From Wreck to Restoration: We Commit Sin

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Jeremiah 2:4-13.

A congregant once said to me, “Pastor, I’ve never heard a preacher talk about sin as much as you do!”

I remember laughing as he said this…and then I was quite struck as his words washed over me. If pastors are not talking about sin, then how will people in our congregations know how to talk about sin? How will people in the world know how to talk about sin?

Barbara Brown Taylor, one of my favorite authors, advises that we need language about sin as much as we need language about salvation. In her book, Speaking of Sin, she writes,

Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation, and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them, and increase our denial of their presence in our lives. Ironically, it will also weaken the language of grace, since the full impact of forgiveness cannot be felt apart form the full impact of what has been forgiven.*

It is not easy to talk about sin. Why dwell on the bad stuff, especially when God has promised to forgive the bad stuff and absolve us of it? I believe we need to talk about our sin, not so we carry the guilt and shame of it with us always, but so that we know the weight of our sin, and therefore the magnanimity of God’s amazing grace.

An essential component of John Wesley’s Class and Band structure was to have members of the bands sit before one another and answer the question, “How is it with your soul?” In responding to this question the band members would share where they excelled, struggled, and out right failed in their lives – personal, professional, and of faith – since the last band gathering. (Wesley would say the life of faith pervades all spheres of life.) It was not enough for band members to say that they sinned; they would have to name the sin specifically and articulate how that sin had harmed God, their neighbors, and themselves. Some might consider this method a severe form of behavior modification, but it worked for the Early Methodists and it continues to work for many today that participate in a covenant or accountability group.

Developing a language to discuss sin draws us into intentional thinking about our sinful acts as well as their consequences and repercussions. From this sort of reflection I am led to

  1. Repent of my sin and seek forgiveness and reconciliation and
  2. Make note of the circumstances, my actions, and my reactions, so that my behavior will be different the next time I encounter the same or similar circumstances.

I talk about sin and I talk about my sin as a way of letting people around me know that I am  a safe place to talk about sin. And maybe one day, if they would like, we could talk about their sin together. And when that conversation begins it will most surely end with the affirmation that our God forgives our sin, that Jesus removes the guilt of sin, that the Holy Spirit breaks the power sin has over us, so that we will indeed live as the forgiven and the redeemed.

Prayer: “In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, a wondrous beauty I see, for ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died, to pardon and sanctify me. So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.”** Amen.

*Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin 4.

**”The Old Rugged Cross,” The United Methodist Hymnal 504.

Advertisements

PictureLent ~ Reject

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Proverbs 31:8-9

This week’s #PictureLent theme is Reject. When we marinate on the word reject during the season of Lent, our minds might move to several characters in Jesus’ passion narrative:

  • The chief priests rejected Jesus as they opposed his interpretation of the Scripture and stirred the masses to rebel against him.
  • Judas rejected Jesus as he betrayed Jesus to the chief priests and temple guards for 30 pieces of silver.
  • Peter rejected Jesus as he denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed.

Why did they reject Jesus? I think because of fear. Jesus represented a new world – of interpretation, of leadership, of Lordship. Perhaps the chief priests, Judas, and Peter rejected Jesus because Jesus was leading to a place where they might not have wanted to go or might have been afraid to go. Perhaps they rejected Jesus so they could stay where they were and remain with what was familiar.

We all have moments in our lives where we can identify how we have aligned ourselves with the behavior of the chief priests, Judas, and Peter rather than with Jesus. When we read a teaching of Jesus and it grates against what we wish Jesus had said but did not actually say. When we succumb to our greed for personal gain. When we wilt to fear in hopes to secure temporary safety.

One of the churches I served during seminary had this beautiful rotunda prayer chapel commissioned while I was on staff. At the center of the room was an altar surrounded by a railing that gave a nod to the crown of thorns. On the floor encircling the altar and leading into and out of the chapel was a meandering path of stones. Families from the church were invited to write their names on the stones to contribute to the path surrounding the altar.

I believe these stones are incredibly symbolic. They represent God’s people being drawn towards Christ and being led to places where we might be uncomfortable but will definitely meet Christ – at the table under the shadow of the cross. The stones’ meandering path represent when God’s people are drawn close to Christ as well as when we are farther away from Christ. We are still on the path, just perhaps not on the most direct course to Jesus, until we adjust to the leadings of God’s Spirit and curve back toward the Savior. The stones lead followers across the threshold into the world and then draw followers back towards the altar, which resembles the rhythm of the faithful – into the world – into the sanctuary – and the beat rolls on.

Like the chief priests, Judas, and Peter, there are times that we reject Christ. I believe that even in moments of rejection we stay on the path with Christ. We might not be in the center or drawing to the side closest to Christ. We may be farther away from Christ, but we are still on the path with Christ. Psalm 118:21-24 sings, “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Those who reject the stone, the stone came to save. Those who reject Christ, Christ came to save. When we wind our paths back towards Christ, Jesus redeems our rejecting and we are saved.

Prayer: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood. Perfect submission, all is at rest; I in my Savior am happy and blest, watching and waiting, looking above, filled with his goodness, lost in his love. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.* Amen.

*”Blessed Assurance,” The United Methodist Hymnal 369.

Atonement: Out With The Goat and In With The New

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Leviticus 16:5, 7-10, 15-22

Football season ended the first week of February. Then I watched the Olympics. And now it’s Award Season. Let’s face it folks…I’m counting down to mid-August…get me back to football season – and Go Packers!

Everyone has been talking about the Academy Awards – and I admit that the only movie I have seen that won an Academy Award – also the only movie I’ve seen that was nominated for an Academy Award (thanks to Andrew being a youth director…we need to get out more…) is Disney’s Frozen.

And thanks to the Academy Awards I now have a super long list of movies that I need to see! But, as Hagrid would say, “we’ll get to that later.”

If you haven’t seen Frozen yet, I highly recommend it. And I applaud Disney for the many beautiful expressions of family celebrated in this film. The primary protagonists are a pair of sisters – Anna and Elsa. Both are princesses. Both love one another deeply, but Elsa has a unique gift that if uncontrolled can be damaging. So she is raised to suppress it – “to conceal, not feel.” Well…what was to be concealed is revealed on just about the biggest stage imaginable and Elsa flees. As she flees she sings “Let It Go.”

These lyrics speak directly to me – and I believe to our Scripture passage for this week:

I’m never going back,
The past is in the past

Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone

Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on,
The cold never bothered me anyway

I’m never going back, the past is in the past, let it go, let it go. In our Scripture passage for this week we learn about purification rituals enacted on the Day of Atonement – one of them being casting the sins of the community onto a goat and then releasing a goat into the wilderness. In this way the sins of the people literally ran away and were removed from their persons thereby making the people “at one” with God again. Once the sins were atoned for God’s people believed the act of sin, the blame of sin, and the shame of sin were all removed – were all forgiven. They “let it go” on the goat; they didn’t go back, the past is in the past. They looked forward. They moved on. They enjoyed the full measure of God’s forgiveness.

Sometimes I wish real life were as easy as a Disney movie – that every problem would be resolved in 90 minutes or less…and that there would be more singing…yeah…especially if I could sing like Idina Menzel! But then again, Disney movies aren’t always tied up in a nice little package. Elsa sings this song early on in the movie proclaiming that she has “let it go” – but she still has to work through her circumstances. She has to process what happened, integrate what she learned from the experience, strategize so it does not happen again, and apply the learnings and strategies in order to let it go, to let the past be in the past.

I believe the same holds for us. When we sin – when we abuse God’s good gift of free will and choose something other than God as the priority in our lives – we want to let it go. We want to experience God’s forgiveness. We want to be at one with God again…but if we fail to process the sin, integrate what we have learned from the experience, strategize so it does not happen again, and apply the learnings and strategies, then we may fall as a casualty to sin yet again. We cannot only hope to not fall into sin again because hope is not a strategy. We must work out our faith – work out our salvation – so that with God’s guidance we rise from sin, released from its blame and shame, and live in the peace of letting it go.

During the season of Lent we are invited to become more aware of our sins – to process, integrate, strategize, and apply as we seek to go and sin no more. During this season I believe God wants us to examine ourselves and let sins go.

What sins are you retaining? What sins, what pasts, are God calling you to let go?

Reflect. Confess. Let them go. Experience peace.

Prayer: “O God, just as we look into a mirror to see any soiled spots on our face, so let us look to you in order to understand the things that we have done amiss.  We are like a reed shaken in the wind; we are inexpressibly weak.  Leave us not to ourselves, but dwell in our hearts and guide our thoughts and actions.  Amen.”*

*”For Guidance,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 366.

Taking The Narrow Path

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Timothy 4:2-8

This weekend the Reeves’ congregation will celebrate Laity Sunday – one of four Sundays a year where the laity of the church serve in leadership roles throughout the entire service of worship – including the sermon!  Ross – Reeves’ lay leader – will be offering the sermon.  He has selected the passage for this week so I will be offering my own musings on the same passage.

Make sure you come on Sunday to hear his interpretation of this passage!

//

This letter is the second correspondence that Paul sends to Timothy.  It is a letter of encouragement and direction for this young minister or pastor in his work with a fledgling Christian community.  Some scholars have interpreted that I Timothy is written to define or describe a faithful congregation whereas II Timothy is written to define or describe a faithful minister.  What is interesting about this “distinction” between these correspondences is this – Paul desires – and I would say God desires – all people at one and the same time to be both faithful congregants and faithful ministers.  You do not have to be a professional minister or have ministry as your chosen profession to be a minister.  We are all ministers.  We are all charged with caring for, leading, guiding, holding accountable, and interpreting Scripture for one another as well as ourselves.

So we need to listen up.  Paul is writing to us.  And then our actions in response are the evidence as to whether or not we have listened.

Here in this text – as in his other letters – Paul encourages “constant vigilance!” (any Harry Potter fans out there?  Think Mad-Eye Moody) against the persecutions the Christians are enduring and perseverance in the face of combating ideologies and theologies that are in the community.  Paul encourages strength so that the people will remain strong in self and strong for one another that they will not be swayed by half-truths and whole-lies.

Paul is assured that living a life in the world and not of the world will lead humanity towards happiness.  John Wesley believed the love of God led to true happiness whereas the love of the world led to elusive happiness.  The world is fleeting; therefore, love of the world would also be fleeting.  Our God is alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, everlasting to everlasting.  Our God is eternal; therefore, love of God would also be eternal and the happiness that results from loving God would be eternal.

Our reward for loving God and not the world is “the crown of righteousness.”  It is available not just for one but for all.  In order to receive it we have to work for it.  As Wesley would say we have to work out our salvation for it – through works of mercy and works of piety.  Works of piety include individual and corporate prayer, searching and studying the Scripture, and receiving the Lord’s Supper.  Works of mercy are those works where we do good, such as living simply so our resources are available to aid others; visiting the sick, lonely, or imprisoned; advocating for the needs of others and helping to bring about change.

Working out our salvation leads us along the narrow path.  There will be moments of ease.  There will be moments of difficulty.  There will be moments of comfort and moments that make our skin crawl.  There will even be moments of triumph and moments where we want to just give up.  But we have to keep persevering.  We have to keep moving forward that we – like Paul – will carry out our ministry fully.

Prayer: “Thou hast promised to receive us, poor and sinful though we be; thou hast mercy to relieve us, grace to cleanse and power to free.  Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus!  We will early tun to thee.  Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus!  We will early turn to thee.  Early let us seek thy favor, early let us do thy will; blessed Lord and only Savior, with thy love our bosoms fill.  Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus!  Thou hast loved us, love us still.  Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus!  Thou hast loved us, love us still.”*

* “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 381.

Unrest: Hearing Shame

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Lamentations 1:11c-22

This Sunday marks our downhill descent towards Easter.  It’s week five of Lent.  We are drawing that much closer to Calvary.  As Jesus drew closer to Calvary his circumstances became more and more perilous with opposition mounting against him – it seemed – at every turn.

In the midst of Unrest I feel that opposition has been mounting against us as well.  We have explored injustices against God and injustices against our neighbor.  We are all guilty of both.  Romans 3:23 confirms that all have fallen short of God’s glory because of our sin.  Romans 6:23 states that the wages of sin is death.

For all the wrong we have done…for all the wrong we will ever do…the weight of that shame is crushing.

Daughter Zion explores that shame in the lament selected this week for the Scripture passage.  She is laid waste as consequence for her sin.  She is alone.  She is mourning.  She is longing for justice…even though justice may not bring her the comfort she desires.  Nevertheless, she spells it out.  She lays it all on the table.  She is vulnerable.  She expectantly awaits healing.

I believe Daughter Zion has an important lesson to offer us in her lament: to take care to spell out all the wrong in our lives – against both God and neighbor.  It’s important to name these wrongs – these sins – because we live in a culture that has perennial amnesia and blind eye towards sin.

Personal sin.  Communal sin.

It’s like we are immune to it…it happens and we shrug it off…no big deal.  Or it happens…but everyone else is doing it…no big deal.

Wrong.  It is a big deal.

The sin and the shame that accompanies it should be so much that we are crushed under its weight…that we find ourselves in a state of great loss…grasping at straws, grasping to stand before our God and ask forgiveness. But how do we know what to ask or seek forgiveness for if we refrain from consciously and intentionally exploring how we have wronged God and neighbor?

Now I realize this would, could, can be an exhaustive process.  I realize there are sins in my own life that happened and at this point I cannot recall them so as to list them all out: A….B….C….

But, I am conscious of my sin.  I am conscious of societal and systemic sin.

And even more so, I am conscious of God’s grace that is greater than all sin.

If I or any person were to enter into the vulnerable place of exploring our sin and shame before God, then I believe we also need to enter into the vulnerable place of receiving God’s grace.  God’s grace is the justice God extends to fallen humanity – fallen you and fallen me.

God’s grace, at times, is hard to receive, especially if we feel we are undeserving of such a magnanimous gift because of our sin.  Yet, God continues to give “grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within; grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin!”*  God gives grace and God’s grace readies us to receive grace – wholly and perfectly.

Earlier we read Romans 3:23 and 6:23…but we cannot stop reading there…just like we cannot stop and wallow in our sin and shame.

  • “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory –> but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
  • “The wages that sin pays are death –> but God’s gift is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23-24).

Our promise, our guarantee,  our salvation is that God is eternally moving us towards eternity – free of sin and shame – through the power of God’s amazing grace.

PrayerO God, just as we look into a mirror to see any soiled spots on our face, so let us look to you in order to understand the things we have done amiss.  We are like a reed shaken in the wind; we are inexpressibly weak.  Leave us not to ourselves, but dwell in our hearts and guide our thoughts and actions.  Amen.**

*”Grace Greater than Our Sin” United Methodist Hymnal, 365.

** “For Guidance” United Methodist Hymnal, 366.

Alpha, Omega and Everything In Between ~ Incarnation-Salvation

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Philippians 2:1-11

This week we turn to the first major theme in the New Testament: Incarnation-Salvation.  I couple these themes together because I believe the presence of one brings about the presence of the other.

When discussing Incarnation-Salvation we are talking about God’s one and only, begotten not created, Son – Jesus Christ.  As we read the Gospels and examine the epistle texts, like this week’s from Philippians, we gather from Scripture that who Jesus is – Christology: the study of the person of Christ – is inextricably linked to Soteriology: the study of what the person of Christ does, which is save.

So when Jesus was incarnated and entered the world, it was with a specific purpose – to save humanity and redeem all of creation.  Incarnation-Salvation.

In our Scripture lesson this week Paul describes that in Jesus’ incarnation Jesus emptied himself that he would be able to save humanity.  Paul sets Christ as an example for all humanity in this text.  Paul encourages us to empty ourselves that we may be God’s hands and feet and participate in the salvation of the world for ourselves and for others.

Paul wanted the Philippians to do this, but it wasn’t in the vain of “do this for me.  Win this one for me.”  The Philippians empty themselves not for Paul’s sake, but for Christ’s sake.  Pastor Fred Craddock writes, “If [the Philippians] failed to live by faith in the grace of God and to offer themselves to each other and the world as servants after the manner of Christ, then Paul saw himself as having labored in vain” (Craddock, Philippians, 36, emphasis added).

When we empty ourselves – following the example of Christ – we do so for Christ and Christ alone.  When a person encounters pastors, religious leaders, Sunday School teachers, small group facilitators and is asked to respond to particular teaching it is not (and should not!) be in the vain of “do this for me.”  It’s not about them.  (And for the folks at Reeves, it’s not about me!)  It’s about the budding relationship between the individual and Christ, about what Jesus has asked and asks that individual to do.

In emptying out ourselves we prepare our minds to turn our focus towards our neighbors.  We do not lose our identity our individualism in this emptying.  Paul supported individualism “in the sense that one is to be responsible for oneself and bear one’s own burden” BUT “if minding one’s own business meant unwillingness to bear another’s burdens, a distracting oneself from partnership in the gospel, an aloofness from the common joy and suffering, a coldness to all the ways we are members for one another, then such individualism is destructive of the community and a contradiction of the gospel which speaks and sings of a Christ who was first and always the servant of others” (Craddock, Philippians, 38).

*whew!  That was a long sentence…definitely a good one!  Marinate on those words for a while: unwillingness, distracting, aloofness, coldness – all of those are destructive.  All of those words paint of picture in opposition of who and what Christ wants us to be.*

In emptying ourselves, our visions become clear.  This clarity hones our focus.  No longer are we unwilling, distracted, aloof, or cold.  Our focus is our neighbor.

In emptying himself, Christ’s vision became clear.  This clarity honed his focus.  He was never unwilling, distracted, aloof, or cold.  His focus was and is his neighbor.  You – me – humanity – for eternity.

Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Gracious Lord, in the words of Wesley’s Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but thine.  Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.  Put me to doing, put me to suffering.  Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.  Let me be full, let me be empty.  Let me have all things, let me have nothing.  I freely and heartily yield all things to they pleasure and disposal.  And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine.  So be it.  And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.  Amen.