Category Archives: Bible

Acts of God?

Recently, I’ve heard, read, and watched different supposed Christians who want to take all the hurricanes and fires and earthquakes and ascribe them to God as if GOD had evilly created a plan to punish people with Hell on earth in the nasty now-and-now…
And other people who try to use these events as reasons to “prove” that there is NO God anywhere, nor has there ever been.
In response, today, I want to share a great resource actually written and published by the denomination to which I belong: The United Methodist Church.

Ask the UMC: How do United Methodists understand human suffering from natural disaster?

A tire swing sways in the wind from Hurricane Rita over the remains of a beachfront home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in Ocean Springs, Miss. Rita made landfall in East Texas Sept. 24, 2005, nearly four weeks after Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

A tire swing sways in the wind from Hurricane Rita over the remains of a beachfront home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in Ocean Springs, Miss. Rita made landfall in East Texas Sept. 24, 2005, nearly four weeks after Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi.

Ask the UMC: How do United Methodists understand human suffering from natural disaster?

Sometimes the devastation is overwhelming. The waters rise and the rain won’t stop. The ground shakes beneath our feet, or the wind blows the roofs off homes. Sometimes, even the side of the mountain roars into town. The problems seem insurmountable, the destruction beyond our comprehension.When tragedy strikes, it is common for us to ask why. We turn to our faith for answers, but answers don’t come easily. We wrestle with making sense of the suffering we witness, in light of our Christian faith. Questions are left unanswered. The tragedy is not explained.In a sermon titled “The Promise of Understanding,” John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, says we may never know. He writes,

“[W]e cannot say why God suffered evil to have a place in his creation; why he, who is so infinitely good himself, who made all things ‘very good,’ and who rejoices in the good of all his creatures, permitted what is so entirely contrary to his own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works. ‘Why are sin and its attendant pain in the world?’ has been a question ever since the world began; and the world will probably end before human understandings have answered it with any certainty” (section 2.1).

The short answer is: We do not know why natural disasters and other suffering are part of our world.

Did God do this?

While Wesley admits we cannot know the complete answer, he clearly states that suffering does not come from God. God is “infinitely good,” Wesley writes, “made all things good,” and “rejoices in the good of all his creatures.”

Our good God does not send suffering. According to Wesley, it is “entirely contrary to [God’s] own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works.” Suffering is not punishment for sin or a judgment from God. We suffer, and the world suffers, because we are human and part of a system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.

God with us

In another sermon titled “On Divine Providence,” Wesley again writes of God’s love for humanity and that God desires good for us. He then adds how God is always with us, even in the midst of tragedy. Wesley shares,

“[God] hath expressly declared, that as his ‘eyes are over all the earth’ [see Psalm 34:15; 83:18], so he ‘is loving to every man, and his mercy is over all his works’ [Psalm 145:9]. Consequently, he is concerned every moment for what befalls every creature upon earth; and more especially for everything that befalls any of the children of men. It is hard, indeed, to comprehend this; nay, it is hard to believe it, considering the complicated wickedness, and the complicated misery, which we see on every side. But believe it we must” (paragraph 13).

This is good news. While we cannot fully comprehend the why, we know that God is with those who suffer. Note that Wesley says God cares for “every creature.” We are never alone in our suffering.

In our experience, we know that tragedies happen to Christians and non-Christians alike. As Jesus said, “[God] makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). The good news we proclaim is that God is with us through it all.

A different question

When Jesus and his disciples encounter a man born blind, the disciples ask Jesus the question we are asking. “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2). Jesus, why does seemingly arbitrary suffering occur?

Jesus’ answer, “Neither he nor his parents,” tells us that the disciples are asking the wrong question. “This happened,” Jesus continues, “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). Jesus asserts that it is in our response to suffering that God is found, in moments of everyday grace and in grand and sweeping gestures of care and solidarity with the suffering. God’s mighty works are found in hospitals and nursing homes and shelters.

Jesus is calling his disciples and us to a ministry. We are to join Jesus in displaying God’s mighty works. We are an extension of God’s presence in the midst of the tragedy as we come beside those who are suffering in ways we don’t comprehend. We are to be agents of healing, working to restore God’s order to people’s lives and communities. We are to be representatives of the day of resurrection to come, as we seek to rebuild and renew.

In our United Methodist congregations, we join together in these ministries. We assemble flood buckets and work alongside those who shovel the muck from floodwaters from the floors of their homes. We rebuild homes. We stand in the gap alongside the suffering. We support our local food banks, help build houses in our communities, take care of one another’s cars, visit those who are ill and imprisoned, and so much more. We are also active in our communities, working to change systems that inflict suffering on people in our communities.

In the aftermath of tragedy, we give witness to the love of God. In our outpouring of support, we proclaim the value of every human life. As we grieve with those in mourning, we share the love of God. When we send supplies through the United Methodist Committee on Relief, we witness to God’s provision. When medical professionals bind up wounds, Jesus is shown as a healer. When homes are rebuilt, we proclaim resurrection.

We may not know why things happen, but we embrace the ministries of healing, renewal and reconciliation to which Jesus calls us, and in doing so, God’s mighty works are revealed.

Related:

Turning to the Bible when sorrow strikes

‘Jesus wept’: Finding God’s comfort when times are bad

 

Have questions? Ask the UMC. And check out other recent Q&As.

This content was produced by InfoServ, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.

First published Aug. 31, 2017.

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Filed under Bible, Church Leadership, compassion, Disaster Relief, Methodist

THAT’S NOT FAIR!

These are my speaking notes from Sunday’s sermon (9/3/2017).

[Matthew 20:1-16] (New Living Translation)

“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.

“At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.

“At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’

“They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’

“That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. 10 When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. 11 When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, 12 ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’

13 “He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? 14 Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15 Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’

16 “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

===============

     When I was growing up in Potter County near a little town called Shinglehouse, we lived up a little valley where the ridge of a couple of the Allegheny Mountains came together called Blauvelt Hollow. It was a small dirt road where you had to pretty much get off the road if you met another car. And there was a pretty steep hill and a curve in the first quarter mile of that road. And I had a job as a kid… called SCHOOL WORK. My job was being a student.

In the winter time, the plows had priority roads that they cleared first and our road wasn’t always the priority, but even if it did get plowed, there were times that the school bus couldn’t get up the hollow to pick us kids up. And so it didn’t. School went on, but we were excused, because the bus couldn’t get to us to take us to do our school work. Sometimes it just got there later and we would get to school late, and weren’t penalized for having missed the beginning of the day’s school work.

[Unfortunately, my grandfather (who lived across the road from us) became township supervisor and road master within a few years and he always made sure that bus could make it up to get us.]

Now, why do I tell you that?

Because, like the later workers in the parable from Matthew 20 that we’ve just heard, my brother John Paul and I, even if we were late or missed school on those days, got credit for being there and doing the classwork just the same. But we hadn’t had to endure the same workload. And trust me, we were the envy of those others around us who had been there the whole day.

Except Jesus isn’t talking about school work, but harvest work. Specifically harvesting the grapes in the vineyard. And Jesus chooses to tell the story from the perspective of those workers who got there first doesn’t he?

At the very beginning of the day, 6:00 am I’m told is what the time would have been when the farmer first went out to hire some workers, he hires some workers. They clearly understand that they have to work all day and they clearly know what to expect for their paycheck. A day’s wage. They’ll agree to nothing less. And the farmer agrees to their price. So they start working.

Now, there were many others who were around but were not workers. They weren’t around when the farmer went early in the morning to hire workers. The farmer knows there are more that will be in town now, so he goes back and hires them too. And later, he goes back to hire those that weren’t there before to be hired. And the farmer keeps going back out for more workers. Not willing to give up. He needs workers and is willing to do what is needed to get the job done.

And when all is said and done, and the job’s completed, he gives them all their pay for the job. He can be generous with those that he hired throughout the day because they agreed to work without thought of how much they would make.

With those that came to work for a specific sum of money, he is faithful and pays them what they wanted and expected.

No problem right? Well, yes there is. You see, the farmer was so generous that he paid the newer workers the same thing as the first workers. And the first workers remembered how long and how hard they had worked, more than the newer workers had. And they cried out: “THAT’S NOT FAIR!”

And Jesus explains that the farmer had been faithful to what was agreed upon and had chosen to be generous to those who had thought nothing of the pay to be earned, and still worked.

Now there’s probably a whole lot that you can learn about God, and specifically Jesus, from this story and about how to be a Christian and lots of good stuff. But for right now, I just want to focus on a couple of things that I think can speak to us today, here in OUR situations.

Let’s suppose, shall we, that Jesus is the farmer and that WE are the workers (or the would be workers at least).

What if the call to work is when Christ calls us into his kingdom? Calls us to be a follower of Jesus, or worker in the kingdom of God? Just by the fact that we are not all the same age, would suggest that we all can’t come to know and expereince Jesus inviting us into relationship with him at the same time. We can’t all come to be a worker for the King at the same time because when the first ones were called, some of us weren’t around. We hadn’t even been born yet!

That happens doesn’t it? There are some in this congregation who accepted Jesus as Savior sixty and seventy years ago. And those dear saints have served their Lord, working in the kingdom of God, for decades before some of the rest of us were even born, let alone old enough to work for the kingdom.

Thank God, that he, like the farmer in the parable, keeps going back out to get more workers.

Some of us, have heard Christ call us to be his workers, yet have missed him, we’ve not responded when he called, or were busy doing something else and didn’t hear him. And Jesus still comes back time and again to call us to join his workforce.

There are some here today, who have heard Jesus calling you to relationship with him, to be one of his followers, his workers, and you have tried to turn a deaf ear in the past. You’ve not wanted to be a follower, not wanted to be a worker. Friends, Jesus is still looking for you, desiring you to come to him. And will. Will you answer today? Will you allow him to be your Lord, your Savior, your Master, your King? Say yes today. Invite him to become lord of your life and allow him to guide you and heal you and set you free.

If you do so, your reward is the same as those who’ve been Christians for decades. You’ll spend eternity with Christ, as a follower, a disciple, a friend of Jesus.

The parable has at least one other meaning to it though. You see, if you look in the chapter right before this one, you see the context of what was going on when Jesus decided to tell the parable. Peter has, in his own bumbling, foot in the mouth kind of way, he has just pointed out to Jesus how he and the other eleven had given up everything in order to follow Jesus. And Peter asks, in Matthew 19:27, “See, we have left all and followed you. Therefore what shall we have?”  He’s asking ‘What’s our reward?’ or as we would say today, ‘What’s in it for me?’

And then Jesus responds with this parable.

How many times do we, like those first hired workers, not agree to go and do the task until we know what’s in it for us first? We may hear God calling us to do something, but we see no personal advantage so we are unwilling to answer the call.

Why should I be a Christian?

          What’s in it for me?

Why should I help out with the evangelism team?

          What’s in it for me?

Why should I give my money to that mission trip, since I’m not going to get to go with them?

          What’s in it for me?

Why should I spend my time as a chaperone with that rowdy youth group or teach that Sunday School class, I don’t have kids,

          What’s in it for me?

Why should I give up my security and safety and comfortable job in order to go into ministry?

          What’s in it for me?

Folks, I believe that a very large message for us in this parable is that approaching Christ with a list of expectations and an attitude of ‘What’s in it for me?’ is NOT a good thing.

The farmer explains, almost angrily it sounds like to me, that he has been just, “Friend, I have done you no wrong” and that he has been faithful, “Did you not agree to work for that amount?”

My question today is two fold: depending on who you are…

  • If you are not yet a follower, a worker for Jesus, will you answer the call? Today?
  • If you have already accepted Christ and are one of his workers, are you a worker that will obey his callings to do whatever needs to be done, as he decides? Or will you be hesitating with the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’

The danger here is not for those who answer later, but for those who want to deny the master farmer Jesus, the chance to be generous to others.

Those times the bus had gotten me to school late (or even the next day) and yet I didn’t lose credit for missing the work, those kids who had been there the whole time were even more responsible for what had been covered in those classes. SO too with us as we join the work field for Christ. We’re responsible, not for what the master does with someone else, but for his callings and requests of us…. And we can trust him to be fair and just and faithful.

This past week, in the aftermath of all the raining and all the flooding in the Houston area, Twitter and Facebook were all abuzz with what a megachurch pastor in the Houston did or did not do. And I saw Christians posting their own opinions (and forwarding other people’s opinions & posts) about how wrong Joel Osteen was and what he should have done.

Then I saw a sign that simply said…

I just talked with God and he didn’t ask me anything about Joel Osteen…

He asked me about what I had done and what I was doing.

Just like those workers in the farmer’s field, we are workers for God in HIS fields… And We’re responsible, not for what the master does with someone else, or how they respond to the Master, but rather we are responsible for his callings and requests of us… and OUR response to Him!!! And we can ALWAYS trust him to be fair and just and faithful.

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Can I help you?

As a pastor for the past 21 years, I would LOVE to be able to see exactly what my listeners in the congregation are thinking… and where they are in their faith journey to help steer my praying (my private praying mostly, but also the public prayers) and to guide my sermons to help where people really are. HOWEVER, we can’t see these thought bubbles in real life! We only have two resources in this: people sharing directly with the pastor about concerns, questions, and struggles, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 
Because of the Holy Spirit, we do “get it right” quite often as we follow the Spirit’s leading and “nudging.” But what JOY when people talk directly with us and we can work directly with the Spirit to meet needs, offer clarification, provide comfort, extend a listening and caring ear, and pray personally with someone. 

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Filed under Bible, Church Leadership, Grief, prayer, Reflection, Response, sermons, worship

Faith AND Works?

When I grew up, many people tried to claim that all I had to do was believe in Jesus and pray the sinner’s prayer and I was good to go… forever. While that’s a great starting point, I was challenged by James’ words: “So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” -James 2:17 (NLT)

And today, I ran across this Christian writer from antiquity who summed up the knowledge part of faith and the role of the “works” of faith really well:

“Even though knowledge is true, it is still not firmly established if unaccompanied by works. For everything is established by being put into practice.” – St. Mark the Ascetic, Philokalia, vol. 1, p 126, #12.

Maybe “faith put into practice” is a better way of thinking about faith and works! If our faith is based on on our head knowledge, it’s dead! But if we can put the faith we believe into practice, then we’re REALLY living out our faith!

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Filed under Bible, Church Leadership, Devotional, Reflection, Response

Eyes

As a child, one of the Sunday School songs started like this: “Be careful little eyes what you see…” and it reminded us that what we look at, affects our thinking, which affects our actions, which becomes a spiritual issue as well. Similar verses warned our ears and what we listen to, our hands and the things we choose to do, and finally our feet and where we choose to go.

I have been repeatedly returning to Psalm 119 over the past four or five months every once in a while and yesterday I got caught on verse 37: “Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things, And revive me in Your way.” (New Living Translation).

I was immediately reminded of how many times I go online for some legitimate reason and “accidentally” find myself still online 20 minutes, an hour, or even several hours later. I need to redeem the time… and Facebook and Twitter can be tools and even very helpful, but they can be the door in to a longer, more wasteful, worthless online experience.

And it’s EVERYTHING we allow into our minds and hearts, isn’t it? Internet, video games, books, comics, magazines, songs (and lyrics), and the list could go on for quite a while…

Couple that with a crazy “selfie” picture that I had taken a couple of weeks ago when I had shaved my beard down and a new graphic reminder of this verse was born.

Enjoy… or be freaked  out… but heed the Scriptural truth.

psalm-11937-mixed-rendition

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REFLECTION: Romans 7:14-25

I know what I WANT to do, but I keep messing up. I want to do what is right. But my natural sinful tendencies are always with me. So like The Elephant & The Executive , I have to constantly choose to follow my head (where God’s will is clearly known) rather than my gut level natural reaction (which is always run by my sinful nature ).

The ONLY way to do that is to continually keep going to Christ… He alone can make a difference. That’s why David’s prayer pf repentance in Psalm 51 keeps emphasizing that which only God can do for him: have mercy, wash, cleanse, create, renew, restore, & save.

God has to CREATE something new in me. There will be NO pure heart without HIS involvement. It’s not about self-help or my will or my commitment. It’s me going back to Him constantly!

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Messianic Job Description

Many Jews of Jesus’ day were looking forward to the coming Messiah, the “Anointed One” who would save them. But they pictured being “saved” as being freed from Roman rule politically.

Check out Isaiah 61, one of the many passages that describe what the anointed one was to be about when he came to earth…

isaiah61_1

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
    for the Lord has anointed me
    to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
    and to proclaim that captives will be released
    and prisoners will be freed.
He has sent me to tell those who mourn
    that the time of the Lord’s favor has come,
    and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.
To all who mourn in Israel,
    he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
    festive praise instead of despair.

The focus isn’t directed toward the religious or the chosen… but rather the Anointed Messiah, Jesus, would be concerned with the poor (they get good news), the brokenhearted (they get comfort), the captives (they get release), the prisoners (they get freed), the mourners (they get hope along with God’s blessing and a crown of beauty and a praise party).

As ones who self-identify as followers of Jesus, his disciples of this modern era, are we about those same things? Are we spending a majority of our time, treasures, and ministry reaching out to those to whom the Anointed One was sent to minister to?

Why not?

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