a car,” and that sort of applies in this case. Even John Wesley said in one of his famous sermons, “Whatsoever the generality of people may think, it is certain that opinion is not religion.” So what makes someone a Christian? There are a lot of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who lead Christ-like lives and who honestly believe in their faith, and they do a lot more on behalf of their faith than probably most Christians in mainline denominations like our own. So how can we tell the difference? Our sermon series over the next few weeks will explore our Christian heritage and we will discuss some of the differences between our Methodist beliefs and those of other Christian denominations. Knowing what we believe and why we believe it is important. But I thought it was equally important to discuss how we define Christianity first. Before we discuss the difference between us and other Christians, we need to know what a Christian is. Is it simply believing in Christ?   Most people believe that he existed, but that doesn’t make them Christian. Muslims believe that Jesus was virgin-born and performed many miracles, but we wouldn’t consider them Christian. Many Buddhists and Hindus believe that Jesus was a great prophet who led an exemplary lifestyle, some Hindus would say Jesus had the divine within him, but we wouldn’t consider them Christian either. The difference between these other religions and ones like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons is that the former don’t consider themselves Christians either. But the latter do. So what makes a Christian a Christian?

Traditionally we’ve defined Christianity by a few simple beliefs.

John Wesley summed them up in his essay “The Character of a Methodist.”[3] He wrote that Scripture is the inspired Word of God, that Scripture was sufficient to “equip us for a life of faith and service,”[4] and that Christ is both fully human and fully divine.   Scripture is the inspired Word of God, Scripture is sufficient to equip us for a life of faith, and Christ is both fully human and fully divine. Everything else Wesley said we should “think and let think.” These basic concepts we find supported in Scripture in many different places. We shared the passage earlier from 2 Timothy about the sufficient and inspired nature of Scripture and so this morning we’ll read about the divinity of Christ.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The Word was God...

The Word was God…

It always confused me to hear Jesus being called “the Word of God.”

I didn’t really understand what it meant. I just sort of accepted that John was referring to Jesus because that’s what everyone told me, but I read something really interesting that made a lot of sense. It said that the “Word” was something both Jews and Gentiles would have been familiar with. The Jewish people would recognize this description of Jesus meaning that Christ was the “instrument for the execution of God’s will.”[5] Throughout the Old Testament, God’s will was often made manifest by his “word” and so Jesus would have been seen as the personification then of God’s will on Earth. On the other hand, the Greek interpretation of “word” was Logos which would have meant in Greek philosophy that he was the bridge or the intermediary between God and Earth.[6] So in the Old Testament you have the “Word” as the manifestation of God’s will, and in Greek the “Word” would have been understood as the bridge between God and Earth. To use this description of Jesus as the “Word” would have meaning for everyone in trying to understand what role Jesus played in God’s creation. Explaining that the Word was there at the beginning, that the Word was with God, AND that the Word WAS God establishes Jesus as divine, on equal terms with God.

But not all people who claim to be Christian believe this.

From my reading and understanding of both Jehovah’s Witness beliefs and Mormon beliefs, neither one of them think that Jesus was God in the sense we traditionally understand it. In the faith of the Jehovah’s Witness, Jesus was not God, but a creation of God. He was also known as the Archangel Michael and did not die on a cross but on a stake. When he died he was not resurrected but existed only in spirit form. The Jehovah’s Witness’ were taught that only 144,000 people would be taken to Heaven and the rest of humanity would remain dead. They revised that interpretation to say that true believers after 1935 would be resurrected to a new Earth but that 144,000 who were chosen prior to 1914 would still be the only ones to go to Heaven.[7] Mormons similarly don’t believe that Jesus is actually God. Instead they believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are different and distinct beings that act in unison with one another. It seems like a very subtle difference but it denies that Christ actually is God and instead an actor and one of many gods. The Mormon faith also teaches that we can eventually become God or at least as God is. They also believe that God and Jesus both have physical, perfected bodies, that God is made of flesh and bone so when we are created in his image that is a literal interpretation.[8] Mormons also believe in a Heavenly Mother although not much more is said about this divine being. They also don’t believe in hell but instead on three levels of Heaven. My roommate in college, Wayne, was Mormon and he described it to me this way. There are three levels of Heaven. The first level is occupied by true followers of the faith, the Mormons, who get to dwell with God. The second level are for all Christians who are not Mormon. They come close to accepting the truth, but are not quite on the Mormon level and they get to dwell with Christ. And while they are happy, they are always looking up and wishing they could be with God the Father. The third Heaven is for everyone else. They get to live with the Holy Spirit. And while they too are happy, they are always looking up at the first and second Heavens and wishing they got to be there. Now, while the official version of the levels of Heaven or what is called the “degrees of glory”[9] is a little more complicated, Wayne’s version was a good summary of what is taught.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints earned a lot of praise and impressively turned the other cheek by using smart marketing.  They placed full page ads in the Playbill for The Book of Mormon (the musical) encouraging people to find out for themselves about their faith.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints earned a lot of praise and impressively turned the other cheek by using smart marketing. They placed full page ads in the Playbill for The Book of Mormon (the musical) encouraging people to find out for themselves about their faith.

As for the sufficiency of Scripture and Scripture as the inspired Word of God, there are also differences.

The Jehovah’s Witness faith believes in the Bible as the inspired Word of God, but they use a translation of the Bible that conforms to Jehovah’s Witness beliefs.[10] As mentioned before, they don’t believe Jesus died on a cross so they changed the translation of the word to “murder stake.” They don’t believe that Jesus was God but instead a creation of God so they changed the verse we read that distinctly said “The Word was God” to instead say “The Word was a god.” And because they believe that Christ already returned in 1914, they changed the translation of the word “coming” to “presence.”[11] In contrast, the Mormons instead do not believe in the sufficiency of Scripture – not because they doubt God but because they believe mistakes were made and the Book of Mormon corrects those mistakes.[12] They also turn to two other books written primarily by Joseph Smith based on his interpretation of the Bible and by a series of golden plates that he claims revealed to him God’s teachings. Because they hold these revelations as equal to the Bible and in some cases supersede the Bible (although not the Bible’s fault), they don’t truly believe in the sufficiency of Scripture.

That isn’t to say that members of either church are not good people.

Many of them as I said before live a more dedicated, Christ-like life than many of us “mainline” Christians. That’s also not to say that we can’t learn from them as much as we hope they learn from us. Their dedication to evangelism is something that mainline Christianity has struggled with. And according to a 2012 study, Mormons were the fastest growing religious group in the United States, followed by members of the Muslim faith.[13] But as we explore our faith deeper and seek to define what we believe, it is important to point out that not every Christian faith is in fact Christian. Or at the very least that when we seek to understand our faith, there are some very fundamental beliefs we hold that we believe come from God and the Bible that define who we are. We should always seek to love those who are different than us. We should always seek to understand without ridicule people who honestly adhere to their faith. And by understanding our own faith better we can be prepared to do as Peter said and be “prepared to give an answer…for the hope that you have (1 Peter 3:15).” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] http://lds.about.com/od/organizationsauxiliaries/fl/Mormons-World-Population-Numbers-by-Year.htm and

[2] http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/facts.htm

[3] http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/The-Wesleys-and-Their-Times/The-Character-of-a-Methodist

[4] http://www.gotquestions.org/sufficiency-of-Scripture.html

[5] http://www.gotquestions.org/Jesus-Word-God.html

[6] http://www.gotquestions.org/Jesus-Word-God.html

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jehovah%27s_Witnesses and http://www.equip.org/article/are-jehovahs-witnesses-christian-3/

[8] https://carm.org/is-mormonism-christian and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormonism

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degrees_of_glory

[10] http://www.gotquestions.org/New-World-Translation.html and http://www.equip.org/article/are-jehovahs-witnesses-christian-3/

[11] http://www.gotquestions.org/New-World-Translation.html and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eschatology_of_Jehovah%27s_Witnesses

[12] http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/11/29/mormons-and-the-bible/?_r=0 and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormonism_and_Christianity

[13] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2012-05-02/religion-census-mromon/54701198/1

To Roller Skate or Not to Roller Skate…

Found this image on line and it looks so much like my old skates!

Found this image on line and it looks so much like my old skates!

I knew I could make it down the hill.

I was headed to a friend’s house after school one day and had brought my roller skates. They had side-by-side big orange wheels, not the inline type of roller skates, and they had these huge orange stoppers at the front of the skate. I carried them with me to the top of the overpass near my friend’s place and decided I was going to wear them down the hill. This wasn’t a tiny hill. It was a huge freeway overpass, but I thought if I used my stoppers it shouldn’t be a problem. So I laced up my skates and started down the hill. I started gaining speed pretty quickly, even dragging the stopper. I kept applying more pressure on the stopper, but it just kept shedding this orange trail behind me as it got smaller and smaller. I realized that this wasn’t going to end well. In front of me was the freeway on-ramp which was getting closer faster. To my left was a huge ditch and to my right was oncoming traffic. The only thing between me and a complete disaster was a telephone pole. So I headed toward the pole. I put my arms out in front of me, spread my legs so I could hug the pole and WHAP! My arms buckled from the force, my head hit the pole, the area between my legs hit the pole and I collapsed on the ground. But I was safe. Still, I sat there for like ten minutes before getting up, taking off my shoes, and walking the rest of the way to my friends’ house. I kept wondering what kind of world we live in that nobody stopped to see if I was okay. I’d like to say I learned from that experience, but about 10 years later, my friends and I were rollerblading and decided we could conquer another friend’s street. It was super steep and again led out to a major street, but with 10 years experience behind me, I thought I could handle it. None of us could. I knew right away it was a mistake (maybe I did learn a little) so I veered to the right and slid to the ground. Another friend of mine rolled onto a neighbor’s yard and tumbled on their lawn. And my other friend was able to turn all the way around and stop on someone’s driveway. We all took off our skates and walked back up.

Sometimes we are blind to our own limitations.

Sometimes we are blind to our own limitations. It’s not that we can’t see them, but too often we don’t see them. In the same way that we like to think the best of ourselves, we also like to believe we can do anything! And again, that CAN be a good thing. Believing you can do the impossible sometimes leads us to actually DO the impossible. But knowing our limitations can also help us. It helps us to make the most out of the gifts we do have and to be creative in achieving our goals. Knowing our limitations helps us to make the most of the gifts we have and inspires us to be creative in achieving our goals. Knowing our limits is a blessing, not a curse, not a discouragement. Instead it is a tool in our tool belt.

Waisale Severi is a rugby star who wears the Philippians passage on him as he plays as does Tim Tebow and Steph Curry

Waisale Severi is a rugby star who wears the Philippians passage on him as he plays.  Many other athletes do as well

It’s hard for us to accept that we have limits.

Especially when it seems within the realm of possibility. Especially when it seems like it’s something we could do or something we used to be able to do. In those cases, we are prone to ignore our limitations and attempt to do it anyway. Maybe it’s lifting a box that seems we should be able to lift. Maybe it’s going on a ride we used to love going on as a kid. Maybe it’s eating food we used to eat all the time. It’s hard for us to accept our limits. The Bible even seems to tell us that all we have to do is believe in ourselves enough and we can do anything! If we simply have enough faith, we can literally move mountains! That’s what the Bible says, right? “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Well, let’s look a bit closer at that verse. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please go to Philippians 4:10-20. Philippians 4:10-20. Paul writes this letter to the church at Philippi at some point while imprisoned. He writes to give them encouragement and direction and his letter seems filled with hope even though he himself is in dire circumstances. The passage we are reading today comes from the end of that letter and in it, Paul clearly writes, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” although each translation has it a bit differently. The one I’m reading this morning says, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” But does that mean what we think it means? Let’s read it together and find out.

10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. 15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. 17 Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. 18 I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

20 To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

“I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

Francis Chan, the founding pastor of Cornerstone Church down in Los Angeles and a prominent speaker around the country, says that he thinks this is the most “misquoted verse in the world.”[1] That we’ve taken it to mean that we can do anything because God will gives us the power to do it. Whether its in athletics or school or work or some competition, it doesn’t matter what kind of training you’ve had or how well prepared you are because God will just give you the ability to succeed no matter what. “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” We read that verse earlier in the Bible in Mark 11 where Jesus himself tells us that if we have enough faith, and according to Jesus it’s not very much – the size of a mustard seed – that if we just have enough faith we can literally (LITERALLY not figuratively) move mountains. That is how powerful God is. All we have to do is believe or have enough faith and that’s enough.

It’s funny how we can twist anything to fit our beliefs.

Instead of looking at a verse like this closely or reading it in context, we just take the snippets we like and suddenly it becomes a mandate from God. The sad part is our false beliefs not only dishonor God’s teachings, but make life harder for us as well, at least in the long run. We start to doubt God. We start to doubt ourselves. We start to doubt everything we believe in and our faith becomes brittle and crumbles away. I remember reading about this woman who believed in Benny Hinn’s power of healing. Benny Hinn is a televangelist who claims that God conducts miracle healings through him and if you send money to support his ministry and his lavish lifestyle and private jets and staying in luxury hotels, then you will be doing God’s work too and God’s blessing will rain down upon you. This woman went to go see Hinn at one of his crusades and was supposedly healed of her cancer. She was not. And even though her condition worsened, she believed to her dying day that Hinn had healed her and refused to go to doctors or get treatment. When they did an autopsy of her body, they found the cancer had caused her death. Sometimes, we are so desperate to believe in what we want to be true that we fail to see what actually is true. Sometimes we are so desperate to believe in what we want to be true that we fail to see what actually is true.

Paul isn’t saying in this passage that God will make whatever you want happen.

Paul isn’t saying that our faith is the only thing necessary to make things happen. What Paul is saying in this passage is simply that throughout his life, because of God’s grace, he has been able to endure anything. He is able to be at peace, whether he has a lot or a little, because he knows that true peace comes in the hope given to us by Christ. “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” The secret is faith in God. The secret of being content is faith in God. It isn’t money or power or fame because there are plenty of people with plenty of money or power or fame who are as discontent as you or I. Sometimes having more simply means wanting more.

Genie from Aladdin

Genie from Aladdin

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

The problem with translations is that it isn’t always accurate. If you read a NIV, a NRSV, a Good News Bible, and a NLT, you might come away with different meanings depending on how each was translated. One thing I found in researching this passage was that the verb “to do” isn’t actually in this verse. The actual verb is “ischuo” and it means “to be able, strong, healthy, valid, powerful.” What seminary professor Ben Witherington wrote is that a better translation of this passage is “I am able / strong enough [to endure] all things in Him who empowers me.”[2] I am able to endure all things in Him who empowers me. That sounds an awful lot more consistent with God’s character than our interpretation of God as wish-fulfiller, as a kind of Genie in a bottle.

I hope you will think about this verse as we think together about the future of our church.

We have struggled a lot lately. We’ve had lots of people who have been sick, or injured, or moved away, or died. All within one year. We are a different church today than we were when I first got here. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of doing good work for God right here and right now. But it might mean we need to do it in a different way and that’s what I hope you will pray about in the coming weeks. I hope you will be open to thinking about new ways of doing things. I hope you will be open to finding different ways to show our love for God and one another. I hope that instead of trying to recapture the vitality of the past that we will look for ways to be vital with who we have and who we are right now. Let us pray for us to be content no matter the circumstance through our faith in God. And let us also pray for God’s creativity to come alive in us that we might discover those ways we can continue to do God’s work. We may not be able to roller skate our way to a solution, but maybe we need to walk our way down this chapter of the life of our church.   In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lC3DjID-GU

[2] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2012/10/11/the-superman-verse-phil-4-13-and-what-it-does-not-mean/

Zappos and God

What would it look like if the animals ran the zoo?

That’s the image that came to mind the first time I heard about Zappos’ new way of running their business. It’s called a holacracy and it sounds pretty strange. Zappos is primarily an online shoe company. They have been doing phenomenally well. So much so that after only 10 years of doing business they were making over a billion dollars in annual sales! So why mess with a good thing? About two years ago, Zappos decided to change the way they do business. Not with their customers which has always been their strong point. Zappos has excelled at that aspect of the business, sending out gift baskets, cookies, and “thank you” cards routinely to customers out of appreciation or to apologize for something that went wrong. One time a woman wanted to return a pair of boots her husband had bought but never worn. He had died and so she called the company. The next day, a floral arrangement was sent to her by the person who talked to her on behalf of the company. When was the last time a company cared that much for you? Zappos instead decided to change its entire management culture. Or to be more accurate, to get rid of it. They instituted what’s called a holacracy where employees don’t have managers or supervisors and instead govern themselves. They set their own goals and they solve their own problems without having to check in with a manager. That doesn’t mean they aren’t accountable to anyone. Like the old Methodist “classes,” everyone belongs to a circle of peers who review one another and help one another. The company succeeds or fails together. But as one person said, it sounds like a recipe for chaos.[1]

Zappos employees working together

Zappos employees working together

That’s what I first thought when I heard about Zappos’ business model.

It sounds like a recipe for chaos. Actually, it sounds like a recipe for disaster. Letting employees make up their own goals? How hard would that be to accomplish? “Um, I’m going to sell one pair of shoes per month – DONE! Accomplished my goal in the first week!” It seems like a system doomed to failure. Don’t we NEED a leader? Don’t we NEED someone to set our goals for us, to tell us what constitutes “success” in our jobs? Wouldn’t people completely take advantage of a system where you didn’t have anyone looking you’re your shoulder? Maybe not. Zappos seems to be doing pretty well. But it made enough people uncomfortable that 14% of the employees left the company. Zappos knew that what they proposed was pretty revolutionary and offered to buy out any employee who felt uncomfortable about the direction the company was taking and 14% of them up and left. But the ones that stayed seem to be pretty happy about things. Still, there’s something comforting for us about having a human leader. Someone who will tell us what to do. When it comes down to it though, the idea of an holacracy sounds pretty Biblical.

We’re going to read a story about a kind of Biblical holacracy in the first book of Samuel this morning.

If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please turn to 1 Samuel 8:1-21. 1 Samuel 8:1-21. Now this story takes place after Samuel has become leader of all of Israel. Samuel isn’t a king. He’s just a prophet. A great prophet mind you, but not a king. He led the Israeli people against the Philistines and won a huge battle against them and never again during his leadership were they threatened by the Philistines. Samuel was fiercely loyal to God and helped to lead the Israeli people back to their faith after they once again drifted away. But Samuel was growing old and no one seemed capable of replacing him. So the people asked for a king, and this is that story.

When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s leaders. The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

Then Samuel said to the Israelites, “Everyone go back to your own town.”

Samuel as imagined in the History Channel presentation of The Bible

Samuel as imagined in the History Channel presentation of The Bible

Samuel must have been disappointed.

He had tried to warn them of the consequences of having a human king, but the people wouldn’t listen. He tried to tell them that they had the only king they ever really needed was God, but they still wouldn’t listen. Even after God had saved them from exile, had found for them the promised land, and had fulfilled his promises to them, still they wouldn’t listen. Samuel felt bad about it, but God told him, “It’s not your fault. They are rejecting me, not you.” And God was of course right. Listen to what the people were saying, “We want a king over us (verses 19-20). Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” With a king to lead us and to go out BEFORE us and FIGHT OUR battles. What the people of Israel really wanted was someone to take responsibility away from them and do the work for them. What they really wanted was someone to take responsibility away from them and do the work for them. Not that they wouldn’t help out or that they were going to do nothing. But in the end, they didn’t want to be responsible. If God was their king, then they alone would be responsible for their actions, but if someone else was king then it was the king’s fault and not their own. They wanted to put some distance between themselves and responsibility. More often than not, we know the right thing to do, we just don’t want to do it. Or we know we need to change, but we don’t want to leave our comfort zone. Or we know we’re not doing what we need to do, but no one wants to take responsibility for doing it different. Let someone else make those decisions and if it goes bad, we’ve got someone else to blame. But that’s not the way God ever wanted it. God always intended for the church to have one head – Jesus Christ. God always intended for the church to have one head – Jesus Christ. He didn’t expect the church to be led by any one person or any one group of people. God intended for us to be led by the life, actions, and teachings of Jesus and then to just act accordingly.

An early itinerant circuit rider

An early itinerant circuit rider

Pastors haven’t done a great job of encouraging this either.

In the early Methodist church, an ordained pastor would come by about once a month if you were lucky. Which is how the tradition of once a month communion began. In between, the pastor would be itinerating from church to church along his circuit and would only get back to each one about once a month. So the everyday running of the church, the preaching and teaching and visiting of the sick and elderly, was all done by the laity. The everyday running of the church – the preaching, teaching, and visiting of the sick and elderly – was all done by the laity. The Methodist church was always meant to be a lay-driven church. But somewhere along the way, as we got more pastors and itinerated less often, the pastor became the head of the church and the people deferred to the pastor. The worst part was the pastor let it happen. I don’t know if it’s because pastors liked the power and notoriety that came with being a community leader or if they had their own messiah complex, but pastors let it happen. And the church became more dependent on the pastor for guidance and leadership. But pastors are just people. They have certain gifts and strengths that they should give to the church, but leadership in the church is something we are meant to do together under the guidance and kingship of Christ. That’s why it’s so important to be guided by prayer and discernment. Because the more of us that are praying the more likely we’re going to be in getting it right. The more of us that are praying, the more likely we are to get it right.

It’s comforting to sit back and let someone else make the decisions.

To ease the burden of responsibility. Brian Robertson who came up with the process of holacratic governance said it this way, “There’s something almost safe and comforting, even when we don’t like it, about being in a system where there’s somebody else whose job it is to protect us, take care of us, nurture us,” Robertson says. “And when they don’t do that well, we get to be angry with them and blame them and hide behind them.”[2] But if we are to be the church of Jesus Christ we need to do better. If we are to thrive and bring more people into the church so that they can hear the message of Christ in their lives, we need to do better. We need to take responsibility for where the church is and where it’s going to go. We have to rethink our expectations and come up with a better way for this to work. Because I’m not going to save this church, and you’re not going to save this church, but together with prayer and discernment we can let God lead this church to do what He thinks is best. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] http://www.npr.org/2015/07/21/421148128/zappos-a-workplace-where-no-one-and-everyone-is-the-boss

[2] http://www.npr.org/2015/07/21/421148128/zappos-a-workplace-where-no-one-and-everyone-is-the-boss

Snoring and Other Introspections

Peppermint Patty catching some Z's

Peppermint Patty catching some Z’s

I do not snore.

I do NOT snore. Cassie says I snore, but I do not. Emma says I snore loud enough to wake the dead, but I do not. I’m just not the kind of person who snores. We all KNOW there’s a specific kind of person who snores. You know them when you seem them. And I am not one of them. Never have been, never will be. Until of course I found out that I DO snore. That I’m one of THOSE people. The horror and the shame of it all! For so long I was comfortable in the fact that I was not in that circle of people, kind of proud of it actually, only to find out that I am. Not that there’s anything wrong with those people. My dad’s a snorer and I like him a lot. Other people I know are like that too. I just never saw myself as one of THOSE kind of people. The first time I found out was at a clergy retreat and one of the guys I was bunking with said, “There’s a couple of open rooms down the hall so I thought it would be nice for us to have our own rooms.” That seemed a little odd, that he would even look into whether or not there were open rooms so I asked if anything was wrong and he said, “I just had a hard time sleeping last night. You were snoring pretty loud.” I was shocked. Me? Immediately I went into denial. He must be mistaken or maybe it was a one-time thing. I asked a couple of other clergy friends of mine that I had bunked with before and both of them said it was true. They were very nice about it, but confirmed that I did in fact snore. But that wasn’t enough. So I asked the one person who would know better than anyone. My wife. Who confirmed that in fact, there were times when I snored. But since she almost always fell asleep before me, she didn’t often notice. Except when we were at family get-togethers and I would fall asleep on the couch after a Thanksgiving food coma. She’d have to wake me up. It’s funny because I would first deny falling asleep, and then would deny snoring when I did. Do you ever do that? Deny falling asleep? I’ll ask again after some of you wake up.

We often think the best of ourselves.

And typically that’s a good thing. The hope, the optimism that comes in believing we are better than we are sometimes makes it come true. The human ability to stand against overwhelming odds and triumph is a result of this incessant belief in who we are. So it’s not a bad thing that we like to think the best of ourselves, but at times we can also sabotage ourselves the very same way. We can become too cocky and overconfident in our abilities and seek help too late. You ever ride in the car with someone who refuses to look at a map, but can’t admit when they are lost? Or we can become arrogant and filled with self-importance, ignoring those around us and their thoughts and opinions as if they couldn’t possibly have ideas as good as ours. Probably most of us have worked with someone like that at one time or another – a boss, a classmate, a spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend – who just never seemed to like our ideas as much as their own. Worst of all, we can become self-deluded. Despite the reality of the situation we can hold on to outdated, outmoded ways of thinking and justify those beliefs without our own internal logic. We seek out people, articles, radio programs or anything else that confirms those beliefs. It’s called in psychology, confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the human tendency to seek out information that supports our way of thinking while denying or ignoring evidence to the contrary. And if we are not careful, our ability to think the best of ourselves will steer us down this path into self-delusion.

As always, the Bible has something important to say about self-delusion.

And it’s probably a story you’re already familiar with, but we’re going to read it together this morning and hopefully gain new insight into this old problem. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phones, please go to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7, versus 1-5. Matthew 7:1-5. This is part of the famous Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is offering words of wisdom to the disciples and all of his followers and here he is talking about judging others. Even if you’ve never been in church, you’ve probably still heard this passage or at least something similar to it. It’s like the “eye for an eye” passage. It’s become part of our vernacular. But here it is as presented in the Bible for us to share this morning.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

On the trip to Hawaii, but not wearing the shorts

On the trip to Hawaii, but not wearing the shorts

I need Cassie in my life.

That probably doesn’t come as a shock to any of you, especially for any of you who are married or have been married. But for more than the obvious reasons of “I love her” and stuff like that. Sometimes I think one of the reasons I got married was so there would be someone to tell me the things I needed to hear because I was too dumb to just look in a mirror. Have you ever gone to a restaurant and got something stuck in your teeth without knowing it? And then you walked around all day with it stuck in your teeth until you got home and actually looked in a mirror? Then you’re wondering to yourself, “How long has THAT been there?” Or guys, have you ever been caught with your fly unzipped? In the category of “true but embarrassing stories,” that happened to me one incredibly classic time. I was in Hawaii with a group of fellow clergy and wore this pair of shorts that I found out later on had this bad habit of unzipping itself over the course of the day. I still don’t know how that happens, but I don’t have those shorts any more. We were walking around all day long, taking pictures, visiting churches, and meeting lots of new people. After we got home and got the pictures developed, Cassie looked at one of them and said, “Are your pants unzipped in that picture?” And sure enough they were. And in half the pictures I took that day. Thank God for photo cropping technology, but it was a very important lesson I learned after that. Self-awareness is key.

Leadership and Self-Deception from the Arbinger Institute

Leadership and Self-Deception from the Arbinger Institute

And that’s what Jesus is trying to teach the disciples in this passage.

That too often we are quick to judge others without first examining ourselves. Like looking in a mirror for stuff in our teeth or flies that are unzipped, we need to look in a SPIRITUAL mirror to make sure everything is okay with ourselves. We have that ability. It’s just that too often we choose not to use it. We become blind to our own faults and our own responsibilities and instead blame everyone and everything around us. There’s this great book that Cassie recommended to me called Leadership and Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute. She had read it and thought it might be useful for me, too. And it was. It talked about whether or not we are living in or out of the box. When we are out of the box, we see others as people. We seem them as they are. When we are in the box, we see ourselves as people and everyone else more or less as objects. They are obstacles, or chores, or nuisances in our path to getting what we want. Now it seems like it would be easy for us to notice the difference, but it really isn’t. We become blind to our own perspectives when we don’t take the time to examine them.

I was thinking about this a lot in light of the whole tragedy at the AME church.

I know it’s been a few weeks, but it still bothers me and we hadn’t really talked about it together in worship other than to pray together about it. But I bet Dylann Roof, the person who murdered those nine people in cold blood, saw them as a problem and not as people. In fact, I’m pretty sure about that. The statements he gave while he was shooting them, about them raping white women and taking over the country, made it clear that he wasn’t looking at these nine innocent folks as people in their own right, but as objects of a group that needed to be eliminated. They weren’t people with hopes and dreams and plans and goals for life. They were just things that were in the way of the life he wanted. In fact, for one brief moment, Dylann Roof almost didn’t pull the trigger. For one brief moment, he saw them as people instead of objects and it nearly changed his mind. He was quoted as saying that he almost didn’t go through with it because the people were so nice to him, but then he did it anyway.[1] It wasn’t enough. A lifetime of seeing the world through his own narrow vision didn’t give him the capacity to see it any other way.

We are called by God to be an introspective people.

Not to see the world the way WE want to see it, but to see the world through God’s eyes. We are invited by God to live in harmony with one another. We are asked to put others concerns before our own. We are told to consider the consequences of our actions before we do them. But do we? Do we stop to think about how what we say is going to affect someone – and do we even care? Our words are not supposed to be daggers, but love letters. Our actions are not supposed to convey violence, but care. If we were truly an introspective people we would be careful not to cause others around us harm, but a quick word, a careless whisper, an angry shout can do so much damage in an instant; a fist or a slap or a thrown object even more. We need to instead turn our inner eye back on ourselves and look at our own failings, our own mistakes. We need to stop blaming the people around us for the problems we encounter and instead look to see what we can do to make it better. We need, quiet simply, to take the plank out of our own eyes before trying to take the speck out of someone else’s. When we learn to do that, when we learn the value of introspection, maybe then the violence, hatred, bigotry, and prejudice we encounter in the world today will finally come to an end. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/charleston-church-shooting/dylann-roof-almost-didnt-go-through-charleston-church-shooting-n378341

Pinky and the Brain Join the Church

Pinky and the Brain have a lot in common with the church.

Pinky and the Brain was an animated television show back in 1995 that featured two laboratory mice. As the show’s opening song described them, one was a genius, the other insane. The show opened every episode with Pinky, the insane one, asking Brain the same question, “Gee, Brain. What are we going to do tonight?” And Brain would respond, “The same thing we do every night, Pinky – try to take over the world!” In that way, Brain and the church have the same goal – to take over the world. We just plan do to do it differently.

Pinky and the Brain intro

Pinky and the Brain intro

Our hope and our goal is to win over the world with the love of Christ.

It’s not a task we can accomplish alone. As brilliant as Brain is, he still needs Pinky and in the same way, no one pastor or one person can bring the world to Jesus by themselves. Although it sounds trite, it does in fact take a village, or a community, to do the job. Just look at your favorite sports teams. We just saw the Golden State Warriors win the NBA Championship and as great as “Steph” Curry is he didn’t score every point or make every steal. He didn’t even win the MVP of the finals. The same is true of other great sports teams. Look at the Giants winning the championship last year. On paper, there’s no way they should have won, but you don’t play the game on paper. You play it on the field and that team came together at just the right time and in just the right way to take the World Series. There wasn’t any one player you could point to who did it all. Madison Bumgarner may have won the MVP and deservedly so, but he couldn’t have won without someone scoring those runs. Likewise, Jordan had Pippen. Shaq had Kobe (or maybe Kobe had Shaq). Montana had Rice. And the list goes on and on. Even athletes in individual sports have coaches and trainers and people supporting them. Writers have editors. Chefs have sous chefs. And pastors have their congregations. No one, no matter how talented or great, can do it alone.

Great NBA duos

Great NBA duos

That’s why we join the church; to lend our talents and gifts to the effort.

To become part of the team that is poised to take over the world. Because if we take seriously the words of Jesus, we can’t ignore that he tells us to baptize all the nations and there is no way any one of us can do that task alone. We are stronger as a group. We have more resources, more knowledge, and more support as a group. We build each other up and carry each other’s burdens. We may not all be Michael Jordan or even Scottie Pippen. Maybe we are the Steve Kerr of the team, and you see how well he turned out. We also join the church so that we can become better Christians. We find a community that we fit into and we dive in. We don’t suddenly accept Jesus as Lord and Savior and “BAM” become imbued with all the wisdom of Christianity. The wisest Christians I know, Cassie’s grandparents, read the Bible over and over and continue to get something new out of it each time. And in their humility, I know they would say they still have some rough edges. In comparison, I must be like a jagged rock. We enter into these communities to smooth out our rough edges, to help us grow stronger in our faith and understanding of God. Other people have views and opinions that help to refine our own. Other people have ideas we’ve never even considered. And together we help to shape and mold each other in our faith. We study the Bible together, we interpret God’s actions in the world together, and we hold each other accountable. In fact, the entire reason John Wesley founded Methodism was to do exactly that – hold each other accountable. Each person was required to join a small group that would meet regularly and at each session they went around and answered the question, “How is it with your soul?” And each person was expected to answer honestly. The others would help support them through difficult times and would celebrate in good times. But Wesley thought it was important for us to be accountable to one another. And that’s why we join the local church to build each other up in our faith so that together we can take over the world with the love of Jesus Christ. We join the church to build each other up in our faith so that together we can take over the world with the love of Jesus Christ.

But being human, we sometimes misunderstand the role of the local church.

We see it as “our” church. We see it as “our” building, and “our” traditions, and “our” chairs and tables and plates. And our thinking becomes very narrow. Paul addressed this in his letter to the church at Corinth which we are reading from this morning. If you have your Bibles or a Bible app on your phones, please go to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 3 beginning with verse 1. 1 Corinthians 3:1. Paul is writing to the church because something very bad is happening. Different factions are beginning to form and people are beginning to argue over who they should be following, whose words to lift up as doctrine. Some are claiming to follow Jesus, but some are claiming to follow Paul, some are following Apollos who we know from Scripture was a very influential teacher and leader, and some are following Peter. Sounds like us today. Some follow Jesus, but some believe only their way of baptism is acceptable to God. Some believe that God has already selected who gets to go to Heaven. Some believe that communion shouldn’t be offered to all believers. So Paul is writing to warn them of such foolishness and encouraging them to act as God’s people together.

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Paul scolds the church members for failing to see the obvious.

All of them – Paul, Apollos, Peter – all of them are simply servants of God. Even though each one of them has contributed something unique and different to their understanding of Christ, ultimately they all are servants of the same God. Paul comes down on the people of the church for not seeing this and essentially elevating the individual disciples over Jesus. The members of the church are arguing about who should be following whom instead of concentrating on bringing people to faith in Christ. Sometimes we do the same thing. We become envious or jealous of other churches who are succeeding. We try to copy their ministries in the hopes of bringing people to our church instead. But what we should be doing is finding that unique space in our communities that we can fill, to find that unique quality that makes our church stand out. Not to make ourselves “better” than the other churches, but to ADD to the ways in which all of our churches add to the community. We should find out what makes us unique, not to be BETTER than other churches, but to ADD to the ways ALL of our churches add to the community. In this way we are completely different than sports teams. Our winning has nothing to do with other churches losing. Each time any of us wins, we all win because God wins. Each time any of us wins, we ALL win because God wins.

Sunday in the Park with George- painting by George Seurat

Sunday in the Park with George- painting by George Seurat

Your membership in the local church is a commitment to a certain group of people.

You’ve promised to join a community of like believers who offer something unique to the community and to one another. Our churches are like the dots in George Seurat’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” If you’ve ever seen that painting, you know that it’s made up of thousands of tiny dots. Literally tiny dots. Our churches are like those dots. Each one contributing to the whole, but only together do they make a beautiful painting. Likewise, without the dots, there is no painting. If the painting is missing a section of dots, it looks incomplete. We commit to being a part of one of those dots. Individually, our community is important, but its importance is largely because we are part of that painting. Together, we make the painting complete. We solidify that commitment by taking vows before the congregation when we join the church. Like wedding vows and baptismal vows, our vows of membership are a public way for us to express our faith in Christ. It says in the letter to the Romans, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” By coming before the congregation we are doing just that, declaring with our mouths that Jesus is Lord. We’re giving voice to what we already believe in our hearts. So as we take on the larger commitment to baptize all nations, that journey begins in our local church. As Dr. Stamm wrote in his summary of membership, “…the United Methodist membership vows call us to make the world our parish one neighborhood at a time.” The United Methodist membership vows call us to make the world our parish one neighborhood at a time.

So you see, our mission is the same as Pinky and the Brain.

Like them, we are out to take over the world. But we don’t do it for our glory, but for God’s. And unlike basketball, baseball, football or hockey, we don’t win at the expense of others. In fact, if the mission of the church was like a playground game, it would probably be Red Rover. The game isn’t over until everyone is on our side and then everybody wins. In remembrance of those vows we took when we joined the church, let us stand and reaffirm them together.

Will you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of the world, and repent of your sin? I will.

Will you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression? I will.

Will you confess Jesus Christ as Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord? I will.

Will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world? I will.

Will you be loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries? I will.

Will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness? I will.

Then let us give thanks together for God’s work in us.

We give thanks for all that God has already given us. As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the Church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness, that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Parenting Myths of the Bible

States where paddling a student is still legal

States where paddling a student is still legal

Spare the rod, spoil the child.

It’s about as Biblical as “God helps those who help themselves,” which is to say it’s not very Biblical at all. “God helps those who help themselves” comes from early Greek works.[1] So too does “Spare the rod, spoil the child” come from somewhere else, first by William Langland in the 14th century and later by Samuel Butler in the 17th century.[2] But as Christians we are quite fond in believing this comes originally from the Bible and some would argue that even if the direct quote didn’t come from there, the sentiment surely did. They usually cite one of the two sayings in Proverbs we read this morning as proof. This belief that corporeal punishment is generally useful in child-rearing has been triumphed by both Christians and non-Christians alike. I know that’s how I grew up, how my dad grew up, and how my grandfather grew up. I don’t know how far back it goes beyond that, but from the early citations quoted, it’s been common for at least 700 years. And in case you thought this idea of physical violence curbing behavior has gone the way of the dinosaur, you’ll be as shocked as I was to discover that 19 states that still allow corporeal punishment in schools.[3] But I shouldn’t be. People stick to what they know and the idea behind “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is one that’s ingrained in many of us.

For me, the concept of “time out” was completely foreign.

It was like giving a pair of chopsticks to someone who’s used a fork their whole life and then trying to convince them it works. When I married Cassie, Eve was already four years old and I remember being totally confused the first time Cassie put her in “time out.” I had to ask what that was. It wasn’t a hard concept to grasp, that a child would literally take time out from what they were doing to quietly contemplate their actions. Whether they actually DID that is up for debate, but I had never heard of “time out” as an accepted discipline before. It seemed to run counter to what I had always believed was the way you were supposed to do things. You misbehave, you got spanked. Now, in truth, I didn’t get spanked much as a kid. I got punished more as I got older and my mouth got bigger. But that was the standard in our house and it’s what I was used to, but Cassie is uber-intelligent and as always did her research on parenting techniques and told me this was how it was done nowadays. Would you believe that? But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Spanking might put the fear of God into a kid, but it didn’t make them understand any better why it was wrong. It’s like putting criminals in jail. Originally, the point was to rehabilitate them, but we haven’t honestly tried to do that for a long time. In America, we have a real “punishment” mindset. Do the crime, do the time. Do the crime, do the time. That’s how we think of it. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. That’s why sayings like “Spare the rod, spoil the child” makes sense to us. It’s a very consequence-oriented way of looking at life. It’s no wonder we read these passages from the Bible and assume that’s what it means.

But what if that’s NOT what it meant?

We’re going to read this morning from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10:13-16 so if you’ve got a Bible or a Bible app on your phone please find Mark 10:13-16. I’ve always struggled with the punishment mind set. Do we really want to punish people or do we just want them to get it right? Can we forgive people’s mistakes without seeking retribution? Especially when it comes to kids. Is our behavior uplifting or oppressive? Is our behavior uplifting or oppressive? 

13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

“Let the little children come to me….” – Mark 10:14

It’s easy to look at the disciples as the bad guys in this scenario.

And they are. But they’re bad guys with good intentions. They’re trying to keep the riff raff away from Jesus. You can imagine a guy who performs miracles probably is getting a lot of attention. Think the first century equivalent of Beyonce or One Direction in the first century. Maybe even bigger than the Beatles. So the disciples are like his crew, his posse, and in their heads, Jesus doesn’t have time for a bunch of little kids. He’s got more serious people to put his hands on. But then Jesus corrects them. “Let the little children come to me,” he says, “and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” In my head, I always get this image of the disciples being kind of surprised and this rush of children come forward to see Jesus. He said to the disciples, “Do not hinder them.” And it made me think, we’ve all probably had people who hindered us. I can think of a few right away who were the bane of my existence growing up, who made life harder. Were they good for me in the long run? No. Did they help teach me valuable life lessons? No. They just made life worse. That’s not to say I’ve never gained value from bad situations, because I have. I’ve learned something valuable from a lot of bad situations. But these hindrances were just that – hindrances. They didn’t add value to my life at all, and Jesus is warning us not to be these kinds of people; not to be stumbling blocks, especially in the lives of children. And as the people who spend the most time with them, we also have the most opportunity to be exactly that to our kids and grandkids. Sometimes, like with the disciples, with the best of intentions.

And so we come back to that saying, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

What the Bible actually says is “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. Notice how there is nothing in there about spoiling them? “Spare the rod, spoil the child” definitely refers in our modern language to the idea that holding back physical punishment will create spoiled children, but what the Bible is telling us in Proverbs is actually something completely different. The rod is a symbol of authority but not one of punishment.[4] The rod is a symbol of authority but not one of punishment. It was used in discipline, but not for beating or spanking but instead as a tool for correcting. The rod was very much like a club and would be used to protect the flock of sheep from other animals or even from themselves. If the sheep started to wander into something dangerous or head in the wrong direction, the shepherd would throw the rod to startle the sheep and bring them back to the flock.[5] But it wasn’t a tool used to beat the sheep or hurt them. It was used to help correct behavior. So if we understand the rod in this way, we can understand this passage in a better light.   Perhaps we should read it as “whoever does not guide and protect their children hates them, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” This is much more in line with the rest of the Bible where we are told that a parents’ obligation is to teach their children about the Lord, to instruct them “when you get up and when you lie down (Deuteronomy 11:19).” This is also in line with Psalm 23 when David writes, “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The rod and staff bring comfort not because David likes a good beating once in a while, but because God cares enough about his sheep to correct and guide them. Relying on God will steer us in the right way. Relying on God will steer us the right way.

We learn new things about the Bible all the time.

Each successive generation reinterprets and understands the Scripture with new eyes. As our understanding of how the world works continues to expand, so too must our vision of God expand with it.   We must ever be vigilant about how we read the Word of God and to make sure that what we read is really in line with our understanding of him. We should never be complacent because so much is at stake. Especially when it comes to our children. This isn’t to condemn people who did things differently in the past. We all strive to be the best parents we can be and we go by what we believe to be the best information out there. That’s all any of us can do. But what we need to be wary of is complacency. Complacency. When we sit back and fail to open our minds to new ways of looking at things is when we do a disservice to God. Challenge yourself constantly to be better than you are in all things. And in that way we become a help instead of a hindrance to our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, and even our great-grandchildren. They learn from us the value of keeping an open mind, of being able to admit when we are wrong, and doing something about it. Those are perhaps some of the best lessons we can teach them – to have open hearts and open minds. On this Father’s Day, we should give thanks especially for our Father in Heaven who constantly keeps an open heart and an open mind about us. Regardless of our own mistakes, we can rely on him always for his grace, forgiveness, and mercy. So it is in the Father’s name today we give thanks. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_helps_those_who_help_themselves

[2] http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/328950.html

[3] http://www.businessinsider.com/19-states-still-allow-corporal-punishment-2014-3

[4] http://gracethrufaith.com/topical-studies/tough-questions-answered/spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child/

[5] http://www.antipas.org/commentaries/articles/shepherd_psa23/shepherd_07.html

Stay In Love With God: The Third Rule

Part 3 of our 3 part sermon series, Three Simple Rules inspired by Bishop Job’s book of the same name.

Me and our UCLA residence hall leadership team at a Disneyland retreat!

Me and our UCLA residence hall leadership team at a Disneyland retreat!

Practice makes perfect.

It’s a familiar saying to most of us and at least according to one poll it is the most influential saying of our lives.[1] That’s not to belittle things like natural talent, skill, or motivation, but even the most talented and skillful people cannot succeed without practice. I should know. Not that I’m the most talented or skillful. But when I entered UCLA, I declared pre-med as my major which meant I had to take Chem 11A, B, and C. They’re called “weeder” classes for a reason because they’re meant to weed out people and thin the herd. Boy, was that the case for me. I had always done really well in high school and good grades came kind of easy for me. I wasn’t prepared for the kind of competition I would face at UCLA. I graduated in the top 5% of my class, but now I was at a school where everyone was at the top 5% of their class. I barely passed Chem 11A so I knew 11B would be a challenge. I had done alright on my first midterm and thought I had studied for the second pretty well, but when the professor passed out the test, I looked at the pages and couldn’t answer one single question. It was the worst feeling in the world. I must have studied the wrong material or just didn’t study hard enough. I looked at each page at least three times and realized there was no way I would pass this test. Thankfully, we were able to drop our worst grade so that was some slight consolation. But I just sat there feeling awful. The class was an hour and fifteen minutes long and I didn’t want to just leave right away, so I waited for half an hour, wrote my name on each page as instructed, and walked up to the front to turn it in. When I did, the super-smart kids in the front row who broke the bell curve in grades all looked up at me with a mixture of panic and envy in their eyes. One of them even said, “Oh no!” or something like that, and I walked out smiling. It was the only joyful part of the day. But it was clear that I was not prepared for that experience. When I went to grad school (both times) I did much better, realizing from the beginning that if I didn’t maintain the kind of discipline and rigor that was necessary, I wouldn’t do well. Practice makes perfect.

It is important when you’re trying to do well at anything.

Whether it’s chemistry or basketball or playing music you need to practice over and over to improve on your skills. That probably comes as no surprise to you since the saying, “Practice makes perfect” was voted the most influential idiom of our lives. But the same is true for our faith. We’re going to read this morning from a passage in Colossians 2:6-8. Colossians 2:6-8. So if you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, if you would find this passage we’ll read from that this morning. Colossians 2:6-8. Paul was writing to the church because he was worried that they might drift away from their faith, that they might be tricked or duped to follow someone else or go another way. If you remember, Christianity at the time was still in its infancy and it’s not like they could Skype with Paul and hear what he had to say. They couldn’t record his sermons and digitally project them on a screen for the church at Colossae. It was much harder to guide each church with the distance between them, so Paul wrote this letter to encourage them to keep the faith and to be wary of those preaching a different Gospel. This is what he shares with the church in our passage this morning.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

Sometimes it’s amazing to me how similar our problems are to those of Paul’s time.

Paul had to battle many of the same kinds of concerns we do today and this topic is no different. He was worried people would drift away from Jesus. That they would be “oohed” and “aahed” by something fancier or something that fit their lifestyle better and would turn away from everything they were taught. Paul wasn’t there to help them stay in line or correct them if they went astray so instead he encouraged them to remember the teachings, to be “rooted” in Christ, to build each other up and strengthen each other’s faith, to remind one another that it is from God they have received their blessings. In essence to “stay in love with God.” As you know, we’ve been talking about the Three Simple Rules of Methodism – do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. And two weeks ago we talked about how doing no harm involves being thoughtful. We talked last week how doing good involved being proactive. And today we’re talking about how staying in love with God requires practice. Staying in love with God requires practice. Like Paul was telling the Colossian church to stay rooted in Christ and to remember their teachings, John Wesley taught the same basic principles. He told those who became part of the Methodist societies they needed to regularly attend to all the ordinances of God. By that he meant they needed to do those everyday things, those regular things, over and over again to really make God a part of their lives. They needed to pray. They needed to read their Bibles. They needed to be in small groups together. They needed to take communion. They needed to go to worship. It’s those everyday routines Wesley felt were most important to keep us connected to God, and Paul in this passage stresses the same thing. Paul encourages the church to “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

Which way will you go?

Which way will you go?

Science proves Wesley and Paul correct.

Their assumption that maintaining these patterns of behavior would help to make God a part of our everyday lives is true. In different studies and experiments it has been shown that through consistency and repetition over a period of time we can form new ways of doing things. But it does take time. You may have heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, but the truth is it takes much longer. Studies show it takes an average of 66 days.[2] 66 days and that’s just an average. It can take as long as 8 or 9 months. But it can be done. If you want to get in the habit of relying on God, if you want to learn to put your faith and trust in him, it takes time and discipline, but it can be done. The cynic would say all we are doing is convincing ourselves that God cares or that God exists, that changing our pattern of behavior doesn’t actually bring us closer to God but just fools our minds into thinking he is there for us. But that’s not what’s happening. What we are doing is training our mind to be deprogrammed from all the lies and junk the world keeps throwing at us. We’re learning to stop relying on ourselves and realize we are part of a bigger community. We’re learning to trust in one another instead of being wary or suspicious all the time. We are opening ourselves up to the possibilities that life has to offer instead of being narrow-minded and closed off. Staying in love with God, or as Wesley put it, “attending to all the ordinances of God,” isn’t some trick to fool ourselves into believing in something that isn’t there. It’s an opportunity for us to break free of the chains of thought the world puts on us and free us for something bigger.

Hayley Mills as Pollyanna

Hayley Mills as Pollyanna

It’s hard to stay in love with God.

God seems so Pollyanna at times, a wish too good to be true. And our world tells us over and over to be wary of that which is too good to be true and for good reason. Human beings are flawed, selfish people who look out for themselves. Some are twisted enough to prey upon the weak, the gullible, and the naïve to take advantage of them and gain whatever they can. Think about all the scams that we constantly have to be aware of. Viruses on our computers, fake emails trying to trick us to give away personal information, schemes to steal our money. The list seems to go on forever. And then there’s God. A loving God who says, believe in me and I will take you to a place where there is no pain, no sorrow, and only joy. What’s the catch, right? And God says, “Love me, love each other, and that’s pretty much it.” But when we fall sick or a loved one dies or we lose our job or our marriage, we look for somebody to blame because we can’t bear to blame ourselves or the way we live or the fact that we don’t love each other very well. We don’t want to admit that smoking a pack a day despite the warning labels might in fact shorten our lives. Or eating too much. Or drinking too much. But it goes both ways. I can understand that before we realized that smoking was bad for you or that processed foods could be harmful and cause disease or cancer or that alcohol could cause you to have impaired judgment, I can understand that before we became aware of these things why we did them. But now that we know? Companies are still out there making stuff which will kill us and justify it by saying that it’s what we choose when in fact they spend billions of dollars convincing us we have to have it. We live in a world where we prey on one another and blame one another for what goes wrong. So to develop a mindset for God isn’t easy. Not when we live in a world that programs us to be just the opposite. That’s why these things are so important. That’s why it’s important to develop a heart for God by going to worship, reading the Bible, praying daily. That’s why we need to discipline ourselves to stay in love with God, because the deck is stacked against us.

When I first started praying in groups or with others, I hated it.

Not because I didn’t think it was important and not because I didn’t think it was helpful. But because I felt so inadequate about it. It seemed everyone I knew could pray better than I could. But I prayed together with a men’s group for a while and that really helped. Even though they were all better at it than me, they gave me encouragement and support and I got more confident in doing it. And as I prayed more and more for others, in worship, at communion, in hospitals, I didn’t become quite so self-conscious. I still know it’s not one of my strongest gifts – there are some people who just seem naturally gifted for prayer. But I do alright. And the best part is I don’t worry as much as I used to about it. Getting in the habit of routinely praying has really helped enrich my prayer life and made me realize that it’s not about how fancy my words were or how articulate I was or whether or not I repeated myself a dozen times. It was all about my heart for the Lord. That’s all God really cares about. And at least in that, I am confident. To do anything well takes practice. To change our behavior takes practice. To become the kind of people we want to be takes practice. In our marriages, in our work lives, as parents – even in our faith. All of it takes practice. Don’t wait to start tomorrow. Start today. But don’t stop trying to stay in love with God. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2781704/Sayings-stay-Practice-makes-perfect-named-phrase-likely-continue-using-grow-older.html

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-clear/forming-new-habits_b_5104807.html