The Shepherd ‘Keeper’

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

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James Rebank is Twitter’s most popular shepherd.  He lives in the Lake District of England in Matterdale.  His story is fascinating.  Oxford educated and now an accomplished author, Rebank gives insight in the life of a real shepherd in a modern world.  Helen MacDonald writes about Rebank’s book The Shepherd’s Life, “It’s not a romantic retreat to a blurred, vague, green, imagined nature.  Working with livestock is real and unsparing and beautiful and hard. It’s a book full of mud and blood and groundedness and community.”

I have no idea what it meansto be a shepherd, but Rebank gives me some insight I never would have imagined.  No longer is the shepherd this type of artificial, nostalgic carved wooden figure in my nativity or some awe-struck, wage earner of the first century staring in the sky as angels sing.  The are real and gritty…and teach some lessons we all should learn.

Shepherds are KEEPERS.  They keep watch over their flock.  They keep the flock fed.  The keep the flock from danger.  They keep them bound together.  Psalm 121 says, “The Lord is your keeper.”  In Hebrew, the word can mean “to have charge of, to guard, or to protect.”

On Thanksgiving, all I could think of were the shepherd “keepers” of my life.  In addition to God the Shepherd Keeper, I thought of my “mema”, my mother in law, and other people in my life who have ‘kept’ me connected to my family, my faith, my friendships, and my responsibilities.  They have had ‘charge over me’.  They ‘guarded’ me.  They ‘protected’ me.

I am not one who naturally longs to be ‘kept’ by anyone, but I find that this characteristic of God is vital in our spiritual lives.  With all the “mud and blood and groundedness and community”, I find that havinga ‘keeper’ in my life is vitally important to my well-being.

Sutherland Springs and Springs of the Water of Life

“for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” -Revelation 7:17

Little did I know as we worshiped on November 5 that a tragedy was befalling fellow saints of God in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  At Chapelwood UMC in Houston, we were gathering to worship God and to remember the saints who died this past year.  First Baptist in Sutherland Springs was worshiping as well.  This should have been a Sunday where the saints – living and dead – are united with one song of praise to the Lamb on the throne.  Methodists and Baptists, Protestants and Catholics – the untold number of saints gathered around the throne singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:12)

I have no words to speak or write that can help make sense of this awful tragedy.  Watching the news doesn’t help at all.  “It is a gun issue.”  “It is a mental health issue.”  “It is a sin issue.”  My friends, evil never limits the places and spaces where it works.  Evil will do anything it can to destroy life – to kill, steal, and destroy.  The devil is at work and will always seek to introduce fear and doubt into the lives of people of faith.  Evil will even work after the tragedy as we try to find some easy solution or explanation.  It’s not easy.  It never has been.

I have received quite a few emails asking ‘why’?  I don’t have the answer.  I took theology, psychology, and ethics in seminary and can articulate evil, sin, pain and suffering.  But the theology doesn’t do much for me in this moment.  I am more connected to the laments in the Psalms and the hoped for future in Revelation.  It’s not that I am avoiding anything.  It’s just that this seems to happen every week and words begin to echo into meaninglessness.  I need words to help me name the pain.

Like in Psalm 6, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.  My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.  Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.  The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer.  All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror; they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.”

And Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  Consider and answer me, O Lord!  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.  But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

So, right now and am in sackcloth and ashes.  I am weeping inside and out.

But there is something we can do.  Christians will need to be ready to step up our discipleship if we want to see our world changed.  We must lament…and they we must step forward.  We must give up time to disciple and be discipled.  We must give time to teach our teens and children.  We must open the pathways of the Holy Spirit to work not just in us, but to expand the influence of Christ in the world.

Join me as we weep and cry out.  Then join me as we step forward in faith to change the world.

 

Four Great Commissions Notes

This past Sunday, I led us through the four great commissions in the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  I thought I would share my word study notes for those who are interested.

Matthew 28:18-20

18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

  • Authority – Greek,Gk. exousia, (Latin,Lt. auctor) – Matt: 7:29 – Jesus taught as one having authority – root of the word author – it means originator or one who has the capacity to speak on the subject with direct insight
  • Disciples – metheteuo – to become a pupil, learner: the focus on “becoming” is vital
  • All nations – ethnos – people, not geographic boundaries, but all peoples of ages, nations, and races
  • Baptizing them – baptizo – Christian baptism, immersion,initiation, and incorporation; different meaning than bapto which also means immersion and used in NT.  (Usage explained: Nicander 200 AD, in his recipe for pickles – “bapto” is to immerse quickly in hot water and bring back up, nature unchanged; “baptizo” is to immerse in the vinegar brine that leads to permanent, substantive change in the cucumber – it becomes immersed and nature is different)
  • Teaching them – didasko – causative, prolonged of learn – process long term… impart, instill, discourse – emphasis on long term process, not a single moment of single learning
  • To observe, obey – tereo – military term to guard from loss to prevent from escaping, hold fast

Mark 16:15

15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.

  • Go – poreuomai – to traverse, travel, lead over toward
  • Proclaim – kerysso – to herald as a public crier, preach, proclaim – carries with it authority and formality which must be listened to and obeyed, proclamation is major theme of Mark
    • Mark 1:4, 7, John the Baptist proclaiming in the wilderness as a herald,
    • Jesus in Mark 1:14 – Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
    • Mark 1:38 – Jesus says, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also for that is why I came out. And he went throughout Galilee preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.
    • Mark 1:45 – the leper was told to say nothing by Jesus, but he went out and began to talk freely about it and spread the news – “talking” in v.45 is the word “kerysso” – proclaim, the leper is a herald and proclaimer in his talking about the intervention of Jesus.
    • Mark 6:12 – went out and proclaimed repentance
    • Many other examples of “kerysso” in Mark as a focus for Jesus

Luke 24:46-47

46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

  • Repentance – metanoia – a change of mind, a turning to a new direction (baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins was John’s baptism Luke 3:3)
    • Luke 3:8 – bear fruits in keeping with repentance
    • Luke 5:32 – not come to call righteous, but sinners to repentance
  • Forgiveness – aphesis – pardon, freedom, deliverance, liberty – cancellation of a debt – but not only limited to justification status before God…much more implied in Luke’s gospel (see Luke 4 below)
  • Proclaimed – kerysso – herald the message
  • To all nations – ethnos – every tribe, pagans, Gentiles ALL

Luke 4:18-21

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go freeto proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

  • Anointed me – chrio – consecrating one for the office with the powers necessary to accomplish the job – lit. smearing with oil
  • Proclaim – kerysso
  • Poor – ptochos – one who crouches, beggar, poor – hopeless and powerless to accomplish an end, not “spiritually poor” but literally without the proper resources needed
  • Sent me – apostello – set apart and sent out for a specific purpose (proclaim the kingdom of God, teaching, repentence, forgiveness, proclamation, and presence)
  • Release is same word as Forgiveness – aphesis – forgiveness, pardon, deliverance, remission, release from bondage
  • Captives – aichmalotos – a captive of war – from the tip of the spear
  • Blind – typlhos – cloudy, smoky, looking through a fog – blind both literal and figurative
  • Oppressed – thrauo – to crush, bruise, break, shatter
  • Free – aphesis – again, the same word from chapter 24 for “forgiveness”.  In Luke’s gospel, aphesis means forgiveness, liberty, freedom not JUST from spiritual sin, but also from powers of captivity and oppression that affect the real world people live in.
  • Favor – dektos – acceptable by God – this fullness and wholeness of “aphesis” is what is acceptable to the Lord.

John 20:21

21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

  • Peace – eirene – the root “to join”, to become one literally and figuratively, set at one again.  Look at John 17 and Jesus’ prayer of unity.  Not just that the disciples be one (v.11 “that they may be one, as we are one”), but that they also be one with Jesus as Jesus is one with the Father (v.21-23, “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, [some ancient texts say “one in us”] so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me
  • Sent me – apostello – (same phrase in John 17:18) not just “to send” but to send out properly on a mission specified, this means we are not just “sent out” as Jesus was “sent”, we are sent out in the same way Jesus was sent out into the world. As the Father sends Jesus to be he presence in the world, we are sent to be the presence of Christ in the world, the substance of Christ in the world, the Body of Christ and each members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:27)
  • I send you – pempo – different word…to send something with someone, to thrust something forward through someone – to transmit and to bestow.  The usage here means we are not simply sent with a mission, but sent loaded with something transmitted through us – something thrusting through us.

Each of the four gospels has a unique commission that all fit together to form our one, Great Commission to invite and incorporate, to teach a lifelong process of learning, to proclaim and herald the Good News, to reconcile and set free those who are oppressed the fullness of forgiveness, and to be sent into the world to be the Body of Christ transmitting the presence of Christ to the world!

Hope this word study is edifying to you as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

Our Heritage as Methodists, Part 1

I’ve discovered many amazing Christians in my life who love the Lord and seek to serve Him daily.  As a Methodist pastor, many of those Christians have lived out their faith in the United Methodist Church.  One of the things I’ve learned is that many Methodists are not that familiar with what it means to be a Methodist Christian.  I thought I would share a few posts to outline some of the key doctrines and the significant ways we live out our faith in the world…

  • We profess the historic Christian faith in God, incarnate in Jesus Christ for our salvation and always at work in human history in the Holy Spirit.
  • We believe in both the sovereignty of God and in God’s love and grace poured out to all of us.
  • We believe that the historic Christian message is applied anew in our current circumstances.
  • We believe out teachings are grounded in Scripture, informed by Christian tradition, enlivened by experience, and tested by reason.
  • Just as today, we believe the early Christian leaders were faced with diverse interpretations of God’s Word and even had severe disagreements over those differences (Acts 15, Galatians 2).  The Church came up with many creeds and catechisms to try and point to agreements and while they are all helpful in our faith, we believe that no formal creed or doctrinal standard can be the exhaustive authoritative Christian teaching.  No sets of words can express the fullness and completion of God’s Word.
  • We believe in the Trinity – the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This embraces the biblical witness.
  • We believe the created order is designed for the well-being of all creatures.
  • We believe that humans, as sinful creatures, have broken the covenant and become estranged from God.  We regularly wound ourselves and one another and we wreak havoc on God’s creation.
  • We believe we all need redemption.
  • We believe that we hold in common with all Christians that a faith in the mystery of salvation in and through Jesus Christ is central to our faith.  God truly loves us all in spite of our sin, God judges us, summons us to repentance, pardons us, receives us by that grace given in Jesus Christ, and gives us hope of life eternal.

I will continue in the days and weeks ahead to help us focus on our doctrines and our identity as Methodist Christians.  It is my hope that we will stand firm on the essentials of our faith!

Peace,

John

Sarah Mac’s Baccalaureate Sermon

Proverbs 1:1-7:

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young — Let the wise also hear and gain in learning…The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

 I have an 18 year old daughter who graduates this year.  Sharing at her baccalaureate service was very special.

I am convinced that wisdom is what all of us need in life as we live in a state of continual graduation to what God has us next. Wisdom is knowledge, understanding, experience, discretion, and intuitive understanding, along with a capacity to apply these qualities well in life. Wisdom is the application of knowledge. Some people call it common sense, others “discernment”. My grandmother called it “walking around sense.”

To some extent the terms wisdom and intelligence have similar and overlapping meanings. Wisdom, unlike intelligence, is a universal virtue recognized in almost every culture as having philosophical and religious connections – it’s not what you know, but how you use what you know. That’s wisdom and that’s what you need to make it from here on. I want my daughter to understand that high school graduation is only one in a series of graduations in life.  It’s like what Arie Pencovici once said, “Graduation is only a concept.  In real life every day you graduate.  Graduation is a process that goes on until the last day of your life.  If you can grasp that, you’ll make a difference.”

In the hope that she (and all of us) will graduate every day, I want to share seven practical nuggets of wisdom that come from a variety of sources: shared experience, philosophy, psychology, and religion. Listen to these wisdom reflections – use them well.

  1. Take Risks: The difference between mediocrity and greatness is in your willingness to take a chance and act.
    1. Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.  So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.”
    2. Since the day you were born, you have learned that there is a way over, around or through the obstacles you have faced. It is not the obstacles that inhibit your progress but your lack of confidence and will. That’s what breaks through the doubt…faith in yourself, in others around you, and in God.
    3. Take action. Every story of accomplishment, every leader you’ve ever admired, amazing ‘aha’ moment are the results of someone taking action. Remember, you have a choice: You can either be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be the active hero of your own life.
    4. Cultivate good judgment and discernment, and then trust your gut (there is actually some great science behind trusting your gut! Read Gut Feelings, by Gerd Gigerenzer). Act on the impulses cultivated in you. If you are going to fail, let it be on your terms.
  2. Stop Blame-Shifting Right Now
    1. If you want to resign yourself to failure forever, then keep blaming everyone else for you problems and your shortcomings. In psychology, there is a concept called “external locus of control”. It is the belief that events in one’s life, whether good or bad, are caused by uncontrollable factors such as the environment, other people, or a higher power.  Example: Whenever he fails a test, the boy always has an excuse ready: the room was too hot, he wasn’t feeling well, and the test was unfair. He never seems to feel culpable, even if he simply hasn’t studied enough.
    2. I can promise you this – if you don’t dig deep and learn to accept responsibility for your life and where you want to go, you won’t ever amount to anything worth being.
    3. Have the courage to accept that you’re not perfect, nothing is, and no one is — and that’s OK. Remember to look at yourself first when you are reflecting on failure. This requires a keen sense of self-awareness.
    4. On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.” ― Michel de Montaigne
  3. Be a Ruthlessly Compassionate Truth Teller
    • Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, says that the only way to cultivate creative tension and break through organizational learning barriers (I would argue this is true in personal relationship barriers as well) is to become a “ruthlessly compassionate truthteller” or allow one to come alongside of you to speak truth in your situation. The key is that they are ruthlessly compassionate…not just ruthlessly honest.
    • First, you must be an assertive truth teller.  Be assertive.  Assertiveness is defined as your ability to express your wishes, your wants, your desires, your hopes and your dreams. You have to learn to develop this ability if you want to communicate well or be in healthy relationships with others. To be successful in life, you are going to have to be able to tell people what you want to see happen, what you wish to see happen, or express your feelings in a healthy way. If you are unable to find your voice and be assertive, then you will always be acted UPON in life.  So, be an assertive truth teller…but always do it compassionately.
    • Second, be ruthlessly compassionate.  Without love, a ruthless truth teller is just an aggressive and bossy person and people will only hang out with you for what you do for them, not for who you are. Assertiveness is the ability to express your wants, wishes and desires in a healthy way. Aggressiveness just makes you a jerk.
    • A compassionate person is an active listener…one who actually listens to others. They repeat back to the person what they hear to confirm shared understanding. When you do this, you “behold” people – which is a capacity that will draw people to you like moths to a flame. Some of the greatest, most charismatic leaders in the world would effectively “behold” people.  In order to be an effective active listener, you must place others in a place of prominence. Remember, you are not the center of creation; the cosmos does not revolve around you! As the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 2:3-4 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Listen more than you speak. That’s always good advice.
  4. Extend the Grace to Others That You Would Like Extended to You
    1. When people make mistakes, or drop the ball, or let you down – will you be willing to forgive them?  We tend to judge others by their actions, while we judge ourselves by our intentions.  Don’t fall into that trap.
    2. There is an ancient story of the desert monk Abba Moses. Some monks were going to discipline another brother who was guilty of sin. The assembled the brothers and sent a message to Abba Moses telling him to come, but Abba Moses would not come. They sent for him again telling him they were waiting for him to discipline this other brother. Moses got up and went. He took an old basket, which he filled with sand and carried it on his back. He put a little sand in his hand and carried it in front of him. When Abba Moses arrived, the brothers asked, “What does this mean Abba Moses?” Abba Moses said, “The basket on my back are my sins; they are many so I put them on my back and I shall not give notice or weep for them. The sand in the palm of my hand is the sin of our brother and they are in front of me. I see them and I judge them. This is not right, I ought to have my own sins in front of me and think on them and ask God to forgive me.” When the other monks heard this, they forgive their brother monk and said, “This is the true way of salvation.”
  5. Be Wise as Snakes, But Gentle as Doves (Matthew 10, Words of Jesus)
    1. You have to be wise in this world. You can make a lot of mistakes in life, and you will, but there are times when we make the wrong mistake at the wrong time in front of the wrong people – we don’t know when or where this will happen (that’s the problem with mistakes, we don’t control them).
    2. One DUI underage, one fight, one plagiarized paper, one brief moment in time, one mistake can cost you more than you know…we don’t control the consequences of our mistakes, but we can control the mistakes.
    3. This should not cause you to fear, but to be proactive and smart. You must think a few steps ahead of every action to put in place safety nets to be ready when you judgment is limited. To be wise as a snake means we must see that life is not easy and often is tries to trip us up…we must be proactive and make good decisions ahead of time.
    4. That’s why Jesus said, I want you to love and be gentle as doves, but be wise like a snake – watch out.
  6. Don’t Be Afraid of Hard Work
    1. Remember Aesop’s Fable of The Ants and the Grasshopper – The ants were spending a fine winter’s day drying grain collected in the summertime. A Grasshopper, perishing with famine, passed by and earnestly begged for a little food. The Ants inquired of him, “Why did you not treasure up food during the summer?’ He replied, “I spend my days in leisure enjoying the find spring and summer weather. I passed the days in singing.” Then the ants said in derision: “If you were foolish enough to sing all the summer, you must dance supper-less to bed in the winter.”
    2. You have to work hard to accomplish something worthwhile. Don’t look at your parents have right now…ask them to share their story with you of what they had to do to get here. You may learn a lot about life and work if you do.
    3. We expect to graduate college and start off with a life where our parents are now. That’s because we don’t realize the 20+ years of hard work that led them to this time and place.
    4. “In the business world, everyone is paid in two coins:  cash and experience.  Take the experience first; the cash will come later.”  ~Harold Geneen
  7. Finally, Always Be Yourself
    1. You can Google for an answer. You can Google for a mate. You can Google for a career. But you can’t Google to find what’s in your heart, the passion that lifts you skyward.  Ask Siri what your purpose is in life.  She can’t give you an answer.
    2. “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”  ~e.e. cummings, 1955
    3. The world will try to dismantle you every day and make you into something you do not want to be. Don’t sell out. Hold fast. Be who God created you to be. If you try to be someone you are not, you are nothing by an imposter.
    4. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

Be wise! Heed the wisdom that is given to you from your elders, your parents, your teachers, your mentors, and the teachings of your faith tradition. It’s a tough world out there, but you are well equipped. Don’t be afraid of the future. Embrace the chaos! Love deeply! Walk with humility!

“I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men.”  ― Lao Tzu

The Open Table

In 22 years of being a pastor, I get all kinds of questions.  What do you think I get asked the most?  Most people would guess the question is related to suffering or evil, but actually the question I get asked the most usually comes from someone who just returned from a  wedding or a funeral.

“Why wouldn’t they let me take Holy Communion?”

The question doesn’t surprise me any more, but what does surprise me is how many people are still shocked that churches won’t let them share in this intimate sacrament.

In the 18th Century as John Wesley was leading a revival in the Church of England that would become the Methodist Church, Wesley attempted to make the Lord’s Supper more meaningful for the masses of people who found no spiritual meaning in the Church. Wesley would lead his Methodist followers into the local Anglican Church on a Sunday morning and bring them down the aisle to receive the elements. In a few incidences, there were so many that he would lead them down in groups of a hundred. And the people would sing as they came. John Wesley believed everyone could come to the table.  After all, it is God’s table…not the Church of England’s table.

We United Methodists believe in what is called ‘open communion’, or the ‘open table’, which means that we do not require someone to be a member of our church, or of any church, or even to be baptized in order to fellowship with us at the table.  The only requirement is that you are open to receiving whatever Jesus has to share with you. You don’t have to have it all figured out or recite a creed. It isn’t a matter of intellectual assent. This is why Wesley wanted to open up the sacrament to include the poor and forgotten. In the same way, we welcome all kinds of folk when we serve communion.

The ‘open table’, or ‘open communion’ is not just a ritualistic practice. It is a way of being the Church. Just as Jesus sat at the table and ate with sinners and tax collectors, we invite those who are ignored, misunderstood and rejected by society. In a world that scrutinizes you based on your outward appearance, the message of Holy Communion in our church is one of total acceptance in Christ. If nowhere else, Church is the one place where you can feel the unconditional acceptance of Jesus.

At the opening of Holy Communion, the pastor says,

“Christ our Lord invites to his table, all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another. Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.”  If you are open and willing, you are invited.

Let me share three reasons why we practice the “Open Table” unlike many other churches.

  1. Jesus Modeled The Open Table For Us – If we want to do a study on the entire meal ministry of Jesus, we would find all people invited to feast with him. When Jesus fed the 5,000 or the 4,000, he fed them all.  He didn’t ask if they were Methodists or Baptists or Catholics. When he ate at the house of the tax collectors, or when he traveled to Samaria, or when he broke the bread with two strangers on the way to Emmaus, Jesus never asked, “Are you a member?”  He also didn’t ask if you believe every part of our creed or dogma.
  2. We Don’t Control God’s Grace – We cannot reify God’s grace! Reification is when one gives substance to something that has no substance. Reification of grace is when the church, preacher, or anyone says God’s grace is not available to you. I hold the grace, and we will dole it out to those who agree with us. As the Soup Nazi would say on Seinfield if you didn’t order the soup in just the right way, “No Grace For You!”, many churches treat grace in the same way.  We see this happen in many churches and denominations – you are divorced? You need to attend another church. You made some bad decisions in life? You might need to go somewhere else.  God’s grace cannot be given out by us.
  3. The Table is Open…But the Grace Is Not Cheap – In our understanding of the Open Table, Methodists may continue to invite all persons to the Lord’s table, as long as they understand that non-baptized seekers should be urged to enter the baptismal covenant and be taught the full truth about its costly dynamics. God’s grace is free and offered to all that is true. But it is not Cheap and Meaningless. If we are going to receive the Grace of God in our lives, we must be willing to be transformed by it. That means we must be willing to abide by the costs of discipleship and submit ourselves to it.

Wesley was convinced that communion was not only a confirming, but also a converting ordinance. It is not only for those who already believe and long to deepen their relationship with the Lord, but for those who truly want to believe, but seem to lack the grace to do so.

The table of Christ is always open, but once we kneel and receive His body and blood, we should never again be the same.

Love and Hate

Luke 2:25-35

25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Love and hate are intimately linked within the human brain, according to a study by Professor Semir Zeki of University College London. Zeki studied the brains of people who profess deep hatred towards a person and deep love and here is what he discovered.  When people looked at the images of those they hated, it involved specific areas in the sub-cortex of the brain. One area they already knew was connected to contempt and disgust. But they found these same areas of the brain were involved in deep feelings of love. Zeki proposes that this may be connected to the preparation of aggression that may come when you feel someone you love is threatened.  While love and hate are found to be at work in the same area of the brain, there is one interesting difference. Zeki and his research team found that the areas of the brain associated with judgment and reasoning become deactivated during love, whereas very little of the area is deactivated in hate.

Zeki concludes with this hypothesis…love seems to be less critical and less judgmental toward those loved. Hate is more judgmental, more critical, and more calculating…seeking ways to injure, harm, or exact revenge. The other interesting find? Hate could be objectively quantified in the studies. Love could not. There was no way to objectively quantify love.

Zeki could have saved a lot of time if he had just read the New Testament…

Christmas is the time of year when we celebrate the coming of the fullness of love to the world. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son… Christmas is the time we celebrate when love came down from heaven. And this is a season of love. There is something warm and cozy about Christmas. Families gather, meals are shared, we reach out to those who are not with us by phone and Christmas cards.

But as we explore the great paradoxes of Christmas, this week we focus on the second Sunday of Advent’s theme…love. We know that the world Jesus came into was not only a world of love. Just as in Jesus day, we are surrounded by the paradox of a world where God is pouring out His love into a world filled with hate.

The Magi search for the child to pay him homage as a power-hungry king tries desparately to keep power by slaughtering innocent young children.  The angels announce the birth of the Savior to a poor band of shepherds.  Joseph and Mary receive news of the miraculous birth, but their experience is not exactly glorious.  Our world is not different. We see the paradoxes all around us.  Love comes in the midst of a world of hate.  People killing innocent people and calling it faithfulness. People mistrusting those around them and those in authority. We need love more than ever in a world filled with hate.

In today’s passage, we see Joseph and Mary bringing Jesus to the temple as was the custom. Simeon was a righteous and faithful man and very old. God told him he would not die until he laid eyes on the Savior of the world. As Jesus is brought into the temple, Simeon is drawn in and when he lays his eyes on the child, he rejoices! He says, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  Simeon sees the light of salvation for all people, including the Gentiles. Love has come down.

IF we ended there, that would be enough. But the Bible points us to another paradox…Simeon continues…“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

We see this bitter prophecy played out in the life of Jesus as he confronts the lives and motives of so many.  He called us to examine our inner thoughts as well.  In John 3:19 Jesus says, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Jesus was and is the One who reveals our inner thoughts and calls us to choose light and love over darkness and hate.  We are confronted with this Sign everyday.

The good news is that love has come into the world. But that love will call for a decision from the world. A decision to love in the light…or hate in the darkness.