Does God Go to Church?

“My God, My God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?” – Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46

Whenever people gather (in person or online) in Jesus’ name, God is present among them. But in the Bible God reveals his power and glory in god-forsaken places more than he does houses of worship.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_My_God_My_God_why_hast_thou_forsaken_me_(Eli_Eli_lama_sabactani)_-_James_Tissot

My God, my God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? – James Tissot 

A group of gypsies living in the desert become pathetic brick makers for an empire. Their first born males are being killed as a form of population control. God hears their cries, claims them as His people and delivers them from slavery.

Centuries later their offspring are defeated by another mighty empire and held in captivity in Babylon. In Bible times Babylon represents a world alienated from God. In this god-forsaken country God again delivers them from their captors and brings them home.

Centuries later a young teenager becomes pregnant before her marriage ceremony. She is likely shamed by her neighborhood, but she carries the life of God inside of her.

God takes on human flesh and becomes a carpenter in a town so insignificant that it barely makes the history books. This simple peasant travels around the country healing the sick, freeing the demon possessed and preaching good news to the hopeless.

The Romans execute him on cross, crushing the hopes of His followers. After 3 dark days He is raised from the dead.

These are more than stories to be told on Sunday morning. They are the key to understanding where God is to be found – in god forsaken places where there is little or no expectation.

 

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Can We Trust Our Anger?

Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry…Ephesians 4:26

Anger is an overwhelming part of our cultural, political, and personal rhetoric. Should we be concerned, or is anger an appropriate response to injustices?

God demonstrates the purpose of anger: to reveal an injustice or sin. God detests people who become rich at the expense of the poor (Deuteronomy 25:13-16), declare the innocent to be guilty (Proverbs 17:15), and murder the innocent (Proverbs 6:17).  Holy anger is an appropriate response to something broken that needs fixing.

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Lovis Corinth’s Cain and Abel

Cain is an example of anger that has been distorted by jealousy and self centeredness. Cain and Abel offer sacrifices to the Lord. Abel’s sacrifice is found pleasing; Cain’s is not:

So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it. (Genesis 4:5-7)

God encourages Cain to act rightly and not to trust his anger. However, Cain ignores God, embraces his anger, and kills Abel.  Ungodly anger impairs our judgement (Psalms 37:8) and leads to unhealthy conflict  (Ecclesiastes 7:9).

God’s anger is directed at sin and injustice, and can be trusted. Our anger can be selfish and distorted by sin, so it cannot be trusted. Our anger can cripple our minds, so it can be hard to take on the mind of Christ. Anger is can be a poor motivator to action. It’s better to suspend our decision making until anger is no longer clouding our judgment.

Only when we master our anger can we search for the wrong which ignited it—starting with ourselves.

 

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Will Things Ever Return to Normal?

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? – Psalm 137:4

If we consider how God worked in biblical history,  probably not.

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Psalm 137 was written during the Babylonian exile. Jerusalem has been destroyed. Israel’s monarchy has ended and God’s people have been deported. As Israel’s musicians grieved, their Babylonian neighbors made song requests:  “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (v.3) The Israelite musicians refused: “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?” (v.4) It’s hard to sing when we are so far away from our house of worship.

God’s people eventually did return to their homeland and began rebuilding their place of worship. When the foundations of the temple were laid, the band played and the choir sang (Ezra 3:10-11). But not everyone celebrated:

But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy.  No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. (Ezra 3:12-14)

The older generation grew up seeing Solomon’s splendid temple. By comparison, the newer temple is much more modest, and therefore the older people weep as they recall what Israel had in the past. They have returned to their place of worship, but things will never be the same.  The younger generation, who did not remember the good old days, rejoices because they now have a temple where they can worship God. They are excited that God is doing a new thing.

By the Waters of Babylon, James Tissot

Church consultants are telling us that across the nation churches who have resumed some form of indoor worship are seeing only 20 to 30% of their congregations are coming. The doors to the sanctuary have reopened, but things are not the same. Church consultants are also telling us that this could continue to be the situation for a year, perhaps even longer. If this is true, what will we do now?  Will we reminisce and long for the past? Or will we dream, and expect great things from God in the future?

Large worship gatherings will always be a part of church life. But to be faithful in our task of making disciples, we also need to be thinking smaller: Groups of all kinds (prayer, deeper study, spiritual accountability) meeting in all kinds of places (neighborhoods, parks and other public spaces), producing all kinds of fruit (spiritual growth, engaging our neighbors, forming new ministries).

When we reenter the building for worship, will we put our time and energy into making things the way they used to be? That will likely be frustrating, if only 20% of our people are ready to resume indoor in person worship. Or will we celebrate that God is doing something new in our midst – and that he has been doing it outside of the building?

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Me, Black Lives Matter and the NAACP?

Revelation 7:9 – “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.”

Never did I think I would do what I’m doing this Friday: attending a peaceful protest and a prayer vigil for George Floyd in Patuxtent UMC’s parking lot. This has been organized by the Calvert County NAACP. I’ve attended a prayer vigil before, but never a protest.

The Samaritan Woman - John 4:1-42

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, Jesus Mafa Project

Here were my thoughts as I decided to attend:

I don’t have to understand everything. I would hope that everyone can see the hostility towards racial minorities, but I can’t fully wrap my head around the concept of “systemic racism.” I’ve read the numbers about unemployment, incarceration and drug arrests, but how are these direct a result of racism?  I don’t know, but I need to be willing to listen, learn and pray.

I don’t have to feel comfortable. Some things I’ve read on Black Lives Matter’s website trouble me. I don’t see anything about the importance of fathers, and how fatherless children are more likely to suffer poverty and commit crime. I see no stated goal of reconciliation. Talking about the sins of the past with no intention of forgiveness runs contrary to the Gospel. There might be people wearing BLM shirts Friday night, so I must be willing to listen, learn and pray.

I need to practice what I’ve been preaching these past few weeks. The book of Acts tells the story of Jewish apostles taking the Gospel to the Samaritans and Gentiles. They went outside their property to people who were different from them. Christ was proclaimed, and everyone – Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles – was transformed.  The Scriptures are clear that following Jesus includes crossing social barriers.

This Friday at 5pm I’ll be in the parking lot at Patuxtent UMC, and I’m not sure what to expect. This prayer vigil might give me an opportunity to listen to and learn from the black community, many of whom are my brothers and sisters in Christ. I may not encounter such possibilities at a single event.  Crossing social barriers might mean going to more events like this.

Even if I don’t have the opportunity to listen and learn this Friday, I will have the opportunity to pray.

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Is Christianity a Foolish Religion?

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

Christianity has never been without its skeptics. For those who believe wisdom is acquired only through science and reason, Christianity is foolish.

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Paul in Athens, Raphael

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church (1:18-25) he sees 2 groups that are skeptical of the Gospel: cultured Greeks and devout Jews.

The Jewish leaders demanded a sign (1:22; John 6:30). They expected God to meet their criteria for wisdom by providing irrefutable and tangible proof. They envisioned the Messiah as one who would demonstrate power and majesty, so a crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms.

They pointed to their own law which said, “anyone hung on a pole is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Cultured Greeks sought wisdom through reasoning and argument. They were enthralled with sophisticated words. In an unsuccessful mission trip to Athens, the author of Acts observed that those “who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21). To them a Christian preacher with a blunt message was a crude and uncultured person. He was to be ridiculed, rather than to be listened to and respected (Acts 17:32).

The Christian message has always disappointed those requiring tangible evidence or airtight logic. To them, Christianity is foolish. However rational and meaningful the message of the cross is to us, we cannot respond to the arguments of worldly wisdom only with words.

God has made himself unknowable by human wisdom. He has made himself known in a crucified Messiah, which is offensive to some and irrational to others. God’s answer to the wisdom of the world is to act in power: His power to save and to change men and women is the most persuasive response to skeptics (1 Corinthians 1:18).

This wisdom may seem both foolish and weak, but it is far wiser and stronger than anything worldly wisdom can offer (1 Corinthians 1:25).

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Did I Skip Bible Verses Yesterday?

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16)

A few months ago I opened the sports section of the Washington Post and they did not supply the final score of the National’s game. The caption on the picture read something like, “the game was incomplete at the time of printing.” I knew that wasn’t end of the game.

In yesterday’s sermon, I read Mark 16:8 and commented that this was the last verse in Mark’s Gospel. Yet if you look at Mark 16 in your Bible, there are 12 more verses. Did I leave out some verses for the sake of the sermon?

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Old and New Testament Greek manuscript from the mid 4th century

Yes, verses 9-20 describes Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection, his rebuke of this disciples and some final instructions. In verses 17-18 there are strange references to picking up snakes and drinking poison. And yet near the beginning of yesterday’s sermon, I insisted that verse 8 was the last verse in Mark.

Unless you have the King James Version, you will see a footnote after verse 8 that says something like this:

Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9–20.

Bible translators have the hard job of deciding what words best reflect the original writings. This means examining hand written documents. When 2 or more manuscripts are different, they must choose which one is the most reliable. When translating Mark’s Gospel into English, the translators noticed that earlier manuscripts did not include Mark 16:9-20. Which means the verses were probably added years later and by a different author.

That doesn’t mean these events didn’t happen or that God can’t speak through Mark 16:9-20. It does mean that when Mark finished his Gospel, he wrote the only ending he could: the women saw the empty tomb, and were afraid to tell anyone about it. The story was incomplete at the time of printing.

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Pontius Pilate: Ruthless or Indecisive Governor?

When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a [c]tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this [d]just Person. You see to it.” Matthew 27:24

The Gospel writers give their account of Christ’s passion, they were not trying to give a biography of Pontius Pilate. Without historical context, It is easy for us to see Pilate as a weak and indecisive governor. He is afraid of an angry mob, so he gives in to the Jewish aristocracy and has Jesus crucified.

But history and other New Testament passages describe a Pontius Pilate who could be ruthless and willing to keep the peace at all costs.

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, when Pilate brought images of Caesar on Roman shields and standards into Jerusalem, protesters gathered. He threatened to ”cut them in pieces, and gave intimation to the soldiers to draw their swords.” The Jewish protestors refused to budge, and Pilate eventually relented.

Josephus also tells us that Pilate built an aqueduct using temple treasury money. When protestors gathered, he had soldiers dress like common men, “gave the signal from his tribunal, and many of the Jews were so sadly beaten, that many of them perished by the stripes they received.”

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Behold the Man (Ecce Homo) – James Tissot

Philo, a Jewish philosopher, described Pilate’s “…corruption, his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned.”

Luke mentions the “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices” (13:1).

According to John, a detachment (speira) of soldiers accompanied Judas and temple officials at Jesus’ arrest  (18:12). The Greek word speira is a cohort of 600 Roman soldiers, who would have been under Pilate’s command.

Pilate normally would not hesitate to crucify a political threat or slaughter an angry mob. Why does he hesitate on Good Friday?

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Binge Watching While Sheltering

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. Jeremiah 29:11-13

The shelter in place has forced us to entered our Holy Weekend in an unprecedented way. We practice social distancing, while we learn new ways to connect with one another.

As we continue in our much-needed social distancing, I challenge us all to practice distancing from distractions. With so many postponed sporting events, movie releases and concerts, it’s easy to seek other forms of entertainment. We turn to television, computers, social media, tablets and phones to pass the time. A shelter in place provides opportunities to lose ourselves in front of a screen.

By the Waters of Babylon, Gebhard Fugel

After a long day of telecommuting or making sure our kids are doing their distance learning, we feel mentally stretched out. After another day of isolation from our friends, children and parents we feel depressed. After another day of economic uncertainty, we feel anxious. Electronic media can become an outlet.

Let’s resist these temptations, dwell in God’s Word and pray for things that are far better:

We need to experience God’s Love (Isaiah 54:10; Jeremiah 31:3; 1 John 4:9).

We need God to increase our knowledge of God and His kingdom (Proverbs 1:7; Proverbs 2:6).

We need God to give us strength when we are at our weakest (Psalm 46:1-3; Isaiah 41:10).

We need God to give us hope and endurance (James 1:12; Romans 12:21). 

This Holy Weekend let’s turn away from our distractions and look at the cross where God demonstrated His love. Power down the devices and experience the power that raised Christ from the dead.

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Be Concerned, but Don’t Live in Fear

“When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.” ~ Psalm 94:19

The global spread of COVID-19 has caused us to rethink how we go about our daily lives. The pandemic has caused churches to consider new ways to be the body of Christ in the world. The world is rapidly changing, but Hebrews 13:8 reminds us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

The concerns are real. As your pastor, I urge you to use wisdom, and stay in touch with what is happening and being recommended in Calvert County. Err on the side of good health practices. We want to be wise in what we do to protect ourselves, our families and our communities. I am concerned about the coronavirus but I do not want to live in fear. I am concerned for the elderly, the homeless and those with health concerns who are the most at risk. I am concerned for health care workers and other essential workers. I am concerned about overcrowded hospitals. I am concerned for the homeless and disenfranchised, who have nowhere to go. I am concerned for our economy, for those who could lose their jobs.

Christ walking on the sea, by Amédée Varint

My biggest concern is that fear can control us. People stockpile supplies they do not need, while those who do need them cannot access them. We can become reactionary and take a self- centered approach. We become less generous. As a church we can forget who we are and to whom we belong.

It appears that COVID-19 is not ending soon. Chances are it will hit even closer to home. Be careful. Be cautious. Be wise and practical, but do not live in fear. We have a golden opportunity. Together we can approach this challenge in faith. We can model faith for our families and our neighbors. Care for those who are isolated. Make phone calls and check in with one another. Gather in virtual groups for prayer, studying the Word of God and encourage one another. Make face masks for local hospitals. Find new ways to be generous with our time, talents and our treasure.

As we witness the effects of the pandemic, I encourage those who are in a position to do so, continue giving generously to the ministry of the Lord. I encourage those whose personal finances are damaged by the pandemic: do not be afraid. Remember that God is in control, and will continue to provide for all of our needs.

Philippians 4:6-7 offers a powerful message to us all. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”

 

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What Can We Do?

It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of COVID-19. There are boundaries on where we go, who we see and how we interact with people. Businesses are closing their doors, the economy is suffering and people are losing their livelihood.  Many watch events unfold, brace themselves for what might be coming,  and hope these things will pass. We even question God’s involvement in all of this.

I want to offer you some thoughts during this pandemic, because we are NOT powerless.

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Job and His Friends, IIya Repin

We do not suffer alone. God was with Israel during their slavery, the prophets when they were beaten and Paul when he was imprisoned. Most importantly, God identified with our suffering in the person of Jesus Christ.  When suffering doesn’t make sense, look to the cross where God suffered with us.

Grow closer to God through confusion. The very fact we question and even express anger towards God, means we are moving towards God, and not away from Him. Consider the questions and anger to be authentic forms of prayer. To quote C.S. Lewis “We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.”

Prayer is necessary, but not enough. Pray for scientists to develop a cure, communities to pull together and that assistance will arrive. Pray that each person affected would come to know the love and strength of God. Do this fervently, but often we are God’s answer to prayer.

We are God’s activity. God found us, not the other way around. Be like God and find the needs. Organizations identify needs for us, so be generous with your time and money. But people do fall through the cracks. Who can’t pick up food because of their work schedule? Who is isolated and needs things brought to them? Who is afraid, and needs to hear that God hasn’t forgotten them. We are the hands, feet, eyes and ears of God (Isaiah 52:7).

We can worship without explanations. Job lost most everything – his wealth and his children to tragedy. Job had no explanation, but he said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Those who worship God during these difficult times are especially blessed.

Worship with Huntingtown UMC this Sunday at 10:30am. Our doors will be locked and Celebration Hall will be empty during this pandemic. But we will worship God and we will do it together. Just go to our Facebook page and have a seat: https://www.facebook.com/huntingtownunitedmethodistchurch

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