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Nontraditional thoughts on Matthew 25:31-46

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Never underestimate the power of one word. This ancient proverb rings true in our lectionary text this week. A closer look at the word “nations” calls into question the traditional understanding of this text.
Traditionally speaking, the sermon would encourage the congregation to be sheep; caring for the “least of these”. However, a closer look at the meaning behind the word “nations” challenges that assumption. The periscope opens with Jesus and his angels gathering the “nations” before them. Jesus sets about the shepherdly duty of separating the flock. The sheep are set to the right and the goats to the left. The dividing factor is the record of action (or inaction) toward the “least of these”. Visually the text reads like this:

Goats/them>>>>>Sheep/us>>>>>>Disenfranchised/them

Now let us dive into an nontraditional view. We begin our focus on the word “nations” with the author’s use of the word. The writer of Matthew uses ethnos 3 additional times in this gospel (Matthew 24:9, 24:14 and 28:19).

  • 24:9 Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.
  • 24:14 And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.
  • 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In each instance the Greek word ethnos or nations means outsiders or those not like us. In chapter 24, Matthew writes that the non-Christians will hate those Christians who are tortured and killed and the testimony is to go to the non-Christians. In chapter 28 disciples are to be made of all non-Christians. The meaning of these three examples is obvious. According to Matthew’s meaning of the word ethnos, visually the text looks like this:

Goats/them>>>>>>Sheep/them>>>>>>>Disenfranchised/us

Matthew wrote the gospel to a poor community who may have suffered hunger, thirst, nakedness, imprisonment and sickness. Did they receive help from compassionate non-Christians? If so, Matthew’s message is clear. God welcomes those into his kingdom when they do the work of Christian compassion.  The sticking point that challenges the traditional views lies in asked the question “which kingdom“?  The kingdom now (as experienced when charity is shared) or the kingdom to come (after life judgement time)?
Also, could this story be a message of evangelism to those non-Christians who helped those Christians in need? Perhaps the helpers hearing from those they serve that they were already doing the work of Christ may have endeared them toward the movement. Secondly, does this offer still apply today?

A Narrative Approach to Pentecost

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Pentecost        June 8, 2014   Gray UMC

Sunday, June the 8th is Pentecost Sunday and I will be preaching at the 9:30am LifeSong worship service at Gray UMC. LifeSong is a gathering of 20somethings through Baby boomers who find liturgical tradition too heavy a burden to suit their communal worship needs. The Order of Worship is simple and set with lay leadership throughout.

The LifeSong worshiping community may or may not have an extensive education of the Bible. And even though some may remember Bible memory verses from the Sunday school era of the 50’s through 80’s, some may have not fully pieced together the Gospel meta-narrative.

My sermon this Sunday will attempt to structure a stout background of the Holy Spirit by narratively weaving a history spanning from Genesis through Pentecost. For the sake of timeliness, I will have to pick and choose scriptures. The main focus will be that the coming of the Holy Spirit was, is and always is active. This activity finds root in God’s deep desire for intimacy with humankind.

The idea of intimacy will be explored. I understand intimacy the how available we make ourselves to be known by others. As levels of safety and trust rise, our ability to share more of ourselves deepens. The narrative story from Genesis to Pentecost is a gentle statement for God’s effort throughout history and a reason for our trust to rise toward God and God’s work through the Holy Spirit. Our best response toward God’s action is vulnerability.

Just as the disciples gathered in the upper room with their emotions of uncertainty, fright and weakness, we are most malleable by God’s Spirit when we own our pain and invite God to give ear to our complaint. Our vulnerably is a gift to God. With that gift the Spirit of God can live in us by way of spiritual intimacy.

John S. Dunne provides a wonderful quote from his book The Reasons of the Heart:

 Our minds’ desire is to know, to understand, but our hearts desire is intimacy, to be known, to be understood.  To see God with our mind would be to know God, to understand God; but to see God with our heart would be to have a sense of being known by God, of being understood by God.  

This is a rough outline:

Genesis 2:1 – The Holy Spirit in creation

The nature of Eden pre-fall “God walked with humans” (intimacy defined)

The Spirit working through Kings  1 Samuel 16:13-14 (God’s Spirit mediated)

The Spirit working through Prophets  Zechariah 7:11-12 (God’s Spirit mediated)

The work of Jesus (Intimacy offered)

Pentecost – God’s Spirit is available to all; one on one Acts 2:1-3

As prescribed in Joel: Acts 2:17-21

The emotional state of the disciples when the Spirit descended

It is one thing to know of God but it is another to be known by God.  This is a God worth letting in.

Intimacy is inviting God to know all of us – during all of our human emotional states

Palm Sunday Worship

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Palm Sunday is a rare occasion for the preaching life of the lectionary preacher for this reason:  no sermon is recommended.  What is recommended are three worship movements; Liturgy of the Palms, Procession of the Palms and Holy Communion.  What’s a preacher to do?

Here is one bold suggestion.  Shut up and sit down.  A more polite invitation would say, “Please refrain from the 20-25 minute sermon.”  Tradition teaches us well.  Here are reasons why and a few tips on how.

Holy week follows Palm Sunday and Holy week, for the preaching life, can be a marathon.  Consider Palm Sunday your carb uptake and nap before the big race to the finish line. (The finish line being Easter lunch.)  A view from the pew would suggest that the unfolding story of Holy Week is so heavy with it’s emotional highs and lows the congregation needs a time of calm and reflection.  Palm Sunday can be a time of preparation for sadness of the sacrifice and the joy of the resurrection.  Make is simple, weave in times of silent reflection, and make the most of the two prescribed rubrics (Procession and Communion).

LITURGY OF THE PSALMS Due to the Biblical illiteracy of many churches mixed with the importance of these upcoming holy-days, I recommend using the welcoming time as an educational moment.  The congregation needs an explanation of why worship will be out of the ordinary today.  Once again, siting Biblical illiteracy as my reasoning, I suggest using a time early on in the worship service to expand upon common words of the season like “Hosanna” or “Palm”.  As the preacher educates, she weaves in the political background of the upcoming New Testament metanarrative and/or interpersonal relationships highlighted in the last week of the life of Jesus and/or the theological implications of what is happening. 

All the preacher is doing is setting the stage.  Allow the narrative to stand on it’s own.  Don’t preach by making life applications to modern day politics or human relations.  This Palm Sunday allow the liturgy to do the work for you.  Choose prayers, blessings, benedictions and communion liturgy that challenge the congregation to do the spiritual work of making connections from Palm Sunday to their own lives.  An excellent example is a prayer that would compliment a preacher’s explanation of Palm Sunday through the lens of the political powers of Jesus’ day (a socio-political view).  This prayer is entitled “Be Careful Jesus”.    It is powerful and thought provoking.

After all, liturgy means “work of the people”.

This Sunday my liturgy of Psalms would look something like this.  The Call to worship would be the Psalm of the day, then an 5-8 minute explanation of what is about to happen by expounding of what the word “Hosanna.  What did it mean to those who said it verses those who heard it.  In this short educational moment, I highlight the misconceptions about Jesus in the crowd that day:  The Jewish people the Roman government.  I incorporate historical points like the past uprisings the Romans have experience with the Jewish people of this region.  I use Old Testament scripture that highlights the meaning of Messiah heard by the Jewish people during worship.  I begin and end with the meaning of “Hosanna”.   This section of worship would close with the scripture reading for the day:  Matthew 21:1-11.  This leads nicely into The Procession of the Palms (so would Psalm 118 as a responsive reading!).

THE PROCESSION OF PALMS  The next portion of worship would be the Palm Processional itself.  Due to the makeup of the congregation, some have children sing and bring in the palms.  But if your congregation is older, perhaps inviting them to sing while bringing forth the palm they were given to the altar would make more sense.  If a choir is available, after the palms are placed is a great time for their worship contribution.  This time of joy would be followed by the prayer entitle “Be Careful Jesus” and a silent reflection.

Whenever allowing the liturgy to make challenge the congregation, do your best to give them times of silence to soak it in.  Glossing over the work done by congregants will only negate the preacher’s efforts.

HOLY COMMUNION  Finally choose sections of the communion liturgy to incorporate life applications of the day’s worship events in conjunction with the theme offered in the opening welcome and explanation.  A great example of a prayer of confessions is also on the same page as “Be Careful Jesus”.  Keep it simple and reflective.

Just a few thoughts on Palm Sunday……

 

To Give a Witness

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There is a beloved tale told in East Africa to children and adults alike.  It begins with a contest in a mouse tribe to find the strongest boy.  The winner of the contest is bragging to his grandpa about his brute strength and claims that he is the strongest animal on the African plains.  Grandpa corrects him by reminding him of the strength of the elephant.  The little braggart will not be outdone and decides to begin a quest to find the elephant and “stomp her to bits”.  Grandpa bids him well but reminds him that a storm is coming.  Along the journey the little mouse runs into many animals.  He asks each one if they are the elephant.  When they decline, he informs them of the great damage he is about to inflict.  And each time he makes these dramatic declarations, by chance, the thunder rolls.  The animals in question run away in fear and the little mouse believes that he is the reason for their angst-filled departure.  This only strokes his ego.

Finally, he finds the elephant and informs her that he is going to “stomp her to bits”.  Lazily, she fills her trunk with water and sprays the little mouse with such force, that he rolls down the bank, unconscious.  The elephant and the storm come and go while the little mouse lies by the water hole.  The little mouse wakes.  Finding no elephant and being very wet, he assumes that the storm washed the elephant away.  This was a very good thing for the elephant because had the storm not come the little mouse would have “stomped her to bits”.

The little mouse reminds me of the story of Job.  His name is associated with suffering.  The Bible tells us that he lost his whole family, fortune and health and grieved his losses while sitting on an ash heap.  During his misery, he is visited by three friends.  They, like the little mouse, make Job’s suffering all about them.  Eliphaz applies that those who sow wickedness reaps such (Job 4:7-8).  This can be true.  However, Job claims innocence.  Bildad assumes that bad things are a result of sin, period (Job 8:2-7).  And Zophar implores Job to repent (Job 11: 13-14).  All of this advice comforts only the three friends because it takes Job’s situation and plugs it into their familiar formula.

They ignore is honest plea of innocence and Job’s godly life lived.
 

Job is not in need of a logical explanation.  Suffering has pushed him far beyond cerebral thinking.  Job speaks from the depth of pain that rules his heart.  This great sufferer needs a focus that does not diagnosis his misery with religious “shoulds”.  Job would benefit best from a genuine love and respect that allows him to feel acceptance and understanding.  Job calls out for such a witness as he asks simply to be heard:

Earth, do not cover my blood; may my cry never be laid to rest!  Even now my witness is in heaven;  my advocate is on high.  My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God.  –Job 16:16-18

Often Christians assume that giving a witness means to speak of what should be or sharing their opinions about God or religion.  But this text and situation gives a different feel to the word.  For Job, giving a witness means to witness his pain, offer him a safe place to vent and speaking only words of understanding.  There are no spiritual laws to recite or sinner’s prayer to repeat.  To give a witness means to make the visit all about Job.  What a spiritual challenge to set aside all things with think we know and sit in silence with those who suffer.

Grieving Moses

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I watched my daughter carefully assemble her Legos packets she received this past Christmas.  Legos have really changed over the years.  When I was a kid, most sets were pretty uniform.   With the old school interlocking pieces of the same sizes and colors, Lego artists were limited only by the boundaries of their imagination. Now each set comes with directions and specialty pieces, each unique to the grand design.   I suppose you could mix all the sets together, creating an original.  But I’ve been advised that it’s not recommended.  My neighbor just told me of a Millennium Falcon set that had over 1000 pieces.  Each piece has its own meticulous place according to the directions.  I miss the good ‘ole days.

I’ve been a little slow these days, sitting, observing, and thinking.  As many of you know my canine companion of almost 14 years succumbed to brain cancer a couple of weeks ago.  While watching my daughter’s Lego labor, I felt I was in the midst of similar work.

  Grief work reminds me of Leggos.  It slows us down and the details become important. 

I feel as if I am gathering all the little parts to build something special.  Those tiny parts are all the memories of Moses.  I want to think about every little wrinkle in his nose when he “dog smiled” or how his ears perked when he heard the rustling of a cellophane bag.  I want to relive the story of the time he attempted to out maneuver a rabbit and left my husband and me in stitches from raucous laughter.  These memories are like Lego parts and I’m gathering them, sorting them, putting them in order for my creation.  The final product is the precious story of our life together. 

I don’t know how long it will take me to gathers all these details.  It is slow, sad endeavor.  But my goal is to spread these memories out like a long labored quilt, carefully stitched together.  I want to look over my work and lift my head to the heavens to say “Thank you”.  The spiritual work of gathering these memories will enable me to choose gratitude. Many of you have called or written to give comfort and you have shared your stories of companions long gone.  Your words help me collect my parts for the grand design.  My goal is to arrive at that precious place where memories stir up happiness not sadness.

So now we are on the hunt for Moses pictures.  I’m going to choose a few for collage, to be framed with his obituary.  It will be a snapshot of our life together. But most of all a reminder to be grateful for the time we had together, the lessons learned and the love shared.

An Obituary You Won’t Find in the Paper

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"May your tongue wag well." Moses, the canine prophet

“May your tongue wag well.”
Moses, the canine prophet

Moses, the yellow Labrador

This morning Moses Holmes died in the arms of his owner as he suffered from seizures.  He was given a terminal diagnosis of brain cancer just months before his death.

He began his life in the care of an opera singer from Greeneville, Tennessee.  This man owned Moses’s sire, Solo.  It was no surprise that Russ, a most talented singer and good friend, named the pup Encore.

Moses was 11 months when he came to live with his current owner.  He was renamed Moses because he tripped over his feet when trying to retrieve a stick from pond.  When he hit with water, the waters parted – a muddy Moses emerged.

He was handsome as the dickens and used his charm, good looks and gentle nature to get his way.  Once he accompanied his owner to VBS at Trinity United Methodist Church in Bristol, Virginia.  His station was outside, where snacks were being served.  True to his nature, he weaseled some unsuspecting child or children out of copious amounts of pretzels, M&Ms and cheese.  If ever a yellow lab could turn green, this one did.

 He was ever faithful.  When his owner suffered a terrible pregnancy, he too refused to eat, losing 6 pounds.  The vet called him “an incredible sympathizer”.  His loyalty was so direct, that the child in the family cried, complaining that Moses did not pay her attention.  How delighted she was when Momma snuck a piece of ham into her pocket.  Moses chased her throughout the house all day – what a babysitter!

 We will never forget his many unique niceties and quirks.  He always asked before entering through a door, licked your ears to show gratitude and sat on your foot when resting.  How embarrassed we were when he attempted to relieve himself on low lying limbs, emerging victorious if some of it stuck or how he always passed gas in public at the most inopportune times.  These uncommon personality traits earned him the title of mascot to many honorable causes, most notable are Strength for the Journey retreat, Tennessee Master Gardeners at Tipton Haynes, theponderprophet.com blog.

Dope-dee-doe

Dope-dee-doe

 He was most of all gentle and patient.  He loved the to sit and ride in the hatchback, accompanying his owner on various church related errands.  Moses shared his gifts with children and adults alike.  He would balance food on his nose before gulping it down, shake hands and allow anyone to pet him.  “Every church I’ve ever served still asks about ol’Moe,” his owner states.

Reunited

Moses interrupting my “selfie” attempt

Moses’ story will come to an end sometime this spring.  The family with gather at Buffalo Mountain Camp to sprinkle his ashes.  This was a place where he was most happy.  He chased squirrels, tried to eat a butterfly, swam and made many friends.  This will be his final resting place.

“So when I look to the mountain as I make my way through Johnson City, I will know that my best friend is up there.  He has no more pain.  I will give thanks for the 14 years we had together and I will remember how we cared for each other.  But most of all I will be ever grateful for how this canine angel shaped my soul.  Because of Moses I am more faithful, gentle and patient.  That was God working through Moses, the yellow Labrador.”  — The Reverend Amy Yeary Holmes, owner of Moses, the yellow Labrador

*a special thanks to our friends at Mountain Empire Animal Clinic on North Roan

Fortune Cookie Devotion

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fortune cookieI love fortune cookies.  While the cookie may or may not be edible, the small slip of paper inside always provides humor, intrigue or a universal wisdom. The common factor in most of these “fortunes” is that they give us something we know to be true or at least possible.  So this week I thought I’d write a fortune for you.
Poor is he who works with a negligent hand, But the hand of the diligent makes rich. – Proverbs 10:4
 
Ruth Wells retells an ancient Japanese folktale in which the characters believe that their fortune lives in their attic in a human form of a family god.  Prosperous families have fat, swanky gods and poor families have puny, ragged gods.  In this story there is a farmer who claims to work all day and yet he is poor.  He claims that his family keeps growing but, in reality, the children fight all day, making much more noise and trouble than their number could represent.  And all the time, his wife is grumbling.
One day the farmer adopts the idea that he is poor because he has a poor god.  He and his wife devise a plan to vacate the home in the middle of the night, abandoning the poor god in the attic and set out for a new life. Surely this will bring prosperity!
But the poor god overhears the family’s evacuation plan and assumes that he will be leaving with them.  So the poor god leaves the attic and sits in the front yard making sandals from the rice stalks.  He needs many sandals for such a long journey.
When the family exits the home, by moon light, they discover the poor god.  He is all packed up and ready to go!  As a result, all is forgotten.  The farmer returns to his home and his unfulfilled life, feeling defeated.  But the poor god does not retreat to the attic.  He sits patiently and weaves sandals day after day.  The children begin to take an interest in his work so he teaches them the trade.  Soon farmers, passing by to work in the rice paddies, take an interest and begin to barter for the sandals, which are of great durability.  Before long, the poor god sits surrounded by rice, fish and fine cloth.  Finally the farmer and his wife learn the trade.
A business is born and a business grew.  Now the farmer worked very hard at his craft, his wife was not so grumpy and the children seem to balance work and play with grace.
The new year rolled around and, as Japanese culture dictates, the home was cleaned in order that a new year could be welcomed.  Just as the bells tolled, the poor god appeared and informed the family that he must leave.  Now they were rich and a new, fat god would come to live with them.  At that moment the door swung open and a fat, well dressed god appeared.  This was what the farmer, turned craftsman, had always wanted.  But the rich god was not welcomed.  The wife threw a bucket of water on his head, the children grabbed his legs and bit him and the farmer threw sandals until he retreated past the threshold of the door.  Then the farmer slammed the door shut and locked it.  That night the poor god was celebrated as an honored guest turned family member.
This story highlights what we know: true prosperity comes from the inside.  Honor your inner “poor god” and see what happens.

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